Noise Complaint

12 Records I’ve Made the Time to Listen to So Far in 2023

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #165. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Ruminations on the power of the riff.

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How are we already halfway through 2023? It feels like a cliché to comment on how time seems to be moving too quickly, but something about this year seems like it’s moving more quickly than what I’m consciously realizing in the moment. It could be because winter didn’t end until mid-April in my area and my brain blacked out February and March from existence. The way that time and space seemed to contract and expand after the peak of the pandemic might have inexorably altered my ability to perceive the passage of time; ever since society reopened and the pace of daily life picked itself back up, I’ve permanently felt busier, even when there isn’t much going on.

Whatever the case may be, out of the many things I don’t do well, living in the moment is definitely one of them. I don’t take enough time to stop and appreciate what’s happening while it’s happening, and that tendency has only gotten worse since sometime around March 2020. So, for this month’s column, I want to pause and look back on the past six months, through the lens of my favorite records that have come out thus far in 2023. Some of these selections have worked their way into my regular rotation. Others I forgot were released this year until I sat down to write this piece, thus showing the value of this exercise.

If there’s a common thread that unifies these record selections, it’s timing. In some instances that connection is literal, with bands that creatively manipulate time signatures, or preserve a noteworthy moment in time through their lyrics. In other cases, there are new albums that sound like they belong to another era, or artists that seem to be in the middle of moving between milestones along their creative trajectory. There’s a strong lean toward punk and indie rock, which might signal a need to branch out a bit more proactively. While my tastes span a much broader range of genres, it seems like I’m seeking out more music that’s new to me, rather than new as in recently released.

In some ways, I wish I had just a bit more time to sneak in a few records that will be coming out in July or just a bit later this year (most notably from Jeff Rosenstock, Outer Heaven, Audio Karate and Field Medic, all of which I anticipate will have year-end list potential). I haven’t given the latest from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Weathervanes, much of a listen just yet, but I’m almost certain it’s excellent as well. With this in mind, what follows are my personal favorites from what’s been released thus far in 2023, while looking ahead to what’s coming next between now and December to round out the year.

A black and white photo of Protomartyr from their album cover for Formal Growth in the Desert.

ProtomartyrFormal Growth in the Desert
When we last heard from Detroit post-punks Protomartyr in 2020 on Ultimate Success Today, they had (somewhat inadvertently) crafted a fitting soundtrack for a year marked by civil unrest. Frontman Joe Casey’s sharp and socially conscious lyricism took aim at ICE, the surveillance state and the general unease that permeated Trump’s (fingers crossed) lone term in office. Dreary and deliberately paced, it felt like examining a world teetering on collapse through the lens of a depressive fog, marching along to repetitious rhythms that lent an almost meditative feel to its discordant discontent.

This time around, Protomartyr feel focused and confident, leaning a bit more into the punk denominator of the post-punk equation. By the time second track “For Tomorrow” hits its first chorus, it’s apparent they’re harboring a bit more anxious energy and they’re more willing to let it out with a touch more aggression and clarity of vision.

The album art for FACS' Still Life in Decay, featuring a city shoreline rendered in electric red.

FACSStill Life in Decay
The second entry in this column’s selections similarly comes from a Midwestern post-punk act (this time out of Chicago) known for layering jagged guitars over an unsettled rhythm section. FACS first found their way into my regular listening rotation with their 2021 EP Present Tense, a brief blast of fractured noise rock that often managed to be catchy despite forgoing traditional hooks and melodies. Still Life in Decay picks up where those songs left off, there’s an understated attention to detail here that makes the three-piece’s stripped-down sound work. It takes a few listens before it sticks, but once it does, it refuses to leave your head.

The album art for Militarie Gun's Life Under the Gun which is a top-down view of several people in a large concrete yard, perhaps one in a prison.

Militarie Gun – Life Under the Gun
Militarie Gun have shed the tinges of hardcore that ran through their 2022 debut All Roads Lead to the Gun and stepped closer to fully embracing an alternative rock sound. Good on them. It’s a bold move, and one that feels inspired in part by previous split-mates Dazy, but this new vibe feels like it fits better on them. Poppy and accessible, frontman Ian Shelton has mostly abandoned his signature bark for something approaching actual singing.

Rather than getting caught between who they want to be and what any given scene will allow them to become, they’re moving forward with confidence along their own trajectory. I’m not sure exactly where I’m picking up this vibe, but as good as this album may be, I get the sense that what they do next will be their real breakthrough.

The album art of White Reaper's Asking for a Ride featuring an arm outstretched with a thumbs up, hitchhiking on the most chaotic city street in the world, with personified tornadoes, three-headed dogs, witches, clowns, and worse.

White Reaper – Asking for a Ride
White Reaper have staked their career on sounding like they were born in the wrong decade. This is the sound of slamming a cassette tape into a station wagon on your way to a house party circa 1988. I mean, I don’t remember much about 1988 because I was three, but I could easily be convinced that everything about being alive back then felt exactly like listening to this album. I can’t really skateboard anymore but it makes me want to jump a fence into a rich person’s backyard so I can empty their pool and bust my ass trying to boardslide around the deep end. BRB.

Album art for The Dirty Nil's Free Rein to Passions, featuring an abandoned bank building on a corner with a lonely stoplight.

The Dirty NilFree Rein to Passions
“Be excellent to others and cut yourself a little slack” are good words to live by.

The Hold SteadyThe Price of Progress
Every time I hear a new record from The Hold Steady, I feel like I’m running into an old friend. It seems like they’ve always been around and will always be around, even when I don’t always make the effort to keep in touch. Craig Finn’s storytelling wit is as sharp as ever, reveling in an ability to make minor details feel like major plot points, making the mundanity of daily living feel fit for the silver screen. One day, The Hold Steady will be gone, but what they’ll leave behind are documents of all the seemingly small moments that we couldn’t see were actually big moments until we looked back years too late.

 

The album art for Sigur Ros' ATTA which features, impossibly, a rainbow on fire.

Sigur RosATTA
I’m not sure how I managed to not know Sigur Ros was working on a new album until literally the day it came out. Did anyone else know? I’m going to proceed with the belief that no one knew and I’m not actually completely out of the loop. Anyway, the latest from Iceland’s finest post-rock export has further reinforced my perception that everyone in the country is born with impossible musical talent.

Album art for Incendiary's Change the Way You Think About Pain, which is a rendering of a jeep careening through the air towards two figures standing in a post-apocalyptic street.

IncendiaryChange the Way You Think About Pain
These days, just thinking about moshing is enough to blow my back out, but I can still appreciate Incendiary’s approach to metallic hardcore. A vaguely rap-influenced vocal delivery collides with panic chords and skull crushing breakdowns in a way that feels like its straight out of the early to mid-2000s. Tough without being tough-guys and metal-influenced without succumbing to modern metalcore cliches, the band puts on a clinic for how to do this style right; honest, unpredictable and filled with passion.

Album art for Spiritual Cramp's Phone Lines Down / Nah That Ain’t It featuring a moody black and white photo of the band.

Spiritual CrampPhone Lines Down / Nah That Ain’t It (Split Single)
I’ll take two new songs from Spiritual Cramp over most band’s entire full-lengths. With a new record deal in tow though, it seems like this pair of bangers are a taster for something more substantial that’s yet to come this year. A fun blend of ‘80s-influenced pop and post-punk (or “hard mod” as they’ve dubbed themselves) that navigates the middle ground between early hardcore, the Ramones and the Talking Heads with stunning ease, it’s no one’s business how many times I’ve hit repeat on these jams.

Album art for Single Mothers' Roy with a few wig heads modeling various head wigs and beard wigs.

Single MothersRoy
Owing to the nature of being a collective revolving around one consistent voice (frontman Drew Thomson), no two Single Mothers albums have ever sounded quite the same. Over the span of five full lengths (and just as many EPs), now culminating with the band’s swan song Roy, they’ve covered everything from raging hardcore to introspecive hardcore and several points between along the melodic hardcore spectrum, all while sounding distinctly like themselves; a remarkable feat for a “band” with enough collaborators to round out an entire concert bill amongst themselves. 

This time around, in what is presumably their final incarnation, they sound more like a grown-up rock band than ever. Thomson’s sardonic lyricism still cuts through the absurdity of modern living with scathing insight, choosing brains over brawn to drive home his point, but there are moments (like on “Quincy”) where they branch out into territory most hardcore bands would never allow themselves to explore (and only partially because they wouldn’t be capable of pulling it off). It feels like they’re bowing out at the right time, having achieved as much as what they needed to do.

Album art for Jeromes Dream's The Gray in Between featuring an line of abstracted human shadow puppets.

Jeromes DreamThe Gray in Between
The proliferation of classic late 1990s and early 2000s screamo bands reuniting and releasing new music isn’t a trend I would have predicted. While I’m uncertain whether vocalist/bassist Jeff Smith has adopted the use of a microphone since their initial dissolution in 2001, but Jeromes Dream still sound as spastic and full of piss and vinegar as they did in their heyday. I feel like I’m sweating in a VFW basement in the best way possible.

Album art for Narrow Head's Moments of Clarity featuring a taped-over white star on a collaged black and blue background, calling to mind a kind of DIY flag.

Narrow HeadMoments of Clarity
If one were to judge Narrow Head’s Moments of Clarity based solely on its album art, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some sort of lost record from a mid-1990s indie rock band that could have hit the big time but ever caught the right break. Give the album a couple spins and, well, that assumption would still feel plausible. The influences on display here aren’t well hidden, not on the surface nor anywhere deeper in the music itself.

None of the words above are intended to be an insult, and while Narrow Head’s influences are evident, that isn’t to say they’re overly derivative (“inspired” would be a better and more fair descriptor and there’s nothing wrong with knowing exactly who you want to sound like and what you want to be). Hum feels like a clear reference point in the way they juxtapose thick drop-tuned riffing with contemplative crooning, as does the shoegaze stylings of Swervedriver and jackhammer rhythms of Quicksand. Narrow Head would be equally at home sharing a stage with the Deftones or wedged into the middle of a basement hardcore show, and it makes me happy that there are still bands interested in occupying that sort of space today.

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Ben Sailer is a writer based out of Fargo, ND, where he survives the cold with his wife and dog. His writing also regularly appears in New Noise Magazine.

 

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