REVIEW: MAY ’21 LISTENING TRAIL

RECORD OF THE MONTH

VIOLET COLD – Empire Of Love
[Blackgaze – Azerbaijan – Self-Released]

As we enter LGBTQ+ Pride month, Azerbaijan based black metal multi-instrumentalist Emin Guliyev has gifted the world with this hit self-released album, fearlessly merging their national country flag with the rainbow colours associated with Pride. This bold album serves a strong and well-timed retaliation to Azerbaijan’s largely homophobic, transphobic and hate-fuelled intolerance. But to back it up, this album is absolutely incredible in it’s own right.

Empire Of Love may just be the friendliest, most feel good black metal album ever recorded. As the poignantly titled ‘Pride’ bursts into life, blasting drums and whizzing guitar riffs become secondary to blissful, uplifting melodies and soaring dream-pop vocals, sounding something like the next evolution of Judas Priest’s camp metal classic, ‘Turbo Lover’. Even post-black metallers Alcest and Deafheaven haven’t managed to sound this outrageously happy before. ‘Be Like Magic’ manages to pair Panopticon-esque gruff screaming vocals and powerful drums with strange trap beats and pitch-shifted vocals in a surprisingly welcome fusion. The beautifully titled ‘We Met During The Revolution’ has a strong shoegaze influence and conjures such romantic imagery of people falling in love at a protest march. ‘Shegnificant’ takes somewhat of a more melancholic turn, but completely wins you over with the contrast of restrained verses bursting into dramatic screamed choruses. And if things weren’t already outlandish enough, ‘Working Class’ throws in a high energy banjo-lead twang that sounds like music from Mario Kart 64 given a metal makeover. In one of the album’s more subdued moments, ‘Togetherness’ finds the blissful radiance of artists like Sigur Ros and Holy Fawn with post-rock inspired soundscapes. In just shy of forty minutes, Violet Cold has crafted an outrageously beautiful, camp, and yet badass masterwork of forward-thinking, fist-pumping, heart-warming, soul-searching metal mania.

I can already envision the negative reactions of a thousand metal edgelords trolling in Facebook comment sections who will most likely hate this album before even hitting play, but they’ll be missing out as Violet Cold has made a true landmark in the history of extreme metal. Not only is Empire Of Love an astonishing manifesto for twisting evil blackened sounds into something positive and uplifting, but the creator is literally risking their life and wellbeing by bearing this gift to the world; and that in itself deserves massive respect and a round of applause.

AROOJ AFTAB – Vulture Prince
[Chamber Folk – Pakistan/USA – New Amsterdam]

New York based Pakistan born musician Arooj Aftab delivers a haunting yet incredibly beautiful chamber folk record, Vulture Prince. Just listening to the first minute of opener ‘Baghon Main’ should capture you and gives a great idea of the detailed soundplay that is about to unfold. The sonic depth on display is so rich and detailed, sounding reminiscent of Nick Drake’s debut album Five Leaves Left. The acoustic guitars and sorrowful strings compliment each other so well and are very tightly wound, with Aftab’s siren-like vocals becoming another masterful layer on top. Their baritone voice is sleek and smooth, gliding atop these wonderful instrumentals throughout the album with such a commanding yet controlled presence. ‘Inayaat’ adds even more to the sound pallet with the addition of harp and flugelhorn, as well as mixing in a lounge-jazz tempo with strong vocal influences of middle-eastern traditional music. Centrepiece ‘Last Night’ is the only song that breaks the mood of the album; the only song to feature lyrics in English as well as a dub reggae influenced rhythm to it. ‘Saans Lo’ is a breathtaking near finale; the most stripped back and moving track with a vibe that echoes This Mortal Coil’s classic take on ‘Song To The Siren’. Aftab has not only performed and arranged these compositions but self-produced Vulture Prince, resulting in total music; the crème-de-la-crème of incredible ensemble performances, astonishing sound recording and a truly gorgeous sonic banquet for the ears.

THE BLACK KEYS – Delta Kream
[Blues Rock – USA – Easy Eye/Nonesuch]

The Black Keys released their debut album The Big Come Up almost twenty years ago, and in that time the US blues rock duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been hard at work, releasing a subsequent nine records as well as producing works for other artists. Looking at their full discography, The Black Keys have traversed distinct phases in their career. Their first two albums in particular were incredibly raw, heavy and swampy, presented with an almost lo-fi garage rock sound and attitude. Mid-career breakthrough albums such as the soulful swagger of Brothers and the full on pop-radio-rock of El Camino saw them strive for bigger and more anthemic sounds, and in all honesty the last few albums have felt like the duo have lost some of their identity and direction entirely. Delta Kream is something of a back to basics album, recorded with a full band at Nashville’s Easy Eye Sound Studio and featuring all classic blues covers from the likes of John Lee Hooker, R. L. Burnside and more. Just listening to ‘Stay Up All Night’ gives a perfect overture of what to expect from this record; it’s more stripped back than El Camino, more focused than Turn Blue but not as raw as Thickfreakness. As a whole, this is one of the duos most satisfying albums since the stardom and relentless airplay that their 2011 megahit ‘Lonely Boy’ gave them. The duo sound relaxed, back in the zone and are just doing what they do best. Delta Kream isn’t the most exciting record The Black Keys have ever put out and feels fairly safe, but it does mark a welcome return to just playing the music that made them.

This review is brought to you by Coca-Cola.

BLACK MIDI – Cavalcade
[Progressive Rock, Noise Rock – UK – Rough Trade]

Ever since Black Midi dropped the first single in the lead up to this sophomore record, the excitement bar was set very high in anticipation for what the rest of the album might deliver. Whilst their debut album was a spectacular fusion of prog and noise rock that captured a true urgency and fiery performances, ‘John L’ has taken the band to a whole new level, sounding like music beaming from another solar system. ‘John L’ bursts into life with funky guitars, hard hitting grooves and wailing brass, sounding like a contemporary take on King Crimson’s ‘The Great Deceiver’, Frank Zappa’s ‘Willie The Pimp’ or even The Mars Volta’s ‘Inertiatic ESP’. This jazz-prog-noise-rock fusion has a relentless energy to it with deranged, incomprehensible spoken word vocals and these incredible flashes where the entire band stops in dead silence only to pick up the frantic urgency immediately. The middle section in particular goes off the rails in the most delightful way, crumbling into the kind of chaotic noise improv you might hear on a Mahavishnu Orchestra record.

Coming off such a high energy, bombastic and dramatic opening track, it’s fortunate that Black Midi know when to find downtime too. The following track ‘Marlene Dietrich’ is a welcome comedown from the chaos, with clean singing vocals and plucky folksy guitar playing, with a baroque-pop vibe reminiscent of early Scott Walker. The one-two punch of ‘Chondromalacia Patella’ and ‘Slow’ provides a riff workout, built on virtuoso playing and erratic shifts in rhythms and tempos, held together from the outstanding drumming of Morgan Simpson. At times Cavalcade does threaten to tip towards being overly wanky and is definitely looking backwards to jazz and prog rock of the late ’60s to mid ’70s, but manages to fuse that complexity with the intensity of ’90s noise rock and post-hardcore bands in a way that hasn’t quite been matched since The Mars Volta first burst onto the scene. Whilst so many of the tracks on Cavalcade have exhilarating performances and outstanding moments, twists, turns and surprises, it can be difficult to keep focus on such a maximalist workout even through multiple listens. I feel like I could spend a solid year listening to this record week in and week out and still not be able to know it inside out, much like trying to recall from memory individual elements that appear on the album sleeve.

BURIAL – Chemz / Dolphinz
[Electronic, Ambient – UK – Hyperdub]

Camera-shy bedroom electronic producer extraordinaire Burial (real name William Bevan) was without a doubt one of the most striking, influential and forward thinking artists between their 2006 self-titled debut for Hyperdub up until around 2016’s Rival Dealer EP. Since that time the wheels have started to fall off a little bit for Burial, with some of their latest singles and EPs straying from the sounds that made them so enticing, and experimenting with more ambient and sparse form. These days Burial announcing a new release isn’t quite the event it used to be. None of it has been particularly bad, but perhaps releasing single and EP after single and EP has lost its charm. With no signs of another full length album in place, fans have to settle for two track vinyl releases at a time featuring similar minimalist artwork.

The latest of these singles, Chemz / Dolphinz at least stands out for being the strangest Burial release yet. The opening twelve minute long Chemz is a real go-getter; in fact it could be the most immediate song Burial has ever composed. Sacrificing the atmospheric wandering-around-the-city-at-night vibes for straight up early ’00s UK garage sounds. The lengthy track passes through different movements but is largely hooked on a pounding beat with pitch-shifted vocal hooks and some nostalgic synth sounds. The flow of this track is very much reminiscent of a DJ mix, sounding like the beats are being flipped from turntable decks. It’s the fact that this track is so accessible and straight-forward that makes it kind of strange for Burial, but the weirdness doesn’t stop there… B-side Dolphinz is indeed an ode to the beloved aquatic mammal. This nine minute track is practically structureless, featuring the minimal sounds of what sounds like needle scratches at the end of a vinyl record, some very sparse synth that drops in and out, and of course treated dolphin sound effects. What makes this track more baffling is occasionally a creepy effect-driven voice will drop in and say “I love dolphins”, ending with a spoken word factoid about dolphins that sounds like it has been ripped from an announcer at Sea World. This track’s very existence is so puzzling that it is almost charming, even if this piece really doesn’t amount to anything. It serves as such a stark contrast to the enjoyable raving of Chemz that the entire release almost feels like Bevan is trolling their fanbase.

DAWN RAY’D – Wild Fire
[Black Metal, Dark Folk – UK – Prosthetic/Action Now]

One of the UK’s fiercest and most left-leaning torchbearers for anti-fascist anarchist black metal deliver us a spectacular new 7″ single featuring two opposing takes on the same song which was first premiered as a streamed live performance at Roadburn Redux Festival back in April. Both versions of Wild Fire here carry the same melody and lyrics, but the first is in a black metal style, whilst the second version is performed as a dark-folk song. Opening with a trumpet fanfare, Dawn Ray’d soon rip into ferocious blackened tremolo riffs, blasting drums and savage screams with a sound reminiscent of Ulver’s early folky black metal sound. Dawn Ray’d’s immediacy and urgency is really something to behold, always managing to cut out the flab and deliver something so direct and cutting. The B-side is equally great, driven by harmonium, acoustic guitar, timpani marching drums and chanting vocals. Guitarist Fabian Devlin takes the leading vocals here on what is easily Dawn Ray’d’s best dark-folk track yet. Folk music has always played an important part in their sound, yet with Wild Fire the trio fully explore their relationship between folk and black metal to their most thorough and conclusive.

HEALTH + NINE INCH NAILS – Isn’t Everyone
[Industrial, Electronic – USA – Loma Vista]

Nine Inch Nails moving into their fifth decade are still more vital and consistent than they have any right to be. If winning Oscars at this year’s ceremony wasn’t enough for the core duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross already, they’ve delivered this masterful one off single collaborating with experimental rockers HEALTH. Combining the best of both worlds, instrumentally this is a slow-burner built on pulsing walls of cinematic industrial soundscapes that gradually becomes more dense as it moves along. There are mountains of sub-bass, and rattling beats that anchor this song, with some great melodic piano becoming more prominent as the song develops. Reznor dials back the angst with a vocal performance that feels suitably distant and restrained. HEALTH really make their contributions stand out with some excellent clean singing vocals that add a strong dream-pop vibe, allowing the second leg of the song to morph into a different and oh-so satisfying beast. This combination works so well that you kind of wonder why these sounds and influences haven’t been explored by NIN as much in the past. With both bands being strong experimentalists and meticulous sound designers, this pairing is remarkably refreshing, bringing out the best qualities of both bands and then some.

PETE & BAS – Quick Little Mixtape
[Hip-Hop – UK – Self-Released]

Every now and then an artist comes along who are just beyond criticism. I caught wind of UK hip-hop duo Pete & Bas through social media and after checking out a few of their many music videos on YouTube I was left both baffled and mesmerised by what I was seeing and hearing. To put it bluntly, Pete & Bas are a bunch of older British geezers rapping over very contemporary hard hitting trap influenced hip-hop beats. Their music videos play out like miniature Guy Ritchie directed gangster flicks, such as on this mixtape’s single ‘Golf’, which sees the duo wielding a sniper rifle and a bazooka. ‘Knock A Man Down’‘s lyrics are so British that it hurts, rhyming “fag” (slang term for a cigarette over in the UK), “Jag” and “cab” together with lines that are as hilarious as they are cringe, including “Six pints and a donner kebab” and “Kick him in his balls he’s a Millwall fan / ‘e can get flattened like his name was Stan” rapped in perfect cockney accents. What makes Pete & Bas beyond criticism is that I just can’t tell if this is for real or satire (much like most news headlines I read these days). Some of the beats on this album are fairly good (‘Bermondsey’ in particular is an eerie banger) and their raps are certainly competent, charismatic and suitably aggressive… And yet the whole thing feels like it could be an outtake from Chris Morris’ Brasseye. Perhaps I’m being ageist and Pete & Bas really do have a love for hip-hop culture with Run DMC and Slick Rick albums lining their record collections, but I can’t help but feel reserved and chuckle when I listen to them and watch their music videos. I mean, I’m glad this exists but is the world ready for such a hip-hop phenomenon!? Am I going to get my head kicked in now!?

POLA – Opaque
[Drone Rock – UK – Soundtracking The Void]

This debut record from Manchester based slow rock duo POLA is the sound of wading through dusty barren hillscapes, capturing a cinematic scope through such sparse compositional makeup. The title of the lengthy opening track ‘Quiet, Arid & Still’ describes the album experience so perfectly as do POLA’s wandering clean guitar twangs and what sounds like the steady pluck of an upright bass. The duo conjure comparisons to early A Silver Mt Zion, mid-period Labradford and later years Earth, utilising guitars in a compositional approach that is much closer to the ambient music of Eno than anything typical of rock music, as well as conjuring imagery of silhouetted cowboys riding into the sunset of a John Ford western. Centrepiece ‘The Dimming’ slows things down to a complete crawl as guitars become so slow and treated that they could morph into textured, ambient synths whilst finale ‘The Weirding’ finds a bolder sense of eeriness and power as it lurches on. Opaque is an album of head music designed to suit a specific mood and space, but those willing to offer their patience and block out the rest of the world shall be treated to a mind expanding feast for the senses.

SHARON VAN ETTEN & ANGEL OLSEN – Like I Used To
[Dream Pop, Indie Folk – USA – Jagjaguwar]

Two American indie folk superstars have come together in such a perfect collaboration that I’m sure everyone is surprised this union from the two Jagjaguwar labelmates didn’t come together much sooner. In reality it took a world locked down to bring these two together to make something of a post-pandemic world anthem. Like I Used To is a storming and catchy epic rock song bathed in dreamy synths, twanging guitars and a powerhouse vocal duet with a lead melody reminiscent of ‘Born To Run’. Looking at the lyrics, perhaps this duet is an ode to leaving behind a life of isolation and moving forwards again, or perhaps just rediscovering one’s own identity after feeling lost; “Lighting one up like I used to”, “Sleeping in late like I used to”, “Taking what’s mine like I used to”. Whatever the meaning, this wonderful duet feels so urgent and perfectly timed; it’s a song that roars with life and positivity backed by an incredible split-screen music video of the two performers alone, and yet together. We still have half a year to go, but this astonishing collaboration is already a strong contender for single of the year, and one can only hope the two cross paths for more duets soon.

SQUID – Bright Green Field
[Art Rock, Post-Punk – UK – Warp]

The latest British band to emerge with a full length debut in what is a strong new wave of post-punk music (see also Dry Cleaning, Black Country New Road and Black Midi) are Squid in what is a surprise pairing with electronic leaning future sounds label Warp Records. There has been a lot of hype for this one, and I’m very puzzled as to why. In comparison to the aforementioned bands, Squid sound nowhere near as cutting edge or exciting. If you remember the dance-punk sounds of the ’00s – artists like The Rapture, The Klaxons and acts associated with the DFA label, then you’ll have an idea of what to expect from Squid, and it isn’t particularly a sound that warrants revisiting. The twinkly guitars on ‘Narrator’ are reminiscent of early Foals, but Squid’s biggest thorn in their side is their vocalist who sounds so desperate to sound like a combination of David Byrne and James Murphy with their yelping, shout-singing vocals turned up to obnoxious stepping on Lego levels. Throughout Bright Green Field there are a lot of repeated lyrics and hooks, drawn out ad nauseum, like on ‘Narrator’‘s final stretch that just sounds a chore to sit though. It’s one thing that the vocals sound so annoying, but they also sound very forced where their peers, especially Dry Cleaning, are find exciting new ways to deliver vocal narratives. Lyrics such as “Were you mangled by a tree?” which opens ‘Boy Racers’ just seem to fall flat in comparison.

2010′ is a particular lowlight on the album when you consider how desperately it wants to sound like In Rainbows-era Radiohead from 2007, it just starts to pile up onto how dated Squid sound. By the time I get to the end of the album I’m beyond clockwatching and ready to throw up as Squid yell “I’ve got flagpoles in my side” like a naughty child throwing a hissy fit on ‘Pamphlets’ in what is the angriest I’ve ever heard someone get about bits of paper… U ok hun!? None of the tracks here quite reach trainwreck levels and the album isn’t exactly boring, with so many loud and wild sounds played at high energy levels, but those vocals and these tedious guitar sounds really are just so obnoxious and grating on the ears… I just can’t shake that a lot of this sounds like old hat. If this had come out ten years ago on the DFA label it would still feel a bit like “oh right, we’re still rocking this style?” so hearing it in 2021 on what should be one of the most forward-thinking labels feels like such a misstep, especially when you look around at such better contemporaries doing far more interesting things with similar influences. But a lot of people seem to be raving about Squid, so maybe I’m just a prick!?

VICTORY OVER THE SUN – Nowherer
[Avant-Garde Metal, Noise Rock – USA – Self-Released]

It’s been a fantastic year for experimental black metal, with Cara Neir fusing ferocious tremolo riffs with 8-bit chiptune, Panopticon’s blackened bluegrass explorations, and Violet Cold making the happiest, dreamiest take on the genre I’ve ever heard. Victory Over The Sun is a one woman project and Nowherer is “written entirely in the 17 equal divisions of the octave (17EDO) tuning system, on guitars I refretted myself.” Across Nowherer, experimental musician Vivian Tylinska creates unique sonic landscapes in black metal through the use of this strange guitar tuning approach, so naturally most of the sounds you hear are very ugly, dissonant and atonal, played with the familiarity of icy tremolo riffs. Compositionally, Nowherer is complex and labyrinthine, sharing a similar deconstructed take on metal formulas akin to the likes of Portal, SUMAC, Serpent Column and even the frantic math chaos of The Dillinger Escape Plan. This presents a rather harsh and angular take on black metal yet still packs an a familiar eerie dungeon-like atmosphere. Creepy interlude ‘God Howling In A Cage’ quietens down completely to allow haunting clean guitar to show off extra dimensions of the experimental tuning. ‘Alveromancy’ is the most direct track on the album, finding plenty of familiar metal riffing, chugging, thrashing and ghoulish vocals even through the discordance. Closing track ‘Oscines’ runs over twenty minutes and acts as a playground for Tylinska to go wild. Fans of Liturgy’s recent avant-garde black metal should feel right at home with Nowherer, but those who appreciate experimental music, noise, free jazz and weird guitar tunings in general will find plenty to admire on this record.

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