Music » Record Roundup

Aphex Twin's moments of bliss on Syro and 15 more record reviews

Ten Reader writers take on 16 albums—including commercial alt-rock cheese from Johnny Marr, charged UK punk from Vaselines, and a terrifyingly gorgeous classic from Godflesh.



Aphex Twin

The brief but intense buildup to Aphex Twin's first studio album in 13 years is worthy of its own unpacking—there was the green blimp emblazoned with Aphex Twin's logo that hovered over London in mid-August, the Twitter link to a deep-Web post that revealed the name of a new album and its track list, and the preceding month of rumors and fake leaks circulating online. These unusual (though increasingly frequent) methods of promotion can overshadow the experience of listening to the very thing being advertised. Fortunately Aphex Twin, aka peerless experimental electronic producer Richard D. James, creates such an immersive world on Syro that it's easy to experience it on its own terms. The dynamic, shape-shifting, largely instrumental full-length is best listened to in full, though you can pinpoint moments of bliss—the mutated new jack swing and squelching, animated synth melody on "CIRCLONT14 [152.97][shrymorning mix]" is particularly engrossing. Leor Galil

David Ashley
Perfect Dark

After local experimental production duo The-Drum launched their own label in the spring, some of their hometown buddies decided to do the same thing. Enter Posture, a new venture from outre pop producers Supreme Cuts, oddball R&B producer and vocalist Youngchulord, out-there rapper Kit, and Jody vocalist David Ashley—whose solo debut, Perfect Dark, is one of the first two releases from the label. Ashley's album is thick with the shadowy, glacial atmosphere that everyone who runs Posture seems to favor, and on the best tracks his singing and rapping hint at the spacious production's untapped nighttime sensuality—he nails it with the wispy synths, sparse drum patterns, and near-whispered half-singing on "Here I Am." Leor Galil


Vashti Bunyan

British singer Vashti Bunyan vanished from the music business not long after releasing her gorgeously austere debut album, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1970. She spent the next three decades or so raising a family, but eventually she was lured out of retirement by a younger generation of fans, including Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins and Devendra Banhart. Heartleap is the third album since her 2005 return, and if she's telling the truth when she insists it's her last, she's going out in typically hushed, idiosyncratic fashion. As usual her crystalline voice and sparse arrangements are lighter than air and finer than silk; a few guest musicians and harmony singers contribute, but by and large the focus is her delicate voice and her own guitar and synthesizer accompaniment. Fittingly, the songs express a sense of acceptance and contentment, natural sentiments for a woman comfortable in her own skin, set on living out her final days at peace with herself and those around her. Peter Margasak


Grady Champion
Bootleg Whiskey

Grady Champion was a Miami-based hip-hop producer and MC in the early 90s when he heard the music of bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson (aka Rice Miller) on a college radio program. Struck by Williamson's raplike rhythmic dexterity and penchant for spontaneous wordplay, Champion remade himself as a blues artist. On this disc he's at the top of his game, updating the deep blues tradition with modernist elements drawn from the popular fusion of R&B, neosoul, and contemporary blues. Champion's fare includes harmonica-­driven 12-bar barn burners ("Beg, Borrow, Steal"), irony- and funk-tinged vignettes from the tawdry side of the blues life (the title tune), and a surrealistic, noirish portrait of a traveling bluesman ("Who Dat"). Several of these offerings sound like they're crafted with soul-blues radio play in mind (despite the all-natural instrumentation), but Champion seems determined not to pigeonhole himself; his stylistic and thematic leaps might leave purists nonplussed, but they represent the kind of innovation the genre needs in order to remain viable. David Whiteis


Doom & Bishop Nehru
(Lex/Noizy Cricket)

The digital market has disrupted plenty of things about the way music is created, distributed, and even defined. EPs used to be stopgaps between full-lengths, and mixtapes were collections of freestyles and slapdash cuts; these days, though, MCs are releasing album-length EPs and mixtapes as polished as commercial LPs. NehruvianDoom, a collaboration between young New York MC Bishop Nehru and mysterious rapper-producer Doom, feels like an old-world mixtape and an EP at the same time—it's a tad too short, and the half-baked tracks are cobbled together. Doom's loose pileups of samples and boom-bap beats move at a steady, pleasant clip, and occasionally Bishop Nehru, who handles the bulk of the rapping, musters up enough confidence to make an impression. At least on "Caskets" Nehru delivers enough punchy lines ("I'm feeling blanker than a CD-ROM / And all I ever wanted was for them to see these rhymes") to measure up to his better half. Leor Galil


Electric Wizard
Time to Die

Time was, you knew what you were getting with an Electric Wizard album. These British doom-metal pioneers established their own sound and aesthetic right out of the gate in the early 90s and stuck with it: Black Sabbath, 60s and 70s British horror B movies, occultism, crime stories, and above all, weed. But lately the group has wobbled through some lineup changes—guitarist and front man Jus Osborn is the only original member—and their recent output has failed to quite reach the heights (or depths) of 1997's Come My Fanatics . . . and 2000's epic Dopethrone. But their lucky 13th, Time to Die, sees them past an acrimonious breakup with Rise Above Records and reunited with original drummer Mark Greening (who has since left again), and it's their best in years. Guitarists Osborn and Liz Buckingham have a beautiful synchronicity by now (and Tony Iommi can rest assured it takes two guitarists at once to do his influence so much justice), and that leads to some of the best moments on the album: the swarming roil and churning repetition of "I Am Nothing," with its feral, death-wasp buzz; the almost funky riff of "Lucifer's Slaves"; and the howling-wind-in-the void effects that accentuate the band's dark-space-psych side in "Destroy Those Who Love God" and "Funeral of Your Mind." Monica Kendrick


Frazey Ford
Indian Ocean

There's no missing the influence of Al Green and the sound of the Hi Records house band on Obadiah, the gorgeous 2010 debut album by former Be Good Tanyas singer Frazey Ford. She uses the eccentric vibrato of her voice—imagine a cross between Dolly Parton and Melanie—and a knack for liquid phrasing to transform her rural drawl into a form of soul music, even though she retains a strong roots-rock foundation. On the remarkable new Indian Ocean, however, she goes all in with the Al Green thing. She made the record in Memphis with organist Charles Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges, and guitarist Teenie Hodges (in one of his final sessions before his death in June), who together formed the core of the studio band that producer Willie Mitchell assembled at Hi; they lend the music not only the sonic warmth and depth of vintage Memphis soul, but also its trademark slinking grooves, clear guitar arpeggios and interjections, and enveloping Hammond B-3 swells. But Ford hasn't changed her distinctive vocal style, which makes the record her own—and one of the most pleasurable listening experiences I've had this year. Peter Margasak


A World Lit Only by Fire

By the time Godflesh released their last couple of records—1999's Us & Them and 2001's Hymns­—the industrial-metal pioneers had moved away from the clanging dirge of their early work and started to experiment with a new palette of sounds, including breakbeats, dub, melodic atmospherics, and live drumming. This month's A World Lit Only by Fire, which has been whispered about since Godflesh reunited in 2010, seems to have been made by a couple of guys who'd like to forget those earlier albums existed: this is the rawest thing Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green have created since their 1989 debut, Streetcleaner. Green's bass tone, the heaviest sound committed to tape this year, is a massive, planet-crumbling foundation for Broadrick's violent, dissonant guitar, which still sounds like high-tension wires pulled to their snapping point. It's classic Godflesh all over again, and it's terrifyingly glorious. Even A World's cover—a hazy red photo of a shirtless dude gripping an upside-down crucifix—recalls the dark, evil heyday of these Birmingham punishers. Luca Cimarusti


Frode Haltli
Vagabonde Blu

Norway's Frode Haltli is arguably the pre­eminent new-music accordionist at work today, and on this austere solo recording he uses the reverberant acoustics of Oslo's Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum as a key interpretational element. The title piece, by Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, emphasizes the clacking of keys, the leaking of air, and the collapse of the bellows of the instrument, and each detail becomes more prominent and dramatic as it ripples and billows in the space. A different style emerges on "Flashing," by fellow Norwegian Arne Nordheim, which takes on an electronic-­like glow, the subtle frequencies playing acoustic tricks over and around the rich drones, the ominously zigzagging lines, and the fluttering accents. Peter Margasak


Hightide Hotel
(Count Your Lucky Stars)

The second and final album from this Philadelphia fourth-wave emo outfit kicks off with sharp, anthemic guitar and a rush of adrenaline that lasts through the LP's unfortunately short running time. Hightide Hotel are the kind of emo band taken with the frenetic energy and bombast of hardcore, and they have a keen ear for applying that power to pop-leaning songwriting. On Naturally they've figured out their footing, which makes it bittersweet that this is the last go-round for these three guys. The gaggle of yearning voices that appear near the end of the title track, singing a wordless refrain in unison, makes for one of the most evocative and potent emo songs in a year that's had plenty of great ones. Leor Galil


Omar Khorshid and His Group
Live in Australia 1981
(Sublime Frequencies)

When Dick Dale turned an Anatolian folk theme into the surf hit "Misirlou" in 1962, he established a template for the combination of modal melody and electric distortion that pays off to this day. No one exploited it more thoroughly than Omar Khorshid, a Lebanese-­born electric guitarist who had a string of marvelous instrumental hits that made him a star of both music and film in Egypt before he died in a car crash in 1981. This LP, which was recorded mere days before his death, is the first live set of his music to be released, and it's not a total mystery why that's the case—while Khorshid and his band play with impressive energy and improvisational flair, especially on an epic blowout of "Sidi Mansour," the recording is murky enough to scare away audiophiles, who should first check out the double-CD compilation Guitar El Chark; once hooked, they'll want this too. Bill Meyer


Johnny Marr

Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, cowriter of beloved tracks such as "Hand in Glove" and "Bigmouth Strikes Again," bursts out of Playland's starting gate with driving rock anthem "Back in the Box" and peppy, anticonsumerist hip shaker "Easy Money." The third track, "Dynamo," has all the components of an indie-pop crossover hit, with its new wave-esque synths, Marr's signature shimmering guitar, and a soaring, infectious chorus that carries a touch of sentimentality. Unfortunately, though, most of Playland errs on the side of early-aughts U2—which is to say it's overly commercial alt-rock cheese crafted by Gen X-ers who were big in the 80s. But given the strength of the rest of Marr's oeuvre—which includes an eccentric collab with New Order's Bernard Sumner, his excellent film-soundtrack work, and of course his role as sideman to the world's most celebrated humasexual curmudgeon, better known as Morrissey—this just-OK record will leave nary a stain on his legacy. Erin Osmon


Menace Ruine
Venus Armata
(Profound Lore)

On their fifth album and first for Profound Lore, Canadian duo Menace Ruine create a captivating melange, infusing its ambient electronics with black metal, flirting with neofolk, and embracing in nearly equal measure goth, darkwave, and martial industrial music. Album opener "Soften Our Evil Hearts" is a medieval canticle sung with the darkest of intentions; the female vocals take on a breathy, wheedling tone that balances the ominous electronic quiet beneath. It sails into the organ-driven "Red Sulphur," an infernal waltz that trills and threatens like something out of Satan's Grand Ball in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Pulsating shadows drive these songs, but sometimes a melodic lightness seeps through—and it makes for some of the album's strongest moments, including the ethereal "Soothing but Cruel" and the otherworldly title track. Venus Armata is so good and so strange, it ought to be a game changer for this esoteric group. Kim Kelly


Sylvain Rifflet & Jon Irabagon
Perpetual Memory: A Celebration of Moondog
(Jazz Village)

French reedist Sylvain Rifflet enlisted the help of fellow saxophonist Jon Irabagon (Mostly Other People Do the Killing) for this homage to blind New York composer Louis Hardin, aka Moondog. Self-taught and usually homeless—he was derisively known as the Viking of Sixth Avenue for his eccentric headdress and spear—Moondog was a sui generis presence among the city's jazz and classical communities during the 50s and 60s, hanging out with musicians at the New York Philharmonic by day and jamming with beboppers in clubs by night. His own idiosyncratic music reflected the same disregard for stylistic borders. Rifflet and Irabagon focus on Moondog's early intuitive work from the 50s, where he collided jazz voicings with primitive ritualistic grooves. Perpetual Memory features an agile French quartet including excellent pianist Eve Risser, and it pushes 14 pieces toward a more explicit jazz-rock vein with mixed results: a few cuts, including some with a large children's choir, are a mess because they try to replicate Moondog's eccentricity. Peter Margasak


Shakey Graves
And the War Came

As Shakey Graves, Alejandro Rose-Garcia ruminated on death, sex, and love throughout his debut LP, Roll the Bones. Dusty guitar and vocal harmonies powered that album as it tackled the pillars of Americana with a wry smile and a few broken teeth. Rose-Garcia's second full-length, And the War Came, buffs his songwriting to a shine, letting tinges of pop bleed into Shakey Graves's sepia-tone countryside. He sounds like the same one-man band from Austin, Texas, but now he plays to sharper peaks and broader vistas. The album's centerpiece, "Family and Genus," twists a warm guitar groove into a perfect piece of synth-pop psychedelia, its computer pings glancing off waves of violin. Twangy rock number "Dearly Departed," one of three to feature velvety guest vocals from Esme Patterson, flexes electric muscle without scrapping Shakey Graves's gruff charms. Rose-Garcia hasn't ranged far from his rustic home base, but on And the War Came, he masters a few new tools as he plumbs his enigmatic moods. Sasha Geffen


V for Vaselines
(Rosary Music)

The tale of the Vaselines is one of perseverance and rediscovery, as this new LP testifies. The 80s Glasgow band consisted of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, and they only released two 45s and a single LP, breaking up the week the album came out. Their proto-indie mix of ramshackle and tuneful, innocent and sexual found its way into Kurt Cobain's ears via Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening, whose band toured with the Vaselines (as McKee explained to me in Glasgow a few years back while she and a friend scraped her ceiling of old paint). Nirvana covered a few of their tunes, and the Vaselines were at last in the public consciousness—in 1992 Sub Pop issued a compilation of their work. A "comeback album" followed in 2010, Sex With an X, and now they return with a full yet scrappy sound on V for Vaselines. The opener, "High Tide, Low Tide," is chewy bubblegum done their way, with "ba ba ba" choruses, cooing vocals, chugging bass, and hazy guitars—the Scottish Nancy and Lee, maybe? McKee takes lead vocals on "The Lonely LP," which has some stomping glam drums and an overall gooeyness. I thought the line "I want to excite you" might be a throwback to their pervy lyrical roots, but the song appears to be about, well, old LPs. Kelly's odd speak-singing style of yore reappears on "Inky Lies," and "Single Spies" indulges in a drowsy Lovin' Spoonful jazzy-pop feel, but overall the album has more of a charged UK punk vibe. Indeed, "Earth Is Speeding" has a refrain the Jam or the Undertones would die for, augmented with wiggy electronics and sweet slide guitar. The band take back the grunge and indie they inspired on "False Heaven" with a simple fuzzed-out riff, McKee's icy vocals, and a surfy guitar solo—this one song would make Kim Deal's whole career blush. The new album gets its full sound in part from Mogwai's Castle of Doom studios and in part from support players from bands such as Teenage Fanclub and Belle & Sebastian. It's best heard on the LP closer, "Last Half Hour," an elegiac and sorrowful tale about suicide victim and 60s comedian Tony Hancock, which is a full-on Spector-style pop dirge with almost triumphant guitar. Steve Krakow

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