This Week’s Best Albums: September 18, 2012

This Week's Best Albums: September 18, 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.

Menomena: Moms (Barsuk)


At the beginning of 2012, when multi-instrumentalist/co-singer Brent Knopf left quirk-rock trio Menomena, the future of the Portland band felt uncertain. Knopf’s tenor perfectly complemented Justin Harris’s and Danny Seim’s vocals, and his guitar work helped structure Menomena songs into hook-ridden frameworks.

But within just the first few minutes of Moms, the first Menomena release as a two-piece, it’s quite clear that Menomena will be just fine. For the most part, the classic Menomena tropes remain: Seim’s sporadic and intricate drumming, Harris’s swelling saxophone and bass lines, and a swarm of slow-burning strings, sprinkling keys, and hazy harmonies. Even the unconventional guitar work is in place, making it almost feel like Knopf never left.

Moms should’ve been the sound of a band unraveling — a machine struggling to operate after losing a key apparatus. Instead, it is arguably Menomena’s best effort to date, as Harris and Seim have learned how to adapt to the situation and improve upon it. To say that Moms is another Menomena album is misleading. It’s much more than that.

– Text by Michael Danaher. Read the full review here.

Kid Koala: 12-Bit Blues (Ninja Tune)

"2-Bit Blues"

Canadian DJ/turntablist Eric San, better known as Kid Koala, has long been known for his eclectic collection of records. Cartoon TV specials, old comedy sketches, bodily functions — you name it and he has chopped, scratched, or spliced it into his work. Now, for his latest studio album, he takes on the blues.

With the aid of an E-mu SP-1200 sampler — an old bit of machinery but one that is new to Mr. Koala — the fast-fingered one twists and folds old blues recordings onto themselves, foregoing sequencing software to perform the tracks in real time (and later add cuts over the top). Many moments feel like cover songs with stutters and scratches, but the tunes really are more like down-on-their-luck Frankenstein’s Monsters, blended together with San’s dexterity. 12-Bit Blues isn’t all bluesy, though. Next to the cooing vocal samples, down-and-dirty guitars, and harmonicas are funky horn cuts, jazzy piano lines, and chirping electronics.

It may not be the most obvious direction for a DJ, but for Kid Koala, it’s just the latest genre on which he’s left his distinctive mark.

– Meaghann Korbel

Grizzly Bear: Shields (Warp)

"Sleeping Ute"

In 2009, Brooklyn-based Grizzly Bear became a mainstay of art rock with its gorgeous breakthrough effort, Veckatimest, which added to the band’s already gorgeous, distinct sound. Three years later, the vocally adept and sonically diverse quartet is back with Shields, an album even more assured of the band’s signature sound and style.

Anchored by singers Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen’s ever-rotating swath of vocal leads, as well as fluttering guitars swarming their way through the haze of digital soundscapes, rambling drums, and wraith-like harmonies and melodies, Shields makes it clear that Grizzly Bear has concocted another beautiful and haunting effort — one drenched in hook-laden experimentations, dark-eyed cynicism, and minimalist wayfaring.

The potential that seemed so massive when the band emerged in the early 2000s has finally blossomed, with standout tracks like “Yet Again,” “Half Gate,” and “Gun-Shy” swelling into unrelenting, heart-strumming works of art. Shields is proof that Grizzly Bear ranks among indie’s elite.

- Michael Danaher

Gallows: Gallows (Bridge Nine)

"Last June"

Following its Grey Britain LP in 2009, British hardcore/punk outfit Gallows lost the backing of its major label and dealt with the departure of original singer Frank Carter. The band quickly rebounded, however, and released an EP with new vocalist Wade MacNeil (ex-Alexisonfire) in late 2011, revealing that the quintet from Watford, UK, was no worse for the wear. With Gallows, your eardrums might not be so lucky.

This 11-track offering is more pissed-off hardcore/punk for the apocalypse, but tonality makes a big difference. Metallic half-distortions pair with in-the-red guitar fuzz; MacNeil's gravelly punk screams are even raspier and more guttural than his predecessor's. Combine that with riff-borne ferocity, half-time breakdowns, and gang-vocal sing-alongs, and you have a band as potent as ever.

- Scott Morrow

Brother Ali: Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color (Rhymesayers)

"Only Life I Know"

In 2007, Minneapolis MC Brother Ali polarized audiences with “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” condemning his country's “bloodshed, genocide, rape, and fraud.” For his fifth release, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, Ali is decidedly more optimistic, admitting, “Nowadays I embrace it all — beautiful ideas and amazing flaws,” on opening track “Letter to my Countrymen.”

The music revisits the retro soul sensibilities of producer Jake-One (50 Cent, Rick Ross), but it also takes more chances with electronic flavors, electric-guitar riffs, and keyboards. Lyrically, Mourning in America... is inspired by the Occupy movements, the Arab Spring, and his first pilgrimage to Mecca, and the record is a rarity for an election year: a political protest that refuses to take sides.

- John Taylor

Down: Down IV Part I: The Purple EP (Warner Music Group)


For a super-group like Down — formed from members of Pantera, Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar, and Eyehategod — what's more fitting than assembling a Voltron-style album out of four epic EPs?

Clocking in at a weighty 33 minutes (what many consider a full-length these days), Down IV Part I: The Purple EP is less a return than it is a first repayment — starting to make good to its fans for another five-year wait between albums.

Many hold the band's debut album, NOLA, in rare esteem, with few albums (by Down or otherwise) comparing on a riff-by-riff basis. The Purple EP, however, does its damndest to pack in the quality with heaping doses of down-tuned chugs, string bends, and wailing harmonies. It's devoid of the tranquil moments of albums past, but those presumably will surface on parts two through four — when our metal superheroes resume their dauntless journey.

- Scott Morrow

Lymbyc Systym: Symbolyst (Western Vinyl)

"Prairie School"

Despite spending much of the past three years on separate continents, brothers Jared and Michael Bell have written and recorded their third full-length as Lymbyc System — a feat that’s made at least a bit easier thanks to 20 years of playing together. And somehow, Symbolyst is among the duo’s most accomplished to date, with harmonies as rich and melodies as infectious as ever.

The album’s opener, “Prairie School,” begins with a bubbling, arpeggiated melody, gradually escalating beneath layers of bassy and whirring synth lines. “Falling Together” is packed with twists and turns: opening with synthesized moodiness, it soon breaks into driving hip-hop beats and pop flourishes prior to a twinkling piano passage. And that’s only by its halfway mark.

Sweeping strings make a few appearances later in the album, and though Symbolyst in general isn’t a drastic change, it provides a poppier aesthetic, still as reliant on gorgeous melodies but moving away from a slightly more post-rock style. And it manages to live up to its title’s reference to the Symbolists — a late 19th Century arts movement — who, like Lymbyc Systym, attempt to convey universal truths through metaphor. The duo does so now, perhaps, better than ever.

– Meaghann Korbel

Honorable Mentions:

Bad Powers: s/t (The End)

Jherek Bischoff: Scores: Composed Instrumentals (Brassland)

Chicago Stone Lightning Band: s/t (Downtown)

The Devin Townsend Project: Epicloud (Inside Out)

Dinosaur Jr.: I Bet on Sky (Jagjaguwar)

Aaron Embry: Tiny Prayers (Vagrant)

Fink: Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet (Ninja Tune)

Josephine Foster: Blood Rushing (Fire)

The Gaslamp Killer: Breakthrough (Brainfeeder)

HAARP: Husks (Housecore)

How to Dress Well: Total Loss (Acéphale)

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: Meat and Bone (Mom + Pop)

Klang: Brooklyn Lines…Chicago Spaces (Allos Documents)

The Sea and Cake: Runner (Thrill Jockey)

Souljazz Orchestra: Solidarity (Strut / !K7)

Sweet Lights: Sweet Lights, Sweet Lights (Highline / Red Eye)

Title Fight: Floral Green (SideOneDummy)

Vision of Disorder: The Cursed Remain Cursed (Candlelight)