Tone Glow 071: Tone Glow Secret Santa
Tone Glow's writers "gift" albums we like to one another. We then write about them.
The Tone Glow writers have long been interested in doing a “Secret Santa” issue, one in which we all anonymously “gift” each other an album we like and then write our thoughts on what we receive. In finally doing so, I’ve come to recognize that at the heart of everything is a joy in: finding out about a new album, in learning more about each writer, in finally hearing thoughts on something obscure we’ve long admired. Below, you’ll find 23 albums accompanied by 23 blurbs. None of the writers knew who would receive their album, and none knew who their gift was from. We hope reading through this issue gives you as much holiday cheer as it does for us. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Bows - Cassidy (Too Pure, 2001)
Recommending music to friends and family has long been a task fraught with worries for me. I can talk to strangers about music all day long, but when someone I am close to asks for a listening recommendation it feels like a trap. When I think of how music interfaces with the deepest and most closely felt parts of my own self, it becomes impossible for me not to think of suggesting an album to listen to as a deeply intimate act. Not just your musical likes and dislikes, but your personality, your habits, the way you conceptualize the world and your place in it, heck, sometimes I feel like I need to know your entire family tree in order to guess how you might hypothetically react to any given album. The big worry for me, though, is what if I’m wrong? If music is deeply personal, and I don’t know what kind you like, then wouldn’t that mean that I don’t know you, as a person, either? Such thoughts plagued me for years when I was younger. (Though not so much anymore. Thanks therapy!)
But anyway, this album is good and I’m glad some rando got me to listen to it. It’s classic sounding trip-hop, with all the vocals breathy and close-mic’d and the drums filled with jazzy breaks. Deeply atmospheric and depressive sounding. In modern times, trip-hop is in the curious place of definitely sounding old-fashioned while still retaining enough “newness” to its style to not sound completely out of date. Part of this is because of the influence that trip-hop still holds over modern pop music, and part is that it’s a genre of studio mastery over songwriting chops, and, despite the rapid advancements in technology, such works tend to carry their strengths through time (Song Cycle, Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, On the Corner). This is good because the songs really don’t do much to differentiate themselves, with the back half of the album having a full five tracks in a row using what may as well be the exact same structure. The secret of Cassidy’s success then is that this is an album built to tap into a specific soporific mood, and it does what it set out to do spectacularly. —Samuel McLemore
This album was gifted by Shy Thompson.
Israël Quellet - Rythmes d'étain (Sub Rosa, 2015)
O gifter, I must confess: this album has caused me great consternation. I’m tabbing between Eiffel 65 and the release page for Rhythmes d’étain on Sub Rosa, thinking the same thing I thought when I heard it for the first time a week ago: How the hell am I supposed to write about this? I pondered that as I watched the opening stage of the Tour de France this morning. The main group of riders suffered no less than two huge, momentum-derailing crashes, one of which was caused by an errant cardboard spectator sign (the spectator in question has, at the time of writing, gone missing); those injured by the domino-like collapses, wincing and swerving across the road with every gaunt, sickly pedal stroke, crawled to the finish line in gaps as big as twenty minutes behind the time of that day’s winner, Julian Alaphilippe. I mention this for no other reason than it being on my mind; and, Rhythmes d’étain slips out of my fingers like a freshwater eel when I try to capture it in prose. I’m stalling for time.
I had never encountered Israël Quellet’s work before this album popped into my inbox, and I’m fairly pleased that what I’ve received is something I never could have anticipated. Rhythmes d’étain (“pewter rhythms,” so says Google Translate) is inscrutable, awkward, impenetrable to a fault: an unsettling and plain weird blend of dirge-like pipe organ flurries, non-sequitur Latinate chants, and hollow timpani drums. Listening to it makes me feel like I’ve entered a parallel universe where this is what’s pumping over the sound system in grocery stores. It makes me acutely aware of my own weaknesses as a writer. Time and time again, as I’ve sat down at my computer to try and work through my thoughts on it, it’s thrown me into the ocean without a life vest. Hell, I’m still stalling: I’m half-watching an episode of Kitchen Nightmares and looking out the window like a kid on the last day of school. Outside, it’s started to rain, copper-sulfur petrichor scent leeching under my windowsill and burrowing into my skin. I am thinking about sound, struggling to mold words around it; these pewter rhythms move like air, and they cannot be caged. I might just have to pack it in and admit it: this album has defeated me, and I’m pretty embarrassed about it. —Maxie Younger
This album was gifted by Matthew Blackwell.
Vektroid - Color Ocean Road (PrismCorp, 2012)
I should start by saying that I am politically and temperamentally disinclined toward vaporwave, vaportrap, vapornoise, hardvapour, naturewave, mallsoft, future funk, and any other synth-based “lost future” music. For a brief moment, it was more interesting to read about than to listen to. Quickly it became more interesting to ignore altogether. Adam Harper’s landmark piece in Dummywas a fascinating summation of those crucial years of 2011-2012, when Vektroid’s albums Floral Shoppe (as Macintosh Plus) and 札幌コンテンポラリー (as 情報デスクVIRTUAL) defined the genre. In the article, Harper asks if vaporwave is “a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it?” and answers “Both and neither.” But it turns out that a slight tweak of Muzak and other mall-musics easily slides into pure capitulation. Exhibit A: the Darknet blog, which compares vaporwave to the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, name-checks Mark Fisher and Derrida, and then links you to all of these convenient ways to pay for their merch:
To internet-addled folks like me, vaporwave is old news, its supposedly endless play of signifiers already played out and co-opted by the structures it purports to critique. But as ubiquitous as it feels, vaporwave has not gotten a lot of press. Macintosh Plus did not appear in Pitchfork until 2019, with a retrospective review of Floral Shoppe. With the demise of Tiny Mix Tapes (r.i.p.) at the beginning of this decade, the genre lost its most vocal indie outlet. For a certain demographic of jaded young adults, vaporwave and its constantly-proliferating subgenres defined the 2010s, and it deserves more attention as a catalyst for hyperpop and other contemporary trends.
Vektroid’s Romana Andra Xavier, who records as Laserdisc Visions, New Dreams Ltd., Sacred Tapestry, PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises, and others in addition to those monikers mentioned above, is almost single-handedly responsible for the rise of vaporwave. Color Ocean Road is more laid-back and less gleamingly sterile than her work under those various aliases. The tropical atmosphere of the album is announced immediately in the first track, as a narrator intones that “magnificent coral reefs appease and delight the dreaming corners of our minds / this is the world as you wish it could always be.” The second track, “Color Ocean,” samples Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” pitch-shifted and vocoder’d to match the artificial sonics of the song’s drum machines, hand claps, and 80s-era synths. “Seafoam Island” and “Sushi Plaza” then drift by in a pastel haze, until the bass of “Mango / Fuji” adds some much-needed dynamism and groove to the proceedings. Things slow way down again with Color Ocean Road’s centerpiece, the 12-minute long “Om Namo Ocean Road.” For me, the standout track is the closer, “Jet Airways,” which condenses the best parts of the preceding tunes into a quick, catchy, bass-heavy, feel-good summer jam.
Ultimately, Color Ocean Road is like a premade piña colada mix. It’s syrupy and sweet and blended perfectly, and it will provide some nice tropical-flavored escapism. It’s certainly effective. But afterward you’re left with a molded plastic bottle with a picture of a beach on it--the lingering detritus of a commercial transaction based more on fantasy than substance. —Matthew Blackwell
This album was gifted by Eli Schoop.
Evol - Proper Headshrinker (Editions Mego, 2013)
I feel like being assigned this particular record is, for everyone involved, the worst case scenario. If I liked it, I could praise it effusively and share a nice moment with the person that gifted it to me. If I disliked it, I could offer up an interesting opinion about an album that, as far as I can tell, has gotten very little critical attention. I suppose the genuinely worst case scenario would be complete ambivalence, but I am none of the above—simply puzzled.
The music itself is pretty simple to explain: ten tracks, each consisting of three minute loops of, frankly, abrasive electronic shrieking. From what I can gather, it’s a subversion of sounds you might commonly hear in the context of dance music, such as the “Hoover” and sawtooth waves. “It’s psychedelic music,” say the artists on their approach, which they describe as “Rave Synthesis.” I appreciate subversive music and I love the repurposing of sounds in ways that you don’t expect, but I have to confess—of all types of music, dance music is what I listen to the least and know the least about. I have very little frame of reference to say if an album like this is effective at what it’s doing. As far as what it’s doing to me, it kinda just made my ears ring for a little while after I turned it off.
On the bright side, there’s still a positive to be gained from this. I get to talk to my Secret Santa once I know who they are and ask them what they like about it and why they picked it, and I’ll probably learn something. My gut reaction, which I shared in the Tone Glow Discord server, is that I felt like I was being punk’d with an intentionally difficult pick. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I don’t really stand behind that characterization; I’m just dumb and don’t know what to make of it. It feels a bit like being gifted some kind of fancy kitchen tool or a molecular gastronomy kit—there’s definitely a utility for it, but not for someone that can’t do much outside of boiling water. —Shy Thompson
This album was gifted by Dominic Coles.
Ono Sukarna & Enip Sukanda - Java: Pays Sunda (Musiques Savantes 2: L'Art Du Gamelan Degung) (Ocora, 1996)
My undergraduate music education was as problematic as the day is long. Another reason to rail against it? Our curriculum all but snubbed Sundanese gamelan, instead focusing on the more widely exported Balinese and Javanese traditions. Pays Sunda was a discovery for me as an album, but more importantly, it introduced me to the fine-veined textures of gamelan degung, a more intimate and distinctly Sundanese ensemble that emerged from 17th-century court life.
Ono Sukarna leads the first five works, with Enip Sukanda leading the rest (tracks 6–12); throughout, both leaders double on the butterfly-light stylings of the suling, a four-holed bamboo flute. Sukanda leads a whole new roster of musicians in the second half, and the instrumentation changes slightly between sessions. So does the repertoire: While Sukarna’s recordings mostly focus on traditionals, Sukanda’s prominently feature latter-day arrangements of ancient works, most especially those by Entjar Tjarmédi, a broadcaster, composer, and leader of the 20th-century gamelan degung revival. I find all of Pays Sunda captivating, but most especially Tjarmédi’s contemporary reimaginings. “Lengser Midang” expands from lonely goong hits and gently pulsing drums to an ornamented theme, its tempo shifting as gently and inexorably as a low tide. “Purbasaka” boasts a dramatic saron panerus (bronze keys) solo and some of Sukanda’s most fanciful suling playing. But if I had to choose, my favorite might be “Jipang Parwa”: As Sukandasighs and keens, the ensemble churns slowly at first, then brightens and darkens with the subtlety of clouds passing over the sun. —Hannah Edgar
This album was gifted by Samuel McLemore.
Connie Converse - How Sad, How Lovely (Lau Derette, 2009)
There is a filmic quality to Converse’s use of the fermata; each pause is like a long, stationary shot, in which we see both an action and its effects take shape within a scene. I imagine a moment of dialogue followed by silence. The camera doesn’t cut, but allows us to watch the characters sit with whatever words had been spoken. In this sense, Converse is a deft director: she moves us through musical narratives before slowing and stopping, in the process creating formal spaces for the listener to reflect on the development of both sound and narrative.
Converse’s narratives conjure simple domestic scenes which contain a world of drama. In Father Neptune we encounter the sorrowful yet playful song of a sailor’s wife who finds her husband emotionally absent when he returns to land. She sings: “When my man goes to sea, he steps so high and free. I think I know as I watch him go that he has no need for me...”
The seemingly simple emotional tension at the core of this domestic scene suggests less a feature film and more a home video. Often the most interesting parts of home videos take place in the background—they are those moments of realness that were never intended to be memorialized by the camera. Converse’s songs exist in this background. The domestic scenes she sings of become containers for social and political tensions. The home is a space of political drama, and our entanglements, relations, and romances in it can reflect and reproduce our society’s own repressed values. As I listened to Father Neptune, I found myself asking who on the ship was able to fulfill the husband’s emotional and physical needs? “He’s dreaming of foam,” and “has a passion for the sea… it’s his creed… that he has no need for a wife except on shore.” The wife is neglected by her husband as his physical and emotional satisfaction is realized by his fellow sailors.
While Converse’s work might have an affinity with home videos, her intent has more to do with Chantal Akerman than Aunt Ethel. Converse skillfully uses simple musical narratives and domestic scenes to create highly complex political tableaus. I am deeply thankful this music found its way to me. —Dominic Coles
This album was gifted by Marshall Gu.
JaJaTao - The Rite of Spring (ColdNeo, 2016)
In tradition with most of the modern Chinese rock canon, the majority of JaJaTao’s grunge debut is an odd, decades-late reflection of a past American subgenre. (See: this year’s The Big Wave and their earnest take on early ’00s dance-punk or the pre-eminent Carsick Cars on an explicitly Fugazi-style indie rock.) In some respects, these nine tracks can lounge too uncomfortably in an Alice in Chains bar-jukebox sludge that was already dated for its time, yet there's still a strangely original edge to The Rite of Spring's ambition, one both restrained in its poetry and sincerely provocative in its politics. The record's sheer scope mirrors the sprawl of conceptual post-rock, with 9-minute-long closer “Blind Mountain” stretching out across a hungry, hardcore landscape.
The luridity of the cover art’s own washed-out landscape distorts, too: its plump fruits and plumper children recall the busy world of ’60s Chinese propaganda posters with both fond and bitter eyes. Similarly, Liu Yucao’s sharp-tongued approach to China’s political history whets the teeth of each song with a weighted momentum. The titular track hinges on the briefly vivid imagery of magpies fleeing from the prow of industrialization; the archaic Mandarin words for sin and evil are tossed back and forth in a laissez-faire, Alex G-psychedelic swing; the blunt suggestion that his listeners would make a good dog is crooned gently, melodically. And strangely, the most heartfelt song on the record is the calm centerpiece “Ode to “Mao”,” where Liu Yucao caps off an abstract indictment of Mao Zedong’s reign and the album’s total criticism with the finality of this half-finished clause: “But what about the Canglang River...?” Here he references the passive quality of a famous Qin-era proverb about inevitable political corruption: If the Canglang River is dirty, I wash my muddy feet; If the Canglang River is clean, I wash my ribbon. Yucao—briefly—understands the escape inherent in the proverb’s acceptance. And the album inexorably moves on. This brief reprieve of an ode gives way to an even angrier noise-rock wall. Liu Yucao screams unrecognizably for an absent grandfather, and that decades-late, grunge-tinged corruption of JuJuTao builds into a timeless cyclicality. —Zhenzhen Yu
This album was gifted by Zachariah Cook.
Andy Heck Boyd - Sleep (Star) (self-released, 2020)
On Sleep (Star), we’re privy to artist Andy Heck Boyd’s day-to-day life: his keyboard clacks, his grocery list, his coffee, his video games. Like many “everyday” field recording albums, it’s difficult to tell if this is music that takes itself far too seriously or not seriously enough. We’re living in an age where oversharing is second nature, and Andy Heck Boyd is working in a genre where oversharing is often what drives people to listen. But somehow, he shares so much mundanity it’s as if he’s shared nothing at all. Sure, he’s ordering cilantro and ground pepper and listening to music, but couldn’t anyone be doing that, too? I can’t help but feel that Sleep (Star) is better as a gallery installation than as an album. It feels like it’s meant to whisper amongst stark white walls and beams of perfectly-attuned light, the artist’s personhood bouncing off the walls like the Voice Of God at a theatre. But then again, Sleep (Star) might simply be a reminder that music is all around us. It doesn’t have to mean anything at all. —Vanessa Ague
This album was gifted by Jinhyung Kim.
Game Theory - Lolita Nation (Enigma Records, 1987)
Okay, this is awesome. I must admit a glaring unfamiliarity with this genre known as “power pop.” I probably have more Les Rallizes Dénudés bootlegs than I do albums by all the bands on the Wikipedia page combined. So, forgive me if my references here are a bit crude. In the more conventionally structured songs, I’m getting shades of R.E.M, Brainiac, the Cars, and a little of the more excessive Smashing Pumpkins. In between these, the band tries their hand at basically every style at hand in the late 1980s. Actually, before looking up anything about the album, I assumed this album came from that time in the late 90s/early 00s when history- and genre-spanning indie rock opuses were at their zenith of popularity.
I won’t pretend the 75-minute runtime isn’t a little exhausting—from everything I’ve learned since listening to this, Scott Miller seems like he just has more ideas than he can handle. But then, isn’t that the best kind of problem to have? The onslaught of different styles and winding fragments takes on its own rhythm; it becomes difficult to tell by ear alone whether you’re in the middle of a forty-second sketch or a six-minute epic. It’s clear from both the band name and album title that this is the work of a very cerebral songwriter, and yet the music almost never feels conceptually burdened. Miller brings the same ease and enthusiasm to every song, whether he’s singing about being in love or drinking chardonnay.
I’m not sure what more to say. It’s almost too big an album to get your head around, particularly in the time allotted for this experiment. Although it’s clear from the get-go that Scott Miller was a genius, and that I would probably also enjoy the music he released through a string of bands, I’m definitely gonna need a breather after this dazzling behemoth of a record. But yeah, if you haven’t heard this album before, I highly recommend it. —Mark Cutler
This album was gifted by Lucy Frost.
Nmperign - We Devote Every Effort To Offer You The Best That You Deserve To Have For Your Enjoyment (Siwa, 2004)
One of the curiosities of the physics of sound is the extent to which both acoustic and electronic sound follow the same principles. Acoustic instruments, when driven outside conventional tonality and towards their physical limits, quickly start to approximate the sound of electronics (and vice versa). On “We denote every effort...,” trumpeter Greg Kelley and soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey explore the outer timbral edges of their wind instruments, resulting in a complex sonic assemblage that, at times, resembles a particularly exotic and organic sounding synthesizer.
Where does noise (in this case, air, human breath) end and “music” start? Kelley’s and Rainey’s experimental playing and skillful manipulation of their instruments’ resonant chambers produces complex spectra that blur the lines between harmonics, inharmonics and noise. Even the noticeable hiss level of the recording itself becomes part of the piece, lending a kind of organic intimacy to the musical presentation, as if we were dropping in on someone's resolutely private improvisation. The compositional dynamics are unrestrained and unfettered, sometimes going from near silence to loud propulsions. New sonic figures emerge out of the hiss and start to drone, squeal, gurgle and resonate, only to eventually evaporate and decay back into hiss. The musical background and foreground merge into each other.
The two parts of “I am sitting in a fucking room”—presumably inspired by the famous Alvin Lucier piece—employ similar playing techniques but additionally experiment with microphone amplification feedback loops. Here, even naturally harmonic, simple sounds explode into unpredictable, chaotic timbres as their waveforms are shaped and disfigured by complex and nonlinear feedback and distortion functions. Kelley’s and Rainey’s amplified instruments almost operate as an electroacoustic version of a Buchla complex oscillator; an “organic machine” that synthesises textures and timbres beyond what either traditional, unamplified playing or pure electronics could produce.
What reveals itself in this process is an entire landscape of ineffable alien timbre; textures that sound like unheard surfaces from unknown planets; xenomorphic sonic metals, fabrics, woods, and papers thrown into a chaotic vortex that melts all distinctions between noise and tonality, fundamentals, undertones and overtones. In this piece, unintelligible timbral excess is not an unwanted substrate but the primary compositional element. Nmperign channel sonic excess-as-excess that crunches and folds back onto itself, forming feedback loops that are always at the verge of spiralling back into the white nothingness of pure noise; a destination they can never actually reach, since overload distortion will naturally clip and limit the very dynamics that caused it. As with all systems, sonic cybernetics tend towards self-regulation, resulting in a push-pull interplay that can forcibly shape even flat and simple sounds into complex timbral origami figures.
Some of the squealing, distorted feedback motifs assume formant (vowel) characteristics, almost approximating whispers, murmurs and screams, as if they were trying to “say” something intelligible, but the transmission got lost in the inherent noise and distortion of the communicative circuit. Whereas in Lucier’s piece, over time, the communication (as semantic significance) melts into pure, unintelligible timbre; here, timbre from the start already acts purely for itself, continuously confronted with impossibility of self-transcendence. Its becomings and transformations endow the composition with sense that functions even without any apparent teleological structure to the “notes” being played. What is being "said" is what is being heard: sense is in the ear. —Vincent Jenewein
This album was gifted by Nick Zanca.
Tatsuhiko Asano - Genny Haniver (Geist, 2001)
After blindly listening through this album, it was no surprise to learn that Tatsuhiko Asano composes soundtracks for video games. One year after the release of his celebrated score for the 64DD game Doshin the Giant, the Japanese multi-instrumentalist issued his proper debut on Alec Empire’s Geist Records. Genny Haniver (seemingly named for a fantastical form of mummified specimens) is a playful collection of understated instrumentals drawing on elements of electronica, exotica, and post-rock.
On standouts like “Lemonade” and “Bonjour,” tranquil surf-rock guitars conjure visions of catching a wave with little threat of a wipeout. Elsewhere, the bubbling sound effects that filter throughout the ominous “Headlights” make it a perfect addition to the pantheon of underwater themes. Yet my favourite song on Genny Haniver is its eight-minute title track. Flowing through passages of shimmering percussion, squelching synths, and buzzy guitars (oddly reminiscent of “A Girl Like You”), this eerie tour de force soars beyond the constraints of a console and becomes an Electric Miles miniature. —Jesse Locke
This album was gifted by Maxie Younger.
Powerdove - Arrest (Murailles Music, 2014)
Nous chantons à la fois
Que nous portons les cieux !
Ô seule et sage voix
Qui chantes pour les yeux !
When I was young, every day I could, I would go into the woods. From my backyard, the sky sat near and heavy, but as I approached the creek, the dividing line between home and wilderness, it arced away and upward, giving clearance to the stately, deliberate forest. I had read in one of my many books of myths that the sky was a skull, the crown of a slain giant made maternal shell. I saw it curving to zenith just above the center of woods, a place of great geomantic power. My knapsack sat softly on my small shoulders, the few scant supplies I would need for the few hours rattling rhythmically with my steps. At my hip, sheathed in a hard black plastic, a sturdy blade. Knocking against my thigh as I hopped across the creekstones, the sabre to my diminutive, dismounted hussar.
This was no remote place by all reckoning, but once I entered, the shape of my perception changed always. My goal was to know. To know the places I already knew and to know new places. This was a feral density through which no Baedeker could guide me. Ultimately, I sought the penetralium, that heart of what I took to be the world outside my world. And so I let myself loose to wander. Desire lines and deer trails hatched the landscape, and I let myself be drawn further by its clearings and closings. Trudging through fields of skunk cabbage or crowds of elderberry, each time I was slowly transformed.
The forest performs a subtilization. It deepens itself the more time one spends in it. Birdsong and bark pass into some instinctual comprehension. Cankers, like swollen jackfruits begging to drop, became more meaningful than blazes. Texture was vatic. Drifts of tulip poplar and oak leaves the scratchpad for my very own sibyl, I would crunch the future beneath my feet. The longer my maundering, the more my breath shed the heaviness of exertion and took on a subtler, more lungful character. Insinuated into the movements of the woods, I would start to catch glimpses of all manner of fowl and mammal (aside from the odd trail runner, humans excepted). This disclosure makes way for discovery.
Already I begin to call
In their most-learned Original:
And where I Language want, my Signs
The Bird upon the Bough divines;
And more attentive there doth sit
Then if She were with Lime-twigs knit.
No Leaf does tremble in the Wind
Which I returning cannot find.
Among the many things I discovered: a rope swing off a precipitous edge and over a menacing gulch; a small, stinking pond bubbling with frogspawn; a mud hovel swept of all belongings save a low wooden table heaped with cord; poetry carved into stones as if by iron stylus on lead; a snowglobe, perfectly functional, nestled in the hollow of a creaking oak; squirrel skulls and deer bones strung up in sinews, twirling from the branches of a white birch; a congeries of fireflies limning in gentle, gemlike flashes the only true map of the woods; mother spider weaving warp and woof; a zone of binding and a zone of codes; a distant configuration; a gift of love and musick.
One bright autumn day, I found the core. Struck out along a leyline, a path untraveled and untrammeled, I passed far beyond the familiar. The trees frozen in tableau, bony claws reaching out for the slowly withering scraps of daylight. Before long, I realized I did not know where I was nor where I came from. I asked for signs, and the forest proffered silence. No birds seeking to converse nor deer to lead me home, no padding possums nor scrambling squirrels. And then, a low moan drags itself over the holt. I followed it—from moan to wheeze to bellow—into a clearing, a place I had never seen.
A ring of ancient oaks, a druidic circle, bespangled with thick, brown vines. They swagged low and swung small loops. Racing around its inside edge, a whitish pitbull lifts its head to capture the scene. In a moment, it leaps explosively and bites tightly one of the vines. The pendulum swoops quickly and the pitbull releases, launching itself back into the circuit. I finally notice, near the center of the ring, the source of the sound that called me here. A small, old man, eyes tightly shut, sat on a rock; a small melodeon, hotrod red and beetleback gleaming, respiring between his hands. As I watched, I could not hear the song.
I do not know how long he played, how long I observed, but he finished. He opened his eyes slowly and saw me. Wordlessly, he put the instrument into a case and yanked it up by its handle. He looked at me again and gestured vaguely with his free hand: an index finger pointed upwards swirling, an open palm curling into a loose fist, and a thumb thrown back like salt over the shoulder. Quiet as a shrew, deft as a raccoon, he walked towards the far end of the clearing. Without any command, the pitbull followed.
Alone, I walked to the center, sat on the rock, and looked straight up. Through the aperture of the fallen canopy, another aperture in the sky. A feeling of narrowing, of focus, of being sized up. An eye at the top of the world glaring down on me, pressure holding me tight to the rock. I had read in one of my many books of myths that there was a hole in the sky, a place where people lived before they lived on earth. I knew I would not find this place again. In the introduction to the book, its editor, the curator of tales that were not his own, wrote that, “For all cultures, knowledge is a sacred thing, and like all things sacred, it imparts a profound responsibility upon all who bear witness.”
I followed the gestures through to the other end of the clearing. Out and down a rocky slope, I trekked for some time before I finally heard water and caught a whiff of skunk cabbage reek. Following the creek, the interior of the forest began to come alive again. Far off splashing in the leaves, owl calls, a high whistling wind. A new eye in the sky, presence instead of absence. Foggy pearl. One can only imagine those unseen marvels secreted away in the museums of the moon. I made it home.
Stripped bare in my bathroom, black and white checkered tiles cool and soothing on my sore feet, I began the ritual of inspection. Drawing my hands up each calf and into each hough, my spread fingers found nothing. Then, up the thighs and into the crevices of the groin. Next the axillae, the nape of the neck, behind the ears. I washed in the sink. Finally, turning away from the mirror to grab my clothes, I spot it for a half-second in the reflection. Fat as a grape, the little devil clinging tenaciously to the ridge of my right shoulder blade. Tweezed free from my flesh, the tick falls into a cup and is drowned in rubbing alcohol. —Matthew LaBarbera
This album was gifted by Leah B. Levinson.
Henry Cow - In Praise of Learning (Virgin, 1975)
I was a big, big nerd in high school—and still am, unashamedly—and so I was naturally drawn towards prog rock, the most nerdy of rock subgenres. In my early 20s, when I was expanding my definition of “good prog,” which revolved around the same four or five big names everyone knows, I stumbled upon Henry Cow’s In Praise of Learning on various Blogspots—those halcyon days where everything was just a MediaFire link away. I heard the short first song, stopped the album from playing through and placed it in the “not for me right now” pile and moved on. (For the record, I am using the word “prog” very loosely like the people at Prog Archives do; Henry Cow’s music is very much descendant from prog while at the same time bring not prog at all.)
The thing that turned me off the album a decade ago is actually what draws me into it now, which is Dagmar Krause’s vocals: she has such an interesting way of melody-making, theatrically leaping from syllable to syllable while still ensuring that Henry Cow’s politics are never lost by enunciating every syllable clearly. “War” packs a ton of heat and energy into 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and a lot of that has to do with Dagmar’s pre-punk energy: “Come follow me out of dark obscurity” feels like a mission statement, and “Upon her spoon this motto […] Violence completes the partial mind” is incendiary. On “Living in the Heart of the Beast,” she paints a vivid image in few words of the capitalist machine: “High in offices we stared into the turning wheel of cities / Dense and raveled, close yet separate; planned to kill all encounter.” It gets to the point that her appearance is sorely missed on instrumental cuts “Beginning the Long March” and “Morning Star,” which is not to disparage the band; Fred Frith kicks our asses in at the start of “Living in the Heart,” while Hodgkinson’s extended organ solo is just about the dirgiest organ solo ever, and he gets to stretch his hands out more on the free jazz piano solo at the end of “Beautiful as the Moon.” —Marshall Gu
This album was gifted by Sunik Kim.
Orthrelm - Ov (Epicene Sound Systems / Ipecac, 2005)
Ov is an album so aggressively charmless that one must assume, like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, that it was made for the self-consciously eccentric love of a specific sound or in order to prove a point. But Metal Machine Music, made to prove a sardonic point about the commerce of music, continues to be a beautiful album to those of us who find guitar feedback beautiful in itself; whether Lou Reed, who did find guitar feedback beautiful in itself, meant his little joke to double as a labor of love (a rather low-effort labor, but a labor nonetheless) seems like a moot point. It’s unlikely that Lou Reed, a very active man in the ’70s, was in any position to know his own motivations without getting lost in layers of irony (alongside Lester Bangs, who became his reluctant but loyal Sancho Panza).
Ov isn’t as funny as Metal Machine Music, and I don’t think it’s supposed to be. It certainly must have taken a lot more effort—Mick Barr and Josh Blair actually play their instruments, for one thing. How is Ov like Metal Machine Music? Well, it devotes a single album-length composition to the emphatic overstatement of a single musical trope. In Reed’s case, the trope was simple: guitar feedback as an intrinsically appealing element of rock music. In the early days of the electric amplifier, feedback was a pesky but inescapable byproduct of the machinery. The engineers did everything they could to minimize it, and it took time for the record industry to learn that a bit of feedback actually had commercial appeal. The kids thought it sounded cool—under controlled circumstances, anyway. They didn’t want whole albums of just feedback. I mean, some of them (myself and Lester Bangs included) were and continue to be glad to have such an album, but we don’t quite represent the target demographic for rock records. Lou made the album for us (and for himself) to take the piss out of an industry that wanted him to make an album for everybody else—all the schmucks who wanted feedback in controlled doses. Pah!
Ov, as an exaggeration of a musical trope, is a bit more abstract. Its emphatic minimalism hinges not on the single formal embellishment of guitar feedback, but on the brief auditory signifiers of a genre. And in Orthrelm’s case, of metal. How do we recognize a metal song as such? As with any genre, metal exists both as the overall affect of a given song or album, and in individual details. It exists, for example, in the brooding aggression of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and in the specific way Tony Iommi plays his guitar—his sharp hacking at the chords, the blaring distortion of his tone, the lumbering tempo. We understand “Iron Man” as metal in part because of sonic gestures, because of the details of technique. What happens in any three seconds of the song bear stylistic markers that accumulate into an identification with the continuum of its genre. Well: imagine a metal album consisting wholly of those gestures, one after another, in a fluid continuity but without any actual song for them to be a part of. That’s what Ov is.
It would be tedious and unnecessary, in evaluating Ov, to enumerate all of those “gestures,” all of those stylistic markers, that together constitute metal’s signifying minutae. You might apply the concept to any genre you like: the crisp drum programming and funk samples that tell us we’re at the start of an old-school hip hop track, for example, or the rubbery quartertones on bent guitar strings ubiquitous to the blues. Had Ov been a blues album instead of a metal album, it’d have been 45 minutes of bent notes and slide guitar fills.
Like Metal Machine Music, Ov resists evaluation—as an aesthetic experience, anyway—on any but the most subjective of terms. How much you enjoy either album depends entirely on whether or not your tastes include an unusually strong fondness for the one musical element they isolate and magnify. Again, each album works either as an illustration of a point about musical form or an ecstatic plunge into the pleasures (such as they are) of a single detail of form.
I began this review by calling Ov “aggressively charmless,” but no such value judgment can stick to such a singleminded composition for long without coming to seem a bit silly; whether or not you enjoy listening to this music, your response comes down to nothing but the coincidence of personal taste. Me? I go back and forth on metal. I have to be in the right mood to like it, but when I am, it does the trick like nothing else can. I didn’t enjoy listening to Ov this afternoon, but I might find myself loving it tomorrow. The lesson here, if there needs to be a lesson, is that the arts are often just an emphatic form of hanging out: do what works for you, don’t be an asshole, and, you know, just try to have fun with it. You only live once. —Lucy Frost
This album was gifted by Vivi Hansen.
Tonstartssbandht - An When (Dœs Are, 2009)
An When is the perfect sort of album that could’ve been gifted to me, as I’ve known about it for years but have generally avoided it. Now with reason to finally listen, I’m enamored with how much of a nostalgic time capsule this is: it’s the exact sort of lo-fi pop rock that defined the tail end of the blog era, right before countless artists went onto more slickly produced endeavors or those sticking with the scuzz faded even more into obscurity. The cover, with its plain, washed-out photo and all caps Helvetica is just as “2009 indie music” as the child-like psychedelia on display. But this duo doesn’t have the harmonies, the production chops, or the adventurousness of an Animal Collective, so I’m left mostly appreciating this for the simple jaunt it is. “Black Country” is the obvious standout: it has the album’s catchiest melody, and has ample reverbed guitars to create distance between the listener and the reality of its barebones songwriting. “Welsh Souper” is more forthrightly garage rock, and makes clear how crucial the recording quality is to their magnetic energy. Otherwise, the album only really delights when it coaxes one into a haze, like with the druggy and meandering “Midnite Cobras” or the Julianna Barwick-esque “Softly Kidding.” The most memorable thing about this album is the intro, which finds “Tonstarssbandht” repeated several times playfully, jokingly. It reminds me of when I was in 2009, just a high school junior, not nearly as serious as I am now. Hearing An When is a reminder to lighten up. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
This album was gifted by Zhenzhen Yu.
Dissolve - Third Album for the Sun (Kranky, 1997)
There’s something about stuff like Third Album for the Sun that stirs up intense nostalgia for a particular brand of ’90s guitar music. I don’t think it’s misplaced remembrance either—so much of what passes for rock nowadays leans heavily on older tropes without the craft and fine-tuning these artists put in. Think Phoebe Bridgers doing poor imitations of Mary Timony and Conor Oberst, or the majority of the NME-core British bands trying every genre possible in order to sound unique just to sound like worse Pere Ubu or Wire. I don’t know what the Lost Generation crop had that so separated them. Was it their usage of the studio as an instrument? Particular instrumental fidelity? Or perhaps rock music is just better recorded in analog? Where are the Swirlies and Trumans Waters and Fishmans and Disco Infernos? Maybe rap ate rock’s lunch so thoroughly that pop chops have been lost to retreads of better music. Listening to Dissolve’s second LP gives me that sense of discovery, like I’ve been given a new universe of guitar playing to wade into. It’s an album that perfectly reflects its title, a languishing, sun-soaked slog in the best kind of way. You’re constantly immersed in its reverberations, as if the band is playing hypnosis to capture listeners and force them into a malaise. This is what I want out of guitar music—arresting, realized, and fully convinced of its value, a piece of art that exudes dominion over your attention. Third Album for the Sun invigorated my taste buds. —Eli Schoop
This album was gifted by Vanessa Ague.
Various Artists - Nurture (Kog Transmissions, 2001)
Forget that this deep house compilation is obscure, as most of the albums written about in this issue probably are. I don’t recognize a good chunk of the music I hear in public anyway, including on the rare occasions when alcohol and sweaty dancing bodies are involved. If I had the chance to throw this on at a club, I would. While its lowkey tracks encourage gentle, introverted movement, Nurture’s warm, bubbly atmosphere also invites contact. Maybe I ought to know something of its background, such as where these tracks would have likely been played, or who its likely audience would have been. As both an outsider of the club scene and as someone dismayed by the lack of spaces truly conducive to contact in my area, these things crossed my mind. That being said, I was determined to go in cold for this issue, so go in cold I did.
I’ve listened to it several times now. I can’t help but let my mind wander and imagine what this music could mean to those it was created for, so to speak. Whenever I come back around to “Strange Summer,” I dream of a space where people comfortably drift in its exotic, trance-like aura. “Upeka” is full of such granular textures and otherworldly surprises that to hear it in a public setting would, for me, be unexpected and exciting. Of course, I could go on Discogs and discover plenty of music just like this, and listen to it whenever I want. Encountering it in a space as vulnerable as a club would be special.
Despite my best efforts to evoke the club of my dreams, the reality of listening in isolation kicked in. Being unfamiliar with all of the contributing artists, I gradually fell for the illusion of the solitary knob-twiddler, as if a Richard D. James-like figure was holed up in a bedroom somewhere channeling one IDM hit after another into my eardrums. Wherever these tracks come from, it’s a community of some kind. Their music caused this homebody to open up, even if just to desire. —Zachariah Cook
This album was gifted by Vincent Jenewein.
Simply Saucer - Cyborgs Revisited (Mole Sound Records, 1989)
Disclaimer: I’m in kind of an awkward position with this one. Not only have I lived with this album for many years, but my good friend and Tone Glow colleague Jesse Locke has literally written the book on Simply Saucer and toured with them. Even if I hadn’t already heard it many, many times, it’s an album that I can’t divorce from either its reputation or how closely I associate it with a person that I really like and want to only say nice things about. Luckily, it would seem that all the therapy I’m doing for my conflict avoidance issues is paying off, because I can happily admit now that this album’s a-side doesn’t do shit for me. On the 1974 demos that make up this album’s first half, Simply Saucer come across to me as just a marginally more perverse and futuristic variant on the ’60s proto-punk/garage rock formula, a midway point between The Velvet Underground and very early Devo that never quite goes to the same bracing, exhilarating extremes as either. The “shocking” moments register as almost quaint, the performances too reserved to lend them any power—it feels, at the risk of feeding into Canadian stereotypes, like such a polite attempt at deviance.
All of which makes it even more impressive when, on the second side, they completely earn the hype. Recorded live almost exactly a year later, these three songs are such a quantum leap in confidence and energy from anything on the first half that one laments how little of the band’s later years went undocumented. Edgar Breau’s lead guitar playing is especially ferocious here, as industrial and futuristic in its own way as Ping Romany’s droning synth work, and the rhythm section thrash away as if their lives depended on it. People call this “proto-punk,” but what this anticipates more than anything is bands like Chrome or John Foxx-era Ultravox, artists who built decaying Ballardian high rises of sound with rock and roll as the foundation. That this set was recorded on top of a shopping centre in Hamilton, Ontario is almost comically on-the-nose, the kind of contextual nugget that perfectly binds the mythology to the music in the minds of dweebs like me. This is part of what I mean about finding it hard to divorce this album from its reputation: even assuming that I could separate my enjoyment of this music from the mental image of it terrorizing unsuspecting passerby from the top of a nearby shopping mall, why on earth would I want to? —Vivi Hansen
This album was gifted by Jesse Locke.
B C N C - Live In Miami 1984 (frequeNC, 2010)
Tropes of ’00s indie permeate Live in Miami 1984: vocals in anthemic unison; lyrics that filter wonder as well as darker things through an innocent perspective; sax lines mixed in with the rock ‘n’ roll for a bit of verve. B C N C also tip their hat to a motley of jam-adjacent genres: periods of condensed repetition and rhythmic forward motion are distinctly kraut-y, and they're sometimes subject to gradual crescendi and other post-rock-ish escalations. A few songs have obviously bluesy riffage; others contain multiple sections sewn together in the manner of a prog suite. Threading throughout the album is bright, nimble guitar work that highlights the harmonic warmth of the band's sound—it feels, unabashedly, like summer.
But not my summer, sadly. In certain places, I can hear stuff one might find compelling about Live in Miami: the lilt of an odd bar length here, a surprising variation in a recapitulated section there. However, I’m only able to do so from a position of sympathy—I’m not sure if I really feel the stuff I hear. B C N C’s songcraft, while diverse in inspiration, doesn’t come off to me as that different from all the things it sounds like; it lands near well-worn signposts of psych-inflected jam and indie—which, to be fair, is out of my wheelhouse to the extent that it’s tough for me to judge fairly. This past month, I’ve spent my (musically inclined) afternoons by throwing my window open and letting birdsong and the rustling of the outdoors mingle with tsss tapes and Regional Bears, Shots and Graham Lambkin; I’ve been in a little universe of found sounds, and while I’m still visiting other worlds, it’s been tough for me to inhabit them.
The liner notes for the album cite the band’s name as Black Congo NC; I looked this up and found a venue in Charlotte called Black Congo House, plus a few photos of the band playing live (including one of a house show). B C N C don’t sound like they’re from 1984, but if you had any doubts, the photos confirm that. The album was also joint-released by labels in Charlotte and Chapel Hill. This scant handful of information gave me the impression of a low-key local band just having a good time; it’s a vibe that a live recording can struggle to communicate. But if I were at one of those house shows, I don’t think I'd have any problem letting the music—or the warm summer air, drifting in from the window—wash over me. —Jinhyung Kim
This album was gifted by Matthew LaBarbera.
Legs - Pass the Ringo (Loglady, 2013)
Pass the Ringo rhymes with a bevy of sun-bleached psych-light pop-rock bands that once littered the country at the time of its release. 2013 marked the start of Obama’s second term, seeing young white Americans chest deep in the tides of rock as leisurely and bright as good taste would allow for the first time since mainstream ska’s last wave crashed in Clinton’s ’90s. If it’s any indication where culture consumers’ minds sat at the time, 2013 was the year that Pitchfork and Rolling Stone both named the skilled-yet-milquetoast daydream melodies of Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City Album of the Year over the aesthetic revolution that soon-to-be Presidential hopeful Kanye West offered with Yeezus.
I feel comfortable pinpointing the widespread onset of this mild-mannered zeitgeist to late 2009 with Girls’s seminal debut Album and breakouts from Wavves and Best Coast arriving within a year after. For me, a middle-class white girl in San Diego who had just received her driver’s license, these Californian artists couldn’t have arrived at a more appropriate time. Over the next several years, bands like London’s Yuck, Olympia’s Romantic Feelings, Brattleboro’s Happy Birthday, Austin’s Literature, and Baltimore’s early progenitors Beach House expanded this music’s central conceit while soundtracking the better moments of my Southern Californian teen life: seaside drives, afternoon make-outs with my first love, interstitial moments between sets at shows, and lazy days spent playing video games.
Looking back now, I tend to characterize that time less with absolute adolescent freedom and indulgence and more with repressed emotions, precarious relationships, untreated mental health issues, and a tangible ignorance to the world at large. I didn’t know it consciously then but those years were burdensome, chaotic, harmful, and pained. I was constantly in search of moments and, as such, consistently found myself either a little bit ahead of them or as though they had instead passed me by. In this way, it’s hard for me to hear music of this time without also experiencing a feeling of forced-easiness, a Bic’s worth of fire under my ass with one clear but impossible incentive: have a good time. It’s dressing for the job you want, not the job you have. It’s forcing a smile to forget the pain. It’s later finding out what went on behind closed doors.
So, as I now meet Legs for the first time, Pass the Ringo washes over me with a long, slow break and crash of mildly dissociative jangle on each listen, an experience perhaps owed, in part, to its unusually melancholy affect. Legs gave Pass the Ringo some longevity beyond its contemporaries on the shelf by effecting its seabreeze sound with a knowing gloom. Each mid-tempo beach day ballad is met with a level of instrumental restraint and a knack for melodic simplicity that would make the Ramones proud. The rotting snack offering sported on the album’s cover is an apt signal to the overcast experience within. One might picture a decaying corpse awash on the shore, graying past its final hour in which some sense of vigor might remain. To an onlooker, conversely, if positioned just right, it might still be alive, relaxing alone and catching a tan. —Leah B. Levinson
This album was gifted by Mariana Timony.
Sean Leon - I Think You've Gone Mad (Or the Sins of the Father) (The IXXI Initiative, 2017)
This album was gifted by Hannah Edgar.
Rehabilual - New Child (Osho Multiversity Music Division, 1990)
I can’t lie, when I pressed play on this and heard marimbas—eight minutes of marimbas, no less—I was very ready to write off the rest of the album. However, the following tracks each admittedly pack a surprising punch, from the sudden interjection of synthetic drum hits on “Nataraji Bengawan Solo” to the the vibrant, choral pad and sax-led rhythmic workout of “Mizu - Water.” There is, undeniably, a slightly odd and detached character to the music as a whole, which manifests most evidently in the restless style-hopping on display; the tracks almost feel like a small chapter of an endless “genre library” that encompasses, potentially, every kind of music ever made. That kind of unexpectedly interesting concept ultimately doesn’t outweigh my feeling of impatience with most of these tracks, which mostly either meander or march steadfastly ahead at very middling and unremarkable tempos. At the same time, the music does radiate a certain charming confidence that is hard to deny; it feels a bit too curio-esque to return to on a regular basis, but I’m glad I experienced it at least once. —Sunik Kim
This album was gifted by Mark Cutler.
Maria Barton - Rainful Days (Airship, 1980)
The first two lines of this album go like this: “Rainful days might damp me down / But they won’t drown me,” and my ears perked right up despite the quietude of the music. I fell in love with the words, the consonance of “damp,” “down” and “drown,” and that the latter two rhyme with one another; then I fell in love with the song, and then I fell in love with the singer. The internet is scant with information about Maria Barton—whom I had never heard of before receiving this gift—but I confirmed she’s from England which was immediately obvious given the images of “Rainful Days” and that the following song declares “I am a noble lady,” words that could only have come from a Brit. Gentle acoustic singer/songwriter albums are common; what’s rare is when the album plays like you’re having an intimate conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in a while and the words flow regardless. Song titles belie a universality: heartbreaks (“Don’t You Cry No More”; “If You Loved Me”) while others explore a sort of movement, romantic or otherwise (“One Time I Went to Holland”; “Moving In, Moving On”). The one song that seems like it might reach for the fantastical, “When I’m a Spaceman,” manages both at once (“When I’m a spaceman / I’m going to keep my eye on you”). The hook on that song has stuck with me for the past week: “Everything gets back in place / When I see your face.” A simple line, a simple rhyme, sure. It belongs in a children’s book. But sung so delicately, it blasted me back to my last break-up I ever had, because there was that exact feeling during the immediate emotional hangover—that nothing was right, and only being with her could fix that. Of course, I got better and hot and happy without her in the end. —Marshall Gu
This album was gifted by Joshua Minsoo Kim.
Thank you for reading the seventy-first issue of Tone Glow. May your days be merry and bright.
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