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The best new albums this week

The albums you need to know about


David Sylvian – Sleepwalkers / Grönland / Manafon / Blemish (Samadhisound/UMC)

Despite having the most distinctive of voices, David Sylvian has increasingly become one of the most enigmatic of artists. His preference is not to give interviews and that reluctance is perhaps understandable when all anyone seems to want is Japan this and Japan that. In case anyone needs reminding, Japan split up in 1982 and artists like Sylvian need to push forwards, no matter how much everyone else wants to look backwards.

What’s more there’s a whole bunch of excellent solo releases well worth exploring. Handily, many of them are getting the reissue treatment right now. There was a burst of activity in 2019 when Grönland rolled out 180 gram versions of  ‘Brilliant Trees’, ‘Gone To Earth’ and ‘Secrets Of The Beehive’ (his first three solo outings spanning 1984-87) as well as ‘Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities’, which centres around ‘Steel Cathedrals’, a 19-minute improvisation with Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Grönland also kick off this latest round of reissues with 2010’s ‘Sleepwalkers’, which collects collaborative pieces created between 2003’s ‘Blemish’ and 2009’s ‘Manafon’… helpfully, both of those albums also reappear, via his own Samadhisound label, making a rather delicious noughties Sylvian feast.

‘Sleepwalkers’ comes “revised and remastered” and is available on vinyl for first time. This new version sees the inclusion of the previously unreleased ‘Modern Interiors’, a collaboration with Jan Bang composed in response to Fukushima tsunami in 2011, and the excellent 2013 solo single ‘Do You Know Me Now?’ Curiously, they replace two tracks from the original, both collaborations with his brother Steve Jansen.

As Sylvian fans will know, vinyl copies of ‘Blemish’ and ‘Manafon’, both out of print since their initial pressings in the early 2000s, are rare as you like and change hands for silly money, so these reissues will be very welcome (unless you’re trying to unload a rare copy of the originals). They’re both experimental ambient offerings, and mark quite a departure from, well, pretty much anything Sylvian had done before. The closest he’d come are would be the late-80s improvisational Holger Czukay collaborations, ‘Plight & Premonition’ and ‘Flux + Mutability’, which were both reissued in 2018.

Anyway, ‘Blemish’, the first solo album to be released on his own label, is an incredibly personal record, marking the end of his marriage with Ingrid Chavez. Created from improvised sessions, both on his own and with free jazz guitarist Derek Bailey and electronic producer/guitarist Christian Fennesz, it’s musically sparse and lyrically raw. At the time Sylvian noted: “I wanted to get into those difficult emotions, and penetrate them as deeply as I felt I was capable of doing… finding a voice for them was so cathartic.”

While some of the tracks are challenging listens, others, like the hypnotic pulse of ‘The Heart Knows Better’, the handclaps and skewed chords of ‘Late Night Shopping’ and the electronic shimmers of ‘A Fire In The Forest’, are utterly captivating.

Upon its release, Sylvian described ‘Manafon’ as “a modern kind of chamber music”. Recorded in London, Vienna and Tokyo, it expanded on the free improv theme and found him working with a raft of talented players including saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarists Keith Rowe and Christian Fennesz (again), experimental electronic artist Sachiko M, multi-instrumentalist Otomo Yoshihide, pianist John Tilbury and members of Viennese improv group Polwechsel. 

The results are adventurous to say the least. On ‘Random Acts Of Senseless Violence’ there’s flashes of sound – a stifled strum of a guitar, a half-tinkle of piano keys. You expect something to explode from somewhere – the glimpse of mournful strings in the opening of ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ is promising, but the whole thing lives on a tight leash and is all the better for those tensions. There’s also some wonderful lyrics on show, ‘Snow White In Appalachia’ is a favourite with lines such as “It would take bad news and provisions to get out alive”.

The exquisite fragility of Sylvian’s voice is magnificent across both these records, but then you’d listen to him singing a shopping list. How easy would it have been for him to sustain a career knocking out variations on ‘Brilliant Trees’ and basking in the Japan limelight? Thank goodness nothing short of pushing forward into these kinds of territories won the day. A true maverick at work, these records need hearing.


Calm – Before (Hell Yeah)

There’s so much to love about the always engaging output of Italian label, Hell Yeah! Recordings. While their extended archives have veered through proudly disparate sonic realms, their recent output has generally faced west towards morphing sunset skies, with blissed-out Balearic wonder glistening through the catalogue over the last few years. Their latest long-player arrived from revered Japanese artist, Fukagawa Kiyotaka, who once again dons his familiar Calm moniker to present a gorgeously meditative collection of works on ‘Before’. Calm has been releasing dazzling jazz-informed and horizontally-pitched music for decades. Arriving on labels including Music Conception, Disorient and Music For Dreams, he appears to have found a happy home at Casa Hell Yeah since his ‘By Your Side’ album appeared on the label roster, with a series of remix singles following its 2018 release.

The tone is set from the very first moment, with soul-soothing swells lapping at psycho-spiritual shores via the dreamy flutes, evocative pads and virtuoso sax solos of opener ‘Beauty On Earth’. The celestial introspection continues into the wildly atmospheric ‘Long Summer Dream’, before the dextrous keys, splashy jazz drums and live room feel of ‘Blue In Void’ elegantly highlights Kiyotaka’s supreme compositional mastery. ‘Liminal Moment’ is perhaps the most hallucinatory episode of the collection, with emotive strings gliding between simmering arpeggios and ethereal effects before fizzing synth chords rise in to solidify the airy instrumentation.

Sunset anthem ‘I Love You’ is a certified spine-tingler, with heavenly orchestration blissfully combining for an awe-inspiring reflective pause, while the gravitational jazz rhythm of ‘Feel It’ welcomes breezy piano solos and distant echoes over an irresistible drum groove. ‘Before Sunrise Blue’ is another arresting highlight, imbued with the power to freeze time as effortless textures combine to perfection, while the tension-building waves of ‘Kunpoo’ endlessly cascade for yet more heartfelt contemplation. ‘Freedom Sunset’ intoxicates as it unfurls with luminous threads impossibly intertwined over a meandering arrangement until closing track ‘Let’s Make Harmony’ sees concludes the most enriching of musical journeys with harmonious sax, synth and guitar motifs peacefully rippling over free-flowing drums. This is genuinely staggering work from Calm, a complete collection that reveals seemingly endless sonic secrets with each listen. Nothing short of timeless.


M. Geddes Gengras & Psychic Reality – The Encyclopedia Of Civilizations Vol 4: Zoroaster (Abstracke)

The Encyclopedia Of Civilizations series on Abstracke is an intriguing proposition in which the Spanish experimental label bring together two artists to explore an ancient culture. Previously, the series ran as split discs featuring artists such as Ariel Kalma and Jonathan Fitoussi exploring India, or Bitchin Bajas and DSR Lines ruminating on Atlantis. Now they invite Californian synth oddball M. Geddes Gengras and Brooklyn pop dreamer Psychic Reality to ruminate on the time of Zoroaster, an Iranian prophet who pioneered the idea of one god rather than many.

Zoroaster is an ambiguous figure – it’s not clear when exactly he lived, or where, but his legacy on civilization reaches far and wide. In the accompanying text for this album, Leyna Noel (Psychic Reality) posits the idea that it was Zoroaster’s preaching that ushered in the era of patriarchy and the end of goddess worship. It’s a fascinating, albeit depressing, area of human development for Noel and Gengras to use as a jump off point for their extended instrumental explorations, although the pair make the point they’re also trying to revive the cult of goddesses in this work.

Sonically, Zoroaster plays out across interpretive landscapes – multi-layered, dynamic topography full of expressive synth trysts, shimmering feedback and pattering rhythms. In terms of the feeling it evokes, there’s a sparse, open-sky mood that stops short of desert desolation. It’s the sound of culture in development, where potential and possibility walk alongside mystery and uncertainty. The pieces function as slowly unfurling systems with no discernible beginning, middle or end, as though pulled from an improvisational run. Whether that’s an accurate reading or not, the natural ebb and flow of the music is a foil to the intricate detail and expressive skill Noel and Gengras bring to this record. Immersive and elegant, but never excessive, it’s a wonderful addition to a series which is becoming one of the stanfout facets in Abstracke’s impressive catalogue.


Pianos Become The Teeth – Drift (Epitaph)
When Baltimore’s Pianos Become The Teeth first shifted their sound from screamo-inflected post-hardcore to a more nuanced form of indie post-rock, the move received as many detractors as it did new followers.

2015’s Keep You was a stark departure from the chaotic despondency of its two predecessors, Old Pride, and, The Lack Long After. While the band’s material has often centred around vocalist Kyle Durfey’s father, and the multiple sclerosis that would eventually take his life; their third effort saw Durfey finally processing the grief of losing his parent after such a long battle.

Rather than give into the anger and rage exorcised on earlier recordings, the melodious turn brought the stage of acceptance to an ethereal level, with Durfey trading his frantic screams for a lush croon, invoking almost an emo reimagining of The National. 2018’s, Wait For Love, would continue this sonic trajectory while lyrically focusing on the healing power of connectivity, as well as the newfound surroundings of marriage and fatherhood. 

It’s been a tough, rewarding, cathartic process from project to project, hearing Durfey’s state of mind and being develop and progress over time, with the musical bedrock in a constant state of flux.

In the four years that have passed since their previous endeavour, the world has become a much bleaker and uncertain place, and ‘Drift’ encapsulates this looming dread with the band’s darkest work in over a decade.

Trading the uplifting composition of recent efforts for an obtuse, meandering, almost no wave style, provides ample room for Durfey to reflect on his grief, happiness, family, and the failed attempts to compartmentalise.

From the swelling jolts of opener, ‘Out Of Sight’, directly into the dissonant hue found on lead single, ‘Genevieve’, there’s a cryptic sense that something is wrong; a subtle yet menacing presence imbued and embedded within the fractured design.

Drummer David Haik continues to be the fulcrum that consistently provides urgency to the hazy pieces, with energetic precision lifting cuts like, ‘The Tricks’, from cavernous nihilism to more euphoric, upbeat internalisation. There’s also more of a semblance of their energetic origins on cuts like the brief yet anthemic, ‘Hate Chase’, while the standout single, ‘Buckley’, swells from minimal delicacy to an evocative finish, with Durfey’s vocals layered to audibly illustrate conflicting emotions, with echoing howls buried under the more serene, muted delivery.

While ‘Drift’ won’t appease those still pining for the aggression of old, Pianos… have managed that seemingly impossible task of weaving their past urgency into the more nuanced, expansive, introspective artform they’ve now made their rightful home. This isn’t the sound of getting better, but the awareness that the search for betterment is paramount and pressing.


String – Last Index Of… (VIS)

Anything attached to Georgia comes with a presumption for otherness. The NYC duo of Justin Tripp and Brain Close has been confounding conventional structures in music for over 10 years, and as they continue on their singular path so the individual actors head off on other intriguing trajectories too. String is a new project from Tripp and Zaheer Gulamhusein, a UK based artist involved in projects like Waswaas and XVARR. Gulamhusein’s own experimental bent guarantees a partnership with Tripp is going to be an outré affair, and Last Index Of… doesn’t disappoint.

It wouldn’t be right to call this an ambient album, even if it’s bereft of drums or indeed many rhythmic melodic patterns. The tonal plates shift and creak with an uneasy intensity, sounding on ‘From The End To The Beginning’ like a tectonic rumbling which might well dislodge the ground beneath your feet. There are playful elements such as the dislodged big band parps which try to cut through on ‘World Line’ while ‘Plus Operator’ reaches for a fizzy ecstasy in its highly strung swirl of rapid arps. It’s obscure, but rarely po faced. Even in the murky chambers of ‘Fringe’, the choral synth voices cut through the gloom and bring relief to the artfully sculpted dungeon space defined by the artful sound design.

This interplay between technically advanced production and a spirited sound palette keeps you engaged no matter how far out Tripp and Gulamhusein voyage. Last Index Of… isn’t designed to offer an easy listening experience, but it doesn’t struggle to take you on its journey. That’s no easy thing to pull off when you’re dealing in such wild, untamed spheres of sound.


Vermin Womb – Retaliation (Closed Casket Activities)
In the six years since Denver, Colorado based grindcore outfit, Vermin Womb, dropped their debut full-length, ‘Decline’, the world has been in a state of just that.

The trio’s wall of noise approach melds death metal, hardcore punk and grind together in a caustic, unforgiving manner that’s as intimidating as it is impenetrable. With an ethos rooted in the horrors of our modern times, ‘Retaliation’, seems timely and vital.

As extreme metal is arguably in one of the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) stages of its tenure, the combination of earnest disgust and frustration due to modern social awareness, infused with studious composition focused solely on audible violence and unsettling atmospherics, makes for a truly punishing work, that feels far more claustrophobic and inescapable than its 20+ minute runtime would allow one to perceive.

Primarily, the brainchild of Ethan Lee McCarthy (known for the cavernous doom-sludge of Primitive Man), Vermin Womb are the antonym to that project’s lengthy, harrowing pieces, with literally two of the twelve tracks here making it over the 2-minute mark; keeping in mind that one of these cuts is the harsh-noise droning, ‘Ambulance’, which is the closest thing offered to any form of respite.

Even the literal 39-second sonic car crash of, ‘Not One Regular Person Has Been Unharmed & No One Is Innocent’, possess more dour, unhinged, malevolent bile than legions of any would be contemporaries. Take note, this is a harsh, oppressive work, far too vindictive and appalled to even consider its reception or perception. It’s brutal retaliation, and nothing more.


Moiré – Circuits (Avenue 66)

Moiré is one of those artists who exists outside the usual thrust of music as a production line industry game. Since first emerging in 2013 with a drop on Actress’ Werk Discs he’s gone on to release a solid body of work on some notable labels, but it’s seemed to move at its own pace, on its own terms. That is largely to do with the sound itself, which overrides the presence and prominence of Ninja Tune, Ghostly or Hypercolour to simply present itself on its own terms. Smudged and subtly awkward, Moiré seemed more of a musical misfit 10 years ago, but there are plenty of artists taking their music in weird directions now. However, Moiré remains a unique proposition, and that carries through on this new LP for Avenue 66.

There is still a 4/4 pulse which informs many of the musical structures on Circuits, but like the most imaginative approaches to such heavily mined rhythms, the framework becomes a mere springboard for something far greater. ‘Circuit 15’ especially is testament to this, with the hiccup of a submerged kick the only anchor for a widescreen quest across open plains. The emotional charge of the blown out synth parts is straight from the melancholic 90s electronica playbook, but that doesn’t lessen its power. In his use of texture, his pacing of the sonic narrative and the ebb and flow of the mix, Moiré tells a story which grips you instantly.

It’s not all house-minded beats either, as is evident with plenty of the other varied tempos and patterns informing the record. In that sense, Circuits lands like a consummate home listening trip. At times you’re reminded of the best of Border Community, but there’s a grittiness in the sound which shakes of the sometimes twee qualities found in Nathan Fake and James Holden’s early work. What does shine through is that soulful centre to the music, where it’s OK to be open-hearted rather than hiding feeling behind the technology – so often a pitfall of electronica artists. At all times Circuits seems geared towards eliciting an emotion, and for that reason it’s all the more compelling.


Second Woman – Second Woman (Spectrum Spools)

Second Woman’s second LP gave us pause, at least for a second. It was late 2020, and this reviewer was trawling the depths of Soundcloud. Stumbling across a mix by Good Morning Tapes’ DJ Biscuit – a mix dedicated to mycelium and fungi – one track in particular stood out. It seemed to stop and start through effortless fluctuations in tempo and tone, big-banging and big-crunching again and again and again, through synthetic chords and claps. It sounded rather like a Moritz Von Oswald version of the ghost girl from The Grudge, slowly raising and lowering the pitch of her growl. We had to find out what the track was.

Unusual for a diggers’-delightful, headsy DJ mix from Soundcloud, the tune was but one Shazam away. Known as 100407jd7, it was the first track on a self-titled album by an artist known as Second Woman. Ascribing a name and identity to such an ‘artist’ proved elusive; Second Woman are actually two men; Turk Dietrich of New Orleans-based Belong, and Joshua Eustis of the renowned Telefon Tel Aviv. 

Released in 2016, the ‘Second Woman’ LP appeared in the bang of the deconstructed club micro-movement, but also fell back on ambient dub. Its magnificent scope isn’t just limited to the entheogenic opener; every track on here plays back like the restless ponderings of a lost Boltzmann brain, trying to make sense of its existence and second-gu just aboutessing every beat. Most tracks – from the minimal workshop that is 300528mj1 to the twisted pulse-soarer that is 600249li9- rivets and knots of tempo make themselves knowable, before unscrewing or untying themselves into formlessness once again. 

Only on a couple of tracks do we find a moments’ rest; 500609sp3 sounds like a steady IDM interpretation for tracheostomy tube-breathing. Overall, though, the album ends on the same note it started on. This is button-pressed dub pointillism for the highly sensitive, for those who can hack deep-dive Soundcloud trawls without going mad.


Bitchin Bajas – Bajascillators (Drag City)

Elegantly meandering back into earshot in the wake of their Switched On Ra LP, Bitchin Bajas return with some freshly elevated, psychedelically-charged sonics. Given the bold move to render covers of some seminal Sun Ra works last time around, this new four-track album finds them on steadier ground as their electro-acoustic hybrid meditations render unique, sparkling forms with their own distinct charms.

‘Amorpha’ is the consummate minimal modulation, all cascading chimes falling in repetitive hypnosis with ample room to bloom and swirl across 10 minutes of unadulterated beauty. ‘Geomancy’ weighs things right down in comparison, emphasising horizontal drones with a hurdy gurdy patina, loping, sea-faring bass and scattered mid-frequency flourishes.

The B-side finds the Bajas indulging their kosmische tendencies, first with the wide open synth warbles and flute flurries of ‘World B. Free’ and then with the powerful closing motorisms of ‘QuakenbrÅck’. The latter follows up on a limited 7” from earlier this year which featured a version and dub of the track, and it manifests as a golden era krautrock journey in its full form, thrumming ahead as the final quarter of a record which shows off Bitchin Bajas at their ascendant best.  


This week’s reviewers: Zach Buggy, Oli Warwick, Neil Mason, Patrizio Cavaliere.