Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)
This is a modern progressive rock masterwork. I’m hard-pressed to find a single flaw in anything that Steven Wilson has done here. These six songs arch, ache, and soar with such melancholic, cinematic power that it almost brought me to tears a couple of times. Jazz musicians were brought in to ensure this album’s need for tight and versatile musicianship, and although jazz does play a part in the recording, the listener never feels lost in overbearing showiness. Every note seems to be meticulously placed to match the scene in each of Wilson’s lyrical ghost stories. The instrumental palette is wide-ranging and ambitious, as is the case with most progressive rock albums. But here, there’s an undeniable accessibility. I’ll go as far to say that any avid music listener would enjoy this. Because underneath every ambient break, guitar solo, deathly organ drone and Hans Zimmer-esque string section, there’s a profound sense of drama; an emotional tug that’s usually sacrificed in lots of modern prog. And what is this drama? It’s basically what Steven set as the concept of this record: The nagging sadness that comes from facing one’s own mortality. These songs are like diary entries written by people dealing with the death of loved ones. It’s a sad concept for sure, but something that everybody can relate to. This is why I say that if you’re going to give any progressive rock album a try, it should be this one. You might find it as a comforting companion, as I have.
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
I admit that the genre of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) had grown a little tired. It seemed that most of the ground had been covered in the late 90s/early 00s by groups such as Autechre, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and yes, Boards of Canada. But in the case of Boards of Canada, they’ve managed to create something new and undeniably beautiful in this album. All of the usual traits are here – those analog synths that bleed childhood nostalgia, the chill-out hip-hop beats, that 1960s space age television show feel of their aura. But on top of this, there’s a distinctive “deserted” overtone in all these tracks. Have you ever travelled that long stretch of desert highway from Vegas to L.A? If you have, I’m sure you remember passing those lonely, trailer-park towns that seemed completely cut-off from the outside world. This album is the soundtrack for those towns. When I listen to this, I can’t help but feel transported to a dusty, post-apocalyptic scene. The sun is blindingly bright, the wind plays at half-unhinged doors, and there’s no one around for miles but me.
Laura Stevenson – Wheel
It’s true that I’m drawn to weird music. The stranger the album, the more likely I am to give it a good score. But I can’t deny good music when I hear it, even if the music doesn’t care to take any reckless chances or bold moves into avant-garde territory. I have to give credit where credit is due, and I give Laura Stevenson a lot of credit. She’s managed to make genuine folk rock songs that I can’t deny. There’s such a comfort in her voice, an endearing modesty in her playing, and a disembodied friend in her songwriting that hits right at the heart. These songs are an ode to lazy weekends, sitting around the house, making a hot cup of tea and reflecting on life throughout a gray winter day. It’s an album about young love in the country, doing house-work in suburbia and humming tunes to yourself while out feeding chickens. It’s an ode to unobtrusive normalcy, the way that most of us live day by day, and it’s done in the most perfect way.
Ulver – Messe I.X – IV.X
Ulver is a shape-shifter, that’s for certain. The most endearing part about the group is the fact that they’ve never made the same album twice. They’ve flirted with so many genres that it’s dizzying. But despite their unpredictability and experimentation, they don’t suffer the same identity crises as other equally adventurous acts do. Their albums to me have always existed as strange romantic/mystical musical warnings at the deterioration of modern culture. The poetry of their lyrics speak of man’s efforts for religious, social and scientific progression meeting inevitable decline, deterioration and destruction due to our instinctual predisposition towards corruption and emotional malaise. Their music mirrors this. They have the uncanny ability to create a passage so incredibly full and beautiful and then destroy it with an unforeseen invasion of noise, dissonance, or some seemingly random genre shift. And somehow, after a few listens, every sudden change in the music seems so natural. Their latest album is no stranger to this formula, but their scope has never been this large. This time, Ulver flirts with classical music. The Tromsø Chamber Orchestra, along with the talents of a few different composers, helps provide this album’s epically gothic atmosphere. There’s almost a suffocating, dank darkness to each of these six tracks. This music could be described as listening in to a Lovecraftian mythological ritual in a giant abandoned cathedral through thick dungeon walls. Electronic flourishes wrap around stringed instruments like some wicked conjuration of spirits. The sound surrounds and soars, but with amazing oppression from the sheer weight of the production. It’s not an album that provides easy listening, but grows to be deeply rewarding.
Vali – Skogslandskap
If you find yourself enjoying acoustic folk music, this is for you. This album has managed to make it to this list simply by being one of the prettiest albums I’ve ever heard. The theme here is simple – feeling connected with nature. I can imagine listening to this around a campfire, or in a snowed-in cottage in the woods. There’s no lyrics, no distraction to the hypnotizing strength of these basic acoustic guitar songs. It’s music you don’t need to really pay attention to, to feel moved by. These songs have the potential to effortlessly color your surroundings with old withered tree branches, hazy orange sun beams and the Indian rainbows of dead leaf graveyards. Take this album out on a hike, or take it camping. I can guarantee that it’ll aid in heightening your spiritual link with nature as soon as those magic mushrooms kick in.