Monday, August 27, 2012

Ancient Future - Willits + Sakamoto

Ancient Future

Willits + Sakamoto
Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 79%

Earlier this year Flumina, the third collaboration between Ryuichi Sakamoto and Fennesz, blindsided me. A massive undertaking – two hours in length and homogenous, as it turns out, in all the right ways – but somehow its beauty caught me off-guard, needling its way past my defenses in tiny increments. That record not only amped up my anticipation for Ancient Future, in which Sakamoto again lends his piano talents to an electronic framework, but it has also adapted my approach; instead of unsuspecting, my expectations going into this collaboration turned quite imposing.

As with Flumina, it quickly became apparent that Ancient Future doesn’t cater much to expectations. Unsullied guitar figures tiptoe around delicate electronic sheets and echoed piano without an overt trajectory in mind, making for an instrumental album one savors but doesn’t get aggressively “amped” for. And even though Willits improvises over pre-recorded Sakamoto compositions much like Fennesz did, providing clouds of ambience and a shifting sense of gravity, the outcomes betray similar origins. As a duo, Willits + Sakamoto show greater tonal range, stretching beyond the overcast ambient-plus-piano model for some faint percussive presence grounding the flurry of “I Don’t Want To Understand” and warm guitar-playing that adds an abstract jazz element (think ECM-styled noodling) to “Abandoned Silence”.

Whereas many collaborations of this ilk fall prey to the trappings of mood-music, each of Ancient Future’s six tracks explore subtly distinct raison d’êtres without sacrificing a cohesive temper. Lyrical and reserved, Ancient Future resounds the magic of Sakamoto’s best partnerships (Fennesz, Alva Novo) but with a whole new language.

Oceania - The Smashing Pumpkins


The Smashing Pumpkins
Martha’s Music.

SCQ Rating: 75%

In the uncertain summer between grade school and junior high, Siamese Dream became the first full-length I ever loved. From Side A through Side B and then back again, that cassette spawned an obsessive adoration in me that, almost twenty years later, feels naturally spread out across a few dozen bands that Skeleton Crew Quarterly faithfully covers. But in the mid 1990s, the Smashing Pumpkins were music – I didn’t care to know what else was out there – and they delivered on a seemingly biweekly basis. From Pisces Iscariot to Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness and then almost two years of singles loaded with quality B-sides, it was a fruitful time to follow Billy Corgan and Co.

So yes, I was one of those eager people hoping Oceania would turn the page on Corgan’s past-wrestling missives but my interest had less to do with warm nostalgia than it did with hearing a real, full-blooded rock album again. 2012 has failed to produce even a handful, making the timing of Corgan’s best album in a decade feel substantial on a wider critical plane. “Quasar” may open the disc sounding like a sludgier take on “Cherub Rock” but it feels vital nonetheless as the vast majority of Oceania embraces a unique sonic terrain permeated by classic-rock touches. Riff-heavy tracks like “Panopticon”, “Inkless” and “The Celestials” breathe convincing life into Alternative Rock’s dated framework, with dense layers of guitar and big choruses reigning. These examples are enough to regress the popular notion that Billy Corgan can’t write songs for the current age, but they merely hint at Oceania’s progressive edge. “One Diamond, One Heart” swings by the momentum of a bubbling keyboard coda while the title track undergoes a multi-song suite of acoustic balladry, warped synths and detailed percussion. The career-low shrieking of 2007’s Zeitgeist certainly didn’t have a “Pale Horse” or “Wildflower”, subdued songs drenched in relaxed yearning.

Taking into consideration the band’s underdog status since reforming (repeatedly) and becoming the counterpoint to independent music’s hipster trajectory, Oceania is a significant achievement. Not unlike other Pumpkins’ albums, it occasionally outstretches its means – letting a decent track like “Glissandra” fall between the cracks – but engages consistently enough to compete with whatever diluted shoegaze/electro band is making waves this week. Will Oceania ultimately change much beyond the Pumpkin universe? Probably not, but at the very least, it reinforces that Pumpkinland is fully operational and looking boldly toward the future.

Young Men - Jennah Barry

Young Men

Jennah Barry

SCQ Rating: 80%

Never underestimate the importance of a record’s first track. Whatever waits within its opening seconds will have to jostle between listeners’ expectations, their biases, and do so without boring them stiff. The choice is greater than simply sequencing a dominant song for the best first impression; with this first song, you’re addressing the flakey demographic that samples thirty seconds of a full-length at a record store listening-post or an iTunes sample stream. A first track exhibits whether the music an artist makes is accessible or challenging, culturally indebted or revolutionary, and weighed in artistic merit or commercial dollars.

I’m reminded of the unfair pressure on first songs when “The Coast” sets Jennah Barry’s debut album ablaze, building from inaudibly plucked guitar notes to a wide-open chorus and evermore thunderous finale. The song handily kept my attention, as much for its compositional chops as for Barry’s natural approach to performance. Her voice carrying a vivid resemblance to Sarah Harmer’s aside, Barry’s tuneful voice sounds perfectly at home within intricately unique songs that defy easy categorization. A sneaky bass line forms the backbone of “Blackhole”, a short but sweet tune that looks wistfully upon feelings of isolation, while subsequent track “Honey” reduces the bass to a dripping Motown vibe accompanied only by some swelling strings. By the time “To Be Patient” unspools with the grace and swagger of a lost track from The Band, it’s difficult to argue that just about all of Barry’s choices are stunners. Her compositions have wonderful breathing room and their arrangements wisely eschew any extravagance that might clutter the momentum. From a strong opening to the title track’s frost-filled, poignant close, Young Men deserves much more than a thirty second sampling.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In Motion #1 - The Cinematic Orchestra

In Motion #1

The Cinematic Orchestra
Ninja Tune Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

A lot of time has passed since Jason Swinscoe, mastermind of The Cinematic Orchestra, reached new audiences with Ma Fleur, but not much has changed. Swinscoe’s muse remains invested foremost in scoring visuals; as 2007’s breakthrough came bundled with nostalgic photography to augment specific tracks, In Motion #1 serves cinema via a handful of commissioned soundtracks. Moreover, five years of absence finds The Cinematic Orchestra largely the same diluted version of its early, Ninja-Tune-heyday self, choosing to stretch its electronic and jazz elements thinner over spacious post-classical templates. The word “diluted” implies a weakening, but it’s used here to denote an evolving, positive shift in the collective as it seeks more ambitious territory than Ma Fleur.

For one thing, Swinscoe’s brought his musical family to the forefront, sharing his orchestral pit with the likes of Dorian Concept, Tom Chant, Grey Reverend, Austin Peralta, and others. Each is accountable for writing and performing selected tracks – some without Swinscoe's direction at all – on In Motion #1, and it’s surprising how their results extend The Cinematic Orchestra’s loose approach to jazz, classical and electronic music. “Dream Work” exists as a coda occasionally confronted by reckless horns and lush string arrangements. “Outer Space” survives a woozy opening of squiggles like lost transmissions for a gorgeous tonal landscape of strings, horns and a frenetic sax workout. And even when a track hesitates to engage directly, as with Austin Peralta’s “Lapis”, it’s a beautiful morning-song of meandering.

The spacious surplus of these tracks – not to mention the twenty-minute spread of “Entr’acte”, a monstrous adventure over 2007 hit “To Build A Home”'s sentimentality – is contracted by “Necrology”, one of two Swinscoe solo tracks that realign The Cinematic Orchestra’s tight rhythmic component via a militarized percussion layout, synthetic bass, electric keys plus intertwining piano and guitar codas. It’s not only the first track but a perfect launch point too, using a familiar foundation to usher In Motion #1’s more out-there compositions.

It’s difficult to fully assess these works without the visual context these scores deserve but that failure to bundle the source films as a companion disc to In Motion #1 doesn’t damn the product. These expansive, if occasionally longwinded, productions boast enough beauty and conflict to score the trials and delights of daily life. In many ways, In Motion #1 is like a dream album from The Cinematic Orchestra; not meaning that it’s perfect, but in the sense that these songs occupy so much surrealist landscape, it may become a personal favourite because it goes where few fans ever expected it to.

Day Of the Demons - Charlemagne Palestine & Janek Schaefer

Day Of the Demons

Charlemagne Palestine & Janek Schaefer
Desire Path Recordings.

SCQ Rating: 71%

In a narrative explaining the creative process of their challenging but wholly one-of-a-kind Day Of the Demons, Charlemagne Palestine and Janek Schaefer were “howling through the void” and making “a cocoon for the listener to hide in”, respectively. The goal behind these efforts, that being “to ward off the demons for the sake of the listener”, can be better understood through any of the following three investigative tasks: (1) Buy the 12” vinyl and, if you’re within the first 500 to do so, marvel at the Demon Mask included, (2) Download Day Of the Demons onto your iTunes or what-have-you and note that the full-length’s genre is listed as “Ritual”, or (3) Just listen to it.

Even if the back-story feels weighed down in supernatural hocus-pocus, be warned: the music sounds frighteningly on-point. These two, twenty-minute drone-pieces that form the collaboration between Charlemagne & Janek Schaefer don’t score the solace of being ‘demon-free’, so to speak, and instead capture an intense and disturbing struggle to survive unscathed. The lead-up to this battle for the soul, “Raga de L’apres Midi Pour Aude”, works as a sort of establishing shot, instilling a buzzing drone with patient bell tolls and old-world voices singing and chanting over one another. Although certainly eerie, Side A encompasses not only a world away from our listening spot – one that sounds ancient, everlasting and is therefore thought-provoking – but also a cultural and religious hotbed of unknown origin and doctrine.

So when “Fables From a Far Away Future” takes us into the streets – replete with outdoor field-recordings and chatter drifting in and out – the ritual feels pretty well wrapped up. But what happens next? I can’t be sure but Side B of Day Of the Demons sounds very much like an exorcism from within. Layers of tense synths overwhelm, consolidating and descending upon the listener in swarms, before a child-like toy-box melody – yeah, nothing creepy about that – brings relief to the feverish climax.

Day Of the Demons is more convincing in its ability to construct dream-space than it is as a practical listening experience, which is a compliment because I’m basically saying the record should be felt more than it should be heard. I don’t expect many drone fans to be jamming to Day Of the Demons in the grocery aisles because its intensity weighs more appropriate for a sit-down event than for routine errand running. Like a quality scary movie night, Day Of the Demons should be saved for special, um, ritualistic occasions.

Grand Prix - North Lakes

Grand Prix

North Lakes
Independent / Bandcamp.

SCQ Rating: 65%

North Lakes isn’t a folk band; that’s the realization these Prince Edward Island natives arrived at shortly after touring for their debut album Cobra. Two years later, Grand Prix is the summation of that insight, a quick dose of high-octane rock and roll. Chocked full of classic rock chords and speedway-on-cocaine tempos, the likes of “Avalanche” and “Vixen” ascend bar-band riffs and ride them until they’ve lost their punch.

Since the element of surprise usually topples around the two-and-a-half minute mark, that makes Grand Prix’s twenty-four minutes a pretty swift kick in the ass. Melodically “Vixen” has the upper hand on the competition, trading spoken-word swagger and jangly guitar with a memorably boisterous chorus. While everything preceding that closing track carries a comparable confidence, tracks such as “Grab Me By the Lapel” and “The Holy Water” thrash about in a bid to defend vulnerable centers. By no means are North Lakes trying to dress these songs up; each feels pretty upfront in their passion for straightforward, drunk-in-the-sun jams but that’s precisely where this album should remain – in the midst of lost weekends.

North Lakes make some convincing Can-Con noise with “Hands-Off Director” and “Baptism In Burgundy”, enough so that I’d feel lame delving into some perceived mastering flaws because I don’t think fans are going to care. For some, Grand Prix will be lovable as much for its limitations as for its strengths.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Chad Tape - Chris Reimer

The Chad Tape

Chris Reimer

SCQ Rating: 81%

An oft forgotten joy of buying from Bandcamp is that you receive a kind Thank You email courtesy of the artist you’ve just supported. It isn’t really the musicians writing you a personal note of gratitude of course but, with the state of the industry and the financial effects it imposes on artists, the email still feels genuine enough to give you good vibes all evening. On the other hand, the Thank You email one receives from buying on Chris Reimer’s Bandcamp page induces an unsettling mix of emotions; the same disbelief, sadness and confusion felt across the independent music scene when the untimely death of Chris Reimer, Women guitarist and burgeoning solo artist, was announced in February.

Opening my inbox to find an email from “Chris Reimer” with his thanks was enough to resurface those surreal sentiments, but The Chad Tape goes miles further in explaining exactly what we’ve lost. “Trees Die In Switzerland” lurches into earshot with a detuned acoustic dirge and distant flute melody married by some low-end feedback rustling around. The graceful, understated nature of it reveals that, for one thing, The Chad Tape is a collection of ambient music. But moreover, Chris Reimer had a keen ear for the challenging genre that anyone can do, but few do well.

The dichotomy applied to “Trees Die In Switzerland”, where a soothing lead shares space with undercurrents of despair and seclusion, deepens many of the tracks collected by Reimer’s loved ones. “Finnish Song (2)” evokes a barren landscape where found-sounds clatter across its plain while, on “Overweight Motorcycle Cops”, some outdoor field-recordings are caught between a tragic violin arrangement and some curious synths loitering nearby.

The latter track, which fades out within a minute of getting really interesting, reminds listeners that The Chad Tape was unfinished at the time of Reimer’s passing. Although it’s impossible to know how this record might’ve sounded as a complete artistic statement, The Chad Tape echoes the approach Reimer, Chad VanGaalen (who mastered this cassette), and the rest of Women brought to that band’s stunning catalog: dense but seemingly vacant production, a hopeful yet menacing duality, and illuminating hooks despite all of the music’s dark corners. Which is to say, The Chad Tape wouldn’t sound unfinished if not for our tragic understanding to the contrary; at most, its current incarnation would’ve probably earned a few more ‘avant-garde’ accolades, had Reimer lived to receive them.

The Chad Tape is limited to 200 copies and going quickly. Proceeds from physical and digital sales will benefit the Chris Reimer Legacy Fund, which provides music and dance scholarships to children. Support and listen here. 

Hy-Brasil - Lights Out Asia


Lights Out Asia
n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 65%

I traveled once to Banff, Alberta, and was lucky enough to drive through the Rocky Mountains. Their foggy snowcaps and rocky ledges aping upward were stupefying to stand witness to. But after hours winding around their beauty, it all began to lose scale; only so many successive highs and sprawling vistas can motivate someone before the stimulation turns over, in effect draining the sightseer until they’re transient gazers merely taking photographs to appreciate later. Similarly Lights Out Asia only know how to make epic records and eventually that poses a problem. Listeners can appreciate the band’s vision, to create shimmering aural worlds to wander through, but with each likeminded marathon, the scale wobbles; big downgrades to average, explosive crescendos become expected and the whole weight of the project turns tedious.

Lights Out Asia (now the duo of Mike Ystad and Chris Schafer, since guitarist Mike Rush departed) have taken to the boundaries of their collective imagination to find ways of contextualizing this scale; 2010’s In the Days Of Jupiter went into the far reaches of space and this 2012 effort occupies a mysterious, almost-definitely fictitious island. An inventive association with terrain makes sense for a band so adept at creating atmosphere but it can’t ground Hy-Brasil’s seventy-minute runtime when it’s sonically still up in space. This new odyssey sounds exactly like In the Days Of Jupiter – and, in no small way, like earlier albums – as if Lights Out Asia haven’t traded in so much as a pedal or guitar-effect since they signed to n5MD five years ago. Right out of the gate, that stagnancy kills any conceptual elements Hy-Brasil had considered playing with.

Geographical indifference aside, a track like “Running Naked Through Underground Cities” reveals that the n5MD mainstays still have ample fuel in the tank with a richly hypnotic, four-by-four bass line pushing a smeared synth track of Schafer’s remotely romantic, multi-tracked vocals. Concise but yearning, it sits near the crest of the band’s high watermark, 2007’s Tanks and Recognizers. Unlike that record, however, where two alien languages – post-rock and electronica – assembled into something at once cohesive and earthshakingly combative, Hy-Brasil’s merger feels rooted in habit, not catharsis, and nullifies both the ferocious and atmospheric halves of the Lights Out Asia brand. As a result, supposedly emotional slow-burners like “An Imperfect System” and “They Disappear Into the Palms” drift redundantly by.

It pains me to see Lights Out Asia let their trademark sound and ambition drain into the same bloated framework, where more upsurges and climaxes mean increasingly less and less. At this stage the best thing Lights Out Asia can do is record a four-song EP using only acoustic instruments and analog electronics. Sure it would mean retooling the whole process and educating themselves on some new hardware, but the results would accomplish more than this reverse shock-and-awe. They’d be establishing fresh contrast to a discography that, after Hy-Brasil, sorely needs a change in direction.

Monday, August 13, 2012


August, while still very much a summer month, is when I habitually begin collecting records that'll keep me company during autumn. Like some process of reverse hibernation, I store up all of these anticipated release dates for that day the humidity falls, a cool breeze begins rising and I can step outside revitalized. 

What I’m trying to say is that August is a stupid time to unveil Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s Summer Records feature; the anticipation is long gone and the season’s hottest days are already waning. Had I not spent the past two months living out of suitcases and being separated from my laptop, my music or both, SCQ’s Summer Records 2012 would’ve posted sometime in June. Still, by no means should these three titles be restrained by dwindling temperatures when each stunner will be blasting from Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s new office well into the colder months.

Have a listen, breathe in these summer days and welcome the change in the air.

~ Love SCQ

Mixed Emotions - Tanlines (SUMMER ALBUMS 2012)

Mixed Emotions

True Panther Sounds.

SCQ Rating: 79%

At the present moment, it’s easy to take a band like Tanlines for granted. Upon first listen, they cater to the same blog-fueled craze for 80s reinvention that’s virtually too crowded a scene to pick names out of. From that assessment alone, Tanlines efficiently checklists a myriad of obvious qualifications: lots of dated synths, echoed drum patterns, and morose but catchy choruses. But what stubbornly renders Tanlines essential listening in 2012 can be deduced less from that New-Wave formula but how the Brooklyn–based duo toys with it.

Coarsely put, Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm filter Cut/Copy’s vein of anthemic 80s-for-indie-kids’ cool down to its most visceral gears. By deconstructing much of the gloss and frills, Mixed Emotions boasts strengths that pack a more human punch than your average, overproduced synth-athon. Emm’s vocals, which add an impassioned urgency to each track, sit front and center on defused techno highlights “Not The Same” and “Brothers” while Cohen keeps the record’s percussive flair inimitable by adding a tribal sense of momentum to even-keeled tracks like “Lose Somewhere” and “Real Life”.

Mixed Emotions still has a luxurious vibe that comes naturally to fun electro-pop records, showcased most exquisitely on “Rain Delay”, “Abbey” and the sentimental “Nonesuch”, but it's never used as a means of covering for one-dimensional songwriting. Tanlines is worthy of honing the 80s muse because their hands-on approach never confuses man with machine.

Below Sea Level - Simon Scott (SUMMER ALBUMS 2012)

Below Sea Level

Simon Scott
12K Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%

Simon Scott’s first release on the 12K imprint deserves mention firstly for being his most personal. Below Sea Level is the culmination of two years the former Slowdive drummer spent visiting the Fens marshland in eastern England – a spot both agriculturally controversial and sentimental to Scott’s childhood – to track field recordings and expose the musicality of his memories. The results lay as the backbone to these seven tracks, over which Scott blurred guitar and synthesizer, in real time, during his stays there.

As well as representing Scott’s childhood and ancestral ties, Below Sea Level proves a remarkable merger of purely organic soundscapes and leftfield electronics; in short, because it’s often difficult to dissect which is which. Tracks two and three (note: each track is numerical as sequenced) bleed like reedy drones under the wavering of looping harmonics and swathes of digital backwash. But just as often, Scott steps back from the ambient tussle and lets the landscape speak back in birdcalls, amphibian croaks, water ripples, and nearby machinery. The reality of Scott’s location causes a virtual standstill during track four, overwhelming any traditional song-form, whereas it weaves a bubbling catharsis into track seven’s celestial electronics. Best yet are the tracks where Scott fingerpicks some guitar into the aural scenery, providing bucolic timbres of psychedelia that are simple but inspiring.

To those few listeners aware of the territory’s conflicted history, Below Sea Level will likely plumb deeper emotional depths but even oblivious fans should ascribe to the record’s stark and seasonal affinity. In some cases, Scott seems to be playing for the present moment, merely coexisting with a complicated patch of nature. In its most satisfying moments, however, Below Sea Level sounds like a poignant farewell.

Spanish Moss And Total Loss - Shout Out Out Out Out (SUMMER ALBUMS 2012)

Spanish Moss And Total Loss

Shout Out Out Out Out
Normals Welcome Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

“We do play fun dance music, but the lyrical content is usually a little more dire. In terms of lyricism, it's always been important to me to be singing about things that are actually going on, and difficult for me, but I don't want the band to be a total bummer all the time.” – Nik Kozub, from Exclaim! interview

Everything from the band’s name down to the reputation of their catalog has seemingly hinged on a party ethic – their name elongated for mind-bending reveries, their fat beats primed for speakers aimed sloppily out of bedroom windows. At least that’s how I viewed the band and their loyal audience: as cosmic kids more interested in raising heartbeats per minute than delivering double-edged swords so sharp, they’re nearly bipolar. But that’s the clever prick of Spanish Moss And Total Loss, a carefully nuanced paradox that hides a lot of heartbreak behind the party exterior.

While Nik Kozub makes clear that the band’s matching of good vibes and sour lyrics has been a well-trodden approach, it’s arguably never been as addicting as on Spanish Moss And Total Loss. Of course it never hurts to have a barn-burning opener like “Now That I’ve Given Up Hope, I Feel Much Better” to launch things properly, its elastic bass and handclap rhythm thrown off-kilter by a haunted piano refrain. From that highlight, Shout Out Out Out Out dive into spaced-out kosmiche (“How Do I Maintain, Part 3”), vocoder-fed techno (“Wayward Satellite”) and saxophone-assisted electro-pop (“Never the Same Way Twice”) without betraying the emotional duality that creates their simmering conflict.

The Edmonton-based six-piece don’t repeat themselves although their template does show some dilution by the time “Knowing” lurches tepidly to a close. Preceding track “Lessons In Disappearing” anticipates that soft collapse, taking the swagger from late disco on an autopilot romp. One could argue that Spanish Moss And Total Loss bails on the party by its final third but, more than likely, the back-end’s busy synths provide an artifice to distract from the band’s declining emotional commitment. Maybe that numbness is an honest result after the party’s peak has passed, or who knows – maybe Shout Out Out Out Out are lessening their grip on the vocoder in order to express deeper analog-based chasms. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Clear Moon - Mount Eerie

Clear Moon

Mount Eerie
P.W. Elverum & Sun Ltd.

SCQ Rating: 75%

At a glimpse, Phil Elverum’s muse, particularly under his Mount Eerie guise, seems largely focused on one mountainous patch of the Pacific Northwest. Yet surprisingly, like an aging love letter to Anacortes, Washington, the last decade of Elverum’s career has adventured a series of artistic maneuvers that only the casual fan could consider genre-exercises. However distinctly the metal leanings of Wind’s Poem might grate against Lost Wisdom’s pared down folk, they all speak a language of isolation and lay out a treacherous sonic geography. This year’s Clear Moon not only relieves any fears brought on by 2010’s patchy odds-and-sods opus Song Islands Vol 2, it represents a triumph in his perpetual search for identity and home.

Featuring methodical acoustic strumming and deeply sparse percussion, “Through the Trees Pt 2” finds the Mount Eerie trademarks neatly aligned but pitted in a tonal overcast of dull synth-layers rumbling in the background. Narrative-wise, one might imagine Clear Moon unfolding similarly to 2003's Mount Eerie’s tale of a boy journeying toward the peak of his hometown; similarly, “Through the Trees Pt 2” carries a complacent calm that only hints at the desperate times laying in wait. Darkly psychedelic dirges like “The Place Lives” and the terrifying title track sit just past the horizon but the trip is tempered by compositions that keep Elverum an unpredictable songwriter. The rhythmic menacing of “House Shape” keeps the momentum fresh while the bombastic horn presence on “Lone Bell” shimmers with iridescent hope.

A wide-eyed look at the terrifying, looming and beautiful, Clear Moon showcases Phil Elverum’s vehicle in yet another atmospheric setting. It reads as bleak – and, make no mistake, it is – but there’s also something in the way Elverum arranges his darkness that latches onto listeners in a fun way. Those who take comfort in completely inhospitable records will roundly rejoice.

Portals - Eras


Tranzmundane Music / Bandcamp.

SCQ Rating: 74%

Without having lived it, I can still imagine a time when monochromatic album covers and illegible band names suggested the vast possibilities of independent music’s leftfield. Here in the Bandcamp era, however, they make pretty lousy bedfellows. It would be a dangerous first impression for a young artist to welcome even had Nathaniel Eras’ chosen sound not converged with the experimental electronic fringe that so many reclusive laptop artists now throw their names at. But for those of you who agree with the above sentiments and are, by deduction, modern cynics, take heed: Eras gives a jolt of brainy goodness to a scene ripe with talent but unerringly cloned over.

Beneath the industrial stomps that shellshock “Coma” and the saturated hiss spilling out of “Taxa” waits a convincing melodic sensibility, capable of reorganizing the initial clamoring into something deviously constructed but unique in mood. “Deus” reveals this strength early on Portals, infiltrating a distant choral with an assortment of toybox chimes and minimal touches of bass. “Abeo” and “Ares” continue uncovering Eras’ keen but quiet ear with subtle beat workouts that tonally call to mind Aphex Twin’s Drukqs. These simmering tracks belie the popular impulse to tack some sort of euphoric explosion at the close. It’s Eras’ restlessness, felt in nearly inaudible twists and turns, which prevents the record from getting sleepy.

Granted I’ve been neglecting to mention a half of Portals more menacing than meditative. “Eros” makes an early impression, strutting out in digitized arpeggios, swelling R & B basslines and a thick trip-hop beat. “Oath”, on the other hand, chants and squeals its way through an imaginary horror soundtrack that’s rather unnerving. Despite some uneasy listening, the latter example probably benefits Portals even if it isn’t exactly my cup of tea, providing traction and variety to counter the agitated beauty of the calmer highlights. In any case, Eras reaffirms why people should wander Bandcamp’s daunting universe. Because sometimes, you find life.

Aufheben - Brian Jonestown Massacre (No Ripcord Review)


Brian Jonestown Massacre
A Records.

No Ripcord Rating: 9
SCQ Rating: 87%

If there’s an obligatory mention regarding The Brian Jonestown Massacre more tired than references to the increasingly time-capsuled documentary Dig!, it’s the assertion that Anton Newcombe makes music 'to do drugs to'. The very straightforwardness of it almost screams like an English as Second Language translation, not to mention a backhanded compliment to records as stand-alone brilliant as Give It Back! and Bravery, Repetition and Noise. Newcombe may exude an addict’s smoky snarl when surfacing over the mesmerizingly lethargic “Gaz Hilarant” but he’s actually been sober for over two years, which all but highlights my main beef with “music to do drugs to”: namely, what music can’t you do drugs to? An album that’s too sedate? Or bands whose performances are too high-strung? Or are we really talking about whatever music you don’t like?

By that understanding, if Aufheben – a German word meaning “to lift up” as well as “to abolish” – warrants the “drug music” flair on its digi-pack sleeve, it’s because these eleven songs, under any influence or none, prove very likeable. Better integrating the world-music interests boasted on 2010’s Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? to BJM’s classic retro-futurist rock tendencies, Newcombe has constructed his most level-headed and consistently engaging record since …And This Is Our Music back in 2003. Of the methodical percussion, subtle 60s bass breakdowns and dreamy vibes floating overtop, “I Want to Hold Your Other Hand” validates Newcombe as a still convincing prodigy on days he’s disinterested in chaos and destruction. Disciplined songwriting echoes that good behaviour during other mid-tempo head-grooves like “The Clouds Are Lies” and “Stairway To the Best Party In the Universe”, the latter deserving a place in the batter’s box of any forthcoming BJM hits collection.

Don’t mistake Newcombe’s good behaviour for playing it safe though, as Aufheben teases these mellow, Krautrock tunes between scores of exotic string-arrangements and left-field instrumentals. Not terribly unlike Sgt. Pepper’s opener “Tempo 116.7”, “Panic In Babylon” sets the tone with an urgent drum-beat, Eastern horns and a palpable sense of good old-fashioned, old-world dread while “Face Down On the Moon” opts for a more meditative slice of lead flute and sitar harmonics. Match these instrumentals with “Viholliseni Maalla”, a potent dream-pop collaboration with vocalist Eliza Karmasalo, and Aufheben balances well the alien and expected poles of one stunning vista.

Perhaps more importantly, the tumultuous outfit’s thirteenth full-length makes a persuasive bid to those still clamoring over Dig! highlights, insisting that The Brian Jonestown Massacre have survived their own implosion. Having concreted a new core of top-notch musicians who can handle his personality (Spaceman 3’s Will Carruthers and BJM veteran Matt Hollywood), Newcombe’s forging ahead with Aufheben, making “out there” music reliant on no fan’s opinions, no record company’s advances and no instant magic from a ziplock bag. In other words, a brave new world.

(This review was originally published on No Ripcord...)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Exercises - CFCF


Paper Bag Records.

SCQ Rating: 81%

2009’s Continent felt at once out of time and perfectly suited to the year’s turning fashions: Balaeric, old school analog beats and even some hints of chill-wave. The concoction fit together like a twelve-piece puzzle but in the absence of an oversized ego, CFCF mastermind Michael Silver’s grab-bag of influences almost came off as too easy, too slick. Even now, the records best moments – arguably some of the best electronic gems heard in 2009 – battle against neighbouring songs that, while just as mature, seem to dilute Continent’s overall statement.

Michael Silver needed a bigger persona in order to pass off Continent’s ambitions as more than simple generosity. Here, on Exercises, the trappings of artistic ego fall in Silver’s favour. The 24-year-old beatsmith remains as veiled behind his compositions as before but with a tighter, low-key focus, this new album nails a special chemistry. Democratically split between Philip Glass styled piano explorations and Gamelan-tinged electronic pieces, Exercises works on a higher level emotionally than its predecessor – and in roughly half of the run-time.

Traces of his other influences remain, and he’s reached back into early synthesizer tones for a few early 80s documentary vibes, but ultimately beat-oriented tracks like “Exercise 2 (School)” and “Exercise 8 (Change)” borrow unique character from their cautious neighbours. Occupied by tidy piano chords and thick swathes of synth, “Exercise 1 (Entry)” and “Exercise 6 (December)” seem skybound, with Silver’s ivories descending like snowflakes against a black canvas. The mini-album’s sure to flex its approach enough to supply at least one stunner – “Exercise 5 (September)”, complete with subdued vocals and a gliding momentum – but it acts less like a dancefloor hit than a euphoric centerpiece to an otherwise somber walk through town. 

Egomodal EP - Max Cooper

Egomodal EP

Max Cooper
Traum Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

Note: this cover art boasts the vinyl track-listing, not the digital version that features eight tracks.

In anticipation of IglooFest, an annual, outdoor dance-party that takes place amid Montreal’s subzero temperatures, I haphazardly downloaded a pair of Max Cooper EPs for the sake of familiarizing myself. What seemed like a simple means to an end grew exponentially with each listen, and by the time I watched Cooper perform over a cloud of icy perspiration a week later, I’d breached a strain of techno that has always felt too inclusive for my liking.

Egomodal EP does belong to a different set of electronic ears – listeners who don’t pay much mind to the more indie-leaning “home-listening electronica”, I suspect – and is organized for uninterrupted momentum. For an hour-long EP, that means almost half of that span belongs to remixes, which sound a lot like Cooper’s originals despite a few extra gears working on overdrive. As for the main draw, Cooper’s five new tracks further the melodically charged vein of Expressions EP into increasingly complex arrangements. Most recognizable of that 2010 release is “Autumn Haze”, a track of crystalline blips that bounce intrepidly over a subtly nostalgic string backing. The challenging “Epitaphy” and “Micron” whirl around devious rhythm loops and haunting atmospheres whereas “Simplexity” takes the experimental route, flirting with industrial and dubstep flavours that muddle Cooper’s primary talents. Although easily one of the composer’s most generous outings, Egomodal EP is also rather patchy, sliding an assortment of remixes that prolong if not protect the record’s playability. (Granted, Rone’s cosmic take on “Simplexity” completely outshines the original.)

Regardless, here’s an artist who, over a dozen releases in, still hasn’t offered a full-length debut and really, who needs one? As long as each year finds another Max Cooper EP or maxi-single that reasserts his peculiar brand of techno, armchair appreciators and dancefloor purists can continue to coexist splendidly.

Max Cooper will be returning to North American shores for Decibel Festival, happening September 26th through 30th.