‘Graham Duff With Night Demons’ (2014). Acrylic on canvas by Val Denham.
He’s back! Once again, we’re thrilled to present a year-end musical round-up from Graham Duff. Graham is the creator of Ideal, the cult hit dark comedy that ran for seven series on BBC Three (before some fucking idiot cancelled it). He is a well-known music fanatic and personally selected Ideal‘s eclectic soundtrack. Seen in a small role in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as a “Death Eater,” he is currently working on an Ideal feature film.
30. The Vacant Lots - Departure
The reference points are obvious; the pared back organ driven throb of Suicide and the mesmeric cyclical guitar riffs of Spacemen 3 or Loop. With their minimal lyrics and off the peg titles like “Never Satisfied” and “Do Not Leave Me Now,” it would be easy to dismiss The Vacant Lots as merely men mining an overfamiliar seam. However, at its best, their’s is a debut which burns with an iridescent light. This is a direct and uncluttered music that plugs right into the primal heart of rock and roll.
A subtle and sympathetic collaboration between Charlie Martineau’s Esperik Glare and the multi-talented and now sadly departed John Everall AKA Tactile. The album comprises four lengthy minimal and uneasy instrumentals. “The Dweller” fizzes with elemental energy. On “The Thing In The Pit,” a nervously fluttering electronic pulse is pierced by high pitched darts of sound. Best of all is the slowly shifting “The Psychophage.” A beautifully sustained sequence of grainy washes of noise underscored by a bass tone which flickers like helicopter blades in a heat haze.
Former Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde teams up with Wisconsin vocalist and pianist Stephanie Dosen to fashion an album of delicate mystery. There are numerous moments—on the spacious beauty of “All Wishes Are Ghosts,” or the bucolic “Where Foxes Hide”—which could almost be the Cocteau Twins circa Four Calendar Café. However, rather than aping Elizabeth Fraser’s gravity defying voice, Dosen’s serene tone recalls the stylings of 70s psych/folk artist Linda Perhacs and Raymonde’s luminous arrangements are more sparse and sleek than those of his previous group. The accompanying remix album by RxGibbs opens the material out into even more intriguing vistas of sound
Conceived as soundtracks for three short films by Derek Jarman, this is Cyclobe’s Ossian Brown and Stephen Thrower 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. Finally seeing a general release after 2012’s strictly limited run, this is a deeply psychedelic LP.
The oddly named Then Thickens have hit the ground running. This is an unusual debut which seems to stand apart from any genre. Songs like “Tiny Legs” and “Death Cap” meld a strong pop sensibility to an unforced strangeness. With their muscular band dynamic and lyrics which seem to be simultaneously confessional and oblique, the group they most closely resemble is the long lost Scottish band Dawn of the Replicants. It would be a shame if Then Thickens were to suffer the same lack of attention which befell that ensemble, because this is a vibrant and at times thrilling set.
PLU (aka Vicki Bennett) is a transformative artist. Shunning copyright laws, she deliberately samples the most familiar, over worked and banal of source material, then refashions it into something unique and uncategorizable. There’s a large dose of humour in PLU’s work—which at times approaches a kind of audio slapstick. But don’t let the comedy blind you to her razor sharp intelligence. A track like “Panic As Usual And Avoid Shopping” will make you smile even as it gives you goose bumps.
As one half of electronic duo Isan, Robin Saville has a sizeable catalogue of excellent albums and EPs behind him. Here, on his first solo outing, he creates a collection of gentle electronic watercolours, where simple synth patterns blend with subtly mixed rural field recordings. “Hilary And Dave’s Piano #2” is an exquisite minimal piano piece, with sparse notes falling like jewels from a cloud of warm synth tone. Saville’s best track is probably the closing “All Fail Girl”—an optimistic spray of colour and light, where a stripped down clockwork rhythm provides the base for a blooming moss garden of melodic curlicues.
A collection of songs which at a cursory listen could easily be dismissed as twee and cloying. But repeated exposure reveals a genuine emotional depth. This Melbourne four piece’s debut is a flawless piece of intimate, stripped down girl group indie. Songs are built from the sparest of ingredients; skeletal guitar and bass figures, snare and occasional organ. Where the band really shine is with their warm vocal harmonies. And yet it’s not all sweetness and light. On “Happy Birthday” there’s a breathy sensuality which takes the album in a different direction. And their version of the Twin Peaks soundtrack song “Just You” is the icing on the cake.
As we have come to expect from both late period Walker and all period Sun O))), this is a pitch black and monolithically slow moving suite of songs. And whilst it would be great to think Walker would occasionally experiment with some brighter emotions, nobody does dread and unease quite like him. Similarly Sun O)))’s mastery of the drone and the power chord is unparalleled. “Brando” is probably the high point, with Walker’s distinctive brooding baritone weaving its own path over rich, tense slabs of noise which grind against each other creating dark sparks.
A polished and considered third album from Githead shows the band refining their sound. The low-slung menace of fuzz drenched opener “Not Coming Down” immediately hooks you in with its combination of art-pop and shoegaze. Yet Malka Spigel’s vocals refuse the easy blissed out vagaries of the average shoegazer for something far more pointed and personal. The mood slides from optimistic to introspective and, as always with Githead, there are surprises to be had. “For The Place We’re In” actually has a folk-psych tinge with echoes of Family or Camel.
A lo-fi collection of pop-psych songs which boast the assured dynamics of Tame Impala and the smeary fuzzed out harmonies of early Ariel Pink. Many of Delt’s songs have an endearing Byrds-like jangle, but the Eastern phrasing of “Barbarian Kings” and the frenetic wig out of “Backwards Bird Inc.” prove there are numerous influences at play here. This is harmonious and pure hearted pop pitched into an opiated fog of effects peddles and stoned bedroom studio techniques. To his credit, Delt makes it all sound very natural and effortless and it’s easy to see how he could blossom into a major talent.
Melbourne five piece Total Control make no bones about their mining of the possibilities of post-punk. Their music swings from sleek, restrained cold wave synth dance pieces to the fierce muscular angularity of prime era Pere Ubu. Meanwhile their most light and airy song “Flesh War” recalls the linear spaces of The Wake. On highlights like the pummelling “Two Less Jacks” or the relentlessly twitchy “Hunter” Total Control display a firm grip of rock dynamics. There’s a misanthropic and nihilistic edge to the lyrics and what comes across on many of the songs is a sound forged with a precise and focused anger.
Upsalla-based Klara Lewis’ debut is a rich and inviting set of instrumentals. Although this initially sounds like a classic collection of warm, granular electronica, Lewis’ music is actually constructed almost entirely from manipulated samples of field recordings. And each track occupies a uniquely realised sonic world. Compare the soothing, radiating tones of “Shine” with the bass heavy glitch-scape of “Untitled.” It’s a testament to Lewis’ strong compositional skills that these pieces have a sure footed accessibility which belies their experimental origins.
On their subtle and sophisticated debut set, Elephant have proved themselves to be masters of heartache pop. Vocalist Amelia Rivas has a warm intimate tone and despite the lumpen band name, Elephant’s musical arrangements are both smart and dreamy. Tracks such as “Skyscraper” or “TV Dinner,” with their swooning backing vocals and pizzicato guitar figures have a 1950’s Lynchian gleam. There are several great compositions here, and with the exquisite “Allured” they have surely recorded one of the most sumptuous songs of recent years.
Distortion and simplicity are the keys to Austrian Christian Fennesz’s distinctive musical design. Like say Robert Fripp or Bruce Gilbert, his approach to the guitar has always been open ended. Using the instrument in tandem with laptop manipulation, he can conjure up a wide range of atmospheres. The smooth glassy surfaces of “Pallas Athene” couldn’t be further away from Bécs title track, which builds from a sequence of rusting discordant notes into a fizzing haze of uplifting chords. Fennesz frequently disguises big hooks in his mists of ethereal noise. Consequently this is moving and deeply emotive music which lingers long in the mind.
Feeling at times like a more melodically assured Seefeel, French born Olivia Louvel’s new album is a strange and sensual affair. There’s a variety of textures and approaches on display, with many tracks evolving through numerous stages. The title track opens with a simple fragile melody which gradually gives way to synthetic shivers as Louvel’s lovelorn vocals soar above. Meanwhile the heavily processed “Polytypes of Love” layers her voice over urgent bursts of stern synth tone. The closing track—Louvel’s musical setting of Shakespeare/Marlowe’s love sonnet “Live With Me”—is four and a half minutes of achingly tender perfection.
On his first solo work for several years, and the first to be released under his own name, Graham Lewis delivers a collection which covers all the bases. The bruised romance of “Straight Into The Corner” and “Bluebird” showcase his rich baritone and inventive lyrical conceits, coming on like some electro reimagining of Roxy Music. Elsewhere, strange, atmospheric instrumental interludes like “Prism Buzzard” rub shoulders with “We’ve Lost Your Mind” and “The Start of Next Week” which coat pulsing dance floor rhythms with washes of barely controlled noise.
This is tense, urgent dance music. Dark opener “5 Wheels” unleashes swarms of sirens over a tight, minimal beat and seem like a mission statement. Yet this in no way sets you up for the range of flavours to come. “Sing A Love Song,” has a psychotically looped Jamaican vocal sample which threatens to push the track over the edge, whilst “Doubles” could be Aphex Twin in one of his more single minded moods. Cherry picking elements from techno, house, dubstep and beyond, Untold’s Jack Dunning has produced a dense and questioning album that demands your attention.
Under the guise of White Fence, Tim Presley has been quietly crafting songs of lo-fi psychedelic genius for a number of years. And he’s matured into a seriously good songwriter. For an American, Presley shows a sturdy grasp of the British 1960’s psychedelic sensibility. To the degree that, on the charmingly free-wheeling “Raven on Cadillac White” or the all too brief “Sandra (When The Earth Dies),” you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to a long lost Pretty Things acetate.
William Doyle has opted to present a largely instrumental set for his debut. This seems a shame, as on the rare vocal cuts such as “Song For A Granular Piano,” he exhibits not just a characterful voice but an impressive way with harmonies. Very much a laptop creation, the music of East India Youth is still capable of a very human warmth. From the glimmering Boards of Canada style electronics of “Glitter Recession” to the melancholic depth charge vocal pop of “Looking For Someone,” all the way to the ambient atmospherics of “Midnight Koto,” Doyle knows exactly what he’s doing.
With album number three, Dum Dum Girls main mover Dee Dee continues to add to her burgeoning catalogue of killer songs. Lyrically she has an ear for an attention grabbing turn of phrase and vocally she is capable of a range of registers and emotions. This is classic pop-rock, in the tradition of Tommy James and The Shondells or The Jesus and Mary Chain. Not every song hits it out of the park, however with the tender anxiety of “Are You Okay?,” the Smiths-esque “Under These Hands” or the sultry and majestic “Trouble is My Name” everything comes together perfectly.
In the roughest of shorthand, imagine an inversion of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, where an African ensemble are infused with the experiments of Byrne and Eno. This is an irresistible blend of African high-life, bubbling electronics and bright, punchy horn arrangements. The eight piece ISM centres around vocalist Eno Williams who uses her smooth, fluid voice to great effect over a dense and insistent mesh of interlaced rhythms. “The Talking Fish (Ansem Usem Iyak)” is an infectious groove built around a tight bouncy bassline which recalls Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat workouts. There’s a gospel influence here too, with the closing “Ibibio Spiritual” scaling the emotional heights.
A largely instrumental treasure trove of deep electronic music with some high impact guest vocalists. The moody throb of opening track “This Blank Action,” with Leslie Winer’s unmistakeable throaty drawl and head on lyrics sets the bar high. Yet the rough and tumble of “Where You There” featuring the hymnal vocals of Neil Tennant matches it. Better still are the instrumentals. “Operate At Your Optimum” has the churning rhythms and intricate programming of Chris and Cosey and “Turn on Tomorrow,” with its looping synth line and constantly panning high hats, is a full tilt adrenaline rush.
Before passing away in 2010, Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson had—with Throbbing Gristle, Coil and the first two Psychic TV albums—collaborated in the creation of some of modern music’s most individual and influential music. This gorgeous posthumous release sees Christopherson producing a clutch of sonorous, ritualistic instrumentals. Mixing sinewaves, layers of analogue synth, undulating bass tones and what seem to be—although probably aren’t—processed gongs, this intense and hypnotic album feels like some kind of strange space age gamelan music.
Unlikely though it may seem, after 7 albums, Nottingham-based Jason Williamson’s bile driven rants have finally captured the public imagination. More recently underpinned by Andrew Fearn’s spartan beats and truncated bass lines, Williamson’s expletive and slang spattered tales of dissatisfaction and disobedience always find their target. This is the sound of the underdog snapping and biting at your heels and, on their best songs, like “Liveable Shit” and “You’re Brave,” they make most other bands sound prissy and baroque in comparison.
The bold and satisfying compositions of South Dakota born Haley Bonar have echoes of both Kristin Hersh and Joy Zipper. Yet Bonar easily asserts her own identity. Her music is often referred to as alt country, yet it lacks the low key atmosphere of that genre. A number of songs are driven by strong, fluid bass lines, so there’s a real sense of forward propulsion. With “Woke Up In My Future” and “Kill the Fun,” Bonar proves that lyrically she’s at the top of her game. This is an album loaded with hooks and earworms. It may only be 9 tracks long, but every one is a gem.
Bristol’s Sebastian Gainsborough has honed his considerable production skills to mastermind a set of instrumentals which glow with power and illicit intent. This is techno as seen through the prism of experimental noise. And yet there is something strangely seductive about these deep, dark grooves. “Red Sex” could be an out-take from Coil’s Backwards and the aptly named “Anima” feels like the soundtrack to some bestial chase sequence, driven by a “Sister Ray” style organ motif. Although the magisterial glide of “Drowned In Water And Light” creates a far more welcoming environment.
Former leader of the bands Misty Dixon and Kill Laura and the author of numerous solo albums, Jane Weaver is one of the Manchester music scene’s best kept secrets. Weaver has frequently created music of a rare beauty, and with Silver Globe she may have delivered her masterpiece. Whereas several of her releases have taken a largely acoustic route, on Silver Globe, Weaver’s distinctive voice is backed by burbling analogue synths, drum machines, electro-pop stylings and even Hawkwind samples. The strongest moments are when her gorgeous folk inflected vocal melodies are supported by a Neu! ‘75 motorik. Unmissable.
If I told you there was an album which combined the mature melodic grace of Ariel era Kate Bush with the sweeping ambition of Massive Attack and the moody pulses of late Einstürzende Neubauten, might you be at least curious? You should be, because Manchester duo Shield Patterns have produced a truly compelling debut which buriessome very strong pop hooks in deep echo chambers of sound. Claire Brentnall’s voice has a purity and command which other groups would have pushed to the fore. The fact that Shield Patterns choose to wreath their songs in reverb and sub-bass only adds to the mystery at the centre of this album.
E.M.A.’s first two album’s promised truly great things. And here they are. Erika M. Anderson (for it is she) is a distinctive artist who genuinely has something to say. Her lyrics seem to be unrelentingly focussed on the struggle with the impossible “freedoms” of lives mediated via the Internet. Accordingly this album has a more electronic bent than its predecessors. The dense industrial rhythms of “Satellites” and “Neuromancer” are stark and austere. Nevertheless “So Blonde” retains a grungy screech and the gently rolling acoustic “When She Comes” might not sound out of place on the third Velvets album. These aren’t songs which give up their riches easily but repeated exposure reveals more and more levels of musical detail and invention. And, with the elegiac piano based “Jane,” in my opinion, Anderson has written 2014’s most beautiful song.
Honorable mentions also go to Aphex Twin, Bo Ningen, Deerhoof, Eat Lights Become Lights, Gazelle Twin, Hookworms, Hospitality, Karl Hyde and Brian Eno, Paul Kendall, Lia Ices, Lone, Longstone, Nisennenmondai, Planningtorock, Prins Thomas, Quilt, Regal Worm, The Soundcarriers, The Static Memories, Sunstack Jones, SWANS, Teleman, Traxman, Warpaint, Woman’s Hour, Wrangler, Wye Oak, ZOFFF and Zola Jesus.