Skip to main content

Modern Rock In Motion: Deep Sea Diver, Swans, Professor and the Madman and more

Columnist Peter Lindblad reports on standout modern rock releases that wrapped up 2020, such as Deep Sea Diver, Swans, Professor and the Madman and more.

By Peter Lindblad

Recovering from a head-on collision with Metz’s roiling Atlas Vending is expected to take at least six to eight weeks, according to doctors. That time might be best spent wandering through hell and purgatory with Professor and the Madman or being comforted by Deep Sea Diver’s irresistible and empathetic indie-pop eddies, but it takes a strong constitution to journey into Swans’ Children of God reissue and the patience of a saint to sit through the Gunn-Truscinski Duo’s Soundkeeper. Take my hand. Let’s get through it together.

Deep Sea Diver-Impossible Weight

Deep Sea Diver – Impossible Weight (Ato Records)

Nearly dragged under by her own heavy burdens, Jessica Dobson comes up for air on Impossible Weight, the emotionally charged, richly textured third album from arty indie-pop explorers Deep Sea Diver.

Tied to cinder blocks of depression, the group’s resolute captain was sinking toward the bottom in her personal life, but she freed herself through volunteerism and regained her creative footing in the process. On the enthralling Impossible Weight, she empties out all that psychological baggage in deep, cutting lyrical introspection that goes night swimming in the record’s watery, swirling murk, as luminous and effervescent melodies light up the billowing darkness.

Flashes of wildly inventive guitar mania from Dobson, having played lead for both Beck and The Shins, flare up throughout, exploding spectacularly in the wondrous, slow-building psychedelic epic “Eyes Are Red (Don’t Be Afraid).” Daring and confident, her leads sting in a tense, unbowed “Lights Out,” as Deep Sea Diver run through the enveloping blackness and starry twinkle until they’re out of breath, before eventually finding comfort in the pop warmth of a tropical “Hurricane” and the silvery ‘80s swoon of “Lightning Bolts.”

Moving gracefully with a timeless ebb and flow, the alluring, tempest-tossed “Wishing” and the languorous, yearning piano ballad “Switchblade” are utterly captivating. The same could be said of Dobson’s theatrical vocals, soaring at times and soft and poignant when necessary. Sharon Van Etten sings with her on the creeping title track, a mystical shower of sparks that releases tension with its powerful medicine. Keeping up with the Angel Olsens and Phoebe Bridgers of the world isn’t easy, but Dobson and Deep Sea Diver are up to the challenge here. A great weight’s been lifted.

Grade: A-


Metz – Atlas Vending

Metz – Atlas Vending (Sub Pop Records)

Metz shows no signs of letting up on the cataclysmic Atlas Vending, even as hints of melody – however damaged – emerge battered and bruised from its massive, twisted post-hardcore wreckage. The beatings will continue, as the Canadian noise-punk punishers issue another unrelenting, surreal aural assault on the senses, somehow managing to raise the level of their gripping intensity and further scramble their already violent and visceral sense of dynamics.

Complex and riveting math-rock adventures “Draw Us In” and “The Mirror” come up to a fast boil and test the same boundaries pushed by Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes, while the pounding grind of “Pulse” and an equally incessant “Blind Youth Industrial Park” bludgeon away without mercy, even if the latter conjures brief episodes of warped, shoegazer wonderment. And for all of its satisfying crunch and big hooks, driving closer “A Boat to Drown In” is a more straightforward indie-rock cyclone that grows into something unexpectedly crushing and beautiful to witness.

Careening guitars, hammering drums and throbbing bass covered in distorted scratches are the order of the day, all of it overlapping, swerving and screeching to abrupt halts, then taking off again at high speed or slamming into whatever happens to be in front of them. Still, as the breathtaking “Hail Taxi” climbs, its chiming prayers reach frantically for the heavens, with Metz’s churning machinery harnessing Fugazi’s ability to shift effortlessly into overdrive. Metz is a true sonic marvel. This is easy listening … for monsters.

Grade: B+


Gunn-Truscinski Duo – Soundkeeper

Gunn-Truscinski Duo Soundkeeper (Three-Lobed Recordings)

Completely cut off from the uninspired noise of the ordinary and the mundane, Soundkeeper can’t be found on any map. A lonely, alien outpost where experiments in sonic worldbuilding are warehoused and visitors are allowed to wander, it’s a place of amorphous, wide-open geography created by the Gunn-Truscinski Duo. Exploring its vast emptiness could take years.

Loosely constructed and entirely untethered to traditional notions of song structure and form, Soundkeeper is the sprawling fourth album of shimmering instrumentals from the innovative tandem of guitarist Steve Gunn and drummer John Truscinski. Opening with the sweeping acoustic delicacy of “Into,” it then walks into a choppy sea of droning feedback and gossamer flurries of beats in “Gam.” With its gently rippling, liquid guitar musings, “Distance” is immersive and soothing, as is the earthier and more melodic “Windows,” its cymbals softly splashed. Nothing feels rushed or incomplete in Soundkeeper, with works unfolding and dying peacefully. And yet, there’s something amiss.

Drained of energy, its transmissions are occasionally faint and confused, like nonsensical mutterings from lethargic introverts. That’s true of some stretches in lengthier journeys “Pyramid Merchandise” and the slowly evolving title track – both methodically twisting and turning through live recordings from Brooklyn’s Union Pool. More often, though, Soundkeeper is absolutely mesmerizing, with the beckoning, celestial closer “For Eddie Hazel” tunneling into the unknown and ultimately breaking apart beautifully. It leaves behind trails and echoes of spacey, slightly distorted debris like breadcrumbs. Follow at your own risk.

Grade: B-


Swans – Children of God

Swans – Children of God (Young God/Mute Records)

Wallowing in the strangely compelling ugliness of the grinding, industrial brutality and harsh noise of their earliest utterances had become tiresome for Michael Gira and Swans. Transformative in myriad ways, 1987’s Children of God charted a different course, juxtaposing a newfound ethereal fragility and an expanded palette of melody, atmospherics and instrumentation with the magnetic pull of their mechanical, hypnotic drone. However, it still lived in a bleak, unforgiving land, worshipping avant-garde repetition and minimalism and obsessing over religion, atonement, pain and suffering, and willful disobedience.

Swans could never completely leave such a grim wasteland behind, falling into the gothic western death march of “Real Love” and slowly stomping through “Sex, God, Sex” and the growing rebellion of “New Mind,” while stuck in a jarring nightmare of off-kilter, unpredictable skronk and ponderous groove brought on by “Like a Drug (Sha La La La).” Every so often, however, scenes of haunting, wintery beauty swept in, as they did with “In My Garden” and “Blackmail” – both sung beautifully by the chanteuse Jarboe, who also dramatically glides around an icy and disturbing “Blood and Honey” like a troubled figure skater. Even Gira gets into the act, as he’s drawn into the hallucinatory, swaying reverie of “You’re Not Real, Girl” and its cave of cold acoustic strum.

Sumptuously remastered, Children of God is being reissued with the transcendent live album Feel Good Now, the vinyl version of the studio LP available in its original packaging for the first time since its difficult birth. The songs of Children of God assume spellbinding, unsettling new shapes in concert recordings culled from Swans’ 1987 European tour, going widescreen with an intensely cinematic vision. Nowhere is that more evident than in a howling “Blind Love,” with its windy, tribal drumming blindly supporting Gira’s unhinged, animalistic expression. Engaging in a ravishing duet that is simply astonishing, Gira and Jarboe – one rough and menacing, the other lovely and vulnerable, floating high above – add richness and sensuality to the Children of God title track, while a stark and scratchy “Trust Me” plays back the black-and-white austerity of Joy Division. Gira loves his children.

Grade: A


Professor and the Madman – Séance

Professor and the Madman – Séance (Fullertone Records)

Talking with the dead through stacks of amplifiers, the mediums in Professor and the Madman blur the lines separating reality from the afterlife in Séance, a mind-blowing concept album of supernatural mystery and magic.

Built upon unexpectedly grandiose, classic-rock theatricality and power-pop vibrancy, it tells a fantastical tale of characters trespassing into the Great Beyond, longing to reconnect with the dearly departed and having no idea what’s in store for them. Neither will an audience familiar with the supergroup’s punk roots, with bassist Paul Gray and drummer Rat Scabies both having done time in The Damned and vocalists/guitarists Alfie Agnew – part of The Adolescents’ band of brothers Agnew – and Sean Elliot from D.I. Instead of setting off on fiery rampages that burn out quickly, Professor and the Madman draw from cinematic progressive-rock, British Invasion crackle and tunefulness and the dazzling glam-rock orgasms of Mott The Hoople and T. Rex in conducting the heady Séance.

Introduced by the psychedelic dreaminess and sparkling jangle of opener “All the Lonely Souls” and ending it all with the hopeful contemplation of “New World,” Séance is occasionally buoyant and colorful, as a sauntering “The Council of Purgatory” breezes by The Beach Boys and a vivid “Time Machine” stabs away joyfully, before morphing into a carnivalesque romp enmeshed in all the glorious sensory overload of Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies. With its overwhelmingly bombast and thick, nasty groove, “Two Tickets to the Afterlife” snakes through a dirty rain of confetti and ticker tape, while “Greetings from the Other Side” lets out a big, radiant sigh and an epic title track carpet bombs riffs and gushes guitar-driven rock ‘n roll light and power over awed witnesses. There’s nothing fake or about Séance.

Grade: A-


Sub Offer_300X300