Protomartyr – Relatives In Descent

This originally appeared in The Thin Air.

You could be forgiven for thinking that any and all modern articulations of ‘rock music’ have become politically toothless. As a medium, it doesn’t quite seem as suited to critiques of society and culture as it once did. That being said, it seems Detroit four-piece Protomartyr would be inclined to disagree. Relatives In Descent, their fourth album, finds them wrestling with the nature and form of truth, spurred on by the vertiginous, collective sense of History swarming violently around the present. Having recently signed to UK Label Domino, the band retreated to L.A. in March of this year to record with Sonny DiPerri (of Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors fame). By co-producing the album, he helped shape their idea of making something just as zealous as their previous efforts, but with a little more depth. This record finds vocalist Joe Casey, guitarist Greg Ahee, drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson staring contemporaneity square in the face, holding its uncomfortable gaze for 44 brash minutes. They’ve once again turned the indistinct blueprint of post-punk into something gnarled and brooding – like Joy Division looking outward, or The National without those scotch-sipping divorcées regarding the Manhattan skyline.


The opener, ‘A Private Understanding’, begins with a literal drum roll – though it’s anticipatory in the way a dull growl precedes an oncoming storm. The track slowly simmers with anxiety and apocalypse, conjuring a “paradise for fools” soundtracked by “vile trumpets”. Casey closes with the pleading refrain of “She’s just trying to reach you”, as slender guitars fluctuate in the background, as though Sonic Youth’s Sister were playing in the charged air before a riot. On ‘My Children’, an ominous march morphs into a vigorous step – as arachnid guitars crawl on the fringes. Casey, who is himself childless, muses on the kids to come – “Good luck with the mess I left, you innovators”. The track eschews temporality, though, simultaneously cognizant of both the future and the forgotten generations awaiting their restitution. ‘Up The Tower’ uses a jittery guitar/rhythm sequence to mirror a rising pulse, amid images of masses rising up to “defenestrate* the king” and “thunder up the stairwell until they reach that golden door”.

* Always worth pausing briefly to admire any usage of ‘defenestrate’, an almost psychotically specific word.

The group cast a documentarian eye on the world around them, while still retaining a certain cryptic mien. Casey’s vocals are frequently more declarative than melodic, giving the listener the sense of being addressed. ‘Male Plague’ is an explosive, anti-patriarchal banger (“sad sacks pickled in jars”), while the ghost of Robert Hayden haunts the oneiric ‘Night Blooming Cereus’. With the blistering instrumentation of ‘Caitriona’ or the hypnotic riffwork of ‘Windsor Hum’, the band apprehend their anarchic spirit and channel it, almost reaching into the past to salute The Raincoats, walls of that old squat quaking with the sound of the future. The pointed shudder of ‘The Chuckler’ finds Casey declaring “I guess I’ll keep on chuckling, till there’s no more breath in my lungs”. This is the Beckettian hollow laugh, the risus purus, more miniature existential event than bodily reaction. He intones “I wish there was a better ending to this joke”; nothing to be done.

The pummeling ‘Don’t Go To Anacita’ finds Casey inventing a fictional town so as to erect a target for his vitriolic screed against bourgeois solipsism. ‘Here Is The Thing’ is reminiscent of the ragged amble of The Fall in their prime, with Casey even occasionally reaching for direct mimesis of Mark E. Smith’s shambolic cadence. Casey noted in a recent interview that the titular “Thing” is “unfettered capitalism at the expense of humanity”. It’s sort of an apt characterisation – something we can name, but only partially grasp. In his seminal 2009 pamphlet Capitalist Realism, the British writer Mark Fisher compares capitalism to the creature from John Carpenter’s The Thing – “a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolising and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact”. The group’s anger is understandable – their home city of Detroit has been trampled over in recent years, with a handful of billionaires presiding over a functional oligarchy. Throughout the record there’s the creeping knowledge that the true power and enemy is Capital – vampiric, amorphous and uncompromising.


The album’s closer, ‘Half Sister’, finds Casey returning to his preoccupation with the phenomenology of truth through images of “a backlog of so-called prophets” and “babbling prisoners”. The record never deals in specifics, but doesn’t need to. The current state of things speak of their own accord. Casey & co. never mention the marigold creep by name (though you could read the “trumpets” as an allusion, if you wanted), because they don’t have to. The Western body-politic’s squealing chestburster is already everywhere, always-already present. They know directly satirising him doesn’t work, that late-night comedic impressions are idiotic. It’s senseless to weaponise parodic simulacra against a beast that thrives on hyperreality. True protest art of the contemporary moment needs to look outside, and beyond. At the album’s close, Casey comes full circle and returns to the refrain “she’s just trying to reach you”, only now his voice is different – adamant but exhausted. Badiou teaches us that the inherent difficulty of real change lies in the attempted synthesis between the emancipatory potential that resides in the Idea, and the requisite mobilisation it needs for its actualisation. That harmony of the “private understanding” and its nascent realisation – it’s trying to reach you.


Alvvays – Antisocialites

One of the most appealing elements of nostalgia is that it’s often more story than recollection. So much of Alvvays’ music sounds immediately nostalgic, their jangle-pop bricolage often resembling a faded polaroid. The Toronto five-piece pronounce their name “always”, as per the typographical mischief so in vogue with certain indie groups. Antisocialites is their second record, via Polyvinyl, and finds them still trying to establish what it is they want to sound like, while taking you along for the ride. It comes in the wake of the group’s self-titled debut having generated a surprising amount of organic, ‘blogosphere’ hype circa 2014, thanks in large part to the tranquillizing haze of their breakout track “Archie, Marry Me”.

The trap that so often catches bands that work within this framework is that the intentionally faded production can sometimes harm the actual music, ending up like a representation or simulacrum of a sound rather than a sound in its own right. For the most part, songwriting duo Molly Rankin and Alec O’Hanley have avoided this trap. Their self-titled was an indie gem of bougie breadmakers and drowned boyfriends, its cheery dissonance sounding as though it were pleasantly leaking from someone’s phone speaker.

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Actress – AZD

This originally appeared in The Thin Air.

Experimental music is supposed to try and expand the boundaries of the possible. It’s always something of a gamble, but a thrilling one at that. Actress, AKA London-based experimental techno artist Darren Cunningham, has thus far managed to carve a niche for himself in an area that’s generally quite difficult to stand out in. Spend enough time among his soundscapes and you can begin to easily identify an Actress track – there’s a distinctiveness to his work that Cunningham has characterised as “almost like extreme patenting”. AZD (pronounced “azid”) is his fifth album under this moniker, one that arrived with an irreverently abstract press release that boasted of “the first translucent, non-soluble communication sound pill synergised through impressionistic interpretations of technological equipment”. So far, so weird.

AZD is his first record since 2014’s Ghettoville, an esoteric work that imparted a sense of decay and abjection. The bulk of Cunningham’s music feels like an attempt to capture the perpetual murmur and shriek of a modern metropolis. Ghettoville baited critics and fans alike with the claim that Cunningham was “concluding the Actress image” – obvious nonsense given that he’s returned with one of his strongest records to date, having absorbed some creative energies from his time working with the London Contemporary Orchestra last year. Cunningham describing his Actress project as an “image” is pretty telling. He embodies a particular archetype of 21st century electronic artist – one that pairs a deliberately enigmatic persona with sounds that divulge a calculated conceptualism. His music is powered by a desire to cerebrally as much as physically stimulate.

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Pharmakon – Contact

This originally appeared in The Thin Air.

Noise music mostly operates within the sphere of the modern avant-garde, but can be a deeply alienating experience for many; not only because it tends to be anti-everything – structure, melody, basic auditory comprehension – but because of its potential to generate actual discomfort in listeners. Despite this, its compositional strategies can be almost decadent in execution – when Lou Reed wanted to release his 1975 double album Metal Machine Music (mostly impenetrable but considered by many to be a pioneering Noise work), he wanted to release it on RCA’s classical arm, Red Seal. Reed, along with many proponents of Noise music hence, saw the monolith of discordant feedback and harsh textures as a sort of aural Rorschach test – a grouping of seemingly incoherent entities that people could subconsciously project meaning onto.

Pharmakon is New York-based experimental auteur Margaret Chardiet, whose vision of Noise takes the industrial grit of power electronics, refracts it through some dark ambient leanings, then galvanises it with her distinctive, riveting howl. What sets her work apart is her blending of compelling vocals with the leaden bio-politics buried in her lyrics (whenever they appear, or whenever they can be comprehended). Her last record was 2014’s Bestial Burden – a hellish, scratchy collection inspired by a sudden illness that struck Chardiet while on tour, one that ended up requiring emergency surgery. Burden was a thoroughly disquieting affair, while still feeling tactile and immediate. If that album was a work of body-politic pessimism, then Contact (which comes via Brooklyn imprint Sacred Bones) seeks inspiration from, in Chardiet’s words, “the moments when our mind can come outside of and transcend our bodies.”

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Damaged Bug – Bunker Funk

This originally appeared in Gigsoup.

Damaged Bug is the vaguely electronic side project of L.A.-based John Dwyer, the preternaturally prolific musician best known for his work as frontshaman & creative locus of garage-psych outfit Thee Oh Sees. ‘Bunker Funk’ is his third record under this moniker (a follow-up to 2015’s labyrinthine ‘Cold Hot Plumbs’), and comes via Dwyer’s own imprint Castle Face Records. The whole idea behind the Damaged Bug project was to give Dwyer an outlet to follow the more outlandish experimental impulses he could never quite fit into the tightly manic garage-rock framework of his Thee Oh Sees output. A press release claims ‘Bunker Funk’ as Dwyer’s “most rhythmically ambitious” effort yet, which is something of an understatement. Listening to this album is like waking up one morning to find you’ve mysteriously morphed into an enormous bug, only to then be unceremoniously shot into space.

The last few Thee Oh Sees releases have betrayed Dwyer’s love for the heritage of krautrock, a strain of progressive German music that emerged in the 70’s. ‘Bunker Funk’ is his most brazen attempt yet to incorporate the experimental instincts of that elektronische sound into his (by now well-established) garage-psych prescript. Drums are used less as a timekeeping measure and more as a key component in the churning experimentalism – the constantly shapeshifting patterns often weaponised, springing from the background to demand your attention. It all feels like a callback to the aesthetic agenda of the pre-eminent krautrock bands (Can, Neu!, Agitation Free, etc.), or even of the late-70’s output of Manchester hellraisers like The Fall and Magazine – that sense of rock’s conventional rubric being redrawn as something that champions rhythm over melody.

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Stormzy’s ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ As A Sort Of Rallying Call For The New Wave Of UK Grime

A version of this originally appeared in Earmilk in February 2017.

Unwittingly or not, 23-year old South London MC Stormzy (née Michael Omari) has become one of the poster boys for the current commercial rebirth of Grime in the UK. Having recently released his debut album Gang Signs & Prayer to almost universal acclaim, he seems poised to become the bridge between the movement’s underground roots and its newfound popular appeal. Grime itself is multi-faceted, with an intricate backstory, but the strain that’s currently the object of so much hype is generally accepted to have mutated from UK garage sometime in the mid-2000’s. It’s known for pummeling basslines and a broad, cross-disciplinary futurism.

Grime is as much animated by its vehement production strategies as it is by its socio-political needlings; the skittish beats often propping up lyrics that deal frequently and explicitly with themes like British structural racism, the cultural-economic dislocation of the urban working-class, and just more generally with the experience of being human in the ashen hellscape of 21st-century late capitalism. People are flocking to it because it feels like a genuine cultural force – political without being preachy, ‘meta’ without being cynical, zeitgeisty without being alienating. This explosion has been a long time coming, though. It’s worth noting that artists like Tinchy Stryder and Dizzee Rascal prove that grime has been a steady element in the UK pop ecosystem for years now, as opposed to a reductive view held by many that the genre abruptly appeared one day, Arrival-style, inscrutable and weightless on the horizon.

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Cherry Glazerr – Apocalipstick

This originally appeared in Gigsoup.

Cherry Glazerr are here to “spread the glaze”. The L.A. three-piece are the brainchild of renaissance woman Clementine Creevy, who’s barely out of high school but has already released two albums, dabbled in modelling and even appeared in the Amazon Prime show ‘Transparent’. The band’s origin story is familiar enough – Creevy wrote under the name ‘Clembutt’ in an attempt to bolster her growing collection of bedroom recordings, which were collated together by Californian cult label Burger Records and released as the ‘Papa Cremp’ cassette in 2013. Cherry Glazerr emerged with the follow-up, 2014’s ‘Haxel Princess’ – a slapdash collection of adolescent garage-pop. ‘Haxel Princess’ was sloppy but promising, just about managing a balancing act between odes to grilled cheese sandwiches and anthemic punk like the Bikini Kill-inflected ‘White’s Not My Colour This Evening

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No Country For Bold Men

This is a retrospective I did of the 13th Floor Elevators debut, which turned 50 in October 2016. It originally appeared in The Thin Air.

It’s something of an accepted cultural trope that sixties music was awash with recreational drug use. Acid, in particular, still holds a central place in many people’s conception of the sixties western counterculture as a socio-historical phenomenon, to the extent that anyone wishing to visually document the decade seems obligated to include a montage of marches, hirsute men and women looking a bit glazed, riots, Hendrix, more marches & Nixon – all set to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’. It’s one of those culturally reductive but semiotically useful ways of describing material history, albeit one that leads to sourceless pseudo-proverbs like “If you can remember the 60’s, you weren’t really there”.

While there’s no denying that many musicians of this era (or any era, come to think of it) used drugs as a creative stimulus, ‘psychedelia’ has by now almost become rhetorical shorthand for a certain stratum of 60’s popular music. If the garish compilation covers are anything to go by, this was a time of bright lights and primary colours – perhaps it’s no coincidence that this was the time colour TV first made its appearance. But while during this period the Beatles were writing eccentric nursery rhymes about celestial women named Lucy, and Dylan was imploring a man with a tambourine for ‘one more tune’, a band called the 13th Floor Elevators were forging some of the first truly ‘psychedelic’ music – an earnest attempt to aurally capture the experience of an expanding consciousness. For better or worse, they broke on through to the other side, and then went house-hunting.

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Angel Olsen – My Woman

A version of this originally appeared in GIGsoup.

There’s an inclination among critics when approaching an artist’s new work to reflexively view it through the lens of that artist’s previous work. A sense emerges that the artist’s career comprises some aesthetic network or narrative, with each new piece illuminating that which preceded it, and vice versa. It’s a pervasive and vaguely suspect notion – one that can lead to weird schemes of indignation when an artist doesn’t align with what we thought they were. The reception of American singer-songwriter Angel Olsen thus far is a curious example of this phenomenon. She’s a musician whose creative beginnings look very different to her current circumstances, yet she is sometimes dogged by the ‘expectations’ of fans and critics alike. Olsen has, on more than one occasion, experienced the bizarre and frankly nonsensical habit prevalent among certain avenues of the music press to predefine the careers of female artists while they’re still unfolding – although her resilience in the face of such ignorance is laudable and sometimes hilarious, once culminating in her telling a radio DJ to outright “Fuck off” when he made half-sighted assumptions about her music at the beginning of an interview.

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Exploded View – Exploded View s/t

This originally appeared in GIGsoup on 20th August 2016.

An ‘exploded view’ diagram is a technical drawing that displays each constituent element of a particular object, showing each of them individually while illustrating their relationship to both one another, and the whole. While such a thing skirts the edge of tediousness, it is where the latest project from Berlin-based Annika Henderson takes its name. Henderson was originally a respected political journalist, before turning her hand to spacious synth covers of various tracks under the moniker Anika. In a nod to her political background, she once covered ‘Masters Of War’ (one of Bob Dylan’s more acidic protest songs), which was spacey and gripping and featured a chilling voice recording of an Iraqi war veteran recounting the myriad horrors he’d witnessed (“worse than Saddam”) to the sound of wailing sirens in the background. The group grew out of a soundcheck Henderson was undergoing with the other members before a show in Mexico City, where they found that the result was something worth pursuing on its own terms.

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