As another year spent not listening to enough new music (mostly out of indifference) drew to a close, I thought I’d spend this week going back to look at what I may have missed. Turns out I missed a lot. Or at least, I missed James Holden’s highly satisfying The Inheritors.
Having made more than a dozen best of the year lists, The Inheritors was one of the mostly widely lauded electronic albums of 2013, along with Jon Hopkins’s respectable ambient dance album Immunity (which I listened to but will not be reviewing). I can get behind the overwhelming buzz The Inheritors generated– this album really hit the spot for me.
The Inheritors is occasionally hard-edged, maybe even a little jarring, but there’s also something warm and inviting about it (see “The Illuminations”, “Inter-City 125” and “Blackpool Late Eighties” ). Though I’ve heard this record classified as “Minimal” dance music, what’s kind of nice about it is that, unlike other releases from that genre, The Inheritors has something of a playful spirit to it. Listening to this, I was consistently very curious about what tricks Holden had around the next corner. It’s an engaging and fun record, and while it is something of a headphones album, there are some catchy hooks in here too, most notably in “Renata” and “The Inheritors”. The album never seems to lag, it either switches gears abruptly into some mysteriously playful ambient piece or just keeps the insistent energy going.
Out of all the records I’ve listened to this year, The Inheritors is the one I’m most curious to revisit next year. It’s dynamic and elegant. It’s well-rounded in a way that we don’t see often enough in this genre. It might be the best electronic dance album of the year.
I’ll start this review by stating that I don’t want to review the other hipper-than-thou hype monster that came out this year, R Plus Seven. Though there were a few songs on it I enjoyed, it was fairly disappointing, even though I like a lot of Daniel Lopatin’s other albums, particularly Returnal. And moreover, I didn’t like it or at least get it half as much as James Ferraro’s NYC, Hell 3:00 AM.
NYC has a distinct sound, but it’s somewhat difficult to describe. It frequently (“Close ups” and “Upper East Pussy” are two amusing examples) sounds like some kind of deliberately pathetic parody of corrupted nightclub-life hearthrob music like Abel Tesfaye’s The Weeknd. Or maybe it’s more like a stoned nerdy hipster rambling on about money and decadence over chopped-and-screwed Drake and field recordings of Brooklyn convenience stores. Hey, I tried.
If I seem dispassionate and glib in describing this music, I guess it’s because I’ve listened to a lot of strange music in my life. So, you know, I’ve been desensitized. And really, so-called Vaporwave music is more or less the music of complete desensitization. This genre is pretty much completely anomalous– it’s cool as all hell, but it would kill a party. It’s safe to assume that there were deeper artistic motivations behind its creation, but it’s synthetic, somewhat trivial. I’m not even sure who actually listens to it often, beyond a few thousand internet addicts. Nevertheless, NYC, Hell 3:00 AM does seem to stand out from this genre; it has more substance than the rest. There’s an agenda here.
So if the album’s title didn’t give it away to you already, the message that Ferraro is beating us over the head with is the hellishness and absurdity of the hedonistic urban hipster night life. Ferraro’s narrator-hearthrob is moaning into the mic about his emotions, about how he’s going to die of cancer from smoking cigarettes (“Cheek Bones” is totally hilarious, by the way), and all that, and then around him on the ambient soundscapes there are rats running through the gutters and people getting mugged– the sinister rumblings of the reality of the city. Disembodied robotic voices on the tracks repeat phrases like American Violence, Botox, and Money, the cultural narratives that underlie the city’s reality. Like I said, Ferraro doesn’t hesitate to beat us over the head with a message.
I may as well admit that this is an album that I didn’t completely enjoy, because, after all, it was deliberately crafted to sound disjointed, disorienting, and ugly. However, it’s an album that I don’t think I will forget soon. There’s something genuinely fascinating about tracks like the ominous “City Smells” and the eerily beautiful “Niggas”. I have to give Ferraro points for having a vision, even if it conjured an absolutely breathtakingly unpleasant album. Give it a chance– it’s good conceptual art, if anything.
Ashley Paul’s new album Line the Clouds strikes an uneasy nerve in me. Tremulous melodies seem crushed under the weight of an overwhelming anxiety. I suppose that a lot of experimental and progressive music is like this– perhaps it’s because intelligent people can often be a little more neurotic and emotionally conflicted. After all, discord has been the dominant tone in art music for the past 60 or so years. All the same, I’m interested in this kind of music even if I cannot relate to it very well.
Paul’s own introspective version of relatively-free-form-music often sounds a bit like half-whispered, emotionally charged confessions set against some kind of exotic ceremony. I would not be surprised at all if she has been influenced by, in addition to free jazz and modern western art music, traditional Japanese music.
Paul is a highly accomplished musician who predominantly uses clarinet and percussive instruments, in addition to piano, guitar, and others, to create fascinating, if slightly alienating, musical landscapes. I mentioned in passing that her music creates impressions of maybe something vaguely Japanese; it’s also worth mentioning that, despite the harshness of her aesthetic, there is a kind of stillness to some pieces on here, particularly the lovely “Watch them Pass” and the closing track, “You’re a feeling”. This is extreme music, the realm of the bleached and dread-inspiring beauty of Scelsi and all his descendants. Its arresting beauty makes it a must-listen of the year for any fan of art music.
Will Long came out with over a dozen new releases this year under his Celer project, in keeping with his consistently stupefying output.
Celer has, for a while now, been my favorite modern ambient. I mentioned in my review of Eluvium’s Nightmare Ending that Eluvium evokes a feeling in me very specific to the ambience of the Pacific Northwest. Celer and Chubby Wolf, on the other hand (especially on great releases like Menggayakan, The Low, the Sows, and Discourses of the Withered) often evoke a sense of wonder at the world, the traveler’s sense of awe and gratitude. It is fitting, since after all both Danielle Baquet-Long (who unfortunately passed away a few years ago, if you don’t know the story) and Will Long were something of a pair of nomadic artist-academicians, to my understanding.
According to Long’s bandcamp, Weak Ends was influenced by a trip to Okinawa last summer. The work is a single lulling loop that repeats for about 30 minutes (not too long, not too short) with little variation. Warm sheets of synthesizers bring a tranquil scene of an afternoon on a Japanese beach to life. It is a fine ambient release that has earned a respectable place in the Celer discography and is no doubt one of the best Celer releases this year. Put it on when you’re doing dishes, trying to fall asleep, meditating, whatever you like– this is great ambient.
Part of the reason why I was so curious over The Dead C’s new album Armed Courage is its cover. It’s one of the best covers of the year! Young Czech revolutionaries marching towards mayhem with black miasma curling around the scene. And it’s an accurate representation of what you get when you put this on.
If you like your rock and roll extra fucked-up, then you’ll love this unrelentingly harsh new work. But I suppose you could say that about just about anything by these guys. What more can I say for The Dead C? They’re The Dead C: The New Zealand band that makes droning symphonies of snarling garage rock.
Armed Courage sees The Dead playing up their already heightened avant-garde tendencies by putting out an album that consists of two extended pieces: the swirling, vicious “Armed” on side A and the urgently pulsing “Courage” on side B. Of the two pieces, “Courage” is the more dynamic. Whereas “Armed” seems like a cathartic release of aggression that repeats similarly ragged, scratching guitar figures over and over, “Courage” goes from ominous to explosive, then to deranged (so damn gloriously it’s not even funny) before dying down uneasily in the last five minutes into a shuddering quiet.
So far, I’ve only listened to 3 other albums by The Dead C in their entirety, but this new work seems to me to be a very satisfyingly riff off of their artier tendencies. It’s a fine album and I think I’ll listen to this many times to come.
Few other artists remind me of the Pacific Northwest more than Matthew Robert Cooper. In September he put out a new release for his Eluvium project (what better time for a new Eluvium than fall, after all), this one an eighty-minute-long double-album epic entitled Nightmare Ending.
I’ll just say outright that Cooper’s fine 2004 album An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death is definitely one of my all-time favorite albums by an artist from my home stomping grounds. I do hate to admit that Cooper’s music reminds me of the Pacific Northwest on account of its unrelentingly depressive tone, but it’s true. This is the music of seemingly unending months of overcast skies.
Over the years Cooper’s Eluvium project hasn’t changed too much, aside from a somewhat interesting album with vocals and percussion in 2010, Similes. To be honest, the main reason why I like An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death so much is for its deviation from the usual Eluvium sound. On most of his work for Eluvium, Cooper divides the time between piano pieces and electronic drone pieces with a preference towards the drone. That early album was exclusively made up of piano pieces. There’s something genuinely haunting about the slow, weighty chords of “Genius and the Thieves” and “The Well-Meaning Professor”, and Cooper didn’t need to fuss with electronic atmospherics or anything like that to create that beauty– just a piano.
Nightmare Ending is a real breath of fresh air. To be honest, I like it much more more than much of his earlier work, pleasant but somewhat drab stuff like Talk Amongst the Trees and When I Live by the Garden and the Trees. On tracks like, “Covered in Writing”, “Happiness” (with a vocal part that almost sounds hopeful) and “Chime”, Cooper eases up on the somberness a little and I liked this, as his releases can become almost monochrome from all the seasonal depression. There are also three lovely, lively piano pieces on the album, “Caroling”, “Impromptu (For the Procession)”, and “Entendre”. The extended length of the album is not intended, as far as I can tell, to flesh out a concept. Even though the album is a bit much to take, there are, like I’ve said, many moments of beauty here and there, in particular on the quiet intimacy of “Caroling” and “Covered in Writing”. I can picture this as being a nice album to listen to while driving up to the coast or on headphones during a long bus ride.
Along with Will Long’s new Celer releases, I’d say that Nightmare Ending is among the better minimalist-styled releases this year, though it perhaps could have benefited from some editing-down. All the same it’s good to hear Cooper come back to making soulful music.
Last October, the legendary improvisational jazz group The Necks released their 13th studio album, Open. Consisting of a single hour long track, this album is not exactly entry-level fare but is easily one of the best albums in their discography and perhaps one of the best albums of the year in any genre. Honestly, I like this album more than anything else that I’ve heard from them (and so far the only other album of theirs I’ve listened to in its entirety is Next, I think).
It’s an uncommonly gentle piece. Though this is, after all, improvised jazz, there is very little harshness or dissonance on the record. Entrancing piano figures and twittering keyboards ripple through susurrant waves of percussion with absolutely no technical-showofffishness for the sake of showoffishness. In true Necks fashion, keyboardist Chris Abrahams, percussionist Tony Buck, and bassist Lloyd Swanton all seem to fuse together into one consciousness. In fact there’s a 5 minute stretch of music that starts about 50 minutes in that gets close to perfection– a firm, spare bassline and shimmering percussion punctuate the silences between a figure on piano and another on guitar. There isn’t really a narrative to the album– it sways this way and then that, and you’re happy to come along on the journey.
I’m finding it hard to find the right words to attach to my impression of this album without gushing. Open is really lovely. All improvisational music should be like this. Hell, if more music in general were like this, I’d probably listen to much more new music each year. It’s great jazz that will reward a patient listener. Hurry up and listen to it already.