The Dillinger Escape Plan w/Cult Leader, Car Bomb, and O’Brother – Union Transfer, November 15th, 2016

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For the second time in a week, I’ve had the bittersweet pleasure of seeing one of my favorite bands on their final tour. This time around, I saw the total polar opposite to Brand New: The Dillinger Escape Plan. The band recently released their sixth, and unfortunately final, studio album this October, bringing to a close a nearly perfect discography with one of its strongest entries ever. And now with their swan song tucked away neatly under their belt, the only thing left to do is tear through the world one last time, bringing their violently intense show to cities across the world.

Out of all the places in the world that I could’ve caught this band in, I got to see them in one of their favorite cites and at one of their favorite venues, Philadelphia’s Union Transfer. Philly is already known for having nearly feral audiences, and the band obviously loves and feeds on that energy, as they’ve made sure to visit the venue nearly every year since I started following them in 2010. And this night was no different – having sold out completely, the energy was palpable even as the venue was filling with excited fans, ready to see this band tear the place down for the last time ever. The only exception to the usual Dillinger/Union Transfer combo was that this time around, the venue opted to put up a barrier. The band has made a point of getting the crowd to flood the stage during their final song, and it seems like the venue finally tired of it. But besides that small let down, the night was stacked with a group of diverse and exciting bands, and it was clear that the night would be a thriller.

First up was Cult Leader, a band out of Utah that brought with them a sound heavily informed by the noisier edge of Converge, the sludgier side of death metal, and a big helping of punk. While the venue wasn’t even half full yet, it didn’t put any visible dent in their energy, as they tore through their set with reckless abandon and expertly delivered their pummeling music. In stark contrast to Cult Leader was Car Bomb – following up Cult Leader’s raw, angry edge, it was clear that Car Bomb exists firmly on the other end of metal’s spectrum. The Long Island quartet brought with them a blend of mind-bending time signatures, clinical guitar precision, glitchy effects, and inhuman rhythmic technicality. Yet for all that precision, the band clearly didn’t lack for a punk edge, either. All these things combined makes Car Bomb quite possibly the only real successor to Dillinger’s throne in the wake of their imminent demise, and it’s clear why they decided to take them out on this final round of touring. Finally, perhaps as a way of creating breathing room in the set, Atlanta rockers O’Brother were up next. Veering away from the hard edges of Cult Leader and Car Bomb, O’Brother instead brought a smoky, sludgy, stoner rock vibe instead. While it was clear that some of the energy drained from the room due to their comparatively laid back sound, I already enjoyed some of their music prior to seeing the show and was glad to have the chance to see them and allow my neck a few minutes’ respite from headbanging. And any reservations the crowd had were not shared by the band, as they were fully present and had just as much stage presence as their predecessors.

But as with any great meal, the appetizers should only serve to make you hungrier for the main course, and by this point we were hungry for Dillinger and nothing else. And they were fully aware of that – even though it was clear that the band’s equipment was ready to go, they faked us out by abruptly ending their intro music and starting a fog machine, only to restart the music from the top again. But it only made the band walking out and launching into “Limerent Death” from Dissociation so much more powerful. As soon as the opening chords hit, the surge of the crowd was incredible, and I watched from the rail as several rows worth of people were suddenly compressed into the width of one. They only upped the ante from there, tearing into the classic cut “Panasonic Youth” and fueling the flames even further before coming back down momentarily with the more pop-leaning “Symptom of Terminal Illness”. But there were very few moments of respite built into their set, with “Black Bubblegum”, “One of Us is the Killer”, and the recently revived “Mouth of Ghosts” (which was a highlight of the set, featuring Ben Weinman taking up a spot on the piano while Greg Puciato crooned over his gorgeous jazzy chords) being the only moments one could catch their breath during. Otherwise, the band leaned heavily on Dissociation, which made for quite an emotional night, since many of that album’s lyrics are pretty clearly focused on the creative and personal relationship between Weinman and Puciato, as well as the band’s end. Screaming “Please let me be by myself, I don’t need anyone” from Nothing to Forget or “I’m afraid of how this ends” from Surrogate along with Puciato was a loaded and intense experience, as we all knew exactly what it meant and were in the middle of that very end.

But while they might’ve leaned on Dissociation for obvious reasons, the band knows how to put together a set, and didn’t ignore the rest of their catalog. The band covered everything from Calculating Infinity onward, touching on “hits” like “Milk Lizard”, “Sunshine the Werewolf”, and “Sugar Coated Sour”, as well as the most iconic song in their discography, “43% Burnt”. But as always, their discography wasn’t the only thing they looked to be inclusive about during the night. Greg, Ben, and Kevin Atreassian were unable to keep themselves on stage, taking heroic leaps into the crowd at every opportunity. I’ve been fan girling to myself for the past week over the fact that I got to help hold up both Ben and Greg during the last few songs of the set, over getting to be that close to the people who made the music that’s held ME up in dark times. It’s obvious that the band has so much passion for this music, and so much love and trust placed in their fans, and because of it they truly make their shows a personal experience by getting right in the middle of the shit with us. And even outside of that physical connection, the band is a joy to watch – even during the slower songs, they’re impossible to keep still. Demonstrating insane athleticism, intensity and fearlessness, bands half Dillinger’s age couldn’t hope to match their crazed showmanship even if they were in the middle of a psychotic episode.

But perhaps the realest moment of the show came from one simple sentence from Puciato, just before launching into the classic “Sugar Coated Sour”. He only said, “This is an old one, and it’s your last fuckin’ chance to sing it along with us, Philly”. This was a band very clearly on top of their game in all respects, literally proving it just feet away from me, and knowing that the better ending is always to leave people wanting more. By highlighting the biggest and best songs of their career through this set, as well as hitting us with the most emotional tracks from their newest and final record, the band was showing us exactly what we’re always going to want more of without giving into nostalgia or despair. Instead, we were celebrating together, screaming together, dancing together, all because of this strange, angular, aggressive, sense-assaulting music. This final tour is a precious and fleeting experience, as are all things worth experiencing in life, and you should always fuckin’ sing along like it’s your last chance.

Avenged Sevenfold – The Stage [2016]

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The past few years have been rough for Avenged Sevenfold. Ever since drummer Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan died in 2009, the band has seemed unsure of what direction to go in: 2010’s Nightmare featured the Rev’s final songwriting contributions and had one of his drumming idols playing his parts, Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy. But Portnoy’s role was only ever to be temporary, and they quickly found another drummer in Arin Ilejay for 2013’s Hail to the King. That album found the band attempting to regroup, simplifying their sound and mining through their various hard rock and metal influences for new inspiration. But instead of sounding inspired, the band often veered too close to becoming a cheap copy of those influences rather than honoring them, and the songs were further weakened by Ilejay’s limp and rudimentary choice of drum parts. Sensing that things weren’t working out, the band has once again switched drummers, enlisting Brooks Wackerman of Bad Religion to fill the seat.

But Avenged Sevenfold had bigger ideas this time around than simply swapping drummers again. It was clear that the band was gearing up to release an album, if not this year, then probably the next. But details were scarce and besides the release of a single, “The Stage”, early in October, no one even knew if this thing had a title yet. The secrecy turned out to be for good reason: inspired by the surprise releases of Radiohead, Beyonce, Death Grips, and more, the band performed a live VR concert on October 27th before announcing that, hey, they had a new album and you could go buy it right at that moment. And in a first for this type of release, the band managed to get physical editions made and heroically avoided a leak up until the very last minute.

The album in question is The Stage, and clocks in as their longest album to date at a whopping 73 minutes. Immediately from the titular opening track, it’s clear that the band has gotten back on track. The opening title track starts off with ominous organ akin to “Critical Acclaim”, before launching into their classic limber guitar work and muscular riffing. It’s also clear that the band has re-embraced their progressive rock roots more than they have since 2005’s City of Evil, with the track easily hitting the 8 minute mark and moving through an array of harmonized leads, classic guitar riffs, and blazing solos. “The Stage” sets the tone for much of the album, as songs like “Paradigm” (a track that’s traditionally heavy and powerful for them), “God Damn” (a song that shows off Wackerman’s drumming chops and highlights why Ilejay was such a poor fit for the band), and “Sunny Disposition” feature much of these same traits, mixing power with structural variety. The latter track, “Sunny Disposition”, is their most interesting sonic experiment in years, combining the power of traditional metal riffs with a trumpet section in order to create an eerie, unsettling effect rarely seen in their catalog. Elsewhere, the band experiments with Faith No More-esque vocal melodies on “Creating God”, and is a great example of the vocal shift on this album. It seems like their hero worship on Hail to the King wasn’t entirely forgotten or without merit, as M. Shadows switches up his delivery to include not just his stock shouted tough guy rasp, but also hints of Layne Staley in his harmonies and Axl Rose in his highs. But perhaps the biggest risk on this album is its closing track, “Exist”. Clocking in at over 15 minutes, it stands out as the band’s longest track yet, and also features its longest instrumental section as well. Opening with swirling spacey synth leads, the band comes in full force with swept arpeggio runs and thick riffs that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to any Dream Theater fan. After 7 minutes of various guitar runs, organ sections, and chaotic soloing from Synyster Gates, the track finally takes a breather and allows gentle vocals to take over. The break doesn’t last long, though, as familiar pieces from the first 7 minutes slowly reintroduce themselves under Shadows’ vocals, until the song finally gives way to a monologue about the universe and the humans living in it from none other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson himself.

While it’s great that the band has finally found themselves again and have made a more progressive, more risky body of music, The Stage is not without its dead spots. Several of the songs on this album suffer from lacking a strong hook or vocal melody to hold them together, and as a result, songs like “Angels” and “Simulation” feel like plodding repeats of each other. Avenged has also always been a very vocally driven band despite all of their instrumental flair, so for them to switch it up here and use those instrumentals for much of the album’s melodic cues is – while not a bad thing – jarring and harder to get accustomed to considering their catalog of massively hooky songs. Sections like the impressive orchestral ending of “Roman Sky” are more immediately memorable than any of its vocal lines even after several listens, as are the aforementioned trumpets in “Sunny Disposition”. And outside of those motifs, in general most of the songs feel like they could have picked up an additional 5 or 10 BPM without suffering for it, as even album highlights like “Creating God” and “Sunny Disposition” don’t feel quite as urgent as they possibly could. In combination with most of the songs’ lengths, this ends up making the album feel a bit draggy and forgettable in its middle run.

But as a whole, The Stage is definitely a step back in the right direction for Avenged Sevenfold. They’ve embraced their core sound again without needing to outright copy their heroes, and are once again taking risks musically. And while not every song here is top tier material from them, overall The Stage feels like their most cohesive and mature work to date. So despite hitting a few stumbling blocks on this album, they feel more like growing pains as they move into a newer, more progressive sound, rather than a death knell for their creativity. For a band that has historically been so eager to dive into tired metal and edgy goth cliches, The Stage opens up an exciting new path for them to trod in the future, and it’s one that we can only hope they take till the end.

Key Tracks: The Stage, Sunny Disposition, Creating God, Exist

The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation [2016]

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As sad as it is to say, The Dillinger Escape Plan is throwing in the towel. That’s old news. Even older news is their storied commitment to fractured rhythm and teeth-grinding musical violence, their intensely physical and destructive live shows, their defiant DIY attitude that filters down to every move they’ve made in twenty years of existence. But the how and why of the band’s demise is quite possibly the newest thing here: the band is going out in a blaze of glory with one final record and a world tour spanning into 2017. They’re not killing this thing because they’re run out of ideas, or because their bodies are only being held together by sheer force of will, or because everyone hates each other. In fact, the band’s probably operating at its highest creative gear ever. Instead, they’ve realized that once anything reaches an apex, it eventually has to come back down. In the face of potential stagnation and diminishing returns, they’ve decided to clip that apex and kill the beast while it’s potent enough to still be missed.

That final record is Dissociation. And instead of pulling out all the stops and making some unhinged, off-the-wall masterpiece untethered to any expectations and obligations, they’ve instead consolidated their strengths into one album. Dissociation reads like a weathered road map of where the band has been before: touching upon the unrefined chaos and power of Calculating Infinity and Miss Machine, the freak-out glitch of Ire Works, and the melody and more traditional structures of Option Paralysis and One of Us is the Killer, it’s a summation of their body of work. But that’s not to say that Dissociation lacks for its own voice, either. On it the band sounds more crazed, more desperate, and more lonely than ever before, like it’s using those pieces of its past to hold itself together one last time in the face of the end rather than simply revisit the past.

It’s obvious on tracks like “Low Feels Blvd”, “Nothing to Forget”, and “Fugue” that the idea here is to take those past landmarks and channel them into some new feelings and emotions. On the former track, the band fires into breakneck Ire Works-esque riffing that pummels just as hard or harder than anything they’ve done before, and just as you feel like you know where it’s going, the bottom falls out. Suddenly the track takes a detour into Mahavishnu Orchestra styled jazz soloing from Ben Weinman, accompanied by frantic brass and strings and carried by choir-like falsetto from Greg Puciato. On “Nothing to Forget” the band opts to take the ominous, chunky approach they used on much of Option Paralysis, before opening up into one of the most straightforwardly pretty and melodic sections they’ve ever put on tape. Here the band is once again accompanied by a string quartet, but this time they opt for something a little more cinematic than “Low Feels Blvd”, using them to create drama and tension behind some of the most pure and honest-sounding vocals the band’s ever utilized. And “Fugue” builds from the band’s brief flirtations with electronics and morphs it into a full scale Aphex Twin/Dillinger hybrid, smashing Billy Rymer’s drums into quantized madness while layering them over one of Liam Wilson’s most unsettling bass lines ever, turning it into the album’s most jarring and sonically unique track.

But it wouldn’t be a Dillinger album without some tried-and-true landmarks, either. “Symptom of Terminal Illness” is the band’s usual “pop” track, but approaches its melody from an eerie, dramatic, and unsettling angle that quite possibly makes it their most compelling work in that vein yet. And songs like “Honeysuckle”, “Wanting Not So Much to As To”, and “Surrogate” deliver all of the musical shock and awe that their name has been built upon, featuring plenty of the band’s trademark jagged off-time riffing, vicious vocals, and chaotic power. And despite its mid-tempo, opening track “Limerent Death” is perfect for that role, as it feels like it’s dragging the listener kicking and screaming into something bigger, scarier, and more dangerous through it’s multiple build ups and breakdowns.

Bigger, scarier, and more dangerous perhaps sums up the whole record: while the band has been getting progressively more melodic and injecting some pop structures into their sound in recent years, Dissociation is much darker, more desperate, and less obvious as a whole. The first few listens won’t yield many obvious hooks, as the music is denser than ever before, and the lyrics betray a sense of fear, anxiety, and existential dread in the face of death. There’s palpable tension in every moment here; a sense that the beast is cornered and dying, yet strong enough to make its last stand and one final statement. Nothing sums that feeling up more than the album’s eponymous closing track, a track that’s far outside of their typical sound, and yet the most fitting possible conclusion to their discography. “Dissociation” is built entirely around keening, emotional strings courtesy of SEVEN)SUNS string quartet, and layered with throbbing electronics and skittering, off-kilter drum loops that threaten to spiral out of control. And strangely enough, despite Ben Weinman being the band’s only remaining original member, you won’t hear a single moment of his guitar work on this track. Instead, Greg Puciato croons what sounds like an epitaph for the band over all of this without ever raising his voice – lines like “don’t confuse being set free with being discarded and lonely” and “couldn’t stay for you / what a strange way to lose” feel like they were written with the band’s imminent death in mind. Even more strangely, the final moment of Dillinger’s final track fades out into a gentle falsetto, with all of the remaining instrumentation dropping away and leaving nothing but the lyric “finding a way to die alone” echoing out into the emptiness. It’s heart-wrenching in its truth, powerful in its contrast, and a completely unexpected ending.

On Dissociation, The Dillinger Escape Plan have truly found a way to die alone, but not in the sense you would think. They’re dying alone in the sense that, like everything else they’ve done, they’re going out in a way that no one else could. After years of setting the standard for mathy, technical metal and hardcore, with plenty of new musical ground left to tread and with an ever-growing fanbase, they’ve bowed out on top of their game with this record. They’ve left no opportunity for themselves to simply become another band that people wonder, “wow, those guys are still around?” about. Instead, what they’ve left behind is a perfect discography, with each record standing in stark contrast to each other, and one with a clear beginning, middle, and thematic conclusion. They’ve left a myriad of crazy stories, intense memories, and music that has influenced and will influence generations to come. It’s heart breaking to know that this is the end of a band at the height of their powers, but it would’ve been more heart breaking to watch them fade into mediocrity eventually. Dillinger has always been a band that stood alone miles above the rest, so for them, dying alone was always the only option.

Key Tracks: Wanting Not So Much to As To, Low Feels Blvd, Honeysuckle, Dissociation

Periphery – Periphery III: Select Difficulty

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Periphery are a band that’s always moving forwards. They were once just another bedroom guitarist’s project, and over the years they’ve flourished into one of the biggest names in metal today. And with each new release, they’ve found subtle ways of growing their sound and improving their songwriting in order to keep things from getting stale. But this time around, the band was faced with something of a tall order: how do you follow up a massive concept album that sprawls two discs and runs the gamut from radio-ready rock to some of the lowest, heaviest downtuning possible with metal guitars?

Well, the answer is simple: you don’t. Instead of feeling daunted by trying to follow up such a heady record, this time around Periphery has opted to just have fun with the process. Writing and recording in guitarist Misha Mansoor’s home/studio, the band deliberately put itself in a much more relaxed environment in order to not force things, and it truly shows: Periphery III: Select Difficulty features some of the band’s most straightforward, thoughtfully arranged, and vocally-driven songs ever. While there’s some typical heavy Periphery fare to open up the album with the back to back combo of “The Price is Wrong” and “Motormouth” (two tracks which, in all honesty, tread a little too close to many of their other songs), there’s a surprising amount of variety here for a metal band. “Marigold” is what happens when you build a rock song out of proggy guitar riffs and pure pop instinct, with string embellishments and gang-vocal chants to match, and “The Way the News Goes…” is comprised of a soaring, intricate clean guitar melody that refuses to stay in any one plac and later manages to meld a blast beat to a pop chorus in the same song. Following that theme, “Catch Fire” is the band’s purest attempt at a pop track yet, possibly more so than Juggernaut’s “Heavy Heart”. Surprisingly enough, it delivers in spades, showcasing that the trademark Periphery sound can stay intact while also being able to slot in easily on the radio, and proving that this band is impossibly dynamic within an incredibly narrow genre. And while it’s the closing track, “Lune” feels more like the centerpiece of the record. Periphery has always flirted with ambience and layering to thicken up their sound, but “Lune” is the most purely mood-driven track they’ve ever recorded. Opening with an introspective guitar line and taking its time to bring in several layers of synth, strings, and effects-drenched guitars, the song is a showcase for Spencer Sotelo’s vocal prowess. It’s quite possibly the closest thing to a ballad a band like them can get, and its worth its weight in emotional heft (which is even more impressive considering that, by most standards, its lyrics are pretty plain).

But on the parts of the records where they’re not stretching their muscles, at times it feels like they’re starting to run the risk of repeating themselves. As mentioned before, the two opening tracks feel like very by-the-numbers Periphery heavy tracks, handing in riffs that feel like they could have been written by anyone on the Sumerian Records roster. They’re nothing as impressively heavy as “Zyglrox” or “Make Total Destroy”, and they also fail to bring a new twist to that sound, either, which makes them feel a little flat. Also suspect is the fact that the band is continuing to revisit nearly decade-old Misha demos for new material: for a band that prides itself on having every member be a songwriter, enough so to base an entire EP around the concept of each member writing a song based around a singular overture, it seems a little odd to dredge up and rework such old material instead. Aside from those issues, it’s hard not to feel like a few songs here run just a little too long as well. “Marigold” features a two minute long outro consisting of nothing but guitar feedback and reverb, and when that happens just three songs into the record, it’s a total flow-killer. “Absolomb” suffers from a similar fate, but for a different reason: its outro is actually a gorgeous piece of orchestral composition, and should be showcased as its own separate track. However, it simply feels tacked on at the end to inflate the track’s length instead.

But considering that the band didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel for themselves with this record, that’s okay. There’s still a lot of growth to be found even on this more laid back, less ambitious undertaking. There’s heavy amounts of orchestral strings on this record, plenty of analog synths being seamlessly melded into guitar lines for added texture and flavor, a sharper eye for actual melodic songwriting instead of smashing riffs together, and more attention to detail than ever before. The band is still having enormous amounts of fun just writing and playing together, and even when they feel like they’re treading water, that fun is infectious. Overall, Periphery III: Select Difficulty is another welcome addition to the band’s catalog, and offers up yet another new flavor of their sound.

KEY TRACKS: Marigold, The Way the News Goes…, Flatline, Lune

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!