Seabuckthorn, "Through a Vulnerable Occur"

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Over the last several years, it has seemed like each new Seabuckthorn release marks yet another significant creative breakthrough for Andy Cartwright. This latest one, his first for France's IIKKI Books imprint, is intended as a multimedia "dialogue" with Australian photographer Sophie Gabrielle. Given the increasingly cinematic cast of this project, composing an accompaniment for a book of stark and striking photographs is hardly a stretch, but Cartwright's vision has nevertheless grown even more sophisticated since last year's Crossing. Much like its predecessor, Through A Vulnerable Occur showcases Cartwright's ingenious and endlessly evolving talent for rendering his guitar largely unrecognizable as such, yet his emphasis on details, textures, and small scale dynamics is even more pronounced and masterful this time around. Given that Vulnerable Occur crosses the blurry line between melodic "songs" and more abstract soundscapes a bit more than previous releases, it admittedly took me a few listens to fully warm to it. Once I was fully immersed its rich tapestry of layers and nuances, however, Vulnerable Occur revealed itself to be a slow-burning masterpiece of elegantly controlled tension.

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Benjamin Finger, "Less One Knows"

cover imageOne aspect of Benjamin Finger's work that I have always appreciated is his drive to continually tweak and reinvent his sound with each new album. On this latest release, apparently his 14th solo full-length, he opts for a loose, stripped-down approach, focusing mostly on guitar sketches that often feel like the demo tapes for a solid shoegaze album. In some ways, it is quite remarkable how far Finger has moved away from the skewed, psych-damaged pop of early albums like Woods of Broccoli and Sombunall, but that trajectory makes perfect sense if his career is viewed like a disintegrating Basinski-esque tape loop: his pop sensibility has not disappeared so much as it has been ingeniously diffracted, distilled, and deconstructed into new forms with each fresh release. That said, Less One Knows has a stronger emphasis on hooks than a lot of other recent Finger albums and that is a welcome development. This album may not be quite as substantial as some of his other fare, but the comparative intimacy, melodicism, and fragility suit his aesthetic nicely.

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Kassel Jaeger & Jim O'Rourke, "In Cobalt Aura Sleeps"

cover imageAs both an experimentalist and a songwriter, Jim O’Rourke has been responsible for a number of beloved and highly influential albums over the course of his storied career, but he is a bit of a prolific wild card as well: it is damn near impossible to guess which albums will capture him in an especially inspired mood and which will not. That said, his previous collaboration with Kassel Jaeger (2017's Wakes on Cerulean) had some very promising passages that transcended typical drone/sound art fare, so I was quite curious to see if this follow-up would flesh out their shared vision into something truly great. As it turns out, In Cobalt Aura Sleeps is a hell of a lot like its predecessor: fitfully wonderful, but not without some lulls. Nevertheless, it does feel like a significant evolution, as it is both darker and more tightly focused than Cerulean, erring more on the side of "understated" and "curiously constructed" rather than "too improvisatory." Fortunately, those hurdles can be mostly overcome with the aid of some headphones and suitable volume, revealing a satisfyingly strong album that is richly textured, absorbing, and mysterious.

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I Feel Like A Bombed Cathedral, "W"

cover imageI am an enormous fan of this latest endeavor from Ulan Bator founder Amaury Cambuzat, as AmOrtH was easily one of my favorite albums of 2019. Notably, this latest release marks the project's vinyl debut, which makes it the first album in which Cambuzat's real-time layering has had to contend with actual time constraints. I was not sure how well that would work, as the core Cathedral aesthetic has always been to allow pieces to unhurriedly and organically unfold until they complete their "natural" progression (and the project's crowning achievement thus far is a piece that stretched out for 40 glorious minutes). As it turns out, however, Cambuzat handled that challenge quite well. Given the greatness of the opening "Indignation," it is entirely possible that he simply had a killer 20-minute piece in the vault just waiting for this opportunity to arise, but it is equally possible that he mathematically converted that duration into a fixed number of heartbeats and simply worked from that. While the B-side is admittedly a more minor pleasure, I remain continually amazed by the depth and breadth of what Cambuzat can achieve with just a guitar and some pedals. This is yet another excellent release.

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Matt Weston, "Tell Us About Your Stupor"

cover imageWith A New Form of Crime coming out last fall, and a new double LP on the horizon, Matt Weston has been prolific as of late. One thing that sets Tell Us About Your Stupor apart from these other albums, however, is that it is a live recording, although that of an installation project rather than a traditional concert setting. That is an important distinction to make because, having seen Weston perform on multiple occasions, the live experience is a significantly different animal, and that is clearly captured here. As an installation, it would seem that this is more of a live performance augmented by other instruments or recordings rather than a purely live, solo recording, but it has an exceptional balance between live Weston and studio Weston.

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Laraaji, "Sun Piano" Afro-Transcendentalist figure Laraaji has a long, fascinating history with music and is still very active at the age of 76. He is known for being "discovered" by Brian Eno, and working with such underground darlings as Sun Araw, Dallas Acid, and Blues Control. He studied piano composition in college, and then found himself with Eastern mysticism and began improvising with zithers and mbira. This album finds him returning to his roots with an all instrumental piano meditation.

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Plone, "Puzzlewood"'s album Puzzlewood continues in their very specific oeuvre of midtempo music with a playful, childlike hue to it. It's all soft edges and singable tunes in a digital mishmash that includes electronics, synths, trumpet, piano, guitar, strings, and exotic percussion. This happy orchestration yields bite sized songs full of lift and happiness. The album is a comeback after a twenty year absence, and although the genre they helped pioneer has fallen out of favor, their self-consciously retro sound makes their music a timeless affair.

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Jasmine Guffond, "Microphone Permission" Microphone Permission, Jasmine Guffond has created some truly rapturous detours and alleyways in sound. The ever shifting musical landscape is like an aural house of mirrors, though there is nothing circus-like about this project. It contains inward, reflective compositions—at times somber and at other times buzzing about—but always interesting and beautiful.

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Flat Worms, "Antarctica" Angeles' Flatworms kicked off their career creating psychedelic-tinged and feedback-driven guitar riffs embedded in a foundation of high-octane garage punk, with lyrical content to match. The latest direction finds the trio of vocalist and guitarist Will Ivy, drummer Justin Sullivan and bassist Tim Hellman (Ty Segall, Oh Sees) painting on a less fuzzy canvas, with a more refined sound and finer songwriting precision, with both Steve Albini and Ty Segall in the engineering booth. Segall's '60s psychedelic influence can be felt here, as well as Albini's commitment to high fidelity, but some of the musical experimentation heard on their prior work has been traded in for a more well-oiled machine, albeit a well-oiled machine with punk sizzle.

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Bodywash, "Comforter"

Bodywash - ComforterThe debut from Montreal’s Bodywash is an album that sounds lovely for casual listening, but after focused listening reveals deeper pockets of brilliance. In the past couple of decades the MP3 audio format, much in the same way as CDs and cassettes, has allowed for a viable "listen and run" approach. Digital music has offered tremendous convenience but has also encouraged less immersive music listening. With the emergence of many lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, now is the perfect time to settle in and get deeply immersed into a full-length piece of music. Comforter is a work full of familiar and, yes, comforting sounds, and it is a great place to practice immersive listening.

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Golden Retriever & Chuck Johnson, "Rain Shadow"

cover imageI can think of few other projects that have elicited such a wide and continually shifting range of opinions from me as Portland's Golden Retriever, as Jonathan Sielaff and Matt Carlson sometimes seem like immensely talented and idiosyncratic visionaries and sometimes seem like dedicated revivalists of my least favorite strains of kosmische musik. This new collaboration with Oakland-based pedal steel master Chuck Johnson, however, is unambiguously a marriage made in heaven, as Johnson's warm and soulful ambient shimmer provides the perfect context for Sielaff and Carlson to work their magic. At its best, Rain Shadow feels a bit like a long-lost Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois collaboration, but one that has been updated with sharper edges and a more sophisticated approach to harmony (and, of course, a heavily processed clarinet). This is very likely the strongest album that either Johnson or Golden Retriever have ever recorded.

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Container, "Scramblers"

cover imageRen Schofield might be living in a new country (England) and releasing music on a new label (Alter), but no one need worry about those differing circumstances having any impact at all on the single-minded and relentless brutality of his work as Container. That said, Scramblers is (rightly) billed as a more "high-octane" incarnation of Schofield's punishing aesthetic, as it evolved directly out of his aggressive live performances. To some degree, such a statement is largely academic, as just about every Container album has felt like the techno equivalent of a runaway train, but it is true that this particular album offers virtually no breaks at all in the intensity of Container's splattering and pummeling rhythmic assaults. That is just fine by me, as Schofield's primal violence is consistently executed with surgical precision and visceral power, but more casual fans may find themselves wishing that Container would someday evolve further beyond the mercilessly one-dimensional onslaught of previous albums.

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Wire, "Mind Hive" is a safe assumption to say that most folks who buy a ticket to a concert expect to hear a few songs from their favorite band's latest album; after all, this is how bands showcase their latest music, but also provide fans the chance to hear their earlier work. Anyone seeing Wire since the '00s can assume no such thing; entire tours have included nothing but their newest work, barely acknowledging the fact that they've been around since the '70s. Wire does what Wire wants. Thankfully, they're great at it. It's a testament that Wire can still sound like Wire, maintaining that certain "Wire" sound, and yet continuously reinvent themselves, creating memorable - and fresh — music after 40 years.

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Evan Caminiti, "Varispeed Hydra"

cover imageBilled as a thematic successor to 2017's Toxic City Music, Evan Caminiti's latest release delves even deeper into the fragmented and deconstructionist dub experimentation of its predecessor. In a few important ways, however, Varispeed Hydra is a very different album. For one, it is conceptually inspired by rural sounds and the fragility of the natural environment rather than by dystopian urban environments. More significantly, Caminiti's music subverts traditional dub techno structures in an even more challenging way, often distilling the form down to just a few simple chords expanding and contracting in a disorienting state of suspended animation. Given that pointed lack of hooks, rhythm, or harmonic evolution, Varispeed Hydra is not the easiest Caminiti album to love, but he manages to make the paroxysms of that hyper-limited palette far more compelling than I would have expected.

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Zelienople, "Hold You Up"

cover imageThis long-running Chicago slowcore trio has been uncharacteristically silent for the last five years, though vocalist Matt Christensen has been as tirelessly prolific as ever as a solo artist. Given that lengthy hiatus, it is not entirely surprising that the Zelienople that has resurfaced with Hold You Up is a somewhat different beast than the Zelienople of old. Admittedly, the band's usual fragility, languorous pacing, and pervading sense of melancholia have definitely not gone anywhere, but this latest release is considerably more driving and pop-minded than the fare I have grown to expect from the band. That said, I suppose I should put "driving" and "pop" in quotes, as the closest Hold You Up comes to the mainstream is an aesthetic indebtedness to Mark Hollis's solo work. Zelienople are still considerably more monochromatic and minimal than Hollis ever was though, so none of the band's distinctive character has been sacrificed—they have merely gotten a bit better at enhancing their vision with a greater emphasis on hooks and grooves. Needless to say, that evolution suits them well.

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Lawrence English, "Lassitude"

cover imageIt has been roughly three years since Lawrence English last released a proper solo album (2017’s Cruel Optimism), though he has kept himself quite busy with collaborative work since then (most notably as half of HEXA). Nevertheless, I have always been quite fond of his solo work, so I was hoping that he had something ambitious in the pipeline and this latest release hits the mark in that regard. While I am not sure that I would necessarily characterize Lassitude as one of English's major releases, it is at least half brilliant and takes quite a different approach to drone than his usual fare. Part of that uniqueness lies in the fact that English focused entirely upon the pipe organ for this release, but Lassitude is perhaps even more significantly influenced by its inspirations, as one piece is inspired by Éliane Radigue and another by Phill Niblock.

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2019 Readers Poll: The Results

Thanks again to everyone who participated in the nomination and voting rounds of this year's annual readers poll.

All the best wishes for 2020!

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Barbara Ellison, "CyberOpera"

cover image Opera is not exactly a style of music that has overlapped much with modern electronic and experimental genres. Perhaps it is the long-form nature, or the innately organic nature of works built heavily around the human voice, but either way, it has not been a major crossover style in my experience. As an outgrowth of her CyberSongs project, Barbara Ellison has decided to tackle this challenge. Using computer modeled speech and instrument samples, along with a healthy dose of processing and audio treatments, the final product is a diverse mix that clearly draws from operatic structures and elements, but results in something that transcends the style entirely.

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Leo Takami, "Felis Catus and Silence" guitarist Leo Takami's music will be very familiar to fans of Bill Frisell, with its pure, clean guitar tone, and meditative instrumentals. The whole album has a very open feel to it, as if it was recorded in a great hall, but in the style of a calm reverie you might imagine wafting into a hidden away temple for reflection. It also calls to mind Eyvind Kang and all smooth jazz pioneers who pair rock song structures with the strings and winds of chamber music arrangements.

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Midwife, "Forever"

cover imageIt is fair to say that every Midwife release is a deeply personal one, as Madeline Johnston has never been one to mask her true feelings with ambiguously poetic language or aesthetic distance. This second full-length is an especially heavy one though, as it was composed as a sort of letter to Johnston's late friend Colin Ward (the two were roommates at Denver's beloved former DIY art space Rhinoceropolis). Fortunately, cathartically transforming dark emotions into powerful art has always been where Johnston shines the brightest and that remains as true as ever with Forever. In fact, she has arguably only gotten better, as Forever's lead single "Anyone Can Play Guitar" actually gave me chills the first time I heard it. Thankfully, the other five songs do not pack quite as much of an emotional gut punch, making this album considerably more well-suited for repeat listening than, say, Mount Eerie’s similarly inspired (and emotionally devastating) A Crow Looked at Me. There is certainly plenty of pain and anger to be found on Forever, but that darkness is beautifully mingled with warmth, hopefulness, and a characteristically unerring instinct for great songcraft.

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