We published our best of 2012 over at The Liminal last week - below is my own personal list and previous reviews...
1. Title: Effigy
Effigy was a belly roar of Big American Music – full of chaos and ecstasy, full of joyful clamour. It was a work of excavation, its hands deep in the soil, in the fabric of national memory – the effigies of the title referring to the mounds that rise out of the landscape around Madison, Wisconsin, where the album was recorded live in 2011; it was also a work of mourning, a febrile celebration of the passing of Jack Rose, whose spirit floats like woodsmoke above the record’s rolling expanses. That it managed to explore these themes and avoid po-facedness and over-earnest dramatics is testament to those involved, and those it celebrated.
2. Title: The Union/A Hem of Evening
Artist: Hallock Hill
3. Title: Music for the Quiet Hour
Label: Woe To The Septic Heart
If, as the man says, we are all David Toop now, then somehow Shackleton must be the neurons, or maybe the writing hands. There’s always been something of Toop’s style in Shackleton – the exploratory nature, the episodic open-endedness, the almost propulsive sense of stasis. And Music for the Quiet Hour is the very epitome of all this. On its 5 tracks, Shackleton has somehow stepped through the gaps between the beats and discovered a new Mandelbrotian layer of complexity and calm. He gives each track space to breathe and unfurl to a logical conclusion, unafraid, particularly on Parts 3 & 4, to allow for long passages of inertia. But even these periods of inertia are alive with a kind of crackling creative energy, an energy stirred and kneaded by the calm monologues of Vengeance Tenfold. The other word one could use is ‘shamanic’ – it’s daft and overblown language, of course, but there is something increasingly mantric and psychedelic about the direction Shackleton is heading. He’s one of our most intriguing explorers at present, and Music for the Quiet Hour might just be the best thing he’s done.
4. Title: Kentucky
Label: Pagan Flames
This isn’t nearly enough space to do justice to a record with such scope and heart, but there we are. Kentucky is ostensibly a black metal album, but it takes what are becoming tired tropes and gives them life, utilising the bursting drive of the blast beat and the icy nihilistic barrage for humanistic purposes, to give voice to the long dead. Austin Lunn (the sole member of Panopticon) has always dealt with difficult subjects (the last album, Social Disservices was about the appalling state of the youth care system in the States) but with Kentucky it’s like he’s found his perfect platform. It tells, via 3 long, more metal-based tracks and 5 shorter Appalachian folk and bluegrass workouts, the story of a state and its people’s relationship with the coal mining industry: the effect on the landscape, the horror of the daily work, the vile treatment of workers by the industry, the pitch battles between unions and the big corporations. It features, alongside the naked roar and violence of Lunn’s at times all out war approach to black metal, spoken word passages, field recordings (one particular heart-stopping moment has a 91 year old woman on a picket line declaring “I’m prepared to die, are you?”) and the simple uncanny presence of the volk in songs such as ‘Which Side Are You On’ written by Kentuckian Florence Reece in the wake of harrassment of her union founding husband by police and mining companies. If that sounds like the record might be a mess, then that’s not an unfair assessment – it’s a new juxtaposition of sounds and one that often jars. But it’s so strong on power and emotion that it builds its own deliberate structure around itself. By the 4th or 5th listen it makes perfect sense. A colossal achievement.
5. Title: R.I.P
Label: Honest Jon's
Much of Darren Cunningham’s work to date has been glitchy and cut up, granular and atomistic. Splaszh, especially, had a stuttering quality, sections feeling like mental blips, interrupted neuronal messages. There was also a real sense of flair involved, virtuosity. R.I.P is ostensibly a much calmer affair, with greater areas of space in the fabric of the tracks and a real sense of completeness in form – it ‘feels’ like an album. In an interview with Dazed Digital, Cunningham said “even though music isn’t silence in itself, the actual process of doing it can be silence” and in that strangely contradictory statement is the truth of the album: it does feel as though it’s built from a base of silence, from the ground up as it were. The whole thing is full of this contemplative air, but it’s the later sections that have the greatest poignancy, tracks like ‘Tree of Knowledge’ with its deep waves of sub-bass and gritty cymbal clusters, and ‘N.E.W.’ coming on like a elegiac Ballardian waltz. All in all it’s quite a statement and a complexly emotional album.
6. Title: Cold of Ages
Artist: Ash Borer
Label: Profound Lore
7. Title: Motion Sickness of Time Travel
Artist: Motion Sickness of Time Travel
Label: Editions Mego
Rachel Evans could well be the figurehead for the new profligacy movement – last year alone, as MSOTT, she released 4 albums, 2 EPs and a couple of splits. She was also part of 3 releases with Quiet Evenings and appeared on numerous compilations. That’s a lot of stuff. One thing this kind of release pattern does is belie the notion of an oeuvre – there’s nothing so neat a form to study and ponder. Instead you have something closer to a splayed web the strands of which fly further and further apart. Consequently, you don’t tend to search for coherence, instead you find yourself submitting to the flow, more a passive observer. Which may well be the point, and certainly works as a descriptor for the experience of listening to this massive self-titled album. There’s the best part of 90 minutes of music here, set across 4 tracks, all of 20 minutes or more; and the best practice in terms of listening is to totally surrender yourself to it. There’s an odd element of trust with such a strategy, which is partly borne of a sense of past work, and partly of the process of listening itself, as it soon becomes apparent, notions of profligacy aside, that Evans is totally in control of this. Read more.
8. Title: Sanguine Futures
Artist: High Aura'd
It’s becomingly increasingly difficult to write in any meaningful way about ambient releases, such is both the proliferation of music and by extension, the sheer amount of expended digital text. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some releases have as many purple reviews as there are physical copies available. All of which means, when a record of exceptional quality does arrive you find yourself reaching for higher superlatives or more abstruse adjectives to ecstatically describe the sonic phenomena as they unfold. What this situation does do is force you back to essentials: what, precisely, makes for a good ambient recording? And the answers are fairly simple: appreciation of atmosphere, tone, duration and architecture. And safe to say, High Aura’d (the recording alias of John Kolodij) has absolute mastery of all of these facets. Broadly put Sanguine Futures is elemental ambient music. Yet there is something more than just pretty evocation at work here: Kolodij has a granular approach to his compositions meaning each strata, each seam is carefully crafted, to the point where you can almost feel the bedrock and grasp at the clouds of vapour – these are compositions that invite a kind of habitation. On a track such as ‘Sleep Like the Dead’ there is a geological heft to the outer layers of the drone, and the heartbeat, when it comes, is bulbous and warm. ‘La Chasse-galerie’, is suitably wild, like its subject matter: a wild hunt, roaring high above the trees, peaking in a glorious crescendo, redolent of Yellow Swans at their most ecstatic. Thinking of other antecedents, I keep coming back to the Eno of On Land especially on the long eerie swamp-song of ‘Mercy Brown’ which has, at its heart, the story of an exhumation of a 2-month old corpse, a corpse whose heart still contained blood… Sanguine Futures is full of these kinds of layered readings, readings that double and intensify the already dense sonic material. Stunning stuff.
9. Title: Quarter Turns Over A Living Line
Label: Blackest Ever Black
10. Title: Quite A Way Away
Artist: Gareth Dickson
There’s a plangent ambient languor about Gareth Dickson’s sound, a beguiling simplicity that means the absorption of his tone and meaning is a slow but rewarding process. Quite A Way Away is his third official full length release (following on from Collected Recordings and The Dance) and his first for 12K. It’s been the perfect accompaniment to this early spring, as it has an elemental reverb-laden coldness about it (much like some of Dean McPhee’s work) but gradual listening reveals the overall tone to be one of warmth and inclusiveness. One major influence is Nick Drake in terms of the overall feel – hushed and frail, dextrous and wafted in with a hint of otherness; and then that voice, high and whispered, disappearing from your field of hearing in its top register – but there’s no sense of Dickson paying mere homage: this is too unadorned and naked, too ready to follow twisted finger patterns into beautiful blind alleys. Lyrically, Dickson is fairly obtuse, but the main theme of the album seems to be an irretrievable distance from someone, particularly refracted through the prism of the sea, where an unnamed person is either drowning, or swallowed by a whale (the former in ‘Noon’, the latter in the beautiful closing track, ‘Jonah’). The simplest thing to say with this is that I keep coming back to it. Quite A Way Away is a quiet triumph.
11. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
12. The Botanist - III: Doom in Bloom / Allies Review
13. Charlemagne Palestine & Janek Schaefer - Day of the Demons
14. Om - Advaitic Songs
15. Hildur Guðnadóttir - Leyfðu ljósinu Full review
16. Padang Food Tigers - Ready Country Nimbus Review
17. Laurie Spiegel - The Expanding Universe
18. Lee Gamble - Diversions 1994-1996
19. How to Dress Well - Total Loss
20. IX Tab - Spindle & the Bregnut Tree Review
Mountain*7 - for the person with nothing better to do
We published our best of 2012 over at The Liminal last week - below is my own personal list and previous reviews...
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?
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