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Tone Glow 059: Our Favorite Albums, January-March 2021
Tone Glow's writers highlight 21 albums from the year's first quarter
When I took my mom to get her vaccination shot a few weeks ago, she expressed delight in feeling like things were starting to change. It’s hard to say how long it’ll be until we’re out of the pandemic, but it’s nice to take in any bit of optimism that comes our way. Interestingly, I noticed something in that 45-minute commute to Walgreens: of all the times I’d driven my mom, this was the first I’d been comfortable enough to sing and dance—without inhibition—to the music I played. She had seen me do it before, though to a less outrageous degree, and it had remained an unexpected source of worry for her given my multiple car accidents (none related to my singing and dancing, mind you). Who knows why she didn’t feel bothered by it that day—maybe she understood my celebratory energy, maybe she just doesn’t care anymore.
It was nice to bond with her in that car, me flailing around while she occasionally clutched the grab handle, as she often does. We didn’t really speak to each other during the drive, but it was nice to be in each other’s presence; we were happy, hopeful, homey. In retrospect, I credit the music for having been that all-important mood-setter, establishing the atmosphere with which we could comfortably relish our positive moods. But more than the music itself, I think we also understood the importance of our being together—not just because I was helping her getting vaccinated, but because the pandemic has made clear for both of us how relationships are precious and valuable things. Her recent trips to the ER have only crystallized that for both of us.
As I think about the albums we covered below, I think about them in their historical and cultural contexts, which in turn just emphasizes the importance of communities. I think about the implicit dialogue that is occurring between artist and listener, between writer and reader. I think about how all of this—as in, this list of our favorite albums from the year’s first quarter—is also more than just music. It’s about sharing and expressing and learning, it’s about being excited about others’ excitement. We hope you find something you like from the list below, and that it can provide an opportunity for shared happiness, wherever you are. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Note: The writers of Tone Glow recently made a donation of $1000 to Red Canary Song and endorsed this statement from them that was made after the murders in Atlanta. We believe decriminalization of sex work is necessary for the safety and survival of sex workers, massage workers, sex trafficking survivors, and others. To care about music is to care about our communities. Please donate if you can.
Jean-Luc Guionnet - Totality (TakuRoku)
Totality seemingly makes no claim to modesty. This is a 4-hour work explicitly intended to be listened to as one piece, “as loud as possible,” featuring the voices, in 20 languages, of 83 stalwarts of experimental music ranging from Yan Jun to Annette Krebs (they contribute voices only; Guionnet alone composed the actual piece). The end result reaches the rare heights implied by its bombastic title, but via humble, understated means: at its core, Totality is composed of sputtering voice and field recordings—people speaking in places. The work finds its electrifying momentum in the meticulous arrangement of these recordings—laid out not only in linear time, but also stacked, squashed, paired, multiplied and scattered across the stereo field—and their subsequent destruction at Guionnet’s exacting hand. He molds anonymous auditory disturbances—the distorted, blown-out junk and ephemera of the typical field recording—into roiling shockwaves of hissing shrapnel, scything torrents of digital noise, which channel the demonic energy of the most unhinged basement noise sets, but with a scalpel-like precision. Rarely have I felt every sonic element—even the harshest and most ear-splitting—sit so perfectly, lead so effortlessly to the next.
Totality’s scale, all-encompassing title, and inclusion of over a dozen different languages may provoke a simplistic comparison to Stockhausen’s Hymnen, but the latter reaches greedily for the grandiose and is mired in a thoroughly reactionary politics centered on national anthems. Totality is the actually radical work, invoking a genuine sense of togetherness, solidarity, the boundlessness in diversity of human relations; here, language becomes music, each flowing into the other. Guionnet highlights the simple beauty of the human voice, its tics, rhythms and melodies, not as abstract sonic material, but as it really is: a mode of expression in an explicitly social context. The end result is a heightened mode of listening in every sense of the word; I came away from this monumental work with a renewed love for humanity, a desire to meet, learn from, dialogue with those around me—I am overwhelmed by the chaotic beauty of life in all its joy and horror. To paraphrase a review of Altman’s Nashville: Totality is one of those works that, while you’re listening to it, seems like the only kind of music there is or ever should be. —Sunik Kim
Purchase Totality at the Cafe OTO website.
Li Weisi - 车间四重奏：警报器操作指南 / Workshop Quartet: Guide of Hand Operated Siren (self-released)
Li Weisi spent the mid-00s and early-10s playing in a handful of Beijing indie rock groups, including the widely-acclaimed jangle-pop act Carsick Cars. At some point in the last few years, he made a hard pivot towards austere, process-based sound-art. Since then, he has released a string of excellent albums, each one constructed around a single method or system, which Weisi usually lays out in hand-drawn diagrams on the album art.
Workshop Quartet is no exception, prominently featuring a charming sketch of the hand-crank siren which is the primary source of sound on this release, and labelling its salient soundmaking features in both Mandarin and English. Attached to the real-life siren are various microphones and, we infer, other mechanical elements and bits of workshop detritus. The first track (“Setup”) is a surround-sound immersion into Weisi’s assembly process. We hear various metallic objects rattle, rustle, groan and creak as Weisi presumably puts all the mechanical elements into place. On the next two tracks, Weisi audibly begins to turn the crank of the siren. He operates it slowly enough that the produced sound never drowns out the clicks and squeaks of the machinery. Rather, at this lethargic pace, the siren makes a surprising variety of organic, almost animalistic noises, calling to mind everything from a field of bullfrogs to a very despondent cow.
Between the covers, album and track titles, Wisei’s music is so self-descriptive that I worry people will feel they can just as well imagine the music as listen to it. It is true that I have essentially just described a man turning a crank for twenty minutes. However, let me tell you, almost nobody working right now renders sound as intimately and palpably as Wisei. Workshop Quartet presents each sound in immaculate detail, almost pressing it into your ears, even as the exact source of the sound remains unplaceable. From such simple, formal constraints, Wisei extracts such a stunning, varied array of material that, after 25 minutes, I was sad to hear the final track fading to silence. —Mark Cutler
Purchase 车间四重奏：警报器操作指南 / Workshop Quartet: Guide of Hand Operated Siren at Bandcamp.
Yan Jun & Axel Dörner - i agree (Sind)
What is the future if it is only a restaging or ornamentation of the past? What can the present be if it too is only a repetition of some previous event? Yan Jun and Axel Dörner’s newest record, i agree, is a series of improvisations for voice and trumpet that stages this bleak temporality—one in which the future is entirely foreclosed. Through the patient elaboration of materials and a highly reduced sonic language, Jun and Dörner place the listener in an endless cycle of repetition. The listener might find themselves asking: is there any way out?
The sparse list of materials that constitute i agree includes quiet wisps of noise, deep breathing, a low sung tone, high whistles, the clicking of a trumpet valve, and silence. These are presented in persistent cycles that recalibrate our experience of the present moment. Yan Jun opens the second track, “it could be worse,” with a sung tone that echoes every previous sounding of that material. There is nothing that distinguishes the presentation of these tones from their initial performance in the opening track. The listener’s experience throughout is one of inertia: we are where we have been before, and we will be exactly where we have been this entire time.
Despite the sense of despondency that permeates i agree, there is the veiled suggestion of possibility. Approximately 12 minutes into the penultimate track, “it happens,” we enter a new space, an extended silence whose length ruptures its previous identity as a transitional material. Silence has become its own environment, one that the listener now inhabits. This new listening position prepares us for the possibility of a larger transformation.
This paradigm shift occurs in the final track, “that everything is illusion.” The pitch and quality of Jun’s sung tone has changed, Dörner’s trumpet emphatically responds to Jun’s deep, noisy breath, and a percussive instrument performs gestural figurations across the stereo field, feeding back through a microphone in the process—we have suddenly entered a dynamic and responsive space. Perhaps of greater note, however, is the emerging sense of organization in this track. There is the feeling that someone is actively intervening in and modulating our experience of time: gestures feel composed and coordinated rather than subjected to the inexorable flow of materials. What is the cause of this sudden change? Perhaps the answer has been coded into the track titles all along? A possibility was always there for us to accept: “it’s possible … that everything is illusion”. —Dominic Coles
Purchase i agree at Bandcamp.
Lina Tullgren - Visiting (Ba Da Bing)
After spending eight years in Weimar Berlin under the private tutelage of the concertmaster of the Philharmoniker, Shinichi Suzuki returned to his native Nagoya where his father ran a violin factory. During World War II, the shop was converted to construct seaplane floats and was bombed by American war planes. Committed to bringing beauty to the lives of children when the war ended, he accepted an invitation to teach at a school under one condition: that he could develop the musical education of students from their infancy. Suzuki had reflected on his struggles learning German—he observed that children picked up their mother tongues quickly, and that adults often find even dialects difficult to learn on a rudimentary level. He had an epiphany: if children have the skillset to acquire their native language, they too have the ability to become not just proficient but gifted on an instrument, given the proper environment, ear training, and character development. This spark of thought would mark the catalyst of the pedagogical gold standard of classical music education.
The woman who taught me the Suzuki Method on violin when I was in elementary school taught lessons in her apartment above a pizza place in downtown Norwalk, Connecticut. In racking my brain for her name and looking her up, I laughed at how much her old headshots evoke Isabelle Huppert (yes, that one role). I vividly recall the endless bark of her two golden retrievers, houseplants adorned on a hardwood floor, ivory busts of Bach and Beethoven, the mixed aroma of nag champa and pepperoni pies from downstairs. I also remember constant intimidation upon arriving at her place. She was not a particularly warm person. She approached little me as one would an adult as we ceaselessly ran through scales; her smile and positive reinforcement only emerged for our recitals, where she would give my camcorder-equipped father a copy of her new CD of gamelan-tinged electroacoustic music performed on her 5-string electric. After bashing me over the head with Bach minuets for a year or two, she tossed aside Suzuki Book 2 and whipped out Appalachian fiddle tunes as recompense. This was a reward, where freedom and fun finally began.
Staring at the childhood photo of Lina Tullgren that graces the cover of Visiting while listening to its three solo violin improvisations stirs in me the stress and stasis of studying a classical string instrument as a kid, chinrest, rosin, and all; it also throws that curveball joy that comes with a change in approach, one without inhibition or restraint, where timbre and tone become toys to be played with. The press copy cites Henry Flynt and Polly Bradfield as their guiding lights—for me, the ghost of Pauline Oliveros and her psychology of play wholly hangs heavy with each arco push and pull. These are drones for dissociation, a playful, heavy homage to a past self and the bodily intervention of performance; the sound of a capricious and curious artist returning to their roots and learning their first musical language once again with new ears. —Nick Zanca
Purchase Visiting at Bandcamp.
GRUST - GRUST II (Andromache)
In the world of modern guitar players, Caspar Sonnet certainly gets less attention than what he deserves. That’s not to say that he’s some complete unknown—he has been playing lap steel for six years now in both solo and ensemble contexts—and his expressive technique and unique vocabulary far outstrip his fame. No one else approaches the lap steel guitar in quite the way he does, as a pure sound source unbound from the typical repertoire it’s associated with. Eren Guney, the other member of GRUST, is a name I am far less familiar with, and their chosen instrument is listed as just “magnetic tape”, a suitably ambiguous title for the sounds, which vary from the more expected rewinding tape deck noises to a wide range of drones and hisses that call to mind spluttering vocalizations and all sorts of bizarre acoustic phenomena. GRUST II is satisfying as a duet between two instrumentalists and is also sonically unfamiliar enough to work as a noise collage. The two mesh together well, with the obvious timbres of steel and wood in Sonnet’s guitar familiarizing the unnatural reverberations of Guney’s tape machine, and, in the opposite direction, Guney’s magnetic tape exaggerating Sonnet’s already uncommon style of guitar playing into nearly cosmic directions. Structured as two long tracks, Sonnet and Guney form dense, complicated soundscapes around each other and patiently watch them burn away one by one, like fog in sunlight. —Samuel McLemore
Purchase GRUST II at Bandcamp.
Endlings - Human Form (Whited Sepulchre Records)
As Endlings, guitarist John Dieterich and composer and sound artist Raven Chacon present their expertise in noise improvisation, leaning into their penchant for exploring bold, engulfing sound. The two artists each work in a variety of capacities in the music world—Dieterich is most known for his work in the band Deerhoof, and Chacon is known for composing for groups like Kronos Quartet in addition to his wide-ranging improvisatory practice—but here, they’re in sync. The two established their sound on 2017’s Endlings, and Human Form codifies and expands their palette, providing an eclectic mix of dissonance, sheer strength, and jammable tunes.
What’s most compelling about Human Form is precisely this variety: Each track presents new ideas, branching out from the distorted plinks and brash pangs of “Pre - Bird” into the deconstructed rock of “Fragil” and the peppy piano and blown-out voice of “The Universe Cannot Be Read.” Power is a running undercurrent throughout; even “Primordial Forms,” whose chilling sparsity sticks out for its contrasting energy, radiates a decided force. It’s hard not to be compelled by such commitment to a plethora of different musical choices. The music leads on Human Form, and it’s impossible to know where it’ll end up. The answers are never revealed, even once it’s done. —Vanessa Ague
Purchase Human Form at Bandcamp.
LEGO® - LEGO® White Noise (West One Music)
A type of music I am becoming rapidly enamored with is when a Brand™ makes good experimental music on accident. In 2019, the Swedish arm of supermarket chain Lidl released a Spotify playlist of sounds recorded in one of their stores. I found it enjoyable not just as pleasant field recordings, but for the way it contextualizes sounds I normally only hear in a state of irritation. I like to spend as little time as possible in the grocery store, especially lately, during a global pandemic when I have to deal with people not wearing masks, wasting my time, and blocking my way to the one thing I came in for. There are a lot of great sounds in a supermarket: the beeping of items being scanned, the rustling of bags being packed, and the rickety vibrations of shopping carts. Being able to enjoy these stimulating noises divorced from the context that normally causes them to be grating makes it work for me as compelling music.
This playlist, created for LEGO by the West One Music Group, similarly appeals to me for reasons different than were probably intended. Calling it “white noise” seems to imply that it’s something they expect you to throw on in the background, but I found it impossible not to pay close attention to each track. Their press release claims they experimented with over 10,000 sounds to find the most relaxing ones, which sounds to me like someone got paid to have a great time playing with LEGO bricks. There are satisfying noises here that you’ll be familiar with if you ever played with LEGO as a kid, like bricks being displaced as you rummage through a container of them, the sounds of them clicking together, or a cascade of them falling as they’re being poured out. There are some more unexpected sounds in the mix too, such as “Wild as the Wind,” where small and light LEGO elements are blown around in a breeze, or “Big Hearted Bricks,” which focuses on the heftier, more hollow sounds of the largest bricks.
LEGO® White Noise doesn’t succeed for me as a relaxation playlist in the slightest; I’m honestly unsure how somebody could tune it out. But I’m not into ambient sound as background noise anyway, so I’m glad that it gave me something better—music I felt was worthy of putting up against a magnifying glass for three and a half hours, looking for that one little piece I need. —Shy Thompson
Hanne Lippard - PigeonPostParis (Boomkat Editions | Documenting Sound)
“I wonder how many useless 4-digit codes I’m storing in my memory.” Hanne Lippard ponders the thought on PigeonPostParis, a single-track spoken-word travelogue that finds the poet documenting her stay in the titular city. She’s unable to remember the code to her new home, but recalls a previous one. As frustrations arise, she considers herself analogous to a pigeon seen standing in front of another doorway. It’s soon implied that she’s the lesser of two creatures—according to a study, she explains, a pigeon was able to transfer data across 60 miles at a faster rate than via ADSL. This is to say: the pigeon could’ve remembered that code.
While pandemic living has rendered my careful listening—particularly of lyrics—a mighty slog, PigeonPostParis is thrilling because its focus on language demands attention, and ensures ample payoff moment by moment. Lippard constantly finds ways to have elements interact, be they different story strains, the music and narrative, or the texture and meaning of individual words. Cleverly, she speaks in a calm, unhurried tone that belies the interwoven nature of her pseudo-stream of consciousness. Best of all, PigeonPostParis rewards repeat listens because of how captivating it is as a story too, like any good radio play.
One of Lippard’s most brilliant bits here is a simultaneous confessional and joke: “My writing the past few days has been like chewing food with an open mouth in public: Amuse-bouche.” When she states that final word, she demonstrates what it sounds like to have witnessed her chewing with her mouth open. It’s a reflexive flex. The playfulness continues, and few albums this year feel so spirited and emotive, and fewer still have done so with such a small number of tools. It’s clear, though, that Lippard understands the massive potential that exists in text alone, and PigeonPostParis goes beyond the miniatures of her debut LP Work in a manner that feels at once simple and complex, everyday and existential. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase PigeonPostParis at Boomkat.
Southeast of Rain 东南有雨 - 42 Days 四十二天 (self-released)
Open with a tremble. The wavering steel pang of Sophia Shen’s pipa flutters upward then lingers in the air. The flashes of her bright solo on the traditional Chinese lute echo and welcome an atmosphere set aside from the dissonance of our everyday lives, begging to be explored.
42 Days 四十二天, the debut album from Southeast of Rain 东南有雨, the duo of Sophia Shen and vocalist Lemon Guo, was born and completed in a space away. The initial recordings were done while the two were disconnected from Wi-Fi and cell service as Artists in Residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts in the Marin Headlands in California. The duo’s daily recordings of their surroundings, compositions, and improvisations were then finished while Guo and Shen were on opposite coasts, amidst the global pandemic that secluded us all. The resulting diary of songs is an interrogation of separation and connectivity, of Guo and Shen’s ability to link to their environment and to themselves.
The interaction between these three is where 42 Days creates an inviting ambiance that feels both grounded in the nature we know and isolated from that reality. We first hear the duo together on “Day 8 Between Fleeting Somethings 须臾之间.” Guo’s vocals hover over the howls of wind, crashing waves, and the vibrating tones of the pipa. “Day 18 To Frank the Owl 致猫头鹰弗朗克” moves through skyward branches, the contrapuntal vocals reflect the calls of the titular bird. The single live recording on the album, “Day 33 Improvising at the Gym (Live) 在篮球馆即兴,” is a gentle procession that settles calmly within the ear like dust particles falling to the hardwood.
The closer “Day 42 Unwanted Bits I 边角料（壹)” does more to represent the project as a whole than its slightly depreciative name might indicate. It may have more loose threads than the tracks that precede it but “Day 42” reflects the work Shen and Guo did in capturing, identifying, and repurposing auditory instants and oscillating inspirations into the eight welcoming and intentional pieces of 42 Days 四十二天, pieces that conjure hope for a type of closeness even in a time of detachment. —Evan Welsh
Scot Ray - Hypnogogic (self-released)
Scot Ray’s improvisations for lap and pedal steel sit blissfully between intersections, reveling in inconstancy; his guitar tone chatters with sliding artifacts, over-unders of warp and weft, passages that fizzle quickly into the decaying signals of his effect chains. Hypnogogic, Ray’s first release of 2021, unites a collection of his experiments with a complement of brooding beats and waves of colorful noise that twinkle and squawk like birdsong. Each track spirals through new moods at a tight, yet effortlessly natural pace: “Somnium”’s thick stutters of rewound kick drums and tape hiss cut brightly through the piece’s wistful, stilted refrain before giving way to an ethereal wash of high-pitched glitching guitar glissando. “Glimmers in the Mineral,” my favorite piece here, is similarly enchanting, a fuzzy parade of melancholic motifs that bleed into one another—watercolor portraits of sullen faces, deep hues that fade and migrate to the edge of the canvas: on several occasions, it’s been enough to bring me to tears. I’m not always aware of why certain music makes me cry, but with Hypnogogic, the sensation is acute: through Ray’s fearless improvisations, I feel as though I’ve been granted the permission to explore, to be lost, to dive in and be messy. The work is inspiring in that it makes a point out of pointlessness, the journey-as-destination; beginnings and endings become immaterial, filed down until only forward motion remains. Existence, raw, unfiltered, becomes sacrosanct: in Hypnogogic and in life, every moment is worth capturing. —Maxie Younger
Madlib - Sound Ancestors (Madlib Invazion)
Sound Ancestors is the rarest of things: a Madlib album released under his own name: no other alias, no rappers, no Oh No partnership, and it’s true even though this was born out of an unlikely collaboration with Four Tet. That Kieran Hebden is not credited on the main billing is indicative of what Hebden adds to Sound Ancestors; he’s working behind the boards of a hip-hop producer, someone who is typically already in the back themselves. And while Hebden does not bring his playful and dulcet microhouse colour to the mix—as he did on his Madvillainy remixes—the mastering of Sound Ancestors lets the beat tape play as more than just a collection of loose samples Madlib had lying around. Regardless, as someone who has spent many evenings with the Beat Konductah tapes, I am over the moon to receive another Madlib collection.
Renown for being an eclectic crate-digger, Madlib uses samples throughout Sound Ancestors, ranging from Young Marble Giants on “Dirtknocks” to Six Boys in Trouble on closer “Duumbiyay,” which he puts over a heady rush of African percussion and jazzy piano. Hebden helps smooth the mix out such that there’s no eyebrow-raising when the lovely “Road of the Lonely Ones” turns into the squelchy house party beat of “Loose Goose” (a house party featuring Snoop Dogg, no less), or when the aptly-titled “Latino Negro,” with its beautiful washes of acoustic guitar, turns into the cymbal- and riff-heavy “The New Normal.”
As always with Madlib, the beats feel complete enough that you never find yourself imagining what a rapper might do over them. I’m sure Freddie Gibbs would have made quick work over early highlight “The Call”—it recalls pre-Piñata single “City”—but with the bass knock from Terry Britten’s “Bargain Day” being so front and centre, I don’t need a MadGibbs version. Likewise, two of the major highlights, “One For Quartabê / Right Now” and “Two for 2 - For Dilla” feature beat switches, and both parts of both songs are tremendous: note the rich double bass sample that drives out “Right Now,” or the teasing out of “We’ve got to get it together—NOW—before it’s too late” on the Dilla tribute, a trick straight out of the late producer’s playbook.
Even when beats are familiar—some sound like they might come from beat packs (“Theme De Crabtree”) or feature samples that rappers have already used (“Road of the Lonely Ones”), Sound Ancestors always feels warm and cozy. And that’s why I cherish it so much: as I wait for vaccinations so I can finally meet up with people I haven’t seen in a year, this album plays like hanging out with an old friend in the meantime. —Marshall Gu
Purchase Sound Ancestors at Bandcamp.
Prozak - Time Is Now White Vol. 2 (Time Is Now)
While labels like Dr. Banana and Dansu Discs have kept UK Garage in good health the past few years, it’s Shall Not Fade’s Time Is Now imprint that has brought forth the year’s most satisfying garage 12-inch so far. These six songs from Zac Curtis aka Prozak are an electrifying bunch, every piece economical and invigorating. “Make Me Feel” is the biggest scorcher, finding perpetual momentum in the push-and-pull interplay of its truncated break loop and the cresting of an elastic bass synth. As vocals swirls atop the proceedings, they find a partner in flickering synth filigrees, the two twirling around in a graceful pas de deux.
“Negative” is another one that instantly mesmerizes: its unwavering garage house beat keeps one’s body steady before the song steadily evolves—synths and chopped vocals soon irrupt the space, popping out as if in 3D. “Falling” strives for a more straight-ahead feel-good atmosphere, its pipsqueak horns and piano chords establishing a sunny atmosphere. And the whole thing ends with “Leave You,” a jungle number that starts off modest and spacious before luxe synth pads foretell the celebratory come-down it rightfully becomes. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Time Is Now White Vol. 2 at Bandcamp.
Naked Flames - Binc Rinse Repeat (Dismiss Yourself)
The fuzzy neon dream of what sometimes gets called “outsider house,” which often revives old-school deep house and spikes it with the late 2010s’ coloring of wistful ’80s retrospection, here enters 2021 on a breath of vaporous angst. Binc Rinse Repeat is a changeling’s panorama of starry-eyed longing and somnambulant vigor, a wordless rumination on why and how the nightclub atmosphere, the way it makes crowded rooms intimate, is so newly crucial in the Covid age. Its three tracks fold and crossfade into a solid 21-minute suite. The sound is hazy but visceral, layering ambient synth washes over brisk percussion. Note the title track’s invigorating counterpoint of throbbing Basic Channel repetition with the euphoric high velocity of ’90s trance. It comes as the middle section of a progression that begins with the hypnotic chords of “Relief Rinse” and culminates in the spectral “Waydown,” whose rolling bass figure recalls Strictly Rhythm at its most chilled out. The sound reaches for an unfixed but necessary conclusion while creating the space it occupies. As an ode to all our unthrown parties, this lunar odyssey finds new matter in house music’s necessary (and, let’s never forget, quite radical) conflations of desire and fulfillment. We live in the future. —Lucy Frost
Purchase Binc Rinse Repeat at Bandcamp.
dltzk - Teen Week (Dismiss Yourself)
I couldn’t imagine being a teenager in 2021. You barely get to see your friends, your youthful days have been ravaged by a pandemic, and you have to spend way too much time with your parents. What a horrifying reality. It’s why I can condone the emo and scene revivals that have littered zoomer TikToks and Twitters. However melodramatic, the earnest expressions of angst and emotion befit a generation that hasn’t had the best of times. And for those more internet-savvy and irony-poisoned, we see hyperpop become their genre de jour, concocting outlandish creations comprised of their favorite music in one bewildering blend.
At only 17(!), dltzk epitomizes the avant mindset so prevalent among his peers. There’s traces of SoundCloud rap, both of the Carti and Juice WRLD variety, and The Postal Service’s mid-2000s indietronica, interspersed with fits of breakcore and noise. They wears their heart on their sleeve in true emo kid fashion, lyrics coming off maudlin, yet as an accurate portrayal of what so many other teenagers feel. The chaos drummed up by the instrumentals fittingly parallel their thoughts—a product of uncertainty universally known in their generation. On Teen Week, dltzk gives us their soul, and it sounds like he doesn’t really want it back. —Eli Schoop
Thouxanbanfauni - Time of My Life (TTB / Create Music Group)
One of the most prominent features of the streaming era is bloated tracklists. Many big-name artists nowadays use this to artificially inflate their numbers and add extra revenue while sacrificing album quality, much to the listener’s chagrin. At first glance, Time of My Life by Thouxanbanfauni seems to follow this playbook. Its 16 songs and hour-long length could inspire some degree of apprehension, but make no mistake, every minute is wisely used. Unlike behemoth records made almost strictly for capital, Time of My Life is filled with verve, carefully amassed by a rapper that matches his beats like symbiotic organisms.
In this context, the runtime runs by breezily because Thouxanbanfauni is making progressive rap. Although there aren’t fantasy/sci-fi themes and 12-minute songs, the beat switches on “MIDNIGHT CLUB”, “FORMULA 1”, and “OCEANSIDE”, among others, show a welcome willingness to experiment and break the mold, akin to the ever-evolving greats like King Crimson and Rush. The whole album seeps you in its ooze, from the warped chopped n’ screwed moments to the delirious plugg synths that litter almost every track. What’s even more impressive is that there’s a bevy of producers on the LP, showing how cohesive Thouxanbanfauni’s vision is. Time of My Life’s quality comes from its amorphous, fluid listening possibilities, where it’s just as comfortable being played chilled out on the couch as it is blasted on the highway at 90 mph. —Eli Schoop
Listen to Time of My Life at YouTube.
파란노을 (Parannoul) - To See the Next Part of the Dream (self-released)
These days, I’m wary of any sort of media with a negative outlook on the world. I spent all of my teens and most of my adulthood miserable and misanthropic, convinced there was nothing I could do about it. I let a lot of bad vibes into my life on purpose. The more I hurt, the more I wanted to hurt myself. I spent the majority of my time with things that affirmed my worldview—sad music, sad anime, sad video games. I’d put myself in the shoes of the main character, and whatever happened to them, I’d tell myself I deserved it. It wasn’t even that pulling myself out of this pit of despair didn’t feel like an option; I actively didn’t want to. I became addicted to psychological self-harm, and in a twisted way, it felt pretty good. When the person I was impressing myself upon cried, I cried too. I was feeling something. I just wanted to feel anything.
My first listen of To See the Next Part of the Dream scared me a little bit. Reading the words Parannoul wrote to describe why they made this album, I saw a lot of myself in them. “I can't give you a sweet word of consolation,” they say. “I can't say ‘It's gonna be okay someday.’” Addressing their own feelings of apathy, media escapism, and bouts with suicidal thoughts, they say “there is no such thing as overcoming them.” I disagree now, obviously, but I didn’t always. I thought this might be a dangerous album for me to get into. I’m still susceptible to sliding back into self-harm, and I actively want to keep that in check. I decided once was enough.
But I found myself putting it on again the next day. I was irritated with myself, but I decided to let it play. I didn’t want to hurt; I just wanted to understand. Welcome to the N.H.K. and Neon Genesis Evangelion—two anime Parannoul cites as inspiration—are things I used to inflict damage upon myself in my teenage years, but their meanings changed for me as I got older. I was hung up on the social anxiety and defeatism of the main characters, but eventually their incremental changes that manifested in small, but perceptible improvement began to register more strongly—maybe because I made small strides in my life, and they felt nice.
I’m worried for Parannoul. I want them to be okay, but I believe that they can. Working through my emotions in writing, and having it affirmed for me that people connect with those words has been affirming in a way that’s changed my life. When I started to feel understood, I started to feel better. Putting your pain on full display is terrifying, but Parannoul has done just that despite a sharp lack of confidence; they describe their singing as “fucking awful,” and claim to be “below average in height and appearance and everything.” This album, however, has gone viral on Rate Your Music—clearly, it resonates. I hope that shared understanding reaches them. The next time they watch N.H.K., maybe that optimistic ending will feel a sliver more attainable than the last time. —Shy Thompson
Purchase To See the Next Part of the Dream at Bandcamp.
Monokultur - Ormens Väg (Mammas Mysteriska Jukebox / ever/never)
Of all the gloom pop murk that’s plopped into my ears this year from Gothenburg, the most satisfying album has come from Monokultur, a duo made up of Elin Engström and JJ Ulius. The two began the project on the former’s birthday a few years ago after being dissatisfied with Skiftande Enheter, their rock-oriented project with Hugo Randulv (Amateur Hour, Enhet För Fri Musik, ex-Makthaverskan). On Ormens Väg, Monokultur avoid any of the full-out raucousness that defined their IDDB 7-inch and moments on their self-titled debut, and commit to a hypnotic strain of pop ephemera.
Crucial to the band’s success is the way in which they vocalize. “Decennium” is sung softly with palpable disenchantment and it dazzles with child-like charm because of its gossamer guitar melodies and bumbling bass synth. “Bär deras saker” has a similarly beautiful marriage of vox and instrumentation: its beat feels like it’s trudging through mud, but Elin Engström’s sweet vocals lift everything up, granting dignified solemnity. “Alla dina ord” is the most confounding of the bunch: its bass and guitar melodies achieve the mysterious feat of feeling completely disjointed yet completely in sync—the disorienting samples that spring up feel like they’re gluing everything together in sloppy, endearing fashion.
One could draw comparisons between Monokultur and a slew of other bands—Flaming Tunes, Woo, Deux Filles, any of the spectral pop projects from Japan during the ’80s—but there’s a sweet listlessness here that feels emblematic of Gothenburg’s underground right now. They remain distinct among their contemporaries too—it’s not sensual like HTRK, less direct that Cindy Lee, more messy than Carla Dal Forno—and it feels perfect for our bleary state of contemporary living, one in which you wake up every morning realizing that we’re still in this goddamn pandemic. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Ormens Väg at Bandcamp.
Haptic - Weird Undying Annihilation (Notice Recordings)
Haptic calls their approach here “steadicam”—a brilliant framing, one that heightened and altered my experience with Weird Undying Annihilation. Steadicam is a stabilizer, a shock absorber, ensuring smooth transitions between different angles of a given space. The key is continuity and momentum—instead of the cut there is the steady build, motion, circling, spiraling. Haptic’s aural steadicam glides seamlessly from one scene to the next: a controlled, dense rustling—the warped sound of wind mauling a field recorder—pans to a muted thudding, the sound of stone dropping on metal, while an ever-present mechanical hum forms the central thread, the trail of breadcrumbs left by the ‘camera’ as it flits and hovers about the room. What makes Haptic’s aural steadicam so compelling is the lack of visuals—with audio alone, there’s more freedom to toy with reality. Rather than taking this freedom to fantastical, fictional extremes, Haptic carefully blur the boundaries between narrative and documentary; this is simultaneously a live performance—prepared and executed like the most well-rehearsed long takes—and a layered, stitched piece of audio assembled from asynchronous fragments. In this uncertain middle ground, the most everyday sounds become massive, menacing, overwhelming; the room itself becomes a solo improviser, conjuring drums, bowed contraptions and ramshackle towers of rattling metal from the void, letting them collide, vibrate and evaporate. The effect is akin to that of a perfectly-executed magic trick: we have suspended disbelief, but the performance, even in its artifice, still provokes an undeniable, visceral thrill. —Sunik Kim
Purchase Weird Undying Annihilation at Bandcamp.
THIS Ensemble - Brown Paper Business (Shame File Music)
Melbourne’s Shame File Music has long been one of Australia’s most important experimental labels, both unearthing and reissuing the country’s long-forgotten noise, musique concrète and tape music from the 70s and 80s, as well as releasing new albums from some of Australia’s leading experimental acts. In January, the label put out one of their most ambitious releases to date: a wooden box, housing two CDrs, which contain a single, two-hour performance by the roving, malleable performance troupe known only as the THIS Ensemble.
The music here truly defies description, but let me try anyway. There’s plenty of spoken-word and tape loops, and instruments half-played or possibly just shuffled around the stage. On top of this, on the first track alone, I think I can make out maracas, a slide whistle, a dripping faucet, a balloon rubbing against a metal pipe, jangling keys, wind buffeting a microphone, a rice cooker, and two guitars. While much of the proceeding 110 minutes operates in the same register of shifting, unplaceable sounds, the ensemble do manage to cover a surprising amount of ground, sometimes veering into rock, jazz, noise, acousmatic drone, and trancelike percussion circles. Through all this, the spoken poetry, full of lopsided phrases and wordplay, and delivered in an absolute deadpan, both anchors the diffuse material and cuts through the air of monastic seriousness which typically attends a two-hour, avant-garde performance. At times, even the performers can be heard laughing at what they themselves are doing onstage.
In this way, THIS Ensemble embodies something I love about the Australian avant-garde underground: it is both ambitious and self-deprecating, not afraid to poke fun at its own extreme weirdness. Experimental music is weird! It can be pretty silly stuff. This isn’t to say that Australia doesn’t have its own share of stuffy, self-serious sculpteurs du son. At its best, however, the scene balances its adventurous inclinations with a flair for the comedic, giving audiences and performers alike permission to stop holding their breath. Brown Paper Business is a fantastic distillation of this ethos. At two hours, it can be a taxing listen, but its slowly shifting landscape and slyly circular structure reward a more-than-casual engagement. Brown Paper Business is huge, yes, and frequently very difficult music, but it is also one of the most fun experimental albums I’ve heard in a long while. Gird your loins, and take the plunge. —Mark Cutler
Purchase Brown Paper Business at Bandcamp.
Clinton Green - Relativity/Only (Shame File Music)
Lately, my cat has been more anxious than usual. She runs around and gets into things more often when I’m not in the best moods, because I don’t have the energy to play and keep her from getting bored. To get her to chill out and stop going nuts at 3 AM, I’ve started putting videos of birds and squirrels on the TV so that she’s got something to focus on and feel like she’s hunting. She gets enraptured with this stuff and will watch it for hours, and it does its job at calming her down, but it’s had an unintended side effect—now I’m addicted to it too. I’m mostly amused by her amusement—it’s adorable when she swipes at the screen trying to grab a little critter or when her head whips in the direction that a bird flies off screen—but it’s also pretty good visual stimulus. We’ve watched all of the videos on the incredibly titled Birder King channel together, some multiple times; it’s officially a family bonding activity.
The cat, likewise, seems to enjoy some things that I’m into. It’s well known that cats mimic the habits of their owners when they’ve bonded, and she’s pretty much attached to me at the hip. She follows me from room to room, expects to be fed when I’m eating, and has a spot on the couch imprinted with her shape right next to the spot that’s shaped like me. My favorite thing, though, is that she gets enamored with the music I listen to when I play it from my laptop speakers. Relativity/Only is a recording of a kinetic sculpture at work, and the resulting sounds are strictly percussive—metal on metal, drums being struck, wooden objects being dragged across surfaces. She seems to especially find sounds like these fascinating; she’ll stand by my computer and stare, rub her face against the speakers, and circle around me trying to figure out the source of the sound. This is already one of my favorite types of music, but I’m particularly likely to play an album repeatedly if it gets a cute response from the kitty.
This album, probably due to its dynamic stereo panning that makes it sound like there’s something moving around the room, has gotten a response out of her more dramatic than anything else I’ve played. It’s one of my favorite musical experiences I’ve had this year because of how I’m uniquely able to share it with my cat. It gets me thinking about how personal experiences can elevate a piece of art, and sometimes those experiences can be so narrow that it’s hard to imagine it ever applying to someone else. Relativity/Only might not end up being your pet’s favorite album, but I now mine has good taste—she learned from the best. —Shy Thompson
Purchase Relativity/Only at Bandcamp.
Cop Tears - Theodor Adorno: Piano Works (Reading Group)
There is one claim I wish to stake: that I understand the language of music as the heroes in fairy tales understand the language of birds.
—Theodor Adorno, 1944
Bands are just creative excuses to hang out with your friends and any band that doesn’t think so is almost definitely bullshit.
—Derek Baron, 2020
After attending the Frankfurt premiere of excerpts of Alban Berg’s forthcoming opera Wozzeck in 1924, the 21-year-old Theodor Adorno wrote him a letter requesting to be his composition student. As a young classical pianist frustrated with retrogressive teachers, he found himself suddenly transfixed and liberated by atonality, though he felt he couldn’t yet grasp it on his own terms. “In order to fulfil my new plans I would first of all like to entrust myself to your guidance and supervision,” he wrote to Berg, “There are quite specific technical problems at issue, ones which I do not feel equal to; I think that I can tell you quite precisely what help I require for you.”
During his six months with Berg in Vienna the following year, he devoted mornings to composing pieces for string quartet and orchestra, afternoons to critical work, and evenings to reading Kierkegaard; he also completed his first essay on music, Zum Problem der Reproduktion, at the guesthouse where he stayed. He came to revere Schoenberg and twelve-tone technique, and was scathingly critical of Stravinsky for discarding that newfound freedom for old forms. His commitment to musical modernism and the avant-garde would serve as the stimulus for most of his subsequent writings, even assuming the role of compositional consultant to Thomas Mann when he was writing early drafts of Doctor Faustus. Though his listening had limitations—he infamously rejected jazz and popular music, repeatedly insisting on its contribution to the mass media manipulation he coined the “culture industry”—his impact on the philosophy of music is still immeasurable; his compositions have somehow remained underheard and rarely recorded.
Enter Derek Baron—a sound artist and writer from Chicago living in New York who juggles field recordings, sound collage and chamber music—and their “once-a-year” amateur chamber ensemble, impeccably named Cop Tears. In the winter of 2018, Baron rearranged selections of Adorno’s solo piano works for flute, double bass, and two guitars, and got the quartet together to record and stumble through them; these transplanted scores unveil the philosopher’s hazy relationship to harmony, but they also attempt to anticipate it. This LP’s inviting and playful presentation of loose run-throughs sandwiched by blocks of banter has the laughing vernacular of an informal philosophy study group over afternoon coffee—a gesture like a bluesy bent guitar note here reads like an ontological hot take out of leftfield. Baron’s solo recordings have long walked the tightrope between the homey and hymnal, and despite the rigidity of the source material, the same energy surely endures in the simple act of gathering friends. What Adorno would have thought of this hermeneutic, who’s to say? Even if this record was simply an excuse to hang out, one can still learn lots from its languor. —Nick Zanca
Purchase Theodor Adorno: Piano Works at Bandcamp.
Thank you for reading the fifth-ninth issue of Tone Glow. Happy listening :+)
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