The Null Device
After one plague year off, they managed to hold Eurovision this year in Rotterdam, with social-distancing protocols in place and contestants prerecording videos and self-isolating if they didn't test negative.
The winner this year was Italy, who had a group of grungy-looking young dudes with tattoos and slicked-back hair playing some alternative rock like it's the 90s again; the vibe was four parts dive bar to one part Jim Rose sideshow; in any case, they were in the top 5 with the juries, and catapulted to #1 by the public vote. Not my top pick, but a fair cop, and more inspiring than the runner-up, Switzerland (who won the juries, but appeared too forgettable for the public), or arguably France (who seemed sweet and earnest though not quite up to her Piaf-esque number).
My choices were Iceland, Germany, Finland and Lithuania, not necessarily in that order. Iceland's entry, a slab of jittery electrofunk with pixel-art aesthetics and a routine with semicircular keytars, came a respectable third, giving hope that we may yet see Eurovision go to Reykjavík. Germany had a chap named Jendrik, whose name suggests an Aldi version of Jedward, strumming a ukulele and singing a song titled I Don't Feel Hate, on a pastel-coloured set with a number of dancers including one costumed as a hand sticking its middle finger up. It was a bit silly, though fun and well done; unfortunately for them, the audience didn't share its sentiment, giving it 0 points on top of the 3 from the juries. Finland also did hard rock with an industrial edge, though perhaps their mistake was leaving the monster costumes at home, which let Italy's brand of rock get the charisma edge, leaving them at #5. And Lithuania did a competent minimal-house number almost industrial in places, with the clever touch of it being about dancing alone, a relatable theme in the Ronacene; they came 8th.
There were other contestants worthy of note. Belgium brought the late-90s trip-hop-adjacent chillout crew Hooverphonic out of retirement, playing an all live set, with not a breakbeat or a rompler-based epiano patch in sight. Cyprus had famously offended their local religiots with some mild Satanic themes in what was an otherwise generic piece of Gaga-lite eurodance. Israel brought some tasteful Mark Ronson-esque electrofunk, which, at a different time, might have done better. Russia brought a song railing against sexism, which was probably as rebellious as they could get away with (Dad: "We have Pussy Riot at home"). Malta did respectably well with a Shakira-meets-Gnarls-Barkley number with extra sass. Greece's visuals promised a glitch aesthetics which their sound didn't deliver (and it's not hard; we've had vaporwave for over a decade, and surely some must have filtered down to the Eurovision plane by now). Bulgaria had a rather nice song in a somewhat Phoebe Bridgers vein, Ukraine went cyber-Slavic, Azerbaijan had a Middle Eastern-styled club banger titled Mata Hari that you know will be booming out of car stereos at kebab o'clock all summer, and Norway's entry looked like the writing session was a game of Telephone which started with “let's do something like Robbie Williams' ‘Angels’”; i.e., a bit of a mess, albeit technically well executed. The Dutch entry was a bit cringeworthy, coming across like every postcolonial struggle distilled into a high-concept perfume commercial. Meanwhile, plucky little San Marino managed to get the American rapper Flo Rida to do a guest verse, though it didn't get them anywhere.
Sweden's entry was competent though unexciting, which is arguably not entirely an un-Swedish thing to be. Australia failed to make it through to the final this year, for the first time since being admitted as a participant. As for the UK, the less said the better. It wasn't their worst entry in recent years by far; it didn't look like a routine by the resident entertainment crew at a second-tier Butlins, for one, and wasn't an egregious show of contempt for Johnny Foreigner and his silly song contest, and the performer looked like an agreeable sort of chap you could have a drink or a board game with. All that was immaterial, though, as Britain, and Britain alone, got nul points from both the juries and the audiences. Presumably by now Britain's pariah status is so ingrained that they have a decade of rock-bottom results baked in no matter what they do, and so it becomes debatable whether there is any point in sending someone to 2022 to receive the annual ritual humiliation. Perhaps an independent Scottish entry will fare better (and one knows an independent Welsh one would, should this ever happen).
Anyway, it looks like it's in Rome next year.
The results are mostly in on this Thursday's round of elections across the UK, but the dust is yet to settle.
A big upset was Labour losing a byelection in Hartlepool, giving the Tories the seat for the first time in 62 years. Which they had been bracing for, though the size of the winning margin was still shocking. Keir Starmer, Labour's post-Corbyn leader, initially accepted blame for the loss, claiming that Covid restrictions cramped his ability to get his message across, and/or blaming the lingering poison of Corbynism. (As one wit said, Jeremy Corbyn should do the decent thing and resign as ex-leader.)
Labour did well in other places; winning the first directly elected mayoralty of Liverpool, making gains in Wales, holding Greater Manchester, and so on. In all those cases, the victories seemed to be on the strength of a left-leaning grass-roots localism. Hartlepool, though, was a test of Starmer's Westminster policies, which have recently been tacking rightward to win back the “Red Wall” seats in the north of England; former working-class strongholds, now populated largely by the retired, their populations stereotyped as spiteful reactionaries, who, nonetheless, decide elections; hence stunts like posting St. George flags to voters in lieu of pamphlets. While it is conceivable that a chastened Labour could pivot towards presenting a sweeping social-democratic vision for building back better, it is more conceivable that they will come to the conclusion that they were insufficiently gammony, and move to aggressively remedy that. (One claim to look for is that Starmer hasn't won the people's trust because he has not yet sufficiently repudiated his past as a human rights lawyer, and every Daily Mail reader knows that human rights lawyers are very much not on their side.) Early signs bear this out; Starmer has sacked the party secretary Angela Rayner, a leftwinger, in what could be the opening salvo of a redoubled purge of Corbynista holdovers.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the SNP made gains, and while falling short of an outright majority, has one jointly with the equally pro-independence Greens, with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, vowing to push for a second referendum in the coming term. Westminster has already ruled out any such referendum, so the question may end up in court, or somewhere messier (possibly a Catalan-style standoff, or direct rule imposed), unless one side blinks. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond's rebel pro-independence party Alba (who, unlike the other two, oppose rejoining the EU, and also hitched their wagon early on to the reactionary side of the culture war, such as an anticipated groundswell of anti-transgender sentiment) fizzled, failing to win any seats.
And in London, Labour's Sadiq Khan has been returned as Mayor; the Tories did respectably, especially given that their candidate, Shaun Bailey, appeared to be clueless on a lot of issues. The plethora of protest/novelty/crank candidates who piled up at the bottom can console themselves with more hits for their YouTube channels and/or publicity for other projects (such as a mask-free pub serving only British food and hosting right-wing comedians). This may be the last London mayoral election held under the current system, as the Westminster government has made noises about replacing it with first-past-the-post.
Forth Bridge is down. Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has died, aged 99.
All of Britain is officially in mourning for eight days; all non-funereal programming has been suspended on the BBC (with the exception of the childrens' channel CBeebies). In normal times, theatres, music halls and other such establishments would have been shut by law, though given that it's the Ronatimes, they're shut anyway. Presumably the authorities will order Netflix and Animal Crossing to be blocked at ISP level and repurpose the BBC detector vans to find people seditiously watching comedy shows on Zoom.
At any time, this would have been disruptive, though at this moment, it is particularly so. Britain now stands several months after the completion of Brexit, the total triumph of small-minded xenophobic reactionaries against the liberal, cosmopolitan tendency within, and is engaged in a sort of scourging of the shires; this is partly to distract attention from the monumental cock-up the whole project has been on any level other than the quick amphetamine high of chest-thumping nationalism. (Though, to those cheering it on, this is what counts; the Brexit agreement itself, for example, has been negotiated by the UK to be deliberately harsher than necessary, particularly to punish those of the defeated party; consequently, Britain has pulled out of the Erasmus student exchange programme, and pointedly refused to allow visas for touring artists. After all, the reasoning seems to go, we don't want our young people fraternising with the garlic-eaters, do we? The only way a young Briton post-Brexit should meet a European is in the trenches, with bayonet fixed.) In any case, the few months of Britain's post-EU existence have been met with businesses that do any sort of trade with the EU going to the wall, and the government engaging in a spiral of performative nationalism; mandating the flying of the flag on all government buildings, defending the statues of noble slaveholders from Antifa/BLM extremists, introducing laws criminalising protest, and blaming the lack of promised post-Brexit sunlit uplands on stabs in the back from treacherous metropolitan liberal remainer elites.
In a sense, Prince Philip is the Princess Di of Brexitland, the People's Prince 2021 Britain deserves. As Lady Diana—youthful, glamorous, relatably insecure, and caring about people in the way those around her didn't—embodied, in retrospect, the mood of the lifting of the dead hand of Thatcherism in the Cool Britannia New Labour Spring (how little we knew!), Philip—a geriatric racist who, even while alive, looked uncannily out of place among the living, known for his callous “gaffes” and celebrated by taxi drivers and pub bores across the country for his “robust views”—embodies the identity of post-Brexit Britain, indeed, the definition of True Brit in 2021.
Meanwhile in Australia, life goes on mostly as normal, with events going ahead as planned, with one exception: apparently the ABC not only replaced its main channel programming with wall-to-wall royal hagiography but simulcast that to its music channel, preempting a planned Rage tribute to a popular recently deceased musician in Melbourne. It is not clear whether they were required to do so by some imperial-era laws held over from the Menzies era (or possibly reintroduced in the contemporary conservative era), or whether some executive made the call to preemptively fold to the conservative culture warriors before their budget gets cut any further. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, a standup comedian started a routine mocking the Royal Family, not knowing that Philip's death had just been announced, and executed a perfect 360⁰ pivot.
Once again, at the end of this plague year, it's time to recap the music that came out over the past twelve months and soundtracked the year's events, or lack thereof. And while this year has been somewhat more fallow than previous ones, there was still good music, even if one didn't get to see it live. So here, as always, are the noteworthy records of the year:
- beabadoobee — Fake It Flowers (BandCamp)
Beatrice Laus was born in the Philippines in 2000 and grew up in London, where she writes and plays songs under the name beabadoobee; Fake It Flowers is her debut album, and stylistically has a distinctive 90s alternative feel to it, stylistically echoing the likes of Pearl Jam, Alanis Morisette, Smashing Pumpkins and such. Though not entirely, as this is not 90s alternative music in a historical sense (whose grunginess was a dirty protest against, among other things, the yuppified gloss of corporate rock in the CD era) but 2020s pop drawing on influences from before the author's time, their original context now rendered inert. Also, as a product of the current digital era, this sounds somewhat cleaner and sharper, with the rough edges of 90s grungeternative filed off and details filled in. Bea's voice, varying from soft croon to belting soprano, floats above the overdriven guitar riffs in the way that, say, Kurt Cobain's enraged bawl didn't, and there is an intricacy to the arrangements beyond the immediacy of the 1990s Seattle sound, though above all, the songs all work as pop songs.
The album starts with Care, whose title, in the grunge tradition, constitutes most of the chorus, belted over chugging riffs, and there's a very short guitar solo that sounds a bit like bagpipes in the break. The following song, Worth It, sounds like Alanis or possibly Avril crossed with You Think it's Like This-period Mirah. Dye It Red plays with hair-colour-as-rebellion (in its own way, as inevitable as Mod-revival bands writing about parkas and scooters), ending with a sweetly-sung “fuck you”. It's followed by a very short and equally charming, almost-acoustic ballad titled Back To Mars, and then Charlie Brown, with its quiet-loud-quiet dynamic. Other highlights include Emo Song, a ballad whose subtle delicacy is belied by the reductionist title, the gently understated Further Away, with its string arrangement, and Horen Sarrison, a wistful daydream of an outsider's love poem set to acoustic guitar and synthesised strings. Bea's love for antifolk singer-songwriters like Kimya Dawson and Daniel Johnston comes through in How Was Your Day?, a stripped-back acoustic number which wouldn't be amiss on K Records back in the day.
(On a personal note: there is something uncanny about hearing music from one's youth reiterated by a new generation who were born after the fact. The Endless 80s Revival, from 00s Brooklyn electroclash to the ongoing synthwave subgenre, John-Hughes-credits “goth” to FM-radio gloss, was one thing, as that music was in the background of childhood, mostly just out of earshot. Vaporwave as well, with its hypnagogic distillate of music polished and unexciting enough for a million shopping-plaza escalators and other liminal spaces. However, as someone who went to parties where alcohol was consumed and the alternative music this references was on the stereo, the awareness of the passing of time hits a little closer to home. While I enjoy this record far more than I did 90s grunge (much of which, at the time, just sounded wilfully shitty), its presence does remind me of my own advancing age.)
- Even As We Speak — Adelphi (BandCamp)
Sydney's Even As We Speak were perhaps the odd one out in the Sarah Records family, their brightly coloured art-school bohemianism standing out in the 1980s British indiepop milieu like a cockatoo among robins. A few years ago, they returned after over two decades' hiatus with an EP; now they follow it up with a full-length album, one announced around a year earlier and alluded to for longer; they had the costumes (silver jumpsuits as if from an old sci-fi TV show) ready for their UK tour in 2018. The wait, however, has been worth it.
The album opens with Someone, a polished indiepop song with an elegiac quality like Dubstar's “Stars” crossed with The Chandler Estate's Spies (No More); led in by programmed beats, and driven by a falling minor cadence worthy of 70s soul, it nods at midlife melancholy with wryly evocative lyrics. (That minor fall will be heard again in this album; a major lift, not so much.) It is followed by Forgiving, a more upbeat, guitar-driven pop song reminiscent of The Hummingbirds, The Go-Betweens and countless 60s girl groups. The combination of wryness and wistfulness returns in Sun, whose cheerful arrangements belie the ominously enigmatic lyrics in the verses (“give me the key to the garage, I'm building a weapon in there”). while Leaves evokes lost innocence, with Mary's voice accompanied only by what sounds like an accordion. Stronger and Blind play relationship misunderstandings, first as comic farce, then as mundane tragedy. Signs returns to the beat-driven sound of the opening track, climbing through a series of rising key changes whilst rhapsodising esoterically about hidden symbols and landing markers for extraterrestrial gods or similar. The final track, Light, reminds me of The Softies' album closer Perfect Afternoon, both in its melody (though not so much its sound) and its sense of wistful resignation.
This is a beautifully crafted album, the work of a pop group in their creative prime, with a shadow of autumnal melancholy and a modicum of larrikin mischief, and builds well on their legacy from the Sarah years. The indiepop record of the year. I just hope that the next one doesn't take a few decades.
- Hachiku — I'll Probably Be Asleep (BandCamp)
The debut album from German-born Melbourne artist Anika Ostendorf, who describes her music as “dream pop with an avant-garde twist”, which is fair. Recorded mostly in her bedroom (not counting some live drums), I'll Probably Be Asleep is an at times hypnotic affair, constructed in layers of echoing guitars, Casiotone drum loops, synth pads, miscellaneous melodic lines and the occasional layer of howling feedback, and Ostendorf's vocals floating serenely over it. This is an artefact of the laptop era, of sound as digital layers cut and pasted at will, though gets its aesthetic and philosophical direction not from glossy computerised pop à la PC Music but from Hachiku's indie predecessors, with their Tascam 4-tracks, skronky guitar amps and Casio keyboards played on ironing boards. One could place this somewhere in the (admittedly capacious) space between The Motifs and Kate Bush.
- I Like Trains — Kompromat (BandCamp); Seeming — The Birdwatcher's Guide to Atrocity (BandCamp)
Two records tackling the zeitgeist of our time (or at least the moment before the pandemic hit). I Like Trains are best known as a post-rock band from Leeds who made a name from epic songs about doomed adventurers and grand historical follies; Kompromat sees them move towards something more immediate, both sonically and thematically. Gone are the grand tragedies framed by sublime cathedrals of sound, and in their stead, a focus on the sinister machinations that led, among other things, to Brexit and the rise of Trump, rendered to a tighter, choppier, more compact sound in a more post-punk vein, its urgent pulse constrasting with the narrator's spoken-word vocals, in a world-weary drawl, telegraphing enigmatic phrases, cut and pasted like ransom note fragments from the shadows; dispatches from a grubby, paranoid, vaguely Le Carré-esque world in which all are compromised and complicit. Who is/are the narrator(s), and what is their propositions and/or threats?
Seeming, meanwhile, is a project from Alex Reed, a 1990s goth scene veteran from the US (he literally wrote a book on the history of industrial music) who, in his work, has transcended the stylistic signifiers of the subculture, remaining attuned to the dark sublime but from a distinctly humanistic point of view rather than the trollish provocation so often found in the genre. The result is an album themed around the idea of ongoing, unstoppable collapse (ecological, social, political), seen more often than not from the intimate perspective of those living through it. It starts in dramatic fashion with The Fates, an ever-accelerating track structured around a rhythmic illusion, its (live) drumming accelerating before fading to a half-tempo version of itself, and doing it again, ushering in the mood of emergency. Go Small and Someday Lily switch to an intimate perspective; Other highlights include Remember To Breathe, an oasis of serenity in the postapocalyptic maelstrom, repeating its title as a mantra, Permanent, a harrowing pop song, recounting a historical tragedy, then whipping back, with brutal suddenness, to a far more personal one, and a cri de coeur against the injustice of the human condition (and fortunately Reed is a good enough singer to carry this), and the penultimate track, Learn To Vanish, which is almost a Fitter Happier for the times to follow, almost, but not quite, reassuring. If you liked Ulver's recent material, you may also appreciate this.
- Laura Macfarlane — Into The Metalude / The Narrows / Future Obscura (BandCamp)
While her band Ninetynine is on indefinite hiatus, with Cameron having moved back to Perth, Laura has been making music solo. Trapped in Melbourne during its strict winter lockdown, she used this time to make a trilogy of home-recorded solo EPs, each focussing on a different instrument: vibraphone, guitar and keyboards; which I will consider here as one, three-sided, work.
The first record, Into The Metalude, is themed around the vibraphone, which Laura inherited from her jazz-musician father and made her own within the indie-rock domain. There are four tracks: Swim, with its block chords and Laura's vocals, sounds like a Ninetynine song stripped back to the basics. Echolalia follows, minor key arpeggios and vocals, like a flight through a darkening wood; Metalude has more of a sense of stillness to it, with simple chords and vocal harmonies, and Nightlight, the instrumental track closing the EP off, is a sugarplum fantasia that wouldn't be amiss in the score of an animated short film.
The guitar record, The Narrows, is next. Coded starts with finger-picked guitar and vocals, in a 90s alternative feel that, at least at the start, wouldn't feel out of place next to beabadoobee; the title track is choppier and more uptempo, with the skronk and tension familiar from Ninetynine's oeuvre, and Tricky is a languid fingerpicked number reminiscent of Woods.
The final third, Future Obscura, is the Casio keyboard record. Go Back To Where You Came From starts with two lines of trebly melody, building up for the chorus, in a very understated quiet-loud dynamic. Underneath The Crowded Sky starts with a built-in beat, with bass and melody lines, and almost an early-80s synthpop feel in places (if one suspends disbelief, one could imagine it's an early Human League demo or something). The title track's interweaving lines of melody recall Ninetynine's most keyboard-intensive works (such as The Cleaner). The record closes with an instrumental, Via Escalator, all rhythmic blips, reminiscent of Young Marble Giants by way of incidental music from a sci-fi TV show.
The three records have their differences; to my ears, Future Obscura feels like the one that stands on its own most strongly (these days, the kids call that sort of thing “bedroom electronica” or something), while The Narrows feels, in places, like demos for, or a solo performance of, a Ninetynine record (you can hear the space where a bass, or Cameron's berserker drumming, would go); Metalude could go either way. In any case, it's great to hear new music from Laura.
- Momus — Vivid
This year's Momus album was recorded in his new home city of Paris, whilst self-isolating with Covid-19 symptoms; unsurprisingly, the virus dominates the album, whose songs have titles like Working From Home, Self-Isolation, Empty Paris and My Corona (which, it must be noted, shares nothing with the Knack song other than the nod in the title), and Momus' recent weltschmerz at the advance of the reactionaries in Britain and the US has been pushed aside, in places becoming an aching nostalgia about the days when your mortal foes were human ones you could actually see. Though, after all, if, as he once wrote, all the heroes of Valhalla weigh less than a virus, it could barely not be but so. Vivid's tonal palette, whilst similar to recent-period Momus, is perhaps more European, moving away from his attempts to reinvent primitive blues with Japanese folk instruments, which to my ears sounded a bit murky; the impression here is somewhere between John Cage and Jacques Brel, or perhaps the Weimar-era cabaret of the aforementioned Morality Is Vanity, with repetitive accordion notes being a recurring element.
- Spunsugar — Drive-Through Chapel (BandCamp)
Their debut EP featured here last year, and now the Malmö band follow it up with their first full-length album, which arrives in a blaze of drum-machine barrages and white-hot blasts of precisely textured guitar noise. Spunsugar, as their name suggests, sound like they came from a moment some time either side of 1990, that milieu that's sort of shoegaze and not entirely Madchester baggy, which is probably more than a decade before any of them were born, though they have rediscovered that sound and made it their own.
The album kicks off with Jawbreaker, which sounds not unlike a Lush song circa Spooky, all ethereal vocals floating over a swirl of shoegaze guitar propelled forward at a rapid tempo; and then venture into Curve territory with Happier Happyless: pulsing industrial synth bass, distorted funk guitar chops and vocals upfront with gossamer reverb, evoking the moment, some time around 1987, when goths started taking MDMA. The gothic-rock influences continue in Belladonna, with its Batcave drums and bass line and keening guitars. Time Enough At Last kicks in with tight, choppy verses motoring on before erupting into lush dreampop choruses. Video Nasty takes the pace down a bit, with a male vocalist taking over over some flanged picked guitar; things pick up with Run, a juggernaut of blast beats, spiky guitar and ethereal vocals, the lyrics evoking religious imagery.
The thing that strikes me is how well executed everything about this record is. From the processed guitar tones to the mix of elements, and the composition; this is a maximalist affair, and there's always something around the next corner waiting to be stacked on, and yet it never becomes murky or overwhelming. The music both envelops, the way good dreampop does, and exhilarates with its rapid pace. A band to watch.
- Tangents — Timeslips (BandCamp)
2020 saw a new record from the Australian improvisational ensemble, whose work falls into the space between post-rock, experimental jazz and laptop electronica adjacent to what used to be called “electroacoustic”. Polyrhythmic brushed jazz drumming mixes with glitchy beats, overlayed with piano, electronic drones, chromatic percussion, processed cello and a variety of digitally processed sounds, creating uneasy soundscapes slightly too abstract to get down to. The record opens with Exaptation, in a flurry of drums and chromatic percussion that, elsewhere, may have lead into a Stereolab song; here it remains sparser and more enigmatic. The second track, Vessel starts with jazzy percussion, soon joined by cello-as-bass, minor-key Rhodes piano licks, distant trumpets and processed recordings, sounding like Prop working with Teeth Of The Sea or something. Old Organs builds from a glitchy loop, Survival skitters along over a pattern of chords, glitches and unidentifiable textures, and Debris gets slower and heavier, with layers of piano and mallets bubbling over crunchy fuzz guitar; the closer, Bylong combines jazzy improvisation with a field recording of 100 carriages of prime Australian coal rumbling along the eponymous valley's freight railway, possibly being the first recorded work to bridge the worlds of Coltrane and coal train, before fading into shimmering delay.
- Thibault — Or Not Thibault (BandCamp)
The long-awaited return of Nicole Thibault, formerly of Minimum Chips (capsule summary: imagine Stereolab as a shambolic Australian indie band), now with a new band including members of young Melbourne bands such as Parsnip and The Ocean Party will be at once familiar and novel. Some songs, such as Drama and Spanakopita, could easily be Minimum Chips outtakes, while others diverge in various directions, hinting at tropicàlia, the cosmic baroque of Jane Weaver and the retro hauntology of Broadcast; the lyrics, meanwhile, turning inward to personal themes, and revealing a portrait of the artist anxiously kicking against the pricks whilst dealing with her own problems.
The opening track, See The World, with its keyboard arpeggios, clunking bass and languid tempo, promises a lush baroque-pop sensibility, setting the stage for the album; Centrelink follows along, opening with a harpsichord line and building into a song about Australia's famously punitive welfare bureaucracy. (After the second chorus, the vocal melody of Centrelink returns, played on a trombone; this makes it the second of Nicole Thibault's songs about oppressive authorities to use that device, the first, of course, being, Clag's Security Man.) The next two tracks, Drama, and Wanting To Be Alone, are more introspective and Chips-esque, with their choppy rhythms and understated vocals, followed by two instrumentals: Componential, which takes a detour into Montero-esque psychedelia, and Continuer, which could have come from the score of an European film (perhaps Czech or Italian?) that aired on SBS and probably involved vampires and/or a witches' sabbat. In Chatty Cathy, Thibault softly enumerates stereotypes (“Debbie Downer, Bossy Betty, Bubbling Brooke, Negative Nancy”) reserved for women not considered well-behaved by Australia's conservative patriarchy. Its slow piano figures and a heartbeat-like drum evoke the feeling of sunlight through a window on a whitewashed wall, and the feeling of a comforting repression.
The highlights of the album, though, are a pair of songs: Late Expectations and Later Expectations, which reveal a peak of sophistication far from the sunny shambolicism of Minimum Chips. In Late Expectations, Thibault's vocals float on a layer of reverb over synth pads, programmed percussion, driving synth bass and shimmering keyboards, waxing autumnal; the other bookend, Later Expectations, continues in that vein only with a more driving rhythm, propelled forward by a motorik 4/4 drum machine and bass guitar, with some funky bongos later coming in. In between them is Spanakopita, which could have been an outtake from Minimum Chips' Kitchen Tea Thankyou, and Treasure Trove, a cute baroque-pop bagatelle of harpsichord filigrees. The record finishes with two slower, sparser tracks, Moody Ghost and Too Much Time, though to me, they feel almost tacked-on, as if they were from a limited bonus CD rather than the main album.
Or Not Thibault was an album I had been anticipating since I heard about Nicole's new project, and it does not disappoint. Hopefully there will be more.
- UUSS — We Cannot Save You (BandCamp)
The new project from Rhonda Simmons from 90s/00s Casio-and-guitar combo Origami and 767-era Ninetynine, now based in LA; whilst more expansive in tone than the Casiotone days, one wouldn't call this glossy. Running at just under 20 minutes and drenched in fuzz and reverb, their debut EP is reminiscent of Kathleen Hanna's work (in particular, Julie Ruin); highlights include the deconstructed 808-propelled lo-fi disco of SSADDISCO; Mercy, a piano ballad in which Simmons uses Autotune as a form of distortion, and the title track, with its jangly chorused guitar, distorted drum machine and violin accents. Oh, and there's also a rough-as-guts Pat Benatar cover.
With honourable mentions going to: 36 and zakè, Stasis Sounds For Long-Distance Space Travel (an ambient concept album, ostensibly intended to be programmed music for entering suspended animation for long space voyages; it came out before the pandemic exploded, though has only grown in relevance since), Aseul(아슬), Slow Dance (understated bedroom electropop from Korea), The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You (another four years worth of cratedigging and (perhaps more significantly) sample clearance paperwork brings another Avalanches record, and you know the deal: vintage soul/disco/lounge grooves and beats, with an all-star cast of guest appearances), Bananagun, The True Story Of Bananagun (fuzzed out psychedelic grooves tinged with Afrobeat and tropicália influences), Duncan Barrett, Raise The Effra! (the former Tigercats frontman continues his voyage into new-agey ambient electronics, and does so quite listenably), Glenn Bennie, Fade and Shimmer (Glenn of the Underground Lovers's solo outing takes the form of two EPs of shoegazey instrumentals; soft drones, electronics and reverb), David Bridie & All India Radio, Reconstructions (the Not Drowning, Waving frontman joins forces with Tasmanian triphopster All India Radio in a work of Eno-esque ambience, combining piano and electronics), Miles Brown, The Gateway (the thereminist from grindcore-turned-synthwave ensemble Night Terrors' solo effort goes into John-Carpenter-meets-italo-synthwave territory; 4/4 drum machines, pulsing synth bass sequences and coruscating arpeggios, and of course, the theremin; like the soundtrack to a lurid VHS film, or perhaps a video game), Cabaret Voltaire, Shadow Of Fear (now down to one original member, the Sheffield industrial pioneers deliver a project of uneasy beats for dystopic dance floors), Cable Ties, Far Enough (choppy, skronky high-tension garage punk from Melbourne, charged with adrenaline and incandescent with political rage; a Molotov cocktail tossed over the white picket fences of the Quiet Australians, or something like that), Carpenter Brut, Blood Machines OST (apparently a score for a scifi TV series, this sees the French horror-synth trio add some Vangelis to their John Carpenter influences), Cavern of Anti-Matter, In Fabric OST (Tim Gane's new one is a soundtrack to a Peter Strickland film), A.G. Cook, 7G (the PC Music impresario steps out from behind the glossy façade of his hyper-produced electropop with a 49-track box set of oddities, ranging from kid606-style breakcore to lo-fi pop; the artifice is still there, just not in the same order), Cuushe, Waken (returning after a five-year hiatus, the Japanese artist known for her chilled electronic pop steps it up a notch and takes it to the floor, with a new album propelled by driving beats), Haiku Salut, Pattern Thinker / Portrait In Dust (two soundtracks they recorded for short films; recommended for fans of múm, Jon Brooks or indeed their earlier works), Hamerkop, Remote (Annabel of New Zealand kosmische-pop project Bachelorette's new collaborative project, from her new home in Baltimore, Maryland; glistening synthesiser arpeggios, analogue fuzz and hazy reverb, though not quite as focussed as her solo works), Thor Harris, Doom Dub (what the title, and the skull on the cover, say; broken/distorted dub reggae with the theme of humanity's impending self-annihilation; Ben Frost and Lawrence English guest on tracks), Hatari, Neyslutrans (the Icelandic BDSM-themed industrial group who almost won the last Eurovision of the Before Times; generally snarly industriogothic EBM, with a bit of Squarepusher mixed into their Skinny Puppy), HTRK, Body Lotion EP (booming 808s and soft vocals drenched in postapocalyptic quantities of reverb, and underscored by grindcore bass; chilled and yet uneasy, in an almost Lynchian way), imugi 이무기, Dragonfruit (a duo from New Zealand, combining downtempo hip-hop, chilled R&B and Korean electropop influences), The Little Hands of Asphalt, Half Empty (London's indiepop powerhouse Fika Recordings brings us a slab of pastoral indiepop from Norway), Mighty Duke And The Lords, Caribbean Rollarama (a brass-driven party-rocking juggernaut from Melbourne, named after an outer-suburban roller link, where apparently Barack Obama now holds court, or so they say), Of Montreal UR FUN (hey look, it's Kevin Barnes TMI-ing about the exhilirating delirium of his new relationship and his anxiety about it, though this time in a (broadly) 80s-new-wave vein), Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song (driving electronica and the odd ethereal pop fragment from the Welsh producer; a bit like Dntel or early Autechre in places; with a guest appearance by John Cale), Popular Music, ...Plays In Darkness (a collaboration between Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls and Australian composer Prudence Rees-Lee, Popular Music's debut album is a love letter to the myth of cinema; comprised of music from cinema (from old standards to show tunes to music from genre cinema; Willow's Song from The Wicker Man is here, as is Marianne Faithfull's song from The City of Lost Children) rendered with electronics, piano, strings, denatured with reverb and delay, and made uncanny, and in its own way, very 2020; file alongside Misty Roses), Salt Lake Alley, The Way It Feels (summery, hook-laden indiepop from Sweden (I think), albeit on a Spanish label), Singapore Sling, Good Sick Fun With... (the Icelandic psych nihilists' latest album sees them pay tribute to early rock'n'roll, including a cover of Summertime Blues, done with their usual buzzsaw guitar and digital delays), Warm Digits, Flight of Ideas (more propulsive, modernistic electro-krautrock from the Newcastle ensemble; as usual, there are guests, and this time they include twee-punk shouters The Lovely Eggs and indiepop combo The Orielles; perhaps we can expect them to play Indietracks if/when that comes back?), Wedding Guns, Blood In Everyone's Type (a side project of Clue To Kalo with a 4-track EP of wonky grooves coalescing from disjointed loops; file alongside Caribou), Die Wilde Jagd, Haut (the post-krautrock electronica project's new release continues where Uhrwald Orange left off, only moving away from discrete songs, consisting instead of four tracks, each exceeding 9 minutes)
The elephant in the room this year was, of course, Covid-19, which left little untouched. Shows and festivals were cancelled, recordings postponed, and some artists retreated to their home studios. Responses to the Rona varied;
Chromeo recorded an EP, Quarantine Casanova, with song titles like Clorox Wipe and 6 Feet Away executed in their trademarked hypersexual Troutmanesque electrofunk style; meanwhile, the London disco allstars Article 54 followed up their Brexit-themed album of 2019 with a Rona-themed one in the same vein.
Momus approached the subject less flippantly (though not, it must not be said, with complete earnestness).
Shoegaze-adjacent ambient-electronic artist
Another recurring theme, which may or may not be unrelated, was a sense of liminal spaces. Some of that had been building up for a while (see also: vaporwave, and before that, currents in post-rock, shoegaze and ambient music), though it seems to have escalated. Haircuts for Men brought trip-hoppy instrumentals with moody chord progressions and titles like “My Wife Is On Tinder”, making a sort of desaturated vaporwave minus the consumer exuberance; not so much music for shopping malls as for the Backrooms. Cayn Borthwick , the saxophonist from Melbourne's NO ZU and Mighty Duke and The Lords, released a solo album of what could be described as post-punk lounge music: spacious, impressionistic soundscapes made of electronic sounds; sunny with a barely perceivable undertone of melancholia. And Eyeliner, (the vaporwave-adjacent side project of New Zealand synthpop artist Disasteradio) returned with Drop Shadow, a collection of disconnectedly upbeat music crafted with late-Shōwa-era digital wavetable synthesisers. And Popular Music's evocation of the film theatre could fall into this category as well.
The year was also a good one for rereleases, particularly in Australia. The legendary ambient/post-punk/avant-garde project Not Drowning, Waving and their sibling band My Friend The Chocolate Cake uploaded their back-catalogues to Bandcamp; meanwhile, Melbourne indie legends Lost & Lonesome started their own rerelease programme, uploading long-unavailable records by The Foots, Fred Astereo, Mid-State Orange and Lacto-Ovo, including two tracks recorded in 2003 and only mixed now; gradually, gaps in the historical record are being filled.
Were I to name a record of the year, it would be either Spunsugar's Drive-Thru Chapel or Thibault's Or Not Thibault.
One final note: you may have noticed that there are few major-label records here and almost everything has a link on Bandcamp. This is not just indie snobbery (not just — ed.), but rather an artefact of logistics in our time. These days, it seems that fewer and fewer new-release albums make it out to CDs, and of those, fewer and fewer make it to a local record shop. (The situation is particularly bad in Sweden, where I live, where Spotify seems to be to music consumption what the national oat-milk monopoly is to non-dairy coffee additives, and the big record shops mostly have a handful of new releases and a table of discounted “classic” records — if you have a gap in your Blue Öyster Cult collection, you're sorted — though JB HiFi in Melbourne was looking quite bare as well.) As such, my choices for getting something not on BandCamp are either to mail-order it to rip, paying postage (and often import duties) and waiting several weeks (as I did for the Momus album), or pay the full digital price for a lossy low-quality download from Apple Music or Amazon (which may be technically good enough for listening, except for the chagrin of knowing that the copy I paid for will forever lack those missing harmonics and transients, stripped out of it to shrink it down for 00s-vintage computer networks and MP3 players). This is enough of a psychological barrier to keep most of my purchases on Bandcamp (where, to be honest, some 90% of what I'm interested in can be found), with the herculean effort of ordering CDs reserved only for a handful of special cases, and the occasional gap filled at Rough Trade or Fopp on a visit to London (see also: Covid-19). (Of course, I could stream the records on Spotify and justify that as having “consumed” them this year, but that wouldn't be the same, would it? If you haven't bought a copy and stored it on a physical medium somewhere, it's not really in your collection, and is one record-label dispute away from disappearing forever as if it never existed.)
The good news is that more Bandcamp holdouts are joining; London shoegaze institution Club AC30 did this year, as did PC Music, Sonic Youth are putting their records up (starting from demos, live sessions and oddities like Ciccone Youth, though they've managed to get major-label-released albums like Daydream Nation up; I'm guessing it wasn't a Universal Music executive who made that call), and Melbourne indie veterans Underground Lovers are making noises about it (one remix compilation so far, with (hopefully) the possibility of back-catalogue to follow). So, if you're an artist on an independent label who don't do Bandcamp, ask them why the hell not?
If you use Spotify, there is the usual playlist here.