Review: Pale Cicada by Makeunder

“I want to drift away from this brutal town/ let it sink into the ground with no story to tell/ a dying thunder in the darkness/ rattling in its mouth”

“I want to drift away from this brutal town/ let it sink into the ground with no story to tell/ a dying thunder in the darkness/ rattling in its mouth”

Hamilton Ulmer has felt like a stranger for almost as long as he can remember. The son of two “unorthodox” parents from rural northern California, Ulmer spent most of his childhood in San Antonio, Texas after his family relocated there for work when he was just two years old. Though he lived there for the majority of his formative years, he and his eccentric family struggled to find their place, leaving Ulmer with a nagging sense of alienation that followed him even after he moved back to California in his adulthood. When his father died of lung cancer in 2011, these complex emotions and unanswered questions compounded into something that needed an outlet. The result, for Ulmer, was the 2015 Makeunder EP Great Headless Blank which wrestled not only with the death of his father, but all of the things that went with him: memories, a cohesive narrative of Ulmer’s youth, and the homes their family had inhabited. Great Headless Blank was a series of grief vignettes; potent, melancholy songs that earned the critical praise of NPR’s Bob Boilen among others. Immediate and powerful, those songs were an exercise in grieving and left many questions to be answered later.

Four years after the fact, Ulmer and Makeunder have returned with a true master work, their first proper LP, the three act concept piece Pale Cicada. Thematically, Pale Cicada picks up where Great Headless Blank left off, piecing together what life is for a poor man who has always felt out of step even as he deals with the residual grief of his father’s passing. “I know that I can’t help myself/ how do I live with this sadness?/ Give me something real/ before I sink into the ground/ with no story to tell” goes the hook of the opener and title track Pale Cicada, the closest thing to a mission statement on the album. As he writes he delves succinctly and capably into just about every angle he can find of his situation, dealing with poverty on the psych-funk In Between My Dead End Jobs, taking an esoteric side glance at marriage on Ringing Chord, reclaiming childhood on Ain’t That a Trip, and exploring his father’s death with added perspective on Begin in the Middle. For most of the album Ulmer’s lyrics are sharp and frank in their heaviness, but if you were listening casually you would never know. Each line is delivered in Ulmer’s smooth Soul/RnB voice, through acrobatic runs, complex harmony chords, and often staggered staccato melodies.

Sonically, Pale Cicada also diverts some attention from the weight of the words: it is largely up-tempo from track one and at points even danceable. The second track and first single In Between My Dead End Jobs might even be considered poppy, leaving aside a sudden dark turn into Tom Waits territory for a portion of the bridge. Describing the complex, often dense arrangements as a whole however, feels impossible. One could call it RnB or Funk, but neither term does any justice to the highly creative, genre-bending sounds that Makeunder accomplish on this record. Opening track Pale Cicada veers into art-rock territory with heavy distorted guitars and blaring trumpet sounds before swinging into a soulful, almost anthemic chorus. Begin in the Middle sounds like Prince succumbing to the dark side with its haunting harmonies, vocal slap-back, and heavy drum groove. Ringing Chord seems to reference Justin Vernon with subtle vocoder layering on the lead vocal and an ambient arrangement, while I’m Still Living Wrongly goes from RnB, to folk, to a swelling string crescendo, to a sinister noise rock break, before landing a triumphant guitar solo and going back to folk. Pulling off genre fusion at this level is extremely difficult, but Makeunder make it look easy each and every song, creating one of the most instrumentally interesting albums of the year to date with little real competition in sight.

Inevitably though, not every experiment on such an experiment heavy album can land. Though second single Promothean Heat succeeds in its off-kilter verses and it’s unexpected, Kendrick Lamar-esque harmony walls, it’s ascending refrain feels done just to prove it can be done. It’s nonetheless still incredibly impressive, but doesn’t seem to line up with the line that sits on it, one of the less chaotic lines on the album. In that regard the album’s biggest strength is in one way also its biggest weakness, it’s experimentation at once makes it one of, if not THE most interesting album of the year, but for more casual listeners the sheer amount of things happening at any given time could be easily overwhelming, even despite the clear pop sensibility Ulmer shows throughout with his melodies. 

If you are willing to dive into Pale Cicada though, it is an incredibly rewarding listen; a truly master class album both lyrically and instrumentally. It is definitely dense, however. Even after several repeat listens you will still be picking out things you hadn’t heard before in the mix: overlapping guitar lines, backing vocals, metaphors, and lyrical tie-ins between tracks. For Ulmer it is the culmination of a life of personal struggle, and here he makes his statement emphatically and in the grandest possible fashion. His work of self-processing is complete, but for us listeners the processing has only just begun: it could take a lifetime to milk from this all that it has to offer.

8.5 (Best New Music)

Released: June 28, 2019
Label: Good Eye Records

Sampler: 4 Must-Hear Underground Hip-Hop Tracks

Lofi beats and strong lyrical delivery.

This week we’re keeping with our theme of low-key music, but breaking our tradition of guitar-based samplers to highlight another of our favorite genres: underground hip-hop. For this particular sampler we want to highlight lo-fi beats and strong lyrical delivery, so without further ado, here are four underground hip-hop tracks you must hear.

Blow Up by Richard Carter

Blow Up is perseverant and confident beneath its somber exterior. A newcomer from Croydon in the UK music scene, Richard Carter raps about tapping into the immortality in music, finding success with patience, determination, and love for his craft: “Once I fly away, I’ve got no doubt about it/ I know I’ll find a way, I’ve got no doubts about it, I’ll blow up.” In the first two verses Carter slips into sparse and deliberate storytelling bars, matching the jazz-inspired vibe of the beat and pulling the listener into his everyday life. Such a choice might seem mundane, but Carter has an almost transcendent sense of his own narrative, a conviction that what he’s doing is “more important than life” and that the characters surrounding him are on similar arcs. It’s this quality that truly sets Carter apart from his peers, he re-purposes the triumphant spirit of American radio hip-hop and finds a way to contextualize it in the harsh realism of conscious hip-hop. The result is not really either, but a rewarding new middle ground that is lyrical enough to win critics while still being catchy and relatable to the average listener.

Don’t Box Me In by KHAJE ft. Font Leroy & Sekani

The latest from Jamaican-American, New York producer KHAJE is a jazz-hip-hop banger calling to mind Saba and Kendrick Lamar. As the compound piano chords fade in to the opening hook “don’t box me in”, one would imagine that this song would be a laid-back storytelling piece, but as soon as the rapping starts its immediately clear that this song is going in a very different direction. Font Leroy makes his presence known, immediately diving into tight, quick bars filled with confident internal rhyme and staggered triplets. It’s a great first impression from the New York rapper, who proves with one minute long verse that he deserves more attention than a lot of the rising stars in the genre. After another repetition of the hook, Sekani provides the perfect counterpoint to Font Leroy’s approach with his booming voice and deliberate, aggressive delivery. Both rappers cut their teeth here on the roughly two minute track and show that New York is still a thriving hip-hop underground.

MY LIFE by Emma Lee

Emma Lee might not be a household name yet, but she’s an accomplished veteran on the rise in the independent arts community. She’s been involved in everything from film, to media, to writing, to performing with the Oscar and Grammy nominated Impact Repertory Theatre. Her brand of conscious, boom-bap, hip-hop is hyper-lyrical; filled with cutting, insightful lines on what it means to be a black woman in hip-hop and America at large that refuses to be defined by other’s expectations. MY LIFE is a clinic on using self-expression to address societal problems where Emma Lee walks boldly onto “roads that ain’t paved for me”, breaking barriers one lyrical incision at a time. Already, without a major release to here name, her command of her own narrative, unique perspective, and lyrical prowess call to mind established artists such as Noname, Dawn Richard, and Kendrick Lamar. When her forthcoming debut album finally drops she has the very real potential to climb into that same echelon in the public eye, because as far as talent is concerned she already deserves to be there.

World Series by Mic Miles

Mic Miles is trying to bring bars back to Hip-Hop. The Cleveland native practically oozes with confidence as he delivers lines like: “life is a gamble, just hope your parents nice/ got me searching for paradise with a pair of dice”, “this game is a bitch I ain’t prepared to wife”, and “my moment’s everlasting/ my clock is broken.” His delivery and the beat that backs it up both call to mind early Kanye West, bringing us back to a time when he owned the radio with cheeky lines and character, long before he became the poster-boy for experimental production. Mic Miles continues his revival of the best parts of late 2000s hip-hop throughout his debut EP, 27, leaving behind the abrasive tendencies of 2006 club beats and the dance-floor cliches, but reveling in the tongue-in-cheek one-liners that typified the era. It’s this almost playful nature that makes World Series stand out from the contemporary hip-hop landscape in 2019, where sad-boi emo rap, banal cloud rap, and politically charged conscious hip-hop dominate the airwaves. Mic Miles set out to bring bars back to hip-hop, but in doing so he brought back something that’s been missing for almost a decade: fun.

Sampler: From Emo to Psych Funk

In our new “Sampler” series here at Not a Sound, we want to curate compilations of short EPs that we love, but might not be able to devote full reviews to. This week’s sampler starts in familiar alternative territory and progressively works its way into more and more experimental waters. It’s a great place to try new things and expand your musical palette.

Animal Panic! by Antighost

Detroit, Michigan’s Antighost is unhinged, grungy emo at its best. As opener Gang of Hounds rips into its first chorus, lead singer Sean Shepard’s voice explodes like a dirty bomb, showering the listener with sonic shrapnel and setting the tone for the rest of the EP. These are aggressive, anthemic songs. The kind of songs Jared Leto once made a career out of, before he committed himself to small arthouse film roles and bastardizing popular comic villains. If you like AFI, Taking Back Sunday, or Rise Against, then this EP is tailor made for you. 

Released: February 23, 2019
Label: Unsigned

Split by Twelveyes/ Square Loop

“Everything you say just sounds like garbage, and I’m sick of throwing it out” Twelveyes shout in unison at the crescendo of Cancelled. Their brand of emo/pop punk crossover is reminiscent of emo revival heavyweights Joyce Manor, and their song, clocking in at a speedy 1:45, is a fun, but earnest dismantling of DIY scene politics. This transitions nicely into the sonically similar and equally stunted in length Too Much of a Bad Thing by their split-mates Square Loops, an immediate and relatable song about social awkwardness capped by the hook “I’ve gotten pretty used to always being anxious.” Fans of the more up-tempo emo revival bands such as the aforementioned Joyce Manor, Modern Baseball, or Free Throw will find lots to love in this brief introduction to both bands.

Released: June 14, 2019
Label: Unsigned

Bedtime Stories by Sawce

Sawce is that rare brand of music that is virtuosic and fast while mostly feeling laid back. Their particular brand of math rock lands somewhere between Chon, Tricot, and Enemies, maintaining the jazzy undertones and grooves of the former while texturally often pulling from the latter two to create a sonic palette that feels oddly subdued despite how busy it is. What sets them apart from similar bands is their emphasis on guitar melody, which leads the way in most every song but Mouth Noises, the lone song with vocals. Perhaps the best example comes on Good Morning where the song evolves to wrap itself around one smooth, semi-repeating guitar lead for the latter portion of the track. If you aren’t too familiar with math rock and want an easy entry point without any of the dissonant or frenetic tendencies of the larger genre, this is a great place to start.

Released: February 22, 2019
Label: Unsigned

Smell That Thunder by BLUFRANK

We don’t typically cover much electronic or sample based music, but the newest release from Cairo, Egypt’s BLUFRANK put off such a distinct and unique vibe that we couldn’t not share it. Led by Ragy Ahmed and Mohamed Rageh, BLUFRANK’s music mixes psychedelia with funk and lofi-hip-hop to create a dream-like sound that is part futuristic and part nostalgic. Vocals, provided by Ragy and guests, are mixed in a way that they act almost as instruments themselves, layering into the mix more for texture than as the focal point. It’s hard to draw comparisons to like artists other than their label mates in the SLOVVDK collective, so you’ll just have to follow your curiosity and check them out for yourself.

Released: March 30, 2019
Label: SLOVVDK

Kumori by Paul Loves Dolly

One of my personal quests as a writer and artist is to draw attention to music on the fringes. Pittsburgh’s Paul Loves Dolly writes short instrumental vignettes seemingly designed as soundtrack samples for art films. Kumori is a perfect introductory snippet to this niche market, the wide world of experimental, instrumental lofi music. Clocking in at only four total minutes it’s long enough to pull you into its vaguely dusty aesthetic, but short enough that you don’t end up trapped in lengthy soundtrack repetitions. Despite its clearly postmodern context, Kumori is also very listenable. The most out-there track is the first, Jet Engine in the Rain, which emulates exactly what its title suggests, but from that point forward it settles into more mood oriented music on the melancholic title track, and the tense Kitanai which sounds like it could be pulled directly from Borderlands 2. While this kind of music definitely isn’t for everyone, it’s an interesting collection for those willing to step outside their comfort zone.

Released: May 25, 2019
Label: Unsigned

Review: “IGOR” by Tyler, The Creator

IGOR represents a new creative high for Tyler, The Creator.

FFO: Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt

Tyler, The Creator made a name for himself in the 2000’s with his shock-rap verses, bars so intense that he became a household name while also getting himself banned in England.  Odd Future (shortened from Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) was truly the Sex Pistols of rap music, an outsider crew of young, irreverent guys with a big, harsh sound, and even bigger goals.  Their crew has yielded now legendary solo-careers with Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt becoming some of the most critically acclaimed musical artists of the modern era, but Tyler, The Creator has always held a different pace.  While his first three official solo albums yielded a similarly harsh, punky attitude to his work in Odd Future, his 2017 release Flower Boy showed a new, sensitive side to Tyler.  No longer hiding behind his bad-boy image, he showcased the sensitive should he always has been, rather than hiding behind his persona.  Flower Boy proved to be his most successful album to date, until the arrival of IGOR a few weeks ago. 

In many ways, IGOR feels like a natural progression from Flower Boy.  Many of the production elements remain the same: the melodic synths, the lush, gospel-inspired chords and emotionally raw lyrics.  The difference here is that he no longer constrains himself to a rap-image.  He proclaimed via social media that this would not be a “rap album.”  It is, but only loosely.  The first single, and early highlight of the album “EARFQUAKE” features pitched-up vocals, similar to Frank Ocean’s “Nikes,” in which Tyler sings for the entirety of the track.  Later tracks also feature this vocal style; Tyler sings nearly as much as he raps on this record.  The result is his most melodic-release to date. 

That is not to say that he does not have good bars on IGOR.  “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” has an incredibly catchy verse amidst the pitched-up vocals, with his classic punchy flow.  The following track “NEW MAGIC WAND” will please many Odd Future fans with the distorted synth-bass and lo-fi beat, although even here, his rapping is more melodically driven than it was on previous releases.  Over all, fans of his work on Goblin or Bastard might be underwhelmed, but that is not for lack of artistic prowess; it’s just a different style. 

Although IGOR is most clearly linked with Flower Boy, it is important to note that it is a distinct album.  Whereas the later adhered mainly to traditional song-structures, IGOR songs rarely follow a verse/chorus progression.  The songs are often short, but at the same time sprawling.  They are not traditional, and show-case Tyler’s visionary capabilities as an artist who can think out of the pop of the pop sphere, while still having mainstream appeal.  The record will (and does; it’s his first number-one album) have pop-appeal, but the impressive thing is that he thinks outside of the box to do so. 

Lyrically, IGOR is focused around the formation and destruction of a significant romantic relationship.  It is a break-up album to the max, but rather than be soft and whiny, it is at times angry, harsh, and mournful, but above all, catchy.  Tyler is not afraid to where his influences on his sleeve.  “I THINK” sounds like it could’ve been on 808s & Heartbreak, and Kanye is even featured on “PUPPET.”  The features on the album mostly take a supporting role, but are all positioned in a way that feels purposeful. 

IGOR represents a new creative high for Tyler, The Creator.  He continues to experiment to great success.  It’s amazing to think how one group yielded some of the greatest popular artists of recent decades.  IGOR firmly places Tyler in this tier, as he continues to grow and develop. 

Score: 8.2 (Best New Music)

Release Date: May 17th, 2019

Label: Columbia Records

For info on our rating scale, see : https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Monthly Recap: The Best Music from February 2019

Zack makes up for all the time he’s missed. The best music on Not a Sound for February 2019.

February was a quiet month for us at Not a Sound. Due to a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances we did not cover nearly as much music as we would have liked to, which is all the more unfortunate because a lot of great albums came out this February. To make up for all the stuff we missed out on, this monthly recap will cover several albums that we did not have time to review. Hopefully we will be able to revisit these albums in the coming weeks to give them the full coverage they deserve, but for now enjoy this run-down of absolutely killer records!

2020 – Shin Guard (8.2)

Post-hardcore, Hardcore, Screamo
Flowerpot: February 14, 2019

Shin Guard’s expansive 2018 debut Cerebral showed us a creative young band with a lot of potential on tap. Their unique brand of progressive screamo breathed new creative life into a subgenre that was never famous for being particularly mutable and made Shin Guard a clear band to watch in the DIY touring circuit. Less than a year later we once again have a new Shin Guard album and once again they’ve caught us by surprise. Where the melancholic Cerebral shifted seemlessly between melodic emo and harsh posthardcore, 2020 is markedly more angry, more technical, and more heavy hitting, calling to mind Svalbard and Rolo Tomassi. On songs like Spears and the later half of Soliloquy of the Hourglass Shin Guard devolve into frenetic mathcore almost reminiscent of Dilinger Escape Plan, and yet they still manage to contextualize beautiful cinematic moments in Sure and a smooth jazz saxophone line in You Will Be Held Accountable For Your Actions without ever feeling hoaky. 2020 is a bold evolution in sound and focus for the young band and a critical step forward in establishing them as a band that should be on everyone’s radar.

new breed – Dawn Richard (8.0)

Pop, Art Pop, R&B
Our Dawn Entertainment: January 25, 2019

Dawn Richard’s 5th studio release is art-pop at its finest, a catchy and concise homage to her home town of New Orleans. There is hardly ever a dull moment on new breed. Book-ended by two mostly A Capella pieces that catch the ear and establish the album’s narrative, and carried by amazing standout tracks new breed, spaces, jealousy, and the feel-good we, diamonds Richard’s newest is exhilarating start to finish. Driving the album is Richard’s powerhouse vocal performances, which when combined with lyrics that are sharp and socially aware without getting too heady help make a rare record that is substantive without sacrificing any fun. If you’re looking for something that is accessible without forsaking creativity, understandable without becoming vapid, and through it all maintains a unique, engaging perspective then this is the ideal album for you.

thank u, next – Ariana Grande (8.0)

Pop, R&B
Republic: February 09, 2019

Whereas listening to Sweetener felt like sitting on a cloud, thank u, next feels firmly grounded in reality.  Opening track “imagine” is a classic Ariana ballad that paints a picture of a simple vision of love, the subtext of course being that she knows this vision is impossible.  The sadness in her voice is palpable. Although lyrically it is similar to past releases, she sings it differently than she would have if the song had been released six years ago.  thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.  Her record is not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It is not this record alone that accomplishes this, but the thrill of her artistic progression over the last six or so years.  For the first time, she has truly shown us her flaws, and the result is her biggest statement as an artist yet. 

Read Our Whole Review

The Language of Injury – Ithaca (7.9)

Hardcore, Chaotic Hardcore, Metalcore
Holy Roar: February 02, 2019

Holy Roar is hands down the best label for inventive heavy music right now. Last year they put out two of our top 25 albums, Svalbard’s It’s Hard to Have Hope and my album of the year Rolo Tomassi’s Time Will Die and Love Will Bury it. Not only were they both incredible records, but they were also two of only four metal or metal-adjacent records that cracked either of our editor’s end of the year lists. Continuing on their path to domination, Holy Roar can now also tout London’s newest and most ferocious hardcore act Ithaca and their dynamic new record The Language of Injury. In a genre filled with a lot of solid, but very similar bands, Ithaca shatter the mold to deliver an album that is at times mathy, at times sweeping and emotive, and at times chaotic. From the very first track Ithaca seemingly conjure and channel the ghost of Josh Scogin’s youth, creating an album that feels as fresh and free as early Norma Jean and The Chariot did in their day. It is a huge breath of fresh air for the genre and a huge statement from a band that should quickly become a mainstay in the hardcore/metalcore commnity.

Suffer On – Wicca Phase Springs Eternal (7.5)

Hip-Hop, Emo Rap, Emo
Run For Cover: February 15, 2019

Suffer On is a startling return-to-form for Mcllwee.  Although his melodic style never changed drastically from Tigers Jaw to Wicca Phase, the parallels are even more apartment on the new record.  This is largely due to the acoustic nature of many of the tracks.  Previous Wicca Phase releases have featured production from a variety of artists in the emo hip-hop sphere, including Doves, Fishnarc, Nedarb, and the like.  On this record, Mcllwee takes production largely into his own hands, and the result is a more minimalistic sonic world than many fans will be used to.  There are no obvious samples, and very few fully electronic sounds.  Instead, the music is mainly driven by acoustic guitar chords that call to mind the emo music of the Tigers Jaw days.  The song “Crushed” doesn’t even have a beat, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2013’s Charmer.  It offers a strong connection to Mcllwee’s emo-rock past.  Fans of Wicca Phase’s acoustic EP, Raw and Declawed, will most definitely be pleased here.

Read Our Whole Review

Stuffed and Ready – Cherry Glazerr (7.4)

Alternative, Power Pop, Grunge
Secretly Canadian!: February 01, 2019

After a ringer of an album in 2017’s Apocalypstick, Cherry Glazerr are back with their solid follow-up Stuffed and Ready. Back again are Clementine Creezy’s sardonic lyrics and gleaming hooks, but this time they are contextualized in a much more straight-forward package, giving up some of the quirky experimentation of the previous album for big, sludgy, grunge. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable power pop record that revives some of the best parts of 90s alternative and finishes it with a dark psychedelic sheen. Fans looking for another Apocalypstick may find themselves disappointed in the album’s more conventional approach, but there is still a whole lot to love condensed into this 30 minute escapade.

Abject Bodies – Minors (7.0)

Hardcore, Powerviolence, Chaotic Hardcore
Holy Roar: February 22, 2019

Continuing their aforementioned trend of putting out good heavy records, Holy Roar once again deliver with the newest release from Ontario powerviolence band Minors. While some heavy bands go for flashy guitar playing and epic soundscaping, others, like Minors, favor a more brute force approach. Abject Bodies contains 8 of the meanest, heaviest, most dissonant songs in recent memory. Each passing song is like being bludgeoned with every single tool in the shed one by one, and then for good measure, again but all at once. For those who love this sort of thing, it is a wonderfully cathartic album that stands out firmly from its crowd. Needless to say, however, it is definitely not for everyone.

Everything For Sale – Boogie (6.8)

Hip Hop, West Coast Hip Hop
Shady/Interscope: February 01, 2019

Boogie’s first commercial record is most enjoyable when he locks into a groove and runs with it, as on album highlight “Lolsmh (Interlude).”  The first half of the track features one of the sweetest instrumentals on the album as Boogie delivers some vulnerable bars, “It’s hard for me to be happy / Wish my girl would just dump me / I done showed you all my ugly, but why the fuck you ain’t judge me? / No, my skin ain’t thick, it’s thin, it probably bleed soon as you touch me / I love it if you hate me, I hate that you fucking love me.”  His flow is flawless and delivery sincere (calling to mind Saba’s incredible CARE FOR ME); on tracks when he is on, he is a very captivating and believable.

Read Our Whole Review

Review: Suffer On by Wicca Phase Springs Eternal

Adam Mcllwee is a surprisingly influential artist.  He is the founding member of Scranton, PA’s emo-revival flagship, Tigers Jaw, a band known for their uniquely harmonic and heartfelt rock songs that always evoked a strangely otherworldly feeling, both in terms of lyricism and tone.  When Mcllwee left Tigers Jaw in 2013, his intent was to release music as a solo project, experimenting with electronic sounds that were not part of the Tigers Jaw musical pallet.  He ended up getting connected with alternative hip-hop collective THRAXXHOUSE, and then founded the Goth Boi Clique collective, which was brought into the mainstream eye by the pop-punk influenced hip-hop of the late Lil Peep.  Now, aided by Run For Cover Records, he has released his second full length album under the moniker Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, a name bestowed upon him by a tumblr artist (in case you didn’t think this could get more 2009).

Suffer On is a startling return-to-form for Mcllwee.  Although his melodic style never changed drastically from Tigers Jaw to Wicca Phase, the parallels are even more apartment on the new record.  This is largely due to the acoustic nature of many of the tracks.  Previous Wicca Phase releases have featured production from a variety of artists in the emo hip-hop sphere, including Doves, Fishnarc, Nedarb, and the like.  On this record, Mcllwee takes production largely into his own hands, and the result is a more minimalistic sonic world than many fans will be used to.  There are no obvious samples, and very few fully electronic sounds.  Instead, the music is mainly driven by acoustic guitar chords that call to mind the emo music of the Tigers Jaw days.  The song “Crushed” doesn’t even have a beat, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2013’s Charmer.  It offers a strong connection to Mcllwee’s emo-rock past.  Fans of Wicca Phase’s acoustic EP, Raw and Declawed, will most definitely be pleased here. 

Lyrically, the album also feels even more personal than past releases.  It deals starkly with the isolation that many with clinical anxiety and depression feel on a daily basis.  Stand out track “Just One Thing” captures this poignantly, “In the darkest of ways I go to sleep / wrapped in a death bag / alone in a death bed / with no one to talk to / still trapped in my own head.”  There is no hiding behind mythology as on 2018’s Corinthiax EP.  Nowhere is this more blatant on “Does Your Head Stop” where he sings, “It’s depression and it takes over totally / I think I’m a fake in mind and body.”  There is not any hope offered here, but a strong focus on the darkness brought on by mental illness. 

Suffer On is one of the stronger albums in Mcllwee’s career.  The consistency of sound and theme are its most powerful traits, as he latches on to one topic and really delves headfirst into it.  Fans of his debut Secret Boy might be a tad disappointed if they were hoping for a more sample-based, electronic sound, but the record serves as a fitting new chapter to a groundbreaking artist who will surely grow in popularity as time goes on. 

Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

For info on how we rate albums see our rating scale.

Label: Run For Cover Records

Release Date: Feb. 15, 2019

Review: thank u, next by Ariana Grande

thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.

Ariana Grande’s rise from teeny-bopper Nickelodeon star to pop icon has felt fast and slow at the same time.  Initially, her music career was aimed to market towards the tween audience that watched her on TV, but she rejected this after releasing only one single.  Instead, we got her excellent 2013 debut, the Babyface-produced Yours Truly, which effortlessly blends the styles of the R&B/pop legends of the 80’s and 90’s with production updates and tweaks that kept it fresh but not trendy.  The beats and R&B aesthetic meshed well with rappers, allowing her singles to cross over from pop to urban charts.  The records that followed saw greater success, as producers used her natural talent and charisma (not to mention that voice) to mold the Ariana brand into a variety of different styles, ranging from EDM to pop-ballads to reggae.  

Although this brought on great success in the charts, there was no clear picture of who Ariana actually was through her music.  In interviews she would clap the label “honest” on all of her songs, but there was always a personal aspect that seemed to be lacking in her music.  Although she had writing credits on many tracks, it was unclear whether or not she was an artist or a puppet, another pretty face and big voice that was in the right moment or the right time. 

This all changed with 2018’s Sweetener, released last August.  The album was a huge step forward from her previous work, lyrically and sonically.  Many of the songs on the first half of the album were structurally progressive, as Pharrell helped her tap deeper into her hip-hop influences and broke her out of the usual pop tropes.  Lyrically, the album delves into more personal territory; many of the songs openly discuss her engagement to comedian/actor Pete Davidson, and also healing from the bombing that famously took place at her concert in Manchester.  It seemed that she had finally found her voice as an artist; her music sounded more her’s than her producer’s. 

Then just when things were going well, her ex-boyfriend, Pittsburgh’s own Mac Miller, died suddenly from a drug overdose.  Her relationship with Davidson fell apart in the wake of this tragedy, and her relationships and life were so analyzed by the media that people started to get sick of her, when in the previous months she had been untouchable.  It is with this context that she released thank u, next a mere six months after her last record. 

The quick turn-around does not disappoint.  The songs sound raw and blunt.  Whereas listening to Sweetener felt like sitting on a cloud, thank u, next feels firmly grounded in reality.  Opening track “imagine” is a classic Ariana ballad that paints a picture of a simple vision of love, the subtext of course being that she knows this vision is impossible.  The sadness in her voice is palpable. Although lyrically it is similar to past releases, she sings it differently than she would have if the song had been released six years ago.  

The second track, “needy,” whips her back into reality.  Over a melancholy chord progression she sings, “And I’ma scream and shout for what I love / passionate but I don’t give no fucks / I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up / I’m obsessive and I love too hard / Good at overthinking with my heart / how you think it even got this far, this far?”  It’s easily the most vulnerable and authentic she’s ever been on a track.  These lyrics feel real and the simplicity of the instrumentation emphasizes the raw place that these songs came from. 

Ariana does not stay on the sad-girl train the whole album though.  Immediately following “needy” is the bouncy “NASA,” which might be her catchiest song ever.  It’s an ode to being alone, to wanting space rather than being forced into it.  The hook is so addictive that I’ve actively listened to it ten-plus times in a row; it’s the perfect example of what a pop song should be. 

If the entire album was as good as the first three tracks, we would probably have a modern classic on our hands, but unfortunately that’s not the case.  She dips into the faux-Latin trend on “bloodline” which lacks the authenticity of the previous songs, and seems clearly geared for air play and streams.  “bad idea” takes a darker turn, with heavy bass blasts and an ominous guitar hook.  This track features one of the more experimental productions choices, with a brief instrumental orchestra break just when you think the track is ending.  It sounds cinematic and dark, and as it swells, an altered beat kicks on with Ariana’s vocals pitched several octaves down, making it sound almost like a Future track for a few seconds. 

The record has quite a bit of variety stylistically, but sonically all the songs fit in the same world.  It rarely slows down except on the airy ballad “ghostin” which speaks vulnerably about her own faults in her high-profile relationships.  “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again,” she sings over whooshing synths and sparse strings.  It reinforces that this is a truly personal record, even more so than Sweetener.  Whereas Sweetener felt like a calculated reaction and intentionally big statement, thank u, next has a flash-in-a-pan quality that brings the messages home much more strongly; it showcases Ariana as a songwriter and as a somewhat hardened celebrity.  She sings (and at points, actually raps) with more conviction, more force, more confidence. 

thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.  Her record is not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It is not this record alone that accomplishes this, but the thrill of her artistic progression over the last six or so years.  For the first time, she has truly shown us her flaws, and the result is her biggest statement as an artist yet. 

Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

For info on how we rate albums see our rating scale.

Label: Republic Records

Release Date: Feb. 8, 2019