This Week’s Best Albums: February 28, 2012

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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.

Napalm Death: UtilitarianNapalm Death: Utilitarian (Century Media)

Napalm Death: “Leper Colony”

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It’s rare that an active group with a 25- to 30-year history keeps such a regular schedule of major releases, particularly in extreme metal. But Napalm Death is more than a notable exception, sitting at the forefront of the grindcore movement since the mid-1980s.

Utilitarian, its 15th studio album, falls much more into grindcore than the death-metal moments of Napalm Death’s career. Despite its consistent, hyper-speed brutality, however, the album’s strongest and most memorable parts are its mid-paced moments. The punishing two-minute opener “Circumspect” bludgeons with a Converge-esque riff refrain, and many other tracks have tempo shifts so as not to stray into “grind overload” territory.

Experimentation helps to keep Utilitarian fresh as well. A skronky saxophone makes its only appearance on “Everyday Pox,” and vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway‘s guttural growls pair with raspy screams and Fear Factory-style vocals on “The Wolf I Feed” and vaguely operatic vocals in “Leper Colony.” Ultimately, Napalm Death does best when splicing fast, mobile riffs with catchy beats, and Utilitarian has that in spades.

– Scott Morrow & Todd Nief

Dirty Three: Toward the Low Sun Dirty Three: Toward the Low Sun (Drag City)

Dirty Three: “Rising Below”

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It’s been seven years since Aussie post-rockers Dirty Three have released an album. That’s not to say the band members have been lying low: living on separate continents, each of the Three has been busy either touring or recording with other acts or composing film scores.

The past seven years, no doubt, have been one of the most creative periods in the band’s history — and it shows on the its new album, Toward the Low Sun. Each member seems to have benefited from the hiatus, as they return with a sound that’s more definitive than ever.

Straying from Dirty Three’s dreamier landscapes, Toward the Low Sun is at times both beautiful and unnerving. There is an intensity to this album that wasn’t present on some of the group’s previous recordings, and it seems to have rediscovered its raw energy in the way its members feed off each other, returning to a slightly more jazz-influenced, improvisational approach to playing. Songs such as the six-minute post-rock gem “Rising Below” — quietly and slowly building into an anxiety-fueled cacophony — prove that, indeed, Dirty Three is back.

– Text by Meaghann Korbel. Read the Q&A here.

Vaura: SelenelionVaura: Selenelion (Wierd)

Vaura: “Obsidian Damascene Sun”

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As post-metal continues its amorphous journey, it’s only natural that more “super groups” would spring forth to commingle the sub-genre’s sounds even further. Vaura is the latest such collection of talent, boasting the skills of guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia, Gorguts), bassist Toby Driver (Kayo Dot, Secret Chiefs 3), guitarist/vocalist Joshua Strawn (Blacklist, Religious to Damn), and drummer Charlie Schmid (Religious to Damn).

Though Vaura isn’t as experimental as some of Hufnagel and Driver’s most “out” material, the music on the band’s debut, Selenelion, sounds like worlds colliding. It’s heavy and riff-based but also brooding and atmospheric. The former comes courtesy of the intertwined guitar harmonies of Hufnagel, Strawn, and Driver, the last of whom uses a bit of baritone guitar alongside his bass duties. But between plenty of synth accents, post-metal tremolo picking, and the drawn-out and slightly gothic vocals of Strawn, the material achieves that balance between urgency and mood.

– Scott Morrow

Aaron Novik: Secrets of SecretsAaron Novik: Secret of Secrets (Tzadik)

Aaron Novik: “Secrets of the Divine World” (excerpt)

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Aaron Novik: “Secrets of Creation” (excerpt)

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As the latest installment in the “Radical Jewish Culture” series on John Zorn‘s Tzadik label, Secret of Secrets may come as a surprise for fans of avant-pop composer Aaron Novik‘s recent work. Of course, close listeners of Novik won’t be taken off-guard, as the Bay Area resident has called on disparate elements over his career, often careening into chamber and Jewish sounds. His newest album avoids pop entirely, instead meshing the above references with his heavy noise-rock proclivities (as heard on his Simulacra album).

“Secrets of Creation” gets the album off to a very soft and slow start, but within a few minutes, the opener has transformed from a gentle chamber piece into an ominous swirl, as distorted bass pulses clash with a simple, descending string melody that creates a polyrhythm with overdubs. At nearly 15 minutes long, the song transforms another few times, with slithering, distorted clarinet lines, old-time horn melodies, and heartache-inducing strings.

All five movements (each more than 10 minutes long) feature all-stars of the “experimental” world, whether it’s guitarist Fred Frith, violinist Carla Kihlstedt, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, or percussionist William Winant. More than simply another experimental Jewish mash-up, Secret of Secrets is an unassuming and undefinable work of art.

– Scott Morrow

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden (Nonesuch)

Carolina Chocolate Drops: “Country Girl”

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To listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops is to hear the history of the United States of America, distilled to its brightest and blackest realities. The African-American string band bravely draws from bluegrass, African music, and hip hop, while never really straying from the rich vein of Americana that ribbons through its home state of North Carolina and its own history (founding members Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons cut their teeth at the home of famed fiddler Joe Thompson).

Leaving Eden isn’t much of a departure from the Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig — and it doesn’t need to be. “Country Girl,” the record’s first single and one of the few tracks written by Giddens, is made up of the same stuff as the band’s spirited cover of “Hit ’Em Up Style.” Produced by Buddy Miller — a Nashville veteran whose credits include Robert Plant and Emmylou HarrisLeaving Eden is what happens when talented folk musicians wholly embrace the musical era in which we find ourselves today.

It also offers a variety of flavors, not all of them as pleasant as the sweetly nostalgic “West End Blues,” an Etta Baker tune that finds Giddens interpreting a story that Baker once told about the way her father danced. Some are exotic, like “Mahalla,” while others, like the title track, are bitter and dark, telling the sad tale of a depressed Southern town. But the gloom never lasts long: a playful lilt and plentiful beat-boxing lifts the record out of its temptation to dwell on the world’s myriad tragedies. Carolina Chocolate Drops might be a sort of embodiment of the American sojourn, but Leaving Eden isn’t only a sorrowful journey.

– Timothy A. Schuler

Honorable Mentions

Ólafur Arnalds: Another Happy Day soundtrack (Erased Tapes)

Autopsy: All Tomorrow’s Funerals (Peaceville)

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny: Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose (Mute)

Christian Mistress: Possession (Relapse)

Dreamend: And the Tears Washed Me, Wave After Cowardly Wave (Graveface)

Erik Deutsch: Demonio Teclado

Mouse on Mars: Parastrophics (Monkeytown)

On Again Off Again: Acres (Yes Club)

School of Seven Bells: Ghostory (Vagrant)