It’s been a weird, exhausting time to be human. Personally speaking, I would have run out into the night months ago if it weren’t for these particular artists. Their music makes for a good time if not exactly a fun time, the kind you listen to when you need art to help you make sense of what’s happening all around.
Atramentus – Stygian
One of the great things about metal is its sincerity. It’s a genre where fantastical elements like wizards and dragons can flourish. Sure, some bands wink at the audience but those rarely age well, especially if they don’t take the music seriously. Atramentus is a band focused on the fantastic but the mood is about as far removed from fun as you are from Antarctica (If you’re reading this from the bottom of the world: 1. Thank you. 2. Contact me, I have questions). This might be your first brush with the term “doom metal,” an ominous moniker if there ever was one. Defined by length and atmosphere, it’s a subgenre with the same energy as a mineshaft marked by a sign declaring “Abandon hope all ye who enter.” Stygian is something special, a concept album of Greek tragedy proportions that for me has been what the kids call “a mood” this past year. It follows a lone warrior who ascends to the realm of the gods where he is granted immortality but is also tricked into removing a sacred sword, plunging the world into eternal winter. As the first COVID winter started to wane, my corner of the world unexpectedly received record setting snowfall. While watching my apartment’s parking lot disappear beneath the pale expanse, I put on Stygian. I can’t say I felt comforted. I hadn’t left the house in weeks and it would be a while before I could get my first vaccine dose. But as the snow and album swelled, I did approach something close to catharsis.
Jóhann Jóhannsson – IBM 1401: A User’s Manual
I miss the sensory quirks of early computer technology. The Pavlovian response to the sound of dial up, the satisfying click of inserting a floppy disk. IBM 1401: A User’s Manual is an album that mourns the loss of those sensations. Composed by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (who also did the scores to movies like Sicario, Mandy, and Arrival), the album melds the electronic with the organic, of digital voices intertwining with classical strings. It feels as otherworldly as the wilds of Jóhannsson’s home country. You can almost imagine old iMac G3s pushing up through the tundra lichen. The album feels as lonely as the aforementioned Stygian but where that world was harsh, there’s a softness to the possible apocalypse of IBM 1401. The scenery is beautiful and you have no one to share it with. I had the privilege of seeing Jóhannsson in concert a few years before his death. Leading members of the Denver Philharmonic, while they only performed one song from IBM 1401, it was the album’s closing track, “The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black.” The piece is at once both haunting and soaring, alien and human, as a robotic voice calls out for a woman who has left. It’s as though after humans are gone, server farms have inherited the world and now mourn their lost creators through song. Makes you look wistfully at your laptop and wonder how deeply it cares about you.
Jesu – Silver
If you were to describe what you think the heaviest kind of metal sounded like, you’d probably mention some kind of screaming at least a couple times. Jesu got the memo about the guitar sound but not so much about screaming, lost somewhere between the metal and shoegaze influences. A side project of industrial metal band Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick, Jesu keeps the heaviness but underlines it with shoegaze’s sense of beauty. A perfect example of this style is the early EP, Silver. From the dreamy crush of the titular track through the almost punk drumming of “Star” and into the electronic grit of “Wolves” and the instrumental house mix of “Dead Eyes.” By far the shortest item on this list, it’s four tracks of weight and noise, like standing on a beach and wave washes in harder than you were expecting. As sudden and violent as it is, there’s so much beauty in the form.
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Far and away the most well known artist on this list, Kendrick Lamar is one of the most exciting artists of right now. In full honesty, I do not listen to a lot of rap. I say this not to start some cringey “you’re not like other rap artists” statement but to drive home the enormity of this album. When good kid arrived, it was like a bomb going off, the shockwaves felt across all corners of the musical landscape. This is an album dense in storytelling, from the youthful masculine posturing of “Backseat Freestyle” to the existential drifting of “Real.” But the song that I keep coming back to this year is “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” It’s a cry of desperation for things to get better, of being trapped by various systems both social and personal. The album’s story, however true or embellished it might be, is distinctly American in all of its hopes, dreams, and fears. We have been all the more acutely aware of these things during our pandemic time. We have watched, some from self-imposed isolation, others from the frontlines of protests, as the ever present struggles of good kid ruptured back into the national spotlight. Not that this album needed a national moment to have its worth proven. good kid will repeat and repeat, whether or not anything is ever fixed.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F♯ A♯ ∞
“The car is on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel,” a voice informs the listener as the opening track gets underway, a line I have heard many times over the past year. The narrator may as well be Virgil from Dante’s Inferno as the listener is ushered into the sonic underworld. No list like this would be complete without post-rock icons Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Their almost quarter of a century long career is steeped in sounds perfect for the darkest of days. Danny Boyle thought the same when he featured the album’s middle track “East Hastings” during the abandoned London scene in 28 Days Later. But this is a band who knows how to temper the darkness with some measure of hope. Look no further than the closing track, “Providence.” With a runtime of 29 minutes across six different movements, it is far from a casual listening experience but so is everything about Godspeed. As with the previous songs, the track opens on voices, this time explicitly discussing the end of days. The song presses on, building into a march that sounds almost triumphant only for this to degrade into a final transmission then silence. For about five minutes, there is nothing. Then, like ashes catching fire once more, Godspeed rushes back, offering a final coda of hope before the darkness returns and the car is on fire once more.
An MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie is a poet and author interested in the intersection between technology, the environment, and human relationships. His writings have been featured in publications such as The Vital Sparks, Lost Futures, and Haywire Magazine. He can be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here