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MJ Guider, "Sour Cherry Bell"

Cover of MJ Guider - Sour Cherry BellThe third release from musician and DJ Melissa Guion was recorded largely in her home, with only limited studio time, and is truly a step forward from her earlier releases. Where 2018’s Precious Systems had heavy emphasis on ethereal moodiness, Sour Cherry Bell delivers a bigger punch, one that is more forceful and up-front — raw power. The release is filled with dark synthesizers and demanding drum machines, balanced by airy, angelic vocals and atmospheric soundscapes for a moody and dreamy effect that suggests movement: mental, emotional, and physical. This quickly became a 2020 album of the year for me.

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10119 Hits

Ike Yard, "Night After Night"

cover imageSuperior Viaduct's Ike Yard reissue campaign continues (and presumably ends) with this, the band's woefully underheard debut EP. Night After Night was recorded shortly after the band formed and was originally released on Belgium's Les Disques Du Crépuscule back in 1981. It has never been reissued before now, which means that it was never actually available domestically (except as an import) during Ike Yard's brief initial lifespan. That is unfortunate, as it is objectively one of the better releases to emerge from NYC's No Wave scene, even if it was completely eclipsed by Ike Yard's classic full-length a year later. The difference between the two releases is quite an interesting and significant one, as Night After Night feels like the work of an actual human band with recognizable instruments rather than an audacious feat of stark, alienating production. On one level, the transformation between the two releases calls to mind pre-Martin Hannett Warsaw versus the iconic post-Hannett Joy Division, but the aesthetic itself is closer to a Public Image Ltd. homage by people who thought Jah Wobble and Keith Levene's parts were the only bits worth saving.

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6070 Hits

Téléplasmiste, "To Kiss Earth Goodbye"

cover imageIt has been three years since this eclectic duo last released a proper full-length, though they have released a few fitfully intriguing cassettes in the interim. While I enjoyed the looser, more abstract side of the project showcased on last year's Science Religion, it did not quite build upon the incredible promise of Frequency is the New Ecstasy's incredible "Astodaan." That particular piece suggested that Téléplasmiste might someday deserve their own place in the illustrious Coil/Cyclobe continuum of heavy, occult-tinged, post-industrial psychedelia, though neither Mark Pilkington or Michael J. York are exactly starving for underground cred (Pilkington runs Strange Attractor Press and York was briefly a touring member of Coil). The twist is that the two artists make for a pair every bit as curious and improbable as Golden Retriever, as York's expertise in bagpipes and other wind instruments is hardly common as a guiding force in the post-industrial milieu and Pilkington is not exactly a conventional musician himself. In the context of Téléplasmiste, however, the pair tend to focus on combining heady synth drones and eerie, ritualistic pipes to evoke something akin to a portal to an altered state of consciousness. Occasionally their more bubbly kosmische side rubs me the wrong way, but the lion's share of this album is both wonderful and mesmerizing.

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17526 Hits

X, "Alphabetland"

Cover of X - AlphabetlandSince 2016, I maintained there would be the advent of a new mantra: "Make Music Great Again." Sometimes the reference became more specific, replaced with Punk or Deathrock depending on my mood, but the message remained the same: the impetus for music with a message would be opened. We’ve seen legends returning to take advantage of the era to release new work, so there was a mix of both surprise and lack thereof when, completely unannounced, legendary punk band X dropped ALPHABETLAND, their first studio release in 27 years (and the first with their original line-up in the past 35 years) to coincide with the 40th anniversary of their classic 1980 debut Los Angeles. A fresh blast from the past that looks to the future, X come racing out of the gate with the same ferociousness and insistent melody of any of their classics.

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6231 Hits

Pisaura, "Asteraceae"

cover image A collaborative project between guitarist/composer Michael Pisaro-Lu and Zizia (the duo of Amber Wolfe Rounds and Jarrod Fowler), Pisaura has debuted with quite a complex album, both conceptually and compositionally. Constructed from field recordings and found sounds and composition strategies guided by astrological maps, it is a dense and intricate work from a conceptual standpoint, but also a fascinating one that has secrets that are never fully revealed.

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6322 Hits

Vladislav Delay/Sly Dunbar/Robbie Shakespeare, "500-Push-Up"

cover imageThis unusual and inspired collaboration between a Finnish experimentalist and one of Jamaican music's most iconic rhythm sections has its roots in an even more unlikely previous pairing: 2018's Nordub album on the venerable OKeh label. On that album, Sasu Ripatti's role was primarily that of a producer for a melodic and accessible jazz/dub hybrid, but the very different 500-Push-Up documents the far more cacophonous and freewheeling side of their collaboration that resulted from Ripatti's move into the driver's seat. Moreover, this second reunion occurred at a particularly interesting time, as Vladislav Delay's harsher recent work is light years away from Ripatti's heyday as a dub techno producer. While I am sure that a version of this album featuring the Vladislav Delay of the early 2000s would have been absolutely wonderful as well, the less disparate aesthetics of the participants would have likely led towards considerably more familiar territory than this one does, so maybe it is for the best that this union did not occur until now. At its best, 500-Push-Up sounds almost like it is carving out an new genre that blurs the lines between hip-hop beat tapes, fluid reggae bass lines, and hallucinatory electronic chaos.

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5779 Hits

Attilio Novellino, "Strängar"

cover imageThis Italian composer’s latest full-length is quite a significant departure from the aesthetic of 2018's inventively shape-shifting A Conscious Effort, as Novellino decided to head in an entirely non-conceptual direction (he correctly believes that abstract music too frequently has hidden meaning and significance projected onto it in order to lure in both listeners and acclaim). In keeping with that theme, the album's prosaic title translates simply as "strings." That title is certainly apt, as sounds conjured from strings are indeed the heart of the album's aesthetic, but it is also a bit of an amusingly misleading understatement: Strängar is not an orchestral album, but is instead largely a celebration of the many vivid and visceral sounds that one can produce from an inventively misused piano. It is also much more than that though, as Novellino's cavalcade of scrapes, dissonantly jangling metal strings, and assorted percussive sounds intriguingly bleeds in and out of a very different vision of spacey, hallucinatory synth motifs. Admittedly, that sounds like a potentially unwieldy marriage on paper, but Novellino executes it beautifully to achieve a compelling and unique blurring of the boundaries between disparate worlds.

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6050 Hits

Belbury Poly, "The Gone Away"

cover imageI have to admit that I have always been somewhat confounded by stated The Ghost Box aesthetic of "artists exploring the misremembered musical history of a parallel world," as I have little nostalgia for hazily remembered '60s and '70s children’s television and a limited passion for the vintage sci-fi sounds of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In short, I had insufficient whimsy in my heart to properly appreciate anything that sounds like a retro-futurist alternate soundtrack for The Wicker Man. After fully immersing myself in this latest fairy-themed opus from label co-founder Jim Jupp, however, I am beginning to see the unique appeal of the willfully anachronistic collective. I am not sure if the changing world or my changing self ultimately led me to this point, but the idea of spending some time in a kitschy fever dream evocation of a cheaply constructed puppet world suddenly seems extremely appealing to me. Granted, The Gone Away still rubs me the wrong way during its more "vintage lounge music" moments, but it nevertheless feels both good and pure that Jupp is so single-mindedly focused on extracting genuine pathos from our weird, dated, and ostensibly ridiculous cultural memories.

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5941 Hits

Brothertiger, "Paradise Lost"

Cover of Brothertiger - Paradise LostI was having a conversation with someone the other evening about what defines "pop" music, and if it can be considered good music. This is a loaded question since there are many varieties of music that could potentially fall into a pop category; the term means many different things, carrying both positive and negative connotations. As this isn’t meant to be an essay arguing the definition, let me simply say this: I enjoy what moves me. There exists simple, straightforward music which has the power to reel me in, winning me over with charming, catchy melodies, making my heart soar. With his sincere delivery, dreamy heartfelt melodies, eighties pop sensibilities and impressive vocal range, the talented John Jagos won me over as Brothertiger on his latest, Paradise Lost.

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6430 Hits

Staraya Derevnya, "Inwards opened the floor."

Cover of Inward opened the floor by Staraya DerevnyaA truly multinational project, Staraya Derevnya is a collaboration of artists, poets and musicians across Israel, London and New York, released on independent record label Raash Records out of Jerusalem. The lyrics are sung, screamed, and chanted in a combination of Russian merged with a made-up language, with only the track titles — derived from a line of each song — translated to English. Knowing Russian is not required to be transported into a journey of epic aural proportions.

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7899 Hits

Secret Pyramid, "Embers"

Cover of Secret Pyramid, Embers Embers: the smoldering or glowing remains of a fire. Something fading, but still capable of pain when touched. The transition of a bright flame being extinguished into darkness, mirroring the cycle of day into night. Vancouver-based composer Amir Abbey is Secret Pyramid, creating his transcendental neo-classical dreamworks at night, giving light to meditative sonic works that sound at home in a cathedral, offering sonorousness of awe and sorrow echoing majestically through vast space and settling in the soul. Abbey’s latest, Embers, works magic in these ways, offering a "less is more" approach creating the aural equivalent of wide open spaces filled with tranquillity and ephemerality.

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5987 Hits

Ike Yard

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Originally released back in 1982 on Factory America, Ike Yard's debut full-length has been one of those rare records which rightfully lingers in the cultural consciousness as a very cool influence to reference, yet somehow remains perplexingly underheard. That is a damn shame and I hope this latest reissue from Superior Viaduct wakes some more people up to Ike Yard's incredibly forward-thinking moment of white-hot inspiration, as these NYC No Wavers deserve to be every bit as revered as their similarly out-of-step peers Suicide. Granted, Suicide definitely wrote better songs than Ike Yard, but Ike Yard were on an entirely different trip altogether and their aesthetic has aged beautifully in the ensuing four decades. In fact, if some Brooklyn band released this exact album today, I am positive that it would be all over "Best of 2020" lists and it would not be because of retro nostalgia: Ike Yard perfected their strain of tough yet arty minimalism so spectacularly that it still feels cutting edge today. Obviously, shades of this foursome's stark, bass-driven grooves can be found all over the darker, heavier side of contemporary techno, but that is not why this album deserves to be heard: it deserves to be heard because it still holds up as an absolutely killer album today.

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7095 Hits

Arvo Pärt, "Works for Choir"

cover imageMuch like everyone else with a deep interest in experimental music, I have spent a good amount of time exploring the more avant-garde side of 20th century classical music. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is admittedly not an artist who fits particularly comfortably in that milieu, as he took a far more unique and anachronistic path than most of his peers and embraced Gregorian chants and simple melodicism rather than dissonance, conceptual art, complicated harmonies, electronics, or Eastern drones. That path has rightfully made him one of the most frequently performed contemporary composers, but his work did not make a deep impact on me until I heard the sublime "Spiegel im Spiegel" in Gus van Zant's similarly sublime Gerry. After that revelatory experience, I immediately dove headlong into Pärt's classic ECM albums and they have been a fixture in my life ever since, but I was completely unaware of this album (originally released on the German label Beaux in 2001). Now that it has been reissued, I can see why these pieces did not initially make the same cultural impact as some of Pärt's other work, but I can also see why they eventually found an audience regardless: Works for Choir feels like a dispatch from an alternate timeline in which Bach was never shouldered aside by folks like Schoenberg and Stravinsky and simple beauty never fell out of favor.

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6025 Hits

Section 25, "Always Now" (Factory Benelux reissue 2019)

Always Now 5-disc setSection 25 epitomize an uneasy classification of "post-punk," combining raw electronics, cast over with early shadows of gothic rock despair, and blended with a healthy dose of stark krautrock and sometimes even *gasp* danceable rhythms, fronted by tuneless, disaffected vocals. This formula has served countless experimental bands well that followed into today. This gorgeous 5 disc vinyl (or 2 CD) set of Always Now from Factory Benelux allows listeners old and new to dig deeper into the musical expanse of early Section 25.

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6091 Hits

FACS, "Void Moments"

Cover of Void MomentsFACS, spawned from the ashes of Chicago’s Disappears, display a certain homage to early Public Image Limited paired with a reverence to Fugazi on their latest album, but visualize a version of both, pressed through a sieve of muted sonics and disaffected resignation. Void Moments finds FACS’ musical sound experimentation greatly expanded beyond their prior output. With a finely crafted blend of bleak minimalism, dark noise, and energizing rhythms, this work takes all the energy of recent experiments, honing the melodies into a deeper, darker, and richer menace of beauty and power.

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5656 Hits

Al Karpenter, "If We Can't Dream, They Won't Sleep!!"

cover image Al Karpenter’s debut album is one of those that feels perfectly aligned with the present day. With performers hailing from the Basque region of Spain, Japan, and Berlin, the entire world’s state of disarray is fully represented in the broken electronics, erratic garage rock, and full on unhinged punk styles. It is entirely unpredictable: a massively disparate backing band supporting Karpenter’s erratic, rambling vocal style that is a ceaseless mix of frustration, paranoia, and anger, but it all makes sense and—while it may not be a casual experience—it is a gripping one.

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6632 Hits

Less Bells, "Solifuge"

Cover of Solifuge

All music has varying levels of emotional intensity, but some music is made just for this purpose. Hence the debut from Less Bells, the ethereal project of violinist/composer Julie Carpenter. Inspired by the desert sparseness of Joshua Tree, Solifuge — a word derived from "Solitude" and "Refuge" — is a lush neoclassical work crafted with a wide array of both electronic and acoustic instruments, resulting in an ambient journey that is unexpectedly not as meditative as the description suggests.

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5899 Hits

Six Organs of Admittance, "Companion Rises"

Cover of Companion Rises

When I first encountered Six Organs of Admittance some time in the early '00s, the bits and pieces I heard were scattered across different college stations, smothered by a popular glut of what I categorize—unfairly or not—"folk hipster wannabes." Consequently, the work Ben Chasny was doing became lost on me, choosing to turn my attention instead to more experimental drone and krautrock, two genres I viewed as mutually exclusive from folk. I had long been into psychedelic rock in the vein of Jefferson Airplane, but it wasn’t until I ventured into English folk like Pentangle and Fairport Convention in the '10s that I was pushed towards the psychedelic folk leanings of Roy Harper, John Fahey, and Sandy Bull. From there, it was easy to fall into a rabbit hole of amazing fingerpick guitarists, but the field of guitarists taking it deep into experimental sonic territory was sparse at best.

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5855 Hits

Drift., "Symbiosis"

cover imageThis is the debut full-length for Nathalie Bruno’s electronic pop project and it is quite a bombshell, unveiling a far more avant-garde and experimental approach than was evidenced on her previous EPs. That reinvention was triggered by a fateful thrift store find (Klaus Schwab’s The Fourth Industrial Revolution) that inspired a deep fascination with both '70s NYC and German experimentalists and bands like Broadcast. Historically, I have found that a lot of kosmische-inspired contemporary music is wince-inducingly bad, cloyingly beatific, or both, yet Bruno proves to be the rare exception who is able to channel that influence into a fresh and inspired vision all her own. The secret, of course, is avoiding the "revivalist" trap and merely filtering all the good bits into your own distinctive aesthetic, but that is far easier said than done. While Bruno's vision admittedly errs a bit towards homage on some of Symbiosis's instrumental interludes, the more fully formed songs like "Atomic Soldier" strike an absolutely sublime balance between expert pop craftsmanship, ragged edges, and spacey, futuristic gravitas.  This is a truly exceptional album, as I can think of very few artists are able to blend great hooks and smoldering, understated psychedelia together as seamlessly as Bruno.

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6236 Hits

Alva Noto, "Xerrox, Vol. 4"

cover imageThis latest volume of Carsten Nicolai's planned five-part series devoted to degraded samples is a bit different from previous installments, as the Xerrox vision has become a more focused and cinematic one. In Nicolai's own words, this series has increasingly been devoted to exploring more "intimate gestures and emotional sensibilities" than the meticulous sound design perfectionism and concept-driven art that he is best known for. In practical terms, that means that Xerrox, Vol. 4 mostly captures Alva Noto in comparatively abstract and almost "ambient" territory, as these fourteen songs are uncharacteristically built from slow-moving drones and sleepy, soft-focus melodies. For the most part, such an approach is appealing primarily because it reveals a more organic and harmony-focused side to Nicolai's long-running and oft-excellent project (as opposed to an evolution or improvement upon his usual fare). As such, Xerrox, Vol. 4 is a definite outlier in the Alva Noto discography. In the case of few pieces, however, a more gnarled and dissonant character unexpectedly emerges that feels like a tantalizing glimpse of a significant creative breakthrough.

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5679 Hits