PHILIP GLASS – Einstein on the Beach (1975)

Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

An opera by a minimalist composer? Well, after all Philip Glass doesn’t like the “minimalist” label, and John Adams was influenced by that school and has composed operas, right? So it might be something normal, right?

Wrong. Philip Glass might not like the term minimalist but he likes describing his work as “music based on repetitive structures”. And this is an “opera” without plot and almost without lyrics. This is not “The Death of Klinghoffer”.

Actually, the only thing resembling lyrics here are the spoken word passages, the sung passages are entirely comprised of numbers and solfeggio syllables. The work is comprised of lenghty passages (about 20 minutes each) describes as corresponding to one of three settings – “Train”, “Trial” and “Dance/Spaceship”. I get that trains and spaceships might have a relationship with Einstein’s theories, but damned if I know what “Trial” refers to. These passages are linked by shorter pieces called “Knee Plays” which are the equivalent of overtures and entr’actes in usual operas. The pieces are indeed repetitive, but not static; imagine one of those complicated melodies on prog or jazz fusion records but instead of going through harmony or rhythm changes they are looped on what seems like infinity. Or at times it resembles an electronica piece but without drum machines. Or imagine listening to something like “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson but more complex and for several hours.

And I mean hours – the original recording of this is a quadruple album, but apparently it’s abridged. A complete staging of this work lasts about five hours and the audience are allowed to take pee breaks whenever they feel like.

The instrumentation is sparse, but the repetition of a single melody line by several instruments does result in interesting sounds. Usually in classical music one appreciates instrumental combinations in chords as a manner of pads, or in focused instrumental lines. Here we have these quick, rapid arpeggios, which by virtue of their slow evolution force your brain into registering the subtle mixtures of sounds, so for instance the tenor sax, soprano sax and flute in the first scene end up sounding like a particularly well programmed synth patch, and the interaction between them, the voices and the electronic organ creates a rhythmic pulse that seems to make you hear notes that probably aren’t even there.

In the shorter parts (the “Knee Plays”) the focus seems to be more in the choir than in the instruments and in this case is the beats created by the subtle rhythmic displacements between the groups of singers what gives the most striking impression. 

I won’t lie to you. It’s challenging to sit through it.The best strategy might be to have it as background; while the music is the opposite as the usual “ambient” strategies, the end result is similar – something that you can tune in or out almost at will but that will excite your brain if you do pay attention to it.

Selecting highlights from this would require a thorough analysis as so much of it is similar, but I’d advise to listen to the first two pieces (“Knee Play 1” and “Act I, Scene I – Train”), as those offer maybe the most accurate summary of everything. If your interest is piqued, I would encourage you to continue. I would also recommend “Act IV Scene II – Bed” which is mainly based on organ and later some gorgeous wordless vocal phrases.

In short this is probably not something I’d listen to frequently, but I am very glad I got to know it. Thumbs up – for what might sound as a totally “brainy” music, this resonated more than I thought it would.
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GORKY’S ZYGOTIC MYNCI – Barafundle (1997)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

Ok, so from what I’ve read about Barafundle, it’s usually advertised as being a twee psych rock record. This holds true for a few songs, but as you really get into the record, GZM comes off more interested in trad folk and twee pop than really Rocking Out. It’s the same sneaky tactic religious rock music uses to get young people to hear about the bible, but GZM’s twee church seems pretty cool, so whatever.
  
Another genre label I’ve seen thrown at the album from all over the internet (read: Wikipedia), is neo-progressive rock, which does make sense. GZM’s aesthetic might not bear all the characteristics of prog rock, but purely in terms of songwriting, you notice how the band tries to constantly throw in left turns and add complexity to what are essentially pretty acoustic folk tunes.

It does get a bit samey after a while, though. After the tenth song where Mr. Leadsinger sings a really pretty melody with his kind of pretty voice over an orgy of ornate instrumentation, I did get a little fatigued. I’m not positive whether “Diamond Dew” is my favorite song on the album because it really is the best, or whether it’s just because it’s the first song I heard.

And the thing about deliberate complexity, which is a problem in general for prog, is that sometimes you don’t want or need a song to take a left turn. The band can seem a little paranoid, as if they don’t trust the core songs to interest you, so they often won’t let any one section go on for too long before switching it up. Or maybe they fell for the myth that Smart Bands can’t write Simple Songs, because that would be Amateurish, Insignificant and Stupid? Like, I mean, a pretty acoustic song sometimes, like, just needs to be a pretty acoustic song, y’get my feel bro?

Never mind, I just listened to it again and it’s pretty great. I’m an idiot.

SCOTT WALKER – Tilt (1995)

Review by: Jonathan Birch
Album assigned by: Franco Micale

An electrifying descent into the hellish vision of a deranged mind, or so the theme of the music leads me to believe. In 1995, experimental artist Scott Walker (formerly of the pop group The Walker Brothers) released this studio album, his first since the early 80s. Like a cross between King Crimson and Nine Inch Nails, the record seems to fit perfectly into the grungy nihilism of the mid 90s. Much of the imagery in the album brings to mind unutterable, nightmarish pictures; such as “feathers on the sides of… fingers” or “Lemon Bloody Cola.” The music style mainly consists of industrial, post-punkish art rock, often mixed with jazz-folk elements and Gregorian church music, and while the technical prowess of the instrumentation is proficient enough, Walker’s singing is unconventional. Much of his lyrics remain unintelligible until reading them, and the atmosphere is harsh and uncompromising. His voice resembles that of a psychotic man living inside an attic, believing himself to be an opera singer and warbling along to the music in his head.

It is not entirely unpleasant however. The opening, “Farmer in the City,” is a quaint, almost beautiful piece of chamber orchestra, and the most accessible track on here. While the lyrics are still bizarrely avant-garde (the implications of “can’t go buy a man with brain-grass” will continue to haunt me for many nights to come), the inflection in Walker’s voice and the emotional backing of the strings creates an almost transcendent moment in this dark world he has created. But it doesn’t prepare you for the entropy that arrives later.

Track two, “The Cockfighter” opens with some more tonal dissonance and the jazzy beat of drums, before exploding into the sound of someone having loaded a washing machine with various pots and pans, and setting the dial to “heavy spin.” The atmosphere as warm and inviting as finding an unborn chicken in your breakfast egg. Walker sings on as though he’s a church minister leading everyone in the pews to perform a satanic mass. While the words remain garbled and inaudible, it is often not what he sings, but the way he sings it, and the deeper meaning he assigns. 

Much of the lyrical themes seem to deal with body-horror, like an aural interpretation of a Cronenberg movie. Like the artwork, it is a surreal kaleidoscope of the inner-recesses of a rotting psyche. All the more amazing considering Walker’s background in bright, sunny 60s chamber pop. Certainly, I can see the influence his music has had on major artists like David Bowie or Bjork. It’s easier to treat the entire album as a single song.  Attempting to dissect it individually will only make one realize that it’s as impenetrable as its artwork suggests.
3.9/5 Stars

THE UNDERTONES – Hypnotised (1980)

Review by: Ahmed Khālid
Album assigned by: Charly Saenz

Due to time and budget constraints lol, I am forced to twitterize my review:

Unfortunately I lack the proper musical background to appreciate 70s pop punk (I don’t get Ramones haha), so here goes my absolutely unapologetic ignorant opinion, based on 3 listens:

I didn’t like it. The music is bright, but the production is too old, the sound is always in the ambience, not gripping you front and center (kinda like Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger as opposed to Superunknown, the way things should always sound) 
Everything is knowing and ironic, but done in a too-obvious way, maybe irony didn’t exist back in the 70s so they had to spell it out for us. Not impressed.
Howevs, it’s servicable enough for a ⅖

LE TRIO JOUBRAN – As Fâr (2011)

Review by: Kevin O’Meara
Album assigned by: Ahmed Khālid

Upon receiving my album recommendation- Asfâr by Le Trio Joubran- I knew that I had been presented with a daunting task. Being a relatively uncultured Canadian man, I unfortunately had no frame of reference for evaluating Palestinian folk music. I obviously heard music like it before, but the sources have inevitably been unreliable and intrinsically tied to particular imagery. Often appropriated in media as placeholder soundtrack music, I have not explored the genre in a meaningful way.  I was excited to hear it in context, freed from visual associations and abstracted from immediate visual associations.

Of course, a similar issue also emerges from the context of the music- the fact that it is inextricably politicized. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a prevalent and contentious issue for a long time, and the cultural implications presents me, a simple music reviewer, with some potential difficulties. To say that this band is from Palestine would be met with raised eyebrows in a number of circles in the western world, and to make any claims pertaining to the issue would best be left to experts. As it stands, I do not adhere to any dogmatic view and only wish for peace and love for all people, regardless of their nationality. My job right now is merely to evaluate the contents within the proverbial jewel case.

As Fâr was released in 2011 and is the most recent album by Le Trio Joubran, three Palestinian brothers joined by percussionist Youssef Hbeisch and vocalist Dhafer Youssef on a number of tracks. They have won several awards for their soundtrack work and promulgation of Palestinian culture. They split their time between Nazareth, Ramallah and Paris, having recorded Asfâr in the French capital.

The songs are all relatively similar, being in minor keys and the instrumentation being limited to three ouds, percussion and occasional vocals. They are almost all uptempo, but are easily differentiated by their arrangements. As I mentioned, I lack a precise context to determine how this album sits within the genre as a whole, and it is difficult for me to hear the nuances that set the songs apart from one another. Nonetheless, the different permutations of the musical elements, such as sparse percussion/ vocals combinations resolving into oud sections, allow the songs to evolve, continue propelling forward and keep things fresh. Excessive reverb has the potential to turn beautiful music, for lack of a better word, tacky. Thankfully, it is used tastefully and sparingly on the album, emphasizing the beauty of each note and allowing the instruments to breathe.

As little as I wanted to emphasize the social context within which it was created, the emotions of the brothers, the spirit of a nation could be felt pulsing through the pieces. This album was a captivating experience, flawlessly executed and a pure joy to listen to. While not a progressive masterpiece, that is not what its purpose. To assign a numerical value to a piece of art meant to inspire love and hope in a battered nation is to strip it of its significance. The music was not made to capitalize on the novelty of this genre, it is not merely an insincere excursion into the art form for arts sake, with the express purpose of garnering critical acclaim. This music comes from a rich cultural history that, with each note, expresses a unique perspective of the human experience. The only proper way to evaluate such an album would be to acknowledge how it affected me, and I can certainly say that I will be returning to the album again.

I am writing this review in light of the recent attacks on Paris, wherein 89 people were killed at an Eagles Of Death Metal concert. Le Trio Joubran, as I mentioned recorded their album in Paris. In our postmodernist society, many people behave as cynical critics, privileged defenders of irony. It takes a piece like this to remind people of the importance of music on our lives. Music should not be regarded as a valueless pastime, meaningless background noise as we go about our lives. Music is legitimately meaningful cultural expression that should not be evaluated according to the number of sales or a rating out of 10 that it has. As feeling fades and people like myself disjoin themselves from this realization, they will begin once again to view music critically and try and attribute to it a value based on its progressive tendencies. However, we should always keep in mind why we listen to music in the first place.

Life is important and music is a mode of expression that many find offensive or try to suppress. However, music remains one of the only anthropological constants, something that people of all backgrounds can relate to on a primal level. On Asfâr, I hear these men communicating in an unfamiliar musical language, but thankfully we can transcend these barriers and appreciate the beauty no matter who we are or where we come from. The expression of music is universal, and it is of the utmost importance that we appreciate its value and importance.

BOSVELD – Veldbrand (2015)

Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Album assigned by: Kevin O’Meara


When I was assigned to review the album Veldbrand by the group Bosveld I thought at first, based on the name alone, that this was gonna be some kind of Scandinavian Death Metal type deal or at least something along the lines of that glum drone-y sound that seems to be gaining so much traction these days. You see to my ignorant mind the name Bosveld and the title Veldbrand conjured up scenes involving violent thunderstorms and a mist drenched purple darkness, men in thick hooded robes performing uncanny rites to summon up horrible preternatural entities, loud guitars played at insanely fast speeds and for vocals an unholy growling that seemed to be forcing its way through the earth up from the very pit of hell itself. And so rather understandably I began to steel myself for an all out assault on my eardrums. But no what I got instead is a sonically understated piece of atmospheric electro-folk that creeps along at a very slumberous pace indeed and which has a tendency to take itself more seriously than it maybe should. At times the hushed, world weary vocals are reminiscent of Mark Lanegan, that is if he’d been less fond of cheap whisky and cheaper women, and instead preferred brooding alone in an abandoned woodshed with a only a record player and a battered copy of Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear for company; other times the vocals float along over a surface of quivering strings and earnest folky guitar like John Martyn on tranquilizers. 

Bosveld are all about building up a very particular kind of atmosphere, something like an autumn sunset squinted at from an abandoned woodshed in a temperate forest, and so they make few concessions to such mundane musical niceties such as melody or audible lyrics (I’m not even sure what language it is the vocalist is singing in a lot of the time). Veldbrand is essentially an ambient-folk record, somewhat in the vein of the aforementioned Veckatimest except that unlike Grizzly Bear Bosveld seem to regard musical hooks and memorable choruses as a distraction, and extraneous to their purposes. It must be granted that understood as a piece of ambient music in which each individual element is subsumed to the purpose of evoking a general feeling or sense of place, Veldbrand is not an ineffective record: that is, even if there are no melodies that stick around in your head, the hushed atmosphere of the piece does in fact linger on as insubstantial as a photographic afterimage after you stop listening, and the effect seems to last just as long as an afterimage usually does.  

Everything is pervaded by an ominous feeling of lethargy and a vague kind of uneasiness, It’s just obtrusive enough that you probably wouldn’t want to leave it on at a polite dinner party. That is to say it’s not background music in the most trite and offensive sense of the word and this redeems the record somewhat. But for all that in the end Veldbrand is underwhelming: it does not offer an interesting enough soundscape to really succeed as a compelling piece of ambient music — although it might work well as a film soundtrack — which makes me think that they were perhaps a little rash to think they could do away with melodies and hooks just yet. (5.5/10)

ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK – Dazzle Ships (1983)

Review by: Jared Walske
Album assigned by: Ali Ghoneim

I’m mostly familiar with OMD via their big pop hits from the mid-80s like “If You Leave” and “Tesla Girls” and while I’ve heard some of the stuff their earlier, artier material, it’s not what I immediately think of when I hear their name. As a result, listening to Dazzle Ships is an interesting experience. I can clearly hear the glossy pop band that would have those hits in this album, but there’s a little less emphasis on immediately catchy pop hooks and more attention paid to atmosphere and the overall flow of the album. It reminds me a little bit of Brian Eno’s pop albums, especially Another Green World, which also separated it’s more normal songs with stranger and less commercial compositions. the worst thing I can say about it is that the album is definitely a grower. A enjoyed it a lot both of the times I listened to it, but nothing on the album was as immediately catchy as the OMD hits I was already familiar with. Still, this was a very worthwhile listen and it deserves the critical reevaluation it has received in recent years.

Highlights: Everything, really. The album works really well as a whole and I’m not sure which, if any, songs I would pick out as the obvious best songs that you should listen to above all else. Just enjoy the whole thing at once.

Lowlights: None. It’s too solid and consistent to have any, assuming you don’t find synthpop to be completely unlistenable as a genre.