Wednesday, November 28, 2012

emeralds: just to feel anything (editions mego)

Emeralds are doubly anachronistic. It’s not just that they’re retro. They aren’t even retro in a particularly contemporary way. With vaporwave, 2012 saw the culmination of a logic that had partly begun in the mid noughties with hauntology and hypnagogic pop. Ariel Pink, Burial, Oneohtrix Point Never, James Ferraro, Ghost Box, Not Not Fun. This sort of music always had a certain “aboutness” to it. Burial wasn’t reproducing rave; he was mourning it. Ariel Pink wasn’t just resurrecting the pop of yesteryear; he was remembering it. On “Artifact” from 2005’s tellingly entitled Worn Copy, he sings through a fog of hypnagogic fuzz “Never forget the Golden Age… This is an artifact of that.” Both lyrically and sonically, this was music about other music. And that was a large part of what made it interesting.

This was the logic that vaporwave took up this year and radicalized. In doing so, it introduced a different regime of art-practice to the musical avant-underground: the readymade. Unlike seapunk with which it was regularly and erroneously lumped, vaporwave was always more than just a “sound,” a shared archive or set of production techniques. At its most radical, what it did was interrupt the logic of modernism. By dramatically foregrounding the act of appropriation, precisely by refusing to be “original” in the conventional sense of the term, it made the listening experience all about that original; maybe even about the discourse of originality itself. Either way, it seemed to be adopting some sort of critical position. And the impossibility of ever determining once and for all whether this amounted to endorsement or disavowal was a crucial part of the intrigue.

In other words, vaporwave did for music what Duchamp, Warhol, and Koons had done before in visual art. But it also did something else, something more. Vaporwave wasn’t simply derivative of a familiar logic; it extended and deepened it. In its musicality, its sonority, vaporwave had a fleshiness, a sensuality to it that even the biggest, brightest Koons never managed. Vaporwave was always more than just a conceptual gesture, in other words, a mere staging of the undecidability of the critical task. It enfolded you in the experience of that undecidability, held you in it, really forced you to feel it: to notice your attention coming in and out of focus as the album unfolded, at turns indifferent, the sound just washing over you, genuinely compelled and occasionally, yes, disgusted.

Emeralds’ relationship with the past is of a different brand entirely. What’s more, after vaporwave, it feels outdated and, to these ears anyway, uninteresting. Having originally made a name for themselves as a drone outfit, Emeralds officially “crossed over” with 2010’s Does It Look Like I’m Here (TMT Review). For the first time, there were melodies, song structures, and a distinctly “pop” sensibility to add to the neo-kosmiche new age vibes. Mark McGuire’s guitar noodlings took a distinctly proggy turn, and it all started to sound a lot like mid-to late-70s Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching. These weren’t exactly slavish recreations. It was as if Emeralds had simply decided to pick up and continue to explore a genre that had last touched base with the zeitgeist some 30 or so years previously.

Nothing has changed on their most recent outing.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

ital: dream on (planet mu)

If you’d asked me a year ago which artists best exemplified the state of the contemporary avant-underground, I’d have said Daniel Lopatin and James Ferraro, and left it that. No doubt about it. Today, I’d want to add Daniel Martin-McCormick to the list. 

While mainstream pop is busy converging on a single mutant mega-genre — euro-dance, feat. R&B, feat. hip-hop, feat. rock, feat. euro-dance, feat. R&B — elsewhere the name of the game is radical eclecticism and artistic self-difference. Multiple projects and personae. #keeponmoving @changenotevolution. N E V E R S E T T L E. And the attitude always seems very deliberate, studied. The musical sensibility I’m getting at here always seems to have an agenda. This is the era of the concept musician, the PhDJ and their necessary foil the academicritic.

Look how perfectly Daniel Martin-McCormick fits this bill. He first made a name for himself between 2001 and 2004, releasing two excellent records with the post-hardcore turned free-improv and general freakout five-piece Black Eyes. After that, his next project was Mi Ami. Initially Mi Ami did post-punk, though with more than a passing interest in dub. But by 2011’s Dolphins, the group had discarded the paraphernalia of rock entirely, trading in their guitars for “ancient drum machines, a sampler that runs on floppy disks, and the simplest keyboard presets imaginable” (TMT Review). The result was a kind of dystopic, ultra lo-fi electro-pop that, although it was clearly indebted to old-school house and disco, nevertheless wore its own lack of roots in the dance tradition firmly on its sleeve. And if this were true sonically, it was even more obvious visually. When Mi Ami made the shift to Not Not Fun offshoot 100% Silk for their most recent effort Decade, it made perfect sense.

In fact, Martin-McCormick’s association with Not Not Fun had already been established for some time as Sex Worker, probably his weirdest project to date (which is saying something). And when the Ital moniker emerged in 2011 on a series of EPs for 100% Silk, there were mumblings right from the very start that maybe this was an artist we’d heard from before. If it was hard to tell, that’s because this was the first time Martin-McCormick had abandoned his trademark squawk, hitherto the only continuity between the various projects. Moreover, this wasn’t just a surface level difference. It signaled that for the first time Martin-McCormick might be interested in making straight-ahead dance music rather than some sort of semi-ironic commentary on it. Not “hipster house,” just house. And by 2012, he had duly made the move to the estimable Brighton-based electronic label Planet Mu.

In another era, that’s probably where this brief synopsis would have ended. In 2012, it’d be wrong of me not to mention Martin-McCormick’s regular (and high-quality) output as a critic for Dusted magazine as well. Look at the records he’s reviewing. Look at his favorites of 2010 and 2011. This is a guy who’s not just listening to but theorizing exactly the same stuff we are. Which is to say E V E R Y T H I N G: noise, dubstep, techno, punk, footwork, hip-hop, African disco, reggae, Colin Stetson, Matthew Herbert, Cooly G, Laurel Halo, Hype Williams, and plenty of Oneohtrix Point Never. And it’s fascinating to notice, for instance, that Martin-McCormick reviewed Planet Mu’s superb original Bangs & Works compilation shortly before signing to the label and suddenly injecting a heavy dose of footwork into his own sound. The result, “Doesn’t Matter (If You Love Him)” from February’s formidable Hive Mind (TMT Review) is for my money one of the standout tracks of 2012. The fact that “Privacy Settings” follows only two tracks later is testament both to the depth of Martin-McCormick’s talent and to the breadth of his artistic vision. “Privacy Settings” offers four of the darkest, most unsettling minutes you’re ever likely to experience. Footwork this ain’t.

It’s this diversity that makes Martin-McCormick such a tantalizing proposition. You get the sense that anything goes with him; that’s he totally unalloyed to genre; that he could go anywhere or do anything next; that none of the rules apply except when he wants them to, except when he’s deliberately invoking and exploiting them; that having already tried his hand at punk, noise, and improv — and admirably so — on his next album he might simply abandon electronica entirely and move on again.

He didn’t. Not this time at least...

head here for the rest of the review.

and i did a bit of an artist focus on dmm on my radio show here if you fancy some high quality listening

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

sun araw: the inner treaty (drag city)

He’s certainly not the only one, but Cameron Stallone really likes to fuck with time. Sonically, the woozy THC-addled reggae-psych underwater space jams1 he makes as Sun Araw never quite go anywhere. Then again, they never quite stay still either. The effect is one of transit without arrival. Ebb, flow, cycle, and return. Tracks have a tendency to merge into each other. On and on and on and on. Swelling bass lines, bubbling percussion, flabby synth stabs, languid guitars. And all of a sudden the record’s over, the silence startling after all that timeless fog.

Stallone is an artist for whom the term hypnagogia has always felt particularly appropriate. And I mean that in the strictest sense of the word. Sun Araw’s music is “presomnal.” It’s located precisely at that point between sleep and wakefulness when sensations get simultaneously drawn out and suspended.

Then there’s all the talk of the ancients, mythology, “neo-primitive vibes,” Stallone’s encrypted references to his musical idols. Not only does the music fuck with your sense of time as you experience it, it’s in constant and self-conscious conversation with its own history too. Even though this latest record, The Inner Treaty, has been released by Drag City, the long-standing association with Not Not Fun makes total sense in this respect. Sun Araw’s music always feels totally idiosyncratic to me. I couldn’t imagine ever mistaking it for anyone else. But it situates itself firmly in that interzone between then and now. Time out of joint.

It’s an attitude — an ethos actually — best exemplified on Stallone’s extraordinary collaboration Icon Give Thank with 70s reggae legends The Congos and fellow L.A. resident M Geddes Gengres from earlier this year. Honestly, my ears are still ringing with the utter blessedness of it. Sunshine. A ray of joyous reverberant light. The record brought together three very different perspectives on dub history, two from one end and one from the other, and the combined effect was magic. In 2012, not a helluva lot has sounded better. Testament to the fact that innovation does not always need to mean the unceremonious discarding of what has come before. Retrospection, not Retromania. A healthy kind of respect for the past without being beholden to it...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

a vaporwave primer

Monday night was the fourth edition of a semi-regular music criticism segment I do with Nick Croggon on my radio show at Melbourne's PBS 106.7fm. The topic was Vaporwave. Our intention was to provide a bit of a primer of the nascent / already fading micro-genre. As we point out in our chat, it's a genre that seems to have a particularly intimate relationship with critique, almost needs or depends on it in fact. So it seemed liked a particularly suitable topic for the segment. You can stream the audio back here. The playlist is below. But I thought it might be worth including some other relevant links here too. 




- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Software | Island Sunrise | Digital Dance (1988)

James Ferraro | Linden Dollars | Far Side Virtual
Oneohtrix Point Never | Nassau | Replica
Chuck Person | Eccojam A1 | Chuck Person's Eccojams Vol.1

Computer Dreams | track 2 | Silk Road
Laserdisc Visions | Malls | New Dreams Ltd.
new dreams ltd initiation tape | meditations save me o lord | part one
Laserdisc Visions | Information | New Dreams Ltd.
情報デスクVIRTUAL | XX ''RUBY DUSK ON A 2ND LIFE NUDE BEACH'' ☯ . . . の生活・・・「ロベルタ」 | 札幌コンテンポラリー

Mediafired | cinderellas-big-score | The Pathway Through Whatever

Fatima Al Qadiri | Vatican Vibes | Genre-Specific Xperience

Macintosh Plus | 壊れた | Floral Shoppe (bonus edition)

Wakesleep |To Anyone | Unreleased
Bee Mask | Unripe Pears | When We Were Eating Unripe Pears
Kane Ikin | Rhea | Sublunar
Emanuele De Raymondi | BV1 | Buyukberber Variations

Emanuele De Raymondi | BV4 | Buyukberber Variations

Thursday, October 11, 2012

datavis + forgotten light: prism projector (hexagon)

This is both an obituary and a baptism.

Vaporwave will turn out to have been a blip: less a genre than a methodological and conceptual gesture pursued briefly but vigorously by a number of highly prolific artists inspired by Daniel Lopatin and James Ferraro. Although it was already beginning to emerge from bedrooms/internet connections in 2011, vaporwave will have registered in the critical consciousness for only about six months, between mid 2012 and the start of 2013. And even then only in a few dark corners of the web. And then it will have vanished, its practitioners and theorists moved on to new projects, different gestures, unrelated sounds.

What’s more, there will be exceptionally little to show for it. Vaporwave will have yielded hardly any physical releases and will barely ever have been heard “live.” Apart from a bunch of MP3s, almost all of which will have been exchanged “for free” (that is, their interaction with the market will have been limited to the $$s vicariously donated to ISPs and Apple), vaporwave will have left very little mark on the world. Not just that. In 10 years’ time, virtually no one will still listen to it.

Nevertheless, vaporwave will have been important. And it will have been important because this sort of story will become ever increasingly familiar in the musical avant-garde as the decade continues. A method will be pursued, a “concept” interrogated, intensely and repeatedly, but no sooner has it been around for long enough to seem to coalesce into a genre than it will be discarded. Monikers will proliferate. Sometimes it will be possible to establish continuities between them. Often not. Lopatin and Ferraro will be gods. The only constancy according to this new model will be change. Which is not necessarily to say evolution. Evolution will have been for the Rockists. 
Prism Projector, a split cassette between Datavis and Forgotten Light, is not vaporwave, but it is crucial to understanding both how vaporwave’s practitioners work and what will become of them. Datavis is Will Burnett. Is INTERNET CLUB. Is ECCO UNLIMITED. Which is to say, one of vaporwave’s major exponents. And Forgotten Light is Leonce Nelson. Which is to say Geotherm. And La Mer. And, with Burnett, one half of Datavision Ltd. Together, the two (nine?) of them run Hexagon Recordings
What’s so interesting about this record, what makes it so pertinent in relation to my argument above, is the fact that it could hardly sound any less like vaporwave if it tried. It’s a pretty standard drone record actually...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

flying lotus: until the quiet comes (warp)

Listen again to the opening seconds of Cosmogramma. Now do the same with “All In,” the opening track of Until the Quiet Comes, Steven Ellison’s fourth record now as Flying Lotus. Everything you need to know about the difference between these two records is contained there, each album’s essence potently distilled. If you like what you hear in the latter case, well then good for you. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to reserve my right to be seriously disappointed.

Because Until the Quiet Comes is the negation of everything that made Cosmogramma great. It is relentlessly beige. It is “mature.” It is a chai latte. It is loungetronica. It is David Sanborn. It is Nora Jones. It is über proficient. It is no longer the sound of the future. In its obstinate blandness, it is a surprisingly arduous listen even though it only lasts 45 minutes. It is coming straight from Warp to a cocktail bar near you and, soon after that, a Starbucks. It is the sound of an artist in retreat from the shadow of his own success.

What’s more, Ellison knows all of this. Because that was exactly his intention. Here he is in an interview with Britt Brown in the most recent issue of The Wire: “I like the idea of pulling back,” he says. “I made this really grandiose kind of statement, now I wanted to make this quiet statement, trim all the fat and just get a small, tight story out of it, instead of trying to tell the story of the birth of the universe.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

internet club: vanishing vision (hexagon)

Here’s what we know. Vaporwave is a form of appropriation art. Its major exponents — INTERNET CLUB, New Dreams Ltd., Computer Dreams, Lasership Stereo,VΞRACOM — all tend to work with glossy corporate mood music, dredged from the nether regions of the internet, which they then reframe (sometimes obviously looped, pitched, and screwed; sometimes not) in an intriguingly ambivalent gesture between endorsement and critique. Sometimes the effect is genuinely sublime. Often it remains vacant and grotesque. But in either case, the act of repetition and recontextualization produces an ontological shift: what started off sounding a hell of a lot like muzak turns out to be about it instead. The banal is imbued with a kind of ironic distance, and it is this distance that gives vaporwave its peculiar critical function: its “aboutness.”

That’s step one. In step two, vaporwave isn’t just “about” muzak or the acoustic experience of capital. It doesn’t just stage a moment of either approval or condemnation. In step two, what vaporwave is “about” is precisely the impossibility of the critical task itself. What it stages is the profound ambiguity of the music it takes as its source material: that moment when you catch yourself humming along to a pan-pipe cover of Billie Jean as you wait to be connected to the call center, and, to your horror, you notice your own pleasure. In one of the first pieces to attempt to theorize the genre, Adam Harper wondered whether vaporwave involved “a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it?” His answer: “Both and neither.” Undecidable.

In this respect, vaporwave is doing nothing more than dramatizing a logic that we have already seen play out in reverse. It is the product of a culture, in other words, in which the music/muzak distinction has already collapsed. It was as long ago as 1984 that the Muzak corporation first started using original artists’ material to lubricate the exchange of capital. Since then, it hasn’t looked back. Today, it offers “multi-sensory branding solutions” for everything from retail outlets to restaurants, healthcare, and finance. Muzak’s website trumpets the fact that the corporation experienced “unprecedented growth in the first decade of the new millennium.” From a catalogue of nearly three million songs, “more than 100 million people hear Muzak programs each day.” The “indie electronic” playlist, for instance, offers a diverse daily diet of “electronic-based music drawing from house, techno, IDM, indie pop, downtempo and other styles from the club and lounge scene.” “Artists include: Fever Ray, Cut Copy, Junior Boys, Matthew Dear.” The Pop Underground hasn’t been underground for a long time now. Today, it’s simply the soundtrack to a different kind of shopping experience.

One way of thinking about vaporwave then is as a response to the death of canned music: an act of mourning as much as celebration, and a dramatic demonstration of the fact that the music/muzak distinction has always been unstable at a time when it’s less stable than ever before.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

YYU: TIMETIMETIME&TIME (beer on the rug)

Beer on the Rug is one of the most interesting labels to have emerged in the last year or so. Early releases from the likes of World Series, The Arcade Junkies, Midnight Television, and (a little later) Boy Snacks were all in that Ariel Pink, James Ferraro circa Night Dolls With Hairspray region of ultra lo-fi hypnagogia. But the next wave of output, beginning with Laserdisc Visions’ New Dreams Ltd. in July 2011 and continuing on with albums from Napolian and Computer Dreams, Macintosh Plus, and, most recently, 情報デスクVIRTUAL took the label into different territory entirely. All of a sudden, there was less emphasis on grime and far more on gloss.

Where hypnagogic pop was concerned with hazy and degraded re-productions of and odes to vintage pop, this new breed of artists — while still looking to the past for their raw material — seemed to be far more interested in re-using and re-purposing: re-branding, to use an appropriately corporate term, the sonic lubricant of commerce for the purposes of the musical underground. An act of appropriation and recontextualization. Sometimes the raw material is looped, restructured, pitch- and/or tempo-shifted. But sometimes it can be virtually impossible to detect the presence of the artist at all. And the effect is an intriguingly ambivalent gesture somewhere between valorization and critique.

The term being bandied around for this stuff is vaporwave. It’s by no means limited to Beer on the Rug, but the label is certainly a major hub for it. It’s these artists, most of all, who have brought the label attention. And as a result, I really wasn’t expecting their latest release, TIMETIMETIME&TIME by Californian artist Ben Straus a.k.a. YYU to sound like this.

various artists: new weird australia / fallopian tunes: gloss & moss (nwa)

Ours is a curator culture. That’s pretty clear by this point. Everyone’s doing it: not just galleries, festivals, labels, and websites like this one but, most of all, you, your sis, and the guy/gal behind this little doozy: on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Spotify, Pinterest, and all their myriad siblings and offshoots. Confronted by the information ocean, taste is the hottest commodity around. Presumably that’s why the activity of curation is increasingly being outsourced to mathematics too? Algorithms mean $$, people! YouTube and Amazon are the paradigms here. It’s all about getting ‘relevant content’ into that sidebar. Hells yeah I like catz! And I think I’ll have that new Sound Studies Reader while I’m at it.

Not everyone’s comfortable about such developments, of course. This recent piece on Pinterest and the curatorial manufacture of desire (I’m paraphrasing!) includes the following little screed from Choire Sicha, co-editor of The Awl: “As a former actual curator, of like, actual art and whatnot,” he writes, “I think I’m fairly well positioned to say that you folks with your blog and your Tumblr and your whatever are not actually engaged in a practice of curation. Call it what you like: aggregating? Blogging? Choosing? Copyright infringing sometimes? But it’s not actually curation, or anything like it…” Ironic really, given The Awl’s own mission statement: “We believe that there is a great big Internet out there on which we all live, and that too often the curios and oddities of that Internet are ignored in favor of the most obvious and easy stories. We believe that there is an audience of intelligent readers who are poorly served by being delivered those same stories in numbing repetition to the detriment of their reading diet.”

Sicha can put the curator on a pedestal all he likes, enforcing this supposed distinction between “actual curators, of like, actual art and whatnot” and the rest, but the fact remains: The difference between such activities will always be one of degree rather than type. Etymologically, the word ‘curator’ derives from the Latin curare, meaning to ‘oversee’ or ‘care for.’ Curation is fundamentally an act of gathering, on the one hand, and of love, on the other — whatever the scale, whatever the format.
But curation is always also creation. It’s just that what’s being created here isn’t ‘content’ so much as connections. Connections matter. A compilation like this one, for instance — jointly curated by Matthew Spisbah of Melbourne label and collective Fallopian Tunes as well as the band Yolke, and Stuart Buchanan, one of the founding members of Sydney’s independent radio-station FBi 94.5 and now of the increasingly formidable New Weird Australia — is the product of a whole series of prior curatorial and connective acts...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

galapagoose: commitments (magical properties / two bright lakes)

First the beat was dequantized: unsnapped from the tyranny of the grid. Then it was obliterated: broken down and denatured almost until the point of unrecognizability. In the former case, I’m thinking of course of UK dubstep, wonky et al. In the latter, mainly footwork and a recently emergent branch of “instrumental” hip-hop that, for the time being at least, remains nameless.

On second thought, perhaps that “instrumental” doesn’t belong in scare quotes after all. Because it’s not just the lack of vocals that characterizes this kind of music, but the use of the Monome, Roland SP-404, and other similarly tactile MIDI controllers and digital samplers. What these instruments do is allow for the reintroduction of a certain kind of mutant organicism into the production/performance process.

Not everyone’s interested, of course. For a lot of people, electronica still means precision. That’s true even of an MPC magician like AraabMuzik, I think. When I saw him play live recently, the music was so relentless, so utterly mind-and-body numbing in its regularity, that I found myself retreating into a side-room after only about 20 minutes: that was all I could take. But look at this. Or this. Artists like Melbourne’s Galapagoose, L.A.’s aaronmaxwell, and Brighton’s Warm Thighs have taken the sampler and used it to extricate hip-hop from the groove — or at least to drastically modify our relationship with it anyway. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

will guthrie: sticks, stones and broken bones (antboy)

I’m in awe of this record and in awe of the guy who made it. It dropped into my inbox one day a few months back with a view to giving it a spin on this radio show I do, and I was immediately impressed. The musicianship, the sheer muscular intelligence of Will Guthrie’s technique, the raw immediacy of 40 minutes spent engrossed with nothing but a man and his drums. It’s not just that the record’s good (and it is); the values it seemed to embody felt really unfamiliar and exciting to me as a result of the kind of soundworld I’ve been inhabiting recently.

Don’t get me wrong. I won’t be arguing the now infamous Julia Holter line that aesthetic merit is somehow commensurate with or proportional to artistic labour. We all know the virtues of the aleatoric, the ‘unskilled,’ the rough-around-the-edges. But I will say this: there is and always will be something impressive about technique — the beauty of chops hard-won, a body rigorously disciplined and spectacularly in tune with an obviously sharp mind. Give me a run-of-the-mill post-bop gig — keys, fingers, and sticks flailing, performers’ bodies lost to the propulsive groove, heavy breathing — any day of the week over its drone, minimalist or chillwave equivalent. Or at least for the time being anyway. A couple of months back, Sticks, Stones and Breaking Bones was exactly the record I needed...

And I'm excited to report that Will will be in the studio next week on my radio show on Melbourne's PBS 106.7fm spinning some of these tracks, along with a bunch of other current faves and influences.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

simon reynolds, retromania and the atemporality of contemporary 'pop'

At the end of last year I wrote a long-form review of Simon Reynolds' latest book Retromania. As well as observations on the book itself, the essay includes a consideration of how it fits relative to Reynolds' previous work as well as a bunch of his more recent writings on the web, in the pages of The Wire and elsewhere. 

The piece was published in hard copy a couple of months ago in the new and thoroughly excellent Melbourne-based arts journal Discipline. But it's just been released in soft-form too along with a bunch of other great essays from Issue 2. You can download it here.

If you're really keen, I'll be talking about the essay and other related topics with PC of mnml ssgs on Saturday June 30th at the TCB gallery in the city as part of Discipline and Other Sermons, a month of lectures and other Discipline related conversations. Things will apparently be kicking off around 3-ish. Live music to follow. Looking forward to it. Promises to be a fun time.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

metric: synthetica (mom and pop/MMI)

I feel like I need to justify even listening to this record, let alone spending enough time with it to venture a review. That’s interesting I think. It says something about me at the very least, but also, I suspect, about this website and the kind of listener it aspires to, their (your!) politics and prejudices.

My sense is that things would be different if Synthetica were a ‘purer’ kind of pop. Rowan Savage’s recent review of Saint Etienne’s latest record is a good example. Here is an album that is all about the deep pleasures of a certain kind of popular jouissance, whereby it’s precisely the sharing of the musical experience that matters most. Words and Music finds Saint Etienne both reflecting on and luxuriating in the power of pop. And we’re cool with that.

Metric? Less so. Because Metric — their sound, their look, their product endorsements — seem to embody so perfectly the twisted double-logic of the New Indie Rock: the adoption of an outsider’s perspective from safely within the inside; rebellion as the necessary gesture of a certain kind of totally sanitized rock conservatism. You know what I mean. It looks, sounds, and blogs a lot like Urban Outfitters… with over 400 retail locations worldwide and counting. Not only do Metric embody this logic, Synthetica is actually about it...

Monday, May 28, 2012

laurel halo: quarantine (hyperdub)

“A voice means this,” writes Italo Calvino in his gorgeous and insightful short story A King Listens: “There is a living person, throat, chest, feelings, who sends into the air this voice, different from all other voices.” And this is Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar in a similar vein in A Voice and Nothing More: “The existence of a voice,” he argues, “always implies a subjectivity.” Clearly neither of them spent much time talking to Siri.

Funny how we persist in drawing a line between the voice and a real flesh-and-blood human subject. In a recent interview with FACT magazine, Laurel Halo had this to say on her thought process in relation to the vocals on new record Quarantine.
I started out with a ton of echo and reverb on [them], but it sounded supremely boring to me, so I was curious how they’d sound dry in the arrangements and got rid of most of the wetness. It ended up creating this amazing contrast effect, the vocals slicing through the mix, giving rhythmic contour to the tracks that was previously missing in delay haze. It was tempting to use autotune but I decided against it because there’s this brutal, sensual ugliness in the vocals uncorrected, and painfully human vocals made sense for this record.
Painfully human. A living person. Throat, chest, feelings. Sensual, ugly, uncorrected. I know what Halo’s getting at. The vocals on Quarantine certainly “slice through the mix.” There really is a presence and intimacy to them, particularly on a track like “Light and Space.” And they do stand out as a feature of the record compared with the decomposed and nearly voiceless dance tracks of 2011’s Hour Logic. But even still, I’m not buying it. It’s not the ‘humanity’ that makes this record, but precisely its problematization. To these ears, everything about Quarantine sounds positively posthuman. And moreover, that’s a crucial part of what makes it special...


Read the rest here. And if you're interested in a primer to Laurel Halo's music, check out the most recent edition of my radio show Far Side Virtual.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

kwes: meantime ep (warp)

This is Kwes’ first solo release since crossing over from Young Turks to Warp at the end of last year. I’m struggling to wrap my head around why they wanted him. Okay, so for a guy still in his mid-twenties, he keeps some pretty impressive company. Production work for Damon Albarn and Speech Debelle, official remixes for The xx, The Invisible, and the Portico Quartet, and a genuinely decent couple of mixtapes with Micachu, including original guest vocals from the likes of Ghostpoet and Dels. There’s even an endorsement from Matthew Herbert to the guy’s name.

But Kwes’ first solo outing, the No Need to Run EP, was both extremely meager, clocking in at only just over 10 minutes, and emphatically bland. “In and Out UK” was the only track worth returning to for a second listen. On Meantime, we get to hear Kwes’ vocals for the first time — quiet, subdued, sincere, yet somehow never quite soulful — but the effect is similarly underwhelming. Think SBTRKT, only wetter.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

belbury poly: the belbury tales (ghost box)

I wol with lusty herte fressh and grene
Seyn yow a song, to glade yow, I wene,
And lat us stynte of ernestful matere.
Herkneth my song, that seith in this manere.
(Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales)

I’ve had The Belbury Tales, Jim Jupp’s fourth LP as Belbury Poly, a good couple of months now. I’ve listened to it more often and enjoyed it more completely than any other release so far in 2012. It’s an unusually satisfying record, actually. It just feels so much like the culmination of something, a kind of apotheosis, a near-perfect realization, after almost a decade, not just of Jupp’s own project, but that of his label, Ghost Box, too. And that’s just not something that happens very often. Hence, the satisfaction. Here’s my problem though: As endlessly rich and fascinating as this record is, it also feels totally over-determined from a critical perspective. The cold specter of Hauntology looms dauntingly large. There’s so much to say, yet so little that’s new...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

julia holter: ekstasis (rvng intl)

Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.
–‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’ by Alexander Pope (1735)

I agree. I ‘assent.’ Ekstasis is a lovely record. Bedroom pop that floats and swoons, it has a lightness to it at the same time as a real sense of seriousness and ambition. Pop(era). High and low: Academia and the Underground, Anne Carson and Ariel Pink, Mythos and Melody. On the one hand, Euripides, Sappho, Cage, concrète, cello, Chion, the conservatoire. On the other, synths, canned drums, ambient drones and supple tunes, Kate Bush, Enya, New Age, Nite Jewel, Not Not Fun.

Julia Holter makes celestial lo-fi with lofty, hi-fi aspirations. That is her appeal. That is the balancing act that she got so utterly right on 2011’s Tragedy, the record that catapulted her from the obscure netherworlds of art-school experimentalism (2008’s re-imagining of Cage’s ’___, ___ ___ circus on ___’ eventually released on CD-R as Cookbook and 2010’s collection of urban field-recordings Celebration) right into the center of the alt mainstream.

Ekstasis will surely cement her position there. It involves precisely the same double-logic as Tragedy, except with the exact opposite orientation. Where Tragedy was an overtly conceptual, experimental record with a pop flavor, Ekstasis is a pop record with a dash or three of experimentalism. And it works. As I say, it’s lovely; finely crafted; elegant; a really nice listen. As a result, it will probably endear Holter to more rather than fewer listeners. But to these ears at least, it also feels like a retraction: a withering of ambition, a withdrawal in too many places of precisely the things that made Tragedy so special and unique...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

burial: kindred ep (hyperdub)

It’s been just over a month since the release of Burial’s latest on Hyperdub and the inevitable critical shitstorm it kicked up on the web. Superlatives heaped on superlatives. Everyone did their best to drop as many references as possible to hauntology, psycho-geography, rave-nostalgia, and rainy nights in London. And all the while, as the blogosphere went into critical meltdown, it became increasingly clear that hardly anyone actually cared what made this record interesting or different at all. Burial-the-Artist was what really got peoples’ juices flowing, and the Kindred EP was simply a convenient excuse for a gigantic, collective jack-off session. The Quietus even ran a not-entirely-tongue-in-cheek competition on its Facebook page as to which review was the “wankiest.” (Pitchfork took the title.)

But the Kindred EP is different, and it does constitute a development in Burial’s sound. It’s also certainly worthy of the hype, but the reason why isn’t of the kind you’d expect. That is, there’s nothing especially different about the sonic language on offer here: the EP still sounds like Burial. Sure, there are some new samples — the ‘bellowing thunderstorm’ at the start of the title track — the beats being used/’referenced’ tend to sink a little further back in the mix; and occasionally — shock horror! — a vocal is left almost entirely untreated. There’s also an intriguing moment at the start of “Ashtray Wasp” where (for the first time?) Burial seems to refer to himself in addition to the rave tradition, redeploying a figure that originally appeared on Untrue’s “Endorphin”: echoes of echoes of misheard echoes. But all these differences feel small, incremental, modest somehow. The real progression on the Kindred EP relates to Burial’s use of musical time and space...

Head to TMT for the full breakdown.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

oren ambarchi: audience of one (touch)

Let’s have done with this notion of ‘abstraction’ in music, shall we? Music. Is. Never. Abstract. It’s concrete, physical, irresistibly and incontrovertibly material. As Vladimir Jankélévitch put it in “Music and the Ineffable” more than 50 years ago, “It acts upon human beings, on their nervous systems and their vital processes… This power which poems and colors possess occasionally and indirectly — is in the case of music particularly immediate, drastic, and indiscreet.” And not just in relation to humans either. Music’s materiality extends to tables and windows and dogs and goldfish too. Admittedly, its material effects will be importantly different in each case. Presumably the table is largely indifferent to what Adam Harper would call its ‘non-sonic variables.’ But the fact remains: Music is never ‘abstract.’

I point all this out here because ‘abstract’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot where Oren Ambarchi is concerned. Here it is on the front page of his own website, in an endorsement from The Wire. Ambarchi’s work, apparently, focuses mainly on the exploration of the guitar, “re-routing the instrument into a zone of alien abstraction where it’s no longer easily identifiable as itself. Instead, it’s a laboratory for extended sonic investigation.” The words “disembodied” and “stripped down” tend to crop up a lot too. As do references to water, air, the ether, and transcendence. It’s as if Ambarchi’s music were less there somehow than the work of other musicians, less concrete or present than Dylan or Kanye or James Ferraro or sunn 0))).

Well I call bullshit! There’s nothing ‘abstract’ about Ambarchi’s approach to the guitar at all. Exactly the opposite, in fact...

Friday, March 9, 2012

lapalux: when you're gone (brainfeeder)

Let me propose two very different models of contemporaneity. The first is from Terry Smith, art historian and author of What Is Contemporary Art?, in an essay from 2006 (PDF link). “Contemporaneity,” Smith writes, “consists precisely in the constant experience of radical disjunctures of perception, mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them.”

Sonically, this is a version of the contemporary most obviously embodied in the music of James Ferraro and Daniel Lopatin. Both artists have embraced the values enumerated by Smith not only within individual works (Far Side Virtual, Replica), but between their many and “disjunctive” projects too (The Skaters, BODYGUARD, the Ferraro of Night Dolls with Hairspray on the one hand; 0PN, Ford and Lopatin, Sunset Corp on the other). These are artists, in other words, whose “nowness” consists precisely in (1) their concern with earlier periods of music-making and (2) their insistence on multiplicity and divergence as their primary modus operandi.

Well, UK producer Lapalux’s third EP (his first on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint) is contemporary in a totally different way. It’s a product of the kind of incremental modernism advocated by Adam Harper in his recent manifesto-like Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making, a book that insists only on ‘sufficient novelty’ in contemporary music rather than great Reynoldsian leaps into the future.

When You’re Gone is contemporary in precisely this sense. It’s not groundbreaking exactly, but in terms of the recent aesthetics that it so expertly gathers together and distills, it still manages to sound genuinely fresh. More than any other record I’ve heard so far in 2012, When You’re Gone sounds like it could only have been released this year. It’s contemporaneity consists in the fact that it’s unmistakably of the Now. This isn’t tomorrow’s music, in other words; it’s today’s...

For the rest, head to the full review on TMT.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

fennesz & sakamoto: flumina (touch)

Flumina is the third collaboration between Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakomoto. And it’s much more in the vein of 2007’s Cendre than their live outing from a few years before that, Sala Santa Cecilia. Where Sala Santa Cecilia was a lush and noisy record, constantly shifting between dense electronic clatter and distorted quiet, Flumina is overtly ambient: a subtle dialogue between Sakomoto’s artful piano meanderings and Fennesz’s atmospheric fuzz.

In fact, Flumina is a ‘concept’ or ‘process’ record in two senses. First, because each of the 24 tracks is in a different key, the intention being to represent each hue and shade of the quarter-tone scale. Second, because each was arrived at by the same dialectical method. Sakomoto would record the piano parts while on tour in Japan, send Fennesz the tracks via email, and he would add a bit of drone on his guitar and laptop at home in Austria before, finally, they got together in person in New York to mix the whole record down.

Unfortunately, the concept’s pretty much the most interesting thing about it. Flumina does nothing for me, and although I’m struggling to work out why, my hunch is that it has something to do with ambience...

For my musings on Ambience, Adorno and my ambivalence towards this record, check out the full review on TMT.

Monday, January 23, 2012

thomas william: deccan technicolour (this thing)

I’ve written here before about some of the great experimental electronic music that’s coming out of Australia at the minute. There’s a scene brewing, folks, and at the start of 2012, you could do a hell of a lot worse than casting your ears in this direction.

Once upon a time, Sydneysider Tom Smith went by the name Cleptoclectics, under which moniker he released one EP, a full-length, and a bunch of remixes, all of which showed definite promise but were not in themselves particularly special. Deccan Technicolour is of a different caliber entirely. Smith’s first release since changing his handle to Thomas William, it slipped through virtually unnoticed right at the end of 2011, a fact that is particularly criminal when you consider that he’s been giving it away for free. It is, however, a top quality record: immersive; at once genuinely eclectic and totally coherent; full of far-out, lopsided beats, glitchy grooves, ingeniously butchered samples, and woozy, psychedelic soundscapes. If you’re a fan of Flying Lotus, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here, even if Deccan Technicolour is in general a more contemplative, less dancefloor-oriented affair...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

best of 2011

Tiny Mix Tapes put together an amazing package of essays and lists for the end of 2011. My own meager contribution was a blurb on Colin Stetson's fantabulous New History Warfare and an attempt at my top 25 records of the year. A paradox: coming up with my own list felt strange, difficult and, at times, totally antithetical to the way I think about music generally: it's not a competition, after all! But by contributing the following necessarily unfinished and provisional effort I played my part in producing a totally amazing resource for anyone interested in some top-class recommendations. Many of the records on the list I'd never heard before. All of them are fantastic.

So here's my own contribution to the collective-list-as-recommendation-making-process. 25 to 1 in roughly ascending order of awesomeness. Audio from a parallel feature on my radio show here.

25 Woebot – Chunks
24 Wild Beasts – Smother
23 Laurel Halo – Hour Logic EP
22 Epic45 – Weathering
21 Grouper – Alien Observer / Dream Loss
20 John Maus – We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
19 Roommate – Guilty Rainbow
18 Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
17 James Ferraro – Far Side Virtual
16 Rustie – Glass Swords
15 The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond the World
14 Giant Claw – Midnight Murder
13 Seekae – +Dome
12 Jim O’Rourke – Old News #5/6
11 Ford & Lopatin – Channel Pressure
10 Advisory Circle – As The Crow Flies
9 Demdike Stare – Tryptych
8 Various Artists – Bangs & Works Vol 2.
7 Clams Casino – Instrumental Mixtape / Rainforest EP
6 tUnE yArDs – W H O K I L L
5 Bon Iver – Bon Iver
4 Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
3 Tim Hecker – Ravedeath 1972 / Dropped Pianos
2 James Blake – James Blake
1 Colin Stetson – New History of Warfare Vol 2: Judges

And here's my blurb on my number one album of 2011:

Colin Stetson
New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges
New History Warfare was the most muscular record released this year, no doubt about it. In terms of sheer sonic brawn, nothing else came close. It’s a masterpiece of exertion: an enormous, pulsing, swirling tempest of sound generated for the most part by just one man and his beast of a saxophone: no loops, no electronics, and mostly in a single take. Not that this sounded like any sax playing you’ve heard before. Stetson pushed both his instrument and his own body right to the limit. And because of the way the microphones had been placed, we heard everything: the clattering of keys, the heaving and sucking of breath, Stetson’s moans and melodic wails. This is what the ‘grain’ sounds like when it’s mic’d up and amplified. The effect may have been bluesless, but it was totally soulful. And, in fact, it was often when Stetson reined himself in most, in the relative calm between storms, that the effect was at its most profound: the wrenching anguish of “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” with its superb vocal from My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, the mounting drone of album closer “In Love and In Justice.” New History Warfare sounded like nothing else this year. It was totally peerless: powerful, moving, original, an eruption of sheer life-force that quickened our pulses and stirred our souls.