Yes, it's a yearly round-up of the *cough* RELEASES OF THE YEAR. As always, this is predicated with the knowledge that it's essentially based on what I've heard throughout the year and is not definitive by any means. For instance, it was only after last year was finished that I became aware of Julia Holter's utterly magnificent Have You In My Wilderness LP, a release which absolutely should have been on top of my pile for '15, but alas, it came to my lazy ears far too late. I am also aware of the fact that I am in somewhat of a priviliged position, in that my job dictates that I should try to keep up with what interesting sounds are being released.
Whilst all and sundry are hailing 2016 as The Worst Year On Record, I won't lie and will confess that mine was certainly above average. Both work-wise and with the family, it was my first year in approximately half a decade which wasn't frought with huge dramas (bar one) and sleepless nights; I managed to make it to Japan twice (yes, just got back from another trip a few weeks back), after having not been overseas for over a decade. Still, I'm not gloating about this, as I have friends who suffered grevious losses (and we're not talking about celebrities they didn't actually know) and had a much less fun time than I did in 2016.
In regards to bad news and the election of Trump... I don't usually go near politics in this blog, but let me share one or two thoughts. Trump is a dangerous, ignorant, impulsive nimrod (and I hated the guy years before it was fashionable!) who will probably be impeached within his first term due to some scandal or other (he's simply too wreckless not to involve himself in such things), but the Democrats fucked up majorly by having the truly horrible Hillary Clinton as their candidate (no, I am not a fan), and if there's any silver lining to the result it's that hopefully the Democrats will cleanse out the Clinton factor from their party, go back to the drawing board and start formulating policies which will actually benefit ordinary working people and not just their wealthy donors. My candidate of choice was knocked out early on in the game, if that gives you a clue. In relationship to this topic, I recommend you read Thomas Frank's Listen, Liberal, which was published earlier this year and is a remarkably prescient tome on where 'liberal' politics in America (and elsewhere, ultimately) have gone horribly wrong in the past 30 years. Frank used to publish/edit The Baffler, which I believe is still running in some form, a cultural periodical which I used to read back in the '90s and was one of the best publications of its day. Word yourself up on it.
OK, onto the musical frivolities....
DAVID BOWIE - Blackstar
I wrote about this previously below, so you can peruse there for the rundown. It remains my favourite release of 2016. It is very possibly the best thing the man ever did.
IGGY POP - Post-Pop Depression
Much like Bowie's effort, this is the best thing Iggy has done since the 1970s. Other than The Idiot and perhaps a few songs here and there, I have never been a fan of Iggy's solo work. It's been mostly de-fanged New Wave or clunky rock/metal since his Stooges days, and very little of it has been listenable. This album, which sees him backed up by lunkheads from such questionable outfits as the Arctic Monkeys and Eagles Of Death Metal, as with Bowie's Blackstar, completely knocked me sideways with just how good it is. The band is in perfect sync with the downbeat-sleaze vibe of the material, Iggy doesn't waste his time and yours simply being 'Iggy Pop' (he's been resting on those laurels for far too long), and the songs are simply excellent. I flogged the heck out of this disc throughout 2016, as you well should, too. It is shockingly good.
TERRY - HQ
Local band featuring the omnipresent (and seemingly omnipotent) Al Montfort and other notables on board. The name 'Terry' is ridiculous, but they aren't. I saw them a couple of years back when they were going for a more folky sound, but they've seemingly changed course and become a more fully-realised unit who attack in a kind of jagged (yet still folksy) post-punk vein. There's shades of Raincoats, The Fall and Swell Maps in here, though the approach to the material is strictly 'Strine, so such comparisons do no real justice. Regardless, their laconic brand of no-frills 'rock' is music to these ears.
BREMEN - Eclipsed
I wrote of this a couple of months ago. Swedish two-piece with Brainbombs connection. Cosmic space-rock drone w/ elements of F/i, Necks, Cluster and other good things. Terrific band, killer release.
TYRANNAMEN - s/t LP
Local quintet who've been around for a number of years and have connections/overlapping members with about half-a-dozen other bands moving and shaking in the scene. The release of this disc took me by surprise. For one, I saw them play about 5 years ago - or it seems that long ago - and a debut longplayer seemed like a seriously belated act of, err, activity. But the wait was worth it. I had to write a sales blurb on this recently, and I said something to the effect of it filling the hole twixt Eddy Current and Royal Headache. They possibly find that an insult of obviousness, or a sales pitch which does their individualistic approach to soulful garage-punk/urban blues no justice whatsoever, but it is no insult and, to these ears, remains an accurate musical description.
INVERLOCH - Distance Collapsed
Another release I wrote about in detail earlier this year. Organic, crunching and ever-shifting death metal/doom from this Melbourne band who very belatedly sprang from the cold ashes of '90s death/grind/doom 'legends (indeed, they are), dISEMBOWELMENT. Excellent.
ORB - Birth
Geelong three-piece with Frowning Clouds and other connections. I've seen this crew a number of times over the past few years and they never fail to impress. There's a few things I like about them. Here goes... Firstly, there is the music itself. Their level of Sabbath worship is boundless, sure. There are riffs here which sound wholesale lifted from early BS efforts, sure. But there is more than that to what they do. There's a cosmic, Syd-like angle to the material which most other stoner outfits completely miss, and their approach in a live setting is what really wins me over. They look like three skinny short-haired dweebs who should be playing Feelies covers. They don't swagger. They emit a sexless nothing and that works in perfect tandem to the heavy-duty sounds they blast, because there is no flash. The drummer never raises his arms above shoulder height. There is a sense of musical restraint and, dare I say, constipation, which saps their music of macho aggression but still lets it cut loose and 'rock'. Orb are something special. I hear they've recorded a new LP which is in a more Kinks vein - whatever that means. I eagerly await.
THE DOUBLE - Dawn Of The Double
The Double's Jim White is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a legend in Australian and now international music circles. Venom P. Stinger and Dirty Three are where he made his name, but he hit the skins for a number of other, lesser-known Aussie post-punk outfits (Feral Dinosaurs, for one) and of course also travels the world banging drums for everyone from Will Oldham to Bill Callahan to Cat Power to PJ Harvey. And much more. When in town, he likes to drop into the shop from whence I operate my place of business, buy some discs (always a man of impeccable taste) and chew the fat. He came in earlier in the year and told me about this new LP he'd recorded with Emmett Kelly from Ty Segall's band. With a sly grin on his face, he told me he'd invented a new beat. Yes, a new drum pattern. And this album was recorded totally within this new time signature. In fact, it was a tribute to it. I was intrigued. 'It's called The Double, and is going to come out mid-year on In The Red'. I was, of course, even more intrigued. Much has been written about this record, and I will add little to the discussion. The standard line used - even by me! - is imagine the missing link twixt Glenn Branca and Bo Diddley. Or, perhaps, let's say it's like 'Sister Ray' w/ a shuffle beat. It's something special.
XYLOURIS WHITE - Black Peak
Speaking of... this is the latest/greatest from the Jim White/Georges Xylouris duo, which once again melds Jim's off-kilter jazz beats w/ Xylouris' lute riffing, creating a kind of Cretan intercontinental free-rock without precedent. And if there is a precedent to this, I would certainly like to hear it. The interplay between the two is magical, White's always-unpredictable beats somehow bringing the two together just when it sounds like it's coming apart. Even better than their Goat album from last year, I would like to see these recordings become an annual event for many years to come.
OREN AMBARCHI - Hubris
I've known Oren for over 20 years. He is a nice fellow with a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humour. Everyone down here knows Oren, although he is rarely in the country these days. His music career seems to have hit a vertical trajectory the past few years, his international jetsetting and recording going into hyperdrive, and Hubris is one of the results of this lifestyle. It's also, in this writer's non-humble opinion, possibly the best thing he's ever done. Of course such a statement is born from ignorance, since I have not heard all of the voluminous recordings he appears to release on a monthly basis. But I've heard enough to at least claim that this is near the top. It sees Oren and a few of his famous friends (there's Arto Lindsay and Jim O'Rourke in there) engaging in a kind of minimal techno on the opening cut (all called 'Hubris', by the way). It sounds like it could have been lifted from an old Kompakt disc or Basic Channel cut. That's good. Next track is a slightly briefer guitar interlude which evades the obvious trappings of sounding like a John Fahey tune. Then there's another long one, a lengthy track which melds percussive, rhythmic clutter with electronics and guitar noise. It is elongated Krauty goodness, crisp, danceable and highly listenable. Hubris, as a whole, is highly listenable. It should be a hit. Relatively speaking, I think it has been a hit.
CAUSA SUI - Return To Sky
Return To Sky is by no means Danish psych/stoner trio Causa Sui's finest moment. In fact, it's possibly their weakest moment; but of course, it must be added that their weaker moments are still better than most people's worst, and it is by no means a bad album, which is why it is here on the list. A while ago, late last year, I believe, I gave a bit of a rundown on the goings-on at the El Paraiso label, the imprint owned and operated by Jonas Munk and Jakob Skott from Causa Sui. If you haven't periused this, then I encourage yo to do so, toot sweet. That will save me from having to wax lyrical here. Causa Sui play largely improvised psych-damaged 'stoner rock' which is free of the cliches and limitations which many practitioners in the genre operate. That is, their sonics add up to so much more than a lukewarm stirfry of recycled Black Sabbath riffs. Their high watermarks remain their Summer Sessions and Pewt'r Sessions series, and Return To Sky is a step down in quality, but for free-form boogie with an additional slice of Soft Machine/Mahavishnu fusion-boogie thrown on top, no one can top these gents.
LUKE HOWARD - Two Places
Latest/greatest from this Melbourne-based (yet globe-trotting) composer and pianist who, of course, is also a friend but also a hell of a talent. His discography has traversed the fields of trio chamber-jazz of the ECM variety to Eno/Budd ambience (his fantastic Sun, Cloud LP from a couple of years ago) to more avant offerings of a jazz stripe to this one, his magnus opus available as a handsomely-packaged CD or 2LP set. Luke is a big fan of the Erased Tapes label, as am I, and perhaps this set is him making his pitch for a signing, and I can't fault him for trying. Herein lies a blend of ambience, restrained chamber piano jazz, modern composition, even a pinch of post-rock, if you don't mind the language. Of course, it would fit the Constellation or Erased Tapes stables like a pink rubber glove, and that's certainly no reason to dislike it. Of all the releases listed here, I think this one is the most underrated and underheard in 2016.
JASON SHARP - A Boat Upon Its Blood
OFF WORLD - s/t
AUTOMATISMA - Momentform Accumulations
Speaking of Constellation... here are three titles on the label which were released just recently and have rarely left my music-player of choice since I first heard them. I was bemoaning to a friend just recently how hard it is to convince, let alone sell, anything on the Constellation label other than the obvious heavy hitters (Godspeed, Silver Mt. Zion, et al... or maybe that pretty much covers it), because everyone has it in their minds that the label is full of esoteric and/or unlistenable French-Canadian art-rock bullpiss. Which, of course, it is. But in amongst said bullpiss lies an occasional valley of gold. Let's make these ones brief. Jason Sharp is another player in the Montreal scene centred around the label, has guested on releases by the likes of A Silver Mt. Zion and Sam Shalabi, and oftens plays the saxophone in a drone-like manner (a bit like his label mate, Colin Stetson). A Boat Upon Its Blood sounds a little like all of the above, which means it's a darkly dramatic, semi-orchestral slice of all-encompassing sound-art. Off World is Constellation veteran Sandro Perri's latest ensemble who play an organic brand of electronica which alternately reminds me of the sonic experiments of Hassell and Eno in a Fourth World capacity and the other-worldly drones of Coil during their minimal phase when they perfected their craft (think Ape Of Naples/Musick To Play In The Dark), which means I'm heaping high praise upon it. Mostly, it reminds me of nothing else. Automatisma is the nom de plume of Quebec-based producer, William Joudain, and his offering for the label is an atypical one: mostly organic and acoustic in its origins, it plays out in a certain vein of minimal techno. With real-time percussion and electronics, they mesh together beautifully to create something which sounds like it came out of the Berlin scene of the mid '90s. Which of course is a half-arsed way of putting it, but its dub-heavy mix of beats and electro-acoustic experiments works a treat.
BITCHIN BAJAS AND BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY - Epic Jammers And Fortunate Little Ditties
The outfit known as Bitchin Bajas have themselves a rather flawless discography thus far. The 'band'
is made up of Cooper and Rob from the awesome Chicago cosmic-rock outfit, Cave, and indulge in more outward-bound, synth-heavy (and often beatless) shenanigans, which means their pairing with bearded folkster slob, Will Oldham, makes for a mighty weird pairing, at least on paper. But Bill is just musically flexible enough as a performer that his aches and groans work perfectly within BB's free-form, minimal electronics, as they are soaked up beautifully in the atmosphere and bring out the melodies to a tee. Two bloody records of it. It sounds like overkill, but it surely isn't. I could do with a few more recordings just like this one.
ORANSSI PAZUZU - Varahtelija
I wrote of this a few months ago. Head there for the juice. Finnish space-rock/Black Metal hybrid of the Nordic gods.
KRAKATAU - Tharsis Montes/Apogean Tide
This is a recently-released 12"/mini LP from a Melbourne quartet whom I was utterly unaware of until a few months ago. They released an LP on the Trouble In Mind label in 2014, play shows around town - allegedly - and yet I never knew they existed until very recently. There you go. Upon hearing that there was a local jazz-fusion band known as Krakatau, my first thought was, Are you smarty-pants's aware of the Norwegian jazz-fusion band of the same name from the 1990s, featuring the celebrated guitarist, Raoul Bjorkenheim, at the helm? And then I heard the local band in question and concluded that surely it would be impossible for them NOT to have heard the Scandinavian outfit... So why the name? No idea. I saw the band play last month when they supported Severed Heads at the big festival gathering at the State Library. I was watching them with a friend who happens to play in about three-dozen bands himself, when he turned to me and said, 'Let's go to the bar; Krakatau are a band best heard and not seen'. I had to agree. I like this recording a lot, but in a live scenario the band emits a certain goose-necking smugness which can be mighty hard to tolerate. They have the aura of well-studied VCA graduates who are getting high off the smell of their own piss. Regardless, they are probably nice fellows, and I did also highly enjoy the '70s ECM vibe of what it was they were playing. This record in question is a slightly different beast. I would place it within the category of 'Record Collector Music', as it is most certainly the product of gentlemen who spend inordinate amounts of time thumbing their way through crates of records. If they have not heard the sounds of Marc Moulin's Placebo or Klaus Weiss' Sunbirds, then I will eat my hat with a suitable garnish. But again: THAT'S OK. I like records, too. And they've put their knowledge to good use, because this record, along with its beautifully garish cover, sounds like it came out of the European continent in 1974. It sounds alien to its origins, and it sounds perfect to me.
PS - I will undoubtedly recall about a dozen omissions from this list within 10 minutes of pressing 'publish', but there you go.
OVER/OUT, for now.
Sunday, December 04, 2016
Well, fuck... don't thank me for this. Don't thank anyone. This new release was brought to my attention by a friend who grew up on the early stable of Earache artists, notably NAPALM DEATH, CARCASS, BOLT THROWER, ENTOMBED, GODFLESH, MORBID ANGEL et al. For him, Earache was his SST, so to speak; and, like SST's demise, Earache's decline in quality is so fucking obvious you could chart it on a bar graph.
It's not like I've been following the label. Hell, outside of Digby Pearson and his accountants, I don't think anyone has been following the parade of embarrassments Earache has been dragging out the past 15 - 20 years. I was well aware of Earache's standing in the grand scheme of things back when it was at its peak as a label and tastemaker (that'd be approximately 1987 - 1993) - and I heard (and in some cases owned) and enjoyed those crucial early records by Napalm Death, Carcass, Godflesh, etc. - but it was a dabbling and diversion for moi, and not something I focussed on as a steady musical diet. In the mid '90s I found myself working for their Australian distributor, and in some cases licensor, and so was very privy to what was going on with the label. The woeful outfit known as Dub War, who sounded like a bogus heavy metal stew of The Police and I Against I-period Bad Brains, made quite a splash and toured here at the time (I saw them - then again, I had freebies and saw just about every international act I could get freebies for; PS - they sucked), and some of the more purist metalheads I worked with bemoaned the unmetallic nature of Earache's venturing.
I thought it was a good idea for the label to wander outside its musical comfort zone, but only if the results were what I considered 'good'. One such release was Scorn's Gyral from 1996. Featuring ex-Napalm Death skinsman Mick Harris at the helm, the band/project known as Scorn had drifted from being a Swans/Head Of David/Godflesh-style 'heavy' rock outfit to a minimalist, percussion-based electronic proposition whose sounds prefigured Burial and other progenitors of what is known as 'dubstep' (you may have heard of it) by a couple of decades. I have been informed that his minimal success with Scorn, who pioneered a sound which was hugely popular decades later, has embittered him to no end - that may or may not be true, however. Gyral was Scorn's last release on Earache; they continued on for several more excellent releases on other labels, and Mick also had the ultra-minimalist, 'isolationist' project, Lull, who also did some fascinating recordings. But I'm losing focus here: the point is: Scorn's Gyral was licensed for the Australian market - and sold zip. And there were the Industrial Fucking Strength compilations and the equally woeful forays into 'hardcore'/'gabba' XTRM dance music with Ultraviolence and Johnny Violent, none of which took off; and by the time they released the debut by the now utterly forgotten Janus Stark - a band who - get this - featured the guitarist from The Prodigy - it was all over. Well, I recall liking those Iron Monkey albums they did, but nothing else springs to mind. I saw Napalm Death play in, was it 1997? Another freebie. They were fucking terrible. I left before they finished. ND made a great 'grind' band, but as a 'death metal' band, they were an utter failure - musically, if not commercially. I do not consider the terms 'grindcore' and 'death metal' interchangeable. I also saw Cathedral during this period. By this stage (that's probably 1997 or '98), their recordings were horrible, but as a live band they could still cut it in a to-the-point 'heavy' Sabbathian manner, something their records could definitely no longer achieve.
Approximately six or seven years ago, I found myself reappraising and hugely enjoying some of the groundbreaking recordings from the earlier days of the label: the first two LPs by Napalm Death and Carcass (these four albums are totally essential for anyone with a taste for noise), Godflesh's Streetcleaner, Scorn's output, Bolt Thrower's first 3 or 4 discs (a band who were a human punchline back in the day, but those records are great), Cathedral's Forest Of Equilibrium and others. In the pantheon of rock music, these are important recordings. What will never be important is the entire recorded works of Danny Worsnop. I know nothing of him, except that he is also the vocalist in two bands with improbably awful names such as Asking Alexandria and We Are Harlot. The former is a 'metalcore' outfit (excuse the language), the latter is a 'hard rock supergroup' featuring some other dickheads. What in the fucking fuck Digby Pearson is doing releasing a record by Worsnop is possibly something which can only be discussed between himself and his therapist, because I can't locate a logical reason for it. Earache has released some utter tripe in recent years - hello Massive and Rival Sons - but this is a new low. I'm not sure why I care. I'm not sure I do. I just thought you should know that Earache, nearly 30 years after the release of Scum, is about to release a recording which sounds like the missing link between Sugar Ray, Uncle Kracker and Alan Jackson. Knock yourself out.