Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Pinegrove, Jethro Tull, Eels, Earthless, Celeste

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

A slow week that sees many artists releasing their first albums in quite a while. Anger, sadness and nostalgia come together across these five notable releases this week.

Pinegrove – 11:11
Indie Rock
Released January 28, 2022

3.5 Globes out of 5

Some bands are tailor made for a certain demographic of young adults. As you listen to a group like Pinegrove, you can feel your hair growing longer as you are filled with the primal urge to own an ill fitting beanie and pick up a nicotine addiction. They are a prime example of that slacker aesthetic from the 90s reformatted to fit the young men of the mid 2010s. Their style of indie rock with light hints of midwest emo and alt-country offer up a sound that is unique to the wider scope of music, they do share many similarities with bands like The Weakerthans and early Death Cab For Cutie. That isn’t to say Pinegrove are derivative, but they do wear their influences on their sleeves.

After a somewhat disappointing album a few years ago, the band have returned with a much more interesting record. “11:11” isn’t anything groundbreaking, as it sounds like every other Pinegrove album, but the songwriting on here is their best since 2016’s “Cardinal.” That album was pure lightning in a bottle, but this record manages to recapture some of those sparks. Opening track “Habitat” is a skeletal seven minute folk leaning song fit with nature recordings of birds in the background. It feels like the listener is in the woods with Evan Hall, exchanging stories by an early morning campfire. The following track “Alaska” is on the other end of the musical spectrum, clocking in at just over two minutes and bristling with energy and a sense of momentum. This is one of the best Pinegrove tracks and really shows that Hall can pull a surprise out every now and then. “Respirate” is another great track, mainly due to the climactic build up fit with an organ that leads into the following track “Let.” The shared lyrical motifs of both songs is also a unique touch. “Cyclone” is another track that stands up there with one of Hall’s catchiest melodies.

The rest of the album sounds like what one would expect from Pinegrove. Breezy indie rock with twinkly guitars and vocals that are too energetic for country and not impassioned enough for emo. It is certainly a sound that many people love, but I merely enjoy it from time to time. This album would be great to accompany a road trip with your friends, but it isn’t going to gain the band any new fans who aren’t already sold on them by now. Overall a solid release, but only if this style of music is your bread and butter.

Jethro Tull – The Zealot Gene
Folk Rock
Released January 28, 2022

3.5 Globes out of 5

Despite being a massive progressive rock fan, it took me a very long time to understand Jethro Tull. Vocalist Ian Anderson never really did it for me, but guitarist Martin Barre kept me interested in the band’s output. When a new Jethro Tull album was announced without Barre’s involvement, I was ready to hate this. There was no way the first Tull album in over twenty years would be any good. After listening to this, I learned I shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

For clarity, this is barely a Jethro Tull album. Just like the band’s 1980 album “A,” this was meant to be a solo album under Ian Anderson’s own name. However, he figured that it would be fine to release it under his previous band’s name after reviving it for 50th anniversary purposes a few years ago. Thus, we have the 22nd studio album from the legendary band. All the instrumentalists do a good job as they have years of chemistry built up as Anderson’s solo backing band. However, Anderson himself is the real highlight here. His flute abilities are still incredible and his voice sounds even better with age. He doesn’t reach for any unnecessary notes he can’t hit and he doesn’t coat his voice with any unnecessary processing. If anything, he proves he has always been a great vocalist and is certainly one of the best of the classic rock vocalists still going considering his understanding of his limitations.

The most glaring criticism towards the album is the keyboard sounds used throughout, particularly on the opening song “Mrs. Tibbets” and the title track. They aren’t horrible, but they continue the trend that prog bands lose all sense of taste in that department once they hit the new millennium. To be fair, the album was recorded over five years, with a chunk of the tracks being done remotely in the past few years. Due to this, these few songs are without drums and take a more direct folk approach. Despite that, this is a surprisingly progressive album. There are a lot of moving parts throughout these short songs. “Mine Is The Mountain” and “Shoshana Sleeping” exemplify this very well. The band also haven’t lost a smidgen of their aesthetic, with Anderson writing bops like it’s 1399. A key component of enjoying Tull is understanding where the lyrics are coming from. In Europe, the concept of minstrels was vastly different to the racist caricatures conjured up in the US in the 19th century. Overseas, minstrels were medieval musicians who sang tales of fantasy and heroic quests. That distinction makes it easier to understand and enjoy Anderson’s references to these bard’s both directly and through his style of writing.

With that being said, Anderson hasn’t aged a day in terms of composition. These 12 songs could’ve come out at any point in his illustrious career. While they lack the overall energy of classic Tull albums, these songs find comfort in their more restrained approach. Anyone who was a fan of the band previously will certainly find joy in songs like “Barren Beth, Wild Desert John” and “The Fisherman Of Ephesus.” The album doesn’t offer up an “Aqualung” or a “We Used To Know,” but it doesn’t need to have any standouts to be a perfectly fine album. Even if the album lacks some variety in it’s sonic palette, it never felt like it was dragging on. Color me impressed.

Eels – Extreme Witchcraft
Indie Rock
Released January 28, 2022

3 Globes out of 5

Eels are a band who have captured depression in such a brutally real way on their classic 1998 album “Electro-Shock Blues.” The band’s early career was highlighted by vivid depictions of loss and anxiety across their records. Around the beginning of the 2010s, Mark Everett, known synonymously as E, experienced a noticeable dip in his songwriting. Maybe it was the ever so slightly more ubeat lyrics, but some of the magic was gone. Even so, he kept up a consistent output with Eels, never leaving fans waiting more than a few years between releases. “Extreme Witchcraft” marks a slight return to the band’s rock orientated roots after a handful of more pop leaning albums.

E is strange, as his lackadaisical voice manages to convey anxiety strikingly well when paired with his lyrics. Normally a vocalist like himself would lull a listener into a sense of security, but he turns his would-be comforting voice into a vehicle for world-weary storytelling. The voice is still present on this album, but the storytelling is lackluster this time around. “Strawberries & Popcorn” has the seeds to tell a great story about a lack of motivation to get up and confront your day, but it comes off as rather silly instead. “Grandfather Clock Strikes Twelve” starts off reminiscent of the band’s dabbles into trip hop from way back when, but is disrupted by a tacky funk riff and weird vocal effects in the backing vocals. The guitar solo on this one is fun, but too brief to really make it all that noteworthy. In general, the louder songs here do not work as well as the softer moments. “What It Isn’t” is the perfect example, as the understated verses are the right blend of eerie and melancholic, only for the choruses to be clunky and really unconvincing. These jarring transitions don’t stand up to his past examples of this technique, such as “Cancer For The Cure.” As for this album, the closer “I Know You’re Right” is probably the best of the “rocker” cuts.

There are some decent songs on here, such as “Stumbling Bee.” The electric piano brings to mind Eels’ classics of old. The same stands for “So Anyway,” with E’s crooning showing that he really doesn’t sound all that different after 25 years. “Learning While I Lose” is probably one of the best pop songs E has written in years. To be fair, there is nothing that evokes pure disgust on the tracklist, but there isn’t a whole lot that warrants a repeated listening outside of a few tracks. I hesitate to blame the phenomenon where a band known for deeply depressing themes softens up and thus becomes worse, but between this and the last Modest Mouse album, there may be some truth to that. This isn’t exactly a happy album, but it is a sunny day by Eels’ standards.

Earthless – Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons
Heavy Psych
Released January 28, 2022

4 Globes out of 5

The most consistently tired piece of discourse in modern music is that guitar music is dead. I understand that this argument is based solely on the charts and what is popular, but it feels insulting to the numerous bands still putting out amazing music who aren’t household names. Earthless take this sentiment to an extreme, as the primarily instrumental jam band revolve their careers around lengthy guitar solos.

After constantly releasing two albums a decade since their debut, the band have released their first album of the 2020s. Their prior album “Black Heaven” consisted of several noticeably shorter songs compared to the rest of their output, fit with vocals as well. “Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons” sees the band returning to the side long epics they were known for. The titular track would be the band’s longest composition to date if it wasn’t split up into two twenty minute tracks. The album opens with six minutes of ethereal guitar chords and mallet based drumming, before fading and giving way to a galloping bass line with an energetic drum beat to boot. Isaiah Mitchell’s guitar playing graduated from psych and prog legends of yore, emphasizing timbre and spacing over shredding and pure feats of technical skill. He is a mesmerizing guitar and captures a listener’s interest with six strings more than any vocalist could in these songs. After about six minutes of this section, the song gives away to a truly cinematic section with some headbanging riffs that support a mind-melting solo that makes you want to punch the air. The second section of this song builds upon a hypnotic drum beat before once again giving way to a sweltering solo.

The third track and second composition on the album “Death To The Red Sun” is the more immediate cut, wasting no time in getting right into the solo. This track is unrelenting in its energy, enough so that you can feel yourself get a little worn out by the end of the album. Not because the band is low on ideas, but because you can only bob your head back and forth so much before it starts to hurt. This track does fix my major problem with the title track. The first song does not bridge its sections all that seamlessly both in their respective halves as well as in relation to each other. This final track ebbs and flows perfectly and honestly features the more engaging guitar work overall, especially around the thirteen and a half minute mark. Inject that solo directly into my brain. The production could also be a bit tidier, but jam-based psych rock isn’t necessarily known for clean production. The scuzziness of the mix would likely be more impactful if I heard this album through a nice set of tower speakers instead of headphones. Even so, Earthless rules so hard, and this album is pure energy from start to finish. Long live the guitar solo.

Celeste – Assassine(s)
Atmospheric Sludge Metal
Released January 28, 2022

4 Globes out of 5

A change in record label can really change a band’s sound rather drastically, especially when it comes to production. Celeste have been crafting disgusting sludgy metal records for over a decade now, but they have just released their first album on Nuclear Blast this year.

The jump in budget is apparent immediately, as the drums pummel the listener and heightened production allows the songs to take a more atmospheric approach. The band has always dabbled in black metal while sticking firmly in their sludge roots, but this new record sees the group allow the songs to open up more in terms of space. There is still a full auditory assault happening with the excellent riffs and tormented vocals, but the ability to hear each of the guitar parts all across the mix gives the band a whole new dynamic absent before. Vocalist and bassist Johan Girardeau manages to convey misanthropy despite the language barrier with such conviction that he turns French, the language of love, into a language of rage. I could not find direct translations to this release like I have for their other albums, but if those releases are anything to go by, then I can imagine how nihilistic this album really is. The melodies he crafts are minimal for the most part given the style of music, but they occasionally rise up to one’s more traditional to the average listener.

The shift to a more dynamic songwriting style really helps this album become their most accessible album to date. “Draguée tout au fond” features some of the album’s most immediate riffs that will entice fans of metalcore and other breakdown-centric genres. Despite being the album’s shortest song at a mere three and a half minutes, so many musical passages are thrown in that it is engaging every second of the way. When a song title is drastically different from everything else on a metal album, one can assume it is an interlude. “(A)” appears as simply just that at first due to the ambient soundscape and industrial percussion, but the track soon gives way to an absolute monster of a riff that demolishes everything in its path. “Le cœur noir charbon” is an epic closer that ends the album on quite a high note.

I don’t recommend this one to someone who isn’t a metal fan, but for those who are, check this out. This is the perfect entry point to the band’s catalog, as it is their most accessible work to date. Even if it is a little less inventive compared to prior albums, I am sure the band will craft this new sound into something purely their own on future releases.