Music, sweet music. The world is circling around the plughole and COVID is the tip of the fatberg we can consensually agree. C’mon people get together and admit some home truths; market capitalism isn’t a tool for exchange but a philosophy of two-fisted exploitation, Nirvana weren’t that good, melodically there is only one trap song, the political situation in the UK is so bad anarchy looks like viable alternative, we don’t miss our ‘friends’, and you can’t vaccinate against pandemic fatness.
My system is largely carbs and angst at this point, the epidermal polite layer that took years to thicken is thinner than my tolerance for my housemates’ humour. Your jokes are shite John. Steps are being discussed and fines are in order. No. John. No. we didn’t just call Emily ‘fine’ and this isn’t a #metoo. Unless the question is ‘Who’d like to punch John in the mouth’. Against, this backdrop transcendent music prevails. Good music, and bad. Here are the terse critical notes from the edges of reason, where sonic waves have washed souls beset by static, John and the plagues of our time.
Divide and Dissolve – Gas lit.
Seismically brilliant. The question that heavy music has been avoiding for several decades is whether it can be both politically relevant and musically advanced. Often advanced leaders of heavy music tend to be either apolitical or non-specifically aligned. Worse still, you often note that political bands are too often stuck in 1985.
What does it white flag when we hear bands use weasel words like ‘concerns’ or ‘themes’ to signal virtue rather than risk alienating potential customers? It means the man won. Who’s the man? Often, it’s us when we’re too cowardly to call bullshit on cheap food, cars, clothes, and anything that comes from comfortable ignorance. Let’s include music in this. You are not supporting creativity by giving them a ‘like’ or ‘telling your friends’. Fucking buy the record. I know I’m a hypocrite but I largely feel bad about my non-buying behaviour. I fix this by buying actual records. You should too.
Divide and Dissolve are against exploitation and have a wider stance (tee hee) on feminism and patriarchy colonialism. They seem legit and make massive music that blends that dodgy shit Ben Frost does with a beautiful distorted-gospel drone vamp. Their latest release, Gas Lit, and the first on Invada (Geoff Barrow, Portishead) is solid. It never breaks the 4th wall. It never tries to be ironic. It’s an avant-garde metal record along the lines of Author and Punisher, Ovo or Neurosis. I’m not sure this is really up to the best of those seminal bands but it’s close enough that it’ll be easily one of the best 20 records you’ll hear this year. The brass instrumentation is sublime and used with inspired restraint shows the sort of contemporary sonic outlook one notices in the work of Sarah Neufeld, Colin Stetson and Current 93. Distorted strings, pastoral ambience, and using texture as an instrument, quality marks that really spotlight Gas Lit as a ‘best-of’ album from the start—the contentious stance is an added bonus that rings the soul.
Also you should remember what Albini says: “If when you hear music it’s just sounds, brother I pity you. If you look at a picture or read a book and it’s just a picture or a story then why f*cking bother? – Steve Albini in Robinson 2020
Memoriam – To the End
I love Bolt Thrower. I miss Bolt Thrower. But they weren’t really going to make more records were they? It seemed to be taking them so long. Whatever was going internally seemed excruciatingly drawn out. We haven’t seen a plethora of side projects from the former members… except for Karl. Bless him. Memoriam is the project that has kept the flame (thrower) alive. It’s not the same but it is more reliable than BT (yes, there it is) and adds a few little unexpected contemporaneous flourishes (a bit more Slayerish basically). To the End is a suitably epic album of cramped wank hand salutes and timeless punk-metal flail. Bolt Thrower fans will find more to love with this release than previous offerings—not because it sounds more like Bolt Thrower but because this is Memoriam at their most cohesive. For those once loyal, Memoriam stands like a united granite wall. This is a profane creation by a unit of war masters who are finally mercenaries off the killchain and onto their own path. Well done gentleman.
Melvins – Working with God
Yes, another Melvins record. It doesn’t sound like new Melvins because it isn’t really. Live, the Melvins are one of the greatest bands of all time and on record they are more influential than any nu-black metal multi-core you care to name. Working with God is a shout back to a previous Melvins era where a mix of twisted Kiss and Cheap Trick tunes played after midnight was a breath of youth and communion. This is still unique and the band is still smarter than they sound but despite many ‘wait did they just…?’ moments, you know too well what you’re getting. So, while it is good it’s definitely less than essential. What am I saying? It’s a new Melvins album! It is brilliance itself! More to the point, it’d be a criminal if they ever stopped… Ah but frankly, I don’t need any more Melvins records like this. Others might. Be them.
Ya Tseen – Indian Yard
Largely forgettable electro-industrial R&B album from a renowned contemporary artist (Nicholas Galanin) whose controversial visual work mixes sensationalism with indigenous symbology to make statements against the ‘history is over, get over it’ status quo. Politically, I like what this guy is about, and right on for him for making this record. But I can’t get into it, there’s nothing essentially bad about it, it’s just avoidable. It doesn’t feel like a record that he particularly needed to make for anyone other than himself. But then maybe that’s the point, it’s alienated and possibly speaks to his people’s milieux on a level I’m not party to. In which case the lyrics of pressure, understanding, power and revenge weaving around accessible trap beats escape the (my) assumptive corral of what a indigenous musician should sound like. Yay. Kick it out your way, my man. Gently around the Sun encapsulates the Radiohead textures and beat play that marks the best of this album, sadly not much else sticks.
Architects – For Those that Wish to Exist
This band is clearly miles-of-brain more than me but the separation between some of their songs and Eskimo Callboy is becoming cloudy and much less fun. Architects are very respected in the metalcore scene and have elevated themselves through stellar song-writing and quirky emotive production. However, where once they stood tall their peers have caught up, so while they’re as good as they always were they’re now less exceptional. This latest album is a solid outing and will keep the fans happy. But I’m unconvinced that it breaks any new ground. It feels softer and less magical than 2016’s All our Gods have Abandoned Us which remains a high water mark. The darker emotional elements of angst and bitterness that coalesced into the breathtaking dynamic contrast of their earlier releases feels forced now. Can we join the smooth ride of this new metalcore? No.
Tomahawk – Tonic Immobility
Tomahawk are just better than other bands. You should have got this on preorder. Duane Denison is a hipster guitar playing giant amongst sluggish ants. I honestly think there is a hidden record with him and Marc Ribot somewhere that needs to be heard. His group Unsemble is still a criminally underrated outfit that you should listen to immediately.
It’s boring to talk about Patton anymore. If you’re a 40 something antipodean or some other kind of rural outsider then what don’t you know about this bloke? He’s (as usual) effortlessly spot on here, listen to business casual, this is a man who’s on top of his craft. Lyrically, he’s offhand, arch and sarcastic, but we’re not expecting him to suddenly reveal himself are we?
I don’t know if this is Tomahawk’s best record but I can’t think of any better. This is an album by outsider rockers who are confident, talented, and intellectual enough to twist in the wind and leave you gasping for air. It reminds you of Fugazi at their best, where limitless musical expression found a timeless path.
What Tomahawk misses sometimes is the emotional hook. Not that this matters for a lot of people, Zappa fans for instance, but it’s a distance. The rare time when you’re offered a glimpse in the cockpit is on tracks like Sidewinder. A strange disquiet, a pensive track that feels like some sort of monologue of a middle aged panty-sniffing stalker-killer, a character that Patton has always managed to parlay with uncomfortable directness (RV et al). There is a sense of the outsider observer in his delivery which rings truer than the ‘character vocalist voices’ Patton sometimes uses and finds a dialogue with the staccato awkwardness of Denison’s guitar. Born into this, because of this, in spite of this, Dunn’s bass (Mr Bungle) and Stanier’s drums (Helmet, Mark of Cain) give this group the epic polish that marks elitist-rock perfection. Unmissable.
LNZNDRF – II
The Church, Go Betweens, early INXS or U2, LNZNDRF capture the cold melancholy of those early records. II is a paradoxically contemporary love letter to a maligned time in indie music that was later picked up in Moroder tinged new romantic electronica, which itself gave vaporwave it’s neon longing. Hearing something that understands and positively vibrates with that atmosphere is a staggering achievement in sensitive augury. Most artists just sink into the clichés without taking the music forward. While 80s-pop-indie has been extensively mined (most closely by War on Drugs) LNZNDRF are bringing a level of technical and artistic acumen to the form that we haven’t seen to date.
You Still Rip could have been torn from between Grant McLennan’s pages on cattle and cane. A beautiful reminder of how amongst the faux sneer and sprayed hair of post punk there was a desolate soul that yearned for the possibilities of a new millenium while nostalgic for a better past to have a future from. How LNZNDRF capture the emotive pre-cyber techno-primitivism of Conny Plank’s production will no doubt be answered at length in Sound on Sound but at this point one can just marvel at this exceptional longplayer that may be sadly overlooked in our nu-Regan era of ego.
This record is one to own on Vinyl and sit with—it’s a genuine inspirational treat for song-writers and fans of textural sonic production.
Fan’s of band-on-endless-hiatus GOAT needing a world-psyche fix need look no further than DJINN. Whatever magical goose Rocket Recordings has tucked away just seems to produce golden egg after golden egg and along with Berlin’s Glitterbeat show us that there is a rich well of stunning music if you’re willing to dig away from the main road. Nestled between Jazz, 70s fusion, and a healthy dose of exotica DJINN hint at the smoky escapisms of philosophy, sex, and drugs. Taking the cyclical bass magic of GOAT (and the whole name-in-CAPs thing) they’ve let the drummer loose, rounded it out with stoned percussion and some Interzone based wind/brass instrumentation. It works. Lost in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) all the tracks have a separate scenic quality and rather than adhering to a singular sound the album grooves from one distinct setting to the next. Despite these pronounced shifts there are subtle consistencies in the mix that bring all the arrangements together in a complimentary way. While not as primal soul shaking as GOAT this record stands up and Transmission is well worth lighting up and inhaling.
Kaktus Einarsson – Kick the Ladder
This is a strong album, with some original sonic textures and touching on muffled introversion feels right in the social-media moment. For the right listeners this could be the sort of album that marks a time. The smooth lyricism and kind tones are quite Cardigans in places and there’s the sort of Scandinavian lounge verve that appeals to the quiet and the entitled, often the beautiful, whose idea of letting loose is turning it up to 6.73! Whoa easy now sleepy tigers. The musical equivalent of a Wes Anderson film we’re right to ask whether we’re ever going to tire of suburban detachment? It’s cool, clever and collected but like gangsta rappers giving elevated accounts of the hood, it’s a poetic facade. Let’s be clear about this; we hate the game more than the players. But there’s no game without players. And to quote the MC5 if you ain’t part of the solution you’re part of the problem. There is a limp malaise to this music that makes you want to kick the ladder down the stairs. It’s a lovely record, sure, but dammit pick yourself up and throw a slaver statue into a river you wet cabbages. Get arrested.
I recognise this is a harsh appraisal of a beautiful record, so here’s some coded balance; “a complicated album which swoons around an equal mood, elegantly arranged around ethereal themes, this is one for sunlight mornings and light horticulture”
The trend of albums being more about production than content and soul is given an asterisk here and parts of Kick The Ladder reminds you of the remarkably offkey ‘Somewhere in my heart’ by Aztec Camera. I’ve thought over this and I don’t know if that’s a good thing. I was merely there holding the gate shut.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
Yeah it’s not a great title for a record. I don’t want to go to the store, stop the clerk picking his nose, get the cashier off the phone, interrupt the pot-bellied Beefheart orc, to ask for this one. Luckily for me GY!BE have made this available on Spotify so little money has to change hands. From the luxury of my West London townhouse I can appreciate this from my carpeted B&O set up, never having to interact with those shady denizens of vinyl island G. As I vape THC to this fringed raga rock I will question the remote vacuity of my co-workers, they are people, must be, surely. In all the talk about why zoom drinks are so bad, no one really thinks about why they’re good. Without the interruption of abstract life I can focus on how little there is to say and when it’s over I’m seconds from tablet time with my bed and por–amazon.
What is GY!BE, it’s kinda liquid Sabbathy, jam rock, with a vaguely blues edge. There was a more avant garde fascination behind it before now but that seems to have faded and this seems a lesser recording of what the Grails have been doing for a while. The Grails are damn good, though I’m never sure whether they have the power to surprise. I mean, we kinda know they’re trying to skirt the Eagle’s ‘Journey of the Sorcerer’ without doing a direct cover. GY!BE still has the power to surprise, in the end this makes them a better band, and when they copy Meddle level Pink Floyd they’re at their best. They are indeed at their best here but I can’t say it’s a progression of what we heard from where they were ten years ago. It still works though and I get the vision when this is playing, the spirits talk to me, and through the coldness of space, machine elves flash the multifoliate edge of my astral clit, but you know… Been there. I just want a craft beer that isn’t insane with some hop fiend’s taint.
Stone Giant – West Coast Love Stories
Can’t we get a break. Amon is releasing so many amazing albums at such a fearsome pace I’m losing track. It’s insane. It’s like he’s George Harrison getting out of the Beatles with an electric ashram’s worth of material that he’s defying us not to like. At this stage we have to ask… would all this really have not just made a monster double album that would have stormed the charts and allowed him to have Nile Rogers be the music director of his headlining festival tour? Well wouldn’t it? Fans of music history may detect a whiff of the Todd Rundgren about Amon Tobin. Genius auteurs that have little time for the world outside of their projects. The problem might be that a soul this expressed starts to cannibalise it’s own reflexive perceptions, the studio reflects the monitor glass, the artist reflects a world considered via notes passed by loved ones at the daily dinner meetings. Coded thoughts, minimised not to disturb the artist at work, with less impact, and less relevance.
To my Tobin-tuned ears Amon is pulling back from the audio excitement of his previous work and playing with a subtlety and textural expressionism that is reaching a Jodorovskian pinnacle of musical consciousness. Compositionally, he’s working on more melodic pieces that aren’t challenging the language of music as ISAM did but developing stronger musical statements in themselves. The result is yet another breathtaking electronical soul record from an artist freed from constraint.
One imagines Tobin hates the term ‘cinematic’ because it tends to stop the further listening experience of actually internalising what is going on. He may have a point, whenever you hear something described as a ‘cinematic’ isn’t that just hipster shorthand for ‘muzak’ – sound that is familiar enough that it makes or fades into a background.
Stone Giants never quite fades into the background, but there are points where you start to feel the call for collaboration. It’s a wonderful vehicle for composition but it misses the seasoning of individual instrumental talent where there is a tense collective vision. One feels that in many places the music is reaching for just that. Imagine a combo of Thundercat, Ethan Iverson and/or Mono/Poly (keys), Joshua Redman (sax), Seb Rochford on drums arranging these tunes? Can you imagine the musical conversation that would be birthed? And it’s not that alien to his work. Remember, the chaotic improvisational edge that Tobin encouraged at the first stage of his career when he took the angular, egotistical jazz of greats like Buddy Rich and assembled then tornado into those staggering first records? It feels like he’s ready to circle around now. These new Amon Tobin monikers are new faces for the same entity, facets, full and vocal… but what I’d like to hear is the same mind working within a new setting. Stone Giants shows he’s more than ready and we might see this next step if he tours the record in a live scenario. What greater challenge to the maestro than seeing if he could work it in a band? This is a thrilling record but it marks the end of the beginning. What next?
London based writer and photographer whose work has graced the grimy pages of most UK music publications. Marshmallowed with age he dreams of touring the Cairngorms and writing romantic prose about semantic pathways. As it is, until that cliché he is this one.