Great Records You May Have Missed is a monthly music column highlighting a handful of new releases we really enjoy that you might not have heard about elsewhere. It’s curated and written by former Paste music editor Lizzie Manno, so please tell her if you found something in here that you love. Explore all editions of the column here.
It might be end-of-year list season, but this week’s edition of the column is a good opportunity to remind people that lots of cool releases continue to trickle out. Of course, it’s totally understandable if people decide to tap out and just spend the holidays listening to Christmas music or revisiting favorite albums from earlier in the year, but keeping an ear to the ground can be a rewarding experience.
One November release that caught my ear and has already worked its way into my regular rotation is Chime School’s self-titled, a jangle-pop LP so pleasant it’s almost ridiculous. I also frequently queued up the new EP from Visibly Choked, a Montreal punk outfit with a visceral hardcore edge and magnetic, devilish lead vocals. I was bummed to hear that Potty Mouth announced their split, but loved how their final EP turned out—another catchy, punk-y power-pop outing. Then I dove into Rave Ami’s third album Let It Be, and was struck by its unique sound—part ’60s pop, ’90s/aughts anthemic rock and contemporary lo-fi emo wizardry. Plus, I really enjoyed Heart Attack Man’s ascent from pop-punk tunefulness to throat-shredding heavy music on their new EP Thoughtz & Prayerz, as well as Snowy’s collection of pretty, artful, acoustic-based odds and ends—some songs improvised, some left unfinished—titled Bell City.
If you’re still on the hunt for new music at this point in the year—firstly, awesome! And secondly, I hope you enjoy some of the above and below releases.
Herbert Powell: Here In My Scheme, Here It Ends
Roughly six or seven years ago, Herbert Powell were regulars of Glasgow’s underground indie scene. A series of stray internet comments and blog reviews suggest that some believed they were the best live band in the scene at that time. I was able to find footage of the band playing in venues like The Flying Duck and The Old Hairdresser’s from as early as 2014, and was impressed to discover that their droning songs and frenetic energy recall the late-’00s, now-cult performances of Women. After a few years, the band disintegrated and its members focused on different outfits, such as Helena Celle, Anxiety, Snout, Savage Mansion and Rapid Tan. Despite making waves several years ago, Herbert Powell never actually released any music. But last month, out of the blue, Scotland’s Lost Map label—which was founded by The Pictish Trail’s Johnny Lynch—shared the band’s debut album. The LP was co-produced by Herbert Powell and Catholic Action’s Chris McCrory, and it features some of the same tracks they were playing in dimly lit basements back in the day. Here In My Scheme, Here It Ends smolders with spring-loaded energy, fusing art-rock and prog sounds with noise and post-punk. But it’s not some empty, moody display of pretension—you can feel the rippling emotions behind their spidery guitar work and barreling fury, and you even get sequences of tender pop vocals. I can only longingly imagine how amazing this band would’ve sounded screaming about a “fake Burger King” over nervy guitars in a tiny bar back in 2014.
Se So Neon: “joke!”
Se So Neon were, by far, one of my favorite finds of 2020. Last year’s Nonadaptation was one of the best and most unique indie rock records I heard in ages—so many bands sound painfully beige when attempting to meld R&B with rock, but this Seoul-based group sound positively inspired and like they’re batting in a different league. Since that release, they’ve shared a couple of singles, like the lush acoustic “Jayu” and the breezy synth-laden “NAN CHUN,” and their most recent cut is a dramatic glam-funk track titled “joke!” I’ll preface the new single by stating that virtually any other band trying to pull off this bass-driven classic rock sound would likely sound like an unfashionable pastiche, but Se So Neon have the charisma and songwriting abilities to disarm my knee-jerk distaste for a track with these reference points. Lead vocalist Hwang Soyoon has a riveting presence that’s both playfully seductive and impassioned, and their guitar and synth tones are impeccable. Background synths fizz away as Soyoon belts over saucy bass grooves, and the song later segues into one of the gnarliest buzzsaw guitar solos you’ll hear this year—it’s the kind of solo that makes you scrunch your nose in baffled delight. Making the song feel even bigger, it’s accompanied by a music video that’s quite the large-scale production—it’s characterized by over-the-top Elizabethan-era clothing and a majestic-looking horse, and set in an elaborate, multi-story estate.
Snarls: What About Flowers? EP
The COVID-19 pandemic hit right before Columbus rock quartet Snarls were scheduled to leave for their first extensive tour. Although it threw a wrench in their touring plans and debut album campaign, the young band still impressed with their 2020 LP Burst. Their emo-tinted indie-pop—marked by sweet, layered vocals and sputtering guitars—really strikes an emotional chord, and they’ve only improved since then. Following that album, they teamed up with Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla to record a new EP: the gorgeous, angst-ridden What About Flowers? Vocalists Chlo White and Riley Hall undoubtedly shine on these five tracks, as they’re bolstered by stronger, more focused hooks and performances that radiate with even more confidence. You can feel the high emotional stakes baked into these songs—each track enraptured by a desire for intimacy and mutual understanding, but occasionally frustrated by various barriers. The stirring, tension-packed vocal takeoff at the end of “For You” hammers home Snarls’ love of love, and the dainty beauty of “If Only” shows just how much emotion they can muster from understated songcraft. Another highlight is the wonderful vocal ping-ponging that closes “Fixed Gear,” evoking the cheerful pop interplay and juxtaposed vocal melodies of The Beths, and kicking off the EP on an incessantly catchy note. If Snarls continue on this upwards trajectory of heartwarming pop/rock, there’s no telling how high they could go.
Robert Sotelo: Celebrant
On his latest album Celebrant, Glasgow-based singer/songwriter Robert Sotelo nails the sweet spot between jaunty ’60s pop and ’80s lo-fi synth madness. With faint pastoral notes, ribbons of woodwind and brass and intoxicating loops of videogame-like synths, these songs contain a warm sway and bouncy joy. But most prominent are Sotelo’s synths, which squawk, noodle and sparkle throughout the record—often taking on both a percussive role and a charming, ornamental one. The album was intended to be an homage to Sotelo’s recent marriage, but the pandemic and a death in his family meant that the record was also colored by melancholia. “Take Control of It” and “Influencer’’ contain cheerful singalong hooks and baroque pop splendor, and they encourage perseverance through emotional hardship and dystopian reality, respectively. “The Currency of Love,” on the other hand, starts to buckle under the weight of widespread devastation, resulting in nagging feelings of cynicism and alienation: “I mostly spend my days inside / Hopefully we’ll face the light sometime.” Songs like “Behaviour’’ feel like sonic battles as much as emotional ones, as boisterous jazz drums and saxophone square off in an attempt to one-up the other on the insanity meter. With its seemingly never-ending supply of left-field eccentricities, pop brilliance, sharp societal analyses and warm emotional assurances, there’s a good chance you’ll find a kindred spirit in Celebrant.
Test Subjects: Study
Plenty of bands are happy to construct an album by simply glueing together songs that could easily exist on their own. To be clear, that’s a perfectly fine way to go about it, but it doesn’t necessarily take advantage of the opportunities presented by the format. New York City duo Test Subjects run absolutely wild with those opportunities on their debut album Study. It utilizes spoken-word passages, unconventional sound effects and satisfyingly cohesive lyrical themes, dropping listeners into the band’s own mad scientist-like cinematic universe. To give you a sense of its playful silver screen quality, Study opens with an ominous voice guiding someone dubbed “test subject 16” down a hallway, and they accidentally open a door that triggers a preview of the last song on the album, resulting in a swift door slam and a reply of “Oops! Wrong door!” I hesitate to use the term “rock opera,” because I know it has both lame and showtune-y connotations, but listening to this album really does feel like you’re watching a wonky, heartfelt two-person stage show or a not at all obnoxious coming-of-age musical film. The album is peppered with bubbles, pencil scribbles, school bells and moans, placing you in a funhouse of suburban teenage longing and school drama. To accompany those sounds and themes, they cook up a synth-pop storm that encompasses funk, prog, new wave and ’00s pop/rock, folding in the party-ready fun of Confidence Man, the nostalgic radio pop of Michelle Branch and the why-the-fuck-not weirdness of Sparks. But underneath all the amusing bleep bloops and interludes also lies a tender heart, just trying to make it to the next school bell and feel seen and loved.
zzzahara: “they don’t know”
Secret relationships are a phenomenon as old as time. Though there’s an undeniable allure to them—particularly in fictional and historical cases—they’re often coupled with very real pain, fear or insecurities. Zahara Jaime, who records as zzzahara and also plays guitar in U.S. Velvet, Eyedress and The Simps, takes on the subject and its relationship to queerness with their recent single “they don’t know.” Though the world is more accepting of queer relationships than it has ever been, there’s still an abundance of ugly attitudes and stereotypes that can build into a wave of background noise and sour the warm safety of those relationships. “they don’t know” expresses what it’s like to feel that spoken and unspoken pushback, even in the presence of affirming love. Sonically, you can also hear both that exhilarating sanctum of lovestruck bliss and a murmuring clamor threatening to sabotage it. Jaime uses synth-y dream rock as a vehicle for elation and alienation, and they do so thoughtfully to harness both pop immediacy and raw, eccentric catharsis. Once the track’s gauzy guitars and keys converge with the central melodies and the vocals become violently garbled, its beauty shifts from immersive to explosive, with emotions trickling out that can no longer be contained. I’m definitely a sucker for songs with instrumentals that sync up with vocal melodies, but this single feels like something special.
Lizzie Manno is a music writer, Coldplay apologist, bread lover and Spongebob memer. She’s a former Paste editor, with bylines at Stereogum, Billboard, FLOOD Magazine, The Recording Academy and Cleveland Scene. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno