033: Our Favorite Albums, July-September 2020
Tone Glow's writers highlight 30 albums from the year's third quarter
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Edited still from János vitéz (Marcell Jankovics, 1973)
I’ve been reflecting on a quote from my interview with Eiko Ishibashi: “If left to myself, the music I make would be thrown away after a week. But once someone else is involved, it has to continue.” It helped me realize my own proclivities for abandoning projects, or writing, or anything at all when handling it solo. Of course, there have been moments of immense beauty when doing something on my own, with no intention for it to go out into the world, but the existence of community has always proven more nourishing and encouraging than I’ve often realized.
So here we are, numerous months into a pandemic. The school year’s started, the presidential election is soon, the world is dreary and doomed—the fall brings to mind something transitional, but it’s hard to feel like we’re in anything but a downward spiral.
In my time playing Umurangi Generation—a first-person photography game set during the end of the world, one that’s collapsing due to global warming and the failure that is the police state—there were moments of comfort and joy in seeing friends amid the chaos. In one of the first levels, you find them comfortably hanging on rooftops after seeing armed UN personnel. On a later level they’re all dancing on the street. And maybe that’s what matters right now: a community that’s stable, that’s there to lift you up even if just by their kindness and smiles and presence. A community that’ll keep you going: maybe that’s what always mattered.
I’ve had to ask myself a question throughout the past several months: is music writing worth my time? To ask such a question is to foreground the music writing itself. What’s always concomitant to that is the communities that supports it, that create it, that exist because of it. Below you’ll find 30 albums from the past three months we call our favorites, from Twitch-sourced “field recordings” to bagpipe drones, blistering metalcore to diaphanous techno. Somehow we’ve managed to keep doing this. Why? I can’t speak for anyone else, but once other people are involved, I know I have to continue—continue writing, continue living, continue loving. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Julius Eastman - Macle (Flea)
In early 1972, Julius Eastman was doing quite well for himself. Having landed himself a teaching fellowship at the University at Buffalo, he had stability and a good environment to cultivate his career in composition and performance of avant-garde music. He had been invited to the Creative Associates, a community of young and gifted musicians and forged connections that allowed him share his sensibilities with like-minded people. He was a founding member of his friend Petr Kotik’s S.E.M. Ensemble, and was regularly performing his work to receptive audiences. After delivering a world-renowned vocal performance of Peter Maxwell-Davies’ opera Eight Songs for a Mad King—a piece that demands mastery of extended vocal techniques—Eastman clinched himself a Grammy nomination for the achievement. A lot of eyes were on him as he took the stage at Carnegie Recital Hall to perform his original composition Macle, and expectations were high. A review of the concert was published in the local paper, the Buffalo Evening News, and critic John Dwyer had this to say about it:
Macle for four grunters, moaners and howlers and a similar tape was by Julius Eastman, the very gifted and versatile composer, singer, dancer, actor and poet, who has done so many things here so well and at least one, the Maxwell-Davies Mad King to national attention. Macle is a work that seems to me so embarrassingly bad and unrelievedly ugly as to raise the question whether the composer had not wrought some kind of revenge on either art or audience, or both.
And really, that says it all. With expectations on Eastman to live up to the greatness that was expected of him, he gave the world a composition that was made for nobody but himself. Another paper, Germany’s national Die Welt, described him as “narcissistically in love with himself” after a performance of Macle, and that’s probably true; Eastman loved the person he was, and infused a piece of himself into every composition he made. It’s a lighthearted piece of music, and those who knew Eastman will all tell you that he was a funny guy. The score for Macle, graphically notated with a sequence of boxes that contain the performance instructions, calls for things like the utterance of animal noises, machine gun sounds, erotic noises, or for the performers to sing their favorite pop tunes—this particular recording, made in 2019, features a wonderful moment where The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” gets crossed up with a rap song whose lyrics did not turn up any results with a Google search. I wasn’t there for the inaugural performance of Macle, but allow me to give my review of the review: it was fun, and mister John Dwyer has no sense of humor. —Shy Thompson
Purchase Macle at Boomkat.
Secluded Bronte - Queen’s (Ffordd Allan)
One problem with experimental music, or music that we slap the label “experimental” onto, is its dire humorlessness. Let’s face it: the standard tableaux vivant of an experimental set, a room of people sitting crossed-legged and looking studiously on as a person clinks and clanks and pokes and prods at various objects, is pretty funny. Secluded Bronte know that, and they know that the wiser course is to smirk and wink rather than to insist on their own seriousness. Take “What? Yes!” from this month’s album Queen’s. One member of the trio reads an absurdist script while the others interrupt with outraged “WHAT?”s. Every time, the response is a resigned “Yes,” and every time it amuses. This is followed immediately by “For Entertainment Everyone Dies,” behind the tiptoeing ascending notes of which the background vocals simply repeat “LA LA LA LA LA LA LAAAA.” It actually makes me smile. Heretical.
Secluded Bronte consists of the Bohman Brothers, Jonathan and Adam, who have been getting up to similar antics since the early ‘80s. They each became pillars of a subset of the London experimental underground, Jonathan solo and Adam with Morphogenesis and Conspiracy. In the late ’90s they began hosting concerts at the Bonnington Centre in South London, making it a go-to spot for like-minded weirdos. Then at the turn of this century they got together with Richard Thomas to form Secluded Bronte and quickly recorded an album at New Jersey’s WFMU, Secluded in Jersey City. Then Secluded Bronte sort of disappeared for 12 years. Then the Jersey City disc was released in 2014 and the group began, slowly but surely, building its discography.
This is actually their second full-length just this year, following the less playful but similarly excellent Magnetic Crochet from April. That album consists of four 10-minute long field recording collages, disorienting in their dreamlike sequencing. For Queen’s we get some actual songs though. “I saw” is a spooky ghost story told over a wandering bass line, and “I’ve got a vehicle,” the most fully-formed composition here, could pass for a (damaged, insane) three-piece rock song. I don’t know what this means. Maybe we’ll see a run of albums that get more and more conventional. Maybe we won’t hear from them again for another 12 years. Let’s just take these albums for what they are: puzzling gifts, better enjoyed than explained. If you start looking too closely, after all, the joke will be on you. —Matthew Blackwell
Purchase Queen’s at Bandcamp.
Network Glass - Twitch (Salon)
I wrote about Twitch at the beginning of August when it came out, and usually I try not to double dip for these features, but this is an exception due to how strong of a spell this thing has cast on me. For a select few, there’s something irresistibly captivating about sound that just shouldn’t be presented as music, something Network Glass has understood since his split with Die Reihe and self-titled debut tape on No Rent in 2014 and 2015, respectively; his work, which has become increasingly adventurous and eclectic over the years, is frequently introduced or described using words in the vein of “anti-,” “not,” “lawless,” “experiential,” “stupid,” “idiot music.” Even if his trusty arsenal of crystalline glitch fragments and dizzying sample contortions is unfamiliar or off-putting at first, it’s hard not to at least appreciate, and only a bit less hard not to love something so completely unique.
Network Glass’s output this year has expanded the project’s palette to even more singular territory with its use of human speech (2019’s idiot/smiling incorporated mostly unmanipulated field recordings, likely an initial step into more organic inclusions). At first, I wasn’t much of a fan of tired / stupid, released by Reserve Matinee back in April; structurally, it was nothing odd for the project, throwing plenty of whipping, writhing digital tentacles around in cold, artificial space, but I didn’t really feel like the voice samples were an effective or enjoyable addition. I’ve reevaluated my opinion, however, since hearing Twitch, which really is something odd, even for Network Glass. The title spares no secrets—every sound on the digital-only album is sourced from the popular streaming platform, each of the first four pieces taken from countless different streamers playing the same game (in order: Apex Legends, Minecraft, Fortnite, GTA V), while the last is comprised solely of recordings from VRChat, an online virtual reality communication and socialization platform (this was the first I’d heard of it). With the exception of the final piece, the music features both audio from the various games as well as the loud-and-proud voices of Twitch users and probably their online companions, but for the most part the focus is placed on the latter. The first of two opening tracks titled “5.52” features an excess of yelling, bragging, explosions, firearm reloading sound effects, failed jokes, dramatic stories, general gamer talk (you know what I mean).
All of the immersive, meticulously edited collages have things in common—natural-sounding but nonsensical conversations crafted using the smoothest of splices, people talking over each other, tempers wearing thin—but each also seems to have its own emotional or other critical focus: aggression (Apex Legends), frustration (Minecraft), pride/vanity (Fortnite), power/authority (GTA V), violence/trauma/suffering (VRChat). I’ve become increasingly enamored with music that involves, as my friend Joe puts it, “just... people behaving,” and Twitch certainly fits under that umbrella, but it does so via an approach so drastically different than the various interview collage, hangout soundscape, or answering machine transposition releases I’ve heard: voyeuristic but only in the most detached and anonymous of ways, artfully innocuous even with extensive rearrangement, a novel reality composed of that which is imperceptible and elusive in ours, all of it dug out and consolidated into something gloriously visible. Until now, I haven’t even mentioned how hilarious a lot of it is; I attribute this to a more thoughtful, retrospective conception nearly two months after release, but when I listened yet again to write this I laughed just as hard as I did the first time. Believe me when I say that it is one of the most unique musical experiences you or I will have for a long time. —Jack Davidson
Purchase Twitch at Bandcamp.
Catherine Lamb perf. by Giacomo Fiore - point/wave (Populist)
Existing in the in-between is rarely peaceful. One might immediately point to the angst that arises on the cusp of adulthood, for example, or the anticipatory stress of traveling on an airplane. Choosing to sit with that uncertainty, and finding the poignancy that arises from it, is composer Catherine Lamb’s end goal. With point/wave, she unearths the sweet-spot between the uneasiness of liminality and the calm of serenity.
Originally composed in 2015, point/wave is a work for acoustic guitar and the Secondary Rainbow Synthesizer—an instrument Lamb has worked on with Bryan Eubanks for the past six years. Upon simply listening, the music wavers and rings, with sporadic strums peppering its placidity. But underneath its glossy surface arises an intricate music theory. In this recently released recording, San Francisco-based guitarist and musicologist Giacomo Fiore pens notes that explain Lamb’s theories in granular detail to accompany his performance.
Perhaps most intriguing is the Secondary Rainbow Synthesizer: it passes the sound its microphones pick up from its environment through resonant filters that create a wavering, echoey backdrop, further exploring the idea of sound as environment. Additionally, the guitar is tuned using a complex form of just intonation, and the piece is driven by shape and contour instead of conventional structure. Cyclical narratives explore the subtle possibilities of melding harmony and melody into one; it is easy to hear these large oscillations as you listen.
point/wave hangs in stillness, languishing every reverberant moment. It feels like the Twilight Zone, with its eerie aura and repetitions that drift closer and further away. The guitar’s twinkling chords enter with decisive, yet subtle, motion. You can feel that this is harmonic experimentation at its fullest—you don’t even really need to understand its nuts and bolts. Listening to point/wave is an exercise in choosing to feel the anguish of that which is liminal, in choosing to allow sound to unfold in front of you in surprising ways.
In the music’s final moments, the tension finally disperses. You’ve entered the other side, whatever that may be. And it was likely worth it. —Vanessa Ague
Purchase point/wave at Bandcamp.
Eiko Ishibashi - Hyakki Yagyō (Black Truffle)
“Like vanishing dew / a passing apparition / or the sudden flash / of lighting—already gone / thus should one regard one’s self.” —Ikkyū
In 1474, when Kyoto was the center of the Ōnin War, Emperor Go-Tsuchimikado designated the poet and eccentric Ikkyū Sōjun (1394–1481) as the abbot of the Daitoku-ji temple. He would walk away from the position after only nine days, citing a deep impatience with monastic life and the hypocrisy of boastful monks before inviting them to seek him out in the sake parlors of the city’s red light district. In the centuries to follow, Ikkyū would be canonized as a subversive Zen legend in Edo-period folklore and children’s anime alike; his pithy poetry, as translated twenty years ago by Stephen Berg in the collection Crow With No Mouth, is at once pietistic, hedonistic and terrifically horny—an effortless balancing act of satori and sexual enlightenment. As summed up by writer and The Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthiessen, “his mad behavior was perhaps his way of disrupting the corrupt and feeble Zen he saw around him.”
That same dichotomy of meditation and madness runs thick all over Hyakki Yagyō, the inarguable highlight of a prolific year for sonic polymath Eiko Ishibashi and her creative partner/producer Jim O’Rourke. Commissioned as a contribution to last year’s Japan Supernatural exhibit at The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney centered around a massive Takashi Murakami mural, the record takes the shape of a miasmic two-part tornado of uneasy arpeggiators, frenetic jazz percussion, processed woodwinds and repeated verse pulled from the monk himself. Ishibashi has long contemplated and reckoned with the ghosts that haunt her country’s history, most notably through examining her late father’s time spent in the puppet state of Manchukuo on 2018’s extraordinary The Dreams My Bones Dream—according to the liner notes, Hyakki Yagyō continues to shed light on the “persistent dangers, myths and evasions” that have left deep marks on Japanese culture. It’s been the utmost joy to hear Eiko flex her textural muscles on multiple occasions this year—if those records alone weren’t ample proof, this brilliant Black Truffle debut is confirmation that she has rapidly evolved into a hypnotic heavyweight. —Nick Zanca
Purchase Hyakki Yagyō at Bandcamp.
Glass Salt - Greetings (Whatever’s Clever)
Glass Salt—the duo of Caylie Staples and Johann Diedrick—make a strong case for recording music “on the floor.” Greetings, their debut album, is a delicate and moving piece that celebrates the warmth of camaraderie. It’s music for those whose ideal alone time is sitting quietly with another person, or alternatively, music for introverts whose ideal hangout looks the same. By their own admission, Glass Salt stands on the shoulders of Broadcast and Grouper. Most of all, I’m reminded of the devilishly fun alchemy Broadcast created with Tender Buttons, when they also consisted of just two members.
Staples and Diedrick’s playfulness is anchored by an emotional seriousness—a mode of expression I usually associate with isolation, not tight-knit collaboration. In this respect, Staples’ voice does the heavy lifting. Though rendered unintelligible by reverb, her vocals lend the album its inescapable gravitational pull. On the opener “Soft Winter,” she repeatedly coos the somber, wordless refrain. I won’t hesitate to connect it to an indelible Broadcast lyric: “Oh, my heart waits in winter now.” On “Children of the Valley of the Wind,” she lingers behind a protracted drum beat before emerging gorgeously on “Crystal Clear.” Both musicians use broken toys as instruments, charging their songs with a peculiar melancholic air—“For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” anyone? Diedrick is even credited for cloudbursting, a perfect description for how the worlds he and Staples evoke softly unfurl into being. Comparisons to the titans of soft noise are unavoidable; the superficial similarities are undoubtedly what roped me in. However, with Greetings, the duo shows promise of animating a distinct aesthetic point of view. —Zachariah Cook
Purchase Greetings at Bandcamp.
Donald WG Lindsay & Richard Youngs - History of Sleep (Good Energy)
Is there any instrument more unfairly maligned than the bagpipe? There’s the clarinet which my high school band teacher, a saxophonist by practice, referred to coyly as the “misery stick.” The recorder, too, for its strident squeak certainly holds a place of enmity in the hearts of many. Still, it’s really only the bagpipe that I have seen suffer so unjustly. The litany of anti-bagpipe sentiment one encounters in the world is overbearing—endless variations on the same tired jokes. “Ever hear about the bagpiper who could play in tune? No? Me neither.” Even Chaucer couldn’t help but slight the instrument a little by giving it to the brutish and belligerent Miller: “A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne / And therwithal he broghte us out of towne.” Concomitantly, the noble bagpipe today is not often found outside the context of Celtic musics, whether they be traditional or contemporary in style. Here to correct that are Donald WG Lindsay, piper and instrument inventor, and Richard Youngs, prolific and protean as ever, with their newest collaborative release, History of Sleep.
The second release from Good Energy, History of Sleep belongs to a drifting and dense species of minimalism. Each of its four compositions is based on an improvisation between the duo, and they consist of just a few ideas played through to a logical end. Despite the bagpipes’ dismal reputation as a timbrally harsh sort, Lindsay coaxes such soaring sweetness from his pipes that any images of a gruff Scotsman shrieking the dead to wakefulness will no doubt be banished. Bearing his bourdons well, he supplies the drones with extended smallpipes of his own design while Youngs’s ebowed guitar wails and whirls. A warm, loamy drone kicks off the eponymous opener as shimmering waves of guitar crest and keen overhead, climbing far above the compulsorily imagined heath and eddying in the lower atmosphere. On “June,” Lindsay’s pipes issue a somewhat more blistering skirl overtop a simple strummed phrase on guitar before quite literally sputtering out and swelling to finish.
Though it might be difficult to imagine someone actually falling asleep to this record on full blast, the harmonic richness of the pipes clearly encourages an inward motion towards some ascetic, contemplative mode—one capable of tracing and gracing the sheer density of the sound. In fact, there is nothing lugubrious or indulgent here. These cuts, and in particular the 20-minute closer “Dorrington,” bear a monolithic majesty, their haunting, ragged drones recalling the pulverizing weight of Ellen Arkbro’s equally monumental “CHORDS for organ.” This is especially so for twenty-minute closer “Dorrington,” their take on a traditional piping tune. Coupled with Youngs’s amorphic guitar work, stretching from distorted vocal facsimile to muted industrial squall, Lindsay buzzes, bellows, and belches brilliantly. —Matt LaBarbera
Purchase History of Sleep at Bandcamp.
Rosso Polare - Lettere Animali (Klammklang)
Lettere Animali is an excellent and fully formed debut of ambitious and difficult music from the duo Rosso Polare. The sonic vocabulary is something like Woo meets NNCK: improvised pastoral folk with flutes and acoustic guitars and the occasional kalimba against a bed of field-recorded nature sounds. But on some tracks, the field recording in the background gets stuck in fast forward, and in another track a passionate guitar solo is climaxed unexpectedly by a series of loud yawns. Clearly well-attuned to both classical musicality and improvisational form, Rosso Polare choose the difficult task of merging them. They wisely pared down each track to just a few elements and the production takes pains to maintain this clear duality, allowing a sense of two players to form despite a diverse and often anonymous sound palette. None of these details exactly grab you by the throat on a first listen—this is a record of hidden details and carefully staged surprises. —Samuel McLemore
Purchase Lettere Animali at Bandcamp.
Afel Bocoum - Lindé (World Circuit)
A petition to rename ‘desert blues’ into something more reflective of how colourful the music can be… is ‘oasis blues’ too on-the-nose? It’s true that we start in the desert on Bocoum’s Lindé, with a circular, bluesy guitar line that sounds like it could have come from Tinariwen’s mostly-acoustic set Tassili, but by the song’s end, there’s a second, snaking guitar line and a call-and-response between chanted vocals and the trombone, the desert left behind for something much more vibrant. As if to prove the point, the second song is pure reggae—we’re not even in the same country anymore.
Afel Bocoum’s big claim to fame has been his part in Ali Farka Touré’s backing band for many years, and he didn’t embark on his own solo career until much later thanks to his connection with Touré, which brought him to World Circuit. Soon after his debut, he was collaborating with Damon Albarn at the start of Albarn’s post-Blur exploration of African music.
Albarn appears once more as executive producer, that credit shared with World Circuit founder Nick Gold. If Albarn’s name helps bring more people to Afel Bocoum, then I’m here for it, and I’m thankful that he doesn’t sing on any of these songs because that would have been distracting. Albarn and Gold’s role here seems mostly to bring in the talent, and so there’s a host of other renown musicians joining Bocoum. The reason “Bombolo Lillo” sounds so natural is because Bob Marley-associated trombonist Vin Gordon is there, tying the song together with a very small, repeated melodic line before he solos later on, and the reason why the reggae track doesn’t stick out is because of gorgeous kora filling in the empty space. Elsewhere, psychedelic swirls and scraps of violin helps bring the easy-going “Fari Njungu” to its rousing climax, courtesy of Joan Wasser.
What makes Lindé particularly special is that its collaborators give it a communal feeling that’s sorely missing in individual-centric American pop music, as well as an ‘onwards’ feeling that I attribute to the two dearly-departed drummers that appear here: Afrobeat master Tony Allen, and another Ali Farka Touré-related musician in calabash player Hama Sankaré. I wrote earlier that Bocoum’s claim to fame is through his relation to Touré, but now, several albums into his own solo career, he should be known as a great musician himself first and foremost. Oasis blues. —Marshall Gu
Purchase Lindé at the World Circuit website.
Andrew Weathers Ensemble - The Thousand Birds in the Earth, The Thousand Birds in the Sky (Full Spectrum)
I’ve driven through too many places that I forget exist. Towns, counties, and states, that barely live in my periphery. Where did I lose them? Is it dismissive to look straight to the horizon line?
The Thousand Birds in the Earth, The Thousand Birds in the Sky is brief in time but stretches outward with rich, open sonic expanses filled with a sweeping mix of organic and synthetic instrumentation delicately provided by an ensemble of familiar collaborators and new friends. The lethargic bass and whirling saxophone interplay to a psychedelic, floating effect on “A Mountain of Snakes, The High Plains, A Knee in the Earth.” The light touches of piano and percussion on “An Unkindness of Ravens” emulate shifting flowers in a gentle wind. “ReWild Your Friends” shimmers with an airy ebow guitar and strings while bouncing vibraphone softly propels. Sonic interjections—like fireflies momentarily illuminating—inform the atmosphere of the closer, “A Bisection Across a Circle Connecting Ozona and a Hill Near Zzyzx.” It’s an album filled with subtle movements moving across a vast countryside, both intimate and monumental.
We took multiple 1000-plus mile road-trips as a family when I was younger—between Salt Lake and New York, there is mostly just space, territories where you can push 100 mph without consequence and the outside sits still. Those hours-long lulls cutting through fields of unkempt grass or quiet sands are often spent in silence; time and the landscape eats liveliness and encourages reflection. The best moments to take notice of: the cool pressure on your temple as you slump against the car window, as much endlessness on the ground as there is above. —Evan Welsh
Purchase The Thousand Birds in the Earth, The Thousand Birds in the Sky at Bandcamp.
KMRU - Peel (Editions Mego)
Joseph Kamaru has released so much music in varying styles over the last year that, given his youth and evident ambition, it’s almost tempting to wonder which of his strategies won’t work, and what he’ll learn from that. But that’s a game for a more optimistic time. These past few months, I’ve wanted generous expressions of clarity, and Peel is as redolent of that as any dappled kosmiche LP, any Japanese department store scene-setting, any pre-millennial anonymous collective drone. Its long loops, on headphones, are aural ring-lights. On a bedroom stereo, they are white noise machines without the vaguely sinister psyop echoes or self-care woo-woo—they are weighted blankets of sound. I’m currently masked and rubber gloved and hurtling on a train past the extended sigh of the Hudson River in autumn, the air and water a dozen kinds of gray accessorized with foliage, and the ebb and flow of Peel sounds of all that, too. The gradated crescendo of the title track manages to convey today’s prickles of anxiety, formless (or, actually, discretely formed and easily clocked) dread, the endless whoa of how things just seem to worsen. Its roar, though, starts to glitter, as if suddenly covered in dozens of glints of recognition—you hear this too—or like confetti for a party celebrating the ability to feel at all right now. Peel is just confident, which is rare for work so vague, and it brings comfort, which I at least don’t deserve but will cling onto for dear life this fall. —Jesse Dorris
Purchase Peel at Bandcamp.
Arv & Miljö - Himmelsvind (Discreet Music)
The main draw of Matthias Andersson’s work as Arv & Miljö, and perhaps much of the music from Sweden’s contemporary underground, is that of a modest peculiarity. You can sense that in every second of Himmelsvind, the inaugural release of Andersson’s new label Discreet Music, which bears the same name as the shop he helps run. There’s something readily eerie about an album that, say, features recordings from Swedish funerals, but it’s the rather contextless nature of this record that keeps drawing you in—it provokes curiosity. The saturated photograph that makes up the album’s cover is telling: it’s almost too innocent.
When Himmelsvind begins, we hear the simple sound of a synth drone wavering back and forth, sounding at once uneasy and firm. As the album progresses, various sounds fill up the space: sparse field recordings of nature and children, the popping of fireworks, the charming melodies of Jon Collin’s guitar. In the last moments of the record’s A side, it’s evident that the album’s mixing is crucial: the sound of a gently running creek is a bit too forward in the mix, the sound of Collin’s guitar clearly just layered over it, and then the sound of a distant train appears to nearly overwhelm everything.
The B side is a similar affair, though what becomes increasingly apparent is the way in which Andersson’s synth acts to provide a sense of navigation, its undulations like one’s spirit slowly proceeding through various locales designated by field recordings or Elin Engström’s smeared guitar wails. When the album concludes with an abrupt ending to a choir of singing children, it’s hard not to sense that what we’ve stumbled upon something sinister. An album that presents such pastoral uncanniness is apt for this exact moment, too: how often is the United States presented as something ideal or faultless when it’s all just a façade. Himmelsvind feels like a dream, but like any memorable one, it helps you reflect on the present, on reality. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Himmelsvind at the Discreet Music website.
Hudson Mohawke - Poom Gems (Warp)
It’s 2011 again, apparently. SALEM released a new song this month, teens are reminiscing about the Tumblr glory days when American Apparel reigned supreme, and we just got three new Hudson Mohawke beat tapes. It has been made evidently clear that of these three things, Hudson Mohawke was the best of them. Despite his assimilation into the producer milieu—which permeates industry culture as a result of being on call for artists—Mohawke’s vault of beats from yesteryear are no less stunning. He is a wizard at meshing offbeat, unhinged Ableton samples with the amplified stadium sounds that he nonetheless excels at. It takes a savvy mind to be so adept at switching between the straightforward pump-up anthems and the screwed labyrinth concoctions he expertly crafts, and it takes an even savvier mind to combine the two concepts into a new, ugly hybrid, striking a balance that is always captivating in its grotesquerie. Poom Gems is my personal favorite, but over the course of three compilations, there’s golden HudMo moments strewn across. Hudson Mohawke is not only a producer, his beats are genius compositions in their own right, and he showcases it here. —Eli Schoop
Purcahse Poom Gems at Bandcamp.
Carl Stone - Stolen Car (Unseen Worlds)
I saw Eli Keszler live last year. His spasmodic, fluid, and deifically fast approach to percussion is—for all its bells, whistles, crotales, mutes, mallets, mounts, and triggers—remarkably reserved. Cocooned within his kit, he emanated an athletic zen, traversing, with organic dynamism and confidence, the aural topographies mapped onto the hemisphere of his arms’ reach—all in a minimal aggregate of moves. His work plumbs the uncanny valley between rhythm and timbre; we hear both the lightning-fast individual strokes and the unitary gesture, diffracted into its molecular pieces. For fifty minutes, I was spellbound.
Then, Carl Stone came onstage, MacBook and iPad in hand. I readied myself for a more stoic sonic wizardry, an evening of parametric fiddling at a glacial pace—my only previous exposure to Stone’s oeuvre was via a recent compilation of his older music on Unseen Worlds, and I was fully prepared to sit back and watch him carefully pick apart a sample for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes. Instead, he threw us into the gale force of a forty-story big band, spazzing out across dimensions and picking up the occasional mariachi player along the way. It was a tesselatory array of space-filling stimuli; it was electric, and it was pure, no-holds-barred madness. For one piece, he ditched the laptop altogether and wandered around the stage with his iPad, holding it like a controller and sporting a wide, devilish smile whenever thunder clapped or sparks flew.
That smile gets right up in my ear every time I listen to Stolen Car. It follows 2019’s Baroo and Himalaya as another foray into Stone’s (purportedly) newfound side: more vivacious, compact, and utterly danceable. Yes, he’s making pop now, but he’s always done so—his pitch vocabulary, in the vein of minimalism, has been largely diatonic since the beginning. He takes pop seriously, because pop is already sound collage, a cut-and-paste amalgam of brief, familiar motifs. What distinguishes his methodology is a Beethovenian or Webern-esque fixation on the basic thematic unit—he’ll chop, stretch, toss, and turn the same few seconds over and over again until the point of origin is revealed or eviscerated.
All this still holds true for Stone’s late output, albeit with greater concentration. What was once imperceptibly gradual blueshift or redshift now folds in on itself multiple times over. It’s pop in a particle accelerator, coming together and falling apart every millisecond. It’s eccojamming that vacillates between manifold micro- and macroscopic levels, rather than with linear variation. All seams in the samples’ original fabric rupture, leaving behind a cloud of debris—particulate that gets rearranged into a mosaic blithely proud of its disjunctions and scintillating in its totality. What defines a mosaic is liminality: every image, if you zoom in far enough, is made up of discrete pixels or atoms, fundamental units with internal homogeneity. But a 2020 Carl Stone piece feels mosaic because you can apprehend its segmentate dissonance and overall consonance simultaneously—a perceptual correlate, perhaps, to the dual temporal consciousness Keszler pursues in that gray area where rhythm turns into pitch, where things go so fast that they become slow and so slow that they become fast.
By now, Stone has found his own liminal space: here, patterns and randomness collide; auditory illusions aren’t byproducts, but bread and butter—he’s fucking with more than just your sense of time. And he cuts right to these loci of indeterminacy, never keeping you anywhere for too long. This commitment to more succinct (almost-)songcraft on Stolen Car affords it a refreshingly diverse sonic palette. In “Pasjoli,” he delights in sculpting blast beats out of snare hits, hi-hats, clapping, singing—everything but the kick drum. “Hinatei” both conjures and shreds to pieces the symphonic imagination of Chinese traditional music, invoking the bombast of Mulan and other orientalist pentatonics pushed to peak absurdity. We get Händel’s Messiah-cum-disco on “Rinka,” a bop that coasts on heavy-hitting doses of parodic wit à la Schnittke. The vocals on “The Jugged Hare” sound as if they’re from a French children’s song—it’s a prime example of how good Stone is at dangling an unfractured tune so uncannily close to your ear, even if what you’re hearing isn’t there behind the veil. But his greatest strength is the ability to tease a song out of seemingly any granular synthesis; his recent prolificacy is no wonder. He doesn’t want to be remembered as “that composer from the ’70s and ’80s,” or more bluntly, “an old fart.” In rebuff, I’ll end this (already quite long) blurb with a brief memo for Carl: I’m in my college dorm right now, and every night for the past week, I’ve been blasting “Ganci” and “Figli” to the heavens. You’re no old fart to me. —Jinhyung Kim
Purchase Stolen Car at Bandcamp.
Damirat - Pixcurve (dingn\dents)
There are many Autechre-alikes. These comparisons are made fairly and unfairly—encompassing both the most stilted, lifeless carbon-copies of their sound (again, jungle → drum ‘n’ bass) and pretty much anything with a drum machine. The reason is obvious: their body of work is singular, but also (within boundaries, of course) has ‘something for everyone’—to paraphrase another Tone Glow writer, no two people have the same favorite Autechre album.
They exert such massive influence in their field that it often feels futile to even tiptoe near their sound. But it keeps happening—for the very simple reason that rhythm (exercises in rhythm, studies in rhythm, rhythm and timbre) is endless, has infinite permutations, can be explored from every possible angle a thousand times and still yield incredible results.
On Pixcurve, Damirat puts forward a suggestive, elliptical sound rather than a literal one: if, on one end of the spectrum, this kind of music is engineered, cooked up in the IMAX labs for maximum sonic impact, on the other end lies the specter—the remnants, haloes of the rhythmic storms on the opposite end. Damirat exists here: their percussion lacks direct force, their melodies drift, wander and evaporate—this is initially anticlimactic. But, with patience, a special experience begins to emerge: this is almost a ‘dubbed’ version of an Autechre tape (just listen to “texmass,” which sounds like Basic Channel’s take on Autechre’s “LCC”), with an emphasis on space (collapsing, expanding) and dynamics rather than sheer sonic brutality. Seen in this way, Pixcurve, though formally in the camp of Autechre-alikes, does bring something genuinely new to the table—and the endless stream of rhythm flows on and on. —Sunik Kim
Listen to Pixcurve at Bandcamp.
Marie Davidson & L'Œil Nu - Renegade Breakdown (Ninja Tune / Bonsound)
Marie Davidson could never be accused of shying away from bold creative decisions, or keeping her feelings under wraps. After speaking openly about the intense burnout she experienced while touring in support of her breakout electronic album, Working Class Woman, the Montreal-based musician regrouped with a pair of close confidantes. Davidson, producer Pierre Guerineau (her husband) and multi-instrumental shredder Asaël Robitaille last worked together on the 2018 album by Essaie Pas, but their artistic partnership dates back years further. Rechristened as L'Œil Nu (The Naked Eye) the trio careens through influences from rock, French Touch disco-pop, and jazzy cabaret torch songs. For fans of the smash hit Soulwax remix of her single, “Work It,” it may seem like an abrupt kiss-off, and that’s the idea.
Davidson makes her distaste of clout-chasing clear in the lyrics of Renegade Breakdown’s opening title track. “Oh by the way, there are no money makers on this record / This time I’m exploring the loser’s point of view.” “If I had a perfume line, it would be called No Collab / Expect no collaboration.” “I’ll tell it to your face, once and for all / My life is anti-strategic.” She continues her descent into theatrical melodrama on “Back To Rock,” repeating a series of existential questions (“Am I moving on / Or am I going mad?”) like a modern update on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. Davidson is a woman of 1,000 faces, as represented by her three separate identities on the album’s cover. Recent listeners could be caught off guard by the acoustic singer-songwriter mode of “My Love” or “Center of the World (Kotti Blues),” but she’s explored softer sounds since the days of psychedelic duo Les Momies de Palerme. Karen Carpenter provides perhaps her most relatable lyrical subject on “Lead Sister,” swerving from a dark experimental ballad to a claustrophobic beat-driven conclusion. If you’re willing to follow Marie Davidson wherever inspiration takes her, Renegade Breakdown is a thrill ride into the center of her mind. —Jesse Locke
Listen to Renegade Breakdown at Bandcamp.
Dehd - Flower of Devotion (Fire Talk)
This album has all my favorite parts of rock and all my favorite parts of pop. There’s beach-y guitar, some mild shouting, melodrama, and very gratifying, misty melodies. Emily Kempf seems like she strains and pushes her voice a lot when singing (unhealthy!), but she has possibly the most distinctive and expressive voice I’ve heard all year (cool!). It’s crazy to me that Jason Balla and Emily are exes and write all the songs about each other. I think a situation like that would make my soul explode. Sometimes, you can hear their souls exploding, like on “Letter,” where Emily directly addresses Jason’s future girlfriends, wishing them luck and telling them she’ll “always have that place in his heart.” She and Jason sing the refrain together, “I don’t mind / I don’t mind / I don’t mind.” She doesn’t mind his moving on, he doesn’t mind her holding on. Love between exes can be extremely painful and embarrassing and confusing. It’s truly a privilege that Dehd lets us see them like that. I like listening to this album after 8PM, when I can walk around my town and let myself feel very serious about where my life is going. There’s usually a little breeze and I can smell the ocean. —Ashley Bardhan
Purchase Flower of Devotion at Bandcamp.
Hiperson - Bildungsroman (Maybe Mars)
If I had to pick one “2020 album” so far it’d be Hiperson’s Bildungsroman. It’d been in the works since well before COVID, of course, and in another universe its release would have dovetailed nicely with the Chengdu band’s US debut at South by Southwest. While I was excited to see how they’d hit here, in a way this year of brutal paradigm shifts and foreclosed futures suits their music well, intimately couching its resonances like a trusted, beaten sweater.
Hiperson has always been a sober band, set apart from most of their peers by an unwillingness to trade on-stage/onscreen bombast for the harder truths found in quiet moments. Not that they’ve strayed too far from the style of driving, martial, minor-key post-punk that’s become popular in many nodes of urban China following the influence of pioneering forerunners like P.K.14, whose leader Yang Haisong remains Hiperson’s key mentor and guide. But Bildungsroman is so saturated with voice—layered, measured, drawing deeply from folk traditions heard in the mountains and valleys surrounding densely populated Chengdu—that I’m hesitant to call it purely a rock album. It’s very spoken. The voice of lead singer Chen Shijia in particular does much of the sonic and psychic coloring, wanders down cryptic lyrical paths, sometimes cracks, is at times barely audible, but always fills the available space with an incipient unease. A personal favorite moment is the rustic choral arrangement at the beginning of “I Am in A Period of Desperation,” its grainy, barbed nostalgia grating against the rigid authority of the band's borderline militant groove about a minute in.
China was the first country to lock down this year, and it’s been among the first to re-open. Hiperson is currently in the middle of a sold-out, 14-city tour, and other artists in their cohort are reaping a major windfall after appearing on the second season of massively viewed rock reality show The Big Band. In an irony that refracts off every angle of Bildungsroman, China is one of the only places on earth in Q3 2020 where one can actually be a working rock band, even as it becomes an increasingly stifling place from which to say anything meaningful once on stage (or TV). It’s no coincidence that the album is named after the coming-of-age novel: Hiperson, motivated to maintain distance from the corrupting imperial & industrial center of Beijing, are deftly navigating their formative years of spiritual education in the periphery, eschewing the bastardizing gaze of mainstream adoption. As local peers like trap group Higher Brothers are mined from Chengdu’s undeniably potent underground music scene and shilled as a global commodity by industry adepts like 88rising, Hiperson represents a needed corrective. Bildungsroman is a powerful collection of bittersweet urban pastorals documenting the actual terrain this young generation of artists in China must navigate, rather than offering cheap, gilt representations or spiritually vacuous paeans to material abundance. —Josh Feola
Purchase Bildungsroman at Bandcamp.
Imperial Triumphant - Alphaville (Century Media)
Imperial Triumphant are an avant-garde metal band from New York that incorporate elements of death and black metal, jazz, and experimental rock. When metal bands do this, it can often seem like gimmicky window dressing, but on Alphaville—and its predecessor Vile Luxury—it’s done in a way that feels organic. On “Atomic Age,” a barbershop quartet evaporates into a lurching, hellish beast of a song that at points sounds like a nightcore’d Branca symphony. Cecil Taylor-like chaos finds its way into “City Swine,” while “Transmission from Mercury” opens with a tender piano and trombone duet. The album closes with a Residents cover.
But make no mistake: this is still extreme metal very much in the vein of Ad Nauseum’s Nihil quam vacuitas ordinatum est and Gorguts’s Colored Sands. Guitarist Zachary Ezrin has a knack for writing twisted, cacophonous riffs that are equally as unsettling as they are brutal. Kenny Grohowski and Steve Blanco are a relentless and pulverizing rhythm section, with Blanco’s bass playing being a highlight throughout the album.
Alphaville is named after the 1966 sci-fi film by Jean-Luc Godard; in an interview with New Noise Magazine, Blanco referred to Imperial Triumphant as a “film noir metal band.” Cover artist Zbigniew M. Bielak cites the works of H.R. Giger and Syd Mead as reference points. I’m also reminded of the 1927 classic Metropolis. It’s easy to see that 20th century futurism is an important influence on the band’s aesthetic.
The city, technology, religion, and the totalizing effects of capital and modernity all seem to be common themes in the band’s music. In their dystopic world humans are indoctrinated, enslaved by work, rotting and beholden to the “Cathedral of Commerce” while promised an empty future. The claustrophobia and anxiety of the city’s grids are in every swarm of dissonant sound; you can practically feel the tension between a towering industrial metropolis and its subjects. With Alphaville, Imperial Triumphant capture a feeling that very few metal bands have managed to evoke, making it one of the best metal records of the past few years. —Marina B.
Purchase Alphaville at the Century Media website.
Gulch - Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress (Closed Casket Activities)
AAAAHHHH!!! That’s how Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress starts, and the rest of the album follows suit. The end result is a delicious slice of death metal, metalcore, hardcore, and powerviolence. It shows how versatile Gulch can be, serving pounding breakdowns with uncontrollable force one second, and delivering the crunchiest riffs the next, forcing your head to bang without a sliver of control. Tracks like “Lie, Deny, Sanctify” recall the best Cursed songs, while “Sin in my Heart” takes a strong influence from the seminal metalcore band Botch, menacing in its build-up and absolute in its consecration. What is displayed is a mastery of heavy music, deftly picking and grabbing from the most superior bands of the last 20 years, in a successful attempt to create a fresh blend of unfazed punk and metal. It’s unlucky that coronavirus has so decimated the live music scene, otherwise Gulch would be ripping up the venue circuit like few other bands we’ve seen before. —Eli Schoop
Purchase Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress at Bandcamp.
Philip Corner - Through Mysterious Barricades with George Maciunas (Recital)
When people say they’ve entered into a meditative state, I’m not quite sure what that means. As a person who has a hard time relaxing even under the most controlled conditions, I’ve tried a lot of things: deep breathing, yoga, mental exercises, new age music—you name it. My mind moves a mile a minute and no matter how many traffic cones I try to place down, the pedal remains firmly against the metal. Things that claim to bring inner peace fascinate me not for the calmness they bring me, but how spectacularly they seem to fail through no fault of the method. These things are probably effective for brains with a “normal” chemistry, but I think I’ve got more than a little Chemical X living inside my DNA. I was a bit intrigued, then, by Philip Corner’s claim that François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses “is the breakthrough from material consciousness to enlightenment.”
Les Barricades Mystérieuses is composition for harpsichord dating from the baroque period, and Corner has used it as a launching pad for improvisation numerous times; he told us in this very newsletter that he has made hundreds of such tapes—“my own ‘Lord’s Prayer’ or ‘Shema Yisroel,’” he says. Some of these improvisations can be heard on prior releases; a 2014 release on Roaratorio gives us a version called the “Beat-Up” Barricade that descends into painfully distorted madness, and a 2017 release of some recordings made in 1995 feature Corner playing alongside a cavalcade of dancers, the performers shouting back and forth to one another. They are not exactly what I would call meditative, but I don’t think I know what I would call meditative anyway.
Through Mysterious Barricades with Georges Maciunas reframes Couperin in yet another interesting way, this time superimposing Corner’s piano ruminations with vocal performances scored by himself (on side B) and Fluxus founder George Maciunas (on side A). Les Barricades Mystérieuses is quite beautiful and Corner is clearly intimately familiar with the piece, letting the notes flow from his fingers like water—but after a while the sounds of another performer come in, providing what the score describes as a “lip fart,” “mouth-hand fart,” and “real fart.” Couperin comes in and out of focus amidst the performer making the gnarliest sounds with their voice that can be managed. Couperin is being used as a base to build from, but this is not Couperin; and it may be a meditative experience for Corner, but not for me—and it’s not supposed to be. That’s fine, though, because it ends up serving another utility for me that is perhaps even more useful: it emulates my experience of trying to get lost in something beautiful, only for noise to bubble up to the foreground. It’s not relaxing, but it’s cathartic and it’s validating. —Shy Thompson
Purchase Through Mysterious Barricades with George Maciunas at Bandcamp.
Greymouth - Telepathic Dunce (Careful Catalog)
The Tokyo-based duo Greymouth has stolen my heart in record time (intended); I only discovered them because of this recent Careful Catalog release, but ever since I was able to get my hands on the tape, as well as their 2015 self-titled LP from a local shop, both have been on merciless repeat. The two Marks that comprise the band (Anderson and Sadgrove) channel the eternal scruff-spirits of the Land of the Long White Cloud with their brand of lo-fi, amateurish garage jams accompanied by assorted odds and ends, all presented from some severely convoluted angles and distorted perspectives. Sloppy fuzz riffs slur from a broken megaphone; unintelligible vocals whisper-moan enveloping mid-range sonorities; percussion is often reduced to a barely audible thump, or even what could just be the sound of a pick scratching the metal guitar strings. It’s a dream come true, obviously.
Like kindred projects—Armpit, Witcyst, The Garbage and the Flowers, Smokedog, etc.—Greymouth mines memorable sublimity from what conventionally might be considered ineptness, both in recording technique and musicianship, but is actually a tremendously difficult thing to do well; what sets them apart even from those aforementioned artists is the complete fluidity of the interactions between songs and soundscapes, tunes and total trash. On the A side, after an unrelenting assault of messy guitar feedback at the close of “Room with a Feud,” the manual ending of the recording is audible, and is immediately followed by the serene yet somehow lonely quacks of geese (or ducks, I don’t fucking know) in the equally pun-tastically titled “Emperor’s New Crows,” and it feels totally natural, like we’re just hearing two ephemeral documents in sequence, able to observe the mysterious connection between the two sonic events closely but randomly bound by a pair of arbitrary flicks of an on/off switch.
We slide through this tape’s singular, hallucinogenic haze into side B, throughout which the duo expand their song-hewing into moist marshes, forgotten rooms hiding frail old pianos, cavernous sewer pipes beneath busy thoroughfares that house the ghosts of the neglected and the lonely, old rotting cabins in the depths of the forest where there are plenty of things that go bump in the night. With previous releases, we observed the Marks do their thing from our limited role as the passive listener, but on Telepathic Dunce they invite us along for the ride through their baffling hermetic dimension where any sort of musical structure beyond the most barebones of rudiments is entirely superfluous. Again, it’s a dream come true, obviously. —Jack Davidson
Purchase Telepathic Dunce at the Careful Catalog website.
Paolo Coteni - Nel Corso Del Tempo (Slowscan)
Paolo Coteni’s Nel Corso Del Tempo is a tribute to Laura Grisi, a visual artist who created works that allowed for variability and interactivity (her “Variable Paintings” series, for example, had sliding panels). While she utilized various natural elements in her works—from fog and water to wind and light—she was especially interested in recreating the experience of natural phenomena.
Coteni was inspired by Grisi’s sound works—by their simplicity and impressive effectiveness—and utilized tape recordings he made in the 70s and 80s for the two side-long pieces here. The opening track, “Acqua, Aria” is primarily made up of field recordings of water—droplets, someone scooping it up, it simply resting. There are other more subtler sounds that wrap around it, including wind, a low humming drone, and piercing chimes. This juxtaposition constantly leads one to a state of unstable meditation, wanting to revel in the calm of the water, but unable to do so because of the accoutrements.
On “Fuoco, Terra,” he crafts a more cavernous sound from field recordings and static, though by the end of the piece he employs laser-like synths. Throughout the course of its runtime, the piece sounds vast and uninhabited, like a desolate wasteland or a haunted vortex. The title of these two pieces allow for easy imagery, but more than just capturing the moods of these four elements, Coteni let’s you understand the way in which they operate: moving freely, affecting the things around them. Nel Corso Del Tempo consequently feels like music for an installation, but it also sounds like it couldn’t possibly be for one, as confining or defining this all by a particular space would be limiting. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Nel Corso Del Tempo at Discogs (Note: Slowscan handles all sales through Discogs)
Ubaldo - Casa (Urpa i musell)
In the past six months, I’ve become more conscious of the dust settling on my bookshelves and windowpanes. Not that I didn’t notice it before, but with the additional time spent in my apartment, it is hard not to become more aware of your confines—all the small cracks in the cupboards and droplets of white paint on the wood floorboards eventually reveal themselves.
Contained and simple, Casa, the third album from Catalan multi-instrumentalist Ubaldo (Andreu G. Serra), is constructed of broad, expressive ambient strokes, with understated inflections of guitar, voice, saxophone, and piano. The soundscapes on Casa seep into you like morning light through a sheer curtain and illuminates the room. Ubaldo does not build separate worlds on Casa, but instead, he highlights the one we know. Like water, Casa takes the shape of its container, filling whatever space you feel most stable in.
Generally, my philosophy is that stagnation is dangerous. Until recently, I think I have been too naive, privileged to acknowledge how comforted and strong being settled can make one feel, and how important it is to appreciate stillness in the rare times it’s available to us. Casa has been my reminder. —Evan Welsh
Purchase Casa at Bandcamp.
Okuden - Every Dog Has Its Day but It Doesn't Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter (ESP-Disk')
Every Dog Has Its Day But It Doesn’t Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter is the new album by the Okuden quartet, featuring Mat Walerian, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and Hamid Drake. The four of them have been releasing albums together consistently throughout the past five years, and this new double album released on ESP-Disk' is by far my favorite of the bunch. While 120 minutes of avant-garde jazz might seem like it would be exhausting, Okuden sidestep the issue by crafting some of the lightest and spacious free jazz possible, in a vein similar to the music of the Die Like A Dog quartet which shares the William Parker and Hamid Drake duo (and names involving dogs).
Okuden are even more reticent to commit to chaos, however, instead improvising eight moody tone poems as lugubrious as your standard dark jazz piece. The pieces range from 10 minutes to the 38 minutes of the three track suite “Magic World,” which over the course of its runtime explores threads of each of the improvisers’ discographies, effortlessly swapping between different modes of improvisation. While the music rarely enters true free jazz mania, it carries that ethos throughout, occasionally echoing William Parker’s work with In Order To Survive on “Sir Denis” and “Thelonius Forever.” The album ends on “Lesson II,” a follow up to “Lesson” from This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People, another Okuden release. It finishes the album on a spiritual note, helping you ruminate on the last two hours of music you just spent time with. The music slowly fades away and only the impression remains. —Alex Mayle
Purchase Every Dog Has Its Day but It Doesn't Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter at Bandcamp.
Yuichiro Fujimoto - Old Memories (Associazione Culturale Ikigai Room)
I have a complicated history with preserving my own past. I like to be remembered—the same way that probably anyone does—but I can’t bear the thought of people looking at the embarrassing things I’ve said and done. I’ve felt this way ever since I was young, and it’s difficult to explain why it’s such a pervasive feeling. I have a distinct memory, at around age ten or so, of sneaking my mother’s photo album out of the closet while she was asleep and burning a bunch of my baby photos with my stepdad’s lighter. Something about the thought of her showing off these photos of me to our relatives shook me to my core and I just had to get rid of them. I’m deeply regretful of the action, but I still sympathize with the way that younger version of me felt. I’m pathologically averse to taking photos to this day, and my mother often complains that she doesn’t have recent ones to look at. I regularly clear out my social media, and I have a script that lets me easily mass delete Discord messages if I want to blank out a message history. I have a problem with letting other people remember me on their own terms, and I don’t know why. It’s weird. I wish I knew what was wrong with me.
A document like Yuichiro Fujimoto’s Old Memories isn’t the kind of thing I’d allow to exist if I let this behavior go unchecked, and that makes me pretty sad. A series of recordings Fujimoto made in his early 20s, these are probably lovely things for him to look back on and be transported to that place in time; to remember a little of what he felt and what he thought; to plot his growth as a human being and understand what the neural bridges in his brain are made of. “Song of Hiroe” is a 20 minute recording of him strumming a guitar while his grandmother sings enka on a peaceful and sleepy afternoon, and the “Old Yamaha” series are some of his first attempts at making music with a sequencer he bought with pocket change at a flea market. I feel nostalgic swimming in these distant memories made by someone else, and it makes me wish I had more of my own to look back on. Listening to this music makes me reflect on my fear of being remembered. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand my cardinal urge to resist being a part of history, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable with letting down my guard, either—but Old Memories makes me want to fight it, at least some of the time. Maybe I’ll stand in the frame the next time I have the opportunity to be in a group photo—once the film has developed, everything outside of it may as well be thin air. —Shy Thompson
Purchase Old Memories at Bandcamp.
Joel Shanahan - Frozen Clock Hovering (Ratskin)
Best known for his work in house and techno as Golden Donna and Auscultation, Joel Shanahan’s latest release under his own name is an endlessly listenable parade of frosty electronic ambience, a work that struggles to contain itself, bursting forth in spirals of cinematic opulence and deft textural interplay. Shanahan’s experience in dance music informs the album’s most singular moments (“Muzzle,” “Better”), where deep soundscapes stretch and flow like non-Newtonian fluids, solidifying with pressure, collapsing again in an instant, imbued with invigorating pulsivity.
As a whole, Frozen Clock Hovering revels in a kind of unctuous chill: a heady, piercing coldness that reverberates, exploring a multitude of dynamics and moods; it is rare for music of this nature to be so at ease with quiet as it is loudness. Rarer still is Shanahan’s ability to explore each nook and cranny of the sonic landscapes he develops without growing stale or self-indulgent. Tracks begin, exist, and end as naturally as any storm. A brief relapse in form occurs as the album closes with a remix of the opening track, “Laurelhurst,” by Shanahan’s house alias, Golden Donna; each thump of the kick drum brings the album back down to earth, a satisfying end to its voyage through the cosmos. Such journeys must always be bittersweet, bound as they are by the passage of time, but their impact shall remain. A still pool of water shimmers and boils beneath its placid surface; it pulls away from your touch. —Maxie Younger
Purchase Frozen Clock Hovering at Bandcamp.
Pretty Sneaky - Pretty Sneaky (Mana)
Techno, more than most genres, cultivates an anonymity in artists, an ego-obliterating “just the music, man” attitude designed to keep the focus on the dancefloor instead of the DJ. And truthfully, rarely does a techno record need context—so bound up is the genre in practical notions of audience pleasing and mixability. So when a record like Pretty Sneaky comes along and steadfastly refuses to indulge in both cliche and explanation, it can be a real shock.
Clearly not designed to maximize club-going pleasures, this is techno as an art form and not a commercial one. As ambitiously structured and eclectically sourced as any art music—check the water basin rhythm that starts out “A1” or the jungle soundscape on “C1”—this retains the key defining feature of techno: it makes you want to dance.
Clearly inspired by 90s progressive electronics masterminds like H.E.A.D. and containing more ambitious structure and sound design than damn near anything else in the contemporary scene, Pretty Sneaky is a welcome reminder of how much artistic potential is left in an industry plagued by also rans and capitalist rot. —Samuel McLemore
Purchase Pretty Sneaky at Bandcamp.
Web - The Sound There (Acido)
In order for music to feel weightless, it has to do more than sound light and airy—it has to unburden you. A lot of ’90s Japanese dance music does that well, welcoming you into futuristic worlds that feel like a temporary oasis from the present day. Takuya Sugimoto’s music was no exception, so to hear The Sound There—a compilation featuring eight tracks he recorded in 1994 and 1995—is to revisit the past in order to envision a brighter future.
These tracks have an icy, almost sterile veneer, but there’s warmth underneath it all. On opening track “Interaction With Equipment,” it’s the dance between popping snare drums and flittering synth blips that provides comfort. “Ancient Wind” does a similar trick, letting its incessant drum programming pound into the listener that they, too, can relax (those synth pads help). It primes one well for the frantic dance of “Sand Old Castle” and “Papyrus”—a reminder that dancing is, in a sense, an act of freedom. Sugimoto invites you to to move, to imagine, to exist. This is music for reinvigoration. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Jon Hassell - Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) (Ndeya)
If you have ever seen The Old Guitarist in person at the Art Institute of Chicago, perhaps you’ll have noticed the specters of other faces behind the balladeer’s decrepit form—an elderly woman with a downcast glance, a young mother nursing her child, a calf sitting at one corner of the painting. Picasso often repurposed canvases when art supplies were scant in the trenches of his Blue Period; hidden figures like these would remain undiscovered until 1998 with the help of infrared cameras. In art theory, the palimpsestic presence of earlier strokes that have been altered and painted over is known as a pentimento, from the Italian word for “repentance.”
When listening to the two records that comprise Jon Hassell’s labyrinthine series of the same name back-to-back, I reflect on a wavering relationship to his craft and ask which choices he could be ostensibly correcting; after all, I simultaneously have long admired the influential maestro’s project of coalescing the organic with artifice and detest what the terminology he coined to describe it has become. It is high time for experimental music to move on from the term “fourth world” as a genre classification—though Hassell’s utopian visions of the concept at its nascence likely had no malicious intent of extraction, this denomination was bound to be used and abused as the torch has been passed and “world fusion” reached rife peaks. In its present use as an NTS show category and a lazy substitute for “tribal” when press copy fails to find the proper cultural context, I’d argue that “fourth world” has only devolved into an egregious turn of phrase evoking colonialism, appropriation and hierarchy. One would think that experimental music has moved past the necessity to label what even the progenitor once brutally called the “coffee-colored music of the future”—so long as it is properly studied, the notion of inclusive and respectful electroacoustic cosmopolitanism should succeed simply through the act of listening, without much verbal elaboration.
Primitive-futurist dualities be damned, what I have laid out above is all the more reason why it’s undeniably refreshing to hear Hassell paint over his usual palette rather than entirely erase it. Seeing Through Sound joins 2018’s Listening Through Pictures as documents of his most immersive and variegated abstractions (no small feat at the age of 83); with textural assistance from former INA-GRM associate Michel Redolfi, the granular murk here establishes more common ground with Markus Popp and the Mego set half his age than the textbook ambient stalwarts he once mingled with. The particulars of precise programming have doubtless been a creative constant throughout his career, but it’s only when the exotic finally gives way to the esoteric and the shadow of anthropology is abandoned that these sounds fully blossom into digital flora. —Nick Zanca
(Critique aside: a GoFundMe was started in April for Hassell—as a cancer survivor, he’s in the highest risk group for COVID-19 infection and is seeking financial assistance to ensure a sustainable living situation. At the time of writing, he’s barely halfway to his goal—join me in donating if you’re able!)
Purchase Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) at Bandcamp.
Still from Az ember tragédiája (Marcell Jankovics, 2011)
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