> | > Turn It Up: Album Roundup, July-September '13

Turn It Up: Album Roundup, July-September '13

Posted on Wednesday, 2 October 2013 | No Comments

In a summer that seemed to consist mostly of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus twerking on a human face forever, the less observant might have been forgiven for thinking that music had taken the silly season off and was busy sunning itself somewhere. Needless to say: bollocks.

As with my previous round-ups around March and June, there's been plenty of difficult decisions made in the course of compiling thing. Great records by Mazzy Star, Oneohtrix Point Never and Sky Larkin found themselves off the list: I've also elected to leave the sonically delightful but rather questionable new efforts from Drake and The Weeknd aside for a different, more in-depth piece to follow at a later date. And of course, there's still so much to look forward to before 2013 draws to a close, with new releases from Danny Brown, Darkside, Four Tet, and Omar Souleyman still to come. For now though, here's twenty superb releases that prove that the last three months were about far more than Alex Turner's dodgy American accent...

Bill Callahan - Dream River

By this point, it seems undeniable that Bill Callahan has developed into one of the great American songwriters. Following the sublime Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle and the looser Apocalypse, Dream River is Callahan's most content and relaxed release to date. Here, he lets his baritone glide over a bed of hand percussion, flute and electric guitars to sumptuous effect, his Hemingway-esque lyrics at their most witty and poignant. Lose yourself in the beauty of a craftsman who's perfected his trade. 

Key Track: Small Plane [from NPR Music Field Recordings]

Chelsea Wolfe - Pain is Beauty

Chelsea Wolfe has garnered a none-more-goth-than-thou reptuation: well, that's what you get when you call your latest album Pain is Beauty I suppose. Her music though isn't so easy to categorise, and throughout the record there's a shift away from obvious alt-rock tropes into something more diverse but also more disquieting, sitting somewhere between a David Lynch soundtrack (and indeed the man's own blues-rock records) and the doomy folk ambiance of White Light from the Mouth of Infinity-era Swans, alongside a touch of menacing electronics on The Warden. By the time the epic, monstrous ballad The Waves Have Come rolls around, it's evident that Chelsea Wolfe's music has moved out of the tropes and into its own acvernous space.

Key Track: The Waves Have Come

CHVRCHES - The Bones Of What You Believe

A lot of the narrative around CHVRCHES has focused around how this trio of Glaswegian stalwarts, all of whom had done their time in the trenches - Iain in Aerogramme, Martin with The Twilight Sad and Laura as a journalist and musician in local bands - before seizing their moment in the limelight. Which makes CHVRCHES sound like a contrived effort to finally get a bit of lucre, but does the power of the song writing on The Bones Of What You Believe a huge disservice. In no time, they've built a well-defined sound (Depeche Mode anthems through the weaponry of The Knife) and amassed some stellar tracks. For once, the good guys are winning, and in fine style.

Key Track: Recover

Crystal Stilts - Nature Noir

Since they emerged with their debut EP back in 2005, Crystal Stilts have slowly been refining their vision of lo-fi, gothic post-punk, finding their own voice within some very crowded aesthetic space. With In Love With Oblivion having perfected that sound, Nature Noir finds the band stepping into the light and exploring new territory - on tracks like the unexpectedly up-beat Future Folklore, the influences of Lee Hazelwood and Creedence Clearwater Revival suddenly loom clear. If not as confident as their previous album, on Nature Noir they expand their parameters without sacrificing too much of their mysterious allure.

Key Track: Star Crawl

Deathrowradio - Yummy

In which the band previously known as d_rradio trade in the laptops for guitars, live drums and loop pedals to craft a statement of refined but thrilling neo-psychedelia. Over Yummy's seven tracks, the re-christened Deathrowradio layer up hypnotic riffs and driving Krautrock rhythms, so that pieces like Super Good and Big Wow push on through straight to the pleasure centres. It's a powerful re-statement of intent that deserves a place in the home of any psych-rock enthusiast.

Key Track: Hocus Pocus

Earl Sweatshirt - Doris

Having arrived in a blaze of glory, the last two years has seen the Odd Future machine slow down to a crawl under a weight of half-baked releases (The O.F. Tape II, Wolf) and on-going accusations of sexism and homophobia: it's notable that it's the more straight-up, R'n'B work of Frank Ocean and The Internet that's weathered the backlash. Into this arrived the debut of Earl Sweatshirt, and while Doris may not be the all-out masterpiece some hoped for, it's a record that might just point a way forward for Odd Future. This claustrophobic, atmospheric record often forgoes pop hits for ambiance, but with Earl's dextrous flow and slightly more mature outlook (not that the record's without its juvenile moments, but it's miles more enjoyable than the slog of a solo Tyler, the Creator release), Doris is the first OF rap release to truly deliver.

Key Track: Chum

Factory Floor - Factory Floor

Now here's a record that's we've been waiting for for some time. Eight years on from their formation, three from the self-titled EP that brought their industrial dance to wider notice and with singles Two Different Ways and Real Love building anticipation up to a frenzy, this August saw the London trio finally release their much-hyped debut album. Although the extreme seperation of the mix made it a less immediate listen than some expected, it's still a remarkable document of a sound that sits snugly between rave euphoria and tense stasis, with the one-two punch of the pitch-shifted Fall Back and the cold disco of How You Say proving more than worth the weight.

Key Track: Fall Back

Forest Swords - Engravings

For an album as determindly nocturnal as Engravings, it's a surprise to learn that Matthew Barnes actually mixed the thing on his laptop outside. Perhaps this explains the wonderful sense of depth and the decayed organic presence of the dub electronica he produces as Forest Swords. If this full-length doesn't change the sound drmatically from his Dagger Paths mini-album, that's because Barnes has instead broadened and emboldened his existing palette, so that the rumbling percussion and snaking guitar lines now run underneath the horn sounds of An Hour, the vocals of Anneka's Battle and the drama of closer Friend, You Will Never Learn. This already sounds formidble now: just imagine how monolithic this will be in the winter months.

Key Track: The Weight of Gold

Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus

If nothing else, they're certainly pushing the boundaries of how far a band with that name can go. Having amazed critics and listeners four years ago with Tarot Sport, their triumphant return on Slow Focus is a slight shift that befits their tectonic dance-drone: those heavy, ultra-distorted synth lines remain to anchor the sound, but now the duo move around their standard four-to-the-floor thud with the hip-hop rhythms of The Red Wing and the arena-rock pans of Brainfreeze. Newlr ornate but as weighty as ever, Slow Focus sees Fuck Buttons taking their sound further without losing its brutal essence.

Key Track: Sentients

Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady

Ennio Morricone strings, the passing of the torch from one global icon to the next generation, Afro-Futurism as an exploration of feminism and working-class and queer identities and some damn fine pop moves...and that's just the first three tracks. The Electric Lady is an undeniably ambitious record, a continuation of the sci-fi narrative from her previous records Metropolis: Suite I and The ArchAndroid that aims to shove Janelle Monae firmly into the mainstream. Whilst there's still a possibility that Monae might be too high-concept and against the tide to reach true superstardom, there can't be any pop album in recent years even close to this exceptional effort's perfect blend of intelligence, fantasty and raw emotion. If you're still not tempted, then let Ben Travis's piece over on The Spiral Groove convince you to get ready to hail the Q.U.E.E.N.

Key Track: Ghetto Woman

Jesu - Everyday I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came

Justin Broadrick's metallic shoegaze project Jesu has been out of action for the last three years, but on fourth full-length Everyday I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came he's tackled some of the drift that left previous albums like Acsension less fulfilling than EPs like Silver or Lifeline. With a rawer production but the same mighty descending chord sequences as before, the album's a forty-five minute showcase for Jesu's dark dreamscapes, with the remarkable centerpiece The Great Leveller (an eighteen minute piece complete with string section) standing as one of Broadrick's most beguiling compositions to date, be it Jesu or any of this other projects. A very welcome return.

Key Track: The Great Leveller

Julia Holter - Loud City Song

On her third album, Julia Holter manges a remarkable trick in stuffing the album full of inventive, ornate arrangements yet still retaining a minimalist sense of scale where every sound and note is vital. Combining classical knowledge with modernist production sensibilities, Loud City Song is a one-woman tour through the histories of pop music, where the singer-songwriter vunerability of World sits alongside the jazz runs of In the Green Wild or the synth strut of Horns Surrounding Me. On the album's two Maxim tracks and closer City Appearing, she merges the past and the present so fully that there can be no doubt that the product we're left with is surely the future.

Key Track: Maxim's I

Manic Street Preachers - Rewind The Film

After 2010's lacklustre, faintly self-parodic Postcards from a Young Man and the announcement of a career hiatus, it seemed like the Manics had come off the rails in the same way they had after the unfairly maligned Lifeblood. But by stripping away the electric guitars for a set focused on hitting middle-age, mortality and the dubious allure of nostalgia (crucially with Nicky Wire providing some of his finest lyrics in years), Rewind The Film found the band facing down the prospect of defeat but soaring high above. With a louder, more experimental sibling record Futurology already in the can for release next year, the Manics have found a way to grow into their third decade as a band with surprising grace.

Key Track: This Sullen Welsh Heart

Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks

Even now, listening to The Downward Spiral is akin to finding yourself trapped within a fire - the violent, nihilistic mindset of that record still shocks and provokes to this day. It's remained Trent Reznor's calling card, and on the first Nine Inch Nails release since The Slip he returns to the scene of his most famous crime - getting Russell Mills to do the artwork again can't be a conincidence - but with a new distance and sense of perspective. What we get on Hesitation Marks is another set of dark, forboding tracks that could be mistaken for no other act. Yet the more predominantly electronic, less cathartic sound found here suggests that the protragonist somehow found a way of escape, a chink of light in the dark. On Hesitation Marks, we still see the destruction and damage: this time however, we're outside the fire looking in.

Key Track: Various Methods of Escape

No Age - An Object

D.I.Y. has been a buzz term and practice in the punk community from its inception, but No Age took it to a logical conclusion on An Object: artwork assembled by the band itself, for a record that used contact mics so as to record the actual sound of the direct percussion hits. The slower, more pensive tone of the album met with a mixed reaction for those hoping for another album of Eraser-eqsue stompers, but never mind them: this is an intelligent, inquistive album that examines the identity and contradictions of punk rock in 2013 and suggest ways to break out of sub-cultural conformity.

Key Track: I Won't Be Your Generator

Outfit - Performance

I'm genuinely baffled how Outfit's debut album Performance has snuck out almost unnoticed: perhaps it's their SEO defying name, but their subdued indie-dance should be an easy sell in a world where Django Django and The xx have met great acclaim and success. Maybe it's because beneath the slow grooves, there's an odd menace to their steely, stylish pop - Outfit are confident alright, but running through these ten immaculate songs is a strange lurking tension that's tonally isn't too far from Kid A or A Ghost is Born-era Wilco. Performance is an album that deserves far, far more than to be left on the shelves. If you want your pop sleek and sinister, make sure you don't miss this.

Key Track: House on Fire

Running - Vaguely Ethnic

How sloppy do you want your punk rock? Because when Running play it, it's teetering on the point of collapse at any point. The Chicago trio grind their way through nine raw blasts in a mere twenty minutes on Vaguely Ethnic, screeching and slamming with maximum contempt and attitude. Most thrilling of all are the frequent points when the guitar leaves the rest of the band behind to blare out pure feedback squalls all over everything. If you're after sophisticated melodies, forget it - but if you want a short, shark shock to pump you up, then look no further.

Key Track: This is a You Problem

Tropic of Cancer - Restless Idylls

For those who heard previous Tropic of Cancer EPs like The Sorrow of Two Blooms and Permissions of Love, Camella Lobo's first full-length Restless Idylls won't hold too many surprises. That said, her established modus operandi of opaque, lo-fi productions that retain a certain grandeur continues to enthrall over the eight tracks collected here. The deadly serious, almost dead nature of the project may not appeal to the kind of listener that needs everything coated in a layer of protective irony, but for the more attentive the slow-blooming delights of Tropic of Cancer's music are a very welcome contribution to the ongoing coldwave revival.

Key Track: Court of Devotion

The Unit Ama - The Mason's Mallet

There's always been something oxymoronic about the whole concept of the live album: an effort to trap the vitality and the essence of a moment within the unyielding casket of a recording. It's an especially difficuly act to try and pull off with an act like The Unit Ama, whose entire act revolves around the pivot between the pre-arranged and the improvised, the melodic and the chaotic. The launch set for this LP was superb enough, but this full recording of their performance at 2012's TUSK Festival somehow remains vital and unpredictable even with repeated listens. A shining force of life.

Key Track: Full live set from TUSK 2012

Watain - The Wild Hunt

When they first emerged over a decade ago, Sweden's Watain seemed unlikely candidates to become black metal's progressive representatives with their thoroughly traditional sounds. Subsequent records like Lawless Darkness showed them pushing against the boundaries of their sound however, and on this year's The Wild Hunt they move into totally new areas whilst remaining unrepentantly ferocious and antagonistic. As such, between the classic black metal riffing there's room for experiments like They Rode On, a darker take on the kind of metal-ballad that propped up the mid section on Metallica's classic mid/late eighties triology, while even the more traditional moments like Outlaw or Holocaust Dawn boast a tautness and, for such extreme music, genuine catchiness that sets Watain far outside the rest of the pack.

Key Track: Outlaw 

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