Feature: Favorite Compilations, Reissues, and Archival Releases of 2020

Something something about the unstoppable passage of time, the importance of preservation, yadda yadda. Here’s the list.


Harry Pussy – Superstar (Palilalia, Oct 15)

For me, the music of the beloved and profanely-named duo of guitarist Bill Orcutt and drummer Adris Hoyos has always been best consumed in compiled form. Unlike some other fans, I’m not as partial to the more ambitious long forms of releases like VigilanceLet’s Build a Pussy, and Ride a Dove (while the former two aren’t quite as well-celebrated, the latter certainly is) as I am to the deranged art-shitcore bursts of the self-titled debut and Fuck You. Both of those are immortalized—as well as bundled with unreleased tracks, rarities, and live versions with wildly varying levels of intelligibility—on What Was Music? (1996) and You’ll Never Play This Town Again (2003), two piecemeal yet quite lengthy collections that, until now, have comprised the entirety of my HP intake. But something about the spectacular brevity of Superstar, a newly released 7″ that presents previously unheard studio recordings (with the exception of “HP Superstar,” which was included on What Was Music?), most of which court lengths between 30 seconds and a minute, just works. I’ve seen some complaints about the relatively high fidelity compared to many of the band’s other stylistically comparable works, but I couldn’t disagree more; something about the interplay between Orcutt’s immediately recognizable string torture and Hoyos’s sporadic, almost-but-not-quite-arrhythmic hits being filled not with oppressive fuzz and hiss, but instead with reasonable clarity and even empty space, is absolutely magnetic. I think this is why I enjoy the briefness so much here: for me at least, the no-fi approach to recording is much more complementary to their messy, sprawling structures, while Superstar’s vicious squall is made sharper and more eviscerating by its (again, relatively) heightened coherence. Hopefully this well-retrospective reminder of HP’s existence will expose an entire new generation to their cathartic musical ugliness.

 

Gen Ken Montgomery – Endogeny (Tribe Tapes, Jan 22)

Probably the best part about reissues is seeing how many other people love the same music you do. Digging so deep into the abstract and the avant-garde can often be a lonely pursuit, so it’s always nice to be reminded that there are many others just like you. It’s also a testament to the timelessness of this stuff that the guy who handled the revival of this classic tape hadn’t even been born when it was originally released in 1990; thanks to the resources of the internet, young people who missed out on the glory days of mail art and tape trading in the late 80s and early 90s can still hear and experience a lot of the material, even more so now that things like this are being put on Bandcamp. Endogeny has been my favorite Gen Ken Montgomery release since I first discovered his work. All of it is steeped in the amplified micro-textural cacophony and everyday improvisation that I love so much, but these two side-long pieces are particularly resonant due to their inspired incorporation of ambient tinges and an almost psychedelic meditativeness. Montgomery is a master of the craft and here he is at the height of his powers. The j-card design is rather unrefined and slipshod—but I can’t think of any other physical form this equally unrefined and slipshod music should take.

 

Anaheim – A Collection of Songs from the Past 6 Months (self-released, Apr 15)

After a long drought of fresh new moody bedroom folk, 2020 has provided those partial to the sound with a host of superb additions to the canon. The appeal of the genre is rooted in the unspoken, the unutterable emotions that lurk in the corner shadows on gloom-filled Sunday evenings or the pit of your stomach when you realize something isn’t what you thought it was; thus, appreciation of the music, being inextricably and intimately personal, is often difficult to articulate. But I think in the case of local Cincinnati singer/songwriter Anaheim’s recent anthology, a confession of critical uncertainty may be the highest praise I could give. I’ve met and hung out with the guy a few times, but even if you haven’t had that opportunity, by the end of A Collection of Songs you’ll feel like you know him pretty well—and that’s always significant artistic accomplishment in my book. Some of this ineffable individuality manifests in the form of specific names (“Greta is my good friend,” “When Janie’s on the porch…”) and experiences, while other times it’s much more abstract: something about the persistent distance of the muffled percussion is unshakably wistful; certain acoustic guitar festoonments curl on the edges of the stereo field like hushed, whispered secrets; supplementary field recordings and imperfectly trimmed tracks invoke a sublime earthiness. There are obvious comparisons to popular artists that could be made (Alex G, Elvis Depressedly, etc.) but this superb release stands on its own in every way possible.

 

C.C.C.C. – Loud Sounds Dopa / The Cherry Point – Night of the Bloody Tapes (Helicopter & Troniks, Jul 20 / Sep 4)

Is this cheating? Should I not take advantage of the fact that two of the select few harsh noise albums I consider “perfect” were reissued this year? It feels too easy, but not including these two CDs on this list would just be wrong. There’s not much to say about either that hasn’t already been said—and if you’re here on the site reading this, chances are you’ve heard one or both—so I’ll focus on the packaging of these revamped printings. Both come in the sleek matte gatefold digipaks that are Helicopter’s medium of choice; Night of the Bloody Tapes also has a foldout panel that reveals extra artwork. Neither of the albums’ first-edition covers and designs seem to have been changed significantly (no new art credit is provided for Night and the actual disc features Liz Harris’s original blood splatter; Loud Sounds Dopa has been slightly renovated by Wiese to make the darker threads in the faded blue of the cover more difficult to see) but that’s not a bad thing. Just feels good to actually hold (and own) two releases I thought I’d never physically possess in my hands.

 

Women of the Pore – Folk Music (Orb Tapes, Jan 19)

Folk Music collects thirteen tracks by enigmatic New Brunswick project Women of the Pore, whose peculiarly- but aptly-titled brand of rhythmic electronica and sound collage, “bunker jazz,” has quickly become a new obsession for me. Some of the pieces were previously released as part of the overwhelming flood of digital singles that saturate the artist’s Bandcamp catalog (“Eyes Which Cry Love,” “Sinking,” “Valley of the Worms,” “(For) Stephen Kirby,” “The Wailing”) and others are either brand new or just unheard. Each one holds its own unique weight amongst the others, however; they all seethe in their own particular ways, whether subdued and surreal as in “The Drags,” plodding and apocalyptic in the case of “Unholy Smoke,” or even warmly effervescent with the S U R V I V E-esque retro-synth arpeggiation and nostalgic atmospherics of “Eyes Which Cry Love”—all of which are in the same three-song cluster. It’s eclectic, definitely, but a brooding, subterranean darkness that persists throughout the entirety of the tape acts as a both tonal and more concretely sonic structural backbone. There’s plenty here for adventurous jazz and electronica fans alike, or even just those in the market for something radically unique. Original review

 

Gestalt et Jive – Neowise (Al Maslakh, Aug 14)

Although this archival document captures moments of the long-inactive German prog band Gestalt et Jive when they’re immersed in haphazard, improvised transitional interludes and unstructured jam-band abstractions, to me it ends up being not only a more enjoyable but even a more complete full-length release than either of the quartet’s studio LPs. The band drifts between meditative sustained rhythms reminiscent of the rock-ier side of the kosmiche music for which their home country is known, chaotic yet never overwhelming stretches of free time, messy collective noodling, and even a goofy waltz-like tangent in an incredibly organic manner; although all ten movements are said to have been “composed,” it’s hard to imagine that these fluid evolutions are the product of explicit notational instruction rather than mostly spontaneous interaction and intuition, so I’m inclined to believe that the use of that term is as loose as the music itself. The demo-like quality of the cassette recordings imbue it all with both a hazy comfort and a sense of the beautifully unfinished. Original review

 

Empatía – Discography 7″ (Miss the Stars, Jan 17)

In my case, good emoviolence—and emotional hardcore in general, I suppose—almost always does one of two things: punches me in the face or pokes me in the heart. It’s quite rare to find something that does both, which is why I am so grateful to have discovered fiery four-piece Empatía this year via their comprehensive 2017–2019 discography, put out in January by Miss the Stars Records (I find it interesting that half of the entries on this list came out so early in the year). Assembling a digital-only collection of miscellaneous tracks, a split with fellow Colombian scorchers LAYQA, and a submission to a various artists compilations, the entire set of thirteen tracks fits comfortably on a 33 rpm 7″ record, which is already an indicator that Empatía really knows what they’re doing. The skeletal, almost ethereal production (if there actually was any production done, that is) lends an aching melancholy to the proceedings present even in the most dissonant and abrasive moments of fury; opening two-parter “Abatidx / Alienadx” starts things off strong by displaying the band’s incredible range of brutal blasts, spindly technical detours, and pained beauty, not only shrouded within but unified by the overall ghostliness of the sound. Be careful with this one—it’s viciously addictive.

 

Олександр Юрченко – Лічи до ста • Симфонія №1 • (Delta Shock, Jan 18)

Certain professions whose actual responsibilities most of us will never come close to performing or fulfilling have an undeniable, almost romantic appeal: everyone’s dreamed about writing the next great novel, making some legendary scientific breakthrough that cements our place in history, starring in a hit movie and having every dream of fame come true. Some of these are more abstract than others; the aforementioned examples would most likely be accompanied by wealth and prestige, but other fantasies that have crossed my mind are less capitalist indoctrination aftershocks and more, well, human, one being the exquisite intimacy of a solitary archaeological discovery. I’ve previously written about the way in which this romance is fulfilled, at least in part, via the unearthing, if you will, of obscure or forgotten music, but this remastered archival recording by ambitious folk pioneer Oleksandr Yurchenko, the third in a series of similar recent efforts and the second by Ukrainian label Delta Shock, feels like both a musical and a historical exhumation. Originally tracked in 1994, the 25-minute piece swells with sharp resin-shredding bow strokes and subtle electro-acoustic layering, transcendent half-harmonies and fleeting overtones coalescing into a glinting mass of metal, stone, and light. • Лічи до ста • Симфонія №1 • was initially intended to raise money for Yurchenko’s cancer treatment, but unfortunately the beloved artist succumbed to the illness in April. Listen. Remember. Honor.

Feature: Favorite Songs of 2020

Since I got into music in earnest I haven’t been one to listen to individual songs very often, let alone be able to pick the “best” ones that have come out in a given year. But I recently had a revelation. In my mind, a “song” is not necessarily the same thing as a “track” (all songs are tracks but not all tracks are songs etcetera etcetera); the latter refers to a formally designated subsection of an album of any length or form, while the former represents the airtight compositional craftsmanship that compels your finger to press the repeat button over and over, the infectious vocal melodies or lyrics that speak directly to you that you can’t stop humming, the immensely satisfying sense of completeness when the thrill ride to which you’ve been haphazardly strapped comes to a perfect conclusion like a flawless bow tied atop a wrapped gift. With such a distinction I can circumvent the trepidation that I’d initially had about making one of these—the obvious probability of more conventional genres like pop, hip-hop, and country dominating, since these are the areas of music in which I find the most joy in single tracks—because it allows for a reframing: mainstream appeal or stylistic simplicity can just be called likely characteristics of songs rather than inhibitive limiters of what a song can be.

Now that we’re through with all the pedantic defining (if you come to this site and expect anything different I dunno what to tell you) I can finally say the phrase that probably could’ve just been the entire introduction on its own: Here are the songs I fell in love with this year.

Note: the release dates are for the actual tracks; if the track wasn’t a single it’s just the album release date.


Negativland – “Unlawful Assembly” from The World Will Decide (Seeland, Nov 13)

I’m one superfluous voice among many when I echo the prediction that 2020 is a year we will remember for a long time. There are, of course, many reasons for its anticipated significance, most of which densely intersect, but one that I feel may be most important of all is the nationwide civil rights protests that ignited after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Not only did the ongoing demonstrations turn out record-breaking amounts of participants, but they also engendered an influx of spectacular, inspired art by Black and non-Black creators alike in their efforts to process the unprocessable, engaging with the events both directly and abstractly (e.g. Space Afrika’s hybtwibt?, Zeal & Ardor’s Wake of a Nation, Sault’s UNTITLED (Black Is), Speaker Music’s Black Nationalistic Sonic Weaponry). Even some older releases became more resonant in the face of the nightmare, particularly Blacker Face’s Distinctive Juju. But with the exception of hybtwibt? I’d yet to find anything that truly captured the visceral intensity of the more volatile gatherings until I heard “Unlawful Assembly” months later. I can’t even count how many white people I saw at these things who fundamentally did not understand what it is like to fear the police, their ignorance often revealed via belligerent taunts or hero theatrics; I encourage those people to listen to this short, overwhelming mass of meticulously arranged panic and terror to get just a glimpse of the intimidation and oppression a Black person in America feels every single day of their life. Original review of The World Will Decide

 

Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande – “Rain on Me” from Chromatica (Interscope, May 22)

My experience with this song seems to be the opposite of many others’; I was apathetic toward it at first but every time I’ve heard it since then I’ve enjoyed it more. Everything at which I initially balked—the bouncy, round, house-like production style; Ariana’s performance sounding somewhat phoned-in (perhaps it literally, or somewhat literally was); Gaga’s overly Gaga-ish deadpanning of the title that leads into the instrumental choruses—I now love. I have nothing against ham-fisted-but-wholesome lyrics as a rule, yet I can’t help but consider that the pandemic made me desire such saccharine sonic sunshine more than usual; watching their VMAs performance likely moved things along too because it’s a lot of fun to watch and both artists look super cute in their masks. Now I can’t get enough of their perfect vocal trades and earwormy synth melodies in the second verse and pre-chorus, the bridge (which originally sounded lazy and phoned-in to me) gets my heart pumping in anticipation, and I have a mysterious desire to listen to the song every day. Both artists greatly disappointed this year with their solo output; I’m glad this collaboration ended up speaking to me so deeply.

 

GEZAN – 東京 [Tokyo]” from  (十三月, Jan 12)

Do you ever love a track so much that the album it’s on loses its luster in comparison? I try to avoid it—but I’d be lying if I claimed there weren’t any records with a clear standout that I’ve latched onto a bit too much. GEZAN’s admittedly excellent LP that dropped back in January, [Klue], unfortunately falls into that ragtag club because of the sheer unparalleled awesomeness of the third-to-last track, “東京.” It could just be my weakness for euphoric major-key catharsis but to me this six-minute scorcher is the peerless pinnacle of the eclectic quartet’s unique formula of a muscular yet complex sound somewhere between radio alt rock and the best of brash collective noise outfits from their homeland of Japan fused with frontman Mahi to the People’s unmistakable, unforgettable vocal delivery and verbose lyrical sprawl. If you’re like me and all rudimentary comprehension of the Japanese language has completely disappeared (or if you never knew any of it to begin with) you should definitely take a look at the English translation provided on Bandcamp; looking at the words even when you’re not listening to the song still allows their power to resonate, the electric surge and spray of an ambitiously encyclopedic flood of unanswerable questions, pop culture references, poetic imagery, intoxicating phantasmagoria, a sense of both the deeply introspective and the all-encompassing universal. Now hear them sublimely cried over some of the most exhilarating instrumentals ever laid to tape.

 

ZelooperZ – “2” from Moszel Offline (self-released, Jul 31)

Bruiser Brigade’s youngest, wildest, and alphabeticalest member has had quite the year. I’m not reprising the “MVPs” feature I published the past two years, but if I were, ZelooperZ would certainly be on it. In addition to completing countless painting commissions and other artistic projects, he’s put out three albums in 2020: March’s Gremlin, July’s Moszel Offline, and the quite recently released Valley of Life. There’s been a noticeable shift in contemporary hip-hop toward shorter and more informal full-length studio recordings, but Z is the only one who seems to pull it off in any sort of compelling way. Many of the tracks across his trio of fresh LPs have been reliable standbys throughout the year, most of them brief or just plain hilarious enough to induce compulsive replaying, but I think “2” is my favorite. It’s an immediate slammer, with Z’s trademark high-register babble locking in over some stuttering piano chromatics and minimal, metronomic trap taps provided by prolific beatsmith WOD along with an impossibly earwormy gang chorus (this man’s ability to sound like five different people at once will never cease to amaze me). It’s also a microcosm of why I love Z’s music so much and why it really hit for me this year specifically: clever, funny, kind of loosely assembled and not-all-there at times yet meticulously composed in its own way. And who doesn’t like to get paid?

 

Lewsberg – “At Lunch” from In This House (12XU, Mar 18)

It’s certainly a bold claim to make, but I cannot think of a single other song that has captured the stuffy magic of The Velvet Underground’s iconic “Sunday Morning” as faithfully and uniquely as Lewberg’s “At Lunch.” It’s the second cut on the Dutch ensemble’s follow-up to 2018 self-titled debut and just one example of the significant artistic maturation the new record marks. Barebones, often slightly (and pleasingly) amateurish performances render the band’s reticent art rock into a thing of simple but shining beauty. Guitarist Michiel Klein’s sprightly arpeggio lullaby hits the spot dead center with its pensive grace and old-music-box dreaminess atop an ambling bed of yearning bass slides and a tentative, delicate drum beat. I’ve said many times that not only Dutch accents in general, but specifically Arie van Vliet’s half-speech musings and tiptoeing contemplation are absolutely perfect for this sort of music, and nothing supports that more than “At Lunch.”

 

Crisis Actor – “Phantom Limb Twitch” from ISOLATION (self-released, May 22)

There are a select few tracks which cannot be seamlessly integrated into my everyday life in the same way as most of the other music I enjoy because of the significant hazards my hearing them creates. If I’m driving to run a quick errand, I usually avoid Gaza’s “Gristle” (and the whole album, really) in favor of general public safety and the physical health of my steering wheel. I was once asked if I needed to be taken to the hospital after someone walking by witnessed me listening to Curl Up and Die’s “Dr. Doom, a Man of Science, Doesn’t Believe in Jesus, Why the Fuck Do You”—still not sure if the person was joking or not. And of course we all have our moments with “Concubine.” It’s not often that new stuff gets added to this list (MSDS-certified of course), but this year has seen plenty of ripping new hardcore that gets pretty damn close; so far, though, Crisis Actor’s “Phantom Limb Twitch” is the only cut that rivals my personal pillars of heaviness. A clear standout on an already superb debut, the three-minute scorcher blasts dissonant chords and overblown drumming that sound like they’re blaring out of a speaker whose structural integrity has been critically compromised. After a nonstop assault of lumbering double bass rolls, exhilarating half-time breaks, and spectacular gang-screams it culminates in one of the most ridiculously punishing breakdowns I have ever heard. I won’t spoil too much—just get ready to get shattered. Literally.

 

BLACKHANDPATH – “Internet Juche” from These N****s Is at It Again (self-released, Apr 9)

When they sat down to write and record their new record (although I wouldn’t put it past these two lunatics to have access to some sort of unholy supernatural music generation process), Richmond duo BLACKHANDPATH must have listened to “Theoxx,” the opener on their last full-length Egregore, and said something like “well we definitely need to blow that out of the water, because that’s exactly what they did with “Internet Juche.” The concise slab of bone-crushing industrial aggression and flows by MC Young Kozy that make you want to simultaneously run far away from him and give him a big hug. But the instrumental choruses (pre-choruses?), with their dismantled mellotron-like choir samples and syncopated bass growls, are perhaps the song’s most energetic and invigorating sections, a testament to the strength of Bileblaster’s uncompromising production. Also, along with City Morgue’s “Neck Brace” and some other examples that aren’t coming to mind right now, certain parts of “Internet Juche” are yet another example of a band doing Death Grips better than Death Grips. Original review for Tone Glow

 

Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am” (Interscope, Nov 12)

July’s “My Future” saw young Eilish spreading her wings and taking off from the claustrophobic darkness and tender, understated beauty of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? into something new—and I found myself not liking it much. You don’t have to look far these days to see or hear someone complaining about Eilish or her music and a lot of it is directed at the drowsy, low-energy shtick of it all, a shtick that I didn’t realize how much I adored until well after the landmark debut album came out, and the recently released single “Therefore I Am” only reinforced my inclination. I mentioned above that some songs are hazardous for me to listen to, but this one is a different beast entirely because I’m not sure that it’s safe for anyone, unless you’re cool with an entire two minutes of music being permanently ingrained in your head. Yes, this is not only one of the artist’s best songs but also her catchiest, with minimal but comfortably lukewarm production, a plodding bassline, and an impeccable nursery rhyme hook that will play over and over inside your skull until the end of time. I think Eilish also strikes a good balance here in inserting herself into the music without significantly distracting from or obstructing what’s there; I found that some of the interludes on When We All Fall Asleep did this, especially the Office samples, but by making the song her own and adding touches of personality like the chuckling ramble that leads into the last chorus she works toward a much more effective combination. A better single than “Therefore I Am” couldn’t have been picked to get me more excited for the upcoming record.

Review: Audiosmogg – Home Office Ambience (Bleeding Ear, Nov 24)

Everyone’s favorite microphone magician and landscape perforator Audiosmogg returns for a second album with Home Office Ambience. Don’t let the title fool you; expect some sort of corporate/domestic ennui-scape a la The Wig and you’ll be left flat on your ass. The unusual release is more of an abstract exclamation from the pit of social lockdown than any accurate portrayal of Márty’s daily routine (although I’d bet it’s not too far off). “Transmission” immediately sets the cells on edge with teeth-on-tinfoil feedback noise (ironically, there’s a cover of legendary Boredoms opening track “TV Ramones” at the end of Home Office Ambience, whose minimal but quite conspicuous entrance is nonetheless echoed by its actual opener), “We’ve Only Just Begun” crafts a deliriously anachronistic radio play with pandemic-era news samples and grabs from the original broadcast of War of the Worlds, “Meaningful Pause” sounds like the inside of the bird room at a zoo, and “Time to Get Ill” remains low-profile with a tremoring chorus of appliance clatter and minuscule mechanisms—yeah, and those are just the first four tracks. Through all that we still remain somewhat centered in the “home,” however; it’s just that things we already see and think about here are magnified into intriguing unfamiliarity. Distracted, pressing an ear to the exposed window screen to get a closer listen of the storm; those dissociative moments when you pay too much attention to your own breathing our stare at your fingers while typing; et cetera et cetera. More of an optimistic and eclectic take on quarantine isolation than my Cooped Up mix, but no less bizarre and unpredictable.

Review: Kal Spelletich – The Blessing of the ZHENGKE ZGA37RG (Eh?, Nov 22)

I know as little about Kal Spelletich as I do about the “custom made machine/robot instruments” they designed and built that generate the entirety of the sounds on The Blessing of the ZHENGKE ZGA37RGFrom what I can tell, the cassette is the sound artist’s first solo release, at least under their own name; according to Discogs, Spelletich was involved in a project called Seemen in the late 80s and early 90s, and with legendary performance collective Survival Research Laboraties during its tenure, but this limited run of Bryan Day’s superb Eh? imprint is the only proper recording solely credited to Kal Spelletich I can find. I hope that changes soon though, because these immersive soundscapes of assembly line whirs, the hum and grind of powerful electric motors churning gears and other knickknacks, low-register industrial rumble, and hypnotically looped discrete sound events are utterly addicting. Somewhere between the palpable physicality and passive complexity of Jean Tinguely’s audio-sculptures, the more agile collective improvisations of Day’s Seeded Plain project (in which both he and Jay Kreimer perform with handmade abstract sound devices), and the unusual use of robotics in Dirch Blewn’s stuffy Care Work tape, each of Spelletich’s compositions are unique toyboxes full of everything on your parents’ workbench that you weren’t allowed to play with as a kid: random circuit-board guts of broken appliances, boxes of spare screws, drills and clamps and scrap metal cable-and-pulley systems and… how the hell did an entire milling machine fit in here??

Review: The False Face Society – Running Me Down (Index Clean, Nov 19)

I was initially prepared to review Running Me Down, the new solo CD from sound artist and writer Russell Walker (Charcoal Owls, The Teleporters) with an in-depth reading of the actual fiction piece of the same name that his infectiously deadpan voice relays over the course of five unique instrumental accompaniments. But this proved difficult, for when attempting to closely listen to his words my attention inevitably melted into simply perceiving all of the elements at once; plus, there’s no official original text or transcript provided, at least not with the digital download, so I’m inclined to believe that while Walker’s story is the focal point of this release, it is not its sole or even its primary artistic identity. The False Face Society has previously manifested as the trading-off collaborations of Walker’s fiction with backing from James Tranmer and Tom Scott, but here only the latter contributes to one entry in the pentalogy of ten-minute (give or take a few) parts; each of the others were provided by unique musicians as well.

Paul Watson’s dark, churning phonography soundscape that writhes beneath part one sets the stage well, imbuing the already slightly sinister mundanity of the narrator and Gideon’s conversation with a powerfully ominous undercurrent, before complementing a subtle volta in the text with its own jarring textural shift. We only descend deeper into the darkness after the two friends have a run-in with some “gits” and Gideon confesses that he expects his wife, Nina, to “stab him in [his] sleep” any day now, an alarming confession that does not seem to surprise the narrator at all. The character of Tox (spelling?) introduces a stronger element of social and political commentary as the rugby jersey-clad man’s man rambles about hating immigrants and which families in the presumably upper-middle class neighborhood are the “best,” even echoing the States’ own lame duck fuck with the weighty inclusion of the word “shithole.” Tom Hirst/Design a Wave’s skeletal but relatively conventional rhythmic electronica adds a curious contrast: where the previous track bolstered Walker’s speech both sonically and thematically, part two’s almost obscures it. Such a juxtaposition has its merits, I think, but I found myself liking this section the least simply because of the instrumental itself. It does, however, contain a fascinating turn: the nameless narrator, referred to only as “Toni’s boy,” refers to his own writing as his “sons,” an interesting choice of metaphor considering the author he frequently discusses with Gideon is named Toni Parsons, and at one point Gideon even makes a joke about the narrator being “on the same page as Parsons,” which to me seems like it might not be a joke at all. Perhaps this tear in the piece’s textual confines is what results in the intermittent abstract incoherence and singsong rhyming that permeate the remaining parts, a sort of structural or even ontological unraveling. Between confused verbal simultaneity and progressive dissolution of narrative detail, plot fragments and threads wind together out of linear order (e.g. an email from Nina is mentioned by the narrator in part two but does not actually appear until part four) and incessantly repeat, Walker’s voice flits between fidelity levels, and the story becomes a blurry ouroboros of both self-reference and temporal circularity. By the end, we still have no answers to the many questions and mysteries that have been raised, yet upon its conclusion there’s an undeniable sense of completeness.

“He talks a lot of sense, but no one wants to hear it.”

Mix: Unruly Electronics

A selection of tracks for when one needs a nice brain-scrubbing but also desires something more structurally and texturally complex than plain ol’ harsh noise. Solo artists, duos, and larger collectives make use of a wide variety of electronic materials (I’ve provided the materials used to create each to the best of my ability) to generate the sizzling blasts of static and percussive oscillations that grace these eight pieces, yet all maintain an addictive, complete volatility.

Jin Sangtae live in Baltimore 2018

00:00. R/S – “(20.27)” [excerpt] from One (Snow Mud Rain) (Erstwhile, 2007) computer, synthesizer

06:01. Kiiln – third untitled track [excerpt] from Is Music Invisible? (caduc. recordings, 2017) tapes, radio, objects, guitar, piano

11:09. Jin Sangtae – 25th untitled track from Shadow Boxer (popmusic25, 2015) hard drives

13:10. William Hutson – “170214 (Dedicated to Ellen Gallagher)” from Six or Seven Steps to the Door: Solo Improvisations (a wave press, 2017) reel-to-reel tape

17:25. Klaus Filip, Toshimaru Nakamura, Andrea Neumann & Ivan Palacký – “M1 Crab Nebula” [excerpt]” from Messier Objects (Meenna, 2012) computer, no-input mixing board, inside piano, amplified knitting machine, photovoltaic panels

21:56. Gert-Jan Prins – excerpt from side A of RG-58-GJ (Creamgarden, 2002) radio, television, percussion

24:15. MIMEO – third untitled track from second disk of Lifting Concrete Lightly (Serpentine Gallery, 2004) a whole-ass ARSENAL

29:59. Choi Joonyong, Kevin Drumm & Hong Chulki – second untitled track [excerpt] from Normal (Balloon & Needle, 2015) CD player, turntable, guitar

34:32. Cremaster – “8,40 n​/​m²” from 32,41 n​/​m² (absurd, 2003) mixing board, pickups, prepared guitar

Review: Zhao Cong – Fog and Fragments (presses précaires, Nov 17)

One of two inaugural releases by Anne-F Jacques’ new imprint presses précaires, Fog and Fragments is the newest entry in the sparse discography Chinese sound artist and improvisor Zhao Cong (not to be confused with the much more famous, and unsurprisingly much less interesting, classical musician), continuing their series of various collaborations with frequent creative partner Zhu Wenbo. I first became aware of Cong through her Amplify 2020 piece Homework, which I believe was incorporated due to Yan Jun’s astute curation in the Eastern realm of the sonic avant-garde, but the 17-minute wisp of non-musical insubstantiality wasn’t really my thing; this tape, however, very much is. The two sides of the C26—its cover, along with that of Gudinni Cortina’s tape as well, adorned with a geometric sketch that appears to have been drawn with a mostly dried-out washable marker, an aesthetic choice with which I was quick to fall in love—present reticent vignettes of théâtre d’objets, breath, and silence. Cong’s minimal contributions of “sprays, voice, poker card, poker card shuffler and some other objects” are spare but sparkling flecks of gold in a cozy darkness, unfolding in a way somehow at once organic and sporadic. It’s impossible not to become engrossed in the detailed miniatures of shift and shuffle; whether Cong is exhaling a wet hiss through bared teeth, squeezing a fine mist out of a plastic bottle, or simply observing the brooding, meditative hum of her mundane surroundings, every second feels purposeful and saturated with significance. I’m particularly drawn to the alternating interplay between the soft tactile textures and conspicuous digital silence in the second part.

Review: Five new releases from Prava Kollektiv (Amor Fati, Nov 18)

Black metal has long been one of the most useful and evocative musical vehicles for conveying the deepest suffering; while it’s certainly true that not all artists work from that specific emotional basis, I don’t think it can be argued that the conventions of the genre are not uniquely complementary to the conveyance of dread, isolation, misery, depression, agony, etc. Now, however, a new trend emerges within this realm of darkness, one I’ve began calling “void worship”: an intense and punishing yet sweepingly atmospheric approach to instrumentals; howling unintelligible vocals that relay the fear, panic, and defeat of a human consciousness exposed to true endlessness; an overall sense of impenetrable density and unimaginable terror. Several incredible examples of this style—Decoherence’s LPs Epkyrosis and Unitarity, Vessel of Iniquity’s Void of Infinite Horror, Entropy Created Consciousness’s Impressions of the Morning Star, Hexal’s Epistemology, etc.—have been brought to the world by various labels across the globe, but I can’t point to a single imprint who has become more a defining outlet for it than the Germany-based Amor Fati Productions. Many of the label’s recent releases have come from the enigmatic and elusive Prava Kollektiv, whose membership and location is (to my knowledge) entirely unknown, a shrouding anonymity that only makes their prolific output more powerfully mysterious. Last Wednesday, Amor Fati dropped four full-length albums and one 12″ split release, each by one of the five Kollektiv bands. I couldn’t settle for reviewing just one, so I elected to write about all of them.

Arkhtinn / Starless Domain – Astrophobia

Arkhtinn and its members are said to be the founders of the Kollektiv, but their sound is anything but archetypal. The sprawling “Astrofobi,” their contribution to this split LP with U.S. project Starless Domain, is a pitch-black yet startlingly infectious descent into cosmic annihilation, building a propulsive rhythm with shuffling drum machine and a winding melodic synth loop that gives way to the cathartic blasting doom we all came for about three minutes in. The droning guitars are deliciously augmented by near-buried keyboard chords whose tentative harmonies introduce a fragile hope amidst the opaque gloom. Starless Domain’s “MUSE” is a (relatively) more traditional slab of ambience-tinged blackness, holding its own alongside the formidable A side with superb anguished wraith-shrieks and virtuosic drumming.

HWWAUOCH – Protest Against Sanity

I listen to a good amount of extreme metal, but few bands speak to me the way HWWAUOCH does. I couldn’t quote a single lyric, mind, but it’s not really about that. Their exquisite approach, almost painterly, allows vicious dissonance and textures to unfold organically like ink ballooning in a glass of water; the murky soup of mangled riffs and delirious screams articulates the true nature of pained nothingness in a way I never could with lowly words and sentences. Both their 2018 self-titled debut and last year’s Into the Labyrinth of Consciousness are among the most disturbing and hair-raising examples of this time-honored tradition, so Protest Against Sanity has big shoes to fill, but I believe it handily succeeds in doing so with dizzying angularity and what are probably the band’s most unhinged vocals yet, which vary from the squalls of a demon-infant and cries of an individual in unimaginable pain to the low growls of an ancient beast.

Mahr – Maelstrom

You’re not ready for this record. I’ve listened to it like five times now and I am still not ready. Maelstrom somehow surpasses the enrapturing doom-black depths of 2018’s Antelux, already a superb work in its own right, and reaches entirely new heights of horror and devastation. This is a tormented transmission from the not-so-Great Beyond: the swirling spiral of eternity into which all deceased souls are helplessly swept, a neverending onslaught of merciless spiritual torture. Depressing, yes, but there’s no other explanation for what could have created these impossibly nightmarish soundscapes other than profound existential despair. Despite its undeniable bleakness, there’s an inexplicable magnetism to Mahr’s cacophonous “musical” vortices, as if the earsplitting silence of the void is calling out to you, embracing you with its infinite invisible limbs and never letting go.

Pharmakeia – Ternary Curse

Pharmakeia is probably the most “traditional” band in the Kollektiv, but that descriptor clearly doesn’t say much. This new release is definitely the most aesthetically cryptic of the five, though, which IS saying something. Ternary Curse comes bellowing up from the depths of subterranean caverns bathed in a sinister green glow, all thundering double-bass onslaught and obliterating doom riffs and animalistic utterances. The unusual track titles could be the results of some mathematical-phonetic operation or simply representations of verbal incoherence—or both, or neither. The only certainty is the music itself, which howls into existence full of palpable hatred and evil.

Voidsphere – To Sense | To Perceive

Both in name and in explicit conceptual approach (“Voidsphere is worship of the void. It is that, and only that”), Voidsphere perhaps come closest to representing the true meaning of my aforementioned artificial subgenre. The production on To Sense | To Perceive is spectacularly muddy and overblown, swathing the lightning-speed blast beats and eviscerating tremolo tendrils in a cloak of fuzzy distortion. Any vocal elements that are present melt and bleed into this homogeneous mass, the end result being a single thick tornado of sound that is somehow simultaneously meditative and violent.

Review: Martin Rach – Ghost, Don’t Scream (attenuation circuit, Nov 15)

Had it been released earlier at various times, Ghost, Don’t Scream would probably have appeared on Broadcasts from Elsewhere, certainly The Outcast on the Ivories, and possibly even Transmissions, three mixes I’ve posted here in the past; but then I suppose I wouldn’t be able to see its unique place at the exact center of whose collective cloud of thematic and atmospheric essence. For the virtuosic (Lithuanian?) artist Martin Rach pulls from all directions to produce the sparse soundscapes that comprise his newest release: various schools of classical piano or amorphous improvisation, the quiet violence within the “spluttering and bubbling, jerking and rasping, whistling and screaming”¹ howls of radio static, the jarring tonal agility and piercing textures of circuit bending, and various other little things that go bump in the night. On first listen, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about the interplay between the grandness of the piano and the minuscule grasping claws of the electronics as “First Apparition” began, but I was immediately sold about six minutes of the way through when the desperate, sterile wail of a rewired audio wire half-harmonizes and descends with the keys—a truly spectacular and memorable moment. To be honest, I’m not sure I get a “ghost” vibe from this, at least not directly; to me it sounds more like the paranoid half-knowledge of something beyond our field of view and experience but not quite being able to grasp it, forever living in obsessive fear. Or maybe that’s just me, because there’s a lot of other narratives one could ascribe—a lone concert pianist playing a final concerto to nobody in a world ravaged by technological apocalypse, a forgotten service robot trying to make music by rearranging its hardware along to a dusty recording it found on the ground. What I really mean is that Ghost, Don’t Scream is lonely, but it isn’t scary, even if you’re scared of loneliness (I certainly am, to an extent), because the sadness with which this soundtrack to humbling isolation is saturated is nothing except beautiful.

¹ Eula Biss, “Time and Distance Overcome”

Review: Negativland – The World Will Decide (Seeland, Nov 13)

Negativland has, for quite a long time now, been a band whose reputation precedes them, but if anything the nature of this notoriety is certainly in alignment with the attitudes and aesthetics that got them embroiled in the first place. I refer, of course, to the legal battle with Island Records over the release of U2 in 1987, which contained parodies of some of the ubiquitous quartet’s songs, a sample of Casey Kasem shitting on them on air, and the titular two characters printed large and garish on the front cover. The lawsuit allegedly did not involve U2 according to member The Edge, who founding Negativland members Don Joyce and Mark Hosler, unbeknownst to the guitarist, were given the opportunity to interview in 1992. (I highly recommend listening to the recording to hear Edge-man stumble over interrogation about the hypocrisy of their then-upcoming tour which utilized media collages—the implication is that Island sued the band and stole their shtick; if that isn’t the music industry I don’t know what is—and babble half-assed excuses for doing nothing while his record company went after them, as well as reading the book published about the incident: Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2.) But Negativland’s highly-publicized media rights grudge matches are only one direction in which they stretch the slimy skin of the commodified reality of music much further than intended: they were apparently a significant force in the development of Creative Commons, a copyright designation that allows free use of the IP to which it’s assigned, yet a handful of their recordings are impossible to hear due to them being pulled or retracted; the Over the Edge Radio archive may be the longest digital release of all time at a duration of more than half a year, and “select copies” of the ninth volume of the show’s compilation series, released after Joyce’s death, contained small bags of his ashes; the oddities continue. Even after such a mischievously productive tenure, they’re still active today, which is wonderful because we need them now more than ever—the cold capitalist control of “officially” copyrighted material, especially music, spreads its darkness much more quietly now, but it’s not going away anytime soon.

I feel as though I have to begin a review of The World Will Decide with a disclaimer. Opening track “Unlawful Assembly” is brief but extremely intense, a hyperactive maelstrom filled with terrifying recordings of police violence, orders barked over megaphones, gunfire, etc. Some of you already have to hear enough of that stuff every day, and the piece is way more frantic and confrontational than just background noise, so if those are things that trigger you I’d recommend skipping it. That being said, it’s a fantastic cut and a step up for the band, I think, to me reminiscent of Network Glass’s Twitch smorgasbords or This Is Yvonne Lovejoy’s bad-vibes bricolage. “Content” follows it up with something much more traditionally Negativland: half surreal future-lounge, half alternate dimension infomercial channel-surf. Later we get the sound card malfunctions and unsettlingly sterile soundscape of “Attractive Target” and David Wills’ unhinged vocal contributions to the delightfully odd “Open Your Mouth” and Residents-esque nerd pop climax of “Incomprehensible Solution.” The title track and closer is a tumultuous adventure somewhere between hackle-raising paranoia and Public Service Broadcasting–level euphoria. I was skeptical about the appropriateness rather ridiculous cover of The World Will Decide but the music truly earns it. Despite its close tie to their identity, this record, like many of their others, proves that both the deceased and living members of Negativland had/have a lot more on their mind than just copyrights and samples with its existential musings, emotional resonance, and warmly humanist gestures.

“You do not have to apologize for being powerless.”