There’s a lot happening in the music world, and we here at Heavy Blog try our very best to keep up with it! Like the vast majority of heavy music fans, our tastes are incredibly vast, with our 3X3s in each Playlist Update typically covering numerous genres and sometimes a different style in each square. While we have occasionally covered non-metal topics in past blog posts, we decided that a dedicated column was warranted in order to more completely recommend all of the music that we have been listening to. Unmetal Monday is a bi-weekly column which covers noteworthy tracks and albums from outside the metal universe, and we encourage you all to share your favorite non-metal picks from the week in the comments. This week, we’ll be highlighting a few albums and tracks that struck our fancy over the past few weeks. Head past the jump to dial down the distortion:
Joyous twee-rockers turned joyous dance enthusiasts Belle and Sebastian have released part one of a planned three-part EP release, collectively titled How to Solve Our Human Problems. A lot has changed since Tigermilk, but even as the increasingly-democratic band continues to step out of the bedroom and into the barroom, they continue to deliver intelligent, intimate character studies in the form of sweet, tuneful pop songs.
How to Solve our Human Problems mirrors the smattering of Eps the band released in the late 90s (later collected on Push Barman to Open Old Wounds) and serves to refocus the band toward tight pop songs, tightly packaged. “Sweet Dew Lee” gets things off to an excellent start in a Stevie-led jangle rocker that deftly blends old-school B&S melody with upbeat, electronically-tinged dancefloor tempo. (Incidentally, has Stevie ever had track 1 honors on a Belle & Sebastian release?) “Fickle Season” is a gorgeous, laid-back ballad that invokes the same hushed-beauty former bandmate Isobel Campbell did on “Is it Wicked Not to Care?” “We Were Beautiful” and the caffeinated “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” allow the band to continue to exorcise the disco demons they’ve inherited in later years and “Everything is Now” is a shaggy rambler finale that lets the band stretch their legs in ways not heard since “This is Just a Modern Rock Song.”
Even as their sound continues to evolve, it’s no small feat that Belle and Sebastian continue to put out fantastic pop songs in their third decade as a band. Overall, Pt. 1 is a welcome return for the group from Glasgow and gives fans plenty of reason to excited for the two upcoming follow ups in January and February, respectively.
“Death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not / It’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art,” Phil Elverum intones during A Crow Looked At Me’s opening track “Real Death”. He sings from experience. In 2016, Elverum’s wife passed away due to cancer, leaving himself and his daughter behind to pick up the pieces of their newly fractured life. During the grieving process, Elverum wrote and recorded his latest record in the same room in which his wife passed away, using mostly instruments and equipment. So… yeah. This record is a little heavy. But such devastating circumstances and simple statements regarding grief’s all-consuming nature, making all forms of expression meaningless, have ironically resulted in one of the most utterly stunning, sparse, difficult, and brilliant artistic examinations of death in recent memory, and one of Mount Eerie’s best albums in a long and storied career.
A Crow Looked At Me is far from an easy listen on essentially every front. Elverum sings with the monotone of a man completely stunned. The compositions are minimalist and quiet, lending little distraction from the heartbreaking lyrics. When I write heartbreaking, I use the cliche because I honestly don’t know how else to describe the words contained in this record. The grief Elverum is experiencing is absolutely palpable. It’s like watching a man fall apart through a window, and to be honest it’s profoundly uncomfortable. But that’s the absolute genius and deep beauty of this record. Songs like “Ravens”, which details the feeling of watching a loved one waste away to nothingness, and “Forest Fire”, in which Elverum soundly rejects nature’s imperative to take back its own, are so honest and vulnerable that the listeners begins to feel that they have grieved with Elverum. That, in some very small but not insignificant way, we’ve seen what he has seen and, just below the surface, felt what he has felt. It’s not fun, but it is absolutely necessary. This is perhaps the crowning example of art being deconstructed and ruined by life, and as a result is one of the best albums of the year.
You won’t have fun listening to A Crow Looked At Me. I guarantee you that. But I cannot recommend it more strongly. This is life-altering music, and you will be changed by it. Those who like their art honest and sparse will have found their album of the year. Anyone who has felt the bitter, venomous, lancing pain of grief will find an empathetic voice that, without the slightest air of pretension, lays bare that devastation with uncanny accuracy. A truly mesmerizing and devastating record.
U2 became a pretty big part of my life in 2014. My partner and I spent three months of that year travelling around Europe and the UK, and I filled a lot of those three months and the many long train rides and plane trips they incurred by listening to Adam Scott Aukerman’s outstanding podcast U Talkin’ U2 to Me? (aka, The Best Thing Ever). Sure, the best moments of that podcast is when they would devolve into a series of sub-podcasts about “Poppin Stones” or “Blue Turtlin’”, or getting through the first part of a two-hour, double-episode on 1991’s Achtung Baby[!] to discover that it contained absolutely no discussion of the album whatsoever; but at times the analysis went truly in depth and revisiting the band’s discography in this manner led to a striking revelation about my own relationship with the lads from Liverpool: that perhaps the reason that I had never liked U2, or got what the big fuss about them was, was because they had never released a good album during my (conscious) lifetime.
Though their 80s output is truly remarkable, the fab four’s post-Achtung Baby output has been patchy and self-indulgent to say the least and could probably be more accurately described as suffering from a complete creative dearth. …which is why it was truly remarkable that, despite all the itunes hoohar, when Songs of Innocence (2014) showed up later that year, it turned out to be not only the band’s best record in that timeframe but also the most personal and introspective album they had maybe ever released. It may have been too little to late for many but, for me at least, this less grandiose and more honest, personal approach bought the band back a lot of credibility and often served as a reminder of how truly great they once were (see: “Volcano”, “Raised by Wolves”). Unfortunately, for Songs of Experience, that album’s long-rumoured counterpart, the band seem to have taken the complete opposite approach and reverted back to everything that made them so repugnant and unsatisfying during the near-quarter-century that passed between 1991–2014.
Songs of Experience sounds like the quartet took every bad idea from Pop (1997), All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) and rolled them into one. The tracklist, for the most part, comes off like a collection of All That You Can’t Leave b-sides—think more “Wild Honey” and “New York” than “Beautiful Day” or “Walk On” (although, as Aukerman pointed out, the beginning of “Get Out of Your Own Way” sounds remarkably close to that of the former). However, that record’s preachy self-importance is here with the grandstanding of its successor and oddly dabbled with the kind of contemporary, electronic experiments that has relegated Pop to the realms of the unspoken. The decision to open this album with an attuned sermon about the power of love is bizarre, and I doubt that the record’s Ed Sheeren-esque lead single “You’re the Best Thing About Me” will go down as either a classic or a hidden gem. The level of self importance shown on this record is staggering—it’s first proper song, “Lights of Home”, ends with a gospel choir, for example—which wouldn’t be so bad if its pomposity wasn’t inversely proportionate to its substance. Bono’s earnest delivery of the lyric “refu-Jesus” and refrain of “you are rock and roll” from the Kendrick Lamar-introduced (and sampled) “American Soul” (these guys are from Dublin, right?) and the parenthetical “(Little More Better)” of “The Showman” should tell you all you need to know about the rest of the record.
She is the moniker of a prolific producer of EDM/synthwave music based in Sweden. Over the recent years, he has made some of the most consistently interesting electronic music out there, replete with a signature move in the form of a rhythm randomizer and a penchant for robotic, faintly female vocals. The only issue is the amount of work released and its format; it’s mostly singles, sparsely distributed throughout the year. However, fans thirsty for more music can finally satiate their needs; She release Chroma on December 8th and it features no less than eight new tracks! The style is very much She’s own but it seems more solid and consistent while at the same time reaching deeper into synthwave.
The title track is a very good example of this. The slow down and then return to form that is the trademark She style, randomizing the beat and then slowly normalizing it again, is all over the track. But also very much present are varied synth tones and fleshed out drums, lending the whole track an 80’s vibe that isn’t often this prominent on the producer’s works. This makes “Chroma” a very dreamy track and its influences can be felt in other places on the album. It works incredibly well, adding a tinge to the sound that is very much welcome. Chroma is a delight for any fan of electronic music, taking the more “mainstream” approach of the artist and blending it with sounds we all love. If you’re not convinced, just listen to the opening moments of “Spectacular”; that disco vibe should dispel all your worries.