(originally published in Star News)
By Brian Tucker
There’s little doubt 2018 was a rough year, hurricane Florence saw to that. But local music suffered its own losses – the passing of drummer Carlos Denogean (Salvación, Weedeater) and singer-songwriter Jeremy Norris, the shuttering of venue Ted’s Fun on the River, and musicians leaving – Folkstar’s Kim Dicso and Sue Cag, DB Russell, Jesse Stockton, Chasing Opal (Whitney Blayne and Steven Seguin), and Darian Rodriguez.
Although fewer releases this year, variety was strong. Sophomore releases stood out – RC and the Moonpie Band (blues), KingSo1omon’s (hip hop) three EPs that comprise Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, and Street Clones (punk/rock ‘n roll). And debut/solo albums – Amani Smith (reggae), Wax Imperials (modern rock), Capricious (indie pop), and Rene (electronic), The Coastal Collective (hip hop/jazz), and Goodbye Shivers (pop/rock).
Beats + Coffee and Hourglass Studios released compilation albums (Cookout Compilation Pt. 2, One Perfect Summer), album re-releases 90s alt-rockers Pandora’s Lunchbox (Swooooooon, Song for Sextant via Ireland label cardooreffect) and Damona Waits (10 year anniversary of A Place with No Name), new bands (The Explainers) and new albums on the horizon (Mike Blair).
There was plenty of punk/metal – Deadly Edibles (doom), ASG (hard rock), two from Shr3dCrust (skate rock) and their gnarly-classic song “Bring Beer or Go Home,” and a handful of releases from Leachate (noise/grindcore).
There were numerous singles (Striking Copper, Zodiac Panthers, Billy Heathen, Pinky Verde, Mark Hebert) and rapper Louis. worked with San Francisco band Quiet Planet for the album “Trash.” There was an interesting concept album tease from Adrian Varnam and Christopher Marino – The Historical Tragedy of Dr. Faustus arranged lyrics from John Milton and Christopher Marlowe.
Much of what follows are follow-up albums showing artists growing or bucking what they did before.
Stray Local – Passenger
Hannah Lomas and Jamie Rowen have seen their band as a duo and multi-member combinations. In a short span of time restlessness has consistently led to fresh results, whether expanding on old time music or different recording situations. “Passenger” really broke their mold, creating a paint board with new colors and sounding like a new band. It’s a mix of soundscapes, styles intimate or grand, and working with Lee Hester (Beta Radio) and atypical recording techniques.
Waul – 7 Cedars
Following up 2015’s amazing debut Esmerelda, instrumental post-rock trio Waul wanted something different. Choosing to record live in a cabin in Winnabow, N.C. was a risk but the immediacy, carnality and loveliness of tracks speak for themselves. The approach – sounds of nature, playing live in a room, and each member writing a track in addition to four songs they would record, got engineer Ian Millard excited about what could happen recording Waul in one day. Guitarist Jarrod Drobot described it as nerve-racking but the nearly eleven minute “The Woods” illustrates their prowess and ability to communicate musically.
Rene – Exposé Mystique
Electronic music producer and DJ Rene Plowden comes out strong on this EP following last year’s beats compilation “Knockout.” The eight tracks are a tapestry, reflecting different types of music – synth, hip hop, ambient, even shades of 50s exotica and swing composer Les Baxter (Danny Louis Thomas’ cool cover art does too). Each track is a scene setter, with just the right temperature and seductive mood (“Onboard” is a highlight”). Plowden is telling a story – it’s a concept album, but the nice thing is that you get to create with him just by listening and relaxing.
Exploding Math Lab – EP2
Caustic, fun, left-of-field rock and roll whose sound unfurls with garage band energy, some psychedelia, and a crash and burn persona. Songs here have more groove than the band’s debut, bearing a cool-but-haunted quality. The crunchy guitar work and explosive drumming pairs well with the Will Copeland’s spaced, icy temperature vocals. If the end of the world had a soundtrack, EML’s music would be fitting for the slide into oblivion.
The Girls – Gimmie Some Lips
Punk/rock and roll trio sound great on their second EP, taking 70s punk music and full-tilt abandon to scorching heights on blazing two minute songs. Catchy, gritty yet polished, and with influences clearly on their sleeves (namely Ramones), they deliver fire and fury on songs about simple ideas and music meant for partying and must-be played loud. Here’s hoping they take the influences and start carving their own path.
Darian Rodriguez – Transparent
With her Holiday EP Rodriguez showed she could write meaningful, catchy pop songs. For the jazz/pop/R&B flavored Transparent” she laid things bare, working with co-producer Rocky Hirajeta and stepping forward as a singer revealing warmth, depth, and honesty. The album is diverse, but works best when Rodriguez is at the center, like on the painful “Bruises,” the driving “Higher” and “Party Favor Boy,” reflective ballad “Chicago Man” or the spare “Heidi’s Song” that’s simply the singer and a piano pulling you closer and closer.
Jason Andre – Sea Songs for Little Pirates
Andre wanted to make an album for kids and adults. He did, crafting memorable songs aimed at kids to inspire, educate, and entertain with styles ranging from the traditional to blues and punk (see “No Use for Single Use”). A pirate themed album was born – sharing his love for and time spent on the ocean as a surfer, explorer, and educator. Andre, who has released a solo album and scored a documentary, spent several years in The Mid-Atlantic Americana band. Crystal Bright and Don Zientara (engineer on Minor Threat, Gugazi, other Dischord artists) guest on the album.
Thom Kunz – TRANSM17SION
Kunz stays busy, he’s put out five albums in three years. For instrumental album TRANSMI7SION he worked alone and crafted a film score for a non-existent film. The medium is fit for his talents and for the album he digs into what fans of horror and sci-fi scores of the late 70s and 80s adore – synth, melody, colors, stark tempos, and careful plotting. The notion of TRANSMI7SION has probably been on his mind for some time. Hopefully he’ll make more or make them for filmmakers.
Beta Radio – Ancient Transition
Alt-folk duo’s third album (plus a Christmas album collecting 4 EPs) mesmerizes, travelling far from the instant accessibility of their debut. Ben Mabry and Brent Holloman pore over material, industrious about the sound of their albums. Here, Mabry is trying new things outside of his always reliable and warm singing.
With Colony of Bees the band merged atmosphere with catchy songs and on Ancient Transition they go deeper, stealthier. This is a layered album, it’s music meaningful, standing at a distance from its listener which only pulls you closer, revealing more (see “Bees and Swans”). It’s melodic, it’s haunted, and it’s heightened – Beta Radio is taking its listeners somewhere new with each release.
Seeking Madras – Bike Ride
The brainchild of Sean Martin, Bike Ride is material feeling more 1960s than the present – the jangly rock of Brit bands and SoCal folk-rock as a mix of bouncing pop songs that’s hypnotic, like a cool daydream, and occasionally witchy (“Bike Ride”). Imagine The Monkees’ Davy Jones fronting Texas psyche-rockers The Black Angels, its music that’s at once catchy and delightfully ragged.
Phyphr – Toons
Nick Locke’s electronic music project is bass-heavy at times but features twinges of reggae and disco on album highlight “Funk Junction” along with soul and erratic funk on others (“Shake Dat (remix)” reaches back decades and wins). The Toons EP displays an array of interests and styles, making for colorful, slinky dance music. Locke plays shows locally, injecting his electronic music with guitar playing. He’s working on a new EP for next year called Soul Equilibrium.
Nicolay & The Hot at Nights – Glaciers
Nicolay (one half of The Foreign Exchange) has been working with Raleigh jazz trio The Hot at Nights in various forms over the years. On Glaciers they’ve come together to make music that’s a mix of smooth ambiance and colorful instrumentals. It’s uplifting material indeed, in part reaching back to the 80s sonically – soaring melodies and cool synth simply take you away (see “Behind Your Door”) or smash things up (see the blissfully manic “Saturn”). It’s also an extension of Nicolay’s doesn’t-disappoint City Lights release.