From open-hearted pop to filthy techno, the albums and EPs that helped define our year.
Musicians in Madison were determined to take us to emotional extremes in 2019, whether drilling deep into their own tangled psyches or shaking their fists at fascism and gentrification. They took dozens of different sonic paths, in a town where local music is always fertile but never cohesive. We’re starting our roundup of the year in Madison music with this selection of 20 standout albums and EPs (as always, alphabetical by artist, not ranked) from across a slew of genres and backgrounds. These weren’t the only local recordings that stuck with us this year, so look out later this month for some honorable mentions and a roundup of a few great singles and one-offs. And don’t forget to join us this Thursday, December 12 at Giant Jones Brewing Company for our Best of 2019 Listening Party.
Saxophonist Tony Barba established a compelling mix of solo sax and electronics on his first solo record, 2016’s Winter’s Arms. But on Ether, Barba pushes into a whole different realm, stretching out across three very extended tracks (which total up to a runtime of about an hour and 15 minutes) and more fully intertwining the practices of jazz improvisation and ambient production. The album’s half-hour title track builds up saxophone phrases at a nearly glacial pace, gradually looping them together and letting them marinate in the rustle of reed and breath. Barba’s approach to warping the sounds through modulation, delay, and other software-driven effects has become both more ambitious and more subtle, as his production skill begins to catch up to his instrumental skill and melodic alertness. Like a lot of the best ambient music, it’s at times frosty and at times enveloped in warmth, and at times a bit of both.
Ever since he began experimenting with loops and effects, Barba has still placed a lot of emphasis on letting the tenor sax sound like a tenor sax. Even as he piles on more abstraction and atmosphere, the listener is never all that far from the instrument’s warm and resonant mid-range, or, on “Time Will Take Its Toll,” the mildly unnerving rattle of its keys. Ether, recorded during a live performance at Arts + Literature Laboratory, manages that balance by incorporating both the signal from Barba’s laptop and the capture from a room mic in the venue. During the album’s longest track, Barba not only layers together components but also eventually begins to pry them apart, extracting the piece’s gentle core melody into fragments that shimmer, and slur, almost pulling the whole thing off key but never quite giving in to full-on dissonance.
Playing solo with a computer and a set of MIDI controllers can seem like an insular pursuit, and not every audience will go along with music that moves and evolves so slowly. But Barba has explained that performing live has actually helped his solo work take some major leaps in this solo endeavor, and he turns his meticulous sound-shaping into a conversation that lets people in. Listening to Ether, it’s easy to understand why his audience one night last December would have been enthralled. ―Scott Gordon
Ilana Bryne spent years experimenting with production and worked for a time as a drum ‘n’ bass and jungle DJ before putting out her debut EP of original electronic music. It’s exciting that a somewhat reclusive producer from Madison not only earned the chance to put out her first record on the exciting Portuguese label Naive, but also figured out how to warmly reconcile a bunch of different pockets of dance music. Low Earth Orbit compacts all of Bryne’s experience and a lot of patiently absorbed sounds into three tracks that sparkle with exuberant swing and playful melody. “Dub Box Medicine” kicks off the EP with crackling breakbeats and samples the pugnacious declarations of British reggae DJ David Rodigan, hinting at the variety of traditions and subgenres Bryne wants to gracefully integrate, and opening up a small but unmistakable window into her sense of humor. Over the course of the track, Bryne builds up a bit of quiet and softness around the sharp percussion samples, giving us everything from terse chord stabs to dreamy interludes.
Bryne pumps up the intensity on “Feelin’ Myself,” a blend of house and techno that surges with rubbery, funky bass, even as languid synth phrases stretch out across the measures. Even here, there’s room for mood and reflection, and Bryne manages to explore a variety of melodic approaches and concise, almost fragmentary hooks without ever layering on too much. But the real treasure on Low Earth Orbit is “Mmm Mmm Mmm,” which pairs a Big Daddy Kane sample with an itchy breakbeat to create a feeling of almost triumphant relaxation. The track can still get people moving, though, thanks to the persistent nudging of its bass line and silky synth chords that pan gently back and forth. The EP’s fourth and final track is a remix of “Mmm Mmm Mmm” by Toronto-based producer Ciel, who focuses in on the original’s spacious qualities and stretches it out with both extra ambience and heavier low end. It sits nicely along the rest of Low Earth Orbit, all of which both propels you to dance and invites you to just listen. —Scott Gordon
Another producer and DJ who resides in Madison but tends to lay low, Sage Caswell retreats into an immersive, often beat-less realm on his latest full-length. Caswell made most of Evil Twin after moving here from his hometown of Los Angeles, and right from the start, he captures a feeling of dislocation. But he approaches that dislocation with curiosity and even acceptance. The title track opens the album with gauzy pads and skittering melodies that evoke a clash of anxiety and surrender. Throughout the record, Caswell seems to be telling the listener: Hey, sure, feel those dark feelings, but don’t fight them and don’t despair. “Way Out West” interweaves its softly bubbling synths with samples of the late actor River Phoenix giving a self-searching interview, turning phrases like “I can’t really explain why I understand what I understand” and “I wanna leave it like a mine of gold, you know, without ever mining it” into abstract but reassuring refrains.
Caswell has explored ambient-leaning, less dance-oriented music before, including on some tracks from his 2016 album Hoop Earring, but on Evil Twin it becomes the focus. When percussive elements from house and techno do kick in, they’re almost always subservient to a drone-like expanse of synths. Caswell uses the hats and snares of “Walter Reed HD” to build up tension, rustling against a gorgeous swirl of chords but never resolving into anything like a straight-ahead beat. When he does give the listener a solid straight-ahead kick drum on “Radius Pause,” it’s still bathed in the eerie glimmer of the synth. Even the relatively fast-paced “Park” feels like it’s laced with doubt and anxiety. But this is never quite a tormented album. Evil Twin draws on the moments where darkness and light bleed together, greeting uncertainty and discomfort with a kind of gratitude. —Scott Gordon
It’s strange to think that two of Corridoré’s members have never played in a metal band before. because this self-titled debut album is a work of luxurious desolation. The band showed a lot of promise early on, putting out a two-song demo in 2017 that showcased its ambitious long-form songwriting and playing live sets that reconciled that ambition with raw urgency. Even so, the multi-layered detail of Matt Allen’s guitar tracks and the near-constant shifts of Drew Carlson’s drumming make this album an impressive step forward. Throughout the first two tracks, “For the Voyage of Oblivion Awaits You, Pt. 1” and “For the Voyage of Oblivion Awaits You, Pt. 2,” the band steers between pummeling black-metal blastbeats and passages of slow-motion churn, building up masses of gloomy distortion that at times threaten to swallow the listener. And there are moments, like the second half of “Pt. 1,” that let a little light in and put the band’s love of post-rock on full display, trading out fury for what is either relief or cruel, short-lived hope.
For all the album’s lofty nautical and spiritual themes (in short: you are on either a real or a metaphorical boat, you’re mortal, you’re fucked), bassist/vocalist Eric Andraska keeps the music stapled to the listener’s guts. There’s no preening or grandeur to Andraska’s high-pitched screams, just the grimy desperation of someone who’s been dragged beyond any reasonable limit of mental and emotional strain. His voice and grizzled bass tone serves the band particularly well when it heads into more doom-influenced territory on the album’s last track, “This Swallowing Sea.” Corridoré sounds fiercely engaged throughout the album’s many structural twists, a testament to the chemistry among the band members and to the work of recording engineers Spenser Morris and Jerry McDougal. The record makes plenty of space for variety, but never skimps on its brutal impact. —Scott Gordon
DJ Speedsick, the production moniker of Madison resident Alec Eberhardt, has released a flurry of music over the past couple years that offers the psychic equivalent of rolling around in lead tailings. Eberhardt makes no bones about greeting the listener with foulness and alienation at just about every turn, but he does so in a spirit of frantic creativity, using the very coarseness of his sound to melt together shards of techno, industrial music, full-on noise, and the occasional swerve into dissonant acoustic guitar. Nothing Lasts was the first DJ Speedsick release of 2019, and the most consistently techno-oriented. Using bare-bones drum samples, a haze of distorted static, and volatile synth patches, Eberhardt creates angrily driving dance tracks that slip around in the leakage of a troubled unconscious.
The eight-minute “Death Trips” pits a wobbling bass against a rigid kick drum, resulting in a viscerally queasy rhythmic friction. On “Head Full Of Hate And Acid,” the snarled oscillations of Eberhardt’s synth cut into a maniacally high-tempo beat, turning the austerity of DJ Speedsick’s music to paradoxically overstimulated extremes. Still, there’s a lot more to Nothing Lasts than unease and provocation. “No Euphoria (Russian Ghetto Version)” incorporates a rumbling kick drum and a nasty distorted chirp into a suspensefully syncopated pattern, demonstrating that Eberhardt is as good at gradually ramping up the energy of the dance floor as he is at hurling it into chaos. His sonic world is harsh but not flat, providing at least a little breathing room around its ragged edges and allowing for new textures and possibilities to seep in. Nothing Lasts closes with “Even Further Down The Spiral” (a nod to Eberhardt’s fascination with Midwestern rave history), a densely kinetic weave of percussion and warped bass that feels almost contemplative. —Scott Gordon
Across Pitch 23, young emce Eli Blakely, stage name Eli B, raps with the confidence and seasoned style of an experienced rapper many years his senior. From the get-go, on opener “Feelin Myself,” he announces himself with no frills—just hard-hitting bars over a piano-based beat. From there, Eli B keeps his foot on the gas and deftly navigates through a well-picked assortment of beats spanning different influences and eras. Lyrically, he often prefers a simple and concise approach, with lyrics like “I’m always on the move like the pizza man” that allow him to smoothly flow between cadences and at times even incorporate melody. On Ra’Shaun-assisted “Move,” he raps straightforwardly about money and those who impede the process of getting it over a slick trap snare. On the following track, “My People,” he injects a bit of melody into his vocals and it pairs well with the track’s early ’00s gospel beat.
Listening to Eli B, you hear an artist formed by the last two decades of rap with traces of Drake, Lil Wayne and DMX floating alongside one another in a well-defined but still constantly shifting style. If anything is missing on Pitch23, it’s a single train of thought or theme that encompasses the entire record. In lieu of this though, there is hard evidence of the rapping ability and beat selection skills that Eli B already has, and an abundance of reasons to look forward to whatever he does next. —Henry Solo
On this debut album, queer-punk duo Gender Confetti shred up the world’s ills and toss it all into the air with gusto and defiance. Indeed, fascism, transphobia, white guilt and assumptions about consent are among the source materials that Sylvia Johnson and Elyse Clouthier use in their raucous and righteous raging. With their no-nonsense guitar and drum attack and the frequent use of second-person in their lyricism, most of the songs on We’re Gay evoke the air of a cool and well-informed older sibling or cousin instructing the listener on how to live and be better in a world that, depending on who you are, might be trying to kill you and make you worse.
Throughout the album the duo uses rage and humor, often at the same time, to take down the objects of their ire as well as to build up their audience. Songs like “No Borders” lean more on the pair’s punk tendencies, employing thrashing guitar and punchy drums along with lyrics like “You will pay for your insanity / How could you separate families?” to indict the federal government, ICE, and their racist policies toward and projections onto immigrants. On the other hand, tracks like “Gay Mirror” veer into softer territory and offer support to members of their audience who feel like society’s gaze erases them.
On certain moments, though, the pair instead look completely inward. This happens most notably on the penultimate track, “Confetti,” where the guitars become cleaner, the drums subdued and the pair sings lines like, “If we find ourselves, we might find all the answers / And I don’t know.” In the end, Johnson and Clouthier acknowledge that no one has the answers to everything, but more importantly that it’s never an excuse to stop moving forward. —Henry Solo
Brian Grimm’s core activities include classical cello, jazz bass, and playing a Chinese zither the size of a small boat. His work as a collaborator has included improvising in the free-jazz trio Brennan Connors & Stray Passage, creating theater scores, and performing in avant-classical ensembles like Sound Out Loud and The Brothers Grimm. On top of that, his solo outings have been just as varied, from his hip-hop production work under the name Brain Grimmer to experimental electroacoustic projects like 2016’s Orbis Obscura. They’re Still Here, debuted in a live performance in summer 2018 and released as a recording this year under the name BC Grimm, is the closest Grimm as come to putting all of his different interests into one project. Playing more than a dozen stringed, percussion, and wind instruments, not counting field recordings and electronic production elements, Grimm creates an episodic and highly personal meditation on grief.
Grimm composed different sections of They’re Still Here in honor of different close friends and family members who have died in recent years. From somber low-end passages on the Viola da Gamba to whimsical patchworks of musique concrète, the single continuous half-hour piece puts the unresolvable pain of loss alongside the joy of acknowledging the imprint people leave on our lives even after they’re gone. Just as importantly, he treats grief as an experience both profound and mundane, acknowledging the difficulty of processing loss and all the times in life when we don’t get adequate time or space to process it. Field recordings woven into the music capture a person grabbing car keys on the way out the door, a coffee grinder that explodes into overpowering static, a 1940s radio broadcast about democratic socialism, kids playing in a schoolyard. Grimm uses almost everything about his disposal here to engross the listener in some of life’s thorniest contradictions, and in the course of it challenges us to appreciate the richness of all the life around us. —Scott Gordon
From the earthy ashes of The Ferns, Hex House was built. The core trio’s fertile psychedelic pop origins have migrated and grown more mature and beguiling in their intricate amalgamation of mathy rhythms and impassioned hooks, enveloped in post-rock dynamics and the unpredictable detours of post-hardcore. Lead songwriter, producer, and guitarist Cal Lamore, who last year also lent his talents to Gentle Brontosaurus’ sophomore record, emerges here as a fully fledged phenom on this debut self-release. Paired with his wistful, softly reverb-bathed vocals gliding over the mix, Lamore’s lithe riffs and phrasing instantly make an impression on the propulsive yet elusive opener, “Wild Mirror.” The track kicks off with a tried-and-true driving chord progression and plaintive lyrics that collectively recall lost time, as if harkening back to the DIY attitudes and origins of the ’90s DC underground scene. Alex Prochaska’s innovative ride cymbal-heavy drumming on the track particular stands out, as he drops some metal-leaning blast beats during the bridge before the track transitions into this jazzy, introspective jam dolloped in Lamore’s guitar reverb.
“Last Legs” sonically dips into Midwestern emo roots of bands like American Football and Cap’n Jazz while simultaneously bursting through that potentially restrictive designation, as intermittent flourishes of distortion underpin the song’s cathartic, extended outro accentuated by tremolo-picking that eventually loops back on itself. The muscular melodicism on the leaner, heavier riffs and sudden tempo changes of “Cartas” recall the ingenuity of New Plastic Ideas-era Unwound. Lennon Baker’s fuzzed-out electric bass gets a prominent feature on “Vital Wave,” carrying the song’s deceptive simplicity and momentum into a surf rock-inspired section of lead guitar that forecasts one of the record’s most tender breaks just 45 seconds later. These juxtapositions and dynamic shifts of timbre shouldn’t flow so seamlessly, but the altogether confident and stellar playing of the band is almost incomparably magnetic amongst their contemporaries. Even the cozy gleam of the two minute-long ambient interludes, “Hex Us I & II,” reinforce Hex House’s subtler detours into neo-psychedelia like the synth wash coasting behind the shoegazey guitar drone on the bridge of “Gliss,” which is otherwise the most robust example of noise rock influence. With the instrumental closing track, “You’ve Never Seen A Stairway Before,” the band resolutely packages a culmination of its musical ambitions into just four and a half minutes. —Grant Phipps
An insidious synth, behind-the-beat drums, and Trent Prall’s distant yet intimate vocals are all it takes to usher the listener into the Lotus Gate—the title of the debut album (and its opening track) from Prall’s project Kainalu, but also a site of introspection for Prall and his listeners. Across eight tracks, Prall and his band further extend the groovy and psychedelic pop nucleus of 2016’s Blue Lagoon, but add layers of depth to it as well.
“Folds Like Origami” is among the most danceable tracks Kainalu has put out so far, but further fleshes out the harmonic intricacy that sprouted on Bloom Lagoon. Songs like “Finding Peace Of Mind” also reveal more of Prall’s self and his own struggles, with lyrics like “You try to find yourself / In books stacked on a shelf / Pages left behind,” but are pointedly general enough for the listener to adapt the lines to fit their own battles. More than anything, though, this record reveals even more of Prall’s potential as a songwriter and Kainalu’s as a band. On the last track, “Talking Nonsense,” they lead us on a self-contained musical journey across seven minutes and lean further into psychedelic rock than even before. The result is an ephemeral and beautiful song resembling antiquarian pottery with dazzling scenes spread across a form that’s ultimately graspable in your hands. —Henry Solo
Opening with a sample-heavy tribute to a French compact car, the second EP from Madison electronic duo Klack uses just a bit of silliness to draw listeners into a very sincere nostalgia for the slamming catchiness of early-1980s EBM. The project gives Matt Fanale and Eric Oehler, both producers and vocalists, a chance to play around outside of their main projects, including Fanale’s hardcore industrial outlet Caustic and Oehler’s synth-pop band Null Device, and throughout Introducing The 1984 Renault LeCar they’re clearly having giddy fun, throwing ideas at the wall and not worrying too much about the stakes. Their creative energy, freed from expectations of any kind, has given Klack a strong identity of its own, far more distinctive than a happy medium between an abrasive screamer and a polished crooner.
Three of Le Car‘s six songs are overt lyrical celebrations of dance music itself: “With Precision” builds around Fanale’s gnarled chants of “your heart beats with the tempo / The world washes away / This love goes on forever / ‘Til judgement day,” while “Flowers For Ravers” takes a tender and romantic approach, and “The Revolution Will Be Synthesized” even shouts out various brands of synths and drum machines, just maybe gently poking fun at the duo’s own love of gear. Fanale and Oehler’s vocal styles bend ever so slightly toward each other on the duet “Time v1.1,” a track that beautifully fuses industrial menace with synth-pop grace. —Scott Gordon
On his first solo album in six years (and his first since joining the band Real Estate as a guitarist), Julian Lynch harmoniously weds the eclectic sound artistry of his past solo works with newfound boldness and clarity. On past releases, like 2013’s Lines, Lynch takes the listener on compelling but at times disorienting journeys. Rat Spit, though does not present the listener with this dilemma. Throughout the nine tracks, the New Jersey native still wields a palette of richly varied sonic textures and production choices, but his style is more impressionistic rather than abstract. A multi-instrumentalist, but most highly regarded for his guitar skills, Lynch employs his vocals and instrumental work to buoy one another on tracks like “Catapult” rather than compete, and the result does as the title suggests—springing the listener into an ocean of deep contemplation.
The album’s middle stretch is also its most tumultuous. “Peanut Butter” enmeshes the listener in a sticky emotional web: A Sun Ra-esque saxophone and forward-marching percussion propels the listener forward but in an unknown direction, and Lynch’s vocals decompose from words into sounds. On this track and the next, “Floater,” Lynch leans most heavily into his sound artistry, flirting with chaos but not quite yielding to it.
The album’s last track, “Reallu,” starts with just Lynch’s vocals, as central as they’ve ever been, and a haunting synth melody. As the track goes on, he gradually builds on this basic (for Lynch’s standards) composition with his sturdy guitar and cymbals. The effect is that of a waning tide, retreating back into its origin but not before safely landing you on shore. —Henry Solo
In the local landscape of their indie-rock contemporaries, Miyha’s songwriting consistently raised the bar. The quartet’s first and only full-length album, World’s Biggest Crush, came out just a few months before Miyha called it quits, but at least its tight and emotionally direct tracks delivered on the promise of the band’s 2017 debut EP and further elevated the outstanding melodic guitar interplay between Mike Pellino and lead vocalist/lyricist Alejandra Perez. Perez’s focus is always on making it work on the interpersonal level, penning lyrics that evoke such a strong sense of time and place—whether a cold winter night in small-town Wisconsin or a seeming getaway to Northern California. On 10 tracks across 30 minutes, Perez battles externalized self-assessments both rhetorical and vividly real in confessional, upfront vocal performances that temper traditional verse-chorus-verse structures and recall the mellifluous, yet anguished hum of Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan and Pile’s Rick Maguire.
The dynamics of “Good Enough” set the initial tone of the record, with a bright yet unpolished guitar tone that pulses under Perez’s tale of a simple car ride home laden with sensual tension and ruined expectations. The subject is explored more deeply across the seasons on the rhythmic “Sommers/Summer,” which possesses the intimacy of a page ripped straight from a diary, as Kyle Kohl’s nimble bass line sets up the insistent, flickering lead guitar interplay that snakes through its latter half. “Suit Of Cups” mixes up the sonic palette with a wonderfully produced solo acoustic ballad from Perez, featuring some of the record’s most poetically descriptive lyrics, like “Your eyes, a love larger than the moon / I watch as dimples find your cheeks.” There’s a summery air of Hot Rock-era Sleater-Kinney to the timbre of “92/69/39” that also parenthetically names the now-disgraced singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, which progressively (and aptly) cuts to bone in its forthright spite for an abusive ex. Conversely, “Viroqua” is an apologetic earworm, and serves as the band’s quintessential road trip anthem with its upbeat, snappy percussion from Erik Fredine. World’s Biggest Crush ends on the bittersweet dynamic sway of “Raspberry Kombucha,” with allusions to the melodrama of life as analogous to the most memorable of movie scenes. It seems like such a fitting reference to the immensely poignant pull of its title—hyperbolic, yet made plausibly palpable through song. —Grant Phipps
As the very concept of an album becomes ever more flexible and fragile, there is something to be said about the process of winnowing down a tight collection of songs. But after taking in all 116 minutes of jazz-rock quartet Mr. Chair’s debut triple LP multimedia project, Nebulebula, perhaps it’s past due to reassess the value of such expansive showcases of material. The full effect of the record’s ebb and flow and cosmic curiosity are difficult to initially quantify, like binging a TV series that continuously fosters its own intrigue through shrewd synthesis of genre elements. Mr. Chair’s compositions follow playful and cerebral impulses all at once (the album title reads like some kind of astronomical in-joke). The music itself has become deeply intertwined in the band’s collaborations with UW-Madison geoscientist and professor Stephen Meyers, who invited Mr. Chair into his classroom to help teach students about the origins of the universe. Meyers also commissioned the record’s title track and worked with the band on accompanying performance videos. The macrocosmic collides with the microcosmic on Nebulebula, yet an unshakable conceptual audacity holds the whole thing together.
Following in the wake of surrealistic art music acts like Lovely Socialite (which shares versatile drummer Mike Koszewski), Mr. Chair assuredly absorbs elements of post-minimalism, neo-classicism, post-rock, fusion, and soul into a dynamic. The core ensemble is always willing to expand, both sonically and literally—the album features 13 guest performers, including a number of vocalists. Take an excerpt from the string quartet-adorned “Mile Of Ledges,” for example, and you’ll hear shades of Norwegian nu jazz legends Jaga Jazzist, particularly that band’s 2012 concert recording with UK chamber orchestra Britten Sinfonia. Here, composer and trombonist Mark Hetzler builds upon a snappy four-note melodic scale with such finesse through each of the tune’s transpositions. Even during a midsection that feels like it’s on the precipice of falling into utter chaos as trebly pedal distortion jumps in, morphing the sound of the trombone into an electric guitar, the relentlessness of the performances prevail until it hits an apex in the rhythmic precision of Koszewski’s insistent solo.
Other pieces, like the syncopated “Burner Phone,” scale back the notational complexity but achieve even more transfixing results. Each instrument feels like it’s skittishly dancing around the others’ phrases while at once tightly sticking to rehearsal, reinforcing an overarching musical anxiety. Jason Kutz’s hammered dulcimer-esque staccato piano playing is especially noteworthy, sticking closely to Hetzler’s comparable ability to transfigure a trombone through electronic effects. Elsewhere, the slowcore jazz arrangement of Erik Satie’s contemplative piano piece “Gnossienne No. 1” channels the spirit of miRthkon’s equally riveting take on Samuel Barber’s “Nocturne Op. 33” in transmuting expressionistic solo piano to a classically trained jazz band, with Ben Ferris’ bass providing a steady backbone. The exception on “Gnossienne” is the addition of vocalist Marie Salles, who seems plucked from the fictitious annals of ’60s New Wave, intermittently reciting directives and idioms in French (“postulez en vous-meme!”), which so alluringly capture Satie’s sense for cinematic evocation before the term would even be coined. The promise of that stylistic and emotional crescendo is fulfilled on the lyrical “Purity” with lead vocals throughout from Dequadray White, backed by the Mount Zion Baptist Choir in its second half, strengthening White’s call to resist complacency and recognize both the individual and eternal struggle for change—something Nebulebula embraces wholeheartedly. —Grant Phipps
The second EP from Ossuary holds up every bit as well as the trio’s 2015 debut, Cremation Ritual, and builds on the same strengths: death metal that cuts to the bone, bleakly straightforward production, and nastily swaggering rhythms that occasionally slow down to let the sludge well up. The trio doesn’t try to overpower listeners with technical prowess, because they can keep up without sounding strained or mechanical. Guitarist/vocalist Izzi Plunkett, bassist Matt Jacobs, and drummer Nick Johnson know how to play off of each other to stir up the power and dread in these four sharply defined songs. Plunkett uses drilling, mid-range guitar figures to cut through the murk, accentuating the grisly rhythmic push-pull of “Bestial Triumph” and keeping “Seep Into The Moldering Void” right on a knife’s edge of unsettling tension.
On the opening track, “Lured by Cadence Of Wraiths,” Johnson’s drums and Jacobs’ bass provide almost a doomy undertow to Plunkett’s wiry, whirring guitar figures. The title track captures the band at its most merciless, yet there’s still an unmistakable groove and tactile immediacy to its relatively rapid-fire attack. Of course, the vocals are just as important, and Plunkett’s help all the other grim elements come together with something between a cavernous death growl and a scraping hiss, occasionally launching into mightily prolonged screams as the songs plow on. Like Cremation Ritual, this EP captures the band’s performance with basically no frills, underscoring how supremely degrading Ossuary is in its live sets. —Scott Gordon
A somewhat recent transplant from Milwaukee, Kenneth Tarek Sabbar has issued solo releases (as Tarek Sabbar and Dead Pawn) that touch upon harsh techno and forbidding ambient music, and played guitar and electronics in punishing psych-rock outfits including Heat Death and the new Telechrome. (Both of those bands included Terrance Barrett, who is also on this list for his solo project Terran.) Lately Sabbar has been delving more and more into modular synthesis, both in his live sets and in the recordings he makes at home on the east side. His most recent modular-centric release, Water Creatures, is decidedly restrained and contemplative, but it wouldn’t be quite right to call it an ambient record. The music here positively bristles and gurgles with movement.
Whether the aquatic imagery of the album cover and track titles inspired the music or vice versa, Water Creatures really would go well with a chill night in front of the aquarium channel. All that teeming life, refracted and dampened from the human point of view, would align nicely with the gentle synth patches and generative melodies that flitter through “Aequorea,” named for an ethereal species of bioluminescent jellyfish. “Angler” heads for the benthic zone, keeping with the drifty tempos of the rest of the record, but perhaps hinting at the strange, dangerous spectacle of the anglerfish. Sabbar does create rhythmic structures for the five tracks on Water Creatures, but also gives himself plenty of room to improvise within its dreamy, wondrous themes. —Scott Gordon
Terrance Barrett often works with elements of psych-rock, post-punk, and prog (in bands including Telechrome, Ion/Carbon Bangle, and Heath Death). His solo project, Terran, uses guitar, vocals, and electronic production tools to crush all those elements into angular, enveloping mosaics. Barrett experimented with this approach on a 2016 album called Shame and shows a much more commanding grasp on it across the four tracks of Dead Leaves On A Cool Breeze. He set out here to make some unabashedly personal music, and does succeed in creating a sense of intimacy, even while disorienting the listener at every turn.
On “Heavy Weather,” Barrett croons listlessly over digitally frazzled percussion, giving his voice enough space and reverb that it takes up a logical if unlikely place in the mix as the song picks up its pace. He opens “Diagoras Of Melos” with two minutes of whirring noise that eventually gives way to a stuttering rhythm, pitch-warped vocals, and synth chords that offer some cosmic comfort to offset the song’s unmistakably antsy foreground. The title track, which also came with a very good video by Austin Duerst, starts with a nicely crafted synth arpeggio that keeps repeating even as the song escalates into chaotically fragmented psych-rock. Like Dead Leaves as a whole, it’s a beautiful journey but one that can leave a person feeling rattled. —Scott Gordon
Treatment actually released an eight-song album earlier this year, Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Burning In Hell, but this EP from November is a much more vivid and unhinged capture of the band’s heavy psych-rock. Beat Of The World shares plenty of the maniacal energy of Treatment’s live set, while giving the listener a chance to really soak up the little details, like the expert sizzle of vocalist Derek Anderson’s tambourine, which you’re inevitably just not going to hear as well when Anderson is darting around the stage or jumping into the crowd at a show. It’s also just a bit easier here to step back and take in the versatility of Liam Casey’s guitar work, though it still comes across well in the live setting too. But every aspect of the band contributes to the fiery meld here.
Opening track “Violator/Eradicator” is one of those moments where Treatment heaves toward elements of metal and noise-rock, starting with bassist Joe Darcy’s distorted barbs and Anderson’s heavily reverbed shouts. Then the song turns into a fast-paced garage-punk number, with Darcy playing nimble lines over Adam Grunder’s taut drumming. Treatment also pulls off some good slow-burn moments on this six-song EP, especially the uneasy jangle of “Eyes Red” and the eerie crawl of “Oscar’s Dream.” Most of the material here is built on really familiar rock-n-roll foundations, but Treatment’s furious execution makes it satisfying all the way through. —Scott Gordon
Listening to this debut album is like unearthing a time capsule to hip-hop’s golden era. Loquacious, narratival, and tightly-cadenced, Vell Nash draws capably on the blueprint/magic potion/mad science formula that artists like A Tribe Called Quest concocted in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Further, this album even has skits! Still, it’s more than homage to bygone rhymes.
After the opening skit, where naturally a complete stranger hassles Nash about the wait for this very album, the emcee comfortably slides into a jazzy and lounge-y beat on “About Time” and is off to the races from there. Across Destroy Everything’s 17-track length, Nash never falters in stamina, and each song compels the listener not to skip. Further, though the album’s production ranges greatly in style, even occasionally veering into contemporary trap on songs like “Villain,” Nash is able to apply and adapt his dexterous emceeing skills to each track. One standout from the album’s first half is “Welcome Back.” Over a trudging beat, infectious synth line and a sample of Sonic getting his rings knocked out, Nash attempts to knock the rings out of his enemies and deftly switches between differently cadenced flows—going at one point from a syncopated and enunciated flow to a more contemporary triplet flow.
Nash also shines as a lyricist, though it helps if you share his love of puns. On “Stolen Youth,” he creates his own track in the canon of songs like Outkast’s “Da Art Of Storytelling (pt.s 1 & 2)” where emcees carefully craft single narratives over the course of a song’s length. On his, he carefully details, with lines like “There was a young boy, 16, no dreams, no goals / on the block where he hustled his bros and his foes,” the narrative of a black man and his loved ones castigated and pigeon-holed by a system carefully wrought to do just that.
Destroy Everything works as both a work of deep personal expression and a tenderly written love letter to an art form. On songs like “Paper,” where Nash dreams of securing just that over a breezy sax, his appreciation for the genre taps into its very essence. —Henry Solo
Even amid Madison’s healthy variety of punk bands, We Should Have Been DJs stands out for its genuine, raw punk energy and songwriting that stops you in your tracks. The band’s 2019 full-length, Side A, has emo tendencies, loads of catharsis, and most of all a batch of anthemic, angsty melodies. Guitarist/vocalist Mike Pellino’s skillfully crafted vocal melodies and remorse-filled lyrics set a new bar in a genre that can sometimes be known for simplistic, predictable lyricism.
Side A opens with two tracks that shine a light on Madison’s changing music and physical landscape. The opener, “How It Ends,” pairs lyrics such as “I’m not scared of their ambitions / They create destroyed inventions” with a pulsing, dance-punk beat. The second track, “Red Hotel,” is an anthemic reminder of how Madison has morphed and molted so much in the past decade. The lines “Headstone condos / Another frequency dead / This city is a coffin / And i will step right over it” capture Pellino’s perspective on how the city is pushing local music spaces to the fringes. But gang vocals from a host of local musicians cut through the despair, urging listeners to make a space for themselves, reminding them “if you wait for it to happen, you’ll wait forever.”
Beneath the catchy melodies and driving pulse, this album is heart-wrenching. Coming in just over six minutes, “Glow” is a dynamic, bitter tale of futile attempts and seemingly thwarted passion: ”I wait around / Like a broken house to be torn down / Did my best / Well, I almost believed it myself.” The twinkling guitars and sludge-y bass reflect the switch between clean vocals and sharp yelling of “I’m not who I was / I don’t know what I became/ I just want it all to end so I can be complete” as the song ends.
I truthfully don’t know of a time I haven’t teared up halfway through “Prizefighter,” when the vocals cut out and guitar delay brings a sense of clarity and panic all at the same time. Pellino’s soft-spoken “Bare your teeth with no bite left / Prizefighter with no fight left in us” is a testament to strong will and tired stubbornness, themes that run through the album. As the song kicks back into gear, Pellino and guitarist Alex Mitchard yell together, in true triumphant punk fashion. Side A is an album that I keep coming back to when I need the energy to wrestle with self-doubt, misery, grief, and everything else that comes inside of these seven songs. Rather than sitting and soaking in bad emotions, these songs give a true sense of release and catharsis. The album’s overlapping, intricate guitar melodies, anxious and fraught vocals push the listener out of their comfort zone onto a journey of self-reflection. —John McCracken