This Week’s Best Albums: April 3, 2012

This Week's Best Albums: April 3, 2012

Each week, editor-in-chief Chris Force and music editor Scott Morrow choose ALARM’s favorite new releases for This Week’s Best Albums, an eclectic set of reviews presenting exceptional music.

High on Fire: De Vermis Mysteriis (E1)

"Fertile Green"

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2011, High on Fire spent its holiday season in Massachusetts, recording its sixth album, De Vermis Mysteriis, with Converge’s Kurt Ballou. In many ways, the album is classic High on Fire, balancing a healthy diet of punishing sludge riffs with epic progressions and maintaining the band as one of the more consistent in metal.

“Bloody Knuckles” is a hook-laden variation on the band's classic churn, “Fertile Green” is a lunge into an ultra-menacing stomp, and “Madness of an Architect” finds the trio tapping into its Sabbath-y roots for some old-fashioned doom-metal haunting.

Following the crisply produced Snakes for the Divine, De Vermis Mysteriis keeps alive the spirit of that album's powerful yet progressive sludge. Yet Ballou's production pushes the record into a rawer direction, with his studio techniques lending a much-welcome layer of crust and gnarl to the band's trademark brutality.

It's not that High On Fire is all menace all the time, though. “Samsara” is a blissfully stoned instrumental that's more prog than metal, and “King of Days,” still among the band's heaviest, adds some wondrously clean vocals in its most climactic moments. High on Fire hasn't altered its MO drastically on De Vermis Mysteriis; the band just continues to make it sound as amazing as possible.

- Jeff Terich

Clark: Iradelphic (Warp)

"Com Touch"

For his last pair of full-length albums, hyper-melodic electronic artist (Chris) Clark moved into dance-floor territory, albeit in an idiosyncratic and IDM-ish fashion. Iradelphic, his sixth full-length for Warp, is a bold step back to the future, moving away from those dance elements to simultaneously go old- and new-school.

The album’s first single, “Com Touch,” contains an array of timbres and resembles Clark's Empty the Bones of You era, but much of Iradelphic explores organic realms, combining acoustic guitars, soft vocal bits, and field recordings with his old and new synth sounds. Iradelphic, in fact, was recorded in six different countries to capture different field-recording and vintage sounds, and it shows in many of the samples.

But Clark's guitar work is the most pleasant surprise, and it meshes beautifully with the synthesized melodies. There are male/female bossa-nova-ish vocals and guitar on "Open" and "Secret," the latter of which features Martina Topley Bird (of Massive Attack) and contains a chorus entirely of "bum-bum-bums." "Tooth Moves" is a track that best exemplifies the new sound -- leading with an acoustic riff but defined by a manic, squiggly electronic melody. And then there's "Black Stone," a delicate interlude that only features piano, and "Broken Kite Footage," a five-minute ambient closer.

Heard separately, these tracks might resemble any number of artists. Taken as a whole, Iradelphic is both one of the best and most daring albums of Clark's career.

- Scott Morrow

Serengeti: Kenny Dennis EP (Anticon)


With hyper-prolific and collaborative artists, simply keeping tabs on a complete discography is a challenge in itself. Chicago-born MC David Cohn (best known as Serengeti) is one of those artists, a man with more credits than Bears starting QBs between Jim McMahon and Jay Cutler. Compounding matters is that outside of his many group efforts, Cohn has plenty of alter-egos, including Windy City super-fan Kenny Dennis, a former member of the short-lived (and fictional) Tha Grimm Teachaz.

Produced by Jel and Odd Nosdam, Kenny Dennis EP is the latest release to feature the sports-loving character. The collaboration was previewed last year with the Internet-buzzing video for "Perculators" (a cut that doesn't appear here), and the production fits the theme with a variety of '90s styles -- including the gangster-rap MO of the title track.

The six tracks may be best enjoyed by Chicagoans, particularly with cuts such as "Don't Blame Steve," a defense of Wrigley Field scapegoat Steve Bartman that name-drops a bevy of all-star and washed-up Cubs. But anyone who enjoys humor and a thick Midwestern accent will enjoy the Kenny Dennis EP, whether it's the lightning-fast delivery of "Flat Pop" or the genie-bashing of "Shazam," a dis track against Shaquille O'Neal (best line: "Your team's named the Magic, and that's not a real thing!").

- Scott Morrow

Zammuto: s/t (Temporary Residence)

"The Shape of Things to Come"

Earlier this year, avant-pop duo The Books announced the end of its 12-year career. Since then, Nick Zammuto — one half of The Books — has pursued the solo course, forming the aptly named Zammuto with a group of complementary musicians. And on his solo debut, Zammuto, he shows a lingering love of experimentation.

Throughout the album’s first and second tracks, “Yay” and “Groan Man, Don’t Cry,” Zammuto combines quasi-robotic boops, bleeps, and bips with haunting organs and his airy, auto-tuned vocals to an unnerving effect. Though the use of vocoder leans toward excess, its effect on “Too Late to Topologize” is a humorous contrast, as Zammuto’s musings about his tax return are delivered through that familiar, high-pitched warbling, alongside cartoonish synth-pop beats.

By the album’s end, more familiar song structures rear their heads. "The Shape of Things to Come" is something of percussive, modern chamber pop, and closer "Full Fading" steps back from the experimentation with the slow pick of an acoustic guitar and distorted, breathy vocals.

Some will find Zammuto challenging and hard to follow, but it's a quirky and often beautiful first piece of Nick Zammuto's solo career. Whatever his future holds, it's bound to be unconventional.

- Meaghann Korbel

AU: Both Lights (Hometapes)

"Get Alive"

To this point, AU — the Portland-based duo and brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Luke Wyland — has produced two-and-a-half albums of beautiful but weird pop music. And just like its predecessors, Both Lights (its third full-length) features a slew of immensely talented contributors — including the inimitable saxophonist Colin Stetson and frequent AU contributing vocalist Sarah Winchester. But unlike contemporaries such as Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear, the band remains planted in its progressive roots this time around, constructing its own brand of experimental pop on what is perhaps its grandest scale yet.

The album hits the ground running with its ambitiously titled opener, “Epic,” which begins with percussionist Dana Valatka’s dizzying drum work and a flurry of sharp guitars -- all before hitting a sonorous piano groove and a brass wall, with Stetson’s sax acting as a musical ballast. More layers of banjo and horns join the swirl, and before long, you're left wondering how four minutes passed so quickly.

One of Wyland’s strongest yet most overlooked instruments — his voice — makes its first appearance in the second track, “Get Alive.” There’s an element of both melancholy and triumph in his Zach Condon-esque vocals that lends itself to the dramatic ascent in songs like “Get Alive” and the album’s standout, “Solid Gold” — a frantic, Dan Deacon-like number featuring another Stetson solo.

At times, the playfulness between calm and chaos on Both Lights seems gratuitous, as some tracks seem to build and build without any real end while other quieter, sleeping numbers never seem to wake up. The album remains, however, something to explore, offering something new with each listen.

- Meaghann Korbel

Yppah: Eighty One (Ninja Tune)

"Film Burn" f. Anomie Belle

With warm weather looming in the Northern Hemisphere, Yppah’s latest offering, Eighty One, couldn’t have come at a better time. Born Jose Luis Corrales, Jr., this Californian-by-way-of-Texas has created some seriously beach-ready, beat-driven electro-gaze inspired by his move to Long Beach, CA.

“Blue Schwinn,” the album’s opener, begins with sounds of a child’s laughter, immediately cementing the sense of nostalgia inherent in Eighty One (the year of Corrales’ birth). The song launches into a series of grimy guitars and dreamy electronics that conjure images of sunlight dancing across ocean waves. Continuing this beach theme, the glistening glide of the guitars on “Happy to See You” could serve as a sonic representation of ocean tides.

On this record, though, Yppah brings forth another crucial element: the atmospheric vocals of Portland solo artist Anomie Belle. Contributing to not one but four tracks — including the moody “D. Song” and the slow-crawling “Film Burn” — Belle lends her reverb-drenched voice to help lift some of album’s darker moments.

Exhilarating and beautifully optimistic, Eighty One is a perfect start to spring. It's also Yppah’s best album to date.

Bill Frisell, Tim Robbins & Hunter S. Thompson: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved (429 / Paris)

"At the Airport Newsstand"

Fans of jazz-crossover guitarist Bill Frisell shouldn’t race to pick up The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, not if that title doesn’t ring a bell. The record is an oddball-yet-all-star collaboration between Frisell and actor/part-time musician Tim Robbins, and it takes its name from Hunter S. Thompson’s notorious sports article because that’s exactly what it is.

Thompson’s darkly humorous gonzo journalism — flashing a plastic-coated “photog Playboy mag” badge he bought off a pimp in Colorado, for instance — is brought to life with an original score as comical and makeshift as the piece itself. Robbins plays Thompson, Ralph Steadman plays himself — a British illustrator also on assignment for Scanlan’s Monthly — and Frisell, with Eyvind Kang, Jenny Scheinman, Hank Roberts, Kenny Wolleson, et al, pens the music that ties the narration together.

Listening, it has the feel of a book on tape, or an NPR show, but the quality of the compositions quashes the low-budget filler that's typical of public radio. The music necessarily is the background, but it hardly takes a back seat, serving as a tool for pacing, a place-setting device, and, at times, comic relief. Strings and brass offer a stately, old-world vibe while upbeat chamber-jazz tunes full of clarinet and sizzling percussion are as rough around the edges as the writing style.

Forty-two years after the essay was first published and seven years after Thompson’s death, Robbins and Frisell’s Kentucky Derby is an entertaining revival of a seminal article that changed journalism forever and is still as funny as ever.

- Timothy A. Schuler

Honorable Mentions:

Bear in Heaven: I Love You, It’s Cool (Dead Oceans / Hometapes)

Black Mountain: Year Zero OST (Jagjaguwar)

Black Sheep Wall: No Matter Where It Ends (Season of Mist)

Breton: Other People’s Problems (FatCat)

Caltrop: Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes (Holidays for Quince)

The Funk Ark: High Noon (ESL)

Mencea: Pyrophoric (Indie Recordings)

Rocky Votolato: Television of Saints (Undertow Music Collective)