Maxwell – blackSUMMERS’night

BlackSUMMERS’night is the follow up to Maxwell’s 2009 release BLACKsummers’night and the second instalment in the debonair soul singer’s quest to shield himself from prospective fans who want to get into his discography using non-case-sensitive search engines. BLACKsummers’night was, if you’ve not listened to it, a lovely little album: a stylish, charming blend of vocal chops, wit and energetic funk that eschewed the hazy grooves of D’Angelo and Erykah Badu in favour of a lighter touch and clocked it all in at a concise 35-ish minutes. BlackSUMMERS’night isn’t an equal successor, but it’s a worthy one all the same.

The album for me didn’t exactly put its best foot forwards. Although I’ll give some props to the rather interesting horn licks in “All The Ways That Love Can Feel” and “The Fall” (the first two tracks), the first problem I noticed was the fact that the vocals really weren’t tethered down enough by the instruments. It’s a bugbear I’ve run into before in the careers of otherwise very good soul artists (Bilal and Miguel both fell somewhat afoul of this last year); Maxwell’s voice is as powerful and dynamic as anyone’s, but a joyride doesn’t become any more sensible because it’s being done in a Ferrari. The first three tracks all sport fidgety, energetic drumlines and instrumental sections that are all flourish and no groove, and hearing Maxwell’s voice loop-de-loop over the top of it feels uncontrolled and incoherent.

But when the album manages to get the instruments and the vocals working in tandem – and it does; by “Lake by the Ocean” it seems to have gotten a solid grasp of doing that – it absolutely shines. “Lake by The Ocean” by itself is almost worth recommending the entire album for: a seductive, intelligent piece that foregrounds synthesizers with pianos and acoustic guitar to spectacular effect, and sports a subtly but supremely hooky chorus to boot. “Hostage”, in particular, exemplifies how important this kind of singer/instrument synergy is. The track begins with astral xylophones and a repetitive, pattering drumbeat, and builds to an explosive climax around four fifths in. Maxwell’s adoption of a harsher, rawer singing style feels worthy of the moment because it’s been built up in accordance with the song-writing around it. “Lost”, with its old fashioned bluesy lyrics and heavy, echoing pianos, becomes a real old school ballad and adds a touch of quiet reverence to the album’s final quarter.

To be honest, even leaving aside the synergy, the album ultimately lives and dies on whether or not the instruments are interesting enough to keep pace with the vocals. “Fingers Crossed” demonstrates this: although the drumline of the track is slightly too rickety and unpredictable to carry Maxwell’s singing, the whole thing succeeds on some masterful piano and horn work, and on its captivating outro segment, in which Maxwell’s singing fades to a chanted mutter while batteries of horns and synthesizers take flight.

Whereas BLACKsummers’night was confident – “Global warming ain’t got nothing on this chick” isn’t a lyric you sing unless you’re pretty assured you’re telling the story to someone who’s got time for your witticisms – blackSUMMERS’night is on the whole more confessional, and again, the album’s at its best when it embraces that. Whereas the more vibrant numbers- “Gods”, for example, and the opening tracks – seem to scramble to find an emotion to convey, the album’s softer and gentler tracks, which by the end of the album have pretty much entirely taken over the setlist, are sublime. It’s enjoyable how astral out the whole things tend to be; “Listen Hear” and “Of All Kind” feel like soul music’s answer to space rock. Indeed, given the album grows gradually more miasmic as it progresses, there’s a haunting feeling of “coming apart” to the whole affair; Maxwell’s seeming evaporation adds another layer of poignancy to his lyrics.

BlackSUMMERS’night is inconsistent enough that it couldn’t ever be anything more than a mixed bag, but it’s definitely a mixed bag with an emphasis on the positive. Importantly, although it’s definitely not as good as BLACKsummers’night, it isn’t just an inferior copy: it’s quieter, franker, less funky but more soulful, and represents just as much as its predecessor a step forwards by a deeply creative artist into new terrain. And sure, it’s not quite the terrain he’s at his best on, but it’s a good step all the same.

Concert Review – PJ Harvey at the Eden Project, 27th of June 2016

One wonders if PJ’s Spotify play count has gone up since the UK announced its departure from the EU. Even if PJ hadn’t hinted at her own stance on the matter – reciting “No Man Is An Island” at a gig earlier in the year – she’d still feel like a deeply relevant musician at this point. I mentioned in my Hope Six Demolition Project review that PJ, when she gets political, is more of a mourner than a revolutionary – more of an Oracle at Delphi than a Guardian Columnist, if you will – and that feels appropriate when you’re standing at the gates of another bloody recession ushered in by a referendum that can’t be undone. It’d feel appropriate even if “Goddamn Europeans/take me back to beautiful England/and the grey damp filthiness of ages” wasn’t the opening to one of her songs. So when I found out that she was playing at the Eden Project, the rapidly collapsing pound coins couldn’t exit my wallet fast enough.

It’s good to know that the slightly earthier tone of Hope Six compared to her previous albums hasn’t made her staging any less arcane. Harvey emerged on stage at the centre of a marching band, playing a doomy rendition of “Chain of Keys”, other members of which included two drummers, three guitarists and two saxophonists (plus Harvey herself – sax was her instrument of choice when she wasn’t singing). They were all dressed in popped-collar dark suits and waistcoats. She was dressed in a corset and black tunic, with heel length sleeves, standing in a pair of bizarrely curvaceous black high heels that looked almost like they were designed by Apple, and crowned with a tiara of black roses. There was something almost Neil Gaiman-esque about it: a B-movie’s interpretation of a Massachusetts witch, dancing like a puppet-show Lady Macbeth, having seemingly resurrected herself in a Thatcher-era executive party and hypnotized the live band into her service. It was everything I expected from Harvey and more. Even better, the showmanship seemed to have taken Chekhov’s Gun to heart. At the start of the evening, a roadie placed at the centre of stage a saxophone which was smaller than the ones on either side of it but gleamed ivory-white. And sure enough, at the climax of “The Ministry of Social Affairs” towards the end of the gig, as the band (and Harvey herself) backed away with their horns and snare drums, one saxophonist took the instrument, strode to the front, and Coltrane’d the house down.

Save the individual solos – which tended to be on the chaotic end – there wasn’t much by way of improvisation; this was mostly a straight reproduction of album songs. And you know, this is probably a pretty good time in PJ Harvey’s career to have done that. Hope Six, which contributed most of the evening’s setlist (every song on the album made an appearance at some point), was never the most subtle of Harvey’s albums, but it was definitely one of the most stentorian, and a good live declamation was exactly what it needed. “Medicinals” and “The Ministry of Social Affairs” were brought to visceral, violent life by the onslaught of saxophones and guitars; the more straightforward “The Wheel”, meanwhile, finally got a chance to be the anthem it always seemed to deserve to be. Indeed, while Hope Six can still feel fairly confident of a top ten albums slot this year, hearing the tracks live really demonstrated how much it would’ve benefitted from some rawer production – if Steve Albini had been/could have been consulted about giving Hope Six the same treatment he gave Rid of Me, it might have been one of the best albums in Harvey’s catalogue.

Mind you, Harvey and her band deserve kudos beyond merely having access to what has turned out to be a terrific suite of songs for live performance. On the band’s forays into her earlier catalogue, the performances were similarly stellar. Under a pair of lone spotlights, Harvey and one backing musician undertook the ambitious task of adapting “When Under Ether” for electric guitar, and managed to lose not one ectoplasm-vial of the song’s vital ghostliness. The stumbling time signatures of “When England Shake” came across with prog-metal tightness. I’m pretty sure “50 Foot Queenie” put me through puberty again.

The one significant criticism I’d make is the set list. The majority of the songs were from Hope Six, with a few from Let England Shake and a few from earlier albums scattered around. As great an album as Hope Six was, it might’ve been a good idea to prune a couple of its weaker tracks (“Dollar Dollar” maybe, or “River Anacostia”) so that we could get a bit more of a look at the back catalogue. I want to hear what this incarnation of her backing band would’ve done with “Kamakaze”, for example, or “Long Snake Moan.” And to be honest I’m not even wholly on board with the songs from her back catalogue she did pick. The title track from “To Bring You My Love” is a lovely doom-blues intro for an album, but as well performed as it was it’s far stolid for live performance as anything other than… well, an intro track. “The Glorious Land” was again well performed, but even in the five years since Let England Shake Harvey doesn’t seem to have learnt that playing “Regimental March” over your riff, however symbolic, is still a terrible idea when your riff is in a different key and a different time signature. At the end of the gig, the crowd screamed for more (as is custom) and Harvey and the band returned to the stage (as is custom) to perform “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln.” Not a bad song, sure, but not a great encore choice. First, it involved an accordion, which hadn’t been used at any other point in the gig but had still been left on stage at the start, which seemed to deflate the cordial (and traditional) illusion that “no, really, we weren’t planning on doing an encore until you called.” Second, that would’ve been the time to hit us with a classic – “Sheela-na-gig” maybe.

Nonetheless, PJ Harvey delivered. She delivered as thoroughly and vigorously as I had ever expected to. If this incarnation of the band, playing songs in support of this album, swings by you in the near future, do not miss it.

 

Swans – The Glowing Man

God knows I was never going to be able to handle The Glowing Man with any kind of detachment. Swans – in the lineup that began with My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky and ends after this tour – is as far as I’m concerned the best rock band of the 2010s. So I’m going to get right out of the way right now exactly why The Glowing Man is a great album, a strong contender for album of the years, and absolutely worth your time. It’s masterfully atmospheric, as beautifully complex in its textures as any rock album ever released, completely absorbing, packed with original ideas. It’s also (almost) as idiosyncratic within Swans’ catalogue as any of their other albums: whereas The Seer opted for bleak, hellish nightmare visions and To Be Kind turned noise rock into songs of worship, The Glowing Man is mournful but not sinister; with its strong grooves and uncharacteristically melodic singing it’s also probably the poppiest album that this incarnation of Swans has put out. It’s a masterpiece and I fully recommend it. Unfortunately, it’s kind of a disappointment.

The first problem that The Glowing Man has is that although its melodic, melancholic sound represents a perfectly respectable thrust into new territory overall – this time into a more gothic direction – the actual sounds used to bring that to life are pretty much the same sound you got on the last two albums. That might not sound like such a big issue – most bands release a perfectly varied output using just bass, drums, guitars and vocals – but it’s quite an important one for Swan. See, Swans always sold themselves to me on the fact that when they, like a lot of their contemporaries, decided to forgo a focus on melody in favour of rhythm and texture, they made up for it by putting as much thought into their rhythms and textures as other bands put into everything.

 

The rhythms and textures on The Glowing Man are spectacular, but save for a very fun seven minute groove in the title track – you’ll know it when you hear it – they feel like rehashes of similar motifs from past albums. Long-time fans – remember that moment when “Oxygen” was released from To Be Kind and those scrunched-up horn bleats suddenly kicked in? There’s nothing like that here. There’s plenty that sounds great, but nothing that sounds new.

Compounding this is the album’s second big problem: a lack of proper pacing. In the past, Swans have had a lot of fun with the old funk maxim that if you take a basic rhythmic core and keep adding stuff to it, it’s going to be invigorating as all hell by the end, and when Swans pull that off – on “Avatar”, or the first half of “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” – the climaxes sound like the voice of God. The Glowing Man, by contrast, rambles about from motif to motif, often changing direction several times within the course of a single lengthy song. Indeed, the reduction of short songs that aren’t just ambient numbers feels like a misstep. Yes, lengthy songs have always been a speciality of the band, but tracks like “Oxygen” or “The Seer Returns” were always great little features that worked because they had a clear direction they were going in. And that’s the problem that The Glowing Man has, really: virtually no direction. There’s one proper short song called “When Will I Return”, and although it certainly has some direction, it mostly just manifests as a sudden shift from soft to heavy, which is very satisfying (and don’t get me wrong, the track is still great) but doesn’t quite match the anticipation of feeling a groove blossom out. The album just never really feels like it’s going anywhere.

And to be clear, “never feels like it’s going anywhere” is a pretty damning thing to say about an album, so if Michael Gira and co will accept a backhanded compliment – the catharsis and craft of The Glowing Man is nonetheless strong enough that this is only a negative, rather than a deal-breaker. The Glowing Man is perhaps best enjoyed not as a sequel to To Be Kind or The Seer but as a kind of a live album, loose and free-flowing, full of cool stuff but not necessarily something that’s been tightened or honed fully.

Ultimately, Swans have over the past decades delivered such consistently incredible albums which have also been so consistently idiosyncratic that fans like myself take a lot for granted with them. By the standards of any other band, The Glowing Man is a triumph, a rich, invigorating, intelligent, emotional work, and far and away one of the best albums of the year. With the Brexit result looming large over the economy and Mastodon now basically a stadium rock band, it’s nice to know that there are musicians out there so masterful that an album like this could ever be thought of as disappointing.

 

Concert Review – Lift to Experience at the Southbank Centre, 10th of June 2016

I was set to review Eric Clapton’s I Still Do this week. Well, strictly speaking I was all set to do it last week, but I’m recently graduated and in my final month living in a gorgeous seaside town; most of the things I’ve been doing haven’t been sufficiently deskbound for me to be able to put new music on in the background like they were back when I was shackled to the University grindstone. The fact that I Still Do is a pretty boring album by an artist who I never quite saw the hype about (when not paired with Jack Bruce or Duane Allman, at least) didn’t help. Fortunately, the problems cancelled out this week somewhat, because one of the exciting non-deskbound things I did this week was travel to London and see the reunion show of Texas-based Christian-prog-noise shoegaze outfit, Lift to Experience. So I’m going to review that.

The concert was actually part of a string of events curated by Guy Garvey of Elbow, who as I understand it is a massive advocate of the fairly obscure Texas trio, and I get the impression – from the fact that the concert was performed to a seated audience in a classical music venue, and from the fact that despite this being possibly the last Lift to Experience show there were still a good many empty seats – that the intention was more to get people into the band than sate an existing fanbase. If you’ve not come across Lift to Experience before, they’re probably the best example I can think of of a band that sounds kinda lame on paper but works fantastically nonetheless through skill and sincerity: a millenarian, doomsaying brand of narrative-focussed Christian rock, penning meta-narrative songs in which the band cast themselves as prophets hoping to encourage, through their music, a mass-movement of armed vigilantes who can come to Texas (cast here as the Promised Land) to fight for Jesus against the forces of darkness in the oncoming apocalypse. The band’s prophetic message, by the way, is boosted through constant hip-hop style egotism – “Put your guitar strap over your shoulder/ a new sort of experience is taking over/ cause we’re simply the best band in the whole damn land/ and Texas is the reason”. It’s difficult to go into exactly how that manages to be awesome. Certainly the fact that main songwriter Josh T. Pearson sports probably the most distinctive guitar texture since David Gilmour doesn’t hurt, but it’s more than that, because it’s not just good music with bad lyrics, it’s that I am honest-to-goodness a believer when they’re playing. I’ll leave the mystery hanging as more motivation for you to put them on Spotify while you read this; suffice to say, it works. And it works particularly well live. Part of what makes the band so engrossing on a purely sonic level is that the shoegazy guitar textures fit perfectly into the band’s spiritual tone. Rather than just singing songs of praise over a straightforward rock riff, Lift to Experience go for dizzying, gossamer-curtain swirls of sound, the kind of thing which you can imagine coming out of a burning bush, or out of a bright light in the sky over a Middle Eastern desert. On the band’s one studio album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, it’s formidable, but live it’s something else entirely, a resplendent, synaesthesiac hurricane of feedback and drone that flurries out of the surprisingly folksy riffing like a locust-sized swarm of fireflies.

The band, wisely, opted not to simply play through The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads (something which I could imagine being a tempting when it’s your only album and is also a narrative piece); recognising, presumably, that “Down Came the Angels” and “Down With The Prophets” probably didn’t lend themselves well to live performance they boiled their setlist down to a nice smorgasbord of more anthemic rockers (“These are the Days”, “Falling from Cloud Nine”) as well as noiser post-punk feedback jams (“The Ground So Soft”, “Just As Was Told”). The highlight of the evening without doubt was their concluding number, “Into the Storm”, which featured Pearson breaking from his  crystalline choirboy drawl into the occasional mad-monk howl. As great a record as The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads is, it’s only really seeing them live that hammered home to me just how original each band member’s approach to their instrument is, particularly drummer Andy Young, who moreso than backbeats favours timpani-style crescendos and cymbal crashes, giving weight to the accents rather than authority to the grooves. Also distinctive (and enjoyable) was Pearson’s stage wit. From what I’ve read in interviews, Pearson’s religious lyrics are inspired by a genuine faith in Christianity, but are embellished with millenarian fire-and-brimstone zeal for the sake of the narrative. Consequently, Babylonian quips about Tinder and Grindr mixed with warm and heartfelt murmuring of “God bless you all”, which was Pearson’s standard response when applauded. Pearson noted that, thanks to the band’s long hiatus prior to this concert, he was still unfamiliar with a lot of the aspects of international touring, and pulled some good laughs out of self-deprecating remarks to that effect, yet his assured, Southern-gentleman persona was confident enough that he never seemed like was risking the audience’s respect.

The only significant criticism I have is how the vocals were handled. Pearson is, make no mistake, a great singer, and a great writer of vocal melodies – I have no doubt that the charisma with which the man shifts from muttering spoken-word to low murmured melodies to prophetic belting on “Just As Was Told” is something that at least a few televangelists envy – but he struggles to find the key every so often (although he pretty much always gets it within the verse). What was more troubling was how low in the mix the vocals are. Whereas Lift to Experience’s deafening noise-rock riffs would on their own a Steve-Albini-esque favouring of instrumental sounds over vocal ones, part of what made The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads so distinctive was that, despite the loudness of the instruments, the vocals were high in the mix as well; there was a folk-singer-esque closeness, and it was part of why the narrative was so engrossing. Here, although Pearson’s doom-laden mutterings of “Tell your mother you won’t be home for Christmas this year…” and rallying hollers of “Onward on foot/ ‘till you see the rise of the Texas sun!” are impressive, they’re not so gripping as you’d expect from hearing the record.

It’s unclear where the band is going from here. Any pessimism about whether or not more gigs (or, indeed, more records) are forthcoming seems to come down more to practicalities than animosity. When one fan took advantage of a pause to yell “Where’s the next album?”, Pearson jovially remarked “Well, if you want to come take over our jobs…” Certainly the impromptu kiss that Pearson gave to Young after the gig was encouraging, but then you never know. The band are about to release a remix of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads which allegedly will bring some of the rawness of their live sound to record. Is there more to follow? Maybe, maybe not. No pressure, but here’s hoping.

 

Kvelertak – Nattesferd

You know, however much the band name might sound obscure and eerie (it’s Norwegian for “stranglehold”, if you’re wondering), I still figure that Kvelertak are only a few strokes of good luck away from getting some real out-of-genre success. I don’t mean mainstream success – Kvelertak are too rooted in black metal for that – but the kind of metal-for-general-music-geeks prestige enjoyed by Deafheaven and Mastodon. The band’s basic shtick is a blend of rockabilly, blues and punk all baked together and dipped in black metal, all presented under this tone of Mad Max-style unironic adrenaline, and with Nattesferd they’ve now released three consecutive very good albums under that form, the strongpoint of all of which has been avoiding both metal clichés and insecure point-to-prove intellectualism with balletic ease. They deserve, as far as I’m concerned, to be remembered as the next Motorhead. Here’s hoping this is the thing that breaks them through.

As the cover – which, with its overdesigned fonts, faded bright colours and fantasy landscape, hearkens back to the designs of black metal classics like Filosofem or In the Nightside Eclipse – suggests, Nattesferd is very oldschool. But it’s oldschool in the same way Sam Raimi horror films or Tom Waits albums are oldschool, in that it looks at the past all the while remaining aware of where the genre has been since them. On the one hand, Nattesferd is splashy, energetic black metal of the Venom variety, but it also understands that splashy energy is primarily what bands of that era are remembered for. That devotion is manifested in a ferocious, exhilarating triple guitar furor, and on that note, I can’t think of a band other than Radiohead that use triple guitars to such holistic effect as Kvelertak do. On the pummelling, sludgy riffs of “Svartmesse”, the lineup contributes three guitars worth of weight, but in the spidery breaks on “Bronsegud” or the racing, Dinosaur Jr-esque melodic intro of the title track, it also contributes three guitars worth of intricacy (the latter of those two tracks beginning with an electric rhythm part, an acoustic rhythm part, and a lead line). The band go out of their way to ensure each song has a wide palette of motifs, to the extent that on tracks like “Berserker”, with its oozing main guitar grooves, sparkling high-neckboard trills and chiming mini-solos, almost seem to be able to offer each individual riff its own bridge. It’s the Led Zep effect, excess achieved through virtuosity, and while it’s maybe not quite as clear in the guitars on Nattesferd as it has been on earlier examples (the bridge riff on Kvelertak’s “Blodtoerst” remaining the most deliriously fun use of bluesy rock guitars in heavy metal since… well, since Led Zeppelin), it’s still present, and absolutely saturates the drum parts, on which sticksman Kjetil Gjermundrod engages, on tracks like “Bronsegud”, in some of the most melodic drum solos ever to be played with extreme metal intensity.

Nonetheless, although Kvelertak’s interest in treating black metal as essentially ferociously amped-up classic rock with screamed vocals has always been their great strength, it does let them down here a few times, possibly because I sense that this time – as I think the cover art and song titles betray – the retro feel was a little more intentional than in past albums. Whereas Kvelertak and Meir borrowed their style from the loose, rich, organic classic rock of pioneers like Led Zeppelin and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Nattesferd feels like it’s taking a few too many notes from more (for lack of a better term) “stereotypical” classic rock bands – Kiss, Whitesnake, the kind of classic rock that the fictitious classic rock musicians who form bands with sitcom characters are written to sound like. The grooves are a little less organic and a little more straightforward, and feel a little too arena-esque. It certainly isn’t a thoroughgoing problem – the title track is the very definition of loose, organic riffing – but on tracks like “1985”, and “Ondskapens Galakse”, the riffs sound a little lifeless.

Nattesferd is probably the weakest of Kvelertak’s three full length albums, but that shouldn’t diminish it for a second. It’s no more intellectual than any of their other work, but also no less intelligent, acutely aware of how to walk the fine line between exhilaratingly excessive and ridiculous, and performed with virtuosity that can be measured according to metrics that heavy metal so often doesn’t even strike for.

 

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Cards on the table here – A Moon Shaped Pool might be Radiohead’s most conventional sounding album since The Bends. That doesn’t mean it’s a return to traditional alt rock, though, because traditional alt rock isn’t quite what’s conventional anymore. In terms of sound, A Moon Shaped Pool is probably more like Amnesiac than anything else in Radiohead’s catalogue, not energetic enough to warrant comparisons to Hail to the Thief or In Rainbows but also not twitchy enough to sound reminiscent of Kid A. But nowadays, Amnesiac, purposefully or not, has become kind of a template for the alternative rock sound: quiet, unintrusive, more enamoured with texture than with melody, more scholarly than confessional. Sonic Youth were allegedly huge fans of Joni Mitchell, and A Moon Shaped Pool is the equivalent of Joni Mitchell responding to that by releasing a no-wave album in the 1990s. It’s Radiohead playing the kind of music that Radiohead fans make. If that makes it sound derivative, then think of the cosmic balance at play: they’re stealing back the sound other people stole from them. And if nothing else, they do a fantastic job of it here.

A Moon Shaped Pool goes very ambient in a lot of places. Radiohead have done gentle in the past, but they’ve never sounded quite this spacious; see, for example, “Daydreaming”, which builds a gentle swell of arpeggios and sampled strings in its final quarter or so, but prior to that uses only just enough instrumentation to keep the chord progression moving, or “Decks Dark”, which wanders through hazy choral vocals and low, gentle pianos. But at the same time, the album – like most other albums that feature Jonny Greenwood playing guitar – gets surprisingly riffy at points. Even “Desert Island Disks”, the eerie and empty tone of which seems perfectly suited for ambience, choses to focus around a meandering, almost Fleet-Foxes-esque run of acoustic licks. There are electric guitars too; “Identikit”, with its chiming, pendulous chords and needling leads, sounds downright heavy. But it’s all brought together beautifully; lilting ambience shifts imperceptibly to rocking through tiny incremental modulations, through the revelation that what sounded like a reverberant computer noise was actually the first notes of a fuzzed bassline played pianissimo, through the blending of guitar syncopations with glitchier drum beats, through a change in Thom Yorke’s lyrics from musing to anthem – see the first confessional cries of “Broken hearts make it rain…” on “Identikit” for the best example of that.

The thing is, as much as moments of A Moon Shaped Pool sound like Arcade Fire or Grizzly Bear or The Antlers, it’d be hard to give Radiohead flak for sounding derivative even if the band didn’t have such a pedigree behind it. Radiohead have managed to sustain such an astonishingly consistent career on pure restless genius, always pushing the envelope, always bringing an original idea to the table, that it’s easy to forget that even without that, they would still be master craftsmen. For all the moments that “Paranoid Android” reinvented the alt rock wheel, it’s important to remember that the moments it devolved into classic post-punk riff-riding were just as satisfying as the moments it brought out the weird strings. That’s true here, as well. The polyrhythmic guitars on “Ful Stop”, the sprawling riffs on “The Numbers” – blended seamlessly with the more obscure computer and string noises behind them – and the nervy scurrying of fuzz bass, glitches and yapping strings that open “Burn the Witch” all testify to the power of that. It’s been said that, back on OK Computer, Jonny Greenwood’s white-noise string arrangements on “Climbing Up the Walls” were the first time that strings had been used in a mainstream alt rock song in a way that seemed to bear no resemblance to the Beatles. “Glass Eyes”, on this album, also uses string arrangements, but they do sound a bit more like the Beatles, carrying the melody and making it soar. But they’re still some of the most exciting, gorgeous string arrangements you’re going to find on a modern rock record.

A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t a revolutionary record, but it’s a gorgeous one, and as much as it sounds determinedly anti-rock according to The Bends’ definition of rock, by today’s standards, it feels downright accessible. If there is a marked change in A Moon Shaped Pool compared to other Radiohead albums, at least, it’s that Radiohead have never sounded quite this straightforwardly pretty. Radiohead have always been about making beautiful music by lumping together weird sounds; it’s easy to forget, given how heartbreaking “Videotape” was, just how un-romantic that drumbeat would be in the hands of any even slightly less experienced song-smiths. In that sense, A Moon Shaped Pool feels almost like a guilty pleasures: it’s nothing more complex than a beautiful, beautiful album. And maybe in another context I’d criticize  that for avoiding the challenge, but whatever challenges Radiohead are skipping in this record, they make up for in how spectacularly they put it all together.

Beyonce – Lemonade

With new Radiohead tracks beginning to leak out of the cracks in the wallpaper, and David Bowie having given Earth one spectacular last performance to end his stay here, 2016 is gearing up to be a pretty enjoyable year in music; whether or not Beyonce’s Lemonade earns the title of “Year’s Best Album”, though, it damn well deserves to be remembered as the year’s most powerful. Lemonade is, if nothing else, a passionate, powerful, defiant statement of black womanhood, and a devastatingly subtle and intelligent engagement with culture’s attitude towards it. That’s not what I’m here to talk about, though. Part of what makes Lemonade such a striking piece of work is that Beyonce while performing it – both her own lyrics and the spoken-word sections some of which were penned by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire – is a lot more concerned with celebrating her identity than explaining it to pudgy English white kids like myself; everything I know about the sociopolitics here I’ve gotten by reading articles written by black women (Ijeoma Oluo and Zandria Robinson, among others, have penned some fascinating stuff on the subject)  . So I’ll give a disclaimer: however much or little I end up praising Lemonade as a songwriting achievement, and however much or little what I say below makes it sound relevant to your taste, Lemonade will always be a far more interesting and vital album than that, and you should check it out even if you don’t end up taking home a copy.

That Lemonade was released together with a film feels appropriate for the album’s sound even when listened to separately; the album feels cinematic. Mood, image and narrative are all more important to the album’s sound than hooks; plenty of songs lack beats, and what beats there are are more often faint, ticking heartbeats than invigorating stomps. There are a few points where that feels a little problematic – “6-Inch” creates a rich atmosphere but never quite hooks its way inside – but more often than not it’s musically one of the album’s greatest strengths. The highlight comes about two thirds of the way through the album, when the empty-room piano ballad “Sandcastles” ends on what feels at first like an emotional resolution, until James Blake’s plaintive croak of “Forward…” that begins the next track seems to pan the camera out. When the hooks do come, they hook you in refreshingly left field ways. “Daddy Lessons”, a rawboned country-pop number, hooks you with storytelling, with its subtle double-entendres about Beyonce’s Texas upbringing, and her relationship to her father. “Freedom”, a climactic barricade-stormer featuring a predictably astonishing guest performance by Kendrick Lamar, hooks with confidence and energy, featuring a chorus that invites genuflection more than sing-along.

Surprisingly for an album as unrestricted and ambitious as Lemonade, the instrumentation is kept fairly conventional for a pop record. Even “Daddy Lessons”, which opens the same kind of thickly brewed early jazz horns that D’Anglo has put to such good use on his last two albums, reverts to acoustic guitar pretty quickly. Strings mixed with hazy synthesised sound are the norm, acoustic guitar and piano are the deviation; the album is creative enough within that framework for that to steer far clear on monotony. The fearless, unapologetic rage of “Freedom” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself” spills over into the instrumentals, which gnash so viciously in the chorus you forget that those same textures could be used in lounge music; on the album’s (astonishing) final track, “Formation”, Beyonce whips those same textures into the most spellbindingly defiant of grooves. Indeed, the lush production serves to add a nice continuity to otherwise disparate tracks; there’s no incoherency between the off-beat staccato of “Hold Up” and the languid majesty of “All Night”. And keeping everything together at the core is Beyonce’s voice itself, which raps, whoops, croons and howls its way through anguish, triumph, cynicism, rage and love; you can feel every one of them.

Save a few moments in which the album says motionless for a little too long, and a few slightly forced rhymes (“And I don’t feel bad about it/It’s exactly what you get”), Lemonade is, I swear to God, an absolute tour-de-force, and as powerful and vigorous an artistic statement as any we’ve gotten (or as likely to get) this year.