Viking's Choice Outre song recommendations from NPR Music's Lars Gotrich
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Viking's Choice

Outre song recommendations from NPR Music's Lars Gotrich

Initially inspired by the Cocteau Twins and A.R. Kane, twin brothers Danny and Daniel Chavis have made soul-shoegaze for over 30 years. There were major-label signings and shake-ups in the '90s, an early 2000s name change and then a long hiatus — but they never gave up on their aesthetic mission, which they describe as "if Luther Vandross put something out with guitars." After a few return EPs, Entropy Is the Mainline to God is The Veldt's first album in 24 years, featuring fuzzed-out versions of Curtis Mayfield and Mobb Deep classics.

"Sweeter" is one of many original gems that captures The Veldt's unique MO: guitar effects swirl around a psychedelic R&B groove that shimmies and shimmers with beautiful bluster. True to the title, Daniel Chavis whispers sweet nothings in your ear, but under distorted and wavy bliss, they could just as well be sinister.

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Botch will break your brain and inevitably cause you to break stuff. In the '90s and early 2000s, the Tacoma, Wash., band turned metallic hardcore into a dangerous game of daggers — sharp angles, twisted riffs and ferocious barks all somehow contained within moshably mathy grooves. Now, 20 years since its breakup — with several bands since formed (Minus the Bear, These Arms Are Snakes, Narrows) and joined (Russian Circles, Sumac) — Botch has returned with an absolute bruiser of a track.

Included on an upcoming reissue of We Are the Romans, the entirely new "One Twenty Two" feels like an old muscle car revved back to life. Dave Knudson's spindly-but-burly guitar riff anchors the chaos as the rhythm section (bassist Brian Cook and drummer Tim Latona) gives the anthemic stomp swaggering purpose. But it's that combination with Dave Verellen's fiery maw that returns Botch to its proper pioneering stead.

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You're on a desert highway at dusk, windows down with long locks whipping 'round the leather headrest. Endless pavement carves sand, but only an abandoned gas station and bleached skeletons break up the scenery. You barrel towards the unknown with little else besides a Big Gulp (caffeinated fuel) and a bottle of water (gotta stay hydrated) — oh, and the power of heavy metal. You need Randy Rhoads-era Ozzy, you need Dio-era Black Sabbath, you need Scorpions.

Sumerlands leans into heavy metal traditions with a big dang heart. The riff that girds "Edge of the Knife" not only wraps its claws around the moment of crisis, but hugs your neck in solidarity. As with other metal bands that look to the '80s (see: Haunt; High Spirits; Eternal Champion, with whom Sumerlands shares members), there's a battle jacket familiarity here: palm-muted chugging, copious-but-tasteful reverb, guitar solos that extend the melody and sky-high pipes. This is a high-impact power ballad with a heightened sense that every word may be your last.

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Rival Schools' 2001 debut United By Fate was high-definition rock music made by New York hardcore vets. The album's combination of glossy production and gritty songwriting wasn't new, per se, but the band — led by Walter Schreifels and featuring members of Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand, CIV and Youth of Today — brought more experience than most major label grabs from young punk scenes. In an effects-driven panoply that wasn't emo, hardcore or indie rock, Rival Schools offered another way into stadium-slammed riffs sourced from underground sounds.

That's what makes this acoustic version of "Holding Sand," from a deluxe edition of United By Fate out Oct. 28, such an unexpected flip on Rival Schools. In the original, sampled drums from My Bloody Valentine's "Soon" gave the track's anthemic thud a breakbeat edge straight out of The Prodigy's playbook. But here, Schreifels, who's regularly made a habit out of presaging punk's next moves since the early '90s, proves his songwriting mettle by going solo. Stripped down but strummed urgently, "Holding Sand" reveals something like Alice in Chains' MTV Unplugged performance: turning the sour into something soulful, but still heavy.

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Since 2005, the Imaginational Anthem series has uplifted young talent and uprooted lesser-known vets who primarily perform solo guitar. For the 11th volume dubbed Chrome Universal, Nashville's Luke Schneider curates beyond the acoustic guitar to feature nine pedal steel artists who work across country, folk, ambient and improvised music. "I think it's an instrument that begs to be used texturally," the artist Chuck Johnson told NPR in 2020, "and outside the way it was originally designed to be used."

Maggie Björklund is a Danish pedal steel guitarist who spent the '90s with the country band Darleens, and has studio credits on albums by Jack White and Giant Sand. It's her contribution, "Lysglimt," that truly stokes the imagination's fire. What begins low and slow, drawing dusky blues across a glowing sky, transforms her pedal steel into a throbbing, industrial instrument by pitting staccato feedback against a mourning melody. The effect is reminiscent of Daniel Lanois' own dubbed-out experiments, but Björklund gathers the pedal steel's dust like stars worth preserving.

Eli Winter fell in love with fingerstyle guitar while watching Steve Gunn's Tiny Desk concert, sending him down a path trod by the late guitarists Jack Rose and Michael Chapman. Ever since, the Chicago-based guitarist has released promising solo and duo records indebted to these forebears. Winter's forthcoming self-titled album, however, clears the briars and rose petals of history to make his own — by, somewhat paradoxically, stepping back.

"Davening in Threes" begins as brisk, countryside choogle, churned by Tyler Damon's drums, electric guitarist Cameron Knowler's nuanced countermelody and Sam Wagster's bright pedal steel ornamentation. Winter matches the band with a jubilant melody fingerpicked on acoustic, getting off a few dazzling licks, but never showing off. A little over two minutes in, Yasmin Williams sprinkles some harmonics, but the brief respite only spurs Winter and Co. into a 6/8 ramble that kicks up some serious dust. Like old friends shootin' the breeze, it's a musical conversation that takes a breath, but roars back with laughter.

If Ruston Kelly can call himself "dirt emo," then Big Rig's got a decent claim on country music's twee cousin "twangmo." Big Rig is Jen Twynn Payne, drummer/singer in The Courtneys. After the bubblegummy rock trio finished its third, still-unreleased album just before the pandemic, Payne taught herself the guitar and found a new musical partner in banjo picker Geoffo Reith. Her songs as Big Rig are short and sad, but lope along with a punky, clipped rhythm like you might expect from an emo kid raised on Elliott Smith and early Wilco. With the evocatively titled "Crying in a Corn Maze," Big Rig turns the tear-in-my-beer trope into a one-inch button affixed just-so to a denim jacket pulled tighter.

Marshall Allen lends his saxophone squawk and synth squiggles to rock and roll here and there — U2, King Khan and Caribou, to name a few collaborators — but it warms the heart to see the Sun Ra Arkestra leader join a fellow Philadelphian, several generations removed, on a rubbery, thud-buckin' ham-jammer. "Experimental & Professional" opens Chris Forsyth's Evolution Here We Come with yet another iteration of his streets-to-the-skies rock band. Allen's Electronic Valve Instrument bubbles over bassist Douglas McCombs' stuttered Can-funk and Ryan Jewell's airy drumming, opening up an in-the-pocket paradox of effervescent oddity and earth-rumbling gyration. Forever on the search for new spaceways, Forsyth's guitar foil this time around is Tom Malach of Garcia Peoples, a fellow journeyman in cosmic choogle — and their riffs and solos spit and spiral with a telekinetic grin. Let's rip off the knob and boogie, y'all.

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Kali Malone wrings every beautifully forlorn texture from just a few notes. She's known for pipe organ pieces that undertake a spectral physicality, engaging with the very breath of the instrument. But on Living Torch, commissioned by the electro-acoustic music studio GRM, the American-born, Stockholm-based composer trades pipes for synths, sine waves and the boîte à bourdon, which literally translates as "drone box."

The whole album deserves a single sitting on a nice pair of headphones, but it is in the second act where Malone gives Living Torch's slow-moving theme a pulse. Over a shifting bed of trombone and bass clarinet, played by Mats Äleklint and Isak Hedtjärn respectively, bass notes played via Karplus-Strong string synthesis "pluck" the melody — in its stuttered phrasing, you can almost hear the ghost of Jason Molina. But as the drone builds, so does the doom: Distortion and feedback not only overcome, but reshape mourning into triumph.

Credit: Linda Ayupuka / !K7 Music

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Ghanaian gospel singer Linda Ayupuka performs at weddings, funerals and church services by day, but by night she makes joyous and jumpy Afro-electro hymns. God Created Everything, her debut, exists somewhere between the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré and the lo-fi-to-the-future beats heard on the Nyege Nyege Tapes label. This is turnt-up praise music that's equally at home in church aisles and on dance floors.

Ayupuka calls "Daguna" her favorite track on the album, and it's not hard to hear why. "Let's all be in a hurry / Don't delay," a choir chants in its native Gurenɛ tongue over a trance-inducing drum loop and synth flute. In a translation provided by the singer herself, the song radiates salvation: "Our permanent home is heaven / So my brothers and sisters, be in hurry to accept Him." Ayupuka's piercing soprano, here AutoTuned in a way that seems to harness the power of a thousand suns, provides a blast of bright light against Francis Ayamga's biting production, which feels equally inspired by Fra Fra ceremonial music and dancehall.

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The Doors suck. "But, wait, what about—," you say. No, no, no... The Doors suck. But then Blondie, possibly the coolest band to come out of New York's 1970s punk and new wave scene, covers The Doors, LA's most pompous rock band.

The story goes that Jim Morrison mumbled the opening lines of "Moonlight Drive" to Ray Manzarek in 1965 and a band was born. In the original, Morrison's slurred monotone turns into his trademark howl over an off-kilter blues. For decades, live bootlegs of Blondie's cover floated around, but there was never a studio version until Against the Odds: 1974-1982, a forthcoming box set with loads of previously vaulted tracks, including Blondie's "Moonlight Drive" pressed to 7-inch vinyl. But where John Densmore shuffled the beat, Clem Burke pedals a punked-up disco groove under barroom piano, power chords and Debbie Harry's wild-eyed seduction. With dramatic pauses and a climax pounded like the very tides swum to the moon, the arrangement teases and romps. While very little can dissuade me to reconsider The Doors, there's a reckless glamor to this version that can't be denied.

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs could always bring a moment to its rattling crisis. The combination of Karen O's commanding voice, Nick Zinner's epic guitar scrawl and Brian Chase's breathy drum grooves is rare and riotous in a beautifully raw way. In the nine years since its last album, the band's members have released solo and collaborative projects, but that arena-filling house-party energy was missed.

"Spitting Off the Edge of the World" is a reclamation and a passing of the torch. TV on the Radio's David Sitek, who has worked as a producer on every YYYs album going back to 2002's Machine EP, understands the mission: Capture a spark and stretch it into oblivion. From cathedral-sized synths and windmilled power chords to drums that blur electronic and organic beats, everything here moves in cinematic slow motion, especially the rapturous EBow climax. Even when the band dips out to give Karen O and duet partner Perfume Genius (in a tastefully impactful feature) room to breathe, there's an atmospheric gravitas.

YYYs has long chronicled youthful debauchery and euphoria. On "Spitting Off the Edge of the World," the band recognizes the darkness of the years left behind, only to be filled by the rising generation's bursting light.

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When books are eventually written about music made during quarantine — and they will be — creativity and connection must center them. Somewhere between how i'm feeling now and FLOWERS for VASES / descansos there should be mention of West Kensington. Recorded early in the pandemic, Philly neighbors and friends Mary Lattimore and Paul Sukeena capture both isolation's bleary uncertainty and intimate camaraderie with ambient music that wonders and wanders.

With an absurd song title that feels like an inside joke, "Hundred Dollar Hoagie" creeps at the corners of consciousness. Lattimore, known for her work as a harpist solo and in studio sessions, here applies her astral explorations to synths. In close quarters, her bombastic synth melody — not unlike the late Vangelis — yearns to bound the spaceways of her confines. Sukeena, who's played on records by Steve Gunn and Rosali, echoes the stately chord progression with a weeping guitar — lost, but girded with a belt of feedback.

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Mary Halvorson's first instrument was the violin. Given the way she swoops and pecks at her electric guitar, a craft honed over two decades, her first foray into string quartet composition, Belladonna, comes with a similarly determined and dramatic precision.

There are moments in the title track — from one of two companion albums out today including Amaryllis — that will sound familiar to anyone who's followed Halvorson's not-too-easily-confined career, namely a thick, hollowbody guitar tone and an effects pedal array that suddenly jumps like a humpback whale out of water. But it's the way that Halvorson's guitar hides in plain sight that excites, as she speedily tremolo picks alongside the Mivos Quartet's pizzicato strings or playfully echoes the cello's furtively struck notes. The piece itself is both beautiful and ravenous, perfectly named after the poisonous plant commonly known as deadly nightshade, blooming with danger.

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There was a move at '90s emo and hardcore shows that could only be called "chest drumming" — air instrumentals that mimicked the musicians onstage in real time. The people doing it were almost always wearing too-tight black t-shirts of bands submerged below in the emo iceberg meme. Listening to RLYR's "Real Air," I suddenly found myself in some basement, subdividing beats with open palms, mopped hair in face.

RLYR is instrumental post-hardcore elevated. A trio of musicians from Chicago's experimental rock scene — including members of Pelican, Locrian and Bloodiest — operate at a high level of musicianship and composition. Three albums in, RLYR could easily take a turn for the brainy, but a heightened sense of rock euphoria accompanies every new track. "Real Air" contains, in parts, Foo Fighters' arena-sized emotionalism, epic headbanging riffage, dizzying time signature switch-ups, blast-beaten grace and brawny-but-swaying guitar twinkle. If I wasn't so sure the sprinklers in the basement of my imagination would go off, I'd flicker a lighter in response.

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You ever miss someone's voice? Katie Bejsiuk's hush doesn't so much sing secrets as usher small revelations out of the fog. As Katie Bennett, she was the primary songwriter behind the indie-pop group Free Cake for Every Creature, which disbanded in 2019. Since then, she's taken time to teach, write and create, but hasn't released music besides a LVL UP cover. (In a full-circle twee event, Mirah took on Free Cake's "Around You" on the same compilation.)

Now performing as Katie Bejsiuk, a surname passed down from her Ukrainian family, a subtle transformation occurs: That hush remains, but more assured. "Onion Grass," from The Woman on the Moon (out June 24), retains the bedroom intimacy of Free Cake — a breathy voice accompanied by softly strummed acoustic guitar — but introduces a noisy guitar twang that adds a sepia-toned static to Bejsiuk's vivid images of domestic bliss amid uncertainty.

It's just like Thou, masters of metallic doom and gloom, to drop an album out of nowhere — or several, really. (Remember the summer of 2018? There were two split releases, three album-length EPs and the NPR year-end list-making Magus.) Seems like we're due for another barrage of material, so let it begin with Myopia, a collaboration written and recorded with the one-man, blackened doom band Mizmor. Thou and Mizmor will perform the album at the Roadburn Festival tonight, but the whole thing is officially here.

On an album that plays to their strengths, "Drover of Man" summons a beautiful ache. The 10-minute track features slow-moving, bone-shattering riffs delivered with doomed dejection as Thou's Bryan Funck and Mizmor's A.L.N. trade sneering shrieks and low howls. The caustic grace is not unlike Neurosis at its most dolor, but works different muscles: Thou leans into its most triumphant tendencies with arena-ripe guitar squeals over heavy shoegaze, eventually working itself up into a martial, Celtic Frost-y section of god-stomping proportions.

For as outlandish and musically progressive as it can be, rock and roll's raison d'être is the reset: a few guitar chords, a simple beat, lyrics that make no sense or all the sense. See: The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, "Louie Louie." Jess Scott — an LA-based musician known for her time with the shoegaze-y jangle-pop group Brilliant Colors and post-punks Flesh World — understands that rock and roll is not a vibe, but an urge.

"Modern Primitive," the title track of Scott's debut solo EP, is a two-minute treatise on the singular act of creation, using the rudimentary tools at your disposal. Scratchy guitar chords shimmy and shake. Bass and synth whiz and warble with a cool distance. Drums lunge at and caress the unstable groove. You could dance to "Modern Primitive," but Scott, whose vocal delivery slots somewhere between Lou Reed and Kim Gordon, would perhaps prefer us to just ooze forth: "I am inventing a tune to commune."

Chronophage's "Black Clouds" may cause listeners to suffer from Instant Replay Syndrome. Symptoms include ecstatic dancing, constant earworm and inability to perform basic motor functions beyond the repeated depression of the play or repeat buttons on your preferred audio playback device. This Austin punk band has a knack for unconventional melody – hooks both off-kilter and out of control, sustained by lo-fi pop allure. But Chronophage checks into a studio for its self-titled third album, upgrading its production and sophisticated songwriting style. "Black Clouds" marries Go-Betweens-indebted jangle with sharply syncopated rhythm guitar a la Johnny Marr, bouncing with a coiffured (but no less reckless) joie de vivre. As the last guitar chord and violin strings ring out, the temptation will be strong to reprise. We are not licensed professionals, but our strong recommendation, as always, is to dance.

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Elizabeth Fraser pumped air through the music of Cocteau Twins — yes, there was a lightness, but more of a cosmic thrust to her voice. Since the 4AD-signed dream-pop band broke up in 1997, Fraser has worked with The Future Sounds of London and Peter Gabriel, and sung on soundtracks like The Lord of the Rings. But her longest collaboration continues to be with Massive Attack — producing perfect singles such as "Teardrop" and touring together — and one of its members, Damon Reece, her partner in life as well as music.

Fraser returns with her first new music in 13 years, with Reece, as Sun's Signature. "Golden Air," from the duo's self-titled debut EP out June 18, is a pastoral romp painted in pastels. Ornately gliding around her voice like sonic rococo, the acoustic-driven arrangement unlocks aurora as densely sumptuous layers of swelling strings, water-dripped synths, psychedelic guitar and rushing drums ignite a rapturous performance by Fraser.

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Piano drifts, lifts and flutters like leaves wet from spring rain — the notes float, but carry the weight of water. Musical figures feel familiar, but are never quite the same as they shift within the instrument's creaking wood and through the room's resonant body.

OHYUNG is better known as a producer of hyperactive hip-hop and pop music, but on a new double cassette, imagine naked!, plays with shapes of ambient sound. No two tracks explore the same mode, but there is a tether of tenderness throughout. The wandering, minimalist piano piece "yes my weeping frame!" carries a Harold Budd-like movement — romantic, bleary-eyed, a bit mournful — but always, always moving with a gentleness so desperately needed in a harsh world. The music video, featuring the dancers Kyoko Takenaka and Marie Lloyd Paspe in a single-take improvisation, reflects the same. This is music that caresses the corners, feels out the dust and fills the quiet, to paraphrase a line from the t. tran le poem ("Vegetalscape") that gives the album its song titles.

Protest songs can document a moment as it happens, inspiring awareness and action, but they can also reach across time, telling stories as relevant now as when they were written. Ted Leo's written a few of these songs ("Mourning in America," "Bleeding Powers" among them), his fervor fiery and sensitivity keen.

With a ragged rock and roll stomp like a self-contained Crazy Horse (Leo plays all the instruments here), "The Clearing of the Land" shows how the police state, purposefully skewed language, and state-sanctioned media gives oppressors systemic reason "to kill us all or drive us all, year by year, off the land." Oppression is a meticulous process, gradually building harm to communities until brought to crisis. Violence is never the first strike, but the evidence that demands reaction, often way too late. Layers of fuzz-fried guitar solos whip and wind through the last minute, but not before Leo asks us to wake the hell up: "In the end, friend, really what were you expecting? And who is it you want to be protecting?"

The song was written for Band Together: A Benefit for Ukraine, a compilation featuring The World/Inferno Friendship Society, Unsane, Pušča, Кат and others — a mix of punk, metal and folk artists from Ukraine and the United States, including a few tracks recorded post-invasion by artists living in war. All proceeds from the compilation benefit Razom, a New York-based non-profit providing aid across Ukraine.