The Null Device
My name is Andrew, and until now, I have never watched Twin Peaks.
I had seen, and enjoyed, various of David Lynch's films (Lost Highway in particular made an impact on me at the time with its uneasy dreamlike vision). Twin Peaks had been on television, of which I didn't watch much at the time (the novelty of the internet, in its text-based, pre-web version, had consumed my spare attention). I, of course, couldn't help but be aware of it: the media hype, the Bart Simpson Killed Laura Palmer T-shirts every attention-seeker was wearing. At the time it was easy enough to dismiss it prematurely as just another dumb TV show; something people who watch TV will witter about for the next few weeks and then forget, moving onto the next mass spectacle. (This was about a generation before the idea of Quality TV came around, when episodic TV shows were perceived, mostly accurately, as low-rent boob-bait, something acknowledged in Twin Peaks with its own references to lurid telenovela tropes.) In the years that followed, its influence kept coming up repeatedly in ways that generic dumb TV shows don't. I had friends who made art referencing it, made pilgrimages to the locations, travelled to conventions and got selfies with actors from it, and who sought out David Lynch's pop-up bar in Paris; such fandom doesn't generally happen for, say, Growing Pains or Melrose Place (to choose two names at random).
I wasn't completely truthful when I said I had never watched Twin Peaks. Many years ago, I got a copy (I can't remember where: a set of DVDs borrowed in Melbourne in the late 90s, or some .avi files copied from a friend in California in the late 00s, or a DVD box set buried in a box in a storage locker in Melbourne) and watched the pilot and the second episode. My impression was: this is some kind of greaser hell, a tough, brutal world ruled by the inevitability of violence, and the logic of violence as honour, like Viking-age sagas crossed with Nick Cave murder ballads, with a 50s rock'n'roll soundtrack. It didn't help that among the first characters I saw who were doing something other than merely reacting in shock were a reptilian psychopath whose psychological and physical abuse of his (young, pretty, terrified) wife was probably the least of his crimes, and a greaser hoodlum, whose propensity for impulsive violence had a boys-will-be-boys logic to it, and who ended the episode literally howling like a wolf to intimidate another guy. The phrase “toxic masculinity” was not common currency yet, but it would have described a fundamental element of this world, along with perhaps the great American founding myth of righteous violence. This bleak worldview did not, at the time, compel me to prioritise watching the third episode immediately; I had other things to do, and soon the whole series ended up receding further into the backlog of unwatched TV; to be watched when I found the time. The years passed, and I absorbed bits of it by osmosis, much as one does with, say, Star Trek or Game Of Thrones or Lost; sort of knowing what the Black Lodge is in the way that I sort of know what the Red Wedding or Darmok And Jalad refer to. Over the years, more and more of it slipped into the periphery of my world: the iconic red curtains and zigzag flooring of the Black Lodge appearing in various places, music influenced by the Cocteauvian doo-wop of the soundtrack; I went to a burlesque night in East London which turned out to be Twin Peaks-themed, and undoubtedly missed most of the references; a year or two later, I instantly recognised a (sublime) shoegaze version of the Twin Peaks theme played at a gig at the Union Chapel in Islington.
And so, the .avi files sat on a succession of hard drives (and were more recently supplanted by a BluRay box set, the product of a wish-list-mediated long-distance Christmas), waiting for me to get around to watching them. I copied them to my iPad once, with the view of catching up whilst travelling, but never did: the sheer wall of 29 episodes acted as a psychological barrier: do I have the time to commit to this now? Then, in 2017, came the return: a third series, set (more or less) in the same universe with the same characters. On one hand, the pressure to finally bite the bullet and catch up increased: half the people I knew were talking about it, their talk in a code I half understood, and this would only intensify; on the other hand, the wall of canonical content would only grow steeper and more imposing. The season came and went, friends tweeted about it and started podcasts, but I stayed behind, unable to find the time to catch up on the originals.
But then, a year and a bit after I moved to Sweden, The Covfefe hit. Suddenly I was working from home and not going out; all events and travel plans were up in the air, indefinitely. I looked towards my stack of unwatched video, picked the Twin Peaks pilot from it, and rewatched it to refresh my memory. The following day, I learned that I had done so on the 30th anniversary of its original airing. And so, over the next few weeks, I would rewatch all 29 episodes of the original seasons; starting with one a night, though culminating at four. Last night, I watched the last one,
My impressions were: the mood does get less oppressive from the third episode onwards: Agent Cooper, the idealistic, mystically-inclined FBI agent sent in to solve the murder, does bring a sense of wonder, and also a sense of unreality (the idea that an FBI agent would use dream divination to attempt to solve a case, and that the bureau would back him up on this rather than, say, confining him to the basement where they keep their crank file, serves to break the bonds to realism). The cavalcade of oddities (some, but not all, connected to Cooper) pushes this along further, somewhere between magic realism and the Weird America of a Werner Herzog documentary, whilst keeping things moving along. Meanwhile, the TV format keeps it partially anchored to the tropes of 1980s TV drama, though sometimes testing them to breaking point (case in point, a mynah bird being material witness to the murder, and ending up assassinated). As many others have pointed out, the show loses a lot of momentum in the second season; some of the small-town quirkiness bloats out into a tangle of subplots, which feel like filler (the one about Nadine's superhuman strength/age regression and the one about the paternity of Lucy's child, to name two). The show did pick up towards the end, though by then veering into comic-book territory. What had started with an all too brutally realistic act of evil ended with a luridly fantastic cat-and-mouse game against a ludicrously well-resourced supervillain. (And while Cooper's ex-partner turned megalomaniacal psycho-killer Windom Earle was the most obvious example of a comic-book villain there, both Leland Palmer and Benjamin Horne developed the air of villains from the 1960s Batman series about their characterisation.) The series did end with a stack of cliffhangers, inconveniently enough as there was not a third season within its timeline.
The world of Twin Peaks seemed curiously anachronistic, as if stuck in a Long 1950s going well into 1989; the ghosts of Elvis and James Dean cast a long shadow here, particularly on the younger generation with whose parents these icons would have resonated. (The idea of a soulful, brooding, leather-jacketed teenage rebel riding a Harley would probably have seemed anachronistic in 1990, let alone now.) The adult characters also have a midcentury aura about them: a clubbable whisky-and-golf masculinity that can respectably paper over all manner of discreet vices.
There are some things which didn't age well. For one, Twin Peaks is very white, and it's well into the second season before one sees an African-American face. Which makes one wonder: where did all the black people go? Women characters are often handled in a less than even-handed way; Lynch does seem to like fridging his women to generate jeopardy and tension, and while there are some well-written female characters with agency (one could imagine, in a world where this was more successful, Audrey Horne getting her own spin-off series; you know that she had adventures), many seem to exist merely as bait of one kind or another, squirming or shimmying on the end of a plot device, femmes fatales or angelic victims. Gender-identity diversity fares slightly better; there’s one cross-dressing character — played by an unknown David Duchovny, still a year or two from his own fame as an idealistic, esoterically obsessed FBI agent—though s/he feels more one of a kind with the giants, dwarfs and one-armed men who occupy Lynch’s phantasmagoria than a nuanced sketch of LGBTQ experience. Still, for 1991, a cross-dressing character who is neither a sick villain nor a murder victim was probably quite progressive.
Finally watching the original series both was and wasn't revelatory; much of what could be easily described about it was not a surprise, as it had saturated the cultural environment. What was surprising were the little details: the combination of boy-scout earnestness and profound psychedelic oddness that was its implausible protagonist, the sometime dream-logic governing the actions of the characters (would anyone in real life have acted as they did?). Also, the change in proportions between the actual series and its long afterimage; it was hard to believe that the iconic Black Lodge, the Chapel Perilous of the Twin Peaks universe whose decor inspired a million imitations and homages, only appeared in the final 10 minutes or so of the final episode and a short dream sequence in the first one.
The final takeaway was noticing ripples of Twin Peaks in the world that followed. Some are more obvious than others. One can see elements of the series, distilled to a much higher purity, in the films of Wes Anderson, for example, and what is Donnie Darko if not a jejune student-project attempt at Lynchianism reduced to Hot Topic-era adolescent angst? There was, of course, also the X Files, which aimed at similar territory though in a more literally grounded way, taking the questions of American paranoiac folklore — what if UFOs and/or Bigfoot are real? what if the government is covering them up? — at face value rather than as emanations of a Jungian collective unconscious, and one could probably make a case for Northern Exposure as a Twin Peaks for normies. Outside of the media, the goths and twee-pop kids took a lot from Twin Peaks; more than one scowling darkling in the industrial, goth or metal scene must have channelled the aforementioned reptilian psychopath, Leo Johnson, in an attempt to look grim and ominous; on the other side, the phrase “the owls are not what they seem” gradually lost its sublime terror and joined the iconography of Etsy-era twee, cross-stitched and hanging in Instagrammable flats where Neutral Milk Hotel vinyl spins on a faux-vintage Crosley.
There are more tenuous connections one could grasp at: might the millennial tendency for tarot and astrology owe anything to Agent Cooper's unorthodox methods? Is there a bit of the Black Lodge in the glitches-and-classical-statuary aesthetic of vaporwave? One memorable semi-recent example is a video by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, which has him crooning the line “sorrow conquers happiness” for several hours, accompanied by an orchestra, and standing in front of a red curtain, as if in a corner of the Black Lodge.
Anyway, those are my observations, only overdue by a couple of decades. At some point I'll get around to watching the new series, whose DVDs are sitting in my living room.
It has been two weeks since The Covfefe forced us into hiding. Or, more precisely, since everybody at the company I work for was strongly encouraged to work from home. A Google spreadsheet was set up where those needing monitors or office chairs could request them. The weekly Friday afternoon fika was moved to a video meeting, a sort of non-work-related status report. Other than that, things stayed the same: the company is an IT company, and most business is arranged over Slack (or occasionally email), so not a huge amount changed. People who work in other industries are undoubtedly less lucky.
Other than that, Stockholm is calm, or perhaps in denial. The bars are not only not closed but quite busy, though as a concession, are only offering seated table service. A tobacconist near where I live has started selling surgical masks, though nobody has started actually wearing them. There are perhaps slightly fewer people out and about, and perhaps more social distancing going on, but not a huge amount. Some rationalise it by saying that Sweden has an advantage in social distancing even in normal times; others point to the consensus-seeking nature of Swedish society, always trying to find a lagom medium between the extremes.
It feels in some ways like the calm before the storm. As I write this, and people go about their routines, the Covfefe is undoubtedly spreading silently through the population. It seems unlikely that Sweden will escape the necessity for a comprehensive shutdown of non-essential services. (What constitutes an essential service, of course, is a sticking point; various US states have listed gun shops and golf courses as essential services; I imagine a case could be made for Systembolaget and providers of freshly baked kanelbullar to be given the same status here.) As of today, events of 50 or more people have been banned; this is down from 500 or more a few days ago.
On a personal level, a number of things are up in the air. I was going to be going to London this weekend, on occasion of the Even As We Speak gig, but of course, that is not happening. In fact, it is hard to consider any future plans in the next 18 months, if the shifting nature of The Covfefe may mean restrictions being adjusted tactically at short notice. (Some say that the current lockdown may last a few months, leaving a window in July and August, before the colder weather causes a resurgence of infections.) On the other hand, I might finally get around to reading some of those books. In terms of socialising, going out for a meal or a drink is, of course, not feasible, though people have been looking into online alternatives, such as Discord servers or the new Animal Crossing game. (I have set up a Discord server as an experiment, though have yet to buy the aforementioned game for my Switch.)
Also, if I am going to be spending a prolonged amount of time in my flat, I should probably consider adopting a cat.
Melbourne independent record shop PolyEster Records is closing down; after having been a fixture on Brunswick Street, the once epicenter of the bohemian/countercultural inner-north, since 1983, and outlived numerous other storied record shops including Gaslight and AuGoGo. The shift by consumers to streaming, independent bands to Bandcamp and major labels to limited CD releases backed by streaming and lossy downloads, and the upper limits on how much vinyl the market can absorb (especially as an increasing proportion of the market grew up with CDs and do not associate the characteristic distortions of vinyl with an inherently more authentic musical experience) undoubtedly didn't help. Though it may be argued that, as soon as the neon Dobbshead disappeared from the back wall, the shop's days were numbered.
All of which leaves little of the old Brunswick St.; for record buying, there's still Dixon's Recycled, with their racks of second-hand CDs; as far as live music goes, Bar Open has gigs of some sort. PolyEster's companion bookshop, notorious for its flouting of obscenity laws, closed several years ago (though its awning still decorates the fixture of the restaurant that took its place, as if protected by some unofficial heritage listing).
One could say that the closure of PolyEster Records is the culmination of a process which began 18 years earlier, when the Punters Club, a pub and venue that was a keystone of the Melbourne live music scene, closed down and was replaced by a Chapel St.-style pizza venue named Bimbo Deluxe, its PA system playing house music. That was the beachhead of the slick, trendy south of the Yarra's expansion to and annexation of the inner north. The closure of PolyEster is the demolition of the last nail house of the old indie-rock bohemian Fitzroy, and the confirmation that the virtual Yarra now runs somewhere between Alexandra Parade and Merri Creek.
As of midnight last night, the UK is no longer a member of the EU. The occasion was met with the characteristic boorishness from the triumphant bigots and pub bores assembled in Parliament Square; meanwhile, in Norwich, signs went up telling people that from now on, only “Queens English” (by which, presumably, they did not mean the English used in Run-DMC lyrics) may be spoken from now on.
In Brussels, the occasion was marked more salubriously: MEPs sang Auld Lang Syne, and some predicted that the UK may return to the EU some day; or in their words, this is “not adieu but au revoir”. However, I suspect that this will never happen.
In the long term, it is unlikely that the UK will rejoin the EU, primarily because, the more time passes, the more likely it is that either the UK, the EU or both will not exist. The imminent end of the EU, of course, was gleefully welcomed by the Faragists and their friends in Moscow and the Reactionary International, with Brexit being intended as the first domino in the unravelling of the post-WW2 liberal international order, and its replacement with a Hobbesian arrangement of spheres of influence, as per Aleksandr Dugin's Eurasianism (Eurasia, of course, would be governed, some parts more directly than others, from Moscow; the English gammon, however, are free to convince themselves, that in the oceanic sphere, Britannia will once again rule the waves as God intended). Of course, the other dominos failed to follow suit, and in fact, the travails of Britain, the one-time exemplar of level-headed pragmatic governance immune to hot-blooded ideological fervor, have arguably inoculated other European states against wanting out. (For example, in Sweden, both the far right and far left repudiated their goals of leaving the EU.) So it looks like Putin's troll farms have their work cut out for them.
The end of the UK seems less remote. Already, Northern Ireland, that unwieldy holdover of Empire, has been more or less sacrificed after the DUP overplayed their hand. (The post-Brexit arrangements will involve an effective border in the Irish Sea, leaving Ireland economically as a cohesive unit, almost as if it wasn't the 17th century any more; meanwhile, public opinion in Northern Ireland is shifting steadily in favour of, or at least non-opposition to, reunification with the Irish Republic, which by now is quite obviously (a) no longer a Catholic sectarian state, (b) currently quite a bit more reasonable than the UK, and (c) a member of a powerful economic club.) Opinion in Scotland was also strongly in favour of remaining in the EU, and is arguably shifting towards support for independence and rejoining the EU as a separate country, where former EU head Donald Tusk said they would be welcome. However, this may not be straightforward.
Scotland, in theory, resolved to rule out independence for at least a generation if not for all time, with their referendum shortly before Britain voted to leave the EU. Of course, part of the incentive was that a Unionist Scotland would have remained in the EU, whereas an independent one would have had to queue for accession somewhere behind Albania. In any case, Prime Minister Johnson, a man known for his personal integrity, has ruled out any further independence referendum for Scotland. Which lands things in a stalemate.
Perhaps Westminster genuinely believe that they can head off any Scottish secession, and presumably over time, neutralise the SNP and reduce Scottish separatism to a quaint form of local colour, alongside Cornish pasties and gurning contests in Carlisle. Possibly there are people in the Conservative and Unionist Party and/or the Home Office who are keen for a test of modern counterinsurgency tactics, and who bet that, had Britain known in 1916 what they do now, they would still have Ireland as a loyal dominion today. And with modern mass-surveillance technology, there is a point there. The security services have the means to get an abundance of data on everyone in the UK today, from social graphs of contacts to GPS traces of mobile phone locations. Given sufficient investment and effort, that could be turned into a social graph of the entire Scottish population, with each person's degree and form of connection to the separatist movement being known, and searchable. If, for example, MI5 need to find a handful of people socially connected to separatist activists but reluctant to get involved, who may be amenable to pressure to act as informants, that is a graph query. On a more acute level, every organisational graph has a few key nodes which, if taken out, could discreetly disrupt its operations. A query could tell the security forces exactly whose brakes would need to fail on a treacherous road in order for recruitment to run out of steam 18 months down the track.
That is assuming that the goal is to crush the rebellious Scots and retain a pacified Scotland as a province of the UK. It could arguably be more rational for the Tories to rile the Scots into leaving, put in a token show of trying to stop them, and rejoice in the fact that the remaining United Kingdom of England and Wales will have a permanent Tory majority for at least a generation. Unless, of course, one is suffering from Dunning-Krugeresque delusions of far greater competence than one actually has.
Of course, this is in the long term. There is also the possibility that the Brexit project will run into trouble in the short term: that the British people's innate knack for free trade and/or True Brit won't suffice to allow them to reconquer the globe and, unconstrained by political correctness and beige Belgian bureaucracy, build a new empire even more glorious than the one Queen Victoria presided over; and instead, that a humbled Britain, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, will show up in Brussels with a handful of petrol-station roses, begging to be readmitted, and conceding to adopting the Euro, entering the Schengen zone and replacing its power plugs with sensible ones. And as comforting as that thought might be, it is probably the least likely outcome of a crisis, considerably after others, such as Britain becoming a Puerto Rico-style US protectorate (under, of course, the sort of predatory terms one would expect from the Trump kleptocracy, which would probably involve Haiti-level debts on the shoulders of every Briton), joining the Eurasian Union (free trade with huge countries like Russia and Kazakhstan, and no politically-correct human-rights regulations to annoy the Daily Mail readership), or just doubling down and transitioning to a Juche-style ideology of isolationism, with public hangings of “traitors” and “saboteurs” on the BBC every week to distract its starving population.
It's the last day of 2019, and as such, here are the notable records of the past year:
- Article 54 — The Hustle (BandCamp)
In Australia, the rolling political unpleasantness is tackled by feral larrikin mashup artists; in metropolitan London, though, they do things differently. As is the case of Article 54, a crack team of London live music veterans led by Rhodri Marsden, charting the arc of the ongoing Brexit situation through the medium of lush 70s-style disco. Luscious soul strings, funky clavinet licks and wah guitar, along with ostensibly peppy yet slyly subversive lyrics and samples apparently culled from countless hours of talkback radio. The trajectory of the situation itself is evident in the arc of song titles: beginning with the ebullient Piece Of Cake, breezily asserting that “saying goodbye is easy as pie”, and ending on a more downbeat note with Hard Is Better, itself fading out into the sound of street protests. Freedom Of Movement, a 1970s-style light-music track chiding the foolishness of Britons who aspire to vamoose to Lisbon or Toulouse or set up home in Budapest or Rome, sounds Scarfolkianly redolent of the cheery propaganda of totalitarian regimes; Let's Go WTO, meanwhile, sounds almost like an old radio ad jingle for car insurance, while Backstop and Canada Plus wouldn't sound amiss in a Sardinian nightclub in 1982, and Alternative Arrangements has a groove worthy of Luther Vandross. Ironically smooth sailing.
- Bodikhuu — Rio/Bodianova (BandCamp)
Tired: Scandinavians making chillwave electropop dreaming of Caribbean beaches. Inspired: Mongolians making instrumental hip-hop dreaming of Brazil. In this case, Bodikhuu, who works as a construction crane operator in Ulaanbaatar, but spends the winter, when it's too cold to work, making beats in his apartment with an Akai MPC and a stack of old Brazilian records to sample, and releasing his tracks digitally into the Mongolian hip-hop scene. Rio/Bodianova assembled from two such self-released EPs, consists of lush, intricately layered tracks infused with samba and bossa-nova, not a world away from J. Dilla. The image of the fabled Brazil of Bodikhuu's imagination permeates every track, with its tropical heat and breezy languor. The chill-out record of the summer.
- Cigarettes After Sex — Cry (BandCamp)
No huge surprises here: if you loved Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut, this delivers another package of the same. Expect music with echoes of Slowdive/Mazzy Star/Julee Cruise/Cowboy Junkies/&c., androgynous vocals singing of longing and desire, catchy melodies, and track titles like Don't Let Me Go, Pure and, umm, Hentai. Cry follows on from Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut without any major changes, and without the mist of ambiguity that shrouded it, Greg Gonzales' songwriting persona has coalesced into a bit of a softboi cliché; yeah, he's constitutionally incapable of commitment and yet obsessively in love with you, likes porn and blowjobs, and yet finds tenderness and beauty in sleaze; a tender pervert for the generation who grew up on Vice Magazine, permanent austerity, climate catastrophe and cheap cocaine. Though I guess if you prefer more psychodrama with your libidinous pop, there's always Of Montreal.
- Holly Herndon — Proto (Bandcamp)
Herndon's previous albums combined academic experimentation with generative composition using Max/MSP with a raver's love of of electronic dance music and critiques of the interplay of technology and society; this next one is a bit of a divergence, having been arguably the first commercial album composed in collaboration with an AI. For this project (which also formed part of her PhD thesis), Herndon and her collaborators trained a sound-generating neural network named Spawn, and gathered groups of singers around its microphones to sing around it, drawing on the sacred and folk song styles of her native Tennessee, and then got it to gradually synthesise what it learned. We witness the AI learning, emitting choral drones and glitchy syllables and converging on an otherworldly song. This is intermingled with actual dancefloor bangers made using Spawn's input, with collaborators like footwork maestro Jlin.
- Alice Hubble — Polarlichter (Bandcamp)
Hubble, formerly one half of electropop duo Arthur & Martha, makes a solo debut with an album of warmly analogue music, half instrumental and half pop; at once a virtuoso showcase of electronic sound and a love letter to legendary practitioners such as New Order, Kraftwerk and OMD. Hubble is not merely a veteran pop songsmith but also has her finger on the (metronomic) pulse of this genre, and as such ends up hitting all the buttons. Highlights include the bittersweet pop of Are We Still Alone, the cubist pastoral of Atlantis Palm like a ride down the changing voxel landscapes a video-game Autobahn, the waltz-time electronica of Hunt For The Blood Red Moon, and Kick The Habit, arguably the best glam-rock anthem ever written from the point of view of a lapsed nun.
- Jenny Hval — The Practice of Love (Bandcamp)
As a musical artist, Jenny Hval has a reputation for fusing ethereal pop sounds with an intimacy and a sometimes visceral frankness, as evident on previous albums like Blood Bitch and Apocalypse, Girl. Her latest album is thematically a gentler affair, eschewing the body horror and (most of the) sex in favour of meditations on love, “love”, death, intimacy and other corners of the human condition, over beds of synth washes, clubby baselines, trancy arpeggios and programmed/sampled beats reminiscent of Dubstar, Decoder Ring or early-90s Momus. Hval's voice weaves in and out of the mix, singing in reverb, or whispering confessionally, sometimes joined by three other collaborators, including Melbourne's Laura Jean, and occasionally teasing the border between chillout and ASMR. The title track sits in the middle and borrows the conceit of The Velvet Underground's The Murder Mystery, with Vivian Wang talking about the word “love” on the left channel and, on the right, Jean about childlessness and regarding oneself as a supporting character, over ambient synth pads and arpeggios; the beats resume on the following track, Ashes To Ashes, an upbeat pop song about dreams of death. It doesn't have any lines as immediately memorable as Apocalypse, Girl's “I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit”, but it more than makes up for this in its enveloping lushness.
- Sleater-Kinney — The Center Won't Hold (Bandcamp)
The group's new album, with Annie Clark of St. Vincent producing, takes a departure from the punk-rock purism of their previous albums and towards a more electronic sound not too far from Le Tigre; more programmed beats and the odd synthesiser mixing in with the spiky guitars, live drums, handclaps and vocals. Thematically, The Center Won't Hold engages with the situation of the world in 2019, from social media to economic precarity, from the political situation in the US and abroad to the importance of personal bonds in the uncertain world, making a humanistic stand.
- Star Horse — You Said Forever (Bandcamp), and Spunsugar — Mouth Full Of You (Bandcamp)
There is a bit of a shoegaze moment taking place in Sweden right now, and these two bands are examples. Star Horse have been around for a few years, though have only released their debut full-length album this year, and are on the poppy side of shoegaze, sounding somewhat like Secret Shine, all ethereal vocals floating above a wash of processed guitars. If they don't get the support slot at the next Slowdive gig in Sweden, it will be a crime. Meanwhile, Spunsugar are a young band based in Malmö, and sound exactly how the name suggests: crunchy, drum-machine-backed shoegaze à la Catherine Wheel, with a touch of baggy and whatever Curve and Caligula were, and if you listen carefully, a hint of metal; clear vocals floating on an ethereal reverb haze over jangling guitars and fuzz. At the moment, they only have one four-track EP out, but with any luck, they should go far.
- Teeth Of The Sea — Wraith (Bandcamp)
The London dark-psychedelic ensemble's most recent album continues their line of uncategorisable yet compelling works (not to mention clever titles), and shifting it up a gear. The opening track, I'd Rather, Jack. begins like a grimdark Radiohead, before escalating into a postapocalyptic soundscape of the usual elements; grindcore chugging, spaghetti-Western guitars, coruscating synths, mournful mariachi-meets-Taps trumpets, Reznorian drones, though with nothing dominating the mix, but instead slowly building and twisting into unsettling yet compelling textures. Further on, Fortean Steed brings vaguely elfin ethereal vocals and picked acoustic guitars over an aurora of synthesiser textures, evoking a liminal state when the veil between this world and another is at its most diaphanous. Following this, VISITOR begins with pulsing synth arpeggios, soon joined by hair-metal guitar shredding and Ottoman/balkan-style drums, building to a cinematic crescendo over its eight minutes, and the closer, Gladiators Ready, ends the album with a rave in a wasteland (think Giorgio Moroder as the Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road and you'll have an idea). Brutalicious!
- Underground Lovers — A Left Turn
The Undies' second act continues into its third album, and shows no sign of losing strength. There's luscious dreampop (the opener, Feels Like Yesterday with its chorused strums and indiepop harmonies, and Dunes, with with guitars and delay floating over a chunky drum loop), vaguely kraut-ish indie-rock anthems (Bells, with its motorik crunch and harmony choruses, and Hooky, whose title may or may not come from its high-played bass guitar), techno synth pulses and those guitars, not to mention an anthem to the subjective experience of hanging out and partying, Melbourne-style (in this case, Seven Day Weekend, which threatens to turn into techno before the fuzzy riffage kicks in).
With honourable mentions going to: Agent Blå, Morning Thoughts (the Gothenburg band's latest, like a smoother, softer Makthaverskan); The Ballet, Matchy Matchy (soft-spoken indiepop about the travails of being single and gay in New York as if sung in a bedroom over a drum machine; like Magnetic Fields meets The Postal Service); Caterina Barbieri, Ecstatic Computation (luminous soundscapes of analogue arpeggios and reverb, made on modular synths); CHAI, PUNK (a slight misnomer, as it's more slightly skronkier-than-usual J-pop, with the usual Big Melodies underscored with driving bass guitars, and choppy sampling work reminiscent of early Shibuya-kei); Duncan Barrett, Seven Temples (the frontman of Tigercats turns his attention unexpectedly to ambient music, and it's pretty good somewhat new-agey with touches of IDM; layers of pulsating, shimmering synths weave in and out, over subtle field recordings, the odd rainstick and, in places, Barrett's trademark kalimba); Be Forest, Knocturne (Chiming minor-key guitars and pounding drums; like shoegaze/post-rock taking The Cure's Disintegration as a starting point); Bodywash, Comforter (post-Cocteauvian dreampop (or “cream pop” as they call it) from Montreal, nudging tentatively into pad-and-beat-driven electronica, a bit like Love Spirals Downwards' drum'n'bass turn or the German shoegaze band Malory); The Boy Who Spoke Clouds, Fields (the swansong from Melbourne's Adam Casey's solo project; languid compositions for guitar, organ and electronics, in the local post-rock tradition); The Catenary Wires, Til The Morning (Amelia and Rob return with more indiepop ballads for grownups, with their customary wit); Death And Vanilla, Are You A Dreamer? (the Malmö haunto-poppers were robbed when they weren't tapped to write the soundtrack to Midsommar; nonetheless, here's a new album, full of retro-styled hypnagogica that's almost gentle and reassuring); Haiku Salut, The General (a score to the eponymous 1920s Buster Keaton film, breaking the clichés of what a score to a silent film should sound like); Hot Chip, A Bath Full of Ecstasy (a luminous, euphoric affair, of coruscating dancefloor anthems and Autotune-driven quiet-storm numbers; a love letter to the power of dance music to connect people); Jens Lekman & Annika Norlin, Correspondence (a series of songs, alternately composed by Lekman and Norlin in correspondence with each other; witty and thoughtful); Parenthetical Girls, The Scottish Play: Wherein the Group Parenthetical Girls Pay Well-intentioned (if Occasionally Misguided) Tribute To the Works of Ivor Cutler (what it sounds like: Zac Pennington reëmerges with a set of covers of the late Scottish absurdist's oeuvre; with cover artwork by David Shrigley, no less); Seablite, Grass Stains and Novocaine (catchy indiepop from the Pacific Northwest, not that far from Rose Melberg's oeuvre); She Past Away, Disko Anksiyete (synthpop for goths, in Turkish; file alongside Cold Cave); Le Superhomard, Meadow Lane Park (lighter-than-Air Europop, like the aforementioned French Band fronted by Dusty Springfield or perhaps an ice-cool continental Saint Etienne; in places sounds like Dots And Loops-era Stereolab, in others, Apricot Records indiepop); U-Bahn, U-Bahn (angular Little Band-isms from Melbourne, with a tightly-wound DEVO-esque sensibility, though owing more to The Models than Kraftwerk's The Model); Vanishing Twin, The Age of Immunology (languidly hypnagogic, post-Broadcast, library jazz acoustic gtr, clunking bass, twinkling west-coast synths and Cathy’s vocals waxing Trishesque).
2019 was also a good year for rereleases; the obvious ones were Stereolab coming back from hibernation, reissuing their entire catalogue with generous liner notes and an abundance of bonus tracks (luxury vinyl optional) and touring it; though other than that, there was early-80s Melbourne new-waver Karen Marks' long-unavailable electropop gem Cold Café, queer pagan transgressives Coil's ice-cool club-techno soundtrack to the first (just about legal) gay sex education film made in Britain, and My Favourite's expanded version of the final album and arguable masterpiece of their first incarnation, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives.
Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Alice Hubble, or Jenny Hval.
There is a Spotify playlist here.
Even before the summer arrived in Australia, large swathes of the country are already on fire. The images coming in from Sydney of the city immersed in a soupy brown haze, the sun a baleful orange circle, a dusting of ash covering everything and every second person wearing a white PM2.5 mask, look like something out of dystopian fiction. Meteorologists are predicting that this situation may continue through the summer, quite possibly becoming the “new normal”; throat-searing brown smoke being a feature of Sydney as much as diesel smogs are of London. Meanwhile, Australia is doubling down on fossil fuels, with the conservatives charging ahead, passing laws to prevent energy companies from divesting from coal, and Labor (who got so thoroughly thrashed in the last election that they still don't know what year it is) joining in.
Officially, in Australia, the bushfires have nothing to do with climate change, if that even is actually a thing, which there is just no way of knowing. The bush has always burned, there have always been heatwaves, also something about 4000-year sunspot cycles and/or there being no wookiees on Endor. Which is not to say that climate change denial is official Australian orthodoxy; by now, it's more of a paralytic agnosticism. It's not known as a fact, for example, that the idea of “climate change” is a Cultural Marxist plot to destroy the foundations of Western civilisation. That's one of the many possibilities; it could also, for example, be aliens, or Bigfoot. Or, for that matter, the whole crazy idea could be true.
The mainstream consensus would probably read somewhat like this: we have no idea what's causing the bushfires, or even if they are out of the ordinary. While some on the left say that it's global warming and coal (and, by definition, in Australia, people who hold that climate change is true and coal mining is irresponsible would be “the left”; much like how, according to the Murdoch press, the Australian inner cities and university campuses are full of “Marxists”, most of whom in reality wouldn't know historical materialism from a halal snack pack), other people may say it is the Lord punishing us for gay marriage/Womens' AFL/turning away from traditional values/shops being open on the Sabbath or something. (And note that this sentiment is attributed to “other people”; not “God-botherers”, “crazies” or “outer-suburban snake-handling pentecostal churches comprising the local Liberal Party branch”, but just other people; suburban battlers and daggy dads with MMM stickers on their Holdens; the Quiet Australians).
Or it could be just the way it has always been. Which, going forward, may become the official line. There is no global warming; it has always been like this. Just as there have always been
40° 45° 50° heatwaves, the Summer Smoke has always been a mildly annoying yet quintessentially Australian feature of life, like the intrepid blowflies. Don't listen to stories of clear-skied summers with maximum temperatures rarely touching the mid-40s, they will warn; much like tales of a vibrantly colourful Great Barrier Reef teeming with exotic fish, or public-service ads telling kids they can play outside if they put on a shirt, some sunscreen and a hat, those are a fantasy with a sinister political agenda behind it, spread by ratbags and troublemakers.