Feature: Favorite Albums of 2020

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.

 

The Rest

Guido Gamboa – A Droll
(Pentiments, Nov 10)
Blacklisters – Fantastic Man
(Buzzhowl, Aug 28)
Komare – The Sense of Hearing
(Penultimate Press, Jun 29)
Mahr – Maelstrom
(Amor Fati, Nov 18)
Antibodies – Can You Ear Me?
(Steep Gloss, Mar 22)
ZelooperZ – Gremlin
(Bruiser Brigade, Mar 18)
Choi Joonyong & Jin Sangtae –
Hole in My Head (Erstwhile, Nov 2)
Flanafi (Boiled, Jan 20)
Joshua Virtue – Jackie’s House
(Why?, Apr 16)
Mosquitoes – Minus Objects
(ever/never, May 16)
Cahn Ingold Prelog – Accelerate
(Crow Versus Crow, Oct 30)
Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You?
(International Anthem, Mar 20)
Denzel Curry – 13lood 1n + 13lood Out Mixx (self-released, Jan 6)
Greymouth – Telepathic Dunce
(Careful Catalog, Aug 21)
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
(Warner, Mar 27)
Horaflora – Eaves Drop (enmossed, Oct 15)
Wake – Devouring Ruin
(Translation Loss, Mar 27)
Thomas Tilly – Le Vent Relatif
(sirr-records, Jul 16)
Spacial Absence – Lifespan of a Mayfly (NNW, Apr 9)
Nathan Corder & Tom Weeks – Diamondback (Makeshift Encounters,
Apr 17)
Cities Aviv – GUM (self-released, May 22)
T.D. – Music History (Crisis of Taste, Mar 31)
Welp. – Emergency in Six Movements
(self-released, May 17)
Staffers – In the Pigeon Hole
(ever/never, Oct 16)
Human Flourishing – Cmon Human
(Lurker Bias, Feb 12)
Decoherence – Unitarity
(Sentient Ruin, Aug 14)
Soft Shoulder – Not the New One
(Gilgongo, Oct 23)
Villaelvin – Headroof
(Hakuna Kulala, Jan 30)
Government Alpha – Pathogens
(Oichai Soup, Jun 17)
Miscarriage – FUCKING DISGUSTING
(self-released, Feb 14)
ГШ – Гибкий график (Incompetence, Jul 17)
Taw – Truce Terms (Bezirk, Jul 31)
Ashcircle – Off the Cliff Edge
(Fractal Meat Cuts, Jul 3)
goner. – A Hell for Horses
(self-released, Nov 3)
Klaysstarr – More No Place
(Outlet Archival, May 24)
Space Afrika – hybtwibt?
(self-released, Jun 5)
Ona Snop – Intermittent Damnation
(No Time, Dec 18)
Seeded Plain – Flying Falling
(Public Eyesore, Jan 2)
Asha Sheshadri – No Longer a Soundtrack (anòmia, Aug 31)
Triple Negative – God Bless the Death Drive (Penultimate Press, Apr 16)

List: Favorite Short Releases of 2020

This list’s separation from the upcoming Favorite Albums list is not intended to disparage or unfairly disadvantage musical works with shorter durations. I just had way too many favorites this year that didn’t seem to fit amongst a list of full-length albums, and it got to the point where I felt they needed their own list. Here are the things I liked most this year whose contents could fit on a 3″ CD.


UVC – Wisdom from the Zoo (Hologram, Aug 2)

This mysterious Philadelphia hermit/bridge-troll has not only proved their mettle in esoteric curation this year with the newly minted Born Physical Form small-batch tape label, but also in artistic creation itself via three brief cassettes and one CDr, Wisdom from the Zoo, as UVC (a moniker that we’ll probably be hearing a lot more about soon enough). Careless tape wobble and intimate clatter blur the lines between action and environment in a queasy but beautiful cycle of mundanity. Original review

 

Gulch – Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress (Closed Casket Activities, Jul 24)

One of the loudest new voices in modern hardcore blaze through the eight tracks of their debut LP in less than 17 minutes. Latching onto a novel unity between the band’s occasionally disparate stylistic leanings, it’s an incendiary stampede of pummeling d-beat, death metal chug, and of course brutal breakdowns, culminating in what might be my new favorite cover version of all time. But you’ve probably heard enough about it by now. Original review for Earlyworm newsletter

 

Encoder – Noise from the Deep (nausea., Apr 25)

One of only two tapes put out by Angelo Bignamini’s nausea. imprint this year, Noise from the Deep is thus far the only release from Italian project Encoder, which I know little to nothing about. The four tracks are drawn from an “impro session with field recordings and other ‘machines,’ recorded in [the artist’s] kitchen” and trace a strangely total comingling of surroundings and soundmaking. This is a difficult one to internalize or even remember once it’s over; one’s brain seems to instinctively realize that this music is not for human comprehension.

 

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

Chinese sound artist and contemporary classical performer Zhao Cong casts a soft gaze to the ephemeral for Fog and Fragments. The tape presents a pair of tracks consisting of fleeting improvisations with spray bottles, paper products, small appliances, and her own voice couched between and within stretches of meditative silence both “authentic” (ambient) and “pure” (digital). Original review

 

Ola Nathair (self-released, Mar 29)

Residing somewhere between the screeching miniature metalwork of Jin Sangtae, the spontaneous tabletop electronics of English, and the gnashing digital squall of Gert-Jan Prins’s Mego CDs, the music of Ashcircle member Ola Nathair (Ciaran Mackle) is as immediate and violent as the most piercing harsh noise yet as kinetic and gestural as the most considered improvisation. His short, squalling self-titled digital EP is an enthralling mess of looping feedback stabs and sampler abuse.

 

Doldrum – The Knocking (self-released, Nov 13)

The Knocking is the debut EP from Denver-based trio Doldrum, promising newcomers whose sound seems to me like a different take on bands like Zeal & Ardor’s approach to “old America” black metal; where Z&A’s style is based in spirituals, work songs, and early soul, Doldrum’s resides in the moldy caverns of the occult and unexplained. These confused but anguished spirals of dread sound like they’re beamed straight from a shadowy shack or haunted coalmine in 19th century Gothic frontier hell.

 

Genghis Cohn – Spole Mump (ANA, Mar 20)

The enigmatic Genghis Cohn follows up the tape-macerated bedroom pop of last year’s Dybbuk cassette with a 7″ full of more formless contact mic muck, songs fragments, and throwaway vocalizations. This music fits into the “outsider” category more soundly than most others because of its complete lack of convention, and for that reason it’s utterly fascinating. I’m not convinced the individual known as Genghis Cohn is even human, but (hopefully) more on that later.

 

Jamison Williams – Silly Symphonies, Vol. 1 (Orb Tapes, Jan 21)

On Silly Symphonies, Vol. 1, prolific sound artist and classic Disney lover Jamison Williams serves up two short tracks of sparse but magnetic improvisations using only game calls. The tiny tape has both the fluid, gestural unpredictability of my favorite abstract vocal pieces and the exploratory abandon of a wonder-filled toy chest dive, all filtered through the tinny artificiality of manufactured duck quacks and birdsong. Original review

 

Kobol – Void (self-released, Jan 1)

From the chilly northern shores of Norway comes a slab of deep-space-inspired powerviolence (the title of “Gravity Bong” being my favorite manifestation) by formidable newcomers Kobol. Slamming and slashing through 15 tracks in the duration of a single 7″, Void shrouds lightning-fast blast beat frenzies, tough guy bellows, and thick thrashing downtuned guitars within a dark, slightly muffling production style that still allows the sharpest hits to stab through.

 

Ed Balloon – I Hate It Here (Deathbomb Arc, Dec 4)

For a long time I thought that LA trio Ed Balloon were British, not just because of frontman Edmund Oribhabor’s unique accent but also because of the grime flavors that are often present in his songs (I’m frequently reminded of Dizzee Rascal and Dean Blunt, especially on this new EP); I suppose that just shows how seamlessly eclectic the band’s music is. I Hate It Here both expands upon and consolidates the mess of promising ideas on The Dubs in an achingly short EP of infectious, effects-laden croons and inventive modern production.

 

Berlin Horse – All We Need of Hell (Room Tone, Jul 3)

I found myself discovering and listening to significantly less wall noise than usual this year, but the releases I did hear were, for the most part, memorably impressive and unique. Berlin Horse is probably my favorite new project from 2020, drawing me in with the superb Red Dirt in August and All We Need of Hell before that. The latter C20 is a wonderfully concise suite of two walls, one harsh and gnashing and the other subdued and meditative, that meld the textural creativity of more contemporary examples of the genre with the classic nihilistic punch of its earliest origins.

 

Bloodbather – Silence (Rise, Oct 9)

I was unsure whether Florida metallic hardcore band Bloobather could improve upon their debut Pressure, but with a new vocalist and renewed fury they prove once more than stylistic innovation is entirely unnecessary for quality. Silence even has the potential to bring in new fans who found former frontman Jeffery Georges’ vocals and lyrics too bro-y; I’m not sure who is serving up the screams here but their presence makes these tracks less cookie-cutter pit favorites and more eviscerating chaotic metalcore that survives beyond the mosh.

 

Daphne X – Água Viva (tsss tapes, Sep 4)

Named for the beloved novel by Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, Água Viva is perhaps the more personal and less conceptual cousin of Henry Collins’ Prepared Rain; while both tapes explore the otherworldly headspace of water-assisted abstract percussion soundscapes, Xanthopoulou’s take on the technique is less hypnotic, passively-conjured cacophony and more intimately performative. Yet another superb entry in this artist’s diverse body of work.

 

Spoons & Bones (Czaszka, Jul 7)

The first recording from the duo of Piotr Łyszkiewicz (reeds) and Hubert Kostkiewicz (guitar) is an addictive slice of bite-size free jazz, full of fire and propulsion despite the proceedings being entirely percussionless. The two musicians’ streams of raucous, noisy noodling face off in a physical confrontation somewhere between hand-to-hand combat and sultry dance.

 

They Hate Change – 666 Central Ave. (godmode, Aug 13)

Tampa Bay duo They Hate Change are one of the most exciting and unique acts in hip-hop today, and continue to push that already lofty designation further with each progressively more creative release. As a whole, I don’t enjoy 666 Central Ave. quite as much as I do the excellent Maneuvers (released last year on Deathbomb Arc, which is also Ed Balloon’s primary label), but outside of the high standards the group has set for themselves it’s still some of the best hip-hop all year, embarking into new territory with complex breakbeat-influenced instrumentals.

 

eric – We Can’t Be Stopped (Trading Wreckage, Oct 31)

Again, there’s not much that can be said verbally about this one other than, well, “eric.” We Can’t Be Stopped is a concise but sprawling set of tracks from the Denton, TX solo “twisted sampler rock” project full of ersatz instrumentals, jarringly recognizable samples, mundane stream-of-consciousness rants, hollow sarcasm, and plenty of mistakes (“Betty” unceremoniously ends when the artist realizes their phone alarm has been going off the whole time). No caps when you spell the man’s name. Original review

 

Rolex 7″ (11 PM, Sep 4)

I initially checked this one out because of a rare and coveted comparison to Die Kreuzen, a comparison I wasn’t expecting to be at all accurate. But Rolex, hailing from L.A., make a strong case for their status as the modern heir to the legendary Milwaukee quartet, blending raw hardcore fury with mostly-clean guitars that scratch angular onslaughts of dissonant chords and an overall feeling of skeletal-ness that complements their arty intricacies.

 

City Medicine – Argentine Dogs (Regional Bears, May 13)

It was a tossup whether I included Grids, one of the countless self-released CDrs that Miami artist and curator Christopher David has released under his own name this year, or Argentine Dogs, his only City Medicine material in 2020, on this list, but I eventually decided on the latter because of the sheer number of times I’ve listened to it since its release in May. The C17 is over in a flash but keeps those “in the know” coming back again and again with its charismatically slipshod assemblage of auditory litter.

 

Binary – Fall from Grace Face Down (Wretched, Sep 6)

The last release from Binary is also by far the short-lived band’s best work. Thus, Fall from Grace Face Down is a crushingly bittersweet final offering that transposes the Philadelphia quartet’s penchant for scenegrind-influenced breakdowns and clean/harsh vocal trades into a gloriously chaotic frenzy of dissonant emoviolence. Along with that newfound presence of more classic skramz is a sharp, punishing beauty that pierces through the murk in the bookending tracks “New Year No Me” and “Care (Before Summer Swallowed Us).”

Feature: Favorite Eponymous Debuts of 2020

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

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.

List: Top Ten for the First Half of 2020

In a format identical to last year’s list as well as 2018’s, here are my ten favorite albums that have been released during the first half of 2020. As always, the order is of little importance.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia (Warner, Mar 27)

Though it came of little surprise based on the strength of the three singles, Dua Lipa’s sophomore spectacular is one for the ages. This is an impeccably crafted modern pop record, swirling infectious disco grooves and neon-lit synthpop bliss to complement one of the most amazing voices of our time. This is my most-played album of the year by a mile, and I doubt that will change in the next six months. Get used to a female alpha.

The Serfs – Sounds of Serfdom (Detriti & Wasted Tapes, Jan 15)

The debut Serfs LP is perhaps the crowning achievement of the vicious vortex of creativity that swirls around members Dakota Carlyle, Andie Luman, and Dylan McCratney throughout their various bands and side projects. A love letter to minimal synth mystique, DIY cassette obscurity, and catchy songwriting swathed in enticing darkness. Original review

Seth Cooke – Selected Works for No-Input Field Recorder (Every Contact Leaves a Trace, Apr 29)

I would say something like “there’s not much I can say that I didn’t already cover in my fabulous review”… if that were actually true. One of the many reasons why I fell in love with this release is how much it makes me think, and I really don’t believe there’s a limit to the paradoxical ponderings that are unavoidable when one is faced with Cooke’s eccentric approach. But I also believe that regardless of all that, this is a beautiful and unforgettable collection of music. Original review

Komare – The Sense of Hearing (Penultimate Press, Jun 25)

When I was sent this record I was instructed (redundantly, if it isn’t already obvious) to get stoned before I listened. Which I did, but it might not even be necessary because The Sense of Hearing is so drugged-out and surreal that it probably gets you high all on its own. This LP expands on the previous self-titled cassette in virtually every way, scraping the dirt and mold from the cracks of long-forgotten music and smearing it through the air in hazy, spectral strokes.

Antibodies – Can You Ear Me? (Steep Gloss, Mar 22)

Fluxus bizarro masters Brandstifter and Dirk Huelstrunk team up for an enigmatic adventure into surreal sound poetry and churning electronics. The six tracks scramble and stumble with a strong-armed deliberation, all mutated melodies, ranted nonsense, throaty mouth sounds, and endless layers of processed curiosities to get hopelessly lost in.

Vilgoć – Granice (Szara Reneta, Jan 20)

Granice is one of those genre-defining releases that only come along every decade or so. This single 36-minute-long track by a Polish mainstay is the loudest, fullest, most brutal and crushing example of static noise I have heard in a long time, and it renders me completely awestruck and immobile for its entire duration every single time I listen. A masterpiece, truly.

ZelooperZ – Gremlin (self-released, Mar 18)

Ever since I feel head over heels in love with the glorious vice-ridden delirium of ZelooperZ’s HELP mixtape, I’ve come to appreciate each of his successive albums for unique reasons. Gremlin is a fantastic example of what I love most about the young Detroit rapper (that others seem to view as flaws): a succinct yet sprawling sketchbook-like structure, skeletal trap assemblages, hilarious one-liners, and oodles of the dark, hedonistic claustrophobia that seems to permeate all of his work.

Wake – Devouring Ruin (Translation Loss, Mar 27)

Wake’s 2018 LP Misery Rites was one of my favorite metal releases from that year, but nothing could have prepared me for their follow-up, the stunning behemoth of extreme metal mastery that is Devouring Ruin. Stretching out nearly double the length of its predecessor, this monstrous album transposes the Calgary quintet’s penchant for furious deathgrind to a much wider arena of blackened atmospherics and cathartic post-metal climaxes.

Nathan Corder & Tom Weeks – Diamondback (self-released, Apr 17)

The final installment in these two Oakland improvisers’ trilogy of terror is a must-hear for even the most experienced skronk-heads. This hour-plus affair is an absolute wonder to behold, whether you interpret it as the sound of two adventurous wind musicians collaborating or the desperate, squawking final breaths of conventional music as it is mercilessly beaten to death. Original review

Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You? (International Anthem, Mar 20)

This seething current of cracklingly high-energy jazz is anchored by the hypnotic utterances of Camae Ayewa, a.k.a. Moor Mother, whose fruitful and superb year is easily topped off by her second record as a member of Irreversible Entanglements. The constant interplay between Luke Stewart’s bass and Tcheser Holmes’s percussion is a fluid but steady backbone for the restless compositions that unfold. A powerful and likely long-enduring document of our times.

Feature: Favorite Albums of 2019

People are always throwing around single descriptors to summarize the year once it’s reached its end. “My year was horrible,” “this was a historic year,” “2019 was a trainwreck.” That single descriptor changes not only based on who you ask, but what that person is thinking about when you ask them, because a year is quite a long time and any number of good or bad things can happen within it. We create our own narratives for the year based on specific contexts: personal growth, political/social developments, the state of the environment, relationships we’ve had and lost. It’s a perfectly natural response, but at the same time we have to remember that years cannot be inherently good or bad. Classifying them one way or the other necessarily diminishes the importance of events that fit the opposite adjective. A new year simply inks another tick on the timeline of our lives, and it’s up to us to evaluate what happened in the space between the new tick and the last.

This lack of ability to definitively demarcate the quality of a year applies to music as well. The various descriptors for “this year in music” are not only various, but often contradictory. I hear “2019 sucked for hip-hop” and “2019 brought us so much great hip-hop” in the same conversation; some rave about the fruitfulness of the year while others insist that not many good albums came out at all; everyone has a different idea of what the truly representative “album of the year” is. This ambiguity has a clearer answer; none of us has authority to speak so decisively about the year in music because we haven’t heard every single thing that was released. Listeners who have heard very few releases don’t have authority because they have a limited picture of what the year brought; listeners who have heard an inordinate number of releases may have a bit more ground to stand on, but carving out perceived trends and assessments from such a diverse body of material is far from an easy task. So, once again, we must reluctantly abandon our very human need to aggressively simplify and instead use ourselves as the anchor for our musical judgments: what did I enjoy most? What impacted me most strongly? What best gave a voice to the concerns I have about the world around me? We must do our best to humble ourselves. There is no right answer, no canon to be argued over, no consensus we must all abide. It begins and ends with the listener.

As with all my lists, these albums are not necessarily in order of preference. They have served many different roles, filled many different voids throughout the past 50-odd weeks. Here are my favorite albums of 2019.


Ariana Grande – thank u, next (Republic, Feb 8)

After that lengthy appeal to the importance of self-based evaluation, what better release to mention first than thank u, next? Ariana Grande’s most recent endeavor is also her most personal, an admirably vulnerable confession of pain, confusion, vice, and love to an unimaginably large audience. From the infectiously catchy and defiantly danceable to the tenderly intimate and crushingly sad, Grande runs the gamut of the complex emotional battlefield she’s struggled to traverse for the past few years. No other release has allowed her to be so unapologetically her, and that directness makes thank u, next something more than just a pop album, something truly special. There’s no other record this year I’ve played as many times; no other record has provided endless drunk dance parties with friends, early morning solitary singalongs on the way to work, cathartic crying sessions in the enveloping darkness. We all owe a big thank you to the biggest star in the world and her amazing ability to make all of us feel like we really know her.

Shots – Private Hate (Careful Catalog, Aug 16)

Sometimes our love for an album is bolstered by the album being a culmination of the artist’s previous work, allowing us to see the cumulative result of the efforts that came before. Private Hate is more than just a culmination of Shots’ unique brand of abstracted sound; it is a statement about sound and how we process it, a simultaneously ambiguous and defiant assertion of how sonic presence functions. Locations are portrayed with obstinate obscurity, paradoxical mixtures of claustro- and agoraphobia jam our spacial senses with irreconcilable impossibility, humanity becomes a confusingly alien intrusion. The listener is never certain which sounds are being produced and which ones are being recorded, but the singular language of Private Hate makes that distinction irrelevant; the elements are simply there, and this remarkable record leads us to recognize, and doubt, the ways in which we cast our own perceptions onto the music we hear. And even absent of the dismaying questions that Private Hate forces us to ask, it’s a stunningly sublime journey through an uncanny auditory landscape. Original review

Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling (Gilead Media, Jun 28)

I discovered a veritable graveyard of amazing new black metal this year, but my clear favorite comes from a band I’ve been listening to for many years. I fell in love with USBM legends Yellow Eyes the first time I heard their dusky, dendrophilic masterpiece Sick With Bloom, but after not being very into their next record (2017’s Immersion Trench Reverie) I admittedly wasn’t hotly anticipating their 2019 release. But from the first moments of Rare Field Ceiling it’s immediately clear that you’re listening to something exceptional. Punchy drum onslaughts barrel from the darkness like woodland armies; angular, dissonant riffs curl and meld until they explode in bursts of warm beauty; nocturnal nature recordings and ritualistic samples sew the six tracks together to form an immersive, uninterrupted odyssey. The songwriting is succinct yet sprawling and organic, the cryptic and evocative lyrics are delivered with heart-wrenching passion, and it’s so well paced that by the time its 45 minutes are over you’ll wonder where all the time went. Original review

Pom Poko – Birthday (Bella Union, Feb 22)

What’s fun music worth if you can’t jam to it with the people you love? Ever since I discovered Oslo indie quartet Pom Poko’s debut LP, it’s been a constant favorite of mine and all my friends’; the “If U Want Me 2 Stay” groove sessions never get old. This promising new band channels a great deal of auspicious influences, from Battles and Deerhoof to Ponytail and Kero Kero Bonito, but their candy-coated chimeric style is consistent and undeniably their own. The album traipses through anthemic choruses, hypnotic rhythmic meditations, achingly beautiful melodic resolutions, and affecting moments of tenderness with a hyperactive approach that’s at once fluid and jarring. Listening to Birthday requires a cessation of seriousness, a willingness to have fun no matter the consequences. As the band themselves instruct, “reduce the testosterone, increase the sugar rush, and get ready for this K-PUNK explosion.”

Andrea Borghi – VHS (Misanthropic Agenda, May 8)

I’ve now written about Andrea Borghi’s VHS LP three times, and still I feel as though my words do not do it justice. The Italian sound artist had an astonishingly prolific year (see my MVPs of 2019 feature) but VHS was his crowning achievement, a marvelous record that both demonstrates Borghi’s scavenger proclivities and puts his trademark tactility on visceral display. The eight pieces on the LP buzz and hum with crackling electricity, the result of manual experimentation and manipulation of the circuits in several modified open-back VHS recorders, and conjured in the eye of the listener is a sparking, sizzling mass of mad-scientist coils and transistors. But it’s not all mechanical, shifting synthetics; Borghi tempers his jittery voltage collages with dusty samples snatched from actual VHS tapes, brushing hiss-caked swaths of muffled humanity across the lush fields of sputtering electronics. Original review

Triple Negative – Precious Waste in Our Wake (Penultimate Press, May 16)

Multinational London trio Triple Negative first announced their existence with the TOWERS, OPEN, FIRE / Looking for Business 7″, but the true power of their enrapturing approach to rock music is realized on Precious Waste in Our Wake. The six rambling pieces sculpt themselves from a seething primordial stew of post-punk, hypnotic tribal headspace, and delirious drugged-out studio experimentation in the vein of Twin Infinitives, ambling along at an unhurried pace with impossibly loose rhythmic structure. At face value, revolutionary excursions like “Destroyer / Under the Void” and “Living Dirt Living / Silverplated Waste” are completely befuddling, prickly slabs of abstract sound grounded by the smallest amount of convention, but Triple Negative crafts such an immersive and inviting atmosphere that it’s not at all difficult to lose yourself completely in their skittering dins. Precious Waste in Our Wake is an exciting and gleefully subversive deconstruction of rock music for the modern age.

Duncan Harrison – Nothing’s Good (Index Clean, Feb 16)

Poetry is not always just about words. For some, poems are less of a defined literary genre and more of a form of expression that transcends a specific medium. Unlike some of Duncan Harrison’s previous works, much of Nothing’s Good makes use of the Brighton artist’s voice only sparingly, either in brief, bizarre snatches or as heavily manipulated textural elements, but the short CD is most effectively appreciable as poetry, an intimate, earthy tapestry of evocative sound woven from disparate elements. Harrison melds ghostly tape recordings, stuttering loops, fragmented junk cacophony, mysterious spoken mantras, and other oddities into fascinating, rough-edged collages whose message is not always known but never not felt. To listen to Nothing’s Good is to step into a startling and surreal world where nothing is permanent or predictable; the unassuming clatter that begins “Are You Angry?” cannot prepare you for the cut-up madness of “A Good Night,” whose aggressively heterogeneous form collapses in an assaulting squall of dying electronics, and that in turn gives no indication of the pregnant negative space that lurks between the lines of “Its Blinking Torture.”

The Wind in the Trees – A Gift of Bricks from the Sky (self-released, Feb 19)

Rising from the ashes of several portentously adventurous hardcore bands, the new Baltimore-based band The Wind in the Trees takes no prisoners with their sharp-edged, eviscerating mathgrind intricacies. A Gift of Bricks from the Sky is no noisecore-indebted blast of dizzying, bite-sized impenetrable chaos; stretching out the dense masses of technical riffs and imbuing the punkier sections with a fist-pumping energy is a palpable emotional hardcore influence that makes the album even more addicting. There are no official instrumental credits for the release, but every participant lends an essential facet to the maelstrom, and the plentiful supply of crushing unison hits and forceful rhythmic repetition makes A Gift of Bricks one of the tightest metallic hardcore endeavors I’ve heard in a long time. The superb lyrics add another important dimension to the proceedings; conveyed with both jagged, high-pitched shrieks and low guttural growls are nightmarish, violent images and cryptically communicated feelings of agony and despair that couldn’t be a better fit for the intense music they accompany. Due to “Blinding Miscalculations” alone, one of the year’s most superb closing tracks, A Gift of Bricks is sure to become a modern classic. Original review

Mosquitoes – Vortex Veering Back to Venus (Feeding Tube, Sep 27)

I, as well as many others, can confidently call Mosquitoes one of the most exciting bands active today. Since their first 7″ in 2016 the UK trio has reverently refined their dark, moody masses of no wave skronk and meticulously crafted atmosphere into something truly amazing. Drip Water Hollow Out Stone was an easy choice for my top ten in 2018, but this year’s miraculous Vortex Veering Back to Venus documents Mosquitoes at their most ambitious and singular. Spectral yet weighty bass tumbles form dark clouds of steam that fog up the glass; shivering, shattered drum work casts an illusion of structure as its sporadic throbs and rattles plant miniature anchors amidst the current; piercing guitar scrapes and nonsensical, partially formed speech trade space in the unclaimed territory of the higher register. Tracks like “VR” and the almost tear-jerkingly sublime “VS” are some of the band’s furthest steps into the abstract, resulting in claustrophobic chunks of languid nocturnal clamor whose blanketing forms are both oppressive and comforting. Original review

Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿ (Warp, Oct 4)

Lots of people have a fervent appreciation for brevity (try to complain to Jon Chang about how a Gridlink album shouldn’t cost the same as an “actual LP” and he’ll be sure to convey his), but it takes skill to pull it off, especially when it’s not something you’ve attempted before. We’ve been waiting for new music from Detroit artist Danny Brown since his 2016 opus Atrocity Exhibition, the ambitious record that won him acclaim and appreciation from a wide range of music listeners, and 2019 was finally the year with the early October release of uknowhatimsayin¿. Running only 33 minutes and finding its footing with (cautious) optimism, bright colors, and earwormy boom bap beats, it’s quite an interesting response to the fractured delirium of its predecessor. Though his past albums have all been of sizeable length, Brown thrives within the shorter format, delivering his interlocking rhyme schemes and unending love for cunnilingus over production that’s both cozy and pleasingly abstract. As always, features are utilized with masterful insight; Run the Jewels’ loudmouthed bluster makes the dissonant horn stomp of “3 Tearz” even more percussive, Obangjayar makes “Belly of the Beast” the album’s most beautiful song with his arresting croons, JPEGMAFIA delivers a hilariously out of tune yet impossibly catchy hook to accompany his production on “Negro Spiritual,” and Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) adds some soul with his dreamy contributions to “Shine.” And if that’s not already enough, uknowhatimsayin¿ ends with one of Brown’s best songs yet, “Combat,” which combines an addicting instrumental with some of the finest punchline rap I’ve heard in a good while.


Honorable Mentions Chart

Feature: Favorite Compilations, Reissues, and Archival Material from 2019

2019 was a year of looking forward for many artists, but brand-new music wasn’t the only thing dominating my listening these past eleven months. From reprints of old, hard-to-find albums to collections of tracks that hadn’t previously been available at all, here are my favorite archival releases from this year.


Velo Misere – Retrospectiva de la Fatalidad (Death Kvlt Productions, Mar 1)

The Compendio de Trágicos Presagios demo (2017) and Genealogía del Eterno Desasosiega EP (2018) respectively occupy the two sides of Spanish black metal collective’s first vinyl release, a dirt-caked and shadow-drenched odyssey into lush, atmospheric soundscapes of pain, grief, and harrowing beauty. The production is murky and swirling yet never sacrifices the force of the vicious percussive onslaughts, the labyrinthine riffs, the agonized, raw inflections of the shrieks and howls. Retrospectiva de la Fatalidad feels at once fresh and out of time, a dark artifact found in the earth upon which small spots of lights begin to appear when you look at it for long enough.

Chamber – Ripping / Pulling / Tearing (Pure Noise, Jul 17)

2019 was a year in which many promising hardcore bands were picked up by larger labels, and we saw plenty of faithful discography collections released for bands like SeeYouSpaceCowboy…, Year of the Knife, Fawn Limbs, and others. My clear favorite of these, however, is Chamber’s Ripping / Pulling / Tearing on Pure Noise, which is comprised of songs from the Nashville quintet’s only two releases (Final Shape / In Search of Truth and Hatred Softly Spoken) along with the brand new “Replacing Every Weakness.” This latter track is a succinct masterpiece of modern metallic hardcore, with well-penned lyrical anguish howling over razor sharp wah stabs, low end churns, and one of the catchiest and most brutal breakdowns of the whole decade.

Katalin Ladik – Phonopoetics (Alga Marghen, Jul 19)

This wonderful LP release by Alga Marghen collects eight sound pieces by Hungarian multidisciplinary artist Katalin Ladik, a visionary creative whose work nonetheless remains largely unheard by not only the general public, but also the sympathetic ears of avant-garde listeners. Ladik’s compositions and improvisations make use of a wide variety of sound sources, from the nocturnal industrial ambience of “Reflection 7 / Reflexió 7” to the layered, spectral, vocal-only performances of “Ufo-Nopoetica” and “Lament / Sirató,” but at its heart Phonopoetics represents Ladik’s development of a poetic language that incorporates more than just speech; her poetry is all-inclusive, indiscriminate, a sublime and revolutionary dialect that draws its power from the fluid ease of gesture.

Various Artists – Towards a Total Poetry (Recital, Sep 6)

Possibly Recital’s most fascinating release even in such a formidable year, Towards a Total Poetry collects ten vocal pieces, sound poems, and radio plays by four titans of the 1980 Los Angeles text-sound scene (Paul Vangelisti, Adriano Spatola, F. Tiziano, Julien Blaine). Guttural, salivary utterances imitate surgical amputations; cardinal directions argue over a game of cards; a choral ensemble sing the “M” entries in the phone book. It’s hard to tell what’s more disorienting, the structure of the LP as a whole or the pieces themselves. Housed in a fittingly unassuming jacket with a 12 page booklet containing notes and essays by the artists, it’s definitely a document to get your hands on.

The Sawtooth Grin – Cuddlemonster reissue (Wax Vessel, Oct 4)

Ambitious Chicago passion project Wax Vessel really put its nose to the grindstone in its inaugural year of operation, releasing beloved classics of the 2000’s math/death/grind-core scene on gorgeous colored vinyl with reimagined cover artwork. So many of my personal favorites were blessed with the WV treatment in 2019 (Robinson, The Heartland, Destroyer Destroyer), but I choose to include Cuddlemonster because its reissue significantly changed my opinion of it—after only having heard low quality, compression-marred digital rips it’s truly an amazing experience to hear it now, in all of its deranged remastered glory.

Feature: Favorite Labels of 2019

Even in this era where digital music and streaming dominate, independent CD and tape labels are the lifeblood of the underground and avant-garde music community. So many, way more than we deserve, are admirable platforms for musicians and artists to get their music to new audiences, focused on supporting creativity rather than profit (though they still need your financial support too). With this piece, I hope to give recognition for the longer running labels that are still consistently great, as well as bring some newer discoveries into the spotlight.


‘Old Standbys’

Dinzu Artefacts

Dinzu is all about consistency, from its constant aesthetic focus on “contemporary art of sound by artists interested in tape manipulation, field recordings, noise and experimental practices” to the foot it maintains in the world of physical music by not providing official digital covers for its releases. The consistency, unsurprisingly, carries over into the music as well, and 2019 is an exemplary year to look to for proof. The January batch started things off strong with the acousmatic ambience of Ife from Giovanni Lami and Glauco Salvo and Fabio Perletta’s segmented sound study Hesitant. Other superb entries include Joakim Blattmann’s eclectic Bird Helmet, Eventless Plot’s captivating improvisations on Percussion Works, Andrea Borghi’s warbly textile turntabling on Tistre, and the succinct surrealism of kNN’s Granchio Pinocchio. Dinzu also released one of the year’s most impenetrable works with Luciano Maggiore’s Locu, which I am still trying to figure out.

Flag Day Recordings

Billy Pizarro’s Flag Day Recordings reached new heights of eclecticism in 2019, releasing sixteen tapes that wade through sound art, improvisation, abstract electronica, noise, film soundtrack, and many other areas. My most played release from the label this year is (perhaps expectedly) The Black Isle, a spectral phonographic work by Manja Ristić, but I also greatly enjoyed Bridges of Königsberg’s ambitious electronic odyssey Considered Parallel to Borders (Or Dividers)Without Mirrors’ nocturnal soundscaping on their self-titled tape, and both of the most recent releases from Francisco Meirino (Hear After: Matters of Auditory Paranoia) and Tim Held (Music to Come Down to).

 

Orb Tapes

Orb, whose motto is “fringe music on tape,” reliably presents an onslaught of refreshing experimental and outsider music every year, but 2019 was one for the books, with 16 superb new releases from new and old artists alike. Highlights include Every Meanest Particular, the newest raucous and irreverent free jazz excursion by Chicago quartet Galaxxu; Into the Disposal, a short but punishing coagulation of various split and compilation tracks by Lima noisegrind trio Landfill; and Lumb, the second fantastic release on Orb by indiscriminate dada collagers Sugar Pills Bone. Orb also inked itself into the contemporary Sun Ra revival with the release of Sun Ra with Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold, which collects long-shelved recordings from November of 1964.

Sentient Ruin Laboratories

Obnoxious release descriptions aside, the Oakland-based Sentient Ruin continued to establish itself as one of, if not the most prominent voices in extreme and avant-garde metal music. Beginning with Vessel of Iniquity’s Void of Infinite Horror LP, which I’ve identified countless times as one of my favorite albums of the year, the label put out nearly 30 new releases and reissues in styles ranging from nightmarish avalanche metal (Imminent HorrorThe Approaching RoarEkpyrosis) and lumbering death/doom (Perpetual AnimationVestigial, Nightfucker) to bewildering and abstract genre amalgams (ѪSpasm of LightHold Me Down). 2019 also saw an unexpected (yet more than welcome) reissue of Pseudocommando’s contemporary harsh noise classic A Home Beneath the Floorboards.

New Discoveries

Bank

NYC based label Bank is one of the most prominent mouthpieces for adventurous, confrontational, and industrial-influenced electronic dance music right now. I unfortunately don’t have the financial means to purchase many of their releases, but the one I do own, DJ Speedsick’s Nothing Lasts, hardly leaves my car’s cassette player. Other remarkable albums include Soren Roi’s sprawling double-tape techno masterpiece Retrograde Amnesia and Slave to Society’s stunning self-titled debut.

Careful Catalog

Besides releasing my album of the year (Shots’ stunning opus Private Hate), New York based label Careful Catalog came into its own in 2019 after a putting out just a single title last year (Will Guthrie’s 6 Days Into 8). So far it’s added the linguistics-based conceptual work of Connor Camburn and minuscule glitch-scapes of Takamitsu Ohta to its repertoire, and according to the website we’ll see two new editions by Mattias Gustafsson and barn sour before the year is out.

Collective Gut Distro

2019 was Collective Gut Distro’s first year of operation, and March saw it start things off with an aesthetically exemplary inaugural release: True Corruption by Fuck Shit Piss. CGD presses very limited runs of tapes occupying the dark and grimy corners of grindcore and other extreme punk music. Highlights include the self-titled tapes by fast-paced, furious, and fucked-up Indian grind trio xRepeatx and the rotted, rusty powerviolence project Construction Sports.

Regional Bears

London imprint Regional Bears released its first tape in 2017, but this past year saw it nearly double its catalog with three batches of three titles each. The roster of artists reads like a who’s who list of the underground “non-music” and collage scene, both old and new: blackhumour, Yeast Culture, Posset, AMK, Guido Gamboa, Shots, Small Cruel Party. But it isn’t afraid to branch out into more eclectic and even conventional territory either, with releases by E. Granby Granby, Schakalens Bror, and FPBJBC.

Honorable Mentions

I’d also like to recognize some other labels who brought me some of my favorite music this year, including Cadmus Tape, Hausu Mountain, Marginal FrequencyReserve MatineeFragment FactoryWasted TapesPenultimate PressSono SpaceChocolate Monk, tsss tapes, and Lurker Bias.

Feature: MVPs of 2019

Much like last year, December is a time for me to let up on my new music intake and sit back with some old favorites. To reflect on this wonderful year (wonderful for music at least) I’ll be posting the same summative features as I did in 2018. Hope you enjoy. My regular review schedule will most likely resume in the new year. Thank you to everyone for your support and love.


2019, just like 2018 (which is why I’ve very lazily reprinted the exact same introduction) was a year in which I discovered lots of new artists and got to hear new music from artists I already love. There were, however, several artists who managed to occupy both voids due to their prolificacy throughout the year. These are my personal picks for the “most valuable players” in music this year.

Andrea Borghi

The work of the endlessly creative and innovative Italian sound artist Andrea Borghi has been an important part of my music listening ever since I first heard Musica per Nastro God knows how many years ago. From hybrid sound composition and sculpture works in the form of his unique discomateria prepared records and other solo endeavors to collective improvisation, Borghi engages sound in ceaselessly various settings. In 2019 he’s been especially prolific, releasing 3discos, a collection of works composed between 2017 and 2018, on rhizome.s in February; VHS, an intimate yet raucous odyssey into the titular format that’s far and away one of my favorite albums this year, on Misanthropic Agenda in May; four textile/turntable experiments in the form of the Tistre cassette on Dinzu Artefacts in July; texts_und, a short cassette filled with lush, immersive, minuscule soundscapes, on Sounds Against Humanity in October; and recorded the ambitious Su Se Stesso as a member of the long-running improvisational quartet VipCancro.

 

Vessel of Iniquity

The mysterious Vessel of Iniquity, though officially known as the solo endeavor of musician “A.white,” can just as easily be thought of as a pitch black cavern that births this nightmarish and disturbing music. The project’s self-titled debut came out on Sentient Ruin last year, but the volume was more than pumped up in 2019 with the release of the Void of Infinite Horror LP, again on Sentient Ruin, and four subsequent self-released digital albums of remarkably consistent excellence. While Void of Infinite Horror is easily one of my favorite records from this year, I’ve not even come close to wearing it out because I have fantastic companion releases like Star of the Morning and Imitator of Miracles to give me my fix.

 

Mach-Hommy

Being prolific is more difficult with hip-hop than most genres, and it’s easy for artists who release too much music to sacrifice either quality or accessibility—or both. I’m sure we can all name some great examples. New Jersey MC Mach-Hommy (hereafter MH) isn’t as young as many of the NYC undergrounders currently taking the abstract hip-hop world by storm, but with a longer time on Earth comes wisdom, patience, and reticence. MH is known for his anonymity and reclusive nature, and his hermitic inclinations imbue his dusty boom bap beatscapes and cryptic lyricism with a unique sense of isolation that’s both unsettling and comforting. I first fell in love with MH’s music with the help of Fete des Morts aka Dia de las Muertos, and his 2019 ventures have further cemented that love: Tuez-les tous, the first of two superb collaborations with DJ Muggs (along with Kill Em All, which also introduced a new moniker for the duo), is easily one of the best hip-hop releases this year, and the short but sweet Wap Konn Jòj! is a wonderful entry in the contemporary abstract hip-hop canon.

 

Territorial Gobbing

I first encountered Theo Gowans’ music long before I heard anything by Territorial Gobbing (TG); the Leeds-based multi-instrumentalist is also a member of the irreverent noise rock ensemble Thank, whose 2017 EP Sexghost Hellscape is an all-time personal favorite. Gowans’ solo work as TG combines the same delirious, nihilistic surrealism with a more abstract palette of dictaphone skronk, mangled vocalizations, broken electronics, and anything else that catches his ear. April’s Stud Mechanism on Cadmus Tape was the first I heard, but Gowans stayed busy with releases on Cardboard Club (Ham Man Bone Jacket), Opal Tapes (Capitalist Art Is Cartoons Fucking), Panurus Productions (Sausage Chain), Infant Tree (Bit My Tongue Clean Off), and Base Materialism (Zoinks!). He also lent his talents to a collaboration with Model Warships on Wormhole World and the second side of Leap Wars’ Low Priest Run on Cadmus.

 

Daphne X

Daphne X (shortened from Xanthopoulou) is a very new discovery of mine, but I’ve had plenty of material to pore over in the form of her deconstructed, glitched-marred poetry remnants of January’s Jaguar 100% and the enrapturing digital dissections of To Be Brave on Sono Space. In addition to contributing a track to the third installment of Sono Space’s Sound Maps for the Dreamer compilation series, Xanthopoulou also curated Cachichi, an online radio platform for avant-garde music and sound art with a focus on her home base of Barcelona, Spain. Xanthopoulou may not have released an avalanche of music this year, but with the massive amount of excitement I feel for future endeavors she might as well have.