Haley Williams – FLOWERS for VASES/descansos
Label: Atlantic Records
Genre: Singer-songwriter, pop
Following up last year’s ambitious but scattered debut solo album Petals for Armor was always going to be a challenge for the Paramore frontwoman, but she certainly has done an admirable job. While Petals for Armor can be viewed as a more experimental off-shoot of the last few Paramore albums, FLOWERS for VASES/descansos is a true solo album in the traditional singer-songwriter mold: stripped-down instrumentation, quiet vocals, introspective lyrics and subtle effects. In short, it’s an album that’s well suited for early 2021, and for the most part, it works. The album gets off to a strong start with songs like “First Thing to Go” and “Asystole” and ends even stronger. I’m a sucker for piano with vocal effects and both are put to great use on “No Use I Just Do,” which is by far my favorite song on the album. The album’s flaws are also readily apparent. It’s wildly uneven, with the middle portion largely forgettable and weighing down the strong beginning and end. Williams’ lyrics are largely metaphorical but simplistic at the same time and don’t always hit the mark. However, her vocal talents and strong songwriting largely make up for these issues, and overall FLOWERS for VASES/descansos is a solid album with some really impressive highlights.
Earthshrine – My Bones Shall Rest Upon the Mountain
Label: Northern Silence Productions
Genre: Atmospheric black metal/doom
Right off the bat, this album checks a lot of boxes. An album title that reminds me of Red Dead Redemption 2? Check! A cool 19th-century Russian painting as the cover art? Check! Even though I knew very little about this band, I was excited going in and oh man, it only got better from there. This album is absolutely epic. There’s a pretty tried and true formula that remains in place throughout the album. For the most part, the songs start off relatively mid-tempo, with ominous doom-inspired riffing and harsher vocals, then slowly transition into long instrumental segments that get more and more majestic as they develop. Plenty of bands use this approach, but Earthshrine throws a curveball into the middle of the album with two songs that fully embrace melody and clean singing and sound markedly different from the rest of the songs on the album. It’s a pretty big risk and one that could have easily derailed things a bit but it’s executed almost flawlessly. The sheer amount of emotion here is absolutely staggering, particularly on the closing track “When I Die I Shall Return,” which throws in a Bob Ross sample (seriously!) in the middle before closing with a five-minute soaring outro. With six songs and clocking in at around 45 minutes, the songs have room to breathe and are well-developed without dragging on for too long. Earthshrine have taken a saturated genre and injected a shot of adrenaline into it, almost from out of nowhere. This is an early contender for my top album of the year.
Mistral – Somnifer
Label: Folkvangr Records (cassette)
Genre: Shoegaze/post-black metal
I knew absolutely nothing about Mistral before listening to this album other than they’re a young duo from Warsaw, Poland, and that Somnifer is their debut album. However, they came up on my Spotify recommended and I thought the artwork was cool so I decided to give it a listen. This turned out to be a really pleasant surprise. The blending of genres here is pretty impressive. There’s a large amount of shoegaze and post-rock influences, with most of the songs incorporating lengthy instrumental passages and melodic interludes in between blasts of mid-tempo black metal. The vocals consist primarily of dissonant shrieks with the occasional use of dreamy clean singing which is a nice change of pace, especially on songs like “Wither.” The opening track, “Indigo”, is the clear standout on the album and hooks your attention straight away with the riffing and the layered combination of the two vocal styles. It’s a great example of an opening track that sets the tone for the rest of the album There are a few wobbles on the subsequent tracks, primarily with the length (especially “Heather” and “Homecoming”) and some awkward production where there’s silence for several seconds before a song moves into its next segment. These hiccups don’t take too much away from the obvious qualities Somnifer has, and the potential Mistral possesses cannot be understated. Overall this is a very solid debut.