10. The Killers – Pressure Machine
How did we get here, to The Killers dropping one of the most conceptually sound, consistently affecting albums of 2021? If the solid-but-safe Imploding the Mirage was a whisper of a shift in their sound towards a revitalised version of their classic-rock worship, Pressure Machine is a whole fucking sea change, a tidal wave reshaping the entire geometry and geography of The Killers’ landscape.
God only knows what Brandon Flowers has been through in the intervening years. It’s hard to believe the man whose lyrics seemed like they were written with fridge magnets is the same one sculpting the journey of Pressure Machine. With a semi-self-aware Springsteenian eye for detail, he shifts his focus to the imperfect lives of damaged people in a small town that resembles the one he was born in, a gambit that pays off in the form of a portrait that will be achingly recognisable to anyone from a similar place. The album wanders along discursive paths, touching on the glamourisation and demonisation of teenage beauty (“the chute opens, bull draws blood, and the gift is accepted by God”), the opioid crisis (anyone who thinks Flowers narrates this album from a remove missed the righteous anger that creeps into his voice singing “somebody’s been keeping secrets, in this quiet town”) and the sacrifice it takes to simply get up day to day in a low-income, blue-collar existence. Iffy it might be for someone this rich and Christian to take on the entire plight of the Working Man, but the album offers no sweeping generalisations or Bono-esque solutions, just painfully observed little details and beauty found in simplicity. (Aside from all that, Springsteen wasn’t exactly living in squalor when he wrote Nebraska, folks).
Even still, little of this would work as well as it does if the musicality of the band hadn’t kicked into overdrive to match Flowers’ ambition. The reduction of The Killers to two full-time members, with bassist Mark Stoermer (absent here, after a strong showing on Mirage) and guitarist Dave Keuning dropping by when they feel motivated to do so, seems to have been a massive factor in fueling their renewed enthusiasm for music. Just compare the tired, paint-by-numbers music on Battle Born or Wonderful Wonderful to how Keuning’s guitar absolutely explodes onto the canvas in “Cody”, the way he carves lightning into “Desperate Things” in perfect concert with Flowers’ unnerving portrait of domestic abuse and murder. From the moment Ronnie Vannucci Jr’s intricate drumbeat kicked in on “West Hills” I knew I was listening to something great, and by the time the song explodes with a jagged electric guitar and soaring strings I was certain.
Stripping back a little without losing all the fire-and-fury was absolutely the move here, one that pays off with a contender for the band’s all-time greatest song. “Pressure Machine” is almost unassuming after the Nick Caveian darkness of “Desperate Things”, which allows the title track to slip in the knife in the subtlest of ways. The song sees Flowers push his voice into full falsetto for a chorus as gorgeous as it is sad: “I can’t remember the last time, you asked how I was. Don’t you feel the time slipping away?” It’s not Shakespeare, and it doesn’t need to be: Flowers’ characterisation of life as a machine, swallowing the good things and spitting out memories, is perfectly suited to the gentle acoustic musings of the song.
It’s almost unfair that the rest of the album has to compete, but it takes some pretty good swings at it: the one-two punch of the Hot Fuss-esque banger “In the Car Outside” (that is if Hot Fuss had a single couplet as good as “I put this film on the window and it looks like chapel glass / but when she turns, it’s like the shadow of the cross don’t cast”) and the low-key heartbreaker “In Another Life” is some of their finest work in more than a decade. Really, it’s all good here: quibble about the optics or the autopilot Phoebe Bridgers feature if you must, but if that’s the worst criticism about The Killers we can muster in 2021, somebody’s doing something right. –Rowan5215
9. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Much has been said about how big of a deal it is that Julien Baker played all the instruments on Little Oblivions. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? She’s played all the instruments on all her records, it just so happens that guitar and piano were the only instruments present. And now there’s bass, drums, and all sorts of bells and whistles, but the only thing that matters is if the extra accompaniment makes for a better or worse record.
Little Oblivions is just as intimate as Sprained Ankle and Turn out The Lights. The full band stereo experience doesn’t drown out Julien’s reverb-soaked voice, and her gut-wrenching lyrics shine through no problem. The music is less raw, there’s more to sift through to get to the center, but that center is unchanged. All that’s different is Little Oblivions is a rocking record.
“Faith Healer” has these driving drums that drop out for a few seconds only to come back stronger than before, which perfectly symbolizes drug relapse and the fallback coping mechanisms that all these songs are about. The racing heartbeat electronic kick drum in “Highlight Reel” does more to support Julien Baker’s central argument than any of her previously stripped-down arrangements ever could. And after all that, when Baker busts out a piano ballad like “Song in E”, the absence hits that much harder.
It would be impossible to recapture the naked magic of Sprained Ankle, and Baker knows this. Sometimes less is more, but Little Oblivions does more with more, and it’s a natural progression for a seasoned artist to make a record with a little more scope. Julien Baker is a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist, why shouldn’t she utilize that talent instead of chasing the success of her debut? Little Oblivions is a calculated, less raw, less intimate, unabashed indie-rock record. It’s a harder nut to crack, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. –Trebor.
8. Sweet Trip – A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals
I resisted Sweet Trip for a long time, figuring a release like 2003’s cult classic Velocity: Design: Comfort to fit the bill of an album, in Ed Comentale’s immortal words, that “hasn’t changed a thing at all, but merely affirmed some deeply ingrained, more pleasing vision of the listener’s identity”. It seems, looking back, that I intended this reticence to serve as some kind of abstract slight against the “Internet people” whose genre predations I thought were too cleanly appealed to (even if in a kind of clairvoyant manner) by the mash of proggy computers-in-love vibes detailed painstakingly by Roberto Burgos and Valerie Reyes.
As it turns out, though, kneejerk contempt isn’t always the best path to follow, and Sweet Trip are actually awesome, always experimenting blithely with the boundaries between noise and melody and often coming away with a concoction of the two more powerful than had they chosen to color within the lines. The same goes for A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals, which, other than being a fucking mouthful, sounds like a warm synthesis of what they’ve learned along the way–12 years after stripped-down indie pop gem You Will Never Know Why and 18 after the glitchy, digressive Velocity, Sweet Trip have found a way to express an overwhelmingly powerful sense of love for one another and for the world. “Warm” is the key word: with every lightly baroque melody and wash of synth pads, and even with its occasional gestures of aesthetic disintegration, the band evinces deep care both in the emotions they choose to express and in how they’re treated and produced, on the very scale of sine waves or whatever; shit sounds luminescent. Along with the consistent unison of Valerie and Roberto’s vocals and dependable songwriting twists and turns, this meticulous approach generates a sense of the artists having found the tools to fit their expression. Maybe this seamlessness, these love streams, substantively relate to the question or whether an album truly challenges us versus whether it “affirms” some deeply ingrained more pleasing vision yada yada yada. I don’t know if A Tiny House is looking to change our lives per se. But if you missed it this go-around, whether it be due to ignorance or intentional neglect of Internet Music, you owe this one to yourself. The “secret speeches” captured by Sweet Trip’s microphones are meant to build, to relate things and people to each other, to express an overwhelming sense of contentment. Sweet Trip labor to make things feel good and radiate with affection, such “things” including their listeners. Isn’t it true, after all, that some nights you just want to look your best? –robertsona
7. Iosonouncane – IRA
Once a sizeable amalgam of time separates the present – hopefully wonderful – You from the sweaty, 0.9 prerelease version of You that attended high school, You’ll realise that cool is a relative term, and that those lucky(?) few that were lumped into that bracket at the height of their teenage heyday might have never really been cool at all. Damn.
Iosonouncane strike me as the kind of band that smoke cigarettes, beat up nerds, and have some deep lore in their family history; they’re almost as attractive as they are intimidating, doubly so when you recall that “they” are no band at all, but one solitary enigma of a true human man. Forced into the tribulations of adulthood at a young age, we can only assume he learned the difference between faux cool and authentic cool with sly alacrity, wasting no time in butting that limitless power against the kind of inadvertently artistic Happenings you need both aggressively well-proportioned glasses and eardrums inhumed by the greasiest of manes to appreciate on a credible basis. Unfortunately for the discourse, this means that Radiohead probably need to be namedropped, that we need to use some bullshit phrase like ‘open-minded musicians’ and name like six different genres and their significance; and that we get to qualify that the prevailing darkness in the album’s colour spectrum by no means sucks the wind out of IRA‘s (aren’t they Italian or something?!) sails.
Which is to say, this album is fucking classy and lovely and when it speaks everybody should listen to the gibberish it spouts, cause it’ll teach you more about what it feels like to be human than any anthropology class. It’s like two hours long, so your mind may wander, but Ioiusaodifnasdncane will guide your thoughts into some idyllic places.
Not to mention a whole lot of oppressively dark ones. Fuck me, it’s uncanny how seamlessly (and recurrently!) this record melts from gorgeous ambient reveries to gauntlets of filthy ethereal terror. How do those two hemispheres combine to stimulate such a freakishly complementary set of synapses? Who cares. Stop asking questions and keep both hands clutched around that phallic pretense of an open mind. A lot of things about this album scan with the mystique and charm of an open, potentially unsolvable riddle: those eerie, unpredictable progressions that vanish into the tracklist’s labyrinthine mesh like old dreams the moment you think you’ve pinned them down, the oh-so-expressively voiced slur of Italo-Franco-sourced nonsense tongues, and, of course, that cover art (a lesson in authentic nudity and faux intimacy if ever there was one).
These lists have a memorial quality to them, as though the year’s finest and fairest are laid to rest, sussed and summarised into submission so that we can all enjoy a clear mind as January reasserts a barrage of dispensable new content. Not Iosonouncane: he is the one that gets away, the vagrant who escapes with the best part of his intrigue, waddling away at a velocity unnaturally ill-suited to his modest gait. Look ye behind him, as a slither of our hearts and the greater part of our attention spans follow powerless in his wake, ghostlike and magnetised to his inexplicably authentically cool spiritual grotesquerie. Godspeed, naked Italian man. –JohnnyoftheWell & MiloRuggles
6. Musk Ox – Inheritance
Every fibre of Inheritance‘s existence screams timeless and iconic. “Inheritance Pt. I (Premonition)”‘s opening poignant swells will be forever enshrined in my mind palace – put on a pedestal in the Hall of Fame for having one of the most extraordinary, attention-grabbing album-opening introductions ever, residing next to such venerable pedigrees as Obsidian‘s “Darker Thoughts”, In Utero‘s “Serve the Servants”, and Mechanical Animals‘ “Great Big White World”, to name a few off the top of my head. This transfixing introduction signifies Inheritance‘s ability to bewitch you within the first few seconds of its forty-eight-minute journey, and it doesn’t let go of you until it has finished, either.
Indeed, Inheritance is a shrewd, idiosyncratic masterpiece that displays the band’s omnipotent skillset — channelling the Canadian trio’s abilities synergistically to create one of the most unique experiences of 2021, and quite possibly the decade. Simply put: Nat, Raph and Evan know exactly what they’re doing, and they make this instrumental storytelling flow with elegance and effortlessness. The LP’s eagle-eyed focus executes vivid, picturesque soundscapes with an astute awareness for the phantom narrative that underpins the acoustic arrangements, consisting of just cello, violin and acoustic guitar. This may look austere on paper but make no mistake; this ensemble sounds massive, delivers intensely expressive and emotive tracks, and has some of the most hair-raising crescendos of this generation – peaks and troughs that will electrify you for days after experiencing them.
The many, many build-ups in “Inheritance Pt.2 (Hindsight)” make the track an overt favourite amongst fans, displaying the calibre of their craft perfectly well, but in all honesty, it’s once you get to tracks like “Ritual” and “Weightless” that you’ll hear the band in their element. The latter portion of the tracklisting contains the most intricate facets and subtleties in Inheritance‘s run time, but more to the point, it enacts these measures without being ostentatious. Layer upon layer of gorgeous textures and disparate moods, and it’s all done with an unbridled vigour. Suffice it to say, Inheritance is easily my favourite album of 2021, and for very good reason. Coupled with the gorgeous artwork, Inheritance has dominated my autumn playlist, and is sure to supplant some regular residents in my winter playlist for the coming months as well. If you love soundtracks, classical music, or you even enjoy atmospheric black metal, this is an essential experience for fans. –Simon K.
5. Converge – Bloodmoon: I
Can some emeritus of genre please confirm for me that the best of Converge’s contemporaries still sound like inferior versions of Converge? Sure, I see glimpses of a hopeful future in the likes of Pupil Slicer, Knocked Loose, and Vein[.FM? wut], but whenever Converge undertake some kind of renovation on their sprawling manor of metallic hardcore, the surrounding houses seem that much more miniscule by comparison.
Perhaps, aside from sexism and/or fetishism (if I hear one more person use the phrase ‘goth mommy’ in full sincerity I’m donning the cloth), the reason Bloodmoon: I has sown division and wrought confusion in our storied forums is that Converge have chosen to deprioritise their hectic heaviness in order to better blend their sound with the adapted lineup. Change in the winds for a band with groundbreaking, deific credentials? What could possibly go wrong?
Before everybody gets all “I’m not sexist and I like music that’s not heavy but I don’t like this album” and we go home unhappy, let’s acknowledge that there might just be some flaws here. Ben Koller is relatively under-utilised behind the kit, “Viscera of Men” would benefit from less on-the-nose lyricism (particularly as the lyrics recycle themselves), and “Lord of Liars” is a bit of a plain dudrocker. Geez, harsh stuff. The small speck of my smooth brain that I reserve for such grandiose objective criticisms comprehends such pockmarks and craters upon the surface of Bloodmoon, but the more instinctive side of me is plotting excuses to cease communications with all loved ones and rot in a cellar somewhere listening to this ad nauseam.
Blessed news — a lot of work has gone into embellishing the various contemplative moments and less-than-aggressive moods here with additional atmospheric instrumentation. Even the most fidgety hardcore fans’ fried attention spans may find something to hold on to here. Chelsea Wolfe’s chilling vocal contributions are essential to these new sounds, and the harmonies she and Bannon hit raise goosebumps as if they’re divine necromantic invocations.
Kurt Ballou’s mindful, cumulative expanding of arrangements as they progress patches up a few moments that may have been overlooked in the songwriting process – stagnant sections or brusquely sandwiched transitions – and elevates them damn near brilliance. While some tracks flow like custard down a slide, this pace tends to be retroactively justified by the considered payoff when the pudding hits the bark, the pliable production providing any extra spice in the rice demanded by the track’s direction. As an example, “Viscera of Men”‘s few missteps are wiped from your memory as soon as you hear its coda; a moment so viscerally executed that it makes me want to assault people and light fires, fuck it all.
It’s not all battery and arson, though — Bloodmoon: I rotates styles frequently. “Blood Moon” opens the album with a loud, slow dirge, a stark contrast to the symphonic rock of “Coil” two tracks later. “Flower Moon” then sidles in, all sparse lyrics and gorgeous vocal harmonies, a tasty, weighted piece of restraint. Converge’s raw power makes itself felt in the anthemic “Tongues Playing Dead” and the chaotic “Lord of Liars”. The more Chelsea Wolfe-esque sad-time ballad “Scorpion’s Sting” is like a ballroom dance in a hall of slowly leaking cadavers. There are highlights aplenty, and some beautiful guitar work in both the lead and textural departments that deserves unpacking, but time is money and I make none.
Given the span of Converge’s and Chelsea Wolfe’s respective catalogues, the breadth of work that Kurt Ballou has had a hand in, and the ever-alleged open-minded nature of metal fans, some of the quickly dismissive responses to a Converge album that doesn’t mostly comprise of aggressively dextrous toy-throwing out of a Jane Doe-branded cot is as predictable as it is surprising. Fortunately, we can leave these crybabies in their crib, and the larger consensus of yaysayers can return to the parlour to engage in adult discourse, straight-edge hardcore kids turned amiable parents mingling happily with elegantly-aged goths sipping rich red wines from gilded goblets, Bloodmoon: I‘s alluring soundscapes bewitching all attention away from the baby monitor’s infrequent gurgles, a scarlet radiance piercing the heavy curtains an omen of a long and bloody night to come. –MiloRuggles
4. Injury Reserve – By the Time I Get to Phoenix
By the Time I Get to Phoenix sounds like a preemptive movie soundtrack, and I hope that doesn’t come across as an undersell. It’s common knowledge that many movie roles (or, characters in books-to-become-movies) are written with certain actors in mind – Marilyn Monroe in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for example (though that obviously didn’t pan out). By the Time I Get to Phoenix deserves to have a film written around it, capturing its essence, rather than the other way around. Not a documentary or whatever, but more of a thematic casing. Plenty of great hip-hop albums have powerful narratives, of-fucking-course, linear or otherwise, but you can really see the newest Injury Reserve project in physical form. Maybe not coherently, but still.
There were so many moments where I forgot that my experience was limited to an auditory format. I can count on one hand the number of albums that do this for me without pre-established associations. I’m not saying that it simply evokes powerful imagery: like, it does, but, it doesn’t seem reliant on me making those connections. For comparison, American Football’s 1999 self-titled debut sounds like a small town at the end of summer, where everything moves slowly, and relationships seem forever doomed by a grey aura permeating all spaces. I can visualize that album too, but mostly because there is so much relatable subject matter from which to draw. By the Time I Get to Phoenix does its own legwork. “Smoke Don’t Clear” sounds like a dive bar on the outskirts of a cyberpunk metropolis, stumbling in a blurry psychosis. “Superman That” is simultaneously pitch-black and ultra-bright, both crooning and maniacal. “Outside” is a car-ride exposé, both biographical and inquisitive, as though you’re being shown around a neighbourhood by someone who’s seen it gradually dilapidate over many years.
Injury Reserve have insisted that their latest album is not a eulogy for Stepa J. Groggs, and/or shouldn’t retroactively be thought of as one. So, I’ll abide. I didn’t know him. Maybe the album would hit different if I did (not necessarily better or worse, just, y’know, different?). By the Time I Get to Phoenix isn’t powerful because it prompts vicarious grief. It’s powerful because it makes me fear for my own self. –Jots
3. Every Time I Die – Radical
Nobody cares about finding the voice of a generation anymore. Within music criticism, it used to seem like such a vital question. Who could channel the unrealized hopes and bitter defeats of millions, then project those same hopes and defeats to millions more who would otherwise be indifferent? Who could elevate music so far past art that it would become something that could change the world? Nobody cares anymore because we figured out the answer: no one can do that.
Listening to Every Time I Die’s Keith Buckley — not only on Radical, but especially on Radical — almost makes me reconsider. If you think that’s hyperbole, try this: Radical is a perfect album. No note is out of place. No melody leaves me unaffected. No Buckley line reading fails to move me, shake me, knock the breath out of me, shred my vocal cords as I try to match him. I do not typically remember individual riffs in heavy music, but every riff on this album has taken residence inside me. I sympathize with those who think ETID have made better albums, but the stratospheric realm they occupy on this album could only be achieved if previous works were rungs on the ladder, leading upward to this.
Much of Radical was written before COVID-19 ravaged the world, but not all of it. Its cohesion means that we were living on Planet Shit long before the pandemic. Not every song is political, but every song is informed by the same anger that fuels the record’s politics. Each intensely, uniquely personal lyric can simultaneously be applied universally. They all face inward and outward, clairvoyant even in their solipsism.
The band’s name is inherently a joke, but it is a joke that nonetheless contains the essential truth of their music: we only get one chance at this. The project of Radical is twofold: to show that forces outside the control of working people have irrevocably screwed that one chance, and to show that life can still be meaningful anyway as long as its spark still survives in us. Those on your side: hold them close. To everyone else, in one loud voice: “Fuck you, die.” –Channing Freeman
2. The World Is a Beautiful Place… – Illusory Walls
Until Illusory Walls, I never thought of The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die’s music as a coda for human life. To this point, the band has mostly been a meek emo/post-rock collective, the likes of which typically gather cult followings – perhaps some tattooed lyrics on the arm, maybe even a splattering of pins poking holes through otherwise perfectly fine backpacks – but nothing that would make you sit up and take notice that humanity is fucked and society is crumbling before our eyes. I’m sorry if that escalated quickly, especially for an album whose name was inspired by a video game, but it’s prudent to understand that Illusory Walls isn’t here to mess around. It tackles hefty topics such as corporate greed and its impact on the environment (“A four-hundred-thousand-dollar drug, versus one more time my mother’s hug / A private firm of equity dealt cancer into my family”), slave-making wages (“May the lower class remember this / and every rich man get what’s his”), technological displacement of human experiences (“The brain inside your phone knows how to get you home…Do you remember the name of the store?”), climate change (“Thick clouds of foul-smelling air / Polluted rivers, thinning hair”), fabricated media perpetuating violence and division (“You cry at the news, I just turn it off / They say there’s nothing we can do and it never stops”) …you get the idea, because if you’re like most people in 2021, you see it with your own eyes. Illusory Walls is an era-defining record because like us, it is also immersed in these troublesome times which as they continue have simply become “the new normal.” The band shudder at this thought and urge their fellow stewards to join them in building a better community for everyone: “The world is a beautiful place, but we have to make it that way.” In its own strange way, at least thematically, Illusory Walls feels like their Imagine moment.
Confronting topics with life versus death implications begs music that speaks to its importance, and Illusory Walls accomplishes that. It’s a tired term that gets thrown around a lot, but it really is a magnum opus in every conceivable way. The band’s fourth album is a massive evolution from their aforementioned emo/post-rock roots, lacing those concepts with progressive and metallic tendencies that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Coheed & Cambria or Circa Survive album. The guitars are warped and wiry, the drumming is complex and varied, and the songwriting is elaborate. There are two songs in excess of fifteen minutes, each featuring intricate breakdowns and triumphant choruses. Everything about Illusory Walls is designed to raise the stakes, from the band shedding its musical identity to its songwriters coming out of their shells lyrically. It’s a stark transformation that seems to point The World is a Beautiful Place towards a broader scope – they’re still personal and introspective, only now they’re applying that pain and those unique stories to something of global significance.
In spite of all the flash and grandeur, there’s still something comforting about Illusory Walls. The band might have grown into much larger shoes, but they maintain the clever wit and heart-on-sleeve lyrics of their past. The whole album is bursting at the seams with inviting melodies, often in the form of outstanding guitar work. Take for instance ‘Queen Sophie for President’, which boasts a guitar line that is arguably catchier than any chorus on the record. Even during this thing’s proggiest and most experimental moments, such as ‘Invading the World of the Guilty as a Spirit of Vengeance’ or ‘Died in the Prison of the Holy Office’, there is always something for the listener to latch onto. With the former, it’s some of the most well-executed dual vocals you’ll ever hear between Bello and Dvorak, succeeding to the extent that they almost mold into one voice; with the latter, it’s the infectiousness of that layered, curtain-call chorus “Away with God, away with love / Our hands are tied and stepped on.” Both of the ‘Blank’ tracks feature gorgeous acoustics and poignant words, while ‘Trouble’ could be the band’s best all-around song that clocks in under five minutes. Illusory Walls certainly sees The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die morphing into something better and undoubtedly more complex, but they’re only able to do so because they keep so many of their core strengths intact. It’s a flawless maturation.
Illusory walls are surfaces that appear solid but aren’t actually there. The implication of this wonderfully epic slice of prog-emo is that in order to continue as a species, we must identify our imagined and at times self-imposed constraints and run straight through them. The consequences are dire…we simply can’t afford to stay afloat with the status quo. That’s something worth writing a sweeping magnum opus about, and The World is a Beautiful Place hit the nail on the head about as well as any artist I’ve ever witnessed in terms of trying to create a socio-politically motivated piece. Writing music with such a slant can be a delicate line to toe with any sort of grace, but at no point does The World is a Beautiful Place feel like they’re telling us something we don’t already know, much less preaching. They’re simply joining hands with us, admitting shared fault in this situation that we find ourselves in, and asking us to face the future as a united front in the name of progress. As they hope for society to break through its own illusory walls and reach a point of sustainable equity, they’ve metaphorically mirrored that act through their music – stepping through any imaginary confines limiting the style and scope of their craft. As a result, they’ve finally realized their full potential as a band. Don’t you think it’s time we all do the same for ourselves…for the world? –Sowing
1. Mastodon – Hushed and Grim
People talk about outrunning old habits like it’s a reliable measure for self-growth. They’re sometimes right: some baggage absolutely bears shedding, but shrewd ones know that their habitual side can be as self-affirming as it can self-sabotaging. Rather than squeezing personal ideals of progress into a linear, future-facing framework, I think can be wiser to reflect and reconnect with whatever familiar patterns best position you to drive that best foot forward, especially if you’re starting on a fragile foundation. Is there anything more reassuring than the things you’ve always been good at?
Recovering from the tragic death of their longtime manager and close friend Nick John in 2018, I get the sense that Mastodon found themselves at the very least on parallel lines to this mentality. The gulf left by John finds itself charted by fifteen(!) of the most conservatively confident, identity-affirming, satisfying-yet-unsurprising tracks the band have penned to date. Factor out a few of its distinctly sombre overtones for a moment, and Hushed and Grim is more textbook Mastodon than anything you’ve heard before – almost disconcertingly so. Where the gaps between such records as Blood Mountain, Crack the Skye and The Hunter were successive gamechangers for the band’s horizons, this record is gravely focused on touching base with their past roadmap. For all its proportions as a first-time double album, it’s relatively scant of the creative liberties that typically accompany such things from veteran acts, almost dutifully checking the novelty box with a dirge experiment (“Dagger”), an uncharacteristically sentimental power ballad (“Had It All”), and a circumstantially long song that hardly seems to contain any more ideas or minutes than any other (“Gobblers of Dregs”).
Beyond those, very few songs here seek to challenge the audience-friendly metal template Mastodon have spent the last decade making their own, and there’s also a disarming lack of the hyperbolic flair that once supercharged practically everything under their name. Instead, they fill out the superlative end of things with a gargantuan runtime, testament that the record’s unhappy inspiration runs deep enough to sustain exceptional breadth: again, a power move, but not an earth-mover. Individual innovations are unassumingly folded into comfortable song structures (“Sickle and Peace”, “The Beast”); the band’s supernatural fritterings, too caked in beardwax since Leviathan to command earnest respect, are largely abandoned in favour of more lachrymose penmanship; the core of most tracks are more vocal-centric than ever, some the stuff of repetitive refrains (“Pushing the Tides”, “Skeleton of Splendor”), others the beneficiaries of deftly placed bridges (“The Crux”, “More Than I Could Chew”). There are also many guitar solos, yes. They are mostly very good!
So there we have it: Mastodon’s four gents slimmed themselves down for the sake of running a marathon. Their voluptuous extra pounds may be conspicuously absent across those lean, lean songwriting chops, but somehow they sound more themselves than ever. As far as new regimens go, this one is healthy, comforting and potentially inspiring; the race at hand may be a consummate circuit of the basics rather than a scramble through the unknown, but that’s just the kind of record Hushed and Grim is. And yet, I am obliged by critical sincerity to ask, why are so many of us so excited about it? Its steadiness and stoicism are all well and, undoubtedly, good, but why should its superlatives be ours? What wavelengths afford it such resonance outside the band’s private universe, and what kind of Albm Ov The Yeer does it pose to us from this most vertiginous of sacred seats?
Turns out to be a thorny riddle with a gloriously simple answer: now is no time for superlatives! If we’re candid (of course we are), the contrarian in me was initially miffed to see a rendition of Mastodon defensively playing their own tropes touted as the best thing anyone could produce in 2021, but on reflection it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate. This has been the year to let familiar patterns run on their own steam, to act in small steps with sincerity and ever-tempered optimism, and to soberly reconstruct some fragile notion of normalcy. Whatever dissociated thrill lay in watching the world tear itself apart in 2020 has long since worn off, and I think practically all of us are still, slowly struggling to reconcile the dourness of the abominably termed new normal with whatever we’ve preserved of the old one – and if that isn’t perfectly analogous to everything this album represents within the world of Mastodon, then by all means quarantine my ears and puncture my opinion faculty with a booster shot. Who needs another upheaval right now? I for one have found this year’s true table-flippers much harder to come to grips with than the likes of Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Palimpsest (no, not the Protest the Hero one) in 2020. Most of the releases that have stuck with me meaningfully this year have the firm advantage of sounding like good records have always sounded; Mastodon and their old habits fit that bill to a tee.
And so, just as when we crowned Charli XCX’s anxious nu-DIY deadline-burner of a zeitgeist project last year, it’s spurious and largely irrelevant whether Hushed and Grim is truly the best record of 2021: it’s such a cogent shoe-in as Album For The Year that the rest is a mucky toss-up quite unsuited to the homely fragrances and clean-sleeved sweaters of the festive season. Debate it in the New Year with someone who cares; in the meantime, if there’s any inference to be gleaned from either this placement or the rest of our internet-music cheatcode of a Top 10, it’s thatold faces and trusted pleasures have reasserted themselves with a vengeance. Why the hell shouldn’t they? Now’s the time for remembering that the reliables still work; as for next year, well… we’ll be in touch if we’re ever ready to get freaky again. Merry bloody Christmas, creatures of habit. –JohnnyoftheWell
List of participating writers (alphabetical order): 204409, AsleepInTheBack, Atari, AtomicWaste, BlushfulHippocrene, Dewinged, DrGonzo1937, Gnocchi, granitenotebook, Greg., insomniac15, JohnnyoftheWell, Jom, Jots, manosg, MiloRuggles, mynameischan, robertsona, Rowan5215, Sowing, TalonsOfFire, theacademy, TheNotrap, Trebor., Voivod, Willie, Winesburgohio, Xenophanes