Negative Chambers

Yair Elazar Glotman & Mats Erlandsson, 2017

Glotman and Erlandsson's Negative Chambers occupies a space not as populated as I'd expect: ambient minimalism executed with acoustic and traditional folk instruments. Perhaps there's more to this slice of style than I think, but I'm also counting the somewhat reverential air the material maintains. While the instrumentation on each track is sparse, their measured and thoughtful execution bears more in common with modern orchestral composition than ambient electronica. 

Somewhere Decent to Live

Space Afrika, 2018

The brand of deep, hypnotic dub pioneered by the Basic Channel label in the late 90s / early 2000s has slowly grown into a sub-genre unto itself. The sparse minimalism of the style, with percussion more implied than anything else, and gaseous but impactful bass, is perhaps easy to mimic but damnably hard to bring to life. Space Afrika rises to the challenge, with an album that carries echoes of the dubbier Vladislav Delay output—not a moment too soon, either, as Delay himself has been AWOL of late, leaving a vacancy to fill in my listening.

Blood on the Moon / Kiss to the Brain

Chrome, 1981 / Helios Creed, 1992

Recently I went on a tear, trying to listen to every album related to the infamous industrial act Chrome. This was no small endeavor: the band (under alternating stewardship) has an over 40-year, near-continuous history (not to mention all the solo albums). It seemed the end of that cycle was a good time to discuss the Chrome in my collection.

The demented and drug-addled industrial rock Helios Creed and Damon Edge made sounds completely outside of any scene or time. I don't know of many or any bands coming from California in the early 80s that bear any relation to them whatsoever. Like backwoods meth cooked up in a trailer, this SanFran duo (along with whatever support they could muster up) runs on cheap highs. Blood on the Moon is their fifth full length in as many years and by far the most 'professional' sound they'd achieved—that is to say the recording equipment sounds moderately up to the task of capturing their mania. Edge's voice comes at you in either low, lascivious, demonic tones or high, pinched, cartoon villain angles. Creed's guitar is chained through enough effects to make chord changes irrelevant, while the rhythm section martials on mechanistically. Chrome are like a seriously a bad acid trip (in a good way).

Helios Creed had the more successful post-Chrome career—at least artistically. Damon Edge's subsequent Chrome and solo records slid into lo-fi synth dirges, sorely missing Creed's acidic splatter. Creed's output could be hit or miss as well, but there was usually at least one or two worthwhile burners per LP. In the early 90s he paired up with the Minneapolis label, Amphetamine Reptile (the perfectly named home for a Chrome project), known for their sludgy brand of hard indie-rock. With the return of guitar rock to radio airplay and the rise of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, there was probably never a better time for Chrome to ascend. Helios did his level best, delivering a trio of blistering industrial barn-stormers—including my pick, Kiss to the Brain. They surely, must have grown the Chrome cult but were still far too oddball to garner wide attention.

Heads

Osibisa, 1972

I often shop the new arrivals bin on the Dusty Groove website. From the time I lived in Chicago, they've been veritable resource of discovery—so much more than just a record store. Their sonic niche is not my specialty, so it's always fun to wade through what they have and see what catches my eye. One time, it was Osibisa.

I'd never heard of the band before, but the cover of their third record, Heads, will stop you in your record-flipping tracks. The typography instantly makes you think it's a prog-rock record, with echoes of Yes or Budgie. The warped painting is by Abdul Mati Klarwein, the same artist who gave us Miles Davis' Live Evil. The image is of the sweating, disembodied head of a flying elephant. To make things even weirder, each of the band members faces seem to be emerging from different parts of this demonic-looking Dumbo's face. With exactly that much information to go on, I had to see what Osibisa was all about.

For lack of a better term, they were a funk band. If you try and get beyond that, you end up needing a lot of hyphens. Though based in London most of the band hailed from Ghana, and their progressive-flavored jams shared some DNA with afrobeat. The more psychedelic edges of their tracks remind me of a more percussion-heavy Cymande. They also retain an African feel of call and response—the same one that also informs African American Gospel music. It all ads up to (ahem) a heady brew.

Die Paste, Die Wrong

Gerard Herman, 2016

Gerard Herman Die Paste Die Wrong

It's actually rather rare to buy a record with no information other than the sound. So many things influence us, from what we already know, to criticism and promotion, up to the cover art. I virtually none of that when it came to Gerard Herman's Die Paste, Die Wrong. I knew nothing about Herman, and the Entr'acte label is about as forthcoming as their stark, consecutively numbered covers would imply. I had no information other than what I heard and what I heard were these beguiling electronic miniatures, each built with simple, limited components but each slippery in its construction, hard to pin down.

The Way Out

L.Voag, 1979

Any band that names themselves the Homosexuals, in 1977, is confrontational. Apparently the name-change cost them at least one band member. The Homosexuals were a prolific and squirrelly group, who seemed to form new bands monthly either from desire for obfuscation or perhaps sheer boredom. The box set, Astral Glamour, went a long way to making the bulk of their work as the Homosexuals available again (and more besides) but huge swaths of their other material remains damnably hard to find. Hell, it sometimes feels like you have to be an internet detective just to find out it even exists. Getting the box set digitally also does nothing for sorting out what goes where…

On vinyl, this dilemma is slowly being addressed. The various works of Amos, aka Jim Welton, aka L.Voag have started to see the light of day . Listening to The Way Out is almost a form of archeology. Nobody makes this sort of lo-fi jumble in era of computer-based home studios and auto-tune. It sounds like half these songs were written moments before they were recorded. The magic of it is in how well it works, in all its haphazard glory.

Phantom Studies

Dettmann / Klock, 2017

Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock have maintained an intermittent collaboration for the last 15 years. Phantom Studies is the latest their series of singles, but by dint of being a double 12-inch, it also serves as their not-quite-full length debut. While they are offered more room to stretch out, they keep their rhythms aimed at the floor. True to it's title, Phantom Studies is a darker work than previous ones, with tunnel vision bass gone fuzzy with distortion around the edges, and tracks haunted by echoing, half heard voices.

Hymns

Godflesh, 2001

In its extremity, industrial metal is kind of silly. I think you have to embrace that fact in order to fully accept and appreciate the style: buy into the distorted bellowing and pummeling volume the same as you accept the fairies and gnomes of prog rock. It never ceases to surprise me what a dynamic range such a narrow niche can contain, though. Where Ministry is all treble-drenched, cartoonish aggression, Godflesh is stark and harrowing, plowing an excoriated emotional landscape.

At the time of its release, Hymns was the swansong for Godflesh, as JK Broadrick moved on to other projects. It remains not only my favorite Godflesh LP, but one of my favorite guitar records, full stop. The unique sound of the guitars themselves, across the whole album, is worth the price of entry alone. It's as if they amplified the fretboard—so every pluck, strum and chord change is an event unto itself, as well as the resulting note. This clear meeting of flesh, steel and electricity is epic.

Hymns is distinctive in the Godflesh catalogue. It's one their few records to feature a live drummer. Abandoning their distinctive  machine rhythms may have been controversial among their cult fan base, but it perfectly suits the more human and dynamic sound of this LP. The lyrics on Hymns seem more personal as well. Much of the writing is more introverted and filled with self-examination, rather than simply raging outward.

Broadrick was clearly looking to the horizon: the last song on Hymns is titled Jesu, the same as the new band he would debut a couple years later.  In recent years, Godflesh has reentered the fray. After touring their seminal album, Streetcleaner, for a bit, they've begun releasing all new material. Last year's Post Self ranks among their best work. 

The Sound of Silver

LCD Soundsystem, 2007

When LCD Soundsystem is firing on all cylinders, they're straotspheric. Even still, I approach every new missive with skepticism. Any band with that much knowing irony baked in makes it's hard to discern when you're an admiring fan or the butt end of a joke. LCD Soundsystem is practically a musical representation of the early-2000s rise of Brooklyn chic.

I came around to their second album, The Sound of Silver, via the astounding single, All My Friends. Or, rather, the cover of it—by the one and only John Cale—included as a b-side. While LCD, no doubt, wrote an exceptional (and surprisngly affecting) song, John Cale completely hijacks it. When I play All My Friends in my mind, it's Cale's voice I hear. It served it's purpose nonetheless, inspiring me to give the rest of the album a closer listen.

James Murphy & Co. know their craft. There's hardly a modern rock band that can compete with just how fucking well they put tracks together. Every sound in every song on Sound of Silver is in exactly the right, yet somehow unexpected place. They hug every curve, from the storming Us V Them and North American Scum, to the torch song closer of New York I Love You but You're Bringing me Down. The Sound of Silver is one near-perfect prismatic construction after another.  

Nippon Guitars

Takeshi Terauchi, 1966-74

I don't own much in the way of classic LPs of surf guitar like Link Wray. It seems a style so thoroughly ingrained in the American collective consciousness—now, repeatedly reinforced by film and TV—that owning any often seems ancillary. When I find myself drawn to surf rock, it's the oddities, like the punked up version peddled by Man, or Astroman?.

Nippon Guitars collects recordings by Japanese guitar guru, Takeshi Tarauchi. The appeal—beyond the impressive fretwork—amounts to cultural re-appropriation. On the cover, Tarauchi and band are in samurai garb in front of a stylized set piece, fit for kabuki. They are hamming it up. On record, a few of the tracks even throw in 'far Eastern' scales—but it's more in the vein of a Martin Denny variation. So are they playing to our expectations, merely playing a part, or are they reframing the representation and hijacking the most American rock-n-roll sound for good measure?

The Guillotine

Hey Colossus, 2017

Hey Colossus had been chugging along for a decade before I heard of them. The Guillotine was my first encounter—and it's a stunner. It's something like their twelfth record (depending on how you add it up) so I had some catching up to do. 

Their earlier earlier releases belie why they're lumped in with sludge metal, and (later) noise rock, but Hey Colossus have outgrown such distinctions. There's an hermetic feel to their work—not so much self-referential as ascending out of their past. Their tunes are tightly coiled, and, when they want to be, brutal. The ragged, live edge of the guitar work is miles away from the Helmet model of compressed, percussive blocks of distortion—which is still the template for so much heavy rock today. Instead, Hey Colossus court a sonic murk, always threatens to become too muddy but lending the songs a fathomless depth. They retain just enough clarity to let melodies rise to the surface, when needed.

It all sounds amazing on vinyl, but I fear the rawness of Hey Colossus is the sort that gets diminished by mp3 compression and streaming.

I Was Hoping You'd Pass by Here

Ghost Music, 2018

There's an ongoing debate whether names like indie-rock or punk describe a scene or a sound. Punk icons like Ian McKaye and Calvin Johnson have argued for the former, insisting punk can grow and evolve, even to things that sound nothing like punk today. Others insist we use the term 'punk' describe how something sounds to someone, using shared preconceptions as signposts. At some point, the idea of what punk becomes fixed.

The term indie-rock was coined to describe a particular scene and sound, but naming the genre after bands' affiliation with minor labels has caused no end of confusion as to just what is 'indie'. A wealth of independent labels still ship records in just about every genre imaginable, but there's also a generally accepted 'indie-rock' sound.

Ghost Music nail classic 'indie-rock' so well, listening to I Was Hoping You'd Pass by Here the first time through felt like aural comfort food. It was all familiar and lived in—in the best possible way. The strumming jangle, the ragged edges, the peculiar melancholy cool were all exactly where they should be.

It's more of a feat than it, at first, appears. If you remind me of great indie-rock, but actually pale in comparison, I'll be reaching for what you remind me of. You'd have made a record as signpost. I've found myself coming back instead to Hoping You'd Pass by Here, repeatedly. Ghost Music's magnetic attraction for me is the action that speaks louder than other words. 

Sophisticated Giant

Dexter Gordon, 1977

Jazz sort of withered on the vine as the 70s trudged on. Free jazz edged further toward niche periphery while fusion was quickly laying foundations for AM lite radio. This steady decline in relevance set the stage for a revivalist jazz movement, with some pining for the days when jazz was synonymous with popular music. 

Enter Dexter Gordon. He sported heavy bonafides, having come up with Lionel Hampton in the 40s and cut some phenomenal original hard bop sides in the early 60s for Blue Note. He became Our Man in Paris for most of the following decade, recording for European labels and rarely heard in the US. When he returned in the mid-70s, Gordon received a hero's welcome: just the man to champion the new traditionalist movement—having opted out of the 60s advances so many found alienating.

Sophisticated Giant is a curious beast though. The large ensemble gathered here includes some heavy hitters in the free- and post-bop movement: Bobby Hutcherson and Woody Shaw (plus others who'd sat in with the likes of Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, and Archie Shepp). The tunes are very nostalgic—tastefully arranged by Slide Hampton—but there's tension in the solos. They have a tendency to stray outside the the sepia-toned confines of the album. Sophisticated Giant ends up an album outside of time, entirely.

Here's Where the Strings Come In / Summer of the Shark / Non-Believers + Staring at Your Hologram

Superchunk, 1995 / Portastatic, 2003 / Mac McCaughan, 2015

Capturing a cultural moment is the sort of feat that requires equal parts skill and luck. Which makes it more amazing that Mac McCaughan has done it three times over. Hell, Superchunk had a such a run, it's fans will disagree about just which album captured the zeitgeist.

For my money, it's Here's Where the Strings Come In. It's where Superchunk transcended their heartfelt pop-punk roots (without forsaking them). In fact, it's one of their more visceral records. What sets Strings apart is its wide-angle scope, giving cinematic more force to Mac's lovelorn musings.

Sometime in the mid-90s, McCaughan began moonlighting as Portastatic. it acted as an outlet for smaller, more experimental work, but it eventually grew to overtake his work within Superchunk. Summer of the Shark is the project's pinnacle. Released in 2003, he perfectly captures the wounded soul of a confused post-9/11 America. There's a couple of indirect acknowledgements of the then-still-recent attacks, but mostly I'm struck by the near-perfect yearning of songs like Hey Salty. Summer of the Shark ranks alongside the best of Superchunk.

More controversially, I would argue that Non-Believers, the first record Mac McCaughan has cut under his own name, ranks alongside the other two. It resonates differently the others: the feelings he's chasing are now more reflective, but not wearier. Non-Believers is synth heavy, marking a major turn in his work, and aligning with the retro-fetish du jour. Non-Believers seems distinct, perhap as it's made by someone who witnessed the synth-pop so many are aping, but wasn't playing it at the time—so it's lived in, from the outside in.

Really though, with all three of these albums, it just comes down to the fucking songs. If I hear one of these albums, I'm humming them for days. These earworm melodies are never tied to trite or half-baked lyrics, so they both delight and fulfill.

(Just for shits and giggles, I also got the limited edition instrumental re-eits of Non-Believers as well. Mac seems like a such an unlikely figure to release a remix album, it was hard to resist.)

Erosión

Ildefonso Aguilar, 1985

The official history of ambient may already be written but the addenda are rapidly expanding. Continued hipster obsessions like vaporware created a cottage industry for excavating forgotten new age relics. Most of it is mere detritus only interesting in ironic context, but Ildefonso Aguilar's Erosión proves a revelation. It would easily fit into the mid-90s isolationist ambient scene, but was a decade too early. It's dark and cavernous atmosphere is too blurry to be on-the-nose moody, which dooms so many of it's peers. Instead Erosión is more abstractly cinematic, casting everyday moments as ominous.

ZLO

Uon, 2017

In the late 90s, the Basic Channel label rewired electronic dub. Bass drops sunk so deep they were more felt than heard. Rhythms were implied with negative space as much as drum hits. Uon pushes these same concepts further out, so far I have a hard time explaining why I think this ZLO is in a dub record at all. Central elements of these songs seem to be missing, but their outlines are faintly visible in the periphery of what's left. The undertow of this has become a riptide the songs themselves can't escape. This is dub as a subliminal force.

Stairfoot Lane Bunker

Special Request, 2017

Special Request Stairfoot Lane Bunker

It can sometimes be hard, distinguishing between straight revival and subtle update. The are plenty of old skool jungle classicists, tweaking the Amen break like it's still 1996 (god bless 'em). Like garage rock, drum-n-bass seems to always be enjoying a reexamination in some corner of the scene—a truth also making it an easy anchor reference for explorations further afield.

Special Request's EP, Stairfoot Lane Bunker, has moments that could easily pass for vintage 'ardcore, but on closer listen it has a dark ambient heart. As much as the beats might skitter and surge, the sea level of every track is an ominous cloud of drone. It's a neat trick, really: upping the tension in every track, making the beats—when they burst free—truly cathartic.

Giraffe

Simon Fisher Turner, 2017

I pre-ordered Giraffe by Simon Fisher Turner, not knowing what to expect. Sure, there was one song to preview, but there's so little of his music available on vinyl, or readily available at all. If you follow him, a new LP is an absolute event. I've tried before to explain SFT's ineffable output, and Giraffe is no easier to categorize. It moves between somnambulant ambient passages to dark isolationist paranoia, only to be interrupted by field recordings. He shows little or no attempt to make sense of it for you. Even many of the sounds with a naturalistic / recorded feel remain wholly unnamable. Giraffe is not an easy album because Turner invites you listen to sound within his own terms and conditions, and that's exactly why it's worth any minor discomfort.

Vermont Versions / Häxan Versions

Vermont & Prins Thomas / Dungen & Prins Thomas

My first exposure to Prins Thomas' work was his remix work for other artists. It's no mean feat to rearrange another artist's work, casting it in a different light, yet retaining a recognizable air of the original. I now rank Thomas alongside the likes of Andrew Weatherall, as a top tier remixer.

Both Vermont Versions and Häxan Versions are collections by artists who let Prins Thomas loose on entire albums—a prospect more interesting than either a hodge-podge of different remixers or a collection of different artists remixed by the same producer. The works still hang together as a whole. It's a complete album seen through a singular, new lens.

The origins of these two LPs could hardly be more different. Vermont is an analogue synth band on Kompakt records making an updated kosmische musik. Prins Thomas' cosmic-disco reworks are not a distant reach. Dungen on the other hand is a rock outfit, operating towards the space-rock end of heavy metal. Prins Thomas respect for the original material gives each record a distinct character, but it's his strong voice as a producer that brings the two ends together.

Leave Corners

Aquarelle, 2017

Not too long ago, the underground was in danger of drowning in ambient drone acts. Luckily the herd seems to have been thinned in the recent years. Otherwise, a fine example of string-and-effects driftwork like Aquarelle's Leave Corners would have easily been lost in the flood. Thoughtfully and tastefully created, Leave Corners pits stasis against melody while striking a balance between pristine beauty and distorted grit. The cello at the heart of these songs lends even the most static stretches a tactile warmth. Aquarelle is more tune oriented than the outer reaches of ambient, though. Perhaps it's best viewed as an electronic cousin to ambient-rock: pop-drone.