Category Archives: music writing

Embrace

Embrace_-_EmbraceSo what does it actually sound like?

A subdued synthesizer oscillation forms the basis for an understated, slightly unsettling verse; this is how the album opens; it is not how previous Embrace albums have opened. This is “Protection”. Danny is restrained, his voice a slightly richer tenor than before, perhaps. It’s vaguely threatening, ominous. Something that might be guitar strings scrapes weirdly out wide in the mix, and a house-y drumbeat and treble-y synthesizer arpeggio flesh out the sound. Two minutes in, this verse suddenly explodes into a briefly enormous chorus, detonated by a live snare and a sudden surge of guitars that seems to swell impossibly. It collapses again to nothing but bass and those scraping strings.

Phenomenologically, the arrangement and mix are extremely impressive; the electronic elements don’t feel tacked-on, they feel intrinsic; dare I say ‘authentic’? That’s a horrible, loaded word that seldom gets used for anything but coercion, but the way that synthesizer pulse moves and reverberates through the soundstage, given space and allowed to breathe, makes it become substance rather than signpost, makes it feel honest and committed and real, somehow. Just the way that chorus really does surge, buoyed up on a mammoth bassline and propelled by layers of synth chords at high altitude, reeks of attention to detail. Someone really cared about how this album sounds. And it says exactly who on the sleeve; he produced, recorded, and mixed it, as well as writing the songs.

As a result there are a thousand details in the mix, all the way through the album, that will take you an age to notice, and keep you coming back and listening for more: the way the chorus of “Refugees” seems to be backed by an infinitely distant children’s choir; the layers of burbling synth behind the middle eight of “Follow You Home”; the entirely new melody, played out on distant bells or some such, buried in the decaying notes closing “I Run”; the universes of melody being destroyed at the end of “…Thief…”.

There are aesthetic shifts here, for certain. New Order, and dance music in general, are an overt influence feeding into things throughout the record; synthesizers, drum machines, dance floor rhythms, and occasionally that high, melodic bass that drives songs in a different way. Embrace always talked about these influences but, outside of a couple of remixes and some b-sides, they were seldom heard. Now they’re right here, front and centre, starting an album they’ve seen fit to name Embrace, and run right through the heart of it.

Embrace have been famously schizophrenic over the years, running an aesthetic gamut from orchestral grandeur to shoegazing thuggery to kazoo-led homilies via a thousand other things; their first three albums, in particular, betray a massive and diverse love of music that spans the horizons from funk to hardcore to soul to pop to metal to dance and beyond, all underpinned by a windswept, northern songcraft and bare-faced emotionalism that’s always been resolutely uncool. This scope has threatened to be their undoing in some ways.

Finally, two decades in, after eight years in a literal wilderness with no label, no A&R, and practically no contact with the outside world, it feels almost as if they’ve realised who they are, and, in their own words, come full-circle to the band they were before they were signed, before the record industry got hold of them and ran them through the mincer over and over again. (And oh boy, did they get run through the mincer; so many expectations, so many manipulations, people placing bets on them, the band trying to please everyone and forgetting themselves.)

“In The End” is a glorious pop song, energised and direct, with another fantastic, surging chorus and a gamut of thrilling, dynamic pauses and rushes in all the right places. A really powerful riff to start and then restless drums and a big, melodic, Hooky bassline that runs through everything else. Synth chaos painted over the top of the chorus itself. A great, exciting drop-out to just bass before the final furlong demonstrates the dynamic at play, the rise and fall, stop and start; yes, it’s manipulative, but you don’t get on a fairground ride to sit still, do you?

The chorus comes from an ancient, unreleased version of “Too Many Times”; as documented elsewhere, I thought it was the best chorus they’d written, and basically felt cheated for a decade that they’d never done anything with it. It’s a little frustrating that almost literally no one else in the world can ever know the feeling I experienced when I first heard it explode out of this song, completely unexpected. It was bizarre. Over the intervening years I’d forgotten what this band and their music can mean to me, and all of a sudden everything, all the hopes, dreams, memories, experiences and emotions came back in one big rush.

I’ve talked about “Refugees” elsewhere; in some ways it’s Embrace’s “Made Of Stone”. By that I don’t mean that it sounds like that song at all, though; rather it’s about a similar feeling and atmosphere. If “Made Of Stone” was “making a wish and watching it happen” then “Refugees” is wanting to make a wish and being afraid it won’t happen; both songs are about wanting something different, something more, something better, but one comes from a gang of young guys wanting to escape where they grew up and the other comes from a someone trying to raise kids in a country he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in. Perhaps. (Because I have a theory that all of Rik’s songs are actually about his family and/or his band.) After the restless pace of “In The End”, “Refugees” feels like a pause for rumination, but it’s still loaded with dramatics and melody and intensity.

“I Run” is a slower song; you could call it a ballad if you wanted, but the swirling guitars and keys over the chorus, the muscular, cavernous bass driving the verse, the sheer force of emotion when Danny sings “because everything I ever do is wrong”, makes that seem like a very small word for something so emotionally big. And this is unashamedly massive, whilst still retaining a degree of intimacy somehow; again, that’s largely down to the way things are mixed. There’s incredible emotional intensity as the singer lays bare a lot of inner secrets, takes down some protective walls and confesses, apologises, and promises to do better.

Melodically it’s incredibly strong, piling line-upon-line as bridges and choruses change places. Emotionally, though, it’s even stronger; I’ve not always been a fan of these kinds of songs in the past, but something about this feels more honest, more painful, than they ever have before. When Danny hits the notes that build to his confession about doing wrong, it smacks me in my chest the way he’s been trying to do for decades. And when he gives up and just screams “no, no more” towards the end… Musically, the contours of the song rise and fall, find space to ramp up the intensity in the second chorus when others might have had nowhere to go, and Danny matches it move for move.

The chirpy “oh-ohs” and fidgety guitar riff of “Follow You Home” initially hide what’s actually quite a creepy sentiment; pop as Trojan horse for something a little darker. To me the stalking being done here isn’t necessarily of a romantic target so much as it’s of a creative muse; an audience or fanbase, perhaps, or a moment of musical inspiration. An illustration of the trepidation the band must have felt; what if no one cared anymore? “I wrote you letters / sang you songs / but nothing works on you no more” could easily be addressed to the band’s fans. When it takes eight years (8 years!) to produce an album, the struggle to make it must inform what it’s about thematically.

If I’m brutal, this is the song I’m least excited about on the record; that it’s still as catchy as hell, and gifted with an excellent middle eight and denouement that I think are fabulous, says a lot about the level of quality throughout the album. Insert something here if you like about poor singles choices over the years – “New Adam New Eve” should have been a single; “Glorious Day” and “I Can’t Come Down” never should have – but I don’t think this is a poor choice as a single. That said, it’ll be criminal if the next track isn’t a single.

I always wanted Embrace to work with a dance producer, because I had a feeling that it would end up sounding like “Quarters”, which is aesthetically, if not structurally, pretty much straight-ahead dance music; parts of it sound like nothing so much as The Knife, even while the guitars chime like something from The Unforgettable Fire. Compositionally it’s still about songwriting, though, rather than dancefloor build and release (although the component parts do that quite nicely too, actually); there’s a crazy bridge that goes all Justin Timberlake / Michael Jackson / Prince as Rik squeezes himself into a bizarre falsetto.

Meanwhile, ‘insouciant house diva’ as a vocal style suits Danny surprisingly well; there’s a certain semi-medicated quality to his vocals through the verses that really suits the sonic context. The chorus feels like it should soundtrack a scene in a film where the protagonist is out of it in an underground rave, lost and paranoid and chemically affected. Some people will feel like this is an ‘off-brand’ move, but the Perfecto remix of “One Big Family” was one of the first things Embrace ever released, and Danny used to bang on about how Prodigy and Chemical Brothers were the only bands releasing exciting music in the country. To me it was always inevitable that they’d go in this direction; I’m just baffled it took so long.

Or am I just imagining this, because I want them to sound like that? I played “Quarters” to a friend, apros of nothing, with no warning or context regarding who it was; the first response was “this is really good”. I revealed who it was. “Fucking hell” was the second response, “it’s not a remix?”. It isn’t. There is a definite ‘rock band go dance/electronic’, Achtung Baby / Reflektor etc etc (delete as appropriate) vibe happening here, but this seems more overt; less live-band-plays-disco than lone-guy-with-drum-machine-and-laptop makes a dance track. Except there is a live band here – just not all the time; the two merge into one another. Like I said, this was always meant to be in their DNA.

The riff that opens and evolves through “At Once” reminds me of the dappled sunlight guitar that ushers in “New Grass” on Laughing Stock by Talk Talk; it has that quasi-improvised feel, very beautiful and very fragile, always moving slightly out of pattern and off-center. Like a lot of the album, lyrically it could be about a relationship, or (more likely?) it could be about being a band, making this album – “we can build it brick by brick” – before the chorus and coda take things in a slightly different direction; they could easily be read as a (pretty excoriating) description of clinical depression. I really love the brevity here, especially of the coda; it adds a modesty and intimacy to the song that lends it emotional heft just as much as the way the bridge into the second chorus piles up on top of itself.

“At Once” is the closest thing to a moment of respite or calm here; there are no palette cleansers, no interludes or opportunities for quiet contemplation. But even this moment of self-reflection is leavened with a certain degree of melodrama, which comes from the strength of the tune and the conviction of the delivery. Might it have been ‘better’, somehow, if they’d taken the delicacy of its opening and let it drift, like “Now You’re Nobody” did all those years ago? It certainly would have been different, but I’m very happy with how it is.

As an aside, the start of “New Grass” by Talk Talk is one of my favourite things ever, because it’s incredible delicacy and beauty follows 10-minutes of emotional and sonic tumult, and chaos, and confusion (called “Taphead”). Very few people who’ve taken inspiration from those late Talk Talk albums have captured this properly; they tend to facsimile the beautiful bit without the tumult. The problem is that, as in life, the downs contextualise the ups; the chaos makes the beauty even more wonderful; just listen to Sunbather by Deafheaven. Those first two Embrace EPs juxtaposed the tumult and the beauty very well, of course. Sandwiched where it is, “At Once” seems to understand that dynamic too.

And so onto “Self Attack Mechanism”. I’ve basically been waiting seventeen years for Embrace to produce stuff like this and “Quarters”. Punishing, angry, technological, forward-thinking, still imbued with melody and structure and, importantly, emotion. Again, this is where, in my imagination, they were always meant to end up. “Contender” pointed towards this; electronic drums and slashing guitars; massive, grinding bass; big wafts of synth as the tune pauses; self-lacerating lyrics (“it’s me who’s alone with no sense of direction / and it’s me who’s a fool running scared of the message”). Extraordinarily exciting.

And the sound again, that mixing. At one point in “Self Attack Mechanism” something strange happens and it feels as if the sound is coming from behind you somehow (assuming your speakers are positioned properly, that is). The whole album sounds better and better the more you turn it up and up, the bass filling out and thumping you, the intricacies of the sound enveloping you and overwhelming you; it coaxes you towards the volume knob until you’re making the entire house pulse. Which is the way it should be. It’s addictive.

Lyrically Danny has said explicitly that this is about post-traumatic stress disorder, which he suffered with, by all accounts quite horrifically, in his early 20s; it’s pretty unforgiving. It also borrows a line from an ancient, never-officially-released Embrace tune called “Say It With Bombs”; specifically the bit about “the birds eat the bees”. Which is weird and cyclical and kind of awesome in terms of contributing to the strange, eternal, internal narrative of this band, and adds weight to the suggestion that they’ve come full-circle.

I’m not sure what to say about “The Devil Looks After His Own”, because it’s just a really good, bitter pop song, loaded with tune and given a fabulous arrangement. I can’t really ascribe any semiotic or narrative analysis to it, it doesn’t change the paradigm of the band in the way “Protection”, “Quarters”, or “Self Attack Mechanism” do, it doesn’t feel like a ‘significant’ moment in their career; it’s just a great song, done incredibly well. Which is amazingly refreshing, and, in the midst of a paradigm-shifting album, probably a blessed relief.

Danny spits (almost literally at points; I’ve never heard him sound quite so angry as he does towards the end) fantastic lyrical epithets all over the place, about how “the winner of the rat race is still a rat”, and “the web you weave unravels itself”; if it’s about anything specific, it might be the way the band have been treated over the years, the plans people hatched for them, and how they’ve somehow made it through the bullshit; but of course, like any song, it’s about what you, the listener, interpret it as being about. There’s something metronomic in the triangulated drums and the mechanical, chugging rhythm guitar (which could almost be a bit early-PJ Harvey, another pre-record-deal influence). It’s obviously Embrace but I can’t find an analogue for it elsewhere in their discography; this pleases me.

Across the entire record everything feels ramped-up a notch (or several) musically; arrangements feel more creative across the board, either subtly (the guitar in “At Once”) or radically so (all of “Quarters”). Mike and Steve in particular seem almost like a different rhythm section; the way the drums evolve through “Refugees” and the way the bass shifts across “In The End” are totally unlike anything they’ve played before. Some might find it initially difficult to tell how Mickey’s contribution has altered, because the sound palette he’s working with is so radically different to before, but the synthesizer craziness he’s responsible for is by far the most seismic change on show. It’s not that Embrace have made a synth pop record; it’s that they’ve practically retooled their entire sonic armory, from individual timbres to mixing techniques to the thrillingly dynamic approach to mastering, while keeping hold of the emotional territory and songwriting focus they’ve always held dear.

I like to think I can second-guess what an Embrace song will sound like before I’ve heard it, based on running time, title, and sequencing; “this is a delicate moment”; “this is a rocker”; “this is an experiment”. Sometimes I’m right; probably less often than I’d like to think, though. I was sort of both very right and very wrong with the last track here. Structurally “A Thief On My Island” is similar to “Out Of Nothing”, but it smashes it in the brutality and dynamics stakes. I’d argue that it’s melodically richer and more personal lyrically, too; a lot of the lyrics across the album repeat themes and ideas and motifs from earlier in their career, as if things have been tiptoed around before and are now being fully realised and admitted to.

At one point during the creation process for this record Danny or Rik posted something, somewhere, about being influenced by dubstep, which seemed like a red herring or misdirection or else some horrific attempt at being contemporary; with hindsight the second half of this song is probably the result of that, but it’s not about producing a track that people can (not) dance to at a dubstep night somewhere in Bristol – it’s about saying “here is a sound; what can we do with it to our own ends?” And the answer to that question is ‘techno Swans’. Halfway through listening to “…Thief…” for the first time I thought to myself “well, it’s pretty intense and dramatic, but it’s not exactly Swans, is it?” And then, for the final three minutes, it went techno Swans; a bludgeoning, incredibly deep, repeated electronic noise-chord hammered over and over again like an obscene tectonic movement shaking buildings apart. Or at least I think it did; I don’t quite trust myself with this band, with being able to discern between what’s actually happening and what I want to happen. Many listens in, in many contexts, I think the two are very close.

This album has finally calcified what I always thought Embrace could be; what they ought to be. Some people still won’t get it, and that’s fine. Their music doesn’t usually lend itself to ‘aesthetic contemplation’ the way that some acts do, but I’ve never heard Sonic Youth, say, or any ‘noise’ act, take something so bludgeoning and use it to emotional ends the way Embrace do at the end of “…Thief…” or, a decade ago, “Out Of Nothing”; to insert that chaos, both sonic and emotional, into a pop song. And pop songs is what they do – bold melodies, big hooks, enormous choruses, all those early brass fanfares and ba-ba-ba backing vocals, all that communality. They’ve always been unashamedly populist.

Very early on Embrace were accused of having a Thatcherite work ethic, as if working hard to produce something of quality for consumption by anyone and everyone wasn’t actually a socialist work ethic, as if the communal nature of their music wasn’t socialist through and through, as if Danny hadn’t worked on a building site with his dad while he was writing the songs that would form their debut album, as if they weren’t from mill towns in Yorkshire that Thatcher tried to destroy. Singing to yourself might be beautiful and rewarding but it’s also kind of selfish in many ways, and shared emotional experiences are unbelievably profound; more and more as I get older I’m finding myself overwhelmed by large crowds of people and shared cultural experiences – the Olympics, public demonstrations against the government – and I’m naturally exclusionary by instinct in many ways. To me, Embrace’s music somehow, sometimes captures that feeling and ties it to something that’s also incredibly isolating, far more so than any of the people who’ve emerged in their wake and (in some ways) eclipsed them. I think a big part of this is because the man delivering the words atop most of these emotions is a weirdo hiding in plain sight; simultaneously garrulous and uncomfortably intense.

It’s about sublimation within a crowd, loss of sense of self whilst, at the very same time, feeling something deeply personal and emotional. It’s that eternal pang of pop music, or rock music, or dance music, or soul music, or whatever you want to call it; that thrill of movement and emotion and connection and alienation all at once, joy at sadness and sadness at joy; recalling memories that aren’t actually yours because someone else can channel them, somehow, right into you. We don’t have a word for it. It’s liking a piece of music, or art, or culture, or whatever, not because it says anything about you, but because it does something to you, whether you like it or not. And I like this a lot.

On vinyl vs CD (again)

People say some bloody silly things about vinyl.

Take this guy, who taught his 13-year-old son the “sheer joy of listening to vinyl” via the medium of Cameron Crowe’s bullshit rose-tinted rock-mythology nostalgia-fest, Almost Famous.

The particular scene Nostalgia Dad bangs on about – “when the young aspiring music journalist has his mind set free by his older sister, who leaves him her LP collection under his bed when she leaves home” – isn’t actually about vinyl; it’s about music, and adolescence, and family, and missing someone, and a million other things. The fact that the music is on vinyl is a chronological accident because the film is set in the 70s, and is about as important to the emotional impact as the fact that the bedspread is made of polyester.

I could get angry and swear at Nostalgia Dad – for describing Miles Davis and Art Blakey as “cats”; for teaching his son that his father’s adolescent experiences are more valid than going out and forming his own; for making his son listen to Dire Straits and Dark Side Of The Moon; for confusing mythology and nonsense with significance and lived reality – but I’ve already written a ranty, opinion-spouting thinkpiece about the whole mythology side of the vinyl-vs-CD debate, so instead I’m going to gather some actual evidence and make a reasoned argument with supporting quotes from people who know far more about vinyl and CD as formats than I do. Because you can quote Henry Rollins waxing nonsense about “the sublime state of solitude”, or you can quote the guy from Pere Ubu stating that vinyl distortion is “NOT what we wanted” and link to him explaining exactly why.

Because, frankly, there have been a raft of blog posts, puff pieces and shitty listicles this year telling me how great vinyl is, and none of them have contained any evidence whatsoever beyond borderline solipsistic pontification. “Vinyl’s great! It’s really warm! You can hold it! The artwork’s really big! You can skin up on it!” This is post-blog writing at it’s worst, the kind of navel-gazing that we’re in increasing danger of mistaking for journalism (and increasingly replacing journalism with), where all you need is an opinion and a feeling and a few people to click ‘like’ or ‘share’ to give that opinion instant validation, even if it’s based on nothing at all.

Take that Buzzfeed piece (sorry Matt; I know it’s your job and fully understand why pieces like this have to live alongside the proper stuff); half the things it posits as being great about vinyl are dreadful things that I hate (surface noise; crate-digging; super-specific genre names in independent record shops that act as obfuscating gatekeepers rather than navigation aids), and the other half are completely incidental and can be ‘enjoyed’ with CDs (amazing set of speakers; sorting things alphabetically; supporting local independent shops; meeting someone cute while browsing). Neither Nostalgia Dad nor Fetish Hipster substantiates any of their proclamations with evidence, research, or fact; they just make vague claims and allusions and presuppose that the weight of rock mythology will carry them aloft. Well I hate rock mythology and I pretty much always have.

Some context.

A few months ago I pitched a feature idea to NME about the relative merits of vinyl and CD, with specific focus on the negative side-effects that the current resurgence in vinyl sales is having. Dan Stubbs, NME’s news editor, said yes, and commissioned 600 words from me on the subject, which got published a couple of months ago. Sadly, Dan and NME have style and deadlines and readership and publishers to think of, and 600 words weren’t really sufficient to explore this massive, divisive, and hearsay-riddled topic, and I had many, many thoughts, quotes, and pieces of evidence left over, so I’m going to use them here.

One of the main thrusts of my NME piece was essentially that demand for vinyl is outstripping supply, vinyl pressing plants being unable to press vinyl as quickly as they used to in the past, because no new vinyl pressing machines have been manufactured since 1981; so the industry is relying on old machines. Poor technology + increased demand = falling quality. Vinyl gets used as a marketing hook, and has become a signifier of a premium product, promising you more than CD; the elusive experience that so few people seem to be able to qualify or quantify properly. It’s priced, packaged, and sold correspondingly, but it’s often not actually fit for the purpose it’s meant to be for; at least not as fit as it ought to be for the premium. Remember that the redemptive obverse of a record is to play music, not to look good on a shelf.

So here’s Steve Albini on the merits and demerits of clear, black, and coloured vinyl at The Quietus; scroll down to the penultimate answer, which starts with: “There’s a theoretical point there, which is that polyvinyl chloride is colourless, so if you’re adding something to it to colour it, then you’re changing the chemistry of it slightly, and that has potential to make it sound not as good by having inclusions.” The conclusion? New coloured vinyl probably sounds like crap most of the time, and is a gimmick, a piece of ‘added value’ designed to make you buy a record on one format rather than another (i.e. to buy it at all, rather than download it for free). Records for looking at, rather than listening to.

But Albini’s got no beef with vinyl as a format if it’s done properly, and that’s fair enough. Some people do, though. This is what David Thomas of Pere Ubu has to say about some technical myths regarding vinyl on his website:“The putative ‘warmth’ of vinyl is another one of those mass-hysteria hoaxes that the human race is prone to. ‘Vinyl warmth’ is not some semi-mystical, undefinable phenomenon. There is actually a technical term that audio engineers have for what you are hearing – it is called distortion. The bottom end is distorting. Now, distortion is a valuable audio tool, and an Ubu favorite, but only when the distortion is distortion we choose. You may like the phenomenon but it is NOT what we wanted and it is NOT what we heard in the studio.”

Which seems to contradict what some people claim regarding vinyl being closer in sound to the master tape than CD is. David Thomas isn’t the only person to think so; here’s what David Brewis from Field Music said to me via Twitter the other day: “When we’re putting records together, I have to steel myself for the deficiencies inherent to the vinyl pressings, even though I enjoy those same deficiencies in other people’s records – especially when combined with the ‘sit and listen’ element.” So vinyl is deficient, isn’t the sound people hear in the recording studio, and isn’t necessarily how they want you to hear their records, even if it can be enjoyable.

Michael Jones, much-loved ILX poster who works in digital media somewhere, and who co-engineered The Clientele’s lovely debut album, The Violet Hour, and mastered a bunch of Matinee comps for CD, dropped some serious science on ILX a decade ago, regarding the myths and misunderstandings about what CD and vinyl each bring to the table, from relative resolution and sample rates to analogue waveform reproduction and the happy euphonic accidents that David Brewis alluded to. Highlights and key points include (questions Jonesy’s responding to in italics; his answers in quotation marks; my emphasis in bold):

are you saying that 24/96k can rival the resolution in the grain of good vinyl? (I realise it’s not really comparable and that there are many other factors involved)
“Well, what is the resolution of good vinyl? In information theory terms (resolution = dynamic range x bandwidth), vinyl is miles behind – not even very close to 16/44.1k. It’s a mistake to think that an analogue system is inherently more ‘natural’, or has more detail. Every recording and replay system has its limitations.”

Do circuits exist that can provide a smooth (actually analogue) interpolation between the x levels available in a digital recording? Do good digital players do this?
“*All* digital equipment does this. There are no gaps or stair-steps in the sound – a continuous analogue waveform is reconstructed from the sampled info. The Nyquist theorem states that we only need sample a waveform at at least twice the highest frequency within that waveform to gather a complete record of the data. Now, bandwidth-limiting a musical signal to just above the upper limit of adult human hearing may produce its own set of problems, but we can be sure that the subsequent sampling doesn’t chuck anything *else* away.

“The fixed number of amplitude levels associated with digital means a limit to how small successive changes in the amplitude can be – but with analogue and its greater associated self-noise, the limits are even more restrictive. The noise obscures anything smaller than itself. So there’s *less* resolution in the amplitude domain with analogue despite it being a continuous system.

Is this one reason that LPs can sound better?
“There are lots of artefacts associated with vinyl replay which don’t completely go away with even the most exotic turntables or pristine pressings. Happily, many of these artefacts are euphonic – phase anomalies magically expanding the stereo image, tonearm resonance warming up the mid-range, HF roll-off giving that silky tone. It’s more of a case of what vinyl adds to reproduction, than what CD omits. Beyond that it’s a matter of preference.”

Why not watch him say some of this stuff in person on Youtube? The ‘closer to the master tape’ fallacy gets mentioned here, too.

You can also read the Hydrogen Audio FAQ he linked me to when I asked him for a quote for the NME piece.

Graham Sutton is my usual go-to record producer and technical guy when I need a quote about dynamic range compression or distortion. Sadly he was out of the country working when I wrote the NME piece, but here’s a quote from an interview I did with him a few months ago which has some serious relevance here: “As an aesthetic, for the sort of music I’m involved in making, I also find I don’t like the sound of tape. I don’t want the medium to sonically alter what I’m hearing, I want a linear response and I don’t like hiss. I think part of why digital gets a bad rap is because engineers early on tried to apply the same tape-based tricks to digital without really using their ears, and things came out excessively bright and hard as a result. There’s also a sentimental attachment in the ‘rock’ world, bordering on elitism, to analogue – the smell of tape and the love of big old dusty machines – that just isn’t there in many other areas of music, for example classical, jazz, EDM, broadcasting, film, where this debate ended a long time ago.”

So love of analogue warmth seems like it might be a rockist hangover, a comfort-blanket for an industry, which, 40 years ago, was forward thinking, and cutting edge, but which is now retrogressive and paranoid and faltering. Looking through the records I’ve bought and enjoyed in 2013, and there’s notably less and less ‘rock’ (and pop and associated genres or whatever) and more and more electronica, jazz, avant-garde, whatever-you-want-to-call it. This has been an increasing trend in my tastes for quite a while now.

If you really wanted, you could visit the Steve Hoffman forums and get involved in some of the ranty exchanges that the vinyl-vs-CD debate regularly inspires over there. Neither side comes out looking particularly good though, and it’s very easy to descend down the audiophilia wormhole, which I’ve got no interest in.

A few years ago I got really into headphones and spent far too long (and far too much money) on Head-Fi, where I noticed that people would describe Sennheiser headphones as being ‘veiled’ in terms of sound; i.e. that the sound signature was dark, obscuring detail a little via a thin layer of distortion or lack of focus. This description is how I hear vinyl, pretty much; as if someone is holding a layer of net curtain between the speakers and my ears, which takes away clarity and space, stops me fully getting a hold on individual sonic details. For me a lot of the magic of recorded sound is how psychedelic and otherworldly and magical it can be, and clarity is a big part of that. Mythology isn’t, and though I like the fact that we have shelves full of CDs and I have to pull them out and put them on one at a time in a CD player, that’s less about ritual and mythology than it is about convenience and concentration and not feeling like a data-entry temp.

Here’s another shitty listicle by Matt, except that this one isn’t shitty, and actually talks some sense, in that it admits that a huge amount of vinyl fandom is about aesthetics and lifestyle and not about sound quality.

So I guess I am saying that CD is better than vinyl, in terms of cold, hard, technical, objectively measurable factors like dynamic range, frequency response, and resolution, but that’s not really the key point here: the main thing is that I prefer it; it suits how and why I listen much better than anything else. Vinyl sounds different, and if you prefer it, that’s fine, just don’t tell me, sans evidence, that it’s “better”. Because it isn’t.

(While we’re at it, let’s not conflate and confuse the terms ‘vinyl’ and ‘record’ anymore: ‘vinyl’ is the format, the medium; ‘record’ is short for ‘recording’, and is the content delivered by the format. My ‘record collection’ is mostly on CD, which is how I like it.)

Post-script
A few people have asked me why I don’t just listen to MP3s (or any other digital file type). The answer is quite simple: I’d rather browse shelves than databases when choosing what record to listen to. Accessing and maintaining a digital music collection mostly makes me feel like a data entry temp. I used to look after library databases for a living. I’d rather not do it for my hobby.

It’s also been suggested that I’m the only person banging on about this debate and that no one else cares. That may be so, but I get sent a lot of links to articles, lists, and opinion pieces about how great and magical vinyl is (and occasionally about its actual merits as a format). In addition to the pieces linked in the original piece, here are some more things that people have written about vinyl over the last few years, some of them stupid, some of them sensible.

“Vinyl, they say, just sounds better, warmer, more immediate than digital.”

A whole radio show devoted to vinyl mythologizing.

A sensible piece by Graham Jones.

Over-pricing for packaging and ‘feel’, rather than sonic benefits.

“Vinyl-only” New Year’s Day; on a digital-only radio station.

Mark Richardson talking sense at Pitchfork.

Another Steve Hoffman debate.

Do records really sound warmer than CDs?

“We tried an A and B test with some vinyl freaks and found that they could not really tell the difference but they still genuinely swore that vinyl was the king.”

Top ten reasons why vinyl sounds better than digital. Particularly check out point 6, which is so unbelieveably wrong-headed and loaded that it makes me actually angry. “The quality [of vinyl] is incomparable as each groove contains every intended detail captured holistically, every frequency shift perceived.” Just nonsense. Never mind points 5 and 4.

Sense from a mastering engineer. Even if he does like Dark Side Of The Moon.

At least this guy knows he’s semi-coherent.

“I am sure I know absolutely nothing about how it all works and why, but the one thing I know for certain though is that music sounds better on vinyl.”

Reddit gets in on it.

£2,500 vinyl records. Insanity.

Here’s another quote from Graham Sutton, which he posted on Facebook yesterday in a conversation about the original piece: “I hope you guys realise that almost all vinyl cuts (with a couple of notable exceptions) for the last few decades have passed through a digital delay via A-D-A converters, as a last safety stage before hitting the cutting lathe head, regardless of the analogyness or otherwise of the Master medium, or indeed whether the sequencing had been assembled on Sadie or whatever.

“If you like your music with added distortion that you find pleasing then great, but for anything else this argument is bunk. Vinyl has so many technical limitations it ain’t true.”

And that’s enough for now.

Not albums of 2013


Of course the full ‘story’ of 2013 musically, as far as I’m concerned, involves a lot more than just the twenty albums in my last post. There are several other categories of records beyond albums newly released this year, and which I liked enough to include in that list, that made up my musical year. Hark at me, using terms like ‘musical year’. These are those, roughly divided into some sort of taxonomy.

Compilations etc

Archivists are under-valued in this country, perhaps. By me, certainly, probably because I worked in a library for five years, so I’m kicking against something. Anyway, I’m not really one for compilations, as a rule (because I’m such a dreadful rockist, probably), but I’m coming to appreciate them more as I get older, especially well-curated ones. These are three new ones I bought this year.

Deutsche Elektronische Musik 2
I still can’t deal with the proggy, folky ones, but the swirly, metronomic stuff and the crazy, rocky stuff is outstanding. Luckily there’s considerably more of the latter two types, especially the swirly, metronomic stuff. This is every bit as well put together as the first volume from a couple of years ago. Brilliant. (It’s krautrock, if the title didn’t give it away.)

I Am The Centre
The term ‘new age music’ makes you feel a bit sick in your mouth if you’ve bought into any kind of post-punk counter-cultural indie bullshit philosophy, but, honestly, what’s more ‘punk’ in spirit than this bunch of fucking crazy hippies making music to revolutionise your inner spirit to? I can’t think of much that’s more alternative than this. Some of it is very close to what ‘cool’ people call ‘minimal’, almost all of it is practically indistinguishable from the ‘ambient’ stuff that Eno and Aphex Twin et al have been praised for, and bits are very similar to The Necks or Stars of the Lid or whoever else you care to name. Just because there are field recordings of birds chirping in the background, or a flute, seems to make it unpalatable conceptually. Get over it. Why is Steve Reich famous but not Michael Stearns?

Who Is William Onyeabor
Caribou, Four Tet, and their mates have been dropping this guy’s name for a while, as well as sampling and just outright remixing him too. He made a handful of albums of Nigerian synth funk in the early 80s – extended afrobeat jams, but closer to kraut or disco than jazz compared to Fela – and then stopped and became a preacher and a businessman and stuff. Now he refuses to talk about his music, and those original records either sell for 50p or £500, depending on whether the seller knows wtf it is and thus how to pitch it. This compiles a load of his stuff together (duh), and it’s great.

Near misses / nonplussed

This is the largest and most awkward of the taxonomical sections that make up this weird list, and contains taxonomies within it; new stuff released this year, which I liked enough to buy, and perhaps liked really rather a lot, but which I wasn’t blown away by, or merely thought was ‘quite good’, whatever that means. Some of it was inches away from the other list, and got deleted last minute. Some of it was never anywhere near.

Close, but no cigar

A minor tweak, a moment of punctum; these were so close to being in that other list. The Pantha is too pretty and lightweight; The National over-arranged and busy; Primal Scream a touch workmanlike a touch too often.

The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Pantha Du Prince – Elements of Light
Satelliti – Transister
Primal Scream – More Light
Brandt Brauer Frick – Miami

Liked it, but nowhere near enough

Plenty of people seemed to love these, and I liked them, just not that much. The Fuck Buttons album simply didn’t hit me emotionally like their previous one; BSP and PSB were both accomplished and musical but lacked that final spark to make me love them; the Daft Punk was 20 minutes too long and burdened with cloying over-indulgence at times; Arctic Monkeys stuck together three great singles and some other stuff that was OK; Steve Mason was as emotive as ever but not as creative, perhaps.

Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
British Sea Power – Machineries of Joy
Public Service Broadcasting – Inform, Educate, Entertain
Factory Floor – Factory Floor
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa
Steve Mason – Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time

Not listened to it enough to form a full opinion

Stuff I only just got hold of (Hecker, Emika, Dawn of Midi, Souleyman), never quite got to grips with (Dean Blunt), or couldn’t find time for, for whatever reason (Marling).

Dean Blunt – The Redeemer
Emika – Dva
Tim Hecker – Virgins
Dawn of Midi – Dysnomia
Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu
Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle

Thought it was awful

A dreadful, dog’s dinner of an album that I ought to have returned straight away. Flawed product. Useless.

Phoenix – Bankrupt!

Old albums

Possibly the most interesting bit of the list; nothing ‘new’ here, but it was all new to me, one way or another. Some things, like the Basinski, Russell, and Fleetwood Mac, I’ve been aware of for a decade (or several) but simply never got around to, until Devon Record Club exposed them to me and made them feel essential. Others are filling in the blanks of new stuff I’ve got excited by this year (Stetson, Holden, Grant), or revisits to things I thought I didn’t like first time around, but was wrong about (Fake). Others – House of Blondes – are whole stories in and of themselves, that I can’t quite explain.

William Basinski – Disintegration Loops
Arthur Russell –The World of Arthur Russell
Nathan Fake – Drowning in a Sea of Love
John Grant – Queen of Denmark
House of Blondes – Clean Cuts
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Volume 2; Judges
Holden – The Idiots Are Winning
Various Artists – New Orleans Funk
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

Albums of 2013

I’ve been debating whether or not to put together a list of my favourite records for 2013. Various thoughts are telling me not to bother; who cares about a list I might compile? Will I get shouted at for not having enough women in the list, or any hip hop, or the right dance music, or too much indie, or the wrong jazz, or Miley Cyrus? Are these types of lists, which are being published earlier and earlier each December (so early that most seem to emerge in November now), especially by record shops (who, in the age of the internet, now have inexpensive ways of publishing their own lists to a very wide audience very easily), just corporate shills, desperate attempts by a dying industry to make a coin during the silly spending season? How long should they be? 10 albums? 20 albums? 34 albums? 100 albums? What if there are only so many albums you really *like*, but other albums you have opinions on and want to talk about; is it worth mentioning them just in passing, even if they’re not an actual favourite? What are these lists even for, anyway? When’s the cut-off point? Do you include compilations or reissues?

Are your favourite albums of any given year not the ones that you’re still listening to in one, or two, or five years’ time, anyway? How do you know in December (or earlier, given when lists are published and how long they take to compile) which your favourites are? Something might have only been released streamed sent out on promo leaked in November, and some albums take time to get to know and to appreciate. Other albums are showers rather than growers, and make an immediate impact before fading away; if they land in October or November they may assume inflated positions in people’s esteem. What if you get the order wrong? Oh the existential angst.

Lists are an arbitrary way of assessing records at the best of times, and don’t seem to chime with how I actually experience music on a day-to-day basis. The way regular music fans start talking in early January about “contenders for album of the year”, as if they’re going to give out a special trophy in December to the maker of their very own personal favourite record, always strikes me as bizarre. Meta-narratives about ‘what kind of year it was’ don’t interest me that much anymore now that I’m not contributing to any collaborative publication list or ethos. I don’t even have a ‘favourite’ record this year, or most other years, anyway, nor do I know how to qualify or quantify what that even means anyway; the one you listened to most often? Most intensely? With the most happiness? How do you discern the differences? I’ve just got a load of records I’ve listened to and enjoyed a lot, and trying to codify which ones I liked most seems bonkers when I liked them for different reasons in the first place. And some of them I don’t really have anything to say about, anyway. And yet others that I’m not especially keen on make me want to write lots of words.

So I nearly didn’t make a list at all, as if that matters to you in the slightest. But then I remembered the difficulty I had when faced with trying to choose an album from 2008 for Devon Record Club; so disenfranchised was I for various reasons in that year that I didn’t bother to make a list at all, even on my blog, and so it struck me what these lists are, for me anyway, and presumably for most other people who start talking about “contenders for album of the year” in January; they’re an aide memoire, a diary, a personal note, a link to a past self, written from a present self, for a future self to find whatever utility in that they need, however far down the line they need it.

So, with 2018 me in mind, I’m making a list of the records I’ve listened to most and enjoyed most this year, and written some comments about why and how and where and when etcetera. It’s my list, not yours or anyone else’s. It’s not meant to be a narrative of anything other than the music that I have listened to. It represents and expresses no one but me. If it stimulates conversation and comment, then that’s brilliant. If it doesn’t, that’s also fine. If there’s something missing, I either haven’t heard it, didn’t like it enough, or only just got it and don’t feel I can pass judgement yet.

Here are some records of new music that were released this year. The ones near the top are probably the ones I like the most.

Melt Yourself Down – Melt Yourself Down
Ostensibly, awkwardly described as a jazz band (not least by me), Melt Yourself Down are actually an incredibly intense, incendiary party band, melding jazz, funk, Nubian influences, punk, and whatever else they fancy into a maelstrom of crazed energy and hooks. I reviewed them for The Quietus and played them for Devon Record Club too, and their album is one of the records I’ve played most often this year, be it in the car, in the kitchen, walking to work, on the big hi fi, or anywhere else.

We went to see Melt Yourself Down live at the Exchange in Bristol, a proper small venue with stages on different floors; they didn’t go onstage until after 11pm, so it felt like properly seeing a band at a club, like when I was a teenager at the Cavern in Exeter. They were awesome; it’s hard to express just how good they were to someone who might be scared off at the outset by the word ‘jazz’, especially if you then qualify it by saying there’s an Ethiopian thing going on, even if both the crowd and the singer spend their time moshing and crowd surfing at gigs. The energy was incredible. Amazingly, the album captures the live sound (if not the spectacle of Kushal Gaya, the maddest/best frontman I’ve seen since Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav) of Melt Yourself Down, primarily by being crunchy, in-your-face, over-excited and slightly chaotic; it feels like a live performance but thumps like a studio recording too.

I’m sad not to see it placing on more end-of-year lists (or get Mercury nominated), because there seemed to be some potential for crossover, with airplay on 6music and a presence at cultural events like the Manchester International Festival. Melt Yourself Down (whether it’s a band, an album, or a project) rocks harder than any guitar record I’ve heard this year, and makes me want to move more than any dance record.

These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
Once again, I wrote about this for The Quietus, and made it my debut choice at my second record club, so I’m not sure I have much to say. I’ve not played this anywhere near as often as Holden or Sons of Kemet or Melt Yourself Down, but when I have it’s felt absolutely important and urgent and special. Talk Talk similarities are over-emphasised in some circles; this is something quantifiably different to that, even if the odd musical moment or the ethos as a whole feels redolent. Very much about space, and landscape, and identity, Field of Reeds seemed to scare the people who voted Hidden as NME’s album of the year in 2010 despite being, to my ears, as logical a next step from that album as These New Puritans could have taken.

Sons of Kemet – Burn
One of the things Em always said she loved about hip hop was the sense of community that it tended to engender, especially in sub-scenes; people guesting on each other’s records, producing tracks for each other, lending a hand and helping out with each other’s music. Aside from sharing phone numbers of drug dealers and sleeping with each other, the 90s British indie poppers we were pushed as teens didn’t seem keen on this kind of natural collaboration, unless it consisted of doing a guest vocal on a dance track. Or Primal Scream.

Sons of Kemet are part of the same scene that begat Melt Yourself Down, and Acoustic Ladyland, and Polar Bear, and The Invisible, and Portico Quartet, and probably lots of other bands too. They’re made up of the drummer from Polar Bear (and Acoustic Ladyland), and the drummer from Melt Yourself Down too, plus the saxophone player from Melt Yourself Down (but not the one who also plays in Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland [who are now called Silver Birch]) who also plays clarinet, plus a tuba player who’s played with the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. And, on two tracks, the guy who plays guitar in The Invisible. Who are a ‘rock’ band, nominally.

Sons of Kemet play something much more akin to straight jazz than their hard-partying sibling act, but it’s still not quite straight jazz. Not that jazz was ever ‘straight’ anyway, really. The drums play in crazed synchronicity, sometimes duelling, sometimes mimicking each other. The tuba essentially handles bass duties, and occasionally in a style akin to a 303 deployed for acid techno. The saxophone and clarinet, meanwhile, deliver the melodic patterns atop this whirling rhythmic bedrock. Allegedly the melodies are North African and Caribbean in style but I can’t confirm this as I don’t really know; all I can say is that they’re catchy, and compelling, and at times very beautiful and mournful too.

Some people who’ve been in earshot of me playing this, for instance at work, have complained of jazz skronk, but this is nowhere near The Shape of Jazz to Come or Coltrane’s innerspace explorations, or even the rambunctious freedom of The Thing, not really. Other people have found it surprisingly accessible despite trepidation towards jazz generally. Me? I’m a complete dilettante and musicological luddite, but I adore it nonetheless; the patterns and shapes of ‘rock’ music have become increasingly prosaic and predictable to me over the last few years, and the freedom and expression and pure joy of listening that jazz can give me is increasing every day.

Holden – The Inheritors
I wrote about this record here at length back in the summer, but I don’t feel like I’ve fully nailed what it is that I love about it. It’s hard to nail. The Inheritors is a big, strange record; 15 tracks across 75 minutes of played-live synthesizer drones and reverberations and oscillations and melodies, decorated with strange chanted vocals, bodhran, “guitar/screwdriver”, saxophone, field recordings, “wailing”, “quantized 3-LFO Chaotic System”, organ, xylophone, and “gibbering”. It seems improvised and unplanned much of the time, incredible tension built by seemingly directionless momentums slowly discovering direction and then moving inexorably towards some strange conclusion beyond the horizon and out of the listener’s perception. The sound is huge, redolent of enormous landscapes, forests, moors, lakes, highlands, whilst still being descended (or inherited) from dance music, from techno, from kosmische. It feels pagan and unruly, but also deliberate and sophisticated, if that doesn’t sound stupidly contradictory. It’s almost like something from another time or another place. It contains multitudes, whole universes of sound and discrete genres within itself. A whole album of space-synth-jazz like “The Caterpillar’s Intervention”, or 40 minutes of martian dancefloor build like “Renata”, or a full LP of distracted Deutsche night-driving like “Blackpool Late Eighties”, would have made this list on its own. That The Inheritors contaisna ll these things, and more besides, is remarkable. It’s alien, and I don’t understand it. I love that I don’t understand it.

Jon Hopkins – Immunity
First up, this is fucking LOUD, especially the first half of it. It’s not a problem particularly because it’s a very clean, rich, well-mixed sound, so it’s obviously a very deliberate choice, but even so. Start quiet, and then the loud hits you in the face and grabs your attention. Start loud, and things can surely only wane from thereon?

Secondly, it sounds a LOT like stuff that was happening on the Border Community label in the mid-00s, specifically “A Break in the Clouds” by James Holden, and his remix of Nathan Fake’s “The Sky Was Pink”. These are both beautiful, wonderful, hazily melodic dancefloor hits, but Holden got sick of playing them and they became a bit of an albatross to him. A lot of other people very much didn’t get sick of them though, and their sound was appropriated pretty widely and often very closely. Years later, Hopkins isn’t as close as some of those efforts, but what he does here, especially in the first half of the record, is a lot closer to that than it is to Four Tet, for instance, who a lot of people compared Immunity to. “Sun Harmonics”, for instance, from the second half of the album where things wind down somewhat, is lovely and beatific in a way that neither Holden nor Hebden managed to be this year, or any other year, because what they do is quite different.

There’s a sense with Hopkins that he’s a ‘proper’ musician, and I use ‘proper’ in inverted commas because I think I mean it faintly pejoratively; he’s Eno’s protégé, he’s worked with Coldplay, made an acclaimed post-folk album with King Creosote, soundtracked an acclaimed independent film (the excellent Monsters), probably owns an expensive piano, gets commissioned to make music by people with money, and seems consummately professional in his approach to having a career as a musician. He’s not in any way cool or underground or alternative to anything, and this year he seems to be the go-to crossover electronic musician that indie kids and classic rockers are giving props to.

As a result it’s easy to be harsh on Hopkins. Some of the sound palette is certainly Border Community circa 2005, but not all of it. The way he uses pianos and space on the second half of the record is something quite substantially different to Holden et al, and very different indeed to what Holden is doing now, even if the two records do share some similarities. I like the Holden record a lot more than the Hopkins one – it feels more alive, more epic, more dangerous, more weird – but Immunity is still very good, and I enjoy it a lot, and have played it often.

The Necks – Open
I reviewed this very recently for The Quietus, and was rather pleased with what I wrote, so I refer you there for specific details and analysis. This is The Necks, so it is ‘ambient jazz’, and lasts for more than an hour despite being comprised of only one piece. It is very beautiful. Every time they release a new album I convince myself I don’t need another one, and then people start talking about it, and I end up buying it, because what they do is unique, as far as I’m aware.

Julia Holter – Loud City Song
I was introduced to Julia Holter (having been intrigued by mentions of her for a while) by Tom playing the opening track from Ekstasis at DRC at the end of last year: Ekstasis got bought very swiftly thereafter. I saw some people suggest that Loud City Song was more abstract, but to me it seemed more connected, more ‘pop’. There are less layers here, perhaps, more piano, more directness, but it’s still not straightforward. Holter makes dream music, I suppose, soundtracks to those moments when you’re not sure if you’re awake or not. Phrases repeat across songs like themes across a whole night’s worth of dreaming. This record is extremely beautiful, and, thinking about it, quite jazz too. Some amazing, exciting brass. A big trend this year.

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
I described this as “a big, post-structuralist experiment with cybernetic hooks” back in the early summer, and it is. Defiantly, deliberately avant-garde, with a 19-minute drone at its centre, it has less in common with Silent Shout or “Heartbeats” than it does with the soundtrack they produced for Tomorrow, In A Year, the Darwin musical. The peaks – “A Tooth For An Eye”, “Full Of Fire”, “Networking” – are extraordinary, confusing confrontations that explode techno into gender theory, ideological state apparatuses, Foucault, Judith Butler. It’s a huge beast of a record, and not something I’ve often consumed, but it’s been a hell of a ride when I have.

Matthew E White – Big Inner
Released last year in the States, this is placing on lots of lists in the UK this year, especially those by record shops. Matthew E White is a big white guy with a beard and long hair, from somewhere in America that is far away from water I think, and where they believe very much in God. He very much believes in God, too. I don’t, and often feel uncomfortable in the presence of devotion, especially orthodox devotion, because of this; I think that people who believe in God must be slightly insane, because the notion seems very daft to me, and has since I was a small child, as much as I acknowledge that it must be nice and might be of great use to some people. I don’t feel uncomfortable at all in the presence of the 9-minute paean to Jesus Christ that closes this record, though, because it is a beautiful, immaculately executed soul groove, and it follows a number of other beautiful, immaculately executed soul grooves. This record is phenomenally well arranged and recorded by Mr White, who used to score jazz bands or something. In many ways it’s similar to Nixon by Lambchop, but perhaps without the country element so much.

My Bloody Valentine – m b v
That this exists at all is faintly confusing; that it is good is confounding, but very welcome. It sounds, amazingly, given two decades and then some, like My Bloody Valentine, if they’d made a record 22 months, rather than 22 years, after Loveless. It is sensual and indulgent and control-freakish, like My Bloody Valentine always were. I had some thoughts when it was released, and I’ve not had many more since; despite the fact that their enormous absence made them incredibly often talked (written) about, My Bloody Valentine are still better listened to than pontificated upon. Like all music, obviously.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
I wrote about this only a few weeks ago; I still like it very much, far more than anything else by this band, who more often irritate than inspire me. (Interesting aside; enjoying this record and revisiting Funeral made me listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea again, and it’s still horrific, unlistenable bilge, and I don’t understand how anybody can tolerate let alone love it. Different strokes etcetera.) I accept some of the criticisms – yes it’s long and bloated, yes they’re pompous, no irony doesn’t suit them (nothing ever did, did it? I never, ever believed Win’s sincerity and emoting), yes it’s obviously an Achtung Baby move (but I love Achtung Baby, as much as I love any U2), but none of that matters at all because, quite frankly, I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. All of it. I find it borderline hilarious that some people think their earlier records are amazing and that this is dreadful, or a step down, especially those who loved The Suburbs, which feels much bloatier and less defined and more pompous than this to me. This feels like fun, a lot of the time. I’d try and fathom out how or why this strange dissonance of opinion happens but it amuses me; I’m smiling as I’m typing! Oh, and the one with Eurydice in the title rips off the chords from “November Rain”. Which bugged me for weeks before I got it.

Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Volume 3: To See More Light
If you describe this in any wannabe-objective confluence of adjectives and nouns – polyphonic avant-garde pseudo-jazz saxophone experiments – it sounds horrific and difficult and like something you’d want to avoid. But actually Stetson’s saxodrone voyages are incredibly compelling and moving, melodies and rhythms to the fore as much as the (vast) textures and soundscapes. I’d been intrigued but scared by him for sometime, put off by descriptions. Yes, by any measure of ‘pop’ music this is a weird record, but it’s not in any way unpleasant or indulgent or bad. It’s communicative and expressive and alive. It reminds me a lot of the Holden record, actually.

Darkside – Psychic
Something else I reviewed, this is almost nothing beyond pure sensual, audio indulgence, a record for listening to and luxuriating in. That’s absolutely enough.

Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind
I’m still a little nonplussed by this, to be honest, but I think that’s merely because it starts so low key and ends so well; “Buchla” and “Aerial” are so exciting, and “Unicorn” so exquisitely beautiful, that “Gong” and “Parallel Jalebi” seem prosaic and directionless by comparison. Four Tet’s seventh album isn’t my favourite of his – that honour will probably always fall to There Is Love In You now, I suspect – but it shows a degree of craft and skill that other electronic producers don’t quite have; “Unicorn”, possibly the most phenomenologically beautiful track I’ve heard this year, is on some Aphex Twin level of strange, exquisite delicacy. Jon Hopkins, as good as he is, can’t compete.

I struggled a little with getting a handle on what this record’s USP is (I know, I know; I work in marketing), but I think “Kool FM” reveals it; those little fake jungle rushes feel like listening to pirate dance radio in the 90s, the signal fading in and out because the transmitter is up the duff, chunks of the music being snatched away from you but the bits you do hear so exciting, so full of potential and wonder. Beautiful Rewind might be a love letter to a teenage life spent taping those moments onto C90s.

John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
This seemed destined to end up in these lists from the moment reviews started rolling out almost a year ago. I was unaware of John Grant before, somehow, despite the acclaim for his previous solo album, Queen of Denmark (which we’ve subsequently picked up), but was intrigued and eventually bought this. Em and I both liked it a lot; the arrangements and production are sophisticated and measured without being at all staid, and there’s so much idiosyncrasy to Grant’s songwriting and lyrics, and so much strength and character to his delivery, that he feels both very singular and unusual, and also very classic, at the same time. I get the idea he fits melodies to words rather than the other way around, which makes for some unusual melodic phrasings and sequences. Fantastic live, too.

Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
Hookworms are the band who, in 2013, if I wanted to be in a band, I would want to be in. They use guitars as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and that end is transportation, of the psychedelic variety, through riffs and repetition and distortion. I’ve only come to it in the last couple of months or so, and thus don’t really have any more to say beyond the fact that certain sounds still tickle me like they used to when I was 16 or 18, and this is one of them, done well.

San Fermin – San Fermin
Another record I’ve only come to recently, this is probably only some kind of post-Sufjan Stevens thing, chamber pop, or something. Probably insufferable to some. But I really like it; there’s an intense musicality to it, that veers from something Tin Pan Alley-ish to jazz (of the Ellington rather than Coltrane variety), to elegies, to indie pop, via trumpets, drums, synthesizers, string quartets, pianos, samples, woodwind. Male and female voices play off against each other, telling a story, singing the same song from different perspectives, the male voice redolent of a several others (Matt Berninger, Nick Cave, Owen Pallett), while the female voices (there are two) almost sound like St Vincent duetting with herself. Beautifully rendered and lusciously produced, it literally tells you a story; I have no idea what about, but it’s lovely listening.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Eight years later and the guitars which so many people had trouble with on The Campfire Headphase have gone, and the numerology and cult influences so many people over-exaggerated on the first two albums have been seized upon and run with more than ever before. The result of these two ostensibly fan-pleasing moves? Gross indifference; net positivitity. I have thoroughly enjoyed Tomorrow’s Harvest the way I have every other Boards of Canada record; as a piece of immaculately produced, semi-soporific, faintly unsettling electronic music, not as some totem of mystic significance or pinnacle of musical creativity. Like their other albums it sounds like the memory of a TV program you saw as a child and remember feeling slightly scared of, without knowing why. To me, absolutely as good as the ones that came before it.

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
This is here through admiration rather than affection; Vampire Weekend are so obviously a good band, and this is so obviously a good record, that I feel absolutely compelled to include it in this list. They demonstrate consummate skill as musicians, arrangers, producers, lyricists; impeccable taste in influence and execution; an understanding of the sense of band-as-brand, of the necessary narrative of their career and their work thus far, of the need to evolve just so in order to maintain, progress, and not alienate; a complete understanding of their responsibilities as the kind of band that they undoubtedly are. They are still, on “Diane Young” and “Ya Hey” and “Finger Back”, fabulous fun like they were when we first heard them, but now they are mature and touching too, with a sense of the passing of time and the mortality of all things and the sadness of growing up. They are so obviously really, really, really good, and yet I can’t bring myself to give a fuck. This is the grudging respect choice you get at the bottom of every list.

On criticism

On Tuesday 15 October 2013, on the main ‘new releases’ index page for music on the website Metacritic (a service which aggregates reviews and gives an average score) out of approximately 200 albums listed only 14 scored 60% or less on average. Metacritic assigns colours to scores on a simple traffic light system; 61 or more gets green, which stands for ‘generally favourable’ between 61 and 80, and ‘universal acclaim’ for anything above that; 60 to 41 gets amber, which stands for ‘mixed or average reviews’; 40 or below gets red, which means ‘generally unfavourable’. No album listed on that first page receives an average score in the red. See what I mean by having a look for yourself here.

Now have a look at the same page for movies. Of 26 ‘wide releases now in theatres’, 10 are green, 10 are amber and 6 are red. That’s quite a difference in the general critical landscape from one popular cultural medium to another. Why?

One quick answer might be that films, generally, are worse than music, or that it’s easier to make a bad film than it is a bad record; logistically films need a much larger crew and budget and a longer gestation period, and so there are simply more things that can go wrong over a longer period of time, and result in a poor end product. Good films, great films, stand proud above the rest of the landscape even more. Perhaps that’s the case and all there is too it. But I’m not so sure I believe it. I think there are plenty of average and, yes, even bad records.

I’ve been perplexed and irritated by this dichotomy between film criticism and music criticism for the best part of two decades; as a teenager I was irritated no end by the propensity, when publications marked albums out of five, for the vast majority of releases to receive 3/5. To me this score always read like a shrugged ‘meh’ of indifference, a ‘quite good if you like that type of thing’ avoidance of stating an actual opinion in case you upset someone or get called out for not knowing what you’re talking about, or, worse, for being a snob.

Of course music and films are not analogous, and you can’t directly compare the two with any worth anymore than you can compare a pizza to a curry; there are good and bad examples of each, but if you fancy a pizza a curry isn’t going to scratch that culinary itch and vice versa. (Of course there’s fusion cuisine the way there’s multimedia art, but let’s not go there right now.) Thus it makes sense that the criticism-topography (for want of a better phrase to describe the undulations, or not, of the landscape resulting from the marks doled out by our cultural gatekeepers in newspapers and magazines and online) of each would be different. I’m sure the criticism-topography of video games is equally different again, but as I have almost exactly zero interest in video games I’m going to leave that area well alone for fear of looking like an idiot. I studied film and critical theory at university, and I wrote, and still do write, music criticism. I also love both forms. Those are my credentials. (The failure of popular music theory and criticism to be accepted as an academic discipline like film theory and criticism has long been a bugbear, too, and I see it as part of the overall problem I’m addressing here.)

That sea of green in the criticism-topography for music strikes me as strong evidence that music critics aren’t the gatekeepers they might like to think they are; you can’t be a gatekeeper if you never call out bad art, surely. But why do music critics seldom call out bad art? I’ve read what seemed to me to be hatchet jobs of reviews, semi-excoriating their subjects, which then awarded 3/5 or 6/10 once you got to the bottom, never going for critical equivalent of the jugular. I’ve mentally urged critics on to ‘finish him!’ when reading reviews of records (see? My video games references are 20 years out of date), hoping to see a 3/10 or a 1/5 (or, for the decimally inclined pedants out there, a 2.7/10.0; please read that clause in the scathing tone of voice with which it was intended), wincing to myself when another ‘generally favourable’ score gets given instead, obviating any point that may have been imparted through the subtleties, or not, of the actual words above the rating.

There might be two reasons for this failure to savage bad art by music critics (well, there might be a million reasons, but two seem logical to me); either critics don’t know what bad art is for whatever reason (lack of technical knowledge; lack of confidence; lack of critical faculties; lack of contextual knowledge), or else they’re afraid to say when they see it, for whatever reason. The industries of music and of journalism are both faltering; the later in particular is in dreadful health, and people are desperate to survive. If that means damning a record with faint praise rather than tearing it to shreds, in an attempt to keep a PR or a record company or an editor or a dwindling readership on side, then so be it, perhaps. Except that the dwindling readership is still dwindling, in terms of willingness to pay for criticism (and almost every other type of content), so this tactic, if that’s what it is, clearly isn’t working. I wonder if the readership is dwindling precisely because of the criticism-topography; if you’ve been repeatedly mis-sold products by weak and apathetic or inept criticism, then you stop trusting it. If Vauxhall sell you a duff car you find another manufacturer. If Melody Maker sell you a suite of duff records, you find another conduit that you feel you can trust, which may not be another magazine at all, but a website, or a streaming service, or whatever comes next. Undervaluing the criticism, letting anyone do it, leads to a lack of criticism, leads to a further undervaluing of the criticism. A vicious circle.

There’s a lot of talk this week about the value of the critic. Some of it is very good. Here’s Simon Price writing at The Quietus about The Independent dropping its own arts coverage in favour of a Metacritic-like aggregation of other people’s opinions. Here’s Neil Kulkarni being interviewed about boring reviews, lazy criticism, and keeping the hell out of London. Both pieces are well worth reading, and seem, to me, to be pointing in vaguely the same direction.

Price finishes his piece by saying that “a world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves”, which I agree with whole-heartedly. But I fear that we’ve been leaving music broadly uncriticised for far too long already. That sea of green is testament to our lack of critical spine, or to the fact that a babble of semi-conflicting voices seldom manage to form a coherent consensus. There’s too much of it, and not enough of it is any good. One of my main motivations as a critic was to encourage musicians to make better art, so there would be more stuff that I wanted to listen to myself; a selfish impulse, granted. I was guilty of hatchet jobs and of over-praise too. But I wrote, always, from the point of view of a fan; most of the records I’ve ever written about I’ve paid money for, one way or another, which I felt gave me a worthwhile and different perspective to some (not, at all, that people who get sent records for free can’t have valid opinions; but they’ll always have a different perspective).

What’s criticism for? I’ve never cared about it as an art form, like some do; but is it just to help us determine wheat from chaff? Is it to help us understand what wheat and chaff are, in order to encourage the wheat and discourage the chaff? Is it to help us realise what wheat and chaff are for? I don’t know, and the problem, I suspect, is that neither does anyone else. Least of all the people who might be reading and writing the stuff.

Embrace – Drawn From Memory / Out of Nothing (2000 / 2004)

embracegif“Bands, those funny little plans, that never turn out right.” So sang Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue in 1998, presumably about his own relationship with his band, their problems over the years, and then their ascent to critical and crossover success at the close of a tumultuous decade. Danny from Embrace once said, of Deserter’s Songs, that he couldn’t work out if it was genius or not, but that he was obsessed with “Holes”, the song that lyric comes from. 15 years on, with the benefit of hindsight, it could very easily be about his own band.

In case you don’t know, I have a relationship with Embrace. I wrote about them in my fanzine back in 1997, and their reciprocation, and my affection for them and their music, soon made that fanzine predominantly about them. In 2000 I followed them around the country as they toured, partying backstage and getting my name on the guestlist. In 2001 I was ‘Nick Southall, Embrace fan’ on a Channel 4 documentary about the recording and release of their third album. In 2005 I wrote the sleevenotes to their b-sides compilation. In 2006 I was thanked in the sleeve of their fourth album, not for anything specific, just for being enthusiastic and helping out and emailing them a bootleg MP3 of a song they’d performed live but forgotten how to play in the studio.

In that documentary I described Drawn From Memory as “schizophrenically eclectic”, and it is, from the cartoon Technicolor of the sleeve to the kazoo solo on “Hooligan” to the spiralling riffs of “New Adam New Eve” and the crazy keyboards lashed across almost every track like Day-Glo graffiti.

For a band often maligned as Oasis-lite or lumped in with Coldplay and Snow Patrol there’s a hell of a lot of love for a hell of a lot of music evident in this record (and it’s accompanying b-sides, where many of my favourite songs by them lived); when you’ve listened as closely as I have, read the interviews, conducted the interviews, spoken with band members in depth about what they were listening to in the studio, then it seems obvious, but for some reason the press and public never quite seemed to give them the credit for the eclecticism that seemed so obvious to me. “The Love It Takes” takes moves and ideas from Frank Zappa and David Axelrod; “Hooligan” tried to tie up Jimi Hendrix to Delakota; “Yeah You” is aiming for Shudder To Think; “Save Me” wants to be Happy Mondays playing Sly & The Family Stone. There is a pair of b-sides, called “Brothers And Sisters” and “Come On And Smile”, which somehow crunch up “Gratitude” by Beastie Boys. “I Wouldn’t Wanna Happen To You” pitches itself at the same weightless pop territory as “The Only Living Boy In New York” by Simon & Garfunkel. There’s another b-side (“With The One Who Got Me Here”) which completely deconstructs its own sound-palette and ends up feeling like “Kangaroo” by Big Star as recreated with Pro Tools and a Casio. This album and its next of kin are all over the shop. Psychedelic, you could say.

Out of Nothing is a more straightforward, linear rock beast by far, but no other record has ever made me cry like it. Granted, I was in odd emotional territory for a bunch of reasons in 2004, but songs like “Keeping”, as much as I’ve barely listened to them in the last six or more years, would have me in floods of tears on a regular basis during my train commute that summer, it seemed. I recognise a little, after last year’s Olympics, that the sensation is partly one of seeing people who have struggled to follow their passion suddenly, emphatically knock it out of the park, so to speak. These days I have issues with the mixing, the sequencing, the choices that got left off (b-sides that ripped from Manitoba, Fugazi, “Thriller”, Eno), but the huge emotional resonance this record had at the time was extraordinary. I’ll never forget the comeback gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which I watched mostly from the wings where I could see the crowd’s reaction as much as the band’s. I’ve never really experienced anything else quite like that euphoria.

I had expectations, and ambitions, and dreams, for Embrace when I was 18. I wanted them to somehow both conquer the world, and be the most exciting, innovative, expressive band there had ever been. That weight of unrealistic adolescent fantasy can never, ever be brought to life, not really. Embrace had plans, too. They wanted to be My Bloody Valentine with strings, Ride playing Curtis Mayfield songs, Al Green and Pixies and Otis Redding and Screamadelica and PJ Harvey and The Beach Boys. The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band on acid. Why wouldn’t you?

Holden – The Inheritors

holden-inheritorsBorder Community, 2013.

Let’s write something about Holden, shall we? Wikipedia says he was born in Exeter in June 1979, which means he was almost certainly born in the same hospital as me, and which makes him three weeks younger than me. I’ve only, knowingly, heard his music for the first time about three weeks ago, despite being aware of him – as a name dropped by both musicians and critics I respect – for a decade, if not more. You can’t investigate everything at the time.

The Inheritors is an enormous record. Massive. Huge. Tectonic. Holden has talked about holidaying in the Scottish Highlands as a kid and wanting to make music that would work in that environment, and, even though this record is made almost exclusively on a gigantic modular synthesiser, that makes sense to me. I’ve connected techno or electronica or whatever you want to call it to massive landscapes since I was 17 and listening to Orbital on clifftops. I want to take this record and play it in the middle of Dartmoor. Ideally through a massive soundsystem, but just via a pair of Koss Portapros will do, at a push.

When Dan Snaith released Andorra in 2007 (one of my favourite records ever) he talked about the influence of James Holden’s production on the final two tracks, which spectacularly departed the 60s-tinged psychedelic laptop pop of the rest of the record. Specifically he talked about the idea of dance music that teetered on the edge of chaos and collapse, which pushed patterns and systems to the very threshold of tolerance. The Inheritors feels, at points, as if it goes ever so slightly beyond that threshold. I’m obsessed by it.

This modular synthesiser, which Holden played as part of the Caribou Vibration Ensemble at All Tomorrow’s Parties in December 2011, and which is the size of a garden shed, produces a sound so massive and rich and full of reverberation, so compelling and overwhelming at the same time, that it threatens to break your head open from the inside with the sheer, unnatural weight of sound. At times it is on the absolute cusp of being unbearable to me sonically, especially when Holden is pumping weird sub-percussion alongside it via a massive dose of side-chaining, and the entire sound, like some throbbing beast, pulses in and out of itself (see, or rather hear, “Sky Burial” for evidence of what I mean). But other moments, like the opening bodhran percussion of “The Caterpillar’s Intervention”, are, by contrast, incredibly tangible and real, rendered with bizarre naturalism. Add then torn apart by streams of semi-chaotic jazz saxophone. Astonishingly.

On headphones, especially very good Austrian ones running off a dedicated headphone amplifier, it sounds absolutely extraordinary, the soundstage moving in subtle ways that you’d barely perceive if it was pumping through speakers. The dappling repetitions of “The Illuminations” disintegrate at the edges, the aural equivalent of bokeh in a photograph, when you deliberately throw lights out of focus to get that beautiful, evocative blur of colour. The sound smears itself through your skull the same way.

At 75 minutes and 15 songs, The Inheritors isn’t just big sonically, it’s also a monolith of a record to get to grips with. I could maybe do without the middle passage, from “Sky Burial” through “Delabole”, where Holden seems to let his synthesiser experimentations meander just that touch too far away from melody and rhythm, but the likes of “Renata” and “Gone Feral” and the title track are so good, so compelling, so exciting, that I’ll let his playfulness pass. Especially when it also results in tracks like “Some Respite”, which does indeed offer some respite after monolithic, physically tiring synth excursions, and “Self-Playing Schmaltz”, which has melodies played, Eno-like, by a “quantizied 3-LFO Chaotic System” rather than by a human being.

And then there is “Blackpool Late Eighties”, which is a gargantuan, crepuscular flight through trailing taillights and memories, huge rolling synthesiser arpeggios tapestried with beatific xylophone melodies and driven forward on linear, mechanised rhythms. It’s about the best thing I’ve heard all year.

James Holden seems to be, to steal an idea from Kurt Vonnegut, part of a musical karass that also contains Kieron Hebden and Dan Snaith and maybe Jon Hopkins and probably loads of other people too. It’s too disparate to call a ‘scene’, too diverse to call a ‘genre’. It amuses me that these four are all about the same age as me. I’m not sure why.