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Julia Sabra and Fadi Tabbal, "Snakeskin"

SnakeskinThis is the first full-length collaboration between Sabra and Tabbal, but it is apparently also the sixth collaborative release between Portland's Beacon Sound and Lebanon's Ruptured Records (which was co-founded by Tabbal). While Tabbal's solo work has been a very enjoyable recent discovery for me, this is my first encounter with Julia Sabra, who is normally one-third of the excellent Beirut-based dreampop trio Postcards. The pair do have a history of working together, as Tabbal has co-produced several Postcards releases, but their creative union only began to take shape in the aftermath of Beirut's massive 2020 port explosion (which destroyed Sabra's home, badly injured her partner/bandmate Pascal Semerdjian, and displaced a whopping 300,000 people). Unsurprisingly, one of the primary themes of Snakeskin is the precarious concept of "home" and the "the disappearance of life as we know it" in a volatile and oft-violent world. Those are admittedly more urgent themes in Tabbal and Sabra's neck of the woods than some others (the album was also inspired by the 2021 Palestinian and the invasion of Armenia), but loss and uncertainty eventually come for us all and they make a universally poignant emotional core for an album. And, of course, great art can sometimes emerge from deeply felt tragedies and Tabbal and Sabra are a match made in heaven for that challenge, as Julia's sensuous, floating vocals are the perfect complement to Tabbal's gnarled and heaving soundscapes.

Beacon Sound/Ruptured

The first piece that Sabra and Tabbal wrote together was "Roots," which surfaced last year on Ruptured's The Drone Sessions Vol. 1 compilation. That piece is reprised here as the sublimely beautiful closer, which was a great idea as it is one of the strongest songs on the album. However, it also illustrates how this collaboration has evolved and transformed, as "Roots" has the feel of a dreamy, bittersweet synth masterpiece nicely enhanced with hazy, sensuous vocals. Execution-wise, it is damn hard to top, but the duo's more recent work feels like a creative breakthrough that is greater than the sum of its parts. Put more simply, the pair previously merged their two styles in an expected way to great effect, but then they started organically blurring into a single shared style and the results turned into something more memorable and transcendent. The first major highlight is "All The Birds," which calls to mind a collision between the murky, submerged dub of loscil and what I imagine a bossa nova album by Julee Cruise might have sounded like. As cool as all that sounds, however, the reality is even better due to the muscular, snaking synth undercurrent and surprise snare-roll groove.

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661 Hits

Angelo Harmsworth, "Singe"

SingeI was a bit later to the Angelo Harmsworth party than I would have liked, but the Berlin-based American composer has been fitfully releasing very distinctive blown-out "ambient" albums for about a decade now on an array of hip and discriminating small labels (Opal Tapes, Vaagner, enmossed, Psychic Liberation, etc.). Harmsworth's latest is his first for Students of Decay and marks a rare vinyl outing, as most of his previous physical releases have been limited to cassette. According to the label, Singe "may be the high water mark" of Harmsworth's career to date, which does feel like a completely plausible claim, but one that is very hard to confidently echo given how many killer Harmsworth pieces already exist. Even if Singe fails to conclusively eclipse all of Harmsworth's past triumphs, however, it does seem to be one of his most consistently strong releases and an ideal starting point for the curious. Notably, describing Harmsworth's vision as "ambient" or even "power ambient" feels cruelly reductionist, which is probably why he amusingly titled a 2020 release Fully Automated Luxury Ambient. That imaginary subgenre feels much closer to the mark, as the intensity and textural inventiveness that Angelo brings to these compositions shares far more common ground with artists like Tim Hecker or Fennesz (or collapsing power lines during a live volcano) than it does with anyone trafficking in droning, meditative loops.

Students of Decay

Those craving the aforementioned "collapsing power lines" vibe will have a mercifully short wait, as the opening "Igniting the Periphery" calls to mind buzzing high tension wires swayed by a deep seismic shudder as the surrounding buildings collapse in slow motion. There are some other elements as well, like fragments of twinkling piano and warm waves of frayed drones, but the viscerally heaving, buzzing, and gnarled wreckage at the heart of the piece is the showstopper—everything else is just there to color the mood. That balance holds true for the rest of the album as well, as the Singe experience feels akin to wandering through six cataclysmic yet weirdly beautiful natural disasters. For example, the crackling and hissing "Frothed" evokes slow jets of magma breaking through a buckling, blasted landscape, while "Drip Motion" has the feel of a storm slowly forming and then slowly dissipating. In short, Harmsworth harnesses the proverbial "force of nature" and wields it beautifully. That said, "Drip Motion" is an album highlight for more conventionally musical reasons as well, as it resembles the burning and heaving wreckage of a killer Porter Ricks cut fading in and out of focus. "A Twofold Excess" then ends the album's first half with yet another gem, as it feels like slowed-down footage of a tornado ripping apart a sawmill before dissolving into a sublime coda of sputtering static, tender piano, and warbling, whimpering streaks of psychedelia.

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551 Hits

Lucrecia Dalt, "¡Ay!"

¡Ay!I was caught completely off guard by this latest opus from Dalt, as much of it sounds more like a three-way collaboration between Astrud Gilberto, Perez Prado, and Walter Wanderley than anything resembling the warped and stark electronic pop mutations that the Colombian composer has become synonymous with. After my initial disbelief subsided, however, I quickly decided that ¡Ay! may very well be the strongest album of Dalt's career to date. I suspect Dalt herself would probably agree, as it would be fair to say that her vision remains as compelling and innovative as ever, but she has merely kicked her self-imposed artistic restraints to the curb and embraced the warmer, more sensuous, and melodic sounds that she grew up around. Or, as the album description colorfully puts it, "through the spiraling tendencies of time and topography, Lucrecia has arrived where she began." In any case, the end result is a wonderfully sultry and evocative collection of seductive vocals and tropical rhythms beautifully enhanced with a host of psychotropic and industrial-damaged touches. And she somehow makes it sound like the most natural thing in the world. I definitely did not expect Dalt to secretly be a tropical pop genius at all, which makes her previous albums all the more fascinating now that I know that they were made while pointedly suppressing some of her greatest strengths.

RVNG Intl.

The opening "No Tiempo" initially evokes a "late-night cable" fever dream vibe in which a Bela Lugosi vampire movie blurs into an organ-happy televangelist, but it quickly transforms into swaying tropical bliss once the flutes and the lazily sultry groove make the scene. It has the feel of a Wanderley/Gilberto collaboration that has been punched up (and sexed up) for contemporary ears by an intrepid DJ (though I was still startled by the brass finale). It is a great piece, but it is immediately eclipsed by the following "El Galatzó," which masterfully combines hushed, confessional-sounding vocals with bass strums, trilling flutes, cooing backing vox, swelling strings, industrial scrapes, strangled feedback, and killer hand-percussion to cast a sustained spell of noir-ish, cinematic seduction. While "El Galatzó" would be my personal pick for the album's reigning highlight, the album is not hurting for other hot contenders for that honor. In "Contenida," for example, a hallucinatory fog and a jazzy double bass motif cohere into some kind of humid and dubby bossa nova mindfuck, which then beautifully erupts in a viscerally clattering metal percussion frenzy. If the whole album sustained a similarly perfect balance of ambitious dub/industrial production brilliance and sultry songcraft, I would have no hesitation at all about proclaiming ¡Ay! to be the album of the year.

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628 Hits

Raphael Loher, "Keemuun"

KeemuunThis may be Swiss pianist/composer Raphael Loher's first solo album, but he has crossed my path before with his Baumschule trio (featuring Julian Sartorius and Manuel Troller). I am much less familiar with Loher's other trio (KALI), but the importance is that he has spent time improvising with inspiring musicians and has accumulated some very intriguing compositional ideas along the way. Interestingly, Keemuun is itself a bit of an improvisatory collaboration with inspiring (if unwitting) musicians, as Loher often played along with albums by other artists while experimenting with his rapid-fire piano patterns (Beatrice Dillon's rhythmically adventurous Workaround was a particularly central touchstone). In fact, just about everything about this album's evolution feels like fertile grist for a "galaxy brain" meme: a prepared piano album…limited to only ten notes spanning two octaves…improvised against cutting edge techno rhythms…but with all of those foundational rhythms totally excised from the final recording. Needless to say, all of those factors make for a very cool album concept in theory, but I am pleased to report that Loher's brilliant execution has made this a killer album in reality as well.

three:four records

The album consists of four numbered pieces, the first of which is considerably more subdued and minimal than the others (and shorter too). To my ears, the opener lies somewhere between bleary Morton Feldman-style dissonance and a dying, slightly out-of-tune music box performing its own elegy. It makes a perfectly fine (if understated) introduction, but I doubt I would be writing about Keemuun if it did not catch fire with the second piece and sustain that white-hot level of inspiration for the remainder of the album.

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582 Hits

Cosey Fanni Tutti, "Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes"

Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary TapesWe seem to be in the midst of a long-overdue Delia Derbyshire renaissance at the moment due to the efforts of filmmaker Caroline Catz, Cosey Fanni Tutti, BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Mark Ayres, and others. Fittingly, this unusual and inspired album was commissioned back in 2018 as a score for Catz's similarly unconventional feature-length documentary. Sadly, it seems damn near impossible to see Catz's film at the moment (outside the UK, at least), but this soundtrack was released earlier this year to coincide with Cosey's own foray into telling Derbyshire's story (Re-Sisters: The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe and Cosey Fanni Tutti). The book, film, and album were all inspired by research into Derbyshire's archive and the voluminous recordings and writings that became available after the visionary electronic artist's passing in 2001. Apparently, copyright issues are preventing much of Derbyshire's unearthed work from seeing an official release (there are some great unofficial ones like Inventions For Radio/The Dreams out there), but this album is a compelling consolation prize: using Derbyshire's notes on her compositions and techniques, Cosey has achieved a sort of posthumous homage/collaboration in which her own aesthetic is co-mingled with Derbyshire's singular and groundbreaking techniques and sounds.

Conspiracy International

While Delia Derbyshire is far from a household name, it is something of a miracle that she ever managed to be revered at all, as her musical career only spanned 15 years and took place at a time when neither women nor electronic music were taken particularly seriously. On top of that, she also had an eccentric personality, a tendency towards alcoholism, and an employer (the BBC) who did not consider her work to be "music" enough for her to be credited as a composer. Fortunately, she was both motivated and fucking brilliant, so she still managed to make a profound impact on the evolution of music despite those incredibly long odds. And it did not hurt that she was responsible for the Doctor Who theme, which made a sizable cultural dent of its own. It is hard to say whether or not there would have been a Throbbing Gristle had Derbyshire and her Radiophonic Workshop colleagues not forced weird electronic music into the mainstream, but I do think Derbyshire might have traumatized the general populace to a Gristle-y degree in the early '60s if her gear had been more portable. Obviously, bloody-minded persistence in the face of disrespect and hostility is a relatable theme for Cosey as well, so it is hard to think of another artist who could be more naturally suited for a project such as this. In short, Catz needed appropriately "Derbyshire" music for her film, but there were very few usable Derbyshire recordings available. Introduce Cosey Fanni Tutti, who immersed herself in the archive's collection (267 reel-to-reel tapes found in cereal boxes, I believe) and Derbyshire's notes and set about casting a Delia-esque spell in her own way on her own gear (though Delia's actual voice does make some appearances). As an aside, this is not Cosey's first homage to Derbyshire, as Carter Tutti's "Coolicon" took its name and inspiration from a metal lampshade that Delia regularly used to make sounds.

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794 Hits

The Soft Pink Truth, "Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This?"

When I first heard the thumping house/disco EP Was It Ever Real?, I had a very hard time believing that it could possibly be a teaser for something more substantial, as much of that EP felt like top-tier Soft Pink Truth that leaves very little room for improvement. If those songs did not make the cut for the full-length, I felt the album surely had to be either absolutely brilliant or absolutely wrong-headed with no possible middle ground. As it turns out, I was at least right about the "little room for improvement" bit, as Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This? is not noticeably stronger than the preceding EP. Instead, it feels more like a lateral move, taking Drew Daniel's star-studded house party in a more kaleidoscopically arty and eccentric direction. Unsurprisingly, Deeper features roughly the same international cast of talented guests as the EP, but there are some noteworthy new additions as well, such as Nate Wooley, Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, and Jaime Stewart (Xiu Xiu). The result is a bit less "all killer, no filler" this time around, but the trade-off is that Deeper is an appropriately deeper and more immersive plunge into Daniel's psyche, touching upon everything from Barry White to George Bataille to krautrock while still managing to be functional, forward-thinking, and archly fun dance music.

Thrill Jockey

The album kicks off in style with its first certified banger, "Deeper," which deceptively fades in with bleary drones before launching into a straight up classic disco groove with all the requisite hand claps and funky guitars. There is enough subtle dissonance to give it a somewhat delirious and unreal feeling right from the jump, but things do not get truly art-damaged until an unexpected church bell passage subsides. While the groove remains unswervingly propulsive for a bit longer, the insistent sexy thump is increasingly mingled with generous helpings of kitschy string stabs, tropical-sounding guitars, hazy flutes, and a host of other inspired psych touches before it all dissolves into smeary abstraction. I suppose the extended running time and ambient comedown preclude "Deeper" from being a hot single, but several of the pieces that immediately follow gamely rekindle the dancefloor fire. "La Joie Devant La Mort" is one of the album's more "perverse pop moments," as Jaime Stewart sings a George Bataille line about being in search of joy before death over an endearingly weird groove that calls to mind Coil's Love's Secret Domain album colliding with "A Fifth of Beethoven" and a chorus of tiny frogs. Wasner then takes the mic for the breezily sensuous "Wanna Know," which milks the album title's question for all its worth over a groove that could have been plucked from a Love Unlimited Orchestra album. The following "Trocadero" then pays homage to the "sleaze" disco subgenre synonymous with the titular SF club before "Mood Swing" ends the first half with a killer slow-building disco fusion of spiritual jazz, gurgling psychedelia, and Reich-ian piano patterns.

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658 Hits

Darkroom, "Fallout 4"

Fallout 4This is my first encounter with this UK-based improv unit, but Fallout 4 is the latest installment of a series of live documents that began all the way back in 2001. The band/collective itself has existed since 1996, though it seems like there's been at least one decade-long hiatus and the ensemble's members have all been active in other projects ranging from prog to ambient to art pop (while Andrew Ostler has been busy building modular synth hardware, among other things). Notably, Darkroom has recently reactivated and released some new material, but the performance documented here dates back to 2012 and the aesthetic lies somewhere between slow-burning Tarentel-style post-rock and Tangerine Dream-inspired space ambient (though Can was apparently a significant inspiration as well). On a related note, the album was mastered by Jono Podmore, who played a significant role in yet another fine vault project (Can's The Lost Tapes). I suspect Podmore had a challenging task on his hands, as the band tellingly state that he was chosen both for "his ability to control sonic forces" and "to make sure it was finally done." While this album and the Fallout series in general capture the band in a more noirish and shadowy mood than usual, I can see why they were so keen to get these recordings out into the world even a decade late, as much of this album is spacey, slow-motion psych magic.

Expert Sleepers

At the time of the recording, Darkroom were pared down to just the core duo of Michael Bearpark (guitars) and Andrew Ostler (synths) and two of the album's three pieces are taken from the final date of the pair's 2012 tour. Amusingly, Bearpark and Ostler note that some of that performance happened "even after most of the audience had left," as they found themselves in an unusually inspired mood that night and were in no hurry to stop playing. The album's third piece is culled from other recordings from the tour, though it is not specified whether "Tuesday's Ghost" is from a different gig or a rehearsal tape. Regardless of where and when it was recorded, "Tuesday's Ghost" is one hell of a killer piece. It slowly fades into existence with hazy synth drones and a languorous bass pulse, which is a very common theme for the album, but the beauty lies in how the duo organically transform that gently spacey ambient into a hypnotic, immersive, and shoegaze-damaged epic. Each of album's three pieces gets to that place eventually, but "Tuesday's Ghost" captures the pair in especially fine form, transcending their usual fare with inspired touches like a warbling, supernatural-sounding loop; a quavering feedback howl; and a simmering, charmingly Latin-influenced beat (once it all properly catches fire, at least).

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739 Hits

Ellis Swan, "3am"

3amThis Chicago-based singer-songwriter is a bit of an enigma to me, as details about his discography are quite slim. As far as I can tell, however, 3am is his second solo album, which is noteworthy given that it has been 8 long years since Swan’s similarly excellent debut (I'll Be Around) surfaced. What he was up to during that hiatus is mostly unknown to me (aside from "drawing the night in around his private, unnerving vigil," of course), but one thing I do know is that he formed a duo with James Schimpl called Dead Bandit that released their debut on Quindi last year (the same label behind this album). In any case, 3am is one hell of an aptly titled album, as it very much has the feel of a hushed, late-night confessional via four-track. The overall aesthetic calls to mind the "desolate outsider folk" blurring of an insomniac Elliott Smith or Zelienople with the homespun intimacy of early Iron and Wine, yet the pervasive mood of late night sadness is beautifully balanced with cool production tricks and shades of more lively and eclectic influences like Suicide and Charlie Megira.

Quindi

The album’s description insightfully notes that Swan’s aesthetic plays “on the natural distortion and delirium which occurs at the farthest end of the night,” which is an excellent way to explain how this album differs dramatically from ostensibly similar artists exploring the “after late night television pain” vein such as Russian Tsarlag or Matt Christensen. Swan has some darkness to exorcise, to be sure (check out “Hospice”), but 3am feels more like a batch of poignant and hook-filled gems that were handed off to the night itself for a “late night delirium” production overhaul. Obviously, that is not what actually happened, which makes Swan a bit of a visionary production-wise: he uses the same roughly instrumentation as everyone else, but those instruments are inevitably veiled in hiss, buried deep in the mix, or distorted by their lo-fi recording process (Swan apparently “drags the music through layer upon layer of tape fuzz” as part of his process). Significantly, he goes the opposite route with his vocals, as they sound close mic’d in a way where it feels like Swan is whispering directly into my ear. Rather than hiding himself in a fog of reverb and hiss, he expertly wields murk to weave a haunted and hallucinatory backdrop for his stark, emotionally direct songs. The album’s lead single “Puppeteers Tears” is an especially fine illustration of Swan’s inspired strain of ghostly Americana, as it feels like something from The Creek Drank the Cradle eerily enhanced with a haunting whistle loop, a buried organ motif, and a primitive drum machine groove.

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811 Hits

Andrew Chalk, "The End Times"

The End TimesKeeping up with Andrew Chalk’s discography has always been an amusingly challenging endeavor, but the challenge has shifted from pouncing on limited edition physical releases to vigilantly ensuring that he does not quietly surface with a substantial new opus of some kind without my notice. The most recent substantial new opus is this one on Colin Potter’s ICR label, which is billed as Chalk’s “first new solo album in five years.” It certainly feels like a major statement to me, though the meaning of terms like “new” and “album” can be quite blurry and elusive given Chalk’s singularly minimalist approach to providing album details. In any case, The End Times was (perhaps prophetically) recorded earlier this year and marks a rare CD release after Chalk’s recent run of cassettes. Beyond that, further details are quite slim. That is just fine by me, as the only thing that actually matters is that Andrew Chalk is still making incredibly beautiful and distinctive music, as The End Times is a characteristically sublime and immersive dreamscape of tender melodies, elegantly shifting moods, and vividly detailed textures.

ICR

The opening “House of the Holy” provides an appropriately representative introduction to the album’s overall aesthetic, as a vaporous melody of blurred, lingering notes unfolds over a gently gurgling pulse. As the album unfolds, a few subtle new details emerge that set The End Times apart from some of Chalk’s other recent work, but the most prominent features throughout are the quivering, liquid-like character of the notes and the ephemeral brevity of the pieces. Rather than evolving and expanding, these 13 pieces instead feel like a series of enigmatic mirages that offer a fleeting and flickering glimpse of heaven before dissolving back into nothingness. Given all the gentle, blurred sounds and the tone of meditative reverie, it is deceptively easy to mistake The End Times for ambient music, yet it reveals itself to be considerably more than that for those willing to fully immerse themselves in Chalk’s slow-motion fantasia of beautiful details and small yet significant events. I view it as somewhat akin to looking through a rain-streaked window–it is easy to gaze through the glass and simply think “today is a wet and overcast day,” but it is also possible to appreciate how the individual droplets quiver and roll down the glass or how the streaks of water subtly bend and warp the appearance of the outside world. Albums like this are the reason why the genre term “lowercase” needed to exist, as Chalk’s compositions are incredibly rich, but the size of the reward is directly proportional to how closely one listens.

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857 Hits

Oren Ambarchi, "Shebang"

Shebang Few artists have consistently fascinated and perplexed me quite like Oren Ambarchi, as I absolutely loved his early solo guitar albums like Grapes From the Estate, then witnessed him spend the next 15 or 20 years exploring improvisatory and rhythmic-driven detours to continually intensifying and breathless acclaim. I imagine it feels somewhat akin to being a Velvet Underground fan encountering unanimous rapturous praise for their post-Cale albums–I get the appeal, but that would not be my personal go-to era if I wanted to illustrate that band's greatness. Then again, maybe my perspective on Ambarchi's evolution would shift dramatically if I just liked jazz fusion more. In any case, I can certainly understand the unusual trajectory from Oren's viewpoint, as few would pass up a chance to form a trio with Jim O'Rourke and Keiji Haino and jamming with talented friends over mutant krautrock/fusion grooves seems like a hell of a lot more fun than making slow-motion guitar magic by yourself (can't fault a guy for loving spontaneity and challenging new collaborations). Both spontaneity and inspiring guest performances abound on Shebang, as Ambarchi enlisted quite a killer (virtual) ensemble, resulting in one of my favorite of his albums in recent memory (2016's Hubris being the other serious contender).

Drag City

The album is essentially a single 35-minute piece, but there are four numbered sections that segue seamlessly into one another. The first begins with a quirkily rhythmic and twinkling electric guitar motif that is soon joined by additional layers that bring unpredictably interwoven melodies and a stilted, oddly timed funkiness. It does not take long before the sheer intricacy and rhythmic sophistication of its various moving parts starts to feel dazzling and virtuosic, but the piece soon gets even better as it becomes more bass-heavy while bleary shades of psychedelia begin to bleed in. The second section announces itself when Joe Talia's skittering, shuffling drums emerge from a haze of feedback and shimmer. Curiously, all of the prominent themes from the first section fall away for a very stripped down palette of drums, subtle piano, rhythmic palm-muted guitar, and an occasional bass clarinet skwonk, but that downshift into simmering spaciousness nicely set the stage for me to be completely wrong-footed by the inspired appearance of BJ Cole's Hawaiian-sounding pedal steel.

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726 Hits

Horace Andy, "Midnight Rocker" and "Midnight Scorchers"

I am a big fan of Adrian Sherwood's passion for luring the greatest luminaries in Jamaican music history into late-career collaborations, as it is hard to imagine a better deal than working with On-U Sound's murderers' row of killer musicians and having a contemporary dub visionary at the console. Midnight Rocker (released in April) was the first fruit of Sherwood's union with Horace Andy and (unsurprisingly) focuses primarily on Andy's legendary voice while putting a new spin on a few of the Jamaican tenor's signature jams (along with a nod to his more recent work with Massive Attack). Given the caliber of everyone involved, Rocker is a predictably likable album and an impressive return for Andy, but a big part of the fun with classic Jamaican music is the inevitable wave of dubs and variations that follow, so I connected much more deeply with the newly released companion album, Midnight Scorchers. Wisely, Andy's voice remains a central focus, so it is easy to recognize the hooks and melodies from the previous album in their new context, yet Sherwood allows himself to go a bit wild in the studio for a "sound system" take on the material. To my ears, the same songs are the strongest on both albums, but the weaker songs from Rocker benefit significantly from the more adventurous arrangements and production on Scorchers.

On-U Sound

Midnight Rocker borrows its title from the opening line of Massive Attack's "Safe From Harm," which was the lead song on their 1991 debut Blue Lines. Notably, that album was the beginning of Andy's recurring involvement with that project, but "Safe From Harm" is a curious song to revisit, as Andy did not sing on the original and it has a darker, more dramatic tone than the rest of Midnight Rocker. Given how wildly successful that album was, I imagine its inclusion here was a savvy choice, but its killer bass and tambourine groove plays far more to Sherwood's strengths than the lyrics and tone do to Andy's. The album's other trips down memory lane are a handful of contemporized resurrections from Andy's own sprawling discography such as "This Must Be Hell, "Materialist," and "Mr. Bassie." Of that lot, "Mr. Bassie" fares the best, as it boasts a strong melodic hook and wades into increasingly dubby territory as it unfolds.

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781 Hits

Greg Davis, "New Primes"

New PrimesBack in 2009, Important Records released a landmark compilation entitled The Harmonic Series (A Compilation Of Musical Works In Just Intonation). Significantly, that album featured a Greg Davis piece entitled "Star Primes (For James Tenney)," which was Davis's earliest foray into composing using just intonation. Nearly a decade later, greyfade founder Joseph Branciforte found himself mesmerized by that piece on a long drive back home from Vermont and was inspired to contact Davis to discuss the unusual process behind the piece. As it turns out, Davis's interest in mathematical just intonation experiments ran quite deeply, as it formed the entire basis for his 2009 album Primes. Naturally, the enthusiastic Branciforte encouraged Davis to revisit his work in that vein, which led to an 8-channel performance at NYC's Fridman Gallery in 2019. The aptly titled New Primes is a reworking of that new material repurposed for a stereo home-listening experience. Needless to say, math-driven sine wave drones are not for everyone, but the cold and futuristic alien beauty of these pieces will likely resonate deeply with fans of otherworldly "ghost in the machine" opuses like Nurse With Wound's Soliloquy For Lilith.

greyfade

My interest in "generative and process-based music" is considerably more casual than Davis's or Branciforte's, but it is not hard to understand the allure, as I imagine every serious musician on earth endlessly struggles to escape familiar patterns and an excellent way to do that is to create some kind of system that either opens new pathways or makes repeating those patterns impossible. Obviously, John Cage's I Ching-driven work is an especially noteworthy touchstone, while Ben Chasny's Hexadic compositions are a more recent prominent example, but there are presumably limitless ways to elude predictable compositional paths (albeit with wildly varying results in listenability). Davis's own system is a bit more complex than my feeble mind can handle, but it can be roughly summarized as "using prime number sets as a way to develop just intonation tuning relationships and intervals" which he realizes through a "custom software system in the Max/MSP environment, using a network of pure sine tones."

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764 Hits

Moth Cock, "Whipped Stream and Other Earthly Delights"

Whipped Stream and Other Earthly DelightsI doubt anyone can truly say that they know what to expect from a new Hausu Mountain release, but I still felt a bit gobsmacked by the latest from this ambitiously unhinged Ohio duo. While it may read like hyperbole to the uninitiated, the label's claim that Whipped Stream is a "durational smorgasbord of new music capable of knocking even the most seasoned zoner onto their ass" feels like an apt description of this triple cassette behemoth of fried and kaleidoscopic derangement (it clock in at roughly 3½ hours, after all). As I have not yet been lucky enough to experience Moth Cock's cacophonous sensory onslaught live, I was also a bit stunned to learn that most or all these pieces were culled from real-time performances. I honestly do not comprehend how two guys armed with a sax, loop pedals, and a "decades-old Electribe sampler / drum machine" can whip up such a vividly textured and wildly imaginative hurricane of sound so quickly and organically, as there seems to be some real hive mind shit afoot with these dudes. Unsurprisingly, I am at a loss to find a succinct description to explain what transpires over the course of this singular opus, but most of Whipped Stream can be reasonably described as a gnarled psychedelic freakout mashed together with Borbetomagus-style free jazz, the '80s noise tape underground, and jabbering sound collage lunacy. In the wrong hands, such an outré stew coupled with such an indulgent duration would be an effective recipe for total unlistenability, but I'll be damned if Moth Cock have not emerged from this quixotic endeavor looking like fitfully brilliant visionaries. I should add the caveat that Moth Cock also seem willfully annoying at times, but it is rare that such bumps in the road are not ultimately transformed into a near-perfect mindfuck or something unexpectedly sublime.

Hausu Mountain

It did not take long at all for me to fall in love with this album, as the opening "Castles Off Jersey" is an absolute tour de force that starts off as a layered and trippy homage to Terry Riley-esque sax-driven drone and only gets deeper and weirder from there. Along the way, it makes stops at gnarled, howling noise and burbling kosmische synth en route to an impressively apocalyptic and layered crescendo of swirling orchestral samples and electronic chaos. The following "Threefer Thursday" is still more bananas, calling to mind the viscous, squirming synths of Rashad Becker's Traditional Music Of Notional Species series before throwing sleepy Hawaiian slide guitar into the mix for an exotica nightmare. It's an audaciously sanity-dissolving collision, but that is merely the jumping off point into an unexpectedly gorgeous stretch of warm, woozy chords…and then the bottom drops out again for a finale of cold, churning industrial-damaged psychedelia that feels like it could have been plucked from a live Throbbing Gristle performance.

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644 Hits

B. Fleischmann, "Music for Shared Rooms"

Music for Shared RoomsThis is apparently B. Fleischmann's eleventh solo album, which surprised me a bit, as I generally enjoy his work yet have only heard a small fraction of it. That said, the eclectic and shapeshifting Austrian composer's release schedule has slowed considerably since the heyday of IDM/indietronica/glitch pop in the late '90s/early 2000s that put him on the map. In fact, it has been four years since Fleischmann last surfaced with the amusingly titled but hopefully not prophetic Stop Making Fans and Music for Shared Rooms is actually more of a retrospective than a formal new statement. That said, most fans (myself included) are unlikely to have previously encountered any of the sixteen pieces collected here, as the album is a look back at some highlights from Fleischmann's extensive archive of pieces composed for film and theater. That archive apparently includes roughly 600 pieces composed over a stretch of twelve years, so Fleischmann presumably did not have much trouble coming up with a double LP worth of delights. To his credit, however, he decided to rework and recontextualize the selected pieces into a satisfying and thoughtfully constructed whole (and one that also doubles as a "kaleidoscopic glimpse of a forward-thinking musician at home in many different musical worlds"). Admittedly, some of those musical worlds appeal more to me than others, but Fleischmann almost always brings a strong pop sensibility and bittersweet warmth to the table, so the results are invariably wonderful when he hits the mark (which he does with impressive frequency here).

Morr Music

The title Music for Shared Rooms alludes to Fleischmann's vision for this album, as he views his recontextualized scores as something akin to "a photo album" in which each "page" conjures a "different scene in which you can immerse yourself." To his credit, the fundamentally "B. Fleischmann" feel of the pieces remains surprisingly constant despite their myriad moods and disparate original contexts, but nailing down the character of that aesthetic is an elusive task. In a rough sense, however, it is fair to say that Fleischmann achieves a unique blend of "seemingly naive" pop simplicity with exacting production and complex arrangements. Sometimes he admittedly leans a bit too much to the "willfully naive" side for my liking, but his instincts generally tend to be quite solid (if sometimes perplexing). Case in point: "Taxi Driver" opens as some kind of Mission Impossible/Peter Gunn theme hybrid, but unexpectedly transforms into a killer dubby groove that calls to mind prime Tortoise. 

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649 Hits

Kyle Kidd, "Soothsayer"

SoothsayerThis first solo album from queer, androgynous soul singer Kyle Kidd is an incredibly strong contender for best debut of the year, but he/she/they (Kidd embraces all pronounds) has been been steadily releasing great music for a while as part of Cleveland's Mourning [A] BLKstar ensemble. Notably, however, Kidd's past also includes a background in church choirs as well as a stint as an American Idol competitor. Normally learning about the latter would send me running in the opposite direction, but Kidd joins the exclusive pantheon of vocal virtuosos like Ian William Craig and Zola Jesus lured away from a conventional trajectory by a healthy passion for more underground sounds. That said, a decent amount of Soothsayer legitimately feels like it could have burned up the Soul/R&B charts if it had been released in the late '70s and had a major label production team at the console. As time travel was not a viable option, Soothsayer instead found a home on the oft-stellar Chicago indie American Dreams and Kidd's sensuous, hook-filled songs eschew the polished sheen of pop production for a hypnagogic veil of tape hiss and reverb (much to my delight, predictably).

American Dreams

The gospel-inspired opener "Salvation (Ode for Eunice)" is bit of a stylistic anomaly for the album, but the understated, minimal piano chords and subtle flourishes of jazz guitar beneath Kidd's soulful, wailing vocals illustrate one of the more notable and consistent themes on Soothsayer: backing music that sounds like crackling rare grooves unearthed by a moodier, more libidinal Madlib. Consequently, I was quite surprised when I glanced at the album notes and saw the large cast of guest musicians involved, as it genuinely feels I am hearing appropriated unheard grooves from Larry Levan, Arthur Russell, or Ann Peebles' backing band transformed into smoky, subtly psych-damaged Sade territory by a producer with a vision. The result does not exactly feel loop-based, but Kidd's songs tend to be built from single-theme vamps, which is exactly the right move: just lay down a hot groove and give Kidd plenty of room to belt her heart out and a killer song is almost certain to result.

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848 Hits

Bill Orcutt, "Music For Four Guitars"

Music for Four GuitarsOver the last few years, it has become quite clear to me that any major new solo guitar album from Bill Orcutt is destined to be an inventive, visceral, and damn near essential release. Unsurprisingly, Music for Four Guitars does absolutely nothing to disrupt that impressive run, yet I sometimes forget that Orcutt has a restless creative streak that endlessly propels him both outward and forward like some kind of avant garde shark. As a result, his discography is full of wild surprises, unexpected detours, and challenging experiments such as last year's wonderfully obsessive and completely bananas A Mechanical Joey, so anyone who thinks they know exactly what to expect from a new Bill Orcutt album is either delusional or not paying close enough attention. Case in point: Music for Four Guitars feels like an evolution upon Orcutt's Made Out of Sound approach of using a second track to improvise against himself, but he now expands it to four tracks and shifts to a more composed, focused, and melodic approach very different from his volcanic duo with Chris Corsano. Notably, this project was originally intended for a Rhys Chatham-esque quartet of guitarists and has been gestating since at least 2015, but COVID-era circumstances ultimately led Orcutt to simply do everything himself. As Tom Carter insightfully observes in the album notes, this album is a fascinating hybrid of the feral spontaneity of Orcutt's guitar albums and the "relentless, gridlike composition" of his electronic music that often calls to mind an imaginary Steve Reich-inspired post-punk/post-hardcore project from Touch and Go or Amphetamine Reptile's heyday.

Palilalia

Given how much time I have spent enjoying a handful of Bill Orcutt's recent masterpieces, I occasionally forget that he has been releasing albums for roughly three decades and his scrabbling, explosive improv eruptions are just one stylistic choice in an endlessly evolving body of work. I bring that up because Music For Four Guitars makes it clear that Orcutt could probably churn out killer riffs, intricate countermelodies, and inventive harmonies in his sleep and would seemingly be perfectly at home channeling his inner Glenn Branca, Built to Spill ("In The Rain"), Gang of Four ("From Below"), or art-damaged '90s emo band like Departures and Landfalls-era Boys Life if he felt like it. All of those stylistic threads appear in varying forms here and the determining factors tend to be whether Orcutt is inclined to craft a tense, jerkily staccato rhythm ("A Different View"), sharpen a melody with a spiky counter motif ("Two Things Close Together"), or do both at once ("In Profile").

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912 Hits

The Soft Pink Truth, "Was It Ever Real?"

Was It Ever Real?I had successfully deluded myself into thinking that I had spent my pandemic downtime wisely and constructively for the most part, but learning that Drew Daniel spent that same period assembling an all-star disco ensemble is now making me lament the sad limitations of my imagination and ambition. The resultant album—Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This?—is slated for release this October, but this teaser mini-album (part of Thrill Jockey's 30th anniversary campaign of limited/special releases) is one hell of a release in its own right and a true jewel in Daniel's discography. Naturally, the big immediate draws are the killer single "Is It Gonna to Get Any Deeper Than This (Dark Room Mix)" and a disco/deep house reimagining of Coil's classic "The Anal Staircase," but the other two songs are every bit as good (if not better) than that pair, so no self-respecting fan of Daniel's oeuvre will want to sleep on this ostensibly minor release (very few artists choose to release their best work on cassingle in 2022). Naturally, there is plenty of psychotropic weirdness mingled with all the great grooves, but I was still legitimately taken aback by how beautifully Daniels and his collaborators shot past kitsch/homage/pastiche and landed at completely functional, fun, and legit dance music. No one would raise a quizzical eyebrow if someone secretly slipped this album into the playlist at a party (not until "Anal Staircase" dropped, at least).

Thrill Jockey

Some years back, one of Drew Daniel's friends was fatefully asked "is it going to get any deeper than this?" while DJing at a club. That question became a "kind of mantra" for Daniel, as he was fascinated by the elusive meaning of that question. I am somewhat fascinated now myself, as it inspired me to think about which elements can imbue a piece with "depth" and whether or not the opening "Is It Gonna to Get Any Deeper Than This (Dark Room Mix)" could be said to meet that enigmatic criteria. My official verdict is "absolutely," as Daniel's bevy of outsider disco brethren inventively ride an absolutely perfect, sensuous, and thumping dub techno-style groove for 8 glorious minutes without ever dispelling the magic with a single misstep. It almost feels like Coil and Rhythm & Sound teamed up to record a libidinal, floor-packing party anthem (it's a damn shame that never actually happened, but it seems like Daniel is perfectly happy and willing to fill that stylistic void himself).

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1154 Hits

William Basinski and Janek Schaefer, ". . . on reflection"

. . . on reflectionThere are several William Basinski albums that I absolutely love, but his various collaborations are rarely as compelling as his solo work (the leftfield Sparkle Division being a notable exception, of course). The fundamental issue is that Basinski's finest moments tend to be an intimate distillation of a single theme to its absolute essence, which does not leave much room at all for anyone else to add something without dispelling the fragile magic. While it is unclear if Janek Schaefer is unusually attuned to Basinski's wavelength or if the duo simply waited until the path to something lasting and beautiful organically revealed itself, I can confidently state that the pair ultimately wound up in exactly the right place regardless of how they got there. If I did not understand and appreciate the sizeable challenges inherent in crafting a hypnotically satisfying and immersive album from a mere handful of notes, I would be amused that Basinski and Schaefer first began working on this album together all the way back in 2014 and that the entire 8-year process basically resulted in just two or three simple piano melodies. In fact, I am still a little amused by this album's nearly decade-long gestation, but that does not make the result any less impressive. Significantly, " . . . on reflection " is dedicated to Harold Budd, but an even closer stylistic kindred spirit is Erik Satie (albeit a blearily impressionistic channeling of the visionary composer's work rather than any kind of straight homage).

Temporary Residence

The opening ". . . on reflection (one)" lays out Basinski and Schaefer's shared vision in gorgeously sublime fashion, as a simple and tenderly melancholy piano melody languorously and unpredictably flickers across a barely audible backdrop of room sounds. Naturally, things are deceptively far more complex than they initially seem though, as it soon sounds like two or loops of different lengths are all playing at once. A lingering haze of delay and decay gradually adds some muted streaks of color, but that is just icing on an already perfect cake, as I could listen to the melodies lazily intertwining forever. In a general sense, the piece calls to mind the delicate prettiness of a music box melody, but beautifully enhances that illusion with weighty emotional depth and seemingly endless variations in the shape and emphasis of the shifting patterns.

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1128 Hits

Ashley Paul, "I Am Fog"

I Am FogTen years after her first appearance on Keith Rankin and Seth Graham's perennially bizarre and eclectic Orange Milk label , Paul returns to the fold with her new trio. Naturally, there are plenty of similarities between this latest release and the trio's 2020 debut (Ray), but there has been some significant evolution as well. To my ears, I Am Fog feels considerably more sketchlike and challenging than Ray, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, as anyone seeking out an Ashley Paul album would presumably already have a healthy appreciation for dissonance and deconstruction. A decent analogy might be that Ray is like a short story collection while I Am Fog is more like a series of poems: the voice and vision are instantly recognizable, but these nine pieces are an unusually distilled, minimal, and impressionistic version of that voice. In less abstract terms, that means that I Am Fog again sounds like some kind of unsettling and psychotropic outsider cabaret, but the emphasis is now more upon gnarled/strangled textures and lingering uncomfortable harmonies than it is on melodic hooks and broken, lurching rhythms. In addition to the trio's overall step even further into the outré, the album also features further enticement with one of Paul's strongest "singles" to date ("Shivers").

Orange Milk

As a devout fan of Paul's unsettling and singular work, I am intrigued and fascinated by how her vision has evolved since Otto Willberg and Yoni Silver became regular collaborators. While I do miss her prickly, pointillist guitar playing a bit with this album, I quite like how Silver and Willberg provide a somewhat more traditional "jazz trio" foundation for Paul's excursions into the alien and unknown rather than simply following her into increasingly broken and sickly frontiers of strangled dissonance. The opening "A Feeling" is an especially interesting example of that dynamic, as the slow-motion chord progression and male/female vocal harmonies approximate a curdled and unraveling "black lodge" version of Low. My favorite pieces tend to fall on the "creepy and lysergic outsider cabaret" side of the spectrum however. "Escape" is the strongest incarnation of that aesthetic, as it resembles a haunted nursery rhyme recited over an obsessively repeating bass pulse, a broken-sounding martial beat, and sax playing that unpredictably drifts back and forth between a blearily melodic hook and a host of tormented whines and squeaks. It feels like someone accidentally left their childlike whimsy outside and it became partially rotted and macabre overnight.

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969 Hits

Insect Factory, "Celestial Cycles"

Celestial Cycles Jeff Barsky has been quietly releasing alternately sublime and noise-ravaged guitar albums for years and this latest album finds him returning to LA's oft ahead-of-the-curve Already Dead Tapes (where he last surfaced with 2015's Flickering). Normally, I would not describe an edition of 100 tapes as a major release, but most of Barsky's solo work has historically appeared on his own Insect Fields imprint so Celestial Cycles will likely reach more ears than usual. Fittingly, it is an especially strong album, capturing Barsky at the absolute height of his powers. While few solo guitarists can summon dreamlike beauty from their ax as reliably and masterfully as Barsky, the centerpiece of this album is unquestionably the swirling and nightmarish closing epic "Become The Birds," which arguably recaptures the magic of Campbell Kneale's Birchville Cat Motel project in its prime (which is damn high praise coming from me).  

Already Dead Tapes

The brief yet lovely "Follow the Moon" introduces Celestial Cycles' general aesthetic of quavering drones, flickering harmonic whines, and rippling flurries of hammer-ons and pull-offs before the album begins in earnest with the more substantial "Celestial Shift." Given the loop-based nature of Insect Factory, extended durations tend to almost always result in increased textural and harmonic sophistication and "Celestial Shift" is a solid illustration of that, as the expected shimmering beauty is nicely enhanced with a host of twinkling, smoldering, buzzing, and seesawing themes. If the remainder of the album was simply four more variations of that vision, I would be perfectly happy, but Barsky instead chose to go with a parade of cool twists and curveballs and the album is better and more memorable for it.

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956 Hits