Music » Record Roundup

Majical Cloudz' richly intimate Are You Alone? and 12 more record reviews

Eight Reader writers recommend Vhol's ambitious cosmic thrash, Boots's ominous but danceable pop, Michael Pisaro's thrillingly engrossing minimalism, and more.




Beyonce plastered Jordan Asher's stage name, Boots, all over the credits of her 2013 self-­titled album, which transformed the Miami native from indie nobody to hot-shit producer. Soon he landed work with Run the Jewels and FKA Twigs, as well as a deal with the Canvas­back Music division of Atlantic Records. In February, Asher dropped a five-song EP and videogasm called Motorcycle Jesus, but he'll make his mark as a solo artist with the new Aquaria, a meticulously crafted album that synthesizes his various interests: indie rock, R&B, industrial, and hip-hop. He's not exactly a rapper, given that his vocals oscillate between Thom Yorke-style singing and Trent Reznor-­esque spoken word. And Reznor comparisons are impossible to avoid elsewhere too: Asher's compositions are littered with reminders of the Nine Inch Nails sound, including vocal distortion, ominous lyrical motifs, razor-sharp guitars, and aggressive drum machines. His style is more minimal, though; his songs rarely use more than four components at a time (including vocals), and everything is recorded live in the studio before being tweaked. Asher could certainly do worse than end up millennials' answer to Reznor, especially given the dark and confessional turn that pop music seems to be taking (and the fact that "health goth" even exists). Though it's easy to divine his influences, he stands out in a pop landscape dominated by a handful of Scandinavian producers and their American mouthpieces. Aquaria likely won't receive that same level of airplay, but its vision provides a singular and highly listenable alternative. Erin Osmon


Edge of Daybreak
Eyes of Love (Numero Group)

This lighthearted soul LP, recorded in 1979 and reissued this month by the Numero Group, is a fortuitous by-product of a broken system. Edge of Daybreak formed in 1976 at the Powhatan Correctional Center in Virginia, which imprisoned a slew of talented African-­American musicians but allowed at least some of them access to instruments. As Numero's Jonathan Kirby explains in the re­­issue's liner notes, some members of the band had been locked up under dubious circumstances. Drummer and lead singer Jamal Jaha Nubi, for example, who'd already served time briefly in high school, was incarcerated again after retrieving his missing car in 1975—unbeknownst to him, in the interim it had been involved in a robbery, and he ended up on the hook. None of the players knew one another before Powhatan, and prison life is hardly stable—it's a wonder that they were able to keep Edge of Daybreak together long enough to make an album. Its alternately tender and danceable songs, recorded in a single five-hour session, glow with a life-affirming vigor that must've helped these musicians survive their days shut up in cells. Leor Galil


Ellen Fullman
The Long String Instrument (Superior Viaduct)

Instrument inventor Harry Partch once characterized himself as a composer seduced into carpentry; conversely, composer-­performer Ellen Fullman is a sculptor lured into music. She's been playing her self-­devised Long String Instrument, made from 70-foot lengths of metal wire stretched within a resonant space, for 34 years. She performs by rubbing rosin on her hands and touching the wires as she walks their length. Her debut recording, The Long String Instrument (this vinyl reissue is the first since the album's original release in 1985), presents her music in its most rudimentary form—the strings yield shimmering drones while another of Fullman's inventions turns amplified dripping water into tentative rhythms. On one track, fellow second-­generation minimalist Arnold Dreyblatt joins her. Even in its earliest developmental stage, Fullman's music was gorgeous and exquisitely proportioned, so that each of the record's five pieces feels satisfyingly complete. Bill Meyer


Laurel Halo
In Situ (Honest Jon's)

Producer Laurel Halo pares down her materials for the new In Situ, her stuttering low-end beats and hollowed-out bass tones serving as crude armatures for subtle, minimal electronic squiggles, percussive interjections, and other dubby effects. On each of the eight tracks, Halo establishes a groove and then plays around in the foreground, as though she's fascinated by dripping hot wax over each new rhythmic constellation. The pieces don't develop in a linear fashion—after they emerge, they might flail wildly or sneak around as if checking out the environment, then fade away. In Situ is pleasant enough, but compared to Halo's previous work, it feels awfully slight. Peter Margasak


Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl
We Are Not the First (Rvng Intl.)

Evanston-based producer Jamal Moss, aka Hieroglyphic Being, has a history with electronic music that's nearly as long as the history of house. As a teenager on the south side in the mid-80s, he sneaked out to clubs and immersed himself in house, acid, and industrial. His deep roots in that scene can distract fans from his lifelong love of jazz, though he's hardly shy about his affection for the inimitable Sun Ra—in a recent Wire cover feature, Moss says, "Hieroglyphic Being is the term for Sun Ra." And on We Are Not the First, his first studio recording with a live ensemble, he's joined by Sun Ra Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen, electronic experimentalist Ben Vida, and gonzo Brooklyn drummer Greg Fox. Moss leads the group through knotty, heady, politically engaged performances that find connections between acid house and improvisational jazz. The bold combination of blown-out acid percussion and shrieking woodwinds of "Cybernetics Is an Old Science" might not sound suited for a nightclub—but that's probably because you're imagining one on this planet. Leor Galil


Anareta (Dark Descent)

Among the many things the Internet has brought us is the phenomenon of the "hype band" in underground death metal—and with their third album, Anareta, east-coast trio Horrendous justify all the frothing over last year's Ecdysis. ("East coast" is shorthand for "split between Pennsylvania and South Carolina.") Horrendous reach back to the first flowering of melodic, progressive tendencies in death metal in the early 90s, a connection reinforced by the band's two singers—their ragged, desperate voices burst with grief and mania, so that you'd be hard-pressed not to think of Chuck Schuldiner. Nimble and sinister, the songs on Anareta wed their florid, grandiloquent evil to bloody-knuckled punk frenzy, effacing the potential distractions of their off-kilter structures and metrical complications with the athletic momentum of lean, taut riffs that quiver with the ravenous hunger of an unearthly predator. Anareta is hardly catchy—its combination of speed and complexity can be disorienting—but it's an engrossing record that rewards sustained attention. I especially like the jury-rigged feel of these otherwise sophisticated songs—it's as though their knottiness arises less from avant-garde impulses and more from the necessity to work with whatever the band can scavenge from the graveyard of 90s death metal. And thumbs up to the album's gorgeous throwback production, whose flesh-and-bone burliness pushes back against the airless, hypercompressed sound that still infects the genre. Philip Montoro


Kandia Kouyaté
Renascence (Sterns)

One of the strongest Mande voices in Mali fell silent in 2004 when Kandia Kouyaté, a popular and authoritative jelimuso (female griot), suffered a stroke. She vanished from the stage and the studio, and she could barely speak. In 2011, after a painstaking convalescence, she received a visit at her home in Bamako from influential Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sylla (the man behind behemoth West African imprint Syllart), who persuaded her to make what would become Renascence—her first new album in 13 years. Kouyaté completed the sessions in fits and starts, and the whole project might have stalled when Sylla died in December 2013, but his daughter Binetou saw it through. Kouyaté's voiced has deepened and darkened over the years, and though the material and production are standard-­issue (the occasional dated synthesizer tone doesn't help), the singer's power and rhythmic sophistication remain undiminished. The material includes traditional praise songs, celebrations of events (the 50th anniversary of Mali's independence, the birth of a child), and a reflective look at her own illness on the humbling "Sadjougoulé." Peter Margasak


Majical Cloudz
Are You Alone? (Matador)

On their second album, 2013's Impersonator, Montreal electronic duo Majical Cloudz sounded big by doing very little. Multi-­instrumentalist Matthew Otto used spartan synths to accentuate Devon Welsh's piercing, fiercely magnetic singing. The songs are as arresting as they are simple, and their lyrics about heartbreak and vulnerability (romantic and otherwise) cut deeper because of the music's minimalism. On their new third record, Are You Alone?, Majical Cloudz continue to develop their alluringly intimate songwriting while subtly changing the texture of their sound. Otto's production is richer and more colorful—on "Disappeared" he incorporates what sounds like a chamber orchestra—but the album doesn't feel any denser than Impersonator. Welsh's honeyed talk-singing—sometimes he sounds like he's quietly opening up to a close friend before they're both quite awake in the morning—retains its numinous power. On "Downtown," when he sings in sparse, lucid detail about the heart-melting thrill and gut-­wrenching agony of love, it's positively uplifting. Leor Galil


My Disco
Severe (Temporary Residence)

There's the minimalism of postpunk, and then there's the minimalism of My Disco's postpunk. On their first full-length in five long years, this Melbourne three-piece take a freshly sharpened straight razor to the already painfully stark sound of their 2010 album, Little Joy, and slowly and meticulously shave away any excess rhythms, lyrics, and riffs. Then they levitate the resulting streamlined tracks in gentle fogs of unnerving noise. The core of the eight-minute-plus opener, "Recede," is a six-note looping bass line, complemented only by an occasional drum pound or two and the repetition of two lines of lyrics: "Proceed into silence" and "Recede into silence." Plodding and appropriately severe, the track isn't paranoia inducing so much as straight-up doomful. "King Sound" is loosely held together by a chugging-and-halting bass-and-drum rhythm undergirded by a high-pitched, almost cricketlike buzz. Much of the action actually happens in the silences of the track—but you'll be looking over your shoulder all the same. Kevin Warwick


Michael Pisaro
A Mist Is a Collection of Points (New World)

California-­based composer Michael Pisaro is arguably the most important American figure in the Wandelweiser Collective, a global crew of post-Cage experimentalists. On this dazzling new recording, his sparsely charted notes resonate like the mist of the title. The three-part work—performed by pianist Phillip Bush, percussionist Greg Stuart, and Pisaro himself, who adds sine tones—provides a series of perspectives on how sounds spread, disperse, and interact, focusing on the acoustic phenomena that occur after each individual note arrives and on the shaping of music by the space around it. Not a lot happens here—the dark piano melodies move at a crawl, and it's 12 minutes before Stuart actually hits anything. When he finally strikes a crotale, though, it's thrilling, both in the suddenness of its attack and in the way its ringing decays and plays against the sine tones. Despite its sparseness, this album has proved as absorbing as anything I've heard this year. Peter Margasak


Various artists
The Kitchen Improvises: 1976-1983 (Orange Mountain)

The sixth and latest release of archival recordings made at influential New York arts venue the Kitchen focuses on a fecund yet frequently overlooked moment in American music, when improvisation functioned as a nexus for musicians effacing the boundaries between contemporary jazz and contemporary classical. Curated by and featuring characteristically trenchant liner notes from composer and trombonist George Lewis (who spent a couple years programming at the space), the anthology focuses on sophisticated collisions of aesthetic traditions. The analog electronics of Earl Howard surround, sever, and subsume the rigorous piano improvisations of Anthony Davis, who's already moved well beyond his jazz roots; saxophonist Oliver Lake leads a quartet whose funk-tinged abstractions run the gamut from groove to drone; and the brilliant Meltable Snaps It (saxophonist George Cartwright, clarinetist Michael Lytle, and vocalist-percussionist David Moss) push post-­Derek Bailey free improv toward absurdist sound art. Also featured are Gerry Hemingway, Roscoe Mitchell, and Lewis himself. Peter Margasak


Deeper Than Sky (Profound Lore)

The second album from west-coast metal collective Vhol takes the blueprints from their genre-blending 2013 debut and builds a city of skyscrapers on top. Guitarist John Cobbett (Hammers of Misfortune, Ludicra), bassist and keyboardist Sigrid Sheie (Hammers of Misfortune), drummer Aesop Dekker (Agalloch, Ludicra), and vocalist Mike Scheidt (Yob) have a weighty collective pedigree, but the scope of their innovation here would be stunning with or without it. Deeper Than Sky is a schizoid fever dream of album, dominated by progressive thrash a la Voivod or Coroner—think lots of space-age noodling, with Dekker's can't-stop-won't-stop D-beat drumming lending it a crust-punk stench that wafts up through the chords. Each track has a distinct feel; the thrashy churn of "The Desolate Damned" turns into a shredding flurry of melodic ripples and metallic crust, and on the whimsically titled "Paino" Sheie takes a manic slide down the keys like she's holding court in the devil's saloon. Scheidt's chameleon voice is unmistakable, whether he's reaching into his unearthly falsetto or roughing up a track with a growling snarl, and Cobbett lets his strings run wild, galloping into oblivion on the grandiose, perpetually shifting title track. Vhol may dislike the term "supergroup," but no mere mortals could've cooked this up. Kim Kelly


Wrekmeister Harmonies
Night of Your Ascension (Thrill Jockey)

A lot of time and effort—nearly a year of work by a cast of more than 30 musicians—went into this latest release by J.R. Robinson's atmospheric, avant-garde, ambient doom project, Wrekmeister Harmonies. And judging by the recording's epic presence and potency, it was well spent. The 32-minute title track is inspired by the story of Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, who wrote madrigals and church music prescient enough in their musical vocabulary that they were probably rather upsetting at the time—and also violently murdered his wife and her lover. Building on a theme of Gesualdo's, the piece begins with celestial tones and then introduces the infernal, creating a howling but hopeful contest between sanctity and damnation—though glimmers of light might make things even worse for a tortured soul. At least Gesualdo had the redeeming outlet of music—there's no hope at all in the story behind "Run Priest Run," inspired by the case of pedophile priest John Geoghan, murdered in prison by a fellow inmate. This 18-­minute piece opens meditative and masslike, with hissing and dissonance just below its surface, and as it builds, heavenly voices try to find purchase but end up off-kilter and off-time; eventually they're all but submerged in a sick miasma. It's meant to be haunting and troubling, and it is—but Robinson's deeply ingrained sense of beauty lends it a cold and terrible dignity. Monica Kendrick  v

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