Signal Boost: 15 Tracks from the First Half of 2020 You Should Know
Our Associate Editor’s favorite pre-released singles, album deep cuts, and tracks by unfairly obscure artists from the past few months.
There’s enough highly publicized new music released every day now to keep you busy for at least a year. Chances are you haven’t heard all of it—and if by some miracle of temporal tampering or unemployment you have, chances are you haven’t retained too much of it.
That’s why every month, our Associate Editor Mike LeSuer is going to be rounding up fifteen tracks to reiterate their importance in an unending stream of musical content. Comprised of pre-released singles, album deep cuts, and tracks by unfairly obscure artists, he thinks these guys could all use a little Signal Boost.
Backxwash feat. Malldate, “Into the Void”
We’re inexplicably in the midst of a slow-but-steady nu metal revival, so I guess with the groundwork for that being laid over the past couple years it doesn’t come as that much of a surprise that its rappier cousin horrorcore is making a comeback. Yet the current scene is far from those intellectually stimulating ICP verses about magnets—artists like Ho99o9 are considerably more political and, uh, mature, with Backxwash among the newer names that are beginning to populate your feed. The shock value of “Into the Void” is also considerably less fantastical than its cartoonish predecessors, with the threat of Christian extremism evident from the opening audio sample warning believers about the perils of purgatory. When the anxious trap beat drops, though, the focus of the song shifts—or logically progresses—to the victimizing act of othering folks based on their appearances.
Black Dresses, “Creep U”
Being capital-O Online in recent years has often presented a bizarre and often-macabre phenomenon that I can’t exactly put into words, but can best identify by pointing to the graphic videos of police violence virally being shared right now by…former Charlotte Hornets shooting guard Rex Chapman. It’s a sort of cocktail of difficult subject matter being shared in a way that’s positive in that it’s being brought to light, with a mix of the surreal in this case injected by the kicker that it’s been co-signed by a guy I probably still have a few basketball cards of, which model a shocking amount of thigh. Anyway, that’s how I interpret Black Dresses, with “Creep U”—following two LPs of industrialized electroclash—acting as an oddly straightforward (for the most part) denouement at the end of Peaceful as Hell, their third LP in two years. Like Rex going back to posting videos of dogs and babies, if only for a moment.
Boston Manor, “On a High Ledge”
Even without following along with the lyric video—or heeding the fairly straightforward song title—“On a High Ledge” is a tense listen. It (rightly) feels like the scene in the movie where the character with latent suicidal tendencies cohabits a room with Chekov’s gun, evoking a pit-of-the-stomach anxiety for the viewer that mounts over a prolonged period. Particularly as a song appearing on a record that opens with the driving, Auto-Tuned, nu-industrial “Everything Is Ordinary,” “Ledge” is an unsettlingly calm listen that never quite opens up in the way you expect it to. Glitched out electronic drumming and moaning guitars build to a cappella vocals, closing on the same ominous keys it opens with. And to be clear, the subject matter is dealt with delicately in the song as well its video, which serves as a sort of advertisement for Samaritans hotline.
BOYO, “Tough Kid”
I feel like I’m constantly finding my Song Of The Summer in the dead of winter, but this is one of the first times I’ve done the opposite: stumbled upon a song I want so badly to wrap myself in like a blanket or two or eight and play on repeat as I overreact to the unseasonably warm, snowless Midwest December. There’s definitely something about the video’s staticky animation that reminds me of The Snowman (not that Snowman), but it’s more than that—the “White Winter Hymnal”-tier baroqueness of the vocals in spite of the song’s garage-rock guitar, the homey, nostalgic lyrics. This has Sitting Alone In My Parents’ CR-V Outside Pier 1 Imports For Day-Before-Christmas-Shopping While Weeping Very Confused Tears written all over it.
I don’t know if I’m justified in my untangling of the terms “dream pop” and “shoegaze,” but the two genres are often used interchangeably, and I never understood how the two became conflated in the first place. To me, “dream pop” would describe something like born again, the gentle, dreamy debut record from Ontario songwriter Ellis. “Shoegaze,” on the other hand, would describe the colossal single heard early on born again’s track list—a chorus that lays on slabs of deafening guitars and a marked lyrical shift from longing to desperation. This track alone delegitimizes the “bedroom pop” tag slapped on the project as well, if only based on the number of noise complaints I’ve received in quarantine while three tracks deep into the record.
Eye Flys, “Guillotine”
In yet another case of quarantine-era music being “more relevant than ever,” Eye Flys dropped “Guillotine” at the exact moment the global population was reminded just how much disdain we have for everyone hoarding wealth while millions of folks across the country were being laid off. In the three months between when Eye Flys’ record came out and today, the U.S. added twenty-nine more billionaires while forty-four millions people filed for unemployment. Within the music industry, initiatives were desperately launched to keep beloved independent music venues open, while indie artists were passing the same $10 back and forth on Bandcamp (more than usual)—all while corporate entities in the industry like Live Nation continued to stick their hands in artists’ pockets. “Guillotine!” we all shouted. But not as loud as EF’s Jake Smith.
Floral Tattoo, “The Art of Moving On”
This analogy is flawed almost to the point that it’s meaningless, but the only way I could really describe You Can Never Have a Long Enough Head Start is by comparing it to Titus Andronicus’ Airing of Grievances—I don’t think I’ve been so instantly engaged with a rousing intro to an album packed with sonically diverse (though equally rousing) guitar rock since 2009. “Life in Color” is a clear early peak, though it’s the bookending “The Art of Moving On” that made the biggest impression (worth mentioning how the synths introduced in the instrumental outro sound a bit like the horns on “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ”), summarizing the conflicting party punk and gender dysphoria that characterize the record. I like the part where they shout “Fuck the cops.”
The Garden, “AMPM Truck”
The lyrics to “AMPM Truck” basically serve as a written apology from Wyatt Shears to his passenger for falling asleep at the wheel and almost getting them decimated by a convenience store semi. But more like a police apology, where they never really say sorry—they just kinda revisit the events in question in a way that acknowledges that they know something that happened shouldn’t have happened. There’s even an illogical conclusion they draw from the experience, and a consequent shifting of blame: “ATL to Florida, that’s the last time” Wyatt recites, as if the incident was the result of the particular strip of road they were cruising rather than the driver’s negligence. This isn’t by any means intended to equate The Garden with the police—it’s just that the sibling duo’s strange songwriting universe sometimes employs a similar element of fantasy as that used by law enforcement officers.
Hanni El Khatib, “ALIVE”
In the retrospectively non-inclusive blog-centric music scene of the late 2000s, I always dreaded the pivoting-from-guitar records from my favorite artists—it seemed like Justin Vernon was leading a mass exodus from guitar-based rock into territory more closely aligned with R&B, with Auto-Tune and synthesizers being the primary signposts of this evolution. This opinion, of course, is very closed-minded in a way that’s, uh, probably exclusive to folks who only listened to music made by white artists, and it’s taken me a few years to glimpse the gap that people like Vernon bridged by attaching a Black genre like rock which was commandeered by whites to sounds that were more contemporarily inhabited by songwriters of color. Guitarist Hanni El Khatib’s first non-guitar-driven record boasts some of the most inventive and unclassifiable tracks of the year by making a similar jump, turning a life-subverting car wreck into a musical left-turn every conventional rock band should probably confront at some point in their career. “ALIVE” is probably the strongest evidence for this graceful pivot—in no way does the single reflect the cartoonish lack of grace its video documents.
HMLTD, “Mikey’s Song”
My least favorite genre of music is Songs About Songs. You know, like when J.T. sings “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song” as if he imagines his listeners are all like “Damn, this track’s so sexy I’m just gonna go ahead and stop being clothed.” “Mikey’s Song,” though, is a pretty solid defense of this stupid shrapnel of postmodernism, detailing the vocalist’s heartbreak at hearing a pop song on the radio about himself, written and performed by someone with intimate details about his personal life. It’s almost like a petty version of a diss track/counter diss track, where the two songwriters (“Mikey” is fictional, as far as we know) are publicly airing dirty laundry over the airwaves. Yet HMLTD’s song is every bit as catchy and heartbreak-injected as the song they’re singing about, countering glam-rock’s long history of kitsch with an earnest storyline.
Back in 2016, Kris Esfandiari, vocalist of doom-metal group King Woman, released what I at the time considered her experimental record, a dream pop solo album under the moniker Miserable which saw excessive collaboration with the drone/slowcore artist Drowse. But over the past year we’ve seen new limits to Kris’ experimental ideas—her aggressive trap single as DALMATIAN, a similarly trap-inspired recording as KRIS, and, most recently, an EP with Wicca Phase Springs Eternal producer Darcy Baylis called Sugar High. Nestled not-so-quietly among all these projects is her death industrial LP as NGHTCRWLR, which also scratches that trap itch while simultaneously diving into power electronics. “Daymare” is the record’s harsh focal point, split between audio of a man speaking in tongues and Esfandiari howling over an impossibly heavy beat. It’s the same intersection of horror and pop that quietly influenced a decade of witch-house-fuelled hip-hop, though we’re probably a few years of exponentiating apocalypse removed from something this aggressive infiltrating the airwaves.
Pink Siifu, “FK”
It’s hard to talk about NEGRO as if it’s a collection of scrutable songs instead of a chaotic splatter-painting of noise using free jazz as—ironically—a template. Yet some of these individual moments do stand on their own, not least of which is “FK”—not just because it clocks in at a relatively epic three minutes, but because it has a traditional punk number (distorted as it may be) filling its first ninety seconds. Before it pivots into the same sort of hip-hop noise collage that Pink Siifu is known to produce, the first half of the early album track sounds like Obnox at his most blown-out, with someone like B L A C K I E shouting obscenities behind the mic. While all twenty tracks on NEGRO fully embody this punk ideology, it’s “FK” that most superficially conveys it.
Slow Fire Pistol, “Heart of Discernment”
I don’t know if this exactly counts, but my favorite album released so far in 2020 is the two-track split between Portrayal of Guilt and Slow Fire Pistol that Run for Cover released back in February. While both bands exhibit considerably different approaches to screamo, the more post-hardcore-derivative SFP’s “Heart of Discernment” proved they were able to match the intense, doomy crescendos of their sludgy Austin peers, with their contribution to the split only one black metal vocalist shy of PoG’s satanic incantations. Which also works to their advantage, considering the track’s theme, which is all too topical for this profoundly frustrating chapter of this profoundly frustrating year: “How do we open the blind eyes / Of the loved ones that lie before us?”
In a period when rap is getting increasingly hectic every year, They Hate Change is a welcome, uh, change of pace. Their recent LP Now, and Never Again introduced the duo’s sleepy flow as a natural state of consciousness rather than the drugged-up lethargy or Drake-like moping of many of the scenes youngsters countering the Floyd-era protest raps filling the streets right now. It’s almost jarring to hear anyone else hop on a THC song—in the case of “Secret,” it’s Botsu of Japan’s Dos Monos—as it takes you out of their mellow moods set by a minimalist beat often recognizable as a sound collage worthy of the annals of Deathbomb Arc’s experimental discography.
Violent Soho, “Pick It Up Again”
I imagine once quarantine is finally lifted, Violent Soho’s “Pick It Up Again” video will serve as a prophetic vision of bands so eager to share their music in a live setting that they’ll literally take their gear door-to-door to perform the tracks they’ve been working on to an audience nowhere near as excited as they are. The song itself manages to intersect the grungy noise rock of ’90s Americans like Dino Jr. with the more protagonistic pop qualities of early Weezer—both of which clash with the Aussies’ accents in the video—with the catharsis of the former fortifying the latter. This certainly gives suburban Brisbane something to look forward to.