Right at the turn of the aughts, the nebulous genre known as “chillwave” was all the rage, and Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo was its poster boy. On the excellent Psychic Chasms, he took chintzy beats and funky lo-fi synths to psychedelically chilled out heights, while the underrated follow-up, Era Extrana, looked further into the underbelly of ’80s pop for a nighttime pop album worthy of Donnie Darko. Now years later, Palomo has his work cut out for him as EDM rules the summer fest circuit. Somehow, Vega Intl. Night School manages to remind you of the bets bits of chillwave while successfully moving forward. For those in the know, “Annie” was the banger of the summer, flowing new agey flutes into a digi reggae bounce that sounds like a reconfigured synth-funk memory. The old school hip hop vibe of “Street Level” and synth R&B smear “Smut!” seem to drip acid, coming at you and receding simultaneously. “Slumlord” and “Techno Clique” really let Palomo venture into his classic house fetish, naturally extending the sound he’s cultivated thus far into a rewarding new direction. By far his longest and most complete album, Vega ends on a few lightly tossed off tracks—“C’est La Vie” is an italo disco-inspired splatter of color, “61 Cygni Ave” sounds like two Men at Work and Cameo tapes were left in the sun and melted together, and “News From the Sun” ends things on a straight up Prince homage. Detractors might still find fuel since Palomo primarily mines well-worn ’80s pop influences. However, his ability to render those inspirations as alien forms makes him as relevant as ever, bleeding tracks into one another in a perfectly packaged, post-Internet free-for-all that sets your pleasure sensors on overdrive.
Kisses continue to make smart, chilled-out disco-pop on their third album, stripping back some of the atmospherics of previous releases and upping the grooves. Spareness reveals how lovely Jesse Kivel’s voice and melodies are on a song like “Sun,” as Kivel moves from singing over a solo beat into a falsetto over romantic synth touches. Freestyle and ’80s synth R&B inform tracks like “Control” without them being mere homages. Most of Rest in Paradise sits comfortably as headphone-friendly electro pop, but a track like “A Groove” also gets your blood pumping with its high-hats, rubbery bassline and pure disco strings and guitars. Rest in Paradise is perhaps the L.A. duo’s best and boldest album yet, building on their easy appeal while delivering the disco jammers in spades.
Protomartyr make no-bullshit indie rock. Guitars are as in-tune as when they pick them up. Joe Casey’s vocals are declarative and fierce, eschewing melody in favor of direct emotion, spitting “I will make them feel the way I do” on surging opener “The Devil in His Youth.” This isn’t to say Protomartyr are sloppy. Everything on The Agent Intellect feels finely honed, drawing from bands like Husker Du, R.E.M. and Guided By Voices to distill bile-ridden diatribes into taut, nihilistic post-punk. Protomartyr’s tunneling rhythms and mangled notes aren’t particularly pretty, but The Agent Intellect feels true and cathartic. “Tell me how you really feel” might be one of the most annoying phrases in the English language. Protomartyr answer in kind.
Deafheaven’s fusion of black metal, shoegaze and post-rock continues to grow richer and bolder on their third album. Following the crossover success of their much-celebrated second album, Sunbather, it may have been tempting for the band to trim off their rough edges — namely, the black metal influence that accounts for a large part of their sound — to focus on the more accessible parts. The fact that they didn’t speaks highly of their integrity, sure, but it’s also ensured Deafheaven stays an original. With five extended tracks, New Bermuda feels like one massive, evolving piece, making it easier to point to moments rather than entire songs that speak to you — the way “Luna” folds melodic chords into its double-bass barrage and ends up in a scenic place as lovely as anything on Souvlaki or Agaetis Byrjun; or how “Come Back” clears the way for Kerry McCoy’s chugging power chords and harmonic descending scales and George Clark’s shriek from the depths; or “Baby Blue’s” heroic, Pumpkinsy wah-wahed solos. Any metal fan can extoll the genre’s ability to soothe not in spite of, but because of its brutality and decibel level. There’s something about the music’s capacity to overwhelm and obliterate outside noise, memories, anxiety and trauma that’s rather unparalleled. Deafheaven’s commitment to bringing that sound into an indie-rock setting and vice versa has helped make them the best and most important metal crossover act since Metallica. Whatever your preferred noise is in which to lose yourself, New Bermuda is a crucial meeting point.
This week was a huge one for new releases. Instead of doing my usual handful of album picks, I’m picking out nine that stand out.
Scottish trio Chvrches made electro-pop gems splattered with emotion on their beguiling debut. For album No. 2, they just get craftier, creating songs that sound like the soundtrack to your wildest dreams. “Never Ending Circles” opens the album on a note of big, open-armed camaraderie, the kind of drinking song or team anthem that’s nearly impossible to pull off. That sense of momentum carries through song after song. “Leave a Trace” finds frontwoman Lauren Mayberry’s vocals at their strongest — hers is the kind of voice that makes it impossible to feel lonely or sad when you’re listening to it. “Keep You On My Side” is a hi-NRG-inspired jam that calls to mind the best of Erasure or early Depeche Mode with its fluttering synths, but its hard-hitting beat updates the sound for the EDM generation. Every Open Eye doesn’t quite have a song that lands with the same power as “The Mother We Share” or “Gun,” but The Bones of What You Believe was an album of peaks and valleys, whereas this one is a steadier ride, coasting on the band’s increased confidence. It’s life-embracing pop music of the highest order, something we all need from time to time.
Deconstructionist indie rock band Battles create music that defies expectation. Ian Williams, Dave Konopka and John Stanier interact like triplets, crafting live loops of staccato guitar and synth noise with which Stanier creates mammoth, syncopated live beats, wielding his crash cymbal like Thor’s hammer. Epic opener “The Yabba” stops and starts with chopsocky electronics, swaying guitar swells and a skittering groove, building to an intense climax of all cylinders firing. On “Dot Net,” stuttering Konopka and Williams’ loops seem to communicate with one another like two robots speaking in binary, over which Stanier lays an expressive beat as counterpoint. The muscular groove of “FF Bada” ends up building to an anxious synth melody for one of the album’s most intense moments, while “Summer Simmer” recalls brainy analog electronic groups like The Art of Noise, if they were reborn as trance-inducing drill sergeants. You won’t miss former vocalist Tyondai Braxton on this release, as Battles instead focus all of their energies on their chemistry as a trio, with results that are rarely short of breathtaking. For fans of this kind of innovative, body-awakening music, La Di Da Di is truly an awesome experience.