We did warn you that September knocked us sideways. Here’s the rest of what shook the speakers of Casa Overblown last month.
7. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
We should really be used to curveballs from Bon Iver by now, but sometimes they’re so curvy they leave us completely dizzy and disorientated. For example, what are we to make of song titles like ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’ and ‘666 ʇ’?
The Wisconsin five-piece’s third album doesn’t so much dabble in electronica and glitch pop as grab it by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Vocoders, samples, saxophones, Chipmunks-pitched vocals, they’re all here, but somehow, so are the minimalist, heartfelt, folky melodies Bon Iver have at their core, with ‘8 (circle) definitely a highlight.
Is this Bon Iver’s Kid A? Quite possibly. We might be able to make more sense of it in a few years but it deserves our respect here and now.
6. Few Bits – Big Sparks
Belgian dream-poppers Few Bits bring us a second album that’s an absolute joy to behold. Songs on it can be split into either bouncy and uplifting, or brooding and reflective, and they do both equally well.
Opening pair ‘Summer Sun’ and ‘It Will Set Your Free’ just plaster a smile across your face, while the Fleetwood Mac-like ‘Chasing Rainbows’ and ‘Sweet Warrior’ seem tinged with nostalgia and mild melancholy. ‘Anyone Else’, with its Vaselines-esque shuffling drums and folky, almost Celtic rhythm, is my favourite track. I’d love to hear this one in a crowded pub where the ale is flowing freely.
On first listen I found it inoffensive, but it soon become encapsulating. If all albums were like this, we wouldn’t need skip buttons.
5. Preoccupations – Preoccupations
The renaming of the band formerly known as Viet Cong was, depending on your opinion, either a fuss about nothing or something they dragged their heels over and should’ve sorted out ages ago. The new name and album will hopefully let them put the furor behind them, especially because it’s not a bad one at all.
‘Serious’ is a word rarely used to sell music, but I love the gravity of this record. The vocals are stern and low-register, the bass is urgent and pressing, and the song titles (Anxiety, Degraded, Forbidden) aren’t exactly a laugh-a-minute, but this is fine doom-laden post-punk.
Songs generally take a more structured ‘verse and chorus’ approach than on the eponymous Viet Cong album from last year. Saying that, the 11-minute ‘Memory’ is quite an epic, rolling what could be two or three songs into one. It’s synth-driven section somewhere in the middle is a real magic moment on the record, as Matt Flegel’s vocals suddenly turn unexpectedly high-pitched.
The fresh start may have been forced on them, but this album really makes the most out of an uncomfortable situation.
4. Slaves – Take Control
The challenge with a band as rambunctious as Slaves is getting their output to sound as energetic and caustic on record as it does live. Ex-Beastie Boy Mike D is handed the producing baton for the duo’s second album, as they look to ramp up with rawness of their records.
This is achieved particularly well in opening track ‘Spit It Out’, where the guitar squawks, thundering drums and Isaac Holman’s growls come across like a real slap in the face. The production gives it that Steve Albini quality of all the instruments (well, both the instruments in this case) being in the room with you, and with this pair of nutters, that’s an exciting and slightly scary prospect.
The boys certainly like command-based song titles like ‘Play Dead’, ‘Fuck the Hi-Hat’ and ‘Take Control’, which is probably the album’s highlight. ‘Steer Clear’ and ‘Cold Hard Floor’, meanwhile, see them head in a more post-punk direction akin to Public Image Ltd.
Are You Satisfied? probably had the better songs, but somehow I think this is the better album, if that makes sense.
3. Windings – Be Honest and Fear Not
A crazy number of superb albums came out on September 30th, which was deeply inconsiderate towards a reviewer trying to create a list of the best September albums in time for early October. Still, Limerick-based Windings don’t seem to be scared of taking on anything, so they certainly shouldn’t worry about inconveniencing me.
Every song on this ambitious fourth album sounds totally different, from the vigorous punk of ‘Boring’, to the math/alt-rock twist of ‘I’m Alarmed’. The album’s first release ‘You’re Dead’ is perhaps its pinnacle, somehow sounding psychedelic and gloomy at the same time, like latter-era Fugazi after one too many lemonades.
Truly tremendous variety across these tracks, and it’s all so smoothly pulled off that you couldn’t possibly say to them “just stick to doing X and forget about Y”. Keep mixing it up, fellas!
2. The Wytches – All Your Happy Life
A scintillating live band for sure but I’ve never quite felt the same about the Wytches recorded output. Their debut album has itss moments but felt like something was being left behind. All Your Happy Life is a confident step forwards with more strength and depth across it’s 11 tracks. The Wytches are at their strongest when they’re letting loose as they do on some tracks here. ‘Can’t Face It’ catches them in fits of despair, the squall of guitars and anxious howling vocals fill you with dread. ‘Ghost House’ digs even deeper with its sludge metal riffs. The biggest improvement comes in the more introspective songs where the tempo slows. Tracks like ‘Dumb-Fill’ start to capture the atmosphere that I felt was missing in earlier recordings and the whole album benefits from it. Vocals are excellent throughout and the overall result is much closer to the record I’d love to hear The Wytches release.
1. Album of the Month: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Some albums are hard to distance from the events surrounding them. Closer feels like Ian Curtis’s suicide note. Spiderland is made even more troubling by the rumours of the trauma the members of Slint went through recording it. With Skeleton Tree, it’s impossible to overlook the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son midway through the recording process.
It would be inaccurate to say that this is an album about 17-year-old Arthur, as most of it was written before he tragically fell from a cliff in Brighton, but it’s such a major event that it’s hard not to think about it through every note of these eight tracks. Cave’s work is dark and morbid at the best of times, and perhaps there’s an element of “seek and ye shall find” in finding prophecy in his latest work, but it’s particularly chilling that the first line of the album is “you fell from the sky”, and one of the last is “I called out right across the sky”.
The album is beautifully stripped-down and tender, with highlights including the funereal ‘Girl In Amber’, and the ghostly humming and scratchy drumming of ‘Anthrocene’. ‘I Need You’ perhaps hit me hardest of all the songs on the album, where Cave sounds a helpless, broken man as he repeats simple, almost childlike words like “nothing really matters” and “I’ll miss you when you’re gone”.
It’s an absolutely gripping and essential listen, if not always a comfortable one. For Cave to have finished this album at all is a huge credit to him. For him to channel his grief into possibly the best work I’ve ever heard from him is really something else.