Tone Glow 010: Overlooked Albums of 2020 Q1
Tone Glow's writers highlight 30 albums from the first three months of 2020
Ten of our favorite 2020 Q1 albums as chosen by the Tone Glow crew, artfully presented by Sam Goldner on Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
For a special issue, Tone Glow’s cast of brilliant, hard-working, and very attractive writers set out to highlight our favorite albums of the year thus far. These releases were ones we felt went under the radar, deserving to be highlighted in a time when music publications are all shutting down or beholden to covering the same albums. Below, find 30 hand-picked releases that excited us, challenged us, calmed us, helped us—we hope they do the same for you.
Also, we ask that you support artists in this time if capable of doing so. A link to hear and purchase each album is listed beneath each blurb; consider paying for music if it ends up brightening your day—after all, we’re all in this together. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Kiko Dinucci - Rastilho (self-released)
Like the United States, Brazil is navigating life with a fascist idiot of a president. But unlike the United States, Brazil still has great protest music. It’s the result of living with the aftermath of an authoritarian regime, now consecrated into part of the country’s legendary musical lineage. Figures like Tom Zé, Milton Nascimento, and Gilberto Gil all represent a tradition that holds steadfastly against illiberalism, and always for the people. Following them is Kiko Dinucci and his trusty guitar. He balances a lightness of his music with an acceptance of reality—that things are not getting better, so hold your loved ones close. The simple message of “Foi Batendo o Pé Na Terra” (“My grandma taught me samba”) relays how there is comfort in mundanity during our society’s mania. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand Portuguese; Dinucci is adept in his harmonic flavorings, the intertwining voices reminiscent of the best choro music. Rastilho is an album about loving music and resisting those who might take that right away, and its combative yet communal spirit matches what folk music is supposed to be about. —Eli Schoop
Listen to Rastilho on Bandcamp.
Oscillatorial Binnage - Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds (Sub Rosa)
Sometimes the contents of the refrigerator emit a strange buzz. This happens when the half-empty orange juice carton abuts the door’s shelf just so, or when two glass jars make slight contact. The fridge vibrates as it cycles and sets the whole configuration humming. For most people, such sounds are briefly puzzling or bemusing, but Daniel Wilson finds them revelatory. He calls them “miraculous agitations,” and his bandmates in Oscillatorial Binnage have made it their modus operandi to generate them with the waste and refuse of ordinary life. Since 2007, Wilson, Fari Bradley, Toby Clarkson and Christopher Weaver have created “sound engine apparatuses”— combinations of plastic, cardboard, metal and organic items that they scavenge from the streets of London and bring to life with mechanical or electromagnetic resonators.
By carefully placing “resonator” items together with “obstructor” items—let’s say, an old wire rack vibrating in an electromagnetic force field, with rattling silverware creating subharmonics and a banana dampening unwanted frequencies—the group is able to conjure an array of sounds at once familiar and unfamiliar. If you presented this record to someone and withheld its backstory, there are times when it would catch them out. “Abscission Two,” for instance, could be mistaken for a cello and electronics piece, while “Woktones One” sounds like pure Ableton drone. At other times, the clattering and clanging would raise suspicions. “Amen” begins innocently enough until its machinic growl announces that all is not as it seems. The metallic groan and grind of album opener “Abscission One,” meanwhile, immediately gives it away. But the larger point is not to blur the lines between analog, digital, and acoustic in an empty show of masterful mimicry, but to point to the resonant frequencies that underlie all three methods of music-making.
Oscillatorial Binnage reminds the listener that the whole world is made of objects that can emit sound, and that gear fetishists and DAW geeks haven’t yet won the day. All of this comes with a salutary dose of leftist politics. Turning old junk into new instruments is as eco-friendly and anti-consumerist as you can get. It’s true that collecting properly noisy junk and learning how to agitate it at specific frequencies does take time and patience, but the group has turned this seeming downside into an opportunity for community-building. They’ve spent the majority of their decade-and-a-half existence playing concerts and running free workshops instead of recording. This is a spontaneous music, unrepeatable in its particularities due to the chance occurrences that lead to each unique sound engine’s output. Though these real-life encounters between people and materials can’t be replicated via the album format, Agitations represents the products of them wonderfully, encouraging the listener to encounter their own environment anew. Right now, this is a sorely needed reminder of the miraculous in the mundane. —Matthew Blackwell
Listen to Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds on Bandcamp.
Tarab - Apophenia (Sonic Rubbish)
It took me moving halfway around the world to discover Melbourne’s Tarab. Dan Gilmore has a scarily encyclopedic knowledge of Australia’s local experimental scenes, and he has been bringing some of the country’s best work to NYC via his distro-turned-label Careful Catalog. It’s through him that I discovered Tarab’s latest album, Apophenia. Tarab (aka Eamon Sprod) has been working for close to two decades with a steady stream of releases on a number of prestige sound-art labels including Kaon, Unfathomless, and 23five. Though he operates broadly in the discipline known as “field recording,” his releases generally feature careful layerings of found, generated, and environmental sounds. These sounds sometimes begin and end abruptly, but more often collide or converge to produce new, unidentifiable listening experiences. From moment to moment, a bubbling pot might gradually transform into a piercing, synthesised rattle—or perhaps the first sound was synthesised and the second recorded. It’s often impossible to tell.
It is too easy to lean on either the personal or geographic specificity of field recordings as a justification for their existence. The assumption is that the recordings themselves gain more significance as a kind of document of—or window into—a particular place or person’s experience. The title of this release, Apophenia, seems like a direct commentary on this tendency, apophenia being the all-too-human phenomenon of finding connections or meaning in unrelated, meaningless coincidences. On this album, Tarab forestalls any such effort by openly acknowledging that his source material comes from a number of disparate persons and places. Against the cliché image of the sound artist as the lone figure, stolidly lugging his equipment through abandoned factories and babbling brooks, whacking a steel chair with a cinderblock and muttering yes, excellent…, Tarab invites us to imagine the music as a fractured collage of many environments and experiences, intertwining to produce impossible juxtapositions, like a sonic document of what never did or could exist. In this way, our attention is freed from any effort to identify the sources of the sounds, better to enjoy the meticulous arrangements. These pieces are both elegant and sparse, making ample use of silence both to frame the music and to underscore their fragmentary, denatured status as found materials. This is both a serious, challenging album and an excellent introduction to Tarab’s body of work. —Mark Cutler
Listen to Apophenia on Bandcamp.
Christopher David - Grids (self-released)
Last night, I spent a portion of my evening playing Christopher David’s music on my speakers at a low volume. After a while, I had forgotten that any music was playing at all, and it took an embarrassingly large amount of time before I realized the flecks of noise that periodically caught my ear weren’t random sounds emanating from objects in my bedroom, but from David’s own songs.
Such is the nature of David’s (best) music: often so quiet and nondescript that it doesn’t really feel like anything is ever happening. Over the past half-year, he’s made ten CD-Rs that are in the same mold as all the other non-music folks of the current day, though none of it felt as soft or as emotional as this. When I reflect on the Wandelweiser pieces I love that feature large passages of silence, I think about the way the interplay between instrumentation and silence would cause me to deeply focus on silence’s role as a discrete musical element. I was consistently moved by the way any silence could feel overwhelming, as powerful as any note or melody.
What’s interesting is that David’s music also feels different from the non-music stuff it could share a bill with. Gabi Losoncy’s music is intimate enough to force listeners to become unsuspecting voyeurs, Shots create works that have an unexpected mystique to them, and Jon Dale’s recent releases have made me laugh on more than one occasion. David’s music, at least with Grids, feels more inviting and the least bit impenetrable. I feel like I’m just watching the dude sit and tap on some objects. It’s not as direct as ASMR, but it does feel especially homey (that it sounds like these recordings are largely presented in domestic settings helps). More than anything, it resembles watching many a slow cinema film, or like being placed into the interior spaces of an Ozu work when dialogue isn’t present. It feels like he cares so deeply about music that he wants you to enjoy even the tiniest of sounds he creates; no other piece of music this year made me feel so much from so little. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Download Grids here.
Jennifer Curtis & Tyshawn Sorey - Invisible Ritual (New Focus Recordings)
Violinist Jennifer Curtis and composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey have a history of collaboration through the International Contemporary Ensemble and, in some ways, Invisible Ritual is a summation of that process. In each piece, it’s evident that their communication is impeccable, as Curtis’s violin spirals out in virtuosic fervor and Sorey’s percussion and piano respond with bolstering accompaniment. That tight back-and-forth is what makes the record so convincing: although they travel different sonic territories at once, like moving quickly between tempos and tonalities or layering fast-paced bluegrass fiddling with dark piano chords, the music makes sense. The album's eight free improvisations find the two exploring unusual pairings of genres and styles, evading an overarching musical theme; the sound is never stagnant nor predictable, and each piece encapsulates a different musical atmosphere.
Invisible Ritual begins with the chaotic sound of feverish fiddling and swishing drums, favoring amorphous textures over neatly-formed melodies. Each piece that follows is only more surprising than the last, and they succeed because Curtis and Sorey play with a spontaneity that is informed by a deep understanding of their own music and of each other. While the entire album bursts with untamed energy, perhaps the most striking moment is the abrupt entrance of the piano on “III,” an introspective composition. The piece arrives after “II,” an upbeat track comprising frenetic violin and pulsating drums. It’s the first we hear of the piano, but also the first we really hear of harmony; prior, the pieces were prickly and melodic, built on driving rhythm. Sorey’s piano slowly shifts between dissonant chords and Curtis swaps momentum for delicate tremolos. Eventually, violin bursts into brilliant rolled chords that are anchored by the piano’s open harmonies, reaching a stirring climax.
“IV” reintroduces the wild energy of the record’s beginning, with impulsive outbursts of fiddling mixed with the complex progressions of a classical concerto’s cadenza and a rock song’s drum beats. Invisible Ritual shows us that Curtis and Sorey can make drastic changes with ease, but they choose powerful rumination as their final statement: the mysterious, sparse sound of “VIII” ends the album with ringing bells that fade away into silence. It’s not certain what to make of those last moments, but the record contains so many twists and turns that another one isn’t all that shocking. Invisible Ritual exemplifies spontaneity, in each step showing that Curtis and Sorey are together on a continual search for new trajectories. —Vanessa Ague
Listen to Invisible Ritual on Bandcamp.
Ellen Fullman - In The Sea (Superior Viaduct)
Someone is walking, gliding their fingers across the strings. Each finger is rosined—as a bow would be—to make the strings sound. The player, a bow; the room, a body. This reissue is a collection of works by Ellen Fullman performed in the late ‘80s on her Long String Instrument: an unspecified number of 70-foot wires attached to large wooden resonators and stretched across the room. Different pitches rise occasionally or otherwise swoop down to fill in the low end, pulsating. The resulting breaths in the music arrive from limitations—there’s only so much space, only arms so large, only movement so slow—but elsewhere, chords overlap like branches of leaves rustling or voices in large, crowded gatherings. The scale of the instrument affords it a Fluxus-like quality (imagine seeing a pipe organ for the first time, somehow stripped of its history and religiosity), pitting excess and grandeur against asceticism and patience and minimal form. All is sustained until variation: throughlines overlap, transfer to one another, and only break occasionally, causing a disjointed sense of continuity. It makes up a world where differences between horizontal and vertical listening are complicated, a sequence of events joined by an overarching, breathing stillness. —Leah B. Levinson
Purchase In The Sea on the Superior Viaduct website.
Liz Durette - For Now (self-released)
Liz Durette is a fan of using the proper names for her art. As a musician, she has typically eschewed drawing any kind of direct meaning or context around her work, instead consistently packaging her music as, well, just music. As she stated in an interview from 2017:
The music is not verbal, and I don’t see any need to add any content or context to it. […] It is spiritual, it’s not something to describe in words, I use music.
If the length of the average track title is typically proportional to how badly a musician wants to explain themselves, we can see the relative ease and confidence Durette shows in simply titling each track on For Now a number. Perhaps this is a result of her affinity for—and background in—classical music, but the underlying logic of her approach is refreshingly free of pretension.
Modern musicians of instrumental music often rely on flights of imaginative association to provide context and meaning to their wordless, otherwise non-specific compositions, and when the instrumentation or content is unfamiliar, the urge to explain it only grows higher. Both the instrumentation and content couldn’t be further from “usual” in For Now, yet it exists not as an agglomeration of cultural signifiers or thematic touchstones, but as a set of improvised pieces for Durette’s “funny keyboard.”
This is another way of saying that the kind of music Durette plays cannot be easily explained through words. Part of it is the instrument she plays—a polyphonic MIDI keyboard that’s silicone bound and allows for control over a rich collection of samples with a gestural grace—but largely, it’s more ineffable: a spirit that animates her work. Approximations can be made: calling it “ambient” might technically fit the bill, but it belies the richness of the musical approach, but her own term “psychedelic classical” gets pretty close to the mark. If her last album, Delight, was a collection of waltzes, then For Now is a suite of microtonal nocturnes: beautiful, tender pieces full of emotion, given more to melancholy than joy.
The hexagrams on the cover of For Now, taken from an I Ching reading for the pandemic, are Durette’s only nod to conventional messaging. Lined in joyful flowers, they translate to “returning abundance.” For an artist so reticent to make unessential statements, could there have been a more fortuitous reading? —Samuel McLemore
Listen to For Now on Bandcamp.
Leo Takami - Felis Catus & Silence (Unseen Worlds)
These days, music is often engineered to throw on and just leave running in the background, playing to the effects of the Spotify auto-play function that turns everything into ambient music. Felis Catus and Silence has a similar effect, but it’s much more intentional and whimsical in how it acts as wallpaper. Leo Takami’s work has always worked with barely-there textures, but with this album he’s specifically harkened back to the Windham Hill sound, his soft, jazzy arrangements floating just above the surface like cool mist on a lake. There’s something wondrous to this music, whether it’s in the glistening sparkle sounds of the title track, or the fairy tale-like strings that propel “Unknown”; Takami isn’t over-the-top with his world-building, but even in his restraint these twisting melodies manage to take us somewhere dreamy and peaceful (just like the delightful album art). The bobbing steel drums, sidewinding marimbas, and pastoral piano all feel like they could be soundtracking some tranquil fishing village, or perhaps a wintery mountainside town lit up at night—the kind of place forgotten by time while still feeling eternal. On top of this, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed cuddling with my cat to this record, and it’s hard to think of a much better endorsement than that. —Sam Goldner
Listen to Felis Catus and Silence on Bandcamp.
Soho Rezanejad - Honesty Without Compassion is Brutality (Volume 2) (Silicone Records)
The title Honesty Without Compassion is Brutality is a statement so large, it makes sense that the work spans two volumes. Vol. 2 is interested in nature, human and otherwise. In the new-age “Prelude: Garden of Europe,” you hear the sound of crickets and birds under pulsing drums and Soho Rezanejad’s voice unraveling like thread. Gothic lament “The Garden, Deflowered” features a wobbly synth line and the sound of rushing water that dies before the synth does. On “Animal,” a trumpet spits notes as if it were wounded, like a brass animal itself. You feel like you stepped into someone else’s gnarled garden, where pretty things finish out their lives while people watch. “Girls dancing slowly through those sunlit rooms / while someone outside stares,” Rezanejad dictates on “By Stealth to Gyges.” This album is a public private moment—it knows that you would bite an apple that isn’t yours.
It’s exciting to hear Rezanejad explore the transformations a sound can make, especially vocals: ringing like a bell, crumpling like a dry leaf, cutting like shears. Sometimes her voice just hangs, a spider on its wispy web. “Odessa 12:21” begins with gentle acoustic guitar, then Rezanejad, self-conscious, says “I love you.” When no one responds, she becomes more indignant: “Hello?!” We hear a dial tone, but there is no answer. She calls again, no answer. Was anyone there to begin with? “This number is currently unavailable / please call again!” I don’t know which honest act is less compassionate, saying “I love you” to an unwilling party or letting the phone ring as the lover calls. Where is compassion in love? We love each other and look at how much pain we’re in. —Ashley Bardhan
Listen to Honesty Without Compassion is Brutality (Volume 2) on Bandcamp.
Nick Storring - My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell (Orange Milk)
Typically my bullshit alarms go off when a press release/artist centers a specific aspect of the recording process: Green Day’s billboard, Warp’s Lorenzo Senni promo, any random experimental artist playing the synth, analog/acoustic purists who see electronic music as “cheating.” Nick Storring (and label Orange Milk) do emphasize the fact that My Magic Dreams is composed using “exclusively acoustic and electromechanical instruments and very little electronic processing.” But here, this behind-the-scenes knowledge actually enhances the act of listening to the record; knowing that these intricate, swarming tangles of chimes, strings and cymbals were all played and arranged, conjured into being in various ramshackle studios, adds a truly rare aura of magic and mystery, even as the process itself is laid bare.
Dreams forms multiple bridges with stunning success: between the so-called “classical” and “experimental,” blurring the lines between disciplined composition and free improvisation, concert hall grandeur and bedroom intimacy (there’s a direct line to Talk Talk’s late masterpieces here); between the “electronic” and the “acoustic”—Storring has an expert understanding of frequency spectrum, spatialization and arrangement, and some sections almost sound electronically filtered, where others sport storms of creaking glitches and crackles that truly, and excitingly, sound like they could’ve been generated in Max/MSP; between “large” and “small” gestures, where every compositional shift feels simultaneously unprecedented and thrilling but also hinges on the most minute tonal shifts; and between different emotional registers: the psychedelic but sometimes stoic and scientific register of much electroacoustic music, and a glowing, Disney-fied, deeply emotional register propelled by sweeping end-credits strings, arpeggiated JRPG harps, and genuinely breathtaking chord clouds that alternately dissolve into each other, shatter into fragments, and reassemble. The weakest moment here is the half-tempo On the Corner section of “What a Made-Up Mind Can Do” that, while still intriguing, feels neither here nor there, lacking in both emotional impact and adventurous sonic experimentation. But those few minutes aside—if I hadn’t made it clear enough already—this is a singular, absolutely gorgeous album and some of the most exciting and moving music I’ve heard in recent memory. —Sunik Kim
Listen to My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell on Bandcamp.
Pulse Emitter - Swirlings (Hausu Mountain)
The next, yet-released project from Daryl Groetsch—the Portland, Oregon-based musician known as Pulse Emitter—will purportedly be an album of tactile analog noise. Certainly, this is in part to counteract his latest release, the delicately undulating Swirlings, which feels like a natural trilogical closure to 2018’s microtonalist Xenharmonic Passages and contemplative Meditative Music 5. Though Groetsch began his career nearly two decades ago in the esoteric world of DIY analog synths, these records were made, in part or whole, using software synthesizers. The result is an utterly alien soundscape, one which gestures at the richer, more succulent sounds of civilization (there’s something akin to the sound of rushing water on “Fairy Tree,” a hollow note suggesting a pan-flute on “Space Frost”), while remaining untouchably weightless.
Swirlings is generous with melody, following small arpeggios down brightly lit, glistening passages. “Electron Canal” opens with a few glassy notes that expand as they traverse the song, reappearing in intervals as a motif to cut through the dense, chromatic haze that soon builds. Gently running through scales, as on “Ripples,” Groestch manages to maintain a central sense of corporeality—through invoking these repetitious tonalities, he firmly plants his music in a distinctly humanistic sociology of music. In that way, it is much more redolent of early synth pioneers like the late Mort Garson or Gershon Kingsley rather than the eerily post-modern compositions of contemporary softsynth artists like James Ferraro or Oneohtrix Point Never. Though accented by the familiar, his music is hardly grounded. Instead, it seeks to transfer mastery of human composition onto fantastically spacious planes, with surprisingly tranquil results. —Arielle Gordon
Listen to Swirlings on Bandcamp.
Special Costello - Stoner Nights Vol. 3: Self Isolation (self-released)
The year was 2012. The song was 12 minutes long: a lulling, heartbreaking piano ballad called “Music and Image” that sounds like a mad king lighting hundreds of candles until he purposefully tips them onto a carpet and burns his castle to the ground. This was my introduction to Jeremy Costello, a prolific home-recording musician living in Halifax with one of the most achingly beautiful voices that has ever graced my ears. Together with a select group of collaborators, a tender sound world began to emerge with each new release under the name Special Costello.
In the past few years, Costello’s multi-instrumental skills and sonorous vocals have been lent to various higher-profile collaborators including Isla Craig, Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Aquakultre, and most recently Fiver. Yet the Special Costello releases remain the most gloriously raw and unfiltered showcases of a singular experimentalist. The latest entry in the Stoner Nights series (released on March 20th to coincide with Bandcamp’s day of waived revenue share) looks like the kind of slapdash mixtape you’d expect from an underground hip-hop artist like Viper. With topical song titles like “The Rona” and “Flattening The Curve,” Costello describes it as a “weirdo sound bag for the dawning of the New Age.”
Using a collection of retro synths (Roland JX3P, Yamaha DX7, Arturia MicroBrute) and a replica drum machine of the classic 808, the majority of the album’s 101-minute run-time is dedicated to improvised instrumentals drifting into hazy realms of electronic ambience with faded melodies at their core. The closest analogue to its listening experience might be the mid-2000s/early-2010s output of cassette label cosmonauts like Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never, or Motion Sickness of Time Travel. Self Isolation could get lost in the stack of tapes featured on an episode of Tabs Out if it wasn’t for the pair of gorgeous vocal pop songs that bookend this collection. It’s not a masterpiece, but that’s not the point: as Costello explained on Vol. 2 Reefer Sadness, “stoner nights don’t demand perfection from us, they only want to get lost in the atmosphere.” —Jesse Locke
Listen to Stoner Nights Vol. 3: Self Isolation on Bandcamp.
Green-House - Six Songs for Invisible Gardens (Leaving Records)
A cycle of barely-there melodies tucked within an atmosphere of discreet organicism, Los Angeles-based artist Green-House’s early January release, Six Songs for Invisible Gardens, is so unobtrusive as to be the musical equivalent of a green wall. This music is meant to subtly reshape space by functioning primarily as aural wallpaper, and the overall impression left by these six songs, each named after a plant, is more akin to a warm beam of morning sunlight across a hardwood floor than anything barbed and hooky. The meandering melodies are created with the barest of analog instrumentation—the tapping of a vibraphone, the gentle depression of piano keys—and overlaid with the serenest and most evocative of natural sounds: the burbling of hands passing through water, the whooshing of light breezes, the rustling of leaves, a chorus of chirping birds. Though it was recorded long before COVID-19 forced half the world to shelter in place, Six Songs for Invisible Gardens might be the perfect soundtrack for these strange indoor days, as it invites the most soothingly familiar elements of nature into the interior world. While the whimsical idea of making “music for plants” often trends towards the overtly childish (see: Plantasia), Green-House’s iteration on the theme is childlike—content to be left to play quietly in the corner, an imaginary soundtrack for an imaginary garden invisible only to those who have lost the ability to listen without expectation of impression. —Mariana Timony
Listen to Six Songs for Invisible Gardens on Bandcamp.
José Orozco Mora - Formas Aparentes (Constellation Tatsu)
José Orozco Mora’s debut under his own name stands out among the crowded field of krautrock revivalists and new age revisionists. The pieces on Formas Aparentes unfold gradually with a devotional sensibility reminiscent of JD Emmanuel or, to provide a more recent example, Mind Over Mirrors. Half of the tape is synthesizer/organ and live percussion, which is a combination that always seems to draw me in. The pairing of shaken and hit objects with geometric electronic pulses accentuates the humanity of both the percussive and synthetic elements, letting the listener situate themselves somewhere in the middle.
I keep returning to Formas Aparentes for its ability to make me feel present and centered. Detecting emotional intention in electronic music—especially with something that focuses on repetitive, sequenced patterns—can be incredibly subjective, but the way this music evolves, with elements slowly and almost imperceptibly introduced without causing much disturbance, feels inherently peaceful; it feels like a gift given with warmth and affection. It may just be my isolation brain, but there is a sense of connection that flows from this music. After listening, I feel whole. Isn’t capturing that ineffable feeling of spaciousness and harmony exactly what new age music is supposed to do? —Jonathan Williger
Listen to Formas Aparentes on Bandcamp.
Ybalferran - Our Last Days (Vaagner)
There’s no information about Ybalferran online, adding mystery and intrigue to their debut album Our Last Days, which the label describes as “a rather dystopic soundtrack that recounts the last 5 days of human civilisation sonically.” Each of the tracks function as days, and their titles are appended with an additional, descriptive mood. It begins with “Day 1 | Delusions,” which is defined by the continuous tone of a harmonium—among other sounds—treated with ambient effects to create a soft and calming space. Recordings of rainfall characterize “Day 2 | Lamentation,” adding to its soothing atmosphere, but an air of uneasiness is produced from high-pitched tones and sonic discordances. Ybalferran doesn’t approach the idea of extinction as a loud, explosive event; everything lingers, these songs are patiently drawn out. There’s glimmers of optimism on “Day 3 | Hope,” evidenced by pastoral chords that grant the song an upbeat feel. But then a sense of sad resignation appears on “Day 4 | Acceptance (Lights are Fading)” and chirping and squawks signal new life on “Day 5 | Extinction (A New Beginning).” Fumbled field recordings of someone breathing close out the latter track, pointing toward existence as something cyclical. The point being is this: When humans are gone and other creatures appear in our place, a mournful end can still meet a joyous, fresh beginning. —Jeff Brown
Listen to Our Last Days on Bandcamp.
Sara Zalek & Norman W. Long - Steelworkers' Drone (Reserve Matinee)
Sara Zalek and Norman W. Long are two Chicago-based artists. Their practices are both widely varied but converge around a careful attention to, documentation of, and interaction with their environments. Together, they have produced an extraordinary album called Steelworkers’ Drone which blurs the distinctions between all these modes of relation. Though the bulk of the album’s recordings are ostensibly built on a series of soundwalks conducted by the artists, these are by no means simple field recordings. Rather, Zalek and Long utterly transform their environments, turning the natural landscapes into extensions of their own sonic explorations. The album compiles four performance recordings, one at a live venue and three made at former steel plants in southeast Chicago, by the Lake Michigan shore. The first performance, built around an Oliveros composition, features some quiet synths and amplified percussion, as well as subtler sounds, from a softly closing door, to crumpling paper, to the breaths of the performers. The remaining tracks were recorded at Steelworkers Park (the site of tracks 2 and 4) and Big Marsh (the site of track 3).
Google Maps tours of these locations reveal two very different landscapes. Steelworkers Park still seems dominated by enormous concrete monoliths and corridors lined by rusty pipes. Some of these have been adorned with bright, colorful rock-climbing fixtures, but mostly they just tower, water-stained, over the human visitors. Big Marsh, apparently a former landfill site for nearby factories, now appears abundantly green. Though it seems to have been thoroughly reclaimed by nature, it was only opened to the public in the last five years. The Big Marsh performance is, accordingly, drenched with the ambient chirps of birds and cicadas, which sometimes dominate entirely as the performers let their instruments sink into the silence. The track functions as something of a serene interlude between the Steelworkers Park performances. These feature more aggressive synth sounds and sheets of harsh noise, some of which was amplified through the park’s abandoned machinery and other industrial detritus.
All four tracks evince the extraordinary rapport between Zalek and Long. They play generously around each other so that neither ever feels drowned out, even when we can’t pin down who is playing what. The music here can be severe, and even jarring, but it is rarely busy. This restraint also lets the sounds of their environments flow through the music. Sometimes, they relent completely, and we hear the lapping waves of Lake Michigan as they smack against the concrete. —Mark Cutler
Listen to Steelworkers’ Drone on Bandcamp.
A.F. Jones - A Jurist for Nothing (Gertrude Tapes)
Video directed by Lana Z Caplan
“Album” is the most accurate way to describe A Jurist for Nothing because it begs to be listened to from beginning to end, and the sequence and variety of the individual tracks seem intended on ensuring engagement. It succeeds on every level: it has a peculiar Midwestern road movie feel at times—like a more avant-garde Daniel Lanois—keeping the warm production and experimental traits without compromising either. We get the field recordings, the detuned guitar ramblings, the carefully designed arrangements, the bass and mid frequencies and atmosphere. Tracks like “Implicate Order” or the title track, with their insistence on dissonance, have cozy production that smooths the edges in what otherwise may have turned as abrasive as the most experimental corners of post punk. At the same time, it brings echoes of late-era John Fahey and Jandek—albeit without the aggression of the former and the extreme solipsism of the latter—and the sound production of a feature film. The album starts bleak, dives into bleaker oceans, and emerges hopeful, sharing moments of great beauty that are understated but also elated. There was a time during the mid-to-late ‘90s in which this type of album was cherished by critics and audiences. Listening to A Jurist for Nothing makes me feel that when done right, this type of sound will never be outdated. The ending, well, without giving spoilers, will take most by surprise. A really nice surprise. —Gil Sansón
Listen to A Jurist for Nothing on Bandcamp.
Sarah Louise - Earth and Its Contents (self-released)
There is an argument to be made that mountain people are innately well-suited to pandemic times as their lifestyle is already kind of socially distanced. It’s fitting that mountain person Sarah Louise Henson has emerged as something of a muse for the quarantined, hosting live performances and guided meditations on Instagram Live (she’s @sarahlouiseinthemountains) from her peaceful North Carolina home and expanding the confines of isolation by remaining as connected as ever to the broader music community. In many ways, Henson’s musical explorations of the dissolving boundaries between the technological and the organic—something she began with her 2019 release Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars and achieves by electronically manipulating and augmenting the sounds of her guitar into more alien shapes—have become doubly meaningful in a world where the same is happening in front of our eyes. A surprise March release from the artist, Earth and Its Contents was originally written as the score for a speculative fantasy film, but with its use of digital sounds interrupted by Appalachian folk interludes and the intentional use of silence to hold space for reflective stillness within the listening experience, the record feels of-the-moment for a changed reality. The familiarity of fingerpicked folk in this context provides a conduit to an older, earthier way of existence in a world now lived primarily online, its connection to a style of music that has crossed oceans and weathered centuries providing a slight glimmer of hope that humanity might not yet glitch out of existence. —Mariana Timony
Listen to Earth and Its Contents on Bandcamp.
Leo Okagawa - Ulysses (Glistening Examples)
Because acousmatic sound operates outside of the traditional musical vocabulary of structure, technique, and performance, field recordists rely on the aesthetic gesture of the frame in the same way that photographers operating within the regime of painting had to do. Some nature recordings have the sweeping grandeur of an Ansel Adams, while others barely maintain the interest of somebody else’s vacation snapshot; some street sounds have the immediacy of a Garry Winogrand, while others are as busy and blurred as a drunken Instagram photo. What’s missing in even the best field recording, as in photography, is narrative movement within the frame. Leo Okagawa has solved this problem with one word. By titling his new piece Ulysses, he frames his audio collage as the experience of one day, à la Joyce’s novel of the same name. This turns the natural disorientation of the listener of acousmatic sound into inspiration for, in Okagawa’s words, “a dynamic flow of imagination for the listener.” I followed my imaginary character from their morning perambulation to a recycling plant, back for a quick lunch before the street fair and then a drink on the porch—your own results will vary. Mundane, yes, but as in Joyce’s novel the mundane is defamiliarized and transformed into an epic of Homeric proportions. At a time when even a trip to the grocery store feels like a life-or-death proposition, one can’t scoff at a seemingly small scale. Rather, like Cartier-Bresson, Okagawa has zoomed in on the decisive moments that reveal the dramatic tension in the everyday. —Matthew Blackwell
Listen to Ulysses on Bandcamp.
Cocanha - Puput (Pagans)
In Occitan, the word for hoopoe—the crowned bird illustrated on the cover of Cocanha’s latest album—is “Puput.” It’s a name that, along with the striking art, I found hard to scroll past when scouring online for new music. Having no idea what to expect, I pressed play on opener “Suu camin de Sent Jacques.” I was immediately greeted by what melodically sounds like a traditional chant and after roughly twenty seconds, the voices led to a pulsing, textural beat produced by a string tambourine. From this point on I became completely infatuated.
The rest of Puput continues in similar fashion: recontextualizing, reinventing, and revitalizing the historic, vocal-driven music of the Trobaritz—female troubadours from Occitania, a region of southern France, Spain, and Italy whose dialects have been overwhelmed and greatly diminished by nationalist concepts of official languages—with hypnotic rhythms that inject an immediate modernism and accessibility into each piece. The entrancing drones of the string tambourine and danceable beats emphasize the trio’s subversion of tradition across these songs and Cocanha’s plea to shift societal norms is communicated clearly even without understanding the language. The language barrier and folkloric bones of Puput almost make the album easier to interact with, forcing you down a path of innumerable Google searches and open tabs, researching all you can find about the history that eventually led this group of women to create such an astonishing work. —Evan Welsh
Listen to Puput on Bandcamp.
KhalilH2OP - Seid (Posh Isolation)
On Seid, KhalilH2OP presents a series of conversations between nature and a carp amidst a gurgling, modulated landscape. Voices are often heard but not discernible, soaking under vocoder like wet socks. The musical environment shifts, often in the form of post-club tracks condensing into avant-trap, like “Wetnotes” or the weird, gangly Brockhampton cousin “Sky Silky.” Sometimes there is warped sound collage, like “Galdr 2100 III,” which is 13 seconds long and sounds like gargling mouthwash with too much gusto. “Thuggish” is the most commercial, with one of the few perceptible lyrical moments that also doubles as an album motif, “Fish out of water/Feels like we’re going no where.” Oh to be an oily carp with your thoughts unknown to most. It must be frightening to have a bird pluck you from the water, having your home change due to factors bigger than you. But maybe humans aren’t so different. When the environment changes, we get scared.
I’ve been thinking about death a lot. Nature proves again and again that we are weak, blips in the timeline, and detrimentally self-involved considering how briefly we’ve been on earth—how could anyone have ever thought that humans were strong? Though, even the album’s carp is presumably small and inconsequential, it is very much alive. This album soaks up aliveness and spits it out, letting it hum under dirty synths in hidden dialogue. There’s a power in life itself, no consequence needed. Nature begins to mold around you. You exist within it, you become sort of special. —Ashley Bardhan
Listen to Seid on Bandcamp.
Elysia Crampton - Selected Demos & DJ Edits [2007-2019] (self-released)
Elysia Crampton is a documentarian. In every track, there is an uncomfortable confrontation drawn by Crampton’s boundless creativity. You can’t escape the thematic escalations, sound-collage mayhem, and heartfelt audioscapes that are deftly woven throughout a complex web of Latinx teleology. It’s shocking that these are loose demos. Crampton collects a shared ethos within all of these tracks: they are unhinged, stupefying, daringly raw. How does she make such hard noise so accessible? Passages like “LA River demo ” and “For Tío demo ” bring a surround sound that is unyielding and brilliant: Both compositions relay a level of a familiarity in the media-addled brain, giving the listener a psychologically jarring experience. Therein lies the craftsmanship of Elysia Crampton: she is at once a scientist and a magician, relishing in the technical flourishes of DAWs while synthesizing herself through the old world instrumentals that are so lovingly realized. —Eli Schoop
Listen to Selected Demos & DJ Edits [2007-2019] on Bandcamp.
T.D. - Music History (Crisis of Taste)
Hanon finger exercises, 20th century classical, incessant hiss and fuzz, close-miked rummaging, popped champagne bottles, radio excerpts, birdsong, static, water, noise—there’s a lot that makes up the sound collage works of Thomas DeAngelo’s Music History. Beyond the richness of excess, it’s refreshing how everything is treated as detritus. This isn’t to say that each element isn’t treated with respect, it’s more so that everything feels reduced to its most basic sonorous and textural qualities, no single sound holding primacy over another. The lo-fi nature of these pieces also makes it all endearingly scuzzy; when these noises come together, they swirl in a kaleidoscopic goop: a beautiful, brownish muck akin to the contents of your family’s garbage can on Thanksgiving day—somewhere in the dreck is a reminder of the love Uncle Tommy put into preparing his casserole.
When songs stop and start, the brief moments of silence we hear don’t feel so much as a dividing line between tracks as another tool T.D. simply uses to stupefy the listener. There’s a blurry haze to these songs that makes one feel lost, but everything also feels distant, too—like watching home movies and reminiscing on simpler times, wondering where your teenage years (hell, your twenties) went. Music History best succeeds in that way: it functions like a hodgepodge’d presentation of one’s personal music history; T.D. culls assorted sounds from various periods in his life and presents them as amorphous, fleeting memories. It’s like your life flashing before your eyes, except it’s just the boring bits. In other words, it sounds like life itself. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Music History on the Crisis of Taste website.
Ursula Paludan Monberg, Arcangelo & Jonathan Cohen - The Early Horn (Hyperion)
The Early Horn, newly released on the venerable Hyperion Records, shines a light on an underheard corner of classical music history: the artistic progress of the natural horn during the 18th century. The predecessor to the French horn, the natural horn was essentially just one generation removed from a hunting horn. The story goes that the eccentric Bohemian nobleman Franz Anton von Sporck fell in love with the call of a hunting horn on a trip to Versailles and commissioned musicians to learn how to play and write compositions for it. The instrument was refined, the sound made more melodious, but it was still difficult to play and limited in range. It took over 70 years before anyone discovered the proper technique to play a full chromatic scale on a natural horn, and almost 70 years again before they invented valves and made the natural horn into the French one, but the inherent artistic potential of adding a brass instrument to the typical chamber ensemble was quickly recognized and exploited.
The pieces on The Early Horn are from this learning period; what’s termed the Classical period, where the rigorously ordered ornamentality of the Baroque period was simplifying, and beginning to move towards the rich colors and emotive primacy of the Romantic period. Sitting in my armchair and playing amateur musicologist, I can see how the natural horn prefigures and practically embodies the Romantic style: A deeply expressive and rich sound, requiring impressive yet subtle technique to master, but monotonously homophonic and limited in range, requiring an intelligent composer to properly orchestrate for its unique timbre and color.
We see the beginnings of this in The Early Horn, the solo debut of Ursula Paludan Monberg, an incredibly-named natural horn virtuoso from Denmark with over a decade’s worth of experience playing professionally in baroque and classical ensembles throughout Europe. Her playing—and that of the supporting Arcangelo ensemble—is practically flawless. The program is well chosen and paced, balancing well known heavyweights like Haydn and Mozart with rarely recorded pieces from anonymous writers. The recording captures the full sound of the unusually orchestrated chamber ensembles. Sparkling and vibrant, the music on The Early Horn is a reminder of how timeless and beautiful music was often spurred on by experimental constraints. —Samuel McLemore
Listen to excerpts from The Early Horn on the Hyperion website.
Hedra Rowan - The Transgenic Organism in Repose (Bodymilk Tapes)
Hedra Rowan, founder of Chicago-based cassette label Bodymilk Tapes, has been putting out hellacious, hilarious noise projects for years now. The Transgenic Organism in Repose, her latest effort, is by far her most “listenable” yet: sung melodies, tonal harmonies, even the occasional standard meter. Rowan’s records have always been thoughtfully threaded together, but this one brings the listener along on a smooth yet transformative journey into an altered state.
The album’s front half is slow and contemplative. The opening track, “(lewd sucking sounds and labored breathing alternate),” is mostly what its title says, though it grows beyond that as it plays out. About halfway through, we’re introduced to Hatsune Miku—the 16-year-old, turquoise-haired Vocaloid software voicebank—who will act as our spiritual guide, providing eery, postlingual sung vocals throughout the album. Later, the sucking and breathing dissolve into scuttling percussion that manages to sound both analog and glitchy à la Eli Keszler. We also meet another recurring character: a sampled slap bass that works its way into all but one track.
Percussion transitions us to the second track, “(body falls to the ground),” another slow burner. About three minutes in, Miku returns as a small choir and treats us to our first taste of harmony. She’s soon accompanied by the bass and a minimal drum machine, settling into a hypnotic 3/4 groove before breaking off into “(delivered while modeling nude for a painter),” the album’s centerpiece. This track is a largely uninterrupted, 12-minute monologue read by linguistic software, backed by Switched-On Bach style synth swells and the occasional “ooh” and “ah” from Miku. Its first minute lays out the album concept, which draws on Donna Haraway’s theory of the transgenic organism—a creature whose DNA is spliced from more than one specie. Haraway, who loves cyborgs and all things “impure,” argues that these bioengineered beings challenge allegedly stable categories such as gender and race. Here, the transgenic organism is “laying under the cool, watchful eye of a lesbian painter and her craft” when it is “pierced by the sudden dagger of memory from someone in [its] DNA.” It then goes on to summarize scenes from the erotic Japanese video game Bible Black, rewritten by Rowan from the perspective of its female characters. The story begins with an unfulfilling sexual encounter, includes a boss battle with a high school bully, and climaxes with our hero getting fucked into a coma by demons.
Despite its many twists, getting through the long speech requires some patience, and the fourth and final track is a reward for such fortitude. The choice of closing the album with purely pleasurable, uptempo, four-on-the-floor J-pop ear candy is not an immediately obvious one, but given the characters that Hedra has introduced on prior tracks, it works. There have been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of songs written for Hatsune Miku since her creation in 2007. “(i was a member of the club that did it)” is Rowan throwing her hat in the ring for that honor. Miku is finally unleashed, her voice spiraling across octaves and glitching out ecstatically. The funk bass is back and turned all the way up alongside a melee of synths, each with its own 80 mg Adderall prescription. The song ends abruptly, a minute before its runtime has elapsed. There is a harsh, high-pitch tone, a sharp inhale, a long silent stretch, a single sung note, three more quiet inhalations, and then silence. —Raphael Helfand
Listen to The Transgenic Organism in Repose on Bandcamp.
ShrapKnel - ShrapKnel (Backwoodz Studioz)
ShrapKnel is a duo comprised of two driven, prolific East Coast emcees—New York’s Premrock and Philadelphia’s Curly Castro—and their self-titled debut finds them delivering critiques, punchlines, and wisdom across thirteen tracks. Aside from three songs handled by Willie Green, ShrapKnel is produced by New York’s ELUCID, and from the opening sonic blasts of “Ghostface Targaryean,” it’s clear that dark, relentless beats will pair nicely with the duo’s practiced and urgent rhythms. As if the title “Ghostface Targaryean” didn’t set the record straight on reference material, Castro’s verse on “Gun Metal Paint” makes it obvious: “A blade on the run from a clot named Deckard/Like tears in the rain, lost in living weapons,” nodding to Blade Runner before diving into the Alien franchise.
Both emcees are confident and meticulous. “Say what you say/Would you place it on your honor?/Willing to die behind them bars like Dahmer?” interrogates Prem on the short, meditative “Tempest,” where his nonchalant delivery belies the confrontation he’s willing to have. Deliveries throughout the album come across stern but calm, never letting their emotions run away with them, never falling off rhythm. There’s a realness on Shrapknel that never aggrandizes, mostly because there are so many things they’re real about—comics, science fiction, history, literature, spirituality. There’s no thematic hierarchy, and the mashing together is particularly thrilling: “Rasputin/Hunting mutants,” Castro incants over slurring piano on “Dumile High.” Disciples of the Wu-Tang school, ShrapKnel wear their interests overtly on their sleeves, but like their forebears, they’re gonna sound commanding and captivating while doing it. —Jordan Reyes
Listen to ShrapKnel on Bandcamp.
Annie Blech - Air Force (self-released)
Air Force begins with the donning of a contact-mic’d cellophane suit. There’s a certain displeasure to getting zipped up. I feel it starting in my stomach and then moving gradually, rising to my head via my throat but evaporating before it reaches. When I wasn’t looking, it started again: zipping endlessly, a perverse sort of Shepard tone that might induce retching. In Super Mario 64, our protagonist gets it too when he runs up the stairs to meet his adversary, but finds the hallway unending, as if the universe knows he’s not ready, his destiny unfulfilled. If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume it’s how the game ends. Without a game guide, the mustachioed plumber is lost, narrowly ascending with doom to his left and desire to his right, both reminding him he must move forward. In Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film adaptation of the Greek myth, Orpheus needs a guide too. Without Heurtebise, he’d be ever-ascending amidst a valley of horror, images imprinting as trauma and pain. Even so, with mindful eyes overlooking, the bumbling poet turns back, sends Eurydice back to the depths, only he now knows how vile her fate is; he fails his duty and is worse for the trouble. On Air Force, Blech achieves, if briefly, the constant guideless simmering, never quite changing in energy but moving through tiers, textures, objects, techniques. Pleasure and horror oscillate unpleasantly in an unceasing climb. Recorded and released in the face of uncertainty, staring down the current pandemic, Air Force captures a certain form of ambient dread, the sort without a climax, without a resolve or space for reflection. It’s getting zipped up and hating it: this prolonged, hollow, and pending end. —Leah B. Levinson
Listen to Air Force on Bandcamp.
Electric Indigo - Ferrum (Editions Mego)
Ferrum, the latest full-length from Berlin-based Susanne Kirchmayr’s Electric Indigo alias, mines the fertile intersection of the producer’s dual backgrounds in computer music and club culture while evincing new aesthetic horizons for both.
The album’s first half, comprising two lengthy suites, opens with aqueous glissandi submerged within a reverberant sound-field redolent of subterranean caverns and shifting mantle before steadily evolving into the grinding, claustrophobic density of Futurist factories. The resulting tension is palpable enough as to entirely avoid the stiltedness which often befalls lesser works of computer music, helped in no small part by a production style informed by the post-dub periphery. Ferrum’s second half is comparatively out of left-field: a ballet mécanique of percussive textures approaching Ostgut Ton’s foley-techno Fünf crossed with Rolf Liebermann’s fax machine symphony. These arrangements delicately balance their intensely haptic qualities with an off-kilter playfulness not entirely foreign to early IDM’s colorful tinker-toy worlds, or the contemporary Matmos’s axonometric projections of household objects, and are consistent all the same with the rigor of sonic detail established by the more classically-oriented segments.
Ferrum’s success lies chiefly in its formal ingenuity, as cultivated by an economy of sound derived entirely from the resonances of metal objects. As demonstrated in Xenakis’s 1958 famous construction of smoldering wood-ember fragments, “Concret PH,” the most restrictive of sonic palettes may be transformed into manifolds of spectral diversity through technical manipulation. Indeed, it is precisely through the selection and meticulous examination of a particular range of sonorous phenomena—as opposed to a freewheeling montage of disjunctive samples—that the composer is able to broach a phenomenology of sound outright, and integrate dimensions of sound beyond manifest audibility into novel, synthetic singularities. The record’s honed-in focus is decisive towards this end, and it is in this manner that it maintains a cohesion across distinct idioms.
Kirchmayr is, of course, not the first to document the sonorous potentialities of metal. She expands upon a legacy of sound artists repurposing the versatile material towards myriad ends. Harry Bertoia’s sound-sculptures bore witness to the hypnotic undulations produced by bowing steel wire, while Japanese noise artist Aube, in taxonomizing the sonic properties of found objects, subjected metal to empirical analysis; other industrial luminaries such as K2 and Z’EV employed the abrasive properties of metal towards cacophonous assaults and shamanic rituals, respectively. But Ferrum stands unique among those for its robust, architectonic approach drawing equally from the academy and the nightclub. Against a trend of increasingly high-theoretical extravagance over the past decade—the Baroque enterprises of narratology and pastiche so-termed “conceptronica”—Ferrum suggests that electronic music’s greatest potential may lie instead in its capacity to open new vistas of articulating and apprehending the fugitive dimension of sound. —Sean Johnson
Listen to Ferrum on Bandcamp.
GUAN - Drone A (Merrie Records)
Chinese techno producer GUAN personifies his latest album Drone A as a grotesque anthropomorphic spider: all the better for navigating the increasingly tangled threads between our selves and our technologies. GUAN is from Hangzhou, the gleaming home of tech giant Alibaba and one of the many rival claimants to the title of “China’s Silicon Valley.” Or maybe that’s getting it the wrong way around: The New York Times reported that the “WeChat model”—where social life, commerce, entertainment, and yes, surveillance, are seamlessly integrated—has become the envy of Western companies like Google and Apple.
Drone A’s sound is shaped by industrial music and deconstructed club, and the latter’s inclusion tempers the former’s tendency towards self-seriousness. Tracks like “XM Body” and “2509 Surt Rock” equip their buzzsaw synths and metallic clanging with dancefloor-ready grooves, while “Love in Cyberspace” and “Spider Cave” take a campy, SOPHIE-esque approach to mechanical menace. It all adds up to a fascinating album that alternates between critique and celebration of the great internet experiment, one which asks whether the pleasures of the digital lifestyle is worth the price. —Adesh Thapliyal
Listen to Drone A on Bandcamp.
Sightless Pit - Grave of a Dog (Thrill Jockey)
The joke of the Lutheran hymns I learned as a young girl was that their melodies began life as singalongs for alcoholic peasants, and though they’d been refashioned and sombered till they suited their more godly purpose, their lusty and earthy origins were still obvious if you took them irreligiously enough to hear the muddy, blood-rousing truth beneath the piety.
I discovered the various extremities of metal before I lost the faith, and I was always struck by how the aggressively churchless, burningly antipious work of these subgeneric stalwarts seemed to reflect these worn homilies in the inverse. Beneath the scraping, demonic hisses of the deliberately occulted production, and the growls and screeches of the unintelligible vocals, there would lurk somber melodies and yearning swells I associated more with church organs than either digital synths or simple pianos. Godless and despairing though many of them professed to be, the bloody-minded respect they showed to this seeming inescapable desire for ritual still bled true. That held my interest like a fist holds a heart.
On Grave of a Dog, Sightless Pit make the kind of music I expect I’d hear in a cathedral space devoted to exactly those holy rites. The laborers assembled on this record are icons in the subgenres of metal extremity, intermingling the iconography for which they’ve earned their reputations like a worship team pulls together the components of a praise chorus. A senselessly intuitive keening mingles with heavily processed shrieks; the words are indecipherable, but the wasteland of feeling lingers on, a shared bitterness: like a communal wafer pressed to our tongues, perhaps, the incarnate body of a void where a compassionate god never was—all loves divine, all loves dead, all loves excelling. The grossly liturgical blasphemy of the effort perhaps feels most potently realized on “The Ocean of Mercy,” as Lee Buford’s ruthless, throbbing, gristly beats of industrial techno and Dylan Walker’s static-infested, hellish grunts undulate beneath an actual pipe organ and the piercing tones of Kristin Hayter’s vocal solo. Hayter wails a eulogy for the passing of the world in simple refrain before her own sturdy voice breaks down into the chorus of catastrophic digital shards it only briefly floated above. Later tracks shudder with violent desperation, taking sheets of compressed noise and shredding them into pulsating rhythms for disassembled samples of tinkling keystrokes, all carved up like lacy fabric to drape themselves across. And as if to spite it all, Hayter still grieves, her melancholy inarguably angelic.
I remember sitting in the pews, the rough faux-leather fabric and sturdy stock of the hymnal beneath my fingers, the shimmering gold foil of the edges of each page fluttering as I turned to the right-numbered entry. I remember hating the sound of my voice, struggling to be heard beneath the weight of the dust-filtered light. I remember the anxiety of bodies pressed into hard wooden rows, the serenity I yearned to ever feel, the loneliness and uncertainty that came to claim me through the motions instead. All these sensations now feel heightened by the passage of time, sandpaper stark, the voices flattened into compressed stabs of agitation, nostalgia, and anger. I do not feel much like faith holds comfort for me in these dis-eased times. But actions, like ritual, remain. Sightless Pit sing these desires back to me, and I take their cold comfort in the spirit it’s offered. —Tara Wrist
Listen to Grave of a Dog on Bandcamp.
Still from Moving (Shinji Sômai, 1993)
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