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The best underground records you may have missed last year

Against All Logic – 2017-2019

There’s an excellent segment from ‘Harder Harmonies’ by La Dispute where Jordan Dreyer parallels music to the rhythms of human life. “A dream of sweat and ecstasy/ A kiss on every hammer hit that follows as the keys fall down and brings an order first/ Then chaos then a calm.” It’s a segment that returns to me every time I revisit this 2017-2019, an album that abstracts from that human experience, creating an electronic feeling that is alien and unsettling. 

Danceable rhythms try to escape its noisy productions but the only sweat this record evokes is the factory – machinic tracks that whir up to effectiveness and pummel you like sheet metal. The deep metallic hammer hits of ‘Alarm’ and the immediately following ‘Deeeeeeefers’ are juxtaposed to almost danceable house rhythms. These tracks build and evoke order, chaos and calm, but these hammers leave more than a kiss when they fall. 

That is not to say this record isn’t varied – the moments of levity cover many stylistic grounds. The wistful Beyonce flip on opening track ‘Fantasy’ gives way to aggressive punk manifesto from Lydia Lunch on ‘If You Can’t Do It Good, Do It Hard.’ There are even more reflective lulls like that of ‘Faith.’ What all these disparate influences share is a production that sounds like they have been dragged through a cement mixer. Even the album itself is machinic in its efficiency: 10 tracks, no filler. Everything here exists for a purpose, and that it a deftly balanced dance on the border of house, techno and noise. It’s a sonic experience that deserves more attention if you enjoy anything electronic, if only to show yourself exactly how far club and festival beats can be pushed before they break. 

Max Gentleman

For the size of the band and the length of their career, the success of I Let It In And It Took Everything is more than deserved

Loathe – I Let It In And It Took Everything

2020 was the year that Liverpool metallers Loathe burst out of the underground. That much is clear when The Guardian referenced their second album, I Let It In And It Took Everything, in a list of records that they considered to be snubbed as contenders for the Mercury Prize. 

If this record had bucked the trend and been nominated, what a contender it would have been. I Let It In… is a truly stunning body of work, particularly for what is only their second album. Tracks like ‘Aggressive Evolution’, ‘Red Room’ and ‘Gored’ sound gloriously hellish and are heavy enough to crush a ribcage, but Loathe are capable of being far more than noisemakers. They can do atmospheric, ethereal songs just as well, if not better – songs like ‘Two Way Mirror’, ‘A Sad Cartoon’ and ‘Is It Really You’ are frankly gorgeous, but still firmly grounded in the metal world. Imagine the abrasiveness of Slipknot mixed with the otherworldly alt metal slickness of Deftones, and you’re not too far off how they sound. That’s not to say they’re ripping off their influences – there is enough variety and uniqueness in this album to ensure that its sound is something even the most seasoned rock or metal aficionado would not have heard before. 

For the size of the band and the length of their career, the success of I Let It In And It Took Everything is more than deserved. With their label announcing just days into January that a third record from them would arrive sometime this year, it is not just certain that Loathe have truly arrived, but that they might soon become the biggest thing that the English metal scene has produced for some time. 2021 is theirs for the taking. 

Emma Wilkes

Dogleg – Melee

The last decade has been an odd one for post-hardcore. Bands seem to have settled into one of two camps – the first being a massive increase in recording quality and the second an abandonment of the DIY aspects of the genre. This sometimes also comes with a movement away from the punk ethos in the music’s scope too, more of the introspection of emo than tackling societal ills. Examples include Dance Gavin Dance, Silverstein, the last Underoath record, amongst borderline post-hardcore records like Trophy Eyes’ Chemical Miracle or the most recent Trash Boat release. 

Counterbalancing this, there has been a refocussing movement on stripping post hardcore down, bringing back the DIY and punk elements and lower production quality drastically. I lean far more towards the former as purposefully bad audio quality grinds my gears. But where does Dogleg come in? 

Put simply, they straddle this line perfectly, creating a tight post hardcore record that sounds organic, dynamic and raw without sound like it was recorded on a tin can. It has versatility that covers the genres long life span, moving from the repetitive pounding of ‘Headfirst’, perfectly accompanied by the tenuous screams of the chorus, “Time will let you down” and then the buoyant but distorted pop punk inflection of ‘Hotlines’, a Baudrillardian paradox of a track that sounds more like how I remember Burnout 3 sounding than most of its soundtrack. 

This record is consistent, relentless yet meandering – covering more ground than most modern post-hardcore albums attempt, let alone achieve. It is neither overproduced nor is it deliberately trying to sound underproduced. Listening to it is a nice warm bath that washes off all the discourse and reminds you why you love the genre in the first place. Deceptively complex comfort food served up by a Michelin star chef. It’s an easy, fun and engaging listen and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

Max Gentleman

“[liv.e’s] care-free attitude to rules is equally apparent in lyric, delving the listener into her experimental feel through observations, romantic dreams, free flowing imagery, and playful self-reflection

liv.e – Couldn’t Wait To Tell You

Listening to liv.e’s debut album resembles taking a trippy journey down her everyday thoughts. Everyday thoughts subtitled by dreamy mellow jazz. And soul. And hip-hop too. 

The bits and bobs of sound all come together to create this outstandingly free-flowing, witty, and poignant RnB record. LA-based liv.e (pronounced liv) first gained minor recognition following a feature in Earl Sweatshirt’s most recent album, but her name still shamefully remains limited to truly devoted psychedelic soul musical circles. Following the release of two strong EPs via SoundCloud and Bandcamp, the 23-year-old eclectic singer-songwriter finally released her wavey LP last summer

Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… feels short at 48 minutes, but not a second is wasted. Smoothly transitioning from hard bass to lo-fi lush to muzak and back again, it is a wonderful little record that captivates from the get-go. Her care-free attitude to rules is equally apparent in lyric, delving the listener into her experimental feel through observations, romantic dreams, free flowing imagery, and playful self-reflection; “I know, I know…/ You thought the song was over, but that’s incorrect/ Because life keeps going on, and energy never dies, does it…?/ No, it doesn’t”. 

The 20 songs play like musical extracts, dissolving in and out of each other quickly but with purpose – the album may feel laid back, but the meticulous choice of certain sounds and effects is very much a focused effort. It is without a doubt one of this year’s most beautiful albums, a hidden gem in the abundance of gloomy records this year. Do yourself a favour and enjoy the sweet sound of this rising star.

Luca Jones

Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou – May Your Chambers Be Full

Collaboration has become ubiquitious in the last couple of decades as rap dominated the charts, blunted much of the excitement that comes when two artists join forces for a track. Major musicians have several on each album – the rock tradition of incredibly sparse collaborations seems almost antiquated. That said, rock collaborations are sparse for a reason – when an artist simply lends vocals to another band’s track it seems out of place because they are a band, they craft their songs for a certain singer. Rap collabs work because they are both rapping over a producer’s beat, one is not imposing on the other’s creative process. For this reason, rock collaborations have to be more wholesale.

 In May Your Chambers Be Full, Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou write the textbook for how it ought to be done. In a true synthesis of sound, the result is a dark and brooding album that draws from primarily from 90s grunge with flourishes of various strains of experimental metal for a haunting and oppressive soundscape. When faced with Bryan Funck’s grotesque screams, Emma finds a sharp and powerful edge to her delivery that is rarely found on her mellower solo work. This is best exemplified on my personal favourite rock song of 2020 ‘Out of Existence,’ where her tart delivery on the verses cuts through Funck’s menacing growls on the chorus.

And what a chorus it is: punishing but not delving into extreme metal inaccessibility and an incredibly catchy chord progression. The mixing is masterful. Its somehow both punishingly heavy but also something I could show to someone with very little rock/metal experience as an entry point: ‘Monolith’ deserves the same credit too for its cyclical main riff. Opener ‘Killing Floor’ incorporates elements of Doom and ‘Magickal Cost’ is saturated with Black metal influence – but it never feels like it pulls too far in those directions. Could a grunge band have written this record? Absolutely not. Would either have contemplated such a daring and unique record alone, or been able to pull it off? I sincerely doubt it. And that is the essence of one of the few great rock collaborations, a synthesis of two masters of their craft making a record every rock fan ought to hear.

Max Gentleman

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