Klara Lewis, "Live in Montreal 2018"

cover imageKlara Lewis has been a unique and consistently interesting artist ever since she first surfaced, but 2020's Ingrid felt like a massive breakthrough and just about everything that she has released since has been stellar (live albums included). Unsurprisingly, Live in Montreal 2018 does nothing to derail that streak, but there are a couple of somewhat big surprises with it too. The first one is the date of the performance, as I had no idea that Lewis was on this plane two years before Ingrid came along. That is not to say that Live in Montreal would have necessarily eclipsed 2016's excellent Too had it been the follow up, but the Lewis of 2016 was an artist who seemed categorically disinterested in doing anything the conventional/expected way. And the comparative melodicism of 2018's fitfully great collaboration with Simon Fisher Turner (Care) felt like a one-off experiment in applying her non-musical found sounds to a more traditionally musical vision rather than a change in direction. As it turns out, however, Care was merely a tease of greater things to come and the lucky attendees of this performance got a sneak preview of those greater things long before the rest of us. The second big surprise is that this album is composed of seemingly all new material rather than variations on Lewis's existing work—it feels aesthetically akin to a proto-Ingrid, but a stage before that piece was distilled to just a single perfect motif. Obviously, that narrowing of focus yielded great results, but this more varied and shapeshifting approach yielded some legitimately great results too, elegantly blurring the lines between drone, noise, spacy synth explorations, and pop plunderphonics.

Editions Mego

As with a lot of live albums these days, the only significant difference in sound quality between Live in Montreal and one of Lewis's more formal recordings is that it feels like there is a thin veil between me and the full harmonic richness, clarity, and crunching physicality of the music. Obviously, that is less than ideal, but that loss is presumably offset by a more significant gain like "it was not possible to reproduce the magic and spontaneity of this performance in a studio." In any case, this album consists of a single 47-minute piece "with three distinct discernible sections" and an overarching theme of "permanent collapse" in which "strange sonic elements introduce themselves, rise to the fore, threaten the fundamental discourse only to recede on the brink of destroying the work itself." While I sometimes have a hard time determining which elements constitute "the work" and which ones are the threatening interlopers as the piece unfolds, the trajectory of the opening section is quite easy to grasp: an intense choral sample plays over a subdued, gurgling, and crackling industrial rhythm, becomes erratic, then settles into a looping and haunted-sounding melody just as a visceral assault of white noise erupts. In a rough sense, it resembles a killer noise set tenaciously trying to tear its way through a classical requiem with only moderate success, which is a very appealing aesthetic given the fine balance of beauty and violence that Lewis achieves.

I am not sure if the noise element necessarily wins in the end, but the original choral theme is eventually reduced to a bleary drone augmented by woodland sounds like chattering birds while the noise/industrial elements rhythmically continue onward to steer the piece into a fresh passage of flanging drones over a heaving, crunching sea of roiling white noise. Gradually, however, it starts to feel like me and my chirping avian buddies are now at the seaside (along with some quivering feedback ghosts) as large waves relentlessly crash upon the shore, yet that too proves to be an ephemeral interlude, as Lewis soon starts to segue into her next dazzling set piece. While the next section could reasonably be described as "warm ambient drones," they are vividly enhanced by a shapeshifting host of dissolving and hallucinatory new elements (hiss, submerged backwards melodies, glimpses of Spanish guitar, Whitney Houston belting out (nearly) unrecognizable fragments of "I Will Always Love You," etc.). All of those other elements gradually vanish, however, leaving a gorgeously psychotropic and crystalline drone palace in their wake. For her final trick, Lewis ends the pieces with frayed, shivering synth swells that spectrally wobble over a stark backdrop of crackling textures. It is an appropriately beautiful conclusion to the set, but Lewis's more impressive achievement is how organically fluid and compelling the journey to get there was: this album flows along wonderfully and the bridges between its major events never lull, nor does it ever feel like Lewis artfully stitched together a trio of different pieces into one. There is a definite arc to this album and it is a thoughtful and satisfying one with no missteps or unnecessary detours to be found. While live albums outside the improv/jazz milieu are historically not my favorite thing, this one is a rare and notable exception, easily ranking among the finest releases in Lewis's already impressive discography.

Samples can be found here.

  1304 Hits

Fluxion, "Parallel Moves"

cover imageAs far as I am concerned, Konstantinos Soublis earned a lifetime pass as dub techno royalty with his early Chain Reaction work (the likes of which enjoyed a well-deserved renaissance when Type reissued Vibrant Forms in 2013). Much like fellow visionary Moritz von Oswald, however, Soublis has a creatively restless spirit that has led him in a number of different directions since that scene's late '90s/early '00s golden age came to an end. While I cannot say that I have been a fan of all of Fluxion's various detours over the years, Soublis's unpredictably hit-or-miss discography has continued to surprise me with a legitimate hit every few years. In fact, Fluxion has been in unusually fine form recently and that upswing seems to have culminated in this album, which is unexpectedly one of the most uniformly strong and inspired releases in the project's entire oeuvre. Part of that success is likely due to Soublis's decision to take his vision in a more intimate and inwardly inspired direction (the album was inspired by "real life moments, people, expectations, joy, dreams and disappointments"), but the primary appeal of Parallel Moves is that his new inspirations manifested themselves in quite a killer batch of unusually sensual, soulful, and melodic songs. To my ears, this is a very strong contender for the best Fluxion album ever released.

Vibrant Music

At its core, Parallel Moves still very much feels like a Fluxion album, as the usual dub techno elements are all in place (propulsive grooves, dub-wise production shadings, a fondness for minimalism, and a warm, repeating pulse), but it also feels elevated in a way that is difficult to pin down. I have seen it described as jazz-tinged and "almost balearic," however, and that seems reasonably accurate: it certainly feels breezy and tropical at times, yet is also feels like a lot of other things as well. The deeper transformation seems to lie in the execution rather than the style, as the best songs feel organic, nuanced, and casually effortless in the best way possible. For example, the album’s zenith is "Orange Sky," which is essentially just a stomping, off-kilter beat, a simple two-chord pulse, and some warm, bleary drones, yet the magic lies in the details and the dynamics (finger snaps, flickers of spectral guitar, etc.). Moreover, Soublis somehow makes it all feel effortless. It feels a bit like the heavily reggae-influenced dub techno of Rhythm & Sound, yet this is one of the rare instances where someone can match that celebrated project in quality, as Soublis steers that aesthetic into more sun-dappled territory with impressive lightness of touch and no loss of depth.

The title piece is even closer to the classic R&S sound at first, but the austere reggae groove proves to be merely the foundation for a smokily beautiful and soulful electric piano melody. And it only gets better from there, as an echoey dub breakdown steadily builds into a thumping and vaguely noirish finale. Elsewhere, "Correlation" beautifully transforms a warmly bittersweet synth reverie into a surprisingly sensual and thumping house banger, while "In Limbo" takes that four-on-the-floor kick drum into neon-lit noir-jazz territory (if Nicolas Winding Refn made a hyper-stylized Raymond Chandler adaptation with lots of slow-motion night driving scenes, this would absolutely be the appropriate soundtrack). "Blue and Yellow" is another highlight, as what feels like an improvised vamp steadily evolves into a nuanced, shapeshifting juggernaut that seems like it would have only continued to get better and better if it had been allowed to extend for the entire album. Naturally, there are plenty of other excellent grooves and delightful stylistic twists among the remaining pieces, as Soublis rarely (if ever) misses the mark here. More than that, however, he regularly blows up the goddamn mark with a seemingly supernatural gift for subtly incorporating new elements at precisely the right time to make a song catch fire. I have had this album in heavy rotation for months and I have yet to start growing tired of it, as there is a seemingly endless host of details and shadings to newly appreciate with each listen. Parallel Moves is instantly canonical dub techno.

Samples can be found here.

  1198 Hits

't Geruis, "Various Thoughts and Places"

cover image

Released back in the spring, this debut full-length from cryptically named Belgian composer 't Geruis has gradually blossomed into my favorite Lost Tribe Sound release not made by William Ryan Fritch or Andy Cartwright. According to the composer, Various Thoughts and Places is "an exercise in finding the balance between beauty and what is broken," which is a concise and poetic way of saying that this album shares a healthy amount of common ground with the more sublime side of tape loop artists such as Craig Tattersall and Andrew Hargreaves. Admittedly, few stylistic niches scream "Anthony D'Amico will like this” more than that one, but this album is also unexpectedly psychotropic and otherworldly in a way that is quite unique to 't Geruis. My best stab at describing that vision is that Various Thoughts and Places sounds like it was crafted from a handful of fragments of gorgeous and impressionistic-leaning classical albums and enhanced with strangled animal-like howls (I think there may also be a cannibalized pop song that I cannot place lurking in there too). Moreover, the execution is absolutely transcendent. Anyone looking for a slow-burning and immersive phantasmagoria of hissing loops and tenderly bittersweet melodies can basically begin and end their search here, as it is damn near impossible to imagine anyone surpassing this modest masterpiece once it hits its stride.

Lost Tribe Sound

The opening "Tree Weeping (Lacrima)" nicely sets the gently hallucinatory mood with a one-finger piano melody wandering through a landscape of subtle string drones, crackle, and hiss before blossoming into a lovely and bittersweet violin melody. In a rough sense, both the opener and the album as a whole could be described as "classical-adjacent," as the primary building blocks are simple piano and string melodies, but the album starts to feel considerably more unique and inspired with the third piece ("Een Deur Ergens In De Vallei"), as the full depth of 't Geruis's vision starts to quietly reveal itself. It evokes a flickering, slow motion silent film accompanied by a crackling supernatural Victrola that imbues every sound with a dreamlike melancholia that feels gnawed, vulnerable, and lovesick. From that point onward, the album settles into a sustained run of absolutely beautiful pieces that makes it clear that 't Geruis is probably some kind of textural genius/master loop architect. On "Where Birds Resonate," for example, a simple plinking melody gradually starts tumbling into itself while a cricket-like textural backdrop hypnotically pulses and pans in see-sawing fashion, while "Le Cadeau d'Alice" calls to mind the gossamer folktronica of early Colleen enhanced with a corroded-sounding bass loop that feels half "industrial" and half "slowly heaving cosmic exhalation."

Elsewhere, "Rendit l'Âme" uses a simple, pretty piano loop as the backdrop from a gnarled, warbling melody that sounds like it is struggling to emerge from the spirit realm. There is a definite "séance" vibe to the piece, but it also feels more visceral than that, as if 't Geruis built a homemade microphone that could pick up the sadness of eternity and that it manifested itself as a loop of tape-ravaged, heartbroken moans. Despite that, the piece and the album are not particularly dark one on their surface, as the central focus is almost always on light, lovely melodies rather than brooding atmospheres—the melodies just happen to be corroded, crackling, and hiss-chewed to such a degree that they always feel haunted and otherworldly. I suppose I would be remiss if I did not also mention that "Wanneer Alles Even Stil Staat" and "De Waarnemer" are highlights as well, but the album feels like a series of elegant variations on the same themes and its true magic lies in the sustained and beautiful spell that it casts as a whole. At its best, Various Thoughts and Places scratches roughly the same itch as some other contemporary tape music melancholia luminaries (always welcome territory), yet it also feels like it is being somehow channeled from an earlier century, which is quite a neat trick (and a tough illusion to sustain). While it admittedly took me a few listens before the full beauty of 't Geruis's vision began to fully bleed into my consciousness, I certainly got there eventually and this has since become one of my favorite releases of the year.

Samples can be found here.

  1063 Hits

Old Saw, "Country Tropics"

cover imageThis is the debut album from a "network of New England string pluckers, organ drivers and bell ringers" centered around composer/pedal steel guitarist Henry Birdsey. This is my first real encounter with Birdsey's work, though I was vaguely aware of his duo Tongue Depressor with Crazy Doberman's Zach Rowdan. While I do not get the usual otherworldly "Just Intonation" vibe from Country Tropics' buzzing and layered harmonies, unconventional tunings have historically been a central theme in Birdsey's work, so that may be an element here too. Then again, Old Saw seems like a very different project than Birdsey's usual fare in one very significant way, as Country Tropics is billed as a unique strain of devotional music. I believe it is a secular one, however, as the album description claims "Old Saw points our gaze downward towards the terrafirma unconsidered, and guides our hands into the dirt" rather than towards a "fantastical, celestial vision of understanding." Regardless of their inspirations, Old Saw is an ensemble like no other, approximating a rustic drone or free folk ensemble like Pelt or Vibracathedral Orchestra in an especially warm and transcendent mood (albeit not so warm and transcendent as to preclude some welcome sharp edges, shadows of dissonance, and heavy buzzing strings). This is quite an excellent and unique album.

Lobby Art

Aside from the strangely beautiful and poetic cover art of a dirt bike soaring over the clouds, Country Tropics is the sort of album that could easily be mistaken for an old private press release from a rural religious commune. I would definitely find it challenging to guess where that commune was located, however, as the vibe feels like a quaint, historic small New England town was dropped onto a sundappled Pacific coast. Regardless of where that hypothetical commune is based, Old Saw seem to be channeling something beautiful and magical in a way that is quite singular, as these four drone reveries feel simultaneously dreamlike, homespun, and earthy. Knowing that Birdsey is a serious avant-garde composer helps explain how the album ultimately turned out so texturally compelling and languorously hallucinatory, but it also feels like he consciously set out to make something pure, semi-traditional, and organically collaborative. This is kind of a "best of both worlds" situation, as the compositions themselves are simple, beautiful, and devoid of self-conscious artiness, yet they definitely sound like they were ultimately produced by someone who knows how to craft richly textured and harmonically interesting sound art.

Each of the four pieces is quite lovely in its own way, but the first two feel like the most gorgeous incarnations of Old Saw's devotional dreamscapes of bygone Americana. I honestly do not know how the ensemble conjured the buzzing backing drones for the opening "Dead Creek Drawl," as none of the instruments I think I hear (shruti box, tampura) are listed in the credits, but it all certainly sounds great nonetheless. As the piece unfolds, however, the gently churning and buzzing acoustic drones are subtly enhanced with rippling banjo arpeggios, woozily sliding pedal steel, moaning strings, and fleeting glimpses of a very cool guitar motif. The piece has a very unhurried and meditative feel that suits it well, as I do not feel like Old Saw are headed toward a destination so much as fading in and out of focus from a place of sublime bliss that I am quite content to linger in. "The Mechanical Bull at Our Lady of the Valley" initially has a more propulsive feel due to Harper Reed's rapidly rippling nylon string arpeggios, but otherwise sticks to roughly the same territory as its predecessor until some inspired new elements creep into the reverie, as it feels like someone starts prying the top off a Pandora's Box of subtle and warm psych textures (flickers of backwards melodies, twinkling and clanging bells, etc.). The remaining two pieces are cut from roughly the same cloth, which is just fine by me, as the real magic of Country Tropics is that Old Saw manage to cast and sustain a mesmerizing and immersive spell of soulful, subtly hallucinatory tranquility for nearly forty minutes. This is a quiet and modest masterpiece—the kind of album that I wish I could live inside.

Samples can be found here.

  1340 Hits

Body/Dilloway/Head

cover imagePast experience has taught me not to get too excited about promising-sounding collaborations between great artists, but the allure of this particular project was admittedly damn hard to resist: Body/Head is consistently the most provocative and intense of Sonic Youth's descendants and Aaron Dilloway seems absolutely incapable of releasing a disappointing album these days. Still, there is never any way to predict which threads will assert their dominance when distinctive visions collide, so there are a number of possible shapes that this album could have taken. To my ears, it is Dilloway's broken, murky, and obsessively looping aesthetic that mostly steers the ship, but the balance between the three artists is sufficiently unpredictable and shifting to make this trio feel like something quite different from either Dilloway's solo work or past Body/Head releases. Matt Krefting already did a fine job of summarizing the trio's shared vision with "over and over one gets the sense that the music is trying to wake itself from a dream," but it is also more than that, as this trio have a real knack for slowly transforming gnarled and challenging introductory themes into unexpected passages of sublime beauty.

Three Lobed

The album is comprised of two longform pieces separated by a shorter piece ("Goin' Down") and each one feels like a different direction or even an entirely different band. In fact, the album art does a remarkably great job at conveying what the music is like: a handful of recognizable elements chopped up and re-assembled into a nearly unrecognizable abstraction. The opening "Body/Erase" is the most "Dilloway" of the three songs, as it features a long, slow fade in of subtly oscillating drone and warped tape warbles that feel like an unsettling dream where conversations are slowed and smeared into something inscrutable and vaguely sinister. Gradually, the gnarled tape loop fragment become more frequent and violent, blossoming into a jabbering, splattering phantasmagoria that starts to become even more unhinged shortly after the nine-minute mark with the appearance of an ugly repeating buzz and an insistent pedal tone from Nace's guitar. Once all the elements are in place, "Body/Erase" becomes a massive, seething juggernaut of layered cacophony.

In the wake of that slow-burning tour de force, some more recognizable and expected elements surface with "Goin' Down," which initially sounds like a classic Sonic Youth single that has been stretched and deconstructed into abstraction. I dig the repeating howl of warbling guitar noise, but the real payoff is the squelching, wobbly, and ruined reverie of the final minute. The album then ends with its wildest, most go-for-broke piece, as the shapeshifting 13-minute epic "Secret Cuts" alternately sounds like the slow boinging of a massive cosmic spring, a noise guitar show frozen in looping suspended animation, and the hushed voice of an angel speaking from inside my head ("do you want?" is the only phrase that I can reliably make out). Some of the transitions between segments can be a little jarring (purposely, I presume), but all of the segments themselves are compelling and lead to a lovely set piece of warm, swelling drones and flickering voice fragments. It is damn lovely while it lasts, but an earlier noise guitar motif unexpectedly claws its way back from the grave to end the piece on an ugly, gnarled note. I cannot say that I am particularly surprised that Nace and Gordon were so game to let Dilloway drag their vision through a meat grinder or that the end result was so good, yet I was legitimately caught off guard by the ephemeral oases of beauty that occasionally surface. While this can admittedly be a prickly, difficult, and potentially room-clearing album at times, it is also a singular and unusually memorable release for all involved (no mean feat, given the massive, highlight-filled discography of the trio).

Samples can be found here.

  1373 Hits

Emeka Ogboh, "Beyond the Yellow Haze"

cover imageThis bombshell release is the first album from Nigerian sound and installation artist Emeka Ogboh, but it sounds like the assured work of killer dub techno producer at the height of their powers. On its surface, Beyond The Yellow Haze admittedly (and probably unintentionally) shares a lot of common ground with prime Muslimgauze, as a central theme of Ogboh's art is his passion for capturing the ambient city sounds of Lagos. Consequently, these five pieces are nicely enhanced with layers of street noise, conversations, and passing snatches of melody, yet Beyond The Yellow Haze is primarily a great album because Ogboh is a goddamn wizard at crafting heavy, shape-shifting grooves with elegant dubwise percussion flourishes. I suppose the beats also creep into Muslimgauze territory at times, as Ogboh is similarly quite fond of slow and hypnotic grooves flavored with African and Arabic rhythms, yet the two artists differ dramatically when it comes to focus and exacting execution (among other things), as nearly every song here is a flawless diamond of immersively layered textures, slow-burning dynamic transformation, and crunching physicality. This is probably the strongest beat-driven album that I have heard all year, debut or otherwise.

A-Ton/Ostgut Ton

This is technically a reissue, as the album first surfaced as a limited vinyl release of 150 hand-numbered copies as part of Ogboh's 2018 exhibition at Galerie Imane Farès in Paris. I suspect very few people outside the visual art world noticed or heard that initial release, however, so it is a minor miracle that Berlin's influential Ostgut Ton picked up the baton to give Beyond The Yellow Haze a well-deserved second chance to make an impact three years later. It certainly made an impact on me within its first minute, as "Lekki Aiah Freeway" is a feast of deep dubby grooves, stuttering woodblock flourishes, and dreamlike rave pads. The ghostly synth bits quite beautiful and unexpected, but they are also basically just icing on an already perfect cake: I could listen to Ogboh build and dismantle a beat all goddamn day.

Unsurprisingly, an opening salvo that resembles a giant woodpecker stomping his way Godzilla-style through crowded Lagos streets on his way to the club is quite hard to top, yet Ogboh nevertheless manages to surpass that killer opener at least once with "Everydaywehustlin" (and arguably a second time with the more ambient-inspired "Palm Groove").  In a rough sense, "Everydaywehustlin" is quite similar to "Lekki Aiah Freeway," but with the beautiful synth pads mostly swapped out for layers of street noise and voices. As far as I am concerned, however, the salient point is that "Everydaywehustlin" is a monster groove for the ages, as it sounds like a great Muslimgauze album and a chopped & screwed Notorious B.I.G. tape crash landed in the middle of a busy Lagos street (and the woodpecker is back too). It is, quite simply, an endlessly shifting juggernaut of industrial-damaged heavy dub brilliance. The album's other beat-driven piece ("Danfo Mellow") does not quite hit as hard for me, as a gently burbling synth motif is entrusted with a bit too much heavy lifting, but it may be a good entry point for those looking for a bit melody in the balance. The album's final major piece, "Palm Grove," unexpectedly abandons drums entirely in favor of bleary, rainswept ambiance that evokes a sensual, hallucinatory, and neon-soaked tour of late-night Lagos streets experienced through the window of a slow-moving cab. Remarkably, even the extremely brief "Outro" that concludes album is kind of great, as Ogboh manages to turn 90 seconds of finger bells and distant street noise into an immersive and gently psychotropic reverie. To my ears, this album is at worst two or three instant classics in the span of just five songs, but it comes extremely damn close to being a wall-to-wall tour de force.

Samples can be found here.

  1143 Hits

Phương Tâm: Magical Nights – Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul (1964-1966)

cover imageThis collection, which I hereby deem an instant Sublime Frequencies classic, is devoted entirely to the long-unheard and elusive discography of one of the most magnetic singers of Saigon's "golden music" age. Part of the reason why Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m's work has languished in undeserved semi-obscurity is grimly predictable, as most of her music was destroyed during Vietnam's great purge of American-influenced culture in 1975, but T√¢m also abruptly ended her singing career in her prime to pursue forbidden love instead (an acceptably cool reason, I feel). According to her daughter Hannah H√†, Phương Tâm remained something of a highly localized karaoke supernova in the years since her stardom days, but H√† did not discover how truly famous her mom actually was until late 2019. One thing led to another and H√† found Mark Gergis after discovering his beloved Saigon Rock and Soul compilation. Gergis and a handful of like-minded crate-digging luminaries then set about tracking down as much of Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m's rare and often mistakenly attributed oeuvre as they could find, much of which even T√¢m herself had not heard since the recording sessions. While the journey to this album is undeniably a fascinating and heart-warming one, the best part is the songs themselves, as this album is a treasure trove of fun, soulful, and sexy genre-blurring gems from the golden age of swinging Saigon nightlife. Moreover, I was legitimately gobsmacked to learn that these songs were all recorded by the same person in such a brief span, as T√¢m channels everything from Brenda Lee to Ella Fitzgerald to the kind of impossibly cool, sexy, and ahead-of-their-time numbers that feel like would-be highlights from Lux Interior and Poison Ivy‚Äôs oft-anthologized record collection.

Sublime Frequencies

Fittingly, the story of Phương Tâm's rise to stardom is nearly as strange and improbable as the story of this compilation, as her passion for music was first ignited by the ambient sounds of the courtyard where she played with friends as a child ("from one particular house, all sorts of American music seeped into the courtyard"). Once Tâm was thusly "introduced to a new world beyond traditional Vietnamese music," she proved to be a natural at assimilating the rapidly evolving cultural forces of the era ("musical trends with wild, ephemeral dance crazes were being thought up weekly; the twist, hully gully, the mashed potato – none of them a problem for Phương Tâm."). I dearly hope the same can someday be said of me. Fatefully, Tâm entered a singing competition at age 16 and soon became a fixture at various legendary Saigon nightclubs (often performing at multiple venues in a single night). Unsurprisingly, she quickly caught the attention of all of Saigon's most influential record labels and composers, as she was a "commanding presence" as well as "one of the very first singers to perform and record rock and roll." Demand for Tâm was such that she recorded "almost 30 known tracks" between 1964 and 1966 that seemed to effortlessly channel every fun twist- or rockabilly-esque trend of the time. Most (or all) of those hits are here and they are invariably a delight, yet the real magic of Magical Nights is the handful of less "bubblegum" pieces that feel like a killer surf band, a Bollywood dance party, a James Dean-style teen exploitation film, and a sensuous cabaret chanteuse all blurred together in a perfect cocktail of soulful, kitschy, and hip-shaking fun. One such gem ("Có Nhớ Đêm Nào") kicks off the album in style, but that is only the first of many bombshells to come. My other personal favorites are currently the slinky-sounding "Ngày Phép Của Lính" and the rolling lurch of "Anh Đâu Em Đó," but there is also an extremely generous helping of second-tier highlights destined to keep growing on me, as Tâm was almost always backed by musicians who knew how to whip up a hot groove. This entire album is pure pop bliss.

Samples can be found here.

  1678 Hits

Steph Kretowicz, "I hate it here"

cover imageThis unique debut album is definitely one of the year's most pleasant surprises, as art/music journalist Kretowicz assembled a bevy of talented collaborators to craft a poignant and subtly hallucinatory tour de force of autofiction-based sound art. While some of the people involved (Mica Levi, Tirzah, etc.) certainly enhance the initial allure of I hate it here, it is a great challenge to focus on anything other than Kretowicz's sardonic, time-bending narrative as soon as she opens her mouth and things gets rolling. Thematically, the album is billed as a "psychedelic audio narrative" that "wanders through a layered and multi-dimensional notion of existence as suffering," which mostly feels apt, yet it fails to convey how truly charming and blackly funny wandering through that notion with Kretowicz can be. More importantly, this is the rare spoken word album that remains compelling beyond the first listen, as the combination of Kretowicz's deadpan, accented voice and the sound collage talents of felicita & Ben Babbitt make it an absorbing delight long after the meaning and impact of Kretowicz's words dissipate into more abstract and nuanced pleasures like texture and feeling. To my ears, this is one of the most inspired, immersive, and memorable albums of the year.

CURL

The album has the feel of a radio play, as it is centered primarily upon Kretowicz's recounting of a few significant events from her life, but her monologue is fleshed out with other voices, subtle ambient colorings, field recordings, and several surreal intrusions from scene-appropriate songs (such as Polish disco, for example). There is also a bittersweetly lovely piano theme that recurs at key moments throughout the piece. At its core, however, the album is essentially a handful of interwoven narrative threads united by the theme of suffering: an infected tattoo, an uncomfortable van trip to Poland, a desperate visit to a shaman, and the final days and funeral of Kretowicz's grandmother. Given that dark theme, a deep current of sadness, disconnection, and restlessness certainly runs throughout the album, yet Kretowicz wraps her heartwrenching memories in such a colorful, digression-filled, and bleakly amusing storytelling aesthetic that it all feels intimate, transcendent, and beautiful rather than uncomfortably sad. For example, a brief and incomplete list of my favorite moments includes: the tale of the aforementioned tattoo, a discussion of how Polish truck drivers keep themselves entertained, a morbid rumination interrupted with strong opinions about pants, Kretowicz's thoughts during a psychotropic shamanic ritual, and a treasured memory of the fleeting happiness she once experienced at a PJ Harvey concert. While a couple of the album's smeared stabs at psychedelia do not quite hit the mark for me, Kretowicz herself is an unwaveringly interesting and entertaining monologist and the album is masterfully edited and paced from start to finish. Moreover, it all builds up to quite an emotional wallop of an ending, but so far that ending has not been too heavy to deter me from immediately starting the album over again as soon as it ends. My gut tells me that I hate it here is an instant classic.

Samples can be found here.

  1351 Hits

Myxomy

cover imageThis is one of those rare collaborations in which I had absolutely no idea what kind of album to expect, as the only obvious common ground this duo shares is a strong interest in sound design, though it is probably safe to say they are both drawn to unusual projects too given their past involvement with Rắn Cạp ĐuôI Collective. Now that I have heard Myxomy, however, I am faced with the fresh challenge of describing a vision that is elusively shapeshifting, kaleidoscopic, and wrong-footing from start to finish. I suppose the most consistent aesthetic is something akin to "half-deconstructed/half-maximalist outsider R&B" or some similarly heretofore nonexistent genre, but the real theme seems to exclusively be one of endless mutation. In fact, the idea for the collaboration originally began with James Ginzburg sending Ziúr some beats from his early techno days, which triggered a dueling exchange of raw material reworkings that rapidly escalated and morphed until the "duo's fragmented sketches and scribbles took on new life" that "developed into anxious, hybridized pop jewels." To be fair, Myxomy is admittedly poppier than I ever would have anticipated, but this project is waaaaay too weird, fractured, and unpredictable to ever be mistaken for actual pop (jewels or otherwise). It mostly feels more like a handful of hooks wandering through a collapsed post-industrial landscape in search of a proper home. I am not sure any of them ever quite found one (seems doubtful), but some of these experiments are impressively visceral and unique in their own right (even if they can sometimes be a real challenge to digest).

Subtext

I suspect the title of the opening "Sloppy Attempt" provides some self-deprecating insight into the mindset that Ginzburg and Zi√∫r brought to the Myxomy vision, as it seems like the pair genuinely delighted in breaking and stretching each other's work and all other concerns were purely secondary. That is not intended as a disparagement, but the primary pleasures of this album are definitely in the vein of "this is a playground where songs convulse and break in interesting ways" rather than "check out all these hot new singles we wrote." Helpfully, "Sloppy Attempt" is also one of the more representative pieces on the album, as a blooping synth hook seems to keep wandering off course rather than locking into a groove. Nevertheless, a groove eventually does take shape (albeit fitfully) and the piece blossoms into a seething and moody song of sorts. In the rare moments where the beat does not collapse and the bass line is allowed to unfold naturally, it is not hard to see the ghost of a much catchier song lurking inside it all, but the overall impression is one of a remixer purposely stretching and pushing that hapless piece past its breaking point to see what happens.

The following “A Little Opaque” takes a similar trajectory, as a squirming and glistening synth pile-up sluggishly lurches forward along with spectral vocals and thudding, slow-motion drums. Naturally, every time it threatens to catch fire, it quickly gets pulled apart, ravaged by static, smeared, or broken in some way. "Make self-sabotage an art form" definitely seems to have been a guiding principle here. That said, the following three-song run can be quite impressive at times. The hot streak begins with "In and until," which sounds like a howling, junkyard percussion variation upon the massive rattling metal strings of Ginzburg's last solo album (Crystallise, A Frozen Eye). Next, "It is it everything" unleashes an absolutely killer motif that sounds like a haunted, lysergically smeared vibraphone enhanced with lots of wonderfully clattering and ringing metallic textures. It is a bit too sizzling and erratic to make a strong single though, which seems like a real missed opportunity. In fact, I strongly feel it deserves its own remix album (collaborative cannibalization is in Myxomy's DNA, after all). Elsewhere, the heavy industrial crunch of the following "Toxin Out" admittedly feels closer to earthquake than groove, but it is damn hard not to be charmed by the rousing chorus of "eat the rich and throw up on the fuckbois." The closing "Nuance Unseen" (another self-deprecating title) is also quite enjoyable in a seething/clattering/industrial-damaged R&B way and makes some more fine use of howling violin. If someone threatened to kill me if I did not choose a single for this album, I would probably pick that one. For the most part, however, Myxomy's pleasures lie primarily in hearing Ginzburg and Ziúr inventively mangle each other's work and veer quite far off course from their expected terrain (though fans of Ben Frost-style seismic intensity will likely find much to appreciate in that regard too).

Samples can be found here.

  1352 Hits

Monokultur, "Ormens Väg"

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This is the second full-length from the Swedish minimal wave/post-punk duo of JJ Ulius (Skiftande Enheter) & Elin Engström (Skiftande Enheter/Loopsel). Significantly, Monokultur spawned from the same fertile milieu that brought us Neutral, Enhet För Fri Musik, Treasury of Puppies, and every other great Gothenberg project, so it is not particularly surprising that Monokultur are excellent as well. While I suspect that Enhet För Fri Musik will remain securely ensconced as my favorite emissaries from Sweden's thriving underground scene for the near future, Monokultur definitely craft some of the strongest singles of anyone in that scene. In fact, they almost resemble a variation of Neutral in which Sofie Herner and Dan Johansson suddenly realized they could celebrate hiss-soaked grayscale murk and write catchy, hook-filled songs at the same time. That is not meant to disparage Neutral (whom I also enjoy), but Monokultur definitely have less of a scorched earth approach to human warmth and lovely undestroyed melodies. In any case, this album is excellent, as Monokultur are getting very close to perfecting a vision in which gnarled post-industrial artiness, bedroom pop, and 4AD-style romanticism can seamlessly intertwine and enhance each other.

Ever/Never & Mammas Mysteriska Jukebox

The wobbly, bleary, and hypnagogic/somnambulant opener "Decennium" offers a fairly representative crash course in what to expect from Ormens Väg: hushed, intimate, and melancholy lo-fi pop songs that feel like they were recorded alone in a small apartment in a cold, bleak city at 3am in 1982. In fact, Monokultur capture urban alienation so exquisitely that it is legitimately surprising that they are a duo, as it is damn hard to imagine two people on such a dark wavelength ever connecting with one another. It is similarly surprising that Engstrom and Ulius are able to articulate their deep malaise in such a tenderly melodic and charmingly ramshackle way, sometimes approximating a promising minimal wave duo that discovered hard drugs, heartache, and Throbbing Gristle to disastrous impact on their commercial prospects.

To my ears, “Demokrati” is probably the piece that captures Monokultur at their best, as it combines a simple, lovely organ melody with a slowly, chugging rhythm and hushed male/female vocal harmonies, but there are several similarly successful pieces that veer off in divergent directions. For example, the Ulius-sung "För Sent" sounds like a rough late-period Joy Division demo for another "Atmosphere"-style hit, except Ian Curtis is uncharacteristically sleepy, distracted, and Swedish. The effect is weirdly charming, which is likely due to the quietly lovely backdrop of quivering, hallucinatory synth melodies, warped guitar shimmer, and a languorously sensual pulse. Elsewhere, "Pennan i handen" sounds like a ghostly DIY country song or a sleepily sexy, ennui-soaked inversion of The Cramps who were more inspired by brutalist architecture and Ingmar Bergman films than classic rockabilly and sleaze. My other favorite pieces are "Vårdagjämning" and "Människor och träd," which respectively enhance the Monokultur aesthetic with heavy, haunted-sounding industrial loops and a lovely spoken word performance from guest Charlott Malmenholt. The latter piece comes as a quite a surprise at the end of the album, as it feels almost upbeat and tropical (think "Cocteau Twins make an impressionist exotica album…but with poetry!"). The only real caveat with this album might be that it will probably be too gloomy for some, but I think Jack Rollo nailed Monokultur's appeal in his liner notes ("sudden moments of heart-wrenching familiarity"), as it seems like there is always an unexpected melody, poignant chord change, or cool twist just around the corner with this album.

Samples can be found here.

  1211 Hits

Zpell Hologos, "Birmania"

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This is the debut of a new project from Babe, Terror's Cl√°udio Szynkier, who has apparently undergone quite a dramatic creative upheaval over the last couple years. Then again, it is quite hard to tell what would constitute expected terrain for an artist who seems to seamlessly bounce between being a killer techno producer and channeling Morton Feldman-esque neo-classical abstraction. Nevertheless, something radical is definitely happening with Szynkier, as he is following 2020's acclaimed departure Horizogon with a pair of fresh and different departures: Birmania is intended as the companion piece to an intriguing feature-length film set for release next year (A Princesa de Rangoon). The film's unique premise ("apparitions, mystical presences and lost stories from S√£o Paulo and Rangoon are discovered over the course of a summer in the future") provides some helpful insight into the unusual vision that guides Birmania, as Szynkier is deeply interested in both how civilizations rise, fall, and transform and how traces of the past haunt the future. Of course, Szynkier is also the hapless sufferer of a chronic ear problem, so perhaps filmmaking and a softer, more abstract strain of music is primarily an ideal way to remain creatively vital without subjecting oneself to seismic bass and thumping kick drums. In any case, Szynkier is an increasingly fascinating and unique composer and Birmania is a fitfully wonderful album. While not every piece quite hits the mark for me, the ones that do can feel quite revelatory.

Self-Released

The first of the "quite revelatory" pieces on Birmania is the opening "Mandalay Moulmay," which begins as a disorienting and haunted-sounding classical piano performance in which melodies seem to constantly overlap and drunkenly stumble into one another. It calls to mind a more melodic Morton Feldman due to its murky dissonances, but also feels like a sublime feat of dissolving loop architecture. Amusingly, it additionally sounds like curdled, rotted, and deconstructed cover of "What a Wonderful World," which is darkly appropriate for these times. As it unfolds, however, things grow steadily more surreal, as pitches and speeds start unexpectedly shifting and synth/rave elements starts to bleed in or blurtingly intrude. For the most part, I am less keen on Birmania's futuristic elements than I am on Szynkier's artfully frayed and distending string and piano themes, but the gorgeous synth break at the center of "Mandalay Moulmay" was the hook that first drew me into the album, so I suppose Szynkier’s instincts are probably solid.

The following "Cocokyoun" is another highlight in a somewhat similar vein, though the blearily descending piano melodies feel more like the haunted ballroom territory of The Caretaker this time around. Again, the blurting intrusions of artificiality (the synths) are an interesting choice, but they increasingly feel like they serve an important role texturally (and they always serve a role conceptually, given the album's theme of interweaving past and future). The overall feel is akin to a film loop of a classical piano performance that gradually starts getting snagged and burning up until a gnarled backwards string motif supernaturally fades in for an unsettling finale. To my ears, the most perfectly realized piece on the album is "Pyapoon," which feels like a dusty 78 of a piano/harp duet is eerily smearing, dissolving, unraveling, and fading in and out of focus. And then it seems like Tangerine Dream's Phaedra suddenly crash lands in the middle of it all, which is definitely not something I anticipated Once it recovers from that shockwave, "Pyapoon" continues its original trajectory towards a fever dream crescendo of heaving, churning, and time-stretched classical loops. While those three pieces feel like the strongest ones on the album to me, the remaining ones are all in a similar vein and the same themes continue to appear throughout the album. As such, Birmania is quite an absorbing whole and a great headphone album rather than a collection of discrete individual pieces. It also feels like the sort of album that is too weird and singular to have an unconflicted opinion about, which probably means that Szynkier is doing something very right. I suspect I just need to catch up to whatever wavelength he is currently on, as he seems to be nearly peerless at constructing sad, beautiful, and soulful loop collages when he sets his mind to it.

Samples can be found here.

  1447 Hits

Gnod, "La Mort Du Sens"

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The latest opus from this shapeshifting Salford collective is a welcome return to the punk- and hardcore-damaged brutality of 2017's Just Say No to the Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine, which makes perfect sense, as there has certainly been plenty to get enraged about over the last few years (appropriately, the album's title translates as "The Death Of Meaning"). Interestingly, however, these pieces were actually recorded back in 2019 "in an old mill in Manchester" in an attempt to capture the intensity of the band’s live sets ("two drummers and a load of cabs in a room pushing each other forward"). As founding member Paddy Shine notes, “this record is a really strange beast because of the big change that happened between mixing and recording” in which "confusion was king for us all." Given that, I definitely wonder how much the collapsing outside world crept into and shaped both the mixing aesthetic and the album's ultimate form, but the only thing that actually matters is that La Mort Du Sens is yet another killer Gnod album and it is one that can be roughly (and accurately) described as "one the best Swans albums ever made by a band that is not actually Swans."

Rocket Recordings

The album amusingly opens with a voice asking "do you want to tell us anything about this record in particular?" followed by a cacophony of overlapping voices and radio waves. And then an ugly snarl of noise cuts through it all and Gnod launch into one of the most perfectly brutal songs that they have ever recorded ("Regimental"). As with most pieces on La Mort Du Sens, "Regimental" is essentially just a killer groove with some barked vocals over it, but the beauty lies in the details and in how masterfully the band distill their various influences into something seamlessly perfect and crushing. For instance, "Regimental" feels like the best moment from some great metalcore band's discography combined with top-tier No Wave guitar ugliness, a ribcage rattling bass tone, and the righteous anger of a great crust punk band. Those six glorious and unbroken minutes of focused, unrelenting ferocity and violent snarls of guitar noise are heaven to me, but Gnod admirably spend the rest of the album gamely trying to top that opening bombshell. While I do not think they quite succeed, they managed the next best thing: releasing a five-song album in which there is probably a five-way tie for "best song" (or at least something damn close to it).

On "Pink Champagne Blues," for example, an explosive and crashing intro gives way to a punky double-time groove of pounding toms, muscular strummed bass, and howling guitar noise. Elsewhere, "The Whip and the Tongue" feels like the missing link between a thuggishly repetitive Swans classic and Era-era Disappears (and with a wild sax solo thrown in for good measure). The following "Town" is probably the piece closest to my heart, however, as its lurching, snarling, and stumbling groove is beautifully enhanced with sneeringly sarcastic lyrics about all the "real jobs" and "factories" in Gnod's "fucking great town." It's a level of blunt, well-aimed biliousness that probably would have made Mark E. Smith nod approvingly. In keeping with the album's theme of punishing repetition and crushing heaviness, the closing epic "Giro Day" basically feels like the burning wreckage of some classic Relapse album like Times of Grace-era Neurosis: just relentlessly insistent locked groove-style tribal toms, squalls of ugly noise, and pure aggression. For those keeping score, all of that amounts to five rippers in a row, which makes La Mort Du Sens one of Gnod's all-time finest albums to date. As much as I enjoy Gnod's artier and more psych-inspired tendencies, I have to concede that they seem like an absolute force of nature when they leave all that behind to single-mindedly focus upon rolling over me like a goddamn bulldozer.

Samples can be found here.

  1532 Hits

Daniel Wyche, "Earthwork"

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This is my first encounter with this Chicago-based composer/guitarist/improv enthusiast, but it seems like Earthwork may unexpectedly be the optimal place to start with Wyche's art, as it feels like the culmination of a number of meaningful threads that extend deep into his past. For example, the album's most immediately gratifying piece is built from a guitar riff that Wyche wrote in high school and the album itself was (at least partially) edited and assembled as a "spiritual exercise" in the wake of his grandfather’s funeral. Also, the album's title and a healthy portion of its vision were inspired by Wyche's childhood in a New Jersey family of working class contractors and construction workers. For the most part, however, those inspirations are abstracted into unrecognizability, as Earthwork sounds more like it was composed by someone who grew up in a darkly lysergic jungle or in the center of some kind of Zen bell ritual. That stylistic variety admittedly makes it somewhat challenging to pin down "The Daniel Wyche Aesthetic," but Wyche is one hell of a composer for someone who is primarily known an intense improv artist.

American Dreams

The opening "This Was Home" spans the entire first side of the LP and documents an ensemble performance at the 2015 Oscillations Series in Chicago. It opens with gently rippling vibraphone motif over a backdrop of cello drones and something resembling shortwave radio noise. Gradually, it becomes a twinkling and heaving sea of subtly spacey psychedelia. It then lingers as a pleasantly simmering and phantasmagoric soundscape for awhile, but things quickly start to become more compelling around the 7-minute mark, as the three guitarists start to mimic eerily whistling nightbirds and some kind of demonically possessed leopard or puma (probably the best possible use of a wah wah pedal, as far as I am concerned). In the final stretch, the piece gradually evolves from swirling, frayed, and shadow-ravaged surrealism into something considerably more warm and radiant. The following title piece is similarly lengthy, but dates from two years later and is a solo work recorded in a silo at a residency in Wisconsin. Initially, it feels like an exploration of how feedback, string noise, and various clatters and creaks reverberate around the space (Wyche credits himself as playing the actual silo), but it gradually blossoms into a pleasingly layered and texturally compelling reverie. I especially love how it is so understated and spacious that I can hear every single string scrape or slide of Wyche's fingers, which is a neat place for the focus to be (though it is later eclipsed by some violent slashes of chords). Lastly, the short, catchy and Tortoise-esque closer "The Elephant-Whale II" is unavoidably the album's immediate stand out, but it bears little resemble to the two immersive slow burns that proceed it. It almost feels like a different artist altogether, but I like that artist too. Hopefully, Wyche will someday make an entire album in that vein, as it is a damn near perfect piece: just an awesome riff, a killer squall of electronic chaos, and a great free jazz-esque crescendo from bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel. While there is not a single weak piece on the album, "The Elephant-Whale II" is an ideal distillation of the niche where Wyche truly excels: seamlessly mingling the beautiful and the melodic with the fiery spontaneity of noise and go-for-broke improv.

Samples can be found here.

  1214 Hits

Container, "Creamer"

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This latest EP from Ren Schofield's reliably intense Container project feels somewhat less like being flattened by an out-of-control train than usual. According to Schofield, his "intentions and goals for this record were to make it way more 'rock' oriented than 'techno,'" but Creamer ultimately landed quite far from anything resembling a recognizable rock album. Schofield also set out to “incorporate some potentially awkward sounding time signatures," but "disguise them as something digestible." There is plenty on Creamer which suggests that Schofield succeeded admirably in that regard, but it is damn near impossible to think about anything as academic as a time signature when a Container album is playing, as the overall impression is invariably bludgeoning, brutal, and ruthlessly shorn of any arty or conceptual pretensions. Like every Container release, Creamer feels like being repeated smacked in the face with a 2x4 by a man who is constantly tweaking and focusing his technique for maximum impact. That said, this EP does feel a bit less hyper-caffeinated than usual and I actually do find that to be "more digestible." It would be a stretch to call Creamer softer than usual though, as this release crams a truly a remarkable amount of innovation and white-knuckle ferocity into a lean, mean, and damn near perfect fifteen minutes.

Drone

This EP is comprised of wall-to-wall hits, but the opening title piece feels like its raison d'être and most laser-focused statement of intent. It also makes for quite a bracing opening salvo, as it sounds like Renfield affixed a contact mic to a psychotic electronic bee, then enhanced that splattering and distressed synth blurting with an impressively seismic bass throb. And the crushingly heavy, head-bobbing groove that follows is absolutely top-tier Container. I suspect Schofield is quickly bored by any sustained dip in tension or weirdness though, so "Creamer" soon detours into a pummeling kick drum assault/gnarled squall of synth noise for a minute before locking back into the groove for a final exclamation point. The following "Rippler" is closer to business-as-usual, as it features a hyperkinetic, off-kilter groove and an explosive array of stuttering, laser-like synth splatters. It basically sounds like an out-of-control train barreling into a Pink Floyd tribute light show, which is probably something the world could use more of. Later, "Shingles" feels like an electro-punk pulse erupting from a machine-like locked groove. The beat itself initially feels unusually straightforward, yet Schofield quickly ratchets up the craziness with some truly gnarly electronic mayhem and shifting cymbal patterns to yield a relentlessly clattering, splattering, and malevolently buzzing juggernaut. Naturally, the closing "Sniffers" is yet another monster, as it feels like a stuttering and too-fast breakbeat is constantly threatening to derail while thick synth bubbles violently effervesce in sync with the buzzing bass throb. All of Creamer's four pieces are characteristically great and I continue to be amazed at what Schofield can achieve with such a simple and constrained sound palette. When he is at his best (as he often is here), Schofield achieves a truly singular marriage of ruthless precision, go-for-broke intensity, and endlessly boiling unresolved tension. And he is also a man who knows exactly how to distill a statement to its necessary essence without ever lingering, spinning his wheels, or overstaying his welcome, which I greatly appreciate with music this relentless and physical.

Samples can be found here.

  1294 Hits

ESP Summer, "Kingdom of Heaven"

cover imageBack in the mid-'90s, His Name is Alive and Pale Saints were labelmates on 4AD and a seemingly one-off studio collaboration between Warren Defever and Ian Masters called ESP Summer was born. While that debut album arguably felt like a too-smooth and straightforward blend of the two artists' aesthetics, it did not take long for deeper eccentricities start appearing, as the project soon started varying its name (ESP Neighbor, ESP Continent), omitting crucial information from album credits, and exclusively releasing limited releases on odd formats. Aside from that, they also went on a 25 year hiatus that finally ended with a pair of releases on Osaka, Japan's Onkonomiyaki label in 2020. Both were quite weird (Here is composed of minimal, vocal-free sound collages), but one of them was also quite good and this is that one: originally a 5" lathe cut vinyl release entitled 天国の王国, the EP is now getting a second life with the translated and apt title Kingdom of Heaven. More specifically, this EP is comprised of four very divergent covers of a single song from the 13th Floor Elevators' 1966 debut (and one written by Powell St. John rather than the band, no less). While the original "Kingdom of Heaven" is a perfectly fine song that was not exactly begging for further enhancements, its strong hooks make it a perfect and sturdy melodic center for Masters and Defever's freewheeling dreampop and psych experimentation. Given the project's oft-inscrutable trajectory, Kingdom of Heaven is an unexpectedly focused, memorable, and compelling release.

Disciples/R.A.T.S.

Amusingly, the opening "Tengoku no ōkoku" sounds like something that would have made quite a splash if it had been released by a 4AD superduo back in 1995, as it resembles a spacier, more dreampop-inspired Joy Division (stark drums, meaty chorus-treated bass, etc.) enhanced with more soulful, melodic vocals. Very few of those traits make the trip into the album's second piece, yet "Kumamushi" is nevertheless another "classic 4AD"-sounding single, albeit one with an asterisk, as it is only an actual song for two of its eight minutes (it dissolves into a bleary ambient outro of reverb-drowned piano and soft-focus wordless vocals). Before that point, however, "Kumamushi" is absolutely gorgeous and opens with a killer early HNIA-style guitar melody. Masters contributes some tender, languorous vocals for his part, but they are more like an additional instrument than the focus. The actual focus of the song comes slightly later, as it unexpectedly explodes into a wonderfully stomping and propulsive passage of dual-guitar harmony. The long wake of ambient shimmer that it leaves behind is enjoyable too, but it is unavoidably eclipsed by the perfect two minutes that proceed it.

In keeping with the EP's theme of endless reinvention, "Taishōgoto o ōkoku" plays "Kingdom of Heaven" fairly straight, as Masters and Defever reduce the song to little more just the lovely vocal melody, a strummed acoustic guitar, and the cool eastern-sounding lead guitar hook. Naturally, the closing "Uchu" dramatically shifts gears once more, stretching out for nearly fifteen ghostly, lo-fi minutes and opening with a virtuosic and nimbly dancing guitar theme that intertwines with a fluttering and serpentine flute melody. Gradually, the expected vocal and guitar melodies appear, but the textures play a crucial role, as the piece has an appealingly hissing, frayed, and lysergic feel. That ghostly atmosphere suits the piece quite nicely, but it is just one facet, as there are also live drums, subtle layers of psychedelia, and a final stretch that feels like a stretched and blurred classical requiem. While a few pieces on this EP could be considered indulgent to a self-sabotaging degree to someone hunting for a perfectly crafted single, I would be hard pressed to find any fault with the release as a whole, as its four songs add up to a soulful and immersive experience and the whole thing is grounded in strong hooks that regularly resurface like a mantra or an inescapable gravitational pull.

Samples can be found here.

  1170 Hits

Florida Man, "Florida Man EP"

cover imageThis EP is the debut release from an "all-female rock band" from South Portland, Maine who are notable for several reasons. The biggest of those reasons is probably that the band's singer/guitarist is Quinnisa Kinsella Mulkerin (one-third of Big Blood's current incarnation), but the fact that all three band members are 15 years old is certainly significant as well. Neither of those things would matter all that much if this EP was not also quite good, but it is a remarkably assured and delightful dose of very cool and distinctive garage rock. Unsurprisingly, there are a few welcome resemblances to Quinnisa's other band, as she certainly shares some of Colleen Kinsella's vocal gifts and the two groups share a similar fondness for guitar noise and the assimilation of classic country influences. For the most part, however, Florida Man is quite a different entity altogether, eschewing most of Big Blood's weirder psych elements in favor of something considerably more raw, stripped down, punchy, and concise.

Self-Released

The opening "Yesterday's Air" is an excellent introduction to the band, as it captures the trio at the peak of their powers. It is primarily anchored by Helen Bonnevie-Rothrock's punky and muscular descending bass line, but it is also beautifully enhanced by a gnarled and howling bit of guitar noise. The shuffling and shambling "Twilight Filter" does not quite reach the same heights, but it does feature a very cool (if brief) passage where the vocals and guitars drop out entirely to leave only the groove and some subtle string noise. The EP's strongest piece is the jangling bittersweet cowpunk of "Lady Thimble," as Quinnisa's vocals are at their most soulful and melodic. Quinnisa's vocals also elevate the simmering and somnambulant-sounding "Lost in the Woods," as they are beautifully layered and harmonized. I also appreciated the fact that it opened with a cryptic sample of a voice (possibly Quinnisa's) saying "I'm lost…in the dark…of the woods," as it injects a small bit of eerie weirdness into the proceedings (a thread that is picked up again for the piano motif in the song's brief fadeout). For the most part, however, Florida Man keep the strangeness and psychedelia to an absolute minimum. In some ways, that means that this EP sounds exactly like three teenagers jamming in a garage: simple song structures, simple riffs, plenty of sincerity and no added polish or self-conscious artiness. On another level, however, this EP is way better than I ever would have expected, as this trio are unusually good songwriters and they seem to intuitively "get it" on a level that most considerably older and more experienced garage bands do not. This project is definitely off to a great start. Hopefully future Florida Man releases allow more some eccentricities to bleed into their songs, but they are already at a place where they seemingly have no problem nimbly dodging wrong moves or clumsy indulgences, which is far more than I could have said about myself at the same age.

Samples can be found here.

  1214 Hits

Vanishing Twin, "Ookii Gekkou"

cover imageI was inexplicably late to the party on this wonderful London quartet, as the presence of drummer Valentina Magaletti is almost always a reliable indicator that something compelling is happening and that is especially true of this project. Fortunately, I realized my mistake when I chanced upon their 2019 single "Magician's Success" and its delightfully surreal video, which scratched exactly the same itch as all my favorite Broadcast and Stereolab songs (two acts that Vanishing Twin is probably damned to be compared to forever). While I would admittedly be thrilled if Vanishing Twin simply picked up where those two other brilliant bands left off, their actual influences are considerably more wide-ranging and endlessly mutating (Morricone, Sun Ra, Martin Denny, and Alice Coltrane are just a few of the band's explicit inspirations this time around). That said, the album does kick off with yet another excellent and welcome single in the vein of prime Stereolab (the title piece), yet the foursome also achieve a similar degree of success elsewhere with more disco- and swinging '60s film soundtrack-inspired fare. For the most part, I look to Vanishing Twin primarily for great singles at this point and Ookii Gekkou includes at least three of those, so I consider it a success. The rest of the album occasionally verges on being too smoothly poppy for my taste, but the omnipresent virtuosic rhythm section of Magaletti and bassist Susumu Mukai goes a long way towards keeping the album groovy and fun enough to keep me interested regardless.

Fire

The lead-off "Big Moonlight (Ookii Gekkou)" certainly kicks the album off on an extremely strong note, as it feels like an arty and pleasantly lilting throwback to classic French pop. That is admittedly quite close to Stereolab territory, but Vanishing Twin put their own distinctive twist on that stylistic terrain, as their grooves are much more muscular and pared down than typical ‘Lab fare. There are also some nice surreal touches like a twangy surf/spy movie guitar motif, a twinkling xylophone theme, and a great flute hook to further flesh out Cathy Lucas's sensuously sing-song vocal melody. The overall feel is akin to a haunted and seductive trip down an Alice in Wonderland-style rabbit hole of breezy psychedelia. Similarly excellent is the simmering and funky disco vamp of "Phase One Million," which is essentially just a killer groove with a neat cowbell stutter (and that is absolutely all it needs). Later on, the album's third and arguably final great single materializes in the form of "In Cucina," which boasts a great rolling groove with plenty of percussion flourishes. It feels like a kindred spirit to "The Snake" from Tomaga's Intimate Immensity, approximating an aesthetic best described as "climactic scene from a '60s spy movie that features a wild dance party at a Moroccan brothel." The remaining pieces are a mixed bag of sorts, but not from lack of inspiration: Vanishing Twin's muse just tends to lead them into some very bizarre and highly specific stylistic niches that are sometimes not my thing. For example, "Zuum" sounds like Silver Apples teamed up with The Fifth Dimension for a spacey rock opera, while "The Organism" feels like a darkly lysergic horror film in which the protagonist is stalked by an infernally possessed marimba or xylophone. Some of those divergent paths do hold some allure for me (the post-punk/motorik groove-fest "Tub Erupt"), while some others simply do not ("The Lift" feels like a Swing Out Sister song interrupted by a jabbering robot). Obviously, I wish I loved every single song on Ookii Gekkou, but I do genuinely love Vanishing Twin, as they are consistently ingenious in both assimilating new influences and crafting killer uncluttered arrangements. When this band hits the mark, they can seem downright untouchable, so I do not mind sifting through a handful of misfires to find a couple of gems that will no doubt remain in my heavy rotation for years.

Samples can be found here.

  1101 Hits

Mary Lattimore, "Collected Pieces II"

cover imageI believe I first started to become beguiled with Mary Lattimore's work with the release of 2016's At the Dam, but the following year's Collected Pieces definitely deepened my interest further, as it featured at least two stone-cold instant classics (and the rest of it consistently flirted with similar levels of greatness). While that first collection sets the bar intimidatingly high for this second cassette of unreleased songs, digital-only Bandcamp singles, and other stray pieces, Lattimore tends to be admirably discriminating in what she chooses to release and she has been on a bit of a compositional hot streak over the last couple years. Needless to say, there is plenty to enjoy here. As a whole, this second volume is probably a bit less uniformly strong than its predecessor, but it too contains a few pieces that most Lattimore fans will consider essential. Moreover, a couple of them are not included on the Collected Pieces: 2015‚Äã-‚Äã2020 double LP slated for release in January. As such, only casual Lattimore fans can safely pass up this stand-alone collection, as serious harp-heads will probably not want to deny themselves the pleasures of "Sleeping Deer" and "Princess Nicotine."

Ghostly International

There a few things that one can reliably expect from a new Mary Lattimore album: plenty of tenderly beautiful melodies, lightness of touch, and an intuitive genius for dynamics. Consequently, even the lesser pieces on Collected Pieces II are quite good, but the reason I absolutely need to hear everything that Lattimore releases is that she occasionally reaches heights of inspiration that transcend the fundamental limitations of a harp album altogether and I do not want to miss any of those moments. Some of those moments are a more radical departure than others though and one of the less radical ones is the album's lead single "We Wave From Our Boats," which dates from the earliest days of the pandemic (Lattimore found herself waving to neighbors she did not know "in a gesture of solidarity" akin to "how you're compelled to wave at people on the other boat when you're on a boat yourself"). Apparently, it was an improvisation, but the delicate, bittersweet melody is wonderful and I love the way the flutes add a bleary haze of unreality that slowly burns away to reveal a warm, sun-dappled crescendo. "For Scott Kelly, Returned to Earth" is another winning foray into expected Lattimore terrain, as layers of rippling, sweeping, and pulsing arpeggios cohere into a vibrant and twinkling web of sublime loveliness. Both pieces are wonderful, of course, but I am especially fond of two comparative outliers that found their way onto the album. The first is the previously unreleased "Sleeping Deer," which was inspired by an orphaned deer (Lollipop) that Lattimore befriended during a residency on a Wyoming cattle ranch. Despite its adorable inspiration, it is probably the darkest piece on the album, as its tender, sadness-tinged melody is enhanced with stammering effects, backwards snarls, and pitch-bending bass drones. The other surprise gem is the textural tour de force of "What the Living Do," as a simple repeating melody is processed into something glimmering and spectral that calls to mind ghosts slowly dancing in the light of a stained glass window. The album is rounded out with a pair of pieces inspired by silent films (always nice to see a Bill Morrison reference), an unexpectedly radiant breakup song, a home-recorded version of Silver Ladders' "Pine Trees," and a 13-minute epic about "a Charlie Chaplin-like character who lost their glasses." Overall, it is yet another strong batch of songs from Lattimore, reaffirming that her home recordings can be every bit as transfixing as her studio ones (even if she leaves her effects pedals largely untouched).

Samples can be found here.

  1103 Hits

KILN, "Tungsten"

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I have been vaguely aware of this unusual and beloved midwestern IDM/post-rock trio for years, but figured they were probably too conventionally likable for my taste. As it turns out, I was only half-right: KILN are indeed quite fond of straightforward mid-tempo grooves and lovely melodies, but they masterfully balance those poppier tendencies with quite a lot of inspired textural layering and other experimentally minded enhancements. I guess the lesson here is that some great projects have a brilliant vision, but there are also some equally great ones that simply excel in the execution of a more modest vision. KILN are mostly the latter and they are often quite brilliant at what they do, which is why their 2020 return after a seven-year hiatus was greeted with so much enthusiasm despite working in stylistic realm that is no longer particularly in vogue. This latest release is "a digital-only adjunct EP" of pieces recorded at the same time as last year's Astral Welder that "weave syncopated patterns into immersive environments of lost memory and electrified nowness." I was very surprised to learn that Tungsten is arguably comprised of pieces that did not make the cut for the band's triumphant return full-length, as there are some killer songs here that would unquestionably improve just about any album that they landed on. Maybe these songs just needed a bit more tweaking before they were ready to be unveiled. In any case, I hereby decree that 2021 is the year of electrified nowness and that I am now an enthusiastic KILN fan.

Ghostly International

The opening "Drala Ultra" shares a lot of common ground with great dub-techno, as it prominently features some warm and stammering synth swells, but the other elements of the piece (gurgling bass and a slow-motion breakbeat) are considerably more muscular and in-your-face than anything I would expect from a classic Chain Reaction album. While it is certainly an enjoyable piece, it is instantly eclipsed by the following "North Bar Lake," which gorgeously brings together a swirl of sun-dappled pedal steel melodies with dreamily fluttering flutes and a great shuffling groove. It strikes an absolutely sublime balance of gentle swaying psychedelia, strong hooks, crunching physicality, and propulsive forward motion with nary a misstep in sight. The trio also display real knack for more intuitive touches like deftly manipulating dynamics and avoiding any needless clutter, which is a set of skills that can be a rarity outside the realm of top-tier techno and hip-hop producers. Remarkably, KILN somehow manage to pack this modest six-song release with at least two other gems that scale similar heights. The most immediately gratifying of the two is "Argon Pedestrian," which feels like a rubbery, blurting, and lurchingly funky strain of futuristic fusion enhanced with skittering cymbals and a host of subtly hallucinatory touches. It took me a bit longer to warm to simmering and weirdly anthemic-feeling "Bvlb," but the gurgling groove steadily intensifies to a wonderfully stilted, slow-motion funkiness that is hard to resist. As for the remaining pieces, their only flaw is that they are merely less substantial. Aside from a few notable exceptions like People Like Us, there are not a lot of artists that can reliably balance fun, catchiness, and psych-damaged experimentation in a winning way, so it is welcome and refreshing to discover that this threesome is out to help fill that yawning void in such expert fashion. This is a wonderful EP.

Samples can be found here.

  1280 Hits

Catherine Graindorge, "Eldorado"

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This second solo album from Belgian violinist/composer/actress is my first encounter with her work, but it seems like she has been releasing compelling music for quite some time (she has collaborated with ex-Bad Seed Hugo Race, composed film scores, and also plays in a trio called Nile On waX, among other things). Notably, Graindorge's excellent solo debut (The Secret of Us All) was released nearly a decade ago, as the road to Eldorado turned out to be unexpectedly long and prone to extended detours (several of which ultimately shaped this album's more personal direction). One of those course-changing events was the passing of Graindorge's father in 2015 (inspiring her to compose a play about his life), but Eldorado was also shaped by the story of her father's Rwandan friend (Rosalie), Graindorge's own experience hosting Eritrean migrants, and the harmonium performances that she and her daughters gave in nursing home gardens during Belgium's lockdown. Also of note: Eldorado is the first album that Graindorge was able to record with her friend (and longtime PJ Harvey producer) John Parish, who plays several instruments on the album. Now that all the stars are finally in alignment, I can confirm that Eldorado was probably worth the wait, as it is a unique, freewheeling, and oft-gorgeous album, at times feeling like the spiritual descendant of the sophisticated art pop of artists like David Sylvian.

Glitterbeat/Tak:til

For an album that is ostensibly by a violinist (and violist), Eldorado is considerably more stylistically elusive than I would have expected. The darkly psychedelic and elegiac opener "Rosalie" makes for a very impressive (if deceptive) introduction though, as woozily submerged-sounding backwards vocals provide the backdrop for a sad and beautiful violin melody. The following "Lockdown" continues in a similarly hallucinatory and meditative direction, but eschews vocals in favor of minimalist harmonium drones enhanced by slow-motion waves of hazily pulsing violins. And then all hell breaks loose, as the title piece sounds like a chugging, dual-guitar passage from a killer Expo '70 jam (there is even crashing cymbals, rolling toms, and some absolutely feral-sounding violin shredding). In its final two minutes, however, "Eldorado" dissolves into a lovely passage of spoken word (in French) and shimmering ambiance. If it were not for that sublime coda, I probably would have gotten whiplash a second time from the transition into "Ghost Train," as Graindorge unexpectedly materializes as a darkly sensual (and darkly psychedelic) cabaret chanteuse. It is the album's strongest piece by a landslide and it only gets better as it unfolds, blossoming into something resembling a churning and howling tango of the damned. Lamentably, Graindorge is done with singing for the remainder of the album, but there is still one more major highlight to come, as "Butterfly In A Frame" is a roiling and intense soundscape that builds to a demonically volcanic finale of snarling and squealing strings. The closing "Eno" is another noteworthy piece, albeit one with dramatically dialed down intensity, as Parish contributes a quietly lovely, blues-tinged guitar solo over some warm, Eno-style ambiance (though Graindorge spices things up near the end with some sharper textures). The album is rounded out with one more solid drone piece ("Kangaroos in Fire") and a couple of shorter compositions and all of it is strong. Not as strong as "Ghost Train" or "Butterfly," mind you, but Eldorado is nevertheless quite a compelling (and oft-intense) whole. And a very pleasant surprise too, as there are not many classical-adjacent artists who can combine beautiful melodies, fiery intensity, and convincing psych touches as seamlessly and confidently as Graindorge does here.

Samples can be found here.

  1241 Hits