March of 2017 has proven to be an intense month for music. Blanck Mass dropped his latest album, World Eater, which looked like an early contender for my album of the year, only to be blown out of the water by one of the most personal and emotionally crushing records not just of the year, but of all time, that being Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me. With such a sensational selection of albums to get through, and with this addition of my supposedly monthly segment arriving rather late, I shall keep my preamble brief and delve into my recommendations of records that I have reviewed during the month of March right away.
‘Aodron’ by Merzbow
Yes, the first album to feature on my list of albums I love from March was actually released in January, but Merzbow is such a prolific artist that even his fans struggle to keep up with all his new music, so I didn’t get around to listening to this project until the past month. Although it’s rare for Merzbow to ever dwell on one particular style or compositional approach for too long, Aodron certainly has an air of some of his previous output, including many of his most celebrated contributions to the noise music genre. Of course, this is the king of Japanoise we’re talking about, so the extent to which his attitude on this latest album evokes other works of his is relatively minimal, with the composer still finding interesting and inventive ways to play with rhythm and melody amidst a blistering wall of abrasive chaos. Ultimately, Aodron is one of the most remarkable additions to Merzbow’s ever-growing back-catalogue amongst his recent material, and also acts as a fitting introduction to the artist and to noise in general for those who have yet to delve into the artist’s work.
‘Abreaction’ by Svart Crown
On their latest album, Abreaction, French metal outfit Svart Crown continue to blur the boundaries between various sides of the metal spectrum, crafting a definitive sound for themselves in the process. Although a blackened death metal band at their core, Svart Crown, on their most recent record, introduce their doom metal inspirations more than ever before, whilst throwing in a touch of technical death, creating cascades of clashing guitar chords, sluggish drumming and eerie vocals that come together to form a consistently ominous ambiance all over this album. The band blends their eclectic influences together with impressive ability and, as such, Abreaction is an album that is sure to thrill many a shade of metalhead.
‘English Tapas’ by Sleaford Mods
Although only completely winning me over to their unique stylings that marry a minimalist punk and post-punk aesthetic with semi-rapped, semi-spoken vocal deliveries several records into their career, Nottingham ruffians Sleaford Mods have continued to break down the once somewhat one-dimensional walls of their musical identity on their latest album, English Tapas, utilising more diverse and interesting instrumentals from DJ Andrew Fearn and some of Jason Williamson’s wittiest and most caustic bars to date. As far as modern-day English punk goes, Sleaford Mods embody the anger of the working class in a way that makes them one of this generation’s most pivotal punk acts, and English Tapas is perhaps their most compelling album to date, further reinforcing the untouchable position that the duo has carved out for themselves in contemporary punk culture.
‘Uyai’ by Ibibio Sound Machine
The dance music stylings from both Britain and Nigeria come together in a kaleidoscope of powerful vocal performances from frontwoman Eno Williams, vibrant electronics and dynamic organic instrumentation on Ibibio Sound Machine’s sophomore album, Uyai. Despite this collection of disco tunes all displaying a keen awareness of the rhythmic traditions of African music, many electronic and dance acts from the West are consistently used as touchstones for the London-based group to channel their homeland’s musical conventions in as accessible a way as possible. Whether it be Gary Numan, LCD Soundsystem or The Prodigy, many English and American acts are referenced in the act’s compositional chops, whilst never losing the fiery attitude of their Afrobeat roots. The result is an explosive collision of electronica, post-punk, Afrobeat, funk, psychedelia, EDM, synthpop, techno and more, all packaged within textured production and exuberant performances, making for one of the most unique and generally enjoyable dance records of the last few years.
‘World Eater’ by Blanck Mass
Put simply, Blanck Mass’ World Eater is experimental electronic music done right. Benjamin John Power’s incorporation of all manner of stylistic principles into his eclectic compositional approach is far more than simply surface-level, with the resulting soundscapes being unlike anything I have heard before. Look no further than Rhesus Negative, perhaps the most ambitious song Power has ever conceived, and easily the highlight of the record. Across its nine-minute runtime, the piece manoeuvres through myriad musical principles, pulling from everywhere from hip hop to black metal, crafting an incredibly unique listening experience in how well integrated into the composition these influences are. What’s more, one of World Eater‘s greatest strengths is the overall sound of the album, as orchestrated by Power’s self-taught and self-accommodating production style, which complements his brand of electronic music perfectly. The result is a record that teeters between beauty and ugliness, as its compositions weave between crisp, multi-faceted, ravishing textures and ominous, brooding ambiance with haunting elegance.
‘Brutalism’ by IDLES
Emerging seemingly out of nowhere, Bristol-based bruisers IDLES come together with an impressive explosion of political, post-punk piss and vinegar. Similar to Sleaford Mods in attitude, the punk outfit draws clear influences from industrial music in their use of hammering, mechanical drumbeats, with meaty bass lines following suit in true blue post-punk fashion. What’s more, the snide, caustic, tongue-in-cheek rants of frontman Joe Talbot, delivered with an inflection evocative of Steve Ignorant or Johnny Rotten, act as a more sweeping and less verbose take on the tirades of the Sleaford Mods frontman. True to its name, Brutalism is one of the most crushing punk experiences — both musically and lyrically — I have experienced in quite some time.
‘PACKS’ by Your Old Droog
With the Internet initially mistaking him for New York luminary MC Nas, it should go without saying that the classic East Coast, boom bap, sample-based sound courses through the veins of Your Old Droog and his latest full-length project, PACKS. In fact, Droog seems to be so well-versed in this style of hip hop that he comes across as if he has decades’ worth of experience under his belt, despite being the industry newbie that he is. Of course, like many of New York’s most captivating contemporary rappers, Your Old Droog’s appeal expands beyond just a keen appreciation for the city’s rich rap history. Indeed, equipped with a slightly off-kilter style of delivery and some hefty lyrical chops, Droog is a compelling man on the mic and, with the help of features from the likes of Danny Brown, Wiki and Chris Crack, there is no shortage of entertaining performances on PACKS. For an MC as new on the scene as Your Old Droog to sound as fresh, yet as experienced, as he does on this record is an admirable feat in itself, and the result is one of the strongest hip hop albums of the year thus far.
‘Semper Femina’ by Laura Marling
Having refined her subtle and intricate folk style on 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle, English singer-songwriter Laura Marling took the route of many a folk artist on her 2015 album, Short Movie, and electrified her sound, incorporating rock instrumentation and song structures into her compositional process. Although a very strong first attempt, Marling certainly displayed room for improvement, so I assumed her next record would see the musician continue down the path of folk rock and attempt to polish this change of direction. However, her latest studio effort, Semper Femina, instead shows Marling revisit her previous stylings of classy, baroque folk music, essentially picking up from where Once I Was an Eagle left off, as opposed to Short Movie. The singer furthers her folk sound with the incorporation of a more prominent jazz influence than ever before, resulting in some of the most elegant and beautiful pieces of her career, whilst also weaving one of the most intriguing lyrical narratives to feature on any of her releases. As is suggested in the title, Semper Femina is an exploration of female identity that is, in some ways, a celebration, but is no less poignant and introspective as a result. Marling treats the arc of this album’s lyrical content with the same degree of detail and delicacy with which she treats her compositional style, with the end product being an album that is as cultivated musically as it is lyrically, and stands as one of the young singer-songwriter’s crowning achievements thus far in her career.
‘Salutations’ by Conor Oberst
I have to admit that I had my doubts about Salutations. The idea of taking the quiet and introspective songs from Ruminations, which were made all the more compelling by the singer-songwriter’s hushed and fractured performances, and fleshing them out into grand arrangements for a full band seemed to almost cheapen the whole philosophy behind Ruminations, given that it was an album composed and recorded in solitude, after Oberst secluded himself following several health scares. However, looking at these tracks from a compositional perspective, they have really blossomed in their full band renditions, and the fact that Salutations also features seven entirely new songs makes the project feel not simply like a sister album to Ruminations, but a different animal entirely. As such, Oberst’s latest studio effort can be appreciated both for providing a different perspective on already-existing pieces, and also for being a fantastic collection of tracks in its own right.
‘A Crow Looked At Me’ by Mount Eerie
Conveying the crushing grief and eternal aching that results from the death of a loved one is no easy feat, especially when it can be so hard to make sense of one’s own thoughts following such tragedy. One of the greatest successes, therefore, of Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me is the fact that the listener truly experiences the pain of Phil Elverum, having lost his wife and fellow musician, Geneviève Castrée, to cancer in July of last year at the age of 35, shortly after the birth of the couple’s only child. Of course, the bereavement that is translated to the listener is surely not even a morsel of that which Elverum has so unfortunately had to endure, but the starkness, intimacy and candour with which the singer documents his life without his significant other is explained so vividly within these hushed, fragmented and tortured songs that digesting this album is certainly emotionally challenging. In fact, despite A Crow Looked At Me being my favourite album of the year thus far, it’s not an album that I can recommend in the traditional sense. I certainly think there is a lot of insight to be gained from Elverum’s stories, and perhaps some who have experienced similar sorrow could find comfort here, but the emotional weight of this album is so heavy that some people may struggle to even get through it. I would certainly advise anyone going into this album to fully understand its context, as if someone were to just stumble across it perchance and put it on, without the opportunity to brace themselves, the bleak lyrical content may take them a bit too off-guard. However, should one choose to listen to A Crow Looked At Me, one will surely realise what a spectacle of musical accomplishment it is. With the narrative of the record running chronologically and seemingly arising from the uncut reflections of Elverum following the death of Geneviève, A Crow Looked At Me comes across almost as a series of diary entries of a mourning man, put to fractured music that mirrors the unthinkable misfortune to have befallen him. As such, not only is this album the most personal album I have heard all year, I would also consider it one of the most personal albums I’ve ever heard; perhaps too personal, with the listener often experiencing a feeling of guilt, as if they have secretly gone through someone’s diary without their permission. What’s more, Elverum articulates his pain with a profound honesty and rare simplicity that captures his confusion, frustration and anguish with a striking and painful degree of accuracy. I can already see myself getting lost in an infinite amount of tangents in my summary of this album, so for a more coherent and detailed summation of my thoughts, my full review is where you should look. However, given that the reactions incited by A Crow Looked At Me will likely be entirely unique from individual to individual, listening to the record and forming your own opinion is what I would recommend above all else.
‘The Ghost of Hope’ by The Residents
The latest addition to the storytelling roster of avant-garde legends The Residents concerns the history of American train wrecks during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries on The Ghost of Hope. Such specific subject matter has appeared on previous works of the musical outsiders, such as the obscure fictional narratives surrounding Inuit culture and life in the Arctic on their classic 1979 album Eskimo. In fact, there are more parallels to be drawn between The Ghost of Hope and Eskimo than just this. Just as the focus on life for Inuits on Eskimo was employed as a means of satirising the mistreatment of the indigenous people of the Americas, the recreation of early American train accidents seemingly reflects on the ramifications of rampant technological progress, leading to problems arising faster than humanity can find solutions to them. In utilising genuine accounts of such events from the era, as well as the ever-impressive application of word painting often associated with The Residents’ brand of sonic art, the collective craft another fantastically enthralling piece of musical commentary on The Ghost of Hope.
‘Heartless’ by Pallbearer
Having been enamoured with Pallbearer’s marriage of classic doom metal and progressive rock on their first two albums, whilst also being of the opinion that this captivating style had yet to be translated into a fully actualised studio album, Heartless is exactly the record I wanted to hear from the band. The alterations Pallbearer make to their sound are rather minimal, with the most notable change being the increased prominence of their progressive side, but nevertheless, the great accomplishment of Heartless is that it brings a much-needed dose of variety to their compositional approach, providing a much deeper substance beyond the airy quality of the group’s melodic doom riffs and impassioned vocal performances from frontman Brett Campbell. The stunningly rich and crisp production value does wonders for the intertwining passages of winding guitar riffs, soaring vocal melodies and thunderous drumming, creating an undeniably attractive atmosphere that allows Pallbearer to properly flaunt their most dynamic and adventurous compositions to date. All in all, Heartless, despite its title, is one of the most impassioned metal records I’ve heard this year, and is certainly the most elegant and beautiful.