Reviews – December 2020

The Archaeas The Archaeas LP (Goner)
Debut single on Total Punk; debut album on Goner: is there a more desirable trajectory for a garage-punk band? I hope The Archaeas are satisfied with themselves, as they couldn’t have asked for a more reputable start. I enjoyed their Total Punk 7″ for its primitive punk joy and extreme brevity, and this album reveals the trio as somewhat more developed without risking alienating the Total Punkers out there. They’ve certainly got a sound that should sit well with the Goner crowd, a melodically-pleasing, slightly-glammy, very-fuzzy garage-punk style with big choruses and a sassy attitude. I’m hearing Ty Segall, Jay Reatard and Cheap Time in these tunes; hallmarks of this century’s garage-rock scene that I’m assuming have informed The Archaeas’s sonic approach. Thankfully, as underground music has been trending in general over the past few years, I get the impression that The Archaeas move without the casual misogyny and general bad-guy-behavior that was a staple of prior iterations of this scene – there’s no lyric sheet, but I get the impression that the lip gloss referenced in “Lip Gloss” might be that of their own, not a female conquest. Feel-good garage-punk in these feel-bad times, no doubt.

Avery Plains Soon LP (Flat Plastix)
The cover of Avery Plains’ sophomore album is giving me waves of ’90s nostalgia so strong as to almost reach a Mandela Effect: I swear this was the art for a 1994 DGC CD sampler featuring Screaming Trees and Teenage Fanclub. Fair enough, as the music of Avery Plains certainly matches that post-grunge alt-rock-explosion sound, but they do it really, really well! I’m as surprised as you, but they really do nail it, that sense of post-shoegaze, post-grunge, didn’t-quite-make-it major-label rock groups that turned into cult favorites years after the fact. Opener “Two Sad Wings” sounds like it should’ve been on The Crow soundtrack had that soundtrack been released by 4AD… gloomy adult-rock that could forge a connection to Jeff Buckley as easily as Afghan Whigs and Belly. Maybe this is what The National sounds like? Nah, I truly doubt The National are this free-wheeling and unself-conscious. The music is cool, but the weathered vocals of Jurgen Veenstra (I forgot to mention, Avery Plains are from the Netherlands) really elevate the group to the superior sound they’ve arrived at here. Unless some random break happens in their favor, I presume Avery Plains will remain somewhat unknown here in the states, but that’s cool with me – I always prefer to feel like I’m the only one listening to bands as private and personal-sounding as this.

Carnivorous Bells The Upturned Stone LP (Human Headstone Presents)
Let us not neglect Philly hardcore: this vinyl debut from new-ish group Carnivorous Bells is certainly worth a peep! Featuring Matthew Adis from Salvation, David Vassalotti from Merchandise and Michael Bachich from the virally-sensational @catatonicyouths Instagram account, this group is filled with young men on the verge of no longer being young, raised on hardcore and still in love with hardcore but also willing to tie it up in knots for fun. That’s probably why The Upturned Stone manages to rage like hardcore-punk in spite of songs that are undeniably math-rock in nature. I’ve admired Vassalotti’s guitar playing for years now, and he really lets it fly here, with riffs that recall Don Caballero, Slint and even goddamn Orthrelm, tailored for the feral rhythm section that lurches and strikes like Saccharine Trust and Scratch Acid. I kinda feel a little bad for Adis, honestly, as he’s supposed to somehow find a place for his voice within these turbulent and non-traditional riffs. Any decent punk can sing for a group that writes songs like SOA or 86 Mentality, but good luck figuring out how to shout over these jazzy and peculiar songs! Adis tends to extend his phrases across these intricate patterns, squealing like a boardwalk game attendant trying to catch your attention; he also wisely steps away from the mic for extended stretches, most often when the music reaches a near-total impenetrability. It’s understandably a little awkward at times, but Carnivorous Bells are clearly trying something new, entering an artistic territory that’s bound to include little failures or misses among moments of next-level greatness (like opener “Big Bronze Allegory”). At least they’re fucking, trying… what the something-something…

The Gagmen The Gagmen LP (iDEAL Recordings)
I’m not as easily tempted by noise collaborations these days as I was ten, fifteen years ago, but this one-off collaboration between Aaron Dilloway and Nate Young (who you surely know as two-thirds of Wolf Eyes during their fantastic early iteration), iDEAL’s Joachim Nordwall, and (unless you believe the conspiracies) the one and only Andrew W.K.? Well, that sounded too good to resist. This comes from a 2013 live performance in NYC, and I was expecting something along the lines of the group’s moniker: molten noise loops and dry heaving, thick with toxic crust. While I suppose that general sensibility is present, The Gagmen is actually much more sparse than I had imagined – it almost doesn’t seem possible that four people could’ve contributed to such a scant amount of sound. A rusty cowbell will flap in a mild dust-storm across the alley; the tick of a kilowatt reader numbly echos into the void; a millisecond snippet of a stuttering male voice will pass over the tape machine’s magnetic reader every few seconds. Very little to hold onto, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – I find the use of emptiness to work well here, as it presents a strikingly desolate and long-evacuated sonic minefield. The final track (no titles that I can see) finally picks up the pace, with rich bass tones and troubled sonar blips, as well as a mangled vocal performance, the sort of thing I had initially signed up for. I wonder if Andrew W.K. pressed a single button, or if it was merely his presence in the room that provided The Gagmen with a sense of direction? No partying happening here, let alone partying hard.

Gargara Versus Jesus 7″ (ОПАЧИНА)
Delinquent dumb-ass punk is a universal human right as far as I’m concerned, so I’m glad to see some Macedonian youngsters engaging in explicitly that sort of behavior. Their band is called Gargara (though the band logo lettering looks completely different?) and they found the time to write and record this four-song EP, in between extended vape sessions, parking lot loitering and localized nuisance behavior. Their music reminds me of rude and rowdy hardcore not unlike Rupture and Bad Noids, songs played fast and drunkenly with a squealing vocalist and dexterous drummer. As is usually the case these days, they’ve got a blown-out recording that captures the energy more than the clarity of Gargara’s music, tinny drums and thick guitars pushing forward in a sound that has me wondering if it was converted from MP3 format at some point, presumably siphoned from some free-trial recording software (as true present-day punks will do). Jesus doesn’t stand a chance!

Hand Of Food Swimming Mindlessly 12″ (Ever/Never)
Hand Of Food’s vinyl debut is as endearingly head-scratching as their name. Theirs is a mix of uncomfortable ambient music, reminiscent of punkers-turned-post-modern-vérité-artists like Shots and Melkings as well as the old guard of similar sonic trickery such as Culturcide and Negativland. The first side plays out softly and sweetly enough, a slight tumble through the brush-filled sand dunes on an otherwise picturesque beach-side outing, at least until the stock Paid Announcer voice fires off some hilariously disconcerting lines. Can’t help but think of Jayson Musson’s fantastic CVS Bangers mixes which utilize the same effect to essentially the same ends, reminding us that every moment of our lives can quickly be rung through the ringer of capitalism with or without our consent. The happy-hour piano man that opens “Chelo’s By The Sea” is uncomfortably bleary, recalling People Like Us’s knack for revealing pop culture’s ever-present dark side, before a diced-up series of vocal samples has me thinking of Blackhumour’s passion for the curious nature of the human voice. Normally I’d say this is the type of record exclusively geared towards 3:00 AM WFMU DJs, but over the events of the last year, who among us hasn’t turned into some version of a 3:00 AM WFMU DJ at one point or another?

Harry Pussy Superstar 7″ (Palilalia)
You want to find a way into my PayPal account, just whisper the words “unreleased archival Harry Pussy seven-inch” in my ear and watch as I race to my computer in a huff. Some random live set I haven’t heard would be cool with me, but this is actually a studio recording featuring fourteen short blasts of that sweet HP sound, a sound from which I will never tire. The Superstar session finds them in classic Bill Orcutt / Adris Hoyos two-piece mode, with Ian Steinberg accredited to accordion and vocals, though I can’t make out which screams are his (there’s no mistaking the staggering howl of Adris Hoyos!) and I don’t hear any accordion, either. Maybe he’s using it as a stool? These songs are punker and simpler than the manic wall-of-noise Harry Pussy later pursued, less free-form caterwaul and more no-wave-abilly stomps. Certainly a satisfying document of the group in its early form, their discovery of The Harry Pussy Sound still in its nascent stage. We are lucky that Harry Pussy existed, and even more lucky that the group received such diligent documentation since their demise, but if an extended box-set version of Let’s Build A Pussy is up next, my devotion will be tested.

Hum Inlet 2xLP (Earth Analog)
Presenting myself for your merciless flogging: Inlet is my first experience sitting down and listening to cult ’90s alt-rockers Hum. I’ve got lots of excuses, but it’s sometimes nice to witness something everyone else already loves for the first time long after the fact – ask anyone who binged The Sopranos for the first time in the past few years (that’s me as well). It’s my understanding that Inlet is basically a direct continuation of their previous records, maintaining the same level of quality and production detail, and I can certainly see now why there’s been all the fuss. I love heavy, slow, epic stoner-rock with calm vocals too, and this certainly seems to be the apex of that style. Fine-tune a Sabbath riff into something that can be repeated with minimal fatigue, give it an astral coating of shoegaze guitars, lock those drums into place and let ‘er rip for five or six minutes. There are many strains of gear-worship rock-music out there, but I get the impression that Hum’s gear-nerd followers are probably one of the more tolerable fanbases out there, particularly when compared to Rush or Puscifer fanatics. I like that the music twinkles and grooves like Smashing Pumpkins and Torche, but they won’t shy away from a track like “The Summoning”, an epic riff straight out of Spirit Caravan’s playbook with a title to match. It feels like rock blasphemy that Hum are relegated to a niche Bandcamp pressing while Kings Of Leon and Maroon 5 are the current visible mainstream rockers. Society screwed that up, but what else is new?

The Insults The Insults LP (Last Laugh)
Seems like no punk label can resist the allure of the obscure reissue these days, but Last Laugh has been dutifully excavating the graffiti-riddled stalls of punk’s history for many years now, generally coming through with more hits than misses. The Insults released two 7″s in 1979, both want-list staples of any decent punk collector, and Last Laugh hit the jackpot here, locating a 1980 recording session of unreleased tunes and releasing it here. I sure wish Maids or Cracked Actor were sitting on unreleased albums, but I’ll take it from The Insults as well, whose material on this self-titled LP is certainly good enough to have warranted a proper 1980 release. Wonder what happened! Opener “I Hate…” blasts both teenagers and the band’s neighbors, a coulda-been punk anthem, and it’s not long until “Disco Bitch” goes into lyrical territory that, well, I think I’ll leave you to guess. “Trans Am” sounds like it should’ve been a Scientists a-side, whereas “Dummies On Parade” directly and successfully lifts the melody from “Holiday In The Sun” – it’s really quite remarkable how top-shelf these songs are. It’s a classic snot-nosed punk sound with a mix of energy and aloof nihilism that would’ve acclimated well to the burgeoning hardcore-punker scene. No liner notes to explain why this recording languished for forty years, but my imagination is filling in the gaps just fine – I’m picturing an infuriated Ron Rat (vocalist) throwing the tapes in the attic after a drunken Richard Sikk (guitarist) threw up on the pool table.

Itchy Self Here’s The Rub 12″ (Celluloid Lunch)
Toronto’s Protruders are responsible for some of my favorite lo-fi speed-punk of the past couple years, and guitarist Joe Chamandy has apparently left its ranks for Itchy Self, playing guitar and singing here. I suppose one can only maintain that sort of caffeinated buzz for so long, so Chamandy and company bring the pace down a bit with Itchy Self, all while still pledging clear allegiance to the slightly art-damaged first-wave punk they (and I) love dearly. I’m hearing the timeless moody rock moves of Alex Chilton and Roky Erickson channeled through the raw garage-punk fidelity of Thee Oh Sees and Sic Alps, Chamandy’s vocals sending the needle into the red with every winking snarl. “Reprobate” is where I might point you first, as its melodic progression feels like Richard Hell by-way-of The Replacements. It’s easy to find some sullen comfort in a tune like that, at least until the guitar solo reminiscent of Mark Morgan in Sightings drops in toward the end, a fiery cleansing of one’s ear cavities. Itchy Self then ends the EP on “Playin MTV”, which playfully replicates Television’s Velvet Underground obsession – probably my favorite tune here. If Protruders are done, I’ll miss ’em, but Itchy Self is easing my pain, more salve than rash.

Laksa Sen On One 12″ (Timedance)
Big buoyant energy from London’s Laksa on his second EP of the year. True to the spirit of Laksa’s productions, it seems like the Hessle Audio / Timedance realm is constantly shapeshifting and mutating, pulling in and spitting out every nook and cranny of the vast range of electronic dance music styles out there. Their constant push toward fresh new sonic combinations is admirable, and I find Laksa’s current strain of acid-infected alien dancehall to be quite enjoyable. These tracks rely on pumped-up dancehall riddims, but as for everything else, Laksa is untethered to convention. Additional percussive elements hop in and out, affected vocals volley back and forth, tweaked synths glide like escalators and slam like doors. I appreciate the breather provided by “Bane”, a riotous pressure-cooker where the beat never drops and a distorted vocal promises to be frank, recalling the bloodshot eyes of Actress circa Splazsh. In a year where social dancing abruptly ceased to exist worldwide, this is the dance-oriented post-dubstep cyborg music we needed.

LOG LOG ET3RNAL LP (Experiences Ltd.)
Can’t get enough of the enticingly-mysterious Ulla this year, from her killer solo debut to the bizarre grindcore twist of Virtualdemonlaxative to this new collaboration between herself and Sasha Zakharenko. Unlike Virtualdemonlaxative, this one is much closer to what I’d expect from the Experiences Ltd. camp: a high-quality selection of amorphous synthetic blips and turn-of-the-century IDM motifs delivered with a blurred ambient-dub sensibility. Across eleven fairly succinct tracks (at least by experimental dub-techno standards), LOG have located the midpoint between the temporal abstraction of Félicia Atkinson and the cyclical push and pull of Gas… a sweet spot indeed. LOG works this angle with great skill, infusing each track with a richness of tone, melody (when applicable) and an arm’s-length distance that keeps me from ever fully grasping what’s occurring. Much of LOG ET3RNAL has an aquatic feel, too: I’m picturing the lapping of a digital lake onto its shores, prismatic tide pools and the calm drift one inhabits while swimming below the crashing waves. I’m not swimming under crap these days, so this album has been a welcome fantasy to slip down into.

Morwan Zola-Zemlya 12″ (Feel It)
Noooo, Feel It! Don’t start getting enticed by spooky cold-wave goth stuff! You’re so good with modern hardcore-punk and old punk reissues, don’t enter that dark velvet doorway, alluring though it might be! To be fair, this Morwan record isn’t your run of the mill Drab Majesty clone, but it’s certainly not the fare upon which one would expect to see the Feel It label affixed. Morwan is a solo project by the Ukranian artist Alex Ashtaui, and under this moniker, he’s decided to render traditional Slavic and Arabic melodies in the visage of nocturnal post-punk. It’s a formula that repeats with little variation across these five tracks – the drums lay down a basic disco-punk beat, reverb-laden guitars run through Middle Eastern scales and Ashtaui sings through a hazy veil of reverb, usually matching the guitar melody note for note. As I type this, my description sounds kinda interesting, but as I am listening to Zola-Zemlya for at least the fifth time (in hopes it may eventually click), it continues to fall kinda flat. Maybe with a dirtier recording, or some sort of variation in songwriting, Morwan could impress? As it stands now though, with Molchat Doma occupying every Westerner’s “Eastern European cold-wave post-punk” slot this year, Morwan feels destined to be a runner-up at best. And thus, here’s the lesson to be learned: never try anything different, lest I admonish you!

Night Lunch Wall Of Love LP (Celluloid Lunch)
Not to be a know-it-all, but wouldn’t a “night lunch” be better known as… dinner? Maybe that’s an intentional gag? It’s but one of a few confusing aspects to this Montreal-based group, who seem to exist within the vague boundaries of the underground punk scene without playing actual punk themselves (which of course is perfectly fine). I’m fascinated by the younger generations’ interest in the traditionally-suckiest music of the ’80s and ’90s – it can often lead to dazzlingly substantial results, and as someone who believes that every era, niche and sub-genre of music holds the possibility for greatness, my ears are open. Of course, trying to emulate wimpy corporate new-wave is risky business, and Night Lunch’s efforts here turn me off pretty firmly. Their vibe pursues the outrageous schmaltz of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Orville Peck alongside the wavey goth stylings of The Guests (with melancholy undertones befitting a Twin Peaks bar band), but they have neither the hooks nor the charisma to carry it through to the other side. These songs are notably sluggish, and not seductive or memorable enough to sustain such a notable lack of energy – please note that even Squeeze, Steely Dan and The Hooters knew how to get the blood pumping in their flimsy pop-rockers. I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, thinks this record is cool, but that someone surely ain’t me.

Max Nordile Building A Better Void LP (Gilgongo)
Max Nordile plays or has played in commendable Bay Area punk bands like Preening, Uzi Rash and probably my favorite, Violence Creeps, but sometimes you just have to go it alone, y’know? The idea of a “punk solo project” might conjure images of acoustic folk-punk troubadouring, but fear not: Building A Better Void is actually far worse than that! Nordile goes deep into the junk drawer for this one, a formless jumble of percussion, strings and squawks. I wanna somehow relate his work here to punk, to locate some far-from-center Subterranean group that could’ve presaged Nordile’s artistic intentions here, but it’s just not there: this is semi-acoustic homespun noise that would’ve fit right into the RRRecords’ catalog circa 1995, in-between F/i and Crank Sturgeon. Lengthy b-side cut “Diligent Pores” might be my favorite here, combining elastic scrapes with piano and crowd chatter, but nothing here is easy on the ears. Kinda want to ask Nordile’s various bandmates what they think about Building A Better Void, if simply to witness their various strategies in diplomatically changing the subject.

Optic Sink Optic Sink LP (Goner)
Calling all technoid robo-punks, Natalie Hoffmann (from Nots) has a new synth-punk project called Optic Sink! It opens with a track simply titled “Drone”, which lives up to its name. Gotta be honest, drifting industrial drone isn’t what I’m hoping to hear from Hoffmann, whose deliriously twitchy garage-punk made Nots one of the genre’s standouts of the last decade. Thankfully the rest of the record is exactly as I hoped – crisp and squiggly synths and rickety drum machines set on the fastest possible BPM with Hoffmann’s disembodied voice leading the way. It’s very true to the style, directly recalling Screamers, Nervous Gender and Crash Course In Science, but done in such a flawless and speedy manner that I’m too energized and entertained to cast any accusations of genre-proceduralism. Throw on “Soft Quiet Life” for example and you’ll hear what I mean: the rhythms and 8-bit arpeggios are sped-up to unnatural levels, like a Kitchen & The Plastic Spoons 33 played on 45, and it reminds me why I fell in love with this synthetic punk sound in the first place. Not trying to say that Optic Sink is even better than the last couple Nots records, but I suppose I’m not not trying to say that, either!

O$VMV$M Phase 4 / Witch Linen 10″ (Idle Hands)
I’m not claiming that O​$​VMV​$​M started it, but they certainly were out there making albums of inscrutable ambient-dub vignettes filled with dusty loops and field-recordings before everyone else caught on. I’d be happy if they kept doing that for the rest of my life – this Bristol duo’s music is really that fantastic – but they’re moving deeper into basement dub electronics on this new 10″ EP. What’s a better way to fill a 10″ than with some brooding dub behavior from the dark side of the moon? “Phase 4” slinks through the underworld on a bed of downtuned bass, shimmering maracas and occasional laser rocket deployment. Reminds me of Gorgon Sound’s final transmission on a failed shuttle to Mars, or if someone from the Jahtari crowd tried to impersonate Coil. “Witch Linen” (great title) is even better, starting off on the couch watching TV in 1985, only to be transported to a nostalgic alternate-reality wherein James Ferraro meets The Scientist in an abandoned cornfield inhabited by wicked laughing crows (that’s not a completely fantastical analogy – the sound of cackling birds is expertly dropped here). If you buy multiple 10″ records this year, I tip my hat to you, but if you’re in the market for only one…

Patois Counselors The Optimal Seat LP (Ever/Never)
Patois Counselors’ full-length debut was favorite album of 2018, so when this follow-up dropped in my lap with no forewarning, I nearly choked on my kombucha! This band is truly weird: they’ve got like eight members but sound like a band with four members, they’re from North Carolina for chrissakes, and they offer a direct and biting commentary on our present bewildering hellscape existence in a way that feels oddly nice, delivered via funky and catchy post-punk music. They somehow also sound cordial the whole time, as if they are fully acknowledging our pitiful state of affairs but carry no rage or animosity towards it… they paint a picture with vivid details and leave it up to us to evaluate. “Struck dumb by real life, so we submit to reality shows” is a lyric that has stuck with me, not only because it’s deployed as a catchy hook here but because it would also probably work well in the hands of Lebenden Toten – versatile lyrical genius. To be frank, I didn’t expect the ‘Counselors to top their debut album, and I don’t think they did, but that doesn’t mean The Optimal Seat has spent much time off my turntable since it first arrived. Their sonic formula ultimately remains the same, if perhaps a little more traditional in an “indie post-punk” sorta way this time around – drums and bass dig into danceable-yet-oblique patterns, vocalist and bandleader Bo White sings/raps/speaks his words, and the guitars/keys/bleeps/bloops generally defer to everything else, providing these songs with room to groove. White’s voice still rings with an enunciation undeniably similar to Parquet Courts’s Andrew Savage, and the music (warm-welcoming funky post-punk) shares similar strands of sonic DNA, but I don’t smell the slightest hint of biting at play here; it seems more like two thoughtful and art-minded musicians who reached similar conclusions with similar throats, independent of each other. Call me decadent, but I’m going to continue enjoying the hell out of both!

Rocky & The Sweden City Baby Attacked By Buds LP (Bitter Lake Recordings)
When you’re a decades-long Japanese hardcore band featuring at least one member of Bastard, bad weed puns suddenly become an acceptable aesthetic device. This might explain why Rocky & The Sweden’s anticipated third album in over twenty years sold out within minutes, yet you can still pick up any Cannabis Corpse album on the cheap. Of course, if they somehow sucked, that might change things, but Rocky & The Sweden clearly worked and re-worked these blazing hardcore songs in the deeply-respected Japanese tradition, delivering the album only when it was fully prepared – a “quality over quantity” ethos that I truly hope more American punks can take to heart. The music has plenty of that fast-and-uplifting Burning Spirits-style momentum, with a slight metallic bite and plenty of spiky pogo power. They even throw in an Iron Maiden-esque solo or two, to ensure that every punk in the room is engaged, and somehow turn a fragment of the “Hot For Teacher” riff into one of the most manic and crushing hardcore songs I’ve heard this year, bolstered by the magnificent drum style of Masaaki “Koba” Kobayashi. Just like the marijuana wordplay, there are a number of things Rocky & The Sweden can succeed at that you and I cannot.

Sissy Spacek & Smegma Ballast LP (Gilgongo)
How many hours of noise do you think John Wiese has listened to in his life? Maybe it’d be easier to measure by days, or weeks? With over twenty years of recorded noise-based activity under his belt (and still as prolific as ever), it’s incredible to think of the sheer volume of noise (by both measurements) he’s consumed as well as created. It’s news to me that he is also an occasional member of America’s longest-running noise unit, Smegma, and this new album features two lengthy Sissy Spacek reworks of an original Smegma live radio performance. Wiese’s Sissy Spacek style is to generally splice and cut sound at a speed beyond the human brain’s capacity to follow – it’s like trying to count raindrops in a storm – and while there’s plenty of that here, Wiese also lets certain segments linger or overlap in unusual ways. It might only mean that the average length of a sound goes from the usual Sissy Spacek average of around one second up to three seconds, but that makes a difference, particularly with the live drums, which maintain a constant-if-unpredictable presence. Smegma surely provided ample material to work with, their trademark kitchen-sink improvisation a bounty for adventurous ears, and Wiese leaves no stone unturned in these two lengthy pieces. More environmentally-friendly than using a Q-tip for one’s ear-cleaning regimen!

Smarts Who Needs Smarts Anyway? LP (Feel It / Anti Fade)
Big ups to Feel It, big ups to Anti Fade, but I think this Smarts album is where I find myself officially weary of the current cubicle-punk trend. Smarts are a relatively new group featuring a couple of Ausmuteants and one member of Parsnip (on the saxophone), and they seem to be one of the ever-growing number of punk bands who take strong aesthetic influence from Uranium Club. It’s just getting a little tiresome at this point, all the wacky office-drone punk that revels in its own straight-faced nerditude, and Smarts really push it to its natural limits with circus-y riffs, silly singing and, that’s right, buttoned-up tucked-in dress shirts. Maybe if they were the first to do it, I’d be intrigued and entertained by their jittery post-punk songs and horn-laden melodies (which only provide the essence, rather than the substance, of ska-punk), but I can’t shake the thought that they heard Uranium Club and Parquet Courts and Vintage Crop and Toyota and Coneheads and thought “we should do something like that too”. I’m sure it’s a hoot live, as these songs gesticulate wildly with a fun level of energy to boot, and I’m certain Smarts consists of nice punk rockers (whose members’ other bands I sincerely enjoy) – it’s that Who Needs Smarts Anyway? has a very specific and contemporaneously-derivative sound that’s difficult to ignore. I don’t want to start hating the records in this style that I already enjoy, so for my sake and theirs, I’m gonna pass on spinning this one again anytime soon.

Strangelight Adult Themes LP (no label)
Is it unusual that nowadays, underground rock bands are pressing their own records but hiring publicists? I guess it’s probably a smart move at this point, where pressing costs are low but actually engaging with prospective fans is exceedingly difficult? That’s what Oakland’s Strangelight are doing at least, who’ve offered up this well-put-together debut. Don’t let “self-released” fool you, either – they didn’t simply glue a piece of printer paper to a DJ sleeve, this LP comes with a big thick booklet of art and (minimal) text, and they should be proud of it. As for the songs of Adult Themes, they provide a solid sound without much in the way of catchy substance. It’s tough to cut through as a new band that’s doing a post-hardcore sound within the Hot Snakes / Wipers / Metz continuum, and although Strangelight (are they named after the Fugazi song?) are proficient in their duties, nothing here is really sticking for me. “Digressions From Sierra Leone” seems to borrow liberally from Hot Snakes, but it just kinda blends into the scenery rather than popping out or exploding into something entirely its own. The more I read about those top-secret Spotify algorithms that boost the songs that sound the most like a large number of other songs, though, maybe this is simply another strategy at getting their music out there? Adult Themes certainly won’t scare anyone out of the room, but I kinda wish Strangelight found it in their hearts to try.

Straw Man Army Age Of Exile LP (D4MT Labs Inc.)
Fantastic debut here from NY’s Straw Man Army. They’re a duo, featuring one guy from Kaleidoscope (and Kaleidoscope’s leader Shiva Addanki plays drums on a couple of tracks here), and while I could never really connect with Kaleidoscope’s music, no matter how much people I know raved about them, Straw Man Army connected immediately. Like most great modern punk, they manage to trace connections between unlikely sources, grafting together something new and exciting. By my estimation, Straw Man Army’s formula comes from early ’80s political post-punk, ’90s Ebullition-style emo-core (think Moss Icon’s fast songs), and a touch of the manic, post-ironic punk of the Lumpy Records scene. A moody riff will recall the dark-skies punk of Shattered Faith, a random instrumental guitar interlude will have me thinking “didn’t Still Life do this once?”, and the opening psychotic caterwauling reminds me of Mystic Inane’s unregulated existence. Cool combo, right? I suppose even a mediocre band could perk me up by trying to do something with these influences, but Straw Man Army are a superior outfit, coming up with interesting songs that are as catchy and weird as one could hope. The dual-layered vocals add a nice dimension (strangely calling to mind Propagandhi’s vocals at times!), the drumming is innovative and fresh (some dazzling rolls throughout)… these are songs I want to keep listening to, with a sound that’s both contemporary and fresh. Recommended!

Troth Flaws In The Glass LP (Altered States Tapes)
Flaws In The Glass is Troth’s third Altered States release this year, but it’s the largest edition, and pressed to attractive 12″ vinyl, so if you were considering peeping this understated Aussie duo’s recordings, this is probably where you’d wanna go. It’s a nice collection, with various electronic and acoustic instrumentation that take different paths to locate the same general sensations: tranquil isolation, elusive beauty, relaxed restlessness. These tracks remind me of the hot-person-ambient I associate with the current Posh Isolation roster, as well as Civilistjävel! and the formless-drone / experimental sections of the respective discographies of Blackest Ever Black and Not Not Fun. Troth’s main distinction I’m noticing is that many current artists who pursue a similar aesthetic favor post-production processing and sound collaging, whereas Troth seem to have created their songs live, or at least with minimal overdubbing, the sort of music that can be conjured from a folding table of electronics and synths in front of a small but attentive audience. Not all abstract new-age ambient comes from the heart, but Troth’s is warm and beating.

Tsap Flickering Lyghte In Campsite LP (Altered States Tapes)
Sorry to disappoint, acid-folksters, but the album title is a little misleading. This Australian duo is comprised of Chris Nailer (of Low Life) and Cooper Bowman (of quite a number of Altered States-related projects), and they set up shop in the mustiest corner of their basement for some groggy post-industrial electronics. While utilizing synths and rhythms, these tracks veer pretty far from any sort of organized techno music, mostly finding themselves in murkier territory that’s more about conjuring a mood than moving one’s feet. I’m reminded of recent-ish solo efforts by both Ron Morelli and Richard H. Kirk in the way that electronic pulses and lo-fi noise combine to provide the nocturnal outline of an unkempt metropolitan zone. There’s something about the way these sounds are delivered (with cavernous reverb and seemingly on-the-fly) that feels looser and more exploratory than others pursuing post-techno dread, somewhere between noisy industrial and industrial-techno (never has there been a thinner line). “Faith In Stone” might be my favorite cut of the bunch, strongly reminiscent of Morphosis, whose space-station beats and fractured synths always leave me satisfied. And yes, that’s original Nick Blinko art on the cover, sure to trick at least one stubborn punk into accidentally listening to electronic music for the first time.

Twinkle³ Minor Planets LP (Marionette)
My kinda music right here! This British trio look like three medieval history professors collectively trying to summon Sun Ra’s spacecraft, and the music of Minor Planets supports that idea pretty consistently. It’s a great album, apparently the last of an intended trilogy (the first in 2009, followed by the second in 2015) and I’m going to need to go back and check out those first two once I give this one a break. Their sound is more or less an early ’00s sort of electronica (think Oval, Mouse On Mars and Kid606) given a thorough dub rinsing, and fortified with an arrangement of live instruments with dazzling names like “pi saw”, “cosmic bow” and “shakuhachi”. This allows a track like “Bodea 998” to alternate from a syrupy dub-techno shuffle to what sounds like a free-improv meeting of banjo and oboe (although of course neither of those pedestrian instruments are credited). It’s immerse and proudly weird music, sounds whose shapes I can conjure in my mind’s eye: the circular pudgy globs of synths; the bristly strings as coarse as the hair on a pig’s back; gas-filled lava bubbles. Very much in line with today’s popular “Fourth World” sound environs, but way more fun and inquisitive than much of the genre’s contemporary creators. One thing remains true: space is the place, was the place, and always will be the place.

The Zoltars Mystery Kids LP (Rock Tumbler)
Reliable Austin indie-rockers The Zoltars follow last year’s album with Mystery Kids, almost exactly a year since Telling Stories was released. I like this band, but at five albums or so, I feel like I’m running out of things to say, as they don’t particularly progress in any direction, for better or (thankfully not) worse. Their songs are soft and dusky, some sort of amalgam of slow-core aesthetics (The American Analog Set bear distinct similarities), emo’s first entirely-separate-from-hardcore wave (ala Braid or The Promise Ring) and REM. Guitars twinkle like the lights that top electrical towers, the songs are soft as fleece even at their most up-tempo, and the vocals of Jared Leibowich remain the distinct focal point, a sweet nasal hue that makes Rivers Cuomo sound like Phil Anselmo by comparison. Every time I put on one of these Zoltars records, I’m entertained and satisfied, but there’s something so slight about their presence that causes the group to fade from my memory shortly after shifting their records out of my line of sight. Maybe it’s the kind of uninspired design of their artwork (their font choices consistently appear to be Microsoft Word defaults), and the awkward fit of their name, that has kept me from truly pledging my allegiance? They’re hairs that I’m splitting, but if there’s one thing my daily listening regimen isn’t suffering from, it’s lack of choice. If I want to be wowed by musical extroverts, I’ll probably pass on The Zoltars, but if I want to sit calmly through some tender and well-crafted indie lullabies while I sip herbal tea and gaze out a rain-soaked window, there’s hardly a better-suited group.

Reviews – November 2020

AngstLust Animal Shelter EP 12″ (Neubau)
Not letting any fresh Neubau pass me by at this point, so I picked up AngstLust’s debut without hesitation. It’s a new project from two seasoned producers, Kris Baha and Niklas Wandt, and they’re setting aside their more playful and world-influenced techno/house/dance intentions for this serpentine EBM beater. I mean, what else would you do for Neubau? It opens with the slow-motion pound of “Fraß”, sounding like a classic Nine Inch Nails groove that’s only lacking Trent Reznor’s emotional-tantrum vocals. Excellent start! “Gebrochene Gestalten” veers away from the classic Wax Trax / TVT sound with a fine-tuned percussion party that slowly grows in power… the body-painted adult-children at Burning Man would spin out some wild cartwheels to this one at 4:00 AM, no doubt. The title track finally arrives on the flip, and it bangs mightily as well, connecting NIN and DAF like a chain that goes from nose-ring to earring. It’s punchy but also inherently sexy, with an absolutely pounding synth riff over some heavy kicks, twinkly pads and brooding vocals which actually do refer to some sort of animal shelter. But is it like, we are the animals, and a nocturnal underground club is our shelter?? Sure seems to be. As if this music wasn’t already tightly clad in black leather, the mostly-German vocals seal the deal. Another triumphant dungeon experience from the Neubau hit factory!

Anz Loos In Twos (NRG) 12″ (Hessle Audio)
After taking 2019 off, Hessle Audio have come correct in 2020, bringing back some of the names that secured the label’s rep in its early days as well as some new ones, too. Manchester’s Anz is new to me, but her music fits right in with Hessle Audio’s current style. As opposed to trying to stretch and pull dubstep to its breaking points, the label and its roster now seems more interested in finding new ways to look at drum n’ bass and breakbeat techno, and while it’s not as immediately satisfying to my ears (gimme a 4/4 thonk over a “Funky Drummer” loop any day), there’s no denying the creative talent and sonic prowess at work here. “Loos In Twos (NRG)” is a restless tune, reliant upon a funky break but quick to shuffle the sonic deck that surrounds it. Acid squiggles, C+C Music Factory-esque pads, an occasional vocal hook and diced up rhythms ala label mate Laksa all shift in and out of focus. The 8-bit effervescence of b-side opener “Gary Mission” gives way to a tightly-snapped drum pattern reminiscent of Pearson Sound’s recent material or Shed under his Head High moniker. Very colorful music, like one of those squids that pulsates the full spectrum just for fun. “Stepper” rounds it out, a spacious drum workout with its own cheer squad, the sort of thing I expect to hear when Fact Mag posts one of those dance-battle videos on Instagram (they get me every time). A welcome addition to the Hessle family!

Bananagun The True Story Of Bananagun LP (Anti Fade)
Break out the polyester bell-bottoms, paisley-print button-ups and tie-dyed shawls, Bananagun’s debut album is here! This Melbourne group clearly aims to be the funkiest gang of hippies in town, and The True Story Of Bananagun ensures their rightful stature. Like their earlier singles, this is fun big-band pop music that gets people out of their chairs through dazzling long-form jams and sing-song hooks. I’m reminded of Beck, Stereolab, Cornelius, Stevie Wonder, a little Santana (but no Rob Thomas), all freak-flag wavers who enjoy kaleidoscopic melodies and perpetual groovy motion. The instrumentation is top notch – extended flute solo, anyone? – and clearly well-studied in the many masters who came before. From their look to their sound, it’s clear that Bananagun are a sunny nostalgia trip, but I’ve got no qualms with any group capable of infusing old ideas with this much proficiency and inclusive fun. Of course, when a track like “People Talk Too Much” arrives in such direction imitation of Fela Kuti, I have to wonder if we as a music-enjoying audience should be sourcing our Afrobeat from a group of young white Australian hipsters. In the context of the full album, which covers numerous varieties of ’60s and ’70s dance/pop music, it works, but I also wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Bananagun take their expertise in a direction that celebrates the past as well as creates something that could only be considered their own.

Blank Gloss January LP (Night Young)
Throwing on Blank Gloss’s debut album and knowing nothing of their musical intents, I found myself enjoying the soft push and pull of their electronic harmonies, and more than anything else, hoping that it wouldn’t kick in. These synthetic tones can easily give way to some sort of electronica indie-lite (from Chvrches to Animal Collective), but thankfully Blank Gloss are content to drift in vibrant suspension, with only the faintest signs of percussion, rhythms and hooks (all instrumental). Their tracks are lightweight and soothingly liminal, as if a vast expanse lies ahead but is nothing to be feared. Very much in line with ambient artists like Gigi Masin, Suzanne Kraft and Vito Ricci, artists who developed their subtle beauty with understated grace, releasing records that seemingly laid dormant from the mid ’80s until contemporary crate diggers discovered them in recent years (often reissuing them in the process). I’m one of those discovers myself (not so much from digging in bins so much as by benefiting from those who have and shared), and I appreciate that a new generation of these soft and comforting ambient tunes is out there, the dulcet tones of Blank Gloss included.

Brain Drugs Brain Drugs LP (Cannery)
Before you mistake a band called “Brain Drugs” as some party-animal garage-punk band outta Chicago on HoZac circa 2008 or something, please read further! They’re actually an instrumental duo out of Melbourne, and if you’ve been paying close attention to Melbourne’s underground rock scene, one of their names might be familiar: Michael Beach. (The other is Pete Warden of Onion Engine.) Beach plays guitar and keys, Warden plays the drums, and together they’ve put together some lovely music. I’m reminded of the spirit and sound of the early ’80s Innocent Records scene, hard-to-classify artists like Essendon Airport, David Chesworth and → ↑ →. Brain Drugs shares a similar sense of quaint experimentalism, pushing melodies and grooves to the front, seemingly as enamored by warped underground prog like Art Bears and Officer! as classic krautrock, all delivered with the homespun warmth of DIY post-punk. Some tracks groove propulsively (but never in any sort of frenzied state), others ignore rhythm altogether in favor of a woozy melodic iteration (“Moulds” is a prime example, perhaps the most soothing tune on the record). B-side opener “TG117” sounds like Soft Machine with one hand tied behind their back, another great auditory technique. Brain Drugs seem to approach their music with nothing to prove, and their lack of pretentiousness (and not-insignificant charm) make their self-titled debut a subtle winner.

Brandy The Gift Of Repetition LP (Total Punk)
For many bands, releasing an album in the show-less pandemic era would be a horrific blow to morale, a stressful situation with no positive alternative. NYC’s Brandy are probably having a big laugh about it, though, as that seems to be their standard MO. From their band name, to their album titles and song titles (though not really their artwork, at least not yet), Brandy envisions the potential joke in every situation. That’s not to give them the shameful “joke band” designation, though, as they are very much a real band, it’s just that they can’t take anything seriously for even a second. Luckily, they’re pretty damn hilarious, aiming their sarcastic wit at themselves first and everything else second, and as the general disposition behind these lunky, plodding post-punk tunes, it totally works. I’ve reviewed their other two records here previously, and the vibe remains the same: guided by laid-back tom-centric drumming, the riffs operate on one or two chord changes tops and the band members (I think all three?) sing at a register that’s only slightly more forceful than your standard indoor speaking voice. Fits in nicely with Life Stinks’s and Watery Love’s distinct oeuvres, although Brandy seem less bitter than the former and less drunk than the latter. Is this what happens when thirty-something punks get high on meme accounts instead of coke? Maybe that’s where the silliness kicks in, allowing a song that directly fantasizes about a Madball beatdown (“(Wish You Was) Madball Baby”) to bop around like a delirious child on TikTok. I wouldn’t want your friends to catch you having any fun, so you may want to verify your privacy before throwing on The Gift Of Repetition.

K. Campbell Every Little Thing 7″ (Poison Moon)
Still kinda blows me away the ease at which a record can be released these days. Not to get too old and windbaggy, but I remember when it felt like this near-impossible achievement, with unthinkable requirements like recording your music to DAT,  money orders mailed in envelopes and luck on your side every step of the way. I’m all for the ease with which it can now be done, so that people like K. Campbell can go ahead and get 25 copies of their 7″ singles cut, a quantity verging on “friends and family only” but still available for a select few outside that orbit who might be interested. This is Campbell’s second single on his Poison Mon imprint, and the thick clear lathe-cut vinyl (or is it technically resin?) and hand-glued sleeve are an attractive pairing. That attraction extends to these tunes as well, as “Every Little Thing” is a polite strummer, finding that sweet spot between second-wave emo, first-wave power-pop and Teenage Fanclub. Traditional plainclothes indie-rock done on a DIY level, which I certainly appreciate. I think I might even prefer the b-side, “Taking Pictures”, as it’s got a touch of Lemonheads swagger, delivered humbly with Campbell’s hushed vocals nicely accompanying. Kinda funny to think that in 2020, traditional indie-rock records are released in minuscule amounts while abstract electronic squiggles with distorted vocals grab the marquee billing and big-indie interest. Not complaining, just observing!

Jon Collin & Demdike Stare Sketches Of Everything LP (DDS)
Jon Collin gets first billing on this new collaboration, but let’s be real, everyone is picking it up because it’s something new from Demdike Stare. That’s exactly why I did, as I’ve loved this continually-evolving electronic duo for over a decade now, always intrigued by their pursuit of new artistic connections and divergences. Like much of the material on their in-house DDS label, Sketches Of Everything reveals a previously-undiscovered side of Demdike Stare, this one in humble service to guitarist Jon Collin. Collin is clearly a talented guitarist, comfortably rippling out a style somewhere between jazz and improvisation, and the Demdike gents are content to provide a booming, semi-coherent backdrop for his melodic wanderings. The bass frequencies often resemble a nearby jet engine, extrapolated by dub properties and providing a sense of cavernous space, but not melody or even a hint of rhythm – I’m thinking of Fennesz’s recent album, the way the sound engulfs my ears. Collin’s playing reminds me of ECM guitarist Bill Connors, and in particular the work of Mike Cooper, whose mix of noisy ambient and tropical guitar seems to be a direct relative to Sketches Of Everything, although through decisions made either pre- or post-recording, sparseness is one of his performance’s defining qualities here. I heard that Sketches Of Everything was a bit of a let down for some of my fellow Demdike fanatics, but perhaps those lowered expectations helped me connect with this record immediately. I’m not going to agree that everything is truly sketched, but this album is full of desolate expanses, wind-swept valleys and unpopulated beaches, vast regions I’m happy to find myself lost within.

Daisies In The Studio With DJ Rap Class LP (Jokers Got A Posse)
Olympia’s Daisies seem intent on aggressively confusing anyone who might come across their album in the wild (does the wild still even exist?). The cover shows a guy that looks like a member of Mudvayne, a woman that might be in the band or might just be a Gucci runway shot from 1987, and another guy that looks like I dunno, Cairo Pythian’s cousin? The album is bafflingly titled (I don’t think DJ Rap Class makes any appearances here, if such a person exists), and the whole thing attacks the eyes like a Y2K culture nightmare. Once you dig into this new Daisies album, however, it’s a completely different vibe: breezy, windows-down trip-hop indie-pop that will have you forgetting your troubles in no time. The beats are effervescent and nostalgic for the ’90s, aided by tuneful guitars and synths and whatever else deploys sunshine-y melodies such as these. Vocalist Valérie Warren really turns Daisies into a band, as her beautiful and assured voice guides these jams into your heart. I’m reminded of Stereolab, US Girls and Hooverphonic if we wanna be cool, but also Len’s “Steal My Sunshine”, Girlsareshort, DJ Food and I Am The World Trade Center if we don’t care about being cool. Hell, “Underground Waiting” sounds like Spice Girls imitating TLC, and it might be my favorite tune here? There are numerous moments within In The Studio With DJ Rap Class that have me picturing Mark McGrath crowdsurfing out near the pool, but even weirder than that is the fact that Jokers Got A Posse is sending this record out for a single solitary US dollar on their Bandcamp page. The perfect sonic salve to combat our imminent SAD diagnoses, and easy on the budget!

Exotic Sin Customer’s Copy LP (Blank Forms Editions)
Blank Forms has quickly emerged as a leading voice for the NYC avant-garde underground, reissuing titans of yore alongside interesting upstarts. Exotic Sin fall into the latter category, a new duo on their first release, and it’s a pleasure from any reasonable distance. Featuring Naima Karlsson on pianos and synths (who you may be interested to know is the daughter of Neneh Cherry) and Kenichi Iwasa on trumpet and sax (with Robbie Lee on alto flute somewhere in there), they go deep and long into their free jazz, with a brooding energy and playfulness that really resonates with me. There are no free-for-all freakouts, but rather a conversational and compelling back-and-forth, unhurried and confident. “Dot 2 Dot” is twenty-two minutes long, mostly a spirited banter between the piano and horn, but around twelve minutes into it, someone is playing digitally-sampled drums (or maybe one of those electronic kits?) with hilarious abandon and it totally works as a disorienting and pleasurable divergence from the purely organic. I sometimes forget about the dramatic emotional range afforded to both the piano and the trumpet, and Karlsson and Iwasa really bring that to light. Electronics play a larger role elsewhere, although the entire record feels like something that could be experienced live, right in front of you, all at once. Unlike experimental music that sounds like the established and derivative genre of “Experimental Music”, Customer’s Copy feels like the work of people trying to establish their own musical designation who are also physically and mentally equipped enough to succeed in doing so.

Firoza In The Noon Of Ashura LP (Frustration Jazz)
Firoza is a new project from Hobart’s Steven Wright, who befuddled me a couple years ago with a record from his duo Bi-Hour (which I should really go listen to once again). That record was zany and unhinged, but Firoza, stemming from Wright’s 2017 trip to Iran, locates an entirely different end of the emotional spectrum. Starting with field-recordings taken on his cellphone, Wright then adds synths, keys and clarinet to the proceedings, resulting in these mournful and mysterious sonic postcards. I wonder how Iranians feel about first-world outsiders who utilize their homeland for auditory sadness-porn? Beyond the Sublime Frequencies gang, it seems as though most foreign artists who reflect upon the Middle East do so with a focus on its desolation and bleakness, which I am sure is profound to experience first-hand, but it does get to be the standard expectation, even as I recognize that Iranian culture surely runs the full range from atrocious misery to heart-bursting joy and outrageous silliness. Not judging, just ruminating. Maybe it’s simply more fun to make sad, mysterious music from a pessimist’s perspective, particularly in the avant-garde instrumental realm such as this? Regardless of the inspiration behind In The Noon Of Ashura, it’s certainly a murky and mystifying album, full of the grey noise of urban transportation and minor-key melodies, ready for your own personal interpretation.

The Generics Cost Cutter 7″ (Feel It)
The sole, sleeveless 7″ single by West Virginia’s The Generics was a relatively recent “obscure unknown KBD punk” discovery, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a pure barrel-scraping of punk basicness, notable only for its total lack of notoriety. Sure, it’s incredibly rudimentary punk rock played by outcast teenagers in a crummy town like so many others, but their charm is undeniable, and these tunes are highly replayable. Feel It went and reissued that 7″, now with the addition of cover art, liner notes and two additional songs not on the original, and it’s worth the price of admission. “The Bitt” and “Cost Cutter” are the tunes that originally made it to wax, and they’re the gems here. “The Bitt” has a grungy street-tough attitude akin to The Stooges and The Shitdogs in particular, but it comes with some sort of suburban storyline that leads to the most redneck-voiced member of the band insisting that another turn down the punk rock and “walk the dogs” – I’m telling you, the pronunciation of “walk the dogs” will be embedded in your memory permanently after one spin. “Cost Cutter” opens with another charming intro, seemingly inspired by copies of MAD magazine, before entering a proto-metal strut, with any sense of aggression worn down by the adorably childlike delivery (which makes sense, as The Generics were definitely children). Same goes for the puppydog stomp of “War Is A Waste”, which is nearly as entertaining. File next to the Peer Pressure 7″ in your “sleeveless punk singles played by children” box for easy routine access.

Haus Arafna Asche LP (Galakthorrö)
The first thing to fall out of Asche‘s sleeve upon cracking the shrinkwrap was a postcard featuring Mr. and Mrs. Arafna in the studio, the missus on guitar and the mister grasping a mic as though he were fronting a hardcore band. Could it be, that after six studio albums and 25 years, Haus Arafna finally want to rock? Turns out this was a sly diversion, as I certainly don’t hear any guitars within Asche, distorted or otherwise, but it’s a blistering listen that’s harder and more violent than any guitar-based music I’ve heard this month. Haus Arafna have toyed with power-electronics throughout the years (although always seeming a bit sharper and more aesthetically refined than the power-electronics masses), and this new album delves in deep. I’m talking tracks that seem to be borne of boiler-room explosions, frightened goats wildly trampling across tin roofs, lonely iron-workers at the end of the world, and that creepy lighthouse movie where Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe fart and masturbate themselves into madness. There’s still some morbid gothic allure – how could there not be – but any sense of grim harmony or bleak melodrama takes a backseat to the scalding-hot percussion, tortured screams and dense layers of noise. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. and Mrs. Arafna make sharp work of their cold-wave desires with their November Növelet project, so why not let Haus Arafna terrify and shock our ears with full abandon? They’ve been my favorite contemporary industrial group for almost two decades now, and even though I feel like I always say it, their newest might be their best.

Healer Resurgence 7″ (625 Productions / From The Head Of Zeus)
If you asked me in 1997 what I wanted to do with my life, I probably would’ve said “reviewing the newest records on 625 Productions”, so baby, look at me now! What’s crazy is that this new Healer 7″, their first outing since their 2017 demo (which made it to vinyl on a split EP with DJ Eons One), might very well rank in the top five 625 releases of all time… a solid top ten ranking, at least. This West Bay unit presents as a revitalized facelift of the West Bay power-violence sound, strongly indebted to No Less and Plutocracy while also carving its own notch on the subgenre’s mighty totem. This is a ten-song EP that runs about five minutes, so the math scholars among us will calculate an average track length of thirty seconds, but honestly these songs feel much shorter than that. They probably are, thanks to the multitude of between-song samples (in true West Bay fashion), and the breathless cuts between samples and songs ensure that Healer provide a true sonic whirlwind. Power-violence is all about the short contained bursts of incredible fury, like the power of a four-minute death metal track condensed into a twenty-second injection, and I can’t think of an act in the past twenty years more exemplary of this than Healer. I should also note that Ramon Salcido from Agents Of Satan is on bass, on the off chance you thought I was playing.

Hotspring Obit For Sunshade LP (Mood Hut)
Hotspring are the latest entity playing a modern form of electronically-altered ambient-jazz to enter my radar. From Lemon Quartet to Sam Gendel to Nicholas Malkin to Yu Su and so on, there is a real underground pull to stretch traditional jazz instruments to new and beautifully artificial forms, which is certainly what Hotspring are all about. Drums skitter and scatter, lush chords drape the proceedings in melodic warmth, wordless Autotuned vocals float somewhere in the sonic ectoplasm and songs are sidestepped in favor of mood. It feels like this could be the sonic evolution of jazzy emo kids, fans of Joan Of Arc and Aloha and such who found their parents’ Miles Davis and ECM collections and dug deeper into easy-listening Weather Channel muzak stylings, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the person behind Hotspring is like 22 years old and ’90s emo is as foreign and outdated to him as Jefferson Airplane was to me at that age. Regardless, for the time being this style is hitting the spot, Obit For Sunshade most certainly included, but as the ranks continue to grow in number I wonder if and when I might hit my personal fill.

Idles Ultra Mono LP (Partisan)
Figured I’d be remiss to not check out the newest album from easily the most popular non-legacy underground post-punk band on the planet, England’s Idles. I saw them live once, pre-blow-up, and was impressed by the crowd’s unhinged response to their zany antics, although their stompy, shout-along tunes certainly made it look easy and natural. This is my first time hearing them recorded, and I’ve got some thoughts! First, let’s go to the music: Ultra Mono has essentially one trick, which is repeated over and over to basically the same level of success. Riffs are more-or-less non-existent here – the drums lead the way with simplistic-yet-energetic patterns, and the guitars and bass are used for sonic emphasis rather than any form of melody. Their riffs are one or two notes, often content to just bounce from a high octave to a low one; it’s the easiest, most obvious way in which anthemic post-punk can be written, but it hasn’t failed anyone yet (although in the case of this monochromatic album, ones’ ears will certainly grow weary). I was wondering why, in all the writing about Idles I’ve read, no one ever really talks about the actual music, and I think I now understand, as it seems to be completely secondary to the Idles’ distinction (the singer), a thumping backdrop that either stomps on a 4/4 or breaks into a staccato pattern when things really amp up. It’s the lyrics of vocalist Joe Talbot that continually get the largest word count, as Idles have been tagged “feminist punk” for better or worse. You can imagine my surprise, then, to find that his lyrics are cloyingly simple and grandiose. At times it seems like Talbot believes he’s the first person to realize homophobia and racism are wrong, and his basic proclamations delivered in Dr. Seuss-like rhymes often leave me groaning. “Clang clang, that’s the sound of the gun going bang bang”, he shouts on the opener “War”, and all I can think is “wait, isn’t ‘bang’ the sound of a gun going bang?” The anti-catcalling tune “Ne Touche Pas Moi”, while certainly noble in its intent, leaves me shrinking down in a second-hand embarrassment I haven’t felt since I last listened to that Hillary Clinton Le Tigre song. I’m being a little mean, so I should make it clear I think it’s fantastic that Idles are spreading their legitimately righteous message, as their audience of teenagers should be chanting along to these pro-woman / anti-racist songs instead of worshiping Warped Tour Burger Records bands who pretend they’re Nikki Sixx. I’m certainly glad that Idles exist, as they can push impressionable kids in the right direction, and I can simply go listen to something a little better suited for my own personal enrichment.

Maximum Ernst Hallmark Of A Crisis Period 12″ (Ever/Never)
Why settle for anything less than Maximum Ernst? I’ve seen the name around for a couple years now and have always been slightly curious, but this new 12″ EP featuring two side-long tracks care of Ever/Never is my first experience. I’m not sure I had any specific expectations – okay, I was expecting guitars – but Hallmark Of A Crisis Period is intriguing after multiple listens. The a-side “Un Menace Natural” moves through various noisy passages: the buzzing of a Dead C side-project gives way to manipulated analog noise reminiscent of Nautical Almanac, eventually finding its way into a cosmic terrorscape of synthetic screeches and a molten hum. I’m reminded of that period when Wolf Eyes were really into horror movies, although this track is far more Color Out Of Space than Day Of The Dead. “Hallmark Of A Crisis Period” is on the flip, and its another dank realm of junk noise, this time populated by multiple vocal tracks. This one has me thinking of early industrial outliers like Severed Heads in their formative state, or the more inflamed portions of Nocturnal Emissions’ early catalogue. This record resembles something I would’ve stumbled upon in a Fusetron distro email back in 2005 and flipped my lid over, and still sounds good right this very moment!

Metz Atlas Vending LP (Sub Pop)
My heart goes out to Metz, one of the true road-dog bands carrying on heavy noise-rock traditions, a path so many others have abandoned in favor of making electronic music or raising families or some other unacceptable excuse. They’d normally be on the road for the next ten months in support of Atlas Vending, but instead they’re sitting at home twiddling their thumbs like the rest of us, hoping that their new album doesn’t get immediately forgotten like every other new release in the year of Covid. It’s their fourth album, and they take a fairly understandable turn for more melodic pastures here, but not to the point that it could possibly alienate any long-term fans. The music remains heavy discordant post-hardcore with a bedrock of ’90s San Diego proto-screamo – groups like Angel Hair, Antioch Arrow and The VSS have clearly had a lasting effect on Metz’s sonic proclivities, and that remains the case here. Of course, it doesn’t sound like a poorly-recorded Gravity Records 7″ so much as a booming, fully-operational studio record, produced by heavy-rock guru Ben Greenberg of Uniform. The subtle differences between this and their previous records are in the more melodic vocal turns (though still from a strained throat), and they even open it on the pensive, non-explosive “Pulse”, which seems to warn of danger rather than bestow it. They end on the album’s longest track, “A Boat To Drown In”, a downer melodic rocker strongly reminiscent of Sonic Youth, the sort of track that has me wondering if they’re more likely to tour with Nothing than Daughters once touring becomes a thing again. I thought they’d always work best as a loud-part / louder-part festival-mosh band, but calmer, hazy moments such as this suit them too.

Mode In Gliany Kelc’h-Lizher 7″ (Galakthorrö)
It’s always intriguing when a non-Arafna group works with Galakthorrö – the label’s highly selective quality remains in effect no matter who is producing the music, and new artists on the roster are few and far between. I can think of a couple Galakthorrö artists I haven’t loved, but none that I haven’t liked, and they all fit the overtly morbid, vaguely sexual, distinctly European Galakthorrö aesthetic to a tee. Mode In Gliany hail from Rennes, France, and unlike many Galakthorrö signees they have a pretty thick discography preceding them, but their sound is a perfect match. This is downtempo, brooding synth-wave, more indebted to a sinister Nordic-noir feeling than black roses, lace and satin. I’m reminded of Tin Man’s vocal tracks on Vienna Blue and the recent Prutser single, two records that also manage to splash their impending sense of doom with romance. The vocals on the first three songs seem to exhale smoke with every breath, whereas the sole instrumental carries enough pathos to negate the need for vocals, even incorporating brief flashes of guitar in some sort of alternate history where trip-hop evolved from minimal-synth. If you’ve ever hunted for the killer of your mistress, only to discover through a series of painful psychological flashbacks that she was merely a figment of your distraught imagination in the first place, you will surely connect to the music of Mode In Gliany even more than I am right now.

Mumia Mumia LP (Lugar Alto)
Wow, archival release of the year contender here! If the liner notes are to be believed (and they’re incredible enough, when taken with the music, to have my doubts), Mumia was a duo that existed in 1988 in a rural mountainous part of São Paulo, who “wrapped themselves with bandages similar in style to the remarkable Egyptian mummies” before sitting down to record. That’s right, the group’s name refers to mummies, and they use a collection of synths, samplers and electronic percussive devices to create these bizarre and fantastic songs. Truly, it sounds like a new collaboration between Beau Wanzer and Delroy Edwards, the way spooky sound effects (both silly-spooky and scary-spooky) mix with syrupy synths, raw-as-hell beats, beyond-the-grave vocals and a general sense of manic paranoia, like racing through an actually-haunted house on a sugar rush. What could the members of Mumia possibly have been listening to to create this? I suppose Esplendor Geometrico, SPK, Throbbing Gristle and Velodrome share sonic similarities, but Mumia seems to truly exist outside of the traditional industrial-to-techno continuum – there’s a track on the b-side that’s as fast and punishing as any Regis tune, yet delivered to an audience of no-one some ten years prior. I’m trusting the folks at Lugar Alto (a label whose sole aim seems to be releasing / reissuing Brazilian obscurities) to be telling the truth on this truly unorthodox and stunning artist, but if they’re not, please don’t tell me – this is the perfect sound for the season and I truly want to believe.

Portray Heads Portray Heads 2xLP (Bitter Lake Recordings / Minimal Wave)
Might’ve been an unproductive year for some, but not Bitter Lake – they keep churning out high-quality underground Japanese reissues at what seems to be a nearly monthly rate. They teamed up with Minimal Wave on this exhaustive retrospective of Shikoku Island’s Portray Heads, which makes sense as soon as the opening arpeggio of “Elaborate Dummy” hits, as this is very much Minimal Wave music. Portray Heads only released two short 7″ EPs in their day, both of which are collected here alongside their two unreleased demo recordings. It immediately made sense to me why Portray Heads’ records are in the triple-figure collectorsphere, as these songs are forceful and active synth-wave, full of unusual sequencing, familiar vintage synth sounds and an alluring distance between the people that made this music and us who sit here and listen to it today. Although live drums aren’t credited, they seem to appear on “舞い上がれ” – maybe in sampled form? – and they add a neurotic, bug-in-the-system feel that contrasts nicely with the melodic vocals. And they’ve got hooks, like the repeated title of “Generation Storm” which continues to echo in my skull. It’s worth noting that, as Portray Heads’ existence was fairly brief, they didn’t record a whole lot, which means that four of the twelve songs here appear twice. The Stooges they ain’t – I’m not sure who among us is eager to compare and contrast the differences in fidelity and composition between the two separate takes of “Industrial Eye”, for example, and wouldn’t simply be satisfied with a single LP of both EPs and the unreleased demo tunes, but maybe that’s just me. Bitter Lake is nothing if not dedicated to presenting definitive and handsome documentation of overlooked avant-garde Japanese music, and I thank them for their service.

Repo Fam Whipped Cream 7″ (Gentle Reminder)
Following a few years playing keys for DC punk band Foul Swoops, Baltimore’s Michelle Peña is out on her own as Repo Fam. That’s her on the cover, looking as though she had a string of wealthy husbands who all died under mysterious circumstances, and I can hear that same tough-as-leather attitude in these four schematic indie-punk tunes. “King Of Marvin Gardens” is discordant and chugging like a Kim Gordon-sung Sonic Youth song, whereas “Psycho Bombs” moves in a poppier direction, recalling the sloppy DIY pop of The Petticoats. The title track has more of a Dum Dum Girls circa-Captured Tracks garage edge (sans all the reverb), whereas “Here We Come” kinda brings it all together, the noisy Sonic Youth-isms with ’60s biker-gang garage-rock overtones. This sorta sound hit big in the late ’00s, was oversaturated by the mid ’10s, and by now, I suppose it’s free to simply exist as fun indie garage-punk music, without any concern for trends past or present? I’m sure I’m putting more concern into it than Repo Fam would ever care to, as these songs seem to bypass any trivialities in favor of their primitive and trashy indie-rock style.

Ana Roxanne Because Of A Flower LP (Kranky)
This has gotta be one of the hottest burgeoning underground scenes these days. What should we call it… wellness-ambient? Gentrification-boutique new-age? Ana Roxanne’s Because Of A Flower is as sparse, daringly minimalist, holistic and high-minded as one of those fancy shops that is painted all white and sells one lumpy vase and three incense holders and that’s it. Any American city’s got at least one of those stores, and the soft and meditative works Ana Roxanne offers here strike me as an exact aesthetic match. She’s living in Los Angeles, which is ground zero for those kinda shops, so it kinda makes sense, and if you’re at all partial to this lifestyle, her new album won’t let you down. Roxanne’s songs utilize electronic waves, polished keys, tender guitar, film snippets and even the pitter-patter of a drum machine, unfurling like Lauren Manoogian’s hand-loomed knitwear across a Hem table (and just as soft and comforting). With her occasional singing (and poetry recitation), the record often feels like the light yang to Grouper’s dark and foreboding yin, a wellness meditation that doesn’t leave you feeling cheated. While varied in tonal vocabulary, these tracks are united in the way they patiently reverberate like ripples on a lake, or the flame of a $70 artisanally-blended candle.

Skinned Teen Skinned Teen 7″ (Vague Absolutes)
Very cool archival release from Warthog Speaks’ reissue sub-label, Vague Absolutes. If I say “British ’90s Riot Grrrl” your brain probably pulled up Huggy Bear first, and hopefully Skinned Teen second, as they created an infectious racket during their brief time together. This somehow led to them hanging out with Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, partying or something like that. The ’90s! These four tracks come from a John Peel session, which captures the group in all their raw and primitive glory, though not quite as raw and primitive as Extreme Noise Terror’s Peel session. They’re unschooled and impenetrably confident here, scruffy indie-punk that recalls The Shaggs and Television Personalities more than The Frumpies and Bratmobile, but all those sounds are in there swapping spit with each other – I’m even reminded of Black Time in the unhinged swagger of “Pillowcase Kisser”. In the liner notes, John Peel describes a Skinned Teen show in London as though he’d “walked into somebody else’s sleepover”, which seems to capture the atmosphere of these songs perfectly, the sound of four young people having wild fun without caring who is or isn’t noticing, even if it’s the better half of the first Lollapalooza roster.

Stoploss Wander. Defy. Relent. Decay. LP (Constant Disappointment)
Gotta love a hardcore record that opens immediately on a mosh breakdown – why do so many bands insist on delaying that gratification? Lowell, MA’s Stoploss know that we don’t need an extended feedback fade-in, drum roll or movie sample, and they get right to it on their debut album. I have difficulty reading lists of verbal commands without thinking of Eat Pray Love or Brock Lesnar’s “Eat Sleep Conquer Repeat” shirt (or the millions of other marketing strategies that employ this formula), but I get the impression that Stoploss are not interested in kidding around with Wander. Defy. Relent. Decay. Their particular strain of hardcore is mostly fast and clean, stuff that would go over well as the “old school hardcore” band at one of those tough-guy hardcore fests. Reminds me of an even split between Left For Dead and Ensign, certainly as reminiscent of Y2K-era tough-guy youth-crew as much as the dirtier stuff that was happening around that same time (I’m thinking of labels like Gloom and Dead Alive). Stoploss seem to take the basic political stance of “pissed off”, although I can’t say with total certainty, as the lyric sheet is impossible to follow and written in a tagger style that ensures no one but the vocalist will ever really know what he’s saying. Based on these aggressive, bloodshot songs, I’m going to assume all is not peachy in Stoploss’s worldview.

Te/DIS Transparent Subsistence LP (Galakthorrö)
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t own three albums by German dark-waver Te/DIS, but he’s consistently released by Galakthorrö, whose sinister allure I simply cannot resist. This new album is more of the same, filled with creepy-yet-confusing lyrics and titles (what does “Transparent Subsistence” even mean – is he referring to Jell-O?) and grim, unhurried beats that recall the clicks and pulses of hospital life-support machines. Morbid stuff, and Te/DIS’s Frankenstein-styled vocals really bring it home, mostly up-front and dry but occasionally distorted and distant. I prefer the tracks that are little more than a repetitive zap from some sort of antiquated sonic hardware to the ones that replicate a bleary-eyed, Gary Numan-esque synth-pop, although I suppose the mix of tempos and levels of agitation make Transparent Subsistence a better overall listen. An album that certainly scratches one’s goth-wave itch, if not a mandatory event (like Haus Arafna’s records continue to be). Te/DIS strikes me as one of the least enigmatic artists on Galakthorrö, but what am I gonna do, not buy it?

Teste Graphic Depictions 2xLP (L.I.E.S.)
It’s easy to feel exhausted by the sheer quantity of industrial-techno that’s dropped over the past ten years. I’m personally feeling that fatigue, but even so, an album like Teste’s Graphic Depictions hits and it’s my favorite thing all over again. Apparently these tracks were originally cut in the ’90s, and only recently reworked and edited into their final form here, and it’s kind of startling to think that Teste was delivering such relentless and menacing techno cuts so very long ago. If this record were merely a collection of archival beats, it’d be cool, but Teste infuses these cuts with the sights and sounds of a pre-Giuliani Times Square, alive with the sounds of X-rated theaters, rat-infested storefronts and slimy alleyways. The filth is the point, as Teste utilizes various movie samples (and is that Venom’s between-song banter on “Demoni”?) to enhance these grimy techno blasts with the thrilling sleaze of a grindhouse double-feature. Imagine Surgeon DJing a 2:00 AM showing of Driller Killer while a Manhattan taxi drives past with its hood on fire and you’re in the general vicinity of this thrilling and squalid techno album.

Xylitol I’m Pretty Sure I Would Know If Reality Were Fundamentally Different Than I Perceived It To Be 7″ (Thrilling Living)
Wow, here’s the perfect contrast to that new Idles album – Xylitol’s sophomore 7″ EP! Their debut was great, but this one is an absolute mastery of the genre “political hardcore-punk”, transcending both traditional politics and traditional punk into something smarter, leaner and more wicked than that which has come before. The riffs are chunky and sleazy, played too fast for comfort on a bed of tom-centric hardcore drumming, and vocalist Lord Goat (at least that’s how they’re amusingly credited here) truly sounds like a troll from hell, the sort of thing you’ve accidentally awoken while messing around in some old cabin in the woods and by which you are now completely doomed. Contrast any of Idles’ cliche-centric lyrics to Xylitol’s blistering “I Want A Refund” and you’ll see the difference between a college freshman and their tenured professor. “I Want A Refund” is easily chant-alongable, but these lyrics are almost too real to bear, a scathing indictment of a life for which we’re all somehow accountable and helplessly imprisoned. And don’t get me started on “(There’s Something In Your) Void”, which beats influencer-culture minimalism like a dusty rug, all on a steamrolling riff that recalls Negative Approach’s debut EP. If there’s better hardcore than this EP in 2020, I’ll be truly ecstatic, as this is currently the very best.

The Zits Back On Blackhead LP (Feel It)
Feel It continues to rack up the obscure punk retrospectives with this collection from Virginia’s The Zits, who released but one 7″ EP in their day. Back In Blackhead collects that single (duh) and fills it out with some surprisingly crisp live recordings (from a May 1981 performance at where else but Oakton High School). They certainly hold their own with other goofball-youngster KBD punk acts, calling to mind the playfulness of The Gizmos, Vom, Child Molesters and Meaty Buys… the lighter side of obscure one-off first-wave punk. The two tracks from their sole 7″ are great, but I’m also impressed by the sound and style of the seven live tracks that follow – not only do they sound great, this band has true on-stage chemistry, reminding me of the non-stop loony banter of a Weston show. This feels like punk music made by fresh-faced boys who went on to college after high-school, not social dropouts who had no choice but to steal their next meal. They were fairly talented players (although appropriately sloppy on the ironic blues jam “No Dough Blues”), and fancied the fraternal misogyny that allows a young man to write the song “Bertha Was A Slut” without a second thought, common for their time and maturity level. I’m guessing they were probably smarter and more creative than the rest of their classmates, so why not start a silly and inappropriate punk band instead of pursuing a more mundane hobby?