Ulver -ATGCLVLSSCAP

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Ulver – ATGCLVLSSCAP

Released January 22nd, 2016 on House of Mythology

The Norwegian black metal band turned art-house experimental collective Ulver has gone even more out-there for their twelfth album.  Bored of the usual way in which they made albums, they embarked on an experimental series of live concerts that they branded “free rock”, in which they got up on various stages throughout Europe and jammed on whatever motifs came into their heads that night.  These live recordings were then culled and cut into shape by the band, further enhanced with noise and, on “Moody Stix”, samples of their older work.  The outcome is the ultimate ambient jam, not so much a collection of songs as a roadmap of their trip through Europe and the noise that came into their heads on any given night.  There is a freeing quality to the recordings that is remarkably free of the sort of formality one comes to expect from studio jams; the off-the-cuff nature makes for a series of aural hallucinations that move in and out of grooves as the group chooses.  “Cromagnosis” and “Om Hanumate Namah” are the best examples of the trance-like groove state the band would find themselves in, although the lysergic ambiance of “England’s Hidden” and “The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible” evoke the same feeling without locking themselves into an outright beat.

Forget Explosions In The Sky:  ATGCLVLSSCAP is post-rock, in that it clears the space of anchors like structure and studio formality and sets the stage for something potentially new and exciting.

(And if you’re wondering, the title is an acronym referencing the twelve signs of the zodiac).

The 100 Best Albums of 2015: Part 1, 100-81

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#100:  Sunn O))) – Kannon

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The drone-doom-noise band finally follows up 2009’s transcendental Monoliths and Dimensions with a more immediate and visceral trio of noise-soaked dread.

#99:  Rose McDowall – Cut With The Cake Knife

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If you ever missed spiky, snotty Eighties pop, look no further.

#98:  BC Camplight – How To Die In The North

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Velvety and yet dangerous, like the upholstery on a late-70s vintage Buick.

#97:  Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth

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He’ll spend the rest of his career living down his ill-fated sophomore album (he recently grudgingly encouraged the destruction of physical copies of it) but Tetsuo & Youth shows where his career should have gone.

#96:  Thee Oh Sees – Mutilator Defeated At Last

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Six albums, five years, and a couple of big lineup changes finds John Dwyer’s day job band rocking out bigger and harder than ever before.

 

#95:  Destruction Unit – Negative Feedback Resistor

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Blown-out industrial noise-punk, like Big Black with a better appreciation for depth.

#94:  No Joy – More Faithful

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The alternagaze duo returns for a murkier, more complex record that plays directly to their strengths.

#93:  Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?

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A strong mid-career album for the veteran indie-dance group, with solid grooves and a touch of early 90s UK rave.

#92:  Carly Rae Jepsen –       E-MO-TION

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An 80s banger of a pop record, once you get over the essential Robin Sparkles nature of E-MO-TION it becomes a great soundtrack to an energetic night.

#91:  Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls

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A double album of shapeable, moldable pure sound from longtime noise artist Dominick Fernow.

#90:  Echo Lake – Era

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This record is liquid, in that the sound expands to fill whatever room you play it in.  Expansive dream-prog with an ambient touch that is deft and subtle.

#89:  Alabama Shakes – Sound And Color

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Brittany Howard looks a third grade teacher and sings like the Goddess of Soul. The band is okay too.

#88:  Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin

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Mercury Prize nominated UK hip hop artist goes full out in an amalgamation of grime, U.S. hip hop, and electronic influences.

#87:  Mount Eerie – Sauna

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The calmest, quietest sense of dread you may ever experience, and something of a comeback for the former Microphones frontman.

 #86:  Zun Zun Egui – Shackle’s Gift

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A truly world-reaching experience, the Bristol band draws on a number of diverse influences to create hard-hitting, crunchy songs that are close in approximating rock n roll.

#85:  Belle & Sebastian – Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance

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The band takes a hard skew towards dance pop on their umpteenth album, bringing some much-needed fresh air into their act.

#84:  EL VY – Return To The Moon

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A meeting of the minds between indie stalwarts The National and Menomena, EL VY is one of the rare side projects that hits all the same pleasure buttons as their respective member’s day jobs.

#83:  The Roadside Graves – Acne/Ears

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This is a rustic country album, if it were made by a less-crappy Gaslight Anthem, or if The Men took the folk-country side of New Moon and ran with it. Which is to say, it’s as Jersey as anything else you can name.

#82:  Wilco – Star Wars

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The veteran alt-country band keeps that train a-rollin’, not letting age or maturity get in the way of a good rock n roll hook. It may be “music for dads with receding hairlines” as Shameless put it, but it rocks all the same.

#81:  Insect Ark – Portal/Well

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Dana Schechter creates a bedroom electronic record that shifts and transforms as much as it makes a serious attempt to claw up your face and wriggle into your ear.

U.S. Girls – Half Free

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U.S. Girls – Half Free

In a recent Vice interview, Meg Remy – long-time noisemaker and the brains behind U.S. Girls – mentioned that the two biggest influences for Half Free were John Cassavetes and Bruce Springsteen.  The sense of getting into the heads of characters, then, is an obvious starting point for the album, but it’s really Bruce Springsteen that seems to take on the lion’s share of influence here.  It starts with the cover photo:  Remy in black and white, staring into the camera with seemingly the exact same expression that the Boss has on the cover of The River.  It continues on through the songs, which are all portraits of women in a variety of nightmarish scenarios; the nightmares take on a more visceral bent due to the fact that these are ordinary women in ordinary worlds and the problems that they find themselves mired in are all too depressingly plausible.  “Sororal Feelings” examines a woman in a crumbling marriage who discovers that her husband has slept with her three sisters; “Damn That Valley” wraps a vicious examination of the failures of the U.S. War on Terror in the grief-stricken wail of a woman whose solider husband won’t be coming home.  “Window Shades” follows up a snide skit on being “another woman with no self-esteem” with a woman who’s finally able to confront her no-account cheating boyfriend.  The seven-minute closer “Woman’s Work” is a hazy, cluttered Italo Disco masterpiece that rages against the religion of beauty and growls that a woman’s work is never finished.  Half Free is a deeply feminist record, an account of finding inner strength despite the odds stacked against women from all walks of life

This is music, though, so we need to look at the musical aesthetic of the album.  This is where Half Free starts to lose me a little.  “Sororal Feelings” is flawless, a perfect opener with a deceitful chorus that is probably never going to leave my brain.  “Damn That Valley” finds catharsis in a monster reggae beat, and Remy finds the right vocal lilt to ride it perfectly.  That said, it feels as though there’s too much piled on to the track – a problem that could be said of “New Age Thriller”, “Sed Knife”, and “Red Comes In Many Shades” as well.  This is where Remy’s background comes in; she spent her pre-Toronto years recording shitgaze and noise pop for tiny noise labels, burying her classic radio chops in waves of distortion, instrumentation, and tape noise.  Those days are still evident in many places throughout Half Free, and while I enjoy noise and clutter, there are parts of the album that I feel would have benefited from a cleaner mix, or at the very least a couple fewer voices (the hard-as-nails rock of “Sed Knife” is a great example of this).

Still, aesthetic quibbles aside, Half Free is an astonishing record that speaks to both the galvanizing effect that having a greatly increased budget can have on a creative and passionate artist, and to the keen eye 4AD has for picking those creative and passionate artists.  If Meg Remy wasn’t on your radar before, put her on it – there are bigger things to come.

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Girl Band – Holding Hands With Jamie

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Girl Band – Holding Hands With Jamie

One of the things you pick up on when you’re married to someone with a Master’s in Political Theory is what the post- signifier is; that is, what the “post” in post-colonialism, or post-modernism, or – more relevant to this review – post-punk means.  To keep things simple, it’s an act of space-clearing, a way to make room to deconstruct the implied “pre” portion and to analyze what makes it tick, so that you can put it back together in more meaningful and insightful ways.

Post-punk, then, was a deconstruction of the original first wave of punk rock, the fabled “three chords and an attitude” that came roaring out of Britain during the brutal recession of the late 1970s.  A lot more went into punk rock than just three chords, of course; most of those bands were into reggae, ska, dub, country, jazz, and nearly any other form of music that wasn’t boring-as-hell California rock.  A band like the Clash, or the Slits, had a lot more going on under the surface than their more popular tracks might have you believe.  Post-punk took those blended ingredients, separated them, and then re-blended them into new shapes.  Gang of Four took the strident political screeds of the Clash and made them dance; Pere Ubu mutated dub and ska until they were nearly unrecognizable; Swell Maps chopped the general idea of music up into something that still sounded like music, but only if you stood far enough away.

The general popularity of what we’ve come to know as “post-punk” has risen and fallen over the years, and when it’s time came around again in the early 2000s it seemed as though everyone was finding that essence rare.  Unlike their forebears, though, the bands that caught the attention of the post-9/11 college kids weren’t all that interested in breaking down their influences to examine and rework them.  Interpol didn’t do much to Joy Division beyond adding big basslines lifted right out of the poppier Cure albums.  !!! replaced the soul of Gang of Four with disco, which is like switching out butter for margarine and pretending it’s radically different.  Yeah Yeah Yeahs were an obvious dead ringer for Siouxsie Sioux.  The Strokes wanted to be Television, who weren’t technically post-punk but may as well have been.  The only band who really seemed to want to break apart the conventions and get right down into the very essence of revolutionary sound itself was liars, and they got ripped apart for it (They Were Wrong So We Drowned is still one of the best albums of the 2000s, dammit, and I stand by that).

So when I say that Girl Band reminds me of liars, it’s because Girl Band is also willing to take the bands that influenced them, break them down to their atomic components, and rearrange them in a fashion that is, god forbid, actually refreshing.  Take “Fucking Butter” as an example:  the riff that kicks it off is weirdly familiar, like I’ve heard it on a Sleigh Bells song, but what comes after pounds out that riff so that it becomes increasingly unhinged.  Three minutes in and more textures get added – high-gain guitar scrapings mainly – and then it becomes piled on to the point that it feels as though it’s about to crush you.  Then it resets, and we’re left with a simple clicking drum beat and wildly shouted Gang of Four-esque vocals – and that’s just the half-way point.  A lot of these songs are like that.  They take the Gang vocals, the Swell Maps vision of song cut-and-paste, the Pere Ubu attack-noise, but they don’t just slavishly imitate these pieces.  They rearrange them instead, using them in ways that their ancestors would never have attempted.  “Paul” feels like it might have come out of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking, but rather than overwhelm the listener with feedback and noise like Albini did, they use those textures to build a sonic narrative from ragged beginning to gloriously blown-out ending.  You can catch all of the pillars of Eighties post-punk here and there throughout, but it’s like noticing a beak in a slurry of factory processed chicken; by the time you notice it, the line has moved on and you’re left wondering if it was real or if you just thought it was.

Like Viet Cong, Girl Band have brought new life to the spectre that has been haunting punk rock since the early 1980s.  Viet Cong, however, were content to make a suit out of the skin-scraps of their influences, while Girl Band performed messy chainsaw surgery, followed by reconstructive surgery that would have made the doctor from The Human Centipede proud.  Call it post-post-punk – clearing a space from the space that was originally cleared – or just call it noise.  Either way, it’s highly compelling stuff.

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The Telescopes – Hidden Fields

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The Telescopes – Hidden Fields

The British psychedelic band’s eighth album is a flurry of distorted noise, with a stomping beat edging itself out of the maelstrom once in a while.  It’s nothing to write home about – it certainly holds no candle to Lightning Bolt’s excellent Fantasy Empire – but it serves a certain niche purpose for those who are incapable of listening to anything that isn’t clipped out into the red for miles.  They’re very good at what they do, but what they do isn’t that much different from the psych-noise back or from their own material.  Each track functions in largely the same way:  a wash of noise, some guitar-borne feedback, drums and maybe the whispers of some words out of the fog before they duck quickly back under again.  The tempo is kept to the lumbering side of the dial, and while they’re all effective stompers they never deviate from it, and thus by the time the fifteen minutes of “The Living Things” has finished, boredom has set in.  Decent enough stuff, but largely inessential.

 

Spring Roundup, 2015

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For those albums I’ve been too busy to get to in the first third of 2015, an accounting, or at the very least a terse quip.

Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin  

A rather different and not altogether unsatisfying followup to 2013’s Some Say I So I Say Light

Jeff The Brotherhood – Wasted On The Dream 

Weezer without the charm, early heavy metal without the bite, it just makes me miss Be Your Own Pet all that much more.

Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empires 

Noise for people who need structure.

Twin Shadow – Eclipse 

He was always a weenie.  Now he’s a weenie with major label money.

Hey Rosetta! – Second Sight 

Much like a big bubble of pop, shiny on the surface but vanishes into air if you look at it the wrong way.

Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass 

It’s pleasant enough but I don’t get the high praise and hoopla behind it.  Maybe like Andrew Bird if Andrew Bird was an inoffensive little major label folkie.

Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat 

Evolved grindcore, which is to say it’s what I expect out of a Napalm Death album.

 A Place To Bury Strangers – Transfixiation

The former Loudest Band In New York just doesn’t seem as loud or as vital anymore.

Screaming Females – Rose Mountain 

A progression but not a peak, the sound of a band trying to find its way forward.

The Pop Group – Citizen Zombie 

As I said weeks earlier, not every halfway-famous band from the 1980s needs to keep putting out records.  Sometimes you should just let your legacy stand on its own.

Built To Spill – Untethered Moon 

That dictum doesn’t apply to bands from the 90s, though, as many indie darlings of that time – Dinosaur Jr., Superchunk, Pinback, et al. – seem to have figured out the knack of being consistently great.

Dutch Uncles – O Shudder 

Nice enough pop rock, but the singer’s voice makes me want to gargle razor blades.

Echo Lake – Era 

Moving, euphoric, and pretty much exactly like their first album.

Lady Lamb – After 

Quirky indie rock with enough gain on the guitars to give it some heft.  Surprisingly good.

Matthew E. White – Fresh Blood 

Like Tobias Jesso, Jr, Matthew E White is a reborn Seventies piano man looking to channel heartbreak into soaring pop.  Unlike Tobias Jesso, Jr, Mr. White can do more than just plunk rote chords on his chosen instrument.

Cannibal Ox – Blade Of The Ronin 

Fourteen years later, and this is what we get.  I guess I know how Guns ‘n’ Roses fans feel.

Tyler, The Creator – Cherry Bomb

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Tyler, The Creator – Cherry Bomb

In the run-up to his new album, Odd Future leader Tyler, The Creator promised everyone a new Tyler, one who was more mature and willing to go forward.  This was by and large greeted with muted enthusiasm, since the OF schtick has worn a bit thin in the years since the world picked up on Bastard.  Bastard was fresh and exciting; Goblin dropped off after a couple of listens: the best that could be said for Wolf was that it was hit-and-miss.  With Cherry Bomb Tyler had the opportunity to step forward and take his game to the next level.

Sometimes he does that, but a lot of the time he doesn’t.

“DEATHCAMP”, the opening track to both Cherry Bomb and Tyler’s chaotic Coachella set, is a great kick-off.  The N.E.R.D. vibe that he nicks here is no accident; in the middle of his second verse he raps “In Search Of… did more for me than Illmatic“.  It’s a line that marks a clear divide between him and the old guard of hip hop, and it reminds me of an uncomfortable conversation I had not long ago where I discovered that there was, in fact, such a thing as dad rap.  Then “BUFFALO” comes on and it’s about as perfect a Tyler track as you can get.  After that, though…

As it turns out, Tyler’s take on maturity is that it involves R&B tracks with some off-kilter melodies.  “FIND YOUR WINGS” is where he tries this and fails; “FUCKING YOUNG/PERFECT” is where he manages to pull it off.  The noise that makes “DEATHCAMP” so much fun is taken to its extreme on “CHERRY BOMB”, which sounds like nothing so much as an early Wavves track, from back when he thought that heavy clipping made tracks sound cooler.  As an artistic statement I think that “CHERRY BOMB” succeeds, but taken into context with the rest of the album it highlights the biggest problem:  everything here feels completely unfinished.  God knows no one was rushing Tyler to complete the album; either he felt he needed to compete with Earl Sweatshirt or he actually thought that a badly mixed, unmastered album made for good hip hop.

The other problem, of course, are the lyrics.  We were promised maturity, and what did we get?  Liberal use of the word “faggot” despite the slow-crawl backlash he’s received against it, and cringe-fests like “Blow My Load”, which finds him writing lyrics like he’s still 16.  In a way, he is.  He’s still that kid from the promo shot of Pitchfork’s “/b/ Generation” article, flashing his dick to the photographer with his friends around him.  Earl has started the path to being a grown-ass man – a bitter one, to be sure – but Tyler is still running around like it’s 2010 and Odd Future is still the Next Big Thing.  I mean, sure, he managed to get both Kanye and Lil’ Wayne on “SMUCKERS”, but who still takes the guy seriously at this point?  Far from being OF’s breakout star, he’s seen his star eclipsed by both Earl and Frank Ocean, and he’s not doing anything to try to change that.

Everyone knows that when you hit the drinking age in America, it’s time to leave /b/ for better forums.  Everyone except Tyler, anyway.

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Death Grips – The Powers That B

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Death Grips – The Powers That B

Death Grips are less a musical act and more of an experimental piece of performance art with a noise-hip-hop component.  Having built a rapid and rabid following since their debut mixtape Exmilitary, the group has followed a narrative that seems more punk rock than anything else.  Signed to Epic, they wallowed in major label cash so much they named their debut The Money Store, and proceeded to shop around a wilfully noisy, alienating album whose sole concession to mainstream hooks was the paranoid “I’ve Seen Footage”.  They quit touring abruptly to work on the follow up, No Love Deep Web, which they released to the internet without asking their label for permission first (also, the cover art was the title written on one of the group member’s penis).  After Epic dropped them they released a third album, Government Plates, and managed to wind up on another major label, this time Capitol’s Harvest Records.  After announcing a double album, they self-released the first disc, Niggas On The Moon, and then announced that they would break up after the full release of the second half, Jenny Death.  This spawned the invigorating-and-then-annoying “Jenny Death When?” meme, spurred on by the band itself when it was revealed that the tracks on an instrumental self-release, Fashion Week, spelled out “JENNY DEATH WHEN”.

It’s Jenny Death Now, finally, and the meme can finally die.  The Powers That B is a fitting “end” to the group’s legacy, a double-disc set of the best stuff they’ve ever committed to digital space.  Niggas On The Moon, which has been out since June of 2014, is easily their most experimental work, played entirely on the Roland V-Drum and featuring Bjork vocals as “found sound”.  Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett sounds more lost and paranoid than ever when the layers of heavy noise that characterized their previous work are stripped away.  It may be, as some have opined, “shouting hobocore”, but his drugged-out rantings and fractured, angry, politically-charged viewpoint seem even more on point with the eerie instrumentals present on the first disc.  The second, the long-awaited Jenny Death, brings the group back full circle to the punk rock sampling days of Exmilitary.  Here the guitars are live, churning against the industrial-noise soundscapes and jutting off sparks.  “I Break Mirrors With My Face In The United States” sums up the bands aesthetic in the best way possible; “Inanimate Sensation” and “On GP” bring out a newish direction in their sound, making them seem simultaneously more relatable to more normal metal sounds while showing off their stark divide even more.  “Death Grips 2.0” ends the album with savage beats that trip over themselves, like drum n bass tracks that have been rammed together and looped.  The title is fitting, since the day Jenny Death leaked the group hinted that they might make some more music after all.  If they continue on with the progression that they have shown here then I’m all for it – Jenny Death shows a band still willing to play games with the major label world and confound expectations.

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The Knife – “Shaking The Habitual”

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Named after a Foucault quote and steeped in Cultural Marxism, Shaking The Habitual is the thinking grad student’s electronic act.  It’s been seven years since their previous album, 2006’s highly regarded Silent Shout, and the ensuing years have seen any number of remixes, production works, and a side-collaboration on the rather creepy Fever Ray.  This new LP finds them embracing noise and dark ambient work with full force, in sharp contrast to their previous work.  Where Silent Shout crafted bold new sounds out of the bones of cheesy Europop and trance, Shaking The Habitual seems hellbent on carving songs out of pure sonic building blocks.  It’s a wild new vision and for the most part it works.  There are moments where the scrawled drones outstay their welcome – as on the nearly twenty-minute middle track “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” – but for the most part the artistic statement holds together with real force.  With its deeply, radically progressive politics and it’s artsy noise-skronk, it brings to mind specifically the dark experimentations of the early 1980s, which makes sense; similar times call for similar statements, after all.
 
Verdict:

BEST NEW MUSIC