Astralia, Atlas (Aloud Music)
Released: May 13th, 2014
As I’ve likely stated before, atmospheric instrumental post-rock is one of my favorite subgenres to throw on when I’m hunkering down to write. However, it’s not always easy to find a such band that ticks all the right boxes, and that’s usually less because of the band’s musical ability or style and more because my ears are just searching for a specific sound. Enter Astralia, who picked up the thread of my post-rock kick started by If These Trees Could Talk. Astralia nail the number one aspect of the genre that I look for: to be soothing and keep a loose grip on your attention, making them perfect for sitting down to focus or taking a long, scenic drive. Some bits can get a bit heavy like in “Io”, but the bulk of the music is full of calming texture (“Sans Soliel”). I know most of the rock music I like leans to the (really) heavy side of things, but Astralia are worth giving a listen the next time you want meaningful but not overly challenging music to keep you company at your desk or in your car.
Ben Prunty, Color Sky (Self-Released)
Released: December 8th, 2014
FTL is an excellent indie video game I have a tough time recommending to anyone who doesn’t like their space adventures mixed with endless bouts of rage. Luckily, you don’t have to play the game to experience the wonderful soundtrack provided by Ben Prunty. I racked up my play count for that album by letting it lull me to sleep every night for nearly a year. So I’m baffled at myself for not taking the time to look into Prunty’s other compositions until this past month when I sifted through his Bandcamp page and picked up Color Sky. Much of Prunty’s material is essentially video game music in the retro style of chiptunes, but that’s an egregious oversimplification on my part. The real pull of Prunty’s music is how it teases nostalgia but sounds fresh, how it creates an atmospheric world of sounds to lose yourself in but without aggressively seeking your attention. It’s not really where I can cherry pick a track for you to start with; just hit play on the opener “Dusty Road” and see for yourself why this guy is one of the best composers in the video game industry.
Earthside, A Dream In Static (Bushwhack LLC)
Released: October 23rd, 2015
Thanks to my weekly column over at Metal Insider, I’m usually pretty up-to-date in terms of new releases in music. So when I type up my yearly “Best of” posts, I have a wide array of albums to choose from. But I’m not aware of everything, and very often I’ll uncover some hidden gem from the previous yet that makes me consider revising my yearly top 10. Earthside’s A Dream In Static is one such album, full of fantastic compositions that succeed in delivering the band’s cinematic approach to songwriting. Prog metal fans will certainly enjoy it, but the addition of the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra is was really seals the deal in the second track “Mob Mentality”. The group is instrumentally focused as they don’t sport a permanent vocalist, but certain tracks feature the talents of guests such as Daniel Tompkins (TesseracT) and Lajon Witherspoon (Sevendust), all of whom provide fluid vocals that fit perfectly with the tone of the album.
Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop, Love Letter For Fire (Sub Pop)
Released: April 15, 2016
I’ve listened to this a few times since it came out in April, but I was mostly fixed on one particular track, so I wanted to wait until I bought the album and listened to it a few times so I could comment on the album as a whole. Simply put, if you’re an Iron & Wine fan there’s no reason you won’t enjoy this album, especially if you’re a fan of his earlier work. This is very much stripped down compared to Beam’s newer material and usually just features his and Jesca Hoop’s gentle voices accompanied by acoustic guitar and/or piano. It’s a soothing, quiet listen sporting one of my new favorites from Beam: “Sailor To Siren”. If you give that song a listen and you like it, you’ll definitely enjoy the rest of the album as well.
Finding Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks)
Director: Andrew Stanton
Released: June 17th, 2016
The Toy Story trilogy is fantastic, Monsters University was a fun prequel, and Cars 2 was…well, I’ve never seen either of the Cars movies so I’ll just take everyone’s word that it was a rare misfire for Pixar. So where does Finding Dory fall in Pixar’s esteemed pedigree? Honestly, I loved it as much as the original, maybe even a bit more. Visually, the movie dazzles, but that’s a given with Pixar nowadays. The story is nothing short of endearing, exploring Dory’s backstory and then allowing her to swim off on her own adventure with plenty of laughs and tear-jerker moments. The latter is particularly prevalent towards the end of the movie when you catch onto Pixar’s subtle portrayal of people (or fish) who are handicapped or disabled and having them make their own way through life. And, of course, there are a few nods to the original movie, but they’re all quick and don’t feel shoehorned in at all. You’ll love it, I’m sure. Also, Becky is the best. Just so you know in advanced.
Stranger Than Fiction (Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal)
Director: Marc Foster
Released: November 10th 2006
I’ve had many instances of “Gasp! You’ve never seen *movie title* before?”, but usually the film is some bonafide classic, a cult favorite, or even an animated feature I ended up giving a miss in my childhood. But then my fianćee informed me of Stranger Than Fiction being one of her favorite movies, which initially had me scratching my head. I vaguely remember hearing about the movie some ten years ago, but never actually talked to anyone who’d seen it. So I sat down to watch and, sure enough, it really is a great under the radar film. The whole meta book writing plot is something I’ve always wanted to try and I loved how the worked it in here. You know how when some leading male comedians give drama a try it’s usually met with lukewarm results? Will Ferrell avoids that completely. The movie gets pretty dark and all the way through you can see the cloud of depression hanging over him. Maybe its mostly amazing compared to the guy he normally plays, but he still does a damn good job in such a human role. The rest of the cast is great too, especially Emma Thompson. If you missed out on this like I did, I highly recommend giving it a watch.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
It’s been a while since I sat down with a nice, quick read, and even longer since I read something specifically designed to give me a good laugh. There’s such a comfort to THGTTG that is hard to describe. Maybe its because the whole world ended in the blink of an eye and yet things still seemed to turn out okay. Not perfect, but okay. Space is fucking cool and the idea that such a small book can make you consider the wonders of the universe (not unlike Monty Python’s “Galaxy Song”) while still retaining fantastic lunacy is nothing short of genius. I know I’m late to the party, but I’m eager to continue it in Adam’s further sequels.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Whereas the above book was a short, humorous read, the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy is a short, horrific read. Imagine if Lovecraft wrote The Hunger Games. That’s the best basic description I can give, but you’ll discover it’s much more than that when you experience it. We follow the account of woman only known as the biologist, part of a four member expedition team sent to investigate Area X, an overgrown abandoned area the Sourthern Reach agency wants to research and possibly reclaim. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, and when things start going downhill (as they so often do) our narrator slow begins to peel away layer after layer of mystery and misinformation. It’s a slow burn kind of horror where you’ll be endlessly fascinated the Area X’s many mysteries as well as the biologist’s character. And when you reach the ominous ending, you’ll be both relieved and trepidatious that there are two more books.
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
So, zombies. They experienced a resurgence of popularity some ten years ago and they’re still popping up everywhere, so naturally most people are bored of them. So if you’re trying to come up with a story involving zombies, you really have to strike gold on a premise that draws in the reader while also following the unwritten rule that we can’t call zombies zombies anymore (see also: walkers, creepers, etc.). Luckily, M.R. Carey gives us a glimpse into a world seldom explored: zombie children. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Melanie, the main character of The Girl With All The Gifts, is a ten-year-old zombie (called “hungries” in this iteration) child. Yet, she’s capable of coherent thought, speech, and high intellect. How’s this possible? That’s something her captors are working hard to find out. This is a great story with great characters that focuses on the line between human and monster, a line that is often blurred when you’re living in a zombie apocalypse.
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
I read the first book of Sanderson’s ongoing The Stormlight Archives series a year ago. Now I’m finally jumping into the massive second volume. I’ll probably be on this one a while, and I’m so okay with that.