It’s breathtaking to watch an artist rising toward their peak. Before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and now in whatever stage we’re in, harpist Brandee Younger has been a restless and prolific force in the realm of jazz (or, as trumpeter Nicholas Payton rightfully insists we all say, Black American Music, or BAM. You can read his essay on that here). It’s been a steady ascent for Younger since 2019’s stunning Soul Awakening. Her latest effort, a deeply affecting two-song EP called Unrest, features two of her strongest songs to date.
Unrest is hot on the heels of her 2021 acclaimed release, Somewhere Different, her debut for Impulse! It represents Younger’s musical reflection on the uprisings we’ve seen in recent years against police violence and the ever-present racism so inherent to US society. On the lead track, “Unrest I”, Younger needs only her harp take the listener on her emotional journey, of anxiety, anger, aching, and sadness. The melodies are striking and tense. They soon give way to a more introspective interlude, Younger working delicately yet deliberately around the harp, perhaps grasping for notes as we would words to describe the indescribable. She returns to the theme, all the more cutting after hearing her seemingly reaching for answers.
“Unrest II” features the rhythm section of Allan Mednard on drums and Rashaan Carter on bass. Mednard and Carter drive a steady rhythm under Younger’s theme. Much like on the first track, the certainty of the initial theme soon gives way to something more open-ended, this time in the form a brief but phenomenal drum solo by Mednard. Soon, Carter and Younger reprise the initial theme before closing out the tune.
Produced by Younger’s partner, bassist Dezron Douglas (with whom she recorded 2020’s “pandemic record” of their livestream brunch sessions, Force Majeure), Unrest further solidifies Younger’s distinctive voice. Her playing and songwriting have both depth and subtlety, and while Unrest is not as modern sounding as Somewhere Different, it reminds us that the struggle Younger writes about here is a centuries-old one. But, there is hope in the unrest, that we are advancing toward something better.
Unrest is out now via Impulse! and available on all major streaming platforms.
Ah, the many sides of Boris. Many of us fell in love with the Japanese trio for their brain-rattling, bowel-shaking, ungodly guitar tones and riffs. Led by guitar hero, Wata—usually positioned in front of an impressive skyline of Orange amplifier stacks—Boris shows are often aurally overwhelming experiences. But on the heels of their 2020 thrash-focused excursion, NO, Boris emphasizes the more ambient and hazy sides of their sound on the intriguing new record, W.
The band says NO and W are intended to be companion albums, with the overarching title, NOW. The aggression of NO gives way to more subdued sounds on initial third of W. “I Want to Go to the Side Where You Can Touch…” opens the record. Wata’s hushed vocals whisper over booming drums and various droning and feedbacking guitars before stopping abruptly. “Icelina” then quietly tiptoes in with shimmering guitars and electronic synth and percussion treatments. Wata’s vocals remain hushed but clearer atop the softer musical bed. Her guitars stay subtle on the goth/industrial “Drowning by Numbers.” Takeshi’s bass and Atsuo’s drums move to the fore, providing a bit of funk and a bit of glitch.
It’s not til the fifth song, nearly halfway through W, that we get a barrage of Boris-style downtuned riffage. The instrumental “The Fallen” does not disappoint. An intro dirge of heavy sludge segues into more propulsive chugging, then to a final slow-motion explosion of big drums and deconstructed guitar.
W continues its exploration of dynamics and subtlety with the lullabye, “Beyond Good and Evil,” featuring beautifully executed soft/loud dynamics. “Old Projector” is a spooky instrumental with EVOL-era Sonic Youth atmosphere that evokes a sort of zombie spaghetti western. From there, the band veers into a pounding doom outro before the song stops abruptly.
Boris saves its most expansive statement for near-last with the hypnotic “You Will Know (Ohayo Version).” Takeshi and Atsuo leave wide spaces for Wata’s distant guitar noise and soft vocals. The drums go silent as the band envelopes the tune in more atmospherics of guitars, electronics, synths, and possible accordion? (The liner notes say Wata plays accordion on the record, but I haven’t definitively found where.) “You Will Know” fades out to a brief ambient vignette “Jozan” that closes the album.
It’s nearly impossible to disentangle music creation of the past two-plus years from the backdrop of the global pandemic. If NO was a blistering sonic statement of the frustration and despair of the early days of COVID-19, W mostly aims to soothe some nerves, albeit with the occasional outburst. It reminds us that these are incredibly challenging times for people all over the planet and that many of us have reacted and navigated the times similarly regardless of our where we live. Though it might soon become cliché for bands to put out their “COVID records,” their musical statements of a scary and bizarre time, it’s only helpful to be reminded that this has affected everyone everywhere. If that can’t unite us as a global species, what can?
Donia Jarrar thinks big. Writing, recording, and performing as Phonodelica, her stunning and often sparse piano compositions usually comprise a larger ovearching theme, where they achieve their full actualization. Beautiful on their own, but more powerful together—a bold idea that resonates through her work, ideas, and activism.
Jarrar recently received the 2021 Young Artist of the Year award from A M Qattan Foundation, a Palestine- and United Kingdom–based nonprofit organization, for her large-scale work, Into the Ether and Out of Our Anguish. Her life as a Palestinian woman informs and inspires her work, reflecting the sadness, anger, perseverance, and, ultimately, the hope she and many Palestinians across the world feel about their struggle for a free Palestine.
In December, Jarrar released The Drowning Valley, the first part of Into the Ether and Out of Our Anguish. In her previous work, Seamstress, she focused on the stories and histories of Palestinian women as told by the women themselves. Her latest work imagines a post-occupation future within Marj Sanur, a valley located in Jenin, a city in the occupied West Bank of Palestine, and also the home village of her father. Known as “The Drowning Valley,” the area is surrounded by a chain of mountains and various other towns. During the rainy winter season, the valley becomes a shallow lake, hence the nickname. The lake is a beautiful phenomenon but also means disaster for the nearby farmers whose crops are destroyed in its formation. Also, the impacts of the global climate crisis on the region has caused the lake to become permanent, as opposed to its traditional appearance every 10 years. Further, the lake has served as an inadequate stand-in for the Mediterranean Sea, which few West Bank and Jerusalem ID holders are able to see due to the Israeli government’s discriminatory policies and embrace of apartheid against Palestinians.
It is here that Jarrar imagines a sort of parallel universe, a spiritual plane wherein Palestinians have achieved supernatural powers and teleportation, allowing them to transport to the sea and into the ether to other spiritual planes inaccessible to others. The Drowning Valley begins with the title track, a foreboding solo piano piece of plaintive melody. This is followed by another version of “The Drowning Valley,” with a string quartet. The melancholy piano melody of the first version becomes more stirring and insistent within the context of the quartet, Jarrar’s piano theme continuing to haunt underneath.
Another solo piano piece, “Extinction,” follows. Dedicated to the memory of the Gazan wild rabbit, it evokes in the listener’s mind (or at least this one’s) a camera surveying the landscape, rugged, beautiful, and subject to multiple manmade pressures. For those who buy the record on Bandcamp, there is the bonus track “Reservoir,” which showcases another side of her writing. It begins with pulsing synths alongside interviews and field recordings conducted by her colleague of Riham. We hear people within the West Bank towns of Nablus, Bethlehem, and Ramallah, discussing water and access to water. This gives way to a solo piano interlude and then recordings of children in the Jalazone Refugee Camp in Ramallah, established in 1949 as indigenous Palestinians were forced out of their homelands during the violent founding of Israel in 1948.
The Drowning Valley ends with “Offerings II,” a companion piece to “Offerings,” which was released last summer, and featuring a dramatic video of Jarrar playing the piece, clad in a red dress and shrouded in red light.
This initial part of the Into the Ether… project, while quietly mournful and aching, also becomes a vehicle for contemplation and reflection on the often-ignored stories and histories of the Palestinian people. Jarrar offers us this solemn introduction to her project as a reminder of the harsh realities that currently exist within occupied Palestine, but she also imagines a path out of oppression and forward to freedom. The hope that awaits within the entire Into the Ether… work might inspire us to imagine and create pathways out of all the forms of oppression and injustice we see and experience daily.
The Drowning Valley is available now on all major streaming platforms. It comes with a bonus track and videos when you download on Bandcamp, where you an also read more on the themes and imagery that inspired the work and order the sheet music.
In less time than it takes to sit through a sitcom, Laura Jane Grace delivers seven incisive and eclectic tunes on her new solo EP, At War With the Silverfish. It ends before you’re ready but stays with you long after its 15 minutes are up.
Musically, the record never stays in one place long, but Grace’s lyrical prowess ties it all together. “Not gonna win/but I’m in the game,” she sings on the opening tune “Three of Hearts,” probably capturing a lot of people’s mindsets at the moment. Things get a little lighter on “Lolo 13” and its description of a dream about love interests, real or imagined (“Are you flirtin’?/I’m still not certain”), who are lost forever in the bright light of morning. Insistent kick drum punches and 4-on-the-floor beats pulse throughout, pushing but not overtaking Grace’s lightly hypnotic strumming.
She detours into a bit of baroque pop with “Electro-Static Sweep.” Deft string arrangements provide some of the titular “sweep,” as does Grace, as she croons the verses and pours on a bit of melodrama for the chorus. Her simple acoustic strumming and the loose drumming keep the tune moored on a solid dirtfloor groove.
Laura Jane Grace performing in 2019 (photo by Kate Hoos)
“Day Old Coffee” is perfect powerpop. There are some thrilling Paul Weller vibes here and Grace’s lyrics are the stuff of pure punk brilliance—endearingly snotty, grimly funny, completely relatable, and totally devastating: “Day old coffee/microwave to boiling/pour it on my eyeballs/and boil my dumbshit brains out.” This song could last 10 minutes and never lose its impact, but just as you’re ready to scream the chorus at the top of your lungs one more time, the tune ends abruptly. That’s how you do it.
She returns to the simple acoustic-and-voice arrangement for “Smug FuckFace,” allowing the focus to rest squarely on her lyrics, which, again, seem to sum it all up in one poignant bummer of a couplet: “Hey, you, sitting there with your smug fuckface/Will anything ever be good again?”
Most tunes on At War With the Silverfish don’t adhere to a neat verse, chorus, verse structure. Some are just a few lines of brutally insightful lyrics atop simple and affecting music that either makes you stomp your feet or hang your head. It’s where many of us are at now: stealing joy where we can but also battered by the world. We get what Grace can give us right now, and it is a deceptively deep well.
Earworms abound on the latest rager from Nihiloceros, Self Destroy. The vocal interplay between guitarist Mike Borchardt and bassist Alex Hoffman is the one of the band’s strongest points—with guest vocals from Gillian Visco (shadow monster) and Stephanie Gunther (Desert Sharks, Murder Tag), the vocals hit a thrilling new level. We previously reviewed the infectious single “Mammal Science Fiction” which featured plenty of their signature grunge power pop (read here).
A prolific and energetic live act around Brooklyn, Self Destroy is the first Nihiloceros release in four years and it’s worth the wait. The band sounds confident, playing hard, but dynamically, on some of their strongest tunes to date.
Restrained strumming and plucking from Borchardt and Hoffman open the record on “Dirty Homes” while drummer Chris Gilroy brings the big beat. The melodic verses explode into a screamy chorus of repeated “You!”s. Hoffman does some nifty, discordant bass work as the song builds to the end. Lead single “iamananimal” is a highlight of Self Destroy. Featuring Borchardt and Hoffman in harmony during the verses and then a call-and-response chorus, the song is already lodging itself into your brain folds before Visco takes it home with the end chorus, her first of two featured vocals.
In addition to lending their voices, both Visco and Gunther helped co-write a couple tunes on Self Destroy. Visco’s “Halfway Human” is a sludgy basher where she and Hoffman harmonize through the verses and choruses. Gunther (who plays with Borchardt in Murder Tag) co-wrote and sang on “Baby Teeth,” one of the hardest-rocking tunes on the record. The album closes with “Odie,” a melodic slow-dance waltz that uncoils into a 4/4 pop punk chorus, which features Borchardt, Hoffman, and Gunther alternately singing and screaming “Powder bomb/clap clap gone.”
Perhaps due to the pandemic, Hoffman and Gilroy also took on engineering duties for this record. Gilroy engineered the guitars and bass, while Hoffman recorded the vocals. Drums were tracked by Erik Braund at Braund Studios in Brooklyn. Gilroy also mixed the record at Douglass Recording in Brooklyn. While Gilroy was key in the making of this record, drum duties are now handled by German Sent when the band plays live.
The band’s growth as songwriters is apparent on Self Destroy, without losing any of their trademark boundless energy. The six tunes rock and demand your ears hear them again and again.