The Null Device
As one of his final official acts, US President Obama has commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former intelligence analyst who leaked classified video of drone pilots massacring civilians, to time served. Now all that Manning has to do is survive the next four months in prison under the total control of a fundamentally hostile administration and she'll be free. The usual hawks are apoplectic.
Of course, we have the selfless Julian Assange to thank for this; were it not for his pledge to surrender to extradition to the US in exchange for clemency for Manning, this may or may not have happened. Though now, Assange seems to be backing away from his commitments, saying that Obama's offer of clemency does not meet the conditions of his offer, in that Manning will not be released immediately. Perhaps he'll surrender in May, when Manning is scheduled to walk free; in which case, his sentence may be to play Robin to Rudolph Giuliani's Batman in the Trump administration's Department of Cyber; the job may involve taking orders from an 11-year-old “special advisor”.
Pointedly left out of any option of clemency is, of course, Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker/hero-and/or-traitor currently holed up in Moscow. Russia has apparently extended his visa for another three years, though that could well be a feint, and he could be in restraints on a light plane to the US as an inauguration present. If he is convicted and the timings of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case are anything to go by, he would be likely to be executed in 2020, as the monster-truck-rally spectacle of Trump's second-term campaign cranks up, and as much heat and noise as possible is called for. Assange may find himself guest of honour at Snowden's execution, an invitation without the option of refusal, whose purpose will be to underscore the fact that he is not relieved of his obligations to his handlers, and that bad things happen to you if you cross Trump/Putin. (Later, rumours will emerge that the firing squad was ordered to aim at the wrong side of Snowden's chest, a death traditionally reserved for particularly unpopular deposed dictators in Latin America.)
It's the last day of another year, and time to take stock of the year's musical releases once again:
ANOHNI — Hopelessness (BandCamp)
Formerly known as Antony Hegarty (of The Johnsons), ANOHNI is back, and she's angry. She has swapped the wyrd-folk trappings of her earlier career for electronic beats (produced in collaboration with Hudson Mohawke); the result is an album of songs, each taking on a different target, such as global warming and climate denialism (4 Degrees), NSA mass surveillance (Watch Me), the US's attachment, alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia and North Korea, to capital punishment (Execution) and drone-based targeted killings (Drone Bomb Me); over beats and synthesizer sequences, she sings resonantly, embracing the evil with scathing sarcasm, at one moment imploring to be killed as a gospel singer would for salvation, and at another welcoming the mass extinction of entire ecosystems and the burning of the world with demented glee. Some tracks have stood the test of time less well, though; Obama, a scathing excoriation of the outgoing president's failures delivered in a low monotone set to stark electronic drones and pounding drums, will look like a grim joke in the coming years; even more so if one counts the possibility that its sentiment may have helped swing crucial votes away from Clinton. (Perhaps, once they round up all the liberals in America and put them in camps, this will play on a loop on the loudspeakers?)
The Avalanches — Wildflower
A herculean feat of crate-digging and mixing—hunting down countless tonnes of obscure vinyl, sampling elements from them, and blending them into just over an hour of seamlessly chilled groove-collages—that has been some 16 years in the making (though, to be fair, a significant proportion of that was probably sorting out of sample clearance rights). The result is a soup of breakbeats, flute trills, rich strings, clunking basses, orchestral segments and vocals, chopped, looped, processed with judicious reverb and the occasional touch of phasing or delay. Several of the tracks feature guest performances from rappers, including Oakland oddball Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. Also, this is probably the most American cultural product from any Australians not named Baz Lurhmann; there's nothing on the record alluding at its Antipodean origins; instead, there's a sort of displaced-nostalgic reverie for the fabled fifty states as imagined by Australian kids brought up on a diet of American television and music, a magical land of golden summers, cool cars, snappy dialogue and brightly coloured breakfast cereals. This Aussie fantasy-America is, due to being constructed from original materials, slightly more real than the neon-hued French fantasy-America conjured by the likes of M83, but nonetheless differs interestingly from the real thing, as places seen from outside tend to do.
beGun — AMMA (BandCamp)
beGun is a producer from Barcelona, and AMMA is 11 tracks of chilled sequenced melodic electronic soundscapes, building up out of layers of warm synth pads, bass lines, subbass drones, melodic lines, FM texture sparse beats and the odd thumb piano, field recording and vocal sample (mostly from African traditional music, it seems. If you like that sort of thing done well (and this is), check them out.
Cavern of Anti-Matter — Void Beats/Invocation Trex
The new band from Tim Gane and Joe Dilworth of the massively influential Stereolab veers off in a post-krautrock direction; metronomic, hypnotic rhythms, patterns and electronic treatments (one of their members is synth wizard Holger Zapf). The opening track, Tardis Cymbals is almost 13 minutes of TR-x0x percussion and synth loops in ¹⁴⁄₁₆ time or similar, with processed guitars and synths coming in and out over that, and could easily have been ten minutes longer. Blowing My Nose Under Close Observation continues in the motorik/electronic vein, albeit is shorter and in the more familiar ⁴⁄₄ time. More familiarly Stereolabesque elements emerge in the third track Insect Fear, with its phased drum loop and overdriven Farfisa chords echoing something from the Transient Random Noise Bursts era, and later in Echolalia; one almost expects to hear Lætitia singing about the human condition. Of course, she doesn't, and to Cavern's credit, nor does any other French-accented female vocalist show up and attempt to fill her place. There are, however, other guest appearances; Bradford Cox of Deerhunter sings on Liquid Gate, taking it into New Order-meets-Doves territory, and perennial psychonaut Sonic Boom expounds impenetrable theories of planetary folklore, neat and through a vocoder, over layers of synth arpeggios and treated guitars and cymbals on the track titled, appropriately, Planetary Folklore. Much of the rest of the record consists of combinations of similar elements: synthesiser arpeggios, metronomic rhythms; texture and repetition, closing with the lullaby-like Zone Null. Void Beats/Invocation Trex plants its flag firmly in the psychedelic/kosmische space, though manages to avoid sounding derivative or too in thrall to any specific influences, even Stereolab. A good contender the psych/kosmische record of the year.
The Chandler Estate — Infrastructure EP (BandCamp), and My Favorite, Christine Zero/Killed For Kicks (BandCamp),
Two uneasy halves of the Long Island new-wave cult heroes My Favorite, who (in their original incarnation) broke up some ten years ago. The current My Favorite is the project of frontman Michael Grace Jr., a self-styled Sicilian-American Mod/Goth/Morrissey acolyte, and Christine Zero is coruscating new-wave synthpop about a recurring theme of his, the intense lives and deaths of life's misfits (Grace, in his vocal delivery, gives a nod to David Bowie on this record, as he did to Bryan Ferry on the single that preceded it). Meanwhile, The Chandler Estate is the new band of My Favorite's angelic-voiced former frontwoman Andrea Vaughn, breaking almost a decade's silence; the first track, Spies No More is like Homeless Club Kids Part 2, ten years later, and yet as urgent and poignant and aflame with the sublime anguish of being alive as always (“so with the kid on my hip I'm asking you to dance / let's put the kid in the crib, it could be our last chance”). Let's hope there is more to come.
David Bowie — ★, and Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
Of the titans of music who left the world in this year's musical Gotterdämmerung, Bowie and Leonard Cohen released albums shortly before doing so, and in both cases, the albums were, judged aside from their finality, local high-water marks of the artists' late periods; had providence seen fit to accord Bowie and Cohen a few more years each, both ★ and You Want It Darker would have stood up solidly in their careers.
★ (or Blackstar, where Unicode isn't available), coming out three days before Bowie's death, raised eyebrows even before its significance became starkly apparent; eschewing the retro-rock nostalgia of its predecessor, the conspicuously self-quoting The Next Day, Bowie also broke from his regular collaborators, instead recruiting a then relatively unknown experimental jazz ensemble fronted by Donny McCaslin. The result is bold and uneasy; the titular opening track evokes a non-electronic Kid A for its first four minutes, then emerging into more melodically familiar, yet still lyrically oblique, Bowie balladeering. The secret the notoriously private Bowie was carrying emerges, in retrospect in places: in the claustrophobic edginess of Lazarus, and most obviously, the elegiac Dollar Days, where the New York-based Bowie laments the prospect of never seeing the English evergreens again, before telling the world (“I'm dying to... / I'm dying, too”); this is followed, chronologically and thematically, by the upbeat I Can't Give Everything Away, ending in a fade-out, as if truncated by circumstance before its time to end.
Cohen's final album is less oblique or experimental, but nonetheless a bold statement from an artist in command of his great talents to the end. Varying in style from old-time soul/rock balladry (On The Level and the almost Lynch/Badalamenti-esque Leaving The Table) to darker, starker sounds (the sparse, bone-dry It Seemed The Better Way with its violin, Hammond organ and minimal bass guitar, and the titular opener, with its synagogue choir). Cohen's aged voice adds a smoky darkness and the gravitas of someone who has made his accommodations, on whatever terms, with the all-devouring Chronos; the subject matter tends towards the human condition; the complexities of relationships (Treaty), devotion (If I Didn't Have Your Love) and a foreshadowing of mortality (Leaving The Table). Cohen's wise way with words will be missed.
Kero Kero Bonito — Bonito Generation
Kero Kero Bonito are a London-based trio, fronted by an Anglo-Japanese frontwoman, Sarah Midori Perry, and connected with the millennial club-pop powerhouse PC Music. Bonito Generation, their second album, is a polished affair, consisting of 12 playful, immaculately produced electropop songs, mostly in English, though with the odd verse in Japanese, about subjects like taking snapshots, graduating from university, the challenges and possibilities offered by big cities and the joys of idleness. The sound is crisp and glossy, shining like the neon of Shibuya, and borrowing heavily from the sonic language of Japanese pop and Shibuya-kei, down to the layers of 90s-era digital synths and autotuned choruses. (The veneration of smallness in the songs—about things like fish in bowls, getting out of bed in the morning—also feels very Japanese; though lyrics celebrating slacking off and subverting the surface meaning of a song about education (“I didn't learn a thing anyway”) remind us that this is a product of Britain, not superlegitimate Japan.) Highlights include the exquisite J-pop of Big City, the 2-step-infused floor-filler Lipslap and the punchy, euphoric pop of Trampoline. This is an album in bold primary colours.
Let's Eat Grandma — I, Gemini
As the giants of music fell, one by one, over the past year, one could be forgiven for thinking that all that's left is X-Factor contestants, a thousand interchangeable forgettably tasteful hipster bands and Kanye West. Unless one sees Let's Eat Grandma, two 17-year-old girls from Norwich who have been making music together since they were 13, and who play about six instruments each. Well-versed in the idioms of pop music that they play with, they nonetheless do their own thing, unconstrained by commercial considerations; sometimes they eschew the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-8-chorus-gear-change pop song structure in favour of multipartite songs with instrument swaps, tempo changes and layers of melody and countermelody, and sometimes they just reclaim the recorder as an instrument for use in dance-pop. The next best thing to seeing them live, their debut album is proof that the kids are alright.
Lindstrøm - Windings (BandCamp)
Lindstrøm, along with his compatriot Todd Terje, are part of a new Norwegian school of house/electronica which is to mainstream dance music what the 1960s Batman TV series is to the big-budget cinema Batmen of recent decades; instead of the grim-faced muscularity of mainstream house and alpha-masculine swagger of brostep, there is a playfulness, a lightness of touch and a sense of palpable joy. His latest EP. Windings, is no exception; the three tracks, all between 6 and 9 minutes, motor on propelled by the 4/4 pulse of a vintage drum machine, into a landscape of analogue synth arpeggios, sequenced bass lines, sawtooth synth-brass stabs, filter pizzicatos and the odd keyboard solo, flowing and reflowing into melodies, all seasoned sparingly with the odd digital drum machine handclap and 808 cowbell for good measure. The three tracks, as the title suggests, wind their way through a sonic landscape at once familiar and novel.
Lush - Blind Spot
In 2016, the 1990s shoegaze quartet Lush briefly came back, released a new EP, spent most of a year playing gigs and festivals around the world, and then spit up again, returning to the underworld of defunct bands. The one musical artefact of this revenance was this EP, containing four new songs that are unmistakeably Lush. As I wrote about it when it came out, it could almost be considered as an artefact from a parallel universe, one in which the conditions existed for them to have avoided the alternative-rock/Britpop hype whirlpool, instead building on their ethereal-yet-spiky sound to an audience of fans; in that universe, something like that could have some out some time after Split. In this one, however, it came out 20 years after they broke up, and so the key difference is that the songs are from that point of view. The opening track, Out Of Control, seems to be about the fraught complexities of the relationship between a parent and a child on the cusp of adolescence, written with the straight-talking intimacy that the younger Lush reserved for more youthful forms of intense emotion. Lost Boy, meanwhile, is a poignant tribute to their drummer Chris Ackland, who took his own life in 1996, (“I feel your fingers slipping out of my hand / now I've lost you, where'd you go to”), and the void his death left. This is a powerful record, among Lush's finest work, and the fact of its existence is a bittersweet one; it's great that it exists, but also sad that this is, finally, the end.
The Radio Dept. - Running Out Of Love
The long-awaited return from the Swedish shoegaze-pop duo, last seen with an album six years earlier, aside from the occasional MP3 railing against fascism over electronic loops. As one might expect, the new album is a departure in several ways. Stylistically, the warm guitar fuzz and distortion-cooked beats have been (partly) replaced with cool, precise electronics (more specifically, with a reference point more specifically somewhere around Manchester, circa 1989); thematically, the wistfulness has been replaced by a righteous (if understated, in very Scandinavian ways) anger, at the rightward-leaning political situation, but also at their record label, Labrador and the injustice of recording contracts. (The latter has been resolved, the result being yet another imminent departure, for a label of their own.)
The short opening track, Sloboda Narodu (Serbo-Croat, I believe, for “freedom of the nation”) sounds familiar enough, with its languid guitar licks and conga loop, but the familiarity doesn't last long. Swedish Guns addresses Sweden's huge arms export industry and its incongruity with the country's vaunted humanitarian reputation; it takes the form of a sarcastic marketing jingle, in minor key, set to dubby electro backgrounds like a more downbeat Ace Of Bass (which may be in itself a reference to fascism). We Got Game is a dubbed-out piece of pop-house, apparently about protests and/or police brutality. Occupied, sounds somewhere between James Figurine's wintry electronica and 1980s New Order at their most detached, all chilly synth pads, sequenced basslines and 808 cowbells. Can't Be Guilty and This Thing Was Bound To Happen are the closest to The Radio Dept's earlier works, albeit more electronic, and with the wistfulness feeling more, well, 2016 (as the album's title suggests, this is not the time for personal introspection), while Committed To the Cause takes a detour into Stone Roses/Happy Mondays-style baggy territory. The album's parting shot (at the comfortably apolitical, presumably) is Teach Me To Forget, (“So teach me to forget, 'cause baby you're so good at it”), icy sarcasm over a bed of cold gated synth pads.
The Second-Hand Marching Band & Benni Hemm Hemm — Faults, and Throws — Throws
Two vaguely folky British-Icelandic collaborations. The Second-Hand Marching Band are a large band from Glasgow that could be lumped into the broad category of “folk” if one isn't a purist, with the beards, vintage spectacles, stringed instruments, glockenspiels and accordions that the name suggests; here, they collaborate with Icelandic singer/songwriter Benni Hemm Hemm, producing a record of warm intimacy. Throws, meanwhile, are from somewhere near London, and have more soul influences, along with fuzzy analogue electronics; their self-titled album was, however, recorded in Reykjavík with a massed choir of beer-drinking Icelandic gents (at least if their performance at Airwaves is anything to go by).
Vanishing Twin - Choose Your Own Adventure (BandCamp)
Vanishing Twin (for a while known, confusingly, as Orlando) is a band put together by Cathy Lucas, formerly of My Sad Captains and Fanfarlo. As the title suggests, this is an album of conceptual play, with pop meeting psychedelic improvisation. In some ways, Vanishing Twin is in the same fluid genre as Stereolab and Broadcast, only their end abutting the realms of exotica and library music. Highlights include the groove of The Conservation of Energy and the Yma Sumac-meets-Emperor Tomato Ketchup of the closer, It Sends My Heart Into A Spin.
With honourable mentions going to: Asher Levitas — Lit Harness (immersive ambient/industrial/noise soundscapes; uneasy listening about tranquility amidst chaos) ¶ Factory Floor — 25 25 (more minimal, x0x-driven electro-house music(k), going on as their debut started) ¶ Fatima al-Qadiri — Brute (the Kuwaiti-born New York electronica artist's latest release, a concept album about protests and their heavy-handed suppression, following stylistically from the arabesque dubstep of Asiatisch, only more, you know, 2016) ¶ The Fireworks — Black And Blue (skronky post-C86 garage indie from London with attitude) ¶ Goat — Requiem (the latest from the northern-Swedish masked “tribal” psychedelia combo, equal parts Rousseau and Amon Düül II) ¶ Hana Maru — Hana Maru (nice indie chamber-pop from Melbourne, with piano and violins) ¶ Steve Hauschildt — Strands (kosmische analogue electronic ambience, in a post-Tangerine Dream vein) ¶ I Monster — Bright Sparks (a concept album, with booklet, about the history of analogue synthesizers, featuring the Moog, Buchla, ARP and Mellotron among others, and done rather well), Jenny Hval — Blood Bitch (the follow-up to Apocalypse, Girl mixes deceptively nice-sounding electronic pop with themes of vampirism, menstruation, fraught romance and capitalism) ¶ Josefin Öhrn and the Liberation — Mirage (10 tracks of propulsive, motorik krautrock/psychedelia done better than most) ¶ The Julie Ruin — Hit Reset (Kathleen Hanna's back with some righteously skronky garage-punk-pop) ¶ Ladyhawke — Wild Things (the LA-based Kiwi songwriter/producer turning her golden ear to late-80s FM-radio pop à la Diane Warren, with the electronic gloss cranked up and the occasional Millennial Whoop to remind us that it is 2016; somewhere between Taylor Dayne and Taylor Swift) ¶ The Leaf Library — Nightlight Versions and Versions (two variations on their last year's album, Daylight Versions; the former is drony instrumental takes; the latter, remixes by artists including Cavern Of Anti-Matter and Greeen Linez) ¶ Memoryhouse — Soft Hate (the Canadian dreampoppers second full-length album goes bigger, with a more expansive sound, though keeping the understatedness at its core) ¶ Momus — Scobberlotchers (sonically leaning on samples of old Japanese records, as his recent albums have done, Momus engages with the rise of populist xenophobia and personal responses to it; titles include Neo-Weimar, Year Zero and What Are Facts?) ¶ Pascal Pinon — Sundur (languid, minimal Icelandic folk-pop from two sisters, one of whom also is in Samaris) ¶ Penny Orchids — No Maps (the London klezmerbilly quartet bow out in style) ¶ Pikelet — Tronc (Surprising, comparison-defying songs crafted from wonky loops, improvised electronics, pianos and layers of voice) ¶ Samaris — Black Lights (the Icelandic chilled electronica trio's third album, and their first in English) ¶ She-Devils — She-Devils EP (loop-based rockabilly-styled pop from two women in Montreal) ¶ ₩€$€₦ - ₩ALL OF PAI₦ (a boy-girl duo from Reykjavík, making an understated autumnal indiepop with electronic loops, keyboards and the odd acoustic guitar, sounding in places like Pipas, had they signed to a Berlin glitch label)
And then there were the 2015 albums I unfortunately only discovered this year, but which should have otherwise featured on a record: Josefin Öhrn's metronomic psych juggernaut Horse Dance was one such revelation, as is the indiepop yé-yé of Iko Chérie's Dreaming On and I was late in picking up The Spook School's rambunctious queer tweexcore opus Try To Be Hopeful and the darkly luminous Subcontinental dubstep of Aisha Devi's Of Matter And Spirit. But the most poignant member of this list would be Remain, from Californian duo Them Are Us Too. Their sound is somewhere between The Sundays and early-1990s American swirlygoth bands like Love Spirals Downwards, with maybe a bit of The Cure circa Disintegration; drum machines and synthesizers, immaculate processed guitars, the singer's powerful soprano voice and plenty of reverb, making for a work of ethereal beauty. Tragically, I only heard about them because one of them was one of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Rest in peace.
There is now a mix of tracks from these releases on Spotify, here.
Terrible reports from Aleppo as the forces of the tyrant Assad, backed by Russia, take the last pockets of resistance and exact a terrible vengeance on the resisting population. Mass executions of civilians (or, in the official parlance, “terrorists”) ensue, some shot by firing squads, some burnt alive. (The executed “terrorists” include terrorist children, but as the Bolshevik who bayoneted the Romanovs reportedly said, “nits grow up to be lice”.) On Twitter, accounts that have posted from the besieged, bombed city send their desperate last dispatches. If you ever wondered what it would have been like had they had social media during, say, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it'd probably have been something like this.
Meanwhile, in the West, we look on, appalled but not surprised, and then, bummed out by the constant torrent of misery coming from those parts of the world, change the channel. How about that Kanye West, right? What a legend/card/asshole/(insert your own assessment).
Here in the liberal-democratic world, with its ideals of universal human rights and general tolerance, we are aghast; not in our name, we say. Though this very world seems to be in the process of being swept away, replaced by something more brutish and atavistically Hobbesian. From 20 January, the massacre of Aleppo, and any similar actions which follow, will have been in our name. The United States will officially approve of Assad's ancient right as sovereign to crush rebellions, and to lay waste to their cities, making examples of entire populations that harbour rebels to deter future rebellions (mercifully preventing more bloodshed in the future!). And as satellites of the Trumpreich, so will the UK (which increasingly rejects the idea of human rights) and Australia (with its own gulag system for brown and/or Islamic refugees) and others. France will almost certainly join the new consensus after the election of their next President, who is tipped to be either an actual fascist or a Catholic reactionary aching to roll back the Enlightenment, but in either case a follower of Putin's ideology of strength. They will join Hungary, Turkey and Poland, already in the growing post-liberal consensus. And so, as the world starts to look more like Russia at any point in history, a place where life is cheap, power is all, and any words that contradict this are lies, the relative stability of what came before (roughly the world from the years after World War 2 to 2016) will recede into myth; part fantastically bright Star Trek utopia, part naïve Weimar-style idealism, and part decadent lie that deserved to die. Indeed, the last citadel of liberalism and human rights may well be Germany, having had totalitarianism and genocide sufficiently close in its past, and sufficient memorials to its terrible toll, to resist desperately.