Heeeeeeeeey, y’all. It’s that time of year. The first of our year-end content is here with the first episode of Missed Connections, our feature where we look back at the music we missed out on covering and… well, cover it! Like the subtitle this year? Timely and clever, though ‘bad music’ isn’t something I necessarily believe in. For me, there’s just music I don’t think is for me, and music that very much is, and personally? I fuck with each record on this episode. Hopefully you find some stuff to like in this three-part feature. We even got a great graphic put together by our art designer and writer, Vidur, which I realized after the fact is an unintentional reference to Ice Cube‘s controversial classic album, Lethal Injection. Shout to the OGs – please don’t sue us.
These reviews are all new for albums dropped sometime in 2021, ones we wished to give a little retroactive shine to. Today’s an excursion into some Scottish alternative rock, intimate neo-soul, and some ass-kicking medieval black metal. Enjoy! Come back next week for part two.
‘I don’t give a fuck about the past / Our glory days gone by’ – the perfect opening line to the comeback album of the year. Most re-unions of old bands appear to be nothing more than a quick money spinner, a way to play a few shows and cash in on those punters yearning to relive their own glory days. Not that I have any issue with that, but it takes a special act to come out of the shadows and bring fresh excitement whilst doing so.
Step forward one of Scotland’s finest duos – Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffatt and Malcom Middleton. Having gone their separate ways back in 2006, the pair have managed to keep themselves relevant with countless high-quality solo releases and collaborations in addition to a very short live tour reunion in 2016/17. Whilst this live tour appeared to be a one-off, 2021 saw Moffat and Middleton come together for the holy grail of reunions, a brand new album.
Let’s set the stall early. As Days Get Dark may just be Arab Strap’s best work, a massive achievement for a pairing that had not written together for almost 15 years. “The Turning of Our Bones” opens with Middleton’s ominous picking and that glorious initial lyric referenced earlier. Electronic beats, piano, and Moffat’s signature rasp build steadily through the track, with a breakdown of bongos and disco-esque beats setting the scene for a glorious crescendo. ‘Dig us up and hold us high / Raise our carcass to the sky‘ sings Moffat. One track in, Arab Strap are back and better than ever.
Track by track, the album continues to deliver. “Another Clockwork Day” shows Moffat at his lyrical best, sounding like a deranged stalker as he flicks through images of an unnamed woman, in files hidden on his computer. Finally, he reveals that this woman happens to be his wife, the final section changing the vibe to a modern love song. Whilst Moffat shines here, Middleton takes the lead on “Compersion, Pt. 1”. A simple repeated riff is complemented by an overdriven lead line, providing an energetic backing for Moffat to take us into the realm of sexual fantasties.
Middleton’s energy comes to the fore again with “Here Comes Comus!”, a track that showcases a new side of Arab Strap with its upbeat synthwave. The heavily reverberated electronic drums give that eighties vibe, complementing guitar work that could be mistaken on its own to be the work of Alex Lifeson (not that this sounds anything like Rush, mind). “Fable Of The Urban Fox” is a well crafted ode to those who have left their homes in hope of a better future, a massive fuck you to the racists who fail to help and welcome those in need.
“Sleeper” starts to wind the album down, slowing proceedings with its dark beats and softly sung choruses. The lyrical content make this feel a little like a movie script, perfectly complemented by sporadic brass instruments adding a cinematic feel. At just over 6 minutes, the track ebbs and flows, maintaining interest with subtle changes of texture. One only hopes that the chorus is a metaphor for something other than Arab Strap, as it would be a real shame if this were the last studio release from the pairing.
‘Keep on rolling,
Just keep rolling,
Now I must be gone.
Keep on rolling,
Bells are tolling,
Now I must be gone.’
In case you haven’t realised, this is without doubt one of my favourite records of the year. It spoke to me on first listen, continuing to grab hold and bring me back for more on each subsequent listen. On the off-chance the album started to lose steam for some listeners, Arab Strap decided to release the demo versions for each track digitally and on cassette in September, a fascinating insight into the writing process of the duo. If you have yet to listen to As Days Get Dark, find yourself an hour in the day, stick on your headphones and enjoy.
Arlo Parks absolutely dazzled and made significant waves with her newest album, and I’m here to tell you: it was for damn good reason. There aren’t that many ‘mainstream’ albums that ever make it onto my personal list, and that’s something we could get into another time. Most of the heavy hitters on Spotify’s coveted Pollen playlist are things that don’t do much for me, or worse, leave me scratching my head wondering what I’m missing.
Collapsed In Sunbeams is an absolutely amazing indie/neo-soul album that is deep, intimate, and poetic in the most personal sense of each word. This feels less like a music record, and more like a collection of personal thoughts put to beautiful organic instrumentation. The lyrical content is easily the highlight of this album. Parks is an absolutely phenomenal storyteller and her voice is lovely and warm as she narrates each track.
“Hurt” and “Black Dog” are two of my favorite songs of the year, both dealing with struggle and mental illness in different ways. “Hurt” talks more of overall feelings of unease, from depression to struggling with loss, but does so with an anthemic hope; ‘I know you can’t let go of anything at the moment/ Just know it won’t hurt so, won’t hurt so much forever’. It’s a clarion call to those struggling, a buoy to cling on to at the hardest moments. “Black Dog” deals more directly with depression and the toll of mental illness on an interpersonal level; ‘At least I know that you are trying/ But that’s what makes it terrifying’.
“Caroline” is one of the songs that lyrically strikes me the most. It’s a simple tale of seeing a couple have a public falling out, but the way Parks recounts it is so evocative and really puts you in the scene. Her calm singing just makes you feel like you’re sitting for tea with her to hear these stories, and it makes the album so striking and cozy to just sink into. “Eugene” is easily the most intimate and personal song on the album, and another one that evokes the same feelings as “Caroline”. Hearing Parks’ confession of love to her best friend is absolutely heart-breaking and beautiful.
“Bluish” is one of the songs that relies the least on organic instrumentation, with a heavy synth bassline backing it. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album; it feels a little bit different in structure and instrument, but just as personal as the rest of the album. In it, Parks details a failing relationship with someone who won’t give her space when she needs it. She does an absolutely superb way of conveying the claustrophobia felt when dealing with someone who doesn’t respect your personal space and feelings, and like every other song, it just hits the nail directly on the head.
As good as the lyrics are, and as soothing as Arlo Parks soft voice is, Collapsed In Sunbeams has wonderful instrumental work as well. It’s mostly soft, smooth organic instruments that flow somewhere between smooth jazz, neo-soul, and classic indie. The rhythm section deserves a serious shoutout for such flow to their playing; it really elevates an already skyscraper of an album.
If you have somehow missed out on Collapsed In Sunbeams, I really can’t recommend it enough. This is an album I want to shove into the awareness of basically everyone, because it’s a piece of music that’s so easy to listen to and deserves all the eyes in the world on it. Arlo Parks has created an album that just oozes warmth, comfort, and understanding about the struggles of life. She details issues of her own with poise and grace and really makes you feel like you’re not alone through anything you are going through. Add in the fact that this is an album chock full of memorable earworms and some of the best songwriting I’ve heard in the entirety of 2021, it’s probably no wonder that this is finishing the year in my personal top 5 albums of the year.
Have you ever been listening to an album for all of 30 seconds before you knew that it would be one of your favorites of the year, or maybe even of all time? That rarely happens, but when it does it’s worth celebrating and sharing. If you’ve been paying any attention to metal at all this year, you know that there has been a lot to pay attention to. The lockdown of the last 20 months or so have brought about so many great albums this year the deluge isn’t likely to let up soon. That being said, one of the best (and my personal favorite) of the bunch is the new LP from Stormkeep, Tales of Othertime. Composed mostly of members of Wayfarer and Blood Incantation, this act took the scene by storm (sigh, I had to) last year with their excellent EP, Galdrum and the anticipation has been somewhat high for how they would follow it up.
Tales of Othertime is quite simply the amalgamation of all of my favorite parts of black metal crafted into a well-balanced LP of around 43 minutes. Its heroic narrative is decidedly fantasy-driven and in some ways shares more with power metal than a lot of black metal only due to the tales of wizards, dragons, and witches. There are dungeon synth passages, melodic riffs, harp interludes, and clean chorus vocals, and gnarly growls and retches. It’s an album that has made me smile every time (and there have been a lot of times) that I listen to it. Imagine mixing together your favorite parts of Emperor, Vintersorg, Summoning, and a dash of Borknagar into a chainmail helmet, stirring it with the hilt of a solid steel claymore, and then slamming that mixture onto your head before mounting your horse to ride up a mountain to slay the dragon and win the day. That’s what listening to this album feels like. It’s like 5 gum for your ears.
If there’s a song that fully encapsulates what this band is about and how they approach songwriting and just how goddamn fun it is to listen to them, it has to be the best metal track of the year, “The Serpent’s Stone.” The arc from orchestration to full on gallop with an organ supporting the charge, gnarly vocals, a groove-laden lilt, it’s just a blast to listen to. There are so many elements that make this song engaging that I could go on and on about them, but the fact of the matter is, you should listen to it. There’s a full commitment to the aesthetic and that aesthetic is pure bliss – pure escapist bliss. I highly recommend pairing the album while hunting dragons in Skyrim; it’s a perfect match.
There’s no reason not to listen to Tales of Othertime, unless you just hate fun and think metal is to sacred or serious. Don’t be that person. Listen to Stormkeep and make sure to keep your heels down – this thing could easily buck you off if you’re not holding on.