Wednesday, 31 December 2014

stuff I wrote and stuff I liked in 2014

Another pretty busy year for me, writing-about-music-wise. Below is a list of everything, if you're interested. Below that is a list of some releases I particularly enjoyed this year in alphabetical order. If something's not in there, it could well be because I haven't got round to listening yet (sorry). I didn't join in with any of the year-end stuff in print or online magazines this year, not because I disapprove - vaguely because I'm finding it difficult to claim I've listened to enough to make the call, and find it really difficult to compare online underground music with more traditionally distributed underground stuff within single assessments - not to mention the fact that great stuff is increasingly coming in chunks smaller and/or less official than the album. But mostly it was because I was really busy at the time all that stuff was due.

Stuff I wrote

Stuff I Liked

Click on the links to listen...

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Review: Arca, Xen (for Electronic Beats)

Did a review of Arca's brilliant Xen for Electronic Beats (click here to read). This sentence was cut:

Digital de Koonings jounce down oozing hallways dragging trains of femme paraphenalia, kawaii cenobites howl and squeal in holes, and sugared children restlessly pound plucked keyboards, enthralled in the boom of the tingling strings.

But others weren't (such as these):

Xen is a multiplicitous figure. Many tracks contain several life forms coiling around each other, each with its own sense of time and space, all crowded into the same fractious textures and struggling for expression and independence. New limbs and organs burst through the skin, feelers fly in every direction and prehensile tongues curl. Disasters of pleasure, showers of sex. The title track is an electrical injection, with strobes of percussion whipping up a club nimbus as stallions rear their heads and the wreckers come whirling and squeaking over the polished floor; at the center of it all a daughter’s dancing class on a tightrope.

But other tracks are solo portraits, often keyboard improvisations. “Sad Bitch” pliés forward tentative and lonely before exploding into pirouettes and dovetailing melodies. “Family Violence” is a forest of jabbing and pointed fingers. “Promise” shudders and teeters as if shaking off an ice age, and the piano sketch “Held Apart” waits at the windowsill with memories in its big eyes. The parameters of Ghersi’s self-exploration are readjusted with each track, causing constant surprise—dance beats, noise, song, cinematic strings and rave stabs all rotate the album in a space of unexpected dimensions.

Xen artwork by Jesse Kanda

System Focus: Fandom Music Is As Underground As It Gets

Horizon's 'Confinis'
Possibly the most out-there System Focus yet, this one looks at recently-emerged fandoms and the way they practice their fandom through music-making online (click here to read). It looks at Pokémon, Adventure Time, Minecraft, Homestuck and My Little Pony. There's some really unusual stuff in this one..
One of the major drivers of underground music culture is sincerity. The underground seeks musicians for whom making music is an art and a passion, rather than a performance or a get-rich-quick scheme. You might have heard a lot about 'The New Sincerity' or 'post-irony,' ideas dating back to the 1980s which have been applied to music with a notable level of (usually positive) emotion and innocent frankness. But the search for sincerity goes back as far as its perceived opposites in, say, industrial capitalism go—back to the Romantics and beyond. That's not to say that all underground music culture is sincere. Irony and satire are arguably stronger than ever as the underground re-engages with hi-tech modernity, shunning the ubiquitous, twee, and now almost empty sincerities of the indie aesthetic. But to find music today made from pure positive passion alone, try an online DIY music almost completely outside the remit of the hip underground sites: the music of fandom...
Fandom music, especially by the most popular musicians, is very well made. It doesn't tend towards the minimalism and primitivism in some areas of the underground, where too much effort and ability—especially on non-vintage equipment—can get a bit uncool. (But even when it isn't well made in the traditional sense, it's interesting for its surprising results.) In the same vein, fandom music tends to be complex—it often uses the best and broadest tools available to contemporary musicians, and likes to draw on many different instruments, harmonies and forms in the course of a song or album, rather than just deploying a few riffs or loops. And if variety itself can be a characteristic, it's definitely a characteristic of fandom music, which manifests in any and all genres, some which don't even seem to be genres. One of the most tangible qualities of fandom music, however, is linked to its sincerity—it explores a level of emotional or sentimental expression that more cynical listeners would consider kitsch...

Lethe Wept on Fortissimo Hall
The tracks by Pengosolvent are quite unlike anything else—contemporary orchestral VGM squashed imaginatively into a jovial, frenetic and slightly disturbing blur. Try the crazy "Breaktime Over," the highly cute "Enamored Regard" (below), or the proper creepy ghost-type "Paved With Good Intentions" (belated happy Halloween)...

Intriguingly, Adventure Time is a recurring reference point for some fairly parental-advisory hip-hop—here, here, and here. Then there's Oddpauly, who raps about the attractions of the show on one of his tracks. Pauly also has a YouTube channel featuring a music video of his highlight track "Rain," and a video of him playing Minecraft while eating Fruit Rollups...
But with a game as rich as Minecraft, there's also music within it too, and this is where things get really interesting. The game has 'note blocks,' which can be directed to play a certain pitch and change timbre depending on what material they're on top of. There's also a form of electrical wiring that can activate the blocks remotely (using a switch) and in sequence, setting off the notes like a pack of dominoes. Thus by placing several note blocks in the right configuration and activating them through the wires, players can create music boxes that can play certain tunes, even polyphonically. Here's a tutorial on how it's done. To really get a polyphonic tune playing for its full length, players have to create vast structures several stories high and almost a kilometer in length, that witnesses can move around inside as the music plays. Then they upload the videos to YouTube. This is music and architecture as the very same thing...
The largest musical instruments in the virtual world
One of the most visually striking fandoms online is Homestuck, an epic webcomic about some teens who inadvertently bring about the end of the world, and then get involved with these bizarre troll-like beings that are perfect to dress up as. But don't take it from me—there's a fan song to introduce you to it all... The weirdly great-looking official Homestuck Bandcamp page compiles the soundtrack (made by fans) music and more, and it tends to subtly evade genre, skipping through all kinds of sound worlds, seemingly guided more by emotion (and whatever's going on with those trolls) than form. I've been oddly mesmerized by Erik "Jit" Scheele's One Year Older and the cosmically soppy Song of Skaia.
Artwork for 'Firefly Cloud' from Erik "Jit" Scheele's One Year Older
The fandom has a hefty contingent of Bandcamp customers whose pony avatars can be seen lining up on the pages of the most popular albums. But the music only rarely reflects the child-like aesthetic of the show, often bringing out the darker, more romantic connotations of characters and its stories. Alongside sometimes Friedrich-like digital paintings of the relevant ponies, pony musicians regularly put weighty, grand, maximalist and very technically accomplished music. There's punk rock, happy club sounds, ambient electronic, funky song-writing, hardcore, soft rock, epic orchestral, and metal. One of the most popular artists is Eurobeat Brony, who has three volumes of hyperactive 'Super Ponybeat.' Another is TAPS, who has an ear for glitchy vocal science deriving from samples of the show: ponies fractured and suspended in enormous spaces...
 Feather's In My Mind

System Focus: High Speed Sounds to Blister Even Internet-Accelerated Brains

DV-i's 'Optical Mode' in its browser context
Proper packed System Focus on speed cuteness (click here to read). Kind of a follow-up to the earlier cuteness article (here), with a look at jungle and footwork references too. Featuring collectives such as JACK댄스, Activia Benz, Donky Pitch, STHWST, Hope Sick Cola, Mecha Yuri, Magic Yume Records and Manicure Records and artists like Guy Akimoto, DV-i, Miami Mais, Maxo, Yeongrak, Friendly Sneakrz, Onika, Ba-Kuura, Xyloid, So So In Luv, Lockbox, DZA, Doss, Yandere and more. I made a tracklist for it, but not all of it ended up in the SoundCloud playlist at the bottom of the article. Here it is in full (click the links to listen):
  1. Guy Akimoto: BaeBae
  2. DV-i: Shenzhen Miracle
  3. Miami Mais: Goose
  4. Maxo: Hiya
  5. Yeongrak: estrogen
  6. Friendly Sneakrz: Morning
  7. Onika: Bffs
  8. Ba-Kuura: Dual Wield
  9. Bames: BYB (Pablo)
  10. Xyloid: Neptune Pool
  11. SO SO IN LUV: 1 + 0nly
  12. Lockbox: Human Makeout
  13. Maxo: Snow Other
  14. Yeongrak: shabushabu
  15. DV-i: Fractal Mode
  16. Lil Mystic: Hiryo
  17. Friendly Sneakrz: Restless
  18. WALLACE: OutAspAce
  19. DZA: Fluffernutter
  20. Lockbox: Brainhead
  21. Yeongrak: flowerkingdom
  22. Doss: Extended Mix
  23. Ba-Kuura: Let's Go
  24. Kaleidoscope: Royal Flash
  25. Slugabed: Pure El Nino Vibes
  26. Yeongrak: all i do
  27. Xyloid: Zephyr
  28. Yandere: u know

Lockbox's Prince Soul Grenade
What a month it's been for cuteness! The deliciously hyper-camp new aesthetic, in its element online, is most famously embodied by the PC Music label—everyone's been messaging and tweeting about them! Then recently the movement got its anthem in the form of "Hey QT" by QT, a snappy lil number which is also the official tune of a new energy drink I can't wait to taste (that's the artwork above). But QT and PC are only the cherry on top of a vast cutie pie. Not long ago, #Feelings boss Ben Aqua set the net ablaze with his Resident Advisor podcast, a celebration of cute club intensity from all over the clouds. Finn Diesel's DIS Magazine show on Rinse FM, a haven for cuteness and other flavors since May and previously featuring SOPHIE, A. G. Cook and Felicita, entered its third installment on September 25, introducing Onika and So So In Luv. And trans-national club sensation JACK댄스 has returned, this time in New York with a whole new roster of US-based cuties... 
 So So in Luv: 1 + 0nly
Those high twinkly notes, that high-speed syncopation, that high helium voice. Hints of '90s hardcore rushing unrepentantly into the digital age. And the network that links JACK댄스, DIS Magazine, Ben Aqua and PC Music with labels like Activia Benz, Donky Pitch, STHWST, Hope Sick Cola, Mecha Yuri, Manicure Records and more has converged on this style from many different points of origin: jungle and hardcore, seapunk, footwork, trap, the sparkly HudMo-Rustie sound, pop, J-pop, video game music and experimental breaks. Just as chopped and screwed lethargy seems to be everywhere between beats and vaporwave, this convergence amounts to the return of speed and complexity in ways guaranteed to blister even your internet-accelerated brain...

Guy Akimoto's BaeBae EP, something of an ode to digital communication, begins with the itchy-fingered title track, which includes a demure robot lady announcing, Reality escaping me, emotions with velocity, log me on, sign me out, give me something to type about. Hype tunes, low tides, sending emails all night. Me and bae, bae and me, HDMI, USB...

Indie Goes Hi-Tech: The End of Analogue Warmth and Cosy Nostalgia (Berlin Music Week talk)

At Berlin Music Week I gave a talk (video above) that summed up the wider trend behind basically everything I've written about for the past two years: 'hi-tech,' which I like to oppose to traditional indie aesthetics. It includes a summary of many of its sub-trends which looked at in past articles. With apologies for the apparent reductiveness, the slides for the talk are below in all PowerPoint 2003's splendor.

The Online Underground: A New Kind of Punk? (Resident Advisor article)

Resident Advisor suggested I write an article for them about the emerging online underground, and the result was my most comprehensive (and polemical) statement on the topic to date (click here to read). It's running theme was a comparison to late-C20th punk and indie, and it went into the aesthetics of vaporwave and PC Music too. The piece appeared alongside a (controversial but, I thought, pretty brilliant) podcast by #Feelings boss Ben Aqua.

How many times has the concept of punk been redefined? Far too many to count, and besides, no one seems to want to label music any more. Even in the early '90s, barely 15 years into its life, the definition of punk had been broadened and warped in surprising directions—punk could mean naive pop, heavy metal in the charts, or even doing something yourself, whatever that might be. In a new music culture where guitars have been replaced by cracked copies of Ableton, bands have been replaced by anonymous individuals with SoundCloud accounts, and where rock as such hasn't really been on the underground agenda for years, what significance does punk still have?...

In each of these areas, the processes and problems of the online underground were those of the punk underground in the late 20th century. Building a musical culture on SoundCloud, Bandcamp and Facebook might seem new and strange (if only due to the technology involved) or—more negatively—unimportant or a sign of decline, but these paradigm shifts have happened to the underground before, and they hint at the opportunities and difficulties of the current situation....
Just like the classic punks, PC Music can be heard as dramatizing the decline of good taste at the hands of modernity, and in 2014 that means noble underground traditions like all that monochrome club/post-club music that rakes reverentially and melancholically through 30 years of analogue production all being displaced by digital decadence, rampant excess and fucking children. PC Music are trolling old ravers, the generation that built the hardcore continuum; they're trolling old punks and their insistence on realism. They're saying, "We might as well sound like this. In a world of gloss and accelerated desire, this is what society made us." And in this regard, they're punks...