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Friday, 17 December 2010

Review Of The Year 2010: 12 Albums

This is my review of the musical year. Not the world’s musical year, but my musical year. It’s been a year that involved very little live music, and not a huge amount of new recorded music as I’ve been very short of both money and hard disc space, but I have certainly heard a lot of interesting new releases. Enough to pick out a cool dozen that have made a particular impact on me, anyway. I’ve included links so you can listen (or in some cases just buy): so get reading, and don’t forget to comment at the bottom!
Vex’d - ‘Cloud Seed’
Planet Mu ZIQ260CD
Dark, grimy dubstep which takes more than a passing glance back at trip-hop, and displays a distinctly experimental bent. Of the new music I’ve acquired this year, not much has been in this vein, so this isn’t a best-of-the-bunch selection: it’s just one of the most creative and interesting listens I’ve encountered recently. Featuring a variety of guest vocals, from the Martina Topley Bird/ Beth Gibbons impression provided by Anneka, to the more badass sounds of Warrior Queen and Jest, this is a very varied album, on many grounds, but still very coherent as a whole, with its consistently dark and ominous atmosphere. Not much electronic music experiments with such a probing sense of enquiry.
Faderhead - ‘Black Friday’
L-Tracks LT006
I’ve previously reviewed this album at greater length, here: Faderhead is pretty uncomplicated stuff, in terms of its artistic strategy: it is industrial music, built for the dancefloor. Accessible, heavy, dark and irresistibly danceable, these tunes are crafted to perfection. This doesn’t have quite the audacity, or the ferocious intensity, of his previous two albums, but it has a lot of good tunes. Faderhead is one of the most skilled melodists and lyricists on the industrial scene, and those who appreciate the use he put those skills to on ‘FH2’ and ‘FH3’ will probably love Black Friday too.
Finntroll - ‘Nifelvind’
Century Media 9979600
Finntroll sing in Swedish, on mythological themes, and purvey a style that mixes black metal with folk music elements: these ingredients would normally add up to Viking metal, but Finntroll are Finnish, and their lyrics mainly revolve (I am informed) around the efforts of a Finnish troll king to repel invading Christians. The musicians’ skills bridge the two styles seamlessly, paying equal respect to each: the result is a perfect fusion to my ears, mixing the unfeasibly heavy with the jauntily melodic to produce a huge, ambitious soundscape of Wagnerian power and majesty. Epic, evocative music which sounds like the soundtrack to an equally epic movie full of battles and elaborate armoured headgear.
Negură Bunget - ‘Vîrstele Pamîntului’
Code666 Code 046
So clearly 2010 has been a black metal year for me, with two black metal albums being the only metal in my end of year review. No apologies, I love this stuff. Negură Bunget also play a folk/ metal fusion, this time from the Romanian tradition, and this album (recorded with an almost entirely new line-up) heavily emphasises the traditional elements. So much so that where the band comes in heavy with all the speed picking and blast beats of its black metal side, the mix often makes it sound like a tremolo percussion element, rather than the autocannon assault you might expect. This is an extremely creative, musically sophisticated album, with an epic feel similar to Finntroll, but also a far more subtle, ethereal atmosphere. 
Igorrr - ‘Nostril’
Ad Noiseam adn132d
Igorrr combines the least likely selection of styles imagineable. Breakcore, classical, industrial, folk and death metal all vie for space in this crowded scenario, but the beauty of it is that it just sounds like Igorrr. There’s never any sense that these sounds were not meant to go together. I mean obviously this is strange. Extremely strange. It’s some of the oddest tonal music I’ve ever heard, but it’s only odd because it is a very honest and direct expression of an individual’s creativity. It’s like an aural equivalent to James Joyce’s stream of consciousness writing, with its apparently random changes of direction and its non-sequiturs, but it is in fact highly organised music, and displays an unusually erudite mastery of its sonic palette. There’s humour, but there’s also a dead serious artistic integrity. Beautifully weird.
MC Frontalot - ‘Zero Day’
Level Up Records and Tapes B003AMAF3W
Frontalot spits with a flow that skitters crazily across the beat in a way that perfectly enacts the verbal rhythm of the half-distracted nerd, but stays immensely funky. Lyrically, ‘Zero Day’ seems more focussed on daily domestic existence than his earlier offerings, which took in a broader survey of geek culture, but that’s a balance thing: there’s still a tune on here about D&D, don’t worry. There are also, as you’d expect, some hilarious skits. MC Frontalot takes a wry, somewhat distanced, comedic if not quite satirical look at his subject matter, in contrast to, say, Beefy (who guests on ‘Disaster’), who writes heart-on-the-sleeve celebrations of nerd culture. There are no major departures from form on this album: production credits are shared with long time collaborator Badd Spellah, who also contributes to the beat making, which is fun and funky as ever. Deeply entertaining music, with lots of re-listen value, thanks to its highly referenced lyrical density.
Ozomatli - ‘Fire Away’
Downtown DWT70148
There’s a scene in Jackie Brown, where Samuel L. Jackson shoots Robert De Niro dead, looks at his corpse, and says: ‘What the fuck happened to you, man? Shit, your ass used to be beautiful!’ That’s more or less where I am with Ozomatli.  This album is a huge disappointment to me. There was no question about whether I would review it for my year’s roundup: for me, a new Ozo release is a big event. This band used to combine the deepest grooves, the widest stylistic compass, the illest rapping, and the most radical social awareness: Fire Away is anodyne, middle of the road pop pap. I have no clue why Ozomatli think this is the right direction to move in, maybe it will sell records for them, but personally, I can’t think of a single reason to listen to this album. Avoid it.
The John Butler Trio - ‘April Uprising’
Jarrah Records 82564682450
If you want something socially aware, emotionally literate, deep grooving and stylistically eclectic, forget about Ozomatli and turn to John Butler. This is earthy roots rock, totally straightforward yet sophisticated. There’s acoustic, electric and slide guitar, banjo, even a dash of funky clavinet in the mix, with deliberately simple structures supporting utterly spot on playing, with as solid a rhythm section as you will ever hear. There’s a lot of creativity and imagination here: on the outro to ‘Johnny’s Gone’ Butler’s electric slide morphs into a Tom Morello style noise and texture solo, and there are many other examples of sonic experimentation. It’s all so seamlessly well integrated  into the perfectly judged songwriting that you don’t really notice it: it just sounds like one of the funkiest, most soulful bands you will ever hear.
Unter Null - ‘Moving On’
Alfa Matrix AM-1096-CD
Erica Dunham has never let her Unter Null project sit still creatively. The contrast between ‘The Failure Epiphany’s dark electro-industrial dance music and ‘Neocide’s powernoise is stark, and with ‘Moving On’ she is clearly moving on again. There’s plenty here that’s danceable, but this album doesn’t pander to the dancefloor: there’s no equivalent tune to her huge hit ‘Sick Fuck’, other than ‘Obligatory Club Hit To Appease The Masses’. Instead, there’s a huge variety of textures and moods, quite a lot of soft synth pads and piano parts, and the skillful employment of techniques and sonic material from right across the broad field of industrial music and dark electronica. This is creative and serious music, but still as hard and dirty as ever.
VA - ‘Noughties Niceness’
Tummy Touch Records (no catalogue number)
This album is a free (yes free) digital download, available to Tummy Touch’s Facebook fans. I don’t know if they’ll negotiate for non-Facebook people, but I think it would be worth asking, they are nice people. I’ve already reviewed this at some length here: It is a fairly random survey of the Tummy Touch roster, chosen ‘quickly would be the honest answer. But I guess they're faves from the last few years.’ Well, there are some fantastic acts on Tummy Touch so the boss’ faves translates as ‘some real treats’. Everything here is totally individual and idiosyncratic (oddball even), and highly accomplished one way or another. A few listens to this and I had acquired more than one new favourite song. Really, I can’t overstate the quality: stylistically it runs a fair gamut, but it’s generally rock and electro of the indie/ alternative/ punky variety. Download this album, love it (inevitable), and then buy some stuff from the Tummy Touch online store, which is all very reasonably priced.
VA - ‘Endzeit Bunkertracks Act V’
Alfa Matrix AM1146FCD
The latest installment in Alfa Matrix label’s flagship compilation series, this 4CD package delivers just as much juicy, stompy, noizy industrial madness as its predecessors. Pretty much every track is a potential floor-filler: as you’d expect the beats are heavy, grinding jackhammers, and the lyrical content ranges from the darkly horrific, through the ludicrously sexual, to the blackly humorous. Stand-out tracks for me are Xykogen ‘Mthrfkr’, Captive Six ‘Noizemaker’, Shaolyn ‘More Bass In All Frequencies’, Nachtmahr ‘War On The Dancefloor’ and Katastroslavia ‘Completely Normal’. But you know what?  Ask me tomorrow and I’ll name another five: they’re all good!
The Dave Holland Octet - ‘Pathways’
Dare2 DR2-004
Dave Holland is a living treasure: he’s the Charles Mingus of our era. A formidable composer/ arranger, a ferocious bass player, but above all, an outstanding bandleader, capable of eliciting performances of face-melting intensity and commitment from his players. ‘Pathways’ returns to the core personnel of his phenomenal early noughties quintet, with extra horns to enable richer harmonic scoring: the heart and soul of this music is the blowing, which delivers a constant stream of ideas, passion, creativity and novelty, obviating the need for major stylistic innovations. Undoubtedly my album of the year.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Review: Noughties Niceness compilation from Tummy Touch Records

I have to admit to a possible journalistic bias: I did spend some time in Cambridge with the (then beardless) boss of Tummy Touch Records, improvising verbal psychedelic jazz performances in public parks in the middle of the night (without any audience), wearing an orange jumpsuit. However, I should continue this disclaimer by admitting that I fail as a music journalist, and was unable to exploit this high level industry contact: I sent Tim a message on Facebook to request some background on the compilation, but he either didn’t get it or doesn’t wish to encourage stalkers. Oh well, his loss: my blog is obviously so widely read he could have finally taken his label to the big time. No, wait, I seem to be reviewing it anyway…
[This is now completely untrue, Tim did get back to me, and said ‘Erm, how did I choose them? Quickly would be the honest answer. But I guess they're faves from the last few years.’ But it makes for a much more amusing story if I say he didn’t.]
I’m going to attack this track by track, since it’s a compilation, and I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Tummy Touch roster, so I’ll do a bit of research, but basically I’ll be telling it how I find it (which is all good, incidentally). First though, I should say that it does have a certain coherence as an album, despite the disparate stylistic proclivities of the artists represented.
Noughties Niceness kicks off with a minimalist funk tune by Zook, titled ‘Bastinado’. I really like this. It is an object lesson in simplicity as vehicle for a sophisticated musicality: memory is probably my weakest area as a musician, but by the time I’d listened to this once I knew how to play every note in the bass and guitar parts, without needing to pick up an instrument to check. That’s how simple this is. It’s like ‘Green Onions’ (a record with nothing extraneous in it) with all the fat trimmed: in fact it makes Booker T And The MGs sound like self-indulgent prog noodlers. ‘Bastinado’ means ‘a sound beating with a stick or cudgel’ … no, I don’t know either.
Next up is UR Mummy from Niyi, but if you think you know what Niyi sounds like, you’re wrong. This is completely daft. It is far less of an obvious floor filler than most of what he puts out, far less commercially produced, and it has an infantile, suggestive lyric so silly it borders on genius. The beat is the kind of bare bones electro you might expect to find lurking on a Miss Kittin album, and the chanted vocal hilariously celebrates it’s own inarticulacy with lines like ‘I think inter-generational love/ is frowned upon/ far too much today/ … / so if I’m wrong/ well, I’m just wrong’. This is actually a clever, witty piece of music when you start to think about it, very danceable, and even sexy (‘I’d like to wipe her worksurfaces down’!)
Coco Electrik’s remix of The Phenomenal Handclap Band follows, ‘Dim The Lights’. This is a brutally shuffling fusion of electro-pop with 60s rock, garnished with some stuttery, heavily processed vocals, and there’s not much point describing it any further except to say it’s eminently listenable and curiously danceable.
Quad Throw Salchow have the least comprehensible name of any act on the compilation, but there are other reasons to like them too: the music for example. An overdriven bass single-mindedly hammers out a two note riff, while a synthesizer sparsely decorates it with a small palette of textures, and hoarse, intense but controlled vocals deliver a message that is as ominous as it is obscure. ‘Fate will Find You’.
More overdriven bass follows, though not to the point of distortion. Tim ‘Love’ Lee contributes a remix of a song called ‘No Search’ by a band called Striplight. Striplight purvey spiky, arty post-punk with declamatory vocals, which in this song tell a tale of self-destructive devotion not unrelated to Depeche Mode’s ‘Stripped’.  Which is to say it uses flaying as a metaphor for undressing.
And by now it’s surely becoming apparent that I’m an incorrigible geek for bass sounds… Crazy Girl’s ‘Regs’ is animated by a rapid fire pickstyle bass riff that sounds like it was recorded by micing an (overdriven) Ampeg SVT, but that’s not really interesting so I’ll tell you about the song instead. ‘Regs’ is a vitriolic, stream of consciousness rant against the mediocrity of the socially aspirational. The bass dominates the mix, but there’s guitar there too, also with the sound of a vintage amp, pushed hard through a twangy spring reverb, later joined by an equally vintage sounding electric piano: it’s hard to put a finger on the musical style, which is a modern take on the late 60s underground, but you could maybe call it psychedelic surf-garage (if a high syllable count doesn’t bother you). There’s something unhinged about this, in a very good way.
Patrick and Eugene contribute a cockney novelty song celebrating the gentle side of English drinking culture, a very likeable ditty with a twist in the tail, called ‘Saturday Night’.
So far the quality of everything on this compilation has been extremely high, but it’s saved some of the best until last. Before we go any further, I should point out that I definitely don’t tend to favour wordy, literate songs over more dance focussed offerings: in fact most of my favourite music doesn’t even have vocals. So let’s be clear, I’m not rating these tracks highly because I prefer a nice song: of the last four tracks, three are vocal tunes, and all three strike that perfect balance between lyrics, melody, style and all the other elements, where everything works in unity to express the meaning of the song.
Sargasso Trio’s ‘Heels On Fire’ is probably not a love song, but it’s an appreciation song, a song about the chemistry of the dancefloor. Not the dancefloor of some industrial scale club, all huge sub stacks and robotic lights; I imagined an upstairs room in a house with the windows open on a moonlit summer night, and the turntable skipping as drunken happy people bounce the floorboards. It’s pointless for me to try and paraphrase, or even to really describe a song like this. I can only express my admiration: for the way it avoids the obvious verbal route; for the way it is sexy without being overtly sexual; for the way it conveys a sense of the very specific value of an individual; for the way the groove is a part of the poetry, rather than simply a setting for it. This became one of my desert island discs by the third or fourth listen.
Turner Cody is a latter day beat poet: this plays both for and against him, as the beat poets were also a major influence on someone he sounds very like on ‘Corner Of My Room’, namely Uncle Bob. I know a little of Turner Cody’s work (although I’m not generally a big follower of singer songwriters), and although that influence is always present, there’s something about the vocal delivery on this track that makes it sound like an overt homage to, or even a pastiche of Bob Dylan. Which is not to say I’m accusing him of being a mere imitator: this is very much his performance of his words, it’s just that there is a clear relationship in his choice of words, and in his very clear enunciation of articles (definite and indefinite). Some of his verbal imagery is absolutely staggering, audacious even, and I won’t steal any thunder by putting spoilers in this review: you need to hear this track.

The next artist, Circuits, play new wave rock with a streak of reggae running through it, sometimes sounding like a more earnest version of The Police. The track included here is a dub (‘Fully Bearded Dub’), which accentuates that influence. It sounds as though someone set out deliberately to make a dub tune with no compound meters in it: even when the delays interfere with each other they don’t make triplets! It’s a really cool sound — and I don’t know why so many tracks on this compilation have such a fantastic bass sound, it’s like a masterclass in recording bass! — which breaks down into a bass led punk outro.
And as the last notes of The Circuits die away, the most enigmatic of this album’s offerings gently and unassumingly begins. I have no idea why Tara Busch chose to invent the name ‘Pilfershire Lane’ for this tune, as there’s nothing I can detect here that has anything to do with pilfering. Ambiguity is a good thing in a lyric as far as I’m concerned, however, so no matter. Busch is an excellent melodist, and does a nice line in chord sequences of the sort that pivot key changes on a tierce de Picardie. ‘Pilfershire Lane’ is a long and complex number, with a lot of sections: lyrically it seems to be someone in old age expressing nostalgia for the idyll of their childhood, and clinging onto their memories as a talisman against an uncertain future. It’s clearly set in the future as they are looking back to 1970, which is when I was born, and I’m not ‘old and grey’ yet. Stylistically it moves from a simple piano accompaniment, to an old style prog feel (like early Floyd) and back again, before an extended atmospheric outro, with church bells, choral vocals and background noises. Clearly I’m struggling to describe this, it’s far too complex to paraphrase, so I’ll say this: it never comes off as sentimental, it remains robustly ambiguous throughout, it is sonically and musically extremely sophisticated, and also very soulful in a curious way, and I like it a lot. I still have the impression there’s a lot I don’t get about Tara Busch’s work though!
Obviously this compilation doesn’t present the sonic consistency an album does when it’s the product of a single set of recording and mixing sessions; and the types of song and arrangement presented are incredibly diverse; but these tracks all display some kind of uncompromised artistic integrity. There is a certain commitment to pursuing a set of creative aims, a certain unwillingness to be bound by convention or fashion, that has obviously informed the decisions to sign these acts and to include them on this collection. It all comes across somehow as though there’s a single brain behind it. A big, and clever brain, whose past and future activities it would be worth taking an interest in.