Rants and Reviews. Mostly just BS and Affiliate Links.
February 06, 2021
The world may continue to prove that blaming 2020 for our problems was like blaming a garage full of oily rags for being on fire, but I wanted to take some time to celebrate some great music from last year. Doing so at the last possible moment last year’s records is part of the conversation. As per the usual cosplay music critic's tules, I reiterated I only write about music about once a year and reserve the right not to have any idea what I’m talking about.
I know some albums will eventually outlast the fifteen here, but they came out too late in the year to end up in the regular rotation. Not to mention that Wingtips, Actors, and Conformco all ended up dominating my listening because I was late to pick up on those records. I’m linking to Bandcamp where possible, so you can buy these records, but anything you like, you should also pick them up at your favorite record store. With no one playing live for the foreseeable future, these artists deserve your support if you dig their music.
Seeming — The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Atrocity
If there is a new Seeming record, it is going to end up on my year-end list. Alex Reed’s genre-defying project is one of the most creative and vital presently. Birdwatcher’s Guide To Atrocity is a smaller scoped record than the previous two albums, Madness & Extinction and Sol: A Self-Banishment Ritual. Those albums had big sweeping worlds burning down and giving us tours through the ruins. I hope I’m not out of turn in describing Birdwatcher’s as bringing the apocalyptic to the inner world.
A song like Go Small feels perfect for days when the world outside is diseased and violent. On the other hand, the gleeful celebration of The Flood Comes for You accepts the world ending as karma, and at least the people destroying everything are getting what they’ve earned. End Studies is probably my favorite track; there’s a sneering acceptance that if the world wants to be destroyed so bad, it’s our job to deliver the killing blow and turn out the lights when we’re done.
Birthday Massacre — Diamonds
I have described Birthday Massacre as the Platonic ideal of mall goth. Big and poppy but still dark and gloomy, it’s the perfect soundtrack to a wall full of coffin purses and monster movie t-shirts. (Dating myself as there are no malls, let alone mall goths.) Built around Sarah Taylor’s voice, the sound has great hooks and spacey synths, with a healthy dose of crunchy guitar tying it all together.
The Sky Will Turn ended up on a few different playlists this year, including ones I sent to other people. It’s got a hook that will crawl its way into your head and some cool dreamlike imagery that helps set the album’s mood. Flashback is more of a straightforward pop song, but its theme of every day feeling exactly the same feels pretty spot-on for the world’s sick day.
Klack — Probably
Klack is one of the few two-person supergroups in music. Still, Matt and Eric bring together their production chops and affection for classical electronic music to form a Voltron of infectious hooks and creative sampling.
They can create protest anthems like Bark, Bite, a call to get into the streets and fight for change. That track is led in with a synthpop jam, Faith in Me. Though what might be my favorite track on Probably is Nummerwang, a dance song based on the classic Mitchell and Webb sketch.
Spectres — Nostalgia
So many post-punk bands seem to start from Unknown Pleasures and if they really stick with it, end up at Closer. The American auto-correct defying Spectres have a bigger breadth than most revivalists. Don’t get me wrong, I love most of those riffs on Joy Division, but it is refreshing to hear a band that remembers that New Order was a thing. They don’t just stop there. There are bits of Wire, Gang Of Four, and some deeper cuts of the catalog.
Pictures from Occupied Europe is a stomping punk song that rips out from a minimal guitar riff and builds to a howling vocal full of righteous indignation. The Call is a big triumphant anthem in the vein of later 80s stuff like The Church or Echo & the Bunnymen. After listening to this survey of classic Post-Punk sounds, I want to see Spectres’ record collections. They have excellent taste.
Andi — Corpse to Corpus
I heard Andi interviewed on We Have a Technical and had to check out her debut on Aufnahme + Wiedergabe. It’s a stompy EBM instrumental EP that will send you dancing throughout your house.
Every one of these three tracks and remix is gold. Even if your allegiances lie more with traditional techno sounds, a song like Retribution should hit hard enough to get you moving.
Blue — Cerulean Veins
Gloomy and foreboding post-punk with a deep baritone vocal is a well-worn trope. Still, Cerulean Veins bring a talent for hooks that elevate this formula to its ideal form, ensuring this album ends up in your regular rotation.
Dance In The Darkness integrates a groove into the usual Post-Punk formula, making a great headphone dance track. (Essential in these never-ending quarantine days.) We’re All Stories In The End is an epic closer that cracks the perfect balance between pop and post-punk. An album full of heavy hitters, this sends you sailing off into the night on a perfect note.
Empathy Test — Monsters
The opening track to Monsters should convince you that we need more synth acts with live drummers. The beats’ organic feel derives from more dynamic fills, and compliment this moody collection of songs.
Empty Handed *was an early single. Its driving riff builds to a crescendo that fits the titular dismissal. *Fear Of Disappearing has the refrain “It’s a lonely time to be alive” that has an extra punch of relevance.
Wire — Mind Hive
At this point, Wire need no introduction. This is an act that survives. To avoid sounding like Wikipedia, they should be surmised as moving through every era of alternative music as innovators, despite a couple of breakups in-between. The 21st century incarnation has settled down a bit, synthesizing four decades into nearly perfect art rock.
Mind Hive opens with Be Like Them, a staccato crunch that leads to a soaring chorus, each alternating between artistic defiance and the sirens call of banal normality. Off the Beach sounds like something right out of their late ‘80s era. It’s got a mellow riff, but still built from a driving beat.
Glass Apple Bonzai — Skeleton Dance
Glass Apple Bonzai is another act that inevitably ends up on my year-end list when there’s a release. Granted in this case it’s a three song EP. While keeping Daniel Belasco’s talent for great hooks and spot-on classic synthpop sounds, Skeleton Dance shows some gothy overtones leftover from his side project, The Necromancer’s Union. That isn’t to say this is a retread, this is a GAB record through and through. The bass is just a bit higher in the mix and there’s a bit more strings and reverb.
The Girl & The Ghost is a slow ballad that shows off Belasco’s skills with sounds design. It has this very plaintive beat that carries along the song to its closing lyric, “And the darkness will come to you.” It’s a wonderful bit of gloomy pop that’s perfect for a walk on a fall night.
Assemblage 23 — Mourn
Assemblage 23’s Tom Shear crafts danceable beats with earnest lyrics. You’re not into dark music if you aren’t into the occasional dirge, but hearing something confessional you can bob your head to is more fun. An album that explores themes of mental health and separation, the production and hooks are perfectly matched to the lyrics. These aren’t Robert Smith’s happy little pop tunes about blowing up your life, but Shear has a knack for hooks that are built for his lyrics.
Factory would be a huge club hit any other year. A driving beat about toxic masculinity, Shear manages to distill the topic into something understandable but avoiding crossing the Biafra line into lecturing. Could’ve has a much more aggressive sound built on a growling bass line. This is a brilliant “fuck you” song, fitting for the album’s theme.
Portion Control — Head Buried
Portion Control has been busy this year. Releasing Head Buried and two EPs this year, they don’t show the miles accrued. This album is snotty and aggressive. While that seems fitting for the climate, it isn’t all new material. Some tracks are built from leftovers after 2012’s Pure Form. However, none of these tracks feel dated or like an outtake collection.
Degrade is a snarling track where the album really kicks in. It’s got a nice fuzzed out bass line and a slower beat. Showing that music doesn’t have to be sped up tempos and screaming to be full of rage. Album closer *Cock *sends the album out on a bang. It’s another slower song, but even as an instrumental you can feel the aggression oozing from every sound. It’s refreshing to see production rely more on sound design than pushing everything into the red.
Surrender — s/t
Surrender’s self-titled album has a big sound. Everything on this record is huge. The sounds are sweeping with danceable beats, and all the vocals are through chorus vocals that sound like big stadium speakers. Some synthpop feels made for headphones or dark club nights, but every minute of this record feels like it’s swinging for the biggest rooms in the world. The sort of maximalism meant for music videos with big tracking landscape shots. I often can find that sort of pop aspiration infuriating, but every bit of this record is equally earnest and personal as it is epic.
Disappear has Scott McNash duetting with guest Julie Lindhome that typifies the anthemic quality of Surrender’s songwriting. Both vocal tracks feel larger than life. The bass is way down in the mix, instead big strings and pads fill out the space between the two vocalists. It’s a great effect. Carefully, Carefully starts from a rolling hi-hat and builds into its big moments, recalling both classic Synthpop and early aughts Emo in the best ways. Not something I thought would mix well, but this is a great cocktail.
Bob Vylan — We Live Here
We Live Here is nineteen minutes of pure ass kicking aggression. Bob Vylan mixes guitar crunch and megaphone vocals reminiscent of classic Crass. There are dashes of grime to make it feel modern. Vylan doesn’t pull punches. Instead of abstract politics, racism, poverty, and England’s self-mythology are taken head-on.
We Live Here is a big fuck you to every racist in England. It’s snotty and thoughtful, and written from personal experience. Save Yourself is a more straightforward hardcore song, complete with a self-empowerment message. A perfect circle pit song, it’s a defiantly raised fist before the album closes on a moment of silence.
Ascending — Istintiva Bellezza
Every second of this record drips with cool. The lyrics are buried in the mix and processed to make them feel detached. I’ll confess to not understand Italian and beyond running the titles through Google Translate, I don’t have much of an idea what any of the songs are actually about. Though David Lace sells the vibe perfectly just through performance alone, there’s great sound design. It’s hard to nail down where this record gets its swagger, but it has a ton.
Come onde neil mare flexes the low-fi analog production work, not only in texture, but also in the layering of the tracks. It builds into a wall of noise, the rest of the song dropping away. L’unica certrezza has an earworm for a bass line, the rest of the track fades in and out around it. Lare’s choices here show off a keen ear for sound design, and an ear for classic electronic music.
Rants and Reviews. Mostly just BS and Affiliate Links.