Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine, Poppy, Blu, Skepticism, One Step Closer

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

Despite appearing rather lowkey, this past week has brought out some of the most invigorating albums of the year. Folk, punk, rap and more genres dish out hearty servings of serious wickedness. Grab a seat and dig in!

Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind
Indie Folk
Released September 24, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

For quite a while now, Sufjan Stevens is practically a household name to the generation of current college goers. He has been one of the prominent modern day folk musicians for the better part of the past two decades, and he hasn’t exactly fallen off in terms of popularity. So naturally, every single released from “A Beginner’s Mind” was met with some of the most intensely positive reception I have seen in quite a while. Unlike his previous albums, Sufjan has enlisted his friend Angelo De Augustine to help out with this album, making it the duo’s first collaboration.

These two could become our generation’s Simon & Garfunkel if they keep this up. Sufjan and Angelo fit together fabulously well in a number of ways. It is hard to tell exactly whose voice is whose as they both sing together and have similar voices, but they both have such gentle and comforting voices that it only adds to the experience. Hearing the two interweave guitar and piano lines together give this batch of songs a feeling of intimacy, as if you are sitting between these two as they softly serenade you. That is no coincidence, as much of this album was written in a cabin while the two would watch a movie and then follow it up with writing a song based on it. I may be biased due to my intense love of movies, but this is a concept I wish more musicians would do.

The selection of movies is also quite odd. “Mad Max”, “All About Eve”, “The Silence Of The Lambs”, “The Thing”, and even “Bring It On Again” all form the inspiration for these tracks. Some are very direct, such as “The Pillar Of Souls” being sung through the eyes of horror icon Pinhead in the movie “Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth.” The album opener “Reach Out” takes the lovestruck melancholy of Wim Wender’s classic “Wings Of Desire” and translates the film’s feelings extremely well into a four minute runtime. The biggest winner is actually the Angelo penned “Back To Oz”, which takes cues from, you guessed it, “Return To Oz”. This track features a killer melody with some wistful guitar playing that really edges the song above the other tracks on the album.

While I cannot praise this album enough, not every song is a home run. “Lost In The World” and “Murder And Crime” are great songs, but fall short of the blissfullness of the other tracks. Sufjan and Angelo have easily made a top five album of the year so far, and I think pretty much everyone would like this album in some capacity. I wish nothing more than for these two to craft another record for us in the future.

Poppy – Flux
Alternative Rock
Released September 24, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

My favorite thing about the internet is seeing the vast array of things an internet personality can do over the years. I remember being disturbed in early high school with a series of videos featuring a person playing an android that resided deep in the uncanny valley. After delving much deeper into art, performance art like those videos started to intrigue me rather than disturb me. However, I never made a connection that that Poppy was the same as this Poppy. Sure, I knew musician Poppy was an internet personality of sorts, but I never realized how deeply rooted her presence has been in the last half a decade.

Poppy has cemented herself as a musician at this point, having started out with electropop before transitioning to metal and industrial music. Last year’s “I Disagree” earned her a Grammy nomination for metal performance, but even then the album felt somewhat gimmicky despite how creative it was. However, “Flux” sees her shave down the wild genre influences into a much more cohesive record with much more understated style blends. For example, the album opens with the incredibly catchy title track that blends alternative and industrial rock with alternative dance. The album continues the intensity and energy through the following tracks until “Hysteria”, which slows things down and takes cues from shoegaze and post-punk while keeping the dance influence. As the album draws closer to the close, the ethereal elements continue to grow. This album really has an impressive flow to it that feels very natural, which is ironic given Poppy’s past image. Then again, this is the most personal she has ever been lyrically, as she continually writes more about her personal life.

If anything, this is just a really fun and catchy rock album. It seems like Poppy wanted to make more of a statement with this one than her prior work and I think that the result is her best album yet. There’s always a time and a place for some goofy music, but it’s cool to hear that there is a living, breathing person at the end of that microphone.

Blu – The Color Blu(e)
West Coast Hip Hop
Released September 24, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

For about 15 years, Blu has been one of the most notable rappers in the underground scene. He came to prominence through his collaborative albums with producer Exile, but Blu has had several other artists work with him, including several solo albums. “The Color Blu(e)” joins his somewhat short solo discography and is one of the best works he has ever dropped.

“The Color Blu(e)” has a pretty simple concept about it. Taking a look at the tracklist, one can see that every song is centered around the color blue. Each song is built around one primary sample of a song with blue in its title as well. Despite the depressing connotation the color blue carries, Blu speaks much about love, equality and unity throughout this record. In fact, much of Blu’s philosophy towards life that he has explored in past work is expanded upon here. It is refreshing to hear political topics handled in hip hop from a positive viewpoint, as historically those topics have been handled with a rightfully angrier tone.

The beats that stretch the album are jazzy and laid back, setting the perfect tone for Blu’s eloquent delivery overtop. Exile plays producer on some tracks, but the production credits are shared with a few others. However, Blu is the only performer to appear on the record. This album is a very personal statement, so the choice to have this be a completely solo outing for Blu makes perfect sense. There are very few complaints to be had with this record. The gimmick of sampling songs with blue in the title works most of the time, but some can feel a little off. The most glaring case is “Mr. Blu(e) Sky” sampling the Electric Light Orchestra hit of the relatively same name. While the sample does work in context, it still feels a little distracting if you know the original song. Blu also has a few clunky bars on some songs, but he is charismatic enough to make up for it. The closing track “Blu(e) World” might turn some heads due to the sample it shares with a posthumous Mac Miller track, but if you pay closer attention, you will find it is a beautiful tribute to the people Blu has lost, both family and friends, including the late Mac Miller.

While Blu makes his best work in the presence of Exile, this is undoubtedly one of his best solo albums. Any fan of hip hop should not pass this one up. Actually, if you just want to feel a little better about your day, give this one a spin.

Skepticism – Companion
Funeral Doom Metal
Released September 24, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

The great thing about very niche metal genres is that many of the bands are incredibly consistent throughout their career. The unfortunate thing is these same bands take forever to release material. Skepticism are legends of funeral doom metal, a style of music that takes the slow, brooding tempos of doom metal and adorns it with organs and keyboards. This style of music sets a great atmosphere for the fall months as Halloween approaches, and Skepticism must’ve known this. Their new album “Companion” is aptly named, as it fits perfectly with the coming spooky season.

After 13 years between records, Skepticism has arrived back on the scene sounding no more weary than before. There are plenty of great ideas within this album, such as the teetering piano throughout “The Intertwined” that feels somewhat cheesy, but that’s kind of what you come to expect from this type of music. “The Swan And The Raven” features some chugging strings that also up the cheese-factor in a greatly enjoyable way. However, there is a bit of a mixing issue with this album. The keyboards and organs sound great and powerful, especially on the epic “The March Of The Four”. However, the dynamics on this album are not very well planned out. The guitars are a little farther back in the mix, which works as a great texture for much of the album, but they don’t move any farther up in the mix when a guitar solo arrives, thus softening what would otherwise be a climactic moment in many of these songs. The vocals are also a little high in the mix, occasionally drowning out the drums and aforementioned guitars.

Still, this is a pretty solid effort from the band. The material is great and the performances are tremendous, but the mixing really hinders the listening experience on this one. It is a real shame, because half the time the mix works exactly as intended while other times falling flat on its face. Even though this album can be a mixed bag, it is still a great pregame to Halloween for any metal lover.

One Step Closer – This Place You Know
Melodic Hardcore
Released September 24, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

One Step Closer is a relatively new band. Only having a few EPs under their belt over the past few years, the Wilkes-Barre based band have finally released their debut album. Despite sharing a name with a Linkin Park song, One Step Closer are much more in tune with classic hardcore, so much so that a few people have called them ripoffs of Turning Point and Have Heart. To those people, I say “yeah, so what?” That’s exactly why One Step Closer rule so hard. Emocore is back on the menu!

In all seriousness though, it is strangely invigorating to see a sound that’s been dormant for over two decades come back like this. I am absolutely all in on an emocore revival if it means that more releases of this quality are released. The drum work on this is propulsive and the guitar work is especially kinetic. The vocals are a bit heavier and more refined than what you would find in most DIY hardcore bands of the 80s and 90s, but they still fit the style very well. The clean vocals are beautifully forlorn, such as those on the tender “Hearafter”, contrasting very well with the harsh vocals that are found elsewhere, as on the vicious “Time Spent, Too Long.” We even get a spoken word passage in “Chrysanthemum.” It doesn’t get more old school hardcore than that.

For a debut album, this is an absolute splash. These guys have a great career ahead of them. That is if they don’t break up after this like many of history’s hardcore greats. They definitely have it in them to churn out even better material, but for now we have one of the most galvanic punk albums of the year.