I reviewed Julianna Barwick’s wonderful new album Nepenthe…
Describing how Barwick’s music sounds is easy enough; it’s all abstract haunting vocal loops which are sublimely weightless and uplifting as the enveloping strands of vocal layers take on a mesmeric drone like quality. Describing what it feels like to listen to her songs on the other hand is a much more difficult question, and it’s the question which matters most because that description of her sound could just as easily be applied to some tacky new age spiritualist compilation or, perhaps even worse, Enya. The difference to me is that those examples seem very much like products engineered towards a target market, whereas Barwick’s ghostly creations feel overwhelmingly genuine; each arrangement a primal purging of tangled emotions seemingly untethered from the physical world – just pure soul and impulse. 
Read the full review here.

I reviewed Julianna Barwick’s wonderful new album Nepenthe

Describing how Barwick’s music sounds is easy enough; it’s all abstract haunting vocal loops which are sublimely weightless and uplifting as the enveloping strands of vocal layers take on a mesmeric drone like quality. Describing what it feels like to listen to her songs on the other hand is a much more difficult question, and it’s the question which matters most because that description of her sound could just as easily be applied to some tacky new age spiritualist compilation or, perhaps even worse, Enya. The difference to me is that those examples seem very much like products engineered towards a target market, whereas Barwick’s ghostly creations feel overwhelmingly genuine; each arrangement a primal purging of tangled emotions seemingly untethered from the physical world – just pure soul and impulse. 

Read the full review here.

Cloud - Comfort Songs

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Staring at the world, have you figured it out yet”

The coming-of-age genre has always been a strong tradition of classic cinema, but it’s never really struck as strong a conceptual chord for the LP. Listening to Comfort Songs it’s tough to figure out why that is though, cause this is a perfect soundtrack to angsty development. Technically the third album by LA based 21 year-old Tyler Taormina & friends (albeit their first full release), it’s full of big ideas which are executed with a sort of admirably ramshackle naivety and an emotional tone which is fluctuant to say the least; bouncing regularly between awe and confusion; anger and sorrow; ego and ineptitude; it is drinking in the whole world and immediately throwing it all back up.

Musically speaking it absorbs what to me (and probably a lot of early-mid 20s music nerds) feels like a tangible spirit of youth; the wiry guitars and Taormina’s spirited but uneven yelps are built from a template of classic 90’s emo. On top of that the group make use of delicate piano strokes, brass wails and well placed strings to ensure there’s an elegant sadness shot through and everything takes on this interesting middle ground of youthful exuberance and stately maturity – like Braid meets Low or American Football mashed up with Bark Psychosis.

Kanye West - Yeezus

Throughout his career, Kanye West has proven himself to be perpetually paradoxical. True to form, Yeezus is one of the most brilliant and vulgar albums of recent times, as its ten tracks perfectly sum up the baffling dualities of the man.

On 18 May, Kanye performed two new songs on Saturday Night Live, two tunes which stopped the internet dead in its tracks. ’Black Skinheads’ and ‘New Slaves’ showcased a leaner, more aggressive and militant side to West’s music; the caustic beats and stark minimalism of the melodies offered a perfect canvas for him to make a big statement. The lyrical content seemed to match as well, most notably his widely de-constructed calling out of the privatised prison system, and in recent interviews he has spoken of starting movements and placed himself in the tradition of politically motivated artists like Gil Scott-Heron. It seemed he was tapping into something big, and like many others, I was ready to be blown away by the brazen, primal voice of disenfranchised black America (as we all know, he has previous).  This should be where it all falls into place.  The potential has always been there – his dissatisfaction with materialism, disavowal of hip-hop’s culture of violence, and wry observations of institutionalised racism have long been tomes of his verses. Sadly, this is not quite that record. Despite being an impressively abrasive album for a multi-million selling rap artist, it also feeds back into many of the frustratingly puerile aspects of the genre which he has always seemed keen to distance himself from. Almost too much so, but I’ll get to that.

When Baths debut Cerulean emerged in 2010, Will Wiesenfeld was bracketed with L.A beat scene artists like Flying Lotus and Nosaj Thing, but he always had a spark of something different about him. His sound mixed deep saturated beats with wistful samples and falsetto vocals that imbued a sadness to the record, one which seemed more human and much less exhausting to listen to than those peers. This second album only serves to highlight the superficiality of those previous associations, as Obsidian is a casually accessible but black-hearted collection which he has called his “weird version of a pop record” 

Read more…

Old Earth - Small Hours

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Old Earth is the work of Milwaukee based drone-folk musician Todd Umhoefer, but the release is being handled a lot closer to home by the ever reliable Edinburgh label Mini50 Records. This traversing of large distance seems like an apt point of reference for the sounds here as well, as Umhoefer’s music takes its roots in punk, folk and drone to create something which seems heavily indebted to those traditions but at the same time is very forward looking and quite unlike any of them. 

At just three tracks long, and clocking in at 23 minutes, you might be expecting something which holds more with the conventions of ambient noise but this is more of an atmospheric influence than a compositional one I think. Certainly he has previous when it comes to imbuing his overall process with a sense of something haunted, his last two major releases were record in vacant family homes. I can’t find much information on where this one was written or recorded but it too seems to have the spectre of a lost home hanging over it - a once warm place which has grown cold with absence. 

The first track showcases the thick foggy but very rhythmic guitar style which permeates the record along with Umhoefer’s unexpectedly soft-edged vocals. In terms of comparison it seems to strike a balance between Barn Owl and Mount Eerie, but with a more post-punk influence running through as his gutar rattles over unnerving drones. The second half of this track is up there with Elverum’s most beautiful paeans to nature which often echo a similar feeling of loss despite their reverential tones.

Team Morale - Forteana EP

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This Kent based duo have crafted a beautifully dense and evocative atmosphere on their debut release, despite only clocking in at just over fifteen minutes this showcases a lot of promise.

The first two tracks here do a brilliant job of slowly ratcheting up tension as coiled beats clash against taut simple guitar lines repeating cyclically to create driving rhythms. It’s the second half of the EP where Team Morale really shine though. ‘Melatonin’ is a fluttering idyllic piece of electronic post-rock which sways back and forth mustering a perfect balance of lightness and force in the vein of 65daysofstatic but less aggressive. The release notes mention that the title “Forteana means a belief in the unusual, the unexplainable and the magical” and there is certainly something otherworldly bubbling under the technology strewn surface of Team Morale’s sound.  

Closing track and highlight ‘Aurora’ captures this well; all glittering lights streaming across sparse moonlit beats and with the incorporation of some glitchy pitch-shifted vocals it carries a sensual mystique which places it somewhere in between Balam Acab and Baths in its subtle control of atmosphere.. 

This been on regular rotation for me since its release last month, and I can’t wait to see what these guys release next. You can stream or purchase the EP in digital or limited edition CD through Night Talk Records

Esben and the Witch – Wash The Sins Not Only The Face

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Esben and the Witch followed up their inclusion on the BBC Sound of 2011 Shortlist (alongside the likes of Jessie J, James Blake and The Vaccines no less) with a debut album which was defiant in its distance from such accessibility. Violet Cries revelled in a dense claustrophobic atmosphere full of trembling build ups and macabre imagery but frustratingly short on cathartic releases. There were still moments of brilliance therein but overall it was a bit of a damp squib from a band who had displayed so much early promise. This second effort manages to further that promise remarkably well with a much more muscular and accessible sound than before.

Mount Eerie - Ocean Roar

Whilst they were conceived as companion records, there is a clear distinction to be drawn between the Mount Eerie of Clear Moon and of Ocean Roar. The former is quietly majestic and damp with dewy-eyed wonder over the infinite beauty of the natural world whereas Ocean Roar is, in sole member Phil Elverum’s own words, “more challenging and weird and darker and heavier”  and seems more interested in channeling the inherent force of the natural elements. They are two sides of the same subject, and this latest side is definitely the shadow as it sees further experiments with the black metal influence previously explored on Wind’s Poem.

Hiva Oa - The Awkward Hello, Hanshake, Kiss

Edinburgh trio Hiva Oa make the kind of hushed atmospheric ambient-pop which will appeal to fans of Trouble Books or Conquering Animal Sound. Yet they make it more expansive and raw, tending to eschew electronics in favour of acoustic sounds for the most part and unlike those peers they’re definitely not afraid to get loud sometimes.

In doing so they’ve crafted a beautifully rounded album which is by turns serene and chaotic, melodic and discordant. Tracks like ‘These Hands’ excel in embracing a slow build up of noise, the crashing cymbals and scratched guitars of its climax evokes more of a metal influence than you would ever expect from a band with a cellist. Previous single 'Badger' is still an indisputable highlight as well, an exceptional wash of worn strings, pounding drums and swollen voices. There’s something of the sea in their music as it swings from stillness to dark waves of ominous noise; like being battered by wind and rain but feeling perversely centred and optimistic.

Evan Caminiti - Dreamless Sleep

As one half of California noise masters Barn Owl, Evan Caminiti is best known for crafting abrasively unsettling drone; the kind of slow burning noise which could soundtrack the most  macabre of nightmares. However he is also something of a one man guitar drone institution away from his usual partner in crime, having already released four solo albums to date under his own name as well as more under his Painted Caves guise and then plenty of collaborative works as Higuma. Across all monikers though his work is rarely anything other than bleak and nightmarish in tone, so I had expected to maybe find him embracing a more peaceful sound here on a record titled Dreamless Sleep.

If anything though these seven tracks play out like a struggle towards light, which frequently slips back into murky territory and ultimately ends up mired in the darkness. Opener ‘Leaving The Island’ sails in on a swell of fuzzy guitar drone, with small shafts of light breaking through the mist for a relatively bright opening. This is followed by ‘Bright Midnight’, which slowly slips into a vortex of reverberating drones and lashes of more distorted prog-like waves, before the pulsating bass tones of ‘Absteigend’ draws out an even more menacing undercurrent to the record.

Admiral Fallow - Tree Bursts In Snow

From its original release in 2010 and a couple of re-issues last year, Admiral Fallow’s debut album Boots Met My Face became something of a slow burning word of mouth success. Thoroughly deserved it was too, as they (and earlier incarnation Brother Louis Collective) had long been one of the best bands kicking around the Glasgow circuit, and their wistful brand of folk-pop translates quite perfectly to a long player.
 
One of the biggest strengths of that first record is the subject matter, based on singer and songwriter Louis Abbott’s childhood memories the whole thing has a warm nostalgic feeling about it which is difficult to resist, even in its most dour moments. Tree Bursts in Snow on the other hand is described by Abbott as being inspired in part by “…the sheer volume of gun related violent crimes throughout the world but in particular in the U.S.” Not as many rosy memories expected here then you would think. It’s nothing like the kind of angry polemic that quote suggests though, in fact it feels intrinsically optimistic and if anything it pushes Admiral Fallow closer to the mainstream (without sacrificing too much of their character).

Daughn Gibson - All Hell

In recent years most music genres have been “re-invented” by some chumps with a laptop who have decided to make a more dubbed up, down beat, lo-fi version of indie-pop or death metal or whatever. Needless to say these are generally quite bad, but not always (How To Dress Well nailed 90’s r’n’b for example) and one which hasn’t really seen this treatment is American country music. Sure it might seem like a strange source of inspiration for a predominantly sample based record but at its best country is a style which paints characters like few others and the kind of genre staple intricate guitar picking and enduring piano melodies are perfect fodder for someone like Daughn Gibson to croon over.

AlunaGeorge - You Know How You Like It EP

AlunaGeorge’s association with TriAngle Records might at first seem misleading, as they’re really not what you would expect from the label known for unearthing talents like Balam Acab, oOoOO and How to Dress Well. All of those artists were trendsetters in what most people have now wisely decided to stop calling “witchhouse”, a haunting spectre of R’n’B distorted almost beyond recognition. Whilst this debut EP from British duo George Reid and Aluna Francis is at times equally spellbinding it is far more nostalgic than it is phantasmic, with an instantly familiar tone.

Those other acts seem to reach beyond the past, into another realm of music almost, albeit an impressively warm yet disturbing one. Whereas there’s no doubting that You Know How You Like It has one foot very firmly set in the world of slick late ’90s/early ’00s pop R’n’B, managing to re-invigorate the sound and make it feel fresh without resorting to any of those creepy filters.

Volcano! - Piñata

The video for their 2009 single (re-worked here) ‘So Many Lemons’ could act as a manifesto for Volcano! What it might be lacking in production value is more than made up for with a bizarre premise and assault of surreal imagery which is likely to leave you thinking “I don’t know what the fuck is going on here, but I think I like it”. Well, that was my reaction at least; and it’s one which carries on throughout much of their third album Piñata.

Three in, they are still a little rough around the edges and, possibly as a result of that, they’ve never quite got the critical kudos which they deserve. With any luck now may be their time though because their mish-mashing of influences is very much in keeping with the current ADD state of music culture, and probably far more relevant than the critically creamed Indie With Pop Ambition records which have dominated praise in recent years. That’s why records like this ought to be discussed more: Volcano! are a band that are never likely to trouble the mainstream, but that’s perfect because that’s not what they exist for.  As pointed out in the TLOBF review of their previous record Paperwork they are basically a post-punk band; there’s no doubting they know how to play, just not by the rules. The range of awkward time signatures and stylistic shifts on show here are testament to that experimental nature.

French Wives - Dream of the Inbetween

Glasgow quintet French Wives have been gathering a quiet momentum since they formed back in 2008. That time has seen them accrue a well-received flurry of singles and a solid local fan base which fully expects them to achieve wider success with the release of their debut album. That is a stage at which so many promising artists before them have fallen but Dream of the Inbetween is a very promising, if slightly flawed, introduction.

There’s no denying that they have gathered a collection of solid well-crafted indiepop, which is easily accessible without ever lapsing into formulaic blandness. As for points of reference, the songs sit somewhere further along the Scottish lineage occupied by the likes of Ballboy, Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura. On first listen it all seems quite happy-go-lucky, but further listens uncover a darker heart and a depth of emotion which both encourage and reward further attention.