Onto the third and final week of /Countdown/2020 on amodelofcontrol.com, and this week I’m looking at the best albums of the year. As I’m sure I’ve explained before, I treat the “year” as 01-December to 30-November, to allow me a cut-off point, and to allow this to be done and dusted before Christmas so that I can take the usual break from writing for a couple of weeks over the holiday period..
/2018/Promenade Cinema/Living Ghosts
/2015/Dead When I Found Her/All The Way Down
/2014/3 TEETH/3 TEETH
/2013/Front Line Assembly/Echogenetic
/2012/Dead When I Found Her/Rag Doll Blues
/2011/This Morn’ Omina/L’Unification Des Forces Opposantes
/2010/Edge of Dawn/Anything That Gets You Through The Night
/2009/Alice In Chains/Black Gives Way To Blue
/2008/Aesthetic Perfection/A Violent Emotion
/2006/In Strict Confidence/Exile Paradise
/2004/Rotersand/Truth Is Fanatic
Amid the horrors of 2020 – which we’ve all seen and heard enough of – the year in music has continued one trend, and that’s that many albums, but by no means all, are continuing to reduce substantially in length, with a few in this list well below half-an-hour in length these days. The traditional, if you will, views on genre seem to be becoming less and less important, too, as artists happily pick and choose elements that they like, and jettisoning others. My own listening, as I noted last week, has perhaps diverged away from industrial music more than ever, with just two album in the top ten that might be considered industrial.
A few intriguing statistics. Firstly, no less than forty of the fifty albums here are available on Bandcamp (and for the first time, every single album is on Spotify), and there are artists from ten countries: Australia, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Kenya, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America – which means that for the first time in a while, there are no artists from Canada that feature. Women are not greatly represented, though (13 out of 156 band members). As I noted last year, I do not aim for any bias in my choices – everything here is on merit – and the stats here once again confirm that much of the music that we listen to in the “alternative” side of things is still biased in favour of men.
While I still try and keep the broad focus of the music covered here to the wider sphere of industrial music, I also listen to other music – this year perhaps more than ever – and thus the spread here is perhaps a bit wider than you might otherwise expect. You know what, though? Try some of this music. Especially the stuff you don’t recognise or don’t know. Go for it – I love hearing new music that someone else has enthused about, trying to understand what’s so awesome about it. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it will take days or weeks to click, and hopefully, something here will do that to you.
Time to cue the music. You can listen along on Spotify or Youtube. Links to the right.
Let’s be clear here – the retro trappings of AC/DC should be an anathema in 2020, perhaps a relic of the past. But somehow, AC/DC have roared back in the wake of the death of Malcolm Young, brought the rest of the band back together after a variety of troubles, and produced their best album in decades, at least since The Razor’s Edge and probably even longer ago than that. They haven’t done so by making any concessions to life in 2020, mind. This is bluesy hard rock, chock full of innuendo and an impish sense of fun, and a realisation that music is – and perhaps especially so in 2020 – an escape. It’s a way to leave the troubles of the world behind, and AC/DC do that by writing anthem after anthem, and even manage one or two more serious, heartfelt songs here that muse on life’s changes as you age that doesn’t feel trite or out of place. The best moments, though, are when AC/DC hit full throttle, and you just know those songs are going to sound fucking great live, when the inevitable tour happens.
Seemingly always pigeonholed as one of music’s great curmudgeons, it seems that Bill Callahan has mellowed with age. Rather than the bitter cynicism of his older material – particularly under the moniker Smog – his songs now feel warmer, more kind-hearted, and frankly even more elegant than ever. His voice, too, is a deeper register now, but one filled with surprising warmth and empathy and lends the songs here a beautiful, soothing gravitas. The most obvious, and striking, change in outlook, though, comes in revisiting an old Smog song, Let’s Move to the Country. While the original sought to avoid commitment and the future by simply not ever saying the words that needed to be said, here Callaghan finally makes it clear he’s ready to settle down at last. This new, brighter outlook surprisingly suits him well.
I guess it was always going to come – the backlash. A rather spiteful set of comments in the press about this unusually progressive band appeared to be suggesting virtue signalling, which seemed odd when IDLES had always seemed to be honest about their backgrounds and views. But then, getting sucked into the music machine and then spat out in time is sadly par for the course in the UK music industry. That said, Ultra Mono, their third album, had high standards to reach after the brilliance of the first two albums – particularly the exceptional Joy As An Act of Resistance., which was #4 in /Countdown/2018/Albums, and Television topped /Countdown/2018/Tracks. It doesn’t reach those standards, that’s clear. But it does see the band trying to move forward, with hip-hop-esque heft added to the rhythm section production (which really does make a difference on monstrous tracks like Grounds), but perhaps the lyrics are the bit that really let this album down. Joe Talbot seems to have (deliberately?) thumbed through a book of clichés for some songs, robbing them of the impact that they should have done. That said, I’d rather IDLES in third gear than many of their peers at any level.
Away from his work in post-metal titans Neurosis, Steve Von Till’s solo work has always highlighted his more reflective side, but No Wilderness Deep Enough takes that even further away from the parent band. This is an album of ambient Americana, really – pitch-dark folk songs that float along drifts of synths and strings, dominated by his rich, world-worn voice. Songs of deep sadness and meditation, and a reminder of just how brilliant a songwriter he is and can be, something that has often come to the fore in Neurosis, but never has he been as emotionally exposed like this. An elegant, brilliant work.
One thing to make clear from the off – the W.A.S.T.E. of 2020 is not the W.A.S.T.E. of ten or so years ago when they had become the last word in extremity in North American industrial noise, in particular, their noisy brutality dividing opinion, increasing take-up of ear protection in clubs and, in this house resulting in an outright ban on playing them when my wife was around (mainly after playing Suburban Crime Scene in a DJ set that left her ears ringing for days). But there is a nastiness still in the sound, it’s just slower-paced and more…ominous. This is pitch-dark industrial, with mid-paced beats, occasional blasts of scorching noise, and passages of dark ambient, too – even the unexpected vocals work well, too. Like Swans, Shane Englefield realised that there was only so far he take his extreme music, so he’s dialled back, found a new route, and it is a perhaps unexpected triumph.
The strangely aggressive, harsh-sounding Pop. 1280 resumed operations from a short hiatus right at the turn of the year, and their stark, analogue-synth-fuelled rock has a kinda kindred spirit in the work of Agent Side Grinder, now I think about it, but unlike the melodic hits of that band, Pop. 1280 instead have made an abrasive feel with their take on the idea. That’s not to say that it isn’t an enjoyable listen – it really is – but I could see that Chris Bug’s barked vocals could be something that some wouldn’t enjoy, and the droning synths and apparently downtuned elements really do make for a sound that makes them stand alone. The industrial clank here is not one of 4/4 beats and huge highs. This is shadowy, dark music that thrives in a distaste for the outside world, and rewards listening back for the detail you might have missed the first time around.
After a few years concentrating on a well-received, powerful return of Cubanate, Phil Barry returned this year to his best-known project of recent years, Be My Enemy. Much as before, there’s a stylistic link back to his time in Cubanate – in that this is also guitar-heavy industrial music – but there is again a distinct feeling that Phil Barry is becoming more comfortable with his own sound and style. Unlike Cubanate, songs are often long, stretching out instrumental, rhythmic passages to impressive effect, and also there’s still a snarling political edge to many of his lyrics. But he’s also unafraid of dialling things back, with more mellow elements that would never have been seen in the “other” band, such as the drowsy, laid-back Ray’s Hallucination, that feels more like a trip-hop piece than anything else, but still works brilliantly. A work of some depth that rewards quite a few listens, I can tell you.
/Letters To Gods (and fallen angels)
/Listen or Buy on /Bandcamp
Jean-Marc Lederman has been extraordinarily prolific of late, with three albums this year and six in the last three overall. This sprawling, double-CD release is one of his ensemble pieces of recent times (see also the fascinating 13 Ghost Stories), where he invites a variety of guest vocalists to write and perform lyrics based upon a theme. As he explained in our recent interview (/Talk Show Host/062), the simple premise here was “You can write a letter to a God, or a fallen angel. What do you say?”, and the results are perhaps not as clear cut as you might think. Amid gentle, synthpop-leaning backings that almost deliberately fade into the background to allow the vocalists the limelight, there are deep musings on mortality and more amusing, offbeat thoughts to enjoy, and it is an album that rewards repeated listening to catch the detail and nuance. Lederman’s own long, varied career has allowed him to amass a wealth of experience, and all of that is on show on this impressive, expansive release.
One of the few benefits of Lockdown this year, and the obliteration of entertainment options that I might enjoy (particularly nights at the pub, gigging and to a lesser extent these days, clubbing), has been the explosion in livestreams. I sat on it for a while but quickly realised that it was the perfect way to test the water with a few regular online events, two of which brought back old nights I’d been involved with. One of those was /Stormblast, an extreme metal night that was surprisingly successful in Sheffield a decade back, and this new version has now brought a new, loyal audience. It also got me digging into new extreme metal, too – no night can remain relevant if it isn’t listening to new music, as far as I’m concerned – and one of the finds of the year has been the ripping return of English Black Metal group Reign of Erebus. Sure, they feature two alumni of DJing at /Stormblast, but more importantly, they are advancing the classic Black Metal sound, with clean production and a succession of neck-snapping tempos and riffs. The musicianship is top-notch throughout, there isn’t a bad song here, and for a good idea of where Black Metal is in 2020, this album is a great starting point.
Tony Young’s elegant work as Autoclav1.1 has long been interesting – assisted by his punishing release schedule that suggests he’s never stopped making music in one form or another – but somehow, this year’s release Nothing Outside seemed to strike a chord like few of his releases have in recent years. Perhaps it is the circumstances that I listened to this album initially in, under effective lockdown and with not a lot to look forward to. The piano-led, gentle rhythms turned out to be a soothing, enjoyable listen, that rather than fighting for my attention, gradually earned it upon repeated listens, and the result was a new-found admiration for a style of music that can so easily tip into “elevator music”, but here remains interesting and worthy of my ears from the first second to the last.
The ever-excellent Swedish romantic, gothic doom band Draconian returned with their seventh album this year. It is their second with vocalist Heike Langhans, who has now settled in nicely into the group, her interplay with the harsh vocals of Anders Jacobsson the hallmark of the band’s sound – just Jacobsson on vocals would imbalance it, that’s for sure. Like their peers in this realm of doom, songs take their own sweet time to unfold, but at their best roll and swell into huge, lovelorn melodies (album highlight Sleepwalkers being one such song). Strangely, though, this band have often felt rather overlooked, and on the evidence of this album alone, that’s desperately unfair. If doom is your thing, get on this – I promise you it will be a luxuriant hour you spend listening to this glorious album.
Remarkably Tricky’s fourteenth album (it’s easy to forget that his debut album Maxinquaye is twenty-five years old this year), and his best in a while, perhaps. A new vocal foil in the form of Marta provides the lightness of touch to Tricky’s darkness, but make no mistake, this is a bleak, downbeat album. Tricky’s adult daughter took her own life in 2019, and his grief understandably permeates into this album, full of shuffling beats and almost-whispered vocals, as if all concerned want to be hiding from the light and deal with things in the shadows. But then, there are moments like the curiously upbeat sounding folk weirdness of Running Off, where Danish vocalist Oh Land, which offers much-needed relief to the mood. In fact, too, that latter deviation is proof once again of Tricky’s open-mindedness regarding music, where there are no boundaries, only new realms to explore, and Tricky should be lauded all the more for this. A rare album where I’m left wanting more, far more – this album is only twenty-eight minutes long!
It’s been a long, long time, but Brainclaw’s long-promised Deceptor – it was originally intended to be released in 2012 – finally dropped this year, and you know what? It’s a whole lot better than it perhaps had any right to be with all those delays (as I pointed out in /But Listen/164, this has arrived fourteen years after Dead Monsters). This is, that said, vintage electro-industrial that isn’t really made in this way by many others anymore, which is perhaps why it sounds so striking. The stomping dancefloor-bound tracks have a density and power to them, while even the slower tracks have a quiet heft to them that makes the entire album a really satisfying one. You may well have missed this, it having been self-released – but trust me, dig it out, and it is vastly more than just a historical curio.
ADULT.’s unusual, stark electronic music was given additional impetus and power this time around, so the story goes, by them isolating themselves in northern Michigan in a windowless basement painted black. The effect of this must have been quite something mentally, and the result is an album that feels jittery and nervous, as if there are things they want to say but can’t quite articulate them. The music, too, buzzes with that nervous energy, too, encapsulated best by the off-kilter beats of album standout Why Always Why, where additional beats appear to be inserted at random as if the beat is trying to trip them and the listener up. Of course, they couldn’t have foreseen the isolation that was to come for many of us after they recorded this, and thus, the strange edge this album has actually felt totally normal, and in step with the times, this year. Funny how things work out.
Hardcore/grindcore madness from California that blasts past at hyperspeed – eight songs, barely fifteen minutes, and 20% of that is the last track. There is a torrent of exceptional drumming, chunky riffs, screamed vocals, exactly the kind of hardcore that I love and don’t hear enough of. I couldn’t tell you what the songs are about – on a digital release, I don’t expect lyric sheets, and best of luck in deciphering the grunts and screams otherwise – but with songs like Cries of Pleasure, Heavenly Pain and Self-inflicted Mental Terror, don’t expect upbeat happy-clappy emotions. Instead, you get a distinct impression of a vocalist that might be wanting to tap you on the shoulder to “have a word”, while the rest of the band sharpen their instruments into weapons for maximum impact. It’s short, it’s intense, and if you like this kind of hardcore lunacy, it is fifteen minutes of your time well spent.
Even amid the wilder reaches of extreme metal, Oranssi Pazuzu stands out. Their complex, lengthy compositions have rarely been possible to categorise by any normal methods, and the latest album Mestarin kynsi only reinforces that. Nominally, I guess, there’s a brutal blast of black metal that weaves through their sound, but there’s also a psychedelic, mind-bending proggy force at work here, too. My knowledge of Finnish – a language entirely unfamiliar and almost alien to these native English speaking ears – is non-existent, and the sheer otherness of the language and delivery on this helps to elevate the warped, disturbing power on display here. This is the music of the abyss, a deep, unfathomable realm where the idea of “normal” doesn’t exist, and expected sounds and melodies are twisted into ideas that threaten to pull you through into terrifying places. A fascinating, really fucking weird trip.
Twenty years ago, if you’d told me that the bassist from JJ72 was going to be making experimental, noise-tinged dark folk albums in her future, I’d have laughed you out of the room. But here we are, and remarkably it is a sound that suits her very well. Apparently recorded while she was heavily pregnant, she worked with Norwegian experimental artist Lasse Marhaug to create an album that is full of blurred lines and confusion, with beautiful, delicate vocal pieces consumed whole by drones and field recordings, and savage static noise that bursts from the speakers apparently at random. But at its core, it is an album that strikes me as one of intense loneliness, as Woods’ voice is manipulated to be this clear, central point of the sound, even if her words aren’t always discernable. A dark, disquieting album for these times.
One of the more strikingly-named bands of recent times, this experimental London trio weave between post-metal instrumentalism and jazzy flourishes, and their musical ability is easily shown by the swift changes in dynamics and complex arrangements on display across this album. Such music can often, too, get bogged down in the detail and intricacy – and is one of the reasons why it can often be derided as music that is too clever by half – but it is a credit to the group here that even across six relatively lengthy songs, they keep the momentum going forward nicely, and most critically keep it listenable and enjoyable. The lead track (simply titled Baikal II) is also of note for the choppy, savage climaxes that appear out of nowhere, kicking out of the speakers like an angry mule, while celestial riffs lead the way elsewhere to impressive melodic effect.
The most striking, impressive element of Clipping.’s work is the attention to detail. Their industrial/noise-tinged hip-hop hybrid is one that has a clear interest and knowledge of both sides of the coin, the noisy, static-blasts that permeate this album being used sparingly, to devastating effect. But when your hip-hop is nudging into horrorcore territory, dealing with the terrifying nature and structure of both horror films and the world in 2020, the odd jumpscare is a useful addition to their arsenal. This, as ever with Clipping., is fascinating stuff – a claustrophobic, taut album full of incredible rapping flow (Daveed Diggs has something of a unique, manic delivery), but also one where there is a sense of menace and foreboding. Hip-hop has rarely got darker than this in recent years.
Just one of a couple of artists new to me that I discovered at live shows before lockdown at the beginning of the year, Melt Yourself Down were an unexpected highlight prior to the excellent, small-scale Nadine Shah show in February, and their new album that followed just a month or two later turned out to be an essential purchase. Apparently from a jazz-led scene in South London, their sound is far more than just “jazz” – alt-rock meets funk meets jazz meets hip-hop, and the album fizzes with the energy that the band have live, too. As might be expected from a multi-racial, open-minded band, there are political diatribes galore on the album, taking in Grenfell, privilege, drugs and poverty, but the seriousness of the messages are not allowed to overwhelm the songs – such as the phenomenal single Crocodile, a huge, festival-ready sing-a-long with a mighty earworm of a chorus…and it is about drugs ravaging poorer communities. Don’t let the two saxophonists and the jazz angle put you off – this is the sound of modern, multi-cultural London and is a hugely rewarding listen.
Quite how a band that worships at the altar of Black Sabbath, German komische music and other stoner grooves have become a 6Music fixture and regular live-sellout (pre-COVID, anyway!) I’ve no idea, but clearly, their melodic, accessible take on it must help (and, I suspect the ridiculous name probably helped with recognition, too). Viscerals, which came out early this year, has just reinforced how great that they’ve got at this. The pummelling, groovy menace of Reducer – the band’s best song yet – encapsulates everything that is so great about this band, and over the rest of this album, they explore filthy groove after filthy groove, with riffs so dirty they should be on the top shelf. Excuse me, I’m just off to put this on again.
Easily one of the best industrial-techno albums released in a while, this punishing album from Berghain resident Hayden Payne isn’t, surprisingly, all full-on techno beats. Instead, the heaviness comes from the very fact that he slowed down the rhythms here, and the end result is an album not unlike classic EBM (Front 242 came to mind on more than a few songs). This is a fierce album, apparently interested in the psychology of music and control, and it is absolutely a captivating, fascinating listen, with odd effects just “off-camera”, voice samples buried in the mix, and otherwise an economy of composition that allows the core of the music to shine through. Quite a number of industrial artists should be paying attention here – this is pure, rhythmic dancefloor music, and it is awesome.
It might not be the greatest, biggest album of 2020, and it may not arrive with a northern swagger, but the return of doves was certainly something to celebrate. This band have always preferred to keep their heads down and do what they do, and when their songs are as great as this, who am I to complain? If you loved doves first time around, there’s nothing to dislike here. There are punchy, cloud-lifting anthems, and there are wistful, thoughtful ballads, too – but perhaps the lack of any songs that plumb the depths of despair like most of the still-extraordinary Lost Souls is probably for the best. doves have clearly moved on from that, and their return is broadly one of positivity, of a forty-seven-minute pep-talk that is all of high-quality, and frankly, a better return than I could ever have anticipated.
A. A. Williams has swiftly become a prominent figure in the post-metal/dark-folk world, it seems, and her debut full-length album helps to explain why. A classically-trained musician who puts her current musical direction down to discovering Deftones in her teens, there is an emotional weight to her music that helps to anchor songs of sweeping movements, a mix of thundering guitars and drums, and delicate acoustics and weeping strings. Her voice – drenched in sadness and desperation, it seems – only adds to the mood of darkness, but the instrumental and vocal elements suit each other well, and the power of this album is only enhanced by the choice of guest appearances – members of Cult of Luna and Wild Beasts both appear, also a testament to her stylistic reach and apparent refusal to be pigeonholed.
Apparently, Duma means “darkness” in the Kikuyu language, and this Kenyan duo’s debut album is certainly dark. It’s also an absolutely brutal, bracing listen. They have been described as “industrial grindcore”, but really, that’s selling them short. Sure, there is something of a nod to grindcore in the pummeling beats that appear from time-to-time, but really, this is all-out industrial noise, and one of the most extreme albums to break through to a wider audience in quite some time. That breakthrough is perhaps due to the apparent novelty of a Kenyan act doing this, but more seasoned observers of the wider African alternative scene have noted that this duo is not alone in their endeavours – but either way, this is a striking, vicious album that will absolutely divide opinion due to the extremity of the sound. But for those of us who enjoy this kind of aural assault, perhaps it might help to herald a new wave of noisy, abrasive music to lose ourselves in. I can only hope.
I enjoyed Pittsburgh band Code Orange’s last album Forever rather a lot, but Underneath has the distinct feel of evolution and upgrade to it that makes it all the better. This nominally-hardcore band have taken their existing sound and integrated it with industrial electronics and at points scorching noise that at points takes them miles from their hardcore roots, while in others slamming hard. Many bands have tried similar tactics before with differing levels of success, but here the meshing together of normally disparate styles doesn’t feel forced at all, and most importantly, has resulted in some fantastic songs. Particularly the striking title track, which was released first and caused quite a stir, particularly as much of the track is almost entirely industrial-tinged, and has a mighty, melodic punch of a chorus. As it turned out, it was exactly the right showcase for a band who’ve taken a great leap forward.
There is a feeling of almost joyous catharsis in this excellent, powerful album from this Austin, Texas-based noise-rock trio. While there are nods to Jesus Lizard, in particular, the thick riffage and vocal stylings do see the band swiftly diverge from the (admittedly excellent) hero-worship of The Thorn You Carry In Yr Side with new destinations in mind. Choppy rhythms and impressive, nervous energy permeate much of the rest of the album, and as someone who has been listening to bands in this realm for the best part of thirty years, I’m always happy for more bands to come my way that are unafraid of sounding confrontational and jagged. An excellent discovery this year.
The recent triumphant return of Failure was one thing, but an unexpected return for their fellow Space Rock travellers Hum too? Genuinely this came out of nowhere in the summer, and from the first chord of the glorious swell of Waves, you just know this is going to be absolutely fine. But as the song makes clear as it progresses at a stately pace – through the pounding drums and chunky, heavy riffs, there are also squalls of FX that remind you of their shoegaze roots, and by the time the song stops as unexpectedly as it starts, I couldn’t help but grin at how brilliant it was. This is not an album to dip in and out of, though – across just eight songs, it’s not far short of an hour (!) in length – and I’m sure Hum like it that way. An album of towering riffs, shoegaze squall, and a gorgeous sense of melody to drift along with, this is music to luxuriate in and obsess over, and it’s fucking fantastic to have them back.
NYC-based post-punk band Bootblacks burst onto my radar thanks to a number of great singles in advance of this album, and then also an entertaining interview with the band for Stay-in-Fest (/Talk Show Host/068). Happily, the album, short as it is, didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Produced by Jason Corbett of labelmates ACTORS, there is a superficially similar feel to the sound – heavily-synth-assisted post-punk, but Bootblacks perhaps lean more on propulsive, hard-edged rhythms, and also lush ballads. The album is broadly a split between the two styles, but it is paced in such a way that it never drags or loses your attention at all. Thirty-two minutes and nine songs of excellent post-punk, the only feeling I get after it finishes playing is that I want more.
The brutal power of Uniform’s grimy industrial-tinged noise-rock has long been one I’ve savoured, but the band have outdone themselves this time around. Apparently themed around the Sisyphean struggle of an antihero doomed to failure, the album rages and snarls from start to finish, with the opening roar of Delco a chastening experience that does anything but ease you into what will be, for some, a difficult listen. There are thundering drums, metal guitar riffs (that mid-song switch into galloping thrash on The Shadow of God’s Hand is something else), shrieking blasts of noise, and amid the aural carnage, Michael Berdan’s gritted teeth vocals that convey all of his fury, despair and utter disgust in every single word. Not all music is meant to be easy listening, and at the other end of that spectrum, Uniform are at the top of their game right now.
After the first decade of this act’s existence, where Tom Shear put out albums like clockwork, the second decade of A23 releases has seen a slowdown somewhat, and this album – the ninth A23 album – comes four years after Endure. Rather reflecting the times it was written in, this is an album where Tom Shear is in an unusually combative mood. Sure, he’s long been a beacon of light in the fight for recognising the challenges of mental health on men in particular – and his extraordinary honesty in song has resulted in some heartstopping moments in the past – but here he has extended his reach somewhat, taking in the US in the Trump-era. His anger and desperation at what he sees have fuelled his creative energy, that’s for sure – this is the best A23 album in years and years, with a good mix of dancefloor-ready bangers and more reflective ballads, particularly Factory (a snarling rebuke of what poor mental health provision and societal expectations have wreaked on men in the US and elsewhere) and the stately, furious Could’ve, where he despairs at the polarisation of opinions that means no-one is listening. A necessary, brilliant return.
Promenade Cinema felt like they were making a definite statement of moving on with this album. Living Ghosts was such a joy, a lightning-in-a-bottle moment, that in some respects, they had to find ways to do something different. As it turned out, they did, and there was a darker feel. The theme for this album appeared to be one of memories, of fading glamour and when things were more positive. There are some glorious, sweeping ballads and less dancefloor-bound songs, although Emma bares her teeth in some style on the pounding thrills of She’s An Art, railing against the continuing sexualisation and commodification of women’s bodies. This was perhaps the right call for the duo – their unusual take on synthpop retains the grandeur of before, but in a more reflective form, and it certainly shows that the creative well is far from empty.
Much has been made of Deftones returning to their metal sounds on this keenly-awaited album, but I think the reality was rather more nuanced than that. Coming the same year as the twentieth anniversary of their much-loved White Pony is perhaps instructive, as this album makes similar use of metal influences and dreamy, gothic shoegaze sounds to fantastic effect, and it is certainly their best and most satisfying album in a while. As always, Chino Moreno’s lyrics are inscrutable, with odd metaphors and strange, fantastical concepts and scenes detailed, but more than anything they are about setting a mood, and he certainly does that. Not that they have much competition these days, but Deftones remain, even after over a quarter-century, unique survivors that found ways to create a signature sound that remains fascinating and joyously listenable.
Obaro Ejimiwe’s work as Ghostpoet, like the sound of his music, has seemed content to remain in the shadows. This latest album continues the progression of previous work, towards an amalgam of post-punk textures and jazzy trip-hop that genuinely makes his songs stand out as sounding like pretty much no-one else. It is helped by his lugubrious, baritone, quasi-spoken word delivery, that shrouds every song in fascinating mystery. Like so many albums released this year, too – those recorded prior to COVID-19, too – it is clear that there was already a sense of foreboding of what was to come as if the future was already bleak and dark enough. But while it looks outward, at the concerns of those ensnared by the far right, this – as Ghostpoet’s last, exceptional album Dark Days + Canapés was too – is an album about fighting with the self, overcoming the black shroud of negativity and depression in a difficult world where positives are difficult to identify. As a result, there’s something calming and soothing about this, hearing someone putting thoughts I have shared in recent times to such elegant music.
Thundering, grinding industrial metal is always welcome in the musical world that /amodelofcontrol.com inhabits, and this is the latest addition to an extensive collection of this kind of music. The brutal, brief opener Divination Equipment was the promotional lead track, and in just two minutes, it grinds through your skull like a Terminator-helmed bulldozer, all Godflesh rhythm and a hyper-dense mix. But it isn’t all Godflesh worship – the pulverising, dancefloor thump of Anubis will crack heads in future-looking clubs someday, and the even briefer Punishment Map takes me back to old-school Pitchshifter. At just twenty-five minutes in length, this album barely qualifies as an album, but frankly, it leaves me salivating for more. I have heard the industrial metal future, and lo, it is Black Magnet. More for 2021, right, folks?
It’s tempting to wonder what extreme metal in the UK would look like without Napalm Death. Their various members over the years have been involved with countless other projects, and their work has also inspired many more to pick up instruments and play loud – and not always as fast as possible, either. So nearly four decades since they first formed, and on their sixteenth album, it is refreshing to hear a revitalised, savage band still evolving their sound and still experimenting. Sure, the core of this album is vicious, sharp-edged – and really fucking heavy – grindcore, and if that’s what you’re here for, it will not disappoint in the slightest. But where they deviate a bit from that path is just as interesting, and two songs for that are of particular note. Amoral sounds for all the world like a heavier Killing Joke and is a fantastic tip of the hat to a band who ND clearly respect, while the closing, haunting A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen is a no-wave/dark-ambient piece that obtusely (and more obviously in the fantastic video) refers to the selfishness of those who want refugees to drown in the sea rather than being rescued, and is the clearest reminder here of Napalm Death’s strong, clear political leanings, and their continuing strive for a positive future, even with music this aggressive and heavy.
The broadening of horizons within Black Metal in recent years has resulted in some intriguing experiments and new sounds, but few have perhaps been quite as striking, or indeed as successful, as NYC band Imperial Triumphant. Probably best described as an avant garde band, they bring together jazz technicality and sounds with scorching Black Metal, and an Art Deco aesthetic. If it sounds alien and weird, that’s because, well, it is. Early single City Swine is a perfect case in point – flicking between grinding Black Metal and forbidding vocals, and a loose-limbed, jazz workout, the fusion of the two disparate styles feels utterly effortless (not to mention the late-song Taiko drum breakdown with Tomas Haake of Meshuggah!), and you can only applaud the gutsy decisions that created this album. It is uniformly brilliant, smart and forward-looking, and sounds like absolutely nothing else in the past decade.
As I’ve noted more than a few times before, the various stylistic shifts and evolutions of Paradise Lost’s sound over the past three decades haven’t always been universally accepted, and, frankly, by the time of Medusa I was beginning to feel that their move back toward their doomy, abrasive roots was little more than a regression. So colour me surprised with Obsidian, as the band unexpectedly embraced fully the melodic, gothic power of albums like Draconian Times again, a change that makes this easily the band’s best album of the twenty-first century. Nick Holmes uses the full range of his vocals, the rest of the band are on top form too, but crucially this is an album stacked with excellent songs. Lead single Fall From Grace has an exquisitely sad melody at the heart of the chorus, Forsaken is the latest in the long line of glorious songs on the subject of betrayal and failure from the band, while Ghosts is a surprising highlight, a nod back to the West Yorkshire Goth dancefloors of their youth and a wondrously effective take on the genre at that. Bands into their fourth decade aren’t usually meant to still be this good, but Paradise Lost has always enjoyed confounding expectations.
Black Metal experimentalists that have long since left Black Metal behind and their most recent album is an exquisite melodic synthpop album. No, really. Dark in tone – dealing as it does with the failures of people and society in the modern age – but it somehow offsets that bleak feeling with glorious melodic touches, sweeping choruses and unexpected vocal harmonies. Everything about this album works brilliantly when frankly I might have expected it to be…contrived. Maybe a darker imagination and way of thinking really does help when turning your hand to another style of music, but by this point, it seems that everything Ulver touches turns to gold – there are eight songs here, and this is so good that I wish there were eighty.
While Fascination (see last week) was my instant hook into this artist, the album it comes from is just as worthy of your time. Glorious, house-influenced synthpop is the way, but with a subtlely and touch that means the hooks take their sweet time to wind you in, but it is so worth the effort. John Kunkel’s vocals switch between a higher register, and a lower tone that offers a great gravitas when required, such as on the sublime, deeply sad ballad Modus. The New Division are a reminder that synthpop – and its related realms of electronic music – were never just about euphoria and dancing until the next morning. This is a band who understand deeply the power – and threat – of introspection, of isolation, and of sadness. An elegant, brilliantly crafted album that should be essential listening for anyone with an interest in current movements in the genre.
Not the first band in this list that I was new to in 2020, someway into their career, but that doesn’t take away from the brilliance of this album. Slick, anthemic gothic rock, with Alex Svenson’s rich baritone vocals adding drama to snappy compositions that never overstay their welcome – and indeed the album is sequenced gloriously, with breathless banger after breathless banger well into side two (and indeed a sign of the strength of the album). Sure, some might say they overuse a late-song key change (you get it first in pounding opener We Lose The Night), but when you have a winning formula, there’s no shame in sticking to it. Synths swirl around rhythms like they are shrouding the band in clouds of dry ice, and yep, they know their goth references, but most importantly, they also know their way with catchy songs, and the result is one of the most enjoyable, listenable albums of 2020.
Loathe were a new band to me when I first heard this album as the winter ended, and to begin with, the shadow of Deftones seemed to loom rather large in their sound. But I was intrigued enough to go back again (and again), and after a few more listens, I was utterly hooked. This relatively young Liverpool band deserve far more credit than I initially gave them – this is a confident band who are musically curious enough to expand their horizons considerably. This album has its roots, perhaps, in metalcore and Djent (just check tracks like the excellent New Faces In The Dark, which chugs like a motherfucker), but refuses to be tied down, roaming into ambient, shoegaze and melodic rock as required – not to mention allowing songs to bleed into each other, not allowing a second of silence – and the result is an immensely satisfying album that, like Deftones, perhaps, is so good because of the stylistic shifts that happen mid-song, never mind mid-album. The new generation of bands coming through clearly couldn’t give a fuck about old-school genre definitions, and you know what? That’s absolutely great, as I might hear more albums as brilliant as this in future as a result.
Their first studio album – the spectacular, WWI-themed Lament doesn’t apparently count as one, being as it is a recording of a specific site-piece – in twelve years or so turned out to be a triumph, but an intriguingly understated one. Well, once you got past the loose-limbed, funk-edged Ten Grand Goldie (as far as I understand it, composed of fragments and phrases from Supporters who helped fund the new album) that is a joyous, cacophonous return and in true Neubauten style, credits “molecular sounds” (and the specific compounds!) as part of it. That playfulness swiftly dissipates, though, as much of the rest of the album is mellow, elegant stuff, but no less glorious. As the band reach their fortieth anniversary this year – and robbed of the much-anticipated chance to celebrate it with another round of their legendary live shows, so far postponed well into 2021 – they are clearly in reflective mode, but not of themselves, as this album seems to be assessing the changes wrought, and memories of, their home city of Berlin.
Songs reference childhood homes, districts of Berlin, the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, gender politics and identity, and in the case of Ten Grand Goldie, the international, multi-lingual fragments Blixa received reflect the multi-ethnic make-up of Berlin. As well, the city of Berlin becomes a metaphor for Neubauten. A city that has changed enormously, like the band. A city that has found ways to fund itself and move forward hesitantly, like the band. Reinvention for both has been necessary, and the Neubauten of legend – of scrap metal and found objects, an extreme, violent nihilism – has mostly been cast away, as a refined, intricate sound has taken its place. The result is an exquisite album full of detail and beauty, and with much to say if you can spend the time reading between the lines.
One of the joys of Nadine Shah’s music has always been her direct turn of phrase, which has resulted in no end of cutting one-liners and smart set-pieces in her songs, and here, she uses those to temper the navel-gazing that could have happened based on the subject matter. Rather than the furious look at the wider world she saw that made up the brilliant Holiday Destination, here she is looking closer to home, assessing her life as an unmarried woman in her thirties who doesn’t have children, and how that changes expectations of her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is defiance amid the wit, and a host of great songs that really do pack a punch (such as the glorious put-downs of Club Cougar and Buckfast, and the sneering, xenophobic neighbours of Kitchen Sink). Shah has now created her own style, those ghosts of her influences broadly banished into the distance, and these tales of surviving in England are great songs and also warning signs – some of us want to move on and not adhere to outdated societal norms. It’s time the rest of the country caught up with Shah’s outlook.
In a year so critical to politics and social issues – particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the US – it probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise that Killer Mike and El-P roared back with their most vital, astute and plain damned enjoyable album yet. Short and snappy – just thirty-nine minutes – they managed to shoehorn in a commentary on race, politics, media and poverty, as well as imagining themselves as stars of some fictitious show The Yankee and the Brave (networks, someone get this signed up, stat) and pulling in various guests and friendly voices to add yet more colour and vibrancy to an album that fizzes from the first second to the last. Rather than just wanting to burn everything down (an understandable way of thinking in some respects, in recent years), Killer Mike, in particular, has been a clear presence in his native Atlanta (most notably his extraordinary speech during the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in the summer, and sharing the stage with Bernie Sanders when campaigning last year), and his work in that arena comes through to his RTJ work, which has turned out to be phenomenal, vital hip-hop that is part of a wave of change.
The past decade has seen Katatonia both trying to move forward, while almost simultaneously looking backwards too, with new albums and supporting tours followed by various returns to past releases, with “anniversary” tours for pretty much every album since Viva Emptiness, and the relentless pace of touring and recording seemed to exhaust them, with a short hiatus announced a couple of years back. It turned out that the break did them the world of good, as this is the band’s best album in years and years. Those hoping for a return to their early doom days can leave now – it’s not going to happen – but there is a distinct feel of a band looking back to their powerful, melodic period around the era of Viva Emptiness here. There are moments where the band let rip with blistering solos and powerful rock (such as the exceptional The Winter of Our Passing and Behind The Blood), and conversely there are also elegant, more reflective pieces (like the gothic ambience of Lacquer, which was a hell of a statement to release as the first song from the album, and it correctly wrongfooted everyone). But those in the middle – where they balance the doom, metal and prog elements – are the stars of the show. Rein, Neon Epitaph and most notably Flicker are all striking songs, indeed some of the best Katatonia songs I can recall. Amazing what a short break does to recharge the creative juices, eh?
Treated like the second coming of Jesus when this – finally – was released in the Spring, it’s not quite the perfect album that some might have you believe, but it’s damned close. Fiona Apple has always been a fascinating, strident musician who says what she feels, plays the music she wants to play, and frankly does her own thing, apparently with little outside influence. This album is built around the piano, as ever, but also the clattering of whatever percussion was available – drums, furniture, legs, literally anything goes – as well as other voices, dogs and probably the kitchen sink, too. But it’s not just the instrumentation that makes this of such interest and brilliance, it’s also the lyrics. Fiona Apple tips the hat to schooltime inspirations, women that are fighting back, and herself. She is on glorious lyrical form across every moment of this album, with so much to say that it’s a wonder that all the lyrics scan as well as they do (and there’s a lot of them), and it’s fairly clear that some of her ex-partners get short shrift here, too (most notably on the utterly fabulous, gritted teeth rage of Under the Table) – but more than anything, this is an album about fighting the urge to stay silent, and instead, fighting back, and making clear one’s position. On that, and pretty much every other level, this is a fucking triumph.
I genuinely don’t know how Alex Reed does it. Seeming once again released an extraordinary album this year – their third full-length – but the feeling was very different to that expansive, genre-defying sprawl that was SOL (album of the year here in 2017, and then the album of the decade too, earlier this year). This was Reed taking things inward, looking at the personal, but also his interaction with the world. This made for some difficult songs (Remember to Breathe in particular, a gorgeous ballad about trying to step away from suicide and getting on with life), but it also made for some staggering pop songs. This album also dials back on the experimental sounds, too, instead mostly settling into a sophisticated synthpop realm that works brilliantly – but there are still flourishes here and there that remind that Reed’s musical outlook is far wider than his peers. Also, as well as dealing with the self, there are a number of songs that are explicitly political – as an American living in Trump’s America, I suspect it’s almost impossible not too – but it’s not all negative and destructive, and I think that’s the key to this wonderful album. This is an album with a deep sense of empathy and hope at the core as if Reed is looking ahead, and saying things will, and can be better. This year has been shit, there are no two ways about it, but as we edge toward the end of it, at last, there are a few chinks of light that reinforce that hope. If you want the album to soothe and reassure in this year, here it is, from a both expected and unexpected source, in so many ways.
I first met Nadia and Alicia from Ganser some years back – possibly even at my first Cold Waves in Chicago, way back in 2014, where we were introduced by a mutual friend. At the time, their band Ganser was taking tentative steps forward, and it is perhaps interesting that the very first tracks that I featured on this website are no longer available, the now four-piece band having taken a different direction to those early songs. This, their second album vindicates the decision made. The city of Chicago has a rich history of alternative rock bands taking a noisy, abrasive approach, but few, if any, have taken the route Ganser now find themselves on. Like many of the bands and releases featured this year, these songs were written before COVID locked us all down, but have some kind of strange resonance in the times we now find ourselves in. It is also an exceptional album, that rewards repeat listens, as it digs its claws under your skin.
These are songs of personal uncertainty, of personal struggle, and have remarkable nervous energy that gives surges of adrenaline to various songs (especially the outstanding highlights Lucky and Bad Form). Elsewhere, songs are less frantic, but no less intriguing – Told You So has an excellent lead vocal from Alicia and changes in pace that are likely more complex than they first appear, while the closing Bags for Life delivers the biggest emotional hit. A song imagining what the end of the world might be dealt with on social media, listening to it this year, where at points it felt like that might actually happen, gives it a poignancy unmatched in pretty much any other song I’ve heard this year, and the flourishes of unexpected brass on the song give it a grandeur that a weighty subject like this deserves.
Overall, though, this an enormous step forward from the band, one that has seen them gain wider coverage in the US music press especially, and rightly so – these are the best nine songs they have done so far, and it’s frustrating to see COVID rob them of their chance to capitalise on that by touring and building their fanbase yet more.
The weird thing about I LIKE TRAINS is that they have long been one of those bands that I’ve been told I’d like, and for some reason or another, I’ve never got round to listening to them. So I can thank an unexpected promo e-mail about them prior to the release of this album that piqued my interest. The blurb around the lead tracks for the album sounded fascinating, and by a minute into A Steady Hand, I was enthralled by the shroud of darkness that enveloped the album, and David Martin’s dispassionate, rich vocals. Listening further, it became obvious that this is an album that could only have been written in the times that we live. It is an album that examines the failings of men and those who become leaders, and how truth and perception have been distorted, perhaps irreparably. Backed by a bass-heavy, post-punk inflected sound that effortlessly switches gears at points to charge forward with some force, Martin’s vocals become part of that sonic power, particularly when his evident fury with what he is watching and living through is articulated. Key to understanding the album, perhaps, is the extraordinary track The Truth, apparently written over a period of a few years, as certain world leaders gaslit their electorates by literally twisting the truth and flat-out denying obvious truths, making countering viewpoints all the harder. As we come to the end of this year – and with a chink of light at the end of the tunnel, as vaccines begin to be prepared for rollout, and Trump will be leaving office soon – this album is a salutary, brilliant reminder that there is considerable work to do. Thus, the best album of 2020, according to /amodelofcontrol.com, is one of anger, rather than hope.