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Xela, "Tangled Wool"

This is a great pop record that doesn't want to be a pop record.

City Centre Offices
Xela has crafted what is for me, the year's first magnificent pop album. "Softness of Senses" opens the record with an absolutely sublime strumming guitar riff that leads into some simple guitar melodies, whisps of synth and deep bass notes. It's a perfect start to an album that has quickly become one of my favorites in recent memory. Well, it's almost perfect. By the time I was halfway through the beautifully melancholy "You Are In The Stars" I started to wonder what was missing. It's an absolutely intoxicating record of superb melodies, textbook pop song structures, and just the right amount of tweaked back-end to throw the whole mix into another world, but by the time I got to track five, "Through Crimson Clouds," the experience was feeling incomplete. It was like one of the channels of the stereo mix was just missing: a huge gaping whole in the middle of one of the best pop records I've heard in a long, long time. And then it hit me. In John Xela's quest to make the perfect pop record (dedicated to Monika), he forgot to get anyone to sing on it! To be fair, there's a repeating phrase drenched in reverb on "Drawing Pictures of Girls," but that's not enough to do the rest of these arrangements justice. These songs are so tight, I can hear the words that should be there in my head every time I give it a spin, but try as I might, I can't find the vocals because there aren't any. I'm not one who's stuck on vocal-driven music; most of what I listen to is instrumental in fact. But with a record of this depth—the kind of record 4AD used to put out when anyone gave a damn, the kind of record that gets jaded ex-pop music fans to put down the laptop glitch and listen to something that belongs on a mixtape of love songs—there's just got to be someone singing on it. These songs demand a voice, and not just the tonally-challenged voice I add when I'm listening in the car. John Xela, if you are reading this, go find yourself a singer. Toni Haliday isn't doing much these days, is she? Surely there's some way to reconcile this because a finer pop record isn't bound to come around this year, but this one isn't finished.

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Review of the Day

SUNN O))), "WHITE 2"
Southern Lord
Masters of the stomach-churning, intestine-voiding, subharmonic frequencies, Steven O'Malley and Greg Anderson return for a sequel to last year's impressive White 1, not surprisingly entitled White 2. Much has been made of Anderson and O'Malley's transmogrification and mutation of their Nordic black metal influences into the slow-motion, doom-laden minimalism of their recordings as Sunn O))). Never mind that it isn't a very original idea, having previously been put forth by Seattle ambient sludge-core band Earth. Listen to the track "Ripped on Fascist Ideas" from Earth's live album Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars for the origin of Sunn O)))'s sonic palette. To their credit, however, Sunn O))) have relentlessly pursued this aesthetic, going several steps further with their use of variable-speed tape mutations and other synthetic technology to create the lowest low-end feasible, with the possible exception of that lowrider that cruises through my neighborhood in the middle of the night blasting bone-rattling Miami bass. On White 2, they choose not to repeat the guest-vocalist tactics of the first White album, in favor of creating three lengthy, horror movie soundscapes that willfully test the limits of the stereo playback system, even as they revel in fascinatingly tangible textures. Although they approach their compositions from a completely different perspective, Sunn O))) arrive in the same general "dark ambient" territory as Lustmord or Lull, spinning vaguely cinematic post-industrial abstractions in which mood is the primary attraction. The fourteen doom-laden minutes of "Hell-O)))-Ween" are the most prototypical of the band: a series of brutally plodding riffs that are allowed to reverberate, slowly building up compounding layers distortion and bass rumble like slowly coagulating amber dripping down a prehistoric tree. It's crushing and dowtrodden, but it's nothing compared to the next two epic tracks of desolation and fear. "bassAliens" explores the lonely, claustrophobic corners just out of sight on Ridley Scott's Nostromo, haunted by the faint specter of menace, distorted subharmonic rumbles that sputter and mutate, spewing foul plumes of hydrochloric acid. What's remarkable about this track is the effective usage of higher-frequency tones and midrange atmospheric guitar plonks, which, juxtaposed with the jarring bass rumbles, create a vivid sound environment unmatched on Sunn O)))'s previous records. The album concludes with the 25-minute epic "Decay 2 (Nihil's Maw)," where Anderson and O'Malley are joined by legendary Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar for a frightening peak into the void. Listening to this track on an expensive pair of headphones is like staring into the empty, yawning chasm of oblivion, a screaming hole that sucks up sound and life itself. Dislocated from any recognizable sound source other than Csihar's multi-layered growls, shrieks and Odinic chants, a listener has no choice but to float towards the soul-shredding epicenter of the black hole, where ancient demonic forces gather and align to prepare for the final descent to zero. 

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