The albums that matter
We’ve noticed that in recent years, one effective meaning-making method for artists has been to time their releases with major celestial events. We’re not suggesting a single music release can cause some great cosmic Conjunction of the Spheres. Rather, we’re saying, in some mysterious way, releasing your compilation on the Summer Solstice, rather than any old day in August, might increase its chances of vibrating at the best frequency possible.
The practice is well-established, perhaps owing much to Alan Moore’s concept of mythic Ideaspace, and in more recent years has seen a resurgence from contemporary electronic / new age labels like Good Morning Tapes, whom in some cases have endeavoured to discover their artists’ lunar phases and rising signs, in relation to their birthdays. Whether or not this bears any actual spiritual yield, it does elicit some knee-jerk oohs and ahhs. It’s also understandably a perfect technique for Canadian label Multi Culti, whose tagline is “MUSIC TO MULTIPLY YOUR MIND.”
Solstice III is the label’s third handheld hum round the henge, following two prior EPs in recent years, and complementing a mirror-image Equinox series. An eight-track mini-LP in the vein of psychic chug, world-trance, cosmic disco and d’tempo dub, this feels most like a ritual recording made by and for new initiates to the Multi Culti order. Its contributors are largely newcomers, all hailing from far-flung corners of the globe. Not just anyone can join Multi Culti – consciousness-expansion for this troupe is predicated in large part on the ability to crack ciphers, interpret ancient symbology, and, of course, to harness the unique power of banger-manifestation.
There is a point where dance music stops feeling so confined. Though Jamie Paton’s ‘Sub Ritual’ or Aiku’s ‘Fried Acid’ could be categorized to some extent, there’s mostly an overarching sense of these artists putting rhythmic entrainment first, above all else. Only after this laying-down of drummy hypnotics do they indulge a sprawling palette of sounds with “mystical” associations, whether they be pitched-down loombird calls, resampled flutes, ectoplasmic acid spits, or monastic drone-chants. The tracks are meticulously crafted too, showing that there is method behind the seeming blase hippie front. Future Island’s ‘Wide Music II’ is a shockingly immersive cut, with every sound hearing as if it originates from the same, centrally immoved mover, reflecting a foggy headspace that could only come from deep-diving into a particularly large self-referential reality tunnel.
Wackiness abounds in places, too, with Balam’s ‘Caravana’ layering sitar upon sitar upon sitar, playing up an Indian subcontinental vibe, tempered in the long run by twizzled acid pulsations. We close on the least chuggy of the lot, as if to have made it over a long and arduous return to source; Ayala’s ‘Follia’ is our favourite track, a demonic Latin jaunt around a campfire-turned-hellfire, as a calcifying spirit is conjured through tabla and shamanic whistle, forcibly plunging us into its fiery otherworld.
Record label-cults are not an uncommon phenomenon. They too exist on a spectrum; Multi Culti might be said to be a lighter-hearted affair, while the likes of Colundi and The Justified Ancients Of Mu-Mu laying a groundwork in full-blown cultlike activity, coming underpinned by entire thought frameworks and religiosities. All this goes to justify the immense design job on the LP sleeve itself, which visually nails the label’s dedication to “interdimensional success”. Like all good cults also doubling up as merchandisers, Multi Culti know how to harness the power of the origin myth: at the bottom of Solstice III’s sleeve is a revisionist retelling of the real-world Eltanin impact (a large asteroid impact in the Eastern part of the South Pacific ocean, millions of years ago), interpreting this as the tipping-point cause of the Earth’s last ice age, and the start-point of life as we know it. This compilation thus channels the myth of an Earth knocked happily off-balance, where this newfound imbalance wrought a tense disparity in the form of life – without which, we wouldn’t have cosmic chug.
Since the release of the singles ‘I’m Alive’ and ‘Good Samaritan’ in 2019, fans have been foaming at the mouth for confirmation of a new full-length from acclaimed Swedish garage-punk superstars The Hives. Earlier this year, eccentric frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist was spotted numerous times on the Hollywood Boulevard holding up “protest” signs with slogans such as “The Hives Must Album Now!” and “Honk If You Want a New The Hives Album”. This guerilla marketing has all been for a truly righteous cause as the group have finally put listener anxiety at ease with the arrival of The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons; their sixth LP and first since 2012’s Lex Hives, marking their first full-length in over a decade.
While the previously mentioned stand-alone singles from four years ago confirmed that the group had not slowed or calmed with age, the energy they exude across these 12 new cuts puts groups half their age to utter shame. The unhinged, bangeriffic lead single and record opener ‘Bogus Operandi’ is a heaving and hefty psych-punk gem complete with snarling backing vocals and fuzzed out riffage, before careening into the minute-long ‘Trapdoor Solution’, which sounds like what would’ve happened if Buddy Holly mainlined crystal methamphetamine before taking to the stage at a 1950’s ballroom.
‘Countdown To Shutdown’ takes The Hives’ hyperbolic approach to modern hard-rock and twists it into a punk-fuzz anthem, highlighting their knack for delivering familiar vibes with the assured confidence and brazen swagger only they know how to deal so effortlessly. Even Almqvist himself sounds as pissed off, playful and poised as ever with a performance equally animated and endearing as the band’s earlier hits.
While some may roll their eyes and perceive The Hives’ theatrical and absurd return as out of date, one spin of their sixth half-hour opus will silence any would-be detractors, as if a band from a not too distant but seemingly disparate time in alt rock has returned to put the shits up a scene that’s needed a wakeup call for some time now.
Bristol-based composer Rob Winstone might seem a fledgling artist, but his music is masterful, channeling the musicianship of a long-established great. The emotive breadth of Sifting Through Heaven, which follows up 2022’s I Dreamt We Found A Way, is so wide that we’d certainly name it among our favourites of the year so far. The album is thematically about choosing to “turn on the lights” in hard times. In Winstone’s Case, such moments were related to health difficulties, manifesting as nervous waits in hospital corridors and uncomfortable talks over tea with loved ones. Coming face-to-face with one’s limits, and such mortal struggles, certainly leads artistic types down a rabbit-hole – often, they find freedom to think about the afterlife, or blissful places, and assert the right to escape into them periodically. Not necessarily as a ‘cope’, but as a true contrast, the importance of elsewhere. All it takes to do so is to hold up a candle or three.
With this theme of interstitial escape in mind, Sifting Through Heaven is an album that straddles light and dark, seeming to sit squarely on the fence between harsh reality and ascendant flights of fancy. The expository ‘Hospital Corridor’ sounds like it’s all about this. Do its flurrying voices and gargantuan drones come from the flights of angels that’ll soon sing us to our blissful rest, or are they more a reflection of the real dread we feel at the impending tide of bad news? Is this a spooky album, or is it ecstatic? Sounds of both interruption and non-interruption seem to grate against each other, as on the title track, which pits faintly twinkly music-boxes and static field recordings against a lower and much deeper combination of drones, as if to portray the process of multiple universes bleeding into each other at once.
The theme continues on ‘Held’ and ‘I Understand It Now…’, both tracks which make use of an intense compression effect which causes a grating fluttery sound, as if a Pandora’s box of emotions can no longer remain shut. Received ideas of what is “heavenly” and what is “creepy” continue to be dashed, with ‘Untitled Piano II’ spanning half-and-half segments of atonality and consonance. This is a gothic, angelic-abominable album, and a heavy listen to say the least. Sifting Through Heaven feels like a sonic acknowledgement that, next to the highest of blissful heights, lie the deepest abysses; it takes guts to make something like this.
Phoebe Guillemot brings RAMZi back to her own FATi label following her brief diversion to Music From Memory last year. Feeling a fair distance frrom the gentle, hypnagogic surrealism of her earlier releases, Guillemot has evolved her practice in a patient but purposeful way. On this new record, there is a strident sense of the dancefloor which drives many of the tracks forwards. ‘All Ball’ has a rolling, low tempo breakbeat flavour which marries beautifully with the dreamy Detroit chord drops and hallucinogenic pads, while ‘Feu Follets’ edges closer to a groove in between West London broken beat and twitchy 2-step.
But RAMZi is far from a functional dancefloor concern, and the beats are but a small part of the wider picture. DJ Python steps in with some flavour for ‘Coucou Mon Ami’ and the pair whip up an arrangement teeming with life. Various synth parts engage in near-miss collisions and environmental samples sneak in and out as playfully as the flute licks, creating a tickling, nimble sensation that’s equivalent to a frontal lobe massage.
The more energetic parts of Feu Follets do feel like a response to Guillemot’s firmly established presence on the global electronic music scene now, as the likes of ‘Gentil Fantome’ toy with sprightly drums that absolutely could set a club off. She also knows what an album listening experience should feel like, though, as she welcomes some gorgeous backroom psychedelia in on the closing tracks with a little help from anabasine and CZ Wang respectively. You’d struggle to place exactly where Guillemot has taken you when tripping on those last two tracks, but the sensation is a satisfying callback to some of the early tapes she released – a restless spirit rolling through alien landscapes.
New Jersey emo-folk duo The Front Bottoms are the success story that simply keeps on giving. With the major success of their self-titled LP back in 2011, the pair pre-date the likes of Modern Baseball or Mom Jeans in their whimsical approach to early-twenties malaise; utilising playful, sardonic and self-deprecating humour bolstered by acoustic driven emo-pop.
In the decade since, they’ve gone on to sign with Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy fame’s label Fueled By Ramen which serves as home to the likes of A Day To Remember, Twenty One Pilots and Panic! At The Disco. Their first project on a major label, 2015’s Back On Top, continued their upward trajectory whilst many a naysayer would appear with the arrivals of Going Grey in 2017 and the 2020 follow up In Sickness & In Flames, with ire thrown at the now fully fledged band for straying too far from their simplistic formula and incorporating a myriad of synth-work into their compositions.
The hilariously astute You Are Who You Hang Out With feels like both an acceptance of these quibbles as well as a shoulder shrug, with cuts such as ‘Emotional’ taking a 90’s college rock emo stomper and layering songwriter Brian Sella in aquatic levels of hip-hop oriented autotune. Elsewhere, ‘Outlook’ sounds like the type of acoustic-led big production folkcore the duo would have likely crafted in their early days if offered half the budget, while lead single ‘Punching Bag’ feels very much like a restoration of vision, complete with Sella’s simultaneously vulnerable yet opaque musings on aging and growing apart from loved ones.
By trading the faux-struggles of their twenties with the real-life despondency of encroaching thirties, the album plays out as equal parts damage control and an embracing of their loftier opportunities and desires, resulting in The Front Bottoms sounding more dour, depressed, pissed off, confident and accepting than they have in many a moon.
Born out of a pair of live performances in Poland, Sofie Birch and Antonina Nowacka’s collaboration finds its first recorded outing on this mesmerising album for Mondoj. Birch is a Danish artist who has shared a considerable amount of works over the past four years, plying a trade in gossamer ambience with earthen qualities. Nowacka is an experimental singer bringing a choral tone to her freeform voice work, and when she was invited to sing with Birch for an all-night ‘durational’ performance, the pair struck upon a synergy in their purely improvised work.
Having developed their approach for a morning show at Unsound, the twin energies the pair bring to Languoria certainly move in tandem. ‘Morning Room I’ in particular brings Nowacka’s tender falsetto tones right into your emotional core thanks to the slow, yearning melodic phrasing of the vibraphone and what one assumes is Birch’s vocal harmony. It’s achingly beautiful, fully open and graceful in its loose movement.
From piece to piece, Languoria explores a wide breadth of sound. There’s space for meandering flute miniatures, suspended synth baubles, faux harp flourishes and tiny filaments of found sound which bring the music into tangible, real world spaces. Given the consistently dreamy tone of the musicality and Nowacka’s celestial voice, this anchoring in modest real world details adds a pronounced duality to the music, making it all the richer to fall into.
Endlessly endearing and charming emo/indie rock darling Chris Farren has made his grand return with Doom Singer; his most jovial and dynamic project to date. Cutting his teeth in the much-adored Fake Problems throughout the noughties, his solo career would begin in earnest with 2014’s self-released Like A Gift From God Or Whatever, while it was after signing with now defunct pop-punk label Side One Dummy that his 2016 effort Can’t Die would (ear)worm its way into the brains of many a listener, eventually blossoming into a cult-like following.
This momentum would be capitalised upon immensely with the breakout success of Born Hot delivered in 2019, while last year saw the release of the predominantly instrumental Death Don’t Wait soundtrack (a spy thriller that doesn’t actually exist but scratched Farren’s itch to craft a Marvin Gaye inspired OST).
It’s here we arrive at the playful songsmith’s latest labour of self-love; Doom Singer, which runs laps around itself while earmarking almost every sonic stew Farren has dipped his finger into previously. Lead single ‘Cosmic Leash’ combines genuinely hefty psychedelic riffage verging on sludge with retrograde indie-pop, while the 80’s new wave worship of ‘Bluish’ highlights the man’s fondness for unadulterated cheese and nostalgic bops. These predilections come full circle on the disco-emo (if there wasn’t such a thing, there is now) of ‘First Place’, with boogie tropes, brass sections and Italo synths bubbling away under his understated vocal cadences.
Known for his theatrical live shows, dashing looks and utter disregard for genre parameters, it’s only a matter of time before Chris Farren becomes the first emo-centric artist to win conservative parents over with his unique brand of sugar-coated alt-pop.
For fans of anything shoegaze-revivalist, Lush are a great choice of band to pin your nostalgic dreams to. At the same time, this reissue of Spooky recalls the versatility of the sound. On the same 4AD roster as certain bands for whom a huge chunk of their appeal lay in sophistry – ahem, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil – the dream pop outfit of Miki Berenyi, Emma Anderson, Steve Rippon and Chris Acland were a relatively accessible outfit in their heyday.
By the time of their second album Spooky, Lush were already a household name, their numerous mini-albums and EPs before it having helped bring “that 4AD sound” to the United States in particular. Contrasting to their debut Scar, however, Spooky is, you guessed it, a spookier affair. The band’s lilting guitars long soprano cuckoos persist as ever, but there’s something spidery beneath the production, which refuses to match the same brightness and emotivity that Scar had laid down. The LP gave birth to the hit ‘Nothing Natural’, which captures this sentiment: less gushing, more gothic. Even on ‘For Love’, the eerie mood
Originally forming in 1982 before quickly disbanding, Swedish anarcho-punk/D-beat bastardisers Avskum were a group of friends from Kristinehamn with a youthful adoration for punk rock that was rightly deconstructed once discovering the works of Discharge and closer to home acts such as Anti Cimex and DNA (who they would eventually befriend).
Reuniting with a slightly altered line-up in the mid-nineties, one that has remained intact since this reformation, the band have continued to pump out crusty, violent, vicious and ugly albums that prove testament to the nature of punk as a lifelong mindset rather than a youthful phase.
Their fifth album En Annan Varld Ar Mojlig (translated to Another World Is Possible), marks their first full-length in over 15 years, following on from 2008’s blisteringly chaotic Uppror Underifrån, and is likely the only curbstomping crust-punk project to come out this year from a collective of gentlemen well into their sixties.
Comprised of 17 cuts of which only two crawl over the 2-minute mark; opener ‘Snutarna I Huvet’ and the scuzzy closer ‘This Silence Is A Violence’, the record serves up an unadulterated barrage of anarchist audible violence compressed into a hideous cluster of feral pieces, all designed to provoke and attack. This ain’t your father’s punk, but going by the member’s seasoned status, maybe it actually is?
This week’s reviewers: Zach Buggy, Jude Iago James, Oli Warwick.