This Week’s Best Albums: March 27, 2012

This Week's Best Albums: March 27, 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.

Meshuggah: Koloss (Nuclear Blast)

"Do Not Look Down"

As Meshuggah's first album since ObZen crushed listeners in 2008, Koloss contains many moments that break from or are rare within the band’s 25-year history. The album’s second track, “The Demon’s Name is Surveillance,” is a return to the speed of the band’s formative years, only with math riffs that are more plainly counted. (In one instance, 3-3 / 3-6 / 3-9.) The next song, “Do Not Look Down,” unleashes a shredding solo that drummer Tomas Haake describes as “Meshuggah goes rock and roll,” and closing track “The Last Vigil” is completely devoid of percussion and distortion, instead consisting of glistening, spacey guitars in a free-floating haze.

Of course, the album holds many identifiable Meshuggah marks as well. “Behind the Sun” lives in a low-end growl, “Marrow” steeps in staggering syncopation, and “Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave it Motion” is a steadily chugging beast, written during the ObZen sessions. But even “Break Those Bones…” takes a break from the band’s conventions, letting the bass handle all the distortion for a stretch.

Throughout the 10 tracks, the band combines its breakneck pacing and menacing atmospheres to register on a deeper, more visceral level. There are more differences in tempo and riff range — including an expanded and higher palette for the low-end melodies. On the surface, it may sound like a musical mismatch, but the shifting expressions only make it more engaging.

- Charlie Swanson

The Mars Volta: Noctourniquet (Warner Bros.)

The Mars Volta: "The Malkin Jewel"

It's been nearly three years since Octahedron, The Mars Volta's "acoustic album." For most bands, that's a pretty average stretch, but three years is a major wait for anything attributed to guitarist/composer Omar Rodriguez Lopez, whose credits and solo catalog grow almost exponentially by the year.

The delay here can be attributed to differences between Rodriguez Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler Zavala, who waited to record his vocals on material that was finished in 2009. But the core members' differences have come at a time when Rodriguez Lopez has sought to change his dictatorial ways, and as such, Noctourniquet — despite its stylistic advancements — is the last Mars Volta record of its kind. Moving forward, Rodriguez Lopez says, the prog-rock quintet will be a collaborative project.

Noctourniquet, however, doesn't disappoint; it's far from a throwaway "last fling." The pared-down lineup reappears, giving space to the compositions and ditching the progressive freakouts for a mix of rock riffs and quirky electronics. Plenty of new bits appear along the way — whether an emphatic synth riff on “The Whip Hand,” organic drum-and-bass beats on “In Absentia,” or background ukulele bursts on "The Malkin Jewel" — and Bixler-Zavala calls the music "future punk."

If the band can deliver such a concise but nuanced album following minor turmoil, imagine what's possible when The Mars Volta has a new lease on life.

- Scott Morrow

Quakers: s/t (Stones Throw)

"Smoke" f. Jonwayne

Billed as a 35-person hip-hop collective, Quakers at its core is three men: Fuzzface (Geoff Barrow of Portishead), 7-Stu-7 (Stuart Matthews, a Portishead and Invada Records engineer), and Katalyst (Ashley Anderson). Together, they've pooled many of their favorite MCs and hip-hop talents (the other 30-odd "members") to compile 41 tracks of collaboration.

Thanks to the album's emphasis on production, Quakers is surprisingly cohesive, and its short running times (most tracks fall between 90 seconds and three minutes) keep it from going stale . There's a prominent old-school aesthetic between beats, funky horn cuts, and rolling bass lines, but there also are plenty of new-school sounds, giving the songs a pleasant diversity. The synths range from modern and gritty ("Belly of the Beast") to dark and '80s ("Dark City Lights") to fuzzy and even proggy ("Russia With Love"), and the horns come in a few varieties, including a marching-band-ish rendition of Radiohead's "The National Anthem" alongside rhymes by Guilty Simpson on "Fitta Happier."

Perhaps best of all, the guests range from no-names to big(ger) names, allowing for first meetings and reintroductions alike. (Familiar guests include Aloe Blacc, Dead Prez, Prince Po, and Booty Brown of The Pharcyde.) In total, the music eclipses 70 minutes, and Quakers feels like a double album — one that bridges old and new with equal ability.

- Scott Morrow

Elephant & Castle: Transitions (Plug Research)

"En Memoria" f. Merrill Garbus

Not to be confused with the London neighborhood or the pub chain of the same name, Elephant & Castle is the electronic moniker of David Vincent Reep, a former acoustic guitarist who turned his talents to a digital sampler.

Following a self-titled EP late last year, Reep is back with his proper full-length, a deeper journey into ambient, moody, beat-driven electronic music. Reep cites DJ Shadow, early Flying Lotus, and Burial as influences, and they are, but a lot of Transitions falls closer to UK acid-house musicians like Luke Vibert — trippy and layered but also full of beats and bass grooves.

Songs are as likely to be carried by traditional means (e.g. keyboard melodies) as unconventional means (e.g. Flying Lotus stew), but the second half of Transitions is more ambient. Before the, well, transition, "En Memoria" features guest vocals by Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus, who departs from her usual boldness to offer an atmospheric refrain that would sound at home on an old folk tune. It's a nice contrast to the rest of the album, which is a promising new beginning for Reep.

- Scott Morrow

Honorable Mentions:

Astra: The Black Chord (Metal Blade)

Black Breath: Sentenced to Life (Southern Lord)

Bushman’s Revenge: A Little Bit of Big Bonanza (Rune Grammofon)

Child Bite: Monomania 10" (Joyful Noise)

El Doom & The Born Electric: s/t (Rune Grammofon)

Justin Townes Earle: Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (Bloodshot)

Lindsay Fuller: You, Anniversary (ATO)

The Gift of Gab: Next Logical Progression (Quannum)

God Forbid: Equilibrium (Victory)

The Great Sabatini: Matterhorn (No List Records)

Georgia Anne Muldrow & Madlib: Seeds (SomeOthaShip Connect)

Guillaume Perret & The Electric Epic: s/t (Tzadik)

Hour of Penance: Sedition (Prosthetic)

The Joel Harrison 7: Search (Sunnyside)

Poor Moon: Illusion EP (Sub Pop)

La Sera: Sees the Light (Hardly Art)

So Percussion: Cage 100: The Bootleg Series (Cantaloupe)

TheeSatisfaction: Awe Naturale (Sub Pop)

The Touré-Raichel Collective: The Tel Aviv Session (Cumbancha)

Paul Weller: Sonik Kicks (Yep Roc)