I am skeptical of certainty. I suppose that’s a strange lead-in to an article in which I share my ostensibly well-reasoned opinions as to which albums released this year are the best. But yes, the fact remains that certainty – or, if you like: absolutism, dogmatism, overconfidence – seems like both a wholly understandable and wholly misguided way to respond to feeling anchorless in the world. That desire for reassurance rears its head everywhere – not only in how we experience music and other art forms, but also in politics, religion, the economy, our interpersonal relationships, and so on. With so little of the world around us actually under our control, we often crave mastery in the paltry fiefdoms we carve out to call our own. Again, this makes sense, but it also makes for abundant foolishness. If I was some kind of hopeless doofus I might call it “epistemic closure,” but instead I’ll call it “being an asshole.”
What’s the point here? Mostly this: the louder you yell, the less likely I’ll listen to you. I suppose that’s a strange lead-in to a list in which I share a whole bunch of albums in which a whole bunch of folks yell awfully loudly. One person’s reckoning of the best music of the year ought to exist without needing to prove itself as better or wiser or more correct or more underground or more progressive or more extreme or more slamming or more heartfelt than anyone else’s, but it nonetheless feels like the more fervently so many of us bleat our individual tastes out into the senseless void we’re secretly hoping will answer us, the more ardently we profess not to care about taste-making consensus, the more floridly we bat around certainties about the desires and intentions and failings of the creators of the art we judge and dismiss and forget so easily, the more we actually broadcast our own insecurities and bone-deep need for community.
Here’s a truth that’s both reassuring and disheartening: heavy metal is not a community.
Perhaps you have found community in or through heavy metal. As you’ve no doubt seen repeated in several of the individual lists prior to this one, the crew behind the scenes here at Ye Olde Last Rites is an honest-to-goodness family. I count myself fortunate to have somehow fallen in with the choicest bunch of idiotic idiots ever to have made the exceedingly questionable decision to turn their open, unabashed love of music into an in-depth study of how best to write about it on the internet for free while arguing and calling each other names ceaselessly.
This place is a sort of community. And whether you only stop by occasionally or if you’ve been with us since the MetalReview forum days, we feel ourselves in community with you. But heavy metal is not a community. And that’s good! Heavy metal is little more than an idea onto which people end up projecting a lot of themselves. Heavy metal is a million different communities and none at all – your local scene might be a community, but what about all the jagoffs? People who carp tangentially about metal on Twitter all day might be a community, but – again – what about all the jagoffs? Yes, truthfully, community doesn’t exclude jagoffery, but the point is that heavy metal cannot and should not be A community. No one person or group or thing speaks for it. It is not an organizing principle. Frankly, there almost IS no “it” to speak of. To make heavy metal into a community – even an open, welcoming, productive community – means some kind of closure, means fencing it off: this is in, this is out. Community the beautiful ideal too easily becomes community the static entity too easily becomes just another ossified, squandered opportunity to make meaning in motion.
All of these assy words really only amount to this: I would like to tell you about some music I heard this year that I liked. If you’re so inclined, I will also tell you why I liked that music. Maybe you would like to do the same. I don’t much care for lists that are only pictures and titles – I want to know what this music did for you. These year-end lists from every magazine and every outlet and every record label and every horse-faced charlatan such as yours truly can begin to feel like an obligation discharged in pursuit of some imaginary community membership. I don’t want to define a community; I just want to talk to you.
Maybe, then, we can at least offer a partial revision: heavy metal is not a community – at least, not yet. May it be ever thus.
HI, HELLO, PLEASE HAVE SOME 20-11
20. Stilla – Synviljor
Somewhere in rural Sweden is a dilapidated cabin. Inside, you can smell the memory of magic. Spend the night, and you hear the cabin surrounded by spectral wolves. The table in the corner is made of tree stumps felled by an axe older than time, and on it sits a gramophone. You wind it cautiously, and it cracks to life. Synviljor plays, even as the crank winds out. You realize the sound was outside all along, in the wind, the trees, the snow.
19. Monolithe – Nebula Septem
Funeral melodeath? Cosmic death/doom? A mathematical puzzle meticulously unspooling before your eyes? Yes. Monolithe’s latest does a whole lot of things, and nearly all of them with a level of sustained intensity that belies their funeral doom past while still evoking its somber radiance.
18. Ghastly – Death Velour
Death Velour is deliriously classy death metal, more or less full stop. You can fuss around with whatever other words you like, but the tension inherent in the way these Finns interleave the gauzy with the gruff tells the whole story. Those increasingly banal chumps in Tribulation should fear this velvet darkness.
17. Aorlhac – L’Esprit des Vents
No, I don’t know how to pronounce it either. Earl-hack? Earwax? Airlock? Who cares! L’Esprit des Vents (that’s French for “Who Shvitzed in These Air Ducts?”) is exactly the kind of sharp, punchy black metal you’d love to take home to meet your parents. The melodies weave triumphantly even as the drums batter relentlessly, with one of the nearest points of comparison being a less pagan-sounding Belenos. Quit looking up how to pronounce the damn name in order to correct me and go stuff these killer sounds in your earwax, you incorrigible nincompoops.
16. Sargeist – Unbound
Sargeist continues to crack open the darkest rocks they can find and let the riffs pour like an everflowing stream. Unbound doesn’t quite top their masterwork, Let the Devil In, but its grim majesty is testament to the power of a great band reconnecting with their greatest strengths.
15. A Sound of Thunder – It Was Metal
By the time you read this, A Sound of Thunder just may have released yet another album of crowd-funded, vital, fist-pumping heavy/power metal. And it, too, will rule. It Was Metal is full of grit, power, muscle, and fire, evoking stomping hard rock, theatrical heavy metal, thrash, power, speed, and plenty else in between, with all of it anchored by Nina Osegueda’s powerhouse vocals and a boldly diverse set of songs. It is metal. Don’t you like metal? This is metal.
14. Sleep – The Sciences
The last few High On Fire records have earned steeply diminishing returns by repeating the band’s past heights, and yet Sleep, superficially pursuing a not-terribly-dissimilar approach, put out one of the finest goddamned records of the year with this all-enveloping fuzz-bath of an album. Dopesmoker tones plus Holy Mountain songcraft plus a bounty of grand, fat riffs equals just plain fantastic metal. That’s not math; it’s science.
13. Deceased – Ghostly White
I know it’s hard to believe, but there are people out there who fancy themselves fans of heavy metal that don’t particularly seem to like heavy metal. Granted, we all make our own beds, and given that I have elected to spend a non-trivial amount of my time being disproportionately aggrieved about incorrect grammar, I’m a rotten poster boy for telling people to enjoy themselves more. Nonetheless, if ever you come across one of these scowling sorts who seems to hang onto heavy metal primarily so they can have something to whine about, hand them a copy of Deceased’s glorious, exuberant, overflowing-with-joy-and-life new album, invite them to have a wonderful day, then perform some variation of the chimneysweeps’ dance number from Mary Poppins that includes you booting them straight into a pit full of flaming diapers and hungry alligators.
12. Vanhelgd – Deimos Sanktuarium
Vanhelgd’s buzzsaw death metal is constructed with the deadly seriousness of Ondskapt, but glows with a dark radiance. For all the manifest aggression and bile of Deimos Sanktuarium, the songwriting always seems to hang on mantra-like phrases and deep-set melodies, as though no matter what else these songs intend, they can’t escape the psalmist’s touch. Imagine these as lullabies for demon children if that’s easier to swallow, but don’t turn away from their harrowing stare. There’s madness in these devotions.
11. Manii – Sinnets Irrganger
By now, it’s a well-worn trope—black metal band goes off the experimental deep-end, touching off endless debates as to whether they’re still black metal (if they ever were). Less common, though, is for such a band to return to those harried roots, and even less commoner still to do both at the same time. Manii’s delightfully chilly and arcane new album, however, sprang largely from the same mind responsible for Manes’s excellent Slow Motion Death Sequence. Manii’s moves are more or less all straight out of 1995, but there’s something inexplicably mesmerizing about this short, strange, circuitous album, as if the keyboard tones and guitar riffs are being reconstructed from memory by a long-slumbering intelligence trying to recall a story it once wrote. Curious, then, that the CD version which appends two tracks from a 2015 EP runs for almost exactly 42 minutes. Now there’s a Deep Thought.
HOW ARE YOU? HERE ARE THE TOP 10
10. SEAR BLISS – LETTERS FROM THE EDGE
Sing me whatever rose-tinted stories you want about the glories of the true metal underground; spin me a lusty tale of a band so pure of heart that they would rather toil in eternal obscurity than compromise their ironclad principles; paint me a portrait of someone so beautiful they shrink from the light rather than gift their luster on the unwashed masses: no band aims to stay small. None. Sure, you make music because you have a muse to follow and would keep plying your dusty trade if you were the last soul on earth. Shut up. Point being: no, I don’t believe that Hungary’s Sear Bliss remains a niche name by design. The long-running band’s careful grasp of atmosphere and epic sweep should be manna from heaven to a short attention-spanned audience that automatically assumes black metal = fascism. And yet, and yet… Letters from the Edge is the most finely polished album of Sear Bliss’s career to date, and as it dips from rampaging aggression to (ahem) blissed-out smoothness to deep roots of melancholy, it’s hard to walk away with but one conclusion: just how in the goddamned shit-licking hell is this band not HUGE?
9. SOLSTICE – WHITE HORSE HILL
“Epic” is one of those words which has been so sorely abused that it has become almost meaningless. Congratulations on your most epic commute. That sandwich over there? So epic. This ramrod over here’s Instagram handle? Very politely epic. And really, in at least some seriousness, if we’re being honest, the whole tag of “epic doom” seems a little silly. Yes, I think it names and classifies a number of important similarities between bands that aren’t adequately captured by the “doom” tag alone, but it’s not all that descriptive. The more I think about it, the more I think you could come up with a pretty good musical description of most epic doom bands by simply calling them “slow power metal.” Bullshit, right? Here’s the real point: Solstice can play just about whatever the hell they want, because White Horse Hill is a stirring, regal, patient, and surprisingly fiery triumph, and a sure salve for the pain of the long-suffering faithful having waited twenty years to see it emerge. Throw my idiot words in the dumpster, too: it is epic.
8. VOIVOD – THE WAKE
I don’t like most thrash, and I have a relatively selective tolerance for capital-p Prog, but I love Voivod to bits. This is not an attempt to wave an artisanally hand-stitched “Look at me!” flag, but rather to reiterate what ought to be common knowledge: Voivod is simply something else. To these ears, The Wake is pretty handily their finest album since Nothingface, and the way it plays as an intrinsically interconnected whole is stunning. Chewy’s immeasurably fluid guitar work throughout still manages to evoke Piggy while simultaneously extending his vision in ways that honor his knotty, evocative vision, and Snake’s vocals seem to have tapped new veins of tone and depths of feeling. So yeah, sure, in an important sense Voivod plays weird music for strange people, but that’s actually not quite it: the crux of the matter is that Voivod plays music from an alternate dimension in which everything they play is exactly right.
7. IRREVERSIBLE MECHANISM – IMMERSION
Technical death metal is, if we’re being honest, mostly bad. This isn’t as much a genre-specific slight as it might seem, though, because most things of any given type, if we’re being honest, are mostly bad. With tech-death, that natural law of mostly-badness is intensified by the fact that so many bands in the style have to spend so much of their time being really, really great at their instruments that they forget (or never learn) how to write engaging songs. On their second album, Belarus’s Irreversible Mechanism provide ample evidence that it’s still possible to have it both ways. Although fans of genre standard-bearers like Obscura and Augury will find plenty to love, the easier entry point for the not-yet-convinced might be that if Devin Townsend made a tech-death album, it might sound a little bit like this. Immersion is squeaky clean and buttery smooth, and it overflows with gorgeous leads and rich atmosphere.
6. VISIGOTH – CONQUEROR’S OATH
The Revenant King had already announced Visigoth as a strikingly confident new, but with Conqueror’s Oath, the Utah-based band solidifies its place near the top of the list of loving crafters of stirring, power-laced, stoutly triumphant heavy metal. Conqueror’s Oath is shorter, snappier, and stronger, yet still packed with instantly memorable songs (from the fantastic Highlander-themed “Outlive Them All” to the rollicking hometown-shoutout “Salt City”). I can’t tell you exactly what it is that you should be looking for in heavy metal, but I can tell you that if you can’t find at least some of it in Visigoth, your ears just might be deader than dead.
5. URFAUST – THE CONSTELLATORY PRACTICE
The experimental drone group Asva has an album called What You Don’t Know is Frontier, which, while a very fine album in its own right, often burbles to the surface of my mind primarily because of its title. The phrasing is a little awkward, maybe, but I think it points to an important truth: whatever thing escapes your understanding—whatever is beyond your comprehension by even a hair—is an open challenge. Frontiers don’t require you to cross them, but they at least force you to confront what they delimit. One nation versus another. This versus that. Here versus there. Urfaust’s greatest feat in this recently completed trilogy (begun with the Apparitions EP and Empty Space Meditation LP) is to find a place that resists that dualism. The Constellatory Practice, if you open your ears to the world it imagines, isn’t either here or there. It’s both at once, but also something else entirely. Urfaust is both writing fantastic songs and approaching pure texture, with a cavernously intoxicating atmosphere bolstered by doom, black metal, drone, and anything else necessary to put your head exactly in the place it needs to be.
4. AMORPHIS – QUEEN OF TIME
Part of what is so intoxicating about Amorphis’s sweeping style of “Is it progressive? Is it folk? Is it power? metal” is that the band plays with such class, confidence, and exuberance that it sounds like they’re aiming for giant arenas even in the practice space. While these fancy Finns will surely never top the massive influence of Tales from the Thousand Lakes, it’s getting a bit absurd to argue that between Queen of Time and its immediate predecessor Under the Red Cloud, Amorphis aren’t currently playing at the highest caliber level of their already nearly bulletproof career. It is goddamn near impossible to find fault with this magnificent album, because every single thing they do on it is done exactly right. Need some terrifically catchy folk melodies? They’ve got it. Need some windswept melancholy and contemplation? They’ve got it. Need some heads-down riffing and triumphantly gut-busting growls? C’mon, you know they’ve got it. Amorephis? Yes please, always and forever.
3. KHÔRADA – SALT
Salt is an album born out of both personal and political heartache. Given the musical pedigree of each of the band’s members, it’s little surprise that Salt is such a confidently accomplished piece of work; however, given its troubled genesis, what remains so striking is just how joyful the album is. To be sure, these songs are overwhelmingly dark, complex, and elliptical, but if you really sit and let the album speak to you, you might find that it gives you ammunition to face down the nihilism of those long, dark nights. Some unfairly handsome moron covered a lot of this ground already in the review: “If you think an album can put you in touch with the emotional state of its creators, then it is a codex of empathy. If you think an album can bring you outside of yourself, then it is a meditation. If you think that art can change the world but only by changing hearts, then it is a calling to sit and be sad and be joyous and then get up and do something.” Salt won’t tell you how to change the world any more than it will tell you how to change yourself, but it’s an invitation.
2. MADDER MORTEM – MARROW
Without doing an embarrassing nosedive straight into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sometimes I do wonder what it is that we’re all after. Water, food, shelter, love, friendship, mailorder gadgets that help us crack eggs, whatever. At the heart of it, though, is that I think we all want to be seen. Known. Understood. The world’s a strange place, and it’s easy to feel like all its problems stem from the fact that there are 7 billion different ways of looking at it. Music is one of those magical, sustaining practices that can bridge our personal isolations, and that breathtaking feeling you get when you hear something that sees you? It’s a rapturous thing. Norway’s Madder Mortem won’t, I guess, do that for all of you, but they certainly do that for me. Marrow covers so many textures, styles, and emotions that it’s difficult to pin the band down as any particular thing, but in a way, the disparateness of their sound makes them an open book into which you can read and write your own loves and fears and sorrows and dreams.
1. MESSA – FEAST FOR WATER
No matter how many times I go through this exercise of sifting through all the new music I digest in a given year and trying to put some sort of shape and order to the beautiful chaos of thousands of albums each arguing their case, I’m usually surprised by what ends up in the number one spot. In fact, over the last several years, I guarantee I’ve spent a whole lot more time agonizing over exactly which albums to place (and where) in the 2 through 5 slots than I have about what lands at the very top. Messa’s Feast for Water is no different, in part because it seems like such an unassuming album. For as gorgeously deep as the album’s atmosphere is, and for as impeccably written as its songs are, and for as powerfully as Sara’s vocals dovetail with the supremely sympathetic instrumental interplay, Messa never really seems like they’re swinging for the fences. Feast for Water is not a boastful album. (Musically speaking, boastfulness is not always a sin; why wouldn’t you want to bring some swagger when you know you’ve got something special?) But because Feast for Water seems to hold back at least some mysterious part of itself, it also asks you to come in closer. By doing so, it makes you a more active participant in the music—not just audience, but interlocutor. That strategy has risks, because not everyone will want to put in the time to feel the nuances of this fluid, generous album. These deep waters hold a precious bounty, though, and they will draw you back again and again to see what you can learn.
TOP 10 EPS AND DEMOS OF 2018
10. Iron Cemetery – Iron Cemetery
What if, like, you could be a skeletal warrior on a motorcycle that’s on fire popping a wheelie over a dumpster full of broken glass at 200 mph? With Iron Cemetery, now you can!
9. Chevalier – Chapitre II
It’s speedy and rickety and clattery and a little spooky. It’s from Finland! It’s speed metal! Get the goshdarn heck out of here and stuff it in your earbox already!
8. Arkhtinn – VI
Arkhtinn is one of the best cosmic black metal bands out there, and although this demo might even be outstripped by the debut full-length they released this November, the formalism of one long black metal clattering followed by one long dark ambient centering is a winning formula that has forced the band to focus, and distilled their strengths to just this: riffs and atmosphere. As it was and ever shall be.
7. Desolation Realm – Desolation Realm
Word on the mean streets is that Desolation Realm packs the same nasty futuristic death punch as the late and much-feted Timeghoul. The tom-tom punishment and murky yet stop-on-a-dime riff whirlwinds will tell you the same thing. Whatever on earth is going on in Norway that’s giving all these newer death metal bands the drive and hunger and oozing pus to keep knocking out top-notch material like this? Well… let’s have more of that, please.
6. Mortiferum – Altar of Decay
I’m not saying that Mortiferum’s deliciously chewy demo Altar of Decay sounds like an overworked garbage disposal trying to choke down an eight-pound bag of rancid horse meat, but… Well, I’m not not saying that. Rumbly death metal doomscapes perfect for stomping around your house while pretending to be an overworked garbage disposal.
5. Urarv – Argentum
Do you love DHG? If not, hi, hello, how are you, please take a goddamned hike! Urarv is a new(ish) swervy black metal band featuring Aldrahn (most notable as Thee Voice of Dodheimsgard, but also of Thorns and The Deathtrip), and hot on the heels of last year’s tasty debut album comes this even better EP. The songs are never quite as out there as some of the man’s previous bands, but they twist up avant-garde-leaning black metal with Celtic Frost stomp and all other manner of weirdo nastiness while just letting the man’s voice do its thing. Gross and very, very nice.
4. Abhorrence – Megalohydrothalassophobic
Dusty old Finnish death metal relics kick off the dust for some delightfully dusty old Finnish death metal with a modern production punch that clarifies just how crunchy and downright mean these riffs are. People of the metal internet sure like frothing themselves silly about all the long-lost classics of Finndeath. Well, folks, it’s here, and it’s now, and that bootleg Convulse backpatch you bought for 40 Euros from some kid in Russia is just sitting in your room gathering dust while Abhorrence is here to pulverize your stupid Ikea shelf into Suömideäthmjeät.
3. Dead Void – The Looming Spectre
I’ve written about this demo twice before, and I’ll write about it again until someone shuts me up. Dead Void aren’t doing anything particularly new, but this demo drips with atmosphere and the pitch-perfect balance between polished songwriting and first demo enthusiasm that makes one almost sympathize with the “I only like their first demo” crowd. It’s early days for this Danish band, but if they continue to bestride the globe like a demon-colossus with limbs jutting at odd angles and a mouth of hot, dripping teeth, don’t be surprised when you see them on plenty of lists next year.
2. Dauþuz – Des Zwerges Fluch
Look, I don’t know how the hell to pronounce it, either. What I do know is that they play riffy as hell melodic German black metal with a thematic focus on mining, which means that what you know now is that this is a recipe for extreme satisfaction in listening. Dauþuz sounds like neither Nagelfar nor Windir, but rather like something you ought to be listening to if you like Nagelfar or Windir. Black metal with aggression and atmosphere in equal measure. Plus: mining! Dwarves! Great stuff!
1. Reversed – Widow Recluse
Reversed’s debut demo is frantic, gnarled, twisty, thrashing death with dashes of black metal that stays the fuck away from anything even approaching “murky black/death” or “war metal” or any such nonsense. It’s like, you know how early Slayer was basically the most evil thing ever? These folks remember that, and while Widow Recluse doesn’t particularly sound anything like Slayer, it sure as SHIT sounds like something made by folks who spent a whole lot of time listening to Slayer. At times, the demo sounds like a slightly less wonky Khthoniik Cerviiks, and at other times there are flashes of a slightly more serious Villains or a slightly less self-serious Mitochondrion (with whom Reversed shares at least some membership), but basically, Reversed’s metal sounds fast and rude and clattery and serious and silly and just fucking awesome. Heavy metal, you know?
TOP 10 DISAPPOINTMENT HAIKUS OF 2018
1. Summoning – With Doom We Come
We must away ere
break of day, to find where this
great band lost its way.
2. Primordial – Exile Amongst the Ruins
Words about “gallows”?
Check. About “heretics”? Check.
Bad songs? Sadly: check.
3. Evoken – Hypnagogia
My Dying Bride? More
like Their Riffing Died on this
dull, turgid album.
4. Helion Prime – Terror of the Cybernetic Space Monster
New singer is great.
Second batch of tunes is quite
far below the first.
5. Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest
Lol’d U @ Dorkfest.
Loathed you at your dumbestest.
Left you at the door.
6. Ihsahn – Amr
In which one of the
savants of extreme metal
takes a tepid bath.
7. Gas – Rausch
Wolfgang Voigt, Kompakt
label co-boss, lets his drift
get the best of him.
8. Pig Destroyer – Head Cage
It’s bad. Not just, “Hey,
not quite as good as past heights,”
but just: so, so bad.
9. Battleroar – Codex Epicus
I can’t quite recall
even a single song here;
that’s the real problem.
10. Shining – Animal
Cock rock is great fun.
Animal is a pile of
hot, unwashed horseshit.
TOP 20 JAZZ ALBUMS OF 2018
Last Rites is not exactly poised to turn into Jazz Rites anytime soon, but it ought to be known that a bunch of your favorite idiots around these parts listen to about as much jazz as you’ll get sex grunts in an average Keith Jarrett live performance. (Translation: a lot.) Much like metal, jazz is a global phenomenon with so many stylistic offshoots that it’s almost impossible to bring it all together under one umbrella, but that diversity and thirst for raw expression is also what makes it such a thrill to be a fan of both in 2018. Leaving aside (with Coltrane, as always, the greatest of exceptions) the raft of archival material reissued, 2018 was a wonderful year for jazz in settings large and small, high-profile and no-profile, book-throwing-out and tradition-respecting. Here are twenty albums you might like to dip your toes into, unless you’re a good for nothing chowderhead with blocks for ears and a soul of curdled milk.
Jazz Rites: Generally Impressed With A Wop Bop a Loo Bop A Wop Bop Boo
20. Sly & Robbie – Nordub
It might be a bit of cheating to slip this onto a jazz list, but this highly unusual collaboration between the legendary Jamaican reggae/dub production duo Sly and Robbie and the chilly Nordic jazz of Nils Petter Molvær deserves inclusion because of how its genre-splicing embodies the collaborative nature of jazz. Bonus points for the electronic fussing-about of Vladislav Delay, but the whole suite is both breezy and ice-cold, funky and a little robotic, and just downright interesting.
19. Florian Weber – Lucent Waters
Lucent Waters is another low-key gem from the ever-reliable ECM Records. Florian Weber’s piano leads a quietly experimental quartet session highlighted by Ralph Alessi’s trumpet. Although always soft and restrained, there’s an unusual sense of movement throughout these eight original songs – look for Weber’s Debussy-esque cascades on the evocative “Melody of a Waterfall.”
18. Trygve Seim – Helsinki Songs
Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim’s latest quartet album is just as placid and melodic as one might expect from this disciple of Jan Gabarek. The eleven pieces are all Seim originals, and the delicate interplay between his gently keening saxophone and Kristjan Randalu’s deliberate piano is a consistent highlight. This is careful, disarming music perfect for slow, chilly mornings.
17. Mark Turner & Ethan Iverson – Temporary Kings
Given Ethan Iverson’s rather acrimonious split from The Bad Plus, it’s likely a smart move that he brings his always-cerebral style to such a different type of music in this satisfyingly mysterious duet album with saxophonist Mark Turner (the two have recorded together before, notably on several quartet albums with drummer Billy Hart). These pieces are often sparse, hushed, and impressionistic, at times almost more in line with the contemporary classical sound of ECM’s New Series than the intimate jazz on which the label made its name. Turner’s saxophone is played softly, searchingly, and with almost no attack at all, as if each note is a fog suddenly rolling in off of dark, cool water.
16. Anat Cohen & Fred Hersch – Live at Healdsburg
This recording of a live performance of pianist Fred Hersch and clarinetist Anat Cohen is sparkling in both its simplicity and richness. Hersch and Cohen both often favor tumbling lines of notes, which means that their improvisational paths often cross sympathetically. The bluesy strut of “Isfahan” is a highlight, as is their hushed and respectful take on the Ellington standard “Mood Indigo,” in which their two instrumental voices evoke the smoke-hazed ambience of some storied 1960s jazz club at about 2am. A warm, convivial set.
15. Renee Rosnes – Beloved of the Sky
Pianist Renee Rosnes leads a sometimes surprisingly hard-charging set of mostly originals with key support from saxophonist Chris Potter and vibraphonist Steve Nelson. The back and forth between Rosnes’s piano and drummer Lenny White highlights “Mirror Image,” while Potter’s switch to flute for the sprightly “Rhythm of the River” is a late-album highlight. Beloved of the Sky is a classicist-leaning jazz album marked by thoughtful composition and Potter’s versatile reedwork.
14. Matthew Shipp – Zer0
Solo piano jazz is a field that, if not as crowded as some, comes freighted with a heavy sense of history and expectation. Matthew Shipp’s solo outing is very much his own, but veers much closer to the stridency of a Cecil Taylor than the floridness of a Keith Jarrett. “Cosmic Sea” (sadly not a Death cover) uses pedaled ambience as a supplement to its large interval chiming, while “Blue Equation” starts with a fairly straightforward blues figure before rapidly spinning off into noisy outbursts and carefully strident trills. This is a strikingly accomplished and confident album that writes just as much meaning in its stops and pauses as in its sideways melodies.
13. Tord Gustavsen Trio – The Other Side
Tord Gustavsen’s trio is a well-established partnership with a clearly developed style of musical communication. The Other Side is a typically non-showy display of slowly developing melody and unison support rather than complementary cross-play. On album opener “The Tunnel,” Gustavsen seems to complete his melodic thought maybe only two or three times across six minutes, but the drums and bass are in supple lockstep each time. Whereas some of Gustavsen’s Nordic jazz contemporaries often sound distant and cool, there’s a warmth to the trio’s playing even when the atmosphere is sparse and methodic, rather like watching a crackling fire through a window.
12. John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once
Any previously unheard Coltrane material is cause for jubilation, but this long-lost set from the saxophonist’s classic quartet (yes, that’s the one that recorded A Love Supreme McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass) is a miraculous gift. Coltrane appears here on both soprano and tenor, and of the unreleased material, “Untitled Original 11386” has such an instantly memorable theme that you’ll swear you’ve been listening to it all along.
11. Stefon Harris & Blackout – Sonic Creed
The vibraphonist Stefon Harris leads an exceptional band through a smoothly funky set of tunes defined by tight, winding melodies (often from Harris and saxophonist Casey Benjamin doubling the theme), but the expanded ensemble gives each piece a depth of texture that’s never overplayed or heavy-handed. The guitar and extra percussion in particular are a nice touch, and the breadth of expression at play across the splendid album suggests that Harris has followed Bobby Hutcherson’s example not only of instrument, but also of restlessness of spirit.
10. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile
Shabaka Hutchings must be indefatigable. Not content with his creative outlets in Shabaka and the Ancestors and The Comet is Coming, he also performs a rollicking, bass-heavy, Afrobeat-inspired of funky jazz with Sons of Kemet. Your Queen is a Reptile is just flat-out HEAVY, laying down thickly nimble grooves with a tuba providing the bassline, while the band indulges in flashes of dub and dancehall alongside the general Afrofuturist bent. This is a fierce, fiery album, and if you can’t dance to it… you must be busted.
9. Dave Holland – Uncharted Territories
Uncharted Territories is a sprawling, double-disc set led by legendary bassist Dave Holland. Much of the album is strikingly experimental, as different configurations of the quartet (rounded out by Craig Taborn on piano, Evan Parker on saxophone, and Ches Smith on percussion) are assembled on different tracks. Smith’s percussion often leans to the avant-garde, particularly when he and Parker duet, but whenever present, Holland’s bass sparkles with invention, particularly when bowed and scraped as if egging on Parker’s more ghostly susurrations.
8. Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret – The Other Side of Air
Myra Melford’s piano figures here keep trying to escape the frame to more avant-garde fields, but the ensemble remains grounded by some wickedly taut interplay. Ron Miles on cornet and Liberty Ellman on guitar add some tremendous color to the corners of these winding compositions, but the highlight of the album might be the work of Tyshawn Sorey’s drums and Stomu Takeishi’s bass. Takeishi in particular goads the whole ensemble into increasingly frantic rhythmic circles on “Attic,” while Sorey’s frantic fills ramp up the pressure throughout “Living Music.” This is a thrilling album that often veers unexpectedly just as you think you’ve got it pinned down.
7. Maisha – There is a Place
If Kamasi Washington was the public face of spiritual jazz in 2018, the London-based collective of Maisha actually did a better job of hewing to the example of that movement’s forebears. Maisha is led by its drummer, Jake Long, and the rich, highly detailed rhythmic patter that animates each of these five songs makes clear his leadership. The saxophone and flute of Nubya Garcia (one of the London jazz scene’s leading lights) both play a critical role here as well, but these swift-moving songs are often at their best when playing at full ensemble strength, with the core six-piece band augmented by trumpet, strings, and harp as needed. When Amané Suganami’s Wurliter gives way to a churning string section in “Kaa,” it feels like a struggle to keep your feet on the ground.
6. Peter Brötzmann & Heather Leigh – Sparrow Nights
As a rule, Peter Brötzmann is not known for his restraint. The octogenarian reedist is one of the closest things the jazz world still has to a firebrand, and his exhilarating (and punishing) wailing has graced some of the most confrontational recordings of the jazz avant-garde. While he still has plenty of opportunity to unleash his forceful blowing, on this beautiful and challenging duets album with guitarist Heather Leigh, Brötzmann often reins in his most outre tendencies. Though occasionally harsh and discomfiting, “This Word Love,” “At First Sight,” and “All of Us” are nearly ballads. When both players really let loose, though, it’s a powerful summoning. Most potent is the album centerpiece “This Time Around,” on which Leigh’s distorted guitar lashes and wails in great looping waves while Brötzmann pursues some kind of self-immolating oblivion. Utterly fascinating.
5. Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest
Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s latest album is jazz in ethos even as it strains the limits of the genre’s definitions. Akinmusire brings together a relatively straightforward jazz quartet, a string quartet, and the rapper Kool A.D. As such, the album often skews toward experimental contemporary classical more than the sort of jazz Blue Note made its name on, although it mirrors (in spirit rather than sound) similar Blue Note digressions in recent years from names like Jose James and Robert Glasper. Origami Harvest is proudly and unapologetically political, perhaps never as forcefully as on “Free, White and 21,” which features a recitation of the names of black men and boys murdered by police. This is a creatively explosive and unsettlingly beautiful statement by a major voice in American jazz.
4. Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings
Recorded in four different cities, and then chopped and reassembled after the fact, Universal Beings has all the makings of a contemporary jazz mixtape. Striking, then, that despite the diversity of personnel and numerous special guests across this massively hungry album, the core of sound around McCraven’s drumming and beat-making feels consistent. Alongside traditional frontline instrumentation, Universal Beings pulls in Tomeka Reid’s cello plus vibraphones, harp, and violin for an organic, pulsating, and both raw-yet-polished journey across the possibilities of jazz in 2018.
3. Charles Lloyd & The Marvels & Lucinda Williams – Vanished Gardens
Charles Lloyd’s stately tenor at first seems an unlikely fit for the leathery grit of Lucinda Williams’s voice, but both artists have spent significant energy in their careers exploring the terrain of American folk traditions. Vanished Gardens is a splendid album that serves as a spotlight for both Lloyd and Williams, but which is bolstered in particular by Bill Frisell’s guitar and the excellent pedal steel of Greg Leisz. The blues are planted deep in this music’s blood.
2. Bobo Stenson Trio – Contra la Indecisión
The jazz trio is a classic format with good reason: by pulling back from too many voices, the improvisatory music of conversation is much easier to hear. The Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson’s latest recording with his trio for ECM is an utterly magical outing. Yes, it’s steeped in the hushed intimacy that defines so much of the ECM aesthetic, but Stenson’s deft touch for the mysterious, almost noirish turn of phrase is given plenty of space to roam, and drummer Jon Fält’s brushwork is at times surprisingly busy and complex.
1. Kamasi Washington – Heaven & Earth
It’s a vanishing rarity that one of the most high-profile artists in a given style is also actually one of the best, but Kamasi Washington is deserving of all the hype he has seen and then some. His sprawling new album Heaven and Earth (and please, don’t miss out on the five-song EP supplement The Choice) finds the tenor saxophonist’s powers as an arranger coming into full blossom. The omnivorous breadth of Washington’s music is certainly grounded in spiritual jazz, but pulls in whatever else it needs from soul, funk, hip-hop, gospel, and Sun Ra-styled cosmic exploration. Washington’s saxophone is an important anchor throughout, but Heaven and Earth is very much an ensemble piece (although special credit is due to the set’s principal drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr.). Interestingly, while the album is called Heaven and Earth, the two discs are called Earth and Heaven. It might seem like a small thing, but given the world-building scope of the music and the conceptual spiritualism of Washington’s aesthetic, the interchangeability of those two words is something like a repudiation of the Augustinian duality between the City of Man and the City of God. Kamasi Washington’s recombinant jazz tradition is thus, in a way, a worship of pure immanence. God is not separate from the world; God is in the world, and the world is God.
TOP 25 (OTHER) NON-METAL ALBUMS OF 2018
Hey! Did you know there’s even more music out there? Yours truly is such an unstoppable moron that I am utterly compelled to continue writing long past when all right-thinking and sensible people have x-ed out of this browser tab, sat calmly in mute horror, and then walked away in search of greener, less monomaniacal pastures.
25. Ruby My Dear – Brame
Brame is one of the most maniacally anarchic albums of the year. Taking cues from some of Venetian Snares’s most aggressive music, Ruby My Dear (named after the Thelonious Monk composition, of course) cuts up the hyperactivity of drill & bass/breakcore with snippets of children’s music, jazz, and operatic music to often stunning effect. As a whole, the album is a bit of an exhausting marathon, but it’s hard not to marvel at the level of demented detail at work across this carnival whirlwind of pristine noise.
24. Bvdub – Nights of Nine Vigils
A concept album about insomnia, Nights of Nine Vigils is awash with Bvdub’s trademark angelic ambient sounds, from deep, rumbling lows to choir-like highs and muted beats bordering on dub and narcotized trance. It’s an immersive journey of hazy textures and weightlessness, but one that fixes each piece with a rich center of emotion. This won’t cure your sleepless nights, but it can offer the comfort of a friend who knows your struggle and is happy just to sit with you until the dawn.
23. First Aid Kit – Ruins
These Swedish sisters make heartfelt indie/alt-country songs in unabashedly emotional hues of auburn and goldenrod. As ever, the focus is on the gorgeous harmony of voices, but Ruins is packed with solid songs, from the string-driven lilt of “My Wild Sweet Love” to the acoustic and then drunken-singalong of “Hem of Her Dress.” Good songs played honestly and sung with conviction. I guess… I guess that ought to be enough?
22. Persuasion – Quatermass
Quatermass is a spooky little EP from Montreal producer Devon Hansen. The four tracks evoke a tight and chilly house vibe, with some of the detail that creeps into the latter minutes of “In the Atrium” sounding a little like a Ricardo Villalobos track. The title track highlights some very popping beats over smooth, suspended synth tones, while closer “Xaviera” digs into a more nocturnal version of the aquatic vibe of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works ‘85-’92. An extremely promising talent.
21. Jlin – Autobiography
Gary, Indiana’s Jlin had already moved far beyond the supposed confines of Chicago-style footwork on her previous albums, but here she stretches out even further. Notably less claustrophobic than what precedes it, Autobiography still packs a dense barrage of beats that rain down with trademark slippery complexity, but there’s also breathing space and a sense of restless curiosity sometimes akin to Aphex Twin’s Drukqs. Ambient passages and haunting, toybox melodies are allowed to blossom, which provides greater contrast with the heady dynamics of these rich beat-tapestries, all of which suggest bodies both in hyperspeed and graceful arcs of weightlessness simultaneously.
20. Hashshashin – nihsahshsaH (adj.)
Hashshashin’s debut album was a highlight of 2016. This live album, which reprises songs from that album with the addition of Simon Dawes (of another Arts as Catharis band, Instrumental (adj.)), is a fiery representation of the hypnotic, cross-cultural psychedelic jams whipped up by this Sydney-based group. The spiritual-leaning song titles already give away the game, but this tight and immersive live set aims for nothing less than transcendence.
19. Robyn – Honey
If Robyn’s pop was relatively futuristic circa Body Talk, on her latest album Honey the sound is unashamedly backward-looking. This version of Robyn is every bit as self-assured and silky smooth as before, but the productions are more slippery, with darker overtones that paint in the full-throated melodrama of prime late-80s pop. “Human Being” is richly resonant, with the drip-dropping percussion hardly able to give a sense of motion above the warm guitar drones of the chorus. Honey overflows with an only slightly tongue-in-cheek dark majesty that makes a song like “Baby Forgive Me” an instant classic before its echo even fades.
18. Markus Guentner – Empire
Ambient music sometimes has a reputation for being just as floaty and slight as new age. (Sidebar: fuck you; Yanni rules.) Markus Guentner’s generous new album, however, reveals the looming threat of harshness without ever tipping into “dark ambient” terrain. On the whole, these songs still float and lilt, but there’s an undercurrent of suggestive darkness that colors the frame with streaks of stormcloud grey that dapple the otherwise pastel stillness.
17. Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois – Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois
<I am 100% a total mark for Aaron Funk’s music as Venetian Snares. On this album, Funk goes deep into a collaboration with legendary producer and steel guitarist Daniel Lanois, whose smears of languid sound are both a provocation to and embrace of Funk’s most hyperactive tendencies. Some kind of idiot interviewed them both and wrote about it over here. It’s a dense trip of ambient improvisation and beat wizardry that brings out the best in each artist.
16. Steve Hauschildt – Dissolvi
Steve Hauschildt’s Dissolvi is the perfect marriage of dream-state ambient bliss and early 90s IDM (a la Warp’s seminal Artificial Intelligence compilations). Julianna Barwick’s vocals give “Saccade” just the right touch of wistful melancholy to match the almost music box-melody, while “Aroid” seemingly lifts some of its drum tones directly out of Autechre’s Tri Repetae toolbox. This is a beautiful album that gathers several threads of the past into a unique vision that evokes nostalgia without ever falling prey to it.
15. Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas – Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas
It’s a little jazzy, a little Krauty, a little dubby, and a little spooky. Bugge Wesseltoft’s chill jazz atmosphere collides with the understated electronic touch of Prins Thomas. These are spacious, drawn-out pieces in no particular hurry to get anywhere, which makes it all the more inviting to cozy up inside them and really explore each crackling nuance and deep rhythm. A hypnotic journey that thumbs its nose at both jazz and techno purists.
14. Brownout – Fear of a Brown Planet
Coming relatively hot on the heels of two albums’ worth of phenomenal Latin jazz/funk Black Sabbath covers, Austin’s Brownout turned to one of the pillars of hip-hop, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. It might not be all that surprising, but the massively influential Bomb Squad productions that have probably wormed their way into your subconscious work splendidly in the hands of this heavily funkified Latin-noir big band style. Imagine Chuck D’s booming voice atop these horns, and it’s almost like hearing every single Hall of Fame break for the very first time.
13. Mouse On Mars – Dimensional People
Leave it to the Germans to make some of the world’s most playful yet industrious electronic music. Dimensional People is a wild, stylistically all-over-the-place album populated by seemingly dozens of guest spots, and yet it plays as a relatively seamless piece. The album is worth it alone for the opening salvo of the three-part title track, which begins as a hyperactive and hypnotic Krautrock and morphs into an ambient drone before bringing in chiming analog tones that recall Close Encounters. Dimensional People is the sort of weird that makes perfect sense the more you listen, and it’s also just plain fun. You like fun, right?
12. Kompakt – Pop Ambient 2019
Kompakt is one of the most reliable labels in electronic music, and their annual Pop Ambient compilation is typically a highlight of the year. The 2019 installment is one of the best in years, pulling in a number of new names as well as mainstays of the label. Perhaps the most exciting development, though, is that the digital version comes with a full-length continuous mix of the compilation done by label co-boss Wolfgang Voigt. Voigt’s take on the mix isn’t simply an easy fade-in/-out between tracks; instead, he cherrypicks elements from across artists and envisions a completely new way of hearing the cross-cutting threads that unite them all. As always, Pop Ambient is the perfect thing to toss on the stereo while you stay warm during the cold, dark months of winter.
11. Prince – Piano & a Microphone 1983
Prince Rogers Nelson, that sexiest of all motherfuckers, was one of popular music’s true geniuses. The level of talent on this intimate, near-continuous live studio session from 1983 is so goddamned electrifying that it makes his loss sting all over again. He plays the piano beautifully as he creates what seem like extemporaneous medlies, and while his voice is in stunning form, one of the most magical things about the album is how he provides his own additional percussion, either by stomping his feet or kicking against the body of the piano. Forget a one-man band; Prince was a one-man universe.
10. Slow Machete – Ola Mala
The strongest recommendation I can give to Slow Machete’s second album Ola Mala is simply for you to go and watch the beautiful video for its lead single, “Red Mountain Choir.” Slow Machete’s music centers around field recordings made in Haiti, and while the spliced samples, electro-acoustic accompaniments, and imaginative songwriting are all worth praising, the project as a whole lifts up the central beauty and universality of the human spirit. It’s hard, in 2018, not to hear music like this as a radical rejection of all attempts to divide and demean the whole of humanity.
9. Tim Hecker – Konoyo
Tim Hecker’s music has rarely stayed in one place very long, but the wanderlust has been particularly pronounced for each of the four albums Hecker has released since 2009’s . Where Love Streams treated choral vocals as raw source material, Konoyo is an altogether more austere and gorgeously haunting agglomeration and grief and longing. The synthesis of Hecker’s ambient and drone treatments with a Japanese gagaku classical ensemble results in one of 2018’s most simultaneously harrowing and mesmerizing albums.
8. Aphex Twin – Collapse
Richard D James is one of electronic music’s most impish figures. After the full-length triumph of Syro in 2014, he has busied himself with a typically wide array of stylistic digressions in various EPs. Collapse just might be the best yet, though, as each of the five tracks filters Syro’s focus through a myriad of electronic sub-genres. Perhaps most electrifying is the footwork-IDM mashup of “1st 44,” but from start to finish, Collapse is vintage Aphex.
7. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
Although Janelle Monae is undoubtedly her own woman, some of the most joyous moments on Dirty Computer are those when she most clearly evokes the muse of her mentor, Prince. The sassy funk of “Make Me Feel” (replete with magical Prince wobbly guitar twang in the second half) and the Purple Rain-inspired closer “Americans” transcend mere homage into the realm of loving tribute. Monae runs the gamut of R & B, soul, electro-pop, hip-hop, and probably a dozen other styles, but somehow combines it all into a smoothly effortless masterclass in the singularity of vision that marks the very best pop music.
6. Jon Hopkins – Singularity
If Nils Frahm’s All Melody (see below) is acoustic music that feels electronic, then Jon Hopkins’s Singularity is electronic music that feels acoustic. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it, of course, and Hopkins never shies away from out-and-out thumping beats, but his way of building a track from heart-tugging string cadences and otherworldly washes of sound and then plugging it into an open-minded club-friendly structure is a thing to be envied. One of the closest stylistic comparisons for Hopkins’s latest triumph is Kiasmos, but Hopkins is less outwardly focused on neoclassicisms, and more interested in pulling whatever sounds are necessary to further his celestial vision. The album centerpiece (and absolutely centering) of “Feel First Life” is perhaps the closest 2018 has come to making music that sounds like forever slipping loose the bonds of gravity and existing as pure energy.
5. Khruangbin – Con Todo el Mundo
There was plenty to feel downright low about in 2018. One of my most frequent musical balms was the mystical, funky, psych-soul desert jams of Khruangbin’s second album. The Houston-based trio makes some of the most effortlessly cool music out there, with Mark Speer’s guitar taking such a melody-forward role that one never thinks a singer is necessary. We could all use some more meditative grooves in this age of constant anxiety.
4. Nils Frahm – All Melody
Nils Frahm’s latest (and quite handily greatest) album All Melody embraces a universe of sounds – modular synth, modern choral, neoclassical, gently thrumming ambient, hazy beats, and more. At times the use of choral vocals evokes a gentler version of Tim Hecker’s Love Streams, and Frahm’s music is more driving than ambient. The things that Frahm is able to accomplish with almost entirely acoustic instrumentation on this album quite nearly defy belief, and although the whole album teems with raw, overwhelming beauty, “Kaleidoscope” simply must be heard to be believed.
3. Low – Double Negative
Have you ever listened to quiet music in a loud environment? Sometimes, it’s a nuisance, when you’re trying to follow along but you can’t make out all the lines from the bleedthrough of conversation, of traffic, of the constant churn of life. But sometimes, it’s a blessing. Low’s quiet knife of an album Double Negative is often played at such a glacial hush and stalked by such static and studio manipulation that it feels like it’s running away from you the more you lean in. It’s not a drone album; it’s not a noise album; it’s not an ambient album: it’s a vanishing album. Mimi Parker’s and Alan Sparhawk’s vocals are just as suitably desperate as ever, but here they are treated and panned and chopped so seamlessly that when they appear relatively unadorned, it’s almost a shocking contrast. Double Negative is both sad and ferocious, a dynamic that shows itself most clearly on the late album one-two combination of the hallucinatory drive of “Poor Sucker” and the heavy funereal march of “Rome (Always in the Dark).” You’ve heard the well-worn anecdote about Michelangelo’s notion that his sculptures were already formed inside the marble, and that he merely needed to chip away to find them? Double Negative proposes that these songs were already all around us, waiting for the right ears to draw them down.
2. The Field – Infinite Moment
Do you suppose it’s possible to be named Axel Willner and NOT end up with a career in techno? Like, you gotta know when they named him*, Bootsy Collins’s parents knew he was destined to bring the funk for all time, right? In any case, Willner’s principal alias The Field has been one of the most consistent voices in minimal/ambient techno since his first official album on Kompakt in 2007. Since then, The Field has gotten generally less trance/shoegazy, but in doubling down on the tactile density of his songs, Willner has opened up a new terrain of beauty, where rhythms and samples initially in tension are given space to expand, overlap, and gradually complement one another. One of the most surprising (* ahem *) moments on Infinite Moment is about 4:30 in to “Divide Now,” when Willner brings in a classic drum and bass break, but it isn’t long before that, too, fades, letting the synthesized hi-hat push a classic Field three-note melody line into infinity. Everything on Infinite Moment is like that, just like the name says: a single sound or phrase captured for a moment, but refracted endlessly.
(*N.B. Yes, I know his name isn’t actually Bootsy. Let a fella dream, would ya?)
1. Autechre – NTS Sessions
Ask any of the other knuckleheads around this site, and they’ll tell you I listen to an unhealthy amount of Autechre. The British duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown are responsible for some of my favorite music of all time, so any year which sees eight (!!!) hours of new music from Autechre is destined to be a good one. The NTS Sessions were originally broadcast as a weekly residency on an online radio station, and the 8-CD boxset version reproduces each of the four sessions across two discs. If you’ve tried Autechre before and not been impressed, this gargantuan album is hardly out to change your mind. But in 2018, after nearly 30 years of shape-shifting electronic music, Autechre is a universe all its own. The easy critique of Autechre is that it is all cold, alien, uninviting, computer-generated nonsense. Oddly enough, though, this imposing edifice of an album contains some of the group’s most focused and human-sounding material since Oversteps. Perhaps because they had such a vast canvas to paint on, each of these songs feels like it has been given the grace to explore a small handful of ideas fully, rather than needing to cram in a full library of sounds for the sake of sticking to an 80-minute album limitation. “Gonk Steady One” maintains a nearly head-nodding beat for its full 22-minute runtime, for example, while “e0” rides a gently clanging set of drones and arpeggios for its 15 minutes. While the NTS Sessions aren’t great for short attention spans, the vastness of each session means that one can easily dip in to sample here, then try again there, then – of course – wake up eight hours later with an implant in your head, a metallic taste in your mouth, and an uncanny sense that everything in the universe is connected by an invisible thread of monstrous geometry.
This is how the magic happens, folks:
Thanks to every last one of you for reading.
Eternal hail and farewell to Mark Shelton – heavy metal seems a little less magical in your absence.