Album: The Bee's Made Honey in the Lion's Skull
Label: Southern Lord
This album has stayed with me; and on these long mornings with the earth shining with cold blue light it makes even more sense.
Here's what I thought back in May:
There is something in the deliberate sloth of Earth that fits the new coming of summer; and this new album, whilst at times following the deep-furrowed plough lines of past albums, has something brighter about it, at times clean and new. Gone are the massive buzzing one chord drones that took the fibrous walls of Tony Iommi's riffs to some logical if bastardised extreme, to be replaced by something more structured and architectural. At times I find myself looking into the rafters of these tracks looking for crows, looking for hideaways...
'Miami Morning Coming Down' is as shimmering a track as Earth have ever produced, and one of the sweetest, with Dylan Carlson's guitar tolling like a huge bell matched and layered by a gentle piano.
Accompanying Track: Earth - Miami Morning Coming Down
Artist: Marconi Union
Album: A Lost Connection
Label: MU Transmissions
For a band who are obsessed with communication, or the lack of, Marconi Union are an elusive prospect. They have been around for a few years now but only surface every couple of years to release another album then go back underground. They have a levitating metallic sound that falls somewhere between the Durutti Column, Bark Psychosis and Labradford with percussive clicks operating beneath dubby soundscapes. On A Lost Connection, an album purportedly about a retreat from the world, they have expanded on their minimalist techno sound and there is certainly an enveloping womblike quality to the album. It throbs around you like a warm balm.
A Lost Connection is available as a download from the band's website.
Accompanying Track: Marconi Union - We Travel
Artist: Fleet Foxes
Album: Fleet Foxes
Label: Sub Pop/Bella Union
This seems to have been around for ages and I can remember hearing it when it first leaked and being overwhelmed - it seemed very other somehow. Then I put it away for six months and tried to ignore it as it went stratospheric. It was only recently that I put it on again and it's a suite of gorgeous songs, brilliantly constructed and crucially, it feels timeless. And yet more evidence that Sub Pop are slowly, quietly building an enviably good roster of great pop bands. The poor band have absolutely no hope of following it up but there you are.
Accompanying Track: Fleet Foxes - He Doesn't Know Why
Label: Division Records
Now this is immense - a 29-minute long collaboration between Kehlvin and Rorcal, two Swiss bands, that was recorded over 4 days and it is a slab of brutal intense metal that out sludges and out shreds anything released this year. Throughout its length, the track moves from crawling doom through an intricate Isis-like centrepiece, a brooding acoustic section, to a crescendo at around the 20 minute mark that threatens to collapse under its own weight. As a friend pointed out to me, listening to this made him feel like a sabre-toothed tiger. Quite.
Artist: The Tallest Man On Earth
Album: Shallow Grave
You wouldn't have thought anyone could come out of a description that compares you to Dylan circa Another Side of Bob Dylan, with any dignity or credibility at all but Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man On Earth does, with bells on.
Accompanying Track: The Tallest Man On Earth - The Gardener
Album: Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill
This is a bit of a departure for Liz Harris, or Grouper as she's better known. Well, perhaps departure is the wrong word - this is more of an unveiling. Way Their Crept (the only other Grouper record I've heard, currently) was a fuzzy miasma of effects and billowing textures, but somehow you knew the songs were in there, buried for sure, but there, as if at the bottom of a moss-choked well. This time round the fuzz-drench has all but dissipated and Harris is revealed as a haunting siren with a clutch of beautiful, aching songs. Some of the reviews I've read have naturally concentrated on the Cocteau's and This Mortal Coil element in all this, but to me this is closer to the sound Judee Sill was reaching towards - a mesmeric questing folk sound that flung itself outwards and grazed the heavens. Also, great to see Type Records back, what a year: Grouper, Peter Broderick (whose Float I've only just got but would have been a contender at the top of this list, I think) Helios, Goldmund...
Accompanying Track: Grouper - When We Fall
Accompanying Track: Grouper - Stuck
Artist: Black Mountain
Album: In The Future
It's strange having to write about a record like this because my response to it is nearly all physical but there's something comforting about Black Mountain - that there are still bands out there making great rock records. And this is a great rock record, full of molten grooves and superbly weighted crescendos and managed zones of light and dark. The band clearly have such a nuanced grasp of the dynamics of what makes a huge rock song that each track is a like hearing a narrative of the genre unfold before you. Long may they continue.
Accompanying Track: Black Mountain - Stay Free
Artist: Fuck Buttons
Album: Street Horrrsing
I was thinking there was a secret something to Fuck Button's rural violence - two blokes from Bristol splitting the atom of pastoralism and calling forth something we were all afraid to see. I was thinking of Ted Hughes holed up in his Devon farm, hiding from the oppressive weight of the countryside that pressed up against the creaking house; I was thinking of the rusted ribcages of wrecked farm machinery leaking colours under slate skies; I was thinking of Turner in the Avon Gorge having his twitching Alpine dreams, summoning winter storms; I was thinking of the popping croaking cloudcrowds of rooks and jackdaws as they settled in the tops of naked oaks at twilight. I imagine in a barn in the middle of all this, rigged up to a huge PA they would be immense - a proto-rave band, or a rave band turned inside out, incanting, pre-linguistic and primitive, the house band for the new wasted millenia...
Accompanying Track: Fuck Buttons - Sweet Love For Planet Earth
Artist: British Sea Power
Album: Do You Like Rock Music?
Label: Rough Trade
This is another album that seems to have been around for an age. When it first appeared I was mystified by the title - it sounded like a teeth-grindingly ill-judged come on and way too much to live up to. But after finally listening to the whispering one the title is spot on, and mainly because it works on a double level - BSP are after all a band utterly immersed in the mythology and time spirits of this baggage of rocks we call an island and as such their music has always been about giving voice to the arcane history that seeps from between the crags and vents beneath our feet. Do You Like Rock Music? becomes, then, a kind of document of Britain in 2008.
I think there's something in the fact that the band went to the States to record this, as though the period of exile gave form to a mist of nascent thoughts and ideas. The album was last to be recorded in the Hotel2Tango in Montreal, a loft space made famous by the Godspeed collective. It was produced by Howard Bilerman, a semi-fabled figure who drummed on The Arcade Fire's first album and has produced bands such as A Silver Mt Zion and the Black Ox Orkesta. His influence must have bled into the album as there is a strong sense of Arcade Fire style dynamics and confidence throughout (not least on the massive instrumental 'The Great Skua' which is the album's centrepiece). The album was mixed by Graham Sutherland, he of Bark Psychosis, and he has given the record a real sense of depth and polish - it has a chasmic sense of power about it, which is only backed up by the thematic quality of the lyrics.
And what of the lyrics? Is anyone else doing this kind of broad literate sweep? Incorporating child rhymes, wrestling chants, historical documents, Reichian mysticism? 'I'll be the first to admit this a bright but haunted age' - that they manage to do all that without sounding up their own arses or mawkish is a feat in itself. And I'm glad there is someone out there listening to the ghosts, channelling the boundless muster of spectres... Any other year this would have been easily the album of the year. Except, except...
Accompanying Track: British Sea Power - A Trip Out
Artist: Frightened Rabbit
Album: The Midnight Organ Fight
Label: Fat Cat
So there you are: this is best record I've heard this year. There is something unique about coming to terms with a great record - a process that unfolds over a number of weeks, months, years even. The crucial thing is waiting for that hit to stop, the emotional whack that keeps you returning. What's amazed me about The Midnight Organ Fight is that for such a seemingly simple record, the force of the hit just keeps coming, stronger, deeper. I should be growing out of this scruffy guitar music with its chest ripped open, but there you are. I hope I never do.
No track with this, just go buy the fucking album.
Ok, let's get this thing done. Personally, I think 2008 has been an excellent year for new music - especially when I look back at the fairly pedestrian list I made last year... Something feels slightly awry though, as if things are approaching some kind of critical mass. Perhaps it's just that end-of-year fatigue thing but I felt something similar when I saw Fuck Buttons earlier in the year: something in their shattered pastoral gave me a horror vision of music piping out of the very ground, a shimmering wall of indistinguishable inescapable noise from which we recoiled and in attempt to block out wore ear-dampeners attached to ugly metallic head braces. Perhaps I should get some fresh air...
Label: Planet Mu
Repercussions is a brutal, ceaseless record. Its stock beat is a buzzing halfstep, but Distance has always been interested in the seething dynamics of metal (think Sunn O))) or Isis; and check out this mix he did with Vex'd for Mary Anne Hobbs - tracklist here) and on this album whilst the metal influence isn't obvious, you can almost sense it as an undertow, sucked into the density of the sound. Yet the record does have also have a brittle metallic edge to it and at times you can almost see your reflection in its surfaces (check 'Skeleton Grin'). 'Loosen My Grip' below, is noirstep - Bark Psychosis on downers; the track looks over its shoulder for faces in the pooling shadows... It also gives the lie to any notion of a misty-eyed view of London: it might just be the sewer of filth running beneath Burial's Romantic dreams of the city.
Accompanying Track: Distance - Loosen My Grip
Artist: Dark Captain Light Captain
Album: Miracle Kicker
I made a few half-formed comments about the gone-missing nature of that brand of spooked folk that seemed dominant for a time a couple of years back - that experimental, creaky, emotionally fraught wave of music that seemed to grow up around the Homefires festivals set up by Adem. On reflection though, it's tempting to say that along with Gravenhurst, Tunng and The Memory Band, Dark Captain Light Captain are still worrying at the edges of this particular seam of sound and that it hasn't gone anywhere. There is a simple element to the Dark Captain Light Captain sound but something inexplicable dwells below the surface, a kind of clammy throb, part Beta Band, part Can - and I wonder how much of that has to do with the presence of Robin Proper-Sheppard, the mute genius at the centre of The God Machine, one of the most quietly influential bands of the '90s. Whatever the reason, Miracle Kicker is an intriguing album and promises much for the future. 'Questions', below, is a beautfiul record.
Accompanying Track: Dark Captain Light Captain - Questions
Artist: Aidan Moffat
Album: I Can Hear Your Heart
Label: Chemikal Underground
In Arab Strap, Moffat sang of fractured relationships and damaged sex over walls of guitars and electronics. On I Can Hear Your Heart Moffat strung together a drunkslut narrative of similar themes over chamber pieces, made up of mariarchi fugues and noirish asides. It dragged up memories of your own past, and of futures you can never hope to have, and managed to be appallingly filthy and emotionally engaging all at once. Superb stuff.
Accompanying Track: Aidan Moffat - Good Morning
Artist: Various - Mixed by Appleblim
Album: Dubstep Allstars Vol.6
This is a a great way to get a sense of the dubstep scene and Appleblim as magus at the heart of Skull Disco records is something of a 'second-wave' overlord. I swear for the first 20 or so minutes of this I thought I'd heard my record of the year - it does tail off but the dynamic of the mix is such that it drives you onwards. If Margins Music is a great walking album, this is one to drive to.
Accompanying Track: Martyn - Suburbia
Artist: Dusk and Blackdown
Album: Margins Music
Label: Keysound Recordings
Dubstep may have a downtempo narcotic heart but to me it has always been a music of movement, and it makes the most sense when walking. And Margins Music is, essentially, a lamp-lit tour of London; a collection of field recordings of hidden spaces: debris-strewn high streets, council estates, the impossible labyrinths of rat runs and alleyways that lace the inner and outer suburbs like neural pathways. I listened to it as I walked across the suburb I had grown up in on the outskirts of the outskirts of west London. Under the clag of grey skies the album seemed incredibly oppressive, claustrophobic even, as if the life of the music were being crushed by the very forces that created it. It was the perfect soundtrack to the place.
Yet there is a real sense of optimism at the centre of the record that takes longer to appear; but it is there, and once you notice it the joy of it is obvious. Not much lures me back in to London these days but there is something exhilirating about the fact that this music is pouring in torrents from the place. Bring it on.
Album: Black Sea
Continuing on a watery theme from the mighty Venice and the single On A Desolate Shore..., Black Sea is evidence that Christian Fennesz is at the very top of his game. Indeed this album might be his most honest and least adorned to date with his guitar largely untreated at times and the soft billowing drones and keyboard washes at times seeming to flow almost organically across the surface of the sound. Yet out of something so simple comes a complex and indefinable beauty. 'Glide', the album's centrepiece, is like a summing up of everything that has come before - a live rendering of the process that Fennesz has been perfecting across varying different projects. It's as if he is polishing away the edges of a great sculpture, gradually working towards uncovering a precious something at the centre, something that has been pulsing away unbidden for years. Long may it stay hidden.
Accompanying Track: Fennesz - Glide
Label: Supernatural Cat
Ach, for once a record entitled to the worn out epithet 'crushing and intense'. This was my first brush with Ufomammut, a three piece that make a sludge of glorious psychedelic noise. And Idolum is a monstrous thing, lumbering and obese, bulldozing everything in its path.
Accompanying Track: Ufomammut - Stigma
Artist: The Grand Archives
Album: The Grand Archives
Label: Sub Pop
For anyone else who was desperately disappointed with the second Band of Horses record, this is the place to turn. Mat Brooke was in Carissa's Wierd and Band of Horses with Ben Bridewell but left just after Everything All The Time was relased and Bridewell returned back to Carolina. It appears he took much of Band of Horses' sun with him. To put it simply The Grand Archives is a record with a handful of aching, beautiful songs on it with Brooke invoking the wide open spaces of the north west in his gentle, soaring voice. Another valuable addition to Sub Pop's growing roster of great pop bands.
Accompanying Track: The Grand Archives - Sleepdriving
Artist: The Ruby Suns
Album: Sea Lion
Label: Sub Pop
More great pop music from Sub Pop, this time in the shape of Ryan McPhun's The Ruby Suns. The talk when it came out was that this was all Animal Collective like ringworm but I think that was over-stated. It does share some of their rhythmic sense but is more rooted in pure world-pop than the AC not to mention way more accessible. Here's what I thought back in May...
I put this up merely to share a record that I keep coming back to. They sound young, young and joyous - must be something they put in the water in NZ. Also, the singer is called Ryan McPhun and it doesn't appear to be a pseudonym. The foundations are there to hear: some Graceland skitters, some Animal Collective vaulting, Brian Wilson trapped in bed...Whatever, it's just a great record. These two tracks capture the camber and tilt of it - the first a Polynesian swing number, the second a languid pop symphony that might, just might be the comedown B-Side from Elephant Stone. Enjoy.
Accompanying Track: The Ruby Suns - Tane Mahuta
Accompanying Track: The Ruby Suns - Morning Sun
Artist: The Week That Was
Album: The Week That Was
Label: Memphis Industries
Yet more great pop music, but this was odder, more cerebral. Essentially a solo project of Field Music's Pete Brewis, this record was born out of a week free from TV, Brewis suddenly inundated with a whole host of other information - that great tide of creative flow we keep artificially penned in, bunged up with bullshit discourse thrown out of the ache-brain glowbox in the corner of the room. Supposedly structured like a Paul Asuter novel the record was part of a rich seam of British pop music stretching back through Trevor Horn produced Kate Bush, XTC (fairlight synths? check; thwapping snares? check), ELO and even the McCartney of 'For No One'. It feels out of time and probably is but the album is half an hour of time-capsuled music that stands alone and is all the better for it.
Accompanying Track: The Week That Was - Scratch The Surface
Before I bung up a list of the best records I've heard this year I thought I'd re-post this (it went up just before the old site blew up last year), just to get a sense of perspective....
Artist: The Stringed Theory
Album: Universal Relativity
The Stringed Theory is the project of Dustin Frelich who projects his warm pulses and fuzzy drones into space out of California - but releases music on the Web-only label Stadtgruen, a German label which, with no recourse to the piss-taking masses, pitches itself boldly into the fray with a manifesto that seeks to explore the divisions between culture and nature and is named after the urban green spaces of Berlin. Frelich's own project is remarkably apposite to this in that it utilises the language of particle physics and the medium of electronics to create what is essentially a sound full of soothing bucolic warmth. It's difficult to listen to this album, especially loud with headphones, and not feel a certain enveloping heat-haze fall over you, or to feel buoyed up by a real sense of pulsing levitation. In many respects Universal Relativity feels (and it is an album that you absorb as much as hear) close to the textures the shoegaze bands explored at the beginning of the early '90s - not so much the raw volume of My Bloody Valentine but the sonic cave cathedrals of the very early Verve recordings, or what Slowdive were trying to do with Pygmalion: it has a similar sense of dynamic space and at times it feels like the surface of drones and oscillations are going to part and reveals obscure nascent songs. A gorgeous album. And to top it all, it's available as a free download.
The Stringed Theory - Universal Relativity
Artist: Stars of the Lid
Album: ...And Their Refinement of the Decline
Speaking of warm pulsing drones, the Texan masters Stars of the Lid released a monumental double album this year ...And Their Refinement of the Decline - and this when many had thought them to have split for good. If anything the album was ostensibly a continuation of ...The Tired Sounds Of but it seemed as if the guitars which dominated that record had been dampened and the soft orchestration left to float to the surface. What where they up to on their six year hiatus? I like to think of them as field musicians, or sound-excavators - sitting above vast canyons, or ocean breaches hoovering up the sound of the earth as subsonic radiation and giving it life, giving it form. Contemplating the work that must go into creating this kind of intricate minimalism (and to find more ways and new ways to express the inexpressible) has an oddly frantic effect on me and yet surrendering to the end product results in a clear beatific calm I'm only just beginning to explore. As for the title of this track - I really have no idea. Fulham home games were never this transcendent.
Accompanying Track: Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage
This really isn't any of my business. I'm the rockist scum who comes along and appropriates the nearest thing to a dubstep album band and lines it up along the serrated edge of my coffee table, then politely forgets about it. I almost entirely neglect the rest of the genre with its walled-in jitters and magma-deep basslines, and instead throw this up as some sort of shared experience of a newly dreamed London. There you go. But after getting caught up in the spectres' deft emotional embrace this was the record, with its timid, honest nostalgia, that affected me the most emotionally in 2007.
Accompanying Track: Archangel (Phaseone Remix)
Artist: The National
Label: Beggars Banquet
And talking of honest, naked nostalgia - welcome to the Matt Berninger show. The National are something of an enigma to me in that it all seems far too simple and far too bland to achieve the heights they do: a rock band that simply puts the pieces of a song together and lets it slowly burn its way into your blood. The alchemist of course, is Berninger, with his evasive clunky poetry and paper-thin skin (reading Lowell the other day it was all so obvious that this was where he'd lifted that line from 'Abel' My mind's not right)- we go back to hear him, we go back to watch him razor open his veins, even if it is happily.
The National - Apartment Story
Artist: Panda Bear
Album: Person Pitch
Label: Paw Tracks
There's been lots written about this life-affirming burst squeezed into the virtual space of a record - if Panda Bear's first album was a expulsion of animal grief at the death of his father, this is like some other journey or projection, cast outward through a kaleidoscope into warm glow of creative childish glee; and whilst it has touchstones (it seems to almost inhabit Brian Wilson at times) it manages to sound fundamentally Other, joyously so. And if you needed a charm to carry with you, you could do a lot worse than this:
listen in between your notes
theres something been going on
while you were busy taking notes
and look in between your moments
theres something good happening
its good to sometimes
slow it down
Artist: The Twilight Sad
Album: Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
Label: Fat Cat
This snuck up on me with its cold tales of childhood misery and hard learning; but it hid a soft heart behind walls of guitars and military drums, leaving James Graham's honest howl to claw back the dense curtain of sound. This record inhabits a soundworld similar to that of Arab Strap, but has none of that band's ironic self-pity, instead it fronts the world face-on. They've made lots of friends and it's easy to see why.
Accompanying Track: That Summer At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy
Artist: James Blackshaw
Album: The Cloud of Unknowing
Label: Tompkins Square
This is probably the record that has consistently astonished me the most - in terms of sheer virtuosity (it channels Robbie Basho and John Fahey but spirals beyond them) and it's clarity and persistence of vision: like Borges' thaumaturge in 'The Circular Ruins' calling forth the golem, this feels as if it were dreamed into creation. Named after a 14th century spiritual guidebook that encouraged a kind of Taoist relinquishment of understanding and knowledge to experience the true nature of God, it is a record to immerse yourself in, walk around in. At times it seems to have solidity, its own architecture, or it's as if Blackshaw's hands are a loom throwing out strands of a great carpet.
Accompanying Track:The Cloud of Unknowing
Artist: LCD Soundsystem
Album: Sound of Silver
So there you go after everything this was my album of the year - the thing that made me want to run out and tell people about it and play it loud so that those around might catch on. I had communal experiences to it, and I had quieter personal moments; and for the nine and half minutes we had of it, it soundtracked my summer.
I saw them back in September in an open air amphitheatre in the Rockies where they woke me out of a jet-lagged fug and proceeded to wipe the stage with Arcade Fire and realised then that this was the sound of an artist waking up to the alchemical space between production and reception and the joyous emotional possibilities it contains. I, and the half-bearded throng around me, was elated. And just how many of us didn't realise we were waiting for it?
This was a bit of a new thing for me this year, but once I'd found a couple I realised this thing was proliferating endlessly... and much like the hunt for new music has become a kind of leisure activity so searching for the best mix was a endless, sometimes fruitless search. And what it meant, ultimately, was yet more clog for the hard drive, more music I was never going to get the chance to listen to. Having said that, there is something to be said for releasing yourself to a mix, letting someone else be in charge for a time... Then, of course, comes the picking through the tracklist, hunting down yet more music...
Here are some of the mixes that did it for me this year:
Dave over at Low Light Mixes brought out a fantastic slew of ambient/drone based mixes - the pick of which, for me, was Sustain and Decay, a meditation on loss in sound, similar in scope to what Basinski discovered on his Disintegration Loops set.
This mix from Hydrogen Cafe was probably the one I listened to most this year - a really interesting blend of plangent drones and pulsing rhythms. Can's 'Future Days' never sounded so right.
Not strictly ambient or drone but this guest set on The Wire's Adventures in Modern Music by Ghost Box, coming amongst Lisa Blanning's throbbing selections, was a thing of weird wonder.
This mix by BunZer0 - for the 3rd anniversary of the Dubstep Forum - was probably my favourite of this year. A real interesting blend of stuff.
Dusk and Blackdown largely owned 2008 didn't they? Two great mixes: xlr8r and rinsefm
The Electronic Explorations podcasts are uniformly excellent. 3 standouts for me where: Pinch, Grievous Angel and this minimalist/post-rock thing that successfully blended the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor with Fennesz and Distance.
Lastly was this lush dub mix that Idle Hands put together to listen to whilst reading Michael Veal's dub book.
And if all that isn't enough then check out FACT's top 20 mixes of the year...
The Poacher said I should hear some dälek (pronounced Dial-ekt) so I got myself some tickets for this show. The last time I was here was for a pal’s band, Yell Robot Yell (since disbanded). Yep, the venue didn’t need to be too big. The Barfly is basically a basement beneath a bar. Suitably intimate for the brutal intensity of dälek’s brand of hip-hop.
You see, dälek utilise samples to create a sound equivalent to the distortions used by Kevin Shields circa My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Only the vibe is more aggressive. I’d been listening to the band’s third long player, Absence, prior to this gig and I was excited. The vocal is fairly low in the mix, hanging from a wall of sound Spector would never dream of, providing a gloriously moody back drop punctuated by a forceful rhythm which too is mixed low.
We arrive with a support band already playing. They sound like Mogwai on speed, and maybe acid too. After several ‘songs’ the mood changes so we have an extended piece lasting maybe ten minutes without a single beat. The sound engineer was enraptured.
Then without fanfare they are on. MC dälek delivers confident angry raps and Ocktopus does his stuff hunched over his mixing desk. Both are huge men. And the noise they create envelopes us all. My head nods and I shoegaze. But it’s a great sound. This is never going to sell millions of records but there is no denying the energy and passion. And it is understandable the love they have generated in certain quarters. If you’re looking for a different kind of hip-hop, dälek may be for you.
Download: dälek - Culture for Dollars
Ours will be along shortly but for now here are a bunch of end of year lists worth checking out:
The Drowned in Sound Top 50
K-Punk, Simon Reynolds and Woebot over at FACT Magazine
The Milk Factory's 2008 Review
John Mulvey's top 75 at his excellent Wild Mercury Sound blog over at Uncut
Boomkat's Top 100
Pitchfork's Top 50
Gorilla Vs Bear
Tiny Mix Tapes
And the usual end of year motherlode at Large Hearted Boy