(Andy Synn has four more recommendations of albums and artists you may have overlooked recently)
As we gallop towards the end of another year, the vast pile of albums that I haven’t found time to listen to has now become so threateningly large that I may well end up crushed under the sheer (meta)physical weight of all the music I’ve missed out on.
Still, I’ve tried my best to cover as much of this year’s musical crop as I possibly can, and I think that – come December – you won’t have that much cause to complain, as my current shortlist (actually, that should probably read “shortlist”, since there’s nothing “short” about it) of albums and EPs to include is several hundred long (though the final number will doubtless fluctuate a bit as new releases are added and some are removed because I don’t think I gave them enough time/consideration to form a proper opinion).
And four of those that will definitely be included – some of them pretty prominently, let me tell you now – are included here today.
BRUTUS – UNISON LIFE
As some of you may recall, Brutus‘s second album, Nest, was one of my favourite albums of 2019. And now, having sat with Unison Life for multiple spins, I fully expect the same thing to happen this time around.
That’s not to say, however, that UL is a mere carbon-copy of its predecessor. Just as Nest was a different album to Burst, so is the band’s third album very much its own entity.
For one thing – and this may be a deal-breaker for some, though hopefully not many – Unison Life rarely goes as “hard” as its predecessor. But that doesn’t mean that the band have gone “soft”, by any means, as songs like “Brave” and “Dust” are propelled by a primal, punky energy that never fails to electrify, while late-album anthem “Chainlife” features some pleasingly (and surprisingly) beefy riffage courtesy of guitarist Stijn Vanhoegaerden.
In fact, while singer/drummer Stefanie Mannaerts tends to get most of the attention from the media, I’d say that Vanhoegaerden is the album’s real MVP, as it’s his textured, multi-faceted fretwork – equal parts Post-Rock, Pop-Punk, and Art-School Indie (all topped off with the occasional burst of extra metallic bite) – which gives Unison Life so much of its sonic scope and character.
That’s not, however, an attempt to downplay the role(s) of either Mannaerts or bassist Peter Mulders (whose contributions to the AFI-esque “Victoria” and the groove-driven “Liar” are a huge part of what makes both songs so successful) because, ultimately, it’s the combination of these three individuals, their ideas, inputs, and influences, which helps enrich this record and make it more than just the sum of its parts (or the product of just one person’s vision).
Add to this the fact that the Brutus “sound” is so instantly recognisable, yet effortlessly eclectic, and you get an album that’s not afraid to stretch its wings a little and try new things, safe in the knowledge that whatever the band does it will always sound like them.
Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than during the climactic trio of “Storm”, “Dreamlife”, and “Desert Rain”, which find the group saving the very best for last – each song as catchy, as captivating, and as cathartic, as the band’s best work, while subtly pushing the envelope of their established sound in ever more melodic, anthemic, and atmospheric ways – and leaves you both sublimely satisfied yet still wanting more.
CLOUD RAT – THRESHOLD
Grind is one of those styles/genres that I don’t always “get”, but where there are a handful of artists who really stand out from the pack, for me. And Cloud Rat are definitely one of them.
In fact, more than ever on Threshold it’s clear that calling them “artists” is the right thing to do too, as while there’s absolutely no denying the sheer aneurysm-inducing apoplexia of tracks like “Inner Controller” and “Shepherd” (both of which are more than a match, pound for pound, with anything the band has previously produced) it’s more obvious than ever here that Cloud Rat are painting with a wider creative palette, and drawing from a deeper well/broader spectrum of influences, than most of their peers.
Don’t believe me? Then consider how horrendously hooky and tortuously technical tracks like outstanding opener “Aluminium Branches” and blistering back-to-back blinders “Ribbon Boot” and “Corset” are, or the ways in which they incorporate an undercurrent of moody melody and an overarching aura of bleak atmosphere into oddly introspective numbers such as “12-22-09”, “Imaging Order”, and “Kaleidoscope”, without sacrificing an iota of intensity or integrity in the process.
Indeed, if anything, it’s the more textured and – dare I say – progressive approach on this record which makes it clear that, far from “selling out”, Cloud Rat simply aren’t content playing it “safe” (not that I’m saying they ever were), and the idea of them not continuing to to push themselves, and their sound, forwards would be the only true betrayal of what the band stands for.
Of course, on a more visceral, blood and guts, nuts and bolts, level it’s also plain to see that the entire group are still at the very top of their game – guitarist Rorik Brooks cranking out an absolute barrage of riffs that are equal parts Tech, Grind, Punk, and Post-Metal (and beyond), drummer Brandon Hill putting in a performance that suggests he has more than the normal number of limbs, and vocalist Madison Marshall shrieking out of the speakers like a one-woman whirlwind of explosive emotion – and when you combine this with the trio’s ability to conjure actual songs out of the musical maelstrom that is their sound… well, that’s when you get something really special like Threshold.
HARLEQUIN – ORIGIN OF SUFFERING
I’ve bent my own rules a little bit here, as Harlequin‘s latest album is actually from the end of August… but considering that I only discovered it part way through September, and really wanted to write about it, I hope you can forgive me.
And even if you can’t, I hope you give the music a chance, because – from the sinister, scene-setting introduction of the title-track (which soon morphs into an absolute monster of jagged, stop-start riffing and shrieking, snarling, growling vocals) all the way to the (ch)ugly, neck-wrecking finale of “Exasperated Torment” – Origin of Suffering is twelve twisted tracks of seriously nasty, and savagely brutal, Death Metal which constantly feels like it’s trying to physically batter its way into your skull… that is, when it’s not trying to strip the flesh from your bones (and sometimes both at once).
That’s not to say, however, that it’s entirely without nuance – the nimble bass work and seething tremolo which crowns the mid-section of “Trapanrot”, for example, shifts the song in more of a “Tech-Grind” direction reminiscent of latter-day Cattle Decapitation, while “Sine Sole Sileo” throws in some unexpectedly melodic touches – nor are the band afraid to throw in a curve-ball or two (as the shamelessly proggy middle of “Riot” and the unexpectedly effective acoustic interludes “Unattainable Tranquillity” and “TDTNC” prove).
But, ultimately, it’s the sheer aggression (as exemplified by the visceral vocal trade-off between bassist Raquel Solis and guitarist Tawney Arredondo, handling the highs and lows respectively) and the gut-wrenching heaviness of tracks like the frantic “Feminicidio” (which gives off some major Dying Fetus) and the blasting, bulldozing, Skinless-esque “Possessive Fixation” which is really going to put this album, and this band, on the map, and because of that (and for all the other reasons stated here) I’d strongly recommend that anyone who considers themselves a fan of the Brutal Death Metal arts should give Harlequin a listen ASAP.
THE OTOLITH – FOLIUM LIMINA
Isn’t it wonderful when a band with a pedigree like this one – four of the band’s five members were part of the inimitable SubRosa, while bassist/vocalist Matt Brotherton also plays in prestigious US Power/Heavy Metallers Visigoth – lives up to all your expectations (and then some)?
Take it from me, The Otolith‘s particular brand of epic “Post-Doom” (for want of a better name) doesn’t just pick up right where SubRosa left off (though there are, no doubts, strong echoes and familiar elements scattered throughout Folium Limina) but actively forges forwards, quickly establishing the band as not merely a continuation of what was but a vital rebirth of brand new potential.
Opener “Sing No Coda”, for example, takes its time to build all the necessary tension and anticipation before blooming into dynamic, doomy life, taking full advantage of its extensive run-time to thoroughly hypnotise and tantalise your senses with a mix of gorgeous melody and gargantuan heaviness that keeps you captivated from beginning to end.
“Andromeda’s Wing” then proceeds to lavish the your eardrums with a variety of colossal riffs, keening strings, and vibrant, visceral vocals (indeed, the vocal variety – courtesy of three distinctly different deliveries by Pendleton, Brotherton, and Pack – seems to have taken on increased importance here, with a number of other songs also benefitting from some added harsh/clean interplay) while also letting the band flex their “progressive” proclivities even more, after which “Ekpyrotic” successfully turns a single, central melodic theme into a thing of both majestic power and menacing beauty which, once heard, you’ll be hard-pressed to forget.
In some ways, given the band’s collective background(s), the brilliance of this album shouldn’t come as that much as a surprise. And yet, that being said, music history (and Metal history in particular) is littered with examples of so-called “supergroups” who were somehow less than the sum of their parts.
That’s clearly not the case here though, as every time I listen to Folium Limina I come away with an even deeper appreciation of another aspect of it – whether that’s the prominent bass-work and poignant piano underpinning “Hubris”, the absolutely humongous, heart-wrenching finale of “Bone Dust”, or the heavy atmospheric aura of closer “Dispirit” – that makes me reconsider everything I’ve already heard.
Make no mistake, this is one of the year’s best albums.
Unison Life is Album Of The Year for me, easily.
The only negative thing to say is it’s to short!