Since the beginning of 2019, we could enjoy a good number of valid and interesting folk music albums and we are already able to point out which are the best records of the year (up to now). The first episode of this chart refers to the first quarter of 2019 and it features five different albums spanning from indie to traditional Scottish folk. Enjoy this article and stay tuned for future updates!
#5) “Tomb”, by Angelo De Augustine
Sometimes you meet with artists, or records, that manage to transmit you strong emotions independently from the specific music they play. Tomb, which is the latest LP released by American singer-songwriter Angelo De Augustine, represents one of these cases. The LP is third of a discography which includes his self-released debut album, 2011’s Spirals of Silence, and his previous 2017’s LP named Swim Inside the Moon.
Tomb develops over a profound and universal statement: we grow up following some dreams that, at same point in our life, may be erased because of external factors. There are two ways to cope whit that: we give up or we try to emerge from the darkness of our disillusions, elaborating the loss and trying to come out stronger than before.
Listening to the music of Angelo De Augustine is like enjoying the recitation of a poem, and in this sense his work is actually in between these two different forms of art.
The album is available on Bandcamp and it can be streamed also from Spotify. Here you can read the review of the LP that I wrote for the blog, with additional details on the record and also a few videos to see.
#4) “Those Who Roam”, by Claire Hastings
Traditional Scottish Folk
The biography of young Scottish folksinger and songwriter Claire Hastings says that despite already at primary school her teachers noticed how good was her voice, she didn’t pursue music until she arrived at the University. In a few years, however, she managed to compensate for all the time lost and, impressively, she was named “BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year” even before releasing her debut album (Between River and Railway). This year Hastings has released her second LP, named Those Who Roam, and we may enjoy once again the talent of one of the most promising figures of contemporary folk.
The element that stands out the most in this record is for sure the beautiful voice of the singer, while the musical part is not always at the same level. Those Who Roam is like a nice walk in a flowery park, under the sun. A sun that, however, still can’t make you feel warm, it’s only a slight sensation that you have on the skin.
Those Who Roam is available on Bandcamp and it can be streamed also from Spotify. Here you can read the review of the LP that I wrote for the blog, with more information and a couple of songs to enjoy.
#3) “Ode to a Friend” by Old Sea Brigade
After releasing a number of intriguing and appreciated short publications, American singer-songwriter Ben Cramer, who plays under the moniker of Old Sea Brigade, eventually released his debut full-length record, named Ode to a Friend. Despite arriving after four previous EPs, the songs of the new album are all unpublished and the new material shows the capacity that has been developed by Cramer – in just a few years – in defining a style that is quite unique and personal, moving with ease among folk, Americana and ambient soundscapes.
Ode to a Friend is an album that’s absolutely poetic and fascinating, something which has the capacity to take us away from the chaos, but which also requires extremely quiet environments in order to be fully appreciated. And if most of the tracks of the LP are still built on Cramer’s finger-picked guitar and echo effects, for the first time we enjoy in his songs also a wider palette of sounds which includes notes from a distant piano or gentle layers of synths.
Ode to a Friend is available on Bandcamp and it can be streamed also from Spotify. Here you can read the review of the LP that I wrote for the blog, with videos and other information.
#2) “Le Ceneri di Heliodoro”, by Rome
Le Ceneri di Heliodoro is the latest release from Luxembourg’s folk master Jérôme Reuter, who operates under the name of Rome. This is the most recent entry in a very large discography which features more than 10 LPs and many other EPs, all of them devoted to telling fascinating stories which interconnect ancient wars with the struggles of modern times.
Le Ceneri di Heliodoro is an album that manages to be at the same time profound, conceptual but still absolutely enjoyable to listen to. From a musical point of view, the album doesn’t deviate substantially from the dark folk that has been offered in all the previous releases from Reuter, with the exception of an increased presence – in the new album – of “martial” elements. The LP starts with a sequence of impressive and absolutely brilliant songs, gifted by some of the most beautiful melodies we heard in recent times.
Le Ceneri di Heliodoro is available on Bandcamp and it can be streamed also from Spotify. Here you can read the review of the LP that I wrote for the blog, with videos and other details.
Best Folk Album of 2019 (so far)
“Crushing”, by Julia Jacklin
INDIE FOLK / INDIE POP
Julia Jacklin is an Australian singer and songwriter based in Sydney, and she has released in late February 2019 her second LP, Crushing, which follows her 2016’s impressive debut studio album, Don’t Let the Kids Win. Similarly to what happened on the occasion of her first record, the first thing which impresses of Crushing is the remarkable emotional intensity of the songs. These are reflections and flashes made by the artist on her life and her past experiences, translated into music with a naturalness and a sense of urgency and immediacy that cannot leave us indifferent.
From a musical point of view, the songs of Crushing stay right on the border that separates indie pop from folk. The instrumentation, in particular, is that typical of folk music: the tracks develop mainly on Julia’s voice and guitar, with a simple rhythmic session made by repeated notes of bass and slow beats on the drums. Rarely we hear a piano. The simplicity of the arrangement, however, is compensated by warm and beautiful sounds of all the instruments, which in the end enhance the sense of intimacy of the tracks.
Crushing is available on Bandcamp and it can be streamed also from Spotify. The album was included in this blog’s Best New Music category and here you can read the review of the LP that I wrote for the blog, with more information and also a couple of singles to enjoy.
All the best indie folk songs that were released since the beginning of the year are collected in the Playlist called The INDIE FOLK Radar, which features all the artists included in this chart bat also other remarkable songs from artists like Sun Kil Moon, Meat Puppets, Mandoline Orange, and many others. Listen to it and follow it: the playlist is periodically updated with new tracks.
This year I thought that the best way I had in this blog to celebrate the Women’s Day was to highlight and collect together the best records among those we could enjoy in 2019 which exist thanks to the talent and creativity of women.
I’ve selected nine albums which span from jazz to metal, passing through hip-hop, folk and rock. It can be an opportunity to listen to something new and maybe widen our musical horizons. Enjoy!
The Australian singer-songwriter has released in late February 2019 her second LP, Crushing, which is filled with emotions and played with passion and elegance.
Rigmor Elisabeth Gustafsson
The Swedish Jazz singer has published this year the ninth album in her own name, and it’s another brilliant entry within an impressive career.
The American singer and guitarist is the undisputed leader of rock band Cherry Glazer. The band has released this year an exciting new LP that you’ll start enjoying since the very first listenings
For her latest release, the acclaimed Danish Jazz singer has called for the support of an ensemble of all female musicians from several countries and generations
The South African rapper has released in 2019 one of the best albums in the category of electronic musc. Her LP is absolutely enjoyable to hear, even if you’re not a passionate fan of hip-hop.
Anette Uvaas Gulbrandsen
The Norwegian fascinating singer is one of the leaders of American doom metal band The Sabbathian, which arrived this year to their impressive debut LP.
The Scottish singer and songwriter has released her second LP, and we may enjoy once again the talent of one of the most promising figures of contemporary folk.
The Australian singer and musician is one of the two founding members of electronic project Two People. Their debut LP is the perfect balance between intimacy, elegance, and obscurity .
The American singer-songwriter has accumulated a huge number of different musical experiences throughout her intense career. Her new LP oscillates between a sparkling and catchy rock and roll and a mainstream-oriented indie pop.
These first weeks of Rock music were really full of nice surprises, coming from both emerging and consolidated bands. And, as a result, this selection of the best albums of the year to date, features five fairly exciting and also innovative records. We have one irreverent but damn fun new formation (Queen Zee), two records that successfully managed to combine experimentation with enjoyability (from Lorelle Meets the Obsolete and TOY), a band that keeps growing in quality despite the continuous revolutions in its line-up (Cherry Glazerr) and, finally, a band that in the recent past has already conquered the hearts of fans and critics, but which never ceases to improve with every new release (The Twilight Sad).
There have been really many beautiful things to hear in these first weeks of the year. Let’s run again through the best albums, and we shall stay prepared for what has yet to come!
#5) “Happy in the Hollow”, by TOY
Happy in the Hollow, which is the fourth and newest LP by British band TOY, aims at pursuing an experimental and progressive approach whilst still adopting a musical language that wants to remain accessible and enjoyable to hear. And the goal is fundamentally achieved.
From a musical point of view, Happy in the Hollow is an album made of contrasts: basic rock riffs combined with psychedelic elements, scratchy sounds and angelic voices, and also the combination of acoustic instruments with electronic inserts. Even the atmospheres of the songs are never completely defined: in the most “serene” pieces, there is something which leaves a taste of restlessness and claustrophobia, just as in the darker pieces we always see some light which is shining on the horizon.
TOY’s new album is full of ideas and it sparks of creativity, but it also requires a certain dedication to be fully appreciated. The band from Brighton continues to experiment and evolve their style of psychedelic indie rock, despite the fact that their latest work isn’t maybe the most immediate and catchy among those they published to date.
You can read here the review of the LP that was published on the blog.
#4) “Stuffed & Ready”, by Cherry Glazerr
Indie Rock / Garage Rock
Stuffed & Ready is the third LP from American rock band Cherry Glazerr, and like the previous releases it features a completely new line-up around Clementine Creevy, who’s the undisputed leader of the band and the only remaining member of the initial formation.
The style of the band is built upon the combination of indie and garage rock, and all the songs of the new LP convey an enjoyable sense of immediacy and authenticity. And even if we’re not dealing with particularly memorable and profound pieces, it’s very easy to be influenced by the rebellious and slightly sarcastic spirit of the album, also because the new record shows a tangible shift towards indie pop sounds, which certainly guarantees a more direct and immediate impact, at least in the short term.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the LP is the apparent ease with which Clementine Creevy manages to play motifs that stick to your hears and which result, in most of the cases, extremely nice and catchy. There are no deep harmonic progressions or virtuosities, but rather short riffs and simple choruses that you’ll start to enjoy, and to hum, since the very first listenings.
You can read from here the review of Stuffed & Ready that was previously published on the blog.
#3) “Queen Zee”, by Queen Zee
Punk Rock / Alternative Rock
Queen Zee is a relatively new rock band from Liverpool, which has gained increased attention for their extremely chaotic and irreverent approach to music. Their songs are rough and dirty, but the band seems to have found the secret for transforming everything they play into something fun and catchy. And their music is so sticky that even if their songs are new, it’s like you had already known them for a long time.
The band’s debut LP provide the listener with an intriguing mix of Nirvana-type grunge and classic punk, with also other influences from alternative rock and hard rock. And the result is something absolutely energetic and also fairly original. This is definitely a band to monitor.
One of the most surprising albums I heard so far in 2019 is De Facto, the fifth album by the Mexican formation Lorelle Meets The Obsolete.
The recipe of De Facto is fairly simple: you put in a blender a large dose of psychedelic rock from the ’70s and a couple of abundant cups of dream pop. But beyond the single ingredients, it is the excellent technique mastered by the musicians which managed to guarantee for the album the perfect balance between psychedelic experimentations and moments of pure ambient poetry.
Sonically speaking the album is truly amazing. De Facto was recorded in Ensenada, Baja California, in a home-made recording studio and it’s surprising how from such amateurish environment it was possible to record a kind of music that seems so universal, and capable to cross the boundaries of many different genres.
The album was included in the category of S.B.G.’s Best New Music and you can find here my review of the album.
Best Rock Album of 2019 so far
“It Won/t Be Like This All the Time”, by The Twilight Sad
The first thing which emerges when one listens to the new record from The Twilight Sad is that this band never ceases to evolve and to adapt their style of rock as they become more mature. The band debuted at the beginning of their career with a heavy post-punk altered by industrial and noise elements, and they arrived today, through an articulate journey, to play an experimental version of indie rock that’s full of melodies and enriched with new wave nuances. And listening to their new record, named It Won/t Be Like This All the Time, it’s easy to say that the last musical incarnation of the Scottish band is absolutely brilliant and exciting.
An impressive characteristic of the new album is the remarkable number of truly memorable songs that it contains. And this is what makes the LP truly enjoyable and interesting independently from any consideration about the evolution of the band’s style. It Won/t Be Like This All the Time is objectively a real masterpiece of modern rock and one of the best albums of the band’s discography.
It was easy to assign to The Twilight Sad the title of the best rock act of this first part of the year, and I believe that we have already one of the contenders for the best rock formation of 2019, if not the best among all genres.
The album was included in the category of S.B.G.’s Best New Music and you can find here my review of the album.
There are many playlists about Rock among those I’m curating on Spotify, basically one for each of the main sub-genres of rock. Today I’m recommending to you to have a look onto a couple of them, namely INDIE INSIDE (with the best and latest indie rock songs) and REBEL INSIDE (with the best of punk rock). Enjoy!
The first few weeks of the year have passed and we have already enjoyed several interesting metal albums. After careful review of all the records I heard so far, I’m proposing here in this article the five LPs that gave me the strongest emotions. The choice, as always, is subjective. But beyond the individual tastes and preferences, I’m convinced that these five albums are objectively solid and full of qualities. Therefore, in case you missed any one of them, don’t lose time and check them out! And stay tuned for the future updates of the chart.
#5) “666-Pack”, by Insanity Alert
Thrash Metal / Crossover
Among the five albums selected for this article, 666-Pack is absolutely the one which surprised me the most, in the sense that before listening to the LP I would have never imagined that this crazy band from Austria could end up within the five best of this period.
In the end, the winning feature of Insanity Alert‘s new record was to embody, in the most genuine way, the irreverent and chaotic spirit of thrash metal while retaining compactness and also a number of good ideas that are out of the ordinary.
The album lasts for 32 minutes and contains 21 songs: a fistful of thrash, grind, punk and crossover…. in short, a coarse mixture of stuff, all seasoned with a teenage spirit and lyrics that deal with deep and complex social themes such as beer and parties. Absolutely refreshing and spontaneous.
You can read here my review of the LP, and you can listen to this playlist if you want to discover all the recent releases in thrash metal.
#4) “Melting the Ice in the Hearts of Men”, by Our Survival Depends on Us
It was not the same level of surprise of Insanity Alert’s release, but also the new album from Our Survival Depends on Us (they too coming from Austria) arrived without much fuss but caught quickly all of my attention.
The music played by this band is a special kind of doom metal which is very close to prog rock, with also additional components coming from black metal (especially for what regards the chord progressions) and sludge. Their new LP features four long songs, all of them evocative, absolutely fascinating and also played with meticulous precision. With respect to their previous records, their sound today seems to have lost some of the roughness and abrasiveness in favour of an increased emphasis on the melodic, folkloristic and progressive components. This is going to generate discussion among the fans of the band. I’m among those who appreciated this evolution of their style.
You can read here my review of the LP, and you can listen to the best and latest doom metal songs by opening this playlist on Spotify.
#3) “The End of Chaos”, by Flotsam and Jetsam
Second thrash album in the list of the best five albums, it says a lot about the fact that the beginning of the year was certainly positive for this genre of metal.
If you’re a fan of thrash, you need only 43 seconds to realize that the new album by Flotsam and Jetsam will bring you a lot of satisfaction. At 43 second into the first song, in fact, the brief instrumental introduction ends and you hear a fantastic groovy bass line that signs the start of the thrash ride. Yes, because this is precisely what is The End of Chaos: an uninterrupted and healthy sequence of epic and headbanging riffs, from the first to the final song of the record.
The new album by Flotsam and Jetsam may sound a little vintage because of the inserts from and the singing style of Eric A. K., but it’s much better to have an old-fashioned sound with lots of good ideas, rather than a modern feeling but flat and useless songs. As a matter of fact, many of the new and emerging thrash bands should really buy The End of Chaos and start studying it.
#2) “Slaves of the Shadow Realm”, by Legion of the Damned
This is one of the first records I’ve heard this year, and it’s also one of the best.
From a musical point of view, there are clearly two components in the music of Legion of the Damned that chase and compete each other: a blackened death metal vein, which typically provides the brutal, sinister and aggressive baseline of their songs, and a thrash metal sensibility that generates speed and riffs. Thanks to the perfect mixture of these two components, which was further enhanced by an impeccable production, we may enjoy an exciting collection of powerful, obscure and absolutely heavy tracks.
My short review of the LP can be read from here, while you can go to this playlist to listen to all the new releases in death metal.
Best Metal Album of 2019 so far
When the World Becomes Undone”, by A Pale Horse Named Death
Doom Metal / Gothic Metal
I must admit that this choice can be partially affected by nostalgia, but it’s not easy for one who loved so much the wonderful Type or Negative to remain indifferent in front of a record that’s so full of the atmospheres and the sounds of one of the most influential bands of the recent decades. In any case, I’m convinced that the value of this record is absolutely objective and independently from the position that it may achieve in the various metal rankings, it remains an album that emanates passion and intensity like few other LPs have done so far.
In this respect, the operation that was conducted by former Type O Negative’s drummer Sal Abruscato is absolutely valid, and smart. He has in fact managed to develop a style of music that despite being inspired from that of his former band, it’s still moving towards new directions. In this respect, the insertion of the grunge component into the gothic recipe was an interesting and well-executed move.
For the time being, When the World Becomes Undone is my favourite metal album of the year. It presents a beautiful mix of past and present, and a collection of songs that are at the same time engaging, powerful and extremely melodic.
I published a complete review of the LP, you can read it from here. You can also enjoy in this playlist a collection with the best gothic metal songs of recent times, which is expected to grow with time.
The night Hath been to me a more familiar face Than that of man; and in her starry shade Of dim and solitary loveliness I learned the language of another world
The things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist.
This mixtape features some of the best Doom and Gothic songs that have been released in the last couple of years, and it includes the following bands: Crematory,Grajo, Haunted, Nailed to Obscurity, Ordos (with their brand new single), Sinistro, Swallow The Sun, The Sabbathian, Usurpress and Witchsorrow. Ten tracks, one hour of music, creepy atmospheres and ancient legends.
Night is falling: at dusk, you must have good eyesight to be able to tell the Good Lord from the Devil
As a longtime fan of thrash metal, I think I have the capacity, and also a bit of authority, to express an overall opinion about the modern evolution of this genre of music, which as we know emerged and reached its peak between the 80’s and the 90’s. Analyzing the thrash scene from this general point of view I can say that if not for a small group of emerging bands the general picture is not particularly exciting. If on one hand it is surprising to observe how there are still many new bands that decide to orientate their efforts to this special kind of music, on the other hand it’s impossible to hide the fact that in many cases the multitude of albums which are published are quite weak both in terms of emotions and freshness of the sound.
Anyhow, at the end of the year it’s not difficult to save a number of records that distinguished themselves from the mass. In this sense, going through the list of bands that are provided in this article may still be that exciting and funny ride as only thrash metal is capable to offer to its wide family of fans.
As a final comment, the bands that are featured in this selection further confirms the phenomenon that was introduced earlier this year in the pages of the blog: among the best thrash metal albums that have been published worldwide, we have an increasing number of records that are released by European bands. This phenomenon has become so regular that we can no longer subscribe it to a simple coincidence!
Before starting with the chart, let me just say that there is now a special palylist on Spotify which collects all the best songs from the albums that are featured in this article. Enjoy!
#10) Wrath, “Rage”
There are music bands that have gathered less celebrity and fame than they deserved. Wrath, from Chicago, are among these ones. Born in the golden age of thrash, they soon moved away from the standard canons of the genre and started playing what was later defined as technical thrash metal, a sub-genre of conventional thrash that places greater emphasis on complex songwriting and instrumental parts. However, Wrath didn’t manage to reach the relevance of other bands that were playing the same style of metal, like Watchtower, Mekong Delta and Coroner, and in the end they were relegated to a seconday role in the history of thrash. The fact that they released only 5 albums throughout their long career hasn’t contributed to increase the fan base, in particular outside the U.S., but everyone who had the opportunity to discover Wrath’s ,music typically appreciate the passion, the creativity and the quality of their works.
In 2018 the American formation has released a new album, called Rage, which basically produces the same emotions that you could enjoy if it was possible to prepare a cocktail of music blending together some of the most beautiful songs in the history of metal, from Megadeth to Faith No More. And if this may appear a little anachronistic, the dedication and the attention to the details that have been put by Wrath in the recording of the album managed somehow to give coherence and significance to all of the songs of the LP.
Evidently this is not the album that will guarantee to Wrath the success that they never achieved in the past, but Rage is still a very good and fully enjoyable thrash metal record that the fans of the genre will appreciate without any difficulty.
#9) Gama Bomb, “Speed Between the Lines”
In music there are things that you like or you hate, without half measures. In the specific case of thrash music, one thing which has always had particular importance for me is the “seriousness” of the vocal part, which I like compact, “mature” and sufficiently angry. Consequently I’m not a huge fan of the vocalizations derived from the heavy metal tradition: when these are applied to thrash metal it seems to me that the songs lose most of their value. Gama Bomb, from Northern Ireland, is a thrash band that has always injected a big dose of humor in their songs and which features a crazy and eclectic singer like Phylly Byrne who’s absolutely in line with the image of the band, and who often linges in those high pitch shouts that I was introducing before.
Nevertheless, despite there is something which precludes me of being fully captured by the style of thrash played by Gama Bomb, on the other side it’s absolutely impossible to remain cold or skeptical in front of a music that’s characterized by such an impressive amount of energy, fury, and which is also gifted by so many killer riffs that other bands could build up an entire discography with the ideas that have been fitted together in Gama Bomb’s new record.
Speed Between the Lines, their new LP, will drive crazy all the lovers of hyperspeedy thrash: twelve songs, less than 35 minutes of total duration and a sonic tightness that’s quite unique in today scene. For all the others, the LP can represent a curious and enjoyable excursion in an area of metal that’s not only extravagant and crazy, but which shows also a consistency and a sound density that are worthy of great attention.
#8) Tantara, “Sum of Forces”
Tantara, from Norway, was formed almost ten years ago in the context of a talent show. Since then they had to face some problems with record labels and also multiple changes in the line-up, but they eventually managed to release two full-lenght albums: their 2012’s debut LP named Based on Evil, and their 2018’s new LP named Sum of Forces.
The music played by Tantara is a kind of thrash metal that’s deeply inspired by the legacy style of Bay Area metal (Testament, Metallica, …) and this approach is totally confirmed by their newest release. The music played by these guys is basically a tribute to the classic thrash that emerged between the 80s and 90s and, in this respect, Sum of Forces doesn’t offer any particular element of innovation except for the inclusion in their songs of multiple melodic sections and the presence of an interesting 10 minutes long instrumental song.
The fact that Tantara plays a style of metal that’s so close and reminiscent of the masters of thrash, however, doesn’t mean that their music is not valid or enjoyable. With their crushing riffs, the headbanging rhythms and the intriguing guitar solos, the four horsemen from Norway have in fact managed to pump new life into a genre of music that could be seen by many as dated, if not out of time. Sum of Forces represents a very good and solid LP of old-school thrash metal, made and designed for the diehard fans of the genre, but which has all what’s necessary to be be appreciated by all the lovers of energetic and powerful music.
#7) Anesthesia, “Humans”
Anesthesia is a unsigned and independent thrash metal band from Albuquerqe, in New Mexico (about which it’s also quite difficult to find any good picture on the web). Formed in 1998, they have released to date four studio LPs. Their most recent release, Humans, arrives three years after their previous record and this is also the shortest time-gap in their discography between two consecutive albums. Not a highly prolific formation, thus, but at least we can appreciate the fact that the band seems to spend a relatively high effort for composing and recording songs that result varied and generally different one from the other.
The style of thrash that is played by Anesthesia lingers on moderately slow rhythms. In their songs, the melodic component results absolutely predominant over the more aggressive and furious aspects of conventional thrash. In general terms their sound is reminiscent of the early 90s and in many sections of the album you feel like Chuck Billy from Testament is singing over Metallica‘s Black Album songs. The overall result, however, is absolutely interesting because all the various sources of inspiration have been mixed with a certain amount of originality.
In the end, despite being a relatively minor figure in contemporary thrash scene, Anesthesia have perfectioned their characteristic style of metal which made them achieve their deserved presence in this list. And if you’re one of those who prefer melodic and mid-paced thrash songs, compared to the typical furious and brutal ones that you have in this genre of music, Humans will provide you with a good selection of new tracks to enjoy.
#6) Angelus Apatrida, “Cabaret De La Guillotine”
Born at the dawn of the new millennium, Spanish band Angelus Apatrida have progressively evolved their style from the heavy & power metal of their first works towards a kind of music that’s decidedly closer to classic Bay Area thrash, enriched here and there by various and interesting influences coming from other styles of metal. In all phases of their career, however, they have always mainfested the will to celebrate the the masters of the past rather than chasing the different trends of the moment.
Angelus Apatrida’s latest album, Cabaret de la Guillotine, is reminiscent in many parts of the early works of Testament, and this is certainly not a bad comparison for a band that today seems totally focused on restoring the luster of classic thrash. But what’s even more important is that Cabaret de la Guillotine results one of the best albums of their discography, in particular for the impressive number of tight, furios and enjoyable riffs that are packed in every song of the LP, together with the introduction of many nice melodic sections. And despite the album is definitely derivative of a lot of different things we have already heard in the last thirty years of metal, this record won’t disappoint all the big family of the lovers of old-school thrash.
#5) Artillery, “The Face of Fear”
Artillery, from Denmark, is another of those formations whose tormented history may have precluded the achievement of a success comparable with the effort they’ve made to develop their style of music. In their third reincarnation since their initial formation in 1982, Artillery still continue to play the same brilliant mix of thrash and speed metal that they have been offering to their fans across their long career. And although today this style of music is certainly less “trendy” than how it was thirty-five years ago, their songs still manifest the positive and energetic spirit that we have always appreciated in their songs.
The Face of Fear, which is Artillery’s new LP, is the fifth full lenght release after their latest reformation in 2008, and the ninth of their whole discography. Five albums in less than ten years is definitely a good sign of vitality for a band of metal veterans as they are, especially because the overall quality of their work is still quite good. From a musical point of view, The Face of Fear is characterized by an enjoyable and well balanced mix of fierce and fast thrash riffs and hyper-technical heavy metal moments. The recipe is then enriched by many references, in some cases real tributes, to melodies or riffs that are nowadays part of the collective memory of heavy metal.
With their new LP, Artillery keep providing all fans of thrash and heavy metal with another collection of genuine and solid song. Surely the brilliance of their early years has now a little attenuated, but the experience of listening to one of their records remains always a very rewarding experience.
#4) Tornado, “Committment to Excellence”
There are records that we appreciate because they make us discover something new and unespected, while there are others that we love because they allow us to jump back in time, and feel young. These are the albums which remind us of something beautiful that we used to listen many years ago, something that has been part of our life. Tornado‘s Commitment to Excellence belongs definitely to this second category of records. This is the kind of music that cannot reach the peaks of quality and value of the most experimental and innovative albums. Nevertheless, we find ourself listening them again and again, if only for the nice feeling we have when we’re back in that special comfort zone where music follows patterns that are already known to us, with no surprises.
Commitment to Excellence is the third record from Tornado, a relatively unconventional formation with roots that are scattered between northern Europe and the United States. The LP offers to the large family of thrash fans a thrilling collection of classic old-school songs enriched by a few and sparse inserts of groove and crossover. Basically it’s like having System of a Down playing tunes from the early works of Anthrax and Slayer. Nothing particularly original, but it’s damn fun and enjoyable. Anyway, for sure it’s not the originality the focus and the goal of Tornado’s music.
In summary, Commitment to Excellence is a record full of references to the most exciting moments of thrash metal, and between a bunch of catchy songs and a few missteps, the album shines for immediacy and overall enjoyability, two characteristics that made it achieve a prestigious place in this “end of the year” ranking.
#3) Tonic Breed, “Install Memory”
Tonic Breed is an interesting thrash quartet from Norway which was formed twelve years ago and that has released so far a couple of appreciated studio LP. Since the date of publication of their last full-lenght record (2014’s Outsold) the line-up of Tonic Breed went through a number of changes and today only half of the members of the initial formation are still part of the band. Probably for the purpose of testing the skills and cohesion of the new team, Tonic Breed have recorded this year the EP Install Memory, the first of their career, which contains a handful of new tracks plus a curios and eccentric cover of Mummy Dust by Ghost and a couple of live tracks.
Install Memory substantially confirms the orientation of Tonic Breed towards the typical American style of thrash, enriched with a few inserts from groove and heavy metal (you can consider the early works by Metallica as a good reference for their sound). The performance of the new members of the band (lead guitarist Jørgen Abrahamsen and drummer Ole Danielsen) is absolutely fine, although it emerges from the EP that the band’s true driving force comes from Patrik Svendsen and Rudi Golimo, the architects of the catchy and engaging riffs that we find on the album.
Svendsen and Golimo carry on their simple but effective approach to metal, with a style that’s deeply rooted in the golden age of American thrash but which still results enough genuine and effective to be appreciated by both new and old fans. In the end, Install Memory pushes up the expectations for a new full-length record from the band and this, I would say, is probably the best result that Tonic Breed could achieve with their new EP.
#2) Warfield, “Wrecking Command”
German metal trio Warfield may be considered as newcomers in the metal arena: although the band was formed almost six years ago, they arrived only in 2018 to the important milestone of the debut LP. Wrecking Command, the firts full-lenght release from the band, follows an initial EP that was published 4 years ago and which anticipated to the fans their direct and essential sytle of music.
Warfield don’t shine for innovation: the band basically offers another interpretation of “teutonic” thrash metal, a genre which has seen in the last thirty years really many important references from which they could take inspiration. Anyway, we’re not dealing here with a mere exercise in style because these guys are absolutely prepared on the fundamentals of the genre and they have very clear ideas about what they want to achieve with their music. Wrecking Command proceeds straight, implacable, at medium-high speed and without any real moment of slow down, from the first to the last second of the record. This is an intentional and resolute metal attack, with no compromises. When you enter the whirling spiral of their sound, even the separation between the different songs tends to fade and the album becomes, in the end, like a single, uniform, monolitic and uninterrupted sequence of thrash riffs. Is this a negative aspect? Not at all! When the level of riffing is as good as we have here it becomes exciting and “restorative” to be carried away from such a solid and energetic stream of distorted guitars.
Warfield don’t mainfest any willingness to surprise their listeners with special effects or to impress music critics and fans with particular stylistic innovations. If you are looking for the band that will revolutionize the future of metal, then you have to look somewhere else. But if what you need is an healty dose of superb and precise teutonic attack, Wrecking Command will be your perfect companion.
BEST THRASH ALBUM OF 2018
Pripjat, “Chain Reaction”
Sometimes it’s surprising to see how some bands are able, in a relatively short time, to acquire a maturity of style and an awareness of their capacities that many other formations reach only after many years of activity, if they gain it at all.
Pripjat, from Germany, entered the metal scene three years ago with a really interesting debut album, named Sons of Tschernobyl. In 2018 they released a follow-on LP, Chain Reaction, which confirms and further improves all the positive elements that were appreciated in their first record. The music played by Pripjat is a kind of thrash which apparently follows the standard references of the genre, but which in reality defines a peculiar approach where energy and adrenaline are supported by phenomenal songwriting skills. As a result, in Chain Reaction we can really appreciate how the hardness of the thrash and a general sense of distrust towards society are conveyed in songs of a brilliance and an effectiveness that appear, today, out of the ordinary. And it’s no coincidence, thus, that since the first time I listened to the album I get the feeling that I was in front of a really important record. Chain Reaction unleashes an uncontrolled charge of energy and adrenaline, but at the same time the average level of the songs is absolutely good, with a few particularly exciting tracks which, in the end, make the album to stand out from the rest of the contenders.
When comparing their new LP with the band’s debut album we may recognize a clear and positive evolution in both the style and the overall quality of their music. As a matter of fact three years of intense touring have helped the band to refine and increase not only the capacity to write effective and fresh thrash songs, but also to improve the way they play their music.
From a purely stylistic point of view, the music composed by the Pripjat is somehow reminiscent of Havok, in particular as regards the overall sound, the hypnotic and sharp bass lines, tthe speed and the articulation of the riffs, and of course the peculiar singing style. Beyond the easy comparisons with the other masters of thrash metal, however, this is a band that has all the potentials to become itself a model for other bands.
Pripjat is a band to be followed with great attention and we can really expect great things from them in the near future.
As already anticipated in the opening lines of the page, you may enjoy the best songs from these bands in a special playlist that I’ve created on Spotify: BEST THRASH OF 2018. Listen to it and spread the word!
Additionaly, my recommendation is to follow the playlist THRASH METAL FEAST, which is frequently updated with new songs from brand new albums.
Rock never disappoints. It may seem like a miracle that in the age of trap and Autotune we can still enjoy beautiful records of pure and healthy rock and roll, but that’s fortunately the case. This year, in particular, we had so many good albums that I felt the need to extend the list to the best fifteen records instead of the classical Top Ten chart. Nonetheless, in the end there were still a number of good LPs that didn’t enter the chart, and I had to mention them in a small appendix that you can find at the bottom of this long article.
There is so much good music in this post that it makes no sense to waste your time with other introductory notes. Before you jump into the list, however, let me just say that there’s now a special playlist on Spotify where I have put together all the best songs from the albums that are presented in this article: 40 songs in total, for more than two hours and thirty minutes of exciting music.
Enjoy the reading, listen to the music, and spread the word!
#15) Alien Sex Fiend, “Possessed”
(Gothic Rock / Deathrock)
Visionary and experimental music, when it brings inside the spark of innovation, becomes a timeless work of art and, consequently, it’s always actual and contemporary. It’s now more than 35 years than Nik Fiend and Mrs. Fiend started playing their unique recipe of dark and industrial gothic rock under the name of Alien Sex Fiend, but the music of their last album is still fresh and communicative as few other things that we’ve heard this year. Possessed, their new LP, arrived eight years after their previous publication, but we’re evidently in the presence of that special and precious category of artists who enter the recording studio only when they have in their hands first-class material to manipulate.
For those who aren’t familiar with the music of Alien Sex Fiend, we’re talking about a band that has published so far something like 13 studio LPs, 6 live records, and that have been included in more than fifteen compilations. Surely their fame reached its peak back in the 80s, but their influence is still present in modern music through many followers.
It was about 25 years ago when Alien Sex Fiend has definitely taken the shape of a duo, but today Possessed still features all the basic elements of their particular approach to gothic rock. The new album, in particular, shows a special attention of the two musicians towards obsessive rhythms and hypnotic repetitions. The simplicity but the effectiveness of the rhythmic component is probably the aspect that impressed me the most in their new LP. In many parts of the album you feel like being in a dark and isolated hall of a disco pub, with pulses and beats arriving muffled by layers of walls, while disturbing sounds, distorted guitars and pieces of phrases fill the space around you. Something like a discomforting nightmare that however has something absolutely fascinating.
In short: that’s an impressive and brilliant collection of music that proves once more how true class never ages. Not suitable for all tastes, but absolutely unique and intriguing.
#14) Modern Space, “Flip for It”
(Indie Rock / Alt Rock)
The world of indie rock is characterized by talented bands who struggle to find the limelight and other formations, much more fortunate, that are able, or lucky, to intercept the magic mixture of creativity and taste for the melody that meets the taste of large masses of listeners. Modern Space, from Canada, seem to belong to this second group of bands if we consider that in the relatively short time span of only 4 years they have already gained a good recognition both in their Country and abroad.
Their style may be described as a light and melodic version of indie with influences from alternative rock: one of the most immediate references for their sound is given by The Strokes, from which they managed to imitate the ability to compose sticky, catchy and “pop banging” riffs and choruses.
Modern Space’s new album, called Flip For It, offers an absolutely enjoyable collection of songs that are made to dance, to have fun outside or to shake your head while driving the car. This is “cheerful rock and roll”, without any desire to reach particular depths of expression or to use the music for transmitting any universal message. But when the premises are so clear and the music is so catchy, you can easily forget to search for any element of innovation, even because the absence of any tangible deviation from the canons doesn’t mean that the music of Modern Space is flat and anonymous. On the contrary, the band shows an impressive ability to vary rhythms, melodies and themes among the different songs of the LP, whilst maintaining the same level of enjoyability and catchyness across the whole record. And sometimes is definitely healthy and liberating to leave aside all the complicated things and indulge in pure and simple catchy rock.
#13) Basement, “Beside Myself”
(Alt Rock / Melodic Hardcore)
In the last ten years, British rock band Basement has gained increased attention for having released a bunch of interesting records, and it’s no secret that these guys candidated themselves to become the European representatives of that kind of melodic rock that is played by many famous formations on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. This is why the announcement of a new album by the band, on August 2018, was received with great attention. And when their new LP, named Beside Myself, was released on last October, all the expectations were definitely confirmed.
One of the elements that has been always remarkable in Basement’s music is the brilliant balance that they manage to keep between anger and melancholy. This characteristic seems further enhanced in their new work and in fact most of the songs result at the same time energetic and deeply intimate. The rhythms are generally high and the songs are short and compact: you won’t find in their songs any accessory element that’s been introduced for the sake of prolonging the running time. Incipit, melodic section, catchy riff with anthemic chorus, bridge, and conclusion. Nothing more than that, but extremely effective and enjoyable to hear.
Beside Myself signs also the passage of the band to a major record label. With their new LP, Basement have left formally the world of independent music and this has certainly given more brilliance to their work, making every individual song of the new record a sort of masterpieces of “communicative effectiveness”. Probably something has been lost in terms of originality and spirit of experimentation, but the overall balance, in my opionion, is positive. Many years and tours have passed from their impressive first two albums (2011′ I Wish I Could Stay Here and 2012’s Colourmeinkindness) and today, as a matter of fact, these guys look for confirmations rather than surprises.
#12) Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Hope Downs”
After a couple of really interesting EPs, Australian indie rock band Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever arrived this year to the release of their first LP, named Hope Downs, which is an extremely promising work from the Melbourne quintet. The release notes say that many of the band members had played so far in a number of local garage and rock bands, garning a relatively good reputation in the Australian underground scene. And it’s not by chance, therefore, that Hope Downs shows a band which is fully aware of their possibilities and surprisingly (given their age) characterized by with a mature and well-defined musical style.
The genre of music played by RCBF is not particularly original or innovative, but the band has undoubtedly the gift of knowing how to instill interest and enjoyability in all of their songs. The tracks of Hope Downs arrive one after the other like a single flow of simple but effective indie rock tunes. There are no avant-garde ambitions in their music, rather we enjoy a solid collection of genuine and catchy songs, with the minimum necessary quantity of distortions to get the interest of indie music fans, but which never result so heavy and introspective to keep away the casual listener.
Many have compared RCBF to a softer and more commercial version of the early years of R.E.M., and the comparison if far from being wrong. These guys, however, seem to have all what’s necessary to develop and consolidate a style of music that won’t require, in the future, too many comparisons with the sacred monsters of rock.
#11) Alkaline Trio, “Is This Thing Cursed?”
With the exception of a few but still relevant cases, traditionally American punk bands have always favored the melodic and popular aspects of this genre of music compared to the more controversial and rebellious ones. In this context the American rock band Alkaline Trio, from Illinois, represents another important member of that large family of bands which have contributed to the success of the so called “pop-punk”, a special version of rock that has become universally known mostly thanks to bands like Green Day and Blink-182.
Alkaline Trio’s last album, named Is This Thing Cursed?, is the ninth of their discography and it interrupts a five-year gap since their previous studio LP. The first impact of the album is absolutely positive if you like glossy rock with catchy choruses, and in this respect the new material is definitely reminiscent of what the band has done in the last twenty years, which is definitely a good thing if you don’t look for innovation but you just look for a new collection of good pop-punk melodic rock songs.
Anyway, when the recipe is simple and the ingredients are always the same, finding the way to compose and offer another set of exciting songs requires a big dose of creative skills and inspiration, something that the American band has never struggled to find. In this respect, the collateral experiences that some of the members of the band have tried in the last few years may have contributed to give new life to their creative vein. But whatever the reason, the only thing that matters is that the Alkaline guys are back on track, with the same feeling and energy of the past.
#10) Audrey Horne, “Blackout”
(Hard Rock / Heavy Metal)
Norwegian band Audrey Horne is one of those formations that have clearly established what their models are, what music they want to play, and they just continue to refine and improve their style album after album. With their last LP, named Blackout, they arrived to the remarkable result of six albums in thirtheen years of career, all of them dedicated to carrying forward the banner of their special style of hard rock.
The music played by Audrey Horne is deeply rooted into the legacy of 70s classic rock, enriched with the insertion of melodic elements of heavy-metal derivation. The songs are generally enjoyable and also extremely accessible, plenty of anthemic choruses, catchy riffs and triumphant guitars. There’s nothing original and innovative in Blackout, but for those looking for a good and healty dose of rocking energy the album gives absolutely satisfaction. It’s really like being in a rock’n’roll party: at some point it’s no longer important if you’re listening to trendy and modern music or rather old-school heavy rock, what really matters is the pulsating rhythm in your head and the electricity that runs through your veins.
Sometimes it’s nice to let ourselves be carried away by such retro music as Audrey Horne’s. We can forget that we have grown up, that our kids polarize our spare time and that there are a couple of bills on the table that must be still paid. In these moments, if there’s the right song and we close our eyes, we may find ourselves running again with our small cars along the streets of the city, at night, with rock music playing loud from our low-fi stereo systems and the wind blowing our hairs.
#9) Cancer Bats, “The Spark That Moves”
The heaviest entry of this chart is one of those album which lays on the thin border between rock and metal. The spirit with which it was recorded and published, however, is definitely “rock” and that’s is one of the reasons why, in the end, the LP by Cancer Bats has found its place in this chart. The Spark That Moves arrived absolutely by surprise and without any warning on April 2018; the band later explained that they were tired of waiting and decided at one point to drop the LP all at once, deliberatly choosing to skip the traditional lead ups and teaser singles.
Cancer Bats are a well-known Canadian band that have achieved a certain notoriety during the last fifteen years thanks to their intriguing and effective mix of hardcore punk and crossover. Since the beginning of their career the group has released their LPs with a good regularity and in 2018, three years from the previous album, they released the sixth record of their interesting discography.
Cancer Bats owe much of their success to the particular style of music that they managed to craft and refine with the years, which consists of a base of hardcore enriched with many elements of southern rock and metalcore. The band, however, has always shown the ability and the willingness to evolve their sound and keep it fresh at each stage of their career. In this respect, one of the key elements of The Spark That Moves is how it’s founded on vast and caried catalogue of musical expressions and the songs, although marked by and equal and impressive level of sonic violence, result so varied and also different one from the other that the experience of going through the record in one single shot is definitely rewarding and exciting.
The music of Cancer Bats doesn’t want to be cool or trendy and it’s not surprising that their videos show random people eating pizza or cars drifting in the snow. But the beauty and violence of their riffs is so genuine and visceral that their songs never disappoint.
#8) Ash, “Islands”
(Indie Rock / Pop Rock)
Northern Irish band Ash has been around for over 25 years in the world of rock. Between highs and lows, the band has released so far 8 full-lenght albums spanning through alternative, punk and britpop (even if the band, for obvious reasons, han never felt comfortable with this last association). Their last LP, Islands, aims without any hesitation towards the direction of an easy to listen version of indie rock, enriched here and there by splashes of pop music.
Beyond the relative and physiological variations of style from album to album, however, in its essence their music has been extremely consistent across their releases: quick-setting and catchy rock and roll. Accordingly, Ash’s new work features a new enjoyable collection of songs that are extremely engaging and funny to listen to.
If their sound is substantially a consolidation of what we heard from them to date, there are also a few elements of innovation that allow their music to remain sufficiently modern and appreciable. Compared to their previous works, today the band lingers a little more on intimate and introspective pieces, but we still have in the LP a good handful of those ferocious and happy songs from which we can extract our daily dose of rock energy.
#7) Tonight Alive, “Underworld”
(Alt Rock / Pop Rock)
Remained only four members after that guitarist Whakaio Taahi quit on October 2’17, the Australians alternative rockers Tonight Alive went quickly back to the studio to compose and publish a new LP, Underworld. The new album follows the three previous good records that the band from Sidney released since their formation, approximately ten years ago. And despite it was published at the very beginning of the year, Underworld has resisted many fierce contenders and it eventually maintained his position within the best rock records of 2018.
The music played by Tonight Alive demonstrates that it’s absolutely possible to play simple and catchy rock, which may still result exciting and interesting. The songs of Underworld are in fact clearly oriented to mainstream radio and big audiences, but without necessarily having to compromise the quality of the songs.
From a musical point of view, because of their style of music Tonight Alive have been often compared to tAmerican pop-rock band Paramore, although with their latest works the Australian band has tried, and somehow succeeded, to develop their own and unique sound. This is particulary evident from the relevant use of the electronic inserts, which have acquired an important role in the development of Tonight Alive’s new songs.
The presence of this record in the final chart at the end of the year thus testifies that alongside conceptual and articulated albums, occasionally it is absolutely healthy to launch in the music player a sequence of easygoing, direct and energetic songs like those offered today by Tonight Alive, provided that the quality of the music is of the same level of the adrenaline that you want to get trhough it.
#6) Titus Andronicus, “A Productive Cough”
(Folk Rock, Indie Rock)
There are times when you need to change, restarting from the scratch. For indie rock band Titus Andronicus this moment coincided with the writing and publication of their fifth studio album, A Productive Cough. Started as an irriverent, raw and genuine punk rock act, Patrick Stickles has guided his band through many different areas of the indie rock world and today, after the last sharp turn, they started playing what we could actually define as folk-rock or “bar-room rock”, as it was also said by someone. The rusult, however, is extremely good.
A Productive Cough reminds us how beautiful are folk acoustic ballads, and how exciting is pure and simple rock music, without too many embellishments or refinements. Two guitars, one bass, drums, simple and cantabile melodies, nice and catchy choruses inspired by popular and street music. This music was stripped down of all that’s superfluous and brought back to its primordial significance: an element of communion and sharing of emotions among different people.
The abum never exceeds in any direction: seven songs – one is a Bob Dylan’s cover – for a little more than 45 minutes of total duration. Fast, simple, essential to the bone, and extremely enjoyable to listen in many different occasions.
On the other hand it’s clear that an album like A Productive Cough can’t leave everyone equally convinced, especially those who were expecting a much more complex and articulated record. But the fans of the band know that beyond the punk and rough surface of their music, Titus Andronicus have always concealed a second level of interpretation. Today, with their new album, they have clearly decided to take a beneficial break and abandom themselves to the desire of playing music and give emotions in the most direct way possible, like a rolling stone.
#5) Jeff Rosenstock, “POST-“
(Punk Rock / Indie Rock)
Let’s start with a recommendation: if you have never listened to POST-, which is the latest album by American rocker Jeff Rosenstock, you should go immediately to the album’s bandcamp page and download it for free (or maybe make a donation). The album was in fact produced by Rosenstock’s free/donation-based digital label called Quote Unquote Records. Go and take it, and then come back here for the review.
Jeff Rosenstock is an american rocker from Long Island who’s playing punk since a couple of decades. He started singing in a few relatively influential local bands such as The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, Bomb the Music Industry!and Kudrow. After the breakup of Bomb the Music Industry!, in 2013, Rosenstock eventually embarked in a solo career and released to date three full-length albums. The last one, POST-, was published on January 1st, 2018 and – as arleady highlighted – it was made available for free download.
There could be many ways to describe Rosenstock’s music and his latest album. Surely we could start mentioning the punk roots of his sound and then continue with the description of the individual pieces. We could focus in particular on the track called USA, which is undoubtedly the most important and significantof the album, with its 7 and a half minutes of pure rage and despair. But what I will say, instead, is that POST- is an album full of contradictions, definitely not homogeneous, but really because of these inconsistencies it looks the best representation of the world in which we live today. It didn’t happen to me since a long time to listen to an album and feel like being a part of it. POST- is genuine, raw, contradictory, but this is music that speaks to you as a friend, with songs that become more engaging each time you listen to them.
There are highs and lows among the ten tracks of the record. The structure of the LP is also completely out of the standard: there are two masterpieces that open and close the album, which are also the longests tracks of the record. And in the middle we can enjoy an handful of quick and effective sketches of punk rock, flowing fluidly one after the other. Crazy? Brilliant? It’s up to you to decide, anyway it works.
I believe that the music produced by Jeff Rosenstock is the truest version of punk rock that is in circulation today. This is not the kind of street punk which tries to imitate the atmospheres of the 70s, and not even the ska-punk which has been so succesful in the last years. But this music speaks from the heart. Compliments.
#4) Starcrawler, “Starcrawler”
The moment I started to assemble this final chart for 2018 I realized that the very first positions were all occupied by famous groups with already many albums and many successes behind them. I was starting to worry about the fact that there were no emerging groups in the top positions, but then I rememberd of Starcrawler and their impressive debut album.
Starcrawler is a band of very young rockers from California who met and started playing music in High School. In an extremely short time – at least compared to what’s generally the case for every rock band – they managed to polarize the attention of fans, critics and even a number of old glories of rock of the caliber of Ryan Adams and Elthon John, who also contributed to promote their music. When a band reaches fame and attention in this explosive way there is always the risk that the musical aspect remains in the background. And in this case it would be really a shame because this self-title debut LP provides the listener with an impressive sequence of solid and exciting rock songs.
From a musical point of view, much of the beauty of the record comes from the natural way in which multiple influences were blended together to form something definitely new, and fresh. There is also a persistent flavour of garage rock that permeates the LP, and this provides a nice feeling of immediacy and roughness to many of the tracks of the album.
Coming back to the overall phenomenon that has been generated around Starcrawler, it’s evident that this kind of success can not be for pure chance. The turning point will be given by the forthcoming works. We will understand if the creativity and the special touch that these young rockers demonstrated in their debut album were only the result of a quick sparkling of fire or, on the contrary, they will become one of the most important rock groups of the next decades.
#3) Hot Snakes, “Jericho Sirens”
(Post Hardcore / Garage Rock / Indie Rock)
There is a particular emotion every time we come across to the new album from a band that has spent so much time in silence. Jericho Sirens, the fourth and latest LP by Hot Snakes, arrives fourteen years after their previous release. And as only the exceptional records can do, the new album looks so strong and vigorous that it has really the capacity to excite both the old fans of the Californian band and also those new generation of listeners who just got in touch with the scratchy sounds of indie rock and post-hardcore.
The line-up of the band is basically the same of their early works, and this for sure helps. But what’s really remained unchanged is their rebellious spirit and also the musical creativity they manifest with their songs. To some extent one could feel that all the time which separates their two last records has passed – musically speaking – in a flash. And that’s for sure the result of all the effort and committment that the band has dedicated to the making of Jericho Sirens. Nothing here is improvised, there are no gap fillers and we don’t have the impression to be in front of a mere commercial operation. I feel here the genuine desire to switch on for one more time that spark of light that illuminated the rock scene during a few, but intense, years at the beginning of the new century.
The ten tracks of Jericho Sirens are strongly based on that intriguing mix of garage rock, post-hardcore and indie rock that the band consolidated with their first three albums. The rhythms are always sustained, John Reis and Rick Froberg hit hard on their guitars from the first to the last minute of the album. Such blast of energy, however, is not a barrage fire. The shots are chirurgical: all the instruments play strong and compact, the energy is directed in one single direction and the balance between dissonance and melody reaches in some passages the absolute perfection. As expected the lyrics are generally polemical and negative: the guys from San Diego are not here to tell us that life is easy and beautiful. But what we hear is not a cry of abandonment and despair, it is rather a scream of rage and disgust towards mediocrity, something that pushes you to react rather than to give up.
This is perhaps the secret of Hot Snakes: they have the ability to combine a genuine protest towards the system with a sharp, essential and effective musical assault, something which goes straight to the point without dispersing any beat with unnecessary nuances or music frills.
#2) Cloud Nothings, Last Building Burning
(Indie Rock / Post Hardcore)
There are bands that represent the essence and the spirit of rock. Among these I surely include Cloud Nothings, the spectacular indie rock from Ohio. I follow this band with particular attention since their 2014 album, Here and Nowhere Else, and from then I’ve always felt a natural attraction for their music and I’ve literally fallen in love with many of the intense and profound songs they wrote. I’ve always found their approach to music as the perfect paradigm and synthesis of rock and roll in modern times. Their songs manifest the urgency of communicating something strong, and the musical language they’ve built in order to transmit their feelings is raw, immediate, dissonant and full of contradictions as is our life nowadays. No frills, no masks, a kind of music that is stripped of all what’s superfluous but that, in doing so, shows a monstrous and impressive substance. I feel that Cloud Nothings have achieved the perfect synthesis between the immediacy of punk, the aggressiveness of alternative rock, the melodies of power pop, the research and experimentation of avant-garde music, and the the angularities of noise rock. Their sound is the point where all these different ways of interpreting modern rock eventually meet together, and their albums are gifted by a sense of spontaneity and naturalness that makes everything alive and exciting.
Last Building Burning is the new LP released by Cloud Nothings, the fifth of their discography. The publication notes say that the album was recorded in only eight days in a studio located in a border town of Texas. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the album offers such intense feelings of immediacy and spontaneity. Don’t expect the balance and the crystalline perfection of those over-produced albums where clear sounds and catchy melodies are tuned and refined up to the smallest details. Instead, prepare yourself for rough sounds and a genuine flow of electric anger, with songs that point straight and without hesitations at the heart of music, at the essence of rock.
Last Building Burning is yet another great record by a fantastic band. The album has no false steps and every song is a little gem. There are of course some tracks that shine with a particular light of beauty. I can mention the song In Shame, perhaps the most melodic, fast and accessible song of the LP, one of those tracks that you want to listen again and again everytime it ends. On the other end of the music spectrum there is Dissolution, a song that produces in my mind the image of Dylan Baldi and his bandmates that are hitting hard on their instruments with rage, fury and passion, until at some point they find themselves blocked on a single note, a chord that they cannot leave for some magic spell, and they are unable to move forward into the song until the drums eventually arrive to wake them up and then, as a response, they embark on a three minutes psychedelic trip which results in one of the most exciting song finals that the band has ever composed to date.
In more general terms, if we compare Last Building Burning with the band’s more recent releases we see many confirmations and a few elements of difference. The confirmations mainly regard their general approach to music and songwriting, which includes the immediate and “urgent” style that I mentioned above. Among the differences we can highlight a more evident recourse to gloomy and disheartened tones, both for the music and the lyrics. But, in the end, this is just another evidence that their music doesn’t only reflect the current state of rock music, but the more general situation of our society.
BEST ROCK ALBUM OF 2018
Turbonegro, “Rocknroll Machine”
(Punk Rock / Hard Rock)
Given the recent explosion of the rock and metal scene in the Scandinavian countries, today it may seem natural that among the best records that are coming out every year there are lots of bands from Sweden, Finland and Norway. Back in the 90’s, however, there was a relatively unique and exceptional case of a crazy band from Oslo, named Turbonegro, which got the attention of fans and critics with a series of incredible albums. Their style was so special and original that people had to coin a new name for it: “deathpunk”. Surprisingly, however, their fame remained limited to the underground world of punk rock and metal, without reaching that universal celebrity that they would have deserved. From a certain point of view, however, we could be selfishly grateful to the band for not achieving a larger success, because we know how strong can be the process of sterilization that typically occurs with mainstream music. Surely they weren’t facilitated by the exaggerated and extravagant image they gave to themselves, including the crazy titles of their albums. At least for this single aspect, however, the guys from Norway seem to have made some progress and in fact, today, instead of Ass Cobra or Hot Cars and Spent Contraceptives we see them out with a definitely more moderate name for an album: Rocknroll Machine.
Turbonegro’s new LP interrupts a period of silence of six years from their previous record. To be honest, when I became aware of their new publication I had initially mixed reactions. But from the first moment that Rocknroll Machine was launched through the speakers of my music system, I realized that all my concerns were totally unjustified. This is really one of the few bands that gives no attention to trends and fashions, and which still play a straight and genuine version of rock with no needs for additives or unnecessary elements of “modernity”.
Musically speaking, Rocknroll Machine is basic divided in two parts. The first half of the LP looks like a tribute to classic hard rock (think of AC DC), while the second group of songs is more reminescent of the signature “deathpunk” style that the band consolidated in their early years. In both the two sections, however, there is the same impressive charge of musical energy, direct and effective as only the best music can be. This is timeless rock and roll, with no frills, easygoing and high voltage. Just play it loudly and enjoy the 40 minutes ride.
But the question is: what’s the difference between a good record and the best rock album of the year? Easy: when you see your whole family (wife, teenage guy plus kid) singing the antemic choruses of a record every single time it runs on the stereo, the answer is there in front of you.
Other notable rock releases of 2018:
Tales from the Backseat, the debut studio album by Irish indie rock band The Academic
Cleave, the fifteenth studio album by Northern Irish alt rock legends Therapy?
[Untitled], the seventh studio album by American post hardcore band mewithoutYou
Always Ascending, the fifth studio album by Scottish indie rock band Franz Ferdinand
Master Volume, the second studio album by Canadian punk rock band The Dirty Nil
Snares Like a Haircut, the fourth studio album by American noise rock duo No Age
The Free Life, the third studio album by English hard rock band Turbowolf
Peace and Love, the ninth studio album by American punk band Swingin’ Utters
Reiði, the second studio album by English indie and grunge band Black Foxxes
Vide Noir, the third studio album by American rock band Lord Huron
As already anticipated, you may enjoy all the best songs from these bands in a single and breathtaking compilation: BEST ROCK OF 2018. Now Playing on Spotify!
As I already commented in a couple of previous posts, I believe that “electroacoustic” and “modern classical” are among the genres of music that have benefited the most from the modern mechanisms of distribution of digital music, as witnessed by the universal success of “moods-based” and contextual playlist like “Peaceful Piano”, “Deep Focus” and “Relax & Unwind”. On the other hand, however, the prospect of being included in one of these playlists and thus catapulted into the spotlight of million of listeners has motivated hordes of mediocre artists to publish singles, EPs or entire albums of atmospheric and meditative music.
Fortunately, there are still many artists who are able to emerge from this mass of mediocrity through their talent and their compositional sensibility. This year, in particular, we could enjoy a really good number of excellent records and it was really challenging to isolate only ten LPs for this final chart.
It’s easy to verify that these albums belong to relatively different sub-genres of “meditative music” and therefore they represent distinct approaches to modern classical and electroacoustic. Naturally everyone can be more or less connected to a specific style of music and, therefore, the specific position of each artist in the chart could be the subject of endless discussions. What is objective, however, is that each one of these musicians has managed to compose something special, unique, and of absolute value. In this sense, I’m convinced that this selection of records is an excellent representation of the best we heard in 2018.
Enjoy the reading and, of course, listen to the beautiful pieces that were composed and executed by these great artists. For what concern the music, I’m pleased to inform that there is also a special playlist on Spotify which collects the best tracks from each one of the selected LPs.
#10) Theo Alexander, “Broken Access”
Theo Alexander is a relatively young English composer of contemporary classical music and Broken Access is his newest full-lenght record, released in April 2018. The four tracks of the LP offer to the listener the possibility to travel across haunting and claustrophobic imaginary landscapes which develop around layers of drones and tape-loops of piano recordings.
The techniques used by Theo Alexander to produce his delicate and rarefied atmospheres are not particularly innovative and from a purely formal point of view this style of music is nowadays practiced by many musicians (too many, perhaps). What distinguishes the English artist is his extraordinary musical sensibility and an innate talent of knowing how to remove from each song all the superfluous elements, leaving just what is necessary to convey the strongest and deepest emotions. Yes, because the five songs of Broken Access are definitely emotional. This is not a kind of music that may leave you cold or neutral. Whether you are or not a lover of meditative and modern classical music, the songs of Broken Access will reach your soul and provoke conflicting feelings: peace, anxiety, abandonment. In some moments the contrast between the prolonged sounds of the synthesizers and the perturbations introduced by the other instruments reach levels of true excitement.
And this is also record that can be put on repeat mode for hours and hours, while we are at home relaxing on the couch, or working on the PC; you won’t ever get tired of the fantastic soundscapes and the delicate pieces of melody coming out from the speakers.
#9) Kaada, “Closing Statements”
In a musical landscape like the current one, where all the attention seems to be aimed at writing successful singles, easy to assimilate and suitable to appear in a thousand of different playlists, the decision to realize a concept album already seems a bold decision. In this sense, to plan about writing an entire album dedicated to the theme of death clearly appears as a commercial suicide. Given these premises, the result obtained by Kaada with his latest work Closing Statements is definitely surprising and, as a matter of fact, the album composed by the Norwegian artist stands out as one of the most successful and appreciable records of the year. On the other hand, we’re talking of a talented musician who has always managed to combine a strong spirit of experimentation with a musical sensibility that’s out of the ordinary, and the result is that most of his albums are equally intriguing to hear and, at the same time, relatively accessible.
Closing Statements is not just an album about death. The main theme of the work is more specifically the transition between life and that unkown destination that is waiting us at the end of our journey, made through the recollection of the last sentences of the dying (the “Closing Statements”). Surely it’s a strong and fascinating subject, but which has been addressed by Kaada with delicacy and balance. The result is in fact a collection of pieces which result profound, fascinating, but never oppressive and depressing. The album is also graced by a variety of styles and arrangements that make the work absolutely enjoyable to listen both at the level of the individual songs, but also as a single story organized in several chapters.
Musically speaking, most of the songs gravitate around a style of electroacoustic music that combines classical instruments like piano and violins with electronic, cinematic and environmental inserts. Nothing particularly original in itself and the experimental compoente, this time, seems to have focused to reach the goal of making almost imperceptible the difference between acoustic elements and synthetic parts, as if Kaada wanted to replicate, in music, that blurred and mysterious transition that passes between the last moments of life and what comes next.
#8) Dead Can Dance, “Dionysus”
I remember when I was a teenager and listening to Dead Can Dance was extremely cool and trendy. At that time the access to music was definitely more complicated with respect to modern standards and therefore, for an high school student, the act itself of buying a record of world music had the effect of giving you the fame of an expert of cultured music, at least in the eyes of those friends who used to listen Madonna and Guns and Roses. It is a fact, however, that at the end of the last century the Australian duo had achieved an impressive reputation among an heterogeneous family of music lovers, touching in some cases the status of cult band. And this happened thanks to the absolutely unique ability of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry in transposing ancient music and ethnic elements in an extremely accessible format, without losing quality and depth. Over the years their influence has maybe shrinked a little, but their albums have always preserved the charm and the value of products of great class.
This year Dead Can Dance have released a new studio album, called Dionysus, and this should be considered in itself a special event: not only the album is the ninth of a career that is close to reach forty years of activity (with some interruptions), but it also arrives six years after the previous work, 2012’s Anastasis. Beyond the numerical aspects, Dionysus provides the fans of the band and the lovers of world music with another exciting collection of tribal fusion and neoclassical songs, all of the highest quality and with a few moments of absolute beauty.
Beyond the characteristics of the individual songs, however, Dionysus was conceived in such a way as to be heard in one single run, from the beginning to the end, without the possibility for the listener of deviating from the sequence of songs that was established by the authors. In this respect, it’s sufficient to say that the digital edition of the album has only two tracks (Act I and Act II), each one collecting different chapters of the exciting story composed by the Australian musicians.
From a purely musical point of view, Dionysus doesn’t shine for particular originality in the context of the band’s discography. On the contrary, at a first listen it may seem even a bit flat and less exciting with respect to their standard levels. The beauty of the album, however, emerges after a few repeated listens, once you become familiar with the delicate mixture of Celtic, New Age and Middle Eastern music that is provided in the LP. In part it’s true that the melodies in Dionysus are less immediate and catchy than some of the most famous songs from the band. But the fact is that in their new record Dead Can Dance wanted to represent the multicolored world of the God of Ecstasy, and rather than insisting on obsessive and dramatic rhythms, they composed a special music that captures you slowly, progressively, and which will transport you into a magical and luminous world, obscured only a few times by some dark shadow.
#7) Ólafur Arnalds, “Re: member”
Probably because of my past as an amateur pianist and my boundless passion for the music of all kinds and genres, I developed an emotional connection with the music of Ólafur Arnalds as soon as I started listening to his works. I’ve been always impressed by the ability of the Icelandic composer in creating delicate, melodic and passionate songs, inspired by the melodies of the classical repertoire, which were transported, with inspiration and talent, in a new modern and “electronic” context. A moderate criticism that could perhaps be expressed about Arnalds’ music was about his recourse, in some cases, to musical expressions and atmospheres that could appear a bit too “sugary” and, to a certain extent, didactic. At least this was what I heard from some of the friends or acquaintances with whom I was trying to share my passion for this artist. Objectively, however, everyone recognizes that Arnalds has been one of the forerunner of that impressive mass of authors and composers who nowadays populate many playlists of Spotify with their melodic, minimal, but in many cases extremely uninspired and mannerist pieces.
Ólafur Arnalds’ new record, named Re: member, is the fourth LP of a discography that is very rich of singles, EP, collaborations, soundtracks and even a mixtape. What could we expect from an artist who generated so many disciples and followers if not a completely revolutionary and somewhat controversial album?
Forget the lyrical and intimate melodies of For Now I Am Winter, the beautiful mixes of strings and piano of …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, and the neo-classical inspired ambient of Eulogy for Evolution. Instead, prepare yourself for a journey into a severe minimalism that only sporadically leaves he floor to sketches of melodies. Delicate layers of sounds and simple loops create here beautiful atmospheres, and we find ourselves suspended in a cloud of lightness, which is the ideal environment to travel back into our memories, which was peraphs one of the goals of the author if we interpret the title of the album.
The casual listeners will struggle to recognize the artist in many of the songs that are featured in this collection. His touch, however, is always present and recognizable for those who have enjoyed all of his previous works. These fans will surely appreciate the attempt of the artist to evolve his music towards new grounds. Re:member will not be the most catchy and enjoyable entry in Arnalds’ wide catalogue of records, but it is definitely a new important chapter in a musical career that has always seen him as a pioneer of modern classical music rather than just a follower of trends.
As a final note, Arnalds’ new LP is also characterized by the use of the Stratus Piano, a new music system invented by the artist that generates pseudo-random combinations of notes each time he presses a key on his piano. Two years have been spent to implement, tune and refine the Stratus Piano, and I must admit that the unexpected sequences of sounds that are generated by this system introduce a further element of interest for many of the songs of Re:member.
#6) Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, “Epoques”
Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch is a young, talented and quite prolific artist who has gained the attention of music lovers and critics both as composer of cinematic soundtracks and for experimental electro-acoustic albums. Her musicis not easy to describe in a few words, let me just say that it’s substantially modern classical music with the insertion of electronic elements.
On last July the artist has released her second full-lenght LP, called Epoques, which provides the listener with an intriguing alternation of minimalistic solo piano pieces and more articulated songs where piano, strings and electronic inserts are mixed together and create delicate, and sometimes haunting, layers of sounds.
The album highlights the maturity but also the boldness of this young artist in processing and transforming basic and minimal sketches of music into powerful, visceral but also sometimes hallucinatory songs. With the exception of a few tracks that are relatively “melodic” and easier to enjoy, most of the album requires some special condition to appreciate in full the music that is offered to the listener. First of all you must be in the condition to dedicate the full attention to the harmonic constructs that are built by the artist, but you should be also in the mood to be guided across an adventurous exploration of the less frequented areas of modern music.
Despite the many different references that we may extrapolate from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s music (Philip Glass and Bela Bartok are two of them), Epoque is in the end a unique piece of art with its own meaning in the wider context of modern classical music. Surely this is not one of the many electro-acoustic music records that are composed and played for the general public. It’s rather a small treasure of creativity and expressiveness for those who’re willing to enjoy a continuous shift of emotion between lighter moments of serenity, and grittier, obscure but impressively emotional and moving pieces.
#5) Poppy Ackroyd, “Resolve”
British composer and multi-instrumentalist Poppy Ackryod has achieved in the recent years a certain popularity both as author of a couple of solid and precious solo albums and as member of the music project Hidden Orchestra, that we have often mentioned in these pages.
Ackroyd’s music was initially characterized by the rigid choice to limit the instrumentation to only piano and violin, that were recorded, post-processed and mixed in her songs. During the years, however, the sonic range of has gradually grown, and in Poppy Ackroyd’s latest album, Resolve, we may appreciate the contribution of additional instruments and also the presence of a couple of guest artists. Violin and piano remain at the center of her music, but there are now other elements that expand the dynamics of the songs.
Stylistically speaking the sound conceived by the British artist for her new LP remains almost tied to the classical canons of electro-acoustic music and if we exclude a few brief moments of experimentation, the album is extremely linear and accessible for a mainstream audience. The songs of Resolve, however, are so warm and beautifully intimate that the lack of depth and intensity are totally compensated by a sense of overall ligthness and enjoyability that spreads from every track of the LP. Listening to this album unleashes in our mind a spirit of cautious optimism and, in this respect, the simplicity of the arrangements and the fluidity of the harmonic architectures make the songs of Resolve capable to hold us in a tender musical embrace. These are precious moments of quiet and serenity, and everyone knows how important they can be, in certain moments, to help dealing with the complications of our real life.
#4) Chilly Gonzales, “Solo Piano III”
I’ve been listening for so many years and I still get excited by the music written and performed by Chilly Gonzales, the canadian pianist, composer and entertainer who has contributed to the revival of the modern classical genre. As an amateur pianist I also learned some of the songs from his two previous albums for solo piano and therefore since the first day I heard about his new album my expectations were literally skyrocketing. And from the moment when I could eventually get my hands on his new LP, it played almost uninterruptedly for a couple of months in my music player.
Solo Piano III is the third collection of short instrumental pieces for piano that has been released so far by Gonzales, who also declared that the new album will be the last chapter of his Solo Piano project. Some of the thirteen tracks of the record – probably the most beautiful ones – were already shared by the author a few months before the official release of the album, and this has somewhat mitigated the surprise effect. Anyway, being Solo Piano III the third installment of a cycle that Gonzales started as early as 2004, it was certainly not the surprise that what we were looking for in the new record, bur rather the confirmation of the ability of such an incredible and histrionic artist to compose pieces that are so pure and delicate to become, in the end, timeless.
A lot has already been said about the uniqueness of Gonzales’ musical style and the naturalness which he shows in writing music that it’s “classical” in structure and feeling, but which brings inside a modern sensibility and also a “popular” approach to piano music (the Erik Satie of our times, someone said about Gonzales). What we can say is that the last chapter of the trilogy doesn’t depart from the sounds and the style that we already heard in the initial two albums of the project and, as a matter of fact, a few tracks seem taken directly from the previous works from the author. Some difference, rather, can be found in the overall architecture of the album. If the first two Solo Piano records were characterized by a lightness and an overall fluidity that made each one of them appear like one single flow of cristalline beauty, the new album seems to proceed a little more intermittently. It looks like Gonzales is now trying to persuade the listener to focus the attention on the individual pieces and the specific characteristics of each song.
There is a little less accessibility in Solo Piano III with respect to his first two works, but in return we have more incentives to go deep into the dynamics of the individual songs. This partially compensates for the lack of novelty and surprise, I mean in comparison with the reactions that were generated by the first chapter of the project. That said, however, the overall value and enjoyability of the album remains very high and at this point we feel only the relative sadness due to the fact that – if the author will keep his promise – there won’t be a further follow-on to this wonderful and unique musical project.
#3) Dakota Suite, Dag Rosenqvist, Emanuele Errante. “What Matters Most”
One of the most fascinating aspects of music is that there are works made to convey positive feelings and therefore capable to brighten up your days, but at the same time there are many others that insist on emotions like melancholy, sadness, desperation, but still result enjoyable and interesting to listen. What Matters Most, the album born from the collaboration among Dakota Suite, Dag Rosenqvist and Emanuele Errante, belongs definitely to this second category.
The main feeling that emerges from the songs of What Matters Most is something very close to profound sadness or, even better, to that particular emotion that we feel when the pain for an important loss becomes the awareness that nothing will be the same. And this is not something which remains in the surface and flows on your skin without leaving a trace. The music that was composed by the artists is precious, extremely emotional, it manages to interact with the deepest parts of your soul, and you still feel the chills even after the song is finished.
The songs of What Matters Most are relatively different one from the other, but all of them share a few common elements which give a sense of strong expressive continuity and stylistic coherence throughout the whole album. Almost every song, for example, sees the dominant presence of one single musical instrument, typically the acoustic guitar or the piano, which is assigned the task of drawing the melancholic arpeggios or the delicate melodies that constitute the backbone of the song. Around the main instrument we hear gentle touches of strings, sometimes a wind instrument, and ambient noises. Everything contributes to create the rarefied and beautiful atmospheres that, in the end, are what binds together all the tracks of the album. Some songs have also lyrics and the nice alternation between the parts with the voice and the instrumental sections adds a further element of dynamism and internal variety to the LP, together with some crescendo that occasionally arrive to break the moment of stasis that was created by the instruments.
In true honesty, however, we couldn’t expect anything less than exceptional given the presence of Dakota Suite: the band from Leeds has always released albums of rare beauty as only the great musicians can do. Despite the undisputed skills of the artists involved in this project, the album took a long time before being completed. The reason is clear, however. It’s sufficient to listen with attention one single song of the LP to appreciate the maniacal care that was applied to every details, and also the effort that was spent to reach the impressive balance which exists among all the individual instruments.
#2) Nils Frahm, “All Melody”
The experience that I had when I first listened to All Melody, which is latest work by German composer Nils Frahm, was not totally positive: there were for sure a few moments of great elegance and delicacy, but there was no song that caught my attention or generated any particular feeling. I left the record playing in background while I was busy writing some document, and after a while I started to realize that part of my thoughts were turned to the music and I was definitely enjoying the subtle melodies that this album is plenty of. All of a sudden, the crystalline beauty of this work was finally revealed to me and I also understood the meaning of the title of the LP: these are pure melodies, rarefied musical lines that slowly and gently emerge from the white noise that surrounds us, like that phenomenon of lateral vision which makes our eyes more susceptible to the movements that occur outside the field of view.
From a musical point of view, this album is characterized by very slow rhythms and an extremely minimal approach to composition. The typical elements of Frahm’s music, which are the combination of analog and digital instruments and the perfect fusion of electronic and modern classical styles, are all present, but the architecture of this work is so bare and essential as we didn’t hear for long in his discography. But be careful, if the compositional structures are so essential, the tonal and dynamic aspects of the songs are absolutely rich. The sounds that come from the album are warm, soft, engaging. The artist has used a large number of different instruments and in global terms we observe here a progressive distancing from the simple piano – which has been for long at the heart of Frahm’s music – to embrace an extremely wider and articulated palette of sounds. All Melody confirms also one of the typical characteristics of Frahm’s approach to electro-acoustic music, which is the capacity to transform – almost imperceptibly – conventional sounds of piano and organ into electronic elements. The picture is then completed with the nice and original introduction of choirs and wind instruments.
In the broader context of the author’s discography, All Melody is the first one produced after he built a special recording studio inside an art house in Berlin (you can see it in the LP’s cover). It took two years of work to complete tthis room according to what were the strict requirements of the artist, and based on the result we hear in his record we can for sure wait with excitement to the upcoming albums that will be recorded there.
#1) Luke Howard, “Open Heart Story”
Everyone has experienced that magical situation when the music you’re listening seems perfectly matched with the images that – in that specific moment – are passing in front of your eyes. And everyone knows that the perfect symbiosis created between images and music remains somehow attached to the notes you hear, so that every time you’ll listen again to the same songs you will feel a special chill on your skin, as if you were travelling back in time to that special and unique moment of your life. Last summer I was driving alone, at night, along the country roads of Puglia, a beautiful region in the south of Italy, and while I was passing through the evocative and haunting fields of olive groves, the car stereo was playing the beautiful songs of Open Heart Story, which is the last LP published by pianist and composer Luke Howard. Perhaps because I was about to reach the family after a long period of separation, perhaps because the night landscape was so fascinating, the fact is that Howard’s music, in that day of my life, gave me a wide range of emotions that were so strong that I will never forget that ride.
Anyway, is this personal experience the only reason why Open Heart Story is here in the first position of the chart? The answer is negative. As a matter of fact, after many listens of the LP I can say without any doubt that the value of Luke Howard’s record is absolute and objective. This is heavenly music that has the capacity to make you feel connected to the world around you, or to recover from your memory some melancholic moment of your past.
On the other hand, in his relatively brief but intense career the Australian composer has refined an expressive ability that’s really out of the ordinary, and having experimented with relatively different genres such as contemporary classical music, ambient and instrumental minimalism, has put him in a position where it seems extremely easy for him to identify, for each song, which is the style and the specific arrangement which fit best with the particular feeling that he wants to evoke with the music. It is no coincidence, then, that the journey through Open Heart Story becomes an exciting and engaging ride across many different feelings, and it is surprising to see how easy we move from a melancholic piece for piano solo to a more articulated song with layers of strings, drones and gentle touches of percussion instruments, passing through moments of pure and crystalline musical poetry.
Another characteristic which I love of this album is how the music composed by Howard remains absolutely simple, but this simplicity is disarming and profound at the same time. It’s really like listening to elementary melodies that touch the strings of your heart, or reading between the most exciting pages of your memories. An Open Heart Story, in all senses.
As already introduced at the beginning of the article, you can enjoy the best songs from the selected albums in a special playist that was assembled on Spotify. Two songs from each record, more than 90 minutes of pure beauty.
While I was assembling this list with the best indie pop albums of 2018 I could realize that this year has been characterized by an impressive number of young and emerging artists. While this is certainly a good sign for the future of the genre, on the other side it shows how it is relatively common and physiological, apart from some rare exceptions, that the most successful bands slowly and progressively lose that spark of innovation and creativity that we find burning and alive in the youngest formations.
In general terms, however, this was certainly an interesting year for indie pop music and together with some confirmations (Metric, Calexico, Anna von Hausswolff and Soap&Skin) we also had a few intriguing surprises (Postcards from Lebanon, Say Sue Me from South Korea).
Before proceeding with the chart, I’m pleased to inform that there is a special playlist on Spotify which collects the most beautiful songs taken from the albums that are featured in this article. Good reading and good listening!
#10) Metric, “Art of Doubt”
Indie Pop / Synth Pop
Over the past fifteen years the sound of Metric has traveled several times, and in both directions, along the path which runs between synthpop and indie rock. And the new album by the Canadian band, Art of Doubt, seems to be conceived in order to summarize, in one single episode, all the main stages of this travel. In certain songs we have a clear “rock and roll” feeling with guitars, bass and drums in the foreground, but there are many other parts of the album where atmospheres and sounds are definitely “pop”, with triumphs of synthetizers and also many hints to those downtempo and basic melodies which characterized the early works of the band.
As usual, the burden of keeping everything consistent is mostly in the hands of Emily Haines and James Shaw, who’ve been since the beginning the driving forces of the band. Haines, in particular, delivers in the new LP one of her best vocal performances so far, whilst Shaw’s guitar, glossy and sticky, always manages to offer something interesting and catchy to hear.
Art of Doubt won’t be the absolute masterpiece in Metric’s career, but it’s still an absolutely valid and interesting record, with a few songs that that remain deeply impressed in our memory and that populated many of the playlists which circulated this year.
#9) Calexico, “The Thread That Keeps Us”
Indie Pop / Desert Noir / Americana
It’s always a special moment when a band reaches the milestone of the tenth album of their discography and Calexico, the “desert noir” group founded more than twenty years ago by Joey Burns and John Convertino, has achieved this result in 2018 with their new album The Thread That Keeps Us.
The name of the group is that of the city of Calexico, located on the border between the United States and Mexico, and this choice has always reminded of the particular approach that Burns and Convertino have followed in their career by mixing together different genres and influences. Their latest album is no exception, and we can in fact appreciate an enjoyable mix of Americana, folk and the usual references to the Latin musical tradition.
The songs of The Thread That Keeps Us are generally interesting and intriguing, although the duration of the album (fifteen tracks plus seven bonuses) has somewhat diluted its overall intensity. As always, however, we can appreciate in Calexico’s music an elegance and also a desire to experiment that are quite unique in today’s panorama, and for this reason we can certainly tolerate some small drop in intensity and enjoy, on the other side, some of the most fascinating songs among those we could enjoy this year.
#8) Roosevelt, “Young Romance”
Synth Pop / Indie Electronic
There are albums that seem to be made for being played in the background, bringing good feelings and a boost in positivity. Young Romance, the new album from German singer, DJ and producer Marius Lauber (who plays under the moniker of Roosevelt) is definitely one of these records. The music he wrote for his new album is in fact a clean and polished version of synth-pop which takes deep inspiration from the sounds of the 80s, rich of sweet notes and pleasant atmospheres.
Young Romance features a nice collection singable and easy-listening vintage pop songs that manage to maintain a good level of originality and interest. There is in particular a streak of very good songs placed right in the middle of the disk which stand out for the enjoyability and the catchyness of the choruses, something that should guarantee high rotations in many music playlists (including mine).
With his second solo work, Marius Lauber continues his process of progressive departure from the world of indie electronic towards the wider shores of pop music. In doing this transformation he’s increasing the recourse to vintage sounds from the golden age of synth-pop, trying to make his music more fascinating and, in some way, characteristic. In many tracks of the new album this operation was certainly successful, even if there is an tangible gap between the best songs of Young Romance and the remaining ones, and this is perhaps the weakest aspect of Roosevelt’s new work.
#7) The Wombats, “Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life”
Indie Pop / Indie Rock / Punk Revival
The Wombats, from Liverpool, have published this year the fourth album of their career, named Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life. Since their initial formation in 2003, the band has experienced many changes in their style: from electronic/psychedelic music to post-punk revival, arriving the current sound which blends pop-oriented melodies with elements from indie rock and alternative dance. In short, a mixture of influences and inspirations that has always guaranteed freshness and innovation to their albums, something which is somehow confirmed in their last record.
Despite some gap between the best and weakest parts, the album offers a fine collection of songs that moves with ease between pop and rock, with a few tracks that emerge from the others for their catchy choruses and some particularly intriguing melody.
The style of the band has always tried to find a difficult balance between a “mainstream” sound made for gaining the attention of the general public, and an “indie” approach aimed at keeping their music intriguing and somehow particular. After more of ten years of experience in the studio and on the stages, this challenging goal has been mostly achieved.
#6) David Duchovny, “Every Third Thought”
Indie Pop / Folk / Pop Rock
David Duchovny is one of those artists who likes to challenge himself with different forms of expression and in fact, in addition to looking for aliens and other mysteries, the famous American actor has distinguished himself as a novelist, producer, and also musician. As far as his music career is concerned, it should be said that Duchovny writes and arranges all of his songs, thus showing qualities that go well beyond a nice presence on the stage and an interesting voice.
Although I had initially some skepticism about his music, I had to recognize that Every Third Thought , which is Duchovny’s latest LP, is definitely an interesting and appreciable collection of indie pop songs, and in fact some of them that have been rotating frequently in some of the playlists that I’m curating on Spotify.
Compared with Duchovny’s previous release (2015’s Hell or Highwater) the new album has gained in intensity and also energy: his sound today is definitely more “rock”, and the overall enjoyability of the album has benefited from such evolution. The songs of Every Third Thought won’t be the ones that will revolutionize the indie scene, but Duchovny’s music is definitely extremely nice to listen to, and also much more interesting than what one could expect.
#5) Wild Pink, “Yolk in the Fur”
Indie Pop / Indie Rock
Wild Pink, from New York City, is one of those emerging bands which are trying to find their own space in the music scene by cultivating elegance and style rather than using commercial and marketing stratagems to get the attention of fans and medias in general. Wild Pink define themselves as an indie rock band, and their formation is in effect the typical trio with guitar/vocals, bass and drums. The music composed by these guys, however, travels through the softer and quieter regions of the rock universe, on that blurred border that exists between rock and indie pop; this the kind of music which has as major exponents authors such as War on Drugs, Kurt Vile and, to some extent, Death Cab for Cutie (if you consider their early works).
Formed in 2017, Wild Pink have published so far two EPs and two LPs. Their last full-lenght record, Yolk in the Fur, presents a fairly significant evolution of their style compared to their self-titled debut, especially for the adoption of a more classic and conventional structure of the songs. Compared to their first record, the sound of Wild Pink is slowly drifting towards more placid and quiet musical landscapes, rarely perturbed by guitar distortions and dissonances. It’s like being on a beach at the end of the summer: the climate still carries the scent and the lightness of the sunny days that we enjoyed until a few weeks ago, but there are occasionally breezes of cold winds and also black clouds that can obscure the light for a few minutes.
Musically speaking, Yolk in the Fur is characterized by placid rhythms and simple but intriguing melodies. Most of the songs are built on top of clean guitars, warm lines of bass and delicate layers of acoustic synthetizers. And there is of course the charming voice of John Ross, the leader and songwriter of the band, a singer who never needs to scream to tell his stories, like an old friend who sits beside you and calmly talks about the things he has observed during his absence.
#4) Say Sue Me, “Where We Were Together”
Indie Pop / Surf Rock / Pop Rock
It was pretty surprising for me to find out that Say Sue Me is a band coming from South Korea. When I first listened to their songs, they appeared to me as one of the many North American or European bands who try to find their way into the music scene. I must admit that the particular origin of the band stimulated me to listen with more attention to their LP, Where We Were Together, which is the second disc of their discography (I missed their debut, my apologies). After listening to the whole record for a handful of times I started to get more attracted to their music and, in the end, I’m really happy that I gave them a second chance after my first (inattentive) try.
Where We Were Together features an ejoyable collection of small and luminous musical sketches, all of them cheerful and nice to hear. One of the strongest elements of their song is surely the delicate and angelic voice of the singer, who gives grace and atmosphere to all the record.
Where We Were Together seems to me the perfect music to be heard on my return home on Friday afternoons, when the tension of a week of meetings and commitments slowly dissolves into the promise of a weekend of serenity.
#3) Anna von Hausswolff, “Dead Magic”
Art Pop / Dark Ambient
Anna von Hausswolff, from Sweden, represents one of those cases in which the talent transcends the artist’s age and experience. In 2010, at the age of 24, the eclectic singer and organist released her first album, Singing From the Grave, which already highlighted the first fragments of her genius. In 2018, eight years after her debut, she fully confirms with the new album Dead Magic all the good things that were said about her impressive debut and also the following two records that she published, respectively, in 2012 and 2015.
The style of Anna von Hausswolff is something difficult to explain with just words: it is a sort of mix of dark ambient, avant-garde and art pop. Beyond the tags and attributes, however, the important thing to say is that the five songs of Dead Magic manage to transmit strong and contrasting emotions like peace and anxiety, joy and agitation, trust and loss. The pieces of the album live in an unstable balance between positive and negative elements, with layers of sounds that alternate one after the other following the slow and pulsating rhythm of the music. The artist’s voice, scarcely spread across the LP, makes the tracks even more fascinating and sometimes haunting.
Surely this is not an album made for relax or entertainment, but all those listeners who are ready to venture into the shifting and challenging worlds created by the artist will be rewared with one of the most exciting collections of music that have been published in recent times.
#2) Soap&Skin, “From Gas to Solid / you are my friend”
I remember very well my first musical encounter with Soap&Skin because her debut album, 2009’s Lovetune for Vacuum, coincided with my first purchase on iTunes. At that time I was excited by how it was becoming easy and immediate to discover and acquire music from virtually unknown artist and that excitment, to some extent, had led me to feel a sort of special connection with the album of the Austrian artist. After a short while, however, I realized that despite the LP was for sure a promising debut from a young musician, in the end it resulted less longeve and amazing than what I had felt after the first few listens. The kind of experimental music played by Anja Plaschg was absolutely evocative and also quite original. What didn’t convince me, however, was that alongside some very good songs, objectively emotional and exciting to hear, there were many other tracks that resulted extremely intimate and overly personal: fragments of experiences that for sure represented something very important in the life of the artist but which, once translated into music, resulted not really communicative and poor of emotions for the external listener.
In the recent years I lost sight of this artist and therefore I was a little surprised, and curious, when I received the news of her new album, called From Gas to Solid / you are my friend. But more than the news by itself, I was particularly impressed to discover how Anja Plaschg gained in confidence and maturity in years that have passed since her first two records.
Soap&Skin’s new LP is characterized many positive features. The style is still experimental and also permeated by a general atmosphere of darkness and anxiety. The palette of sounds, however, is much more varied and alongside the usual fragments of piano and other classical instruments we have today chamber choruses, lots of different percussion instruments, ambient noises and delicate layers of synths. Flashes of light come from time to time to illuminate the darkness, and this makes the LP definitely more dynamic and enjoyable to hear. It’s as if a vein of positivity has been grafted into the music of the Austrian artist, and the resulting contrast between light and shadows makes the overall picture much more compelling.
From Gas to Solid / you are my friend is the album that in my opinion marks the maturity of Soap&Skin. Some songs continue to be a bit too cryptic for the casual listener, but for all those who like neoclassical moods and are also ready to embrace dark ambient atmospheres, this album will offer intense emotions and a rewarding musical experience.
#1) Postcards, “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”
Dreamy Pop / Indie Rock
This LP was one of the first indie pop records that were reviewed this year in this blog and therefore is surprising enough to find it firmly on top of the chart now that we have eventually arrived to the final selection for 2018, in particular if we consider that it’s a debut work.
I’ll be here in the morning is the first album released by Postcards, a dreamy-pop & indie rock band formed in Beirut, Lebanon, on late 2012. Postcards describe their music as “hushed, introspective vocals floating over expansive sonic spaces that shift between harsh noise and dreamy soundscapes”. Such definition may be a little too complex and sophisticated, but there is no doubt that the music offered in this debut LP is of absolute value and it contains many elements of innovation, in particular when taking into account the current status of the indie pop scene.
One of the most exciting aspects of I’ll be here in the morning is that the songs seem as they are not completely defined: they move between areas of lightness and tranquillity and other sections which are definitely more dark,meditative, with melodies that initially appear serene and peaceful but, during the development of the songs, start to show also ambiguous and subtly disturbing elements. The album is also characterized by a nice alternation of intimate songs and more angry and polemical moments. In short, it’s a concentration of extremely different moments which are however interconnected by a style of music that remains coherent and effective across the nine tracks of the record.
Finally, it’s worth to say that despite we are evidently looking at the first steps of a promising career, these four musicians from Beirut already show ecellent songwriting skills, togethr with an impressive musical sensibility. If Poscards will confirm these qualities in their future works, they are destined to do great things in music. And I will be there to remind you that I was one of those few who discovered their value since their debut record.
As anticipated at the beginning of the article, you may enjoy the best songs from these albums in a special Playlist that I’ve just created on Spotify! Listen to it and spread the word!
I was not sure, at first, wheter to present an update of my selection of the best songwriters of 2018, or rather to wait until next month and publish the final “End of the Year List”. In the end I decided to go for the update, mainly because in the recent months there were a few very important releases, including Kurt Vile, Thomas Dybdahl and Michelle Mandico, and I thought it might be nice to see them together with the other artists that made this year so exciting.
You’ll find below an update of my personal selection of the best records by contemporary singer-songwriters. Compared to the previous episode, which appeared on last September, there are new entries and also some repositioning between some of the artists who were already included.
Enjoy this list and also the music that has been selected for each one of the selected artist. And stay tuned in view of the final chart, which will arrive approximately in one month from now.
#1) King Dude, “Music To Make War To”
American songwriter Thomas Jefferson Cowgill is one of those artists who likes to move between extremely different forms of expression. In his brilliant musical career he now operates under the pseudonym of King Dude and with such new artistic identity he has already released a good number of excellent pubications. As a matter of fact, listening to King Dude’s discography one may think that’s it is practically impossible for him to publish low quality works and his latest record, Music to Make War To totally confirms this trajectory.
King Dude’s new album looks like as a perfect blend between The National and Nick Cave, in which however the melodic elements of the songs always prevail over the more introspective aspect of the music. As expected the album is deeply rooted on that melancholic tone which has become one of the most recognizable elements of King Dude’s music (what’s sometimes referred to as “dark folk” or “goth folk”), nevertheless melancholy is partially alleviated in Dude’s new album through a lightness of approach and also a research for musical simplicity which are at times totally disarming.
Arrived to the seventh record of his great discography, King Dude has succeded in the apparent impossible operation to make catchy and somehow “radio friendly” songs which still convey the emotional intensity and the darkness that we appreciated in his previous works.
#2) Sarah McQuaid, “If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous”
Madrid-born, Chicago-raised and UK-based singer and songwriter Sarah McQuaid has explored in her valuable career many shades of folk and alt rock, and listening to her most recent works we can realize how profound and rich this journey has been. Sarah’s last and fifht release, If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, is her more mature album so far, and the songs of the LP capture the artist in a phase of full confidence in her capacities.
In McQuaid’s new album, the artist meditates over challenging themes and evokes intimate and sometimes desolate atmospheres. Most of the songs of are characterized by dark tones and rarefied melodies, so don’t expect to find crystal-clear melodies and danceable but, rather, get ready for a melancholic journey where the happy ending is not always guaranteed.
The main feeling that emerges from If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous seems to be the serene acceptance of human nature and the fact that sometimes we have only a minor role before the regular and imperturbable cycle of life. This cosmic message is partly evoked by the artist’s voice and lyrics, and partly by the haunting, minimal and evocative music, which is the real added value of the album. We have a few ballads in the classic style of folk, with violins and acoustic guitars, but the peak of the emotions, in my opinion, is reached when the Sarah McQuaid sings accompanied by only the reverberation of her electric guitar, which arrives to you hears as an echo from distant worlds, like memories from your past that suddenly appear in a corner of your thoughts, leaving a feeling of conscious abandonment.
#3) Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood, “With Animals”
The discography of American iconic singer-songritwer Mark Lanegan has become so full of different and heterogenous entries that there is a specific page on Wikipedia that is dedicated to report all of his releases and appearances, which include many solo albums, a bunch of EPs and a vastity of collaborations with other bands and musicians. As part of this large number of collaborations, in 2013 Lanegan released an interesting record with English singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood. The album, called Black Pudding, received however mixed reactions from the public and the critics, partly due to the absolutely secondary role that was given to Gardwood, but also because Black Pudding, in the end, resulted as an extremely monochromatic and predictable album, with Lanegan anchored to his consolidated formula of dark and bluesy folk.
Five years after Black Pudding, Lanegan and Darkwood have released a second collaborative effort, named With Animals, and since the first couple of songs it’s clear that the harmony and the spiritual connection between the two has largely improved. For the casual listener this album could appear quite similar to the last few works by Lanegan, but this is not true if you go beyond the surface.
With Animals is a solid and inspired album, where all the songs are linked and correlated by a sort of spiritual connection, something which makes you feel like venturing into the darkest and most disturbing areas of your inner self. Darkness, restlessness, impotence. These are the feelings that emerge when you listen to With Animals, which don’t come only from the raspy voice of Lanegan, but this time also from a stronger contribution by Garwood and his hypnotic guitar loops. Garwood’s, in many moments of the album, reaches peaks of absolute beauty and in a few cases it even takes the lead over Lanegan’s voice.
If you’re not discouraged by the minimal arrangements, the slow rhythms and the dark and oppressive atmospheres, With Animals can become a valuable companion to your moments of reflection and relax.
#4) Michelle Mandico, “Ptarmigan”
Michelle Mandico is a young singer-songwriter from Colorado, in the U.S., who released this year an impressive debut album, Ptarmingan, which not only showcases her remarkable musical sensitivity and expressive voice, but that enters immediately among the best indie folk releases of the year.
The release notes of Ptarmigan say that Michelle spent 2 years writing and recording her album, and from what we hear the result of such effort is evident. Without knowing the details of Mandico’s writing process, I presume that most of the work consisted in “lightening” the music by removing all the superfluous components and putting the melodies and her sublime voice at the centre of each song. Ptarmingan is in fact extremely delicate and soft, and the arrangements are made so as to leave in each song an area of apparent emptiness to be filled by the listener’s imagination. This is music that has the ability to relieve you from the thoughts and concerns of your day, whilst Mandico’s voice captures your heart.
Yes, the voice. I believe that there are skills and abilities that can be learned and improved with hard work. However, there are also innate talents that every person possesses as a gift. That of Michelle Mandico, in my opinion, is to enchant the listeners with her beautiful voice.
From a musical point of view, Ptarmingan follows a style of American folk that’s quite close to the classics of the genre. This is probably one aspect on which Michelle Mandico can now concentrate her efforts, trying to develop a more characteristic and unique sound. The musical performance is however flawless and it also benefits from the value of the musicians who collaborated to this project.
There is a new talent in the music scene, she is a songwriter gifted by an extraordinary and fascinating voice that we will follow con interest and curiosity in her next steps.
#5) First Aid Kit, “Ruins”
First Aid Kit, the Swedish folk duo consisting of the two Söderberg sisters, released in January 2018 a new album, Ruins, which enriches an already interesting and valid discography. In ten years of career, the duo has in fact released to date four EPs and just as many LPs, reaching the very first positions of the Swedish charts and collecteing also many important awards at international level.
Ruins is particularly interesting record because it shows a clear desire of the two sisters to experiment with new styles and directions for their music, in particular as regards the increased presence of elements of country music. Even if they’re still relatively young (the older of the two, Johanna, hasn’t reached yet her thirty years) the two Söderber sisters have already demonstrated a remarkable musical maturity, and in this respect the songs of their latest album show a further improvement in terms of musical sensibility and songwriting skills.
#6) Thomas Dybdahl, “All These Things”
One year after the release of his appreciated album The Great Plains, Thomas Dybdahl is back with a new work called All These Things, which indicates that the artist must be experiencing a period of particular creativity.
An element that amazed me last year on the occasion of Dybdahl’s previous record, and which still surprises me as I listen to All These Things, is how Dybdahl’s music is so warm and soft, which is basically the opposite of what you would expect when thinking of the cold lands of Norway. The atmospheres that emanate from the songs of his new album are extremely relaxed and intimate, and the effect is further amplified by the absolute elegance of the arrangements. The persistent tranquility and warmth of the music allow the album to flow placidly and smoothly from the beginning to the end, but at the same time – at least for a distracted listener – it might also appear that All These Things doesn’t offer any burst of emotions, or any moment where the shallow calm is broken by a sudden wave of energy. In reality what happens is that most of the beauty of Dybdhal’s new work is hidden in the details of each song, as well as in the overall balance that has been achieved among the various components of the music. Therefore, it’s really difficult to appreciate the real value of the album with only a superficial listening.
In the best tradition of Dybdahl’s productions there are always a couple of songs in every album which stand out from the others, and this is confirmed also in his latest LP. However, both the style and the dominating atmospheres that we find in the songs of the album are extremely similar and, in the end, All These Things, taken as a whole, is definitely more uniform and homogeneous than Dybdahl’s previous records. This is partly due to the fact that the album was recorded in the course of only 3 days. As the author explained, it was a sort of reaction to the fact that his previous album was much more focused on the production and on the sonic aspect of the songs.
Another element of interest of the album is given by the fact that Dybdahl collaborated with a cast of talented artists, including American songwriter and producer Larry Klein, American composer and pianist Patrick Warren and American guitarist Dean Parks. And when you launch the album it really seems to be surrounded by an ensemble of excellent musicians, playing just for you, in a relaxed environment, creating precious and fragile fragments of melodies over delicate sequence of chords.
#7) Holly Miranda, “Mutual Horse”
There are only few things in music that are more beautiful than the magic that’s reached when creativity and authenticity are combined with the beauty of the melodies and the depth of the songs. This special combination of factors may be found in the songs of Holly Miranda‘s latest album, Mutual Horse.
Arrived at her fourth solo LP, the American singer-songwriter has definitely mastered the expressive abilities of her peculiar style and of her intriguing voice. The songs of her new record, in fact, range between different and sometimes contrasting atmospheres but all of them share the same fluency and enjoyability, two characteristics which make the experience of listening like an emotional journey along delicate, quiet and sometimes poignant atmospheres.
Maybe there isn’t any track with the credentials to become an “hit” but taken in its entirety this is probably one of the best LPs composed and recorded by Holly Miranda up to this point.
#8) Kurt Vile, “Bottle It In”
If someone should ask me whose artist I would be able to recognize after listening only to a few guitar chords, I would definitely say Kurt Vile. Few songwriters have in fact developed a style so easily identifiable as the American musician did in the ten years of his career. This characteristic certainly represents a positive aspect from the point of view of musical identity, but it also means that Kurt Wile’s records, at least at first impact, seem to be all the same. Clearly this is not the case, even because all the longterm fans of Kurt Wile (as I am) can easily appreciate that across his eight studio albums there are physiological highs and lows. In such a range of values, Bottle It In, which is Kurt Vile’s most recent effort, places approximately in the middle.
In one hand, in fact, the album indulges in melodies and harmonies that are at times so simple and essential to seem almost improvised, but on the other hand the songs played by Kurt Vile continue to provide us with little sketches of contemporary poetry, always nice and fascinating to hear.
And even if some of the songs may give us the idea that the album came out sooner than the right time, it remains always a pleasure to have something new from a talented and unique singer-songwriter like Kurt Vile.
#9) L.A. Salami, “The City of Bootmakers”
I want to be honest: if L.A. Salami entered the list of the best songwriters of the year it’s mainly because of one specific song of his 2018’s LP The City of Bootmakers, a tune that’s stuck in my mind since the beginning of the year and which doesn’t want to go away. I’m talking of the song I Need Answers, which is probably one of the most beautiful modern ballads that I’ve heard this year and that highlights the multifaceted style of this young artist.
London singer and songwriter Lookman Adekunle Salami, best known as L.A. Salami, is one of those artists who manages to escape from easy labels. On the contrary, he’s one that demands to his listeners dedication and attention because of the complexity and charm of his music. Hovering constantly over the thin boundary which separates pop from folk, the tracks of his records seem to be written for a niche of listeners, and only sporadically the musical language of this artist manages to find a more immediate and easily understandable expression for the casual listener.
On L.A. Salami’s second album, The City of Bootmakers, the artist showcases a very unique blend of styles and inspirations, but he also addresses deep and challenging subjects, which are treated however with an uncommon class and profoundity. The musical part isn’t always up to the author’s ambitions, but in the most successful songs we may enjoy one of the most charming and stylish songwriters of his generation.
#10) Ellens Starski, “The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants”
Tennessee-based singer-songwriter Ellen Starski released in 2018 her solo debut album, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants, which collects the folk songs that she wrote over the course of the last 12 years. The album highlights the many influences that contributed to define her style of music: stripped-down and melodic folk ballads that are reminiscent of the the early works from Bob Dylan, Tori Amos, Patti Smith and to some extent also Paul Cohen.
A special mention is necessary for Ellens’ emotional voice, which is often the real added value of the album. Throughout the songs of the LP the artist sings of her homeland, she tells personal anedoctes or reflects upon the beauty of nature, with a style that is both an homage to the masters of the past and also a celebration of the magic of folk.
Taken as a whole, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants features a very valuable and enjoyable collection of indie-folk songs, some of them particularly exciting, and we expect good things for her future, ideally with a style that will become, with the years, even more unique and particular.
All the artists that were included in this chart, together with others that didn’t appear, are featured in the playlist MODERN SONGWRITERS. Listen to it and follow it, because it’s updated periodically with new songs.
This article is an update of a previous post that appeared in this blog on July 2018, when I introduced the best four traditional folk albums that were released in the first half of the year. The original selection has expanded and the list now includes a few additional masterpieces that were published in the last couple of months.
In the few weeks that remain before the end of the year we may expect some last minute entry, anyway the music presented in this page starts to be representative of the status of traditional folk in 2018. Which is definitely healthy and lively, as testified by the fact that there are two debut albums within the seven that are part of the selection.
Enjoy this list, and also the songs that have been selected for each record. Traditional folk, as I already wrote, is a genre of music where you can really feel the internal battle between tradition and innovation. And when this inner tension meets the skill and talent of a great artist, here we have those masterpieces that we love so much.
#1) Kyle Carey, “The Art of Forgetting”
Despite being a relatively young contributor to the folk world, American songwriter Kyle Carey has already taken a prominent role among the representatives of American Celtic music, which is that special style of folk that mixes together western European sounds with American (in this case Appalachian) elements.
On early 2018 Kyle Carey released the third full-lenght album of her discography, named The Art of Forgetting, and all the good things that have been said and written so far were totally confirmed by her new record. The beauty of Carey’s last album is further enhanced by the quality of the musicians who have been called to contribute to the recording of the songs. The release notes of the LP show that Carey has called together a super team of artists. Just to mention a few ones, we have singer, violinist and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), American guitarist Sam Broussard (from the Cajun band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys), and Scottish folk musician and composer John McCusker.
One of the most interesting aspects of Carey’s music is the absolute ability that she manifests in exploring different musical influences without ever altering and distorting the essential element of his style. And whatever is the inspiration of her songs, it may be an Irish ballad or an American poem, everything is shaped and incorporated into the music in an extremely natural way, creating a collection of songs that whilst showing an impressive stylistic coherence, at the same time are gifted by a variety of nuances that make the listening experience extremely pleasant.
#2) Bird in the Belly, “The Crowing”
Nowadays the UK folk scene seems particolary active, as witnessed by the fact that there is a new generation of artists that are gaining increased attention and consensus. Within the family of the younger folk bands, Bird in the Belly was formed a few years ago by a collective of artists and musicians with the stated objective to rediscover old and lesser known stories from the ancient British folk tradition, and present them to the public in the form of contemporary folk songs.
The Crowing is the debut LP from the band, and this record somehow shows all the merits, but also the defects, which we can expect from this type of operation. On the one hand we perceive all the charm of ancient and gothic folklore, here offered to the public by means of old-style melodies and enchanting atmospheres. The musical performance is unexceptionable and we can really feel the accurate work that was done by all the members of the collective to transpose into songs – and valorize – the original lyrical material. On the other hand, however, there is at times a certain “coldness”, or better “seriousness”, of the overall performance. We miss in a few songs that special feeling of urgency and transport which can only emerge when music become the way through wich an author expresses his inner feelings.
Taken as a whole, however, the record is enjoyable as well as interesting and quite original and this justifies its position among the bery best folk releases of the year. A special note of merit goes to Ben Webb (who plays under the stage name of Jinnwoo), a young and promising British artist who showcases here an impressive and special talent to give life to every song where he sings.
#3) Blowzabella, “Two Score”
Blowzabella aren’t absolutely newcomers in the folk world. This unique and characteristic English formation celebrates in 2018 their 40th year of activity (“two-scores”) and of course there are many records and publications released by them to date. In case there is someone approaching the band for the first time, what’s necessary to know is that Blowzabella distinguished themselves for their particular and truly unique style of music where traditional folk is merged with drone music. A vast array of acoustic instruments are in fact played and manipulated in order to obtain sounds and rhythms that are typical of the dance world (a “wall of sound” as they like to say), but always played with a traditional spirit. One could really say that the music of Blowzabella is one of those happy cases where the union between two distant worlds, in this case the legacy of the folk tradition and the spirit of innovation, has produced something that’s much larger than the sum of the original elements.
The last album by Blowzabella, Two Score, shows the band in a state of absolute grace: the maturity acquired by these musicians over the years is still supported by the desire to experiment new sounds and rhythms, so that their songs are never the mere repetition of schemes and tricks from the past repertoire. The LP offers also a relative variety among its tracks, and in the end the only thing these musicians ask to the listener is to free the spirit, start dancing and be carried away by the frenetic, hypnotic and magical music they’re creating for us.
#4) Kittel & Co, “Whorls”
American fiddler and violinist Jeremy Kittel has gained quite a relevant reputation as one of the most talented performer and composers of celtic folk and bluegrass, with a style which emphasizes both his technical skills and a special taste for timeless melodies. He’s been involved in many projects, both as a soloist and with supporting partners. In his most recent release, Whorls, he offers a new exciting collection of folk songs that are enriched by many different influences, including traditional celtic music, baroque classical melodies, American bluegrass and a few hints of jazz.
A number of skilled musicians contributed to Whorls, including mandolin phenom Josh Pinkham, guitarist Quinn Bachand, cellist Nathiel Smith, Simon Chrisman on dulcimer and also vocalist Sarah Jarosz. The quality of the performances is extraordinary, and the songs offer a good level of variety and surprises to keep the attention high along the entire record.
Beyond the value of the line-up, however, what I really appreciated in this LP is how the technical ability of Jeremy Kittel and his companions has been put at the service of a profound musicality. Rather than appearing as a mere demonstration of the skills of the performers, Whorls is ultimately a beautiful collection of engaging and enjoyable folk songs. There are some passages which make me stay open-mouthed for the expertise of the musicians in playing their instruments and also for the complex and articulate harmonies that they create, but what remains in my mind at the end of the record is the sweet and touching music I heard.
#5) The Furrow Collective, “Fathoms”
When a group of talented musicians who have already gained fame and appreciation as soloists decide to come together and form a new group, it’s not for granted that the final result will be up to the expectations. In the case of The Furrow Collective, however, the artists have reached a level of cohesion and unity so high that the goal is absolutely achieved. One of the reasons that made it possible is the fact that the music played by The Furrow Collective is composed by subtractions rather than overlaps, and each one of the participants has shown great wisdom and talen in dosing his own contribution without ever trying to stand out among the others.
The Furrow Collective is an English/Scottish traditional folk band, formed by artists of the caliber of Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell (from the Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell duo), Rachel Newton and Emily Portman. In the timespan of 5 years the band has released 3 full-lenght studio albums, and has already won the attention of both fans and critics. Fathoms is their most recent record and it confirms all the qualities that these musicians had already shown in their previous releases.
From a musical point Fathoms offers a particular and intriguing version of traditional folk which is enriched with many atmospheric and ambient-like elements. The tones are extremely delicate and, as I alerady mentioned, the overall lightness of the songs is mostly due to the impressive work that was done by each member of the band to keep his contribution extremely minimal, at times almost imperceptible. Many of the melodies in Fathoms are only alluded, outlined, rather than completely defined by the instruments, and this helps the music to be always ethereal and suspended. Musically speaking, this is and extremely precious and delicate version of traditional folk that grows from the silence and which, because of that, risks to be dampened by the background noise. This music is not meant for being played from the speakers of the car or listened when you travel in the subway, it would be crashed from the external chaos. The songs of Fathoms, on the other hand, have the power to make you fly over distant and magic worlds, you have only to find the right moment to do it.
#6) Solasta, “A Cure for the Curious”
Despite their young age and their relatively recent appearance in the UK folk scene, Solasta are gaining increasing notoriety because of their peculiar style of celtic folk, wich incorporates many elements from classical and jazz, and also for their lively exhibitions. Solasta is composed by three young but already acclaimed instrumentalists: award-winning fiddler Elisabeth Flett, cellist Hannah Thomas and guitarist Jamie Leeming. But well beyond the talent of the individual musicians, it’s the emotional cohesion that they have achieved which makes thier music so effective and, at times, magical.
Solasta debuted in 2016 with a self-titled EP, and they released this year their debut LP, named A Cure for the Curious. The songs recorded by the trio don’t correspond to that idea of “popular” celtic folk (I would say “commercial”) that too often has been released for the masses of casual listeners. The music of Solasta is in fact deep and articulated, full of references and elements from ancient music, and it requires a certain patience and dedication to be appreciated in its entirety. The musical lines that are played by the three instruments intertwine in fact one with the other, generating articulated harmonies and atmospheres that are sometimes dreamy and joyful, sometimes darker and more reflective.
The songs that I like the most in A Cure for the Curious are the most melancholic, and in this respect one can see how these three musicians have been working hard for enhancing the emotional aspect of their music, rather than just focusing on the the uniqueness of their performance.
#7) Stick In The Wheel, “Follow Them True”
English folk band Stick in the Wheel, from East London, is bring a contemporary approach to celtic folk with theor style characterized by raw minimalism, setting vocals, simple accompaniments and handclaps. Follow Them True is their second album and it arrives two years and half after their 2015’s debut work, From Here.
Since the beginning of their career this quintet of folk enthusiasts has adopted an austere and formal approach to folk music, which is characterized also by the choice to use only acoustic instrumentation. As a result, their songs have always an ancient and suggestive charm which further exalts the fantastic voice of the singer Nicola Kearey. In their new album you won’t find danceable songs or pop-folk motifs, but rather a very good collection of ancient ballads and melodies of the past, all revisited with an aggressive spirit.
Only in some moments the tension and the austherity seem to leave the field for slightly more relaxed and poetic tones, and perhaps these are the most accessible and enjoyable parts of the disc, at least for the casual listener.
Many of the songs that were included in this post are featured on MELANCHOLIC FOLK, the playlist I’m curating on Spotify with the most moving and emotional folk songs.
And if you liked the music selected in this page, you will love my mixtape FOREVER AUTUMN. 37 minutes of pure poetry.
There are genres of music that seem to be born for being mixed together. Stoner rock and Psychedelic rock are two of these and it is no coincidence that there is now a specific and well populated current of artists that are specialized on this style of music.
Psychedelic stoner rock merges the warm and slightly abrasive sounds of classic stoner with the hypnotic and progressive approach to music of psychedelic rock. And the marriage is so perfect that the union between these two styles of music manages to keep all the specific characteristics of the two starting genres but, at the same time, generates something unique and new. Call it alchemy, or musical magic, this is what the psychedelic stoner artists have learned to do.
I’m presenting in this article the best psychedelic stoner albums we heard so far in 2018. Five bands, five different approaches to music, but the same impressive level of quality. Enjoy the reading and don’t forget to listen to this spectacular music.
#1) All Them Witches, “ATW”
Less than two years after their beautiful album Sleeping Through the War, we’re gifted with new LP from All Them Witches, and it was for me one of the most beautiful surprises I had in the recent months. It’s always good when a rock band is experiencing a phase of creative inspiration, but this time I was particularly impressed because in the short lapse of a year and half these rockers from Nashville have made a gigantic step forward in their musical evolution and ATW, their new record, has the full potential to project the band into the exclusive club of the most important bands of contemporary stoner rock.
The stylistic growth experienced by All Them Witches took place through the development of an absolutely unique and personal musical language, an evident evolution of the style that they had already presented in their previous works but that only today, arrived at the fifth studio LP of their discography, seems to have found its final maturity. What happened to the band and what’s the cause of such an improvement? I don’t have many elements to make my hypotheses, but I think it’s a matter of increased confidence in their capabilities. Listening to the songs of the new record we realize in fact that All Them Witches have understood the reach of their talent, and they eventually decided to abandon the usual routes and venture into darker and unexplored meanders, which proved to be closer to their musical sensibility.
From a musical point of view, the songs in ATW seem to belong to two main categories. The first one is the group of what I like to the “apparently conventional” songs, i.e. pieces that seem to reproduce initially a very precise stylistical model but then develop into something different, and extremely intriguing. An example is given by the energetic song 1st vs 2nd that starts as a standard stoner rock tune but then, through a crescendo that you would expect to fade but which always increases in intensity, evolves into an obsessive mid-tempo thrash metal riff that would not disfigure in a song by Metallica. The second category of songs collects a series of beautifully dark, slow, hypnotic and slimy bluesy ballads. These are the songs of the album where the music really seems to came directly from the soul of the artists. The architecture of these pieces is minimal, essential and usually based on the repetition of a note, a chord, or a simple riff, with elements that are then incrementally added one on top of the others and which, one by one, increase the overall tension of the piece. In this category of songs the psychedelic element is still present but always dosed with great wisdom. The fantastic and majestic Diamond is perhaps the most representative song of this second group of tracks.
Beyond the value of individual songs, however, it’s the album in its entirety that deserves the most sincere compliments. This was really a surprise from a band that has definitely entered a new phase of its career, signed by an improved stylistic maturity and also by the full awareness of the expressive capabilities that their music have gained in the last few years.
#2) Weedpecker, “III”
Weedpecker are a relatively new psychedelic stoner band from Poland. In the relatively short timespan of six years since their formation the band has already released three full-lenght LPs, all of them of absolute value. The last one, named III as the position that the album has in the discography of the band, is a joyful ride through desert soundscapes burned by the sun.
It’s possible to recognize many different influences in their sound, but these rockers from Warsav managed however to consolidate a unique style and direction for their music, which may be summarized as a dirty and fuzzed version of stoner rock. As correctly reported in the album release notes, III sees Weedpecker experimenting with light and colorful jams that remind the listener of bands like Tame Impala or Morgan Delt. Moving seamlessly between styles and moods organically, it’s easy to get lost, only to find yourself emerged in a different world entirely.
A couple of songs of the album (Embrace and Liquid Sky) may be considered real masterpieces of this particular style of music.
#3) ASG, “Survive Sunrise”
ASG is one of those bands that didn’t achieve the success they deserved. Active since 2001, this quartet of veteran stoner rockers have gained the status of cult band in the underground movement, but they remain fairly little known to the international audiences. Probably this is because their studio albums can’t match the reputation which they gained for their wildly energetic live shows. Anyway, for everyon who’s been lucky enough to appreciate the works of this band from North Carolina, the news of the release of a new album is always welcomed with great enthusiasm.
Survive Sunrise, their sixth full length album, is also the first in five years since their previous LP. Their newest record provides the listener with another fine selection of psychedelic stoner rock. Most of the songs have mid paced rhythms and the music conveys in general the feeling of a hot and sweaty evening, when the sun slowly gives way to the blue of the night and your face, burned by the sun rays and made harsh from the dust, can finally enjoy a breath of fresh air. Singable and delicate melodies develop over the psychedelic and southern atmospheres that are drawn by the guitars, and the scene is then completed by the incredible voice of Jason Shi.
Survive Sunrise is a really solid and valid album from a band that, despite not being very prolific, has always managed to leave its mark in the stoner world with every new work. Perhaps the stylistic choice to attenuate the most energeting aspects of stoner rock in favor of a more introspective and visionary approach to music won’t allow them to achieve heavy rotations and mainstream success. Their road, however, is signed and these guys don’t seem interested to negotiate popularity with their unique and special vision of rock music.
#4) Graveyard, “Peace”
Graveyard, from Sweden, belong to the large family of contemporary revivalist formations that repropose in a modern key a style of hard rock and blues that’s deeply inspired by the music of the 70’s. Although I’ve never been one of the greatest fans of the band, I was among those who remained impressed by the fantastic album that Graveyard released in 2011, Healingen Blues, which is the LP that basically launched them in the Olympus of modern rock. Since then I’ve always followed with great interest the activity of this group, which moved somewhat erratically between publications of great value and some missteps.
This year Graveyards have released a new album, Peace, which is the fifth studio record of their discography. The genesis of this work has been somewhat troubled. The band has just come out of a tormented period in which first they suddenly broken up and then, after a streak of cancelled gigs and also a few months of inactivity, they reunited and eventually came back into the studio with a slightly varied formation. For what is my experience these are the cases in which a group typically produces the most extreme works: musical masterpieces that testify to the indomitable spirit of a band that has managed to overcome the difficulties due to the urgency of communicating the music that they had inside, or weak and inhomogeneous albums that may represent, at best, a new beginning. Peace, unfortunately, does not belong to the first category and in fact we are far from the class and the passion that emerged from their flagship record. Fortunately, however, there are many good moments and flashes of light in their new work that we can’t really say that the band is starting again from the scratch.
The good news is that the signature components of Graveyard’s music are still here: liquid guitars, exciting psychedelic sections, bluesy vocals and berautiful stoner atmospheres. We can even highlight a certain evolution of their sound towards somewhat more “metallic” regions. Among the aspects that don’t convince me completely, however, there is the fact that the riffs in Peace, in general, are not engaging and catchy as in the past, and this makes me think that the composition process wasn’t exactly spontaneous (and that’s sincerely the least we could expect given the premises). During the 42 minutes of Peace, however, there are moments of absolute beauty like the conluding song Low, the openin track It Ain’t Over Yet and the brilliant Walk On. These make us forget about everything else and which, in the end, make us grateful to the Muse of music that this exceptional band is back on the scene.
#5) King Buffalo, “Repeater” + “Longing to Be The Mountain”
Generally I’m not for including EPs in this kind of charts, but sometimes it’s necessary to make some exceptions and Repeater, from King Buffalo, is a work of such quality that it couldn’t be excluded from this article.
King Buffalo is a trio of extremely talended psychedelic rockers from New York. In 2013, three years after their formation, the band released their first full-lenght work, Orion, which gained in short time a relevant consideration, initially limited to the underground scene but which rapidly expanded to an international audience. These guys play in fact a beautiful kind of psychedelic rock with many elements from blues, stoner and sludge. Early in 2018 the band published a short EP with three tracks, named Repeater, that was later followed by a proper full-lenght LP, named Longing to Be the Mountain.
Both the two releases show the impressive capabilitiy of the trio to create poetical, psychedelic and dreamy atmospheres. Their songs are hypnotic and psychic anthems or epic stoner ballads which grow slowly, with no rush, reaching moments of pure beauty.
If you enjoyed these bands, you will appreciate the two playlists that I’m curating on Spotify for stoner. The first, DUST AND SAND, is dedicated to the more energic side of this genre of music while the second one, THE DELICATE SOUND OF THUNDER, is more focused on the intimate and psychedelic aspects of stoner. Listen, follow and spread the word!
Among the musical genres that have benefited the most from the worldwide diffusion of the modern platforms for the distribution of digital music, there are electro-acoustic and minimal music. Thanks to universal success achieved by famous Spotify playlists such as Peaceful Piano, Piano Ballads and Piano in the Background, we’re literally invaded by hundreds of new composers promoting their pieces for piano. Unfortunately, however, such proliferation of artists had the collateral effect we often come across to self-proclamed piano artist whose main talent is not the music, but rather the capacity to intercept the trends and to satisfy the tastes of the casual listeners.
In my endless research for the most beautiful songs I bump into a lot of insignificant music. As a result, finding truly valuable songs for piano music has become increasingly difficult, and that’s basically the reason why I like so much to select and collect every single good piece I come across.
Browsing into the entries of my collections I identified a group of songs that are among the best pieces for piano released since the beginning of the year. Fortunately this list doesn’t exhaust the number of good songs that were released in 2018 and other articles could easily follow this one. The songs in this page, in any case, provide you with an excellent representation of the status of contemporary piano music.
Saman, by Ólafur Arnalds, from the album re:member.
Rays of Light, by Tigran Hamasyan, from the EP Rays of Light.
In Metaphor, Solace, by Luke Howard, from the album Open Heart Story.
The Roughest Trade, by Nils Frahm, from the EP Encores 1.
Sesal, by Kristoffer Wallin, from the album The River.
Present Tense, by Chilly Gonzales, from the album Solo Piano III.
Nagorno Mist, by Vusal Zeinalov, from the EP Beauty of Kura.
Martello, by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, from the album Epoques.
Continuum, by Michael Logozar, fromt the album Kaleidoscope.
Faithful, by Chad Lawson, from the album Home Sweet Home: The 2018 Lore Variations.
Rather than pointing at a well defined and specified genre of music, the term Gothic Metal indicates a broad scope of bands which combine heavy sounds with dark atkmospheres, melancholic melodies, romantic or gloomy lyrics. In the history of modern music the main exponents of this gothic approach to music were bands of the caliber of Type o Negative, Anathema, My Dying Bride and of course Paradise Lost (the term “gothic” actually entered heavy metal music with their beautiful album Gothic, published in 1991).
Today, many of the bands that have helped to develop this kind of metal have moved to play other styles of music, but there are still other groups that continue to explore with their songs the sounds, the atmospheres and the lyrical themes associated to the gothic world.
I’m presenting in this article three albums released in 2018 that represent, despite their differences, the best examples of contemporary gothic metal. You will discover groups that started from genres like death metal, folk or even industrial metal but which then expanded from there and incorporated in their songs the characteristic elements of gothic music.
Unfortunately the Swedish formation Usurpress had to face this year a terrible tragedy, perhaps the worst of their life as a band. On June 2018 their singer and frontman Stefan Pettersson lost his battle with cancer. The amount of suffering he endured to complete their last album Interregnum was incredible (“it will be legendary even in hell”, as the band wrote on their webpage), and we can’t avoid to feel the pain and despair of this great musician in the songs of the record.
It’s not yet clear at the moment if and how the band will proceed further, but for sure Pettersson’s departure arrive in a moment where Usurpress have reached on of the higest peaks of their career, in terms of quality and value of their music. In a scenario where most of the bands seem to flatten themselves on a specific genre of metal – in the worst cases without even trying to give their own special stylistic contribution – their music arrived in fact as an healthy blow of fresh air. In the eight years of their career, Usupress have carefully avoided the marshes of musical mannerism and have always and consistently strived for breaking the typical barriers which exist between musical genres. Started with as a relatively conventional death metal band, Usurpress embarked a roadmap of a musical evolution which has seen them incorporate, year after year, many different influences and also a number of absolutely original and unique ideas. A number of changes in the line-up has certainly contributed to this process, but there was evidently an innate creative restlessness in this band if you consider that even the songs of Interregnum move easily around different regions of metal: from prog-oriented sections inspired from the rock of the 70’s to gothic and melodic metal, from sludgy and heavy atmospheres to moments of crystalline musical poetry.
Interregnum is a beautiful and precious album plenty of dark, evocative and profound atmosphere. Sadly, it also represents the musical testament of Stefan Petterson.
Interregnum is available on Bandcamp and can be streamed also from Spotify.
Unshine are a gothic metal band from Finland, active since 2001, and which arrived with their new release Astrala to the fourth entry in their interesting discography. The band declares to play “druid metal”, but in the end their songs bring inside all the main elements of gothic music, in particular for what concerns the melanchonic, soft and feminine characters that we may appreciate in their music.
Similarly to the band’s previous releases, Astrala owes much of its beauty to the delicate and elegant voice of Susanna Vesilahti, the singer of the band, who gives a special romantic and dark touch to all the tracks of the LP.
Astrala is plenty of synthesizers and other instruments that provide the songs with an ejoyable element of folk and progressive. The rhythms are absolutely moderate, sometimes very slow, and in many sections of the album the guitars seem to play a secondary role. This is an album that you can play in the background for hours and hours and it won’t annoy you; there isn’t any special song that will polarize entirely your attention, but the album as a whole will bring you a gothic feeling and a dark touch to your day.
Crematory, from Germany, is a band of veterans of metal which is active from almost thirty years. With the exception of a couple of false steps, they have kept an impressive regularity of publications of good and valid records.
Crematory have consolidated through the years an interesting style of music which mixes together elements of gothic metal with industrial. Their latest full-lenght release, named Oblivion, doesn’t bring many changes with respect to what they have done in the recent years but the albums still signs a step forward compared to their previous work, Monument, especially for what concerns the instrumental component, which shines for compactness and improved dynamic.
This result was not for granted given the various problems that the band had face in recent times, including changes in the line-up and economic difficulties that have also led them to take up controversial positions in front of their supporters.
From a general point of view the music played by Crematory has never been particulary innovative or “trendy”, actually some of their songs seem even dangerously inspired by some other successes of the past (if you listen to the beautiful song Ghost of the Part you’ll see by yourself how it could be borrowed from One Second, the 1997’s album by Paradise Lost). Anyway, their music always seems of the same quality of the models that are taken as reference and, in the end, their new album is definitely enjoyable and cathcy to hear. If only for the desire I have to keep listening to their nice version of gothic music, I can only hope that Crematory will manage to overcome their problems, find greater stability and to continue following the path they have undertaken up to this point.
The end of 2018 is approaching, as well as the darkest, coldest and more obscure months of the year (at least for those who live in the upper emisphere). It’s seems the perfect time then to embark in a journey into one of the most haunting and creepy regions of the music universe: Death Metal.
This article presents the best ten releases that we could appreciated since the beginning of the year. You’ll find below so many songs and information that I don’t feel the need to spend so much time in introductory comments. Let me just clarify that I’m including here a family of records which belong to the wider family of sub-genres that can be included in the Death Metal category. These includes, as an example, blackened death metal, melodic death metal and death & thrash. I’m aware that this may annoy the purists of the genre, but I believe it’s the only way to get a complete picture of the status of Death Metal today. Enjoy!
#1) Necrophobic, “Mark Of The Necrogram”
(Blackened Death Metal)
Necrophobic are not newcomers of death metal. The band is about to reach the milestone of 30 years of a career in which, between highs and lows and also many changes in the line-up, they have achieved the status of one of the prominent figures in the international death metal scene. And with their newest release, Mark of the Necrogram, they confirmed once again to be among the best interpreters of that specific sub-genre that goes under the name of blackened death metal.
One of the most interesting aspects of Necrophobic’s new album is the return – after over twenty years of absence – of the band’s first singer, Anders Strokirk, who participated to the recording of the the legendary debut album The Nocturnal Silence and then left the band for more than twenty years. It was 1993, rock radios were rotating the songs of Metallica’s Black Album and, at that time, there weren’t so many bands playing the kind of music that these guys developed for their debut. Fast forward to current times and we see that blackened death metal is nowadays a genre of music quite inflated, and it’s not easy to emerge from the crowd. What’s then the secret that allowed Necrophobic to push themselves on top of the list after so many years of activity and a good bunch of excellent releases? As soon as you launch Mark of the Necrogram you need only a few minutes to get the answer: their unique ability to write incredibly catchy and engaging death metal riffs, further enriched by passionate and intriguing melodic sequences and black metal tremolos. The natural way in which splendid riffs follow each other is almost embarrassing, and in the end it’s possible to say that the entire album is packed with some of the best guitar works we had the chance to listen so far in 2018.
From a musical point of view, the album manages to stay in that unstable point of equilibrium between the roughness and darkness of black metal and the greater complexity and articulation of death metal. Rhythms are sustained, sometimes furious, and the final effect is that of a train launched in the darkness without any brakes. There are no moments of stilness or pauses where you can catch your breath, it’s like a dive into the void, a blind flight that you would never want to end for the emotions that you feel on your skin. A particular note of merit, finally, goes to the general production of the record, which has succeeded in enhancing all the different components of the songs.
I am aware that albums like Mark of the Necrogram may be a little controversial for those purists of extreme metal who don’t appreciate the introduction of so many melodic elements into the songs, but when the quality of the riffs is so phenomenal we can truly appreciate the incredible balance that was reached between obscurity and accessibility.
#2) Skeletonwitch, “Devouring Radiant Light”
(Blackened Death Metal / Death & Thrash)
There are bands that play what others have already invented, perhaps adding some minor variations over a musical style that was conceived, perfected and affirmed by other formations. Instead, there are groups that bring with them the precious light of innovation. Groups that escape from being easily cataloged within one or more genres and that are able to offer, on every album, something completely new and unexpected, music that although initially may be difficult to be intepreted and included in the old schemes, then becomes itself the reference for the subsequent works. One of these groups is Skeletonwitch, from Ohio, in the U.S.
From the moment I falled in love with this incredible formation (it was 2011, I remember walking along the streets of Rio de Janeiro with the songs of Forever Abomination playing in my headphones), there was not a single moment of quiet in the musical and stylistic evolution of their music. In the case of the last album, Devouring Radiant Light, the change has been even more evident because of the dismissal of their historic singer Chance Garnette, who was replaced by Wolvhammer‘s frontman, the talented Adam Clemans. But despite the single cases, what’s really astonishing is that at every publication from the band the process repeats itself: initial surprise, some moment of refocusing, and then you remain open-mouthed when you start appreciating the further step that the band has accomplished in terms of musical maturity. Yes, because that’s what the band keeps showing at every stage of their career: the ability to transform wild and brutal violence into complex and precious musical architectures where a thousand influences and multiple styles merge into a single powerful voice of desperation. The song Paradise Fades is maybe one of the most clear examples of the above: thrash metal banging riffs enriched with southern grooves, implanted on a black metal substrate, with death metal constructions linking the various sections of the piece. Brilliant. Or also the opening track Fen of Shadows: am I the only one who get a clear hint of Led Zeppelin‘s Stairway to Heaven?
In more general terms, Devouring Radiant Light shows a clear drift towards black metal, which becomes the main and binding element for all the tracks of the album. At the same time the new record is also one of the most melodic and atmospheric of the vand’s entire discography, whilst still remaining brutal, fierce and painful like a brick on the teeth. And perhaps it’s exactly this capacity to float between sensations apparently so distant and divergent which makes the record fascinating, unique and absolutely longeve. Every time I listen to one the songs of Devouring Radiant Light I happen to discover something new, while at the same time there are sections so poignant and moving that I still shiver even after many subsequent listens.
#3) Kalmah, “Palo”
(Melodic Death Metal / Folk Metal)
I have undoubtely a passion for melodic death metal and I admit that I tend to overappreciate the bands that play this kind of music. But every so often there is an album whose value transcends the borders of its specific genre and objectively becomes an interesting work of art, regardless of the type of music it offers. This is the case of Palo, the latest release from the Finnish melodic death band Kalmah.
Palo is in fact a solid and powerful album, which has the merit to merge brilliantly a series of incredible melodies with the frantic rhythms and the complex structures of death metal. One of the most impressive elements of their new record is the maturity that the band has achieved in balancing the various components of their sound: the catchiness and intensity of the thrash metal sections, the articulated dynamics of death metal riffs, and of course the folk elements that have always been one of the main characteristics of the band’s style. And it is no coincidence, then, that Palo is probably the first album where Kalmah succeed in going above that threshold of quality which separates good records from exceptional records. Maturity, in this case, derives from the fact that the band have now reached the eightheth album of their discography, and it’s further consolidated by the fact that the line-up is pratically the same since fifteen years ago, except for a change of keyboardist in 2012.
In the evolutionary process that has led the band to consolidate their current sound we recognize an almost constant growth of the role of the guitars, which today maintain an absolutely central role in the development of the songs of Palo. Both from the rhythmic and melodic points of view, the two guitars of Pekka and Antti Kokko dominate totally the scene and polarize almost constantly the listener’s attention. All the remaining instruments seem to support the game of reinforcements and chasing that the rhythmic and lead guitars like to play across all the songs of the LP.
As a futher element of interest, Kalmah have tried keep their style fresh and “modern” somehow “modern” with the introduction of a few “groovy” sections, which may even annoy the purists of death metal but that dont’s spoil the general quality of the work.
#4) Unleashed, “The Hunt for White Christ”
(Blackened Death Metal)
There is nothing to do: the experience and brilliance that are accumulated through years and years of records, tours and collaborations cannot be matched by the young bands unless you come across to something really phenomenal. And when you listen to an album like The Hunt for White Christ, which is the last release from the legendary Swedish band Unleashed, you perceive in just a few seconds all the value and the weight of what the band has acquired in thirty years of honorable career in death metal. And that’s why, in spite of the thousands of publications that are released every year by masses of young bands, in the end we find ourselves listening for most of the time to the old legends of metal.
Sacred monsters of metal like Unleashed manage to shape the musical material according to their will and this is done in such a natural way that they make appear easy what’s in reality complex and challenging: to combine the heaviness and aggressiveness of death metal with a language that’s direct, immediate, and easy to be assimilated. And that’s basically the content of The Hunt for White Christ.
The sound of Unleashed’s newest release doesn’t differ substantially from the traditional style that they have consolidated over the last decade. Basically we have a fierce and violent version of death metal but where all the components, starting from the guttural voice of the leader Johnny Hedlund, are extremely understandable and clear. This peculiar characteristic of their music, together with the capacity to write engaging and banging riffs, make the songs of The Hunt for White Christ easy to appreciate for all the fans of the genre. Their style is further enriched by intriguing black metal components that contribute to the creation of the dark and disturbing atmospheres that we like so much in their music.
The album is compact, solid and homogeneous from the beginning to the end, and you can’t find any sign of fatigue or repetitiveness in their music. Some of the band’s longtime fans were demanding a return to the more crude and unpolished sounds of their early works; but I’m among the ones who believe that both the effectiveness and the enjoyability of their music benefit from the unique sound that they have refined and consolidated in the last ten years.
#5) Skeletal Remains, “Devouring Mortality”
(Old School American Death Metal)
Skeletal Remains, from California in the U.S., are active since 2011 and have released in 2018 the third LP of their discography, named Devouring Mortality. Their music has always taken inspiration from the legacy of American death metal and even their new latest is in many aspects strongly reminiscent of the early works from Obituary (especially regarding the use of the solo guitar), Death and Pestilence. The band, however, has managed somehow to combine all these influences into a relatively new formula and despite their style may appear as a tribute to old school death metal, in the end they consolidated an approach to this genre of metal which remains interesting and valuable even in modern days.
One of the elements that we may appreciate in Devouring Mortality is the attention that was put on the precision of the songs’ execution and also on the brilliance and clarity of the sound. These two aspects have been considered more important than pure brutality and ferocity, something that many other bands use nowadays in order to mask lack of ideas of poor songwriting skills. This is not necessary for the Californian band: they have learned from the masters of death metal how to build up good and exciting songs and now they do everything thay can to make their music understandable and clear.
At the same time it’s impressive to see how much passion and dedication was spent by the band for the preparation of this album. All the songs have articulated structures, different from each other, and every track features a surprising number of riffs and technical variations. There are no gap fillers in Devouring Mortality, every song has its own story and this makes the album particularly interesting and longeve.
#6) Voidhanger, “Dark Days of the Soul”
(Death & Thrash)
One day in the future, historians of music will have found the reason why in the period of time that approximately initiated in the second decade of the 21st century, Poland has started to produce so many valid and impressive metal bands. And until we get the explanation from the experts, we’ll keep enjoying the incredibly good music that is released in Poland by a number of metal formations that seems every year larger and larger.
Voidhanger, active since 2010, are definitely a member of this prestigious club. With their latest release, Dark Days of the Soul, they confirm their winning recipe consisting of a nice mix of blackened thrash merged with death’n’roll, filled up to the top with aggression, brutality and exciting riffs.
The most impressive characteristic of this album, however, is that sense of spontaneity and naturalness with which the songs manage to release their charge of heaviness and ferocity. You really visualize the energy that passed through the body of these three Polish metalheads before it was turned into music, and screams.
Dark Days of the Soul is the third entry in Voidhanger’s discography and it’s a solid, genuine and valuable compilation of exciting death metal songs like it’s difficult to find around nowadays. Maybe an area for improvement for these guys could be to develop a greater variety of styles and sounds among the various tracks. This shouldn’t be difficult given the impressive number of musical ideas that are already present in their songs. The future looks bright for Poland, and also for this band.
#7) Atrocity, “Okkult II”
(Symphonic Death Metal)
For better or worse, German extreme metal band Atrocity has never ceased to surprise their fans along their entire thirty-year career. As a matter of fact, the evolution of the style of this group has been so articulated that it makes no sense to put a unique summarizing label on their music. What is worth emphasizing, rather, is that the band still has the strength to launch and pursue the challenge of an epic musical project in more episodes, in which their new album, Okkult II, evidently represents the second chapter; but even more important is the fact that Atrocity, in their third decade of activity, appear absolutely in a state of grace. Their new album arrives 5 years after the previous chapter of the “occult” challenge, which has also some extra-musical derivation of which I honestly care very little about. This period of time between the two albums didn’t bring to dramatic changes in their sound, at least not as evident as those occurred in the previous two decades of their career. During the last five years, however, the band has evidently further fine-tuned their “fast and furious” version of death metal, enriched by significant symphonic elements.
As far as I’m concerned, among the different styles of metal that have been played so far by Atocity I feel that the one they play in Okkult II is one of those which best fits with their capabilities. The new album offers in fact a collection of of very good quality tracks, without any major misstep and gifted with a few particularly engaging tracks.
Okkult II benefits also of an excellent production, which enhances both the riffing and the rhythmic sections. And at this point we have something really good to enjoy in preparation for the third and final chapter of the saga, hoping not to wait another five years for this to happen.
#8) Crescent, “The Order of Amenti”
(Blackened Death Metal / Folk Death Metal)
Crescent, from Egypt, represents a curious case of a band which is formally active since almost twenty years but which has a discography of only two LPs, the last one, The Order of Amenti, released on early 2018 and the debut LP, Pyramid Slaves, four years ago. In the wide timespan between their formation and the release of the first full-lenght work, these guys from Cairo worked hard to perfect and characterize their peculiar musical style, which today consists of an interesting blackened death metal with strong ethnic and folk influences from their homeland.
The songs of their newest album are extremely interesting and fascinating, of course as a death metal song can be, and the band shows also remarkable technical skills. Maybe the experience of listening the entire LP in one single go highlights an excessive homogeneity among the tracks (many of them seem to me played on the same musical scale), but it still remains a solid and valid collection of modern death metal, with an intriguing Middle East flavour.
#9) Barren Earth, “A Complex of Cages”
(Progressive Death Metal)
Barren Earth, from Finland, represent one of those fortunate cases of a band that was initially born as a side-project of a more established group (in this case Amorphis) and that over time managed to mature to such a point that it becomes a musical reality by itself. Founded in 2007 by Amorphis’ creative bassist Olli-Pekka Laine, Barren Earth arrives in 2018 at their fourth full-lenght release, A Complex of Cages.
In addition to the usual mix of death metal, folk and progressive, the record is specifically characterized by a particularly accentuated vein of gothic metal, which seems to be the leitmotif which guides the listener throughout the entire record. Another extremely positive element which we find in the album is the confirmation of the ability and capacities of the new singer Jón Aldará, who joined the band in 2014. A Complex of Cages is really a good record, rich, deep, and full of many interesting moments.
And arrived at such an advanced point in their musical journey, we can say without any doubt that the evolution of the band has definitively freed itself from the legacy which characterized its birth.
#10) Deicide, “Overtures of Blasphemy”
No many words of introduction are required for Deicide, the historical and controversial death metal band from Florida, at least for all the die hard fans of this genre of music. For all the others it may be sufficient to say that Deicide have been among the protagonists of the extreme metal of the last thirty years; in all this time they have spread their violent and iconoclast music through twelve studio albums and many turbulent live concerts.
I’ve never been a big fan of the band and there have been other formations from the same area that I’ve appreciated definitely more than Deicide, such as Obituary and Massacre. Anyway, it’s impossible to neglect the influence that Deicide had on the death metal scene of the 90s, and this happened not only because of the exaggerated image they gave to themselves, but also thanks to the consistency and the peculiarity of their style of metal. Over the years, however, the interest in the band has slowly diminished and for this reason I approached their new LP, Overtures of Blasphemy, without particular expectations. After having listened and analyzed this record for many times, however, somehow I had to change my mind. As a matter of fact, if we compare Overtures of Blasphemy with the latest works that have been released by other legendary representatives of Florida death metal, I must admit that the new LP from Deicide is presumably the most solid and consistent one. Rather, the quality of the riffs and the overall feeling that emerges from Overtures of Blasphemy are second to a very few albums among those which were released in recent times by more modern and young formations.
The songs of Overtures of Blasphemy have two main characteristics. First: they are fast and devastating, and some tracks will leave you literally breathless if you try to follow the groove. Second: what comes out from the amplifiers is substantially a compact and deadly wall of sound, something which hits you with ferocity and brutality, a unique stream where Glen Benton’s guttural voice becomes one single thing with the guitars of Kevin Quirion (at the second LP with the band) and Mark English (at the first studio experience with Deicide). Every so often there is a short guitar solo that seems to interrupt the sonic attack, but it’s just for a few seconds and the machine will quickly start to grind new riffs.
Other notable mentions for 2018:
Sathanas, Necrohymns (Blackened Death Metal from USA)
Memoriam, The Silent Vigil (Death Metal from UK)
In Vain, Currents (Progressive Death Metal from Norway)
Skinless, Savagery (Brutal Death Metal from USA)
Bombed Up, No Excuses For The Living (Death & Thrash from Canada)
Bloodshot Dawn, Reanimation (Melodic Death Metal from UK)
Avatar, Avatar Country (Experimental and Progressive Death Metal from Sweden)
Alterbeast, Feast (Technical Death Metal from USA)
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