My Favorite Albums of 2021

Often times, as people get older, they stop following new music. Which is totally understandable: new responsibilities creep in, free time gets shorter, and our tastes get more set in stone. But thanks to Spotify being a thing, I’m happy to say that 2021 has been my most active year for new listens ever. This year was absolutely jam packed with amazing albums, with so many I loved that this list was very hard to decide on, and honestly, could probably change if you asked me again a few weeks from now. Because beyond the albums that I outright loved, there were plenty more than still caught my ear and stayed in my rotation for a while, never leaving me wanting for options when it came time to put something new on this year. Take a look at what albums I loved this year, and hey, maybe find a few that sound interesting to you, too!

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16. Weezer – OK Human

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given up on Weezer at this point. Every time they pull me back in with a great album, they drop another 2 or 3 that simply aren’t even remotely good. So while I’ve mostly written them off, every once in a while I’m pleasantly surprised, and this time that surprise is OK Human. On this album Weezer take their biggest musical leap ever, by replacing the majority of their guitars and power-pop instrumentation with a full orchestra. The result here is their most honest, plain-spoken, and beautiful piece of work possibly ever. These songs glitter with gorgeous, Beatles-esque orchestration, augmenting the band’s already powerful ear for melody with a wall of talented musicians, and it’s a joy to listen to. While in recent years Rivers Cuomo has been pretending to be a cool, partying Californian teenager on record, OK Human finds him simply discussing the realities and mundanities of his middle aged life, and while that sounds boring on paper, it’s honestly refreshing to hear him just be his real self. That’s the quality that made the Blue album so relateably geeky, and Pinkerton a harrowing dive into the mind of a man becoming horribly isolated and misguided. And it’s what makes OK Human feel, well, human. Of course, Weezer would release the horribly corny Van Weezer just a few months later, making it the shortest lived cycle of me enjoying Weezer again yet, but this wonderful record dropped during a dark time early in the year, and it was exactly what I needed.

15. Circa Survive – A Dream About Love

After 4 long years without new Circa material (their longest gap yet), they’re back with an EP that I just couldn’t get enough of. On their previous album The Amulet, they dove into softer sounds that burned slower and sighed instead of shouted, and they’ve continued down that path here. On A Dream About Love, they introduce some twinkly keyboards to the mix, augmenting their already spacey and dreamy sound even more with a touch of ’80s nostalgia mixed in. These songs all sound beautifully sad, yet gleam with the glint of hope that maybe those good things won’t just have to be a dream.

14. Portrayal of Guilt – We Are Always Alone & CHRISTF****R

Portrayal of Guilt actually put out two short and sweet records this year, one early on in January and another to cap the year off in November. Both of these albums are hellish blasts of screamo, black metal, thrash, and maybe even a little post-metal, creating a dizzying array of ways to punish the listener. We Are Always Alone has a bit more of a spacier side, with some quieter sections peeking in to contrast against the more hateful ones, and CHRISTF****R burns with rage at almost every turn, as necessitated by such a ire-inducing title. I knew nothing about these guys when 2021 started, but as it ends, they’re very much on my radar for a while to come.

13. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

As a big Nine Inch Nails fan, I couldn’t help but get excited at the idea of NIN producing a pop album. Because for as noisy and harsh as NIN could get in their heyday, they still always flirted with those radio rock sensibilities that landed them their biggest hits, even though there wasn’t room for much more than flirting. On Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love…, NIN and Halsey strike gold together. Halsey gets to dip into a darker, edgier sound that her previous outings couldn’t offer, and NIN get to write those big hooks and straightforward pop songs they’ve probably always wanted to write. This record drips with the sonic DNA of NIN, with plenty of buzzsaw guitars and eerie piano/synthisizer sounds creating a thick atmosphere of unease and power, while Halsey uses these dark beds of sound to empower herself within her newfound motherhood and as a woman making her way through the spotlight while relentlessly seeking her own happiness. The result is a vital record that finds darkness in the beautiful things and beauty in the darkness, and I hope NIN decide to produce more artists this way in the future.

12. Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon

I’ll admit that I was never really hip to Genghis Tron in their scene days, because their particular brand of crazy electronic math metal was far away from something I would’ve liked in 2008. But with Dream Weapon reintroducing them to the world, I dove into their back catalog and found a lot to love there. But as much as I’ve come to love a record like Board Up the House, Dream Weapon takes the cake for me. Shedding all traces of their metallic past, you won’t find any blasts of hardcore or harsh vocals on this record. Instead, they opt for a dreamy fusion that could best be described as Nine Inch Nails making shoegaze. Dream Weapon earns its name by somehow being propulsive and spacey at the same time, grounded through superb drumming and absolutely thick with synth pads, effects-laden guitars, and dreamy vocals that act not so much as strong lyrical or melodic hooks but as another instrument and melody to blend into the haze. A lot of times that can work against a band, making their sounds hopelessly blend into each other and just becoming a vague murk. And while I’ve seen people say that about this record, too, I personally love it. It combines a lot of my favorite sounds in a way that makes it ridiculously easy to just put on a good pair of headphones and get lost inside of it, and Dream Weapon scratches a particular itch for me that I didn’t know needed scratching.

11. LiSA – Ladybug

Sometimes I need a musical pick-me-up, something to cleanse my palette and give me a break from the often angsty and dark stuff I thrive on. And almost every time, I find myself dipping into some kind of J-pop or J-rock, and LiSA has been one of my favorite artists in those realms for a while now. So when she dropped Ladybug this year, a project that straddles the line between EP and album, I just couldn’t get enough of it. Working as a sort of musical retrospective on her first ten years in the music business, it combines some nostalgic sounds of of her past while also pushing into fresher ones of the present, which means careening from sentimental ballads, upbeat pop rock songs, pure J-pop bubblegum, and a dark electronic track that borders on rap with ease. Simply put, it’s an easy, fun listen, with plenty of different styles packed into its short runtime that make it impossible for me to get bored of.

10. Cynic – Ascension Codes

Cynic has had a rough go of things this decade. In 2014, the band seemed to implode after a series of shows in Japan, and they went radio silent for years after. And then, in the midst of an already hard year, they tragically lost two of their key founding members, drummer Sean Reinhert and bassist Sean Malone. It was heartbreaking to see such wonderful musicians have their time cut short, and it would’ve been easy for the sole remaining member Paul Masvidal to hang up his hat and call it a day on Cynic. Instead, looking to honor the memory of his lost friends, he crafted the gorgeous Ascension Codes. Cynic has always drawn influence from deep wells of spirituality and alternative theories on human consciousness, and that unique take on progressive metal is always what put them head and shoulders above their peers. And on Ascension Codes, they’ve dialed that up to 11. While some of their metal DNA is still deeply embedded into these tracks, they’ve also taken a bit of a different approach here. Replacing traditional bass with synth bass and a heavy use of keyboards, Cynic has dove into the more classic side of progressive music, creating lush soundscapes that are indebted to jazz and ’70s prog just as much as they are to Death. Records like Focus and Traced in Air are thick with complex guitars, relentless drumming, and screams to heighten the tension and give a more metal edge to the band. But Ascension Codes relishes in the negative space, leaving plenty of room for each song to breath and each instrument to play its role in its own time, instead of trying to compete against something else. These songs are not only couched in atmosphere and multitudinous layers of sound, but are also surrounded by gentle interludes that let the record flow more gently from one main track to the next. And ironically, Cynic now couldn’t possibly be further away from their own name, because this record positively glows with positive energy, and band leader Paul Masvidal uses every second of it to tell us that death is not the end, more is out there, and we’ll see our friends again.

9. Gojira – Fortitude

While I’ll always miss the more death metal feel of Gojira’s earlier stuff, I really ended up loving this year’s Fortitude. While they’re not quite as heavy these days, they’ve really grown into their own as songwriters, and they’ve put together a memorable batch of songs that balance mainstream rock accessibility with some of that classic Gojira bite. Of course, there may be a reason that they’re looking to make this record a bit more accessible. Because on Fortitude, they’ve come warning us about the looming climate destruction that humanity has brought upon itself, as we hurtle towards the point of no return. These songs pummel and push in the hopes of bringing some of us to our senses, and that’s a message worth spreading. No matter how far from their death metal roots they might stray, Gojira remains one of the most intellectual and compassionate metal bands working today, and those lofty ideals and hard-hitting sounds are why Fortitude is one of my favorite albums of the year.

8. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee at State’s End

I’ve been a fan of GYBE for a while now, but I couldn’t help but feel pretty disappointed with their last offering, 2017’s Luciferian Towers. It dragged on too long and had too little in the way of their usual climatic resolution, often feeling like it was building to something that either never came or didn’t feel satisfying once it did. Thankfully, after putting out what I thought was their weakest record, they came back this year with one of their strongest records ever, one I feel is on par at least with 2012’s Allelujah. Here, the band dips their toes back into the samples and street recordings that once made their music so eerie and unsettling, using them to fill in the slower spots of the record and to amplify the atmosphere of the more drone-focused, ambient sections. But on top of that, the band has found their inner editor again, tightening up these tracks to just the right lengths to fully let them both build tension, explode, and resolve themselves into the next piece. And yet, for all the darkness that GYBE is capable of, and exhibits all over this record, there actually feels like there’s an undercurrent of hope and happiness burbling away, too. When these tracks finally open up, they often feel celebratory and energetic, landing a ways away from the apocalyptic fare that made them perfect to score 28 Days Later. Maybe they sense that the state’s end really is near as the world seemingly falls apart, and GYBE is just dancing on those impeding ashes. Either way, I couldn’t get enough of this one this year, and I’m really glad one of my instrumental bands absolutely knocked it out of the park again.

7. CHVRCHES – Screen Violence

I loved CHVRCHES’ debut album in 2013, but I never kept a close eye on them after that. Maybe I just didn’t happen to be in the mood for them, or maybe it was because I just didn’t like their second album nearly as much, but they fell off my radar. However it happened, I got to rediscover them this year when Spotify suggested I listen to Screen Violence immediately, so I figured I’d give them another whirl. And boy I’m glad I did, because Screen Violence might just be their best – or at least my favorite – record from them yet. Slightly re-tooling their synthpop sound with a darker 1980s horror film score edge, CHVRCHES uses that unsettling edge to allow for confessional, vulnerable lyricism that explores the pressures of being a woman in modern society and dealing with the taxes and traumas that can come with nearly a decade in the music industry. These songs very quickly wormed their way into my brain and simply never left, because every song is jam-packed with effortless hooks and melodic production that insures even certain drum beats will be looping in your head for days. This was one of those records that, as soon as it ended for the first time, I just had to start it again from the top. And like a lot of the records here in my top 15, this one was never far from my repeat button.

6. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite

I’ve been a big fan of Deafheaven since the instant classic Sunbather dropped in 2013, and I’ve loved how each record was able to capture a new angle on the band’s sound. However, after the release of 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, I started to feel like they could be doing more. That album was good, but it didn’t quite grab me the way the previous two had, and I think I wasn’t the only one in that boat. Because on their newest record Infinite Granite, Deafheaven has flipped their script entirely. They’ve taken the shoegaze influences that made Sunbather such a unique record and blown them out into the core of this album, transforming themselves from black metal-adjacent to something much closer to the Cure. Infinite Granite twinkles and sparkles, opting to focus on gentle vocals and cooing melodies with huge washes of guitars underneath, instead of chest pummeling blast beats. And while this record was pretty controversial among their fans, I fucking loved it. Because for as radically different as this album sounds from their past work, they’ve somehow managed to still make it feel distinctly like Deafheaven. The vocals still retain some of that stacatto, cold edge that was present in their harsher stuff, and the swirling pools of reverbed guitars will still sound familiar to any fan of Sunbather. This was the reinvention of Deafheaven that I was looking for, and I found myself lost in this record over and over again.

5. The Armed – Ultrapop

A couple of years back, The Armed absolutely blew my mind with their hard pivot into a maximalist version of hardcore punk on their opus ONLY LOVE. That record felt like a screamy fever dream, jam packed with as many layers of guitars, synths, drums, and flat out noise as an engineer could humanly fit into each track. And while it wasn’t for everyone, I adored both its bravery to commit to such a unique sound, and the insane sound itself. It was a sensory overload in the best way, and it’s still one of my favorite albums. So naturally, I couldn’t have been more excited for the follow up to that album, which came in the form of Ultrapop. I knew they were up to something when I was one of the lucky few fans who received a mysterious cassette from them in early January, cheekily labeled under the name “Kanye West”. What followed was a cult-like ARG filled with band-sanctioned themed Discord chats, a fake cult website straight out of the ’90s, and plenty of strange writings and ephemera to sift through from those sources. All of that set the stage for Ultrapop, a record which picks up immediately from Only Love and develops it even further. Where Only Love was still a hardcore record, Ultrapop has dropped most of that pretense. Instead, the band puts together a laser-focused fusion of the heavier sounds of hardcore with the straightforward melody and ear-catching hooks of pop music, throwing in massive shout along choruses and foot-stomping power alongside gargantuan riffs and pounding drums. The proceedings ultimately feel a little less manic than its predecessor, but instead give way to an overwhelming sense of positivity and hope that feels so rare in this genre, tying together the mishmash of genre conventions with the through-line of self-empowerment.

4. Teenage Wrist – Earth is a Black Hole

Every once in a while, a band I never heard of even in passing suddenly pops up on my radar and drops a record I end up adoring. This year, that surprise was Teenage Wrist. On Earth is a Black Hole, Teenage Wrist manage to create something of a time machine with their sound, fully absorbing so much of ’90s grunge and alt rock that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine this record was just simply written IN the ’90s. But nostalgia bait would be insipid and boring if that was all they had to offer, but thankfully, Teenage Wrist are also incredible songwriters. Every track on this record is immediately catchy, and I found myself singing along with these songs on my first listen by the time the last choruses rolled around. Earth is a Black Hole is a perfect blend of nostalgic influence, impeccable sound design, tasteful production choices, and excellent songwriting, and it earned a spot on this list very early in the year.

3. Bo Burnham – Inside

It goes without saying that the past couple of years have been pretty fucking bleak. Covid has hit us hard, climate change is lurking in the background, and a lot of us spent a fair bit of time locked in our homes with no other connection to the outside world other than the internet. And like the rest of us mere mortals, Bo Burnham also found himself in this strange situation. Right as he was about to make a long-awaited return to comedy, the world shut down, leaving him suddenly adrift. Thankfully, he took all these things and channeled them into what is easily his one-man masterpiece, the comedy special/long form music video Inside. I could write an essay about that special by itself, so we’ll leave that for another time. On a purely musical level, Inside is a phenomenal record that finds Bo at the absolute top of his game. Because once upon a time, Bo wasn’t the greatest songwriter. His early stuff sometimes felt like he was just playing the piano so that he’d have something to tell his jokes over, but that’s no longer the case. Inside is full of incredibly well-crafted songs that brim with clever chord progressions, slick and precise production, and enough hooks to open a meat packing plant. And besides being expertly put together, there’s a wide range of genres here, too: there’s dark pop, EDM, folky singer-songwriter stuff, and even theater-kid showtunes that delight in their showmanship. Inside feels like the album Bo always wanted to make, but probably never had the time to sit down and put together, and as such it’s just bursting at the seems with highlights. But beyond these songs simply being well-written and insanely catchy, there’s a lot of depth to be found, too. In between jokes, Bo covers mental breakdowns and anxiety, depression, loneliness and online dating, society’s addiction to the internet, and the exploitative nature of modern capitalism. It’s a flat out impressive thesis on the state of our world in 2021, and the most clever part of it all? Inside never once mentions the pandemic or Covid by name. It manages to be both incredibly timely while also allowing it the privilege of not dating itself by referencing this very specific time frame, which fully allows Inside tofunction as genre-hopping, society-examining piece of work full of laughs and great songs that it is.

2. Every Time I Die – Radical

When Low Teens dropped in 2016, I quickly became a late convert to the ETID party. I quickly blew through their whole catalog and became a massive fan of theirs practically overnight, and I started looking forward to whatever their next album would be. But a strange thing happened…or didn’t. Normally one of the most prolific and reliable bands in hardcore, the years started passing without any new ETID. And that was for a number of reasons: even before the pandemic pressed the pause button on so many musician’s livelihoods, vocalist Keith Buckley was in the middle of a radical shift in his life. He found himself getting divorced, finding sobriety, trying to love himself, and ultimately discovering new love. And like the trauma that birthed Low Teens, much of that turbulent period of his life has found its way into the bedrock of Radical. This is a powerfully pissed off record, but the anger feels much more righteous than injurious. While Radical does take turns skewering corrupt, cowardly police officers and the selfish pricks dragging us through hell in 2021, it also uses anger as a form of release. Here, Keith has pushed himself to the edge, expecting to fall off the cliff, only to find a path forward after all. And after discovering that there’s a way forward after all, Keith directs his anger at the person he used to be, the one who walked up to that cliff in the first place, and now has the perspective to lash himself for all the damage he’d done to his own life and to others. It’s a powerfully cathartic record full of incredible lyricism, and Keith’s presence alone would make this record for me. Thankfully though, the rest of the band comes equally supercharged. It’s pretty par for the course for metal bands to get increasingly less hungry and fiery as they hit the 20 year mark in their careers, but ETID is still as torqued up and fucking terrifying as ever. Song after song is just jammed full of finger-demolishing guitar work, stomping bass, and pummeling drums, lending this record an urgency and propulsion that a lot of bands half their age don’t even have. And most impressively, they’ve given us 16 tracks on this beast, and they’ve managed to not only make each one feel necessary and important to the record, they’ve made them flow so that this nearly hour long album never blends together or wears out its welcome. On the contrary, I’ve found myself starting it again from the top several times this year, and I still can’t get enough of it.

1. Between the Buried and Me – Colors II

Sequels are fucking scary. More often than not, they take the things we loved and bastardize them, stripping them down to what focus groups think we loved about the originals and trying to squeeze a little more cash out of the properties. So when Between the Buried and Me announced a sequel to what I consider their best album, Colors, I felt a powerful mix of emotions. Part of me was excited at the opportunity to hear more of the music that completely blew 16 year old me’s mind, but part of me had a swirl of questions: does this mean they’re out of ideas? Is there any way they could ever live up to the original, 14 years after the fact? Is this just a cynical cash grab to revitalize their career? They were taking a massive gamble, and I was nervous.

As it turns out, I never had any reason to doubt BTBAM. Colors II is one of the rare sequels that takes the blueprint laid out by the original and manages to both give us more of the thing we loved, while also building upon it and taking it in a new direction. There was an easy road for them to take when making this record, that that would’ve been to sit down and pick the bones of the original to rehash it with nothing new to say. But in the 14 years that have passed since the original, this band has done a lot of experimenting and maturing. So instead of picking the bones, they’ve used them as a blueprint: Colors II does indeed feature a good helping of that dark, hard-hitting, mind-bending progressive metal that cemented them as one of the most forward thinking bands in the genre back in 2007. But there’s also just as much of the more classic ’70s prog sound that they developed on their Coma Ecliptic album, which is one of my favorites of theirs. Colors II starts off ridiculously heavy, just like their older work, and dips back into some of the zanier, off the wall ideas that made Colors such an exciting record. But for every crushing riff and mosh-worthy breakdown here, there’s also something pretty, something melodic, or something cinematic that gives the record a powerful through-line. The record slowly and subtly shifts from the heavy to the pretty, letting the band build a wash of keyboards, soaring clean vocals, and flashy instrumental runs that give these songs room to breathe and explore while maintaining strong, coherent song structures that move with purpose and direction. Colors II acts as a roadmap of the band’s musical evolution, featuring a little of everything they’ve ever done, and yet by putting it all together like this they’ve created an album that’s wholly unique in their catalog. The genius of this album is in how they’ve managed to not only dip back into the sounds that built their career, but do it without parodying themselves or paying too much fan service. It would’ve been easy to rewrite their past for a quick buck, but instead, they bet on themselves and created something new from something old. 2021 was a great year for this band, as they lovingly remixed and reissued their back catalog, played online live stream shows, and finally pulled off a two-set “Evening With” tour that was delayed by the pandemic. So for them to top that off with an album that both looked to their past and their future was the icing on the cake for me, and it quickly cemented Colors II as the best thing I heard all year.

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Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

Jeff Rosenstock – Ska Dream
Nas – King’s Disease II/Magic
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Sleigh Bells – Texis
Pupil Slicer – Wounds Upon My Skin
Eidola – The Architect
Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
IDLES – Crawler
Thrice – Horizons/East
Full of Hell – Garden of Burning Apparitions
Converge & Chelsea Wolfe – Blood Moon
Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks of God
Kaonashi – Dear Lemon House, You Ruined Me: Senior Year
Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders – Promises
Bilmuri – 400LB BACK SQUAT
Origami Angel – Gami Gang
Tiger’s Jaw – I Won’t Care How You Remember Me
Turnstile – GLOW ON
Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
Frontierer – Oxidized
Tyler, The Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Modest Mouse – The Golden Casket
Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
Limp Bizkit – Still Sucks
Kero Kero Bonito – Civilisation
Kanye West – Donda
Zack Fox – Shut the Fuck Up Talking to Me

Deafheaven – Infinite Granite [2021]

From the moment Sunbather blasted Deafheaven into…whatever counts as the mainstream for this kind of music, they’ve been polarizing. Not only do metal fans either love them or revile them, the music itself often operates within very disparate styles. They’ve never had much middle ground, after all: they’re either arresting in their beautiful washes of shoegaze guitars and blissed out tremolo textures, or they’re demolishing everything in their path through siren-esque shrieks and pummeling blast beats. They borrow as much from My Bloody Valentine as they do Mayhem, but they’ve also never shied away from evolution either. New Bermuda breathed closer to metalcore and hardcore than shoegaze, and Ordinary Corrupt Human Love was a varied – if sometimes a bit confused collection – of textures, spoken word, metal, alt rock, and morbid atmosphere. But no matter what they were doing, Deafheaven never quite settled into one lane, as they seemed content to operate in the extreme ends of whatever they were exploring. And for as exciting as that tendency towards the extremes made their music, their last album showed signs that maybe they were ready for a big change, but where that change would bring them was anyone’s guess.

Well, where they’ve gone next is that fabled middle ground. Infinite Granite builds upon the promise of Sunbather’s love of shoegaze and texture and retools the band’s entire sound towards that end. That by itself feels like an evolution that was an inevitability for them, but that’s not what makes this album such a surprise. Instead of George Clarke’s paint-peeling missives, he’s instead shifted gears to almost entirely clean vocals. And to be perfectly honest, I’ve long since wanted a bit more variety in his vocal style. But considering just how harsh his vocals are – and how strained they were starting to sound – I wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull off clean singing. I’ve been happily proven wrong, however, because George’s vocals here have a shockingly delicate, soft spoken quality to them. And while he doesn’t have a huge range, he does has great control of what he does have, using it to lend these songs a hypnotic and rhythmic edge. His vocal lines sound as if he was able to transfer the patterns he’d normally use for his screamed vocals into sung ones instead, giving his cadences a unique stutter/stop edge that contrasts perfectly against the hazier, dream-like music that envelops him like a warm blanket.

Much like the huge step George has taken with his vocals, the rest of the band has taken big steps instrumentally as well. While they’ve always had those shoegaze influences as a core part of their sound, it still felt more like they were flirting with the style rather than fully committing to it. On Infinite Granite, though, they’ve found a way to stretch those influences far enough to carry entire songs, and create a bed of lush, vibrant music on every track. So much of this album pushes and pulls with a constant subtle tension, tension that is far removed from the more obvious and foot stomping attack in their metal-centric work. Yet, there’s still plenty to be recognized as distinctly Deafheaven in the way they utilize cathartic build ups and climaxes, black metal-inspired tremolo guitars, and that thick wall of sound that made their previous records so transfixing. It’s impressive how they’ve managed to retain so much of the intensity from their heavier work on such intimate, shy, and emotional compositions. And while it would be easy for a metal band to underpin these delicate tracks with their former aggression and fire, or push them unnecessarily towards big finishes just to take a half-measure towards pleasing fans of the older stuff, Deafheaven excellently walks the line of reserving those powerful finishes for the moments when they count most, making the blistering finishes of Villain and Mombasa so hard hitting when they finally do break out the screams.

However, for as much as I love the new turn Deafheaven has taken here, there’s still a few wrinkles to be ironed out if they’re to continue down this road. George’s vocals are great for what they are, but he still has a little bit of a way to go towards making sure his vocal lines are distinct from track to track and grab the ear. There’s a few stand out moments on these songs that hint at his ability to pull this off in the future, and I’ve found several of the hooks here stuck in my head for days. But his vocals can also start to turn into a bit of a blur towards the end of the album, making it difficult to latch onto specific lyrics and hooks since he essentially has one gear and one gear only. Sometimes this works in the album’s favor, and I do love the hazy hypnotism of those staccato, soft vocals, but other times it wears thin and ironically, could still use a bit more variety in tone and dynamics. The music itself suffers from a similar problem, as well. These songs are engineered to sound thick, lush, and foggy, creating dense layers of sound that are so easy to get lost in. But like George’s vocals, towards the end of the album the trick starts to wear out its welcome, sacrificing atmosphere for memorable guitar parts or tantalizing lead work. I’m hard pressed to pick out any guitar parts here that really wow me, and sometimes that’s a sign that a band knows when to focus on the songwriting instead of showing off their chops, but I can’t help but wish that the guitar work had more meat on its bones than shoegaze-y textures and simple chord progressions.

Despite all that, overall I’m intrigued and in love with Deafheaven’s new sound. They’ve taken a bold risk by jettisoning most of their trademark sound and vocal style, and it seems like Infinite Granite is a record they’ve wanted to make since Sunbather. There’s a lot of promise in how the band utilizes sound and texture to emphasize atmospheres, emotion, and George’s clean vocals, and many parts of this album truly feel like a triumph. But at the same time, there are moments where the band has simply ventured too far into that middle ground that they have avoided for so long. Infinite Granite occasionally yearns for some higher highs, more rise-and-fall dynamics, or even just the odd stand out guitar part to liven up some of what can become one-note and monotonous towards the end of its runtime. But because so much of this record is simply so good at what it is going for right off the bat, this all feels more like transitory growing pains than failure to rise to the occasion. Either way, Deafheaven have opened up a world of doors for themselves with this album, and if it was already hard to guess what direction they would go next, with Infinite Granite they’ve made the possibilities limitless.

Between the Buried and Me – Colors II [2021]

Anyone who’s consumed any form of media knows what an uneasy prospect a sequel can be. So often that word has come to be synonymous with diminishing returns, compromised visions, and creative bankruptcy that is only justified by an accountant’s balance sheet. So when Between the Buried and Me announced a sequel to what I consider their best work – and some of the best prog metal in general – I felt a weird mix of emotions. My inner 15 year old was over the moon at the prospect of more Colors, but my present self was full of nerves. After all, so many things could go wrong, right? They could phone it in and copy themselves in that cynical, jaded way so that many bands do when they attempt to “go back to their roots”. Or they could go so far off the map that it doesn’t resemble the original at all, setting needlessly high expectations just to dash them…because after all, their sound has deviated from Colors quite a bit since 2007. With all these questions in mind, I was excited for Colors II in a way I haven’t been excited for an album in a minute, and I couldn’t wait to hear what the guys had come up with.

However, right from the jump, this record clearly has a lot of Colors baked into its DNA. Tracks like “The Double Helix of Extinction” and “Fix the Error” both echo and build upon the frenzied, dissonant heaviness of this record’s predecessor, hitting hard and fast while leaving nothing but devastation in their wake. “Fix the Error” especially captures that rambunctious, everything-AND-the-kitchen-sink approach of Colors as it sprints from gospel-inspired organs, a blistering set of drum solos, and a crazed punk energy that holds this call for rebellion together. And between these tracks we find “Revolution in Limbo”, a 9 minute beast that finds the band veering through soaring choruses, thick slabs of crunchy technical metal, Cannibal Corpse-esque growls from drummer Blake Richardson, and even a Latin-inspired bit of bossa nova to close things out. A song like this sounds absolutely insane on paper – just like much of the original Colors did as it jumped between bluegrass, prog, jazz, metalcore, and more and by all rights would be a mess if written by any other band. But this track actually highlights one of the strongest qualities of Colors II, which is the long way the band has come as song writers in the intervening 14 years. Because where once their wild genre excursions could come off as jarring and almost random, herethe band has managed to make these knotty twists and turns feel completely logical and necessary for each song, and each “wtf” moment turns from surprise to sheer pleasure in a heartbeat.

And that’s not just a feature of the individual songs on this record, but rather of the album as a whole. There’s a beautiful flow to it that is so smooth you may not even notice just how much things have changed until you’re 7 tracks deep, and starting with “Never Seen / Future Shock” is where we hit the real turning point. This track starts off as another blast of hard hitting prog in line with the more classic-sounding BTBAM tracks before it, but this is also where the record starts to play with the sounds the band has developed in the 14 years since Colors. On the back half of this song, things shift gears into some slow cinematic prog rock, with Tommy’s clean vocals reaching for the skies over a bed of tightly woven clean guitar leads from Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring that ricochet off of each other in jazzy lock step. And for the big finish, the band pays homage to pretty much every ’80s prog record ever by bringing in a blast of reverb drenched drums before kicking off into a dramatic finish full of uplifting guitars and sci-fi movie keyboards. This is the jumping off point as Colors II shifts gears from what we expect into what we don’t, and the record takes on a focus much more its own.

It would’ve been quite easy for the band to sit down and write an honest to god clone of the original, retreading the same stylistic beats and sounds for a quick cash grab. But while the first half of the album does play with some of their classic sounds, the real power of what they’ve made here is how they’ve effortlessly blended so much more into that Colors framework. Because from here on out, the band starts wholeheartedly diving into the classic rock side of progressive music on tracks like “Stare Into the Abyss”, “Bad Habits”, “The Future is Behind Us” and “Turbulent”. Each one of these songs does have a familiar Colors slant to it, whether it be through a bit of harsh vocals to liven things up or just by adding extra oomph to a dramatic moment with angular riffs and crunchy power chords. But for as much Colors as you’ll hear throughout this album, there’s an equal amount of the underrated Coma Ecliptic too. That album found the band ditching a large chunk of their complex metal riffing and labyrinthine song structure in favor of a more streamlined, simplified approach, which meant utilizing much more in the way of clean vocals, negative space, eerie atmosphere, keyboard-driven melodies, and well as their ’70s prog heroes to guide the way. I found that record to be a fantastic bit of experimentation – and a bold move from a band with a history of bold moves – but it also received a fair bit of backlash for deviating so far from the blueprint, too.

But risks like that define this band, and they’re why Colors II makes for such a compelling sequel. By cross-pollinating one of their most beloved records with one of their most controversial, they’ve created an album that both lovingly echoes the best parts of their catalog, while simultaneously daring to bring together all the evolution and experiments that comprise Between the Buried and Me in 2021. This isn’t the sound of a band navel-gazing at their own past and patting themselves on the back, but rather a band that seized the opportunity to build upon that past in a way that they could only do after 14 years of living, writing, and playing together. Because for as much as the band winks and nods at their past through the occasional musical reference and lyrical interstitial on this album, Colors II firmly stands as its own work. If you had never heard the original Colors (or this thing had simply been called anything else), it would still be just as excitingly aggressive and heavy, gorgeously emotional and atmospheric, and adventurously written as it is now. And yeah, when the album was first announced, that 15 year old me really just wanted another helping of Colors, because honestly, why wouldn’t I? But instead, the band took this chance to do something much more important. They’ve created a record that does indeed find joy in acknowledging who you used to be, and how that person you were has shaped the person that you are now. But at the same time, they’ve also highlighted just how important it is to never stop growing, to never stop finding new things that excite and challenge you, and to never rest on your past accomplishments. So while Colors II may not be the exact stylistic successor that some people may have been hoping for, it does absolutely embody the mold-breaking, genre-defying attitude that made Colors such a special record. We were never going to get the same record again, and the truth is…we didn’t need to. I applaud Between the Buried and Me for being brave enough to recognize that, and for crafting such an amazing record this deep into their career.

Babymetal – Metal Galaxy [2019]

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If you’ve spent any time on the internet in the past few years, odds are you’ve come into contact with Babymetal. After finding their way into the meme-stream with 2014’s zany viral hit Gimme Chocolate, the group was suddenly everywhere: reaction videos, social media, metal magazines and websites, music festivals, and more. But this band wasn’t just a meme: their music was genuinely boundary-pushing, allowing brutal metal to coexist with upbeat and energetic pop sounds with ease. Of course, this immediately drew the ire of “true” metalheads, who insisted that the band’s manufactured idol background and catchy choruses did nothing but bastardize metal and everything it stood for. But with 2016’s Metal Resistance, the band once again proved that they were the real deal, fusing the very best of metal’s vast array of styles with a level of theatrical flair, emotion, performance, and sheer songwriting craft that was impossible to resist. And with this jewel in their crown, the band continued building a huge, dedicated fanbase by playing over a dozen countries around the world over the next two years, and made an unprecedented success out of themselves.

But sadly, no success story goes untarnished. After capping off their Metal Resistance world tour with a pair of massive arena shows in Japan, Babymetal soon met the new year with tragedy. Guitarist Mikio Fujioka, a member of the group’s live band, suffered serious injuries from a fall in late December 2017, and sadly passed away from them on January 5th. Losing a member so tragically took a huge toll on the group, and things were quiet for a while. But there was another reason for their radio silence, too: Yui-metal. She had been absent from those two arena shows in Japan, and fans weren’t told much outside of a brief mention of health issues. And when it came time for the band’s US tour in May, she was still missing in action, instead replaced by a series of seven revolving dancers that varied in formation from show to show. But by now the writing was on the wall, and in October 2018, Yui finally revealed that she was indeed leaving Babymetal. She was simply too ill to perform with such a demanding group, and had hopes to start a career under her own name.

In the face of all this turmoil, Babymetal’s future was uncertain for the first time in their career. With Yui gone, it spurred anxieties of Su-metal or Moa-metal departing as well, or the band ending altogether. At the very least, big changes were coming, and instead of caving to the pressure, Babymetal rose from the ashes in 2019. They got a lock on Yui’s departure by replacing her with a series of three “Avengers”, who are rotating dancers that fill her spot live and bring the group back to its traditional trio. They soon started to debut new material live too, making is abundantly clear that Babymetal was not going anywhere anytime soon, and was ready to broaden its horizons and look towards the future.

All of this brings us to their new album, Metal Galaxy. Just like the name suggests, the band is reaching for the stars and grabbing as many of them as they can. And that’s not just a metaphor: this album is star-studded with guest features, featuring Joakim Broden of Sabaton, Alissa White-Gluz of Arch Enemy, Tim Henson and Scott LePage of Polyphia, Tak Matsumoto of B’z, and Thai rapper F. Hero. This wide ranging cast of characters is necessary for the vision Babymetal is chasing with this album, though: after spending years touring the globe from young ages, both the girls and the band’s producers have plenty of new inspiration to draw on, and they do. That manifests itself in a host of sounds, most immediately in the form of Shanti Shanti Shanti. This song mixes a crunchy guitar stomp with an Indian flavor, layering in sitars and register-jumping Eastern vocal melismas with great success. Elsewhere, Night Night Burn takes djent-inflected guitar riffs and juts them against a dash of Latin rhythms and flamenco lines, all fusing to create a pulse pounding pop-metal song. On Brand New Day, Polyphia’s dazzlingly chill jazz metal effortlessly blends with the song’s unadulterated J-pop vibe, and Elevator Girl is one of the hookiest songs you’ll hear all year. But Oh! Majinai is a song that almost defies categorization, sounding like a bizzaro pirate shanty courtesy of Joakim Broden’s gravelly chants and shouts overlaid on groovy riffs and jaunty accordion leads. The Japanese edition of Metal Galaxy has even more surprises, though: we find Su-metal spitting bars and flashing attitude over a trap-inspired beat on BxMxC, that’s expertly thickened up by fat 8 string guitar lines. And the other Japanese exclusive track, BBAB, is a trip through chiptune and future bass which is loaded with chiming synths, pulsing keys, and a dose of metal to make this one of the most unique odes to video games ever put to tape.

But for all these big jumps in genre and style, there’s plenty of classic-sounding Babymetal to go around too. Distortion pummels along with with exuberant synth lines reminiscent of their first two albums, staccato riffs, and expressive lead guitar lines. It’s also given an extra injection of aggression with Alissa White-Gluz’s harsh screams, fitting so seamlessly into the song that you almost can’t tell its not the original single released last year. Pa Pa Ya!! is a groove metal stomp that features an instantly shout-able chorus and an aggressive rap verse courtesy of Thailand’s F. Hero, and Kagerou takes their unique sound and pares it down into a slick hard rock track that would slot perfectly onto American rock radio (you know, were it not sung in Japanese). Then there’s Starlight, a song that’s packed with drop tuned djent riffs and serves as a heartfelt tribute to fallen guitarist Miko Fujioka. And Arkadia sounds as if it were cut from the same cloth as Road of Resistance and The One, packed with the sky scraping guitar work you can only get from the very best of power metal.

That’s the thing about this album, though. Just about every song here, taken on its own, is an immediate and excellently written earworm that blends genres and cultures without even blinking. But when you zoom out and look at the album as a whole, problems begin to surface. Simply put, these massive genre jumps quickly become dizzying, especially on the album’s first half. From IN THE NAME OF on, the album does settles into a more consistent and cohesive whole, but by then its already run the gamut of dance-pop, jazz metal, pirate shanties, and Eastern music, and its easy to feel fatigued at the halfway mark. Because at its heart, this album is literally taking on the world and trying to incorporate it all into the Babymetal universe. With that in mind, its hard to tell if Metal Galaxy simply suffers from a non-optimal track order, or if cuts need to be made, but things are soon clouded by another matter entirely. That cloud is the album’s production and mixing, which takes the album’s mission statement of “everything AND the kitchen sink” and runs with it. There is simply no sonic real estate left untouched here, with every nook and cranny filled by some sort of guitar layer or riff, vocal harmony, synth line, studio effect, extra percussion, finger snaps, or folk instrument. This makes an album that’s already unsure of its own flow and cohesiveness even harder to follow along with, as it is just constantly throwing everything it has at the listener. Sadly, the worst of these production issues fall upon Su-metal’s vocals. Having seen Babymetal last month, I’m well aware of what an amazing singer she is, exhibiting tone, control, and power well beyond her 21 years and all while dancing and jumping around like a woman possessed. But on Metal Galaxy, her voice is absolutely buried in unnecessary effects that range from vocoders, pitch shifters, Harmonizer, and autotune. It’s clear that this is an aesthetic choice, meant to suit the album’s futuristic and poppier vibe, but what it mostly serves to do is bury Su’s voice in the mix and obscure her powerful vocal melodies. In a way, it’s a testament to the skill of everyone involved in Babymetal that these songs actually sound better live, but it’s a shame that the recorded versions are so bogged down by bad sound design.

So what’s the verdict on Metal Galaxy? Well, it’s not a perfect album. It lacks for a cohesive flow and has a tendency to pogo around genres like a kid in a candy shop, all while suffering from some over the top production choices that often drown out the best parts of the songs. But really, those issues are pretty easy to overlook given the absolute scale and ambition of this album. Babymetal tries just about everything under the sun here, and the vast majority of these songs only end up the better for it. Elevator Girl, Shanti Shanti Shanti, Brand New Day, Kagerou, Starlight and Arkadia are all easily some of the best songs this band has ever written, and the weirder experiments are an absolute joy to listen to even if your mileage will vary greatly with some of them (Oh! Majinai, anyone?). While these songs don’t always complement each other in the tracklist, on their own they’re simply great songs, and that’s always been the litmus test for Babymetal’s music. As long as they’re still finding ways to kick down new doors and dare the listener to tell them not to, then they’re still just as vital and exciting as the day they started. This band has seen the world and come away better for it, and in their quest to incorporate a little bit of everything into their universe, they’ve shown us that the one true way through adversity is an open mind, a willing spirit, and the fearlessness to dive headfirst in things that may or may not work. Because as long as you’re reaching for the stars, you’re bound to grab a few, and those are the ones that light up Babymetal’s Metal Galaxy.

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.

Brand New w/Modern Baseball and The Front Bottoms – PPL Center, November 11th, 2016

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Disclaimer: This review is only for Brand New’s set, not Modern Baseball or The Front Bottoms.

Brand New is currently staring down their demise. After announcing their intentions to break up in 2018 earlier this year, the group has been touring relentlessly while simultaneously working on a new, and presumably final, album. They’ve also released a bevy of miscellaneous singles, vinyl reissues for their seminal albums, and even an EP of rerecorded tracks from their infamous 2006 leak. After many years of indecision and stalling out, the band has obviously been looking both backwards and forwards as they attempt to end their career on a high note. Part of that looking backwards has coincided with the tenth anniversary of their landmark album, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me. With the band in such generous, celebratory spirits, they’ve chosen to play the album in full on every stop of their most recent North American tour.

Now, I’m only a recent convert to Brand New – I discovered them last November after buying Deja Entendu solely because I recognized its iconic cover. What I found on that album was some of the most personal, heart wrenching lyricism I’d ever heard, paired with huge hooks and undeniable melodies that were totally at odds with the pained words they carried. I fell in love immediately and dove deep into their catalog, becoming obsessed and memorizing every line. I was very, very late to the party, but I was oh so happy I found them at all. So for them to announce their break up so shortly after my newfound fandom broke my heart, yet also made me determined to catch them live at least once before their end.

I finally crossed that off my musical bucket list on November 11th, 2016. Brand New rolled through Allentown, PA and brought Modern Baseball and The Front Bottoms with them to the PPL Center, an 8,000+ capacity venue that I had no idea that the band was capable of filling (which I’m quite happy to be wrong about!). But filled it was, filled with rapturous, adoring fans fully aware that this may be the last time they ever get to see this band grace the stage and fueled by the fond memories of some of the most important rock records of the 2000s. And in the spirit of embracing those memories, the band opened up with “Mixtape”, one of the rare songs the band still plays from their debut record Your Favorite Weapon. In its original incarnation, this song is youthful, energetic, a little sad, and a little snarky. But on this night, it sounds beleaguered, reflective of youth gone by, and weighed down by the passage of time. But that mood fits what’s to follow perfectly: the band may be looking at its past, but it’s not attempting to recreate it. And it’s Jesse’s voice that gives that song much of its new quality: as Jesse nears 40, his voice has changed considerably, but not for the worse. Where it once sounded naive and wounded, he sounds huskier and more resolute than ever, blasting through the music with a power and confidence rarely shown in Brand New’s music. As the set continued, the band played a good chunk of 2003’s Deja Entendu, enough of which to make me curious as to whether they were actually playing that album instead. Touching upon the classic “Sic Transit Gloria…”, “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” (which featured a snippet of Modest Mouse’s “Trailer Trash”), and an emotional venue-wide sing along to “Play Crack the Sky”, they got many of their “hits” out of the way and lulled the crowd into a false sense of security before launching into The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me.

From the opening notes of “Sowing Season”, the crowd went crazy. This album means so much to so many people and you could feel it in the room: from beginning to end, every word was being shouted out in unison, filling the room with just as much of the crowd’s voice as Jesse’s. And this being the second to last stop on the tour, it was clear that any kinks that may have been in the set had long since been worked out. The band faithfully recreated the album note for note, bestowing it with much of the same passion and energy that they had laid to tape ten years ago. But instead of being the heart-wrenching, stomach-churning experience that it is on the album, when rendered in this live setting, it became something more positive and celebratory. It’s hard to feel sad when thousands of people are joining along with this music, and it makes it clear why the band decided to adopt “Fight Off Your Demons” as their pet phrase- this isn’t music to suffer to, it’s music to unite to, to take strength from. And by taking this opportunity to perform the album in full, they’ve highlighted for us the reasons why they’ll be so missed, even though they aren’t quite gone yet.

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