Reviews Roundup/Dominic Valvona




Easing the boredom of coronavirus lockdown – though many of our international followers, and those across the border in England, are tentatively coming out of isolation – join me from the safety of your own home once more on a global journey of discovery. Let me do all the footwork for you as I recommend a batch of interesting and essential new releases from a myriad of genres. All of which I hope you will support in these anxious and trying times. With all live gigs and events more or less quashed for the foreseeable future, buying music (whether it’s physical or through digital platforms) has never been more important for the survival of the bands/artists/collectives that create it.

This week’s roundup takes on an unplanned devotional vibe, with many of the featured albums/EPs inspired or imbued by religious music and themes. The cellist, composer Simon McCorry is a case in point, his latest ambient drone soundscape The Light Only Blinds is guided in part by the Catholic liturgy of a Requiem Mass; though drifts and expands into the universal and space itself. Equally the stirring hushed beatific new EP from Swedish artist David Åhlén, ‘My Face Will Shine’, is also (among other things) inspired by Christian liturgy: especially the Biblical Psalms. Meanwhile, Bhajan Bhoy, the alter ego of Ajay Saggar, proves a transcendence of spiritual, talking to Yogi, style Kosmische and post-punk reverence. A strange performative alchemy is struck up between the collaborative union of Valentina Magaletti and Marlene Ribeiro on their mysterious, primal ‘tropical concrete’ communion Due Matte.

Not so spiritual, and untouched by the afflatus, Daniel J. Gregory (and his Carnivorous Plants) composes and assembles a ambient and lingering post-rock blues soundscape to the images he captured on a old Soviet camera, Fela Kuti disciples Les Frères Smith pack a punch on their explosive Afrobeat imbued new LP, Mutation. Love-Songs release their inaugural convolution of the organic and synthesized, Nicht Nicht, for the Hamburg label Bureau B. And finally, there’s the inaugural album from Carey Mercer’s new project Soft Plastics; an extraordinary, ambitious album at that.


Les Frères Smith ‘Mutation’
(Amour et Son) LP/22nd May 2020




Adepts of the Fela Kuti patois, the self-described musical ‘smugglers’ Les Frères Smith not only emulate their inspiration but even feature the Afrobeat progenitor’s youngest scion Seun Kuti on the group’s latest, and third, infectious bustle, Mutation.

Speaking Kuti fluently this eleven-strong group doesn’t just imitate the sun-bleached heralded horns, Tony Allen shuffles and entrancing grooves of the Nigerian superstar’s music but also channel his loosely delivered vocal protestations too. Always keeping it funky and suffused with a sauntered jostle even in the face of ever-growing tensions, the threat of increasingly hostile nationalism and the rise of populism the political slogans are liberally peppered or soulfully woven into the tapestry by the group’s rallying flanked singers and motivators Swala Emati and Prosper Nya. Les Frères Smith fill-in for Seun’s Egypt 80 on the splashed drum and Clav frills ‘No Waiting’: An impatient message of African unity rides over a signature nimble Afrobeat performance that has Seun deliver a usually cool vocal and swinging saxophone.

Of course these sonic contraband handlers of the faith will find their politics, freedom of movement even harder to evangelize in the current miasma of epidemic lockdown. For now, we’ll just have to let them musically take us on a backpack tour of riches. Because they don’t just fly Air Lagos but make stopovers in Cameroon (check out those basslines), Ghana, Guinea and on the shimmery fluted desert escape ‘Arouah’, Arabian North Africa. What they call the “Afrikanbeat” is a smooth merger of all these geographic scenes. Throw in some nitty, nifty Congolese guitar licks, some Orlando Julius lilted Afrojazz, reminisces of The Sweet Talks and Ebo Taylor, and then from across the seas, add a pinch of stateside soul sister Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, some Stevie Wonder and even a touch of The Brand New Heavies to find all the sunshine hustle grooves you could want.

Bedeviled, limbering, relaxed, Les Frères Smith lend a Gauloise flair to the Afrobeat blueprint on an album of bustled liberating energy.





Soft Plastics ‘5 Dreams’
(Paper Bag Records) LP/5th June 2020




From the embers of Frog Eyes rises Carey Mercer’s vivid dreamology, the Soft Plastics; an extraordinary-voiced inhabited vision, playful, untethered yet also intense. With partner and creative foil Mel Campbell at his side and an intimate circle of musicians – many of which are from the ranks of fellow Canadian scenesters Destroyer – Mercer’s abstract dreams are channeled into a magical, if often sad, songbook of lyrical symbolism, metaphor and passages of trauma.

Everyone is probably aware of the idiosyncratic songwriter’s travails, coming out the other side of throat cancer years ago; the very best outcome an affect on his music career and obviously his already unique bellowed, sibilant, fluctuating, weaving vocals. Though free from a cohesive theme as such, amongst the recurring lyrics of “swirling”, allusions to a green miasma, “wyld thyngs” and an actor’s diorama there’s the constant presence of “angels”: guardians perhaps. But it’s the album’s references (again, perhaps) to Mercer’s most dramatic episode on ‘The Party’s Still On’ that evocatively alludes to that diagnosis: “Knocked on the roof of my mouth, and said “shelter me in warmth”.

With some visions weighing heavier than others, and some darker, the inaugural LP under the Soft Plastics furnishing uses the imagery and lucid recall of Mercer’s dreams. These “remembrances” were sent to soundboard Joshua Wells (just one of the Destroyer cast that feature and help facilitate this album) as a foundation for, what is, a visceral journey through the musician/vocalist’s imaginings and augurs. It’s an ambitious world – not many albums come with a contextual-style essay. 5 Dreams “exists in a land that is deeply wet, dark, flooded” we’re told. The dank dampness is however broken by the occasional “gilded sun-beam” that “comes out of nowhere”, at which point “the song just stops and stares in bloody awe at what we are given, what we might see.”

Almost theatrical, the musical stage is expansive and deep; a counterbalance between the darkness and light. Sins, the omnipresence of a nuclear threat (of the winter, and family stasis kind), the pains of loss, and the biblical feature heavily on a soundtrack that omnivorously feeds on elements of lilted mariachi horns, industrial post-punk, ragged soul, new wave, shoegaze, pop, indie-dance, funk and Mercer’s back catalogue (Frog Eyes, Swan Lake). This means wandering hints of Blixa Bargeld, Talk Talk, Alex Harvey, Wolf Parade, The Mekons, New Pornographers and The Rapture. With a vocal freedom, between the languidly winding and more intense falsetto, the pathway traverses wildly imagined southern borderlands; a virtual dystopia where the hangman’s rope looms as a warning; a place where fascism lurks in the small towns. There’s something not quite right with this scene however; an artificial construct, peopled by willing (or unwilling) actors, playing the part of Mercer’s vivid dreamscapes and actions.

Mercer’s dream weaving evocations are, as I’ve already said, extraordinary on this ambitious, mesmeric album suite. Cryptic and charged, wondrous and yet dark, the Soft Plastics go further and deeper into the psyche to fathom the unfathomable. 5 Dreams warrants a place in every choice and best of the year lists at the end of this anxious, epidemic ravaged year. It really is that good.





Bhajan Bhoy ‘Bless Bless’
(Wormer Bros. Records)   LP/5th June 2020




Veiled in swathes of reverence and an afterglow of Gothic shoegaze, post-punk and the kosmische Ajay Saggar turns his fanned, flange reverberating guitar towards the transcendental on his first solo outing. Recently appearing in my January roundup as part of the Deutsche Ashram collaboration with Merinde Verbeck, Saggar extends that duo’s vaporous spiritual waves and dreamy translucence on this six-string led Eastern cosmology.

In case you missed the “blessed” anointed direction of this heavenly – if just as moodily mysterious and full of trepidation – panoramic opus, the alter ego “Bhajan” of this incarnation’s name refers to the amorphous devotional music of the Indian subcontinent. Synonymous with Hinduism, but also Jainism, this melodic raga form of worship has no set rules, and so fits in well with Saggar’s formless framework of layered melting guitar phrases, gossamer radiance, space-echo unit delay and ripples in the cosmic fabric atmospheres. Bhajan can be translated as “revere”, but also can be read as “sharing” too, and that’s what Saggar does: sharing his spiritual oeuvre of the esoteric and meditative.

We’re “welcomed” to this service with a brassy vibrating mantra: an introduction set-up for what’s to follow. The pouring guitar washes of Manuel Gottsching’s Ash Ra Temple permeate the album’s first long wave devotion ‘Strung Out’, which also features the Washington artist Prana Crafter as congruous communal collaborator. Those lingering six-string explorations increase with intensity as the traverse goes on; bending and craning with fuzz and scuzzy sustain in a Gunter Schickert fashion. Second guest spot goes to Holly Habstritt Gaal; her lulling siren coos beckon from the ether on the ethereal post-punk free-falling embrace ‘Cascade’.

On a pilgrimage of the magick and Indian mysticism, Saggar aligns wisps of Popol Vuh mantra otherworldliness with cause winds on the strangely titled ‘Stuck In A Barrel’, and casts a pulsing prodded synthesized spell of Roedelius arpeggiator and the Tangerine Dream on ‘Magicho’.

Whether drifting off after trekking the ‘King’s Mountain’, or circumnavigating the Kush interior, Saggar finds enlightenment in a cosmic vacuum. Sensory glides, harmonic rings, creepier growls, the twinkled and dub-y all merge on this ebbing tide of devotional music. Emerging from this isolation with a spirit of wonderment, Bhajan Bhoy reimagines a kosmische version of The Mission; a space rock Slowdive on an expansive multilayered guitar meditation.






Love-Songs ‘Nicht Nicht’
(Bureau B) LP/22nd May 2020




It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find the visceral electro-acoustic trio from Hamburg gravitating towards that incubator of Kosmische and expletory German electronica, the Bureau B label: A label that’s ranks include not just the second (or third) generation of Germany’s electronic and experimental music revolution but also some of the progenitors that started it, from surviving members of Faust to Roedelius.

Love-Songs inaugural convolution of the organic and defined for the label absorbs much of that pioneering providence, especially the Kosmische and the quasi-tribal, quasi-ceremonial wood-rim-clatter drums of Faust’s Zappi Diermaier.

A mysterious, sometimes Byzantium, invocation of the improvised, the synthesized and the acoustic, Nicht Nicht is a veiled world of amorphous resonance. There’s the use of Chinese cymbals that hints towards Tibetan and East Asian mysticism, what sounds like a clarinet or oud offers Egyptian fantasy, and the cattle bells evoke mountain cowherds of the Steppes. Add to this the utterances and chanted cadence of Love-Song’s vocalist Thomas Korf, which aren’t so much sung as lyrically described as they occupy the gauzy space. Korf’s lyrics are described as ‘Surrealist’, ‘Dada’, though I’d have no idea as he sings in German throughout.

Electronically sonic wise, pulsating bass throbs echo throughout this labyrinth alongside carefully, dare say sophisticated, arpeggiators, dark wave undercurrents and, when it really gets going, cybernetic techno beats. Suffused and vibrating with that air of mystery, Love-Songs create a stirring environment of reverberated tubular synthesized evaporations and both naturalistic scuttled rhythms and percussive trinkets. Nicht Nicht finds a balance between the two on a most experimental fusion of Kosmische, Techno and the mystical; an album that finds the trio pushing the boundaries further than ever.





Valentina Magaletti & Marlene Ribeiro ‘Due Matte’
(Commando Vanessa) LP/11th June 2020




A communion of sonic forebode and untethered visions of the universal, the collaborative Due Matte performance ascension brings together Valentina Magaletti (of Vanishing Twins fame) and her foil Marlene Ribeiro (of both Gnod and Negra Brancia) to forge an uninterrupted exploration of what the artistic partnership has coined “tropical concrete”. A counterbalance of the improvised and form, the natural and augmented, synthesized effects and the acoustic, this tropical concrete soundscape weaves recognizable instrumentation with (as the ‘concrete’ of that term would suggest) a masked assemblage of found objects and utensils. And so, an ever-present tolled, processional frame drum patters out a repetitive beat as the trinkets of tapped bottles, scrapped tin and other metallic objects trickle or scratch across a mysterious alchemy of Latin esotericism and an ever-shifting echoed soundbed of filters.

Metal bucketing, the circled ringing of bowls, brushes across the surface of a drum skin, water-carriers, revolving mechanisms, rasps and rustling noises and sounds are all the more mysterious as they spiral or spindle on this magic-reality soundtrack. In a fluxes between the supernatural and dreamy, the lucid and hypnotizing reverberations of an ambiguous world, cast adrift of its moorings, stirs up various references: whether intentional or by happenstance – a spell of South East Asia one moment, the Nile and even an atavistic Iberia the next.

Cooing voices and obscured talking add another layer of mystique to the serial Gothic, religious and fantastical elementals.

This, the third release on the burgeoning Italian ‘boutique label’ Commando Vanessa, was originally performed as part of Francisca Marques’ curated project Hysteria; a result of the collaborators artistic residency at Sonoscopia in Porto, a project conceived to ‘offer a look at female production and creation in today’s musical universe, creating new bridges between creators and audiences.’ The fruits of this strange, mostly uncalculated vision of artistic freedom traverse a mirror-y, occasionally primal, world of abstracted death knolls and rituals, under a killing moon. Let’s hope there’s more to come from this congruous union in the future.






Simon McCorry ‘The Light Only Blinds’
(Herhalen Recordings) EP/14th May 2020




Proving prolific in this year of anxious isolation and lockdown misery, composer, artist and adroit cellist of renown Simon McCorry is once more conjuring up evocative soundscapes, both introspective and universal, on his latest ambient suite The Light Only Blinds. After two recent Monolith Cocktail premieres of McCorry standalone singles – the minimalist Acid Techno imbibed ‘Pieces Of Mind’ last month, and the stirring atonal ‘The Nothing That Is’ in February –, and following in the wake of the fully-realized escapist, haunted environments and materialized spaces of the ambiguous atmosphere-building Border Land LP, McCorry offers a trio of light inspired meditations on the power, immensity and light-giving properties of the Sun.

Veiled, longing and at times inhabiting the awe and mystery of Kubrick’s cinematic visions of space, the arid lunarscapes and terrains of this lightened sonic escapism are both magisterial and daunting. Though alien in parts, with passing leviathans and gauzy metallic gleams, saws and waves suffused throughout, the EP is not just bathed in the rays of the Sun but also loosely imbued by the themes (hence the Latin liturgy titles, ‘Sanctus’, ‘Benedictus’ etc.) of the Catholic Requiem Mass. Instead of the David Axlerod route, McCorry gravitates towards the almost supernatural Atmosphères, Lux Aeterna, Requiem and Aventures suites of revered composer György Ligeti; all of which of course featured in Kubrick’s 2001AD, A Space Odyssey opus.

But this sacred wonderment at the Sun was also developed from the sound design work for a play that the ambient and neoclassical composer worked on in early March. “The theatre we were working in closed around us and the play only went as far as the first dress rehearsal. I’d been experimenting with a couple of analogue monosynths and liked the idea of using these as the sole source of sound design material. They have an unpredictable organic nature and paradoxically sound unnatural and alien. The play, Born Bad written by Debbie Tucker Green, is an intense family drama with a lot not said or on the verge of being said, it is an exercise in a slow build of tension that never quite overwhelms but threatens too as more and more is revealed. I wanted the sound design to be as if it is was the space, the hum of the electric appliances, lighting and heating, occasionally clawing it self into consciousness from a bed of churning chaos that lies behind everything.

The prevailing bed of those hums, undulations and waves sit under a synthesis of universal secrets, as enervated solar winds blow across the moonscapes and interiors, and shrouded movements trigger unearthly stirrings and shooting stars fly by in the night sky. An escapist soundtrack, McCorry’s subtle enlightened contemplations prove atmospherically evocative, another quality suite of minimalist gravity.






David Åhlén ‘My Face Will Shine’
(Jivvär) EP/15th May 2020




You may remember we premiered the Swedish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist David Åhlén’s moving hymnal ‘If I Have You’ single, recently on the Monolith Cocktail. A whispery diaphanous veiled plaint that’s informed and inspired by the artist’s study of mystical Judeo-Christian texts on the Swedish Island of Gotland, and his own personal faith, this most beatific and angelic of songs also features on the new release, the devotional My Face Will Shine EP.

Though faith has once more concentrated the minds of many during this epidemic – you could say there’s been a resurgence -, society in general still casts a cynical derision of suspicion at those who practice religion. A lot of Christian music is of course dire, especially the modern happy-clappy sort. Åhlén though has found a gossamer balance between the choral-backed worship lament of tradition and a breathtakingly heart aching form of chamber pop.

Particularly moved by the Biblical Psalms, lyrics from the first single – lines such as “deep calls to deep in the roar of your waters” – are directly inspired by Psalm 42, as David explains: “Many of the lyrics for the EP are about the mystery of our soul speaking to God and the longing that follows”. Musically steeped in this traditional influence and spiritual yearning, ‘If I Have You’ like the rest of the music on this EP are elevated further towards the heavenly by the inclusion of the holy tones of The Boy’s Choir Of Gotland and a an attentive, sympathetic chamber ensemble.

Åhlén’s hushed and cooed falsetto softly ascends the Cloisters atmosphere like a yearning, robed, Antony Hegarty taking communion. The reverence is suffused across all four spiritual elevations, from the beautifully wooed and bowed longing string accompanied stunner ‘My Face Will Shine’, through to the ethereal Biblical cosmology ‘Shamayim’ (the Hebrew word for “heaven”).

My Face Will Shine offers a full immersion into the devotional and longing; a connection to a higher calling you could say; a step away from our own preoccupations into the moody chamber pop of holy reverence. Aside from the spiritual leanings, many will find this an incredibly constructed heartfelt and beautiful record.




Daniel J. Gregory & Carnivorous Plants ‘Dusty Starlight’
(Kirigirisu Recordings) LP/Available Now




From rifling through workshop drawers like a sound burglar, to lending the most lingering traces of post-rock and blues-y guitar to attuned radio/TV broadcasts from an unspecified European geography, Daniel J. Gregory’s minimal sonic collage for the Japan-based Kirigirisu label is an album of channeled refracted landscapes. From mountains to coastlines and cities, Gregory’s serial synthesis of guitar and textured drones and winding mechanisms soundscapes give a sound and visceral life to pictures taken on an ‘old Soviet camera’.

A photo album given an assemblage of ambient resonate waveforms and more noisy musique-concrète, Dusty Starlight passes through ‘Blue Holland’ colour palette waterways and scrapped contours of a vague landscape. Foreign transmissions intermittently crackle and spark into action but offer only more mystery. You can even hear the artist himself counting in, or, in soliloquy style mumbling under his breath on the rummaging ‘V’.

Over various hums, signals, static, chains, clicks, camera loading and caustic interference Gregory plays various electric guitar renderings. Played with a light touch, these sometimes reverberating, often rippled and drifting trails linger between touches of Craig Ward, Spaceman 3 era Jason Pierce and Raül Refree. On the album’s final Roman numeric entitled ‘VII’ there’s even a hint of a more enervated, less dark, Sunn O))). But this could be framed as a kind of post-rock blues; a style not too dissimilar to the label boss Neil Debnam’s very own Broken Shoulder/Flying Kites alter egos.

A soundtrack in many ways that offers a strange collage of found, usable object manipulations and tremulous experimental guitar, the Dusty Starlight album looks through a removed lens at a scarred, displaced landscape. One that’s more mysterious and subtly stirring than dystopian or even haunting. This old Soviet tech offers another angle on ambient experimentation.






Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

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