Music update, September 2017.

A whole raft of anticipated releases hit stores in September, including new records from Wolf Alice, Daughter, Hundred Waters, Cut Copy, Torres, The Killers, Death From Above, LCD Soundsystem, and the National, some of which lived up to expectations, some of which didn’t, and some of which were as bad as I expected. (I really couldn’t have any less interest in or respect for The Killers at this point, since they licensed a song and recorded an extra video to help promote the fight involving serial domestic abuser Floyd Mayweather.) Here’s my highly edited list of the best new songs of the month, with a half-dozen metal tracks at the end, increasing in heaviness as it progresses. You can access the Spotify playlist here if the widget below doesn’t appear.

Hundred Waters – Wave to Anchor. Hundred Waters had my #1 album of 2014 with The Moon Rang Like a Bell, an unconventional, experimental record of atmospheric electronica with breathy, acrobatic vocals by Nicole Miglis. The band’s second album, Communicating, came out on September 14th, and pushes even further into experimental territory, but with bigger sounds and more dramatic flourishes, very much in evidence here and on “Particle,” “Prison Guard,” and “Blanket Me.”

Daughter – Glass. Daughter’s Music from Before the Storm is the soundtrack to the new video game Life is Strange: Before the Storm, but works as a standalone album as well, with indie-folk trio Daughter using the game’s script as inspiration for a record that fits well in their own discography. It’s actually more cohesive than their last album, 2016’s Not to Disappear, even with instrumental tracks like this one, and I think stronger start to finish, buoyed by songs like this one, “Burn It Down,” “Voices,” and closer “A Hole in the Earth.”

Wild Beasts – Punk Drunk & Trembling. Wild Beasts are breaking up, with 2016’s magnum opus Boy King, a mesmerizing record of tremendous hooks built around a theme of toxic masculinity, their swan song. This track is one of the leftovers from the recording of that record and part of a forthcoming EP to close out their career.

Hippo Campus – Baseball. How could I omit a song called “Baseball?” Actually, that didn’t matter except that I pushed it further up the playlist – I wouldn’t include a song that wasn’t good, and this song has a great little guitar hook and catchy chorus to drive it. It’s on their newest EP, warm glow, which comes out just a few months after their debut album Landmark dropped.

Sløtface – Backyard. Try Not to Freak Out, the debut full-length from these Norwegian punk-pop purveyors, is uneven, but with a few standout tracks built around big hooks and fun lyrics, including this one and “Nancy Drew.”

Wolf Alice – Heavenward. I’ve been a little disappointed by Wolf Alice’s second album, Visions of a Life, released on Friday, as it doesn’t show any growth from their debut, My Love is Cool, and in some ways feels even less mature.

Death From Above – Holy Books. Their third album, Outrage is Now!, came out on September 8th, and it’s almost as if they’ve merged with Royal Blood, producing an album of huge, guitar-driven hooks that’s my favorite album of their three so far.

Portugal. The Man – Don’t Look Back In Anger. I don’t include many covers and almost never include live tracks, so you know this one, recorded in-studio for Spotify, must be pretty good.

Mourn – The Fire. These Barcelona punks put out a five-song EP, Over the Wall, on September 8th, with two standout tracks, this one and “Whatever.” They have a sort of anarchic, college-rock vibe to their best songs, as if the entire thing is going to fall apart at any second but the band just manages to keep it together until the song ends.

Van William – Never Had Enough Of You. Van Pierszalowski, lead singer of WATERS, put out a few singles on his own under the nom de chanson Van William (understandably so) earlier this year, and has now collected them with this new track and one demo on a four-song EP called The Revolution. This ballad is a definite shift in tone and feel for VW compared to the first two singles and to his work with WATERS, but you’ll recognize his signature sound in the shuffling guitar riff behind the lyrics.

Prides – Lets Stay In Bed All Day. I had Prides’ first single, “The Seeds You Sow,” as my #8 song of 2014,, but their debut album ended up a big disappointment, lacking any big hooks and really downshifting their overall sound. This song seems to get them back on track, with a big Wombats feel to both music and lyrics.

Tricky with Mina Rose – Running Wild. It only took me twenty years, but I have finally realized that I like Tricky’s music a lot more when he’s not the vocalist.

Von Grey – 6 A.M. I’m not sure about the “sexy goth sisters” marketing around this trio, but the sound on this track is a compelling, more vocal-driven descendant of the ’90s novelty act Rasputina.

Cut Copy – Black Rainbows. Cut Copy have produced so much music – 21 singles, five albums (including their latest, Haiku from Zero), a few EPs – since their 2001 debut, but despite a general sound that’s right in my wheelhouse, I’ve rarely found their songs even a little bit memorable because they haven’t had good pop hooks in what is otherwise very poppy music. This breaks that trend, the best song I’ve heard from them since 2010’s “Where I’m Going.”

The Riff – Weekend Schemes. I mean, if your band is named The Riff, you’d better bring the guitar licks … and they do, at least on this song, which is like a harder post-Oasis Britpop vibe with a dash of The Hold Steady in the vocals.

INHEAVEN – Bitter Town. Big, ballsy hard rock from their eponymous debut album, which also features the muscular “World on Fire” (on my August playlist). This song is more wistful, a little introspective even, with strong lyrical contrast to the heavy percussion and distortion that drives the music.

Mastodon – Toe to Toes. Mastodon have always been inventive musicians, frequently breaking out of traditional song structures, and often succumbing to melodic urges as if they couldn’t help but make a heavy song a little catchier. This song seems to split the baby; there’s a heavy, jazz-metal component, reminiscent of the work of ’90s metal acts Cynic and Atheist, and the song suddenly downshifts into AOR territory – but the juxtaposition works to the song’s benefit, providing a respite from the relentless riffs of the heavier sequences.

Chelsea Wolfe – Offering. Highly atmospheric, ethereal, gothic … something. It’s not really metal, although bits of metal creep into her latest album, Hiss Spun, and she employs a number of major names from the metal and hard-rock worlds on the record. There are doom and stoner elements here, but it’s all in service of building a dark, funereal edifice for Wolfe’s wide-ranging vocals. I thought the album as a whole dragged, but this track is a standout.

Myrkur – De Tre Piker. Myrkur is Amalie Brunn, a Danish vocalist who just released her second metal album under this moniker; her music is generally described as “black metal,” but that wildly undersells what she’s doing here. This music defies traditional categorization, borrowing from diverse genres and shifting tempos, themes, and styles multiple times within tracks, incorporating folk and classical elements along with extreme metal aspects, including screamed vocals that alternate with her own clean singing. It doesn’t always work, and she struggles sometimes with the lack of cohesion within tracks, but I’d put her in a very small group of artists who are trying to change the definitions of contemporary rock music.

Arch Enemy – My Shadow and I. I think I just don’t care for Alissa White-Gluz’s guttural vocal style – but I think the guitar riffs on Will to Power, their new album, are a big step forward from the slightly disappointing War Eternal (2014), still true to their melodic death-metal roots. (Founding guitarist Michael Amott was a member of seminal death-metal act Carcass for their breakthrough album Heartwork, which remains one of the founding records of the melodic death-metal subgenre.)

Satyricon – Deep calleth upon Deep. The vocals are bad – they just are, always have been for Satyricon – but they’re an unapologetic doom band now, a transition that, as many of you argued on Twitter, started somewhere around Rebel Extravaganza or Volcano. It’s not what original Satyricon fans want, but if you can stand the silly death growls there’s a good Pallbearer/Crypt Sermon vibe here.

Akercocke – Unbound by Sin. This is probably the most extreme metal song I’ve ever included on one of these playlists, which is why I left it till the end, but this song – and the entire album, Renaissance in Extremis – is a tour de force of progressive, technically proficient metal that incorporates elements of jazz and classical along with the standard death-metal trappings like blast beats (yawn) and growled vocals (mixed relatively low here, so the fretwork stands out). I used to think Akercocke was something of a joke, a so-called “blackened” death metal band that used controversial lyrics and album covers to grab attention, but this album, their first in ten years, just floored me with its complexity and textures. If you like extreme metal at all, it’s the best album of that niche this year and I think the best since Carcass’ Surgical Steel.

Music update, April 2017.

I wrote a book, Smart Baseball. You should buy it.

This month’s playlist has 24 songs, and started out over 30 before I started cutting back; I have usually tried to keep them under 20 songs or under 90 minutes but I reached a point where I didn’t have anything left I felt good about removing. A few songs are here because of who’s singing, but most are here just because they’re good songs (Brent … I need to stop using that line). If the embedded widget below doesn’t work you can access the Spotify playlist here.

Royal Blood – Lights Out. This British duo had my #1 song of 2014 with “Out of the Black,” and this new single from their upcoming sophomore album does not disappoint – it’s heavy, dark, and menacing, just like their biggest hit.

DJ Shadow, Nas – Systematic. Nas sounds as good as ever here on this track from the soundtrack to the HBO series Silicon Valley. I particularly like the part where Nas gives us a recipe, complete with directions on how long to cook the cranberries.

The Afghan Whigs – Demon in Profile. Afghan Whigs’ comeback album in 2014? didn’t do as much for me as their upcoming record In Spades, which I heard early thanks to the band’s publicist. Gregg Dulli still sounds great for 52 (!) and the album brings a strong mix of hard rockers and more midtempo tracks like this one.

Ride – All I Want. Another big comeback, as Ride’s first new album in 21 years, Weather Diaries, comes out on June 16th. I believe this is the third single from the new album and they all sound like classic Ride, who were among the most important bands in the first shoegaze era.

Anteros – Cherry Drop. This London quartet sound straight out of the 1979 London new wave/post-punk scene; you can hear Debbie Harry’s influence in the vocals.

Tigers Jaw – June. This punk-pop act from Scranton has apparently had some drama in the last few years over whether they’d actually broken up. This single from their album spin, due out May 19th, marries sweet, high-register vocals with distorted guitar work that sounds like math-rock acts (such as Polvo) for a power-pop result.

The Night Game – The Outfield. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, or some trick of the mind, but this song reminds me strongly of the band The Outfield, both in the style of music and lead singer’s voice. Anyway, this is a strong pop track with background vocals from Gotye. And I’m not the only one to notice the similarity to the band behind perennial walkup song “Your Love.”

The Aces – Physical. The Aces, an all-girl quartet from Utah who made my top 100 last year with their single “Stuck,” return with their second release, “Physical,” another solid pop song that just doesn’t quite have the same hook as their first track.

Splashh – Closer. This Australian indie-rock act’s second album, Waiting a Lifetime, came out on April 14th, more evidence of that country’s tremendous music scene right now, producing great rock and electronic music. The production has a real shoegaze quality, with the vocals mixed somewhat towards the back (but not incomprehensible like on My Bloody Valentine’s work).

WATERS – Molly Is A Babe. Van Pierzalowski’s main band will release its new album, Something More, on May 19th, with this track the second single and “Stand By You,” which just appeared in the last few days, the third. Good luck getting this song’s whining guitar lick out of your head any time soon.

Panama – Hope For Something. Here’s another Aussie act, one I first found with their single “Always,” which I put at #51 on my 2013 year-end list. “Hope for Something” is more layered, with ornate instrumentation and a slower build to the hook, but it’s still a big one.

Feist – Century (feat. Jarvis Cocker). I have mixed feelings on this song, but Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker makes an appearance, so here you go.

Joseph of Mercury – Find You Inside. This was the first song I’d heard by Joseph of Mercury, a Toronto-based singer-songwriter who debuted in 2015 with the song “Lips.” This song, his second single this year, combines a less-poppy sort of ’80s new wave with brooding baritone vocals, enunciated like Morrissey does. The result feels soulful without any evident R&B influences.

Sundara Karma – She Said. This may not be new to Sirius XM listeners, as Alt Nation has it in heavy rotation because Sundara Karma is on some XM-sponsored tour.

Black Asteroid – Howl (feat. Zola Jesus). I’m not a big Zola Jesus fan – her incredibly pretentious stage name doesn’t help matters – but her voice’s hollow quality and the stark production here perfectly match the sci-fi horror feel of the electronic music.

Foster The People – S.H.C. Foster the People just put out a three-song teaser EP ahead of their third album, which they’re promising for June or July. “S.H.C.” is the most recognizably FTP of the three songs, with a ’70s guitar riff and vague Latin influences in the percussion.

Portugal. The Man – Number One (feat. Richie Havens & Son Little). Their first single from their upcoming album, “Feel It Still,” might be my favorite song of 2017 so far. This song, though … I don’t even know what I think of it and I’ve listened to it at least a half a dozen times. It’s way out there even for P.TM, with samples from the late folk singer Richie Havens’ song “Freedom” and a collaboration from singer Son Little. The new album, Woodstock, is out June 16th, and they have my full attention.

Pond – Paint Me Silver. Spacey psychedelic rock from Australia. Recommended if you like Tame Impala. Recommended even if you think Tame Impala could stand to keep their songs under four minutes.

Sylvan Esso – The Glow. I am truly not a fan of Sylvan Esso, neither their music nor Amelia Meath’s overly precious vocal style, so it says something about this track that I included it anyway. Saying I think it’s the best thing they’ve done doesn’t tell you much, but there’s a great chorus here if you can get past the track’s opening sound of a digital file skipping.

Miami Horror – Sign of the Times. This Aussie trio has a little bit of a Foster the People vibe, mixing electronic and funk, but more decidedly out of the mainstream, especially with the spoken-word section towards the end of the track. Their latest EP, The Shapes, just came out last week.

Sepultura – Iceberg Dances. I understand people have strong feelings on post-Max Sepultura, but their newest album, Machine Messiah, features some progressive and technically impressive fretwork, most notable for me on this instrumental track.

SikTh – Vivid. I’ve read in a few places how important or influential SikTh have been since their 2003 debut album, but I find it hard to believe given how little I’ve come across their music or how infrequently they’ve recorded anything. Their forthcoming The Future in Whose Eyes? will be just their third album in fifteen years. This frenetic track seems to veer in style from progressive death metal to aggro groove metal and back again.

DragonForce – Judgement Day. DragonForce cracks me up, although I don’t know that this is intended to be funny. They’re just such an unrepetant throwback to the earliest days of thrash, where soaring vocals reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson were common, and fantasy and mythology themes were king. If you remember vintage Helloween with Kai Hansen, that gives you some idea of what DragonForce is about, maybe with a few shakes of Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force.

Memoriam – Memoriam. This is some heavy, sludgy, old-school death metal, with the band and song a tribute to a deceased member of the seminal ’90s British death metal band Bolt Thrower.

Music update, October 2016.

October was just a fair month for new releases, albums or singles, so I stretched in a few places here, like including a couple of singles from earlier in 2016. You can go directly to the Spotify playlist or play it in the widget here:

Black Honey – Hello Today. I first featured this pop-meets-shoegaze act on a playlist back in March, but they’re certainly starting to break out in the UK and I think some airplay here is imminent. This is my favorite kind of pop track – highly textured music that offsets the sunny vocals. The Guardian compared them to Lush, one of the best pop/shoegaze fusion acts ever, which is high praise.

White Lies – Come On. White Lies mine the same territory as Joy Division, Interpol, Editors, and I’m sure a thousand teenaged English bands writing depressing lyrics, although White Lies at least contrasts the downer vocals with bombastic keyboard lines and driving guitar lines. Their latest album, Friends, dropped in October and was hit or miss; “Come On,” “Take It Out on Me,” and “Don’t Want to Feel It All” were my favorite tracks.

Regina Spektor – Grand Hotel. Either you’re going to love these lyrics like I do or find them too precious. I think Spektor’s at her best when she’s telling stories set to music, like this peculiar story of a hotel sitting atop a gate to the underworld.

Sneaks – Tough Luck. Sneaks is DC native Eva Moolchan, who makes very sparse, very weird music with terse lyrics over a bass line and a drum machine, reminding me of ’70s new wave artists like Television who had come and gone about twenty years before Moolchan was out of diapers.

Underworld – Ova Nova (Radio Edit). All the praise heaped on Daft Punk for their derivative, commercial Random Access Memories would have been better served to Underworld for their nearly thirty years of producing smarter if less radio-friendly electronic music. This edited version of a five and a half minute track from their critically-acclaimed March album Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future is just perfect – if I have a complaint about Underworld’s music it’s that their songs tend to wear their welcome out because they’re all so long.

Jagwar Ma – Slipping. This Australian band’s latest album, Every Now and Then, came out three weeks ago and remains on my to-do list, although I think this is the third track from the album I’ve included on a playlist this year (“O B 1,” “Give Me a Reason”).

Aquilo – You Won’t Know Where You Stand. A duo from Lancashire making electronic pop with vocals that sound heavily influenced by blue-eyed soul.

Temples – Certainty. The English band behind the 2013 hit “Shelter Song” will release its second album, Volcano, in March of 2017. This psychedelic-pop track is the first single and wouldn’t have been out of place in 1969.

Trashcan Sinatras – Let Me Inside (Or Let Me Out). One of my favorite bands of the 1990s put out a new album earlier this year, and it had a couple of uptempo highlights along with their usual slower, folkier stuff that never did as much for me. When the Trashcans hit on a melody, though, it seemed to elevate the band’s usual wordplay to another level entirely. I opened a recent chat with a line from their first hit, “Obscurity Knocks:” “I feel like a veteran of/oh I like your poetry/but I hate your poems.”

Little Monarch – No Matter What. Electro-soul? There’s a definitely ’70s Motown vibe beneath this electronic pop trio’s sound, despite their girl-group name, with a truly memorable keyboard riff following each chorus.

Sad13 – <2. That’s Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz, making similar music here as a solo act. Her debut album under the Sad13 album is due out on Veterans’ Day, and apparently she’s now based in Philly, so maybe I’ll run into her at Re-Animator or Elixr.

Hippo Campus – Boyish. This rousing alt-pop band from St. Paul will release its debut album, Landmark, in February of 2017. This is my favorite of their singles to date, a little rougher around the edges and less overtly poppy.

Sløtface – Empire Records. Formerly known as “Slutface,” an ironic name given the feminist bent of their songs, this Norwegian band does ’90s-style post-riot grrrl punk-pop as well as most of the American bands that tried to capitalize on the sudden commercial appeal of the Pacific Northwest, something they even parody when the singer says she’ll “play bass for Sonic Death Monkey.”

Pussy Riot – Make America Great Again. There’s been a whole slate of anti-Trump songs from rock artists lately, including an album of thirty of them, but most of the ones I’ve heard have been kind of … well, dumb. They’re condescending, almost pedantic, and unlikely to convince anyone who’s already decided to vote for Der Amerikanfuhrer. Then this Russian trio, who are really better known for getting arrested than for making good music, puts out a quirky, almost endearingly amateurish song that just sticks to the main points and follows it up with Trump’s main slogan.

NOFX – It Ain’t Lonely at the Bottom. This obnoxious punk-pop act has been offending people for over thirty years, since their first single “Thalidomide Child,” making this surprisingly tame song a little out of character. But it’s catchy.

Animals As Leaders – Arithmophobia. Highly technical, virtuosic instrumental metal. I bow before Tosin Abasi.

Testament – The Pale King. Aside from making heavier music than they once did, Testament’s sound hasn’t changed all that much over the last 25 years, and they still have the lack of clear, compelling melodies that kept them from breaking out like the Big Four of eighties thrash did. The riffing is the big appeal for me, in their classic tracks and in several standouts from last month’s release, Brotherhood of the Snake, but I know it’s a narrow appeal.

Metallica – Atlas, Rise!. Do we like this song? I actually think I like this song, even though I think it’s become uncool to like new Metallica songs (and I’m on record as saying I think their best work stopped after 1988’s …And Justice for All). It’s not a great Metallica song, per se, but it’s a good old-style thrash track that manages to justify its six-minute length.

Anciients – Following the Voice. This Canadian metal act bridges several subgenres – there are elements of thrash, progressive metal, and melodic death metal here – in a six-plus minute opus off their sophomore album, Voice of the Void. Recommended for Mastodon fans.

Dark Tranquillity – Atoma. The title track from this Gothenburg act’s latest album, due out this Friday, is straight-up melodic death metal out of that city’s school of rock, but with a strangely upbeat vibe to much of the album that it’s almost ‘bright’ compared to the rest of the genre.

Liquorworks – Then To Hell With You. I figured if I was going to put a seven-minute experimental (and instrumental) metal track on the playlist, it probably belonged at the end, because the audience for this stuff might total about twelve of us. It’s darkly atmospheric, with that low-tuned guitar riffing sometimes called “djent” that just sounds like heavy guitar work to me.

Music update, September 2016.

Just a not-very-subtle reminder that you can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter, the latest issue of which went out yesterday.

September turned out to be a huge month for new tracks, from some of my favorite alternative acts to some major names in metal, and I struggled to pare this playlist to twenty songs. It’s good to get to be selective, though. Spotify users can link to the playlist directly.

Everything Everything – I Believe It Now. A one-off single from the group, who placed two songs very high on my top 100 of 2013 and whose third album, Get to Heaven, finally appeared in the U.S. earlier this year. Their music doesn’t really sound like anybody else’s, although in this case they’ve toned down some of the lyrical insanity of their prior singles.

Wild Beasts – Big Cat. Another English band that, like Everything Everything and alt-J, makes artful, unexpected music that’s definitely rock(ish) but defies many conventions of structure and sound within the genre. Wild Beasts’ album Boy King is one of the best albums of 2016, more melodic than their previous album, 2014’s acclaimed Present Tense. This track is one of among my favorites, not least for the line “big cat top of the food chain” in the chorus.

Van William – Revolution (feat. First Aid Kit). Friend of the dish Van Pierszalowski – no relation to A.J. Pierzynski – has released his second single under the Van William moniker, separate from his main work with WATERS, and it’s a very strong, hooky folk-rock track very much in the vein of the previous single “Fourth of July.”

Grimes – Medieval Warfare. This track from the Suicide Squad soundtrack, written from the perspective of character Harley Quinn, isn’t quite up to the caliber of Art Angels, especially since she sings so much of it in that little-girl voice that killed “Oblivion” for me.

Mt. Si – Oh. That’s Sarah Chernoff of Superhumanoids on vocals for her new project, named after a mountain in Washington state. It’s more ethereal – even spacey – than her work with Superhumanoids, but her voice carries the day whatever the music. Mt. Si’s debut EP, Limits, dropped back in February.

D.A.R.K. – The Moon. Featuring the Cranberries’ lead singer and the Smiths’ bassist, D.A.R.K. released their first album, Science Agrees, last month, an understated, bass-heavy record of gothic-electronic tracks like this one, which I thought had the best hook on the record.

Dagny – Ultraviolet. This Norwegian pop singer’s “Backbeat” made my top 100 last year and has been a steady favorite of my daughter’s since the song came out; I haven’t loved Dagny’s singles this year to that extent but she definitely has a ‘sound’ that I think deserves a wider audience here than it’s gotten so far.

The Radio Dept. – Swedish Guns. Sometimes I’m putting together these lists and come across a song by an act I’ve never heard of, so I assume they’re relatively new, only to find out that, as in the case of the Swedish duo The Radio Dept., they’ve been recording for over a decade. Their fourth album, Running Out of Love, comes out later this month, and this lead single is sort of a stoner/electronic track, like dream-pop without much pop.

Little Green Cars – The Song They Play Every Night. This Irish quintet had my favorite song of 2013, “Harper Lee,” but the rest of their debut album lacked the soaring hooks of that Mamas-and-Papas-inflected track. This song, from their March album Ephemera, is subtler but no less beautiful for its understatement, while still harkening back to the earliest days of folk music from the ’60s.

Preoccupations – Stimulation. The band formerly known as Viet Cong is back under a new, less-controversial name, although they still sound a lot like early Interpol and the early ’80s post-punks who influenced that band. Preoccupations is an intense, unsettling record where there’s almost too much going on to grasp it all at once – but I think, given the band’s and album’s name, that may have been their intent.

Nick Murphy – Fear Less. Another name-changer, as Murphy previously recorded under the (stupid) name Chet Faker. The slow build here from ambient electronica to drum-and-bass chaos is made more potent by the lack of a real resolution, a la Mercury Rev’s “Hercules” from All is Dream.

Lucius – Pulling Teeth. Lucius’s sophomore album Good Grief came out in March, with a pair of strong singles in “Born Again Teen” and “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain,” but the Brooklyn band is releasing a two-song, 10″ single with two songs that didn’t make the cut, including this track about the writer’s block they encountered while writing the album.

La Sera – Queens. The main project from Katy Goodman, the former bassist of the Vivian Girls, La Sera put out an album in March that didn’t feature any standout songs for me, but this title track from their new five-song EP is one of their best … as is the EP’s closer, a bass-heavy cover of Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

Mona – In the Middle. This Ohio band hasn’t released anything since 2013’s “Goons (Baby I Need It All),” but this title track from a forthcoming EP sounds like they’re aiming for more mainstream airplay without losing that slightly grating edge that’s always populated their music.

Opeth – Sorceress. These guys used to be a metal band, I swear. I know their post-metal dive into prog-rock is incredibly divisive, but they’ve produced some brilliant moments across their last two albums with nary a trace of their extreme-metal roots. This song, though, goes even further back than their ’70s progressive roots, to late ’60s/early ’70s psychelic rock, married with Sabbath-esque doom metal riffing and drum work.

Ghost B.C – Square Hammer. The best track among the five new songs on the deluxe edition of their 2015 album Meliora, featuring the Grammy-winning “Cirice,” which I mention mostly because a black-metal band won a Grammy and its singer accepted the award in corpse paint.

Alcest – Je suis d’ailleurs. I wasn’t familiar with Alcest before this record, probably because their 2013 album Shelter saw them abandon metal for straight shoegaze, where prior to that they’d been dubbed a ‘blackgaze’ band that merged black metal with shoegaze, much as the critically acclaimed (and unlistenable) Deafheaven have since done. This song finds Alcest returning to their previous blend of post-rock walls of sound and heavy but not too extreme metal, sort of like My Bloody Valentine as a post-metal act.

Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake. In a fourteen-month span from September 2015 to November 2016, the five biggest thrash bands ever (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Testament) will release new albums, making me wonder if I’ve slipped into a wormhole back to high school. Unlike those other bands, though, Testament never broke through the way the Big Four did; they had the chops, but not the hooks. Today, though, they might be the best of the five, because their sound has evolved, incorporating heavier sounds like black metal and the regrettably-named “groove metal” into their traditional thrash, which gives Chuck Billy & company more shot at creating memorable hooks. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Insomnium – Winter’s Gate, Pt. 4. I really liked this Finnish melodic death metal band’s 2014 album Shadows of a Dying Sun, but their newest album, Winter’s Gate, is a single 40-minute track that I found a little hard to get my head around. On Spotify the track is broken into more digestible chunks, and this particular one stands out as something akin to a single. Insomnium mixes clean and growled vocals well, and aren’t afraid to use some less metal instrumentation, all of which is in evidence here.

Dark Tranquillity – The Pitiless. One of the forefathers of the melodic death metal movement and its Gothenburg scene, DT will release their eleventh album, Atoma, on November 4th, their first without founding bass player Martin Henriksson. Where fellow Gothenburg acts have disappeared for two decades (At the Gates), devolved into hackneyed thrash/death territory (Arch Enemy), or just plain suck (In Flames), Dark Tranquility have expanded their sound as much as the limits of melodic death metal might allow, evident here on this very heavy track, which is highlighted by some pedal-point guitar riffing between the growled verses.

February 2016 music update.

I wrote up my thoughts on the Ian Desmond contract for Insiders. I also have a recap of this year’s new boardgame offerings at Toyfair over at Paste.

Not a great month for new music, although we did get the School of Seven Bells album, a comeback from Lush, an amazing new single from FKA Twigs, and two extreme metal tracks worth including.

The Jezabels – Come Alive. An Australian act that’s been around since 2007, the Jezabels create serious drama with the steady crescendo and bombastic finish to “Come Alive,” the lead single from their just-released third album Synthia. Unfortunately, the group just had to cancel their 2016 tour as their keyboardist undergoes urgent treatment for ovarian cancer, which does not sound good at all.

Lush – Out of Control. I loved Lush’s music back in the mid-1990s, especially when they transitioned from shoegaze to more straight-up Britpop with “Ladykillers” and “Single Girl” before disbanding. They reformed last year and have gone back to the sound that first put them on the map in the early 1990s, with the sort of shimmering, fuzzy guitar lines that got them lumped in with Ride, Swervedriver, and MBV. Lush was always a little more pop-informed than those other acts – perhaps a function of having a lead singer with a pretty voice that didn’t pair well with the waves of distortion that characterize true shoegaze.

FKA twigs – Good to Love. I was not a fan of FKA Twigs’ first full-length album, with praise that seemed more about who she was than about the quality of her music, but this is a remarkable song, showing off her voice and her vocal restraint, in a sparsely arranged ballad that’s radiates emotion.

Grace Mitchell – White Iverson. I’d never heard of Mitchell or this song before last week, and I’m only half pleased about this, because I went back and heard the original song, by yet another white pseudo-rapper appropriating black culture for profit, and it is truly atrocious. Mitchell’s cover turns it into a sinuous trip-hop track that suffers only for the ridiculousness of its lyrics.

Animal Collective – Golden Gal. Animal Collective got a little less weird on their new album, Painting With, which is why 1) I’ve listed two of its songs on monthly playlists and 2) you’re hearing their songs on the radio a little more than ever. Weird and experimental is great, but I’m not going to want to listen to it repeatedly if there isn’t some kind of hook.

Clairity – Don’t Panic. Another cover, this of one of the better yet less-known songs from Coldplay’s debut album, Parachutes. (For those of you rolling your eyes because you think of Coldplay as the atrocious pop band they are now, I promise, they weren’t always like this.) I love the new arrangement, but can’t fathom Claire Wilkinson’s bizarre pronunciation of the long ‘o’ sound throughout the track.

Bleached – Wednesday Night Melody. I always get a little Joan Jett vibe out of this trio, with big, simple riffs, although Jett’s stuff didn’t have the surfer vibe that informs a lot of Bleached’s music.

Bear Hands – 2 AM. You know, they’re right: Nothing good happens past 2 a.m.

Astronautalis – Papillion. And right on cue, here’s a white rapper, although the appeal of this song is the spacey music rather than the rhyming, where Astronautalis boasts good rhythm but generic lyrics.

Wild Nothing – Life of Pause. I’m a little disappointed in Wild Nothing’s latest album after the huge success of Nocturne, as he seems to be taking fewer risks and chasing more ’70s soft-rock sounds (when he isn’t ripping off Talk Talk as he did on the first single). This was probably my second-favorite track on the record.

Minor Victories – A Hundred Ropes. Is it a supergroup if the members come from groups that aren’t very popular in their own right? With members from Editors, Mogwai, and Slowdive, the band’s lead single sounds … well, a lot like what you’d get if you mixed Editors, Mogwai, and Slowdive. It’s good, though.

Spirit Animal – World War IV (To the Floor). If you’ve heard “Regular World,” which is way too douchebro for me to tolerate for more than a few seconds, put it out of your minds and listen to the rest of their EP, which is far less sneering and childish and brings some better riffs that bring in a few elements of funk to a hard-rock foundation.

Run River North – Pretender. The Korean-American sextet seems to have ditched the soft folk-rock style of their debut album for electric guitars and angry lyrics, perhaps not to the better, as the strongest appeal of their debut album was the harmonies that brought one or both of the two female members into the vocals.

Kero Kero Bonito – Lipslap. Their 2015 song “Picture This” should have been a huge crossover pop hit, but never caught on, so it appears the group has now gone back to their previous style, a little harder-edged J-pop with lead singer Sarah Midori Perry rapping in Japanese and English.

White Lung – Hungry. The lead single from this punk band’s upcoming album Paradise marks a big step forward in songwriting from their previous efforts, which resembled early punk rock in their semi-controlled anarchy. This is still hard-edged, but it’s also a pop song with a clearly identifiable hook, and puts Paradise on the list of albums to look forward to this spring.

School Of Seven Bells – This Is Our Time. The emotional closer to SVIIB, which I reviewed here last week.

Omnium Gatherum – Skyline. It’s been a while since I included any metal tracks on a monthly playlist, but this time we have two. This Finnish melodic death metal band employs growled vocals, but the tempo isn’t as extreme as straight-up death metal and you can pick out individual guitar lines (sometimes rather intricate) and even understand the occasional word or two. Their newest album, Grey Heavens, is a good example of the Finnish flavor of MDM, with fretwork that wouldn’t be out of place in more commercial songs.

Entombed A.D. – The Winner Has Lost. The progenitors of the death-n-roll subgenre are back, sort of, with their second album under their slightly revised name. (Hey, anything’s better than Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.) The newish band’s sound is definitely a little heavier and less bluesy than Wolverine Blues, but the tradeoff is substantially better production values and cleaner guitar riffs, similar to what they brought on 2014’s Back to the Front.

Top 15 albums of 2015.

My ranking of the top fifteen albums of the year is below, and reflects my own personal preferences, with a balance between albums that have a few standout songs and ones that worked better as cohesive units. You can see last year’s top 14 albums list for a comparison. I heard a lot more than I ranked here, but getting to fifteen albums I truly liked and would recommend wasn’t even easy.

Linked album titles go to full reviews. My ranking of the top 100 songs of the year will follow in a few days.

15. Drenge – Undertow. The British duo’s follow-up to one of my favorite albums of 2013 was a bit of a disappointment, because I loved their raw guitar-and-drum sound and wasn’t thrilled with the expansion into bass lines and reverb effects, but the album was a step forward in sound and songcraft – it’s just not more of the same when I actually wanted more of the same.

14. Horrendous – Anareta. (amazoniTunes) I only found a few extreme-metal releases in 2015 that I liked at all, including Tribulation’s The Children of the Night (Swedish black metal with some classical elements), Krisiun’s Forged in Fury (very dark Brazilian death metal with strong technical riffing), and even Children of Bodom’s I Worship Chaos (highly melodic death metal but the lyrics leave a lot to be desired). Nothing could touch Horrendous’ sophomore album, the followup to 2014’s Ecdysis, itself one of the best metal albums of that year. Horrendous is marketed as death metal, but it’s really highly technical progressive metal with death growls. You get relatively few blast beats, and the heavier turns are more akin to classic thrash than the more extreme corners of death metal. If you remember peak Death (the Chuck Schuldiner band that helped establish the subgenre), Horrendous has picked up where that group left off.

13. Twerps – Range Anxiety. Weird, jangly, lo-fi indie pop from Australia that veers from hooky to annoying and back again.

12. Of Monsters and Men – Beneath the Skin. Much-maligned, as it lacked the big hooks and choruses of their debut, My Head is an Animal, but I found the record more mature in lyrics and music, and appreciated the greater production emphasis on Nanna’s vocals.

11. Jamie xx – In Colour. (amazoniTunes) Who knew that the real talent in the Mercury Prize-winning trio The xx was producer/keyboard player Jamie xx, whose brilliance came out in this ebullient collection of electronic and dance songs, highlighted by the two singles that feature his sometime bandmate Romy, “See Saw” and “Loud Places.” In a sea of monotony in electronic music, Jamie xx managed to stand out.

10. Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. The Scottish group’s best record in years may have been uneven, but featured three standout tracks to start the album and Stuart Murdoch’s now-expected lyrical brilliance throughout.

9. Iron Maiden – Book of Souls. Go figure: the lads had one more masterpiece in ’em. I could have done without the eighteen-minute closer or the mortifying “tribute” to Robin Williams, but on an album of this length there are plenty of highlights, enhanced by the stylistic shifts by the multitude of songwriters who contributed.

8. Freddie Gibbs – Shadow of a Doubt. (amazoniTunes) This is the first true hip-hop record I’ve included on my year-end lists, with Gibbs’ delivery and old-school writing separating him from the hordes of rappers who can’t hold a candle to the kings of the Golden Age. Two highlights: “Extradite,” featuring Black Thought of the Roots; and “Fuckin’ Up the Count,” which samples from and is based on a famous scene from The Wire. But as with most contemporary rap albums, Shadow of a Doubt has some cringeworthy lyrics, especially Gibbs’ free use of the female-dog epithet.

7. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love. Nine years away and the ladies of Sleater-Kinney came back better than ever, with tighter songs and stronger hooks than any of their previous album showcased.

6. Wolf Alice – Our Love is Cool. (amazoniTunes) One of the few pleasant surprises in the Granny Award nominations was seeing Wolf Alice get a nod for Best Rock Performance for “Moaning Lisa Smile,” although that might be the fifth-best track on their debut album. Ellie Rowsell has one of the sexiest vocal deliveries of the year, particularly when her fierce side comes out on tracks like “You’re a Germ,” while the band seems to channel everything from mid-90s Britpop to late-70s British steel.

5. Superhumanoids – Do You Feel OK?. I really feel fine, thanks, especially after listening to this indie-pop trio, led by singer Sarah Chernoff’s soaring vocals and backed by one strong melody after another.

4. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye. CHVRCHES’ second top-five album on my lists – and second top-12 album on the Billboard charts – in the last three years was more of the same but better, like a hybrid of their first record and the Purple Rain-era Prince records the band members so revere.

3. The Wombats – Glitterbug. ($5 on amazoniTunes) I never reviewed this album but included one track from it on each of four straight monthly playlists. Lead singer/guitarist Matthew Murphy is a clever, witty wordsmith who also has a great knack at crafting hooks that sound like ’80s new wave but are still novel. I could easily have put a half-dozen songs from Glitterbug on my top 100, including tracks that I omitted like “Emoticons,” “Give Me a Try,” and the not actually baseball-related “Curveballs.”

2. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. By far the best lyrics of any album I heard this year, as Barnett expanded her range with more rock-heavy tracks and fewer of the folky ballads that dominated her A Sea of Split Peas double EP release. She’s a modern Bob Dylan for her way of telling a story within a four-minute song, setting scenes and working in dialogue without even abandoning her meter or rhyme scheme, and there are so many wry couplets on this album that she might have missed her calling as an existentialist comic.

1. Grimes – Art Angels. Grimes’ fourth record was a quantum leap forward from 2012’s Visions in every way, and was 2015’s best album for its combination of genre-bending sounds, strong melodies, and improved lyrics. Claire Boucher, who records under the nom de mic Grimes, is a chameleon, shedding her skin from one track to the next, changing textures and styles yet still producing a cohesive collection of songs that never lets up and delivers one strong hook after another.

At War with Reality.

At the Gates’ first two albums, both released in the early 1990s, were generic black-metal releases, with the same silly lyrics and abortive stabs at classical influences as many other bands in the nascent genre. By their fourth album, however, the group’s sound changed into a tighter, cleaner, thrash-influenced form of melodic death metal that became a surprise hit in Europe, where death-metal acts have long found more commercial success than in the U.S. That disc, Slaughter of the Soul, turned out to be the band’s last before a nineteen-year hiatus, one which saw some of its members form The Haunted, a harsher, less melodic extreme-metal act. The same lineup from Slaughter of the Soul reunited a few years ago to tour, and their first album since 1995, At War with Reality, dropped on October 28th … and feels just like the band never broke up at all.

At the Gates’ style remains straightforward and, as death-metal goes, relatively accessible. Of the thirteen songs on At War With Reality, only one, the closer “Night Eternal,” goes past four and a half minutes. There’s no blast-beat drumming, no indecipherably fast riffing, and lead vocalist Tomas Lindberg scream-growls the words (as opposed to the Cookie Monster death grunt style) so that you can understand most of what he said. The real appeal of the music for me is that the riffs are so distinct, more reminiscent of the “death-and-roll” sound of Entombed than of other leading lights in the Gothenburg death-metal scene who rely more on machine-gun riffs and higher-gain distortion.

“Heroes and Tombs” begins with a decoy lick, a series of arpeggiated chords that seemed to nod to peak Slayer (Seasons in the Abyss or South of Heaven era) with round, muscular power chords through the verse before the drawn-out lead guitar line separates itself above the chorus – a technique At the Gates uses several times to introduce that melodic element to songs that would otherwise sound like early speed-metal with growled lyrics. Both “The Circular Ruins” and “Death and the Labyrinth” lean toward the same end of the metal spectrum; you’ll think Slayer and Testament but also Wolverine Blues-era Entombed and even hints of Carcass’ Heartwork. “Upon Pillars of Dust” has an opening riff that would make Rust in Peace adherents proud before shifting into the fastest tempo of anything on the disc for the verses – but one that downshifts for the chorus for some real contrast wrapped up in a song that clocks in under two minutes. There’s a similarly quick staccato opening riff to “Conspiracy of the Blind,” a counterpoint to the slow lead guitar line on top of it, although we lose that contrast in the verses because the drums never vary – but as a fan of fast-picked rhythm guitar this was my favorite riff on the album.

Even better death-metal albums tend to wear on the listener if they run too long, as there’s an inherent sameness in a dozen songs that all have the same tempo, the same vocal style, and the same detuned guitars. At the Gates probably could have kept At War with Reality even a little tighter than its 44 minutes, as the album becomes repetitive near the end. The main pedal-point riff in “Eater of Gods” sounded a little familiar, and the best bit of the song is the interlude at 2:30 where we get one undistorted guitar, allowing the second guitar to play the main riff more clearly than at any other point on the track. (Then the third line comes in, borrowing so heavily from Dream Theater’s “Pull Me Under” that I started singing “Thiiiiis world is/spinning around me” in the car.) I imagine the members of At the Gates generated a lot of material after a nineteen-year layoff from working together, so I’ll forgive them some overexuberance on what is still one of the best metal albums of 2014.

Entombed A.D.’s Back to the Front.

My breakdown of the Peavy trade is up now for Insiders.

Entombed was one of the most important bands in the history of heavy metal, a death metal act that veered hard back toward the mainstream with their epic 1993 album Wolverine Blues, which featured substantially slower tempos, fewer blast beats, and somewhat more comprehensible lyrics. The band didn’t eschew its detuned guitar sounds or heavy riffs, but the newer style drew more from classic dark metal acts like Black Sabbath and Slayer, rather than the straight-on (and in my opinion unlistenable) early Nordic death metal pioneers like Mayhem or Emperor. Their new style earned the moniker “death-and-roll,” although that sounds pejorative to me rather than recognizing that what they were doing was ingenious.

Personnel disagreements splintered the band, however, and founding vocalist LG Petrov has split off with three later members of the band to form Entombed A.D., whose debut album Back to the Front is set to drop on August 5th. It’s not Wolverine Blues, but it’s very much in that vein, with huge, heavy, almost bluesy metal riffs reminiscent of British Steel-era Judas Priest, along with unmistakeable death-metal elements like growled vocals and faster percussion. The album is uneven, but fans of Entombed’s work with its classic lineup should be interested in the new output.

Back to the Front couldn’t start off any better, with the menacing “Kill to Live” driving forward on thick buzzsaw guitar riffs, leaving the rapid-fire drumming just to brief passages that punctuate the heaviness of the verses and chorus rather than overpowering the music. “Second to None” employs a similar mix of elements, like a sludgier, bluesier track left off of Pantera’s A Vulgar Display of Power. (I’m not a Pantera fan, though, as the whole “groove metal” movement left me cold.) The closer, “Soldier of No Fortune,” sees Entombed stretching out into more melodic territory, a nearly seven-minute opus with multiple segments and tempo shifts, but which never loses the force or heaviness of Entombed’s signature sound.

The album veers back and forth from the Entombed death-and-roll sound to some more conventional death-metal numbers, and the quality of the songwriting rises and falls at the same time. “The Underminer” opens with a incredible rapid-fire guitar riff, but the whole thing is, er, undermined by the blast beats that follow and wipe out the guitar sound. “Bait and Bleed” has a similar problem, starting with a pair of overlaid guitar lines that would appear to promise more complexity, but by the chorus we’ve drifted into more cliched death-metal territory and lost the plot of the opener. Even “Bedlam Attack,” which has some tempo shifts later in the song, loses me with the fastball before we get to the changeup because it’s so repetitive.

I said on Twitter last week that this album isn’t as good as Wolverine Blues, but it’s a solid add to the Entombed canon. The more I’ve listened to Back to the Front, however, the less positive I feel about it. There’s too much here that I think I’ve heard before, from Entombed’s early/mid-90s output to the groove metal movement to earlier touchstones like Motorhead, Sabbath, and Slayer. If you’re a longtime Entombed fan, Entombed A.D. won’t disappoint you, but I don’t think it’ll stay in my own rotation for long.

The Dagger & The Monuments’ The Amanuensis.

My Futures Game preview went up this morning, and I did a Klawchat on Thursday. I’ll be at the Futures Game, of course, and will head to the Butcher & Boar stand out by right field after BP, around 3 pm. Hope to see many of you there.

The Dagger’s self-titled debut album (due out July 22) is one of the strangest releases you’ll hear this year – the music itself isn’t odd at all, as the eleven tracks are all very straightforward blues-rock songs, the kind of tracks you’d expect to hear on a classic-rock station. What’s strange is that the trio of death metal musicians in the band have produced a record that, if you didn’t know it was new, you’d assume was written and recorded in the late 1970s. It’s not especially innovative and a little lacking in certain areas, but if The Dagger wanted to bring the New Wave of British Heavy Metal back to life, they’ve succeeded.

Three of The Dagger’s members were once part of the defunct death metal band Dismember, and here they’re joined by Swedish vocalist Jani Kataja, who sang in a pair of stoner-metal acts before joining the Dagger in 2010. (It’s not that strange a transition for Kataja; Bill Steer, co-founder of Carcass and former Napalm Death guitarist, had a blues-metal side project called Firebird before Carcass reunited a few years ago.) Their bio specifically refers to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Rainbow, and Deep Purple as influences, although I also hear a lot of lesser-known acts from that era like Saxon and Quartz, bands that leaned toward the less heavy, more melodic end of the range. You’ll hear that especially on The Dagger‘s best tracks, “1978” and “Inside the Monolithic Dome,” songs driven primarily by brief, pronounced guitar riffs and mid-tempo rhythm sections.

As a whole, however, the album feels far too familiar, as if these are actually songs we all heard in the late ’70s or early ’80s but haven’t heard much since because they were overshadowed by stronger tracks. There aren’t enough memorable hooks, and the lyrics vary from weak to embarrassing (“Nocturnal Triumph” is just cringe-inducing, which is too bad as the guitar lines behind the verses would make it a great driving song). The Dagger appear to be more influenced by bands that drew from blues-rock rather than acts like Maiden or Priest that used faster tempos and, in Maiden’s case, more technical skills that came down from classical roots.

The Monuments’ sophomore album, The Amanuensis (for the people who like country music, amanuensis means “the secretary”), melds progressive metal with heavier “groove” elements – I hate the term, but it does fit here – like a blend of early Fates Warning and peak Pantera, with both clean and screamed vocals along with fugal guitar lines. There isn’t enough variety across the entire album, with many of the guitar melodies sounding too similar in structure, but it’s a highly precise, almost severe album, with appropriately serious lyrics. They also get bonus points for naming a song “Horcrux.”

That song and “Origin of Escape” are among the highlights of Amanuensis for the variation within each song – changing tempos, lyrical styles, but still relying on the same staccato-picked guitar riffs that populate the entire disc, so the second half of the album starts to sound too much like background noise. “Atlas” begins with the clich&ecaute;d death-metal growl but morphs into a jazz-metal track, a little less experimental than Cynic or Atheist might have produced but in a similar vein, with a seamless transition into the very similar “Horcrux,” which makes better use of undistorted passages to break up the monotony of the austere up-and-down lead guitar lines, concluding with the counterpoint pairing that makes the song the strongest on the entire disc. (It doesn’t hurt that the song also includes the highest ratio of clean to growled lyrics of the eleven tracks here.) But by the time we get to track five, “Garden of Sankhara,” the lead guitar riff style, both in meter and technique, has become too familiar already. Using the same motif across an entire album can be clever, providing a measure of artistic unity to a set of disparate songs, but the Monuments take it too far.

The Monuments rose from the ashes of English experimental-metal act Fellsilent, who had a cult following among fans of extreme metal but lacked enough of a melodic component to find a broader audience or to appeal to me. The Amanuensis is a significant step in that direction, even further towards the commercial end of the extreme-metal spectrum than their debut album, Gnosis, although it’s best consumed in small chunks, with a focus on the first four tracks of the disc – which on their own would have made an outstanding EP release. It’s not up to the standard set by Insomnium earlier this year but worth the $6 amazon is asking for the album right now.

War Eternal.

Arch Enemy’s upcoming release War Eternal (due out June 10th) is the Swedish melodic death metal band’s first with new lead growler … I mean, singer Alissa White-Gluz, their tenth album over a now 19-year-career. Arch Enemy has always been among the most accessible acts in the melodeth subgenre, producing fast and heavy but, other than their debut album, not brutal tracks with clear melodic elements, technically sound guitar work, and solid vocals that didn’t distract from the underlying material. War Eternal has several tracks with the same musical strengths, but White-Gluz’s vocals and lyrics are a big step back from the band’s previous work, and sometimes it seems as if the vocalist change may have spurred a change in musical direction toward less adventurous material.

War Eternal opens somewhat promisingly, with a brief instrumental (in F minor, as the title tells us) before we get to two of its strongest tracks, the muscular “Never Forgive, Never Forget” and the raging title track. “Never Forgive” is driven by a simple six-note guitar riff repeated throughout the song that breaks apart the high-tempo verses and the staccato-plucked interludes, and the shredding in its two-part solo is probably the album’s strongest for pure technical skill. “War Eternal” opens with a marching pattern at machine-gun speed before downshifting into a pattern that seems drawn from classic ’80s thrash acts like Testament or Exodus, adding sophisticated melodic twists before each chorus to distinguish the song. It’s a shame that it’s brought down by its simple-minded lyrics (“Friend or foe/There’s no way to know” … this is the best they could come up with to open the song?), something that plagues much of the disc.

There’s a lull mid-album, including the cloddish “As the Pages Burn,” where War Eternal loses some steam, but a second instrumental, the glam metal-inspired “Graveyard of Dreams,” serves as a bit of a reset button before the furious strumming that opens “Stolen Life,” the track that should most satisfy fans of Arch Enemy’s previous work. The album needed a song like this: a taut, straightforward three-minutes of speed metal, with riffs to make Dave Mustaine proud (if he could stop patting himself on the back for a few moments). That combination of songs gives the listener a chance to breathe before the last standout on the album, the five-minute opus “Time is Black,” a theatrical and sometimes bombastic song with several tempo shifts and classical elements better integrated here than on “Avalanche,” which has “trying too hard” written all over it. It might have been better to follow “Time is Black” with “Down to Nothing,” which opens with a heavy grindcore pattern that reminded me of vintage Carcass – unsurprising, as Arch Enemy was founded by former Carcass guitarist Michael Amott, who worked on their landmark album, Heartwork, the album that did the most to establish melodic death metal as a viable style.

The main drawback in White-Gluz’s vocals is her style of growling, where she’s reaching so far down to get that gutteral sound that she sounds like she’s retching, and she rarely varies this style so the listener never gets a break. Extreme metal already has a sort of built-in bias against female vocalists because of the genre’s preference for these Cookie Monster vocals, rather than the kind of operatic singing associated with British metal of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the sing-talking of 1980s speed metal, or the death-screeches of Chuck Schuldiner (of Death) or Jeff Walker (of Carcass). White-Gluz’s predecessor, Angela Glossow, found an adequate medium with a higher-pitched growl than male death-metal vocalists employ, but White-Gluz is aiming for a lower register and it doesn’t work for me. She also is far too prone to employ the most cliched move in extreme metal, roaring at maximum volume over the opening riffs. (Note to aspiring death-metal vocalists: Don’t do this.)

War Eternal also suffers from a lack of ambition, outside of “Time is Black” and perhaps “Avalanche,” sticking mostly to straightforward thrash with death-metal vocals and blast beats, when they’re at a point in their career where you’d expect more experimentation. I prefer metal with progressive or technical elements, such as on Insomnium’s Shadows of a Dying Sun, but if you’re interested in Arch Enemy I’d suggest starting with 2003’s Anthems of Rebellion.