Apostasy has been on my mind a lot lately. The fact that we still have churches that excommunicate people for openly questioning orthodox truth claims makes me really wonder how far we've come. Is it the best we can do to say, "at least we aren't burning them at the stake or on the rack?" The Nolan, likewise, is a tribute to a even lesser-known apostate Giordano Bruno who stoked the ire of the 16th century Catholic church by proposing that stars are ancient suns capable of producing life just like ours. This de-centering concept was enough to put him to death. Time vindicates all true prophets. Noise has always been a bit heterodox in the church of pop song structures and scales. McKelvey's latest work is a further, spectacular flaunting of convention by creating five heady sculptures of sound - from tonally sweet to sandpaper harsh - that form intricate tapestries of swirling synthesized sounds that are fucked with through digital and manual means with the upmost sincerity and clairvoyance. Tracks like "Sufficient for a Head" start off with showers of digital static before it is propped up with ominous sustained tones that bend and shift ever so slightly before showers turn into downpours and the downpours turn into thick slabs of concrete-thick digital snow. The uneasiness is also ramped up as sustained tones begin taking more of shape. Dimensions begin forming as the tones shift and split from one another creating ghostly doublings of themselves. High and low tones that exist just barely within the range of human hearing. Imagine the God-like power of changing a sound's structure to do literally whatever you want it to do. To squeal, to grate, to buzz to scrape itself across the windshield of the entire tonal spectrum. The Nolan is a brave and required-listen that remains unafraid of the Sanhedrin of pop purists.
Heligator Records (run by Tome founder Ryan H.) is extremely excited to bring to you this collection of gold-bathed guitar tones by American-by-the-way-of-Sweden Lee Boyd, who records under the name cloudsound.
To me, "II" sounds like it was birthed in discovery. It is an effort to capture moments of unexpected beauty when a pedal is turned ever-so-slightly, or that moment right before dusk when the sky explodes into radiant oranges and reds. "II" is full of moments like that. Faintly oscillating guitar drones, opaque guitar lines etched with waves of distortion that crest just at the right moment. This album is about trying to stake a living in those moments.
Turning on the sustain pedal is the aural equivalent of taking a picture. We could live in this hope forever.
As always, all proceeds from the sale of "II" will go to the Malindza Refugee Camp Library to pay for the general upkeep, supplies and stipend for the librarian. The camp has been experiencing a rough time. Your donations go a long way.
James Murray's Loss represents an opening salvo of ambient-drone that 2015 is offering to all humble seekers of truth. A heterodox six-song collection of beautiful sustained tones that arc and crest like the calculated trajectory of a dolphin's jump. Self-taught and utilizing only four pieces of equipment, James Murray creates an unfiltered Adamic language of golden tones and buzzing notes that communicate concepts fraught with meaning and stuck with signifiers. But Loss ties you to the real world by laying both signified and signifier flat in a way that language could never touch. Loss sounds sad. Sad and hopeful. Play this album to anyone in any culture and watch as they begin searching their mind trying to recall a lost family member or relative. These tones are outside of any major or minor scale. These are spiderweb strands connecting you to some infinite pool of consciousness where your ancestors appear in dreams because they are asleep and you are awake. Or is it the other way around? Are we asleep. Do we wake up when we die?
Cold and unforgiving mornings under the influence of crushingly beautiful drones bring these questions to mind, probably because this type of music creates blank emotional crevasses in which to hurl whatever sense of longing or grasping for something larger than yourself and see what echoes back. In this case, for Loss, it is universality of that gnawing sadness of temporariness of life and the faint hope for infinity as measured by the sweetness and light of these sustained tones. Perhaps we are getting a glimpse into the future. Perhaps a reminder of what already is. Either way, Loss is an affecting, beautiful record, close to purity and signalling our desire for an extension on life. Even if it is more than bittersweet.
Sult - Svimmelhed (Conrad Sound/Humbler Records)
This. This is a terrifying, life-affirming, hyrda-conspiracy of acoustic noise. Did you read that last part. Acoustic noise. I've spent countless hours watching someone craft spells of concrete denseness using a couple of oscillators, floor pedals, contact mics and drum machines, but the concept of acoustic noise is a frightening potential that is executed flawlessly by this Oslo/San Francisco group. I saw Sult play a weekday noise show here in Cincinnati. I can assure you, watching this is x10,000 more powerful than listening to it. Divorced from seeing the means of production, sounds can mimic anything if manipulated right. But seeing Sult play live I watched with my jaw on the floor. There is no way an acoustic guitar can sound like that, no way a contrabass can rattle or chatter that violently or that eerie, scraping sound is coming from a drum. Creating sonic textures that are overwhelming in their ferocity and sound completely unearthly as acoustic instruments. Imagine Aufgehoben, Z's and Diamond Terrifier but even more menacing and noise-addled. If I wasn't just getting to this now, and if this category existed, I would have named this the noise album of the year. Hands down. You need to hear this. Now. nownownow.
Lake Mary - There are Always Second Chances in the Mountains (Planted Tapes)
Lake Mary's second album on Planted Tapes (a tape label run by Tome co-founder Crawf) finds Lake Mary charting courses further and further into the waters of drone-based realism, while using his sonorous, hyper-complex acoustic guitar passages as islands in which finds refuge. Islands in a sea of cavernous drone. We can talk about that sea. Huge washes and pulls of glossy, bright drones under which choppy currents of dissonance and distortion swirl and roil. Then there are those moments when everything drops out and Lake Mary's multi-tracked acoustic guitar lines stand naked and backlit, sometimes still wet and dripping with iridescent sustained tones or paired with dramatic flourishes of bowed cellos or the open maw of some well-accoutermented brass. There are Always Second Chances in the Mountains is a cairn on Lake Mary's path to something sunlit and ascending. A lovely, meandering course upwards with no fixed destination per se. This thing is a work of beauty, and if you pony up for a physical release, the tape comes in a beautiful, handmade cedar box more ranch home rambler than tape coffin.
Back Sash - Rises (Self-Released)
It is always refreshing to find some new noise/synth weirdos playing in Cincinnati. Rises is what monastic music would be if monks played synth-based un-party jams inspired by equal parts Throbbing Gristle and James Ferraro. Heavily pawed synth/organ from up in the belfry and very much alone. Admittedly, Rises keeps the barrier for entry fairly high. The title track is a drunken punchup through Castlevannia synths and unhinged vocal gesticulations. The rest of Rises throttles back a bit and the confrontational misanthrope is replaced by cavernous slow-motion synth workouts that score your West-End drive through in the middle of the night. It is up to no good. Ending the EP is 1209, a nighttime rendezvous with some crack-addled ghoul in a burned down tenement lot. Dislocated laughter, rattling contact mics and deep ponderous piano plunking somewhere in some god-forsaken crawlspace. Cincinoisey FTW.
Shahman - Demise of a Body (Dismal Niche)
This tape should come with some kind of content warning on it. A Tipper-sticker that should read something like, "warning do not listen to this if you expect to do anything else with your day or are afraid of crying at your office (or wherever else you clandestinely listen to music)". Demise of a Body was written by the Toronto twin-brother duo following the passing of their mother from cancer. The album is a continuous, one-take, ritualized exercise in catharsis and visceral mourning, transmuting sorrow and rage into huge, droning guitar riffs, feedback-drenched passages and propulsive, ancient rhythm-making. The passage moves from massive sludgy riffs, gloom-heavy repetition and atmospherics and the highly expressive appropriation of Western blues scales as an active or unconscious nod to Constellation's darker hues of post-rock. The entire thing should (obviously) be taken in one listening session to have the true import of the record to sink in. We could talk about the spoken word intro, "Spoken in fading light, I leave you to rest" but to do so in the context of a hastily written record review just seems...profane. Meaning, not equal to the spiritual significance of what that piece means to the brothers Johnson or to you, the listener, who may or may not be able to relate to it. I hope you can. Loss and the residual acceptance is a powerful medium for change in terms of inner and communal renewal. You've been warned. Explicit content.
Alexander Ortega - Wallwalker (Self-Released)
Another record on a admittedly spiritual, ritual kick. Wallwalker, Alexander Ortega's (who has played out in several SLC punk bands) debut solo outing has produced a short, three-song EP that turns the concept of stripping the sturdy punk structure down to its most reductive and derivative dude with an acoustic guitar into a wildly experimental exploration into the vast territory explored with minimal accoutrements. Ortega utilizes an "emulation of kargyraa and sygyt throat singing" in "Broken Color System // Year of the Snake" and "Wallwalker" which take Ortega's already affected and distressed voice (a weird combination of Chuck Ragan and Ian Dury) into full on possession-mode. A sound somewhere between a wail and groan that starts from somewhere deep inside Ortega's diaphragm. This isn't some embarrassing Fat Wreck Chords throwaway that no used CD shop will take but you can't bring yourself to throw out. This is a truly experimental exploration into the dynamics of voice within a pop construct.
Graham Repulski - Maple Stag (All Tens)
Graham Repulski hasn't only captured the sonic nuances of early GBV, but damn it, if he hasn't tackled that sweet, sweet pocket of Pollard tunefulness. 11 tracks that seethe as they spin through strands of saccharine sweetness. I think I am going for a cotton candy analogy there because Repulski can make the most no-fi, backmasked, jagged guitar riff and distorted vocal absolute pure pop confection. Sandwiched between some of the most endearing riffs and hooks you will hear in 2015 (although this was a late 2014 release) are some bleeding-eared guitar deconstructions and angular No-Wave riffage. These add some much needed molars to an album that has plenty of teeth. Something to chew on between mega-hit after mega-hit of non-sequiters screamed against a wailing wall of feedback. I would follow this album anywhere. Straight down the rabbit hole of caterwauling noise-rock anthems. I think GBV did something like reform or finally break up or cancel a bunch of shows or something this year. Forget that noise. This is the new noise.
Caddywhompus - Feathering a Nest (Community Records)
Witness the triumphant return of the New Orleans duo known as Caddywhompus (or Cazzy Whompys by a confused Memphis bar owner). Feathering a Nest is Caddywhompus at the top of their game. Huge swells of corralled feedback that break into a million different arpeggios played with inhuman speed, kaleidoscopic songs that twist and careen into anthemic choruses and back into math freak-outs back into droned-out bridges of temporary calm seas. Production is at 10 on this record, sounds are both naked (as in not clothed in heavy sheets of tape hiss) and layered sufficiently to bathe every guitar line, from the picked arpeggios to the bright power chords, in a glowing, golden sheen of refined audio sweetness. An album by a band that deserved the noise that it got late this year. It is a rare album that I could see appealing to literally anyone with any level of musical indoctrination. Come for the gee-whiz factor, stay for absolute tightness and brilliant songwriting.
Geographic North's "Sketch for Winter" series was innagurated by A Sunny Day in Glasgow's "New Christmas Classics", which is destined to be the "Christmas Wrapping" of our generation. Growing up in Colorado you could usually track the start of winter to Thanksgiving or after. Christmas was already well into winter's first trimester. Since moving to the Midwest the biting cold and sub-zero temperatures (without the outdoor recreation and mounds of snow that melted the next day) usually don't kick off until around the new year - and it is bleak. It is fitting that Mark Nelson's (Labradford, Anjou...Kranky Records) sketch for winter was released right during the middle vertebre of winter's spiny backbone. Rue Corridor is ice-cold. But not barren or lifeless. Just, cold. Both "The Terrace" and "Rue Corridor are excercises in percision beats and wind-swept drones that don't so much as batter at the door than hang motionless in the air like snowflakes caught in an updraft. Both tracks are propulsive, neo-kraut long-players that are full of pregnant-yet-single guitar lines that ebb and flow in guided symmatry. "Rue Corridor" is all daisy-chained drones and non-stop, bubbling beats which create a shimmering field of percussion perhaps inspired by Nelson's collaboration with Locrian's drummer Steven Hess on this project. The closing track, "Pasqual" is the tape's shortest track, but easily the one with the most emotional heft. A few ascending notes under a thick blanket of snowy, billowy drones make it an aching, arching stunner of a track. Mark Nelson's contributions to the world of experimental music have a pretty well-documented past. This tape on Geographic North is another notch in the belt for both entities.
Hollow Boys - Believe in Nothing
Hollow Boys is a Minneapolis, MN trio that subsists on a sturdy diet of detached aloofness that buries three yearning hearts under swirling, C86 guitar jangle, 90's alterna-rock crunch coupled with strict health codes and the half-drunk blurriness and red-eyes under the influence of snakepiss (which is a made up MN colloquial term for whatever Minneapolis drink as shitty beer). It is dark. Gloomy. Never maudlin but not above letting every instrument shed a tear or two under grey, ghostly fog of the droning reverb. Front Hollow Boy Ali Jaafar's voice is a thing that pireces through the drift. A plaintive thing that is honest and naked. Possessing the detached crooning of Morrissey with the everyman's vibrato of The Dears' Murray Lightburn, Jaafar's carries an otherwise adept version of Rough Trade influenced gloomy, dreary guitar rock to wuthering heights.
Brown Bread - Mitote
It has been awhile since we've heard from Brown Bread. All the way back in 2011 Crawf gave a glowing review to her cleverly titled release Is Dead. You see Brown Bread is an obscure euphemism for being dead. So the title...You are clever. You get it. Mitote, I am informed, is "an ancient and secular round dance of the Aztecs and other tribes", so, you get it...right? Mitote, possibly similar to or totally unlike the Aztec dance, is built from the ground up almost exclusively out of layers of Brown Bread's (a Becky in the real world) beautifully sticky sweet, upper-register voice. The entire affair is completely minimal. Some looped percussion, a few keyed-up synth lines, field samples, and an avalanche of reverb on the lot of it. If Grouper can move mountains and bring down buildings with her voice and a few three-note progressions, Brown Bread can change the tides and cause a room full of cloistered, painfully self-aware millennials rage the night away. I remember a time when the playful, child-like innocence of groups like High Places were going to rule the world. This fulfills those promises and then some. Let these hymns of domestic bliss, bucolic garden walks and nomadic idyll sink deep.
Stupid Bummed - Flowers and Lace
Remember feelings? Not just feelings, but feelings? The italicization back there is me forcing those vowels into a near whine through a half-open mouth with my eyes squinted shut tight. If you don't know what I mean then you never lived through your late teens/early twenties, because that's when I remember having them. Having developed coping skills in my later life that attempts to put personal problem in context of a big/pointless world has numbed their acuity, but every once and a while, writing about music something shakes me into a nostalgic wistfulness and unnamed longing that was, like, my 24-7 emotional affect from 18-23. Stupid Bummed's lo-fi casio jams did that for me. Giovanni Chumpitazi gets it. These maudlin, emotional ballads under sway of programmed beats and heavily pawed keyboard lines (imagine His Name is Alive or a more lo-fi and less Belgian Styrofoam) are an open diary to a less jaded, less world-weary place where your shit still seemed big enough to keep a journal. "Close to My Heart" scored every walk through empty suburban streets when something big and unnamed consumed me and heartbroken/hopeful pang should be the culminating slow dance for every senior prom/religious camp closing soiree. These songs are insidiously tuneful, whip-smart and may totally ruin your day with all those pesky, you know, feelings.
The Lowered - Crayons Over Scalding Rocks
The Inland Empire trio The Lowered are a darkly sophisticated folk-pop band. Equal parts Laurel Canyon haziness filtered through mid-00's indie classiness when kids started learning their instruments and/or conservatory kids stopped writing belabored operas and concertos and started writing belabored indie pop songs mixed with truly heroic layman's vocals. Think Howe Gelb or Scott Walker's plaintive croon with a strange Chris Issak lilt at the end. Crayons Over Scalding Rocks exists in the liminal space between intricate lead guitar and playful bass lines and a workman's country twang. This is a space where both can exist without getting into shouting matches with each other over FOX News editorials. Crayons Over Scalding Rocks is a brilliant and deeply affecting tape, with as much depth in production and composition as I've heard in a cassette-only release.
Terminus Cursus - 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6
How good does it feel to write these words, "influenced by the noisier side of second-wave emo, Terminus Cursus takes cues from the squalor and emotional release of bands like Virtuous Humor, Prozac Memory, Roadside Monument and Drive Like Jehu." I feel...validated. Like years spent listening to that shit through the car stereo driving around frozen suburban streets payed off in the form a, possibly completely unfounded, comparison in a music review. But here we are. Terminus Cursus, if you are reading this, thank you. Your cathartic, dissonant post-punk is not lost on me. I am especially smitten by Patrick Mugan's lower-than-low caterwaul, a thing channeling The Meat Puppets channeling Harry Stafford backed by meaty mid-section of a Crank! Records compilation band churning out power chords under minimal distortion and off AF recorded in some St. Petersburg, FL sea-cave or St. Petersburg, Russia nuclear reactor. Damn it if this wasn't the best 2014 punk tape I heard (that I am now writing up in 2015).
Ahoy from your old pal Crawf! Every time I show up around here I have to say something like "long time no see!" or "sorry I've been away!" Which I am, of course. I've been keeping exceptionally busy as always, working a full-time day job, planning and organizing GOLDRUSH Music Festival, and listening to as much music as humanly possible. Sorry to be such a Tome-ghost lately, but I really appreciate Ryan giving me space here to air out specific thoughts when I need to, and I really want to thank him for keeping this platform going the entire time and killing it so hard in the process. Ryan's passion and enthusiasm for music is so apparent, he really does a great job of reporting on all the crazy shit that comes our way, and I'm honored to still be somewhat included when I can contribute. If you're interested in following me a little more closely throughout the upcoming year, feel free to look for my work at Tiny Mix Tapes and Decoder Magazine, and of course I'll be checking in with team-TOME periodically with reviews and commentary on this wonderful, weird wide world of crazy ass music.
This article began as a list of 50 albums. Pretty quickly I realized I'd never be able to pull something like that off, so I pared it down to 30. Then I decided to just focus on tapes. Then I pared that down to 20, when I realized there was no way in hell I'd be able to pull off 30. And so that brings me to the following... TWENTY tapes that I found to be indespensible in 2014. And of course this thing is a total disaster. I received and reviewed so many cassettes, and have yet to review so many more (still working on it), so consider this a "running" list instead of anything definitive, and maybe look for another installment soon if I can muster the strength. Truly, there's never been a better time to be a music fan, or to own a good cassette deck, so if you haven't taken the plunge yet, here are 20 good reasons to do so right away. I numbered these only to keep track of how many write-ups I had going, so please don't consider these ranked in any way, and enjoy!
1. David Lackner
Synthetic Love Dream
( Galtta Media )
Is New York paying attention to David Lackner yet? His jazz-leaning Galtta label was a bit quieter than it has been in previous years, but that didn't stop the two releases he did put out from both being complete and total knockouts. Granted, Adrian Knight's neo-90s-sitcom jazz-pop tape was a glitzy show-stealer (more on that later...), but Lackner's compositions for this work, beautifully rendered in the cover artwork by his wife Gabrielle Muller, were just as delicately performed and positively oozed with... well, "cool" is close, but doesn't fully capture this one's hypnotic hums and fiery flicker, all set to the pace of something like 40 beats-per-minute. Two minimalist jazz pieces, smokey, inter-weaving tenor sax solos over the droning sidetone keyboard Knight lays down with astonishing poise, and 2014's most patient drummer ever-grooving into this record's black hole of sheer mood. Hey, Side A features some kick-ass vocals by Lydia Lunch, too. If you live in Brooklyn and haven't seen these cats perform yet, you're crazy and I kind of hate you a little.
( Pygmi Animals )
Apparently Phoebé Guillemot's laptop and file storage gear was recently stolen, effectively ending RAMZi, the brilliant Montréalite beat-maker, as we currently know her. WHAT?! This cannot be. And if it is, that only makes this document all the more important. Bébites is but a hint, only a gesture as to the limits sounds can go toward making one's booty shake. I finally reviewed this one a bit ago after spending weeks looking for the words, and now here it is in front of me again... and I have few more to offer. I'll stick with the B's this time and try to keep it quick: Bizarre. Bonkers. Of a new Breed. Buhhhhh.......... Really, I just can't recommend her work enough, and I know whatever the next iteration of Guillemot's distinguished sound is, it'll be just as perplexing, fascinating, alien, and altogether wonderful. So here's to new beginnings, ay?
3. Huckleberry Friend / Various Artists
Upload Leaves - Delete Fragment
( Singapore Sling )
The only thing I love (an eensy, teensy little bit) more than Singapore Sling's catalog of "album" tapes from their artist roster is the sub-catalog they have of label curator (and really excellent collage and video artist) Huckleberry Friend's mixtapes. This was one of the stranger "Spring" seasonal mixes I've ever heard, and at first listen it just didn't make any sense to me whatsoever. But the more I melted into these Reggae terrors on my many May bike rides, those backwards bass lines, those warped rhythms and screeching hyper-sonics, the more it just didn't matter. With selections from the above-raved-about RAMZi, Andy Boay, Seth Graham, High Wolf, Komodo Haunts, and a shitload more I didn't even know about until I got this tape, Upload Leaves doubles as a glance into electronic muisic's continued elusive sprawl and the lengths to which artists are going these days to operate in new compositional spaces and frameworks within the contemporary moment. A terrific variety of the endless curiosities that all come together to underscore the real underground of 2014, with whatever grace a mix of weird-ass music like this can have.
4. Phipps pt
Kiss Me So Many Times You Can't Count My Love
( Sanity Muffin )
Here's the thing... this tape came out in 2013. *ducks*. Whatever, guys! This only came to my mailbox a couple of weeks ago, and I've clocked enough plays on this sucker that I just can't not include it in this little (hah!) 2014 recap. This album almost immediately grew to become a part of me from my very first listen. Truly, though — the voice of Lovage Sharrock has become a mole on my neck, permanently tattooed to my very being, calming me when I'm getting stressed out and encouraging me to plow through a tough job when I hit a road block. A performance of heart-melting ballads dipped in an ice-bath of reverb, and you're just above it all, breathing in the ensuing steam and gaining its strength by osmosis. Sweet sweetness, holy holiness; it's just lovely, complete with a haunting rendition of Robert Wyatt's "Sea Song" to boot. This is the only thing I've heard by this woman, and I'm already convinced she's one of the most over-looked and under-appreciated artists of our day. I'll begrudgingly end here: For fans of Grouper. But don't let my laziness and inability to articulate fool you! Grouper, this ain't, and that's ok for both Phipps pt and for Grouper. And for you, too, trust me. Pro-tip: Sanity Muffin releases can be hard to track down digital copies of, so it’s wise to hop on their tapes while they’re still available. (Major hint).
5. Sad Horse
Purple on Purple Makes Purple
( Field Hymns )
I think a lot of people must think tapes these days are reserved for the typical ultra-noise or ultra-ambient folks. And certainly those are there (and appear all over this damned list, you betcha), but hell if the cassette isn't also a terrific medium for your bread'n'butter punk rock. And I heard a healthy number of great new bands doing shit with drums on tape this year, but this Portland duet kind of edged itself into the rack I'm writing about right now, only because it was so damned rude to me. Sad Horse kicked me in the stomach, gave me the finger, and then a big-ole, wet, sloppy smack on the lips. Then they fucked up the beat and then they blasted me with a chorus right when I was getting ready to punch them back. Too much sitting down in 2014. Get on your feet, fucker, and do something that might hurt a little. You need the pain. Take it, swallow it down. Rage it. Rage it right.
6. Couples Counseling
Couples Counseling was the sound I wanted for pop music this year. Interesting syncopations using a variety of popcorn-percussive textures, simple verse/chorus refrains drifting between cleverly composed interludes... but the real sell here is that voice of Virginia de las Pozas', multi tracked into prismatic harmonies that twist themselves into these easy-breezy melodies. Bonus: Couples Counseling has to be the best make-out tape of the year, especially for cassette dorks like us... just give me a day or two to try and get the timing right and I'll let you know how it goes.
It's Always There
( Tape Drift )
So, it was a great year for synth-pop, rock, guitar, ambient… what about noise? Honestly I couldn’t really totally completely say whether or not it was a good or bad year for noise (I’m guessing it was?), but there were definitely a couple of tapes/artists that turned my head, and one of them was Millions, AKA David Suss. “Noise,” I guess is a stretch, as here we have a lot of drone, some ambience, power electronics and then plenty of… well, I guess just noise. A Brooklynite who spends equal amounts of attention to textural detail, harmonic balance, timing and dynamics, all coming together in compositions best served cold… and fucking LOUD. All-immersive, stunning beauty, and also pretty damned frightening when it wants to be, Millions was the total package. Suss also released an excellent tape with 905 tapes this year as well, and shows no signs of slowing down into 2015, so here's looking forward.
8. Marcus Rubio
The Land of Disenfranchisement
I'm trying to think of other albums that came out this year that had an honest to god overture in them. Scratch that, albums that came out in the past decade? Rubio’s quasi light-opera approach and careful compositional arranging on this tape was fresh and inventive amidst his clearly strong sense for creating catchy melodic leads with clever wordplay. I've heard some of his earlier work, and he's always shown a real deft ability to combine styles and genres in a unique way, but this album is full of tracks with much more fully-realized and rounded shapes to them, all the while emphasizing the pop elements just enough to make this one universally approachable, engaging and a hopelessly fun listen.
9. Caroline Says
50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong
I noted several times over the course of the year how odd I felt like it was that I was reviewing so much... you know, normal music. Rock and roll tapes. Is the cassette really just a fad band-bands are clinging onto? If they are, does it matter? Answer: Fucking hell no. Reason: I got to be introduced to amazing new groups like Caroline Says, who whipped up a batch of super simple California pop for this album, plucked plaintively from the clean channels of their amplifiers to the tune of a pitch-perfect vocalist with a voice so buttery you can feel the pounds piling on as you listen. Through breezy, trotting tempos and downtrodden piano ballads alike, this tape proved the perfect warm-up for the chilly months and the best cool-down during my summer swelter. A crime that I never reviewed it during the regular calendar year, but maybe this'll make up for it?
10. Ballerine Nadiya
( Singapore Sling )
Singapore Sling had another incredible year. The Russian imprint has this silly habit of putting out music by emergent artists I’ve never heard of, all of whom are making their catchiest, hookiest, prettiest, weirdest, tape-flippin’est stuff. Seriously, their streak is just out of control, and this one from the mysterious Ballerine Nadiya was one of the more unique titles to cross my tape deck. Grown-up pop melodies eyed through the lenses of a seven year old’s pink heart-shaped sunglasses, Mr. Microphone in one hand and a wobbly Casiotone beneath the other. A really interesting adjunct to the mossy sounds of 4-tracked solo pop musicians these days, mostly coming out on Singapore Sling — this is one of the imprint’s very best releases to date (which is saying a lot lot lot), and maybe this whole style’s new flagship recording.
11. The Declining Winter
( Sanity Muffin )
2014 was full of breaths of fresh air from just about every direction, but none were fresher than whatever breeze blew in this crucial new material from Hood mastermind Richard Adams. Smooth tunes, a soft touch and salted with the slightest tear made Lost Songs a place where you wanted to find yourself spin after spin. Not just a tape, but a companion. Someone to walk around with you, talk to you in its low whispers, tell you secrets and groove with you, softly.
Fog and Other Memories
Brilliant follow-up to Tereshkova’s equally-brilliant release on Lillerne last year, I have a feeling this one got a bit lost in the fog of all the dozens of other amazing tapes Already Dead put out this year. Which is really a shame, because the more I listen to this project the more sold I am on the whole thing, even Jeff Lane’s knobby-kneed vocals. The songs this time around were so much more developed; deeper, wider, just bigger, all without leaving a shred of dead-space to fill, yet still managing a slender frame. Economically arranged songs presented in clear, concise terms, while at the same time completely suffocated in psychedelic effects. One of the freakishly-weirder approaches to pop music happening today, so it’s almost a stroke of luck that this also magically works out to be pretty easy to consume on a regular basis, even for the average listener. Hope 2015 treats this project right.
13. The Spookfish
( Singapore Sling )
Sometimes I wonder if it takes me as long as it does to write about tapes because... because I just want them all to myself. I know, that's incredibly anti-blogger of me, selfish, and even kind of rude. But The Spookfish dodged my review queue for a long time and I think it was because the music contained on this miniature album feels so exclusive to the listener, so instantly personal. Not only is the record a secret, but it's YOUR secret, just you and Dan Goldberg. We hung out a lot this year, me and this cassette, and I guess it just didn’t feel right sharing that with anyone else. Well, the tape is long sold-out by this point, but you can pick up a digital copy still, so spend some time with it yourself and get cozy with those warbly keys and micro-beats all wrapped up in a nice blanket of tape hiss.
14. Conrad Wedde
( Field Hymns )
One minute you're meditating, the next you're sippin' lime rickeys on the beach, and later you're slow-dancing cheek-to-cheek beneath the spangle of a cheap disco ball on prom night. Of course, this all takes place... on Mars. I don't really know much about this person, other than it appears that the music he produced was made in New Zealand, but Spaceworld was an instant favorite this year — a sound full of recognizable mantras from about a dozen of your favorite musical styles (ambient, pop, electro, and folk to name... four), mutated just-so to fit whatever weirdo-mold Wedde has so ingeniously set up for his sound. And it’s all executed with the glitter of an eye-twinkle that won't fail to make you give it the proverbial double-take.
Silver / Lawns
( Wounded Knife )
This one just barely edged out Dura's other also-excellent release on Patient Sounds to make my list, and part of it is due to the excellent packaging from Poland’s truly incredible Wounded Knife imprint, complete with a butterfly-stitched booklet and this cool J-band thing for the spine of the cassette case. And even though there’s a pretty gaping hole of sound on the end of one of the tape’s sides (big time cassette faux-pas!), the music here was plenty good enough to keep this one in heavy rotation since it first landed in my mailbox, after all, that's what fast-forward buttons are for, right? Mattson Ogg’s super soft hands seemed to be thrumming guitar strings from every possible direction on this one, each individual voice washing into its neighbor to produce an ear-massage unlike any other in 2014. You can feel this album’s fingertips kneading your brain, the perfect calm-me-down during moments of stress, the perfect mind-vacation during winter bus trips… The perfect ambient music, period.
16. The Fun Years
One Quarter Descent
Despite the fact that the unable-to-do-wrong guitar/turntable duo know as The Fun Years should probably always have their music on vinyl, that didn’t stop me from purchasing their incredible new album on cassette tape within minutes of its announcement. The 100 copies Spring Break Tapes! made of this guy were long gone in a matter of hours, making this record’s puzzling omission from year-end lists around the web all the more worrisome. Clearly they have a dedicated fan-base, though, and that fan-base was treated to perhaps the best material from this elusive combo yet. Just beautifully ebbing waves of sepia-tinged color and scribbled strokes of sonic calligraphy all over One Quarter Descent. Unbelievably good, here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another 2-3 years for more new music from these incredible musicians.
17. Yankee Yankee
Most probably don’t know this, but Whitney Ota’s Yankee Yankee project saw an unbelievable transformation with the release of this new tape. The last release under the moniker, Ecstatic Dreamer, was a much more electric-kraut concept with sharp guitar amplifiers and even acoustic drums… more like a band-band. But here Ota’s completely on his own with a synthesizer that has what sounds like about 2 millions knobs, exploding through any kind of closed song-structure forms to find his mind meandering through two epic side-long journeys. And you swear he twists each and every single one of those knobs as he makes his way from start to finish, fine tuning delay speeds, loops, micro-melodies, dynamics, and whatever the hell else he can to bend these interstellar wormholes of sound into psychedelic new shapes. The result is fast, intense, confusing, gripping, and beyond mesmerizing. Let your ears gaze in awe.
18. Poet Named Revolver
( No Kings )
Is it ok that one of my favorite albums of 2014 actually came out in, like… 2008? Ok, maybe not, but your’e going to deal with it, because No Kings re-issued the sucker this year, and it’s just amazing. Lee Noble, TJ Richards (of Trabajo), and Stephen Molyneux were in a band back in the day called Poet Named Revolver that was the best thing ever, they released the best album ever, and then I guess they broke up, which is the worst thing ever. True story. What we're left with is this incredible document full of barn-burner indie rock and quaking ballads about death. Beautifully sung, passionately played, each and every tune has its own goosebump-raising moments. A tragedy this band isn't still making music on the regular... in fact I'm thinking about passing around a petition. You guys in?
19. Charles Barabé
( 905 Tapes )
Amid the flurry of terrific, straight-ahead stuff coming out on tape, it sure was nice to have something like Charles Barabé come along to slap me upside my day-dreaming head with a bout of some of the weirdest shit on the planet. A series of "Chapters" divvied out across this tape's lengthy mutant breadth in swampy synthtoropics, theremin meanderings, opera samples and god knows what else. Most of this is completely random and makes very little coherent sense, but it’s all composed with a certain composure and grace that makes Barabé's twisted vision musically brilliant indeed. Can’t wait to check into this guy’s stuff more and see what he comes up with next.
20. Adrian Knight
Pictures of Lindsey
( Galtta Media )
Easily the most-listened to tape I received in 2014 is one that I ended up calling “The single weirdest fucking tape of 2014” in a review earlier this year. What the hell was I talking about? In fact, there were few that were more obscenely normal this year in a lot of ways, which of course was what was so fucking weird about it. Knight's over-the-top arranging, here complete with saxophone and EVI appearances, screamed self-ridicule, especially when you consider the album is a concept record detailing Kinght's many failures in the land of love, the whole thing this completely jokey schmaltz-fest. But that schmaltz-fest is just so brilliantly composed, performed, and flat-out great, offering some of the catchiest moments of pop in 2014, melodies and themes I still find myself humming in my dreams. Everyone I've shown this to has said "Ariel Pink" to me, and that's fine I guess, although Adrian Knight is like 10000000x better.
1. Kyle Bobby Dunn - Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness (Students of Decay)
Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness is a sprawling, 3XLP of elegiac drones, beautiful post-classical compositions all with the typical KBD sass and humor not usually found in a genre that takes itself deadly serious. Despite (or maybe because of) its lengthy running time, this record chalked up more plays than any other on this list with ever-increasing returns.
2. Planning for Burial - Desideratum (The Flenser)
A year heavy on the doom and gloom, Desideratum is a crushingly beautiful testament to the power of the electric guitar (sufficiently looped and overlaid) to embody and exorcise the darkest, most futile and ultimately most beautiful aspects of life in 2014. Thom Wasluck has never sounded more confident or fragile in his reverb-heavy thesis.
3. Braeyden Jae - Heaven House (Patient Sounds Intl.)
Braayden Jae's shape-shifting oeuvre never really prepared me for something like this. Triumphantly heavy drones danced with a dissonance that has only been flirted with in previous releases under Braden's many other monikers. The result is one of the most emotionally resonant drone records of the year and one of the best records of 2014.
4. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra - Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything (Constellation Records)
It has been about a decade but Thee Silver Mt. Zion has grown out of the shadows of anything Godspeed and post-rock related to become genuine rock stars: a veritable crust-punk Led Zeppelin. From the opening rattle and bombardment of the three-track triptych of power chords and droning violins that start the album, to the crippling "What We Loved Was Not Enough," just try getting through this record without shedding a tear or burning a cop car.
5. Have a Nice Life - The Unnatural World/Deathconsciousness (The Flenser)
What a year for these guys, amirite? First, the release of one of the most ambitious mixes of noise, post-punk and industrial coupled with straight-up pop sensibilities on The Unnatural World. Then, The Flenser re-releases on vinyl their legendary Enemies List album that cemented their status in musicianship and songwriting in the highest order with Deathconsciousness. HANL ruled 2014.
6. Gordon Ashworth - S.T.L.A (Ordinal Records)
S.T.L.A is full of the sounds of nighttime. The mechanical door of a parking garage, the stray dog barking at unseen prowlers, nervous smack energy of nightcrawling denizens all put to service of achingly beautiful, achingly bracing and achingly aching drones. If taken as a record primarily concerned with sound, S.T.L.A would still be tops, except that Ashworth is a musician of no small repute. These drones and sounds are folded into exquisite piano, guitar and piano passages; the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
7. Dino Spilituni & Nils Quak - Modular Anxiety (Umor Rex)
This album came out in early 2014 and quickly became one of my go-to for completely engaging and encompassing synth-based drones with just enough glitch and dissonance on the Dino Spilituni side and ice-cold and adjacent soloing on a modular synthesizer on the Nils Quak side. The work by both musicians on this record has contributed immensely to the growing body of ambient/drone to make its mark on discerning ears this year and represent the work of two new-comers who have a lot to offer.
8. Sister Grotto - The Minotaur (Tinyamp Recordings)
I haven't heard Grouper's new record, but I bet I would be hard-pressed to find something more beautiful in the vein of haunting, distant, ambient tapestry-weaving than Madeline Johnston's work as Sister Grotto on The Minotaur. Incredibly moving ambient passages woven into gentle guitar lines and field-samples. This was the one record that I personally championed to everyone I met. One listen will reveal why.
9. Bus Gas - Snake Hymns (Spring Break Tapes!)
Bus Gas is the heir apparent to The Fun Years/Godspeed! brand of apocalyptic guitar passages. Notes prang out into a sea of floating, dead drones and signal back in ghostly, decomposing doubles of themselves. The listen is a test in sustained somberness, but dammit if it isn't some of the best guitar-based music put out in 2014.
10. Symbol - Online Architecture (Holodeck)
Not only one of my favorite synth-based albums of the year, but by far my favorite album cover. In a lot of ways Symbol (AKA Christopher Royal King whose other band This Will Destroy You is also on this list) represents the best of so many great synth records that came out on Holodeck Records this year. King makes his graceful synth sounds triumphant even when they are slowly decaying from tape manipulation and planned obsolescence. This album is the truth.
11. Chris Schlarb - Making the Saint (Asthmatic Kitty)
This record was recorded alone in Southern California's oldest wooden structure, a small space that belies the vastness of the tones Schlarb is able to coax from his guitar. I've always been a fan of Schlarb's large ensemble jazz pieces with strong musical personalities that blur so many genre lines, but this is Schlarb truly in the most primordial of elements: a conversation between man, guitar and ghosts.
12. Aaron Martin - Comet's Coma (Eilean Rec)
Nothing prepared me for how truly beautiful this record sounds. Topeka, KS-based Aaron Martin is a lovely multi-instrumentalist, and whether it is a nimbly-picked guitar, bowed banjo, or cello, his compositional choices always leave ample blank spaces for whatever the listener wants to pour into them. The rich and sonorous acoustic instrumentation coupled with field samples and graceful drones were the aural equivalent of coming home to a glowing, warm cabin after hiking miles in the snow.
13. Protoymartyr - Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art)
I really have no idea how to parse out the meaning of this record's title. Inside, however, is a blistering, brilliant collection of taught post-punk songs fronted with one of the most arresting voices I heard in 2014. I saw these dudes play in Cincinnati this year, the lead singer dressed was like an ambulance-chasing reporter who seemed genuinely impressed with how well his band played. I would be too. This is the new nervous-twitch of urban decay post-punk from Detroit.
14. ØjeRum - There is a Flaw in my Iris (A Giant Fern)
Sparse and melancholy acoustic pieces that float with the weight of a feather. There is a Flaw in my Iris was put out via Portugal's A Giant Fern, which boasted an impressive crop of experimental music this year. This Danish composer/singer-songwriter can blow down a house with little more than a whisper. This stuff gets into the cracks of the foundation and reopens old wounds you thought you'd plastered over years ago.
15. Black to Comm - Black to Comm (Type)
In his first full-length since 2009's Alphabet 1968, Black to Comm has created a complete, sprawling 2xLP of fully-fleshed songs. To quote Stefon from SNL, this record has everything: radiator hum tuned to some god's golden lyre, pop songs from 3014, the sounds of coal-fed furnaces becoming self-aware and learning blues scales and instructions on how to turn yourself inside out. It's this thing where you grab your...I don't want to give it away. Just listen.
16. Alex Cobb - Marigold and Cable (Shelter Press)
Supreme tranquility and relentless beauty. Unwavering patience and time held in stasis. The Students of Decay founder has hit some golden mean of long-playing drone that imbues any attention-required activity with meaning and some heavy-wash spectral drift.
17. Hakobune - Seamless and Here (Patient Sounds, Intl.)
Another perfect ambient record that rewarded patient, dedicated listens. While compared to Cobb's record (above) Hakobune puts more emphasis on constructing clouds - bright, billowy things comprised of layers upon layers of tones - rather than the structural, tone-by-tone approach by Cobb. Either way, 2014 was a crucial ambient-drone year for me.
18. Marcus Rubio - Land of Disenfranchisement (Already Dead)
A bedroom chamber-pop masterpiece full of 2014's most poignant, whip-smart lines (heavy in religious imagery) from a San Antonio-based experimentalist and all-around nice guy. Rubio's shapeshifting tape moves from expanding/contracting tonality, to everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink composition that somehow transitions from Belle and Sebastian's fey tunesmanship into swirling lo-fi electronics, then on to banjo-heavy breakdowns and back again. It is a trip. Chris Cohen (Captured Tracks recording artist/Deerhoof/The Curtains) lends his left-field proclivities to this record. God, this is good.
19. White Suns - Totem (The Flenser)
Totem did spectacularly well in 2014 given its caustic, chaotic and completely unhinged approach to noise-rock. These are unforgiving and punishing tracks that push the level of dissonance and opprobrium passed 10. But inside there is pure virtoustic musicianship, elemental, totally cathartic responses to pain, hurt, and boredom. When these coalesce, like in the last two-minutes of "Clairvoyant," the result is a transportive vessel that transcends music.
20. Campo-Formio - Here Comes...Campo Formio! (Dead Mofongo)
Bands like Campo-Formio are the reason I blog in 2014. An unsolicited e-mail leads to hours of listening to their available output online, a tour through the Midwest and a show in the back of a taco restaurant on my five-year wedding anniversary (celebrating five years of dragging my wife out to shows), and later a package of vinyl records of their entire discography. Campo-Formio is a Puerto Rican post-punk band who have a studied recall of American Post-Punk bands like The Gories, Minutemen and Squirrel Bait. The result is an incredible pastiche of post-punk, power-pop and surf all filtered through post-globalism appropriation and reinterpretation without pale imitation. A testament to what makes being an internet blogger exciting in 2014.
Brandon Locher (maven responsible for a shit-ton of great records and visual art on My Idea of Fun and most recently of the excellent Electronic-Jazz free-form collective The Meets) and Gerald Mattis have created a new group called Stage Hands which will release their debut record early next year. Until then they've teamed up with Joshua Rogers (Broken Machine Films) to create a video that could be footage from a prescient Commodore 64 who glimpsed our future and is now trying to warn us of some dire urban apocolypse. Remember that old cliche, "I buy punk on vinyl because it sounds warmer" (said with snooty, mansplaining affect)? I would say the same for VHS tapes, but only because it is true and I'm not an elitist iconoclast douchebag. It is weirdly comforting how that medium that can blur the edges and flatten the glare of a futuristic early-CG future-scape with scanning lines and analog fuzziness. I only watch Babylon 5 and Lawnmower Man on VHS because it looks warmer. Rogers' use of several VHS players to run the source material and graphics is next level brilliant. So is this track. Can't wait to listen to it on vinyl, because it will sound warmer. And it's so cold in these streets.
The doom and gloom is thick in the air on Amir Abbey's follow-up to 2013's spectacular Movements of Night on Students of Decay. I grew up with a certain eschatology that put the end of the world at literally any second. You could be washing your car, mowing the lawn, copulating furiously, and the second you hear those trumpets sound - well, you know what time it is. If you are lucky enough to belong to a sect of a couple million (which in reality based on their stringent worthiness criteria - the number is much closer to like...my mom and a couple of other saint-like people) mostly in the western states, you were cool. The rest...burned like chaff in an all-consuming prairie fire. Thoughts of this totalizing end would keep me nervously eyeing our eastern windows and checking off each developmental milestone with a sense of relief.
When I was playing this record, probably too loud for 9AM, my wife asked, "are you listening to the end of the world?" In a lot of ways, this is how I imagined the world ending. A lot of sadness, a lot of fear, a lot of disappointment once you realized that you didn't make the cut. The trumpet call will likely be a marbleized guitar drone descending like a thick fog rather than the bright brass we were expecting. The A-Side to this record is that ending embodied. Thick, mawing drones that mimic human voices, or vice-versa.
Side-B begins with plodding, cavernous percussion and the downstrokes of some heavy power chords before opening up and scaling back to reveal the bucolic single-note droning and buried vocals before the same gut-punch chord-and-percussion, one-two hit so hard until dissolving into cicada chirp and ends with piano notes being played into the void. In between these two movements are moments of unfettered doom-filtered drones tuned to the quiver of the poised sword of a destroying angel.
Now that I am fairly certain the end of the world will come at our own hands. A suicide analogous to turning on the car in an airtight garage. The Silent March still accumulates a massive sense of sadness for this inevitable end. Sink in.
The Silent March is a magnificent continuation of the golden mean that Movements of Night obtained between harshness and melodic. Many thanks to Students of Decay who re-released The Silent March on vinyl from it's original 2011 release on the Canadian label Nice-Up International.
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