Metallica are on mighty form, Natalie Merchant wants to unite the world – the week’s best albums

Viking warrior defiance: Metallica - TIM SACCENTI
Viking warrior defiance: Metallica - TIM SACCENTI

Metallica, 72 Seasons ★★★★☆

The 11th Metallica album starts as it means to go on. Indeed, it starts as every Metallica album ever made has gone on, in a blitzkrieg of thunderous drums, snarling guitars, gnarly bass and barking vocals. The title track, 72 Seasons, features singer, lyricist and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield roaring about the “wrath of man” in a car crash of negative impact buzz words including “traumatic / dogmatic / volcanic / psychotic / erratic / chaotic / fanatic / narcotic / barbaric / stigmatic / demonic / hypnotic,” while his three band mates conjure up a maelstrom of high tempo heavy metal fury for seven minutes and 39 seconds. Pause. And then we are off again for six minutes 12 seconds of Shadow Follow, featuring more throaty roaring (about nightmares, wolves and other bad stuff), furious guitar churning, bass gurning and drums rattling off barrages of cannon fire.

Lars Ulrich is the heart of Metallica, a refined, articulate, 59-year-old Danish-American fine art collector who likes to hit his drums so hard they sure as hell know they have been hit. The sound of his kit is fantastically clean and precise, and the rest of Metallica lock tight to it. The sensation is of a band playing in sync, but without syncopation. Ulrich, Hetfield and bassist Robert Trujillo are the rhythm section with no rhythm, delivering mighty blow after blow in a form of unison aggression that jettisons anything as nuanced as swing or groove. Only guitarist Kirk Hammett occasionally breaks rank, firing off machine gun solos at the highest velocity humanly possible. Every song builds to a furious climax … and then restarts and charges ahead for several more minutes and several more climaxes. There are 12 tracks on 72 Seasons, with a running time of over 77 minutes. Metallica don’t know when to stop, which, I suppose, is part of what has kept them at the top of their game for so long.

It has been 40 years since 1983 debut, Kill ‘Em All, during which Metallica have not so much evolved as refined their fearsome sound, parsing and sharpening it into an ever more effective sonic battering ram. All pop forms have tropes that can make songs sound indistinguishable to the uninitiated but even within the heavy metal genre, Metallica are more tightly stratified than most.

Almost every song they have ever recorded is in the key of E minor, presumably optimised for Hetfield’s favoured tone of stentorian rage. There is a surprising moment, six minutes into Inamorata (the title’s object of adoration being defined as “Misery”, in case you thought Metallica were getting soft) when Hetfield repeats the chorus phrase with a modulated melody in soft folky tones, introducing a plaintiveness that creates a delicate dynamic with the band’s macho stomp. But just when you might be wondering why he doesn’t use that part of his voice more often, he pitches up to his usual discomfort zone to resume bellowing like a belligerent Sergeant Major who has just drunk a litre of petrol and smoked 400 cigarettes. And we’re off again!

With certified sales of over 100 million albums and yet another world stadium tour on the horizon, Metallica are absolute masters of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of rock. Pretty much every Metallica song is an overwhelmingly impressive exercise in the fierce power of heavy metal but 12 in a row requires a degree of commitment not for the faint hearted.

Still, if you are in the mood for some swaggering, belligerent, Viking warrior defiance (and, let’s face it, who isn’t in that mood from time to time?), then 72 Seasons provides an ideal soundtrack. Or to put it another way, Metallica have made their Metallica record again. Neil McCormick

Natalie Merchant, Keep Your Courage ★★★★☆

New York-born and based Natalie Merchant's ninth solo album is a bittersweet, orchestral folk escapade that largely follows her blueprint for songs but does so masterfully.

Merchant's songwriting skills were showcased amply on her 1995 solo debut Tigerlily, most potently in the awe-struck ode to New York’s overwhelming pace for a newcomer. Carnival was an international chart hit owing to its uniquely haunting medley of 12-string guitar, organ and acoustic guitar (care of the underacknowledged, incredible Jennifer Turner).

The timeless appeal of Carnival is echoed in Keep Your Courage, which speaks volumes for the cohesive, eternal quality of Merchant's ability to weave romantic, folk-rock ballads rich with organ, brass, and tidal waves of strings all anchored to simple piano melodies. It's an innate talent that Merchant was born into, imbued with a reverence for composition care of her Sicilian grandfather, a multi-instrumentalist who immigrated to the US as Mercante before adapting the family name to “Merchant”.

Her home of New York boasts a diaspora that rivals nearly all other cities for its diversity of cultures: African, Irish, Asian, European, Latin American, and Middle Eastern immigrants. Unsurprisingly, Merchant’s music reflects the inevitable roots of influence that exist in her and her city's story. Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh, Celtic folkies Lunasa, jazz trombonist Steve Davis, and various orchestral composers draw Merchant's songs into transformative, shifting territories. The bleak, otherworldly Hunting the Wren is particularly affecting, a gothic-folk version of the original 2019 by Irish band Lankum. In contrast, the glottal-stop percussion and big brassy curves of Tower of Babel bubbles with jubilant samba-meets-Caribbean jazz, despite Merchant’s repeated lament that “everyone’s so confused”.

Guardian Angel is harrowing and beautiful, a mournful melancholia of strings weeping into the cradle formed by Azmeh's clarinet. “I'll take your breath away,” Merchant sings. Rather, this song – and this album – are infused with an existential and effusive desire to create unity in a world that can be so alienating. Cat Woods

Patrick Wolf, The Night Safari ★★★★☆

South London-born singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wolf has emerged anew with a five-track EP vibrant with shimmering Baroque-electro. Plucky harpsichord and soaring strings swell into a divine mingling of chamber music through a synthpop lens. Wolf, like a fallen angel peeling his eyes open to the first glorious sunrise, sounds bedazzled and rapturous. There's an echo on his lovely baritone that lends an ethereal edge to his deep croon.

Enter The Day is revelatory, built on simple piano chords, gradually layered with cosmic synths and the bowed psaltery (a sweetly melodic ancient stringed instrument akin to a zither or a ukulele). The exalted blend of harmonies on Nowhere Game is buoyed over driving dubstep, while Dodona is a melancholy heartbreak of weeping violins over stormy atmospherics.

It has been a decade since the release of his double-album Sundark and Riverlight, an acoustic interpretation of previously released songs. Thereafter, legal and financial battles with his management conspired with emotional exhaustion to push him away from the industry. In 2015, he survived a horrific car accident and soon after, learned of his mother's cancer diagnosis. She died in 2018, the same year Wolf returned to touring and found his footing beyond self-imposed solitariness in his seaside home in Norway.

Perhaps, if Wolf had impetuously crafted an album shaped purely by grief and loss, it would have sounded like an extension of the melancholy within Sundark and Riverlight. Rather, he has infused The Night Safari with the sort of glorious, light-filled momentum and celebratory rhythms of a man reawakened to the fascinating, living world. Storms shatter and crash, but they dissipate into the riotous beat of drum and bass; solemn instrumentals sweep open into romantic, spacious melodies. It speaks of an imagination rich with hope.

Wolf’s debut Lycanthropy was a confident, experimental clash of classic composition through electronic manipulation. Here, 20 years later, he has sculpted Celtic folk, chamber pop, balladry and poetry into this adventurous, eclectic and emotional safari. Cat Woods

Ben de la Cour, Sweet Anhedonia ★★★★☆

London-born, Nashville-based troubadour Ben de la Cour conjures up gothic, bluesy Americana on his second album Sweet Anhedonia. Mandolin, steel pedal guitar, fiddle, banjo, trumpet and cello lend bluesy gravitas to his youthful charm.

"Where you gonna go when you can't go home?" he mourns on opening track Appalachian Book of the Dead. Peripatetic by nature, de la Cour spends nearly half the year touring the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. This question inevitably plagues his mind over those long flights.

His stories are delivered within a dark, moody groove, so that even drowned children, rusty houses and derelict towns are imbued with a sorrowful romance. Numbers Game is a dust-speckled ballad, co-written and featuring the gorgeous, blushing timbre of Canadian singer-songwriter Lynne Hanson, while Maricopa County is a sparse, raw ode to a town that haunts its doomed residents.

"How does it feel to feel nothing at all?" ponders de la Cour on the title track – an ironic question, because he evidently feels everything. It wasn't always this way: a youth spent in amateur boxing in Havana was swiftly swallowed up by binge drinking, arrests, makeshift homes in derelict neighbourhoods from London to Los Angeles, and stints in psychiatric hospitals and rehab clinics.

His fourth album Shadow Land, in 2020, drew the critical attention he deserved. On Sweet Anhedonia, he has refined and enriched the sweet, savage way he pulls your heart up through your throat with his quietly tragic characters in devastating scenarios. There is a fierce optimism belying his lyrics in the determined, resilient trumpet wail, chuckling dance of piano, and the rolling tide of steel guitar lines. The honkytonk, funky blues of Birdcage are a debaucherous holler for lost humanity. It is somehow gruesome and viscerally moving, a fine line he manages to amble along with nary a stumble. Cat Woods

'Break-beat minimalists': GoGo Penguin - Emily Dennison
'Break-beat minimalists': GoGo Penguin - Emily Dennison

GoGo Penguin, Everything Is Going To Be OK ★★★★☆

This is a treat from Manchester-based trio GoGo Penguin. The band are self-styled “break-beat minimalists” and comprise pianist Chris Illingworth, double bass player Nick Blacka and new drummer Jon Scott. They play what they call acoustic electronica – imagine the squiggly techno of Aphex Twin being played by a jazz band and you get the idea. Everything Is Going To Be OK is their sixth full-length studio album, and it comes after a tumultuous period for the group.

Not only did they part company with former drummer Rob Turner, but Blacka lost his mother and brother to cancer while Illingworth became a father and lost a grandmother. These ructions made the band more aware of both mortality and the inherent joy of being alive, and you can hear it in the music. The Penguins have also modified how they record. Whereas previous albums were played live with traditional instruments, this new record sees the introduction of some electronic instruments for the first time.

Accordingly, Saturnine sounds like The xx meets DJ Shadow – all skittery beats and reverb-y guitar lines. Glow and Parasite, meanwhile, bring to mind Four Tet by way of Roni Size. There’s darkness here too. Soon Comes Night has a foreboding industrial beat, as if the much-sampled drum riff from Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks has been remixed by James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax label. The sombre bleeps in Last Breath bring to mind a heart rate monitor in a hospital ward.

But this latter track is followed by a reprise of opening number You’re Stronger Than You Think. Its piano bursts into life with such force that the overall effect is uplifting rather than depressing. And despite the move into more electronic territory, it’s the album’s live elements – particularly Blacka’s double bass playing – that keep it pleasingly rooted in jazz. It feels more spontaneous than a totally electronic album might.

There’s a clear sense of new beginnings at play (the band are also on a new label, Sony’s electronica and classical imprint XXIM Records). With its fusion of jazz and electronica, there’s also an inevitable whiff of “token jazz entry at the Mercurys” about the album. In fact, GoGo Penguin were nominated for the prize in 2014. But ignore that. And ignore the needlessly woo-woo self-help song titles. Everything Is Going To Be OK is a lovely record. It’s the sound of hope bubbling up from the depths. James Hall

Reflective and commanding: Feist - Sara Melvin & Colby Richardson
Reflective and commanding: Feist - Sara Melvin & Colby Richardson

Feist, Multitudes ★★★★☆

You may know Leslie Feist chiefly from her 2007 single 1234, which sound-tracked both a pervasive iPod advert and a now-legendary turn on Sesame Street. But that hit – the apex of 2000s twee indie pop – does little justice to the Canadian singer’s inquisitive, adventurous, often eccentric bent. She eschewed 1234’s glockenspiel in favour of sax, synth, a bluesy holler on 2011’s Metals, and pared guitar on follow-up Pleasure. On Multitudes, her sixth album, those sounds have crept even further to the background.

Well – most of the time. Multitudes opens with In Lightning, a track containing almost as much energy as its title suggests, lit up with strings, crashing percussion, and Self Esteem-style choral pop harmonies. The other huge single, Borrow Trouble, harks back to Feist’s past stint with anthemic indie collective Broken Social Scene.

Otherwise, her grainy falsetto and guitar arrive unadorned. Multitudes grew out of lullabies Feist sang to her new daughter amid the grief of losing her own father, the material workshopped in communal residency shows. Intimate production captures those experiences, from the in-the-round mood of Hiding Out In The Open to the fragile Forever Before, acoustic guitar feeling its way through the song the way you might feel your way through a life.

Throughout, her voice shimmers, echoes itself, moves like a murmuration, and slides into electronic distortion. Yet her songwriting remains steady and clear, particularly on lines such as “so good at picturing the life that I was gonna be left out of, rather than the one I’d made”.

But it’s on Of Womankind, a track that details the collective experiences of women – “hugging pepper spray at night / we check under our cars / to navigate this subtle maze / be exactly who we are” – where Feist finds full voice. Multitudes is a perfect assertion of that power, by turns reflective and commanding. Kate French-Morris

Travelling on to somewhere new: Angel Olsen - LukeRogers
Travelling on to somewhere new: Angel Olsen - LukeRogers

Angel Olsen, Forever Means ★★★★☆

Angel Olsen’s fleeting new EP, Forever Means, ripples out from the passage of Big Time, the album she released last year: a country-leaning grapple with grief, love, and resilience. The four tracks on Forever Means mostly emerged from the recording sessions for Big Time, and share something of that record’s direct, unflinching lyricism. But Olsen felt these new songs were “in search of something else”, transitional pieces that fit a different mood.

That mood is distinctly nocturnal. Opener Nothing’s Free conjures images of the Missouri singer alone in a studio isolation booth late at night, or in the wee small hours of a deserted smoky bar, her voice – one of the most distinctive of her generation and often earning comparisons to Roy Orbison – accompanied by slight flourishes of piano and saxophone. The following title track offers the sparsest moment on the EP, similar to some of Big Thief’s latest work in its unpolished emotional clarity.

Across her seven albums Olsen has remained pressed up close to emotion, from the catchy three-minute energy of 2016 single Shut Up Kiss Me to the dense, orchestral pop of 2019 album All Mirrors – country and soul ever-hovering around the fringes of her sound. On Forever Means she continues to rove through different states of feeling, from broken-down love to all-out desire. Her voice travels too, from intimate whisper to rich fervour: sometimes light as silk, sometimes heavy as heartache.

But though it begins with a Springsteen-style chug-and-wail more akin to some of her earlier material, before settling into psych-rock, closing track Holding On deviates from Olsen’s usual style: the song is “not meant for singing, more for getting lost in”. In fact, you can get lost in the whole EP, which possesses all the quality and thought of a full-formed album, but flickers by like the yellow windows of a train in the dark, travelling on to somewhere new. Kate French-Morris

Thomas Bangalter, Mythologies ★★★☆☆

Thomas Bangalter is known for making up one half of the now-defunct house duo Daft Punk, though his talents extend beyond the dancefloor. The French composer has released his first solo work in 20 years, Mythologies, a 90-minute orchestral score written for Angelin Preljocaj’s 2022 ballet of the same name.

The production itself was premiered by the Opéra National de Bordeaux and Ballet Preljocaj in France last July and was billed as an exploration of the “founding myths that shape the collective imagination”. Themes within it range from the hubris of Icarus to the beauty of Aphrodite.

Mythologies isn’t Bangalter’s first foray into orchestral music. He wrote an electro-orchestral soundtrack with fellow Daft Punker Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo for the 2010 film Tron: Legacy. But it’s certainly his biggest, symphonic-leaning effort to date and one devoid of machine amplification.

Bangalter touches on the characteristics of a symphony without being restricted to four distinct movements. The brooding string motif at the end of Premiers Mouvements rears its head in Les Gorgones, a panicked centrepiece of fidgety strings and squawking brass that seemingly soundtrack Medusa and her sisters turning supple dancers to stone.

Elsewhere, Arès recalls Bangalter’s darker solo works such as Rectum from the soundtrack to Gaspar Noe’s 2018 psychological thriller Irréversible. The descending legato strings feel particularly, and pleasingly, familiar here, later entering a bloody battle with dissonant woodwind notes and thunderous percussive rolls.

It’s not all gutsy drama though. After the playful staccato rhythms of Les Naïades (referring to the nymphs of flowing water in Greek mythology), Pas de Deux unfurls with a timeless romantic string melody so heart-wrenching that it sounds destined for a Disney classic.

With the jolly, moreish melodies in other songs including Danae there is much to enjoy in Mythologies. But it’s also a 23-track album that commands attention, sonically speaking, for only a fraction of its duration. A seat at the ballet itself is needed to best marry the music, stories and movement. Charlotte Krol

ENNY, We Go Again ★★★☆☆

“Want a fat booty like Kardashians? No. I want a fat booty like my aunty got, yo,” rapped Hackney-born rapper ENNY on her 2020 breakout single Peng Black Girls. An ode to her Nigerian roots, it was a neo soul-enthused conscious rap anthem designed to empower black women (of all shapes and sizes) and inspire them to throw up their middle fingers in the direction of unrealistic beauty standards such as BBLs (Brazilian Butt Lifts) and lip enhancers.

Dubbed by some as the “British Lauryn Hill”, due to her ability to mix sharp social witticisms with chest-clearing harmonies about heartbreak, ENNY was quickly signed to FAMM, the Sony-affiliated label created by fellow British pop star Jorja Smith (who also popped up on a controversial remix to Peng Black Girls). She’s been consistently listed on “next big thing” lists ever since, and her latest EP, We Go Again, is clearly intended to further cement ENNY as a mainstream star.

Even if sleepy guest emcee Loyle Carner sounds like he’s reading gap year campfire poetry after waking up from a coma, ENNY thankfully injects their lovelorn duet Take It Slow with a raw urgency; her blend of dejected introspection and incense-candle-lit philosophy (“They wouldn’t let us inside but now we own the buildings”) results in a much-needed message about the need to slow down, especially when the world expects everything to be so instant. It deserves to be a hit for her performance alone.

ENNY hilariously tackles her Nigerian roots on No More Naija Men” and some unreliable men she grew up with, while her relaxed, laid-back-in-a-hammock flow on the wavy 2 Am In Central results in – arguably – her mission statement as an artist: “We don’t do beef babe, only elegance.” These songs are intended to lift people up rather than tear them down, and they all point in a different direction to the more sinister drill sound that has dominated the London rap scene over the last few years.

This EP, then, will be an apt listen as summer starts to become more apparent, but it does have its shortcomings too. With its blitzed-out synths and stream of consciousness delivery, Charge It feels a little too much like a re-hash of a Tyler the Creator or Noname song, while Champagne Problems feels over-produced and continues that flawed mainstream label strategy of adding poignant strings to an instrumental to signify the arrival of a new star.

In general, the sound here can feel a little too safe and like the instrumentals were lifted from a “chill conscious rap beat” search in YouTube – the beats don’t always match the cutting observational brilliance of ENNY’s lyrics and feel a little too safe. If ENNY is allowed to just be ENNY, and given the space to take more risks musically, then the album that follows this promising EP can be even greater. Thomas Hobbs