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Rock Othello enters King Lear twilight.
Meat Loaf was always an actor first, but man, that gale-force rock-operatic pitch came close second. One out of two wouldn't be so bad if he chose a script to match his suddenly, shockingly ruined throat strings. Instead, in a Shakespearean act of hubris, here's a mix of unearthed pop-operas written by his Bat Out Of Hell-raising foil, Jim Steinman. There's dark humour in his strangled wobble through vaudeville opener "Who Needs the Young", and plenty of trademark drama elsewhere. But as ageless leading ladies Ellen Foley and Karla DeVito sing lusty rings around the epic "Going All the Way Is Just the Start", it's clear Mr Loaf has checked in to "Sunset Boulevard".
Post-hardcore darlings excavate their pain.
"I know she's looking out for me the way she said she would," laments Touché Amoré frontman Jeremy Bolm on "Displacement". This, the revered Californian quintet's fourth effort, is a record about loss. The clue is in the title. Over the course of 11 tracks, Bolm navigates his mother's death in late 2014 – and the emotional clusterfuck it triggered – with heart-wrenching candour. From the urgent atmospherics of opener "Flowers and You" to the oblique "Skyscraper", Bolm delves into the minutiae of her illness and his grief with equal parts rage and grace. Singing about death – and all it brings with it – has never sounded more cathartic. And Touché Amoré have never sounded more alive.
Melbourne shoegazers let it all hang out on punchy debut.
Emerging from Australia's vibrant shoegaze scene, Melbourne's Flyying Colours arrive at a sound that combines My Bloody Valentine's wall-of-sound guitars and barely there girl/boy vocals with sun-drenched melodies. Their debut LP retains the intensity of the band's shows in lieu of some of the poppier elements present on earlier EPs, like 2015's ROYGBIV – see the wistful "Mellow" and squally guitar on "This Is What You Wanted". However, these tracks only work to brighten the record's sweeter moments, like doomy summer jam "Long Holiday" and peppy standout "1987", which with its jangly early Nineties guitar and rapid-fire vocal delivery punches hard through the psychedelic fog.
L.A. duo keep the rawness while getting more nuanced.
Despite 2013 debut Sistrionix being generally favourably reviewed, it sounds like Deap Vally took notice of the less glowing notices. "Everyone is a fucking critic, a fucking cynic," spits Lindsey Troy in "Critic". Maybe they got sick of the White Stripes-meets-Led Zeppelin comparisons. Although that blueprint remains central, Deap Vally tweak the formula on Femejism. Co-produced by Nick Zinner, there's still plenty of overdriven riffing and Bonham-esque drumming, but also more post-punk rawness and experimental guitar sounds, while Troy peels off some layers lyrically, from the mea culpa of "Julian" to the defiant declaration of being "happily unhappy" on "Smile More".
Band embrace anguish on 16th album.
"All the things we love, we lose," Nick Cave sings on "Anthrocene," a dark and jazzy rumination on loss from Skeleton Tree, his captivating 16th album with backing band the Bad Seeds. The song as a whole is so understated and loose that the earnestness of his lyrics catch you by surprise. Here is the dean of literary gothic song-craft, a master of wordplay, symbolism and irony, baring his soul like never before.
Although Cave still writes safely from the perspective of characters on Skeleton Tree's eight songs, the grief on each track is undeniably and uniquely his own. Last summer, while Cave was writing the record, one of his twin sons, Arthur, age 15, fell off a cliff to his death in Brighton, England. In the film One More Time With Feeling, which chronicles the making of the LP, Cave describes the aftereffects of his death as "trauma" and while it's impossible to tell exactly what parts of the album were written after he suffered such unimaginable tragedy, there's a sadness that pervades each of the songs in a way that's never previously surfaced in Cave's music. The record resonates with raw, emotional intensity in a stunning way.
In the past, whether as the frontman for post-punk bruisers the Birthday Party in the early Eighties, the lead lothario in Grinderman in the Aughts or with his ever-fluctuating orchestral-rock crew Bad Seeds over decades, Cave has reveled in foreboding, abjection, doomed romance and cruel fate. In 1996, he recorded an album called Murder Ballads, which claimed 60-or-so fictional casualties, and on his last album, 2013's Push the Sky Away, he morbidly turned Miley Cyrus into a bizarre symbol of inexplicable yearning in an otherwise pale song of despair. But on Skeleton Tree, it's much harder to separate Cave's art from his reality.
Musically, the record is uniformly and unusually sparse, dwelling in deep, bassy tones. Its closest analogs in the Cave catalogue are the ghostlike tones of his 1986 meditation "Stranger Than Kindness," the all-encompassing sorrow of 2001's "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side" and the whole of his brilliant 1996 singer-songwriter outing The Boatman's Call, but without the latter's canny wit. It's a sharp contrast to the rootsiness and gospel inflections of Push the Sky Away and his previous Bad Seeds LP Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
He whispers in places where he used to shout, but his inflection says everything. "With my voice, I am calling you," he howls on Skeleton Tree's morose and eerie lead track "Jesus Alone" (sometime after the introductory lyric, "You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field") and because his voice rises above the soft piano, symphonic swells and jazzy drums, the heaviness of his words hit hard. When singing about a "Girl in Amber," as is the title of one shimmery Skeleton Tree track, his voice noticeably quivers: "I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber 'til you crumbled ... Well, I don't think that anymore." And on "Distant Sky," an ethereal song with an almost New Age-y arrangement and an angelic guest appearance by Danish soprano Else Torp, his heartbreak once more rings out above the serenity, "They told us our dreams would outlive us/They told us our Gods would outlive us but they lied."
Then there's "I Need You," a song propelled by a steady fuzzy synth line over which Cave sings an off-kilter melody that never quite syncs up to the music, but it's his observations that are significant: "Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone ... I need you." It's an ode to a woman in red, but the loss feels weightier than usual for Cave.
The most surprising thing about Skeleton Tree, though – more than Cave's newfound seriousness and modest arrangements – is how it ends with hope. The title track boasts not only the album's fullest musical arrangement – gentle swelling synthesizers, a gorgeous piano lead, scratchy acoustic guitars – but also its brightest lyrics: "I called out that nothing is for free/And it's all right now." He repeats that last line three times in a way that suggests he means it, or at least that he's trying to convince himself that he means it. If he didn't, it would be all too overwhelming.
Hip-hop duo push to a higher plane on exceptional second album.
On second LP Divas & Demons, Melbourne hip-hop duo Remi Kolawole and Justin ‘Sensible J' Smith have not only bettered 2014's stellar Australian Music Prize-winning effort Raw X Infinity, but they've made an album that's thematically concerned with depression, substance abuse, heartbreak and self-doubt sound downright funky, funny and fun. Conscious rap this may be, but self-serious and overly earnest it's not: Kolawole wants you to wave your motherfuckin' Prozac in the air like you just don't care – this is how he gets down.
The accolades haven't softened Smith and Kolawole one bit: the former's production evokes the finest moments of the Roots and their Soulquarian movement while still being entirely its own thing – a sumptuous mix of crisp percussion, warm keys and deft sampling from front-to-back. Obviously charged up by his partner bringing his A-game, Kolawole's rapid-fire flow and witty, insightful lyrics give the album a laser focus. On "Forsaken Man" he rides some "Apache"-style congas like a boxer shaping up for a fight, admitting he lost his "girl, job and sanity this year" over a beat built to drag you to the dancefloor. Throughout Divas he's often down, but never out.
Demons purged, REMI can confidently survey what remains: a legit contender for Aussie album of the year.
The punk rock transgender relationship record of the year.
When Laura Jane Grace says Shape Shift With Me, it's no empty ideal. From the expulsion of frustration of "ProVision L-3", she forcefully grabs your hand and lets loose on love, sex, relationships and gender, delivering a fascinating companion piece to 2014's brilliant Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Pointedly, the scathing "Boyfriend" puts every other song it shares a title with to shame, while "Delicate, Petite and Other Things I'll Never Be" and the bracingly personal "Rebecca" are revelatory in the way they approach transgender self-identification and relationships. Musically it's as punk and diverse as ever, as one of music's most interesting voices delivers her distinct perspective in the most kickarse way possible.
Glasgow four-piece undergo a sonic tweak on fourth album.
As with Biffy Clyro vocalist Simon Neil, Sam McTrusty refuses to tone down his Scottish brogue when singing with Twin Atlantic. Indeed, the quartet have long been compared with Biffy, but GLA might just be the album to put an end to those comparisons. On tracks such as "Valhala" and "You Are the Devil", Twin Atlantic inject a sinewy glam rock swagger that borrows equally from Bowie and Kasabian into their highly-charged guitar attack. Sometimes it works ("The Chaser"), sometimes it doesn't ("I Am Alive"). Fans of old will cling to "Whispers", which finds the middle ground between the sound of now and the more emotional, anthemic rock of earlier albums.
Indie-folk lifers come to an interesting fork in the road.
Will Sheff loves a constructed meta-narrative. But his band's eighth album of wordy folk-rock finds the fastidious wordsmith haunted by letting go. Slow-building opener "Okkervil River R.I.P" is a kiss-off to the band-led construct Sheff has based his life on ("I hightail my cool haircut through the turnstyles of the airports on the run now"); "The Industry" is a jaunty, unspooling Kinks-like pop tune chiding both the backstabbing music industry and the singer for wanting to be a part of it. There's good reason for self-reflection. "Comes Indiana Through the Smoke" is a beautiful ode to Sheff's grandfather – his "idol" – who passed during the making of Away. This is Sheff poetically unsure of how – or if – to move on.
New Jersey rockers in fine shape nearly two decades on.
Seven albums into their career, the tag 'emo' really shouldn't apply to Taking Back Sunday anymore – through their longevity they've transcended any notion of ‘scene'. Not only that, 17 years since forming they're producing some of their best work – see 2014's Happiness Is. Tidal Wave feels cut from the same cloth as that album, only it's not quite as well tailored. There are some welcome surprises – the fiery "Death Wolf", the Clash-inspired title-track – and some typically infectious, trademark TBS moments ("In the Middle Of It All", "Call Come Running"). But the peaks are balanced out by too many meandering moments, such as "I Felt It Too" and "Holy Water".
Prince protégé comes good on promise with solid sophomore effort.
When Prince invited Darren Hart, aka Harts, to his Paisley Park mansion in 2014, he famously said, "He reminds me of me at that age." The praise could hardly be higher for the Melbourne singer/multi-instrumentalist, and while it would be hyperbolic to call him heir to the throne after Prince's untimely death in April, on Harts' second LP he demonstrates the maturity, skill and range to show that he's no flash in the pan.
Where 2014 debut Daydreamer was an electro-funk-dominated nod to his musical mentor – think Justin Timberlake with guitars – Smoke Fire Hope Desire is more purple haze than Purple One, with more gravelly riffs and fewer squiggly synth lines, surely concocted with live crowds in mind. Tracks like "All Rise" and "Power" are rollicking rock jams that combine chant-along choruses with Harts' virtuosic shredding, while the smoky atmospherics of "Fear in Me" and "Deeper the Hole" reveal the musician's broodier side, despite the overwhelmingly positive, self-empowering tone of his broad message.
The title is reflected in interludes throughout the album – as scuzzy scene-setter ("Smoke"), funky fingerpicking ("Fire"), spoken word verse ("Hope") and ethereal penultimate track ("Desire"). The effect is a tad contrived, but like the album overall, it's stylishly executed. However indebted Harts still is to his heroes, SFHD is nonetheless a diverse, considered accomplishment.
Mainstream pop-rockers offer solid sophomore set.
Bastille frontman Dan Smith understands pop structures and how to write bankable vocal lines. "La Lune", his titanic 2015 collaboration with EDM wunderkind Madeon, proved that his even-keeled voice could be a supremely effective counterpoint to bright and shiny synths and beats. But on Wild World, Bastille's follow-up to 2013's Bad Blood, Smith and his bandmates choose safety over transcendence. Although the music is tight, pleasing and ably performed, it doesn't stray far from the supermarket-friendly rock sound that Bastille established on album number one. The best moments occur late in the piece – seek out the dark and crunchy "Blame" for a hint of where Bastille may head in the future.
Second album for experimental rap group.
Daveed Diggs is Broadway's fastest rapper, but then there aren't many rappers on Broadway. It only takes a minute for Hamilton's Tony-winning star to prove his skills, though. "The Breach" is 60 seconds of rapid-fire flow set to a backdrop of minimalist noise. An "Afrofuturist" concept album seems the logical next step for an act helmed by a guy who makes musicals for a living, but Splendor & Misery is a million miles from Broadway's triumphant tropes. On "Air 'Em Out", Clipping.'s dystopian vision comes into sharp focus, as Diggs raps of nooses and dead bodies on one of the album's few standalone moments. Only gospel interludes provide respite from the immersive, suffocating world.
Fourth album from metalcore stalwarts hits a sweet spot.
After numerous line-up shifts, by 2014's Restoring Force SoCal's Of Mice & Men settled into a particularly juicy mix of contemporary metal's landscape; metalcore, post-hardcore, nu-metal et al. Cold World ups the ante and melds the frenetic shredding of their younger selves with more atmospheric songwriting. The aptly-titled "Contagious", "The Hunger" and the Linkin Park-aping "Like a Ghost" each sound like they were created in a riff-lab designed specifically to crush the neck of anyone who's ever loved Slipknot or hated their dad. The structured brutality of "Pain" and the hefty meditation of "Transfigured" balance it all best, perhaps showing a way forward from here.
Melbourne quintet's third LP of slacker rock.
Scott & Charlene's Wedding may trade in a no-frills form of slacker rock that could've been birthed by several other bands, but it's singer Craig Dermody's dryly comic observational lyrics about banal things – moving furniture, making "immaculate" scrambled eggs – that give S&CW their singular Aussie identity. Memorable lines abound ("We only get Channel 9, cos the aerial's fucked"), but it's not all played for laughs: "Bush" is a seven-minute dirge ruminating on solitude and regret, and keyboardist Esther Edquist joins Dermody on sweetly romantic duet "Forever and a Day", closing out a likeably shaggy LP that ably wrings humour and pathos out of the everyday.
Acclaimed Brit splices up the genres on album four.
Joan Of Arc, Robin Hood and a prophet of doom called Solomon Eagle are just three characters that pop up on Jamie Treays' fourth LP. Treays mixes fact with fiction and his sound is similarly mix and match. "Tescoland" and "Robin Hood" both strongly suggest his longtime obsession with the Clash is not fading. There's a skanky dub feel to "Power Of Men" and a Libertines-meets-Blur swagger to "Joan Of Arc", two songs that possess the album's stickiest melodies. But Treays also persists in incorporating Mike Skinner-styled raps and echo-laden MC patois, and along with the abrasive "Police Tapes" and some bombastic riffing on "Tinfoil Boy" that cribs from "Enter Sandman", there's some stylistic whiplash going on.