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