List: Top Ten for the First Half of 2021


In a format identical to previous lists (2020, 2019, 2018), here are my ten favorite albums that have been released during the first half of 2021. As always, the order is of little importance.

fievelFievel Is Glauque – God’s Trashmen Sent to Right the Mess (la Loi, Jan 1)

This irresistibly charismatic little tape came out literally right at the beginning of the year, so I don’t blame anyone who missed it, but luckily it seems to have been getting the attention it deserves. The newest and best work from eccentric songwriter Zach Phillips, the various ensembles of talented musicians bring to life some of the purest and most earnest pop music you’ll ever hear.

Album cover of Journal 2020 by Wind TideWind Tide – Journal 2020 (self-released, Mar 14)

It’s always a great feeling when less than a minute into an album you already know it’s just what you need. Journal 2020 has been my go-to outdoor reading and walking music this year; its subtle yet always ragged and rough-hewn augmentations of nature are in turn a perfect over-layer for any other environment. Ever wonder what it sounds like inside a tree? Original review


Michael Barthel – Vollmacht (Regional Bears, Jan 13)

Every single one of Michael Barthel’s audio works defy verbal description in some way, but that is especially the case for Vollmacht. Described as “an acoustic and poetic inquiry into authority and power in human relationships,” the ten-part suite is a harrowing, abstractly narrative experience bolstered by the poet’s  trademark ferocity in both vocal delivery and musical performance.


Bryan Day & Seymour Glass – Crooked Doppler (tanzprocesz, May 27)

Two well-established virtuosos of collage, cobblecore, and clutter-clobber come together for this delightful tape full of tactile toybox sound-worlds, warbling electronic transmissions, and surreal environmental invasions. The combination of Day’s audio-mechanical sensibilities and invented instrument arsenal with Glass’s idiosyncratic ear and insatiable bent for the bizarre is one for the ages.

a2628284613_10Cities Aviv – The Crashing Sound of How It Goes (Total Works, Apr 16)

Words like “sprawling” and “ambitious” aren’t unique to The Crashing Sound of How It Goes when discussing Cities Aviv’s discography, but this newest album does feel like a sort of culmination of the Memphis visionary’s distinct sound. It’s not perfect, but that imperfection is a large part of what makes it beautiful… and perhaps it’s off set, because whatever “Higher Up There” is, it might be something more than perfect.

a2142576628_10Daniel Iván Bruno – Brazo (TVL, Mar 5)

In the process of fully deconstructing the sonic profile of the harmonica, Daniel Iván Bruno also discovers some of the most piercing, strident sonic frequencies ever recorded. Sounding like a passive AI-generated grotesquery, a strikingly adept pedal-chain assault, and a shrieking mass of dying circuit boards all at once, Brazo is an unmissable ordeal. Original review

monnierMonnier – Monnier (Hardcore Detonation, Jun 6)

For those of us who fell in love with extreme music via the heavyweight technicality of Chang, Marton, Witte, and co., Japanese–Belgian project Monnier may be the second coming. Featuring the vocal talents of Makiko (of Flagitious Idiosyncrasy fame) and multi-instrumentalist Jasper Swerts covering everything else, this collection of two stellar EPs presents what is by far the best grind to come out in the last five years.

sourcesandmethodsAll Ords – Sources and Methods (Index Clean, Feb 14)

With an impressive list of research citations and an ambitious conceptual basis, the first recording by Mark Groves and Joanna Nilson’s All Ords duo is a multifarious indictment of humanity’s current trajectory. Sources and Methods steps carefully through a shadowy garden of societal contexts, imposing its critical voyeurism on manifestations of patriarchy, public surveillance, decaying domesticity, and other salient signs of our distant but no less inevitable doom. “I spent years learning to speak with my mouth closed.”

oliviaOlivia Rodrigo – SOUR (Geffen, May 21)

A delicate balance between escapism and relatability is often the name of the game in pop songwriting, and what makes SOUR so amazing is that it offers both without even seeming to try. Formidable newcomer Olivia Rodrigo discards subtlety so markedly that it’s not even a factor anymore, and invites listeners along for her rollercoaster ride of disillusionment and heartbreak over some truly stellar production.

a1465669829_10IT IT – Two Squirrels Fighting Each Other at the End of the World (self-released, Feb 19)

Even some of the most primitive experimental music remains timeless because of the palpable, wide-eyed curiosity with which it was approached. With their eclectic sample-scapes and intricate instrumental arrangements, enigmatic Pittsburgh ensemble IT IT exude that aura more profoundly than the overwhelming majority of their contemporaries. Two Squirrels… is a fitting new entry in their quickly expanding canon of creativity. Original review

Review: Federico Durand – Herbario (laaps, Jun 17)

a3746848398_10Federico Durand may be my favorite ambient musician active today. His music mines all of the life-affirming escapism of the genre without any of the all-too-frequent drawbacks: it’s beautiful, but not saccharine; tranquil, but not boring; delicate, but not naïve. 2018’s Pequeñas Melodías remains a clear standout, its fairy-tale world of sunlit dust and music box twinkles putting me to sleep on many a restless night; however, I can already see the recent Herbario surpassing it. “Through a year of uncertainty, from March 2020 to March 2021,” Durand “composed this album in the same way a botanist would have proceeded: collecting and preserving simple, broken and hypnotic melodies.” This humbly herbaceous approach, coupled with the longer, looser structures of many of the tracks, lets the music lilt with gossamer weightlessness like a cloud of seed-pods fluttering slowly to the ground. Throughout the various pieces, each named for one of Durand’s favorite plant species, a floral elegy neither joyful nor melancholy take shape, and at its core lies the potent yet ultimately neutral and apathetic sublimity of nature, a plane of existence infrangibly parallel to our own that can be admired and give inspiration but never be truly understood. Gorgeous closer “Laurel” is the purest illustration of that, somehow approximating the transcendence one can only achieve while sitting next to a rushing stream in the sun.

Review: INDEXESS – INDEXESS (Blue Static, Jun 16)

a2253008054_10I often describe particularly unmusical music using physical-action metaphors like “scraped off,” “discarded,” “sloughed,” “scavenged,” etc. Many of these motions don’t necessarily change the materials they’re affecting in any fundamental or chemical way; they simply involve creating new uses and formations. With INDEXESS, I’m not sure any of the aforementioned descriptive tools apply better than something more like “molder,” “ferment,” “decompose.” This inaugural release from Columbus, OH–based netlabel Blue Static Records is to music as rancid black putrefaction liquid is to living organic beings. Both “CREEP” and “STYG” are barely there, just gusts of distant, frail distortion susurrating like a sickly summer garbage-day breeze slithering through a tattered windsock, yet even with such a paltry presence one cannot escape a feeling of invasive, cloying filthiness. I’m reminded a bit of Strange Mammal of Doom’s Are Strange 2, an album I wrote about in April, in that both works gain quite a bit from their own obstinate lack of structure and convention. INDEXESS, though, feels more antagonistic, even misanthropic, which sounds hyperbolic until you hear the final two tracks—especially “BRICKD,” an impenetrable wall of squall that would make even the most overzealous dental hygienist with wax-clogged ears lose their mind. All together, a cavernous abandoned station in the middle of nowhere filled with shrieking industrial ghosts: one of our last stops on the train ride to the end of music.

Review: Anna Lerchbaumer – Falling Objects (smallforms, Jun 16)

a0209886001_10Unsurprisingly, there are more than a few falling objects on this new release from sound artist Anna Lerchbaumer (among other things, the creator and proponent of the acclaimed “mayonoise” technique), but Earth’s gravitation is far from the only force at work. A great deal of attention was paid to placement and spatiality during the original recordings, so there would be a lot of compelling density to explore even if they were left unprocessed, but Lerchbaumer puts her materials through the proverbial wringer, or perhaps a series of multiple proverbial wringers. On Falling Objects, the natural kinesis of the dropped, agitated, and otherwise affected items is extrapolated into complex, artificial concrète arrays, not exactly upending the presence of conventional space but certainly building upon, gouging, and even distorting it. Interspersed throughout the suite of three short tracks are speech samples presumably lifted from some sort of physics education program, and the basic, familiar explanations given by the voice form a delightful contrast with the gleeful deconstructions and reorientations that take place in between. Lerchbaumer’s methodology allows for the occasional unexpected noise intrusion or frenetic glitch spasm, but the piecemeal object layouts most often coalesce into lush gardens of resonating tactility that echo the work of contemporaries Rie Nakajima and Stephanie Cheng Smith. The relationship between the diminutive duration of Falling Objects and its artistic fecundity is quite analogous to that of the dissonance between a presumed lack of musical value in everyday objects and their actual musical value: one might make an initial prediction of inauspiciousness, but after experiencing them no one can deny the strength of the results.

Review: Abby Lee Tee – At the Beaver Lodge I (self-released, Jun 12)

beaverlodge (2)Ever since departing from a stylistic focus on conventional electronica and hip-hop with 2017’s Riverside Burrows, Austrian artist Fabian Holzinger (as Abby Lee Tee) has been honing the delicate art of concise phonography, using various nature recordings and animal sounds to sculpt soundscapes that seethe with minute detail. Of all the tapes in this new vein that he’s put out in the past five years or so, the Imaginary Friends series on Czaszka is probably most illustrative of what I’d personally place at the core of Holzinger’s sound: complex, disarming bricolages of often quite familiar sounds framed with a clarity and intentionality that distorts the boundary between organics and artifice. At the Beaver Lodge I has less of that element of “intelligent design,” if you will, but “complex” and “disarming” still apply to these two five-minute cuts of noises made by beavers residing in a lodge on the Danube. Like some of the other fauna that have appeared in various Abby Lee Tee works, the beavers’ nasal vocalizations are both pleasing and grating; not in any abrasive or confrontational sense, but more due to a mild uncanny valley effect—these sounds are sometimes just too human. But they aren’t, of course, and something else this first installment in a planned series reminds us of is that beavers have their own lives and livelihoods: gnaw-whittling the perfect stick into the perfect shape for the dam, caterwauling in the early morning rain, crooning together in collective chorus. At the Beaver Lodge I, despite its conspicuous succinctness, perhaps marks yet another new direction for Holzinger, one in which intricacies of capture and composition don’t aim to create new worlds, but instead to reveal existing ones.

Review: Mante – Funeral (self-released, Jun 12)

a1999954826_10The quantity of releases on Bandcamp tagged with the “annoying” descriptor is much higher than one would think. In terms of my own personal definition of what the word means in this context, many of the entries aren’t very accurate, but there are some gems—Rich Teenager’s SardanapalusKlöße‘s debut tape, Nice Piles’ self-titled—that not only provide excellent music but also exemplify true “annoyance”: the intentional, aesthetic use of traditionally unpalatable structures or materials. Though Funeral doesn’t have the tag, it certainly deserves it; I imagine, what with the combination of the title of the opening track being “Horny Hentai in the Horse’s House” and its uncompromising, volatile causticity, that there are few things your family or friends would yell at you to turn off faster. Costa Rica–based artist Mante wields these elements of rather unsavory sonic pollution with the same dexterity and virtuosity as would any producer of much more traditional harsh or cut-up noise, gluing together strands and gobs into freely mobile audio sculptures whose intricacies don’t sacrifice the raw auras of obscenity radiated by their individual components. And if you thought the first piece and the following “Overwhelming Dislike” were bad, wait until you get to “Cheap Codes from Hoes,” a cacophonous, hyperactive, completely irreverent collage of Discord tones, Minecraft gameplay audio, and masticated streamer commentary that is probably the best thing I’ve heard all year. “Bajo las Nalgas del Kilimanjaro” too feels like some sort of bleak post-internet exhumation, built upon an ongoing battle scene sample from God knows where (and don’t bother asking him; he sure as hell isn’t here). This latter half of Funeral is the type of stuff I want to see more of from Mante, but overall the brief album is a whiplash-inducing assault on the ears that may be literally impossible to forget.

Review: Current Signal – Skoval Units (Oncidium, Jun 10)

a2494166740_10In an increasingly digital, metadata-stuffed music industry, it’s nice to see new ventures dedicated to obscurity crop up, whether within the streamable/downloadable vortex like and Absolute Trash Media or as obstinately physical-only tape imprints such as Born Physical Form and Research Laboratories. It’s hard to tell which is the case for Oncidium, a new label out of Providence seemingly run by Jackson Kneath (a.k.a. YÜ//F, a project that provides the other two releases in this first batch). Everything, from the cover photo of an actual cassette to the fact that all of the tracks sound like they were ripped from a tape rather than dubbed to it (perhaps both), to the explicit statement that some sort of edition is available, seems to suggest the existence of physical copies, but Bandcamp only offers digital; it appears one has to reach out individually. I’m not sure it could be any other way for Skoval Units, at least, a short set of the no-est of no-fi toolshed concrète by J and J, which is presumably Kneath and one other. Despite differences in distribution, what Current Signal’s first album and the rest of Oncidium’s inaugural lineup share with their aforementioned peers is a boundless, messy subversion of any and all convention. There’s nothing that isn’t off-limits in this disjointed montage of junk, dross, and detritus—you’ll hear jarring Spongebob clippings, random stretches of “silence,” a brief appearance of that riff at the end of “We Will Rock You” that sounds like it was recorded with a supermarket toy guitar—but there are also moments of beauty lodged in the sediment, like the woozy, blown-out bit of bliss around a third of the way into side A. Keep weirdness alive: buy a mysterious homemade tape today.

Edit: Oncidium tapes can now be purchased on Bandcamp!

Review: Pandaville – Songs from Pandaville (self-released, Jun 7)

a0164263387_10Songs from Pandaville is the sound of hope. Oh what an auspicious future we as a society might have if there were more people like Eli Neuman-Hammond doing all they can to engender a love for free artistic expression among our youngest comrades. In addition to the innate intrigue of the sound pieces themselves, which were performed by each of Neuman-Hammond’s students individually and collectively on a setup consisting of “amplified water, stones, plastic and metal vessels, voice, cups, brushes, water bottles, and bubble wrap” and may or may not be the results of the ragtag graphic scores pictured on the cover, much of the delight in listening to this collection arises between the seams. Ari, a lad after my own heart, immediately asks to hear his recording before it’s even finished; Lena expresses appreciation for the specific sonic actions she conducted over the course of her performance; participants play rock-paper-scissors to see who goes next and compliment and chant for each other’s efforts; impromptu, impassioned cries of “CUP SOLO!” abound. Any group of kids who spend more than a few minutes together develop a sort of temporary dialect that is a perfectly inclusive summation of literally every ounce of energy contained within each, and that energy comes through with infectious appeal on boisterous ensemble cuts like “Rayford’s Trio.” The suite of outdoor “live” recordings that conclude the release are probably the most “purely” acoustically pleasing, with the distant squealing of breaks and natural ambience melding wonderfully with the diverse offerings from Haddie, Rafa, Nico, Maisie, and Mira. “Banana bread!”

(Don’t forget; Lena’s birthday is coming up again in a week, so send her your salutations.)

Review: Umpio – Kulotus (Narcolepsia / Hiisi Productions, Jun 7)

kulotusIn what may already be one of, if not the culmination of a fantastic calendar year for harsh electronic music, Portuguese mainstay Narcolepsia and Hiisi Production’s from the artist’s home country of Finland team up for the monstrous Kulotus, a double-CD anthology of twelve Umpio recordings from the past decade. Other than Bizarre Uproar, there isn’t too much noise that makes it over from the Land of a Thousand Lakes with much oomph left (that I’ve heard about, at least… and I’d love to be proven wrong), but Umpio has been churning out increasingly interesting music since 2009, and now uninitiated listeners (including myself) can get a summative look into his stylistic and creative development throughout the ensuing years. Texturally intricate, dizzyingly detailed, and selectively intense, each and every recording included on Kulotus is its own overwhelming onslaught of whirling kinesis, the unique result of a refined system of oscillators, effects, and feedback manipulation pushed to heights that consistently flirt with the atom-splittingly primordial. We’re at the mercy of violent chain reactions, scalding Velcro-rip abrasions, and tectonic roils from deep within the earth—naïve volcano-voyeurs on the hunt for sounds whose potency is, to say the least, incompatible with the human eardrum. This definitely feels like a collection of various material, but it’s more than atmospherically coherent all together, and 80+ minutes ends up feeling more like 40. Not the worst way to experience ten years of fire and brimstone, or whatever.

Mix: At Home with the Ghosts

I hope everyone has used this gift/curse hybrid of extended home confinement to really get to know the spirits that haunt their dwelling. Mine tend to lurk in the closets and spool up in the corners for most of the day, and they’re not the most congenial of phantoms, but we get along fine in the evening, as long as the thermostat is set just a bit too cold and there’s a baseball game or Poltergeist on.


00:00. Patrick Gallagher – “There Is No Set Process” [excerpt] from Soundtracks (Hot Releases, 2019)

01:59. Marcin Barski – “Conversation with Father” [excerpt] from Wanda’s Dream (self-released, 2018)

08:47. Luis Alvarado – “La fiesta sumergida” from La voz de Jrguu (self-released, 2014)

09:44. Anne Guthrie – “Serious Water” from Brass Orchids (Students of Decay, 2018)

14:40. Paco Rossique – “The Space of a Door” from Collages & Dispersions (Linear Obsessional, 2015)

19:42. Saåad – “Incarnat II (1888)” from Verdaillon (In Paradisum, 2016)

21:41. Climax Golden Twins – “Ward A” from Session 9 (Milan, 2001)

27:22. Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet – “Soap Opera Suite” from The Breadwinner (Erstwhile, 2008)

33:27. Darksmith – “Crash Landing” from Hatred of Sound (Second Sleep, 2018)