Back to the Middle: Album Roundup, April-June '13
Posted on Thursday, 4 July 2013 | No Comments
We may only be at the half-way point, but 2013's already been an astonishing year of releases. There's been a plethora of surprise comebacks, stealth releases and established acts stepping up to the mark and delivering some of their finest work to date. There's been so much great music to listen to, that following my previous quarterly round-up I've had to dobule the selection to twenty albums this time round, and even that's forced me to leave out some more than worthy records by the likes of Cathedral, Wire and Zomby - hell, even Yeezus himself couldn't get himself guestlist to this exclusive club. So read on to find out which twenty slabs of wax/transmissions into the digital void that are well worth your time...
Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
Following the triumphant returns of My Bloody Valentine and David Bowie earlier in the year, Boards of Canada were the latest missing in action act to finally emerge from the fog. Unsurprisingly, Tomorrow's Harvest doesn't represent any huge shift from their established template of layered, psychedelic downtempo electronica. After the shift to more pastoral realms on the guitar-driven The Campfire Headphase however, Tomorrow's Harvest represents a 180-degree shift into a post-apocalyptic landscape, with the presence of John Carpenter and Wendy Carlos looming large. Dark and anxious, it's a deep and rewarding records with plenty of puzzles to keep the fans engages until the next transmission.
Key Track: New Seeds
British Sea Power - Machineries of Joy
Reliable is always a fairly damning piece of praise for a band, a fairly meaningless 'well, at least they turned up' badge for the merely mediocre. British Sea Power are reliable in a different sense: their eccentric, askew world-view remains a delight a decade after they promised The Decline of British Sea Power, and although they may be a decidedly cult concern these days Machineries of Joy finds them on taut and playful form. From the euphoric title track to the glam stomp of Loving Animals and the epic What You Need The Most to the breezy joy of Radio Goddard, this is beautiful and consoling work made for a difficult time.
Key Track: Loving Animals
The Child of Lov - The Child of Lov
For that hideous cover art alone, this one almost didn't make it in. But as much as The Child of Lov's eponymous debut acts as a summation of everything wrong with hipster aethetics and its appropriation of R&B forms, the music contained within in of an althogther distinction. Sometimes lo-fi in timbre but meticulously arranged, the deep grooves this Amsterdam resident minds speak to the head as well as the heart. I was impressed when I reviewed the album for KYEO, and I remain so now.
Key Track: Fly
Deafheaven - Sunbather
Deafheaven's bold second album was a thuderbolt from the blue: plenty of acts have been exploring the intersection between black metal and shoegaze over the last few years, but it's hard to think of any that have done so with such fluidity and success. Balancing anger and introspection, the lenghty tracks on this album never outstay their welcome. I've written on here previously about this seriously successful album, but the point's worth stating again: don't let any genre stereotypes or personal prejudices keep you away from one of the most affecting and powerful records of the year.
Key Track: Sunbather
Deerhunter - Monomania
Bradford Cox might have kept an unusually quiet 2012 release-wise, but on their new album Monomania he and his band Deerhunter remain a distinct presence within the indie rock sphere. The album's tilt into raw garage rock tropes might result in a record lacking in some of the gorgeous ambiance of Cryptograms or Halycon Digest, but as stated here on Endless Window before, he's still "following his own peculiar, obsessive muse" in pursuit of rock and roll nirvana.
Key Track: Monomania
The Fall - Re-Mit
John Peel's favourite band, ooh they do change line-up a lot don't they, and that Mark E. Smith does like a drink, doesn't he? Cliche's duly dispensed with, the important stuff remains: over thirty-five years on, they remain the most essential rock band on the face of the Earth, and while some may have doubted after 2011's better-than-you-think but slight Ersatz G.B., Re-Mit is another confirmation of the group's unyielding brilliance. The current line-up remains a joy, and on tracks like Sir William Wray, Jetplane and closing number Loadstones, Mark E. Smith and company sound like they're having more fun than ever. Hail to the real king.
Key Track: Loadstones
Ghostpoet - Some Say I So I Say Light
How do you capitalise on a Mercury Prize nominated debut without going the way of Speech Debelle? Easy, if you're Ghostpoet: just get your head down and keep pushing with your sound. Some Say I So I Say Light may not have been revolution, but it certainly took everything that was great about first album Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam and ran with it, to produce a touchstone for British hip-hop and electronic music that manages to defly blend downtempo beat wizardy and an intriguingly surreal take on Britishness lyrically.
Key Track: Meltdown
The Haxan Cloak - Excavation
The cover might suggest heavy metal parody, but you'll find something far more fearsome if you dig yourself into the haunted subterranean visions conjured up by Bobby Krlic on his second album as The Haxan Cloak. Excavation follows a loose narrative of a journey beyond death and through the afterlife, but never has a voyage over the River Styx been so heavy in endless bass and churning electronics. Eschewing the modulated avant-folk of his debut, this formidable second set is a journey through the darkest recesses of modern bass music and drone whose pristine blackness is only pierced in the haunted, mesmerising closer The Drop.
Key Track: The Drop
James Blake - Overgrown
After a series of increasingly impressive and hermetic post-dubstep EPs, James Blake's eponymous 2010 debut marked the arrival of a bold new songwriting voice that married cutting-edge production with the kind of muso chops only an upbringing in jazz and classical tradition can grant. On Overgrown, James Blake expands the palette of his debuts and blends in some new colours in the form of Brian Eno and RZA collaborations. If not as assured or dazzling as his debut, Overgrown's evolutionary ambition is still one Endless Window found hugely rewarding.
Key Track: Digital Lion
Jon Hopkins - Immunity
Keyboard and production whizz Jon Hopkins had previously been more of a side-man, far better known for work with King Creosote or Brian Eno than his efforts under his own name. Immunity is the album to change that though, a heady and immersive record that balances IDM ingenuity and ambient langour to create a complex but inviting ecosystem of its own, nodding to past and present club trends but setting off unmistakeably on its own path.
Key Track: Collider
Melt Yourself Down - Melt Yourself Down
Any band featuring alumni of Zun Zun Egui, The Heliocentrics and the much-missed Acoustic Ladyland is going to have a lot of live up to. It's a testament to the sparkling chemistry of this new seven-piece formation then that Melt Yourself Down's eclectic, energetic debut stands as some of the finest work all involved have ever done, touching on the kind of jazz, psychedelia and Afrobeat touchstones one might expect but blending them together into an individualistic sound that might just be the year's best party album. Outstanding, unmissable stuff.
Key Track: Release!
The National - Trouble Will Find Me
The music industry might be a limbless syphilitic tramp lying in the gutter these days, but it turns out mope-rock remains a good meal ticket. Yes, The National have now found themselves as unexpected arena headliners, yet on Trouble Will Find Me they're celebrating their success with one of their most nuanced and entrancing efforts to date. The early signs were promising, and in my NARC write-up I noted that even if as a collection it may be slightly over-long, from song to song it finds the band on imperious form.
Key Track: Humiliation
The Pastels - Slow Summits
Coming away with the Silver in the International Piss Taking, Musician Class at the 2012 Olympics (our mate Kevin Shields getting the Gold, natch), Stephen Pastel and friends have finally awoken from their slumber to provide us with their most sumptous effort yet. Slow Summits is a gentle stroll through the city landscape, guiding us through the seasons in Glasgow with a gentle guiding hand. It may have been some wait, but thankfully The Pastels have produced an intelligent album befitting their status as indie-pop godparents.
Key Track: Slowly Taking Place
Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels
2012 was a triumphant year for Killer Mike and El-P, with their respective records R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure marking an astonishing one-two punch. Teaming up as Run The Jewels, their eponymous debut is an equally inspired victory lap, trading some of R.A.P. Music's political vitriol and Cancer 4 Cure's paranoia for some hilarious raging takedowns and bizarro party rap, all fuelled by El-P's adrenalin rush. Run The Jewels makes it a hat-trick from a duo that abolsutely know they're smarter and harder than anyone else around - and hell, they even made it free to download.
Key Track: Sea Legs
Savages - Silence Yourself
Can any of you remember a time when a hype band was actually good? From Gay Dad to Viva Brother, it's normally a sign for any listener with the slightest bit of discernment to turn away and wait for the air to clear. Yet in the case of the much-hyped Savages...well, they actually do live up to it. Some complaints have been made of them being yet another bunch of post-punk revivalists, and in fairness not without a degree of truth, but what Savages a special case is that they're one of the few who actually have the attitude, the poise and the intelligence to back it all up. As such, Silence Yourself is a fully-formed statement of intent that sounds vital and urgent, whatever the touchstones may be.
Key Track: She Will
Scout Niblett - It's Up to Emma
Scout Niblett has always balanced the unnerving and the raw with the open and cinematic in her career, but never have they made such a synthesis as on It's Up to Emma. As I observed in my review for KYEO, the intensity of her blues-informed guitar playing is matched by the occasional bloom of strings, resulting in a spell-binding listen. The end result is something in keeping with the Scout Niblett persona, but also open and emotionally honest without resorting to singer-songwriter cliche. Again, she remains one of these isles most curiously undiscovered stars.
Key Track: Gun
Sigur Ros - Kveikur
If the ambient Valtari was a necessary pallete-cleanser after years of increasing bombast and Jonsi's emerging solo career, Kveikur is the sound of a new, re-modelled Sigur Ros, fighting against their own history to emerge with something new over a decade after they first emerged from Iceland. Stormy and bullish where previous albums were gentle and enveloping, the band (now trimmed to a core trio, with studio and live accompaniment) still totes much of the orchestral, flowing beauty that made their name, but this time around it's matched by an interest in electronic noise, distorted guitars and a far more dominant rhythm section that before. On Kveikur, Sigur Ros sound like a band revitalised.
Key Track: Brennisteinn
These New Puritans - Field of Reeds
In a British music scene increasingly, dispiritingly, driven by conservatism and false nostalgia, the independent minded These New Puritans (as with their one-time label mates Wild Beasts) are a much needed corrective. After the post-punk/dance fusion of Beat Pyramid and the dark percussive majesty of Hidden, Field of Reeds marks their most surprising, experimental and heartfelt expression to date. It's an album that just grows in stature with every listen: as made clear in my previous review, it's the wonderful sound of an auteural vision reaching full maturity. A truly essential listen.
Key Track: Organ Eternal (but seriously, just listen to the whole damn thing, okay?)
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend had previously been slightly frustrating: clearly far more intelligent and self-aware than many of their detractors would suggest, but always slightly light-weight and unambitious - on Contra, songs as well-crafted as Horchata and Diplomat's Son sat alongside the lazy Cousins or Holiday. Come Modern Vampires of the City though, they've not just made the record we hoped they might be capable of: they've completely exceeded any expectations placed on them. An insightful, creative record that touches on ecenomic inequality, the loss of faith and the fear of death, it's one of the year's most welcome surprises.
Key Track: Ya Hey
Various Artists - After Dark 2
Chalk it up to the Gosling effect or whatever else you like, but right now the Italians Do It Better stable have never been more in-demand. The long-delayed After Dark 2 therefore is a much welcome distilliation of their Italo disco/synth-pop aesthetic, bringing together their most notable acts - Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire and others - for an ideal noctural mixtape of brand-new material that suggests Johnny Jewel's songwriting is only just hitting its peak. Endless Window has raved about it before, and what's more it's now available to stream and download from Johnny Jewel's Soundcloud for free.
Key Track: Glass Candy - The Possessed