Tone Glow 020: Our Favorite Albums, April-June 2020
Tone Glow's writers highlight 30 albums from the year's second quarter
Edited still from Suburban Birds (Sheng Qiu, 2018)
What is the purpose of music? That’s a question I often asked myself throughout the past three months. At many points it felt superfluous—how could it not? As protests occurred throughout the nation, as police and prison abolition entered mainstream thought, there was sense of a real movement taking place throughout the United States and the world at large. So it was fine: our priorities shifted, we moved according to our impulses, and Tone Glow went on a temporary hiatus.
I can’t think of another three month period in my life where I saw more people’s true colors revealed, be it from their handling of COVID and wearing masks, or their reaction to George Floyd’s murder and the events that followed. From celebrities and artists to family and friends, everyone seemed to have a fuller shape to them after they opened their mouths (or in some cases, left them closed).
Certain albums rose to the surface during this time too. Some of the records we loved were political, some were intensely personal, and others were providing us pleasure—some were all three. Whatever the case, these were records that meant something to us during a charged, emotional, and momentous period. In a sense, music is always telling us something—something about the world, something about ourselves, something about music itself. Below, find 30 albums we’ve individually selected, all of which imparted some sort of meaning throughout the past three months. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
MIKE - Weight of the World (10K)
MIKE announced his latest album, Weight of the World, on May 21—a full four days before George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, kicking off the greatest wave of protests against police violence toward Black people that the United States has seen in decades. Of course there’s no sorcery behind how this album could sound so prescient—everything MIKE raps about is as pressing now as it was last month, or last year, or last decade, or last century. On Weight of the World, MIKE struggles with the passing of his mother alongside the violence in his streets, bringing a solemn sense of wisdom and resolve in the face of senseless death. “I got my mother’s laugh / Grinnin’ through a bunch of bad shit,” he declares on opener “Love Supremacy,” flashing that stoned smile of his before diving into the weariest tracks of his prolific career.
As usual, MIKE’s production is casually bursting with ideas, dipping in and out of high-and-low fidelity, setting up deliriously slurry rhythms for him to turn the same syllable around over and over again. “It’s drippin’ sorrow when I write / This a different war,” he sighs on the chilling “Coat of Many Colors,” smearing his voice in static and thundering rain in one of the record’s most beautiful moments. MIKE runs through beats as if he were skipping tracks on an iPhone, rapping the first half of the gorgeous “No, No” before flipping the switch to surround sound and letting the beat just ride out. Even though he’s only been operating for a few short years, MIKE has already reached a level that most artists spend a lifetime trying to attain, juggling laughter and despair as if it were easy, bearing witness to the hell we’re living in while finding a light to shine the way forward. “Try to tell you that we safe / But we keep dyin’,” he says on the desperate closing track “Allstars” before later adding, “Why do grievin’ in the bed be the best option?” It’s a dark last verse from MIKE, but Earl Sweatshirt steps in with a final feature apparently recorded the day before the album’s release. “Imma leave proudly,” he affirms, and like a warrior picking up his fallen comrade in the field of battle, it feels like they just might make it through the pain. —Sam Goldner
Purchase Weight of the World at Bandcamp.
KeiyaA - Forever, Ya Girl (Forever Recordings)
As carceral impulses come undone and imagination rapidly evolves into our social compass, I keep returning to what Thebe Kgositsile tweeted during the first week of nationwide protests following George Floyd’s murder: “the role of fantasy in liberation is huge. we are tasked with creating something that we cant really see. building the plane while its flying.” The sentiment speaks volumes and encapsulates with brevity what has drawn me to the microcosm of metaphysical rap music that has emerged from NYC over the past half-decade, the same scene that Earl has had a hand in amplifying through the still-stunning Some Rap Songs and beyond. The sonic vocabulary of Black genres is stretched past their limits to confidently abstract sound-worlds steeped in time-space; these are works engaged in dialogue with those of past generations that beg to be consumed start-to-finish as if through meditation—in a word, they suggest profound possibility in the place of pigeonholing.
When KeiyaA applies all of the above to the neo-soul canvas of her largely self-produced debut, the near-pointillist attention to detail is impossible to ignore. To compare Forever, Ya Girl to other recent ethereal-leaning R&B records would be to detach it from its sense of auteurship, something immediate on first listen. Amid mountains of production credits and features, it’s rare to find debuts of this caliber that are unmistakably the work of one set of ears. Her ability to reframe even the peppiest of Prince deep-cuts into an introspective slash-chord slow-burn speaks to her gifts as an arranger. No surprise that both her harmonic and off-kilter rhythmic choices read like those of a veteran Soulquarian—she cut her teeth in Chicago as a session saxophonist for Chance and Noname before landing in New York. Even so, the curation of these loops and transitions feel as lived-in as her lyrical longing, new details arriving at each repetition. This is soul abstraction at its most somnambulist, the hopeful start of a solo career that I look forward to following. —Nick Zanca
Purchase Forever, Ya Girl at Bandcamp.
Cindy Lee - Cat O’ Nine Tails (CCQSK)
On their second and particularly clandestine album of 2020—available only via digital order on a GeoCities page—Cindy Lee, the solo-endeavor of former Women lead singer and guitarist Pat Flegel, tightens up on structure and eases on intensity. What’s Tonight To Eternity emphasized the juxtaposition between long sections of harsh noise and decaying pop sweetness over a challenging yet enticing 43-minutes. Also running nine tracks, Cat O’ Nine Tails sheds nearly 20-minutes of runtime and doesn’t attempt to live up to the tensions and harsh dichotomies of its predecessor. Instead, the album focuses more on the slow intertwining of glistening pop nostalgia and unsettling, spectral atmosphere that has defined Cindy Lee.
Cat O’ Nine Tails feels less like Flegel is backing away from the distinct tensions of What’s Tonight To Eternity than they’re allowing for dialectical synthesis, which lends a sense of cohesion and accessibility to Cat O’ Nine Tails. The record flows without disruption—“Cat O’ Nine Tails I,” “II,” and “III” act as the guiding force through the piece, as the short flurries of skittering, high-pitched synthesizer and ominous ambiance lead from one set of hazy, distorted ’60s pop balladry to the next, closing with the ascendant and soulful “Bondage of the Mind.” The degree of difficulty may be lower on Cat O’ Nine Tails, but Cindy Lee is definitively moving forward, offering a perfect bite of dark pop ephemera. —Evan Welsh
Purchase Cat O’ Nine Tails on Cindy Lee’s GeoCities page.
Pale Cocoon - 繭 (Mayu) (Incidental Music / Conatala)
As I hold the CD for Pale Cocoon’s Mayu in my hands, I am overcome with a feeling of vindication. There finally exists a physical object that represents what has, for nearly a decade (or more—it’s hard to remember), existed only as a spiritual adventure for me. I don’t particularly care to own a lot of physical media; I balk at the idea of filling my home with things I don’t need. My utilitarian philosophy demands that everything I surround myself with has a purpose. Although I have no physical need to own a copy of Mayu, the metaphysical need was strong. Listening to this remaster in a clarity far higher than what I’m accustomed to with none of the tape hiss that I have come to associate with the music, I am thrilled to experience something so familiar to me in a new way after all this time. Thumbing through a reproduction of the companion booklet that I have only experienced as scans in a Flickr album since 2012, I feel a warmth for this album I haven’t felt since I was a teen.
Mayu has strong ties to a specific time in my life, and had a part in shaping me into the person I am today. It’s impossible to remember exactly when I first heard this album and where I found it, but I almost certainly downloaded it from a Blogger site—the Google-owned blogging platform with the blogspot subdomain—during the zenith of the music blog golden era in the late aughts and the early 2010s. Through a network of affiliations not unlike late ’90s webrings, blogs specializing in specific niche interests linked to one another and shared their deepest cuts, doing their best to provide a bit of background about the curiosities on offer. Most writers were amateur and information about the most obscure releases were scarce, but these blogs were an invaluable resource for a curious mind looking to take a peek beneath the surface and experience music unlike what they may have heard before. Naturally, Mayu was heavily passed around among blogs specializing in Japanese music.
Mayu captivated me in a way I remember few things in the Blogger-era managing to do. Details about Pale Cocoon and Pafe Record—the mysterious label that published Mayu—were and are still scarce, but it barely made a difference to me. It’s now known that Belgian symbolist art, classic Japanese literature, and arthouse film are points of reference for Pale Cocoon, but a younger version of me was content just to put the album on and daydream; the places my imagination took me were enough to nail Mayu to the floor in my ever-revolving sanctuary of favorite things. On my own long-evaporated file sharing blog that I maintained in my late teens, I described Mayu as the soundtrack to a film that only exists in my head; I still stand by those words. I normally opted for fairly pedestrian descriptions of the things I shared—I was writing for probably ten people at most, after all—but Mayu compelled me to write about music from the heart for the first time I can remember. When I champion my favorite things loudly and proudly today, I strive to bring that same enthusiasm that compelled me to upload something to Rapidshare in the hope that somebody would click the link all those years ago. —Shy Thompson
Macaroom & Toshiaki Chiku - Kodomono Odoriko (Kiishi Bros. Entertainment)
After Macaroom’s excellent 2018 Swimming Classroom, the group returns with a collaboration album featuring Toshiaki Chiku, who was once a member of Tama and Pascals, two moderately well-known Japanese experimental folk groups. Outside of the album’s title track, all songs on the album are pulled from Chiku’s extensive discography. Macaroom’s producer has had free rein to rework the songs into more cutesy and charming versions. This collaborative songwriting results in a fun sound, but where the album absolutely shines is in its vocal performances. Chiku’s androgynous singing voice is equal parts bratty young kid and haughty old lady, and his expressiveness gets explored throughout the album.
Androgynous singing voices are often gender neutral and hard to contextualize, but Chiku’s particular brand of vocal androgyny is that of gender maximalism. His voice seems to fit all contexts simultaneously, and the way its multifacetedness entwines with the feminine, whispery tone of Macaroom’s vocalist Emaru is delightful. On Kodomono Odoriko she’s mostly on backing vocal duty, but it all works out well, as she can function as a cushion for Chiku to showcase his unique voice. This way he’s allowed to be in the front and add some much-needed ruggedness into Macaroom’s whimsical bedroom pop. —Oskari Tuure
Download Kodomono Odoriko at Bandcamp.
Lily & Horn Horse - Republicans for Bernie (Dots Per Inch)
My initial impulse was to recoil at the title. “Republicans for Bernie” felt both too on the nose and beside the point. Worse yet, it held a shield of irony despite its political signaling, and this coming from a duo I had come to love for their relentless sincerity in spite of a humorously shifting, absurd, and anachronistic musical framework. Now that I’ve sat with the EP, the title has grown on me: It points elsewhere, channeling propulsive post-hypnagogic jazz-fusion-inflicted dream pop down endless alleys without resolve and with little refrain. The album’s opener asks bemoaningly—amidst much greater existential queries—, “Why’d you have to say that / Why’d you have to say that / About Crosby, Stills & Nash / Crosby, Stills & Nash.” The question lingers because, A), we would never assume that—in all their apparent multitudinous influences—Lily and Horn Horse are especially inspired by the work of Crosby, Stills & Nash and, B), we are never sure what slight has been said of the late-60s folk-rockers in the first place. The song opens up twin exits, splitting off into worlds exterior to its own tightly-composed body. The five songs that follow are among the duo’s strongest to date, oscillating abruptly as they do, floating further philosophical quandaries (“And how am I supposed to reckon with this loneliness? / How much does it really cost to be me?”) and affirmations of the self (“I know what I want this time / Can we know?”) atop brilliantly shifting grooves and synthetic fields. The result is whimsical, strange, and altogether enchanting. —Leah B. Levinson
Purchase Republicans for Bernie at Bandcamp.
John Wall - M - [ B ] (self-released)
John Wall is objectively one of the most underrated experimental musicians of the past few decades—though his earlier work is decently well known in experimental circles (most notably 1995’s Alterstill and 1997’s Fractuur) I still continue to be shocked by his enduring obscurity given his body of work, which is one of the most groundbreaking and radical of any artist, in any genre, ever. Yes, I’m a fan.
If you listen through his discography, his obscurity kind of makes sense; his earlier work dealt with large, often recognizable sampled fragments, which gave listeners something solid to hold onto. Since 1999’s Constructions I-IV, his work has become increasingly shorter, sharper, more compact and heavily ‘digital’—2003’s hylic and 2005’s cphon, my favorites of his discography, are ostensibly built from acoustic samples, but are so heavily processed that we’re left with ghostly ephemera, high frequency whirrs, what The Wire’s Brian Marley called an “endlessly varied colouration, weight and placement of bumps and clicks.” And if you listen to Simon Cummings’s incredible 3-hour interview with him, you get the sense that Wall isn’t all that interested in fame and acclaim; the furious intensity of his work speaks for itself, and as much as I want to see him get more attention, something about his approach and obscurity makes listening to his work that much more thrilling—the classic double bind of loving an underrated artist.
In recent years, Wall—who himself acknowledged that the austere sound of hylic and cphon was a possible dead end—has shifted gears, incorporating more recognizable live improvisations on 2017’s FGBH and collaborating with poet Alex Rodgers on various releases like 2018’s Soar. The Rodgers pieces introduced somewhat more recognizable ‘contemporary’ sounds—dubby chords, drum hits—but still warped and stretched to a psychedelic extreme. 2020’s M - [ B ], dropped unceremoniously on his personal Bandcamp page, pushes this new approach even further; I see it as a stunning synthesis of his exacting approach on hylic and cphon and his club-minded explorations on the Rodgers collaborations.
Though the swelling and, in Wall’s words, “romantic” synth chords mark the most outwardly exciting moments throughout M - [B], the suspended drones in between—rattling, billowing—are moments of static beauty reminiscent of his early work on Fractuur. Wall has always worked with deceptively simple tools: as demonstrated in the aforementioned interview, his work is largely constructed with typical sample-based techniques like granulation, time-stretching and pitch-shifting—classic audio manipulation. However, Wall distinguishes himself from countless glitch, clicks and cuts acolytes with his unwavering emphasis on composition, construction, arrangement, assembly, and, accordingly, duration, tension, arc—things often seen as old-fashioned in the age of algorave and free improvisation. While even the best glitch and experimental electronic music often sounds locked in a certain era, mindblowing one day and laughably dated the next, Wall’s work—whether he’s working with pure Max/MSP-generated synthesis, samples of friends improvising in his bedroom, or chunks of Napalm Death and Xenakis—always transcends genre, transcends what it is ‘on paper’: on paper, Alterstill is a kind of ‘plunderphonics,’ but devoid of the self-aware, ‘political’ (re: copyright) and consequently dated approach of practitioners like John Oswald; on paper, hylic is the most classic example of 2000s glitch, with its barely-audible sine tones and digital abstraction, but it possesses a deeply spiritual, timeless and ultimately impenetrable aura, as opposed to the countless glitch releases as hackneyed statements on technology, computers, data; and on paper, M - [B] is a Mark Fell-esque meditation on contemporary club music, but in reality Wall has no meta-interest in subverting and deconstructing cultural trends, clichés and sounds—I get the feeling that these are simply the sounds he’s most interested in working with for now, that something else will replace them in the future, and that whatever he does will always sound like him and him alone.
All that being said, as one reviewer, Sam Ridout, pointed out, Wall decided to include two “Versions” of the “M - B” composition here, immediately recalling a “history of dub and sampling at which Wall’s music obliquely glances: the sound of endless revisions.” This version/dub approach seems immediately at odds with the surgical compositional approach that I argue makes his work so good. But I see it as a thrilling new step rather than a contradiction—a genuine, not forced or stilted bridge between the infinitely-revisable club/dub world and the capital-P ‘Piece’-focused classical world. M - [B] is at once an immaculately and painstakingly constructed ‘composition’ with a keen sense of tension and duration and an infinitely-loopable ‘club trak’: Basic Channel’s “Radiance III” refracted, dipped in acid, chiseled down, stretched out. Dubs and versions in the club world offer fresh perspectives on a familiar object; Wall’s “Versions” do the same, but the object in question is itself already warped, cracked, endlessly morphing and undulating while remaining stable, solid, three-dimensional. This is a thrilling approach, a genuine synthesis, an opening towards something new. —Sunik Kim
Purchase M - [ B ] at Bandcamp.
Claire Rousay - “i’ll give you all of my love” (Anahuac Editions)
“i’ll give you all of my love” is, by my count, Rousay’s seventh release this year. It’s also her last one to date, which makes her opening confession that she wants to quit music troublingly convincing. This is the best album in an already stellar year for her, and easily my favourite album of the year so far. “i’ll give you all of my love” is, like all of Rousay’s work, deeply personal, but it is also fantastically arranged. She incorporates candid recordings of the banal moments in her life—passing a busy street, sending and receiving texts—as well as direct addresses to the listener. Yet, these borderline non-musical elements weave beautifully into a composition that is persistently engrossing.
The first track features an effect I still don’t understand. It sounds like Rousay is turning the spokes of a bicycle, but the turning seems to disrupt the music itself, causing stuttering silences in the otherwise continuous fabric of sound. It is an initially bemusing intrusion: a reminder of the physical presence and limitations of the microphone, its vulnerability to accidental knocks and gentle breezes. Otherwise, we hear largely domestic recordings from Rousay’s life. There are the sounds from her iPhone and from her shower. There are deep synthy drones and high-pitched staticky whines. The music does not always let us place it; plenty of audio here could be either field recording or produced in-studio. Rousay occasionally speaks up again, but her voice is sometimes wholly obscured by blasts of wind and bangs of unseen objects.
The second track is more low-key, opening with soft clicks, taps and scratches, including what sound like laptop keys in the background. Rousay’s voice soon returns, but only as a flurry of whispers, inhalations and sighs. It almost sounds as though she recorded herself speaking and then cut out all the actual words, leaving only the incidental sounds which accompany regular speech. These hushed fragments swarm and sometimes threaten to drown out the more identifiable sounds underneath, precisely reversing the effect of the first track.
Then we get to what I’ve taken to calling the “hey solo.” Rousay deploys a single sample of herself saying a single word over and over, but with such poise that it surprises me every time. The sample is muffled and tinny, as though recorded from a voicemail. It feels genuine and a little vulnerable, but also comes as a comedic interruption, diffusing the austere mood which musique concrète in general and field recordings in particular so often produce. The gravity of her opening pronouncement gives way to a refreshing levity: in the same section, for instance, Rousay seems to strike a singing bowl, then activate Siri—who naturally fails to detect any speech.
This balance of bracing composition and moments of genuine comedy are, for me, what elevate “i'll give you all of my love” over Rousay’s other releases this year. In the world of field recording, in an era when almost every living being carries a recording device in their pocket, it is difficult to find genuinely new sounds. Backfiring engines, water circling a drain—we’ve heard these used before. What sets Rousay apart is how she handles her material, making it feel more intimate even as she also makes it clear that what we’re hearing is heavily manipulated and arranged. Rousay never explains her desire to stop making music, but it’s an understandable impulse for an artist who consistently puts so much on the line. —Mark Cutler
Purchase “i’ll give you all of my love” at Bandcamp.
Jürg Frey - List of Words List of Sounds (AMPLIFY 2020)
AMPLIFY 2020 is in many ways the most important thing going on in the field of experimental music, with more than 100 artists presenting some of their best work. It’s quite common to find that artists tend to take slightly different routes for their participation in the online festival, with some deliberately crafting carefully considered statements and others offering a peek into their daily routines and habits under quarantine. Frey’s piece inhabits a place in which poetry, music catalog and lists of sounds and words have all equal importance as potential generators of emotional resonance.
The instruments and sounds are pretty humble—mouth harp, melodica and upright piano—and they are deployed with the exquisite care we have come to expect from Frey. Combined with the list of words, which are delivered without affectation or mannerism, it all gives the listener the feeling of opening a box and examining its contents one by one, without hurry. There doesn’t seem to be any particular logic or narrative to the unfolding of the sounds—sometimes they appear alone, others as an amalgam.
The sounds themselves have a naked beauty to them without being overtly precious, and so we engage with each one without clinging to them, letting go as a new sound emerges, presents itself and leaves for good. When listening, I get the impression of a composer at his studio, exploring materials in a seemingly unambitious way, allowing for the sounds to speak to him without choosing to expand them, and the rather abrupt ending hints that this is just the audible part of a much longer process—one that doesn’t necessarily need to be translated to sound but still relates very much to the act of composing music. In any case, it’s one of my favorite pieces of music of late. —Gil Sansón
Purchase List of Words List of Sounds at Bandcamp.
Ulla - Inside Means Inside Me (Boomkat Editions | Documenting Sound)
“How do we fall in love with ourselves? That is a really big question.” These words, appearing partway through Ulla’s latest album, drip with a palpable sincerity—one that teeters close to the energy of your average Sundance drama. The context saves it: they’re preceded by the sound of clacking keyboards, and the audio is presumably lifted from a phone call. Talking with friends, passing time on the internet, unraveling ourselves while holding fast to self-care—that’s life during quarantine, right?
Something that’s become increasingly real to me the past few months is the importance of talking with friends, of removing myself from my overthinking head, of having a support system that’s truly sustainable. It’s hard to say where I would be if I didn’t have legitimately wonderful conversations with my friends recently, many of whom I only know from the internet. (A couple of them are even Tone Glow writers—love you Leah, love you Shy.)
When I hear the undulating ambience that undergirds this album, I feel transported to that particular space—one where I’m on the phone, talking with a friend, comfortable enough to be open and honest and me. It’s in those conversations where I learn, even if subconsciously, what it means to love myself, that it can be as simple as being with others. When Ulla transforms the ambience on Side B into something more vaporous and dubby, it feels like the after-effects of those conversations—calming, cozy, like I’m feeling the nourishment they provide after it’s all done.
I’ve been thinking about the title, Inside Means Inside Me. People have been telling others to “stay inside” during quarantine; I can tell people to stay inside as well, but I can also tell them to stay inside. That is to say, the love and the care and the joy that I’ve felt from being with others—I want that in me, I want it to stay. I want to be better about maintaining the relationships I have, of being there for others, of helping others love themselves. “It’s not any of our faults but, you know, all of my friends have been fucked up lately,” we hear at one point on the album. It makes sense that that one question—“How do we fall in love with ourselves?”—is asked collectively. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Inside Means Inside Me at Boomkat.
Sandy Ewen - You Win (Gilgongo Records)
Sandy Ewen, a Brooklyn-based sound artist and architect, creates subtly transportive improvisations on her first solo LP, You Win. Her work employs a wide variety of different extended techniques to explore the infinite possibilities of sound made by the guitar. The album features two sets recorded in 2018 that each stem from the type of airy crackling that’s often dubbed ASMR, but the magic of the record lies in its unraveling. Ewen embraces a musical process based on change that comes in slow-motion—it’s a restrained change that blooms in waves. “You Win,” the title track, exemplifies this ideology as it travels in sections from crunching sounds to erratic guitar distortion to high-pitched chirping. These shifts in sound space move seamlessly, so much so you almost forget how the sound has come and gone. This subtlety manifests in other ways too, like on “Face Topography,” where sound is delicate and tactile, through gargling pitches and abrasive scratching against the strings of a guitar.
While tangibility is a central part of the music Ewen makes on You Win, she takes the concept a step further in her visual recreations of the improvisations featured on the album. These surrealist visuals, informed by her expertise in architecture, launch her music into its own virtual reality that’s gradually, but steadily, engulfing. Like the music, the videos work in slow-motion, gently weaving through absurdist scenery and moving deeper into mysterious realms. The eccentric reality Ewen imagines is hypnotic, a place where total immersion is the cause rather than the effect. —Vanessa Ague
Purchase You Win at Bandcamp.
Bobby Barry - Meccano Club (Bloxham Tapes)
There’s a thread of references which Bobby Barry’s Meccano Club proposes a listener should untie to fully understand where the work and the composer are coming from. Meccano is a brand of model construction system which allows for building functional mechanical devices. Desmond Briscoe used to be a member of a local Meccano Club whilst being an English schoolboy in the ’30s. Daphne Oram is a genius woman who co-founded BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958 with one… Desmond Briscoe. Besides the recordings of an electric shaver, radiators, a kettle, a scouring pad, a pencil, a sharpener, a pestle, a mortar, two music boxes, the sounds of Bắc Kạn, Vietnam, the ambience of Victoria, Australia, the reverberations of London—all of which Barry used to complete Meccano Club—there are the sounds of the voice: transformed, crooked, distorted, sometimes reminiscent not of a voice at all, but a wave of piercing noise, of the man named… Desmond Briscoe. Let the circle be unbroken.
Just as with Barry’s work in Far Rainbow, Meccano Club really comes from a completely different place. The expectations of a severe case of BBC Radiophonic Workshop worship or an occasion of a hauntological hysteria should better be left behind before the work is approached. This music neither aches to be utilised nor struggles to remember things half-forgotten. That electric shaver never buzzes out, those music boxes play the melodies of unintelligibility, and Bắc Kạn, Victoria and London never serve as azimuth for the sound. Meccano Club is all desolation and the numerous ways Barry works around it. There’s no central narrative, yet the music doesn’t ever seem like it’s all over the place, yet the parts of the same recordings appear as powerful, articulate and laconic gestures, yet the drama of the constantly introduced new textures and new sounds hint at something continuous. If you need references, think Ingram Marshall, post-SFTMC pre-Deep Listening Pauline Oliveros, David Rosenboom, Eskimo by The Residents. Then think again and forget.
Before taking up a career of a composer and improviser (and also before becoming a music writer and editor, currently working at The Quietus, and among other things authoring a crucial pamphlet titled The Music of the Future), Barry used to be the man behind The Pipettes, a girl group which tried to revive the many facets of the ’60s girl group sound back in the ’00s. He wrote songs, produced recordings and played guitar for them, and their songs were of a Bob Pollard school of brevity, on-pointedness, hook-fillness, gravity and earthness. It’d be wasteful on Barry’s side not to learn from the experience and not to bring the learning into his new work.
And so he does. Meccano Club is fun, engaging, rocking, sweet, angry, provoking, i.e. very much pop, all while being lethargic in its choice of a tempo, all while being almost static if not listened to at a proper volume, all while using the very un-pop shimmer as the foundation of its sound. These layers of voices, blasts, cracks of feedback, unpredictable fragments of field recordings, all arrive at precisely the moments and never ever overstay their welcome. They serve as instantly gratifying little dramas, as if they are hooks, collected through numerous pop songs and put together in one overflowing stream. Instead of demanding attention, this music seeks to captivate. There’s a Meccano somewhere, made to be a magical device that lets the room be filled with mysterious sounds. —Oleg Sobolev
Purchase Meccano Club at Bandcamp.
Graham Dunning - Panopticon (Every Contact Leaves a Trace)
Among the countless other baffling and implausible events, both good and bad, that have occurred this year, one which I am always eager to discuss is the unexpected rise of a new “video game music” tradition. You’ve all no doubt heard about plucky Animal Crossing quartet Lil’ Jürg Frey from Joshua (and I hear there’s even more to come from him on that front). In the realm of officially recorded music, on the other hand, those interested in the possibilities of in-engine sound generation and improvisation need look no further than Panopticon. Released in May on Seth Cooke’s Every Contact Leaves a Trace, the cassette presents the refined results of sound artist Graham Dunning’s unique experiment: playing through the original Half-Life with all in-game sounds replaced by EDM samples from the golden age of rave culture; “you never know whether he’s playing the character as an instrument, playing the game environment, or just plain playing the game” (Cooke).
Even before the album’s release I was listening to the surprisingly soothing output of this bizarre approach; even the most rudimentary of movements and actions executed by the game’s protagonist result in serendipitous arrays of fragmented percussion snatches, half-obscured vocal snippets, and crystalline drones. Simply exploring an area or continuously firing a weapon are sufficient ingredients for enthralling ambient soundscapes and kaleidoscopic collages—just take a look at the video for “Motian Capture,” which solely consists of the actions taken to produce the track. Soon after, the spellbinding “Type 97 Modified” reveals the true power of music generated by a “device” with all of the versatile mobility of a sentient observer: Dunning constructs an already spatially complex patchwork of sound that becomes even more scattered when he begins moving the frame of observance around. The listener is aware of and able to perceive a space, but stripped of the physicality of the game environment it’s a space that exists as some shade along the transition spectrum between source and consumer, a dark and measureless dimension whose only landmarks are haphazard fragments of something once known made impossibly alien and unfamiliar through the stripping away of their wholeness, their interrelationality, their intention.
A dense knot of interlacing paradoxes? The least site-specific site-specific work in living memory? The logical conclusion of a technology-based popular culture? A revolution in music-making? All of the above. —Jack Davidson
Purchase Panopticon at Bandcamp.
Bergsonist - #001a4a (self-released)
Henri Bergson’s philosophy sits stubbornly beyond my ken, but there is a certain intuitive appeal to his term élan vital, the creative “vital impulse” behind biological evolution. This idea was derided by scientists but recuperated by Gilles Deleuze in his book Bergsonism, from which techno producer Selwa Abd derives her moniker. Apropos, as there is certainly a creative vital impulse behind her artistic evolution. Since 2017 she has posted 40+ releases on her Bandcamp, most as part of a series of EPs titled after letters in the Persian alphabet. In late April, she started a new series titled after HTML color codes, including #565900 (a horrid green-brown), #a200ca (blazing bright purple), and #ffbd7d (pastel peach).
The canonizing impulse behind album release cycles and best-of lists privileges full-length releases—like Bergsonist’s Middle Ouest, released earlier this year on Optimo— from official channels. But much of her best work is self-released at a rapid clip, resisting hierarchical modes of ranking and comparison in favor of a rhizomatic (and very Deleuzian) organization that encourages self-directed discovery. This is all to say that you should check out the Bandcamp page. Still, newcomers may need a way into the overwhelming abundance of tracks on offer, so I recommend #001a4a (a soothing dark blue). Its four tracks contain all the characteristic elements of Bergsonist’s sound: driving kick drums, lilting earworm vocals, simple but effective electronic effects.
The sparse percussion on “IRS” provides just enough momentum for the wandering vocodered melody, while the reverse effect is created by the increasingly frantic drums on “UNFRIENDLY DJ TOOL,” which features barely a hint of melodic accent. An added incentive for working outside of the label system is timeliness—the titles of “RESISTANCE” and “PANDEMIC HOPE” obviously refer to current events, and the tracks take on a weightier significance in that context. The former track is this EP’s best, with its hooky melody and muttered French vocals. The latter consists largely of an oppressive bass drum, which lulls the listener into a vacant complacency until a glittering repeated crescendo appears in the last minute and a half, as if to remind us that other ways of listening can emerge from the monotony. Abd has released eight color-coded EPs so far during the pandemic, and I’m sure their 43 tracks could be pared down into one or two great albums. But I’m not sure her élan vital would allow for that, and we’re better off for it. —Matthew Blackwell
Purchase #001a4a at Bandcamp.
Eiko Ishibashi - Impulse of the Ribbon (self-released)
The field is indeed awash in solo synthesizer albums. It makes sense: the price-to-possibilities ratio for your average synthesizer is enormous compared to any other instrument, and there is a plethora of tasteless hacks on YouTube eager to tutorialize you in which presets to use on whatever plastic box you purchased. Add in that the changing tides of critical fashion have firmly embraced ambient as the genre of the moment and you can understand why a glut of homogenous, boring, cloying, and tacky albums of solo synthesizer are upon us.
Impulse of The Ribbon stands above this crowd in nearly all respects. Anchored onto what is nearly a classical sonata form, Eiko Ishibashi avoids cliched notions of arpeggio-core synth music and instead uses layers of whirling, buzzing tones and an endlessly thudding bass drum to build her composition. Samples of field recordings taken from a zoo are scattered throughout, expertly processed so that even the same sample isn’t used in the same way twice. Wreathed throughout, they act as audibly organic punctuation marks and signposts to the overall alien synthscape. The insistent beat fades away for a gorgeous adagio movement before quickly reasserting itself, but it just as suddenly drops out of sight: a crescendo-and-release that’s as powerful as anything in the post-rock canon, and the most thrilling moment on the album. —Samuel McLemore
Purchase Impulse of the Ribbon on Bandcamp.
The Soft Pink Truth - Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? (Thrill Jockey)
It feels like a miracle for a musical project to fulfill its intended purpose as successfully as this one does. According to Drew Daniel, one half of Matmos and the artist known as The Soft Pink Truth, “Shall We Go On Sinning… began life as an emotional response to the creeping rise of fascism around the globe, creativity as a form of self-care, resulting in an album of music that expressed joy and gratitude.” In the moments of daily stress and anxiety that I’ve experienced since 2020 went sideways, it’s the soundtrack I pull up to mellow my mind. When I need to regain my focus on the feelings of stillness or forward motion, it’s the tool I’ve reached for again and again.
“Shall” opens the album with vocal rounds of its titular phrase, sung-spoken by Colin Self, Angel Deradoorian, and Jana Hunter. This creates a lulling invocation before leading into various forms of electronic-dappled body, mind, and soul music. Textures filter in and out of its soft-focus repetition with the instrumental contributions of Horse Lords’s Andrew Bernstein on sax, Sarah Hennies on vibraphone and percussion, and Daniel’s Matmos partner M.C. Schmidt on piano. The album hits its apex midway through “Sinning,” when all of its vibrant sounds coalesce into a shimmering, triumphant pulse, then slowly drifts back towards silence in its second half.
Abstracting the approaches of dance music, microsampling, and minimalism, Shall We Go On Sinning… invokes a new form of sonic spirituality. Somewhere in a peaceful plane beyond this reality, Julius Eastman and Arthur Russell are jamming in harmony, reunited once again with all of their friends at once. —Jesse Locke
Purchase Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? at Bandcamp.
Quelle Chris & Chris Keys - Innocent Country 2 (Mello)
“This place is no more than a den of fiends and fools,” Quelle Chris incants in Innocent Country 2’s opener, amidst a chorus of swirling, psychedelic mantras, questions, and proclamations. “Outro / Honest” ensues immediately—it’s track two as opposed to, well, you know, the end. The playful subversion of entertainment tropes is a QC motif—check the first track on Everything’s Fine, the 2018 collaborative record with his wife Jean Grae. Unlike Everything’s Fine or 2019’s sardonic Guns, Innocent Country 2 leans nurturing, hopeful, even joyous. On the moving spoken word piece “Ritual,” QC begins “Black is more than a color—it is a feeling, an emotion. It is what my children claim to be proud of in the same intonation used by James Brown. It is a fist raised by Fred Hampton before his demise. It is what I experience ten minutes into meditation as I search for peace.”
A lot of the record’s optimism comes from Chris Keys’s gorgeous, jazzy instrumentation, which frequently draws the listener into lush spiritual jazz, as on the drop-dead beautiful “Sacred Safe.” Keys is a dynamic producer, though, and can drift into more abrasive territory like the noisy, near-industrial “Bottle Black Power Buy The Business”—a bit of an outlier sonically, but one that hits like a ton of bricks. On this track, Quelle Chris considers the intention and performance of social justice in the era of social media with a characteristic wit: “You copped you an outfit, stay protesting for the pictures / You don’t get no likes, you might decide to switch your image.” It’s classic QC: challenging the listener and laughing at the same time. Innocent Country 2 excels at questioning contemporary narratives while simultaneously urging the listener to be their best self.
The final suite of songs—“Graphic Bleed Outs,” “Mirage,” and “When You Fall…”—is a touchdown in vulnerability and wisdom featuring a stellar cast. Merrill Garbus’s vocals on “Graphic Bleed Outs” and “Mirage” are soulful and evocative, hitting an emotion for me that Tune-Yards never did. Earl’s verse on “Mirage” is a profound meditation on nostalgia and love (“The bitter sweetness of times I wish to capture / abandon reason for this lime of greener pastures / they try to leave me, couldn’t find me when I finally answered / Tiny dancer, hold me close and don’t be sliding backwards.”) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Needless to say, this is one of my favorite records this year. —Jordan Reyes
Purchase Innocent Country 2 at Bandcamp.
Sean McCann, Matthew Sullivan & Alex Twomey - Saturday Night (Recital)
It’s been a while since I’ve spent a Saturday night with friends. Even before COVID-19 changed what a typical Saturday night looks like for everyone everywhere, I was drawing myself more and more into isolation. I could certainly attribute part of that to anxiety and depression, but I think it’s mostly because I learned something important about myself: I like to be alone. I love my friends and value the time I spend with them immensely, but I need time apart from people to reflect upon what I like about that time together. I have to be alone to make sense of my emotions; I need to let them bleed out, take notes, parse them, and play them back with some distance and clarity. Generally speaking, I scan in emotional signals with the speed of the decrepit printer-scanner combo at my local library, but the things that take me the longest to analyze are the whispers of my own heart.
Saturday Night is a document of good friends and collaborators Sean McCann, Matthew Sullivan, and Alex Twomey messing around and intensely focusing in equal measure over several comfortable evenings, but what it reads like to me is the way I understand an evening with friends after the moment has passed. Fleeting moments quickly move in and out of focus, reminding me of the ways I endlessly play and rewind the reels of footage, trying to pinpoint the highlights. Objects clatter and bounce around, someone clears their throat, and a couple of them laugh about something on “London On My Mind,” yet none of it sounds at odds with the saccharine piano and cello it’s spliced with. Goofing off, playing their instruments, playing around, playing off of each other; you can’t always tell what’s what, but that’s the beauty of it. Being a fly on the wall listening to this vertical slice of many cozy evenings, I feel content; I almost wish I was there, but it makes me happy that I’m here. Saturday Night validates the part of me that wants time to myself, but also the part of me that wants company every now and then. Maybe I’ll make plans for a get-together once quarantine is over. —Shy Thompson
Purchase Saturday Night at Bandcamp.
Cadu Tenório - Monument for Nothing (Quintavant)
Monument for Nothing channels a dozen differing influences, none of which should mesh together, and somehow ends up as a coherent work. Cadu Tenório processes his influences through a faux-glitch “internet as aesthetic” filter which leads to wonderful track titles like “R'lyeh.exe” and “@tekeli_li,” both of which are specific nods to Lovecraft's mythos. The first half of the album embodies slow building tension with noisy ambience and distorted soundscapes. The only notable weakness comes in the form of "No Longer Human," a good song held back from sheer length and lack of interesting developments.
The obscure terror of an eldritch being can be felt during the climactic two-song centerpiece, the ghost of a blind idiot God in the machine (shell) screaming into the void. Jaçara Marçal’s presence defines this section of the album: on the title track, a dense black metal breakdown, she wails as a chorus of demons have seemingly possessed her while recording. She was spared for the second track, “Breeze ASMR,” and the shadow made by the lack of chaos looms over her hums. “Yog-Sothoth is the gate” turns this section from a duology to a tryptich, extending the quiet, dark ambience of the previous track with more post-industrial excursions. The final stretch of songs mostly strips away the internet Cthulhu and leaves just the human. On“Mãos,” Vitor Brauer’s vocal delivery is absolutely infectious as he sings over noise rock cacophony.
Beyond the new-age internet cosmic horror bullshit, Monument for Nothing draws aesthetically from Japanese art culture. Besides the obvious Aida Makoto, Hatsune Miku, and Dazai Osamu references, you can very easily draw to Serial Experiments Lain as a main point of influence. Going further I personally feel that surreal (and often horror) manga like Homonculus, Daidai wa, Hantoumei ni Nidone suru, Aku no Hana, Oyasumi Pun Pun, and Nickelodeon (the manga by Dowman Sayman, not the channel) share an aesthetic link with the ideas Cadu is exploring. Or maybe I read too much manga. Either way Monument for Nothing is one of Cadu Tenório's finest achievements to date and leaves much to be explored sonically and thematically. —Alex Mayle
Purchase Monument for Nothing at Bandcamp.
Various Artists - Cairo Finds (Nefertiti Experimental Sessions) (Sony Middle East)
On June 16th, some obscure shift in global capital caused dozens of apparently brand-new experimental Egyptian electronica albums to drop on Indian, Taiwanese, American and Korean streaming services. Somehow, the back catalog of Cairene DIY label 100Copies—very obscure because of the label’s namesake practice of ultra-limited releases—had been acquired by Sony Music Entertainment’s Middle Eastern branch, who then flubbed their metadata entry and made two decades’ worth of Egyptian avant-garde sound art pop up on the “New Music Friday” playlists of dark techno heads and drone fans.
But no matter the circumstance, it is fortunate that 100Copies’s Cairo Finds (Nefertiti Experimental Sessions) chose this moment to resurface. Cairo Finds is a repackaging—apparently for streaming services only—of 2013’s Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session, a dryly titled record of electroacoustic improv composed in tribute to the late artist and educator Ahmed Basiouny, who was murdered in Tahrir Square at the hands of police during the violent suppression of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution (read his biography here, watch his last project here.) The six artists on the album all knew or even studied under Basiouny, and the album buzzes with anger and quiet purpose. Jacqueline George’s “Fagalaat” continues her practice of tone poem evocations of Cairene urban life, but this time accompanied by the sound of feet crunching through broken glass and incomprehensible metallic roars. George ends her piece optimistically with field recordings of street chatter and pop music; compare that to Asma Azouz’s “Keep Silence,” whose ominous crunching leads to only searing distortion and the deep drone of a didgeridoo. The sounds of Egyptian popular music also resolves Yara Mekawi’s “Red Mouse,” which, along with the chanting crowd of Hala Abo Shady’s “Tomato Soup,” reflect the album’s sunny optimism about the power of the common people against the militarized state.
Looking back a decade on, Cairo Finds feels very of its time, located in that burst of optimism that followed Mubarak’s resignation but before the bitter al-Sisi years. But in an American context this document of revolutionary energy feels newly relevant, as the Black Lives Matter protests mount the most direct challenge to American state power in decades. Cairo Finds is a flag of solidarity in a global struggle (don’t forget who funds the Egyptian military), but its resonances expand far beyond one particular fight. Maybe the most compelling track on the album is Shorouk El Zomor’s untitled piece, which recalls the idle music an arcade cabinet might play to beckon a player. It does not matter how it all turns out, it seems to say, if our moment of unrest ends in tragedy. When the revolution calls, all we must do is PRESS START. —Adesh Thapliyal
Stream Cairo Finds (Nefertiti Experimental Sessions) at YouTube.
Pale Spring - DUSK (Doom Trip)
I love Pale Spring: Songwriter Emily Harper Scott’s debut Cygnus was one of my favorite releases of 2019, and Dusk ramps the sultry trip hop up another level. From opener “Safe,” a song about bed-ridden depression after the sudden death of an abusive and estranged parent, Harper Scott wields a readiness to tread into both darkness and consistent grace. In an email to me, she mentions the album covers love, anxiety, PTSD, and depression, all of which played out as she and Drew Scott—her husband and Dusk co-producer—moved across the country from her native Baltimore to Los Angeles. “A lot of LA transplants talk about how your first year in LA will try to kill your soul, and how you ‘have to give it two years,’” she explains, noting now that the couple is in their second year in Los Angeles, the ship does feel to be righting itself.
Onto the songs—I could wax poetic on most of these. The title track quickly cycles through the album’s moods and sonic palette in less than two-and-a-half minutes; it begins with ambience before changing to a dark electronic dance number backgrounded by chopped & screwed vocals behind industrial-tinged beats. Harper Scott’s vocals emerge for a moment, like a shark breaking the water’s surface to take its prey. “Pulled Apart” is another stand out, and features a more brisk-paced tempo than many of the other songs. “I want to be pulled apart by oceans and this beating heart,” she pleads on the chorus, imagining what it would be like to reach for a lover across an endless ocean. Like much of Harper Scott’s lyrics, it’s a particularly visual series of passages, one that—when matched with a catchy melody—is sure to get lost in a listener’s head for days.
Dusk is gentle and kinetic, vulnerable and confident. It touches on the peaks and troughs of human relationships—how people can make our hearts soar, and how a sudden moment can destroy us, shattering our belief in what’s possible. But Harper Scott is a beacon—if she can get through it, so can you. —Jordan Reyes
Purchase DUSK at Bandcamp.
Stay Inside - Viewing (No Sleep)
In his comedy special The Golden One, former emo kid Whitmer Thomas briefly details what he has identified as the defining features of the genre: “Typically after the second chorus there’ll be a spoken word part, and it’s always delivered in a classic Southern California mall goth voice… And the chorus is always something very poignant and thought provoking and poetic.” Thomas was mocking the self-seriousness of bands like Merchant Ships and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, and the ways their varied syncopation can scan as melodramatic. But on Stay Inside’s dense and brooding debut Viewing, the band uses those vocal techniques to create an entirely paranoiac atmosphere, one that feels immediately interior.
With three vocalists, the band’s palette grows exponentially, each belt or scream or whisper unique to a particular bridge, an impassioned coda, a quiet opening. In the age of Midwest Emoposting, where the feedback loop between new bands and the memes that mock them continuously shrinks, Stay Inside feel refreshingly anachronistic, devoid of facile gimmicks, their harsher sound more at home with post-hardcore bands like Engine Down and The Casket Lottery than the pop-punk revival that dominates most discussions of modern emo. It’s an escapist record not in that it provides an escape from the pains of daily life, but instead digs a tunnel to another time, when all the world’s ailments could be solved with a melodic male-female duet and choppy chords from overdriven guitars. —Arielle Gordon
Purchase Viewing at Bandcamp.
Permission - Organised People Suffer (La Vida Es Un Mus)
On their third LP, Permission expertly strike the balance between presenting a monolithic mass of sound and allowing enough moment-to-moment variation to provide momentum. They push the atonal potential present within hardcore punk towards a frenzied, baseless terrain. Jolting, contracting, and expanding phrases with endlessly unsettled harmonies result in the sound of an ever-adapting present constantly reformulating and finding a new point of stasis within each moment. A broken, fluid sense of grammar collages images of war, sex, politics, and decay: “NEW BAD DEAL STIMULATE GLISTENING AND WARM HIS FACE DROPS YEARS OF SERVICE BETRAYED WITHOUT A SINGLE THOUGHT WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING ALONG ABJECT AND HAUNTED BLINKING.” These lyrics are oddly classical although fresh: it’s an evolution of both the politically minded collage-surrealism of Crass and Discharge and the vibrant figurative expressionism of Void and Napalm Death. Infrequent but consistent use of present-tense direct address creates the occasional hallucinatory second-person narration: “YOUR TEETH FALL OUT LOOK DOWN YOUR FOOT SPLITS” and “LOOKING BACK AT YOU WORDS FALL FROM YOUR LIPS.” These moments are markedly different from the “you” that inhabits traditional hardcore, a pronoun most typically reserved for conservative politicians, parents, cops, bullies, hippies, fags, disinterested women, and nazis in the genre’s earliest forms. Here, it denotes an ambiguous subject, it feels to be nightmarishly pointing at you, its listener. Organised People Suffer presents a dense howl pouring out from broken lips, writhing. —Leah B. Levinson
Purchase Organised People Suffer at Bandcamp.
Sunwatchers - Oh Yeah? (Trouble In Mind)
I saw Sunwatchers for the first time last year. I was on a second date at the DC venue and pizza joint Comet Ping Pong and decided to pop half a tab of acid just to make the whole experience a little more squiggly and unpredictable. That may have been overkill, but sometimes you have to push a little too hard to find where your limits are. My head was already swirling when the band came on, and the sound felt like it had a physical impact on my head and body. Their music was somehow both tense and unrestrained, finding the perfect middle ground between psychedelia and minimalism, and always building to something more exultant. Every time I expected the music to go one way, it would take a U-turn and blast into something completely unexpected. Songs would bleed into one another, and it felt like they were the most radical jam band to ever exist. Or like the more overtly hippie cousins of Cave and Horse Lords. It was baffling and exhilarating.
They mostly played material that would come out on Oh Yeah?, and when I got the record I expected to be let down. Luckily it turns out that it wasn’t just the LSD that made listening to this music feel transportive. That balance of chaos and precision is so perfectly captured on this record, and so is the unpredictability. I’d call it a whirlwind or a tornado, but there’s a compositional clarity to these songs that makes them feel very deliberate. Motifs emerge and re-emerge, especially when the compositions become expansive; on “The Earthsized Thumb,” a syncopated guitar line underpins the first five minutes only to reappear after explosions of freewheeling sax. When Oh Yeah? ends, I feel the sense of ecstatic exhaustion—the same swirly giddiness—that I felt after that show. —Jonathan Williger
Purchase Oh Yeah? at Bandcamp.
Crazy Doberman - Illusory Expansion (Astral Spirits)
Recorded in the midwest, Crazy Doberman’s Illusory Expansion is an act of boundless creation. Doberman’s lineup—perpetually undefined—counts musicians Tim Gick and Drew Davis as core members. For this album, the two gathered a total of 16 players, and although the number stands out, what matters is their rare achievement to tell a consistent story as a whole.
Starting with “Born Under An Evil Star,” the album opens as a trip: squeaky, flute-like textures blend in with percussion, giving the track a sense of ongoing growth. With each pulse and unidentifiable reverberation, the mood shifts into a different atmosphere. While Illusory Expansion uses elements of free jazz, the result goes beyond experimental improvisation; there’s a constant layering of sounds—dissonant tones, breathy synths and scraping noise all find a home on the album. It’s clear the contributions of each player are vital.
Sonically richer tracks like “Nothing But Tents” and “An Interrupted Prayer” do not minimize others more sparse; with every unexpected transition, each piece is followed by something else, something completely new: deep tones resonating like giant metal gates, blaring horns like open-ended questions. Shifts in tempo and the use of multiple instruments craft a dense recording that expands, achieving pleasant highs and enigmatic lows. By adhering to an offbeat structure, Crazy Doberman manages to engulf the listener. —Nenet
Purchase Illusory Expansion at Bandcamp.
Sebi Tramontana / Guilherme Rodrigues - Han Jiae (Inexhaustible Editions)
William H. Gass has a quote (which I will bungle in paraphrase here) about how the amount of time and effort it takes to comprehend a novel is proportional to the time and effort needed to compose it. When taken to the realm of music this principle doesn’t quite hold as much weight, but it presents an interesting issue: is free improvisation disposable music? No matter how much practice goes into forming the skills necessary for it or how obtuse the theory is that binds it together, improvisation is inherently a “tossed off” thing. As Steve Lacy put it: “The difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.”
While I can sympathize with those who hear nothing but aimless noodling and pretentious ego in free improv, for me the clarity of musical identity and richness of expression in the form are unrivaled. In no other genre is the choice of how to approach each note given such fundamental importance, and nowhere else are the performers so naked before the audience, tasked as they are with complete responsibility for what they play. Han Jiae is as good of an album of contemporary free improvisation as I have heard. While staying firmly in a melodic mode they run the gamut of techniques and expressions, tastefully and thoughtfully showcasing the unique sonics of each instrument. Sebi Tramontana and Guilherme Rodrigues play with the kind of sympathetic rapport that improv duos thrive on, the kind that allows them to finely thread the needle between supporting the other players ideas and responding to them with original material. It's the kind of sound you can only get from free improvisation, and it’s exactly why the style will never be disposable. —Samuel McLemore
Purchase Han Jiae at Bandcamp.
RAY - Pink (Distorted)
Trawling through Rate Your Music’s top 2020 charts in search of something new, I found Pink with the Japanese shoegaze tag, and was immediately intrigued. A reliably consistent country-and-genre mix, the layer of heaviness combined with angelic vocals buried their way directly into my ears. What I didn’t know, and learned courtesy of fellow Tone Glow writer Ryo Miyauchi, was that RAY is an idol group in the world’s shoegaze subgenre—this was a lovely and bewildering revelation. Apparently the world of idols is so crowded that shoegaze is an acceptable branch to take in order to sell records. I can’t fathom that mainstream Japanese idol fans clamor at the bit for breakbeat-infused ballads, but if that’s true, the musical landscape is fucking amazing. In any case, this is a great record, heart-pumping and full of verve, but its background propels it into a rarified space of coolness. —Eli Schoop
Stream Pink at YouTube.
Locate S,1 - Personalia (Captured Tracks)
Pity the artists who had releases slated for April of 2020 and watched the fruits of their labors sink like stones in the midst of a global lockdown. To be sure, some of those records probably deserved it (sorry [name redacted]) but Christina Schneider aka Locate S,1’s Personalia is not one of them. An absolute blast of a record in the best possible way, Personalia has a zippy and rather unhinged sort of feel that’s couched in carefully considered musical choices (they are just weird ones.) The record fairly brims with ideas and moods, moving from bratty mid-80s pop-rock to veddy serious proggy progressions to melted experimental effects, often in the same song. Schneider uses a palette of primarily synthesized sounds in ways that feel fun and quasi-demented rather than cold and bloodless because, well, Personalia wants to be enjoyed. But if you don’t like it? Who cares, let’s dance. The record glows with a sense of self-determined joyfulness, if not outright wackiness, that’s often missing in the more avant-garde side of pop. Christina is a spiritual cheerleader for herself and also for you. “If you cannot behold my miracle, step away from the vehicle,” she proclaims on the peppy “Whisper 3000.” Word, Christina. —Mariana Timony
Purchase Personalia at Bandcamp.
Rina Sawayama - SAWAYAMA (Dirty Hit)
I haven’t stopped hearing Rina Sawayama’s self-titled debut since I first listened to it, partially due to Sawayama’s ability to write countless hooks and partially because of the amount of ground the Japanese-British artist covers—it fits into so many contexts, making it susceptible to linger in the listener’s brain. In 43-minutes, Sawayama covers a multitude of topics like immigration (“Akaska Sawayama”), capitalism (“XS”), racism (“STFU”), friendship and identity (“Bad Friend,” “Tokyo Love Hotel”).
The quick, frictionless transitions between topics are paralleled by Sawayama’s dynamic style choices, which are as much motivated by Britney Spears as they are Deftones. Take “STFU,” one of the main singles from the record. During the track, Sawayama belts an Evanescence-esque vocal line over a heavy nu-metal verse before taking a hard left turn to the charming, comical refrain, “Shut the fuck up” in a Destiny’s Child-style articulation. On paper, the genre mashups should ooze of Y2K retromania, but in practice, Sawayama is one of the most futuristic-sounding albums of 2020, thanks in part to Clarence Clarity’s polished production. It sounds progressive; unlike most uses of genre-bending, it isn’t employed as novelty wherein a production technique is simply used for its strangeness or for ironic effect.
SAWAYAMA is a step for pop music into relatively uncharted territory, a place where there are no walls between genres and themes. Instead, there are bridges, resulting in a wholly 3D piece of art that fits into the many, messy aspects of everyday life—problems, relationships, and systemic issues don’t exist in a bubble. I listen to it when I’m on the subway late at night, watching the news, discouraged at work, figuring out what identity means to me, missing a deadline, forgetting to return my friends’ messages: It helps me breathe, knowing that I can feel multiple things at once and that I don’t need to fit into any preconceived box. —Sam Tornow
Purchase SAWAYAMA at Bandcamp.
Speaker Music - Percussive Therapy (self-released) / Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry (Planet Mu)
I go to bed tense and angry and afraid most days, before the night outside—full of susurrating non-silence and the snare-snap of firecrackers blowing off the steam all the social distancing we have to do to survive won’t allow—comes into the space around me and swallows me up inside my fears. I’m tired from being scared.
What if I wrote about the feelings, instead? Channeled that choking paranoia into the art that I do, not to claustrophobically paralyze the person reading this, but to be the flashlight probing the dark skyline we’re both living under and making the unavoidable banality of what produces it visible? To make it a thing able to exist between two hands held tight together, united by how angry and alone we’re both feeling, in these similarly idiosyncratic experiences we have of ourselves? I can’t make music, I’m fairly certain of that, it would take too long to teach myself how to make the sounds I understand how to hear, but what would music that meant to explain itself and its feelings like that be like? That sense of a lingering and usually deliberately unarticulated but omnipresent, inescapably heavy past; the echoes of the world outside but in a way that deliberately creates a vacuum within the music where they're almost alienated from the ability to be felt as anything but ephemerally numb. A repetitive, imploding beat, tuned down to sound like firecrackers going off in the distance, divorced from cause, outside your field of view.
I may not be able to make those feelings into music, but I’d love to write the words that convey the same. All the roads that attempting it takes me down feel like dead ends. My hands, curled as they are into shivering claws, are not strong enough to break down the walls in my way, built as they are of alienating violence and pointed lessons in who gets to live and complain and who gets to just fucking die in the streets, choking their humanity apart for a livestream to be endlessly retweeted in the aftermath, numbing the eyes and scarring the soul of everyone who has no one in their life who cares enough to shield their gaze beforehand. Is this helping? Is this fucking helping? I can’t seem to see where I’m going. I’m a dinosaur, drowning in tar, surrounded by the bubbling, burbling suffocation of my own breath as the world envelops me in it, like a pitch-shifted synth sample screwed and slowed till my own pulse rate dips and I finally hit the deep beds where I’ll likely die in a dreamless sleep.
Do you get what I’m doing here? I only have so many words before you leave and stop reading. I’m a critic and not a musician, and I live on borrowed time; once you find something else to explain what you’re looking at to you that’s easier to digest, my efforts are already wasted. You are surrounded by the tools of surveillance and algorithmic extrapolation, and the effort to meet someone else trying to talk to you about what in the work of art makes us want to keep breathing is something you only have to extend if you think our voices are worth it. My finding it difficult to explain myself, or you finding my explanations difficult to understand, means there is a failure in this process. It also means I am not employable, by conventional metrics, if the difficulty persists.
Out of work is a terrible thing to be in the land of capitalism-accelerated plague. We are but dumb bodies in the eyes of the state, obligatory and necessary tools to be expended; the grim irony of COVID-19 is that it’s exposed that the only jobs hungry for new flesh are the same jobs that do not care if they kill the people within that house of flesh and bone we call a “labor force”; all of these employers would prefer it if these bodies did not make the mistake of believing they have any right to be more than that.
And if they fight for a right to live in the streets? The answer is plain. The borders of our lives have rarely been so visibly, starkly demonstrated as being drawn in nationwide policing violence—and only violence. A corporate-backed gang of unrepentant murderers swings fists on street medics, shoots for the eyes behind journalistic cameras. We are told the anger that rises up in response, that wants to do the things that would make them actually flee, is the result of the mythical “outside agitator,” the half-cocked anarkiddie or accelerationist tankie. Suppress the smell of any truly revolutionary hunger, because it is only going to attract the flies. Do it the right way. Do the right thing. Don’t piss off the local news anchors with your unforgivable displays of property damage, call out the looters.
The violences, meanwhile, continue. Almost ten people hanged now. Almost ten Black people strung up on nooses; they say it’s self-inflicted, the cops do, the same cops just on camera rounding on people who can’t even get up to walk, much less run away from the law enforcement mobbing them like a parody of vultures. It is an insult to vultures, this: those birds are fastidious and respectful to the corpses they find, and cops have no concept of treating a body they’ve deemed sufficiently unliving to destroy with dignity.
How do you put that experience into words? No, wrong question: how do you put any of the responses you have to that experience into words? This isn’t a question of immediacy; art isn’t immediate, it’s premeditated, the result of a glacial progress grinding inexorably to a halt before it melts into something much more pliable, whose only real barrier is its nonetheless much less pervious surface tension, compared to oh so easily frangible ice. It can’t be easier to read than it is to hear—this is a music review, after all, and all I’ve been doing for the past several paragraphs is describing what it’s been feeling like for me to do something like listen to music. This music, especially.
I’ve listened to a lot of things to ensnare some feeling of a hideaway escape, a fantasyland where I’m not in this world. I really do love those places of distance, where my flesh is not under siege but transfigured into the Siege Perilous of some Grail I do not regret wasting my life trying to find. But very few of those things explain my own feelings to me, or convince me that explanation is possible; they are a pain ease but not a treatment for it.
When I vacate my seat, step out into the world, try to exist again, it’s like I’ve stepped onto some distant shore at midnight under a cloudless sky, lit by the distant objectivity of a fullbright moon. The tension is like windless air and thick against my clammy skin, heavy on my throat. All these decisions, these histories, these legacies, they make up the horizon line of my world, and there are no stars twinkling above me to lessen the sheer, agonizing pressure of its massive omnipresence upon me. The tide rushes in around my feet, cool between my toes, and this feeling—a scratch; a sliding, stretched-out wail like a synthesizer mocking a siren; spine-itching clipped snare snaps; mumbled-up words I don’t know how to articulate or interpret but believe I understand—is a feeling I know. It’s a feeling with history, a hunger that begins in bedrooms, on block corners, in warehouses where nobody who “matters” in the mutilating eyes of the world would ever congregate, and expands and contracts—often in the same breath—from there.
It's both the grit of the sand, and the softness as it breaks beneath my feet, and the coolness of the water over my skin, but it doesn’t stop there; I keep wading in the more I realize I can learn about where it began and where it comes from, underneath the tides that rip in and out from the shoreline where my efforts to reach out to the world beyond me began. Eventually the floor falls away and beneath it is an undertow, a booming subwoofer-imploding undertow, a deeper wave that drags me down into this space where all the people go to become bones; and then the bones erode into more sand, and then I’m back on the shore, watching the waves go in and out, and I’m weeping, because I could've drowned… and I don't know why I stopped. I do stop, though, and find my feet on solid ground again, something clearer for the effort, a part of my place in the world explained to me.
When my head breaks the surface again and I find myself on that shoreline under the gaze of a moon that won’t care if I live or die, I remember what it was that drew me below, waiting beneath that deceptively visible surface, not yet disturbing the waves, shaping them nevertheless. And here I am, now, soaked through and clear-headed, trying to explain what I heard. —Tara Wrist
Purchase Percussive Therapy and Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry at Bandcamp.
Still from Rebels of the Neon God (Tsai Ming-liang, 1992)
Thank you for reading the twentieth issue of Tone Glow. We hope you found an album you enjoy. Happy listening, and have a safe Q3.
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