Music » Record Roundup

Neil Young's gaudy, reactionary Storytone and 15 more record reviews

Ten Reader writers tackle 16 albums, including Arca's uncanny electronic mutations, Dawnbringer's murderously hooky classic metal, and T.I.'s unshakable street rap.

by

4 comments
anaalnathrakh-desideratum-web.jpg

Anaal Nathrakh
Desideratum
(Metal Blade)

Anaal Nathrakh have come a long way since the raw black metal of their 1999 demo Total Fucking Necro. Multi-­instrumentalist and programmer Irrumator (aka Mick Kenney) and vocalist V.I.T.R.I.O.L. (aka Dave Hunt), the core duo of this Birmingham extreme-­metal institution, are still kicking up a dreadful racket, but now their black metal is heavily industrialized. They've enjoyed a steadily rising profile since their early days, and on Desideratum, their eighth full-length, their odd hybrid is surprisingly cohesive and accessible. Kenney wrestles the bass, guitars, and electronics into swaths of glitchy, weirdly melodic aggression, and Hunt bounces all over the map, from manic gibbering to ragged screeching to full-throated singing (he gallops into epic Primordial mode on the choruses of "Idol"). He has to struggle to be heard above the mechanized din of the more chaotic compositions, such as irradiated blackened-punk banger "Sub Specie Aeterni (Of Maggots and Humanity)," but the results are ironclad. Kim Kelly

arca-xen-web.jpg

Arca
Xen
(Mute)

The title alone makes Xen sound like something that squirms beneath the skin. The debut full-length from 24-year-old Venezuelan producer Arca, who's already racked up production credits with Kanye West, FKA Twigs, and Björk, shares its name with the androgynous alter ego he's nurtured in his head since childhood. Like the rippling nude figure on its cover, Xen rebels against form. Its stuttering electronic compositions rarely breach the three-minute mark, and the ample gaps between beats teem with uncanny elements, including perversely detuned synthesizers, wordless vocodered murmurs, and movie-trailer strings. Xen leaves behind some of the playfulness of the producer's 2013 mixtapes, instead homing in on the boundaries of computer music to commit a dark, precise sacrilege against them. In his work with more accessible personalities, Arca slips easily into the shadows, despite the strangeness of his sound; on his own, the shadows he casts are even stranger. Sasha Geffen

dawnbringer-nightofthehammer-web.jpg

Dawnbringer
Night of the Hammer
(Profound Lore)

Chicago metal polymath Chris Black drums in Pharaoh, plays bass and sings in Superchrist, contributes vocals to Finnish band Aktor, and does everything (in the studio at least) for gleeful hard-rock revivalists High Spirits. He doesn't just have his fingers in lots of pies—he also keeps them all spinning over his head in an elegant formation without dropping even one. Of all his projects, Dawnbringer is the one whose releases I look forward to most. Intricately constructed and beautifully produced, each is a multidimensional masterpiece of studio metal with a clear sense of progression and a story to tell. Whereas the 2012 album Into the Lair of the Sun God was an ambitious high-­fantasy epic, the new Night of the Hammer feels more down-home and intimate, with its human-scale tale of murder and dread. The shuffling strum and chorus vocals that open "Xiphias" sound almost country-­gothic, and "Hands of Death" switches from Sabbathy shambling horror to swaggering boogie lick and back again till you aren't sure if you're going to hitch a ride in this bitchin' Camaro or get dragged behind it till you're raw and bloody. This probably has more hooks than any other Dawnbringer record, but not at the expense of the band's knack for great surprises: I love how the sick drumming and hornet-swarm buzz of "Not Your Night" suddenly sprout a Maiden-esque guitar solo and the way Black uncorks a glass-cracking Halford-like shriek in "Funeral Child." Monica Kendrick

fugazi-firstdemo-600.jpg

Fugazi
First Demo
(Dischord)

This 11-song reissue of Fugazi's first studio recording, most of which the band distributed on a free cassette shortly after the 1988 session, includes just one track, "Turn Off Your Guns," that's likely to be new to fans who only know the material the band has formally released. (That is, unless they've combed through Fugazi's Live Series, consisting of more than 1,000 shows available digitally through Dischord's website—the band played it plenty of times.) Though later versions of many of these songs appear on Repeater (1990) and the EPs Fugazi (1988) and Margin Walker (1989), First Demo provides first-rate documentation of the birth of Fugazi's punk-meets-­reggae aesthetic—before Guy Picciotto started playing guitar in the band—and makes it clear how much these raw DIY idealists had to evolve to become the polished, experimental postpunks of their later years. Fans will enjoy charting the subtle differences between the recordings they know and love and these early sketches—Ian Mac­Kaye's vocal reverberations during the famous pause in "Waiting Room," for instance, or the absence of Picciotto's high-register backing in the verses of "Merchandise." This is also the first time many of this material is being released on vinyl. Erin Osmon

ryanhemsworth-aloneforthefirsttime-web.jpg

Ryan Hemsworth
Alone for the First Time
(Last Gang/Secret Songs)

Genre-hopping Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth pals around with a loose Internet-­based network of like-­minded artists, and since the release of last year's Guilt Trips, that network has grown. These days he co­produces Tinychat-based concert series SPF420, and he's launched a free Web label called Secret Songs. Musicians from both camps appear on Alone for the First Time: the shape-shifting post-R&B tune "By Myself" features cameos from local smooth talker the GTW (an SPF420 alumnus) and ethereal Swedish singer Little Cloud (who released "You" on Secret Songs last month). Hemsworth threads R&B, dance, hip-hop, and all sorts of other bubbling pop sounds into a serene, exotic-sounding mix that Hemsworth keeps plugged in to the constantly changing electronic underground. "Snow in Newark" includes a collage of bell-like synth blips that reminds me of the digital pop madness produced by mysterious British collective-slash-label PC Music; Dexter Tortoriello of Dawn Golden counterbalances those bright sounds with his weary, depressive singing. Leor Galil

mono-thelastdawnraysofdarkness-web.jpg
mono-raysofdarkness-600.jpg

Mono
The Last Dawn and Rays of Darkness
(Temporary Residence)

Instrumental Japanese postrock quartet Mono has a sound that's one part mournful slow burn and one part sinister, deafening eruption—and those two sides complement each other in the band's dramatic epics, which can move you and tell stories without words. Last month Mono pulled a Springsteen and dropped two LPs in a day, devoting one to each half of the band's personality. The Last Dawn is mellow and pretty, with twinkling pianos, airy guitars, and deliberately paced melodies, while Rays of Darkness is its evil twin, crashing and dark—the climax of its crushing centerpiece, "The Hand That Holds the Truth," even incorporates black-metal-style vocals from Envy front man Tetsuya Fukagawa. Both of these records are good, but they almost feel half-finished; if Mono had combined the best parts of each into one album, they could've delivered a perfectly well-rounded knockout. Luca Cimarusti

obliterations-poisoneverything-web.jpg

Obliterations
Poison Everything
(Southern Lord)

A truly lethal hardcore band—one that sounds like a mile-wide brick of firecrackers exploding in rapid succession—should also feel like it's always flying off the rails. That's why feedback usually plays such a big role, both on albums and at shows—Trash Talk have it down to a science, for example. (Seriously, fuck your earplugs.) The debut album from Los Angeles four-piece Obliterations, Poison Everything, isn't so much streaked with feedback as gouged by it, thanks mostly to guitarist Stephen McBean (also of Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops). The tracks are tight and tough, dripping with sweat and stink, and their titles get straight to the point ("Head Wound," "Open Casket"). The rhythms shoot from the hip and aim for the gut, and Sam James Velde's voice is one part raving lunatic, three parts prison siren. Poison Everything frequently hits circle-pit speeds, but the jams that hang back a bit are even more devastating—when the band slows down, you can actually feel the tectonic shifts causing all that destruction. Kevin Warwick

radianverseshowegelb-600.jpg

Radian & Howe Gelb
Radian Verses Howe Gelb
(Radian Releases)

This collaboration between meticulous, experimental Viennese instrumental trio Radian and rambling, Americana-loving Arizona weirdo Howe Gelb is confounding on the surface, but both parties thrive on creative tension. The product of four recording sessions, heavily edited and remixed by drummer Martin Brandlmayr and guitarist Martin Siewert (who joined Radian in 2011, replacing cofounder Stefan Nemeth), Radian Verses Howe Gelb provides an orderly backdrop of taut, noise-pocked post-This Heat grooves for Gelb's outward-bound lyrics (on "I'm Going In" he imagines a baby reentering the birth canal like a deep-sea diver: "Keep a tight leash on that umbilical"). On a few songs Radian move toward a pop-rock sound they haven't previously explored, but the collaboration is at its best when Gelb meets them halfway—on "Pitch and Sway Again," for example, he interrupts the twitchy groove with a slightly jazzy, clean-toned guitar interlude. Peter Margasak

tyshawnsorey-alloy-web.jpg

Tyshawn Sorey
Alloy
(Pi)

Few drummers operating in jazz or improvised music in the past decade have been as compelling and mercurial as Tyshawn Sorey—explosive, inventive, and intuitive, he provides a jolt of power and intelligence to any project he joins. So what's surprising about this thoughtful, probing new trio album is the restraint he demonstrates—by and large he provides accents and color, with pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Christopher Tordini doing most of the heavy lifting. The majority of the material is through-composed, and the influence of classical composers (Morton Feldman, Johannes Brahms) imbues these four pieces with a sense of luxuriant exploration and patient rumination. Smythe, a Buffalo Grove native, draws on his dual mastery of improvised and contemporary classical musics, bringing romantic flourishes to "Movement" and spreading out cycling phrases on "Template," the one piece where Sorey supplies some fierce energy. Peter Margasak

andystott-faithinstrangers-web.jpg

Andy Stott
Faith in Strangers
(Modern Love)

With the celebrated 2012 album Luxury Problems, Manchester producer Andy Stott established himself as a force within a certain subset of electronic music: the kind that's minimal and harrowing, heavy on negative space and gentle, barely-there pulses that endlessly retreat from the core in which they were born. His new Faith in Strangers begins patiently with "Time Away," a track that's mostly ambient clouds of celestial noise, swelling and contracting at a barely noticeable rate. It's not till the fourth of the album's nine tracks, "Science and Industry," that a discernible rhythm materializes—a rapid, motorik click-clacking—and it complements rather than compromises the starkness of Stott's approach. His use of vocals—including those of Alison Skidmore, with whom he collaborated on Luxury Problems—is sparing, but on the title track their warmth offsets the tinny feel of the programmed beats. Kevin Warwick

annathorvaldsdottir-aerial-web.jpg

Anna Thorvaldsdottir
Aerial
(Deutsche Grammophon)

This collection of new work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir communicates the awesome splendor and sometimes frightening power of nature. Her music opens up huge spaces where exquisite harmonies play with your sense of hearing, often creating psychoacoustic effects—it's as though you're deep in a reverberant cave or surrounded by whitewater rapids. The seven low brass instruments on Into–Second Self, their stolid drones punctuated by skittering flashes of percussion, convey serious foreboding. In taut, upper-register strings create most of the tension, stoked by flurries of flute, bass clarinet, and piano; the strings wind up and ease off but never arrive at any clear resolution. The listener is left dangling, as the sounds taper into silence. Thorvaldsdottir's music isn't about straightforward narratives; it creates landscapes that linger, summoning phantom sounds and imaginative possibilities. Nothing I've heard this year has sparked my mind like Aerial. Peter Margasak

ti-paperwork-web.jpg

T.I.
Paperwork
(Grand Hustle)

In the 11 years since T.I. burst out of Atlanta with Trap Muzik, the popular face of his hometown's hip-hop scene has changed several times. An elder statesman at 34, T.I. does his own thing on his ninth album, Paperwork, for the most part resisting the temptation to change his style just to keep up with the times. He kicks off the album with the sweltering, soul-sampling "King," a refined, swaggering street rap; he spends most of the song rhyming in double time, but the speed of his delivery doesn't quite crowd out his worn southern twang. That song sets a high-water mark T.I. never quite matches on Paperwork, but he comes close often enough. His occasional nods to current trends don't feel like he's chasing them so much as claiming them for himself; the ratchet single "Mediocre" features Iggy Azalea, the hip-hop lightning rod T.I. helped mold before her breakthrough this year. Leor Galil

tvotr-seeds-web.jpg

TV on the Radio
Seeds
(Harvest)

TV on the Radio's first three albums seemed almost mystically inspired, and even when they stumbled on number four (2011's Nine Types of Light) they managed to write a few winsome, touching alt-pop songs. The band's fifth full-length, Seeds, lands somewhere in the middle—though it's several steps above Nine Types of Light, it falls short of the beguiling wizardry that made TV on the Radio one of the best bands of the 2000s. They continue to combine a proclivity for experimentation with a masterful grasp of pop music, and Seeds broadens their art-rock sound with the gnarly punk thump of "Lazerray" and the minimal, wobbly electronic bass that courses through "Careful You." The album's lyrics address romantic love and loss in terms so vague that it's easy to hear them as an expression of grief at the death of original TVOTR bassist Gerard Smith, who succumbed to lung cancer in April 2011—this is the band's first record without him. Leor Galil

distantinvitation_cover-art-web.jpg

Various Artists
A Distant Invitation: Street & Ceremonial Recordings from Burma, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand
(Sublime Frequencies)

Ethnographic field recorders often try to isolate a representative or superlative example of the musical style they're studying. On A Distant Invitation, sound collector Jesse Paul Miller gives as much space to the southeast Asian environments where the music takes place as he does to the musicians themselves. It turns out that the parades, wildlife, fireworks, megaphone-toting barkers, and revving motorcycles he encountered during his travels make noises every bit as compelling as the gamelan orchestras, solitary singers, and speaker-destroying double-reed players. Each track on this LP is like a trip down a back alley in a town you've never visited before with a guide who likes to mess with you—you never know what you're going to hear, but you can be sure it'll blow your mind. Bill Meyer

wildbirdspeacedrums-rhythm-web.jpg

Wildbirds & Peacedrums
Rhythm
(Leaf)

On their first new album in four years, the magnetic Swedish duo of singer Mariam Wallentin and drummer Andreas Werliin ditch the strings and steel drums that appeared on recent recordings and return their austere music to its stripped-down roots. Rhythm is Wildbirds & Peacedrums' boldest album since the band got started in 2007, a maximalist recording made from little more than vocals and beats. Wallentin derives many of her vocal melodies and judiciously applied melismata from contemporary R&B, augmenting them with nonverbal utterances (the blubbering lip sound in "The Unreal vs. the Real" registers not as a goofy effect but as a sudden, spontaneous outpouring of emotion), and Werliin's fat, fluid beats reshape them into something otherworldly and seductive. Many of the lyrics are just as earthy and primal as the music: "The Offbeat" opens with phrases about "the rhythm of the life of the body" ("The blood rushing, the sex ticking / The mind wandering and the heart beating") and only gets more carnal from there. Peter Margasak

neilyoung-storytone-web.jpg

Neil Young
Storytone
(Reprise)

Neil Young has had a busy, bizarre 2014—he divorced his wife of 36 years, started dating Daryl Hannah, launched a high-quality digital music player with a hugely successful Kickstarter, and released A Letter Home, an album of covers cut in a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth. Storytone, his 35th (and maybe 36th) studio album, is the exclamation point on this strange time in Young's career. On the standard version of the album, he performs most of the songs with an orchestra and the others with a schlocky blues-rock band. Even without these dubious choices of backing group, the record would rank among Young's worst—humorless and gaudy, full of cheap sentiment and reactionary politics. The deluxe version, however, includes a disc of Young performing Storytone's songs solo—just him on piano, guitar, banjo, or ukulele. While this bonus disc is by no means a great album, it's far more compelling than the fancier iteration. Stripped of the ostentatious instrumentation, it becomes a fascinating document of an old man grappling with the confusion of 21st-century America, where humans frack the earth for energy, vintage cars might as well be archaeological relics, and love doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry. Tal Rosenberg

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment
 

Add a comment