Thursday, 28 August 2014

Twenty Months of Perfect Tunes

In the midst of a difficult time replete with heartbreak, existential angst and post-thesis blues I didn't get around to my now-traditional end of year music round up at the end of 2013, so in an attempt to redress this and talk about some of the amazing music that's been around in the last twenty months, here is my extended belated account.

First off, I discovered Firewater earlier this year. As a long-time fan of Cop Shoot Cop since their first album Consumer Revolt, I was aware of Tod A's prowess as a songwriter. After their untimely demise he began Firewater as a vehicle for experimenting with a more traditional yet avant-garde approach to music, mixing klezmer, gypsy and world musics with his trademark black humour and vituperative cynicism. I'd tried to get into the new band but failed dismally because it just didn't make sense to me. After rediscovering the fourth and final CSC album, Release, I tried again and was joyously surprised. Truly unusual music from an immense talent, and surely the greatest lyricist of our generation. The album which has drawn the highest praise (from me) is The Golden Hour, recorded over several months with musicians around Asia (Pakistan, Turkey and Israel included). Full of the energetic sense of freedom and excitement which Tod must have felt during his travels, every song tells of the disappointment and bittersweet irony which many of us have felt during the desolate years of the early 21st century. This poignant combination of uplift, enthusiasm and the bright sun of foreign climes with the tales of disappointment, of one man trying to find a way to be true to himself in a world which isn't geared towards human happiness is what gives the album it's incredible emotional depth. Tod's lyrical power on this album is amazing, as is his gift for melody and songwriting - something which the bile of CSC often masked. Every track is killer, though some took more listens than others to fully appreciate. It's difficult to select two tracks because every one needs to be heard but here are three that are immediately stunning. Right now this is album of the century and I can't get enough of it.

Sadly not every album is as good as this, though The Man on the Burning Tightrope has some fantastic moments.

Such as

Protomartyr get the second place this year. Under Color of Official Right is fucking great. Part Joy Division, part Pixies, but with a distinctive swagger and bite that (probably) only a band from Detroit could muster, they have forged a path which isn't obviously original but is cut through with their own personality. Lyrically the album is gold - Joe Casey has a unique sense of grimy disconsolation which doesn't wallow in self-pity, but externalises the resentment of outsiderdom to a highly literate attack on the shallowness of the world. Their live show is great too - nothing surprising, but they're a tight band firing on all cylinders at the moment, and they're still playing venues small enough to really appreciate them. I love all the parts, but the drummer's a master of tight, precise tattoo, a typical post-punk style but done to perfection in a way that's entirely natural - not just homage to their influences.

When Michael Gira reformed Swans I was slightly dubious, having lost interest in their later output some years earlier. 2012's The Seer had some great moments (and amazing packaging) but ultimately failed to deliver a consistent vision. This year's To Be Kind demonstrates a far more focussed experience, hypnotic and ritualistic with drive and determination, a masculine energy and discipline that characterised Swans' early output but complemented with the experience of life; stripped of the raw aggression, Gira's mature personality shines through to deliver an intense album which sprawls across three discs and two and a half hours without losing any of its captivating power. I don't like the sleeve though.

HTRK returned in 2014 with an album which, at first, I rather disliked; Psychic 9-5 Club is seductively rich and warm, as opposed to the cold dejection of Work (Work, Work) evoking a definite 80s vibe and my first impression was one of a self-confident settling into acceptance; a band trying to assure themselves they had nothing left to prove. But beneath the nondescript warmth there is a beating heart of concentrated vision; a smooth surface which is sensual only because of what it conceals, the blood and muscle which moves beneath it. Blue Sunshine. I saw them play the Southbank as part of the screening of Rowland S. Howard eulogy-documentary Autoluminescent. It was nice to see them, and great to hear their cover of Howard's Dead Radio but in a birghtly lit hall, sitting down made the experience somewhat lacklustre. I'd rather have heard their music in a dimly lit bar, that seems to be its natural home.

Thanks to my friend Ben I discovered the junk metal composer Hal Hutchinson. His career has consisted of refinements of a single artistic concept: the use of metal and machine parts to create an organised chaos of industrial noise which has evolved through dozens of iterations. Each release is very different, some sparse and distorted, some intense and manic. This CD comes in a great package with postcards and an essay explaining his approach and artistic vision.

Along very similar lines is a batch of releases from long established noise composer Vertonen. Taking field recordings of industrial machinery as his starting point, Blake Edwards composes unforgiving mechanical symphonies which admit of no apparent human element while being highly intellectually satisfying. Of the three releases, each constricted to one format - CD, tape and vinyl - it's the picture disc which is the most accomplished (but doesn't have a track on Youtube so you're getting one from the CD)

*Update: here's one from the vinyl on Soundcloud*

Possibly the most extreme variant of this kind of thing comes from Ben's own label in Nottingham - Kiks/GFR. Pursuing a singular vision of primitive electronics and found sound, Kiks have several releases on a variety of formats. It's difficult to choose one, but you can listen to most of them on the website or their Bandcamp (the tapes are beautifully packaged though, so check those out).

Bringing slightly more structure to things is Eric Holm's Andoya. Composed from recordings on an outpost in X, the album makes a subdued, lightly clanking icy ambient not unlike Thomas Koner - though with a quiet real-world sensibility that manages to carry the sustained impression of a single person's perspective and artistic intention. It's a very specific vision realised with perfection.

Boduf Songs has a long history behind them but for me were brand new last year. Reading the Boomkat review of Burnt Up On Re-Entry left me curious, but the album itself is a stellar piece of silky black ambient folk with a dark humour and sophistication all of its own. His previous efforts are all very good but this is the magnum opus.

Autechre returned with a deluxe four vinyl album, Exai. As usual with Autchre the first few listens bore little reward but as I've returned to it again and again, each time stripping away another layer of expectations about what an Ae record should be, I've found new elements which have drawn me in. Comparison and value judgment with their previous releases are pointless, it's different and it's good.

I rediscovered Dual, a project I followed when I was a mere kid. Beginning in the industrial duo Spleen, Colin Bradley progressed to more abstract sonic extremes not unlike Robert Hampson's Main. Processed guitar forms the core of the music which retains only the ghostly trace of melody but is nonetheless exquisite. There's not much online now, some sound clips on the website and this track on bandcamp, but a 50 minute live set is available here.

Ben Frost's A U R O R A has thrust him into the limelight this year - an interesting departure into rhythmic and psychedelic territory for him. It's beautiful and harrowing, rich and random. It's a record which speaks of a blinding light split into razor sharp shards. I'm glad to find that recently ambient/noise artists have begun incorporating rhythmic elements into their sound.

Sandra Electronics, the early project of Downwards Records head, Karl O'Connor (aka Regis, and recently joined by Juan Mendez of Silent Servant) have put up a slew of new and archive material. The definitive release is Sessions, available as a cassette only on Minimal Wave. This is music which draws equally on 80s and teen sounds. I'm still unsure as to how much of it dates back to Karl's pre-techno days and how much is new composition - if the former, it really shouldn't have been shelved for two decades. Clunking machine rhythms, snarling analogue synths and Karl's barked vocals amount to a brutal attack on our expectations of electronic pop music. This material confirms the promise which I've always felt Regis' music held but failed to properly express due to the constraints which the dancefloor form dictated.

Samuel Kerridge has delivered several 12s and an album of bleak and grainy, slowed down industrial/techno. Again it's only after several listens that the album has made sense to me - expecting a moody techno LP the off-beat rhythms and oppressive atmospherics left me wanting some kind of energy but now I've discovered the right way of listening to it, I'm hooked - it's great to see a hybrid emerging as a new form of music, one which takes the attitude of industrial/dark ambient and the rhythmic discipline of techno but utlilises them to create something unique.

Existing in the same musical circles is Monica Hits the Ground, a project only two 12s old but which has provided another unique take on brutal atmospheric techno which would be very difficult to dance to - the punding rhythmic power isn't one which takes you by the hips by rather grabs you by the ribs in an attempt to suffocate.

Talbot are on their third release now and I discovered them belatedly. This Estonian duo make a deceptively complex sprawling psychedelic-sludge rock which combines growl and clean singing to great effect. Can't wait for the next release.

Now, Aphex Twin. The new album is a month away, and I'm eagerly expecting great things. I still think that Drukqs is a masterpiece, surpassing his earlier simplistic efforts - great as they have been for the time. I happily participated in the Kickstarter to fund the purchase of Cat033 (yes, even to the extent of buying the blank CDR and digipack to burn the wavs onto), but I appear to be the only person disappointed by the LP. It sounds exactly like the kind of album which would end up unreleased. There is little imagination, though the trademark AFX trappings are there, they aren't realised with the panache that other albums displayed. I have yet to find a single track which I actually think is worthwhile, or even enjoy listening to. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it's out there and I think the Kickstarter project was a great thing. But musically it's pretty shit.

Didn't like The Knife album. haven't even listened to all of it but I heard was sufficiently terrible to whither any interest in investigating it. Such a shame because Silent Shout was like a revelation to me, a magical surreal pop experience which soundtracked a whole summer. On the new album they seem to have disappeared up their arses entirely. I abused one of Silent Shout's lyrics for the title of this post just to demonstrate my dissatisfaction, that'll learn em.

I'm kind of happy that I got away from the really heavy music that was taking up a lot of my time last year. I still like seeing sludgy metal and powerviolence live but I've lost the taste for it as independent listening. Possibly the stand-out of the last year is Blut Aus Nord's The Work Which Tranforms God, actually a rerelease. As black metal goes it's well-produced and has a nicely gnostic overtone which stands in contrast to the dreary Satanist tropes that the followers of the genre assume.

Nottingham's Nadir put out their first release this year, on tape only. The package is beautiful, worth the money just for that - but the music's good too. These five tracks don't display the advances their live sound has made recently with the addition of an electronic element, but it's still worth checking out (and I expect great things from the next album).

Also still riding high are Bismuth (Tanya of Nadir's other project), who've been garnering rave reviews from the underground for their brand of ethereal volcanic sludge.

Shouldn't go without mentioning The Bug's new album, Angels and Devils. I can't say much about it because my copy only arrived yesterday, but it's good and looks set to be in many end of year charts. I'm glad to see him expanding his palette a little from the dancehall distortion of previous releases under this moniker and for me the first disc, Angels is the better half. I particularly like his collaboration with Liz Harris (Grouper)

Oh and talking of Liz, her collaboration with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma saw a much needed rerelease this year. Could only find the whole album on Youtube, which I'd prefer not to share if given the choice. But here it is.

So yeah. It's been great. Hopefully there's plenty more to come in the next four months so I can do another round up in December. And don't forget to support the artists and buy their stuff if you like it. It's the best way to keep up the flow of great music.

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