This year kind of sucked, y’all. Personally, politically, worldwide, environmentally – literally almost any metric you can pose had elements that were utterly, demonstrably unwashed ass. Except music. There was so much good music, we once again – for the sixth year in a row – overlooked a good amount of it throughout 2023. That’s why Missed Connections exists. It’s our time machine to go back in the past and write some wrongs. See what I did there? I need at least a bronze medal for that one.
So, our first part of Missed Connections this year is a wild one. We’re covering virulent and catchy hardcore, the postest of post-punk gloom, and some of the most earnest country/folk this year has to offer. Be sure to click on the artists’ names and album titles for more information on them respectively!
It was 2:30 on the Friday afternoon of Outbreak Fest, one of hardcore’s most hyped Bay Area bands Sunami were playing in front of Bruce Willis’ face on the big screen. Meanwhile just a few steps away a smaller, more dedicated troupe of moshers had assembled in preparation for Sweden’s Existence. Fresh off the release of their debut LP Go To Heaven on the UK’s Quality Control HQ label, the excitement in the room was palpable and it really felt like the place to be at that moment. I still consider Sunami a bit of a joke band in the scene, meanwhile Existence are the real deal. Cartwheels, spinkicks, and windmills were flying as they ripped through a marauding set. The feeling was similar just a few weeks ago when they set up for a rare UK headline show in Liverpool. The bill included their Swedish counterparts Speedway and a range of the UK’s best and brightest rising bands; Nothin’ But Enemies, Dynamite, No Relief and a debut from hometowners Step Beyond to name a few. This time they began with the Merauder “Time Ends” intro, a rare band who can get close to the original and it set the tone for another rowdy set. Their merch celebrated 100 shows as 100 battles won, and they’ve made a reputation as some of hardcore’s strongest fighters.
Truthfully, I didn’t know a whole lot about Existence before Go To Heaven dropped this year. I’d heard their debut EP but 5 years can feel like a lifetime in hardcore and they’d been rather quiet for a while. Of course, the Swedish scene has always been far from quiet in general so it seemed as if they could drift away, while sister bands such as Speedway and Blood Sermon were going to lead. That was before Go To Heaven came out and Existence continued their crusade. It’s filled with barnstorming riffs, heavy rhythms, angry vocals with little flashes of fun and intrigue mixed in. Pound for pound one of the coolest and heaviest albums of the year.
Quality Control have been leading the way for hardcore, especially in the UK, with Pest Control, Stiff Meds, and Accusation all putting out exceptional releases for the label this year. Go To Heaven is another entry in a phenomenal discography and the most metal leaning the label has ever been. Across the board the riffs have more in common with thrash with the clean touches calling to mind early death and black metal such as Celtic Frost. Along with the 2-step rhythms and a familiar hardcore swagger, it makes for a groove-laden wonderland of Scandinavian madness. Sweden and Scandinavia have a lot of history in punk, hardcore, and various strains of metal which all seem to play on the mind of Existence across the album. It’s a melting pot of genres with touches of inspiration sprinkled at every turn.
Starting with a brooding church organ leading into the opener “Frozen Spirit”, there is a sinister feeling hovering above the album straight away. Immediately the riffs are melodic and memorable while the whole band have a bouncy energy. The razor-sharp bellow of vocalist Linus consumes the attention like a house catching fire. There’s a force and intensity in his delivery from the start that makes him equally intriguing and terrifying at once. “Horror Spawns” again has a spooky feeling but it’s the guitarwork that really captures the imagination here and through much of the album. The duelling guitars trade riffs and licks across so much of the album, but at no point does it feel frivolous. They strike that exact balance between expression and force, leaving Go To Heaven in such a strong place.
Of course they can only build on a rhythm section which is delivering breakdowns and 2-steps aplenty. What’s striking for much of the album are the rhythmic and dynamic shifts. It doesn’t have massive shifts from loud-quiet like grunge but it does have muted moments and deliberate restraint mixed with pure aggression. But again, it doesn’t feel well-trodden over the album or forced as if they needed a moment to relax. Existence sound like a band who know where they want to be and where they want to go at every moment without fail, at the end of any section a new riff can lead into a breakdown, fast part, melodic chorus or acoustic interlude. My favourite part of the album is a small part of “Caught In The Deep End” that keeps me on my toes like this, that old-fashioned break that segues into a quick fire riff via the sound of a sword being pulled from a sheath is thing of beauty. It’s an exciting journey never knowing where you’ll end up, except knowing you’ll be there in the hands of a band that is as stylish as it is heavy.
The album culminates with an interlude that enters to the concluding song “Materialized Fear”, a bell rings ominously into and then throughout the song. Imagine Metallica wrote “For Whom The Bell Tolls” in the snow of Scandinavia, educated by the likes of Merauder and Integrity instead of Misfits. Sounds introduced into the hardcore soundscapes like the bell set it apart from many of their contemporaries, it lends an air of grandeur in what is sometimes considered a fairly brutish and simple genre. Existence must be looking to dispel some misconceptions, bringing all of the riffs, energy and attitude of hardcore with the creative force that the big publications think Sleep Token possess with their anonymous schtick and putting the word worship everywhere (I’m definitely not writing this after one of heavy music’s flagship magazines named them 2023’s Artist of the Year).
Go To Heaven finds a band hitting a creative epiphany. They’ve tapped into legendary artists and genres to create a fresh and stylish album that feels timeless. Many of the riffs and sounds feel pulled from across decades, yet Existence feel a band at their peak now. They might not be internationally hyped or on one of the cool American labels, but if you know you know, and if you don’t know then you’ll have fun finding out.
Soft Kill continues to thrive with imperfections with a release that shows why Tobias Grave remains at the top of the post-punk scene.
One of the coolest things about Tobias Grave is his ‘show your work’ take on artistry. A quick search into Soft Kill, and Grave, and you’ll find a plethora of B-sides and demo tapes of Soft Kill’s work that it exceeds official releases by far, along with earnest interviews of someone who’s coming from such an authentic place, not just as an artist, but as a person, that it’s damn near breathtaking. That authenticity in art is important. There’s so much to draw inspiration from as an artist, that you can get caught up in the performative aspects, seeking reactions as results, that you kind of forget why you’re doing it to begin with. Things get interesting when you find the ones that create art just because it’s part of who they are, and then find the means to share.
Grave has a keen understanding of both of these things. With Soft Kill’s last year release Canary Yellow, Grave took an Americana songwriter’s approach to rock music that was a pretty big departure from the beautiful post punk staples Choke, Savior, and the breathtaking Dead Kids, R.I.P City. He’s always been comfortable sharing the inner workings of his mind, and how he created whatever project he has been sharing, and although it didn’t fit in the dusty and dark catalog perfectly, Canary Yellow is still a fucking beautiful rock records.
Metta World Peace is, in some ways, a reversion, but also not really. The post-punk is there, “Rat Poison” sets the moody stage for what sonically is to follow, and with optimism, the album opens up to a Dracula party that invites everyone in. But that invitation provides a lot of expanded and new territory for Grave to explore. Amongst the anthemic sadboi anthems Grave conquers so well (“Trouble”, “Behind The Rain”, “Molly”), we have beautiful emo rap, horrorcore, and death rock (“Paranoid,” ‘Past Life II,” “Veil of Pain”) that leave you pretty spellbound.
Imperfection and expressive impulse are the main influences on this album, as Grave describes on the Bandcamp page for the album, ‘This record solidifies a commitment to the blueprint that’s been in play all along: a stream of consciousness output removed from the confines of ‘the album cycle’ inspired equally by boredom and Guided By Voices. My comfort zone has always been the demo and everything that follows has felt complicated and forced at times. This celebrates my love for writing songs and ignoring the rest.‘
That stream of consciousness shows up in interesting ways that don’t necessarily make sense on paper, but just feel right in the context of the track. There’s a whip sample in “Trouble” that would be standard fare for any industrial, dirty techno, or darkwave track, but seems out of place in theory in a sincere post punk heartbreak track, but sonically it’s perfect. Elsewhere “Rat Poison” almost works as trip hop spoken word, and “Past Life II” has an abrupt sonic shift with a dead telephone line.
The features also shine incredibly bright in these 8 tracks. The legendary horrorcore lyricist Evil Pimp provides depressoid bars that sound amazing on the gray sky beat, and melodic harmonies. It’s a classic agoraphobic, late night high thought flow that provides so much rich introspection of that subgenre, and fits comfortably amongst the dark side. N8NOFACE almost steals the show entirely, with his feature on “Veil of Pain”. While the punkrap force of reckoning is known for his aggressive and violent industrial flow, he abandons that entirely for a grisly and gruff dark alleyway croon that is just spectacular. The pass-the-mic energy Grave and N8 have reveals an easy comradery between the two, as both work out the harshities of being alive in the process of grief.
The lyrics also choose to be expressively in place, rather than logically. Evil Pimp’s chorus on “Paranoid” sounds like he asks ‘I hear a tunnel in this voice, are you with me now?‘ and Tobias professes on “ Veil of Pain” ‘I put a rose on a grave, and the piss rains down and washed it away’, and N8NOFACE uses his lines to claim ‘Psalm/Song/Sumn for your grave, and the flower’s a sonnet”. If you focus too much on the lyrics, you’re not understanding. Human expression most of time, especially in the lawlessness of art, doesn’t make sense. Things just feel like they should go together, and when trusting one’s gut, it usually works to great effect.
When Grave takes on the tracks on his own, he still shows what he does best. His melodies are always catchy, his emotive, downtrodden voice shifts between the tenderness of Robert Smith, and the whispery danger of Elizabeth Fraser, sometimes in the same track, to awesome effect. I can’t stress how catchy “Trouble” is, and will make anyone sway involuntarily; “Molly” is a dream pop bop, that sounds both spiritually optimistic, but also sad as fuck, and it’s just beautiful. He also shows growth on tracks like “Past Life II,” which shows him channeling Lil Peep era emotrap, and album closer “Fuckboy” goes full on darkwave that’ll fit perfectly in every dimlit fogged out black wall goth club dj set as he goes full Sam Herring and pulls it off.
While this album very much is a return to form for Grave, after the straightforward Canary Yellow, it also feels like a revisionism on the capabilities of what Soft Kill can do. His ear has expanded, and brought in energies that align well with his sonic palette, and find ways to bring them in, rather than continue on the same path. We should have never expected that out of Soft Kill anyway, as his output since inception shows an artist that is using his art to explore openly and fearlessly. The interviews out there in which Graves shares where he’s at mentally, as well as his reflective self written synopses show an artist that’s also not afraid to bare his soul for his creative process. That’s a winning formula for Grave, and Soft Kill’s output, as anyone can hear from the beginning to the end of Metta World Peace.
One of the scenes in popular music that often gets heaps of hate due to pandering, inauthenticity, and predictability is country music. The Nashville scene seems to be constantly reaching for a larger share of ears through either doubling down on the trite tropes of its past or simply finding brand new ways of being annoying. Of course there are bright spots in that space from time to time, but the best country music is found outside of this scene entirely. While names like Jason Isbell, Tyler Childers, and Zach Bryan are fairly common amongst us that mine the heaps of indie country music that hits the airwaves, Charles Wesley Godwin is fighting his way to the top of that heap quite quickly. With his third LP, Family Ties, Godwin intertwines the many strands of country music into something that feels uniquely his.
After introducing the album with a couple of strong tracks such as “Family Ties” and “Miner Imperfections” – both of which reflect on his heritage as a native of West Virginia – but when the album begins to take shape is on the incredibly rich track “The Flood”. Layered instrumentation crescendos in a hybrid of folk, americana, and post-rock that feels absolutely massive. Along with this, Godwin’s charming timbre that is often reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot sits perfectly in the mix and asks just how far you’d go for our loved ones. The balance struck on this song feels incredibly unique and just when you think you have this artist figured out, he’ll quickly pivot back to something far more traditional like the tracks “All Again” and “Gabriel”. While many of the songs on this record revolve around family, home, and roots, the title Family Ties also seems to speak to the unity of the differing approaches to country music.
To say that Family Ties is a long record is a bit of understatement as it spans 19 songs across 70 minutes, so Godwin has plenty to say here and the journey that this album provides is one of the most rewarding in the country music space all year. There’s a genuine tenderness to the tone as each of these songs pass and hand off of the listener to the next. While the topic of a lot of mainstream country is predictable drivel, Godwin uses this album to focus on the things that matter: the adversities which precede growth, embracing that growth, and celebrating those wins when they come around. And when the celebrations come they’re fun as hell. “Two Weeks Gone” and “Cue Country Roads” are great examples of pure, simple fun.
Closing the record with his rendition of the John Denver classic about his home state “Take Me Home, Country Roads” complete with pedal steel guitar is an exclamation point at the end of a very long and enjoyable run-on sentence. While there are flavors of country music out there and not everyone finds joy in the twang of banjos and twin fiddles, if you find yourself inclined and curious about how great country music can be, let the tug of Family Ties pull you in.