Jan 31, 2016

Staying in, going out, throwing punches, watching screens


I've had a good January. I don't often say this. I consider myself to have had a month off from doing things.

I wrote some stuff for Electronic Sound. If you want to read those words, it's worth subbing to them. If you want a visual representation if the kind of words I write for them, click through here. That amazingly dark image is broken down here by illustrator Steve Appleton.

While the nights are ugly and the clouds all leaky, I've been staying in more. Recharging my batteries. Still, I went to an enjoyable Speakeasy in Stretford, organised by my writing buddy Dave Hartley. And then there were the two spoken word nights I host: a memorable The Word in Didsbury and a gigglesome Bad Language in the city centre.

I enjoyed my writing critique group in which a bunch of us tear apart each others' stories then sulk for ages. Actually, we're quite adult about it all, and only sixteen punches were thrown at our latest meeting.

I went to the cinema more. Spielberg's Bridge of Spies was a sold historical drama, although I wish he would lay off the sentimentality. There was a great living room scene in which something surprising happened (no spoiler) and he demonstrated his ability to tell an incident as a story-in-microcosm with a series of expertly controlled camera angles; he's still a genius. I enjoyed The Revenant despite it being very much like this Simpson's scene. I'm not as smitten with it as other people, though - there were at least two Revenant moments that were way too Oscar-worthy to be taken seriously. Neither of these films were as good as Room, an extraordinary film about childhood resilience by one of my favourite directors. It takes a dark theme and makes it into something life-affirming and worthy of discussion weeks after you've seen it.

I'll post some more music-y things in February. Honest.

Jan 9, 2016

A blogular mopping of brain spillage in six thoughts


First thought. If last year was like a pressure cooker, the Christmas break was like a release valve. I was rather selfish and did as little as possible. As a result, I'm going into the murk of January far less ragged than previous years.

Second thought. I need to look after myself more. I'm very good at activity and not so good at being healthy. I've been replacing snacks with fruit - and I've been trying to stress less over small things like not posting to Instagram for a while. Seriously though, it's been, like, a month or somefink.

Third thought. I have a million plans. Do a podcast. Do a stupid live gameshow. Live in the city centre. Walk around dressed as broccoli. Record an experimental album. Write a fake memoir. Walk around dressed as a cauliflower. Walk around dressed as frozen peas.

Fourth thought. I'm putting these plans aside. This year's creative malarkey will be about live performance / event organising, music writing and short story writing. Nothing else.

Fifth thought. I don't want to end the year needing a proverbial pressure cooker release valve to make everything okay again.

Sixth thought. I want to write blog posts on my phone that are entirely about me talking about myself, and therefore of little interest to anyone else. And I'll attach a six-thought structure to the blog post to give the impression of worth. Ah. I've just done that. Ahem.

Jan 6, 2016

Back once again

http://www.worldofmoose.com/collections/cartoons/products/neighbourhood-watch?variant=5936251841

This 'renegade master' cartoon seems to be everywhere at the moment. It's the work of Moose Allain, whose cartoons have had millions of loops on Vine, which is like telly but for small people.

It made me chortle. It's obviously a reference to the 1995 top 20 single by Wildchild, who alas didn't live long enough to see Fatboy Slim catapult his remix of track into the top ten three years later. Sorry. Buzz kill.

There's something nice about jokes that are so far past topical, they're almost into the territory of dad jokes. Like this Pixar tweet.


Perhaps "nice" is the wrong word. "Comforting." Flips. I try so hard not to be nostalgic, but I think it comes with age. It doesn't help that loads of chart dance music by the likes of Disclosure sounds twenty years old.

Anyhoo, back to modern things. I promised to do a Spotify playlist of highlights from my 2015 albums-of-the-year series. It's two-and-a-half hours long and counting. I'm almost there.



Jan 3, 2016

Tiny promises that get me through


I always say I don't do new years resolutions, but it's not true. I make tiny promises to myself. Not full fat resolutions - just wafer thin thoughts that linger at the edges of my daily routine.

Last year's promise was a success. I decided to back off from internet arguments. Increasingly, I find my energy levels to be a finite resource - particularly after a year of higher-profile performances. So why waste that energy on the fallout from oversharing, or from repeats of that famous 'someone on the internet is wrong' XKCD cartoon?

The promise came as a little mantra:
> my internet is an echo chamber;
> if in doubt, stay positive - or silly;
> if my first reaction is annoyance then back off;
> always ask "is this my battle?"

Wow, the comments I have deleted mid-draft as a result of that... This has been quite cleansing; for me, the web has become manageable.

It also led to me writing a letter to my MP for the first time in a long time.

I wanted to tweet about Syria, but the internet was echo-chambering like crazy. What was the point of yet another parroted tweet of outrage?

So I decided on a real-world action. Social media was part of this, but it was at the start and end of the process. In this case, I read about the topic, I wrote and sent the letter, and then - and only then - I tweeted about it.


There were many more tiny promises, but I think the internet thing was the most successful one.

Not that my record is spotless. For example, I had an eye-wateringly passive aggressive argument with a Ukipper. The ensuing conversation went nowhere. (I was the passive aggressive one, I think, but hey at least we maintained a veneer of politeness.)

My tiny promises for 2016? Not telling. The promises are to myself, so I won't tell you until the next twelve months have been consigned to the wheelie bin of history.

And now you.

Try a tiny promise yourself. Rather than a full-on detox or writing routine or whatever it is, construct a promise that is tiny, wafer thin and, yes, sometimes breakable.

Dec 31, 2015

Best electronic albums of 2015: one



The road up until this point is a painful one. A story of my own failure. In 2010, I failed to give Luke Abbott the album of the year despite it clearly being the album that most moved me and made me trill with excitement for the future of music. In 2014, I yet again let my head rule my heart and I relegated Clark and Kiasmos despite either one deserving the number one position. The road up until this point is, frankly, a shambles.

In 2015, right here, right now, I will atone for my mistakes by making an utterly heart-felt decision. This year’s number one album is the one that thrilled me, that sent my belly a-quiver, that made me do a little poop in my head with terror: this year’s number one album is Dumb Flesh by Blanck Mass.

1 – Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh (Sacred Bones Records)

Blanck Mass is Benjamin John Power from F*ck Buttons (excuse the blog filter asterisk) and this does indeed sound like a development of their Slow Focus album. Dumb Flesh starts with the loping reversed vocal of Loam before exploding into the throbbing electro workout of Dead Format, complete with hand-clap snares. We're talking full-on overblown. No Lite is more careful to begin with, stacking things up over a ten minute period as it peaks in bleeping triumph as the beat refuses to relent.

The first twenty minutes done, with the listener exhausted, the album tones things down. The toe-tapping Atrophies follows a simple theme: slow and considered. The moody Cruel Sport can't hold it in though, and it allows in the epic chords that greeted us earlier in the album: a central theme that makes Dumb Flesh greater than the sum of its fatty parts.

Double Cross is almost electro-pop, and even allows for a cheery fourth-bar snare fill. As with Atrophies, Lung allows for some breathing space (sorry) and a little creepy groaning for good measure. And then the final ten minutes: their masterpiece Detritus. We start amid scraping white noise that seems to last forever, and then... and then, swooping from the darkest recesses, the anthemnic organ-crashing ending promised by so much by that which came before.

The industrial Front 242-isms referenced throughout are a little before my time: I can see why fellow journos a bit older than me are frothing at their mouths at this. But it has split opinion too, proving a little too one-note for many. The Observer said these "bombastic modular synth symphonies owes more to Queen’s One Vision than it does to Kraftwerk’s Man Machine.” The Observer are idiots.

What I hear in Dumb Flesh is a glorious energy, a broad-strokes sound that takes some getting used to, and the one album I have returned to most in 2015. I said this would be a heart-over-head decision, but maybe more than anything else, this is a head-trip: a body-physical album that leaves your emotions tearing along a few desperate steps behind.

Thanks for reading my blog in 2015. Eleven years and counting. See the whole of this year's top ten, as ever, by clicking this magic link - and below that, Dead Format:

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: giant killer

Thanks for reading my top ten list this year. Almost done. I know it's annoying doing individual blog posts, but you can look at the whole lot so far with one click:

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Here are the last bucket of albums that got thrown in a skip instead of comprising my final top ten. The last of the rejects. And there are a few giants I'm about to kill...

Hey! It's the Prodge! The Day Is My Enemy added an urban element to their ageing agitation: just more of the same, really, but quite fun. RP Boo was as lively as ever on Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints (Planet Mu), and perhaps a little darker. I'm afraid I've not had chance to give Grimes' Art Angel (4AD) the attention it deserves, although I've loved the bits I've heard. And Venetian Snares' reliably hardcore Your Face (Planet Mu) had some of his best moments for ages.

Hunee's Hunch Music (Rush Hour Recordings) took electro and soul and bit it into house-size chunks. Howling's Sacred Ground (Monkeytown Records) placed delicate folk melodies over precise electronics - not necessarily a winner for me - while there were some chilled electronics worthy of your attention on Lapalux's Lustmore (Brainfeeder).

Vito Ricci gave us I Was Crossing A Bridge (Music From Memory), a compilation of future-minded 1980s artistry, including the beautifully twisted disco of I'm At That Party Right Now. Scratchy Munich drum experiments was the order of the day on Zenker Brothers' Immersion (Music From Memory). I didn't much like the commercial house of BOOF's The Hydrangeas Whisper (Running Back). And the final sounds of this section are angry noise from Kerridge's Always Offended Never Ashamed (Contort Records) and broken mechanics from M.E.S.H.'s Piteous Gate (Pan).

Edit: Lorn's dropped Vessel yesterday - way too late to give it any consideration. Consider this a free pass into next year's list.

So that's it. Who's left? Can you guess. I'm proud of this number one. It's an album that moved me - perhaps physically more than emotionally. One more blog post to come: my favourite album of the year...

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: two


2 – Jamie xx – In Colour (Young Turks)

At some point soon, Jamie xx is going to produce the Kooks covers album that’s going to ruin his career, but right now he’s just completed a perfect hat trick. His debut as The xx, his brilliant Gil Scott-Heron remix, and now this.

Almost everything on In Colour could be a hit single. Here are the tracks in order: a crowd-pleasing synth ecstasy, a brisk house head-nodder, a spacious and haunting breakbeat track, steel drums with a smile, a suspenseful filler, a proper ace builder of a pop track, an all-out club banger, a smooth soul anthem, something that sounds like Black Eyed Peas, a whole heap of swirling sadness and a filmic closer that seems to tie the whole thing together.

Admittedly he doesn’t break new ground, and there’ll be a whole load of balding paper-shufflers buying a CD to put on their coffee table or their tablet computer or whatever it is people put coffee on these days.

But if you skip the Black Eyes Peas one, this is as perfect as it gets: the sound of a producer grabbing the past five years of electronic music and presenting it to us neatly wrapped and bowed. I score this xx out of xx. See what I did there? Cheers, thanks.

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: sorry I broke your lantern

Another quick break to look at EVEN MORE also-rans in this year's countdown of best electronic goodness of 2015.

We're back in techno territory and OOOOOH boy, I'm excluding some good people here. I'm gutted not to be including Hudson Mohawke's Lantern (Warp): it really was close. Scud Books was my favourite track this year and there was so much to love about the album. In fact, stop what you're doing and enjoy the low-fi pomp of this:


Good, right? What do you mean you prefer Adele. Pfft.

Becoming Real's Pure Apparition (Transgressive) didn't make it either despite Bleach sending shivers up my crumbling spine. Helena Hauff's Discreet Desires (Werkdiscs) made good work from dirty, retro electro, while there was a welcome return of Pole and the pleasingly detailed and difficult Wald (Pole).

I liked the early morning techno feel of Anthony Naples's Body Pill (Text Records), while at the other end of the spectrum, John T Gast's debut Excerpts (Planet Mu) was as disaffecting and moody as you'd expect.

The dense, brutal techno of XOSAR's Let Go (Black Opal) was engrossing, while on my notes for RAMZi's Houti Kush (1080p), I've just written "odd fauna". Post Scriptum's Post Scriptum 01 (Infrastructure) felt suitable alien - and that's it for now.

The second best album of 2015 awaits, followed by some final also-rans, and then THE best album of 2015. Fact. Not my opinion. FACT. Stay tuned if you know what's good for you.

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: three


3 – Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD)

Holly Herndon destroyed music in 2015. She picked it up by earlobes and broke its face off. She then picked the fragments off the muddy floor then polished them up into a towering audio sculpture so astonishing, there is, was and will never be nothing like it again.

This is Platform, a sequence of ten tracks that takes in surveillance, synthesis, pop music and Autechisms (yeah, that’s a word now). It’s so far removed from the hackneyed phrases of popular EDM that this has become an album that – emphasis with a capital N – Needs to exist.

Amid all the ethereal abstraction, you wouldn't expect Chorus to actually have a chorus, you wouldn't expect Locker Leak to end up being her version of Everyone's Free (To Wear Sunscreen), and the opening horror of New Ways To Love suprises when it turns out to be a gateway to what might be a dungeon of choristers.

For something so alien, it doesn’t half stick in your mind after listening. Everything's broken and I think I like it.

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: also-ran all-sorts

We're well past the half-way point now. Come on. You can do it. Here, have a sponge soaked in vinegar. Wait. That's not vinegar. Don't eat that sp-- oh too late. I'm not kissing you after that.

Here are some more also-rans: a real mixed bag this time.

Lnrdcroy's Much Less Normal (Firecracker) was a 2014 limited release given new lease of life this year on vinyl, and it was full of electronic earworms; a woozy mix indeed. Then there was... deep breath... in no particular order:

Beat Spacek's soulful Modern Streets (Ninja Tune) was, of course, Steve Spacek. Disclosure's chart-busting Caracal (PMR Records) was okay for singles but I'm never that fussed for full albums of that stuff. Darkstar's Foam Island (Warp Records) was just a bit too pop for my tastes. Steve Reich fans could do well to check out the freeform minimalism of Dawn Of Midi's Dysnomia (Erased Tapes). Two albums put Buchlas back on the map: Charles Cohen's Brother I Prove You Wrong (Morphine Records), which sometimes came across as a soundtrack for Star Wars droids, and Frank Bretschneider's Sinn + Form (raster-noton) which had some nice waveform-wobbling static.

And finally for this mixed bag, Panda Bear's Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper was melodic, Future Brown's Future Brown (Warp Records) plopped some fairly pleasurable dancehall and autotune into my ears, FIS's The Blue Quicksand Is Going Now (Loopy) was crazy and noisesome, and Dasha Rush's Sleepstep (raster-noton) had, among its dark electrics, playful ambience and poetry.

When will the top ten return? Oh when? Very shortly, of course. Expect us to reach the number one at about 6.20pm.

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: four


4 – Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete (Warp)

The best producers suck in disparate music genres and blurt out a complete vision – take Flying Lotus as an example. Within two minutes of GOD, you can hear 80s soft rock, footwork, soul vocals and epic prog electro. Full of surprises and yet coherent throughout.

This magpie mentality persists throughout: cheesy pop vox on Sticky Drama, pastoral ambience on Child Of Rage, epic EDM anthemming on I Bite Through It. The latter track soon fractals into all sorts of noise – few other people could get away with one second of thrash guitar twenty seconds before the end of a track.

I’ve always respected Oneohtrix in the past, but never fully connected. Perhaps there’s something about GOD that’s more immediate, more logical amid the perplexing palette on offer here. There are moments of beauty and beastliness – just listen to how Mutant Standard breaks down then resolves, or the malevolent yet moving mash-up of Freaky Eyes.

I’m not sure where OPN is leading us, but I'm a convert: he can blurt in my face anytime.

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: house for sale

Another brief respite from the top ten shenanigans as I look at some house music that didn't get through to the final stages. Roll up, roll up, all this house music is going for a song. Half a monkey to the weirdo in the tank top, deal done, sorted, job's a good 'un.

It was nice to see Four Tet produce something so different with the Hindustani-themed Morning / Evening (Text) alongside his usual excellent fayre on Percussions - 2011 Until 2014 (Text Records). There wasn't much better in 2015 house music than Matrixxman's Homesick (Ghostly International) with is rich, developing minimalist themes. I was quite bewitched by Neu Balance's warm Rubber Sole (1080p), a curiously microscopic long-player of vocal blurts and dancefloor friendly mid-tempo rhythms.

Hat doff too for a whole load of sampletastic disco Vibert-style on Kerrier District's 4 (Hypercolour), and to the punchy offering on John Tejada's Signs Under Test (Kompakt) which felt like a fuller, more analogue Pantha Du Prince. Romare's Projections (Ninja Tune) was quite a neat release that gained some rave reviews, and the Hauntologists' Hauntologists (Modular Cowboy / Honest Jon's Records) had some delightful bitty house and fussy minimalism that felt like a close relation to Factory Floor.

So much house music. Surgeon's pounding Tresor '97 - '99 (Tresor) really did feel like the best of 90s techno, while it was fun watching Model 500 's Digital Solutions (Metroplex) express all that is Detroit in 2015. Pearson Sound's eponymous album (Hessle Audio) was a huge debut this year, although nothing on it matched Untitled for me. Finally, all hail the power techno on Head High's Home. House. Hardcore. (Power House) and the rediscovered space disco on Bjørn Torske's Nedi Myra and Trøbbel (Smalltown Supersound). Phew.

Back to the top ten shortly, I promise. If you're behind with all of this, catch up on the link below. Can you guess what the number one might be?

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: five


5 – Bjork – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)

How I hated Oh So Quiet. “How kooky” everyone exclaimed as I bit my lip and gnashed my teeth. Bjork was always much more than “kooky”, expressing depths in ways that left your garde well and truly avanted.

Vulcinura is a return to form, but only in the way that one grades good and “bad” Coen Brothers films. The presence of Arca, featured elsewhere in this top ten, could have made this a clinical exercise in weirdness, but Bjork allows us to “explore the negative space” (Mouth Mantra) in a personal way I’ve not seen for a while. This meant to be Bjork’s relationship breakup album, and a sense of loss is drizzled throughout: not only her own pain, but for me it also recalled memories of her work with Mark Bell.

There are no singles here, but plenty of highlights. Lionsong has a naive simplicity that wouldn’t be out of place on debut. Stonemilker is a gorgeous rhapsody and a downright earworm. Black Lake gives us a spine-tingling ten minutes: the themes suspend and resolve yet never lose us – a microcosm of the album itself.

Vulnicura’s great. She really likes albums beginning with V, doesn’t she? How “kooky”.

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: putting the No into Nozinja?

If you're just looking at a single blog post right now, you can expand this whole best-albums series into one long stream by clicking here:

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

And now a whole bunch of more also-rans, starting with the amazing Nozinja. Do check his album out: it's an absolute joy. The lo-fi and addictive Shangaan electro of Nozinja's Nozinja Lodge (Warp Records) marked him out as one of the most entertaining musicians of our times. Just not enough for this top ten. Sorry, Nozy.

I loved Wenu Wenu, and I wasn't disappointed to find more of the same on Omar Souleyman's follow-up Bahdeni Nami (Monkeytown Records). There was much to appreciate in Jaga Jazzist's Starfire (Ninja Tune), while if you've got the taste for it, try the cheese on Dâm-Funk's Invite The Light (Stones Throw).

And there's more. Flanger's just-okay sometimes-jazzy brilliantly-named Lollopy Dripper (Nonplace), The Chemical Brothers' Born In The Echoes (Virgin Records) which just felt like old work reheated, Russell Haswell's mind-smashing but alienating As Sure As Night Follows Day (Diagonal), Colleen's bold Captain Of None (Thrill Jockey), a perfectly worthwhile Battles' La Di Da Di (Warp) and an avalanche of mouth harp on Donato Dozzy's The Loud Silence (Further Records). Not all bad, just not in my top ten - which continues in a few shakes of a gnat's nose.

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----

Best electronic albums of 2015: six



6 – Jlin – Dark Energy (Planet Mu) 

Jlin's Dark Energy is a strange beast. So is most modern footwork. Expect staccato drum sequences and plenty of drilling repetition and

brief

stop-starts

like this like this like this like this like this.

Fellow footworker RP Boo often goes for sonic power with his vocal iterations, but there’s something different at work here. Listen to the brooding scrapes of Ra, the alarmed intensity of Expand or the brilliant and almost adolescent refrain on Guantanamo of “you don’t wanna hurt anyone... but I do, and I’m sorry”. This would be an exercise in clinical cut-and-paste, but Jlin manages to make footwork sound human, albeit in a way that is brusque and as moody as hell.

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” shouts Abnormal Restriction, the final track on Jlin’s debut for Planet Mu.  Somewhere amid the Eastern woodpecker calls on Unknown Tongues or the micro squeak refrain on Black Diamond that would normally have you sending off your Nintendo for repair, a realisation dawns: this is the most appropriately-titled album in this year's top ten. And what energy.

-----> Best electronic albums of 2015 <-----