In stark contrast to my last end-of-year list introduction, I only have one word to say in response to the conclusion of 2020: FINALLY.
HWWAUOCH – Protest Against Sanity (Amor Fati, Nov 18)
Of the five superb Prava Kollektiv albums I reviewed a month or so ago, it was a given that at least one would show up here. What wasn’t a given, however, was whether it would be this or Mahr’s Maelstrom, but I eventually came to the conclusion that Protest Against Sanity was not only the best choice from that match-up, but also the most fitting selection for the loose, ambiguous endorsement of the unnumbered “top spot.” Since an unfortunate incident last December, my year has in large part been saturated with personal horror: from distressingly solipsistic existential paranoia and harrowing derealization episodes to antinatalism-fueled self-hatred and misanthropy; my own presence on this earth, in this reality, has never been brought into question as deeply or as upsettingly as it was in 2020. And there is no better soundtrack to that profound terror than the primal howls and havoc of HWWAUOCH, whose “third chapter” in their series of full-lengths is dedicated to the process of “destroying all remaining perceptions of sanity.” Maelstrom, despite its ample supply of pestilent darkness, was still tethered to the corporeal and the familiar with its guitar solos and somewhat conventional structures, but Protest Against Sanity severs all restraints to write and wail in the void of total despair, an unsettling but ultimately cathartic descent into humanity’s truest form: agony, suffering, and an overwhelming desire to just not be here anymore. Consciousness is a scourge, a curse, a cruel joke, and once one has realized that there are no other sounds to make than these. Original review
Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure? (PMR, Jun 26)
On the other hand, if I had given myself over completely to the all-consuming shadows, what kind of human would I be? We’re not exactly known for giving up, especially in an existential context. But the things that keep us going when actual mortality seems a distant, tenuous possibility and all we’re left with is the everyday doubt, discouragement, and defeat are albums like What’s Your Pleasure?: colorful, infectious, optimistic routes of reality-escape that remind us why we continue to fight so desperately against the coming of the night. Jessie Ware’s retro-pop magnum opus is exactly what the world needed to keep going during the oppressive doldrums of the pandemic, a sensual appeal to love and intimate interpersonal connection that both celebrates the past and looks, bright-eyed, toward the future. The record blends velvety EDM and disco-throwback instrumental hybrids with Ware’s simultaneously goddesslike and pitifully human presence; over some of the softest and grooviest modern production you’ll ever hear she undergoes the same rollercoaster oscillation between enlightened self-surety and complete weakness as the rest of us. The only difference is that her voice is beautiful enough to make hearing her sing about it an enjoyable experience.
Raven Chacon – An Anthology of Chants Operations (Ouidah, Oct 2)
Creators with sporadic release habits, take notes; if you’re going to take a ten year break between works, this is exactly how you come back. Diné musician, composer, and all-around renaissance man Raven Chacon proves himself to be one of the most versatile sound artists in the world with the nine pieces chosen for An Anthology of Chants Operations, each an engrossing and formidable work of appreciation, exploration, or some combination of the two, whether they last 53 seconds or almost 13 minutes. In focused instrumental experiments like “Chant” and “Study for Human-made Bird Calls and Microphone out a Moving Car Window,” the auditory lens feels restricted in order to isolate the relevant textures, yet the sense of an exterior environment never leaves, whether it exists as a mostly hypothetical space for coiled tension to explode across or a complementary canvas backdrop. There’s often little connection between the techniques used on each track, but I somehow can’t imagine the LP sounding more unified than it already does; the only explanation is that Chacon must put something of himself in the music no matter how he produces it. Listening to the whole thing is worth it just for “MVHS,” a lovely recording from a classroom improvising workshop, and “Antler/Glass,” during which the entire career of Lucas Abela is rendered irrelevant in less than a minute. Original review
Alexander – Mot maskinen (How Is Annie, Dec 23)
I would forgive anyone who happened to stumble across Norwegian newcomer Alexander’s debut and scared the living daylights out of themselves upon pressing play. Not only is the cover colorful and whimsical enough to imply that the music within shares the same qualities, but the photo of the artist playing an acoustic guitar and the listed tags being “folk” and “punk” doesn’t help one prepare oneself either. Mot maskinen is, in actuality, an LP-length assault of brutal, eviscerating, dizzyingly dynamic harsh noise; not only that, but it’s also easily the best manifestation of the classic squall ‘n’ crunch approach I have heard in a very long time. Opening scorcher “Rot” takes no prisoners with its densely packed layers of sharp-fanged distortion and punishing effects pedal plundering, so overwhelmingly violent and abrasive that there’s little to do other than make that special noise-edition stank face and sway your head to whatever wacked-out tempo your brain ticks to. Even the album’s quietest moments are painful; the faintly rhythmic circuit-churn minimalism of “Primitive” will make you ache for the cleansing relief of maxed-out mixer levels and brain-scrubbing feedback screech from which you were begging for mercy just minutes ago.
Network Glass – Twitch (Salon, Aug 3)
Is there a name for an artificial artifact (besides that obnoxiously redundant-sounding phrase)? What do we call material forged in a way so as to appear objective and historically credible, yet conceals a great deal of subjective and—dare I say—artistic motivation underneath that façade? I don’t think such a creation is necessarily disingenuous, because Network Glass’s internet-age masterpiece certainly isn’t, but the extent to which something purports to be documental is important to consider when analyzing or evaluating it, and especially in regard to previous Network Glass releases Twitch is conspicuously and sublimely so. Dedicated to John Cage, who would undoubtedly be a Red Bull chugging Fortnite streamer were he born in the better generation, the suite of five collages stitches together countless recordings captured in various Twitch lobbies into assemblages that are surreal, hilarious, disturbing, annoying, narrative, and poignant with equal measure. This (appropriately) digital-only work shoulders the honorable responsibility of being the first line of warning for any future archaeologists who may make the mistake of trying to learn too much about the idiots who came before them. Original review, review for Tone Glow
Kiera Mulhern – De ossibus 20 (Recital, Oct 23)
Despite how uncanny and alien De ossibus 20 often is, it’s one of the albums this year that made me miss human interaction the most. It’s only New York sound artist Kiera Mulhern’s second full-length (her first was as K. Mulhern, so technically this one could have qualified for Eponymous Debuts feature, but it’s too great not to earn a spot here) but she’s already carved out a multidisciplinary approach that is entirely her own. Each of the five elusive pieces that comprise the LP are distinct movements in themselves, yet an overarching atmosphere of golden murk submerges everything within its warm, muffling confines, the gelatinous membrane that separates it from the outside world constantly distorting distances and dimensions in the perception of the listener. Mulhern’s poetic gaze is simultaneously turned inward and outward, most literally in the breathtaking “Self-auscultation 5/24/20,” whose subterranean burbling and spatial violations all but turn the body of the “speaker” into a quivering, fleshy Klein bottle that isn’t sure whether it’s in the room or it is the room. The hints of verbal lucidity come to a head in the ambiguous imagery of “Signs in the memory” before fatally fracturing just before the beginning of “Syrinx,” whose title might refer to either the nymph of Greek mythology who was turned into a set of horrendous-sounding reeds or the glial cysts that sometimes form in the joints and brain in childhood—probably both, although whatever wind instrument is being played sounds quite pleasant to me. Original review
Vilgoć – Granice (Szara Reneta, Jan 20)
It’s no coincidence that perhaps the most oppressive and obliterating release on this list is also the only entry to have survived from my mid-year roundup. Granice has been my go-to source of complete and utter drowning-out for nearly the entirety of 2020, which, I’m sure many of us would agree, has brought us no shortage of things that require drowning out. Polish musician Sebastian Harmazy’s solo project has been around for a while, but whether due to anomalous prescience or simply luck he saved his crowning achievement for the time I needed it most. The continuous, completely unrelenting 35 minutes and 54 seconds of Granice’s single track consists of what might be the most gloriously caustic noise wall ever conjured, a monolithic slab of sustained darkness and aggression that pulverizes not via varied assault but by merciless stagnancy. It’s the auditory equivalent of standing under a waterfall, if every drop of the water in that waterfall were a piece of razor-sharp obsidian or drop of flesh-melting lava.
Grog Organ – Fur Clemt (Mouth of Heaven, Oct 16)
I barely even know how to write about this one. Fur Clemt is something truly special: an unflinching portrait of personal hardship and grief that nonetheless resonates with anyone who listens; a work of musical minimalism and reticence that still sounds impossibly lush; an evocative album that casts new and different light on all seasons and settings. Whether Manchester recluse Gorge Lee is crooning the melodic equivalent of the deepest ache and longing over simple plucked guitar (“Gnaw”), stomping out whimsical forest dance circle ecstasy (“God, Give Us a Garden”), or gluing together rotting tape recordings of seraphic choir harmonies (“Slǣp”) he has you under his spell, intangible but inescapable restraints that force you to experience the full extent of Fur Clemt’s emotional turmoil. It’s difficult to give a definite answer to the question of whether or not “That’s Exactly How We All Feel About You” is a happy ending, but the unforgettable climax around six minutes in is sure to elicit an appreciative eyes-close whether your lids and lashes are tear-stained or dry.
SPICE (Dais, Jul 17)
With their debut self-titled album, L.A. ruffians SPICE (which features members of the infinitely less interesting band Ceremony) have given me the gift of one of those records that you love now but know you would’ve loved even more if you’d had it during your more formative years. Had this masterpiece of arty alt-rock amalgam been released half a decade ago it would have blared from my cars speakers on every contemplative summer night drive and been constantly funneled into my ears to drown out the sound of the existence of any other human being. But SPICE still hits the spot (more like several spots, really) even for this much-less-angsty-except-not-really-I’m-just-better-at-handling-it version of myself with its harnessing of both catchy melodies and deadpan post-punk apathy. Ross Farrar’s vocals are far more welcome amidst these cavernous yet sunny waves of shimmering, muscular guitar work and ribcage-shaking drum set pounds—Jake Casarotti also seems to feel right at home in this non-hardcore context—and the fullness of it all finally fulfills a wish I never thought possible: music with the roof-bursting major key triumph of I Get Wet that still has its moments of fragility and introspection. “Time thinks about everyone just the same.”
The David Scott Cadieux Center for Room and Field Recording – Declivities (self-released, Jun 26)
The understated yet lushly detailed soundscapes of the David Scott Cadieux Center reside somewhere between more traditional wall noise and the subgenre of abstract atmospheric music I loosely defined with my Temporary Places mix. I’ve seen the stagnant field recording assemblage approach done well in a variety of ways, from recent examples like Little Fictions’ recent comeback release Territory of Light, ░N░E░W░’s Painting of Common Objects, or James Wyness’s Objects Wrapped in Objects Wrapped in Objects to as far back as Yeast Culture’s landmark IYS LP, but none seem to have as refined or as deliberate of a technique than the Cadieux Center. My overused comparison of wall noise to visual art holds true for the mysterious project (presumably spearheaded by Andy Klingensmith), especially in the case of Declivities, whose reticent sonic skeletalizing fuses enrapturing stasis with curling, cloying textural intrigue. The tendency of closely recorded micro-events to resemble biological processes (both functional and erroneous) is also acknowledged by the vivid viscerality of the images conjured by the track titles: “Water Wheel Timer / Full of Blood,” “Lawnmower Clogged with White Flesh,” “Terminal Burrowing.” Nothing is explicitly grounded, so we ourselves must do the grounding; is our ear pressed up against a bustling underground den of saprotrophs or our own gurgling stomach? Depends on how well whatever you ate for lunch is sitting with you, I guess.