New Music Reviews/ Words: Dominic Valvona




Welcome to Dominic Valvona’s regular reviews roundup. This latest edition of Tickling Our Fancy includes albums, EPs and singles by Stella Sommer, Otis Sandsjö, Yiddish Glory, Yazz Ahmed, Franklin and Qujaku.



In another eclectic edition, with releases pulled together from across international date lines and genres, there’s the beautifully morose Nico-esque Gothic indie solo debut album from Stella Sommer (tipped as one of my albums of 2018 already); a no less striking debut from the Scandinavian jazz saxophonist Otis Sandsjö, who mixes European jazz styles and modernism with the cut-and-paste techniques of hip-hop and electronica in real time on the brilliant Y-OTIS; a remixed treatment EP of songs from Yazz Ahmed’s Arabian jazz suite La Saboteuse; the debut EP, Some Old Tracks, from the polygenesis psychedelic and pool splash electronic sample collage artist Franklin; and an intense dramatic overture like suite of post-punk, drone, Gothic psychedelia and doom from the skulking Japanese troupe Qujaku.

With more serious intentions, shining a light on a lost chapter in WWII Jewish history, I also look at the beautifully produced Yiddish Glory testimony of tragic laments, ballads and elegiac songs written by the Soviet Union’s Jewish community during the barbaric invasion of Russia.


Stella Sommer  ’13 Kinds Of Happiness’ (Affairs Of The Heart)  10th August 2018

 

In the vogue of an age-old central European malady, the dour romanticism that permeates the stunning solo debut album from the German singer/songwriter Stella Sommer is wrapped in a most beautiful gauze of melodious uplift and elegiac heartache.

Artistically, as the results prove, making the best decision of her career, Sommer steps out for a sojourn from her role in the German band Die Heiterkeit. Far from an extension of that group (though band mates Hanitra Wagner and Phillip Wolf both join her on this album), there are of course concomitant traces of it. Sommer however makes louder but also accentuates these traces and lingering relationships; her lived-in, far-beyond-her-years vocal more sonorous and commanding than before.

Possibly as perfect as an album can get, 13 Kinds Of Happiness is an ambitious, slowly unveiling album of diaphanous morose. Pastoral folk songs and hymn-like love trysts are transduced by a Gothic and Lutheran choral liturgy rich backing that reimagines Nico fronting Joy Division, or Marianne Faithfull writhing over a Scary Monsters And Super Creeps era Bowie soundtrack (especially on the galloping Northern European renaissance period evoking thunderous drumming ‘Dark Princess, Dark Prince’; just one of the album’s many highlights). I don’t use that Nico reference lightly: Sommer channeling the fatalistic heroine’s best qualities atmospherically speaking.

Rather surprisingly, especially with the influences I’ve outlined, the torment and caustic swirls of the enveloping ominous fog cloaked dramatic title-track, vocally crosses Nico with Tim Booth of James fame. ‘Collapse/Collapsing’ even sounds a bit late 70s Fleetwood Mac, whilst ‘I Take An Interest’, with its ethereal lulling choruses and cathedral atmospherics isn’t a million miles away from a Holy Roman Empire inspired Beach House – imagine that!

The rest of this album is very much in the Germanic mode of religious drama and mystery. Hidden amongst the cloisters, Baroque drones and dark serious conservatism faith and tradition is brighter pop relief and troubadour, even Dylan-esque, odes on love, loss and anxiety. A perfect example of this serious but lilting, Gothic but often melodically harmonious counterpoint is the mellotron entrancing boat ride across a Kosmische river Styx, as painted by Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Boat On My River’. Following in the grand tradition of river songs, or alluding to Germany’s timeless relationship to the waters that run throughout its legacy, Sommer evokes Neu! and Cluster on this foreboding romanticized voyage, yet shows a certain vulnerability and lightness of touch too. That same vulnerability is also in evidence on the nocturnal, birds-of-a-feather duet with (I think) the lead singer (and fellow compatriot) of Tocotronic, Dirk Von Lowtzow, ‘Bird’s Of The Night’.

A curious Teutonic travail of venerable lovelorn despair and modesty, Sommer’s debut LP will take time to work its magic. But work its magic it will. A tremendous talent lyrically and vocally, serious and astute yet melodically enriching and lilted, her sagacious deep tones are starkly dramatic, but above all, rewarding. 13 Kinds Of Happiness is destined for many end of year lists; I for one, living with it for the past two months, find it one of 2018’s highlights, and one of the best debuts I’ve heard in ages. Here’s to a solo indulgence that I hope long continues.






Otis Sandsjö  ‘Y-OTIS’ (We Jazz Records)  1st June 2018

 

Imbued as much by the complex language of North American and European modernist jazz as those who use it to riff on in the hip-hop and electronic music genres, the adroit Gothenburg saxophonist and composer Otis Sandsjö transmogrifies his own jazz performances so they transcend, or at least amorphously (like liquid) expand into polygenesis soundscapes.

His debut album, released via the Helsinki festival and label platform, We Jazz Records, is a multilayered serialism suite of ideas and experimental visions. All of which, despite that complexity, keep an ear out for the melody.

Y-OTIS reimagines a musical union between Flying Lotus and Donny McCaslin, or better still, Madlib reconstructing the work of 3TM; the flow, if you can call it that, sounding like a remix deconstruction in progress as the rapid and dragging fills and staggered rolls of Tilo Webber’s drums are stretched out, inverted and reversed into a staccato to dynamic bursting set of breakbeats and loops. Mirroring all the various cut-and-paste techniques of the turntablist maestros, Sandsjö and his dexterous troupe of keyboardist Elias Stemeseder, bassist Petter Eidh and the already mentioned Webber sound like a group being remixed in real time, live: And it sounds brilliant, as you’re never quite sure where each of these compositions is going to end up.

Sandsjö’s own articulations as bandleader never grandstand or take precedent, let alone dominate; his saxophone in a constant suffused circular and flighty motion, always there yet often drifting and dissipating. Of course there are occasional bursts of flute-y soloing and more rapid energetic squawking.

Tripping both across space, counterpointing Jerry Goldsmith’s optimistic siren-ethereal Star Trekking with Kosmische, yet also inspired by tribal and soulful earthly vistas too, Sandsjö offers up some surprising musical evocations. The avant-garde snozzling, drum rim-tapping and lumbering funk ‘BOO!’ sounds like Tortoise and a chilled Dunkelziffer, whilst the dreamy merging, of what could be two entirely separate tracks, ‘YUNG’, with its elongated rhythms, could be Coldcut going at a warped Mardi Gras Afrobeat inspired improvisation.

Importantly Sandsjö offers a jazz style birthed from an eclectic melting pot of hip-hop, dance music and even more experimental edgier R&B; reorganized into a fresh exploration. If the ACT label, or ECM ever converges with Leaf and Anticon, Y-OTIS might well be the resulting album. As 2018 shapes up to be another great year for jazz releases, the inaugural album from Sandsjö and his troupe looks set to showcase a great talent, and make the end of year lists: it will most definitely make ours.






Yazz Ahmed  ‘La Saboteuse Remixed’  (Naim Records)  10th August 2018

 

 

Working her dreamy enchanted magic, encapsulating a transcendental, exotic version of Arabian jazz, on last year’s traversing trumpet suffused La Saboteuse LP, Yazz Ahmed calls on a congruous trio of remixers and artists to interpret a handful of peregrinations from that well-received suite.

This new EP of re-contextualized voyages and evocations also features, a sort of, new production hybrid that uses Ahmed and her producer Noel Langley’s self-sampling and deconstructing techniques to refashion a ‘fourth world’ sound collage. Inspired in part by Jon Hassell’s amorphous ‘possible musics’ experiments and the equally polygenesis floatisms and shifting lingers of Flying Lotus, ‘Spindrifting’, as the title suggests, languorously drifts between gauze-y environments and borders; re-placing fragments and textures from the La Saboteuse recordings.

Reflecting a constant unending journey of interpretation, filtered through ‘alternative visions’ and ‘perspectives’, burgeoning South London DJ and graphic artist Hector Plimmer, who released his debut LP Sunshine last year, cuts down and transduces Ahmed’s original lengthy ‘The Lost Pearl’ into a nuanced tropical lilt and itching understated electronic shuffler. Whereas, self-proclaimed ‘Afro-futurist’ beatmaker DJ Khalab, takes the Arabian delights and Tangier trumpet suffusions of the original ‘Jamil Jamil’ into the cosmic ether on his treatment. The Italian DJ undulates that belly-dancing souk vista with moody pulses, kinetic connective beats, vapours and starry space atmospheres.

Originally a tub-thumping percussive and trumpet heralding panoramic meditation, ‘Al Emadi’ is given a buoyant dub wafting veil by the Lisbon trio of brothers and close pal Blacksea Não Mayo. DJs Noronka, Kolt and Perigoso add a bounce and short yelp like punctuations to that vision; moving it closer towards classy electronica dance.

An articulate extension of Ahmed’s original album template, her already traversing evocations are taken on vaporous and often subtle cosmic and dreamy detours by this carefully chosen cast. A parallel navigated piece of escapism rather than enhancement, the remix EP enervates the jazz for a more electronic music feel to guide Ahmed’s 21st century Arabian imaginations across new boundaries and vistas.






‘Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs Of World War II’  (Six Degrees)  Out now

 

Few albums can stir the soul let alone give a voice to such harrowing anguish as the sacrifices made by the Soviet Jewish community during one of history’s most brutal conflicts – 2.5 million poor souls from this Jewish community would perish in the European territories of the Soviet Union alone. A forgotten chapter, expedient to Stalin and his successors own tyrannical political airbrushing of events, 440,000 Jewish citizens from all corners of the then Soviet Empire enlisted to fight the Nazis during the 1940s.

Though an integral part of the Bolshevik revolution that preceded it decades earlier – the Jews often suffering under the Imperial regime of the Tsars and Tsarinas in countless programs over the centuries; Tsar Nicholas II no better than previous holders of the title, stirring up hatred towards the faith by propagating the most fatuous blood libel and protocols of Zion conspiracies as proof of his own idiotic prejudices and envy -, the Jewish population that survived the second World War soon found themselves the victims of Stalin’s purges.

Despite the paranoia, mistrust and the megalomaniacal politics of one of the most murderous regimes in history, the Jews of Russia have always remained loyal. Even during the enlightened age of Napoleon, with his promises during the misconceived and doomed invasion of Russia in 1812 of liberating not only the population from serfdom but also the Jews (Napoleon having kept his word in freeing the Jews from the various ghettos they found themselves herded into throughout Europe; Venice being one the most famous examples), Russia’s Jewish population remained stoic in their support of the homeland.

Lost in the annals of time then; suppressed, if thought destroyed, the tragic but poetic WWII testaments, made lyrical prose, of just a small cross-section of Russia’s Jews is given the richly evocative and adroit production showcase it deserves by a collective of professors, producers and musicians. Originally unified in an anthology by an ethnomusicologist from the Kiev Cabinet For Jewish Culture, Moisei Beregovsky, alongside colleague Rovim Lerner, hundreds of Yiddish songs written by Red Army soldiers, victims and survivors of the Nazi’s apocalyptic massacres were gathered in the hope of being eventually published and performed. Unfortunately at the very height of the Communist Party’s purges in the decades that followed the end of WWII, both these well-intentioned preservationists were arrested. Subsequently the project was never finished, the work sealed up and hidden away. But as it would later transpire, not destroyed.

Decades later in the 1990s, the Soviet archives now under the ownership of a collapsed Communist state, as the Iron Curtain finally tumbled, librarians from the Vernadsky National Library Of Ukraine found these lost treasures in unlabeled boxes. One of these librarians, Lyudmila Sholokhova, would catalogue these findings – just one of the many cast members in this story. Fast-forward another decade and by coincidence, one of this project’s eventual instigators, Anna Shternshis, stumbled upon these treasured songs whilst visiting Kiev. Highly fragile, deteriorating quickly, these original notes (some handwritten, others typed) opened up a whole undiscovered chapter in Jewish history to both Shternshis and her eventual colleagues on this project, musician Psoy Korolenko (known in his academic life as Dr. Pavel Lion), Al and professor of Yiddish Studies and Director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre For Jewish Studies at the University Of Toronto Malka Green, and musical director and violinist Sergei Erdenko.

Transcribing these laments and firsthand accounts of endurance (many of which included testament evidence to various Nazi atrocities) would take patience, skill but above all respect. The results of this this most tragic desideratum, entitled Yiddish Glory, are underscored by an Erdenko-led stirring accompaniment ensemble of classically trained instrumentalists   and singers, brought together by the producer Dan Rosenberg.

Challenging perceived conventions throughout this magnificent suite of eighteen songs, silencing detractors now as it would have back then, amongst the laments are stirring motivationals that adhere to a long lineage of Jewish and Russian history. Weaving in one of the revered fathers of the Russian classical school of music, Mikhail Glinka’s 1840 ‘The Skylark’ tune with a rousing call for his fellow Red Army comrades to support their Jewish compatriots, Odessa soldier (known only by his first name) Yoshke answers the anti-Semitic propaganda that ‘Jews don’t fight in war’ with his, perhaps not so lighthearted as it would seem from the title, ‘Yoshke Fun Odes’. The accompanying linear notes – featuring the lyrics to all the songs (in most cases) in Hebrew, Cyrillic and English – tell us that Yoshke is himself fighting to ‘avenge his brutally murdered Jewish family’. Though as it would prove, when the survivors of this war returned home, the Jewish population would have to once more fight for their lives, but this time against many of their Russian comrades: tragic when viewed form our vantage point, as many would end up arrested or liquidated on the most spurious and paranoid of charges; Stalin’s position after WWII solidified, clearing the path for his many sweeping purges. Showing every bit as much passion for and attachment to their country and regime as any hardline dye-in-the-wool Communist, songs such as the panoramic ‘Kazakhstan’ – possibly written, we’re told, by one of the 250,000 Polish Jewish refugees that survived the war – could have been ripped from the very soil itself. Two different vocalist versions of this minor opus feature on this album; the one sung by the smoky jazzy and commanding singer Sophie Milman is a personal dedication to her grandmother, a Soviet Jewish refugee survivor in Kazakhstan, but also a wider tribute to the millions of women who were involved in the war effort; the second version, sung by Erdenko, pays homage to the often forgotten Roma community, murdered in great numbers in the ensuing Holocaust.

Nothing could be more heart wrenching than the plaintive ‘My Mother’s Grave’, originally penned by the ten year old Valya Roytlender, a native of Bratslav in the Ukraine. Channeling the loss but also survivor’s guilt, the youngest of the ensemble cast of vocalist (five in total), Isaac Rosenberg, gets the bottom lip quivering and the tear ducts ready to flood with lines as moving as, “Oh mama, who will wake me up [in the morning]? Oh mama, who will tuck me in [at night]?”

Many of the songs are surprisingly violent in retributive prose – a result of Soviet censors adding the revengeful party line to every song; part of the state machinery’s propaganda in stirring up hatred towards their enemies, but also a nationalistic fervor -, the language of dehumanization prevalent throughout: the Nazis often referred to as vermin to be eradicated and shown no pity. Considering the Nazi’s barbarity, but also Stalin’s own ineptitude and grasp of unfolding events, caught by surprise at Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, it’s hardly surprising to find such encouragement in these songs. Yet it often feels, as it turns out, to have been added in many cases later by the state, to be in contradiction to the sentiment. Whilst certainly ready to pick up a machine gun in a heartbeat, going as far as to even taunt on songs like ‘Mayn Pulemyot (My Machine Gun)’, the lyrics often attempt to make sense of what is…well, a senseless brutalism.

An equal opportunity employer in carnage and slaughter, the stoic, hardened women of the Soviet Union feature just as heavily and prominent as the men in these songs: ‘Chuvasher Tekhter (Daughters Of Chuvashia)’, penned by a young Communist League member from Kharkov in 1942, bares testament to those women from the region of the title who were drafted into the Red Army to fight on the frontline; just a small fraction of the 900,000 women who would eventually join the rank and file.

The stars ask me [to speak]: “Tell us!
Who is marching so late at night?”
The answer: “Chuvash daughters
Preparing themselves to go into battle.”

Other songs pay homage to those women working on the production lines. All of which offer words of encouragement to their lovers to fight the good fight.

Firsthand accounts of atrocities appear on both ‘Babi Yar’ and ‘Tulchin’; the first of these harrowing laments and ballads referring to the massacre of the titular ravine near Kiev, where an astonishing 33,771 Jews were shot in 48 hours, in the September of ’41, the second, dedicated to the small Ukrainian town of the title, which lost its entire Jewish community.

Later on though, as if in a chronological timeline, there are songs celebrating the end of WWII; the finale, ‘Tsum Nayem Yor 1944 (Happy New Year 1944)’, featuring the full cast and singing circle, ushers in the New Year and ultimate victory over fascism that would soon follow.

Enough crying over our beloved dead,
The Red Army has the upper hand now.
Hitler can only kill us at night in our dreams.
Woe will be upon him, when we have peace!

Despite the materials obvious harrowing and tragic nature, the music throughout is a dizzying, waltzing mix of Yiddish, Roma, Klezmer, folk and even jazzy cabaret that’s often upbeat. The band does a sterling job in breathing life back into historical testimony; giving voice to those suppressed individuals and the songs that were believed lost forever, destroyed by a regime that would treat its loyal Jewish community, many of which made the ultimate sacrifice, little better than the Nazis they so valiantly overcame.

This is a poignant reminder that we should do more to educate ourselves on lost histories such as this; especially in the times we find ourselves with anti-Semitism once more on the rise and in the news (especially in the UK). Yiddish Glory is not just a reminder however, or even just a revelation, but a beautifully produced performance.






Franklin  ‘Some Old Tracks’  Out now

 

Keeping the brief scant but candid, the artist(s) behind this project create a bright polygenesis EP out of frustration: ‘After a truly terrible session with an artist trying to force me to copy a hook from The Chainsmokers, it was enough for me.’ Bounding back from one too many constrictions, Franklin, in a manner, returns to its youth and the music that soundtracked it. Never able to afford the clearance but carrying on nevertheless, the spark of inspiration that now ignites Franklin, sampling montages and collages, is brought together once more and made into a vibrant psychedelic pool party splash of filtered funk, staccato House and light breeze West Coast hip-hop.

Criss-crossing genres at will over a quartet of tracks on the Franklin debut, tunes and samples, loops and ideas seem to melt and merge harmonically. For instance, the opening track ‘Frankie’ swims along to a fragmented cut-and-paste dance groove of moody breaks, shuffles and a hooting Afro sax honk, whilst the soulful plaintive tropical flavoured ‘Hate Myself’ sounds like a surfing International Pony.

A mysterious French soulstress can be heard meanwhile at the start of the low-rider ‘L’aéroport De Paris’, which in spite of its title evokes a sense of Japonism – J Dilla on a slow boat to Shogun Japan. ‘Clear My Name’ is more in the dance-y mode however; warping bowed and wooden sounding beats and enveloping waves around quasi-80s House.

This debut EP reconnects with the past to go forward. Stripped of hubris and baggage, and restriction, a breath of fresh air, it is beyond being, as the title suggests, just Some Old Tracks, and is instead an exploration of those imbued sounds and what they represent, restructured into a contemporary eclectic psychedelic dance and pop record.




Qujaku ‘Qujaku’  (So I Buried Records)  16th August 2018

 

Occupying both the spiritual and cosmic planes, emerging from the gloom and holy sanctuaries of the dead, the brooding Hamamatsu-based Japanese band Qujaku are back with a second grand opus of Gothic psychedelia and operatic doom post-punk. Gathering together titular EP tracks from the last couple of years and new material, this eponymous entitled epic thrashes, rattles, drones and skulks with sonorous intensity throughout. The opening ‘Shoko No Hakumei’ suite, more an overture, is itself a full on Ring cycle (as conducted by Boris) that is dramatic and sprawling: running almost the entire length of a full side of a traditional vinyl album.

On a very large foreboding canvas, Qujaku build-up an impressive tumult across the album’s nine-tracks of prowling esotericism and galloping drum barrage immensity. Between crescendo-bursting three-part acts and shorter volatile slabs of heavy caustic drone rock, the group often evokes an Oriental Jesus And Mary Chain, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Spacemen 3, or Nine Inch Nails when at their most enraged. Psychedelic in the mode of The Black Angels, but also straying at their most languid and navel-gazing towards Shoegaze, Qujaku’s dark spanning cacophony of throbs and trembles bear many subtle nuances and becalmed breaks amongst the masses and maelstroms. A balance between those forces is struck for instance on the dreamy plaintive love-crushed ‘Yui Hate No Romance’ and Spiritualized hymn-like finale ‘Sweet Love Of Mine’.

Vocally obscured by the cyclone of screeching feedback, grinding, spiraling ritual and creepy atmospherics the band’s mix of saddened male sung lovesickness and dystopia, and female ethereal sirens often invoke a ghostly, doomed horror soundtrack: The spirits in communion; floating and cooing, always present.

Though heavy-going for sure, even stifling in places, this ceremony come seething dark alchemy of an album is a brilliant minor masterpiece of Gothic, doom, psych and progressive pretensions. Limited physically to only 500 copies, this cultish group and album will sell-out quick, especially off the back of the band’s upcoming European promotional tour. On an epic scale, dreaming big and intensely, Qujaku perform the most dramatic of daemonic theatre.



Words: Dominic Valvona

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CHOICE  ALBUMS/EPS  OF  2017  PART  ONE:  A – L
SELECTION/WORDS:  DOMINIC  VALVONA  &  MATT  OLIVER





The decision making process: 

Continuing to shy away from fatuous rating systems and ‘best of lists’, the Monolith Cocktail endeavors to offer a more eclectic spread of worthy ‘choice’ picks, with no album dominating or holding any particular numbered position – unlike most of our contemporaries lists stuck with the ridiculous task, for example, of explaining why one album is more deserving of their fatuous number 32 spot than another.

Lined up in alphabetical order then, our favourite new and reissued albums and EPs from 2017 are of course considered to be the most interesting, vibrant and dynamic of the year’s releases. But the best? Granted, to make this list you have to have made some sort of impact, but we’d never suggest these entries were categorically the best albums of 2017, even if that might be true. Instead our list is an indicator of our amorphous tastes, rounding up a year in the life of the Monolith Cocktail, and we hope, introducing you to titles and artists/bands that may have dropped below the radar or got lost in the noise of more commercial better promoted releases.

 

The Context: An Age Of Hysteria. Dominic Valvona

The silent majority to the wrath and often derision of a mouthy, louder, minority carried on defying and surprising the establishment on both sides of the political divide in 2017. The ‘outraged’ of Tunbridge Wells in the letters pages of yore has been replaced with the ‘outraged of social media’, as the year’s unofficial collective anxious end times tagline #losingourshit replaces moderation, distance and analyses: comment before taking it in fully and reading without prejudice.

Context is thrown out the window when the instant gratification of outrage surfaces.

Despite the rolling news miasma of events feeding into the social media vacuum that has now, more or less, become impossible to ignore or leave; despite the encroachment on every facet of our daily lives by technology and the progressive zealots augurs of a complete matrix like synchronization with our gadgets and tech, the fact that people can be bothered to release music on vinyl still, let alone cassette tapes, is heartening, even if the naysayers bemoan that it’s a gimmick, mostly repackaging old material and reissues or an excuse to charge a lot of money for the tactile and physical. The death of everything physical – from books to newspapers, vinyl to CDs – has always been exaggerated; fueled in hope more than actual demand by the camarilla of Silicon Valley.

Still, streaming is fast becoming the most popular model, even though hardly anyone is benefitting – even Spotify, whose business model is particularly hostile towards the artist, is branching out into other industries, including makeup, because though their value is constantly marketed as high, they have failed to make a profit. Soundcloud, running ads now, is constantly teetering on the edge of folding. And the high expectations, glossy launch of the artist love-in Tidal has failed likewise in changing that model, currently languishing way behind its rivals. Bandcamp meanwhile remains the best choice for artists at present, and gives more control to those who use it. Yet, Bandcamp have recently moved into marketing those who frequent its site, writing roundups and blog posts, moving into a promotional critic’s role. How far this will go is anyone’s guess, I’m a little uncomfortable myself with its implications, its method of choosing the worthy from its vast catalogue, and what incentivizes them. How any of these platforms will hold-up going into another uncertain year politically and economically is anyone’s guess, yet despite the constant harping and expectancy of one of these sites and many like them to close, they’ve all managed to limp on regardless.

A teetering stasis between the physical and the digital exists for now. Writing anyone off at this stage would be foolish.

 

History is a marvelous scholarly pursuit. Yet anything past the year dot of social media’s conception is either revised to fit contemporary fashions or discarded totally. And so a sense of perspective is needed more than ever, especially up against the worrying diplomatic and military developments taking place throughout the Middle East, Europe (both at the very heart of the EU, including Brexit and with the unfolding independence row in Catalonia, but also Russia’s continuing moves and baiting in the Ukraine), Central and South America and Asia.

We also have the march of the robots and automation to consider, the impact of which will take a little time to filter through but will eventually change all our lives, not necessarily for the better – the most repeated mantra that it will only replace the most monotonous, labour intensive and under resourced job roles shtick is evidently untrue, as automation, bots and the programs being designed and rolled out are coming not only for the middle class occupations but all our creative roles too.

Unsurprisingly much of the music that has been released in the past year reflects the ‘fake news’ obsessed, Trumpism, post-postmodern era in which we find ourselves, some brilliantly, others whining and melodramatic – the cyclone of #metoo and the mounting charge sheet of sexual assaults and misdemeanours stacking up against men in, it seems, most industries is live, but yet to filter through yet on record (well there are few exceptions of course). Not many artists offer answers, certainty or solutions though. And some would say that we’re missing the venom, bite, and the rebellious streak that defined the spirit of rock’n’roll, punk and hip-hop.

And so below, the albums and EPs chosen by myself, Matt Oliver and Ayfer Simms reflect the concerns, protestation, lament of the times in which we live: for better or for worse. And not just from the myopic view of the UK, Europe and North American music scenes, but also from Africa, South America, Australasia and Southeast Asia. The Monolith Cocktail has always done its utmost to draw our readers attention to what’s happening outside the Western dominated music industry, and this year’s two-part feature includes artists as diverse as the entrancing Algerian/Tunisian Bargou 08 and Moroccan Gnawa legend Maalem Mahmoud Gania.

So without further ado…here is the first part of this year’s ‘choice albums’ feature. Part two will follow in a week’s time, and our final Quarterly Revue Playlist the week after that.

A.

Yazz Ahmed   ‘La Saboteuse’   (Naim Records)

Encapsulating the dreamy enchantment and exotic peregrinations of her Bahrain heritage with the polygenesis jazz scene of her London home, soloist, collaborator and composer extraordinaire Yazz Ahmed takes us on an evocative, transcendental at times, voyage with her new album, La Saboteuse.

Working with everyone from Radiohead – who’s Bloom track is covered by Yazz on this imaginative Arabian suffused suite – to These New Puritans, from Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to Amel Zen, trumpet virtuoso – though she seems to be proficient with most wind and brass instruments, including the flugelhorn – Yazz steps out to lead her own small troupe on her first solo album since 2011’s Finding My Way Home. With Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet and Naadia Sheriff on Fender Rhodes piano, she lingers in an entrancing and often mysterious world of magical brooding vistas and dusky silhouetted sand dunes.

Isolated trumpet lingers and wafting meditations and traverse style vignettes are placed between longer performances of spiritual and Miles Davis sublimity, as Yazz guides us under the starry skies of Arabia and beyond. Dominic Valvona


Tony Allen  ‘The Source’  (Bluenote)

The divine rhythm-provider to Fela Kuti, trustee of the Afrobeat groove, Tony Allen has, and not before time, been recognized for his ability to transcend the style he’s rightly venerated for. Hardly surprising to find him furnishing the jazz tastemakers choice label, Blue Note, with an impressive hybrid album of both – though arguably Afrobeat and jazz have influenced and inspired each other over the decades.

Releasing a four-track homage earlier in the year for the same label, a nod to one of his inspirations, Art Blakey (A Tribute To Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers), Allen traverses that Blakey swing and the sound of the Savoy label via Lagos and the Parisian joints of the city he has called home for years on the polyrhythm elasticated The Source. Joining him on this enterprise is a band of Paris jazz musicians and the Cameroonian guitarist Indy Dibongue providing the licks, as well as the odd guest spot, including Damon Albarn’s low key contribution to the heralding Kuti funk Cool Cats – a reference no doubt to ‘Sir’ Victor Olaiya’s highlife band of the same name that Allen was hired to play claves for in his early career.

As I say, it has the swing, it has the funk, it has the jazz, and most definitely it returns to the source. Allen bends morphs and pushes those rhythms beyond showboating to produce a remarkable fusion and synergy. DV


Chino Amobi  ‘PARADISO’  (UNO)

Looking out from the balcony of a crumbling civilization, reciting a chilling poetic melodramatic transmogrification of Edgar Allan Poe’s The City In The Sea, as tumultuous storms and waves, the sound of seagulls, the crashing of towers fallen into the sea and gargling howls conjure up all manner of Chthonian trepidation, Chino Amobi’s displaced stark and bleak electronic collage soundtrack PARADISO begins as it means to go on.

The Richmond, Virginia artist has dropped his Diamond Black Hearted Boy moniker in favour of his own name for this expansive plunge into the void. And what a dark world it is to discard masks and alter egos in.

A co-founder of the NON collective of African artists, and of the diaspora, Amobi’s remit is focused on ‘using sound as’ the ‘primary media, to articulate the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power. The exploration of ‘non, prior to the adjective gives intel into the focus of the label, creating sound opposing contemporary canons’.

This translates in the short concatenate serialist style vignettes and passages of worrying trepidation, heavy thumping, bleak, chilling and uncertain twisted minimal electronica, concrete, post punk, Foley sounds and experimental dystopian vistas. A long list of NON collaborators make appearances on this disturbing, at times violent, end times suite, whether it’s through narrated passages, occasional erratic and gauze-y raps or radio show interjections.

A contorted reality awaits, a world without end. Are we circling the void or already in it? Meanwhile crows feed on the flesh, heralded fanfares sound and bestial cyclones blow us off course from Paradise Lost into a sonic chaos. Yet, we’re not so lost as to be totally incapable of redemption; and the ill effects, as the glimmers that do appear allude and Amobi himself has suggested, are reversible. DV


Austra  ‘Future Politics’

Imbued by, amongst others, the work of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams and their manifesto for the end of capitalism tome, Inventing The Future, which calls for and envisions better days for all of us – an escape from the toxic neoliberalism that has defined that last twenty years -, the Canadian synth siren Katie Stelmanis creates a most encapsulating, pining and beautiful glossy synthesizer pop opus on Future Politics.

Written before the Trump victory of 2016 and the spiraling decay of both political and societal moderation that followed in its wake, Stelmanis, under her Austra persona, has inadvertently synchronized her angelical and suffused dreamy pop swooning airs, arias and coos to the anxious end times.

Stelmanis excels, as you will hear for yourselves, in evocative and cool glimmer-of-hope dreamy minimalist electronica pop. She strips away any excess this time around, going further than usual in producing a starker but highly melodious, trance-y and vaporous swooning melodrama fit for the club and heart. DV


B.

Bargou 08  ‘Targ’  (Glitterbeat Records)

Ahh…the sounds of a dusky reedy gasba flute; the tactile patted and burnished bendir drum; the rustic, earthy strung loutar, and the flowing, soaring scale vocals of the Bargou 08 project’s chief instigator Nidhal Yahyaoui, set an impressive atmosphere in the first couple of minutes of the album’s opening track, Chechel Khater. And that’s all you’d need, except there’s another eight equally evocative and thrilling tracks to hear.

The source of this sound derives from a relatively uncharted region that lies obscured between the mountains of northwest Tunisia and the Algerian border, called the Bargou Valley, which despite its barren isolation, has cultured a unique musical fusion, stretching back hundreds of years. Captivating and magical enough in its ancestral unchanged form, the songs of the valley, sung in the local Targ dialect (a language that is one part Berber, the other Arabic), are given a contemporary jolt that transforms the atavistic paeans, odes and poetry of yore into an intoxicating swirling rapture of electronic North African funk.

Filled with a legacy of turmoil and tension that goes back an aeon the album’s many themes, from describing a lover’s vital attributes on Mamchout to laments of alienation, resonate strongly with the growing unease of events, initiated six years ago by the Arab Spring. Tunisia itself is facing a struggle and teetering on the edge, with no guarantee that certain cultures won’t just disappear or be fragmented in the ensuing melee. Originally setting out to document his Bargou Valley home’s musical heritage before it disappeared, Yahyaoui has successfully and thankfully, with his musical partner, producer and the album’s keyboard player Sofyann Ben Youssef captured this rich mesmeric culture for posterity. And in doing so, produced a masterpiece that will endure. DV

Full review…


Beans  ‘Love Me Tonight’  (Tygr Rawwk Records)

 

Returning after a short hiatus with a highly prolific fervor, the founding member of the legendary Anti-Pop Consortium leftfield hip-hop troop Beans has made a sort of triple album comeback; putting out a triumvirate of bold, salacious, congruous and provocative records all within a few months of each other. It’s hard to choose but preference dictates that it is the middle of that trio Love Me Tonight that edges it.

A futuristic gleam of eeriness and trepidation hangs over proceedings as Beans travails Cliff Martinez meets Daft Punk club, torture chamber chiming gloom, Super Mario jazz acceleration, Exorcist organ and female led R&B. Changing moods convincingly each and every time, you think you’re getting a Kanye West style dancefloor disco rap album one minute, the next, a dystopian cerebral hip-hop ride into the abyss.

Reading out prose, narratives, scripts and passages like a rap ‘beat poet’ (as well as recording Beans has also released his debut novel, Die Tonight, this year) Beans spit is almost like abstract narration; lyrics broken down into compounds like chemistry and descriptive soliloquy.

In keeping with rap music’s provocative of featuring a roll call of collaborators and guests, Elucid and the Kid Prolific chide in on the hiccup scratching, “that dream is over”, – and perhaps my favourite track of Beans – dark chiming Waterboarding, and the darkwave R&B artist Prince Terrence adding the right soulful yearning tones to the Talons love-in, and pep to the club pumped opener, Apeshit.

Passing lyrical dexterity and abstract thoughts on all the ills currently spinning round in the tumult vortex of 2017, but also carrying on a theme of domestic abuse through a number of tracks, with a running forensic detailed commentary on a father and son crime scene on the disturbing V.X., Beans Love Me Tonight seems like a cry for help, or at least an attempt to make sense of it all. Though at times the lyrics are outright schlock pornographic, and accent hardly plaintive. In a manner it’s a tease, attracting certain condemnation as well as respect. DV


Big Toast & Ill Move Sporadic  ‘You Are Not Special’  (Starch Records)

“Blocking today’s culture of aspiration with dollops of common sense; a specialist subject for this year’s UK curriculum that won’t fail you”. RnV, Aug 17

In these troubled times we need assurance and support more than ever. Big Toast and Ill Move Sporadic are not the knights in shining armour the situation requires, rerouting British bulldog spirit by mapping out modern reality more genuine than a million so called keep-it-realists. With one of the great voices to dwarf the mic on his way to becoming his own protest march, Big Toast hammers home the black and white of life ten times over, a dismissive totem who won’t budge for anyone and will battle any life aspect until it’s crying back to its casting couch.

IMS has the cheek to throw in a couple of slow jams to tuck you in when Toast is tucking you up, otherwise coming out swinging from the first bell and landing tooth-loosening one-twos. Anti-motivational speakers who will get your arse in gear, and what the youth of today should be listening to. Matt Oliver


Black Angels  ‘Death Song’  (Partisan Records)

If you were looking for a creative musical reaction to Trump and the anxious times we live in then The Black Angels beautiful apocalyptic Death Song must be one of the most anguished and daemonic of responses. The Austin psych-rocking overlords first album in four years was written and recorded during the miasma of the US elections after all: and doesn’t it show!

An emotionally charged despair and anger with moments of catharsis, carried out to a Byzantine flavored soundtrack of esoteric Amon Duul II and Far East Family Band psych, a vortex of 80s Goth inspirations – including The cult and Siouxsie and the Banshees – and the tolling chimes of doom and drone, Death Song is, as the title suggests, a heavy, but most excellent trip.

Brooding romantically in Gothic tragedy as the world continues to turn, undaunted by the prospects of universal uncertainty, The Black Angels spread their wings magnificently on what is, perhaps, one of their best albums yet. The leviathans of the psych-rock scene have learnt much and after a recording hiatus return with something sharper, refined but just as mystical and hallucinatory. DV

Full review…


The Bordellos  ‘Love, Life And Billy Fury’  (Recordiau Prin)

Prolific, if haphazardly, dropping albums upon the unsuspecting, and quite frankly undeserving, public at a whim, St. Helen’s greatest dysfunctional family bring us one of their most ambitious collections of cynical derision and honest yearned anxiety yet: a kind of Joy ‘de vive’ Division.

More or less The Bordellos love songs collection, this latest lo fi affair – that makes even The Fall sound professional – is a raw opening of the heart, and in some cases, the veins. Transmogrifying Spector’s voices of the beehives (The Crystals to The Ronettes), the Spacemen 3, The Cure and, of course, The Velvet Underground, The Bordellos eulogize the nearly man of British rock’n’roll, Billy Fury, craft (perhaps) one of their most beautiful ballads, Starcrossed Radio, and pen a “speeding train” metaphor themed ode to breakups.

Romancing the stoned, the life, loves and failures of rock’n’roll are laid bear and as usual, ignored by an unsympathetic, disinterested public. But despite mostly alluding recognition and validation (because that seems to be all that matters in the social media age: affirmation from the echo-chamber of peers), The Bordellos mope and grind on, producing some of the most important diatribes and, in this case, scuzzy, dirge-y and primal garage band spirited love-pained grievances. DV

Full review…


Brother Ali  ‘All the Beauty in This Whole Life’  (Rhymesayers)

“A triumph of crowd gathering words to the wise meets devil’s advocacy, guaranteeing end of term honours”.  RnV. May 17

In these troubled times we need assurance and support more than ever. Comparing two of 2017’s most prominent protesters, Joey Bada$$ (on All Amerikkkan Bada$$) got you to show your colours while keeping it funky. Brother Ali on the other hand was there so a circle could form around him when handing out affirmative rhymes that wouldn’t sound out of a place around a campfire, promising the “type of love you can’t type with your thumbs”.

Without detracting from the former, it’s the latter’s warmth that makes him sound like he’s talking to you one to one, and where a rapt audience will follow, that gets the nod; a soft, grit-speckled delivery assuring everything’s gonna work out even when he’s recounting history lessons to the contrary. To a backdrop of blazing suns starting to dip and winter huddles taking shape thanks to great cleanse and polish from Atmosphere’s Ant Davis, it’s confirmation you should always put faith in Brother Ali’s hands. MO


C.

Dr. Chan  ‘Southside Suicides’  (Stolen Body Records)

Like some obscure French exchange garage band of students – the kind you’d find if it existed, on a European version of the Teenage Shutdown! compilations – hanging out in the 80s L.A. of plaid shirt and paisley bandana fatigue wearing skater-punks, Dr Chan are an abrasive and coarse mix of renegade petulant inspirations.

Essentially powered by garage rock and all its various manifestations, the group from the south of France hurtle through an up tempo and raging backbeat of The Chocolate Watch Band, The Standells, The Rationales, Black Lips and Detroit Cobras. The difference here is that they also throw in a miscreant Molotov of thrash punk, courtesy of Fidlar, and “death rap” – cue Florida’s $uicideboy$ and their dollar sign typeface indulgence – into the riot on their Southside Suicides protest. It gives the Chan’s brand of garage band mania a different intensity and drive: more screaming in a ball of flames spikiness than tripping psych.

Riled and obviously pissed about the current state of affairs both at home and overseas, Dr Chan’s rage and insolence is in keeping with the primal spirit of rock’n’roll: fun, fun, fun! It’s a blast. DV

Full review…


Oliver Cherer  ‘The Myth Of Violet Meek’  (Wayside & Woodland)

Set in the Forest of Dean, this lamentable concept album (billed as ‘part-fiction’ ‘part fact’) from the man behind Dollboy, Oliver Cherer, weaves the dreamy folkloric story of the tragic protagonist Violet Meek (a play on words of ‘violence’); mauled to death or not by the dancing bears of a visiting circus troupe in the twisted and, musically alluded ominous maybe magical, tree thickened woods. Based we’re told on a vaguely real event that happened in the 1880s, Cherer’s story isn’t just a vintage walk in the past and melodic indictment on the cruelty of Victorian society towards women, but draws parallels with the continuing issues of inequality, chauvinism and mistreatment still prevalent in our own times.

This is an unforgiving unflattering portrayal of England, a nascent nostalgic one with little room for equality and the presence of outsiders, but every bit as revealing about our present. As lovely, often dreamily so, as the music is the 70s pastoral accompaniment is often trembling and quivering, the fiddles distressed and bewitchery, enticing us into a esoteric psychogeography that features a languid brushed backbeat and Morris Dancers like flourish around the maypole on one song, but finds evil in the idyllic scenery on another.

In short, it is a most stunning, ambitious and beautiful minor opus. For those who like their folk and pastoral eerie and esoteric. DV

Full review…


The Church  ‘Man Woman Life Death Infinity’

To infinity and beyond, Australia’s stalwart alternative rock and pop guitar romantics The Church, nearly thirty years since their inception continue to breathily produce quiet masterpieces; continue to experiment and explore new sonic textures. Travelling into the ethereal, the sagacious Man Woman Life Death Infinity is a suffused glide and traverse of air-y vapours and misty mystery; beginning with the opening, soaring minor opus Another Century, sustained throughout, with each song materializing out of the ether.

Reflecting but an unconscious inspiration, The Church’s founding member Steve Kirby calls this album the group’s “water record”. Though all the characteristics of water, trickling chords, cascaded dripping notes and a sense of floating are all correct, this dreamy pop and transient songbook seems to leave the ocean floor and rivers for something more astral. Songs such as Submarine for instance seem imbued with a spirit of the Kosmische. Yet fans of the group’s staple of pop guitar swan songs and subtle psychedelic 80s lovelorn classics will love Before The Deluge and I Don’t Know How I Don’t Know: both of which show traces of that college rock meets garage riffage that arguably inspired or was picked up by The Stone Roses.

Still writing timeless anthems without lazily reverting to the back catalogue, still pushing forward after four decades, The Church can still illuminate and surprise. This, there 26th, album is anything but jaded. If anything it seems that The Church are still very much in the game, and able to balance familiarity with discovery.  DV


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah  ‘The Tourist’

Inimitably jump-starting a cerebral indie-pop scene in the mid noughties with his unique off-kilter melodies and quivered, yodeled vocals, the fiercely independent, Alec Ounsworth created major ripples with his nom de plume, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-released debut in 2005.

Ounsworth stumbles and ponders through a “post factual” strewn world of challenging emotions trying to make sense of it all on The Tourist. At times the album title could even be said to act as a metaphor for the artist’s own estranged and removed soul-searching: a tourist in his own country. Despite some sad and profound pathos heavy lyricism, Ounsworth’s “purging” of thoughts is meant to be a cathartic experience. The anxieties of our times can’t help but leak from every other line, yet this album is a fairly warm, jangly surprise package of lolloping and anthemic songs.

Building and soaring to an emotive brightened crescendo of sweetness and yearning on The Vanity Of Trying; contorting and bending guitar textures in a Robert Fripp fashion on the psych-pop gnarled Down (Is Where I Want To Be); and, up close and personal (every breathe audible) to the mic, driving through an 80s nocturnal rock ballad on Better Off, the inimitable Ounsworth careers through a full gamut of moods and chaos in the most natural and energetically purposeful way.

Clocking in at well under the forty minute mark (bands and artists take note) The Tourist is an unlabored, near-perfect melodious album. It says all it needs to and more; free of indulgence, and despite its bombast, sophisticated suffused layering is incredibly lean and brisk. A most enjoyable if poignant experience, this album already sets the benchmark in 2017, and is without doubt one of CYHSY’s best. DV

Full review…



Anna Coogan  ‘The Lonely Cry Of Space & Time’

Not the easiest of bedfellows, difficult to love and often (rightly) condemned as indulgent and overblown, but the worlds of rock and opera do occasionally overlap in a congruous union. The unquestionably talented Anna Coogan for instance, mixes the two majestically, using her finely trained 3-octave soprano and classical background to offer fluttering siren-like arias that seem to surreptitiously manifest from, what is, an ever-changing metamorphosis of musical styles, on her latest album, The Lonely Cry Of Space & Time.

Inspired by scientific discoveries, a “childhood listening to Puccini’s La Boheme”, the fateful poet Sylvia Plath, the tumultuous grave mistakes of intervention in the Middle East and, no surprises, the 2016 US elections Coogan’s ambitious suite of songs and instrumental evocations is far from lofty and classical.

Spanning country, Ry Cooder desert meditations, Anna Calvi like trembled sensual emulations, PJ Harvey and even bubbly synth pop, Coogan together with musical collaborator Willie B – offering atmospheric Moog bass line undertones and drums – produces a ‘wave’ fixated lamenting and balletic travail and a surprise highlight of 2017. DV

Full review…


D.

Daniel Son  ‘Remo Gaggi’  (Crate Divizion)

“Toasting the high life and low lives, gangster rap bearing honourable intentions”. RnV, May 17

Canadian slick talker Daniel Son is the front for this, one of many Giallo Point heists that the UK producer ran during 2017. With the authentic mob experience evident in such titles as Flat Tyers, Car Seizures, Strippers Den etc and the kingpin adoring the sleeve, it’s instantly noticeable how dry GP’s noir-ish production is; sharply tailored loops of muted house band jazz that has seen nefarious comings and goings, but are gagged by confidentiality agreements and the fear of loose lips sinking ships.

Potent in what it doesn’t disclose, display one bead of sweat and you’re in trouble. Before you know it Daniel Son – “we the reason that the yacht insurance be going up” – has decked you with a leg sweep before disappearing back into the night. While it’s easy to apply Godfatherly stereotypes to Remo Gaggi, the style of this international union contrasting brash and diligent, compellingly separates the best from the rest. MO


Dope KNife  ‘NineteenEightyFour’  (Strange Famous)

“An absolute battering ram of four wheel drive blasting through the boggiest of boom bap. Big Brother would think twice about listening in”.  RnV, Feb 17

We’re not trying to discredit Dope KNife by saying that NineteenEightyFour is an almost unfashionable antidote to tween trap, happily, mercilessly fanning the flames of the very 2017 argument of what constitutes real hip-hop between upstarts and originals (and if there’s an argument abound, it’s only right that Sage Francis is tagged in as well). Far from an Orwellian vision yet probably something of a dystopia to some as he walks with an intimidating shadow, DK comes slathered in dirt, ready to punch you in the ear with a splattered larynx.

As a one-man steamroller on beats and rhymes it’s not an exact science, but that’s absolutely fine with us, the battle-hardened, bitter-as-blasé (yet also able to reference the Fresh Prince theme tune) Georgia emcee leaving competition standing (“I can’t help being a damn cynic, this damn planet got a fucking lot of wack in it”). MO



The Doppelgangaz  ‘Dopp Hopp’  (Groggy Pack)

“A drop of ‘Dopp Hopp’ a day will keep the haters away; will creep up on the button marked ‘repeat’ until it progresses to heavy rotation”. RnV, Jul 17

Despite the sub-Gothic sleeve looking like the NY pair are auditioning badly for a death metal gig, Dopp Hopp ranks high on this year’s list on the strength of its smoothness alone. “Live by the cloak, die by the cloak” say The Ghastly Duo; but the mystery ends once their views from West Coast low riders, developing a smoky lens that’s intoxicating but never fuggy, embrace the inevitable sunshine.

Also readymade for reminiscing as on E.W.W. and Strong Ankles, the ‘Gangaz have set themselves the relatively easy task of riding the vibes properly, and they oblige with a natty turn of phrase prepared to shift towards the nearest street corner at their leisure. Dopp Hopp is another feather in a cap looking more and more like the crown jewels. Beats and rhymes guarantee return visits to golden-edged climes, where you simply have to rewind the boast that “if ‘Dopp Hopp’ was a beer, it’d be an IPA”. MO


75 Dollar Bill  ‘Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock’
(Glitterbeat Records)

This album could have rightly qualified for last year’s feature, but re-launched, repackaged for Glitterbeat Records’ burgeoning new imprint tak:til, 75 Dollar Bill gets another shot: mainly because it slipped under most radars on its maiden voyage in 2016. Now in 2017 with a hopefully wider global release it will shine.

Adhering to Jon Hassell’s “fourth world music” blurring of the division between futurism and tradition the 75 Dollar Bill duo of NYC-based musicians Rick Brown and Che Chen, traverse the psychedelic desert rock and trance of the Maghreb, avant-garde, jazz and even swamp boogie delta blues in a most indolent but listless transient manner on W/M/P/P/R/R. Motivated by an interest in “compound meters” – meter involves the way multiple pulse layers work together to organize music in time; a compound essentially dividing the beat into three equal parts -, but playing in a fashion that feels natural and organic, the follow-up to 2015’s more “forward momentum, stomping and shaking” style Wooden Bag is a nuanced clever exploration of interconnected tonality and tactile responses to a wealth of harmonics and melodies from a pan-global array of influences: from modal jazz to Arabic modes and eastern scales.

What they produce is an often adumbrate, repetitive experience that builds gradually, slowly releasing various tangents of interplay between the principle duo and their extended backing group of friends; traversing genres and moods to evoke new expletory musical spaces. DV

Full review…


E.

Ester Poly  ‘Pique Dame’  (Ikarus Records)

Experimentally rocking the cantons of their Swiss home for a while in their respective separate outfits, Béatrice Graf and Martina Bérther unite as an unholy drum and electric bass alliance under the Ester Poly (a scramble of ‘polyester’ of course) banner.

Pitching generation X(er) Bérther with Y(er) Graf, this rambunctious vehicle for the duo’s feminist protestations and irony is hardly hampered by the limitations of their chosen drum and bass instrumentation, and hardly comparable to any of the many such similar combinations plying their trade. Instead, Ester Poly use a stack of effects and distortion tools to widen their sound spectrum; evoking hints and obvious homages to post-punk, art school, Jazz, doom rock, heavy metal, no wave and Krautrock in the process.

Recorded in more or less one-takes, both combatants facing off against each other in the studio with no headphones or click track, Pique Dame captures not only the lively, hostile and enraged but also the humour (even if it is dark and resigned) of this energetic union. Despite the raging tumults, dynamism and soundclash of ideas, this album is a steady and even showcase of festering ideas and moods. It’s also quite brilliant and encapsulates the ‘pique’ perfectly; arousing, curious and irritated! DV

Full Review…


F.

Faust  ‘Fresh Air’  (Bureau B)

Still banging the cement-mixer drum and manning the barricades after forty odd years in the business, the Jean-Hervé Péron and Werner “Zappi” Diermaier duo version of Faust – at its most base drummer/percussionist and bassist-come-tormentor of sound – and their latest protestation Fresh Air is a sort of art-provocateur road trip of the USA, featuring an abundance of locals and internationalist artists and musicians, picked-up on the way through New York, Texas and California: A counter-cultural agitation travail from coast to coast.

Featuring the usual Faust totems and that workmanlike methodology of extracting sounds and evocations from machinery, found objects, debris and the architecture – even Péron’s front door hinges from home make an appearance – Fresh Air is an urgent gasp for relief from the polluted, choked, environment. It’s also a highly convoluted attempt at transforming geometrical forms and abstractions into a sonic score. Three of the tracks on this album take their inspiration from a faux-workshop at the highly regarded California Institute of the Arts. A session that includes the loony 23-second vocal exercise symphony Partitur – defined loosely as “a sort of Dadaist choir, a musique impressionniste” by Péron –; the loose Slits do souk jazz, camel ride Chlorophyll, which features Barbara Manning “sneaking” in word association sketches alongside Zappi’s own strange utterings; and the saxophone squalling, motoring Lights Flicker, which again features Manning, bridging the role of Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith, repeating an agitated mantra over a quasi art-dance backing.

Continuing with their signature agitation, often menacing, call-to-arms whilst also sonically turning the abstract into something audible, Péron and Zappi can still be relied upon to create provocative statements, five decades on from when the original Faust dynamic barraged audiences with the most confrontational and experimental sound ideas. Struggling like the rest of us, but finding a comradely with another generation of artists and musicians, they look for hope in the miasma. DV

Full Review…


Craig Finn  ‘We All Want The Same’  (Partisan Records)

Occupying a rich postmodern American literary landscape, channeling such celebrated chroniclers as Bruce Springsteen and Vic Chesnutt, former The Hold Steady, and prior to that Lifter Puller, front man Craig Finn has in more recent years carved out a career as a successful solo artist. In true Springsteen style, though with far less guttural bombast, Finn brings a certain levity and importance to the lives of America’s “ordinary folk”, building a highly erudite diorama to stage the unfolding, and to outsiders, the often inconsequential dramas that are acted out across the States on a daily cycle.

Subtly tapping into the “liberal” creative psyche of America, one that’s still in a state of shock, but also the so-called “blue collar” America that put Trump in the White House, Finn doesn’t so much point fingers or berate as reflect the resignation of a cast on the peripherals of society.

Enriched with the graceful subtle presence and soaring vocal harmonies of Caithlin De Marrais and singer/songwriter Annie Nero, the keys of Sam Kassirer, swaddling and lifting horns maestro Stuart Bogie and longtime contributor from The Hold Steady, guitarist Tad Kubler, the musical backdrop is a mix of rolling Warren Zevon piano psychodrama, bluesy rock’n’roll and Ashbury Park period E Street Band brass. A solid performance and assiduous edition to the modern American songbook, Finn’s third solo album shows a full-bodied, sagacious artist at his pinnacle. DV

Full review…


G.

Maalem Mahmoud Gania  ‘Colour Of The Night’  (Hive Mind Records)

Maalem Mahmoud Gania, the near-exulted star of the Moroccan honed Gnawa – a style of traditional Islamic dance, music and poetry with roots spread across the sub-Saharan crescent of Africa; considered by many to be one of the origins of the “blues” rhythm – and artisan of the genre’s key instrument, the camel-skin covered three-string lute like “guimbri”, released an extensive catalogue of recordings for labels such as Tichkaphone, La Voix El Maaref and Sonya Disques.

Choosing such a revered icon with which to launch their inaugural new imprint Hive Mind Records, the Brighton outfit’s inaugural baptism is the legend’s final studio recording, the afflatus, entrancing Colours Of The Night. What makes it special is that this is the first solo release by the artist outside his native homeland to be released on vinyl.

Stringy, wiry, occasionally a tone or two lower and played like a quasi-bass guitar, Gania’s playing style is raw, deep and always infectious: from blistering solos to slower and lighter ruminating descriptive articulations; this is equally matched by his atavistic soulful voice and the chorus of swooning, venerated female and male voices and harmonies that join him on each track.

Colours Of The Night is a highly hypnotic collection of performances both magical and transcendental, beautifully traversing Arabia and desert blues traditions. DV

Full review…


Golden Teacher  ‘No Luscious Life’

Seeming to just follow wherever the groove takes them, whether it’s ESG uptown/downtown Boho Noho Soho New York, electro Afrobeat, the griot traditions of West Africa or 80s Chicago House, the polygenesis influences of Glasgow’s sonic multilingual Golden Teacher sextet seamlessly entwine to produce the most solid of on-message dance music.

Flexing and limbering to a hip 80s heavy melting pot of sounds and references, the Glasgow troupe move like liquid through a soundtrack of polyrhythms, acid and tight drum presets, oscillations, clean and not so clean futuristic galactic house funk. Not many groups can inaugurate and move between both the Senegalese griot matriarch Aby Ngana Diop and Cabaret Voltaire on the same album, but such is the myriad of musical backgrounds, and they encompass every kind of genre you can think of, of the band members that make up this loose collective, you’re never quite sure what you might hear next.

Though rhythmically and melodically, pumping and sonically doing all the talking for them, there are succinct, atmospheric vocals from Cassie Ojay and Charles Lavenac to give either a certain sway and louche entrancing quality or, as on the opening Afro-funk meets pumping House Sauchiehall Withdrawal – a reference to one of Glasgow’s most, famous and popular main thoroughfares, with everything from the Glasgow School Of Art and CCA art hub of venues and galleries to shopping and nightclubs on its mile and a half long strip – a soulful austerity groundhog day political context: dutifully working the daily slog and for what?!

Moving to Glasgow, from about as far south of the border as you can go, a couple of years ago, one of the first gigs I saw was a sort of impromptu, diy style, performance from the group at The Old Hairdressers in town. Improvised to a degree they caught the wide-eyed excitement and dynamism of an earlier time as if it was fresh and new. A must-see live turn, the group has, unlike so many others before them, captured that free spirit and looseness on record. Yet production is really slick.

The city has always enjoyed a reputation for the eclectic, and Golden Teacher more than most, encapsulate that cross-pollination, borderless approach to absorbing music from across the globe – from The Levant to Compass Point – and making it funky. DV


H.

Happyiness  ‘Write-In’  (Moshi Moshi)

Ah…the sound of a band embracing the heartfelt warmth, accentuated dazed melodies and special feel of such 70s fare as Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Big Star, Happyness evoke the hazy fond memories and subtle sophistication of these and other complimentary artists on their brilliant album Write In.

The opening Falling Down gambit, with its radiant phaser guitar, conjures up the Scottish indie supremos (and fellow Big Star acolytes) Teenage Fanclub, whilst the pastel-shaded saddened tone of The Reel Starts Again sounds like a lost, ghostly remnant of a George Harrison and Jeff Lynne malady. A touch of the Brighten The Corners era Pavement permeates the band’s weary slacker muffled Uptrend/Style Raids, but by the time we reach the halfway stage of the album the lads are back to thrashing out a languorous grunge-y grind on Bigger Glass Less Full.

Subtle and confident, Write In is a halcyon, beautifully executed album with real depth and personality. Happyness have found their flow with loose but perceptively well-crafted gentle pop songs of a timeless quality: to be played as the “credits roll forever”. DV

Full review…


Here Are The Young Men And Uncle Peanut   ‘This Is Standard Life’
(Musical Bear Records)

Unceremoniously released almost on the sly, though because we are inundated with 100s of releases every week it could be we missed this one, the brilliant cut price, and with far more humour, authenticity and irony than the Sleaford Mods (as if scribbled by David Shrigley) Here Are The Young Men & Uncle Peanut are back with a load more broadsides leveled at life’s most cunty personalities and foibles.

Not so much poetic, not really rap in the true sense of the word either, they make observational snatches of overheard misnomers, condemnations and Estuary patois on the modern toss life of a pissed-stained mattress society. Modern life isn’t so much rubbish as depressingly shite, as the group transmogrify a sort of Daft Punk ‘Teachers’ style litany of great influential bands into a council estate, backroom punk paean to the spirit of punk and good music; safe in the knowledge that Mark E Smith Is Still Doing The Fall, even after a hundred years!

Diatribes on outsourcing, hipsters (the Day The Hipsters Stole Our Look; those penny-farthing riding tossers), lads banter (“yes mate, yes mate, standard”), gentrification, “nobbers” (who are “fucking everywhere!” on the Underworld goes punk song of the same name) and pop stars abound, and there’s even collaborations with Art Brut’s inimitable Eddie Argos (on the and Billie Ray Martin (of S’Express and Electribe 101 fame).

It’s nothing short of fucking brilliant, short and anything but sweet. The use of swearing alone is commendable. A sort of vitriolic, generation X middle-aged series of rants on what we’ve lost, what we are set to lose and what we could do without. DV


I.

Ifriqiyya Électrique  ‘Rûwâhîne’  (Glitterbeat Records)

Capturing something quite unique, the collaborative industrial post-punk and avant-garde rock scenes of Europe clash head-on with the descendants of the Hausa slaves atavistic rituals styled group, Ifriqiyya Electrique, create an often unworldly chthonian conjuncture of Sufi trance, spirit possession performance and technology.

A film project and now immersive sonic experience, inspired by the important Banga music traditions and the accommodating, rather than exorcising, of spirits ceremonial wild dances and call and response chanted exaltations of the black communities – originally transported to the region from sub-Saharan Africa – in the oasis towns of southern Tunisia, this astounding meeting of cultures and history is anything but scenic.

Formed in the Djerid Desert, the idea forged by field-recordist and veteran guitarist of the politically-charged Mediterranean punk and “avant-rock” scenes, François Cambuzat, and bassist Gianna Greco – both of which occasionally join forces with that livewire icon of the N.Y. underground, Lydia Lunch, to form the Putan Club -, the Ifriqiyya Electrique spans both continents and time. For their part, Cambuzat and Greco provide the grind, industrial soundscape texturing, sonorous drones and flayed guitars, but mostly, the “electrique”, whilst, offering a dialogue with the spirits and the tradition, Banga musician Ali Chouchen – joined in the live theatre by an expanded cast of fellow voices, krabebs and Tunisian tabla players from the community, which includes Tarek Sultan, Yahia Chouchen and Youssef Ghazala – provides peripheral sounding evocative echoed and esoteric vocals and equally haunting nagharat.

Spiritual conversations transformed and realigned with the machine age turmoil of industrial noise, Arthur Baker style rock and hip-hop production, post-punk and even Teutonic techno, Rûwâhîne is a rambunctious unique force. DV

Full review…


J.

Jam Baxter  ‘Mansion 38’  (High Focus)

“Half cut, whip smart. Ultimate, grungy outlaw hip-hop, putting the trap in trapdoor”.  RnV, Mar 17

UK crown rulers High Focus reached new levels of cult when Mansion 38 became that creepy house at the end of the road that may be good for a heart-in-mouth laugh at Halloween, but not somewhere you’d venture to acquire a friendly cup of sugar.

Recorded and produced in Bangkok, Jam Baxter’s quotable cynicism is of an emcee breed that gets caught in a landslide escaping reality in a bid to keep himself amused, but whose focus is actually doing overtime. Seeming nonsense suddenly swoops down at you with lethal intent, most notably on the shrewd consumerist commentary on offer For a Limited Time Only. He of The Gruesome Features squats on Chemo’s production, and where there’s no such thing as a wrong turn, it’s alien, exotic, and worryingly comforting at once, slowly beginning sinkhole formation, and with Dumb demanding you take cover while running in slow-motion. Bugged out, bug-bombed, brilliant. MO


Jehst  ‘Billy Green is Dead’  (YNR)

“Showing the sort of word association and plain English penmanship that has long made him the UK’s premier emcee”. RnV, Jun 17

Whether the eponymous subject of Jehst’s sixth full-length is man or myth, a reflection on society or the High Plains Drifter letting his imagination run wild while disclosing clues from his own personal memoirs, you’ll be hanging on Billy Green’s every move, tic and confession.

It’s the album’s lost, tired soul trying to keep the walls from closing in, but then seeming to be at peace with any pending doom. It’s the human element, from the debilitation of an everyday Joe to referencing the Kardashians and when the most important decisions can sometimes boil down to choosing “the Snickers or the Mars, E&J liquor or the six-pack of the Stella Artois”. It’s Jehst’s delivery that even when close to succumbing to heat exhaustion, finds a reserve from deep down that’s of an improbable, impeccable sharpness. It’s the simmering sphere of wax and wane production whose highs and lows run a perfect parallel. ‘Billy Green is Dead’, long live Jehst. MO


Jonwayne  ‘Rap Album Two’  (Authors Recording Co)

“Personal struggle both poignant and unapologetic for showing its hand…watch its humble humanity become the choice of the open eared this year”.  RnV, Feb 17

 Rap Album Two approaches that long-standing hip-hop (and society in general) elephant in the room: the refusal to admit vulnerability. In laying crises on the line, Jonwayne becomes his own therapist and subsequently an outlet for the hesitant and anxious to claim as their own. At his most lo-fi, the times to think become deafening and don’t necessarily mean there’s a clean pathway to redemption.

It would take a kingsized about-turn for Jonwayne to become self-destructive on record, but it’s the legitimacy of his 20/20 vision and the potential of the what-ifs that sit kindly. Particularly on the beautifully dejected/accepting Out of Sight and Afraid of Us, bearing the powerful “look at these people, counting on me when I can’t even count on myself”, you can hear him fighting for his very survival. Also behind the excellent Black Boy Meets World by Danny Watts (who features here), Rap Album Two bridges the gap between cult hero and everyman icon. MO


K.

King Ayisoba  ‘1000 Can Die’  (Glitterbeat Records)

Sounding the klaxon call in defense of his native Ghana, and Africa at large, on his inaugural LP for Glitterbeat Records, the striking, lively King Ayisoba, from the roots up, uses his guttural earthy howl and atavistic kologo lute to great effect in demonstrating not only a raw anger but also a deep love for a much misunderstood continent.

From the very outset Ayisoba and his contributors Wanlov da Kubolar & Big Gad – just two of the many guest appearances on this album – rap, sing and stamp a slogan sentiment on the opening Africa Needs Africa of, “Let’s fight for Africa/Africa needs us.” Covering the North African diaspora, the boat people’s sorry saga, the colonial past and umpteen other issues that more or less shape the image that those observers from outside the continent believe is the only side to Africa – between a misplaced sentimentality and outright ignorance. There is protestation and indictment, but also a lively focus on the positives too; finding solutions through the medium of music and culture.

In-between the fiery, bordering on punk, clatter of guluku, dundun and Djembe drums and rambunctious electronic phasing beats there are more plaintive, yearning stripped-back moments: Grandfather Song, a toiled from the soil of tragedy lament, offers a more intimate knee-jerk from the full-on band sound, and Dapagara is sent off into a sweeping, wafting vista by the Nigerian legend Orlando Julius’ traversing, reedy accentuated saxophone.

Raw from the heart, highly evocative and rebellious, King Ayisoba’s songs of rage and vitality actually offer a kind of hope in the face of adversity. The future of Ghana’s music scene is in good hands at least. DV

Full review…


L.

L’Orange  ‘The Ordinary Man’  (Mello Music Group)

“An evocative performance capturing a concerto producer whose trick-from-sleeve ratio remains visionary”.  RnV, Nov 17

Another 12 months of might and magic on Mello Music Group, including must-checks from Oddisee and Mr Lif and Akrobatik as the reconvening Perceptionists. However, it’s the beatsmith with the knack from Nashville building up quite the back catalogue where Tenneseein’ is Tennebelievin’. Loosely based around the sleight-handed history of when illusionists were the rockstars of their day – on premise alone, L’Orange is out by himself – the mostly instrumental The Ordinary Man is described as “vaguely reminiscent of RJD2’s ‘Deadringer’”, where loops slip off straitjackets and straight up gallivant.

Reserving the mic for only a handful of guests after a starry stack of collaborative LPs, L’Orange offers jazziness with a spring in its step, even when its grainy monochrome quality appears to be suffering (perhaps reflecting his own personal health issues). Covered in a sweet patchwork of samples, the headnodding will rock your neck stiff (Cooler than Before soars like the plane on Raekwon’s Criminology), while placing it delicately upon a pillow. MO


Liars  ‘TFCF’  (Mute)

The confusing soundtrack to a musical divorce, the enduring creative partnership behind the Liars, Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, finally fell apart after the release of Mess. Though confounding fans and critics alike on every release, the now streamlined version of the Liars sees Andrew at the helm of, essentially, a one-man band, churning up and lurching through what should by rights be another ‘mess’ of ideas to produce something quite vivid and experimentally sharp.

Chronicling what he felt was akin to a musical marriage, Andrew sitting miserably slumped in a wedding dress, left holding the bouquet on the cover of TFCF (Theme From Crying Fountain) charts a deteriorating relationship, with dysfunctional material – some of which was marked for the next Hemphill & Andrew Liars album – spun into a brilliant sulky, miserable melodrama of electronic, new wave, punk and cerebral pop.

Leaving L.A. for his native home of Australia, a dethatched Andrew transmogrifies those American influences into acoustic, labored drum break lamentable sneers (The Grand Delusional), Love style Mexican psych flare crossed with Medieval courtship (Cliché Suite) and disjointed daggered, The Knack meets Beck, lurches (Cred Woes).

Often resigned, hurt, pranged with pity throughout, it hardly sounds appealing, yet TFCF is full of reinvention, experimentation and lyrically, both dreamily and petulantly opprobrious. DV


Al Lover Meets Cairo Liberation Front  ‘Nymphaea Caerulea’  (Hoga Nord)

A meeting of exotic minds, San Francisco producer/remixer Al Lover (The Brian Jonestown Massacre to Goat) and the Tilburg collective Cairo Liberation Front set out on an evocative mesmerizing flight of escapist fantasy on the extended Nymphaea Caerulea EP.

 

Continuing a partnership with the Hoga Nord label and following up the previous Zodiak Versions, Al and his collaborators merge psychedelic dance music with a spiritually mysterious imagined vision of Egypt: Nymphaea Caerulea being the Latin name for the blue Egyptian lotus, a flower of the Orient.

Over six ‘levels’ they traverse and evoke entrancing Egyptian flute led feverish ritual, mysticism, sweeping desert winds, ancient kingdoms, belly dancing and cyclonic Afro-Futurist beats.

References to a new sonic deliverance, a musical Arab Spring, infuse the six instrumental tracks with a certain levity and theme. But rather than bang the drum of rage and protest in the land of the Pharaohs and old gods, Al and the Cairo Liberators create a moody mysterious, veiled soundtrack fit for the dancefloor. DV


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