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From cinematic death metal epics to math-rock magic: here are this week's essential guitar tracks

Mike Kinsella (left) and Steve Holmes of American Football perform during FORM Arcosanti 2019 at Arcosanti Urban Laboratory on May 10, 2019 in Arcosanti, Arizona
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

So here we are folks, our last essential guitar tracks round-up of 2021.

It’s been A Year™️, no doubt, but one in which we’ve also been blessed with a remarkable bounty of new music that’s taken the guitar to sonic lands hithero unknown. It’s been a treat to share it all with you.

This week, we have a terrific team up of alt-rock heavyweights Kim Gordon and J Mascis, a cinematic death metal epic from Venom Prison, some math-rock magic from American Football, menacing prog-metal from Karnivool, and more.

So, one last time in 2021, turn up the volume, kick back, and enjoy the best the guitar’s got to offer. 

Kim Gordon & J Mascis – Abstract Blues

It makes perfect sense that Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon and Dinosaur Jr. singer/guitarist J Mascis are as in tune with one another as they are on Abstract Blues, one-half of the duo’s new two-sided release for the Sub Pop Singles Club.

Friends for decades, the two share a love for taking the DNA of the classic rock they grew up on and delivering it with a hearty side of dissonance and avant-garde confrontation (in Gordon’s case) and drive-it-into-the-red distortion (in Mascis's).

Virtually from the first downbeat of Abstract Blues, Mascis is in full guitar hero mode, and you can tell he’s loving every second of it. Barely letting a single one of Gordon’s lines go by without an exclamatory, Bill & Ted-ready fill or full-on, blistering scalar run, the song’s a two-and-a-half-minute graduate level course in the J Mascis Guitar School.

Gordon – fresh off a terrific solo single – is in classic form herself, swaggering her way through Mascis’s attention-grabbing leads and muscly riffing. ‘Alternative rock,’ whatever that means these days, wouldn’t exist without these two trailblazers, and hearing them join forces is a rare treat. (JM)

American Football – Rare Symmetry 

When American Football announced that drummer and trumpeter Steve Lamos was leaving the band earlier this year, it was clear to those who follow the cult math rock outfit that the soon-to-be three-piece was on the cusp of a new era. 

But, thankfully for fans of the faithful American Football lineup, it turns out that Lamos had no plans to leave before serving up one final treat: Rare Symmetry – a new single that, sadly, will be Lamos’s last as an American Footballer. Sonically cut from the same cloth as the band’s 2019 effort, LP3, Rare Symmetry is an extra-concentrated serving of atmospheric, interacting guitar lines that ping pong off one another between the listener’s ears while Lamos makes his final beats in style.

There’s room for a gain-tinged, delay-dressed solo in there too – see the three-minute mark – which somehow equally increases Rare Symmetry’s ethereality while also instilling a welcome dose of almost headbang-worthy lead lines. The emphasis does seem to be on Lamos, though, but we have no qualms with this: his melodic drumming has been a staple of American Football’s sound for years, and it will be sad to see the back of it. (MO)

Napalm Death – Narcissus

British grindcore stalwarts Napalm Death are always a bankable source of solid riffs, and they deliver in plentiful supply on their latest single, Narcissus. Arriving ahead of a new “mini album” entitled Resentment is Always Seismic – a Final Throw of Throes – which follows 2020’s Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism and comprises bonus tracks and covers – Narcissus is wrought with an abundance of frantic six-string work, which drives the track forward behind frontman Barney Greenway’s ever-immensely-powerful vocals.

As Greenway explains, the track has a political backstory. “It was written at a time when the alt-right was parading itself around, so lyrically I like to think it exposes the vanity and personality cult of that whole thing,” he says. Regardless of meaning, Narcissus is a bona fide heavy metal onslaught, and we’re here for it. (SR)

Karnivool – All It Takes

Since the release of their last full album proper, 2013’s Asymmetry, Aussie alt-rockers Karnivool have amassed a cult-like following in prog-metal circles, so the unveiling of their first studio material in eight years is one helluva way to round off 2021.

A fan favorite at the band’s shows for nigh-on five years, All It Takes’ official release boasts a supersized soundscape at the hands of producer Forrester Savell, which ensures it hits just as hard as the myriad live renditions.

A basket of serpentine drop-tuned riffs are deployed throughout the track’s all-killer five-minute duration, bolstered by masterful electronic touches and acoustic textures, all of which point to a spectacular 2022 when the band’s long-awaited fourth album finally breaks cover. (MAB)

The Cactus Blossoms – Hey Baby

It’s no accident that, for one of the first ‘musical guest’ appearances in Twin Peaks: The Return, filmmaker David Lynch selected Minneapolis rockabilly duo The Cactus Blossoms. 

Few have a better understanding of the environment in which rockabilly first flourished than Lynch. There was infinite promise, new technology and youthful rebellion, yes, but also – not too far underneath the surface – a great deal of violence, seediness, and tragedy.

You can hear this duality at work in the Cactus Blossoms’ music, too. The fact that the duo – Jack Torrey and Page Burkum – are brothers, and pull you in with immaculate, country-informed harmonies make the Everly Brothers an easy and obvious comparison, but one that doesn’t quite do the band justice. 

Likewise, Hey Baby – the first single from their upcoming album, One Day – seems pretty simple on the surface. A premise of ‘Come on, you wanna go for a drive with me?’ set to the backdrop of a revving-up-at-a-red-light, palm-muted rockabilly riff? It’s not revolutionary, certainly.

Keep coming back, though. You might hear optimism in the face of a world determined to drive it out of you (“I hope it all works out/it always works out”) or a touch of deep loneliness, or even menace, in the cavernous reverb and (we assume) Bigsby-assisted twang of the song’s solo. 

They’ve got the hair and the harmonies, but The Cactus Blossoms are way more than simple revivalists, and Hey Baby proves it. (JM)

Pike vs. the Automaton – Alien Slut Mum

The poster boy of stoner metal (if such a thing exists), Matt Pike was always unlikely to turn in a series of piano ballads for his first solo project, but even by his own weighty standards, Alien Slut Mum, from his forthcoming Pike vs The Automaton album, is unreasonably heavy.

Pike’s Orange-on-11 tone has never sounded gnarlier, double-tracked into oblivion and accompanied by some ferocious kit work at the sticks of former Lord Dying drummer Jon Reid. The soaring twin-lead work in the track’s middle brings the Iommi metal horror and provides the finishing touch to one of 2021’s most joyously punishing listens. (MAB)

Venom Prison – Pain of Oizys

Following last month’s Judges of the Underworld – which found the UK metalcore outfit serving up a cacophonous arrangement of distorted guitars, thunderous drumming and savage vocals from frontwoman Larissa Stupar – the band’s new single Pain of Oizys takes a far more subdued approach, at least for the first half.

Commencing with an atmospheric marriage of spacey clean electric guitar, reverb-soaked piano, and Stupar’s gorgeously delivered clean vocals, the track showcases Venom Prison’s surprisingly delicate softer side, though it doesn’t last long when the band switch gears and once again deliver some savage metalcore with plenty of killer guitar work from guitarists Ash Gray and Ben Thomas. (SR)

Big Thief – No Reason 

Big Thief have treated us to a boatload of singles in recent months, with the Adrianne Lenker-fronted US rock band finally dropping details on a new album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, last month.

Despite the announcement, Big Thief’s pre-release efforts are still coming in thick and fast, with the three-piece’s latest single, No Reason, arguably one of the band’s best pre-Dragon New Warm tracks yet. Much like August’s Little Things and Sparrow, No Reason is as much a feast of heavenly modulated guitars as it is an infectious stripped-back singalong.

Hypnotic upper-fret dances drenched in reverb plug away underneath Lenker’s lyrics, which are right at home floating atop the dense swirls of church choir-esque backing vocals. It’s an ear-stealing, attention-grabbing listening experience, one made even more heavenly thanks to the airy recorder that completes the instrumentation. That new album can’t come soon enough. (MO)

Michael Astley-Brown

Mike is Editor-in-Chief of GuitarWorld.com, in addition to being an offset fiend and recovering pedal addict. He has a master's degree in journalism, and has spent the past decade writing and editing for guitar publications including MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitarist, as well as a decade-and-a-half performing in bands of variable genre (and quality). In his free time, you'll find him making progressive instrumental rock under the nom de plume Maebe.