2019 Musical Favorites
2019. The year of Immerzbox. This is a good and bad thing. Good, in that because I wasn't the sole impetus behind a project I'm going to see it through to the end. Bad, in that it absolutely ruined my listening for large swathes of time. Close listening to Merzbow week after week had me burrowing deep into comfort music; old favorites that, having done the work already, I could passively enjoy – The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Robyn Hitchcock, Judas Priest, etc. – instead of new music that required attention and learning. I spent less time in searching and absorbing new music than in any other year of my adult life.
I don't regret doing Immerzbox. At least not most of the time. First and foremost, I'm a better listener because of it. Whether or not my first reaction is a positive one I'm in it for the duration. That's not how I or most anyone approaches listening anymore. The digital age has enabled immense discovery but also immense dismissal; if a listener doesn't like something in 10 seconds or a minute then it's gone and the next in the queue replaces it. There is no investment. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but there is something to be said for allowing music to open up and surprise you over time. While some things may never click no matter how much time you give them (the days of my life I've given to The Fall over the decades are ones ill spent), many things will. I wasn't much of a Merzbow fan when we started the project and as we approach the end I'd say that still holds true. But through attentive listening, week after week, searching for a way in, honing the lens of my understanding until it came into focus, I get his work in a way I didn't before. I gave it the time.
I also found a little time for some new music listening between bouts with Merzbow and my security blanket records. Here's what broke through the harsh wall of comfort to find a place in my heart.
OLD FAMILIAR FACES
75 DOLLAR BILL - I WAS REAL
Another 75 Dollar Bill record on my favorites list? Color me unsurprised. 2016's WOOD METAL PLASTIC PATTERN ROCK was my favorite record that year, and one I still play regularly. I WAS REAL takes the core duo plus friends idea to bigger spaces with bigger ideas and broader horizons. At the core, it's still riff + rhythm + repetition = rocket into space, but the ideas here are both vaster and more intimate. Inner and outer space, explored over the course of a luxurious 69 minutes.
BIG|BRAVE - A GAZE AMONG THEM
in 2015, AU DE LA made my list of favorites, and I described them as heavy, grinding, doom. They were never really doom in the metallic sense, but boy are they doom in the existential sense. Heavy palpable dread. A GAZE AMONG THEM is a move forward, a glacial inevitability, scouring the landscape of your mind. Most of the time, I turn toward loud abrasive noise to roto-rooter my brain, but in the year of Immerzbox I turned more toward Big|Brave's methodical hollowing instead.
BLACK BOMBAIM - ZONE OF RESIDENTIAL BODIES
Another perennial in these parts, Black Bombaim, like 75 Dollar Bill, turns again to outside collaborators to augment the core trio's sonic explorations. Here they mostly turn away from the full bore free-rock freakouts that made their name and find meaning in silence and control. Not that they can't still unleash the acid-drenched fury, but they've harnessed it to allow for a broader sound palette. The result is stunning, and ZONE OF RESIDENTIAL BODIES has quickly become my go-to Black Bombaim album.
HAWKEYES - LAST LIGHT OF FUTURE FAILURE
I'm running out of things to say about my Brothers in the Nodding North. Over the past half decade plus I've gone from fan to friend to confidant, and year after year, project after project, I'm more impressed by them as musicians and people. From trying times they've made an album I couldn't have imagined when I first heard POISON ONLY SLOWS YOU DOWN in 2013. That earlier album I described as "happily filling up their car with smokey jams and forgetting to put the key in the ignition"; LAST LIGHT OF FUTURE FAILURE is about leaving the car behind altogether and setting off on a journey beyond the idea of physical transportation. It's a trip, man. A trip I'll gladly take or years and years to come.
BENJAMIN HINZ - DEEP
Full disclosure, I put this out with my partner Jeremy Hunt on Philip K. Discs. There's a reason for that: it's so damn good I couldn't help but back it. It's heady mix of post-rock, drone, electronics, and psych rock is my wheel house. It's like Ben made it for me personally. He says he didn't but I'm egotistical enough to not believe him when I know its true. If the label never does anything else I'll be happy to say we put out this music. Take the journey to the DEEP.
LAMB - THE SECRET OF LETTING GO
Announcing a record by saying you broke up while recording it is usually a sign I don't want to hear it. However, I've loved Lamb for over twenty years and that trumped any concerns the announcement left in me. I'm so glad love conquers all. Lamb didn't go out with whimper or a dud; they made one of the best records of their careers and stepped away with heads held high. While there are songs I play on their own (the title track gives me shivers) it's perhaps their most album-like album. The weight of the songs upon each other, the sequencing, the sounds they explore, make it more than the sum of its parts. Farewell and thanks.
NERVOUS CURTAINS - I TRIED TO FIGHT IT BUT I WAS INSIDE IT
The putrid malaise of the modern world has no better chronicler than Sean Kirkpatrick. His cynical eye gazes unflinchingly at the hypocrisy of living and his lyrics stick like slogans you don't want to remember. Then he and his bandmates make you dance to them. What more could you want?
PINKISH BLACK - CONCEPT UNIFICATION
My Texas brothers never fail to astound me. Each record tops the last. I don't understand it. I feel like I praise their high watermark and then the flood of new material obliterates it. CONCEPT UNIFICATION moves them along the path to clarity of vision and sound without compromising the filth and darkness at the core. I don't personally understand why they haven't conquered the world while completely understanding that they aren't everyone's cup of tea. Still, why haven't they conquered the word?
NEW FAMILIAR FACES
MDOU MOCTAR - ILANA (THE CREATOR)
Mdou Moctar has been on my radar for years, and I've always enjoyed his work even if it didn't bowl me over. That said, ILANA (THE CREATOR) is Moctar's big step; nay, a big leap. It sounds better. The songs are stronger. He's more confident and assured as a player and even more noticeably as a singer. There is a richness and joy to this album that brought me light and happiness each time I listened. I also had the privilege to see him live twice this year, and those performances and these recordings have intertwined into a glorious and wondrous thing.
PSYCHEDELIC SPEED FREAKS - PSYCHEDELIC SPEED FREAKS
Munehiro Narita of High Rise fame is back with an album of pure fizzing wah fuzz freak out. He turned 60 this year and shows no signs of stopping. Sometimes I just want straight ahead riffs-be-damned freakout and PSF did it better than anyone else I heard this year. Ride the treble past imagining and there you'll find Narita feathering that wah.
SHIT AND SHINE - DOING DRUGS, SELLING DRUGS
Craig Clouse has been using his Shit and Shine moniker to get weird the past few years, with glitching electronics and experimental rock. Here he plays with a sound more familiar from his USA/Mexico project and makes it heavier and more psychotic. Do you need more than that? It's the Butthole Surfers record the Surfers have been teasing for years now. Loud, brutish, disorienting, with more than a touch of malevolence. It's so good.
SUNWATCHERS - ILLEGAL MOVES
I've heard Sunwatchers prior records and enjoyed my time with them though they never hooked me. However, ILLEGAL MOVES had me from the start. Their noisy free-jazz psychedelic rock hit the right spot in my brain last spring and lodged itself in there. It's like a fierier HOT RATS, blending urgency and familiar forms to find a new and striking sound. Anger and release, even in their recasting of Alice Coltrane's meditative "Ptah, the El Daoud". Sunwatchers have no chill.
NEW UNFAMILIAR FACES
PAUL CAUTHEN - ROOM 41
I met Paul once in Dallas. He was on something and acted like an ass. Didn't know he was a musician, or that he had a modern Waylon Jennings on cocaine country funk record laying dormant inside him. I don't know if a record surprised me more this year than ROOM 41. I din't like it at first; there is a slick coke-drip sheen to it, a shiny sweaty asshole vibe that puts me off immediately. However, I gave it time because there was something in there that was more than its surface. There are some serious songs on this record, and though the production isn't my usual cup of tea it works so well to heighten the maniacal edge.
DEAFKIDS - METAPROGRAMAÇÃO
Brazilian psychedelic electro-punkers Deafkids land on Neurot and the world takes notice. Or at least the world of my friends. Seemed like everyone loved it and I was no different. The album doesn't fit easily in a genre bucket but carves out its own space between a bunch of them. But at the end of the day it's the rhythms, man. I love punks who care about beats that don't only start with d-.
HELIUM HORSE FLY - HALLOWED
Haunting and heavy experimental Belgian noise rock. Spacious yet claustrophobic, like being trapped in a box on the moon. It's noise minus volume, achieving its discomfort not through riffs (though it has hooks) or pummeling aggression, but through unsettling the listener's inner equilibrium. Like being abused by the voices in your head. Recommended!
HOLY MOUNTAIN TOP REMOVERS - TONIGHT THE MACHETE DREAMS
Nashville's finest purveyors of psychedelic progressive surf jazz, Holy Mountain Top Removers are a singular and powerful thing. TONIGHT THE MACHETE DREAMS is the closest they've yet come to capturing their live sound and near telepathic connections. It moves and breathes like a a mythical beast, all arms and whispy hints of legs. It's also a record crafted to be heard from start to finish. Taking pieces out of it breaks the spell.
RAFAEL ANTON IRISSARRI - SOLASTALGIA
I'm not sure how I've ignored Irissarri's work for so long, especially these last few years as I've given more time to modern ambient soundscapes. Regardless of my own personal failings, SOLASTALGIA grabbed me on first listen and kept me under it's warm blanket for months. It was my reset music after the weeks Immerzbox ruined me. It's the soundtrack to my mind wandering through memories of Tartovsky's STALKER; there is no menace when the outcome is known, no tension in the memory of fraught moments. It's a journey of remembrance of change.
MINOR PIECES - THE HEAVY STEPS OF DREAMING
I didn't know I needed an album of modern classical vocal slowcore folk music. I didn't even imagine such a possibility. After hearing it many, many times I'm still not sure it's real. There is a magic here, the sound of creation and disintegration at the same time. What seems concrete is breaking at the end of a verse, or measure, or phrase. The decay slides in time. The fleeting sensation of hearing captured on tape. It balances power, solidity, and strength against delicate silences, ghostly traces, and unbecoming. It's the Zeno's Paradox of music, its Achilles of erasure never catching the tortoise of the music.
ALEXANDER NOICE - NOICE
Prog-rock? Multi-part harmonies and polyphonic vocal lines over Devin Townsend covering Queen with a saxophone? I have neither the vocabulary nor understanding to explain what's going on here, but I absolutely fell hard for its peculiar version of art-rock. A blender of many disparate forms, Alexander Noice has a singular voice as a composer. It's a voice you'll either love or hate. I'm firmly in the former camp.
#75DollarBill #BigBrave #BlackBombaim #PaulCauthen #Deafkids #Hawkeyes #HeliumHorseFly #BenjaminHinz #HolyMountainTopRemovers #RafaelAntonIrissarri #Lamb #MinorPieces #MdouMoctar #NervousCurtains #AlexanderNoice #PinkishBlack #ShitAndShine #PsychedelicSpeedFreaks #Sunwatchers