Review: Hastings of Malawi – Visceral Underskinnings (Sub Rosa, Apr 20)

(Just to clarify, I believe this was digitally released back in March, but the LP and streaming came out today.)

Hastings of Malawi, initially a project connected to the infamous Nurse With Wound, released their first album Vibrant Stapler Obscures Characteristic Growth back in 1981. It’s as strange as the title implies, drawing from the harsh industrial sounds being experimented with at the time as well as composition elements more associated with avant-garde classical music. Nearly forty years later, the group has returned with a new LP that stands out just as much today as Vibrant Stapler did in ’81. Visceral Underskinnings is composed of two extended audio collages, establishing an impenetrable and surreal atmosphere with the use of manipulated field recordings and found sound. Actually, I don’t know if “found” really conveys the noises that are stitched together throughout the two pieces; a more fitting word might be “scavenged.” It sounds like these samples were the ones no one else wanted, dug up from the very bottom of a haphazard pile of others: a glitchy answering message, cracked organ tapes, etc. They’re damaged, dusty, and absolute gold in the hands of these skillful sound sculptors. Visceral Underskinnings is billed as a “film without sound,” a normally hyperbolic descriptor that I actually agree wholeheartedly with here. The two tracks are disjointed, confusing, and utterly terrifying, but undeniably convey a detailed abstract story that I don’t think would be half as impactful if it were told with visuals.

Buy the LP version here.

Review: Jackie-O Motherfucker – Bloom (Textile, Apr 8)

Well, this was a surprise. The west coast-based experimental collective Jackie-O Motherfucker (hereafter JOMF) has been one of my absolute favorite artists for a very long time, but even I was unaware that they had released a new album earlier this month. The release was quiet, but the music is anything but. Spliced together from a massive amount of material recorded in and around stacks of steel pipes, Bloom is one of JOMF’s fullest sounding records. Though I’d cite the skeletal, wispy atmosphere on many of the band’s records as being one of my favorite things about their sound, it actually really works here. In fact, I found myself liking Bloom for many reasons that are the complete opposite of what I normally identify with JOMF. The songs are relatively brief, structured, and rhythmic; and the vocals/lyrics play more of a role in the music than ever before. But even though it appears that they’re going in a much more conventional direction on this record, it definitely doesn’t feel like a step back. Instead, they just seem to be applying their usual freedom and colorfulness to a different format. Notably, “The Strike” might be one of the weirdest songs they’ve made since their early days, and to my delight the horns take center stage – almost Evolutionary Jass Band style. Greenwood’s less than flawless singing is much more welcome this time around, his earnest croons conveying emotions in a pleasingly indirect way. I might have to get over my initial excitement (and bewilderment) to form a more complete opinion, but as of now I’d place Bloom as one of JOMF’s best albums since Flags of the Sacred Harp, and I couldn’t be happier that they are still up and at ’em.

Review: Simon Cummings – (Crónica, Apr 10)

Just yesterday I wrote a bit about the power of silence, and how it can be used to elicit discomfort and even fear in the listener. The silence that English artist Simon Cummings uses on his new album   (pronounced “ma”) is not as immediately intimidating as Soddell’s, but it is no less unsettling. The record was put together during a very negative period in Cummings’ life, a context reflected in its aching, hopeless atmosphere. The source material draws from recordings he made during Anglican sermons, which were edited down to the quiet moments of limbo between activities and then heavily processed. On the first track, whose probably overly poetic title fittingly begins with “mightily forgetting,” a startling organ chord decays in somber slow motion; establishing acute feelings of despair and dread from the very beginning. And on the album’s longest piece, “from Silence, of Nothing,” wispy bundles of noise rise and fall from oppressive silence, sometimes reduced to meager clicks and rumbles amidst distant whooshing sounds. The album is quite the emotional roller coaster, and at the end I’m not really sure what to feel. There are fleeting moments of hope, passages of empty indifference, and overwhelming despair of course; an impossibly wide range of sentiments that is rivaled only by what I’m sure Cummings was feeling when he made it all. 間 , a Japanese word, can be translated as a space between or a gap, and hopefully that is exactly what this difficult time in his life turned out to be.

Review: Thembi Soddell – Love Songs (Room40, Apr 13)

Love Songs begins with nearly complete silence. And it stays there for a while too, almost to the point where I was convinced nothing was actually playing. Then, almost imperceptible clicks and electronic noises emerge, building into an expanding tower of abstract sound that rises in a logarithmic crescendo (so don’t get impatient and crank your volume at the beginning; you’ll regret it later) before collapsing under its own weight. This first track, “Object (Im)Permanence,” demonstrates the unique power of artist Thembi Soddell’s newest release: its tremendous dynamic range. Sometimes, the volume changes are gradual; but they are also often disarmingly sudden, plucking powerfully loud, layered sculptures and replacing them with nothing. But even though looking at the waveform diagrams of the tracks would show this, on Love Songs the silence is just as invasive as the clamor. It gets under your skin, makes you uneasy even though you’re not quite sure why, almost makes you long for it to replaced with some sound, anything at all… And just when you think you’re about to go crazy, Soddell raises jarring electroacoustic collages from where there was once no sound at all. Love Songs is enthralling and ambitious, and is without a doubt one of the most fascinating albums I’ve heard this year.

Review: Jeroen Diepenmaat – LOK (self-released, Apr 9)

At some points during the 55 minute duration of LOK, it’s difficult to tell if it’s actually there at all. Dutch sound artist Jeroen Diepenmaat constructs a fragile balance between the active and the inactive, creating beautiful soundscapes using only tape and piano. Sometimes, like at the beginning of the C side, the piano takes the reins, with Diepenmaat’s tense phrasings presiding over dusty tape hiss; and other times, such as the latter section of the B side, it is the recordings that evolve the music. But in each case, one is eventually overcome by the other, always maintaining the delicate equilibrium of textures. The sound of clear, clean piano notes degrading into the gritty wooziness of a cassette recording is devastating in a way I can’t really describe – and it’s only one of the many unusual composition techniques of which Diepenmaat makes use to produce this sparse, lofty music.

Review: Wrong – Feel Great (Relapse, Apr 13)

Miami-based rock outfit Wrong’s new album is an unyielding slab of sludgey noise rock. Feel Great is a more melodic and diverse record than the band’s self-titled debut, adding a muscular edge that reminds me of the better parts of early-2000’s alt metal; but it stays faithful to that album’s mercilessness. The production is fittingly muddy and turbid, with sections of surprisingly bright lead guitar and anthemic vocal lines occasionally pushing through – such as on one of the record’s best tracks, “Come Apart Mend”. Wrong certainly sticks to their guns on Feel Great, but it takes enough risks that it feels entertainingly fresh. I could’ve done without some things though, like the guitar solo on “Zero Cool” that sticks out like a sore thumb (although it precedes one of my favorite sections on the album: an arrhythmic noisy breakdown that is a welcome lead-in to the final tracks). It’s a promising release that looks to both the past and the future.

Review: Saåad – Présence absente (Hands in the Dark, Apr 13)

Though it makes use of many of the same tools and styles, Présence absente is a very different album from its predecessor Verdaillon. I had pretty high expectations going into the French duo’s newest, mainly because I think their previous release is a modern ambient masterpiece. But even if I didn’t try to avoid comparing albums to ones that came before, it would be hard to do in this case. Where Verdaillon was dark, earthy, and spiritual, Présence absente adopts a much more naturalistic approach. The songs rise and fall organically across their extended durations, seeming to focus more on evoking emotion rather than representing an environment. The use of field recordings is sparse, restricted to some occasional bird chirps and reverb-heavy clunking sounds, placed so that the textural contrast they create is much appreciated. Other than that, the record largely consists of weighty, effect-laden synthesizer drones, a choice to which I would usually not be very partial; but it’s all handled so well that I greatly enjoyed myself. I think the key here is that the songs are still very active, and it’s clear that members Romain Barbot and Greg Buffier put a lot of their own emotions into the music. One thing I’m sure about is that Présence absente is a much less immediate album than Verdaillon, and I’m sure that with time I’ll come to love it just as much.