INJURY RESERVE – By The Time I Get To Phoenix
[Glitch-Hop – USA – Self-Released]

Arizona based experimentalists Injury Reserve have really had to fight against the odds even to get this sophomore record out there. Firstly, founding member and emcee Steppa Groggs sadly passed away last year before this album’s completion. To add to the misery for the remaining members, their label Loma Vista rejected this album, refusing a commercial and physical release, leading the band to part ways and self-release on Bandcamp. Well, that is a move that has probably bitten Loma Vista in the ass because the critical and fan response to the release of By The Time I Get To Phoenix has been overwhelmingly positive.

Even since the release of their 2015 mixtape Live From The Dentist Office, Injury Reserve have been a hard act to really pin down; shifting, evolving and adapting with each new release. For this new record they’ve gone further than ever into abstract depths, making a record that really defies pigeonholing. At best, I can only really describe this album as existing somewhere between the fringes of hip-hop and electronic music, with very out of the box, glitchy and erratic compositions that find very inventive ways to play with form. Injury Reserve also play with really esoteric sample sources, including a remarkable transformation of Brian Eno’s experimental classic ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ on closer ‘Bye Storm’. There are also contributions from members of two of the UK’s finest newcomers, Black Midi and Black Country New Road.

I’d say that By The Time I Get To Phoenix is definitely one of those albums that needs some patience and a distraction free listening session to really get the most of. Injury Reserve don’t ease you in at all with six minute opener ‘Outside’ painting obscure soundscapes and buried spoken word samples, but if you stick with it there are much brighter highlights such as ‘Superman That’, which really kicks things into gear, channeling the spirit of all the best Warp Records acts. Tracks like ‘Ground Zero’ and ‘Smoke Don’t Clear’ weave in more conventional lead vocals, but even rapping in Injury Reserve’s world sounds very angular and dreamlike, their voices frequently sitting at the back of the mix. Often this album is chaotic, aggressive, destructive and surreal, but penultimate track ‘Knees’ is strangely beautiful, haunting and affecting. A jangly guitar sample twists and curls over a stuttering beat across a song that gradually sounds like it is collapsing in on itself as you’re stumbling home drunk at 3am.

Injury Reserve could easily have packed it in with all the bad luck they’ve experienced, but have instead persevered to make one of the more interesting and challenging albums of 2021. By The Time I Get To Phoenix is daring, experimental and a true enigma that even out-weirds some of Death Grips strangest ideas. I can’t really say that I truly understand this album, or like every track, but it’s a record that I keep thinking about long after it has finished. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it really is one of the most unique sounding, bold and refreshing records I’ve heard this year. If you want to hear something that sounds completely new and original then don’t sleep on this one.

THE BODY & BIG|BRAVE – Leaving None But Small Birds
[Folk Rock – USA / Canada – Thrill Jockey]

Both The Body and Big|Brave have already released great records on their own earlier this year, so it’s lovely to see them collaborating together on a full album. The best treat though is that both bands have traded in their noisy, heavy drones to make an out of their comfort zone album covering traditional folk songs. Opener ‘Blackest Crow’ sets the tone perfectly with an earthy folk rock sound laden with jangly guitars, dancing fiddle and Robin Wattie’s expressive vocals pairing back to a more gentle singing voice. The track sounds like it could have come from PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake album and really starts off this record with a bang. ‘Oh Sinner’ sounds like a darker and more drenched take on a Fleetwood Mac song. The rest of the album isn’t as sonically warm though, and some of both bands’ noise and drone leanings creep in ever so subtly. ‘Hard Times’ is a little more unsettling with raggedy hard plucked acoustic guitar strings and a voice that sounds unrested. ‘Black Is The Colour’ has a louder and more shrill approach, whilst ‘Polly Gosford’ kicks in instantly with loud bellowing vocals and dirty electric guitar, ending with an unhinged and menacing wall of noise. I won’t spoil the ending but final track ‘Babes In The Woods’ is definitely worth sticking around for.

Leaving None But Small Birds is certainly one of the most surprising albums of 2021, and pleasantly so. I don’t think anyone ever saw this coming and it’s really interesting to see two great bands come together and make something completely different to their own works. In particular, Big|Brave’s Robin Wattie just gets more confident and versatile as a vocalist with each new record. There is probably an alternate universe where they made the most insanely heavy, noisy drone metal record of all time, but I’m really digging hearing these eerie folk songs instead.

CRYWANK – Just Popping In To Say Hi
[Anti-folk – UK – Self-Released]

The best named band of all time, Crywank, were supposed to have called it a day with last year’s final album – which is also the best titled album of all time – Fist Me ‘Til Your Hand Comes Out My Mouth. Sadly their plans for a world goodbye tour were halted by the pandemic. Just Popping In To Say Hi isn’t a “hey we’re back!” record, but instead just a bonus epilogue, made with a strong purpose. One half of the duo, Jay Clayton is now living in Toronto, Canada and was disturbed by a mysterious fire that broke out in their block of flats, affecting the entire neighbourhood. These songs (performed without drummer and vocalist Dan Watson) are the result of this traumatic experience, which were recorded in just a few days in order to compliment a GoFundMe campaign to help raise funds to restore and rebuild the neighbourhood – the full story of which can be found on Crywank’s social media and Bandcamp pages.

Clayton has pulled together a ragged and wild set of songs that range from brittle acoustic ballads to lo-fi noise rock and emotive post-hardcore. With new collaborators and being recorded outside of the UK, it feels like fresh footing for Crywank that also honours the rawness and immediacy of their earlier records. Sure it’s not quite the behemoth that their proper finale record is, but it was never really meant to be. Consider this one a really well put together bonus that is a testament to how music can inspire positive change out of a bad situation.

LIL NAS X – Montero
[Hip-Hop, Pop – USA – Sony Columbia]

Pop sensation, hip-hop artist, meme lord and LGBTQ+ icon… Lil Nas X has captured the hearts of many by being so loveable and it’s been exciting to watch their rise to the top since the release of viral hit single ‘Old Town Road’ a couple of years back. Lil Nas X has finally unleashed their debut full length and it’s one of those records where almost every song feels like it could be a single. This means there are lots of catchy hooks and a strong energy from a compelling protagonist across an album as colourful as the cover art. I can’t say that Lil Nas X is the most technically gifted vocalist and rapper out there, especially with so much auto-tune, but Montero is still totally charming, and these songs are often bouncy, catchy and breezy. ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a total anthem, ‘Sun Goes Down’ is a thoughtful and sweet ballad, ‘Dolla Sign Slime’ has outrageous horns and a wild feature from Megan Thee Stallion. Don’t expect high art, but do expect to have a really fun time listening to a full length debut that definitely matches the hype. I think Lil Nas X will be an artist that we are still excited about in ten years time.

LITTLE SIMZ – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
[Conscious Hip-Hop – UK – Age 101]

Following up from the amazing and highly acclaimed Grey Area record comes London rapper and hip-hop sensation Little Simz’ follow up Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. This album is double the length and the sheer scope and ambition poured into this project is really astonishing. Little Simz performs with live instrumentation and orchestral flourishes, with the record having the feel of a theatre piece and a concept album. This is enhanced with really creative interlude tracks that recall classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. Not only is the instrumental backdrop of Sometimes I Might Be Introvert really rich and varied, but Little Simz delivers a vocal and lyrical performance to match, covering so many different topics and pouring in so much personality. Opening track ‘Introvert’ sets the tone so well with enormous glitzy strings and really passionate wordplay. But my favourite track has to be ‘Two Worlds Apart’ which takes in more of a soul influence through it’s booming sampled hook. Little Simz has made a massive record that has so many different elements to unpack, yet held my attention really well across multiple listens. It’s such a thorough work of art and easily my favourite UK hip-hop record I’ve ever heard.

MONO – Pilgrimage Of The Soul
[Post-Rock – Japan – Pelagic]

Post-rock titans MONO are at least twelve albums into their long pilgrimage now and still continue to hit that sweet spot of being predictably awesome. For sure, MONO have never really strayed too far from their winning formula, but with every album they put out they still seem to deliver the goods, boasting an airtight discography. You kind of know exactly what you are going to get listening to a new MONO record, yet still they manage to leave the listener breathless with their sublime combination of beautiful melodies, dynamic crescendos and devastatingly loud finales. That’s not to say that Pilgrimage Of The Soul is a by-the-numbers affair at all; in fact opener ‘The Riptide’ gets straight to it with a doomy lead riff and fantastic lively drum rolls. ‘To See A World’ has some excellent synth leads dominating the track, whilst ‘Heaven Is A Wildflower’ is the sonic opposite of ‘The Riptide’, unfolding patiently and quietly, building gradually with strings, piano and brass, reminiscent of something Max Richter might compose. The icing on the cake has to be centrepiece ‘Innocence’ which hangs on this achingly gorgeous weeping guitar melody that sounds as enormous as a symphony orchestra and as epic as a Godspeed climax.

By this point in their lifespan as a band, MONO know exactly what their strengths are and just run with it, having built an incredible sonic relationship with recording engineer extraordinaire Steve Albini and fine-tuning all the details and dynamics. New drummer Dahm Majuri Cipolla is also making a strong impact with a particularly outstanding performance, bringing a bit more immediacy to their compositions. Don’t let this album pass you by because MONO are once again a force to be reckoned with.

[Country-pop – USA – Polydor]

Admittedly, I don’t know much about Kacey Musgraves as a musician or a personality before hearing this album, so I’m coming in with fresh ears. Star-Crossed is a divorce album for the modern age, lurking on the fringes of contemporary country and synth pop with soul-baring lyrics. What really impressed me about this album is how direct it is, not only by having super catchy songs, but Musgraves is such a compelling voice and storyteller who tells her side of things in a very clear and simplified way. This is exemplified in folky ballad ‘Hookup Scene’, which plays like a bittersweet ballad for those who have experienced the stresses and hardships of dating apps and trying to meet people through social media. ‘Good Wife’ flashes back to the good memories of marriage and trying to pick up on the red flags that lead to breaking down the relationship, again told through a direct chorus, “Help me be a good wife, ‘cuz he needs me,” over a syrupy sweet hook. Star-Crossed has an impressive amount of variety, including the summery bliss of ‘Cherry Blossom’, the dreamy synth-pop slowburner ‘Easier Said’, and most surprisingly the flamenco influenced grooves and outrageously lively flute solos that brighten up ‘There Is A Light’. One of the album’s most cutting songs is the spacey auto-tune-croon of ‘Camera Roll’, capturing the simple task of looking back through old photos of better times and the crushing sadness and overwhelming nostalgia that comes with it. Despite tackling difficult subject matter, Musgraves has still made a very consistent, infectious and varied pop record that isn’t bogged down in being too heavy or overly poetic. Buried under all the auto-tune and sugary production beats a compelling and passionate heart singing instantly memorable songs.

STILL – { }
[Post-metal, Screamo – UK – Trepanation Recordings]

One of the most exciting acts in the UK’s bursting heavy underground are Hull’s intense post-just-about-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink act Still, who have built on the promises of their exceptional demo and an all-too-brief EP to come out swinging with this ambitious hour long maelstrom of a debut full length. Elements of screamo, post-metal, sludge, black metal and dreamy shoegaze all blur effortlessly into one singular sound and vision. The most remarkable thing is, considering the length of this album and with plenty of tracks surpassing the five minute mark, the suffocating intensity rarely falters. Still have a razor sharp, cutthroat sound and such a physicality to their performances. You can really feel the torment in the tortured screams, the blood, the sweat, the tears. Still are a band that pour so much emotion, thought and personal chaos into their craft.

Even with multiple listens to this monument to inner turmoil I find it quite hard to properly dissect these songs, which are purposely more awkwardly structured than anything the band have written previously. The experience is akin to being caught in a storm – you just have to kind of go with it. Fortunately Still are very good at building riffs upon riffs, and just when you think a track can’t get any more brutal or punishing, they’ll either find a way to push even harder, or pull back completely and offer something off kilter and dreamy. It isn’t until the album’s final act where Still start to broaden their sound, adding in more breathing space. ‘Drift’ has an atmospheric mid section with a sampled spoken word conversation playing out over tense guitar feedback and building drums. Following track ‘Blear, Amidst’ rests on lulling clean guitar and some really remarkable clean singing vocals. I feel like Still hold back some of the album’s most interesting, varied and dynamic moments until near the end, which is certainly a treat for patient listeners, but I would have liked to have heard more moments like this in the album’s first half.

{ } is a mighty impressive offering that really sees Still take every aspect of their craft up a few gears, with their chaotic and atmospheric sound being expertly recorded and organised by producer Joe Clayton at Manchester’s No Studio. Whilst it does come close to buckling under it’s own weight at times, { } is largely an astonishing feat that sounds unique and well defined. Still have made one of the most challenging heavy records of the year that really grabs the listener, knocks them about and ultimately will leave you feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and devastated.

[Chamber Folk – USA – Asthmatic Kitty]

Sufjan Stevens has already proven themselves to be one of the greatest and most innovative contemporary folk musicians with albums such as Michigan, Illinois and Carrie & Lowell, to name just a few. Lately Stevens’ has been deviating quite a bit from their signature folk sound, with last year’s so-so The Ascension exploring synth-pop and electronica, as well as a series of ambient and new age albums in the Convocations series released earlier this year. And whilst Stevens’ has always offered eclectic styles and instrumentation in their music, it’s safe to say that folk is definitely a comfort zone that they absolutely excel in because this new album A Beginner’s Mind is up there with the very best and just feels effortlessly excellent.

For this record, Stevens shares writing and performing duties with labelmate Angelo De Augustine, who adds in some really lovely vocal harmonies here and there. Even with this being a collaboration I’d say it sounds like the sonic successor to 2015’s masterwork Carrie & Lowell, only with a richer instrumental pallet and a brighter and more upbeat vibe with plenty of supportive piano melodies. Even a song with the title ‘Murder & Crime’ isn’t anywhere near as harrowing as it sounds, though this and ‘You Give Death A Bad Name’ have more sombre tones. ‘Fictional California’ is just so pretty and flowery; you can really feel the two performers converging, embellished with the wonderful chorus, “Open up your heart”. This union also leads to one of my favourite songs in the entire Sufjan Stevens catalogue (and there are many), ‘Olympus’, which bounces between stripped down acoustic verses and hushed singing, into the album’s best chorus of all. After the pain, sadness and isolation we’ve experienced over the last couple of years, it’s nice to hear a record that is utterly beautiful, mesmerising, wonderful and is here to put a smile on our faces.


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