This Week’s Best Albums: June 19, 2012

This Week's Best Albums: June 19, 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.

Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel... (Epic)

With a penchant for varying her production style at each stage of her career, Fiona Apple once again sets out for new sonic terrain on her fourth album, The Idler Wheel. A partial return to the acoustic-based instrumentation of her 1996 debut, Tidal, Apple’s new material nonetheless rarely revisits that album’s courtly brand of jazz pop. Instead, The Idler Wheel veers much closer to what Apple might sound like if she landed somewhere between modern experimental theater, the unabashed pomp of Broadway, and the bustle of a frontier saloon or Prohibition-era speakeasy.

At first, it’s easy to get the impression that Apple has made a skeletal, bare-bones album when in fact the music actually teems with sound. A dizzying array of percussion, for example, conjures everything from knee slapping to a clanging boiler room to the tympanic rush of a WWII big band. Standup bass (courtesy of former Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg), spectral guitar lines, music box, banjo, bouzouki, scratchy violin/cello bowing, and even screaming children all play small, discreet roles within a creaking, groaning world of sounds. Some of the instruments whisper as if they’re barely being touched, which entices the ear with tiny details to feast on over repeated listens.

At the center of it all, Apple’s piano playing retains its distinctive elegance but, this time, sounds like it’s giving off dust as it leaves soft echoes lingering in the air. Apple deserves no small measure of the credit for these nuances herself, as she self-produced the music together with drummer/multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton (Keith Richards, Paul Simon, Divinyls, The Cult, Herbie Hancock). She and Drayton (credited as "Feedy" and "Seedy") also play the lion's share of the instruments and supply most of the sounds themselves. Not to be overlooked, recording engineer John Would and mixer Dave Way both contribute mightily to the finesse and precision of the sonic balance. Finally, Apple’s theatrical vocal delivery gives her some emotional cover so that she inhabits, rather than overwhelms, the music.

- Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

Dying Fetus: Reign Supreme (Relapse)

"Subjected to a Beating"

This, the seventh full-length from Maryland’s Dying Fetus, has the distinction of being the death-metal outfit’s first album to have the same lineup as its predecessor since its debut, Purification Through Violence, was released in 1996. Despite the many member shifts, however, Dying Fetus’ style hasn’t changed much. The band’s signature mixture of technicality, speed, and groove has spawned countless imitators and definitely helped — for better or worse — the invention of metalcore.

Dying Fetus’ love of hip hop has not gone undocumented, and it shows in the band’s many slow, groovy riffs. This type of riff has been a hallmark of both East Coast death metal and hardcore, two scenes that Dying Fetus straddles with ease. The rest of the time, the group is frantically speed-picking and blast-beating at inhuman tempos, but still managing to present riffs that are memorable and catchy.

If anything, Reign Supreme could be accused of sounding too perfect — the guitar, bass, and drums played so fast and precise that you can’t help but wonder if, like Kraftwerk, Dying Fetus sent robot counterparts into the studio to save time. The song arrangements on Reign Supreme aren’t as fluid as some past albums (most notably on 2009 classic Destroy the Opposition), but the Dying Fetus of today is more a Frankenstein’s Monster of riffs, heaving listeners into the pond like daisies.

- Text by Dave Hofer. Read the full review here.

Honorable Mentions:

Ahab: The Giant (Napalm)

Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound: Manzanita (Tee Pee)

Baby: s/t (re-release) (Nerveland)

Chandeliers: Founding Fathers (Captcha)

Del the Funky Homosapien & Parallel Thought: Attractive Sin (Parallel Thought Ltd.)

Jessica Pavone: Hope Dawson is Missing (Tzadik)

Smashing Pumpkins: Oceania (Martha’s Music / EMI)

Matt Ulery: By a Little Light (Greenleaf)