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As I say every year (every day, more like), I would be lost without music: it’s my oxygen, my water, my heart-beat. There is no point comparing it to reading or writing – literature is a whole other world – but music certainly forms an aesthetic space that I adore. As I’ll touch on below, my taste is evolving, as it should; I seem to be searching for beauty more than ever. But, in the main, it’s not a pretty kind of beauty. There has to be light and shadow, darkness even, and edginess, even ugliness. In short the music needs to express the full range of human experience. Sheesh, as if that’s even possible. Thankfully, composers, songwriters and musicians are up for the challenge.

Anyway, enough rambling. Here we go.

puberty-2Mitski is a conservatorium-trained alternative rock musician from New York and, quite frankly, Puberty 2 is one of the most enjoyable records I’ve bought in a long while, though it’s oddly difficult to describe. Here are a few words that may help: low-fi, angular, gutsy, poetic, PJ Harvey-esque, a touch of Weezer, and melancholic (of course). This is certainly a record to turn up loud so you can air-guitar to the knowledge that love is sublime, fraught, messy, and infuriating. ‘Your Best American Girl’ is an almost orgasmic rush of alt-rock goodness. Also have a listen to ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’. Tough, but highly memorable.

Centres by Ian William Craig got me on first listen and it has not let me go. It’s such an elegant mix of keyboard washes and drones, topped with loads of treated voice (Craig is a trained singer). All up, it’s a little like M83, but without the cheesy 1980s pastiche. Album opener ‘Contain’ is the perfect place to start. Great that the album finishes with an acoustic version of the opening track, proving that despite all the studio-trickery there are real songs at the heart of this work.

kiasmosKiasmos by Kiasmos: even though this album dates from 2014 and I’ve long been a fan of Ólafur Arnalds, I only discovered this in the last few months; I knew immediately that it would be one of my favourites of the year. Kiasmos is intricate, smart, thumping, and – that word again – beautiful. If excellent dance music moves the head, the heart, the crotch, and the legs, this album is beyond excellent. A stunning collaboration between Arnolds as composer and Janus Rasmussen as DJ. Here’s hoping they are working on another record, because I must admit: I can’t play Kiasmos without turning out the lights and dancing like no one’s watching.

In my list for last year I briefly mentioned that I had discovered Floating Points and liked what I’d heard. Well, didn’t things go gangbusters from there. Floating Points is essentially one person, Sam Shepherd (another conservatorium-trained composer), and his Elaenia album is as near-perfect as you’re going to get. A little glitchy, oddly funky, more than a bit jazz-inflected, on paper this album is a contradiction, but once you connect with it you’ll find yourself drifting into a galaxy where heartbeats pulse and surprise and, yes, float.

It’s hardly startling, but as I get a bit long in the tooth I’m interested less in alternative rock (Mitski being an exception) and more interested in ‘new music’, especially the sort at the minimal – and, dare I say it, left-field – end of the spectrum. Dmitry Evgrafov’s Collage album is gorgeous, even pretty (that terrible word), but always keen on strange twists and turns. ‘Cries and Whispers’ is reminiscent of the The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble , while other pieces are washed in Sigur Ros-like aesthetics. Evgrafov is certainly a new composer to watch.

chopin-projectSpeaking of composers to watch, Ólafur Arnalds is everywhere at the moment, including further up in this list as one half of Kiasmos. On The Chopin Project, he collaborates with Alice Sara Ott on the recomposition of the famous composer’s work. As Arnalds says in the lines notes, ‘By looking at his music in a different way, through the prism of recording technique in its different facets and through my own compositions, I didn’t intent to question the integrity of Chopin’s music. I wanted to find my very personal interpretation, like so many other great musicians have done before me.’ A subtle, wonderful success.

Dag Rosenquist’s Elephant is at times an unsettling listen: there’s a fair amount of static, a lot of repetitive piano tinkling, and, every so often, blasts of sheer noise. But there’s also plenty of beauty to be found, as well as some artful orchestration. ‘Come Silence’ is the most accessible piece here – it’s a gorgeous combination of slow-building keyboards and horns and then strings, before a Jan Garbarek-like saxophone brings us home. Stunning.

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Burial: mysterious, magnificent

Burial: mysterious, magnificent

No reading, no writing, no chooks
I’m in the middle of a Burial festival, and I might be here for some time, no reading, no writing, no chooks, no buying stupid old shit, just Burial. That capitalised B is important, because I’m not talking about an act or event (though I might be, I suppose), but a music, and it could really be a type of music. Before I get carried away, which, as you probably know, is a common occurrence around these parts, Burial is a dub-step/2-step garage/electronica producer from London, UK. Extremely reclusive to the point that for the first five or so years of his practice no one knew who he was, Burial was sometimes said to be in reality a persona of other musicians or artists, including Four Tet, and even Banksy for Christ’s sake. Burial is, however, just a bloke called William Bevan. Who happens to be one of the most extraordinary music producers of the last twenty years.

Doing the opposite
Burial’s self-titled first album (2006) was sparse and beats-heavy, intricately produced but perhaps a little cold aesthetically. On Untrue, released the following year, Burial started working with twisted, distorted vocals to remarkable effect, although some might have found the jaggered rhythms and reliance on constant glitches and scratches and drops for atmosphere grating to the point of distraction. It’s true that Burial’s music often sounds like it’s been made in a dripping toilet with a wild thunderstorm going on outside. Since Untrue, perhaps exhausted from creating a piece of work that’s uniformly magnificent (the record was nominated for the 2008 Mercury Prize), Burial has been spending his time collaborating (Exhibit A: with Four Tet on ‘Moth’), creating a series of celebrated remixes (Exhibits B and C: a haunting, muddy reworking of Massive Attack’s ‘Paradise Circus’, or, if you really want to head into very dark terrain, his remix of Massive Attack’s ‘Four Walls’) and a set of a EPs available for digital download and on limited edition vinyl. Most musicians seem to go from rough to polish, but Burial appears to be doing the exact opposite, while becoming increasingly artful in the process.

Burial's 'Rival Dealer': more mysterious, more magnificent

Burial’s ‘Rival Dealer’: even more mysterious, even more magnificent

I’m going to love you more than anyone
So we have Kindred, Rough Sleeper and, released late last year with almost no fanfare, now Rival Dealer. Are EPs music’s equivalent of novellas? Burial may well answer yes: despite their brevity, in his hands they are deep and expansive and profoundly affecting. Dance and electronica are often charged with being hedonistic, insular, and ultimately vacuous, but Burial has described his latest three-song collection as his anti-bullying statement. In fact, he’s gone further: ‘It’s like an angel’s spell to protect [the bullied] against the unkind people, the dark times, and the self-doubts.’ But easy-listening this is not. Despite vocal grabs including ‘come down to us’ and ‘I’m going to love you more than anyone’ and ‘tonight we feel alive’, ‘Rival Dealer’ the song is a frantic, urgent, beautiful mess centring on a sample that sounds like it comes from screeching brakes; the whole construction stops, it starts, it collapses, it turns in on itself; it sounds as though someone’s escaping torment. Proceedings ease up with the brief (a 5-minute duration is short in Burial’s world) ‘Hiders’, which is all falling piano chords before a surprisingly cheeky serve of almost soft-metal power-drumming comes in for company. ‘Come Down to Us’ is epic in a majestically meandering way, and with its references to minority sexuality – bisexuality and transgender in particular – the sense of loss and loneliness is evaluated to an almost spiritual level…in the most tender way.

No doubt
There’s no doubt that Burial is an acquired taste – with Rival Dealer many will be frustrated by Bevan’s insistence on ignoring familiar structures and dishing out beats that just shouldn’t add up – but once you’ve had the taste it’s almost impossible to forget.

May the Burial festival continue.

For a long time.

Ramones by Ian Dickson, 1977.  (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

Ramones by Ian Dickson, 1977. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

‘Punk to me was a form of free speech. It was a movement when suddenly all kinds of strange voices that no reasonable person could ever have expected to hear in public were being heard all over the place’

Greil Marcus, author, rock critic, journalist

Mr MachineMore often than not the experimental end of the ‘new music’ spectrum leaves me wanting to lie down in the middle of the Hume Highway on a forty-degree afternoon.  But I love Berlin’s The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble (or, apparently, just Brandt Brauer Frick).  They’re a strange combination of techno artists meet classically trained experimental composer who as a bunch like to make dance music using mostly acoustic instruments – and by rights they should be awful.  Thankfully their Mr. Machine album is fresh and new and wonderfully playful, and gives a hint where Australia’s Alpine could go if they ever want to chuck a Kid A.  Check out ‘Pretend’, though be warned: this is as straight as they get.

KveikurAs anyone who’s dropped into UTCOAFITD over the years, I do love lashings of Sigur Ros – always have, always will.  But I was more than a little troubled to hear that last year their foundation multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson had decided he’d had enough and it would be left to the remaining Icelandic pixies to limp on without him.  Amazing, then, that Kveikur is so good.  It’s rawer, rockier, darker; certainly it’s less pretty.  Because I’m a fussy bastard, hard (almost impossible?) to please, I hold to my view that Sigur Ros never quite let themselves go over the edge – if they did, they’d blow the world to smithereens.

Trouble will find meSure Trouble Will Find Me by The National is appearing on a lot of ‘best of the year’ lists, but there’s a very good reason for it: this is the Ohio band’s finest selection of tunes to-date.  It’s Dad-rock for those with an alternative bent, and as some wag somewhere or other put it they’re the Counting Crows it’s okay to like.  But when the songs are as lovingly crafted as this it’s music that’s hard to ignore.  On Trouble will Find Me, The National are like a good port: it’s an old taste, and it’s a resolutely familiar taste, but it loosens you up…before dropping you down into a glorious pit of melancholia.  ‘Graceless’ is just one of the crackers on offer.

hopkins_immunityThe London-based Jon Hopkins is a strange musical beast: he’s a soundtrack composer (he did the tasty music to the tasty Monsters film) and for some reason or other he’s helped bands like Coldplay and seems to enjoy hanging out with Brian Eno, but he also makes his own albums, which, it’s true, can be hit and miss.  Immunity is easily his crowning achievement so far and was nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize.  At times it’s thumpingly atmospheric dance music, but it can also turn sweet at the drop of a hat.  ‘Open Eye Signal’ is such a fantastic piece of minimalist, gritty dance music (it reminds me a little of ‘Rez’, the B-side to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’); damn good video too.  Just so you know, Immunity is brilliant in headphones.

EngravingsFor the last few months I thought Immunity was going to be my album of the year, but then came along Engravings by Forest Swords, who is another English producer of excitingly sliced eletronica.  But where Hopkins is slick and melodic, Forest Swords creates a more organic and varied sound; certainly there’s nothing here that could be described ‘lovely’.  On first listen, Engravings might be a little hard on the old lug-holes (no surprises that the creator of this music suffers from tinnitus and related issues) but, oh my, it reveals itself over repeated listens.  The bloody thing’s never far from the stereo.

ReflektorI’ve written at length about Reflektor by Arcade Fire and after countless listens I still think it’s a very fine record.  As always, this Montreal lot are maddeningly, frustratingly brilliant; LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has helped them find their very appealing swagger, but there are still songs which build and build before…they unravel in front of your ears.  Perhaps the unravelling is intentional, but it can drive a punter to despair.  And ‘despair’ is an interesting word to use here, because Arcade Fire, to a certain extent at least, have built their career on exploring contemporary despair in all its urban and semi-urban grimness.  Lucky for us, then, this time around they invite us down to the disco for a party, with a few deliciously weird and wild left-turns to keep us guessing.

Finally, here are three honourable mentions.

Does it look like I’m here? by Emeralds – a strange but beguiling beast, this is gloriously noodly, and at times can come across as good as M83 but without the histrionics.  Pedestrian Verse by Frightened Rabbit – a very solid record from these very solid Scots.  Being their major-label debut it lacks the rough edges of the earlier work, but perhaps this is a more varied record; it does contain ‘Backyard Skulls’, which is an elegantly structured master-stroke of a pop-song.  And, finally, there’s One (壱) Uno (壹) Ein by Australia’s Rat & Co – a captivatingly risky record, perhaps (most likely) the best one from our funny little old nut-case country. Check out ‘The Letter’.

Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor': is this at last the perfect record?

Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: is this at last the perfect record for our beautifully fucked-up world?

How would it be to exist without music?

I for one would have no clue, and I don’t want to try imagining it, or even write much more along those lines.  But it is, perhaps, worth asking a related question: how would it be to exist without excellent music, or even very good music?  For me, this has been the question of the week.  And you can blame Arcade Fire for that.

I’ve been following this Montreal-based bunch since their highly acclaimed debut Funeral (2004).  Using the phrase ‘highly acclaimed’ in this context is hardly new or surprising – it seems that when Arcade Fire simply get out of bed in the morning there’s cause for rapturous excitement around the world, the sort of rapturous excitement that once greeted The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan (the crusty old shit that he’s become), David Bowie, Nirvana, and, erm, U-bloody-2.

But is Arcade Fire really that good?

There’s no doubt that when they’re fully charged they’re excellent.  Witness ‘Neighbourhood No. 2’ and ‘Wake Up’ from Funeral, ‘Intervention’ and ‘No Cars Go’ from Neon Bible (2007), and ‘The Suburbs’, ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Suburban War’ from The Suburbs (2010).  One day Arcade Fire are going to put out a best-of that’s going to knock the socks off people and prove once and for all how great – and ‘great’ is the word – they can be.

However, and this is a big ‘however’: they can also be utterly infuriating.

Some Arcade Fire songs start brilliantly before burning out as though in the end they just didn’t know what to do with them but, hey, chuck it on the record anyway.  The band can pack too many ideas into each song (certainly Reflektor suffers from this in parts), and lyrically they can be as awfully obtuse as a Sixth Form poet inspired only by Google.  Throw into the mix the fact that they’re fueled by both anger and beauty, they appear to adore and detest modern life in equal measures, and they can be grand, dramatic, over-dramatic, over-blown even, but there’s also a deep vein of melancholia throughout.  A rich brew or a directionless mess?  They’re both, quite honestly.

So.  What to make of this latest record?

In a way it’s exactly what you’d expect.  This is, apparently, Arcade Fire’s dance collection and they enlisted LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy to get their hips a-wigglin’.  Appropriately split over two discs, and inspired by the 1950 Brazilian classic Black Orpheus and its themes of death and isolation, Win Butler, wife Régine Chassagne, and the couple’s clever cohorts lead us from the superb ‘Reflektor’ – this is their ‘Atomic’ – through ‘You Already Know’, which sounds like what would happen if Butler fronted The Smiths and Queen, and the almost Clash-like ‘Joan of Arc’.

On the second disc the pairing of ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)’ shows just how close Arcade Fire is getting to John Lennon, in ambition if not execution.  ‘Porno’, the most James Murphy-esque track, is a fine slice of moody electro, and ‘Afterlife’ is one of those typically exasperating Arcade Fire songs: a gorgeous verse, a glorious chorus, it’s all ‘Can we work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?/Can we just work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?’, and then, and then – well, it just collapses under its own weight.

Referencing a bunch of great bands and singer/songwriters here is intentional, including The Smiths and The Clash.  Is Reflektor as good as the former’s The Queen is Dead or the latter’s London Calling?  No, it’s not.  But it’s dangerously close.  It has the scope, depth, audacity, and a burning desire to create something as timelessly artful as those albums.  In some ways it also feels like the best mix-tape you could ever possibly receive (the inclusion on the second disc of the test-sound once found on cassettes alludes to this) and, perhaps, in the age of iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify, Reflektor is as good as it gets.

A magnificently flawed masterpiece.  Yes, let’s call it that.

And I can’t stop listening to it.

'Kveikur' by Sigur Ros - could it be that this one record is able to answer that question, what is music?

‘Kveikur’ by Sigur Ros – could it be that this one record is able to answer the question, what is music?

What is music?  It’s a pretty bloody stupid question, especially as music is one of the few things that link us human-types together and runs as a conduit down through the ages.  It’s impossible to know if Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros ever ask the question or just go ahead and make music with all they know and feel.  On the basis of Kveikur it sounds very much like the latter.

Before discussing the contents of the record, here are a few bits and pieces you might want to know.  This is Sigur Ros’ seventh album over 15 years but first without founding multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, who left in 2012.  It’s hot on the heels of last year’s superbly brooding but divisive Valtari.  Why the rush?  Perhaps it’s to make the most of the new dynamic.  Also, Sigur Ros has now played Madison Square Garden and appeared on an episode of The Simpsons and, ahem, Sarah Brightman’s done a cover of one of their songs.

Is Kveikur – which apparently means ‘candlewick’the band’s leap towards U2/Coldplay territory?  No, thank Christ, but it is a significant part of their ongoing evolution.

The album opens with the surprisingly muscular and menacing ‘Brennisteinn’, which is based around a bass riff that sounds like someone trying to kill a fairy by squeezing the crap out of its stomach.  From there the band makes it way through its usual palette of widescreen peaks and troughs, lifting us up before easing us back down, and then bleeding into the next song.  On Kveikur there’s greater variety to Jonsi’s angelic falsetto – ‘Isjaki’ is a fine example – and there’s also more exploration of percussion; ‘Hrafntinna’ sounds like it was recorded in a cutlery factory.

This time around the band also seems more committed to working with light and dark, and it’s the dark that makes Sigur Ros a truly worthwhile proposition: they might do sweet, and glacial, and epic, but when they want to they can lead us into the murky depths.  Frustratingly, and despite the cover image of what could be a mask found in a psychiatric hospital (and hence adorn a death-metal record sleeve), Sigur Ros never really takes us over the edge.  ‘Yfirbord’, with its reverse-looped vocals, goes close.  If only they could find a producer they trust: oh my, Sigur Ros could break our hearts.  There’s also a slightly annoying tinny-ness to Kveikur; no matter what system the thing’s played on it does sound as though it was mixed in a supermarket with the fluorescent lights on.

But still, because these guys give a shit, this is an excellent album.  ‘Stormur’, all stabbing piano chords and frantic drumming, should fill stadiums and get the mobile-phones held aloft; no doubt ‘Kveikur’ will give the strobes and distortion pedals a work-out; and ‘Blapradur’ manages to be both beautiful and just a touch unhinged before it segues into a chorus most bands would kill for (here’s hoping an outfit like Crystal Castles will mix the thing – the results will tear nightclubs apart).  And there are choruses aplenty here; there’s rarely a dud moment or a lull.

So, in some ways, on Kveikur it’s business as usual in the weird but engagingly peculiar land of Sigur Ros, while at the same time the band gets to explore and expand their range.  And there’s no denying that Jonsi and co have a renewed sense of purpose, one as an actual rock band.  In a world where talent programs such as Idol and X-Factor and The Voice smother us with saccharine tosh, we need our Icelandic mates more than ever.  And so that one day we might be able to answer that pretty bloody stupid question: What is music?

Foreign Fields' 'Anywhere But Where I Am' - blink and you'll miss this, but you really really shouldn't

Foreign Fields’ ‘Anywhere But Where I Am’ – blink and you’ll miss this, but you really really shouldn’t

Oh it’s always the little gems, isn’t it, the things you stumble across that make everything worthwhile.

At the end of last year in my local street-press, the always reliable BMA Magazine, there was a series of lists of best albums of 2012; I love these lists, because usually I’ll find the next album I’ll buy.  In one list, amongst names of bands and singer-songwriters that I’d never heard of – that terrible but sure sign of middle-age – was a reference to an attractively reflective album by a band called Foreign Fields who’d recorded a collection of songs in an abandoned Wisconsin warehouse in the middle of winter, or something like that.  On my laptop I pressed a few buttons, found Foreign Fields’ Bandcamp site (it’s their only web presence), had a bit of a listen, and within minutes ordered the album and got the download onto my laptop.  So maybe the modern world isn’t so rubbish, though I’m still open to the distinct possibility.

The album, which is rather enticingly called Anywhere But Where I Am, is a suite of such intimacy, beauty, melancholy, all these words that I love.  The Nashville-based Eric Hillman and Brian Holl really do know how to craft a song out of the simplest ingredients: acoustic guitars, a piano maybe, perhaps a cello, all the while harmonised perfect-pitch voices drift and lilt over the top, a hint of percussion (sometimes it’s nothing more than a series of hand-claps), though if you listen closely you’ll also hear sweet sweet field recordings.  But there’s nothing ‘slacker’ about this; every second of sound is put together so lovingly.  There are distinct colours and shades of Nick Drake, and Bon Iver, and Sigur Ros, but this is also a sound like no other – somehow Foreign Fields manage to be both pastoral and domestic, so small and delicate in scale but also filmic in the moods and suggestions.  There’s no point singling out a song; everything is of the finest quality.  And there’s variety, and contrasts, and depths.  Brilliant.

Even though here in Australia we’re not yet done with summer, I know that when autumn comes around and then winter finally hits, I’ll light the fire, pour myself a glass of cheap plonk, and keep on listening to Anywhere But Where I Am.  Why this record isn’t on a major label I have no idea.  I’m just so glad that I found it.  Because Foreign Fields remind me of why I could never live without music when it’s as good as this.

Crystal CastlesCrystal Castles are the punks of dance music, to the point that III was apparently made without computers (which is quite something considering this really is dance music, as in the electronic thumpa-thumpa kind) and three of the tracks appear on the record unmixed.  If you’re intrigued, you should be.  Inevitably this collection is shouty and rough around the edges, so at times you turn these tunes down rather than up.  But it’s also extraordinarily majestic, and it’s music for the brain, even the soul, not just for the dance-floor.  We really do need to love musicians – any artists – who are committed to pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working within, and not caring a damn about whether dollars will flow or not.

homepage_large.053aea55As I wrote earlier on Under the counter, I wasn’t convinced that this latest Sigur Ros long-player was going to be any good, primarily because we’d heard how difficult it was for the band to get their act together and record something they themselves actually liked.  In the end they roped in lead-singer Jonsi’s boyfriend to make sense of it all.  The fact is Valtari is one of Sigur Ros’ best albums.  Yes, it’s glacial, and ethereal, the words that you’d expect to be used in connection with these Icelandic post-rockers.  But it’s also their bravest, and richest, and deepest.  As always the music patiently builds and builds and peaks before gliding out into nothingness, but it’s in the stillness where the real beauty is to be found, and that’s in the stunning closing third.  You really shouldn’t miss this.

Patrick WolfI’m a longstanding fan of Patrick Wolf, and we were lucky enough to see him at the Sydney Opera House this year right at the beginning of his worldwide acoustic tour.  I’d feared that the rather flamboyant Wolf would be precious and precocious and – dammit: let’s call a spade a spade – outright queenie, but on this evening at least his company was warm, engaging and surprisingly self-effacing; I would have been more than happy to go back the next night and sit through it all again.  Sundark and Riverlight is essentially a best-of collection, but the Lupercalian has re-arranged and re-recorded the selected tracks into a folksy, baroque stew, and it’s tasty fare indeed.  And intimate.  In short: a rare joy.

CoexistThis second album by The XX is, as others have said, a little on the underwhelming side, though there’s something appealing about that – like a wine that’s not much on first taste but keeps on getting better and better until it’s all that you want to drink, and think about.  The XX sound like no one else, which is something we should be very grateful for as it’s the best thing about the band, that and their skills in arrangement and production, which are always excellent.  I like Coexist best at the end of the day, just as the light’s fading and the melancholy sets in.

GodspeedLike Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are moody bastards, but this time around (after the band put themselves on a long self-imposed hiatus) it’s all straight-out grim anger.  At what exactly, it’s hard to tell – capitalism, the state of political discourse, modern life in general? – but this record is certainly a rally against something or other.  Perhaps it’s against anything that’s safe and predictable and lovely and polished within an inch of itself.  Enter Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! at your own peril – it’s utterly relentless – but this is a very sublime kind of misery.

That one special extra: if you’re a fan of thoughtful, haunting and intricate electronica that’s all dripping-wet streets, shadows in the dark and an overall feeling that hope is slithering down the nearest gutter-drain, go search out Kindred, a three-track gem from UK dub-step pioneer Burial.  The coda of ‘Astray Wasp’ is simply staggering and is easily some of the best music recorded all year; it starts around eight minutes into this eleven-minute epic, but you really need to engage with the whole track to get the maximum effect.  You can listen to it by clicking on this.

Godspeed_You!_Black_Emperor_-_Allelujah!_Don't_Bend!_Ascend!In this day and age when there are machines all over the house demanding our attention and, perhaps worse, telling us what to do, it’s rare – or just fucking fantastic – when something comes along that truly reaches out and grabs you, yes, grabs you, around the neck, until all you can do is sit stunned on the couch, a candle or two lit, and you just stare into the near-darkness until you’re weeping, or you’re up on your feet and doing air-guitar in front of the French doors (the blackness on the other side adoring thousands, although in reality it’s just a crumbling old house in the night).  What is this something?  Godspeed you! Black Emperor’s new album, Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend!

Godspeed you! Black Emperor, or Godspeed, or GYBE, or, as they call themselves on this album, God’s Pee, is a Montreal-based collective that combines a wide range of instruments into what often amounts to a truly cacophonous climax of distorted and disturbing sound.  On Allellujah! Don’t bend!  Ascend!, their first record in ten years, members play guitars, drums, violins, cellos, dulcimers, something called a ‘portasound’, something called a ‘kemance’, vibraphones, marimbas, glockenspiels, even a hurdy-gurdy.  Think Sonic Youth mashed with a string-quartet mashed with a few blown-ins who will play whatever the hell they want to play, all of them in flannies and rip-torn jeans, bottles of vodka at their feed, and a hatred of rabid, rampant capitalism in their hearts.

I’ve been following the band since their extraordinarily epic Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven (2000), and then discovered their back catalogue, which was equally impressive.  Godspeed is a post-rock band, so it’s all patient ebbs and flows until building into near-out-of-control conclusions, resulting in general devastation all-round.  There’s no singing, though every so often there’s a field-recording of someone speaking, an unhinged street-poet, say, or a manic preacher.  The band is famous for not promoting themselves – for example, there’s barely a mention of this latest album on the band’s website – and they’ve only rarely allowed their music to be used in films.  This is not easy-listening music, nor is it summer music, which makes it even more miraculous that I just can’t turn this latest bloody album off.

To give you an idea of the terrain we’re in, Godspeed offer us a blurry photo of an abandoned farm-house on the cover and on the back are the following words: ‘WRECK’D US OUR COUNTRIE’S AMOK/TORN THRU/WITH BIRDS THEE SKY’S A BRUIS’D UNRECKONING/THEE SHORE’S BED DRY BUT TEPID WATERS’ (the capitalisation is theirs).  The Bible-esque broken English and fly-blown poetry is perfectly appropriate for what’s on the actual disc: a collection of four relentless but never-the-less strangely uplifting pieces of music.

The first, ‘Mladic’, is an 18-minute masterpiece of noise and riffing, all of it rising and falling before rising again but never losing the tension that is at the song’s pained and twisted heart.  It’s such a grand gesture, but there’s no mistaking the typical Godspeed anger – even on low volume this song makes your ears and nose bleed.  ‘Mladic’ deserves to be heard through half-decent speakers, but you can get a taste of how it’s performed live here.  Interesting that the band allow fans to record their shows; also of interest in this video is the use of looped projections, which have been a long-time feature of their gigs (they include the artists’ names in the list of band members).

Contrasting ‘Mladic’ is ‘Their helicopters’ sing’ (is that poorly placed apostrophe on purpose?).  This is a 6-minute drone where the strings are more prominent…and is that the sound of bagpipes?  It reminds me of something that the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once said, and I’m paraphrasing here: ‘I have found that sometimes it is enough for a piece of music to be nothing more than a single note played beautifully.’  Pärt has always sought spiritual beauty, but Godspeed are after something much more frightening.  ‘We drift like worried fire’ begins in typically sparse fashion, being built around a simple plucked-string (guitar? violin? sample?) motif, before loose-limbed drumming kicks in and the song is off, traveling here and there, lifting and lowering as usual, finding lightness, darkness, and more lightness.  This song is Godspeed at their most majestic; in fact, it’s almost triumphant-sounding, maybe even beautiful, though be warned that this band would find beauty in a pair of sodden socks left behind by a wino.

Like those other post-rock marvels Sigur Ros, who came back from near oblivion with this year’s Valtari, which is a profoundly moving collection of songs, Godspeed you! Black Emperor prove with Allellujah! Don’t bend!  Ascend! that this punky, almost underground musical movement remains as valid and as valuable as ever.  This record is a plea for solidness, for depth and resonance, for real living, the sort that doesn’t begin and end with the click of a button.

You have to take notice of a keenly anticipated album that opens with the gentlest of ballads.  It’s brave, it’s courageous, and it’s exactly what contemporary music needs.  And it’s what The xx do on Coexist, a record that fans of indie music have been looking forward to since 2009, when the band’s self-titled sophomore release bagged them the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.  On paper, The xx are a curious proposition: a male singer who plays bass, a female singer who plays guitar, a percussionist who does it all with electronics (and is becoming a much sought-after DJ and producer).  This is very simple, sparse, left-of-field pop music, as if your brother and sister and their mate are practicing in the bedroom next door.  It is, however, beautifully structured and carefully crafted, every song a sublime mix of peaks and troughs, even silences.  Both voices, despite their youth, are surprisingly soulful, but certainly not in a Whitney Houston or boy-band way; this is all about feeling and intimacy – if soul music is all about, well, bearing your soul, then The xx make soul music.  But it’s also very, very modern.

Like any band that sounds like no-one else, there are challenges.  How to explore and develop while holding on to what makes you special in the first place and keeping your fan-base?  Iceland’s Sigur Ros has had the same problem, and they’ve sustained their career by pushing out the boundaries of their sound without really progressing in any way (leaving that task to lead-singer Jonsi’s side-projects).  What is The xx’s answer?  The band members were only 17 years old when they recorded their first album, and due to its success spent the next couple of years touring the world (and losing a second guitarist at the beginning of the journey).  When they took a break they rather understandably hit the nightclubs of their native UK for a bit of r&r.  In many ways, Coexist is the band heading in a dance-music direction.

Thankfully the craft and sense of dynamic remains.  These songs won’t fill nightclubs, though no doubt many will be remixed (they’d be stupid not to give at least a couple to atmospheric beat-master Burial, who’d do extraordinary things with this stuff – darken it right up to the point that shivering might be a good idea).  In fact, on Coexist, the songs are so brittle, so fragile, that it’s hard to imagine them even being played live.  That opening ballad, ‘Angels’, is a case in point: it feels as if singer Roma Madley Croft is going to simply dissolve in front of our ears (eyes).  ‘Reunion’, which contrasts Croft’s sweet tones with the deeper timbre of bassist Oliver Sim, is similarly delicate, although does manage to climb into a glorious coda that, it’s true, gets the toes tapping.  Towards the end of the collection is ‘Swept Away’, which is The xx at their most clubby, the song building and building into a jungle rhythm (‘jungle’ as in Tarzan, not the style of dance music).

If you’re detecting a hint of reservation in these words, it’s that this fine mix of beauty and intimacy can become all a bit of a blur in the wash-up.  On Coexist The xx don’t stop you in your tracks; it’s a bit like how you can make a mix-tape of your favourite songs only to find that there’s something lacking – sometimes you need some songs that you don’t like, or songs that you don’t like initially but end up working out, or songs that are edgy and dangerous and unexpected.  Perhaps that’s where The xx should go next: into the land of danger and the unexpected; they’ve dipped in a toe but really should dive in head-first.  They’ve proved that they can be audacious, now they just need to put that spirit at the centre of everything they do.  And the world will be theirs.

(Postscript: if an album is good enough, as in potentially great, I buy it on vinyl.  I own Coexist on vinyl.)

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