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.