Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Amazing – 'Pull'

Sweden's The Amazing are, predictably, amazing. They've been releasing albums since 2009, crafting music akin to Nick Drake reimagined by early Verve. (Plus it doesn't hinder matters to have Dungen's masterful Reine Fiske on electric guitar.)

In-keeping with their apposite band name, new song 'Pull' really pulls you in with its density and gravitas. It's an exquisite bummer of a track, fading gently into existence and lolling around in gorgeous melancholy for the majority of its 7.5-minute run-time. But there are at least two alchemical moments when the song shifts into another dimension and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The first point of take-off is 2:13, when fresh waves of heavily effected guitars loom into view, carrying the song into similar territory to My Bloody Valentine. Then, at 4:56, the dreamy guitars get sucked through a flanger (a classic Slowdive trick), making the song soar even more majestically.

While there's currently no mention of a new album, fingers crossed that 'Pull' is taken from a forthcoming record that will no doubt prove to be another essential addition to The Amazing's stellar discography.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Sleep Decade – Collapse

While I can identify plenty of beloved precedents for Sleep Decade’s new album Collapse – Bark Psychosis, Low and Slint come to mind – there’s a dark magic at work here that makes it unique, rather than a studied retread of atmospheric guitar music of years gone by. Everything about Collapse feels carefully considered to extract maximum resonance from minimum instrumental ingredients – and the effects are devastating.

Upon first listen there’s an immediate sense of weight to the sound, thanks to meticulous production work from Casey Hartnett, Nick Huggins and Lawrence Greenwood, and mastering by the legendary Rashad Becker. However, Collapse is no one-dimensional doom-fest. The poised performances and enveloping low end are counterbalanced beautifully by the vulnerability of Hartnett’s vocals, especially when he is joined by Laura Baxter on ‘Bind Particles’ and ‘Hologram’ to trace out the lyrics’ faintly hopeful refrains. Quicksilver bursts of brass, woodwinds and synthesizer shine aching light on these emotive soundscapes.

Bookended by instrumentals, the songwriting on Collapse constantly feels threatened by entropy, with both ‘Transparent’ and ‘Bind Particles’ bleeding out in gaseous swells of tone. On the climactic ‘Exploding Suns’, a more destructive force leans in to clear a path, but rather than erupt into a cathartic storm of fuzz and noise, the restraint is unbelievable, reminiscent of how Earth sustain such churningly slow, gouging tempos. On the concluding title track, there’s no sense of resolution, just dissolution as billowing clouds of synth and brass lay waste to the sonic field.

A deeply immersive listen, and occasionally overwhelming, Collapse is definitely worth investing time in. It’s far from a summery experience, but as the Australian autumn approaches, I foresee spending plenty of fruitful headphone hours exploring its shadowy depths.

[Collapse is available in digital and vinyl formats from Sleep Decade’s Bandcamp page.]

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Auburn Lull – Hypha

Back when I used to buy CDs, I ended up with two copies of Auburn Lull’s 1999 debut, Alone I Admire, which is a majestic slice of dreamy guitar surge. Comparing that cloud-scaling opus with new album Hypha, their first album in nine years, is like comparing a cathedral to a meticulously maintained garden. I stand in awed witness to Alone I Admire, amen; I live inside Hypha’s minutely detailed ecosystem and feel the profound loneliness of nature.

Thanks to being on emailing terms with Auburn Lull’s Jason Kolb, I’ve learned that the sound of Hypha evolved from the band taking battery-powered music gear on camping trips. Kolb describes these trips as “electronic/pulse-heavy sessions in the middle of nowhere, with the sound of wind, crickets, birds, etc. in the background and the natural reverb of the surroundings”. Knowing this makes perfect sense when listening to these 36 minutes of carefully crafted sound.  

While the band’s Hiber EP (released on cassette in 2014 by Geographic North), plus two albums by Billow Observatory (Kolb’s collaboration with Jonas Munk), partly prepared me for Hypha’s minimalism, I’m still coming to terms with exactly how minimal it is. At times, listening to Hypha feels like walking into a stark white room, turning around and not being able to find the door.

Despite spending several months with this record, I still feel as though it’s evading my efforts to apprehend its secrets. To step inside its intimidating, glacial spaces means being rendered paralysingly lonely by the music, while being simultaneously reassured by Sean Heenan’s comforting vocal presence and koan-esque lyrical fragments. It’s a work of art that makes me feel all-too human – and for that I feel thankful.  

Thursday, 7 December 2017

My 10 favourite albums of 2017

1. Chad VanGaalen – Light Information (Sub Pop)
The man who produced Women’s eternal Public Strain offers up his own bid for eternity with his best solo album to date, a masterful take on guitar pop that takes a skewed look at 21st-century consciousness and offers a pillow for our wounded souls.

2. Art Feynman – Blasting Off Through the Wicker (Western Vinyl)
The man behind Here We Go Magic goes minimal, goes deep, and lays it all out on four track like a lo-fi road map. Head-noddy, funky and scratches all of my itches at once. A worthy successor to Arthur Russell.

3. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins (RCA)
The four Grizzlies have left Brooklyn and scattered themselves across America, and in the process have created their deepest, darkest, most satisfying record to date. Ed Droste’s divorce may have been off limits to interviewers, but the pain of something ending and the hope of something beginning permeates this record like shadows and daylight.

4. Richard Dawson – Peasant (Weird World)
The one-of-a-kind songsmith from Newcastle has crafted an epic record as gnarled and beautiful as a storm-damaged tree. A righteous call for community at a time of individualism, narcissism and violence.

5. Machine Translations – Oh (Spunk)
Greg Walker follows up my favourite album of 2013 with my close-to-favourite album of 2017, the songwriting as excellent as ever, but ricocheting with more pitch-bent guitars.

6. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
Like shining an ultraviolet light on the ocean, Sumney shows us how deep human loneliness goes. And it’s deep. Falsetto of the year, too.

7. Rafael Anton Irisarri – The Shameless Years (Umor Rex)
Every year there’s one ambient/drone/noise album that turns me inside-out. This year it was made by the man formerly known as The Sight Below. He sends us ploughing face-first into the earth’s crust, delving down, down, down into gorgeous aching misery, churning onward until you see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s blinding.

8. Liars – TFCF (Mute)
Angus Andrews is as beautifully incomprehensible as ever. TFCF keeps me listening because I have no fucking idea what’s going on. Despite this, and probably because of it, I know it’s brilliant.

9. Sontag Shogun – Patterns for Resonant Space (Youngbloods)
A wonderfully minimal, tactile record. Its creation started off with samples, then was decorated with delicate piano, rather than the other way around. Like receiving a massage from insects.

10. Everything Everything – A Fever Dream (Sony)
I don’t normally like epic, danceable rock, but Everything Everything are smart enough to juxtapose their shamelessly anthemic melodies with just enough left-field production wizardry to keep things compelling. A fist-pumper for the apocalypse.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Feather Beds – Blooming

Michael Orange (The Star Department, Soft Bones) is a chef of the sublime, bringing familiar musical elements together so beautifully that it occasionally defies belief. Don’t get me wrong, the recipe is simple: impossibly dreamy washes of guitars, synths and other hard-to-identify textures, juxtaposed against crisp drum patterns. On recent single ‘Soft Yellow’, the real magic lies in the drop at 2:29 – the moment after the break when the beat returns, ratcheted up a notch, and the song starts to run away at a heady clip, chased by a gorgeous synth melody, raising the hairs on the back of your neck. Get a load of this:

Elsewhere, the momentum is sustained from the get-go by surges of guitars ('Drip Feed'), or is withheld in favour of vertiginous, atmospheric drifting ('Fear of Water'). While Feather Beds' debut The Skeletal System sounded more vulnerable and home-spun, Blooming feels lush and robust, able to carry the listener a significant distance, suspended aloft on clouds of ambient-pop.

The only criticism I could level at this release is that Michael’s vocal melodies tend to follow a similar contour from song to song, but when the overall feel of the album is this beatific, such nit-picking feels mean-spirited. Especially when not a moment is wasted across these 35 minutes. The only option is to go back for more.

And the more I listen to Blooming, the more it keeps, y’know, what’s the word...

[Blooming is released on Moderna Records on 27th October.]

Monday, 26 June 2017

Richard Dawson – Peasant

I don't know where we're going. What does our future hold? I worry about the world my daughter will inherit in the coming decades. During my journey to and from work, I observe my fellow commuters and feel alternately repulsed by them and deeply affectionate towards them. At our core we're all the same, and wherever we're going, we're going together – but our experience of that future will diverge wildly depending on where in society we find ourselves.

These divergent experiences are explored in vivid and moving detail on Richard Dawson's new album, Peasant. Individual tracks tell the story of different characters: 'Soldier', 'Weaver', 'Prostitute', 'Scientist', etc. However, no matter where in society these roles are played out, Dawson gives equal weight to their trials and tribulations. Everyone suffers. Everyone struggles. Everyone has their own cross to bear.

Dawson's wildly expressive voice and guitar playing have been a constant throughout his discography, but on Peasant we also find a massed choir of voices and strings, foot stomping and clapping, a herald of brass dissolving into tragi-comic parps. It's long, it's dark and dirty, and it's the most moving album I've heard in a fair while. 

For such a harrowing journey, Dawson has wisely front-loaded the album with the more accessible songs: the rousing 'Ogre', the sweetly sad 'Soldier', the hurtling 'Weaver'. From then on, although things become more knotty and bleak – especially during the nightmarish 'Scientist' and the climax of finale 'Masseuse' – individual songs have plenty of light and shade, whether it's Dawson's voice reaching delicately into the higher registers, meandering passages of slack-tuned guitar, or thunderous riffing that has more in common with metal than folk. It's a deeply disorientating and immersive journey.

While Peasant depicts plenty of suffering, the overall tone is one of hope and deep empathy. Ultimately, I'm reminded of a line from W.H. Auden's poem 'September 1, 1939': "We must love one another or die." Thank you, Richard, for creating such a raw, evocative and poetic album. Whether it will help us as we cascade towards oblivion is another matter... 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Jonathan David Shaw – Waa

Here's a first for dots and loops: a guest review! A good job too, as I haven't written much lately, plus it's an album by Jonathan David Shaw, the lead singer and acoustic guitarist in my band, Summon the Birds. This review of Jon's new solo album Waa comes courtesy of C.J. Lahey...

Armed with an acoustic guitar, vocals and late-night candle-lit eiderdown reverb, Jonathan David Shaw (JDS) delivers what could be his most accessible album since 2005’s conceptual Boo.

What delineates this from JDS’s other works is a certainty that steers the album confidently through 13 lush tracks. The welcome mat track, 'Overture', is an appropriately sized and framed instrumental blueprint through which the album unveils.

JDS’s vocals, while not hardening in the sense of cement, are certainly more defined, stronger and more purposeful than in the past. In Waa, the way his vocals shape his lyrics is almost akin to a melodic actor, allowing the dense and earthy imagery of his words to form. Tracks like ‘Bird on a Branch’, ‘Run Like You're Never Still’ and ‘Bird Knows Where You Are’ are the best reflections of this, where along with his vocals and accents, JDS peppers his delivery with poignant and purposeful pauses.

Another aspect that gives Waa wings lies in the guitar work. While always working as the foundation upon which JDS and Marlene Samson sing, JDS's fingerpicking style adds a nuance and flair that elevates these songs. A special note to the engineer, who allows the album to develop a sonic signature within the tasteful reverb that the songs soak in.

A return to form for the Melbourne balladeer; we hope he finds time in his busy schedule to tour it.

– C.J. Lahey

Waa is available to download via Bandcamp, and to stream via Spotify.