Apologies to fans of melody and song-craft, as this short listening month for me has been dominated by abstraction and the beauty of noise. Whoops! It has been a lovely and weird few weeks actually; I started work again, which changes everything about my listening habits! I’m happy to have the listening time work in so naturally to my schedule, because I love music.
If you’re looking for songs, try Walter and Peacers. For pleasant beats: Friendly Chemist, Octo Octa, and A New Line (Related). The Menche/Mammifer and Aris Kindt are fairly approachable too, especially as the weather gets colder.
Best LP: Walter - Get Well Soon
Walter opened up for Fuzz when they came to town a few weeks ago, and put on one of the most surprising and unhinged opening sets I’ve seen in a long time. With absurdist stage banter, weird and frequent guitar solos, and mania for days, it was quite a sight. I was excited to hear the albums, but I had moderate expectations that it would mostly just sound like an Oh Sees ripoff album. Well, it kind of is! And it’s really good! “House on Fire” shows the Can influence pretty heavy with its krauty psychedelic treading, but it’s succinct and snappy in the way that the spirit of this album. The album picks up momentum early with “Ice Cream,” a tight pop song with an epic chorus melody, while “Everybody Says” stretches out into a rollicking psych jam full of wacky classic rock guitar solos. It’s not exactly how John Dwyer would do it, for sure, but from the vocals to the guitar licks, there’s a ton of overlap. “Friendship” is another standout with its manic shifts in tempo, but the best is saved for last. The heaviest track in the set, “Leap Frog” shows Walter’s ability to sparingly but effectively make a heavy psych jam.
Best Indie LP: Peacers - Peacers
Sic Alps was always mostly Mike Donovan, Mike Donovan’s 2013 release was almost entirely Mike Donovan, and Peacers is probably somewhere in between. This sounds a lot like the 2012 Sic Alps album and the subsequent singles, which found MD coming as far out of the formless lo-fi meandering as ever. In this next iteration, Ty Segall is producing and drumming, and I’d say around two thirds of the tracks have pleasant or even catchy melodies; a very high ratio for Donovan. A few of the best tracks are in the first half: “R.J.D. (Salam),” “Laze It,” and “Piccolo and Ant” are little pop nuggets like the old “Jellyroll Gumdrop” that I can’t get enough of. The back half meanders more, but has standout “Kick On the Plane” and wraps up really nicely with “Blume,” and “Super Francisco.” These simple, sometimes borrowed melodies work really well because of the weirdness that surrounds them in various ways, so as I’ve listened more I’ve learned to accept all the eccentric edges of this mostly shapely album.
Best Tape: Friendly Chemist - Touch of Jupiter
So much happens within a year in a style of music that’s only a few years old that at 10 months old this nearly feels like a vintage outsider tape. Saying that is actually weird too, because especially this brand of lo-fi house has a huge “vintage” quality to it. “March of the Bog Lily (Clapalella)” is an awesome way to kick things off - claps, squelches, and ambient breakdowns make up the kinetic version of this mix. “Trying to Find U” is another standout, with its wacky drum tracks and even wackier synth melodies. It’s almost the antecedent of classic Mood Hut tracks (Jean Brazeau is a Vancouver native also), though trading in a little sci-fi and trading out a little swagger. Things get deliciously saxy for “Visions from Yesterday (Saxy Mix)” in the most 80s sounding 2015 house track of your life. The B-side has the banger “Queens of Jupiter” before going ambient for the Celestial Mix of the first track. “Mist/Haze” is perhaps the most beautiful and melancholic track and is a nice coda for a great tape. This is another one of those 1080p tapes that you need in your life: the more collected and less heinous side of the label.
Best Abstract Tape: Daniel Menche and Mammifer - Crater
As I’ve gotten deeper into abstract art myself, I’ve been questioning to what extent abstraction and minimalism are concepts that lazy people use to express themselves. When I see other painter’s work, I’m amazed and disappointed in equal volumes. Sometimes it’s too easily reverse-engineered and sometimes it doesn’t express anything, whether intended or expressible in the first place. So this collaboration is actually perfect for me: it’s a clear and beautiful expression that has never before been expressed and is equally easy and hard to locate the sound palette that it began with. This release is bookended by pleasant, shorter, less processed pieces, but mostly contains four mammoth shimmering drones done the way that only Daniel Menche (and friends) can do. My favorite might be the visceral “Breccia,” which layers processed field recording drones and chiming synths for much of its sixteen minutes. “Exuviae” is also lovely and likely has some running water and rain tracks beneath its cavernous instrument-based sounds. ”Hearing Menche talk about how this tape was made convinces me we’re kindred spirits: ‘We’re just friends making acoustic sounds together and recording nature with our hikes together. Then we eat pizza and laugh.’
Best Ambient Techno LP: Aris Kindt - Floods
Francis Harris, beat maker extraordinaire, teams back up with Gabe Hedrick, who played guitar on last year’s great “Minutes of Sleep,” for an album that’s in a similar universe. It’s still perfect for late nights, cold weather, and (I can only imagine at this point) falling snow, hopefully all at the same time. Instead of jazzy explorations fueled by Hedrick’s work, the guitar is layering drones on top of vintage 808 drum beats. Check out “Floods,” where synths and guitars swirl and build on a dub baseline until they peacefully take over the momentum. “Blue Sky Shoes” plays a similar game but has guitar shift halfway through the track from cavernous drone to cascading washes of static and reverb that you might find on a Fennesz or Tim Hecker album. Tracks like “Snowbird” and “Braids” are more aggressively noisy, which is especially fun for me. “Embers” is a bit more kinetic in beat and the Eurotrack synth layers are especially melodic and it works really pleasantly as the climax of the work. In lieu of a Loscil record this year, I think this one will spend a lot of time keeping me company this winter.
Best Techno LP: Abdullah Rashim - A Shell of Speed
This album is a little frustrating because it reminds me that techno and Northern Electronics are both interesting. I write off techno regularly because of how its made for dancing and that’s not my purpose in listening, but this type of release transcends the original purpose. What worries me is that I miss a lot of really good things because I ignore anything that’s labeled as techno now, and I was starting to think that the overly prolific output of Northern Electronics was something to scoff at. This is up there with Acronym’s June as the best thing that the Swedish label has to offer.
Best EP: Mencius Leonard - Atelier Limbs
I’m glad I checked out this three-track digital only EP (I never really thought I’d say that) because it’s helping me remember that techno and industrial don’t have to fit a certain palette or composition. Similar to Powell, Mencius Leonard has many fresh takes on how to pound your face with beats, though definitely from a different sound design perspective. “Gaze Weronika” shifts in and out of banging bass beats across seven minutes that fly by, while “Xinyi” takes an ambient-built approach to industrial bass, complete with tinkling piano and buzzing machinery. “Driko Mitzi” is the real masterpiece here though, as it incorporates vocal snippets as contrast/melody into a post-apocalyptic hellscape in such a way that is distinctly song-like. If you know the Demdike Stare tracks that use vocals and whimsy along with their terrifying elements, it’s kind of like that. A few minutes in, it just bangs away with the breakdown, splits apart again, and continues to re-form.
Best Outsider Techno EP: A New Line (Related) - Our Lady of Perpetual Fucking Succour
This is the closest thing that’s come out to Perfume Advert’s +200 Gamma since this spring, and I’m pretty happy about it. It’s only now that i’m realizing that the intention of techno tracks is to hypnotize you, though usually through physical movement. Here, I don’t feel any compulsion to move, or do anything, really. I like just sitting back and letting these subtly changing tracks wash over me. “Belle Ile En Mer Dub Night” might be the most hypnotic, as it swirls itself into submission across nine minutes of dubby techno. Similarly, “Nobody’s Been in Touch” takes its time to unfold, contrasting warm, melodic, glowing synths with manic vocal(?!) samples and slapping tom drums. The final track sucks you in with dynamic and unusual drum patterning with some of the same trademark synth stylings. The digital download comes with a bunch of remixes and I particularly like the Perfume Advert one (shocking!), so I’m including that in the box.
Best House EP: Octo Octa - Further Trips EP
This is pure and simple badass house done the lo-fi way. It’s catchy, it’s fun, it’s campy (“Keep”!), and it’s groovy. It doesn’t make me think that hard about life but it makes me glad to have functioning ears.
Best Abstract EP: ENA - Meteor
I’m realizing how difficult it is to process music that isn’t constructed like other music. Where does a track like “Meteor” begin and end? Is it made from splicing or from a deterministic beat pattern? What is it looking to do? Much of these tracks feel like they’re constructed from analogue loops, because you hear the seams in between the bars (which is kind of jarring but kind of fun). The sound palette is restricted in one sense, but here more than ever it feels like ENA (Yu Asaeda) is wisely contrasting dynamic registers within his polyrhythms and electroacoustic manipulations. The result is strangely song-like and very satisfying for it. The individual sounds are what keep me interested most though: check out the pitter-pattering bass track and whispering static on “Insective.” The machine hums of “Body” are the types of things that stop me in my tracks in real life next to a malfunctioning fan or heating system. “Froth,” one of the two digital-only tracks, has an inconsistently running tape-reel type of sound that slowly gains shape as the track evolves. For a melody and humor-less set of tracks, there’s a lot of life in this EP.
Best Mixtape!?: Lotic - Agitations
It’s weird to think of this as a mixtape, because it pretty obviously has nothing in common with the source material from which it came (a recurring theme this month, I’m noticing). Lotic doesn’t take any shortcuts - no “ha dance,” no Beyoncé, and even less respite from unconventional eardrum-pounding. Much of these 24 minutes is in ripping-apart-sound territory, which I suppose is best done with origin sounds that need to be torn a new one. Glass shatters, machines are on the fritz, and beats spin forwards and backwards in “Trauma.” A skittering, caustic, detuned synth lead takes over in “Carried,” which has a UK Grime amount of contrast in sound design and more negative space bass than positive. “Banished” is all vocal samples but suddenly, voices are terrifying. There are a couple pauses in the chaos in “Feign” and “Rewound,” which slow the pace, let the brain rest, and allow for the insanity to sound more insane. The latter is comparably very pretty, and segues into the slowly building “Surrender” to close the mix. All in all, this is definitely a lot of development for Lotic and should gain him more respect within whatever community actually likes this sort of thing.
Best Abstract Bass/Grime EP: The Sprawl - EP1
This isn’t really Bass music, but two thirds of the people in this collaboration (Logos and Mumdance) are UK Bass titans, while Shapednoise, as per usual, brings the noise. The result is actually more fun than a lot of what has come out of this camp lately. “Drowning in Binary” is kind of like a more cohesive new OneOhTrix track, complete with bass mania and dissonant transition phases. “From Wetware to Software” almost has an Emptyset quality of how sounds build from silence, albeit one whose provenance is grime instead of pure analogue. This direction continues on “Haptic Feedback” in a more extreme direction, with long washes of static on the sustain of the spare Grime-y synths. The final track takes its sweet time to get to a state that has some definite shape, but once it gets there, provides a satisfying conclusion to an otherworldly listen.
Best Industrial/Noise EP: Alexander Lewis - Occupying the Middle Circle
Alexander Lewis is apparently an alias of Guy Brewer, who usually records under the minimal techno alias Shifted. Why you would choose a name that sounds like a different human name when making industrial drone is something that I don’t understand. My N. Kenneth alias hasn’t really taken off yet. This EP is really cool. Brewer is shaping sound in a distinct and palatable way here and giving a lot of attention to silence and timbre of noise. The first and third movements are nice as they play more with silence, though the even ones are thicker, dronier, and short and sweet. It sounds like the source of the sound is likely a guitar, but it really doesn’t matter for these compositions.
Best Bandcamp Demo Tape: Draggs - Demo
This is a really flat mix, but that’s how things go when you’re a garage rock band in Australia recording their demo! I actually don’t want much more fidelity, but just enough to showcase how good the riffs and melodies are. The attitude and shredding are hard to miss though, and that’s what makes this worth listening to.