For Daniel Lopatin, the process of making music has never been one solely of creation, but also recontextualization. His debut release as Oneohtrix Point Never, 2007’s Betrayed In The Octagon, was composed entirely on the Roland Juno-60 synthesizer; a device that was invented in 1982, brought into the mainstream consciousness by synth-pop groups such as Eurythmics and Duran Duran, and subsequently treated as a relic of a cheesy, bygone era before being repopularized in the mid-2000’s by indie-electronic artists like Phoenix, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Junior Boys. In the midst of this revival, which saw the Juno-60 being used with similar intentions to those it was popularized under, Lopatin arrived with a series of releases (later collected in the Rifts compilation) that recontextualized the instrument by using it to craft spacey, sci-fi indebted analog textures. 2010’s Returnal saw him taking this idea one step further, layering drones on top of each other for dense psychedelic effects and adding noise to the mix; while 2011’s Replica, his breakthrough effort, found Lopatin abandoning the Juno-60 for the most part in order to make sample-based music that refracted images of the past using corrupted loops, underlined by pretty piano melodies and with ’80s television ads as the source material.
That album constituted a considerable reinvention for Lopatin, but, like his earlier work, it also saw him recontextualizing widely-dismissed sounds into completely different functions. It wasn’t an exercise in nostalgia so much as it was in finding new possibilities for these sounds. And now on R Plus Seven, the newest and best release under the Oneohtrix Point Never moniker, he’s done it again by returning to synthesizers, along with an assortment of other instruments and tools, for his brightest and most immediate work yet.
At a time when availability has made music more disposable and prone to be taken at face value than ever, R Plus Seven begs to be explored, like the series of rooms implied on the cover, from a conceptual standpoint as well as an outright musical one. Where previous OPN releases explored themes of recyclability, decay, feedback loops and drawing humanity from the digital realm; the focus of R Plus Seven is on morphogenesis, procedural composition and cryogenics. Lopatin does this by presenting R Plus Seven with a piecemeal structure where the majority of tracks consist of one or two recurring motifs that are interrupted by a revolving door of ideas.
Take “Zebra,” for example. The central idea to the first part of the song is a bright, glossy, programmed staccato synth progression that introduces the track before Lopatin brings in processed human voices that ebb and flow along with the main refrain, eventually overtaking it before the main progression comes roaring back. The cycle repeats itself, with stately piano lines and an assortment of samples augmenting the main melody on the second turn, before Lopatin does away with the idea entirely in favor of tense, vibrating percussion, sealed in a static ambient space. After that, the song’s coda consists of chopped synthesizer samples that set the bedrock for a saxophone outro. The lively synth progression in the first part of the song is an exercise in procedural composition, the claustrophobic ambient space of the second part a representation of cryogenics, and the way the song progresses from section to section, with parts building up before splintering off into something completely new, is entirely morphogenetic in form.
There’s a tendency for the kind of experimental electronic music OPN is known for to be dour or serious in tone, but one thing separating Lopatin from his potential competitors is that his music has always explored a wide spectrum of emotions, sometimes within the same song. Although there are moments of undeniable sadness on R Plus Seven, such as the processed chorus that crops up at the end of “Still Life,” there’s also humor inherent in Lopatin’s use of a grunting sample in “He She,” playfulness in the way “Americans” toys with horns and field samples, and so on. From an emotional standpoint, what Lopatin is doing here has much more in common with ’90s IDM acts such as Mouse On Mars or early Boards Of Canada than with current contemporaries like Emeralds or Tim Hecker. While conceptually heavy, the concepts on R Plus Seven are employed in a manner that’s highly enjoyable from a traditional standpoint – you don’t need to understand cryogenics or even know that they’re being portrayed for this album to appeal to you any more than you need to understand the symbolism in a beautiful painting in order to enjoy looking at it.
The most moving moments on R Plus Seven are the ones that release the tension of Lopatin’s most hermetically-sealed compositions, like a cell undergoing cytokinesis: the delicate piano that cracks open the main synth progression in “Zebra,” the sterile organ break that interrupts “Problem Areas,” the disorienting side-chain effect that forms the apex of “Still Life,” and the swelling pipe organ outro of “Chrome Country.” Here, Lopatin excels at what he’s been doing since his first release as Oneohtrix Point Never, and what first brought us to him: drawing feeling out of the digital realm, instead of just channeling it. After fearless reinventions of sound on three consecutive releases, it’s good to know some things never change.
Combining existing sounds in different ways can be nearly as exciting as finding new ones. This isn’t lost on California sister act Haim (HIGH-yim). Their sound can find a kindred spirit in every decade since pop music has come into existence. They also have everything they need to be earmarked as a buzz band: musical ability, charisma, sex appeal, an appropriate swagger level, oodles of personality, and fistfuls of hooks.
But singer/guitarist Danielle, bassist Este, guitarist/keyboardist Alana Haim and drummer Dash Hutton are something more than just amalgamators. Their debut album, Days Are Gone, avoids taking the path of least resistance, a path that can permanently hamper a buzz band’s outlook. Instead, it’s so steady-handed, so influentially diverse, and so ludicrously enjoyable that you really should really do some soul searching if it doesn’t do something for you.
Much of the appeal of Days Are Gone lies in the simplicity of its sometimes pop/sometimes rock songs. The melodies are instinctive and effortless, the lyrics undemanding, and the production (courtesy of Ariel Rechtshaid and James Ford) is shiny and modern. Very little of it is cloying. In other words, the kind of music that inspires honest-to-goodness excitement.
And if you like the Haim songs you’ve already heard, you’ll probably like the rest of them. While the production values are somewhat standardized, the album finds diversity by way of sundry rhythms and sharp vocal work. Danielle sounds like any one of Stevie Nicks, Fiona Apple and Victoria Legrande, but her heavy use of staccato inflections lends an electrifying R&B wiggle to “Forever” and “If I Could Change Your Mind.” When they do mix it up sonically, all of their affable qualities translate. “My Song 5” brings Sleigh Bells levels of compression, while the titanium pulse of “Let Me Go” is both confrontational and entrancing.
If Days Are Gone has a weak spot, it’s most definitely found in the lyrics. Then again, if you’ve come to this album looking for life advice, you’re in the wrong place. If you need a little motivation, however, Haim have you covered. The repeated chant of “Never look back/Never give up” on icebreaker “Falling” drives this point home quite well, along with crisp percussion and a metric ton of reverb gloss. In the best-case scenario, as found on the irresistible “Don’t Save Me” or the nimble single “The Wire,” there are modestly incisive rundowns of love lost.
The most exciting thing about Haim’s sound is the number of potential direction they can take it from here. For band who released their first single less than 12 months ago, Days Are Gone is a sizable accomplishment. With the triumvirate of googly-eyed rhythms, sinfully catchy melodies and a breeziness that seems only fitting, they’ve served up one of the most auspicious debuts of the year.
There is a sense of involuntary awe when exploring the peaks and shadowy recesses of Bill Callahan’s music. In fact, it’s this idea of the personal discovery of significant moments on his albums that has helped to elevate Callahan to his position among indie rock royalty — that and his extensive and damn fine discography. His music isn’t altogether showy in the most conventional sense, but it is surprising in continually unpredictable ways. Lyrically, he can twist phrases and syllables into positions that would normally never be found in nature, but under his meticulous direction, everything fits together perfectly – not one letter is misused or out of place. And with just the basics of a musical foundation to support him, his records explore the detailed minutiae of life and the immaculate wonders that often escape our notice. But his music can also veer into darker territory, where the lines between what we should do and what our own innate nature insists that we do are often muddied and unclear. But if there is a constant in his back catalog of recordings, it’s that each song he records feels deliberate and painstakingly realized.
His records are also wonderfully inclusive works of art; what’s so fascinating is that his music can mean so many different things to so many different people. Every single Bill Callahan record has the tendency to sound completely personal to the person hearing it. There’s a propensity (and frankly, you’d be forgiven the inclination) to gravitate toward specific moments on his albums — such as a sly lyrical reference, a syllable inverted, or a melody that seems drawn from the air — and forget what completely cohesive statements his LPs tend to be. It’s a testament to his abilities as a songwriter that his songs feel so vast and all-encompassing but also so connective and communal.
On his latest collection of songs, the absolutely gorgeous Dream River, Callahan has once again dipped his instruments into a shared collective consciousness, filled with hope, love, and a few solitary strands of uncertainty. Maybe even more so than on his last few records, he seems the master of saying things without ever actually saying them. There are canyon-sized gulfs that litter these songs — acres of negative space that seems content to hover, awaiting whatever musical gifts Callahan is willing to part with. We expect much from the man who would be Smog, and he gladly rises to those weighted expectations.
We’re lead into the album by the shuffling country beat and downtrodden lyrical admission that he — whoever he is, possibly Callahan or maybe someone completely unrelated — is “drinking while sleeping strangers / unknowingly keep me company in the hotel bar.” This opening track, “The Sing,” is a rollicking song full of bitter recrimination, self-aware deprecation, and no small amount of regret. In his confession that the only two things he’s said today were “beer” and “thank you,” Callahan paints a knowingly sympathetic portrait of a man who’s seen far too many things, in far too few years. Blending intricate fretwork with bouts of melancholy strings, the song slips back and forth between a curious joviality and pitch black humor. On “Javelin Unlanding,” Callahan busts out the electric guitar chops — such as they are — and some rather non-pensive flute work which orbit around one of his best melodies in years. Between the spiraling and slowly disintegrating waves of submerged distortion, heavily echoed vocals, and woodwind trickery straight out of a Fairport Convention song, he shows that he doesn’t always come down on the side of caution, as the first line “you looked like world-wide armageddon while you slept” certainly creates a seemingly hostile atmosphere for the music to develop within.
But he never dwells too long on the insufferably maudlin. On “Small Planes,” he is simply happy, with all the ridiculously complicated feelings and experiences which that emotion often brings. But again, it’s the small moments — the details here that matter most. There is a line where he says “sometimes you sleep while I take us home / that’s when I know we really have a home,” and there is so much spoken and unspoken in those 17 words that could never be expressed any other way. His repeated refrain of “I really am a lucky man” that comes without any sense of back-handed sentimentality is devastating in its abject simplicity. And that’s exactly how Dream River manages to coax these significant moments out of the ordinary experiences of life. Callahan’s lack of overt ridicule and embarrassment of earnestness can be a little disarming at times, but he never trips over himself in his attempt to relay these ideas and thoughts.
Other tracks, such as the flute-led “Summer Painter” and oddly propulsive “Ride My Arrow,” are microcosms of Callahan’s innate ability to tell stories which resonate so thoroughly with his listeners. The music can’t be said to be overly complicated nor precisely lethargic — only exactly what it needs to be. There is a confidence here that smacks of experience and a life hard-fought and won. It’s not simply a matter of making sure each piece of Dream River‘s puzzle finds its way into each song but why they’re placed in their relative positions and what meaning exists, if any. There’s a moment on “Seagull” where Callahan slurs the word “barroom” and keeps repeating it until the meaning is lost, and it simply becomes a melodic extension of the music itself.
As tranquil at times as an undisturbed inlet and as turbulent as its titular river at others, this album exists to be discovered, to be known and to be obsessed over — much like Callahan himself. There are so many divergent paths to take and so many depths to explore here that multiple listens are a given and implicitly expected. Dream River is as evocative a record as he’s ever made and that’s saying quite a lot. Lyrically, he pries open long forgotten stories and juxtaposes them against simple tales of love and the need for someone with whom you can attempt to combat the daunting progression of time. Drawing back each song one pristine layer at a time, we’re left with a beating, thumping heart — battered and bruised to be sure, but confident in its own direction.
Factory Floor’s debut album has been a long time in the making. The band stretches back as far as 2005, although with a rather different lineup. The current incarnation released the well-received mini-LP Talking On Cliffs in 2009 and since then has sporadically released singles. What they’ve been doing with each subsequent release is refining their sound. This may sound strange – especially to people using Factory Floor as their entry to the group – since the snarling and pounding sound that the band has brought forth on this record would probably not be easily described as “refined.” But, comparing it to where they once were, somewhere middling between post-rock and meandering industrial ambient, the sound of Factory Floor is of a band that is now confident in their own original and entirely dominant sound.
Factory Floor wear their influences clearly on their sleeve. The very fact that they use “factory” in their moniker is a dead giveaway of one of their biggest analogues: Factory Records. Just listen to the drum sounds on certain tracks, which have more than a little of a Joy Division or New Order tint to them, especially on “Fall Back” and the electronic blasts on “How You Say.” They’re not trying to hide this fact, however, having been remixed and produced by those bands’ drummer Stephen Morris previously. This time they’ve taken on production duties themselves, much to the album’s benefit, since these songs have been a long time in live development and nobody knows them better than the band. The cover art itself is also reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s circa Computer World, and that militaristic electronic kraut is certainly somewhere in this album’s bloodline. Nik Colk’s vocals are not dissimilar to that of Kim Gordon, and the guitar manipulation on this album is something akin to what Sonic Youth might have put out on one of their SYR records in places.
The moniker Factory Floor goes even further into describing their sound, as you can easily imagine yourself standing on a factory floor while the music is playing, sounding like a large, well-run industrial behemoth of a machine chugging, hissing and creating all around you. The atmospheric whirrs and hums that haunt the album describe a gargantuan mechanism, and the mostly unintelligible manipulated vocals could be attributed to its workforce. Even the short interlude-like tracks push this idea further; “One” takes a short Nik Colk vocal cut and repeats and warps it into sounding like a machine’s error warning, while the scratching and stretching of guitar strings on “Two” bring to mind the grinding of gears in an overworked engine.
Overall the influences described above are only there in essence; Factory Floor is entirely its own entity. It’s industrial techno without any thudding bass; the flanging and skull-drilling beats more than making up for the lack of it. The opening track is called “Turn It Up” and you would be best advised to do so to get the most out of the album. And, as long as you’re into having your brain, eardrums and jaws severely rumbled and nearly cracked (as this listener is) then you will be forced to do so anyway. From the waves of physically crushing ecstasy that pulverize you in the appropriately-titled “Fall Back,” through the tribal flavours of “How You Say” and on to the hypnotic polyrhythms of last year’s breakout single “Two Different Ways,” you’ll soon fall into Factory Floor’s hazardously seductive musical death trap, and you won’t have a chance to catch your breath until the close of the once again appropriately-titled closer “Breathe In.” Once you’ve been sucked completely into their groove, you’ll understand completely why an experimental industrial group like this is signed to a dance label like DFA.
The novelty of file-sharing turned out to be both Arctic Monkeys’ worst enemy and greatest ally in their precipitous climb. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the accidental classic that the band recorded as teenagers, was lightning in a bottle, inspiring the kind of glitch-in-the-matrix hysteria that that no rock album has really done since. At that point, it was relatively easy to dislike them for what they represented, having been hurled into the pole position of British consciousness by a tidal wave of praise that many felt they neither deserved nor stood a chance of surviving. AM will no doubt encounter similar backlash – being declared the greatest album of the decade when it’s not even close to such will only serve to inflame. Laughable hyperbole aside, there’s a lot to enjoy here for anyone who’s interested in letting their music speak for itself.
Now residing in Los Angeles, Arctic Monkeys have again joined forces with longtime producer James Ford for their fifth album in eight years. Since their debut, the Sheffield exports have provided heaps of evidence against accusations that their success would be short-lived. Through their discography they’ve journeyed between garage, post-punk, stoner rock, and sun-kissed balladry with a level of musical skill that’s dispiritingly hard to come by in modern guitar music. As should probably be expected by this point, AM is another change of pace, kneading hip hop, blues and R&B into their repertoire. They’ve never sounded this happy to switch it up. More noteworthy than these new sonic elements is the fact that AM is Arctic Monkeys’ most melodically complex work yet, zigzagging through the gloom in lockstep with singer Alex Turner’s lively delivery. Making full use of Turner’s constantly improving prowess as a singer, nearly every song on here is helped along by two or three-part harmonies from of bassist Nick O’Malley, drummer Matt Helders and longtime buddy of the band, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme.
Part of what makes AM so much fun is that its influences are all over the map. You can hear Zeppelin and Cream, Erykah Badu and Aaliyah, The Smiths and New Order. The slower tracks reach back even further. The sparkling “Mad Sounds” is like the hungover pupil of “Sunday Morning” and “Two of Us.” For those who think Arctic Monkeys are at their best when they’re at their fastest and heaviest, there’s “Arabella,” a trippy love song with a savage riff that is forever indebted to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Turner pulls out all the superlatives to describe this particular woman: “She’s made of outer space/Her lips are like the galaxy’s edge/And her kiss is the colour of a constellation falling into place.” I think he likes her.
But in contrast to their previous work, the lyrics are more slick than intricate, with the topics of drug use, deep space and lovesickness appearing frequently. The women in Turner’s life seem to be less interested in him than inebriation, and his respite comes in a similar form. Even he’s being a smart-ass though, he’s magnetic: “It sounds like settling down or giving up/But it don’t sound much like you, girl,” he quips on the feverishly catchy “Snap Out of It.” Leave it to him to make a come-on sound like a put down. With the rollicking glam of “I Want It All,” he just piles up a wish list, and then leaves you with this monster: “Said ain’t it just like you to kiss me/And then hit the road/Leave me listening to The Stones/2000 light years from home.”
Where AM falls down is in its pacing, plotting two blue-eyed ballads smack in the middle of the set, presumably to provide the listener with an opportunity to take a breath. “No. 1 Party Anthem” is the only song that really falls off the wagon, smelling just a little too much like leftovers from Suck It And See. The third downtempo track is sure to be the most divisive. Constructed around words from punk poet John Cooper Clarke, “I Wanna Be Yours”’s poignancy can easily be taken as overreaching goofiness. Not content to just soundtrack your party, Arctic Monkeys apparently also “wanna be your vacuum cleaner.”
AM’s real out-there moment comes on “Knee Socks,” courtesy of Josh Homme, who loops a ghostly wail over chirpy transistor falsettos, Jamie Cook’s twinkling guitar and a Matt Helder’s entrenched stomps. It’s a total blindside that neatly sums up the band’s growth. Arctic Monkeys started out as teens with sharp eyes and deep-seated cynicism reserved for those twice their age; they’ve evolved into one of the most interesting, enduring bands of the past decade. AM is a pitch black party record, full of menacing pop and grimy, indelible grooves drowned in bourbon. I think it’s safe to say that they won’t make another like it.
Julia Holter has achieved quite a feat; Loud City Song is her third album, and all three of her albums have been released in consecutive years. Rather than each release seeming more rushed or predictable than the one prior, she’s managed to go the other way, with each subsequent album building upon the palette and originality set out by its predecessor. This can only be attributed to Holter’s talent and commitment to her music. Indeed, the complexity and stateliness of the music itself is matched by the concepts and influences that manifest themselves in her lyrics; some people might be put off by thinking that they need a degree in classic literature or Greek philosophy to get the full impact of Holter’s words, but on Loud City Song the broad and exquisitely-used instrumentation brings the songs and words to life on their own merits, without any prior knowledge of their origins necessary.
Take, for example “Maxim’s I,” which is a reference to a French novella from the 1940s, but you need not necessarily know this as the fountain-like fanfare of waltzing organ, piano and wavering violins, combined with Holter’s bobbing and graceful vocals take you perfectly into this rich scene on their own, complete with ghostly dancers in grand dresses moving around a ballroom as champagne is supped and laughter fills the air. On album closer “City Appearing” she once again takes you into a city scene from a former life, this one frosty, cold and uninhabited as she begins with just her voice, extremely spare piano and slowly coalescing strings, which make you feel like a thought on a breeze blowing in and out of quiet alleyways just before dawn, before eventually lifting you way up above the buildings to watch the sunrise over the cityscape.
This magical quality of sucking you into the songs is consistent throughout Loud City Song. “Horns Surrounding Me” sounds like exactly that, Holter’s voice trapped inside walls of brazen brass that rises up around it both majestically and tormentingly, and when then combined with the thudding bass drum beat, unearthly organ and Holter’s most forceful vocal performance on the album it becomes its most anthemic point. We feel her striving to escape the real world, only to find her stuck inside her own mind. “In The Green Wild” is another tale of escape, starting with a scampering upright bassline that charts the protagonist’s flight as she proclaims “Am I too bored to understand? Well good I’m done; off to the wild for me.” We follow her down the rabbit hole with this continuing hypnotic upright bass as she sings “there’s a flavour to the sound of walking no one’s ever noticed before,” and we understand exactly what she’s talking about as we’re completely and helplessly in tune with her by this point. The second half of the song embellishes on this Alice In Wonderland aura as she sings on the pseudo-hook “there’s a humour in the way they walk, even a flower walks,” and you can see the woodland coming to life all around you as you listen.
The album’s centerpiece happens to be a cover of Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger,” but Holter has made it entirely her own on this version. This six and a half minute rendition takes you right into the scene of the lovers’ reunion; with the sounds of gulls cawing overhead and the slowed down vocal line, it can only be at the seaside in front of a golden sunset. The rich and floating strings take you in to feel their embrace, decelerated infinitely as their bodies and souls melt into each other in a moment that they’ll never forget – and neither will the listener.
Loud City Song is a true achievement from Julia Holter. Nary is there a hook on the album, but the richness and vividness that she brings to the songs musically and lyrically will hook you more effectively anyway. To consider that this album was created by a single mind is astounding, and that she did it barely more than a year after her last great album seems like a minor miracle.
Julianna Barwick must feel like she’s living one of her dreams right now. She recently cancelled a string of solo shows so she could accompany and open up for Sigur Rós, a band she’s always had a great love for. She recalls in an interview the first time she saw them live: “[It was] one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen; I couldn’t get it out of my system for days, I couldn’t even talk afterwards.” But not only has she been given the chance to travel about and play with some of her favourite musicians, she also got to record her music in the same setting as the Icelandic band. For her new album, Nepenthe, she travelled to Iceland to record with Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers, as well as a string of the country’s other well-known musicians, such as members of múm and Amiina. Working to create and produce her own solo material with the help of others, it’s no surprise that she sounds different here compared to her beautiful and lush 2011 sophomore album, The Magic Place.
On Nepenthe, Barwick takes some of the focus away from her voice and makes a brave step forward to expand her palette without drifting too aimlessly into distraction. Here her voice melds and melts into its surroundings, which come in the form of quivering strings, all-girl choirs, and a rich well of sonic details. “The Harbinger” carefully lifts itself up from scratching effects with glistening piano chords and flourishes into an affecting, if not hypnotizing crescendo that genuinely feels comforting; “Adventurer of the Family” flutters by in a similar fashion as Barwick’s voice washes over tremolo violin strings before smoothing them out into lush sweeps that bring the track to its end. The format of Barwick’s songs hasn’t changed in the way they often unfurl and unspool with a mystifying ability that sounds entirely natural, but on Nepenthe she mines something that brings a different and fresh kind of dynamism to the mix.
An easy accusation is that this new dynamism is merely a form of imitation, which isn’t entirely incorrect. There’s no denying that Barwick sounds more like her new tourmates than ever before: the decayed piano and airy feel captured on “Crystal Lake,” and the patient strings on closing track “Waving to You,” sound like they were culled from Valtari while the ominous unsettling atmosphere on “Pyrrhic” could well fit somewhere into this year’s Kveikur. The aforementioned sonic details even bring to mind the sounds from the Icelandic band’s full career, from the embryonic wails on “Pyrrhic” to the creaking doors on “Forever.” But all of it together feels like silent nods to the band, if not just direct inspiration (Nepenthe was recorded in the Sundlaugin Studio, after all) that thankfully never falls foul to coming off as plagiaristic. As said, Barwick is moving forward here, exploring new textures and sounds and what she can do with her voice and vocal techniques, and she’s fortunately been able to couple herself with complimentary sounds. She did reach out on moments during The Magic Place (the stunning “Prizewinning” always sticks out in my mind), but she spent more time focusing and refining the mood and place she captured (which, of course, was no bad thing). Here she explores again but reaches outwards, bringing her surroundings to her instead of sounding like she’s wandering around in one place.
Another feature Barwick manages to capture is that of grief. Nepenthe’s recording sessions were cut in two due to a family grievance, and often it can sound – if not actually feel – like she’s trying to sort out the darkness in her mind. On the opening track, “Offing,” she presents a series of vocal loops that, if anything, show Barwick has mastered her talent. It’s tinged with sadness, but it’s not until the next track starts fading in that we begin to feel the sorrow coming through. From there she wanders between a hopeful kind of optimism (the gorgeous “One Half,” were we get some tangible words that could easily be interpreted as the description of someone waiting by a phone to hear news: “I guess I was asleep that night whilst waiting for…”) and being lost in darkness (the aforementioned “Pyrrhic”). Even though wordless for the most part, Nepenthe creates a sense of heaviness and despair; while The Magic Place was definitely best suited to soundtracking the sunrise of dewy summer morning, Nepenthe is contrastingly an album for dusk, when the light is fading and the landscapes go silent.
But by the end of the forty minute journey, Barwick does sound like she’s worked though her dark thoughts, if not resolving them in a way that again comes off optimistic. Even during the album’s thicker moments, like when she’s got a choir backing her on “Labyrinthine,” or “Forever,” where her voice sounds like it has become everything, she’s still there, somewhere in the centre – not lost, but just taking in her surroundings. It’s easy to imagine her gazing at Iceland’s natural beauty and her own music accompanying such an image (Icelandic Tourist Board, I hope you’re listening), but as clichéd as such connotations are, they help add to the bigger picture. The striking photos Barwick captured during her stay show that she was undeniably impressed, if not overwhelmed by the country’s natural beauty, but it’s important to remember that inside her are a series of voices waiting to be expelled – voices that are caught up in grief and doubt. That’s what she’s captured here, and with the help of others, she’s refined it and given it more texture and context than she’s caught on tape before. Nepenthe isn’t The Magic Place, but it certainly sounds like she’s found another special site of inspiration. Thankfully for us it’s just as prodigious and marvellous as anything else Barwick has put out before.
Tarot Sport was, for all intents and purposes, a Fuck Buttons techno record. Largely eschewing the squalling guitars, filtered screamo vocals, and grainy textures of noise that gave Street Horrrsing its bite, it deftly allowed the Bristol duo to avoid the sophomore slump by going out of its way to be as different as possible from its predecessor. Sure, the overarching post-post-rock structures remained, as did their penchant for melodic arrangements that were at once uplifting and vaguely sinister. And “Ribs Out” found its spiritual successor in “Rough Steez,” two second tracks sandwiched between ten-minute stretches of post-post-bliss that served as both further experimentation and transition between main ideas. But for the most part, if you listened to both albums without knowing who made them, it would be easy to assume they were recorded by two different groups entirely.
But after a relative flurry of activity–the “Bright Tomorrow” single in 2007, the two LPs in 2008 and 2009, a remix for Fever Ray–Fuck Buttons brought us perhaps their most unsettling sound of all: silence. In fact, it wasn’t until 2011 that we heard a peep from either of these two, when Benjamin Power released his excellent Blanck Mass debut. Here was another sidestep, steeped in stargazing new age and an almost modern classical sense of patience and restraint. More overtly sentimental and dramatic than either of the Fuck Buttons albums, Blanck Mass nonetheless shares at least a few qualities with Tarot Sport: upper-register synth work, occasional back-of-the-mix grumblings that belie the music’s apparent spiritual calm (listen to “Sifted Gold” again on good headphones and tell me you don’t hear someone–probably Power himself–yammering like the homeless guys who warn about the imminent apocalypse, and if you focus towards the end of “Sundowner” you can hear either wind rushing or someone wailing or both), and most of all, finding that sweet balance between enticing and alienating the listener (sometimes at once). Though it’s a solo effort, Blanck Mass felt more in line with the Fuck Buttons’ musical mission than did Tarot Sport compared to its antecedent.
Two more years and one Olympics later, Power and Andrew Hung have returned at last with album number three, and while it’s once again different from what came before, Slow Focus registers as more of an aesthetic evolution than a sharp left turn. It’s an album of confluences: we get the unabashed electronics of Tarot Sport, the viscous structures and tempos of Street Horrrsing, and yes, those squealing Blanck Mass synths (especially on “Sentients” and “Stalker”). We also get darkly playful hand claps on “Prince’s Prize,” zero-gravity toms on lead single “The Red Wing,” and even another transitional track two in the form of the dizzying arpeggios of “Year Of The Dog.” And everything’s transmitted to us with an uneasy starkness, much like the brooch we see on the cover: it’s beautiful, yes, but it’s also just there, in the middle of all that black, adorning nothing more than our perceptions of the sounds we hear.
Like their debut album, Slow Focus seems to delight in repeating and slowly stacking layers; these songs don’t develop so much as they exude, and while that sounds like it should be a criticism, Fuck Buttons make it work. With just enough accessibility and studio sheen–they self-produced this album and did a marvelous job–Hung and Power give us the sonic equivalent of those deceptively simple I Spy photo spreads: the more time you spend with it, the more details you’ll notice emerging from the ether.
Opener “Brainfreeze” offers a good preview of the album as a whole: driving, almost tribal drum work provides the foundation for all manner of synth filigree, including those high-frequency Blanck Mass cirrus strands of synth. But then the three-chord bombast halts halfway through; the drums drop out; the main synths take on a slightly more sinister edge and gain a chugging rhythmic but not percussive backdrop; a hint of Street Horrrsing-era organ appears; the Blanck Mass synths creep back into the picture; and then with 2:30 left to go, the drums kick back in and all the pieces play together, topped off by some Global Communication-like cinematic quivering. This all unfolds over the course of 8 and a half minutes, but it feels at once astonishingly quick and like it’s gone on forever. In addition to our heads and our understandings of what noise and drone can entail, Power and Hung fuck with our sense of time on this album. Like on their previous full-lengths, these tracks bleed into each other, forming a continuous and bewildering hour’s worth of music that does the “experimental” genre label justice. Fuck Buttons are mad scientists, alchemizing their musical visions into a glorious whole that never seems to reveal all its secrets. Though it’s hardly labyrinthine–these songs proceed in pretty much a linear fashion–Slow Focus immerses the listener in an aural landscape that offers so much to explore.
Let’s get something clear straight off the bat – this is as much a Thundercat solo LP as The Chronic was purely the work of Dr Dre. Just as that record was characterised by the fairly even split on mic duties between a sonorous Dre and the rasp of a rising Snoop Doggy Dogg, so too does Apocalypse bear the obvious hallmarks of Flying Lotus, who holds down a multifaceted role. As co-producer and co-writer naturally at least a modicum of his influence would be felt, but his fingerprints are clearly detectable across the whole thing; there are spots that legitimately give pause as to who was really calling the shots in the studio. Fortunately enough the meeting of Steven Ellis and Stephen Bruner comes up trumps with an incisive, often dazzling record that largely continues the stargazing blueprint laid down on Cosmogramma standout “MmmHmm.” Their working relationship is a wholly symbiotic one. Bruner reigns in some of his mentor’s intermittently distracting esoteric tendencies while Ellis simultaneously allows his protégé to roam outside the self-imposed confines of more conventional song structures. That sense of finely balanced duality affords Apocalypse the impression of being more than the sum of its individually impressive parts: hazy production on what would otherwise be out’n’out R’n’B jams keep them tantalisingly beyond reach, retaining a sense of intrigue even after multiple listens; conversely, Ellis’ mastery of dynamics nudges the less forthright cuts towards something approaching relative normality – well, when viewed through a Brainfeeder lens, perhaps. Recorded directly in the wake of the sudden, untimely death of close friend and preternaturally talented label stalwart Austin Peralta, it is an album laced with no small tragedy that somehow doubles up as one of the breeziest summer records of the year, the sunny yin to Until The Quiet Comes‘ crepuscular yang.
Not for lack of trying, but it proves a tad difficult not to repeatedly refer back to FlyLo’s fantastic fourth full-length, chiefly because a couple of the tracks sound like leftovers – not vaguely comparable or even upgraded offshoots, rather pretty much to-the-letter reproductions of the more murky sketches on UTQC, stitched from identical cloth but removed from the overall tapestry. “The Life Aquatic” is all clipped kicks and wan melodic lines wafting through a dense fog of purple and orange. Bruner’s muted vocals tiptoe subtly around the edges of the track, adding layers to the low-lying ambience, however it nonetheless remains a curious decision to drop the track in third and break the early rush of momentum and winds up arguably the least vital number on here. “Seven” – track six, obviously – fares far better in every department, carrying obvious signifiers from both men behind the mixing desk. A marriage of dripping water effects, odd chirrups and stroke-of-midnight piano chords contribute to the muggy atmosphere, set up against a subdued knocking drum pattern and Bruner’s dialed-down bassline beavering away diligently underneath the floorboards. The nocturnal vibe is total until someone seemingly flips the light switch, allowing Bruner to reel off a playful couplet about night-vision before his hammy “can you hear the sound of infinity?” rings out, to which FlyLo flashes his enormous gummy grin and everyone collapses to the floor in fits of laughter.
A surprising amount of humour can be found nestling amongst the pain on Apocalypse, much of it ensconced within minuscule fragments of Ellis’ studio trickery as he pings odd samples into tracks like rubber bands at will, or Bruner’s brief off-piste forays, confident in his own ability to reign it back in as & when. These bouts of wink-wink jocularity between the two key players – at one point Bruner admits to being “stuck in a pattern grid world” – offset the technical intricacy, preventing the music from subsuming under its own weighty intelligence. A great level of precision and care has clearly been poured into Apocalypse, but the record never sounds laboured over. It has a refreshingly off-the-cuff feel, even when dealing with hefty subject matter: “Lotus and the Jondy” bounds out of the traps in a spry fashion, allowing the catchy refrain to run circles around a bombastic flurry of crash cymbals and explosive toms, completely belying the fact the “Jondy” in question is Peralta, and what appears to be a jaunty tune is really a lament for “straight tripping in the darkness” which he can never again enjoy with his buddy.
In part, the coping mechanism boils down a loosening of inhibitions. The wee-hours quiet storm of “Without You” is broadly indicative of Ellis’ attempts to blur the fugue with “just a drink or two,” dolefully letting a string of soft “la la la”s melt into the swirling backdrop. Conversely, there is one outlier that provides a bracing contrast, wallowing in its own crapulence. “Oh Sheit It’s X” wastes absolutely no time getting down to business, launching headfirst into a frazzled synth lead and sloppy kickdrums as Bruner unleashes his inner Pastorius to scrawl slippery six-string notes all over the track. His none-too-subtle title proves a snug fit on two counts: the infectious melodic squiggles, downright wonderful falsetto and delirious rushes of hypercolour are all obvious signposts for the heady party mood Bruner finds himself spinning through; that said, arguably the greater trick is that in tossing out goofball moments like pondering “where the bathroom is”, slickly breaking the ice with a female compatriot by enquiring as to the material of her purse (“Is it leather? Or it could be suede?”) and comically drawling “buhhhhh, oh shit I’m fucked up” as the beat takes a breather, he displays a canny knack for the rarely doted-upon art of getting away with chatting absolute rubbish while spangled. The stuffed mix somehow feels uncluttered, as Ellis sheds almost all trappings of the LA experimental hip-hop scene he remains the exalted figurehead of, instead shooting for futuristic funk’n’b greatness and nailing it with aplomb. Standing on 2013’s halfway line this looks like a genuine track of the year contender, as there are few if any that come close to touching the sheer glee spilling out onto the dancefloor. It stands proudly amongst a cluster of bona fide bangers – “O.N.E.,” “Flutes,” “Heartbeats” – that could have feasibly been global chart smashes at one point in time or another. All told, it really is the absolute fucking jam.
And it’s not to say that “X” towers over the record either; there’s no shortage of quality here, just that little exudes the sunny optimism found on that standout, instead opting for a more appropriately downcast tone. The excellent “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” is even more straightforward, marrying flickers of vintage guitar licks with a sparkling veneer, over which Thundercat flits between hope and despondency, seemingly unable to make his mind up about a flatlining relationship. At first glance it’s easy to peg the urgency in the song down to giddy rushes of emotion, before realising he is locked in a race against the clock, desperately clutching at straws as he tries not to “let the love stop flowing from me to you.” He does an admirable job of conveying emotion in his voice, oft imbuing wordless vocals with a very real sense of pain, and masking a range that, while not limited, occasionally fails to match his ambition. This too is apparent on “Tron Song,” an unbelievably sweet mesh of electric piano slides and a clacking beat, wherein Bruner serenades his cat with reassurances not to worry about his departure (genuinely), playing out like a long-lost Innervisions demo retooled for a contemporary audience.
That hint of Wonder shines through on the closing pair of tracks, revealing a cinematic dimension to Bruner’s work never fully flexed before. The brief interlude of “We’ll Die” segues neatly into “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void,” bringing a maelstrom of strings to wash over Bruner’s impassioned, cathartic paean to Peralta as he finally comes to terms with his close companion “entering the void forever”, leaving behind only one final run of virtuoso noodling and a gentle chiming coda akin to something out of an antique music box that slowly runs out of steam and fades, finally, to black.
There’s a wealth of sonic variety on display but the concise run-time – clocking in at a fraction over 40 minutes – keeps matters focused and thoroughly engaging, this being perhaps the greatest single influence Flying Lotus passes onto the record, even above the consistently rich production. Similarly, the constant gear-shifting could wind up as exhausting were it not underpinned by a tangible sadness across the whole set that ties it all together. The shock of Peralta’s passing has forced Bruner’s hand, leading him into confrontations about how to not only personally “drown everything out,” as on “Special Stage,” but positing wider existential questions about the fleeting nature of life. His method of approaching those acutely human matters of the heart is to push himself into interstellar overdrive. On lead-in “Tenfold” his heavenly cadence rises above the familiarly smudged, insistent basswork, floating weightless over the second verse’s precipice: “Who knows, maybe we’ll learn to fly?” The answer is self-evident – across Apocalypse, with loss never out of mind but cut loose from the gravitas of the situation on the ground, Thundercat positively soars.
Oh, black metal. That great dividing line that separates so many of us music lovers like a jagged mountain range. For some, it’s a deeply spiritual experience, akin to walking through fire unscathed. For others, it’s a joke, grown men growing like demons and taking photos of themselves in corpse paint in the woods behind their parents’ house, to laughable effect. Lately however, there’ve been some tiptoes just over this line by the hipster set, though as always with those folks, one can’t tell whether the interest is genuine or some attempt at obscurist, post-modern irony.
In this rank netherworld exist bands such as Wolves In The Throne Room, Liturgy, Sannhet, and our friends here from San Francisco, Deafheaven. Deafheaven are, on the surface, everything black metal isn’t. Lead growler George Clark appears on stage not only sans corpse-paint but looking like he’s taken more than a few cues from the Duran Duran stylebook. Their music is crushingly heavy, yes, but also bears the aching beauty and transcendent, shimmering shoegaze heroics of post-rock titans present and past. There’s more than a hint of Mogwai and Sigur Rós in their thunder, even if it’s the vocals from “A Blaze In The Northern Sky” underneath.
Perusing the stickier corners of black metal fandom across the web, one finds violent amounts of hatred directed at Deafheaven, especially from the TNBM set. For their part, Deafheaven seems ready and willing to provoke the haters. The cover of their second LP, Sunbather, is decked out in dayglo peach with the kind of white lettering you’d find on 4AD releases from the eighties. And, y’know, it’s called Sunbather, which seems a whole lot like a jab at the indoor-bound, pale, frozen-tundra sort of music fan that would be drawn to black metal on any given day.
But all these talking points and controversies amount to very little the second you hit ‘play’ on this album. Not only is there nary a flaw to be found in its perfectly-sculpted structure, it’s also a journey album, epic in a way so few albums take the risk to be anymore. This is a disc that not only revolutionizes black metal as we know it, but breathes new life into post-rock, as well. These are some of the most hauntingly gorgeous guitar fireworks that the genre has produced in years, long since most of the players in other bands have fallen victim to cliches and mediocrity.
“Dream House” is fist-in-the-air majestic, churning through multiple movements loud and soft, ebbing and flowing and at last reaching ten stories tall in a flurry of blast drums and tremolo-wailing guitar. The more delicate tracks such as “Irresistible” are crucial gaps of bittersweet tenderness laid between the triumphant explosions of thunder that pierce the album’s longer sections. The acoustic-and-slide campfire chill-out near the end of “Please Remember” segues perfectly into the soaring theatrics of “Vertigo,” and the street preaching unfurling over the reversed piano drones of “Windows” leads expertly into the album’s startling swan song, “The Pecan Tree.” We close out as we began, with unfiltered glacial awesomeness.
Clark’s vocals may be a sticking point for some, deemed unnecessary by those who like their skyward eruptions howl-free, but they’re low enough in the mix so that, as the old saw goes, they’re truly utilized as just another instrument. And as impressive as the dual fretwork is here, the true MVP of this album is Daniel Tracy, whose inventive, unpredictable drumming is the glue holding this machine together.
Here’s the thing: I’m not a huge black metal guy. I appreciate the genre aesthetically and there’s a few bands I can really get into. I am however a huge post-rock guy, and a huge shoegaze guy. But from whichever angle you approach this album, the fact is that in the creeping years, once all the cacophony about genres has subsided, this will be seen for what it is: a landmark album. Sunbather is a future classic, no matter where you pigeonhole it, and that’s the mark of a true sonic masterpiece. Black metal, not black metal, just call it what it is: perfect.