Ashenspire – Hostile Architecture
Hailing from Glasgow in Scotland, the lads of Ashenspire make progressive metal for the working class that is grandiose and theatrical. The lyrics are largely delivered as spoken word over instruments that amplify the dark storytelling and agitation of the narrator.
The story told, as the band puts it, is about “hostile architecture” under late capitalism, which refers to the “design elements in social spaces that deter the public from using the object for means unintended by the designer, e.g. anti-homeless spikes.” Each song draws inspiration from the post-industrial landscape of cities, “hauntological in nature,” that are so often unfit for housing due to cost-cutting.
For example, the “Law of Asbestos” refers to the cancer-causing mineral that was incorporated into electrical insulation for many buildings, especially before the 1980s. Asbestos continues to kill hundreds of thousands of people each year. A metal-sounding saxophone accentuates Ashenspire’s rage: “A corner cut, a penny saved, Grenfell burns again and again and again!”—a reference to the Grenfell Tower fire that resulted in 72 deaths.
“Tragic Heroin” has a kind of anthemic quality to it. At the end, Ashenspire proclaims: “Fueled with your labour. Built with your bones. There are no great men. Only the great many.”
Then there’s the sprawling “Cable Street Again.” A tapestry of darkness percolates, sounding almost jazz-like in sections. Ashenspire warns the dispossessed and disposable human beings faced with hostile architecture that is part of the threat of fascism. “You cannot fix that which is working as intended.”
In a final call to action, Ashenspire belts out, “Get down off the fence before the barbed wire goes up.”
Jake Blount – The New Faith
Sometimes it is necessary to look to the past to learn about the future. That is the case with Jake Blount, a singer, multi-instrumentalist, and scholar whose stunning concept album weaves a compelling Afrofuturist narrative.
The album’s premise is similar to Octavia Butler’s influential 1993 science fiction novel Parable of the Sower, an apocalyptic tale of Black American refugees struggling to survive ecological collapse.
Blount reworks ten traditional Black spirituals, along with two original spoken word compositions, and imagines what Black religious music would sound like in a future ravaged by climate disruption. Three of the tracks feature rousing verses from rapper Demeanor.
“Take Me To the Water,” a traditional hymn and first track on the album, morphs into an ominous prayer for those seeking to “be washed for the sins of humanity.” It is a call “to reject the greed of our forefathers,” who “melted the ice at the ends of the earth, drowned the coast, emptied the seas and forests of life, filled the very ocean with fire.”
Not only does Blount prove he is a skillful musician, but in developing these themes throughout his album, he proves that he is also an archivist, historian, and prophet capable of sounding an alarm for humanity.
Bob Vylan – Bob Vylan Presents The Price Of Life
UK grime-punk and hip hop duo Bob Vylan storm their way through a crash course on underclass survival in a capitalist world, where one’s life could be snuffed out at any moment without any remorse.
“The BBC are talking about the GDP. That means fuck all to me,” Bob Vylan raps. “I gotta eat.”
How the underclass lacks access and cannot afford healthy food is the subject of “Health is Wealth.” Bob Vylan states, “The killing of kids with £2 chicken and chips is a tactic of war waged on the poor.” But the damage done by junk food can also be self-inflicted, as the duo acknowledges, and the track develops into sound advice for eating right to survive.
Take note of the album cover. It’s a dark and brilliant nod to the way society dupes people into believing they may escape poverty if they could just win the lottery.
Several of the songs incorporate thick guitar riffs to make the rhymes more potent. That’s especially true on “Phone Tap (Alexa),” a fierce assessment of the role that lower class people play in enabling a police state.
Bob Vylan raps, “If somebody’s getting bodied, watch the ratings hit the roof. I was there, I was there, gather ’round and gather proof.” Then the cops come to the door, and the doorbell rings. “Our babies” are taken.
“Alexa, take me to prison,” the duo roars at the end of their gutting indictment.
Fantastic Negrito – White Jesus Black Problems
Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, who performs under the pseudonym Fantastic Negrito, recently discovered that his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents were a white Scottish servant named Elizabeth Gallimore and a black slave whose name has been erased in the annals of history. This lineage inspires Fantastic Negrito’s compelling concept album, which he released as a multimedia project with a companion film.
The album reclaims the story of the courageous forgotten, as emphasized on the “Man with No Name.” It contains a galvanizing message of hope and perseverance, particularly as he sings, “I keep moving on.”
“There’s a feeling out there right now that we can’t get anything done because we’re so polarized, so entrenched in our ideologies and unmoved by facts or logic, but I wanted to share this story because I think it smashes that narrative to pieces,” Fantastic Negrito shared. “I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors, both Black and white, who showed me that anything is possible.”
From the ugliness of injustice to the beauty of what can be gained in the struggle, Fantastic Negrito grapples with it all in his music.
Ezra Furman – All Of Us Flames
On “Book Of Our Love,” Furman expresses a desire to forever remember those who historically tend to have their identities erased. On “Lilac and Black,” Furman dreams of “my queer girl gang,” whose enemies will eventually “bow down before our wrath.”
“It’s a queer album for the stage of life when you start to understand that you are not a lone wolf, but depend on finding your family, your people, how you work as part of a larger whole,” Furman declared. “I wanted to make songs for use by threatened communities, and particularly the ones I belong to: trans people and Jews.”
Furman succeeds in crafting a vision of a world, where everyone may feel that they belong.
Hurray For The Riff Raff – Life On Earth
Puerto Rican singer-songwriter and self-described “nature punk” Alynda Segarra’s album is a worthy follow-up to their exceptional 2017 album, “The Navigator.” It explores themes of immigration, the environment, and other social ills.
One of the album’s many highlights is “Precious Cargo,” where Segarra sings, “We made it to the border. I jumped and I was detained. Split me from my family. Now the light begins to fade. They took me to the cold room, where I sat down on the floor. Just a foil for a blanket. For 17 days or more.”
“I don’t know why he would lie on me. The man from the I-C-E. And I don’t know why he hate on me. The man from the I-C-E,” Segarra adds, as she grapples with cruelty of immigration agents.
The album’s title track gorgeously acknowledges the peril from man-made climate change and other societal ills. Yet despite the despair, throughout each song Segarra approaches the subject matter with an embrace of beauty and hopeful yearning.
Segarra shows that she has the gift of being able to express the humanity of the downtrodden. Thankfully, they shared this precious gift with the world.
Leyla McCalla – Breaking The Thermometer
“In 1980, Radio Haiti was shut down and all of its journalists were either executed, jailed or exiled alongside many of Haiti’s most prominent artists, intellectuals and academics,” recalled Haitian American multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla.
McCalla’s “Breaking The Thermometer” project combines audio from the Radio Haiti archives to create Afro-Caribbean music that honors those who rebelled against the United States-backed dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, as well as Jean-Claude’s father, François Duvalier. The songs are in English and Kreyòl, a native language in Haiti.
Over banjo and soft percussion, “Fort Dimanche” features a Kreyol radio clip that leads into McCalla singing about the prison, where François Duvalier had entire families executed. A Haitian man describes when their family was killed at the prison and how it inspired him to become a journalist. (Note: At one point, the fort was a military facility for US Marines in the 1920s.)
The song, “Ekzile,” is a somber melody mixing several string instruments over soft percussion. It features a Haitian woman who recounts fleeing brutal repression and ending up in New York. McCalla movingly grapples with what it is like for someone to have to leave their home because they are no longer safe.
“Le Bal est Fini” (“The Party is Over”) stands out among all the tracks. It is an invigorating tribute to the journalists who defied dictatorship. All the percussive elements of the project shine, culminating in a solo that ends with dogs barking.
Jean Dominique, Radio Haiti’s owner, was murdered, and McCalla developed a close relationship with Michèle Montas, Dominique’s widow. The project honors their resistance. “A big part of their connection and their love for each other was their love for journalism and their vision for what this could do to transform their country,” McCalla told the Guardian. “It’s a really hard thing to have faith in, but that faith held them together.”
Samora Pinderhughes – GRIEF
Our annual list, given Shadowproof’s journalism on prison abolition, would not be complete without this collaborative album from singer, songwriter, pianist, and scholar Samora Pinderhughes.
For “GRIEF,” a part of the Healing Project, Pinderhughes interviewed around 100 people of color who shared their experiences with incarceration or “structural violence.” The online archive of interviews features includes insights on abolishing prison, but the album is more introspective than essayistic and draws from the well of emotions that come from prison life and life in a world of prisons.
Through the harmony of “Holding Cell,” Pinderhughes sings, “Holding cell, I can’t get well while you hold me.” The slave labor, or slaving for the tiniest of wages, comes through on, “Hope,” as Pinderhughes, Nio Norwood, and Jehbreal Jackson sing, “While we try to build a room for our freedom (for our freedom). We build what they destroy.”
“Masculinity” is a profound inward examination from the perspective of a man grappling with their incarceration or carceral past. “If I feel these things, is it gonna hurt me?” Pinderhughes wonders. The lyrics eventually give way to an ethereal alto sax outro from Immanuel Wilkins.
Pinderhughes told the New York Times that he intended to explore how the machinery of incarceration operates and ask, what is the system doing to people? What can be done to fight back? And then, from a more personal perspective, “How am I a part of that? How am I implicated, and how am I doing something against it? What does that make me feel like?”
You feel every word of the experiences that flow through the music, as well as the spirituality of interrogating a harmful system that has impacted so many lives.
Soul Glo – Diaspora Problems
Since their formation in 2014, Soul Glo has built a reputation for their ferocious musical attack and radical political lyrics. The hardcore punk band is made up of Black musicians who share their experiences as artists in a genre dominated by white groups.
On the album, the band dispels the myth that lasting change can come from continuing to prop up the two-party system. For example, lead singer Pierce Jordan derisively snarls on “John J,” “It’s been ‘fuck right wing’ off the rip. But still liberals are more dangerous.”
Elsewhere, with the incisive “Fucked Up If True,” Soul Glo address the fallacy that voting is enough to enact meaningful change.
“So we just gon always vote in false elections and accept each result and it’s effects as though people were powerless. Do you feel supportive care? How do you wake up everyday? What enforced your belief that you can vote their power away?”
The album is filled with killer anthems of righteous indignation that continue punk’s tradition of confronting racial and social injustice, and it is the band’s first release on renowned punk label Epitaph.
Tanya Tagaq – Tongues
Canadian Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq aims “to repair the damage” from trauma inflicted by centuries of colonial repression.
Over 10 tracks produced by Afrofuturist and poet Saul Williams, the album spits in the face of her oppressors then shifts away from their savagery to what gives Tagaq empowerment, joy, and strength.
“Teeth Agape” bares a maternal instinct to protect her child from further trauma from colonizers while “Earth Monster” celebrates the creation of life. “Today is for her, and today is for me. For choosing to make her, to keep her, and to love her.”
“They took our tongues,” declares Tagaq on the album’s title track. She vows, “You can’t have my tongue,” and later adds, “I don’t want your shame.” Her vocals grow more guttural as she confronts the loss of language that came as a result of white colonial settlers, who committed cultural genocide.
“The Canadian government took Indigenous children away from our families for many generations in the residential school system,” Tagaq told NPR. “All of us know who didn’t come home.”
Tagaq’s vocal artistry is a dagger aimed at the hearts of those complicit and responsible for all the pain and terror. But the power in her voice also carries a sense of pride. She does not want anyone’s sympathy or guilt in order to live life on her own terms—free of the legacy and influence of colonizers.