Pauline Anna Strom: Trans-Millenia Music (2LP, RVNG Intl, December 2017)

I normally steer clear of reissues and retrospectives and the like: I struggle enough finding time giving enough attention to all the new music I want to listen to. But this one kind of sucked me in. A compilation of material dating from ’82–’88, it’s floaty synth stuff that I guess you might call new age, except that hardly does it justice. There’s something about the noises she coaxes out of her machines and the way she puts them together that can only really be described as other-worldly. And although I guess the sound palette is pretty identifiably eighties, most of these tracks seem pretty timeless (the most obvious exception being the cod-Japanese Bonsai Terrace, which would smack a bit of cultural appropriation by today’s standards, besides being a bit cheesy). Rather beautifully packaged, too. I’ll even forgive the glaring typo in the album name.

I bought this from RVNG’s bandcamp page.

Spatial: A Music Of Sound Systems — Remixes (Digital, Infrasonics, October 2017)

I totally loved Spatial’s epic deconstructed sound clash A Music Of Sound Systems back in March. I just stumbled across this remixes record, and it’s pretty tasty too. Actually, only three of the four tracks appear to be remixes: the final track, 111020, appears to be a new Spatial track, still pretty sparse but with a more recognizable beat than anything on the main album, leaning a little more towards the nineties Sheffield end of things. Prior to that, KABLAM’s take on 291 Anu takes the original in a more sort of thumping technoid direction; Meat Beat Manifesto’s version of System I is a sort of bouncing post-industrial growler — it’s the most straightforwardly ravey thing here, and probably my least favourite, although that might just be because original is probably my favourite track on the source album… but, anyway, it’s good ravey fun; and Yilan mutate the epic title track into something with more than a hint of dubstep that works out quite different but equally epic. An unusually worthwhile addition.

I bought this from Google Play Music.

Hior Chronik: Out Of The Dust (LP, 7K!, December 2017)

Hior Chronik lists his influences as Max Richter, which I can absolutely see, and Arvo Pärt, which I confess I can’t (although I don’t know Pärt as well as I probably should). This is a dozen tracks of piano, strings (cello by Aaron Martin), and a gorgeous muted trumpet (Christian Grothe — the one who is Kryshe, I guess?), plus a bunch of ambient effects (rather more than Richter normally goes in for). The combination of drone and melody is basically spot-on as far as I’m concerned. If we’re playing the references game, I’d add that the scrapy (I’m sure that’s not the correct technical word) wilderness-evoking string sound reminds me a bit of Richard Skelton, the slightly celtic lilt of Claire M Singer, and the interplay between the brass and the synthy wash a little of Vangelis (a comparison which, I would guess, is probably pretty annoying to Greek composers, but I promise it occurred to me before I’d consciously made the link of nationality). It also figures that Chronik has collaborated with Dictaphone. But, more importantly, this stands on its own as a deep, emotional, and genuinely beautiful record. A late contender for classical album of the year, I reckon.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Modern Classical / Ambient.

Colleen: A Flame My Love, A Frequency (LP, Thrill Jockey, October 2017)

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If, like me, you know Colleen (aka Cecile Schott) from records like Les Ondes Silencieuses and The Weighing Of The Heart, you’d probably be quite surprised that this album ditches the viola da gamba and, seemingly, all other acoustic instruments entirely. Apparently she’d started out adding a Critter & Guitari pocket piano synth into the mix, couldn’t make things work, and ended up producing it entirely on the boxes-with-knobs. The result sounds quite a lot like Raymond Scott’s 1963 curio Soothing Sounds For Baby, only with more modern production and with Schott’s wonderful, restrained vocals (on 5 of the 8 tracks). This is a good thing, of course. Highlights include Another World, which indeed a genuinely otherworldly little ditty, the evocative Winter Dawn, and especially the entrancing title track with its plangent drone (listen out for the wonderfully melting noises in the higher harmonics that emerge mysteriously from the synth’s circuitry) in some barely-audible  and a vocal line that speaks volumes in barely two dozen words.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Luciferian Towers (LP, Constellation, September 2017)

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Ah, good old Godspeed. After the epic metal excitement of 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, this is rather more business as normal. Which isn’t to say that it’s restrained, of course…

There’s that perfectly poised counterpoint of resounding melody and screeching dissonance, of guitars and strings. There’s a nice dose of brass this time around. There’s a blend of rock, folk, classical, and drone. It’s emotional, edgy, and uplifting. It has track names like Bosses Hang and Anthem For No State. I imagine what I’m about to say is some kind of sacrilege — after all, this is undoubtedly angry, political, and important music — but twenty years after I first encountered them, this is a bit like comfort food to me. Which is to say, I listened to it on the streaming magic, I thought “very nice, but I don’t actually need to buy that, I have plenty like it”, and then a bit later I found myself listening to it again, and then again, and then I’d fallen for it and I ended up splurging on the beautiful gatefold vinyl because it turned out that, actually, this is stuff still means something special to me after all.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Indie / Alternative.

STILL: I (LP, PAN, September 2017)

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This is one of those records that’s kind of hard to classify, but very easy to like. It’s kind of like a electronicified form of Jamaican dancehall and dub. From Italy. I suppose that track names like Haile Selassie Is The Micro-Chip should give you some idea of what’s going on. Simone Trabucchi lays down tracks that are based around bloops and bleeps from analogue synths and drum machines, with a distinctive loose and echoey production. MCing is from six African-Italians. It’s all decidedly wonky and rather delightful. Personal favourite is the rolling up-tempo Don’t Stop (Wondo Riddim) with duelling vocals from Germay and Devon Riles.

Bonus points for the cover art, which features something that looks a bit like a plastic sculpture of Lee “Scratch” Perry as executed by Raoul Hausmann.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic and Dub / Reggae.

Kaleida: Tear The Roots (LP, Lex Records, September 2017)

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I wasn’t really expecting to like this. Kaleida are described as electropop, and most modern electropop seems to involve co-opting a dance music style that was hot in the underground a few years ago, watering it down, slapping an uninteresting vocal over it, and marketing it cleverly. Whatevs, right?

Well, it turns out that [cheesy voice] I don’t actually like this… I love it! For one thing, Christina Wood has a great voice, rich and versatile and emotional without being showy. For another, Cicely Goulder seems to really get minimal: every synth part is a masterclass in what you can achieve with a few clicks and bloops, and many of them are dead catchy too; and her production is ace. I can’t really put my finger on why, but somehow everything just gels perfectly for me. It’s, like, dance-pop music that I could actually see myself dancing to — fancy that, eh?

There are some gloriously infectious touches in some of the more upbeat songs, like pitch-bending synth harmony in All The Pretty Pieces and bassline in Division. The closing title track is a lovely ballad, swooshing strings and piano and a suitably epic vocal. Extra props, also, for the quietly ominous cover of Nena’s 1983 smash hit 99 Luftballons (and let’s all hope that its nuclear war protest message doesn’t become any more relevant than it is already…).

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Myrkur: Mareridt (LP, Relapse Records, September 2017)

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This is a lot of fun from Amalie Bruun. It’s basically a cross between Scandinavian black metal and vaguely Celtic folk. She sings, mostly in her native Danish, with a style that ranges from a the more full-throated end of folk up to a melodramatic Kate Bush — and, just occasionally, a nice bit of shrieking for good measure. The music combines traditional metal guitars with some ferocious fiddle-work, the percussion goes from some equally high-octane metal drumming to something you could almost imagine was a bodhrán. Oh, and she apparently plays (among many other things) a nyckelharpa, which was new on me and I think might account for the almost medieval sound to some of it, and one track prominently features a jew’s harp. It has a nice line in spooky atmospherics, too, and some cracking tunes. Some tracks are more obviously folky, with just an underlying sinister growl to hint at its other side. Others are more straight metal. But it’s at its best, for my money, are the tracks where the two seem to be battling for dominance, coming on like The Devil Went Down if one of the duelists had turned up with a guitar and a stack of Marshalls instead of a fiddle. How could that not be brilliant?

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Dark Ambient / Drone / Metal.

Duran Duran Duran: Duran (2LP, Power Vacuum, July 2017)

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Remember the mid-noughties? Remember the ravey mash-up sound phenomenon that I’m going to whimsically refer to as happy breakcore? Labels like Wrong Music in the UK and Cock Rock Disco in the US? Remember Shitmat? That scene seemed to produce tonnes of compilation CDs each crammed with 30 two-minute tracks mostly credited to daft one-off pseudonyms, and it’d have been a brave punter who’d’ve bet on which of those acts would releasing an album in 2017. I wouldn’t have bet even money that any of them would be: the whole thing seemed like a lot of people having a lot of fun and not really plotting a path calculated for career longevity. I’ll admit that I remember Duran Duran Duran only for the excellent silliness of the moniker. (And, yes, this is where we caution the reader not to confuse Duran Duran Duran’s Duran with Duran Duran’s Duran Duran. The latter gave us the likes of Girls On Film; the former is our subject today.)

Well, anyway, here we are, with a new Duran Duran Duran album for 2017. And, you know what, it’s pretty tasty. He’s moved on a little bit, which is probably for the best, but not too much, which is a relief. It’s basically a cut’n’shut job of hard acid techno with cut-up breaksy beats, some pretty epic bouncing basslines, and a sparing use of silly samples. The pace is varied nicely and (with the exception, perhaps, of the opening number, Thacid Acid) the tracks where he eases off don’t feel sludgy and dull, which is a big risk in this kind of genre (see, in particular, Drug Life, which does something very interesting with its bass drum). I’ve got to say, though, that the more up-for-it tracks are what make this record. Absolute highlight is Pryor Acid, which is bookended by Richard Pryor doing a bit about taking acid, and is 5 minutes of messy, scattergun deliciousness. The bit where it goes “let the bass drop” and then the bass drops is just perfect, and it makes me feel young again, for which many thanks.

I bought this from Norman Records (but can’t find it on their website any more?).

Quaeschning & Schnauss: Synthwaves (LP, Azure Vista, June 2017)

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It’s 2017! Nobody wants to listen to a couple of middle-aged German dudes with enormous banks of synths!  This is what punk was sent to save us from, amirite? Well, sure, except that it turns out that I really like this. Thorsten Quaeschning and Ulrich Schnauss are part of the most recent line-up of Tangerine Dream, although they were only born around the band’s classic period in the late ’70s, and Schnauss only joined just before Edgar Froese’s death in 2015. And although the sound is certainly more up-to-date — the tech has advanced, for one thing, and there are occasional modern stylistic touches, most notably the Frahm-ish close-miked piano intro to Slow Life, and you could probably make a case for an influence from ’90s IDM — it has to be said that it’s all rooted very firmly in kosmische. Certainly, compared to the likes of Caterina Barbieri’s recent record, it is pretty old hat. But it’s also really lovely, melodic, organic, warm, and uplifting stuff to salve the soul in these trying times.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Coldwave / Synth.