It started out as a gimmick prompted by a politically incorrect dare. Manuel Gagneux, a musician of mixed race and Swiss-American citizenship, asked the notorious 4chan message board what genres he should mash up. He took the uncouth suggestion of black metal and “n*gger music” as a challenge and under the moniker of Zeal & Ardor became an internet sensation with The Devil Is Fine. The album imagined black slaves reacting to their loss of culture the way a generation of Scandinavian metal musicians lamented the tramping of their Pagan roots: by burning churches instead of joining them to a soundtrack of distorted guitars.
If seamlessly marrying musical forms separated by centuries and continents once wasn’t enough, Gagneux actually improved on the formula with last year’s Stranger Fruit. He took the title from Billie Holiday’s somber tale of lynching, though the release sounds far more contemporary than it should. This is partly because of a bright production and the influx of blues and R&B among death and doom metallic styles. But it’s mostly because the world is more complicated than it was, not just centuries and decades ago, but just in the politically and culturally tumultuous few years since the debut. BO
Mythic and nuanced, Tyshawn Sorey’s Pillars is that rare record which synthesizes a dizzying array of predecessors, including Morton Feldman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Bill Dixon, while feeling sui generis. Its three extended pieces braid composition with improvisation into something holy and new. Cracking, dangling-off-a-cliff extended technique and beguiling dissonance flow into organic, ceremonial patterns revealing themselves in their own time. Granular melodies grow almost imperceptibly until waves of sound engulf the listener in an explosion or a deep silence. Spider web surfaces rupture and heal in fascinating patterns. Graham Haynes’ keening, summoning brass bursts through surfaces, leaving them transformed in his wake, and floats like smoke over thick layers of arco bass. From the extended drum roll opening of the first piece to the mournful whispers and shouts that close it, Pillars sets a new bar for contemporary composition. RS
The second album from former Hunches and Hospitals guitarist Chris Gunn, Mow the Glass offers a substantial step forward in terms of cohesion, precision, and songwriting from 2016’s sprawling, elliptical double-LP collage, Heavy Air. Though built on the same hazy, roots-tinged dream pop that occasionally emerged from the narcotized goo of its predecessor, Mow the Glass places more traditional elements at the fore. Additionally, it benefits from a full-band feel; it’s a tighter, more focused, and all around stronger album. None of this new found sense of order and execution, however, undermines what is arguably Lavender Flu’s most intriguing characteristic: an illusive almost mystical sense of what I’ll call longing for the sublime. Lavender Flu posits what a punk lifer who tires of rolling around in glass and blood and vomit—both in a sonic sense and I’d guess literally at some point–does next in an ongoing shot at some kind of transcendence. If Heavy Air was the complicated messy journey on the way to that new morning, Mow the Glass is the first dawn. Enjoy the sun. NK
No one has captured the entirety of the zeitgeist better than Jeff Rosenstock does in “USA,” the raging, seven and a half minute anthem that kicks off Post-. This is what it felt like in America, circa 2016–2018: “Dumbfounded, downtrodden and dejected. Crestfallen, grief-stricken and exhausted. Trapped in my room while the house was burnin’ to the motherfuckin’ ground.” And yet, somehow, also “tired and bored.” Rosenstock miraculously builds those two words into a rallying cry through sheer grit and by the end you’re kicking down doors with a big smile on your face. And that’s just the first song. He sings about the agony of seemingly useless resistance (“Yr Throat”) and brings infectious exuberance to it. He makes devastating loneliness (“9/10”) sound downright agreeable. And he draws the lines between the troubles in the world and his crippling social anxiety (“Powerlessness”) in a glorious sing-a-long at breakneck speed. If you just sat down and read the lyrics, you’d want to stay in bed for a week, but as brought to life by Rosenstock and friends, this is poetry for knocking down brick walls. I can’t remember the last time existential dread was so much shit-kicking fun. MS
Fifteen years and seven albums in, Beach House is still releasing some of the most mesmerizing work out there. What’s most impressive is how the Baltimore dream-pop duo do it without much effort; it requires a finely tuned ear to pick up on what techniques they actually change from album to album to keep from going stale. Any observable innovations are slight and meticulous — enough to stay fresh and remain distinctively their own. Even on 7’s most ethereal cuts (“L’Inconnue,” “Last Ride”), Beach House remains as alluring as they’ve ever been, while taking time to indulge in outright hypnotic pop (“Lemon Glow,” “Lose Your Smile”). At this point, we should just expect each Beach House record to be in contention for their best yet. ML
It would be too easy to liken The Goon Sax’s output to the music guitarist/singer Louis Foster’s dad, Robert, made with The Go-Betweens. While both father and son have exhibited a penchant for jangly guitars, the music Louis has been making with James Harrison and Riley Jones is far less self-assured—and that’s part of its charm. The Goon Sax’s music is far more fidgety, while Foster and Harrison (especially) indulge lyrically in their own neuroses, positing songs rife with minor existential crises and wonderings on love and life. The band’s sophomore effort is just 12 songs that breeze by in 30 minutes, but the band hasn’t wasted a single note or syllable, adeptly lacing their songs with equal amounts of heartfelt emotion and pop smarts. SS
Hard to believe it’s taken only seven short years for Iceage to evolve from nihilistic punk saviors sometimes too naive for their own good into hyper-aware high art. But Beyondless is an accumulation of every trope that’s lived and died in the Danish band’s sprint through the decade, from skronking jazz of “Pain Killer” to the Lynchian cabaret of “Showtime” to the slack-jawed cowboy lament of “Thieves Like Us,” all encrusted with the fiery hardcore that first defined them. It’s all here on display, iconoclastic in the album’s either homage or mock of heroes like Bowie, Pop, Reed, and Cave. Beyondless is bound to posit ringleader Elias Ronnenfelt as the misunderstood, but fervently followed, pagan playboy, leading a cult of youth to live lives hinging on his every word. Much like our current times, the record is motley, bleak, harsh, and overall enchanting in its chaos. KE
Two years ago, I’d have called you a real wack job if you told me New York post-punk purveyors Parquet Courts were going to collaborate with producer Danger Mouse. Well, that’s precisely what they did for their new record, Wide Awake, and based on comments from the band, my surprise was exactly to be expected. Regardless, Danger Mouse helped this band create what is far and away their most accessible sound to date, and oh boy, does it work for them.
From dance-rock supreme “Wide Awake!” to the environmentally cautious “Before the Water Gets Too High” to the touching homage to a chaotic childhood of “Freebird II,” Wide Awake is a cohesive effort of message and melody. Parquet Courts maintain their signature bite and satire, but now offer a new focus on being tuneful while doing so. If you need further testimony, album opener “Total Football” unleashes a lyrical gem that can unite everyone: “Fuck Tom Brady.” ML
Who had a better 2018 than David Byrne? You know he was just burning to rage against the machine, but instead he channeled that energy into putting joyous art into the world, creating his best non-Talking Heads album since 1981 and yet another groundbreaking touring show. He was so determined to make something great for this album he didn’t just settle for working with Brian Eno. He also recruited an all-star team including Sampha, Oneohtrix Point Never, and (two time Mercury prizer winner) Rodaidh McDonald. Smart move. Moving track to track you encounter distinct environments, each with its own ambience and language of sound. David and his crew have given great attention to detail and you will be rewarded for digging in. This album can affect you as deeply as you let it. There’s great beauty, great fun, great snark, earworm melodies, and utter nonsense. There’s even a truly surprising amount of tenderness, a sincerity that Byrne has rarely shown. And in the deluxe edition you get six tracks from one of the greatest live shows of all time. What more could you ask for? MS
With every release, the Breeders become increasingly difficult to assess, if only because what Kim Deal and company assemble sonically always sounds like a rebirth, a comeback that is only a comeback because of the time it takes them to create. All Nerve, the first album recorded with the Last Splash line-up 25 years after the fact is, one the surface, the fading fireworks of that reunited energy: Jim Macpherson’s titan rhythms, Josephine Wiggs’ steely presence, and the Deal twin’s voices coalescing in a hypnagogic verve. Much deeper, the album is Deal digging up the bones of the alternative nation that she helped define and finding a way to survive on any sustenance they might provide. But suggesting that Deal is grave-robbing is wrong. Though there are echoes of grunge and perhaps a direct response to “Cannonball” in “Wait in the Car,” Deal proves that she was never a fluke or a student of that era. All the while she has been a singular force, making music with nuance and rough hewn grace. Less is always more. As such, All Nerve shouldn’t be lumped among other ‘90s revival cash-grabs; there’s no nostalgia here, no winks or nods, just a glorious projection of Deal’s intimate songwriting, beautiful regardless of time or place. KE