2017 will be over soon. Good riddance.
Current obsession, thanks Prez!
Algiers, The Underside of Power (Matador Records, 2017)
I suppose I was waiting for this record as soon as Algiers released their Matador Records debut, which was a culmination of years of work by this cosmopolitan/Atlanta group. The Underside of Power is special because the group largely wrote and produced the record as a live band, drawn out of their work as a quartet from their powerful support of their debut. As a result, there is so much soul throughout this record, moments where Black Power seems poised for the main stage, a huge pop breakout (as on the title cut, which sounds suitable for any elite 1960s-1970s soul/rhythm & blues label). What goes on between the pop songs is what makes this record brutal and brilliant upon return listens, as the density of layered synths, drum machines and unrelenting acoustic beats, clanging metallic guitars, live tracks, noise, samples, and prepared concrete composition is almost unbearable at points (a good thing). The music was perfect for 2017, a fact lost on several mainstream reviewers of the album, who obviously were not ready to run down the route upon which Algiers was riding.
Live, the group doubled down on their noisier aspects, and I say this without any exaggeration: if there is any band you see on tour in 2018, make it Algiers. The quartet rips through the soul burners, playing like intense punks (again, a good thing), all the while burying their emancipatory politics through manipulated microphones and excursions of free jazz (see “Death March,” probably their best current live song, where dissonant keys layer atop synth/bass-drum-locked winding guitar grooves). I was lucky enough to see Algiers perform at The Empty Bottle featuring a collaboration with Travis & P.Michael from ONO, and the group delivered a phenomenal improvisation(?) of “Plague Years” (“so many hiding places”). Algiers keep the listener guessing, now, and so I find myself awaiting their next album once again. While speaking with Ryan Mahan in Chicago, the synth/bass master emphasized that the group is not yet satisfied with where their sound is, which I took to mean that Algiers are ready to thrown down and dig deeper on their next effort. This much is certain, the live quartet is already there, and it was a pleasure to watch such a musically & politically fierce act deliver on stage and on record in 2017. They are beyond a band for the times, for these four are perfectly untimely, a mirror for but one possible set of futures. Their future is Afropower in a decolonized context, an assertion on the debut album that presaged a truly elite group embracing pop and noise genres.
Moor Mother & Ono, Live at Resonance Series, The Hideout (August 23, 2017).
Camae Ayewa really had a fantastic year in terms of press and exposure through different angles (both through Moor Mother and jazz group Irreversible Entanglements), but the artist showed it’s not unjustified hype: Moor Mother is the real deal, a project exhibiting a phenomenal vocalist and lyricist, ready to deliver fluid raps over noise one minute and find riveting spoken word the next. It’s all great, legitimately great, made all the better through Ayewa’s righteous Black Quantum Futurism (which is both thought-provoking and philosophically riveting) readymade to twist our American Imperialist Nightmare into something even less digestible or bearable as all the demons and mangled bodies come to the fore. Like Algiers, Ayewa’s approach to art is beyond timely and an absolute necessity to watch in 2018.
Ka Baird, Sapropelic Pycnic (Drag City, 2017)
I’ve been writing about experimental music since Foxy Digitalis accepted my writing sample and published my first review in April(?) 2011 (Lumerians, Transmalinnia, Knitting Factory Records). Given that this is my sixth year of truly following experimental fare, I spent much of the year reflecting on my favorite bands. This was easy to do, of course, because ONO are everywhere (a wonderful thing!), and Spires That In the Sunset Rise have followed their last album with a series of fantastic solo and collaboration shows and recordings. ONO and Spires are my signposts for experimental music. Ka Baird took the Sapropelic Pycnic project to the next level in 2017, delivering a full length album that collects threads recognizable to those who follow Spires & Baird’s previous solo work into a full expression, a truly narrative album. I reviewed Baird’s Drag City effort for Decoder, and I don’t have much else to add here other than to emphasize the staying power of the album during repeat listens, and the simply lovely feeling of dancing to those pulsing flute & breath samples that make Baird’s latest blend of experimentation equal parts funk, jazz, and unclassified excursions.
Reliving some of my teenage years, it turns out Foo Fighters were as amazing as I remember. Imagine Dave Grohl playing with members of The Germs, Nirvana (;-D), and Sunny Day Real Estate:
Mikey Young, Your Move Series #1 (Moniker Records, 2017)
There’s a word that I simply can’t find in order to describe Mikey Young’s brilliant (yes, brilliant) synth debut. It sounds….funny, it sounds like Young has a wink in the eye, that Young is playing with the listener, that Young is blasting through robust lines and minimal beats for the pure delight of it. This is a delightful synth record, full of whimsical surges of fat, distorted synth lines and beautiful, vacant howls. If you like that sweet spot where psychedelic, komische, and ambient music bleeds into progressive rock forms, every minute of Your Move series #1 is going to exist in your wheelhouse. What’s especially fun is that Young’s historical synth references are quite solid, insofar as a listener at certain points will definitely understand that Young is speaking to certain traditions or genres of synthetic expression. This backdrop makes it all the better when Young engages in the more whimsical aspects of the album, as on the side-long “Enigmatic Cosmic Enforcer” when all hell breaks loose with some of the best riffs of the album. This comes highly recommended.
Hand Habits, Wildly Idle… (Woodsist, 2017)
I first heard of Hand Habits thanks to Loyola University Chicago’s fantastic radio station, during an afternoon drive in the spring where the sidewinding echoed guitars of “All the While” took my breath away. This is beautiful barely-there folk music, delivered a bit “off,” a bit ambient, like a suspended dream state at times, a total bummer at all times. It’s just so sad it’s perfect, and I spent many days during a cold, rainy spring repeatedly diving into this album.
Hiro Kone, Love is the Capital (Geographic North, 2017)
Matt Jencik, Weird Times (Hands in the Dark, 2017)
Cube, My Cube (Left Hand Path, 2016)
Each of these albums deserves their own review in their own right, but I’ve grouped them here in order to contrast a few different avenues of ambient, electronic, techno(?) music. What I found in this trio of albums is a fantastic contrast in styles through engaging production techniques. Ironically, for my feeling that these albums can speak to each other throughout the year, each artist delivers completely divergent styles. Hiro Kone presents an updated form of blissfully icy and anthemic production worship, while Jencik constructs ambient compositions from snippets of guitar recordings, and Cube embraces highly abstract and noisy aspects of electronic forms (as my neighbor said, “I haven’t heard a beat yet!” upon first hearing Cube and my introduction as electronic music). Both Jencik and Hiro Kone follow supreme dynamics and drama that great ambient music can unleash, and they really work to highlight their most dramatic moments and sharpen storylines through their synths, bass, or droning recordings. Yet, neither artist is afraid to explore the darker channels of their sounds, either, resulting in extremely engaging ranges of production. Cube is a bit tougher to listen to, by contrast, but the album remains rewarding upon return listens, as the wild, unshaped abstractions of noisy beats and sometimes-pure-noise always give the listener something new to follow.
Sleater-Kinney, Live in Paris (Sub Pop, 2017)
Sleater-Kinney are arguably the greatest rock band in history. Their biggest popular competitors, The Beatles, cannot even begin to compete with this trio’s latest feat: (1) release a phenomenal album as your final effort as a band (The Woods, Sub Pop, 2005), (2) return a decade later to release a new album that even surpasses several of your earlier works (No Cities to Love, Sub Pop, 2015), and (3) release a blistering live album that summarizes your ability to apply the lessons of your albums in fierce, succinct concerts. That third feat belongs to Live in Paris, which presents the band in rare form and fantastic fidelity for a concert recording. Here, the advances made in No Cities to Love flow seamlessly with earlier songs, most surprisingly those from The Woods (since that album was so much heavier than their most recent effort). Sleater-Kinney are fantastic songwriters and purveyors of rock.
I can’t get this song out of my head lately:
From Tegan & Sara present The Con X: The Covers, this is a perfect example of what a cover can be. Captures all the drama of the original while presenting the sounds in a different direction (much louder, and more pumped up, than the original). Perhaps the best of a really well done series of covers:
Tears For Fears, Songs from Big Chair (Mercury Records, 1985)
There are some 1980s albums that I am convinced would hit huge if they were to be released in the present music climate. Neil Young’s Trans (DGC, 1982) is an example of a relatively obscure or critically panned album that would translate better to contemporary music forms (such as vocoder vocals leading delicious dance rock). Picking Tears for Fears is cheating, I know, because they were quite well-regarded at the time, but their moody synth-pop translates perfectly to many contemporary indie rock genres (and in the vast majority of cases surpasses contemporary indie rock artists). Combining ringing synthetic programming with dramatic vocal deliveries and lengthy songforms allowing each message to take its full course, Songs from Big Chair is obsession worthy, and I indeed spent much of the year obsessing over this pop gem.
Sea Moss, Bread Bored (Crash Symbols, 2017)
Luurel Varas, Leisure Time (Crash Symbols, 2017)
I am most familiar with Liz and Dwight thanks to my work at Decorder Magazine, where they kindly provide the arena to write about a well-curated vision of experimental music, but they also present their vision of music with their Crash Symbols label. This year, the label delivered several hits, including these two gems of beats, oddities, and visions of shortform experimental music. Luurel Varas might be the more accessible of these tapes, but both are good demonstrations of opposite sides of the deep-electronic-outsider coin.
Saintes, Melancholia (Crash Symbols, 2017)
If you’re like me, you were annoyed that much of the early Twin Peaks return episodes were thinly-veiled advertisements for Sacred Bones Records (complete with advertised release emails from the label following at least one episode). The open embrace of a label, even a fantastic label like Sacred Bones, caused David Lynch’s wink-of-the-eye noir to lose some of the irony of the original series (such as rough leather-clad drug dealing bikers chilling out to Julee Cruise). If you’re like me, you also love the nod to Twin Peaks noir in many realms, and Saintes present a series of Roadhouse ready tunes on Melancholia. Here, the sounds are a bit more psychedelic or punky, in equal parts, than the original Lynchian version, which I take to be a good thing. Anyway, Saintes are but one example of one musical direction that could have appeared in those early season return episodes of Twin Peaks. But unlike much of that new series, which was largely a question mark, a crisp and no-nonsense production like Melancholia will leave the listener satisfied and appreciative of the wink-of-the-eye returning.
Mourning[A]BlkStar, BlkMus*k (Glue Moon Records, 2017)
When Algiers played The Empty Bottle, Mourning[A]BlkStar visited from Cleveland. As I understand it, the soul group is relatively new, and they do not have much of an Internet presence yet. But this group deserves all the press they can get: a set of vocalists, trombone player, samples/producer, and two drummers lined the stage and floor, delivering one of the shortest sets I’ve ever seen (a good thing). The amazing group and solo vocals provide a more traditional take on soul, while the the instrumentation and samples are often distorted, truncated, and oddball. “Flicker” demonstrates one of the pop angles produced by the band, with warm distorted keys, minimal beats, and group vocals, but several of the songs on the album have delicious crusty samples and eclectic instrumentation. The blend produces thought-provoking rhythm & blues throughout BlkMus*k, which is a must hear if you can get your hands on it.
Wet Dry Jungala (Psychic Sounds / Moon Glyph, 2013)
Poderoso Monicato (Psychic Sounds, 2015)
I don’t know how I missed these, but Corum is quite a prolific artist and this set of experimental jazz records sound amazing even after the fact. Really well done sets of big idea jazz, complete with repetitive acoustic-electric flourishes.
Tangerine Dream, Force Majeure (Virgin, 1979): Beyond guilty pleasure at this point.
Lil Tits, The Usual (Moniker Records, 2017)
When I was in high school I loved my family’s Ford Taurus station wagon because the speakers never really got louder, they just compressed at a certain point. So I drove around Milwaukee and its near suburbs to meet my friends positively blasting my 7 Year Bitch tape (Gato Negro, still one of my favorites) as loud as the speakers could go with the windows down. I’ll be damned if Lil Tits don’t deliver that exact sound with such precision, this is perfection of a very specific avenue of punk music delivered in furious form with no glitches. Every minute is awesome! It’s so loud, so cutting, perfect harmonic distortion, bass, and drums mix with screaming vocals…and it never misses! Some punk music is great because it’s sloppy, this punk music is great because it’s guided strike meant to blitz the listener at every turn. If you like references, I’d recommend this if you ever wanted more edge on your Super Sonic Piss record, if you like the loudest 1990s riot grrl, if you like that edge where punk bleeds into metal or hard rock, or the heaviest, most challenging moments of Toupee. Well done, this is exactly what a tape release should be, and it’s a great demonstration of the sonic flexibility and curation skills of the Moniker label.
Sunburner (Bathetic Records, 2014)
The Narrows (Drawing Room Records, 2017)
I don’t think algorithms will ever deliver good music recommendations, because there is no possible way to program the chance encounters with a record clerk’s random pick of the day. During one of my last visits to Permanent Records Chicago before their sale to Joyride Records, I walked in to Robert playing Sunburner by United Waters. I had no idea who this band was, but it was engaging total-bummer, woozy electric folk rock. The song structures would be at home in the folk realm, but the production is vibrato’d, pitch-shifting queasy rumination, complete with stray drum machines and all sorts of unexplainable noise. Thanks to Robert, I was able to pick up this record, as well as The Narrows, a well-written and well-produced update to Sunburner. The equation has not really changed, which is all for the better: this is a rather singular sound on the rock/pop landscape, and the concept and production hold up over many repeat listens. It’s bedroom pop for the nauseous (a good thing).
The regenerative echo on this guitar…