(Data Garden, 2013)
Shinji Masuko is a member of avant-rock heroes Boredoms and the bluesier DMBQ, but you wouldn’t know it from Bookshelf Sanctuary, which is more of a dazed krautrock dream. It’s the guitarist’s first album with Moan, a two-piece he formed with Makiko of fellow Japanese grip Water Fai, and it’s inspired by a childhood bookshelf that holds most Masuko’s earliest secrets, shames and desires (as a journalist, one gets the idea that books are important to him). Brief but epic at the same time, Bookshelf consists of four tracks that unfold in gorgeous splendour. “Banded Agates” is the longest, full of elements that bubble and gurgle like a generative orchestra—until guitars strike out halfway through, opening up a post-rock section, a swirl of joyous vocals and even birdsong. “Chord Ripples” is like a compact Terry Riley composition while “Summer Camp ‘79” switches the emphasis from chirpy scales to long, choral drift. It’s rounded off by “A Cymbal And 3 Organs,” which, well, has a lot of organ pyrotechnics (it’s better than that sounds). A roughly 40-minute package that packs the emotional wallop of a double album, Bookshelf Sanctuary is one of the more out-of-nowhere great albums of 2013 for me.
You can buy the album here.
Sheer force of will I guess? I had been writing about music, for fun and for myself, since I was about 12. During my teenage years I toyed around with the idea of trying to write for a publication, and came *this close* to applying to cokemachineglow in, like, 2006 or something. In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t, because I certainly wasn’t ready at 16. But a few years later, when I was beginning university and doing a shit-ton of writing for that, I thought, well, why not? An internet associate of mine had just started a website (which is now beatsperminute.com) and I figured that’d be a good opportunity to try my hand at it—no expectations and no high stakes.
I took pretty well to the whole thing, and with another internet friend of mine (the lovely vurtonmusic) pitched the idea of a “dubstep” column, which I had pretty much free reign over because the website had little-to-no dance music coverage. This was at the time when dubstep/post-dubstep was really starting to cross over into other musical realms, so it was well-timed. From there, my work was noticed by the likes of FACT, RA, XLR8R, Little White Earbuds, and my freelance work became a bit of a chain-reaction, moving from site to site. Then all of a sudden I was getting paid for it. Honestly, it’s just a matter of working hard, and, um, starting from the bottom. (And being good at it, I suppose, but I won’t claim that here.)
So basically, i just started doing it, and then shit happened. It’s just about taking that first step and getting your work out there.
I guess my advice is pretty simple—just work hard at it, and don’t have any particular expectations. It’s a hard field to break into, and even harder to make money from. I certainly never thought I would or could be a professional music writer. Be choosy about what kind of publications you align yourself with, and make sure you believe in them. And keep trying. If you’re good enough, someone will probably notice eventually.
You probably better know Seattle’s Rafael Anton Irisarri as The Sight Below, a core member of the Ghostly roster and a reliable purveyor of gorgeous gossamer techno. He’s used his given name to explore the more drone-oriented extremes of his sound, most famously on 2010’s fabulous The North Bend on Lawrence English’s Room40 label. Irisarri returns to the imprint for a spiritual sequel inspired by California’s Salton Sea, where land developers accidentally created a huge saline lake that ended up strangling the life of everything around it, leaving behind a tragic but alluring husk in its wake.
Like images the lake itself, The Unintentional Sea is vast and haunting. Each track generally consists of a single chord progression blasted by Fennesz-style interference, whether it’s the electric guitar (I think?) tones of the opener “Fear and Trembling” or the obsidian synth drone of the funereal “Her Rituals.” The record often feels like it’s moving on two planes at once, as the more fastidious details bloom and fade on top of the glacial, flowing melodies. “The Witness, recalls Bowie’s “Warszawa” in its haunting fusion of natural and artificial tones, and it’s no coincidence—both records inhabit a man-made wasteland forever marked by the mistakes of the past.
There’s an intense sadness at the heart of The Unintentional Sea that’s almost more comforting than it is depressing. The message here is, yeah, the world’s a fucked up place, but let’s find beauty in our own commiseration rather than isolating ourselves. It’s a poignant emotion felt most in the ten-minute “Daybreak Comes Soon,” which lacks the hands-on distortion effects in the other tracks, leaving it all the more lonely, only a mere piano plonking in the far distance to hint that there’s anyone else out there at all. Ending with the near-orchestral “Lesser Than The Sum Of Its Parts,” The Unintentional Sea closes right where it began, drifting aimlessly on the saline waves that eat away at its very foundations.
You can purchase the album here.
The appeal of Dan Bodan—a Berlin-based, slightly unlikely DFA signing—so far has largely boiled down to a bedroom-borne intimacy. He makes unassuming but heart-rending homemade pop songs that follow in the footsteps of one Arthur Russell (an artist whom I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Bodan idolizes, given his press pics and general look). After the pretty good “Anonymous,” which was backed with a slew of excellent remixes, he teams up with Physical Therapy and one member of Finnish oddballs Renaissance Man for a stirring jungle-inspired (of course) track to wrap up the year.
"Anonymous" was a lonesome torch song, and "Hunger Games" practically wipes the floor with it—the melodies are stronger, the production is uplifting, and there’s still a distinct crack in his voice that makes it all the more powerful. Even with the sonic upgrade, there’s still something definitively DIY about it, theatrical and homespun all at once. It’s backed with a mysterious "Stadium Mix," which despite the name, takes the jungle out of "Hunger Games" and replaces it with fluffy clouds, gently nudged by pitter-patter percussion straight out of a Jacques Greene track.
This is a great question. I find my preferences are gradually changing - I do love a lengthy diatribe, but there’s something increasingly appealing about a concise statement about a piece of music, *especially* in dance music. As a writer, I will always prefer being able to go long, but I also like the challenge of slimming down what I have to say to the barest essentials. A pitchfork review may take in more outside context and signifiers than an RA review would, and I think that’s fine. They both have their place, and taking the same approach you would to an indie rock record to a dance 12-inch isn’t always a good idea. Which brings us to your second question… As for dance music review styles, how do you say much more about a three-track EP other than who the artist is and what it sounds like? I agree a review that just describes a few house tracks is a bit bland in itself, but who is reading these reviews? Prospective DJs who might want to play the tracks? Maybe. Trying to put a grand narrative on a dance release can be just as problematic as sticking to the surface level. It’s about trying to figure out what the release means in the artist’s broader context, and what makes the release stand apart, whether that’s a good or a terrible thing.
The reaction to Four Tet’s latest album has been understandably mixed—it’s not the jungle blowout some hoped it would be; in fact, it’s another soft-focus Four Tet album, for whatever that’s worth to you. But regardless, it’s easy to agree that the album’s rose-tinted look at pirate radio, “Kool FM,” is one of its highlights. Now it gets remixed by two artists who couldn’t really have a larger gulf between them (aside from, you know, the ocean), but that’s part of what makes it such a fantastic package.
UK funky/grime cross-breeder Champion is a more obvious choice for the remix; his music takes the soundsystem torch and twirls it into odd shapes. His remix is appropriately liminal, compressing the track’s breaks and slamming them down hard, buffered by springy LFO somewhere between bassline house and dark garage. US fringe techno artist Container’s now-infamous remix pretty much does away with the original’s complex lineage entirely—amidst a storm of metallic creaking and a kick drum that’d cause Luke Slater to cower in fear, only the vocal sample survives, only now it sounds like torturous taunting. Remix packages are rarely this enlightening or exciting.
Raica is the project of Chloe Harris, one half of the duo behind Seattle’s esteemed Further Records. She’s taking a step away from home with treh, her first tape for Digitalis. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, treh might come off almost frustratingly ephemeral at first. With her array of synths, Harris has some fantastically crunchy low-end and a wondrous upper range, but it feels like there are holes in the frequencies. The mid-range here is vaporous at best, coming and going in dolorous waves and leaving the music with an incredible amount of space. This works both ways—listen half-assedly and you feel like you can’t really grasp what’s going on, but listen closely and it’s completely immersive, from the hesitant opening soundscape of “sprk” to the space-age, Steve Moore-ish swirl of “gulped.” treh covers a lot of ground during its short duration, from the sublime (the new agey “lrg tck) to the gritty (the tenuous crawl of “clutch”), all coming to a head on the emotive, almost baroque creep of “low brow.” In a few ways, the tape represents the coming together of two of America’s most inspiring tape-led imprints, two that dabble occasionally in dance, noise, drone and everything in between—and treh is every bit the beautiful marriage it sounds like on paper.
You can buy treh from Digitalis right here.
Samuel Kerridge has spent the last year-and-change deconstructing techno into huge obsidian slabs of noise, pulling a pin out with each release and mapping out a noise-drone matrix from which A Fallen Empire has bloomed perfectly formed. One look at the cover and a cursory glance at the title might trigger some skepticism—it doesn’t get more vaguely menacing and political, more Downwards than this—but opener “Chant,” with its grandiose percussion and vague hints of doom, makes clear enough that the Berlin-based producer is dead serious about it all.
If you’re familiar with his recent work for Downwards, you’ll know the distinctive bass tone that eats away at the foundations of his music, enveloping and corroding with each wave of humming resonance. This is the core sound on A Fallen Empire, and it creeps slowly like encroaching malaise, or like blackened vines growing over a crumbling structure. And though it fits in perfectly with the virulent aesthetics of Regis’ Downwards label, this sound aligns the LP far closer to drone and doom metal than it does techno. This is dark, caged music that makes brief gestures at dance music (like the quasi-Latin percussion on “Scare Tactics,” a track that otherwise sounds like a smouldering heap of debris) rather than merely techno steeped in noise.
Percussion is key in A Fallen Empire, so it’s not quite a straight drone album. The wobbly drums and dubby sounds in “Heavy Metal” essentially cast the work of Mark Ernestus into an iron furnace, where the bassline lumbers in and out like a revving engine, “Death Is Upon Us” buries Sandwell-style nimble percussion in quicksand and the stunning closer “Disgust” twists its rhythm into a shuddering horror of industrial perversion, the sound of identikit suicide techno burning itself alive in a glorious explosion of crackling and noxious fumes. It’s a rather extreme—even by Kerridge’s standards—ending to a spectacular record that takes the recent ubiquity of hooded-figure techno as an opportunity to smash, explode, and feel out just how far the frontiers of the genre can be pushed.
Somewhere in the worlds between ballroom, breaks, regional US club sounds and trap, there’s some pretty interesting stuff happening. And, sometimes, these hybrids rarely make it to ears beyond the cities they come from. Shiftee’s Hot Mom USA label (please try to get past the name, because it’s worth it) has become one of the most reliable sources for this liminal dance music, and it swings again with ballroom kingpin—and Night Slugs favourite—Vjuan Allure.
“Natives R Restless” could scare some away with its “ooga-ooga!” vocal samples, and a farty synth riff and straight-ahead pounding drums aren’t exactly adding subtlety. But the track’s possessed energy drive it all home with the force of a sledgehammer, and the sheer insanity becomes more endearing than wearying by the track’s end. Utilizing similar sounds, “Ectopus” sounds almost like bizarro-world UK funky, bouncing along on a ragged soca beat that’s only rubbed rawer with that same vulgar synthesizer. “Fella Silva Bump” is sexier, with more space between its swooping drum breaks and lighter sample fare that hints at classic hip-hop and rave. But it’s “Bandit” that shows his true genius, a stunning fusion of grimy aesthetics with his own dystopian funk sonics, bounding forward with a sputter and a cough. Atlanta alchemist Distal fashions it into more of a straightforward-club banger armed with some vintage sample packs and EPROM-style water effects, but the original’s scorched-earth abandon still wins out.