Always excited for new music, we take a look at the pop brilliance of Carly Rae Jepsen's newest album, the theatrical propensity of the new FKA Twigs and The Dear Hunter records, along with a crop of Singaporean releases that includes one of the most fascinating black metal albums we've heard in a long time.
E•MO•TION | Carly Rae Jepsen
It's easy to dismiss Carly Rae Jepsen as a one-hit wonder who traffics in brainless, exaggerated music designed for the radio to wear out. It's easy to pity Carly Rae Jepsen as the struggling singer who will always be dragged down, away from true pop royalty, by the sparkly albatross around her neck that is 'Call Me Maybe'.
It's also easy to fall fast and hard for her transcendent sophomore album E•MO•TION, a slice of pure pop gold — drizzled with sugar and spice, bursting with the purity of feeling you never thought a 29-year-old could muster. The album's title is a transparent gesture to its meaning: punctuated so you vocalize each syllable, E•MO•TION is Jepsen's exploration of the multitudes contained in that single word.
What facets of this prism does Jepsen peer into, then? First of all, obviously, there's the crush of 'I Really Like You'. If the song's repetitive chorus displays a poverty of intelligence or vocabulary, it's only because Jepsen is testifying to the staggering volume of infatuation that no matter how big, it still eludes language. That crush goes under the microscope in the playful 'Boy Problems', a knowing nod to the endless intimate conversations girlfriends have about dudes one, two and three. Jepsen negotiates between her personhood and her yearning on "When I Needed You," whose incredibly adult chorus goes like this: "Sometimes that I could change / But not for me, for you / So we could be together, forever / But I know that I won't change for you / Cuz where were you for me / When I needed someone?"
Much like what Jepsen articulates in her lyrics, the sound of E•MO•TION is not new. Lovers of 80's horn-filled pop with its loud synth lines will recognize this album as a massive #throwback. That doesn't mean it doesn't sound good, though: save a few bum moments like "LA Hallucinations," every song is somehow more catchy or beautiful than they have a right to be. On E•MO•TION, Jepsen asks us to embrace the sheer power of feeling. In this age of snark and irony, perhaps that's exactly what we need.
Standout Tracks: 'Run Away With Me', 'Boy Problems', 'Making the Most of the Night', 'Warm Blood'
Verdict: Carly Rae Jepsen has #blessed us with her #feels and we should be grateful.
Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise | The Dear Hunter
As part of the Act series that the band has pursued for almost a decade, Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise is prog-rock group The Dear Hunter's foray back into opulent, symphonic territory. After exploring the nuances of straightforward alt-rock in Migrant and completing the ambitious collection The Color Spectrum, Act IV is the band playing to their strengths.
Whether that's a good thing or not depends a lot on frontman Casey Crescenzo's songwriting. In this case, he comes through with a theatrical record that encapsulates the sonic ambition of the Act albums, but unfortunately without any fresh ideas that keep them ahead of most independent rock bands. Thematically, Crescenzo has got everything down immaculately — if you've followed the Act albums, from the start, there's a lot to enjoy from most tracks. He has no reservations about being self-referential, reviving familiar motifs and lyrical themes throughout the ongoing story, moreso than any other Act album.
While he tries his hand at a little bit of funk-influenced instrumentation in 'King of Swords (Reversed)', musicially the album stays true to the band's roots — emotionally stirring, orchestra-backed progressive rock that contains flashes of musical innovation, mainly due to Crescenzo's astuteness in injecting pop sensibilities every now and then, along with impressive production values.
However, with its sonic ambitions that lean towards the baroque and orchestral, the album limits the band's audience to its core fanbase, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply doesn't elevate the band's position in indie rock's consciousness as it should, mainly due to the band's consciously firm position outside of modern music patterns. Prog rock has almost always existed in a vacuum and The Dear Hunter may find itself dangerously close to it.
Standout tracks: 'A Night on the Town', 'Remembered', 'Wait'
Verdict: Even with spots of musical brilliance and ravishing consistency, Act IV: Rebirth in Reverse unfortunately does little to add to the band's legacy outside of their devoted fanbase.
DEPRESSION CHERRY I BEACH HOUSE
Early consensus on Depression Cherry, Beach House’s fifth full-length, hasn’t been as effusive as the reception towards theirs earlier efforts. Admittedly, and let’s get this out of the way first, Depression Cherry is definitely a marked step down from the heights of Teen Dream or Bloom. But just because it's not as good as those dream pop masterpieces doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Depression Cherry is a very good album. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have crafted a gorgeous record here that’s seductive and lingers in your mind well beyond its conclusion.
Many cite a lack of musical progression, which may be true, but we just see it as Beach House playing to their strengths. Their low-key melancholy mesmerizes and their decision to strip-back from the grandeur of Bloom is actually well considered. Depression Cherry is quieter and more languid, but listeners who pay attention will be abundantly rewarded. The album’s splendour reveals itself with multiple listens, as Beach House unveil shards of personal darkness in wide-screen shimmer, but ultimately they never wallow because hard times come and go. You’ll find yourself lost in its intimate moments.
Standout tracks: “Sparks”, “Wildflower”, “PPP”
Verdict: Depression Cherry is a grower of an album that’s as exquisite as it is emotional, unfolding like Legrand & Scally’s sonic catharsis.
Death Trance Ritual | Tantra
To truly understand black metal is to unravel the complexities of dread a band can execute on record, usually through reacting against or embracing its environment. That’s just one way to look at the genre, as it certainly has evolved into something so much more, but in the early years of black metal, bands revolted against the traditions of Christianity, embracing nihilism, Satanism and the freezing cold atmosphere of the forests. Many of these bands started in Norway and ever since, bands have surfaced with their own take on black metal that have angered traditionalists, but it also has opened doors to the genre for so many people.
For a Singaporean band like Tantra, they’re well-aware of the traditions of black metal but they give it their own spin to great effect. No church burnings or pentagrams, these guys align themselves with Taoist traditions that, depending on your predilections, can either be incredibly alluring or deeply unsettling, the latter of which many black metal bands have gone out to achieve.
The band’s approach in Death Trance Ritual is surprisingly minimalist, attaching eerie recordings of chants at the start or end on most of the four tracks. Their focus lies within the power of distorted guitars, stretching long periods of constant hypnotic riffage that occasionally change tempo, expertly balancing slow-chugging sludge goodness with raw black metal savagery.
Consisting of just four tracks, under a concise runtime of 40 minutes, ‘Into the New World’ sets the tone very quickly with guitars that are relentlessly soaked in lo-fi reverb, while ‘Mutual Benefit Friendly Society’ delves further into aggressive territory. An intriguing, if not, static journey, at least until the unearthing of gentle guitars in ‘Iskarioutha’, arguably the album’s centrepiece. The track nicely sums up the basis of Tantra’s sound: pure, harrowing dread that engulfs you whole. You’ll do best not to resist.
Standout tracks: 'Mutual Benefit Friendly Society', 'Iskarioutha', 'Into the New World'
Verdict: While the band's aesthetics may become more of a talking point than their music, Death Trance Ritual is a terrific piece of extreme metal savagery.
Geography of the Heart | elintseeker
elintseeker is the solo project of Fuzz Lee, a local musician, whose approach to composition deconstructs familiar structures, retaining melody but focusing primarily on textures. What this means for his new album Geography of the Heart is an album with intriguing field recordings, enveloping drone sections and exquisite melodies that are immediately striking but they still take their time to unfold with every listen.
It’s an album brimming with detail underneath haze-induced production. The whole record feels transient, but with a running time slightly under an hour, that’s probably its best quality. Teaming up with a storied team of musicians, including Scott Cortez or legendary underground shoegaze group loveliescrushing and Singaporean sound artist Darren Ng (Sonicbrat), Fuzz impresses with his refined grasp of musicianship while still leaving much room for experimentation that contributes to the album's immersive quality.
Standout tracks: 'Geography of the Heart', 'Strasswalchen in November', 'Krakow Gardens'
Verdict: Mildly adventurous but melodically enchanting, Geography of the Heart takes ambient and drone music to delightfully accessible territory.
M3LL155X | FKA twigs
Tahliah Barnett is intensely interested in the body. Her interest is present in her moniker, twigs, which came from the way her joints cracked when she danced. It's in the art for her various albums and EPs, which all feature her body, manipulated, beautifully grotesque. It's in her music, which often pays attention to small human tics: breaths, clicks, gasps. "I want it to feel physical, like it's in your body, because that's how I feel," she told Complex earlier this year.
Her new EP, M3LL155X, continues this obsession, but this time round FKA twigs is more confident and confrontational. She delves into the disturbing — in the mini-film that accompanies the EP, she transforms from deflated blow-up doll to heavily pregnant woman in the matter of minutes. LP1 was a vulnerable album with flickers of defiance but on M3LL155X – a variation of the name Melissa – FKA twigs leaves behind yearning and self-loathing for harsh, commanding agency.
The beats of silence that held space for breaths on LP1 now give way to blasts of industrial distortion, such as on "figure 8." Her vocals are often pitched higher, either to lend an edge to lyrics that would be otherwise read as submissive (see the words of "i'm your doll," which she wrote when she was 18) or to underscore her steely anger ("You've got a goddamn nerve," she spits on the sinuous centerpiece "in time"). twigs is interested in the fleshly body but freely manipulates and mechanizes her voice, blending them into the sharp, shiny sounds that form the machinery of the EP.
These production choices sometimes obscure her actual words, which are still FKA twigs' weakest point. Instead of concrete narratives, she does better with atomized lines and phrases which leap out at you: "Hold that pose for me", "I just want for you to love me", "Let me live." This is one of the few dissatisfactions of the EP, which knowing FKA twigs' fierce work ethic, is no doubt only a transition between albums. What comes next? We can't wait.
Standout Tracks: 'figure 8', 'in time', 'glass & patron'
Verdict: Forget the bruised body of LP1. On M3LL155X twigs channels her strength and will into grotesque imagery and mechanized vocals.
POISON SEASON I DESTROYER
Poison Season marks Dan Bejar’s 20th year as Destroyer, and frankly, it's remarkable that he’s managed to deliver this level of grace and imagination for so long. Destroyer has gone through it's fair bit of evolution over the decades, but every left turn is deft and done with purpose, all the while staying true to the intellectualism that earned the band its repute. Similarly, Poison Season refines the lessons learnt in Kaputt, taking his recent fascination with the saxophone beyond Roxy Music atmospherics to make it an integral, swelling, heart-soaring part of his new dynamic.
“Times Square Poison Season 1”, “Times Square” and “Times Square Poison Season 2” pop up in the beginning, the middle and the end of the album respectively, a structural quirk offering recurring motifs and functioning as thematic signposts. Naturally, middle child “Times Square” is the album’s centerpiece, starting plaintively (like the record’s first half) before it begins to gallop with horns and infectious congas, signalling a tide shift for the remainder of the record. From there, Bejar goes baroque with a beguiling arrangement of strings, synths and sax to go along with his opaque, but charming lyricism.
Standout tracks: “Times Square”, “The River”, “Midnight Meet The Rain”
Verdict: Theatrical, novelistic and unabashedly ambitious - Poison Season finds Destroyer at the height of the band’s powers, helmed by Bejar’s restless inspiration.
PRESENT SENSE I KEVIN MATHEWS
Noted music journalist, accomplished singer-songwriter and an all-around veteran of the Singapore rock scene — Kevin Mathews is one of those guys that’s been there and done that.
As such, he’s more than earned our respect, not just due to his longevity, but for stellar body of work as a writer and musician. And 25 years on, Mathews is still going strong, having just released a new solo record entitled Present Sense. The man may be older now, but as this record proves, Mathews is still pretty young at heart. Present Sense powers through its 10 tracks with the gusto and wild abandon of a teenager.
The tunes are energetic and playful, with special compliments going to the guitar and bass contributions of Joshua Tan (The Fire Fight, A Vacant Affair) and Nelson Tan (In Each Hand a Cutlass) respectively. The album follows a loose narrative concerning love found and lost that’s sensational enough to feel like fiction, yet heartfelt enough to hint at a tiny bit of autobiography. But as strong as Mathews’ sense of melody is, and as well-crafted as his songs are, monotony does creep in by the end. Perhaps its because Present Sense’s style is written in the past tense, where Mathews’ mastery of pop-rock fundamentals is somewhat tempered by its rigid formula and an unwillingness to venture beyond his comfort zone.
Standout tracks: “Vancouver Gurls”, “Misery City”, “Hearts Ablaze”
Verdict: Highlighted by vintage songwriting but burdened by homogeneity, Kevin Mathews’ Present Sense is a solid but unremarkable pop-rock album.