The Null Device
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.