So, this is supposed to be d’Eon’s debut full-length? Palinopsia, the release with which the Montréal artist first surfaced roughly two years ago, featured nine tracks that had a lavish total running time of no less than 55 minutes. An EP? If so, an extended play indeed. And yet the joke’s on us. d’Eon’s new work, rather tellingly entitled LP, easily outweighs every single piece of music we’ve come across in years, spreading across 74 minutes, exhausting a classic CD’s length and nearly using the full space of two 33 rpm vinyl discs. And that is why almost no review so far has managed to spare the word “exhaustion” – an initial reaction that, admittedly, also crossed my mind more than once while listening to the record.
Most of the themes and modes the listener encounters on the album, both musically and textually, have already been thoroughly tackled on d’Eon’s previous output, namely Palinopsia and Darkbloom, last year’s split with fellow Montréal artist Grimes. The ideas are now considerably more refined and elaborate, but the chiming e-piano, the recurring allusions to oriental modes, the rhythmic patterns that range from ambient-like restraint to mesmerizing jungle breakbeats (‘Signals Intelligence’) – all this we’ve heard before in d’Eon’s music. As regards the lyrical content, LP comes across as naïve, if deliberately so, replete with references to religious motifs of the angel Gabriel upcoming apocalypse, and irony is largely absent in his message of alienation in an age of digital communication: “If I have access to everything digitized, then why am I looking for a scripture?” (‘Chastisement’).
Yet somehow, LP is anything but boring. After 74 long minutes of sonic oversaturation, when the music collapses into harsh alarm sounds and a burst of signal interference noise (a trick we already know from Darkbloom’s standout track ‘Transparency’), the album has proven to be one of this year’s most extraordinary, most challenging, and truly intriguing releases. A lot on the record may feel like musical déjà vu, but that’s quite likely the point: d’Eon is an artist who seeks variation through repetition, a method that became most obvious in his recent free digital release Music for Keyboards Vol. II, an album of 14 arrangements all interpreting ‘What’s My Age Again’ by Blink-182. And by and large it works. The changes might be subtle, but the music is rich in detail and manages to develop an irresistible, almost hypnotic density.
Lyrically and contextually, LP probably is one of the most striking examples of 21st century romanticism. In this sense, it cannot be put on one level with James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual, as some have suggested, which showed a crucially more realistic and sarcastic approach to the topic of modern-day consumerism. Unlike Ferraro yet much like his 19th century predecessors, d’Eon expresses grave discomfort with the upheaval caused by the rule of unfiltered enlightened rationalism, in his (and all ours) case the dawn of the Digital Age and the Third Industrial Revolution. And just like his predecessors, his response and hoped-for liberation is an artistic escape into a quasi-redemptive state of autonomous spirituality, a proto-religious retreat that may refer to images and tropes of the world religions (Gabriel, the Rapture) but effectively lies beyond the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam (“Obviously I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Muslim”, he accordingly told Dummy’s Ruth Saxelby in a recent interview).
All these themes become most evident and urging in the record’s concluding triptych, ‘Chastisement’, ‘Transparency pt. IV’, and ‘Al-Qiyamah’, a genuinely awe-inspiring finale that lasts for gruelling nineteen minutes, a manifestation of the sublime and a masterpiece in its own right. Here, d’Eon’s romanticist aesthetics both lyrically and musically convey something ineffably unsettling and uncanny, and listening to the last part feels very much like looking at a painting by Caspar David Friedrich for too long: its sheer subliminal force leaves me both awestruck and disturbed by its philosophical and political implications.
However, even if you happen to disagree with d’Eon’s assessment of modernity and the conclusions it entails, like me, it feels hard to argue about it, as all those bluntly uttered sentiments and anxieties come across as essentially disarmingly honest. After all, LP is a stupendous effort that needs to be heard by anyone interested in contemporary pop music and its social context in the 21st century. It will most likely continue to divide critics’ minds, and rightly so. But perhaps in a few years’ time, we’ll at least agree that this album was somehow necessary.
I can’t be sure if I’m entitled to speak here for anyone else but myself, yet what is it that we’re really looking for when we listen to a record for the first time? We want to be surprised, I’d argue. We hope that what we’re gonna spend the next minutes of our precious lifetime with is something we’ve never heard before. The human, after all, is a curious being. But honestly, how often does that really happen? And sure, in contemporary popular music there will always be a place for faithful and masterfully crafted repetition, so don’t get me wrong. That’s just fine. But when I have to make a choice, I always expect the artist to fuck with my expectations, and those who really manage to do so are the ones I truly admire. Take Actress, for example. Or even James Ferraro.
But no one does it like Laurel Halo. After the critically acclaimed EPs that she dropped over the last two years, from the synth-poppy ‘King Felix’ to the more intricate and experimental, mostly instrumental ‘Antenna’ and above all the marvellous ‘Hour Logic’, it would have been easy to just keep going, or at least to repeat some of the patterns critics and listeners have come to love her for. No one would have blamed her for that. Or rather, as especially the latter effort was one of my favorite records of last year, I certainly wouldn’t have. But it takes only the first few seconds of ‘Airsick’, the opening track of Laurel’s first proper album Quarantine, to realize that she indeed has fucked with our expectations once again. The beats are subdued to a degree that leaves them almost insignificant. The synths are prominent yet carry no lead melody. Instead, Laurel’s voice is where it has never been before, right in the front on top of the mix, and what is most striking compared to the equally vocal-centred ‘King Felix’, it’s almost unprocessed, raw, bare, and vulnerable.
This is not only surprising considering her own oeuvre and the fact that after her debut EP, Laurel had expressly desired to get rid off her voice as a principal feature of her music. It’s also something I haven’t heard somewhere else, not in this blunt starkness, and I admit that it took me a few spins to get comfortable with it. Quarantine is surely nothing you’d consider an “easy” album. But if you let yourself in for it, very soon the record will unfold its unrivalled gracefulness, with tracks that are among the most breathtaking I’ve come across in years, the likewise stunning and unsettling ‘MK Ultra’, for instance, a song that sends shivers down my spine each time Laurel intonates the bleak chorus; or ‘Carcass’ with its menacing synth disruptions at the start. When the last notes of the majestic closing track ‘Light + Space’ – already one of my songs of 2012 – have decayed, one realizes that Quarantine ultimately is the work of a restless explorer and a true musical modernist, never settling for the given and comfortable. And that, after all, is what I’m always hoping for when I listen to new music.
photo by Tim Saccenti
I guess 2011 must have been a good year for underground pop music, not least due to the fact that this was the year, and I think for the first time at least since I’ve started dealing with this stuff, that the music community finally had found something to actually talk about. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there’s not usually a good deal of blathering and chattering about all kinds of things peripherally related to music, but usually it’s not really about popular music itself. This year though, the music community, or at least the more reflective part of it, suddenly revolved mainly around itself after Simon Reynolds had published his book Retromania, postulating on some 500 pages that contemporary popular music is facing total creative stagnation in consequence of collectively being trapped in backward-leaning nostalgia. The impact of the rather simple thesis was astonishing, virtually everyone felt the need to respond – mostly in defence of the current scene. There were some rather fierce reactions, like Not Not Fun’s Amanda Brown bluntly stating that “the Simon Reynolds perspective is the least modern attitude one could have toward art”, and some more subtle, witty ones. But be it as it may, at least there was something to talk about, an opportunity to pause and to deliberate, and well, that’s a good thing, innit?
For me, one piece stood out of the bulk of Retromania-related articles though, Adam Harper’s essay “Borne Into The 90s” on Dummy, in which he thoroughly discussed the creative possibilities of the latest incursion of nostalgia into pop, the inevitable 90s revival. And indeed, many things in this year’s underground pop that obviously had that decade as their most obvious reference point were way too clever and sophisticated to be considered merely “retromaniac”. Take London via Tallinn artist Maria Minerva for instance, who had a stream of exciting releases in the last twelve months on Not Not Fun and its dance offspring 100% SILK. Everything in her music screams “EUROTRASH”, but it’s all so damn astutely constructed (or, rather, deconstructed) that there can be no doubt that this is a fresh, new, innovative thing.
Another project whose point of reference (albeit more subtly and even more ironically) in 90s mainstream pop culture is of course London duo Hype Williams, who also had a very prolific year, although I’m rather unsure if they still manage to live up to the expectations set by their first releases dropped in 2010. More precisely, the full-length One Nation on Hippos In Tanks is among the best releases of 2011, while the subsequent Kelly Price W8 Gain Vol. II EP on Hyperdub was rather disappointing to be honest, and I couldn’t help but sense a commencing creative exhaustion. Anyway, One Nation’s track “Businessline” is a true highlight of this year:
In any case, both members have embarked on very worthwhile solo endeavours, and what they’ve put out on their own this year not only shows a terrific amount of pop sensibility but also no sign of exhaustion whatsoever. Especially Inga Copeland’s untitled 12”, sold out within a few days, includes some of my favourite underground pop tunes of 2011.
The question posed by Reynolds in his book was of course basically, “How innovative do we have to be?”, and though this was supposed to challenge contemporary pop music in general, I guess it’s safe to say that the part of it that usually wouldn’t object to be labelled “experimental” naturally does care a lot more about these things. Now let’s be reminded that neglecting classic song writing structures and using some vintage analogue synths has never been either a sufficient or even necessary condition to be justifiably considered avant-garde – still, the most compelling response to Retromania was given by a guy who’d always been doing exactly that: James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual is so very 2011 that the claim that the current pop underground was lacking innovative forces seems almost absurd. Though of course we could discuss if a work like this should still be considered a piece of music in the strict sense of the term.
My absolute favourite of 2011 however was a rather unobtrusive cassette released by the tiny Californian label and artist collective Brunch Groupe. The self-titled tape by KWJAZ, the solo project by label founder Peter Berends, is just perfect in its pure, effortless hypnagogic bliss and has remained on heavy rotation all year long. After being sold out on cassette, the piece was reissued on 12” vinyl by Not Not Fun, and by the way, Reynolds and I apparently agree on this one– and so the circle is complete.
Everybody keeps talking about Maria Minerva these days, and of course there’s a reason for that. 2011 has clearly been her year, especially after her latest 12” Sacred & Profane Love, which is out now on Amanda Brown’s 100% SILK. It’s arguably her best work to date, though for me her music remains “beyond beats”, insofar as no matter how many flickering grooves Maria puts on, I still don’t see myself actually dancing to this:
Stream: Maria Minerva – Gloria:
Anyway, I wanted to talk about another artist, who’s been tirelessly prolific lately. I think, it was early this year when Emmanuel Ducret, author of the sadly defunct/sleeping blogs Delicious Scopitone and Grrrizzly, predicted that 2011 would become the year of Ela Orleans. And really, he was right, or rather he should have been, as her work continues to be criminally overlooked and underappreciated. Her new album Mars Is Heaven is a wonderful piece of disparate, sublime chamber pop, an LP, I can’t recommend enough.
Maria and Ela actually have quite a few things in common, though I’m aware that one should be careful with comparisons and generalizations here, as EB’s own Daniel Jones has rightly pointed out last week. Still, I didn’t want to point to a common ground as regards instrumentation – or the choice of musical styles more generally for that matter. Yet I think, it’s worthwhile to take a brief look at the similarities regarding their biographies, not only both being UK transplants, but also having been brought up behind the Iron Curtain, in Estonia and Poland, respectively. This fact at least may explain the unashamed enthusiasm towards the forbidden or at least untraceable Western music, that was en vogue during their childhoods, and that today heavily informs their own musical output – be it early rave/Eurotrash for Maria or punk/post punk for Ela. So it’s probably no surprise, that on Mars Is Heaven, Ela has paid tribute to Brygada Kryzys by covering their song ‘Take My Hand’, as it was one of the few Polish bands that even during the 80s “played and sang as well as my favorite western bands”, as she’s told me recently .
Video: Ela Orleans – Take My Hand:
Apart from this rather pop-embracing stuff, November has brought quite a few excellent releases in the more experimental realm as well. In particular the French psychedelic scene has gotten very exciting as of late, a fact, that has recently compelled French imprints Hands In The Dark and Ruralfaune to issue a roundup of some of the most interesting local psych acts. Travel Expop Series #1: France features contributions from Holy Strays, Cankun, Voodoo Mount Sister, and Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier, and serves as a commendable introduction to French experimental pop.
As for the latter, Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier aka Félicia Atkinson has also just put out an LP via Belgian label Aguirre. L’Enfant Sauvage is made up of slow-burning, massive layers of synth washes and noise loops that are only sparsely supported by any kind of rhythm, with a result that’s both eerie and deeply entrancing. At times the music is faintly reminiscent of Grouper’s introspective drone, in particular on ‘Love’, which you can listen to below.
Stream: Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier – Love (excerpt):
Probably the most well-known exponent of the French scene is the Parisian Max aka High Wolf, whose Not Not Fun release Ascension put him on everyone’s radar last year. Despite also being featured on Travel Expop with Voodoo Mount Sister, one of his numerous other projects (this one’s with the “French psych diva” Chicaloyoh), there’s a new High Wolf LP out on Holy Mountain. “Atlas Nation” could be called his excursion into world music tropes, as the album was inspired by a trip to India and Nepal, and some of the tracks get mystified by way of giving them exotic names like “Fuji Descent”, “Haiti”, and “Kenya Sunset”, that curiously all have nothing to do with either India or Nepal. In any case, the global influences show throughout the record and, though I’ve recently been told, that “Atlas Nation” does not at all represent High Wolf’s current artistic interests due to an unexpectedly long delay in releasing the LP, it is a powerful reminder of why Max is the undisputed master in the contemporary French underground.
Stream: High Wolf – Kenya Sunset
In particular after dropping Ascension via NNF, Max’s output has been likened to the work of LA psych god Cameron Stallones aka Sun Araw, indeed with some justification (they’ve even collaborated recently. Now while Stallones has embarked to explore antique myths on his latest full-length Ancient Romans, long-standing Sun Araw touring guitarist Alex Gray has progressed to further develop his very own style of guitar-based psychedelia with his solo project Deep Magic. Not so much travelling on the hypnagogic bandwagon, Gray’s latest effort is a masterpiece of immersion. The six untitled séances on Altars of Veneration, out now on Moon Glyph, let your mind travel along his gentle, heavily processed chord progressions, building up colourful soundscapes that’ll leave you all calm and pacified.
Stream: Deep Magic – Untitled II:
Apart from his own musical projects, Alex Gray also runs Deep Tapes, and coming to an end I’d like to briefly point to the cassette imprint’s latest release: Yod is the first work by Gross Bite, which is the trans-continental collaboration between Boulder, Colorado’s Nathan Wheeler and – quite elegantly bringing us back to France – Paris-based project kikiilimikilii. The tape is a rather demanding affair, noise and drone-heavy and focused on the percussive possibilities of seemingly all kinds of analogue devices, but above all it’s also a deeply satisfying work as it manages to provide a surprisingly coherent and tight effort.
Stream: Gross Bite – Ruby
This past month, more or less everyone kept talking about Daniel Lopatin and his forthcoming Oneohtrix Point Never LP Replica on Mexican Summer’s sub-label Software, which is run by himself and Joel Ford. However, I’d rather point to Airbird here, which is the solo project of Ford, who of course is not only the second founder of Software but also the other half of, you may have guessed it, the more synth pop-oriented duo Ford & Lopatin.
Airbird’s debut 12” City Vs. Mountains has just been released by Software, and it’s the single’s B-side, “Rotating Cloud”, that I think is of particular interest. It starts as straight ambient mainly consisting of slowly meandering synth patterns, yet halfway through the track surprisingly adopts not only a very straightforward beat but also some very decent layers of (supposedly sampled) saxophone, giving the whole thing a very clubby touch that almost puts it in line with the recent “hipster house” surge mainly championed by the Not Not Fun offspring 100% SILK.
Another highly prolific duo, though apparently now more or less defunct or on infinite hiatus, are The Skaters, long-standing legends of the LA noise underground, consisting of James Ferraro and Spencer Clark, who both have pretty much defined the genre of 80s mainstream culture-informed, muffled outsider pop for years.
Being signed to Hippos In Tanks now, in a way it seems that James Ferraro is becoming another underground artist following the path paved by Ariel Pink, recently John Maus, and soon Gary War, out of the murky shades of a sheer endless stream of cassette and CDr releases traded among a relentlessly hip yet small circle of insiders, into the glaring spotlights of indie superstardom. There’s a considerable difference of course, as Ferraro’s work is still, as it always has been, way less accessible than, say, Pink’s, and “Far Side Virtual” is no exception despite its inexorably polished, shiny surface.
Musically, being mainly assembled with default sounds found on Ferraro’s newly purchased MacBook Pro, and with track titles such as “Google Poeises”, the record is so very 2011 that it almost hurts. You might call it a massive piece of contemporary art, in a way bearing more resemblance to a sound installation than to an actual album. Seriously, this should probably be put in some museum, so when in 200 years people start wondering (for whatever reason) what the civilized world sounded like at beginning of the third millennium, all one needed to do would be to point to “Far Side Virtual”: Here it is, just listen.
James Ferraro – Earth Minutes
Meanwhile, his old partner in crime Spencer Clark has been busy himself, setting up another new project (apart from The Skaters, he’s been releasing as Monopoly Star Child Searchers and a bunch of other monikers) named Fourth World Magazine. He stays way closer to old Skaters stuff than Ferraro, so in case you miss that I suggest you go get The Spectacle Of Light Abductions via Pacific Sound Visions right away, it’s pretty awesome.
Fourth World Magazine – The Spectacle Of Light Abductions (Track 3 Excerpt)
Let’s dwell in hypnagogic pop realms just a little longer: Our beloved Joe Knight aka Rangers has recently dropped his second full-length Pan Am Stories on Not Not Fun, and this LP really is, no hyperbole, one of the finest releases of 2011. The record is a beautiful and nicely coherent effort, sonically somewhere between ’70s soft rock inspirations and swirling psychedelia. Knight has managed to create an incredibly compelling trip into your subconscious, like a faintly remembered daydream of those hazy late summer days just before the fall sets in.
Rangers – John Is The Last Of A Dying Breed
Another artist who’s adopted the melancholic fall mode is LA resident Nicolas Ray, otherwise known as Speculator – to my surprise, that even appears to happen to folks living in Southern California. Anyway, Ray has just put out new material as Cool Angels, though it’s not really all that different from his latest Speculator stuff – way dreamier, more longing, and maybe more song-oriented, sure, so that you could almost call it shoegaze, but apart from that it’s all still hidden behind a thick fog of tape hiss and reverb, just like the Speculator we’ve come to love. The release – Demure, out now digitally and soon on cassette via Gnar Tapes – has pretty much blown me away this morning, in particular the wonderful collaborations with Stef Hodapp of Young Prisms and Christa Palazzolo of Boyfriend. Take a listen to the beautiful “Are U Real” below.
Cool Angels – Are U Real (feat. Stef Hodapp)