Initially this year, I was left rather nonplussed by much of the music being released. I mean, much of it was good, but there was little that was really grabbing me. Things have changed, though, at least, and the problem in the second half of this year has been that great music has been coming so fast I’ve barely been able to keep up.
I’d much rather the latter, of course. Not having new music to enjoy and discover leaves me rather bored, I want to be inspired, I want to be excited, I want to tell my readers about it.
The last few weeks have been a bit of a horrorshow in my day job – mainly just a big uptick in my workload, to be honest – but what that has done is leave me with little energy to write away from work, hence why content has been…a bit lacking recently after something of a glut (and I was intending on keeping on posting more often, too!).
So as a bit of a catch-up – and because of a desire to talk more about three particular albums released recently – this post is a trio of reviews in a shorter format than usual. It involves two now well-known bands in our scene, and a third that is maybe not so well known.
Intriguingly, too, while two of them share the same label, all three bands come from very different places – one Canadian, one Icelandic, and one that is an Australian-American collaboration.
And that last one comes up first. 11grams were a new name to me when I first came across it earlier this year, and even finding that it features the people behind Retrogramme and also Project K11, neither of which I’m familiar with either. But the promise of futurist EBM-industrial piqued my interest, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Especially when the album opens with the slamming Machine Malfunction, which comes complete with bubbling synth lines, chiselled beats, NASA mission samples and distorted vocals. So familiar, then, but somehow the duo behind 11grams make a sound that was, frankly, fashionable the best part of two decades ago seem fresh and new. Part of that is the ultra-precision of the production, which makes only a few elements in the mix sound like vastly more than the sum of its parts. But also, it is simply a damned good song.
There are some really interesting ideas elsewhere, too. The staccato vocals and slower pace of Stalker – a futurist take on Stromkern, perhaps – are fascinating, especially with the barrage of synth bleeps that phase all over the mix, while the Daniel Myer remix of it is so different – massively stripped down, it brings out the hip-hop influences clearly, that it is nearly a different song entirely.
But then, sequencing the two versions of the same track together seems really curious, especially as they do it again later in the album on Synthetic, the first version a bouncing synthpop track with breathy, treated female vocals, and then Xavier Swafford of 3TEETH takes the reins for an alternate version, where the vocals get glitched-up even more, and the beats gain more of a 3TEETH feel (and I can’t help but feel that this is the better version of the track).
Immortal is another track that benefits from the slick programming and production, with a razor-sharp hook and a nice, meaty feel to the rhythm, while Visions uses that sonic density to wonderfully melodic effect, and S.O.D. (Give Me Death) sounds naggingly familiar – and not just for the sample – as the cascading, rushing synths really do sound like something in another song. But it is quite the energetic rush.
On occasions it does rather nudge down the route of aggrotech, a genre and sound that feels awfully dated now – and Feel It Like A Drug particularly is guilty of this. Cutaneous – an instrumental that uses vocal samples from what sounds like some form of Islamic prayer call – is also kinda disposable. I mean, it is ok as a track, but I’ve heard this idea before and it does little more than act as a mid-album bridge to the closing tracks.
This is an album that is, on the whole, an impressive start let down by some curious sequencing. It has a number of cracking electro-industrial tracks here (the best of which is the lead track Machine Malfunction), but the sequence of tracks feels weird and the album just doesn’t flow as it should – and it isn’t just the remixes dotted through the album.
But it is worth picking up, despite the flaws. This kind of music has rather fallen out of fashion in recent years, so to see a new artist picking the baton up so enthusiastically makes it worth getting for that reason alone.
Moving across to the far north-western corner of Europe, LEGEND finally returned with their follow-up to Fearless just recently. I say finally – Fearless dates from 2012, and in the time since that debut was released, entire sub-genres in industrial have come and gone, and it could be suggested that the scene has changed considerably too.
But that’s fine, as LEGEND have changed too. When they first appeared, there was the distinct impression of a “rock band” turning their hand to electronic music – it certainly wasn’t synthpop, and it wasn’t really industrial, either, despite the labelling that they got due to being signed to Artoffact Records (who broadly, but not exclusively, release industrial and electronic music). But whatever it wasn’t, it was very much a studio creation, with the majority of the instruments electronic in nature, but it had a level of human emotion that made for an affecting, striking listen, a feeling that was amplified many times over in their intense live shows.
As the album finally started to come into view over the summer, their label were at pains to note to those of us getting early promo releases of tracks that this was a band that had moved on with their sound, and while first-released track Captive was something of a bridge between the two, the other tracks to come before the album was fully unveiled made the change abundantly clear.
Opener Cryptid is seven minutes of languid build and soaring vocals, a sense of building swell and striking drama that culminates in an extraordinary climax. It sounds different from what had come before, mainly because of the use of live instruments, but they are used in such a way that it simply adds more edge to a recognisable style – this is sure as hell LEGEND still.
Perhaps the first real surprise comes with Frostbite, a raw track that bares its teeth by way of Alice in Chains-esque downtuned guitar effects – but tempers the edge with a gloriously wistful melody, and then things are taken up another notch by the full-on industrial rock of Time to Suffer, a juggernaut-like charge of a track that has a clever, stutter-step of a rhythm and an intriguingly oblique lyric that seems to be alluding to political revolution – whether that is just in Iceland (a country that has had more than it’s fair share of political upheaval in the past decade), or beyond is presumably up to the listener.
Scars takes in elements of both of these, with a grinding, metallic and complex drum rhythm, treated vocals and a savage edge to the track that is pure fury – but once again never loses track of the melody, almost as if LEGEND are walking a tightrope that they are determined to balance on. This is emotional music, yes, but like a yin and yang, anger is balanced by sadness, love by hate, there is never too much of an extreme one way or another.
One thing LEGEND proved easily capable of on Fearless were ballads that weren’t automatically skipped – in other words, they aren’t mawkish tosh, something that can happen in this scene. The swooning strings and yearning voice of Adrift is yet more proof of how skilled the band are, and the epic (nearly eight-minute) title track takes it even further, a awesomely melancholic song that sounds like they recorded it at the top of a windswept mountain.
That said, I rather prefer them when they up the pace a bit, and it is also easy to see why Captive was the first song released from this album. Every bit the follow-up to City musically, it has the same thrilling, layered build, just less electronic – and a very different lyrical feel. Killer moment? When that first kick drum hits you in the gut and it kicks up a gear.
Later on in the album there are gems of specific moments to love, too. Liquid Rust has one specific point about four minutes in where Krummi’s vocals suddenly change key and the emotional hit overwhelms – and then just twenty seconds later, it’s gone, building from scratch once again.
Krummi’s voice, actually, is once again the star of the show. My years of listening to Mínus never prepared me for the range he displays with LEGEND, able to go from a gentle croon to a hurricane-force howl in seconds, but with a warmth and emotional depth that carries every single song here.
Even outlier Gravestone, the one entirely-electronic song on the album, and perhaps the one weak song here. Rather lightweight musically compared to the rest of the album, it at least has an interesting lyrical conceit – gaining inspiration and hope from the souls of the dead while walking through a graveyard. That said, it’s about as goth as LEGEND have ever got, too…
The album closes out with Children of the Elements, a song that appropriately ends the album on a positive(ish) note, a song of rising power and a distinct feel of a call to arms.
Despite the darkness of LEGEND’s work, this is remarkably not an album that is so bleak that it drags you down. It is instead an album to enjoy, to feel the power of, and it rewards repeated listens. Not for the first time this year, it is a release that has taken some time to fully get under my skin, partly because it is adjusting to the changes the band have made to their sound, and partly because some of these songs are not immediate.
I would suspect the band like it that way. They take their time in crafting their music, and the precision of the whole sound – like, every single element of it – shows that off in spades, and thus it is right that it will take some time to unlock the secrets here.
LEGEND are a band that, unusually, exist almost entirely outside of any perceived genre boundaries, and that has given them a freedom to release a second, brilliant album that has a wider appeal than might be first understood.
We Only Love You When You’re Dead
I’ve often had an issue with concept albums, partly as all-too-often, the concept swallows the album whole – with the distinct feeling in some cases that more attention was put to the concept than the songs. But with Encephalon, broadly it’s gone the other way – there is a concept there, but the songs are so strong that they stand alone fine too.
Certainly that was the case with their striking debut The Transhuman Condition, although I found it difficult to get into Psychogenesis as much, partly because it was such a dense album that the great songs (of which there were a few) took a lot of digging and patience to find.
So when Matt from the band spoke to this site recently (LINK), and the detail of the concept for their third album took an entire paragraph to explain (in short, a Frankenstein-esque tale set in the near future, complete with idolisation and rejection in the reality show model), I was a little concerned.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been, though. This is a vastly punchier album than the last, the main CD being ten songs in just forty-five minutes, considerably shorter too than either of their albums so far. The opening trio of songs flash past, all snappy rhythms, huge choruses and using their now trademark-trick of differing vocal treats and clever use of dynamics that see choruses in particular rip through the speakers to amazing effect.
The title track is like a Wagnerian march from hell, an ominous martial beat and distorted-to-fuck vocals that spit out a litany of threats and ideals that gain a very different feel as female vocals accompany the closing, titular coda.
And while this is a dark album – both in concept and in sound – that darkness is never allowed to become all-encompassing, with brighter elements, well-chosen uses of backing vocals, uplifting synths and frequent changes in pace. That latter point is so important, as too many industrial albums in recent years have one pace, one sound, and that at least is emphatically not the case here.
Especially as the stomping first track Limb From Limb is “reprised” later in the album, in an orchestral/synth form that is so different as to be a new track entirely (and is quite the affecting listen, too).
One of the most jaw-dropping, unexpected moments in the album comes on the charging Lunacy. A track that appears to start with to be a run-of-the-mill electro-industrial track, before the beats drop away and the vocals spiral up to an almighty drop reminiscent of classic trance tracks – or more to the point, CHVRCHES’ epic Clearest Blue (the latter a track you need to experience live to “get” just how extraordinary that pace change is).
The thing is, that kind of trick here – and the use of quasi-dubstep, “urban” influences, is nothing new with this band – they’ve long been open to other textures and ideas for their music, and frankly it’s one of the reasons why they remain so interesting even now – lesser hands would have simply repeated the same sequences every time, while here Encephalon continue their exploration of their sound, as if they are still trying to find the outer limits of what they can do.
It’s clear that with the expanse of this album, they are still nowhere close to those limits. Another brilliant, striking album from a deeply fascinating band.