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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.

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