Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Ed Sheeran, The War On Drugs, Mastodon, Tori Amos, Kayo Dot

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

This week proves that they all cannot be winners. Despite a bunch of high profile releases, not everything lands like one would hope.

Ed Sheeran – =
Released October 29, 2021

0 Globes out of 5

A while back, I heard someone say that male pop stars have fallen by the wayside in recent years. This was in reference to Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s 2019 single “I Don’t Care” and the lack of staying power that track had. There is some truth to this, as there has been little buzz about Sheeran’s new album, but at the same time, it is destined to break streaming records. There are some musicians who just exist and produce streaming numbers like magic.

“=,” pronounced “equals,” continues Sheeran’s trend of mathematical themed album titles. Coincidentally, it also continues his trend of creating the most formulaic pop imaginable. Every melody can be predicted after hearing the first three notes, and every song progresses in the exact same way. The instruments blur together to create a soup of generic electronic percussion that leaves zero lasting impact. Even the annoying plucked strings in “Shivers” are forgiven as they exit your memory the second the song ends. Sheeran stuffs his songs with banal lyrics that you’ve heard variations of on all of his prior albums. I mean, at least “The A Team” had a pretty provocative subject matter, but Sheeran is a decade removed from anything with an ounce of edge.

There is also much discussion on the dissolution of genre labels and boundaries in the music industry. I personally love slapping a label on things as it is so cool to see how different sounds evolve as they move from decade to decade and band to band. “=” is an argument against the blending of genres. “Collide” is a trite attempt at incorporating 2-step into his sound, only for the following track “2step” to include zero trace of the genre it namechecks. Disco has made a comeback, but even Sheeran cannot hop on that train properly. If I had to pick a best song on the album, I’d go with “Stop The Rain” but even then it sounds like a track Dua Lipa would throw away without a second thought. That also goes without mentioning Sheeran’s horrid vocal performance both here and throughout the album, with the vocal processing being either incredibly artificial or too uncomfortably forced in an attempt to feel intimate, like on the track “The Joker And The Queen.” Speaking of the Joker, the most memorable part of the album is easily the music video for “Bad Habits,” in which Sheeran starts flying around after turning into a repugnant Joker-esque vampire thing. I really cannot begin to imagine what that video was trying to be, but it is the perfect video to show small children around Halloween if you want them to never sleep again. The song itself is also scarily dull. You can tell that the creative wellspring is running dry. “Love In Slow Motion” is a blatant attempt at having another “Perfect” on his hands and “Sandman” feels like it wants to be a children’s lullaby for ages to come but I doubt anyone is going to play this one to their kids. Even then, this album will undoubtedly rule the charts. I will make a bet, Ed Sheeran is going to sweep it at the Grammys. If he doesn’t win at least two awards, I will cut this review out of the paper and eat my own words. This is in print, so you can hold me to that.

I’ve been doing these reviews for a while now. Even outside of my obligation of reviewing five new albums a week for this paper, I listen to a lot of music. It is my favorite thing to do in this world. Even bad albums are at least fun to laugh at. While this album may just be another boring pop album, this is one of the very, very few times I feel like my time has been wasted.

The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Heartland Rock
Released October 29, 2021

3 Globes out of 5

There are several artists that cite many big named acts as musical influences. We hear of countless artists who pull from The Beatles or Nirvana and many more, but the leading influenceunsung hero inof recent memory is Bruce Springsteen. From Bleachers to Vampire Weekend, many big indie bands have been harping on Springsteen’s signature brand of heartland rock. However, one of the most acclaimed of these groups is Philadelphia’s own The War On Drugs.

Led by frontman Adam Granduciel, the group has been creating a special psychedelic take on heartland rock for quite a while now. “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” arrives as the group’s fifth studio album and their most pop-orientated. While they have never exactly been too left field to be considered too experimental for pop, The War On Drugs did carve out their own niche with their extended dreamy guitar passages and building climaxes. However, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” cuts out much of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t also shave away some of the runtime, as almost every track sits roughly between four and six minutes in length. This is par for the course for this band, but the lack of dynamic song structure really makes this one drag. Songs like “Living Proof” and the title track are great and make up the album’s two obvious singles. However, the rest kind of just washes over you. It’s a real shame, because buried in here is an interesting album. As for the lyrics, they are split between awesome references and callbacks to older songs or bland cliches.

It is a real shame, as the Springsteen sound is certainly one of the most joyous things to take influence from. Hopefully this doesn’t mark a downward trend for the band. There just isn’t much to say about this one, it breezes by and floats away rather unceremoniously. The Killers made a better Springsteen album this year, if that is saying anything.

Mastodon – Hushed And Grim
Progressive Metal
Released October 29, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

There can in fact be too much of a good thing. As someone who has many double, and even triple, albums ranking as some of my all time favorites, even I can admit this. Unfortunately, it seems like metal giants Mastodon couldn’t come to terms with this fact. The band’s eighth album “Hushed And Grim” is their longest effort to date, clocking in just shy of an hour and a half long.

Just because this is their longest album doesn’t mean it isn’t good. In fact, this is what seems to be the best Mastodon album in years. The songwriting and performances are all top notch. Many of the songs are some of the best the band has done, but the volume of tracks takes away from this fact. This could’ve easily been half the length it currently rests at by chopping the tracklist in half. In fact, that would leave the band with two albums better than the one they make together. There are certainly some interesting experiments, such as the synths on “Skeleton Of Splendor” and “Gobblers Of Dregs.” However, things start to sound too similar, and each song blends in when stood next to one another. Moments like the blissful end of “Gigantium” are just brought down by too many similar, albeit good, ideas crammed into one place.

The mastering is also pretty rough on this album as well. Mastodon are not known for very good mastering, but this album sounds especially hot and loud, with the compression killing the majority of any dynamics that would be found. The mixing is also somewhat rough. The guitars sound great, but the drums are a bit too low in the mix, with the exception of the kick drum oddly being the loudest part of the kit. The vocals also sound a bit thin, but again, this band is not known for its vocal prowess. Bassist Troy Sanders sounds especially rough, but Drummer Brann Dailor picks up the vocal slack. For an hour and a half, this ends up being a rather grating listen that will test the listeners patience despite all of the exceptional material involved. In all, this album will please fans, but even then it will be a hard one to digest at certain times.

Tori Amos – Ocean To Ocean
Pop Rock
Released October 29, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

Unlike Mastodon crafting their longest album to date, Tori Amos returns with her shortest album yet. It is strange to call an album that is 48 minutes long short, but a record under an hour long is quite the feat for Amos. And what a blessing this album’s runtime is.

Like the aforementioned Mastodon album, Amos’s “Ocean To Ocean” suffers from too much compression sucking some of the life out of these songs. However, this record does contain some of the best songs Amos has written to date. “Speaking With Trees” and “Spies” are some of the best tracks she has ever made. “Flowers Burn To Gold” features some tender vocals and lyrics that show Amos has only grown wiser with age. The instrumentation throughout this album is wonderful. The strings add a lush touch to these songs that is only brought down by the production. The percussion is some of the most engaging she has had in years, thanks in part to her once again collaborating with her longtime rhythm section after a period without them.

The biggest letdown of this record is Amos’s vocal performances. She plays it all too safe on many of these songs. While she sounds absolutely lovely, she stays way too subdued for the intensity some of these songs attempt to muster up. She still has the chops to do so as seen on previous albums from this late in her career, so it is curious to wonder why she chose not to. Due to this, some of the songs do not pop like they could’ve. The final three tracks on the album especially fall into a bit of monotony due to some repetition that could’ve been alleviated with some more varied vocal performances.

Still, “Ocean To Ocean” is a swell enough album for the fans. It is great to see such a prolific artist still make great music, but it is a shame to see such simple things keep this record back from being truly great.

Kayo Dot – Moss Grew On The Swords And Plowshares Alike
Avant-Garde Metal
Released October 29, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

There are so many avenues that can come from metal music. Any album described as avant-garde metal is almost guaranteed an interesting listen in my book. Kayo Dot are one of those interesting bands. After acquainting myself with their 2003 debut album “Choirs Of The Eye” some years ago, I was in love with how weird this band was. They have incorporated classical music, chamber jazz, and so much more with their specific blend of avant-garde black metal. As they have evolved over the years, the project saw itself morph more and more into art rock, flirting with gothic rock and progressive electronic. This new record sees the band return to metal in the most conventional sense since 2013’s “Hubardo.”

Kayo Dot has and still consists of a number of musicians, but it is all primarily the work of multi-instrumentalist Toby Driver. Driver has helmed some of the most acclaimed underground metal works of the past 20 or so years between his solo work, Kayo Dot and Maudlin Of The Well. Maudlin Of The Well has been dormant for over a decade and a half and Kayo Dot’s recent experiments haven’t been the most well received by fans. “Moss Grew On The Swords And Plowshares Alike” actually sees the Maudlin Of The Well lineup reunite for the first time on this record to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Driver has brought together most of his musical influences to create what is essentially a melting pot of all of his creative avenues in one album. The jazz and classical elements are sorely missed, but the gothic and doom elements make up for them. “Brethren Of The Cross” is one of the best metal tracks he has ever made while “Void In Virgo (The Nature Of Sacrifice)” makes me yearn for a full on progressive rock Kayo Dot album. Driver sounds incredible in both his clean and harsh vocals. I mean, “Spectrum Of One Colour” just sounds so mean and fierce with those infernal vocals.

“Get Out Of The Tower” is another song that bubbles with intensity before an absolutely brutal and cutthroat finish that pummels the listener. The drumming on this album reaches its peak with “The Necklace,” which is absolutely rhythmically mesmerizing. The closer “Epipsychidion” ends the album on an ethereal but devilish sounding drone that morphs, distorts and decays around the listener. It is truly a spectacle to be heard. Toby Driver and company have done it once again, proving to still be one of the most exciting voices in metal.