We were reliably informed this week that Electroclash is back (again) — for that which is dead can never die. We would add that bleak, desperate strains of pop music wear many faces. Cold/Minimal/Synth-wave being just a few of the death rattles of the eternal desire to distort that innate power of pop.
And so we have Automelodi’s 2013 LP Surlendemains Acides. An album of Synth-wave bangers from 2013 that could have been made in 1983, being re-released in 2018.
La Cigale, today’s track, is the first on the album. Beginning with that distorted synth chord that simultaneously embodies dark brutalist landscapes, desolate ex-urban ones and weird medical cults experimenting with telepathy. You know, all the really great things about the death throws of utopian thinking prior to Neo-libralism.
The drum machine’s not far behind. Nor that insanely catchy melody.
Which, along with Xavier Paradis’ stone cold vocal delivery, creates something that attacks the pleasure sensors attuned to pop, and once there deploys a dead eyed gaze that settles on your soul. A nihilistic pill placed within the bob-around-being-happy part of the brain.
These days old 20JFG gets up when young 20JFG would have gone to bed.
Getting in at 5am, throwing a blanket over the window and trying to sleep before you started to feel human. That was the one true path. Now we awake at the weekend far too early, our body clocks perverted by weekday travels up to the glittering beast to the north.
And so it was, on one of these weekend mornings — still dark outside but our brain wired and awake — that we started thinking about RVNG, the label we’ve so consistently stan’d for many years now.
We started to think about RVNG as they’d just put out a particularly wonderful, particularly melancholy record by Mark Renner. Renner was largely unknown outside rarified Baltimore music circles and worked in various jobs over the decades while recording and painting. He had a brief brush with nearly-fame with an (ultimately unsuccessful) demo he made in the UK in the 80s but that was it for music stardom.
And yet. And yet, here we are over 30 years later, sifting through 21 tracks of a man’s music: two early albums he made and other assorted tracks. A series of moments held in time, divorced from the entropy music suffers when exposed to the wider world.
These tracks do sound of their time, part 80s indie pop, part Cluster, part Eno. But it’s the unfamiliarity, the space between the production of the music and the meshing gears of the culture, that’s the thing. And that’s the thing with much of what RVNG do so well. They offer a second chance to us as listeners and the artists themselves. A chance to engage quietly and on our own terms with music. To time travel. And yet, as with all great time travel stories, there’s a sadness because we can’t change the past. We can’t encourage more music at the time it was made. We can’t show our appreciation at the time of its production.
But if we can’t change the past, we can at least enjoy the present.
James Cowie (The Portrait Group) is late(r) period Renner. Gone are the words. This is a deceptively simple folk melody played out over two and a half minutes. What makes it special and what made us post it alongside the text above is that its so achingly sad. Behind the melody, a synth bed hovers throughout. Sinister in the way that Lynch and Badalamenti perfected. Simple, clear and, ultimately, terrifying. The rain here too. Falling throughout, distorting our bucolic view of the melody. The three combine to create the perfect symbolic soundtrack for the melancholy of the reissue.
Few Traces by Mark Renner is out now on RVNG. Get it here.
This year’s darkest downers were brought to us by the forces of populist reaction, who closed borders, marched down streets like amateur stormtroopers, lied, threatened, trolled and generally behaved like the little insecure and pathetic horrors that they are. They also made us fear for the future of everything and our place in it.
We sought and found succour from this ugliness in beautiful musics from all over. We zipped across the planet hither and yon, and everywhere we went we found a treasure, and each treasure gave us a soul-expanding moment, also made us feel grateful and blessed for the diversity of the world and its peoples. Let us recapitulate some of our destinations.
We spent the longest time traversing Japanese ambient dioramas where every single sound has been carefully arranged to induce a sense of harmony and bliss. Music zen gardens caressed by the morning mist, a crane rises from the lake and above the trees, beyond which shadowy epiphany looms, could it be the mountain were the Gods landed, or one of the Gods even?
We think of that show and are transported back to the wooden origami of the venue, a small lady wrapped in a science fiction cape slowly sliding into the stage, ringing a diminutive bell that with its tiny trembling ring transforms everything around it, casting a spell from which we haven’t yet awoken. The troop of drums she marshalled, the soundtracks for shadow puppet video-games she created with a marimba, her samurai duel with a cast of inert tambourines she endowed with the soul of sound, all these things are stuff for our future dreams, and those of the generations that come after us.
Where To Now never fails to grace our best of the year every year. In 2017, in addition to a surfeit of stranger techno wonders we covered elsewhere or will cover in due course, they also contributed to our Japanese cornucopia with H Takahashi’sRaum.
Welcome to H Takahashi’s room. The room is different shades of white, all its lines are clean and white but somehow neither stark nor cold, to the contrary, it is as if they curved to cocoon you like a caring mother. Inside the room you are protected, but not shut out of the universe. No, that’s not the purpose of the room. The room opens into the universe through specially arranged windows where light arrives to stage a photonic ballet through which you, your histories and qualia are reunited with the existence of entities and being very very far away, dissolving space and time and reintegrating you into a universe of loving grace.
This year we went back to wonderful Chile, and ahead of the trip we immersed ourselves in this country’s musical culture via two Spotify playlists prepared by a magical dipper. We particularly enjoyed this one, for dancing. It is an excellent showcase of the many delights to be found in Chile’s music scene, combining with promiscuity and gusto sweet pop, disco, hip hop, Cumbia, latin music tropes and many other things.
What explains this bounty of riches? The evolution of complex cultural systems doesn’t yield to simple explanations : we hear that the Chilean music market was too small for the majors so an independent scene thrived in its stead. As with the Spanish movida, there was civic society flexing its artistic muscles after the horrors of the dictatorship, and confronting prevailing bastions of intolerance, social injustice and economic inequality. Throw modern musical production tools and digital distribution into the mix and presto!, these magics happen:
Alejandro Paz’s new record, Sin Llorar is another excellent example of the twisted melange of pop bliss and mixed-up emotions that characterises so much chilean music.
Alejandro is a surly Donnie Darko possessed by the ghost of Patrick Cowley and Bobby Orlando. He creates stunning disco, hi-NRG and synth boogie bangers that he can’t help but infect with the darkest of moods. In Necesito Estar Mal, a glorious hybrid of Superradio prance-along Italo and EBM throbbery, he sings about how ‘Ineed to feel shit, at least for a little bit, so that I can feel better‘.
We find this pairing of 24k gold beats and strange emotional loops completely irresistible. It’s as if the ghost of Christmas Present paid you a visit you as you climb towards the peak of an MDMA high at some ungodly time in some iniquitous place. Skeletal fingers grab your sweaty shoulder, you turn around to confront this creature of the abyss arriving with gloomy tidings, and when you stare at its face, you see that… it’s you.
Alejandro is also a banging DJ. Just checks this session at La Roma, which made us dance around the lounge quite a few times this year.
It has already been a couple of years since we visited Berlin physically but then Berlin is not just a place in space, but a state of mind. Parties and after-hours clubs dotting the land create (when sonic, chemical and cultural circumstances conflux) portals opening up into the ur-Berlin, a certain idea or concept of what a night out should be.
It ain’t healthy.
We travelled through that portal and into a platonic template for Berlin at least twice this year, and have listened to many records that would have provided the musical key for the portal had we consumed it in the right context, instead of in a commute up or down to London.*
One of these visits took place only a couple of days ago, from Madrid, thanks to a 3-hour drum-heavy, dissonant ‘Leatherface does a NEU! 2 number on Ozo’s Anambra‘ set by our old friend Capablanca at Cafe Berlin in Madrid.
The other was from London, at a Hydra takeover of Printworks, with Helena Hauff running the show.
Previously, we had only seen Hauff play at smaller venues, in sets build atop a foundation of brutal dark castle techno laced with EBM and cold wave. They were harsh, but they didn’t prepare us for the aural equivalent of an Imperial Sardaukar dreadnaught landing on top of our heads, which is basically what happened in Printworks.
At the risk of mixing cultural landmarks, we ask you to remember the prologue of the Exorcist when father Merrick briefly faces his nemesis Pazuzu amidst ancient ruins. Now, replace that demonic force with the vaguely glimpsed shapes of azteco-summerian-lovecraftian colossi illuminated by a grid of lasers, storm-bolt strobes and swirling clouds of perfumed smoke, gazing with indifference at the crowd of puny cultists dancing in oblivious worship at their stony feet.
Helena Hauff was the chief sorcerer choreographing this ritual with martial discipline and merciless tempo. Never forget.
There is no song or visual that can stand-in for the total bodily experience of being there so will not even try. We will instead leave you with ‘I Am A Strange Machine Sometimes‘ by Vox Low, which appeared in last year’s Correspondent Compilation 4. Its stomping beats and cybernetic spirit captures the Cronenbergian transformation of human flesh and muscle into the metallic components of a satanic dragster headed towards pan-psychic Berlin, over an autobahn paved with bad intentions.
O, pure Mediterranean beaches to lie in under the sun, to dissolve and flow back to primeval sources of life and civilisation, through forgotten migratory paths and trade routes! Could you think of a better place to be, as grandfather winter snaps at your ears full of malice?
Our obsession with Balearica and allied sub-genres of new age and ambient stem not just from their soothing effect and ability to dull the edges of an oft-painful reality, but also from a recognition of the kernel of ancient wisdom on which they are based, they are a palimpsest covered with the lore of a myriad forgotten civilisations that criss-crossed the Mediterranean, to live, love and fight, turning our animal emotions, reactions and impulses into mysterious symbols and timeless epics. As more layers are added to its surface, their words dissolve into drones that ring with a mix of spiritualism, Epicurean philosophy and mong.
Music from Memory were a primary source of these sounds in 2017, specially with Gaussian Curve’s second album, Garret’s Private Life, the Outro Tempo compilation of experimental Brazilian music (which single-handedly made Brazil a candidate destination for the journey we’re in today) and Suso Sáiz. Every release in MfM’s schedule is a paean to the wisdom of the ancients and their mysterious spells to commune with the sea and the sun and flocks of birds imprinting joyous glyphs in the Summer sky, and for this we are grateful.
Other honourable mentions in this leg of the journey include the New Atlantis ambient compilation, Caterina Barbieri’s Patterns of Consciousness (already picked up elsewhere in this year’s roundup) and Kara-Lis Coverdale’s Grafts (KLC deserves a special tip of the hat because her music and stunning live performance at Cafe OTO would have made her worthy of inclusion in any of the destinations we have covered in this journey – crazy, right?).
The release sequence for RVNG International and related projects reads like an itinerary through a collection of hidden Balearic beaches each of which hides a secret full of feeling. In Bing and Ruth’s No Home of the Mind* we faced a coterie of past loves rushing at us and through us leaving a wound of nostalgia we need to experience again and again and again; Michele Mercure’s beach was littered with derelict alien artefacts polished into infinite smoothness by fingers of cosmic dust; Pauline Anna Strom’s Trans Millenia Music was a vast sheltered ecosystem where whole provinces of Linnaean strangeness evolved, populating an experimental site that still awaits for a worthy Darwin; We can’t quite remember what happened in Palmbomen’s beach, whenever we try to access that place in our memories the vistas become slippery, the sounds vague and fuzzy like sensory quicksand. We think there was a party, we must have taken something.
Each of these beaches shares a geography, a climate and a history: our history, a history of space, a history of life, a misplaced history. Pep Llopis’ “Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes” is the history of the journey connecting all these lost places and the adventures that ensued.
Look at the prow of the Argo breaking through the waves with eyes unblinking, aimed at the glow of the Golden Fleece that lures us from beyond the horizon. The argonauts row with Jason at the helm, all silent and steady and at ease with the lie that they are hunting for treasure rather than the idea of the journey, the sun and the truth inside themselves.
Off they go, atop powerful Mediterranean currents, vertiginous like Pep Llopis’ melodies, the Ray Harryhausen adaptation of a Philip Glass quest.
* We know this came out in 4AD but we will always associate B&R with the RVNG imprint.
We spent a lot of time in America, and thinking about America and hearing about America and fearing for America and fearing America. American artists and influences appear in all the destinations we visited this year for the obvious reason that America has itself been the destination for people’s from all over the world, and each of these visits links the world there, that is the history that the vandals would sever.
We close our world tour by celebrating this uniquely valid aspect of American exceptionalism, the sense of open skies and horizons and futures, a feeling of optimism as we continue down the dusty road, Brian John McBrearty’s guitar as trusty sidekick and companion.
Yaeji’s Drink I’m Sipping On pretty much made my musical year. A seemingly effortless blend of Trap and sultry Korean RnB, it managed to conjure into being a midnight world at the border between exuberant intoxication and the existential 4am dance music that is 20JFG’s usual stock in trade. This was all made even better when the artwork dropped and it featured a slightly embarrassed looking Yaeji, out of focus in the corner. A bright spot of red against the darkness. That the subsequent EP had the only decent Drake cover I’ve heard (Passionfruit) and the sweaty, pounding Raingurl made extra happy. Noonside (off EP1) is an absolute banger too.
DIY dance music was still going strong in 2017. Perhaps because dance music is uniquely suited to DIY. Everyone has a laptop, right? Identity Theft got two back to back posts on the blog along with associated label Katabatik’s output. RVNG were still putting out the jams (although more on them later) along with old friends Where To Now?.
And speaking of old friends, Murlo’s self produced, self performed, self animated show at the ICA was pretty special. Beautifully drawn, Mobius influenced sci-fi landscapes played out on a giant screen while Murlo triggered both animations and sound behind the fabric like an instrumental Grime Wizard of Oz.
The New Age / Ambient / Synth nexus was also still going strong in 2017 (providing us with yet more parallels with the 70s and the Western nervous breakdown that’s happening again). Both Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Caterina Barbieri put out exceptional synth records this year.
RVNG continued to put out peerless reissues including the wonderful Eros in Arabia by Richard Horowitz. A strange travelogue through imagined middle eastern worlds full of vocal loops and huge synth washes. On Never Teach No Foreign Answer he manages to locate the overlap between the gamelan and nascent New York Noise music. Which is impressive.
Not Not Fun put out Canada Effervescent’s Crystalline on tape. An album that manages to sooth and transport, a sort of ritualised bathing in pure energy. Entirely synth led this will be playing in the waiting room before you transcend to a being of pure energy.
And in one of the best gigs I’ve been to in Years, GAS managed to turn standing behind a lectern into a emotionally transportive experience through the simple application of stunning, synced visuals and overwhelming sonic force. Ambience via volume. Ambience via nature. Must be seen on largest screen possible.
With the world continueing to burn with the power of a thousand 2016s, the most escapist culture continued to thrive. Although the vast majority of videogames released this year would have gone into production before anyone descended in golden elevators, 2017 was nonetheless an absolutely outstanding year for losing oneself in strange other worlds.
Nex Machina arrived and sadly became the last arcade shooter from Housemarque, the economics of neon flecked arcade shooters finally taking their toll. But what an exit. Completely hypnotic, frantic and capable of playing you more than you playing it. Like last year’s sublime Thumper, it requires reactions faster than conscious thought and is our current go to ‘zone’ game. No engagement with reality required.
A late entry into this year’s 2017 game roundup is Gorogoa which I haven’t even finished yet. It’s here purely for the fact that it actually made me smile-out-loud, which turns out is a grin followed by a happy murmur. It’s a meticulously drawn sliding block puzzle that brings in both the z-axis (as you zoom in and out of the screen) and an almost associative approach to perspective. It’s artwork and logic seems pulled from a sort of Czech New Wave version of The incal. Sounds of war mixed with ancient ruins, densely packed libraries and hallucinatory nature.
And then there was Mario. Who had an Odyssey of pure, unadulterated joy. Interestingly enough having his own run in with the rules of perspective and indeed, his own history. Seeing Mario revisit New Donk City from his first appearance (in Donkey Kong) is…rather odd but then, so is visiting a world made of cooking ingredients. But not as wonderful/odd as transforming into a 2D version of himself and playing out throwback levels that wrap themselves around 3D geometry.
And finally there was Zelda. It may/may not be the greatest game ever made depending on where you sit on the hyperbole scale but it was certainly the first open world game that didn’t feel like it was put together by a fussy tour guide that wanted you to tick off all the sights. A world of endless Ghibli-esque beauty where simply journeying between locations managed to hit the childish pleasure centres of exploration and wonder. It’s a thing of maddening complexity masquerading as earnest simplicity, like peak Beach Boys or the silent slapstick of Keaton. Although its post-post-apocalyptic setting did have a nagging sense of melancholy that would be easier to process if the world wasn’t on fire…
2017 was also a banner year for people still being really good at shit. Which is nice because we need all that we can get.
Slowdive returned (after 22 years) with a album that’s so thrown back it’s new again. And, like a great videogame remaster, actually sounds like what you thought the original sounded like in your head.
EMA put out perhaps the best album of her career with Exile in the Outer Ring. A sort of sci-fi / internet culture / depression America journey that features a track called Aryan Nation. Which seems to loop round to her early work with Gowns on Red State. A sort of through line of disenfranchisement.
Fever Ray returned! Which was wonderful. It’s an album that’s truly explicit, a completely bare emotional reckoning with her sexuality, motherhood and politics. IDK About You is such a banger too.
The cultural event of the year though can only belong one place, Twin Peaks: The Return. An 18 hour movie, or TV series, or Limited Time Event, or whatever it was, it was mesmerising. Owing as much to Eraserhead as the original show, it frustrated, beguiled and confused. It soared, it fucked with nostalgia and fan service as well as dishing out loads of nostalgia and fan service. It took one of television’s greatest heroes and most notorious ‘bad’ endings and deepened their relationship to one another. It gave us Namoi Watts’ best performance in years. It turned David Bowie into a tea pot. It had a pretty flawless booking agent for the Road House (I’d argue the bands themselves are spoilers so I won’t list them). It had so much to give.
It was a culmination of Lynch’s career, forcing through his ideas on dream logic to the point where they broke the fabric of Twin Peaks’ murder mystery / soap. It had moments of genuine comedy, empathy with the changes the world has undergone over the last 25 years (“people are under a lot of stress, Bradley”) and absolute horror. Episodes 8 and 17/18 will live with me for a long, long time even if the books produced by Mark Frost may have made things too solid. Although deliciously he mentioned that they’re his reality, and that Lynch’s Twin Peaks may exist in a different one.
Several albums have come out of the show. Two ‘official’ ones, centring on the score and the Road House guests. But more interestingly two other albums emerged, one from Johnny Jewel (on Italians Do It Better) and one from Dean Hurley (on Sacred Bones).
Jewel’s Windswept contains what I imagine to be all the submitted music for Twin Peaks, a fair proportion of which was used. It is, as you’d imagine, what happens when the Chromatics go Lounge Jazz instead of Disco. Slow and sad and eerie, ending with a startling (revised) cover of Blue Moon. Audrey would be massively into them.
Hurley’s Anthology Resource Vol. 1: △△ is more ambient and soundtracks the more terrifying moments of the series. As such I’ve listened to it significantly less than Windswept as I like to actually sleep at night. These are Convenience Store jams.