MMXV

Featuring :

Best invocation of a half remembered 80s Far East Obsession: Bamboo – Prince Pansori Priestess

We’re actually quite pleased to be living in the information rich world. Far from being a nightmarish hellscape of irony eating irony, it’s helpfully freed up everyone to assimilate the shit they like.

XXJFG is nothing if not a clearinghouse for half imagined histories and strange misunderstandings. Therefore the post-hauntological world suits us just fine.

Bamboo – Khene Song

Bamboo’s album hit late in the year (which we fully accept may have swung it this award), but it hit with such a complete collection of odd pop songs. If pop borrowed liberally from post-punk and the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Oh god, if only. Listen to Khene Song and not be transported to a misty Japanese village by way of Wales. Like Ozu directing Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

Honorable mentions

Best remix album that was better than its source album : Björk’s Vulnicura remix series

News of Vulnicura drew excitement with the revelation that contributors to the album included XXJFG faves Arca and The Haxan Cloak. Other people got excited about this too. So much so, that Björk herself was moved – not unreasonably – to release a statement complaining that her male co-producers get more credit in the public’s mind than she does for her albums.

Vulnicura – kind of a mash-up of the sounds and sentiments of Homogenic and Vespertine – was good, but even better was the three-part remix series that unravelled across 2015 and was co-curated by former XXJFGer Robin Carolan.

Released as a succession of 12” singles rather than an album per se, when comped together, they nevertheless work well as a piece of continuous music. We even  made a Spotify playlist Vulnicura remixes Spotify playlist.

The Haxan Cloak contributed a mix, as did more of our heroes – including Mica Levi and Katie Gately, whose remix of Family was the real jewel in this astral crown.

Bjork – Family (Katie Gately Remix)

Yet the remixes weren’t the only parallel universe Vulnicuras to be released in 2015! Björk also created an acoustic chamber orchestra Vulnicura, which can be purchased from Norman records.

Honorable mentions

Best Gothic Masochistic Lovecraftian Werewolf Videogame : Bloodborne

XXJFG really, really like From Software’s punishingly hard (but fair) Souls games. Japanese curios, that against the odds, have been localised and brought to these shores on what is now nearly a yearly basis.

We share some traits with their creator Hidetaka Miyazaki. A love of Lovecratian horror, dark medieval fantasy outside the usual anglo-centric Arthurian fare and, most importantly, a willingness to completely misinterpret source material and forge our own universe (which is pretty much how every post begins).

With the Souls games it was exposure to fantasy comics whose dialogue he couldn’t read that led to the wonderfully inventive world building in the main Souls games. With Bloodborne he turns his attention to a fusion of Victorian gothic and Lovecraftian horror. And like the best of Lovecraft’s work it’s really all about modernity. But unlike Lovecraft, Miyazaki is more even handed (and less virulently racist), undermining the notion of both heroes and villains in his fable of cursed knowledge.

Indeed even the most demanding foes are perhaps more sympathetic than your homicidal avatar, their true sadness often not revealed until you’ve celebrated their demise. From a protector of the town whose exposure to the horrors of the night have left him degenerating into a beast, to the hints of a mighty hunter whose tragic end haunts the items of the places associated with the toughest challenges the game has to offer (and who you finally face in the DLC released in November).

But in the end it’s the way in which Miyazaki manages to capture the horror of forced modernity that permeated the Victorian era (and those black satanic mills) that’s it greatest asset.

Bauhaus – Bela Lugosi’s Dead

Bloodborne’s focus on the medical (and cerebral) rather than the militaristic and imperial, its ability to explore the effect its ‘one big idea’ has on its characters (there’s a whole optional side story revolving around aristocratic vampires for whom modernity is completely rejected) and its endless ability to stun and shudder with its art direction all contribute to the best game of the year.

Honorable mentions

Best hauntology album : John Carpenter’s Lost Themes

John Carpenter’s Lost Themes is a collection of soundtracks to his movies which were only released in alternative universes.

Thought the cross dimensional corridor created during the Blu Ray re-release of Ghost of Mars Sacred Bones records managed to torrent and compile these.

They also brought back the alt-universe John who will be performing these soundtracks live throughout 2017 with Roddy Piper on drums, Jamie Lee Curtis on bass and Snake Plissken on triangle.

John Carpenter – Vortex

The album is obviously freaking awesome so go buy it from Sacred Bones.


Saddest soundtrack to the slow painful death of American Utopianism: Inherent Vice

As I was reminded again while drinking on a mild December evening, liking Inherent Vice isn’t a terribly popular opinion. On the other hand I’ve seen it more times than any other movie this year and had the soundtrack on repeat more times than I can count. So there’s that.

What I’ll happily admit is that this isn’t really the Pynchon adaptation you’re looking for. It’s far closer to PTA’s previous film The Master. Taking, as it does, the intersection of big mainstream events with the flounderings of fringe subcultures. Here it’s as much far right posturing as it is hippie idealism in the face of a nation’s war in Vietnam. In The Master it was the (post traumatic) effects of WW2 on American society and the fringe beliefs that sprung up to cater for/to that trauma.

But where The Master was damaged, Inherent Vice is melancholy. The slapstick sex-farce-stoner-noir of the novel is largely replaced with a psychoactive love story. It’s funny inasmuch as the humor is needed to shade the sadness. At times it’s like looking in on the setup for a great sketch with a hangover. The jokes are there but you’re distracted by the pattern in the rug that looks like the face of your ex.

And beneath all this, the soundtrack. Johnny Greenwood’s score hits all the right noir notes but it’s the less film-y track selection (and Radiohead doing a surf guitar freakout under excerpts of Joanna Newsom’s dialogue) that perfectly supports that aching sadness.

Can – Vitamin C

PTA’s mother-in-law blasts out the hook laden hippie-soul masterpiece, Les Fleur. The Japanese lounge of Kyu Sakamoto’s Sukiyaki just pops up, perfectly pleasant if completely incongruous (it’s playing in the back of a Japanese restaurant in the film). Like the jokes though, these are the moments that anchor the depths on the shores of everyday life in the hazy glow of pre-Reagan LA.

Indeed the album gives over its final track to Chuck Jackson’s 1962 version of Any Day Now. A track out of time and place with the characters of the film. While the on-point lyrical content is there (a beautiful bird flying away works for 30 seconds until you remember the force of nature that Shasta is rather than a delicate creature not valuing its own freedom), the tone is one of sadness. It’s music that Doc and Shasta (in a scene not in the novel) might have heard while skipping stations on the car’s radio as they drift through the mist. Something out of time, that resonates for a moment before fading away.

We took the chance to repost Can’s Vitamin C back in February when we first saw Inherent Vice. Because of course we did.

Honorable mentions

Best sonic sci-fi corridor: Manta

There are two visual tropes for the futurity of an environment: first, the overwhelming immersion into urban street-life at the beginning of Bladerunner, and second that sci-fi corridor expanding with hypnotic linearity through the bowels of a spaceship, into spaces full of possibility, wonder and horror.

They have musical analogues. Hype Williams and several other Hyperdub stalwarts exemplify the first type of scenario, muffled melodies and beats bounced off a multi-dimensional geometry of pop-up life, over layers of ambient noise.

This year, we have been delighted by many examples of music representing the second scenario, synthetic melodies and high-tech rhythms asymptotically converging into a vanishing point of industrial designer nirvana.

Our favourite is Manta’s Etra, whose luxurious techno progressions capture not just the complex mesh of life-supporting systems protecting the explorers from the void, but also the echoes of those explorer’s lives, as they blast through massive chunks of sidereal space, in an odyssey to find the party at the end of the universe.

Manta – Jeweled Alligator

Go and get Etra from Where 2 Now.

Honorable mentions

Best special ops paranormal proto-teenager wish fulfillment fantasy: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Perhaps as a balance for our our chaotic, bohemian peacenik tendencies, we have always felt a perverse attraction for the surgical precision of military special operations, that vectorial ballet with which grim dudes administer some of that ole good ultra-violence. That’s the source of our unabashed love for Michael Mann, Sam Peckinpah and John Carpenter, and our reluctant fascination with Kathryn Bigelow and, erm, Black Hawk Down.

No-one should be therefore surprised to hear that we spent a significant chunk of 2016 in a trance of sneaking across Afghano-Morriconian deserts and Afro-Predatorian jungles, clad in black armor, lugging a silenced sniper rifle, accompanied by a trusty one-eyed pooch with a serrated blade knife hanging from its eager maws.

Metal Gear Solid V mashed up all this with shrieking mecha, zombie cowboys and Noam Chomsky/Richard Dawkins cod-linguo-virical theories. It wrapped it in gameplay systems perfectly engineered to generate emergent chaos, and spiced it up with that inimitable Kojima camp eccentricity. All this would have been enough to make us and the gnarly teenagers lurking inside our psyches blow up in a gory splash of pleasure the colour palette of a Leon / Ogami Ittō interior redecoration.

But then there was the the music. How many hours did we spend skulking around russian camps to nick a cassette tape by the Cure? How much was our enjoyment of the whole affair boosted by the cultural know how that had gone into the game, validating it in the face of our stern inner hip-judicator?

This was the song that kicked off the prelude :

Ennio Morricone and Joan Baez – Here’s to You

This is the one that kicked off the game :

Midge Ure – The Man Who Sold the World

And here is a slice off the soundtrack. If Einsturzende Neubauten had made the theme track for a Transformers movie, it would have sounded totally like this (and they would still be picking up bits of our brains from the movie theatre where we went to see it).

Ludwig Forsell – Sahelanthropus Dominion

Buy the game, and the soundtrack (fuck Konami though).

Honorable mentions

Best Cyberpunk TV show: Mr.Robot

Beginning as a straightforward hacker self medicates in meticulous detail to cope with lack of ability to tell life from paranoia, Mr.Robot’s internal monologuing tumbling through reality had us sucked in like he was Luke Rhinehart stalking a potential date from Tinder.

Fsociety, the mysterious hacking group, mixes Batman supervillains, the geeks from every John Hughes movie and Anonymous – who else would the saviours or destroyers of society be? Christian Slater is 50% V for Vendetta/50% Christian Slater in Heathers in his doctrine of cyber freedom/anarchy.

Maxence Cyrin – Where Is My Mind

The Donnie Darko meets Boroughs style ‘reality’, American Psycho villains, blatant Fight Club reference and superbly meta hacker jokes helped us stick with this modern cyberpunk pop TV show thought its highs, flaws and very ambitious first season.

Animotion – Obsession

Honorable mentions
  • The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak

Best hypnagogic epic of 2015: Max Richter – SLEEP

We interviewed Max Richter recently about his 8-hour dreaming aid, SLEEP – an exquisite set of variations for chamber orchestra and electronics that soundtrack the various sleep cycles in real time.

Max Richter – Rainlight

This was the most ambitious music project by a mainstreamish composer this year, and also one of the best. Having performed the full 8 hours of material live in Germany (with beds provided for the audience), Max will be bringing an abbreviated version of the set to the UK in 2016.

A new 8-CD and Blu-Ray audio box set of SLEEP has just been issued.

Honorable mentions

Best melody for the end of Encounters of the Third Kind if we were encountered by an advanced version of ourselves: Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson’s description of a frail sliver of humanity looking for home in a crumbling starship, is a forensic audit of the societal and environmental micro-dynamics with which we collapse. It is also a forceful account of how we can fight back creatively, with technology and politics.

Holly Herndon’s Platform parallels KSR’s vision. Her music tackles the future without despondency, pessimism or a perverse surrender to dystopian fantasy. It revels in the beautiful voice that humanity gifts its machine offspring, the freedom of humanity augmented by its machine tools, and the coming-together of a community of creative, hopeful humans connected by a digital network.

The result is a cybernetic symphony where medium, message and process become one, the foundation for something important. Perhaps the blueprint for a way forward emerging from chaos like the bird rides the storm, like the melody stands up, amidst shards of noise.

Holly Herndon – Morning Sun

Get Platform from 4AD.

Honorable mentions

Best equation to give Claude Shannon nightmares: Squadra Omega

Someone must have written a treatise applying information theory to the horror genre: it is all about how humans react to the unknown (uncertainty) and risk (danger). Whether a horror story fails or succeeds hinges on the skill with which its author manages to describe each of these situations, and the transition between them.

This 20JFG scribe favours horrors where the first phase of uncertainty is pushed to its extreme, stretching even beyond the end of the story so that we can never be sure of what happened, that uncertainty lingers with us, haunting us forever. The Blair Witch Project, Don’t Look Now, Eyes Wide Shut (a horror film of sorts). They avoid that frequent anticlimactic moment of revelation when we realise that… it was a clown.

This is one of the reasons why we have become sort of obsessed with the recent so-called wave of Italian Occult Psychedelia, excellently exemplified by Squadra Omega’s majestic Altri Occhi Ci Guardano. It often conjures a vague sense of dread and omen, something we can’t quite put our finger on but makes the hair in the back of our neck stand up. It makes us think of Arthur Machen, the beginning of the Evil Dead, the beginning of the Exorcist. Approaching a spooky configuration of rocks whose amorphous shapes draw satanic silhouettes on each other. Or maybe it is just our imagination.

This is quite different from the operatic manoeuvres of the masters of Giallo music (which of course we also love). It is both cruder and subtler, tuned to something primitive inside us, to senses made dormant by urbanisation, and the arrival of the written word.

Definitely not a gothic story with which aristocrats tried to fend off boredom in their drawing rooms, but the rough fairytale told in a hut in the verge of the woods, as the sun sets, and it is encroached by darkness.

Squadra Omega – Il Grande Idolo

Buy Altri Occhi Ci Guardano.

Honorable mentions

Best folk electronic act : Stealing Sheep

Post internet has produced a generation of musicians where it’s near impossible to say where influences come from, and at xxjfg we fully embrace that. For Stealing Sheep we can only say they use electronic instruments in a way that reminds us of early electronica and sing in a way that reminds us of folk to produce a truly enchanting album of outsider pop.

Stealing Sheep – Apparition

Buy the album Not Real from Rough Trade.

Honorable mentions
  • Jane Weaver – The Silver Globe (late 2014 and xxjfstu’s secret crush)

Best album featuring saxomophones: Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld – Never Were The Way She Was

Weird to think that in the past couple of decades saxophones were reviled by the music press, who identified them as the worst kind off 80s, jacket-sleeves-pulled-up-to-the-elbows, shit-era David Bowie kind of naff musical excess. Y’know, like this guy.

But in 2015, this instrument surged back in hack-credibility, as it was all over the end of year lists. It was the gutsy, metallic gale of the saxophone breathing life into new classics by Matana Roberts and Kamasi Washington, and prompting a billion “just because it’s got a saxophone on it doesn’t make it jazz” debates about – yes – the excellent new Bowie stuff.

Our favourite though, was Colin Stetson’s work on his collaboration with The Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld.

Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld – In the Vespers

Buy the duo’s album, Never Were The Way She Was.

Honorable mentions

Best festival of all-time ever: Supernormal 2015

Despite Supernormal having been trundling away in the background as a niche event on the boutique festival scene for the last few years, 2015 was the first time we made it to the beautiful Braziers Park in Oxfordshire to soak in the good vibes, mind-expanding art and interactive educational and creative experiences that the sustainable, eco-friendly festival has to offer.

In part, this was due to XXJFG sister-project Blue Tapes and X-Ray Records acting as guest curator for this year’s musical events, which saw performances by the likes of Father Murphy, Map 71, Benjamin Finger, Check!!! and Leedian, Karen Gwyer, Trummor & Orgel, and various Gnod and Teeth of The Sea side projects.

Tashi Dorji – Attain (Leedian remix)

We rocked Supernormal with two XXJFG DJ sets, consumed many delicious things and then cured ourselves in the mornings by curling up in the kids’ cinema tent and enjoying hundreds of imaginative, playful and sometimes kinda abstract short films. Kids are weird.

Spread across the grounds and woods, and the the magnificent 17th Century Braziers House (run by the the School of Integrative Social Research commune) and assorted outbuildings, there was an impossible amount to see and do. In truth, the musical component probably wasn’t even half of this.

Benjamin Finger – Darnskullgreyness

Supernormal mixes performance art, live music, education, creative workshops, and surreal-but-fun experiences (whether it’s being buried alive, taking part in an interactive opera, or happening across a cult of Nyan Cat-worshipping astronauts in the woods) in a seamless and idiosyncratic manner – something no other annual event could hope to match. This was the best festival we’ve been to.

Honorable mentions

Best Mad Max Film: Turbo Kid

Sometimes bad taste leaves a longer lasting impression than good taste.

With its BMX road wars, comic book hero references and inexplicably long gore filled fight sequences Turbo Kid became an instant classic for xxjfg in 2015.

Le Matos – Playtime is over (Death Waltz) Turbo Kid OST

Honorable mentions
  • Mad Max : Fury Road