10. Moonface with Sinaii—Heartbreaking Bravery
Heartbreaking Bravery is collaboration between Moonface, aka Spencer Krug (of Wolf Parade fame) and Swedish kraut rock band Sinaii. Krug delivers a series of sardonic tales of failed romance in a tone that is simultaneously earnest and self-mocking. His quivering voice is capable of sounding genuinely devastated at one moment and defiantly sarcastic the next. Sinaii keep pace with Krug’s capricious mood-swings, offering textured compositions that capture the varied dimensions of Krug’s lyrics, resulting in a cinematic fusion of word and sound. Heartbreaking Bravery is diverse, ranging from moody ballads to zealous rockers. Moonface and Sinaii excel in the entire gauntlet, delivering great vocal hooks and inspired melodies throughout.
9. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros—Here
Topping 2009’s debut Up From Below was an impossible task for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. That album is like that first day of joy after a long, seemingly endless depression—that day when you’re just so drunk on joy that absolutely nothing can diminish the beauty of everything you come across. Well how often are we lucky enough to experience, let alone express that kind of joy? On its sophomore release, the Magnetic Zeros opt to simplify the formula. The songs are less boisterous and the arrangements less grandiose. Here is as simple as its name. This is just a set of heartfelt folk-rock songs, with touches of country and reggae, driven by excellent vocal hooks and earnest lyrics. This time out, Edward Sharpe is less dominate, letting the other members provide lead vocals on a number of tracks. Consequently, Here really feels like a group of friends joyfully playing together, unaware that an audience even exists. It’s a simple album, but a genuine album and that simplicity offers a happiness all its own—not quite as staggering as that of their last album, but moving in its own right.
8. Dead Can Dance—Anastasis
It’s been sixteen years since Dead Can Dance last released a studio album. In that time, Lisa Gerrard and Brendon Perry have had up-and-down solo careers, both of which have been more down than up as of late. Fortunately, time apart has not diminished Gerrard and Perry’s divine chemistry. “Ανάστασις” is a Greek term for “resurrection,” and that spirit certainly reflected in the music. Though Dead Can Dance maintain the solemn, esoteric aura they are known for, a streak of bright liveliness spreads throughout the recording like early spring sunrays bringing an end to a long winter. Dead Can Dance integrate a foundation of dense electronic tones with layers of traditional percussive and string instruments from around the world. Perry’s voice is warm, deep and low—a powerful vessel for his wise and timely lyrics. Gerrard’s voice is, as always, nothing short of transcendent. The compositions are diverse and draw inspiration from Ireland, Arabia and everywhere in between. Reunion albums are always precarious, both for artist and audience, but Anastasis qualifies as a resounding success, a true continuation and development of the Dead Can Dance aesthetic.
7. Ash Borer—Cold of Ages
Ash Borer is quickly establishing itself as one of the most powerful black metal acts in the contemporary scene. While the group employs most of the signature Cascadian black metal tropes (ethereal female vocals, extended ambient passages and nonlinear songs that last an eternity), the overall aesthetic is closer to Norwegian black metal. Ash Borer is sonically frigid and emotionally unforgiving—haunting, yet majestic. The razor thin riffs soar across the soundscape like icy gusts of wind swirling across winter tundra. Be it harsh shrieks or ethereal wails, the vocals convey ravenous catharsis, like onlookers hypnotized by a blizzard’s terrifying splendor. The interspersing of ambient and clean passages serve not as respites from the frostbitten riffs, but rather as centrifugal moments that accentuate the album’s core emotional foundation—fear, wonder and enthrallment. Cold of Ages is an ode to the dark, mysterious forces that dwells within us and within nature; horrifying, nameless and ancient.
6. Rush—Clockwork Angels
Rush is one of those bands is always trying something new. Clockwork Angels, the group’s 19th full-length, is no exception. It is one of Rush’s heaviest records to date, consisting of mostly of powerful and groovy cuts of progressive metal. The album is peppered with a number of truly gorgeous ballads, most of which employ a string section, yet another new frontier for Rush. The performance is Rush’s most tight and technical since reuniting in 2003. The trio is back in form and the interweaving of drums, bass and guitar is daring and intricate. The catchy hooks will pull you in, but it’s the wonderful dynamics between the musicians that will draw you back time and time again. Clockwork Angels is concept album; the narrative is not totally transparent from the lyrics, but don’t worry, Neil Peart collaborated with sci-fi novelist Kevin J. Anderson, who wrote an entire damn novel based off the story. (I have not had a chance to read the novel yet, but promise to do so before writing my full-length review of the album!) At the surface level, the lyrics explore two parallel themes: the numerous ways in which humans deceive themselves and the ways we overcome our folly. Peart is sensitive to show not only our unforgiving tenancy to buy into illusions but also just how compelling those illusions can be.
Azam Ali is best known for her work as the vocalist for the world drone group Vas. While, Niyaz, her Arabian pop group, is quite a different flavor, it is no less captivating. On Sumud Ali merges the sensual and soulful with grace and allure. Her delivery is simply hypnotizing; her vocal patterns—a delicious interplay of lines delivered at quick-fire pace followed by a few dragged-out syllables—are perfectly crafted to draw the listener into a trance. Niyaz offer the ideal accompaniment for Ali’s magnetic vocals through an excellent blend of modern and traditional sounds. Deep, pulsating trip-hop beats are interwoven with hand percussion, hammer dulcimer and saz to create a dynamic, multifaceted soundscape, loaded with layers of differing but complimentary rhythms. The sensual and spiritual merge in one sound that enraptures the entire person. These songs are immediately seductive, but like a good lover, they will only consume you at deeper levels with each new encounter.
Over the past five years Panopticon, the one man band of Austin Lunn, has been refining its highly unusual yet effective blend of black metal, post rock and bluegrass. With its fourth full length, Kentucky, Panopticon has made its most poignant statement yet. Kentucky is a concept album that explores the corrupt history of the coal mining industry in Kentucky, which has exploited the state’s people and land for generations. Yet, Kentucky is not a lament, it is a call to resistance; it emphasizes the linage of labor unions, protesters and environmentalists who have stood up to the coal mining industry over the generations. The album contains several short bluegrass pieces embedded between massive pieces of post-black metal. The shifts pull the listener back and forth between visceral engagement and critical reflection. The interplay of these distinct elements delivers the perfect balance of pain, fury,adoration and resilience. Kentucky tells the story of the struggles of a specific place and time while touching on the broader theme of the horrors of capitalism.
3. Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple’s music has always been open and authentic, but even by her standards The Idler Wheel… is a candid record. While Apple’s previous records have been heavy on the arrangements, The Idler Wheel… is quite stripped down. There’s a touch of bass and strings here and there, but for the most part the record sticks to piano, vocals and neurotic percussion. The lyrics predominately explore the various stages of romance—everything from the honeymoon stage to rejection to disillusionment. As always, Apple’s lyrics are intelligent, verbose and creative, and her delivery is pitch-perfect. Apple knows when to roar, when to moan and when to belt it out. Her range is vast, and her intonations are precise and imaginative. With her voice in perfect form, Apple is able to pull the listener up and down through the feral and uneven emotional landscape of these songs. Verse and chorus often offer vastly different moods and energies; even the most direct tracks are wrought with undertones that threaten to knock the song off course. Just like real life, these songs are unpredictable, unstable and little messy… and that’s exactly what makes these songs so relatable. Apple conveys her true human experiences in all of their complexity and inconsistency and that honesty is beautiful and inspiring.
2. Mariee Sioux—Gift for the End
This is the best folk album to come out in a long, long time. Sioux’s high, glassy voice strikes the listener like cold, fresh water on a hot summer day. Her tone is comforting and calming, a safe haven against the world’s darkness; but, it also has a childish brightness to it. Plucked acoustic progressions are surrounded with a brilliant array of organs, electric guitars, pianos and percussion to create a lush and vivacious environment. The lyrics rely on images from nature, but eschew grandiose imagery to dwell on the small things: pine leaves, snake skin, salmon eggs and so on. A phrase repeated throughout Gift for the End is “higher heaven,” yet what Sioux means by this phrase is actually quite close at hand. “And I wanna make the run with the coho/ up a dying river going home/ to a higher heaven.” Reaching a higher heaven is simply seeing oneself as part of the lifecycle of nature; Sioux communicates that simple divinity through this stunning collection of peaceful reflections on beauty of humanity as part of nature.
1. Swans—The Seer
“I see it all” is one of Michael Gira’s many mantras on The Seer. Indeed, Gira and co. are determined to prove that they see it all, even if it takes 120 minutes and three LPs to do so. During that time Swans traverse an insanely wide range of styles and sounds: jazz, psych rock, doom metal, prog-rock, folk ballads, drone, goth, and employ instruments ranging from bagpipes to Jews Harp to hammer dulcimer to steel cello. Thematically, The Seer explores the unsettling similarities between divine revelation and complete and utter psychosis. Swans might be articulating the origin of the universe; it’s also possible they have collectively descended into complete and utter madness. Usually it feels like both are happening at once. Primal energies burst forth, meld together and bloom into massive, multifaceted compositions. And whenever you think you’ve figured this album out, something new is thrown at you: terrifying atonal jazz, a beautiful country ballad, and some of the heaviest riffs the earth has ever seen. Despite the broad scope of The Seer, Swans maintain a clear vision from start to finish and all these dissonant fragments come together in one maddening, glorious kaleidoscope. When Swans reunited in 2010 Gira promised that the second-coming of Swans was not a reunion but rather a progression. Every reunited band says that, but few mean it. Gira meant it. Thirty years in and Swans are still one of the most avant-grade bands on the planet.
After the commercial success of 2112, Mercury Records finally gave Rush total artistic liberty. In truth, Rush were often doing what they liked prior to receiving their record label’s blessing, but doing so meant they were constantly at risk to be dropped from the label. Now, having established themselves as a commercial juggernaut, the members of Rush were able to let their imaginations run wild, resulting in one of the group’s most experimental and progressive albums, 1977’s A Farewell to Kings (only its successor, Hemispheres rivals it in terms of complexity and progressiveness).
After recording its previous three albums at Toronto Sound Studios, Rush traveled to Wales to record their next two albums at the secluded Rockfield Studios. The lush, bucolic surroundings are reflected throughout A Farewell to Kings. Save the final track, A Farewell to Kings maintains an idyllic sensibility. Many of the instrumental passages conjure images of rich, vernal landscapes while the lyrics often employ pastoral themes and imagery. Birdsongs from outside the studio are even integrated into the first two tracks of the album.
While A Farewell to Kings might be inspired by the simplicity of the country landscape, it is anything but a simple album; it is loaded with absurdly complex and elaborate compositions. Within a given song Neil Peart will employ any number of bells, chimes and xylophones in addition to his already massive drum kit. Similarly, Alex Lifeson will use up to three different guitars on a single song, including quite a bit of classical guitar. Geddy Lee is much more liberal in his use of synthesizers, resulting in a more textured soundscape. Compositionally, Rush raise the bar from 2112 with even more complex time signatures and razor sharp transitions. At times it is almost overwhelming following all the twists and turns that occur in a single song.
Rush throw out a lot of ideas on this album, and while most of them are successful, A Farewell to Kings is not the group’s most consistent album. That said, Side A nothing short of perfect. The title track is kinetic, building from a soft acoustic intro into spirited, fast-paced verses and choruses before peaking in a throbbing, throttling bridge that climaxes into an elegant mid-paced guitar solo.
“Xanadu” achieves a similar genesis on an even grander scale. The eleven minute epic tells the story of a man who travels to the mystical, icy mountaintops of Xanadu in search of immortality. The protagonist gains immortality, but at the cost of his freedom. He is remains trapped in the “Pleasure Dome” where he goes insane from loneliness and isolation. The moral of the story: It’s better to die free then be enslaved for eternity. The opening five minute instrumental passage is one of Rush’s greatest moments. It traverses a gauntlet of melodies, tempos and time signatures while employing just about every instrument in the band’s vast arsenal.
“Closer to the Heart” is equally impressive, though on a much smaller scale. Peart offers heartfelt, utopian lyrics that Lee delivers with energy and earnestness. The song also contains a joyous, ecstatic guitar solo that stands as one of Lifeson’s best.
Side B struggles to match the brilliance of Side A. “Cinderella Man” is the closest Rush ever got to writing a song in the style of Lennon and McCartney and is sufficiently catchy, but “Madrigal” is melodramatic love ballad with synthetic flute solos and references to dragons. “Cygnus X-1: Book 1” is the album’s outlier. It abandons the pastoral spirit and returns to the deep-space aesthetic of “2112”: blubbery bass, heavy riffs and lots of echo. The song is one of the few instances where Rush sacrifice musical coherence for the sake of the song’s concept. “Cygnus X-1” is the first-person narrative of the captain of the Rocinante deep space shuttle. The captain becomes obsessed with discovering what’s on the other side of the black hole Cygnus X-1, so much so that he drives his ship directly into the black hole. The music is excellent throughout, with tons of groovy riffs, quirky synths and ballsy screams from Lee. However, everything moves a little too quickly and some excellent passages are cut too short: the group chases the lyrical narrative while leaving excellent riffs in the dust. If Rush had taken a little longer to flush out all the ideas contained within this song, it could have been a classic, but as it stands it’s a bit of tease.
A Farewell to Kings is certainly less consistent than either its predecessor or its successor, but Side A is as strong as anything else within Rush’s illustrious discography. While Side B has its bumps, it still contains a more than its share of interesting moments. Evaluated as a whole, A Farewell to Kings is creative, exciting and unpredictable—progressive in the truest sense of the word.