The Null Device
In other news, today was the Australian federal election, and another Labor landslide that dissolved into thin air upon contact with reality, with a terminally unpopular conservative government romping home to a resounding victory. You can almost set your clock by them.
One can ask a lot of questions, and a lot of questions will be asked: were Labor too radical, alienating the Silent-Majority-Of-Suburban-Battlers who love their big cars and cheap coal-fired electricity and can't stand lefty ratbags from the inner city telling them how to live their life, or too timid, not giving Australian voters a Whitlam-scale vision of change to get behind? Was Labor leader Bill Shorten a terminal black hole of charisma? Did the traditionally left-leaning Fairfax papers' new ownership shift the balance? Did the conservatives cross the line by doing a preference deal with out-and-proud racists, or have they always been where they are? Was there ever a time when the quiet part was not said out loud? And so on.
One question that should be asked though is: why is it that, in Australian federal politics, the ALP is constantly poised for a barnstorming victory, except on the actual electoral night when it collapses like a sandcastle? At this stage, the pollsters, pundits, commentators and betting markets have successfully predicted the last four out of one ALP federal election victories. Is this just the ”shy-Tory” phenomenon, of everybody wanting to pose as a high-minded altruist whilst keeping their tax bill down and their negative gearing profits coming in? Is it something more culturally specific, perhaps the larrikin/wowser dynamic at the heart of the Australian psyche, an innate blokey conservatism coupled with a desire to watch their betters ritually sweat and squirm in the face of potential defeat? Are elections, and the Labor Party, little more than a sort of ritual psychodrama, a festival in which the King is put on trial by the court jester and everybody gets to let off a bit of steam before getting down to the next three years of no-nonsense conservative governance? (Repeat until climate change obliterates all life on Earth, unless of course climate change is Marxist propaganda.)
In two days' time, things will once again come to a head. I am, of course, talking about the Eurovision final. Unfortunately, I will not be able to view it live due to prior commitments, so I took the liberty of watching what I could of the semifinals (I am living in a country where Eurovision is taken about as seriously as football is in Australia, and the broadcasts don't begin and end on the final night) and artist videos; here are my impressions.
The talk of this year's contest is, of course, Iceland's Hatari. They dress like BDSM gimps, all muscle, latex and spikes, and sound like something Wax Trax put out around 1990. Their name means The Haters and their song is about the triumph of hate over all (in Icelandic). They hail from Iceland, but they also hail from a parallel universe where MDMA was never discovered and psytrance never displaced hard EBM from the goth clubs. They also are provocateurs—they're essentially Laibach on goofballs—and went to Tel Aviv partly if not wholly to expound at every opportunity about what rotters their hosts are to the Palestinians; apparently the EBU have warned them numerous times and are at the end of their tether, so it remains to be seen who, if anyone, blinks. If they stay in, they could well end up taking the prize. See you at Harpa in 2020?
Another contender with a solid chance is Australia's Kate Miller-Heidke, whose act is equal parts Kate Bush, Frozen and the stunt sequences from Mad Max: Fury Road; she also has a really good voice, and may be the one to win it for Australia.
There were a number of other noteworthy entrants. Norway's starts as trancy club-pop, but then a bald guy appears and intones some words in a baritone, and we're in the realm of arctic shamanism, with sweeping auroras and lo-poly reindeer totems. Germany have some deceptively nice-sounding pop with somewhat dark lyrics. Sweden have a soulful ballad erupting into the standard chorus breakdown, with house piano and melismatic backing vocals; the singer also wrote the UK's song, and another Swede is representing Estonia. Denmark brought the hygge with a slightly twee number, sung partly in French. Czechia are represented by Lake Malawi, who are named after a Bon Iver song, though don't sound the least bit woodsy; their entry is jittery, funky electropop with Mondrian-coloured visuals and perhaps a touch of Parklife. Also funky is San Marino, with a slice of electro chanson, delivered by a Turkish artist based in Germany. Meanwhile, both Malta and Switzerland combined reggaeton beats with middle eastern riffs.
A number of notable contenders fell short of the grand final. Georgia brought the weird intensity usually associated with Romania; moonlit mountains, black-clad wraiths in the mist, columns of flame, and a singer with a manbun singing about, at a guess, blood vendettas or something; a song best appreciated with a shot of something that burns the throat. Romania, meanwhile, toned down their characteristic weirdness to 90s-Depeche-Mode levels. Croatia had a chap named Roko, in a white suit, surrounded by digitally projected hellfire and abseiling angels, which makes one wonder whether this is some kind of AI cult propaganda. If he ends up working with Grimes, all bets are off. Ireland's entry was stylishly retro, echoing midcentury American cool. Latvia entered Grand Salvo/Sodastream territory with their double bass, pastoral guitars and brushed drums. And Israel seemed to go for the Conchita Wurst factor with their torch song about transcendence and empowerment, delivered in an operatic voice.
Then there is the UK. What can one say? They're not utterly awful this time; they're not deliberately talking down to Johnny Foreigner and sending in a light entertainment troupe from a provincial Butlin's lest anyone accuse them of taking it seriously. Their entry is a slick, saccharine big-hearted ballad, delivered by an Everylad who looks like he was decanted from a vat at the Ed Sheeran manufacturing plant a few days ago. It grasps with thick fingers at the heartstrings and gives them an unsubtle tug. And, in doing so, it pulls out all stops: the soaring choruses, the backing choirs, the truck driver's gear change, over a heartwarming video telling a story about teenage travails somewhere up north, shot partly in slow motion. There is technical polish, but little finesse; one can tell that, with the audience on the other side of the Channel, Britain has all the rapport of Theresa May proposing a Brexit deal, and hence no better options than to throw a load of sentimental goop over and hope for the best..
I don't think the UK should win on merit, because there are many better songs in the final this year. Though I do think that if everyone in Europe gave Britain douze points, forcing them to host Eurovision in the first year of the Farage/Rees-Mogg administration, that would easily be the most epic troll in the history of the contest. On merit, however, my vote would be with Iceland, or failing that, Australia or Czechia.
As 2018 comes to an end, here is once again my list of records of the past year:
- Belle & Sebastian — How To Solve Our Human Problems
This year brought another Belle & Sebastian album with it, and Belle & Sebastian fans know what to expect. gently folky moments (Fickle Season), groovy mood pieces (the bipartite Everything Is Now), soul strings (Too Many Tears), not to mention titles like “A Plague On Other Boys” (which sounds not unlike one would expect a Belle & Sebastian song by that title to sound; file this one alongside Lord Anthony and The Cat With The Cream).
The album opens with Sweet Dew Lee, in which Stevie wistfully reopens the wounds of an unrequited crush twenty years on, tormenting himself with what-could-have-beens and parallel-universe hypotheticals (hey, we've all been there), over a bed of bossa-esque guitar and analogue synth fuzz. The second track, We Were Beautiful, which is sonically probably the closest we'll get to Belle & Sebastian's foray into drum'n'bass, continues the theme of wistfully looking back on lost youth. Meanwhile, Best Friend is a classic B&S comedy of manners about flat-sharing, adulting and trying not to fall in love. (At times, the Belle and Sebastian universe sounds like a terrifying place, with romantic love being everywhere, seeping through the cracks like a gas, every glance crackling with oddly chaste sexual electricity.)
- Carpenter Brut — LEATHER TEETH (Bandcamp)
Carpenter Brut are, in a sense, the anti-M83. Both bands hail from France, a culture that stands apart from the currents of Anglo-American pop culture, engaging with them on its own terms, and both bands trade in a French-made vision of fantasy-America. Though while M83's America takes its cues from John Hughes soundtracks, with its pastel-hued high-school romances and subcultural cliques, Carpenter Brut's America is a darker one, made from 1980s low-budget VHS horror films and Reagan-era paranoia about Satanic cults. A trio comprised of a keyboard player (with a stack of analogue synths), a heavy-metal guitarist and a drummer, their music falls at the more dystopian end of the “synthwave” genre (as the name suggests, synthesist and horror auteur John Carpenter was an influence, though far from the only one); the closest comparison I can think of is San Diego's Street Cleaner.
Some tracks on LEATHER TEETH have lyrics, whose sometimes stilted phrasing adds to their over-the-top shlock (sample: “beware the beast inside your heart, when you're dancing in the dark, and the night's desire is burning with the Devil's fire”), while others serve to soundtrack movie scenes left to the listener's imagination (those who see them live get a visual aid in the form of video projections of imaginary movie fragments, presumably filmed at considerable effort by the band and their collaborators; expect unrealistic fake blood, rows of high-school lockers and shots of lurid newspaper headlines). Leather Teeth is their second album, and includes collaborators including Ulver's Kristoffer Rygg.
- Dubstar — One
Dubstar were one of those bands of the 90s that were often lumped in with Saint Etienne; each juxtaposing the programmed beats and loops of hip-house and club pop with the an very English Dusty-Springfield-meets-Emma-Peel retro-cool, in each case delivered with vintage sang-froid by a Sarah. Unlike their southern opposite numbers, though, they disappeared around the turn of the millennium, with Sarah going on to the electroclash project Client and a number of industriogoth collaborations. Now, after almost two decades, they're back.
Musically, One starts more or less where they left off, give or take a few decades of life experience. They're a duo now, without the chap who did the drum/sampler/sequencer programming, and so their music sounds less sequenced. The subject matter has kept up with the authors' age, and themes of divorces, legal injunctions (actual and as a metaphor) and drama at school gates come up in the characteristically wry lyrics about stereotypically knotty situations. Blackwood's (possibly unreliable) narrator will be familiar from the “Not So Manic Now” era: wry and a bit intense; just the song titles (“Why Don't You Kiss Me”, ”You Were Never In Love”, “Please Stop Leaving Me Alone”) bespeak the persona of a romantic actor who pursues her interests with the single-minded drive of the Terminator and, when things have gone south, writes a postmortem for the dalliance, replete with arch wordplay.
In any case, the songs are all as catchy and compelling as the best of their first run. It's hard to pick highlights, but some might include “I Hold Your Heart” with it's Northern-soul stomp, “Waltz No. 9”, in triplet-time and second person, describes the listener's disintegrating life and foretells their imminent downfall, and the icily synthpoppy “Locked Inside”, or the bracing bucket of cold water that is “You Were Never In Love”. The album ends with “Mantra”, a 6½-minute track building to a climax of repeated wordless vocals, fuzzed guitar; I bet they could get a few extra minutes out of it live.
- Haiku Salut — There Is No Elsewhere (Bandcamp)
Haiku Salut make lovely, subtle soundscapes, and their third album is no exception. Haiku Salut's combination of electronic and live sounds feels even more seamless than before; glitchy beats, warm drones, synth arpeggios and tiny fragments of sound of unknown provenance fuse with chromatic percussion, melodicas, horns and the Haikus' signature French accordion. The harmonies and melodies feel ever more intricate and evocative. Highlights include the pulsating The More and Moreness, the splendidly titled I Am Who I Remind You Of, a 7-minute journey through a soundscape of glockenspiel, accordion and electronic beats, and the closing track, the lovely, subtle Shadows. File alongside Mogwai, Amiina or Tortoise.
- Kero Kero Bonito — Time 'n' Place (Bandcamp)
The third album for the London J-pop trio is a somewhat skronkier affair; the songs are still melodious pop songs, redolent more of Harajuku than the Bromley bedroom they were recorded in, but the super-smooth PC Music-esque affectations are replaced by something somewhat less clean; chunky guitar riffage, vaporwavey digital synths and the odd YMCK-esque chiptune arpeggio and digital noise breakdown, slathered with reverb and distortion. Which echoes the record's anxious themes: songs about identity crises in the Instagram-influencer era, depression and worries about the precarious future. Highlights include the retro-styled baroque pop of Dear Future Self and the third-wall-breaking Only Acting.
- Klaus Johann Grobe — Du Bist So Symmetrisch (Bandcamp)
Swiss electro-funk, you say? With lyrics in German, no less. Propelled by clunky bass guitar, warm'n'fuzzy monosynths, jazzy chords, funky riffs and drums (both live and programmed), Klaus Johann Grobe don't so much straddle the line between kitschy and funky as saunter playfully across it repeatedly. Like smooth midnight boogie-groove R&B stripped back to one-oscillator basics crossed with post-Can skronk and a touch of Kraftwerkian electropop, they present a sort of polyester modernism, conjuring up images of retrofuturistic mitteleuropäisch nightclubs at some point in the past half-century. Highlights include Zu Spät, which is the smoothest thing in at least one parallel universe, and the closing track, An Diesem Abend, a mighty grüv juggernaut which brings das Haus down.
- Kosmischer Läufer — Volume 4 (Bandcamp)
The fourth chapter of Drew McFadyen's Ostalgisch krautrock project, coming years after the first three, as we all began to despair of the prospect of finding any more of Martin Zeichnete's tapes. Were this a real rerelease of actual long-lost East German Kosmische Musik, we'd be faced with the prospect of all the good stuff having been released, and the remainders being off-cuts, fragments and curios. It's not, though, and so each volume improves on the previous ones. the main part of Volume Four follows the preceding volumes in themes, providing Cluster/Harmonia/La Düsseldorf-style electronic instrumentals, ostensibly conceived for the DDR's Olympic athletes' training; here we have motorik beats and the odd Kraftwerk-esque synthesiser melody, at a methodical 150BPM. The second half, though, takes the form of a visualisation programme, ostensibly to bring focus to the athletes' minds; in place of the propulsive rhythm are ambient synthesiser drones and arpeggios, with a female voice reading out instructions. As ambient music, it works rather nicely; and perhaps future discoveries of Zeichnete's works will be those in this vein?
- Let's Eat Grandma — I'm All Ears (Bandcamp)
The teenage duo's second album is somewhat more polished affair, though with their own distinctive authorial voice. While previously they did everything themselves, here they bring onboard collaborators, most prominently The Horrors' Faris Badwan and PC Music artist SOPHIE, learn the tricks and terms of art of mass-market pop music and turn them to their own ends. The latter's influence can be heard in the poppier tracks, such as the single Hot Pink, with its J-pop-tinged girl-power R&B, only somewhat askew and with a Norfolk accent.
While they have embraced the polish and artifice of pop production and added it to their formidable repertoire, they have not been subsumed by it, either thematically or stylistically. Their songs avoid the standard pop clichés—the love ballads, party anthems and melodramas of heartbreak and betrayal—and instead use the pop-song idiom to their own ends, with word-pictures of an inner life, with its passing thoughts and feelings. Stylistically, some songs, like It's Not Just Me and Falling Into Me, play with the elements of electropop to varying extents; others find a different way, like the bluesy 6/8-time Snakes & Ladders. Cool And Collected, a meditation on the anxiety of admiring (or perhaps fancying) someone, starts off with arid guitarwork reminiscent of Pygmalion-era Slowdive; and perhaps the highlight of the album for me is Ava, an understated piano ballad about a friend struggling with mental-health issues, which shows that Let's Eat Grandma are not beholden to their well-honed maximalism. The closer is the 11-minute Donnie Darko, the long, vaguely Underworldesque track familiar from their live shows, its techno pulse now underpinned with guitar riffing.
Also, there's the best use of a purring cat on a record since Loney Dear's “The Year Of River Fontana”, so there is that.
- Montero — Performer (Bandcamp)
The new record from musician and illustrator Bjenny Montero, and his first since moving to Athens (Greece, not Georgia) embraces the luscious maximalism and all-analogue artifice of 70s-vintage soft rock, wedding it to the vulnerability of his comics.
The first track, Montero Airlines, starts with eight bars of minor-key piano chords; then the big drums kick in and Ben's vocals, with a cry for help; “it's not good for me to be all alone right now”. By the time we get to the verse, we learn that part of him needs a part of you and not just any boy is going to do. Another verse and chorus, and then the song switches into the ending, a jingle for the titular airline, wrought into an epic build-up of chorused vocals, drum breakdowns and multiple chiming guitars. The second song, Aloha, is even more envelopingly lush, all chiming guitars, vocal harmonies and an key change that feels like taking off into the sunset in a seaplane.
The album continues in this vein, with flangers, Frippian talkbox, electric pianos, Mellotron strings, and beds of backing harmonies. Montero, it seems, is both a connoisseur of vintage pop and a perfectionist in the studio, build up lavish pocket symphonies out of everyday anxieties and melancholies. Caught Up In My Own World starts with Rhodes piano and flanged vocals, the choruses blooming in an explosion of chorused guitar and vocal aahs. Running Race builds up a lush soundscape around a kernel of self-doubt (“deep inside of me, no-one's home”), ornamenting it with classic psychedelic pop. Tokin' The Night Away is basically what it sounds like, a stoner anthem realised as if on a 1970s recording budget; “Destiny” brings a somewhat goofy rock-opera bombast, sounding like the musical number in which the mephistophelian villain tries to convince the hero to join him. The closing track, Pilot starts with a funky bassline and bongo-led groove, and cruises smoothly along before soaring to a climax that brings the house down on the album. It is also probably also the only song ever written referencing both the lights of LA and “Desperate and Dateless”. In any case, Performer is smooth sailing, and the biggest (by some definitions) Australian psychedelic pop record since Tame Impala. There's none more shmoopy!
- Moon Gangs — Earth Loop (Bandcamp)
The first album-length release from analogue ambient electronic project Moon Gangs elaborates on the direction of his two EPs, though in a deeper, darker direction. Made with a bench of analogue synthesisers and sequencers played live, the result is luminous, foreboding cinematic soundscapes somewhere between Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter, replete with coruscating arpeggios, saturated sawtooth drones, skittering white noise and epic reverb tails. Highlights include Familiar Machines (which sounds like a more analogue Ben Frost) and the majestic Sea Circles, a 6½-minute megastructure of grandeur.
- Them Are Us Too — Amends and SRSQ — Unreality
This year's twinned albums; the young Bay Area dreampop duo Them Are Us Too, tragically, were mentioned here in 2016, in the context of one of them, Cash Askew, having died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. At the time, they had been working on new recordings; some time later, these were reworked with the involvement of surviving member Kennedy Ashlyn, Telefon Tel Aviv producer Joshua Eustis and Askew's girlfriend and stepfather; which eventually was worked into the Amends EP, and released this year. Ashlyn went on to a solo project, SRSQ, also releasing a record later this year.
Both records have their roots in 1980s dreampop/sophistipop, with a sound somewhere between the Cocteau Twins and Julee Cruise, with perhaps fragments of other things (The Cure? Giorgio Moroder?) shining through. Amends feels the more whole, with Askew's dreamlike guitarwork floating over the synth pads and underpinning Ashlyn's Fraserequely aethereal vocals. It starts with the sublime Angelene, its icy synth arpeggios, filter-sweep pads, gated drum machine and judicious use of tape delay setting Ashlyn's soaring soprano in an ornate frame worthy of Laura Palmer. The velvet darkness starts to close in with Grey Water, which ventures deeper into Cocteaus territory. Floor, with its rapid-fire drum machine, jagged guitar lines and Ashlyn's vocals soaring like if Siouxsie had been an actual banshee, could have probably filled the floor of a goth club 30 years ago. The final, title track, with its reverbed drums, synth pads, Ashlyn's soaring soprano and Askew's sublimely jagged guitarwork, is a fitting ending, providing a pastel-hued sunset for Them Are Us Too's closing credits, and giving an illusion of closure.
Closure, however, is not how the real world works, which is evident in Ashlyn's debut as SRSQ, an album haunted by loss (SRSQ's Bandcamp page describes the project as “griefwave”). The album feels like a journey: starting with FM bells, vast reverb and an almost Dead Can Dance-esque sense of the transcendent, before the familiar 808 snap and sawtooth arpeggios kick in, going through ethereal dreampop (Cherish, which sounds like a synth-driven Cocteaus, and the Badalamenti-esque Procession), descending into a valley of shadow, of plaintive vocal lines and electronic drones, before emerging with the soaring, luminous climax of Only One. Askew's guitars, of course, are absent; instead, there are rich layers of electronics (mostly lush, though in places raw and harsh) beneath Ashlyn's majestic soprano. There is, of course, a void and a sense of loss, but also, one feels, a sense of mystery and hints of the sacred encoded in the aural language of the record; beyond the FM bells, expansive 80s-style reverbs and overtone-rich analogue synth timbres reminiscent of pipe organs coalesce to evoke the sensation of a cathedral-like space, there are, echoes of the score for a certain TV show, perhaps our secular society's closest thing to sacred mystery. One gets the feeling that this is not so much stylised genre pop music, such as, say, “dreampop” or “synthwave”, as something more transcendent crafted from its elements.
- Die Wilde Jagd — Uhrwald Orange (Bandcamp)
Die Wilde Jagd (The Wild Hunt) are a duo, originally from Düsseldorf, but now based in Berlin. Uhrwald Orange (“Clockwood Orange” in English) is their second album, and falls somewhere between electronic and post-rock. It is mostly instrumental, with half the tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes in length and none shorter than six, though a few with lyrics sounding not unlike a German Velvet Underground. The tracks tend to evolve and progress, like hypnotic meditations of layered rhythms and textures; slightly too languid to be labelled “motorik”, with pulsing synthesisers, sitars, spaghetti-western guitars and the odd field recording. Highlights include the 15-minute “Kreuzgang”, which starts off like a library-music take on Joy Division-style post-punk bleakness before setting the controls for an altogether more cosmic void.
With honourable mentions going to: Beach House, 7 (somewhat busier than their previous albums, though with the familiar dreamy haze; Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember was involved in the production), Blood Wine Or Honey, Fear & Celebration (psychedelic Afrobeat/Tropicalia-tinged party grooves from Hong Kong, of all places; sounds in places like NO ZU, only even more lit), Cale Sexton, Melondrama (808 and 303-intensive electronic grooves, with enough atmosphere to not get boring or require pills to enjoy; reminiscent of some of Aphex Twin's Polygon Window work in places, only dubbier), Camp Cope, How To Socialise & Make Friends (choppy/skronky yet melodious Melbourne indie rock fuelled by MeToo-era rage and knowing when to go rough-as-guts; reminiscent in places of Origami or Bidston Moss), Caroline No, Swimmers EP (understated rock'n'roll balladeering from Caroline Kennedy (of The Tulips and 90s alt-rockers Deadstar) and friends), Cavern of Anti-Matter, Hormone Lemonade (the follow-up to 2016’s Void Beats is literally a more stripped-back affair, built up over rhythms from Holger Zapf’s homemade drum machines, overlaid with layers of analogue synths, guitars and noise generators), Clue To Kalo, There's No Radio/In The All-Night Bakery At Dawn (a joyously maximalistic electropop song, reminiscent of Caribou or Panda Bear), Empty Files, Shadows (a.k.a. NIN goes to the hipster disco), Phil France, Circle (warm analogue electronic instrumentals, too chilled to dance to, but with more happening beneath the surface; not too far from Jon Brooks' analogue pastorals), Frankie Teardrop Dead, All You Need Is Love And Fucking Peace (above-average contemporary psych-rock, with above-average self-awareness (for one, they're not named “Underground Jesus” or “Acid Death Cult” or something); titles include “Joy In Division” and “Lost Member Of A Fake Boyband“; expect fuzzed-out guitar and chorused vocals), Fufanu, The Dialogue Series (The Icelandic electropop band's latest effort, originally released as several EPs; has its ups and downs, but some nice tracks like Typical Critical), Hatchie, Sugar & Spice (the début record from Brisbane teenager Harriette Pilbeam is a short slice of catchy shoegaze-tinged pop that evokes the likes of The Sundays; one to watch), The KVB,Only Now Forever (Reverbed vocals in an understated croon, the cold snap of analogue drum machines and layers of guitars and pulsing synths baked into a warm fuzz; combining the cold feeling of post-punk with analogue fuzz, The KVB deal in a sort of kraut-goth-psych-pop, somewhere between Darklands-era Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division at their most detached and motorik, with perhaps a nod to Berlin-era Bowie), Melbourne Cans, Heat of the Night (more Melbourne indie-rock, with shimmering guitars and vintage affectations; i.e., Heart Turned Blue, a slab of rock'n'roll noir not directly inspired by Twin Peaks, and the Be My Baby-quoting Followed Home), Midday Static, Dreamcatcher (guitar and beat-driven ambience from one guy in Tulsa, Oklahoma; if you like Robin Guthrie and Ulrich Schnauss, you might like this), New War, Coin (broadly in a post-punk vein, yet somewhat more expansive in tone; angular yet dubby with biting basslines, urgently yelped vocals, and more than the average amount of synth atmospherics; reminiscent in places of Dogs In Space), Örvar Smárason, Light Is Liquid (The solo début from Örvar, of renowned Icelandic bands múm and FM Belfast; chilled, glitchy beats, icy pads, warm electronics, leftfield techno and vocals chopped up, vocoded and processed to within an inch of their life; highlights include Flesh and Dreams and the closer Cthulhu Regio), Red Red Eyes, Horology (Laura from Betty And The Werewolves' new band goes into post-Lynchian territory; echoes of Death And Vanilla or Sir), Say Sue Me, Where We Were Together (fuzzy, jangly, indiepop from Busan, South Korea, evocative of C86/Sarah indie in places; Old Town could be twinned with Anorak City), Soft Regime, “Hard Feelings” (An EP of bright, hyper-saturated electropop songs about holidays in Europe, aging socialites and the magic of dance music; ⅓ of Soft Regime is Tim Benton, of indie-electro heroes Baxendale, and Dickon Edwards (of Orlando, Fosca and a renowned online diary) guests on one song), The Spook School, Could It Be Different? (their third record and first on Slumberland; melodiously skronky tweecore with a theme of defiant resilience and the power to fill indiepop dance floors), Tangents, New Bodies (dubby/jazzy/skronky post-post-rock atmospherics with live instruments and electronics), Tigercats, Pig City (Tigercats go deeper into afrobeat territory, with a record of largely kalimba- and horn-section-driven grooves, reinventing Limehouse as a sort of futuristic Nairobi-on-Thames, informal spaces in the shadow of concrete structures, pulsing with a tight beat and as antifa as Gritty), Mr. Twin Sister, Salt (the latest from the Long Island group, combines chilled electronics and soulful vocals (with, at times, stylistic amounts of AutoTune), covering a stylistic gamut between drum'n'bass, jazzy R&B à la Sadé, cyborg neo-soul and dub; impeccably smooth), Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Dirt (The Toronto band’s third album manages to be both weightlessly ethereal and ultra-heavy, combining prog-rock intricacy with elements of metal and lovesliescrushing-esque shoegaze), You Drive, You Drive (impeccably cool synthwave pop, with luminous electronics and icily detached female vocals, from Nashville of all places).
As always, there were noteworthy things from previous years I only discovered this year. This year's ones were Cigarettes After Sex (whom I ignored the first time around, partly because their name made them sound like some kind of dumb hipster marketing gimmick, but was blown away by at Primavera; languid, atmospheric songs of contingent love, somewhere between The Velvet Underground, Mazzy Star and Slowdive) and Client Liaison (groovy 80s-style electropop, impeccably executed, with stage presence to match; also discovered at Primavera).
Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Montero, Dubstar or Them Are Us Too; it's a tough choice this year.
In any case, there is a Spotify playlist here.
To the surprise of exactly nobody, Australia’s Labor party agree to pass the mandatory encryption back-door bill, after the usual pantomime of token opposition.
The bill will allow the government to demand technical measures to allow access to encrypted content. The ALP stress that it will include safeguards, ensuring it is only used for matters of national security. It also has provisions preventing it from being used to mandate the introduction of “systematic weaknesses”, the definition of a “systematic weakness” being whatever the Attorney-General and Communications Minister agree it is or isn’t.
Labor’s spokespeople, resplendent in their progressive pragmatism, assure us that there’s no need to worry, that they have exacted strict safeguards as conditions of their support, requiring not one but two cabinet-level ministers to decide what isn’t a systematic weakness, and requiring that technical surveillance capabilities are mandated only for the most serious of cases (i.e., “OMG Paedoterrorists!”-level threats), with the non-terrorist/non-paedophile majority’s privacy assured as always. And perhaps the Australian political process, renowned worldwide as it is for its high calibre, has managed to, in secret committee, produce a perfectly square circle, a magical golden key that can only be wielded against evildoers and is impervious to abuse, misuse or negligence. (Or at least to the standards of the Australian law of “no worries, she’ll be right mate”; i.e., “I’m not a Muslim, a commo, femmo, pinko, greenie, bikie, trade unionist or any other kind of ratbag, or involved a cop’s ex-missus or anything, and neither are most people, therefore there are no possible problems worth thinking about”)
Of course, the much vaunted safeguards apply only to ordering companies to implement back doors; once the back door has been implemented, it’s there for any subsequent use: everybody’s WhatsApp messages, by law, have an escrowed key that ASIO’s computers can use to automatically decrypt and store them. If Australia’s metadata retention regime is anything to go by, the number of agencies with access to this will only grow. Within 12 months, copyright holders will use this to detect and prosecute someone sending an illegally downloaded TV show episode to a friend, or using a VPN to circumvent pirate site blocks; six months later, local councils will be trawling the plaintext of everyone’s iMessage conversations to find litterers and dog-poo violators. The government will, of course, have a much easier time of bringing the hammer down on troublesome journalists seeking to embarrass them, and anybody even considering talking to them. Meanwhile, somewhere in Queensland, a cop will have an easier time getting a hold of his estranged wife and the new man in her life. And a few years later, when mass surveillance of anything held on network-connected electronics is the new normal, some politician or public servant, impressed by the efficacy of China’s social-credit system or a PowerPoint presentation from Palantir, will suggest a system to aggregate everybody’s plaintext and analyse it to find as yet unidentified potential threats, by assigning everybody a “true-blue Aussie score” based on their chats, photos and file backups and making a list of those with suspiciously low ones. (Bonus card: the Russian mafiya quietly crack the ASIO key-escrow system and spend a few months feeding the plaintext of every Australian’s data into their databases, before embarking on a continent-scale automated extortion campaign.)
Meanwhile, the other four members of Five Eyes will be lining up to send their decryption requests through Canberra; sometimes, having a member of your club which is still, for all administrative purposes, a penal colony and military strongpoint of Empire, where there is by definition no right to privacy from Authority, can be useful.