This Month's Picks

Z² (CD)

Devin Townsend Project

Z2! The Return of Ziltoid. Townsend’s latest record is actually, in fact, two separate albums. The first, Sky Blue, is a Devin Townsend Project release. It follows the logical progression where Epicloud left off and steps it up with complicated melodies and a melancholic tone. The album is filled with hooks and a heaviness that make it a very accessible record. Accessibility not withstanding, Sky Blue has an experimental quality. Even the song “Sky Blue” is a heavily EDM influenced tune that contains lots of glitches and digitizing that is almost a foreshadowing to the companion disc, the heavily experimental Dark Matters. The return of Ziltoid The Omniscient. For those of you unaware, this is a science fiction story involving all sorts of aliens, plots to destroy, coffee. It’s a thing. Check out the previous work Ziltoid The Omnisicient. This is a continuation or sequel that is mainly for kids. The story trumps all of the music. That isn’t to say the tunes aren’t there. It is a story first and foremost, soundtracked by heavy riffage, orchestras, choirs! Wow. Ambitious work, but what else would you expect from Townsend?

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Genre: Rock

At War With Reality (CD)

At The Gates

Melodic death metal pioneers At The Gates have returned with a fury. Nearly twenty years after releasing the bench mark melodeath masterpiece, Slaughter of the Soul, the Swedish group drop this record on unsuspecting fans like they never left. Having reformed twice in the last 10 years the threat of new material was never in the cards. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg assured that the legacy of their final 1995 release would remain intact. And why not? If you are in many ways the founder of an entire subgenre (Gothenburg Sound), and that legacy is defined by your last album, why tarnish that? Because fucking metal, that’s why. But really At War With Reality by no means tarnishes the name of At The Gates. That is really why. Tracks like “Death And The Labyrinth” and “Heroes And Tombs,” are pure Gothenburg Metal that would have fit nicely on any of their earlier recordings. Throughout listening to the record the glaringly obvious realization is many groups have attempted to recreate this sound, but sometimes you just need the original.

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Genre: Rock

Nobody Wants To Be Here & Nobody Wants To Leave (CD)

The Twilight Sad

The Twilight Sad are masters of misery, plying heartbreak directly into their guitars on their stunning fourth album. “There’s a Girl in the Corner” is an epic breakup song, with James Graham’s repeating “she’s not coming back,” his Scottish brogue piercing through sheets of minor key noise. “Last January” is propulsive with a perfect layering of synths, displaying at how well The Twilight Sad have folded their recent new-wave leanings into their core noise-pop sound. The band also continue to show an uncanny ability to repurpose familiar influences like R.E.M., Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine and still come out with something fresh and enjoyable on tracks like “It Was Never the Same,” touching on these influences without being beholden to them, or letting Graham’s voice soar over a Suicide-style drum machine on the title track. The band has often been noted more for its atmospherics than hooks, but “Drown So I Can Watch” is one of their catchiest songs yet, with a relatively light, lilting melody that eases some of the downer mood. And they allow for more space on Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave than on previous albums, ending on a pair of spare, beautiful tracks. It’s the best thing they’ve done since their electrifying debut.

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Genre: Rock

Fumes (CD)

Lily & Madeleine

Teenage folk duo Lily & Madeleine have done a remarkable thing with their second full-length, Fumes. The harmonious team comprised of two sisters hailing from Indiana successfully injected meaning and emotion into folk music. All of this is without the artifice and dependence of tugging on the listener's heartstrings. No small feat when you consider the overtly anthemic and overly passionate landscape of mainstream folk. And when you are 16 (Lily) and 18(Madeleine)! Signed by Sufjan Stevens' label in 2013 Lily & Madeleine’s previous releases had a warm reception yet the focus was on their youth and innocence. With Fumes, which is the first in a trilogy the duo plans on releasing annually, the focus is clearly on the present. The sisters lyrically paint tracks like the opener “Fumes” and presumable single “The Wolf Is Free” with an easy hope and wonder. The feelings are not forced into their composition. Feelings and thoughts are simply expressed by one sister and answered by the other… while singing. The self proclaimed “Blood Harmony” is riveting through the entire record. The lush production, completely informed by the Alto and Soprano intertwining, is never out of place. Intrigued to see what these Midwest gals have in store for the next two installments.

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Genre: Rock

Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell (CD)

Various Artists

Pop music's most fantastic chameleon, Arthur Russell, was able to morph from discotheque debonair, minimalist 20th century avant-garde composer, East Village folkie or floor-stomping, white-man funk god. Despite all the talents he died in relative obscurity, except among the New York heads, due to complications from AIDS. But like the case with so many great artists, it's in death that outsiders discover their treasures like they're forgotten artifacts and they garner the respect they always deserved. Now after so many reissues, books and documentaries, Arthur Russell is remixed, chopped up and redone for the 21st century by an eclectic cast of musicians including Robyn, Sufjan Stevens, Blood Orange, Devendra Banhart, and Scissor Sisters. This is not just another tribute album featuring an odd menagerie of B-sides and by-the-number tunes, but is instead a complete reexamination and reinterpretation of iconic Arthur Russell tracks with layers added to his already dense songs. Hot Chip knead's mutant disco sideshow "Go Bang" into Fela Kuti by way of a Macbook. No release this year has so many tasty and diverse flavors than this.

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Burnt Offering (CD)

The Budos Band

Afro-soul stars the Budos Band are back with a metallic barnburner of a fourth album. The Daptone-signed instrumental band have a way of making their horns sound larger than life, their guitar riffs sound gigantic and beats sound perfectly considered, on songs like the psychedelic title track, that make an absense of a singer an afterthought. On “The Sticks,” the 10-man band craft a kind of funkadelic Led Zeppelin track with gnarly, evil riffs and a bassline that won’t quit that could have existed in virtually any decade over the past half-century—that fact that it’s here now just feels like a gift. True heads know the distance between funk and metal is only skin deep, but Burnt Offering manages to make that incredibly apparent. It’s like locking Black Sabbath in a room with Parliament and ending up with something too out of this world to fathom. Cool beyond believe, Burnt Offering has us hooked. Keep it coming, guys.

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Genre: Soul

Phantom Radio (CD)

Mark Lanegan

On his ninth studio album, Mark Lanegan delivers the gravelly voiced goods, with a few surprises. “Harvest Home” starts the album on a strong note, as Lanegan’s whiskey-soaked voice and tremoloed guitars are joined by some Gary Numanesque synthesizers and a propulsive beat. Lanegan goes mellow with some worldly psych-soul on “Seventh Day,” and he sings gorgeously on the lushly atmospheric “Torn Red Heart,” breaking our hearts with his vulnerable croon and lyrics like “you don't love me, what's to love anyway?” Some of the digital effects on tracks like “The Killing Season” sound a bit dated, like leftover trip-hop backing tracks from the ’90s, but even then, that song is saved by Lanegan’s cool lyrics, full of creepy details that strike the senses, like “the perfume of your blood” and “I feel your hands around my throat.” And while it’s nice to hear Lanegan stretch a bit, when he’s in his familiar wheelhouse of slow-burners, the results are still wonderful — “I Am the Wolf” possesses beautifully bleak acoustic guitar strums and reverbed electric guitars that fall like rain to set the stage for Lanegan's dusky drawl. And “Judgment Time” is a spare, organ-driven spiritual ode “a strung-out angel” so elegant and evocative, it could serve as an elegy to a war film. With terrific variation and strong melodies, Lanegan seems to nail every nuance on Phantom Radio.

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Genre: Rock

Indian Ocean (CD)

Frazey Ford

Using Al Green's former backing band, The Hi Rhythm Section, with melodious, mellow horns and splashes of jazzy, organ sparkle, former folkie Frazey Ford has reinvented herself into the 21st century progenitor of the blue-eyed soul sound of the '70s. Her wispy, almost childlike folk vocals easily could have gotten lost in the Stax-like sound, but the arrangements are soft and delicate. "September Fields" almost makes you think it's going to be a coffee shop acoustic set before suddenly an organ sneak attack pops up from behind. The tragic ballad of "Weather Pattern" is the raw, tear-filled ballad most musicians don't have the spirit to sing without sounding hackneyed or hollow, but Ford nails it so gorgeously and almost effortlessly. Indian Ocean's amalgamation of funk and folk work so harmoniously, you'll be asking why can't more musicians blend things beautifully like this?

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Genre: Folk

Hold It In (CD)

Melvins

Massively influential sludge gods the Melvins get help from a couple of Butthole Surfers on their latest album, Hold It In. Paul Leary and Jeff Pinkus back the band up on bass and guitar, respectively, together with longtime members Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover, but Hold It In’s sound is classic Melvins, full of heavy, drilling guitars and foreboding vocals on great tracks like “Bride of Crankenstein.” While the Melvins’ sonic repertoire hasn’t expanded too much over the years, songs like “Brass Cupcake” lean closer to new-wave, with palm-muted, Cars-esque guitars that explode into manic cries of “they’ve got a lot of mouths to feed!” and a more metallic second half. With Hold It In, the Melvins have given their fans plenty more chunky riffs and piledriving rhythms to feast on. Hold it in and don’t let go!

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Genre: Rock

Bestial Burden (CD)

Pharmakon

To listen to Pharmakon is to stare the beast straight in the mouth. Margaret Chardiet’s latest album starts with heavy breathing, panting and a buzzing synth that sounds more like an electroshock therapy machine. “Intent or Instinct” builds deliberately with an atonal loop gathering strength until she unleashes a nasty banshee wail. Free of too much digitized effect, it sounds truly bloodcurdling. It’s also immensely cathartic. And “Body Betrays Itself” feels like it takes over your very being, her most powerful musical statement to date. Not everything in such harsh surroundings works—“Primitive Struggle” is about as inviting as it sounds, full of coughing, spitting and heaving along to a digital heartbeat. But Chardiet can really surprise you, too. “Autoimmune” actually nudges closer to something resembling pop, like the dirtiest Trent Reznor would ever let himself get. And in the incantation of the title track, Chardiet’s actual, human voice can be heard, albeit echoed out into infinity, and the result is quite affecting, given how she shreds her voice across the rest of the record. So Bestial Burden isn’t for the faint of heart. Dismiss it and you might even get a laugh out of its relentless brutality. But give it your full attention, and it just might change you. So don’t be afraid. Dive in and let Bestial Burden swallow you whole.

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Genre: Rock