Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Halsey, Leprous, CHVRCHES, Turnstile, Kanye West, and the Summer Lightning Review Recap

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

It has been quite a summer, with many of what will surely be the year’s biggest releases being dropped over our break. There was also quite a hefty load of albums dropped this past weekend which are covered here. There’s something for everyone here, and at the end is a recap of some of my favorite albums from over the summer that I didn’t get to cover!

1.  Kanye West – Donda
Christian Hip Hop
Released August 29, 2021
4 Globes out of 5

Kanye West has been one of the most titanic, polarizing figures in pop culture for well over a decade and a half now, but it hasn’t always been for the best reasons. The man needs no introduction. Still, I feel the need to give some background.

Kanye has a long history of controversy. Feuds with other artists, rash statements on television, questionable politics, poor self care and many, many cancelled projects. Ever since Kanye dropped “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” in 2010, it seems he had crafted the perfect release schedule. When he does something reprehensible, he uses that to fuel his next release. However, it seems he has become accustomed to drumming up the controversy before having a product to present. This time, Kanye had a lot to answer for. He had some extremely inappropriate comments about our country’s relationship with slavery while also supporting harmful political ideologies. While he doubled back on these opinions multiple times, that doesn’t excuse him. After a botched presidential campaign, Kanye sunk further into the deep end. He stopped taking his medication and refused professional help. After failing to deliver countless albums over the years, it seemed like “Donda” was next to be axed.

However, this past Sunday morning, I woke up to my roommate telling me that this had actually come out. After several release date changes and listening parties, he actually delivered. Kanye’s music had religious undertones in the past, but it had felt like pandering in recent years. “Jesus Is King” was barely even half-baked, so another round of spiritual raps seemed like it would tank Kanye. “Donda” would truly be the thing that would make or break his cultural relevance. So my roommate and I sat in our living room and put this on. While we knew it would have some music merit due to Kanye’s past work, we were surprised to find how enjoyable this is. Before you jump to conclusions, allow me to dissect the world of “Donda.”

As stated prior, Kanye thrives on controversy. It feels like he does things for the reaction rather than the meaning behind it. Rather than hamfisting more uncomfortable politics into his work, Kanye keeps things relatively simple here. He touches on his rumored split with Kim Kardashian as well as his political regrets. More than anything, he talks about his mother, Donda West, whom the album is titled after. Several interludes of her speaking about social justice adorn the album. While the Christian themes that encapsulate the album might turn some off, they serve more as personal affirmations instead lectures on good will. If the lyrics on this album say anything, it’s that Kanye will do whatever it takes to stay in the public lens.

I should touch on the music a bit at this point. Kanye has been one of the most influential producers in hip-hop since day one. Even if you despise him in every aspect, the man has had a massive impact on the pop landscape. “Donda” is no different in the production aspect. The gospel organs that permeate the record add such a unique flair. The sparse use of drums makes every hit all the more rewarding. The nine minute “Jesus Lord” serves as this album’s emotional climax as Kanye speaks on violence and the lack of availability to safe abortions in poorer communies. “Believe What I Say” is a bouncy song that touches on the lack of privacy musicians have in the modern age. “Moon” features a genuinely breathtaking Kid Cudi performance. Kanye seems to have discovered how to properly blend all of the aesthetics he has been toying with these last few years. Even if the tracklist is incredibly bloated, there are plenty of classic tracks to go around.

In terms of features, the album is actually incredibly stacked and largely unproblematic. I say largely as there are two glaring spots on this album. The first is “New Again,” a genuinely amazing song that features Chris Brown on the chorus, one of the most reprehensible people in the industry. It is a massive shame, as the song is incredible. The chorus is ironic, as Chris Brown has likely never repented for anything in his life. The second glaring spot comes in the form of the bonus tracks. The final four songs are all remixes of album tracks that generally don’t do much aside from adding a different artist. However, “Jail pt 2” takes what is one of the most electrifying intro tracks in a while and absolutely ruins it. The catharsis of hearing Kanye and Jay-Z on a track is instead replaced with DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, two people who are not in good public standing. DaBaby has his homophobic remarks while Manson has multiple sexual assult alligations towards him. Kanye’s management has stated this was a PR move to drum up controversy, but I don’t buy it. Kanye himself said it’s because they both voted for him, which totally fits his ego. Seeing as Kanye has publicly denounced abusers in his past, it is very upsetting to see him throw away those morals. On the other hand, it is hilarious to hear Manson sing, “Guess who’s going to jail tonight,” for a whole host of reasons. I surprisingly enjoyed this album, but the things I just mentioned put such a bad taste in my mouth I can’t really give this as much praise as I’d like to.

In the end, Kanye West has proved that no matter what, he finds a way to stay culturally relevant, even if it is by scratching and clawing at every principle he had carried decades prior. MF DOOM might have been the supervillian, but Kanye truly has become a living comic book character. From renting out a stadium to bending every deadline to his will, it feels like he truly doesn’t care what happens around him. Seeing as he hasn’t been exactly malicious himself, it is somewhat enjoyable seeing where he goes next with this “Joker moment” that he is having. This review has been a little scattered, but that’s fitting for someone like Kanye. While not the best album of the year, this is probably the most eventful, even if it’s due to the album rollout. As my roommate said upon finishing the album, “Mr. West woke up.”

2. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Alternative Rock
Released August 27, 2021
3.5 Globes out of 5

Halsey and I go way back. I remember when “Badlands” came out in 2015, with the single “New Americana” still ranking among my least favorite songs of all time. In the years since, Halsey has remained a powerhouse in the pop world and remained an artist I just couldn’t get into. With this new album, I was apprehensive but excited when I heard that this would be a change of direction for her.

To many fans, “If I Can’t Have Love” is going to miss the landing entirely. A few fans I’ve spoken to have already told me they were disappointed with it. I can see why, as many of the genres pooled together on this album are quite strange for a mainstream pop artist. Noise rock, darkwave, progressive electronic, post-industrial, and shoegaze all come together to create something that is refreshing to hear in a pop context. Of course, this is not all entirely on Halsey.

The secret sauce to this album’s success in experimentation lies in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails. The two handled almost all of the instrumentation as well as all of the production, and it really shows. Any seasoned music fan could pick out Reznor and Ross’ production styles from a mile away. The pair give the album its biggest strength and weakness. On one hand, Halsey has never sounded more interested or involved in her music like she is here. The instrumentals are interesting, and Halsey does her best to blend in. On the other hand, Halsey does not connect a fair amount of the time. Her voice is too clean and restrained, which takes away the power of a few of these songs. Reznor and Ross craft some incredible instrumentals, but they lean so close to the material of their band that it feels like Halsey singing on top of an unreleased Nine Inch Nails songs. The lyrics also leave something to be desired. Halsey had stated this album deals with motherhood, as seen in the cover art, but it often doesn’t come across as a fleshed out theme.

Still, this album did outdo my expectations. Songs like the noisy “Easier Than Lying” or the shoegazey “You Asked For This” are some of her best songs, even if her vocals don’t entirely match. However, “Bells In Santa Fe” does link up with her pop crooning surprisingly well. I also want to shout out “Girl Is A Gun” even if it is to highlight how insanely well Halsey fits with drum and bass. This album falls into many traps I expected it to, but it still surprised me in quite a few places. If you don’t like Halsey, still give this one a fair shot.

3. Leprous – Aphelion
Progressive Rock
Released August 27, 2021
4 Globes out of 5

Despite never graduating into a major name like many other progressive metal bands, Leprous are a force to be reckoned with in the music community. With a few classic albums under their belt, they have since followed the path of many prog-metal giants by softening their sound. However, instead of becoming a Yes or Genesis tribute band, Leprous turned towards art pop. “Pitfalls,” their previous album, did not do much to these ears, but “Aphelion” is the perfect evolution for this band.

Many songs don some dissonant but somehow lush string arrangements that feel similar to the later work of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Opener “Running Low” showcases these arrangements in top form, as well as including some pounding pianos and a wonderful climax. “Silhouette” sees the band introduce some electronic aspects to the album as well. The slower songs, namely single “Castaway Angels,” feel like perfect introductions to the band for those who are not accustomed to heavier music. It helps that Einar Solberg has a bit of a musical theater quality to his delivery and the way he emotes throughout the album.

The closing track “Nighttime Disguise” is the closest the band comes to their earlier work, with metallic guitars chiming in the beginning and end, with a bombastic middle section bridging the two. Solberg also brings back harsh vocals at the very end for a brief moment for the first time in quite a while. The rest of the album can sound a little samey, most often in the more subdued songs. Despite this, the album never gets dull and shows that Leprous are always in full control of their sound and trajectory, maybe even more so than much bigger bands.

4. CHVRCHES – Screen Violence
Released August 27, 2021
4 Globes out of 5

“Screen Violence” is a great comeback for a band who it feels like the years have not been kind to. CHVRCHES had fallen out of favor in recent years, with their second and third albums not reaching the same heights as their debut. Thankfully, the trio have gotten their heads back into the game with an album that feels straight out of 2013. Seriously, this record brings back the bygone era when Chromatics and M83 ruled the indie scene.

In the current music landscape, indie music has leaned more towards chilled out “vibe” styles like bedroom pop, leaving the bombastic arena rock behind. CHVRCHES show that that sound still has a place with songs like “Final Girl” and “Nightmares.” The album’s best cut comes in the form of “How Not To Drown,” a soaring duet with The Cure’s Robert Smith, who fits the track like a glove. The band is in top shape, especially vocalist Lauren Mayberry, as she really shines across these ten tracks.

While I love how much this album reminds me of the music of my childhood, I do think it will have trouble landing for other listeners who are not familiar with that era of music. For me, I am just happy that someone is still doing this, even if it isn’t the most inventive or innovative album around. Sometimes it’s nice to close your eyes and think about those nights in middle school where it felt like the world was going to end because that one kid in your history class didn’t like you back. Those were the times, and this is the record of those times.

5. Turnstile – Glow On
Released August 27, 2021
3.5 Globes out of 5

This isn’t your dad’s punk album. Turnstile has always been a bit left field for hardcore punk, but this album is a different beast. Their debut had elements of hip-hop and pop-punk sprinkled throughout while the follow up had lounge interludes. Still, both albums made the listener feel like they were doing a backflip off of a broken couch at a cramped house show. “Glow On” pumps the brakes on the fun and goes full throttle into the genre blending aspects.

There are some classic hardcore songs like “Humanoid / Shake It Up” and “Endless,” with the former sprinkling in some shimmery keyboards and the latter featuring some pop-punk harmonies. “Underwater Boi” and “Alien Love Call” go in a dream pop direction, while almost bordering the bedroom pop aesthetics of recent years. “Alien Love Call” and the closing track “Lonely Dezires” even include alternative, R&B singer Blood Orange to shake things up. “Fly Again” and “Don’t Play” bring to mind alternative metal greats Hum with a hint of Incubus.

The musicianship on display is great throughout the album, but their chops don’t make up for how disjointed this album feels at times. Despite being just over half an hour, these 15 tracks can wear themselves thin, even if few pass the three minute mark. The genre switches sometimes don’t feel as fluid as they should, while others leave you wanting more. Still, this is a fun and exciting punk album that I’m sure most people would find accessible enough to get into, especially those who are into indie and pop-rock from the past few years.

Summer Lightning Review Recap:

This summer has seen many big album releases that I was unfortunately unable to cover, so I am going to give some quick shoutouts to my favorites from the past few months.

Jeff Rosenstock – SKA DREAM
Ska Punk
Released April 20, 2021

Pop punk hero Jeff Rosenstock followed up last year’s “NO DREAM” with a ska rerecording. This version is a worthy companion to the original and is loads of fun. One of my favorites of the year. This will put a smile on your face and a pair of checkered Vans will materialize on your feet, forcing you to dance until the record ends. Ska-revival-revival when?

Bruno Pernadas – Private Reasons
Progressive Pop
Released April 23, 2021

A psychedelic tropical adventure that takes you to Portugal, Brazil, and into the stars. Warm and playful, but not the best work Bruno has given us. Still, a worthy album that many people who like Spotify-curated playlists and good vibes will get down with.

Origami Angel – Gami Gang
Pop Punk
Released April 30, 2021

The pop punk duo return with their sophomore effort, a double album jam packed with catchy melodies and pun-filled titles. I love the lyrical honesty this band has, alongside how uplifting the words are. If this doesn’t convert you to the Gami Gang, then I don’t know what will.

Índio da Cuíca – Malandro 5 estrelas
Samba, MPB
Released May 5, 2021

At the age of 70, Cuíca player Índio da Cuíca released his debut album. A lot of fun is to be had here and this release takes the award for my favorite obscure Brazilian album I found on Bandcamp this year. You’d be surprised how much competition there is for that title each year.

Squid – Bright Green Field
Art Punk
Released May 7, 2021

A bright green future is ahead for Squid. The last band of the Brixton Windmill trio consisting of black midi and Black Country, New Road to release an album, these boys surely did not disappoint. Funky and jerky, this thing oozes groves and fresh ideas. My current fourth place for album of the year.

St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
Psychedelic Soul
Released May 14, 2021

It took Annie Clark taking the biggest turn in her career for her to put out what might be her best album. I hope to hear more like this from her, as the sound she achieved here taps into a fusion of genres that few are touching on anymore.

Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Released May 21, 2021

This album is the definition of desert rock. You notice all the dunes look the same, but eventually you get lulled into the hypnotic rolling hills. You could also be on the verge of terminal dehydration. Either way, you have a smile on your face as you slowly return to the sands under your feet.

black midi – Cavalcade
Released May 26, 2021

One of the most anticipated albums in the music scene. How could it disappoint? The answer? It can’t. My third place for album of the year so far. black midi makes the transition to avant-prog very well, with horn sections and samba breaks a plenty. Fans of the band’s noisier side might be disappointed, but anyone looking to test the waters of the current state of rock music should check this out.

Sweet Trip – A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals
Dream Pop
Released May 28, 2021

Sweet Trip return after a decade hiatus with the perfect blend of sound from their last two albums. Unfortunately, it lacks a little bit of cohesion for me, but this record is a prime example that time away from your craft doesn’t mean you are no longer the best at what you do.

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000
Released June 11, 2021

King Gizz returned to genre hopping by giving us a synthpop album, which is uncharted waters for the band. Unsurprisingly, these musical chameleons blend in perfectly, giving us loads of classic tracks. It also helps that this is the band’s only outwardly happy album, giving it some replayability in hopeful times.

Helloween – Helloween
Power Metal
Released June 18, 2021

Bold of Helloween to release a self-titled album so many decades into their career. Also bold of them to make one of the best projects they’ve put out in decades. A worthy album to bear the name of one of the best power metal bands in the game.

The Mountain Goats – Dark In Here
Indie Folk
Released June 25, 2021

I am incredibly biased, as The Mountain Goats are a favorite band of mine, but they are just unable to miss. While not my favorite album of theirs, this record shows a maturity in songwriting from arguably the most mature songwriter who ever lived.

Mabe Fratti – Será que ahora podremos entendernos
Ambient Pop
Released June 25, 2021

Guatemalan cellist Mabe Fratti gave us yet another gorgeous album. Combining field recordings, drones, and ethereal melodies together to create an interesting take on pop and folk, Fratti delivers one of the most interesting listening experiences this year.

Lucy Dacus – Home Video
Released June 25, 2021

I am embarrassed to admit how many times this album almost brought me to tears. Dacus’s lyricism has grown so much and the melodies are all memorable. There are a lot of stylistic choices throughout this album that makes it hard to pin a genre on this, but regardless of how folky or rocky Dacus takes her music, she shows that she knows exactly what she is doing.

Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
West Coast Hip Hop
Released June 25, 2021

Tyler is in full form on this album, but the same can’t be said for the features. DJ Drama makes this album an actively grating listen and many of the other guests take away from Tyler’s emotional storytelling throughout this record. “Wilshire” is a prime example of the potential this album has that is unfortunately shafted for annoying producer tags and cluttered guest vocals. Still, this is a very well crafted album and is certainly a high point for hip hop this year. It could’ve been so much more though.

John Mayer – Sob Rock
Soft Rock
Released July 16, 2021

John Mayer broke into my house, walked into my room, took one look in my closet, saw all the grotesque Hawaiian button ups, and decided to make an album for me and me only.

Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
Neoclassical Darkwave
Released August 6, 2021

I’m so glad I didn’t have to write a full review for this, because I am speechless. Having followed Kristin Hayter’s music for a few years now, I admire her art more than most of my favorite bands. She continually evolves and improves her sound with each release. While not as explosive or outright spine-chilling as her previous efforts, this album is her most gorgeous work to date. Her biting lyricism and impassioned vocals bring me to the verge of tears and make this listen one of the most cathartic hours of music listening this year. Tied for my album of the year.

Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita
Outlaw Country
Released August 20, 2021

After giving us two bluegrass rerecordings of his work last year, Sturgill refines that practice by dropping his first batch of original songs in that style. This album clocks in at just under a half an hour and follows a narrative about a cowboy hunting a bandit who stole his wife. It is far from original in both story and music, but Sturgill slips into this style so convincingly that I can’t fault it. It also helps that I am a sucker for westerns, so I had a massive grin on my face as Sturgill narrated the outlaw life in 1862.

Between the Buried and Me – Colors II
Progressive Metal
Released August 20, 2021

“If ‘Colors’ is so good, why isn’t there ‘Colors II’?” I had joked. However, I was the fool. The sequel to the band’s best album happens to ironically be the band’s best album. Every genre transition is executed flawlessly without being annoying or tacky, the production is great, and most of all, I had a good time listening to this one.