Graham Duff by Xavier Itter
We’re thrilled to present this ‘year end’ guest post from Graham Duff. Graham is the creator of Ideal, the cult hit dark comedy that ran for seven series on BBC Three. He is a well-known music fanatic and personally selected Ideal‘s eclectic soundtrack. Seen in a small role in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films as a “Death Eater,” he recently co-wrote the BBC sitcom Hebburn with comedian Jason Cook. In 1992, Duff’s one-man stage show “Burroughs,” based on the life of William S. Burroughs won him a Brighton Festival award.
1. X-TG: ‘Desertshore’/’The Final Report’
When industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle reformed in 2004, it was never going to be just a case of regurgitating their back catalogue. Their ‘comeback’ albums Part Two: The Endless Not and the largely instrumental Third Mind Movements proved that TG were still ahead of the pack. But perhaps one of their most intriguing and unprecedented ideas was to rework Nico’s highly regarded 1970 album Desertshore in their own image.
However, in October 2010, bassist, violinist and vocalist Genesis P. Orridge quit the group at the start of series of European dates, leaving Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti – now operating as a reinvigorated trio under the name X-TG – to complete both the tour and the Desertshore project. Then, only a month later, Christopherson suddenly passed away. Tutti and Carter elected to continue with the album, incorporating both Sleazy’s initial recordings and an impressive array of guest vocalists.
Antony Hegerty, Marc Almond, Blixa Bargeld, visionary film director Gasper Noé and porn star turned actress and singer Sasha Grey all lend their vocal talents to this stunning collection. Hegerty’s unique voice is supremely suited to X-TG’s grand and spectral reimagining of “Janitor of Lunacy,” Marc Almond delivers a perfectly judged performance of “The Falconer,” one of Nico’s most beautiful songs. But it is Tutti herself, whose vocals - neutral yet achingly human - best capture Nico’s spirit. If her performance on “All That Is My Own,” with its opening squalls of guitar noise and pulsating electronic rhythm, is restrained and plaintive, then her interpretation of “My Only Child” is frankly heartbreaking.
With its stately packaging, sleeve notes and funereal aesthetic, this is clearly a commemoration of Christopherson’s life and work, as much as it’s a celebration of Nico’s legacy. Meanwhile, on The Final Report, what should have been a new beginning turns into a full stop. This is the music Christopherson was working on with Tutti and Carter after P.Orridge had fled. Highlights include the insistent brutalist throb of “In Accord” and the brief but detailed “Um Dum Dom” which pitches a heavily treated Christopherson spoken vocal into a chiming tick tock rhythm.
Either one of these releases could easily lay claim to being album of the year. But as a double album they are frankly unbeatable. No one could have predicted the story of one of modern music’s most innovative and influential groups would end like this. But then of course very little about TG was ever predictable.
2. PORCELAIN RAFT: ‘Strange Weekend’
Italian born, London based Mauro Remiddi delivers a flawless album of dreamy hauntological bedroom pop. Porcelain Raft’s debut is alive with subtle but insistent earworms. Remiddi’s vocals frequently sound genderless and on the fuzzy glide of “Unless You Speak From your Heart” or the gentle buzzing synth bubblebath of “Drifting In And Out,” Porcelain Raft come across like a more bleary and ragged Saint Etienne. There are some beautiful and subtle arrangements and the mood is often blissful. But there are moments of woozy self doubt and unease, which prevent this from descending into being just another postcoital soundtrack. In fact, there’s a real artfulness in the way Remiddi mixes gorgeous lulling melodies, with minute glitches and submerged dissonance.
3. JESCA HOOP: ‘The House That Jack Built’
Whilst recent releases have seen Hoop focussing on a more stripped back acoustic feel, The House That Jack Built sees an artist embracing the sonic possibilities of the studio. And it’s probably her most satisfying album thus far. Her ability to craft singular and unpredictable melodies remains undiminished and her world view is still pleasingly off kilter, yet the mood is often effortlessly uplifting. Neither overly polished nor overtly lo-fi, the album boasts some intricately structured arrangements which still retain some rough edges. Lyrically Hoop has always been keen to mix self examination with a wider range of topics than most, and the self-explanatory “Ode To Banksy” aside, these songs see her at her most enigmatic.
4. CARTER TUTTI VOID: ‘Transverse’
As if completing and delivering the X-TG double header wasn’t enough, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti also released this understated masterpiece earlier in the year. A collaboration with kindred spirit Nik Colk Void - guitarist and vocalist with the exceptionally fine post-industrial outfit Factory Floor – this set was recorded at the London’s Roundhouse for the 2011 Mute Records festival. Carter’s unmistakable churning rhythms provide the pulsing bedrock for Tutti and Void to explore the textural and percussive possibilities of their electric guitars. A largely instrumental excursion, this is a deeply entrancing album which not only easily sits amongst Carter Tutti’s strongest work, but also harks back to the majesty of Heathen Earth era Throbbing Gristle.
5. JAH WOBBLE & JULIE CAMPBELL: ‘Psychic Life’
Bass man Wobble is a genuine maverick spirit. Sadly, much of his output over the last decade has tended towards a thoughtfully produced but strangely anonymous world music lite. Even the much longed for reunion with early Clash guitarist and former PIL sidekick Keith Levene only produced a patchy and frequently uninspired album and EP. It would seem that Wobble was saving up his best tunes and ideas for this far superior collaboration. Manchester’s Julie Campbell (aka Lone Lady) also seems to have been inspired by the project, as all her vocal lines here show a strength and grace which is sometimes lacking in her solo work. Levene makes a couple of guest appearances, most noticeably on “Phantasms Rise…” With its perfect balance of groove and dissonance, it’s a song which could have sat very easily on PIL’s Metal Box. But this is an album of light and shade and there’s even a hint of Supernature era Goldfrapp about the disco throb and sensual moan of album stand-out “Feel.”
6. MIRRORING: ‘Foreign Body’
This quiet, foggy, unassuming debut from a duo comprising Liz Harris of Grouper and Jesy Forentino of Tiny Vipers is way more than the sum of its parts. An expansive album (6 songs in 40 minutes), Foreign Body occasionally brings to mind Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s early minimalist experiments on No Pussyfooting and Evening Star. Whilst its shimmering elegaic vocal lines suggest a female fronted Sigor Ros. This is definitely an album of one mood, and, with its gentle, contemplative drones, delicate ethereal guitar washes and half buried melodies this feels like modern devotional music. “Silent From Above” is as close as Mirroring get to a conventional song structure, but even here, a simple vocal and folk guitar figure is eventually submerged in spectral echoes and blissed out atmospherics. The perfect early morning record.
7. LAUREL HALO: ‘Quarantine’
One of the exciting things about Brooklyn based Laurel Halo is the way her music engages with the emotional, the physical and the intellectual aspects of sound. Previous releases under her King Felix alias have buried her vocals in the depths of the mix, but here they burst into the foreground. And it was clearly the right move. Her vocal lines are anything but route one and several melodies have a nicely warped feel. The range of structural approaches is deeply impressive too. “Carcass” has a minimal euro-techno pulse, where “Years” would not sound out of place on the Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach. Halo also understands the power of brevity. Where many electronic artists like to stretch out, she keeps things lean and concise. The music frequently floats free into beatless space where synths create great melodic clouds of sound, but it’s her dextrously programmed rhythmic flourishes which underpin the album.
8. SCOTT WALKER: ‘BISH BOSCH’
Dissonant, histrionic, morbid and claustrophobic are all words you will hear applied to this collection. Admittedly, these are all apposite descriptions of the most difficult album on this list, however, it’s also one of the year’s most rewarding listens. Scott’s increasingly oblique but vivid lyrics would appear to focus on geopolitical struggles and abuse of human rights. Meanwhile, his dynamic and genuinely experimental musical compositions are, at times, truly frightening. The most easily digested track is “Epizootics!” which manages to blend beat poetics, a lopsided percussive shuffle and loud, near celebratory horn fanfares. This is undeniably a very dark album, but there’s also humour and wit here. Witness lines such as “Nothing clears a room like removing a brain” or “I’d like to forget you just the way you are.” Scott’s journey from 60’s hit parade heart throb to modern day avant garde soundsmith is a fascinating tale which has been told many times. But the story shouldn’t overshadow the man’s actual artistic achievements. After all, how many artists could be said to be producing music which genuinely sounds completely unlike anything else?
9. CYCLOBE: ‘Sulphur-Tarot-Garden’
Following a lengthy period of hibernation, the last couple of years have seen a flurry of activity from Cyclobe aka former Coil men Ossian Brown and Stephen Thrower. Sulphur-Tarot-Garden was released in a limited edition to celebrate the group’s performance at Antony Hegerty’s Meltdown Festival, and the album is yet to see an official release. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long, as this is a sumptuous, atmospheric collection. Conceived as soundtracks for three short films by Derek Jarman, this is Cyclobe at their most Kraut-rock inflected. Both “Sulphur” and “Garden of Luxor” bring to mind the lush textures of early Cluster, whereas the slow, opiated spiral of “Tarot” shimmers into view like a 21st century Tangerine Dream. However, Cyclobe bring so much more to their rich sonic mix. This is a deeply psychedelic album.
10. BARRY ADAMSON: ‘I Will Set you Free’
If early single “Destination” - which melded a cocksure garage band riff with some seriously unhinged Aladdin Sane style piano chops - suggested Adamsom had been reinvigorated by his brief tenure in a reformed Magazine, it only told a fragment of the story. I Will Set You Free sees Adamson confidently striding out in several directions. And it has to be said from the funky, soulful glide of “Looking To Love Somebody” to the touching tumble of “Turnaround,” he pretty much nails it every time. Adamson’s skills as a musician and arranger are well documented, but here he also seems to have attained true lyrical maturity, with several songs displaying real insight and a rare emotional depth. The album climaxes with “Stand In” and “If you Love Her,” two songs which recall the grandeur of late 60s Scott Walker.
11. THE GASMAN: ‘Hiding Place’
The prolific and ingenious Gasman (aka Christoper Reeves) releases his most challenging album so far. Hiding Place largely sidesteps the twitchy, unspooling Aphex-esque electronics of previous Gasman albums, favouring what initially sound like works of modern piano composition. The palette may have changed, but Reeves has retained his fidgety, constantly evolving structural signature. At points, it feels as if Squarepusher has reprogrammed the piano works of John Cage. The endlessly circling “Terminus” sounds like Erik Satie soundtracking a ketemine delirium, and “Drumble” and “Wimps” recall the dense, elaborate player piano work of Conlon Nancarrow. On some tracks Reeves mixes the more formal sound of prepared piano with electronics which veer from the squelchy to the ethereal and this perhaps points the way to the Gasman’s next move.
12. LAURA J. MARTIN: ‘The Hangman Tree’
Given Laura J. Martin’s mix of electric and acoustic instrumentation, frequently fanciful lyrics and girlish English vocal, comparisons with Never For Ever era Kate Bush have been inevitable. And yet Martin has a strong melodic sense all her own and she’s created a warped and highly personalized world, stained with folkloric colour. She’s a multi-instrumentalist and you can hear piano, mandolin and melodica on Martin’s self produced debut. However it’s perhaps her flute playing which allows her to shine brightest. The song writing feels very mature and songs such “Silent Maria” or “Fire Horse” hint that Martin could soon occupy the same space in people’s hearts as ‘Bat For Lashes.’
13. MALKA SPIGEL: ‘Every Day is Like The First Day’
The former Minimal Compact vocalist and bassist delivers a career best solo album. The dazzling array of collaborators - including Alexander Balanescu, Nik Colk Void, Johnny Marr, Colin Newman, Julie Campbell and Teho Teardo – could easily swamp a lesser artist. But it’s a testament to Spigel’s clear vision that the album comes over as such a strongly authored body of work. The lyrics are vibrant but ambiguous and the mood can shift from wistful to joyful, often within a couple of lines. Meanwhile, Newman’s production is clear and spacious, giving Spigel’s trademark deep, hypnotic bass lines room to shine. The title track, with its almost George Harrison tone, may well be the finest song Spigel has ever written.
14. LOOPS OF YOUR HEART: ‘And Never Ending Nights’
Previously working under the alias of The Field, here Stockholm based Axel Willner adopts a new moniker to showcase a collection of minimal, seductive electronic works. These are languid, repetitive, drawn out instrumental grooves which work their way under your skin. At points it feels as if you might be listening to a long, lost Roedelius album, at others this evokes Howard Shore’s stark soundtrack to Cronenberg’s Videodrome. It cannot be denied that there is nothing truly new here, but Willner has a sure touch and his summoning up of the synth dominated glacial plateaux of mid 70s kosmische feels strangely crisp and vibrant.
15. MARK STEWART: ‘The Politics of Envy’
Another album with a plethora of guest vocalists and contributors which could have very easily overbalanced the project. And at times the eclectic range of styles and collaborators do perhaps make this feel more like a mix tape than a traditional album. But what a mix tape. Appearances by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and the suddenly ubiquitous Keith Levene may have grabbed the headlines, but Stewart is a powerful presence who is not about to be overshadowed. As you would expect, the lyrics are his trademark mix of situationist sloganeering, personal examination and righteous fury and, on highlights such as the dubstep inflected wobble of “Codex,” or the relationship in crisis throb of “Stereotype” this feels as fresh and vital as any recording in Stewart’s catalogue.
16. THE SOFT MOON: ‘Zeros’
It would perhaps be an understatement to say this album doesn’t stray very far from the pattern set out on Soft Moon’s self titled debut. Nonetheless, it still manages to summon up the same sense of excitement and menace. The template is clear; the bass-driven forward propulsion of Faith era Cure, uncluttered drum machine patterns, buzzing electronics, moody, sinewy guitar lines and the occasional half submerged and often wordless vocal. Occasionally you might long for main man Luis Vasquez to let rip with a full bloodied vocal line, but the album is loaded with instrumental hooks and powers along in a headlong rush of edgy unease.
17. ALEXANDER TUCKER: ‘Third Mouth’
The fact that Tucker hails from Kent makes it very tempting to posit him as a man who has taken up the baton laid down by the late 60s, early 70s Canterbury Scene. And there are certainly moments on his truly engaging 6th album which appear to acknowledge the influence of Kevin Ayers, Hatfield And The North and Matching Mole. With nods to the worlds of English folk and jazz, Tucker employs detuned guitars, mandolin, violin and synth to concoct a potent brew steeped in both celebration and disquiet. A number of the songs take unexpected turns, such as “Mullioned View” where a heartfelt guitar, vocal and string piece evolves into a dense Faust Tapes style organ and tape loop collage.
18. SUN ARAW, M. GEDDES & THE CONGOS – ‘Icon Give Thank’
The Congos 1977 album Heart of the Congos has the well deserved reputation of being not only one of Lee Perry’s finest productions of the Black Ark era, but quite simply one of the most beautiful roots reggae albums of all time. And whilst it can’t be denied that the Congos have never again scaled such heights, it’s also true to say any recording featuring the exquisite vocal talents of ‘Ashanti’ Roy Johnson and Cedric Mynton deserves serious attention. Here, The Congos hook up with American noise artists San Araw (aka Cameron Stallones) and M. Geddes to create an irresistible hybrid of low end dub atmospherics, sweet, inspirational Rastafarian vocal chants and distinctly 21st century studio experimentation.
19. LOTUS PLAZA: ‘Spooky Action At A Distance’
Boasting what may well be the year’s finest album title, this is a real grower. Lotus Plaza is the side project of Lockett J. Pundt, guitarist with Deerhunter. His Deerhunter cohort Bradford Cox uses his Atlas Sound side project to explore areas outside Deerhunter’s remit, but Pundt is more content to mine the same dream pop seam as his parent band. But that’s not to suggest this is a collection of remnants and off cuts. “White Galactic One,” with its nagging guitar riff and easy vocal glide, is the equal of any of the best compositions on Deerhunter’s “Halcyon Digest.” As is the uplifting glimmer of album highlight “Eveningness.” And, like Deerhunter, Lotus Plaza manage to balance an experimental sensibility with skillfully sculpted melodies.
20. KLARA LEWIS: ‘Klara Lewis’
A confident and individual debut from the Uppsalla based Lewis which exhibits a strong understanding of both drama and restraint. This is intricate, subtle and glitchy instrumental electronica. It’s a warm, granular sound, but there are several strong melodies buried in this deep mix. Apparently assembled entirely from manipulated snatches of field recordings, these three pieces easily transcend their origins to become deeply mesmeric compositions. At points her work is reminiscent of a more fragmented Pole, or maybe some of NON’s more melodic pieces, but the feel is somehow more human and organic. Opener “CATT” has such a strong melodic groove that it makes you wonder what these pieces might sound like were they to be rendered by more conventional instrumentation.
21. GRIMES: ‘Visions’
Much recent electronica has emphasized the glacial and dystopian. But Grimes (aka Toronto’s Clare Boucher) seems more interested in exploring both the physical and spiritual. She describes herself as “post internet” and her work as “ADD music,” but this isn’t an inchoate collection. Far from it. The mood is frequently light and breezy with several tracks clocking in at two minutes or less, yet there is real substance here. There’s plenty of sonic experimentation, but Boucher doesn’t shy away from pop thrills either. “Eight,” with its skittering drum pattern and helium fueled backing vocals sounds like space age soul music. In fact, there’s such range and confidence on display, that it’s hard to see anything but success for Boucher, wherever she chooses to set out for from here.
22. ECHO LAKE: ‘Wild Peace’
Coming on like the fruit of an illicit union between Asobi Seksu, Galaxie 500 and Slowdive, Echo Lake have produced a collection of delicate but memorable psychedelic melodies. It would be easy to dismiss the band as just another shoegaze outfit, but there’s a depth of feeling here, which sets them apart. And they aren’t short on ideas. Album opener “Further Down” begins with two minutes of Terry Riley style organ work bathed in a beatless wash of guitar atmospherics. Many of the songs favour a laconic mood, but it isn’t all blissed out drones. On “Young Silence” their guitar scree has a serious bite. Album closer “Just Kids” comprises a series of different beguiling vocal melodies, which climax in a lengthy instrumental guitar passage worthy of David Roback.
23. SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS: ‘Ghostory’
Reduced to a duo of Alejandra Deheza and former Secret Machines member Benjamin Curtis, School of Seven Bells delivered a third album which made good on all the promise of the first two. One of School of Seven Bells great strengths is they refuse to be tied down to one distinct sound. Ghostory shifts from to shiny electro-pop to My Bloody Valentine style heavily processed guitar noise with extreme ease. Without trying to ape the oral gymnastics of Elizabeth Frazer, Deheza’s vocal melodies on songs such as “Love Play” seem to occupy the same otherworldly state. “White Wind” blends an endlessly rolling drum pattern with spy film soundtrack dynamics, whilst the beautiful “Reappear” sees Deheza weaving a dreamy, sensual vocal line over minimal synth chords.
24. GHOSTS WEAR CLOTHES: ‘Threads’
There’s a genuine cinematic grandeur to much of this album of lengthy instrumental compositions. Whereas many bands who attempt to tackle similar material come over as bombastic or overwrought, Nottingham’s Ghosts Wear Clothes have a finely judged aesthetic. Able to encompasses both delicate, ambient passages and giant slabs of noise, the band’s debut is dynamic and assured. Album centerpiece “Zealous” takes over thirteen and a half minutes to unfold from washes of celestial synth, via a piano lead Massive Attack style echo chamber work out into Mogwai-like walls of sculpted guitar noise. Post-rock at its most emotional and sensual.
25. SHED: ‘The Killer’
This is the third album from Rene Pawlowitz under his Shed alias and it’s business as unusual. As on previous releases, Pawlowitz frequently shifts sound palette from track to track. The construction and deep tones of some pieces remind me of the warm and edgy synth and rhythm work on Bruce Gilbert’s classic This Way and The Shivering Man albums. Meanwhile, for much of the album, Pawlowitz has his sights clearly set on the dance floor, as he flirts with Darkcore sounds, Detroit chords, Germanic techno flourishes and heavily filtered percussion. He drops the ball on occasions, when he lapses into a vague Café del Mar groove, but overall there is enough genre bending, experimentation and dynamism here to confirm that Pawlowitz remains one to watch.
—Graham Duff 2012