Mother Tongues: Quarterly Review, Jan - March 2014
Posted on Friday, 28 March 2014 | No Comments
As we burst into the expanses of spring, it's time to take stock of the last three months in music. As with previous features, this will be a round-up of the twenty records that impressed the most over the start of 2014: there are several fine records that just missed inclusion (including indie-pop songwriter Withered Hand's return New Gods, the doomy shoegaze of Nothing and the eccentric final release from experimental black metal supergroup Twilight, the Thurston Moore-featuring III: Beneath Trident's Tomb), but this just means that the works that did make the final list are fully deserving of your attention.
I would be remiss in failing note also Holly Herndon's recent Chorus EP, the title track from which is a remarkable piece of avant-pop that moves the goalposts for forward-thinking electronica, as well as The Range's delightful new EP Panasonic, a release that melds late nineties Aphex Twin with the vernacular of J Dilla. In the next couple of weeks as well, major new releases from The Body, EMA and School of Language amongst others will be hitting the shelves, so Endless Window will be on hand to cover those as well. For now though, here's twenty of the year's best so far:
Actress - Ghettoville
Even after the dense, weighty R.I.P., Ghettoville seems to have taken a lot of Actress fans unaware. The relative accessibility of Splazsh is clearly long gone, with Chris Cunningham's fourth full length taking his unique production style further and further into the realm of abstraction and dislocation. That said, the grit and taste for dislocated rap signifiers returned throughout Ghettoville to produce a startling work which acts as an opaque, ruined refraction of our present. Released amidst rumours that this would be the final Actress release, I commented in my review that with this album, Cunningham "brings the stage crashing down and reveals the stage hands working away behind". Whether or not this is it for Actress, Ghettoville is a dark but remarkable plunge into a subterranean parallel world whose artifice is slowly, surely lain bare.
Key Track: Frontline
Alcest - Shelter
So far, the reaction to Alcest's fourth album Shelter has been fairly muted. It's certainly undeserved for a record as immediate yet fulfilling as this - grand, sky-soaring guitar workouts striking out for the big rooms but retaining their purpose and Nerge's unique spiritual outlook - and especially for one so bold when placed in context. Instead of moving further into the murky prog-metal of Les Voyages de L'Âme, Shelter saw Alcest abandon metal entirely for bright shoegaze and post-rock. Whilst the end product might not be as singular as Alcest's early work, Shelter remains a joyous listen just waiting for its target audience to lose their sniffiness and dive in.
Key Track: Delivrance
Behemoth - The Satanist
"I saw the virgin’s cunt spawning forth the snake" - now that, Mr. West, is a really bad way to start a conversation. Even after a near-fatal battle with leukaemia, Behemoth leader Nergal is not a man out to comprise his anti-religious message. It's the (relative) musical lightness of touch though that makes The Satanist such a stand-out metal release though. There's plenty of bludgeoning riffs and crazed blastbeats to keep the faithful busy, but Nergal is that rare man within death metal circles who understand dynamics and how a careful trumpet blast or lull can make the storm hit even harder when it comes. The result is Behemoth's best album to date, a furious and mighty work that leaves the listener energised and even overjoyed rather than bruised and cowed.
Key Track: Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel
Current 93 - I Am the Last of All the Field that Fell
Many listeners and critics got it confused, but it's an important point: back when David Tibet referred to Current 93 as "apocalyptic folk", he was talking about the people making it, rather than the sound they were trying to make. Perhaps this is why Tibet's latest offering has been met with such bewilderment - eschewing the doom rock of Aleph at Hallucinatory Mountain or the bleak lullabies of Black Ships Ate the Sky, this sprawling release takes on jazz and classical sounds, with pianist Reinier van Houdt working as Tibet's main foil here while the likes of John Zorn, Jack Barnett (of These New Puritans, whose Field of Reeds this sounds like the crazed cousin of), Antony Hegarty and Nick Cave also joining in. His fixations on ancient religion, the apocalypse and modern life as a spiritual war ground remain, but this is a Current 93 unlike any other, at once smooth and beautiful yet gnarled and somehow rotten. An imperfect yet astounding piece.
Key Track: Those Flowers Grew
East India Youth - Total Strife Forever
Anointed the first great white hype of 2014 before it had even began, William Doyle had a fair amount to live up already on his debut album Total Strife Forever. I'll keep it brief here - it's not like I haven't talked about it before - but suffice to say that this confident and powerful mixture of Eno-esque ambiance, modern electronic composition and plaintive synth-pop made for a great start to the year. Repeated plays have only added to this record's allure: East India Youth is a name you'll be hearing for a while to come.
Key Track: Heaven, How Long
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Pinata
The combination of crate-digger extraordinaire Madlib with gruff gangsta rapper Freddie Gibbs might not have been the most obvious pairing, but this odd couple prove to be a fine duo on their collaborative album Pinata. Madlib's unpredictable, analogue production style brings out the best in Gibbs as he relays his gritty but human tales of crime and misadventure, and both sides pull off some of their best and most intricate work to date throughout Pinata's duration. Throw in some guest verses from Raekwon (whose seminal Only Built 4 Cuban Linx this feels like a child of), Danny Brown and Scarface, and you've got the first must-hear hip-hop album of 2014.
Key Track: Thuggin'
Gallon Drunk - The Soul of the Hour
When you're a band as aesthetically assured and grounded as Gallon Drunk, it can sometimes be hard to move outside the tight confines you have set yourself. Gallon Drunk achieved just this though on The Soul of the Hour (previously reviewed on Endless Window). On the album's seven expansive compositions, James Johnston drags his band into some of the darkest and most compelling work to date, playing with nerve-shredding repetition (Before the Fire), closing-time-blues (Dust in the Light) or fiery trumpet cresendos reaching up from hell itself (the strident title track). Over twenty years in, and this veteran band have just found whole new levels on which to operate - The Soul of the Hour is a truly dazzling rock album.
Key Track: Before The Fire
Josef van Wissem & SQURL - Only Lovers Left Alive OST
Only Lovers Left Alive: a hip move by a hip director about hip vampires who do hip thinks like listening to and making hip music. It could have been painfully contrived, but the film's offbeat sense of humour and the sheer quality of the casting (Tom Hiddlestone! Tilda Swinton! John Hurt! The other people in it for a bit!) made it a curious gem, and playing a fair part in the film's success was its superb soundtrack. Although the pre-existing music featured did not make it to the soundtrack - so no White Hills or tracks from Eve's beloved Stax here - the soundtrack from Jim Jarmusch's own band SQURL and Josef van Wissem blends psych and folk to stunning effect, and it makes just as compelling a listen on its own as within the nocturnal cool of the film.
Key Track: SQURL (feat. Madeline Follin) - Funnel of Love
Leon Vynehall - Music for the Uninvited
There's been a few major electronic full-lengths so far this year that haven't quite lived up to expectations (Ilium Sphere and Untold, we're looking at you), but Leon Vynehall's double-EP/basically-a-full-album Music for the Uninvited instead exceed them. Having made a name for himself as a producer of off-beat house on the Mauve and Open EPs, here he managed to open up into new expanses like the lush strings of Inside the Deku Tree and the languorous space-jazz of Christ Air whilst also delivering some smart floor fillers like Goodthing and the epic It's Just (House of Dupree). A great calling-card from a fast-rising young producer.
Key Track: It's Just (House of Dupree)
Liars - Mess
Art-house pranksters Liars have tried on several different styles and sought to keep their listenership surprised at every turn, but even by their standards Mess is a truly welcome shock. Opening track Mask Maker's surreal, threatening demand "SMELL MY SOCKS / EAT MY FACE OFF" that takes the furtive electronic experiments of previous album WIXIW and sends them into gleeful overdrive, peaking with the crazed meltdown of Mess On A Mission. Even when the album finally slows down, Liars still provide some of their most audacious work to date, with the slow-burning tension of Perpetual Village ranking up there with their very finest songs. A brash, brilliant album.
Key Track: Perpetual Village
Marissa Nadler - July
Amongst the psych, post-punk and noise that fills the rest of the Sacred Bones roster, the country folk of Marissa Nadler might look like a case of odd one out. But as her compelling new album July proves, her delicate songs carry a weight far greater than most of her louder peers. On 1923 and Dead City Emily, her subdued coo and careful picking combine with Randall Dunn's atmospheric production to ghostly effect: rather than the generic sound of summer, this record captures the strangeness of the heat. At times, it feels like this music could make time stand still and keep the molecules hanging in the air.
Key Track: Dead City Emily
Maximo Park - Too Much Information
If you can, please ignore the unfortunate artwork and title with which Maximo Park have adorned their fifth album. For a band that was one of the few bright spots of mid-noughties British indie, they've never quite received the credit due to them, even when producing albums of this quality. Alongside some classic Maximo anthems like Lydia, The Ink Will Never Dry and Drinking Martinis, they also expanded their sound into more electronic avenues on Brain Cells and Leave This Island, and offered a gorgeous campfire anthem on closer Where We're Going. A short, sharp album that sounds like a band revitalised, Too Much Information could and should have reignited their career - if only someone could have had a word about that cover and title...
Key Track: Leave This Island
Mogwai - Rave Tapes
The Mogwai modus operandi has long since been established, and those expecting any great tweaks to the formula are bound to be disappointed. As made clear on their recent live dates though, this is not the same thing as a band that is treading water: instead, Mogwai pride themselves on continuing to deliver new material every bit as intricate and powerful as their older work, and as such Rave Tapes is another fine entry into the Mogwai cannon. After the surprisingly sprightly Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, the band slow things down slightly here, but the addition of Barry Burns's new modular synths (at their most spectacular on lead single Remurdered) and their trademark dynamic perfection on tracks like Heard About Your Last Night and Blues Hour makes it another fine entry for the band.
Key Track: Remurdered
Neneh Cherry - Blank Project
As I hopefully made clear in my earlier piece on this album, a comeback this ain't. This doesn't make Neneh Cherry's decision to swap attention from her numerous collaborations for a new solo album any less welcome though, and Blank Project is pretty much everything you could reasonably expect from such a venture. Along with co-conspirators Kieran Hebden and Rocketnumbernine, Neneh Cherry streamlines and modernises her dance-pop style and toes a fine, rewarding line between the confessional and the confident to craft ten tracks of mature and engaged pop that become better with every listen.
Key Track: Everything
Planningtorock - All Love's Legal
Even more so than in the worlds of rock or rap music, dance music is in a constant state of tension and flux between the mainstream and the alternative, where sounds and styles are quickly made, co-opted, watered down and discarded for something fresh and un-tainted. Jam Rostrom, the artist working under the Planningtorock pseudonym, is on a mission to make the dancefloor radical again, and All Love's Legal is a bold statement against musical and political conservatism, a "a skewed, day-glo manifesto for change that affects the head and the body equally, that provokes whilst also delighting."
Key Track: Misogyny Drop Dead
Polar Bear - In Each and Every One
Very few musicians have the talent and open-mindedness that has allowed the renowned Scottish drummer Seb Rochford to work with artists as varied as Herbie Hancock, Brian Eno, Brett Anderson, Pamelia Kurstin and Jyager. Back behind the seat as bandleader of Polar Bear, their fifth album In Each and Every One continues their mission to create a modern jazz that makes as much use of electronic textures and rock force as it does traditional jazz structures. The end result is a diverse, sprawling album full of innovation and imagination that still manages to speak plainly to the heart.
Key Track: Sometimes
St Vincent - St Vincent
Not all people are born equal, for sure, but as for Annie Clark...well, she's just taking the piss. Over her three previous solo albums and her collaboration with David Byrne, she had already established herself as one of the most intriguing songwriters and remarkable guitarists working today, but on St. Vincent she's reaching out for icon status. Dazzling riffs, sharp production and surprising lyrics abound, and in Huey Newton and Digital Witness she's penned two of the finest songs about the internet and our present age out there. All hail queen Annie.
Key Track: Huey Newton
Sunn O))) & Ulver - Terrestrials
After the gargantuan statement of Monoliths & Dimensions, Sunn O))) have kept an unusual quiet for the last few years. The drone-metal overlords found themselves back in the spotlight however with the release of their collaboration with the enigmatic genre-hoppers Ulver Terrestrials. Although relatively concise in its thirty-five minute running time, the three compositions that form this record still pursue a grandiose narrative tracing the destruction and violence inherent in creation and the natural world. At this juncture, I don't even feel phased about comparing Sunn O))) to Miles Davis - their dark, hypnotic sound has transcended the genres and formed its own remarkable ecosystem.
Key Track: Oh, just to listen to it properly...
Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra - Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
Side-project is normally a term that carries a sense of inferiority, that whatever this new guise an artist is working under is only a distraction keeping us away from the costume we first found them in. Well fuck that and let them free: as glorious as Godspeed You! Black Emperor have been over the years, they've never achieved the level of true take off or rebellious spirit that their long-running off-shoot Thee Silver Mt Zion achieve on Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything. Reviewed on here in January, this epic and ambitious record is far truer to the ideals and spirit of punk rock than any band acually playing punk rock in 2014. A mighty, fearsome roar against insignificance.
Key Track: Fuck Off Get Free
Wild Beasts - Present Tense
Last and certainly not least. Endless Window is something of an established fan of Wild Beasts (see this retrospective piece from January on their debut Limbo, Panto), so it's safe to say their fourth album was always likely to meet a positive reception here. That said though, it still bears drawing attention to what an intelligent and sophisticated record they've conjured up this time: when most indie bands grab for the mainstream, their brains and their quirks are the first thing to go out of the window, but Wild Beasts have held firm to their own idiosyncratic identity as they move into more synthetic and modern climbs. They're still one of the finest bands in Britain, only this time round they might finally get the kind of popular acclaim they've always deserved.
Key Track: Mecca