Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Big Thief, Cult Of Luna, Spoon, alt-J, Voivod

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

Consistency is key this week with so many artists continuing their clean track records. In these reviews, I cover some of that consistency on both sides of the spectrum. The good, the bad and the breathtaking.

Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
Indie Folk
Released February 11, 2022

4.5 Globes out of 5

One of my most contrarian musical takes is that I usually end up finding that double albums end up being my favorite work from an artist. There is something about listening to a long, winding musical journey that weaves through so many places that excites me. Many listeners find that almost every double album could be whittled down to a much better single LP, but I insist that this isn’t so. As if to prove my point, Big Thief have just dropped their crowning achievement.

“Dragon new Warm Mountain I Believe In You” clocks in at just under an hour and a half across 20 tracks. To use a cliché when talking about double albums, this is their “White Album.” While not as messy and quite as eclectic as the legendary Beatles record, this album covers quite a lot of styles. I guess a better comparison would be Bob Dylan and The Band’s “Basement Tapes.” There is country, folk, neo-psychedelia and everything in between throughout. Singer Adrianne Lenker has some of her most philosophical lyrics crammed right next to her silliest. The outcome is a heartbreaking exploration into infatuation, heartbreak and loss. Her pen can make the listener tear up with the utmost ease. It took me a while to warm up to Lenker’s voice, but I think she absolutely slaughters every vocal performance across this album.

The country songs are by and far away my favorites. “Spud Infinity” has a bluegrass feel to it with an earworm of a chorus. “Red Moon” is a riot. The exclamation about Lenker’s grandmother leading into the fiddle break is my favorite moment across the entire album. The closer “Blue Lightning” is a lighthearted way to end the album. There is something that makes me want to break down and cry from the line, “I wanna be the shoelace that you tie.” This is the kind of song that makes you think back on that one happy memory that has since soured in your mind in all its bittersweetness. Lenker has a few songs that feature just her and her guitar, such as the lo-fi “Promise Is A Pendulum” or the poignant “The Only Place.”

The band experiments a bit as well. “Wake Me Up To Drive” isg an indietronica song that sounds like a boombox era Mountain Goats song, and “Blurred View” verges on full blown trip hop. The title track is the closest sounding song to the band’s psychedelic influenced album “U.F.O.F.” “Time Escaping” is the most experimental song on the album and comes second in the track list. The prepared guitars paired with the arp synths create an atmosphere that isn’t found elsewhere in their discography and opens new doors for future excursions into this type of music for the band. The straightforward songs are just as good as well. “The Little Things” is jangly pop perfection, and “No Reason” has one of their best choruses alongside a gorgeous flute solo. “Simulation Swarm” is just breathtaking, with Lenker’s cadence and lyrical work cementing the track as one of the best modern day folk songs.

There is so much to discover on this album. I have to spend more time with it, but I can easily see this one creeping up to a perfect five stars after a while. Big Thief just keeps getting better and better with each release. Don’t let the album’s length keep you from checking this one out. There is not a single dull moment on the tracklist, and it doesn’t feel nearly as long as it is. I normally preface my recommendations by saying only certain crowds will like a release, but this is an album for everyone. Essential campfire music.

Cult Of Luna – The Long Road North
Atmospheric Sludge Metal
Released February 11, 2022

4 Globes out of 5

I often speak of consistency in these reviews, and it is impossible for me to not bring the topic up when discussing Cult Of Luna. The legendary metal band has been putting out album after album of top-tier material for two decades now. “The Long Road North” is the ninth and newest addition to the band’s unblemished discography.

This album continues the band’s trend of lengthy track and album durations. As with most of their material, the longer songs are the real meat and potatoes of this project, with the shorter songs acting as interludes. The duo of “Beyond I” and “Beyond II” don’t add much to the album, but they are enjoyable in context and don’t disrupt the flow of the album all that much. “Full Moon” should’ve been morphed with the preceding track “Into The Night,” as it already feels like that song’s outro. Other than that, all of the lengthier cuts are top tier Cult Of Luna songs. “Cold Burn” blares directly into the listener’s ears with the sound of a distorted siren, kicking the album off with a bang. “An Offering To The Wild” finds the band playing with dynamics, as the song creeps in with ethereal instrumentation, before breaking into a more intense guitar passage and then finally closing with some sweltering vocals. “Blood Upon Stone” is the album’s centerpiece, brimming with intensity and tension. The moment where the band pulls back to get quiet halfway through before building up to an explosive crescendo is a massive highlight on the record.

Given the nature of atmospheric sludge metal, many of the songs are sonically very similar. That isn’t to knock the songwriting, as the genre just lends to similar song structures. Cult Of Luna does what they do almost every album and they do it well. Maybe that is why they are so consistent, as they don’t fix a formula that has yet to be broken. This new record stands among the group’s finest works and continues to support the notion that they are one of the most consistent bands not only in metal, but in all of music. Any metal fan not already acquainted will likely enjoy this one, but if you’re already a fan then you knew this would be good. Music for snowy mountains.

Spoon – Lucifer On The Sofa
Indie Rock
Released February 11, 2022

4.5 Globes out of 5

Spoon is just one of the coolest bands around. There is something so enticing about their songwriting style that just draws me in. Their previous 2017 album “Hot Thoughts” is an all timer for me, so the announcement of new material got me incredibly excited. As expected, “Lucifer On The Sofa” absolutely smacks.

This album finds the band retreating to their “Kill The Moonlight” era of songwriting while also keeping the grooves of “Hot Thoughts,” creating a stripped down approach to indie rock and alternative dance. The album opens up with a cover of the classic Smog track “Held” in a rare instance where the cover beats the original. This song was made for Britt Daniel’s nasally snarl. When I first heard his voice, I hated it, but he has since become one of my favorite indie vocalists. He has so much swagger on tracks like “Wild” and “On The Radio.” The hooks are as catchy as ever and the production is raw and rocking. “My Babe” shows a more tender side that the band doesn’t let out all too often, and the ballad really works in context of the album. The single “The Hardest Cut” also works better in an album context, with the ending guitar solo feeling much more deserved this time around.

Even if this album isn’t as weird as its predecessor, there are still some interesting left turns. “Astral Jacket” is a straight up folk pop song with some clever production and exquisite electric pianos that put the song on another level. “Satellite” continues this artsy direction by adding space rock influence and including the best guitar solo on a Spoon track yet. Seriously, that solo is wicked good. Hopefully, more of that is to come on future releases. The band does take one major cue from “Hot Thoughts” on this album. The final song, the title track, has a hazy saxophone and some eerie electric pianos. This track brings the album to a satisfying finish and caps of one of the best three track runs from the band thus far. Above all, it proves that more artists need to end their albums with smokey saxophones.

I implore you to check out Spoon’s entire catalog if you have the chance. Rolling Stone champions this as their best album yet, but I think that is a disservice to how unwavering their career really is. This band is truly magical and is underrated in every sense of the word. Even if I don’t adore this one as much as “Hot Thoughts,” it is truly an incredible addition to their catalog.

alt-J – The Dream
Released February 11, 2022

2.5 Globes out of 5

This is the sound of a band continually slipping further and further into mediocrity. When the band debuted in 2012, alt-J was nothing special But their quirky lyrics paired with their musical eclecticism and Joe Newman’s unconventional vocals made them a popular band in the indie and pop circuit. However, they wouldn’t be able to get by on eccentricity alone.

With each passing album, the band saw a continually devoted fan base at odds with falling critical reception. “The Dream” might just be the lowest point for the band thus far. In a musical landscape inhabited by so many boundary pushing artists, it hurts to see a band like alt-J actually regress their experimentation on this album. Once you hit the halfway point, the album slows down to a snail’s pace. The songs either have one idea stretched out too long or a few ideas not fully realized but crammed into one track anyway. Even when a song has some interesting ideas, such as “Philadelphia” with the harpsichord, the band finds a way to derail it, with that track featuring incredibly annoying backing vocals. “Losing My Mind” gets interesting with the droning guitars and gospel influenced vocals, but the chorus is repeated a bit too much to the point that it starts to lose effect.

“Hard Drive Gold” gets some points for being straight to the point and very catchy, but a lot of the album can’t be spoken for in the same way. The worst part is their underutilization of drummer Thom Green. He is one of the most interesting percussionists in indie music, yet the band continues to write these minimalist pseudo-ambient pop tracks that feature sparse drumming, which is almost an insult to Green’s capabilities. I am not saying he needs to be flashy and show off, he just needs to do something actually interesting on these songs.

This is a listenable album that many will probably enjoy, but boy if it isn’t disappointing. I’m not one who likes to criticize an album for not being adventurous enough, but this is too safe for the band’s standards when they try and champion innovation and experimentation. It is also disheartening to see a band that once dripped with humor suck that out of their music. If anything across this album was in fact meant to be funny, then the joke didn’t land. Many better bands have pulled themselves out of a downward slide, so maybe alt-J can someday as well.

Voivod – Synchro Anarchy
Progressive Metal
Released February 11, 2022

3.5 Globes out of 5

Being goofy is an underrated approach towards making music. While metal has become somewhat known for being super self-serious, a lot of bands like to have fun with what they do. Voivod is one such band, who have been crafting off-the-wall sci-fi stories in their albums since the mid 80s. Their brand of technical thrash and progressive metal comes off as almost psychedelic at times, giving them a unique sound.

After a brief rough patch in the 2000s, the band has been on an upward trend recently . 2018’s “The Wake” is a late career classic and proved that the band still had it in them to create a great album. While “Synchro Anarchy” isn’t quite as stellar as that album, it is still darn good. The riffs sound inspired and energetic, matching the sprawling song structures that go in fun and interesting places at each and every turn. The vocals are as croaky as they always have been. Denis Bélanger is just such an odd metal vocalist that he is probably the most essential part to the band’s sound at this point. I don’t think anyone who sounds as far away from a traditional metal vocalist could front a band quite like he does.

He does his best to sell the hooks on this album, but they are probably the weakest part overall. Everything else is on par with their recent material, even if this album feels a little like a retread of past material. “Planet Eaters” showcases how the band plays by pushing the boundaries of what can be considered thrash metal. “Quest For Nothing” sees some of the most directly aggressive instrumental work from the band in quite a while.

It is so nice to see a band that has been going on this long come out from a dry period. Voivod is still one of the most outside of the box bands in mainstream metal. Their take on thrash with sci-fi influenced lyrics might be corny for some, but it is so incredibly fun. You know you are in for a good time when you throw on this album, even if it doesn’t particularly stick with you after.