Death’s Dynamic Shroud: DarklifeWhen was the last time it seemed like the entire internet was on the same page? When did it last feel like (mostly) everyone online could agree on a singular subject? I have an answer for you: vaporwave. Really, I’m going to make this argument. This is a hill I feel confident dying on.
So often, when we reminisce, a phrase is thrown around: “It was a different time.” I was listening to Death Cab for Cutie recently, and I remember thinking, “We just let Ben Gibbard write this music. We didn’t make fun of him. We ate this shit up, confidently.” I love Death Cab, but would Trasatlanticism still land the same way that it did, if it were released in 2022? Of course not, because it was a different time, then. Culture has a direct impact on music, and music has a direct impact on culture.
When I was in high school, if you were on the internet, you couldn’t escape vaporwave. It was on YouTube. Tumblr. Instagram. Twitter. Facebook. It felt like the entire Internet was a dedicated hub for images of mirrored cups of lean, 3D renderings of water, and greek statues. The word “aesthetic” took on a new context; it began to conjure mental images of this specific, widespread, art-music-concept phenomenon. There was an infectious development of electronic music microgenres, where the style of imagery directly influenced the sound of the music. Seapunk is water themed. Witch house albums have dark, moody album art, and the music matches it. Breasts in the album art? It’s titcore. Why not?
So what happens when these trends… die? What happens when Floral Shoppe becomes a meme and everyone essentially knows what it is? What happens when limiting yourself to a specific audiovisual box becomes played out, and you run out of original ways to express such exact ideas? What lives and shines in the shadow of vaporwave and all of its children?
We get, simply, “Internet music.”
What Internet music boasts is an awareness of, and direct influence from, the “birth” and “death” of vaporwave and its associated genres. It’s a (mostly) blank slate where all the elements of seapunk, desertwave, signalwave, (literally any word)-wave can coexist harmoniously. All of these trends can now be employed as tools. It’s totally maximal, and at times, hard to categorize.
Darklife is totally maximal, and at times, hard to categorize. It’s lush, and dense. Luxurious and wet. It is the best example of internet music that I have ever heard. We get to see glimpses of all the aforementioned microgenres used as utilities to create a cohesive sound, rather than focusing on singular ideas. The toolbelt of Internet music is vast, arguably unlimited. It is a feast of sound. It is the Turkish delight of ear candy—absurdly detailed and meticulous, dynamic, emotionally moving, and rarely staying in the same place for long. As someone who occasionally feels proficient in making electronic music, this album has reminded me that I know next to nothing. The production is nothing short of superb.
It’s not 2012 anymore. We’ve heard the anime samples. We’ve heard the slowed down eighties songs. We’ve heard the chopped and screwed vocals. We will most likely never see a new upload on the sunsetcorp Youtube channel. It’s a different time now than it was 10 years ago.
Sometimes people like to say shit like, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” What Darklife has really driven home for me is that, no, they don’t make them like they used to. They don’t make them like they used to, and five minutes from now, they won’t make them like they did five minutes ago. There are geniuses here now, making incredible music now, and contained within the modern, there are nostalgic winks of what got us here. I cannot recommend this album enough. Possibly my AOTY.
Ken Mode: Null
This album has everything I needed for September. I needed a bass tone that made the room vibrate. I needed huge, explosive drums. I needed high-tension, stressful guitar work. More than anything, I needed something that spoke to me, clearly, during an especially hectic month in my personal life.
There is an art to writing impactful lyrics, and everyone has their taste. Our entire lives build us up to be either numb or receptive to certain ideas. I don’t necessarily need to understand every single line. All I need in a song is one line that shepherds the message. One memorable phrase to come back to. This album’s opening track, “A Love Letter,” gives it to me as the track is ending:
This untasteful place–something is broken. Something is fucked.
The track builds to this line. It ends with this line. It is punctual, and yet, not exact. It’s perfect.
Null says exactly what it needs to say, quickly, without embellishing. It is the soundtrack to a diminished patience; a dulled fascination. It is a cold sweat, a skipped heartbeat, a single tear of frustration streaming down a cheek. It is vascular and agitated.
Vermin Womb – Retaliation
Come on, now. What do you really need me to tell you? We haven’t heard from Vermin Womb since 2016. It’s Ethan McCarthy (Primitive Man, Many Blessings, RIP-Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire) playing fast music again. What convincing do I really need to do? This music doesn’t require a sales pitch. It is fucking evil. Desolate. It sells itself to those who know where to find it.
The Mars Volta – The Mars Volta
The Mars Volta was my first musical obsession. I listened to Deloused in the Comatorium on a burnt CD with my dad when I was 10 or 11. This band changed everything for me. I had never heard music that was so all-encompassing—every song was an adventure; a landscape, a rollercoaster through places I had never seen before. I remember thinking, “I’ve never heard a band that sounds like this,” and still to this day, there are bands with similar mission statements, but there is truly no band that sounds like The Mars Volta. There never will be.
Fast forward a couple years, and my dad took me to visit one of his friends—we’ll call him Ebenezer. It was a gorgeous, summer day, Ebenezer and my dad were grilling outside, and listening to music through a speaker. Once again, internally, I was having musical revelations. On this day, I heard for the first time Maps & Atlases, Man Man, and other Sargent House alumni artists. I wasn’t even a teenager yet, but I remember thinking, “This is the kind of music that I want to listen to.” Ebenezer had multiple Mars Volta tattoos, and I can still see them in my mind.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, Ebenezer remained a distant, but cherished family friend, who I would occasionally talk to about music; mostly projects associated with the Mars Volta. I had a shitty laptop with Soulseek installed, a ton of free time, and an obsession with music. It was at this time that I dug more deeply into the projects associated with Omar and Cedric—At The Drive-In, the solitary Alavaz Relxib Cirdec release, the vast discography of Omar Rodríguez-López Group albums, De-Facto; anything I could get my hands on. When I found Cryptomnesia, which features Zach Hill on drums, I don’t think l listened to anything else for a month. I was ferally invested in scouring the discographies of Omar and Cedric, and my iTunes looked infinitely cleaner than my room did, metadata and all. One day, Ebenezer sent me a message: “Have you heard of the Marble Shrine?” I hadn’t. “One sec,” he responded.
I now had access to an organized Google Drive folder with nearly 100 gigs of live recordings, bootlegs, rare tracks, photos, and concert fliers. I drooled into my computer. I had no idea that there was such a huge community of people who were obsessed with this band. It felt so fun to be part of a community, albeit a niche community. There are many such communities for other bands, but this was mine. It made me happy in a quiet way.
I grew up with this band. I had my entire teenage experience and subsequent adulthood with this band. In a general sense, I care about these musicians. As much as one is able to, without actually knowing them in person, I care about their livelihoods. I want them to feel OK.
The Mars Volta is the least explosive album in the band’s catalog; it whispers like a mistress making a risqué, late-night phone call. It doesn’t have any twenty-minute long opuses like you hear on Frances the Mute. None of the songs exceed a five-minute playtime. The album doesn’t have a wildly exotic concept associated with it like the Bedlam in Goliath. I think that the magic of this album is mined from what it lacks; what these songs might imply about the lives of these musicians. It’s soft and round, like a marble. This new self-titled record really puts into perspective the overarching, worrisome quality of the band’s previous catalog, and if you’re at all familiar with the dramas throughout TMV’s lifespan, that worry is understandable. It felt like at any time, the band and the friendship between Omar and Cedric, could fall apart. And then they did fall apart. The albums give a form of insight into that turmoil. The Mars Volta lacks this worry, and I hope this implies that we may continue to receive music from them.
What the Mars Volta sounds like, to me, is a mutual apology between Omar and Cedric. A truce. A reset with wiser, matured boundaries. Their tastes have refined, and, like their fans, they have aged. Personally, I don’t care if they expand on the sounds they’ve already explored. We already have those albums. What matters most to me, is that they continue to make music at all.
I think, at one point or another, we’ve had that one friend, a friend who always has some insane story to tell; someone who we don’t see often, but we love dearly. A friend whose death would ruin us but not surprise us; whose soul we would miss, but wouldn’t mourn for after death, knowing that they had so much fun when they were alive. A strange, colourful character. Think of that friend, and imagine if they just texted you to say, “Do you have time to catch up?” That is the Mars Volta, and yes, of course, I have loved catching up.
Holy Fawn – Dimensional Bleed
This was my first experience with Holy Fawn. I have some other friends who write music reviews, and it seemed like they were all over this record. I understand why. I’m not totally tapped into the post-black metal world, but I wholeheartedly enjoy this sound. The easiest comparison is Deafheaven’s album from last year, Infinite Granite, where Infinite Granite reminded me a bit more of Tears for Fears, Dimensional Bleed is more shoegazey. Huge walls of sound. As my partner describes it, Holy Fawn is music with “moaning vocals,” and the music sounds like, “BWWWAAAAAAHH.” Surely more eloquent reviews for this album have been written, but that is actually what the music sounds like, and I’m betting they didn’t say that. They should have.
This album is gorgeous. Sparkly. I would argue that it is nearly as accessible as black-metal-adjacent could ever be, and I enjoy that. The screamed vocals are timed so appropriately that when they hit, they really hit hard, and those moments fit perfectly inside the album’s melancholic atmosphere.
Don’t like reading? Just here to click links? Here’s a TL;DR: Horny, girlfriend-approved blackgaze that is so well made, you could show it to your mom and she would say, “I love the drumming!”
The Sawtooth Grin – Good
The Sawtooth Grin, in my opinion, is amongst the most underrated of all the grindcore/mathcore bands from the early 2000s. It has everything that you could ask for: the highest pitched scream I have ever heard, nearly incomprehensible riffs, with drums that are just as incomprehensible. Good is their first full-length since 2001. This was my most anticipated release of 2022.
This album had no singles. So far, no music videos. This album was not written to appeal to a new audience of listeners. I don’t think that the Sawtooth Grin wrote this album with the hope that they would become more well-known in their already-niche circles. This album was written for the members of the band, and the people who love them. I had no idea what to expect when I saw that they would be releasing a new record this year. Part of me thought that they would attempt to one-up everything that they have released in the past; to write the most batshit, insane record that their bodies can physically play. Is Good the most technically face-melting album I’ve heard all year? No. But that’s not what I really wanted. Technical showmanship isn’t (necessarily) what makes me buy the merch.
What I wanted was to hear Jason play guitar again. His style is just fucking cool. His playing has this bouncy, deviously playful character to it, and a perfect tone to match it. Not too overdriven, and not too dry. His playing doesn’t drive a sports car; it drives a clean, reasonable car, with air fresheners. While some guitarists’ playing is looking for babes (guys with Dillinger Escape Plan shirts), Jason’s playing is married (wears a plain, collared shirt).
What I wanted was to hear Rich’s vocals again. His vocals set the golden standard for me when it comes to furious, impossibly angry, goosebump-inducing vocals. On Cuddlemonster, the band’s debut 2001 LP, the album opens with the explosive track, “Give Me the Amulet, You Bitch,” which contains possibly the coolest scream ever recorded. From 0:41 to 0:52, Rich belts out a single, uninterrupted wail that makes me smile every time. Really though, I have to emphasize just how difficult this is—not everyone can scream musically in the first place, let alone at this pitch, with this much force, and to do it for 11 seconds straight is just… ruthless. The next time you’re driving, try to scream as loud as you possibly can for 11 seconds straight. It is not as easy as you might think. There are still some old live videos of the band playing, and in this one specifically, there’s a moment where Rich moves away from the mic to scream, and you can still hear him screaming over the band (there’s also a funny moment where a group of friends are being goofy—one friend crouches behind another, causing them to fall down). Rich has a level of intensity in his performances, both in the studio and while playing live, that is rarely matched.
What I wanted to hear was the Sawtooth Grin being the Sawtooth Grin, and that’s what we get, stronger than ever before. Good is a full sounding album; more low-end, the vocals have nice reverb, and the mix is equitable. It’s not quite so clashy as their older material. There is something to be said about those pizza joints in New York City with the 100-year-old brick ovens. That kind of age develops a taste that you cannot get anywhere else, and no two recipes are exactly the same. Even if you’re into the newer mathcore bands, Good has a certain recipe that only the Sawtooth Grin can properly create. This release is a rare gift. I could ask for nothing more from this band, and I am very grateful for them.
Skin Graft Records – Sounds to Make You Shudder!
Skin Graft is legendary, plain and simple. Their roster includes, but is not limited to, old man math rock heroes, Yowie, the beyond-mad scientists of zeuhl, Koenjihyakkei, embracers of the absurdly off-putting, Arab on Radar, and sweethearts of angular noise rock, Melt-Banana. Their catalog of artists spans the damp, decaying underbelly of extreme music. In the same way that there exists the trope of the “comic’s comic,” or, the “musician’s musician,” Skin Graft is the record label that other record labels wish they could be. Sounds to Make You Shudder! is a Halloween-themed, slimy compilation of all-new original tracks from current Skin Graft artists, and it is their 150th release! This compilation is a total treat for fans of discordant, noisy, scratchy music. Don’t miss out on this one.
Cave Deco –Get Out of My Computer
Let me set a scene for you, if I may.
You work in an office building. You shift your legs out of bed at 5 AM. As you set your feet on the carpeted floor of your master bedroom in your overpriced, suburban rental home, you wipe the sleep and crust from your tired eyelids. You shower, brush your teeth, and get dressed in your usual button-up shirt, slacks, socks, and appropriate shoes. Before you leave, you look at your reflection in the mirror—you look exactly the same as you did the day before. It is Friday, and you feel no more interested in going to work than you did on Monday. Inside you, there is a burning sensation. Sometimes it is vibrant, sometimes it is subtle. Sometimes it is conscious, and sometimes it is subconscious. But it is there nonetheless, it has been there for years, and no one is aware that you feel it except for you. As you walk outside, you hear the low, ambiguous banging of loud music playing from inside the house across your street. You’re mildly annoyed, but with work starting at 6 AM, you don’t have time to ponder the noise.
Your commute is 35 minutes on a good day, mostly interstate time. Traffic is especially shitty today. You have somehow caught yourself behind two garbage trucks before making it to your interstate entrance. Your mood has dropped below the line of neutrality, and now you are aggravated. With a raised voice, you stare into the back of the trucks and let out a lonely “Get the fuck out of the road!” You lose ten minutes due to the garbage trucks. You might make it to work on time, but you’re cutting it very close.
You make it to the office. It’s 5:58. All of the usual spots are taken. It reminds you of being in college—you’d think that if they really wanted us to make it on time, they would give us enough fucking space to make it into the building. You have to park in the secondary lot, giving you a solid ten-minute walk to the front door, assuming that you walk with some kind of determination. You walk quickly, more out of annoyance than determination. By 6:15, you’ve sat at your desk.
You press the clicky “On” button on your computer tower, and before your desktop has time to appear on the screen, your boss walks by. Without stopping, he asks you uncaringly, “Have trouble getting up this morning?” He laughs. Your coworkers in their connecting cubicles laugh. You do not laugh. You stare into the boring blue light emitting from your computer screen. It’s as if you’re staring through it. The burning sensation inside of you is letting off a pillowy plume of black smoke. You consider punching through your computer monitor. It would be easy—use your hips, extend the arm, and follow through. You imagine what it would be like to pour a cup of hot coffee on your boss’s head. You ponder what his scream would sound like. Would you immediately be filled with regret? Would you run, afraid of the consequences of your actions? You think about what chemicals you might find in the office kitchen. Are any of them flammable? Could you start a fire large enough to hurt someone? You don’t necessarily want to hurt anyone. You just need this place to not exist today. You need to be away from these people for a little while. Instead of giving into the orders of your intrusive thoughts, you simply press again the clicky power button on your computer, push your rolling chair into your desk, and walk out of the office without a word.
The drive home makes you feel alive. It’s still early. The air feels crisp, and traffic doesn’t bother you as much. It feels as if the sun doesn’t only exist to blind you; it exists to keep you alive, and you feel warm. Angry, but warm. Crazed, but warm.
You park your car in your driveway. You sit still and look down, sort of thinking about everything that just happened, and also sort of thinking about nothing. It’s more of a sensation than a mental process. You open the car door, and immediately you’re met with the muffled sound of loud music playing from inside that house across the street again. You grit your teeth and clench your fist. Another interruption to your peace. “It is 7 in the fucking morning,” you whisper under your breath. The house across the street has a garage, just like yours. It sounds like the music is coming from the garage, through a small slit where the door hasn’t fully latched, allowing sound to escape. The burning inside your mind has turned into a small wildfire. You have to know what is causing all the noise, and why. You walk across the street, this time with determination, and lift the garage door as if you were pulling Excalibur from the stone.
There’s Cave Deco. The music stops. A drummer, bassist, and synth player look at you, matching your face of bewilderment. The bass player asks, “Who the fuck are you?” You pause for a moment, thinking of what to say. “I live across the street from you. I have had a frustrating day. Can you guys just turn it the fuck down for a couple hours?” You know on the inside that this is an insane thing to do, and a completely unreasonable request to make of people whom you have never spoken to before. The musicians look at each other, confused. Then they look back at you. Your hands are still grasping the garage door, with your arms raised above your head. The drummer asks you, “Do you want to talk about it? Again the band looks at you in unison, their eyes moving to a microphone on the floor. You pick up the microphone.
This is how I imagine that Get Out of My Computer was written. It’s music to piss off your next-door neighbours. The vocals have this unhinged, pushed-past-patience sound; the sound of no longer thinking logically. The bass is distorted, solid as bedrock, and catchy as hell. It acts as the paper to the vocalist’s lyrics. The synth and bass are lovers; they have conversations and sing to each other in every song. It adds annotations, interjections, questions and concerns. It sings the high notes. The drums enable the rest of the band. They encourage the other elements, telling them to jump. Instead of saying, “Let’s think about this,” the drums say, “Good idea.” This is music to take your shirt off to, or to put on a goblin mask. Simple, fun, noise rock/egg punk with that garage sound. Best played loudly, a bit drunk, after a long day.
The Lovecraft Sextet – Miserere
Any time I see a metal band described as being “jazzy,” I always tread lightly, because metal fans love to say that progressive metal bands are jazzy, when they really aren’t. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, I’m just saying that add13 chords and modal theory knowledge do not inherently make me think of jazz when I listen to a band playing downtuned guitars and blast beats. Personally, that does not make me think of jazz. Have you ever been to a jazz show? Was the guitarist playing through a 5150? Did the vocalist ever scream in a stylized way that sounded like it belonged in black metal? Again, not throwing shade, I am just saying. If you want a good example, perhaps the best example, of metal and jazz tastefully combined, check out Naked City’s self-titled LP.
With doomjazz, it’s even tougher to find examples of bands that really nail the combination of jazz and doom. It often overlaps with soundtracks or ambient music, but where’s the jazz? I think that Miserere finds the perfect sweet spot. It doesn’t have any progressive metal shredding. No blast beats. Instead we have upright bass, cello, percussion, and synth. The music sometimes crawls so slowly that you wonder if it’s moving at all. If the songs were humans, their ribs would be jutting out of their skin, crawling, barely alive; they would turn and lay on their backs to drink falling raindrops just to moisten their lips, and the snarling, black metal vocals somehow fit perfectly. The vocals sound as if they are omnipotent; acting as a narrator, a judge, an executioner, the cries contained within the starving songs themselves. Miserere is a dirge; a grimoire; a siren whose chest is infected with the death rattle.
Sea Moss – 2There exists a very particular essence in some bands that draws me in like wild animals to open containers of coolant. It’s a certain perspective, or an ethos, that is expressed through not just a band’s music but in their presentation. It’s not just the music that they write, but the way that they write. It’s not just the final products, but the curiosity of what kind of lives must be lived in order to create those final products. It’s an essence that isn’t necessarily bound by genre. I hear it in Lightning Bolt’s Hypermagic Mountain, Maps & Atlases’s Tree, Swallows, Houses, Coughs’s Fright Makes Right, Fat Worm of Error’s Pregnant Babies Pregnant with Pregnant Babies. These are albums that, for me, have these magical, human imperfections. These albums make me wonder things like, “What the fuck do these people do in their daily lives?” Sterile, surgically clean music can sometimes prevent us from realizing that it is people who write these albums; people who perform them, and people who cherish them. “Hipster” may be the word that succinctly gets the point across to most people, but “hipster” is a dismissive word. “Hipster” closes you off from lifetimes of music, and I disagree with that sentiment. Bands have handwriting. Sea Moss has a special, peculiar handwriting; handwriting that your eyes would be drawn to in the sea of handwriting and stickers in a small venue bathroom.
Sea Moss 2 possesses this particular essence that I struggle to describe with justice. It doesn’t feel fair to simply describe what it is. It is noise rock, driven by synth and drums, with this perfect, blown-speaker vocal sound. But it’s more than that. It’s delicious and homemade. It gracefully balances a DIY execution with a great production value. It’s music that doesn’t smoke outside during the opener’s set. They’re the type of band who would let you look at their pedalboards after they play. Sea Moss 2 is an unconventional beauty—someone you see at the bar and want to talk to, but don’t want to bother; a frayed ribbon tied into the hair, the combined smell of perfume and sweat, dried flowers hanging in a kitchen window, a diary without a lock; confidently and unapologetically working on itself, red flags and all. It’s not that flawed is better. It’s that real is better, and I find this release to be real.
Perhaps an acquired taste, but one of my favorite releases of 2022.