Mini-reviews for 2015

It's been too long since I posted any criticism! Not much music deeply connected with me in 2015, and I was listening to less of it as well. However I wanted to write something before the new Animals as Leaders and Periphery (maybe even Karnivool?) this year, so I figured I'd take a look at my most-listened albums of 2015 and do some short write-ups.

Intronaut – The Direction of Last Things

    It's another Intronaut album! Intronaut is a band that I can't categorize honestly, because they have truly developed a unique essence that is only adjacent to many things but doesn't fit within them. "Fast Worms" is only similar to a pop-structured metal piece, "Digital Gerrymandering"'s climax is sort of a djent riff, "The Unlikely Event of a Water Landing" is reminiscent of Porcupine Tree. Actually, the least interesting song on this album is the one that does fit neatly within other things (i.e. metal): "The Pleasant Surprise" is pleasant but is just lacking the je ne sais quoi that makes Intronaut so special. It's too easy to say that je sais exactly quoi: "oh, that song has no clean parts", but it's more like it's a flat character, narratively speaking. I'm a firm believer that most excellent metal has dimensions to it and knows how to present vulnerable, emotional moments in addition to thall br00tality (even Devin Townsend's Deconstruction has soft parts). Intronaut aren't perfect at that vulnerability – I have some qualms with "Water Landing"'s mood flow – but the extended groove elements from Habitual Levitations are still present here and they work damn well to achieve that. I lacked some of the deep connection that makes me really cherish an album with this, but they're still a force worth experiencing for yourself.

Instrumental (adj.) – A Series of Disagreements

    An unfairly good debut EP that I'm incredibly excited to hear more from. These guys have the ingenuity of Brubeck and the deftness of Panzerballett. Has to be my favorite of the year, even if my upcoming arrangement of Blue Rondo is going to suffer in comparison to it.

Benny Greb's Moving Parts

    "Bunker" is one of the most ludicrously fun songs I heard all year. Benny Greb makes the most complexly broken rhythmic ideas sound like child's play, and the mere implementation of sudden tempo changes during improv sections deserves an award all for itself. This album sounds like a live concert and, even during its more typical jazz phases like in "Soulfood" and "September", has just enough perspective skew to keep the listener in the pocket. Unfortunately I think the album's latter half devolves into a series of sketches of great jams rather than the first four tracks' legitimate great jams, but hopefully more tasty releases are on their way to satiate that appetite (and hey, there's a new Snarky Puppy instrumental full-length out this year anyways, so I'm going to be full for quite a while).

Native Construct – Quiet World

    This could be the subject of its own 10 thousand word review but I'll try to keep my very complex feelings on this album brief. Firstly, they have to be commended for the sheer amount of work that went into this album. There is a lot going on at any given time in every single piece. However, I feel that much of this work is to no noticeable effect as the level of complexity of the material is so ubiquitously high that one becomes fatigued easily – I fear that, having the gigantic computerized sound library they did, the urge to reach into the box of toys and add in a random guiro scrape here, or a tabla groove section there, or a harp accompaniment line here and there and everywhere was just overwhelming and led to a serious bloating issue. Everything on this album sounds like a machine-quantized sample – even the excellent vocalist seems to have some pitch correction happening during accidental-heavy passages, and the issue of over-production is exemplified most easily by the drum programming which is just this constantly overcomplicated, unsubtle mess. They literally programmed a drum solo. As a percussionist, it's... hmm.

    Secondly, pieces like "Mute", "Your Familiar Face", and "Come Hell or High Water" are really well-done and I like them a lot, but those are right alongside technicality and questionable momentary affectations of genre such as "Passage" and "Chromatic Aberration". That last piece especially is a whirlwind of occasionally great ideas that are rarely given space to develop naturally because of the undeterring machine march of the technical complexity of the material you might expect from this branch of "Progressive Metal". To be fair, the ideas can be bad too – they have what is best described as a mid-2010 djent breakdown accompanied by full string & brass orchestra stabs in that piece – but I think the hit ratio is rather favorable overall. I'll stop my train of thought here with the simple statement that I am very cautiously optimistic about a refined sophomore album, and the aforementioned three great pieces really are excellent. (I did a drum cover of "Come Hell or High Water" as well, check it out.)

Casualties of Cool

   I think this album somewhat resists harsh critique by its incredibly chill nature. It's kind of an ambient post-country-folk programmatic album helmed by Devin Townsend and Ché Aimee Dorval, but I'm not familiar with enough country music (aside from the first couple of tracks on The Protomen's beautiful Act II) to really dig into that. Instead, I'll focus on the sounds. This album has one of the most unique soundscapes I've ever heard – the whole suite has this mystical timbre of a full moon half-obscured by fog; every song has a ridiculous number of layers you could pay attention to but it works even better here than in Townsend's metal stuff because everything can be so much more subtle and permeating. Ché's voice is similar, I think – it has its folky character but her breathy, ennui-filled delivery capitalizes astoundingly well on the mood of the album. The percussion, as well, is so interesting to listen to because Morgan Ågren so perfectly melds into the picture. I'm assuming there's some amount amount of electronics in the percussion sounds as well but Ågren uses plenty of super-interesting sound sources – the subjects of "Pier" sound like guardrails on a walkway or something. I would be very interested in seeing some footage of the recording process of this album, but regardless, it's an excellently done mood album.

Dream Theater – The Astonishing