Brainwashed Radio: The Podcast Edition

Redwood Forest Stump from FayeBrand new music this week from The Soft Pink Truth, Waveskania, Sam Gendel, Ian William Craig, James K, Kamikaze Palm Tree, Sunfear, Mr. Curtains, and Justin Wright, plus classics from The Cat's Miaow, Hydroplane, and The Legendary Pink Dots.

Massive stump from the Redwood Forest in Northern California from Faye.

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Enhet F√∂r Fri Musik, "√ñmhet & Skilsmässa"

cover imageThis latest release from my favorite Swedish free music collective is apparently "a concept album on relationships, family values and broken promises." I will have to take their word on that, as I do not understand Swedish, but Ömhet & Skilsmässa ("Tenderness & Divorce") does have a very different (and possibly more wholesome) feel than some previous releases. How truly wholesome an album can be when it features Sewer Elections' Dan Johansson is up for debate, but I do not doubt the collective's commitment to carrying on the grand tradition of freeform Swedish psychedelia a la Pärson Sound, Träd Gräs Och Stenar, and others. That said, Enhet För Fri Musik have their own wonderful thing going and I would be hard pressed to think of any other artists this devoted to guileless simplicity and organic spontaneousness. Admittedly, I was secretly hoping the quintet would revisit the sound collage territory of "Fragment Av En Midsommarnattsdröm" this time around, but my consolation prize is that the Jandek-ian discordant acoustic guitars are kept to a minimum. Instead, this album feels like the impressionistic audio diary of a teenage girl who is growing up in a pleasant rural commune, as it uncannily evokes the wonder and openness of someone totally indifferent to popular trends and not yet hardened by the endless disappointment and inhumanity of the outside world.

Discreet Music

It took me a bit longer than usual to fall in love with this album, as I was initially exasperated by the extreme brevity of several of the best songs and the fragmented, kaleidoscopic nature of the album. I am probably a fool for coming to an Enhet För Fri Musik album expecting a hot single, but I do like it when a band's best ideas are expanded into complete, fully formed statements. That sort of thing was not on the agenda with this album, but it eventually dawned on me that something considerably more interesting and unique was happening instead. Obviously, "Swedish noise artists reclaim their childlike naivete to transform into an oft-brilliant free-folk ensemble" is an impressive feat too, but I was already expecting that part. Consequently, I was more struck by how this album feels like a VHS tape of enigmatic found footage fragments that capture flickering tender, beautiful, intimate, and uneasy moments spanning many years and many miles. There are a few pieces that feel dark, such as "Opus 6 – Sommarljus" (crunching footsteps in a desolate moonlit shipyard, then a ramshackle, Wicker Man-esque folk procession) and "Kärlekens Nöjen" (woman humming a sad melody by the seaside as storm clouds gather). If the album was entirely in that vein, it would feel like a series of clues to an unsolved murder, but the amiable musicality of Sofie Herner's voice makes the album feel like I am being led through a bittersweet phantasmagoria by a trusted and charming friend. It also helps that there are some genuinely lovely song vignettes strewn throughout the album. My favorite pieces are the ones in which Herner haltingly and casually chatters over a simple pretty melody, such as "Idag Är Det Bra" (featuring an endearingly wobbly-sounding synth melody) and the hesitant, finger-picked folk of "En Bra Dag." The closing piano ballad "Skilsmässa" is another delight in that simple melodic vein, but there is also one excellent sound collage-style piece on the album as well ("Flytten"). In fact, "Flytton" is probably the album’s most surreal and absorbing piece, as it sounds somewhere between an accordion-driven sea shanty and a murky, hallucinatory cabaret. Or maybe like a melancholy noir film about the French Resistance, except the club's femme fatale chanteuse has lost interest in singing and is just conversationally chattering in Swedish as a grinding, supernatural roar slowly envelops everything. I would be thrilled if there were a few more songs like that on Ömhet & Skilsmässa, but I genuinely love the spell that the collective casts on this album. Enhet För Fri Musik are channeling something truly radical: a simpler pre-internet era before regional character, emotional directness, and intimacy were nearly wiped off the map by advances in production technology and all-consuming international trends. And they seem to be confidently climbing farther and farther out on that limb with each new release.

Samples can be found here.

Legendary Pink Dots, "Island of Jewels"

cover imageMetropolis Records continues their ambitious LPD reissue campaign with an expanded and remastered edition of this oft-fascinating album from the band's celebrated mid-'80s hot streak. According to the band, Island of Jewels was "the natural successor" to The Tower, but it was chronologically sandwiched between two of the Dots' most beloved albums from the era (1985's Asylum and 1988's Any Day Now). Being eclipsed on either side by arguably superior albums has not been optimal for Island of Jewels' stature within the LPD canon, yet it still captured the band in legitimately inspired form (albeit in service of an especially bleak vision this time around). As I did not start delving into the Dots' oeuvre until the mid-'90s (I was lured in by The Tear Garden), I still find it a bit difficult to embrace some of the conspicuously "'80s" elements from this particular phase, as the synth sounds and slap/fretless bass themes have not aged terribly well. Then again, it seems deeply wrong-headed to take issue with the tools that the band used to craft such a playfully surreal and endearing collection of songs, as only a fool would let passing stylistic trends rob them of their sense of wonder. While I would describe Island of Jewels as a more of an acquired taste than some of the surrounding releases, it is a taste worth acquiring, as this album is a delightfully hook-filled and hallucinatory world to immerse oneself in.

Metropolis

Belatedly delving into '80s-era Legendary Pink Dots is a curious experience, as albums like this one capture an incredibly imaginative and talented group of musicians still somewhat in the thrall of their influences and the popular instrumentation of the time. As a result, a lot of this album sounds like someone from the Victorian era became obsessed with '70s prog and set out to make a half-carnivalesque/half-melancholy concept album armed with a fretless bass and an inexpensive synthesizer. Given that singular vibe, even the weakest songs are compellingly weird, but the tradeoff is that the best songs almost always have some kind of irksome imperfection. Perhaps that latter part works in the band's favor entertainment-wise though, as the dated sounds undercut Edward Ka-Spel's bleakness to create something more charming and fun. The first half of the album is teeming with such skewed delights. My favorite is the wonky, lurching "Dairy," which feels like a unhinged magician with a drum machine leading a dance party on a disturbingly Sid & Marty Krofft-inspired children's show. "The Red and the Black" deserves an honorable mention too, as it sounds like a macabre art-pop ensemble performing a shape-shifting cabaret show, but a mischievous bassist decided to wrong-foot everyone by obsessively playing a cheerily cartoonish riff over and over again.

Of course, there are some legitimate Dots classics here too, such as the neo-classical goth-pop balladry of "Shock of Contact." To some degree, it feels like a prog band doing a spacey electric cover of an old harpsichord piece, but that aspect is eclipsed by an especially haunting and beautiful vocal performance from Ka-Spel. The other big highlight comes in the form of the "Our Lady" trilogy near the end of the album. The first part, "Our Lady In Chambers," feels like a darkly lysergic piano ballad plucked from a fairy tale, but one propelled by a thudding drum machine, liquid fretless bass riffage, harmonized lead guitar, dramatic violin flourishes, and occasional stabs of fake horns. Ka-Spel's vocals are wonderfully tender, poetic, and beautiful, so it is easy to imagine a contemporary live version of the piece being an absolute stunner. I was also impressed by "Our Lady of Darkness," which initially sounds like an absinthe-drunk mad genius performing a one-man opera in his mountain castle, but unexpectedly erupts into a very cool and intricate instrumental outro. Notably, the vinyl and digital versions of this reissue enhance the original twelve-song album with eight freewheeling bonus pieces, and they make this latest incarnation considerably more fascinating than the original. My notes on the bonus material are full of phrases like "terrifying German expressionist puppet show set in space" or "sounds like a disco-era erotic vampire musical on rollerskates," and those are not even the pieces identified as "Version Ridiculous" (an honor reserved solely for “No Bell No Prize"). Needless to say, those are exquisite experiences that are impossible to find elsewhere, but the biggest surprise was "This Could Be The End (Alternative)," which radically transforms Asylum's closer into a ghostly folk gem with Attrition's Julia Niblock on vocals. I would not have a expected a bonus track with Ka-Spel on the sidelines to steal the show, but the timeless "folk horror" feel makes it one of my favorite outliers in the LPD canon.

Samples can be found here.

Sarah Davachi, "Cantus Figures Laurus"

cover imageThis five-CD boxed set ambitiously compiles all three of Davachi's interrelated 2020 albums released on her own Late Music imprint. Given that Figures in Open Air alone features two pieces that clock in around an hour each, this collection presents an absolutely overwhelming amount of similar-sounding material. That said, Cantus, Descant seems to be one of Davachi's more beloved releases among fans despite its unswerving devotion to pipe organ-centered minimalism. That makes this collection an inspired idea, as it presents that constrained vision in three differing stages: its "more raw and improvisational" beginnings (Laurus), the polished and meticulously crafted studio album, and some great live performances from the period when this era was taking shape. Each of the three albums features some sublime highlights, which will likely inspire me to curate my own condensed version. That distillation will give me the sustained and focused beauty that I want from a Sarah Davachi album, but Cantus Figures Laurus can also provide a calming five-hour respite in a cathedral of drones. It is not unlike a portable version of La Monte Young's Dream House, if he were into church music instead of psychotropic Just Intonation harmonies. Hell, it can even be an interactive one, as listeners can enhance their experience with their own Marian Zazeela-inspired light shows.

Late Music

The heart of this collection is, of course, Cantus, Descant, which was both the inaugural release for Davachi's Late Music imprint and the culmination of her recent fascination with sacred music and antique church organs. Two organs in particular play a central role: a Van Straten pipe organ from 1479 located at Amsterdam's Orgelpark and a Story & Clark reed organ (1890s) situated in LA's wonderful Museum of Jurassic Technology. Several other antique pipe organs turn up as well, but the Van Staten stands out as unique for reasons beyond its advanced age, as it was tuned to a "sixteenth century meantone temperament" and required the presence of a second person (Hans Fidom) to operate the bellows. The Van Straten compositions form a kind of mini album of their own, as that organ was used for the five numbered "Stations" pieces. Stylistically, however, the "Stations" cycle is fairly representative of the album’s overall aesthetic, which has a feel of floating, dreamlike suspension. The liner notes provide plenty of interesting information about the inspirations and conceptual themes of the album, but the central idea of the album lies in the title: Davachi was primarily interested in the interplay between "cantus" (either unadorned singing or the sometimes improvisatory high voice in a polyphony) and "descant" (the larger structure). Davachi expanded that into approaching the album as a dialogue between the individual and "the larger time and space" that they occupy. In more practical terms, that guiding duality manifests itself in a series of slow-motion, droning reveries that gradually and subtly blossom into something more.

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Rachika Nayar, "Fragments"

cover imageThis new EP is something of a sketchbook-like companion piece to Nayar's sublime debut album. More specifically, it is a collection of "sonic miniatures Nayar constructed from guitar loops . . . in the familiar comforts of her own bedroom," as well as a glimpse of what her raw material sounds like before it is processed and reshaped into "grander mutated compositions" like those of Our Hands Against the Dark. In theory, that should make Fragments something of a minor release, but these more simple and intimate pieces are often even better than those of Nayar's more formal work, albeit with the caveat that more than half of these pieces end in under two minutes (and the others do not stick around much longer). Nevertheless, Nayar is an incredibly gifted guitarist with a remarkably strong melodic sensibility and this album is quite a sustained hot streak of great (if ephemeral) ideas. As with her previous album, it is not hard to spot Nayar's influences—in fact, some pieces are even intended as homages to folks like Pat Metheny and Steve Reich. That said, the main touchstones I hear are more hook-minded contemporary artists like Mark McGuire and some classic Midwestern emo. That is always welcome stylistic terrain in my book, but the real beauty of Fragments lies in how often Nayar matches or surpasses her influences at their own games.

Commend/Rvng Intl.

The album begins in impressive fashion with two nearly perfect pieces in a row. The first, "memory as miniature," opens with chiming clean arpeggios before revealing a lead guitar melody that hits the breezy, laid back California vibe of prime McGuire before a synth-sounding chord progression pulls everything in a more bittersweet dreampop direction. Everything about it is wonderful, but I was especially struck by the beauty of the intricately chiming arpeggios that form its backdrop. The following "clarity," on the other hand, starts off sounding like a candidate for the best American Football song ever, as Nayar unleashes a gorgeously vibrant and ascending guitar melody. Much like its predecessor, however, "clarity" sticks tenaciously to its perfect opening theme and merely enhances it a bit with shimmering chords and some warm synth-like coloration in the periphery. Both of those pieces are prime examples of the compositional aesthetic that defines Fragments: each piece is essentially just an incredibly cool guitar hook playing out for a couple minutes before fading out or abruptly ending. While it lasts, each theme is subtly fleshed out to add emotional depth and a sense of harmonic development, yet each song is still essentially a single theme that is not allowed to blossom into a fully formed song. In theory, that should be exasperating ("aaaargh, why did you stop?!?"), but it is hard to complain when every too-soon ending only leads to yet another improbably beautiful new theme. In fact, there is not a single moment on Fragments that does not sound like an excerpt from a killer emo classic, an imaginary Slowdive song about to erupt, or the perfect soundtrack for a sun dappled summer drive along the California coast. While I dearly wish this EP was (much) longer, I would be hard pressed to hard to think of many other releases from this year that can match Fragments for sheer wall-to-wall greatness.

Samples can be found here.

Klara Lewis & Peder Mannerfelt, "KLMNOPQ"

cover imageI believe this is the first formal collaboration between these two Sweden-based artists, but the pair have a long history together, as Mannerfelt's label released one of Lewis's early EPs (2014's Msuic). While I was not sure quite what to expect given the breadth of Mannerfelt's oeuvre and Lewis's continuous evolution, I was reasonably certain that this collaboration would be wonderful no matter what shape it took and I was not disappointed. The closest reference point for KLMNOPQ is probably Lewis's killer Ingrid EP, as nearly all of these five songs feature churning, blackened drones or murky, gnarled loops of some kind. The twist, however, is that Mannerfelt and Lewis take that roiling intensity in an unexpectedly playful direction without sacrificing much gravitas. The closing "Full of Piss and Vinegar" captures the duo at the height of their gleefully mischievous loop mangling, as it resembles a nightmarishly chopped-and-screwed mariachi band, yet this entire EP is filled with endearingly inventive and perversely anthemic variations of obsessively looping and psychotropic sound collage.

The Trilogy Tapes

The opening "Sell Art" nicely sets the tone for the entire EP, as blown-out, heaving drones slowly churn beneath a trilling hook that sounds like a repurposed mariachi trumpet melody. The central melody sounds pleasingly frayed and ghostly like a ravaged tape loop, but the more impressive feat is how Lewis and Mannerfelt seamlessly transformed festive traditional music into something resembling a techno anthem in the throes of a bad break-up. It is quite a neat trick, as there is an underlying playfulness and dark sense of humor, but the result is legitimately poignant and weirdly haunting nonetheless. Another theme in "Sell Art" that recurs throughout the album is the duo's love of obsessively repeating and layered loops, which has long been a realm in which Lewis excels. In the second piece, "My Clementine Is Making Paella Tonight," a repeating chord swell holds the focus as a steadily intensifying undercurrent brings a relentless sense of forward motion and brooding urgency. Near the end, the consistent rhythm dissolves to make room for more freeform percussion, resulting in something that sounds like Z'ev pounding plastic oil drums along with a Fossil Aerosol Mining Project album. Next, "Styrofoam Tone" amusingly wrongfoots me again with something that sounds like the vocal hook of some ‘90s dance hit chopped apart and rebuilt into a seething and hiss-soaked nightmare. The following "You Need to Be Kind" also sounds like an isolated pop fragment telescoped into an unintended new soundworld, albeit one taking a churning, fuzzed-out, and spacey ambient bent. The EP then closes with the aforementioned "Piss and Vinegar," which sounds like a pre-bullfight trumpet fanfare frozen in suspended animation, then erratically allowed to play out a bit more before it locks into a different fluttering loop. From there, it only gets increasingly disorienting and weird, calling to mind Throbbing Gristle DJing a Mexican street festival and doing their best to get fired. My sole caveat with this EP is that every song feels like layers of loops manipulated with real-time mixing as opposed to more formal compositions, but most Klara Lewis fans (myself included) will be more than happy to hear a bunch of great loops being expertly manipulated and imaginatively juxtaposed.

Samples can be found here.

Nonconnah, "Songs For and About Ghosts"

cover image

I am kicking myself for not catching up on this post-Lost Trail project sooner, as the alarmingly prolific Zachary and Denny Corsa have a long history of making great music and they may very well have reached their zenith with this latest chapter in their collaborative evolution. That said, Nonconnah is something more than just a husband-and-wife duo, as the Corsas describes the endeavor as a "Memphis dronegaze collective." That is a bit of an understatement, given the far-reaching and eclectic array of luminaries that have turned up on past Nonconnah albums, but the heart of the project is the mingling of Zachary's guitar playing with Denny's field recordings. The "dronegaze" part of "dronegaze collective" is a bit of an understatement too, as it mostly just describes Zachary's sublime guitar aesthetic. Sadly, I cannot think of a glib combination of words that better encompasses what this first vinyl release from the project actually sounds like, but my best attempt is that it sounds like some shoegaze guitar god dropped by the GRM for a series of ecstatic-sounding improvisations with some brilliant musique concrète enthusiast, then wove all the coolest parts together into achingly beautiful and intricately layered sound collages. When Denny and Zachary are at their best, they are damn near untouchable, as I can think of no one else who so organically blurs together naked beauty, go-for-broke psychotropic brilliance, and immersive textural richness.

Ernest Jenning Record Co.

The vinyl version of the album ostensibly consists of four separate twelve-minute pieces, but each of those is further delineated into five separate movements, which makes for quite an unusual structure (the album feels like series of vignettes constantly segueing into different themes). Similarly, it is damn hard to figure out who is doing what on any given piece, as Zachary is credited with quite a wide array of sounds (noise, tapes, field recordings) that blur the lines between his contributions and Denny's. Guest collaborators Owen Pallett (strings) and Jenn Taiga (synths) are a bit easier to find in the mix, but individual performances are largely irrelevant, as one prominent feature of this album is its tendency to regularly blossom into complexly layered and rapturous "wall of sound" crescendos. In those delirious moments, it can sound like a dozen tapes playing at varying speeds in an abstract symphony of swooning, frayed beauty. Given that the album is essentially twenty individual pieces of varying lengths that bleed into one another, figuring out which title those moments of sublime, ecstatic transcendence correspond to is largely a fool's errand. The crucial thing is merely that there are plenty of them and that the more understated moments that bridge them are often wonderfully hallucinatory or strikingly lovely as well. For example, in the first side's "II. Changed In Autumn's Feral Depths" alone, the foursome pass through a dreamily warped and angelic choral passage, an interlude of chirping birds, an eerily poignant spoken word sample, a bittersweetly devastating string theme, and a gorgeously warbling and shivering climax of backwards guitar loops. Listening to it now, it feels like an absolute tour de force of distinctive and absolutely beguiling passages and it probably is not even my favorite of the album's four numbered sections: every single damn piece is a highlight. The digital version also includes two brief bonus tracks identified as excerpts and they are similarly brilliant (especially the roiling and roaring tape loop pile-up "Summer Sparkler Dream Cartridge"). Admittedly, some listeners might be a bit exasperated by the album's unusual structure and may find themselves wishing that certain passages had been expanded into fully formed, stand-alone compositions. Normally I would feel that way too, but the Corsas are making some of the most sublime, absorbing, and vividly textured music on earth right now, so any way they feel like presenting it is just fine by me. This is easily one of the finest albums that I have heard this year.

Samples can be found here.

Pay Dirt, "Error Theft Disco"

cover image A duo between California artists Victoria Shen and Bryan Day (by way of Nebraska), Error Theft Disco is noise in its purist sense. A disorienting blend of electronics, distortion, and found sounds that never settles down from the first few seconds, the constant flow gives the tape a captivating sense of inertia that functions well in the loud harsh noise vein as well as it does the nuanced, complex sound art one.

Bluescreen

This is one of those tapes where there is no sense in trying to deconstruct instrumentation or sound design techniques, because there is simply too much going on. Which is made all the more difficult given that both Shen and Day build many of their own instruments as well. Right from the squeaky, waxy noises that begin “Ala Modem in Modernity” the duo throw a bit of everything out there. Crunchy, almost rhythms collide with shrill outbursts, and modular electronics all propel the piece along.  This kinematic approach barrels into "Brutal Hygene," which is all chirpy sounds, found voices, and heavy bass thumps.

The third piece on the first side, "Harrier Spray," is just as active, but does feature the duo allowing some of the passages to breath a bit. Comparably more loop-ish in nature, there is a somewhat more noteworthy sense of structure amidst the distorted pulsations. "Mouthsh" covers the entire second half of the tape, and also features a bit more restraint from the two. There are still large amounts of subsonic bass and shrill electronic beeps and tones, but overall there is a slower creep that nudges along the overdriven electronics. There are a healthy proportion of extreme frequencies to be found, but never does it feel oppressive or painful.

Pay Dirt’s Error Theft Disco is a noise tape in its most distilled form. There is little that is identifiable and there does not seem to be any specific theme running through the four pieces. However, a great noise tape never needs any of these things, and that is certainly the case here. It is a hyperactive burst that never relents, and with so much activity happening from second to second, the depth is just as engaging as the chaos.

Samples can be found here.

Bob Bellerue, "Radioactive Desire"

cover image Described as "free chamber music in feedback environments," this massive double CD from New York based artist Bob Bellerue is a perfect blend of structure, improvisation, and chance. Based around rough compositional structures, but left wide open to improvisation, the five instrumentalists, along with Bellerue helming electronics and production, create a massive noise that distinctly reflects the time, place, and conditions in which this material was recorded.

Elevator Bath

Recording in two sessions on July 29 and 30 of 2020 at the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, the physical space in which the performance occurred works like another piece of the ensemble. The players, including saxophonist Ed Bear, double bassists Brandon Lopez and Luke Stewart, violinist Gabby Fluke-ogul, and viola/organist Jessica Pavone all appear together on three of the six pieces (two of them are Bellerue solo, and one features just him and Pavone on organ), but even in these three works, it is often hard to discern specific players.

The expansive, bleak "The Longest Year" does have some identifiable buzzing strings from Fluke-Mogul and Pavone, but the space and production give it an unnatural, otherworldly color to the sound. The scraping and grinding sounds build into dense clusters not unlike some of Hermann Nitsch's early scores. "Bass Feedback" is, unsurprisingly, bass heavy, but also has some painfully shrill sections as well. Instrumentation is obvious at times, but the focus is on the abstract tones. The title piece shifts from harsh, distorted sax to scraped strings and a nasal insect buzz, later bouncing between horror film strings and dense noise walls.

“Organ Feedback,” featuring just Bellerue and Pavone, is the closest to melody that Radioactive Desire gets. At times almost synth-like, the layered tones blend together beautifully through the rather steady overall dynamic. On the other hand, Bellerue's two solo pieces are far closer to harsh noise than anything else. “Empty Feedback,” which is just room noise and unattended instruments, builds from hissy buzzes to machinery like hums to painfully shrill feedback. Everything from stabbing high frequencies to dense steady walls of sound appear. The near 40-minute conclusion "Metal Gambuh" is just that: a suling gambuh flute, metal, and feedback. Bathed in heavy natural reverb, it is a violent outburst of frustration, with oppressive sub bass underscoring the fuzzy crackles and droning noise.

Radioactive Desire is by its very nature an intense work. Recorded in a massive space, in oppressive summer temperatures after a long stretch of lockdown, and spreading out over two hours, there is a lot to absorb. With Bellerue leading the five performers in their improvisation, the intensity of this work is not just in the composition, but in the performance, as well as the space in which it was recorded. Everything is huge, but with such nuance that it never becomes too much to take in, with Bellerue's guiding hand beautifully guiding the material through all its disparate facets.

Samples can be found here.

Opium Warlords, "Nembutal"

https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a3521227934_16.jpgIn 2010, the Opium Warlords’ MySpace page claimed they sound like "a bad Bolivian Metal band practicing a riff.” Fair enough, but at times their ponderous, doom-laden, brooding, drone-metal shows signs of being more than just another fatberg clogging the sewers of musical culture. My introduction to the group was Live At Colonia Dignidad. Nembutal is a better produced recording, with more variation in speaking, singing, and what sounds like movie dialogue samples. The pest of cliched lyrics such as on “Destroyer of Filth,” is laughable and disappointing, because at other times the words are mysterious and intriguing, sung powerfully and with room to breathe. In those moments, allied with portentous guitar work and a contemplative tempo, Nembutal is nicely out of sync with the flashy haste of modern life.

Svart

To be honest, my girlfriend went away for a few days, and I decided to spin a couple of albums overlooked in 2020. Alabaster dePlume’s To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 was a great listen, somewhere between the pastoral hum of Anthony Phillips and the clear, sparse jazz of Jeff Parker’s Suite For Max Brown. It has now been picked up by the same label as Angel Bat Dawid. No such liftoff as yet for Opium Warlords, although like tripping into a predictably cartoonish puddle of lumpy brown medieval sludge, they do make for a bracing contrast. The album starts and ends with a couple of monolithic tracks, but “Threshold of Your Womb” is as strangely hypnotic as being attacked by a tribe wielding gamelan gongs and a fuzz pedal. Two creepy pieces about women suffering a tragic fate are also good, but I’d have preferred if one or both had a male victim. If you call yourself Opium Warlords the subject matter is going to be unflinchingly dark, methinks, but the flashes of subtlety here - guitar tone, song pacing, running order- hint at greater promise. For example, the contrasting guitar work of “Solar Anus” is great. It is as if they are simultaneously not trying and trying too hard.

As detailed in his book 45, Bill Drummond (of Big in Japan, The KLF and more) once made up an entire Finnish underground scene for his own purposes, and recorded singles by these imaginary groups (The Daytonas, Gormenghast, The Blizzard King, Aurora Borealis, and The Fuckers). But he never came up with a name as good as Opium Warlords. The group is the solo project of Sami Albert “Witchfinder” Hynninen, who has added the witch-finding part to his title since I last looked. He has not changed his sound a great deal, though, and I am not changing my opinion too much. For the Opium Warlords to broaden their appeal, they need to continue to refine their sound and improve their lyrics. Maybe also listen to some Chrome. Yet, perhaps the "Bolivian metal" self-mocking and the daft mumbling and growling is a ruse; after all, it is said that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to make us believe he doesn't exist. And the name is marvelous; conjuring histories of deceit, greed, and war, the British in China, the French in Vietnam, the heroin labs of Marseille, the Golden Route, the release of Lucky Luciano and the role of the Mafia in assisting the Allies in opening a second front in WWII, Fidel Castro’s exploding cigar, Oliver North’s covert exploits in Colombia and Iran, CIA tolerance for Afghan opium production and export, and the alleged payment of $43 million to the Taliban government for crushing opium production, just months before the US invasion of Afghanistan with the support of the Afghan opium warlords.*

samples available here

*Ed Felien: The Big Payoff

Noveller, "Aphantasia"

cover imageSarah Lipstate's latest opus enigmatically borrows its title from a disorder in which those afflicted lose the ability to create mental imagery and associations (it literally translates as "without imagination"). If there is a polar opposite of that disorder, there is a strong probability that Lipstate has it, as Aphantasia is an absolute tour de force of imaginative, vividly realized visions. In fact, there are twenty-two such self-contained visions on the album and very few of them stretch beyond a minute or two in length. That can be a bit exasperating at times, as the most wonderful ideas are often some of the most ephemeral, but the sheer volume of killer motifs on display could have been the framework for four albums of great fully formed songs rather than one dazzling array of brief vignettes. That unusual album structure was entirely by design, of course, as Lipstate viewed each song as a "a short sharp flash," further noting that "if her usual process brought about cinematic results, these were something new – something swift and intriguing." The "something new" is that the album is intended as something akin to a poetry collection, and it succeeds admirably in that light while still remaining extremely damn cinematic regardless. The fragmentary nature of this album will likely garner a somewhat polarized response from fans, but I doubt that anyone will question whether Lipstate is at the height of her creative powers right now.

Self-Released

The best way to view Aphantasia is as an impressionist funhouse in which each door reveals a fleeting glimpse of something wonderful (or disturbing) that quickly dissolves to make way for the next vision. The darkest vignettes mostly arrive early on, as "Rune (for Silent Guitar)" feels like the soundtrack to a psychedelic folk horror film, while smeared and curdled synth tones of "A Valley of Snakes" call to mind a lurid, art-damaged giallo classic. Elsewhere, the more substantial "The Haunted Man" feels like a great post-rock band adding quietly smoldering accompaniment to an eerily lit Dario Argento film. The darkness resurfaces a few more times near end of the album as well, as "The Gatherer" feels like a creepy, feedback-ravaged faerie tale, while "Night/Heist" briefly resembles a nightmarishly Lynchian rockabilly band. In between and around those more haunted moments, the remaining seventeen songs are like a highlight reel of imaginary dreampop, 4AD, and goth-rock classics from the late '80s and early '90s (though they seldom make it very far beyond the opening hook). The best pieces sound like Lipstate channeled some beloved band from the shoegaze/dreampop golden age, made some sort of ingenious and welcome improvement, isolated the best part, then quickly moved onto the next challenge. In "to love / dream you," for example, she evokes a more tender and burbling Lovesliescrushing, then later repeats that same feat even more impressively with "Annalemma." Elsewhere, "Vanishing" sounds like the achingly gorgeous coda of an imagined Slowdive masterpiece, while "33" feels like a glimpse of an absolutely sublime lost Durutti Column classic. At other times, Lipstate conjures a more psych-minded Bauhaus or Santo & Johnny lost in a phantasmagoric fever dream. Throughout it all, she unleashes a characteristically dazzling host of killer effects and cool textures. I expected that part, obviously, but did not expect her to casually toss off so many gorgeous melodic themes as well. Admittedly, part of me wishes there was at least one perfect, fully realized single akin to "Deep Shelter" here, but the sheer volume of great ideas on display makes for a wonderfully kaleidoscopic and immersive whole.

Samples can be found here.