Category Archives: Great Albums

Album Review: The Age of Anxiety (2017) by Pixx

In my book, weird is always good when it comes to music. I can appreciate a bad album that at least tries to do something different more than one that plays it safe. Pixx’s debut, The Age of Anxiety, however, is a great album that tries to do something different – boasting a unique voice and style that’s really easy to love.

Hannah Rogers – or Pixx – has a sound that calls up some of my favourite female artists, such as St Vincent and Björk. Her vocals have an undeniable strangeness to them, frequently sounding androgynous and intentionally stilted. On the track ‘Waterslides’ in particular, her voice almost reminds me of a text to speech program – I promise I mean this in a positive way – moving along at a speedy and almost robotic pace. Her unusual vocal style provides her songs with a certain uniqueness, even if she does bust out a more traditional singing style on other tracks like ‘Mood Ring Eyes’ (which is also fantastic).

Opener, ‘I Bow Down’, sets up Pixx’s sound incredibly well, creating an unnerving yet compelling mood. The track starts off with a repeated piano riff, building slowly, before eventually introducing Hannah Rogers’ almost chanting vocal performance. Through Rogers layering her vocals on top of themselves several times, the track almost conjures an image of a strange cult of clones, chanting the song’s lyrics: ‘I salute your kindness / I bow down to your good will’. This layering happens a lot on the album and it works most of the time. Listening to ‘Toes’, you can hear her singing at least four or five different things at the same time on the chorus. On other tracks, like the really fantastic ‘Grip’, she uses her voice almost like an instrument, adding strange textures to her songs.

There are plenty of fantastic songs on The Age of Anxiety. The aforementioned ‘Grip’ is perhaps the poppiest cut, boasting an incredibly catchy chorus and some fun almost jangly instrumentals. ‘Waterslides’ is another favourite of mine, being the most high-energy track with its bubbly drum machine beat and unusual vocal performance. Though the vocals on this track’s verses are particularly (intentionally) stilted, you definitely feel the emotion and sense of anxiety in them, hiding underneath the surface: ‘Now I’m walking round and round, it’s like a maze, I can’t get out’.

And given the album’s title, it’s not surprising that anxiety is a dominant theme here. On ‘Grip’, Pixx sings about not wanting to feel the need to grab on to everything she sees, while ‘The Girls’ is about the singer wanting to ‘dance like the rest of the girls’. It’s about the desire to perceived as normal – to fit in. The album’s slower songs, like ‘The Girls’ and ‘Mood Ring Eyes’, have a more delicate and emotionally bare feel to them than the more energetic tracks, but I’d argue they’re just as strong. A couple of them do get lost in the mix a little bit like ‘Telescreen’, but that’s mainly because the rest of the album is so strong.

The Age of Anxiety is a great fantastic tightwire act, managing to both be accessible and undeniably weird. While not all the tracks are fantastic, they all have something unique about them – something to make them stand-out. This album isn’t bland or samey by any stretch and surely that alone makes it worth a listen.

Best Tracks: ‘I Bow Down’, ‘Grip’, ‘Waterslides’.

Album Review: RELAXER (2017) by Alt-J

I can confidently say that RELAXER is one of the oddest albums I’ve heard this year. Though, to be honest, odd is what I’ve come to expect from Alt-J; for a band so downright bizarre – they used turning a crisp packet inside out and licking it as a sexual simile on their last album – it’s weird to think that they’re in the BBC Radio 1 territory of popularity.

Too their credit though, despite hitting the big time with their first album, the band have refused to make their sound more normal or commercial, with each subsequent release being odder than the last. On RELAXER, their third album, this strangeness is their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. On some tracks it works incredibly well, and on others, well… It just causes the songs to sound like an absolute mess.

‘3WW’, the opener, is the album’s high-point and perhaps the best song Alt-J have put out in their career so far. The band sings about a young man leaving home for the first time, and having his first sexual experience with two women. The song is slow-going at first, but features some gorgeous instrumentation and really lovely lyrics. The chorus is particular is fantastic, with Joe Newman singing of how ‘I love you’ have become ‘three worn words’ through their overuse in today’s society. It’s a slow and patient opener, but it definitely rewards the listener.

‘In Cold Blood’ is another highlight – though a lot more abstract than ‘3WW’. It’s hard to tell what the song is about entirely – the hook is literally ‘Pool, summer, summer, pool, pool, summer’ – but it’s got a sense of hyperactive energy that’s impossible not to love. It reminds me of some of best songs from the band’s debut, like ‘Breezeblocks’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’, and acts as a nice change of pace among RELAXER’s slower songs.

Two other songs that stand out from the album are ‘Adeline’ and ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. Like ‘3WW’, these are a slow and delicate songs. On ‘Adeline’, the band sing about a Tasmanian devil falling in love with a woman he watches swimming. It’s completely bizarre, but the band really sell it, with Newman’s vocal delivery being full of emotion and resignation – the devil knowing he can never be with this woman: ‘Ooh, I wish you well’. ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ is the band’s stab at a more folky song – being adapted from an actual traditional song. It’s filled with lush instrumentation as well as some surprisingly serious lyrics.

Despite these highlights, I felt like the band hit a few new lows on RELAXER in terms of quality. As well as featuring some of the band’s best tracks, it also features some of their worst ones… ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ in particular. This song is especially awful, feeling incredibly thrown together with its lyrics about a sex hotel that can’t be described as anything other than nonsense. The vocals are also pretty grating. It doesn’t sit well among the album’s more delicate tracks, following the gorgeous ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, and feels like it’s there to just fill up the tracklist. With RELAXER only being eight songs long, this song’s inclusion feels like a particularly glaring mistake.

There were also a few other tracks I wasn’t too fussed about. ‘Deadcrush’ is about, well, the band’s dead crushes and again has a very thrown together feel to it. It’s not quite as bad as ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it earns its place on the tracklist. The two closing tracks ‘Last Year’ and ‘Pleader’, while pretty, both feel slightly too drawn out. And ‘Pleader’ just doesn’t seem like a good fit for the album and for me doesn’t work well as a closer. This track, along with ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, created the sense that this album was just kind of thrown together. They didn’t have enough ideas to fill out a full album and so this just put out whatever they had lying around.

RELAXER, despite some highs, is a disappointing album. When I saw the band had opted to release a forty minute, eight track album, I hoped that it meant that this would be a more focused release than their previous ones. Instead, it’s pretty much all over the place. It’s definitely worth checking out RELAXER’s highlights – ‘3WW’ and ‘Adeline’ in particularly – but as an album it doesn’t work that well for me.

Best Tracks: ‘3WW’, ‘In Cold Blood’, ‘Adeline’.

Album Review: The Witch (2017) by Pumarosa

Pumarosa is a band I’ve been watching for a while, waiting almost vulture-like for them to drop an album. The Witch delivers on what I hoped their debut would be; featuring long atmospheric tracks, like their incredible debut single ‘Priestess’, as well as showing the band experimenting further with the sound shown on their early singles and EP. Basically it’s a great album filled with great tracks.

‘Dragonfly’, the opener is a smooth yet almost anthemic track, building slowly around a great metaphor. It’s not my favourite song on the album, but it makes for a great introduction to Pumarosa’s sound – described by the band as ‘Industrial Spiritual’. It bounces between delicate and roaring, led by singer Isabel’s incredibly captivating voice. The slow build used on ‘Dragonfly’ is a template for many of the songs on The Witch, and that’s not really a bad thing. ‘Priestess’ is the best example of this. When a song that’s seven and a half minutes long feels like a lot, lot less, you know the band are doing something right. Building from a humming synth and a repeated bass note, the track grows into one of the most danceable – and chantable – songs I’ve heard in a long time. It’s masterfully suspenseful, building up the audience’s anticipation before paying off tremendously.

While ‘Priestess’ is easily the album’s centrepiece, there are some other great long songs on here as well. The title track has a similar spiritual, almost tribal vibe, with Isabel singing of her ‘monkey hands’ and ‘building a fire’. The lyrics, I think, hold the song back slightly – being generally quite weak – but Isabel’s delivery of them helps it remain compelling. It definitely helps when a lead singer puts enthusiasm and personality into every word, and she does just that. ‘Lions’ Den’ is an even better track, putting even more emphasis on Isabel’s voice. The song starts off slow and stripped back, before exploding into a wall of sound around halfway through. However, it’s singer’s bitter, angry vocal delivery that makes the song so damn compelling.

Among these long, typically Pumarosa songs, there are also a few shorter tracks that show the band try on a few different styles. ‘Honey’ is a gloriously anthemic song about consumerism and global warming, chanting about how pointless so many of things we’re invested in are: ‘Events come and go / Like the waves of a fever’. Another favourite of mine on the album is ‘Barefoot’, which is perhaps the most stripped back the band gets, being built around a guitar and a punchy drum machine beat. Isabel’s Kate Bush-like delivery is again a large part of what makes this song so enjoyable, with her crooning vocals making it easy to connect with the story she’ll telling.

If there’s one noticeable dip on the album, it comes at the end. The last two tracks, ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Snake’, while not bad, are really just fine in my eyes. ‘Snake’ in particular is underwhelming as a closer, lacking the energy that so many of The Witch‘s best tracks do. And, unlike ‘Priestess’ or ‘Lions’ Den’, it feels unnecessarily long. It’s as though the band were aiming for a grand finish but missed the mark. Despite this blip, I highly recommend taking a look at this album. These last couple of songs aren’t bad – it’s more that the high quality of the rest of the album makes them look so. There’s a lot to love here.

Best Tracks: ‘Priestess’, ‘Lions’ Den’, ‘Barefoot’.

Album Review: Routines (2017) by Hoops

Routines is just one of those albums with a sound that I find impossible not to love. The music Hoops makes is the sort of stuff you just want to chill out to – to just lay back and think about things a little bit. It’s got great riffs, smooth drum machine beats, chilled out, almost psychedelic, vocals… Basically it’s right up my alley.

I’ve listened to quite few underwhelming debuts this year, and I’d say that Routines is the first one that’s really exceeded my expectations. One album in and it feels like the band have already got their sound nailed. And this is why it succeeds so well; Hoops’ debut is an album that feels very assured. The band know what sort of music they want to make and they don’t feel the need to try and act big or flashy to try and grab the audience’s attention. The whole album flows as smoothly as anything else I’ve listened to this year, with each of the songs flowing into the next effortlessly.

And yet, thankfully, each of them feels distinctive within the band’s defined ambient music-esque sound. ‘Bengals’ is a gorgeous instrumental track led by a great drum machine beat, ‘Burden’ features perhaps the catchiest hooks on the album (‘No, I don’t wanna be a burden’) and ‘Worry’ is brought to life by some very twinkling synth notes. In many ways, it reminds me of a Beach House album; when I listened to at first, all the songs bordered on same-y slightly, but repeatedly listens revealed how distinct they really are.

Another thing I loved about this album was the brevity of the tracks. Most tracks on Routines hover around the three-minute mark and, in the hands of another band, probably would’ve been stretched out longer than they needed to. ‘Rules’ is a gorgeously layered, punchy track that clocks in at just over two minutes; like many other songs on the album, it shows the band get in, say what they want to say, and then get out again. And given psychedelic music’s love for indulgence, that’s pretty refreshing.

Hoops’ debut is very much recommended. The more I’ve listened to it over the past couple of weeks, the more its grown on me. I wouldn’t say the band do anything mind-blowingly creative here, but the songs on Routines are really well put together and really enjoyable. And sometimes that’s all that good music needs to be.

Best Tracks: ‘Rules’, ‘Burden’, Worry’.

Album Review: After Laughter (2017) by Paramore

I’ve never really be part of the Paramore crowd in the past. And, to be honest, up until After Laughter, I’d never really listened to any of their music. I always associated them with the whole pop-punk/00s emo music crowd – bands like Asking Alexandria and Fall Out Boy (who have just put out the worst song I’ve heard in a long time) – which has never really been my bag.

However, a friend recently turned me on to their new album’s lead single ‘Hard Times’, saying they thought it was my sort of thing. Though I liked it immediately – quirky and catchy with a killer bass groove – I’ve definitely grown to love it even more now that I’ve had a few weeks to sit with it. In fact, it’s probably one of the best indie pop songs I’ve heard in a long time. And while it doesn’t do anything particularly new, I especially get clear Two Door Cinema Club vibes from it, it does what it does really well. The instrumentation is tight and well layered, it’s got a good groove, an explosive chorus that just makes you want to dance as well as some pretty solid lyrics to boot. It’s a pop song in its purest form, right down to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure, and the band execute it more or less perfectly.

After Laughter doesn’t stray from the formula of ‘Hard Times’ too much, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Each song has something going for it that makes it stand out, whether it be some particularly strong lyrics or a creative bit of instrumentation, but the majority of them are pop songs like the lead single. They’re all short and punchy and are guaranteed to worm their way into your head.

The album’s second track ‘Rose-Colored Boy’ features some of my favourite lyrics on the album, exploring depression creatively – talking about what it’s like to be around people who’re happy when you aren’t. ‘Told You So’ features a fantastic guitar-driven chorus and plenty of energy. Following these two is ‘Forgiveness’, another favourite, which despite being a slower cut is still incredibly easy to get stuck in your head. The vocal delivery on this track is particularly great. Like ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, the lyrics are fantastic here as well. These four opening songs are easily the album’s high point, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to love throughout the rest of it. There are still some great songs in the album’s second half, like ‘Idle Worship’ in which Hayley William struggles with being idolised by Paramore’s fans: ‘I’m just a girl and you’re not as alone as you feel’.

Apart from the experimental ‘No Friend’, After Laughter is a pretty straightforward indie pop album, but like I said, an incredibly well produced one. Whether you’re a long-time fan or you’ve never really been into Paramore before – much like me – I definitely recommend checking out this album. It’s got a lot going for it.

Best Tracks: ‘Hard Times’, ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, ‘Idle Worship’.

Album Review: Flying Microtonal Banana (2017) by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

Over the past few years, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have proven themselves to be one of the hardest working bands around. Despite only releasing their debut in 2012 – having formed in 2010 – the band have put out a total of nine albums so far. Not only that, but they’ve vowed to put out at least four albums in 2017, with Flying Microtonal Banana being the first.

This wouldn’t be that impressive if these nine albums were mediocre, but they’re really not. Despite King Gizzard being a psychedelic rock band at their core, each of their albums has seen them experiment with their sound in some way. Quarters was made up of four prog rock jams totally 10 minutes and 10 seconds each, Paper Mache Dream Balloon saw the band using nothing but acoustic instruments and on Nonagon Infinity, perhaps their most impressive effort yet, King Gizzard produced an album that was an infinite loop, with all of the tracks leading seamlessly into each other – the closer into the opener included.

Flying Microtonal Banana, as the album’s title suggests, sees the band experiment with the world of microtonal instruments. Microtonality takes advantage of note intervals not commonly heard in Western music, due to the way that Western instruments are tuned. On the surface, it seems like a bit of hollow gimmick – but luckily the album produced from this experiment is nothing less than fantastic.

There is a heavy Eastern music influence in Flying Microtonal Banana – in part due to the presence of microtonal instruments – that really gives it a unique style. This influence is most evident on album highlight ‘Nuclear Fusion’ – which somehow manages to seamlessly blend together the band’s psych rock roots with some very African stylings. This influence is also very present on the instrumental closing track, ‘Flying Microtonal Banana’, making excellent use of the zurna.

It’s this album’s effortless meshing of different styles that really makes it so compelling. Though this Eastern aesthetic ties the album together as a whole, the band also experiment with a number of other different styles – such as on ‘Billabong Valley’, which is structured like an old Spaghetti Western ballad, with the band singing of a famous Australian bushranger: Mad dog Morgan / He never gave a warning.’

There are also a few classic-style King Gizzard long psychedelic jams on here, which feel like they could have fit onto previous albums with ease. These songs, ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Open Water’, are definitely some of the least adventurous tracks on the album, but that doesn’t stop them being fantastic. King Gizzard have put out so many tracks in this style that they’ve pretty much mastered writing them now. It’s a testament to the band that I can listen to Stu Mackenzie sing little more than ‘Rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattles me’ for a seven and a half minutes without getting bored.

This might not be the band’s best release, but that’s only because they’ve set the bar so high with their past releases. The only less-than-great track on here is the titular one, with it feeling slightly underwhelming as a closer despite its interesting instrumentation. Everything else, however, is gold. From the dreamy ‘Sleep Drifter’ to the stomping and distorted ‘Doom City’ and the apocalyptic ‘Nuclear Fusion’, Flying Microtonal Banana continues King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s seemingly endless hot streak.

Essential Songs: ‘Sleep Drifter’, ‘Billabong Valley’, ‘Nuclear Fusion’.

Album Review: The Far Field (2017) by Future Islands

With their last album, it felt like Future Islands had perfected their synth-pop formula, delivering some of their most emotional ballads yet. From break-out single ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ to the moody and growling ‘Fall From Grace’, Singles was filled with fantastic songs. As the album’s title suggests, pretty much all of them were up to ‘single’ standard.

So where next? On their fifth album, The Far Field, Future Islands don’t try to mess with their signature sound too much, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Though far from being Singles 2, the album does feature a number of songs that could have fit snuggly onto the band’s past releases. Like I said, this is a weakness and a strength. On one hand, some might find the The Far Field to be a little bit on the samey side, but on the other hand, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it – right?

The first half of the album in particular shows the band staying squarely in their comfort zone. Songs like ‘Time On Her Side’ and ‘Ran’ are instant classic Future Islands tracks, featuring powerful vocal performances from Samuel T. Herring as well as some pretty moving lyrics: ‘What’s a song without you / When every song I write’s about you?’ ‘Cave’ is another stand-out on the album’s first half, with Herring unleashing the fiercer side of voice, which is always great. It’s not the first time that Future Islands have put out a song about heartbreak, but the passion they put into it makes it feel incredibly fresh.

On the album’s second half, we do get to see the band try out some new styles. ‘Candles’ stands out through its slow pace and groovy bassline, being perhaps the most intimate song the band have released; ‘Shadows’ is an emotional duet, featuring guest vocals from Debbie Harry of Blondie; ‘North Star’ has a jumpy charm to it, with Herring reeling off lyrics with more upbeat enthusiasm than usual: ‘But if the sun don’t shine / Well, then the birds won’t sing.’ These songs are still very obviously ‘Future Islands’ songs, but these experiments with style help keep the album from feeling too samey.

One thing that sets The Far Field apart from its predecessor is that definitely feels more like a complete set of songs. At the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, it sounds more like a journey. While Singles felt like, well, single after single, this album builds up momentum slowly. Opener ‘Aladdin’ takes its time to get going, fading in slowly, with the next couple of tracks slowly raising the intensity.

There is also more thematic unity among the songs. As shown by some tracks’ titles – ‘Beauty of the Road’, ‘Cave’, ‘Through the Roses’ – as well as the album’s title, The Far Field, it is focused on the natural world. On ‘Aladdin’, Herring sings about the ‘the dew of the field’ and on ‘Ancient Water’ he dreams of being ‘patient like the forest’. On the album, the outside world is shown as something that promotes love – on many tracks Herring sings of exploring the world with his loved one – and something that hinders it, with other songs like ‘North Star’ being about the large distance between the protagonist and his love.

Whether you’ll love The Far Field or not will depend largely on how you feel about the band’s previous albums. This isn’t the album that’s going to convert you to loving Future Islands, but if you like what they’ve been doing up this point then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It may be a bit cheesy at times, but there’s no denying that a lot of heart has gone into every track.

Essential Songs: ‘Ran’, ‘Cave’, ‘Candles’.