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

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Spectrum's Best Films of 2015 (20-11)


2015 has been a noisy, occasionally anti-climactic year for cinema. Those who say that the movies don't have the cultural heft they used to will have to contend with the media saturation achieved by Spectre and latterly Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Some of these event-pictures disappointed and others met our expectations, but away from the circus there were plenty of low-key innovations, most strikingly the films shot on smart phones and films made to look like they were shot on smart-phones. What does this micro-trend tell us? Maybe it's that cinema has proven more resilient than many predicted upon the advent of the digital and online revolution. Whether we're talking iPhones and Steve Jobs' legacy or Fifty Shades of Grey, it's still the case that people don't think something has fully 'arrived' until somebody makes a movie out of it...



20. Tangerine (Dir. Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch)

Tarantino take note: celluloid is certainly worth preserving, but Tangerine proves that it's possible to create dazzling cinema employing even the most unpromising of tools. Shot on a converted iPhone, this frank, compassionate and frequently hilarious day-in-the-life of two transgender women working as prostitutes in scuzzy downtown Los Angeles has an off-kilter, scrappy beauty to its imagery dependent in large part on its innovative use of technology.

The biggest triumph, however, is its irrepressible charm: the humour remains smart even at its most scatological, the relationships are well-observed, the performances winning, and the whole thing has a freewheeling energy that repurposes Godard's Breathless or Agnès Varda's Cleo From 5 To 7 for the Vice generation. 'New New Wave', perhaps?



19. Ex Machina (Dir. Alex Garland)

Despite Alex Garland's experience as a screenwriter on such contemporary science-fiction as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, his directorial debut is an altogether more subdued and talky foray into the genre. Plot-wise, Ex Machina tells of a lowly programmer, Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson), who wins a competition to visit his Steve Jobs-esque genius employer, Nathan Bateman, on the vast private estate from which he revolutionises the world with his innovations in technology. When he arrives, Caleb discovers that he is to help Bateman perform the Turing test on a female android, Ava (Alicia Vikander), built by Bateman, in order to determine whether or not she actually possesses intelligence. As things progress, and Caleb forms a tentative romance with Ava, we start to suspect that everyone's motivations might be murkier than first assumed.


As it turns out, Ex Machina's talkiness and restraint are its greatest strengths: this film deals more explicitly and thoroughly with the ethics and ramifications of artificial intelligence than perhaps any movie ever made, and the long, wary conversations between Caleb, Bateman and Ava ramp up the tension without resort to some of the cheesier B-movie tropes that have sometimes spoiled Garland's work in the past. In actual fact, though, the AI theme is a bit of a red herring: this is really a revisionist take on the myth of Pygmalion which takes revenge on geeky boys and their hi-tech (female) toys.



18. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)

In the year that Star Wars returned and Hunger Games ended, who knew that the belated and almost completely unanticipated sequel to a series of Aussie B-movies from the 1970s would be the blockbuster that people couldn't stop waxing lyrical about? It's arguably half an hour too long to sustain its bare-bones plot, but within seconds of its opening you're overwhelmed and won over by its sheer force of personality. This is no action-movie-by-committee; instead it's a work of gonzo pop-surrealism, amping up the outlandish and campy performances, ravishingly hyperreal cinematography, and implausibly elaborate car crashes to the point where it starts to resemble a hallucination brought on by sun-stroke.

If there's another genetic influence besides the stylised insanity of the original pictures, it's probably silent comedy classic The General: Tom Hardy's nearly wordless performance as the nomadic anti-hero Max Rockatansky recalls the poker-faced Buster Keaton, risking life and limb to keep his faithful steam engine rolling. It's way more fun and praiseworthy than the fourth entry in a long-defunct franchise has any right to be.


17. The Falling (Dir. Carol Morley)

Carol Morley's mellifluous portrait of female adolescence and young adulthood is an esoteric puzzle-box of a film. At first, its story of a group of students at an all-girls' school in 60s England suddenly stricken with an inexplicable 'falling sickness' that causes mass fainting and convulsions looks as if it might cleave to the format of the supernatural mystery. But Morley is more interested in the vagaries of emotion and desire than genre tropes, and, despite a contrived and unnecessary third-act drift into incest, the film primarily succeeds as an evocation of the intense pangs teenagers feel on the cusp of experience, as sex and the body suddenly go from being something funny to a spectre both frightening and serious.

Along with the work of other contemporary British filmmakers like Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland, Morley's debut fiction feature indicates a resurgence of interest in the great Nicolas Roeg's convention-shattering approach to homegrown cinema. It's not just the gestures towards his trademarked, flickering-on-the-edge-of-consciousness editing style, but his method of imploding regular three-act stories to get at the throbbing, primal, Freudian monsters lurking beneath. 


16. Citizenfour (Dir. Laura Poitras)

Laura Poitras' Academy Award-winning documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden is electric not just because of its sober, steady-eyed look at the corruption, unchecked power and threat to democracy of state surveillance in Western nations, but because it has that rare quality of feeling like a document of history as it is unfolding. As Citizenfour grippingly recounts, Poitras and former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald were contacted covertly by Snowden back when the world was blissfully ignorant of what its government agencies had been up to; in real-time, we witness the three parties meet up in a Hong Kong hotel room Snowden has fled to in order to escape extradition and prosecution by his own country, where he proceeds to provide details of the extensive snooping carried out by the NSA and GCHQ garnered during his time working for them.

Brilliantly, and without sensationalism, Poitras imbues the documentary with all of the sweaty paranoia and dread of a classic 70s conspiracy thriller, remaining within the claustrophobic confines of Snowden's room as the fallout and scandal of his revelations filter in via television and laptop from the outside world. Snowden himself emerges as fascinating and slightly unknowable: at moments he seems like a rabbit caught in the headlights, as the weight of what he has committed himself to starts to sink in, but at others his David-and-Goliath, principled resolve in the face of a very pissed-off super-state is almost otherworldly. 


15. Listen Up Philip (Dir. Alex Ross Perry)

The shadow of John Cassavetes looms large in this low-key yet sprawling examination of the bitter life of successful young novelist Philip Lewis Friedman, played brilliantly by Jason Schwartzman in what might well be a career-best performance, as he braces for the reception of his much-anticipated second book. Friedman and his mentor, Ike Zimmerman, an elder man of letters looking back over a prestigious literary career, are on one level thinly-veiled caricatures of Philip Roth, author celebrities funnelling their neuroses into acclaimed fiction. It's probably the case that one will find Listen Up Philip funnier if one is at least somewhat familiar with the biography and work of Roth, as this parody nails many of the distinctive traits of its real-life counterpart, from his often acrimonious personal life to his penchant for terse titles and book designs.

But even Roth neophytes will find plenty to enjoy: the digressive nature of the storytelling is consistently surprising and engrossing, director Alex Ross Perry repeatedly veering away from the chronic solipsism of Friedman to flesh out the wounded lives of Zimmerman, his neglected adult daughter, and Friedman's long-suffering photographer girlfriend. Perry slowly, confidently and amusingly racks up stinging, painful insights on the realities and sacrifices of a creative life in the contemporary landscape.


14. The Lobster (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

This is our world, but not quite as we know it. Colin Farrell plays an unprepossessing man suddenly plunged unwillingly into singledom and forced by the powers that be to attend a retreat for similarly unattached people. If he finds a mate, he is allowed to leave. If not, he will be transformed into an animal of his choosing and cast into the wilderness.

It's probably fair to say that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos's first foray into English-language film, The Lobster, doesn't represent much of a progression from the deadpan delights of his minor classic, Dogtooth, made in his home country: it shares the same unaffected acting style, detached framing and merciless satirical impulses. As in Dogtooth, Lanthimos uses a highly improbable yet meticulously detailed scenario to knock a few chunks out of some of the shibboleths society erects around human relationships.

There are flaws: one could argue that the plotting is too schematic, the characters functioning more as rhetorical components in the director's own argument than people with their own motivations. But this criticism presupposes a narrow definition of what filmmaking can be about: refreshingly, Lanthimos is more interested in reviving the all but dead aesthetic of trailblazers like Luis Buñuel and making a movie that is foremost political without ever becoming sanctimonious or desiccated. Encouragingly, audiences seem to have gone for it, although I wouldn't mind betting that there were a fair few awkward conversations during the journey home afterwards.


13. 45 Years (Dir. Andrew Haigh)

This deeply-affecting depiction of a marriage imploding under the weight of unexpected revelations and nursed resentments is one of the most exquisitely-wrought British dramas in recent memory. Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) is plunged unceremoniously into a living nightmare on the eve of her wedding anniversary to long-term partner, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), when the body of Geoff's one-time fiancé is rediscovered and he becomes obsessed with his life pre-Kate. Unable to cope with the fact that her seemingly-stable life has been founded on chance quirks of fate, Kate struggles to hold it together.

Writer-director Andrew Haigh never puts a foot wrong: the performances are perfectly-pitched, the structure impeccably condensed, and the central theme devastatingly conceived: Kate's predicament, we come to understand, is that of all of us - at the mercy of circumstance and ultimately unaware of who we or our loved ones truly are. Just as in life, Haigh resists glib answers or consolations, and the results are moving and chilling in equal measure.


12. Horse Money (Dir. Pedro Costa)

One of the most aesthetically-radical entries on this list, Pedro Costa's Horse Money is the Portuguese auteur's first fiction feature in eight years. Thematically, the story cleaves to Costa's preoccupation with the stark, impoverished lives of Lisbon's largely black underclass, but Horse Money takes these concerns into ever-more abstract and dreamlike territory. Giving a straight synopsis of the movie is almost impossible, but suffice it to say that we follow the daily life of 60-year-old Ventura, convalescing in a nursing home and embarking on frequent nocturnal wanderings into the strange subterranean slum beneath the institute, where he encounters figures from his and his nation's turbulent past.

Ventura might already be dead, caught in a limbo of lost souls, or the nursing home and its basement could be a projection of the conscious and unconscious levels of his traumatised mind. It remains unclear, and those struggling to comprehend everything that's going on are likely to have a disagreeable experience. Better to surrender to the unique, humid atmosphere Costa conjures via the zombie-like, incantatory performances he coaxes from the unprofessional cast and the shadow-swamped images he paints. For those with an open mind, Horse Money has the allure of a half-remembered and teasingly resonant dream.


11. Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes)

In the course of his always-interesting career, Todd Haynes has made a lot of very different types of movies, from existential horror (Safe, his masterpiece to date) to brainy dissections of Bob Dylan and 70s glam-rock (I'm Not Here and Velvet Goldmine), but he frequently returns to the dramatic terrain and possibilities of 1950s Hollywood melodrama à la Douglas Sirk. Carol, a faithful adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel about a burgeoning love affair between two women in mid-century New York, is probably his most accomplished work in the genre.

It's really a master-class in filmmaking, all the way up from the deployment of costume and sound design to show rather than tell the story, to Haynes' success at evoking the society of the period whilst imbuing it with a subversive energy that is entirely modern.

Tune in tomorrow for the top 10 movies of the year...

Thursday, 11 June 2015

When Hackney Becomes Hackneyed: Or Why Jamie XX's Solo Debut Isn't Any Good



Xylophones and steel drums have rarely been known to cause arguments, but the debut album from Jamie Smith, more commonly known as Jamie XX, features both heavily and has been the cause of much debate in the music press since its release just less than a fortnight ago. Whilst it has engendered gushing reviews in some quarters (Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound) in others it has provoked derision (The Quietus, Resident Advisor). The Guardian has even seen fit to write an article analysing various reviews and questioning whether this divisiveness is the result of musical snobbery. The battle lines seem to be roughly drawn with media outlets more commonly associated with electronic music on the against side, and those not on the for side. Given this divide, questions regarding authenticity and populism immediately arise. However, I thought that more analysis of the music itself may help us understand why the record has split opinion so conspicuously, and why in particular the electronic music community has not been in favour.


Jamie XX came to fame in 2009 as the drummer and percussionist of The XX, a band whose sound is heavily rooted in the guitar, though not necessarily in the traditional sense. The minimalism of The XX, where moments of quiet and silence are abundant and instruments are given plenty of room to breathe, is very much in contrast to the majority of guitar music that has enjoyed popularity since the onset of rock & roll. This said, we didn't really see the more electronic side of Smith until later, with the release of his collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron We're New Here, in 2011. It makes sense that his solo debut is informed heavily by the work with his bandmates, and the problem is that the record is ensnared by many of the pitfalls that indie musicians often encounter when dealing with the world of electronic music.

The problems become plain on the opening track, Gosh, which features clattering breakbeats and bolted-on UK MC samples. The track plods along unoffensively without much happening for the first half of it's running time, the first couple of minutes surely forming just the build up to something more interesting. What we get instead is the cheesiest searing synth line that could possibly have been mustered cutting through the mix. Electronic music is rarely about melody. Primarily it is about rhythm and sound design, and electronic producers generally eschew traditional melody leads as they can often sound mawkish in context. That's the issue here - it's clearly designed for some hands-in-the-air festival moment but unfortunately it's just as likely to induce cringes as euphoria. This is similarly true of Obvs, a track which trades on Smith's signature steel drums and proceeds with all of the poise and restraint of a child with a Casio keyboard in a music lesson. Acknowledging that a track relies heavily on your trademark gimmick by naming it Obvs does not make it any less self-parody either.

Mid album interlude Just Saying deals in faux-emotional ambiance, and is the encapsulation of the trouble with much of the album; everything is just too obvious. There is no subtlety. Electronic music generally holds something in reserve and doesn't pull so conspicuously for the heartstrings, everything here is in contrast so schmaltzy.

From here we progress to Stranger in a Room, featuring Smith's bandmate Oliver Sim. Lyrically the song assumes the trope of it's title, a tale of a lonely sexual encounter on a night out. It's as if Smith uses devices like these to reinforce his club credentials, cheekily stealing cliched aspects of dance music culture without really engaging with it fully, bolting simple melodies onto electronic instrumentation which is never used to its potential.

Loud Places works similarly, but steals a vocal line wholesale from Idris Muhammad's 1977 track Could Heaven Ever Be Like This. It's not that sampling in itself is bad, it's a fundamental part of electronic music. It's just that the use of the sampler is supposed to bring something new to the original sound, to draw out some aspect that wasn't so obvious or to place the sound in a new context. Instead Loud Places depends almost entirely on the vocal, something that can also be said for the better parts of I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times), the rap on which is so appalling it's not even worth mentioning.

Elsewhere much of the album sounds paper thin. Much has been written on various forums about the lack of dynamic range (an important aspect of electronic music, particularly in the club) in Smith's music, but there are places where there actually appears to be something of a mastering problem. Although SeeSaw is a well written track, there is a horrible crack and clatter on some of the drums which partly spoil its enjoyment.

The strongest moment comes on the previously released Sleep Sound, whose shuffling drums and strange melodies recall Smith's contemporary Four Tet (aka Keiran Hebden). It's a shame that there are not more moments on the record like this, as In Colour could really have done with some more Hebden-style weirdness.

Other recent album's like Caribou's Our Love which have referenced rave and UK dance music from a more "indie" perspective have been far more successful because they have brought something new to these kinds of ideas. Our Love had for more variety. It was pretty, but did not aim solely for mushy prettiness, instead also looking at some of the darker sides of love and dancing. It also featured much more sonic variety.

It strikes me that the negative reaction of the electronic music community to In Colour is because they believe a cynicism is at play here. There is no doubt that the record will be extremely popular, and the references to rave and dance culture will somehow give it more of a cool edge. It's unfortunate that Smith has chosen to take on some cliches without really bringing anything new to the table. It's not that there is anything wrong with being derivative, but it's better to be derivative of the more interesting parts of a culture. To me this isn't so much appropriation as it is inauthentic.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Opinion: Why we cannot allow Islamic State to be referred to as such


A somewhat ponderous exploration of the connotations of the word "Islamic" in Islamic State.

There is so much wrong with the way we think of and refer to the group we know as ISIS or ISIL, even in our most forward thinking publications. A thought has grown on me over the past couple of months and has now lodged itself firmly in my brain; that we should not allow ISIS to be considered on the terms by which it defines itself, and that ISIS is simply a mafioso organisation operating under the vaguest of religious pretexts.

If, as ISIS wants, we conflate its existence with Islam, we are not only playing into the hands of the group itself, but also the organisations and individuals within our own countries that would use ISIS as an excuse repress the rights and freedoms of those in the Muslim communities among us. If we begin to consider the true purpose of the organisation (ie the consolidation of resources and power to a group of amoral gangsters) we can start to understand why it is in the group's interest to associate itself with Islam.

The primary motivator for the religious connotations the organisation chooses to attach to itself is quite simply recruitment. We know from our experiences with inner city gangs in this country that such groups generally arise where there are young men who feel powerless and oppressed, whose maligned existence stands little chance of improvement through the normal and lawful channels within our societies. With the vilification that we have allowed to exist against young Muslims within the western world, is it not likely that a percentage of these men will find themselves disillusioned, rudderless? Does that not then also make them an excellent resource for an organisation which claims some affiliation to their kin, to the very thing that we have allowed to be used to mark them out for castigation in the first place? We even see that some of the very men previously found within inner city London gangs now find themselves among the ranks of ISIS. The association of the group with Islam also perpetuates these conditions, as a result of the Islamophobia of the right wing press' reaction to the atrocities carried out by what it sees an Islamic organisation.

The oppression of Muslims by the peoples that now find themselves among the powerful “democratized” nations goes as far back as the crusades, and has a much more recent history tied up multi-fold with the aims of the capitalist machine. Not only were these people oppressed as a result of the battle against the communist Soviets in the 80s, but their homelands' abundance in oil results in a power struggle that continually propagates war and conflict in the middle east (sometimes under the pretext of the existence of weapons of mass destruction). We know that ISIS has been extremely keen to take control of oil resources where possible, so surely it is not much of a stretch to draw parallels with the South American cartels whose declining drug businesses are now causing them to attempt illegitimate control over oil supplies.

The attempts to control the distribution of oil is not the only thing that ISIS has in common with these cartels. The drug connection should have also become clear since the surfacing of reports of large quantities of drugs being found in the possession and homes of ISIS members. In addition, Syria is a perfect route for the smuggling of drugs into the west from the opium and cannabis fields of Afghanistan, Lebanon and other countries within the region. Remember that opium production in Iraq increased significantly as result of farmers attempting to make ends meet in the wake of the most recent war there. How apt would it be if ISIS could not only acquire funding through this channel, but also proliferate the supply of substances which are known to cause harm within the very western democracies that they profess to hate and which created the conditions for the existence of ISIS in the first place? How strange that they should supply us with harmful substances derived from plants which we associate with our war dead, the burning of images of which (by a very small percentage of Muslims) have become such a controversy in this country.

Perhaps thus far this has been somewhat rambling, but allow me to draw us back to my key contention that it is in the interests of the gangland organisation known as ISIS to ostensibly align itself with Islam. Another of its key motivations for doing so is the pretence of legitimacy and justification that it hopes this will provide it with. Just as the group's attempts to claim itself a state lend it a kind of false and flimsy authority, so does its self-identification as Islamic. In addition to this, the group can use their intentionally warped interpretation of the teachings of Islam to exorcise power over populations within their area of control. Whilst ISIS may claim that its brutal executions are their enforcement of Islamic law, what they are so obviously really about is striking fear into the hearts of those who would seek to oppose them. Their strict “interpretation” of Islam is just another tool of oppression. Where once western governments sought to exercise influence for their capitalist religion, now ISIS does so ostensibly for its own. Where we once deferred all criticism to the influence of the market, which can not and should not be controlled, now they refer to the power allotted to them by God himself, which therefore is not to be questioned.

We might speculate as to what degree members of ISIS really do believe in some warped form of Islam. Perhaps if some of them really do then it serves to justify in their minds the terrible atrocities which the group is responsible for. Can this be in some way compared with the Catholic identity assumed within other mafioso traditions? If, as I suspect, many of them do not truly hold the existence of their particularly barbarous God to be hard truth, then it is within their interests to allow their enemies to believe they do. Who wants to fight against a man who believes that God's will is behind him, who is more than willing to die for his cause? It must be somewhat odd if these men do truly believe in the omniscience of their God and their acting out of his bidding that we have not seen the suicide bombings associated with those who do hold that particular belief.

If, as I hope I have briefly set out above, it is the case that it is in the interests of the group to be identified as Islamic then we should attempt to dissociate the two because it does serves their true purpose, and also because it is a patently false image of Islam that they project. Not only this but it also leads to the further persecution in our own nations of a minority that is already suffering much.


Perhaps then we should come up with a new name by which to refer to ISIS. Might I suggest something along the lines of the Organised Criminals in Iraq and Syria (OCIS)?

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Spectrum's Best Albums of 2014, Part Three: Number One



And we're there... our number one record of 2014.



Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 2

It's difficult to decide whether the explosive collaboration between El-P and Killer Mike represents a leap forward in rap music, or an anomalous, brilliant throwback. The production is inarguably very 2014, but the philosophical approach behind it feels much older, one might even say constitutive of hip-hop's very origins. It's there in the cameo from Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha on the blistering, mosh-pit-enabled 'Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)', which dusts off a shouty relic from one of rap's future-pasts, and coolly repurposes him for modern sonic warfare. And it's there in Killer Mike's angry, justifiably paranoid verses on 'Lie, Cheat, Steal'. These two luminaries of alternative hip-hop have gone back to the well, and brought forth the political heft from a bygone era, when rap didn't see sincerity or polemic as problematic, to offer a rejuvenating essay on the black experience, the working-class experience, and the goddamn human experience, in Obama's America. Nick Pierce

Monday, 12 January 2015

Spectrum's Best Albums of 2014, Part Two


You know the score. Our album of the year to follow shortly.



Andy Stott - Faith in Strangers (Modern Love)


Andy Stott's 2012 album Luxury Problems garnered about as much success as record ever could in the dark world of dub techno. The follow up is an astonishing piece of work that also features Stott's childhood piano teacher, Alison Skidmore, on vocals. In stark contrast to his monochrome previous effort, Faith in strangers displays a much greater breadth, drawing on elements as disparate as techno, dubstep, ambient music, post punk and US trap. That might sound like too many ingredients for one broth, but the result is as consistent and complete as it is varied. Particular standouts include the haunting title track and the spine tinglingly brutal Violence. Stott and Skidmore have created a murky, grime-encrusted, but beautiful world, where subtlety and power exist in equal measure. Reviews of Luxury Problems described an artist creating his definitive statement. Faith in Strangers finds Stott crafting an entirely new one. George Bate



Caribou - Our Love (City Slang)


When Dan Snaith released Jiaolong under his DJ alias Daphni in 2012, his journey from psychedelic indie popper to dance floor mover was complete. But Our Love is designed to do so much more than just encourage toe-tapping, it aims to pull at the heartstrings as well. Snaith has said that in terms of creation this was the simplest Caribou album he's made yet, and whilst that may be true, thematically it's as nuanced as ever. Snaith explores the full spectrum of human love, the good, the bad, and the ugly, all through the reflection of a disco ball hanging from a club ceiling. Granted, musically it's very much derivative; the title track itself could almost be a cover version of Inner City's Good Life, and I swear that Back Home is just a dance version of Damian Rice's Cannonball. But who cares when it's so multicoloured, so fun? GB




Gunnar Haslam - Mirrors and Copulation (Long Island Electrical Systems)


Over the past few years, Ron Morelli's L.I.E.S. (Long Island Electrical Systems), has become a reliable source for really weird dance music. Whilst the majority of Morelli's own output has come in the form of dark, almost beatless sketches on Dominic Fernow's (aka Prurient/Vatican Shadow) Hospital Productions, music on L.I.E.S. has spanned the continuum between filthy acid techno and blissed-out ambient material. Gunnar Haslam's second full length falls squarely in the middle of these two ends of the spectrum, featuring calm passages interspersed with beguiling cyclical bangers made with only the minimum of components. This is simple music, but it's done so thoroughly well. The album has a distinct sci-fi feel, but any track could have been made with equipment available twenty years ago, giving it a completely timeless feel. Equal parts intense and soothing, this is a joyous journey from start to finish. GB




Tycho - Awake (Ghostly International)


The cover for Scott Hansen’s most recent record is the perfect visual representation of the music contained within; all vivid colours and calming notes, basic elements conjuring up the most beautiful of marine sunsets. It can come as no surprise then that the San Franciscan is also a graphic artist who designs his own album sleeves. Building on from 2011’s Dive, and also issued on US independent Ghostly International, Awake is the first record that Hansen has recorded with the aid of a three-piece band. The result is meticulous, with dozens of picked cyclical guitar melodies weaving themselves in and out of gorgeous synth tones, glistening like calm waves in the sun. It’s hard to find a standpoint for this kind of music, though perhaps there are elements of Explosions in the Sky’s post rock, seen through rose tinted glasses, or The Field’s bright electronica. Blissful, sweet but never saccharine, Awake is the bright sound of those kind of summer days. GB




Perc - The Power and the Glory (Perc Trax)


It's something of an odd thing to say, but Perc's new record of savage industrial bangers is actually quite political. Case in point is David and George, a nod to our esteemed Bullingdon club leaders, which sets a deranged maniacal laugh over a static-suffused beat. It was also in the name of his 2012 EP, A New Brutality surely being a reaction to austerity Britain. Ali Wells has spoken about this at some length, and whilst he denies that his reaction to reading something unpleasant in the newspaper is to go home and make furious neck-breaker, it's undeniable that his political viewpoint somehow informs his work. If going out and listening to house music is a fantasy escape from 9-5 drudgery, then surely this kind of music provides a much more real catharsis. GB




Todd Terje - It's Album Time (Olsen)


Todd Terje aka Terje Olsen packs more than a few influences into the 50 or so minutes of his debut album, the aptly titled It's Album Time, which collects the choice cuts (Strandbar, Inspector Norse, Swing Star Parts 1 & 2) of his output from the past few years and places them in the context of other, newer productions. The Norwegian originally began training as a pianist but dropped out of music school due to the lack of jazz on the curriculum, and there are elements of lounge jazz on display here as well as house, disco and synthpop. The key thing which ties this album together is a real sense of fun; Terje is a perennial joker – even the name he releases under is a wisecrack on the name of classic house producer Todd Terry. That's not to say that the album doesn't have a sensitive side, which comes in the form of the tender Robert Palmer cover Johnny and Mary, featuring Bryan Ferry on vocals. Elsewhere though it's largely joy, house pianos and fluorescent arpeggios. GB




Jon Hopkins - Asleep Versions (Domino)


Since the release of 2013's excellent Immunity, Jon Hopkins has released a steady stream of re-workings of tracks from the record, the diversity of which has been testament to the range and depth of the source material. We've had club ready efforts from the likes of Objekt and Karenn, and poppier work from Hopkins himself in collaboration with Purity Ring. Now we get an EP length suite ostensibly designed to help the listener fall into a state of sleep. As relaxing as this little gem is, it's not going to be sending anyone into a slumber any time soon, there is simply too much gorgeous soundscape on offer. Longtime collaborator King Creosote is on hand to lend cherubic vocals to the gorgeous Immunity, as is Raphaelle Standell for the blissful Form by Firelight. The transformation of the source material is absolute; whilst some elements are still recognisable, the tracks are completely transfigured from the glitchy, energetic originals. For the most part Hopkins removes the elements of threat that were sometimes present in some of the album versions of these tracks, the only exception being the not-quite-ominous drones and Ben Frost-esque whines at the start of Open Eye Signal, which are soon swept away by more dreamy tones. This EP is yet further confirmation of Hopkins' status as a masterful sound architect. GB




DJ Dodger Stadium - Friend of Mine (Body High)


Don't let the slightly daft names of DJ Dodger Stadium members Jerome LOL and Samo Sound Boy fool you; their take on gospel-tinged house is gorgeous and affecting, it just so happens that the Body High label owners also have a sense of humour. The first track proper, Love Songs, sets the tone, placing a repeating lovelorn vocal over the top of warm synths and ratcheting snares to mesmerising effect. Overall it's not too dissimilar to the kind of house that was coming out of France between the late 90s and the early 2000s. It's a formula that the duo repeat time and again (1: longing diva vocal, 2: nice chords, 3: big drums), without ever making it outstay its welcome. GB




Marcel Dettman - Fabric 77 (Fabric)


The expectations are always going to be high when a hugely lauded DJ like Marcel Dettmann steps up to the decks to helm an instalment in the Fabric series. As a long-time resident at Berlin’s Berghain, Dettmann has been at the forefront of techno DJing for many years now, and has released two albums and dozens of EPs, mainly on the club’s in house label, Ostgut Ton, and his own imprint, MDR. Whilst his own productions are tough and austere, the selections he makes for his mixes carry something more of a warmth, a playfulness even, qualities unusual for this type of functional music. Dettmann’s mastery of peaks and troughs is evidenced throughout, with particular highlights including Answer Code Request’s ecstatic Transit 0.2 and the deranged pummelling BB 1.0 from Berghain accomplice and sometime commercial lawyer Norman Nodge. Fabric 77 takes the most sombre of techno and makes it fun. GB




Swans - To Be Kind (Mute)


Over the past couple of years, Swans have given new meaning to the musical phrase 'American primitive'. For one thing, their music is clearly indebted to the blues tradition (particularly its darkest manifestations), counter-intuitively using the all-encompassing, muscular sonic assault of noise rock to conjure the same visions of loneliness, longing, and spiritual fragility evoked by Leadbelly and Howlin' Wolf. For another, frontman Michael Gira is obsessed with the atavistic: seemingly envisioning music as a means of sandblasting off the layers of sedimented sociality to return to that in us which is basic and animal. That he does so without straying into repetition, with great variety and unwavering commitment, is deeply impressive, and just one hell of an enthralling listen. Nick Pierce




Livity Sound - Livity Sound Remixes (Livity Sound)

Whilst it's always the Hessle Audio crew whose productions get more attention, in my opinion it's Livity Sound boys (Peverelist, Kowton and Asusu) who do the sound they share in common, an odd combination of techno and Bristol's bass/dub heritage, better. This remix LP follows on from, and improves upon, the collective's compilation of originals from 2014. Livity Sound's material is ripe for remixing; whilst there's plenty of space in it, it's also sonically rich so there's plenty of scope for rhythmic rearrangement whilst retaining the overall texture. Overall, the remixers tend to nudge the tracks more towards more standard rhythms than those found on the more syncopated originals, which is no surprise given the names involved, such as UK techno stalwart Surgeon and Long Island Electrical Systems boss Ron Morelli. Whilst the tracks on display here are obviously meant to be heard in a DJ mix context, what is surprising is how well they function both for stand alone listening and as a suite or album. A release you can get your teeth into. GB




Francis Harris - Minutes of Sleep (Scissor and Thread)


This record might come as a surprise to anyone who knows Francis Harris from his earlier tech house guise Adultnapper, but the past few years have caused a sea change in Harris's life as well as his music. Harris lost his father several years ago, an event which led to the less dancefloor focused Leland in 2012. In the intervening time, he also lost his mother leading to the even more introspective Minutes of Sleep. This record, arriving on Harris's own Scissor and Thread imprint, sees him bringing contemplative downtempo jazz to the table, sometimes combining it with the house he made his name with, by combining the mournful horns with Theo Parrish-esque rhythms. It's an astonishing piece of work, sad without being depressing, grieving yet warm, and forms an excellent tribute to Harris's parents. GB

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Spectrum's Best Albums of 2014, Part One


Although we're almost a fortnight too late, we at Spectrum have finally gotten round to compiling a list of our favourite albums from 2014 and scribbling down some words about them. This year we present the bulk of our albums in two parts, and in no particular order. A separate piece on our favourite album of 2014 will follow. I would say that we've stretched the rules to include a couple of mix CDs and a compilation, but there were no rules in the first place so that would render that null and void. In addition you might note how many lovely independent labels are represented this year. Enjoy!





Flying Lotus - You're Dead (Warp)


Those who mourn the passing of jazz-fusion will surely find something to console them in producer-extraordinaire Steven Ellison's latest LP, a multi-coloured meditation on the nature of death. It's way more fun than its subject would suggest: we're treated to more of the shimmering, harp-inflected instrumentals cribbed from Ellison's great-aunt, Alice Coltrane, alongside keyboard freakouts from Herbie Hancock, heavenly r'n'b chorals, and a show-stopping bit of verbal pyrotechnics courtesy of Kendrick Lamar. It's like there's a party at the mouth of the grave, and everyone's invited! Nick Pierce


   
Wild Beasts - Present Tense (Domino)


Mostly gone are the wild yelps and screeching falsetto of Wild Beasts of old, but they're still cutting rather odd figures. Four albums in the boys from Kendal are still exploring class, bizarre sexuality and masculinity in their own idiosyncratic way. I wouldn't say they've ever exactly lacked in sensitivity, though every lyric has always felt like it was steeped in so many layers of irony it was almost impossible to tell whether they were being earnest or not, cruel or kind. Things are much more straightforward on Present Tense, as the title of Simple Beautiful Truth gives away. If on Limbo Panto Wild Beasts were fighting and fucking (or is that watching others fight and fuck?), then perhaps this is where they've become somewhat tamed, with songs about love and comfort. The best moment arrives on , when Tom Fleming intones deeply about “a godly state, where the real and the dream may consummate”. Quite. George Bate




Pangaea - Fabriclive 73 (Fabric)


Of the three Hessle Audio co-founders, it's usually Ben UFO that's considered to be the most skilled on the decks. This by no means indicates that Pangaea and Pearson Sound are somehow lacking in this aspect, rather it is a consequence of the fact that their contemporary has chosen solely to focus on spinning records rather than releasing his own productions. Were any evidence needed of this, exhibit A would be Pangaea's Fabriclive 73, on which he deftly brings together a wide range of tracks from across the techno and bass music spectrums, and makes them feel entirely his own. Although it's still resolutely dark, Pangaea manages to bring a buoyant energy to the mix that wouldn't usually be found when mixing tracks of this type. Set your dial to bounce and beef your kickdrums to eleven. GB




HTRK - Psychic 9-5 Club (Ghostly International)


Not since the times of Portishead has darkness sounded quite so erotic. HTRK deal in a moody kind of electronic minimalism, the songs on this record rarely consisting of more than a drum machine, few ominous synth lines and chanteuse Jonnine Standish's smoky but still silky smooth voice. Standish's vocals, whilst not always decipherable, express a frustration at the everyday drudgery that most people endure through work (their previous album was entitled Work (work, work)) and concerns about the expectation of body image (The Body You Deserve) in modern day society. The dark mood also reflects the bassist Sean Stewart's suicide in 2010, which brought about the remaining pair's move back to their native Australia from London. In the wake of this awful tragedy, HTRK have produced a beguiling record which reveals more of its simple yet labrynthian world with every listen. GB




Cut Hands - Festival of the Dead (Blackest Ever Black)


Whether its in terms of experimental sounds or shocking taboos, William Bennett has been pushing boundaries for well over twenty years. As part of power electronics group Whitehouse, Bennett and his cohorts turned the speeches of sexual abuse victims into what?...Music? Art? Social commentary? Bennett has been accused of misogyny and racism in his work, although it could be said that his penchant for approaching controversial topics inevitably leads to misrepresentations. His Cut Hands project is a ferocious attempt to explore vodou traditions from Haiti and polyrhythmic African percussive music. It is perhaps odd, but fitting, that through these explorations Bennet has found himself playing shows alongside the leading lights of UK industrial techno, his experiments as Cut Hands certainly share a brutality with that genre. Festival of the Dead is the culmination of several releases on Blackest Ever Black and finds Bennett pushing his music to its logical conclusion; harrowing, visceral and completely thrilling. GB



Polar Bear - In Each and Every One (Leaf)


Whereas FlyLo brought jazz to electronica, Polar Bear now seems intent on bringing electronica to modern jazz, and the results are mostly enchanting. With its sparsely deployed use of horns and saxophone, nervous, jittery rhythms, and alternately glacial and fiery atmospherics, the album bears a peculiar resemblance to Radiohead's Kid A. It's nowhere near as good of course (what is?), but in its smaller, humbler way, it offers a similarly alluring landscape to get lost in. Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize - but don't let that put you off! NP



Pinch and Mumdance - Pinch B2B Mumdance (Tectonic)


This mix CD, out on Pinch's Tectonic imprint, is the sound of UK club music being bent completely out of shape, bastardized into mutant sounds interspersed with seconds of silence. Whereas most club music sticks to standard four to the floor kicks, the patterns here are almost unrecognizable, unconventional and exciting. Mumdance recently started a new label with longtime collaborator Logos in order to put out “beatless club tracks”, and that can come as no surprise to anyone who hears the selections on offer here, whose elements generally combine the more experimental end of grime, the nastier sounds found in industrial techno and the type of bassweight usually found in dubstep. Across these 19 tracks, Pinch and Mumdance lay down the sound of a strange electronic future, where all forms of UK club music (and this does have a strictly UK flavour) breed to form something entirely new, a freak child that nobody can control. GB



The Jezabels - The Brink (Play It Again Sam)


Although The Jezabels have made a name for themselves in their native Australia, peaking there with their latest at number two, they're yet to make much of an impact on British or American shores. This is surprising considering they deal in the kind of epic emotive synth-infused rock songs that might be written by The Killers or Kings of Leon, were those bands not so distinctly dull. Singer Hayley Mary's gorgeous vocals are always the focal point, although that's not to say that the rest of the band is in any way lacking; all four members are vital components in making every single mile-wide chorus soar. There's nothing particularly original about the stadium-sized anthems on show here, but there doesn't need to be when they carry so much charm. GB



St. Vincent - St. Vincent (Loma Vista)


In the immortal words of Zoolander's Mugatu, St Vincent is 'so hot right now'. At a time when guitar music seems more out of orbit than ever, it's bracing to have a talent such as Annie Clark re-tune our cultural satellite to the simple, infinite pleasures of a guitar riff impeccably executed. But she's no mere nostalgia act; in her own eccentric way, she's the voice of the present. Where previous generations of rock heroes ventured into electronic music as if it were foreign territory, it's clear that Clark is a native, and her songs' kaleidoscopic, unselfconscious instrumentation reflects how at ease she is in her aural - and commercial - surroundings. The throne on the cover doesn't lie: fame has always been St Vincent's birthright. NP



Head High - Megatrap (Powerhouse)


In a clouded, anonymous world, Shed is one of techno's most canonised stars. But the man whose mother calls him Rene Pawolitz remains frustratingly obtuse, confounding interviewers at every turn. Really though, there's no need for Pawolitz to open himself to the media when the intention is abundantly clear through his productions; all he wants to do is get the dancefloor moving. This 9 track release under his Head High moniker is the perfect evidence of this; ranging from the spine-tingling to the brutal, Pawolitz pulls out every trick in the book in order to please the clubbers. Whether he's employing the standard house and techno four to the floor drum pattern or something more syncopated, every single sound, from the beefy kick drums to the airy synths, is tuned for absolute maximum impact. This is escapism on wax. GB




Ben Frost - A U R O R A (Mute Records)


Whereas Ben Frost's previous work was created mainly using conventional instrumentation (field recordings of wolves notwithstanding), A U R O R A was made almost entirely on his laptop whilst working far from the Australian's current Iceland base, in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and fleshed out with the pummelling sounds of ex-Liturgy drummer Greg Fox. On the record, Frost lays out sheets of crackling white noise, pulling melody out of pure dissonance, some semblance of order out of chaos. The sound isn't too dissimilar to that of regular collaborator Tim Hecker; whilst the individual sounds you're hearing are nasty and aggressive, they coalesce into something beautiful, far greater than the sum of their parts. If there was any doubt that this laptop-birthed record could be converted for the live setting, Frost and Fox's storming live show proved otherwise. Who ever knew the hissing sound from your untuned TV could sound quite so good? GB




Dalhous - Will To Be Well (Blackest Ever Black)


Whilst it's not the breeziest of affairs, Dalhous's second long player is still probably the least ominous thing to come out so far on London's Blackest Ever Black, an aptly named label known for putting out releases across the genre spectrum, with one thread in common - their stark grimness. Not for the first time Dalhous draw influence from the work of oddball Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing, naming tracks after aspects of his work and personal life. The record is touted as a musical exploration of mental health states, and it isn't too much of a stretch to see why. The blurred green textures on the cover are a perfect accompaniment to the most organic electronic music you're likely to hear this year, all indistinct synth sweeps and fuzzy beats. The duo's processing techniques are central to this - often they'll run sounds through multiple pieces of equipment, playing their music in the open air and recording it along with whatever else happens to be out there, achieving a warm but not entirely benign haze similar to that found on worn cassette tapes. The end result is not unlike Boards of Canada; beautiful soundscapes that bring to mind images of strange worlds not yet discovered. GB