It’s time for the second installment of Cerpin’s Best Albums of 2017, following last week’s Part the First that included Arca, Bent Knee, Leprous, Motorpsycho and Saagara’s latest records plus a plethora of honourable mentions. Part the Second brings another five excellent records from last year that are a nose ahead of the previous albums, but just below my favourite five records of 2017 that will be resolved in Part the Third.
Remember that these albums are in no particular order, unless explicitly stated! So without further ado, here are my next favourite records of 2017:
Toby Driver – Madonnawhore (Art Rock / Ambient)
I fled into the night wearing nothing but you
Best known manning the helms of experimental behemoth groups Kayo Dot and maudlin of the Well, Toby Driver’s latest solo album strips away the complexities and lavish arrangements of his previous works to reveal a tender vulnerability. Madonnawhore lulls over the futility of love, time and longing in a sorrowful yet dreamy landscape that spans the entire record.
The vocals are dominant yet shapeless; lingering deliveries in ‘The Scarlet Whore – Her Dealings with the Initiate’, ‘The Deepest Hole’ and ‘Boys on the Hill’ have verses bleeding into each other like free-form prose that perfectly fits the subtlety of the restrained instrumentation. ‘Avignon’, however, pulses with drums drowning beyond the horizon in a sea of reverb, guitars sputter like flashes in the gloom of bassy ambiance. Toby Driver’s sparse delivery is sporadic but powerful, backed by never-ending mantras of the chorus – and when the lead vocals join in towards the end of the track, it’s simply sublime:
We set out crossing flagstones
Across the fragments
We wandered through the kingdoms
‘Parsifal’ peeks out of the mire of gloomy ambiance with a relatively bright but sombre single-esque track. Driver’s relatively blasé vocal delivery thankfully redeems usually cliché hourglass imagery with its charm; I’m just glad the phrase ‘sands of time’ wasn’t explicitly mentioned. ‘Craven’s Dawn’ is the most instrumentally interesting track, where a 3-minute window sees Driver’s vocal dominance relaxing, allowing the bass and guitars to flourish and have the nearest we’ll get to a guitar solo in the whole record. It still sits in the confines of the elegant restraint of Madonnawhore, and is more enthralling than any progressive guitar solo I’ve heard this year.
Despite it being the most dynamically restrained record I’ve heard from Toby Driver, its consistency in mood and arrangements makes it also makes it the most coherent and accessible. Whilst it’s not as experimental as Bath or as intense as In the L..L..Library Loft, Madonnawhore is his record I return to most for its lush ambiance; minimalistic arrangements and emotionally resonant lyrics. Madonnawhore is mournfully romantic; losing yourself in its quagmires feels like slowly losing your grip on the hopes, dreams and memories of what wasn’t, what isn’t and what will never be.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – Birth of a Ghost (Modern Classical)
If you release 22 albums over the span of 2 years, one of them is bound to be great, right? The Mars Volta’s lead guitarist, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, has been putting out a stream of solo albums spanning genres like art rock, house, jazz fusion and post-hardcore with varying degrees of Latin American influence and success – but it’s his efforts in classical music in Birth of a Ghost which have really been stellar.
In just 24 minutes, Birth of a Ghost touches all bases of mood; from the dramatic and solemn openers ‘Cactus and Honey’ and ‘Echo Beast’ to the light and airy ‘An Old Lacquer-Tinged Tomb’ and ‘A Good Kind of Blue’. ‘Marco Mutations’ even feels like Penderecki’s ‘Threnody for Hiroshima’ in its erratic plucking and agitating dissonance, albeit less harrowing. The arrangements of strings and woodwinds are gorgeous, and the utilization of pianos and glockenspiels in ‘Nuclear Mysticism´ and ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ bring a nice variety in instrumentation.
My only issue with the album is its length; if Omar snapped out of the ‘quantity over quality’ mindset in making dozens of albums and fully fleshed this album out, it could’ve been his solo magnum opus. Though saying that, Birth of a Ghost is amongst his best solo albums alongside Solar Gambling, and I would be ecstatic to see these modern classical influences make their way into the next album by The Mars Volta.
Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar (Synthpop)
For quite a long time, The Assassination of Julius Caesar sat at the top of my list of favourite albums from 2017. Ulver have yet again subverted expectations in the best possible way, transitioning from the psychedelic jam sessions of ATGCLVLSSCAP in 2016 to synthpop in less than a year. To say that the group started out as a black metal band, the evolution of Ulver’s sound with a consistent excellence over the past few decades deserves the utmost respect.
The Assassination of Julius Caesar borders on darkwave and gothic, less so with its sound but with its aesthetic brought by the moody vocal deliveries and imagery of Ancient Rome, mythology and the death of Princess Diana. The booming synths and drums are infatuating and even funky, yet are used with a tact and variety that keeps the record from feeling gimmicky. Though it’s generally an accessible record, the crescendo of noise closing ‘Rolling Stone’ and the clattering ambiance over the funky bass ostinato in ‘So Falls the World’ adds a touch of daringness in the mix to remind us that Ulver haven’t lost all of their grit.
It’s only the lattermost tracks that end the album with a bit of a fizzle, with ‘1969’ lacking the funky bass and synths from earlier and ‘Come Home’s edgy spoken word intro still fails to entice me. Still, The Assassination of Julius Caesar’s prior consistency, excellent vocals and execution of synthpop makes it a formidable album, and furthers the notion that Ulver is an example of a truly progressive band.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland (Prog Rock / Psychedelic Rock)
Melbourne-based oddballs King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard have a panache for bringing inventive elements to each of their albums; whether they be thematic, conceptual or just the marketing in of itself. After the release of their landmark album, Nonagon Infinity, back in 2016, frontman Stu Mackenzie teased fans with the ambition of releasing five albums last year. Buckethead and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez fans may find this laughably pitiful, but it remains a commendable feat as King Gizzard released four great distinct albums and a decent fifth, the recently released Gumboot Soup, which is essentially B-sides from its predecessors.
First came Flying Microtonal Banana, which was widely commended for their experimentation with microtonal music; second was Murder of the Universe, their heaviest album that revolved around sci-fi and monster horror stories; third was a collaboration with Mild High Club titled Sketches of Brunswick East, a jazz album inspired by a borough of Melbourne. Their fourth album, Polygondwanaland, is probably the most praised of King Gizzard’s releases in 2017, and for good reason.
Polygondwanaland was released under creative commons, but the marketing gimmick is second to the excellence of the polyrhythms sown throughout the record. The anthropomorphized structures of the ‘Crumbling Castle’ is a towering 11-minute epic; but unfortunately, like Saagara’s 2, the immensity of the opening track eclipses the rest of the album. That’s not to say the tracks beyond ‘Crumbling Castle’ are homogenous; the sinister ‘Inner Cell’ and ‘Loyalty’; the peppy ‘Horology’ and the subdued mystic ‘Searching…’ all have their quality moments which set them apart. Though admittedly, the immaculate flow of the album often leaves me lost; especially with the ever-present vocal motif of ‘polygondwanaland’.
The overarching narrative of the primordial world and a transcendence of the sensory to see the ‘fourth colour’ is an archetypal concept for a psychedelic record and fits perfectly with the use of flutes, modulates synths and acoustic guitars. Now I don’t advocate the use of illicit substances, but I imagine that Polygondwanaland is an excellent album to jam to if you do use them.
What King Gizzard are doing musically isn’t particularly ground-breaking, nor experimental to the fullest extent, but their approach to making each record distinct and creative deserves commendation. For any of you prog fans who haven’t heard any King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Polygondwanaland is the album for you.
Azure. – Wish For Spring (Art Rock / Progressive Rock)
Following on from their 2015 EP, (Dreaming of) Azure, art rock artist Azure. has built on their strengths of infectiously charming song narratives with refreshing progressive elements and fantastic vocals. Wish For Spring is an enthralling collective of social commentaries, fictional tales and personal moments with a thematic and musical variety that makes it an incredibly versatile and refreshing record.
Even after months of abstinence from Wish for Spring, it remains just as impressive as when I first heard it. The vocals are the centrepiece of the record, especially as a medium not only to convey, but to accentuate the mood of each song’s theme – the use of vocoders and Azure.’s dynamic and pitch range in the more narrative-driven tracks like ‘Azure’ and ‘Fairy’s Tale’ support the differentiation between characters making them all the more enthralling. I’m still absolutely floored by the chorus of ‘Friends’ with its utterly jaw-dropping vocals; I’m not even exaggerating here, it actually takes my breath away when the first soaring high note hits.
Song structures feel natural as they fit around the song’s narrative with the vocals acting as the driving force; it’s especially nice to see the vocal melody mirrored by synths, guitars or even woodwinds. Even then, the instrumental segments have great progressions by themselves in ‘Azure’, ‘River Dragon’ and ‘Fairy’s Tale’, but it’s especially charming in the joyous end to ‘Larks That Were Never Really There // Dawn Chorus’. It’s the poppier tracks like ‘Friends’, ‘Piglet’ and even the electronic-heavy ‘Tell Me It’s for Absolution’ and ‘My Body’ that I find most compelling, though.
Wish For Spring still shows us that Azure. is only human, what with a few vocal slip ups and an inconsistency in the mixing that cries for a little extra polish; but it’s more than made up for in the creativity and variety across every track with an outstanding vocal performance on the whole. It’s the one album in this list that was incredibly close to being in Part the Third, my 5 favourite records of the year, but it missed out just by a hair. If Azure. continues to refine themselves, their next record could even be my favourite of that year; but for the time being, Azure. is definitely one of my favourite upcoming progressive acts and it should be yours, too!
So ends the second installment of Cerpin’s favourite albums of 2017! What do you make of the albums listed here? Did you love them as much as I did, or maybe even more so? Or maybe you think any albums from Part the First should have been above these? Either way, leave your thoughts in the comments section below, and I’ll see you next time for the third and final installment of Cerpin’s Best Albums of 2017!