Jim White & Marisa Anderson, "Swallowtail"

SwallowtailThis unusual drum and guitar duo first surfaced back in the dark days of early 2020 with The Quickening, which they boldly recorded without ever having previously performed together. Obviously, both artists are seasoned improvisers and excellent musicians, but I was still taken aback by the instant and incredible chemistry on pieces like that album's title track. Given the significant hurdles like distance, touring schedules, and other collaborations, it understandably took quite some time before the opportunity to reconvene presented itself, but the duo finally managed to meet up in White's native Australia in 2022 for some recording sessions in the coastal town of Point Lonsdale. The resultant album feels a bit different from its predecessor for a couple of reasons (no acoustic guitars this time around, "big change of vibe and scenery"), but the three-part "Bitterroot Valley Suite" beautifully recaptures the magic and spontaneity of the pair's debut while also breaking some very compelling new ground.

Thrill Jockey

In the album's description, Anderson notes that Swallowtail's engineer (Nick Huggins) was an avid surfer "attuned to the cycles of tides and sunrises and sunsets and ocean rhythms" and suggests that "all of that got into the music." I could not possibly agree more with that assessment, though I would have guessed that it was actually White who was the surfing enthusiast, as his drumming throughout this album beautifully mirrors the dynamics of rolling and crashing waves. Notably, Anderson's playing evokes water as well, but I would characterize her circular arpeggio patterns as something more akin to ripples in a pond, which is a strategy that works quite well here. In fact, that magic formula runs throughout nearly all of Swallowtail's strongest pieces, such as the opening "Aerie" and the aforementioned "Bitterroot Valley Suite": Anderson's rippling and chiming arpeggio patterns are breathlessly propelled forward by the rolling, elemental power of White's drumming. That said, those pieces are considerably more dynamically and melodically complex than that sounds, as White's crescendos ebb and flow just like actual waves and Anderson's patterns often branch out into tendrils of melody in the spaces between those climaxes.

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176 Hits

Myriam Gendron, "Mayday"

MaydayDespite her slim discography, Montreal-based Myriam Gendron has quietly amassed a very passionate following over the last few years, which is quite an impressive feat given that she frequently sings in French and the bulk of her previous oeuvre was devoted to interpretations of French/Québécois traditional music or Dorothy Parker poems. Obviously, such fare is quite far from the zeitgeist of the present time, but that is a big part of Gendron's allure: her work taps into a deeper and more timeless vein that captures the joy and pain of being alive in an unusually profound and direct way. Those same themes unsurprisingly remain central on Mayday (it was assembled in the wake of her mother's passing), but this third album is Gendron's first to focus primarily on her own original compositions as well as her first release to be professionally recorded in an actual studio. To celebrate that auspicious occasion, Gendron is joined by a host of talented collaborators like Dirty Three's Jim White, Body/Head's Bill Nace, and Marisa Anderson. Characteristically, the result is yet another absolutely mesmerizing Myriam Gendron album.

Thrill Jockey/Feeding Tube

Every single Myriam Gendron album to date has included at least one achingly gorgeous and perfect song (Not So Deep As A Well's "Recurrence," Ma Délire's "Go Away From My Window," etc.) and that trend happily continues here. In fact, Mayday actually features TWO such emotional gut punches. The first is "Long Way Home," which calls to mind a great lost '70s folk rock gem by someone like John Martyn. As always, I love Gendron's sad, low voice as well as her lyrics and her simple, unpretentious approach to melody, but this one simply has one heartbreaking line after another. Despite that, the piece still feels wonderfully bittersweet and uplifting due to its arrangement, as Gendron is joined by Marisa Anderson on lead guitar and Jim White on drums to balance the song's deep sadness with rolling and swaying folk rock magic. That "full band" approach is the ideal setting for such a poignant, quietly heavy piece, which is an unexpected evolution of sorts: I have long believed that Gendron's most beautiful songs would work every bit as well with no instrumental accompaniment at all (like all the best folk/traditional music), but Mayday features a handful of pieces in which well-placed guest appearances launch an already hauntingly beautiful song to another level altogether.

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209 Hits

Celer, "It Would Be Giving Up"

It Would Be Giving UpThis latest boxed set to emerge from Will Long's Celer reissue campaign celebrates one of the project's more recent works, as It Would Be Giving Up was originally released as a digital-only album back in late 2020. As was the case with previous reissues, the album has been remastered by Stephan Mathieu, but the more exciting bit is that I had never actually heard this particular album before and it instantly became my favorite Celer release by a wide margin. That makes sense, as according to Long, It Would Be Giving Up is thematically tied to two of Celer's other recent classics (Future Predictions and Memory Repetitions), as the three albums focus upon "ensemble pieces made with tape loops and analog instruments" and share a certain "wall of sound" aesthetic. While my love of Future Predictions is well-documented and remains as strong as ever, I now believe that It Would Be Giving Up is the single most essential album in Celer's entire discography, as it beautifully transcends the ambient/drone milieu to strain towards ecstatic heartache as high art.

Two Acorns

The album consists of four longform pieces that are each relegated to their own separate disc. That initially seemed like a curious decision, as the first two pieces could have easily fit on the same disc, but I ultimately decided that it made perfect sense to treat each piece like a standalone album or EP. In essence, It Would Be Giving Up is essentially four top-tier Celer releases with enough stylistic and thematic common ground to be presented together, which is important to note, as there is not a single weak piece to be found. This album is a four-disc tour de force because that is simply how much great material Long had recorded: nothing is unnecessarily extended and there is no filler to be found anywhere. This is simply four absolutely stellar pieces in a row without a detour or lull in sight.

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217 Hits

A Lily, "Saru I-Qamar"

Saru l​-​QamarMy familiarity with James Vella is primarily through his role running the excellent Phantom Limb label, but that is just one facet of a varied career, as he is also a fiction writer and a member of the Canterbury-based post-rock ensemble Yndi Halda. He records as a solo artist too and has been sporadically releasing albums as A Lily for almost two decades now. Notably, Vella is also of Maltese descent, which inspired this wonderful stylistic detour: Saru l-Qamar is assembled from tapes of home recordings archived by the Maltese heritage organization Magna Żmien. Naturally, that made my ears perk up immediately, as I often enjoy the crackling and hissing escapism of dispatches from long-dead people in far-flung places, but the “oneiric bliss” of Vella’s achingly beautiful and hallucinatory collages proved to be an unexpected and welcome enhancement. This is one of my favorite albums of the year thus far.

Phantom Limb

The album’s title translates as “They Became The Moon,” which is a lovely and poetic way of saying that the lives and loves of previous generations remain part of the fabric of our lives forever (like the moon, they are “always present, but always out of reach”). Naturally, Vella’s own family surfaces (in the cover art), but the bulk of these recordings are snatches of traditional Maltese folk songs known as għana. Normally, the phrase “folk song” conveys a canon of specific songs and lyrics that have existed for generations, but għana departs from that tradition in being a malleable song form that people can use to tell their own stories. According to Vella, “from the ‘60s until the modern era, it was common for Maltese families to receive reel tapes from relatives abroad,” as that was simply how people shared news with distant friends and family. In short, Maltese people had their own cassette underground in which they regularly exchanged personalized songs with each other. Unsurprisingly, I am now retroactively mad that my own family never exchanged songs about mundane events like getting a new cat or whatever. Life could be so much more beautiful than it currently is.

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198 Hits

Celer, "Engaged Touches (Expanded and Remastered)"

Engaged Touches (Expanded and Remastered)Will Long's ambitious campaign to remaster and reissue key highlights from Celer's overwhelmingly vast discography continues with this expanded reincarnation of 2009's Engaged Touches (appropriately released on fellow ex-pat/ambient artist Ian Hawgood's Home Normal label during its Japan-based era). The album is an especially noteworthy release within the Celer canon for a couple of reasons, but the big one is that it ranks alongside 2008's Discourses of the Withered and 2019's Xièxie as one of the project's perennial fan favorites. While my own pantheon of essential Celer albums does not always align with that of said fanbase, this one's prominent place makes sense, as it was definitely one of the most high-profile albums released during the white-hot height of Celer-mania. As such, it was probably one of the first Celer albums that many people heard. It is also inarguably one of the strongest albums recorded during the project's early days as a husband-and-wife duo with Danielle Baquet-Long (Chubby Wolf) and most of the other contenders were not yet widely available before Bandcamp transformed the musical landscape. Given that, a reissue was both welcome and inevitable, but those who already love this album will likely be thrilled by the prospect of hearing it in its newly expanded and remastered form.

Two Acorns

Much like how Wong Kar Wai was unable to resist tweaking the color grading of his films when the opportunity to release 4K restorations of his oeuvre presented itself, this version of Engaged Touches has been transformed and reshaped a bit by Long. Obviously, just about any artist can find room for improvement with the benefit of hindsight, but assessing whether this expansion is a significant improvement over the original is a bit tricky given the nature of the music (endlessly repeating slow-motion loops). In any case, this new version is roughly three times as long as the original (now either 3 CDs or 5 vinyl sides), but it is also two versions of the same album: the first two discs offer a new version with extended track lengths, while the third disc remains faithful to the original in every way except being remastered by Stephan Mathieu.

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1277 Hits

Six Organs of Admittance, "Time is Glass"

Time is GlassThis latest release from Ben Chasney's shapeshifting and long-running psych project is billed as a sort of homecoming album, as Chasney recently moved back to California's famed Humboldt County region after a few decades away. As befits an album recorded on a picturesque coast best known for weed and beautiful redwood forests, Time Is Glass is an especially intimate, casual, and mellow Six Organs album (the cover art of a beachside dog walk captures the tone quite nicely, I think). Admittedly, that softer side of Six Organs is usually not my cup of tea (I am a fundamentally un-mellow person), but I genuinely appreciate Chasney's passion for continual evolution and reinvention and there is already a sizable backlog of Six Organs material that falls more in my comfort zone. As such, I am always willing to indulge Chasney's erratic muse wherever it may lead. More importantly, I consider Chasney to be something of a fitful and unpredictable guitar visionary: there are admittedly plenty of Six Organs songs that leave me cold, but it is never safe to assume that a new Chasney album will be devoid of flashes of brilliance. In keeping with that theme, Time Is Glass is a bit of an uneven album for me, but it does feature two sustained flashes of brilliance that rank among Chasney's finest work.

Drag City

Listening to this album, I was newly struck by the improbable stylistic gray area that Chasney's oeuvre inhabits: Six Organs of Admittance has basically been an underground/psych institution since the turn of the millennium, but it always seemed like Ben's vision was shaped by classic rock almost as much as it was inspired by artists like Loren Connors and Richard Bishop. That is definitely not an easy balance to navigate or seamlessly maintain, but sometimes the collision of those two sides yields extremely cool results (Chasney's talents for dual-guitar harmonies and occasional fiery shredding have always delighted me).

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843 Hits

Abul Mogard and Rafael Anton Irisarri, "Impossibly Distant, Impossibly Close"

Impossibly Distant, Impossibly CloseThis collaboration has its origins in a sold-out opening night show from Madrid's 2023 SoundSet series, as Irisarri and Guido Zen tore the roof off the Condeduque cultural center ambient-style with their encore duet. Naturally, that intense performance ("Waking Up Dizzy on a Bastion") is included here for the benefit of hapless chumps like me who were on the wrong continent that night, but the experience inspired the two artists to keep their partnership going afterwards (albeit remotely). That continued creative union eventually resulted in a longform studio piece ("Place of Forever") that is every bit as impressive as the Madrid performance, if not even better. Unsurprisingly, I have been a fan of both artists for quite some time and this album is one of those rare times in which an ostensible match made in heaven actually sounds as absolutely mesmerizing as I hoped it would. This album is pure blackened drone nirvana.

Black Knoll Editions

The album opens with the new studio piece ("Place of Forever"), which gradually fades in from silence as a subdued chord progression, a host of pops and crackles, and a bleary industrial drone that languorously pans and undulates through space. If this were a lesser album, I can guarantee that I would be frustrated that it took a full 7 or 8 minutes before the opening piece finally started to catch fire, but such a long, slow build up feels quite confident and earned here: if I know a piece will eventually blossom into something incredible, the slow, simmering ascension to that point becomes incredibly tantalizing rather than an unnecessary lull.

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825 Hits

Adam Wiltzie, "Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal"

Eleven Fugues For Sodium PentothalAfter teasingly releasing a pair of soundtracks under his given name, Adam Wiltzie's latest solo album marks a return (of sorts) to the ambient/drone terrain of his beloved former duo with the late Brian McBride (Stars of the Lid). Unsurprisingly, the titular barbiturate/anesthetic deserves some credit for inspiring this shift in direction, as Wiltzie sometimes yearns for a "sacred escape" from the "daily emotional meat grinder of life," but the album also drew inspiration from his recent move to the Flemish countryside and a recurring dream ("if someone listened to the music I created, then they would die"). Based on my own listening experience, I can tentatively say that the album is probably not lethal (outside of dreams, at least) and also that it will presumably delight those Wiltzie fans who have been patiently longing for such a "return to form." That said, Wiltzie's vision is characteristically a bit of an understated one, so the pleasures of Eleven Fugues for Sodium Pentothal tend to be subtle, ephemeral, and sneakily slow-burning ones.

Kranky

The album opens with quite a varied and impressive four-song run of absolutely sublime, slow-motion beauty beginning with the enigmatically titled "Buried At Westwood Memorial Park, In An Unmarked Grave, To The Left Of Walter Matthau." The piece opens in somewhat unsettling and vaguely menacing fashion with eerie whines and seething ambiance, but soon blossoms into brighter, warmer territory once the strings come in (Wiltzie enhanced his home studio recordings with orchestral recordings made in Budapest at Hungary's former national radio facility). Once all the various elements are properly in place, the piece gradually achieves quite a wonderful strain of slow-motion grandeur that feels akin to a bittersweet sunset. That is admittedly textbook "Stars of the Lid" terrain, but Wiltzie's solo muse rarely lingers anywhere predictable or safe for long: the piece also features a dissolving middle section and a healthy amount of bending, smearing dissonance and tension (though the final section returns to shimmering beauty in a big way). My dark horse favorite on the album is the following "Tissue of Lies," however. Much like the opener, it opens in deceptively predictable fashion, but then an absolutely gorgeous two-chord guitar motif appears to fill the air with lingering ghost trail shimmer before abruptly disintegrating into a slow, hazy fade out (I actually shouted "Noooo!!!!" at my stereo when the transition to a third chord hit).

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497 Hits

Madeleine Cocolas, "Bodies"

BodiesThis latest full-length from Australian composer Madeleine Cocolas is billed as a companion piece to 2022’s acclaimed Spectral, as the two albums have something of a conceptual yin/yang relationship: Spectral was devoted to “evoking memories and emotions,” while Bodies “is about being present in your body.” The title also has a dual meaning this time around, as Cocolas sought to explore “similarities between bodies of water and human bodies” and “blur the boundaries between them.” As is the case with most conceptual inspirations behind instrumental albums, it is hard to say how much of that actually comes through in the music, but it makes for interesting contextual background and it seems to have triggered a significant creative evolution, as Madeleine makes beautiful use of manipulated field recordings. That element alone is enough to set her apart from other ambient/drone artists in the Room40 milieu, but I was also struck by her talents for sound design and virtuosic ability to interweave countless moving parts in dynamically compelling ways. At its best, Bodies feels like a minor deep listening/headphone masterpiece.

Room40

The opening “Bodies I” provides an alluring introduction to Cocolas’s current vision, as it slowly fades in as a seismic drone throb beneath gently undulating and murmuring strings lingering in a flickering state of suspended animation. Gradually, it intensifies in power and takes on a more spacy, dreamlike tone, but the overall effect is akin to that of a billowing cloud of blissed-out ambiance with a roiling and unpredictable swirl of anguish and unease at its center. It is probably one of the most mesmerizing headphone pleasures on the album, but the following “Drift” is a similarly inspired slow burn. For one, it is the first piece to noticeably involve water sounds and her talent for sound design transforms those sounds into something that feels wonderfully immersive, viscous, and physical. “Drift” is also an unusually melodic piece, as a pulsing organ melody is gradually fleshed out with warm, rich chords. Also unusual: the chords and melody predictably steal the focus initially, but closer listening reveals a vivid psychotropic wonderland beneath the surface, as the layers of moving parts increasingly bend, smear, pan, change speeds, change rhythms, and organically ebb and flow around the melody. To my ears, that is what makes Madeleine Cocolas’s work feel like something special and singular: her genius for weaving together richly detailed layers of continually evolving field recordings, processed voices, and electronic instruments into a seamless organic fantasia.

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1707 Hits

Raoul Eden, "Incarnation"

IncarnationThis is the vinyl debut from American Primitive-inspired French guitarist Raoul Eden, but it previously surfaced as a self-released CD back in 2023 (a previous “incarnation,” if you will). That makes the chronology of Eden’s evolution a little blurry, as his other album (Anima, released on Scissor Tail) was recorded that same year. In any case, Incarnation is an absolute tour de force, as Eden tries his damndest to fill the void left by Jack Rose’s passing and gamely spices up his “primitive psychedelic blues” vision by incorporating Indian, Arabic, Turkish, Moroccan, and Taureg influences. Obviously, the solo steel string guitarist tradition of looking to the East for cool ideas goes back to at least Robbie Basho, but Eden executes that assimilation quite beautifully (and unusually seamlessly). In fact, Eden executes just about everything beautifully and that is the bit that elevates Incarnation into something quite striking and singular, as he brings an ecstatic intensity to almost every single one of these six pieces, resulting in a strain of fingerstyle guitar that often gloriously feels like a runaway train leaving a rain of sparks in its wake.

Self-Released

The album opens with one of its two extended centerpieces, “Red Sun of a Moonless Morning.” Clocking in at eight minutes, the piece opens with a brief and tender Middle Eastern-sounding reverie, but quickly ramps up to a feeling of breathless, unstoppable forward motion once the ringing arpeggios kick in. Naturally, there are plenty of melodies, cool virtuosic flourishes, and well-timed dynamic pauses along the way, but the best part for me is the sense of almost violent spontaneity that Eden achieves: melodies snap and twang brightly, chords slash, and the arc of the piece is unpredictable and shapeshifting in a way that feels organic and intuitive rather than composed. Given the technical demands of the piece and its seamless transitions from theme to theme, I am sure that Eden had practiced and performed the piece a hundred times before hitting “record,” but I am also sure that his muscles were tautly coiled and ready to unleash the most rapturous and volcanic version possible when that moment finally came. To some degree, Eden employs the time-tested strategy of bridging composed passages together with more free-form improvisations to give his pieces a sense of immediacy and unpredictability, but the sheer passion that Eden brings to his playing makes even the composed passages seem deeply felt, primal, and in-the-moment.

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1659 Hits

Klara Lewis & Yuki Tsujii, "Salt Water"

Salt WaterI am always eager to hear anything new from the reliably weird and inventive Klara Lewis, but the unpredictability of her collaborative releases is especially pronounced. Notably, Salt Water is the first of those collaborations in which I was not previously familiar with her creative foil. It also seems like quite a leftfield pairing on paper, given that Yuki Tsujii is best known as the guitarist for a hard-to-categorize Japanese rock band based in London (Bo Ningen). Fortunately, everything made sense once I learned that Tsujii is now based in Stockholm (Lewis is Swedish) and that he had previously collaborated with both Faust and Keiji Haino (his primal, convulsive playing here would be right at home on an album by the latter). Also of note: Lewis is described as a "loop finder" in the album's description, which feels like an extremely apt description of her role on Salt Water. Unsurprisingly, the loops that she found are extremely cool, resulting in an album that often sounds like scrabbling guitar noise assaulting an eclectic array of '60s exotica, classical, and film score samples.

The Trilogy Tapes

The album opens in simultaneously promising and frustrating fashion, as Tsujii unleashes a fitful, stuttering, and scrabbling spew of notes over a gorgeously shimmering and pulsing loop. Initially, that feels like quite a winning combination, but it soon starts to overstay its welcome a bit and often feels too improvisatory to justify its nearly 9-minute running time (it's more than twice as long as any other piece on the album). That said, it still ultimately winds up at an interesting destination, as the sounds gradually become more gnarled, grainy, and distorted in a way that calls to mind early laptop pioneers like Fenn O'Berg. The following "Close Up" also initially sounds like it could have been plucked from a laptop album circa 2000, as its haunting and sensuous vocal loop is strafed by sputtering static and possibly a chorus of frogs. Notably, however, Lewis and Tsujii quickly transcend that "early laptop" aesthetic to evoke something akin to a haunted sex lagoon, which is quite a neat trick. Moreover, the pair do not unnecessarily linger around and move onto the next piece after about three minutes, which feels like just the right length for a piece with the stylistic constraint of having a single repeating loop as its backbone.

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1188 Hits

Julian Sartorius, "Hidden Tracks: Domodossola – Weissmies"

Hidden Tracks: Domodossola – WeissmiesThis Swiss percussionist has been quietly carving out a very cool and unique niche for himself over the last decade, as he continually finds unusual conceptual scenarios to combine with his virtuosic playing. I greatly enjoyed 2021's aptly titled Locked Grooves, but had not yet delved too deeply into his earlier work, so I had missed the first installment of Hidden Tracks: 2017's Basel – Gen​è​ve. For that album, Sartorius brought his drumsticks along for a 10-day, 270km hike along Switzerland's Jura Ridgeway Trail and recorded improvised beats on whatever intriguing sound sources he encountered (trees, empty silos, corn stalks, etc.). On this latest installment, his journey is now vertical, as Sartorius kept a similar beat diary as he climbed from the Italian village of Domodossola "to the peak of Weissmies (4017m above sea level) in the Swiss Valais." In theory, that upped the game considerably constraint-wise, as Sartorius gradually leaves behind both humanity and trees in his ascent, but that comparative dearth of available sound sources was no match for his resourceful inventiveness.

Everest Records

The album is presented as a series of eight pieces that mirror Sartorius's ascent in 500 meter intervals, so the first piece (272m_↗_500m) is built from sounds recorded in Domodossola and the last piece is assembled entirely from sounds collected near the mountain summit. Notably, Sartorius was joined by videographer Stephan Hermann and his footage makes for a wonderfully illustrative guide to the shifting terrain that the duo encountered. It also helpfully illuminates how Sartorius was able to make these recordings, which is something that initially baffled me, as some of these pieces seemed impossibly complex to perform in real-time and Julian made a point of stating that "no electronic effects or sound processing were used." That claim is indeed factual, but there was some post-recording assembly involved: Sartorius recorded multiple tracks (usually played one-handed while the other hand wielded a microphone), then assembled layered beatscapes from the sounds collected at each elevation. That essentially means that a kick drum pattern might have been recorded with one pile of rocks, but the rest of the beat may have been recorded using a completely different pile of rocks. That said, that finished recordings make for a very impressive audio illusion, as it often sounds like Julian's drumming is taking place in real-time and intuitively interacting with non-percussive field recordings of cars, birds, planes, radios, cows, and sprinklers.

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1899 Hits

Moonshake, "Eva Luna" Deluxe Edition

Eva LunaI believe I stumbled upon Moonshake's singular 1992 debut full-length by blind luck at a used record store, but I cannot remember if I picked it up because I was already vaguely aware that Margaret Fiedler was cool or if it was still pre-Laika. In any case, I always thought of Moonshake primarily as Fieldler's alternately frustrating and brilliant first band. In hindsight, however, I failed to appreciate how truly radical this foursome were during their brief flourish and dearly wish that I had dug a bit deeper back then, as Eva Luna could have (and should have) been my gateway into an amazing world of killer underground music that I was not yet aware of (krautrock, post-punk, free jazz, Jamaican dub, and even the C86 scene). Listening to this expanded reissue now with considerably more adventurous ears, I still find this album oft-frustrating, but I am newly struck by how almost every song features at least one moment where Moonshake sounded like the best band on the goddamn planet. That white-hot inspiration did not always sustain itself for an entire song, but this reissue beautifully strengthens the original album with some welcome gems from the band's early EPs.

Beggars Arkive/Matador/Too Pure

The idea for Moonshake first took shape after the 1990 demise of guitarist/singer Dave Callahan's previous band The Wolfhounds. He was weary of playing rock music and wanted to try something more eclectic and sample-driven, but he was less than thrilled with the sound of his own voice, so he placed an ad in Melody Maker for a female guitarist and Margaret Fielder was the only person who responded. Callahan's original plan was allegedly to combine Byrds-inspired vocal harmonies with samples and Metal Box-inspired dubwise post-punk, but both of those influences fell by the wayside once Fiedler's own creative input started to shape their sound. The new band's first release was 1991's First EP on Creation Records, which is something of a gem in its own right, but sounds completely different from Moonshake of Eva Luna: the shoegaze-y melodicism of First is very much in line with other Creation bands of the time like Swervedriver and My Bloody Valentine. That achievement did not suit Callahan at all, so the band set out to completely reinvent themselves for their next major statement (spoiler alert: the PIL influence came back in a big way, but was joined by some fresh influences from hip-hop, free jazz, noise, and elsewhere).

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1898 Hits

Lise Barkas & Lisa Käuffert, "Lo Becat"

Lo BecatThis album is definitely one of the more unlikely underground hits to cross my path in recent memory, as this strikingly unique bagpipe performance first quietly surfaced as an extremely limited CDr back in 2017 on Strasbourg's Soleils Bleus label. Last year, however, it got a well-deserved vinyl resurrection on Belgium's forward-thinking Morc Records and it sold out almost immediately (as did last month's repress, unsurprisingly). Notably, the bagpipe has historically not been my favorite instrument, but I've said the same thing in the past about harps and harpsichords only to have my mind blown by Joanna Newsom, Mary Lattimore, and Catherine Christer Hennix, so this is merely the latest revelation that any instrument can sound amazing in the right hands. I also never expected the French traditional music scene to be the source of so many stellar contemporary albums, yet Lise and Lisa have just joined my personal pantheon of Gallic folkies (France, Tanz Mein Herz, etc.) who have dropped killer left-field psych gems in recent years. That is an especially impressive feat for Kaüffert, given that she is a German bagpiper.

Soleils Bleus/Morc

As far as I can tell, Lo Becat was originally recorded back in 2016 for a radio broadcast, but Lise and Lisa have been playing together as a duo since 2014. While Kaüffert's own origin story remains a mystery to me, Barkas' journey to traditional music amusingly began via Coil, as she was entranced by Cliff Stapleton's hurdy-gurdy playing. That eventually led her to the music of France's Yann Gourdon and her involvement in more traditional fare, but that was mostly because there is a lot more demand for bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy players in the traditional/folk music scenes than in the experimental one (Coil is no longer hiring, I'm afraid). In the years since, however, Barkas and her like-minded friends have carved out a unique niche through the band L'Écluse (Kaüffert is also a member) and collectives like Kreis. Unsurprisingly, Lo Becat is the appropriately unusual fruit of a union between two avant-garde-minded bagpipers with one foot in traditional music circles, as it is essentially a loose fantasia upon an old ballad entitled "la belle va au jardin des amours" (Beauty Goes To The Garden of Love) that segues into a folk dance. Neither of the two pieces incorporated into Lo Becat are familiar to me as an American, of course, but I doubt a dueling bagpipe version of either would be recognizable to many French people either. That said, a timeless and beloved melody is always a solid foundation for adventurous experimentation or improv.

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999 Hits

Rafael Toral, "Spectral Evolution"

Spectral EvolutionBefore I heard this album, I mistakenly believed that I had a reasonable familiarity with Rafael Toral's oeuvre, as I had heard and enjoyed a handful of his classic guitar-era albums such as 2001's Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance. That said, it had been a while since I had kept tabs on his work, so I was quite curious to hear what made this "quintessential album of guitar music" exciting enough to reawaken Jim O'Rourke's decades-dormant Moikai label. As it turns out, absolutely everything about Spectral Evolution feels like a goddamn revelation to me and I am now kicking myself for sleeping on Toral's post-guitar Space Program-era of experimentation with self-built instruments. The psychotropic omnipresence of those self-built instruments makes it amusingly misleading to call Spectral Evolution Toral's return to guitar music, but if the presence of some recognizable guitar sounds lures more listeners towards this one-of-a-kind work of genius, I believe that claim has served a worthy purpose. Listening to this album was like hearing classic Merzbow or My Cat Is An Alien for the first time, as Toral plays entirely by his own set of rules and succeeds spectacularly.

Moikai

After being properly gobsmacked by one of the album's early "singles" ("Fifths Twice"), I was not sure that I was even listening to the right album when I finally played Spectral Evolution for the first time. That feeling quickly dissipated after the first minute, but the album deceptively begins with Toral casually improvising around a few jazzy chords.on a relatively clean and effects-free electric guitar. It does not take long at all before that pleasant motif is absorbed by an otherworldly cacophony of whining harmonics and squirming electronics, however, and the wild ride that ensues leaves those jazz chords so far in the rearview mirror that they feel like a memory from a previous life. If someone held a gun to my head and demanded that I coherently explain what was happening in the album's opening minutes, I would probably resign myself to my imminent death, but "I think an alien jungle just crash landed onto an organ mass in Mindfuck City" is probably a reasonably accurate summation…temporarily, at least. If I waited another minute or so, however, I would probably lean more towards "a group of psychotic puppets just formed a jarringly discordant marching band and kicked this Mardi Gras party into overdrive!" Consequently, it is hopeless to make any generalizations about Toral's vision for this album at all unless that generalization is something vague like "an unpredictable series of dissolving lysergic mirages dreamed up by a madman."

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2399 Hits

Maria W. Horn, "Panoptikon"

PanoptikonI tend to enjoy damn near everything that Sweden's XKatedral label releases, but this half-disturbing/half-transcendent tour de force by co-founder Maria W. Horn still managed to completely blindside me. Panoptikon's four-part suite was originally composed for a macabre installation at the "disbanded Vita Duvan (White Dove) panopticon prison in Luleå, Sweden." Being a panopticon, Vita Duvan had an unusual circular design "to create a sense of omniscient surveillance," but that is just the tip of a very grim iceberg, as it was also known for its brutal isolation tactics as well as rampant torture and execution. While the prison mercifully ceased operations in 1979, I suspect I would've needed months of therapy to recover from Horn's installation alone, as it pulsed in synchronization with the prison's lights and the cells contained speakers broadcasting the imagined voices of the doomed prisoners. Thankfully, the decontextualized album is considerably less harrowing than its origin suggests, as its dark choral opening quickly expands into an immersive swirl of heady drones, spacy synths, and timelessly beautiful vocal motifs.

Xkatedral

The heart of the album is the opening "Omnia citra mortem," which borrows its name from a legal term that translates as "everything until death." In the context of Vita Duvan, that meant that no one could be sentenced to death for a crime they did not confess to, but they could certainly be tortured until a confession was made. Needless to say, few were inclined to stick around very long, as being beheaded with an axe was vastly preferable to the alternative. According to Horn's research, the crimes that could land one in Vita Duvan could be as minor as "drunkenness" or "vagrancy," but several dozen unfortunate women met their end there because miscarriage and abortion were considered "child murder" at the time.

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1569 Hits

Dean McPhee, "Astral Gold"

Astral GoldThis fifth full-length from Yorkshire-based guitar visionary Dean McPhee is actually a compilation of sorts, bringing together the pieces from his out-of-print Cosmos / Ether lathe cut 7" (2022) with a couple of gems from Folklore Tapes compilation appearances. Happily, however, Astral Gold is also rounded out with a pair of new pieces and one of them ("The Sediment of Creation") easily ranks among McPhee's finest work. Given that I was already a huge fan of one of the Folklore Tapes pieces included here, that is more than enough to make this a solid release, but it is also an unexpectedly focused and thematically compelling one given the varied origins and inspirations of these songs. It is quite an aptly named release as well, as the languorously meditative and cosmic mood of these pieces seem like they would be an ideal soundtrack for any astral traveling that one might have on the horizon.

Bass Ritual

The album opens with the two pieces from the Cosmos/Ether single on Reverb Worship, which was originally something of a divergent release for McPhee, as both songs feel more like the extremely understated work of a cosmic-minded '70s psych band than McPhee's usual fare (Manuel Göttsching being the obvious reference point). That said, the two pieces still sound a hell of a lot like Dean McPhee--they just happen to have unusually prominent bass lines. Of the two, I prefer "Ether," as it plays more to McPhee's strengths of hazy, reverbent melodies and looping chord patterns. While I love both the gently pulsing chord progress and the lingering vapor trails that hang in the wake of the lead guitar melody, McPhee's larger achievement lies in how he seems to slow and blur the passage of time: the way his notes seem to burn off or ripple away into silence is often more significant than the notes themselves. The uncluttered clarity of his playing is similarly striking and out-of-step with the current musical landscape, as he consciously avoids any excess notes or layers that would dilute the direct/real-time beauty of his themes.

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895 Hits

"Flux Gourmet Original Motion Picture Soundtrack"

Flux GourmetI acknowledge it is only February right now, but I believe I can confidently state that this soundtrack will be the weirdest and most mystifying new album that I will encounter this year. The film itself was released back in 2022 and follows the trials and tribulations of an imaginary performance art group during a surreal and contentious month-long artist residency. It is an absolutely brilliant and wickedly funny film (possibly director Peter Strickland's finest work) and joins similarly deranged fare like Holy Mountain in the pantheon of cinema so audaciously batshit crazy that it is hard to fathom how it was ever financed, cast, or released. As befits such a bananas endeavor, the soundtrack features a murderers' row of compelling artists from the experimental/psych fringes, drawing participants from Broadcast, Nurse With Wound, Stereolab, Neutral Milk Hotel, Swans, and elsewhere. Obviously, that seems like a solid recipe for a unique album, but it is a unique album with a twist, as the heart of it all is Strickland's own Sonic Catering Band, a shifting collective devoted to transforming the preparation of vegetarian meals into ritualistic noise performances.

Ba Da Bing

The Sonic Catering Band allegedly formed as an anonymous ensemble in 1996 after finding unexpected inspiration in a bout of food poisoning. The band's mission statement is quite simple (if comically niche): "to employ a similar approach to electronic music as to (vegetarian) food; taking the raw sounds recorded from the cooking and preparing of a meal and treating them through processing, cutting, mixing and layering. No source sounds other than those coming from the cooking of the dish are used and as a commitment to artistic integrity, every dish is consumed by all members of the Band." The project spawned a record label (Peripheral Conserve) as well, releasing work by many of the folks who appear on the soundtrack as well as some other hard-to-categorize art provocateurs like The Bohman Brothers and Faust's Jean-Hervé Péron. Unsurprisingly, the project also resulted in some truly memorable-sounding performances ("on the wall by the table hung a lifesize 5ft gingerbread man with headphones on, listening to the sound of himself being cooked.").

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1569 Hits

Dead Bandit, "Memory Thirteen"

Memory ThirteenThis is the second album from the instrumental duo of Ellis Swan and James Schimpl and the first Dead Bandit album to follow Swan's killer 2022 solo album 3am. Happily, Memory Thirteen returns to the hypnagogic "witching hour" vibes of 3am, but it also marks a very compelling creative leap forward into fresh stylistic terrain. To my ears, that blearily dreamlike terrain is best described as "what if Boduf Songs scored a gig as the house band at a strip club in the Donnie Darko universe?" Needless to say, that is a very tricky and hyper-specific niche to fill, yet Dead Bandit consistently find new ways to combine hushed and haunted late-night melancholy with neon-soaked sensuousness, deadpan cool, and dreampop shimmer.

Quindi

The opening "Two Clocks" introduces most of the elements central to the duo's current vision: understated guitar melodies, well-timed flickers of human warmth, submerged and distressed-sounding textures, and slow-motion, head-nodding beats. It is a fine way to start an album, but it feels more like a setting of the stage than a legitimate album highlight (even if it undergoes a gorgeously dreamlike transformation around the halfway point). The first unambiguous highlight follows soon after, however, as "Blackbird" feels like a window into a narcotic and carnivalesque cabaret of eerie melody, throbbing bass, lysergically smeared textures, and simmering, seething intensity.

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1134 Hits

Tristan Allen, "Tin Iso and the Dawn"

Tin Iso and the DawnThis is New York-based composer/puppeteer Tristan Allen's full-length debut and it is quite an ambitious one, as Tin Iso and the Dawn is the first chapter of a planned "shadow puppet symphony" trilogy loosely based on Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" that has been in the works since 2015. From where I am standing, there are innumerable ways in which such an album could go wrong and they range from "forgettable score to cool puppet show" to "cloyingly precious" to "outright bombastic." Instead, however, Tin Iso and the Dawn sounds like a stone-cold masterpiece dropped by a creative supernova. Listening back to Allen's previous discography (a pair of classical piano EPs), it almost feels like this vision materialized out of nowhere, but the seeds of this puppet-centric magnum opus may have been planted more than a decade ago when Allen co-wrote a piece with Amanda Palmer in the early days of her "Dresden Dolls hiatus" solo career.

RVNG

The album begins in somewhat deceptive fashion, as "Opening" is initially just a bittersweet solo piano melody that feels like a simple yet lovely classical piece built from a few well-chosen arpeggios. That is familiar territory for Allen, but that familiarity begins unraveling in under a minute, as the arpeggios are quickly enlivened with harmonies, melodic flourishes, rhythmic disruptions, psychotropic tendrils, and a wake of groans and lingering decays. Then yet another surprise happens in the final minute, as it sounds like Allen stops playing, closes the piano, and lets the lingering haze of murk threaten to become a self-perpetuating drone piece. If Allen were some kind of Andy Kaufman-style performance artist/comedian, it would have been a solid move to let that haze of decay play out for another forty minutes, but it instead segues into the first of four acts ("Act I: Stars and Moon"). From that point onward, Tin Iso and the Dawn features a near-unbroken run of achingly beautiful and unique orchestral pieces.

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2279 Hits