In which I break my current run of not actually talking about any records that came out this year.
The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
You know when a record has an opening track so staggeringly good that you almost feel like ignoring the rest of the album and listening to it on repeat? The Big Roar is one of those records – opener ‘The Everchanging Spectrum Of A Lie’ swells up gracefully before exploding into a glorious mix of crashing drums and mammoth guitars that’ll leave you wanting more. But if you get distracted long enough to listen to the rest of the record, you’ll find that there are plenty of similar treats in store – the hectic rush of ‘The Magnifying Glass’ and the infectious, euphoric ‘I Don’t Want To See You Like This’ are only the start of a record that barely lets up until ‘The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade’ ends proceedings in a stately squall. Sure, they’ve recycled four songs from 2009’s mini-album A Balloon Called Moaning – but hey, if you had tracks as good as ‘Austere’ and ‘Cradle’ in your arsenal, wouldn’t you want them on your debut album proper? It’s been a long time coming, but The Joy Formidable’s debut has been worth the wait.
Esben And The Witch – Violet Cries
Esben And The Witch’s dark and twisted music isn’t for the faint of heart, but take the plunge and you’ll find that Violet Cries is an atmospheric and immersive experience. Album-opener ‘Argyria’ builds ominously into a sonic battering-ram of guitars and eerie, wailing cries – but then suddenly everything goes quiet, and the focus switches to vocalist Rachel Davies’ cryptic, sinister tale of “strange metallic voices”. It’s indicative of the record’s constantly evolving soundscape – ‘Marching Song’ beats a relentless, foreboding path to the violent squall of guitars at its conclusion, while ‘Marine Fields Glow’ serves up a complete contrast with long, echoing guitar notes and lamenting, regretful vocals. It’s a credit to the band that, despite these contrasting ideas, the album works fantastically as a cohesive whole – because of the effortless transitions between tracks, ‘Chorea’s skittering drums and oppressive, paranoid feel can sit perfectly alongside the contemplative, expansive-sounding ‘Warpath’. By the time Violet Cries reaches it’s zenith with the stunning twists and turns of ‘Eumenides’, there can be no doubt that Esben And The Witch have produced one of this year’s best debut records.
James Blake – James Blake
When I first listened to James Blake’s self-titled album, I have to admit that I wasn’t really feeling it. But sometimes a record only clicks when you revisit it at a different time, or in a different situation. For me, the stark minimalism of James Blake made so much more sense when I decided to listen to it after a long night of monotonous drum ‘n’ bass at work – however, I still have my reservations about it. There isn’t really another immediately accessible track in the vein of ‘Limit To Your Love’ here – which isn’t an indictment in itself, but the record veers across the line between coherent songs and vague sonic experimentation a little more often than I’d like. This comes to a head on ‘Lindisfarne I’, which takes minimalism close to its absolute limit, but loses all sense of purpose in the process – even the contrast when ‘Lindisfarne II’ kicks in doesn’t feel like enough of a payoff. At its best though, the record is sublime – ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ is simply jaw-dropping, ‘I Never Learned To Share’ builds up slowly to a satisfying conclusion, and of course there’s the aforementioned ‘Limit To Your Love’. For me, James Blake isn’t quite the earth-shattering debut some have made it out to be, but not for a lack of trying – and it has enough great moments to indicate a promising future.
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
You don’t have to be familiar with the entirety of PJ Harvey’s 20-year career to know that she’s not exactly prone to sitting on her laurels, but Let England Shake is arguably her most ambitious work yet – it tackles the weighty subject of war. Dangerous territory, even for an artist as formidable as Harvey, but the good news is she absolutely makes the subject matter work. The key is that she doesn’t adopt a preaching or political tone, instead taking on the voice of an observer or narrator – seeking not to judge, but to inform. The First World War in particular features heavily, but much of the record’s sentiment is applicable to more recent conflicts too. Harvey’s lyrics are mostly delivered in the same piercing high register that she used to such good effect on White Chalk, and it makes for pretty disarming listening – and the effect is heightened further on jauntier-sounding tracks such as ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’. I could simply fill the remainder of this page with thought-provoking and evocative lyrics from this record, but why not discover them for yourself? After all, the stirring music that accompanies Harvey’s words is an integral, perfectly complimentary part of the album – together, they make Let England Shake one of her finest works to date.