Gaerea – Limbo (Season of Mist)
Gaerea is not a band. They are a “Vortex community”, “bestow[ing] their Undying Sigil to the masses”.
For an act that has been around less than 5 years, this black metal quintet from Portugal is certainly making an impact on the global scene. The theatrics create a mystery about the group. Only 3 members of the outfit have been named, the remaining 2 shrouded under a hood bearing the Undying Sigil.
Limbo takes us to Dante’s first circle, the hopeless wasteland where human chattel await their eternal damnation. This imagery is potent throughout the record, starting with the vivid depiction on the cover and continuing seamlessly through the music.
Calling this “black metal” is a bit of a mislead, though. The theatrics and themes aside, the music actually feels more like doom metal, with plenty of sludgy breakdowns, atmospheric bridges, and a sense of guitar melody that you just don’t get with black metal.
Whatever you want to call it, Limbo is relentless. It opens with a powerful overture of a song, “To Ain”, an 11-minute opus that sets the tone, theme, and sound that will occupy your earspace for 52 minutes over 6 tracks. The structure of the album is classical in nature, using movements to walk us through the “new” stages of grief: sadness, denial, anger, madness, and despair. The album closes with “Mare”, a 13-minute monolith that bookends Limbo with that same feeling of being held captive, but with chaos lurking overhead.
I found myself listening with rapt attention. Limbo is an absolute masterpiece and Gaerea has created the perfect soundtrack to 2020. It really feels like we’re in the First Circle, awaiting damnation. I hope they don’t make us wait too long to experience the Second Circle, where we will be blown about in a violent storm without hope of rest.
Bring it on.
FFO: …And Oceans, Enthroned, Carach Angren
Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards – Bitter Better (Compass)
“String-diddly-ing-ding-ding string thing!” – Andrew Bird
Laura Cortese and company are a folk-pop act that seriously pushes the limits of what can be done with a stringed instrument. Primarily, their sound is made up of strings: a cello, a bass, 2 fiddles, and the gorgeous voices of the 4 amazing ladies that play them. For this album, they have experimented a little further with what could be considered folk music, adding layered percussion and electronic elements. While this doesn’t make the music less good, it certainly feels less impressive. From the band’s description, it is clear that the album’s direction was heavily dictated by the producer and engineer, who brought in (and occasionally, played) the additional instruments that are heard. What came out is a phenomenal post-folk listen that pulls influence from all corners of the musical world. The songs are well-crafted, uplifting, and wholly engaging.
Bitter Better opens with 2 tracks, “Treat You Better” and “Corduroy Jacket”, that lean toward straightforward pop, with the dominant instruments being the drums and electronic components. Those songs are followed by a series of songs that greatly emphasize the use of strings, but heavily augmented by effects. My favorite tracks on the album are “Dreaming”, a poignant plea to be released from the confines of reality, and “Talk To Me”, a reminder of how important it is to have friends who listen. The former track has the feel of a John Vanderslice tune, with simple percussion, strong lyrics, and a catchy, repeated hook. The latter is more in line with what I had expected going into this album: it is strings and voices, unharried by excessive overproduction.
This is a great record, but we’re left to imagine how it would have been without the meddling of a zealous production team.
FFO: Clare and the Reasons, The Chapin Sisters, Throwing Muses
Primal Fear – Metal Commando (Nuclear Blast)
As they say, you don’t mess with success. The German power metal outfit has taken that saying to heart throughout their career. That is never more on display than in their most recent recording. Metal Commando is the 13th album since the band formed in 1997, and they unapologetically push forward with straightforward, balls-to-the-wall power metal.
Ralf’s soaring vocals are nearly unmatched in the current scene, belting notes that would make Bruce Dickinson proud. The guitars are crunchy, clear, and pristine. The music is loud, fast, and belligerent…everything you want from this style of metal.
That isn’t to say that the album is without dynamics. Within the first 4 tracks, we are given an anthemic banger (“I Am Alive”), a sweaty, danceable groove (“Along Came The Devil”), and practically a love ballad (“Hear Me Calling”). The best part is that the tempo and vibe change from song to song, never complacent, constantly mixing it up. This keeps the whole record fresh.
The only song that seems a little out of place is the acoustic croon, “I Will Be Gone”. If there was one classic trope that the band could have left out, it should have been this song. It’s a decent track, but it doesn’t belong on the record. It harkens back to a time when metal acts needed to show a sensitive side in order to appear sympathetic to a larger audience. Since that is unnecessary in 2020, the song just feels like they’re trying too hard.
If I had to pick a favorite track on Metal Commando, it would be middle-of-the-album riot, “My Name Is Fear”. This song has all of power metal summed up in one song: punishing drums, blistering guitar leads, crushing rhythms, and wailing, super-sonic vocals, not to mention the lyrical content (“I’m your evil/Destroyer of Eden/Show me the way out of here/My name is Fear”).
The only modernization the band has undergone is in the name of production. Despite having all of the qualities of a late ‘80s metal record, Metal Commando would hold up to the production quality of modern radio metal like Avenged Sevenfold, and supersede the quality of garbage-metal like Tremonti.
If you like loud music, this is for you.
FFO: Iron Maiden, Dragonforce
The Danberrys – Shine (The Danberrys)
Equal parts blues, bluegrass, pop, folk, and gospel country, The Danberrys’s third full length album is a true Nashville treasure.
Duo, Dorothy Daniel and Ben DeBerry, don’t have a particularly unique style. It’s reverb-y, bluesy guitars jangling underneath a powerfully soulful southern female voice. Other acts have had a similar method, to varying degrees of success. This married couple is a standout among the herd. Storytelling is the key here. Shine is a series of stories about human nature (“Undertow”), perseverance (“The River Is Wide”, “The Road”), relationships (“Holding The Bag”, “Never Gone”), and finding salvation (“Francis”).
Since the whole record is pretty amazing, it’s hard to choose a standout track. The title track is a lovely testament to the tenacity of people aiming for their full potential, not letting shit get to them. The weakest track is probably “Love Conquers War”, a traditional folk-style song with one of the strangest instrumentations I’ve heard. I can’t pinpoint what it is, but it feels wonky.
The bottom line is the vibe. The Danberrys have that in abundance. You can listen to any track on this album and feel their inspiration and connection to the material. They are singing from experience and a love of the craft. Very few acts can say that with this depth.
FFO: The Civil Wars, Chris Stapleton
Taylor Swift – folklore (Republic Records)
I was notified of the upcoming album just hours before it was released, in the most unlikeliest of places: The National’s Facebook page. A collab between Swift and beloved songwriter and band member for The National, Aaron Dessner! (ok, I’m fangirling.) This seemed like an unlikely pair but I was here for it. First things first. The album title. folklore is Swift’s homage to storytelling. Folklore by definition is the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. It turns out this album is just that. Second, the cover art and artistic style of the title and track listings. Everything printed on this album was done so intentionally in lowercase letters. Neither the album title nor the track titles are capitalized. Hmm. Curious.
With 9/16 songs co-written by Dessner, 4 songs co-written with Jack Antonoff of the indie-rock band Bleachers, and a duet with Bon Iver singer Justin Vernon, let’s just say I had very high expectations. Well Tay-Tay, you did not disappoint. Some critics are calling folklore Swift’s best album since 1989. I’m calling it her best album ever. Yea, I said it. Here are some of my favorite songs on the album and why.
“the 1”: Men. Haven’t you learned by now that if you do Taylor Swift wrong there WILL be a song about you? This song is obviously about an ex, one who never owned up to his true feelings. He coulda been the one, but, “you know the greatest loves of all time are over now.” This song is catchy and upbeat, “I’m doin good I’m on some new shit…been sayin yes instead of no…” but “the one” is probably somewhere kicking himself right about now.
“cardigan”: This track is folklore’s first single, and for good reason.
“the last great american dynasty”: Is this song about millionaire socialite Rebekah West Harkness, the woman who once owned Swift’s Rhode Island mansion ‘Holiday House’, or is it secretly about Swift’s ex best friend/rumored girlfriend (also from St. Louis)? Who cares! The song is fresh, unique, and different from any other song that I can think of. Kind of an odd thing to be singing along and bobbing your head to a song about rich socialites who partied in a house over 70 years ago but hey, it works. And it’s one of the best tracks on the album.
“exile” (feat. Bon Iver): Maybe I am partial to Justin Vernon, but this is my favorite track on the entire album. Who can’t relate to an awful breakup followed by feelings of exile, afraid to run into the other person, painful memories that come up when you do run into them. Relatable. Swift and Vernon sing “I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending. You’re not my homeland anymore, so what am I defending? You were my town, now I’m in exile seeing you out…I think I’ve seen this film before.” This track is raw, painful, beautiful. The arrangement, the vocals, I cannot say enough about it. I also cannot stop listening to it.
“illicit affairs” and “my tears ricochet”: Is it just me or are you DYING to know who some of these songs are about? In illicit affairs Taylor talks about giving herself up completely for someone who is unavailable. This person wants to meet in parking lots and call her “kid” and “baby” but doesn’t want to be honest or own up to their feelings? Uh-uh. Not in Swift’s world. So instead all they got was a song. See above. “Ricochet” is a brutal F-you anthem about how sometimes when you play someone you end up playing yourself. Swift sings “If I’m on fire you’ll be made of ashes too,” and “If I’m dead to you why are you at the wake, cursing my name, wishing I’d stayed, look at how my tears ricochet”. Damn.
“seven”, “mad woman, “this is me trying”, , “mirrorball”, “august”, “invisible string”, “epiphany”, “betty”, “peace”, “hoax”: You know what, they are all my favorites. If you happen to be one of the few people on Earth who haven’t listened to this album yet, do yourself a favor and do so immediately.
FFO: Bon Iver, The National, Bleachers, Sara Bareilles
Mannequin Online – Feel It (Mannequin Online/Nettwerk)
Mannequin Online is an L.A.-based duo, comprised of Zach DeGaetano and Bridget Boltz, who set out to do something different. They wanted to try to combine all of their favorite things to listen to into one cohesive sound. The result is a pop production that incorporates funk, blues, and garage-indie rock.
And it is absolutely brilliant.
The songs are bouncy and groovy, sexy and smooth, and danceable without resorting to club beats. Every song on the EP offers a little something different. The lead single, “I Want It”, is grainy and loud, combining the songcraft of Blondie and the energy of O.K. Go. They follow that with the mellow funk of “Can You Feel It”, with sharp guitars and the tightest bassline you’ve ever heard. “I Do” is a polished R&B anthem, and stands out as the coolest track on Feel It. The common thread for every song here is that they can all be described as off-kilter love songs, and each one is a gem.
With 6 songs coming in at just under 18 minutes, there is no reason that EVERYONE shouldn’t give this a shot. Having just formed within the last year, I expect that they have much more to offer us, and I greatly look forward to what they do next. In an interview with L.A. Weekly, they said they had been working on new material all throughout quarantine, using their isolation as fuel for the creative process. It may be grasping, but I can think of worse silver linings to reach for.
FFO: Kaleo, Justin Timberlake (on his “A” game), Portugal. The Man, Foster The People
Cub Sport – Like Nirvana (Cub Sport Records)
They lied. This was NOTHING like Nirvana.
Australian four-piece outfit Cub Sport carved out a solid sound for their fourth full-length album, Like Nirvana. The pleasant vocals from lead singer Tim Nelson sit nicely on top of the wispy, airy keys and guitar strums – and the album reflects that sort of carefree nature.
Refreshingly, Like Nirvana not one of those releases that’s low-key super-duper sad under the covers. Rather, many of the tracks have a hopeful, happy feel to them – which is a welcome departure sometimes! Most tracks have an overarching message of devotion to a partner and self-improvement to be better for them. “I Feel Like I Am Changin'”, “Be Your Man”, “Be Your Angel”, even the nearly-title track Nirvana covers the subject matter gracefully.
Overall, Like Nirvana keeps the general theme of July alive: a bunch of great releases, a bunch of good releases (such as this one), and nothing too terribly awful. Here’s to hoping that August brings us more of the same, and that Cub Sport brings us more of the same in the future as well.
FFO: Middle Kids, Didirri
The Kid LAROI. – F*CK LOVE (Columbia Records)
The first track on F*CK LOVE (LAROI.’s censorship, not mine – we always roll out the full four letters ’round these parts) is called “BOOTY CALL (skit)”. This kicks off a series of “skits” throughout the album, where a dude (presumably representative of LAROI. himself) is treating his woman like a booty call (which she is not down for), and she later finds evidence that he’s seeing a different girl – one of the woman’s friends. In later skits, LAROI. is replaced by another man, and eventually the woman cuts ties altogether.
That sounds boring as hell, but I assure you that it was the most exciting part of the album.
F*CK LOVE is a tough listen; not because of some heavy subject matter, but because it sounds extremely rough. LAROI.’s vocals come through heavily auto-tuned, and not for the better. Lyrically, F*CK LOVE paints a predictable picture: a young cat who wants to have his cake and eat it too, one that we, the listeners, should root for. He’s gone through things! Things that he caused himself, sure, but that’s not important.
Now, I’m not a monster y’all – I will certainly give credit and passes where due. The Kid LAROI. is truly a kid, turning 17 next month. We’ve seen many cases of young artists maturing and flourishing when given enough time, and that may be the case here. Plus, if you hear some shades of Juice WRLD within these tracks, that’s not an accident: Juice was a mentor to LAROI., and certainly has shaped LAROI.’s musical style. I’m not completely ready to write him off, but he has his work cut out for him if he wants to redeem himself on Album #2.
FFO: Juice WRLD, Drip Report
Howling – Colure (Counter Records)
I admit that I’m no good with putting music into a defined genre. Where exactly should Howling, the collaboration of RY X (Australia) and Frank Wiedemann (Germany), fit in? Is it “electronic”? I think so. Is it “chill”? I mean, it’s quite chill, yes, but I don’t know if it qualifies from a genre perspective. It’s times like these that I’m glad that I don’t really put any stock into that stuff. Good music is good enough for me, and Colure is good music. This wasn’t dance-y music by any stretch; it might get your toes a’tappin’, but it won’t have you out of your seat. Which is fine, because I was happy to stay glued to my chair to enjoy this one.
I dug some tracks immediately (“Pieces”, “Mother Mother”), while some took their time to sink in (“Light On” comes to mind here), but all eventually found their mark. The lyrics seem to be a bit repetitive, but with tracks like this, I feel like lyrics are more secondary to the music itself. Songwriting is definitely not on the menu here – nor should it be.
I’m always excited to find new music that is soothing, relaxing, and entertaining on top of all that – Howling’s Colure checks all the boxes. It appears to be the duo’s first full-length since 2015, and I will be checking out their earlier material for more chill in the very near future.
FFO: Weval, Christian Löffler, Polynation
Lori McKenna – The Balladeer (CN Records)
Lori McKenna is a rare combination of powerhouse talent. Not only is she an amazing songwriter (Grammy nods for songs performed by Miranda Lambert and Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born, and a win for Little Big Town’s Girl Crush), but she’s also had a long and storied career of her own Americana releases (with another Grammy win for a song on her album The Bird and the Rifle). In fact, The Balladeer marks album #11 for her since 2000, and frankly I can’t figure out where she’s found the time. I’m glad she did, though.
The Balladeer shines in a number of ways, but the one that jumped out at me immediately was how varied it was. In a genre such as Americana, I can imagine that it’s tough to really step out too far from that box. Sometimes, you thrive in being really, really good within those confines. Other times, you mix things up enough to keep it fresh, while not straying too far in any one direction. Lori does both deftly here, and the result is a very entertaining album, one that never feels stale or samey, but always sticks with a signature sound.
“The Dream” is a beautiful song about a dreamt meeting between two people, one of which is no longer of this earth. “Good Fight” details a strong love, one that sometimes comes through gritted teeth. “When You’re My Age” is the traditional “you’re gonna grow up one day” ditty. It’s one of the few plain songs on the album, but it’s helped tremendously by a vocal assist from fellow Love Junkies songwriters Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose. Besides that track, and “This Town is a Woman” (featuring Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town), it’s all Lori – and the album is better for not being bogged down with a slew of other artists.
Overall, for fans of the genre, The Balladeer slots in nicely as a solid entry. For those who are not as big on the genre, Lori’s vocals are still quite accessible and lovely on their own merits. It’s textbook in the best possible ways.
FFO: Gillian Welch, Amanda Shires