Converge and Chelsea Wolfe
Converge has always been an outfit that has prided itself on not having much of a gameplan, choosing to, instead, wing it at any given moment and proceed accordingly from there. Even now, a remarkable three decades since their formation, the hardcore punk act has refused to slow down and take stock of things; if anything, they’ve been maintaining steady speed since 2012’s All We Love We Leave Behind — a raw rallying cry of sorts that solidified the band’s rapid, almost cult-like reputation up to that point in time — which was matched on 2017’s The Dusk in Us, an equally haptic affair which continued the sustained trajectory. These last two studio albums, beloved by critics and fans alike, were defined less by their artistic innovations and more by their unyielding sonic timbre and tight, compact cohesion; as many other music publications trot out, again and again, Converge’s current line-up has remained more or less consistent since 2001 (the year Jane Doe was released, their most renowned record and last as a quintet), these albums serving as the natural output that an ensemble operating at this level of skill could reliably produce every three years or so. There’s Jacob Bannon — one of the genre’s more accomplished and emotive contemporary performers — who still sings like his distraught vocals have been thrown into the middle of a hectic brawl, howling out from the explosive combination of Ben Koller’s dynamic drumming and Kurt Ballou’s rapid, furiously angular guitar riffs. Nate Newton, bassist and occasional backup singer, is also in the mix doing his thing.
The auditory course mapped out by these two releases — both of which presented the Salem quartet as this unstoppable, barreling force of untapped energy — has all but been abandoned on Bloodmoon: I, the group’s first release since their seven-minute-long Beautiful Ruin EP back in 2018. This also happens to be their most collaborative effort since 2009’s Axe To Fall, but instead of having several guest musicians intermittently appear throughout (which included Steve “Harvestman” Von Till doing a bad Tom Waits impression), this record was conceived as an exclusively joint effort between Converge and Chelsea Wolfe. There’s prior precedent for this combination: the pair briefly toured Europe together in 2016, where they performed post-rock reinterpretations of slower-tempo Converge standards alongside Ben Chisholm (Wolfe’s creative partner) and Stephen Brodsky, the group’s former bassist. Now, after several minor delays, all seven have delivered an album’s worth of stylistically similar material to those aforementioned live shows; so infrequent as this alliance may eventually be, its inception has at least provided a bit of an arc to Converge’s current output. This release — their biggest divergence from any sort of current modus operandi — marks an end of an era; if one could characterize the band’s last decade as an expository transitional period, this album suggests a fruitful exploratory age is upon us.
On a macro-level, Bloodmoon: I takes the band in a new sonic direction — even if it’s a non-committal, one-off pivot reserved for the occasional partnership between the two parties — and into the opportune realm of symphonic, gothic doom metal. So while nobody asked for Converge to switch things up and decelerate, they themselves have already gone and done so in an organic manner that never once suggests technical stagnation or reeks of old men selling out. The title track/opener prepares listeners well for what’s to come: one keeps expecting Ballou’s guitars to start squealing, for Koller’s percussions to boom, for Banon’s voice to power through; the catharsis is eventually reached, only after considerable delay as the four continue to build in instrumental intensity. While the following “Viscera of Men” gets a little closer to the typical hyperkinetic ferocity they’re known for, Converge retires that approach with the theatrical, lethargic ballad “Coil,” one of the project’s bigger misses. The tedious track’s central issue — that grandiosity for its own sake is oftentimes just dramatic inertia — underscores many of Bloodmoon: I’s weaker moments, ones which are more noticeable by virtue of the stark contrast with the band’s standard operation. But experiments of this type are bound to have some growing pains, a few awkward kinks that could use some ironing; for now, at least, they have a course of action, and that’s all that really matters.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: Ledger Line
Courtney Barnett is back with her third LP, Things Take Time, Take Time, a stripped-down, emotional excavation delivered in her classic deadpan style. Recorded in late 2020/early 2021, Barnett opts for a sparser sound in favor of limiting exposure and the number of people needed in the studio at any given point. And while this production approach makes for her most personal record yet, it also strips away much of what’s made her career so interesting to follow thus far.
Courtney Barnett’s lodestar up until this point has been her unrelenting sincerity. Tracks like “Elevator Operator” and “Depreston” speak to a certain universality while still keeping in place the intimacy of the singer’s original experiences that inspired the tracks. Put simply, there’s no song on Things Take Time, Take Time that proves capable of invoking this same feeling, which was largely what distinguished Barnett from her peers. It’s also not nearly as polished of a record, and while it doesn’t result in an outright bad record, when taken in tandem with its otherwise bland and underwhelming character, it results in a distinctly forgettable listening experience. Absent are the ripping guitars that charge through her earlier albums, here favoring a subdued plodding line instead. The lyrics remain introspective, but fail to speak to any collective body as before, invoking the too-familiar sense of a sophomore slump (so, call this her junior slump). Even singles like “Rae Street,” “Before You Go,” and “Write a List of Things to Look Forward to” lack any fresh appeal. Barnett is clearly a talented musician, based on her previous albums and early attention-grabbing EPs, but her necessary bite is absent on TTTTT, her unique indie rock voice tenderized and pacified into homogenous background noise.
If that scans as a bit harsh, it’s a product of the album’s disheartening cumulative effect; it’s frustrating to listen to each song fall just a little bit short of its potential time after time here. Barnett is an artist who, for better or worse, swims in a sea of indie rock guitarists working within a similar sound, and her transcendent attributes have always been her near-spoken vocal and buzzing guitars that guide tracks and albums through. In losing hold of those linchpins, she loses something of her artistic thread, and while she grapples with ideas of greatness on Things Take Time, Take Time, it’s evident that she hasn’t yet reached such heights. The hope, then, must be that all this coasting on her third record will afford her the energy to truly lay rubber on the next.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Ledger Line
The buzz surrounding electronic pop producer dltzk (or, Zeke) has largely been articulated in vague, tedious language thus far, of the sort generally tossed at young, hyperpop-adjacent artists (and in fairness, probably stoked by their press team). Nevertheless, buzz is not unwarranted for the 17-year-old producer who is being hailed as a defining pioneer of ill-defined, SoundCloud genre digicore and something called dariacore, which they apparently invented in the last year, and produce under the moniker leroy (Bill Bugara, who is both a creative director at SoundCloud and manager at dltzk’s label deadAir, describes it as “how one deconstructs pop and dance music into this amalgamation of controlled chaos,” so there you go). The branding antics and media bait are a little exhausting but fairly fitting for an artist whose stand-out attributes have been confident genre shapeshifting and controlled mania thus far. Though “thus far” really only constitutes a year or so, in which time Zeke has put out various singles, two EPs (one since pulled from official Internet circulation), and now, a debut full-length album: Frailty.
Having already made a considerable enough statement at the year’s start with the frenzied cloud rap (perhaps the cleanest way of summing up “digicore”) of EP Teen Week, dltzk’s Frailty arrives at the close of 2021 to one-up that project and upend hastily formed expectations. Frailty is not shy about announcing dltzk’s formal progression, opening with “goldfish,” a lo-fi emo cut pitting Zeke’s melancholy vocals against haunted guitar strumming, the lyrics spilling out as wistful stream of consciousness that evokes the sense of loss that comes with aging into pseudo-adulthood. Written within their first, very recent, year of undergrad, the record plays with memories of youth and regret from the perspective of someone still deciphering it all — not new thematic terrain for the emo genre, but not presented as such either, potential for cliché largely avoided thanks to a knack for evasive lyricism. With new tonal palette and genre inclinations established, dltzk pivots back to the sounds and stylings of late-2000s EDM and video game music with “your clothes,” a propulsive, danceable track likely to appease those anticipating a more literal continuation of Teen Week that also finds a way to translate the vocal-forward, singer-songwriter tendencies of “goldfish” to this clashing production. Despite the cranked up tempo (indeed, this sounds like a song Sonic the Hedgehog might enjoy), “your clothes” maintains the downbeat vibes of the album opener (“Now I look so stupid for casting the roles / And when the curtains close, I wish I was in your clothes”), a dynamic that persists for the remainder of Frailty’s 57-minute runtime, peaking with album fulcrum “movies for guys.” Something of a post-Peep track, “movies for guys” plays out as a multi-part, nearly six-minute song that fractures the slick genre synthesis pulled off thus far and then stitches the pieces back together, laying bare the uneasy tension between healing dance music and the embittered emo that drives the project.
As catchy as it is nasty, “movies for guys” beckons a back-half that skews more mournful and drawn-out, but the strive for catharsis symbolized in the dueling modes remains dltzk’s primary interest, the album tellingly closing on the ironically titled “let’s go home” and the SOPHIE-alluding lyric “Oh, its okay to cry.” Though a youthful soul, dltzk arrives with a confidently defined aesthetic that imaginatively repurposes pop music of the very recent past into something legible and thrilling. It’s a compositional approach favored by many young Internet artists at the moment, but Frailty suggests a new way forward, one that can negotiate between broad pleasures and cutting introspection without letting one consume the other.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux Section: Obscure Object
A pop classicist of the highest order, Susanna Hoffs has demonstrated her facility with cover songs from the very beginnings of her career. “Hazy Shade of Winter” and “If She Knew What She Wants” were two of the strongest singles of The Bangles’ commercial heyday, while lovely renditions of “All I Want” and “To Sir, With Love” are highlights of her under-appreciated solo career. More recently, Hoffs partnered with Matthew Sweet for a series of well-regarded covers albums that showcased her thoughtful interpretations of standards like “Maggie May” and “Different Drum.” While it’s tempting to wish that Hoffs would offer a new collection of original tunes or team back up with the Peterson sisters for another Bangles record, that she’s released her first full covers album as a solo artist is hardly an unwelcome move.
Bright Lights is a cohesive set of emotionally dense material that pays homage to what she and her friend, the late David Roback (of Mazzy Star), listened to in their formative years. That angle is given further weight by the fact that so many of the original artists represented — like Nick Drake, Chris Bell, and Prince — died relatively young or, like the Velvet Underground and Emitt Rhodes, had very small but impactful catalogs. Hoffs is in fantastic voice throughout the album, capably managing the rangy melody of “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” putting her natural rasp to fantastic use on the harder-edged “Time Will Show the Wiser,” and conveying a youthful playfulness on “You May Just Be the One.” Producer Paul Bryan keeps a light hand at the mixing board: The relatively lo-fi arrangements of Bright Lights are a far cry from Different Light, but they’re well-matched to Hoffs’ unfussy performances. Always an empathetic vocalist, Hoffs digs into the complexities of “Him or Me – What’s it Gonna Be?” and “Take Me With U” with a conversational sense of phrasing that isn’t beholden to the original versions but also isn’t over-reaching in an attempt to offer entirely new interpretations. What Bright Lights reaffirms, then, is that Hoffs has some of the sharpest instincts in pop music, both in terms of choosing quality material and in knowing how that material plays to her own strengths.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Ledger Line
Since their split in 1982, it’s possible that not even the most optimistic of ABBA’s fans could think that one day they’d be able to see the Swedish superstar, pop-disco foursome — legendarily comprised of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus — back together again. Although it’s quite possible that ABBA’s most ardent fans never completely lost hope for a possible long-awaited reunion, it wasn’t until 2016 that the members announced their interest in performing a virtual concert. It held the promise of a history-making phenomenon, one which was at first repeatedly delayed for various reasons, and then because of the pandemic. And so, although ABBA had since declared that they had a couple of fresh songs at the ready, the ultimate announcement of their new album, Voyage, accompanied by a same-name special tour, was still surprising enough even to inspire considerable emotion in pop music enthusiasts across the globe. And indeed, even upon a first spin of the group’s ninth studio album (which consists of unreleased material both new and old), one can easily hear — and more profoundly, feel — the qualities that defined ABBA’s singular and joyful pop for the past couple generations. And so, if the group’s sound here can be regarded as entirely untimely, considering the contemporary music climate, given their imprint on the popular music lexicon, Voyage still feels as appropriately timeless.
Opening with the slow ballad “I Still Have Faith in You,” it’s as if ABBA purposely positions itself as a phoenix from the ashes. As much as the track appears to take the shape of a romantic confessional, it also directly addresses the history of the group itself, its members rekindling their relationship with each other and the group with their faithful fanbase: “I still have faith in you / I see it now / Through all these years that faith lives on” and “But I remind myself / Of who we are / How inconceivable it is to reach this far.” And when the slow, heartwarming verses burst into crescendo (“We do have it in us / New spirit has arrived / The joy and the sorrow / We have a story and it survived”), the song soars, as if the moment of reconciliation is complete and the time for celebration come. Alongside “I Still Have Faith in You,” the two other singles from Voyage can likewise be regarded as instant ABBA classics. Both “Don’t Shut Me Down” and “Just a Notion” demonstrate that, after four decades, the incomparable duo of Andersson and Ulvaeus still are able to compose catchy, well-structured melodies with nifty arrangements while Anni-Frid and Agnetha (whether in solo or duet) handle the beautiful, seraphic vocals even as their ranges have naturally weathered and aged. If the energetic “Don’t Shut Me Down” showcases some of the most bittersweet lyrical moments on the album (e.g., “A while ago, I heard the sound of children’s laughter / Now it’s quiet, so I guess they left the park / This wooden bench is getting harder by the hour / The sun is going down, it’s getting dark” or “Once these rooms were witness to our love / My tantrums and increasing frustration / But I go from mad, to not so bad / In my transformation”) cut through with upbeat danceability, “Just a Notion” in turn reveals some of Andersson’s finest piano work, reminiscent of his virtuosity in a classic like “Chiquitita.”
Even if not all the songs here can be equally of the same size and status — and their significance can differ from one audience to another — they still do follow ABBA’s standard. That’s not to say that Voyage is absent any slighter ditties, but these lesser tracks still frequently hold minor pleasures. “When You Danced with Me” and “Bumblebee” (both with panpipes in the intro and outro that wink to the song “Fernando”) are as much simple, sweet Northern European folk as “Little Things” is a delicate, delightful Christmas carol that wraps itself within the sounds of The Children’s Choir of Stockholm International School. Elsewhere, “I Can Be That Woman” is a pseudo-surreal story about a dog and a struggling couple with some of the oddest and most farcical lines ABBA’s ever produced (“And you say, “screw you” / I say, “I love you” / And I know it’s true“). Or, the kitschy “Keep an Eye on Dan,” which plays like a bizarre mix of the group’s “S.O.S” with a very slight “Jingle Bells” undertone in the chorus: “Keep an eye on Dan / Promise me you can.”
But the Swedish quartet leaves two of their most sturdy compositions on this record for last. Concluding with another retro ‘70s disco boogie (“No Doubt About It”) and a work of majestic orchestration (“Ode to Freedom”) — landing somewhere between inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” waltz and the opera choir of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” — ABBA again demonstrate why they are considered one of the most influential and unique pop groups of all-time. Thematically, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to dub Voyage as one of the group’s most mature outputs (if not their most), the record constantly confronting concepts of past joys, regrets, and hardships. Indeed, the pop icons confidently and intentionally never strive to overhaul or contemporize themselves artistically — nor do they take a huge swing and skew for any ostentatious experimentalism, but instead remain faithful to the sounds and character that launched them to prominence, beginning the day they captured the minds and hearts of audiences with “Waterloo” at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. Perhaps this is the best way to put it, then: ABBA is back after 40 years, and what’s special about Voyage is that it makes it seem like they never left.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan Section: Pop Rocks