REVIEW: FEB ’21 LISTENING TRAIL

RECORD OF THE MONTH

BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – For The First Time
[Art Rock, Post-Punk – UK – Ninja Tune]

London based art-post-punk collective Black Country, New Road seemingly popped up out of nowhere this month, surfing a massive wave of hype and critical praise after Ninja Tune (a label usually synonymous with electronic music) put out their debut record, so curiosity got the better of me. Black Country, New Road are a hard one to put my finger on and their sound is very refreshing, not only working as a mysterious collective but combining rock instrumentation with brass, woodwind and strings. The collective also implement stream-of-consciousness spoken word, wild percussion, a healthy mixture of melodicism and dissonance, but most intriguingly there is a striking influence of klezmer (traditional Jewish celebration music) which can be heard right from the opening track; I can’t really recall many contemporary western rock bands taking in this style. Black Country, New Road certainly have undeniable influences of post-punk, noise rock and post-rock, but are doing their complete own thing with little nostalgia for what has come before and it’s very refreshing to hear, sometimes sounding like a sonic sister band to Black Midi who also burst out with a fine debut album a couple of years back.

For The First Time runs at forty minutes and is incredibly fulfilling, packing in so much depth, variety, dynamic composition and broadness in sound and scope. Their music is so epic and sprawling that this debut feels much bigger than the sum of it’s parts. ‘Athens, France’ hangs on a sensational bass groove as the anxious yet confident vocals ramble and stagger in and out of the beat drunkenly, somehow even lifting a lyric straight out of Phoebe Bridgers’ breakout hit ‘Motion Sickness’, “Why do you sing with an English accent? / Guess it’s too late to change it now,” completely re-contextualising those words. ‘Science Fair’ is a nervous and sinister racket where the saxophone squawks louder than the guitars, ducking in and out of menacing organ riffs. ‘Sunglasses’ somehow manages to namecheck Scott Walker, Richard Hell, The Fonz and Kanye West all in one track, and proves that the instrumentation is just as dreamlike and stream-of-conscious as the bizarre lyrics, with the two drifting, changing and conversing in complete tandem. ‘Track X’ is the only really accessible track, welcoming in something rather beautiful and uplifting after so much sinister chaos.

Black Country, New Road are a band that just have to be heard to be believed. Like bands such as King Crimson and Godspeed to relative newcomers Pijn, Black Country, New Road really demonstrate the unstoppable limitations of performing as a collective and as an ensemble, pairing rock and classical instrumentation together in complete equality and having a field day with those possibilities. For The First Time is an unbelievably confident and fully realised debut that encompasses so many ideas, takes the listener to unknown places and packs in so much sonic variety, whilst also feeling effortless, urgent and uncalculated.

JULIEN BAKER – Little Oblivions
[Indie Folk, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Matador]

Looking back from Julien Baker’s stripped down folky debut album Sprained Ankle, their confidence as an artist and writer has grown with each following release, adding more sonic building blocks on top of what came before. Incredible sophomore album Turn Out The Lights added layers of electric guitar loops, piano and strings, and now this third full-length goes a step further, assembling full rock band cuts, with some tracks like the punchy opening track ‘Hardline’ centring around keyboard hooks. Baker is such an interesting protagonist, pouring their heart into their soul-searching lyrics dealing with faith, sexuality and their battles with substance abuse, told through loud and powerful vocals that feel like they can carry notes across entire continents. If Sprained Ankle was at times too shy and stripped back, and if Turn Out The Lights was at times too ambitious for its own good, then Little Oblivions certainly feels like Baker’s most balanced album, especially in terms of sound and production. This third opus delivers so many tunes and moments that just slice through your soul, including the anthemic ‘Faith Healer’, the escalating emotional flourish of ‘Cry Wolf’, and one of Baker’s most touching tear-jerkers yet, the devastating ‘Song In E’. Somehow Julien Baker still hasn’t quite fully captured the enormous raw power of her jaw-dropping live performances in a studio album format, but Little Oblivions could just be their best set of songs yet.

BLANCK MASS – In Ferneaux
[Post-Industrial, Sound Collage – UK – Sacred Bones]

In Ferneaux… Oh like “inferno”!? Okay… Fuck Buttons’ John Benjamin Powers has created their own legacy with their Blanck Mass solo project, expertly weaving together elements of techno, industrial, ambient and power noise into one bubbling… Fiery… Well, y’know… Their 2017 album World Eater is an absolute beast of loud beats, chaotic rhythms, glittering synths and even screaming vocals, resulting in an experience that very much sounded like an apocalyptic rave. But I really wasn’t too keen on 2019’s much anticipated follow up Animated Violence Mild, which took familiar ideas and sounds but didn’t really deliver anything much better with them. I was personally hoping for a switch up after hearing the announcement of In Ferneaux and thankfully I’ve come away with exactly what I wanted. This is easily Blanck Mass’ most challenging project yet, formatted as two twenty minute side-length pieces titled ‘Phase I’ and ‘Phase II’ respectively (even on streaming platforms), perfectly suited for the vinyl format. Whilst some of Powers’ recent compositions have thrown everything at the listener and been constantly engaging, In Ferneaux comfortably finds more downtime with long stretches of minimalist beatless drones and buzzing industrial radiance. Taking on these lengthier formats allows the album to have more of a soundtrack vibe, with parts that drift at a glacial pace whilst still offering plenty of interesting soundplay. The closing stretch of ‘Phase I’ is a glorious wash of cavernous, icy synths that channel Tim Hecker, and feel like a monumental reward to patient listeners. ‘Phase II’ is a much darker and more abstract beast, with a lengthy spoken word sample that sounds like something straight out of an old Godspeed You! Black Emperor track. The use of field recordings on this track really give it a strong cinematic and ethereal vibe, with a tribal drum section in the middle stretch that sounds like it was recorded on the streets rather than in a studio. In Ferneaux stands as one of Blanck Mass’ most daring and ambitious projects yet, and whilst I think it is fantastic, I feel that fans who were hoping for more hard beats may not get what they want from this record and critics might just brush it under the carpet, but if you feel like hearing some really good abstract sound collages then you definitely shouldn’t skip over this record.

CARA NEIR – Phase Out
[Black Metal, Chiptune – USA – Self-Released]

Black Metal in this day and age can pretty much be paired with any other subgenre in or outside of metal, perhaps championed (amongst others) by Deafheaven’s game-changing 2013 masterpiece Sunbather, which fused black metal elements with shoegaze, screamo and post-rock, all topped off with a deliberately ironic bright pink album cover just to rub salt in the wounds of raging corpse paint wearing basement dwelling metalheads desperate to claim they are not metal. Since then, metal bands outside of the blackened realm have felt more comfortable blackening up their sound a bit (remember how cool the blast-beats and tremolo guitars sounded on the last Russian Circles AND Pelican albums!?) and even artists outside of the metal genre have openly cited the lore of ’90s frostbitten Scandinavia as an influence. The time is right for Texan crust black metallers Cara Neir to deliver the left hook of a record which nobody asked for, shamelessly revelling in retro 8-bit video game era chiptune and even working in some trap beats into the mix! Well it’s safe to say that if you happen to be a metal gatekeeper edgelord who still wears their Burzum shirt to the supermarket and literally lives in the comment section of a MetalSucks clickbait article then you’re absolutely going to hate this record; but if you actually have taste, you’ll be able to hear that Cara Neir have landed a very risky yet astonishingly successful and outlandish fusion with Phase Out.

Opening track ‘The Trimjrtle Sanction’ throws all kinds of left hooks at the listener, transition from a brief 8-bit sample into ferocious, buzzing tremolo guitars and harsh shrieking vocals. The real genius comes just over a minute in when gears shift entirely into a weepy clean guitar passage that could have come straight off a Radiohead album, backed by slick trap-influenced electronic beats. It’s by this point you realise Cara Neir aren’t up to something daft, but have tapped into something remarkable and beautifully bonkers. ‘Damnation’ can only be described as avant-garde metalcore, combining breakdown riffs with synths ripped straight from an ’80s space shooter arcade cabinet. ‘Phasers Set To Relax’‘s booming chip-hop (is that a term!? Because if not I’m coining it right here. Patent-pending, #chiphop) could reach the parody zone if it wasn’t such a banger. With Phase Out, Cara Neir successfully join the dots between Konami’s Castlevania gothic horror video game franchise and metal, but they’ve stepped up to Liturgy’s levels of deconstructing extreme metal, viewing the genre and sound from the outside perspective as if they’ve become wild avant-garde experimentalists, making something incredibly fun and ridiculous in the process. Don’t cry, just give it a try!

JOHN CARPENTER – Lost Themes III: Alive After Death
[Synthwave, Progressive Electronic – USA – Sacred Bones]

The fact that most conversations about John Carpenter begin and end at their legendary contribution to horror and sci-fi cinema is a little bittersweet, because the maestro should absolutely be considered one of synth music’s most pioneering stars. The majority of Carpenter’s own film scores were self-composed, with themes from the likes of Halloween and They Live becoming ingrained into the minds of popular culture. The past decade has seen Carpenter step away from the director’s chair to focus on new synthwave compositions and even tour the world in collaboration with son Cody Carpenter and ambient composer Daniel Davies, now bringing the third instalment of their brilliant Lost Themes series of studio albums. This transitional phase has come at a perfect time where modern cinema itself has been taking influence from Carpenter classics (think Drive, The Guest, It Follows and Stranger Things as a few examples) and retro ’80s synth sounds are dominant in modern music production, whether it be the blaring Terminator worship of synthwave star Perturbator or the nuanced throwback production on the latest Bat For Lashes album.

Lost Themes III feels like business as usual and oh-so comforting and familiar. Whilst this record doesn’t exactly bring any new surprises or outlandish ideas to the fold, it does very well in reminding you just how excellent and important Carpenter’s music is. Here, Carpenter and collaborators bring some of their best written themes yet. The icy majesty of ‘Weeping Ghost’ absolutely conjures up imagery of Kurt Russell being an on-screen badass, and lead single ‘Skeleton’ is a miniature epic with glorious synth layers. Downtempo cuts ‘Dripping Blood’ and ‘Turning The Bones’ also prove just how good Carpenter’s ear for infectious and haunting melodies really is. ‘The Dead Walk’ is ironically built on lively blood-pumping 4/4 techno kicks and ‘Vampire’s Touch’‘s pairing of droning distorted guitars with choppy bleeping synths sounds like it could have come straight off Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile record. They say great things come in threes and Lost Themes III is another brilliant entry in the series that I really hope doesn’t get overlooked by Carpenter fans.

NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS – Carnage
[Art Rock – Australia – Self-Released]

Nick Cave’s output with The Bad Seeds since 2013’s Push The Sky Away has been more on the sombre and stripped down side. Though astonishing and still very dark in tone, some fans have lamented the lack of their more wild, ragged and gritty side so present on Abattoir Blues. Usually when Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis get together on their own it’s to create immersive and atmospheric film scores, but not with this surprise release. Carnage very much restores some of the aggression and bite found in some of Cave’s older works as well as the duo’s Grinderman spin-off project. From opener ‘Hand Of God’, Cave’s vocal sounds much more unsettled than on the ethereal poetry of Ghosteen, rattling off an ominous snarling tone in their voice, completed with Ellis’ sweeping violin. Gradually the album threatens to present something more explosive, where on ‘White Elephant’ an agitated Cave repeatedly threatens to “Shoot you in the fucking face” as the song builds to a climax of deranged gospel-influenced vocals. But it’s not until late in the album where Cave’s aggressive side truly trickles out, where on ‘Shattered Ground’ a desperate and anxious stream-of-conscious narrates paranoid internal thoughts over a wash of ambient synths. Sure it never quite reaches the drunken fury of ‘Get Ready For Love’, but Carnage sees a delightful return to the more confrontational side of an artist that some feared might have been lost, yet still balances well with some great ballads in the form of ‘Albuquerque’ and ‘Lavender Fields’. Further proof that Cave and collaborators are just an unstoppable force making outstanding records one after the other that are loaded with feelings and internal chaos.

CLAUD – Super Monster
[Synth-Pop – USA – Dead Oceans]

From the second you hit play, the debut album from New York based synth-pop artist Claud reels you in with sugary sweet hooks, bubbly keys and glossy vocals. Claud has a remarkable talent for songs that get straight to the point and never overstay their welcome, yet are carried with wonderfully catchy melodies. There are also enough little quirks and nuances in the production to keep things fresh and surprising. Standout ‘In Or In-Between‘ is somewhat reminiscent of Hayley Williams’ recent Petal For Armor sound, whilst opener ‘Overnight’ recalls the summery vibes of Soccer Mommy. Super Monster doesn’t offer a sound or style that is especially original or unique, but when it is littered with this many good hooks and gorgeous spurts of beauty and nuance, it almost doesn’t matter. Claud’s songs and lovely vocals are so earnest and irresistible that I can’t help but be won over. Super Monster is a gift that keeps on giving, with ‘Ana’ teasingly ending just as it starts to take off; ‘This Town’ desires to be a ’90s slacker anthem with lazy strummed electric guitar, and ‘Pepsi’ has a real groove and fizz to it, complete with soundbites of ring-pulls popping. If anything, sometimes these songs don’t sound developed enough and I wish they went on a little longer, but with such a neat track sequencing, Super Monster is an album I am more than happy to keep spinning over again. If anything, this record sounds so sunny that it doesn’t feel like a February album, and hopefully I’ll discover it all over again when summer rolls around.

CULT OF LUNA – The Raging River
[Post-Metal, Sludge Metal – Sweden – Red Creek]

Cult Of Luna spark an interesting conversation about what makes a record an EP instead of an album. Many assume the running time is the deciding attribute, but this EP runs at 35 minutes in length, which could easily be a comfortable album size for many. The Raging River stands as less than half the total running time of the Swedish post-metal pioneers’ previous behemoth A Dawn To Fear though, so I would say the argument for an EP is that it runs roughly half the length of an artist’s regular album length, or exists as a chance for an artist to drift out of canon and experiment and deviate without the pressure of as many critical eyes hovering over them. I’m a strong believer that EP releases are often equally as essential as an artist’s full length albums and The Raging River certainly proves this as it branches out magnificently from the high watermark set by their previous opus.

Opener ‘Three Bridges’ is classic Cult Of Luna, coming in with a savage screamed vocal attack, angular riffing and that trademark wall of sound, and by the end of the near nine minute run transitions into a more hopeful passage with glimmering guitars and synths. At a mere six minutes, ‘What I Leave Behind’ is a brute force riff monster that proves Cult Of Luna can simplify and reel in their sound without, ironically, leaving much behind. ‘Inside Of A Dream’ is a delightful centrepiece curveball inviting legendary singer Mark Lanegan’s signature gravelly grunge croon to float over twanging clean guitars and ambient soundscapes. The two longer songs we leave out on are just Cult Of Luna in their purest form, sounding phenomenal and confident, solidifying that the Swedish collective just haven’t dropped any of their innovation since they hit their creative peak decades ago. The Raging River is another monumental piece of the Cult Of Luna puzzle, and it is so great to see them taking a more independent approach with this record, releasing on their own Red Creek label and being more active in the promotional roll out. I just can’t praise this record any more highly.

FOO FIGHTERS – Medicine At Midnight
[Hard Rock, Alternative Rock – USA – RCA]

If you are currently in your thirties and consider yourself a ’90s kid then you, like myself, might find it annoyingly difficult to not want to root for Foo Fighters when a new album surfaces and at least pretend to fain some sort of interest despite their catalogue having more mediocre records than good ones by this point. Dave Grohl and friends are considered to be the ultimate nice guys of the rock music world and clearly the music of the Foos has been far too nice as of late, firmly stuck in the “dad rock” camp. Predictably, this tenth full length album still has all the edges softened and the balls chopped off, but is it a total waste of time? Opener ‘Making A Fire’ is probably the worst and most painfully generic track here so I guess it’s good of them to get it out of the way first!? Foo Fighters records often seem to have at least one track that blatantly rips off a rock classic (remember how ‘Something From Nothing’ from 2014’s Sonic Highways totally ripped off the iconic lead riff from Dio’s ‘Holy Diver’!?) and this track is blatantly the Poundland equivalent of Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Fly Away’. ‘Cloudspotter’ is also a very mediocre track that somewhat tries to resemble ’80s ZZ-Top. There are, thankfully, a few decent tracks to be found on this record; ‘Shame Shame’ is easily the best one with a pretty solid chorus with Grohl sounding somewhat heartfelt here and the addition of plucky strings give this track a bit more weight. ‘Waiting On A War’ is so painfully Foo Fighters by numbers, ticking off all the right beats that it almost kind of works, and… … … … Oh sorry I nearly fell asleep just writing about this album… Let’s face it, Foo Fighters are never going to make another record as vital and nostalgic as 1997’s The Colour & The Shape, and even the better spots on this numbingly indifferent album only feel like pale imitations of their former selves. Listening to new Foo Fighters music in 2021 is about as redundant as whipping out a Yo-Yo or bragging about that Pog collection you kept hold of.

GAFFA BANDANA – Fraught In Waves
[Noise Rock, Sludge Metal – UK – Human Worth]

Shout out to this debut recording from Gaffa Bandana, a newly formed duo featuring Bruxa Maria’s Gill Dread on guitar and vocals, and Jennie Howell on drums. This frantic EP was recorded by Tim Cedar of Part Chimp, who has captured such a raw and primal energy that sounds pretty close to a live recording. Gaffa Bandana smash through playful, face-melting sludge riffs, played loosely with a hardcore influenced tempo. The riffs are very simple, sounding like block power chords in low tunings, but they allow for wild screams, choppy fills and a slick snare sound to take the emphasis. Gaffa Bandana’s approach to sludge reminds me of London based heavy legends Torpor, just not as slow nor atmospheric. Whilst not as overwhelmingly heavy or nasty as some sludge metal traditionalists, Gaffa Bandana will appeal more to those who love noise rock and post-hardcore, almost taking a leaf from Shellac and Jesus Lizard’s heavier moments.

LINGUA IGNOTA – Agnus Dei
[Industrial, Noise – USA – Self-Released]

Lingua Ignota and Bandcamp’s monthly Fee-Free-Fridays have been a match made in heaven, with Kristen Hayter self-releasing new material for almost all of them so far. These special releases have included demos, new experimental genre fusions and bold cover songs (completely reclaiming the likes of Eminem’s ‘Kim’, Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ for themselves). Hayter has found an astonishing bridge between the emotional outpouring of singer/songwriter music with their exceptional voice and piano playing paired with confrontational blasts of industrial power noise and haunting dark ambient, all topped off with fearless lyrics that tackle uncomfortably detailed experiences of abuse. Music rarely gets this cathartic, and it’s exciting to follow what monthly delights and tangents we might be treated to next.

Agnus Dei is an EP self-released for February’s special return to Bandcamp’s Fee-Free-Friday (which will see one for every first Friday of the month this year, proving that few other online music platforms have gone this far to selflessly support independent artists and labels in the face of crisis) and it’s another surprising turn, pairing baroque classical numbers from Bach and Handel with a solemn yet powerful piano and vocal cover of a song by Seattle based power-violence band Iron Lung. Agnus Dei has more of an old school noise ethos, involving spoken word, field recordings and a sound collage approach to composition. These four tracks are best played in sequence and the whole EP just drifts across your subconscious. Lingua Ignota is one of those rare artists that can just put out as much of anything they want to and keep finding new and interesting ways to deliver their unique style. If you are a fan of Lingua Ignota’s work, don’t miss out on these amazing digital only releases.

LOREM IPSUM – Vivre Encore
[Screamo, Chamber Orchestral – France – Sleepy Dog]

If you are a die hard fan of screamo and post-hardcore music and feel like you’ve heard just about everything the genre has to offer by this point, then today is your lucky day. French trio Lorem Ipsum deliver something very unique on this second full length, performing what is compositionally screamo through and through with a small chamber ensemble of a classical guitarist, violinist and pianist/vocalist. At first it feels a little odd to hear this style of music performed without distorted guitars or battering drums, but Lorem Ipsum have totally made it work. The emotional screaming vocals sit rather well on top of the shrieking violins and twiddly folk guitars, adding plenty of drama to their sound. Lorem Ipsum know exactly when to mix up discordance and melodicism throughout Vivre Encore; ‘Andree’ is an incredible standout that manages to find a fiery force even through acoustic sounds. ‘Sergei’ (I love how all the tracks have human names) is an intense and dark number with ebb and flow dynamics and you can almost imagine how it would play out with rock instrumentation. ‘Anne’ is a beautiful and sorrowful number that pairs things back a bit, allowing the chamber folk influences to shine through, even adding what sounds like pulsing modulated synth. Lorem Ipsum have really delivered a hell of a statement with Vivre Encore, making something unique, brightly recorded and compositionally rich. This type of record could easily have come across as sounding corny, but it is played with so much heart and flare that it just works.

MOGWAI – As The Love Continues
[Post-Rock – UK – Rock Action]

When I reviewed Mogwai’s previous album Every Country’s Sun back when it was released in 2017 (for a different blog), I found it to be one of their most lacklustre albums yet, arrived from the culmination of putting out a new release every year prior that saw the Scottish atmospheric rock icons on a prolific streak, but not delivering their A-material. In that review I pleaded for Mogwai to take a vacation and come back in a few years time with some better ideas and I’ve absolutely been gifted what I asked for. Aside from a couple of original scores, Mogwai have slowed down and now bring us their finest record since 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.

If Every Country’s Sun was Mogwai on autopilot, then As The Love Continues is the antithesis, throwing so much variety and interesting soundplay at you. ‘Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever’ rests on a laughably simple looped electronic beat as the band just build layers of screeching guitar over the top of it and vocals so drenched in effects they become an extra instrument entirely. Mogwai always like to put a couple of vocal-lead tracks into their mostly instrumental albums and ‘Ritchie Sacramento’ is one of their finest, sounding like a long lost single from the early ’90s Britpop era. Mogwai broaden their scope on this album by inviting some special guest collaborators; Nine Inch Nails mainstayer Atticus Ross helps to arrange strings on the album’s explosive and cinematic crowning glory ‘Midnight Flit’, whilst experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson brings a haunting quality to ‘Pat Stains’, whose minimal Slint-worshipping clean guitars and stark drums sound like a throwback to their early years. Even the tracks that do sound more typically Mogwai definitely feel more focused and the band are clearly charged up and hungrier than they have been for a while, and bonus points as the song titles are some of their most delightfully ridiculous yet. ‘It’s What I Want To Do, Mum’… ’nuff said!

SOUL GLO – Disnigga Vol.1
[Post-Hardcore, Hip-Hop – USA – Self-Released]

Philly post-hardcore outfit Soul Glo are a rising force and an unstoppable ball of energy lately, with their previous EP Songs To Yeet At The Sun turning heads only a few months back, finding a raging meeting point between intense, visceral hardcore and grimy, trap-leaning hip-hop. Soul Glo have unleashed another helping of chaos, dropping this digital only EP and I have to say their willingness to experiment and push the boundaries has only expanded further. Clocking in at not even eight minutes in total with three new tracks; in terms of presentation, this release feels merely like three random songs that were thrown together and blasted onto Bandcamp. Though there may not be too much cohesion between them, these are easily three of their finest tracks yet. ‘FL STYLE PERMZ’ is all blaring beats, near-incomprehensible yelling and a hyper sample that sounds like a car alarm going off that runs through the track. At less than two minutes, it barely even has a proper ending before leaping boldly into ‘ROLLING LOUD, HEAR MY CRY’ which tears your face off with what sounds like a leftover Slayer riff, relentless maniacal screams and a mosh-pit energy. This short but sweet EP concludes with ‘SCREAMO DEL BARRIO’, which is one of the most ambitious and varied tracks that Soul Glo have attempted so far. This near four minute epic covers a lot of ground and sounds like an ode to the history of screamo and post-hardcore, like it is channelling At The Drive-In, Refused and City Of Caterpillar all in one go. This wild and noisy gem has a fairly paired back grooving drumbeat that takes it time to build as it ebbs and flows with scatty guitars, resulting in one of their most dynamic compositions yet. Soul Glo continue to be one of the most exciting bands in hardcore right now and I can just feel that they are on the cusp of dropping a total classic.

INDIGO SPARKE – Echo
[Indie Folk, Singer/Songwriter – Australia – Sacred Bones]

In what has been a very busy month for no genres barred label Sacred Bones comes the debut full-length album from Australian folk artist Indigo Sparke. I’ve heard their reverb heavy voice and sound favourably compared to Angel Olsen, but their music has a much more stripped back approach and a wonderful production that has an earthy, dusty, candlelit quality. Opener ‘Colourblind’ sets their intentions right off the back, hanging on a simple yet sweeping electric guitar chord progression that sounds so so airy and majestic without even trying. Sparke sounds like an artist who has been performing for decades, with so much confidence and a voice that defies age and time. Echo doesn’t have too many times where Sparke lifts off the runway, but ‘Bad Dreams’ is certainly one of these rare moments, with frantic finger-picking and a haunting, siren-like vocal threatening to shatter the windows of an intimate, creaky old attic with the sheer might of their performance. The breath-taking ‘Carnival’ has a timeless quality, rousing a massive chorus that almost sounds like one of PJ Harvey’s more paired back yet emotionally captivating numbers. The sheer confidence, powerhouse performances and richness of sound captured by Indigo Sparke on this album feels like the mark of an artist far beyond their years and experience; to think that a record this moving and accomplished is their debut adds even more weight to the experience. Echo is a perfectly captured contradiction that simultaneously sounds tiny and bare, yet as monumental as a phoenix bursting out of the flames.

HAYLEY WILLIAMS – Flowers For Vases / Descansos
[Singer/Songwriter – USA – Atlantic]

Paramore vocalist and guitarist Hayley Williams made a strong mark with last year’s debut solo album Petals For Armor, striding confidently into making an an ambitious synth-pop record and a clear step away from their pop-punk upbringing. This new record Flowers For Vases / Descansos has arrived less than a year after it’s predecessor and marks another stylistic turn, this time making a stripped back folk-pop record. Gone are the bold synth sounds, electronic beats, alluring vocals and focused sound design of Petals For Armor, in place of acoustic guitars, piano and hushed vocals. Whilst promoting this new record, Williams has said that it’s their lockdown record inspired by Taylor Swift’s fantastic and transcendent Folkore and Evermore albums from last year; and with this fact in mind, it’s almost hard not to hear the comparisons. The chorus of ‘Trigger’ has vocal inflections that sound far too close to Swift’s voice that it pushes into imitation. This feeling carries over into songs such as ‘Good Grief’ and ‘Inordinary’, and Swift’s influence starts to get too close to the bone. Whilst there are some decent tracks and performances to be found across this record, Williams lyrics aren’t half as revelatory, witty or observational as Swift’s magnificent storytelling on their own transformative records. Another stumbling block here is that the production is fairly bland, at times sounding like coffee shop fodder, and missing the earthy rawness that these sad low-key songs are searching for. Flowers For Vases / Descansos feels like Williams has tried to shift gears too quickly, especially after finding a great new voice in synth-pop just a year ago. This record in comparison feels like an afterthought and an artistic step backwards.

STEVEN WILSON – The Future Bites
[Art Pop, Progressive Rock – UK – Caroline International]

I’m convinced that Steven Wilson doesn’t sleep ever and has a constant stream of creative energy. Wilson broke into the music consciousness in the ’90s with Porcupine Tree, one of the best contemporary prog acts with a massive discography full of gems, as well as fronting side projects No-Man, Bass Communion, Blackfield, a huge solo catalogue, long tours, three hour shows and acting as a producer and mastering engineer for many other amazing bands too. Just zoning in on Wilson’s post-Porcupine Tree solo career leaves plenty to talk about, and as an artist their music and vision is constantly evolving. 2015’s spectacular album Hand Cannot Erase was the start of a streamlining process for Wilson, delivering something that kept one foot in the excess of prog rock, but was also much more accessible with elements of electronic production and anthemic alternative rock becoming present. So it’s not surprising to the Wilson fanbase that this new album is a full on art-pop project with rock instrumentation largely taking a backseat to synths, electronic soundscapes and much more linear song structures, proving that being prog isn’t just about ten minute keyboard solos, but progressing as an artist and not making the record twice.

The Future Bites has really split Wilson’s fanbase in half and I can see why. I completely respect that this is their “synth pop” album, but does it have the chops to hold up to the likes of Grace For Drowning and The Raven? The best thing going for The Future Bites is that the sound design is pretty great throughout. Putting synths and electronic soundscapes to the forefront of the mix has created some very immersive instrumentals with ‘Self’ and ‘King Ghost’ sounding particularly impressive (the former reminiscent of a Thom Yorke solo track). ‘Eminent Sleaze’ is a funky number with a grinding bass guitar lead that reminds me of Discipline-era King Crimson when they started to streamline their own sound. But aside from some colourful instrumentals, the songwriting here is the weakest aspect. Though the aforementioned ‘Self’ sounds good instrumentally, the vocals are really obnoxious throughout. Wilson goes back and forth between effect heavy distorted vocals and clean singing, with the addition of backing singers and it just feels too over the top and distracting from the musicianship behind. ’12 Things I Forgot’ is a track I wish I could forget, taking on a stripped back summery guitar sound, shiny vocal harmonies and overall vibe that makes me feel like I’m drowning in cheese. The song feels completely disconnected from the ones that surround it and stands out like a sore thumb in the tracklist. The album’s longest track, ‘Personal Shopper’ feels like it should be the best when it takes up nearly ten minutes, and yet it could be the worst offender here. The backing vocals try and add a gospel touch to another really corny and obnoxious chorus, but the worst part is in the final leg where Elton John adds spoken word just naming random products… “Sunglasses… Deluxe edition boxsets… Anti-aging cream… Noise cancelling headphones… Designer trainers…” The whole “consumerism is bad” message that the album tries to beat you over the head with just feels flimsy and obvious, and lyrically there isn’t anything that engaging to grasp onto across this whole record. It’s a shame. I like and respect Steven Wilson, I was rooting for this to be a good album and I feel like they are perfectly capable of making a good pop record, but this isn’t it.

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