2011: Ben Donnelly
As the year drew to a close and I started thinking about what had trapped my ears, I noticed that very little of the music that held my attention this year were songs. I’m talking songs in the 100-year-old sense that goes back to sheet music pluggers — a verse and then a hook, with some words you can relate too, or a tune you can hum.
I love the idea of the song, and it ain’t going anywhere, but I do sense it’s finally transforming for the new century. For years, there have been trends that have tested the boundaries of the idea of an album as a set of discreet pop numbers — rap verbosity, prog operas, steady-state techno. Those tests tended to stay genre-bound … until the download era got rolling. Now they spill all over the place.
It’s impossible to pay attention to everything that’s available, but in my own corners of focused listening, I’ve sensed some convergence. The electronic albums that sustain my attention have been getting a looser feel, with a lot of breathing room around the beats. Ragged bands like The Men and Sex Chruch climax their records with rigid motor-skill beats. In the past, their type would have closed with an accelerating rave-up.
Case in point: Tryptych, with its expansive form and gothic detail, makes for a listening experience that’s not too different from my favorite album of last year, UFOMammut’s Eve. Both records are intricately decorated mausoleums. The two producers in Demdike Stare sequence electronics and sample liberally from obscure recordings. UFOMammut are all-analog metal dudes from Italy. But both groups are patient and monstrous.
If the tracks on Tryptych are far removed from the utility of dance music, there’s a customer review on Amazon that objectively suggests another utility:
With a running time in the hours, Tryptych is an obliterating experience like that. It shocked and transposed me.
I was surprised by some of the picks The Men made when they contributed to Dusted’s Listed series: Richard Hell, Graham Parsons, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie. The tracks on Leave Home don’t work toward that kind of storytelling. Like fellow scuff-rockers Sex Church, there are shouts and howls in their music, but most of the singing is distant as the noise storms past. Both bands are expert with guitar thunder and just as good with glistening light rain. The prettiest moments on these records are all the prettier for the ugly sludge that keeps bursting out. They tell tales with the twists — toward pure noise, back to tight patterns. Catchy turns of phrases might be in there somewhere, washed under.
A lot of garage bands have cleaned up and toned down lately, often with success. It makes sense for a band like Reigning Sound, where Greg Cartwright’s voice has burnished into a classic instrument. Maybe bands like Sex Chruch and The Men will mature towards traditional songwriting like that. But I’d rather follow them down through these overgrown gardens.
Two foreigners who’ve made their home in Berlin, both producers draw from dub but have set their hearts on techno. Their albums are hard to pin down as either, though. What Have We Learned is, rather magically, both sleepy and funky. There’s a haze that runs through it, and Rabih Beaini lets his loops lose tempo. The Moog on “Silent Screamer” sounds like an improvisation. No matter how his chirps and clicks scatter, he always gathers up and gets them pulsing.
Each of the tracks on Drawn and Quartered run the length of a 12” side. Scott Monteith doesn’t rush to make the atmosphere coalesce. Sometimes half the track passes before the bassline arrives. But like Demdike Stare, the payoffs for patience are big. Once “Second Quarter” gets rolling, it’s wild.
No straight-up metal albums blew me away this year. But the antics of ’80s hardcore were behind a lot of records that came out metal labels. Sarabante, Dead in the Dirt, All Pigs Must Die and Trap Them made some great grindy punk that owed very little to SST and the indie-friendly follow-on from the hardcore scene, and everything to the less hip metalcore of Discharge and Corrosion of Conformity. Weekend Nachos sustained the violence better than any of them. Following the track list, it’s possible to make out some of the words in the blur: “old friends don’t mean shit,” for example. You’d get the point regardless.
Iceage, with their Joy Division textures, is potentially much more accessible than the Nachos. But what I love about both of these bands is how they smear their tracks like mosquitoes caught in the act.
On the other hand, I was surprised how much I liked the laid-back passages on these records. FaltyDL cuts up R&B divas without the usual cloak of mystery that’s come in the wake of Burial. “Play With My Heart” erases any sense of verse or chorus, but the idea of pop seduction remains front and center — the chopped-up vocal samples retain equal footing with the other sounds, rather than disappearing into the reverb. “The Pacifist” is calm without getting squishy, as a tried-and-true chord progression takes a trip through though busy beats.
Axel Willner loops are spooled so thickly, they slink towards dreampop atmospherics. They’d become numbing if he didn’t share Giogio Moroder’s talent for finding brittle and plucky rhythms for contrast.
This is a real oddball album. For years, Guerroro has been making records that were good for a former skateboard star, good for a side stage at Bonnaroo. This one is good all its own. Guerrero becomes a full-on bandleader here, decorating the songs with his guitar work, but mostly guiding a tight band through jams that are moody but not monochrome. There’s shades of ’90s crime jazz, of bongsmoke-mode Beastie Boys, but it’s fully engaged with subsequent developments.
Singles and Standouts
Blawan - “Getting Me Down”
Dead in the Dirt - “Fear” 7”
Death Grips - “Guillotine”
Total Control - “The Hammer”
Burial - “Street Halo”
Martyn - “Masks”
All Pigs Must Die - "Sacrosanct"
TV Buddhas - “Say Hello to Lonliness”
Zed Bias - “Phoneline” (ft. Rosco Trim)
HTRK - “Poison”
Nicolas Jaar - "Space is Only Noise if You Can See"
By Ben Donnelly