Feature: Favorite Albums of 2021

Not only have I run out of thought-provoking intro material, I’ve also used up all of my “clever” bits of subversion that I use when I’m too lazy to write actual copy. So have this obnoxiously self-aware and meaning-null series of words instead. Happy new year. 

I’m sorry for the formatting for the honorable mentions is a bit weird on both desktop and mobile. I really have no idea how to fix it but I’ll keep trying.

Also, sorry about the links. All fixed now—I think. Ugh.


UVC – Broken Phonemes of the Unconscious(ness) Grid (Regional Bears, Oct 10)

UVC has always been an artist to whom I attribute brevity as one of his main strengths, so I’ll admit I was the tiniest bit skeptical when I saw that this Regional Bears tape was a C46 (less “will this be bad?”, more “how in the hell will this work?”). But as soon as the A side–spanning first track on Broken Phonemes of the Unconscious(ness) Grid settled into its “groove”—an innocuous yet wholly singular sound-universe of tape whir, noisy blankness, and trivial mundanity that defines not even the loudest of UVC tapes, but other memorable one-off BPF projects like Winston 1 and Bill Lewis Medicine Cabinet as well—it was like coming home. There’s something so intensely fascinating about the null-zone between instantaneity and retrospectivity that this “music” occupies, a place where sounds are both “here” and “there.” Throughout the humble opus, closely recorded scrabble/shuffle and analog-grimed tedium drones inexplicably harmonize and congeal into unperceivable, impossible currents that activate stuttering loop churns and other structural destabilizers; plucky junk-electronics pinch and ping into the dusty void; distant domestic clatter both coexists with and contradicts claustrophobic DI noise. I swear, it’s like he made this specifically for me.

 

Billy Strings – Renewal (Rounder, Sep 23)

Michigan-born, Nashville-based songwriter Billy Strings (a.k.a. William Apostol) is a name that’s unfortunately unfamiliar to many, but ubiquitous to few (both this record and the one prior to it easily hit #1 on the Billboard bluegrass charts), but if anything can change that it’s his sprawling, ambitious third solo effort Renewal. Fans who discovered his music via 2019’s Home, such as myself, may have expected him to delve even further into jam-heavy electric psychedelia on subsequent releases, but the 70-minute, 16-track double LP is a thoroughly acoustic outing, with the classic lineup of banjo, mandolin, double bass, and violin (performed by Billy Failing, Jarrod Walker, Royal Masat, and John Mailander, respectively) rendered in sublime, spacious clarity alongside Apostol’s trusty six-string and additional contributions. Every single song is a self-contained, mesmerizing masterpiece: beautifully ragged group harmonies and infectious solo exchanges power straightforward foot-stompers like “Secrets” and “The Fire on My Tongue”; expertly applied tension-and-release bolsters longer jams on “Heartbeat of America” and the spellbinding “Hide and Seek”; and it’s all rounded out by flawless nods to the deepest roots of this music in the form of the Walker/Ward-penned “Red Daisy” and “Running the Route.” It gets better every single time you listen, I’m not joking. Thanks Billy.

 

___ Duo – Music (music. dot. com!!!, Jan 16)

When I first heard Music it was called ., an even more evasive and inconvenient title that nonetheless represents well what the musicians behind the various ___ collective projects are going for. Completely formal or serious (or even worse, “academic”) electroacoustic improvisation has become utterly boring in this new age, and thus I’m finding myself drawn to subversive music created using even more unlikely sources and combinations thereof. Music certainly fits the bill with its credits of synth, sequencer, turntable, cello, sampler, and guitar to one unnamed performer and tapes, flute, voice, and live processing to the other, but ___ Duo doesn’t just obstinately oppose any sort of conventional instrument selection—they also refuse to make anything remotely conventional with them either, an approach that paradoxically leads to crude, asymmetrical lumps of misplaced convention amidst dense abstraction. I once again feel obligated to bring up the short-lived but legendary Sunshine Has Blown ensemble, whose once-untouched uniqueness I see reflected in the sluggish, sun-cracked swathing of “hr9%$KtQP#jedpVW” and the shabby loops of “fSvvbsg_6M97zj@A.” This is the future, unfortunately.

 

Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR (Geffen, May 21)

It’s not often that I appreciate an album so deeply for being not just a pop-culture juggernaut, but also essentially a voice of an entire generation, so when it does happen, I make sure to value it. At just 18, Olivia Rodrigo has handily met that tall order with her first full-length album, and thus, beyond the strength of the music itself, SOUR feels nothing less than important. It’s as much a love letter to the artists that made Rodrigo the artist and songwriter she is today as it is an incendiary teen-pop reset: “brutal” feels very much in the vein of early- to mid-00s bad girl pop rock, but with a decidedly Gen-Z supply of frankness and impatience; “1 step forward, 3 steps back” incorporates a piano melody from a Taylor Swift song; and, of course, “good 4 u” is a not-so-subtle tribute to you-know-what by you-know-who. But unsurprisingly it’s the sleek, deftly produced, newfangled cuts that I’m personally most partial to: the unruly percussion, soaring melodies, and gloriously cringeworthy youthfulness of “deja vu”; the endless replayable and sing-alongable “drivers license”; the unapologetic and stiltedly propulsive “jealousy, jealousy.” I have no doubt that SOUR won’t take long to be seen/heard as a product of its time, and I also have no doubt that I will love it even more for it.

 

Irreversible Entanglements – Open the Gates (International Anthem, Nov 12) 

I wasn’t exactly coy about my love for east coast super-quintet Irreversible Entanglement’s last record Who Sent You?, so their first double LP being featured here shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, but I’m also sure I speak for both myself and many others when I say that Open the Gates is even more spectacular than I ever could have anticipated. Though much of the album’s appeal comes from its lengthy instrumental sections and the way they steadily progress while both intertwining with and springboarding off of Moor Mother/Camae Ayewa’s reverberant spoken mantras, the brief opening title track is one of the band’s best yet, featuring a quite-distinctly Luke Stewart bass groove and an invigorating rhythmic energy that carries over even into the patient, slow-building haze of “Keys to Creation.” As a whole the record feels at once like a smooth-seamed suite of continuous collective imagination (it was recorded in a single day back in January) and like a jewel-studded “best of” compilation due to each cut’s heaping helping of memorable moments—Aquiles Navarro’s vivid trumpet that lays the groundwork for centerpiece “Water Meditation,” for example, or Tcheser Holmes’s fluid groove-trades with both Ayewa and Stewart on “Storm Came Twice.” Consistently awe-inspiring, mind-warming, and life-affirming.

 

Georgia (Rodent Tapes, Oct 6)

One of the first albums I discovered when I was just beginning to learn all the things music could be was Bugskull’s Phantasies and Senseitions, a scuzzy outsider lo-fi classic that puts on display both the uncanniness and the comfort that “poor” recording quality can frame so fittingly. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has ever come so close to evoking the same unsayable things as Georgia does. The Toronto duo’s eponymous debut, despite being digital-only as far as I can tell, is pretty damn close to the same sort of obscurity that invariably complements this type of music; no one (not even me—yet—I’m ashamed to admit) has bought it on Bandcamp, the band itself is nigh-unGoogleable, and the label that put it out doesn’t seem to have much information to offer either. But the loose collection of thirteen tunes speaks for itself. “Ottawa” sets the stage with its ramshackle collage of bright, naïve guitar noodling and textural soup like the song of a small army of malfunctioning radios; “Souvenir” is a breathtaking bit of simple singer/songwriter drift complete with soothing dual-vocal coziness; and “Condensation” is a noisy, Pumice-esque mass of overblown beauty that’s nothing less than magic. It’s like being slowly wrapped in an impossibly soft, warm blanket with just enough scratchiness to remind you how soft and warm you are.

 

SZSZRZ – No Trees Were Harmed During the Process of Making These Recordings (self-released, Sep 3)

Few other musical works in 2021 are as profoundly calming as this first album from the Polish method-trio of Tomasz Pizio, Jędrzej Siwek, and Łukasz Suchy, an exercise in sonic subtlety that can serve as both reminder and soundtrack to stop, sit, and take more than just a few deep breaths every now and then. Comprising seven tracks of both raw and processed/arranged recordings of creaking branches, No Trees Were Harmed During the Process of Making These Recordings focuses on the familiar yet captivating ambience of the serene outdoors, and it seems to me that the roles of at least the just-creakers (Pizio for numbers one, two, and three; Suchy for four and five) being essentially equivalent to breeze-assisting acolytes is no accident; this music is about simultaneously inserting and removing ourselves, appreciating the natural rhythm, sway, and stasis that surround us while acknowledging and fulfilling our limited place within it all. In this way, Siwek’s “Reworks” are simply another level or plane of reserved interaction, an auditory realization of the invisible but beautiful connections we frequently take for granted.

 

Lifelost – Punitive Damnation (Onism Productions, Dec 10)

The year’s best black metal release took its sweet time revealing itself, but we were finally given the gruesome gift of Lifelost’s second record Punitive Damnation earlier this month, and it was worth every second of the wait. I hadn’t heard the first declaration from this solo project by Spanish multi-instrumentalist Phlegeton, 2018’s Dialogues from Beyond, before I discovered this one, but either is certainly a sufficiently harrowing introduction to the bleak, twisted world conjured up by the astral auteur’s equally bleak, twisted mind, a world “where time, words and human hierarchies lack meaning, where a supernatural pain underlies as punishment.” Pain (more like agony), despair (more like desolation), fear (more like terror), and god knows what else are all innate to these oppressive, labyrinthine assaults; breakneck blasts burst into supercharged sludge-doom like rotting-planet supernovas, plodding gallops wrapped in pitch-black noise both hypnotize and pummel, the barest hints of some semblance of triumph emerge at the farthest edges of anguish. Actually wait, no, that was just your brain finally granting you the small mercy of shutting itself down.

The Rest

Wayne Snow – Figurine
(Roche Musique, Sep 24)
Katz Mulk – Vital Attachments (Klammklang,
Oct 1)
Kharàce – Dakhalè (Xenoglossy Productions, Jan 15)
L’Rain – Fatigue (Mexican Summer, Jun 25)
Succumb – XXI (The Flenser,
Sep 24)
Album cover of Journal 2020 by Wind Tide
Wind Tide – Journal 2020 (self-released, Mar 14)
ZelooperZ – Van Gogh’s Left Ear (Bruiser Brigade,
Jul 8)
Michael Barthel – Vollmacht (Regional Bears,
Jan 13)
Computer Crimes – Paola (Sanpaku, Aug 4)
Bryan Day & Seymour Glass – Crooked Doppler (Tanzprocesz, Oct 15)
Michael Foster & Ben Bennett – Contractions (Astral Spirits, May 7)
Cities Aviv – The Crashing Sound of How It Goes (FXCK RXP, Apr 16)
Serpent of the Abyss – Wrapped in Darkness (self-released, Sep 5)
Moment – Broken Resonance (Space21, Jun 7)
Joanna Mattrey – Dirge (Dear Life, Sep 24)
RXM Reality – Advent (Orange Milk, Jun 25)
:RAH: – Songs of the South (Strange Noise, Oct 23)
Network Glass – CHAPEL69-2 (dingn\dents,
Dec 22)
Dylan Burchett – Scenes and Objects (self-released,
Aug 16)
Doja Cat – Planet Her (Kemosabe / RCA, Jun 25)
Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales (RCA, Jan 8)
Chynna – Drug Opera (TWIN,
Aug 20)
Wau Wau Collectif – Yaral Sa Doom (Sahel Sounds,
Feb 26)

List: Favorite Short Releases of 2021

I’m out of words. What do I even say at this point? Happy holidays? Be safe? Fuck you? I love you? I wasn’t paying attention, so I’ll just go with the last thing I heard, however inaccurate it may be. I love you.

Note: This list is to be considered in conjunction with both the previous and the next posts.


CBN – Crimes Against White America (Phage Tapes, Nov 5)

I don’t know if there was a single musical work released this year as compulsively replayable, unapologetically brutal, and punishingly relevant as CBN’s Crimes Against White America 12″. Many of you probably saw my Anti–Power Electronics mix and the terrifying backlash it received, so music that directly confronts whiteness, by both those who uphold it and those subjected to it, in such a violent and merciless manner is more necessary now than ever. When in doubt, “SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH” and spin Crimes yet again.

Ashcircle – Level Up Everywhere (verz, Dec 10)

To call Ashcircle’s music political is both accurate and inaccurate. Yes, the improvisational electricity and strangled aggression that undergirds the nuanced sampler-spamming and high-velocity electroacoustic exchanges originate in resolute opposition to Tory rule, but the duo’s singular formula also deliberately subverts not just standard political discourse but also the very conventions upon which it is based, completely discarding any semblance of “civility” or “respect”—which, it seems, is really the only way to go these days. What’s more, Level Up Everywhere is easily their best work yet.

Serpent Column – Katartisis (Dissociative Visions, Aug 27)

The mysterious duo of extreme music heavyweights James Hamzey (a.k.a. Theophilos) and Maya Chun have consistently impressed with every single release, but Katartisis, with its overblown, largely unmastered production style and much more agile compositions, feels like even more of an exciting next step. The bright, dexterous guitar riffs lend an almost screamo-esque energy to the still crushingly metallic proceedings, and Chun’s drum work is as awe-inspiring and complementary as always, especially on “Edelweiss,” a track so heavy that maniacal laughter is really the only possible response.

Ellen Phan – Visual Squash (anòmia, Dec 24)

I’m sure that all you MOTHERFUCKERS publishing your end-of-year lists before December even hits are just sad, sad people deep down, but you should be even sadder knowing that such a pointlessly incomplete critical net misses gems like Visual Squash, sound artist and therapist Ellen Phan’s first musical release since 2018’s Ideomotor Response tape. This gorgeously packaged CD is even shorter than that C16 at just 11 minutes, but it’s still Phan’s most fully realized work yet, an impossibly organic array of fluid glitch that somehow synonymizes the electrical and the existential.

Virhe (Starving Light Collective, Nov 1)

Most hardcore fans are well aware that the Finnish scene has always been on another level, producing legends from Vox Populi in the early 80s to Death Basket in just the past few years, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a band from the country—or anywhere, really—as exciting and/or eviscerating as Virhe. Last year’s demo did plenty to hint at the quartet’s significant potential, and yet this vicious self-titled tape makes even those tracks look tame; fans of fluoride, Svffer, and other bright points of the elusive “false grind” style that are looking for a bit more grit need search no further.

Savannah Conley – Surprise, Surprise (EMPIRE, Apr 30)

Nashville’s Savannah Conley took up permanent residence in my brain with her Twenty-Twenty 7″ back in 2018, and it’s hard to believe there were three years between that and the release of Surprise, Surprise, which I may love even more. Few opening tracks this year are as earworming and addictive as the tantalizingly short “Being Around You” with its invigorating electric coda, and Conley’s effortless mixture of easygoing country ramble and supercharged dream pop is at its best on “Dream Boy” and “Never Want to Be in Love.”

Ghost Dance – Indian Babies: How to Keep Them Well (self-released, Mar 5)

Along with Maraud, anonymous project Ghost Dance is one of the formidable figures at the forefront of a quickly growing Indigenous power electronics scene, and Indian Babies: How to Keep Them Well, a perfect encapsulation of the artist’s scathingly sardonic approach to deconstructing jargon-dressed anti-Native rhetoric new and old, is a spectacular debut. Just as much harsh noise as PE, the sample-heavy set of two tracks are both disturbing and cathartic exercises in pain, anger, and resistance. “IN SOLIDARITY / IN WAR.”

Dominic Coles – Everyone Thinks Their Dreams Are Interesting (Wandelweiser, Dec 20)

I first discovered Queens sound artist Dominic Coles’ work via the irreverent cracked-electronics improv of Other Plastics, his duo with Hunter Brown, but this brief, ephemeral, and yet deeply affecting work produced by Edition Wandelweiser (an important label whose material I nonetheless hardly ever find interesting, let alone good) is something else entirely. It’s a detailed, silence-filled exploration into the microscopic innards of sound-producing devices loosely based on dream journal entries, and is thus difficult to describe in any way that does it true justice—other than one word: sublime.

Daniel Iván Bruno – Brazo (TVL, Mar 5)

I’ve already written about Buenos Aires improviser and devout experimentalist Daniel Iván Bruno’s dose of abrasive brevity in a review and for my first-half top ten earlier this year, but Brazo deserves every bit of attention and acclaim it gets. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to strip noise down to such an uncompromisingly scientific level and still retain the powerful, life-affirming impact that more immediate approaches often make simpler, but somehow Bruno does just that. A modern classic.

Ghost Food – Night in My Mind (Sweet Wreath, Oct 22)

This debut CD by Ghost Food, the supernaturally inclined collaboration between multidisciplinary artist/musicians Joel Nelson and Paul Wilm, was the perfect soundtrack to this year’s particularly haunted Halloween season. Born out of a shared “ghostly experience,” the four tracks combine spectral ambience, obtuse spoken word, and memorable songwriting to wondrous effect, and each moment is just as enigmatic and beguiling as the next, whether Wilm is muttering surreal observations about biscuits (“Little Things We Said”) or Nelson is conjuring unforgettable beauty from his arcane arsenal of instruments (“Ghost’s Come Home”).

Rebecca Black – Rebecca Black Was Here (self-released, Jun 16)

Falling in love with “Girlfriend,” the whimsical and utterly infectious closer of Rebecca Black Was Here, was the easy part. My appreciation for the other five songs took a bit longer to materialize, but once I realized that the first few times I listened I just wasn’t paying enough attention, the revelation that this is truly excellent electropop (with exactly the right amount of the obnoxious excess of “hyperpop”) came soon after. And even more exciting than the music itself, perhaps, is the promising future for which it builds the basis.

George Rayner-Law – The Tryal of Old Christmas (Brachliegen Tapes, Dec 10)

The small but fecund subset of experimental music dedicated to evoking some sort of holiday spirit was especially fruitful this year. Idiosyncratic tape wrangler George Rayner-Law’s newest tape The Tryal of Old Christmas is easily one of the highlights, especially the pensive title track on the B side, which stitches together soft organ drones and sliced-up dictaphone mutterings in an ambiguously calming Poem (for Voice & Tape) I’m Some Songs–esque soundscape.

xfeverfewx – Trans Body Music (Enforced Existence, Oct 12)

Lansing, MI artist xfeverfewx has built an eclectic body of work since January of last year, with material ranging from the painterly voice-and-guitar eccentricities of Huge Black Wings to the longform, droning lo-fi noise of the One Hundred and Twenty-Seven Angels Gathered collaboration with Empty Banks. Trans Body Music, however, is an easy favorite, a compact CDr release that traces the physicality of the artist’s body with unmanipulated contact mic recordings throughout two ten-minute “Bodypoem”s.

Chain Lightning – Aimbot (Amateur Electronics, Sep 17)

Aimbot is synth-punk done right. I could write more but nothing I would come up with would be a better description than the following, quoted directly from the Bandcamp page: “Chain Lightning is like watching TV at grandma’s. Every single show is starring Jim Carrey Jr. The man of every hour. Quantum bio-feedback is nutrition feedback. Mr. Chain Lightning finds a home in your living room PC and sits in a chair. But there’s one thing that’s for sure… Money can’t buy you happiness, but damn, this Tesla’s close.”

The Gabys (ALL Gone, Feb 18)

The label is spot on with their comparisons of The Gabys to golden-age New Zealand scuzz and Black Tambourine, but primary appeal of the English duo is that they reside in a small but nonetheless defined place in which they are entirely alone. A place filled with paradoxes: light and shadow, sweetness and sorrow, song and silence. All of the tracks are excellent, but “Peter Bell” especially sounds like a no-fi classic unearthed from thirty-year-old sun-stained tapes, a sound I’ll never not be a sucker for.

Various Artists – You Have Three Seconds (Welcome to Clydebank, Feb 26)

Beyond just the fact that the roster/tracklist reads like a who’s who of contemporary experimental music (Hair Clinic, Howard Stelzer, Hardworking Families, Territorial Gobbing, Posset, Daniel J. Gregory), You Have Three Seconds is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable compilation that simultaneously feels like a rich collection of diverse contributions and a single, very impatient sound collage. Plus, new material from Klaysstar, no matter how small an amount, is always a treat.

RXKNephew – Bro Ham (New Breed Trapper, May 7)

I, like many, first heard RXK Nephew—he operates, alternately, under several alias variations—on ZelooperZ’s “Paranormal Snaptivity” (which is featured on this tape as well, in slightly different form, as “Paranormal Shelter”). But I’ve grown to enjoy the Rochester MC nearly as much as my beloved Bruiser baron, especially Bro Ham, which dissolves trap, east coast, and the sparest hints of horrorcore into a murky but distinctive sound that never fully leaves my head. It also gets points for eventually making me aware of another RXK project, Make Drunk Driving Cool Again, that remains one of the best cursory listens I’ve ever had.

List: Favorite Cassette Releases of 2021

I haven’t had access to my turntable for a significant portion of the year, and thus have been attempting to assuage the heartbreak by stocking up on a somehow even more obsolete class of physical music media. Did it actually help? No. Do I regret spending money I could’ve used for transit, groceries, and weed on flimsy-hinged plastic bricks that constantly litter all surfaces of my disastrously cluttered bedroom? Hell no.

Note: This list should be considered in conjunction with the two summary posts yet to come.


Zbysko Cracker / MO – Mowin’ (Grandmother’s House, Oct 29)

Certainly one of, if not the most “non-musical” musical releases I’ve come across this year. You get exactly what it says on the tin, and whether you listen to these two 15-minute sides of leisurely lawn care as audiotherapy, productivity ambience, lullabies, or just the charming bits of careless pseudo-composition that they are, Mowin’, despite its resolute commitment to artistic minimalism, is a tape with which it’s impossible not to fall in love.

Mažas Kiekis – Much Like Yourself (Chocolate Monk, September)

According to Nyoukis’s introduction, the story behind Gnaw Bone, IN artist Mažas Kiekis’s first-ever tape makes it a perfect fit for Choccy Monk: unsolicited submission, degrees of removal, deep-set idiosyncrasies. Much Like Yourself is an easily digestible but not so easily forgotten slab of messy, delirious sound poetry fed through the murky mastications of magnetic tape cut-ups. Kiekis—and I do not suggest this lightly—may be the next-generation stateside heir to Germany’s Michael Barthel.

Guido Gamboa – Music for Tape and Spectral/Granular Processes (Second Sleep, October)

I’ll buy anything Guido Gamboa puts out without hesitation, but I’ll admit, even I was a bit skeptical about a release so pointedly exploratory and scientific from a technical standpoint from this artist whom I’ve always appreciated because of his seamless assimilations. I shouldn’t have worried, unsurprisingly; the four self-contained pieces collected by Music for Tape are some of the Chicago paragon’s best, and the detailed liner notes offer a look into the specific methodologies utilized for each.

presque fantôme (dents de scie, Sep 6)

A new project from the reclusive Geneva artist also behind the crève-chiens alias and elusively fruitful dents de scie imprint, presque fantôme is clattering outsider tape-noise of the highest order, and this self-titled debut has been one of my most consistent plays since I picked it up back in September. Think early Darksmith, 010001111000, Matt Krefting, Termite Acropolis . . . yeah. This is the good shit.

Bent Duo – Ramble (self-released, Jun 28)

David Friend and Bill Solomon’s Bent Duo collaboration would be fascinating enough without a recorded musical element—their presentations blur the lines between performance and installation, and audience participation is used as a flexible vehicle for exploring spaces that would otherwise remain stubbornly closed—but Ramble, a “re-imagining” of the multimedia project of the same name, is the perfect avenue to sufficiently engage with their work from any distance, because I’m not sure music has ever been this intimate or clandestine.

Van Gelder Skelter – The Aerosol Transit Lounge Showdown (Born Physical Form, April)

The steady flux of new and increasingly more entertaining aliases/projects into the Born Physical Form catalog slowed slightly this year, but the quality underwent no such diminishment. I still haven’t heard Microphone Crumb’s Primate Sequences, the most recent tape by the mysterious Philadelphia tape twiddler, but it’s hard to imagine it being better than The Aerosol Transit Lounge Showdown, a quick pair of squirrely, slipshod sketches that seem to get more bewildering each time.

Tupperware – American Underbelly (Deluxe Bias, Jan 24)

Barely more than three minutes of brash, equal parts angry and arty hardcore recorded in gloriously primitive mono is apparently all it takes to win my heart. There are perhaps no other tapes that I have played more than American Underbelly this year. The Olympia, WA band have also recently erected the other side of their set of year-framing bookends with their nearly just as diminutive self-titled EP, which was released on cassette and 7″ on the 21st.

Hair Clinic – At Work and at Home (Music for People, Jun 24)

With this fairly new alias, Oakland oddball Max Nordile has cemented himself as one of the greats in a scene where “greatness” often holds no esteem, nor even meaning. “Jim’s Place”, released last year by Regional Bears, saw Nordile turn his indiscriminate lens to the unruly outdoors, but At Work and at Home represents almost the exact opposite: a rough, noisy survey of the dross and detritus of domestic spaces. Short but sweet.

Mister Baby – Sidewalk Pop (Paisley Shirt, Feb 5)

A cozy little gem of a tape that can almost certainly provide some much-needed escapism for anyone who pops it in. The fuzzed-out twee bliss of unforgettable cuts like “Moonlight Racing,” “Cake Shop,” and particularly the extended cover of Aqua’s “Dr. Jones” evokes the featherweight carelessness and warmed bones of a dreamy summer day, and has me with my ear to the silk-grassed ground in rapt vigilance for whatever Mashikian comes up with next.

Heejin Jang / Network Glass / Philippe Vandal (Ultraviolet Light, Apr 8)

Three contemporary computer music heavyweights (primarily of the irreverent variety) gather for this spectacular split tape produced by Baltimore’s formidable Ultraviolet Light. The highlight here for me personally is Network Glass’s track on the A side, which nearly broaches the singular territory previously established, explored, and violated via modern classic Twitch, but both Jang and Vandal contribute excellent material as well, the former’s serving as fitting bookends for the whole tape.

Hit with the Joke Hammer (Crooked Branch Collections, Jun 4)

If the rattling spindles and warble-wrack of presque fantôme weren’t enough nourishment for your bag of bones, Hit with the Joke Hammer is here to help. The second in a promising series of short tapes from Nashville’s newly minted Crooked Branch Collections, it presents noise in its most stripped-down manifestation (or one of them, at least), a tightly contained but still dizzying stumble through whirs and rustles and scratches and gurgles.

Alex Cunningham – Rivaled (Void Castle, Feb 23)

For the hopefully large amount of you who have heard Rivaled already, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that there are few tracks, or even full-length works, from this year that can match (rival, if you will) the searingly seraphic blast of “Faith.” However, the much more subdued, less immediate “Void” on the B side has steadily become just as transcendent, and each of the halves very much feels like a different, unique  attempt at the same thing—but both handily succeed.

This Friendship Is Sailing – Live on Curious Ear Radio (Beartown, November)

When I ordered a pair of tapes from Beartown’s newest batch it was Natalia Beylis’s Variations on a Sewing Machine that I expected to connect with most, but I ended up playing this collection of live-in-studio magic from the quartet of Sam Andreae, David Birchall, Greta Buitkute, and Maggie Nicols even more often. A softer, quieter companion of sorts to Andreae and Birchall’s previous work with Yan Jun on Click Here (and There) for More Information earlier this year.

Connive – Verleugnung (Play & Ceremony, Nov 5)

After last year’s self-titled debut cassette on Reserve Matinee, this plastic-bagged C90 is an impressive next step for Michael Stumpf’s Connive project, a sprawling odyssey filled with screeching, swelling, looping harsh that has that indescribable effect of simultaneously slowing down and speeding up time. Though stylistic lineage in noise music is usually pointless to trace, Stumpf seems to have a spider-leg drawing influence from each and every one of the genre’s notable hotspots, and thus pretty much everyone will find something they like in the maelstrom of Verleugnung.

Feature: Favorite New Labels from 2021

As someone who also operates an independent label with minimal funds, 2021 was not an easy year for it. And yet, plenty of ambitious artists and curators not only found the time and the resources to bring the music they love to the world, but also the drive to begin doing it in the first place. These are my favorite imprints that were first established in this accursed year of your lord.


Black Artifact (Fort Worth, TX, USA)

Anyone who follows this site is well aware that I never shut up about how much I despise the traditional “noise aesthetic”: obnoxiously provocative black-and-white collages, irresponsible invocations of misogynistic violence, juvenile edginess masquerading as serious art. Black Artifact, which announced itself in early January with tapes by brand new projects Insignificant Spirit and Gemengung, is a perfect example of the glorious antithesis of the aforementioned. Each release deals uniquely in creative minimalism in both visual and auditory contexts, and thus they are all singular mysteries to delve into and decipher. My personal highlights are the crude, clumsy concrète of Temple Garments’ brief Dim Radiance; Gemengung’s brutal wall-ish follow-up to their “remix” of Effigy of the ForgottenThe Indifference of Nature (both of which I reviewed here); and SBTDOH’s An Ode to Rock Throwers C11, which is easily some of the best and most concise harsh I’ve heard all year.

Modern Concern (Chicago, IL, USA)

Founded and operated by Chicago musician and soundmaker Andy Klingensmith, Modern Concern is a reverent outlet for exploratory sound art of all kinds, each release presented in extremely limited, carefully homemade CDr or tape runs. Field Dept., Klingensmith’s ongoing collaboration with fellow recorder/researcher Estlin Usher, has so far been one of the main projects featured in the label’s catalog, but their output has steadily become more diverse (from a stylistic perspective, that is…), and it’s the more recent introduction of the Thick Descriptions series, beautifully amaray-cased editions “dedicated to multi-media placestudies [sic] and works of acoustic ecology which utilize unmanipulated, candid field recording techniques.” For an entity so small, however, it is quite prolific, and at 14 total releases for the whole year I had to concede my original goal of picking up every single one in the interest of my meager bank account, but this, undoubtedly, is far from the worst problem to have.

Bromtol Largesse (Austin, TX, USA)

Some may know Neal D. Retke as the subject of Neal D Retke for President!, a 2013 documentary short in which filmographer Victor Van Rossem makes the cross-continental trek from Belgium to the United States in search of a tenuous Facebook connection—a sort of irreverent follow-up to Searching for Sugar Man, perhaps. Retke has been around long before that though, putting out unusual (to say the least) music under both his artistic and curatorial alias of {An} EeL. The “Antarctica”-based Bromtol Largesse is a much newer excursion, beginning its operations in January and releasing more than twenty digital albums since then. Most, if not all of the projects most likely feature Retke, but satisfying variation is not at all an issue here; from the bizarre first “action report” സാമുദായിക dochádzať दान to the absolutely superb three-way harsh noise split by Bukkake Tech, ElekTrauma, and Takeshita, there is certainly something for everyone . . . or, perhaps, everything for no one.

Dasa Tapes (Thessaloniki, Greece)

Savvas Metaxas and Danai Giannakapoulou’s eclectic new label first caught my attention with a release from Glia, a project by Virginia’s Jonathan Ifiok Ntuk that in my eyes/ears is one of the most exciting recent developments in DIY abstract electronica. Since that first batch—which also contained tapes from the collaboration between Ross Birdwise and Karl Fousek as well as some of Metaxas’s own music by way of RETE, his duo with Vasilis Liolios—Dasa has released two more well-curated sets of three, featuring reasonably recognizable names like Eventless Plot and Ben Vida alongside lesser-known (at least to me) artists: Rahel Kraft, Paul Ramage, Elena Kakaliagou. A clean house cover design theme unifies the fascinating work of these myriad creatives, each highlighting a new “hand drawn acrylic painting” presumably done by one or both of the founder-operators.


Titibête (Vienna, Austria)

Though it has only served as the vehicle for two very short digital-only releases this year, Titibête grew from a tiny blip on my radar to a label I’ll be paying extremely close attention to in the future, mostly due to the strength of that aforementioned pair of works by Rosa and Pigeon Discrimination.

Field Strike (unknown location)

This small tape label only just got started earlier this month, but it’s already easily one of my favorites. The incredible first batch of releases by Retraction Pocket (Deterioration Ceremony), Opaque (Black Moncler Hudson), and Maltreatment (Well Raised) are essential listening for any fan of harsh/wall.

Apologies (London, UK)

Apologies has exactly one release under its belt so far, but that single work will be more than enough to convince those “in the know,” even beyond the fact that I will be watching any venture from the mind of Tom White with rapt attention. The pensive sound, voice, and space sketches of Accidental Stereo at the Peninsula, a short collaboration with Renato Grieco, are a perfect introduction.

Anhedonic Records (NC, USA)

Anhedonic made a brash inaugural announcement back in July with the release of two brutal slabs of merciless harsh, Labor of Love’s self-titled and Calf Puller’s Slaktsvin. The strength of these two tapes alone, particularly the former, would be enough for a great year, but the label continued its efforts with the crushing Three Silver Swords and then a drastic stylistic swerve in the form of Piss Dream.

adhuman (Brighton, UK)

A new archival platform and esoteric distro from one of my favorite artists working today, Duncan Harrison. Collected Voice, Text and Tape Works and Korm 88, which compile recordings by Josh Peterson (previously released on various cassettes) and Emil Beaulieau (unreleased), respectively, are a formidable set of releases for the label’s first year of operation.

Mono Time (UK)

Dealing mostly in subdued, often hauntological ambience both light and dark, Mono Time first came to my attention quite recently due to November’s Zebularin release, Concrete Vague. Most of their modest but still impressive first-year catalog would usually be soft for my tastes, but something about the unutterable realities and unrealities explored in We All Think You Should Leave and Ghosts of the British Motorway makes the music irresistibly beguiling.

List: Favorite Compilations, Reissues, and Archival Releases of 2021

Not totally through with the year yet, of course, but I think at this stage I’m ready for at least this list. For most of the posts in this edition of NNMEOYGFFTEAF (Noise Not Music End-of-Year Get Fucked Festival to End All Festivals), quantity is the name of the game. Just trying to bring you as many potential discoveries as possible.


Monnier (Hardcore Detonation, Jun 6)

Although the differences between my mid-year and end-of-year picks are shaping up to be drastic, Monnier’s self-titled cassette, which collects 2018’s original Monnier and 2021’s EP 2, has been a formidably consistent favorite. With its vicious, rough-edged technical crispness and addictive riff wielding it is is everything I could possibly want in grind, and because of that, despite its brutal simplicity, it feels like so much more.

C.C.C.C. – Test Tube Fantasy Extended Edition (New Forces, May 21)

If you’ve been following the site for any amount of time you’re probably aware of the unyielding love I have for C.C.C.C., so all the recent reissuing and remastering of their older work has been an amazing wave to ride. Though the transcendent live recordings of Loud Sounds Dopa remain untouchable, this extended LP edition of the legendary Test Tube Fantasy 7″ may be the best archival offering yet with nearly fifteen minutes of unheard bonus material on each side. Sidekick hell lick perfection.

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – First Flight to Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings (Blue Note, Dec 10)

I first heard Blakey hit the skins on Cannonball Adderley’s version of “Autumn Leaves,” probably close to ten years ago now, and his distinct presence and style have been permanent mainstays in my jazz tastes ever since. No matter how bizarre, raucous, or abstract you like your quintet jams to be, the Messengers’ infectious approach to bop will always appeal, and this incredible unearthing from Blue Note is case in point. A longer and better review by a friend

Hayworth – A Nostalgic Battle-Scar (Wax Vessel, Oct 12)

Wax Vessel’s pell-mell descent into the hellscape of cashgrab musical novelties hasn’t been pleasant to witness, but even so there’s something to be said for the digital versions being made available for the modest price of $1 each. The remaster of Hayworth’s two full-lengths that comprises A Nostalgic Battle-Scar is subtle but complementary, enough so that the double LP feels like more than just a simple re-release. The studio recording of “The Industrial Park” still has nothing on the demo version, though.

White Suns – Modern Preserves (Flag Day Recordings, Feb 5)

For me, The Lower Way was a disappointment even after the marked stylistic swerve of Psychic Drift (a record I actually really like), but luckily White Suns didn’t entirely fumble the opportunity for a killer 2021 thanks to Flag Day’s cassette release of Modern Preserves, a grimy basement smorgasbord of no-fi live recordings, meandering jams, and semi-coherent unreleased tracks. Somewhat similar to Black Dice’s Natty LightModern Preserves is an invigoratingly violent re-affirmation for a band that has lost their edge.

Armenia – ボロボロ (Swollen Gargantuan Fecal Fetus, Feb 16)

With ボロボロ (pronounced “boro boro”), Leonardo Sabatto’s prolific Armenia project joins the ranks of the most legendary harsh noise endurance assaults—Killer Bug’s Beyond the Valley of the Tapes, C.C.C.C.’s Early Works, etc.—in terms of both auditory causticity and sheer breadth. Amidst countless shorter pieces, each of which scorches with unique intensity, it’s the nearly hour-long bombardments like “Putrefaccion Ficticia” and “Hurana Personalidad” that make this staggering slab of work so memorable.

Ones – “A Going Concern” (Ongoing Discipline, Feb 22)

It’s often true that the musical ventures that never really get off the ground (so to speak) are the best, or at least the most interesting, and in that same vein there’s something unutterably wonderful with which the music is imbued when it is exhumed and redressed in this way. The slipshod genius of outsider improv duo Ones is on full display in the comprehensive “A Going Concern” CD release, a multifarious celebration of the mundane and usefully useless.

Blacks’ Myths I & II (Atlantic Rhythms, Sep 17)

This nifty Blacks’ Myths I & II has been one of my most played in my modest subset-collection since I picked up a copy from Luke himself at one of Chris Williams and Laura Sofía Pérez’s Bien Lit events, and, along with Monnier, is another example of a two-album collection in which each originally individual work somehow (and significantly) gains from being paired with the other. The contemplative sketches and spoken musings by Dr. Thomas Stanley (Bushmeat Sound) of II are a perfect counterpoint to immediately follow the sprawling, spacious jams of I.

Fursaxa – Alone in the Dark Wood reissue (Stench ov Death, Sep 16)

One of the defining albums of the early- to mid-aughts American weirdo-folk scene returns to physical format with Stench ov Death’s official cassette reissue. It’s strangely difficult to write about for a record that has been so ingrained and ubiquitous in my regular listening for many years, but those also into Fursaxa are undoubtedly well aware of this slippery elusiveness; despite the profoundly earthbound and occult atmosphere of Alone in the Dark Wood, it still feels as ephemeral as an anxious cloud of smoke.

…Kagel… – Quartet 1998, Trio 1997 (scatter, Feb 5)

Somewhat of a more austere sibling to the Ones CD listed above, this lengthy archival release draws from recordings of performances executed more than two decades ago, each meandering swath featuring the core trio of Mark Collins, Doug Theriault, and James Wood on a motley arsenal of amplifications and abstractions of objects, instruments, surfaces, and more. The quartet suite also adds an extra double bass to the mix, tweaked, flexed, and tortured by Matthew Sperry.

Trucido – Das Butcher reissue (self-released, Mar 15)

Originally distributed in 1992 in an ultra-limited edition of ten recycled cassettes (with the added guerilla factor of the original music on the extraneous tape not being dubbed over), Das Butcher, one of Michael Nine’s first audio works, has been crudely reanimated from one of these original copies into a dual digital/cassette reissue. Upon its initial creation the material was not actually intended for anyone’s ears other than Nine’s, and this hermitically introspective approach still gives the music a dusty but resolute shine all these years later.

Plants – Tapes 2014-2015 (Hemlock Garden, Jan 11)

There’s no explicit confirmation of the recording timeframe for Tapes 2014-2015 outside of the title, and those years weren’t too long ago anyway, but the vividly organic expanse of Plants’ lengthy audio-scrapbook certainly belongs on this list because the music itself already feels like something that had been entombed for hundreds of years before being retrieved by the artist(s). It’s still not nearly as long as Daughter of Darkness, but I’m still frequently reminded of it; blazing moonlight, burning silence, all of nature folding in on top of you.

Preening – Discography 2016-2020 (Discos Peroquébien, Nov 8)

One of the world’s most hardworking neo–no wave units bares every ugly inch on this compilation collecting work from demos and studio releases over the past four years. Despite that limited range, the tape reintroduces nearly 40 songs, from the humble beginnings of the first demo to the rabid tour-de-force that is Gang Laughter. The even more contorted heirs to The Contortions.

Ahlzagailzehguh – Enemy of the Future (Troniks, Feb 18)

Phil Blankenship’s Troniks continues to build its superb roster of compilations with Enemy of the Future, an intimidating set of 24 winding tracks from the genre-defining artist. The double CD loses a bit of punch from a rather quiet mastering job, but it’s still some of my favorite Ahlzagailzehguh material I’ve heard; this music is a singular but foundational piece in the twisted bridge between atmospheric and cut-up harsh.

Feature: Control Valve

Founded and operated by Roger H. Smith, the musician behind the prolific Chefkirk project, Control Valve was active for a little over a decade from its inception in 2009, closing just when netlabels are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Distributed in individual lossy downloads a la fals.ch, the many releases in the label’s impressive catalog span the gamut of DIY experimental music in the 2010s, and now they’re all archived and available for name-your-price download on Bandcamp (there’s also a lot of great stuff on archive.org as well). Here are my personal highlights.


Pregnant Spore – Garden Performance (2012)

Though it’s undoubtedly a drop in the ocean of Angel Marcloid’s staggering discography, Garden Performance is hardly a throwaway release. It’s a colorful mass of volatile noise tinkering, bursting at the seams with boisterous glitch storms and mangled preset patches. I use the word “tinker” because manual exploration feels like the sole structural element here, like Marcloid is simply experimenting with a new tabletop setup and just happened to get some pretty spectacular results, but at the same time much of the music feels so much larger and more elaborate than that. Great stuff.

AODL – Bed Store Morality (2013)

As many of you have probably already heard, avant-garde music legend Peter Rehberg died today, and I’ve been honoring his immense impact on the global scene by revisiting some favorites. I don’t know much about AODL, or the artist’s primary Eucci project, but the dense digital chaos of Bed Store Morality is very much in the spirit of Rehberg’s gleeful electronic maximalism; in recalling an R/S gig at Cafe OTO in 2012, Mark Harwood writes, “An insanely ecstatic Risset effect laden monster which propelled itself around the room, shocking the ears of all. It was described in an online review as ‘a horrible, twisted mesh, like barbed wire being fed into your ears under high pressure.’ Pete got so excited at one point he jumped up on his chair with one fist pummeling the air.” May he rest well, and may his influence forever flourish.

_whALe_ pLAtE_ – Image Is Everything (2009)

Image Is Everything may consist solely of sonified raw image data, but no matter how much actual artistic involvement there was in producing this material, it was certainly selected carefully, because there isn’t a single dull moment across all three tracks. It might just be the fact that I’m a total sucker for the most caustic noise possible, and a lot of this release fits that bill; at times it’s more like a massive drill is burrowing into your head than music, but hey, if you’re reading this that’s probably an enticing pitch.

Marlo Eggplant – Crisis as Opportunity (2012)

The continent-hopping Marlo Eggplant is a name that’s unfamiliar to many, but extremely familiar to few. She’s established herself as a leading figure in the international scene, always reinventing her processes and performances to keep things interesting over the years. Crisis as Opportunity is a release that simultaneously feels primitive and complex; much of its duration is filled with brutish lo-fi noise and other, more musical bits and bobs, but—unsurprisingly—still present is Eggplant’s deceptive complexity, lurking at the edges of a structural sound collage as piecemeal and purposeful as the cover art.

Slime Street – Bloody Haze (2013)

Finding much information at all about Slime Street is next to impossible, but this forgotten outsider noise masterpiece speaks for itself. Haphazardly sculpted from screaming circuit bends, innocuous field recordings, humming faulty connections, and more scraps of sonic junk, the four pieces that comprise Bloody Haze are rough-edged and raucous, and even strangely rapturous in their unhinged abrasion. The brutal “Stalking Scum” is like a gruesome defilement of a pristine pile of recently discarded home appliance innards, mercilessly pushing the boundaries of tolerability—just how I like it.

List: Top Ten for the First Half of 2021

Collage

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


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

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

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

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

vollmacht

Michael Barthel – Vollmacht (Regional Bears, Jan 13)

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

crookeddoppler

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

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

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

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

a2142576628_10Daniel Iván Bruno – Brazo (TVL, Mar 5)

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

monnierMonnier – Monnier (Hardcore Detonation, Jun 6)

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

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

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

oliviaOlivia Rodrigo – SOUR (Geffen, May 21)

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

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

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

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 writhe 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