Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best Albums of 2011 #10 Eli Keszler - Cold Pin (REL)

Sound artist and multipercussionist Eli Keszler's seems to be fascinated by producing overwhelming noise with no electronics. Rather than twiddling knobs like many of his contemporaries, Keszler's approach is mechanical-acoustic. For Cold Pin, Keszler took 14 strings ranging from 3 to 25 feet in length and installed them on one of the curved walls of Boston's domed cyclorama of the Battle of Gettsyburg. Motors were installed on the strings which were subsequently connected to a series of micro-controllers, pick-ups and rca cables. For this installation, the motors were employed to strike the strings, creating ferocious, resonant, percussive attacks at often earsplitting volume. The result is richly textured and a fascinating study in using natural environments and non-electronic approaches to explore the outer limits of what is traditionally seen as noise music. This album version of Cold Pin features one lengthy track that's just a recording of Keszler operating the motors to attack the strings. It's blazing, shrill, brittle and cacophonous, an almost overwhelming listen. The other track, also recorded live, features a lineup of additional musicians improving alongside Keszler's strings. Keszler himself plays drums, crotales installation and guitar, the great Geoff Mullen plays guitar, Ashley Paul plays clarinet, guitar, and greenbox, trumpeter extraordinaire Greg Kelley has his horn, Reuben Son is on bassoon, and Benjamin Nelson plays cello. While the strings alone are fascinating, with this killer lineup the installation gets taken to a whole new level. The human and the mechanical meld together into roaring, spasmodic clusters of sound. With intensely, unabashedly noisy dissonance and punchy harmonic sustain the ear melting noisescape conjured up by these musicians against the backdrops of Keszler's installation is ferocious and just plain awesome.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best Albums of 2011 #11 Nicholas Szczepanik - Please Stop Loving Me (Streamline)

Please Stop Loving Me - a stirring opus from drone maestro Nicholas Szczepanik - is probably the best "ambient" album released this year. Part of the reason is that "ambient" is an apt descriptor but all too often that word carries with it a pejorative connotation, referring to aimless and dreary tone music. Szczepanik's output is ambient but in a captivating, depthless way, one that entrances and transports the listener. That's especially true here. Please Stop Loving Me is utterly vast and dense, thick with mountainous static and oceanic canyons of tectonic drone. The album - a single, 47-minute long piece - manages to be tender and delicate and intimate, steeped in melancholy, but at the same time feels huge, pulsing like the tides along a frozen shore. Built, it seems, entirely around Szczepanik's organ and electronics, the music comes at times with the mournful quietude of whispering ghosts, at others with the solemn grandeur of a dying star. It begins murmuring like a hymn heard in the womb, continues through its resplendent middle passage, and slowly slides into its shimmering, crystalline final act. There's even a glorious moment near the end where the organ rings out joyful, elating, full to the brim with light, before fading ever so gently into silence. All told it's a stunning three-quarters of an hour and one of the finest pieces of ambient music I've heard in some time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Best Albums of 2011 #12 Destroyer - Kaputt (Merge)

I have to admit off the bat, I was reluctant to include this album - Kaputt by Dan Bejar's astonishingly great Destroyer project - on this list. It doesn't fit the aesthetic of the blog and I was concerned it might seem out of place. In the end, I decided it's just too damn good not too include and, were this a more general music blog, it would probably be placed somewhere closer to number 5. In any event, Dan Bejar has written one of the strangest, most compelling, and most bafflingly brilliant albums of the year and easily the best "indie rock" album (whatever that means) I've heard since I don't even know when. The weird thing is I'm having a really hard time figuring out exactly why Kaputt is so good. Much of the instrumentation sounds like it was lifted off a yacht circa 1979 or a smooth rock or lite jazz radio station. It's often saccharine and corny with trilling, reverb-y saxophone and trumpet and fretless bass and swaying sounding synths and classic rock guitar riffs. Kaputt should, all told, be lame. It should be corny. It shouldn't work. But somehow, miraculously, it does. Bejar made a ridiculously bold choice with his compositions here and the fact that the music on this album is so fascinating and catchy and engaging is testament to his skill as a composer.

Of course, what brings this album over the top is Bejar's lyrics. Wry and sad, clever and strange, never cliche or straightforward, Bejar spins winding, dense, and poetic tales of  frustration and alienation and lives devoured by meaningless pursuits ("Wasting your days, chasing some girls, alright/Chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night" Bejar sings on the track "Kaputt" and "poor girl you're never going to make it/New York City just wants to see you naked, and they will" he intones on "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker" (a deeply unsettling song throughout)). His voice is nasally and deadpan, often accompanied by backup female vocals but not in the grating, impossibly irritating way found, for example, on The Dirty Projector's Bitter Orca. Lyrical motifs and even phrases pop up again and again throughout the record but these too grab the listener, force him to pay attention, are all the more engrossing for their oddity and repetition. And a lot of vocal phrases stick out immediately for their poetry and obliqueness ("You were on the side of good/I was inside of the sea's guts" or "A savage night at the opera/Another savage night at the club/Let's face it, old souls like us are being born to die/It's not a war till someone loses an eye" are just two of many, many notable lines). So for whatever reason, Kaputt works. It takes all these musical elements that are goofy and kitschy and makes them beautiful and exciting and it couples them with lyrics that are often inscrutable and bizarre. Despite the fact that its various parts, on paper, should be unpleasant, Kaputt is probably the album I've listened to the most this year. It's a revelatory listen and should not be missed.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best of 2011 - Runners Up

The following albums were exceptional, got a ton of playtime on my stereo and ipod, and kept me coming back over and over from the first time I heard them until now. Although I ultimately ruled them out of the the Top 12 list that is soon to come, they were on some variation of the list at some point or another. Each is brilliant and well worth your time and money.

Pete Swanson - Man with Potential (Type)

Man with Potential is the second album this year released by ex-Yellow Swans member Pete Swanson but to an unknowing listener, hearing the two back-to-back (the other was called I Don't Rock at All) you'd be hard pressed to recognize that they were the work of the same artist. With this, his debut on Type, Swanson moves away from the blazing guitarscapes of his earlier solo work (all excellent) and enters a far weirder phase, one that draws from the abrasive squall and feedback found in much Yellow Swans material but with deranged, schizoid beats heavily factoring into the mix. Explosive expanses of white noise jockey with sonically flayed techno and mutilated house music to stunning effect. Like diving into the ocean and hearing a rave on an imploding submarine a mile beneath the waves.


Deaf Center - Owl Splinters (Type)

Deaf Center - the duo of Erik K. Skodvin (Svarte Greiner, the Miasmah label) and Otto Totland (Nest) - hails from Norway. The endless winters, months of darkness, and vast, frozen landscapes of that country can be intimately felt throughout this haunting, mysterious work that combines neo-classical with drone and abstract noise to create something deep, dark, and decidedly beautiful. Creaking, scraping cello  from Skodvin and plaintive piano from Totland weave between powerful, rumbling bass drones and vast, swelling walls of noise. Huge and densely cacophonous, Owl Splinters pummels the listener, allowing small gasps of air with lovely intermittent solo vignettes for cello or piano. But these are brief and soon gripping darkness settles in once more. A crumbling, echoing, scorched epic, Owl Splinters is miles ahead of Deaf Center's excellent debut from several years back. The wait for this followup was long but well worth it.


Motion Sickness of Time Travel - Luminaries and Synastry (Digitalis)

After a slew of tapes on a number of labels - including her own excellent imprint, Hooker Vision - the vinyl debut (excluding a vinyl reissue of the Seeping Through a Veil in the Unconscious cassette) of Rachel Evans' Luminaries and Synastry marks the best release yet from her Motion Sickness of Time Travel solo project. Employing a cosmic tapestry of endlessly looping and scattering arpeggiated synths and ethereal wordless vocals, Evans evokes spacewalks and dreamstates almost simultaneously. The music manages to often be both the most song-y of Evans' career (for example her vocals are more prominent here than ever before, less distant and more direct) and still maintain the floating, atmospheric daze of her earlier work. Luminaries and Synastry is perhaps the album that most deserves the adjective "sublime" out of everything released this year.


Richard Knox and Frederic D. Oberland - The Rustle of the Stars (Gizeh)

The title of this stunning collaboration refers to a phenomenon that occurs in the Arctic when the collision of particles in one's breath with particles in the frigid air can actually be faintly heard by the naked ear. It's a telling title for an album that is about "a polar journey to the ends of the earth." Among the many instruments and sounds employed - including strings and choral work from a number of contributors - are field recordings, processed guitar, and bowed glockenspiel from Knox, and piano, guitar, dulcimer, harmonium, and analog electronics from Oberland. The result is bleak and beautiful, an exploration, it seems, of both the physical darkness of polar winter and the inner darkness that surely grows from being trapped in a world of ice and snow at the ends of the earth. With strings and swelling, textured guitar dominating these barren soundscapes, Knox and Oberland have crafted one of the finest ambient/classical albums since Stars of the Lid's "And Their Refinement of the Decline."


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

2011 Mix Tape #2

Here's mix number two containing tracks exclusively from 2011. As with the first one, there's a few tracks from the upcoming Best of 2011 list but a bunch are not. There's math-y post-rock from And So I Watch You From Afar, manic yet virtuosic acoustic guitar playing from Bill Orcutt, melancholy strings and drone from A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and mechanical clatter and buzz from Ernst Karel's field recordings plus 11 more. All of them come from cool albums that are well worth your time and money in any case.

1. Mogwai - Mexican Grand Prix
2. Lee Noble - Desire Isn't Suffering
4. Danny Paul Grody - Hello From Everywhere
5. Evangelista - Artificial Lamb
6. Bill Orcutt - Till I Get Satisfied
7. Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason - Venia
8. The Drift - The Skull Hand Smiles/May You Fare Well
9. Jon Porras - Calm
10. A Winged Victory for the Sullen - Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears
11. Ezekiel Honig - Subverting the Memory of Your Surroundings
12. Ernst Karel - Stans-Kalti
13. Higuma - Burning Colors
14. Grouper - Water People
15. Colin Stetson - From No Part of Me Could I Summon a Voice

Sunday, December 4, 2011

2011 Mix Tape #1

Here's a mix tape featuring music exclusively from 2011. Some of the tracks here come from albums on the forthcoming Hollow Press Best of 2011 list but several are from elsewhere. There's a good bit of diversity here, from the moody, gothic atmosphere of Zola Jesus' pop to the relentlessly abrasive mechanical percussion of Red Horse's sound art, and from the melancholy drone of Nest to the cosmic synths of Motion Sickness of Time Travel, with plenty in between. Take a listen. A couple more mixes should be on the way before year's end!

1. Zola Jesus - Vessel
2. Blackout Beach - Hornet's Fury into the Bandit's Mouth
3. Red Horse - Part 1
4. Pete Swanson - Misery Beat
5. Roll the Dice - See You Monday
6. Juv - Lys
7. Julie Holter - The Falling Age
8. Isidore Ducasse - Here's Lies a Youth Who Died of Consumption
9. Matt Christensen - Simple Lives Mean Nothing
10. Nest - Koretz's Meteor
11. Motion Sickness of Time Travel - Like Dunes
12. Tim Hecker - Analog Paralysis, 1978
13. David Lynch - She Rise Up
14. The Caretaker - Mental Caverns Without Sunshine

Friday, December 2, 2011

Best of 2011 - Best Label: Type

Over the next couple weeks, I'll be rolling out Hollow Press' Best Albums of the Year list. To change things up and make the formatting a little more intuitive, I'll be counting down with one post per day over December, starting with album number 12 and working down to album number 1. Some of these albums have been posted here before, most haven't. This was a tough list to make. When I initially put together all the albums that really grabbed me from the past 12 months, the list ran up toward 40 in number. Obviously in the name of brevity and sanity, I'll only be posting what I ultimately, and perhaps even a little arbitrarily, decided were my top 12 and maybe a handful of runners up. These lists are always problematic since, if I set about choosing a top 12 one month ago or one month from now, there would be at least a few different albums and almost certainly a different order for the ones that remained. Of course, I like making lists like this and now seems as good a time as any. And, it goes without saying, all twelve albums are really brilliant in any case and well worth buying (although, unless and until asked to remove them, there'll be links for you fine folks to give them a listen).

Before I begin the countdown, I need to single out what in my mind is easily the best label from the past year and quite possibly the best label currently operating. Type Records, run by Bostonian-by-way-of-England John Twells (perhaps best known his music under the Xela moniker) has an output of unimpeachable quality. More than that, however, is Twell's dedication to releasing a vast range of musical styles and genres, all with impeccable album art, on superb sounding vinyl, with stellar bonuses from cool colored vinyl to album-length CDs of bonus material included with initial vinyl pressings. Consider some of the albums that came out on Type in 2011: Deaf Center's Owl Splinters out of Norway is dark and deep drone music for cello and piano, processed into a mysterious, expansive fog, epic and dense. Rene Hell's The Terminal Symphony is an album of studied, meticulous synthesizer journeys exploring themes and motifs more often found in classical symphonies. Ezekiel Honig's Folding in on Itself is a gorgeous, melancholy album made from field recordings of New York City, deeply submerged beats, decaying acoustic instruments, and skittering percussion. John Mueller's Alphabet of Movements is pure percussion, a hypnotic, cacophonous, and cathartic squall. Clam Casino's Instrumentals is straightup instrumental hip hop. Red Horse's self-titled album is an unrelentingly intense and abrasive noise album that relies largely on a veritable arsenal of homemade acoustic instruments, motors, and wire boxes, a decidedly DIY punk approach to generally more staid avant-garde and abstract sound art. William Fowler Collins' The Resurrection Unseen is like a black metal album that has been power sanded down to pure texture, utterly dark, challenging, and almost impossibly bleak. And so on.

Twells seems convinced that his label should be a vehicle for music he thinks is great, regardless of what form it takes. Many fans on the Type forums and elsewhere seemed perplexed by Twells' decision to release an instrumental hip hop album. The fact is, it's definitely not the best thing Type put out this year but it's a damn cool record, one I and many others would probably never have come across had it not come out on Type. The world of noise and drone can be insular and, given the number of great albums that come out under those admittedly broad and more or less meaningless genre designations, it can be very easy to ignore everything else. While many labels pick one sound and stick to it come hell or high water, with each new Type release a listener can be sure of hearing something engaging and new and exciting. A handful of Type albums are on my current top 12 list. Earlier iterations of the list contained as many as 5. A top 25 would, for example, easily contain that many and probably more.

On top of the sheer quality and scope of Type's output, the label deserves a nod for its album artwork and design. A big reason many people like vinyl - apart from the boost in audio fidelity - is that album sleeves can be pieces of art. Type's record sleeves are, with few exceptions, gorgeous. They are generally very minimal. No words appear on the front of the sleeves and the images are generally quite abstract. Rather than describe them, I've posted a bunch below. Of course, these pictures don't do them much justice. The sleeves are always on matte stock which give them an amazing tactile quality and often contribute to the look of the artwork as well, adding texture and heft to what could on a different medium be flat and glossy. This may seem like an odd thing to praise but it's the things like this that demonstrate an absolute commitment to all the details of a release. The music is obviously what's most important but artwork plays a big role in how we as listeners can experience an album. And, of course, those vinyl-only bonus CDs that come with a bunch of Type releases are always flat out brilliant, essentially giving the buyer two albums for the price of one. Sure, an online store and high quality mp3 download codes with vinyl would be very welcome additions and an insert here and there might be cool but Type has a fairly minimalist aesthetic and I totally respect that.

Perhaps this seems overly effusive so I'll end here. But I will say that if you explore the output of any label you weren't previously aware of or weren't wholly familiar, Type should be it. Indeed, its entire back catalog is equally rich. Here's to another stellar year in 2012.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Julia Holter - Tragedy


Fans of deep, female led, space-y, blissed out drone-pop - artists like Grouper, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Pocahaunted, even Zola Jesus - rejoice: Julia Holter's Tragedy is a staggeringly good debut (Holter has put out a handful of small releases but this is her first proper album), an album that's noisy and dreamy, rich in resplendent drone, with a sonic palette that runs the gamut from abstract, avant-garde noise and gothic atmospherics, to reverb soaked ghostliness and almost pop-y hooks, pulling in elements of woodsy folk and psychedelia along the way. Oh, and it's based on Hippolytus by Euripides. Despite some similarities, Holter's compositional range is actually broader than a lot of her contemporaries. I love the work of Liz Harris and Rachel Evans as much as the next guy but each of their individual albums has a distinct, fairly fixed sound to it. This isn't a bad thing - especially when that sound is often so good to begin with - but in some ways Tragedy is more engaging from start to finish for its broader scope and greater complexity.

While Evans' work is often fairly cosmic in a sort of minimal, skeletally framed kind of way and Harris' is drowning in reverb, an impossibly deep and distant  and melancholy sound, Holter's work here is often far darker, almost doom-y, and generally more complicated, shifting and overlapping compositional styles with ease. It makes sense that an album based on a Greek tragedy - one that even draws lyrical content from the text of that tragedy - would be dark. But Holter moves beyond the staid and formalized tone of her source material to create something big and unnerving and powerful, an emotional work that knows when to pull back and never goes too heavy on the pathos or melodrama but can still move and surprise and unsettle a listener.

Tragedy is hard to classify or pin down. Consider the opening track. It begins with an insectoid buzz. There's a distant fog horn shrouded in sonic mist and intermittent blasts from what sounds like a bass saxophone. Then an old opera record kicks in, rife with static and wear, old-timey strings rise and fall when suddenly you become aware of Holter's humming rising up through the mix, slicing through layers of fragile static pulse. It's surprising and strange and compelling, a clashing tapestry of sound and a telling sign of what's to come. Throughout, vocals switch from straight up pop vocalization to choral chants with layered vocals a la Julianna Barwick, to vocodored, cyborgish passages of disjointed narrative and are sometimes all three at once in an overlapping polyphony. Many of the pieces consist mainly of winding, slowly building instrumentals. The crackling of old phonographs or disintegrating tapes whisper under discordant, jarring piano, woozy, atonal strings, humming synthesizers and organ, eerie, gaseous decay, skittering, jangling percussion, garbled field recordings, blasts of lowing brass. There's melodies here and even hooks but when they appear they are often deeply buried or come gusting up out of turbulent audio collages and fractured drones and pulsing harmonics. Tragedy is definitely an accomplished piece of work. As I slowly compile my "Best Albums of 2011" this blog, I'm having a hard time imagining a list without this one on it.

(if you want to buy this on vinyl, act fast. 
The first edition sold out quickly
and the second one is equally limited)

Tune in soon for posts featuring Roll the Dice, Danny Paul Grody, Nate Wooley, Catherine Christer Hennix, and Hollow Press' favorite albums of 2011 (possibly including a mixtape or two for the uninitiated and/or curious).