The Null Device

2018/5/26

Yesterday, the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on repealing its near-total ban on abortion. The referendum had been many years in planning: other similar referenda had failed in the past, and most infamously, one in 1983 had enshrined, in the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution, the rights of a fertilised embryo as being equal to its mother. There was, of course, a lot of discontentment with such an illiberal state of affairs, but the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanava, a 31-year-old woman who died in agony after being denied an abortion even when her pregnancy was no longer viable, was probably what gave this push its momentum. A referendum was announced, and the campaigns started in earnest. Ireland does not allow absentee voting (otherwise its huge diaspora might sway domestic affairs from abroad), so Irish citizens from as far as Australia and Argentina made their ways back to vote. Religious-Right groups in the US sent shiny-faced volunteers with 100-watt smiles to push the No vote. Google and Facebook clamped down on Cambridge Analytica-style targeted ads, with varying reports of effectiveness.

In the run-up to the vote, all the signs pointed to a victory for the Yes campaign, to end the abortion ban. Though, as the vote loomed, the polls tightened, with some suggesting a narrow victory for Yes, with a large number of undecided voters holding sway. There was talk of large numbers of “shy Nos”, people who believed the abortion of fertilised embryos to be murder but not wishing to state this out loud and be seen as reactionary barbarians. Some said that a surprise No triumph would be Ireland's equivalent of Brexit or Trump, a chance for a silent majority of conservative left-behinds to flip the table and savour the tears of the metropolitan-liberal-elites who, until then, had believed themselves to be presiding over inevitable progress. And, of course, the possibility of the vote being swayed by the reactionary international's dark arts: ghost funding making a mockery of electoral laws, psychographically targeted ads, supposedly autonomous campaigns coördinated with military precision. Would change come, or would it be deferred for another generation? And even if Yes scraped through a narrow victory, that would give conservative legislators the cover to nobble the resulting legislation to the point of ineffectuality.

It turned out one need not have worried: the Yes case has been carried by roughly a ⅔ majority. The first exit poll gave Yes 68% of the vote; the count, with 29 of 40 constituencies declared is within a narrow margin of this. No has conceded the referendum (though of course not the divinely-mandated principle behind their position), and it looks like the 8th amendment will be repealed and laws governing the provision of abortion services, along similar criteria to elsewhere in Europe, will be passed.

(Someone I know once jested, “I'm Irish. I can do anything—except have an abortion.” It looks like she will now have to retire that line.)

This is a major shift, or rather, a sign of a major shift that had been happening for some time now. Ireland having emphatically legalised same-sex marriage a few years ago was another sign of this. The Irish republic that arose after independence, when Catholic nationalists consolidated their power—a dour, authoritarian, priest-ridden backwater, a country that condemned its unmarried mothers to penal institutions, and in which the all-powerful church vetoed the formation of a British-style national health service because secular institutions alleviating the people's misery sounded like Communism—has not existed for some time, replaced by a modern, secular nation, and only now is the extent of the transformation becoming undeniably apparent. And if there were any shy voters, it was not the mythical Silent Majority of reactionary conservatives hankering for the certainties of the good old days, but those remembering all the suffering and misery imposed by laws that have stripped women of autonomy over their bodies, many only realising after the vote that they were in the majority, not just in the entirety of Ireland but even in their own, supposedly conservative, rural province. (And the disappearance of the expected strong rural No vote, counterbalancing liberal Dublin and Cork and pushing the result to a cliffhanger, is one of the stories of the day; while final results are not in yet, exit polls have No with a majority—and a slender one—in only one of the 40 constituencies.) One big take-away may be that the myth we have been conditioned to accept, of the silent majority of public opinion inevitably being viciously reactionary, is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit.

The immediate consequences—Ireland's infamously restrictive abortion laws being brought into line with the liberal secular world—are fairly straightforward. What remains to be seen are the secondary effects. The most obvious one will be pressure on Northern Ireland's own draconian abortion laws. Northern Ireland, whilst a province of the UK, is run as a hard-line Protestant sectarian state, established out of fear of the hard-line Catholic sectarian state across the border. Now that that state visibly no longer exists, it will be harder to maintain it as a special case increasingly divergent from both the Republic and the rest of the UK. The evaporating power of Catholic sectarianism in the Republic may also make the formerly unthinkable—reunification—less so (especially when the alternative, reconciling Hard Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement, appears to be logically impossible). Whether the result carries beyond Ireland is another question: they're talking about legalising abortion in New South Wales now. And while a No victory would have emboldened anti-abortion activists in other countries, it's not clear whether Ireland having voted Yes will have much impact in, say, Poland or Hungary, where proudly illiberal Catholic hypernationalism is on the march.

Beyond reproductive rights, the result may be another milestone on a trading of places, culturally and economically, between Ireland and England. As Britain (though, in reality, largely England-minus-London), led by its xenophobic tabloids, voted to cut itself off from Europe, to expel foreigners and become less liberal, both individuals and businesses have been scoping out locations abroad. (You can't find office space for love or money in Frankfurt these days, and Berlin's gentrification has been accelerated by a flood of Brefugees with MacBooks.) Ireland has been cited by many as a more open alternative to the UK, though there has been a perception that it is both smaller and more parochial. The Irish electorate's recent decisions are likely to put paid to the second objection: the first may last a little longer, but if one remembers what low esteem, say, dining in Britain was held in a few decades ago, or the sleepy, bureaucracy-ridden nature of doing business there, it may not take long for Dublin to displace London altogether.

abortion catholic culture europe ireland politics 0

2018/5/13

Well, that's Eurovision for another year. Israel ended up winning, with a studiedly kooky yet impeccably produced electro-pop number, involving dollops of Björkisms, kawaii and chicken impressions. Which was probably more interesting than the two runners-up: Cyprus with a track that was a certain variety of Eurovision by numbers, and Sweden with a handsome young man doing a mildly funky, highly polished though otherwise unexceptional number. (Sweden finished 2nd in the jury choice and 7th in the overall; a result good enough to preserve the reputation of its Eurovision-song industry and keep the hit factories of Stockholm busy on half of Eurasia's contenders for 2019.) Australia's entry, a competent club-pop ballad by Jessica Mauboy, finished in the middle of the bottom half of the final result, though made it into the top half of the jury results; for some reason, getting 1/10 of the votes from the public that they got from the jury. (Presumably there aren't enough Aussie backpackers around EBU countries these days, and the antipodean nation doesn't fit into any European voting blocs.) The UK entered what appeared to be an early, not entirely successful, experiment at cloning Annie Lennox. They did, well, typically, ending up third from last. (I was half hoping, very much against hope, that they'd win, the population of Europe deciding, with exquisite irony, to saddle Brexitland with having to host a celebration of pan-European unity. It seems that Europe has better things to worry about than the quasi-tourettic tantrums of some objectionable self-exiled strangers on an island in the Atlantic. Toodle-pip, Britain, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.)

The UK's entry was, once again, cited as a return to form, as Britain flexing its formidable pop muscles and fielding an entry so strong that they may just be in with a chance of (whisper it) winning. And while the entry, SuRie, was indeed qualitatively better than some of the cringeworthy contenders it fielded over the preceding decade or two (the middle-aged white gangsta rapper, the singing flight attendants, Jemini and so on), it looked half-baked next to Australia's entry, which predictably left the UK in the dust. Perhaps it's the contrast in attitudes: while generations of Australians have grown up having the annual Eurovision party (always a good excuse for a drink with mates), the UK still is hamstrung by the sniffy disdain it has for those silly foreigners on the other side of the channel, and a sense of reluctance to lower itself to their level; it was always there, though went septic around the time of Tony Blair's bromance with George W. Bush, and has never entirely receded.

(The UK's entry was made slightly more exciting when some bloke with writing on his T-shirt ran onto the stage and grabbed the microphone for a moment. It is not entirely clear what his issue was: was he het up about chemtrails or Cultural Marxism or something? Did he have strong opinions about something like the Irish abortion referendum? Or was he perhaps a fanatical Bitcoiner striking a blow against fiat currency, or possibly one of those “incels”? I guess we may never know the truth.)

Other entries of note: Finland named its song “Monsters”, which given that, unlike its 2006 entry, it was not a heavy-metal number performed in monster costumes but rather respectably ordinary Eurovision electropop, was writing a cheque it had little hope of cashing. Hungary did have a heavy-metal band, with pyrotechnics and all, who looked about 14. Denmark's entry was Viking-themed, though was more a minor-key AOR ballad than hard rock. Moldova's entry was a cheeky sex-farce mimed around a set of doors and windows; think Benny Hill with Balkan beats. The Czech Republic did a sort of new-jack funk-rap thing, only stylised as nerdy/quirky, and thus less bland than Sweden's entry; the phrase “Czechia self before you wrechia self” did come to mind. And Ukraine fulfilled the Eurovision Goth quota, with a disco Dracula waking from inside a grand piano, and playing as the flames rose around him.

So Eurovision will be in Israel next year; presumably in Tel Aviv. Which means, among other things, that it's quite likely that Dana International will be one of the hosts. Presumably Britain will still be competing, the BBC paying enough into the EBU to retain its guaranteed contender slot regardless of the quality of its entry.

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2018/3/22

So, the Cambridge Analytica revelations: The broader outline (shadowy company, owned by right-wing billionaires and possibly connected to Russian intelligence interests, uses big data, psychological algorithms and targeted ads to fix elections, including the 2016 US Presidential one and the Brexit referendum) had started trickling out since late 2016. They would have remained an ominous undercurrent, known of by the vanquished liberal minority and embellished with layers of speculation, conspiracy theory and fatalistic gallows humour, were it not for a former operative spilling the beans, revealing further details. Details such as that that the data went beyond the usual broad-brush correlations between brand likes one thinks of when considering ad targeting and went into alarmingly intimate data aggregated from sources including Facebook private messages and credit profiles; and that, while the data was taken from Facebook by deception (under the claim that it was to be used for academic purposes; naming one’s company “Cambridge Analytica” can yield dividends, it seems), Facebook did not try particularly hard to enforce the terms of use ostensibly protecting its users (and, it seems, democracy and civil society themselves).

The elephant in the room, of course, is Facebook and its business model, which has been described, aptly, as “surveillance capitalism”. Facebook does not charge for its services, and funds itself through a modest amount of ads. What it does, however, is build up elaborate profiles of its users, sucking up their every online interaction it can to extend them. Where likes, posts, messages and location data don't suffice, it supplements with data from data brokers, gathered from credit ratings, things such as loyalty card programmes, and public-domain data. This yields a vast amount of data, which, when processed with sufficient computing power, can reveal a lot about users: in their less circumspect moments, Facebook's data scientists have revealed that they can tell a lot of things on an individual from their data trail, from political leanings to sexual orientation, to how likely their current relationship is to end; what other things they can determine about an individual given that data is an open question. What is not disputed, though, is that Facebook's very business model depends on using this data to target advertising, and their acuity in doing so to make revenue. In short, everything Cambridge Analytica allegedly did with their haul of illicitly obtained data, Facebook can do, continuously and at far greater scale.

This has not escaped notice, and the backlash has hit Facebook, not helped by Mark Zuckerberg's protracted silence on the matter. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook is trending on Twitter, urging users to nuke their Facebook accounts, and giving instructions on how to actually force Facebook to delete their data permanently, rather than just flagging it as temporarily inactive; the latest to add their name to the chorus is one of the founders of WhatsApp, a messaging system now owned by Facebook. Of course, that is easier said than done.

In some ways, it is easy: the instructions are easy to follow, and involve clicking through a few screens, entering the text in a CAPTCHA and watching one's digital life and/or surveillance dossier go up in virtual flames. What comes after is the hard part. Facebook have worked hard to own the social graph, and to make it difficult to take your friends with you when you leave. (The timeline you see on Facebook is, famously, not a chronological firehose of all your Facebook friends' posts, but a selection of a small proportion of those, chosen by the same all-knowing algorithms that know which ads to show you. It is said—though is, of course, difficult to verify—that those algorithms specifically score posts giving or requesting means of contact outside of Facebook down.) Or course, downloading a list of one's friends' names and email addresses/phone numbers is a nonstarter from the outset, ostensibly for reasons of privacy, so one's only bet is to individually contact the friends one wants to keep, one by one, to exchange details, resigning oneself to losing contact with the rest.

Other than owning the social graph, Facebook have managed to become the hub of socialisation in the 2010s by reducing friction. It is a lot easier to create a Facebook event for, say, a birthday party or an excursion to see a film, than to individually invite people to add the event to their calendars, and conversely socialising without Facebook has been consigned to the realm of Victorian-era calling cards. It is possible to socialise deliberately, with a few close friends one has in one's address book, but this does not scale. Social software such as Facebook has genuinely reduced friction and saved time, allowing people to keep in minimal touch with people they are peripherally connected to, and also reducing the time required to keep in touch with other, less peripheral, friends; the hectic pace of modern life has filled the time thus freed up. Thus, most people have no more time for phoning/texting/emailing non-core friends, who all are on Fscebook anyway, than they do for composing a multi-paragraph blog post which nobody will probably read. The sad reality of the 21st-century human condition is that Mark Zuckerberg owns the space between us, and leaving Facebook (and Instagram and WhatsApp) is, in many ways, to retreat from modern society; a radical, deliberate act, equal parts Ted Kaczynski and Into The Wild.

Perhaps this will change; perhaps Facebook will end up going the way of former unassailable titans such as MySpace, and be replaced by something else. If that something else is run by another venture-capital-funded surveillance-marketing organisation, the situation will not improve. (Facebook itself, at the start, seemed like a much cleaner and less spammy/scammy operation than MySpace.) There are glimmers of hope in the decentralised sphere, where developers are creating open, decentralised alternatives to corporate-owned monolithic silos. One example is Mastodon, a Twitter-like microblogging system. One thing those services don't currently have, though, outside of mass adoption, is granular privacy settings: it is not possible yet to make non-public posts to one, or to filter posts by group. Once this is implemented, in a way that works robustly across instances, and presumably uses cryptography, there might be a system ready to step into the gap when Facebook stumbles that is not inherently predatory on a structural level.

For now, however, those who are not willing to brave the wilderness are more or less stuck with Facebook; however, it is possible to reduce your profile, by reducing the amount of personal data one posts to it, and removing it from one's mobile devices (or, if not possible, revoking the app's permissions to access things like location information). I would add to this list: not logging into Facebook from one's main web browser, keeping a separate browser with separate cookies for using it, ideally running in a separate virtual machine.

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2017/12/31

2017 is almost over, and so, here are my records of the year:

  • Alvvays - Antisocialites (BandCamp)

    The Canadian indiepop band's follow-up to their self-titled album turns up the polish, sounding in places a bit like a bolder, more expansive Camera Obscura. Weighing in at a slender 32 minutes, with 10 songs, Antisocialites brings catchy melodies and even catchier choruses, jangly guitars, driving riffs, the odd keyboard pad, and upbeat anthems seasoned with tasteful amounts of alienation and angst. Highlights include the jangle-tastic twee-pop-night floor-filler Plimsoll Punks, the gorgeously shimmering, almost My Favorite-esque melancholia of Dreams Tonite and the epic closing track, Forget About Life (hint: if someone gives you a mix tape ending with this, they almost certainly fancy you).

  • LCD Soundsystem - American Dream

    The surprise comeback from a band that came to both epitomise a certain strain of New York hipsterdom and dissect it, laying bare its contradictions; returning a mere handful of years after their definitely-final farewell gig in Madison Square Gardens. Was it the wisdom of David Bowie, with whom James Murphy worked briefly on ★, that made him change his mind? Was it all a cynical marketing gimmick, or perhaps even a meta-art project toying with the concept of “selling out”? In any case, it doesn't matter, as the record is as strong as anything LCD have done before.

    There are a number of standout tracks here: Call The Police is a driving 7-minute party groove with more than a passing resemblance to All Your Friends; How Do You Sleep?, a wrathful indictment of a former associate (widely believed to be ex-DFA partner Andrew Weatherall), builds up through five minutes of pounding drums and sparse synthesisers, before exploding into the usual LCD groove juggernaut. And then there's the title track, which broaches James Murphy's trademark subject, the plight of the aging scenester. This time, this takes the form of a midlife existential crisis, narrated in the second person, equal parts sympathy and mockery; the subject, one gets the impression, is an aging American Nathan Barley, in toxic, chronic denial about pretty much everything, not least of all being well over halfway into his metamorphosis into a bum from a Charles Bukowski novel. The track is just over six minutes long, and its synthesised rock'n'roll ballad stylings and crescendos give it a mock-heroic pathos that is just perfect. The album ends on a personal note with the 12-minute Black Screen, where Murphy lets his guard down and addresses his late hero, mentor and eventual friend David Bowie (“you fell between a friend and a father”). A welcome return.

  • Jens Lekman - Life Will See You Now (BandCamp)

    The long-awaited follow-up to 2012's I Know What Love Isn't is an upbeat record. Jens has been getting more deeply into the production of his tracks, and is now at the culmination of his journey from indie-pop minimalism to a sort of cut-and-paste baroque, applying the playfulness that goes into his wordplay and storytelling to stacking up beats, loops and samples, and you can tell that he's having fun. As well as the big disco buildups he loves (What's That Perfume You Wear?, because the cure for a broken heart is to get down on the dance floor like nothing else matters, and the epic How We Met, The Long Version, equal parts funk and romantic whimsy), Wedding In Finistère ruminates on the passing of life milestones over a South African township-style groove, and the opening track sets up a theme, knowing one's life's calling, with an anecdote about a Mormon missionary and the death of Princess Diana recounted over some Wham!-doing-Motown grooves, built up and playfully stripped back as he breaks the fourth wall. Lekman, it seems, is as much a postmodernist as he is a romantic. Thematically, though, he has moved beyond his usual comfort zone of romantic love and its absence; two of the songs on this album confront that timely theme, the toxicity in masculinity, or in particular, the way its rules cut those subject to them off from meaningfully connecting with one another.

  • Loney Dear - Loney Dear

    Swedish melancholist Emil Svanängen made a name for himself as Loney Dear, a purveyor of romantic (in a Sorrows of Young Werther sense), and sometimes enigmatic, chamber-pop; intricate miniature sonic dioramas of longing and inner anguish. His new album, the first since 2011's Hall Music, sees him move further away from the woodsily acoustic sound of his earlier work and dive deeply into electronic sounds; which is not as great a change as one might imagine, as he has always had a thing for intricate arrangements with multiple parts coming together. It opens with a flight into darkness in the frantic, minor-key Pun, its unusual time signature, descending basslines and chorus of disparate elements sounding almost Radioheadesque. The third track, Hulls, is a ballad about fraught, complex relations, driven by fraught, complex minor-key harmonies; it begins with a muted one-handed synthesiser line and Emil's plaintive vocals, and, as is often the case, soars to a crescendo for that brief moment when the narrator's inner demons are in harmony with the celestial spheres. It is followed by Sum, which combines layers of pulsing electronics and shuffling beats with enveloping harmonies like the Pet Shop Boys at their most classicalesque. Isn't It You? is another high point, a simple but lovely miniature of pure, ill-omened longing, like the most hopeful point in a tragic opera. The album ends on an upbeat note with the splendidly titled There Are Several Alberts Here, which sounds probably not unlike what you'd get if someone commissioned Sigur Rós to write a love song.

  • Briana Marela - Call It Love (BandCamp)

    Marela's follow-up to her 2015 album All Around Us is a more expansive, ambitious and complex affair. Warmly intimate, melodic pop songs about the permutations of friendship, love and their absence, built up from layer upon layer of processed vocals, subtle beats, programmed basslines and the odd bit of live drums. Most of the work is done by Marela's voice, passing through various layers of effects, loops and digital artifice, carrying melodies and harmonies and the odd instrumental accents, complemented by the odd subbass synthesizer or crisp drum machine loop. Marela explores the liminal spaces between intimacy and artifice, and has made a particular space—layered, textured, at once warm and pulsatingly luminous, ethereal and immediate, technological and human. Highlights would include the opening track, Be In Love, which arrives in a waterfall of synth arpeggios and vocal harmonies and then erupts into a groove driven by live drums and synth bass, and the title track, a driving, major-key M83-esque electropop number spontaneously forming from the haze of granular sound particles. Recommended to anyone who wished that Holly Herndon wrote pop songs, wondered what The Softies would have been like as a 2010s electronic project or misses Sally Seltmann's New Buffalo recordings. (Not recommended, though, if you're allergic to reverb.)

  • Milk Teddy - Time Catches Up With Milk Teddy (BandCamp)

    Five years on from their debut, Zingers Melbourne's Milk Teddy have honed their craft further and delivered a shimmering mirage of slightly off-kilter perfect pop. The opening track, New York Rhapsody, kicks off with chiming guitar chords evocative of The Sea Urchins' Pristine Christine and chorused vocals recounting subjective snapshots of the narrator's travels; by the time this has faded into Rock'n'Roll Cretin, a short, melodious slice of vintage radio pop, which, two minutes later, fades out through a recording of an Australian-accented radio announcer talking, for some reason, about pasta, to a surf-guitar instrumental, you get the feeling that you've slipped into a parallel world of indiepop, a widescreen, technicolor dreamscape, melodious and with a hyperreal vividness, displaced in time by some unknown and possibly unquantifiable amount from the flattened languor of Melbourne's recent crop of “dolewave” indie. Other highlights include Gothic Skyline, with its FM keyboard accents and FM-radio polish, the pop romanticism of Iron Rose and the impeccably named closer, Too Young To Vote Too Old To Cry, with its echoes of The Beach Boys. Not sure if this is as good as guitar pop gets, but, in any case, it has to be pretty close.

  • Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked At Me (BandCamp)

    A chronicle of mourning; recorded by Phil Elverum in the room in which his wife, Genevieve Castrée (a musician and songwriter in her own right, who recorded as Ô Paon), died of cancer, and recounting, plainly, the many sad milestones as someone close passes away, the moments shared falling further into the past. Neither affected nor embellished, nonetheless, this is the heaviest thing one is likely to hear; infinitely heavier than a thousand corpsepainted Norwegians cookie-monstering about sodomitic necromutilation and such. Forget all the posturing darklings, this is death, and loss, and abject human anguish at its most primal and inevitable. There is no comfort or closure here.

  • My Sad Captains - Sun Bridge (BandCamp)

    London's My Sad Captains have recorded three albums, finding a middle road between languid, sun-dappled Americana and gently propulsive krautrock. Their fourth sees them change tack slightly, opening with a synthesizer instrumental reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Not to worry: the guitars, unhurried vocals and gently motorik percussion come back in the next track. The rest of the album goes on from there; layered, languid, enveloping and mildly psychedelic in places, with the odd synth pad or bubbling arpeggio fitting organically into their sound. A welcome return, and a promising change of heading.

  • Ride - Weather Diaries (BandCamp)

    Thames Valley shoegaze bands' comeback albums seem to be like buses: you wait for ages for one, and then two show up at once. Compared to their peers in what became the shoegaze scene, Ride's sound was always relatively clean and free of the usual reverb/delay. Consequently, 20 years on, their sound stands somewhat apart from the genre, and a listener unaware of their pedigree would probably not classify them alongside the likes of Pinkshinyultrablast, perhaps filing them under the catch-all of “psych”. For their comeback album, they recruited by Erol Alkan, the studio alchemist best known for transmuting scraggly indie-rock into something functionally equivalent on the dance floor to house music. The result is a sound that's tough and sculpted, with a clarity and solidity to it; there is some reverb and delay, but it is kept under control. Guitars, with varying degrees of fuzz (though no washes of delay) dominate, though chorused vocals, analogue synths and even the odd clunky drum machine, emerge in places. This is an expansive album, with a good amount of depth.

  • Slowdive - Slowdive (BandCamp)

    When the newly reunited Slowdive announced, in 2014, their intention to record a new album, there were doubts. How would a new album stand up next to, say, Souvlaki or the early EPs? The risk of it being an inessential appendix to the real Slowdive records of the 1990s was a real one. Fortunately, this did not happen; in fact, it's safe to say that they've hit this one out of the park. The new album, confidently self-titled, (mostly) does not radically depart from the style of their first act, but builds on it and achieves the rare feat of surpassing it and establishing Slowdive's reputation anew. The opener, Slomo, picks up where Pygmalion would have left off had most of the band not left, drifting in like a mist from the sea on a wash of processed guitars and vocals. Almost seven minutes later, it eases into Star Roving, which with its choppy guitars and driving percussion sounds like something off the legendary early EPs only more refined. Star Roving was the first single, establishing that Slowdive were back and in classic form. The second single, Sugar For The Pill, opens with a ringing five-note motif; by the time it reaches the chorus, with its synth pads and Neil and Rachel's vocal harmonies, it's as if they've reinvented 1970s soft rock via shoegaze. But it's the tracks in between that stand out for me: Don't Know Why and Everyone Knows, with Rachel's voice soaring over the harmonious maelstrom of howling feedback and chiming guitars, which bring back the sense of the sublime that one encountered upon first hearing Alison or Avalyn. The last track, Falling Ashes, departs from the familiar Slowdive-as-we-know-them sound; opening with a solitary piano line, some understated guitars, with drummer Christian Savill's granular-synthesis experiments subtly filling the empty spaces; there is perhaps a bit of Mojave 3 in the stillness. A return that exceeded its high expectations, overshadows Slowdive's earlier albums; even more intriguingly, there are apparently more Slowdive songs which sounded too different for the comeback album, which makes one intrigued as to what they do next.

  • Moses Sumney - Aromanticism (BandCamp)

    A concept album about, as the name suggests, abstaining from romantic love in a world that valorises it. Sumney's musical backings sound, in places, ironically romantic in tone, with lush string beds and bossa-nova guitars evoking old easy-listening records (and, for a moment, another act who, a quarter-century earlier, queered/queried the subject of romance and intimacy, Blueboy); elsewhere, it's adjacent to trip-hop and R&B, and, in places, could pass for Radiohead. On top of this, Sumney's voice soars in falsettos evocative at times of 78RPM blues record.

  • Warm Digits - Wireless World (BandCamp)

    A curious thing happened to the genre of krautrock, sometime after the term was coined: it became a mostly British phenomenon, eventually merging partly with hauntology (a term which originated in the writings of Jacques Derrida before becoming a byword for pre-Thatcherite institutional kitsch) and memories of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Warm Digits, from Newcastle, are another exemplar of 2010s British Radiophonic/Haunto/Krautrock spectrum (alongside the sequenced Ostalgie of Scotland's Kosmischer Läufer, the unironic retro-optimism of Public Service Broadcasting and the analogue pastorals of Jon Brooks), though this time leaning strongly towards the motorik end of the spectrum, with touches of disco. Two drummers propel the grooves forward metronomically, covered by synthesizer arpeggios, angular basses, taut guitar lines, and in some cases, guest vocals (Warm Digits don't include a vocalist, but have guests including Field Music, Devon Sproule and Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell), stacked layer upon warmly overdriven layer; the effect is somewhat stylised, if not mannered, though they do it well. As is often the case in this genre, the music is self-referential, being both stylistically and thematically about modernity, with songs like Always On and Fracking Blackpool touching on our dependence on technology and the bargains we make. If there were a highlight (and the level is pretty consistent across the album), it might be The Rumble And The Tremor, which veers into punk-funk territory.

With honourable mentions going to: Beaches - Second of Spring (a cavernous 76 minutes of psychedelic, motorik fuzz-rock from the Melbourne band) ¶ Boogie Idol - 音楽より遠く (described as “the perfect soundtrack to shopping for vegetables or riding an elevator”, this is a sort of Japanese vaporwave, influenced by 1990s Japanese commercial background music; to non-Japanese ears, it sounds exotic and somewhat retro-futuristic) ¶ The Bran Flakes - Help Me (the plunderphonic collagists return, with their characteristic playfulness; this is essentially the Generation X zine culture's analogue of vaporwave, brightly coloured sound sculptures made of the detritus of the 20th century) ¶ Jon Brooks - Agri Montana (Warm, Buchla-driven kosmische pastorals, inspired by vintage postcards and climbing hills in Wales) ¶ Children of Alice - Children of Alice (the surviving members of Broadcast, paying tribute to Trish with a track of eldritch, and very British, hauntological musique concrète) ¶ Even As We Speak - The Black Forest (the Sydney band, who were perhaps the most eccentric act to sign to Sarah Records, return after a few decades, with four tracks of sunny indiepop and a rocking cover of the Horst Jankowski lounge standard made famous by The Goodies' pirate radio episode; short but sweet, and hopefully a harbinger of more to come) ¶ Jakuzi - Fantezi Müzik (krautrock meets synthpop, in Turkish) ¶ Lindstrøm - It's Alright Between Us As It Is (the latest slice of bouncy good-time electro-disco from the prolific Norwegian producer; also features an appearance by Jenny Hval) ¶ The Luxembourg Signal - Blue Field (Moody post-punk indiepop from Beth Arzy (of the Sarah band Aberdeen) and friends) ¶ Makthaverskan - Ill (their third album shows the Gothenburg post-punk indie-pop combo polishing their sound further, with Maja's voice soaring over crisp guitars like something off a John Hughes film soundtrack) ¶ Kelly Lee Owens - s/t (ethereal vocals floating over sequenced Hackney-warehouse-rave electronics, with some interesting progressions; there's also a guest appearance by Oslo angsteuse Jenny Hval) ¶ Pasocom Music Club - SHE IS A (Japanese retro electronica, nostalgic for the vibe of boom-era Tokyo; sounds like electro-funk made with Korg M1 presets, which is, needless to say, not a bad thing) ¶ Hannah Peel - Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia (A short concept album about a fictional spacefarer, performed with modular synthesizers and a brass band, could have gone either way, though Peel manages to pull it off. Coruscating arpeggios, classical arrangements and the odd choral voice meld seamlessly into a beguiling whole.) ¶ The Radio Dept. - Teach Me To Forget EP (released on the back of their 2016 album, this nonetheless stands on its own due to a few excellent additions and an overall cohesion; I've written more about it here) ¶ Raven - The Night Is {dark,silent,bright,loud} (the full-length debut from the Sydney avant-gardist and cellist, a series of instrumentals, made with cello, piano, the odd field recording and digital processing; atmospheric, and in places discombobulating) ¶ She-Devils - She-Devils (the full-length debut album from the Montréal duo, recreating 1950s rockabilly/lounge grooves with loops and beats; vintage-styled fun) ¶ Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid (Smith has moved in a more pop direction than her earlier works, though the songs here have a layered, psychedelic sensibility, like Pikelet with a Buchla) ¶ Street Cleaner - Payback 2 (a concept album, the concept being the incidental music from 1980s direct-to-VHS action thrillers, which was made entirely with synthesizers, as that was cheaper, and thus sounded incongruously crisp and futuristic; file alongside John Carpenter and 1980s video-game music) ¶ Tornado Wallace - Lonely Planet (chilled, funky electronic grooves falling somewhere in the space between yacht rock, Balearic electropop and incidental music for a travelogue, with perhaps echoes of Virgin Suicides-era Air. Sui Zhen makes a guest appearance. Smooth sailing, or perhaps a 747 taking off into a neon sunset somewhere near the equator.) ¶ Underground Lovers - Staring At You, Staring At Me (known briefly during its gestation as Melbournism, this album follows on from their 2013 return Weekend, this time not veering far from the Undies' art-rock stylings; Vince does get his TR-808 out on a few songs) ¶ VAR - Vetur (the Icelandic post-rock band's follow-up to their 2014 debut; sweepingly atmospheric as one would expect, and sounding in places like iLiKETRAiNS crossed with a heavier Sigur Rós) ¶ Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology (the follow-up to The Silver Globe continues further along the kosmische-disco line, with analogue fuzz aplenty and echoes of Stereolab and Neu! in places; oh, and one of the members of Can shows up, but only to say something psychedelic about the cycle of life and death and such).

If I had to choose one record of the year, it be either Slowdive or Milk Teddy; two very different records, but both of them superb. I guess it would depend on whether one wants shoegaze or pop music.

As usual, there is a Spotify playlist here:

2017 cds lists music 0

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