Caterina Barbieri, "Patterns of Consciousness"

cover imageFollowing a handful of elusive limited edition cassettes, Berlin-based composer Caterina Barbieri makes her formal debut in a big way with this massive and mesmerizing double LP epic.  On one level, Patterns of Consciousness is quite possibly the epitome of Important Records' long-standing obsession with pure synthesizer albums.  On deeper level, however, this album is a unique and ambitious experiment that also happens to be synth-based, as it is structurally inspired by Barbieri's interest in baroque lute music and conceptually inspired by a desire to trigger a fracture in consciousness through subtle shifts in hypnotically repeated patterns.  Either way, it is quite an achievement.

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Legendary Pink Dots, "Chemical Playschool 19 & 20"

cover imageOver the last two decades or so, my Legendary Pink Dots fandom has gone through quite a few different phases, but my current self is most enamored with the Chemical Playschool series.  Each new installment always feels like a large and mysterious gift-wrapped box that unexpectedly shows up at my house, stuffed full of plenty of random things that I did not particularly want and a few revelatory surprises that absolutely knock me sideways (finding the latter is always the fun part, obviously).  This latest plunge into the band's unfettered experimental urges, quietly released for the band's fall 2016 tour, is an especially rich treasure trove: it does not so much feel like a meandering psychedelic fever dream of orphaned ideas and studio experiments so much as a rich tapestry of evocative and coherent themes expertly blurred together into a mesmerizing fantasia.  This is easily one of my favorite LPD albums in recent memory.

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Evan Caminiti, "Toxic City Music"

cover imageThis latest album continues to explore the more electronic phase of Evan Caminiti's art, yet feels quite a bit different from his other recent work.  Inspired by the "psychic and physical toxicity of life in late capitalism," Toxic City Music is a corroded, crackling, and bleary miasma of processed guitar and industrial textures gleaned from Caminiti's surroundings in NYC.  While the prevailing aesthetic is a somewhat noirish ambient fantasia on urban decay and alienation, the smoggy gloom is artfully balanced out by some fine spectral dub-techno touches. In fact, this record is most successful when viewed as a deeply experimental electronic dub album, as Caminiti is not so much appropriating a new influence as he is dipping it into the acid bath of his flickering and smoky dystopic vision, then presenting the barely recognizable remains.  Toxic City may be a diffuse, shadowy, and understated vision, but it is a very compelling and distinctive one as well.

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Gnod, "Just Say No To The Psycho Right-Wing..."

cover imageI had a very unfortunate false start with Gnod, as the first time I heard them, I mistakenly concluded that they were basically the UK version of White Hills rather than a deeply radical and experimental entity of Swans-like intensity.  With the benefit of hindsight, I have since embraced them as one of the single most exciting forces to emerge from the underground in recent years.  Thankfully, no one at all will be likely to repeat my mistake after hearing Just Say No, though it admittedly tones down the band’s more arty and indulgent tendencies quite a bit in service of visceral brute force (the album title provides a very unambiguous clue as to the band's current mindset). Of course, as much as I enjoy raw power, punk energy, and hardcore fury on their own, the beauty of this album lies in how brilliantly Gnod manage to blend heavy music with their longstanding Krautrock and psych fascinations, enhancing the expected monster riffs with bulldozing no-frills repetition, seismic percussion grooves, Gang of Four-style minimalism, and a wonderful textural chaos of electronics and radio broadcasts.

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cover imageThe plain, unmarked white shell and clinical titling of break_fold's debut certainly adds a mysterious quality to this project. There is no hint as to what to expect musically, and that alone always makes me curious. That ambiguity carries onto the tape itself, in the form of complex and diverse beat heavy electronics that excels as much in mood and texture as it does in pleasant melodies and memorable rhythms.

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Axebreaker, "Burning False Flags"

cover imageAxebreaker is a new project from Locrian vocalist/keyboardist Terence Hannum, and one that harkens back to the earliest days of the power electronics scene (right when it transitioned from the world of industrial), while putting an entirely modern spin on the sound. It is heavily politically charged and packed with all of the anger and rage I could have hoped for. The strength of Hannum’s performance ensures, however, that it will still be relevant even when the political landscape shifts to something hopefully more pleasant in the USA.

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Diamanda Gal√°s, "All the Way" and "At Saint Thomas The Apostle Harlem"

cover imageAfter nearly a decade-long recording hiatus, iconic force of nature Diamanda Galás has resurfaced with pair of themed albums of characteristically dark covers and interpretations.  Linked by two different versions of the traditional "O Death," the partially studio-recorded All The Way revisits the familiar territory of classic blues and country while the St. Thomas the Apostle live performance delves into the even more familiar subject of death.  Both albums have their moments of brilliance, but the St. Thomas performance is arguably more accessible, if only because Galás's demonic operatic flourishes  feel a bit more at home in her own arrangements of poems and texts than they do when all that firepower is directed at, say, a Johnny Paycheck song.  Also, it is quite a bit looser and more varied.  Accessibility is quite relative with an artist as simultaneously beloved and polarizing as Galás though, as even the sultriest, sexiest jazz standards can erupt into primal, window-rattling intensity with absolutely no warning.

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Noveller, "A Pink Sunset For No One"

cover imageI have an unfortunate tendency to take Sarah Lipstate's work for granted, as if it is somehow not enough that she is one of the most distinctive and inventive solo guitarists currently active.  Part of that is her own fault, as she periodically produces work so beautiful and sublime that she transcends her role as guitarist and instead seems like one of the most compelling artists around.  Those are the moments that I am always chasing and I have not experienced one since the title piece on 2013's No Dreams.  Happily, Pink Sunset manages to floor me once more with "Deep Shelter."  There are a few other memorable moments on this solid and likeable album as well, but not quite enough to disabuse me of my belief that Lipstate is gradually accumulating the material for an absolutely stunning greatest hits album at a rate of one fresh masterpiece every few years.

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Wolf Eyes, "Undertow"

cover imageI am only a casual Wolf Eyes fan, so the bulk of their endless tide of releases passes by me unnoticed.  Every couple of years, however, they unleash something big to remind everyone that they are just as relevant as ever and continuing to tirelessly evolve.  The latest salvo in that vein is ostensibly this one, which also happens to be the inaugural release for the band's new Lower Floor Music imprint.  Stylistically, the two bookend pieces share a lot of common ground with the better moments of 2013's No Answer : Lower Floors, eschewing noise for something resembling deconstructed rock music that has gone sick and wrong.  When it sticks to that template, Undertow is quite good, but the more abstract and sketchlike material separating its two highlights makes for a somewhat uneven whole.

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Jacaszek, "KWIATY"

cover imageI have historically had a complicated relationship with Michal Jacaszek's music, as I love his aesthetic and he consistently releases deeply immersive and intriguing albums, yet he has an uncanny knack for stylistic quirks that subjectively rub me the wrong way (harpsichords, a penchant for gloom and somberness, etc.).  Consequently, I was more or less just waiting around for an album to finally surface that was a bit more to my taste and KWIATY is that album. One one hand, Jacaszek mostly sticks to his familiar territory of dark, hiss-ravaged neo-classical fare, but the new twist is that he enlisted a trio of female vocalists to give voice to the metaphysical poetry of 17th century Englishman Robert Herrick.  While such a conceit admittedly sounds very arcane and high-concept on paper, it reveals itself to be quite beautiful in execution, often resembling an eerie, crackling, fractured, and otherworldly strain of dreampop.

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Ensemble Economique, "In Silhouette"

cover imageI truly never know quite what to expect from erstwhile Starving Weirdo Brian Pyle, as his Ensemble Economique project has covered plenty of shifting territory with varying results over the last decade.  His albums are certainly always intriguing and often deliciously aberrant, but I have not been truly knocked sideways since 2011's Crossing The Path, By Torchlight.  With In Silhouette, his 12th album, Pyle steps away from his recent forays into darkwave to plunge back into the unapologetically hallucinatory and warped terrain that I love best.  He has not entirely jettisoned his dark pop instructs though, as In Silhouette's deep psychedelia is enhanced by host of whispering and mysterious female voices.  While not every piece quite captures Pyle at his zenith, In Silhouette is cinematic in the best sense of the word, as it feels like being plunged completely (and uncomfortably) into a noirish and Lynchian world of shadow, menace, and dark sexuality.

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Oikos, "The Great Upheaval"

cover imageFor their first vinyl release, Rafael Femiano (guitars and electronics) and Felipe Pavon (drums and percussion) pulled out all of the stops on the most recent Oikos release. In this case, that metaphor may be a bit of a misnomer, since most of The Great Upheaval is much more about mood and ambience than full bore explosions of sound, although those feature here as well. The tasteful balance of the two, and the impeccable compositional structures, results in an album that is gripping in its intentional bleakness.

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Robert Piotrowicz, "Walser"

cover imageHis last major release, Samoobrona (with Lukáš Jiřička) may have had Piotrowicz trying something rather different by scoring a radio play, but Walser is a step back into the conventional album format, even if it was originally intended as a score for the film of the same title. However, that motivation to try new things as far as instrumentation and composition goes (something that has been a distinct facet of his recent works) is not lost here. Electric and acoustic instruments blend together, making for perhaps his most diverse and complex work to date.

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cover imagePart of the impetus of this three cassette compilation (by Wren Turco, who also contributes one of the tapes) was to showcase experimental electronic work by female artists that, not only often marginalized because of their gender, are also relatively new on the scene. With her, Gambletron, and NaEE RobERts, a wide spectrum of electronic art is presented, from Gambletron's more discordant abstraction, to Turco’s stripped down deconstructed techno, into NaEE RoBErts' more conventional song structures. All three tapes stand strongly on their own, but also compliment each other exceptionally well, making for a very strong compilation.

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High Plains, "Cinderland"

cover imageThis is the debut release from the duo of Loscil's Scott Morgan and classically trained cellist Mark Bridges.  The pair met while at a residency in Alberta, then convened for two weeks of winter recording in renovated schoolhouse in Wyoming.  Consequently, High Plains is quite an apt name for this project, succinctly capturing both the windswept isolation of the region and the project's deeply melancholy aesthetic.  Being unfamiliar with Bridges, I expected High Plains to be a rather Loscil-esque endeavor, but the only truly significant similarity is that this album continues the bleak trajectory of Monument Builders: Cinderland mostly feels like a neo-classical soundtrack to an art film or perhaps like a stark and drone-damaged homage to Dirty Three.

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Norman Westberg, "Jasper Sits Out"

cover imageRoom40's excavation campaign of Norman Westberg’s wonderfully hypnotic and self-released solo guitar work continues with this 2014 tribute to the Westberg family dog. Notably, this release was already reissued once before (as an extremely limited vinyl edition by Hallow Ground), but this new incarnation is both remastered and expanded.  More notable still, Jasper Sits Out was the first of Westberg's homemade releases that Lawrence English ever heard, making it the album that inadvertently dragged this quietly beautiful facet of his artistry into the light.  As such, I half-expected Jasper to be a towering culmination of the entire reissue campaign, but it is more or less on the same level as all the consistently fine preceding releases (aside from one truly dazzling piece).

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Allegory Chapel Ltd., "Without Tears: Noise in Theory & Practice"

cover imageElden M's recent resurgence as Allegory Chapel Ltd. has nary taken a pause since reappearing three years ago following an 18 year silence. What might be the most surprising fact, however, is that Without Tears: Noise in Theory & Practice is actually his first full length vinyl release since the project's inception in 1986, amidst a varied array of tapes and CDs. This fact obviously has not been lost on him though, because this album is a comprehensive and cohesive work that covers the full gamut of the ACL sound, from the past to the present, presenting a singular and unique artist and his diverse, complex output.

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VVV, "Why El Paso Sky"

cover imageIranian born, Austin raised artist Shawhin Izaddoost’s new release as VVV may, at least superficially, follow the hip-hop derived model of the mix tape as a collection of ideas and unfinished work, but that is not entirely accurate. Why El Paso Sky feels mostly like a fully polished and realized release. A combination of rich, complex ambient moments, vintage synth sequences, and strong beats are exceptionally well done on here, with a mix that captures both cerebral production and avant garde sounds with straight ahead physical rhythms and melodies.

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Relay for Death, "Natural Incapacity", "Anxiety of the Eye"

cover imageRelay for Death, the noise(ish) project of twins Rachal and Roxann Spikula, has a brief but exceptionally bizarre history already. For their debut release Birth of an Older, Much More Ugly Christ, they used only the materials recorded in their hospital room during a three-month medical study, resulting in an empty, depressing, yet gripping work. Then, after a five-year hiatus, they released both of these late last year. The two releases are distinctly different from each other, but both uniquely brilliant and fascinating in their discomfort.

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Kassel Jaeger & Jim O'Rourke, "Wakes on Cerulean"

cover imageI was not sure quite what to expect with this collaboration, as Jim O'Rourke is quite an adept shape-shifter and Kassel Jaeger (Francoise Bonnet) is a bit of an unknown quantity as well.  Also, many seemingly enticing pairings tend to feel like the polished and edited distillation of a single improv session. Wakes on Cerulean does not entirely elude that free-form and off-the-cuff territory, but it is a consistently rich and vibrant release nonetheless.  More importantly, it sometimes shares a lot of stylistic common ground with O'Rourke’s classic I'm Happy And I'm Singing album, albeit one frequently embellished by an inventive host of field recordings.  Cerulean probably errs a bit too much into genial burbling and restlessly shifting through motifs to quite attain canonical greatness itself, but it boasts enough striking passages to compensate for the lesser moments. With a bit more work, Cerulean probably could have surpassed I'm Happy and I'm Singing.

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