The Pet Shop Boys are quietly enjoying a Hall of Fame career. Who among the duo’s synth-pop, techno-pop, or new wave peers have been as consistent? Even Depeche Mode and Erasure have stumbled. Full of vibrant, lush, and lavish dance epics, Hotspot, is another triumph for Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant. The playful opening track, “Will-O-the-Wisp,” is certain to fill clubs, while the surreal “Dreamland,” featuring Olly Alexander, just might be the dance hit of 2020.
Despite “special editions” that feature instrumental versions of the entire album, Hotspot is not merely for DJs and raves. “Monkey Business” is Kraftwerk meets seventies disco, while the anthemic “Happy People” has television-commercial soundtrack potential. Two other standout tracks are the romantic “You are the One” and “Wedding in Berlin,” which are destined to be a wedding reception staple for years to come.
GUIDED BY VOICES
Surrender Your Poppy Field (Guided by Voices, Inc.)
The ultra-prolific Robert Pollard is back with yet another version of Guided by Voices and another new album, Surrender Your Poppy Field. Like the band’s most recent offerings, this disc is both a trip down eighties and nineties indie rock and alternative pop memory lane, as well as a bold look into the future. With decidedly lo-fi recordings and fully produced pop songs, this disc has something for everyone.
Highlighted by “Volcano,” “Queen Parking Lot,” and “Man Called Blunder,” this album is yet another winner for Guided by Voices who released three albums in 2019 and are set to release another two later this year. Let’s hope that Pollard’s creative streak does not end anytime soon.
Grandpa Metal (Megaforce)
Does Satan “play Slayer in Hell?” Comedian, actor, and metal enthusiast Brian Posehn doesn’t believe so as he muses during “Satan is Kind of a Dick.” That’s just one of 13 skits and farcical songs on the spit-take hilarious Grandpa Metal. The title track teases his chief collaborator Scott Ian (Anthrax) about the grumpy guitarist’s reluctance to embrace new metal bands. Performed in Posehn’s “aw, shucks” trademark delivery, “One-Quarter Viking, Three-Quarters Pussy” parodies Amon Amarth, while “Big Fat Rock” is a barely veiled double entendre.
Why is the music on this album so incredibly strong? It’s the impressive list of guest performers, which, besides Ian, includes Exodus’ Gary Holt and Zetro Souza, Testament’s Alex Skolnick and Chuck Billy, and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, to name but a few.
What truly makes Grandpa Metal pure metallic comedy gold, however, is Posehn’s rendition of A-Ha’s sappy eighties pop staple “Take on Me.” It’s not only the best cover in years, but it’s certain to illicit laughter from metalheads for generations to come.
DEMONS & WIZARDS
III (Century Media)
Demons & Wizards third effort is a rare example where the results are greater than the mere sum of its parts. A side project featuring Iced Earth guitarist Jon Schaffer and Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kursch, Demons & Wizards’ III is superior to the recent output of either artist’s full-time band. Why? The duo’s first new album in nearly 15 years is a case of drawing outside the lines. Stylistically and creatively unrestrained by the parameters of Iced Earth and Blind Guardian, both Schaffer and Kursch have chosen to embrace their influences and explore new sounds. “Final Warning” sounds as if it was written by Iron Maiden. The epic “Timeless Spirit,” a classic in the making, is the result of veteran talents working while not under pressure to rush out new, half-baked music. Still, let’s hope it doesn’t take this pair until 2035 to release a fourth volume.
Monarchy of Shadows (EP)(Seasons of Mist)
Although known for their experimental approach to extreme music, Tombs’ Monarchy of Shadows is pure, old school black metal. Raw, brutal, punishing, and uncompromising, each of the EPs six tracks would have fit nicely among the classics recorded by original Norwegian black metal artists like Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Emperor. Titles “Once Falls the Guillotine” and “Necro Alchemy” only hint at the musical bludgeoning that awaits brave enough listeners. This Brooklyn-bred band are certainly one to watch out for, especially when so much of today’s extreme music has become bland, soulless, and passé. And I certainly can’t wait to experience this band live.