Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Adele, Converge & Chelsea Wolfe, Richard Dawson & Circle, Cynic, Kaatayra

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

Thanksgiving has come and gone, but there were plenty of incredible releases served up. This batch of reviews covers some of the higher profile releases of the past two weeks. Even as the year winds down, many of these musicians are only getting started.

Adele – 30
Pop Soul
Released November 19, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

It’s always lovely when an album’s release feels like a big cultural event. It seemed Adele was on that track with “30,” but it has had an awfully strange reception. Some publications have praised it to no end, while others showed nothing but distain. It broke streaming records, yielded one of the biggest songs of the year and has thus far sold insanely well. However, it isn’t making the waves you would expect from Adele in terms of word of mouth buzz, both online and in person. It also doesn’t help that “30” is quite an uneven album.

To start, every track on “30” lacks the staying power of songs like “Rolling In The Deep,” “Hometown Glory,” or “Skyfall.” “Easy On Me” might be a smash streaming success, but it is easily the least interesting and enjoyable song on the album. It sounds like Adele-by-the-numbers and is one of the two contradictory reasons I’ve seen people complain about this album. It seems fans find some of the tracks too similar to her old work, making the five year gap between this and her last album not as satisfactory. On the other hand, the streaming numbers show the more adventurous tracks are some of the lesser streamed ones. It also doesn’t help that Adele the voice takes a backseat for Adele the person.

“30” is a deeply personal work that chronicles her divorce, and divorce albums seem to work best in modern times when they are about a highly publicized couple. What I’m saying is that if you weren’t dating Pete Davidson or Jake Gyllenhaal, then people probably won’t be super invested in drama with your spouse. It’s really a shame that many people approach art that way, as Adele pens some of her best lyrics across this record. She keeps her voice dialed back, only belting those high notes she has become known for at key moments. Not to claim that she has oversung on past records, but her delivery here feels much more sincere than on past records, especially “25.” Her first two records felt desperate in their energy, as if Adele felt she needed to prove her position in the industry. All these years later, she sounds much more confident, allowing herself to try out new vocal styles and musical approaches.

A great example is the track “Cry Your Heart Out.” She had previously joked about incorporating Jamaican music into her sound, and she actually does so rather tastefully with the rocksteady influenced rhythm of this track. The vocal harmony on the chorus is quite strange, but it really works to elevate the mystic quality of the track. “My Little Love” wonderfully works in downtempo and lounge. Opener “Strangers By Nature” completely succeeds in matching Adele’s vision of paying homage to Judy Garland. “Love Is A Game” is a bit underwhelming at first, but it evolves into a perfect closer to the album. Adele has also been very strict about the sequencing of “30,” even going as far to have Spotify remove the “shuffle album” feature. I don’t condone shuffling albums, but aside from the lyrical content, there is not a lot of structure to the album musically. The gospel-tinged “Hold On” could’ve closed the album just as well.

Despite the great lyrics and some of her best songs, Adele does serve up some weaker cuts. “Woman Like Me” and “To Be Loved” sit too far back in the tracklist to warrant their predictability and “I Drink Wine” was practically made for soccer moms to rotate endlessly based on the title alone. Still, this album deserves a spin, but it isn’t her best work. That belongs to “21” of course. This is a big, big step up from “25,” so hopefully “42” is even better.

Converge & Chelsea Wolfe – Bloodmoon: I
Atmospheric Sludge Metal
Released November 19, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

Converge shaped the way I viewed metal music drastically in high school. Their album “Jane Doe” was the fiercest, most brutal thing I had ever heard at the time. I never knew music could be so unrelenting and chaotic. It was truly one of the most hateful things I had ever heard. Chelsea Wolfe also shaped the way I viewed metal at the same time. Never did it occur to me that metal could sound so ethereal and enchanting. So naturally, when I found out these two artists were working together, I was instantly hyped.

As it turns out, this album is a supergroup of sorts. “Bloodmoon: I” comes as the first installment of albums that Converge will release alongside their normal output, only the “Bloodmoon” series will have an expanded lineup, featuring Chelsea Wolfe and her bandmates, as well as members of Cave In and Neurosis. In essence, one of the best possible supergroups you could form with no weak links. It sees the two main artists’ primary styles come together wonderfully. Converge brings the mathcore, Wolfe brings the doom metal and dark folk, and they both bring the sludge. Lots and lots of sludge. This album is as heavy as a bag of bricks, but it also gives enough space for the listener to float back up during the softer passages before they are sucked down to the depths once again. The title track sets things up nicely, but it is on the second track “Viscera Of Man” that the fruits of this collaboration are truly realized.

The collaborative songwriting really brings out the best in everyone. The synth work throughout works surprisingly well, especially when they come in during the climax of “Coil.” The biting rage of Converge’s regular catalogue comes through on “Tongues Playing Dead,” a big highlight on the album. Wolfe gets her big moment on the smokey “Scorpion’s Sting,” which feels like it should play in one of the diner performances in “Twin Peaks: The Return.” “Crimson Stone” is the only track I would say overstays its welcome, as it never really uses the energy it builds to go anywhere. “Blood Dawn” is a fine enough neofolk song, but these two tracks make for a rather lackluster closing statement for such powerful forces working together. I cannot wait to see what these artists do in the next installment. It is understandable that the meeting of the two artists’ sounds might alienate fans of either, but for anyone who likes atmospheric music both beautiful and aggressive, this is a highly engaging listen. Certainly one of the most notable metal projects of the year.

Richard Dawson & Circle – Henki
Progressive Rock
Released November 26, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

Two artists who make different styles of music collaborating together is always an interesting concept. Speculating how both artists will work together is almost as fun as actually listening to the record. Richard Dawson, avant-folk giant, has teamed up with the ever eclectic and prolific Finnish band Circle. Circle have dabbled in everything from ambient to metal and krautrock to post-rock. It seems like an odd pairing, but the pairing works.

Dawson’s vocals can be a bit odd for a first time listener, but he puts a lot of passion into these performances. His lyrics are as interesting as ever, especially given the subject matter. “Henki” is branded as a metal concept album about historic plants throughout history. There isn’t really any metal to be found, but the plant subject matter is unique and strangely enthralling. The album does take a bit to get going, as the opening track “Cooksonia” is wonderful albeit a bit repetitive and not in the classic krautrock way. “Silphium” features a wonderful improv section in the middle of the sprawling arrangement that tickles the brain. “Methuselah” is the album’s highlight, featuring driving guitars and a pounding drumbeat that propels Dawson’s voice into the stratosphere. This song is definitely the most “rocking” song on the album and stands as one of the best songs from either creative half of this project.

The second half of the record generally sees the group fall into a grove and get more comfortable. “Lily” is the record’s most accessible song, with a super catchy chorus that really sticks in your head. However, one of the most infectious moments is the grooving instrumental to “Pitcher.” It borders on something Talking Heads would put out, complete with various percussion parts, descending synths and electronic drum fills. There is a moment where the guitar picks up momentum, only for the song to slow to a halt before Dawson leads the full band back in for a triumphant finish, his operatic vocals taking the center stage. It truly is a jubilant closing to an album based around plants.

While some of Dawson’s solo music remains elusive due to its self released nature and Circle pumping out too many albums for anyone to keep up, this record will surely entice the listener to check out both artists’ work and do some serious digging. Any fan of rock or psychedelic music will have a great time with “Henki,” and I’m sure botanists might get some joy as well.

Cynic – Ascension Codes
Progressive Metal
Released November 26, 2021

3 Globes out of 5

Florida is, in many ways, one of the most important locations for metal music. While Scandinavia birthed many of the most extreme styles of music, the scene in Florida champions itself as the pioneers of death metal. One of the most inventive bands of the scene was Cynic, a group who leaned heavily towards progressive music and jazz fusion. While they are undoubtedly a metal band, they sound nothing like what a non-metal fan would assume. Like many of their contemporaries, Cynic have softened up over the years and concurrently have seen less and less acclaim for their releases. For a band who has consistently released only a single album every decade, this is a bit concerning. Despite what critics might say, this band has remained incredibly consistent, even if their prior two albums don’t exactly reach the heights of the genre defining classic that was their 1993 debut “Focus.”

And so, “Ascension Codes” sees the group tackling their classic approach in a new light. The songs here are much shorter, with half of the tracklist consisting of 30 second long ambient interludes. Due to this, the actual songs flow together quite well, but everything starts to become homogeneous by the end. It also doesn’t help that this is the first release since the death of drummer Sean Reinert and bassist Sean Malone, both of whom passed away last year. The Sean duo formed such a tight and interesting rhythm section that is obviously missed on this record. The bass is all done through keyboards and from what I can tell the drums are also programmed. This doesn’t mean that the rhythm section here sounds bad, but it certainly doesn’t quite match the pocket Sean squared had formed over the years. Paul Masvidal’s guitar work is impeccable as always, but he barely exists as a vocalist here. Much of the record features the vocals mixed further back, as his melodies float on by for many of the tracks. Thankfully, the atmosphere and guitar work make up for it, as texture is the main selling point of this release.

“Mythical Serpents” is about as classic Cynic as the album gets. “In A Multiverse Where Atoms Sing” could almost be a pop song in another lifetime and is easily my favorite cut on the record. There are almost no traces of death metal on this album, as the jazz and ambient influences smother most of the metal on the record. The group pulls it off very well, but it doesn’t feel like a Cynic album. I never like it when people say these things, but I think it is time to retire Cynic. Not because this album is bad, rather that it would likely be better received if it was released under another band’s title. Cynic may have the name clout, but I am not sure longtime fans of the band are the audience for this one. Either way, it is a shame that we will likely have to wait until the 2030s for a proper follow up.

Kaatayra – Inpariquipê
Folk Metal
Released November 26, 2021

5 Globes out of 5

Discovering a small independent artist while scouring Bandcamp is always an exhilarating experience. One musician who continually excites me is Caio Lemos, a Brazilian metal musician who performs under the name Kaatayra. Kaatayra blends atmospheric black metal with styles of regional Brazilian music, usually heavily in the folk sphere. I have been following this project since the beginning of last year, and it quickly became one of my favorite metal projects. There is genuinely nothing that sounds quite like this. While doing some research on Lemos, I found that he actually has several other projects I had never known about. According to his Instagram, “Inpariquipê” may be the last release under the Kaatayra moniker.

“Inpariquipê” is the fifth Kaatayra album and is the most experimental one by far. There is heavy influence from minimalist giants like Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt throughout the album but especially on the opening and closing tracks. I tried to find the specific language Lemos is singing on this record, but I wasn’t positive except for the fact that it is an indigenous Brazilian language. “Tiquindê” opens the album with a hypnotic acoustic guitar motif that barrels along as instruments swell around it. Lemos quietly chants the title in the background as the song comes to an end, perfectly setting up the album ahead. The title track features chaotic breakdowns and towering walls of sound. However, it never becomes overbearing. “Ãráiãsaiê” shows that Lemos is an insanely gifted drummer, as much of this song features some of the most demanding drum parts he has ever committed to tape. The ethereal backing vocals bring to mind old liturgical hymns and the lead harsh vocals sit comfortably in the back of the mix, sounding like lost souls calling out to the listener.

“Dundararaiê” is classic Kaatayra, with blast beats and assaulting vocals galore. However, the electric guitar that led many of the previous albums is traded in for an acoustic guitar. This acoustic instrumentation actually leads the entire album, creating a strange dichotomy of metal and folk that has never been executed this well by much more seasoned bands. Even when the aforementioned track dissolves into ambiance, it is still incredibly engaging. The section with the slow drum beat with birdsong in the background and what sounds like a waterfall is exactly the kind of experimentation that makes this record so interesting. I am no percussion guru, but the instruments that I assume are marimbas that enter here make me forget that I am in snowy Pittsburgh instead of being deep on a hike in Brazil. “Iasá” combines that marimba instrumentation with the cacophonous drums alongside hushed vocals intermixed with harsh vocals to create the album’s climax. It sounds like the musical equivalent of being caught in a thunderstorm on the Amazon River.

Lemos has truly outdone himself on this record. If this is the final Kaatayra album, then it is the perfect finale to its discography. I really hope this isn’t the end though, as Lemos stands as one of my favorite metal musicians as well as one of the best and most consistent independent artists I’ve ever listened to. I understand that this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the music of Kaatayra is exactly why I like sharing the things I listen to with the world. Few things bring more joy than discovery. This is, in my eyes, the best metal, if not one of the best albums period, released this year. Bravo Lemos.