September 30, 2020

Sunn O)))'s twin album releases, Life Metal and Pyroclasts (2019), are a fantastic entry point into drone metal - Album reviews

Two releases that have escaped me over the past year were from drone metal gods, Sunn O))) (pronounced just Sun, and aptly named after the popular Sunn amplifiers which ceased operation in 2002), with their half-improvised, half-composed twin albums, Life Metal, and Pyroclasts. For any newcomers to this genre of mammoth sounds and drastically slowed reverberations, these two (relatively) new releases cement this duo's legacy as drone metal pioneers and an awesome entry point for anyone interested in pulling back the veil of the eternal void.

Life Metal 

Sunn O))) Life Metal Album Artwork

Recorded alongside Pyroclasts and released six months earlier, Life Metal is a play on words and an inside joke between band members and collaborators, since they refer to life metal as the opposite of the genre term, death metal, and therefore anything that isn't "doom and gloom". For context, Sunn O))) duo Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley have found themselves in a good place at this time in their lives over their 20+ year career, with one recently becoming a father. Thus, Life Metal is the sum of this personal contentment and Anderson's creative challenge to compose a drone album that is less dark in tone.

Consisting of only four tracks each, Sunn O)))'s wall of sound is devastating in its tonal envelope and metal riffs. By trading off between drone and riff-maker, Anderson and O'Malley, with the help of some frequent collaborates and the recording assistance of legendary producer Steve Albini, created two masterworks, and the first Sunn O))) albums that are recorded and mixed entirely in analog equipment. This ultimately recreates the exact tonal experience of seeing the group in a live performance setting.

Starting off with Between Sleipnir's Breaths, which is a Norse mythology reference to the eight-legged horse that the god Odin rides on, it is bookended by samples of Sleipnir whinnying and galloping through the cosmos. What's also noticeable as the album begins is Sunn O)))'s distinctly powerful and nimble riffage, which comes across swifter and less glacial in its pace when compared to previous releases. Between... is assisted by the otherworldly and ancient vocals of Icelandic singer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who also happens to be a classically trained cellist who contributes to this record. It is the only singing on the album. When the blustering eeriness subsides, Troubled Air takes over and is highlighted by Australian composer Anthony Pateras's pipe organ. Aurora is a meditation in feedback that pushes listeners to the edge of eternity before letting off the pressure and beginning again. Finally, Novæ, the longest song by far, clocking in at a behemoth quarter-hour, is the piece that briskly moves through heavy sustained riffs before descending into its guttural and subdued midsection. It's primal and deep in its chasms of meditation, but it inevitably builds into a walloping windstorm of power, climaxing, and piercing in its final 3 minutes of droning metal. 


Sunn O))) Pyroclasts Album Artwork

By definition, Pyroclasts refers to the catapulted pyroclastic volcanic rocks during a volcanic eruption. It is curious that Sunn O))) decided to name these four improvisational tracks after something so explosive. While their sound remains rock steady, its sustained tones generate almost like a falling avalanche or erupting volcano. Frost (C) is the first cut that was produced by the band, and these four 11 minute tracks were improvised drone jams, more or less, at the beginning or end of the day while recording for Life Metal. Frost (C) can only be described as unforgiving, as its drone, feedback, and dark and heavy riffs, feel exactly like a hurricane blizzard. The second track, Kingdoms (G), starts off a bit quieter (if you can even call it that), and it continues the tradition in an aurally satisfying way. It crescendos by the halfway mark and gestates and vibrates there for a while before distorting itself the rest of the way to the end. Ampliphædies (E), which sounds like the ancient god of amplifiers, quivers, and strums, with energy that always feels like it tops the previous entry. Just how can a rock group keep sounding louder? However improbable it may seem, Sunn O))) does just that. The riffs and almost angelic-like chorus playing out in the corners of the chaos of tonal assault, create an atmosphere unlike any other. Last is Ascension (A), and it turns on as if right at that exact moment, the band just picks up and goes for it. It's a purely transportive drone that wraps up the 44-minute release. 

Sunn O))) have defined a genre, and haven't let up after all these years. What they have composed in these two sprawling releases is a catharsis of heady and meditative metal drones and riffs that can be played at any volume, but will always produce in listeners the same effect of a massive, yet ethereal calm. For those who are ready and willing to experience drone metal, Life Metal is the definitive entry point into this genre. 

Life Metal - 8.25/10

Pyroclasts - 8/10

Recommended Tracks: Between Sleipnir's Breaths, Troubled Air, Frost (C)

September 27, 2020

Sufjan Stevens releases his 8th mainline studio album, the lush, electronic, and heartfelt The Ascension - Album Review

As an accomplished and fan-favorite indie musician marching to the beat of his own drum, Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yahn) Stevens has mastered nearly every corner of electronic and indie rock productions, often recording either bare-bones recordings that put his breathy vocals and a single instrument in the forefront, or creating a lush atmosphere of electronic orchestrations. The Ascension takes all of this growth over the past 20 years of his career and places it affirmatively into a seminal album full of love and hope. 

Starting with a catchy syncopated rhythm reminiscent of a Radiohead or Thom Yorke beat, angelic vocals sweep into the mix, showcasing Sufjan's God-given vocal cords. Full of spiritual and religious imagery, Sufjan's music is often steeped in love, an almost religious experience is aurally produced in much of his music of previous releases, and Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse fits this mold gorgeously. Run Away With Me is a call to a lover to make a new life together, which is complemented by a soft piano and a cathedral-like reverb echoing through the track. Die Happy has an eerie, dreamy build as Sufjan's existential request is repeated like a mantra, and it plateaus at half of its runtime into a fantastical amalgym of electro dream pop. Ativan gives off more Yorke electronic sensibilities in its beat as Sufjan asks what life is worth, questioning the meaning of the divine plan. 

The following tracks also permeate this same spiritual ethos. Ursa Major, for example, stands out as Sufjan's most distinct track of the album for its rare fusion of eastern music influence in its electronic beat, while Sufjan builds to the falsetto chorus "I wanna love you!" It's an injection of bliss in the middle of the album and is closely followed by the sonically pleasing Landslide, which asks listeners to "take a walk in the circle of life". What becomes clear through the listening of this album is that Sufjan has developed an electronic sound all his own, and instead of the typical mainstream electronic, hip-hop, or pop tracks that rely on autotuned technology to give credence to other artists, Sufjan's ability to instill his own heart and soul (with a real talent for singing) makes his music all the more precious, genuine, and sincere. 

One of The Ascension's singles, Sugar, appears within the final trio of tracks, and its playthrough is certainly a journey, much like the final song America, and both contain memorable buildups and ambient landings that are soft and excellent palate cleansers for an album full of various electronic orchestration and experimentation. The most memorable message of The Ascension is Sufjan's final parting words in America, "don't do to me what you did to America" as Sufjan's call and concern for our country's troubles and tensions "dove flew to me like a vision of paranoia" and "don't look at me like I'm acting hysterical" reverberate with a hefty weight that should motivate anyone listening to take their individual action to try and help to fix the country. It's a timely and resounding message that is appropriate for the present day. 

The Ascension propels Sufjan and any willing listener to heights of grandeur. The only real criticism of this album is that it does seem like too much of a good thing (if that's even possible). If Sufjan were to nominate a single track for the cutting room floor or even cut a little bit of the slow rise and fall from a couple of songs, then this album's runtime would ultimately be served for the better. Still, this is hardly a problem, since too much of a good thing is exactly what this world is in dire need of at the present moment. 

The Ascension - 8.5/10

Recommended Tracks: Ursa Major, Landslide, America

September 23, 2020

The Flaming Lips latest LP expertly crafts sonic psychedelia, detailing pastime youth, family, drugs, and death, but in the present year, does anybody care? American Head Album Review

For a band as determined to explore all of the inner space that can possibly be explored, The Flaming Lips have done it yet again, but for all the sadness they seem to drudge up from either the past or their own lingering thoughts, there doesn't seem to be much new ground to be made. 

After their fantastical triumph Oczy Mlody and then their wacky but stale King's Mouth, The Flaming Lips want fans to know that even though the world has drastically changed for better or worse, they have not by even the slightest bit. 

The album opens with Will You Return / When You Come Down, a classic sing-songy and wind chimey song for Wayne to introduce us to the feeling of alienation, drug addiction, and death. It's a sobering reminder that life isn't all it's cracked up to be, despite the escape we all try to seek. "Here it's sad, now all your friends are dead." Oof... seems a little too depressing nowadays as the country crosses the 200k death threshold of the worldwide pandemic. And this is only just the first song...

Watching The Lightbugs glow continues the melancholy attitude in a beautifully slow instrumental piece that features vocal hums by Kacey Musgraves. Flowers of Neptune 6 works as a part two as Wayne chimes in, weaving space imagery and past memories that are nostalgic and sad at the same time. The following set of tracks keep the same low pace and hazy psychedelia, but it hardly uplifts or feels hopeful. Mother I've Taken LSD, a situation that would feel like the most unpleasant scenario for almost anyone, is another depressing trip down memory lane. 

The album doesn't start to really pick up or do anything more interesting than this until Brother Eye, a syncopated synth ditty that uses Wayne's full talent as a vocalist as he sings to his older brother, pleading with him not to die. The album art, after all, is Wayne's older brother, who was constantly in and out of the house, racing on his motorcycle. It's a deeply personal track that hits harder than any song before it. You N Me Sellin' Weed, which follows directly after, drops back into the tongue-in-cheek and fantastical pastimes of selling drugs and being in love as an Oklahoma youth. Mother Please Don't Be Sad is a hypothetical situation that Wayne felt after a real-life robbery situation that happened in a store he used to work in and it is symphonic, if not brilliant and leads into the rightfully genius psychedelic rock track When We Die When We're High; it wisely leaves Wayne's singing on the sidelines for the majority of its runtime as multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd pulls off a wickedly cool drum beat. 

The final three tracks, Assassins of Youth, God and The Policeman, and My Religion is You redeem an album that has already veered too far into nostalgia territory and fails to address anything that anyone is currently living through today, let alone the 21st century. It is the equivalent of trying to understand a person that can't stop living in the past, and the handful of hit tracks seem to stall the ultimate downturn of American Head from landing on its own head. Psychedelic, yes. Fun... not so much. 

Call me an old man, ignorant, jaded, whathaveyou for not falling in line with the general consensus of reviewers, but what The Lips offer here is another release of more of the same, highly refined, and interesting sounds, full of self-indulgent life memories reminiscent of drugs and death. Unfortunately though, in the present year, it’s hard to care with so many huge problems society is facing as a species. The result is probably the most polished, but irrelevant, Lips record of their career.

American Head - 7/10

Recommended Tracks: Will You Return / When You Come Down, Brother Eye, When We Die When We're High