Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool [2016]

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Radiohead isn’t a band that needs introduction at this point, at least usually. But during the lead up to their first album in five years, it seems as if they were trying to reintroduce themselves. In the days before A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, the band completely erased their internet presence, leaving nothing but a blank slate devoid of posts across their Twitter feeds and Facebook page. And when those gears DID start turning again, it was only to dribble out tiny clips of a child-like claymation video, which lacked any music, branding, or information of any kind. It signaled very clearly that something was about to happen, something that wasn’t beholden to their past, something cleaner and purer than before.

A Moon Shaped Pool is exactly that – it’s some of the cleanest, purest, and most human music the band has put to tape so far. Of course, this is Radiohead we’re talking about, so they’ll always bear some of that cold, insular, and electronic edge they’ve explored for so long. But what’s so surprising about this record is the much more emotional and naturalistic side they’ve chosen to explore within it. Acoustic guitars, string sections, and pianos take far more precedence over drum machines, sequencers and laptops, and more than ever Thom Yorke’s lyrics are focused on the pitfalls of the human condition instead of his trademark claustrophobic technophobia and paranoia. “Burn the Witch” is a perfect example of this: opening with a percussive gush of strings unlike anything in their discography, it drives forward with little need for guitars or drums, while focusing on the division of different peoples and the fear-mongering that causes it. But that song is actually a bit of a feint, as it doesn’t take long for the band to dip into more downcast, defeated territory: “Daydreaming” is one of the simplest songs in their catalog, but one of the thickest with emotion. Built upon a simple repeating piano motif, Yorke’s vocals barely rise above a murmur, and are cocooned with flourishes of violins and electronics that establish the song’s true movement and feeling. And “Decks Dark” is a slow burn of a track replete with chilly, rattling guitar lines and an introspective piano line that buoys some of Yorke’s most expressive vocals since In Rainbows – ones that equate encroaching dread and fear to visiting aliens blotting out the sky with their flying saucers.

But it’s after that three track run that the album starts revealing its truest colors. For example, “Desert Island Disk” is the closest thing to a folk song that the band has ever recorded. Calm and quiet, it’s led by an aerobic acoustic guitar line, gentle swirls of background electronics, and an oddly out-of-character set of lyrics that inspire uplift and hope instead of fear and paranoia. This track also finds a cousin on the album’s second half in “The Numbers”. It’s another gentle, folky song that this time finds its inspiration in ’60s protest music, as Yorke quietly rails against climate change and the powers that be, insisting that the people have the power to create change – which doesn’t solely have to function as an instruction against global warming. And while not nearly as folksy, “Present Tense” is a Spanish-sounding love-lost groove that’s almost danceable despite it’s lack of any sort of beat and heartbroken lyrics. Acoustic guitars aren’t the sole driving force of this album, however. “Ful Stop” throbs along with a repeating bass line courtesy of Colin Greenwood that establishes the core of the song, a song which chooses to fully explore that groove rather than searching out another, more obscure path. And on “Identikit”, the rest of the band allows Jonny Greenwood to take his electric guitar out of storage, resulting in a song with plenty of spiky dynamics and angular guitar lines to complement its grooving drums and expressive chorus.

But as always with Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool has a moodier side as well. As “Daydreaming” foreshadows, this isn’t an album without its darkness. “Glass Eyes” is a short yet powerful piano ballad punctuated with otherworldy strings, exploring the anxiety one finds themselves faced with when arriving in a new place, and its bare bones musicality only serves to emphasize its narrative (one which is formatted in the spirit of a voicemail left on someone’s phone). And conversely, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor…” finds itself straddling both that minimalist slant of “Glass Eyes” and a bigger, more sweeping cinematic feel. Its first half drifts around with little direction and a listless energy, until Jonny’s Bond-esque string score swoops in to take the song into an entirely different world. What at first seems like an almost disjointed track soon makes sense, as that swirl of strings leads into the crowning jewel, and closing track, of the album. “True Love Waits” is a storied song in Radiohead’s catalog, having been played live in one version or another dating back all the way to 1995. But it’s been a notoriously hard one for the band to try and capture, as it wasn’t until Yorke’s 23 year long relationship dissolved that they were finally able to find the inspiration to nail it. Once written with the hope and promise of a new love in mind, the song is now transformed into a fragile, twinkling, and bittersweet one of loss, barely held together as its gentle dual piano lines threaten to spiral away from each other. Despite being so gentle and low-key, Yorke manages to wring emotion out of every syllable and key, and the rasp that creeps into his voice during the chorus truly sells it.

A Moon Shaped Pool strikes a very fine balance as a whole piece of work. Despite featuring downcast, dreamy tracks like “Daydreaming” alongside folksy excursions such as “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers” and percussive orchestral numbers like “Burn the Witch”, and despite also pulling songs from many different points in the band’s career (“Ful Stop” and “Identikit” originated in 2012 on the King of Limbs tour, “Present Tense” in 2009 a a Yorke solo gig, “Burn the Witch” in the Hail to the Thief era, and “True Love Waits” in 1995), it feels like a body of work that was created concurrently. These songs have been massaged and finessed into the gentle, moody, yet very human forms they appear in here, and feel like puzzle pieces that were always meant to fit together. Even more so, despite their disparate eras, the fact that much of their lyrical content syncs with the huge loss Yorke has recently suffered makes these tracks feel even more fated to be together. Radiohead may have erased their own social media presence, and in doing so took a stab at erasing their own past. But the album they did it in service of inverts that by collecting little bits of ephemera from throughout their career, and uses them to form their most gentle and intimate sounding record ever, and one that’s the closest thing to a traditional heartbreak album the band has ever made. Where they once feared the world’s ever-increasing reliance on technology, here they’re fearing the breakdown of personal relationships and the loss of love. After looking outward for so long, it’s not so surprising that they’ve finally chosen to look inside and take stock of their own hearts. No longer are they paranoid androids suffering from future shock, but instead have opened their hearts up a little more to reveal the glassy-eyed daydreamers they truly are.

Key Tracks: Daydreaming, Decks Dark, Identikit, True Love Waits

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Thrice – To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere [2016]

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In 2012, after over 13 years of relentless touring, writing, and recording, Thrice decided to hit that ever-infamous “hiatus” button. The grind of being in a band their size had worn them down over those years, and they needed time to spend with their families – the value of which had been made even more apparent after several members losing loved ones during their last album cycle. With that in mind, the band embarked on a “farewell” tour that dug deep through fan-selected favorites, culminating in a huge 33-song long final show in July 2012. After that, the band dispersed to their families and new projects: Dustin became a pastor, Teppei opened a leather crafts shop, Riley started a baseball-themed grindcore band, and Eddie put in time with Angels & Airwaves. But the break didn’t last long, and in the waning days of 2014, the band announced their intention to get back together. And in a little under two years, they’ve returned with their first album of new music since 2011’s Major/Minor.

To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere finds Thrice essentially picking up where they left off with Major/Minor. The grungy, dirty rock sound they’ve had on that album and on Beggars before it is still firmly in place, but it seems like reconvening has also given them greater appreciation of where their music has come from in the past. One of the most obvious cues the band has picked back up are the larger, meatier guitar parts reminiscent of their Fire EP – “Death From Above” and “Blood on the Sand” both move with more power and weight than the band has shown in years, and while not quite as heavy, “Black Honey” and “The Window” pick up much of that EP’s dark and brooding undertones as well. “Hurricane” opens the album with a thick swirl of guitars and brooding atmosphere appropriate for the title, feeling as if it really could be buoyed on the winds of a storm. In fact, this record finds the band turning up the sludge and brood in every aspect, not just on the guitars – this thing is downright dirty sounding. Even in it’s most friendly and approachable moments, there’s a sense of claustrophobia and grit in the mix that doesn’t relent. Yet “Salt and Shadow” exists on that same album, a song with a gentle, heavenly atmosphere that would be able to slot itself perfectly on the band’s Air EP. But that’s about the only air and light that manages to work its way in both musically and lyrically.

Lyrically, To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere finds Dustin focusing much less on faith (as he had on more recent Thrice albums) and more on the social and political issues he first touched on with The Artist in the Ambulance. “Blood on the Sand” is a take down of the frightened apathy that causes us to build walls to keep out our fellow man instead of making an attempt at connection, and “Death From Above” tackles our willingness to bomb those same people from afar without ever putting a name or face to them. “Whistleblower” is an obviously pro-Snowden song, celebrating the individuals who risk their freedom and lives to enlighten the rest of the world to a massive wrongdoing, and “Black Honey” focuses on our often blind conquest to take the things we need without considering how the blow-back might affect us. It’s refreshing to hear Dustin have something to get angry about again, because it helps lend power to both the music and his own vocal delivery. Plus, even though some of the lyrics here suffer from being very on-the-nose, it’s brave for a band of their size to deliver a comeback album with lyrics that could potentially polarize old and new fans alike.

But for all the base-touching they do on this album, it feels like they’ve forgotten to bring anything fresh to the table. As a longtime fan you might be happy to hear those flourishes from throughout their discography, and as a new fan, they might even seem unique to you. But it’s disappointing that after five years apart – in such vastly different bands and even parts of the country – that they haven’t found one new thing to bring to the mix. In fact, a handful of tracks find the band veering dangerously close to rock cliché instead: “Wake Up” featuring a tired cock rock-esque chorus that settles for repeating the song’s title in place of any sort of lyricism, and “Stay With Me” apes U2’s worst arena rock tendencies and mixes them with a dash of sludgy guitars to no effect. At its worst, To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere ironically finds the band sloughing off some of their character and flair in an attempt to be both radio-friendly and to pay homage to their previous sonic explorations.

Sadly, this album ends up being very much a mixed bag. There are flashes of the band’s former glories littered in almost every track, but they’re also tempered by some of the band’s blandest moments ever put to tape. It’s not a bad album in any sense of the word, but after five years apart and plenty of exploration for each one of their members, it’s a shame that To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere finds Thrice simply mining old territory and watering down the rest. Perhaps this is just the band’s way of getting back to ground, consolidating the parts of the band they loved the most as a springboard for whatever comes next. Or perhaps middle age and family life has dulled their fire to prove themselves and take huge risks. And perhaps it’s too easy to compare this album to the rest of the band’s towering discography, because if this were any other band, it might be something fairly special. But in the end, they’ve simply put out an okay album after so many great ones. It happens.

Key Tracks: Hurricane, Blood on the Sand, The Long Defeat, Death From Above

letlive. – If I’m the Devil… [2016]

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letlive. have made no secret about the arduous process behind creating their newest record, “If I’m the Devil…”. Early in 2015, key member and guitarist Jean Nascimento left the band, and it seemed like the remaining members were suddenly at a crossroads. They tried out several touring guitarists, but no one seemed to stick, and eventually they settled on staying a four piece. Asides from that, it seemed that they were at a creative crossroads as well – the band had always pulled together incredibly diverse styles, drawing from punk, hardcore, soul, pop, and more to create their signature sound. But with a key member out of the mix, and the band’s maturing age, they had some soul searching to do. For better and for worse, “If I’m the Devil…” is the result.

It’s immediately clear that this album is different right from the opening track, “I’ve Learned to Love Myself”. Where their previous albums typically opened up with a bang, this track offers up twinkling guitar arpeggios, sweeping violins, and an emotional (yet restrained) vocal from Jason Butler. It sets much of the tone for this record, showing that the band is now opting for space and subtlety instead of packing every decibel with wall-to-wall riffs and throat-shredding vocals. And while that’s not necessarily new for them, it was something they only ever flirted with in passing to spice up a song, never used as the basis of them. Songs like “Reluctantly Dead” and “If I’m the Devil…” benefit greatly from this approach, building up tension and releasing them in ways that their former “all cylinders at all times” approach couldn’t. There’s also a lot more space for the band to play around with different sounds: “Foreign Cab Rides” is a song soaked in spacey, reverb-laden guitars with an explosive middle eight courtesy of guitarist Jeff Sahyouhn, “Good Mourning America” works in a sort of modern spiritual that seamlessly fades into the actual song, and the aforementioned “I’ve Learned to Love Myself” wouldn’t be the track it was if not for the inclusion of its emotional strings. All of this space also leads to another interesting, if not obvious, turn for the band: Jason is finally given room to rest his hellion screech and instead loose his soulful, emotive singing voice on these tracks. It’s been clear since “Muther” that Jason had a hell of a set of pipes on him, but the band’s frantic and aggressive music rarely lent him the opportunity to use it with any frequency. But here, he often channels his inner Michael Jackson, firing off catchy chorus after catchy chorus with ease. It might be a hard change to stomach for fans of the band’s hardcore edge, but the band was running the risk of falling into self-parody if it just churned out another recordful of pissed off scream-alongs.

But there’s another side to that, as well. In the name of evolution, the band has also written off a few of the things that made them truly interesting and exciting. While exploring melody and space is new for letlive., it’s also had the side-effect of scrubbing them down into something much more radio-friendly and generic. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but much of what was interesting about letlive. was their ability to fuse creative and inventive guitar work into even the slower and catchier portions of their music. Instead, when the band tries to let loose and fire off a missive reminiscent of their “old” days on “Another Offensive Song”, we’re treated with a simplistic power chord chug that sounds like it could’ve been written by just about any garage band. “A Weak Ago” suffers a similar fate, being built around a cliché blues-inspired guitar strum that leads only into an arpeggiated version of the same chords later on. In fact, almost every prominent guitar part on this album is incredibly simplified, often being content to settle for power chord chugs and arpeggios in every song. In that light, it suddenly becomes hard to tell if this record’s space and texture was inspired by genuine creative necessity, or simply necessity born of Jean’s departure.

At the end of the day, though, “If I’m the Devil…” works. While they’ve always had an element of pop and rock laced through their music, deciding to lean almost entirely on that sound was a risky move, and one a band their size wouldn’t take unless they felt it was creatively necessary. This record is vital to the band’s continued existence, because it opens up sonic doors to them that would’ve stayed locked had they decided to keep writing angry song after angry song. To finally know for sure that this band has the range to write songs as emotional as “I’ve Learned to Love Myself” alongside politically charged groove rock tunes like “Good Mourning America” and “Reluctantly Dead”, and on the same record as a screamer like “Another Offensive Song” is exciting, because it was only ever hinted at before, and means their next record could sound like anything. Sure, there might still be a few kinks to work out, but this album could be the launching point for something even more different later on. All of which simply means that letlive. have traded energies: where once it seemed like the band could destroy anything, anyone, or itself at any given moment, instead it feels like they could make anything, anywhere at any given moment. And that’s a great feeling.

Key Tracks: I’ve Learned to Love Myself, Good Mourning America, Foreign Cab Rides, If I’m the Devil

P.O.S Releases First New Track in Four Years

P.O.S has been dogged by health issues these past few years. After struggling through kidney failure, and later recovering from a transplant for said kidney, he’s been off the road and out of the studio for much of the past four years. But thankfully, he’s back in fighting form and still creating vital, urgent music.

“sleepdrone/superposition” is a nine-minute track full of atmosphere, menace, vitriol, and even a little hope. It also features an absolute barn full of guests, ranging from Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill, Astronautilus, and Allan Kingdom. But for a track with as many guest musicians on it as this one, it works surprisingly well. “sleepdrone” is full of nuance and texture due to its constantly shifting beat, vocals, and lyrical topics, which range from self-determination and the will to continue fighting in the face of adversity, the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, and even references to quantum physics.

If this song proves any one thing, it’s that Stef hasn’t lost any of the piss and vinegar or love of noisiness that made his name in the Minneapolis scene and beyond. If anything, he’s come back even stronger and more experimental than before, and even though it’s yet to be seen if this is from an upcoming album or not, the future looks bright for P.O.S.

Death Grips Hold First…”Interview” In Four Years

Unless it wasn’t obvious from the heavy quotes in the title, this isn’t really an “interview”, unfortunately. Death Grips have been notoriously mum about band matters, inspirations, touring – just about any sort of information you could get out of a band normally – for the past four years, and it doesn’t seem like that’s gonna change anytime soon.

But it’s not entirely a fake out, either. There IS an interview being conducted underneath that greenish, VHS-filtered haze, but we’re not privy to the audio of it. Instead, the band has released another burst of instrumental tracks to accompany the video, akin to one of their two releases from last year, “Fashion Week”. There’s flashes of the styles found on both that album and last year’s double album “The Powers That B”, so it’s not especially exciting or boundary pushing for the band, but it’s another solid collection of aggressive electronic tracks. If anything, it’s an appetizer for the fans who have been waiting since October for their newest project, “Bottomless Pit”, the same way they those fans over with “Fashion Week”‘s ‘Jenny Death When’ troll. But in the end, and on the chance of giving this thing a very surface level reading, it’s clear that Death Grips are telling us only one thing matters about them, and there’s only one thing about them you need to know: their music.

Cyclamen – Creatuneau [2016]

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The music industry is in a weird, weird place right now. In the face of streaming, piracy, and the sheer amount of music one has to compete with for attention, it’s getting harder and harder to make a living for all but the most successful and strongly backed of artists. Or is it?

That’s where Japanese metal band Cyclamen comes in. Instead of bowing to industry trends or selling themselves out, they’ve remained intensely DIY and focused on giving their fans the best experience possible. And in order to do that, they’ve recently offered a subscription package with a wealth of goodies: everything from an exclusive album’s worth of music (plus a sneak peek into its writing and recording process and a physical copy of it), a custom t-shirt, a behind-the-scenes blog, and even personalized artwork from the band’s leader, Hayato Imanishi.

But you can give your fans all the goodies in the world and it won’t mean a thing unless you have the music to back it up. No worries there – Cyclamen is and has been one of the most exciting metal bands of recent years. With a sound that blends the textures of post-rock and ambient right alongside some of the heaviest elements of djent and progressive metal, they’re a band with no shortage of great ideas. And they’ve proven that once again on this newest, exclusive album, “Creatuneau”.

Things start off heavy with the opening seconds of “Apalition”. Immediately hitting the listener with a gut punch of a riff, it then switches things up with a verse that’s much more dreamy and atmospheric, buoyed by textured guitars and airy vocals. It makes evident from the start one of this band’s key strengths: their ability to make seemingly disparate elements comfortably exist within the same song, and sound all the better for being played against each other. The next track, “Naryinn”, demonstrates that same strength but a little bit differently. Trading texture for aggression, this song jumps back and forth between percussive rapped vocals, harsh screams, abrasive riffs, and finally a cathartic ending with ease. For many bands, this would end up just sounding like a mess of random ideas, but for Cyclamen, it allows for contrast and dynamics while still remaining a cohesive and interesting song. The next track, “Watarie Lawker” is an instrumental that showcases the technical ability that anchors detours such as those in “Naryinn”. Reminiscent of Periphery and Animals as Leaders, the band blends breakneck tapping leads, angular drop-tuned riffs, and rhythmic clean sections in order to create a song that stands just as strongly as any of their vocally-driven tracks.

Cyclamen isn’t just a heavy band, either – they know when to get pretty, too. “Feurlise” proves this in spades, being centered around a gentle, hopeful, yet technically complex clean tapping lead and backed up by an ever-ascending E-bow track. It builds mood and atmosphere for the first couple of minutes, giving the listener a bit of a breather after the explosiveness of the past few tracks. But it’s not without its bite, either. In its final moments, “Feurlise” explodes into one of the heaviest moments on the album, sporting a pounding blast beat and some powerful screams to match. It’s catharsis at its finest, expertly building and releasing tension in a way only the best progressive metal can do.

“Morgan” uses some of that tension building spirit too, but in a different way. Starting off with sampled voices and tense chords that purposefully jut up against each other, the song ebbs and flows between a mysterious sounding verse riff, whispered vocal samples to add atmosphere, and finally a triumphant guitar lead that closes out all of the song’s drama. And like the rapped section on “Naryinn”, “Pharse” also displays a bit of nu-metal influence with its pairing of DJ scratches and a simple, yet pummeling main riff. It’s a strong, energetic closer to an album full of strong, energetic songs.

And perhaps the most surprising thing is how all these is packed into just 25 minutes. Cyclamen both builds up rich textures and tears them down with crushing, complex riffs, shreds vocal chords with the harshest of screams and lulls you with the most pleasant of cleans, and wears a myriad of influences on their sleeves all in just 8 songs. It’s an exciting, powerful, and concise record, and the sheer quality here also excellently justifies the exclusive subscription model. Perhaps the most incredible part of all is that this record was written and recorded in the span of about five weeks, despite the fact that the number of people that would ever hear it was inherently limited, and yet it still stands as some of the best material the band has ever released. It proves a certain loyalty to the craft and a certain devotion to the fans, and when those things are made that obvious, it’s easy to see why the band has earned so much support in kind.

And as always, you can check out Cyclamen’s music over at https://cyclamen.bandcamp.com/ , or you can directly stream “Naryinn” until 3/21 here!

My 2015 In Music: Highs, Lows, and Shows

It’s my yearly installment of a whole bunch of shit you ain’t gonna read! Cue up Huey Lewis and the News, cause it’s about to get all Patrick Bateman up in here. But anyway, this is the music I dug this year, the music that let me down, and whatever else fell in between. Here goes!

The Top Ten

1. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
It was honestly really hard for me to pick a number one album this year, or even a top five of any sort. But OPN gets the top spot for one very good reason: Garden of Delete is the most challenging, boundary-pushing album I’ve heard all year. Few albums ever give me that rare “what the hell is this and why do I like it?” feeling like Garden of Delete’s blend of angular, distorted synths, schizophrenic bursts of noise, and oddly melodic samples and robotic vocals did. It’s an album that refuses to stay in any one place for more than a minute, drawing in influences as far reaching as ambient and drone, dance music, rock, even industrial and metal, and yet somehow managing to make sense of it all. These disparate influences aren’t used as a way of showing off OPN’s production skill or as some hipster display of his own music taste either, they’re put to use as the building blocks of interesting songs and melodies – something that quite often falls by the wayside. No matter what genre you might claim as your favorite, I think Garden of Delete has something to offer you, and if you like being challenged by new sounds, it’s my highest recommendation of the year.
2. Death Grips – The Powers That B
Last year was an odd year for Death Grips. Within a month, they dropped their most esoteric and labyrinthine slab of music yet, Niggas on the Moon, “broke up” (but not really), and announced that that album was actually the first disc of a yet-to-be-finished double album. Well, that album was finally completed this year, with the March release of Jenny Death. Jenny Death is the polar opposite of its first half – where NOTM was built upon layers of skittering drums, vocal samples, and introspective lyrics, Jenny Death brings the aggression back in full force. This album finds the band incorporating more of a hard rock sound into their trademark blistering electronics, introducing psychedelic guitar riffs and crushing live drums to amplify their sound to the point of constant, audible distortion. And where NOTM found vocalist Stefan Burnett looking inwards, here he projects outwards, raging at the world and using that anger to try and cover up his own crippling depression instead of being consumed by it. When taken as a whole, it creates a thematic contrast between both halves of the album, and musically it presents the most evolved and intelligent version of the band yet. That, and there’s no better song to break in a new set of speakers with than the title track, “The Powers That B”.
3. Periphery – Juggernaut: Alpha and Omega
Periphery’s evolution as a band has been pretty interesting to watch. What once started as a one-man bedroom project has grown into a full-fledged creative force, with all six of its members having an equal, yet different, influence in the music it writes. And there’s no clearer example of that force than on Juggernaut, the band’s first concept album. Where once the band had a tendency to try and pack too many ideas into one song, here the songwriting is streamlined and purposeful, aiming to evoke a specific emotion or sound instead of showing off technical chops, while still retaining each member’s voice. There’s big pop choruses, bright electronics, crushing drop tuned 8 string riffs, progressive song structures, and brooding instrumentals that all combine to tell a single story with a range of emotion. It’s quite possibly the band’s best music yet, and having a concept behind it to dive into and puzzle out makes it even more rewarding to listen to over and over again.
4. Between the Buried and Me – Coma Ecliptic
BTBAM is a band that fell off for me, hard. After their landmark album Colors, each new album felt like another, lesser iteration of that sound, and it was losing steam fast. Possibly sensing that themselves, they took a left turn with their sound on Coma Ecliptic into entirely new territory. While their progressive metal elements will always be there, Coma Ecliptic finds itself rooted much more strongly in the prog music of the 70s, featuring just as many synth lead lines as guitar riffs. And on top of that, vocalist Tommy Rogers has finally stepped his game up to the point of being able to carry most of a song with his clean vocals, rather than his one note growls. It’s a refreshing change to hear the band’s music buoyed just as much by melodic vocals AND crushing growls, instead of just a moment or two of singing, and it’s a change that makes this new batch of songs instantly memorable and catchy. It’s the first time in years that a BTBAM album has truly surprised me, and what a good feeling it is to be surprised.
5. The Dear Hunter – Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
Simply put, there’s no other band out there that makes music quite like The Dear Hunter does. Of a certain kin with Coheed and Cambria, the bulk of the music is conceptual, telling one long story across several albums. And after taking a break from that concept to explore other sounds, Rebirth in Reprise finds them taking all those things they’ve explored and using them to make an even better record. From the start, this album is lush with string arrangements, layered vocals, grand soundscapes, and sticky melodies. At their catchiest, they write huge pop tunes like Waves or King of Swords, and at their most progressive, they write sprawling epics like A Night On the Town. That term ‘epic’ may have been horribly misused at the turn of this decade, but The Dear Hunter is truly deserving of it, because they’re capable of telling a story just as much with the music as they do with the lyrics. If you want to hear something refreshing, layered, and gorgeous all at the same time, you want to give this album a spin.
6. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
While I’m on the subject of big changes in sound, I can’t leave out Kendrick. After showing the world his talent as a storyteller and a wordsmith on 2012’s Good Kid, Mad City, To Pimp a Butterfly shows him taking not just one step from there, but a couple dozen further. This album is built upon a hypnotic blend of free jazz, funk, and soul, completely sidestepping pretty much any sort of “banger” beat you’d find on most of 2015’s hip hop releases. The music is dense and huge in scope, and boasts an all star cast of musicians and producers, from Flying Lotus, George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, and Dr. Dre. But all that would be for nothing if it wasn’t backed up by great lyrics, and that’s where Kendrick truly shines. TPAB tackles a broad range of social, racial, personal and political issues, tying it all together with a poem that details his own struggles with fame, influence, and success, and thus grounding all these issues in the realities of his own life. Any way you look at it, it’s a modern classic.
7. Bring Me the Horizon – That’s the Spirit
As much as I hate to admit it, I think I’m officially a fan of BMTH. After 2013’s excellent Sempiternal, which found the band maturing into their metal sound while expanding it with melody and texture, 2015 finds the band deciding to take the world by storm – and somehow succeeding. That’s the Spirit is, by pretty much any definition, a pop rock album. Gone are the metal and deathcore influences of their past, as well as much of the screaming, too. Instead, Oli’s learned to sing, and the band’s learned not to rely on drop tuned chugs, and they end up defying all expectations you might have for the band that once penned “Pray for Plagues”. But while they may have traded much of their old sound for a much more polished, melodic, and even a little calculated one, the reason this album succeeds is because it still has heart. The lyrics tackle Oli’s issues with addiction and depression, and how embracing your problems and wearing them like armor can help you through to the other side. But even besides all that, these songs are just ridiculously catchy – just try getting “Throne” or “Happy Song” out of your head for the next day or two after hearing it.
8. Silversun Pickups – Better Nature
I first fell in love with Silversun Pickups because they were like a more subtle, more pretty version of Smashing Pumpkins. They brought the same sort of dreamy, fuzzed out riffs and airy vocals that even the Pumpkins hadn’t delivered in years, but without any of the cringey angst or hamfisted-ness they were capable of. But as time went on, they evolved away from that, dropping much of their guitars in favor of electronic elements and empty space, and it was a hard change for me to adjust to. But with their newest record, Better Nature, they’re found an equilibrium between guitars and electronics that leaves their trademark sound intact. Better Nature has more edge than its predecessor, Neck of the Woods, but it’s also prettier and mellower, sometimes opting for the obvious melodies and sometimes exploring a texture instead. And it’s all tied together with the band’s penchant for writing inherently ear-grabbing music, no matter which of those two things they’re doing, making this album a great next step for the band.
9. Coheed and Cambria – The Color Before the Sun
I mentioned Coheed earlier while talking about The Dear Hunter’s record, and here they are again. Coheed is another band that’s taken multiple albums to tell a sprawling story, but in their case, it was just as much to cover up their singer’s own insecurities as it was to actually tell that story. So this time around, Coheed switched things up and decided to drop the concept entirely for this album, and to put singer Claudio Sanchez’s real life at the front and center. The result is their most heartfelt, down to earth album yet, ditching much of the space opera sound they built their name on in favor of simpler, easier arrangements. Much of the music is bright and bouncy, evoking memories of their poppiest songs (“A Favor House Atlantic”, “The Suffering”) while keeping things feeling fresh and energetic. But the lyrics are a bit darker, detailing the conflicts and fears that come with reaching middle age and starting a family, yet eventually finding the security and meaning that comes from it. Who knew real life could be the most interesting story of all, huh?
10. Clutch – Psychic Warfare
You could call Clutch dad rock. Because they definitely are. But no other rock band in America does dad rock quite like Clutch does – while a lot of rock bands opt to drench their music in irony, Clutch doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word. For years they’ve been pumping out tough, hard hitting, kick ass rock n’ roll music and they mean every damn note of it. Psychic Warfare is no different, as it finds Clutch picking up where they left off on Earth Rocker. Dropping most of their stoner rock influences, Clutch instead take us through a gritty southern-fried romp through tales of no good women, monsters from another world, and good old fashioned mind control. Clutch is one of those bands that you know exactly what you’re gonna get every time they put out new music, yet for some reason, it just never gets old.

Honorable Mentions

Tesseract – Polaris
Polaris shows original vocalist Dan Tompkins returning to the fold after a 3 year break. In the meantime, the band has honed their songwriting from the sometimes amorphous lumps of riffs present on their first and second albums into something more approachable, giving each song it’s own distinct character. Combine that with Dan’s growth as a vocalist and you get Polaris, an album that can be atmospheric, heavy, and soft without forcing any of it. My only real complaint is that it could’ve been a song or two longer, but hey, it is what it is.
Tricot – A N D
Tricot is one of the best rock bands out there right now, not just in their homeland of Japan, but in the world. Their music takes elements of math rock – that is, odd time signatures, unique chord voicings, and distinctive rhythms – and combines it with the best elements of J-Rock and J-Pop. The result is a band that can rock hard, lay on the technical guitar chops, and write hugely catchy choruses all in the same song, without ceding any ground to typical rock cliches. And did I mention they’re all girls?
The Armed – Untitled
There’s not a whole lot to say about The Armed. They’re ferociously heavy, they play at breakneck tempos, and they can somehow infuse melody into all that chaos. Untitled is only their second full-length record in 6 years, but it’s well worth the wait – from start to finish, there’s rarely a moment to breathe, with each successive song finding another way to punch you in the gut. And you can get punched in the gut totally free at thearmed.bandcamp.com.
Babymetal – Babymetal
This is an honorable mention because technically, it came out last year – it just wasn’t released in America until this year. Babymetal is the guilty pleasure of all guilty pleasures, slamming heavy metal and Japanese idol pop together without any regard for the consequences. It’s catchy, it’s fun, you can dance AND mosh to it, and you can do it without understanding a single damned word in the process. Just do what the Fox God says, man.
Good Tiger – A Head Full of Moonlight
Good Tiger was formed out of the ashes of The Safety Fire, an excellent progressive metal band that ended far too soon. Recruiting former Tesseract vocalist Elliot Coleman, they continue on The Safety Fire’s sound with a slight twist. Coleman brings a soulful, almost RnB sort of sound to the band’s knotty technical riffs, opening up interesting melodic doors for the band that weren’t once there. It’s a short listen at a little under 40 minutes, but as far as debut albums go, it’s packed with potential, and I can’t wait to hear more from them.
Deafheaven – New Bermuda
Deafheaven made their name on the unique blend of shoegaze and black metal they presented on 2013’s Sunbather, but they knew they couldn’t just recreate that album for the follow up. Instead, New Bermuda shifts things more towards a metalcore influence, dropping the long ambient passages and focusing more on hard hitting riffs and pure aggression. They still bring a lot of texture to the music, but New Bermuda just feels a lot different than its predecessor, with more varied vocals and more focus on keeping things uptempo and energetic.
Foo Fighters – Saint Cecilia EP
I’m actually pleasantly surprised by this EP. Sonic Highways was a huge letdown for me, since the band had a chance to incorporate new sounds and influences and wasted it instead. But on this new EP, instead of walking that bland middle of the road sound they walked on Sonic Highways, this EP sounds much more like the classic Foo Fighters stuff. And if I can’t see them grow as artists and try new things, I’ll at least take something that’s a shade on the classic sound I first fell in love with from them.

The Disappointments

Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves
I’ve been a fan of Modest Mouse for about 6 years now. I love just about all of their albums, but in the time that I’ve been a fan, I’ve never seen them actually release something new. The band took a sort of almost-hiatus in the 8 years between We Were Dead… and this new release, and expectations were high. Instead, Strangers to Ourselves finds the band having not evolved in the slightest in that time, mailing in a collection of songs that sounds less like a complete album and more like just that – a collection of random songs. I really liked this album on my first few listens, but it just didn’t hold up, and in the end there were only a few really songs worth keeping on it (“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box”, “Sugar Boats”, “Lampshades on Fire”, “The Tortoise and the Tourist”). Otherwise, Strangers is a very middle of the road album from a band that used to be very insistent on pushing their boundaries and making statements, and as such, it’s a let down.
Muse – Drones
Muse have been bad longer than they were good at this point. After a foray into cheesy Queen worship and overabundant keyboards in the past few years, Drones marked their return to the guitar based music of their roots. But even bringing guitars back can’t save them at this point: Drones finds the band succumbing to every arena rock cliche in the book, from overblown “epic” songs, obvious attempts at pop hits, recycled riffs, and godawful lyrics about Big Brother. Matt Bellamy has become the musical equivalent of a teenage kid typing a rant about the evil government on Facebook, and the rest of the band couldn’t seem to care less about stopping him – or ever writing a great song again.
Cloudkicker – Woum
I hate to be hard on Cloudkicker, because Ben Sharp is one of my favorite musicians, but Woum did nothing for me outside of being pleasant background music. The fun part about following Cloudkicker is that you never know what to expect from each new release, but once in a while that comes with a downside, too. Woum is a nice, warm listen, but it doesn’t have much in the way of actual songs or memorable melodies. I’m happy to hear artists explore new musical directions, but only as long as there’s great songs to back them up, and that just didn’t happen here.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Sweet, Asunder, and Other Distress
This is another album that I liked a lot initially. But the more I listened to it as a whole, the more its 20 minute drone midsection wore on me, until I eventually stopped listening to it altogether. The two main movements of the album stand right alongside the rest of the band’s material in terms of quality, but as a full piece of work, it unfortunately falls apart in the middle.
Chrvches – Leave a Trace
I liked Chrvches debut album. I wasn’t crazy about it, but it was a nice little slab of well-crafted synth pop that didn’t overstay its welcome. But the problem with their newest effort is, well…it’s the exact same thing. There’s pretty much no measurable artistic growth between the two albums, outside of maybe slightly glossier production on this new record. And since I’m already familiar with The Bones of What You Believe, I can’t really see myself taking the time to familiarize myself with another album of the same thing.

Non-2015 Releases I Discovered in 2015

Brand New
Man, I am so late on this band. But within the past two months, I absolutely fell in love with Deja Entendu, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, and Daisy. There’s a distinct core of sadness and anger that runs through their music that I’m an absolute sucker for, and Jesse Lacey is a brilliant lyricist. So, even though I’m over a decade late on discovering these guys, I’m so glad I did.
letlive.
letlive. is my other big discovery of the year. Their first album, Fake History, is one of the best heavy albums I’ve ever heard. They somehow manage to take these intense moments of pure aggression and combine them with poppy elements, social commentary, and even a bit of soul in Jason’s vocal delivery, and that makes for a really unique mix. On top of that, their live energy is unprecedented, with the band giving such intense performances night after night that you wonder how Jason hasn’t been killed yet.

Concerts

Circa Survive
This was my third time seeing Circa, but my first time seeing them as a full-fledged fan. I finally had all the albums, knew all the songs, and I had the extra cash to spend on the meet and greet and acoustic session to boot. I got to sit in a circle a few feet away from them while they performed an intimate 3 song acoustic set, before taking to the stage later on in the night and delivering on every level. They’re a band that truly loves their fans and truly loves making music, and it shows in everything they do.
Slash
While it’s been a long time since I was obsessed with Guns N’ Roses, I’ve made it a point to see as many of their members as I can. I finally got the chance to see Slash this May when he came to the Sherman theater, and it was actually a damn good show. I got to see the GNR hits that first sparked my love of music as well as newer songs from his current band, The Conspirators. It was great to touch base with my adolescence that way and revisit the music I once loved.
Death Grips
There are few words to describe the raw power of this show. After waiting over two years for the chance to see them, I was already beyond hyped for this show. And when I got there, the band knew how to play the crowd like a fiddle – instead of having any openers, they instead played the band’s side projects and a 40 minute noise remix of unreleased material, making everyone antsy and on edge. So, when they finally did take the stage, the crowd fucking EXPLODED into a throbbing mass of pure hype and rage. I’ve never been literally scared of getting trampled or crushed at a show before this night, but that’s how intense the crowd was. The band ran through nearly two hours of music in one long, (nearly, thanks to a laptop glitch) uninterrupted set in which each song seamlessly transitioned into the next. How Zach Hill can drum like he does for so long without a rest is beyond me, and the same goes for how long Stefan Burnett can bellow his lungs out and contort his body. All around, it’s one of the craziest, best shows I’ve ever been to, and probably ever will go to.
Tricot
I never, ever expected I’d get the chance to see Tricot. But the stars aligned and this October, they crossed the globe to do a short North America run, and I got to see them on the first show of that run in a tiny, intimate venue. It’s rare that you’re literally close to enough to lean on the stage all night, and man, does it make a show so much better. I was blown away by the level of energy the band had, and how much they jumped around despite the tiny stage. I could tell this was another band who truly loves what they do, giving their all into every performance, and it was made all the more special by the small venue I got to experience it in.
Rise Against
I actually went to this show solely to see letlive. as an opener. As I expected, letlive. played an intense, albeit short set, which saw Jason Butler climb into the balcony of the Sherman Theater and get a circle pit going (I’ve seen many opening bands try, but never succeed). And I was lucky enough to see them play a brand new song, too, from their upcoming album. But I wound up being really impressed by Rise Against – I was familiar with their music, and I enjoyed a few songs before that, but they put on a heartfelt and powerful enough show that convinced me I need to pay more attention them as a band. I didn’t expect the crowd to go so nuts for them, but they definitely did, because they managed to get the second circle pit of the night going, which I definitely didn’t expect from a punk band. It’s a great feeling to leave a show as a fan of a band you didn’t like before.
So that’s that. What I loved, what I liked, what I downright hated in 2015. If you’ve made it this far, well, congratulations, and I hope I turned you onto some new music! If you just scrolled all the way to the end, well I see you too fam, it’s okay. Till next year!