The Knife – “Shaking The Habitual”



Named after a Foucault quote and steeped in Cultural Marxism, Shaking The Habitual is the thinking grad student’s electronic act.  It’s been seven years since their previous album, 2006’s highly regarded Silent Shout, and the ensuing years have seen any number of remixes, production works, and a side-collaboration on the rather creepy Fever Ray.  This new LP finds them embracing noise and dark ambient work with full force, in sharp contrast to their previous work.  Where Silent Shout crafted bold new sounds out of the bones of cheesy Europop and trance, Shaking The Habitual seems hellbent on carving songs out of pure sonic building blocks.  It’s a wild new vision and for the most part it works.  There are moments where the scrawled drones outstay their welcome – as on the nearly twenty-minute middle track “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” – but for the most part the artistic statement holds together with real force.  With its deeply, radically progressive politics and it’s artsy noise-skronk, it brings to mind specifically the dark experimentations of the early 1980s, which makes sense; similar times call for similar statements, after all.



Deafheaven – “Sunbather”



It’s funny how things work.  Take black metal for instance.  Emerging from the bleak, permanent-winter vibe of the Scandanavian metal scene in the early 1990s, it was simultaneously praised for it’s new, lo-fi, nearly shoegazer take on death metal and derided for it’s cheesy, immature Satanic imagery and for it’s nationalistic ideals that approached National Socialism (indeed, there is a distant branch of the genre literally named “national socialist black metal”).  Then, six or seven years ago the Americans took the genre by force, and acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and Liturgy breathed new life into the instrumental hallmarks while generally abandoning the lame imagery.  At the same time, the post-rock movement has, in recent years, developed a harder-edge strain through acts like *shels and Russian Circles, using heavy guitar passages and bludgeoning arrangements to inject metal into the sprawling suite-structure made popular by Explosions In The Sky and Godspeed! You Black Emperor.

Sunbather, then, represents a junction between the two disparate movements:  they use the brutal, blastbeat-ridden instrumentation and howling-demon vocals of black metal and use it in the sprawling, dynamically-exciting structures of post-rock.  The album hovers between the two worlds with sure-handed expertise; there are moments, such as on the stellar closer “The Pecan Tree”, where the band shifts from a blur of heaviness into droplets of pure, calm beauty without even batting an eye.  Hunter Hunt-Hendrix may have developed the ideal of “transcendental black metal” but Deafheaven has crafted something that is actually Zen; it shows the chaotic futility of modern existence and then proceeds to show us that even in those seemingly bleak days there is sunshine, colour, love.  It is a meditation on life circa 2013, a perfect representation of the unpronounceable feelings that rule us beneath the surface of consciousness.  It may not be, strictly speaking, the best album of 2013 (I mean, we still have Kanye and Arcade Fire to get to), but it is, to this music nerd, probably going to stand up in December as the most important.


The Thermals – “Desperate Ground”




Once upon a time, years ago, I was listening to music in my room when my SIL’s friend came in to say hi.  After handing me a Heineken he focused his ears wrinkled his nose, and asked “are you listening to pop punk?”.  I glared at him over the lip of my beer and growled “no, I’m listening to the Thermals”.  That was a hell of a long time ago – eight years gone or so – and that album was The Body, The Blood, The Machine, a tour-de-force of firebrand conceptual punk.  As it turns out, it was also the band’s highwater mark; everything that came after got increasingly more muddled.  Desperate Ground does not reverse this trend, rather it neatly encapsulates it.  The album has one great track (the opener, “Born To Kill”) and the rest blend into each other with surface-level politics and same old-same old power chords that fall over each other in an effort to get to the end.  After the last chord rings out you’ll be hard-pressed to separate it from any other three-chord radio-punk band you’ve heard in the last decade.  I guess all heroes must fall eventually.

Final Mark:  C


Thee Oh Sees – “Floating Coffin”




Floating Coffin continues on in the band’s new tradition of becoming tighter and heavier as their albums roll on.  It’s still wild Sixties-esque garage rock, but with a greater emphasis on being bigger, larger than life.  They’ve managed to cut out a lot of the weirder, screechier moments that marred otherwise great albums like Castlemania; instead, they’ve been replaced with slower, more melodic moments that add much needed contrast to the sort of beehive riffs that tracks like “Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster” are made out of.  It still flags somewhere around the middle (“Strawberries 1 + 2”, to be exact) but the strength of the rest of the album makes up for it.  It’s perhaps the first time that Thee Oh Sees can place an album next to their contemporaries and not feel weirdly out of place – hell, they even made a video this time around.  Maybe they’re growing up?

Final Mark:  A-



A$AP Rocky – “Long. Live. ASAP”



“This is boom bap, it’s the new rap” the man says, on the first of two Clams Casino oddesies on A$AP’s long-awaited debut album; it’s prescient, really, since the album grounds itself in what are ultimately standard hip hop tropes, but allows the production teams room to explore a lot of the new, art-damaged sounds that are showing up in modern rap.  He was given $3 million for this album, so a lot of the blinged-out nature can be attributed to the fact that ASAP Mob’s breakout star just got paid; there’s a surreal sense of humour throughout, rendering some of the more blatant examples of machismo into tongue-in-cheek plays on the culture.  As cutting-edge as A$AP comes off, however, Long. Live. ASAP is a story of its guests.  Schoolboy Q’s verse on “PMW” shows off his up-and-coming skills; Santigold takes the Clams Casino trip of “Hell” and turns it into a soaring banger; Kendrick Lamar, the big winner of 2012, brings his sublime flow to both the raucous “Fuckin’ Problems” and the perfect posse cut “1Train” (which also boasts a stellar Action Bronson appearance).  At the same time, the album’s lowlight comes courtesy of Skrillex and his signature frat-boy brostep work; if this is going to be a thing, where MCs get Skrillex to appear on tracks, I might just kill myself.  Still, it’s only one misstep on an album full of great moments.


Iceage – “You’re Nothing”



The Danish punk band’s second album is over in 28 minutes, which is four minutes longer than their 2011 debut.  They still stand in the shadow of Joy Division and Rites of Spring, but a little less in the shadow of these bands than they did two years ago.  It’s a much messier album, with passages that devolve into pure chaotic noise (for example, the album’s first two and a half minutes) and this too is at odds to their mostly-sort-of-ordered debut.  Overall the impression is given that they are birthing a difficult adolescent album here;  while there is challenging art to be found here, it’s on the whole too willing to become self-indulgent, to squall like Boris without really being able to fully commit to it.


Kurt Vile – “Wakin On A Pretty Daze”



Kurt Vile makes it all sound so easy, doesn’t he?  He crafts the perfect laid-back stoner rock for laid-back stoner dudes, draping it in gorgeous, fleet-fingered guitar work that itself sounds like he’s spinning gold out of lounging back on his couch.  The former guitarist for The War On Drugs has followed up 2011’s excellent Smoke Rings For My Halo with a sprawling album that revels in soulful, low-key lead guitar melodies that seem to echo on forever a la the best of Crazy Horse.  The songs stretch out and find their own grooves; the effect is somewhat like watching the ambient light levels change through the curtains over the course of an afternoon spent relaxing by doing nothing much at all.  The idea is not foreign to its creator:  Vile told MTV that “the whole general thing is one long daze, and that’s waking up”.  If you’re not in the right frame of mind, however, it can seem to outstay its welcome, and his head-back-staring-at-the-sky drawl can seem to blend together after a while.  If you are in the right mood, however, it feels like the greatest open-air arena show that never wants to end.  Interestingly enough, the incense-scented folks over at RYM have this album logged in as the best of 2013 so far – that alone necessitates a spin, doesn’t it?


Youth Lagoon – “Wondrous Bughouse”



Trevor Powers’ second album is immediately much denser than his 2011 debut, more willing to dive into that gravity well in an effort to slingshot around and achieve warp speed a la Star Trek IV.  His work with Youth Lagoon is built around layers of psychedelic noise built into swooping loops and juxtapositions of drone with melody.  The best tracks here, such as “Dropla” and “Mute”, marry the dizzying psych work with strong central thematic melodies – “Dropla” in particular will find it’s way into the center of your brain.  At its worst, however, like “Attic Doctor” or “Sleep Paralysis”, it becomes nothing more than a circus celebration of self-indulgent loops, like Animal Collective on auto pilot.  At its root, the best that can be said of it is that it takes its whimsy very seriously, and that this can come off as a virtue most of the time.  It is definitely an album that can be said to have grown, if somewhat painfully, from The Year Of Hibernation, and the songs are all more or less strong enough to whet the appetite while Powers does some more growing and maturing and comes out with a third album that will likely captivate everyone.  Think of Wondrous Bughouse as his adolescent phase:  gangly, awkward, a little of full of itself, but brimming with promise and youthful charm.


The National – “Trouble Will Find Me”



The band’s sixth studio album finds them settling into a definite groove, a comfort zone that seems immediately more expressive and tangible than the experimental/creative phases of a thousand other bands.  To say that the band perfected their sound on their previous album, 2010’s High Violet, is probably not hyperbole – every track on that album (and Boxer, truth be told) was a winner, and while the same may not be the case on Trouble Will Find Me, it’s close enough to warrant a recount.  The National have always been about a love of challenging rhythms married to Matt Berninger’s melancholy baritone, and nothing about that has changed here.  Standouts like “I Should Live In Salt”, “Fireproof”, “Sea Of Love”, and “This Is The Last Time” showcase the odd timings the drummer prefers, as well as Berninger’s insidious songwriting type – songs that take two or three listens to really settle in but that are studded with little hooks and phrases that necessitate further spins.  On the whole, Trouble Will Find Me is rather top-loaded, with the really stellar moments on the last half of the album coming a bit further apart; side B settles into a gentler, more piano-driven set that is comforting but tends to run together in the end.

There may be little here to differentiate the album from anything they’ve released since Alligator but unlike most bands this is not a serious problem. Fans of the band will not find anything to dislike and will probably be ecstatic about the continuation of their sound. Newcomers to the National will find an album that, while not as immediately accessible as High Violet, provides plenty of outcroppings for casual listeners to grab on to. Of course, that there would be anyone left out there that hasn’t listened to the band yet would be something of a surprise; after all, despite their lack of airtime on terrestrial radio, they routinely sell out shows, take over Sirius XMU for a week to celebrate this release, and get away with charging lower-level stadium band prices for their tickets. It’s a testament to the internet age that, in a world where they’re not getting played on modern format radio, they’re one of the biggest rock bands going – a lot of you are listening.  A lot more will be listening after this album, I’m sure.


The Men – “New Moon”



Punk rock maturity can be a very iffy thing.  For every artist like Bob Mould (whose transition from Husker Du to Sugar to solo work sounds like it was always meant to be) there are a thousand like NOFX, who keep playing like they’re 17 well into their 40s.  It can be ugly, with a group of portly grey-hairs trying vainly to keep up with the galloping rhythms they gave themselves whiplash to twenty years before.  Thankfully Brooklyn’s The Men avoid that pitfall, although a lot of that may have to do with the relatively young age at which the band has decided to add comfortable elements of classic rock into their sound.  There are harmonicas on “Bird Song”, for Chrissakes, and a piano-driven riff that is strongly reminiscent of “Cripple Creek Ferry”.  The ghosts of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse days are all over some of these tracks, such as the opener “Open Door” and “I Saw Her Face”, although the mid-album one-two punch of “The Brass” and “Electric” provide the counterbalance of driving punk rock, in the same yearning vein as last year’s Open Your Heart.  What it comes off like is a punk rock version of Blue Rodeo, full of loud guitars, impassioned playing, and weepy, boozy feels.  It injects a lot of character into the band’s sound, and they sound like they’re coming into their own, four albums in.