Bill Orcutt, "Bill Orcutt"

cover imageLike many, I picked up Bill Orcutt's self-released solo guitar debut (New Ways to Pay Old Debts) back in 2009 and was completely floored by its idiosyncratic primitivism.  There was nothing on earth quite like it, as it captured visionary art in its rawest, purist form: Orcutt was a virtuosic dervish violently attacking a four-string acoustic guitar, howling and moaning along when the mood struck him.  It sounded positively feral.  It also sounded like it was composed spontaneously and recorded into a boom box (it was even periodically disrupted by ringing phones and passing trucks).  In a perverse way, it was almost too perfect–I never got around to picking up any of Orcutt's follow-ups on Editions Mego because it seemed like there was nowhere to go from the demonic possession supernova of his first salvo.  As it turns out, I was wrong about that, as Orcutt has spent the ensuing years moving in a more melodic direction.  This latest release is a culmination of that evolution, as Orcutt picked up an electric guitar, headed to an actual studio, and recorded a suite of originals and standards.  If that sounds tame, it is not: Orcutt's biting and percussive renditions of chestnuts like "When You Wish Upon A Star" are every bit as explosive as I would want them to be, but the (slightly) stronger emphasis on melody goes a long way towards making Orcutt's vision a bit more conducive to repeat listening.

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Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, "On the Echoing Green"

cover imageWhen I first heard the absolutely gorgeous lead single ("A Song of Summer") from On The Echoing Green, I started salivating immediately about the prospect of an entire album in that vein, as it seemed like Cantu-Ledesma had finally transformed his experimental guitar shimmer into pure dreampop/shoegaze heaven (a direction he had been headed for a while).  One thing I failed to fully register at the time, however, was that the delirious pop bliss of "A Song of Summer" was stretched out for a very un-pop eleven goddamn minutes.  That curious and arguably self-sabotaging decision more or less summarizes this entire release, as Echoing Green is not so much a dreamy and hook-filled pop masterpiece so much as it is yet another characteristically abstract and experimental guitar album from Jefre (albeit one with a handful of riffs and melodies that plenty of more accessible artists would happily kill for).  That said, the few fully formed songs capture Cantu-Ledesma at the absolute peak of his powers, even if Echoing Green as a whole falls shy of the lushly beautiful pop breakthrough that it could have been.

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Ecstatic Music Band, "Approaching the Infinite"

cover imageWhile this latest album from the 10 person collective may feature only three of its members (Ezra Buchla, John Krausbauer, and Agnes Szelag, recorded in 2012), that reduced personnel is hardly perceptible from the sound. The subset trio create an unbroken noise squall of over 40 minutes that channels the best of truly minimalist compositions while at the same time it is reminiscent of the most chaotic (and therefore most amazing) of psych rock freakouts.

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Daniel Menche, "Sleeper"

cover image Daniel Menche's latest work is a bit daunting on paper: a three disc, three-plus hour work of 12 pieces, ranging between 10 and 25 minutes each. However, this is not the Menche of old, who was an adherent to that old school noise blast mentality that was so heavily the focus in the early days of the noise scene. Instead, there is rich variation and diversity on Sleeper, and the range of moods he creates is fitting the somnial implications of title, capturing the soundtrack to the most pleasant of dreams to the most terrifying of nightmares.

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Christian Meaas Svendsen, "Avin"

cover imageSvendsen's most recent work has been either in the form of concept-heavy improvised jazz performances (as Nakama) or as solo excursions that feature him bending his double bass in any possible way to make sounds the inventor never intended. Compared to that, Avin is a drastic departure. What is so drastic is that, with a cadre of Norwegian virtuosos, he has created a significantly more intimate, singer-songwriter type record that maintains his edge for the bizarre and experimentation, which is superficially "normal" but hides much strangeness.

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Simon Fisher Turner, "Giraffe"

cover imageFor his Editions Mego debut, the singular and polymorphously creative Simon Fisher Turner takes a break from his soundtrack career for a feast of smaller and more experimental works.  While the fourteen individual pieces of Giraffe are thematically united by an overarching concept regarding the blending of "life" sounds with music and machines, that concept allows for quite a wide variety of moods and textures.  The clear centerpiece is a gorgeously woozy soundscape ("Slight Smile") featuring a mysterious monologue from Emma Smith that ultimately turns creepily garbled and digitized, but a few other pieces are similarly inspired.  Though many individual pieces err a bit too much on the side of brevity, Giraffe as a whole is quite an absorbing work, languorously flowing from one mysterious and surreal scene to another with occasional unexpected detours into demented chaos, menacing industrial clangor, and lush Romanticism.

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Drew McDowall, "Unnatural Channel"

cover imageDrew McDowall’s second solo album for Dais is a bit of a surprise detour from 2015's more Coil-esque Collapse, largely abandoning the melodicism and eerie moods of its predecessor in favor of more fragmented and disorienting fare.  Many of these pieces ambiguously ride the line between bold evolution and perplexing regression, as McDowall's previously clear vision sounds broken and deconstructed into a miasma of lurching percussion, throbbing drones, and clattering metallic textures. As such, I had to re-calibrate my expectations a bit, but Unnatural Channel get points for taking chances and not going back to the same well a second time.  While I am not sure if Unnatural Channel comes at all close to realizing McDowall's potential, it is certainly an oft-compelling experiment, resembling a well-produced homage to the golden age of the noise/experimental cassette underground.

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Second Woman, "S/W"

cover imageThis innovative collaboration between Telefon Tel Aviv's Joshua Eustis and Belong's Turk Dietrich picks up right where the eponymous 2016 release left off, as the duo continue to gleefully pick apart and stretch minimal dub-techno into splintered unrecognizability.  As such, it would be quite a leap to describe S/W as dance music: all of the expected elements are present, but Second Woman reduce beats to skittering, stuttering abstraction.  The overall effect is quite a dynamically compelling one, ambitiously marrying an erratically sputtering and chopped-up synth haze with understated beats that seem equally inspired by skipping CDs, jackhammers, and ping-pong.  While some more hooks would certainly have been welcome, it is hard to grumble much about an album that sounds like it was sent from the future to show us what pop music for robots will be like.

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Enhet För Fri Musik, "Inom Dig, Inom Mig"

cover imageBelgium’s Aguirre Records seems to have quite a talent for digging up some singularly obscure, weird, and surprising releases lately.  The latest one to knock me sideways is this one, a free-folk project that seemingly involves most of the Swedish underground. Ostensibly formed to reignite and continue the tradition of communal psych genius of heavyweights like Pärson Sound, Enhet För Fri Muzik made a rather intriguing detour along the way and wound up deep in idiosyncratic and otherworldly "outsider folk" territory instead.  Even that is a bit of an oversimplification though, as Sofie Herner's alternately fragile, distracted, ritualistic, and trance-like vocals are unpredictably accompanied with everything from saxophones to field recordings of birds and streams.  Admittedly, tight songcraft was clearly not a big priority during these sessions, but Inom Dig casts an absorbing spell of timeless unreality that transcends mere melodies and hooks.

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Demen, "Nektyr"

cover imageThis is the debut release from Swedish chanteuse Irma Orm, an album that Kranky has been eagerly anticipating for a couple of years after receiving an anonymous and mysterious invitation to hear some early recordings.  If I had to guess why the album took so long to complete, I would venture to say that one of those early pieces was probably the opening "Niorum" and that Orm has spent the entire time trying in vain to recapture that brilliance.  She admittedly succeeds at least once, but the bulk of Nektyr sounds like a stark, time-stretched, and drifting marriage of This Mortal Coil and the Twin Peaks soundtrack that is shrouded in shadow and artfully blurred into dream-like soft-focus.  I suppose the highlights sound a lot like that too, but Nektyr works best when there is a skeleton of a hooky song lurking amidst all the darkness and fog.

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White Hills, "Stop Mute Defeat"

cover imageWhite Hills has always been kind of a frustrating band for me, but Dave W's single-minded devotion to psych-rock excess occasionally hits some flashes of sustained greatness, so I keep coming back anyway. If anything, he can be relied upon to consistently deliver one or two prime doses of unhinged psych-guitar squall every album...until now, that is.  In a somewhat startling turn of events, Dave and bassist Ego Sensation have returned from their brief hiatus with quite a radical reinvention of their sound.  I am not sure if White Hills' new aesthetic is categorically better than the old one, as Dave’s messy and indulgent guitar heroics have a definite appeal, but this latest batch of songs is definitely tighter, catchier, and more focused than their past work.  Equally significant: this album abandons all traces of the duo’s Hawkwind fixation in favor of a trip into my nostalgic comfort zone of ‘90s Wax Trax!-style industrial.  To their credit, White Hills make some welcome improvements to that formula, embellishing the expected drum machines and cut-up samples with some wonderfully fluid and muscular bass lines and a more simmering, understated touch to their lingering psychedelic side.

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Loke Rahbek, "City of Women"

cover imageI have been on an extended Croatian Amor bender since last year's Love Means Taking Action, so I was delighted when I found out that Loke Rahbek was releasing his first solo album under his own name on Editions Mego.  Unsurprisingly, City of Women does not sound much like Croatian Amor at all, as Rahbek has been involved in at least a dozen other projects.  In fact, this release is billed as sort of a culminating convergence of Rahbek's varied and prolific history of underground music projects, though it is not nearly the radical compositional leap forward one might expect from that statement.  Instead, City of Women is a lot like a well-produced Loke Rahbek buffet that offers discrete forays into the many facets of his artistry (noise, dense synth soundscapes, sound collage, and even an occasional piano miniature) rather than a thematically consistent major work.  Several of the piece are quite good, naturally, but expectations should be moderated: this is only another characteristically fine Rahbek release rather than the beginning of a bold new chapter.

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The Holy Circle

cover imageLocrian is still an active band, but vocalist/keyboardist Terence Hannum has added another side project to his roster: The Holy Circle. Featuring his wife Erica Burgner-Hannum on vocals and Nathan Jurgenson (Screen Vinyl Image) on drums, the project could not be more different than his other recent one, the anti-fascist Axebreaker (recently reviewed). With The Holy Circle the mood is much more peaceful and elegant, with an emphasis on melody and songwriting, but maintaining that experimental edge Hannum is known for.

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Robert Crouch, "Sublunar"

cover imageCrouch's last release, A Gradual Accumulation of Ideas Becomes Truth (Line), was a heavily conceptual work touching on location and memory that, even divorced from its intellectual underpinning, was an excellent piece of sound art. Sublunar may not be as steeped in concept, but again the audio (a live performance mixing existing material and field recordings) is the most important facet, and again he excels in creating a disorienting piece of familiar and unfamiliar sounds that blur together wonderfully.

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Ars Phoenix/The Viirus, "De(p)letions"

cover imageThis split tape manages to capture what sounds like the final Ars Phonenix release (though vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Jon Glover and keyboardist/vocalist Caitlyn Grimalkin are continuing as Pass/Ages), and one of only a handful of works by Adam Batley's Viirus project. Besides both hailing from the wild lands of Florida (not what I would consider a hotbed for electronic music), they also share the commonality of creating skeletal, yet catchy and moody electronic pop, making for an exceptional pairing.

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Thalassa, "Bonds of Prosperity"

cover imageThalassa is the new collaborative project between two titans of the metal tinged avant garde world of guitar: Aaron Turner (Isis, Mamiffer) and William Fowler Collins. Mythical and elemental imagery abounds on the four lengthy pieces split across two LPs, no doubt informed by the contrast of their respective homes: Turner’s cold and damp Pacific Northwest versus Collins’ arid New Mexico home, but the two are entirely on the same page when it comes to performance. Equally fitting into the worlds of old school ambient composition and metallic darkness, Bonds of Prosperity is as bleak as it is engaging.

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Olson/Case/Hardiman, "March of the Mutilated (Vol. 1)"

cover imageSpurred on by an open Facebook post during one of John Olson’s (Wolf Eyes) visits to Upstate New York, this album features him with two local luminaries, Eric Hardiman (Rambutan, Century Plants) and Jeff Case (Burnt Hills) in a purely improvised setting. These three lengthy performances are surprisingly restrained, with Olson exclusively on reeds and wind instruments, Case on drums and Hardiman on saxophone and synths. I am guessing the result is an excellent example of psycho jazz (still not knowing exactly what that means as a genre), though it is surprisingly more conventional than I had expected.

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Francisco López, Untitled (2012-2014), Untitled #352

cover imageThese two new releases from the legendary composer may have come out around the same time, but they both represent extreme ends of his work. The former is a two disc, 16 piece compilation of shorter works created over the span of two years, covering a wide gamut of the López sound. The latter is a flash drive containing a single work (split into 11 distinct parts) five hours and 20 minutes in length, all based on a single sound source. They may be distinctly different in composition and construction, but both are brilliant works in his already shining discography.

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The Inward Circles, "And Right Lines Limit And Close All Bodies"

cover imageAs a longtime Richard Skelton fan, I have been watching his recent trajectory with quite a bit of fascination, as he has been restlessly diving into increasingly varied and arcane territory while distancing himself further and further from his brilliant earlier work with each new release.  While there are still some lingering vestiges of that vibrantly harmonic-strewn string work in his *AR project with Autumn Richardson, Skelton's solo work as The Inward Circles is explicitly (and increasingly) intent on exploring an aesthetic of "burial, obfuscation and mythologization."  In fact, The Inward Circles often seems like a rather perverse name, as Skelton has seemingly ceased burrowing inwards and thrown himself into the epic, timeless, and vast. At times, that newly cosmic scope falls uncomfortably close to dark ambient (a genre that I am generally quite happy to avoid), but it can sometimes yield absolutely crushing and awe-inspiring results as well (Nimrod is Lost).  This latest opus does not quite sustain the lofty heights of some previous Inward Circles classics, but it compensates with a slow-burning majesty that builds to a sustained and wonderful crescendo.

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Helm, "World in Action"

cover imageLuke Younger’s latest EP draws inspiration from his fascination with the UK's media chaos surrounding last year’s Brexit vote.  I suppose that is arguably one good thing to come out of that dark bit of recent history, but Helm already seemed to be doing a perfectly fine job producing fine albums without that unfortunate muse.  Inspirations aside, Helm EPs generally tend to feel a hell of a lot like maxi-singles and they only surface when Younger has made a significant creative breakthrough.  World in Action is no exception to that trend.  In this case, that breakthrough takes the form of the 9-minute "Blue Scene," a gloriously skittering and jazz-damaged cacophony that often resembles a hallucinatory flock of worried geese...with a groove.  Naturally, the remaining three pieces adhere to characteristically Helm-esque levels of quality, but it is quite clear that the wildly skwonking, must-hear tour de force of "Blue Scene" is the reason that this release exists.

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