Tone Glow 072: Our Favorite Albums, April-June 2021
Tone Glow's writers highlight 32 albums from the year's second quarter
Despite my many hopes that the world will soon return to something resembling the pre-pandemic days (or, even better, something greater than those still-hellish times), there’s a large amount of uncertainty that still clouds my mind. Is the unmasked stranger next to me vaccinated? How bad are things gonna get with the Delta variant? Is my workplace going to have me work in person soon? If I ever need to remove myself from such constant questions and worries, I return to a timeless constant: the assurance that good music will continue to exist. 2021 hasn’t slacked in providing the musical goods, and below you’ll find 32 albums that the Tone Glow writers enjoyed from the year’s second quarter. We hope there’s something here to accompany you in your quest for summer joys. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Keith Rowe - Absence (Erstwhile)
I am writing this on my twenty-fourth birthday. I had chocolate cereal and pour-over coffee for breakfast; I watched men race bikes up and down mountains in the Tour de France. Since I first heard Absence, it has lingered in my mind like alluvial sediment, coffee grounds, cake-like: it forms a crust on the outside of my brain and coats my vision with caramel-brown luster. It is important to me for reasons that are largely extratextual.
Absence is Keith Rowe’s final improvised live performance, recorded in 2015 (he decides at about the midway point that it shall be his last). Throughout the solo he is impeded by his advancing Parkinson’s tremor, which overtakes his fine motor control in several instances. The most significant of these occurs at the midway point I mentioned: it causes a strange, trepidatious bumping noise to sound for eleven seconds that could easily be mistaken as an intentional or prepared gesture by an uninformed observer. On many occasions while listening, I have missed noticing it entirely.
The relative invisibility of this moment—the panic it must have caused Rowe in contrast to the obliviousness with which it resounds in the recording space, the stern finality it imparts to what follows—is significant because it makes me think of my partner, Ruairi, who battles with muscular dystrophy. Their life is characterized by an incalculable number of experiences like this: movements that, for one reason or another, cause quiet pain, soreness that strikes quickly and fades slowly. The magnitude of this pain has never been directly disclosed to me, manifesting only in brief winces, sharp inhales. I will never understand how it feels. A reality I face, as someone entwined with Ruairi’s life, is that their condition will progress further; eventually, they will have to rely on wheelchairs, scooters and other mobility aids as time passes and their muscular integrity continues to decline. I will likely be the one taking care of them at this stage. Sometimes that inevitability gets to me; sometimes I’m fine.
I’m tired of a lot of things. Most of all, I’m tired of knowing that one day my heart will stop beating. I can never stop thinking about the things I wouldn’t finish if I died today. I think about the things Ruairi won’t finish. I want to tear years of my life off like loose bandages and graft them onto their skin. Absence speaks to me as the voice of mortality: life and death, the presence of pain. It is universal, hyperspecific, depressive, insouciant. From the moment I found it, it has never left me; I suspect I will be carrying it for a while. —Maxie Younger
Purchase Absence at Bandcamp.
Enji - Ursgal (Squama)
For me, art is primarily a tool for communication. I have a lot of difficulty connecting with people in “normal” ways. I don’t like to use my voice. I don’t like to be touched. I often don’t even really want to be around other people. Despite all this, I still yearn for human connection the way, I assume, all people do. I still want assurance, comfort, and to know what I’m capable of being understood. It’s tough when the ways one would normally parse these things out aren’t particularly effective for me—but music, somehow, gets the job done with a pretty high success rate.
When I spoke to Enji for the interview feature I wrote about her, I immediately felt that I had connected with a kindred spirit. She told me a story about how my favorite track on the album, “Zavkhan,” was written because she wanted to tell her father that she loves him without saying it to him directly—something that, even though it’s true, feels prohibitively uncomfortable. It reminds me of the way I’ve written so many words about my favorite person in the world, my mother, though she’s read practically none of them. I’d like to show her sometime, but questions swirl around in my head that make me reconsider. Is it an appropriate time? Would it even be appreciated? Am I just going to embarrass myself? Realistically, I know that my mother loves me and it shouldn’t be nearly as difficult as I’m making it, but I don’t know—I’ve had too many bad experiences with feeling vulnerable and regretting it.
Ursgal is, so far, my favorite album of the year. I’m captivated by its stately mix of vocal jazz and Mongolian long song, but what really keeps bringing me back is its power to make me feel like I’m not experiencing the anxiety of living in my own head alone. For Enji, the music is a means to tease out feelings that she’s locked away; she’s sending out a signal to see who can receive it and respond with something on a similar wavelength. I got the message so clearly, I was able to break clean out of my comfort zone and have a conversation with her; it ended up being a monumentally important moment for me this year. Occasionally, I’m able to make the push to express myself like a normal human, but it takes a bit of time to get a feel for the temperature. —Shy Thompson
Purchase Ursgal at Bandcamp.
Jean-Luc Guionnet - l'épaisseur de l'air (Thin Wrist)
I’ve historically been pretty skeptical of solo free improvisation; much of the time, it feels like a needlessly self-limiting exercise where the act takes precedence over the music, rote technique over compositional structure and integrity. The inherently limited nature of this vein, despite the promise of infinity that is one of its foundational tenets, also inevitably results in a constant retreading of techniques that, in the vacuum-seal of the solo performance, rigidify and ossify this lack of another player or element with which to interact. The end result is that any perceivable structure in the free improvisational flow feels unintentionally segmented: this is the rapid-fire harmonics section, this is the sustained drone-y section, etc.
My deep reservations about this general approach made l'épaisseur de l'air—a 75-minute recording featuring nothing other than Guionnet on alto saxophone—that much more shocking and compelling. Guionnet’s approach is simultaneously scientifically exacting and playfully unpretentious; while the main thrust of the album lies in Guionnet’s literal analysis and decomposition of the saxophone’s timbral qualities and potentials, nowhere—miraculously, given its surface-level austerity—does the album feel clinical, rigid or predictable. At points his playing takes on an almost digital quality, the sound of a chaotic, stepping oscillator; in fact, some of my favorite sections on here revolve around the subtlest shift between two microtones, effected by sustaining a note and pressing down a few keys to just barely modulate the held pitch.
Here, the particular strengths of the saxophone—necessarily powered by human breath—come into play: there is a texture and vibrancy to even the most staid and controlled gestures here, the sound of air passing through instrument, being exhaled and inhaled. From this perspective, Guionnet’s almost Wandelweiser-esque pauses between phrases disperse his decidedly non-natural playing into his immediate environment, blurring the boundaries between them, just as the album blurs the boundaries between acoustic and digital, improvisation and composition.
Ultimately, the album’s existence at the unstable nexus of these contradictions grants it a genuinely unique quality that avoids the twin solo improv traps—improv as ‘pure,’ evocative, athletic expression of the individual; improv as a soulless ‘cycling through’ of the given instrument’s sounds—decentering the individual while still retaining a tangible sense of humanity and emotion. This is probably meaningless to most, but listening to this album made me want to pick up the saxophone after abandoning it in 2019, in what I thought was a permanent decision; there are clearly still endless depths in the most simple gestures and techniques and their mutual interactions that I had not yet even begun to grasp. —Sunik Kim
Purchase l'épaisseur de l'air at Bandcamp.
Índio da Cuíca - Malandro 5 Estrelas (QTV)
There’s a moment partway through “Sonho Realizado” that caused me to tear up: the cuíca—a Brazilian friction drum—suddenly arrives, its resonant squeaks descending in pitch, and a guitar figure then follows it downwards. The handoff is so unexpected that I was taken by the beauty of it all, immediately recognizing how much I underestimated the musicality of the instrument. Despite being the penultimate track on Malandro 5 Estrelas, an album that grants the cuíca such a prominent role, it felt like my ears had been opened once more.
Such unassuming elegance is what defines Índio da Cuíca’s debut solo record Malandro 5 Estrelas, an album teeming with so much of the conviviality, open-heartedness, and communal spirit of the best MPB records. The album begins with a celebration: clanging percussion, an athletic bassline, bright guitar strums. “Samba boy here I go” sings Índio da Cuíca with a homey warmth. You’d be forgiven for assuming he was decades younger—this album was released on his 70th birthday.
Compared to Balança Povo, the 1972 album that his group Brasil Ritmo released, there’s less of a major focus on percussion; the arrangements here are denser, more ornate, spring-loaded by guitar melodies. There’s a different context for the cuíca to thrive: whereas Neném da Cuica’s use of the instrument on Balança Povo was often grounded in the amelodic, rhythm-focused realm of percussion (that album featured agogô, surdo, tamborim, pandeiro, and reco-reco), so much of Índio da Cuíca’s playing here sounds like it’s sourced from a string instrument or singing saw.
I emphasize how incredible this instrument sounds because Índio da Cuíca sings of it too, and his enthusiasm is magnetic. On album highlight “Cuíca Malandra/Cuíca Encantada,” he relishes in the joys of playing the drum and the sound of its “crying,” and how it makes him cry too. There’s a child-like awe for music here and it comes with an exuberant, self-effacing, reverent attitude for how much it can nourish you. You can hear it in the group vocals and handclaps on “Jogo de Malandro,” the moody determination and loping calm of “Medley de Ogum,” and especially on the cuíca solo showcase “Melódica.” Malandro 5 Estrelas never stops feeding your soul—it’s the first MPB masterpiece of the 2020s. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Malandro 5 Estrelas at Bandcamp.
Marcus Schmickler - Sky Dice / Mapping the Studio (Editions Mego)
Marcus Schmickler’s newest record, Sky Dice / Mapping the Studio, is concerned with space as both a location and an internal, physiological phenomenon. The record consists of two distinct pieces, and in Fortuna Ribbon, various psychoacoustic effects make tangible a physical sense of depth within the ear. As Schmickler guides us towards a kind of inner listening, he manages to conjure an internal cartography that maps the psychological space of the listener. These concerns exist in stark contrast to the eponymous track, Sky Dice / Mapping the Studio, which sonifies the physical space of the Experimental studio in Freiburg, where this composition was created.
This title track, like some psychedelic windup toy, bursts across the stereo field with immense energy. Given this piece’s dynamism, it might come as a surprise that it was inspired by Bruce Nauman’s installation, Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), a minimal and practically despairing piece that maps the artist’s studio in video and sound. Nauman’s studio has an aura of paranoia. It is shot at night with security cameras, transforming the viewer into a tormenting guard who surveils the progress of the artist’s production. A sparse soundscape of distant traffic and minute movements in the space contribute to the studio’s absolute bleakness.
Schmickler abandons all attempts at composing the delicate anxiety of Nauman’s studio. Instead, he focuses on Nauman’s specific rendering of physical space as sound and image dispersed through the gallery, perhaps the most trivial aspect of the work. The listener is able to move past the strange specificity of Schmickler’s interpretation by power of his sonic palette: he creates sounds seemingly composed of a pure, electric vitality that deftly traverse the space between Maryanne Amacher’s “sound characters” and Michael Bay’s sound design.
Schmickler very clearly renders the paths through which electricity flows in the Experimentalstudio. The forceful crush of analog feedback that opens this piece indicates the Arp 2500’s presence. We can begin to hear the presence of the Publison DHM 89 Pitch Shifter and the Infernal Machine approximately one minute in as a digital debris that forms around the edges of the Arp’s feedback. Finally, Schmickler’s trademark psychoacoustic effects enter at minute 2:45 and can be traced back to the computer. If these different pieces of equipment render the physical space through which signal flows they have the interesting side-effect of mapping electronic music history itself—from the onset of analog synthesizers, to early digital processors, and finally to the computer. Sky Dice / Mapping the Studio is in essence a non-linear timeline of experimental electronic composition. —Dominic Coles
Purchase Sky Dice / Mapping the Studio at Bandcamp.
Vanessa Rossetto - Legends of American Theatre (Regional Bears)
Spontaneous combustion is in the air. According to a New York Times report published just two days before writing this blurb, New York City received 1,737 complaints of illicit fireworks in the first half of June 2021 alone—80 times as many as the same time last year in the thick of pandemic and protest. Between both summers, the pyrotechnics I have heard at night outside my apartment are at enough of a distance to not keep me from sleep, to blend with both the bass-boosted bachata blaring from bodegas nearby and the recent drunken revelry of the adjacent curfew-cleared streets. After all this time holed up at home, the sense of release in these displays becomes palpable, too easy to hear. This nightly soundtrack is a revival performance of the “sidewalk ballet” Jane Jacobs referred to extensively in The Death and Life Of Great American Cities, in which “individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.” So long as New York stays above water, every night is opening night.
Before this release, I might have typecast Vanessa Rossetto’s work as the continuous collection of documented alienation—between the dripping faucets, intimate confessions, and sobering war stories, it should be of no coincidence that I’ve kept her music in rotation as I’ve repeatedly reflected on the barricades these past two years have built between us. For her to then point her microphone towards delirious catcallers and haphazard New Years festivities is to at once strip away the insulation and reveal the world outside our windows, outside ourselves, as a theatre deprived of curtain calls where people-watching persists. Her prolific proclivity for surreal editing is on display like never before—like the present pile-up of bad news, the fireworks here loop, pound, never subside; the shouting match later on might as well be happening right outside our doors were we to press pause. This tape is doubtless Rossetto’s most singular and unsettling work to date—the timing of its release is impeccable; it’s rare that this realm of music makes me laugh in awe when I first hear it. Concrète has never been more compelling, rooted in the now, true to form. —Nick Zanca
Purchase Legends of American Theatre at Bandcamp.
Bryan Day & Seymour Glass - Crooked Doppler (Tanzprocesz)
This is music that I could believe was either fortuitously improvised, or labored over second by second, but nothing in between. I must admit that this is my first exposure to both of these figures, who have been performing and releasing music for twenty and thirty years respectively. The decades of experience are on show here—these pieces glide from chirping synths and whirring motors, to homemade instruments which sputter and stretch and scream, to field recordings which are often chopped-up and looped like pop hooks. Everything feels well-balanced, even as separate elements cut in and out abruptly, often at both extremes of the stereo range, at the same time. There are moments of comedy, here, as when the very impressive-sounding and very sound-arty rumblings of some giant, possibly homemade machine are suddenly drowned out by the deafening whirr of a lawnmower. However, the primary commitment remains the assembly of strange and interesting sounds, which either slip interestingly over one another, or clash at unexpected angles. It’s some of the best sound collage I’ve heard this year. —Mark Cutler
Purchase Crooked Doppler at Bandcamp.
Susan Alcorn, Leila Bordreuil, Ingrid Laubrock - Bird Meets Wire (Relative Pitch)
While Susan Alcorn, Leila Bordreuil, and Ingrid Laubrock have collaborated multiple times over the years, it’s not clear to me if a trio of pedal steel guitar, cello, and saxophone have ever been recorded in a full length album before Bird Meets Wire (considering how naturally the timbres and techniques of each instrument meld together, this is bonkers to me). It doesn’t hurt that the trio work hard to support and make space for each other within their collective sound, whether it’s in carefully building up layered drones that hang beautifully in the air, or in the more defined sections of free improv. At times they act as support while another takes flight, at other times they meld so tightly together you could swear it’s just one instrument. The effect is haunting, the players constantly pulling themselves apart and then coming together again. Bird Meets Wire is both testament to how fresh and exciting an original arrangement of instruments can be, and to the sensitivity and talent of the players within. —Samuel McLemore
Purchase Bird Meets Wire at Bandcamp.
Naoko Sakata - Dancing Spirits (Pomperipossa)
I was immediately attracted to this record by the strange stop-motion of its cover: against a shadowed glade, Naoko Sakata leans back in a dark gold, Fibonacci-like curve, her long hair a storybook orange. The picture reflects Dancing Spirits’s titular thesis in its graceful movement: Sakata, a trained dancer, suffuses each non-canonical piano piece with an ingrained physicality, and the fine, skilled improvisation of her playing still feels remarkably natural. Natural is really the correct word, because there is a strange and keen breath of wilderness in this project. The wide, sacred air of Annedalskyrkan—the Gothenburg church in which the seven improvisations were recorded—imbues each wild, solitary note, indurating Sakata’s thematic tone of a communion with herself. A cold dusting of urgent, atonal trills in “Improvisation 2” strikes like glacial wind; lead single “Improvisation 3” lurches into sight with all the force of an avalanche, before collapsing into the delicate motion of a stream. Nearly unseen, Sakata’s veiled technicality shines as she effortlessly lifts every spiderweb-like string of melody from cascading discordancy. Dancing Spirits is a tremendously peaceful album to play as loudly as you can in darkness— hear its depth, its piety, and that wild loneliness which cuts into both. Sakata infuses her words with the church. —Zhenzhen Yu
Purchase Dancing Spirits at the Pomperipossa Records website.
Hyunhye Seo - Strands (Room40)
I must admit, I don’t keep up with my hometown label Room40 like I used to, as my tastes have veered into the increasingly experimental, amateur and janky—the kind of musicians who would never be invited into the black-curtained walls of the Judith Wright Centre. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this LP from cryptic Xiu Xiu multi-instrumentalist Hyunhye Seo. The first side is an eighteen-minute slab of foggy ambience, punctuated by heavily echoed and reverbed ripples of noise, and I very much expected the second side to follow suit. However, Seo switches to piano, constructing a piece which swirls and coils around itself in a way that surprisingly mirrors its counterpart. It’s a clever presentation in which each piece strengthens the other, inviting new ways of thinking about the possible transpositions between the worlds of electronic and instrumental music. —Mark Cutler
Purchase Strands at Bandcamp.
Shizuka - Paradise of Delusion (An’archives)
Taken from a 2001 performance at the now-defunct BinSpark, Shizuka’s Paradise of Delusion is an especially nice companion piece to the psych-rock group’s almighty Tenkai no Persona. These songs move slowly, enough so that it encourages a letting down of guards, and a patience to take in every cymbal hit and drawn-out vocal. The group’s unhurried pace is also crucial for how it sets the stage for the album’s prettiest moments. Halfway through “迎えに来たよ,” for example, a simple guitar solo appears, and it feels so electrifying and impassioned because the rest of the track is content with being a lovely, hazy fog. The following song, “終末の華,” does one better: its final two minutes are a slow build into blazing noise, and this ramping up is like watching a fire expand in mesmerizing glory. Most surprising about Paradise of Delusion is how its flip side features two upbeat songs, and it’s “花冠” that stuns the most, proving how introspective Shizuka could be even at their most immediate and catchy. Closer “扉の開かれる夜” is the other highlight: a nine-minute trek that sucks you into every groove. There’s a payoff at the end, but as with every Shizuka song, it’s the ride there—the in-the-moment experience brought on with every note—that makes its quiet grandeur linger even when it’s over. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Paradise of Delusion at the An’archives website.
NEUPINK - SEAWEED JESUS (No Agreements)
You’re in the pit, sweaty and disheveled, except the floor is cotton candy and everybody’s got an intense sugar high. Bodies coalesce, senses collide without discretion, it’s a total clusterfuck. Digital hardcore’s resurgence is thematically perfect for these times, unshackling the constant paranoia, anxiety, and outright schizophrenia we have all collectively wrought. Case in point: “Yr Zastava Acid Bride” slams the listener over the head with pulsating Dreamcast fighting game aesthetics, technicolor blastbeats leaving you scraped off the proverbial windshield. With “Blissfrog Heart Locket” capping the album as an RPG endgame boss fight-cum-credit sequence, the rejuvenation by chaos has been complete. SEAWEED JESUS’s intensity is only matched by its unflinching commitment to headbanging arete, so get in the fucking pit! —Eli Schoop
Purchase SEAWEED JESUS at Bandcamp.
Blawan - Soft Waahls (Ternsec)
No, I'm not doing an HP Lovecraft bit. I’m just attempting to transcribe “The Sithe” from the latest Blawan double EP Soft Waahls. Timbral onomatopoeia! As usual by now, Blawan notch filters, flanges and ring modulates things with his modular system and won’t stop until he’s derived an entire Borgesian taxonomy of synthesized mouth sounds. New on this record is that he drops the 4/4 kick for breakbeat programming. In dance music, this can often be a coping strategy for artists that don’t have anything else left to say, but here it works astoundingly well; Blawan retains both the high-impact functionalist logic of techno and also breaches out into weirder, UK-inspired groove territory. Just listen to “Fourth Dimensional.” What a banger. It reminds me of the harmonic radicality of the first James Blake EPs. On “Micro’s,” the balance between precision engineering and majorly screwed-up crunchies is just right. At two minutes it launches into a cool, impromptu intergalactic jazz interlude. What more could you want? It’s doubtful that you're going to hear another dance music record as well produced/engineered, weird and just plain fun this year. “Justsa” even has a flanged, Planetrock-ish vocoded vocal (are we headed for an electroclash revival?): “Always say no / Just say no.” Make an exception, just for this one. —Vincent Jenewein
Purchase Soft Waahls at Bandcamp.
Talismann - Percussion Part 2 (Talismann)
As the album title suggests, Percussion Part 2 mostly occupies itself with various forms of percussive programming. On “Trybal Synx,” a quick-footed percussive pattern dances over booming lowend, while a fried, modulated sequence burrows itself in the lower midrange and a carving offbeat shaker pushes air in the upper register. The use of warm, highly compressed reverb gives the track a damp, exotic feel, evoking exotic rainforests on alien planets.
“Xex” is more off-kilter, with a tight, rapid breakbeat pattern and a whole drum-parkour jumping around the place at high velocities. Skittish shakers and hi-hats syncopate themselves against the groove and neatly decorate the stereo field. “Hoxe” drops the kick entirely for an abstract 2-step rhythm over spacey pads and synthesized, resonant bird calls. “Alexander” brings out a satisfyingly frizzled 303 drenched in hissy reverb over a swooping pad and cathedral-sized bassy rumble.
With twelve full-length club tracks, Percussion Part 2 is more of a dance music “double pack” than a traditional artist album. You might not want to listen to it from start to finish but still, for anyone into clever, functionalist dance music weapons, there is a lot to like here. One of the smarter 4/4 techno records this year. —Vincent Jenewein
Purchase Percussion Part 2 at Bandcamp.
Ceephax Acid Crew - Box Steady (Waltzer)
The year is 1989. Michael Thomas has just won George Graham’s Arsenal the league title in the most dramatic fashion, scoring in the 92th minute after there looked no hope. North London is buzzing, the Gunners have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Playing at all the pubs is this strange, wondrous new music, bouncy beats made by 808s and perfected in Chicago. The kids love it. It’s smiley face euphoria; a rhythmic fostering of kinship and MDMA smattered about through illegal warehouses, good vibes only. If not for the dissemination of Box Steady, you would think this backstory would apply to Ceephax Acid Crew. Not nostalgia but rather a gallant perception of what acid house could mean for us too young to have ever experienced it. He’s keeping the rave alive, stratified by incisive breakbeats and four-on-the-floor exactitude. The glory of acid is everlasting, and Box Steady provides the feeling of a stoppage-time goal on repeat. —Eli Schoop
Purchase Box Steady at Bandcamp.
Dark0 - Eternity (YEAR0001)
The world is veiled in darkness. The wind stops, the sea is wild, and the earth begins to rot. The people wait, their only hope a prophecy.
Long ago, there lived four warriors.
This is a tale from ages past: new game: continue.
The grimoire reeks of mildew. Press “A” to interact. Today is the Festival of Light. We gather to honor the ancient crystal. Would you like to play a card game?
On top of a mountain, at the bottom of a cave: giants wait to be conquered. Eight thousand hit points of damage per swing. If you interact with the wall here, you’ll enter a special room. Defeat the boss inside to earn the legendary sword. Collect all nine elemental stones to advance. Choose your party:
It has been an age since last we met. I am heavy with potions and gold. I completed three trading sequences: the amulet for the stone, the stone for the wilted rose, the rose for the gold ring, so on. That’s how I earned these boots: twelve extra points of defense.
Long ago, this land was in harmony. A breeze from the north brought darkness: demons and the demon king. A special hero came to save us. It was foretold.
Press “X” to skip cutscene.
Are you sure you want to quit?
Everything not saved will be lost.
Purchase Eternity at Bandcamp.
Porter Robinson - Nurture (Mom + Pop)
Lyrics arrive in the songs of Nurture like a needed breath of fresh air. While the EDM production softly glows with pastoral beauty, words often manifest in warped forms or cut up into fragments from their original state. Porter Robinson arranges these clipped phrases into awe-inspiring IDM in interludes like “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” or “dullscythe,” but it’s when he finally sings without hesitance or interruption that the album speaks with power.
Porter Robinson reveals his best set of lyrics off top: “Look at the sky / I’m still here / I’ll be alive next year,” he sings in the chorus of “Look at the Sky.” He presents earnest words like these about trying to reclaim life, light and control. Though they’re free of ironic distance, they’re not exactly laid bare. He prefers his voice pitched up than his natural tone as if to partly detach himself from his ideas, the distorted vocals often cutting into his actual voice at its purest. There’s still a slight reservation to fully commit to the sentiments but not so much from being embarrassed to indulge in sincerity but because he’s not entirely sure he believes in his own words that he gifts to others.
The large vacant spaces of instrumentals can make Nurture feel slightly meandering in flow, though it only makes lyrical moments like “Look at the Sky” more hard won. The album outlines a personal journey to step out of the dark, and emotional relief isn’t reached without toughing out moments of emptiness and uncertainty: “Oh there must be / something wrong with me,” he sighs in “Something Comforting” before letting the album’s most satisfying beat drop wash over him. Even if he doesn’t completely succeed in reaching the light in Nurture, he allows us to process the dark in a space full of warm, mutual understanding. —Ryo Miyauchi
Purchase Nurture at the Porter Robinson website.
residual energy boss / hyacinth. - music for end of year lists (Submarine Broadcasting Company)
I have to say, I don’t love the title music for end of year lists. Luckily, it’s the kind of joke you can pull off if you’re confident enough that the music will in fact end up on said lists. Here we have two totally different but similarly expansive improvisations: residual energy boss works his way through a series of cascading, shimmering synthscapes, which reach their peak in a burst of stuttering, walloping synth stabs roughly in the piece’s middle. Meanwhile, hyacinth. uses relatively simple, looping chord progressions and familiar, almost clichéd pads and effects to nevertheless craft something of near-ecclesiastical grandeur, bending his synths until they almost sound like a chorus of pipe organs. I can’t say I find either piece flawless—each seems to unravel somewhat, at different points—but both are strong enough that they reward repeat listens, perhaps at different times, for different moods. —Mark Cutler
Purchase music for end of year lists at Bandcamp.
downstairs J - basement, etc… (Incienso)
I’d never taken a bath in my adult life until this past week. Encouraged by the easygoing lifestyle I’d force myself to adopt while on my first solo vacation, I felt some time in the tub could do me good. It would immediately become a nightly ritual—finally, something that could get me to slow down—but part of the allure was that my every soak session was accompanied by downstairs J’s basement, etc…, a slick LP that brings together bleep techno, early IDM, illbient, and dub. What constantly draws me in is its quietude; there’s the sci-fi sheen and gloss one expects from this sort of music, but it only ever dips its toes into such suggestive sonics, forgoing even the most remotely hard-edged sounds for a constant meandering. What results is a pleasure in simple gestures: the siren-like synth on “Three Times,” the ghostly rave stabs on “Soft Tissue,” the cresting synth pads on “Wired” that leave glistening piano melodies in their wake. downstairs J knows the exact embellishments to keep one in that state right outside of purely passive listening. On “Solid Air City,” for example, it’s the reverberant piano chords, grounding the song’s mini-cyclone of synths and percussion with a sense of the now. It’s hard to pin down how basement, etc… makes me feel, but it’s the sort of music that helps me zone out while encouraging a full awareness of life and self. It has the soft pleasure, alone-time feel, and simultaneous cool and warmth of a days-end bath. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase basement, etc… at Bandcamp.
Healion - In Light, It Undoes Nothing... (Naff)
In recent years, it has become somewhat fashionable to scour the early 90s “chill-out room” sound for inspiration. Less a well-defined genre than a primordial soup of ambient, downtempo, breaks and various psychedelica, it evokes electronic music’s early freewheeling and utopian days. What sets In Light apart from a glut of of similar records is primarily its grace, understatement and well-attuned sense of weirdness. Steering clear from trite nostalgia-mining, it conjures a reduced, ghostly version of its influences while infusing them with slight touches of contemporary electroacoustic sound design.
On “About Breathing,” a pitched 808-bassline and echoed female vocal chops recall mid-90s atmospheric jungle, which is aptly contrasted by drum programming with a more contemporary, minimalist arrangement and an unhurried pace. Long, metallic spectral decays add a slightly dissonant and mysterious sheen to the otherwise warm and soothing atmosphere.
“Vetiver'“ opens with a blissfully swelling pad, subtly drizzling field recordings and metallic percussion spiralling into copious amounts of delay feedback; all drenched in negative space and underpinned by a snappy, deep 808 sub. The track has a decidedly free-form feel, even the clanking snare and open hi-hat that are keeping the time are quite loose and come interlaced with a whole number of sporadic incidentals and fills. I can't quite tell if this is supposed to be ambient, jungle or some kind of deep breakbeat techno. That is probably a good thing. —Vincent Jenewein
Purchase In Light, It Undoes Nothing… at Bandcamp.
Wojciech Bąkowski - Voyager (Temple)
The best compliment I can give Voyager, the new album from Polish filmmaker, poet, and musician Wojciech Bąkowski, is that the first time I heard it, I had to check if music was playing in another tab. There are tonal inconsistencies across individual sounds that can feel jarring, but this ostensible mismatch is what elevates this LP beyond 2018’s Jazz Duo, and heightens any delightful sense of the surreal. “Maska” sets the tone with dramatic synths and tumbling drums, reading like a weird, voiceless, Lynchian take on Asa-Chang & Junray’s “Hana.” At times, the conjuring of uncanniness is simple: the juxtaposition of a simple hip-hop beat with MIDI synths (“TAŃCZY MÓJ GRÓB”), spectral vocal samples amid a vast nocturnal wasteland (“STARODAWNY PŁOMIEŃ”), the unexpected inclusion of iPhone notifications (“WIADOMOŚĆ”). Eventually, everything just feels at home in this peculiar, offbeat landscape, and it’s the words coming out of Bąkowski’s mouth—smoky and seedy and undeniably cool—that ground every song they’re in. His spoken word often amplifies any queasiness and uncertainty, but he also manages to work it into a fiery jazz groove on “CZŁOWIEK INTERESU.” He has full control over his bizarro world. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Voyager at Bandcamp.
Liv Landry, Sean McCann, Eric Schmid - St. Francis (Recital)
I feel like to tease out and explain all the little things I find funny, beautiful, or touching about St. Francis would be to deprive it of its magic. But one thing I do want to talk about is the way Landry and Schmid deliver their readings of Franciscan prayers and psalms, as well as of (what’s presumably) Bonaventure’s The Life of St. Francis; these thread throughout the album. On one hand, both of them are wholly earnest, approaching the text with no aspirations toward sanctity—their affects range from deadpan intimacy to utter straightforwardness. However, it’s clear that the language they recite is unfamiliar to them: they butcher Italian proper nouns and trip over obsolete words in English, fumbling frequently through archaic turns of phrase. You always hear them reading, or pausing to figure out how to read, and this renders a pronounced distance between speaker and text—albeit one that’s punctured from time to time by brief yet luminous interpolations of DJ Snake and Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You,” along with other moments that I’d like to leave as surprises for the listener. But said distance feeds back into earnestness: while St. Francis’s life may have little direct bearing on Landry’s or Schmid’s, their recitation of its particulars feels like an attempt to reach across the centuries and brush against something holy—against the quivering surface of a devotion whose opacity casts a spell deeper than that of any universal credo. In speaking, they don’t read so much as incant, even if they’re too weary to intone. —Jinhyung Kim
Purchase St. Francis at Bandcamp.
Clara Iannotta - MOULT (Kairos)
In describing the titular piece on MOULT, Clara Iannotta provides an image of a spider shedding its exoskeleton, as if it were “climbing out of a ghost or shadow of its own form.” Such descriptions are refreshing because they’re so direct: there are analogous, readily identifiable sonics throughout the piece—long diaphanous drones depicting the molting process, a generally terrifying atmosphere capturing such transmogrifying horror, an insect-like squirming in the song’s final stretch—that encourage a mulling over of concomitant ideas. I think of molting as symbolizing the death of self in growth, and how the fears that may arise from such an act can become familiar (and then overcome) yet remain unsettling. Such atonality and screeching feels less like 20th-century classical fodder for the high-brow set than something normal and human: a resolute desire to move beyond one’s current state, and the anxiety that comes with extending beyond comforts.
There’s a similarly ghastly atmosphere to “paw-marks in wet cement (ii).” The title comes from the final lines of a Dorothy Molloy poem, which captures a deceased pet dog in all its livelihood (“all wag-tail/and bright eye”) and (im)permanence. The composition teeters between this state of life and death, of buzzing about and being bogged down: tiny piano plinks amid fogged-out drones, electronically processed swells that feel like final gasps of breath. As with all of Iannotta’s pieces, the titular image fleshes out the emotional depth and range of the music. You can see that with “dead wasps in the jam-jar (ii),” wherein strings swirl in a chaotic yet contained fashion, signaling both the richness and specificity one can find in any given space. “Troglodyte Angels Clank By” stands out among the rest for its relative minimalism, as its high-pitched tones ground the piece, establishing a meditative state with which one can soak in the rest of the noise. More than any other track, it reveals how Iannotta’s music thrives when it’s in any sort of middle-ground, able to feel both light and dense, tender and abrasive, holy and profane. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase MOULT at the Kairos website.
Arek Gulbenkoglu - Lexicon Nil (self-released)
It begins with silence, and then some rustling, like someone’s stumbled upon a piece of found-footage tape. Such collage-like horror is the nature of Lexicon Nil, the most dramatic outing of Arek Gulbenkoglu’s career. While I mostly appreciate the Australian experimentalist for his austerity, there’s a thrilling looseness to the arrangement of sounds here—trackpad clicks and buzzing synths, oscillating tones and everyday field recordings—that cohere into some semblance of narrative. Every sputter and burst of electronics is tantalizing for how it suggests something deeper, or hints at some apparitional haunting lurking just around the corner. There’s a deep pleasure in such mystique being wrought from simple means—a synth melody dotting around normal chatter, for example—but it’s the pacing and juxtaposition that keep things focused. When holy chanting warps into a metallic drone, and then leads into the sound of someone walking, there’s a lingering sense of dread—is this person possessed? When a sine tone arrives later on, it too bears an eerie aura. It ends appropriately: just some fuzzed-out synth warbles for a couple minutes. It reads as sci-fi here, but it’s Gulbenkoglu at his most classic, wherein repetitive noises leave you confounded but befuddlingly amused. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Sylvia Hallett - Bolt and Latch (Takuroku)
A haunting melody is bowed on a bit of something-or-other from Sylvia Hallett’s garden, then looped and pitchshifted into a motif that carpets across the entire soundfield, forming a slowly crawling backdrop that is unintelligible as either an organic or synthetic sound. Field recordings are carefully processed to fit inside these slowly drifting layers, subtly receding into the background as the noise from the loop increases in density. By the time a buzzsaw makes an appearance, it already sounds far off in the distance, as if lost in a fog. Roughly halfway through Bolt and Latch, the loop ends and the pattern of receding field recordings is reset by a series of up-close bird calls echoing on top of one another, cleverly setting the stage for a second loop of bowed electronic sounds to bring us to a conclusion.
Bolt and Latch is one of those albums that is more appealing and satisfying to listen to than what a written description might prepare you for. In this case it’s a matter of our vocabulary not quite having caught up to modern practice. If I want to impart an accurate impression of the music within I must go beyond our current best stock descriptors for what Sylvia Hallett is doing such as “a collage of field recordings and electronics” or “field recordings with improvised accompaniment.” Such terms aren’t useful when they could plausibly describe dozens of records from this year alone that share the same characteristics, most of which sound quite different from one another in all other compositional respects. Suffice it to say the approach used here may be familiar, but the almost classical form of the composition and delicate attention to sonic detail is what sets Bolt and Latch apart. The firehose of music that Takuroku has unleashed onto the world has produced a great variety of music, from what sound like sketches and playful experiments to fully-formed works worthy of great merit. Bolt and Latcheasily belongs to the latter category. —Samuel McLemore
Purchase Bolt and Latch at the Takuroku website.
Tender Crust - FS100 (Full Spectrum)
You know the music’s good when you decide to preview a 100-minute song on Bandcamp and end up listening to the whole thing right there. A single track which runs longer than a typical triple album—and, let’s face it, many feature films—would be a bold proposition on any label. But the Full Spectrum crew have been killing it this year, and decided to run a victory lap for their one hundredth release, just to show they could. Structurally, this is not as ambitious as the mammoth runtime (intended, of course, to match the catalogue number) might indicate. There are, to my ears, no formal or conceptual conceits at play. Rather, it’s just a long, slow, blissed-out stroll of an album. There are explicitly musical passages in here, but the instruments often drift away for extended stretches, leaving a gentle flow of recorded voices, muffled taps and scratches, insects, and other small, relaxing sounds. The piece evolves without really building; as it approaches its final half hour, the mood darkens, as though with the setting sun. One by one, sounds peel away, and the listener is gently relinquished back into silence. —Mark Cutler
Purchase FS100 at Bandcamp.
@ - Mind Palace Music (localhost3000)
Like many others (in the U.S. and New York specifically), I have just recently begun poking my head back into “normal” social situations—eating inside with friends, exchanging banter in a movie theater during the trailers, brushing through a crowd to get to the far too intensely or far too dimly lit bar bathroom in-between sets by the third opener and the headliner. I am grateful for the return of these moments but trepidatious of their stability and sincerity. Not quite ready to leave behind anxiety, pessimism, or seclusion, I am lucky to have been able to find some simulation of collective warmth through music, particularly with @’s debut, Mind Palace Music.
The title itself implies a certain level of interiority, but remarkably, the duo of Stone Filipczak and Victoria Rose construct intimate songs that feel larger than a product of just themselves. The layers of vocals, electronics, guitars, and flutes imply a group of four or five members, especially with how natural and live-tracked so many of these songs sound. @ doesn’t stray too far from the formula of vocal harmonies gently dancing over homey folk-pop on Mind Palace Music, but the interplay of pastoral instrumentation on songs like “Letters” and the Beach Boys-influenced “Friendship is Frequency” transmit such a feeling of love and care that no one would ever want the duo to wander. Mind Palace Music aurally reproduces the close safety of holding a loved one’s hand—it shouldn’t ever be understated how incredible it feels to never want to let that go. —Evan Welsh
Purchase Mind Palace Music at Bandcamp.
Mitsume - VI (self-released)
Mitsume’s indie rock has always reminded me of Real Estate, with their light, jangling riffs setting a fitting atmosphere to ponder in the open about suburban malaise. It’s a shame to hear the protagonists in the band’s sixth album, VI, not being able to stay at ease and enjoy the calm, though stillness is also hard to appreciate when you’re in the thick of it. For how zen the guitars sound, the songs obsess over a desire to manipulate time, wishing for the clock to either go faster or backward: “Won’t go back anymore / anywhere,” frontman Moto Kawabe laments at the end of “Metamorphose,” and he continues to sing about moments slipping by in this resigned sigh throughout the record.
More than hearing about his regrets, what hits more personal and bittersweet from Kawabe are his futile escapes into nostalgia. His daydreams unfold into romantic scenes: “I imagined this small ship with the two of us disappearing into the night,” he sings in “Fiction” about catching a shooting star out the window of his significant other’s home. But considering the ennui-struck songs that surround joyful moments like these in VI, you get the sense that they’re either bygone memories or a temporary suspension from reality. It’s hard to blame Kawabe for sounding distant when it feels a lot better tending to any time besides the present. —Ryo Miyauchi
Purchase VI at the Mitsume webstore.
Romance - A Kiss Is Just A Kiss (Ecstatic)
The extramusical elements are essential: the anonymity of the project, the fact it’s called Romance, the teasing evocations of the title A Kiss Is Just A Kiss, the dandelion yellow cover, the mixtape presentation and lack of distinct track titles. It all compounds with the music’s gauzy ambience, which captures a love both intimate and out-of-reach. Romance has a lot in their toolkit, from reverberating harps to Badalamenti-like synth tensions, bliss’d-out new-age vox to majestic string loops, chopped-and-screwed pop ephemera to serious organ drones. That this all arrives without any face attached is crucial, allowing for this catalogue of vaporous sounds to read like an installation one can freely enter and exit; put it on repeat and it’s hard to discern when it begins or ends. It has a cheeky atmosphere: impassioned yet noncommittal, like it’s exuding the nighttime glamor of noir without any overbearing drama or tension—all the good bits of life, a bit of intrigue, and none of the dreck. It’s like being suspended in air. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase A Kiss Is Just A Kiss at Bandcamp.
Perfect Angels - Exit From the Ultra-World (“la Loi”)
Exit From the Ultra-World isn’t filled with particularly short songs, but each one exudes the spirit of a short-form exercise, as if Zach Phillips and Olia Eichenbaum are taking the kernel of a pop song and fleshing it out with the exact elements needed to make it shine. One may think of “Perfect Angel,” the summer-bright Minnie Riperton song that this duo maybe takes their name from, and imagine something lo-fi, simpler, and readily cognizant of its amateurish status in comparison. Still, even when the two are paying homage or wearing their influences on their sleeves, there’s no laziness here: these are consummate pop songs masquerading as low-stakes jams, slathered in an easy-listening veneer that teeters into sophisti-pop decorum. Sometimes, a short but satisfying climax tops off a song: Shoko Igarashi’s breezy sax on the opener “The Moat,” Thom Gill’s flashy guitar work on “All Love,” the wobbling percussion on “Lamb of Shame.” At others, there’s a simple reveling in pop perfection, like on their cover of The Chiffons’s “What Am I Gonna Do With You?” The record breezes by, flashes of brilliance found in every small decision but also the breadth of the entire project. No other album this year sounds like it loves pop music so much. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Exit From the Ultra-World at Bandcamp.
Rod Summers - Mythen (Slowscan)
Rodney Stephen Summers was born in 1943 in Dorset, England and is a poet, dramatist, artist, and more. Mythen, the first collection of his works from the inimitable Slowscan label, features four pieces dating between 1980 and 2014. The LP begins with “Iceland Symphony,” a 13-minute field recording edit. It begins with bubbling waters and birdsong, the two converging, raising in volume, and creating a hypnotizing rhythm that’s topped off with a cawing bird. There’s a loving playfulness to such manipulation, and when the waters finally cede into something more straight-ahead, the quiet sounds of a babbling brook gradually build into something monumental. When the track suddenly turns silent and birdsong is all that’s heard, the immensity of these two separate elements can be felt—the water for its now-vanished grandiosity and the birds for their beauty. Such is the joy of hearing Summers works: his simple edits lead to hyperfixation. On “Chance Audio” and “Short Sharp Shower,” tape manipulations and reverb highlight the peculiarities of every word—the rhythm and force of every plosive and fricative, the alien nature of utterances when juxtaposed with reversed tape. Best of all is “Hjalteyri Scales,” appearing here in excerpted form. There’s a faint drone and hissing air throughout, and atop it are a multitude of sounds: pitch-shifted vocals, a lethargic folk-pop song, spaced-out synths, mysterious NPC-like monologues. There’s a real video-game-like quality to the piece, like being railroaded into experiencing every beguiling set piece one at a time. It’s the most alluring and enchanting piece on Mythen, and also the most recent: Summers never lost his touch. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase Mythen at Discogs (note: the official Slowscan account is slowscan1).
Amirtha Kidambi & Matteo Liberatore - Neutral Love (Astral Editions)
“Being alive is a coarse radiating indifference,” Clarice Lispector wrote in her most cryptic and mystical book of prose, The Passion According to G.H. “Being alive is unattainable by the finest sensitivity. Being alive is inhuman—the deepest meditation is so empty that a smile exhales as from a matter. And even more delicate shall I be, and as a more permanent state.” The title of vocalist Amirtha Kidambi and guitarist Matteo Liberatore’s first record as a duo is directly lifted from the Brazilian writer’s depiction of a woman’s slow unraveling, and the resemblance between bodies of work is striking from the first. On this glacially-paced session cut in August 2020 during the former’s residency at Pioneer Works, located in the bayside neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the two construct a stainless steel monolith from the same whisper. For all the negative space within, the weight of the sound seems to exceed that of its sparseness, creating a post-tonal illusion of psychoacoustics that feel thicker than throat and string. The manner in which Kidambi’s stilted inflections converge with Liberatore’s hollow gong-like gestures reads like the ritual of a two-person cult; perhaps it’s the first aftershocks of the pandemic’s gravity that we’re hearing, but recorded improvisation has rarely felt this private and personal. I’m reminded of Morton Feldman’s statement towards the end of his life that his compositional world embodies a “haunted house with no ghosts”—this space may carry a torch of the same subtlety, but surely what we have here is a séance. —Nick Zanca
Purchase Neutral Love at Bandcamp.
Thank you for reading the seventy-second issue of Tone Glow. Here’s to more good music.
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