Darkspace: Dark Space III I

When black metal bands speak of coldness, they usually refer to unforgiving Scandinavian winters, constructing them as both majestic, icy kingdoms and as permafrost hells. Immortal set their infamous videos in Arctic environments and branded themselves as “Blizzard Beasts”, while the guitar tones of influential second-wave bands like Darkthrone and Satyricon resembled the winds of harsh winter storms; Imperial Crystalline Entombment took this obsession to its most absurd extreme, cloaking themselves entirely in white and envisioning a new Ice Age with their sole album Apocalyptic End in White.

Swiss trio Darkspace are concerned with a different coldness, though—specifically, the void and expansive unknown of the universe. Since their first (and only) demo in 2002, Dark Space -I, they’ve created and nurtured a style of black metal heavily indebted to dark ambient, both in the punishing drone of their riffs and in the minimal, chasmic soundscapes. Darkspace—comprised of Wroth and Zhaaral on guitars and vocals, and Zorgh on bass and vocals—apply corpsepaint to their faces like fellow traditionalists, but their appearance is slick and menacing, as if H.R. Giger was their creative consultant. They’re a futuristic black metal group that’s interested in the heavens, but not necessarily divinity. Dark Space III I is their latest album six years after Dark Space III, and the new record represents an apt continuation of their signature style, cementing them as one of the most daring and underrated names in black metal.

III I is divided into three long chunks, leading off with the 27-minute-plus behemoth “Dark 4.18”. Glitchy spurts crack the veneer of the Lustmord-like drone, resembling space debris whizzing by. Pulsating drums enter just before a distant lead pattern, and then the real punishment, the oppressive, almost speedcore-like rhythms, set in. The drum machine gives “Dark 4.18” a mechanical blast that almost borders on EBM, which connects the dots between black metal and electronic music, genres that embrace repetition as a means to an end. “Dark 4.18” is not dance music, mind you—the blasting is relentless, with guitars howling in pain to the stars above. No band captures cosmic indifference better.

One of Darkspace’s strengths is that they incorporate familiar metal elements and, through their galactic lens, render them foreign. They can’t help but be influenced by the mid-paced mastery of fellow Swiss resident and current Triptykon/ex-Celtic Frost frontman Tom G. Warrior, which is plenty evident on “Dark 4.19”. The main riff is a groove held hostage, almost too catchy for its own good; it almost threatens the concentration that III I demands of the listener. There’s tapping solos far removed from instructional video wankery, trailing towards parts unknown—rare flickers of light, with no flash. Wroth is also the man behind Paysage d’Hiver (where he records under “Wintherr”), a project that focuses exclusively on the frostbitten side of black metal; here, he mutates one form of coldness into another, seamlessly. 

“Dark 4.20” finds Darkspace taking a meaner turn in their disorientation. The groove riffs sound choppier, and the blasting only grows more cacophonic as the song progresses. There are faint screams and growls throughout, which highlight Darkspace’s tendency to de-emphasize vocals on III I. All three members are screaming into space, but that’s a lot of area to cover, and that helplessness is essential to Darkspace’s vision. At full speed, the guitars create a choral effect that’s louder and more capable of communicating a sense of terror than any human voice could. It all ends with another low-rumbling hum, the nearly-quiet discomfort the album began with. There’s no comedown here—the battery stops, its oxygen stripped.

III I is not an album of convenience. Music this pitch-black demands a state of isolation, from light and from people, to be fully appreciated. This is an album that takes the listener through a seemingly endless mirror of our anxieties about what constitutes “beyond”—beyond life, the Earth, the sun swallowing us, and our conceptions of black metal. III I asks a lot from its listeners, and it delivers one of the year’s best black metal albums in return.

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Sam Amidon: Lily-O

The centerpiece of Sam Amidon’s fifth proper record is a nine-minute song called “Lily-O”, which opens with Amidon singing a lengthy a cappella epilogue about three suitors courting three ladies. It’s austerely quiet until two minutes into the song, when a second instrument enters—a single crackle of electric guitar, sharp and splintery, like a log sparking in a fireplace. Amidon is settling in for a long story that is less about marriage and more about betrayal, violence, death, and loss. “Lily-O”, we soon learn, is a murder ballad, with one brutal stabbing followed by a long list of bequeathals. “Oh what will you leave to your brother John, oh Lily-O?” he asks. “The rope and gallows to hang him on.”

Despite the grimness of the subject matter, Amidon never raises his voice, preferring instead to deliver the tale with a calm that borders on psychopathic. He would rather let the other instruments express the characters’ hope and grief and outrage as best they can: that electric guitar gives way to a jittery acoustic strum, which is joined by a skittering snare drum and some stray electronic bloops and bleeps. Sounding as though the song’s guts are spilling out, the din is perhaps intended to evoke the psychological state of the murderer, or to provoke some moral response in the listener. The players certainly are up to the task: Amidon is an accomplished banjo player and fiddler, the scion of a family steeped in folk tradition, and he’s joined by the ace rhythm section of bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Chris Vatalaro. And that chiming, slicing guitar is played by Bill Frisell, the legendarily eclectic musician who has performed with John Zorn, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Elvis Costello, among too many others to list.

So why does both “Lily-O” and the album of the same title fall so flat? Recording in Reykjavik with Valgeir Sigurðsson (who has produced albums by Björk and Bonnie “Prince” Billy), the makeshift band captured most of the album in single takes, playing together in the studio and indulging only minimal overdubs. Rather than producing a more urgent album or at least one that sounds rawer or wilder in its performances, Lily-O too often sounds distracted by small flourishes—the jazzy piano interlude between “Won’t Turn Back” and “Maid Lamenting”, for instance—at the expense of variation and shape. These songs are all pitched in the same mode and the same mood, as though each expresses the same dreamy reverie. As a result, the whole is persistently wistful, as its uniform tone overrides the nuance of the actual subject matter. In other words, the sorrowful “Maid Lamenting” and the contented “Devotion” strike the same chord of melancholy as the work song “Walkin’ Boss” and “Groundhog Variations”, which is about frying and eating whistle-pig brains. 

Somehow, Lily-O is Amidon’s most deliberate-sounding album, despite the spontaneity of its creation. He’s a fine instrumentalist with a wily sense of rhythm, especially when he bangs out the tricky patterns of “Pat Do This, Pat Do That”, but he can be a limited vocalist. Amidon sings every line in the past tense, even if it’s not conjugated as such, as though these songs are all memories fluttered around his brain during some lonely evening. The title track sounds like some repressed trauma gently resurfacing, yet Amidon cannot make those horrors sound immediate or dangerous. Every drama and every emotion sounds like it is safely put away in the past, with nothing to disrupt the present or to affect the living. On previous albums, Amidon has scrambled our sense of time by including old-time covers of new-time songs like Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” and Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels”, but there is nothing on Lily-O to break the spell these musicians have too carefully cast. In other words, there is nothing to get Amidon out of his own head or out of our collective past. 

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Tinashe: Aquarius

It was the Platonic ideal of a 2014 chart-topper (Mustard on the beat—check; cheeky interpolation of a throwback hit—check; benevolent but ultimately useless Drake remix—check), so it’s no huge surprise that “2 On”, the star-making lead single from Tinashe’s debut album, Aquarius, proved to be a bit of a red herring. And while it’s still probably the best song of the Los Angeles singer/songwriter’s career, ultimately that’s a good thing. Tinashe’s post-“2 On” rise may have seemed sudden (and especially glaring, in a year where male voices overwhelmed the R&B charts), but the 21-year-old is hardly a rookie. After devoting most of her teenage years to the Stunners, a Vitamin C-founded quintet that briefly toured with Justin Bieber, she spent the last few years at work on a steady stream of promising, if unpolished, mixtapes recorded in her home studio. Those tapes—filled with dusky ballads for spooning a laptop and sounding quite at home among the glut of zoned-out, “alternative” R&B artists—got her a deal with RCA Records, but if the distance between her gently trippy mixtape work and the glossy ratchet-pop of “2 On” seemed potentially unbridgeable, it’s because she never intended to bridge it in the first place. Instead, Aquarius is an anomaly in an age of major label standardization: a debut done unmistakably on Tinashe’s own terms.

Much of Aquarius feels like an ambitious extension of Tinashe’s mixtape tracks, elevated to professional quality where they once felt muddled while leaving breadcrumb trails of idiosyncratic details leading back to her bedroom-producer past—distorted guitar solos, eerie found-sound interludes, somber spoken word bits. Sure, sometimes it’s a little much: wide-eyed lines like “What is truth, if truth is subjective?” read more like “Ever seen the back of a $20 bill on weed?” similar to peer Jhené Aiko, another recent indie-to-major transitioner with a penchant for dorm-room stoner koans. Mostly, though, Tinashe’s polished her act without dulling her edge, as the most interesting tracks on Aquarius come closest to approaching anything remotely like a radio hit—consider “How Many Times”, a Janet Jackson-referencing, late-’80s worshipping duet with Future so sultry it renders his shouty “Sh!t” flow as aphrodisiacal.

But Tinashe’s most straightforward songs come with dark subtexts. Production-wise, second single “Pretend” has all the bite of an Avril Lavigne ballad playing during the break between “Lizzie McGuire” episodes (not necessarily a knock—somehow Detail’s mushiest productions are always his best) but the lyrics find Tinashe pretending her deadbeat boyfriend, played by A$AP Rocky, isn’t a scumbag so they can get it in a few more times. “All Hands On Deck”, the album’s sole answer to “2 On”’s club-readiness, has shadowy corners not often found in radio ratchetry, and that’s not counting the song’s pan-flute breakdown: what first reads as a blithe dance instructional swiftly devolves into caustic post-break-up stunting, as Tinashe snarls, “Kiss the old me goodbye/ She’s dead and gone.”

Though Tinashe’s held on to the self-reliant tendencies that guided her mixtape days, the sense of disembodiment, sometimes verging on aloofness, that often present in her early work—a recurring pitfall of the production-driven “alt-R&B” she once fit into—is mercifully absent. Somewhat paradoxically, too, working with a bigger team has made it clearer than ever that ultimately, she’s calling the shots; even with such a breadth of instantly recognizable collaborators, from Mike WiLL Made It to Clams Casino to Devonté Hynes, the vision remains wholly Tinashe’s throughout. As she’s shed the trappings of distinctly 2010s R&B for something less easily time-stamped, she’s revealed a new and very telling set of inspirations, unmistakably the product of coming of age in the Y2K era of R&B, where Janet Jackson and Aaliyah gracefully countered choreography-happy, big-budget smashes with flashes of something darker and deeply personal.

Tinashe has a bit of the coy, collected swagger of less canonical, “Total Request Live”-era mainstays such as Mya or Christina Milian, too—especially in the sauntering “Thug Cry”—but for all that early-‘00s worship, Tinashe’s unshakeable faith in her own vision could only really pay off in a climate like right now, where a record deal is hardly the end-all be-all to a legitimate career. If the risk-taking featured on Aquarius doesn’t pan out, she can do it herself—she already has—so why not use the momentum of the biggest song of your career to propel you in the complete opposite direction?

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SBTRKT: Wonder Where We Land

It may not have maintained the low-key genre-fusing mystique that it had back in 2011, but SBTRKT’s highly enjoyable nexus of R&B, bass music, house, and dubstep on his self-titled debut still sounds as sleekly well-balanced as it did four years back. The music’s appeal hasn’t changed, but what it means has, at least where career-arc-plotting curiosity is concerned. Its release saw Aaron Jerome move from across-the-board multigenre remixer (Basement Jaxx‘s “Scars”; M.I.A.‘s “XXXO”; Mark Ronson‘s “Bang Bang Bang”) to someone wielding a consolidated, self-contained signature sound, which gave his future endeavors a lot of promise.

What SBTRKT means now, however — especially in the wake of a you-had-to-be-there live album and three underdone instrumental EPs tellingly named Transitions—is weighted down by the old expectation-dashing “what could have been” question. It’s not always a given, but the sophomore slump for rising artists pushing into pop crossover potential is frequent enough that even looking at the guest list for Wonder Where We Land looks like a warning that he’s tried to mess with the formula Too Much Too Soon. And the music bears it out: if you think the idea of an album that tries to incorporate scene-stealing hip-hop and indie rock figures into a once emotionally nuanced style is ominous enough, the execution is somehow even more chaotic.

Let’s dig to the core first: three years would be a long time to wait for a slight re-envisioning of what worked the first time, but the finer points on this record nearly approach the better midpoints of the debut. Sampha‘s coolly ambivalent yet reservedly powerful vocals have always been one of the stronger elements in SBTRKT’s arsenal, and he’s all over this record: Fighting against a subwoofer earthquake with multitracked, reverb-blurred warmth that even makes the phrase “what the fuck is that?” sound cosmic on the title track, trembling his way towards a punch-back chorus on “Temporary View”, alternately reining in and showing off his rangy melisma as he slides through the stripped-back disco-house of “Gon Stay”. For an album that features one of Jessie Ware‘s best icily delivered leads since Devotion (“Problem (Solved)”), it’s saying a lot that Sampha is the best thing going on this record.

It’s not saying too much, though. The two best singers on the debut are, perhaps not coincidentally, the two best singers here, while the bigger-name guests—the ones that stretch SBTRKT’s sonic reach the furthest—just don’t work. Ezra Koenig isn’t exactly the most egregious feature here, but the enigmatic jokiness of “New Dorp. New York.” isn’t done any favors by the free-associative lyricism. Are Black Israelites supposed to be wacky NYC cultural flavor? And is the line about “baseball bats that never hit home runs” a reference to threatening weaponry or just another joke at the Mets’ expense? The two hip-hop crossovers trip up the album even more, not so much because they’re not that good but because they just don’t click with the rest of the album: singer/rapper Raury‘s run-on restrained intensity brings a personal edge that isn’t done justice by its ambiguous coffeehouse surroundings. As for A$AP Ferg‘s soul-baring, shakily-singing turn on unlikely closer “Voices in My Head”—detailing his self-medicating efforts to deal with his father’s death—it feels so much like an ambush of untethered feeling that it pretty much washes away the more subdued pleasures of the Sampha, Jessie Ware, and Denai Moore cuts that precede it.

With all the work to try and incorporate these far-afield guest vocalists aside, it’s worth noting that the production itself is more reliant on them than ever. Underneath them, the music is often flat and unadventurous, tasteful where it could stand to be raucous and rigid where it needs to be limber. A two-minute arpeggio-riddled uptempo cut called “Lantern” is the most energizing moment here, as the rest of the backing tracks lean so heavily on darkly hovering minor-key bass murmurs, gloomy piano chords, and soppily distorted digital strings that it’s easy to forget how intriguingly off-kilter some of his drums can be. From here on out, expecting SBTRKT to promise anything in particular is going to feel like a gamble, and probably a pointless one. But at least it’s clearer than ever that there’s a side to him which he’s stronger at expressing.

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Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love

“All those brash young studs/ They have no idea what it’s like up here,” Danish punk Elias Bender Rønnenfelt moans over a rolling midtempo drag on the title track to Iceage’s brilliant third album, Plowing Into the Field of Love. The line first scans as a refined upgrade of the band’s usual alienation—a dark basement swapped for an ivory tower. But it also has the same sardonic self-awareness that coats the instantly iconic video for Plowing’s first single, “The Lord’s Favorite”, which featured the really, really, really ridiculously good-looking Rønnenfelt and his youthful comrades smearing lipstick on themselves, taking champagne baths, and enjoying cocktails with (d)ice in their glasses. “Part of me wants to hurt you/ Tear in your hair/ But I don’t do that now,” the singer admits, staring into the camera and lighting a cigarette as the band takes on tricky cowpunk shapes underneath his voice; it is, at the least, a unique approach to acknowledging newfound maturity.

Indeed, Plowing Into the Field of Love finds Iceage growing up on their own terms. Up to this point, they’ve developed incrementally, taking a knife to the rough-around-the-edges teenage fury of the 2011 debut LP New Brigade and cutting fresh, sharp ribbons of flesh on last year’s refined sophomore effort You’re Nothing. Essentially a bolder, somewhat brighter update of what came before, You’re Nothing contained few hints of the baroque terrain that Iceage are traversing now. But the dense lockstep drone that closed out that record’s “Morals” suggested that Iceage could slow things down without losing their dead-eyed sense of passion.

On Plowing, Iceage make a radical shift away from their hack-and-slash past and towards what is, for them, unexplored territory—morose piano balladeering, sprightly country-rock figures, distinctly Irish-sounding drinking anthems. Their journey mirrors the transformation that the punks of the ’80s underwent when devising the perfect alchemy of hardcore’s youthful burn and Americana’s weary shuffle (see Mekons, X, Meat Puppets). So Iceage aren’t exploring new sounds on Plowing, culturally speaking, but nothing they’ve done in the past five years suggested that they were capable of such a transformation. Despite the new approach, Iceage still sound like themselves, so when Asger Valentin’s mournful trumpet cuts through the rolling stomp of “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled”, the most surprising thing about the instrument isn’t its mere presence, but how at-home it sounds amidst the band’s newly considered arrangements.

A sense of steadiness, a measured approach to abandon, marks Iceage’s transformation from a very good band to a Great Band on Plowing. While New Brigade contained bursts of unexpected melodic sweetness, the gruesome You’re Nothing often sounded like it was held together with little more than congealed blood and matted hair. On Plowing, the band swings to the opposite pole, sounding threateningly tight even when walking the edge of full collapse, similar to ’80s-era Sonic Youth’s balance of control and dissonance. Dark piano chords serve as an anchor for “How Many”‘s buzzsaw guitars, embracing a half-time tempo change at the song’s midsection that crashes through the burning scenery; “Cimmerian Shade” kicks off with a hollow pound courtesy of drummer Dan Kjær Nielsen, accented by guitars both brawny and thin-sounding that abrasively scrape against each other. 

Album centerpiece “Stay” somewhat hilariously opens as a waltz in 3/4 time, speeding up uncontrollably at the command of Rønnenfelt’s most operative, visually arresting lyrical aside on Plowing (“Hands/ Become thundering hooves”) before building to a furious burn that stands as Iceage’s finest moment of feral aggression. Plowing’s strangest moment, then, comes in the form of its most straightforward tune: “Abundant Living”, the record’s only sub-three-minute song that one could reasonably listen to while skipping down a sidewalk. Jakob Tvilling Pless wields a jaunty mandolin figure over the band’s besotted sway, which takes on a Gaelic punk resemblance as Rønnenfelt promises in a miserable cadence, “I’ll bring it all down here with me/ Soaked in alcohol.”

Rønnenfelt’s lyrics are front and center throughout Plowing—partially a result of his improved English, as he told Pitchfork recently—and they paint the type of self-portrait you’d expect from a punkish youth in his twenties: fatalistic, ferociously inquisitive, drunk on the promise of tomorrow and even drunker on whatever’s flowing from the tap at this very moment. Images of absent fathers, prison cells, and drowning are evoked, and the album’s parting line—”I am plowing into the field of love/ They will place me in a hearse”—reads as poetically grim as the limited perspective of youth allows. “I have a sense of utopia/ Of what I truly ought to do,” Rønnenfelt proclaims in the middle of “How Many”, and that sense of gritted-teeth naïveté comes to define Plowing Into the Field of Love as a whole. This is the sound of Iceage finding a balance between getting older and seeking immortality by way of leaping into an abandoned-lot fire head-first. It’s beautiful and ugly at the same time and, for now, Iceage have found their own unstable sense of peace.

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Nocturnal Poisoning: Doomgrass

For a musician who first staked his entire reputation on the shadows provided by pseudonyms, Scott Conner is suddenly and certainly full of braggadocio. He spent 15 years hidden behind nested aliases: he was Malefic, or the sole member of the one-man black metal mystery Xasthur, and a one-time contributor to Twilight. But Xasthur released its last record, the divisive Portal of Sorrow, in 2010, and Conner has since shed not just the corpse-painted nicknames but also the shield of distorted electric guitars, primitive drums, and hissing electronics that defined that band.

Now, credited under his own name (or, at the very least, “Scott C.”), he records thin, sullen acoustic music as Nocturnal Poisoning. In liner note selfies, he is clean-shaven and makeup-free. In interviews, he is confident not only about his decision to leave black metal behind but also his technical progression as a fingerpicking summoner of the blues, bluegrass, and country. “Nocturnal Poisoning is actually more technical than Xasthur was,” he said in a recent chat with Noisey. “It’s just more mellow and doesn’t have any of my mediocre drumming.” To that end, he titled the third Noctural Poisoning album in three years Doomgrass, an illustrative portmanteau of doom metal and bluegrass. The creation and naming of a new genre from whole cloth? That’s a pretty heavy burden to wrap around the neck of any project, especially the first album not to be self-released in a very limited edition. But Conner, who climbed inside a coffin to sing for Sunn O))) a decade ago, has never been one for soft statements.

But the results are embarrassing. Doomgrass is an interminable 14-track slog through inconsequential guitar instrumentals and croaked-and-groaned high-school diary entries, laughably sung by Noctural Poisoning’s only collaborator to date, Robert Nesslin. The previous Nocturnal Poisoning albums have been mostly inoffensive affairs of acoustic strum-alongs, backed by modest percussion, mild effects and Nesslin’s occasional vocal contributions. As he’d been with Xasthur, Conner seemed comfortable with a defiant sort of primitivism, where the music’s cumulative effect and feeling mattered much more than the compositional acumen.

Doomgrass would be difficult to appreciate just as a neofolk record, or even as a continuation of Death in June’s own shambling acoustic misery. Conner, though, is in the uncomfortable position of trying to pass off looped and delayed guitars as bona fide technical merit in two fields where skill can be difficult to fake. His “licks” are little more than a patchwork pastiche of sputtering arpeggios and bent strings, dispatched with the kind of lightweight tone that suggests a college freshman learning the tablature to “Dancing Nancies” on a used Ovation. “Vagrant, Seeker of Empty Treasures” vaguely recalls Doc Watson’s heavy thumb and swift fingers, “Bet It All” the quick progressions of Clarence White. But there are entire skills absent from Conner’s set, and they limit him to the insulting side of passable. Doomgrass suggests a translation where the interpreter, though cocksure, knows one language well but only has a rudimentary grasp of the second tongue.

If that sounds rough, wait until you hear the words, and the way they’re sung. Conner wrote these lyrics, which amount to little more than dire reflections scribbled in the back of a notebook during a lunch break. There are misery clichés galore—“Roses you never smell,” “Become yesterday’s news,” and so on—and the prevailing sense that Conner has been too busy learning how to complain about life to live. He trades the experiential focus of the folk music he appropriates for empty lines about no money and dirty cities. Nesslin does his best to give the words the gravitas they demand, but his strained, dark-blues croon is mostly funny, as if he’s moaning these tunes from a toilet stall. Above the trebly guitar and light percussion of “Can’t Find the Sky,” he sings, “Life is a phase and a failed test/ Wait for God to clean up the mess,” doubling his voice so as to sound doubly mean. Try not to giggle.

Bluegrass, blues, and old-time music, like most all other folk arts in the world, can sometimes suffer assumptions that, simply because they’re old, they’re quaint and genteel. That is, we tend to teach our children Mother Maybelle Carter’s big-time version of “Keep on the Sunny Side” rather than the apocalyptic meltdown of “When the World’s on Fire”, which she sang long before with her parents. But that view is a bleached and sterilized reality, of course, one that doesn’t recognize the way that this music has long worked as an anchor in times of crisis. Bluegrass and folk music at large are nothing if not full of doom—hell, “Rank Strangers,” the standard of the bluegrass gospel canon, essentially suggests that, if you leave home for too long, everyone you know will be dead (or at least gone) when you return.

So every antediluvian form that Conner tries to wrangle for his woe has a well-established pedigree of melancholy, but he seems to have missed that memo. That alone is not a reason to discount Conner’s attempt to weld doom metal to folk, but it’s certainly a reason to hope he could have as much deference for one side of that equation as he seems to have for the other. And maybe Conner will get there, since he seems newly devoted to practice, perfection, and building his repertoire piecemeal. Perhaps in a decade, Doomgrass will be a foundation for something that actually deserves to be called that. But for now, it’s hard not to hear these songs of self-pity and wish that, like a rank stranger, Xasthur would simply slip back into the shadows. 

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Excepter: Familiar

By all rights, Familiar should be the sound of Excepter falling apart, or at least picking up the pieces. In 2011 they lost member Clare Amory to cancer, and her partner, band member Nathan Corbin, decided he couldn’t continue in the group without her. Founder John Fell Ryan and his wife and bandmate Lala Harrison Ryan moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, then returned. It’s been four years since Excepter’s last full-length, Presidence, so it’s reasonable to expect Familiar to reflect this disarray, especially since their open-ended jams have always sounded on the verge of collapse.

But Familiar turns out to be one of the most focused efforts in this idiosyncratic band’s 12-year history. Some tracks are practically pop songs compared to Excepter’s standard wandering sound, and even the more abstract pieces have distinct shape and purpose. Part of this is due to a plan conceived long before Amory passed away: to make songs with “familiar” instruments and melodies, some even nodding to nursery rhymes. The group had only a week to record during a 2012 European tour, so efficiency was at a premium; what makes Familiar impressive isn’t those goals (Excepter has veered toward conventional structure before), but that the results feel natural. There’s no sense of the band squeezing awkwardly into new costumes. Everything fits well; each sonic element is right where it belongs.

This unforced unity is clearest when comparing more melodic tracks to looser siblings. Opener “Maids”, with Lala’s ethereal chants riding a wave of cresting beat, is their catchiest song since the ear-worming “‘Rock’ Stepper” (from 2006’s Alternation, the only Excepter album that matches Familiar in sharpness). Yet “Same Address, Different City”, which sees John drooling like Mark E. Smith over meandering electronic squiggles, manages to scale as high as “Maids”. Similar parallels emerge when you put new-wave-ish “Palace to Palace” next to mantra-like “Grinning in Your Face”: one relies on hook and the other on repetition, yet both build momentum without wasting a single breath.

The most thrilling example of Familiar’s laser focus comes on a seven-minute mini-masterpiece called “Destroy”. It’s Corbin’s only contribution to the album, a piece he recorded with Amory when she was ill, in hopes of destroying her sickness with sound. Even though it was created separately from the rest of Familiar, it fully encapsulates the record’s strengths. Spraying whirring noise and morse-like transmissions over a pile-driving beat, “Destroy” is deceptively chaotic: jump to any point and it’s like waking up in a hailstorm, but chart it from start to finish and a near-classical sense of order emerges, with each element replacing its predecessor logically and mesmerizingly.

As if to emphasize the structured-ness of Familiar, Excepter closes the album with a cover of Tim Buckley’s 1970 ballad “Song to the Siren”. It’s the spot where the group most risks sounding like someone else, but rippling keyboard and Ryan’s long moans wash the tune in Excepter vibes. Still, it’s a daring move, and makes it tempting to paint this album as a complete rebirth for a band who deserves one. But their journey hasn’t exactly been linear, and they’re just as likely to throw a curveball next time as they are to continue down Familiar’s excellent, distinctive path.

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The Vaselines: V for Vaselines

The Vaselines have never been ones for opportune timing. Already disbanded by the time their debut album, Dum-Dum, was released in 1989, ex-lovers-cum-ex-bandmates Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee should have by all conventional wisdom reconciled in the early ’90s to capitalize on their rarified standing as one of the most-covered artists in the Nirvana discography (a benefit that did at least trickle down to a short-lived major-label deal for Kelly’s post-Vaselines band Eugenius). Instead, they waited until 2008—just enough time for their biggest claim to fame to lose its currency to a new generation of kids who may have a passing familiarity with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but aren’t about to study Kurt Cobain’s record collection. 

After the now de rigueur reissue/reunion-tour cycle, they released Sex With an X—their first new album in over two decades—to show that age had no maturing effect on their puerile innuendo and bashful blasphemy. The record also seemingly gave the band a proper burial, putting a cap on a legacy they couldn’t have possibly imagined when they when they were strumming out lascivious lo-fi lullabies like “Rory Rides Me Raw”. After all, the last song on X was titled “Exit the Vaselines”, which, beyond its knowing full-circle allusion to the 2009 early-recordings comp Enter the Vaselinesleft us with a pitch-perfect epitaph: “It’s only goodbye.” For a band that became indie rock icons by accident, it felt like a suitably self-effacing note to go out on

As it turns out, there was still one matter of unfinished business to tend to. With no back catalog left to plunder and the comeback-LP angle already played, the Vaselines have effectively returned with the 20th-anniversary reissue of an album that never existed—in other words, V for Vaselines is the sort of radio-ready record Kelly and McKee might’ve released in 1994 had they stuck it out long enough to get signed by DGC, hire Gil Norton as producer, and score a fluke Buzz Bin hit to get sandwiched between Veruca Salt and Weezer in heavy MTV rotation. That may not be welcome news for those who fell in love with the Vaselines for their off-the-cuff intimacy and try-anything-once grab-bag experimentation, but, in stark contrast to the predictable ’89-throwback slackness of Sex With an X, V for Vaselines is surprisingly the band’s punchiest, most polished effort to date. (That motorcycle you see McKee straddling on the hilariously Tom of Finland-esque album cover isn’t just some sexually suggestive prop, but the vehicle of choice for road-testing these power-pop pick-me-ups.)

Reportedly inspired by a restoked appreciation for the Ramones, V for Vaselines doesn’t so much approximate the bruddahs’ buzzsaw attack as their hooky immediacy, to the point where a casual mid-tempo gallop like “Inky Lies” feels every bit as spirited and effervescent as asphalt-ripping rockers like “High Tide Low Tide” and “Number One Crush”. But while the Vaselines may never totally outgrow their affinity for tawdry metaphor (“There was a time when all I had was sorrow/ But I met you, so I go boom with you”), V for Vaselines eases up on some of the cheekiness without sacrificing their charm, whether it’s McKee acknowledging her preference for slow-motion living in a totally wired world (“I’m not in it to win it,” she admits on the careening “Earth Is Speeding”), or hearing this playfully combative former couple restage a lovers spat on the beautifully breezy ballad “Single Spies”.

Even at a swift 34 minutes, V for Vaselines doesn’t always adhere to Ramones-like standards of brevity—the songs here tend to follow a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus-chorus pattern that can make even a three-minute thriller like “One Lost Year” feel a tad overlong. But maybe all that repetition is the Vaselines’ way of saying of enjoy it while it lasts—on the “Just Like Honey”-dipped closer, “Last Half Hour”, Kelly and McKee sign off by singing, “Switch on, switch off, turn the lights low/ Final curtain, end of the show.” Whether this is indeed the end or just the set-up ruse for their next comeback, V for Vaselines leaves a lasting pop smear.

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Underworld: Dubnobasswithmyheadman (20th Anniversary Remaster)

The path Underworld took to get to Dubnobasswithmyheadman, their extraordinary “first” album in the second phase of the band, was full of dashed hopes and improbable left turns. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, to this day the nucleus of the band, were previously known for being in the synth inflected new wave band Freur, whose “Doot-Doot” was a minor hit in 1983. A couple of albums as Underworld followed, until that phase of the band flopped quietly to a close after a 1989 North American tour supporting Eurythmics. It’s unlikely many people noticed the band had gone on hiatus, although Smith in particular appears to have seen it as a fresh start rather than an ignominious close. While Hyde stayed behind in New York, hurtling toward anonymity as a guitarist in Debbie Harry’s band, Smith was holed up in his studio in Essex, arguably the birthplace of rave, working on material with a much younger collaborator, DJ Darren Emerson.

The backwards way Underworld evolved was typical of similar UK acts of the era, most of whom were similarly inclined toward blowing dance and electronic music out into bigger spaces. The Orb’s Alex Paterson backed into ambient music through stints as a roadie for Killing Joke and work as an A&R man; Primal Scream went from pleasant Byrds-inspired jangle merchants to acid glazed indie-dance pioneers; Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, got his start playing bass in the politicized effete rock of the Housemartins. The effect worked in reverse, too: the Prodigy were dyed-in-the-wool ravers who blew up by taking on certain characteristics of rock, even hiring a live guitarist with the none-more-punk name of Gizz Butt. Underworld’s roots were also in rock, giving them a sensibility that looked far beyond dance music’s insular white-label culture, coupled with an approach that was more album oriented than the average dance act. In short, despite past mishaps, their ambition was completely off the charts.

It’s easy to ascribe this in retrospect, but Underworld’s ascent fits perfectly with the surge of confidence that flowed through both overground and underground music in Britain in the early-to-mid ’90s. You can hear it in the sharply defined angles of jungle and drum’n’bass, or in the masterfully lethargic grooves of trip-hop, or, of course, in the major Britpop acts. In 1990, the KLF launched their “stadium house” trilogy (“What Time Is Love?”, “3 a.m. Eternal”, “Last Train to Trancentral”), giving it a name that suggested house was moving beyond the club and chart environs it had largely existed in up to that point. They weren’t wrong; by the end of the decade, bands such as Orbital, the Prodigy, and Underworld were headlining major stages at festivals in the UK. Dubnobass, released in 1994, is a key release in both that journey and the planet-sized thinking of EDM, which plays out as a further manifestation of its ideas.

This five-disc release offers an exhaustive trawl through Underworld’s archives from the era, presenting a fuller picture of where the band were at immediately prior to the release of this record. There’s a disc of singles, including vital pre-album tracks such as the version of “Dirty” released as Lemon Interrupt, and the all-encompassing “Rez”—the latter such a strong part of their identity, especially in its live incarnation all wrapped up in “Cowgirl”, that it shows what riches they had on their hands that it didn’t make the final album. There’s also a disc of remixes, a disc of unreleased takes, and, most curious of all, an entire disc devoted to a series of live rehearsals that would become the Dubnobass tracks. The idea that these weren’t studio creations, but actually came out of something approaching live improvisation, feels improbable when hearing the strongly executed final product, although it’s likely a key part in explaining how adept Underworld were at pushing this stuff out into a live context.

The album itself has been considerably sharpened in its remastered form, with Smith taking it to Abbey Road and subtly pulling out textures that occasionally sounded muted on the original pressing. Hyde’s lyrics can still be problematic, with his cut-up style veering wildly between inspiration and moments of corniness, although the force of ideas on Dubnobass largely covers up the lyrical patchiness in ways other Underworld albums haven’t always managed. Here, he imbues the songs with a feeling of seediness, of bad sex and nights slumped in regret, giving the album a deeper undercurrent than something you can just get mashed off your face to in a club (although it also serves that purpose). Hyde’s at his best when lost in short mantras, such as the repeating verses of “Spoonman”, where he matches the trance-like flow of the music, his voice tweaked so it barely sounds human at times, becoming totally subsumed in groove and forward momentum.

The stretch through “Spoonman”, “Tongue”, “Dirty Epic”, and “Cowgirl” shows what acute listeners this band were, but it also highlights how skilled they were at assimilating contrasting ideas into their sound. “Tongue” borrows something from the ambient drift echoing through chillout rooms at clubs during this time, with Hyde multi-tracking his vocals in a way that makes him sound not unlike future collaborator Brian Eno. On “Dirty Epic”, Underworld demonstrate their mastery of subtle builds and strange fusions, cutting plinky-plonky house piano across needlelike bursts of electric guitar, with Hyde’s central lyric (“I get my kicks on channel 6”) suggesting someone lost in a world as lonely as it is unsavory. “Cowgirl” remains their most carefully honed club banger, drawing on screaming acid lines and dense drum patterns that feel like a precursor to LCD Soundsystem’s “Yeah”. It’s not hard to see some of Hyde in James Murphy and vice versa, especially as both were old hands coming to this game, bringing a dose of reflection to music that’s so often focussed solely on the now.

There are highlights in the rest of the material here (the Irish Pub in Kyoto mix of “Cowgirl”, the big beat workover of “Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You” in its “Telegraph 16.11.92” mix), along with things that are little more than historical curios (the 18-minute version of “Spoonman” on the rehearsals disc; the country-fied, Thrashing Doves-indebted “Bigmouth” from the same disc), and an admirable willingness to put things out there that don’t appear to fit anywhere in their career (the lite pop/reggae of “Can You Feel Me?” on the disc of unreleased material, which feels like an unexpected callback to the Freur era). It’s a well put-together set, with a logic to each part that offers insight into Underworld’s working method, but never falls into the kind of barrel-scraping to which reissues like this sometimes have to resort. Mostly it’s worth it to hear how hard Dubnobass still resonates: this was an album about community, about coming together through shared experiences—a chance to take club culture out of the club without losing a shred of nuance or sheer visceral excitement.

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Zola Jesus: Taiga

Nika Rosa Danilova’s Zola Jesus project has always had lofty ambitions, peaking with last year’s orchestral career-summation Versions and accompanying Guggenheim exhibition. After that, it seemed like her vision could take her anywhere—and “anywhere,” it turns out, was Vashon Island in Washington, where her latest album was largely written. For inspiration, she reached farther out still to the taiga—a type of forest typically found in Russia, desolate enough to border tundra and resilient enough to cover large swaths of the earth. “I like that idea that [the taiga is] full of life—it’s not desert. It’s very much full-blooded, but no one’s civilizing it,” Danilova told Fader earlier this year, and indeed, the taiga’s as fitting a metaphor for Zola Jesus’s music at its best as anyone could produce: cold like a mountain, brutal in its inhospitality, but life-affirming if you take the time to burrow in.

Taiga is Danilova’s “pop album,” a tag that’s been somewhat overstated. Yes, it’s her first full-length on the relatively deep-pocketed Mute, as well as her first with co-producer Dean Hurley (David Lynch, Danger Mouse); and, yes, she told Billboard that she wanted the album to top the charts. But Taiga doesn’t sound perky, lightweight, or even radio-ready. Lead single “Dangerous Days”, originally written for the 2011 LP Conatus, has the makings of pop: a gentle throbbing beat, post-chorus synth comedowns, and lyrics that suggest a sideways view of a seize-the-day message. But it’s no closer to dance music than Conatus’ “In Your Nature”, and maybe even less hooky than fellow Conatus cut “Vessel”.

If Taiga nods at pop, it’s mostly in the songwriting–more streamlined, less atmospheric–and Danilova’s vocals, which are cleanly produced and more accessible. She’s mentioned studying Rihanna in particular, and you can hear it in the low, “Diamonds”-smacking strain of “Hunger” ; pop-approaching styles are evoked elsewhere in the vocal swoops and R&B curlicues of “Go (Blank Sea)”, the steady handclaps of “Hollow”, and the gentle-but taunting rhythm of “Dust”.

Taiga‘s strongest moments actually come when Danilova’s sights aren’t explicitly set on pop music. True to its title, “Hunger” sounds emaciated, with fuzzy brass, vague hints of a string section, and exhausted, skittish vocals; even the percussion break sounds like it’s been worn to the bone. Despite the pep-talky lyrics, it doesn’t sound like an anthem so much as a mantra clung to, half-breathless, during a fight. (“I’m not getting younger/ I use it, abusively,” is even more striking of a lyric when remembering that 25 is a fairly young age to mind the clock this desperately.) If “Hunger” sounds starved, much of Taiga sounds over-full, and not necessarily in a bad way: “Ego” calls back to Conatus by wielding film-score ambience to impressive effect, and the opening title track sets the stage with atmospherics, drops a drum-and-bass loop over it like sudden light, then stops things short with an imposing tectonic plate of a brass theme.

But too many songs on Taiga come across as filler—too small and formulaic to impress at “taiga” scale, but too leaden to reach anthemic heights. “I wanted to make a huge pop song that would break in and reach people I’ve never been able to reach,” Danilova told Pitchfork earlier this year. In reality, pop’s never been that far of a reach for her, so what’s most frustrating about Taiga is how much more huge it could be.

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