Tone Glow 044: Our Favorite Albums, October-December 2020
Tone Glow's writers highlight 25 albums from the year's fourth quarter
For music writers, the last couple months of the year are always a mad scramble to get year end lists complete. This constant surveying can be tiring, feeling like an overwhelming burden to churn out something definitive about the Year in Music. What often happens during this time is a forgoing of explicit Q4 coverage, which consequently makes releasing any music during this time a bit of a nightmare for anyone hoping to get reviews. So, in the interest of highlighting music from this three-month stretch, here are 25 albums that we loved. It’s as simple as that. Listen to them as you compile your own lists, cherish them during the holiday season, and bring them with you into the new year. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
TYGAPAW - GET FREE (N.A.A.F.I)
2020 ends with a bang. At a moment when the lack of surprise over what this country will allow—300,00 dead, secession threats, infrastructures both physical and social on the brink of collapse, waters rising and land burning—feels almost narcotizing in its familiar dispirit, TYGAPAW releases her debut album and can I just say it has burned me a new one. A fireball tumbling through: the brutal playgrounds where Jasmine Inifiniti and others spin themselves ever faster into euphoria; the Towhead Records/HAUS of ALTR, where the ghosts of ballrooms past and future pose in halls of mirrors; and the po-faced poetry slams of Speaker Music and the PTP collective, GET FREE takes its history and present, and its own place within them, seriously. The sound isn’t subtle, but the sheer cacophony in its layers feels according to plan, deliberate, even when the levels of tribal house and Detroit and ambient techno and breaks and acid threaten collapse.
What keeps it all together? Skill and devotion. “Soon Come” sounds like TYGAPAW making the old “Plastic Dreams” come true by sheer willpower; “Magenta Riddim” breaks up the rhythms into an all-embracing stereo field as if to say you can step up from anywhere if you try. “So It Go” whips through its jungle landscape at a pace that, in unsure hands, might risk parody, but here the frenzy feels reconstructive. The descending strings and thunder drums of “Ownland” are gloriously self-possessed. And the move from paranoia to bittersweet ecstasy halfway through “Untitled Fantasy” is among the more profound emotional experiences the year has provided. Build of the year.
It’s been tempting to nostalgize the dancefloor, to look back on nights spent alone together in the dark as freer than they might have really been. To look, when the safe and sacred spaces built by queers and trans people and people of color for community and release, at them as sites of liberation. And they might be. GET FREE has the energy to fuel the fight. But it comes with warnings, offered in echoing phrases by Tygapaw herself and in clear vox by Mandy Harris Williams. “Some of us had to get free, and some of us might,” Harris Williams says over sawing strings in the album's intro. There’s a but implied there to ponder while the beat moves our asses, and a division to look out for while we rush to unite. on the dancefloor. Later, she says, “This liberation feels like a crush.” So does GET FREE: a bearable weight that will wear you out, and a rush of love that makes it irresistible. —Jesse Dorris
Purchase GET FREE at Bandcamp.
DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ - Charmed (self-released)
I’m a little tired of reading pieces about the so-called irony of great dance music being released in a year without the dancefloor; it’s not that I don’t sympathize, but it’s in dance’s separation from the apparatus of the club that I’ve found it to take on its greatest potency yet. As I stayed apart from friends, family, and loved ones, it was the thump of the kick drum that brought me the intimacy I craved, cradling me in cold nights under blankets, scoring the rise of the sun, the soft sweep of clouds across the morning sky. DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ’s Charmed, a 3-hour odyssey of witty, deeply moving house music rendered in brilliant autumnal hues, is the very best dance music released at the very best moment, an endless DJ set pulled out of time from a world where the sun never rises.
The titanic running time of Charmed is nothing new for DJ Sabrina, who has always favored to approach her albums as definitive statements, stuffed full of hypnotic grooves that regularly surpass the 10-minute mark. Charmed is the ultimate refinement of this ideal, featuring a whopping 31 tracks of new material, but, uncannily, not a second is wasted. It’s not that time flies by when I listen; indeed, these pieces have a marvelous effect of slowing me down, forcing me to luxuriate in their lush atmospheres. DJ Sabrina has a knack for irreverent sampling, pulling choice quotes from a sludge of TV sitcoms and pop culture detritus to suit her needs; see the track “Pool Party,” where a boyish male voice repeatedly implores us to jump in the pool—because, after all, “it’s, like, a hundred degrees out,” he winks. What’s great about these samples is that they’re funny, but not at the expense of the music; DJ Sabrina isn’t sending up dance or making a joke out of the proceedings. It’s just another layer of depth to her work, a window into the media that inspires her.
Charmed ends with one of my favorite songs of the year, “End of an Era,” which centers around an effervescent, classically deep-house piano loop slowly encroached upon by wind chimes, a pounding bassline, and sweeping orchestral synths. It’s unclear what the title might refer to; maybe DJ Sabrina is calling this phase of her career quits, or maybe she’s just as ready as the rest of us for this maddening period of our lives to be over. Regardless, it’s the perfect closer for an album that plays like its own greatest hits compilation – the party may be over, but the night has only just begun. —Maxie Younger
Purchase Charmed at Bandcamp.
Sun-El Musician - To the World & Beyond (El-World)
There’s no genre of music I needed more this year than amapiano, the lounge-y South African house music that’s been gaining popularity throughout the past decade. One of its leading artists—and the one I’ve loved the longest—is Sun-El Musician, whose new album To the World & Beyond finds him working alongside a large cast of guest vocalists. As with many amapiano albums from this year, it’s long—it’s 31 tracks and 158 minutes long. Throughout the past few weeks, whenever I didn’t want to spend time thinking about anything at all, I listened to this album. These songs granted me permission to simply soak in its overtly precious melodies and beats, all of which carry a similarly sunny disposition. They’re uplifting, celebratory, contemplative, quiet—the exact things I want for the end of 2020. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Listen to To the World & Beyond at YouTube.
Kassel Jaeger - Meith (Black Truffle)
“Time is of no importance,” Eliane Radigue wrote in her contribution to Shelter Press’s first volume of collected writings on composing and listening. “All that counts is the duration necessary for a seamless development. My music evolves organically. It’s like a plant. We never see a plant move, but it is growing continually. Like plants, immobile but always growing, my music is never stable. It is ever changing. But the changes are so slight that they are almost imperceptible, and only become apparent after the fact.”
Her insight is a succinct explanation of why certain drones draw me in over others—when drawn-out details dissolve into one another, only phantom remnants remain; any semblance of stagnation that often comes with the idiom vanishes. The title of this two-part work by François Bonnet, the current director of INA-GRM, is not without intention—meith is a Scottish term that refers to landmarks that serve as guides in navigation. In the vein of the archetypal Radigue piece, the (ceaseless) crossfade embodies a cartage through totems of scotch-mist sound and Rorschach oscillations; never settling on spectacle until the precise point we disembark onto dulcet tonal territory towards its tail-end. Like the paintings of Joseba Eskubi (who graces us with this cover art), each of Bonnet’s sonic monoliths melt into a hallucinatory mélange of prismatic contrast. Meith has already become a staple of several late-night listening sessions and will continue to assume that role on the winter nights when my mind craves quiet. I couldn’t think of a better punctuation mark for this undoubted standout year for Oren Ambarchi’s curatorial concerns if I tried. —Nick Zanca
Purchase Meith at Bandcamp.
Nakul Krishnamurthy - Tesserae (Takuroku)
Since its inception, Café OTO seems to have lived by the ethos “Quality and Quantity,” maintaining a staggering pace of live events featuring titans and luminaries of experimental music from every corner of the globe. This year, when live performances became impossible—and when many of us found our productive energy sapped by an endless succession of advisories, numbers and graphs—the team at OTO refused to slow down, launching a second label beside their Otoroku house label, and quickly populating it with more than one hundred albums. I can’t pretend to have even remotely kept up with Takuroku’s release schedule. Likely, it will take me many years to process all these albums, and by extension the year of lockdown under which they were made. However, one of my very favourites among those I’ve heard so far is Tesserae, an album of two extended pieces by Indian composer Nakul Krishnamurthy.
Indian classical music is, in some ways, already a natural fit for the world of Western experimental music: in both the Hindustani and, to a lesser extent, Carnatic traditions, the rāga functions neither quite like a scale to be composed in, nor a composition to be interpreted and embellished. Rather, it somewhat incorporates both, functioning more like a framework in which standard musical phrases or motifs are woven into larger tapestries of constrained improvisation. A particular rāga will suggest to the player its own melodic paths, as a rocky landscape naturally suggests a path for a flowing river—but this does not preclude the exploration of various rivulets and eddies which form and dissipate in time.
Yet Krishnamurthy goes even further, using the classical rāga form as raw material for further extrapolation and algorithmic manipulation. The two pieces here draw their inspiration and general sonic palettes from Carnatic and Hindustani classical modes, but use digital tools to generate sonic textures which would be all-but-impossible for human players to achieve. Through a variety of methods, Krishnamurthy merges looping, swirling vocal samples and generative electronics until the two become indistinguishable, effacing the very border between voice and instrument. In this way, he not only highlights a point of intersection between Indian classical traditions and the often formalist, rule-based and generative inclinations of the Western avant-garde, but uses both in service of something wholly unique, and endlessly engrossing. This is not only a highlight of the last few months, but, to my mind, one of the essential releases of 2020. —Mark Cutler
Purchase Tesserae at Bandcamp.
Aoi Tagami, Li Song, Xiang - Voices from Green Pines (Zoomin' Night)
Voices from Green Pines comprises documentations of ritual, inner worlds whose surfaces are reflected on tape. This is most clearly the case with Aoi Tagami’s contributions, where birdsong, wind, and other ephemeral sounds from the Japanese countryside mingle with the periodic lighting of a match (“Fire of New Morning”) or improvised poetry shouted from a distance (“Echoes on the Morning Wind”). In each recording, Tagami gradually removes herself from center-stage, making her part no more than a complement to the pre-existing soundscape. Li Song’s pieces, while slightly more calculated, are just as sensitive to environment and chance. The variable yet ceaseless ticking of two metronomes punctuates the ambience of an overpass on “Metronome #1” and flowing water on “Metronome #2 (slow),” providing playful juxtapositions between discrete and continuous senses of time. My favorite here might be “Flit” by Xiang, whose moving parts—a high-pitched analog synth warble, a field recording, and intermissive silence—overlap and alternate in a game whose rules are opaque to us. It’s easy to find opacity irksome; we want to know the rules, so as to glean intent from process. But by de-emphasizing intent, Tagami, Song, and Xiang take themselves out of the aural spaces they create, inviting the listener to take their place. —Jinhyung Kim
Purchase Voices from Green Pines at Bandcamp.
James Emrick - Conject (Prensa Manual)
Conject flips and resuscitates ossified computer music tropes—sine-tone glissandos; granulated, time-stretched vocals; frenetic stepped oscillations—not self-consciously, but simply because Emrick is clearly interested in seeing what lies beyond (or maybe deeper within) those narrow, often lazily-prescribed boundaries. Conject takes what makes the best computer music so radical—an austere yet free-flowing quality that drills directly to the brain, shapes raw audio into flickering, three-dimensional sound-objects—and scrapes, sculpts it down to its barest essentials. But far from being an exercise in sonic ‘minimalism’ (and, thankfully, one not explicitly situated at the intersection of art and technology), Conject bursts at the seams with life, hinting towards the world ‘outside’ these programmed sounds in a completely effortless way: many of these short tracks end with a rapidly decaying tail of reverb—as if they were being played in an auditorium—and some ‘acoustic’-sounding clatter gets swept into the vortex near the album’s end. Avoiding the tempting pitfalls of much other music in this vein, Conject manages to situate somewhat familiar ‘academic’ techniques in a genuinely new context—environment, literally—reminding us why these sounds were so appealing and groundbreaking in the first place. Also: more 18-minute albums, please! —Sunik Kim
Purchase Conject at Bandcamp.
Leila Bordreuil, Mariel Roberts, Lester St. Louis, MV Carbon - NYC LIMINAL SERIES, Vol. 2 (Chaikin Records)
The ongoing NYC LIMINAL SERIES is a love letter to New York’s live experimental scene. The series, now comprising two volumes each organized by instrument, highlights a handful of the musicians who keep improvisatory and experimental music alive in the ever-changing city. Volume 2 features improvisatory work by four well-known cellists in the circuit: Leila Bordreuil, Mariel Roberts, Lester St. Louis, and MV Carbon.
Sonically, Volume 2 ranges from soft and scratchy to bold and glossy, stretching to the outer limits of traditional cello playing with each track. Bordreuil’s haunting, suspended tones on “Torn” open the album, which swiftly changes course to Roberts’s “Something is Burning,” a pungent drone made of layers of metallic textures, Lester St. Louis’s subtly chaotic “Ultra, Sleeping, Malted,” and MV Carbon’s eerie, layered “reflect sideways.” Each track is rife with extended techniques that create the evolving sound we hear, transforming the cello’s quintessential vibrant resonance into stormy grumbles and spasmodic squeals. This album is not meant to make one cohesive statement; rather, it features a snapshot of each artist as they are in this moment, as if it were a live performance.
Like a livestream, NYC LIMINAL SERIES, vol. 2 offers an antidote to the sadness of losing shows this year, bringing us back behind the glass of The Stone or the columned auditorium of Roulette. Each musician made their recording this past summer without the aid of a live audience to interact with their wild experimentations. But upon listening to the recordings it almost feels like we’re back together—there’s a comfort within the music's dissonance that reminds us that community exists as long as we make it. —Vanessa Ague
Purchase NYC LIMINAL SERIES, Vol. 2 at Bandcamp.
Jürg Frey - l’air, l’instant - deux pianos (Elsewhere)
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Jürg Frey is the most consistent composer in the Wandelweiser collective. However, I wasn’t particularly excited when I first heard about a new Jürg Frey piano album because the instrument has always felt like a weak spot for him. It was a surprise, then, when the latest Elsewhere batch came out and l’air, l’instant - deux pianos became my favorite of the batch and is becoming one of my go-to modern piano albums.
Split into two pieces that were composed in relation to each other, the works here share a common theme: two piano lines in a state of quasi-linkage. The music, performed by Reinier van Houdt and Dante Boon, conjures up very strong visualizations for me: two streams running parallel, neither connected directly but following similar paths. The closer you look the more differences you see; the water in one stream is traveling slightly faster and the other curves at a minutely different angle. At a few points you can almost make out places where the rivers run in perfect sync, though it might just be your brain making connections. This description not only describes the inner workings of the music but also the overall structure of the album, as both pieces feel like they’re treading the same but distinct ground.
The first piece, “toucher l’air” (touch the air), is split into seven movements and was informed by the composition of the following piece, “entre les deux l'instant” (between the two moments). On this piece, Frey exposes the romantic side of his style, akin to the work of Anastassis Philippakopoulos. Chromatic figures are seemingly traded between the two piano players, subtly shifting between them. The two piano lines are slightly out of phase, however, so the effect feels blurred across time, the inexactness inexplicably heightening the relationship between the two pianos. It’s through the differences that the connection feels clearer. There is a simple beauty to the melodies that are tossed around throughout this piece that makes the whole thing work without feeling like an academic exercise.
“entre les deux l’instant” is a more enigmatic piece for me, though no less brilliant. Like the album as a whole, duality seems to play a central theme: the pianists bounce around the “Melody” while also alternating between playing from a “List of Sounds.” They modulate each as they see fit so as to not make the composition stilted. The second repetition of the “Melody” is altered in a way that reminds me a lot of the cover of the album: slight off-white and grey shades. Like the first piece, there’s a lot of back-and-forth between the two pianists, more direct this time, but still distorted during the passing.
I particularly like how the album as a whole feels like a macrocosm of the ideas presented in the pieces themselves, giving the album a cohesion not often found in classical music. Dante Boon and Reinier van Houdt are both excellent interpreters and improvisers on this album, giving Jürg Frey’s ideas the nuanced playing they deserve. Sylvain Levier’s artwork and Yuko Zama’s design pair nicely with the works, and this is something Yuko Zama should be praised for more often. I’ve talked with her before on the design on The Earth and the Sky and it is very clear that she understands how the look and feel of an album affects your perception of it, particularly when it comes to abstract music. Everything culminates into this multifaceted and beautiful album. —Alex Mayle
Purchase l'air, l'instant - deux pianos at Bandcamp.
Somei Satoh - Emerald Tablet / Echoes (WRWTFWW)
I heard “Emerald Tablet” while living in Miami, working in logistics and warehousing management. I practically lived in the warehouse, and routinely broke a 100-hour work week. It was a bittersweet hell: arduous, psychedelic, impactful. Our warehouse was often down employees, so most of my days were spent selecting items for orders or replenishing the stacks on a forklift (sidenote: a psychedelic forklift phenomenon is that after a day on one, you feel its movements when you sleep—I think it’s because rather than how a car uses front wheels to turn, a forklift uses the back, which throws off your body’s sensation of balance).
At the time, I was particularly interested in Japanese music, loading up my phone with various finds and recommendations. These were largely rock and psych acts like Sadistic Mika Band, Happy End, Osamu Kitajima, Blues Creation, and Speed Glue & Shinki, but I also listened to some experimental music. I heard Somei Satoh after discovering Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s Osorezan/Do No Kenbai, which shares long-form drone elements with occasional chanting.
Emerald Tablet was originally an LP released in 1981 as a three piece collection, the title track of which is the B-side. When I heard the composition, I knew nothing about tape music, delay effects, and production, but being bombarded with physical warehousing work and little sleep, I knew about endurance and pushing your body into new states, and recognized a parallel. “Emerald Tablet” was recorded at NHK Electronic Sound Studio, a Tokyo-based studio that opened in 1954, prefiguring both France’s G.R.M. and the U.K.’s BBC Radiophonic workshop, and used tape machines, filtering, modulation, and a noise signal, looking to replicate many of the frequencies of a bell, extending and overdubbing that sound to oblivion. With an oscilloscope and the know-how of sonic wizard Toshiro Mayuzumi, Satoh made this sound come to be.
The newly-reissued compilation Emerald Tablet / Echoes by WRWTFWW combines “Emerald Tablet” with a composition Satoh made immediately after, also created with tape machines. “Echoes” showcases the artist wielding two eight-channel tape recorders, an echo machine, and a variable tape machine. Unlike “Emerald Tablet,” “Echoes” was recorded at Satoh’s house, though it sounds studio-quality to me, and its vocal incantations map an even more clear distinction to his spiritual practice. Satoh draws from the Zen and Shinto traditions. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he makes the connection more clear “The gods and goddesses are in all of nature, and they are the purest existence… my music is part of nature, too.” These days I don’t work a hundred hours a week, although I do identify as a Zen Buddhist. But given the choice between finding spiritual truths by driving a forklift for sixteen hours a day or listening to a drone record, I’m gonna take the drone record. —Jordan Reyes
Purchase Emerald Tablet / Echoes at Bandcamp.
Hideki Umezawa + Shohei Amimori - Critical Garden (Ftarri)
ASMR—or autonomous sensory meridian response, a name devised by an internet forum user seeking to legitimize the phenomenon by giving it a clinical sounding name you could be fooled into thinking a scientist came up with—is a phenomenon that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I have no idea if it’s widely known or understood by people that aren’t as terminally online as I am, so I will quickly explain: certain types of sounds, or “triggers,” evoke a pleasant physical sensation on the skin that runs from the scalp to the upper part of the spine. Whisper-quiet voices, the rustling of papers, and soft breathy sounds seem to be especially popular triggers. YouTube videos made for the express purpose of triggering ASMR exploded in popularity in the early 2010s in a way that felt almost as ubiquitous as the meteoric rise of VTubers in 2020. I observed this trend with the same energy as that meme of Squidward looking at SpongeBob and Patrick having fun outside of his window, because it just doesn’t work for me at all. Or, I suppose I should say, it doesn’t work often or when I want it to.
I’ve tried every single ASMR trigger and none of them did anything for me. I spent an entire day giving it an honest shot. Every now and then I try again to see if it’s any more likely to work, because it did work for me once—and only once. While listening to Sean McCann’s Music for Public Ensemble, a part of the recording that sounded like a carbonated drink being poured close to the microphone activated a feeling I’m pretty sure was ASMR. I tried to replicate it again with similar sounds, and even the same exact sound, and it didn’t work. I’m not sure I would describe it as pleasant, anyway, so I was ready to chalk it up as a fluke. I wouldn’t experience that feeling again until years later, on my first listen of Hideki Umezawa and Shohei Amimori’s Critical Garden. A fluttery whoosh at the end of the third track sent a tingle down the back of my neck, and I had to confirm that I didn’t have a bug crawling on me or something. It seriously freaked me out.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t do a damn thing the second or the third time, but listening to this album closely and trying to replicate that experience did make me enjoy it a lot more. I occasionally develop a fondness for music because of incidental extra-musical experiences that get ensnared in the listening experience. Whether Critical Garden is one of my rare ASMR triggers or my hood brushed against the back of my neck in a weird way without me realizing, the fact that it made me think so much about something so stupid kind of makes me happy. —Shy Thompson
Purchase Critical Garden at Bandcamp.
Mike Cooper - Playing With Water (Room40)
The title Playing With Water has (at least) four meanings. Mike Cooper explains that it is an allusion to a book of the same name by James Hamilton-Paterson about living alone on an island in the Philippines. But Cooper is also playing with water, figuratively splashing around in it, seeing what it can do, what sounds he can make with it. Additionally, he’s playing along with water, adding his Hawaiian slack key and lap steel guitar to his aqueous recordings. And finally, obliquely, there is a hint of danger, as playing with water is increasingly like playing with fire.
This last meaning is the most urgent here, as it is on most of Cooper’s recordings for the past two decades. He has spent that time traveling to the low-lying nations that are most at risk in the ongoing climate disaster. The sounds of water—rainfall, waves, babbling brooks—are nothing new in field recording, but Cooper’s ecological project adds an ominous sense of incipient doom to his beachside recordings. On Playing With Water, aqua-tinted tracks like “The Drowned World (Jalan Batu After Rain),” “Aquatecture,” and “Wetropolis (Jalan Durian),” from which one expects pleasant sounds of Hawaiian style guitar and gentle rainfall, feature instead disturbing clanks and clatters and detuned drones.
The whole is compelling—gripping, really—in a way that simple nature recordings often are not. Part of the reason is Cooper’s consummate musicianship, blending his instrumentation with his location recordings until at times they are indistinguishable. But the primary cause is the immediacy of his message, the sense of ruin around the corner (or just past?). Cooper’s first trick is to make the natural world sound musical, and his second is to make it sound frightening. —Matthew Blackwell
Purchase Playing With Water at Bandcamp.
Susan Alcorn Quintet - Pedernal (Relative Pitch / VG+)
Capable of a breadth in tone and texture that was completely unmatched before the birth of digital technology, the pedal steel guitar still ranks as one of the most technologically advanced instruments even over 70 years after its invention. It’s unsurprising that such a technologically-involved instrument would be equally unwieldy to set up and play, but it perhaps explains why the sound of a pedal steel has been so pigeonholed for so long, and why the great players can be counted on just a few fingers. Susan Alcorn is clearly one the greatest voices the pedal steel has yet seen, one of the very few who has attempted to orchestrate the full span of the instrument’s range and push it forward into new sounds and genres.
Pedernal, somehow Alcorn’s first album as a band leader, evinces all of the subtlety and sensitivity to melody and texture that those familiar with her work would expect. The real genius here is in how the arrangement of the band is tied so intimately to the pedal steel, carefully walking the line between jazz combo and classical quintet, quietly insisting on a new kind of chamber music. It’s quite plainly one of the greatest works from one of the greatest players of our generation. —Samuel McLemore
Purchase Pedernal at Bandcamp.
Jon Collin - Music From Cassettes, Etc. 2008-2017 (Fördämning Arkiv)
I still remember when I first learned of Jon Collin’s Winebox Press. There was something marvelous about the packaging, crafted from wood sourced from various objects: “drawer fronts,” “a former bedside cabinet,” “the remains of the old back door of 23 Kimberley Street,” “a wooden wine crate.” There was a dedication to this craftsmanship that was also clearly evident in his guitar playing. And with Music From Cassettes, music from across a crucial ten-year period and multiple labels showcase his wide-ranging musical chops all while feeling seamless.
Side A begins with “For the Pine Trees.” It’s a bit of homespun guitar-ambience, the sort of wistful desert music that’s at once pensive and nourishing. His melodies occasionally splay out in delightfully raucous fashion, carefully controlled to provide release while lovingly accompanied by field recordings as it exits. “From the Portico Library,” a duo recording with Collin and Andrew Cheetham, is all blistering blues wailing, reminiscent of Loren Connors at his most moody and aggressive. Side B has a similar trajectory, with its quietest tracks eventually leading to the piercing noise of “Live Planetary Interval Music.” It all concludes with the “Wrong Moves V.” It’s quaint and pretty and intimate—a nice reprieve after the previous track, and a gentle reminder that Collin is one of the most expressive guitarists of our time. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Music From Cassettes, Etc. 2008-2017 at Bandcamp.
Moor Mother & Billy Woods - BRASS (Backwoodz Studioz)
Following the brooding single “Furies,” released via Adult Swim back in July, New York emcee/Backwoodz Studioz head Billy Woods and Philadelphia writer/musician Moor Mother (AKA Camae Ayewa) got busy as hell and cranked out a classic. Woods and Ayewa traverse dark, industrial beats while adding jazz, blues, and gospel. The trajectory they take is epic and narrative, moving from rap to spiritual incantation to soundscape, bringing in an amazing list of producers and guests to bring it to fruition.
“Blak Forrest” is a Child Actor-produced short song, but one emblematic of the album’s scale and flow—affected pan-flute is draped across gently chattering percussion. Woods inspects residential politics, starting “Words hang in between us, but the gas is too dense / Stranger in the village, you ain’t seen him since.” There’s a tension, one laid out to comedic effect: “We waved every day, but good fences make good neighbors / like those mountains in Asia.” Ayewa jumps in, considering the supernatural, the historical, the musical, and the metropolitan:“Sound like Albert Ayler / Like why these ghosts chasing me? / Thirteen blocks south, realities of what could be / My shadow asking ‘what about me?’” Fielded finishes the listener off with her sweet, plaintive siren song: “And once you have kissed the ring, we’ll lay you down.”
Woods & Ayewa are experimentalists and masters of crafting a sonic journey. At one point, they go full noise: “Mom’s Gold” is a Moor Mother-production bringing together rumbling and abrasive synths, collage, samples, and trumpet via Irreversible Entanglements’s Aquiles Navarro. It comes at the album’s midpoint, prior to “Chimney,” a song produced by Messiah Muzik & Steel Tipped Dove that features the brilliant, enigmatic emcee Mach-Hommy saying, “I testify for those in the margin / Mach-Hommy on the mainline, but no talking / RBI the whole squadron.” Beat switches are par for the course on BRASS, and “Chimney’s” is wonderful—its ivory-tickled fade a satisfying inclusion, symbolic of the album’s constant ability to surprise and thrill.
Although there’s joy in its creation, its subject matter is deathly serious. On “Rock Cried,” which features a lurching beast of an instrumental via Olof Melander, Ayewa brings together the spiritual and profane, meditating on violence: “Oh Lord, Oh God / Don’t come down, stay high / The rock cried / I can’t hide you / They gonna find you / They gonna lynch you and call it suicide / Where you gonna run to / The rock cried / The rock cried.” It’s fucked up to be nodding your head along, but there it goes.
BRASS has the dense lyricism of Moor Mother & Billy Woods in solo capacities, but together they push each other to the stratosphere, with mantras, hooks, and melodies sure to get as trapped in your head as the wisdom they drop along the way. It’s probably my favorite record of the year. —Jordan Reyes
Purchase BRASS at the Backwoodz Studioz website.
Soul Glo - Songs to Yeet At The Sun (Secret Voice)
Songs to Yeet At The Sun is what happens when a band feels free of all constraints and all expectations. It’s an intimately Philadelphia album, reigning with a swagger and nonchalance that few other cities have the confidence to match. Hardcore is rarely this bouncy, a testament to Pierce Jordan’s funky and malleable vocals, as well as the band’s tightness; they make songs like “Mathed Up” indomitable in their heaviness. There’s a succinctness to Soul Glo: they create short, precise blasts to the heart that are unlike any bands in their lane.
The EP’s centerpiece is the Archangel-featuring “2K,” a genre-blurring noise-rap song that obscures the group’s easy categorization. No regular hardcore band would feature a genderfucking rapper amidst clustered beats, but it’s a definitive statement, in line with Soul Glo’s unrepentant dismissal of tradition and normalcy. Sure, skull-cracking drums and pulsating screams are a staple of hardcore, but when it’s this Black, this queer, this weird? They’re playing chess and everyone else is playing checkers. —Eli Schoop
Purchase Songs to Yeet At The Sun at Bandcamp.
Princess - Amethyst (self-released)
As one half of the game design studio Girl Software, Princess works with her creative partner Jessica to create vibrant worlds using simple geometric shapes and surfaces. The duo’s recent co-op adventure Bomb Dolls (soundtracked by Ada Rook, rook&nomie, and Black Dresses) boasts Sanrio-cute animal figures in conical dresses launching bombs, collecting lost souls, and kissing their girlfriends as they traverse a barren (yet nonetheless fruit-hued) wasteland in their convertible. The game’s aesthetic exploits the cuteness inherent in simple, fast, design to create a general ambience that is fun and familiar yet amply subversive. Think Happy Tree Friends meets 100 gecs and you’ll be partway there.
Amethyst follows this contrarian spirit while relinquishing an immediately subversive demeanor, instead reading as ultra-simple and sincere. As a revisitation project, Amethyst consists of songs Princess originally wrote as a teen for with an acoustic guitar and her voice. As such, it’s hard to imagine how could it be anything but sincere.
As documented in Princess’s blog, the entire album was produced in GarageBand (“an evil software primarily used by a billionaire's wife”) using default synths and a Vocaloid program “obtained… by Legally Purchasing.” The result is blocky, rich in shimmering mouthfeel, overwhelmingly barebones, and generally delectable, reminiscent of Anamanaguchi or Tami T, while remaining much less involved, hyperstructured or polished than either.
Like an android Elizabeth Fraser lobbed to the future, Princess incoherently glides through bouncy bops like “the abyss” and “aspidochelone” as well as dramatic heights as achieved on “mesoglea/selenizone” and “spectral shroud,” all while skirting conventions of high-level production. As Princess explains in illuminating production notes for Girl Software marble game Jessica, “auteurism is overrated! true ‘creative freedom’ is being free from the limits of your own mind,” limits which, in the duo’s case, are their OCD and the anxieties it leads to. Out of necessity, Princess consistently adopts a punkish approach, exploiting presets and store-bought assets towards evocative and otherworldly ends. As she puts it, “this makes dudes mad >:( and we love that.” —Leah B. Levinson
Purchase Amethyst at Bandcamp.
Jake Muir - the hum of your veiled voice (Sferic)
If ‘ambient’ was ever a site of resistance—an escape hatch, a playground for the imagination—it’s now closer to an opiate for the masters of playlists, we who pay Spotify et al. for the privilege of streaming fonts of productivity-enhancements and relaxation aids. Anything to zhush up the silence. I can have most anything on in the background, including menageries of field recordings captured by explorers out in the wilds and caged into vinyl or data for my delectation. This kept me comfortable in a year where comfort was a prize.
But as Kiki DuRane used to harang, “Don’t get too comfortable.” What moved me, as opposed to stilling me, most this year were records of ambient strategies with specific aims. Pointed fingers instead of endless waves. Records like Space Afrika’s enraging and enlightening hybtwibt?; Pinkcourtesyphone’s glittering evisceration of luxury leaving everything to be desired; the warm dignity of utility in A Space for Sound’s Sound Bath Mixtape Vol.1. And Jake Muir’s the hum of your voice, which massages the crevices of his record collection into tumescent shafts of drawn-out sound. It’s ambient as gaydar. A hidden perfumed signal, a horny ephemerality.
Opener “on occasions of this kind” uses footsteps to define the field; here, though, walking in circles sounds less like expensive shoes on elegant flooring and more like cruising, the rainy-pavement shuffle of those on the make. Elsewhere, vinyl crackle rattles like costume jewelry, gentle hisses release like fresh bottles of poppers, pads thicken the air like accumulating bodies. Muir drags these familiars through Akira Rabelais’s DSP tool Argeïphontes Lyre until they are larger than lifelike. He’s spoken of intending the hum to invoke the gay bathhouse, not ambient's usual spa. And it certainly is arousing, though more in the spirit of the bathrooms of James Bidgood, all creamy technicolor. And, also, more perverse than Eno’s piss-play playing cards: in our particular pandemic, anonymous sex is the most selfish thing imaginable, and better left to the imagination—better listen instead to the hum of fantasy, and find comfort in it. —Jesse Dorris
Purchase the hum of your veiled voice at Bandcamp.
Chronophage - th'pig'kiss'd album (Cleta Patra)
Chronophage are one of my favorite bands playing today. I heard them play several years ago while they were on tour through Los Angeles. Their queer and crusty spirit clashed in euphony with an otherworldly knack for melody and song, producing a rickety symphony on the Rec Center’s tiny stage. I played out their 2017 debut, What is the Mystery of Love?, consistently for a year after and still to this day. These fuzzed-out numbers are golden oldies in my mind.
On their first LP, Prolog for Tomorrow (2018), they expanded and refined their jangle-rock sound, revisiting some of the same songs with a cleaner recording quality and fleshed-out arrangements. th'pig'kiss'd album develops this trajectory, presenting an all-new collection of songs that feel darker, fuller, and more storied in many ways. Moments here are reminiscent of work by post-punkers Mekons, Swell Maps, and Prefab Sprout, pulling that thread to a sound more legible today.
One of the band’s most unique qualities is the way in which their voices combine and their melodies are woven to create an almost ancient tone, evoking a primitive quality all too foreign to too many rock bands today and a mysticism all too absent from punk altogether. Each voice seems to hold the voices of thousands of others, wishing to speak through them. These cacophonous renditions sound to be only the latest realization of a melody in a long-lasting multigenerational tradition. But perhaps that’s just the alchemical magic of a well-bonded band, an interpersonal structure certainly capable of miracles.
Nonetheless, several lyrics, when they do poke through, evoke great adventures, tragic woes, and endless possibilities. The dually-spoken refrain of “Any Junkyard Dreams” holds an entire exposition ominously on its shoulders: “quiet now/ silent as a text/ what will my wretched family do next.” “Destiny Falls” and “Animated Rose” are impassably epic both in scale and ambience while containing little more than a very basic rock instrumentation. The operatic aside of a bridge on name story has its protagonist howling out, “I’ve copied myself / I’m young again / I’ll choose to name it / choose to name it,” with all the verve and madness of an unhinged professor. But perhaps these heights are to be expected of a band whose demo boasted songs titled “Double Suicide” and “Coveting Dragon’s Eggs.”
All this aside, many of the greatest moments on th'pig'kiss'd album are the moments of levity and pure musical joy: Nico trapped on the Dungeons & Dragons character sheet on “Heartstone” or the gameshow shuffle of “At Last I Am Run Dry.” Each Chronophage song reminds me of simple joys using ever-impressive means and pulling from a well of creativity. Their songs are lessons in how a life is to be led, worthy of cherishing and protection. —Leah B. Levinson
Purchase th'pig'kiss'd album at Bandcamp.
Hyph11e - Aperture (SVBKVLT)
The word ‘aperture’ means ‘holes,’ and Hyph11e’s grotesque, early-Resident Evil video game cover features holes upon holes while the press release talks about the duality of holes in nature. But the obvious point hasn’t been made, which is that Hyph11e’s debut album arrives to fill a hole that I didn’t know I had: deconstructed club music coming out of Shanghai. Hyph11e pulls liberally across electronic music’s vast subgenre network, particularly the rhythm-heavy entries of jungle, footwork and drum and bass, but the music never feels like it owes to anyone or any culture in particular.
Arriving after years of building up hype for herself, Aperture notably doesn’t include any of her songs already out there: no “Black Pepper,” no “Flashes.” And so Aperture feels like even more of an event because of it: 10 songs, 42-minutes of immaculate and overwhelming sound design, and no room for bullshit. “Barnacles”’s first half is incredibly off-putting, culminating in what I swear could be the same sample as Shabazz Palaces’s “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” readjusted for a dark alley instead of spaced-out weirdness. And unlike a lot of deconstructed club which has also deconstructed the fun out of club music, some of Aperture bangs hard: “Knots” stutters its way onto the dance-floor, teasing out a would-be hook and never letting the sample play all the way through, while the second half of the album leans hard into the heavier beats. But it might be the quiet moments that I like the most: opener “Encrust” throbs its way to its release, revealing a junkyard of fax machines dying in the rain; closer “Erosion” has a surprisingly pretty synth-line that sounds like it’s surviving a war. —Marshall Gu
Purchase Aperture at Bandcamp.
Various Artists - PARADE (Zoomin’ Night)
Choosing an album to write about for this Q4 roundup was difficult; because of where my interests have fallen lately, I haven’t listened to a ton of new music that I loved in the past couple of months. I’ve only listened to slack key guitar music for the last two weeks, with some rare exceptions. I had a choice lined up for an album I’ve been enjoying, but Jinhyung locked it in earlier—that’s okay, because I love his writing and I’d rather see what he thinks about it. I had a second choice, but I didn’t feel I was in a proper headspace to do it justice; I'm feeling a little depressed, and all the good thoughts I had about it evaporated. Instead, I’m going with this album that came out just hours before the time of writing.
I’m currently writing this with a splitting headache. I’m under a blanket, typing directly into a Google Doc on my phone rather than using my laptop at a desk the way I always do. My blue light filter is on and my brightness is way down—it’s much easier on my eyes. I might have to do this more often. I’m listening to this album for only the second time, and I feel about as comfortable as I think I possibly could be given the circumstances. I thought an album like this, heavily featuring ambient city sounds, would be good for me right now, considering the state I’m in. I made a good choice.
Lately, it’s hard to stop myself from daydreaming about how badly I want to go places. Not even anywhere particularly far from home—just, like, the bus plaza downtown or something. I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, but the pandemic has made me think pretty hard about how much I’ve squandered my opportunities to enjoy what’s around me. Picking a spot in town to hang around and soak in the atmosphere of a world that feels alive the same way the musicians in this album have just sounds really nice; I’ve declined to let myself have those experiences far too often. Of course, the world I’m currently living in has slammed to a halt and it wouldn’t be responsible to go anywhere, but I’ve decided that rather than moping about what I’ve passed up on I’ll look forward to making my idle ideas into reality. Since writing the blurb in issue 042 about how I wanted some recording equipment, now I have some. I can make my own version of this album sometime—but for now, this one’s exactly what I need while I wait for the ibuprofen to kick in. —Shy Thompson
Purchase PARADE at Bandcamp.
Marc Baron - S<—>N (a path of chaos) (More Mars)
Saxophonist and composer Marc Baron always has a way of keeping you intrigued—his music constantly hints at something needing to be uncovered. On early releases like Une Fois, Chaque Fois; ∩; and Non Solo / Form Proof, he took various materials—silence, sustained tones, field recordings, electronics—and had them appear and intersect in simple, affecting manners. The pairings he employed (heavy, warped breathing alongside Morse code-like beeps; the immense sound of traffic pierced by a high, ringing tone; spark-like sputters interjected by silence) had an intrigue to them that became more overt in his musique concrète records, this mystique perhaps alluded to in the title of his most all-consuming album, Hidden Tapes.
Baron doesn’t aim for anything as immediately grandiose or show-stopping with S<—>N (a path of chaos). He instead delivers two long-form pieces that progress in a relatively linear path, and they’re monolithic in sound—devoid of sweeping dynamics and sudden silences. The first track, “Napoli’s tapes,” begins with a mass of tape music detritus, the faint sound of voices and vehicles perceptible in its bleary atmosphere. This then cuts to the sound of him puttering in a domestic space before quick manipulations lead back to a similar whirlwind of sound. As the track progresses, it feels more and more sickly: there’s synth drones, a moment of blown-out low-end, squeaking metal, and the loud ringing of a train. More than any of Baron’s previous works, it feels like a fever dream.
Side B, “Magnetic mask (erasure is not enough),” is 21 minutes and 25 seconds long—the same length as Side A. The conceit here is that Baron’s taken the first track and obliterated it “by the analog process of over-polarisation of the magnetic tape.” While we hear the occasional sound of voices and other maybe-imperceptible noise, much of its runtime is hiss and rattle, the whole thing reduced to the sweeping movements of the piece. Here, the physicality takes precedence over any actual sonics, which is an apt follow-up to the previous track; it feels like waking up and feeling the weight of emotion conjured up from a nightmare, that sensation feeling so real even when you can’t remember anything that happened. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase S<—>N (a path of chaos) at the More Mars website.
Cahn Ingold Prelog - Accelerate (Crow Versus Crow)
It is often the aim, among musicians working in the general field of musique concrète, to alienate their material from its source, denaturing particular sounds from their physical circumstances in order to treat them as pure sonic material. In this way, even the most mundane noises can take on a certain mystique, which in turn elevates them to the status of Art. Simon Proffitt, operating here under his mouthy ‘Cahn Ingold Prelog’ moniker, has no interest in any such mystique. Rather, his recent album Accelerate features titles like “Fruitless Hunt For Clean Fork” and “Freezer (Ice Tray),” which both literally describe where they come from, and hilariously undermine the pompous grandeur usually attached to the catchall term ‘sound art’.
However, this is not to say that the recordings presented here aren’t compelling on their own terms. What makes Proffitt’s album so pleasurable is again transparently disclosed both in its name and liner notes: Accelerate makes heavy use of a custom accelerometer-amplifier rig, which has a subtle but transformative effect on everything fed through it. I struggle even to pinpoint exactly how this setup functions. At times, certain sounds are identifiable, even though it feels like we are hearing them through a long, steel pipe. At other times, everything feels almost chopped-up, slivered and splayed in a way which renders them strange and transfixing. In any case, Proffitt has found a simple but powerful tool for interpolating the most banal and haphazard activities into compelling music. It is refreshing, too, that he lays his sources and methods so uncharacteristically bare—but then, he can afford to, when the results are such an unexpected delight. —Mark Cutler
Purchase Accelerate at Bandcamp.
Roland Kayn - Dino Concerto (Reiger-records-reeks)
“Dino Concerto” reveals several sides of Roland Kayn that have always been present in his work but hidden beneath the cybernetic visage. There is a persistent romantic undercurrent, recognizable in his early ’00s compositions, that is on full display throughout this 27-minute personal piano improvisation. Recorded while he was playing for his wife Lydia, “Dino Concerto”’s lo-fi quality and tape hiss lend themselves to the highly personal aesthetic of the release, only heightened by the cover of roses that were painted for her. It feels like a window into the love these two people shared, the emotion in the room so charged it physically alters the dynamics of the piano.
“Dino Concerto” can be wild and unpredictable at times, the twists and turns of the piano through otherwise placid sounds are reminiscent of his earlier, more recognizable work. He goes along with a melody for a bit until seemingly getting distracted with a new idea, sometimes right in the middle of a melodic fragment. Around four minutes in, it seems like he’s coming in for a close to the improvisation, but it just shifts to a new idea revealing the trick (the recording seemingly ends around the six-minute mark.) He pulls similar tricks all throughout his cybernetic compositions, of course; they’re just obscured by the extra complexity.
Nothing about this album is particularly revolutionary, however, and it’s through the context of Roland Kayn’s oeuvre and life that it gains considerably more meaning: The fact that it was released on Lydia’s birthday, the name being a reference to a pet name for Roland by fellow composers, even the way it clearly cuts in part way throug, implying he was playing only for her and that this wasn’t originally meant to be recorded. All of those little things, not even part of the music, give special meaning to “Dino Concerto.” I’ll cherish the music, but this underlying story and the personal connection it brings makes the experience even more worthwhile. —Alex Mayle
Purchase Dino Concerto at Bandcamp.
Told Slant - Point The Flashlight And Walk (Double Double Whammy)
I told my mom I was going to stay with a friend (a girl, of course) in Chicago for a week. I was lying. I was staying with an ex who I was in love with and also hated. I hated the way he said my then-name, the way it sounded like he was confusing me with a ripe mulberry. I loved that he was the only person who made my name sound like that. I love that no one will ever get the chance to take that away from him now. I drove 15 hours to see him and was vibrating with a combination of excitement and anxiety. What if his mom hated me? When I pulled up to the house he lived in, the sun was in that perfect spot that happens at 5PM in the summer, illuminating but not overbearing. He was waiting on the steps. He was smiling.
Living is hard
I never really tried
Caring for you
So I don’t have to care for myself
Living is hard
When you don’t want me to
—Lyrics from Told Slant’s “Run Around the School”
We called the dorm room that four of our friends lived in The Nest. We would regularly congregate there—drinking, smoking weed, even doing homework sometimes. It was the last time we would all be together before winter break. I was hammered. He was hammered. We were all hammered. I pulled him into the bathroom with me, into the stall we had all littered with graffiti. We kissed, laughing, teeth crashing into each other as we struggled to stay balanced.
I love you
I love you so much
I love you
It was scary and cathartic and we should have never said it.
I have a love for you
The kind that burns too quickly
The kind that fills the margins up
But I don’t want to run with you
I don’t want to run with you
When there’s someone you’re devoted to
You’re always living with a trap door under you
—Lyrics from Told Slant’s “No Backpack”
I slept on the couch. He slept on the floor. We talked until we fell asleep, my hand dangling off the couch and touching his. In the morning, our friends took my shitty digital camera and took photos of us in the morning. The sun bounced off his skin in the spring light. He looked so happy. We walked to a pizza spot we used to frequent. We were blazed and stumbling and I could barely order my food. My flight was later that night. We barely said anything at all, too busy looking at each other and taking in what we had promised to be our final time together, as us. I felt relieved in a way. It was the last time I saw him.
And will I know your face
Every crease and slope
For the rest of my life?
Will I gnaw at this bone
That I am always alone
—Lyrics from Told Slant’s “Bullfrog Choirs”
march 1st, 2018.
I don’t know why I bought internet on my flight. I think I was cramming for a test. Maybe I was anxious. I hadn’t heard from him in months. We didn’t talk often anymore, but I had been pondering for the last two weeks on whether I should reach out to him or not. In the descent into Boston, the woman sitting next to me offered a tissue—a small act of kindness from one stranger to the next. He had been missing for two days from his uncle’s home in Baltimore. His mom said they found him in Pennsylvania and that he was finally at rest.
I put my hand on your chest
I hope it beats when I leave you.
Like a watch in the desk drawer.
You’re my family still
Even thought we don’t talk now.
—Lyrics from Told Slant’s “Family Still”
Listening to Told Slant’s Point the Flashlight and Walk was painful for me. I cried the first time through. In many ways it was uncomfortable and invasive, but it was also freeing. There is something to be said about an album that feels like it was made for you, and maybe one other person. Felix Walworth achieved something that made me ache. I wish the person who introduced me to Told Slant was still around to hear it. As much as I needed this album, he would have needed it more. —Finn Roberts
Purchase Point the Flashlight and Walk at Bandcamp.
Thank you for reading the forty-forth issue of Tone Glow. Here’s to more great albums in 2021 :+)
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