Friday, 14 December 2012

2012 in Music

Well, this year has been almost entirely without posts, on any of my blogs. But it's been a year of a lot of music for me so I feel like sharing some of what I've been listening (and in fact, not listening) to.

I've bought more music this year than for a long time. I came back to the vinyl fold, initially buying a 99p usb turntable off Ebay (which didn't work) and quickly afterward collecting my battered old Vestax from storage at my parents' house. In a way I regret it, because vinyl's so much more expensive and unecological than CD...but, it does sound (and feel) fantastic. So much for my eco-credentials.

A shout out should be given to Nottingham's Music Exchange. The only independent store in Nottingham, they are run by homeless charity Framework, support vinyl and new artists and sometimes have live shows instore. Needless to say, musicians can't survive and carry on making the music we love if people don't buy their releases.

I've surprised myself by getting into extreme metal again. Well, for the first time really - apart from a teenage interest in Napalm Death and the rest of the Earache roster, I could never really dig the lack of emotional breadth or melody in much grindcore, and hated the overstatement of death metal. All that teenage phase left me with was a deep love for Mick Harris and James Plotkin, as well as a high respect for Godflesh. Really, two bands have sealed my embrace of the dark side this year: Dephosphorus - a Greek "astrogrind" band whose second full-length has garnered rave reviews from around the web. It's beautiful, both physically for its art and presentation, and aurally. Brutal, abrasive but intelligent; psychedelic and furious, but controlled. There's been a massive proliferation of screamy, sophisticated-ish black metal awash with blastbeats and all those same chords and sounds - Dephosphorus do something beyond that, and hopefully will continue to push the sound beyond the very narrow furrow it now inhabits.

The second band is This Gift Is A Curse, a Swedish band who I saw at the Chameleon. Thanks to a nice little group of music-loving friends this has become my regular haunt and I've discovered much great music here. I really can't fault it as an underground venue and the sound-system/sound-man especially cannot be praised highly enough. Anyway TGIAC make a brutal brand of occult black metal which pleases both the viscera and the intellect, being complex, blackened, gruesome and tight but never overly technical. Here's a band firing on all cylinders and pulling in the same direction. Just a shame about the drunk guy in the audience who kept annoying the singer by getting into the mood a bit too much.

Raime. Well, what can I say about Raime? After a string of well-received twelves they dropped their LP Quarter Turns over a Living Line late this year; it's stunning. Better, if you ask me, than the singles although I have to admit that I only heard Spotify's MP3s of their previous stuff. This is the release that sealed my love for vinyl. Digital has never sounded as rich as this, and never made bass that shakes out of the woofers like this does. It's very simple music, but full of soul and, as Boomkat put it, dread. I sometimes think about how perception of music changes over time and wonder how today's music will seem in ten or twenty years. I have no idea how Raime will sound - either seminal or curious transigent fascination, I'm not sure. On paper they don't do much different from Demdike Stare, but they remain so much more interesting and vital. Maybe when fashion has moved on, the smog will have left and revealed them as actually no different, but I suspect this album will remain some definitive statement on the mood of our times, as Autechre and Aphex Twin did the mid 90s. Kids don't sit in their bedrooms chilling and smoking on a sunday comedown anymore; they sit and feel intense insecurity about the future and their place in it, the collapse of ecological systems, terrorism, corporate politics and the ravaging of social infrastructure.

I'll remind you here of what I said about the vinyl. This clip just doesn't compare.

On the other hand, a group I discovered at the same time as Raime and loved briefly, are Tropic of Cancer. I find myself now bemused as to what the fuss is - they have one or two great tracks, but the majority of their work is very cheesy, and displays a conventionalism which belies the apparent underground veneer; behind the smog there's nothing there. I'm glad I didn't buy their massively overpriced 12", though I did cough up for the massively overpriced mini-LP split with HTRK. I don't regret that, as it does at least have one of their great songs on, and I'm still in love with HTRK. I realise now that I was partially incorrect last year in characterising them as austere though - it's the unusual mixture of austerity and decadence which makes them so fascinating and is sure to preserve the strength of their music in years to come.

This is one of the good ones.

This year has seen a real return to the dark in fact. There's a real sense of terror and doom in music right now that I don't remember at any point before - maybe the late 70s would be the last point it was this apparent. It was reading a review on Boomkat which made me understand the sudden, unprecedented rise of freeform music recently: it's a response to the collapse of bedroom electronica. The complete antithesis of sequenced, 4 minute, computerised beats&melody music has been the sprawling, organic compositionless sound experiments which have almost taken centre-stage in underground music the last couple of years.

Schneider TM's Construction Sounds LP is the height of the freeform trend for me. Recordings made from the construction works that surrounded his Berlin flat for several years, effected and made into a detailed sonic canvas incorporating melody and synthetic sound into the mechanical work which is always refined and never merely cacophonous. Pierre Schafer would be proud (maybe).

I discovered, later than many, The Haxan Cloak. His first album is beautiful - organic and gritty but with restraint, tension and without noodling. The follow up mini-LP sounded flat and digital in comparison. I hope he steps things up for the next release.

On quite a similar note, I've been interested in Richard Skelton's literary and musical output. A very talented man to be sure, and with a clear (and unique) artistic vision. I bought the Limnology CD/book package for my dad's birthday. It's a minimally designed collection of words, poetry and musings about rivers and inland water. I'm not sure he gets it, but I like it. I also bought A Broken Consort, which is more accomplished musically, though slightly on the weepy side for my tastes.

An honourable mention also should go to my friend Ben's micro-label Kiks/Girlfriend, specialising in tiny cassette and CD runs. His own SCKE release is worth looking into.

Finally in terms of sound art, Daniel Menche caught my attention, I think from a review in the Wire. His work is highly detailed, made up of field recordings of natural and man-made sounds composed into pieces. Layers and levels of soundoverlap and interpenetrate to an almost psychedelic degree. He has a massive catalogue all of which is worth listening to, but the two that I decided to part with cash for were Guts and Drunk Gods.

On the strength of being told it sounded like Daniel Menche, I bought a lovely 3CD box set by Small Cruel Party after a show at the Chameleon (Russell Haswell and Pain Jerk in fact). Less dense, perhaps slightly less composed, but still intelligently put together and much more than just noise.

Something a little more melodic: Silver Stairs of Ketchikan. I saw Thought Forms play at the Chameleon and liked their music - but the CD I bought turned out to be the long-running solo project of their guitarist. In fact it grabbed me more than their own show did - resolutely experimental without being weird for the sake of weird, playful and full of intrigue and a pure love of musical sound.

An interesting agenda is being pursued by Imaginary Forces, and his label Sleep Codes. Very limited releases on a variety of formats sitting somewere between abstract electronics and noise. Beats taken through a grinder so they take on abstract, unrhythmic quality. I was drawn into his sound by the excellent Resonance FM show Resonating Machines, which invited producers to compose thirty minutes of sound from the sonic tools of their favourite records. All episodes are available to download from his site.

Pop.1280 formed pretty much my only foray into verse-chorus pop music this year. Not really pop in attitude, but standard band music, these guys play a sneery, grim cyberpunk art-rock which has seen more than one comparison to Cop Shoot Cop. Their debut The Horror is beautiful and exactly what I needed. I hope they play the UK soon.

Although, I've been more than a little bemused by the similarity of their first video:

To one that my old band DisinVectant put together. Not content with taking the aesthetic sense and the scratchy VHS quality, they even feature the vocalist talking into a payphone!

And now a moan. I raved about Death Grips last year. Now I wish I hadn't. I managed to catch their soundcheck (half of Guillotine, wonderful) in Leeds last summer before leaving to catch the last train back; I was gutted, it would have been my favourite show of the year. I really wanted to see them. Soon after they anounced, and then unceremoniously cancelled, a show in Nottingham. When they finally returned to the UK recently they totally avoided us. They released two albums, I listened to them both once and probably won't bother again. Don't get me wrong: Guillotine is a masterpiece. Death Yon is awesome. The rest of the Ex-Military album I could happily never hear again. I recently picked up the vinyl version and sold it, unopened, for four times what I paid (best price I've ever got for a record actually). I don't regret it at all. I don't have a problem with their attitude, their disrespect for their record label (uploading the third album because of a petty dispute about release dates) or their fans (cancelling a tour to record said album, leaving many people with train tickets or even accommodation etc which were unrefundable). Artists are like that, and shouldn't base their decisions on anything other than their should never be "for" the fans, this makes it a commercial, crowd-pleasing endeavour which is not true art. If you want entertainment watch X-Factor. But the lack of intrigue, the lack of challenge and the sheer lack of progression in their sound has left me feeling bored. Maybe I'll change my mind, it's not unknown.

Circle Takes the Square still haven't released their second album, more than a year after their Kickstarter project was hugely oversubscribed. It'd better be worth the wait. But, it was a pure joy to see them play in Birmingham all the way back in February.

I heard and quickly bought Michael Idehall's SOL. I know nothing about this artist, label or album but I really like it; definite elements of Coil here.

Although it's only a twelve, I think I should briefly mention the Regis and Ancient Methods collaboration Ugandan Methods, and their recent Cold Retreat, on Boomkat's own label. Quality industrial technoid grooves. I've been really impressed with Regis output recently and how he's refashioned Downwards into something much bigger than the Brum techno label it could have been.

Here is probably where I should also note Downward's So Click Heels compilation. The highlight for me is Deathday's opener (which actually reminds me of a Regis track from an obscure compilation called Exist)

And finally it would be remiss not to mention Swans' The Seer. Probably the year's most awaited and certainly most lauded album, I was surprised by the delicacy of some of it - not what I remember from Gira's previous work, though it's a while since I listened to anything except the first couple of Swans albums.

In the midst of all this there hasn't been much space for melody. That's something I hope will change next year, I do miss tunes.