In September, summer and fall smoosh together in odd ways. The cereal aisle still has the corn flakes you buy, but next to it, what’s this? Pumpkin corn flakes? September’s best local records were a little like that cereal aisle—full of flavors you know mixed in with some weird pumpkin flavors you’re not entirely ready for, but end up liking anyway. Artists mixing trap with rock, brilliant songwriting with horrible musical stylings, krautrock with Americana: These artists’ strange smooshings resulted in sounds we didn’t know we wanted in the first place.
Back when West Seattle’s Mackned started rapping over sad guitar tracks on his first Hurt Cobain EP, I didn’t get it. To be fair, it didn’t seem as if Mackned totally got it yet either. Beyond the amazing project title, the music seemed a little slapdash, in stark contrast to his incredibly polished FEMALE LP that had come out just months prior. The AutoTuned crooning was clearly freestyled, and the experimental sonic mashup between genres didn’t feel much more than just that—an experiment. Mackned and the Thraxxhouse crew always had a willingness to cross stylistic boundaries, bringing goth and witch house into trap music, and the resultant dark, crystalline tracks they were able to produce felt genuinely fresh and new. Lo and behold, a few years later, the sad guitar/trap sound is becoming one of the defining sounds of Generation Z, drawing millions of listens and streams on Soundcloud and YouTube and launching Mackned’s new crew with stars Lil Peep, Lil Tracy, and many others—Gothboiclique—to viral fame. The latter two perfected the sound in the intermittent years, leaning heavily on emo to concoct their own particular musical fusion, but Mackned seemed to drop the sound after Hurt Cobain II to return to his gothic trap roots on 2016’s American Boy (with a brief funk detour on Born Rich).
On Mackned’s latest LP, Hollywood Dropout, he finally returns to the stylistic world of Hurt Cobain, and this time he totally nails it. With plenty of guest appearances from Lil Peep and Lil Tracy, Hollywood Dropout finds Mackned far more confident and comfortable in the strange new musical world he helped create, continuing to push the boundaries of what it means to be a rapper in 2017. There’s something genuinely affecting and tender about songs like “Pictures 2,” with simple, wistful guitar chords from up-and-coming local producer Fish Narc strumming over a shuffling trap beat while Mackned, Lil Peep, and Lil Tracy mourn lost loves, lost friends, and bad decisions. “Black Jeep” sounds like someone put “Heart-Shaped Box” in slo-mo and then threw a beat on top, and it totally works. As bizarre as the cocktail seems on the surface, it’s exciting to see Gothboiclique’s style coming into its own this year and finally starting to break into the mainstream. But there’s something particularly poetic about Hollywood Dropout—Mackned finally cracks the code he helped dream up in the first place.
Here Comes the Band
Over shimmering, plaintive synth piano, the likes of which you might hear over the tinny speakers at a Michaels craft store, Heatwarmer frontman Luke Bergman sings “I knew a man who never changed his mind/All day he’d sit and curse the passing time/When he’d hear his neighbors merry with cheer/He’d slam his window and say ‘Damn ’em all to hell!’/Now here’s a hint for you, that man was me.” Suddenly the song, entitled “Changing My Mind,” shifts into a fantasia full of “doo-doo-doo-doots” and soaring chimes as Bergman describes his journey turning into an optimistic man with a brand-new heart full of joy. The thing about the terrible Muzak like this that permeates Heatwarmer’s new album, Here Comes the Band, is that it’s also amazing. Lead single “American Dog” is the kind of yacht-rock-lite your dad might listen to while enjoying shrimp and white wine on the patio, his chest hair graying in the gentle breeze. But damn if it isn’t incredibly written—a tightly woven compositional wonder full of unexpected structural turns, catchy hooks, dense melodic layers, and undeniable musical chops to back it up. That the song also just so happens to be about falling in love with a dog is definitely a bonus.
The players in Heatwarmer are hands-down some of the most technically talented musicians in Seattle, and on Here Comes the Band it seems that they challenged themselves to write the best versions of the most insipid styles they could think of. They knock it out of the park, and in the process produce some legitimately impressive K-Mart music. “Bad Boy” is the most Guy Fieri rock song you could imagine (the chorus: “ ’Cause I’m a bad boy now/Nothing that nobody can do about it”) but the tune’s Hard Rock Cafe stomp is, again, just straight-up impressively executed. Who can truly resist a bad boy?
There’s a haunted quality to the music of Darto. It’s gorgeous, hypnotic, and more than a little eerie at times. Songwriters Candace Harter and Nicholas Merz grew up in rural Duvall, and when you listen to their music, you can hear its sonic imprint on their work. Before Human Giving, it manifested in a steadily furious drone—a thrilling combination of post-punk with the understated, driving structures of krautrock, resulting in local DIY classics like in difference and hex. The band took a marked turn on its latest record, however—they’ve kept the kraut sensibilities but replaced the distortion and menace with a dash of lilting psych and a healthy heaping of country and Americana. The move isn’t unprecedented—in 2015 the group recorded a soundtrack to a film called frontier, writing a slate of ghostly Western folk tunes. The mood seems to have stuck, but in some ways the new direction feels even truer to the essence of Darto than their prior outings.
Take “No Self,” shuffling along with the hollow click of a vintage drum machine and a simple, pulsing bass line. Atop this minimal yet expansive landscape, spectral twangs ring out, Harter and Merz’s voices blurring into wraithlike murmurs as they utter muddled mantras in the background. The song plods along at a kind of gallop, but rather than a cowboy, the figure atop this horse is a strange kind of mystic. This redefinition of the West—remaking the vast landscape not in the name of a haughty, heroic settler, but as an unsettling world ruled by forces beyond humankind—feels particularly potent in this corner of the world. “I Am” seems to nod at these forces, Merz and Harter’s voices again blending into a spectral unity as they sing “I am the one of the land/Wading towards what I am/Beyond the open space/Our faces show.” It’s a breathtaking song, minimal yet movingly composed with the help of some stirring cello. With Human Giving, Darto pinpointed the palpable spirit of this place as well as their own. In doing so, the band has crafted something nobody but them could have made.