LONG OVERDUE. FOREVER RELEVANT. THE BEST OF 2013.
5 // DANIEL AVERY – DRONE LOGICSincerity fucking sucks. Or, maybe fairer to say is that the kind of sincerity you meet in most contemporary music fucking sucks. There are too many examples of artists who seem to work with the idea that the primacy of their voice and the ‘authentic’/’wholesome’ aesthetic and/or instrumentation that comes alongside this is sufficient material for the assertion that their emotional clout is at once distinctive and unique, yet still entirely necessary to communicate to the slumbering masses devoid of banjo and waistcoat. This aesthetic conceals a myriad of sins – from unendurably shit music to ideological complicity with some of the more po-faced violences of 2013/14’s politics to, again, some horrendously poor music.
In spite of my definitely valid and not at all irrational disdain for this current brand of sincerity, there is a beauty to Drone Logic that I only seem to be able to describe as sincerity. And this seems to me to stem from the album’s thoroughgoing humanity and warmth. That doesn’t make it a sentimental album. At times Avery flirts so closely with club music vibes that sentimentality seems genuinely to be one 4/4 beat around the corner but one of his main skills on Drone Logic is embracing the joyous qualities of that driving club aesthetic before throwing a guitar pedal feedback loop or squelching synth line that carries on a euphoric melody but at a pitch or tone antithetical to any of nostalgic 90s fist bumping that might punctuate a night at Fabric. The kind of experimentation on display is an affirmative playfulness and openness. The surprises come more in the way of loops or sounds that throw away expectations but that make the results all the more rewarding. There is gratification aplenty, as there should well be with such beat-driven music, but the gratification never feels cheap or forced. Water Jump offers 3 or 4 such rewards throughout its 8 and half minutes without ever employing a predictable drop or malignant trope of Guetta euphoria. Knowing We’ll Be Here is about as close to a utopian impulse in 2013’s eclectic (and sometimes magnificent) vomit of club music – the voice seems rootless and able to appear at once and disappear just as easily but it is always willing you in, and when the beat reaches a boat-party, sun-drenched, melody-line climax Avery draws back to the bareness of the melody line and an increasing feedback-formed background to drift with us to the end of the record.
This all seems very cuddly and soppy. It is. That is because my fear of sincerity is not a fear of a display of emotion or a dislike of an art that actively attempts to engage the listener as an affective agent in their own right. It is because this album seems to manage to manoeuvre a display of these genuinely affecting gestures that seem to be so lacking in contemporary music whilst so much of this contemporary music breathily-and-oh-so-truly-fucking-honestly tells us it is making said gestures. Drone Logic invigorates some of the aesthetics of inclusivity so flaunted by those who experienced early rave culture without becoming nostalgic for that time in itself, seeking to re-engage club music’s ability to genuinely move and gratify its listeners whilst being very willing to throw in some surprises and to engage with materials and techniques not of the traditional club music ilk. For me this means it sits perfectly alongside some of my other favourite records of 2013. Whilst some of those records discomfort and unsettle, Drone Logic comes alongside them to offer the moments of respite that give you the energy to engage with the uncomfortable and the alienating.
4 // KANYE WEST – YEEZUS
How best to talk about Yeezus has been troubling me for quite a while. At its best, it is an album of the sublimely brash. At its worst, it is an album of the sublimely brash. So how to proceed with talking about an album that seems to be driven by its inherent contradictions has been causing me some (admittedly infrequent and incredibly context-specific) unease.
There could well be a book about the contradictions of Yeezus (hopefully as an accompaniment to David Harvey’s on the contradictions of Capital) but that book would probably be shit. The contradictions are numerous and visible but they really are what makes this such an enthralling album; I tried to summarise them all but stopped at sex/wealth brags vs. racial politics because you really don’t need me to tell you that it might sit uncomfortably for most to listen to album that openly and aggressively (and sometimes articulately) attacks the persistence of racism in a supposedly post-race society whilst at the same time being told that Kanye would like to combine oral sex with Asian women and a certain orangey-red sauce.
The important thing for me then, is to understand that the contradictions are perhaps the most obvious and immediate element of an album that denies the listener much of the cathartic and/or vicarious value that is expected of much mainstream hip-hop. It’s claustrophobic, relentless and West is sure as fuck willing to let us know that there is no listener-wish-fulfillment here – this is very much his outrageous life, and, unless you’re explicitly invited along, you’re expected to wait outside with his Benz (which you also may not look at for more than 5 seconds, and most definitely must not touch).
The production is impeccable, as would be expected of the gang West assembled for the album, and the album’s allure owes a lot to their work. It is not so much the much-referenced and not really actually-appearing minimalism that makes the production noteworthy. Rather, I would say that it is the boldness of structure. Of course there are plenty of interesting sounds flying around but they are hardly ground-breaking; the ambitious denial of comfort or catharsis comes from the beats’ circularity and repetition, alongside the structures in which the variety of samples appear. Send It Up is a perfect example. Sonically it seems like one of the less interesting tracks on the album, but the contorted, pitch shifting siren that runs throughout on the same melody makes it a thoroughly circular piece. King Louie’s perfectly malevolent monotone helps too, as we are caught with a repetitious robotism – forever on loop, always threatening to lead to some sort of Skrillex romp, always returning to the same melody, always maintaining the threat of what might come next, before a 25 second burst of a sample that has no aural trace or precedent in the previous 2 and a half minutes pulls the track to its end, of course with the looping melody still in tow. The same kinds of affects are induced in the insistent low-end throbs of I Am a God, for example, as well as that track’s skipping, stuck-in-purgatory beat that re-emerges throughout. Then of course there are the screams and gasps that punctuate the album, acting as the signifiers of a profound discomfort which articulate only that: a feeling, an unease, without feeling the need to explain themselves. Herein we find what is for me perhaps the greatest facet of the album’s denial of catharsis: it is an album of feeling and exclamations that is almost entirely devoid of explanation. And every hint of space or rest-bite is immediately undercut, Justin Vernon’s or Frank Ocean’s delightfully auto-tuned r’n’b emotivities are themselves too de-humanised to offer full emotional engagement, and when Ocean is allowed loose for those few seconds in the final minute of New Slaves it quickly fades away into the distanced, low-end rumble of Hold My Liquor.
Of course there are an abundance of contradictions that do actually need to be considered and discussed. The brazen assertion of masculinity is defiant and pretty idiotic, for example, and cannot be excused by me simply saying ‘oh, but it’s the contradictions and the (relative) discomfort that make it such a good album’. The point is best understood that the abundance of exclamations without explanations is what make the album uncomfortable to its core, and therein lies its power.
3 // VAMPIRE WEEKEND – MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY
“…the gamut is once again being well and truly run sonically and thematically. Irish-folk inflections, reggaeton grooves and even a post-internet psychobilly freakout are all on the cards, alongside the high-necked riffery, Brooklynite balladry, vocal pitch-shifts, and harpsichord jams previously stocked in their locker.
Each new angle is approached with the same measured control which ensures that even if a certain aspect isn’t quite the right fit, it never upsets the whole. This is epitomised by the arabesque Worship You which incessantly shifts gears from break-neck to stratospheric between verse and chorus, gloriously straddling its middle-Eastern backing cries, frenetic synthesised guitar solo, and even moments of Joshua Tree-esque grandiosity, via the incessantly rumbling bedrock of marching drums throughout. There’s a freedom in their experimentations, which suggests that they’ve finally warded off the bug-bear of faux-outraged critiques of cultural colonialism (though they might have replaced this with furious SAAB enthusiasts). In fact, the sheer confidence with which they’ve continued extending this melange of genre, without losing the singularly important strength of writing the song as a song, has been one of the strongest and most rewarding elements of the band’s continued output.
However, the most significant aspect of this confidence is translated in Koenig’s lyrical work. He maintains his almost FLARF-poetry aspect at points, notably on tracks like Finger Back and Step: the canny lyrical switch-ups which are occasionally conceived of as smart-aleck witticisms, the alternately ubiquitous and obscure reference-points critiqued as solely designed to throw off people like Chris Baio’s “long-lost cousin” Steve Buscemi. But this time round, more strikingly and powerfully than on their previous LPs, these idiosyncrasies are equally matched and even usurped by moments of pure directness, typified by the emotionally-shattering chorus of Hannah Hunt: “If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer.”
3. In The Absence Of A
Where admiration firmly falls into the great ball-pit of the besotted though are Vampire Weekend’s ventures into spirituality. Themes of faith, death and after-life recur throughout, but they’re fully consecrated on the album’s (and perhaps thus far the band’s) crowning achievement Ya Hey. […] The band set about capturing a deep-set existential grief, a contradiction that works away at the heart of both the personal and international, with a celestial magnificence and an utter lack of pretence that Time magazine is trying to deny Generation Y.
The Ivy League bozos who once rapped about “wack calzone” weren’t supposed to be able to sing with such nuanced supremacy about a world that fell out of love with God.
But they did.”
EXCERPT FROM CTS’ RVW
2 // THESE NEW PURITANS – FIELD OF REEDS
Pitting These New Puritans against the rescinded promise of a pop album wasn’t the smartest idea Jack Barnett’s ever come up with. Though he did manage to go back on it well prior to the creation of the Southenders’ third studio album, the inconsistency of suggesting uber-accessibility and then delivering fifty four minutes of orchestral sprawl dogged Field of Reeds for most of last year – even as it swept up general critical reverence, and waltzed to Drowned in Sound’s Neptune Award with hands firmly in pockets. Alienated Hidden fans griping in YouTube comment sections far and wide can attest to how difficult a piece of art it is, but ask anyone on the other side and they’ll tell you (flirting quite happily with music crit cliché) that Field of Reeds was one of the most immensely, intensely rewarding listens of 2013. Yes, you do have to revisit this album persistently – you have to play it at home before you go to bed, or use it as the antidote your commute – but only because it’s been made for precisely that kind of consumption. The convoluted song structures, the mechanically low drone of Barnett’s vocals, the palpable ambition of every brushstroke – rather than being problematic, these traits are precisely what lend Field of Reeds its power, building mighty structures of sound from that initial tread of piano in The Way I Do.
This is an album that you open up and explore, and the landscape within is wholly and utterly enriched by the size and complexity of everything about Field of Reeds. It’s this ultimate selfishness which make it such a stunning listen from start to finish, because the album only cares, really, about sound and composition. Barnett is a cryptic, laborious writer of music, and you can feel it in the shape of the LP – that each song was made to collaborate with the tracks around it, with little to no regard for actual listeners. Even the most tightly choreographed, overtly accessible, track on the LP, Organ Eternal, is a slave to its position in Barnett’s grand scheme, providing the first graspable entry point to a record that’s otherwise gorgeously devoted to itself.
Field of Reeds will lead you astray. An archaic heft colours These New Puritans‘ neo-classical behemoth, old light coming through to the present, hanging heavy like the air of rooms that have been long left unopened. Though surrounded by the ostensibly warmer elements of the orchestral or choral, there’s still a sense of sparse, circumlocutory cold, embedded in the keys of the resonator piano and crooked fragility of Jack Barnett’s voice, evidenced to the utmost on the album’s core V (Island Song) in particular. Consequently, even within the most accessible moment Fragment Two, the remit remains a kind of graceful oppressiveness, borne from the intimidating and yet enrapturing heart of darkness that lies within the album’s bounds. It’s a record possessed of simultaneously transporting but paralysing beauty, reaching deep into your heart and psyche whilst remaining somehow always outside of reach, alien to full comprehension.
1 // JON HOPKINS – IMMUNITY
Immunity sounds like the Hadron Collider in the hands of the Old Testament god. It deals in awesome hammer-strikes of physicality amidst enveloping swathes of ethereality. Songs revolve around phrases like frozen moments in time, each revolution revealing something, casting new light and unearthing new perspective in the strange buoyancy of the space between punch and floor.
A key turns and we’re off. We Disappear serves as the album’s Rosetta stone – running the gamut from hard to soft, from stratospheric to granular – an ultra-condensed 4:50 microcosm by which we can glimpse if not yet fully understand all that will follow. Then Open Eye Signal (which as you know, we love an inconceivable amount) comes into being like a machine-made sunrise coursing through the veins of the morning, and all the more biblically awful for it.
Breathe This Air teases with all-out enormity before dissipating into breathless, peaceful chimes, before Collider takes on the mantle of that abandoned enormity and enters the boxing ring. Jangling with nervous electricity it drowns the stifled sexuality of its vocal samples in ever-building, ever-pounding polyrhythms and encompassing, enrapturing production. It’s scrambling, it’s titanic and it’s all too much: the record topples under the weight of this central moment of collision and collapses into a rare moment of silence.
Amidst this seismic fracture emerges Abandon Window in all its finely-tuned warmth, opening the door to the space of practically perceptible peace which dominates the latter half of the record. Throughout these tracks especially – though it serves to retroactively heighten its presence in the preceding tracks also – the classical roots that have allowed Hopkins to grow to such heights are foregrounded. The atmosphere of Form By Firelight, Sun Harmonics and Immunity is simultaneously sparse and yet holistically possessed of all his song-craft, using the gorgeous, resonant poetry of those titles as both guide and canvas for the elements in that atmosphere to weave their magic. Titanic keys, undulating throbs, spine-chilling chimes, percussive stutters and heart murmurs, hymnal vocals, soaring tides of static – all expertly packed in and on one another, extending and elevating the overarching kaleidoscopic mood-scape.
Immunity is a reconciliation, the fruit of a 34 year old explorer’s 9 months of recording, a record of a somehow meagre sounding 8 tracks running for a transcendent 60 minutes. It’s a reflection and a fulfilment of all that Hopkins has been – from the early disillusionment and eventual abandonment of his early work through to the roles he wears so lightly today: sublime soundtracker, Eno contemporary, Coldplay and Creosote collaborator, possessor of a monolith of truly modern electronic music. It contains multitudes of endless subtleties; your impulsive, uncontrollable movement constantly rearticulating between aggression and beauty; moments of peace that hint at storms in the distance. It’s android music, ushering forth compelling, utterly human emotion through supposedly cold machines. It’s Jon Hopkins’ finest work so far and a promise of so much more to come.
CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE
Being preposterously overdue on the AOTY lists has now become a weird tradition at Arbiter of Taste. It ends now. Thank you for your patience x