Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2016 In Music, Part One

Alessandro Adriani – We Drift In and Out (Krokodilo Tapes)

With the Blackest Ever Black sublabel Krokodilo Tapes drawing to a close in 2016, to be replaced by a new series known as ID_Mud, its penultimate cassette came in the form of this release from Alessandro Adriani. Adriani is known as an artist who inhabits the more martial side of electronic music and on We Drift In and Out he repurposed that most upbeat of genres, trance, to more sinister ends. Slowing upbeat club fodder down from 45 to 33rpm resulted in a thumping sludge of druggy EBM, the prominent slurred vocals on the tape (“the sound is fucking twisting my brain”, “overdose, overdose, overdose, overdose” etc etc) fitting the bill just right. One of the most brilliantly subversive translations in a long time.

Awesome Tapes From Africa - Resident Advisor Podcast, Live Showcase

Awesome Tapes have ridden the wave following the release of 2015's long-gestated Ata Kak LP into 2016 with aplomb. Label head Brian Shimkovitz stepped up to the plate with one of the year's best Resident Advisor podcasts, featuring a wealth of bouncy African house and pop. But the real highlight was the label showcase which toured around the UK and Europe in the summer. Shimkovitz himself began proceedings, mixing (naturally) using a pair of cassette decks and playing an incredibly broad spectrum of danceable African music. He was followed by the crowd pleasing DJ Katapila, a natural showman performing for the first time outside of West Africa. The most wonderful part of the evening came with Ata Kak, who performed live with a full band comprised predominantly of Brits of Ghanaian origin. For anyone who has heard the joyous Obaa Sima it should be easy to imagine the beaming faces and swinging hips that ensued.

Carla Dal Forno – Fast Moving Cars (Blackest Ever Black)

Carla Dal Forno's debut LP on Blackest Ever Black (following collaborations on the label as part of F Ingers, Tarcar, and others) made many end of year lists, though I'm afraid not mine. However, this 7-inch preceding the record displayed a promise that the album didn't quite live up to. An ethereal piece of ambient pop, the A-side beautifully expressed Dal Forno's wanderlust to a more reticent lover.

CC Dust – CC Dust (Night People)

One of the genre tags listed for CC Dust's debut EP on online music bible Discogs is “novelty”. I'm not really sure how that came about because what's actually contained on this slab of wax is five emotional synthpop and coldwave tracks which could have soundtracked dozens of great 80s teen movies. The highlight, with brilliantly androgenous vocals, is opener “Never Going To Die” which adds a punchy house beat to a mile-wide chorus.

David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)

There's little to be said about Blackstar that hasn't already been said in dozens of think-pieces, so I'll keep this brief: here is a record by a man who in the final weeks of his fruitful life still has the ability to confound, to question and to thrill. How many other artists have stage-managed their own death?

John Roberts – Six (Brunette Editions)

Preceding (and featured on) his album Plum, John Roberts slipped out Six on a clear flex-disc at the beginning of the summer. He couldn't have picked a better time. The jaunty little track was a perfect accompaniment to any summer garden party, bouncing along with a fantastically whispy melody offset by a surprisingly hefty syncopated kick.

Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm – Trance Frendz (Erased Tapes)

Contemporary composers and pianists Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm are long-time Erased Tapes labelmates and kindred spirits, working in the same electronic-acoustic sphere that Jon Hopkins' more ambient side also inhabits, so it's somewhat surprising that it took them until 2015 to collaborate on a full length release. The second disc to that year's Collaborative Works, written and recorded in a single evening with no overdubs, was pressed to vinyl this year as Trance Frendz. The first half is exclusively piano-based but the duo crack the synthesizers out for the second side of the LP to produce a series of haunting ambient soundscapes. Though it's clearly improvisational, and you can hear the muffled sounds of the players' movements in the background, it speaks to the talent of both artists that something created so quickly can sound so fully realised.

Objekt – Kern Vol. 3 (Tresor)

Whereas another mix highlight on this list (Ryan Elliott's Fabric 88) took a more straightforward approach, Objekt's debut commercial mix featured plenty of unexpected left-turns, which in a less skilled DJ's hands could have come across as jarring. Instead, the effect was mesmerising, and a true showcase of what it can mean to be a great DJ; drawing from many different styles of music to make a cohesive and fluid whole.

Raime – Tooth (Blackest Ever Black), DJ set for Sisters Uncut, Live at Unsound Festival

The Blackest Ever Black poster boys returned this year with their first release under the Raime moniker since 2012's Quarter Turns Over A Living Line. Tooth is an unsurprisingly gloomy record, but in place of the eerie choral samples and pads, the jungle and grime-inspired percussion is joined by paranoid, scratchy guitars. Although consisting of eight tracks, the LP feels like more of a suite, each piece a subtle variation on a theme, adding up to a muggy, claustrophobic whole. Live, the record translated to an unexpectedly danceable set at Unsound festival, a big hit with the black-clad crowd. Another Raime highlight from my musical year was the DJ set that they played in Hackney in aid of Sisters Uncut - encompassing everything from dub to rave, Ghanaian Tassu to jazz and post-punk, it felt like a special event for an extremely worthy cause.

Ryan Elliott – Fabric 88 (Fabric)

In a turbulent year for London's most famed superclub, it's Nina Kraviz's entry to their long running mix series which seems to have won the most accolades, but for me the highlight was Ryan Elliott's effort from earlier in the year that was the standout. For someone who has been so prominent on the international DJ circuit for a decade, it comes as a surprise that this is his first commercial mix (2014's free to download Panorama Bar mix notwithstanding). Fabric 88 is relentless in its energy levels, made up almost entirely of functional yet melodious tracks which toe the line between house and techno, similar to the Fabric entry by that other Berlin stalwart, Ben Klock. It's often said that a great mix derives its greatness from the twists and turns, peaks and troughs, but here Elliott proves that this can also be achieved by barrelling straight down the middle.

Surgeon – From Farthest Known Objects (Dynamic Tension Records)

Considering his near 30-year career, Surgeon is something of a more recent convert to the modular synthersizer, an addiction he picked up collaborating with one of techno's young leading lights, Blawan. But someone with the technical ability of Anthony Child wasn't going to be left in the dust for long. Following on from his simpler, more meditative collection of ambient works made in the Maui jungle, From Farthest Known Objects bolts out of the gate, all gnarled repitition and grotesque sounds twisting over one another. Whilst Surgeon was once famed as one of the world's most adept DJs, it would take a daring selector and a willing audience to make a success of any of these monsters on the dancefloor. He's always been innovative, but this is probably the most interesting left turn in the career of a singular artist.

Gqom, in general

The most exciting sub-genre of club music to emerge on the world scene in recent times, Gqom has been about since 2012, a product of South Africa's Durban Township, the second largest city in the nation. Whilst it has been compared to UK styles like grime or funky, few, if any, of its practitioners actually came across those sounds until they began touring internationally. Aptly and onomatopoeically named after the sound of a drum being struck, it is a more sinister cousin of house and Chicago footwork, all rattling percussion, sinister synthesizer drones, threatening, breathy vocal samples, and nary a 4/4 kickdrum in sight. Championed by Italian producer and DJ Nan Kolè, who set up the Gqom Oh! Label specifically to bring the genre into wider prominence, 2016's most obvious highlights have included a lively showcase at Poland's Unsound festival, a mixtape jointly released by Gqom Oh! And Crud Volta, and an excellent EP on Goon Club Allstars from DJ Lag. To look at the most obvious releases, however, is to do Gqom a disservice. This is a genre that, despite it's hyper-specific geographic origin, is very much borne of the internet age and it is the excitement that surrounds this strange new music which is the real highlight.

Melt Yourself Down (live)

The last occasion where I expected to be jumping around in a tiny basement club, drenched in the sweat of myself and many others, was the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Thanks to Melt Yourself Down, however, this became the strange reality just hours after having being sat down for a set by legendary Ethiopian band leader, Mulatu Astatke. Live, Melt Yourself Down exude an exhilarating energy, which feels celebratory despite the angst present in much of their material. It's impossible to define their music by genre terms, but they sure do rock.

Various Artists – So-Low (The Vinyl Factory)

Thanks to DJs like Helena Hauff, Veronica Vasicka, and the man behind this comp, Optimo's JD Twitch, the kind of simple, dark electronic music on So-Low is very much de rigueur these days. It has been collected before, and recently, on releases such as The Minimal Wave Tapes and Trevor Jackson's Metal Dance compilations, but the quality and depth has never quite shone through as much as on this double LP set for the The Vinyl Factory. Expensive it may be, but it's an excellent resource for DJs, who would otherwise have to spend hundreds, if not thousands to obtain all the cuts on wax contained herein. Not only this but it also works well as a listening experience from front to back, and as an introduction to synthpop's darker cousins.

Various Artists - Underground Wave Volume 5 (Walhalla Records)

For six years now, Belgium's Walhalla Records have been bringing to vinyl nuggets from the country's phenomenal 80s synth scene which were only ever released on cassette at the time. On the fifth entry to their compilation series, founder Lieven De Ridder stretches his curatorial skills further, featuring for the first time on the label tracks recorded in contemporary times. Whilst modern music of this type can often sound kitsch that's certainly not the case here, and I have to admit that it was not until after several listens that I read about the more recent recordings featured here, otherwise I would have been none the wiser. No matter when the tracks were made, this record is another brilliant collection of squelchy synth anthems from Walhalla.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

1013=2016/2: The First Six Months of 2016 in Music

Now that we're almost exactly halfway through the year I thought I'd present a quick rundown of my favourite releases of the past six months.

Anna Holmer and Steve Moshier – Breadwoman & Other Tales (RVNG INTL)

RVNG INTL reaches into the depths of 1980s cassette culture and pulls out a gorgeous ambient record of chanting and odd noises made by a woman who just wanted to wear bread.

Bill Converse – Meditations/Industry (Dark Entries)

Don't know too much about this one but Dark Entries put it out and I can only say it has everything about Aphex Twin in it – acidy squiggles combined with beautiful ambient pads.

Carla Dal Forno – Fast Moving Cars (Blackest Ever Black)

In a parallel universe this is at the top of the charts. F Ingers and Tar Car member puts out an emotive, aching pop 7” on Blackest Ever Black.

David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)

Need I say more?

Floorplan – Victorious (M-Plant)

Robert Hood returns as Floorplan, this time with his daughter in tow, for a set of ecstatic (and to Hood, religious) disco/house/techno hybrids.

Fox/Soper Duo – Magenta Line (NNA Tapes)

Liturgy Member and Ben Frost collaborator Grex Fox continues drumming the fuck out of everything he comes across, this time with accompaniment from a screeching modular. Not one for the faint hearted.

JK Flesh – Rise Above/Nothing Is Free (Electric Deluxe/Downwards)

Nothing is Free stamps to wax a barreling earlier digital release on Downwards with a Surgeon remix on the flipside and Rise Above gives us a full length's worth of noisy workouts for Speedy J's Electric Deluxe.

John Roberts – Six (Brunette Editions)

Beautiful little 7” flexi influenced equally by post-dubstep club music and Japanese sounds. Bodes well for the album to come.

Joseph Quimby Jr – Court (Tombed Visions)

Ambient strings, ambient strings and more ambient strings from a little-known artist on Manchester's Tombed Visions tape label.

The Lines – Hull Down (Acute Records)

Whilst it contained one fantastic song (“The Landing”) The Line's best known album Therapy doesn't touch anything on here, a 90 degree left turn of a record bought up from the vaults of the band's unreleased third album. Rock but the danceable kind.

Moderat – III (Monkeytown)

More soulful electronic pop gems from the boys from Berlin. The arenas they're now playing applaud.

Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm – Trance Frendz (Erased Tapes)

Those who have heard Nils Frahm's Late Night Tales mix will know that he's nocturnal. This set of improvisations with his Erased Tapes labelmate were recorded over the course of one late night and an early morning, surprising no-one. Previously released in DVD Video form.

Omar-S – The Best! (FXHE)

He's not modest but why should he be when he puts out glorious house/techno records like this that DJs will rinse for years to come. Not sure the wax version justifies the asking price though!

Regis - “The Boys Are Here” (Blackest Ever Black)

Birmingham's greatest/most terrifying musical export throws together techno, industrial and cabaret on this tape recorded live at Berghain, confusing everyone by including several artists with questionable/terrifying political views.

Robert Aiki Aubrey Low – Cognition/Observation (DDS)

A pair of bizarre and beguiling modular workouts on Demdike Stare's label.

Silent Servant – EGR45-00003 (Elektron Grammofon)

A typically solid pair of EBM-techno workouts from Juan Mendez on the a-side but the real draw here is the sinister, pummelling live excerpt on the b-side.

Surgeon – From Farthest Known Objects (Dynamic Tension Records)

Surgeon confounds expectations by putting out something viciously batshit enough that it could probably never be played in the club.

Tape Loop Orchestra – Go Straight Towards The Light Of All You Love (Facture)

There's only so much I can say about soothing ambience. And it's not much.

Various Artists – So-Low (The Vinyl Factory)

JD Twitch compiles the bizarre, the banging and the beatless on this compendium of 80s minimal synth and wave that has rocked his Glasgow night of the same name.

Vatican Shadow – Media In The Service Of Terror (Hospital Productions)

Dominic Fernow with more of the same, only better. Only Through The Window as Prurient from 2013 matches it to my knowledge. This one comes with a 100 page fake newspaper related to the Vatican Shadow project.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016


Hinges, pulleys, strings,
This flesh architecture,
Residence for a tenant; rented,
This vehicle of ancestral conjecture.

A bold, brave vessel
where the selfdom dwells,
Or a vehicle for a cipher?
A web of nerves, a sea of cells.

Amor fati, the genetic fate.
Corporeal, animal, cerebral,
This nothing is what lends the weight
To this absurd dance of bones, blood and brain.
This carnal economy.

Grace and form to us now but soon carrion.
The romance of cells is born of frailty.
Meaningful because we find something in nought.

Monday, 23 May 2016


There's a song that I sometimes closed my ears to,
that's now a melody that drifts around my head.
Moving between major and minor keys,
as I know you did too.

Louder some days than others,
but always there.

Though a sound remembered can never be the same as a sound heard
and I can't read or write music.

You should be in the air so loud that the windows break.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Twinkling Stars in a Polluted Atmosphere: Minimal Wave and Synth-Pop

Image: the cover of In Aetenam Vale's La Piscine.

By its very nature it would essentially impossible to write a history of minimal wave - any attempt to do so would inevitably be potted and incomplete. It certainly couldn't be described as a movement. Pre-internet, its purveyors were spread across time and space like twinkling stars in a polluted atmosphere (that overly-flowery description will make far more sense to those familiar with the genre). That's not to say, however, that it isn't worth writing about it. Far from it in fact. Although it is in some ways problematic, today's reissue culture is beginning to shine a light into the dark and dusty rooms where groups of sincere amateurs created some of the most forgotten and fascinating music of the 1980s. Now then is as good a time as any to take a look at the genre and where it sits in relation to the related, but infinitely more popular synthpop of the time.

Although no one really began making minimal wave until around 1980 or so, its roots lie a little further back. As with many other things, punk was certainly one of the starting points, although the sound is about as far away from the three cord thrash as you could imagine. The key to understanding the connection lies in the way that the punk groups approached making and distributing music. The old adage with punk was that you could “learn three chords and start a band”. Punk was proudly DIY, a profoundly non-musical form of music. Few, if any, practitioners had any formal training. Punk inspired the very literally labelled post-punk, which describes a far wider breadth of sounds than the term itself alludes to, and minimal wave is part of this broad continuum which runs between dub, industrial, jangle pop and a myriad other types of music.

Whilst most of the post-punk spectrum was still very much guitar-based, minimal wave relied more upon newly affordable synthesisers (though there were also some groups who incorporated a few six-stringers into their sound). These exotic instruments had once been the preserve of audio research laboratories and prog-rock bands, bloated by both ego and money, but as the 70s ended and the 80s began to dawn a raft of products for the home musician began to flood the market, fuelled largely by the mass production of Japanese manufacturers such as Akai, Korg, Casio and Roland. Minimal wave and synthpop practitioners took the amateurish and independent-focussed aspects of other post-punk groups and applied them to these new instruments. The difference between the minimal wave and synthpop groups was to arise later, when groups like The Human League, Ultravox and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark abandoned their earlier experimental roots for the yuppie pop sheen of the 80s, and met in charts and minds with the new romantics like Duran Duran and Japan. The Human League had in fact arisen from the same industrialist roots as Cabaret Voltaire, with whom they shared rehearsal spaces in the late 70s in their native Sheffield, and Throbbing Gristle, but a split in 1980 also resulted in the formation of Haircut One Hundred, whereupon both groups pursued a far more populist direction.

The minimal wave musicians, however, were ploughing a different furrow (quite literally in the case of Canadian Ohama, who worked and lived on a potato farm). Few of them truly had any commercial ambition, and stuck to distributing their scrappier, darker music with friends in the form of cassettes and cheaply pressed seven inches. Many of the musicians were Europeans who refused to kowtow to outside markets and sung only in their native tongues. Belgium in particular was home to many minimal wave groups (the Belgian label Walhalla Records now dedicates itself to unearthing long forgotten gems from the country), as were France and Italy.

The music itself is distinctly low-fi and dusty, a result of bedroom and garage studios, and the ferric hiss of tapes. One finger melodies rule, why even bother to learn three chords? Even with such simplicity human fallibility can often be heard in the records, but it's often the sincerity and the amateurism that makes them great; even when the lyrics fall on the side of cringe-worthy, it's still completely charming. Perhaps it is the amateurishness that most separates these groups from their more successful synthesis cousins, though thematic darkness is certainly also a factor.

Without further ado, a 14 song playlist below curates some of minimal wave's forgotten gems.

For anyone interested, this is a great place to start:

1. Ratbau - Ordinateur

2.  The Normal - TVOD

3. Van Kaye + Ignit - Cool

4. In Aeternam Vale - Dust Under Brightness

5. Jeunesse d'ivoire - A Gift of Tears

6. Eleven Pond - Watching Trees

7. DZ Lectric & Anton Shield - La Place Rouge

8. Hard Corps - Porte Bonheur

9. Solid State - Recalling You

10. Ensemble Pittoresque - Artificials

11. Stereo - Somewhere In The Night

12. Twilight Ritual - Tears on the Wall

13. Ruth - Polaroid/Roman/Photo

14. Moral - Whispering Sons

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Spectrum's Favourite Records of 2015: Part One

In no particular order...

Jenny Hval – Apocalypse Girl (Sacred Bones)

Norwegian Jenny Hval begins the third solo record under her own name with a track that includes, amongst other bizarre imagery, lyrics about four large bananas rotting in her lap. It's a strange introduction to a strange album and a track that, like Hval's live shows, performed from atop the large red gym ball that adorns the record's cover, blurs the lines between pop music and performance art. At first the track appears to be abject nonsense, but as the themes unfurl throughout the rest of the record it begins to become more clear; Kingsize, like the rest of the record is about domesticity, belonging, and a rejection of the myriad expectations placed on women in the 21st century. A record that is at once avant-garde and soulful (hear the gorgeous, stomach churning vocal inflections when she sings “Feminism's over, and socialism's over” on That Battle Is Over), Hval proves a master at using abstract imagery to represent concrete fears and grounding it all in a bizarre but melodious soundscape.

Helena Hauff – Discreet Desires (Ninjatune/Werkdiscs)

Though she's been a well respected DJ for some time, 2015 felt like a breakout year for Helena Hauff the producer. Having previously released a series of EPs and tapes that felt more like sketches of a musician finding her feet and learning her equipment, Hauff used Discreet Desires to present to the world a fully realised vision combining, much in the same way as her DJ sets, techno, electro and EBM. Hauff is an avowed synth and hardware enthusiast, and the machines that are used on these ten tracks are probably all around 30 years of age, but the sounds that she coaxes from them are timeless – as much Victorian gothic as sci-fi futuristic. From the cover art, to the track titles (L'Homme Mort, Piece of Pleasure, Tryst) and the music itself, this record is dark, smoky, ashen-faced and sexual.

Head High – House.Home.Harcore. (Powerhouse)

Rene Pawolitz is a man who executes simple ideas exceedingly well. As Shed and The Traveller, he releases thoroughly well respected breakbeat-laced techno albums on the likes of Ostgut Ton and the recently defunct 50Weapons. As Head High, WK7, and perhaps dozens of other aliases, he crafts hard hitting dancefloor bombs whose chords are as euphoric as their kick drums are distorted. House.Home.Hardcore. collects many of the weapons released by him as Head High and WK7 over the past few years. DJ sets usually incorporate peaks and troughs of excitement, so 60 minutes or so of pummelling Powolitz productions might seem intimidating to even the hardiest of ravers at first, but it's to his credit that the mix doesn't feel at all like an ordeal. It's certainly unconventional, but Pawolitz has spent his career embracing rave and techno conventions with one arm, and batting them away with the other. Ultimately, House.Home.Harcdore. is a fantastic distillation of what this supremely talented producer does best.

Regis – Manbait (Blackest Ever Black)

Regis and Blackest Ever Black are the perfect match, synchronising exactly in their bleak aesthetics and the tongue in cheek sense of humour that their output is presented with. Manbait collects Regis's productions and remixes for the label, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday, as well as adding a number of previously unreleased tracks. It encompasses the whole of latter-day Regis's scope – from haunting (his remix of BEB signees Dalhous's He Was Human and Belonged With Humans), to paranoid (the Regis mix of Ike Yard's classic industrial Factory-released Loss), and beyond to pummelling (any of the galloping, percussive Regis originals). Manbait serves to deconstruct the myth of Regis as much as it does to build it; it showcases that he's long since moved on from the widely remembered and violently repetitive four to the floor classics of twenty years ago, but continues to work within the unknowable and acerbic yet facetious image he's constructed for himself. Ultimately the compilation paints a picture of an illusive character who, after two decades in the techno game, is as inventive as he's ever been, and is working with his broadest scope yet.

Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)

Even though every album she's released since 2012's Ekstasis has seemed like a complete and accomplished statement, there is still a sense of growth between each of Julia Holter's records. On Have You In My Wilderness her orchestration is as straightforward and lush as it has ever been, while the lyrics seem a lot more grounded in real world problems than the lofty academic musings she's previously presented us with. That's not to say that this is simple music, far from it in fact, but it's certainly accessible, as elegant on the surface as it is deep. Whilst her live show is very much acclaimed, it's undoubtedly on record that Holter produces her best work, her style better suited to the freedom of inventiveness that the studio offers over the live setting. Have You In My Wilderness, equal parts unconventional and candid, perfectly encapsulates this.

DJ Koze – DJ Kicks (!K7)

There is only one person who could include a William Shatner monologue about the weight of one's own expectations on a landmark 50th instalment of a house and techno mix series and get away with it. That person is Stefan Kozalla. For DJ Koze there is no transition from the sublime to the ridiculous, and that's demonstrated by his ability to intersperse 70 minutes of supremely poignant and affecting music with genuinely hilarious skits, and somehow make it seem like the most natural thing in the world. The psychedelic imagery on the inner sleeve of this CD perhaps goes some way to explain the Koze mindset - the whole package calls to mind The Beatles' late-60s experimentation. It's worth noting that Kozalla is probably the only club DJ to have gone on a spiritual pilgrimage to India. As much as I'm loathe to admit it, most DJ mixes prize sheer functionality over anything truly affecting or transcendental. Here is a mix that does the exact opposite.

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love (Sub Pop)

Comebacks by rock bands rarely yield anything that sits amongst a group's best work, but Sleater-Kinney have always defied conventions. Their first record since 2006's bombastic The Woods, which was as boisterous and loud as anything Led Zeppelin could have offered, No Cities to Love returns to the band's earlier scratchy sound and largely eschews their previous effort's confessions of love, instead mostly focussing on their classic tales of people (particularly women) fighting for their place in an unjust society. That's not to say that this is a set of songs that aren't specific to the band's situation; Surface Envy celebrates their two decades of subverting rock's cliches, and Fade focuses on Corin Tucker's struggle facing touring away from a young family. The melodies are still as angular and Janet Weiss' drums are still as punching, but most thrillingly Tucker's spine-tingling catterwaul is still very much in tact. In a world that's still unfortunately dominated by all-male lineups, Sleater-Kinney leave the men dangling in their wake.

Circuit Des Yeux – In Plain Speech (Thrill Jockey)

I first discovered Circuit Des Yeux at Birmingham's Supersonic festival, where, face hidden behind her pushed-forward hair, she throttled her acoustic guitar to within an inch of its life. Sole permanent member Haley Fohr has previously spoken about the difficulty of commanding a room alone, particularly as a warm-up act, but the audience at Supersonic was taken aback by the intensity of her playing and her deep, otherwordly voice. It's that voice which is the core feature of In Plain Speech, comforting the listener as much as disturbing them. Although it's hardly a walk in the park, it's significantly more bright than any of her previous work, that dramatic, doom-laden voice contrasted with lyrics of transcendence.

Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD)

Holly Herndon is in many ways a 20th century update of Kraftwerk. The Germans were amongst the first to bring the possibilities of electronic musicianship to the masses in the late 70s and were always keen to stress the positive side of the rise of the machines and the combination of the biological and the mechanical. Thirty five years later Herndon explores very much the same territory, creating keyboard patches from her sampled voice and utilising sounds from the vast bank on her laptop, the sonic output of which she is constantly recording for later use. She's also positive about technology, but has her reservations, using Platform to comment on the way our online relationships influence our face to face contact. Whilst the record is thematically and intellectually thorough, it's also fantastically enjoyable, as wonderful a listen as it is a societal analysis.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Spectrum's Best Films of 2015 (10-1)

10. Force Majeure (Dir. Ruben Östlund)

This icicle-sharp drama from Sweden combines the discomfort and familial dysfunction of Michael Haneke or Ingmar Bergman with the deadpan, cruel comedy of the Coen brothers. An affluent upper-middle-class family on holiday at an exclusive ski resort is thrown into disarray when the work-obsessed father places self-preservation ahead of protecting his wife and children when an unexpected avalanche crashes towards the rooftop restaurant where they're eating breakfast. In the aftermath, the wife begins to reassess her estimation of her husband and their relationship; soon, unpalatable truths are being aired and the air is pregnant with barbed reproaches.

Far from creating a dour viewing experience, director Ruben Östlund emphasises the latent, social comedy of the situation. Much as with The Lobster, this makes its insights about the gulf between the ideals and realities of domestic bliss land all the more effectively. Well worth a watch, even if it is from in-between your fingers.

9. Sicario (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Emily Blunt gives a gutsy and vanity-free performance in this brutal borderlands thriller about ruthless Mexican drug cartels, CIA task forces, and the shady, blurred No Man's Land between the two embodied by Benicio del Toro's enigmatic assassin. As FBI agent Kate Macer, Blunt finds herself recruited into a top secret government operation across the Mexican border aimed at seizing control of the narcotics trade; although she initially believes she has been invited to participate on an equal footing with her arrogant male superiors, led by a superbly smarmy Josh Brolin, she quickly discovers that she is only a pawn in their power-hungry machinations.

This is the most disillusioned and cynical American thriller since Zero Dark Thirty, and although less explicit the post-9/11, Iraq resonances are readily apparent, with the contemporary US depicted as a place where grand statements of purpose and governmental crusades are used to conceal altogether more self-interested motives. The action sequences are wince-inducingly tense and bloody, the droning soundtrack is soaked in dread, and Roger Deakins' stunning cinematography - from cloud-streaked desert skies to labyrinthine Mexican slums - has Oscar written all over it.

8. Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller)

Social class is a subject typically shied away from in American popular culture. One of the founding myths of America is that anyone can make it and become wealthy, respected and important, so the realities of economic disadvantage, determination and stricture are most often omitted. Not so in Foxcatcher, a sports drama that treats its sordid and sad real-life inspiration as a microcosm of the ills of an entire society.

John du Pont (Steve Carell, eerily brilliant) is the aimless scion of a super-wealthy American family, determined to build a legacy for himself as one of the nation's great patrons of athletics, who enlists the help of Olympic wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) to build a world-class wrestling academy on the grounds of his chilly, forbidding ancestral estate. Needless to say, things go horribly wrong. Foxcatcher is a cautionary tale about our modern veneration of the wealthy and the elite, sombre yet shot through with pitch-black comedy, difficult to watch but impossible to look away from.

7. Mommy (Dir. Xavier Dolan)

Continuing the stretch of movies that put one through the emotional wringer, French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's Mommy is a bittersweet exploration of the fraught relationship between a free-spirited single mother and her wayward, violent-tempered teenage son. There's something of the young PT Anderson about the similarly precocious Dolan's work here: the pacing is impetuous and passionate, the performances and story pitched at an operatic intensity that sweep you along with them.

What's more, there's a playful quality to it: Dolan frames the movie in a 1:1 aspect ratio that emulates the camera on a smart phone - an inspired move that emphasises the family intimacy of the piece, as if we're watching somebody's Instagram feed, and allows moments of bravura filmmaking when the frame suddenly widens out to represent the euphoria of the characters.

6. P'tit Quinquin (Dir. Bruno Dumont)

Twin Peaks goes continental in maverick French filmmaker Bruno Dumont's 4-part miniseries/movie. A surprise hit in its native France, Quinquin is the strange tale of a series of brutal murders in a deprived rural community in northern France as seen from the perspective of a group of bored children whiling away their summer holidays and the hapless police detective tasked with solving the macabre crimes.

Dumont's distinctive style is fully in evidence: the cast of unprofessionals deliver memorably grimacing, quivering non-performances, and the plot deals with questions of provincial racism and spiritual need in a world where God is absent. Unlike Dumont's past work, however, Quinquin is frequently hilarious, and the sub-plot concerning burgeoning Islamophobia within the village wisely and eerily predicts the fortunes of France in 2015. Lovers of the weird and wonderful, jump in. More conservative viewers beware: Broadchurch this ain't.

5. Timbuktu (Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)

Abderrahmane Sissako's sensuous, heartfelt and tragic rumination on Islamism's creeping encroachment across North Africa has elements reminiscent of cinema past and present: the sweeping vistas - where men are dwarfed by their unforgiving environments - of David Lean; the mockery of empty-headed religious fundamentalism and gormless young jihadists from Chris Morris' Four Lions. But the musicality and emphasis on mood gives Sissako's perfectly-formed jewel an atmosphere and import all of its own; like a song oft-repeated, where the figures come and go, but the sad reality of love and joy extinguished by intolerance and hatred remains.

4. Girlhood (Dir. Céline Sciamma)

As the English-language title would suggest, this gritty and thrilling French drama is on some level pitched as a riposte to Boyhood's depiction of the early life and times of an upwardly mobile white male. No such opportunities are waiting for Marieme, the black female working-class protagonist of Girlhood, struggling to avoid the snares of romantic and family entanglement that might keep her from escaping from the poor Parisian banlieue she lives in, and finding solace, for a time at least, with a trio of independently-minded girls who share her background.

The soundtrack - of New Wave and Rihanna tracks - coupled with the luminescent imagery and expressionist editing gives the whole thing a propulsive momentum and danger that overcomes the more predictable notes of social realism that are touched upon. This is small-key filmmaking made in an epic register.

3. Bitter Lake (Dir. Adam Curtis)

Somewhere, buried deep within the vaults of the BBC, Adam Curtis has been firing out missives about the new global (dis)order for nigh-on twenty years, cobbled together from archival footage and mind-bending grand narratives delivered via stentorian voiceover. Bitter Lake, about the West's long, complex and ugly interventions in the Middle East, and the ways in which these dealings have a habit of biting scheming governments on the backside, is his most artistically accomplished work to date.

Curtis has trawled through cast-offs from the footage shot by news crews sent to cover the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and retrieved some pretty extraordinary footage, ranging from awkward teenage jihadists trying, and failing, to pose menacingly for the camera, to army personnel delivering lectures on conceptual art (specifically Duchamp's urinal piece Fountain) to a bemused audience drawn from the occupied population. Curtis's strategy is seemingly to undermine the too-tidy narratives of the mass media, be it the depiction of Islamists as a monolithic power or Western governments as either would-be saviours or oppressors. In the place of these stale stories, Curtis creates a disturbing reflection of our world that feels much closer to reality: a hall of mirrors where nobody can predict the consequences of their actions and all is chaos. Bitter Lake is beautiful and mesmerising to watch. It is important because it challenges us to look at the situation with fresh eyes and stop relying on the tired commonplaces that have accrued over the past decade.

Bitter Lake was released without fanfare onto iPlayer. Although it's criminal that Curtis' masterpiece didn't receive greater promotion, at least it means you can watch it for free online right here and not feel guilty about it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p02gyz6b/adam-curtis-bitter-lake

2. Stray Dogs (Dir. Tsai Ming-liang)

Tsai Ming-Liang, one of the principal luminaries of New Taiwan Cinema, announced that Stray Dogs would be his last feature-length film. Although it's sad that such a masterful and distinctive talent has called it quits, this meditatively-paced and elliptical swansong is one hell of a final statement. It follows the hand-to-mouth existence of a homeless man and his two young children living in Taipei: victims of an economic boom that has left them, as so many working-class citizens, behind, the bleakness of their situation eventually begins to threaten the father's sanity. At least, this is what it seems to be about: the non-linear structure means that it's impossible to get a firm grasp on the characters' situation, and heavily-stylised dream sequences keep swelling up beneath the more realist framework to untether things further.

There's no point in pretending otherwise: Stray Dogs is a desperately sad experience, possessed of an indelible emotional rawness that is incredibly rare and powerful. But neither is this structurally-radical work merely a wallow in misery-porn: Ming-Liang's technique of allowing scenes to unfold in real-time within single, fixed-camera takes has the same magic effect witnessed in Tarkovsky - that ineffable quality that the time lived by the characters has seeped out of the screen and inhabited the theatre auditorium/your living room. I think all the greatest filmmakers can create a feeling only accessed via their work, and, for all its sorrow and heartbreak, Ming-Liang's spellbinding cinema attains that level here.

1. Inherent Vice (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

As with PT Anderson's previous feature, The Master (my personal pick for film of the decade so far), his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's shaggy-dog story about a stoner private-eye requires more than one viewing to fully appreciate. What on first impression can seem like a series of (highly entertaining) unrelated incidents and aimless meanderings, reveals the dazzling intricacy of its structure. It is bursting with internal rhymes and recurring motifs. Where most Hollywood studio pictures struggle to dream up one idea, Anderson demonstrates an excess of them.

What is Inherent Vice 'about'? Personally, I see it as a commentary on how the counter-cultural ethos and spirit of the 60s have been co-opted and commodified by the establishment to the point where the original meaning is permanently lost. As evinced by The Rolling Stones charging extortionate fees for their retrospective concerts, the 60s is now just another facet of the prevailing capitalist status quo. Notice the incestuous dealings between the hippies and straight-world squares; how the representatives of power, chiefly Josh Brolin's police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, seem to be more in love with the New Age lingo and lifestyle than the unwashed beach-dwellers themselves. There is no romanticising in Anderson's movie: the counter-culture is doomed from the get-go, probably - it suggests - because it never truly existed in the first place.

But what Inherent Vice is about is actually secondary to how it feels: the languorous pace, light-dappled 65mm cinematography and far-out performances all contribute to what emerges as an alternately woozy and paranoid Californian phantasia. Pure cinema.

Year in disappointments: Spectre, Macbeth, Birdman, It Follows, White God, Wild Tales, A girl walks home alone at night, Jurassic World, Eden, Hard to be a god, A Most Violent Year, The Forbidden Room

Worth seeing: Whiplash, The Duke of Burgundy, The Look of Silence, The Clouds of Sils Maria, Amy, Love is Strange, Jauja, A pigeon sits on a branch reflecting on existence, Going Clear, Maidan, Selma, London Road, Junun, Pasolini, Bridge of Spies