Top Albums 2015 Advent Calendar: Day 5
Grimes - Art Angels
Grimes released her last album Visions almost four years ago at the very beginning of 2012, and was widely hailed as the dawn of a new era of pop starlet. Personally, I loved the album but I didn't see how it was going to reach a wider audience; sure there were catchy choruses and nice pieces of production, but the overall sound was so dark and tense, with Grimes' often shy and fearful vocals pushed low in the mix and echoed significantly.
Earlier this year when she released "Realiti," the mammoth lead single from the long-awaited follow up, the pop star revealed herself. "Realiti" is an inspirational, uplifting pop song of the highest order, with gallivanting verses flowing perfectly into a sweeping bridge that in turn jumps into one of the most determinedly uplifting choruses in recent memory. More significantly the track was bigger, bolder and brighter than anything on her previous release and placed Grimes' voice and personality front and centre.
From then we had to wait months until we finally got the album, which dropped at short notice late in November, but the final product only furthered the Canadian's bid to be the world's leading alt-pop innovator. Continuing on from "Realiti" are more extroverted bangers, with plenty of crisp, incisive production choices, but most significantly is the independent, fierce persona that Grimes puts across. In the country-inflected "California" she sings the title so sweetly and infectiously you think it's an ode to the state, but she undercuts that with "you only like me when you think I'm looking sad," showing significant self-awareness in her image. In closing track "Butterfly" she flips the pop-star ideal on its head with a truly saccharine chorus that asserts "I'll never be your dream girl." "Flesh Without Blood" has Grimes revisiting the smouldering wreck of a recent break up ("remember when we used to say 'I love you' almost every day?"), but rather than looking upon it with regret or sadness, she takes strength and power in knowing that she's much better off now and doesn't need her former partner any longer. This accumulates into a chorus of "I don't see the light I saw in you before," which, on paper, reads as disheartening, but in context of the song, surrounded by Grimes' perfectly measured production choices, it sounds freeing and independent.
What makes Art Angels stand out further are the moments where Grimes really doesn't hold back on her inner spirit animal. "SCREAM" features solely Taiwanese rapping from Aristophanes punctuated but throat-shredding screams from Grimes. It's hard not to get imagine her dancing and prowling like a hungry predator on the explosive "Kill v Maim," in which she bloodlessly growls "I got in a fight but THEY DON'T KNOW ME."
Art Angels is a big growth for Grimes, and with the aid of singles like "Realiti" and "Flesh Without Blood" her popularity should grow with it. She seems fully self-possessed and clear in her vision of the kind of unique image and personality she wants to put across. She is a strong, independent auteur, and it can only mean positive things for the future of original pop music.
Have I bought this album?: No. As I said it came out quite suddenly and quite late in the year so haven't had a chance yet.
The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die - Harmlessness
Just going on their name, it's not easy to figure out that The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die make emo music. But, their name also tells you more about their music: they make grandiose, heart-bared, big-expression emo.
Harmlessness is an album of 13 tracks and 54 minutes, which at first sight seems like it could be a little much for a band that makes tightly wrought, overly sentimental music, but TWIABP have magnificently side stepped this likelihood by showing a keen understanding of how an album should be built and how it should flow. Harmlessness unfolds so boldly and beautifully that it gathers you up easily in its majestic autumnal sweep.
The album starts with "You Can't Live There Forever," a nicely paced mid-level rocker that builds up into full on gang-vocals that signal the all-encompassing emotional inclusiveness of the album that's to unfold. They take the bull by the horns early with "January 10th, 2014," a titanic and furious battle cry that retells the story of the heroic murderous female vigilante Diana The Hunter through a series of rallying riffs and metered break downs. By the time the song reaches its scorching conclusion TWIABP completely embody the catharsis of the final statement "make evil afraid of evil's shadow."
Through the middle section of the album TWIABP really show the scope of their songwriting, combining multiple songs together into grandiose suites that shift gears breathtakingly. "Rage Against The Dying Of The Light" floats on tension-building violin melodies illuminating singer David Bello's dissatisfaction, before the song shifts into a gloomy descent into depression in its final minute. This is quickly turned into a spectacular nose dive as following song "Ra Patera Dance" seamlessly launches into life with an upswinging guitar riff that takes us rocketing into a song that completely subverts the previous frustration into a warm and buzzing satisfaction.
TWIABP show their understanding of momentum by slowing the album down for the mid-album torch-burner "Mental Health" - one of my favourite songs of the year - before heading into a second half crammed full of even more epic statements. The following two-song suite reverses the trick of the first, starting with "Wendover," which is bright and lively like a late-period Modest Mouse song, that then cuts short and shimmies into ascendant drums that take the song off upwards, dragging guitars hissing and screaming with it. At the summit of the rise we shift into "We Need More Skulls," which evens out into a gorgeous plateau of intertwining melodies, but before long we're plummeting once more through thick coils of bristling guitars while Bello brays "We set out to make up all the mistakes of our parents and their friends / We set out out the safety net, but it was above our heads" - which leaves plenty to open for interpretation, but there's no doubting that TWIABP seriously mean it.
The album ends with the band's two biggest stand-alone statements so far, the 7-minute "I Can Be Afraid Of Anything" and the 8-minute "Mount Hum." Both of them condense all of TWIABP's best qualities in their running time; ecstatic builds, dulcet instrumentation, intertwining vocals, monsoon guitar downfalls and truly emo call-and-response break downs ("I really did dig my own hole... but I'm climbing out..."). When listening to these songs it's hard not to imagine being in a crowd and watching them being played live as everyone hangs on every word, and the communal spirit is at its peak. This is where good emo has a real edge, in the camaraderie that can come from simultaneously enjoying the same melodramatic guitar riff or screamed declaration, and TWIABP deliver uncountable moments like that throughout Harmlessness.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, downloaded it digitally from their Bandcamp. Definitely intend to buy it on vinyl when I see them in February.