This was partially inspired by Jim Sterling’s Shittiest Games Awards, which is an annual event I enjoy. These reviews are of course to be taken with a grain of salt, since these are all bands that have impressed me at some point. But these albums may not be the best examples of that.
If you like these bands, you probably won’t like this blog post! You have been warned. 🙂
5. Neurosis – Fires Within Fires
I’ve tried to find something positive to say about this album. So far, all I’ve got is “at least Neurosis haven’t changed much”. Because they definitely haven’t strayed from their formula for sludge metal: simple riffs, slow beats and raw screams.
However, these tracks really lack the energy of their early albums. The slow, quiet parts detract more than they add. The singer’s gravelly, aged voice, along with the slow tempo of their songs, leads to the band sounding physically tired at times. The short album length doesn’t help either (just under 41 minutes).
Their attempt at a slow burning, post-rock buildup on the closer “Reach” is particularly weak.
The mix is a major part of the problem – there simply isn’t enough bass. The mix isn’t viscerally heavy enough to hit you the way metal should. Meanwhile, the screamed vocals are mixed too loud and can get pretty annoying. And that’s unfortunate, because there are some decent moments here between the quiet parts.
If you want to hear Neurosis in their prime, I’d recommend their album Through Silver in Blood. Or Souls at Zero. Or any of their albums from the 90s, really.
4. Frost* – Falling Satellites
This is the first Frost* album in 8 years, and it’s sad how underwhelmed I am at their new music. Frost* exist in this weird place between pop music and progressive rock, with elements of the former often limiting their emotional impact.
Not to say it hasn’t worked for them in the past. “No Me No You”, from their debut album, is one of my favorite progressive rock songs and remains intoxicatingly catchy to me.
They’ve definitely been influenced by Tesseract in both musical style and visual art. I feel like a great opportunity to add to the djent metal genre is being missed here.
Only a few songs stand out, like “Towerblock”, which has a great fusion of Venetian Snares-style electronica and prog rock in the middle. And while their vocals are often their weakest element, it sort of works at the climax. But for the most part, these songs are tragically unmemorable.
The keyboards give each song the same texture. For every Towerblock, there’s a filler track like First Day or Hypoventilate, or a terrible piano ballad like Last Day or Lantern.
I think the instrumental parts of this album are generally much more bearable than the vocal parts. The biggest saving grace is the abundance of virtuoistic guitar solos scattered through almost every song.
3. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon
What the fuck happened to Mark Kozelek?
Mark Kozelek seems to have abandoned his excellent songwriting skills in favor of incoherent rambling over simple guitar arpeggios. It’s been … quite strange to watch. This trend started with his solo album Among the Leaves in 2012, but he took the style a step further with Benji in 2014 and shows no sign of stopping.
These songs are amazingly bad at times. The Shaggs come to mind, thanks to Kozelek’s utter disregard for rhythm in his vocal delivery. Jesu doesn’t provide much in terms of variety. He brings the same grinding layer of guitar distortion to almost every song. The tracks that use electronic beats just don’t work at all.
Aside from “Fragile”, which is sparse enough to belong on a Kozelek solo album, the first seven of these ten tracks are aimless and unbearable.
But the truly weird part is a few times, this unconventional songwriting works. And when it does, it sounds pretty brilliant. The monologue in “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek and John Dillinger” has an unusual magnetism, and the recitation of a fan’s letter at the end is extremely moving.
It feels like a retrospective look at Kozelek’s entire life work – his personal attempt to narrate a new chapter in his own life story as a songwriter. At best, that’s what these songs are capable of. They view songwriting from above rather than within, in a self-aware, self-referential, “meta” way that only a seasoned musician can pull off.
A strangely appealing diamond in the dirt.
Jesu reigns in the noise in this song and the closer “Beautiful You”, which are the two best tracks on the album. The songwriting approach benefits more from space and ambience rather than noise and static drum beats.
The songs still drift into self-parody at times, particularly when Kozelek tries reciting lines in a fast sing-song voice.
This is definitely a conflicting batch of songs. “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek” is amazing, but many of these tracks are deeply flawed. I think Mark Kozelek either has ADHD, or a serious case of not giving a fuck anymore.
2. Thank You Scientist – Stranger Heads Prevail
Thank You Scientist is best described as a metal band with a Soft Machine obsession. I thought they would grow on me, but my reaction seems to be the opposite. A lot of bands successfully incorporate jazz elements into metal, and I’ve struggled to put my finger on where they’ve failed.
They have a great vocalist. They have a great guitar riffs, and blistering solos. Heavy drums with double bass. They even have a few great violin solos, reminiscent of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then they have weird horn sections that throw everything off. It’s a weird collision of genres that sometimes works but mostly doesn’t.
The singing and song structures seem very modern, while the horns sound like they’re playing in the 1950s. One moment a song feels very jazzy from the horns, then a guitar solo throws the vibe into a complete 180. Then the guitar solo ends and the horns come back in. The band isn’t really blending genres so much as jumping between two styles separated by 60 years. It’s absolutely disorienting.
Plenty of other bands make this combination work. But the horns remind me too much of Mr. Bungle and not enough of The Mars Volta. Or King Crimson. Or Pink Floyd. Or any other band that successfully manages to incorporate horns. Here, they undermine otherwise good moments.
It might work if they were confined to sections of the song, but the horns are fucking omnipresent.
The worst part about this album is there are some legitimately good hooks in between the awkward fusion of jazz and metal. Mr. Invisible is a very good song, horns and length aside. The guitar solos are amazing, but everything before and after kills the mood.
1. Kayo Dot – Plastic House on Base of Sky
Toby Driver used to write decent songs – back when he was in maudlin of the Well. But you wouldn’t believe that listening to his latest music. Kayo Dot’s last decent album was probably Coyote (2010). Or Gamma Knife (2012) if I’m forgiving to its terribly lo-fi recording quality.
Plastic House on Base of Sky marks the third straight cataclysm in their catalog, starting with the awkward concept double album Hubardo in 2013. There is nothing redeemable here. If anything, at least this album is only 38 minutes of weak “avant-garde” noodling, compared to Hubardo‘s torturous 98 minutes.
This album incorporates a lot of synthesizers, as it unsuccessfully tries to fill in the void left by their former violinist Mia Matsumiya. It sounds like if Joy Division stole Tangerine Dream’s music equipment. Toby has a nice bass guitar tone, but he never plays any memorable lines with it.
The opening track “Amalia’s Theme” is bearable – it reminds me of their song “Stained Glass”. But it suffers from poor recording and an ambiguous song structure, like everything else here.
The vibe is far removed from where they started in 2003. The only feature consistent with their early work is Toby’s wailing. Even their signature tempo changes and unstable rhythms are mostly gone now. I would dare say these songs are fairly conventional, despite trying to sound weird.
A truly ironic title.
Kayo Dot are trash now. It’s especially disappointing to see when I’m so fond of their first two albums. Kayo Dot and maudlin of the Well used to capture a kind of sacred energy I’ve never heard in other people’s music (Toby Driver once claimed to write his music in lucid dreams).
It baffles me as to why they’d turn away from the experimental post-rock of their early albums for this off-putting flavor of techno-goth rock. It reminds me of when The Mars Volta released several bad albums before accepting they had lost their touch. You know how that ended? They broke up. And moved on to better projects.
Kayo Dot. Not even once.
My next blog will be covering the 5 best albums of the year. That one will have a much more positive tone. Thanks for reading. 🙂