With 2017 now well underway, music releases are really starting to pick up, with some of the year’s most anticipated albums surfacing over the past month. The last Friday of February, in particular, saw an incredibly fruitful day for eagerly awaited albums from Thundercat, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Stormzy, Sun Kil Moon and others, and also the odd surprise album, such as Future’s HNDRXX. With so many interesting albums being released, it was inevitable that this month’s segment of ‘Albums I Love’ was going to be an extensive one and, indeed, a great array of records were released over the past four weeks that captivated me in one way or another. Seeing as the purpose of this segment is to bypass the verbose waffling of my full reviews, I shan’t stretch my preamble out any further and commence with my musical highlights of February 2017.
‘A Distant Star’ by Teakwood
Whilst I list the albums in this segment chronologically, as opposed to by preference, it just so happens that the first album on this list is most likely my favourite from the past month. Looking online will only provide a limited insight into the history of this band; this I can assure you, as I have done it. The information that you do find, however, will inform you that Teakwood were a band who operated in the mid-70s and, during this time, recorded their sole album A Distant Star. For various reasons, the album was never released until Fred Forsh, founding member of the group, was put in touch with the people at Tramp Records who first released the band’s only 7″ single, Can You Dig It?, and then finally took A Distant Star down from its shelf and unveiled it to the world. The music contained on this album is astonishingly fresh, considering it was recorded in 1977 and released four decades later. Teakwood’s influences are distinct but diverse, with the band incorporating elements of soul, funk, jazz, disco and a host of other genres into their sound. Simply listing the stylistic catalysts for this album is not enough to describe its aesthetic, however, as the band apply these sounds in such an innovative way as to create a sound that is wholly their own, whilst still clearly displaying their influences. On top of this, the performances on A Distant Star are dynamic and captivating, just as the musicianship is practically spotless. Indeed, I was thrilled that an album with such an ambiguous history boasted equally fascinating music. For those wishing to learn more about the album, when you check out my review (which will be linked below), I suggest scrolling down to the comments section, as none other than Fred Forsh himself discovered my review of his band’s album and was kind enough to shine some light on Teakwood’s past. As I said in my review, I can’t recommend an album any more strongly than A Distant Star. Even setting aside the context of the record’s history entirely, the songs contained would sound as vibrant, inventive and generally ravishing in any era of music. Indeed, this is an album that is special on many levels.
‘I Decided.’ by Big Sean
I have no issue admitting that I have absolutely not been a fan of most of Big Sean’s previous work, but I Decided. marks a massive change for the Detroit rapper and has been what is easily the biggest surprise for me 0f 2017 thus far. The extent to which Big Sean has put his head down and really thought about this album shows a deeply admirable level of maturation, and this project is his most focussed to date by far. This record is based around the story of a man who is killed, only to then re-live his past, with much of I Decided. detailing the changes this man makes to his life with the gift of hindsight. As much as I love a good concept album, merely conceiving a good idea for a central narrative isn’t enough, because if the execution is poor, the concept will suffer horribly. Thankfully, however, not only is this album’s concept very strong, but Big Sean follows through with his most introspective and nuanced lyricism to date. Sonically too, this album displays a very nice aesthetic with some syrupy smooth production, so I’m impressed all round with this new release. Here’s to hoping this level of quality carries onto whatever Big Sean’s next musical project might be.
‘Primo’ by Matteo Vallicelli
Having been doing the rounds on the underground Italian punk circuit for most of his musical career, composer and drummer Matteo Vallicelli takes a detour on his first solo album, Primo, to dabble in the world of minimalist electronics, and the end product is an incredibly well-crafted project. According to the musician, he spent the three years leading up to the album holed up in his apartment, tailoring his approach to the subdued and meditative electronic music that appears on Primo, with the actual recording of the album being completed within a month. The time Vallicelli put into this album really shows and, considering this is the musician’s first attempt at an electronic project, the result is one of the most impressive electronic albums I’ve heard this year. The influence of Berlin’s lively techno scene permeates much of the material on this record, but in a very controlled and focussed manner as to not detract from the intriguing subtlety of these pieces. Indeed, Primo is, overall, an incredibly intricate and contemplative electronic record that acts as a profound testament to Vallicelli’s versatility and general ability as a musician and composer.
‘Primordial Malignity’ by Tomb Mold
The sheer force of the decrepit death metal featured on Tomb Mold’s debut album, Primordial Malignity, is made even more impressive by the fact that this band is comprised of only two people. The influences of the Toronto-based pair on their first album encompass a wide variety of extreme metal and punk genres, such as technical death metal, black metal, thrash metal and crust punk, creating a Frankenstein’s monster of an album, with an equally repugnant and frightening sound. Going into this album, the listener can expect to be assaulted by a barrage of oppressive riffage, bludgeoning blastbeats and a mighty and meaty bass tone that permeates many of these songs. Whilst, at its core, Primordial Malignity is a death metal record, Tomb Mold throw many a curveball at the listener in the form of diverse stylistic influences and occasionally off-kilter song structures. Ultimately, despite this album’s many intricacies, it’s rather straightforward in its appeal, and there’s little here that wouldn’t satisfy your average extreme metal fan.
‘Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often’ by Quelle Chris
Although I have found Quelle Chris’ ice-cold and carefree delivery hard to get into in the past, I have often been impressed by his conceptual bars and his production style, and on Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often, the underground rapper pulls through with his most well-assembled and actualised project to date. The usual wittiness of his lyricism appears more prominently on this album than on any of his previous projects, with this record’s concept revolving around self-love, self-hatred and the self in general. As such, there are countless humorous moments wherein Chris builds himself up only to knock himself down again on the next track. The MC’s flow is as breezy as usual, but the production — which often carries a jazz rap flavour to it — complements Chris’ delivery, creating for what is perhaps the rapper’s first genuinely accessible project. It’s both odd and impressive that Quelle Chris’ most audacious project yet would also be his most cohesive, but Being You Is Great… has displayed the artist at his best and proved to be one of the most enjoyable hip hop albums of the year thus far.
‘Elwan’ by Tinariwen
I can’t emphasise the importance of the Malian music scene enough, with the biggest artists out of Africa right now hailing from Mali. Tinariwen are one of the best examples, having been amongst the most well-received acts from the region, even winning a Grammy and having worked with many more familiar musicians from over here in the West, such as Kurt Vile, Saul Williams, Josh Klinghoffer, Matt Sweeney and countless others. The desert rockers have set a high bar for themselves on their previous albums, but their latest record, Elwan, doesn’t flinch one bit. Indeed, Elwan marries musical mastery with heartrending stories of the band’s homeland and its current state of political turmoil, with Tinariwen being personally affected by the current unrest, due to being displaced from their home region by a Tuareg rebellion and having their guitarist, Abdallah Ag Lamida, kidnapped by Islamist militants. The extent to which the members of the group have been deeply disheartened by the state of their motherland permeates every square inch of this record, and the end product is a movingly beautiful and meditative record, both lyrically and sonically. Indeed, even within Mali, few bands are composing music in the way that Tinariwen do, and Elwan is the latest of their astonishingly masterful creations.
‘Life & Livin’ It’ by Sinkane
On his latest album, Life & Livin’ It, Sinkane continues his tirade against genre boundaries, incorporating elements of everything from Afropop to psychedelic rock and from free jazz to reggae onto these songs. Despite the collision of such diverse musical stylings on this record, the end product is highly accessible, with no shortage of catchy hooks, lovely instrumental arrangements and pop appeal being featured here. What’s more, despite the complex intricacies of a handful of these songs, their appeal is rather straightforward, in that the result is a selection of dynamic and colourful compositions performed with impressive musicianship and, essentially, therein lies what makes this record so enjoyable.
‘Northern Passages’ by The Sadies
Northern Passages is the latest full-length release from Canadian country rockers, The Sadies, and sees a limited change in direction for the band, but is nonetheless a fantastic display of some of the finest songwriting of their career. What’s more, the band also pursue various different styles from within the Americana idiom on this album, with songs like Riverview Fog being beautiful, folk ballads, whilst Another Season Again is an upbeat garage rock tune, and God Bless the Infidels is a straight bluegrass track. The Sadies execute all of these styles with an expert level of knowledge and focus that results in an album that remains relatively consistent in its enjoyability, despite all of its stylistic twists and turns. Indeed, The Sadies exhibit an impressive amount of ingenuity on Northern Passages, which is made even more impressive by how prolific of an act they are. Ultimately, this album further fortifies the band’s position as one of the most pivotal acts of modern alt-country music.
‘Típico’ by Miguel Zenón
The music of Puerto Rican jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón has often been celebratory in some way, with the composer’s work having often payed homage to some aspect of his home country, whether the focus be on its rich musical climate or Zenón’s personal feeling of national identity. Típico is the artist’s latest album and it is indeed a celebratory record, but for a different reason compared to Zenón’s previous work, with these pieces being dedicated to his band and their history together, having now been collaborating as part of the Miguel Zenón Quarter for 15 years and across 10 studio albums. As such, much of the album’s material reflects Zenón’s relationship with each individual member of his quartet, both on a musical and personal level, and the result is a collection of some of his most well-crafted and complex pieces to date. One of the key themes on this record is the extent to which the members of the Miguel Zenón Quartet challenge each other as musicians, which is reflected in some incredibly intricate and elaborate compositions, with each of the band member’s dexterity with their respective instruments really being put to the test. As a composer, Zenón pushes the boat out more than ever before when it comes to experimenting with the melodic and rhythmic structures of his pieces, leading to Típico being amongst the saxophonist’s most diverse and adventurous endeavours thus far in his career. Ultimately, there’s a lot to be admired about this album, from its textured and refined stylistic complexities to Zenón’s ability to capture the best qualities of his band and convey them as effectively as possible, with the end product being easily the most impressive jazz album I have heard this year.
‘Cruel Optimism’ by Lawrence English
Inspired by Lauren Berlant’s book of political philosophy of the same name, Cruel Optimism is an art piece that paints the picture of a postwar dystopia, in which citizens suffer anxieties and trauma as a result of their enthusiasm towards a future that ultimately never materialises into anything meaningful. Lawrence English has, for a long time, experimented with the way in which sound occupies the human body through his avant-garde ambient soundscapes, and his latest record, Cruel Optimism, furthers this exploration, whilst also bringing it into a highly politicised context. Whilst the stylistic themes of this album are expressly dark, the soundscapes do not solely emit ominous drones that put the listener on edge, rather a fair share of beautifully meditative moments are featured here as well. Ultimately, despite being an ambient drone album, Cruel Optimism is a sound piece that refuses to be resigned to the background, with its message being both pensive and upfront, demanding the listener’s attention as it conveys a pessimistic worldview that creates a forlorn, and occasionally funereal, mood. Indeed, Cruel Optimism is an art piece that cannot quite be explained, rather it requires thorough rumination in order to properly fathom its purpose and power.
‘Den Förstörda Människans Rike’ by Henry Kane
Henry Kane is a new undertaking from Wombbath’s Jonny Pettersson, and the project’s debut album, Den Förstörda Människans Rike, combines death metal, crust punk, grindcore and other genres like no other artist I’ve heard. What sets this album apart from other current releases in metal and punk is not merely its marriage of many musical stylings, but also the entire atmosphere of the record, which is created by an incredibly grimy, distorted, lo-fi sound that is almost hard to describe. The guitar on this album is certainly its most remarkable and prominent feature, making use of a modulation effect to create a tone so bassy and muddy that it’s genuinely difficult to discern what it’s playing at times, whilst on other occasions, such as when the rest of the instrumentation gets more intense, it blends into the broader soundscape, creating a crumbling wall of distorted noise. Of course, it’s not just this album’s distinct aesthetic that makes it so remarkable, as it’s also chock-full of blisteringly fast grindcore passages, D-beat breakdowns, sludgy riffs and much more, all packaged along with some great songwriting and fantastic performances from Pettersson. Indeed, whilst Henry Kane will surely not be to every metal and punk fan’s liking, it can most definitely be appreciated for its audacity and ingenuity.
‘Atonement’ by Immolation
Immolation have long since held a special place amongst classic American death metal acts, largely due to the organised chaos that is their style of writing songs. Across their career, the changes to the New York band’s sound have been limited, but that’s not to say that the band haven’t slowly but surely evolved, leading to slightly different, but still off-kilter, approaches to composing and broader conceptual elements being introduced to the band’s music. Immolation’s latest effort, Atonement, comes as the outfit’s 10th studio album, and ranks amongst their best records in terms of how well it conveys their modus operandi, combining the best elements of their recent and early work. Whilst Immolation’s riffs and songwriting are as eccentric and bizarre as ever, the group also display the kind of guttural energy that could appeal to all death metal fans, even those who aren’t typically fans of the genre’s left-field acts. Ultimately, Atonement arguably displays Immolation in their most polished and absolute state, with their unmatched esotericism being as evident here as ever before, through the channeling of the best aspects of the band’s history.
‘Drunk’ by Thundercat
Stephen Bruner, known by his stage name of Thundercat, has always been a diverse musician, but his latest album, Drunk, is surely his most diverse project yet, in terms of the styles of music, styles of comedy, the personnel employed on the album and much more. The best word I can think of to describe the end product is entertaining. Throughout all of its stylistic twists and turns, Drunk remains consistently exciting and enjoyable to listen to, thanks to both the hectic jazz-funk instrumentals and the amusing, tongue-in-cheek and goofy lyrical themes. The album is essentially a colourful and vibrant explosion of jazz, funk, hip hop, soul, new wave, psychedelic rock and much more that can only be truly appreciated when listened to from front-to-back with the listener’s undivided attention.
‘Flying Microtonal Banana’ by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
Following their most commercially and critically successful album to date, last year’s Nonagon Infinity, Aussie psych rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard return with another conceptual and adventurous album, and the first of a supposed five albums to be released throughout 2017. Just as Nonagon Infinity was marketed surrounding its quirk of being an album that plays in an infinite loop, the band have made a big deal about Flying Microtonal Banana being their first foray into microtonal music. Indeed, this album’s concept is arguably the most ambitious undertaking for the group thus far, in that it so directly affects the music on the record, but they play it to good effect. For instance, the microtonal tunings of the guitars lend themselves to an Eastern sound that the band makes the most of through their use of Eastern scales and a central Eurasian wind instrument called a zurna. What’s more, this sound is emphasised further by the desert rock hue that many of these tracks assume, with some moments genuinely reminding me of bands from West Africa, like Songhoy Blues or Tinariwen. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard utilise more influences than just these, however, pulling from the styles of rock that they have routinely toyed with in the past, such as acid rock, surf rock, progressive rock and garage rock. The end product is a captivating album that is outstanding even outside of the context of its microtonal foundation, but taking this into account only makes it even more astonishing. With the band setting the bar this high on Flying Microtonal Banana, I really can’t wait to hear the other four albums they have in store for us over the course of 2017.
‘FORGET’ by Xiu Xiu
Whilst not a track-for-track cover of an American serial drama’s soundtrack like their previous album, Xiu Xiu’s latest effort, FORGET, is just as explorative and inventive as their previous project. This being said, it’s also one of the experimental group’s most accessible albums yet, potentially ever, and I don’t just mean accessible by their standards, as there are some moments that display a genuine sense of pop appeal. Of course, these moments are nevertheless approached with Xiu Xiu’s usual dose of avant-garde experimentation, and with dark lyrical themes concerning death and the afterlife, but there are still a handful of tracks that sound very close to synthpop tunes. The end product is as beautifully dark as much of their other work, and is often times as challenging as it is pleasing, making for one of their most colourful, dynamic and overall engaging albums in a long time, and is amongst my favourite albums of original material in their discography.
‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ by Stormzy
With Stormzy having been one of the biggest names in grime for quite some time now, his debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, was undoubtedly going to be one of the biggest releases of the year. What was less predictable, however, was the approach the rapper took on this album, as he tries his hand at some sung R&B tracks with gospel themes, creating for an album that is evocative of Chance The Rapper’s The Coloring Book at times, albeit in a slightly darker format. The result, therefore, is an album that is divided between some hard-hitting grime bangers, like First Things First, Bad Boys and Big For Your Boots, and some mellow, gospel-inspired R&B endeavours, such as the two parts of Blinded By Your Grace. This is unequivocally a bold move for the artist, with most people expecting to go into his debut and hear non-stop grime bangers, and whilst such tracks on the album provide the best moments, the soulful sung cuts are certainly very memorable and are an incredibly impressive first attempt for Stormzy. Gang Signs & Prayer raises the question of what styles of music the MC will pursue on future material, but if he does indeed continue to hone his R&B sound, we can expect to hear something even more special than his debut.
‘The Iceberg’ by Oddisee
Having been quite the fan of much of Oddisee’s recent material, I was highly anticipating his next album, The Iceberg, and I think it can be safely said that this is his best project thus far in his discography. It capitalises on and develops everything that has made him such an interesting figure in the underground hip hop scene for the last few years. The production is absolutely pristine, his bars are thoughtful, introspective and often uplifting, and even his performances stand out as being the best he has yet put onto tape. As a hip hop album, it’s appeal is rather straightforward, in that it encapsulates just about everything one could want from a rapper like Oddisee, but that’s not to downplay how remarkable the material on here is. Indeed, The Iceberg is most definitely my favourite hip hop album of the year, and I would anticipate it ranking highly amongst all releases come the end of 2017.
‘Necrobreed’ by Benighted
Benighted continue their onslaught against healthy eardrums on their latest album, Necrobreed. This French deathgrind band take the typical sadistic violence of classic death metal acts and crank it up a notch, with their disturbing lyrics made even more repugnant by frontman Julian Truchan’s blood-curdling vocal performances that provide much of the album with a distinct, gory aesthetic. Ultimately, whilst this is a record that doesn’t particularly push the boat out very far when it comes to the pre-established deathgrind/goregrind style, Necrobreed presents this sound as to bring out its best and most gruelling aspects.
‘Nightmare Logic’ by Power Trip
Power Trip’s latest effort, Nightmare Logic, has seen considerable commercial and critical success for the band, and it’s not particularly hard to see why. The Texan thrashers’ latest album presents a rather typical approach to crossover thrash, but packaged in one of the most blood-pumping and exciting configurations to have been released for quite some time. Crossover thrash is far from the most accessible genre of music, but Power Trip’s attitude is so invigorating and charged with high-octane energy that it is very easy to get into. The performances are exhilarating, the riffage is top-notch and the songwriting is up to snuff too. Nightmare Logic proves that you don’t have to be reinventing the wheel to yield fantastic results.