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

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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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Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini

This originally appeared on GIGsoup () in July 2016.

A weird and wonderful tapestry of genre – as though Lorde underwent mitosis and joined Animal Collective.

The outrageously precocious Let’s Eat Grandma are Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton, two teenage multi-instrumentalists from Norwich whose debut album seems destined to become one of the most alluring & unique projects of the year. Their kooky name (by no means condoning the consumption of elderly relatives) is a reference to one of the more famous illustrations of the enduring usefulness of the Oxford Comma. The album’s title – ‘I, Gemini’ – itself seems like a nod to the two being constantly mistaken for twins (they’re not related, to clarify). They make synth-drenched experimental pop – filled with captivating melodies undercut by a nameless darkness, like a half-remembered fairy tale.

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Forbidden Fruit 2016: Friday

A long and sort of rambling piece I did for the Thin Air (http://thethinair.net/2016/06/forbidden-fruit-day-one/) after going to the first day of the Forbidden Fruit festival in June 2016. Photo credits – Moira Reilly / The Thin Air.

It’s a cracker of an afternoon as I make my way through Kilmainham – a day ripped straight from the pages of old Junior Cert Irish essays, all erratic excitement and rock-splitting sun. I’m heading to Forbidden Fruit for the evening, and should mention that I’ve foolishly disregarded the tips on the festival’s website to dress appropriately for the weather. I’m wearing jeans and carrying a jacket, so I mostly feel like a rotisserie chicken for the majority of the afternoon & evening. Forbidden Fruit, with its faintly edenic name and location on the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, falls into that category of non-camping, ‘boutique’ music festival – the kind that seems to have come into its own in the last five years or so. Festivals like this generally try to narrow the aperture of their appeal (re: genre/sound), so as to more effectively assemble a coherent lineup of artists. The logic is that it gives the impression of something that’s been diligently ‘curated’, rather than haphazardly assembled with the intention of appealing to as wide a consumer base as possible. Forbidden Fruit have wisely included the (almost) universal appeal of funfair rides, because there’s nothing quite like humanity’s mastery of the centripetal force to liven things up in between the electro and rap and electro-rap. I’m only here for the Friday, so mine is a temporary slice of this apple of sensible hedonism. Festivals like these sometimes live or die on the vagaries of weather, so the vivid sunshine is really helping to make things that bit more utopian, while nicely illustrating Irish people’s almost existential relationship with the weather.

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What’s Yr Rupture?

This originally appeared in The Thin Air (http://thethinair.net/2016/04/label-mixtape-whats-your-rupture/) as part of their Label Mixtape series.

Running an independent record label can often seem like one of the more concrete definitions of a ‘labour of love’. Brooklyn-based label What’s Your Rupture? (WYR?), founded in 2003 by one Kevin Pedersen, has managed to strike a superb balance in its release strategy – giving a platform to newer bands while simultaneously bringing older artists to new audiences. Oddly enough, the label originally started off the back of the notoriety gained by Pedersen’s stand-up comedy act, but has since gone on to become one of the most venerated underground labels in contemporary music. While fairly discerning in what he releases, Pedersen’s process of curation tends to broadly reflect the label’s DIY ethos.

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