The superlative has become the gimmick. Pseudo-eclecticism--"I like everything"--the new poptimism/rockism/essentialism du jour. According to Spotify's profitless data mining, the top 10% most popular tracks make up 99.2% of streams. But what do numbers mean when you can simply suggest to the self-described "music nerd" in your life that perhaps their taste isn't quite as omnivorous as they believe it to be and watch them freak the fuck out. And yes, the top 10% of tracks on Spotify likely cover a massive array of genres, but like many things these days, people seem much more eager to display their mile-wide know-how while hiding their inch-deep knowledge.
Is Jlin's incredible Black Origami the best footwork release of 2017? Putting aside the fact that its creator seems increasingly uncomfortable being labeled as such, it would seem by looking at year-end "best of" lists such as those from Pitchfork, Fact, Tiny Mix Tapes, Spin, and countless others that yes, indeed it is the 'best.' But how many of those publications' writers also listened to DJ Manny's awesomely askew Greenlight, Jana Rush's vaporous Pariah, juke godfather Traxman's Tekvision, or shadowy Russian operator Винтажнайк's referential and revelatory Коллекция, let alone the many other full-lengths that came out just in that genre alone? And is such a context-providing exercise really necessary when given an album as accomplished as Black Origami continues to be, listen after listen?
Still, reading P4K's Top 50 Albums of 2017 list was the embodiment of genre tokenism, a disconcerting trend I've been tracking ever since that site and other once-rockist pubs began to take dance music and then pop music seriously at the end of the last decade. And it seemed like many other lists followed sort, all pulling from the same pool of a couple hundred albums that had already received the 'critical consensus' stamp of cred. New age synth jams? Expect Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith with perhaps a side of Colleen (and I admittedly have not heard either album, though my love for the French composer is timeless). On-trend rap album? Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert, coming up (though able lyricists like Vince Stapes, Jay, Kendrick, and RTJ all got their shine as well). New R&B? Kelela and Sza for the win. Queer avant-pop? Perfume Genius, come on down! Outré electronics? Ryuichi Sakamoto and Arca for better and worse...oh, and Daniel Lopatin did something year, right? And make sure to squeeze Yaeji and Equiknoxx in there somewhere! (Lord knows I did with the latter;) Want to listen to any of these albums while reading about them? No problem! As long as you're signed up for Spotify or Apple Music, you're literally money in the bank! And since you're paying for music like Netflix, if you don't like an album on first listen, well, too bad as we are less incentivized to give albums we dislike on first listen second and third chances because we spent $16 on the CD or $30 on the import vinyl. I'm not saying streaming is going to destroy music, just that it is seemingly making us shittier listeners. Oh, and no one seems to pay music critics anymore...but we'll get back to that shortly.
Now, one could and frankly should marvel at just how, ugh, stylistically diverse music coverage has become when remembering that only fifteen years ago, we were drowning under an NME-created wave of "the" rock bands. And to have a separate if not equally important list reserved for Singles? Get outta here. It's little coincidence that around the time "everything" started to become every one's favorite type of music, this trend was reflected in the hyper-hybridization of pop music where any and everything that could garner streams is thrown in the blender and watered down to a flavorless goo. Though hey, the ladies at my local grocery store might vehemently disagree, but at least that mentality got Selena Gomez to record "Bad Liar." Being a lifelong Talking Heads fanatic, I really did not want to like that song and was furious when I realized I loved it as I did many of the other consensus songs and albums. Still, that the pop music vet could afford to release a critically over-hyped track that was a dud with her fans and release a barrage of lesser, far more successful songs was an informative object lesson in how pop stars are also embracing pseudo-eclecticism to widen their publicity net, seemingly recording songs to get coverage from particular pubs. And let's not forget poptimist flagship The Fader whose list of top tracks at least featured a number of lesser-covered would-be rap and pop stars sprinkled amongst the token indie rock, techno, and experimental tracks. While I would be lying if I did not gain any insight from these lists, at this point they primarily serve as shorthand for which albums I can largely skip over as they've been given their due shine elsewhere--though some albums are too good to ignore simply cuz everyone loves them. Not to mention, isn't creating a list of what's not included on other lists like the embodiment of pseudo-ecelecticism? If I hadn't actually put the time I know I have into listening to as much as I could reasonably make time for, then sure. But when reading lists and coverage from the major sites and realizing just how many equally worthwhile releases that might not be on the right label or have the right or any publicist, crafting a year-end list takes on a somewhat different hue when you stop trying to represent "the best."
In my singles round-up, I briefly surveyed the meta-critical debate that was going on last year in which many a writer danced around the currently fecund state of music reviews in a variety of predictable moves by looking to Bradford Bailey's summation of two recent pieces of a similar nature by Luke Turner and Britt Brown. Over the summer, Turner helped provide some statistical heft to the fire arguably first started back in February in Dan Ozzi's "Is the Album Review Dead?" in Noisey by pointing out that according to MetaCritic, only eight negative reviews had been penned in the past five years. For me, the trend became real when posing the negative review question to a young man who was soon to join the ranks of AP Magazine, who in turn replied with zero hesitation that at least at that publication, negative reviews were a big no-no due to blowback from upset artists. Now, this all brought Jorden Sargent's intriguing Spin article detailing the demise of MTV's bid for journalistic legitimacy, in part because the Kings of Leon and Chance the Rapper apparently can't take negative critiques (even of the limpest variety). Speaking to a number of friends whose livelihood depends on editorial positions at a couple of the big'uns, I was cautioned against making too large of a leap so as to decry the whole of music criticism as glorified lifestyle journalism, an argument first proffered by Ted Gioa back in 2014, and the absence of negative reviews as one more sign that major music pubs now exist as publicist-friendly echo champers. Not to mention the rather uniform quality that music reviews often take these days in which the vast majority of writers don't do much digging beyond the press materials provided by an act's label or publicist, a point also made way back in 2014 by Tiny Mix Tapes' James Parker and Nicholas Croggon.
So yeah, I spent a shitload of time reading and thinking about the state of music criticism in 2017 alongside studying the behavior of record collectors online and IRL and in both cases, came away with the feeling that for all the apparent soul-searching and open-mindedness that one is so ready affect, we have yet to really earnestly talk about what's wrong about criticism going into 2018. And in a year where the music industry's longstanding history of hidden-in-plain-sight creepers and instances of rape and sexual assault just started to come into greater view post-Weinstein, the persistence of the question of "Why aren't there negative reviews anymore?" became all the stranger, especially as most conversations tended to land on some version of what Bailey diplomatically referred to as advocacy. Professional writers like Maura Johnston on Twitter pointed to the insurmountable deluge of music and questioned why a critic's time should be spent bashing albums and songs when it could be spent turning listeners on to new acts and styles of music.
This was rather upsetting to me for a number of reasons, one of which was mentioned by Johnston and others when explaining that they first decided to take up the mantle of music critic when reading what they considered lesser forms of the craft back when your local city's newspaper had an in-house music critic. For the fact that many came to criticism by noticing something lacking in it and sought to constructively fill the absence seems directly counterintuitive to this music-critic-as-ultimate-fan position that so many are happy to take. Secondly, there was this particular line by Johnston in the above Twitter screed: "As a writer with a semblance of a platform, I'd rather give an undersung artist like Showtime Goma or Casey Dienel attention over forcing myself to have a take on WITNESS, a bad album by an artist I don't like in the first place." Now hold up a sec. Most music fans I know will have at least one album that they at one point hated that over time they grew into, just like a lot of my once-'punk' friends have inexplicably become Deadheads at the age of thirty. The openness to being wrong should be at the heart of not just music criticism, but music fandom. After all, it's by giving artists like Katy Perry the time of day that has helped to further dislodge so much of the entrenched myopia of rockism that lays in wait throughout the music world. But somewhere along the line, poptimism became another consensus camp of "with us or against us" that is all too rife in our world today as is the self-segregation we're seeing both online and IRL. The sense of "well, what's the point of explaining my point when this person won't agree with me anyway" that has given us the Facebook State of America with each side tucked neatly behind their circle of concord is what I fear is ultimately at the root of the anti-negative review school of thought.
While I am all for advocacy and in the spirit of self-awareness, I only wrote a total of two negative reviews in 2017, I still do not consider it of a lesser order than a positive review and will look to do more of them in 2018. While negative reviews might attract a lower class of writer at time, one who relishes in cutting down a subject and does not possess the adequate background to render such a critique, that in no way should be how we generalize the practice. Just like a well-written positive review, a negative one should be written from a place of expertise. It takes just as much, if not more, knowledge and creative energy to make a convincing argument for why an album is a steaming pile of shit for anyone can call it as such on social media. But making a meaningful argument for "why" requires calling on myriad examples of other albums that have succeeded in what one’s present subject may have failed to accomplish. Or it at least necessitates an engaged listening over a protracted period of time--something that is admittedly a luxury for hobbyist writers like myself. More importantly, to seek out negative reviews that resonate with your passions as a listener, one is then forced to confront certain biases and prejudices in their own tastes and hell, develop an informed taste in the first place (at least in theory). If music sites were to embrace this model of critical self-analysis, we could see the type of genuinely insightful reviews that sometime emerge out of peer review sites like The Talkhouse. (And yes, the irony of linking to a greatly written bad review by Ben Greenberg of The Men about Perfect Pussy's first album is not lost on me. But good criticism is good criticism and it's time we stopped ignoring it as we continue to inhabit our own self-made Vampire's Castle.)
A Couple Thoughts on Actual Music in 2018
In surveying those records I most adored and doing a last-minute carpet bombing of just some of the many, many albums I still need to listen to and acknowledging I’m always going to go for those of the more rhythmically adventurous variety, I’m still struck by the fact that so many rhythmically “challenging” albums have been counted amongst the best by the more establishment music sites. And while there’s a performative aspect to all list-making, the love shown for the likes of Jlin, Nídia, Errorsmith, and many others shows a promising trend in music tastes and production, one that both works within established stylistic parameters while looking steadily forward to advance the sonic discourse.
I’ve also taken a great delight in the number of female artists that are being celebrated in far greater volume than I ever recall seeing in year-end lists for 2017. And while some of it feels a bit tokenistic--an all-too salient example of how wokeness can be affected--none of it seems undeserved. Now, as you’ll hopefully notice in the lists that follow, I have so far failed to listen to albums by the likes of Colleen, Kara-Lis Cloverdale, Félicia Atkinson, MHYSA, JASSS, Sarah Davachi, Klein, and too many others. In the spirit of what I wrote above, this is indeed indicative of a certain bias in my own listening habits though not one rooted in gender. Rather, these artists are working in genres and styles (industrial, dark ambient, synth pop) that tend to get bumped down in my own listening hierarchy and you’ll notice an equal absence of their male peers working in these arenas from my own critical purview. At the end of the day, I’m going to listen to what I’m likely going to enjoy and while there are certainly gendered reasons for why there are a dearth of comparable female voices in those styles I prefer, I have a hard time getting past the feeling that I’d be engaging in some type of abstract quota system. That said, it's in vocalizing these absences--yeah, I know...not too many (or any) trad guitar bands below--we set new goals for ourselves as listeners and ultimately become better listeners.
Indeed, the question of "What does it mean to be a 'good' listener?" has animated much of my interest in the meta-critical debate--after all, how can I truly offer quasi-informed opinions if I don't familiarize myself with those of my peers? Being a bit of a philosophy major, trust when I tremble at the use of that qualifier but it gets to the heart of things in a far more economical way than, say, "adequate," "able," or "satisfactory." Nevertheless, we all need to start becoming way more comfortable with taking the time to step outside of our comfort zones in an educated manner and offer up well-reasoned critique--be it positive, negative, or just 'meh'--with musics and styles we may not typically listen to. And trust me, I get the sense of looking-into-the-abyss when approaching a new genre or style of music that one has almost willfully ignored up to this point, but I can't help coming back to this quote from Jim DeRogatis from a Kill Rock Stars podcast back in February that was a critics roundtable on the state of the craft:
"The critic is not trying to change someone’s taste. The critic is trying to get them to examine the world the way they see it and I want to see the world the way they see it."
While sites like this might cater to a rather niche artist, I along with every other music writer needs to be more rhizomatic in our listening practices, allowing once curiosity to lead us to another and to embrace the unknown. Yeah, if this sounds like 90s theory-heavy idealism, it is. But with things the way we are, I'm not finding solace in much else these day. So take this as something of a call to action. Bitching is tired af and anyone can point out what's missing from a scene, work of art, our government, et al. So many music writers get into the business because they feel they can do a better job than those before them and that theory is largely bored out in surveying the past fifty years of music criticism. Now many future critics might get stalled at the talking-shit-on-social-media stage that is now apart of the process someone developing an informed position. Music writers like myself who are in their thirties may have had some of their seminal moments reading print mags, but we need to not foist our own experiences on a generation for whom they are not even relevant. And that might mean not just familiarizing ourselves with types of music we don't terribly like, but with parts of the internet we'd rather avoid. Closing ourselves off is clearly not the answer but we must not also approach our task like evangelicals, so convinced beyond argument that our position is the correct one. Rather we need to become open-minded explorers simply happy to share our enthusiasm and knowledge with those who likely have a totally different relationship to the consumption of music than we did, but who we can at least engage out of a shared love of the music itself.
The following listicle takes in my favorite albums, and reissues of 2017, which still feels utterly insurmountable in its volume and quality level. While I have tried to avoid the majority of albums around which there is a disconcertingly unanimous consensus, as this is a list comprised of personal favorites and not impossibly objective “bests.” Nevertheless, I also see my year-end list as a tool to provide you with as many windows into different sounds and styles of music for that is how I myself approach such lists, as a way to find those records that might have passed me by or about which I simply forgot. Lastly, in reviewing the albums and singles I reviewed on this site this year, pretty much every one of them could be included below. But those reviews have already been published and you can find links to them all scattered through the following blurbs and in neat-and-tidy list at the bottom. So while I certainly included a great number of them, I encourage you to also check out my assorted ramblings from across the year as there’s plenty more great new music to be found there.
OK, let’s do this thing!
Zurkonic's Favorite Albums and Reissues of 2017
(In no order whatsoever, seriously. New and old albums are interspersed cuz linearity is for suckers<3 )
Various - Gamelan Beleganjur and the Music of the Ngaben Funerary Ritual in Bali (Akuphone 2017)
I love gamelan. And like any other form of music, getting to actually play it gave me a deeper appreciation for just how in-sync a gamelan player must be with both each other as a composition can shift on drummer's dime, picking up speed or slowing down with near instantaneous velocity. Unlike one of my favorite reissues from last year, Daniel Schmidt's In My Arms, Many Flowers, a patient, slow-building album featuring two of Schmidt's own minimalist-informed compositions, Gamelan Beleganjur and the Music of the Ngaben Funerary Ritual in Bali is a full-fire riot of immaculately synchronized mania. The album is if a full-length front seat to a Balinese funeral ceremony in which the music at once seems to be both an enraged confrontation with death and a celebration of the deceased's life, often played at a tempo that would encourage frenzied dancing. Unlike other gamelan recordings I've heard, this 2011 recording is wildly percussive with the melodies often simmering at a roiling boil beneath the cymbal and drum patterns. The albums presents Beleganjur music in two different contexts, the first half played outside of the funeral context and the other half submerging the listener in the same music but this time performed as part of the Ngaben funerary rite in the village of Peliatan. It's been a while since I heard music this visceral, this explosively melodic, nor this cathartic. If Daniel Schmidt was gamelan for Eno fans, this is gamelan for you Einstürzende Neubauten nutters!
Mr. YT - Brand New Day (Elements of Souls/Apollo 2012/2017)
The number of producers plumbing the intersection of deep house and dub techno today has grown so large that when a contemporary artist does it well, it's impossible not to take notice. At the moment, the only name jumping to my mind is the romantic techno of Grant*, but that example at least identifies why so few seem to pull it off. While doing the rounds to promote his Rush Hour-issued Prescription boxset, Chicago deep house originator Ron Trent said the following, beautiful words in describing how he and Chez Damier were able to create such an affective and musical sound that has inspired countless imitators:
What we did with Prescription was to take the perspective of being inside the sound versus creating the sound — or, creating the sound while being inside of it. What does it feel like? What does it look like? It was headspace —"how does it feel to step inside of it?" That's also, more or less, what a good soundsystem is about. As David Mancuso would say, it's the historical image of sound, where you actually see the piano player, see the drums, focus on the stereo image, able to walk inside of these songs. Robert Williams, who got a lot of his cues from The Loft, would say that going there was the first time he would experience songs as alive, experience their richness, their organic elements. And when we were approaching Prescription, we wanted to take you to those places, the places in our minds, our experiences.
Of course, their emphasis on live instrumentation--or synthetic approximations of those instruments--ultimately led many to a trad jazz-influenced sound where Trent was coming at things like a second quintet-era Miles Davis in that clutch period where he, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter seemed to push acoustic jazz to its outer limits while starting to experiment with an electrified sound by the time Miles in the Sky hit. You could hear the sum total of each musicians' lived experience in every song and every note because they played with a feeling that is impossible to fake, such is the nature of musical sincerity. And just as one can hear the sounds of a wistful and at times lovelorn individual in the music of Grant, the three dubby deep house EPs Yuji Takenouchi released on the R&S sublabels Apollo, Generations, and Global Cuts in the short span of 1997 to 1998 came loaded with such character, such a realized idea of the interiority of the sound he wanted to create that put him instantly in the upper echelons of the genre. And then after 1998's Parfum EP, he was gone and ceased to release music up until this current decade. The compilation wisely eschews the linear sequencing of the Fragments collection released in 2012 to open upon the weightless ambience of "Morning" from the Brand New Day EP released in 1997, a track whose siren-like pads pair with a sixteen-note rhythmic pulse to capture both the brief battle one must wage to leave the comfort of bed and the sense of pure possibility that each day at least has the potential to promise. Soon we're onto "Reve" taken from Parfum, perhaps the album's sole cut that risks sounding a bit generic as a woman sings the word "deep" right before the one hits, adding a distinct swing to the beat and its flute-played topline. Like so much of the best house music, taken on its own the music can fail to connect, but when placed astutely in a mix, Mr. YT's music bursts forth like a radiant beacon of hope. It's on my personal favorite track, "Afternoon," that one can hear the full power of his unique sonic signature as the bubbling bed of dubby chords effortlessly progress, like the passage of time or the stages of a rain storm. Full of light and optimism, the sincerity present across all nine tracks on Brand New Day can be downright overwhelmnig at times as its producer wears his heart proudly on his sleeve while also seemingly urging the listener to do the same by simply giving themselves over to the music. Once you do that, well, nothing is the same ever again.
*Try as I might, I have not gotten to listening to Grant's promising third album released this past year, Perception, but if it's even half as good as The Acrobat--an album I finally got to spend time with this year--then we're all in for a treat.
Claudio Rocchi - Lino Capra Vaccina - Antico Adagio/Frammenti Da Antico Adagio/Echi Amrmonici Da Antico Adagio (Die Schachtel 2017)
If you were a record collector in 2017, chances are you got your hand on some obscure af Italian minimalist works as there seemed to be a new one coming out. Yep, Japan and Italy were the “cool countries” this year”--and while I would love to include Nine Postcards or Through the Looking Glass on here, I have been listening to both for years on YouTube and they did not really define 2017 for me. But here’s the thing. Having kept a firm eye on how reissue culture impacts underground and mainstream music, we’re seeing a shift away from simple genre compilations like Light in the Attic’s paradigm-setting We Are The Light--whose reach can still be felt towards more specialist niches. And this is not a bad thing, necessarily. I’m not sure what glamor is to be had, but you hope that SUCH projects typically come from a place of passion.
Speaking of passion, while larger and smaller reissue labels dashed to get the rights for a number of long-out-of-print albums, the Milan-based Die Schachtel continued to plumb early Italian synth explorations and experimental releases from the country from the 60s onwards. 2017 saw the third installment of their Lino Capra Vaccina Antico Adagio reissue project, a gorgeous album of mallet-based minimalism first given the reissue treatment in 2014 that was also released with the outtakes collection of Frammenti Da Antico Adagio, both of which were repressed this year and finally found their rightful home within my personal collection. Rounding out the trilogy was the decidedly more freeform sidelong jams Echi Amrmonici Da Antico Adagio, which was released this summer alongside another stone-cold classic of 70s Italian experimentalism in the form of the forty-first anniversary and first-ever vinyl pressing of Claudio Rocchi’s Suoni di Frontiera. An album of truly out-there and ahead-of-their-time electro-acoustic and synth-aided improvisation, it is a true essential amongst its more forgettable contemporaries also enjoying renewed interest. Of course, if you haven't made a point of familiarizing yourself with the entirety of the Die Schachtel catalog, well, what you waiting for?
Giusto Pio - Motore Immobile (Cramps/Soave 1979/2017) | Michael Fedrigotti & Danilo Lorenzini - I Fiori del Sole (Cramps/Song Cycle 1979/2017)
From the ages five to thirteen, I attended both Catholic elementary school (St. Mary’s, wassup!) and church every Sunday. And then I stopped. Unlike most, my Catholic experience was a generally pleasant one led by a since-excommunicated priest who once declared to my fifth grade class, “Homosexuality is NOT a sin.” So yeah, he was a badass. And the experience planted in my a lifelong obsession with the meaning of spirituality and modes of its expression, which personally, I have found in meditative jams from the likes of Eliane Radigue to Ellen Fullman and a growing number of Italian composers who are getting that reissue shine.
The newly-founded Cinedelic Records sublabel Soave had a banner first year of existence, reissuing around a dozen albums long revered by in-the-know collectors as some of the most important documents of Italian Minimalism. They also seemed to rip off the copy for their sleeve stickers from this article so, not cool dudes. And while I still have quite a lot of listening to do, one album that I did manage to procure and fall in love with was the spiritualist organ drones of Giusto Pio’s Motore Immobile, which features two side-long ecstatically minimalist jams that drone and twinkle. The A sounding like someone dosing the church keyboardist and playing them Tony Conrad and the B is like LaMonte Young doing a Disney score from the 40s. the added organ and piano provided by the duo of Fedrigotti and Lorenzini who would also release an album that year on the same label, I Fiore del Sole. A far less-consistent and more traditionally song-based effort, the A side’s organ ditties are pleasant and great background listening, but it’s the B side that sees Fedrigotti solo on the piano that earns this album its list spot. Across both sides however, the composers unravel a yarn ball’s worth of melodies and half-knit them together, leaving the listener with more questions than answers in the best way possible. Not unlike understanding the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know, but in musical form;)
21 Savage - Savage Mode (Slaughter Gang 2016)
Due to the fact that I mostly listen to music primarily on vinyl these days, the August vinyl release of 21 Savage's breakthrough mixtape Savage Mode forced me to revisit a tape more coherent as an album statement than Issa could ever hope to be--though I couldn't have asked for a more palatable hit than "Bank Account." If you're still wondering why Savage has rocketed to the top of the Atlanta rap game--that's him in the video for this classic Future cut from DS2--I deeply suggest you revisit Savage Mode. He's not a particularly clever wordsmith, but he is the rap game utility player who has the added benefit of getting to rap over some of the insanely prolific Metro Boomin's most cinematic beats. At a brief nine tracks, Savage Mode plays out like a perfect ninety-minute genre flick as the lethargic, patient beat of " No Advance" sees the rapper rapidly repeating "Fuck her in my Rollie" before intently stating "I smashed the stripper in the hotel with my chains on." That he uses the definite article indicates that he's not just mindlessly boasting about his faceless conquests, but recreating a particular vignette. Women feature prominently in his lyrics and like his chains, cars, and other material posessions, they are typically the reward for his heartless hustle or the mothers of the men on the receiving end of his strap, their chains his for the taking--while he rarely. Older rap fans might grimace at this comparison, but there's a voyeuristic thrill found throughout the album not unlike Raekown's legendary Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Like that album, there's not a clear narrative throughline across the album but rather each track plays out like a gangster film in miniature, the one constant being the "savage mode" in which 21 constantly remains and thus serves as the principle catalyst behind each episode in which our protagonist constantly humiliates lesser foes and fucks everything in sight while never really seeming to enjoy any of it. Savage mode can at times feel like lyrical auto pilot, but for the mood to stay so consistent and for a mixtape to contain the type of atmosphere that few rap albums proper do these days make it truly a classic of the trap era that has largely defined this decade's developments in rap.
Thomas Brinkmann - Retrospektiv (Third Ear 2017)
True story: The only reason I learned of this boxset retrospective back when it was released in October was because I happened to be on the Third Ear discogs page adding an El Presto twelve to my collection. To see a staunch German techno minimalist amongst the London label's coterie of Detroit-based and Detroit-sounding artists was a bit of a surprise coupled with a genuine sentiment of "it's about goddamn time." Of course, Brinkmann's vast catalog of twelves had already been partially compiled on 2000's Rosa and 2002's Rōw, but this twenty-eight track selection chosen by the man himself kindly looked to his various aliases to grace lucky listeners with the glorious presence of Soul Center's robo-funk anthems "Hal 2010" and "Don't Fake the Cake" and other tracks taken from his various projects and phases. Looking back to the female-named series of twelves that first brought Brinkmann to an international audience of techno heads, the somber, stoic bass tones of "Olga" from 1999, ten tracks on from his 2009-issued DJ Koze-backed mnml smash "Isch," which still bangs as sensually as it did nine years ago. Whether one takes in the whole thing in a single sitting or nibbles away at it over time, there's no doubting that beneath the steely restraint lies in plain sight Brinkmann's deep af adoration for "Black American Soul" music rings clear throughout, the clipped slap bass and familiar chord progressions of yesteryear adding a worn-in and familiar quality to Brinkmann's conceptual musical furniture.
Beverly Glenn Copeland - ...Keyboard Fantasies... (Invisible Cities 2016)
OK, and now we dip into the albums-that-came-out-late-last-year-that-don't-deserve-to-be-ignored-because-time-is-a-heartless-beast section of our list! Beverly Glenn Copeland. And to be fair, I don't believe this record really hit store shelves around here till this past winter so, let's not split hairs, eh? Especially when taking in such a soothing, life-affirming, and all-around beautiful album of New Age Pop, or at least what I think that might sound like. Now known as Glenn Copeland, Glenn-Copeland was an active Canadian musician in the 70s and 80s, first dabbling in jazz-folk before becoming a hired gun in the world of children's television, even working for the perennial gold standard that is Sesame Street. Recorded a few hours outside of Toronto where he was born using just a Yamaha DX7 and Roland TR-707 alongside his stiking, androgynous baritone--while ...Keyboard Fantasies... was recorded before he transitioned, his voice is truly one of a kind that is delicate, deep, and divine. A collection of six compositions originally issued on private press cassette in 1986 and brought to the, er, masses by Toronto's Invisible City imprint, this has remained one of the most devastatingly gorgeous albums I've managed to hear all year long. Weaving intricate arpeggiations and runs together to create hypnotic and uplifting keyboard music, it's when Copeland's voice enters the mix that this album truly merits finding a larger audience. For as hopeful and reassuring of a voice as it is, it's also a deeply emotive one where a radiant joy is underpinned by a wandering sadness--to be honest, I've cried so much to this album, it might just be me projecting.
Wayne Siegel - Autumn Resonance/Domino Figures (Black Sweat 1983/2016)
Due to the fact that about seventy percent of everything I listen to is via a physical disc, I often find myself at the whim of cross-Atlantic transport when it comes down to snatching up must-have twelves and albums produced overseas and often clumsily distributed stateside. Like the Copeland, I didn't run into this vital reissue of two early pieces of processual composition until this past winter when during my now defunct weekly listening sessions with a dear friend, I found myself interrupting our conversation to hone in on the delicate yet voluminous sound coming from his speakers. A composer who is more obscure than overlooked, this absolutely necessary reissue of his 1983 album of two near-twenty minute pieces helped to shine a light on an artist who despite composing in "genres ranging from electronic music to orchestral works, from chamber music to a full-length science fiction opera," very little of his work has received physical release. Inspired by the minimalist composers who reigned supreme in the early seventies--in particular the "pulse-based" music of Steve Reich--the two pieces on display here achieve a maximal sound through often minimalist means and composition. The metronymic eight-notes that provide the melodic heart beat of "Autumn Resonance" were achieved using digital delay on a single piano, the notes often sounding as if they are coming from four separate sections of the keyboard at once and hitting a triumphant conclusion that is enriched by sixteenth-note melodic filigree. Both "Autumn Resonance" and "Domino Figures" were created via the canon technique, a solitary musical process that in the case of the latter recording--written for ten to one hundred guitars--forty-two guitarists tare arranged in a semi-circle and transmit musical signals through the chain, not unlike tumbling dominoes. As explained on Siegel's site:
The first guitarist begins playing the first figure, at the same time signaling the player to his left. The second player waits on “beat” before beginning the figure while passing it on to the player to his left. It takes about 30 seconds for the figure to travel from the first player to the last, but in the mean time the first player has sent several new figures down the line, so that the different figures are combined in a kind of evolving sound wash which has a singing, sustained quality not usually associated with the guitar.
Where "Autumn Resonance" stampedes out of the gates, "Domino Figures" slowly shifts into focus and once all forty-two guitarists are playing, it starts to sound more like an otherworldly chorus than a Glenn Branca guitar symphony. Where he and Rhys Chatham embraced the sound of the electrified, distorted guitar, Siegel was interested in something much more sonorous. And while Reich's influence can be felt deeply on both sides of the record, there's an intimacy achived particularly in "Domino Figueres" that most minimalist composers rarely attained as the performative aspect of the composition often was heard in the recordings themselves. Not so here as Siegel creates something that feels both conceptual and highly personal in a way that process-based music rarely achieves. Bg ups to Black Sweat for bringing this the long overdue attention it merits.
Aleksi Perälä - Colundi Sequence 1 & 2 (Clone/Djak-Up-Bitch 2016/2017)
It seems that the world is finally starting to catch up with Aleksi Perälä. Not that he's making it easy. Like at all. 2016 saw him release a hefty two-album sixteenth installment in his Colundi Sequence, a series of releases that in addition to being released as FLAC downloads have had different iterations also appear either on CD, cassette, DVD, and vinyl seemingly series, he also churned out three additional full-lengths, Connection, Contact, and Unknown in addition to Clone releasing a triple-LP set containing a curated selection from across the sixteen Colundi levels released to date. This past year was seeming a bit light in comparison until the fall saw the release of the Simulation 2xLP and Simulation X three tracker on Clone alongside a second, more ambient-focused selection of Colundi cuts on a 2xLP package released by the Rotterdamn-based Clone sublabel Djak-Up-Bitch (DUB), and just a few weeks back, what seems to be an pseudonyms of Ovuca and the long-assumed Aphex alias Astrobotnia on Rephlex, he also has his own Rephlex sublabel devoted entirely to releasing his music, including all sixteen levels of the Colundi Sequence? Yeah, homie does not fuck around.
And yet, outside of an illuminating 2015 RA feature, there is a weird sensitivity around the zealous-like sincerity with which Perälä approaches his music, which since 2009 has become an outlet for him to explore alternate tuning systems that rejected the equal temperament scale of twelve notes while constructing a series of his own equal temperament scales within the existing framework by dividing the octave again and again, starting from 33Hz. As he explains in the RA piece, "From just one frequency per octave, I went to using two frequencies per octave, then three, four, five all the way up to 32." In the comments section, there's a hilarious comment accusing the artist of indulging the same type of gimmickry as say a DeadMau5 or anyone with a compelling, press-friendly backstory that scoffs at the project as just an extension of jazz tuning that rejects that A=440Hz and argues that Perälä's apparent obfuscation hides that it's just detuned equal temperament. Interestingly, the article makes little mention of the conductor Harry Partch who constructed a forty-three note octave range following just intonation as inspired by Pythagoras and other Greek mathmeticians alongside Carnatic, Javanese Gamelan, and other non-Western modes of tuning.
But what about the music? Just slip into "UK74R1512120," which has an unmistakable late-00s Millsian quality to it, but the notes and chords he hits sound so deeply nuanced, slippery in that they are not major nor minor, but seemingly both and neither. Or the warmly curious electro thump of "UK74R1513070" that calls to mind Aphex at his most whimsical, the dramatic canned strings arching mostly upward while constantly looking briefly downwards, flickers of tones perceived and real enveloping the listener. The whole thing starts to take on a faintly occult feel, but who doesn't love a proper spiritual mystery? As pounding as the kicks are, they retain a softness that makes it ideal for home listening. Yet tracks appear with whistles and tambourines, if the Loft was relocated to a Finnish forest or, say, Stonehenge. And while reading about the theories both factual and divined--or perhaps passed down by a secret order--certainly lends to the mysterious nature of the project, the music accomplishes that feat just by itself. While seemingly happy to share the math behind his work, Perälä's work also falls into a lineage that unreservedly spiritual, which ultimately is just the parts of life we can't quite yet rationalize. The meditative nature of both the beat-driven and floating compositions is undeniable and it never feels like one is being fed a secret message or agenda. Rather Perälä seems to be just doing that most techno of acts by chasing the future and the past in equal measure and leaving behind a body of work that at once bleeds beautifully together while tracks like "UK74R1406070" and their arpeggiated tendrils simply reek of a sense of utter awe at the unknown or simply unknowable. Whether you find him and his world of Colundi cultish or simply compelling, who really gives two fucks when the music is this beautiful?Just let a bitch be, people.
Iku Sakan - Prism In Us All (Japan Blues 2017)
It can seem like there is no shortage of contemplative or hypnotic synth projects, but for the sake of variance, we're seeing a gradual shift back towards more organic-sounding patches and actual instruments augmented by loop pedals. One of my more memorable musical moments from 2017 was walking into the record store in the middle of the B side "Irradiation Loops"--an unsettling nod to the Fukushima disaster--and feeling as if I had been caught up in a web of arpeggiations produced by a synthetic rendering of what sounded like box-cum-glockenspiel spinning like a web, an infinite number of lines being weaved both in tandem and interlocking. The A side of "Intermolecular" presents the listener with a truly confounding patch that seems to be a miraculous fusion of string and mallet instrument, like a dulcimer made of string-like piece of wood. In another year where there was no shortage of rhythmic, beatless synth and electronic music, Sakan stood shoulders above most and made Japan Blues' new label one to watch.
Trevor Jackson - RGBPM (Utter 2017)
Chances are that if you see a fair share of live, improvised music or one-off performances, every now and then you'll see something that is just so magical, that puts anything recorded to shame through the sheer visceral immediacy of seeing great art. For me, shows I would practically kill to have a physical copy of include seeing Colleen in Leuven, Belgium in December of 2005 or Excepter in the spring of 2007 in Grinnell, Iowa. Despite being familiar with Jackson's work with Playgroup and his graphic design work, I've never really dove into any of his singles or albums that deeply. But alas, when any producer sets out on making their "motorik" record, my inner Klaus Dinger is helpless to resist. RGBPM was a four-piece audio-visual one-off performance with kaleidoscopic visuals being projected on a massive IMAX screen in March of 2007. This has become one of my year-end work records, an album that is both energizing in its steady rhythms and modular synth runs as found on "RGBPM 1" and pacifying in the kosmische swamp of "RGBPM 4." Not paradigm shifting, certainly, but for a quartet of songs that were only performed once, it makes for a pretty relaxed listening plus the visuals are out of this world.
Various - Scopex 98/00 (Tresor 2017)
2017: The year that electro...broke? Not living in Europe or hanging out at Brooklyn's presume techno center of gravity Bossa Nova Civic Club, I often get the feeling of a confused outsider looking in at the dance music world as portrayed by Resident Advisor. No more pronounced had that feeling at annoyed frustration that they are only covering a privileged fraction of electronic music than while reading their year-end trends round-up in which they looked to such straight white people dance trends as lo-fi house--still, seriously...WHAT THE FUCK--and selector culture and...electro? Talk about feeling out of the loop as being a loyal servant of Drexciya, I'm never not listening to electro and while there were many a tasty release and reissue--see my D'Arcangelo review for my fave EP or that Ciel on Peach Discs for a fantastic twelve--it didn't exactly feel like a watershed moment to me. But I also don't go to see Nina Kraviz spin atop a natural disaster in progress (or wherever she plays) so...my bad? IDK, I'm just glad Stingray is finally making some paper.
More exciting to me was the re-energized Tresor label who, on top of bringing Porter Ricks back to us and releasing the surprisingly fantastic Sleepy Harbor comp, chose to celebrate their twenty-fifth(!) year in existence and mark their 300th release with a reissue set containing the four EPs released by the short-lived but totally electrodelic (heh) Scopex label. Authored primarily by Simulant and Pollon, they're kinda like an even less prodigious electro version of the Driftwood label--a high quality, low output label that also only lasted a three-year period (2000-2002) whose records command stupefyingly high prices on the secondhand market (re: Discogs). Honestly, the shadowy backstory of why this UK label only existed between 1998 and 2000 and on top of a measly three EP's also put out one kickass comp seems to be half of the draw and if this was the only electro record you bought this year, well, shame on you. Nevertheless, it's a cracking collection split between Simulant's tin-thin compositions and the meatier fare proffered by Pollon. It doesn't reset the electro template as that baby is pretty stuck in its way, but if you just can't get enough of quasi-dystopic electronic dancescapes, than at least familiarize yourself with the scant fourteen tracks produced by these two projects and count your blessings that you didn't have to drop some serious coin for a series of tracks that will likely be overplayed anyway for the next few years. Did I mention it's also a great home listening experience? So ignore the hype and cultivate your own electro sensibility as there is no shortage of fantastic records from the past three decades to discover and Scopex is as good of a spot as any. Seriously!
Punctum - Remote Sensing (Σ 2017)
Mmmmm, brutal minimalism. Alongside the Arnold Dreyblatt and Konrad Spengler records--albums that traded in a type of synthetic string sound, both analog and digital--this extended EP fortunately popped up on my radar via the Hardwax charts only a couple weeks ago. It took about ten seconds of listening to a single sample to start putting out my feelers for this heavenly slice of restrained drone acid (or acid drone?) of Carlo Maria and Caterina Barbieri. Recorded via the building blocks of acid house--a Roland TB303 and TR606 plus a Verbos Harmonic Oscillator for good measure--the two aural adventurers have crafted with care an album that starts off like a dense cloud of fog with soothing harmonics, the acid bass rendered almost unrecognizable as the notes are layered atop one another into scaly, serpentine drones on wondrous opener "Glory Bitch." At times they sound not unlike Laurie Spiegel's more drone-based word while retaining her ear for melody as well. By the end of the A side, those familiar toms provide a semi-familiar pulse as the EBM chugs of "Quick Botta" build into a focused frenzy. Things reset almost anew on "Tensione Fresca," the winding arpeggiations slowed down to an entrancingly slow BPM. Just as one starts to feel like they're getting on top of what Maria and Barbieri have created, they throw a double curveball of a closer in the prickly abyss of "Innocecocchito" and closer "Curve Sciolte's" solemn requiem for the fertile crescent that once was acid. With Punctum's rewiring of the genre's tropes and symbols, here's hoping they and others continue to pick apart familiar dance tropes in the hopes of creating something new and wholly other.
Various - Italian Dream House Vol. 1 & 2 (Slow Trip 2017) / Various - Young Marco Selectors (Dekmantel 2017)
Well, these were three of the most pleasant surprises of the year. While Marco Stark was not a new name to me, I never thought I’d care for the festival-ready dance music he tends to proffer. And then I heard his label was responsible for an eye-catching double collection of Italian Dream House culled from that golden period of 1989-93, a curated YouTube playlist that I had grown very fond of, its marriage of laid-back balearc vibes with a post-italo ear for catchy riffs and a sensuality that presaged the second wave of Chicago house in some ways. And after spending a considerable time with both volumes, I can’t help but wonder the geographic reach of the music.
As if four discs of pillow-y soft and seductive House from a halcyon period wasn’t enough, one of the year’s greatest surprises came in the form of the second volume of Dekmantel’s Selectors series as chosen by Stark. Now, the term “selector” is a controversial one amongst certain dj’s (those who consider dj’ing an artform and have developed the knowledge and skill set to essentially tell a seamless story through carefully timed blends and an intimate knowledge of the record.) To be totally candid, as a committed record collector who loves playing music for people but lacked the skills to beat match and not be a spaz on the decks—a shock to me since I have natural rhythm and am a drummer—I even embraced the term six or seven years ago because I felt it added credence to my being performing my “good taste.” But then something really crazy happened: I kept practicing and eventually got a point where I even post my mediocre mixes online! Imagine that. Selector culture can also refer to the fanboy hive that dissect sets like Marco’s and Villalobos to identify the tracks that they play...so they can play them too, sensing second-hand prices skyrocketing and filling many sets with comments like "Oh, that's the song Ben UFO plays." Not the most inspiring idea.
Either way, “selector” has become something of a four letter word in my world meant to refer to those who care more about the relative rarity and potential value of a song rather than simply whether it bangs or not. Nonetheless, when you get a compilation featuring the likes of MCDE, Dettmann, and Joy Orbison, it's hard not to be curious to see what songs they've picked that one can use to their own ends. And while the other three volumes of the series left me craving at least one banger, at least for me, the Young Marco selection was like buying eleven maraschino cherries to place upon the top of countless mixes, including stone-cold classics from the like of Larry Heard to total electro revelations like Gerrit Hoekema's "Televeiserwereld" and the psychedelic MIDI jazz of Ghostwriters. The liner notes make hay of Stark's fondness for "naive melodies" but I'd argue that, at least to these ears, he's an eternal musical optimist, a sucker for the saccharine and heartfelt. Maybe next year, I'll actually find time to listen to his productions, but for the time being, I'm more than happy to take a page from his DJ playbook.
Whoa! Whoa whoa whoa! Hubba Hubba! Aooooooga! In year two of “SURVIVE introduces the general populace to the Berlin School via Stranger Things,” we were bequeathed this long-unreleased gem of UV Ray-baked synth compositions. Originally planned as the first release on the highly varied Growing Bin Records imprint, the five rolling synth compositions on display were created between 1984 and 1985 by Jürgen Petersen and consigned to obscurity until this year. The throbbing textured synth stabs that make up the backbone of opener "Purification" instantly call to mind the likes of Cluster or Conny Plank before space noise and a creeping high-end melody enter the mix to instantly indicate that this isn't mere pastiche--or runs the risk of being considered as such due to its arriving thirty-plus years too late. Things start to get steamy and spacey on "Belial," wrapping up the A side while Petersen pulls a major left turn on as the B gets off to a start on "Wintergarden," delayed snare hits and searching doppler-esque melodies trade in equal parts entrancing and disorienting before an Ash Ra-like guitar enters the mix to bring things decidedly back down to earth. Things continue to get more varied on "Ambiente" as a sitar sneaks around a twee synth arpeggiation before the searching soul massage of "Ikarus" wraps things up while leaving a certain unresolved feeling in the listener. It's hard to believe we've heard the last of Petersen's archives but if we have, we should consider ourselves lucky to even get the peak we do on Tapes.
Klaus Weiss Rhythm & Sound - Sound Inventions (Selected Sound/Trunk 2017)
German drum prodigy Klaus Weiss might be best known as the founder of Niagara--you know, that one band that James Murphy mentions in "Losing My Edge"...kidding, kinda! But arguably some of his most fascinating work was the series of library music albums he did for the likes of Golden Ring that featured his laser-precise drumming with zippy synthesizer sequences. However, it is the Sound Inventions recorded for the Selected Sound imprint that commands the big bucks as it is in a league of its own. Finding Weiss in a considerably looser frame of mind, he and his trusty synth channel the Headhunters' brand of machine funk in some places and in others he seems to just be testing his speed against the machine gun arpeggiations pumped out by the box of sounds as on "Eternity." It's hard to image many of these cuts soundtracking anything normal like a commercial or corporate video, but one thing is for sure: If you find yourself working for a company whose training video features cuts from Sound Investions, then look no further. You are home.
Various - Sounds of Sisso (Nyege Nyege Tapes 2017)
Originally released as an all-too-rare cassette over the summer, this collection of the music scene that's been fermenting in Dar Es Salaam for the past fifteen years finally got a year-end vinyl release I'm still itching to get my fingers on, so insanely special this. Harkening back to the bleeding BPM's of Shangaan Electro - New Wave Dance Music From South Africa and sounding just as fresh and new, Sisso collects fourteen songs that document the insane hybridization of microscenes like Mchiriku, Sebene and Segere within the Tanzanian city that have coalesced into the genre/movement known as SIngeli while also borrowing ideas and sounds from South African afro-hous and Zanzibars Tarab music. One of the aspects that will likely first jump out at western listeners is the chipmunk-like vocals of the sped-up samples and MCs' voices that will make one feel like their at a Spiral Tribe rave in 1991...or something like that. The Singeli producers and MCs on hand here show more than a passing familiarity with western rave stylings while employing their own rhythmic framework to unsettle any of the familiar sounds. You've never heard music like this before and trust me, you'll be better off after you do. Now DANCE!
Arnold Dreyblatt - Propellers in Motion (Künstlerhaus Bethanien/ Superior Viaduct 1986/2017)
While the influence of Arnold Dreyblatt can be felt both on this list in the music of Punctum and Konrad Sprenger and off of it, it never seems like this late minimalist composer of folk-grown Americana psychedelia gets the shine his music merits. While he never penned (to my knowledge) an intellectual tract like Henry Flynt's piece on hillbilly music, his labyrinthine compositions and the masterful musicianship he employs is as joyful as it is enlightening. Superior Viaduct continued being awesome by reissuing his and The Orchestra Of Excited Strings' second album following Drag City's 2015 pressing of the group's debut album. While not quite the masterful summation of his talents that Animal Magnetism is, Propellers pairs winding compositional structures with the dancing drones on hand here. An absolute must-have.
In the reissue world in 2017, fourth world musics went from a minor curio to a full-blown concern, not least due to the long-overdue repressing of Jon Hassell's sequel to his genre-establishing Fourth World Volume 1 - Possible Worlds, the less-known but arguably better Dream Theory in Malaya (Fourth World Volume Two). And while I'm the last person to try and talk anyone away from diving into the Hassell's many worlds of sound, it was just one in a glut of global-minded studio explorations. Personally, I'm a sucker for those DIY fourth world composers like Michael Turtle whose Music From Memory comp last year showed a world-wary sojourner recreating his travels from the comfort of his parents' living room. That tension of having to record one's engagement with another culture a world away due to technological necessities has dovetailed nicely with the number of diggers out there unearthing such lost gems as this delightful collection of recordings from one CYBE. The cover shows a bespectacled white guy in what seems like his nondescript studio save for the towering rack of gongs, reel-to-reel tape machines, and a mallet instrument all behind him and each employed in ecstatic harmony over the course of Tropisch Verlagen. From the extended meditative dream state evoked by "India" to the gaseous, pacifying vapors of "Muzak Paintings Positive Movement Part 2 No. 3" and the tropical dream state "The Running Water," it doesn't get much more self-consciously transportive.
Various - Guarapo! Forty Bangers From Barranquilla (Honest Jon's 2017)
Well, this was an utter delight. In a year ripe with fantastic compilations looking at developing countries' synthesis of wester and indigenous sounds and this collection of 'forty bangers' sourced from the Colombian cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena give the listener a truly enlightening look into a particular form soundsystem culturem, also known cultura picótera. Beginning in the 50s via neighborhood and backyard parties, the soundtrack was largely musica costeña, or styles like cumbia and porro that were popular amongst the country's coast. Coming into their own in the 60s as imported salsa from New York became the dominant style, it waned in the 70s as DJ's or picóteros began getting their hands on African records, likely brought by sailers. Mirroring Britain's Northern Soul scene, DJ's became increasingly competitive about getting their hands on the latest and most obscure imports, also removing the labels to discourage potential trainspotters. As the technology developed and supplies of records exhausted, the picóteros soon began crafting their own creation of "militant breaks and austere loops" that became known as guarapo in which they would loops minute sections of popular tracks over banging breaks guaranteed to keep the party moving and dancers on their toes, none of the tracks on hand here going past two minutes. It's a vertigo-inducing barrage of Nigerian beats sourced from records in the sixties that bridge the breaks from highlife, soukous, and benga with some of the scene's hottest selectors looping a variety of samples into a hypnotic mixtape-like album that is essentially a party in and of itself.
Felix Kubin - Takt Der Arbeit (Editions Mego 2017)
While it was my deep and abiding love for library music that got me to check this out in the first place--I find Kubin severely hit or miss--I feel like this album had the resonance that early vaporwave touchstones like Far Side Virtual had on people back in 2011. Oh, and it’s a way better album, imho. Kubin looked to industrial training videos amongst other artifacts of the period from 1960-90 to construct a collage-like rumination on analog and digital cultures. Cell phone ringtones and industrial machinery trade licks on the first half of the album while things get digitally scrambled on the flipside where vintage-sounding samples of horns, machines, and the general sounds associated with the proletariat are picked apart and effortlessly reassembled into obtuse grooves that break down as soon as they get going. An engrossing album that rewards repeat listens and one's full attention. Nice play, Herr Kubin.
Shed - The Final Experiment (Monkeytown 2017)
There are few things a music writer enjoys more than falling back in love with a producer they’ve kinda checked out on and René Palowitz did just that with his fourth studio album, The Final Experiment. It tends to raise more questions than it answers, as this album lacks the textural density of his previous efforts, a rich minimalism in comparison to the heavily-tracked previous efforts, its central melodies sounding proudly if not defiantly naive, as if any studio novice could stumble upon them. But it takes a measured and experienced hand to make such simple ideas demand repeat listens. And while none of the tracks might scream out to be mixed in peak-time sets, it's hard not to see an extended edit of "Call 32705!" absolutely devastating a dance floor under the rising sun. Shed has found his magic hour and captured its endless euphoria, revealing the confused sadness that lurks right beneath a self-medicated smile.
And now for the token weirdo dancehall album.... When Bird Sound Power hit in the summer of 2016 via the Demdike Stare-helmed DDS imprint, people like myself went apeshit. Dancehall has always been ripe for experimentation, yet with some notable and less-known examples, the off-kilter and exquisitely-constructed beats of the group's centers of gravity, native Jamaicans Gavin Blair and Gavsborg, hit the many sectors of the electronic music world like a cyclone bomb. Frozen in awe, many of us spent months playing and re-playing the album, picking apart the apparent Timbaland and Missy-loving Kingstonians singular sound world that felt at once unsettling familiar and brand spanking new. Still, impressive as that collection was, hearing their debut album Colón Man elicited a sense of euphoria not unlike that I feel when a friend makes an especially bomb track or work of art--"Dammmmmmn, you did this?!" Not that I had any reason to doubt the group's potential in the first place, but rarely does an odds-and-sods collection like Bird sound so coherent and is the followed up by an equally assured album of all new material. Just take the jaw-dropping opening duo of "Kareece Put Some Thread In A Zip Lock" and "Heathen Emissaries From The Dens of Babylon," the former riding an elasticized riddim with a vintage NERD-sounding hook while the latter seems to go full VA Beach bangerama as a Jamicanized trunk rattler. Really, there isn't a weak link over the thirteen compositions, which see them shifting between the more rhythmic-melodic stylings of "Flank" and the sweaty saunter of "A World Of Welsh," a track I am too eager to work into a leftfield techno set. As much as they might push and pull at the outer limits of their country's musical legacy while looking far and wide for inspiration, their love for dancehall and music as a whole is what comes across the hardest and helps make expectations for their next album impossibly high.
The producer born Stefan Wurst is of the solitary sort, reportedly choosing isolation over the constant collaboration sought out by his SUED label co-owner SVN though remaining a vital voice in an oddball strain of Berlin dance music that includes the likes of Dynamo Dreesen and DJ Fett Burger, who have both released on the label. Quietly released in the final months of 2016 as an untitled LP featuring eleven untitled tracks, it received the self-evident title of The Album along with the backing and international distribution afforded by R&S's leftfield sibling Apollo. But the title is truly the only self-evident aspect on this, Wurst's debut full-length on his own label, which has released every one of his records since his 2011 debut. Jumping from ethereal jungle to jazzy broken beat to a twisted take on the Belgian New Beat upon which his new label made its name, The Album's constant stylistic reinvention could make one think SW. is spreading himself a bit thin, though one listen will quickly disprove that notion. He's been eschewing the 4x4 framework from the start, favoring limber live-sounding drums and a sensibility that is at once readily familiar yet distinctively alien.
That SW. can be so freely referential while dutifully crafting a rich and comfortable sound world--The Album at times is like lounging in a well-work chair or sofa--got me thinking of other artists I've heard recently who are able to draw upon a rich pool of influences to create music that re-thinks that most post-modern of concepts: the pastiche. Long has the term been used pejoratively to describe work so indebted to what has come before it so as to lack any personality or identity of its own. But with artists like Actress and Burial pilfering not just genres but provincial scenes and lightning-in-the-bottle moments in such a way as to skirt that dualist judgment of being original or pastiche, rendering such a distinction mute, SW. has created a work that operates within a distinctively European framework, one that reimagines the American-bred house and techno through a different geographical landscape and mindset. Reverential rather than referential, The Album challenges outmoded modernist notions of "the new" indulging in ample borrowing from a whole range of musical styles while reconfiguring the root variables in a way that is wholly personal and distinctly his own. After all, just because something is pastiche doesn't mean it doesn't have to lack heart and The Album has that in spades, an emotive and frighteningly consistent work of electronic dance music that doesn't try to upend its influences rather than tweak them in such a way as to tenuously render them the producer's own. Let the indie rockers worry about authenticity, the sincerity of SW.'s music is what will make The Album a likely inspiration for a whole new generation of producers.
Look, not every album on this list is suited for every occasion. In fact, many of these sound best when played at very particular moments, chief among them this set of sandblasted hyper-rhythmic noise that seeks to provide an aural recreation of Brutalist architecture. She also creates a body of tracks that manage to accomplish something new in an area that Pansonic had seemingly mined dry. If you know me, than you know this is just one of those albuma I can't not have, even if I only listen to it once a year. It does what it does and it does it fucking well. The end.
Porter Ricks - Anguila Electrica (Tresor 2017)
In my attempt to review this astounding album of 4K dub techno sound design, I found myself tumbling down the insanely varied discography of Andy Mellwig and Thomas Köner and if you’re like the long version of this blurb, I direct you here. Otherwise, as you’ve likely seen elsewhere, this was one of those “look who’s back” albums that actually felt necessary and is behind only Biokinetics in its quality (and an argument can be made that it surpasses its highly-revered predecessor). Having spent most of the year simply getting a handle on the Shadow Boat EP from late 2016, I have a feeling I’ve only just begun to pierce the veil of secrets hidden in the countless sonic coral reefs found on Anguila Electronics. Though my highly favorable review of the album still holds very true, if I've come to any new conclusion about the album, it's that unlike other extremely dense techno records whose adherence to the grid makes memorizing all the parts do-able if not extremely easy, Anguila perhaps is the most aquatic of their output in how slippery it truly is (hey oh!) While I can easily call to mind the basic rhythms of each of the seven tracks, the whale-sized meat held on the percussive carcass is so immense, so oceanic that it's the type of album that risks swallowing those listeners lacking the requisite techno sea legs. Never has an album that sounds so clear proven to be so opaque, and deliciously so.
Rozzma — Donya Fakka (Crammed Discs/Acid Arab Records 2017)
"I AM A PHAROH." So intones a sample on the fifth track of the debut EP from Rozzma, a singer and producer who only exists in the audio-visual realm, be it on stage, video, or record. Sounding like a hyper-autotuned Egyptian royal playing over riotous rave bass music that is as bombastic as it is purposeful. Taking listeners back to when Egypt was the most advanced civilization on the planet, Donya Fakka is a rude af wake-up call to listeners that they won't soon forget, not to mention one of 2017's most in-a-league-of-its-own records. Very excited to keep an eye for whatever else Acid Arab's new imprint has up their sleeve.
Some of the best conversations and arguments I had about music in 2017 arose over Jay-Z’s thirteenth album, which prior to my being assigned to review it seemed the least likely candidate for inspiring those discussions. Just how calculated is he being and does it really matter if his message is a vital one? Is NoID’s production admirably consistent or overly simplistic? How many music and footnote videos did he make for the damn thing and should they be considered in evaluating the album’s overall effect? Not only is it confounding that an artist seemingly so past his prime could be the subject of such heated debate, but he also offered a surprisingly traditionalist-yet-not spin on the visual album as he created videos for just about every track--of which “4:44” is the unquestionable highlight. Most compelling of all were the "footnote" videos that followed each video and featuring a wide array of black males, famous and not, disccusing topics like masculinity, love, and racism. For a rapper whose always preached re-investing back in his neighborhood, 4:44 goes to show that when Shawn Carter gets woke, he makes it a community affair. Check out my full review of 4:44 over at Gathering of the Tribes.
Heavenly Music Corporation - Lunar Phase (Silent/Astral Industries 1995/2017)
Due to the fact that I have a slightly older friend who was deeply involved in the midwestern 90s rave scene--well, I know more than a few--with a special fondness for 90s ambient, he often will pick out favorites from that era that would have otherwise passed me by. And like everyone else, the love-it-or-hate-it art of Astral Industries seems to be keeping this still-nascent label--one that has featured such ambient heavyweights as Deepchord and Wolfgang Voight alongside shedding a much-needed light on the output of Dutch collective Chi--from the press outpouring of support it certainly merits. Fortunately, they just kept doing their own thing in 2017, and more of it. Whether it's commissioning Waveform Transmission to record a sequel to their isolationist masterpiece V 1.0-1.9 released on Silent Records or reissuing as many recordings of short-lived and highly prolific fourth world Dutch jambots Chi--scope my review of their Original Recordings--as one could possibly ever want, this is a label whose name couldn't be more on the nose. And while the depths of 90s ambient are just beginning to be stretched, To the cloud! Click here for my in-depth review of Lunar Phase.
154 - Strike (Delsin 2004/2017)
Joachim Peteri is a master teacher because he learned from the master teachers. As Newworldaquarium, he distills his deep understanding of American house and techno through a Basic Channel-educated approach to dance tracks. Born out of hours-long looping sessions in which he takes his assembled groove and plays it endlessly, modulating and tweaking until a sort of momentarily sustained perfection is attained, giving us funky, woozy burners that yawn into existence and exhale out of it like an impeccable sentence or transcendent solo, commanding the utmost attention for it duration. As the artist one stated that in contract to his NWAQ alian, his earlier Ross 154 material was inward-looking, music for interiors lacking the readily identifiable musicality of the funk and disco that serve as that projects building blocks. In taking in the entirety of his discography, it makes sense that for the album-length culmination of this fist phase of his musical output he would drop the Ross, leaving only numbers, so primordial the music contained on Strike is. Comprised of six tracks on the vinyl edition that split the difference between barely-there kick drum-led hypnagogia and beatless sound stories, the CD is supplement by the rambling narco-techno of "Spirit" released under his Newworldromantic moniker that bridged the two sides of the producer and the ambient coda of "Daze" taken from the first NWAQ twelve.
While I'm sure it's been called this, Peteri's work has always been conspicuously ambient from the ambient techno canon. One only need listen to the album's stunning opener "Sun" to start to understand why those that equate "ambient" with "pacifying" or "ignorable" might not instinctively gravitate toward this hypnotic, mesmerizing opus. While stories of producers spending hours perfecting the perfect kick drum is often used as a way to mock the seemingly inscrutable naval-gazing of dance music, one only need to listen to a track like "Sun" or "Sniper" to start to grasp what an immaculately-tuned kick can do for a track. Impossibly bomming and expensive toiler paper soft on the former and curt and impatient on the latter, giving one's self over to Strike is to open one's mind to the infinitity contained in its music; like the albums of GAS, one can listen to any one of the six tracks found on the NWAQ-released reissue and never feel like one knows it, so amorphous and layered are its elements. And while it's music that invites the deepest of listening, it also operated on that most crucial of level in its corporeal pulse found in the throbbing pads and rhythmic-melodic raindrop patterns, the beat both implied and articulated. This is dance music for fans of Eliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros, aural islands to explore endlessly. This is truly for the heads.
B12 - Electro-Soma & Electro-Soma II (Warp 1993/2017)
The UK's Michael Golding and Steve Rutter have been soundtracking the future for an awfully long time now. Releasing their first album on Warp in 1993 with the on-the-nose title of Electro-Soma, that album was comprised of a variety of different tracks recorded under such aliases as Redcell and Ecliptic for their own B12 label dating back to 1991. Much of that music hadn't seen the light of day following the duo's disappearance following their 1998 EP for Warp, returning in 2008 and having been especially active the past few years. While I only have the first and oh-so-essential Electro-Soma, the second volume is seemingly just as good as it contains much of the duo's earliest music dating back to 1991. Of course, with albums that set the blueprint for an entire genre, many of its groundbreaking moves have become sonic canon. Tracks like "Mondrin" that feature a steady 4X4 backbone remains so dextrous through the anxious snare hits and astrally-inclined melodies would help set the standard for don't-call-it-IDM for decades to come while "Basic Emotion" sees the duo trading in more downbeat fare while again remaining too restless to be neatly pinned down. Now, having only recently set upon the task of processing Electro-Soma II, there's something that feels slightly more energized and raw, the sense of sedation that infuses its predecessor with a somnolent quality is somewhat lifted as tracks like opener "Debris" still feature those gaping pads but this time they rest atop a pummeling low-end whereas "Satori" released under the Musicology alias re-imagines electro through a B12 sensibility, the sharp percussion set against a lush and ever-shifting bed of strings and cosmic debris. There's much to digest for fans both old and new across both volumes and with the duo seemingly recharged and producing new material at a clip that seems similar to their heyday, we'll likely be processing the output of Golding and Rutter for decades to come.
Graeme Miller & Steve Shill - Moomin Soudtrack (Finders Keepers 2017)
Imagine, if you will, a foreboding homemade electro-acoustic, new age, synth driven, proto-techno, imaginary world music Portastudio soundtrack for a Polish-made animated fantasy based on a Finnish modern folk tale and created for German and Austrian TV, composed in 1982 by two politically driven post-punk theatre performers from a shared house in Leeds! - Promo copy via Finders Keepers
You gotta hand it to Andy Votel and his Finders Keepers label for making one nostalgic for a television series you didn't even grow up watching. I wish you could have been a fly on the wall for the conversation that got me to buy this insanely inspiring soundtrack to the Anne Wood-produced stop-motion British-via-Scandinavia adaption of the Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson's characters first created in the 1930s. The original Moomins series was produced from 1977-1982 and broadcast in Germany, Poland, and Austria and eventually sold to other countries, with the UK launching its own version from 1983 to 1986 after an extended production period that included the creation of Miller and Shill's warm and detailed homemade electronic yarns. For children and their babysitters of a certain age, the piercing opening note that expands into full view at the start of the show likely evokes some Pavlovian reaction of pouring themselves a cuppa and gazing into their own past. The fact that the soundtrack can elicit a similar reaction in someone who only knew of the show in passing, transporting them to an alternate version of their childhood, is simply astounding. Speaking with the record buyer who has been helping me buy only killer since 2011, I grabbed this Finder Keeper’s release and inquired as to its quality. “It’s so whimsical,” he replied in the most uncharacteristic and genuine of way before falling into an engaging solipsism about what the word “whimsy” even means in music. Perhaps this conversation resonated so much because once I returned home and threw the efforts of Miller and Shill onto the table, “whimsical” was the first and only word that sprung to mind as there is a true sense of wonderment permeating this collection’s every composition. You can really hear Miller and Shill--who were inspired at that point by artists and groups like Brian Eno and Young Marble Giants--gaining a certain comfort with their equipment that included a Wasp synthesizer and Spider sequencer and translating their sonic ideas into a rich electronically-arranged tapestry where acoustic guitars dance atop morse code-era drum machines. It's also a key document in the development of electroacoustic methodologies and a reminder of how children's entertainment has always attracted a certain vanguard of artists who are simply predisposed to capturing the wonderment of early childhood. And like any exceptional soundtrack, it rewards both attentive and passive listening as it serves to remind one of Satie's concept of "musical furniture" as this is music you can truly sink right into while allowing it to brighten your surrounding. A very special album indeed.
Gökçen Kaynatan – Gökçen Kaynatan (Finders Keepers 2017)
At this point, I almost try to stay ignorant of reissues as every week there’s at least a few more “essential” albums I must have on vinyl. But the real magic happens when you step out of your essentialist bubble and take a risk on something totally new to you, something many of these records have in common. Of course, as with the Moomin soundtrack above, when you’re buying from Andy Votel’s Finders Keepers, rarely are you going to be led astray even if it takes a few years to realize just how brilliant any of the albums he’s helped release are. I weirdly found myself debating whether to include this album or Short Passing Game by Irishman Davy Kehoe, although his fourth-world informed speed elero-punk jams are ostensibly nothing like the late 60s and 70s electrified funk and rock composed by Kaynatan, but both albums introduce you to an extremely personal world of sound, even if both use the vernacular of established styles and genres. While Turkey's electronic music legacy of the 50s and 60s tends to be represented by the twin figureheads of İlhan Mimaroǧlu and Bülent Arel, Finders Keepers has helped restore this missing link in the history of Turkish pop and electronic music to his rightful place with this delightfully dizzying compilation. Recording within his very private personal studio, Kaytan helped soundtrack the morning-to-evening rituals for countless Turkish citizens through his prolific work as an in-house producer for the country's TRT 1. From the opening ethereal synths that introduce the 1982 composition "Doganin Ötesi" that were plausibly an influence on Boards of Canada to the piercing electric guitar and restless drum sequencer patterns, his music is one that at once feels impossibly busy and idea-filled and, well, groovy af as he trades licks between his trusted guitar and hulking synthesizer that would help him to revolutionize his country's Anatolian rock scene. Elsewhere we hear him indulging in the kind of madcap late-60s rock found on the extended version of "Evren" whereas "Shirbaz" sees him effortlessly synthesizing the swiveling rhythms of his homeland with an unmistakably western rock style. And ultimately, it is that marriage of western musical and technological influences with a groove that is very much his own that makes this collection such an eye-opening and fun listening experience. Here's hoping more is to come from Finders Keepers being granted unlimited access to the composer's archives.
Yasuaki Shimizu - Music for Commercials (Crammed Discs 1987/2017)
Considering the glut of Italian and Japanese experimental jawns from the 70s and 80, I'm choosing this to be my stand-in for the Midori Takada, Hiroshi Yoshimura, and so many other on-trend reissues that catered to the latest iteration in how record collectors delude thenselves into believing they are paragons of eclecticism, throwing a pissy fit whenever one deigns to suggest otherwise. Yeah, 2017 was the year I found myself disliking the majority of record collectors while finding those true heads that continue to share their knowledge out of a mutual thirst for any and every music that blows one mind, not to listen without bias but to at least stay mindful of one’s particular set of aesthetic prejudices. For music that is supposed to serve in function of both the product being advertised and a company’s over-arching brand continuity, Shimizu offers a provocative insight into just how different a mentality his country’s inhabitants have to both their consumer identities. W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is a must-read (not to mention a quick one) that details the style evolution that occurred in twentieth-century that resulted in such international streetwear mega brands BAPE. The fact that A Bathing Ape’s brand identity allows it to both effortlessly blend in with an international style while also retaining its uniquely Japanese construction (even if it is just in the company’s logo) provides a interesting commercial parallel for the music composed by Shimizu. An album that is ‘all over the place’ by necessity of its origin also reflects a unifying and sophisticated compositional voice does so in a manner that can be overlooked on countless listens. For as intricate or singular as so many of the compositions are, they also contain a playful quality, a feeling of just catching a part of something bigger, not unlike Milo Smee’s melodic sensibility.
Jana Rush - Pariah (Objects Limited 2017) / Jlin - Black Origami (Planet Mu 2017)
Footwork has always been most successful when it looks forward—even when it’s looking backwards as on DJ Rashad’s bar-setting Double Cup, he did so with one eye on a vista far off in the distance. To be frank, at the start of 2017, if you were to ask me who I thought the most exciting footwork producer was, I’d probably have answered Kode9 as his 2015 LP Nothing contained some of the most head-scratching and body-moving footwork that has been noticeably lacking from the Teklife catalog--try as I did, neither the DJ Earl and or Taso from last year did much for me nor did Spinn and Taye's recent efforts. So the fact that the genre’s two LP’s came from women in and directly outside of Chicago felt like a much-needed corrective to the creative cul de sac in which many of footwork’s pioneers currently find themselves. And despite being mentored by the late Rashad, Jlin has always used her considerably high profile to position herself as outside of the genre, I’m hard pressed to find another label to affix to her masterful second album Black Origami even if it did find her carving out a rhythmic world of her own making that expanded well past footwork's self-imposed strictures.
Pariah is no less of sensory-shocking, but it’s an album that doesn’t as readily command your attention like the opening track on Origami does—even if Jlin’s own “Erotic Energy” seems like an immediate reference point for the female vocal utterances and gaseous synths that float atop the sharply tuned bass kicks. But by the time one gets to the complete beatdown that is "Beat Maze" and the soulful stylings of "Divine," Rush has constructed a newly weaponized breed of footwork, the stutters rendered impossibly supple and the ferocity of the drums evened out with the producer's uncanny ability to read atmospheres. And while DJ Manny turned his most substantial work to date with the haunting grooves of Greenlight and Gost Zvuk's Винтажнайк provided that much-needed outsider's perspective that's been so crucial to the genre's development, it was Rush and Jlin that seized upon its inherent futurism and picked it apart to reveal a whole new horizon.
Nídia - Nídia É Má, Nídia É Fudida (Príncipe 2017) / DJ Lycox - Sonhas & Pesadelos (Príncipe 2017)
Another coupling that may seem like a gross over-simplifaction for some but to me feels like two sides of the same coin. Nídia’s self-titled debut album took the promise of past efforts and exceeded any possible expectation by turning in an album almost unwieldy in its rhythmic complexities and compositional knots. While many of Príncipe's tracks can seems more like rough outlines than drafted-and-proofed dancefloor novellas, Nídia takes this rough-and-cut aesthetic to a baffling extreme, challenging the listener to seek resolutions in her open-ended, often-unresolved tracks. There's a general nonlinearity in much of the more melodic material on the label as producers like Marfox and Nigga Fox couple their death-defying rhythmic constructions with jarringly hypnotic melodic counterparts, sewing together one after another until the tapestry is fully rendered. Nídia takes an arguably more stripped-down and confrontational approach, forcing the listener to grapple with her rhythmic rubics cubes that twist and move across as predestined by the producer, the chaos unfolding exactly as planned. Unlike Jlin''s Dark Energy or Black Origami, Nídia doesn't feel like so much of an essay as it does a snapshot, an ever-changing and growing producer, restless at her nature yet focused in her grid-opposed beats. And while Black Origami transcends the footwork genre in which it was birthed--albeit from afar--Nídia's similarly virtual placement at the center of this ever-enriching scene makes her both a familiar voice and an accepted outcast. Her selection of samples speaking volumes about the dialogue that can exist between the genders when all the superficial trappings, the make-up, the hair gel is stripped away and you're left simply with a beat and a melody. And when you're capable of moving bodies with the most minimal of means, you achieve a maximalist effect, challenging the listener in a way that forces them to both reconsider their own personal musical heritage while seeking to reconcile it with one that is wholly other.
Lycox, on the other hand, delivered a dazzlingly detailed debut full-length that was a testament to why he’s long been considered one of the most important voices within the scene. Leaving the pretzeled rhythmic patterns to his colleague, Lycox focused on melody and style and lots of it, constructing dizzying plastic symphonies that touched on deep house, grime, and of course variant strains of batida to devastating effect. The opening trilogy of the celebratory "Weekend," the sweet-and-sour "Galinha," and the lively deep house of "Domingo Abençoado" serve to welcome the listener to an often challenging rhythmic world--whereas Nídia seems hellbent on scaring off any and all bandwagon jumpers, Lycox plays it a bit more diplomatic. Once you get through the remainder of the A side via the minor key bangers of "Virgin Island" and "Nichako," it feels like you've leveled up or gotten on Lycox's level as the hiccuping kicks that sound the start of the flip on "La Java" indicate that you're now in the middle of the dance and if you didn't come to throw down, the get out of the way. As surprising as the wailing sax of "Parabens Mo Baba" is at first, it's the take-no-prisoners energy of "Quarteto Fantástico" that serves as the album's centerpiece of sorts, a four-way collaboration between Lycox, MIX-BwÉ, Pu To NeLo, and Puto WilsoN, each producer seemingly turning in his own rattling bassline as the frequencies burrow down as deep as the rhythm. In all, it's a thoroughly engaging and fun listen, one that begs repeat plays not just to uncover new details, but because its bright energy shimmers across all ten tracks without a note feeling wasted. If you want a starting point to the world of Príncipe, there’s no better place to now start than these two albums (though both the label compilation from last year and Warp Cargaa releases work too).
Various - Remixed (Central Processing Unit 2017)
Another killer electro comp, this time courtesy of Sheffield's Central Processing Unit, a label whose commitment to the retro-futurist aesthetic is bore out across their binary number-based cover art. Presumably released to celebrate their fifth year in existence, the label went the tried-and-true route of taking twelve of their catalog's biggest bangers and setting twelve of their artists upon the task of remixing each in their own style. And while it can at times feel like every artist on the label must have identikit studio set-ups, the album is a testament to the wide range of styles housed under the trad electro banner. One aspect that certainly jumps out from Jensen Interceptor's ghost-banging remix of Sync 24's "Memory Bubble" is that the low-end is never ignored for long, whether in that track's in-the-red kicks or providing melodic counterpoint on Sync 24's remix of Annie Hall's searching "Curie." Elsewhere, we get the bittersweet eletropop in the form of Microlith's remix of Tryphème's "Mélodramatique" and Annie Hall's spacious rework of Cygnus' "Strange Hyper," a personal favorite. Though it's the slow-burning grind that DJ VLR affixes to Jenson Interceptor's quixotic "Model 2029." Basically, there's something for every electro fan on this comp and it served as a stern reminder that while their cover art might be nearly indecipherable, heat is almost always contained within.
Gas - Narkopop (Kompakt 2017)
Is it just me or did this album leave people a bit cold? Or rather, did the casual lemming listener take one listen to the sprawling, IMAX-scale forest ambient at night vibes and go running for the bar? At this point in my life listening to Gas has become a ritualistic experience, something I do not do often, but when I do it's because I'm ready to give myself fully over to Herr Voigt's ever-forking treks through the German forests of his youth. And even while I just eyerolled at that sentence, it's also too true to delete. Basically, if all you know about Gas is the stupidly pretty Pop, you're gonna be let down by Narkopop, which is essentially what happens when you turn off the lights in the wood. Things get fucking weird. But just as on the previous three 'proper' Gas LP's (not to mention the EP and album not covered by last year's immense(ly costly) Box. Hey, I have no regrets as listening to vinyl pressings produced in the past year for this ever-popular yet impossible-to-pin-down project has been some of the most harrowing auditory experiences I've had the pleasure of having. Still, even Zauerberg had an ominous dusk vibe to it where as Narkopop heads straight for the abyss and doesn't care if you come along or not. The tension rarely ever lets up and while this can make for slightly stressful listening on the first go, like any cleared path in a forest each trip down bears a deeper familiarity and appreciation for the environs created by Voigt. While the beloved vinyl crackle of the previous records is gone, in its place is a lysergic lucidity that was actually pretty damn well capture in the photo book that accompanied Box, the apparently rote forest photos containing layers of delicate manipulation to approximate the onset of a very clean acid trip--and sure, this is a fan theory, but Voigt has also said repeatedly the music is a direct byproduct of his taking acid in the Black Forest, which, fucking tight, man. And a trip it is, the album only being split into individual sections on the vinyl pressing, whereas the digital edition is one long odyssey through the familiar rendered pitch black. One's arms are out, grasping for the familiar like a phantom limb. Yet Voigt times his moments of reprieve ever so, keeping the listener of their toes to make for an immersive but in no way passive listening endeavor. Album rules. Don't mind the haters.
Konrad Sprenger - Stack Music (PAN 2017)
As much as the Mono No Aware comp served to remind listeners of the rude health Bill Kouligas' tastemaking experimental imprint PAN remains in, ushering in a new cadre of ambient thoughts and producers, it was the introduction of veteran composer and instrument builder Konrad Sprenger that was perhaps the most pleasant surprise in a year full of them, every album issued by the label deserving of a listen. An alias of Jörg Hiller, Sprenger's output dates back to 2004's co-release with she of the long string instrument, Ellen Fullman not to mention a credit under Hiller on stringsmith Arnold Dreyblatt's Who's Who in Central and East Europe 1933. Those influences come right to the forefront on Stack Music, his album-length statement featuring his computer-controlled multi-channel electric guitar. In case you aren't sure what that means--and I didn't either until doing some digging--Mr. Sprenger's website provides some helpful background info:
Konrad Sprenger explores rhythmic patterns based on the Euclidean algorithm, to evoke a kind of cognitive insecurity through metrical dissonance. Sprenger approaches the strings of the guitar as frequency generators, tuned and set into motion by various electronically controlled mechanical actions. The music relates to the insistent rhythms of Minimalism, Krautrock and Techno, and their shared focus on transcendence through propulsive, full-spectrum sound.
Well...damn, yep, that's pretty much what you're going to find on Stack Music. The aptly-named "Opening" serves as something of a manifesto, beginning as a single string plucked until a second joins it to begin building an interlocking machine of polyrhythmic melodies that start with the distinctly plucked notes and are soon enfolded into a quiet drone, the instrumentation gradually shifting from synthetically acoustic to pure synthesis. Sprenger draws upon Americana and figures like Fahey in his more melodic moments while careening into freer structures and multi-movement compositions on "Finale" and "Rondo." By the time the listener has made their way through the two eighteen-minute long epics, Sprenger returns to somewhat familiar ground on the roaring melodic engine of closer "Largo." Except this time there's no pretense made about the analog or digital nature of his instruments, evoking the polyphonic free-for-all of 80s modern classical composers like Daniel Lentz and his piece "Is It Love?" that opens his magnificent On the Leopard Altar. Mining the past not out blind fealty but out of a need to create something new or at least unique is one of the predominant themes linking almost every album featured here and it's perhaps Sprenger who does it most elegantly, pivoting between banjo-like rambling and neoclassical pontification like they were two peas in a pod.
Jan Jelinek- Loop-Finding-Jazz-Music (~scape/Faitiche 2001/2017)
I fucking adore Jan Jelinek. Let’s just get that out of the way; total Jelinek fanboy here. And while I’ll ride or die for his subsequent albums or his Farben material that predated this 2001 masterpiece, this album is just one of those special guys that only seem to become more so with time. I’ll never forget hearing this in college around 2005ish and just being utterly blown away by how sleek and dense its sound design was, sourced as we all know from the titular ‘jazz music.’ Ever the sample conceptualist, Jelinek crafted eight tracks--now ten thanks to his merciful inclusion of the equally necessary Tendency EP--that each are a world unto themselves. At the time around when I first encountered this album, it was one that felt of an ilk with the mnml techno that was everywhere at the time but listening to it today, I’m struck by how stubborn each track is when let to play with others, so fully realized as an album that taken on their own any one track may feel woefully curious. Much like the best jazz, this is alien music for alien people who enjoy taking the familiar and rendering it utterly other.
Creation Rebel - Starship Rebel (4D Rhythms/On-U Sound 1980/2017)/Tradition - Captain Ganja and the Space Patrol (Venture/Bokeh Versions 1980/2017)
One theme of 2017 for me was that this was the year I truly understood the power of a well-designed record sleeve. Here you have two album-long dub excursions from Creation Rebel's long-revered Star Ship Rebel--its influence not to be overstated--given its first vinyl reissue since 1982 and the much-lesser known but way-cooler-looking Captain Ganja and the Space Patrol by Tradition with its highly detailed spaceship cover. Both albums are absolute masterclasses in extended dub descents with each track bleeding into the next, drenching whatever room it is played in with vibes. Maybe it was the fact that the Starship Rebel was released as a Record Store Day special, but that didn’t seem to keep it from sitting on shelves long after April had passed. But here we are at the end of year and while I’ve seen the Tradition album in many a year-end list, I’ve been truly nonplussed at the absence of the album that likely inspired it.
For you see, Starship Rebel's origins date back to 1978 when the album was originally planned as the debut album from one DJ Superstar, demoes of his toasting over the Creation Rebel-provided backing tracks lost to time. Then starting his fledgling pre-On-U label of 4D Rhythms, Adrian Sherwood reworked the originals, recording the drumming of Style Scott on top of Charlie Eskimo Fox's playing and given even more heft by the addition of around six or more assorted percussionists. The result is an album of cosmic sufferation, a style increasingly favored by the record execs at the time chasing Island's Marley-tinted coattails. As Lloyd Bradley recounts in his must-read Sounds Like London: 100 Years Black Music in the Capital, there was a split in reggae at the time between the more trad sounds of post-Marley imitators and the lover's rock that married Motown's sugary sweet soul with a certain London ting. Where Starship is forty-plus minutes of smoked out drumming and spacious jams, Captain Ganja is considerably busier not just due to the central role of Paul Thompson's keyboard playing and ample usage of a sampler to pump otherworldly and familiar sounds into the mix, it's also a far more loved up affair as the influence of the city's own unique reggae tradition dances up against with the dub tropes and templates. Both however are not of this world and it is no matter of chance that Starship was at once the planned soundtrack to a rastafarian sci-fi film that was never made and Tradition were at one point considered by the BBC to record the soundtrack to Doctor Who. Of course, if you have one, you’ll love the other so ultimately it’s a win-win for music fans everywhere.
Albums released at the start of the year always bear the added burden of having to remain on the mind of music writers the course of the following ten or eleven months and I’d be the first to admit that despite falling in love with Mark Clifford of Seefeel’s and Loops Haunt’s Scott Douglas Gordon debut LP for Editions Mego, I hardly expected its charms to remain as fresh and effective now as they did at the year’s start. Combining new and old musique concéte tricks in service of their guitars and other sound-generating machines and injecting a steady pulse of electronic in the mix, Oto Hiax is stuffed but never bloated.The aural accents are pure ephemera, conjured up for the second of its enjoyment and never to return again. A cryptically fantastic album that refuses ever to sit idly in the background, as poetic tracks like the magisterial "Creeks" turning from light to dark in seemingly a flick of the eye, a testament to the fierce dynamics at work and casting a promising future if these two continue to record.
Autocreation - Mettle (Inter-Modo/Medical Records 1994/2017)
In my delightful chat with Troy Wadsworth of Medical Records this summer, rather than simply talking about the present concerns surrounding his potent label and its Transfusions sub-imprint that serves as an outlet for its founders' love for the darker side of techno, Troy was so kind as to provide a sort of musical biography. In doing so, he helped to shed light on the many facets that make up the Medical catalog, one being his deep abiding love for Seefeel's Mark Van Hoen and the many different musical projects he's embarked upon over the years, the lesser known of which his tribal techno trio Autocreation. Over the course of just three EPs and the Mettle LP released between 1993 and 1995, Van Hoen, Kevin Hector, and Tara Patterson created a small and potent body of work that sounds frighteningly relevant to today's industrial and tribal 90s-facing trends. Opener "Dark Smile" is a jaw-dropping technoid jam anchored by a repeating roboticized vocal loop under which chugging synths come into full view, slamming the listener with their sheer velocity before a brief and massive siren-esque loop enters the picture and confusing any simple classification or signs of aging. Where tracks like "Tomato Dawn" are all industrial po-faced menace, rhythmic-melodic epics like "Justice Loop" swoop and dive like some airborn alien taking in the more bucolic edges of space. While it might sound unmistakably like 1994, it's also a firm reminder that for many, that year sounded like both the future and the end of the present and this album mirrors perfectly that frightened excitement.
Michele Mercure - Eye Chant (Freedom to Spend 2017) / Marc Barreca - Music Works For Industry (Palace of Lights/Freedom to Spend 1983/2017) / Pep Llopis - Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes (Grabaciones Accidentales/Freedom to Spend 1987/2017) / Richard Horowitz - Eros in Arabia (Ethnotech Records/Freedom to Spend 1981/2017)
OK, cheap move not forcing myself to pick a favorite, but even in this age of peak reissues (or so it seems), the fact that Pete Swanson, Jed Binderman, and Matt Werth--all three record collectors I personally look up to--can jumpstart a label that trades in the absolute obscure alongside forgotten gems with every release feeling essential...well, let's just say ReGRM is the last reissue label to come along that I regret not buying every release of for how essential each one is. I spoke to Pete right around when FTS 001 and 002 were released spring and it's an enlightening look into a particularly genuine approach to doing something that actually stands out in this seeming moment of peak reissues. And while some may consider the Michele Mercure or Marc Barreca obscure curios or the Pep Llopsis and RIchard Horowitz as overlooked masterpieces, having spent a considerable amount of time with the Freedom to Spend catalog over the past year, I've realized what makes this upstart so promising is that each release manages to be both at once while occupying a socnic space all its own.
One of my greatest regrets as a record collector is that I abandoned my plans to buy every single one of the albums reissued on the ReGRM label aimed at giving the musique concréte and French electronic music pioneered at the famous Groupe De Recherches Musicales a proper release. Recent years have seen the likes of Argentina’s Beatriz Ferraya getting her due recognitions while this year saw the much-needed collection of the Dutch sound engineer and electronic composer Jaap Vink, available widely for the first time. While undoubtedly a work of musique concréte, Vink seemed to relish squeezing every last drop of tonality, micro and otherwise, out of his source materials. In a catalog featuring such field recording masterpieces as Presque Rien, Vink stood out right from the start, the compositions he made between 1968 and 1985 often resembling an orchestra frozen in ice. Even the earliest piece on here, the breathtakingly detailed and sensual "Creep" oozes notes and even hints of melody while remaining seemingly ineffable, each listen challenging the listener to find their footing, not unlike kindred spirit Gas whose music is the closest analog I can think of. Just take the jaw-droppingly gorgeous opener of "En Dehors," composed over a five-year period between 1980 and 1985 yet sounding if it was created in one single take--and it likely could have been if Vink had the technology we have at our disposal today. It's truly revelatory stuff and one of the most accidentally charming albums of the year, the moss and ivy covering every last inch of Vink's ivory tower.
Dominique Lawalrée - First Meeting (Ergot/Catch Wave 2017)
For as much as I adore this compilation of the Belgian composer's early material, I don't know if it would have weighed on my mind up to this point had I not seen Dominique for myself a couple months back. For an album seemingly made to be listened to at dawn, sitting uncomfortably in a gorgeous church at night and being absolutely overwhelmed by Mr. Lawalrée's playing and personality, I found myself relating to compositions both known and not in an entirely new way. No longer was this just another forgotten ambient mystic, but also a true musician absolutely in love with the possibilities contained within his fingertips. That we may all live such a way, well, that would be the dream now, wouldn't it? Check out my review of Dominique's show and music here.
Norm Talley - Normalize (FXHE 2017)
In which our hero of countless twelves that bang too hard finally releases his debut album via Omar-S' FXHE imprint and shows off his insane range and versatility while never losing sight of what we're all here for: to get down to some killer grooves.
Faten Kanaan - Pleiade Hex 6 (Polytechnic Youth 2017)
I gotta admit; with there being no shortage of contemplative, dramatic synth albums out there, it takes something special for me to feel compelled to drop some coin on a record from a crowded field of releases that may sound almost the same to the untrained ear. Narrative seems to be something fans of lyric-based music cherish, but upon hearing the samples for this, Kanaan’s second album, I was struck how its suites were in fact “narrative in nature” as stated on the album’s bandcamp page. Whether comprised of a single melody or multiple movements, each composition told a tale mostly through music itself as Kanaan’s vocals served more of an instrumental purpose. But upon getting a copy, I felt positively underwhelmed as the often paper-thin compositions failed to create the transportive experience for which I had hoped. Nevertheless, I found myself returning to the album again and again, not paying attention at first and then slowly becoming overwhelmed by the sublime power wielded by her keyboards and voice. “Whimsical” is an all-too underused descriptor these days as musicians often play at having a level of sophistication, which is understandable given the increasing ambition found on ostensibly pop albums like DNA., Lemonade, and Yeezus. So for an artist to chase a kind of wide-eyed naiveté or to be able to evoke that sense of endless discovery via means that have already been well-worn is both something to commend and marvel at. Indeed, there’s a real sense of adventure and discovery at work in Pleiade Hex 6 as well as a certain innocence, as if Kanaan herself is unsure what lurks behind each passage, songs containing multiple movements and moods while a lyricism is found throughout, usually in the form of a lead melody but also as sung by Kanaan in a voice that trembles with sincerity and utter confidence. Groundbreaking it’s not, but who cares when an album is this dazzlingly affecting?
Kendrick Lamar - DNA. (TDE 2017)
While this list is certainly intended to shine light on under-heralded gems, a game-changing song is a game-changing song and no other song contained so enraged brilliance within a brief three-minute run-time. Like the single “Humble,” the song opens with electric guitar as a hard rock breakdown serves as a gateway to Lamar’s red-pill world where one is pummeled by a multimedia racist onslaught and becomes all the stronger and more principled for it. Racial essentialism took on new life in 2017 as being black ceased to appear as something one chooses to perform and rather as something foisted upon those not of the caucasian persuasion and that haunts one for as long as things refuse to change. Whether it was in analyzing the brilliant web series American Koko and its Toni Morrison-indebted idea of inherited racial trauma, Kara Walker’s more potent-than-ever nonlinear historical tableaus, or the chorus of “The Story of OJ” in which Jay-Z took an idea from Nina Simone about racial facticity and ran with in it, something changed this year and the near-instantaneous condemnation of Bill Maher's word choice was just one of many necessary instances of its existence. Opening as it does with the thunderous "DNA.," Lamar cloaked the album in a certain menace as fans cheered at the prospect of receiving an entire album of the "angry Kendrick" we've previously only glimpsed on tracks like To Pimp a Butterfly stand-out "The Blacker the Berry." And while the album is positively shaking with that righteous fury, this time the production feels thankfully scaled back as one can almost hear the residue of tracks that one existed on each song and were ultimately removed as the artist and his producers got closer to their vision. That the album take an instant left-turn following its explosive introduction on the mid-tempo burner "YAH."--in which that vocal signature of mumble rap is deployed to devastating effect--and features one of the year's most haunting slow jams in the form of "LOVE." is a testament to Lamar and/or his alter ego Kung-Fu Kenny's ability to navigate the many tributaries contained within today's pop landscape. And he does so with an almost detached reverence, taking a sped-up Bruno Mars sample as the instrumental hook for his should-be smash collab with Rhianna "LOYALTY." or trotting out U2 of all things and pulling it off on "XXX," perhaps one of the year's most expectation-defying moves. That song's lithe pairing of Lamar's indignant observations over a banging Bomb Squad-like beat with its Bono-as-lounge-singer third act shows how juxtaposition has become a powerful tool with which to breathe poignancy back into stripped-bare styles and genres and it speaks to anger's powerful dualism. Rage might be a destructive force, but it is also an informative and necessary one with which to initiate some form of change or to inspire others to take up the cause. And one would be hard-pressed to get through DAMN. without learning a thing or two, which is perhaps its greatest triumph.
DJ Python - Dulce Compañia (Incensio 2017) / Deejay Xanax -EDR004 12" (Exotic Dance Records 2017)
You hear those snickers? Coming from those who laugh and cringe at Bryan Piñero’s gleeful embracing of meme house signifiers and half-baked hipster house concepts like “deep reggaeton?” Yeah, ignore the anti-hype and give yourself over to the masterful hand of Piñero. Personally, I knew I could no longer feign elitist disgust after hearing and subsequently losing my shit when DJ Zebrablood dropped the atmospheric and modified jungle beats found on the DJ Xanax twelve at a Blazer Soundsystem party last winter. Of course, I had no idea it was a new release until I bought it a week later and found myself positively seduced by the producer’s natural ability to evoke endless vibes from his beats. It certainly made processing the album-length missive from his DJ Python alias the following fall much easier while cultivating a deep appreciation for his ability to so effectively transpose deep house tropes onto a new but resonant rhythmic framework. After all, choosing a rather minimal percussive palette with percussion submerged against the staggered kicks and frozen-in-time chord stabs, I wouldn’t be surprised if the common listen took this as a more reserved broken beat record as the “deep” half of his genre portmanteau is what managed to elevate this from a drunk/stoned idea to a truly compelling release, something Piñero is becoming ever more adept at.
Luka Productions - Fasokan (Sahel Sounds 2017)
Ever since chancing upon Balani Show Super Hits - Electronic Street Parties From Mali right around my thirtieth birthday, Sahel Sounds has been on my go-to labels for discovering some of the most exciting African music occurring within the Saharan regoin of the continent. Starting off the year super strong with the trance folk guitar of Amadou Binta Konté & Tidiane Thiam's Waande Kadde, the label wasted little time before trotting out their scene stealer in the form of the New Age African electronic music of Luka Productions' Fasokan. Melding acoustic instruments with computer-aided production, it's a stunner of an album where all-too-clear vocals rest upon busy yet gaseous instrumentals that seem to float in the stratosphere before coming down to earth, the drum beats anchoring the vaporous sounds to this cruel earth.
Leonce - Insurgency (Fade to Mind 2017)
And for the most unexpected record to be on this list...finding this album sealed in the discount bin, I figured “what’s the worst that can happen?” and proceeded onwards. So consider my surprise when I opened up the seal to find nice moody, globalized dance that effortlessly marries dembow, Jersey, and plenty of non-western dance stylings with minimally melancholic melodies to make for what still strikes me as the best DJ tools album I could have possible have gotten and for a song as well:) What I find most genuinely pleasurable about this collection is that none of it feels rushed or overwrought; the young boy Leonce was given his instructions to make some beats and boy did he ever!