Part 14 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
On Stationary Silo came packing only one weapon. It’s a hard one to describe: there’s a short arpeggio left to reverberate whilst a dirty, fuzzed out bass barges into the signal, distorting it and making it something strange, woozy, slightly off. It’s bass used like the more powerful weapons on Geometry Wars 2, sending the sound waves hurtling and rippling like the grid that makes up the backdrop of that game (if this reference means nothing to you I implore you to rectify that). The drums try to get a lock on this strange groove but feel like they’re sliding off – perhaps it’s just musical illiteracy on my part but whenever I’m listening to Stationary I can’t get a handle on what they’re doing. It’s like they’re almost locked into a beat but things are just stuttered enough so that it seems to never quite achieve it. And yet it works. It’s a potent enough weapon to fuel a song; it’s such a discombobulating affair they don’t need another.
The creation of it’s parent record Work was by all accounts spent mostly in front of computers manipulating the guitar sounds with meticulous precision until they sounded just wrong. Which sounds about right – it fits the industrial, mechanical vibe of the album. And it’s too good an effect to have been an accident. As for the rest of the song, well, the vocals are fine and fit the song but once it let’s you out of it’s haze you can barely remember a word that’s been sung. And whilst there are some other effects in the mix but mostly it’s just that one, persistent, awkward rhythm driving on, eventually deconstructing and reconstructing itself that makes it. Sometimes doing one thing well is enough.
Part 13 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
Even Mark Kozalek’s biggest fans, and probably the man himself, would admit he can be a bit of an arsehole. After Benji became his must successful album, both critical and commercially, in a long while he opted to celebrate by picking an unedifying media ruck with the War on Drugs culminating in the tragically titled The War On Drugs Can Suck My Dick. Whilst musically I’m always likely to be on Team Kozalek it was all a bit depressing. It came across as the immature response of a grouchy old man.
Which is also how he came across on Benji’s immediate predecessor, the tetchy, trying Among the Leaves, in which he introduced us to a new speak-singing style by moaning his way through an albums worth of weary travelling musician gripes in first person. Benji gave his new style a focus – in reacting to grief and searching for answers all his faults, clumsy rhymes and relentless focus on himself made for a very human response to tragedy.
The record’s most emotional moment happens to be when he drops not just the first person and the ever present ‘I’ but also the guitar altogether. Over an electric piano he sings about the small details about his subject, the titular Jim Wise (really John Wise who was sentenced to 6 years in prison in 2013), and tells his story in the most succinct and matter of fact way possible in the chorus: “Jim Wise mercy killed his wife at her bedside/then he put the gun to his head and it jammed and he didn’t die.” It’s so straight forward it almost comes across as the blackest of humor, an incredibly misjudged punchline. But Kozalek realises that this story needs no commentary, it doesn’t need the interjection of his thoughts and feelings – it doesn’t even need him to get angry at the injustice. It speaks for itself. He paints the portrait of an ordinary old man who happened to have a bracelet around his ankle and couldn’t leave the house. The only time Kozalek inserts himself into the story it’s to spot a bright red cardinal sitting on an empty bird bath in the garden once lovingly tended by Jim’s wife.
Kozalek asks a lot of big questions on Benji – how could his second cousin and his uncle die in similar freak aerosol fires? How is it just that serial killer Richard Ramirez died at a ripe old age of natural causes? Why is it that mass shootings have become an accepted part of American life? The question he doesn’t ask the is how a man who euthanized his wife out of love can be treated like a cold blooded murderer. Maybe it’s afraid of the answer. Or maybe it’s enough to just tell the story and let the sadness and sense of justice to seep in naturally. He saves his most beautiful melody of the record to tell the story of a self evident travesty of justice. He may be an arsehole sometimes but Jim Wise was a well timed reminder of his deep well of empathy and ability to capture so much with such simple, plaintive words and a sad little tune.
Part 12 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
Strand of Oaks’ HEAL was the sound of a painfully inwardly focused songwriter exploding outwards and Shut In was moment where Timothy Showater emerging from the dark and blinking in the sunlight. “Now I just get loaded/never leave my house” he intones in the first verse, “it’s taken way too long/to figure this out.” With that realisation under his belt he moves onto a chorus which is as optimistic an ode to social hermits and borderline agoraphobics as you could ever hope to hear, “Know my name/know I mean it/it’s not as bad as it seems/and we try in our own way to get better/even if we’re alone.” The ringing piano chords that back him and the overly polite guitar line that follows almost lean towards bland Coldplay-style universality but it’s reigned in with a bedraggled guitar solo with the rough edges tripping into the red left on.
On Shut in Showater proved that this sort of widescreen pop number can be done without ungritting the teeth and coating everything in a sickly sheen and in doing so produced one of the years most wonderfully hopeful songs, the most redemptive note throughout the punishingly emotional HEAL. Where Showater goes from here, now he’s out of his shell and with the wounds that influenced HEAL presumably, well, healed, is anyone’s guess. Given how starkly brilliant the open-hearted standout tracks on HEAL sound it’s fair to say it’ll be worth following him wherever he may end up.
Part 11 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
“Delay pedals and 27 years of disappointment” is the quote that’s pretty much become Posse’s tagline. It’s been repeated so many times they probably wish they never said it. But then the loose, wandering guitar solo that knits together the three verses of Shut Up sounds exactly like that. The disappointment hasn’t created any sort of anger or bitterness – theirs is more a serene, resigned zen tinged with a hint of weary irony. Which not everyone shares; it’s safe to say the relationship Shut Up describes is a little uneven. One person does all the talking, the other struggles not to cut them short.“You overwork all the time/And you’re tired again/And I stand, and I nod/And I sigh and stretch/I’m gonna try and get a haircut/ A shampoo and a shave/And shut up.”
One side is doing all the heavy lifting – the other is barely present. Are they self aware enough to realise they’ve got the sweeter end of the deal and keeping their mouth shut? Or are they willing the active half of the conversation to be quiet? It’s not quite clear. But as the song ascends into beautiful slacker bliss it’s easy to choose which side of the coin you’d rather be on. Is it selfish? Unproductive? Yeah, probably. But close your eyes and get lost in the enveloping guitar haze and it doesn’t matter. Sink into the warm rippling backing vocals and let the song wash over you. And shut up.
Part 10 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
It’s all about that closing riff. Sure, the rest of the song is pretty great, from the opening guitar heroics through several shifts of pace and some raw-throated vocal passion, but sweet god damn that riff. I was present at the Crystalline album launch at Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach where they played almost the whole of the record, albeit in a slightly different running order, and whilst they had a few teething problems with their set that night (I hear they’re firing on all cylinders now – I can’t wait to catch them back in Wales in April) when it all came together they sounded utterly monstrous. When they locked into that punishing groove towards the end of Palendromeda it was clear to all the head-banging faithful present that they were onto something special. Crystalline is an album packed with highlights but several months on the opening and closing tracks linger in the memory more than anything else – it’s bookended by the kind of stoner-metal riffs that can remind a man why he fell in love with heavy music back in the day. This one here – it’s a sonic beard, an aural raised claw. It’s everything I want out of 5 minutes of riff nirvana. Sweet god damn – that riff..
Part 9 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
No Youtube. Boo!
Satan! Satan! Satan! Satan!
It’s perhaps not the most mature way to start a record, sure, but it’s always a good for a giggle. Once Seven That Spells (a Croatian psych outfit who rather fabulously describe themselves as a “modern, aggressive psychedelic wall of sound incorporating polymetrics and occasional Viking funeral rites, hailing from the 23rd century where rock is dead”) have finished invoking the devil’s name In lays it’s cards on the table for the entirety of it’s nigh on seven minute duration. The drums are rampant – despite the record it introduces being called The Death and Rebirth of Krautrock it sounds closer to an aggressively pacey hip-hop beat than motorik – and the bass bounces around the lower registers and occasionally fires off on acrobatic runs that act like pyrotechnic punctuation. Over that a guitar line slowly ascends higher, higher and higher still until it climaxes in a histrionic harpy squeal. And then it starts over. That’s about it. It may be a one trick pony, but that doesn’t really matter if it’s a good enough trick. How long would it take you to get bored of watching a pony that could do backflips? And if each flip was that little bit more wild, that little bit more impressive, gaining ever more altitude, twisting and flailing it’s little pony limbs at seemingly impossible angles? Despite doing the same thing over and over again it seems to get more urgent each time. You suspect Seven That Spells set out to write a song with the express purpose of it soaring, rocketing ever higher until it crashes into the sun. And that’s exactly what they’ve done. Psych is all about getting inebriated on repitition, and In sounds more like a deep huff of nitrous oxide than an acid trip, and is all the better for it.
Part 8 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
It starts with a groove that sounds a lot like the intro to Knight Rider. In a perfect world there’d be a music video for it with that fantastic old voiceover: Bestiary – A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of men who do not exist. Hail Mary Mallon, young loners on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law. Anyway. Bestiary is a masterclass of elastic flows over brain-worm beats – even when you’re not entirely sure what either Aesop or Rob are rapping about you can get lost in their hazy cadences and inventive rhyming. Kiln is both one of the most immediate tracks from the record and one that sticks with you long after the less obvious tracks have caught up – the hook is one of the catchiest either one has ever laid down, sticking to your mouth like peanut butter from the first listen on. That pause before the last line – “Swim with the Krill” – is one of those beautiful moments of sweet anticipation that rarely fails to plaster a smile across my face. It’s a great song for a morning walk to work, the beat putting fresh impetus into your steps and both men bringing great lines laced with humour that’ll remind you the world isn’t quite as awful as it seems on a dull winters morning before work.