The massive batch of releases on September 30 marked the end of the third quarter with, perhaps not a bang, but rather the sound of an avalanche. Alas, 90% of those are destined to be landfill, and that’s perhaps the only bright side of the decline in physical media sales is it could probably fit in my backyard. But there’s plenty of great music to catch up on, with a few key releases remaining before the entire music world goes list crazy starting around Thanksgiving. Some of these releases go back as far as February, but I hadn’t gotten around to writing anything about them. It’s a bit of housekeeping, as I start sorting out what my favorites are for my own end of year lists. Nothing here will likely make Fester’s Lucky 13 (I reviewed Truckfighters last week, which is a top 3 contender), but as always, there’s a lot more worth checking out. Upcoming releases from 40 Watt Sun, Syd Arthur and Wolf People are quite likely to be year-end contenders.
1. Opeth – Sorceress (Moderbolaget/Nuclear Blast)
It seemed that with 2011’s Heritage and 2014’s Pale Communion, Opeth stopped being a metal band and went full-on prog. There were hints of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s proggy tendencies throughout the death metal pioneer’s career, including naming Blackwater Park (2001) after an obscure early 70s German folk psych prog band, and some of the progressive passages in Ghost Reveries (2005). Live, however, the band still manages to shift seamlessly between new and old songs, all the while sounding like Opeth, indicating there is continuity. Their third album in the prog series is the most immediately enjoyable, while perhaps not reaching quite the heights as Pale Communion. It also features some of the heaviest tracks since Watershed (2008), including “Sorceress,” featuring a lumbering proto-metal organ-driven crunch, and bookended by the fast and furious “Era.” The first half of “Chrysalis” rocks pretty hard, adding some space age synth effects straight out of Hawkwind. “The Wilde Flowers” is a highlight, operating within a wide dynamic range, from Zeppelin-like acoustica to a couple smoking solos worthy of Ritchie Blackmore of early 70s era Deep Purple. The acoustic “Will O The Wisp” is lovely and melodic, augmented by flute, bringing to mind some late period Jethro Tull, but also most likely their most universally accessible classic rock sound. The instrumental “The Seventh Sojourn” makes use of Middle Eastern chords and percussion, which sounds great, but seems like it would be more at home on a sprawling double album rather than taking up “5:29” worth of real estate on a single disc (not counting the bonus disc of the deluxe edition which includes two additional studio tracks and three live cuts). Perhaps my main complaint of much of Opeth’s prog era is their choices of influences. I know that Åkerfeldt has some gnarly psych prog in his collection, but major influences seem to be The Moody Blues, Camel and Genesis, three of my least favorite bands of the genre. Fortunately I prefer Opeth Mk II over most of the influences, like on the creepy occult vibe of “Strange Brew,” which features some haunting atmosphere with just bass and piano, and explosive yet complex moments that recall peak Yes. “A Fleeting Glance” is just a really smooth sounding showcase that highlights Åkerfeldt’s vocals at their best, and an airy, lovely arrangement, yet another reason why Sorceress is very likely to win over new fans than anything since Ghost Reveries. There’s no telling where Opeth will venture next, but they’re always a sure bet to be worth following.
2. The Lucid Dream – Compulsion Songs (Holy How Are You)
At a time when many bands take several years between releases, it’s refreshing to be pleasantly surprised by a new album just a year after their second album. Just as The Lucid Dream’s second album was a step forward from their great debut, Songs Of Lies And Deceit (2013), Compulsion Songs takes another step forward. Most of the original elements are there — motorik kosmische and Suicide (“Nadir/Epitaph”), bluesy Western-tinged garage noir (“The Emptiest Place”), and noisy overdriven psychedelia with the sneering, bad energy of Loop and Clinic turned to eleven (“21st Century”). I got to experience some hateful burn first hand when I mentioned I couldn’t review the album earlier because no one responded to my repeated requests for a promo. Someone in the band responded on Facebook with a torrent of abuse and name calling. Damn! I guess they deemed my site insignificant enough that they can bully me like that. I never did get my press kit, but I bought the album anyway because fuck it, if I let personality deficiencies affect my enjoyment of music, things would be much less interesting. Whether it’s simply a misguided attempt to protect the band or just blind passion, the energy is apparent in the music, which I appreciate. Here they expand on the dub experiment of the previous album’s “Unchained Dub,” on “I’m A Star In My Own Right,” while lead track and single “Bad Texan” features that rumbling Pete DeFreitas (the talented engine of early Echo & The Bunnymen) groove. I honestly don’t know why they’re not more popular at this point.
3. Preoccupations – Preoccupations (Jagjaguwar)
Matthew Flegel (bass, vocals) and Michael Wallace (drums) have worked together on a series of projects including the Calgary post-punk/noise band Women. Their debut album as Viet Cong garnered a lot of positive feedback, but the poor choice of band name created quite a backlash. The band took their lumps and have now moved onto their second album as Preoccupations. While last year’s album was promising, this one is much more satisfying, with Flegel finally stepping out from behind the noisy lo-fi effects that previously obscured his vocals, revealing a pretty great raspy baritone not too far from The Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler. Synths play a bigger role in their sound, which as shifted into a more sleek intersect, a glistening grey landscape where Joy Division morphed into New Order, or when The Sound’s Adrian Borland got more experimental with Second Layer, or Wire’s side-project Dome. For example, the 11-plus minute centerpiece “Memory” starts with some moody post-punk, flowers into a melodic, almost new wave tune in the middle featuring Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner on vocals, then decays into droning sound effects for the remaining four minutes. The more succinct “Degraded” also balances sound experiments with a catchy tune. “Stimulation” is another highlight, with percolating percussion that brings to mind early Cure, and intertwines with the electronic sounds at the end brilliantly. It’s not all pop, as the album kicks off with touches of early industrial and noise rock influences on “Anxiety” and “Monotony.” However, the album wraps up with another excellent fusion of gritty guitar noise and lovely electronics, dread and melody on “Fever.”
4. Ed Harcourt – Furnaces (Polydor)
Since his debut with Here Be Monsters (2001) when he was a young singer/songwriter influenced by Tom Waits and Nick Cave as much as Bowie, I’ve had a bit of a mancrush on Ed Harcourt. I’m not the only one, I once had a date who tried to molest him when we were chatting in a bar after a show back in 2002. But who can blame her. He always had a noirish lyrical perspective I admired, and he really should have been better known along with Hawksley Workman and Patrick Wolf. His brilliant run of albums have a small core of devoted followers who recognize his songwriting talent. On his seventh album, Flood takes the controls, possibly the biggest name producer since his debut with Dave Fridmann. It also might be his darkest since then. While Jeff Buckley may have been an early inspiration (he likely would have been proud to have written a song like “The World Is On Fire,”) and Harcourt can sing with the best of them, he chooses not to feature his voice in unnecessarily hammy show-off showcases, but rather shapeshifts in tone and style to suit the composition. Everything is keyed toward serving the song, the story, the emotional landscape. “Loup Garou” has a sticky chorus where he sings, “don’t you know I’m a beast of a man and I’m coming to get what I came for.” Rather than over-sing, the second half of the song builds a sense of menace instrumentally, letting the music play the role of the stalking werewolf of French lore. The album highlight is “Furnaces” with a melancholy melody that threatens to haunt me for a long time. The rest of the material doesn’t jump out at first glance, and require some time and attention before they unfold. So once again it’s an album that will likely be ignored in 2016, which is a damn shame. The complexity and craft that go into his music is massively rewarded in other genres. Perhaps he should do as like-minded apocalyptic songwriters Swans and Wovenhand and aim his music toward metalheads.
5. The Eternals – Espiritu Zombi (New Atlantis)
I’ve enthusiastically followed The Eternals (what a great band name) ever since Damon Locks and Wayne Montana formed it out of the ashes of Trenchmouth in 1997. Due to their questing spirit and commitment to experimentation, not every recording has been a success. They always have cool ideas exploring facets of dub, post-punk, avant rock and electronic music. On their wickedly named fifth album Espiritu Zombi, they collaborated with members of Chicago’s fertile improvisational free jazz scene, including bassist Matthew Lux, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, cornetist Josh Berman (Exploding Star Orchestra), saxophonist Nick Mazzarella (Audio One), flutist Nate Leoine (Herculaneum), and vocalists Tomeka Reid and Jeanine O’Toole. As expected, it’s not a jazz album, but a unique hybrid of the band’s base post-punk DNA, augmented by their interests in tropicália and other Brazilian music, Sun Ra, transendence, funk, the zombie apocalypse, Afrobeat and more. As a ten piece unit, they initially performed the material live in 2012. The long-awaited studio recording is breath taking, definitely a high point in The Eternals’ musical and spiritual vision quest.
6. Hammers Of Misfortune – Dead Revolution (Metal Blade)
Five years ago San Francisco’s Hammers Of Misfortune seemed to be on an upward trajectory with their fifth album, 17th Street (2011). Instead of capitalize on it, they disappeared. Or rather, John Cobbett and partner Sigrid Sheie formed supergroup VHOL with YOB’s Mike Scheidt, releasing two albums and also having a baby. Vocalist Joe Hutton needed to recover from a serious motorcycle crash, so the other members split for projects with Vastum, Death Angel and The Worship Of Silence. You could hardly call them lazy. While most of the side projects dealt with more extreme facets of black and death metal, the sixth Hammers album digs back into their prog roots more than ever before. While there’s 70s elements, it’s not quite like Yes and ELP, nor Dream Theater or even Opeth. More like if King Crimson got together with Ritchie Blackmore and Uli Jon Roth. Priest and Maiden of course are still essential building blocks, such as on the galloping “The Velvet Inquisition.” The longest 8+ minute track “The Precipice (Waiting For the Crash…)” serves as a nice centerpiece and a highlight, chock full of changes, fast riffing, complex interplay between organ, vocals and guitar, and dueling guitar solos. There’s a loose, downhearted theme about the woes of gentrification in the Bay Area throughout the album. Whether you care about that or not, it’s a compelling showcase, and one of the band’s most consistent efforts.
7. Suns Of Thyme – Cascades (Napalm)
With the somewhat cheesy punny band name, and coming from Napalm records, I expected a possibly above average heavy stoner psych album. Suns Of Thyme are no such thing, or rather, that’s one small facet of a split personality playing tug of war with psych pop, post-punk, dream pop, shoegaze and fizzing kosmische. Their PR identifies the German band as “krautgaze” which is a bit insulting a reductionist. While the 61 minute long album veers between many different styles, their core sound seems to stick most closely with melodic indie rock along the lines of Doves and Interpol such as on “Deep Purple Rain.” Yet there’s obviously more than that on offer such as opener “Do Or Die,” which has a grim post-punk weightiness, yet the playing has a feather light touch. This band has some chops, and I imagine them stretching out some of these songs live into some tasty prog excursions on top of everything else. On the 8:19 long closing title track, they take an analog synth driven motorik track, and introduce some pretty complex, mesmerizing rhythmic interplay with a clock sample. While most bands would kill for some of the melodic hooks the band displays on “Intuition Unbound,” I think the path to this band’s greatness lies in exploring the more experimental, progressive ideas. They may still be finding themselves, but their sophomore album is really involving and hugely promising.
8. Motorpsycho – Here Be Monsters (Rune Grammofon)
When a band has released nearly 20 albums and just as many EPs, it’s hard not to take a band for granted. Nearly everything this Norwegian psych prog juggernaut does is exceptional, but after masterpieces like the double album collaboration with Ståle Storløkken, The Death Defying Unicorn (2012), a new album nearly every year can get overwhelming. Also, this album started as a commission for the centennial jubilee of the Norwegian Technical Museum, performed just once with the expanded lineup that included Storløkken in 2014. This time, the band honed the material in the studio without Storløkken, and developed it into a full Motorpsycho album. It’s easy to write off a commission for what’s basically a party for a nerdy museum as incidental, but a usual, Motorpsycho created something special. Some of the orchestral bits are retained, and fused brilliantly with the bands full-on jet fueled psychedelic freakouts, such as on “I.M.S.” “Spin, Spin, Spin” is a nice piece of acoustic psych folk, while the 17:42 “Big Black Dog” is a behemoth that alternates between delicate instrumentation, avant jazz and massive, plodding crunch. Even what was meant to be a side project can’t be half-assed by this band, turning out what’s really one of their better albums. Having also released a career-spanning compilation, Supersonic Scientists (2015), it seems high time for a proper world tour including North America.
9. SubRosa – For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages (Profound Lore)
Salt Lake City’s SubRosa impressed me with their promising mix of avant prog doom on No Help For The Mighty Ones (2011), and perfected leader Rebecca Vernon’s unique vision augmented by violins on More Constant Than The Gods (2013). Their latest is nearly as impressive, if a bit unwieldy at times, much like the massive recent works of the likes of YOB and Swans. The title comes from a century old dystopian novel by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin. Like the Russians, Vernon really has a knack for the epic, with the first three songs alone take up more than 44 minutes of the 70 minute album. Depending on your mood, physical and mental health, a deep dive into the album could be enlightening, or a claustrophobic slog. Either way, it’s not easily ignored, and it haunts my playlist like an unnervingly stealthy 20 ton Godzilla.
10. Dinosaur Jr. – Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not (Jagjaguwar)
It’s crazy to think that 25 years ago, I’d given up on Dinosaur Jr. ever being great again. After their absolutely colossal You’re Living All Over Me (1987) which slowly but irreversibly changed the world, and the slightly fluffier Bug (1988), I saw Green Mind (1991) as a massive flop. The band clearly had lost their chemistry, with Lou Barlow already long gone, and Murph soon to leave. The rest of the 90s albums were essentially J. Mascis solo joints, each one featuring at least a couple killer tunes, but missing the magic of the original power trio. Given the brutal animosity between Mascis and Murph, I figured The Smiths or Hüsker Dü would reunite before Dinosaur would. But they did, and amazingly, they’ve remained reunited for an entire decade, and are now on their fourth album. All four are pretty great, though no particular songs have really stuck in my brain like the band’s first few albums. But that Dinosaur guitar sound, Mascis’ hooks and Barlow’s unique contributions are all top notch, better than anyone had ever dared hope for. Perhaps there’s still hope for former SST labelmates Hüsker Dü too?
11. Castle – Welcome To The Graveyard (Van/Prophecy)
I totally have a couple crush on the husband-wife core of Castle, Mat Davis (guitar, vocals) and Elizabeth Blackwell (vocals, bass). Nothing creepy, I just wanna SQUEEZE ‘um. But don’t be fooled by their sweet nature off stage, as on stage they’d just as soon crush your skull and drink wine from it. Symbolically, with their kickass heavy metal music. The fourth album isn’t a huge departure, but keeps the quality levels consisten. Witch thrash rules!
12. Mars Red Sky – Apex III (Praise For The Burning Soul) (Listenable)
French stoner psych band expand the sound of their fuzzy first two albums and get a little more experimental and proggy here. It was a slow grower, taking literally half a year to sink in, but it’s moving up on my list.
13. Grumbling Fur – Furfour (Thrill Jockey)
I have to admit when a couple previous albums by this London based avant drone/psych band topped a couple year-end lists, I thought, WTF. But with their fourth album, they’ve found a winning formula, which essential sounds like solo Brian Eno circa 1974-77, with a bit of updated electronic elements. Nice!
Also worth hearing:
Brimstone Coven – Black Magic (Metal Blade)
Sumerlands – Sumerlands (Relapse)
Eternal Champion – The Armor Of Ire (No Remorse)
High Spirits – Motivator (HR)
Troll – Troll (Troll)
Baby Woodrose – Freedom (Bad Afro)
Wight – Love Is Not Only What You Know (Bilocation/Fat And Holy)
Spidergawd – III (Crispin Glover)
Greenleaf – Rise Above The Meadow (Napalm)
Blaak Heat – Shifting Mirrors (Tee Pee/Svart)
Black Rainbows – Stellar Prophecy (Heavy Psych)
Blues Funeral – The Search (Blues Funeral)
The Amazing – Ambulance (Partisan)
Vektor – Terminal Redux (Earache)
Near Miss: The Wytches – All Your Happy Life (Pias)
Brighton’s The Wytches caught my attention with their debut Annabel Dream Reader (2014). While only half was really good, they had a wobbly but promising garage and psych noir sound that could really develop into something, well, bewitching. This album doesn’t fully fulfill that promise, but continues their inconsistent path of a seemingly haphazard mix of ideas. On the single “C-Side,” their at their most tantalizing, with Kristian Bell’s vocals sounding like a terrified John Lennon shrieking in a closet, accompanied by Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats. Hell yeah. But the production is even shittier than their debut. I guess this indie garage aesthetic is on purpose, but I believe misguided, as ultimately the album will be considered by many more a throwaway than a keeper. However, there’s plenty of good bits to mine for (“A Feeling We Get”, “A Dead Night Again” and “Home”), disappointment aside. They remain a promising band, third time hopefully will be the charm.
Goat – Requiem (Sub Pop) 6-Oct
ANCIIENTS – Voice Of The Void (Season Of Mist) 14-Oct
40 Watt Sun – Wider Than The Sky (Svart) 14-Oct
Syd Arthur – Apricity (10 Spot) 21-Oct
Wardruna – Runaljod: Ragnarok (Norse Music) 21-Oct
Crippled Black Phoenix – Bronze (Season Of Mist) 21-Oct
Wolf People – Ruins (Jagjaguwar) 11-Nov
Metallica – Hardwired…To Self Destruct (Elektra) 18-Nov
Dungen – Haxan (Mexican Summer) 25-Nov
Troubled Horse – TBD, they said it would be 2016