What’s in a name? Usually an individual and then a familial part (in different order depending on your heritage/language), halfheartedly ascribed platitudinal meanings (did you know that “Jack” means either “soaring bird” or “trash-eating rat”?), unerasable vestiges of people you’ve never known or even met, and perhaps the essence of memory-based ontological identity—are “you” still “you” if you can’t remember your name? Luckily, none of these artists forgot.
Chris Fratesi – Sound for Blank Disc (Regional Bears, Mar 7)
Baltimore basement industrial hermit Gene Pick emerged under his real name for the first time this year with Sound for Blank Disc on London’s Regional Bears (and, indeed, a second time with the recent Red Lead CD on Anathema Archive). It’s sometimes a tossup whether an album so frankly titled actually consists of what that title implies—one that immediately comes to mind is Women of the Pore’s Folk Music, revisited here in the last feature—but this tape, like Yasunao Tone’s Solo for Wounded CD, a release from which Sound for Blank Disc is either descended or mutated, provides exactly what’s printed on the ticket. What emerges are six five-minute tracks of incessant, churning error-squall, each slab largely remaining stagnant as bits and pieces slip away or the whole thing stutters to a stop. Unlike Yasunao’s infamous work, which I myself don’t enjoy, Fratesi’s digital onslaughts are unyielding and fully formless, like lovely gossamer clouds to get lost in (if you’d call masses of squealing shards of data-ridden plastic “lovely” or “gossamer”). True to the casual automation of the trusty CD player, there’s a palpable detachment beneath each of these bursts despite the surface-level aggression: cold, merciless, gnashing evil unleashed into the world with the press of a play button. Original review
Lorenzo Abattoir – A.throat.full.of.earth (Tides of Cluster, May 8)
We escape the sinister confines of the appliance but we’ve exited through the wrong door. A world of human-but-not-quite, gibbering facsimile-droids stumble and short-circuit in a wasteland of discarded prototypes, stray electrical currents flit through the polluted air and briefly reignite forgotten boards, switches, lights, screens. On A.throat.full.of.earth, Italian sound artist Lorenzo Abattoir presents his solo debut in the form of spidery glitch-scapes and sporadic jump-cut assemblage, tracing those simultaneously nightmarish and intriguing images in a dark, unsettling contemporary example of cinéma pour l’oreille. Abattoir has participated in many projects that teeter(ed) atop the precipice of abrasion, some exploring that hell-hole more deeply than others (namely the superb LACH with Clive Henry), and A.throat.full.of.earth is no different: growling and seething at times, convulsive and violent at others; as many soggy-popcorn crackles, junkyard drones, and concrète fidgets as there are piercing surgical blasts and brain-liquefying low frequencies. Original review
Mica Levi – Ruff Dog (self-released, Dec 16)
Ruff Dog only came out a couple of days ago but it was exactly what I needed in the growing cold of imminent winter: a hazy, lethargic, envelopingly warm blanket fort of basement-shoegaze guitars, fragmented drum machine accompaniment, and some conspicuously cavernous croons from Levi that turn the album in a direction both soothing and moody. I wasn’t expecting any new music from them this year, seeing as the newly-formed Good Sad Happy Bad ensemble (an evolution of Micachu & The Shapes) already released an album in October, but I’m not complaining. Ruff Dog isn’t as rhythmically whimsical or structurally inventive as Levi’s work with their full band, yet an undeniable weirdness is usually present, even apart from the slightly off-kilter/outsider vibe of it all; my favorite examples are probably the auxiliary instrumentation on “Chains Baggy,” which includes what I think are saw-like pick scratches and a default smartphone alarm sound. The humbly gorgeous “Ride Till We Die” closes things out with a dark tenderness that encapsulates the brief release well. Levi’s first full-length outing on their own feels very much like a starting point, or maybe a new beginning.
Mark Harwood – A Perfect Punctual Paradise Under My Own Name (Penultimate Press, Aug 5)
Penultimate Press operator Mark Harwood’s eponymous debut is less of a clear-cut case than the others on this list, but it is the first release by Harwood on his own that is also an official “album” (costs money, in concurrence with the label’s M.O.; physical edition), and it is also titled quite appropriately. It’s also my favorite work by the London artist so far; Astor was never really my thing, and the “Covid 5” piece he contributed to Amplify 2020 was my first indicator that he was moving in a slightly different and more intriguing direction. A Perfect Punctual Paradise Under My Own Name can be read (listened to, if we’re being picky) as the “audio drama that charts the life of a middle-aged Australian man in the throes of an existential crisis” it is explicitly stated to be, or you can simply process it as a surreal collage with a strong abstract narrative element—I’ve enjoyed it both ways. For me it’s ultimately not a vehicle for immersion, but for voyeurism: a grimy, dust-streaked window into the decaying life of another is presented for your observation. Smirk and laugh at his spectacle of misfortune, distance yourself from the pain that threatens to phase through the glass and infect you, revel in your safety as the passive witness. Then panic as the desolate world before you won’t let you leave.
Rich Teenager – Sardanapalus (self-released, Oct 16)
This one is mostly on here just because of the novelty. I mean, how often does one meet another person whose name is actually Rich Teenager? What parent would be smart and prescient enough to give their child the gift of a nominally self-actualizing destiny? Carefully hewn to perfection like a sculptor’s magnum opus by years of table manners lessons, profound familial neglect, and the finest boarding school education in the Old World, Rich is at the height of their (its?) powers on Sardanapalus, an appropriately unpalatable treatise on privilege burnout and plastic-packaged misery. Some of the sounds are beautiful, others annoying or even intolerable—don’t waste your time trying to figure out which are which—but you must look past the frivolity of “content” to absorb Rich Teenager’s true lessons on how to be a successful entrepreneur in this dog-eat-dog world. If you crane your ears you can hear the voice under the desk, behind the broken escalator, within the telephone. It will tell you what you need to do. Original review
Nicolas Snyder – Temporary Places (Shhpuma, Jun 26)
Temporary Places works as both an escape from and a complement to your surroundings. As I wrote in the introduction for my mix of the same name, the title of filmmaker and artist Nicolas Snyder’s debut album wonderfully describes the musical equivalent of a brief detour off the path of reality, or perhaps an augmentation of that path to make it a bit more interesting. The six compositions feature both conventional tonal harmonies and abstract textural interplay that weave together to form lush terrariums of sonic flora and fauna. Opener “CLAYhands” is a clear standout and has provided the soundtrack to my drift off to sleep on many a restless night this year, but Snyder’s music can also be layered atop beauty that is already present; walking through the park during a slight drizzle while “DeetJen’s, Raining” played was nothing short of magical.
Tijana Stanković – Freezer (LOM, Feb 2)
While Serbian improviser Tijana Stanković’s instincts and talent were first hinted at in 2018 by the self-released Mentalni modeli live recording, Freezer is her first collection of studio-recorded pieces, tracked inside the haunted, frosty confines of a Bratislavan meat locker. What first drew me to this music was Stanković’s Polly Bradfield–esque violin technique and ear for tension, but upon further listens Freezer becomes much more than just a performance; in its obstinate interiority it somehow expands well beyond the confines of any physical container, the fragile bow strokes and harrowing vocalizations fusing in shifting crystalline drones: a primordial, almost ritualistic unity. In “from dust and shine,” the sparse elements of slicing lament and sudden silence seem to trace an invisible absence, something so lost that it can only be defined by what it isn’t. These reaches into the abstract aren’t (entirely) just me—Freezer is intimate and emotional on its surface, but when deeply examined every moment points to something… elsewhere. Original review