New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: art-rock

Haunting, Epic Minor-Key Art-Rock From Empyrium

Empyrium play a somber, stark, tersely constructed blend of Mitteleuropean folk noir and 70s-style art-rock with tinges of metal and the High Romantic. How high does their latest album Uber den Sternen (Over the Stars) reach? For the rafters, mightily, here and there. Elsewhere, it’s a beautifully gloomy record, streaming at Bandcamp. Not a single substandard cut here: it’s awfully early to be talking about best-of-the-year lists, but this one’s high among the best albums of 2021 so far.

The first track, The Three Flames begins as a slow, subdued waltz, Markus “Schwadorf” Stock’s spare fingerpicked guitar mingling with cello, then the drums kick in and the race is on – he plays pretty much everything here. Thomas Helm’s operatic baritone is a surreal contrast; buzzy lows from the guitars and mellotron flute at the top complete the sonic picture. There’s a plaintive, artfully fingerpicked interlude to survey the wreckage of some unnamed society, then the staggered waltz beat returns and the layers of guitars rise with a symphonic intensity. It sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Track two, A Lucid Tower Beckons on the Hills, comes across as a variation on the theme: same sad waltz tempo, louder guitars, bitterly heroic twin leads, and is that a cimbalom echoing morosely from the back of the mix? The Oaken Throne is not about a medieval latrine; instead, it’s a terse, elegant dirge which seems to concern some kind of forest spirit.

Moonrise, an instrumental, has a web of nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitars over drifting ambience. The Archer (yeah, these archetypes are kind of World of Warcraft) is a Steppenwolf character roaming the valley in this slowly swaying minor-key anthem.

The Wild Swans has the album’s most metalish vocals but also its most symphonic architecture: gorgeously brief classical guitar solo, hazy mellotron interlude, crushing guitar orchestration and an unexpectedly hypnotic detour. The most unselfconsciously beautiful moment here is the instrumental In the Morning, with its spare classical piano and strings. The album ends with the titanic title track, shifting from jackhammering intensity, to starlit rapture, operatic longing and an unexpected sense of triumph: a hard-won victory maybe, but victory nonetheless.

A Sharply Amusing New Record From One of New York’s Best Psychedelic Bands

For the better part of ten years, the Academy Blues Project were one of New York’s most consistently entertaining psychedelic bands. They got as far as the Rockwood, where they held down a long series of big-room residencies. Their annual Big Lebowski tribute was as much a giveaway to their sensibility as their sly, surreal live show. And unlike most rock acts in town before the lockdown, carefully scheduling gigs to maximize turnout and ensure future bookings at a handful of coveted, profit-strapped spots, these guys would take random dates at some pretty out-of-the-way venues just to keep the vibe fresh. It was always fun to catch them at an intimate space like Shrine, or Long Island City Bar, on an off night.

Although they’ve released a  handful of eps, their new album The Neon Grotto – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length record. It’s like discovering your cool stoner uncle’s stash of artsy psychedelic records from the 70s. The obvious influences here are the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan, but there are also echoes of acts as diverse as Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band recorded the basic tracks right before the lockdown. After their members were scattered to the winds by the summer of last year, they finished it over the web. The seductive surrealism and archetypes in Meera Dugal’s album cover art make a perfect visual companion.

The opening number, Athens to Corfu, could be the good-natured Hollywood Hills boudoir soul tune that never made it onto Steely Dan’s Aja record. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy tremolo-picks feathery washes and sunbaked, echoey blues, keyboardist Ben Easton starting out with starry Rhodes piano and drifting into an oscillating swirl, bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom kicking up the waves at the end. There is nothing remotely Mediterranean about this song other than the lyrics’ clever wordplay.

Turbulence, the second cut, could pass for a late 70s track by the Who: the metaphors reach cruising altitude and the brief, celestial bass-and-guitar interlude midway through seems devised for much more extended jamming. The album’s instrumental title track opens with a sideways Grateful Dead reference and then hits a steady backbeat pulse, Levy spinning his catchy riffage through an icy vintage analog delay pedal.

The album’s big epic is Rock Song (Don’t Step in the Gooey Parts), an aptly dramatic, tongue-in-cheek musical history of geological formations, from lava to ossification. The big sunburst intro brings to mind early Santana; from there the band truck like the Dead to an uneasily jangly Nektar bridge and then rising and falling echoes of Pink Floyd.

Make Believe, a big concert favorite, is part Blackberry Smoke newschool southern rock, part White Album Beatles. Prevailing Winds has Genesis written all over it, from Easton’s elegant piano intro to Levy’s big vocal peak.

All Will Be Revealed begins as a deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud:

And the innocents forget who’s master and who’s slave
Packing peanuts in their trunks, they join in the fray, they join the parade

Then Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to Levy’s savage guitar outro. Who knows, this song could be more prophetic than anyone ever could have imagined.

They close with the instrumental Little Island, Big Volcano, Levy adding amusingly balmy Hawaiian flavor with his slide. It’s still early in a year where there haven’t been many rock records released, but at this point this is top-ten-of-2021 material. What’s even better is that the band have two other albums planned for release this year.

Titanic Art-Rock and Metal From the Phantom Elite

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Phantom Elite’s new album Titanium – streaming at Spotify– is a pop record with heavy guitars. It’s a mix of metal and loud symphonic rock, awash in contrasting textures and guitar multitracks, horror-film synthesizers and all kinds of elegant classical and artsy 70s rock touches. Frontwoman Marina La Torraca’s powerful vocals look back to blues a lot more than opera or classical music, a welcome change from the sound that female-fronted European heavy rock acts tend to reach for. And where so many heavy bands fixate on apocalyptic horror, this group channel defiance and resistance against the evil around us.

Max van Esch’s creepy, doomy guitar chromatics don’t kick in until the vast sonic cloud clears and the chorus of the first track, Conjure Rains kicks in.

A tricky, math-y guitar synth intro opens The Race, a desperate all-hands-on-deck anthem awash in symphonic layers of guitars and unexpected sharp turns. The noir classical piano intro of Diamonds and Dark hints the band’s going to in a menacing Hannah vs. the Many direction, but instead drummer Joeri Warmerdam hits a machinegunning drive and La Torraca bends upward, optimistic amid the orchestral gloom. It’s a good anthem for the worst time in human history.

The synth solo that opens Worst Part of Me is just plain funny, but the song is not: “Victory is so unreachable,” La Torraca laments as she reaches for a “glass of something” to keep her sane from the troll chorus in this doomed anthem. The band take Glass Crown from an action film theme to a darkly catchy fist-pumping stadium singalong. The epic title track is slower and surprisingly optimistic, with a surreal, spacy, icepicking bridge and an unexpectedly successful, blues-infused detour into late-period Jeff Beck.

With its squiggly synths and four-on-the-floor chorus, Bravado is the closest thing to a big pop ballad here. The symphonic angst reaches a peak in the ominous changes of Silver Lining, van Esch slowing down and turning in his most intense solo here.

They follow the brief, blues-tinted instrumental Haven with Deliverance: “Bury all the demons from the past away from me,”  La Torraca orders, the band slowing down into doomy sludge until the pace picks up again. They close with Eyes Wide Open, which seems like La Torraca taking a stab at autosuggestion, to “scream like no one’s listening.” Except that everyone is listening – and it’s about time.

Haunting, Epic Grandeur From the Grimly Mighty Katla

The cover image of Icelandic art-rock band Katla’s new album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness), streaming at Bandcamp, shows a hooded man standing between a huge snowdrift and what could either be a snowed-in bridge, or the skeleton frame of some kind of industrial building. Either way, this haunting song cycle is one of the most darkly gorgeous releases of the year.

To the less familiar, Icelandic folk music has an especially enigmatic, otherworldly quality since some of it veers in and out of traditional western scales. Einar Thorberg Gu∂mundsson’s ominously drifting synthesized orchestration and layers of burning guitars rise and fall over drummer Gu∂mundur Óli Pálmason’s slow, funereal sway. The music here typically follows an arc that has more to do with classical music than any kind of traditional pop verse/chorus pattern. Most of the songs segue into each other. The lyrics are in Icelandic: smartly, the record comes with a lyric sheet.

Gu∂mundsson eventually enters with an angst-fueled intensity over gritty guitar distortion in the opening track, Ást orðum ofar (seemingly a love song), eventually segueing into the slow, enveloping, grim Villuljós (Error Light), a gracefully elegaic, fingerpicked folk riff looping in the distance. The sway grows toward a conflagration as Gu∂mundsson’s guitars pick up and spiral around. There’s a lull for a ticking loop and brooding orchestration, then the music slowly makes its way toward sheer horror in theinstrumental Likfundur a Solheimasandi, a simple funereal drumbeat adrift in the vastness.

Sálarsvefn (Sleep of the Soul) is also a dirge, forlorn belltone guitar over smoldering, anthemic minor-key changes; finally, it hits a gusty peak with the doublebass drum going full tilt in the background. 

A creepy music box-like synth riff kicks off Vergangur, a glacial, disquieting blend of ancient-sounding Icelandic folk themes, peak-era early 80s Iron Maiden, noisy Finnish punk in a Sielun Veljet vein and macabre, droning psychedelia.

Hvítamyrkur (Dark Light) has a somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo. The duo finally pick up the pace with an elegant gallop in Húsavíkur-Jón, gathering force from a serpentine drive toward crushing majesty.

The album’s ttle track is an art-rock masterpiece, a twelve-minute snowstorm epic that rises from a surprisingly delicate, Chopinesque intro through dissociative nubulosity and grimly triumphant turbulence. This trek through the wasteland doesn’t seem to end well.

The moment when the nocturnal pastorale that introduces the fifteen-minute Svartnætti (Dead of Night) comes as a shock. From there they sway through a smoldering pagan folk anthem and variations. Ironically, even with the symphonic coda, it’s the simplest and most straightforward song here. A lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Sweeping, Majestic Bosnian Noir From Amira Medunjanin and Trondheim Solistene

One of the most gorgeously haunting albums to come over the transom here in the last couple of years is Bosnian chanteuse Amira Medunjanin’s 2018 symphonic record Ascending with Norwegian string orchestra Trondheim Solistene, streaming at Spotify. A lot of these songs are popular staples of the Balkan repertoire, but they’ve seldom had as much towering, angst-fueled grandeur as Medunjanin and the ensemble give them here.

The first track, Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano (Where Are You, Love) begins with a well-known, haunting blues riff from the strings. Medunjanin has never sung better, utilizing a plaintive rubato as the orchestra hold a mutedly fluttering minor-key resonance behind her. What a way to start the record.

Sve Pticice Zapjevale (All the Birds Were Singing) is just as haunting, Medunjanin’s tender, almost whispery voice over pizzicato violins and a velvety lushness behind that. The orchestra and piano pick up the pace dramatically and then hit a suspenseful lull in Oj Meglica (The Mist), a pillowy, bouncy, cabaret-tinged ballad.

Snijeg Pade Na Behar Na Voce is a dynamic, imaginatively orchestrated Romany  winter dance…with prepared piano and orchestra, and an epic sweep, and an elegantly fanged piano solo that put the many other versions out there to shame. The angst-fueled ballad Si Zaljubiv Edno Momce has a spare, windswept, moodily expectant atmosphere, with eerily tinkling piano, spare guitar and distant airiness.

Medunjanin’s version of Moj Dilbere has a slinky, Egyptian-tinged chromatic sweep anchored by the low strings. She and the ensemble begin Ja Izlezi Gjurgjo (Get Out, Gjurgjo) with a gentle, drifting ambience and shift toward more emphatic, joyously dancing territory.

They keep the sweep going in Êto Te Nema (Since You’ve Gone), rising back and forth longingly out of a terse acoustic guitar melody. Hearing the ecstatic Romany brass tune Ajde Jano Kolo Da Igramo done with a genteel pulse, a piano and a string section is a trip, but it works.

The album’s shortest number is Tiho Noci Moje Zlato Spava, a pensive guitar-and-strings instrumental lullaby. They bring the album full circle with Nestaces Iz Mog Ivota (You’re Going to Leave Me), with a conspiratorial, wee-hours piano ambience. Nobody knows the poignancy of living in the shadows like the Eastern Europeans.

So where the hell was this blog when the album came out? Back in 2018, New York Music Daily’s focus was live music in New York. Waiting for the moment Medunjanin would come back to town at a price the general public could afford proved to be futile. But we still have this record.

Summoning the Witches with Ayelet Rose Gottlieb

We just went through a wild month of eclipses, so what could be more appropriate than an album of 13 Lunar Meditations Summoning the Witches? That’s the title of singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s new moon-themed album, streaming at Bandcamp. The concept is counterintuitive: where you might typically expect calm, nocturnal, possibly mysterious themes, this is a generally playful, upbeat record.

As usual, Gottlieb’s songs here span a vast number of styles, from jazz, to art-rock, to sounds of the Middle East and the avant garde. The lyrics are in many different languages as well. With a joyous surrealism, she finds moon imagery in unexpected public places in the first number, Lotte and the Moon, set to Aram Bajakian’s hypnotically loopy, pointillistic guitar backdrop with a deviously scrambling Ivan Bamford drum solo midway through. It reminds of Carol Lipnik at her most exuberant.

The second number, Yare’ah is a spare, bouncy Israeli tune spiced with Eylem Basaldi’s spiky pizzicato violin, Bajakian’s guitar and the rhythm section: that’s Stéphane Diamantakiou on bass. Mond – “moon” in German – is a surreal cut-and-paste mashup of a blippy indie classical chorale and a spoken word piece contemplating the passing of generations.

The astrologically-themed Venus and the Moon has a balletesque pulse, a tango-inflected melody and a tiptoeing bass solo. Moon Story has sailing violin and vocalese balanced by punchy bass and starkly jangly guitar.

Wafting, Middle Eastern flavored violin takes centerstage behind Gottlieb’s spoken word and wordless vocals in Patience, a spacy soundscape. Yasmoon’s Moon, the most haunting and vividly nocturnal piece here, is also a showcase for plaintive violin and Bajakian’s acerbically rhythmic, oud-like phrasing. Dissipating Discus, the free jazz freakout afterward, is irresistibly funny: hang with it until the punchline.

A Spanish-language bass-and-vocal bendiction kicks off the album’s strongest track, Moon Over Gaza, a stark, politically-themed, guitar-fueled noir swing tune. The group follow Tsuki, the most ambient tableau on the record, with its longest and most darkly orchestral epic, Traveler Woman. Gottlieb winds it up with Desert Moon, an only slightly less expansive, slinky, latin-tinged anthem. Ages come and go, but the moon remains for us to dance in its light.

Starkly Haunting, Richly Orchestral Metal From Volur

Volur’s music is stark yet orchestral, relentlessly gloomy yet adrenalizing. They sound like no other band in the world, blending black metal, Nordic folk and psychedelic 70s art-rock. The trio have the starkness of early ELO, the theatrics of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, guy/girl harmonies and grimly mythological lyrics that unwind slowly over terse, purposeful drums and layers of stygian bass. The lead instruments are Lucas Gadke’s bass and Laura C. Bates’ violin, creating a persistently raw, haunting presence no matter how ornate the overdubs grow. They like long songs. Pretty much everything on their killer new album Death Cult – streaming at Bandcamp – is in the eight to twelve minute range.

This is one of those records that’s best experienced as a whole, lying on the floor with a good pair of headphones. The group open hypnotically with Inviolate Grove, rising slowly to a plaintively orchestral sway, hitting a wounded, anthemic riff and then cutting loose with drummer Justin Ruppel’s tricky, math-y rhythm and a thicket of machete picking.

The violin hits a searing peak as the second track, Dead Moon gathers force with a slow, steady, heroic theme, Bates’ avenger-spirit vocals roaring eerily in the depths of the mix. The album’s mightiest epic is the title cut, starting with a menacing tritone and a morose string interlude that could be Bartok. Migthty peaks and muted moments with what sounds like throat-singing by dead monks paired against nimbly melodic bass eventually descend into shrieking disintegration, only to return with a vengeance. The violin solo afterward will rip a hole in your skull.

An artfully arranged baroque chorale, a harrowingly circling action film theme of sorts and scorching wah-wah bass all figure into the closing number, Reverend Queen. We need more bands as fearlessly individualistic and unpredictably interesting as Volur.

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

This is a playlist, plus a small handful of albums that can’t be heard anywhere online. You can listen to everything else here, the majority of it ad-free. It couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

What’s most obvious about this list is that the music rarely reflects the fascist nightmare of 2020. Most of these albums were recorded in 2019, or right before the lockdown. Although there’s been an unprecedented amount of archival live material dumped on the web in the past six months or so, only five of the picks on this list fall into that category.

The other obvious and disturbing trend is that there’s less rock music on this list than there’s ever been since this blog went live in 2011. That’s because many of the albums here – almost all of those being either jazz or classical releases – were recorded with nonprofit or government money, or by the few remaining record labels. It’s impossible to count the number of artists who relied on tour money to fund their records and were unable to put out new albums because of the lockdown.

Beyond the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were reviewed here, which seldom coincides with official release dates, if such dates existed. Ultimately, the big takeaway here is reason for optimism: 2020 may have been hell, but artists around the world somehow found a way to keep putting out new music.

The number one album of the year, with a bullet, is the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords. It’s the big band composer’s darkest and most fearless album, and arguably the most relevant record released in the past year. In the end, it’s very optimistic. Everything on this vast, sweeping collection was written and recorded before the lockdown, but Schneider prophetically and mercilessly pillories and parodies the tech Nazis behind it. This comes across as the most improvisational release Schneider has ever put out, but knowing her, everything here could just as easily be composed all the way through. Her rage and satire are as venomous and funny as anything Shostakovich or the Dead Kennedys ever recorded. And after she’s done savaging the would-be architects of the New Abnormal, the album’s second disc celebrates the beauty and grandeur of nature and the real world – rather than the virtual one – with characteristic lushness and a side trip to Brazil.

The best short album of the year was The Living End, by Karla Rose. Karla Rose Moheno, of irrepressible swing trio the Tickled Pinks, may be best known for her nuanced, smoldering vocals, but it’s her similarly subtle, often haunting songwriting that sets her apart from the legions of great singers around the world. This is just a fraction of what she has in the can: if the rest of it is this good, the full-length record is going to be amazing. There’s some starry soul, a little streetwise New York rock and a rampaging southwestern gothic-tinged anthem that you will see on the best songs of the year list. Listen at Spotify

Another album that stands apart from the rest of the list is Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975. It’s a gargantuan triple-disc set comprising material from two concerts in Germany, each with a completely different but brilliant lineup, getting a first official release after floating around the web for years and in the cassette underground before then. On one hand, it’s completely unfair to compare the other albums here to these sizzling, epic performances by a guy who was probably the greatest bassist in the history of jazz and definitely one of the ten greatest composers of alltime. On the other, this will give you goosebumps. Listen at Spotify

Ward White – Leonard at the Audit
Witheringly funny, hyperliterate, semi-linear narratives set to catchy janglerock with sinister cinematic overtones from the king of implied menace in rock tunesmithing. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s legendary, noisy, dueling psychedelic band’s trippiest, most cinematically desolate, epicaly jam-oriented album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

Ted Hearne  – Place
A crushingly satirical, cruelly hilarious, minutely detailed exploration of how gentrification has destroyed Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a backdrop of surreal avant garde sounds, art-rock and protest gospel music. Listen at Bandcamp

John Ellis – The Ice SIren
The brilliant jazz saxophonist takes a brilliant and unexpected plunge into the waters of noir cabaret and chilly cinematics, with a sweeping big band behind him. Listen at Spotify

High Waisted – Sick of Saying Sorry
Guitarist Jessica Louise Dye’s band makes a shift from surf rock to gorgeously bittersweet powerpop and other retro sounds. Listen at Bandcamp

Péter Szervánszky/Szekesfovarosi Orchestra –  Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
Like the Mingus record, this is probably an unfair addition to the list. But it’s spellbinding, and the only album the Hungarian virtuoso ever appeared on, recorded on an x-ray plate under the Nazi invasion in 1945. Listen at Spotify

Alina Ibragimova/Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra  – Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No.1 and 2
In the year of the lockdown, these two fiercely antifascist, poignant pieces have never had more cultural resonance. Not streaming online.

Alban Gerhardt/WDR Symphony Orchestra  Shostakovich: Cello Concertos No.1 and 2
It makes sense to pair this iconic, scathingly angry, wickedly sardonic and thoughtful interpretation with the ferocity of the one above. Listen at Spotify

Gregg August  – Dialogues on Race
The powerful jazz bassist’s haunting, majestic big band explore the divide-and-conquer implications of racism and the the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with somber grace. Listen at Bandcamp

Niv Ashkenazi – Violins of Hope
The virtuoso violinist teams with pianist Matthew Graybil to celebrate obscure, poignant repertoire by composers murdered or imperiled during the Holocaust. Listen at Spotify

Balothizer – Cretan Smash
They make slashing psychedelia and thrash metal out of classic, haunting Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s. Listen at Bandcamp

The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
A grimly swirling, potently lyrical return to form by one of the greatest bands who defined the new wave and goth movements of the 80s. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn – Solo Acoustic Vol. 1
What do you do if you’re an icon of noir-tinged, careening rock and you can’t tour like you always did until the lockdown? You reinvent those songs, many of them iconic, as equally menacing acoustic numbers. Wynn has seldom sounded so stark, or so dark.  Listen at Bandcamp

Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land
A concept album of sinister mini-movies and murder ballads from the dark Americana crooner and bandleader.Listen at Bandcamp

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore – their debut album
The first trio record by the soulful, often haunting Balkan and klezmer trumpeter with guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan was worth the wait. Listen at Bandcamp

Sylvie Courvoisier – Free Hoops
One of the elegant pianist’s most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums with her long-running trio featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Listen at Bandcamp

Summoner – Day of Doom Live
The year’s best heavy psychedelic rock record is a cannon of doom metal riffs, searing two-guitar epics and gritty bass. Listen at Bandcamp

Morricone Youth – The Last Porno Show: Original Soundtrack
What an absolutely gorgeous, sad score, evoking the fatalism of a decaying porn theatre with echoes of Tschaikovsky, David Lynch noir and ornate 70s psychedelia. Listen at Bandcamp

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
An appropriately epic double live album by these anthemic, quirky, Middle Eastern-fixated Australian psychedelic road warriors. The best possible advertising for their live show: when we take our world back from the lockdowners, we can see them live again. Listen at Bandcamp

Vigen Hovsepyan – Live in Paris 2017
The impassioned Armenian guitarist/singer fronting a ferocious band with duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan and pianist Havard Enstad in front of a packed house on a barge docked along the Seine. The slashing minor-key energy is through the roof: you really feel like you’re there. Listen at Spotify

Dennis Davison – The Book of Strongman
The former Jigsaw Seen frontman’s solo debut, where he plays all the instruments, is a series of historically-informed, metaphorically bristling psychedelic janglerock narratives that scream out for the repeat button. Listen at Bandcamp

Office Culture – A Life of Crime
Seething satire and very subtle but corrosively lyrical narratives – like Margaret Atwood backed by the Human League – on the Brooklyn 80s parody band’s cruelly hilarious debut. Listen at Bandcamp

Dawn Oberg – 2020 Revision
The searingly lyrical, irrepressibly funny pianist and protest song stylist at the peak of her power, singing truth to power about racist cops killing innocent black people in San Francisco, and fascist political overreach in general. Listen at Bandcamp

Immaterial Possession – their first album
Deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds, with bracing Balkan and Middle Eastern overtones. Listen at Bandcamp

Trio Tekke – Strovilos
The Greek psychedelic band look to the Middle East as much as to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s, and the underground hash-smoking classics of the 20s and 30s.  Listen at Bandcamp

Mahsa Vahdat  Enlighten the Night
Over an elegant, brooding piano-based band, the Iranian singer employs the words of both iconic Persian poets and contemporary lyricists to celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. Listen at Spotify

Susan Alcorn – Pedernal
Resonant, dynamic, often haunting vistas by this era’s great virtuoso of jazz pedal steel and her similarly inspired quintet. Listen at Bandcamp

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu
Are their sprawling, hypnotic guitar jams metal, psychedelia or film music? Whatever you call it, this is one of the best albums of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

The Pocket Gods  – No Room at the (Holiday) Inn
Who would have thought a Christmas record would make this list? Actually, this is more of a protest album, a scathing, wildly multistylistic mix of pro-freedom songs to raise your spirits and give you hope. Arguably the best album ever from perennially prolific frontman Mark Christopher Lee. Listen at Spotify

Superfonicos – Suelta
The slinky Texas-Colombian band’s debut album is a mix of tropical psychedelia, cumbia, skaragga, Afrobeat and salsa jams. The band’s secret weapon? Reedy gaita flute. Listen at Soundcloud

Mehmet Polat – Quantum Leap
Haunting, high-voltage, plaintively modal Turkish and Balkan songs from the brilliant oud player and bandleader Listen at Bandcamp

Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The incredible oldschool soul album Prince wished he’d made but never did. Like Prince, this guy plays pretty much all the instruments too. Listen at Spotify

Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
Hauntingly imagistic, tersely arranged, Americana-tinged narrative songs from this lyrical Australian songwriter and her band. Listen at Bandcamp

The Plastic Pals – It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine
A scorchingly lyrical, deviously funny short album by these Swedish connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk/ Listen at Bandcamp

Mamie Minch – Slow Burn
Characteristically sly, slashingly lyrical, erudite original steel guitar blues from the sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious blues guitarist/chanteuse.Listen at Bandcamp

Scott Robinson/Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell/Marshall Allen – Flow States A riveting improvisational quartet record, featuring the first-ever collaboration between iconic drummer/cardiac medicine pioneer Graves and AACM sax titan Mitchell, plus the Sun Ra Arkestra’s ageless Allen and Robinson as ringleader on bass sax. Not streaming online.

Duo Tandem – Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
Gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic Middle Eastern music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines.Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left. Listen at Spotify

Amanda Gardier – Flyover Country
Fiery, picturesque, midwestern gothic-tinged modal jazz from this rising star alto saxophonist and her similarly edgy crew. Listen at Spotify 

Sigurd Hole – Lys/Morke
Solo bass has rarely sounded so haunting or interesting. Maybe recording it on a deserted Norwegian island had something to with the desolately gorgeous vistas here. Listen at Bandcamp

The Icebergs – Add Vice
This is the album where frontwoman/poet Jane LeCroy’s punchy, lyrically slashing cello rock trio took their songs to the next level, as psychedelic as they are ominously cinematic. Listen at Bandcamp

Sara Serpa – Recognition
The brilliant, lustrous singer/composer confronts the genocidal legacy of European imperialism in Africa in the corrosively lyrical, lushly enveloping soundtrack to her debut film, a collage of archival footage taken in Angola under Portuguese imperialist rule in the 1960s. Listen at Bandcamp

Ran Blake/Christine Correa – When Soft Rains Fall
An angst-fueled, saturnine duo album of hauntingly reinvented standards and originals by the veteran singer and her long-running, iconic noir pianist collaborator. Not streaming online.

JD Allen – Toys/Die Dreaming
Dark, careening modal intensity from this era’s most intense tenor saxophonist/composer and his energetic, newish trio. He’s been building toward this big sort-of-comeback for a long time. Listen at youtube

Ren Harvieu – Revel in the Drama
A lavish, immaculately layered, brililantly produced trip through decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s from the edgy British chanteuse.  Listen at Bandcamp

Sarah Brailey/Experiential Orchestra and Chorus – Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The world premiere recording of one of this pioneering early 20th century woman composer’s most important, philosophically rich works, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle Listen at Spotify

Victoria Langford – Victoria
Swirling, stormy orchestration and religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst in the singer/multi-keyboardist’s debut album, arguably the best rock debut of 2020. Listen at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Electric Mess V
Sizzling psychedelic punk and janglerock from this darkly careening, female-fronted New York band. Listen at Bandcamp

Rachelle Garniez/Erik Della Penna – An Evening in New York
Retro charm and devilish levels of detail in this New York-themed collection of originals and reinvented swing tunes from the iconic accordionist/chanteuse and the subtly slashing, brilliant Kill Henry Sugar guitarist/frontman. Listen at Spotify

Michael Hersch – I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon
A chilling live concert recording of the harrowing 21st century classical composer and pianist’s suite, inspired by a dear friend whose ultimately futile struggle with cancer was not helped by experimental drugs. Listen at Bandcamp

ARC Ensemble – Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann
A rapt, often hypnotic, starkly engaging collection of rare works by a Jewish composer who escaped the Holocaust to follow his muse and write orchestral Indian music. Listen at Spotify

How The River Ganges Flows compilation
Gripping, slaring, ancient Indian carnatic music for violin and percussion captured on 78 RPM shellac records between 1933 and 1952, newly rescued from the archives. Listen at Bandcamp

Matthew Grimm – Dumpster-Fire Days
Just to keep you listening all the way through, this is one of the most searingly lyrical albums on this list, from the charismatic, politically fearless songwriter who recorded the song that topped the Best Songs of 2013 list here and once fronted legendary Americana rockers the Hangdogs.

. Listen at Spotify

Blue Oyster Cult on the Highway Out of Hell

The Man and the Boy pushed the shopping cart slowly down the empty Road. Inside, under the two solar panels the Man had found at an abandoned lumber yard, were their clothes and a bunch of canned goods. It was all they had room for. He’d hooked up the panels to his phone, not because there was any phone service anymore, or anyone he knew to call if he could, but for the music on it. He’d found a cable splitter in the burnt-out rubble of a phone store so that each could listen with both ears. The Man didn’t often do that: he had to listen for other people, to be ready on a second’s notice to get off the Road and cover up.

“What does this remind you of?” the Man asked the Boy, hopefully. The song that was playing was This Ain’t the Summer of Love, from the album Blue Oyster Cult Live at Rock of Ages Festival, July 30th 2016. You could stream it at Spotify before the lockdowners had shut that service down. And then the whole web went down. And then most of the world. The Man and the Boy hadn’t seen people in a month.

“The verse sounds like Steve Wynn. The chorus sounds like the Stones,” the Boy replied.

He’d learned well!

The Man cursed himself for not loading more old favorites onto the phone: almost everything was new, or relatively new, from since the time he’d bought it. All the same, he’d tried to construct a history of music from the albums and tracks he had. When the two first hit the Road, he’d made sure to give the Boy a lesson every day. Too bad there wasn’t any Bach organ music. The Boy had suffered in silence through the St. Matthew Passion and the Klavierubung on piano. But he seemed to dig Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich, especially the String Quartet No. 8 which the Man had forgotten was on the phone. Played by an obscure quartet, but still plenty chilling.

Trouble was, there was hardly any hip-hop, no country, not much blues, and trying to interest the Boy in jazz turned out to be a lost cause.

The Boy liked metal.

Good thing there was plenty of that, starting with a weird bunch of bands playing Sabbath covers and a solid Metallica mix. So far they’d burned through Q5, Black Swan, Wovenhand, Heavy Temple, Solace and Firebreather, and they were on BOC now.

The Man had left all his records, including the first ten BOC albums, behind at the house, and he resolved to fix that after they got off the Road, further south where it was warmer. He’d find another house, hopefully with no decaying corpses in it, another abandoned Home Depot, get some more panels, and rig up a real stereo. And build a still, and find a truck with a stick shift that would start if you pushed it fast enough. And maybe someday they’d go back to the old house, running on alcohol since all of the gas stations were empty now, and collect all the vinyl.

That was down the Road, though. Right now they had to get south enough to where they wouldn’t freeze to death if it snowed. That would take a couple of months, and it was already September.

“What’s up with the can of beer?” the Boy wanted to know. The song was The Golden Age of Leather.

“That’s a toast. And something for the band to engage the crowd with. You remember when we went to see Metallica, how people would raise their lighters? Same deal but with beer.”

“I don’t like this,” the Boy told the Man. “They play the same thing over and over again.”

The Man didn’t tell the Boy how people who were high when they heard this liked it that way. “Wait til you hear the original version, when we get situated and get all my vinyl down with us.”

“What song does this sound like?” the Boy wanted to know. In an off-key falsetto, he sang a famous 60s pop riff: “I love the ‘something, something’ she wears.”

“That’s the Beach Boys,” the Man replied. “You like the Beach Boys?” he asked, quizzically.

“I hate the Beach Boys. The Beach Girls,” the Boy sneered.

The Man was hopeful. The Boy rarely spoke anymore. Any sign of engagement with the world was a good thing. Everything had been looking up until his mother had taken the vaccine, and six months later, the immune deficiency had reared its ugly, inevitable head, and then she was dead.

As the Man and the Boy reached a hill, the blackened shell of a hospital stood stark against the sky, over the trees. First the lockdowners had vaccinated the doctors and the nurses to kill them off so they could use the hospitals as death camps. Because the National Guard had rebelled and refused to vaccinate people, the Australians had been called in. The lockdowners had shut down the food industry there, so the only way an Australian could eat was to join Trace and Track, or the vaccine army and go to the UK or the US. That’s when the Resistance started burning hospitals and liberating everyone who’d been locked up there, accused of carrying the virus. But it was too late. They’d all been vaccinated, at gunpoint, and they died off fast.

Apppropriately enough, the song that was playing was Burning For You. “You like this one?” the Man asked the Boy.

“It’s ok. What’s a b-side?”

“It’s the flip side of a single. You remember those 45 records your mom had? You know, the ones with the big hole in the middle? Those are singles. The b-side is the song on the other side. It’s not usually as good as the one on the a-side.” The Man kicked himself. Talking about his dead wife was something they’d come to avoid. He hoped the Boy wouldn’t go back into his shell.

“You wait til you hear the album version. Killer guitar solo. That’s Buck Dharma. The rest of the band here is mostly a bunch of replacements, but he’s one of the original guys. Him and the singer. Eric Bloom,” he explained.

And silently resolved to turn the Boy on to the album version of OD’d on Life Itself, too. That was the next song. This version didn’t have that insane peak, where the lead guitar comes spiraling out of the bridge. Here it was haphazard, jagged, not bad, but not something that would rip your face off the first time you heard it.

The Road
Oh, the unwindingness of it all
As if from Barraclough to the pubs of Ulster
A metaphor, yea
A simile
A conundrum

Whoah, stop right there.

Where did that awful Irish poetry come from? Nix that.

Now where were we?

The band were five tracks into their set by now and the song was a relatively new one, Harvest Moon. A backbeat tune. The Boy hummed along with the riff to All Along the Watchtower, then played air guitar when the twin solo kicked in. This kid had good ears, the Man reminded himself.

ME262 was the next song. The Man didn’t say anything about how it was on the slow side, or how the cynicism had been reduced to phony barrelhouse piano and doot-doot backing vocals. Just wait til you hear the original, he promised the Boy, silently.

The Boy did air guitar again for Buck’s Boogie. “It’s kind of like ZZ Top, huh?” he asked.

“Blue Oyster Cult blows away anything ZZ Top ever did,” the Man snorted. Still, this had gotten the kid’s attention. Good thing there was a bunch of BOC on the phone.

The Boy scrunched up his face and bobbed his head for Lips in the Hills. A deep cut with the creepy feel of the band’s classic 70s era, the Man thought. Forty-five years after they started, still going strong. If only I last that long.

Then Came the Last Days of May was next. About halfway through the first verse, a phone rang. The man whipped off his headphones. “Did you hear that? he asked the Boy.

“Yeah,” the Boy said, suddenly energized. “I didn’t think there was phone service anymore.”

The Man picked up the line. No signal. He restarted the song, and sure enough, there was a ringtone on it. Somebody in the band had forgotten to turn his phone off before he went onstage.

The two fell silent, through a weird, spacy Richie Castellano synth solo and the point where drummer Jules Radino and bassist Danny Miranda took the song doublespeed as they always did. The end of the guitar solo, the band really cooking by now, jarred the two road warriors out of their funk.

“Cool solo,” the Boy remarked. “Is this an old song?”

“Really old,” the Man replied. “First album. They always played it this way, real fast, when I used to go see them.”

“Do you think there will ever be concerts again?” the Boy asked.

“Oh yeah,” the Man responded, projecting as much casual confidence as he could. “As soon as we meet other people…”

“…Who aren’t cannibals,” the Boy interrupted.

“Yeah, who aren’t cannibals,” the Man concurred, picturing the headless infant cooked over a spit that they’d stumbled over a couple of weeks before. That was why they had to be careful, to keep one ear on the music and the other on the Road.

On their earbuds, the band had launched into Godzilla. It wasn’t that heavy, the Man told himself; the Boy picked up on the Led Zep quote. The apple obviously hadn’t fallen very far.

Don’t Fear the Reaper was the last song, a long, surprisingly fresh version. “Are you afraid of dying?” the Boy asked the Man.

“Nah,” the Man replied, hoping the blitheless in his voice would rub off. “But we aren’t going to die. We’re going to get off this Road and pick up where we left off. The old normal. No New Abnormal, right?”

“No New Abnormal, yeah,” the Boy replied. On the Boy’s lips, the Man glimpsed a flicker of a smile.

[Apologies to Cormac McCarthy, whose book would have been a lot better without all the extraneous attempts at poetry.]

Poignant, Tersely Crystallized Songs Without Words From Antonija Pacek

Pianist Antonija Pacek plays vivid, often haunting songs without words. Her new album Forever – streaming at Spotify – draws on the highest of the High Romantic, but tersely and poignantly. Her righthand typically carries a vocal line, the left either spare chords, arpeggios or a bassline. If you were the pianist in an artsy rock band, this album is what you would give the rest of the crew to learn. Any third-year student can play every track here. There are no solos, no dynamic shifts, just melody – and an invitation to write lyrics. One can only wonder what a great songwriter like Karla Rose or Hannah Fairchild could do with this. Every piano teacher should own this album: it’s the best kind of example of this type of music.

A cynic would say that there are a million wannabe youtube stars with sad rainy day solo piano or synthesizer playlists that rip off every classical composer from Bach to Dvorak. But this is a cut above. The first track, Sofia is an absolutely shattering, toweringly angst-fueled requiem without words, Chopin through the prism of 20th century Slavic balladry.

Pacek follows that with If Only Time Allowed, neoromantic righthand over Lynchian lefthand. Gone Young is another requiem, a portrait of someone obviously full of life cut down unexpectedly, and too soon

The title track is a saloony Tom Waits-ish theme. Lullaby has playful Asian allusions, while Light is a neoromantic analogue to the Church’s classic, haunted Bel Air. If Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen had been a neoromantic guy, he would have written Almost Goodbye.

Before the Rain is catchy, minor-key, almost amusingly insistent and youtube-friendly: it could be Yann Tiersen. In Deep Red, Pacek makes a conflicted piano ballad out of Debussy and a little blues. 

Taken on face value, Wanna Dance has to be the most morose pickup line ever written: as sad waltzes go, this is killer. Pacek finally has fun shifting the melody to the lefthand in the stadium-rock theme What’s Waiting for Me. The album’s “secret” track, Before the Storm follows a familiar descending progression, a castle dark, a fortress strong….a melody secret?