REVIEW: AUGUST ’21 LISTENING TRAIL

RECORD OF THE MONTH

LINGUA IGNOTA – Sinner Get Ready
[Avant-Folk, – USA – Sargent House]

I’m not going to ramble on about this album too much again as I already did so in a formal review, but Lingua Ignota’s Sinner Get Ready is still an album I keep playing and haven’t stopped thinking about. This is without a doubt one of the most special and affecting records I’ve heard this year. Kristin Hayter is an artist who pours everything into their craft with so much intensity, rawness and heartfelt performances, even managing to make avant-garde experimental music something really engrossing and transcendent. ‘Pennsylvania Furnace’ still gets me every damn time, with such a bone chillingly exceptional vocal performance and rich melodic instrumentation. ‘Man Is Like A Spring Flower’ has some really bold use of banjo that is completely captivating, and I love how intense and frightening the hammering piano on ‘The Order Of Spiritual Virgins’ is. I can’t recommend this album enough if you want a real feast for the ears and something to make you cry. Lingua Ignota has once again created a monumental work of art.

BIG RED MACHINE – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
[Alternative Rock, Indie Folk – USA – Jagjaguwar]

The second full length from Big Red Machine is here; a project between two very prolific musicians, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National. These two musicians have also been heavily involved in the creation of Taylor Swift’s latests works, from Folklore and Evermore through to their series of (Taylor’s Version) album remakes. So in a nice return, Taylor Swift is featured on two tracks on this album, amongst quite a few guest features including Fleet Foxes, Anais Mitchell, This Is The Kit and more. Essentially this largely feels like a collaborations record where a bunch of musician friends get together and make new songs, and as is so often the case with these kind of projects, the results are a very mixed bag and largely boil down to how much you like the guest artists.

As an example, the song with Fleet Foxes is really great, but it just sounds like a leftover track from the latest Fleet Foxes album Shore. The two aforementioned Taylor Swift collaborations were the main draw for me personally as Folklore and Evermore were two of my most favourite records of last year. ‘Renegade’ is fantastic and absolutely could have featured on either of Swift’s lockdown albums, so it is so great to hear an extra offering between the team behind those records. ‘Birch’ also features Swift, but taking more of a back seat adding some really nice backing and harmonised vocals as Justin Vernon takes the lead.

Outside of these three brilliant tracks there are some good highlights here and there, but as an entire listening experience it feels a bit spotty and has an awkward flow with so many different vocalists taking the stage. In a way it almost feels like you are attending a fantasy open mic night in a small pub venue around the fireplace, and I do really like that vibe. Everything is very nicely recorded and produced, but the songs just featuring Vernon and Dessner don’t really hold a candle to their main projects. How Long Do You Think It’s Going To Last? is certainly worth digging through, but is probably better suited for building Spotify playlists than listening to the CD or vinyl in its entirety.

CHVRCHES – Screen Violence
[Synth-pop – UK – Glassnote]

Scottish synth-pop trio CHVRCHES are a band I’ve enjoyed singles from over the years, but have never really grabbed me, and therefore I didn’t really have much in the way of expectations for this fourth album Screen Violence. However I was really compelled by a heartfelt interview I read with lead vocalist and synth player Lauren Mayberry in Amy Raphael’s incredible book A Seat At The Table, which interviews female musicians about their experiences behind the scenes in the music industry, how they’ve been treated and mistreated, and their thoughts and feelings on feminism – a book I highly recommend reading. Reading Mayberry’s thoughts definitely made me want to keep CHRVCHES on my radar so I made sure to check out this new album and I’m so glad I did.

Simply put – this is an absolutely incredible record from start to finish and one of the year’s very finest albums. I’m completely blown away by how good this is. All of the feelings that compelled me about reading Mayberry’s interview have been poured into Screen Violence and then some. Mayberry pours a lot of cutting song topics, emotions and personal experiences into this record; regrets, fears, self worth, beauty, femininity, mental health and death in what is such a poignant outpouring that I couldn’t possibly cover all the great insights made by the band.

‘He Said She Said’ follows really well from Mayberry’s interview with lyrics that create a dialogue between herself and an unnamed male voice of authority – whether that be label executives, journalists, paparazzi etc. This is reflecting in the questioning lyrics, “Be sad, don’t be depressed”, “He said, ‘Keep an eye on your waistline'” culminating in the chorus “I feel like I’m losing my mind”, clearly expressing the frustrations women in the spotlight go through and the impossible task of trying to meet other people’s expectations of how they should look, act and what they should say. Being so outspoken, Mayberry captures the weight of these expectations with great observation and wit in an empowering song brimming with emotion. ‘Violent Delights’ is another huge hitter boasting one of the most massive choruses on the album, which is no mean feat considering the song’s abstract lyrics appear to be addressing the death of a loved one, possibly from suicide.

The icing on the cake comes with centrepiece ‘How Not To Drown’ featuring excellent guest vocals from The Cure’s Robert Smith in what is one of the most surprising and utterly magnificent collaborative singles of 2021. Again, there seems to be a dialogue going on in this song and I interpret the lyrics as being about the struggles of depression and living with mental illness – trying to keep one’s head above the water. Mayberry’s enigmatic voice with a wonderfully tinged Glaswegian accent absolutely soars in the chorus, with the main hook “Tell me how it’s better when the sun goes down” becoming an anthemic, commanding rhetoric.

These are just a few highlights from an incredibly well realised record that will easily go down as one of the most hard hitting pop records of the year. CHVRCHES feel like they have really gone the extra mile and pushed themselves to create their most vulnerable, socially conscious and cathartic set of songs to date. Screen Violence is a concise record at ten tracks that balances outstanding synth melodies, punchy beats and it feels like every single track has a memorable hook you can sing along to. These compositions and productions are really stripped back and hit you so directly, building a strong bedding for Mayberry to pour her heart out and deliver these really timely observations. I just can’t praise this album enough. Screen Violence is yet another cutting edge contemporary pop record that is able to tackle some really mature and personal themes but still be a fun and catchy listen.

DEAFHEAVEN – Infinite Granite
[Shoegaze, Alternative Rock – USA – Sargent House]

As a long time Deafheaven fan I was so excited when they dropped the first single, ‘Great Mass Of Color’ from this latest fifth full length to find out that it was a full on shoegazy alternative rock song even with clean singing vocals. This is a sound that Deafheaven have been flirting with for a while, much more so on their previous album Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, and it was such a pleasant surprise to finally see this metamorphosis come to fruition. Could the entire album follow suit and make a departure from their blackened post-rock core?

Pretty much! Deafheaven haven’t exactly been strangers to having melodic, colourful rock passages in their songs and have cited strong influences of shoegaze, Britpop, grunge and indie rock from the very start, but have uniquely fused these elements with exhilarating and intense elements of black metal and screamo. Infinite Granite is a very daring record for Deafheaven, largely removing screaming vocals, blastbeats and heavy riffs – merely offering some sparse glimpses, shadows and traces littered throughout, which I don’t want to spoil too much in case you haven’t heard this album in full yet. Lead single ‘Great Mass Of Color’ is a real statement of intent and is probably the boldest, catchiest and most immediate track on the album, and is simply outstanding. Lead vocalist George Clarke has obviously worked hard on crafting a singing voice – something that has never appeared on previous Deafheaven records – often backed up with harmonies from the other band members. ‘Lament Of Wasps’ is another confident and vibrant track that gave me some Oceansize vibes, whilst ‘In Blur’ is a warm throwback to ’90s bands like Slowdive, Ride and that Creation Records sound. There are also some great synth sounds bubbling up, like on interlude ‘Neptune Raining Diamonds’, that feel more prominent than past outings. Producer Justin Meldal-Johnson and frequent engineering collaborator Jack Shirley have helped to really capture some immersive sounds that find a welcome meeting point between Deafheaven’s older sonic attributes and a full on footing into moodier, cleaner and janglier sounds, so that Infinite Granite doesn’t feel like too wild of a departure in tone.

Whilst I am really fond of this transformation from Deafheaven – and it is obviously a record made with great passion and a drive to make something bold and enigmatic in their discography – if I’m being honest it isn’t the best set of songs I’ve heard from the band. They do capture the Deafheaven vibes and emotions rather well, but there are definitely spots that drag or where the dynamics fall a bit flat. One of Deafheaven’s signatures of why I love them so much is their ability to paint great contrast and shades of light and dark, pairing together the blistering and the ferocious with the melodic and melancholic. By plucking out the heaviest and most intense parts of their sound, it does leave Infinite Granite sounding a bit more “one note” than previous albums, feeling longer and more bloated as a result. The hour long running time isn’t as justified here as on previous albums as there is less diversity and less of an ebb and flow to really fill that timespan. Also, as admirable as Infinite Granite is, I’m still going to get far more enjoyment out of bands like MBV, Slowdive, Oceansize, Nothing, American Football and Slow Crush – the kind of bands that Deafheaven are probably aspiring to on this release, except all of them are doing these sounds and styles better justice. Still, I’m really glad this record exists and that Deafheaven have been brave enough to attempt it and shake things up. It also leaves a lot of interesting questions as to what the band’s future live sets are going to look like and where they will possibly take their sound next.

JOY ORBISON – Still Slipping, Vol. 1
[Electronica – UK – XL]

Joy Orbison is a name I’ve been familiar for a long time now in the UK’s electronic music scene. Anyone who has ever attended shows at The Warehouse Project will have undoubtedly come across a DJ set from Joy Orbison, and with backing by legendary London label XL Recordings, it’s surprising that it’s taken more than ten years to put out this sorta full length. Until now, Joy Orbison has been content to ride the single and EP format releases, and even this “album” is being marketed as a mixtape, which does compliment the flow and structure of the record. “As soon as you change the language to mixtape nobody cares,” so says a sarcastic spoken word sample early into this record. Implementing sampled field recordings of spoken word conversations is a signature of Joy Orbison – alias of London born producer Peter O’Grady – giving this record something of an obscure narrative thread highlighting interesting characters on nighttime streets, voicemail messages and late night parties. This reminds me of the creative interludes and track segues on Kendrick Lamar’s immortal classic Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, as well as Burial’s landmark album Untrue, making for a really neat little production technique that threads tracks together.

Throughout Still Slipping, Vol. 1, it’s clear we are in the hands of a producer who has plenty of flare, technique and flavour and is just running the show. This mixtape is full of variety, colour, atmosphere and a healthy dose of moody slow burners and bangers too. Two back to back tracks ‘Better’ and ‘Bernard?’ are huge highlights that contrast each other in their vibe, with ‘Better’ being a murky downtempo cut with ghostly lead vocals from Lea Sen, whilst ‘Bernard?’ is a trap rager with booming bass and twinkling hi-hats. ‘Glorious Amateurs’ is warped and glitchy, sounding like a fading radio transmission on a long night drive, whilst ‘Froth Sipping’ is an outstanding electro sci-fi slammer with an irresistible array of sounds that would make MadLib jump out of their chair. From start to finish, Joy Orbison takes you on a very well crafted journey of electronica, hip-hop, trap, house, ambient dub and more, all assembled with fine finesse and detail.

SERPENT COLUMN – Katartisis
[Black Metal, Mathcore – USA – Mystiskaos]

Mysterious US blackened mathcore outfit Serpent Column are a band I frequently hype up and get excited about because they are without a doubt making the most brutal, pummeling, disgustingly heavy and sonically savage music out there today. They even give bands like Primitive Man, Dragged Into Sunlight, Celeste and Full Of Hell some serious competition when it comes to melting your face off by surpassing the boundaries of human suffering. So of course, I was mega excited to see this brand new EP Katartisis has dropped out of the blue, following their finest work to date, the punishing Endless Detainment.

As much as Serpent Column drive me wild, I have to admit that this is the first release of theirs I’ve been lukewarm on. Something about it sounds a little off, and because the band give out no information about themselves or their recordings, I can only suspect that it is because this could have been self-recorded due to lockdown restrictions? Everything here sounds much muddier and less blistering, dense and chaotic than their previous works and I just didn’t quite get my head decked in this time around. There’s a demo-esque quality to these tracks and in terms of production and mix it just doesn’t reach the high standards set by the likes of Endless Detainment and Mirror In Darkness, so perhaps there was an enforced change in their recording process this time around.

That said, performance-wise this is still really exhilarating, animalistic and just absolutely insane. Their drummer has some of the most relentless, fast paced blastbeating I’ve ever heard and the dissonant whirlwind guitar playing and agonising screams are still sounding menacing as hell. ‘Disobedience’ is a strong highlight with this really eerie, jagged riff dominating the track and most surprising of all the back end of the record has some surprisingly melodic guitar work coming through with the title track being a fantastic math rock instrumental that is fast, but has much more dynamic and choppy drums with barely a blast to be heard. ‘Edelweiss’ also pushes some of the more progressive song structures that the band were experimenting with on last year’s Kathodos album.

Katartisis is a bit of a mixed bag and feels like a transitional release for Serpent Column that is sadly marred by a lack of finesse in the mix and sound. I still absolutely think Serpent Column are one of the most underrated bands around right now and I highly recommend checking them out, but I wouldn’t say this is the place to start.

ULVER – Hexahedron
[Progressive Electronic – Norway – House Of Mythology]

Norwegian forward thinking anamorphous legends Ulver are one of the most exciting bands to follow their discography from record to record because you never know what to expect from them next. Over their thirty year career the band have spanned black metal, neo-folk, electronica, trip-hop, ambient, chamber music, orchestral, prog, synth-pop and more, making their discography a feast for eclectic ears. Interestingly, though the band have been putting out studio records fairly frequently since their inception, live performances and tours have been very sparse, not playing live at all between 1994 and 2009. Ulver now have a few live albums in their catalogue – including this latest one, Hexahedron – but even these aren’t your typical live records, usually a means for Ulver to explore specific sounds and performing unique new pieces of music for the stage that don’t appear on any of their studio albums. Don’t expect them to play “the hits” any time soon!

This is an exciting approach because it essentially means you can treat an Ulver live album in as high regard as a new studio album because we’re most likely being presented with compositions we haven’t heard before, as well as very different variations of pre-existing tunes. Hexahedron was captured between their two excursions into Depeche Mode inspired synth-pop, sitting between 2017’s excellent The Assassination Of Julius Caesar and 2020’s Flowers Of Evil albums. Yet a lot of this material sounds reminiscent of the progressive electronic atmospheres and synth soundscapes of Tangerine Dream, opening with an epic fifteen minute organ drone, ‘Enter The Void’, and moving into the spacey arpeggios of ‘Aeon Blue’, and then gradually increasing in tempo and liveliness until we get to the new wave banger ‘A Fearful Symmetry’, where vocalist Kristoffer Rygg really gives it some gusto. Near twenty minute finale ‘The Long Way Home’ is a spacey, proggy, synthy epic. Ulver are simply one of the most interesting, exciting and consistent bands to ever exist and just keep on giving, so don’t slouch on Hexahedron or dare make that “oh, it’s just a live album” face.

WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM – Primordial Arcana
[Black Metal – USA – Century Media / Relapse
]

One of the reasons I fell in love with Olympia, Washington based atmospheric black metal legends Wolves In The Throne Room back in my college years was because at the time they emerged on the scene they stood out so much from the majority of their contemporaries. In particular, WITTR (alongside Weakling and Agalloch) were one of the most important bands to truly define US black metal as having its own characteristics, styles and sounds that set them apart from the bulk of Scandinavian black metal titans – especially with their first two albums Diadem of 12 Stars and Two Hunters, released in 2006 and 2007 respectively. WITTR’s trademarks were making lengthy, epic, highly atmospheric black metal opuses that had a sludgy tone and were built on the dynamics inspired by the best post-rock bands before them. When I listen to WITTR, I get lost in their music, feeling like I’m floating on an icy lake in the midst of a nighttime forest. They’re also a band I can just fall into a trance to. Whilst of course there were Scandinavian acts capturing similar vibes before them, WITTR were never a band I wanted to find evil, Satanic or horrible sounds in, unlike say Darkthrone, Mayhem and Immortal. The fact that their lyrics drew much more influence from the environment and nature – probably inspired by brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver working on an eco-farm – really set them apart. Some of my favourite moments listening to WITTR have been slowly bopping my head to lengthy sludgy post-rock sections on songs like ‘Vastness And Sorrow’ and ‘Ahrimanic Trance’, rather than just hearing icy tremolo guitars and blastbeats. I’ve always felt they had a closer kinship to bands like Neurosis, Cult Of Luna and Sunn O))) than say Satyricon or Emperor.

That all changes here. WITTR’s seventh full length, Primordial Arcana is their most immediate, aggressive and outright black metal influenced record to date, even reflected in their latest photo shoots and promotional angles. The band have really streamlined their sound into something much more accessible and riff focused than ever before, with average song lengths dropping from around fifteen minutes to merely six. The tempos are more varied, the performances more animalistic and wild… Primordial Arcana is definitely a tribute to the original Scandinavian black metal legends that inspired them, and they actually do quite a remarkable job shifting these gears. On first listen I was a bit put off by this move, but I have to say it has grown on me more than I expected it would on repeat listens and I’m glad. Opener ‘Mountain Magick’ has some really gnarly and ugly sounding sections that are downright demonic, eventually culminating in a sinister doom riff paired with some excellent synth playing. There is one ten minute plus track ‘Masters Of Rain And Storm’, which does bring back some of the epic and dynamic song structuring that I so crave across a really progressive cut that goes through many interesting changes and passages.

Wolves In The Throne Room have recorded and produced Primordial Arcana themselves from the ground up – perhaps due to the constrictions of lockdown – putting a pin in their long time collaborations with producer and engineer Randall Dunn, and I have to say they’ve done a truly excellent job of capturing everything here, as well as adding some faster and more aggressive performances into their sphere. Everything sounds incredible and they’ve still captured that sonic weight and density that defines them. In particular, the use of gothic synths throughout this album are exceptional, so much so that the record concludes with not one but two amazing synth instrumentals ‘Eostre’ and ‘Skyclad Passage’, which sound like Dead Can Dance performing dungeon-synth.

Being such a big Wolves In The Throne Room, I can sometimes be selfish and a bit dismissive when they try and veer away from their signature sound that I love so much, but I also adore when bands mix things up and take risks. Though Primordial Arcana isn’t as atmospheric and vibey as I would have liked, it is still a very well constructed work which proves that WITTR have more to offer in their sound and can go toe to toe with the trve black metallers.

//

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: