GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR – F♯ A♯ ∞ (1997)

Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

To my most alas, I know nothing about Godspeed You! Black Emperor because I have always taken band names such as this one as a good clue that I should probably steer clear. I also know very little about the social and political situation in 90s North America and its capacity to inspire apocalyptic-sounding soundtracks but I do find that this does not significantly detract from the experience of delving into F♯ A♯ ∞ (and after all, the end of time has been an universal concern since at least the time of the Gospels and especially so in the 20th century), so let’s dive right in.

The CD edition of this album is structured into three “movements” that each contain 3-5 sections with mostly appropriately minimalist sound, and it opens with the movement titled “The Dead Flag Blues”. A beautiful string arrangement is shortly complemented by some nihilistic voiceover about lonely suicides, corrupt governments, people on drugs and an admirable graphic depiction of life inside a machine that is breaking down – if you are a fan of that kind of lyrical exploration you might find it beautifully poignant. But even if you aren’t (and I most certainly am not) you can still appreciate the high quality of lyrical detail that might well surpass many other versions on this general theme by the cohesive picture it paints and the amount of actual information it delivers. Also notable here is that musical dynamic is used very competently and to a great effect, thus giving some spatial depth to the sound.

This first section of the movement segues into a claustrophobic and suffocating sounding sequence that is immediately preceded by a train rolling away from a station (maybe it took all remaining hope away) around the 8th minute and comes back with a beautiful mournful tune that evokes to me the image of Pink Floyd doing one of Mark Knopfler’s western-themed compositions, and is resolved with a bright waltzy rendering of the first section theme with some folky violin.

The second movement – titled East Hastings – opens with some traffic noises and a prominent street preacher voice but then transits into something else altogether – the winds of the hopeless black desert of abandoned nothingness that awaits Earth after a nuclear war, most probably. But wait, it is not completely void, there is a solitary voice here. The gentle voice of a mournful guitar in the distance. It gradually gathers confidence to deliver an uninterrupted phrase. Yes, this is our solitary hero whose steady steps through the desert we shall now follow. He feels like the hero of a tragedy who marches forth to meet his destiny with grim resolution because now even the desert wind chorus is backing him much like the chorus of a classical greek drama would. And when the rhythm section joins in we can conclude that he is now the leader of a whole marching ragged group of desert heroes who even add in their own voices at some point (via a lovely string arrangement). This epic pilgrimage through the desert possibly in Biblical times arrives at a similarly epic conclusion around minute 12, and after a short radio transmission sample the desert winds take over once again, stronger this time in the aftermath of the epic culmination. You know, maybe we can even agree that East Hastings refers to some city way in the East and the opening traffic and preaching took place on a busy marketplace instead of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver after which this movement is titled.

Providence, the third and final movement of this record, opens with a conversation in a bar on a busy street possibly, which possibly discusses what the preacher of the previous movement has said. You know, it is ordinary people losing faith now. In fact, I may well label this movement the personal introspection one because of the wonderful external-internal contrast that the beeping machinery samples of cruel objective reality vs the string arrangements of mournful internal monologue create. The subdued entrance of the strings may remind you of the way films are scored; however, the faint beeping sound still doesn’t vanish altogether and therefore it reminds you that outside of the internal strings monologue there is still the silence of the external world. This sound later develops into a more full one as some percussions and guitar join and the tempo increases, before coming to a stop around minute 11. There are some more sonically interesting solutions for the remainder of the track including some wistful chanting at the side of a waterfall or possibly on a very rainy day in the second half of the track but eventually it peters out into some actual silence before the arrival of the outro that is named after John Lee Hooker and includes some very intense metal bashing.

So bearing in mind that this record gets labelled as post-rock, experimental rock and instrumental rock, is it actually pretentious? Yeah, somewhat probably. But not really. After all, it is a record concerned with apocalypsis and it is concerned with it in a very humane way – taking into account the people living inside a machine, the street preacher in East Hastings, and perhaps even the internal monologue of one of the people conversing at the beginning of the third movement. I get the feeling that it was made mostly because of those people and those are the heroes that make their pilgrimage through the black desert of oblivion.

It also reminds me of something I once heard in Art History class – that 20th century art developed the position that art does not have to be beautiful, and that it decided to concentrate instead on the eternal suffering of the human soul. Now, the concept of the bleak beauty of human frailty is not something nowadays unheard of, and maybe this may prompt you to label the sound of F♯ A♯ ∞ beautiful. I will personally abstain from making such a statement but I am certainly glad that I got to experience the sonic richness of it during my pilgrimage through this album, even if probably no amount of coaxing will convince me to ever do it again.

Probably the only question that remains for me is what the title F♯ A♯ ∞ actually means but since apparently the vinyl edition of the album has a technically infinite running time due to the locked groove of the final track, I am going to assume that F sharp and A sharp are also some kind of clever reference to the music on the album.
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LYCIA – Cold (1996)

Review by: Red Heylin
Album assigned by: Hipster Sokushinbutsu


For those who did not know, Lycia is a group/project headed by Mike VanPortfleet, a guitarist from Michigan, with his wife Tara Vanflower, contributing textural whispers and wails as well as appearing on record covers, and bassist David Galas. “Cold” was the group’s fifth release and appeared in 1996.

These, though, are not the main performers on this record. Rather it is dominated by two small boxes, an Alesis SR-16 drum machine and a Lexicon LXP-5 digital effects unit, backed by a variety of synthesisers and, probably, an Akai sampler. Guitar and bass are in there somewhere, lost in the mix, as is a piano, but, once again, these are mainly for textural effect.

In fact, the technology makes “Cold” very much a creature of its time, for it had just become possible, in the comfort of your own bedroom, to give the impression that you had hired a symphony orchestra to play at the far end of the catacombs of Rome. Anything that The Beatles aimed at with tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows” could now be achieved far more impressively with a thousand pounds’ worth of equipment. Lycia are very much a home studio project – gigs were once attempted but VanPortfleet has said “Lycia never truly made the live transition… In retrospect I never should have done it.” He keeps his day job, churns out his CDs and fair enough.

Anyhow, the basic sound of this record consists of ponderous drum-kit loops emerging through a cavernous echo also inhabited by massive textural synthesiser pads and simple repeating bass, guitar and piano parts, along with the mentioned half-audible vocals. All of it. That’s all you get. Do not expect to be able to make out anything like a solo, or even a melody, though a couple of the tracks have chord-changes. As for the lyrics, I had to look them up and, for instance, the track “Polaris”, typically, runs for seven minutes and twenty-five seconds with the following sum lyric content;

“I am loving again
I am loving again
Polaris
I am nothing again
I am nothing again
Polaris
Polaris”

So there you are. This is ambient music par excellence – it inhabits your space with a certain mood and that is that. Just like, say, some of the efforts of Terry Riley or Jean-Michel Jarre. Really the only reason there is more than one track is so that it goes on longer. And it does – almost an hour. It is for this reason, my pop-picking friends, that I shall not trouble you with a track-by-track breakdown.

Do I sound dismissive? That’s just my temperament. There’s a place for such records. Despite the titles and the bleak, gothic reputation, it’s not really eerie, edgy, bleak or scary. I mean, you can call it “dark” – there’s very little treble on anything, just a huge wash of nondescript synth tones (also from the far end of the catacombs) – but it’s quite peaceful. Heroin users could love it, because not only does nothing happen, it happens very slowly. A smart-arse might argue that one could just as easily extract a nice, slow, pompous riff from Pink Floyd or someone, make a loop out of it and play it at half-speed while your friends mumble in the bathroom – but “smart-arsed” is neither you nor I, dear reader, as I am sure you partly agree.

No, this record has the slightly chilly immensity of Spirit’s “Clear” or maybe “The Marble Index” (again if you played them at half-speed, or it could get too busy). It’s pleasant. It could suit those who want a musical wallpaper that lacks the conceptualism and minimalism of Eno or who find “New Age” records shallow or hackneyed or the various electro-poppers of Germany overwhelming in their tendency to change mood or tempo after a quarter-hour or to insist upon merry melodies. No such problem here. It just goes on… and on… and on. And I can imagine, given a proper CD and good headphones, all those distant massive echoey synthesisers could be truly immersive, and those repeating piano figures hypnotic. It’s really quite nice. I might buy it if I didn’t own those sorts of machines myself. But one thing I can say – I can’t imagine buying more than one. Why did they do a dozen? 

(Thus endeth this review)

KING SUNNY ADÉ – Isele Yi Leju (2013)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

Well, I like it.

I find it difficult to put in words what I like about it. It’s JuJu, a genre of music which I know almost nothing about except that it’s a form of African pop music from Nigeria and King Sunny Adé is one of the most renowned artists therein.

So: a non-review.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been living in a redecoration job that’s gotten completely out of hand – let’s say a demolished and leaky bunker with too many personal belongings in it for comfort. And shaky shaky wifi. And the occasional headache caused by ammonia fumes. So that’s how I listened to this album. It is good music to do some housepainting to. Though my helping hand Franz Ferdinand disagreed; he said it annoyed him. Then I had to put it off; to humour him. Anyway; I dug it but I didn’t have time to read up on the subject, let alone review the album.

The music is characterized by grooves of polyrhythmic drum and bass playing (all kinds of different traditional percussion, I suppose) very fluid and clear mulitple guitar lines and call- and response type of singing; the unobtrusive and very sweet, melancholic voice of Adé taking the lead. Of course I don’t have a clue what they’re singing about.

Adé had a moment of fame in 80’s when a couple of his albums, Synchro System and Aura, (maybe there were more) were released on Island and distributed worldwide to general positive reviews. I missed out on Synchro System, heard it at a friend’s place and bought Aura instead. So that’s how I knew about King Sunny until now. Typically I never heard more than these two albums, my attention moved on, and I think that’s exemplary for how many western listeners listen to “World Music” – from hype to hype.

Isele Yi Leju contains recordings from before the Island years. I suspected that Adé’s sound on the Island albums was adapted to a large extend to what western audiences demanded. Also because the rhythmic patterns are not dissimilar to those used by Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel, to name but a few. However, this is not the case, apart from the obligatory 80’s stereoids treatment on the drums the sound is mostly the same.

There’s also a large resemblance to traditional Surinamese music, Kawina and Kaseko, that you hear a lot if you live in Amsterdam (as there are many people with a Surinamese background here).

This is music that is better experienced in a live setting or at a party – great for hip-shaking. When heard in the background it can become a bit monotonous at times. But the painting comes along nicely with this album. As long as Franz Ferdinand isn’t here.

You should try to redecorate my apartment for a change. See how you like it. Anyway, I have work to do. Fixing a hole.

BROADCAST – Tender Buttons (2005)

Review by: Jared Walske
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

I’m not familiar with all of Broadcast’s output – I really only know this album and their debut, The Noise Made by People – but I find it very easy to believe that this is their peak as a band. The same kind of icy and dreamy pop sound that was a dominated Noise is still here, but it’s been augmented by a sharper edge that gives their music a little more kick without overwhelming the softer aspects of their sound. A superb example of this can be seen in the opening track “I Found The F”. Musically, it’s not dissimilar to the kinds of songs Broadcast were already known for, but their earlier material would have used a less coarse-sounding synthesizer tone and would not have emphasized the drums and bass line as much. this becomes every more prominent on the following song, “Black Cat”, which is driven by abrasive bed of electronic noise underneath Trish Keenan’s vocal line. This blending of the pretty and the spiky runs throughout the album and while I could see someone getting tired of the sound by the end of the album, I don’t count myself among them. Listening to this album always makes me a little sad that Broadcast only made one album in this particular mode and makes Trish Keenan’s death in 2011 all the more tragic, as I think her singing and vocal melodies are what really help hold this album together. Give the album a listen and then tell your friends to listen to it too. You won’t be disappointed.

Highlights: “I Found The F”, “Black Cat”, and “Corporeal” stand out as obvious highlights for me, but I suspect that’s more personal preference than anything else.

Lowlights: None. Unless this style of dream pop doesn’t do anything for you, you’ll probably at least enjoy everything here.

CROSS RECORD – Be Good (2013)

Review by: Eden Hunter
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Be Good, the first full-length release from confused indie rockers Cross Record, opens with three minutes of tenuous bass mumblings. It sounds both inescapably fragile and powerfully creepy, and that’s a feeling that carries itself through the album’s whole runtime. Even in the most dramatic, grandiose moments, there’s a constant sense that this is all some kind of pose, as if everything could fall apart if you pressed the wrong buttons.

Cross Record are masters of atmosphere, and, in addition to the fragility they summon, there’s also a palpable cloud of grimness passing over the whole album. The instrumentation constantly retains a sense of hazy ambiguity. It’s assisted by the lyrics, which always feel masterfully curated to summon both visceral emotion and atmosphere. There’s a moment in Cups in the Sink where everything slows down and the lyrics repeat the words, “Let me go/Please just let me go.” Emily Cross’ vocals fall somewhere in between Joanna Newsom and Chelsea Wolfe, and when she’s putting forth indictments as searing and brutal as that, another truth comes to mind; Be Good is absolutely terrifying music.

This terror is perhaps captured most powerfully on late-album highlight Dirt Nap. It builds up through an increasingly punishing pattern of monastic drumming, before exploding into a series of harrowing sonic revelations. The track is only four minutes long, but more than anything else on Be Good, it feels like a comprehensive statement.

Dirt Nap’s strengths, however, highlight a whole lot of the album’s fundamental weaknesses. At around four-and-a-half minutes, it’s the longest track on Be Good, and it’s the only one that really gets the chance to thematically resolve. There’s a whole lot of really interesting stuff happening on the album, but it feels like Cross Record aren’t really working towards anything. The end result is more like a haunted house than an existential revelation – a superficially harrowing atmosphere hiding what is ultimately fundamentally contentless art.

65/100

VERSHKI DA KORESHKI – Vershki da Koreshki (1996)

Review by: Eric Pember
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

Man, this is even harder to review than the Peter Tosh album was. It’s basically just moody jazzy throat singing. I think I’d go batty if I were to listen to this all the time, but it’s rather neat to listen to every once in a while.

KATE BUSH – Aerial (2005)

Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
Album assigned by: Jonathan Birch

The first impression that I got when “King of the Mountain” started was “this sounds like a slightly nuttier version of Peter Gabriel”. But that’s an oversimplification. Yes, it has the expected belabored programmed backgrounds and synth sounds, and her vocals still have that edge that sets her apart from your typical female pop-rock singer. It also has several traditional sounds that are very welcome in an album like this. For example, in the opening song, after the first chorus the listener runs into a rhythm guitar that, not only has a decidedly retro sound but is mixed much higher than guitars in contemporary pop usually are; I think that the relative level of the guitar in the mix is as responsible as the tone, if not more, for the “Sixties” vibe I get from it. The contrast between this guitar (mistakenly described as “reggae” throughout the Internet) and the 80s rock drum sound is interesting.

But sonic variety works also in a macro level. For example, “Pi” also has live drums but this time they sound like prog rock drums, which alongside the acoustic guitar, bass synth and pulse-wave shaped keyboards (a la “Won’t get fooled again”) should sound like a Seventies throwback… but it doesn’t. And throughout the album? We get Renaissance flavourings (“Bertie”, which is by the way Kate’s son and the reason why there was a large time gap before this album; the inspiration is worth the wait). We get piano ballads. We get guitar-based, New Wave-ish pop (with bouts of funny noises). We get electronica-influenced backdrops.

However this is not a simple exercise of style. Apart from all the art song trappings the album features genuinely moving melodies, sung expressively, and idiosyncratic but heartfelt lyrics. Who else would write a poignant piano ballad from the point of view of a housewife daydreaming while washing a load of clothes? (“Mrs. Bartolozzi”). Or a song like “Pi”, which seems to be about a mathematician (or maybe an autistic savant?), set to a rhythm that paints a vivid picture of the protagonist dancing, alone, oblivious to everyone, in his room with the decimal figures running through his brain? Or a song like “How to be Invisible” which you probably have to live inside Kate’s head to decode any metaphors and hidden meanings, if there are any, that is?

After the incredible stretch that spans from “Pi” to “How to be invisible”, “Joanni” seems to me a relative letdown, but “A Coral Room” is starkly beautiful, not as instantly memorable as the rest, but a grower and a suitable conclusion to the first CD.

Ah, I didn’t tell you this was a double album?

Well, what would you say if I told you the second CD consists of a single piece?

Actually “A Sky Of Honey” is a kind of a suite comprised of individual linked sections. Shades of “Thick as a brick” or “A Passion Play” here (actually, like the latter, the different sections have their own titles, and the first CD edition had them indexed separately; the reissue just has it as a single 40+ minutes track under the title “An Endless Sky Of Honey”).

From what I’ve read elsewhere, the suite just describes a day of leisure from beginning to end. Hardly the most epic of subjects, but domestic bliss seems to be one of the main themes of the whole album, and Kate tackles the subjects she wants to tackle, and who am I to object.

Sonically, this second CD is less varied than the other. Not only that, while the concept is interesting, the actual execution is, if any, more conservative than in the first CD, with several segments that sound like Eighties flashbacks. “An Architect’s Dream” in particular sounds like a textbook on how to sound like 80s Top 40 pop (you know – the synth pads, the DX7-type metallic lead synth lines, the programmed congas, the fretless bass, the so-low-you-cannot-hear-it acoustic guitar; the works). Most of the music passes by at an easy slow to mid tempo, but it kind of accelerates towards the end; the final sections range from “Somewhere in between” (a moderate pop piece with a very good and agile vocal melody in the chorus) to the lite funk of the (deceptively named) “Nocturn” and the unrelenting four-on-the floor of “Aerial”, complete with a bizarre laughter section and an unexpected epic guitar solo. Both of those are also sections which could have easily come from a 80s record, and in the case of “Nocturn” it might be not even a 80s Kate Bush record, but a 80s Fleetwood Mac record at that. Apart from those, the only section where it picks up the pace is the second half of “Sunset” which is arranged in a rumba flamenca style. Kudos for the effort, although with the preprogrammed handclaps and shouts it sounds more than a little inauthentic. That “Sunset” segment, however, might well be the best part of the entire cycle; at the beginning the backing is an unobtrusive but lilting jazz-lite, the vocal melody is memorable both in the undulating “sea of honey (…) sky of honey” phrase and in the pixie-like end of the verse, and if you’re willing to forget its plastic qualities, the ending rumba is a suitable finale.

To me, maybe the most memorable purely musical hook in the suite is the four-chord piano riff that forms the basis for “Prologue” – which despite the name is a full-length song. Not everything is; apart from the short instrumental “Prelude” there are a couple of short “links”; of those, “The Painter’s Link” is interesting with its guest spot for Rolf Harris’ vocals and the uplifting choir of Kates.

In summary, this is not a groundbreaking Kate Bush album, but it is more or less on the same level as her classic material. Which means it is highly recommended if you like your music non-trivial, artsy but not self-consciously “difficult”. If the middle of the road was as well-crafted as it is here, everybody would want to run through it.

On a personal note I have been haunted for days by the main keyboard riff of “Pi”, which, by virtue of whatever strange neural connections I have in my brain, insists on being merged with the coda of Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road”. Weird thing, the human mind. Which is fine by me as far as it can produce works as good – and as needed in the comparatively barren landscape of the post-millenial musical world – as Kate Bush’s “Aerial”.