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Ex Hex, Cloudkicker, and You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead 

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Ex Hex

Rips

Merge Records

File next to: Helium, White Lung, Wild Flag

Mary Timony is the quintessential second-tier rock star who's lacked a home run. Fans of her solo albums and work with Helium in the 1990s and 2000s insist her work can be epic, yet her projects often fail to connect with broader global audiences. Timony's guitar was the solid undercurrent to the short-lived band Wild Flag, founded with two former members of Sleater-Kinney. When Sleater-Kinney announced its reformation, with a new album due in January, it appeared as though Timony was losing again. But now she's rebounding with Ex Hex, a trio with Betsy Wright and Laura Harris, hooked up with R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, and with an album that resembles a middle-age version of Runaways. Rips is a pop-punk masterpiece, especially on tracks like "Waste Your Time" and "How You Got That Girl." Timony deserves a toast for belatedly conjuring a classic. — Loring Wirbel

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And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead

IX

Superball Music

File next to: The Mars Volta, Coheed and Cambria, Rush

Trail of Dead have spent 20 years trying to perfect neo-progressive rock recordings that fuse Yes and Tool. While early albums like 2002's Source Tags & Codes addressed modern dystopias, later work adopted Edwardian-era sensibilities that, while not quite steampunk, still managed to dwell somewhere between Jules Verne and Tintin. Recently, Trail of Dead has tried to meld an imaginary past with the 21st century, a strategy that sometimes leads to excess. This ninth album still attempts to find a perfect mix for the band's sci-fi and anime fan base. Occasionally, the lyrics and sounds meander, but when Trail of Dead makes a perfect connection, as in "How to Avoid Huge Ships," the band can be breathtaking. Still, it says something that the strongest music here is in the 20-minute bonus single-track EP, Tao of the Dead Part III. — Loring Wirbel

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Cloudkicker

Live With Intronaut

Century Media

File next to: Isis, Animals as Leaders, God Is an Astronaut

Due to an alignment of heavenly bodies, Ben Sharp's solo project, Cloudkicker, spent last April touring with Intronaut, who also acted as his backing band. The resulting live album is excellent and accessible. Sharp's compositions are layered to ends both dream-like — see "Subsume Part 8" — and acrobatic — see "We Are Going to Invert/Here, Wait a Minute, Damn It!" Unlike most shreddy guitar songs, the latter is brief enough to sear without wearying. The set list skips across Sharp's five-year, 10-release discography, and the mix sounds warm and lively. Intronaut guitarists Sascha Dunable and Dave Timnick emphasize the details that were more subdued on the original records. The idea of a live album from a self-released solo instrumental metal act may sound masturbatory, but Sharp's music is tasteful, restrained and well-made. — Griffin Swartzell

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