I’m a massive music fan. Not one of your basic I-listen-to-music-while-I-commute-and-say-I’m-a-fan kinda fan, but an I-listen-to-albums-almost-constantly-and-actually-think-about-the-music-I’ve-been-listening-to fan. I will sit down and listen to an album like book worms read books (okay, I do that too, I’ve already read thirteen books this year) and then sometimes, I write reviews about them on a site somewhere on the internet.
If you’ve ever wondered (you probably haven’t, but stick with even so) exactly what music weird niche music scene people like me listen to, then the next bit will be rather revealing, and entirely irrelevant and unnecessary for your day-to-day life. I’ll aim for ten, but in all likelihood it’ll be some awkward prime number like seven or seventeen or 1093. (Ooo, I just randomly guessed a prime numer and got it first time.)
And, since you asked, no, I’m not writing this pointless blog post because I’m having complete and utter writer’s block today. I don’t know why you’d be thinking that. Please stop that silliness now.
I said stop.
1. mewithoutYou — Brother, Sister (2006)
It wouldn’t be a list about my music tastes if it didn’t contain a copious amount of mewithoutYou, so I’m lumping in the rest of their albums too. Asides from It’s All Crazy!… which we don’t talk about. Ever.
mewithoutYou are an interesting band. Hailing from Philadephia, in the USA, they’re probably completely different to any other band you’ve ever listened to. Their older work, in the BS era generally consisted of post-hardcore rock, which doesn’t seem too completely exceptional until Aaron Weiss, lead vocalist and genius lyricist starts to “sing”. See, Weiss doesn’t sing. He uses spoken-word-poetry-style vocals, using tone and expression more like someone delivering a rhythmic speech than a song. He writes cryptic lyrics, referencing everything from the Bible to Rumi’s Five Things to Say to bands he listens to, and goes about storytelling in an incredibly interesting manner. Ten Stories, for example, is essentially a fable about animals, exploring philosophical ideas. BS is about… a relationship crumbling, the idea of self-annihalation in faith, being modest and not boasting. He is religious (Christian) but sings prayers in Arabic and talks about Islam. But worry not – he is not evangelising or trying to convert. He instead just talks about his own experiences and shares what essentially amount to stories and anecdotes, sharing it all in an open-minded manner. As an agnostic and as such an entirely confused and perplexed person, this is a welcome change from the usual Christian rock band.
Did I mention that, even though this sounds like a massively up-their-own-arses band, Weiss is a dumpster-diving freegan, and the band’s tour bus runs on vegetable oil? I mean, how much more interesting can a band be?
2. Arcane Roots – Melancholia Hymns (2017)
Oh boy, this one’s a good one.
It’s a tale as old as time; a three-piece hard rock band give up their heaviness for synthesisers and more elegant melodies. Muse did it abhorrently. I don’t know what the heck Shinedown (not a three-piece) did, but that was bad too. Arcane Roots did something similar, but definitely not badly.
Arcane Roots were, up until this album, your every-day good post-hardcore math-rock band. For those of you not up on your weird-sub-sub-genre lingo, “math-rock” is a subset of progressive rock which is less progressive but makes ferocious use of time-signature jumps and interesting riff patterns you wouldn’t find in other genres (at least, in the mainstream).
This held them back. I’ll be honest, I loved their older stuff. But with the exception of a few tracks, often the technicalities held them back from fully exploring the emotions Andrew Groves (guitarist and vocalist) was trying to get across. Then, Melancholia Hymns happened. The first track, ‘Before Me’ greets you with warm synths, with layered vocals and minimalism, building to a stunningly heartfelt climax. The entire album veritably oozes with warmth. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t room for some breakdowns and technicalities. The second and second-to-last tracks, ‘Matter’ and ‘Everything (All At Once)’ respectively, bring back heaviness, but the entire album is interspersed with much, much more warmth and feeling than everything else. This was my Album of the Year in 2017, and I’d happily call it a contender for the decade as well.
Before you get too attached, please bear in mind the band has broken up now. I said don’t– oh, well, that person didn’t listen. Oh God, the tears. The pain! It’ll be okay! Come back! There are [well I don’t know yet, do I? I haven’t finished writing this yet!] more bands/albums left for you to discover!
3. Black Peaks – All That Divides (2018)
And for the last stop in the all-white, all-male tour of rock-metal hybrids (I mean, 99% of this genre is white men, I’m sorry, there ain’t much I can do about that), we have the extaordinary Black Peaks. They’re very similar to pre-Melancholia Hymns Arcane Roots and often get lumped in with them, for good reason. Black Peaks are, however, a bit less technically inclined and a bit more focussed on emotion and sometimes-truly-awful lyrics. The moustache-wielding vocalist has a gorgeous voice, and uses it magnificently in both this and their debut Statues. I’d genuinely call him one of the best vocalists of the genre. He also does very good screams, if that’s your sort of thing. If not, sorry. This one ain’t for you.
I don’t have too much to say about this one (that’s a first). It’s excellent. Go listen. After you’ve read the rest of the article of course.
4. Gregory Porter – Liquid Spirit (2013)
This truly is one of the most stunning albums. Gregory Porter, or as I like to call him fancy-dressing-guy-with-scarf-hat-hybrid, is one of the 21st centuries best jazz vocalists. He sings with such emotion, and often when I’m having a quiet and/or sad and/or evening and/or in and/or alone I’ll stick an album of his on (I imagine the classiness would go up thousand-fold if I was using a record player, but I’m not exactly bathing in enough money to be able to afford one of those and the accompanying records) and allow him to serenade me about anything from unrequited love to… letting water flow. I imagine there’s some level of metaphor there I’m not seeing, and no, I don’t think it’s what just popped into your head. You dirty minded, wonderful human, you.
5. Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears (2018)
Let’s Eat Grandma is an amazing/awful band name. It depends who you ask, what side of the bed they woke up on, exactly what angle relative to the North-South line they are looking, who served them coffee this morning, and whether you, the asker, look like you are for or against the name. My advice: put the knife away before you ask them. You can always get it out again when they disagree. In other words: it’s a divisive name. I, for one, like it. It suits the band.
What is not divisive is whether or not this music is good. Because goddamn is it good.
The Norwich-based duo who make up the pop act LEG (a delightful acronym, 10/10) were, when they released their debut I, Gemini, seventeen. Which astounded me, because it certainly doesn’t sound like it was written by your typical angst-ridden teen. Becuase I wrote angst-ridden lyrics then, and if they were half as good as LEG’s, I would apparently be out of school and touring the world with two albums under my belt. Which I’m not, surprisingly enough.
Their second album, I’m All Ears is what you’d call an excellent, Album-of-the-Year level album. I don’t especially like the industrial first track, ‘Hot Pink’, which is tonally and stylistically at odds with the entire rest of the album, produced as it was by SOPHIE. Asides from that, the album gushes with lush synthesisers, drum machines, brilliant hooks, guitars, keyboard, and excellent if slightly acquired-taste vocals. These aren’t your typical pop songs, either; over a third are 5-minutes plus, and three range from the six to eleven minute mark. Coincidentally, these are the best songs, taking a screw-your-classic-verse-chorus-verse-structure, progressive approach.
It takes an interesting approach to lyrics as well; going from completely cryptic in the beginning to very on-the-nose at the end of the album, whether accidentally or not, I have no idea. But if you haven’t listened to this duo yet, you really, really need to. It’s non-optional.
6. Misha Mullov-Abbado – Cross-Platform Interchange (2017)
What happens when you cross two platforms at an interchange?
You miss your train. Or it never turns up. Or you went to the wrong platform and you only have a minute to get from platform one to platform fourteen at Manchester Piccadilly because it’s on the Buxton line not the Sheffield line and for some reason you always get those mixed up.
Basically: Screw trains, anything to do with the horror of the London Underground, and definitely screw those things if you have a double bass to lug around with you like Misha has.
Misha, unlike me with my dastardly cynicism, sees the humour in life, and portrays it in his jazz. With witty and rather lovely titles like ‘No Strictly Dancing’ and ‘Pure 100 Percent Nunnery’, this compilation album is loosely themed around transport, with a short detour into the land of Wallace and Gromit’s ‘The Wrong Trousers’ midway through.
Oh! I forgot entirely what this article was about. This is an instrumental contemporary jazz album. The jazz is brilliant, and I listen to this and his debut Ansonia with its equally excellent titles frequently. I could not recommend these enough to anyone looking to start in jazz. Settle down with the lights down low, a good pair of headphones/speakers, a warm cuddle with a pet/pillow/laptop/bottle of whisky and let waves of rather atmospheric jazz roll over you (unless you like your laptop dry, in which case do not allow the waves to roll over that).
7. BRONTIDE – Artery (2014)
Brontide. The word means (from Merriam-Webster) “a low muffled sound like distant thunder heard in certain seismic regions especially along seacoasts and over lakes and thought to be caused by feeble earth tremors” (rolls off the tongue, I know) and I think it suits the band perfectly. Their debut album, Sans Souci, while brilliant, fell into the trap of being a bit too technical for its own good. It went about setting up a heavy atmosphere, and did that brilliantly, only the layers were so intricate you wouldn’t enjoy it as much as you should because you were nodding at that cool layer that was just added. This one takes the technicality down a notch, and hence knocks the enjoyability up to eleven.
Brontide are an instrumental rock band who make this whole writing-instrumental-music thing seem like a breeze compared to a lot of other merely-average bands in the genre. Mixing the occasional very-much-called-for heavy bit with catchy riffs and interesting drum work, they craft track after brilliant track. My favourite here is by far the two opening tracks, ‘Tonitro’ and ‘Bare My Bones’ which emphasise all of the aforementioned features, including a folk-like riff in the latter that gets you kinda wanting to dance.
8. Caravan Palace – Panic (2012)
Caravan Palace – the only properly-electronic band here. They’re different to most other electronic bands though; as well as being a tad more acoustic than most, they feature a stand-out vocalist, and they are the only (yes, “only”, if you disagree, complain as much as you like) good example of electro-swing. Which is an intriguing blend of 1920s swing (think the Charleston) and electronic music (duh). It’s genuinely interesting-to-listen-to music, and I love it so much.
This album is the best they’ve done; while the subsequent Robot Face was okay and had one or two great songs (‘Lone Digger’) it was too far into the electronic end of the spectrum for my liking, and I found it a tad boring. This, however, has nary a bad track, and while I don’t think it’s exactly classic, it’s certainly a great and memorable album. Just pick a track (or start from the beginning like a civilised person) and give this dance-beat-laden record a spin. Or two. Or three. Y’know, what about fo–
9. Cursive – Vitriola (2018)
Aaaand there go the happy albums. This one is very much not happy. You’ve been warned.
Music is often used to dispel dispair. To ward off worry. To say to the listener; hey, not everything is bad! This will let you dance it out and forget about it all for three-and-a-half minutes.
Cursive are far from that happy little niche. With lyrics along the lines of ‘So, this is it/The world just fell to shit/And we’re left holding the bag’ leave it feeling a tiny bit bleak– and that’s from a copious amount of examples, not a single isolated case. Cruel, stabbing guitars, mean this isn’t pretty, using music and the vocal delivery to feel just a tad off, to make you really truly believe the world did actually fall to sh*t. Because apparently we needed that to know that, given everything that’s happening these days.
It’s cathartic in the sense that they’re expressing ugly feelings in an ugly way, not caring about what others might think. It’s not going to make you feel better, and it sure as heck isn’t going to give you any answers, but it’ll give you a way to express the questions and complaints.
10. meniscus – Refractions
After your depressing-album-interlude, back to really damn gorgeous albums.
Meniscus are the best example of instrumental post-rock I can think of. Any other kinda follows a formula (ironically, especially for a supposedly “progressive” genre), but mensicus… oh my goodness. They are what-you’d-call masters of their craft; if other bands use instruments to craft music, these use them to chisel out a bed for a river of melodies and notes to flow through. It’s the kind of music that prides itself on atmosphere, but not made from cheap sampling and quote-unquote “eeriness” but from actually using their instruments. Each track is distinct, and has build and climax and anticlimax unlike anything much else. It all flows.
Only problem is, they don’t exactly produce an album very often. It’s kind of annoying, but I don’t think they make a living from their albums. A shame, but when they do release their next album, I will be jumping all over it like an excitable child in a ball pit. Actually, scratch that, I’d jump into a ball pit all excitable. I think anyone would. Right?
Okay, so that’s all I can think of for now. Though there are definitely more, this has already taken up a lot more time and words than I expected it to. Although I did write this all in one solid morning/afternoon so I suppose it is very possible that I’ve got over my writer’s block.
Correction: The last two bands are also by all white men. My joke in the third paragraph is not 100% accurate.
Edit: Completed a sentence in the section 9 that I hadn’t noticed