Clutch—Earth Rocker (Weathermaker)
Earth Rocker sank out of sight for a while there in 2013, but returned with a mighty wallop. I bought the album when it came out—sounded great—and saw the sold-out show at the Commodore shortly afterwards—had a great time bro-ing down with all the Clutch fans. After that flurry of activity, Earth Rocker got put aside. When it was time to make this list, I put it on again and…whoa, this is a killer album! It’s a lean, punchy collection. The keyboards are gone, so it’s just guitars, drums and Fallon in fine form. A few of the tracks are instant classics (the title track, “Crucial Velocity” and “Unto the Breach” at the very least). The rest are the kind of deep cuts that keep an album raging from start to finish. How Clutch has managed to run so hot for so long is beyond me, but if they ever wanted to sell their secrets to other musicians, I’m sure they could retire wealthy men.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.)
This felt like an effort to shake things up in the Bad Seeds camp. The songs didn’t sound composed in the classic songwriter sense—you know, verses, choruses and such worked out in private and then presented to a band for fleshing out —but were clearly based on jams. “Jubilee Street,” for example, is a one-riff concept that builds to an ecstatic release, mirroring the singer/narrator's dream of transformation. Small sounds prevail: a brief bass loop; a violin lick flashes by like a sparrow; a crisp, simple beat starts a song. The results are often tense, mysterious and threatening. Throughout, Cave is laid-back but intense, giving his words an unfiltered flow to match the music, and dropping images of surreal derangement: “I got a fetus on a leash,” he claims on “Jubilee Street” On “Higgs Boson Blues,” Lucifer has “100 black babies running from his genocidal jaw.” Push the Sky Away was compelling little world of words and music, and a successful exercise in spontaneity tempered with careful consideration.
Scale the Summit—The Migration (Prosthetic)
So many notes! These Scale the Summit kids can sure play. They trade in clean, concise progressive metal in the same sphere as Cynic, except without any singing. Every song is packed with solos, rhythmic changeups, and loud-soft dynamics. The quartet obviously have many years of theory and practice behind them, but they’re using their powers for good, taking their music on the road and delivering it with authority on stage. So what gives them the edge over the dozens of bands trying to do the same thing? I`d say it`s balance, composition, and taste. The chemistry between the musicians is such that everyone contributes equally to the music’s impact, which strikes me as an impressive feat. Playing at such a high level, there’s a danger of cancelling each other out, the same way mixing primary colours together produces black. They’re focused on the songs, which are arranged in a way that respects their audience’s attention spans. Scale the Summit seem to know that you can practice scales till your hands fall off, but if you can’t entertain anyone with your music, you’ve got nothing.
The Opium Cartel—Ardor (Termo)
The second album from the Opium Cartel will charm the pants off you. If the music doesn’t make you wanna take it off and get it on, then maybe the album cover will (phew!). At this point it’s a little tough to distinguish the Opium Cartel from White Willow, bandleader Jacob Holm-Lupo’s other prog-rock ensemble. The main point of departure is that the Opium Cartel skew more towards pop music, although it’s pop music of the most lush, sophisticated sort. Remember when Peter Gabriel had hit songs on the radio? It seems that happened a lifetime ago in an alternate universe, but to me, the Opium Cartel are going for a similar kind of left-of-centre catchiness. In a better world, they would be kings (and queens) of the airwaves. There are big choruses, inventive rhythm tracks, swathes of wonderful synths, and a pristine production job. If you liked So (or anything by Talk Talk, Jane Siberry or Kate Bush for that matter), then The Opium Cartel are your bag. And aside from all the shiny sounds and sexy good times, Ardor also supplied the spookiest thing I heard all year: a spellbinding cover of BÖC’s “Then Came the Last Days of May.” Wrecks me every time.
Guapo—History of the Visitation (Cuneiform)
The return of Guapo proved to be an exciting thing. This release featured 42 minutes of new music and a live DVD of the band ransacking NEARfest a while back. Only 42 minutes of new music, though, you say? Well, that’s how long albums used to be, and that’s the way we liked it. All three tracks are quality fodder, and “The Pilman Radiant” is the best long-form track I’ve heard in ages. Reviewed in full here.