It’s December again, and the world is just as fucked as ever. Possibly slightly more, possibly slightly less. I guess it’s easy to lose track of these things without an ordered list to tell you what to think. Having been precariously perched on the 2015 bar stool for quite some time now, we’ll soon be staring down the menacing barrel of 2016. So how best to celebrate yet another successful orbit around the Sun?
We thought about publishing an objectively correct ranking of the year’s best records. But sadly we couldn’t get hold of any doof doof scientists to determine what the metrics should be. Instead, we’ve fallen back on our Top 8 Whatevers. You know the score – our trusted team of R$N scribes pitch in with lists of music they’ve enjoyed, petty grievances they want to air, obscure interests they want to highlight. Basically whatever’s on their mind. Let’s do this. Here's Tim's Top 8 of 2015.
Jam City – Dream A Garden
On first impressions ‘Dream A Garden’ felt like lachrymose agitprop striking at a subversive stance. There was a sense that it was guilty of employing an ‘anti’ attitude which came at the expense of acknowledging the complexity of contemporary politics and the everyday fallout that often ensues. Detractors might opine that this was encapsulated in the standout line from ‘Crisis’, a lyric that hinted at a rash anarchistic belligerence: ‘You stare at a bright pink sky/Spit at another Foxton’s sign’.
With sentiments like this it’s an album that’s easy to dismiss with haughty cynicism, as if it was some heavy handed Class War dirge. But a more considered approach and a more concerted listen throws new light on what Jack Latham achieves. With a soundsystem-braced, half-spoiled funk flayed by highly wrought treatments – barrelling drums, severe irritant-hiss, warped syrupy ambience – ‘Dream A Garden’ makes for a richly offset listen. But the kernel of its appeal doesn’t lie solely with its original rendering. What elevates it is the brave sincerity of its resistant expression. There’s anger there, and anger is often irrational, especially when the stakes are high, but there’s an urge to relate to hardship and alienation that conveys a will for empathy as well as disaffection.
The ‘Spit’ lyric becomes only more pertinent in light of the recent uproar surrounding the vandalism of the ‘Cereal’ cafe and other independent shops located around Shoreditch. Though more relevant still were the Brixton protests in the Summer, an anti-gentrification gathering which was derailed when the local branch of Foxton’s was targeted, culminating in the notoriously elitist, upmarket estate agent having it’s front windows smashed. I was witness to the aftermath of the unrest, one of many bystanders at the police cordon listening to the back and forth of the people who had come to express their own take; some discharged anti-Police aggro, others laid the blame at the government whilst some megaphone-wielding peaceniks implored the crowd to refrain from discord and violence. I remember it vividly and it seemed to be the first time I’d really been present at a moment when the often repressed grievances of Londoners were freely expressed, the first time they’d really poured out of people – at least in recent memory anyway (although I’m sure there were countless other protests this year in which the same occurred) With the sense that social and political issues are starting to come to a head, especially in London, this was another ominous outburst from one of many communities who’s objections have been stifled for far too long.
It was an event referenced by Latham on the artwork of his ‘Earthly Versions’ release, one which showed the guarded policemen and broken glass that littered the site alongside trashy internet ads promising sex, self-help and bodily perfection. The use of this imagery and the political events of this year encouraged me to return to ‘Dream A Garden’, and my perception had changed. It wasn’t a maudlin politico-sermon but the nearest anyone came to channelling what it is to contend with pernicious forces out of our control. As well as seditious sentiments, the album touched upon rampant consumerism, misogyny and the intertwined notion of the internet as a corrupted tool. Yet traces of academic deliberation and political nonconformity didn’t weigh it down. There were fervent, bleary, vestigial anthems here. The fact they were laced with a heartfelt, dissenting lyricism made them all the more crucial, especially in a year when events have often felt fateful.
F ingers – Hide Before Dinner
After Tarcar’s appearance on Blackest Ever Black late last year, Carna Del Forno and Tarquin Manek reconvened as a trio bolstered by Samuel Karmel and with Hide Before Dinner produced something exquisitely uncanny. The text supplied with the release pointed to disturbing undercurrents of trauma and repressed memories within, something which is worth liberally quoting from:
‘It has always felt like a deeper meditation than most other projects… more emotional and close. Usually I try to escape these feelings. I can’t remember what I was feeling when we wrote this. I don’t think I was happy. The first stuff we did that late night. This second stuff is a blur, maybe u can remind me. It’s a meditation. I remember what I was feeling when I made that video…It’s actually a pretty dark video, I start at my house and tried retrace my steps to my primary school girlfriends house but I got lost then found. I went past the houses that were burnt down by the Canberra bushfires and where we drove stolen cars. The last section traces the place where my former friend who turned tormentor lived I wanted to remember his house where all the dark shit started.’
These undercurrents seemed to be manifested in an infantilized dark psychedelia that surreptitiously wavered between placid narcosis and bleak suspense. When it wasn’t transmitting off-colour grotesquery, it was leadenly slinking into an insistent trance of entrapped horror (as on the title track) It felt like you were being put under the same subconscious spell as it’s traumatised creator.
The trite deployment of down the rabbit hole metaphors was one of the more overused conceits used by music journos in 2015, made worse by the fact that half the music these descriptions were lavished upon didn’t merit the praise. But Hide Before Dinner warranted this association, albeit reluctantly. There was dim, half-grasped childhood regression aplenty but instead of poetic nonsense and escapist fantasias this was all too real; an unfamiliar but potent projection with a sinister, inescapable mesmerism permeating every malformed shimmer.
Helen – The Original Faces
A shabbily winsome marvel, The Original Faces brought Liz Harris out from the intimate firmaments of her work as Grouper and proved her collaborative mettle with spry, gorgeous, primitivist dream pop. Addictive three minute slices of introverted yearning.
Here’s an excerpt from the original review:
‘Liz Harris has proved herself an able collaborator whilst gaining well-earnt notoriety for the tape-sibilant, pedal-drenched sound of Grouper; a soft alchemy of exquisite, liminal repose that’s as likely to melt hearts as it is to entrance. Whereas previous collaborations have maintained a similarly sorrowful and vaporous feel – especially Mirroring, a folkloric drone project with Jesy Fortino (aka Tiny Vipers) and Raum, a work of sunken ambience with Jefre Cantu Ledesma – the driving constitution here is one of mellifluent, churning fuzz.
Yet, even with the certainty of such distorted bliss, the opening is almost a deception; awry acoustic strums trundle along like a drunken form of downer folk until the tape changes and guitar noise saws through, ceaselessly throttling like a second hand engine. It coheres with the ‘thrash band’ mentality that the members of the project initially outlined in first release press material, in as much as it introduces the live and unfiltered vigour that defines much of the LP. But once Harris adds diaphanous harmonies, those which float gracefully free of enunciation, it positions the sound in a sort of DIY noise pop vacuum populated by the likes of Black Tambourine and The Shop Assistants, had they entertained some more subtly erratic proclivities.
These are manifested in singular transitions between tracks, ranging from slow closure (especially the distant, through-a-wall burnout of ‘Felt This Way’) to smooth segues (as on ‘Ryder’ as it moves into ‘Motorcycle’). It contributes to a sense of refuted elaboration as things progress and, along with the hi-hat pile-ups and dominant, lilting anchorage of bass that defines much of the tracks themselves, reveals an album seemingly born out of practice-room-ease. It’s very hard not to be charmed by its swift, offhand naturalism. It’s almost as if the fact that it was recorded and released was only a formality…
…this is a trio in equanimity, together wrestling racket into pop, but simultaneously coarsening pop into moving bouts of discord.’
King Midas Sound & Fennesz – Edition 1
After witnessing the live translation of this record in a three hundred year old church I remarked that the experience was an unforgettable one. It brought to life a record borne out of existential strife, with a sound which took the robust ‘oneiric lovers rock’ of before into a denuded dub afterlife.
An excerpt from the original review:
‘This is a fearless and titanic record that veers from light to dark and back again, compounding crystalline ambient, phantasmal dub, hailstorm noise and full-hearted confessional lyricism in a lush, syrupy submergence. ‘Mysteries’ is blissfully drowned in oceanic sifts and hallucinatory calm whilst ‘On My Mind' injects trip-hops opiated offness with shorn, vandalized transmissions and within all this Hitomi sounds like a youthful Beth Gibbons versioning her own Bond theme.
The latter, as well as the discrete bell-like loops of ‘Waves’, are the more potent instances indicating the presence of Fennesz, yet the cohesiveness with which the more open-ended elements of his sound are brought together with the more driven immediacy of KMS makes this a collaboration where the delineations of their respective idents remain ambiguous.
Ambiguity is also extended to the mood of many of these tracks. ‘Waves’ for one has an undimming mesmerism to it. Robinson sounds almost locked in recitation, as if conducting a lone séance. ‘Loving or Leaving’ continues to lurk somewhat, smoke-drenched and weightless, sketchy signals coughed out but gradually coalescing, until a hulking, anthemic acid-fried slowdance dub announces itself. Robinson’s uncertain dismay, the indeterminate, ruptured sibilance Fennesz provides and the overarching stir of its lead line make it a glaring standout.
From there the buried melodica, brutish war dub but peculiarly soothing atmospherics of ‘Melt’ allow Robinson’s lyrical prowess to shine. There’s a clipped, offhand, colloquial exactitude to his descriptions, from vivid corporeal intimacy (‘how she bite my lips when we kiss/how she roll her tongue along my gums’) to authentic observation in the aftermath of a breakup (‘start again/go to shows with friends/bass, beers and weed fog/eat sushi dinner with a stranger fighting for conversation’) that adds another dimension to the serenely shrouded, tactile electronics which subtly dominate.
Then everything begins to slow and blur on ‘Lighthouse’ in a still-lake ambience, with Robinson extending every syllable in a half-conscious slack. In comparison with the episodes which precede it, it may at first appear pedestrian and anti-climactic but within the overall picture of the album, it begins to resemble another graceful step in a long procession of them. Meanwhile ‘Above Water’ feels like a fateful moment; a protracted, sombre hypnosis led by spectral echoes and haunting woodblock percussion that repeats and sustains as if an uncanny wind is inadvertently playing each note.
In the final throes, Hitomi offers her finest contribution to the set in the form of ‘We Walk Together’, turning professions of devotion into menacing obsession but hinting at vulnerability with faltering tentativeness. It’s that same sense of devotion and monogamous, deeply-felt desire which is addressed on the glacial radiance of ‘Our Love’, a conclusion which remains consistent with the record’s fundamental theme of – as Martin termed in a recent Crack interview – ‘unconditional love’.
Edition 1 revolves around this notion, but realises it in a way which is mature and realistic. It acknowledges the dark places this kind of unrequited faith can lead to; a confrontation apparently brought on by the difficult personal circumstances Martin and Robinson have faced in recent years. In the process of contending with such heavy subject matter, they’ve made their most audacious record yet and probably their best.’
Cat’s Eyes – Duke of Burgundy (Original Soundtrack)
The soundtrack to Peter Strickland’s sadomasochistic love story didn’t feel like the work of a duo with only one album under their belt. Yet the orchestral girl group luxuriousness of their self-titled debut belied potentially greater things, especially on ‘I Knew It Was Over’, a stunning live rendition of which was performed live at the Vatican.
Whether or not that experience has informed the exquisite baroque classicism here, it’s tempting to affix a garlanded old world eminence – the kind seen in Renaissance Italy - to the twenty requiems and vignettes which constitute the album.
It’s like a phantasmal, suspect walk around an untended royal garden, one that’s overgrown, deserted and fit for furtive exploration. At this point I have to confess that I have yet to see the film. But there was so much in this soundtrack that it was a film in itself, something which might account for that reluctance. Written by soprano come composer Rachel Zeffira and Faris Badwan of The Horrors, it’s symphonic refinement was enlivened by radiophonic expanse and giallo lurk lifting this from what may have been another conventionally classical series of incidental cues into the rare annals of soundtrack music which exists solely on its own merits.
Glass Isle – Glass Isle
A case of slipping well beneath the radar, this cassette release on the esoterically inclined Mordant Music label made for one of the more memorable affairs of indeterminate electronics this year. The work of new unsung producers, Natalie Williams and Zuleika AvTes, it’s twenty tracks displayed a diffuse formal fluidity, one in which apparitional harmonies appeared and gently soared before eerily dissipating. Alongside them electronic loop-based interludes gurgled and writhed in freakish intensity. Half monochromatic space-siren balladry and half library music for lost souls, there were judicious moments of stark disorientation as much as warm instances of gorgeous lucid dreaming.
It seemed to speak of an inverted reality; all thickets of wires and tripped out visions. The cold choral whispers that often arise added to that idea, conjuring a retro-futurist ghost story that transcended the usual trappings of ‘hauntological’ music. Rather than subservience to the past, this felt like a future-facing transmission. As well as references to defied logic (‘Time-Lapse’, ‘Broken Symmetry’) and sonic science (‘Infrahertz’, ‘Echolocation’) there was Japanese folklore in ‘Yukki Onna’, named after a traditional spirit character which roughly translates as ‘Snow Woman’. These thematic touchstones seemed to encapsulate what this criminally overlooked release was all about; suspending and twisting the familiar and acknowledging and revelling in the mysterious.
Kara Lis Coverdale & LXV – Sirens
The gleaming ultramodern optimism conveyed by Holly Herndon’s ‘Platform’ suggested that music in 2015 could actually reflect the momentum of technological progress and lives lived before the glare of a screen; all the confusion and freedom entailed.
Kara Lis Coverdale & LXV (aka David Sutton) seemed to be drawing from the same hyperrealist server as Herndon, yet ‘Sirens’ was more informed by Coverdale’s background as an organist at the St John Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Montreal than virtual concerns, or so it sounded. Reshaping the sacred, aerial nature of choral music with a volatile mix of samples and doctored piano, it felt like Sutton and Coverdale were investing the eternality of drone with the shift of ambience and the rough erosions of glitch. According to a Guardian feature earlier in the year, Coverdale and Sutton ‘sampled the sounds of war chants, punchbags and bodies slamming against wrestling mats, distorting and blending them with ultra-serene organs, pianos and synthetic tones.’ Together it somehow made sense.
The article itself was met with some small scale derision in the comments section, with one commentator offering the description ‘post-minimalist relaxation-tape guff’, and whilst there was a tranquillity dominating proceedings, there was a high watt quality to its execution that made the sense of utopian calm slightly uneasy, and with repeated listens, completely transfixing. If this is what relaxation tapes sound like now, count me in.
Miss Red – Murder
As the story goes The Bug came across Miss Red after she spontaneously took to the mic and started MCing over one of his sets during a packed out basement rave in Tel Aviv. With Murder she did the same, this time over productive turns from the likes of Andy Stott, Mumdance, Evian Christ and Mark Pritchard as well as Kevin Martin. Predictably enough, with that kind of roll call, the beats are good. Very good. Mammoth and mutant, it’s all sub-bass salvos and primal acid-stained impact. For an MC in the infancy of her career, and in light of the quality surrounding here it would be easy for Miss Red to be reduced to a peripheral sense of presence but even on ‘What Would You Like’ – a formidable foundation-rattling effort from Stott – she exhibits a fair heft of prowess, even when her vocals retreat to echo-rich vagaries and shadows.
She’s at once vivacious and vicious, the ideal mouthpiece for lifting the energy of these tracks from captivating enough instrumentals into sweatbox cataclysms. She was as unapologetically spiky as the tracks that backed her, discharging gobby streams of patois and often venturing into surly high pitched reprimands that only raised the temperature further. Though it wasn't just an expression of scrappy attitude that made murder so appealing....in moments that required a less intense spark of attitude, she sung well, threading together pacy, strident outpourings of hyped-up spirit with measured, melodious litheness. One of 2015’s best reasons to burn out your speakers.