I wish the ape a lot of success.
Stereo Sisterhood / Blog Graveyard:
- After The Sabbath (R.I.P?) ; All Ages ; Another Nickel (R.I.P.) ; Bachelor ; BangtheBore ; Beard (R.I.P.) ; Beyond The Implode (R.I.P.) ; Black Editions ; Black Time ; Blue Moment ; Bull ; Cocaine & Rhinestones ; Dancing ; DCB (R.I.P.) ; Did Not Chart ; Diskant (R.I.P.) ; DIYSFL ; Dreaming (R.I.P.?) ; Dusted in Exile ; Echoes & Dust ; Every GBV LP ; Flux ; Free ; Freq ; F-in' Record Reviews ; Garage Hangover ; Gramophone ; Grant ; Head Heritage ; Heathen Disco/Doug Mosurock ; Jonathan ; KBD ; Kulkarni ; Landline/Jay Babcock ; Lexicon Devil ; Lost Prom (R.I.P.?) ; LPCoverLover ; Midnight Mines ; Musique Machine ; Mutant Sounds (R.I.P.?) ; Nick Thunk :( ; Norman ; Peel ; Perfect Sound Forever ; Quietus ; Science ; Teleport City ; Terminal Escape ; Terrascope ; Tome ; Transistors ; Ubu ; Upset ; Vibes ; WFMU (R.I.P.) ; XRRF (occasionally resurrected). [If you know of any good rock-write still online, pls let me know.]
Thursday, March 25, 2021
Finally! It only one bloody quarter of 2021 to get this summation of 2020 done, but putting time aside to listen to all of these records again has been well worth it.
Although they’ve each been plying their trade for half a lifetime by this point, the work of current or former Chicagoans Rob Mazurek (piccolo trumpet / electronics) and Jeff Parker (guitar) were big discoveries for me personally during 2020 - see below - and this hugely enjoyable joint from their long-running collaborative venture (previously a duo, trio, etc) played a big role in putting me on the right track.
If certain of the other jazz-based LPs on this list prioritise texture, production and ‘feel’ over straight up musicality, the no nonsense recording aesthetic employed by the quartet here should, by rights, serve to take things back in the direction of good ol’ hard scrabble, with a cold, unadorned, rather trebley room sound which in theory leaves nowhere for the players to hide… but, being an imaginative bunch with a collective CV which ranges far and wide across genre boundaries, they’re soon busy erecting foliage, throwing up smoke, pulling some shit with mirrors, and generally doing anything in their power to avoid a predictable jazz quartet session.
Masurek pushes his trumpet through a barrage of effects, sounding almost like some grand-standing psyche/noise guitarist on fusion-fried opener ‘Orgasm’ (ooh-er), but it’s the following ‘Strange Wing’ which is the real stand-out here - a beautiful, rather Necks-ish tour through a cave of haunted, reverberating stasis and carefully sculpted feedback, Josh Johnson’s lolloping, McBee-ish bassline maintaining a soft, secure pulse throughout.
One of several cuts in which percussionist Chad Taylor abandons the drum set, ‘All the Bells’ gives us a good scramble through his toybox of tinkling, scraping bits and bobs, over which Mazurek lonesomely solos to his heart’s content, whilst ‘Unique Spiral’ cooks up another neat, fusion-y groove before sinking into eerie, rather abstract realm as Johnson’s anchoring keyboard line cuts out leaving the other players momentarily adrift.
‘Good Days (for Anna Lee)’ by contrast is a lyrical slice of old school, melancholic jazz, with Parker in characteristically exquisite, rain-against-the-window-pane form, digging into some nice tremolo as he duets softly with Mazurek’s stark, Miles-ish trumpet work. Also on a trad tip, ‘Batida’ a great, feel-good groove, briefly digging into laidback jazz-funk territory which wouldn’t sound out of place on one of those ‘90s ‘Pulp Fusion’ comps, whilst album closer ‘Westview’ is a legit street-funk burner, Parker cranking up the gain slightly as he and Mazurek takes turns to kick up sparks across Johnson & Taylor’s flick knife backing. Who’d have thought this bunch of cerebral, Tortoise-affiliated types would have it in ‘em for such a rumble? Wow.
Not everything here really works so well - thumb piano / woodblock duet ‘Lome’ I can take or leave - but for the most part, this is a wildly varied, hugely rewarding listen, turning both conventional and exploratory strategies on their head with such regularity that it’s difficult to tell which is which by the time we hit the half-way point.
Throughout 2020, I was consistently knocked out by the strength and consistency of this Alicante-based band’s epic, bucolic psyche-prog / stoner metal vision. And, better yet, their two LPs can be interlinked, front side to back side, to reveal bigger versions of the two excellent cover paintings [see explanatory illustration below]! This makes me outrageously happy, more than justifying a double dose of international postage fees.Feb 2020, I did sayeth:
“..infusing their consummate stoner/space-rock with a heroic dose of pre-‘Dark Side..’ Floyd / early King Crimson styled compositional ambience, which pleases me yet further, [Domo] fool me for forty-odd minutes into imagining all is right with the world.
For, as long as the dusty string/brass/choral textures drift past like a twilight frolic through Bosch’s Garden on the opening ‘Oxymoron’, languid bass walkin’ the dog until those pyramid-robbin’, Eastern-tinged riffs crash down at precisely the right moment for an extended interplanetary grind on second cut ‘Astródomo’ … we have no cause to worry.
Though they may initially seem to be lurking somewhere on the same general vicinity as Denmark’s Causa Sui and the El Paraiso label, aesthetically-speaking, Domo achieve a mellower, more approachable sound here, digging deeper into the feel (rather than merely form) of their vintage influences, leaving their music enriched by fading echoes of bucolic, analogue-era psych alongside their sinister metal void-gazin’ and, crucially, exhibiting a greater veneration for the supremacy of The Almighty Groove.
If there’s a lot of prog in the mix, well, rest assured, this is prog in the best possible sense of the world, valuing a sense of collective expression over individual ego-trips from the players (though there are, naturally, plenty of ripping solos to enjoy too), making – to my ears at least – for a supremely generous quartet of semi-side long jams, epic as you like whilst keeping a careful check on the bombast, making sure heads keep nodding all the way to the silver gates of infinity. (The cyclical riff on side 2’s ‘Rituel del Sol’ is particularly immense in this respect.)”
The second LP (released in November) is pretty similar, but arguably even better.
Of all the once-commercially-viable outfits who crawled from the dumpster fire of the grim, post-Britpop late ‘90s, Cornershop, I think, are the group who have aged most gracefully, their records (old and new alike) remaining rewarding, fun and culturally resonant, long after most of their original contemporaries have slunk off into the twilight of nostalgia tour obsolescence.
Although I was never a big, CD-owning fan back in the day, whenever I’ve heard a Cornershop song pop up on the radio in subsequent years, I’ve been increasingly inclined to think, yeah, this band were/are really good; a happy, affirmative and unconventional presence in the otherwise gulch dry indie-mainstream. Hearing a few immediately appealing / actually-pretty-fantastic advance singles from their new record early in 2020, and learning that they’d gifted their latest work with the simple yet perfect title ‘England is a Garden’, I thought to myself, yes, now more than ever is the time to embrace Cornershop.
And, happily, that turned out to be a very easy task to accomplish. Front to back, the double LP sprawl of ‘England is a Garden’ is a fantastic listen. Though the band’s currently favoured combo of loping, break-beat-ish rhythms, thundering T-Rex guitar riffs and miscellaneous Bollywood / jazz-funk exotica may sound dated or questionable on paper, in practice they pull it off so well, incorporating such a winningly melodic pop sensibility, that all it takes is a few rays of sunshine outside and this thing sounds fresh as a fucking daisy.
For all that though, there’s always something strange and gnomic about Tjinder Singh’s lyrics, bringing a distant sense of menace to even the cheeriest of proceedings. Like the Late Mark E. Smith, his proclamations have tendency to be be both highly specific and endlessly inscrutable, in terms of both basic comprehension and interpretation (is he really singing “..aliens use midlands as drop forge / that makes midlands England glow” on ‘No Rock: Save in Roll’?). Still burying and obscuring his off-kilter sloganeering within the mix, he remains an intriguing lyricist / frontperson after all these years.
Apparently practicing a say-what-you-see principle, a fetishistic excitement with the nuts and bolts of recording technology seems to run through the album’s lyrics (“track wire to the target speaker… amplifier to the echo chamber…”), which I always appreciate, mixed haphazardly with disjointed imagery which seeks to speak in fragmentary, haphazard fashion of Caribbean slavery, domestic racial discrimination, long-lost British cultural/musical history and goodness knows what else, without ever nixing the essential pop fun of the enterprise.
Like Smith, Singh also retains a propensity for incorporating uneasy / attention-grabbing language into his songs, though his efforts toward reclaiming / reinterpreting it are… a little more convincing, shall we say. Certainly, it’s difficult to think of another musical ensemble on earth who could record a reggae-infused track named ‘Everywhere That W*g Army Roam’ and emerge with something neither musically nor ideologically objectionable. (As he repeatedly reminds us on the wistful ‘Cash Money’, “..shit gets complicated”.)
At the risk of blatantly projecting and/or getting a bit heart-on-sleeve, Cornershop’s sound - as signalled by their exultant album title - is one which speaks to me of all the things I love about this weird and tarnished country I call home, near-impossible though they may be to see at the moment, as we stare down the barrel of an unprecedentedly bleak future. Though I doubt it as anything like the band’s intention, listening to this record reminds me that, wherever you look in this land, you can still find good people living good lives. Cultures being swapped and intertwined across garden fences; kids of multitudinous backgrounds running through parks and town centres on sunny Saturdays, making their own adventures; dads in flat caps playing dub down the pub on a Thursday night.
It’s a nebulous set of largely unmapped things and foggy notions which we need to try really hard to remember, and to not take for granted, right now, lest we throw the baby out with the fetid, post-br**it bathwater and surrender to the hellhole vision relentlessly propagated by our ‘leaders’ and their media boosters. For me at least, ‘England is a Garden’ really helps in this regard.
I’ve enthused plenty about Grey Hairs’ studio output on this blog in recent years, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but, good as the band’s recordings may be, they’ve always been left in the shade by the strength of their live performances. Ergo, this live album, recorded back in very different world on Halloween night 2019, is, by definition, their best record to date.
Had it seen release during most of the years preceding 2020, it could thus have been number one with a bullet on one of these lists - but, as has been have noted, competition over the past 18 months or so has been pretty intense, so Britain’s Best Rock Band (I’ll award them with a tin badge confirming this upon request) will have to make do with a paltry #7 this time around I’m afraid.
It has sometimes been brought to my attention that there are fans of rock music out there who do not like live albums. I know -- crazy, right? God only knows what their problem is, but I don’t get it. I mean, clearly, in most cases amplified music comes to life when rendered at teeth-rattling volume in direct communion with its intended audience. Why would you not want to hear that scenario captured on tape and reproduced through your stereo? Beats me.
As I see it, the only real negative re: live albums is the variable recording quality traditionally associated with such ventures - but if that’s yr main concern, well, you’re on safe ground with this one.
For those unfamiliar with the set up at Nottingham’s admirable DIY venue/studio J.T. Soar, it essentially comprises a respectably sixed live room downstairs, with a short flight of stairs leading up to a fully kitted out studio control room on the floor above, thus making it the perfect location in which to record a live album. With resident engineer Phil Booth at the desk, the sound here is exceptional, essentially combining the clarity of a studio session with the energy and atmos of a three-beers-in headlining live set. What more could you ask for?
Still one of the best riffs, and best set-openers, of recent years, ‘Hydropona’ sounds like it could level brick walls at 400 yards (so let us be thankful J.T. Soar is apparently made of sterner stuff); monstrous, head-banging joy. At the poppier end of the band’s repertoire, ‘Backwards’ is reborn a terrifying, slinky beast in its natural habitat, whilst ‘Piss Transgressor’ by contrast is more feral than ever, and encore/closer ‘The Chin’ is exultant, half-cut chaos. Applying the old “good song / good sound / good performance” triangle for identifying good records, this one aces it. A default winner on all levels.
An extraordinary statement of intent, South African drummer Asher Gamedze’s first(?) extended outing as band leader is easily one of the best jazz releases in heard in 2020 - which is going some, given that I tuned into more great, newly released jazz records in 2020 than in the earlier years of the 21st century combined.
It’s difficult to really get much down on paper for this once without lapsing into breathless hyperbole, but, betting straight down to business, the side-long ‘State of Emergence Suite’, (along with side # 3’s ‘Eternality’) present rich, brooding canvasses of stark, somewhat Ayler/Shepp-esque improvisation with Buddy Wells’ rich tenor sax tone centre-stage, delivering harrowing, heavy weight melodic themes but never quite settling into any kind of comfortable, repetitive pattern, leaving the rest of the group anxious, unglued and sparking with energy, even as pace remains punishingly slow / contemplative, anchored by Gamedze’s frantic, skittering cymbal work and Thembinkosi Mavimbela’s heavy, exploratory bass pulse.
The gentle, funereal horns which open side # 2’s ‘Siyabulela’ carry the weight of an immense sadness, bass and cymbals setting a waves-crashing-‘pon-the-shore pace, even before Nono Nkoane’s voice enters the picture. Reedy, vibrant, fragile and pure, it’s as inexplicably moving, soulful as any piece of music you will have heard anywhere last year. I have no idea what kind of feeling or landscape, what kind of real world circumstance, this music seeks to invoke, but regardless, it’s an incredible piece of work - a real spine-chiller. It may not be the longest, loudest or most attention-grabbing track on these LPs, but it’s definitely the one that spoke to me above all others.
Celebratory hoedown ‘Hope in Azania’ may closely recall the kind of warm, South African spirit showcased on records by Louis Moholo-Moholo and his Blue Notes/Brotherhood of Breath compatriots back in the day, but nonetheless, it’s a sense of melancholy which continues to predominate, particularly on the more experimental ‘The Speculative Fourth’, which finds Nkoane’s vocals duetting in weird, atonal counter-point with Wells’ and Robin Fassie-Kock’s horns, recalling some lost Carla Bley freakout, but never entirely shaking that sense of sun-baked, ‘Sketches of Spain’-type rumination.
Would you believe, then I started seeing Rob Mazurek’s name popping up on mailing list emails from assorted record labels a few years back, I mistakenly scanned his name as Ray Mazurek, organist / profiteer-in-chief for The Doors? “Jeez, is that old codger still around, trying to make hip jazz records..”, etc. Maybe Rob’s got that a lot over the years. I dunno. [Ray Mazurek actually died in 2013, so just leave it there please. - tasteless tangents Ed.] Ok, sorry.
Anyway, blurry-eyed error duly corrected, belatedly familiarising myself with some of the recent work of prolific Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist ROB Mazurek has proved to be one of the more rewarding music-based activities I undertook in 2020, not only vis-a-vis the Chicago Underground Quartet record discussed above, but also with regard to this startlingly ambitious, frankly mind-blowing LP of broadly jazz-derived compositional music, quietly issued in November by label-of-the-moment International Anthem.
Realised with the assistance of a monster, all-star ensemble of musicians associated with the label (Tomeka Reid (cello), Joel Ross (vibes) and Jaimie Branch (trumpet) are all present and correct, alongside Mazurek’s long-time collaborators Jeff Parker (guitar), Chad Taylor (drums) and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass)), ‘Dimensional Stardust’ is… really something, let’s put it that way.
Perhaps I’m just losing my freshly-blown mind here, but album opener ‘Sun Core Tet (Parable 99)’ puts me in mind more than anything of a very particular aesthetic which started to coalesce in the late 1950s, when the innovations of modern jazz started to cross-pollinate with the work of more adventurous movie soundtrack composers. Aside from the skittering, boom-bap beat which clearly marks it out as contemporary, it’s easy to imagine the track’s stark, Hermann-esque strings, dexterous post-bop bass runs, eerie, pastoral flute leads (courtesy Nicole Mitchell - very much a MVP contender here) and (yes) gratuitous bongos playing over the modish, Saul Bass-designed title sequence of some latter day Otto Preminger thriller.
Which is no bad thing in itself, but, as the record progresses, listeners had better prepare to move from b&w to Fuji-film colour, as the sensory floodgates open wide and we’re hit in the face with some hella ‘2001’ shit. Though it may be trendy once again for jazz records to decribe themselves as ‘cosmic’, it remains a blast to discover one which - as per the ensemble name and album title - embraces that label literally, and with starry-eyed gusto to spare.
As crystalline strings surge, wild woodwinds trill and electronics fizz and crackle, the whole ensemble pulse with a kind of freaky, joyous, utopian groove rarely encountered within such carefully composed/rehearsed material. Just check the moment when Parker hits some wild, radio-fogged fuzz pedal to pull off a wild, angular solo, mid-way through ‘The Careening Prism Within (Parable 43)’, pulling us into a kind of chaotic, poly-rhythmic wormhole that could almost pass for a long-lost extract from The Boredoms’ ‘VisionCreationNewSun’, before the cinematic strings return again to assert a shaky sense of ritualistic order to the subsequent track. Jeez.
Some weird, weightless dance-of-the-statues amid neo-classical ruins on a distant star comes to mind, as Mazurek’s trumpet (or is it Branch? - not sure) gently aches across side # 2’s ‘Parable of Inclusion’, before the vertiginous, brightly-hued feather dance of the album’s title track ushers us through some frighteningly intense, Sun Ra-mediated stargate voyage to multi-faceted pastures unknown.
Judiciously integrated into the musical flow, and mixed low amid crackling phone-line distortion, Damon Locks’ spoken word interjections provide a fantastic counterpoint to Mazurek’s instrumental reveries, mixing imagery suburban (“..any block / any city..”) and trans-galactic (“..we float in trans-dimensional stardust… be with us..”) as he constructs and interprets the music’s aesthetic context, like some otherly-inspired spokesperson for Ra’s lost, interplanetary utopia, issuing urgent, radio telescope-intercepted broadcasts from the far side of Saturn.
It may take me a few dozen additional listens to really get to the bottom of this one, but for now, what else can I say, man. As far as visionary, retro-stylised afro-futurist star voyages are concerned, this is about as good as it gets in these dark days. Break free of those terrestrial shackles, as Locks’ broadcasts repeatedly demand, and prepare to get properly cosmic.
Continuing on a thoroughly cosmic, trumpet-enhanced tip meanwhile, I’d nominate this magnum opus from Teeth of the Sea alumnus Sam Barton as an example of how to take the “lockdown album” concept and totally ace it.
When I initially tried to blather on about it a bit back in November, I’d not really had a chance to really take it all in, and as result essentially reviewed one song. Each time I’ve returned to it subsequently however, the whole thing just blows me away.
‘Sleuth’ of course remains a beatific aural cityscape of post-Bladerunner colossalism, but beyond that, almost every track here hits the same level of inspired grandeur in one way or another.
From the oneiric/overloaded arcade game reverie of the curiously named ‘Presbyterians!’ to the deconstructed, Solid Space-via-Arthur Russell bedroom dream-pop of ‘Nark’ to the haunting, electro-Miles melancholia of ‘We Painted Our Faces and Gave False Names’, this whole deal is, as its hard-fought occupation of the coveted # 4 slot suggests, an incredible piece of work. Really one of the best things I heard in 2020.
The seemingly unique feel of buried-vocal cuts like ‘Nark’ and ‘Mayfair in Exile’, oddly, also segues beautifully into our next world-beater - another solo UK home-recording project as it happens, also pulled together at the dawn of 2020’s lockdown, and perfectly placed to be enjoyed/appreciated during it. Yes, it’s…
Essentially a solo album from erstwhile Earthling Society leader Fred Laird (drummer Jon Blacow contributes solely via recontexualised rhythm tracks recycled from earlier recording sessions), ‘Soul Weaver’ is an accomplished suite of full strength Northern British psychedelia, largely - though not entirely - putting aside the rhythm-based “laid back psilocybic novelty travelogue” (his words, not mine) approach of Laird’s first album under this new band name, and instead digging deep into more introspective / melancholic psyche-rock territory, recalling 2014’s exceptional ‘England Have My Bones’.
Back in September, I tried to get an angle on it:“More than usually concerned with capturing the atmos of Laird’s coastal North-West home, ‘Soul Weaver’ finds him dialling back considerably on Earthling Soc’s raw fuzz, instead constructing dense layers of ultra-reverbed guitar and noise textures, laid atop ramshackle homemade rhythm tracks, faux-exotic string ragas and semi-buried, sand and mist-choked melodies which seems to pull toward a kind of desolate, Romantic grandeur not a million miles away from Flying Saucer Attack’s noise-folk reveries, or even yr Van Der Graaf/mid-70s Floyd type stuff.
An ambitious and heartfelt album to say the least, this one’s going to to need a good few listens before I can really get my bearings on it, but one thing’s for sure – Laird has a gift for tapping into the beauty of this strange island’s psychedelic heritage that few other currently active musicians can match, and this record seems to take him deeper into the heart of things than he’s ever ventured before, so…. what can we do but take a deep breath of sea air and follow at a safe distance?”
A good few listens later, and what can I say? ‘Fishcat Mother’ still sounds like the ghost of some BJM-style retro-psych band being torn apart in a hurricane-blasted wind tunnel full of carnivorous reverb-beasts, ‘Catch a Falling Star’ blends deep space Popul Vuh/Ash Ra bliss-out with intangibly blasted acid-folk melancholia, eventually breaking out into a long-delayed suite of foot-on-monitor guitar heroics, whilst inexplicable folk-horror / ritual sacrifice interlude ‘Goatfoot on Owl Hill’ is genuinely rather disturbing, not least for its preponderance of duck calls.
But it is the nine minute ‘Tethered on the Wheel’ remains the album’s most extraordinary achievement - a vast sea-wall of massed, reverberating amp skree, primed to weather a storm from beyond the heavens, slowly accumulating around the core of a harrowing, disembodied acoustic lament, its pained, sand-blasted melody uncurling like the toes of some mind-borne devil. Arguably Laird’s best recorded work to date.
Further testament to the supremacy of the live album.
Reproduced in full from June 2020:“Well, here’s at least one more skull-fuckingly magnificent live rock album to keep us going, anyway. Recorded by the god-like Ethan Miller when former High Rise guitarist Munehiro Narita played a few dates in California in 2017, backed up by the rhythm section with whom he would subsequently form Psychedelic Speed Freaks, recording one of my favourite debut albums of recent years, this is as much of a roughshod, extremist rock apocalypse as fans of this incredible musician might rightfully expect.
Grinding through raw facsimiles of some old High Rise hits (‘Sadame’, ‘Outside Gentiles’, ‘Pop Sicle’) alongside a few marginally more restrained numbers from his subsequent band Green Flames [with whose work I confess I’m unfamiliar – need to get on that], this recording squashes most of the bassist and drummer’s spirited contributions into a blaring tar-pit thud, whilst Munehiro’s reedy vocals are pretty much an after-thought, just marking out time and space, against which the elastic lightning whip monolith of his infernally inspired guitar playing rages and howls centre stage, with the energy of a live audience and appropriately ripped amplification powering him forward toward some of the most exhilarating six string pyrotechnics I have ever heard - not just from him, but from anyone, ever.
I could, of course, continue spewing out this guff indefinitely, but instead let’s put it simply. If you are a fan of loud rock guitar-playing who values actual music over posing and gimmickry, you need Munehiro Narita’s recent and reissued recordings in your life. Failure to heed this advice will be liable to label you as kin to the kind of idiots who sold their copies of the Stooges records in 1971 because they were ‘a bit much’.”
In a lot of ways, this seems like an odd choice for the #1 album of the year.
It is less bold, less ambitious, less sonically/emotionally overwhelming than a lot of the discs which have proceeded it on this list. Indeed, the music’s modesty of form, its unassuming / instantly accessible feel, is a bit part of its appeal. Essentially, it’s just a nice man, making some nice music, putting the best bits together on an album for us to enjoy.
As my listening habits and day-to-day engagement with music have changed over the past year or so however (see introductory spiel for the first instalment of this list, should you care to), this is an approach which has come to suit me very well. ‘Suite for Max Brown’ is almost certainly the newly released record I listened to the most during 2020 - which is usually a pretty good signifier of something or other. Every note of it, every quirk of the mix or musicianship, has become instantly familiar to me - which is likewise a pretty good feeling.
It’s an ‘ever-ready’ kind of spin, I suppose. Whatever mood prevails in my home-office space, whatever the degree of crap/chaos I have to contend with, whatever the weather’s like outside, I can always put on the Jeff Parker record and get something out of it.
Parker’s deftness of touch helps a great deal in this regard, of course. There’s a textural subtlety, a restrained kind of emotional resonance - a natural flow and an understanding of what ‘works’ - running through these tracks which feels like a culmination of decades of engagement with the core business of how to do music well, however casual he makes it appear.
From the thunderous, looped funk grooves of ‘Fusion Swirl’ and ‘Go Away’ to the weird fusion lullaby of ‘Del Rio’, the rain-on-the-windowpane introspection of ‘3 for L’ or the waves of ambient feedback and fixed tone drone which underpin many of these tracks, Parker’s work here is also consistently difficult to assign to any given genre. Excepting perhaps his more conventionally lyrical, clean-tone guitar explorations on ‘3 For L’ and the cover of John Coltrane’s ‘After the Rain’, you’d be hard-pressed to call much of the music here “jazz”, but then… you’d be hard-pressed to really call it anything else either, which is interesting.
In critical terms, sui generis type music is usually characterised as being daring, deliberate, attention-grabbing, experimental and so on. So what are we to make of genre-free music which is simply… comfortable? Again, just a nice (exceptionally talented) man, making some nice music, putting the best bits together on an album. This is how it came out. This is the stuff that sounded good. No point grappling around with terminology and hyperbole. Just dig it, or don’t. Your choice.
On a purely symbolic level meanwhile, ‘Suite for Max Brown’ also fits in very well as the “Best Record of 2020”. It won’t have escaped readers’ notice that last year saw me going absolutely ga-ga over the scene surrounding the International Anthem label. Five of their releases have graced this top forty list (which I think must be a record), and Jeff Parker played on four entries in the top twenty alone (likewise).
Will this infatuation last? Will the purple patch currently being enjoyed by these players and their support network manage to outlast our current historical ‘moment’? Probably not, but does it really matter? Whether confined to a few city blocks or (as in this case) expanding across the entire globe, music scenes have always lived and died like mayflies, but that doesn’t stop us consistently going back to the well, entire human lifetimes later - just so long as the water still tastes good.
As both an introduction to and summation of the nebulous positivity, accessibility and promise found within this particular stream of modern music, ‘Suite for Max Brown’ is just the ticket. Weighty aesthetic proclamations aside though, it’s perhaps more readily enjoyable as just some really swell music. It asks little, but gives much, and once welcomed into your home, it seems liable to stay around for the long haul, rarely gathering dust and making the ol’ day-to-day marginally better whenever it is reached for.
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
From hereon in the big list I think, everything is a potential number 1. All of these are truly excellent. Each time I listen to one of ‘em, I want to move it straight up to the top, until I play the next one in line again. And, the records in parts #1 and #2 weren’t bad either. Such a fine year for ears, if not for most other organs and appendages.
Mixing near-eastern processional/celebratory music with the scuzz-drenched tape cut-up methodology of the western noise underground, N.R. Safi aka Naujawanan Baidar makes a racket as original, incendiary and authentically psychedelic as anything the brutalised culture of the 21st century has to offer. Wherever music finds itself heading in future years, MORE OF THIS SORT OF THING would seem like a good start.
From June 2020:
“..combining traditional Afghan instrumentation with a bewildering array of loops, radio textures, distortion, digital effects, drums, Western/South Asian instruments and more besides, [this] dense and beguiling set of heavy psyche-blasted quasi-enthno semi-forgeries basically sounds like the wildest dream of some Sublime Frequencies junkie, obsessively scanning the scanning the short wave dials in search of mind-blowing pan-global audio to rip and reconstitute for hungry ears.
Beautiful collage artwork, vintage field recordings and track titles like ‘Blood Can’t Clean Blood’ speak of a legit and powerful engagement with the issues of cultural displacement and transformation which inevitably surround this music, which pulses and shrieks across imagined and real airwaves, like an affirmative signal of resistance for Middle Eastern and North American deserts alike.”
Side D of the album, comprising ‘Shakl-e-Barqi’, ‘Nagin Saaz’ and ‘Panj Ruz Pesh’, strikes me as particularly choice.
I wouldn’t be a Stereo Sanctity best-of-year list without Mike Vest sticking his oar in at some point, and the most noteworthy project undertaken by the UK’s leading maximalist guitar savant during 2020 was undoubtedly Ozo, a studio-bound trio in which Vest’s distinctively uncompromising bass and guitar work goes head-to-head with the Equally forthright sounds of Karl D’Silva (sax) and Graham Thompson (drums).
Of ‘Pluto’, my favourite of the two LPs, I said in July 2020:
“Moving at least slightly closer to realising the elusive space-rock / free jazz ideal Ozo are allegedly aiming for, this one is a heavy, heavy trip – a hulking motherlode of King Crimson-accented sonic gloop which feels more ‘high gravity planetary surface trek’ than ‘interstellar joyride’, stumbling over boulders on the way back to the landing module as the low-hanging sky overhead behind to look like this album’s cover.”
‘Saturn’ is well worth a listen too however, particularly for fans of Thompson’s powerhouse drumming, which effectively assumes lead instrument status through much of the LP, his meteor shower beat-downs often pummelling both Vest’s galaxy-questing, ‘Space Ritual’ bass lines and D’Silva’s squalling, disembodied ‘Funhouse’-in-a-hall-of-mirrors sax echoes into submission. A uniquely wild and disorientating new sound in the space-rock firmament, whichever way you look at it.
The interplay between bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger was a big part of what made the New York side of Makaya McCraven’s ‘Universal Beings’ double LP so sublime, and here the duo return with one of the world’s first real lessons in how to make the concept of a “lockdown album” really work.
Culled from a series of lunchtime live-streams the couple undertook from their NYC apartment through the peak of the city’s first wave in March-June 2020, Douglas & Younger’s instinctive / off-the-cuff playing here succeeds in providing a veritable beacon of good ol’ peace, love and understanding in a cold and threatening world, proving (lest the thousands of such recordings made during the 20th century left us in any doubt) that with the right players, and the right feel, one half-decent microphone is all that’s needed to make an album for the ages.
Concentrating largely on melodically potent material which will likely be at least distantly familiar to most of their listeners, ‘Force Majeure’ is probably at its best when the duo explore the jazz repertoire, working over such touchstones as John Coltrane’s ‘Equinox’ and ‘Wise One’, Alice Coltrane’s ‘Gospel Trane’ and Pharaoh Sanders & Leon Thomas’s ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ with a sense of warmth and constant harmonic discovery that it’s near impossible not to be moved by. Their (instrumental) interpretations of pop songs are good too, particularly when Younger takes the lead on comparatively simple, heart-rending reimaginings of Clifton Davis’s ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ (you know, the Jackson 5 one) and Kate Bush’s ‘A Woman’s Work’.
On a slightly snarkier note, I would also like to state that this is the one and only occasion upon which this blog will provide positive commentary on a release which includes a track composed by Sting (that being Douglas’s solo bass take on a something named ‘Inshallah’ on side # 2). You may have won me over this time with your good-natured banter about coffee and human togetherness and your vast musical talent guys, but c’mon - don’t push it.
As I mused way back in July, the extended vocal cuts led here by Chicagoan percussionist/singer Kahil El’Zabar often veer more toward a kind of spaced out, discombobulated soul than to anything in the jazz canon, with the simple hypnotic rhythms of El’Zabor and bassist Emma Dayhuff backing up the band leader’s resonant, mantra-like, sometimes entirely non-verbal, incantations, resulting in a sound which perhaps recalls the methodology of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ taken to it’s furthest extreme, or perhaps Gil Scott Heron getting waa-aay out there on a jazz tip, if he’d stuck to pot rather than hitting the hard stuff.
At the same time though, as I’ve lived with this record over the past six months or so, it’s the instrumental cuts I come back to the most. Side # 3’s ‘Katon’ in particular spends quite a while digging into territory not too distant from the slow burn, ambient minimalism of Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society, until saxophonist David Murray eventually weighs in with some stark, unmistakably Trane-like tenor ruminations, paying heed to the feather-soft groove even as he briefly tilts in a considerably more fearsome direction - a trend which is furthered, naturally enough, on side # 4’s more conventionally lyrical ‘Trane in Mind’ - as knock-out a tribute to the big man as you’re likely to hear anywhere in the current musical firmament.
Why, after all these years, does ‘The Devil Rides Out’, an insufferably boring novel written by arch-conservative imperialist blowhard Dennis Wheatley in 19…, retain such an irresistible aesthetic appeal, living on in the minds of horror/weird fiction aficionados like a rich bouquet of combined old book smell, empty church dust and ceremonial sulphur..?
Damned if I know, but Hammer’s ever-wonderful 1968 movie adaptation no doubt helps, as does this more recent ‘soundtrack’ to the novel offered up by Tom Mcdowell, aka Dream Division.
Of all the quote-unquote “dungeon synth” releases I sampled last year in fact, this one strikes me as by far the strongest. Not only does Mcdowell succeed in wringing exactly the right tones of comforting, TV/VHS-fogged dread and fascination from his wheezing, hissing analogue equipment, but he also brings a strong melodic sensibility to the material, filling the album with memorable, earworm-heavy numbers which would certainly not have disgraced the professional-yet-impoverished band of film composers who first minted this particular sound back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Combine this with a keen appreciation of the intangible / irresistible ‘feel’ of the material he is plundering for inspiration, and Mcdowell has really created an all-time, party rockin’ classic for the world’s second-hand bookshop haunting creeps.
Single-handedly making the concept of “stoner rock” suddenly seem like a good idea again, this Vienna-based group’s shamelessly indulgent assemblage of gargantuan / Sleep-worthy riffs and foot-on-monitor solos, served up with just a touch of bonged out weirdness, has rarely travelled far from my turntable in 2020. Seriously - super-massive rock fun with real longevity right here. Do yourself a favour today and check it out.
Here is some further blather from way back in the carefree days of Feb 2020:
“‘Raging Mammoth’! ‘Shaking Pyramid’! Yes, these are the kind of things pieces of music like this should be called, and I commend artist Sandra Havik for her valiant attempts to literally illustrate these concepts on the album’s front cover. Side 2’s ‘Monolith’ is dutifully depicted on the back cover meanwhile, whilst the accompanying track mixes things up somewhat, heading in a more trad metal direction, bringing in NWBHM-ish harmonic leads and moving from curious, almost jazzy/modal passages early on toward some positively Maiden-esque adventures in mid-tempo, dragon-slaying guitar heroism. Probably the all-round best cut here, it’s pretty damn immense.”
Making her second collaborative appearance on this year’s list, Kryssi Battalene (Head Room/Mountain Movers) here lends her guitar and vocals talents to former Mininokoto / LSD March frontman Kawaguchi Masami’s New Rock Syndicate, and, if the shorter, more garage-inclined numbers which begin the resulting LP perhaps don’t come off quite as well as they could, tracks like sitar-enhanced slow-burn epic ‘Sunday Afternoon’, the shimmering, scorched earth drama of ‘Shadow of the Earth’ and the churning, bad vibes jamming of ‘The Beginning’ and ‘Pieces of You’ all remain absolutely sublime.
Even more-so than with his previous bands, Kawaguchi seems intent here on digging deep into the legacy of late ‘80s legends White Heaven, tacking close to that band’s gospel of lysergic songcraft and elegiac guitar heroics, seasoned with a touch of AMT’s show-boating exotica, whilst Battalene for her part brings a more Bardo/MBV-like sense of blissed out pedalboard oblivion to proceedings, birthing beautific, timeless, trans-pacific psychedelic rock of the very highest calibre; just a sky-scraping, spirit-nourishing triumph of beautific noise, miraculously still available on wax to U.S.-based readers for the price of a six pack plus postage.
From July 2020:
“As ever, it’s difficult to really put into words the unique amalgam that comprises Obnox’s sound, but nonetheless, let’s take a deep breath and try again. Mixing up lo-fi cut-up noise, rust-belt garage-punk, mutant p-funk derivations, ghostly regional/outsider soul and aggro-laden, street level hip-hop, ‘Savage Raygun’ makes for an exhilarating tour through the treacherous back alleys of American music, all mixed down with a chopped n’ screwed, basement tape-splicin’ aesthetic that makes the album’s presence on shiny, newly pressed vinyl feel kind of incongruous.
That said though, this is still perhaps a slightly more – cough –‘accessible’ take on the Obnox ideal than we’ve been presented with before, dialling back on the hyper-aggressive saturation of earlier releases, even as Thomas remains an elusive presence within his own music, his vocals often remaining distant and translucent as he slyly works earworms and familiar phrases from semi-well known songs in his material, leaving us trying to source them in the fog of our own memories like some form of archaic, pre-industrial sampling. The exception of course is on the full-on hip-hop cuts, where he’s upfront and in our grill, spitting as angry and unhinged as our stupid white asses could wish for, milling down decades of uncouth working class discontent for some implacably affirmative, ugly shit flow goodness.
All of the deep, strange threads Lamont Thomas is exploring and tearing through here seem to come together, just before the end of the record, on the supremely titled ‘Young Neezy’, looping an ancient tape of Neil’s ‘Southern Man’ riff and firing it straight off into the resentful depths of twisted r’n’b oblivion. It’s pretty inspired. A few years on from Obnox coining the phrase ‘America in a Blender’ on his mutant, malfunctioning non-“free jazz” LP [‘Templo dol Solido’, 2018], he’s still busy making supremely bitter-sweet lemonade from that terrifying concept.”
Makaya McCraven’s ‘Universal Beings’ double LP from 2018 is one of the records I’ve played most over the past few years, and undoubtedly the one which has had the biggest impact on my listening… so of course it's a no brainer that a further disc culled from the same trans-coastal / transatlantic sessions was going to find itself sitting pretty high up on this 2020 list.
Unlike the earlier LPs, tracks recorded in different cities with different line-ups are mixed up willy-nilly here, arguably resulting in a somewhat more bracing and unpredictable listen, but McCraven’s intense, skittering electronica-influenced drum style remains consistent throughout, lending the music a unified pulse even as the textures and atmospheres change on a dime.
Most of the pieces here are quite brief, with some sounding like repetitive / water-treading segments excised from longer jams, which perhaps explains why they didn’t quite make the cut on the first two LPs, but even in its more quotidian moments, this music retains a floating, blissful sense of infectious positivity, and highlights, of course, remain plentiful.
Several cuts from the hallowed (by me at least) New York session appear to be pieces of the same tight, rhythmic workout, foregrounding Joel Ross’s vibraphone alongside backing from the aforementioned Dezron Douglas and Brandee Younger, whilst ‘Half Steppin’, recorded in London with Soweto Kinch (sax) and Kamaal Williams (keys) is an altogether more hair-raising piece of work, with what sounds like a heavily processed and/or electronically-generated beat bringing a frantic, almost jungle-like feel emphasised by distant, juddering bass frequencies and strange, droning chords picked out by Williams.
Two further London cuts featuring a more trad sax/keys/bass line up (courtesy of Nubya Garcia, Ashley Henry and Daniel Casimir respectively) find McCraven's polyphonous beatdowns sometimes threatening to drown out his collaborators, but a louche slide toward the ol ‘smoky groove’ pocket eventually wins the day, with some lovely work in particular from Henry on Fender Rhodes.
Meanwhile, the Chicago material here is excellent too, with Tomeka Reid’s cello adding a baleful quality to proceedings, as Shabaka Hutchings’ rich, Trane-esque tone alternately locks into and drowsily pulls away from McCraven's meticulously detailed, double-time beat - but my pick for the absolute best stuff this time around comes from Los Angeles.
As the distinctive creepy-crawl of Jeff Parker’s guitar signals a shift to the West Coast, the combo of ‘Universal Being pt2’ and ‘Butterss Fly’ (named for bassist Anna Butterss) proves absolutely stunning, perhaps a peak moment of this entire project in fact, with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s violin cooing some some bird of paradise as Josh Johnson's alto rides the tightly-wound rhythm set by McCraven and Parker, eventually folding out into a beautiful cat’s cradle of interlocking, ‘Bitches Brew’-esque textures… oh man, it’s a shame they couldn’t have kept this one going for hours.
But, we’re reaching the end of the final side by this point, so needs must, and, back to London, Soweto Kinch shows us ‘The Way Home’ - a big, bold South African style melodic theme, played in a duo with McCraven, cheerfully waving us off into the sunrise of the perilously uncertain future we all now find ourselves stuck in.
Year on year, I find myself feeling ever more distraught when the moment comes for me to vainly try, yet again, to find a way to convey the kind of magic routinely bottled by Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck whenever and wherever they convene to take care of Necks business.
These days at least, I can merely point to the bandcamp embed above and let more patient readers discover a way in for themselves, but, for those unwilling or unable to do so, I can at least suggest that, exhibiting a characteristically zen-like sense of internal symmetry (three tracks of equal length, three musicians), CD-only album ‘Three’ represents some of the band’s strongest work in years (which is going some).
Mixing restrained, ruminative piano and bass excursions with a chaotic, rotor-blade like clamour of disembodied percussion, ‘Bloom’ and ‘Further’ are both - and it makes my soul wither just to say this, but no alternatives immediately present themselves - classic Necks. The former leaves strange, distorted, guitar-like overdubs churning deep in the background, cymbal hits ringing through infinite space and fizzing, climactic organ chords occasionally rising up like fragments of Chicago house overheard from the wrong side of thick concrete wall. The latter meanwhile is a particularly special aural tranquilizer dart, tidal organ and string textures drifting against the frantic rattle of Buck’s bells and chimes as Swanson locks into an exquisite example of the kind of slow, cyclical groove which defined the band’s early work back in the ‘90s/‘00s.
By contrast, middle track ‘Lovelock’, named in tribute to recently deceased Celibate Rifles frontman Damien Lovelock, proves harrowing stuff - a dry gulch twenty minutes of exhausted, nocturnal dream-atmos which I’d characterise as ‘bereft’, but for the fact that that would imply a level of emotional manipulation mercifully alien to The Necks pointedly abstract/subjective methodology.
Labels: best of 2020, Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger, Dream Division, Kahil El’Zabar’s Spirit Groove, Kawaguchi Masami, Kryssi Battalene, Makaya McCraven, Naujawanan Baidar, Obnox, Ozo, Ryte, The Necks
Monday, February 08, 2021
My gosh, I am SO SORRY for the delays in getting this list sorted out.
What can I say? Work has been ridiculous. Life has been only slightly less ridiculous. Who knew that you could be so busy without leaving home.
I’ve considered abandoning this list, or just posting the rest of it as a straight up 30 to 1 without written content, in order to allow me to move on to some more relevant and rewarding content-creation. But no. So much good music came my way in 2020, it would be a travesty of the blog’s loose principles not to follow through and give it all a good shout - so on we plough.
If you missed part # 1, please don’t forget to catch up with it here. (And again - please don’t take the numbers to heart; they make these things easier to manage, but are basically pretty arbitrary. If it’s on this list, I really liked it - end of.)
From September:“The three songs herein find [Paul] Allen’s strained, rather desperate voice holding forth against the blights of age, impoverished touring and, on ‘Six Six Sigma’, “a truly awful corporate training company”, apparently. Despite the somewhat, uh, mature nature of this subject matter though, the churning, discontented mid-fi murk of these recordings could have seeped up from a darkened Bristolian basement at any point over the past thirty summers, and is all the better for it, proffering an anxious and assaultive brand of acid-damaged space-punk grue which continues to feel exhilaratingly beyond the pale of mainstream acceptability, irrespective of the calendar year.
Allen’s defiantly Out There guitar-work is of course a consistent highlight, abetting technically accomplished Groundhogs-esque shred with some truly unhinged pedal-board demolition work, spurting malfunctioning dot matrix laser goo all over ‘Six Six Sigma’, and doing a pretty good impression of a garden gate being abused by a variety of power tools on… well, all three tracks really, now that I come to think of it.”
Full appreciation of this double LP set from Manchester-based trumpet player Halsall and his backing band represents a bit of a challenge for me vis-à-vis my on-going struggle to widen the parameters of my listening. By which I mean, whenever I sling one of its sides on the turntable, some part of my brain immediately revolts, informing me that this basically sounds like an MOR rehash of the kind of stuff Don Cherry and Alice Coltrane were doing back in the ‘70s, with all the edges painstakingly filed off, leaving behind a brand of spiritual jazz suspiciously devoid of fire, challenge or experimentation.
The remainder of my brain however is forced to cop that the results sound ever so nice regardless, encouraging me to sink into the groove of Gavin Barras and Alan Taylor’s tidal rhythms, to appreciate the plain beauty of Maddie Herbert’s quivering, bead curtain harp strums, and to engage with the restrained, Miles-esque monologues of Halsall’s horn work.
Do what extent does music need an ‘edge’, I’m forced to wonder. Where does this relentless demand for sonic aggression and discomfort come from, and how has it become so completely embedded in my psyche? Ultimately I suppose, different kinds of music are needed for different times, to fulfill different purposes. When my energy levels are higher, when I’m out and about, pursuing my own real world objectives, much of ‘Salute To The Sun’, with it’s bamboo partition yoga studio vibes and ‘Mindfulness Meditations’ (actual song title - side # 3) sounds like absolute anathema.
Fact is though, I do not have the kind of energy (never mind aggression) that I used to. Give me a year of sitting at home, conducting business from a desk four feet from my bed, quiet streets, empty skies, and the multi-faceted stresses and uncertainties of global pandemic and economic collapse, and the winsome, overpoweringly pleasant rise and fall of Halsall’s ensemble starts to sound very comforting indeed, thank you kindly (and I do thank them kindly).
Comprising a single, forty minute improvisation, ‘Unconscious Death Wishes’ finds this Portuguese duo building from a slow start - seagull cries and sinister, sustained organ chords creating a pensive, vangelis-like atmos - before voudon junk-can percussion, ecstatic, canine cries, questing clusters of Jajouka-like horn riffage and a forboding, perpetually rising string drone usher in an engrossing, hypnotic journey to the heart of some post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the animal skin and war-paint clad ‘Mad Max’ bikers have long since expired and turned to dust. More fun than it sounds.
From June 2020:
“As much as I’ve been enjoying Sarah Davachi’s work recently, her pursuit of monotonal melancholia can sometimes tend to get a bit, well, monotonous after a while – which makes this collaboration from French ambient artist Ariel Kalma feel like just the ticket. Herein, Kalma adds some welcome bursts of melodic and textural colour to Davachi’s pure-tone excursions, complimenting her quietly monolithic, largely synth-based work with the sound of tanpura, harmonium, slightly different synths and Vangelis-esque echo sax.
The simple fact that there are two people working together here helps cut against the barren loneliness that has sometimes made Davachi’s solo releases feel slightly unapproachable, making ‘Intemporel’ stand out as one of her sunnier, more optimistic recordings, with the sublime ‘Adieu de Vie’ in particular sinking into a warm steam bath of exactly the kind of ingratiating, escapist psychedelia I’m hard-wired to enjoy, electronics and delays burbling away like a morning chorus of robot birdies above a lightly LSD-brushed alien onsen resort.”
Emma-Jean Thackray’s records to date have been consistently fun and forward-thinking, but this EP, released last March, is one of my favourites.
The opening ‘Rain Dance / Wisdom’ in particular powered me through much of 2020’s voluntarily locked down spring/summer, a sublime full band recording with gentle, sundazed Rhodes organ and echoed-out trumpet weaving around some of Thackray’s characteristically thunderous, distorted Sousaphone bass tones (played on this occasion by ben Kelly) and a clipped, head-noddin’, hi-hat heavy drum beat, courtesy of Dougal Taylor. Fantastic, effects-heavy production here, making a pretty much definitive exemplar of London’s all-directions-at-once, psych-tinged contemporary jazz sound. Splendid stuff.
The back story behind the LP is pretty convoluted (see extended description on bandcamp page for more), but it basically boils down to Drew Gardner and Jesse Sheppard - who comprise instrumental guitar duo Elkhorn - becoming trapped in a New York apartment with their similarly inclined associate Turner Williams a couple of years back, as an unforeseen blizzard raged outside.
And, under such circumstances, what’s a bunch of pickers gonna do, beside pick? Record, that’s what. Though rooted in the post-Fahey ‘American Primitive’ tradition (never quite felt comfortable with that term, but there you go), the players happily see fit to expand considerably beyond that acoustic / folk-based MO, engaging - so one supposes - with the icy conditions out on the street to tease out an album’s worth of cold and lonely string-based meditations from a palette which includes 12 string acoustic, fuzz-toned electric and - courtesy of Mr Williams - electric bouzouki and shahi baaja.
Side # 1 finds Gardner initially dropping blissful, Garcia-type modal leads over Sheppard’s baleful, low key acoustic thrum, as Williams adds a burble of heavily effected weirdness to the mix, making for an agreeably psychedelic nest of interlocking string textures. It’s on side # 2 however that things really get going, as the tambora-like drone of the shahi baaja crashes head-first into some sheets of fuzz from Gardner, his pedal hitting that rather charming straight-into-practice-amp-at-living-room-volume sound which I suspect recording engineers would usually have moved heaven & earth to avoid under more conventional circumstances.
Though Sheppard’s 12-string maintains a lonely, falling snowflake vigil throughout, ‘The Storm Sessions’ nonetheless comprises a happy motherlode of loved up, multi-layered string jamming which, for me at least, hits a similar sweet spot to that mined so beautifully by Desmadrados Soldados de Ventura a few years back - which you can take as a fairly gargantuan recommendation, should you have a mind to.
From way back in Feb 2020:
“So, Louise and Morgan range out beyond (what I assume to be) the more conventional, song-based folk of their own groups, embracing a woozier, more free-form approach, whilst [Kryssi] Battalene for her part nixes the PSF-styled noise-rock maximalism of her playing in the aforementioned bands, instead threading her way into the gentler, more delicate fabric favoured by her collaborators. Applying a variety of more intuitive and low-key guitar/effects treatments to the tracks here, she helps bring the underlying psychedelia of the enterprise simmering nicely to the surface, finally breaking out with some tormented, dissonant racket towards the end of the track-list, on what is probably my favourite track here, the mantra-like forest mulch trip-out of ‘Emerald Ash’.
Prior to that however, beautiful heavy tremolo strumming adds shimmering depths to the otherwise fairly trad country-folk of ‘Gathering’, whilst strange, throbbing delay pedal conjurations provide an ominous bed for ‘Squash Vine’s similarly healthy, no nonsense indie-folk take on free-from jamming, allowing it to grow into something rather spectacular across its six minute duration - a winning combo of elements repeated on the record’s slightly more tangible centre-piece, ‘Cherry Tree Carol’, whose mix of earnest, trad-arr vocal recital and more rock inclined backing might perhaps strike a distant chord with fans of Shirley Collins & The Albion Country Band’s revered ‘No Roses’.”
Now here’s a funny thing. Way back at the start of last year, a representative of Slum of Legs very kindly dropped me a line to let me know they - finally, after about five years of silence (but no worries, band people all know how that goes) - had an album on the way. I was told that they were planning a tour for November, and I thought, boy, that’s really planning ahead, but it will be great to see them play again, despite the wait. LITTLE DID WE KNOW, etc etc.
Anyway - we still have the record. And the record still sounds great, so let’s count our blessings.
From March 2020:
“..for the moment, let’s just say that the six members of Slum of Legs still sound like an unruly gaggle of entirely disparate, equally strong voices, all pulling in different directions whilst still somehow coalescing into some unholy, unified whole that’s almost, well, pop, Jim, but not as we know it. I hate reviews that end with “For Fans of…” lists with a passion, but if you can find me another band somewhere in the world whose hypothetical list might include The Mekons, Broadcast, The Raincoats, Marianne Faithful, Rudimentary Peni and Fad Gadget, I’d probably really like to hear them. Thanks in advance.”
Recorded live-in-studio in 2018, the simple arithmetic underpinning this collaboration between San Francisco-based guitar/drums duo Numinous Eye and Tokyo-based guitar/guitar duo Suishou No Fune, thus brings us a free-from splurge of moody, maxed out guitar/guitar/guitar/drums rumination - and you’d better believe those are the kind of odds we’re always happy to stake an LP’s worth of dough against round these parts.
As per the Elkhorn recorded I waxed lyrical on above, storm and blizzard are very much the kind of sonic metaphors being conjured here, but this time around it’s thunder instead of snow, black waves crashing ‘gainst a blighted, unwelcoming shore, as the guitar trio’s amps gradually fire up, reverb knobs pointed safely t’ward the east as judicious boot-clicks on a few suitably scary looking silver boxes bring us a damage-dealing buzzsaw growl worthy of the band’s name.
Though the players seem to be sounding each other out with some sustained, high pitched solo work on the record’s more low key opening cut, any sense of ego or individual dynamism soon disappears here, subsumed within a collective whole of eerie, shuddering yet oddly triumphant noise, rather akin to a totally unglued Cheater Slicks ploughing off on an SF ballroom tip, or Fushitsusha taking it easy with a mug of cocoa at their rural weekend hideaway, peeking at the inclement conditions outside and thanking the powers that (airb&)be for their well-worn sofa and functioning fireplace. About as cozy as soul-wrenching electrified skree gets, in other words.
From Nov 2020:“An exuberant and outspoken stage performer to put it mildly, Dawid here leads her band through an increasingly intense series of rhythmic vocal mantras and cathartic call and response routines, sometimes veering closer to some kind of unhinged improvised theatre, revival church testimonial or group therapy session than to many listeners’ preconceptions of a quote-unquote ‘jazz’ set.
To some extent recalling the more militant and unglued corners of Art Ensemble of Chicago’s discography, one imagines this must have put the wind up some segments of the refined European festival crowd presumably assembled for this show, but, any walk-outs or deserters from the concert space may well have been forced to ask themselves - if you don't want to listen to an African-American woman speaking her mind, what the hell are you doing at a jazz festival?
Contemplation of that question, to my mind, provides an immediate validation of Dawid’s confrontational - genuinely rather “‘punk’” in fact - performance style, and needless to say, those jazzbos who did stay on for the duration will have found themselves richly rewarded, in pure muso terms just as much as on the more visceral/emotional/existential side of things.
As unconventional as their approach may have been here, Dawid and her band are certainly no slouches on the technical front. The extended interplay between Dawid’s clarinet and Xristian Espinoza’s sax on the loping grooves of ‘London’, and her keyboard improvisations on ‘Black Family’, are absolutely inspired, whilst the smouldering, nocturnal heft of the piano/horn intro to ‘We are Starzz’ is just plain sublime. Enhanced by wild, rhythmic glossolalia and cosmic synth swirls, ‘We Hereby Declare The African Look’ and ‘Melo Deez from Heab’N’ meanwhile present bizarre, sci-fi groove-outs worthy of either Funkadelic’s most errant, acid soaked excursions or Sun Ra’s most wonkily accessible ‘80s pop crossover work (depending on which way you look at it), whilst the rolling rhythmic backbone provided by South African drummer (and bandleader) Asher Gamedze and lodestone bassist Dr Adam Zanolini is exceptional throughout.”
To be continued ASAP….
Monday, January 18, 2021
On the great scales of metaphysical justice, should destruction of human life always outweigh artistic achievement? [YES - morality ed.]
By which I mean, how does murdering the star of ‘The Barbarian Queen’ stack up against recording ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Baby, I Love You’, legacy-wise? [POORLY - morality ed.]
Such are some questions what may or may not never be resolved in our lifetimes. [DONE IT - morality ed.]
Over to you, Richard Williams:“So what, in the final analysis, do we make of this strange little man - this combination of genius and pushy creep, of giant and gnome, of aesthete and pugilist? We can point to the personal demons which drove him through the early years and which now, quite clearly, won’t let him rest. Success has never brought him what he must have expected: the world’s unalloyed adulation. Always, he’s wanted more, and winning has often involved rudeness and ugly scenes (both justified and gratuitous) and the consequent unkind comment. Yet, he can also be the kindest, most thoughtful of men […].
To today’s kids, he means little or nothing. They can’t be expected to find interest in the fact that some of their heroes (Roy Wood for example) are living off Spector’s innovations of ten years before. Even those who grew up with his music often dismiss him, these days, as an Icarus in a world of Boeings. They, surely, are the ones who never mainlined on the spirit of his records, or prefer to forget their debts.
Perhaps his ‘accident’ is a sham, as some allege; maybe it’s another retreat, a response to Veronica’s show of independence, or in preparation for future work on his new label. More probably, it’s for real. Whatever the truth, on his eventual return he’ll be in the position of having to prove himself once again - a blatant and enduring absurdity in view of his achievements in the Sixties. Yes, as somebody once said in reference to teenage tycoons, but what about the fifty years before you die? Living in his Bel Air mansion, surrounded by monogrammed everything and pictures of himself covering the walls, Spector has yet to find an adequate resolution.- Richard Williams Long Ditton, April 14, 1974”
What’s remarkable, I think, is that that summation remained entirely valid (give or take a Roy Wood reference) for nearly thirty years after Mr Williams banged it out and signed off his manuscript. Then, Phil’s addled brain and shaking fingers finally delivered the long-delayed resolution, much to the world’s chagrin.
Seeing ‘Pop Producer Jailed For Murder Dies Aged 81’ sink like a stone down the BBC top stories yesterday, nowhere to be seen 12 hours later, constitutes his sad reward.
“..an Icarus in a world of Boeings..”
Lest we forget:
Thursday, January 14, 2021
To begin by stating the bleedin’ obvious though, the ways in which I engage with music have changed considerably during 2020.
To rewind a bit, let's just say that, over the past five years or so, I’ve found my listening splitting itself neatly into two distinct streams. Firstly, there’s more frenetic punk, metal and rock stuff, along with whatever song-based indie stuff still persists in my diet, which I listen to on earphones whilst out and about, travelling to or from work, or traversing the city for one reason or another. And secondly, there’s slower, more relaxing, texture-based, droney or repetitive music, which I listen to at home on the nice speakers.
Needless to say then, the pandemic has had the effect of largely eliminating the life circumstances which allowed me to enjoy the first of those two categories. As a result, whilst I have still discovered and enjoyed plenty of frenetic and/or song-based rock music during 2020, it’s fair to say that I have spent less time listening to it than at any point in my adult life to date, and the stuff which has ended up on my Best Records list reflects this.
Conversely however, nine months of working-from-home have meant that I have been listening to a hell of a lot more music whilst at home, and, significantly, this listening has increasingly been taking place whilst I’ve not necessarily been relaxing and/or exhausted.
Previously I should note, I never listened to music whilst working - partly because I’ve always been operating under threat of interruption from phonecalls or human interaction whilst in the office, and partly because I’ve never wanted to end up associating the music I love with sitting in a strip-light illuminated open plan room, filling in spreadsheets.
Working-from-home though, sitting there with no immediate distractions, turntable right next to me and a ton of crap to plough through…. well of course I’m going to play some records! And, it’s been pretty great to be honest - my ears have been getting a hell of a work-out, if nothing else.
Like it or not though of course, music conducive to working naturally tends to veer in certain directions. Toward tasteful, unobtrusive electronica, stretched out, groove-based stuff of one kind or another, low key, upbeat jazz and funk…. you get the idea. Precisely the kind of stuff, in other words, which my angry, teeth-grinding teenage self would have derided as bland, broadsheet-acceptable background pap. Yet here I am. I’m diggin’ it. ‘Selected Ambient Works’, Soul Jazz comps, Roy Ayers, Tony Allen and the two Four Tet albums I own have been in heavy rotation, as I finally begin to realise that all those refined, head-noddin’, CD-on-in-the-background grown ups I used to look down upon weren’t really malign, self-satisfied cultural homogenisers. They were probably just BUSY.
Anyway, needless to say, this change in circumstances has dove-tailed nicely with my renewed engagement with contemporary jazz, many of proponents of which happen to be based in the UK and able to post records to me without much difficulty. Something about the combo of rhythmic drive, cerebral atmos, varied textures and abstract, instrumental beauty offered by jazz of all stripes allows it to function as a perfect counterpoint to ploughing through a desk job, and this is reflected by its prominence on the multi-part list which follows.
Yes, multi-part list. For, as you will have noted, the blighted year of 2020 has actually proved so astonishingly rich in great new music - at least from my own personal POV - that I will be present the world with a Stereo Sanctity TOP FORTY, for the first time since the misbegotten / hazily recalled ‘glory days’ of 2010/11-ish.
As ever, the placing of items on this list is largely arbitrary. If it’s on here, that means I really liked it, simple as that.
In addition to all the jazz, I think 2020 also ended up being a bit of a banner year for releases within the UK’s psyche/noise rock scene, even as its proponents were perversely prevented from flogging their wares in that music’s natural environment of sweaty, unventilated rooms for the duration. I predict a distinct lull forthcoming in this regard as we hit the inevitable period in which archives have been emptied and bands not yet able to fully reconvene in aforementioned rooms to assemble new material, so - let’s enjoy it while we can, that’s my advice.
This strand is strongly represented on the first instalment of the big list below, beginning with a triple header or precisely this sort of thing. As other commentators have noted, assessing and commenting on some of these records without distant shards of their amp damage ringing in my ears feels strange. But, nonetheless, the racket abides.
Splendidly OTT stuff from this UK psyche-noise super-group led by Luminous Bodies’ Tracy Bellaries. Back in September I ventured to observe:
“With three guitar raging, creeping and blaring through the mix around the central driveshaft of Bellaries’ bass and Cleaver’s drums, together with Ghold’s Alex Wilson going completely off his nut on tonsil-gargling/dying vampire vocals and more effects than you can shake a stick at on everything, it sounds as if all concerned are having a veritable whale of a time here, somehow emerging with a sound both ridiculously excessive and totally solid. The most riotous, undemandingly fun set of UK underground rock gear I’ve heard in an age, this comes hugely recommended.”
Veterans of years-worth of exhilaratingly anarchic (if unconscionably sticky) live performances, up to this point Sly & The Family Drone had yet to really surpass their jokily-named origins when it came to the field of recorded music. Perfect timing then that they’ve ended up finally making the transition to credible recording artistes during a year which saw the very concept of live music effectively annihilated.
Initially based around a core of free-form, pedal-based electronics (with everyone’s mic outputs seemingly filtered through everyone else’s boxes), The Family Drone’s arsenal has expanded over the years to include polyphonous, crashing drums and honking, elephantine brass, and it these elements which tend to predominate on ‘Walk It Dry’. Cutting the band’s oft-exhausting marathon jams down to a series of sub-five minute ‘pieces’ also works extremely well here, allowing for a greater variety of atmospheres and instrumental set ups to get a look-in, whilst keeping listener attention spans ticking over nicely.
As in the group’s live shows, menacing/bowel-quaking Throbbing Gristle-ish industrial shrieks and rumbles find themselves perversely infused with an infectious sense of child-like, saucepan-banging fun, without a trace of grim-dark mopery in sight. Which is great, especially with the reverb-drenched, metal-oid percussion throws in a bakery’s-worth of rolls and a baritone sax or tuba (or something) thundering away Mats Gustafson-style like a wild boar digging for truffles. Splendid stuff, which I can now enjoy it in the comfort of my own home without getting doused in second hand bottled ale or harangued by flabby, naked men - which, personally speaking, I count as a major plus, even after ten months of hermetic isolation.
Though the band members themselves would presumably beg to differ, Casual Nun’s existence thus far seems to me to have comprised a series of scorched earth skirmishes between the band’s rockist and experimental tendencies (always a fascinating struggle to witness, cf: ‘80s Sonic Youth). For better or for worse, the former seems to be very much in the ascendant here, with nine tracks squeezed into a lean thirty two minutes, as a ragin’, roided-up noise-rock vibe predominates for the most part, anchored in urban anxiety with repurposed Motorhead riffs and a GBH-worthy punkoid stomp from the rhythm section, leaving only the heavy warp of pedal-grue applied to vocals and guitar alike to really speak to the band’s ostensible psychedelic MO.
Don’t speak too soon though! Midway through, the experimental faction regroup, allowing the record to slide into a central valley of monged out weirdness, with a more reflective, drum machine-trudging’ burned out mope (Pink Celestial Herons), leading into a beatless swathe of blissed out, fuzz-trailing ambience recalling the kind of thing electric guitarists usually come up with when asked to record something ‘desert-y’ (‘Pana, Tejas’), before ‘Rabbits’ brings us a skit-like bit of way out nonsense involving creepy, childlike narration and murky, free-form shards of noise. ‘Heavy Liquid’ (Stooges or Paul Pope inspired?) proves the wildest outlier however, diverging from a reassuringly straight up opening riff and sinking instead into a deconstructed murk of frog-marching, time-keepin’ rhythm and distant, discombobulated vocals hysterics, stretching our patience until the band eventually return to core rock-pleasure-principle biz, momentarily dropping into about twenty seconds of Pigs x7-like stomp at the end - a notion which happily remains central to the remainder of the album. The closing Greek language ‘Φυλαχτό’ proves especially effective in this regard, with a crushing melange of snare-on-every-beat stomp and shrieking, Vest-ish wah-wah combining to pummel those ol’ experimental tendencies into submission just so.
From June: “Heavy duty, oxygen-sucking, cosmic / cloud level Popal Vuh-esque drone-work here from Austria-based American guitarist Eric Arn (Primordial Undermind) and British cellist Jasmine Pender (Rotten Bliss). First cut is perfect for witnessing a pale sun rise across a planetery curve as one falls into the orbit of a frozen, featureless gas giant, or so I should imagine, whilst the second explores more tense, noisy and recognisably instrument-y angles on the same kind of weightless inertia. It’s good, in other words.”
I’ve been meaning to dig into the work of the temptingly named Promoridal Undermind andor Rotten Bliss ever since I wrote that six months ago, but time just hasn’t allowed. For no though, this remains a pretty killer piece of aural stasis. Maybe later this year?
Ok, so, first off, please don’t let the cover artwork put you off this one. I mean, yeah… I don’t know what’s going on with it to be perfectly honest, but rest assured, it does not really reflect the agreeably no nonsense cartoon-ish heavy metal found within.
I’m sure there must have been dozens of bands named “Midnight” over the years, so, for the avoidance of confusion, this one is seemingly a one-man metal outfit operating out of Columbus, Ohio.
With the background thus established, I’ll make things easier for you by going a bit “choose your own adventure” with the remainder of this write-up (a suitably METAL reference point, right?), leaving you to pick your preferred pithy summation of Midnight’s MO from the following:
a) Imagine if Venom had valued musicality over theatricality, and had put a bit more effort into tight playing and achieving a cool recorded sound (albeit, one rendered on a four-track in somebody’s basement).
b) Imagine if the progenitors of ‘90s Norwegian black metal, rather than growing up to be a bunch of shady, questionable-belief-system-incubating misanthropes lording it over one of the most preposterously myopic and tedious sub-genres in rock history, had instead been content to go on presenting themselves as easy-going, beer-swilling dudes who dig stupid, fast music and pretend to worship Satan because it’s funny.
c) Midnight is the metal what The Spits are to punk.
Choose your path, adventurer! Whatever happens, you’ll likely get clobbered by a rat-ogre as songs with names like ‘Devil’s Excrement’ or ‘Fucking Speed and Darkness’ blare, but that’s life, right?
Also from June: “Seemingly demonstrating that you can take the boys out of the Pond, but can’t dry ‘em off no matter how hard you try, this collaboration between Bardo Pond guitarists the Gibbons Bros and a drummer named Scott Verrastro finds the trio initially tip-toeing around each other with a few minutes of uncertain, questioning abstraction, before they apparently make eye contact, exchange shrugs and lock into exactly the kind of stoned, heavy-weight-on-butterfly-wings grandeur which has helped cement the brothers’ main band’s ‘90s output as such an indelible and insurmountable cornerstone of modern heavy psyche.
Although the sound is necessary somewhat stripped back here, I’ve not heard these guys tap into this particular sweetest of sweet spots for some years now, making their decision to break out the big spoons and just dig in across the majority of this three track release feel like a slo-mo, fungoid sugar rush of purest delight.”
Always nice to hit a bandcamp ‘play’ button and find yourself thinking, “what the holy hell is THIS?”, isn’t it?
Sounding like some long lost cry of confusion dredged up from some dark, primordial burrow adjacent to the furthest outpost of the UK’s ‘70s freak-rock underground, the two songs presented here - apparently the work of one Shane Horgan and collaborators - mix croaking, rather disturbing acid casualty vocals with lumbering, ‘Come As You Are’-style chorus pedal bass lines, looming thunder clouds, Simon House-era Hawkwind synths and a lugubrious, proto-doom rhythmic swing, enhanced by atmospheric, echo-drenched Link Wray power chords and patches of frazzled, weirdly melodic guitar heroics.
For my purposes at least, the results sound utterly out of time, and pretty f-ing epic, in a mad kind of way; troubling psychedelic grue from the dark heart of nowhere. I’d throw out an appeal for more of the same, but actually, wouldn’t I prefer it if this thing just remained an uncouth, one-off mystery lurking deep ‘neath the surface of my iTunes? Probably.
From darkest April: “Pure, third-eye blasting maximalist fields of bliss straight out of the American south, conjured forth via a 12 string acoustic, hammered dulcimer and some (fairly minimal) percussion, with nary an amp nor pedal in sight. Swings open those bead curtains into blinding sunlight just like I like this stuff to. Pretty magnificent. Sitting comfortably alongside such aforementioned-in-the-pages acts as Woven Skull, Sarah Louise, Sally Anne Morgan & Kryssi B., Elkhorn etc, there seems to be a fresh strain of rustic-minded, pure psyche brilliance starting to bubble up from the Trump-bedevilled underground which needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. Children of Pelt rejoice!”
Damn, what was I on. Still sounds nice, anyway.
For a white-skinned person who lives in Nottingham to style himself as ‘Dusty Bible’ and begin playing ‘the blues’ without also assuming the mantle of being an unbearable tosser, is quite an achievement. For said person to actually end up making some great, resolutely unpretentious, music is little short of a miracle. As the evidence presented on this dredged-up-from-the-archives live album (the first of two of this year’s list taped at Notts’ estimable J.T. Soar) ably proves however, canonisation should be a shoe-in for this particular old boy.
Ably backed up by a pair of blatantly non-Canadian Canadians (including Grey Hairs guitarist / Notts legend Chris Summerlin on bass), Mr Bible clearly draws heavily from the loose, overdriven punkoid swagger of Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers (no coincidence perhaps that it was the blog of the aforementioned Mr Summerlin which first hepped me to those guys way back when). By largely eschewing the slide in favour of more straight up, knotty pickin’ however, and by letting his combo’s obvious background in avant/ post-hardcore type rock creep in around the edges, Dusty & co actually end up hitting on a style which sometimes uncannily recalls that of early ‘70s Mancunian thugs Stackwaddy.
As regular readers / mix CD listeners will be aware, there are few higher recommendations than that from my POV, so, even as DB & The Cs (if you will) proceed to cook up a denser, more tangled power trio-type racket across these cuts than the ‘Waddy ever managed to get on tape, complete with a few touches of Groundhogsy spikery and ZZ Top muscle, those looking to enjoy a more contemporary take on the kind of testosterone-fuelled ur-rock carnage they represented, made by men who (one hopes) have never resorted to threatening Black Sabbath roadies with tyre irons or throwing band members out of moving vans, are nonetheless encouraged to take note.
Also - closes out with the best version of Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’ ever. Best one in my collection anyway, I’ve checked. And that includes about half a dozen by the man himself, so…
The ‘Welsh Triangle’ UFO flap of the late 1970s, around which the music on this album is based, is of particular interest to me, as I grew up in the area in which these alleged events took place, just a few years after the fact.
Did you know, I even saw a UFO once, when I was a small child? No kidding. I got out of bed super-early one Saturday morning, ran downstairs to watch the cartoons on TV, and there it was - hovering over the farmers’ fields opposite our house like some kind of steel-plated steampunk balloon type thing. Of course, by the time my parents got up a few hours later, it had gone, and they told me to shut up and stop making a fuss, and that was the end of that. But I know I saw it.
Anyway. Be that as it may, the idea of something so utterly outlandish arising from and/or descending into a landscape which, to me at least, seems so prosaic and familiar, is inherently fascinating to me, whilst the geographically specific track titles (‘Stack Rocks Humanoid Display’, ‘Beneath RAF Brawdy’) and samples from contemporary news reports which Nick Scrivin, aka The Night Monitor, filters through his work here, seem especially eerie.
Would Scrivin’s menacing aural question marks of hermetic analogue synth retromancy play quite so potently for a listener unencumbered by such interests and associations? I’d like to think so. This stuff is pretty good! And, whilst the innovation of tying these hauntology-friendly conjurations to paranormal events which took place in the UK during the 1970s may seem like a staggeringly obvious strategy (The Night Monitor’s other extant album concerns “the 1977 Enfield Poltergeist case”), that doesn’t make it any less aesthetically appealing, from my POV at the very least.---
To be continued…
Labels: best of 2020, Casual Nun, Curanderos, Dusty Bible & The Canadians, Eric Arn & Jasmine Pender, Gerycz / Powers / Rolin, Midnight, Mummise Guns, Sly & The Family Drone, The Night Monitor, Wolfen
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