Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Death From Above 1979, Armand Hammer & The Alchemist, Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & The London Symphony Orchestra, AJR, Xiu Xiu

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

March closes out its release cycle with some big names from many genres, and many of them deliver albums that will likely reappear on many year-end best-of lists come December. Whether it’s chaotic or relaxing, many of these releases are bristling with energy. Take a chance on any of these, and you will likely not be disappointed.


1. Death From Above 1979 – Is 4 Lovers


Released March 26, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

Death From Above 1979 has returned with a new album, reinstating the “1979” in their name after removing it on their prior album four years ago. The band reclaiming the backend of its name is symbolic of the music contained on their fourth studio album, “Is 4 Lovers,” as this is their best work since the years prior to the shortening of the band’s name.

The group was one of the most notable dance-punk bands, and they prove with this new album that they are still the kings of the scene. Bassist Jesse F. Keeler provides some killer riffs and spacey keyboard work on every track. The way he distorts his instrument to new heights can lead the unsuspecting listener to believe that there is a guitar somewhere in the mix, but it is all bass. Drummer and vocalist Sebastien Grainger sounds great as always, both vocally and on his kit. His drumwork has adapted well with some more electronic elements to his setup without it sounding too out of place, while his voice really drives home how fun the melodies on this record are.

The duo strikes up conversations about politics, class relations and isolation in the internet age with a fun vigor that really makes these tired topics feel energetic and fresh. Normally millennial and Gen X internet burnout discourse is somewhat hamfisted and cringeworthy, but the group subverts that in the frantic “Totally Wiped Out” by filling it with obscure surfing terms, something that is rather humorous to hear coming from a Canadian band. “N.Y.C. Power Elite Part I” is also incredibly catchy with its chorus about class differences coming off as both biting and playful. Opener “Modern Guy” is all species of earworms, while closer “No War” sounds like a song from the early years of Muse. “Love Letter” adds some variety to the tracklist by being a piano-led ballad if you can call something so noisy a ballad.

This album is tons of fun and is so endlessly catchy, but it can be so hard to listen to. The production is so blown out that it can hurt to listen to with headphones at times, but it surprisingly doesn’t cloud the mix in a negative way. This is supposed to sound scuzzy and dirty and razor-sharp, but that sets it back by being something you really need to be in the mood for. Thankfully, I am more often than not a person who is bouncing off the walls, so this is perfect. I often try to find music similar to this, but few do it as well as these guys.


2. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

Third Stream

Released March 26, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

Well, this is quite a list of names to be in collaboration. Floating Points is the moniker under UK electronic musician Sam Shepard’s works. Having released two albums of progressive electronic-influenced IDM, Floating Points returns, this time with legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra in tow. Third stream is no doubt a genre many might not be familiar with, but in the simplest sense, it is a blend of western classical music with jazz. “Promises” takes that a step further by including influences from progressive electronic and minimalism.

The best way to approach this project is to see it as one entire piece instead of nine separate tracks. The whole album is built around a continuing piano motif that pervades throughout every track. This theme is very calming and peaceful, which sets the overall tone for the whole album. There is a warmth to the instruments, especially whenever Sanders steps in to blow. It is very cool to see one of the most spastic and energetic jazz composers take a backseat and provide atmosphere. Of course, it is well known that he is a titan of his instrument, but he shows off an entirely different side of his playing here that is interesting to hear. The LSO also provides some great atmosphere and, at times, blends into the soundscapes enough that you forget it is an orchestra.

The first five movements are sparse and very similar to one another, but the following three tracks really shine. These three pieces are all between seven to ten minutes long and add more electronic influences throughout while keeping the meditative atmosphere. For some people, this will be an incredibly boring experience, and that is understandable. Not a whole lot happens here, and it can sometimes feel like background music, but there is a lot of texture to get yourself lost in. The minimalist approach lulls the listener in and makes them feel safe. While this isn’t the most classic third stream release ever, it certainly is a welcome release to the genre. I wouldn’t say this is the best place to start for any of the artists involved, but it stands with some of the best work from all of them. 


3. Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram

East Coast Hip Hop

Released March 26, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

No, not the Occidental Petroleum Armand Hammer. It’s not his grandson Armie Hammer either. The Armand Hammer here is the New York based hip hop duo consisting of Billy Woods and Elucid. On this project, the duo is joined by legendary producer The Alchemist who handles the production on this record.

For those not familiar with any of the people involved with this project, it can be quite an unfulfilling listen at first. Billy Woods and Elucid both had a very laid-back delivery, but not in the chilled-out Snoop Dogg way. They seem like they are slow on the mic, but they are masters at their craft. The lyrics can be dense at times and are purposefully cryptic in some cases, but the two have great chemistry and wonderful flows that just take a little time to get used to. Alchemist’s production meshes with the duo’s style in a lot of great ways. The beats range from jazz-influenced to dub-influenced, with many off-kilter cuts thrown in as well.

The album does take a little while to get going, as many of the songs on the first half are under three minutes and don’t feel like they have reached their true potential, but the back half really shines. “Falling Out Of The Sky” features an incredible guest verse from Earl Sweatshirt and is easily one of the best tracks on the album. Closer “Stonefruit” sees the two try a delivery closer to singing that helps deliver the song’s theme of change in a stylistically different way. “Chicharonnes” is the most overtly political song on the record. Judging from the song title and album cover, which has been blurred for your discretion, that comes as no surprise. However, the duo manages to make simple subjects in hip hop like politics become all the more veiled and arcane through their wordplay.

This is certainly one of the better hip hop releases this year, and with such a consistent discography from the group, it is no surprise. This will take a few listens to open up to the listener, just like all of their work. Once it does, there is some of the most creative work in the game right now to be explored.




Released March 26, 2021

1.5 Globes out of 5

Being unfairly mean to AJR is par for the course in the music world. The group might be one of the most bullied bands online, even to the point that if you search AJR on Google, the first result in “People also ask” is “Why is AJR hated?” The three Met brothers who make up the group seem like swell guys, and every fan I have met makes up some of the nicest people I know. Even then, the fans are aware of how disrespected the band is and acknowledge why people don’t like them. I tried to go into this one with open arms, but I am afraid to admit I am going to add on to the “bashing AJR” discourse, this time with probable cause, so buckle up.

“OK ORCHESTRA” kicks off with “OK Overture,” an intro track that serves as less of a song and more of a hodgepodge of ideas that sounds like somebody tried to write a hyperpop song but forgot the “hyper” and “song” part. Even if you justify it as just an intro track, it is the second-longest song on here and doesn’t do a lot to set up the album. “Bummerland” is a take on how the lowest points of COVID-19 will allow us to look forward to better times, but it comes off as shallow given how amateurish the lyrics are. However, I will give this track credit for the way it has various instruments blend in and out of each other seamlessly at certain points.

“3 O’Clock Things” jumps from topic to topic while shoehorning in some uncontroversial and surface-level politics while also further proving that nothing good has ever come from the electro-swing movement. “My Play,” an ode to childhood and the effects of divorce, might be simultaneously the funniest and worst song I have ever heard due to the lyrical structure. “Joe” follows with another unintentionally humorous song about childhood, this time being about proving a bully wrong about your potential in life while showing that you don’t think or care about them anymore. The real kicker is that if they don’t think about this guy anymore, why do they bother writing a song about it? Maybe that’s the joke, but the sloppiness of the lyrics makes me believe they weren’t thinking that hard about it.

“Adventure Is Out There” is probably the best song on the album in its story. Even the execution almost works this time! A shuffling drum beat drives the tale about how the items we lose in our travels see the world without us. The personification is cute, but the group again put a stick in their spokes by not cleaning up the lyrics. “Bang!” feels like a song from a Subway or Pizza Hut commercial fully fleshed out. Do with that what you will.

I never understood why people said this band makes them physically angry, but then I heard “The Trick.” The high-pitched voice on this track makes me want to find whoever put Alvin and the Chipmunks in the recording booth so I can toss those rodents out the window. “Ordinaryish People” has its heart in the right place, but the lyrics about dividing friends into pretty, ugly and other categories to fit the theme obscures the message about vanity. The chorus of “Humpty Dumpty” is the silliest misunderstanding of classic literature since Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” They do realize Humpty Dumpty didn’t smile through the pain, right? He did not “scream when no one’s around.” There was no retribution, no payoff, no redemption. He died. The egg ceased to exist.

“World’s Smallest Violin” is the second passable song on here with a nice melody and a really fun lyrical concept. Again though, they ruin it with some horrid turns of phrases. I understand the metaphor of the world’s smallest violin needing to be played is the equivalent of needing to vent to someone about your mental health, but they did not need to say “spew my tiny symphony.” I can’t say much about “Way Less Sad” other than it exists. “Christmas In June” rounds out the trio of songs I think have potential, but it is again ruined by a shoddy arrangement and real clunkers of lyrics. The concept of having to balance work and home life is a tried and true topic, but it comes off as somewhat out of touch this time.

This album feels like the musical equivalent of a stock image. It feels incredibly corporate and manufactured. Remember that Black Mirror episode where they make a song from something in Miley Cyrus’s brain while she’s in a coma and have a machine finish it? This is that in album form. It isn’t even poorly performed; it is just so devoid of polish and heart that I struggle to see what makes them so huge. They somehow are so inoffensive that it wraps around to being kind of offensive. The rhymes on this album feel so forced as do the cursing. The production is also incredibly flat, causing none of the instruments to pop. Do I even need to comment on the album’s title? This album is full of good intentions executed in the worst possible way almost every single time.

I want to reiterate that a lot of the tone of this review is somewhat tongue in cheek, but I do think it is somewhat disheartening to see music like this destroy the charts while many smaller artists barely see any recognition for their work. If anything, I give this album credit for being somewhat more adventurous than their prior albums. If they had workshopped the lyrics a lot longer and actually used the concept of orchestration on this album, then maybe they would’ve had something decent on their hands. Instead, we are left with something that sounds like they listened to a fun. album and decided they wanted to be a dollar store Nate Ruess. Please, AJR, do something legitimately daring next time. This is promising, but it feels so much like a first draft that it hurts.


5. Xiu Xiu – OH NO

Experimental Rock, Art Pop

Released March 26, 2021

(Content warning: self-harm, abuse)

4 Globes out of 5

This review is going to cover some heavy topics, so I decided to include it last so that anyone uncomfortable with the items discussed further can skip this one.

Xiu Xiu are an experimental band that have dipped into folk, rock, and pop music all throughout their career. Formed in 2002, the band is the third and most successful project of frontman Jamie Stewart. Being the only consistent member, Steward has used this project to discuss a wide variety of topics from his personal life. Xiu Xiu’s music has always been abrasive and uninviting, but when you manage to shoulder your way past the harsh production and blunt lyricism, you are presented with some of the most emotionally hard-hitting music ever created.

“OH NO” is the twelfth album from the group and is somewhat of a departure from the group’s past work. Not only does this act as a sort of duets album, it is also likely their most accessible. The majority of the album retains the same eeriness of their past work, but the subject matter is handled a lot more delicately. “I Dream Of Someone Else Entirely” touches on the topics of generational domestic abuse, from parent to child and on. Stewart is a lot more poetic on this track and on the album as a whole. While the majority of Xiu Xiu’s catalogue touches on abuse, self-harm and suicide, the way it is presented here is more in allusion rather than direct reference. The track “Goodbye For Good” is somewhat deceiving as it is not dealing with self-harm through mental illness but instead with the environment. Stewart brings up the sentiment that life goes on without you but while interjecting that he is not needed for this planet to spring life and that people are doing more harm than good. Of course, the track makes reference to suicide, but it comes as less of a cry for help and more of a cry to protect our planet. While an incredibly grim subject, this slightly more optimistic tone, if you can call it that, permeates through the album.

“It Bothers Me All The Time” would be an unbearably devastating song had it been written at an earlier time in Stewart’s life, but the inclusion of this dreary drone-influenced track takes on new meaning due to the juxtaposition of what follows. “Saint Dymphna” is likely one of the most uplifting and beautiful tracks the group has ever created and its placement after the aforementioned song works wonders. The lyrics deal with moving past an abuser and overcoming that pain to see that you are more than that. This harkens back to an earlier track, “A Classic Screw,” which picks at the question of why victims forgive and even defend their abusers. Stewart is no stranger to abusive relationships, so his handling is all the more personal.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Xiu Xiu album without some oddball humor. “Rumpus Room” is a danceable slice of noise-pop about romantic tension that namedrops Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Fuego Takis, while “I Cannot Resist” features some of Stewart’s silly onomatopoeia while describing a head rolling down the stairs.

The contributing artists all blend with Xiu Xiu’s style incredibly well while also meshing with Stewart’s erratic and quavering vocals. He truly doesn’t have a voice you would think would work with other artists, but they reel it in for the most part to make some compelling melodies. Sharon Van Etten sounds uncharacteristically creepy on the opening track, and Liz Harris makes “A Bottle Of Rum” all the more ethereal. Chelsea Wolfe even makes an appearance for a cover of The Cure’s “One Hundred Years,” but it doesn’t entirely work. I think my only reservations on this is that I am too attached to the original and think Robert Smith gives one of the most nihilistic performances in the entirety of music, but the track still works well and could be mistaken for a Xiu Xiu original.

Overall, this is another great record from Xiu Xiu, even if it is not nearly as weird or as experimental as prior works. Thankfully, Jamie Stewart can also make some great pop songs as well. This is definitely a great start for anyone who hasn’t heard their music before. Is this their best album? Oh no. Is it one of the best of the year so far? Oh yes.