Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: AURORA, Boris, Biosphere, 40 Watt Sun, Yard Act

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

This week isn’t the most visionary, with many artists choosing to stick to the formula instead of being too adventurous. Even so, these releases are all enjoyable in their own way.

AURORA – The Gods We Can Touch
Released January 21, 2022

3.5 Globes out of 5

Being entirely honest, I had no idea who AURORA was prior to this review. She has songs halfway to a billion plays on Spotify, but I didn’t recognize them at all. She also sings the wordless vocals in “Into The Unknown” from the “Frozen II” soundtrack, but even then I hadn’t seen the movie or heard the song. A lot of the alt-pop music being released does nothing for me, but I thought I would give this a shot as it is arguably the biggest release of this week.

To start, this is a very confusing album. It is messy in its structure, but I kind of dig that. The synthpop elements definitely outweigh the folk elements. This is noticeable right off the bat as “Give In To The Love” completely wipes “Everything Matters” out of your mind only five minutes into the album. AURORA doesn’t have as grating of a voice as I’ve seen some say, but she definitely fits better in a context where her voice is not the central focus. “Cure For Me” is a prime example; her chopped vocals during the chorus work as another instrument that adds to the infectious grooves of the track. That’s not to knock the other tracks, as “Heathens” starts off fairly safe before growing into more adventurous territory. “The Innocent” adds a Latin flair to the tracklist, with an awesome piano motif to boot. “Blood In The Wine” almost sounds like it is taking cues from classic spaghetti Western soundtracks, which makes it tailor made for me. However, the most standout track on here by far is “A Temporary High.” Most pop fans will adore this song, for good reason. It has a wonderful sense of momentum, making the chorus pop incredibly well.

As I said, the folkier tracks don’t do a whole lot to add to the album. Tracks like “Exist For Love” and “Exhale Inhale” drag the album down, but not every folk song is as detrimental to my enjoyment. “A Dangerous Dream” is nice, and “This Could Be A Dream” is absolutely lovely. The melody melts with the strings, and the electronic drums make it sound all the more ethereal alongside that saxophone. There have been some comparisons to Taylor Swift’s “Lover” that I’ve seen, but this song beats anything on that album and it isn’t close.

As uneven as this album is, it is a great pop album through and through. Not everything lands, but the moments you like will stick with you for a while. Alt-pop artists seem to swallow more and more genre influences with each year, but this album makes most of those incorporations not as insipid as others. Most of them. Still, AURORA surprised me, and I had a good time with this one!

Boris – W
Released January 21, 2022

4 Globes out of 5

Japan has had a plethora of bands and artists who have crossed over into the states thanks to the internet, but Boris eclipses many of them in both popularity and longevity. The eclectic band consists of trio Takeshi, Wata and Atsuo. Together, the three have been blowing out eardrums for over 25 years. Originating as a metal band, they dove into every subgenre imaginable, from sludge to drone and more. In the second half of their career, they have begun to release incredibly shocking divergences in sound, such as 2011’s dream pop “New Album” or 2020’s crust punk “No.” Considering all of the vinyl only releases, fan club editions, regional releases and countless collaborations, I don’t think even the hardcore Boris fans have heard everything from this band.

Even so, they do have a somewhat “main discography,” with the newest edition being simply titled “W.” This album sees the group combine their droney atmospheres and dream pop textures to create an ambient-leaning post-rock record. Much of the album drifts along, enveloping the listener in a blanket of sound. The opening track “I Want To Go To The Side Where You Can Touch…” gives the thesis statement to the album’s sound. Many of the tracks emphasize timbre over conventional songwriting, so the average listener might be lost during their listen. The quirkiness of “Drowning By Numbers” and the pure crushing energy of “The Fallen” will be enough to win over long time fans of the band. “Beyond Good And Evil” is one of the record’s strongest tracks, sounding almost like Sigur Rós at points, with a climax to match.

“Old Projector” feels like a spaghetti Western soundtrack fell into an endless abyss before erupting into a heavy jam that is entirely disconnected from the rest of the song. Somehow, the group makes the transition work. The monolithic “You Will Know (Ohayo Version)” showcases one of my favorite things about this band through their use of feedback. Wata’s use of effects in her guitar playing makes this one a mesmerizing listen and continues to prove her as one of the most innovative players of her time. The album ends with the all-too-brief “Jozan,” which really should’ve been fleshed out more and moved to earlier in the tracklist. Not everything in this album comes together perfectly, but it is another banger in the Boris canon. I guess this win is the reason they never named an album “L.”

Biosphere – Shortwave Memories
Ambient Techno
Released January 21, 2022

3.5 Globes out of 5

The 90s were a special time for electronic music. The decade was populated with some of the best musicians stretching from every corner of the genre. One was Geir Jenssen, the Norwegian genius behind Biosphere. Known for its icy production, sparseness and use of nature recordings, the project was often dubbed “arctic ambient.” As Pittsburgh faces these truly chilling temperatures, it feels like this album arrived at the perfect time.

In Biosphere’s three decades of existence, it seems the project has never escaped the legacy of 1997’s “Substrata,” one of the most immersive albums of all electronic music. While Biosphere hasn’t released anything quite as compelling since, there have been notable releases along the way. Almost a year ago to the day, “Angel’s Flight,” a more modern classical and tape music focused album, was released to divided reception. Now, we have “Shortwave Memories,” an album that sounds like it was locked away for the last 25 years. Seriously, this thing sounds so grounded in that era of electronic music that it is hard to believe it came out a few days ago. In true ambient fashion, much of the album flows together, working to create a more cohesive whole. As a result, there are few direct standouts. The title track stands nice on its own, as it is fairly accessible with its front-and-center drum machine and repeating melody lines. The real journey is the album’s centerpiece, 14 minute closer “Transfigured Express.” This track is an exercise in tension and release, with droning strings combatting with pulsing synth, all over a steady drum pattern. Even with lack of outstanding moments, this is a cohesive project that is worth checking out, even if it isn’t life changing.

Like all of Biosphere’s albums, your reaction to the music is heavily inspired by your environment, i.e. how cold you are. I imagine walking around the city in the cold winter air elevates the listening experience of this album a substantial amount. As for me, the heat in my dorm went out, so I’m imagining my own arctic playground from the comfort of my desk. This album is better when ingested as a whole, just as long as you save room for a snow cone.

40 Watt Sun – Perfect Light
Released January 21, 2022

4 Globes out of 5

Music can elicit sadness with only a few components. Patrick Walker is a musician who certainly understands this, as his once functioning doom metal band Warning created one of the most sincere and heartbreaking albums with the genre classic “Watching From A Distance.” After he closed the door on Warning, 40 Watt Sun took the stage as his new project, this time more influenced by folk. Over three albums, the band has shed almost all of their metal ties, leaving only Walker’s anguished voice as the constant. Their third album, “Perfect Light,” is one of the group’s most dour affairs yet.

The first thing a listener unfamiliar with Walker’s projects will notice is that he sounds exactly like Michael Stipe of R.E.M. His voice is absolutely lovely, conveying his remorse with a candor that doesn’t merely tug the heartstrings, but rips them out of your chest. The interesting thing about Walker’s lyrics across all of his projects is that they do not try to drum up pity. The lyrics always deal with the singer admitting his shortcomings and acknowledging that he is in the wrong. It truly is a unique approach to this kind of songwriting that few others use. The instruments across the album are also crisp and well performed. Walker’s acoustic guitar carries the main instrumentals across the album, with him also providing dark and hazy accompaniments on electric. William Spong’s bass is sufficient, if nothing to write home about. Christian Leitch’s drumming is wonderfully restrained, as he mainly sticks to brushes over traditional sticks, except when a song takes a more cathartic route.

The album does have a tough- to- digest runtime. The album clocks in at over an hour long with a mere eight tracks and every song but two stretch over eight minutes in length. With not much instrumental variation or changes in tempo, one song can start to blur into the next. Still, the album nails its mood and never feels like it is a chore to listen to. “Behind My Eyes” and “A Thousand Miles” are two highlights I would recommend, but the whole album is just as consistent. It isn’t an album you’d throw on often, but for those folks who love to revel in their sadness, this is the album for them.

Yard Act – The Overload
Released January 21, 2022

3.5 Globes out of 5

If you’ve read any of my reviews last year, you might remember my constant stating that post-punk is having a massive comeback in the British underground. Well, here’s another brand new band for you that fits the bill. Yard Act followed up their debut EP from last year with their first full length album, titled “The Overload.”

I’ve seen some backlash on this album already, as well as the same criticisms thrown at similar bands. The scene seems to be growing tired of post-Brexit British post-punk bands. Yard Act do not do much to stand out from their peers. They employ the talk-singing of vulgar lyrics about capitalism that aren’t as deep as they seem when dissected over simple bass lines and funky guitars and groovy drums. They even throw a crazy saxophone outro on “Rich” to complete the picture. Yes, Yard Act is far from original. Even so, they scratch that itch for me. This album is catchy and infectious in all sorts of ways, with each chorus getting stuck in your head. The title track and “Dead Horse” are both so fun, while “Tall Poppies” is a cool deviation from the rest of the tracks all thanks to the dynamic changes in tempo as well as the tragic story of a man’s life from birth to death. “100% Endurance” is one of those “emotionally deep but accepting of your life” endings we’ve heard on these albums countless times before, but even then it still works for me.

There’s not a whole lot to say here. This isn’t original. This isn’t groundbreaking. This isn’t as thought provoking as it thinks it is. It doesn’t need to be all of that. I wanted some fun post-punk with a danceable edge and that’s exactly what I got. Being derivative is okay sometimes.