Archive for 'Reviews'

Reviews – January 2021

Actress Karma & Desire 2xLP (Ninja Tune)
Actress, effortlessly-stylish techno king, returns yet again with another lengthy installment. I skipped out on the limited version of this one (seems gratuitous to own more than one Actress album in an oversized metallic bag), but it’s my favorite thing I’ve heard from him in a while. The premise this time is “the first Actress record with vocals”, which I find much more appealing than “Actress goes to the opera”. I like thinking of Actress’s music as removed from any human touch, these little self-propelling electronic processes whizzing past each other in fascinating formations, but it’s been such a treat to listen to the humanity that shines through Karma & Desire. It’s a multi-functional record, with numerous tracks that operate as soothing experimental-ambient (think trip-hop without the hop) alongside some straight-up tech-house bangers – “Turin” in particular is dialed up to deep house perfection, the sort of thing I’d expect to hear emanating from Detroit’s first colony on Mars. Vocalists Sampha, Zsela and Aura-T09 appear throughout, their bold and androgynous voices hitting the requisite amount of cool that one would expect from an Actress track. They manage to render into sound the same alluringly complex emotions found in Actress’s instrumentals, no matter if they’re headed to the dance-floor or the crushed-velvet chaise lounge.

Bathouse Bathouse LP (Happiest Place)
Shame on me for presuming Bathouse to be more polite n’ snuggly Swedish indie-pop, because the moment they kicked into the opening track “Bathouse” (I love when a band self-titles an album and then has a song by the same name on it) my hair blew back like that guy in the Maxell cassette ad. Nothing cute going on with this Swedish trio; this is unrepentant, volcanic, garage-y noise-rock and nothing less! Their self-titled tune sets the table gloriously, reminding me of what a thrill it was to hear the debut Hospitals album that very first time. Bathouse’s bass and drums rumble together in a cloud of smog before stomping out potholes in a way I thought I’d never hear again following the dissolution of Mayyors. There are also some signs of edgy Swedish garage-punk in the murk, distant relatives of The Hives covered under mounds of filth nearly as incomprehensible as the first couple Sightings records. The b-side has a super strong opener as well in “Bug”, which reminds me of the noise-as-rock-music bands that followed in Wolf Eyes’ wake – imagine if Hair Police or Burmese had the slightest tendency to groove. Bathouse have got the goods! My recommendation is to find a friend and split the Swedish shipping costs on two copies, because you’re not gonna want to have to share this one anyway.

Bruch The Fool LP (Cut Surface / Trost)
Days prior to receiving Bruch’s The Fool in the mail, I had seen the artist described as “kind of a Euro Daughn Gibson”, which of course meant I was set up to be disappointed. I’ll cut to the chase and confirm that Bruch, the solo project of Vienna’s Philipp Hanich, does not meet my high expectations here, but that’s not to say all is lost. All is a little confused, though, as these songs try to shoehorn American cowboy vocals (with a country sneer as inauthentic as Orville Peck’s) into a modern electro-indie sound, borrowing from big-room EDM and trance, pop and contemporary guitar-less radio-rock (like Imagine Dragons or Cage The Elephant or any of those other groups neither you nor I ever really stop to think about). The Fool feels aspirationally closer to Alex Cameron’s ventures into anthemic dance-pop, but Cameron goes much further over the top and comes naturally equipped with the charisma of a singer bound for international stardom (or at least millions of views on YouTube). Bruch seems to roam on the edge of such sweeping gestures – he certainly isn’t toning down his voice – but these songs aren’t quite the necessary vehicles to take him there. If I think of Bruch as being more in line with gristly iconoclastic weirdos like Tom Waits, it makes more sense, as these songs seem to wander at will, frequently losing sight of the traditional path that catchy pop music requires. That’s cool with me too, but Bruch only ever tends to go halfway toward any of these stylistic routes – my favorite is probably the b-side opener, also named “Bruch”, which builds a hearty pulse somewhere in the timeless tradition of krautrock, Suicide and trance. I’ve been wondering what Boothroyd’s Pure Country would sound like with vocals, come to think of it… perhaps Bruch is the man for the job?

Celebrators Wipeout! / Ex-Explorer 7″ (Tomothy)
Three cheers for the inaugural release by Tomothy Records, a new label out of Los Angeles based around the “analog recording studio and DIY performance space called House of Tomothy”. Run by two guys (you guessed it, named Tom and Timothy), I’m glad they exposed me to Celebrators, an excellent band for establishing the label’s intentions. “Wipeout!” is thankfully not a cover, but instead a hyper-speed muted-strum that combines the no-wave quirk of The Mae Shi with the extreme rigidity of early Total Control. I’ll take it! “Ex-Explorer” loosens the reigns a bit for a slice of shoulder-shrugging art-punk, calling to mind the party fouls of Vox Pop as well as the dorky charm of The Embarrassment, slowly fading into the sunset on an extended instrumental reprise. A nice contrast of tunes (yet not so contrasting as to not make sense together), leaving me satisfied yet intrigued to hear some more. Some seventeen years have passed since The Smell shut down for nearly all of 2003, so it seems to be the perfect time for another LA underground art-punk renaissance if you ask me. Celebrators are already there!

Chronophage Th’ Pig Kiss’d Album LP (Cleta Patra)
Austin’s Chronophage made a splash last year with their vinyl debut, appealing to both dirty and clean audiences of arty post-punk. Could’ve been a one-time planetary alignment, but Th’ Pig Kiss’d Album demonstrates that it wasn’t a stroke of luck – this scruffy group is clearly onto something special. These songs showcase a band even more at ease with each other, as there’s no other way these kind of songs can come together – the bassist, the guitarist, hell even the drummer all seem to be riffing around the main structure and melody continuously, finding ways to make their otherwise modest DIY-poptunes behave unexpectedly. I’m reminded of the way Television break their songs apart after like five minutes or so, except that seems to be Chronophage’s starting point. Even one of their more jagged numbers (“Any Junkyard Dreams”) has me thinking of my favorite songs by Shoes This High and Sara Goes Pop without directly resembling either – their sound is way more Max’s Kansas City than Fuck Off Records, anyway. And while they’re clearly cool punks with asymmetrical haircuts, homemade t-shirts and post-ironic Ali Express dresses, there’s a tender vulnerability underlying these tunes, bearing witness to the sad fact that one relatively-minor car accident or illness could upend their world at a moment’s notice. The insert provides a mailing address for communication that’s “valid until Aug. 2021”, because who can count on any sort of future beyond that?

Copiers Copiers LP (no label)
Copiers are a band, I suppose in as much as anyone is a “band” these days, from Louisville, playing together for a year or two and self-releasing an LP, as adults in bands sometimes do. I would file them under “instrumental post-hardcore”, but that sounds a little too stuffy and self-serious for the vibe that Copiers bring to the table. Their music is generally groove-driven, bass and drums locked into their perspective flights while the guitars (and horn, and accordion?) do their best to rip a hole in the presiding sonic structure. Very much in the spirit of Laddio Bolocko, but with a polite recording quality and at least a couple Slint records within arm’s reach? They’re from Louisville, after all, where that sorta thing seeps into the groundwater. Their music is occasionally psych-y (the slow build of “Alien Doctor” reminds me of Stefan Christensen and the contemporary CT psych-rock scene), sometimes entertains the idea of free improvisation (if not entirely puts into practice), and is always delivered with the sense of a band composing and playing in a manner that excites and challenges them. Personally, I prefer the moments of full flight, wherein math-rock metamorphosizes into amateur jazz fusion, but I’m not going to tell Copiers they can’t have their soft n’ slow-droning build-ups if that’s what they want. Being a teenager is fun, but when you’re an adult, you don’t have to listen to anyone!

CS + Kreme howwouldyoufeelwithoutthatthought 12″ (The Trilogy Tapes)
Took me ’til the end of the year to discover CS + Kreme, but I’m mighty glad I did, as their 2020 album Snoopy has been on repeat, almost as much as this new 12″ EP. These two lengthy tracks are an excellent place to start (or continue) one’s love affair with CS + Kreme, who I should explain are a duo from Melbourne featuring Sam Karmel of F Ingers. “April Fools’ Day” is the sixteen-minute a-side, a hypnotic expansion of occult electronics with a most haunting accompaniment of cello and lap steel. It’s sensual and alien, pretty much the perfect soundtrack for that eventual moment when a steamy love scene takes place in The Mandalorian (fingers crossed!). There’s one segment where it sounds like they’re dropping little plastic toys on a granite countertop over the groove, and it’s precisely the sort of idiosyncratic trick that CS + Kreme utilize so well. “Bugged” takes a different route (but familiar to fans of Snoopy) with ominously funky bass-guitar, an oddly-humming vocal melody and, for those who behave patiently, a trip-hop drum loop that’s sure to please. I’m reminded of Raime’s side-project Moin and Sun City Girls’ Torch Of The Mystics in the way that CS + Kreme seem to have accidentally invented rhythmic ambient post-rock on their own unique timeline. Feels similar in spirit to John T. Gast’s Gossiwor project too, care of the dreary melodies, haunting intrigue and classic drum-machine sounds, or a little further but still close to Leslie Winer’s fantastic Witch album. Mostly, however, CS + Kreme are doing a marvelous job of sounding exactly like themselves.

Dirty Burger Part Time Loser LP (Spacebucks / Pure Lust)
More garage-y punk from Sweden! It never stops coming! No one likes it like the Swedes do, including Gothenburg’s Dirty Burger, delivering their full-length debut in the form of Part Time Loser. Their particular strain veers towards the pop-punk end of things, offering a cartoony image of first-wave British punk that has kind of a Dirtnap / Lookout! feel. I definitely reference The Briefs more than I should, but their scent is strong here, with gang-vocal choruses (see “Information Overload”) over typical Damned and Dead Boys riffs played at slightly slower speeds and without any lingering sense of violence or morbidity. Song topics are mostly in the realm of traditional punk fantasy: “Video Violence” is thankful for the ability to feel excitement in watching movies at home, “Suburbia” is about the boredom of suburbia, and the title track is about, from what I can gather, punks being losers? The cover art of a colorfully-silly intergalactic diner certainly drives the vibe home, the sort of record a closely-monitored teen can leave around the house without arousing parental suspicion. It’s not doing much for me at all – I’ve long since exceeded my quota for new paint-by-numbers retro poppy punk bands – but anyone in short supply of this well-defined aesthetic would suffer no harm from bringing home some Dirty Burger, or at least waiting for the next weekly drop of Swedish punk if they’re busy at the moment.

Fleshen Fella FMR008 7″ (Fantastic Mess)
Melbourne’s underground/punk community strikes me as an inclusive and supportive one, but if all those bands got together to hang out in one room, I’d imagine there’d be some hesitancy in striking up a convo with the Fleshen Fella crew. They seem particularly talentless and unhinged, which of course is a great combination for throwing together a rock band. They play noisy and simplistic riffs, somewhere in the garage-punk pantheon but relying on the teenage-tantrum aesthetic of both the garage and punk scenes to put together these five songs. I’m reminded of the earliest Charm City Suicides recordings (before they had any band members who could play), or perhaps the Dirt Shit 7″ (without the six-minute reggae song). The drummer seems to really struggle (which, to be fair, is a lot harder to learn in ten minutes than bass or guitar), which makes it that much more fun to listen to, and the vocalist does his best job volleying between angry ranting (in that tantalizing Aussie tongue) and squealing like Ichabod Crane on the run. The sticker on the cover designates the various pressing info (limited editions on translucent red, hot pink, black and clear vinyl!), and it’s probably my least favorite aspect of this release – when you’ve got a band that monkeys around through their raucous garage noise such as Fleshen Fella, why acknowledge the realm of collectors and anything resembling civilized nerdy behavior? This is the type of record that should be pressed entirely on black vinyl, with half of the pressing falling out of the band’s van and permanently lost during a drunken gas-station stop.

Greymouth Cut A Crooked Track 7″ (I Dischi Del Barone)
The New Zealand-raised, Japan-stationed duo of Greymouth return to vinyl with a new six-track 7″ EP on I Dischi, the perfect home for their abstract and noisy tunes. The first side starts off with a rumbling instrumental swing, like those early Action Swingers singles that eschew any pleasantries, and before you know it, one of the members (they’re both named Mark) starts a choppy rant, which works far better for this sort of lo-fi noise-rock than any sort of standard-timed vocals. That quickly segues into what appears to be an acoustic guitar, distorted by the nature of the recording rather than any sort of effects pedal, and eventually subsumed by what sounds to be the creaking of a boat’s keel, that is before another incomprehensible tune arrives. I hear toms, so I know someone is drumming, and I hear someone shouting so I know that’s there too, but the rest is a swirl of room noise and technical difficulties, wherein lies Greymouth’s charm. They seem to have calmed down on the b-side, with the creaking of an old chair and plucked strings forming a sonic cobweb to accidentally walk through and get all over your face. It seems to be one long track, yet three titles are credited, so I’ll defer to Greymouth as to what actually transpired. They make us work for it, and it doesn’t go unappreciated!

Wren Kitz Early Worm LP (Feeding Tube / Sophomore Lounge)
When it comes to American hippie territories, I find Vermont to be particularly appealing – all those beautiful trees, soft white piles of snow, hacky-sack factories and free Ben & Jerry’s at every corner. Wren Kitz (that’s this person’s name) is from Burlington, a quaint town where the vegetarian restaurants still serve rabbit-food instead of textured gluten. I can easily picture him walking down the main pedestrian drag, wearing sandals in thirty-degree weather, guitar (in a soft case) strapped to his back as he walks to the gig. Probably has a cute dog, too. Anyway, this album is full of soft and sedate indie-psych, songs that are dappled in sunlight and shrouded in a pleasant haze. I’m reminded of Kurt Vile and The War On Drugs, that is if neither ever got famous and simply continued to release tapes for their friends’ little labels. Sounds like Beachwood Sparks at times too, although Kitz’s approach never reaches energy levels even close to the (also incredibly chill) Beachwood Sparks – some of these songs sound as if Kitz was laying down while playing them. Right at this moment, I’m enjoying Early Worm as it spins, but it’s so sparse and temporal and innocuous that I’m not sure I will remember the existence of this man or his record in a couple months. When it comes to music that appears like a soft puff of Neil Young’s coffee-breath, there’s more of it floating around than ever, so I’m content to wander through it when it comes rather than purposely seek it out.

The Lavender Flu Tomorrow Cleaners LP (Meds)
The Lavender Flu continue to scare all psych-rock pretenders out of the room with their newest full-length (and second of 2020), Tomorrow Cleaners. This is some deeply burnt DIY psychedelia, recorded with a disorienting mix not unlike Violent Change (though not nearly as lo-fi) and displaying a willingness to travel down any sonic rabbit hole that might appear, albeit not for very long. These tracks move quickly, each seemingly with its own unique instrumental configuration, in search of some crimson-and-clover reality through polluted beaches and panic-inducing suburban sprawl. Released by Meds, a label I associate with the great Siltbreeze rebirth of 2007-2010, The Lavender Flu carry a sackful of that noisy indie belligerence in their sound here (it’s not a long jump from the hippie end of Psychedelic Horseshit’s songbook) and it’s honestly somewhat refreshing. No other band around today can sing “sha la la la” in a song and have me believe it the way The Lavender Flu do here, that’s for sure! These songs are occasionally tender and authentically weird, moving in ways that most songs do not, and I find myself wanting more each time it hits the run-out groove. I wonder if they’ve considered capitalizing on the times with some sort of “Flu season” marketing campaign?

Ippei Matsui & Aki Tsuyuko Natsu No Zenbu 2xLP (All Night Flight)
Had I not stuck firmly to my “no reissues” policy, this one would’ve landed right in the top of my favorite albums in 2020, but alas, it’s the first vinyl pressing of a limited friends-and-family CD-r that was issued back in 2008 to commemorate Ippei Matsui and Aki Tsuyuko’s marriage. Easily my favorite reissue of the year though, as the whimsical sketches and mirthful ambient sonnets of Natsu No Zenbu are absolutely stellar. Recorded in a private, thirteen-room “old Japanese house” with mostly keyboards and pianos at the helm, Matsui and Natsu conjure the eloquent confusion of nature through these soft and unassuming melodies. Imagine if Roedelius wrote music for Japanese elevators, or if Tori Kudo and Conny Plank fought over who got to play the sole keyboard in the cabin? Folk, minimalist composition and field-recordings are all relevant tags here, but there’s a carefree playfulness (and unabashed weirdness) that permeates throughout, that sort of fearless, audience-less creativity that reminds me of T. Kamada’s DD Records label or bizarre one-offs like Canada’s One Of You and San Fran’s Prominent Disturbance. Really serene, beautiful, occasionally lighthearted stuff, pulling together to create a charming musical mindset that I want to exist within as long as I possibly can. Thankfully, at twenty-seven tracks, I never feel rushed to part ways. Highly recommended, even at the staggering import pricing that is quickly becoming the norm!

Mr. Teenage Automatic Love 7″ (no label)
If I let my mind wander for too long about what an actual person named “Mr. Teenage” might be like, it can get dark quickly, but let’s stick to the actual matter at hand, this new garage-rock quartet outta Melbourne, one of the top five international hot-beds for this sorta thing these days. They feature Nic Imfeld of Tyrannamen on bass, his brother Joe on guitar, and Nadine Muller on drums, who has the coolest cred in the band seeing as her dad is Dean Muller of Cosmic Psychos. If my dad was a Cosmic Psycho, I’d probably get deep into urban planning or computer programming or something far away from beer-fueled garage-rock, but this apple doesn’t fall from the tree, apparently! Anyway, Mr. Teenage released this four-track EP themselves, and it’s a fine start for punks who want to do something a little more pub-friendly while still keeping their denim-clad roots. “Automatic Love” is close to being a Vibrators song by name, and sounds enough like one too, if perhaps a little closer to Stiff Little Fingers if we want to split first-wave Brit-punk hairs. That’s at least until the guitar solo hits, confirming that following the arrival of Sheer Mag on the scene, Thin Lizzy’s influence has never felt stronger in modern punk (though never matched, of course). I get kind of an Exploding Hearts vibe on “Waste Of Time” and “The Loser” too, poppy punk that isn’t pop-punk, but rather steeped in the classic sound of gruff power-pop with a dynamic guitar sound and a tough exterior hiding a sentimental heart. Amazingly, somehow this record was not mastered by Mikey Young – did he actually call in sick for a day this year? Do I need to check in with him, make sure he’s okay?

Molchat Doma Monument LP (Sacred Bones)
Molchat Doma is one of the few bands that I distinctly remember when and where I first heard them: October 2019, in a friend’s Honda Fit en route to a post-show bar hang (remember those?). The youngest, goth-iest passenger loaded up his Spotify and entertained us with the sounds of Molchat Doma… surely a long-lost cold-wave group from the Eastern Bloc, right? Turns out that was only partly accurate, as Molchat Doma are indeed Belarusian but are very much a modern affair, starting out in 2017, making it big via YouTube playlists and TikTok viral success (disgusting, I know) and catching the attention of Sacred Bones, who I had feared was transitioning exclusively into a colored-vinyl horror movie soundtrack reissue label. Listening to them then, I was struck by the sheer oldness of Molchat Doma’s sound, how their recording quality was perfectly crisp and aged, sounding more like the ghost of a band that once existed than an actual band here among us now. As I spin Monument, I’m wondering if my recollection is accurate, as this record sounds much plainer than I recall the band’s earlier material. Maybe it was the Honda Fit’s sound system? They must’ve finally gotten into a “real” studio, but it comes at the expense of the cool alluring aura that was, honestly, the majority of their charm. These songs here are generally more Italo than cold-wave – it feels like I don’t hear morosely-chiming guitars and speedy drum programming until the fifth and sixth tracks – and while it’s fine to sound like Joe Yellow and Magazine 60 instead of Joy Division and Trop Tard, I suppose that’s not what I had come to them for. They don’t have the hooks or vocal prowess to make their Italo-electro tracks really pop, and with their out-of-time melancholia diminished by a more direct recording, Monument provides a decent-if-unexciting background listen. Imagine if we never heard from them again after their last record, though! Could’ve been legendary.

Moment Of Fear Covid Sessions 2020 7″ (Beach Impediment)
Another hearty installment of skull-laden hardcore-punk from the Beach Impediment posse, this one a debut! Moment Of Fear are a new Portland hardcore band, featuring a guy named Insane (formerly of Religious War and Rotten Cadaver) on vocals. Can’t be hard to start a band like this in Portland – you simply grab the first three people wearing black denim and spikes who walk past your porch to come inside and pick up an instrument – and Moment Of Fear maintain Insane’s healthy hardcore reputation. Two quick blasts on the a-side, both of which deliver the proud heavy-metallic-crust tradition as Insane warns of society’s decay. “Target For Killing” stretches out across the b-side, fully lunging into heavy metal territory reminiscent of Détente and Sacrilege with Insane’s gravelly bark the sole remaining link to hardcore-punk. The hardcore scene continues to embrace metal with open arms, so Moment Of Fear’s debut should get the local crew of drunk punks in King Diamond shirts hooting and hollering, I’d imagine. At some point, will we even be able to tell hardcore and metal apart? Is that the future these punks want?

Nina Harker Nina Harker LP (Animal Biscuit / La République des Granges ‎/ Le Syndicat des Scorpions)
No sooner had I compiled my “Best of 2020” list than I heard the full-length vinyl debut of French duo Nina Harker, which wouldn’t merely have found a high ranking on it, it may have hit the top! Seriously blown away by this riveting, difficult-to-classify masterpiece. I suppose you could start by filing under “post-punk”, then maybe the sub-heading of “electronic” or “experimental”, and while accurate, there’s just such a unique weirdness, a sort of imposing wickedness that makes even the more rickety rhythmic tunes like “Füsse” far more striking and imposing than they ought to be. Carlos Peron is probably the closest comparison I could come up with, another underground villain utilizing electronics and unexpected voices and sonic motifs to his own nefarious ends, but then some parts of Nina Harker remind me of Titmachine, while others recall Abruptum (gurgled black-metal vocals are brilliantly deployed throughout!)… see what I’m saying? It might sound like too disparate of a hodgepodge to effectively stick together, but I’m absolutely riveted upon every subsequent listen. Somehow, nothing seems forced or approaching the dreaded tag of “trying too hard”… Nina Harker simply re-imagine the past alongside the future, where Kleenex, Nurse With Wound and Monokultur commingle freely. It’s tickling my love of basement-level DIY post-punk strumming, my lust for experimental strangeness is more than satiated, and sincerely, I really can’t recommend this one enough! Anyone sitting on a fresh copy of Nina Harker’s 2016 7”, by all means, drop me a line with your exorbitant demands.

Alessandra Novaga I Should Have Been A Gardener LP (Die Schachtel)
It was the title that drew me in to this one, as I knew nothing of the artist or her deal besides the connection with the experimental-composer label Die Schachtel and what I took as a face value regret that she wasn’t out there plucking tomatoes from the vine. It opens on a lengthy, strange track, “April 21”, which offers a constant crunching (boots trudging through icy snow, most likely?) supported by fleeting drones. Not a particularly musical composition, but it’s a vibe for sure. I like to read books in silence, but if you’re the type who listens to music while reading, “April 21” is the perfect soundtrack for any sort of non-fictional account of an arctic explorer brutalized by the expanse. The rest of this record features solo plaintive electric guitar, notes carefully chosen with tremolo effects or often no additives beyond the cleanly electrified strings, plucked and amplified. The work of Loren Mazzacane Connors quickly comes to mind, but Novaga’s songs are cleaner and less mournful, though still comfortable to dwell in the morose alleyways of our souls. Some tricks occur (like the unexpected freak-out flubbing a couple minutes into “Father Forgive Me”, or the extended interview clip of Derek Jarman in the title track), but this is mostly a somber and comely album of unaccompanied guitar in the ambient / drone categories, far more reminiscent of frozen tundra than fertile soil.

Primpce Goodbye Marines And Hello Dad It’s Son Or Mr. Worm The Monster LP & 7″ (Syncro System)
If you’ve ever tried to google “Prince” while drunk, you may have stumbled upon Primpce, but for the rest of us, this is a fun new experience! The label sent this record over with a note saying “warning: not for everyone”, which of course is an excellent reverse-psychology trick to get someone to like your record – who’s gonna want to be that one grump who proves the label’s warning to be accurate? Regardless of the recommended caution, I took to the beguiling, way-too-complex music of Primpce right away. A better warning might be “you won’t want to listen to this every day”, but on the days when you do want to hear some synapse-blasting indie-prog, this will hit the spot mightily. Think of Deerhoof, Flaming Lips and Ponytail playing June Of 44’s songs at double speed. Maybe if Mark Mothersbaugh joined Hella and they decided to become a poppy emo group at the peak of their powers, it’d resemble something similar to Primpce? The guitars and composition are the virtuosic elements here, particularly as the drums are digital in nature (though generally delivered through a “normal drum kit” setting for added subtle disorientation). Extensive track credits are supplied, in case you were wondering what those weird vocals are on “Worm Surprise” (spoiler: various toy commercials from the ’80s and ’90s). Next time your niece or nephew asks to borrow a Frank Zappa record, slip ’em some Primpce instead and rescue them from heading down an unfortunate path.

Prized Pig PPEP 7″ (Tomothy)
Alongside Celebrators, Prized Pig are helping ring-in the Tomothy label with their vinyl debut. I like that Celebrators single plenty, but I think I might enjoy Prized Pig even more, as their specific confluence of styles really tickles my ears. They open with “Mistake”, which starts in full Arab On Radar irritation-mode before switching over to wailing noisy hardcore, as if Crazy Spirit tried to sound like KARP. An aggravated goblin on vocals, some heavy and perky chug, I’m sold! “Toothless Tom” follows with some angularity, eventually ripping into a stompy breakdown that feels like it should’ve come out on Troubleman Unlimited in 2001 and been my favorite thing I heard that year. “Race Car” gets the b-side, and let me tell you, it’s the most Monorchid-y sounding song I’ve ever heard that didn’t feature Chris Thomson on vocals. I love it! Weird vaguely blues-y riff (is one of the guitarists using a slide?), wild rowdy energy and sass but still undeniably punk music made for punk ears to enjoy. I’m constantly missing shows, but a song like “Race Car” has me really jonesing for the energy and shared particulate exposure that comes with a live gig. Is the title a riff on that early Butthole Surfers album? I hope to ask them about it in person someday after they fog up my glasses with a red-hot rendition of “Race Car”!

Profligate Too Numb To Know LP (Wharf Cat)
Of all the DIY noise guys turned synth-pop auteurs, I’d say that Profligate is the most convincing by far. I loved 2018’s Somewhere Else, a subdued and morose noise-pop album par excellence, and I think I might even love this new one more. Too Numb To Know is his purest synth-wave love affair yet, an album full of wavey bangers that are complex yet direct. Everything gets employed, from buzzing electronics to electric guitars, and Profligate does so in a way that seems natural and effortless, almost making a mockery of the numerous gothy synth-wave acts out there with far lesser tools in their boxes. “Hang Up” is easily the synth-wave song of the year, a relentless banger with magnificent stutter-delay vocals; it’s a fingernail’s length from TikTok virality, and while that would be enough for me to consider this album a success, its surrounded by other highlights. I don’t want my macho tendencies to turn everything into a competition, but he outdoes The Soft Moon’s industrial-pop on “Drink A Spider”, revels in a synth-violin waltz that has me wishing La Roux made another album like her debut, and essentially has me wondering why Profligate isn’t receiving equal billing to Drab Majesty and Boy Harsher in today’s upper echelon of independent cold-wave. Maybe because he looks like some plain civilian you’d see riding the bus as opposed to a photogenic weirdo in extravagant makeup and black PVC shrouded in fog and lasers? He doesn’t want fog and lasers, though, and you know what? Neither do I.

Public Acid Condemnation 7″ (Beach Impediment)
We’re at that time of year where best-of lists are unavoidable, and I’m sure you’ve been seeing Public Acid on many of those lists, as I sure have. They’ve got a cool name, people are raving about them, and there’s nothing I want more than to be knocked in the gut by a ferocious blast of hardcore-punk, but Condemnation has me approvingly tapping along as opposed to pulling the bricks out of my chimney with my teeth. Maybe if they were the first modern group to deliver rapid-fire twists and turns in the form of Scandinavian-inspired hardcore, my eyes would widen, but I can’t help but file this EP a millimeter below all those great Impalers and Warthog and Loose Nukes and S.H.I.T. records that are currently keeping me warm. Public Acid’s riffs are relentless and twisted, the drumming is as frantic and enthusiastic as any given Kriegshög track, and the vocalist sounds like a winded cynocephalus trying to scare you out of the forest (which of course is a smart choice considering how many bootleg Zouo tees I’ve seen over the past year), so I think this one comes down to the actual sound quality for me. Any given Impalers record sounds loud as hell no matter where my volume knob is pointing, but Condemnation is the opposite in that I find myself constantly turning it up, never quite feeling fully enveloped by their fury. Maybe these six meaty songs needed more than seven inches to spread themselves out on, or perhaps the vinyl masterer didn’t know how to expand these songs into the detonations they should’ve / could’ve been, but I put on an Ostgut Ton 12″ right after my last spin of Condemnation and my roof nearly caved in from the sonic force, as I had forgotten to turn the volume back down. Presumably, the best Public Acid experience is a, uhh, public one, which I hope to rectify in 2021, novel coronavirus be damned.

Quintron + Miss Pussycat Goblin Alert! LP (Goner)
Quintron and Miss Pussycat are my generation’s Lux Interior and Poison Ivy, right? Both couples have deeply forged identities, decades of punk creativity under their belts and are just so distinctly cool as hell (perhaps the most important aspect), lunatics who somehow managed to find their perfect heterosexual match in this mixed-up world that tries its best to snuff out freaky underground pioneers. It would bring a tear to my eye if I wasn’t too busy giggling at album opener “Teenagers Don’t Know Shit”, a ludicrous (and accurate) swamp-garage romp that sets the mood perfectly. The rest of the album follows a big-band version of the sound Miss Pussycat and Quintron have solidified over the past twenty years plus: organ-driven party-punk that laughs in the face of boredom featuring a long list of friends on drums, maracas, Mini-Moog Voyagers, all the essentials. Who else could write a song chastising the Texas rest-stop megamart Buc-ee’s with demented slide-guitar and a grooving disco beat? Haters of fun will certainly pass this one by in favor of obscure Scandi-punk reissues or mopey cold-wave, and I almost feel bad for them, as songs like “Stroller Pollution” do more to illuminate the contemporary American urban condition than any dozen skull-covered punk records that also came out this year, and they do so hilariously. Remember when these two adopted XBXRX for a minute there, too? Truly a couple of saints, it’s no wonder they’re from New Orleans!

Rodney Dangerous Fantasies 2xLP (Almost Ready)
Filing this one under R not D, as it seems Rodney Dangerous is the name of the project as opposed to a persona inhabited by bandleader Rafay Rashid. His previous band Ravi Shavi had a few records on Almost Ready, raucous and charming garage-rock that failed to make much of a splash, and with Rodney Dangerous he’s going big from the get-go, a double album filled with party music of varying styles and orientations. Guitars are in use, but merely one participant in the gathering than the central focus – this is music that seems indebted to the turn of the ’80s NYC club scene, music that moves with the energy of Ze Records, Blondie and new-wave punk. The synths aren’t retro, though, which often causes Matthew Dear (with band) and Julian Casablancas (solo) to come to my mind as I listen. Rashid has more than his fair share of charm and charisma, and he leaves no stone unturned, be it a coked-out disco romp (“Sweatin'”) or some Roger Troutman funk (“He Can Hang”), acting like he’s Prince no matter who’s watching. It generally works, sounding like an opening that Lou Reed would’ve actively hated but made a point of appearing at anyway. The parody name might keep some of y’all away (which I understand), but the rest of you party people have two full LPs of this stuff to dig into if it sounds at all appealing.

TV Freaks People LP (Schizophrenic)
Do you think TV Freaks and Cola Freaks ever hang out? That’d be my kinda party, guzzling syrupy sodas with multiple flat-screen HDs blaring! Anyway, it’s been five years since the last album from Hamilton, Ontario’s TV Freaks, and they’re still at it, with a sound that’s undoubtedly maturing without losing its way. It’s evident in listening to People that TV Freaks are forever in love with speedy garage-inflected punk music, but they temper that with songs that allow David O’Connor to stretch out a bit, delving into characters (see “Destined For Stardom”) and playing with the concept of being a singer in a punk band while actually also being one. Even a moody drifter like “Grain Of Sand” fits in well here, a somber song reminiscent of The Saints’ early ’80s albums. I’m also reminded of Buzzcocks, Unnatural Helpers, The Adverts and a dozen other classic or retro-classic punk groups, but TV Freaks own their sound enough that they manage to transcend a pure genre exercise into a loving homage with just enough personal character to keep it interesting. They seem to know that they’re not topping anyone’s Spotify year-end lists, and revel in the freedom that comes with not being indebted to current trends or rising social-media engagement statistics. They’re probably going gaga over all the streaming TV options now, too!

Typical Girls Typical Girls 7″ (Happiest Place)
Amazingly, here’s a group calling themselves Typical Girls who seem to have no relation to the sound of “Typical Girls” (the Slits song) or Typical Girls (the ongoing series of post-punk compilations), released on a quality Swedish post-punk label. Surely they must be aware of the connotations the name carries, but their music is pure throwback pop-rock, floating like a feather in the breeze, far from the land of scrappy guitars and rigid drumming. I’m reminded most of Daisies, probably because I’m still listening to their recent album a whole bunch, in the way that Typical Girls utilize soft dancey beats (some nice bongos on opener “Las Palmas”), glistening guitars and angelic vocals to replicate the butterflies one felt in their stomach as they walked into the middle school dance circa 1995. Of course, Typical Girls share the same home of origin as The Cardigans, and they do their alterna-dance-pop ancestry proud. “Tension” even has a slight Caribbean feel to the rhythm, recalling Cosima’s great single from last year (there’s another artist I’m waiting on new material from!). Sunny, happy, groovy alt-pop for bellbottoms and bucket hats, sure to melt the frost on your window no matter how miserable this winter might become.

Werewolf Jones Premium LP (Big Neck)
Simon Hanselmann is the wonderful cartoonist responsible for the character Werewolf Jones, but it’s unclear if this bears relation to the Michigan punk band of the same name. Is there room in the world for two Werewolf Joneses?? I’d say so, particularly as this band seems to be content in slumming around their hometown, not trying to bother anyone who doesn’t want to be bothered. They’ve got a scuzzy slow-motion punk sound going, familiar to fans of Drunks With Guns and early Nirvana (who among us aren’t fans of those two?), simplistic songs played with an air of frustration and resentment. Adam Hunter’s vocals vaguely remind me of Blaine Cook, maybe if Blaine was nursing a particularly sore throat and just wanted to run through some Fartz songs instead of pushing his larynx to meet The Accüsed’s lofty demands. Nothing funny, no outrageous attention-seeking moments, no over-the-top “LOL so random”-ness that today’s youth salivates over, just some basic-ass mid-paced grunge-punk for the day-drinking bar crowd and the teens who will one day graduate to day-drinking barfly status. Michigan gets mighty cold this time of year, and I bet Werewolf Jones are out there walking around in busted-up Vans, grumbling into knockoff N95 masks and freezing their toes off.

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.