Review: Vortice Group – Vortice Group (Anahuac Editions, Feb 1)

The ambling tracks that comprise Vortice Group’s self-titled debut release are constructed with a framework of loose drum machine loops that stumble and stutter underneath flowing melds of acoustic instruments, distorted spoken word, and samples. Rhythmic elements in such fluid, abstract music are difficult to get right, and it’s refreshing that this mysterious quartet treats their lurching percussion cells as just another component in these diverse and surreal collages. The four tracks on side one are mainly focused meditations on single ideas, with the band allowing each to progress through very subtle alterations. “Wind Rises From Somewheres” sets the scene with its flimsy synth bloops and delay-blanketed clips of metallic clattering, occasionally allowing these respirating textures to interlock with the spidery drum machine sample. The remaining three continue to experiment with similar sounds, and even though they are documented as separate tracks the side feels like a single entity that seems to slowly and beautifully decay. From the derelict ruins of the whimsical first half comes the much more withdrawn and immaterial second side, its formless forays into droning woodwinds and conversational improvisation bisected by a stretch of unaccompanied field recording that captures the tape’s atmosphere well with muffled clunks and gritty analog hiss. Vortice Group is an evasive debut effort that defies classification, and would be greatly enjoyed by fans of acts like Good Area, Parlours, and The Shadow Ring.

Review: For Your Health – Nosebleeds (Middle-Man, Jan 28)

Emotional hardcore offers up catharsis in a variety of forms. Some bands express feelings and atmosphere through rough, throat-tearing screams and blast beats, while others stick with melodic guitars and earnest, to-the-point lyrics. For Your Health, a promising new quartet from Columbus, OH, bursts out of the woodwork with guns blazing on both of those fronts. The short-and-sweet (well, depends on your definition of ‘sweet’) Nosebleeds 7″ is their first studio release, and sees the band cutting their teeth across the gamut of screamo music. The seven tracks, the longest of which barely reaches two and a half minutes, garner their powerful, almost overwhelming emotional weight from moments of both twinkly beauty and eviscerating stretches of violent, percussive freakouts. The quite straightforwardly-titled “FUCK ICE” emerges from a well-placed sample into an accelerating cacophony that drips with delirious anger, and is the peak of the furious whirlwind that’s conjured by the first five tracks, before the wistful singalong of “Second Aid Kit” and patient repetition of “Exit Flesh” bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. Every time I finish this thing I find myself bewildered by how little time has actually passed since I put it on, because in just eleven minutes these guys put you through a gauntlet that feels a whole hell of a lot longer (in a good way, of course).

Physical copies of Nosebleeds on 7″ vinyl and cassettes will be available here in March.

Review: Fletcher Pratt – Rituals for Magnetic Tape Vol. 1 (Never Anything, Feb 3)

With Rituals for Magnetic Tape Vol. 1, Oakland-based sound artist Fletcher Pratt evokes the spectral compositions of early tape music pioneers such as Xenakis and Ferrari, with a distinctly modern element of improvisational fluidity. “Ritual 1,” the sole track on the tape, adopts an approach faithful to the original principle of musique concrète—that is, everyday sounds and noises are transformed into something new and unrecognizable. Pratt’s skillful spindle work largely obscures his (probably) wide range of sound sources, molding and melding raw recordings to produce ghostly drones, synthetic pulses, and virtuosic blasts of frenetic blips. There isn’t a single part of “Ritual 1” that sounds anything close to organic, but it is far from feeling detached or sterile. Pratt manipulates his auditory arsenal like an urgent sculptor, raising abstract yet physical constructions from suspenseful silence. It really does sound like a ritual of some sort (though not one that I’ve ever seen); most of the elements are quite percussive, and the way each is sequenced or combined with the others is where the piece draws its mysterious energy. Rituals for Magnetic Tape Vol. 1 is both a breath of fresh air and a reminder of everything great about the early stages of these widely used techniques. I really hope that this tape being subtitled “volume 1” is an indicator that there will be many more installments.

Review: Seth Cooke – Weigh the Word (self-released, Jan 27)

Whispered prophetics, skull-vibrating bass feedback, stop-start static. The uncanny sonority of halted words, syllables once pregnant with meaning reduced to synthetic blips and glitches. The captivating gibberish that dominates Seth Cooke’s stark collages on Weigh the Word is sourced from spoken ministry cassettes recorded between 1996 and 1999, the devotional sermons digitized and chopped up beyond recognition to form something entirely new. Both sides of the C26 cassette contain elusive mixtures of sounds as jittery and unpredictable as the cut-up text that serves as the cover art, the synthesized speech sharing space with granular electronics and disarming dynamic changes. The largely indeterminate and computer-based method of composition used here might imply that Weigh the Word is too far removed from anything recognizably emotional or even organic, but the music itself tells a different story. Especially on side B, the random diatribes adopt something resembling lucidity; the male text-to-speech stating “They were the issue of slavery, you will model something for them yeah okay okay okay okay” while a whirlwind of aggressive static that sounds like an angry cloud of bees threatens to take over is one of the most harrowing things I’ve heard in recent memory. Weigh the Word is another fascinating and singular work from Seth Cooke.

Review: Ithaca – The Language of Injury (Holy Roar, Feb 1)

The cover of The Language of Injury is composed of a bright pink knife encased in a jagged collage of blue-tinted photographs from various Ithaca live shows. That unusual dichotomy is a pretty accurate representation of the music itself as well; Ithaca’s slamming, bone-crushing rhythms are vicious and angular, but the songs also have a distinct beauty buried somewhere within them, still with an edge but one that’s much more refined. Opening one-two punch “New Covenant” and “Impulse Crush” begin the record with the biggest bang possible, mostly relying on intense, groove-based riffs with moments of unhinged energy and melodic tapping guitar fills. The burst-fire breakdown on “Impulse Crush” is one of the most impossibly heavy things I’ve ever heard (it’s that kind where you can’t help but laugh out loud at how awesome it is), but its intensity is somehow still more than matched on later tracks like the title cut and “Youth vs Wisdom.” Ithaca also handles the pacing of the album remarkably well; I don’t know if ‘exhausting’ is really the right word for the non-stop punishment that the first four tracks put you through, because that sounds way too negative, but by the time the gorgeous, calming interlude of “(No Translation)” shows up it’s more than welcome. From then on, more and more of that distant ethereality is injected into the music, from the soft guitar that opens “Clsr.” to the meditative intricacies of “Gilt” and the anthemic tremolo climax of “Better Abuse.” As of writing this review I’ve listened to The Language of Injury at least once a day since its release, and I definitely do not plan on altering that schedule. I can say with confidence that this is one of the best executed modern metallic hardcore records I have come across.

Review: Ourson – Collected Natures III: Lo-Fi Recordings of Personal Space (Psøma Psi Phi, Jan 29)

Listening to field recordings isn’t just about experiencing the sounds of places you may never visit. When captured well, the intangible energy of an environment or space is palpable in a recording, and this is especially the case when the places that are being represented are of particular significance to the phonographer. Whether or not every single extract on Collected Natures III represents a space that holds personal importance for Luke Hazard, also known as Ourson, is unclear, but it certainly feels that way. The set spans over three hours and is split into as many discs, titled “Home,” “Away,” and “Night,” respectively, and each piece is dominated by the calming hiss of a low fidelity analog recording, making even the most invasive noises, such as the whizzing by of cars or the grumble of an airplane engine, adopt much more calming visages. Especially in the third disc, the tracks are very quiet, forcing a meditative level of focus on behalf of the listener not unlike Jürg Frey’s lowercase masterpiece Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8 (which I wrote about here). Hazard himself is also often present in the background of his captured soundscapes, and some of the most quietly impactful moments of Collected Natures III come at the end of a track when we hear him walking up to stop the recording, like on “Wind, Uninterrupted,” which is ironically interrupted by what sounds like the sliding of a screen door and clunking footsteps. Not only is each soundscape gorgeous on its own, but Hazard ensures that each one is contained within its own world, that each one is an established space.

Review: Timothée Quost & Jaka Berger – qb (Zvočni prepihi, Jan 28)

Duo improvised recordings are often among the most powerfully singular music I come across, and as such I try to listen to a great deal of them. This allows me to further parse the particular recording into two groups, based on the relationship and interplay between the improvisers: either two artists with already well-developed styles are paired together, and each individual’s contributions are easily discernible, or the duo forms a sort of collective entity, not exactly playing off each other but instead creating a communal pool or mixture of sound. qb belongs to the latter group. Though I’m not familiar with either Quost or Berger, it would be difficult to separate their additions even if I was. The two pieces on qb are hulking amalgams of sustained textures and drones from a variety of sources, and the fascinating but opaque results when all of these disparate sound objects meet make it difficult, and unnecessary, to know ‘who’s doing what.’ There’s a sense of impact and implication in each sound; since the pieces were recorded in a single room, the yawning squeals of speaker feedback and tensile string-box drones affect other elements like the clattering prepared drum. The timbres here are harsh, but not alienatingly so. Instead, the grating tension that never seems to stop building is more meditative, even cathartic, especially near the end of “B,” a five minute stretch that some’s of the best improvised material I’ve heard so far this year.

Review: Skylark Quartet – Live in Tokyo (Marginal Frequency, Jan 22)

Dancing in Tomelilla, Éric La Casa’s unconventional recording of the Cool Quartett with Lina Nyberg on vocals, showed me that the observer of a sound event can play just as important of a role in its identity as the performers. Even an otherwise conventional jazz performance can be rendered as an uncanny and texturally rich piece when the recorder allows themselves to take certain artistic liberties. I wouldn’t describe Skylark Quartet’s eleven renditions of the titular jazz standard as ‘conventional,’ per se; each of the musicians conveys the famous tune through largely unrestricted improvisation, painting a ghostly tribute that is almost indistinguishable from the original. What makes Live in Tokyo so much more compelling, and the reason for my bringing up Dancing in Tomelilla, is that the recordings of the performance are gleaned from four observers (Kanji Nakao, Sam Sfirri, Taku Unami, and Reiji Hattori) who capture the somber, free-form serenades in the most intimate manner possible. We hear the quiet shuffles and clicks of the band setting up, the satisfyingly organic way in which they ‘settle in’ to the song, not only the sounds the instruments make but also the sounds of them actually being played, the way the room seems to breathe around them…. The atmosphere of Live in Tokyo is an odd one, at once eerie and reassuring, and even disregarding the beautiful music itself it’s a fascinating meditation on how we consume recorded performances.

Review: Matthias Urban – Half-Silvered Mirror (self-released, Jan 24)

Though there is no shortage of things about Matthias Urban’s newest solo release Half-Silvered Mirror that make it a fascinating and engaging experience, what immediately stands out is the incredible mastery of sound demonstrated throughout its 38 minutes. Beginning with a sparse cluster of clattering clutter, Urban instantly establishes a concrete sense of space and environment. From then on, each carefully mixed element that is introduced into the lush collage is given a distinct location within the space of the album, a unique role amidst the countless other ingredients that contributes to the piece’s overall form. Painstakingly built using tape recordings, violin, percussion, objects, and voice, Urban’s auditory sculpture ambles along with roiling kinetic energy, a veritable katamari of sound and texture. The composition has a presence that is considerably different from the last release of Urban’s that I heard (SiAl, released last year by Dinzu Artefacts) but the sounds retain that staggering power and punch that makes his work so magnetic.

Also, if anyone isn’t following Matthias Urban’s photography account on Instagram (@matthiasurban86), I’d recommend changing that immediately.

Review: Crime of Passing – Winter ’19 (Wasted Tapes, Jan 17)

On this four track demo tape for their winter tour, Crime of Passing expands upon their brand of brooding, grimy coldwave with a strong sense of identity. Lead vocalist Andie Luman, who only contributed vocals to one track on the previous Dancing Prick EP, takes over all four here with her powerful yelps and wails, their sharp edges cutting through the shrouds of nocturnal gloom that drape each song. Crime of Passing’s style is undeniably indebted to those who came before, but there’s also an abundance of unique elements that cement them as an original creative force. Each track has a great sense of momentum, from the jittery delay feedback that propels “Midnight Underground” to the stumbling rhythm of the forceful guitar attacks on “The Tass.” The constant, deliberate flow of the songs also highlights the band’s ability to construct intricate instrumental interplay. In the first track, the guitar, bass, and synth all seem to pass the torch back and forth in terms of which leads the charge, interlocking atop the cymbal-less drums to produce swirling clouds of dreamy harmonies. Closer “Don’t Turn (to Me)” is perhaps the demo’s most straightforward pop song, but everything still sounds gritty, buried, off somehow, a contrast that, among other things, makes Crime of Passing my favorite band from the ol’ 513.