Midwife, "Prayer Hands" EP

cover imageRecorded during the turbulent period following the closure of beloved Denver DIY space Rhinoceropolis, Prayer Hands takes the hazy, melancholy dream-pop beauty of Like Author, Like Daughter and distills it into a gut-punch of simmering and seething emotion. While the swooning, elegantly blurred pop of "Angel" is probably the release's biggest hook, Madeline Johnston and collaborator Tucker Theodore gamely expand the Midwife aesthetic in some more visceral and experimental directions as well. The result is a near-perfect release that features three gorgeously haunting gems of hissing and hypnagogic shoegaze heaven in a row.

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Louise Landes Levi, "IKIRU or The Wanderer"

cover imageThis unique album quietly surfaced back in April, but it is one of 2018's most wonderfully unexpected releases, as it is the first of Landes Levi's recordings to ever be made widely available. Although she has amassed a small cult following through her releases on Belgium's Sloow Tapes, Landes Levi has largely remained an obscure figure in music circles, rarely recording and jokingly describing herself in a recent Wire interview as a "street musician made good." It would be more apt to describe her as reluctant drone royalty, however, as she co-founded The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company in the '60s, an ensemble that also included folks like Terry Riley and Angus MacLise. She also studied with La Monte Young and an improbable host of legendary Indian musicians over the years. On IKIRU, Landes Levi is joined by luminaries of a different sort, as her haunting sarangi melodies are backed by Belgian underground veterans Bart de Paepe and Timo von Luijk. IKIRU would have certainly been a mournfully lovely album with just Landes Levi's unadorned sarangi playing, but her sympathetic collaborators take her viscerally elegiac vision into wonderfully ritualistic and hallucinatory deep-psych territory.

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Zu93, "Mirror Emperor"

cover imageThe inimitable David Tibet returns to House of Mythology for a second inspired collaboration, this time teaming up with shape-shifting Italian ensemble Zu. Unlike his more spacey and indulgent union with Youth, however, Mirror Emperor feels very much like a Current 93 album. That similarity is not due to any lack of vision on Zu's part though, as this album is very much driven by a David Tibet in peak wild-eyed, apocalyptic prophet form: Mirror Emperor is essentially a fiery, hallucinatory, and poetic tour de force that drags Zu down a deep rabbit hole in the UnWorld on the other side of the mirror. As such, Mirror Emperor is a dazzling and compelling album primarily because Tibet had a vivid vision that he breathlessly shares with an incandescent passion. The music is often quite good as well, of course, but Mirror Emperor is more of a lysergic epic poem than a collection of discrete songs. That is just fine by me, as few things are more captivating than pure, undiluted Tibet with a microphone and some strong feelings to share.

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Black Spirituals, "Black Access/Black Axes"

cover imageAs the pairing of drummer/percussionist Marshall Trammell and Zachary James Watkins on guitars and electronics, Black Spirituals has had a short, but overwhelmingly brilliant run of experimental albums. Black Access/Black Axes represents the final release in this arrangement (Watkins will be continuing to use the name, however, but with different collaborators), and also a band at the their peak. Drawing from the worlds of noise, jazz, and rock—but never easily settling in to any of those more limiting genres—the album instead encompasses everything, and makes for one of the most multifaceted, and amazing, albums so far this year.

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Wolf Eyes, "Dread"

cover imageLaunching their Lower Floor imprint in 2017 has turned out to be one of the best ideas that Wolf Eyes have ever had, establishing a new outlet that thus far has a near-perfect track record of only releasing the band's strongest and most coherent material. This latest installment, a reissue of an early masterwork from the Aaron Dilloway years, continues that hot streak beautifully. Dread is a murderers' row of grimy, shambling, and ruined delights, featuring two absolute monster bookends with no filler or half-baked experiments in between. This album is broken, thuggish, and ugly in all the best ways–I cannot think of any other Wolf Eyes album quite as simultaneously focused and inspired as this one.

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Norman Westberg, "After Vacation"

cover imageThis is Westberg's first solo album as a non-Swan, an occasion he chose to celebrate by radically transforming his working methods: After Vacation abandons his characteristic single-take/no-overdubbing purist high-wire act for a far more expansive, composed, and produced aesthetic. The latter bit is especially significant, as Westberg credits producer Lawrence English as something of a collaborator and After Vacation quite fits comfortably among Room40's more ambient-drone releases. Admittedly, that approach dilutes Westberg's magic a bit, as his home-recorded releases are a bit more distinctive than this one. After Vacation is a fine release in its own right, however, as Westberg makes the most of his expanded palette, crafting a superb (if understated) headphone album that reveals vibrant layers of depth, nuance, and buried melody with attentive listening.

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Tim Hecker, "Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again"

cover imageNewly reissued on Kranky, Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again was Tim Hecker's remarkably fine debut album under his own name (he had previously been releasing techno as Jetone). Revisiting it now as a long-time Hecker fan, I find it still stands up as a great album, yet there is surprisingly little about it that presages the visionary career that would follow in its wake. At the time of their release, both Haunt Me (2001) and its follow-up (Radio Amor) merely felt like a couple of the better albums to emerge from a thriving generation of glitch-inspired, laptop-wielding artists centered roughly around Mille Plateaux. As such, Haunt Me was very much an album of its time, but that time was truly a golden age of experimental music: this debut was just one of many enduring gems from a period where it seemed like the flood of crucial albums from Fennesz, Colleen, Jim O'Rourke, Oval, Ryoji Ikeda, Alva Noto, and others was never going to end.

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Legendary Pink Dots, "Any Day Now"

cover imageFirst released on Play It Again Sam back in 1987 and newly reissued on Metropolis, Any Day Now is one of the jewels of The Legendary Pink Dots' '80s discography. Sadly, I was far too busy scouring Circus for Guns N' Roses news to notice it when it first surfaced and only started to delve into the Dots' catalog in the mid-'90s. As a result, Any Day Now was already 25 years old by the time I eventually heard it as part of the Dots' ambitious remastering campaign a few years back. In some respects, I suppose Any Day Now felt a bit dated in places when I finally heard it, but I was far more struck by how vibrant and fleshed-out the band sounded as a six-piece (the violin of Patrick Wright is especially delightful). I am hesitant to say that The Legendary Pink Dots once "rocked," but the full-band aesthetic of that era was certainly quite a different experience than the more distilled and Ka-Spel-centric fare of recent years. Both eras have their share of highlights, certainly, but Any Day Now captures The Legendary Pink Dots at their most lively, playful, and hook-minded, largely excising all of their most indulgent tendencies to craft an incredibly endearing suite of psych-pop gems. This is a legitimate classic.

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Novi_sad, "International Internal Catastrophes"

cover image The latest work by Thanasis Kaproulias, like 2016's Sirens, is the audio component of a larger, more multimedia focused piece of art. The other half, a film by Isaac Niemand, is not included this time around, however. These two distinct audio pieces are unified and based on field recordings in two very different locations, the first being the natural climate of Iceland, and the second from New York City. Even with the different sources, both pieces fit together wonderfully, with a harsher first half and a more pensive second.

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Mark Van Hoen, "Invisible Threads"

cover imageMark Van Hoen's latest album is the result of a series of live performances with other Touch luminaries, such as Simon Scott and Philip Jeck, that he participated in all throughout 2016. This experience manifests itself in a somewhat different than expected way on Invisible Threads, because this final result is purely a solo work. However, it was these previous collaborations and performances that lead to Van Hoen approaching the record from different perspectives and with a variety of instrumentation, resulting in a diverse, yet overall uniform sounding album.

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Abul Mogard, "Above All Dreams"

cover imageIt was quite an unexpected and delightful surprise to get a new Abul Mogard full-length, as the unprolific Serbian composer seems to only record one or two new pieces each year (ones that get released, anyway). Apparently, Above All Dreams took three years to make though, so I guess that fits with Mogard's extremely considered approach and rigorous quality control. Characteristically, Dreams is yet another absolutely wonderful release, but it is a bit of a departure from what I expected in some ways and it took me several listens to fully warm to it: Dreams feels more like an immersive, slow-burning epic than a batch of instantly gratifying individual highlights. As such, this release is probably not the ideal entry point to Mogard's vision for newcomers, but devotees will find a lot to love about these transcendent reveries, as this album packs a lot of quiet intensity once its depths are fully revealed.

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Marisa Anderson, "Cloud Corner"

cover imageMarisa Anderson has quietly been one of the most reliably excellent solo guitarists around for years, slowly amassing a fine discography of limited releases that occasionally get a well-deserved reissue. The handful that I have heard, however, do not quite capture the full extent of Anderson's powers, as it has historically been very easy to lump her in with the overcrowded post-Fahey milieu. On Cloud Corner, her Thrill Jockey debut and most high-profile release to date, she simultaneously celebrates and transcends her folk/blues origins, drawing in Spanish and Taureg influences and fleshing out her sound with a host of effects, added instrumentation, and overdubs. It is remarkable how much difference making full use of a studio can make: Anderson's virtuosity and gift for strong melodies remain as delightful as ever, but her work has never sounded quite this vibrant, varied, and evocative. Cloud Corner is definitely Anderson's finest release to date (and occasionally also the best album that Six Organs of Admittance never recorded).

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Alva Noto/Ryuichi Sakamoto, "Glass"

cover imageCarsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto have a fairly lengthy history of collaborations, but this is an especially fascinating (if brief) one: an improvised performance in Philip Johnson’s legendary Glass House that coincided with the opening of a Yayoi Kusama installation. A lot of the appeal unsurprisingly lies in the duo's process, as they used the house itself as an instrument, contact mic’ing the walls and rubbing them with rubber mallets. However, Glass is also quite beautiful as a pure listening experience, striking an absorbing balance between ghostly ambiance and a crystalline and glittering rain of slow-motion glass fragments.

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Will Long, "Long Trax 2"

cover image Unsurprisingly, Long Trax 2 sounds like a direct continuation of the first album Will Long (Celer) issued in 2016. Self-described as a "house" album, Long’s interpretation of the classic genre takes some liberties with expectations as far as the style goes.  Sure, the rhythms are there and the primary focus, but Long filters the standard facets of the style through his minimalist approach to sound he established in the ambient space of Celer, resulting in a meditative album that is far more calm than club friendly.

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Himukalt, "Knife Through the Spine"

cover image Ester Kärkkäinen’s 2016 debut as Himukalt, Conditions of Acrimony was an extremely impressive release that featured some excellently dark moments within ambiguous noise compositions. For her first vinyl album, Knife Through the Spine, she has fully embraced the early 1990s power electronic scene, creating a dark, disturbing, and at times extremely aggressive record that has a tighter, more specific focus in its sound. However, her unique take on the style, as well as her nuanced approach to creating music results in a fresh, unique release that sounds like no one else.

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Jemh Circs, "(untitled) Kingdom"

cover imageI still optimistically cling to the hope that Marc Richter will someday release another masterpiece in the vein 2009's Alphabet 1968 or 2014's Black to Comm, but his Jemh Circs project seems to be sticking around for the long haul and is proving to be quite an intriguing diversion in the meantime. Much like the first Jemh Circs album, (untitled) Kingdom is a deranged and fractured rabbit hole of cannibalized and re-purposed YouTube clips, though it feels like Richter has gone a bit deeper down that uniquely post-modern path this time around: this is very much a disorienting and lysergic playground of gleeful experimentation and deconstruction from start to finish. As such, much of (untitled) Kingdoms' appeal lies in its sheer otherworldly mindfuckery. However, the album's second half occasionally allows some unexpected vistas of alien beauty to break through Richter's stuttering and kaleidoscopic fever dream.

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Shumoto & The Byrde, "The Sea Will Carry Me"

cover image Shumoto & The Byrde, the duo of guitarists Austin Hatch and Jefferson Pitcher have collaborated before, but their shared connection with Pauline Oliveros, with Hatch being been a fan of her work, and Pitcher studied under her at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute helped to motivate this collaboration. With eight pieces spread across two records, all improvised live with a small amount of overdubbing when necessary, the duo have created a beautiful and fitting tribute to one of experimental music’s luminaries.

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Cam Deas, "Time Exercises"

cover imageI have been casually familiar with London-based guitarist Cam Deas for years through his many "post-Takoma" releases on Blackest Rainbow, but the Cam Deas of the past bears virtually no resemblance to the artist responsible for the visceral and deranged Time Exercises. Deas' campaign of radical reinvention appears to have begun sometime around 2011 with his Quadtych series and fully blossomed (or so I thought) with 2014's String Studies, in which his guitar became a mere trigger for squalls of atonal and spasmodic electronic chaos. With Time Exercises, Deas gamely ventures still further from his comfort zone, setting his guitar aside completely to focus on complex modular synth experiments. The album's prosaic/academic-sounding title is an amusingly huge and deceptive understatement though–a far more appropriate title would be "Nightmare Studies" or "Holy Fuck–What is This?!?," as Studies aesthetically resembles a cross between Rashad Becker's Notional Species and a seething pit of digitized snakes from a hellish alien dimension.

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Hellvete, "Droomharmonium"

cover imageThis sprawling double CD of extended harmonium performances was my first real exposure to the solo work of Sylvester Anfang II's Glen Steenkiste and it is quite a curious introduction. The closest kindred spirits are probably La Monte Young's "The Second Dream of the High Tension Line" or Stars of the Lid at their most pastoral, as Steenkiste devotes his energies to crafting deep, meditative drones that strain towards lightness and transcendence. Hellvete's work is not nearly as harmonically adventurous as the just intonation/Pandit Pran Nath-inspired milieu, but Steenkiste compensates somewhat with an unusual feel for time and a willingness to blur together music, ritual, and chance intrusions from the natural world. The less inspired passages tend to feel like sustained and halcyon suspended animation to me, yet Droomharmonium occasionally transforms into an entrancing bit of magic and wonder when Steenkiste is joined by some curious birds or the harmonium disappears to make way for some eerily twinkling bells.

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Datashock, "Kräuter der Provinz"

cover imageI have made a few sincere attempts to appreciate this shifting German collective over the years, but Datashock have proven to be a very hard act to wrap my head around. At times, they have seemed like an indulgent, improv-heavy pastiche of various seminal krautrock artists, yet they also have moments where it feels like they are actually the rightful heirs to the throne vacated by folks like Amon Düül II and Can. In fact, I suspect the latter would especially appreciate the perverse post-modern genius of Datashock being an ethnographic forgery of their own cultural heritage. I know I certainly do. In any case, this is the first Datashock release that has truly clicked for me. It is still uneven and exasperating at times, but such missteps are a rare exception and the second half of the album catches fire beautifully. While Datashock remain deeply and unapologetically in the thrall of the past, the best moments on Kräuter are inventive and inspired enough to transcend and surpass most of the bands they are hell-bent on channeling.

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