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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’.

'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?

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