Catherine Morgan, Chris Brierly, Mark Pharoah, Robert Woollard: strings
Mark Barratt: trumpet
Eden on the Air
Eat it Up Worms Hero
Fiery Gun Hand
Insect Hooves on Lassie
Fairy Mary Mag
A Horse’s Tail
Wireless/Peril on the Sea
Flap Off You Beak
Quiet as a Mouse
Red Fire Coming Out of His Gills
Nurses Whispering Verses
Once upon a time, I watched a YouTube video. It featured several middle-aged, somewhat grizzled gentlemen and a younger man with wild black hair, playing various instruments and videoed from rather odd angles. The bass player sat, substantial and impassive, wearing nothing but a small pair of underwear.
What I saw (and heard) is hard to describe – I barely understood it the first time through and had to immediately watch it about six more times. Whatever these guys were doing, it was like nothing I had ever heard (or seen) before. Imagine a slightly psychotic pop song, except with more rhythmic shifts and time-signature changes and sudden breaks and mad musical ideas packed into four minutes than most artists can fit on an entire album, pulled off by guys who looked like the sort of guys who get together to jam on amateur night at the local pub. And pulled off absolutely flawlessly, tighter-than-tight, with maniacal skill.
The band was, of course, the Cardiacs, and the video was “Jibber and Twitch Rehearsal”. This review isn’t about that video, but it illustrates the basic process I went through while listening to Sing to God. Which I believe (but honestly don’t remember) was my next real foray into the labyrinthine musical miracle that is Tim Smith and Cardiacs, after poking around on YouTube and ending up overwhelmed.
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
He Av En
Under the Fragmented Sky
Rinsing the Night
The Art of Repairing
“And it’s going to be the best story of your life….”
The tracks from this short album/EP/however you want to call it, were written during the Fractured sessions, but clearly did not fit that with album’s feel or direction. However, they were good enough (and I think recognizing how much of a departure from LS Fractured really was), that Mariusz Duda decided to gather them together into their own release.
In fact, I submit that Mariusz Duda had no choice but to release this album. Under the Fragmented Sky is an astonishing collection of music, so deeply evocative of everything Lunatic Soul as an idea stands for that I wonder whether LS really is an entity unto itself and Duda can only bow to its demands for life. I barely dared hope for something even half as good (especially after the disappointment of Fractured).
Or the tl:dr version of the previous paragraphs: Under the Fragmented Sky is a miracle.
Sometimes an album comes along that reduces you to awed silence – there is so much to say about it that you actually have no idea what to say about it. This album is one of those.
Seeming consists of a couple of academics: Aaron Fuleki, a software and application technologist and designer, and musician (obviously) from Denison University in Ohio, and Dr. Alex Reed, professor of music at Ithaca College. Reed seems to be the main driving force: composer and author and musician and performer and clearly stuffed with so many ideas that he can hardly keep up with himself. Along with the album Sol are accompanying EPs that provide different mixes of the tracks, and some additional background context for the development of the ideas in Sol. Since all of that is too much to take in for one year, I will stick with the main release.
Sol is a masterpiece of dark post-industrial pop-rock, richly lyrical, sweeping and chunky and ironic, and so incandescently intelligent I’m surprised my speakers have not burst into flames. The main theme of the album seems to be about human transformation — it is time for humanity to move on, to change from the creature we are now into something more transcendent, or at least less harmful to the environment, other species, and ourselves. Those are the broad strokes. Every song presents this existential dilemma in a different manner; I could fill this entire review with nothing but quotes from lyrics of the songs, but best you hear them for yourself. As with most philosophy, everyone will have a somewhat different take on what Reed is trying to say here, and a different favourite song that conveys it.
The album relies profoundly on its lyrical content, so vocals take centre stage: Reed has a very good voice, rich and powerful at times if not particularly distinctive, well-employed and well-articulated – a lyric sheet is almost unnecessary. Around those words swirls music that ranges from dense and relentless post-gothic industrial (“Let’s Talk About Bones”) to delicate electronic pop (the poignantly ironic “Citizen”) to beautiful ballads (“Wildwood”), to broad orchestral sweeps of sound (horns included) in “Doomsayer”, and remarkably each track blends seamlessly into the next, despite their differences.
It is hard to pick out one outstanding track – each one possesses a slightly different identity, a unique shift in style, a surprising twist of construction – somehow apt given the theme of the album. However, I gravitate towards “Doomsayer”, the monster opening track that pummels with breathless declaration of obsession, shifts towards delicacy and then pounds one again with an electronic hammer – I recall the first time hearing it, with my jaw hanging open. Between the words and the music, it was all too much to absorb in one sitting.
In the end, the best I can say is: Sol: A Self-Banishment Ritual really is an astonishing album and this review doesn’t come near to doing it justice. Simultaneously challenging and accessible, it rewards repeat listening—hell, it demands repeat listening– because between the music and the lyric ideas there is so much going on that it is impossible to take it all in at once. It is sing-along thinking-man’s music for the future of us. If we are lucky.
While I was jotting down notes and observations for my To the Bone review, I decided to revisit what I wrote about Steven Wilson’s previous album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. I was struck by how similar my thoughts about that album are to the new one. I could probably just copy/paste chunks of that review here and change the song titles. I won’t do that, of course, because they really are not the same, but clearly it shows that the albums are consistent in their effect, if nothing else. (See the review for Hand. Cannot. Erase.here)
It is needless to point out that when Steven Wilson announces a new album, the fanbase excitement level heads into overdrive. This time Wilson released four tracks before the album itself hit, and the overall reaction to them was mixed, to say the least – enthusiasm, puzzlement, and dismay all rolled up into one roiling ball of internet pandemonium, especially around the unapologetically pop “Permanating”. This was a direction that seemed new, or at least a substantial swerve away from what many people expected him to do. Steven Wilson apparently was releasing an album of pop songs.
I almost started this, um, review (excursus might be more to the point; bear with me), by calling my new obsession a “guilty pleasure” – but you know what? Screw that. I am not in the least embarrassed by stumbling on this stuff, and if you other folks fail to appreciate some of the best damned metal I have ever laid ears on, then that’s not my problem. I’m just going to try to convince you otherwise.
I checked out Pretty Maids because a good friend is a passionate fan, and I am always interested in learning what greases my friends’ musical wheels. Often the explorations don’t amount to much, but sometimes something sticks. And I am surprised, I will admit: Pretty Maids is a glam rock/hard rock/metal outfit out of Denmark, who formed up way the hell back in 1981 and released their first album in 1984: in short they have been around for more than three decades and I had never heard of them.
So: on to the actual list of actual albums of 2016. My introductory blurb is here. This year it is a Top 20, because the quality of music was just so high. In fact, unlike most years, this time I struggled with the bottom end of the list – there were a number of albums that were very close to making the cut, and it was difficult to not be able to include them (there were some no-hopers — there always are — but rather fewer this year than normal). My apologies to those who didn’t quite make it.
A real feature of the albums at the top is their staying power. Several of them were released early in the year (the Shearwater in fact was released digitally in December 2015 to those who pre-ordered), and despite the passage of time, and the tendency to focus on more recent albums, they hold up: They are as strong at the end of the year as they were when they were first released. For me, this is the true test of an album’s quality: if it gives as much pleasure or demands as much attention from me a year (or more) later as it did when it first appeared.
Van der Graaf Generator – Do Not Disturb
Is this the last VdGG album? There are hints that it might be, but on the other hand there are few musicians out there as prolific as Peter Hammill has been over his career…so who knows? At any rate, this is the old VdGG but sans David Jackson, which does remove a crucial familiar element from the music, but otherwise there is no mistaking the haunted angst, the echoes of the great band of the past.
Throes of Dawn — Our Voices Shall Remain
Throes of Dawn are a Finnish outfit that apparently at one time were black metal. They have softened and broadened their sound, but the metal hasn’t left. They are a bit derivative to my ears, but there are some beautiful instrumental moments in these songs — and whoever that guitarist is — well, it is gorgeous playing, soaring and evocative, and that is enough to slide this album onto the list.
The title track has a bass line stolen right from Editors “Sugar” — but nevertheless, I love the song.
Necro Deathmort — The Capsule
I’ve said this before: it is hard to predict what you are going to get with these guys. Relentlessly prolific, they are continually tossing out EPs and tracks that explore the landscape of ambience, electronica, drone, in myriad directions. The Capsule revisits the disquieting dark moodiness of Music of Bleak Origins, instrumental drone metal underlain with a jittery anxiety.
17. Opeth — Sorceress
Opeth is one of those bands that I have struggled mightily with for a long time, trying to hear what everyone else seems to hear, who love them so much. In the end I guess I have to say that they remain completely hit-and-miss for me. That being said, I find that Sorceress is one of their more accessible albums. I don’t love it, but I can listen to it more than most of their others. So here it is, number 17.
uKanDanz – Awo
And now for something completely different. It is hard to describe what we have here – based out of France, hard, energetic, proggy/jazzy rock, lots of guitar riffage and horns, and on top of it all the unique vocal stylings of their Ethiopian lead singer, Asnake Gebreyes. It is heavy and strangely compelling, but may well be an acquired taste.
Dead When I Found Her – Eyes on Backwards
As I noted earlier, 2016 was the year I really discovered industrial electronica, a genre I had never really explored before, having come across them completely by accident a couple of years or so ago when I found VNV Nation. But this year there seems to have been a bumper crop of the stuff brought to my awareness. DWIFH is a duo from Portland, Oregon; this album is all smooth synths and dark trance, oddly compelling and disquieting, perhaps a bit too sample-heavy for my taste, but interesting enough to make the list.
2016 … When the (probably apocryphal) Chinese sage said “May you live in interesting times”, this must have been close to what he meant. We lost so many great musicians, especially in the early part of the year, it seemed as though the music gods were punishing us for unknown sins by taking beloved people, one by one by one. There were personal losses as well…and at least one of those crossed the boundary between fandom and friendship.
At the same time, the music that was released was of a quality that I haven’t experienced for a long time. This is not to say that everything reached the same stellar heights but almost everything I sampled had moments of interest. I ended up investing in more new music than I have for several years, just because so much of it seemed worthy of further attention. This made the task of sorting through the list of potential year-end albums excruciatingly difficult. Therefore this list is a Top 20 instead of last year’s Top 15, which itself was a statement about the quality of music out in 2015 since normally I think in terms of Top 10. You get the picture.
Things didn’t start off so well. I look back on my first statement, in early July I think, about how the year was going. I said this:
I can’t say I have made much of an effort to find new music this year. Just way too much stuff in the personal realm has gone wrong. In fact I have been so disinterested that I may not write up a full year-end report for 2016. But a few things have managed to sneak onto the list. And I know that some stuff is yet to come…so who knows. At least a couple of albums so far have been real surprises, so I’m not ready to write off the year just yet.
Oh how things changed after that….
Speaking of the music…if 2015 was my metal year, for 2016 it was industrial electronica. Some psychedelia (but just a little). And the 1980s are definitely still a thing, since the best of the electronica has looked back to classic days. Metal and post-metal, a bit of prog and some alternative are still present of course, but my horizons are expanding. At least, the best of the stuff coming down the pipeline has been from unexpected directions. But good music is good music, whatever the genre.
There were more things to consider than just new releases though. It was also quite a good year for specialty releases: compilations, re-releases, one-off projects, and such-like: albums that could not be included in the year-end album list but that deserve mention anyway because they are just very good. So for the first time I have a separate list for those.
And this is where I will begin.
The Reissues, Compilations, and Live Albums
These are the albums that cannot really be regarded as presenting “new” material, at least for the most part, but are definitely worth the money. It was a good year for this kind of thing as well, with bands finalizing anticipated projects, or stretching out into different territory, or small labels flexing their muscle with some outstanding examples of their artists. I have presented them in reverse order of interest (to me).
Pelican – Live at Dunk!Fest 2016
One of the iconic post-metal bands, and one I’ve never managed to see live, but one day I sure hope to. In the meantime they made available their utterly fierce performance at Dunk!Fest, available as a digital download or a beautiful coloured vinyl release. Well worth checking out.
Shearwater – Shearwater Plays Lodger (live)
One of the more curious projects to come along this year. I’m not quite sure what inspired the band to do this, apart from the fact that they love David Bowie’s Lodger album…but they really do manage to pull it off.
Nash the Slash – Dreams and Nightmares
Nash the Slash (Jeff Plewman), who died in 2014, was one of those musicians who, if you knew of him at all, you were captivated. With his bandaged-wrapped face, top hat, and electric violin, he was an iconoclastic purveyor of atmosphere and electronica, both solo and with the band FM. He was a legend in Toronto and across Canada and enormously respected in the electronica community. Dreams and Nightmares is a reissue of his 1978 album of the same name; this album features the spectacular soundtrack he created for the Bunuel/Dali 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou.
Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape
This was released as a companion album to the rest of the discography, bringing together their much-beloved but still oft-overlooked forays into ambient electronica. It gathers together bonus tracks from the last two band releases, two of the bonus songs from Rapid Eye Movement II, and four spectacular new songs. It also stands as a heart-breakingly poignant tribute, because it was the last album that guitarist Piotr Grudzinski ever worked on before he died suddenly in early 2016. My review of the album is here.
Artoffact Records – I am Awesome Because I Still Buy Music
Label compilations, especially around this time of year (getting towards Christmas) are a dime a dozen. One can understand the motivation, since they bring together sample tracks from a label’s roster of artists; the problem, sometimes, is that these can be massive collections – I’ve seen upwards of 50 tracks on some of these things. Who has that kind of time?
Artoffact Records is the in-house label of the Toronto-based online shop Storming the Base, supplier of music leaning strongly towards electronica and synthpop. They have put together their own sampler, and folks, this is how it’s done. A lean and focused collection from six artists who are releasing new albums, with two tracks each, so it doesn’t overwhelm with quantity. But the quality…! The result is a monster sampler of dark wave, raucous and melodic industrial electronica/metal, compelling listening as an album on its own, and it’s free for god’s sake. And if the aim was to get you to investigate the musicians included here, it sure worked because I have bought albums from three of the six. Outstanding examples: the bleak and beautiful “Expiring Time” by Dead When I Found Her, both tracks by Toronto-based solo artist v01d, and “Shut Up” by Out Out, an incandescent statement of outrage against the faux news of Fox News.
My very favourite supplementary project for my very favourite Porcupine Tree album. It is no secret by this time that I am not much of a PT fan in general, I like a few albums and songs here and there. But Fear of a Blank Planet is one of my desert island albums, and IMO the four tracks that make up the Nil Recurring EP are just as brilliant. Of course the EP has been available for years, but it is great to have a silver vinyl copy of this as well, and in fact I play it pretty relentlessly.
(Triple vinyl tracklist is in a somewhat different order)
When I first discovered Riverside, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was astonished: this music grabbed me in a way none ever had before — emotionally, intellectually, even physically – I listened in an enraptured transcendence that never seemed to fade. A friend of mine likes to say: “The music of your life will find you”, and it was only with the discovery of Riverside and Lunatic Soul that I truly understood what he meant. I’d listened to and loved a lot of music and artists over the decades, but nothing like this.
I eventually realized that I had also become part of an extended family, that there was a real connection – something I had never experienced before – between the band and their fans, and the fans with each other. We shared anticipation, accolades, joy, and alas, the tragedies. In this year especially that connection became manifest, where we came together, sharing our shock, our loss, our memories. The line between the band and the fans blurred in the tears.
I discovered the experimental side of the band early on with the REM bonus material, and those tracks became among my favourites from that album. Fast-forward to the release of Shrine of New Generation Slaves and the spectacular “Night Sessions” bonus tracks: surely here was a direction that the guys should explore — in fact it would almost be criminal if they didn’t. Of course, the “Day Sessions” tracks just reinforced this. Piotr Grudziński was openly eager to do a dedicated ambient experimental project; his excitement was palpable. And then, it became a reality. The guys – at least Piotr, Mariusz Duda and Michał Łapaj — headed into the studio to make this special album, this anticipated addendum to the Riverside discography. Good news indeed.
Then…early in 2016 came that devastating blow to band and fans alike; and instead of being a celebratory exploration of a beloved genre of music, the project became a memorial. A poignant tribute to an unfinished journey, a legacy of love and loss.
It was about a year ago as of this writing that Riverside’s sixth album, Love, Fear and the Time Machine was released, with all the usual hype from the band, and excitement and anticipation amongst the fans near and far…and oh, I was going to review the shit right out of it. I had the keyboard all polished and ready to go, headphones warmed up, I’d heard a couple of the songs on Youtube that had been played live at summer festivals…it sounded so hopeful.
Well…I listened to it and listened to it. There were days when I loved it to death, and days when I couldn’t figure the damned thing out. It was both a Riverside album and not a Riverside album. It was marvelous to hear, and yet at the same time strangely off-kilter. It should be a well-known fact by now that Riverside refuses to remain stylistically static – but LFatTM went even beyond that. The album was written by Mariusz Duda during and after a series of events that influenced its flavour and direction, and his persona is more deeply embedded in this album than in any that have come before. It hangs like an obscuring veil over the presence of the other guys in the band. In fact, this is the first Riverside album on which Riverside the band received no writing credits at all.
My review, at least something sensible and coherent, never appeared. I simply couldn’t figure out what to say.
Now, whatever the roadblocks were to writing … they might still pertain in some ways, but their importance is diminished. Love, Fear and the Time Machine, due to an event after its release that no-one could even imagine, let alone foresee, is for all intents and purposes the last Riverside album. There may well be other albums by a Polish band with that name, but with the death of Piotr Grudziński the old Riverside is gone forever.
Welcome to the third in an occasional series of reviews of albums in my collection that need revisiting. Most of these are older albums, or obscure albums, or both…at any rate, a little attention never hurt. Maybe you will find something interesting.
Johnny Clegg: Vocals, guitar, umhupe mouth-bow
Sipho Mchunu: Vocals, guitar, concertina
Gary Van Zyl: Bass, percussion, vocals
Zola Mtiya: Drums, percussion, vocals
Scorpion Madondo: Flute, vocals
Mike Faure: Saxophone
Mike Makhalemele: Saxophone
Glenda Millar: Keyboards and synthesizers
Scatterlings of Africa
Spirit is the Journey
Digging for Some Words
Shake My Way
Two Humans on the Run
The first time I ever heard Scatterlings I was stunned. It is easy enough to wax hyperbolic when we hear music that strikes our fancy, but in this case it is no exaggeration to say that this album was a revelation. The rhythms, the percussive sounds, the dominance of the acoustic guitars, and most of all the richly intricate Zulu language vocal harmonies were like nothing I had ever heard before. At its core the music is infused with traditional South African sounds and styles, but nevertheless it is unmistakably modern, fully comprehensible and accessible.
When Johnny Clegg, musician and future anthropologist, was 16, he met the Zulu migrant worker Sipho Muchunu, who had come to Johannesburg to find work. Clegg had already begun to immerse himself in the umbaqanga and kwela music that made up so much of South African street music, and in Zulu traditional dance. He and Mchunu founded Juluka, a band of mixed white and black musicians, a subversive and risky move given the political context of South Africa at the time. Despite the difficulties in finding venues to play in and radio stations that would air their music, they became a popular band and by the time Scatterlings, their fourth album, was released, they had garnered enough international attention to undertake a tour of Europe and North America.