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The first half of the year has again sped by in a flash, and despite occasional protestations to the contrary I can’t resist the list-making urge, so here are the fifteen releases that most caught the ear in the first six months of 2008.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy : “Lie Down In The Light” (Drag City/Domino)

The Brian Jonestown Massacre : “My Bloody Underground” (A Records)

The Bug : “London Zoo” (Ninja Tune)

Earth : “The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull” (Southern Lord/Daymare)

Fuck Buttons : “Street Horrrsing” (ATP/R)

Lo Dubs presents “Analog Clash” (Lo Dubs/Anthem)

Lustmord : “Other” (Hydra Head/Daymare)

Nadja : “Skin Turns To Glass” (The End)

Our Brother The Native : “Make Amends For We Are Merely Vessels” (Fat Cat)

Portishead : “Third” (Go! Discs)

Sixteen Horsepower : “Live March 2001” (Glitterhouse)

These New Puritans : “Beat Pyramid” (Domino)

Thom Yorke : “The Eraser Rmxs” (XL)

Torche : “Meanderthal” (Hydra Head)

Ufomammut : “Idolum” (Supernatural Cat)


Moving to the Netherlands has by no means restricted access to ear-and-mind-blowingly good live music (and then there were the three days of aural pleasure in Barcelona). I’ve tried to write about most of it, but these slipped through the cracks…

Vic Chesnutt w/ A Silver Mt. Zion @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (13-Feb-2008)

Chesnutt is a songwriters’ songwriter, lauded by his peers around the world, but 2007’s “North Star Deserter” was the first time I’d been exposed to his darkly humourous confessionals on death & wanting to bring it closer. His ‘backing band’ on that album – most of A Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi‘s Guy Picciotto – are here tonight, throwing up squalls of howling Godspeed guitar and giving added pathos to Vic’s songs with mournful strings. After a rendition of “Debriefing” that threatens to blow the stained-glass out of the windows of this old church, they encore with a haunting “Ruby Tuesday”, Vic then remaining alone on stage to close, appropriately enough, with “Over”.

Here is a recording of “Ruby Tuesday” performed at The Button Factory, Dublin, Ireland on 01 Dec 2007. The whole show, courtesy of David Bell, is available at Internet Archive.

Vic Chesnutt & A Silver Mt. Zion – Ruby Tuesday (live)


Earth @ Effenaar, Eindhoven (07-Mar-2008)

Hearing the pure tone of Dylan Carlson’s Telecaster ring out at a volume where the drone can be felt as well as heard is thrilling (thanks must go in part to the Effenaar’s good sound setup). The opener “Hung From The Moon” is aptly-named – the notes hang in the air, the band’s slow-motion playing evoking a pagan ritual performed under a ghostly moon. Where once Earth was a solo mission, now Carlson is orbited by a stellar set of fellow cosmonauts – Adrienne Davies’s drumming verges on stasis but is precise & powerful, Don McGreevy adds planet-weight low end, and although Steve Moore’s Wurlitzer keys and trombone blasts could nudge the whole enterprise towards the dreaded blackhole that is j&*z, he fortunately steers a more psychedelic course. “Ouroboros Is Broken“, introduced by Carlson as the first song he ever wrote, is a monolithic juggernaut, Carlson sometimes holding his guitar aloft as though it were an offering to the gods. Support act Sir Richard Bishop joins the band onstage to add his Eastern-inflected guitar to “The Bees Ate Honey From The Lion’s Skull”, before they end this performance (and this tour) with the encore of “Coda Maestoso in F-flat Minor”, like “Ouroboros…” another early song reworked in the new Earth aesthetic.

Here is “Ouroboros Is Broken“, live at the Point Ephémère, Paris (17 Feb 2006), taken from the “Live Europe 2006” disc.

Earth – Ouroboros Is Broken (live)

The Cure @ Ahoy, Rotterdam (18-Mar-2008)

The current incarnation of the Cure looks a lot like one of the first, a stripped down rock band that delivers a guitar-heavy take on over 30 years of Robert Smith’s superlative songwriting. With no keyboard player, some of the keyboard parts are instead replicated by guitarist Porl Thomson, giving those songs an interesting twist. After a “Disintegration“-laden set, they treat us to three extended encores, the second drawn exclusively from “Three Imaginary Boys” and the first singles. To my delight (in a gloomy gothy kinda way of course) they finish (after playing for over three hours!) with my two favourite Cure songs – “Faith” and “A Forest”.

These New Puritans @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (06-May-2008)

On my first exposure to TNP (supporting Liars in London last year) I wrote them off as nothing more than youthfully energetic Fall copyists, but then “Beat Pyramid” (with its arcana-referencing distillation of the best of early 80s post-punk) became one of my favourite albums of the year. They deliver on the magicks of the album live, their frenetic set unfortunately cut short by the Paradiso’s sloppy scheduling. Check out some video clips from the show here.


Butthole Surfers @ Melkweg, Amsterdam (15-Jul-2008)

OK so I went off them when they took the honourable Touch and Go to court, but there was no chance of me passing up the opportunity to see the original Buttholes line-up play again for the first time since the 80s. Being joined by ‘the kids from the School of Rock ‘ lent an air of parody to it all, but they played their best songs, Gibby the megaphone-toting headmaster directing proceedings from behind the amazing Gibbytronix, and fuck it if Paul Leary ain’t one of the best goddamn guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of hearing (and now witnessing).

A live recording of their show at the Forum in London a couple of weeks later is available for purchase here.


Having once been a relatively enthusiastic proponent of the end-of-year ‘best of’ list, a few years ago I stopped putting these together in favour of just creating an aural review of releases I particularly liked in the form of a CD compilation. I suppose I rejected the idea of trying to rank the year’s releases, to come up with the ‘best album’ of that particular year, as this was forcing me to evaluate the music on a critical/intellectual level that doesn’t work for me – for me music is about feeling; from wanting to bang my head or creep myself out, from getting goosebumps of euphoria to twinges of melancholy… But I suppose it is sacrilege for a music-related blog to come to the end of a year and not attempt some sort of round-up, so rather than create a ranked list justified by socio-political contexts or clever meta-musical references, these are the records (in no particular order) and live performances that have rocked / droned / folked up / brokebeat / hiphopped my world in 2007, that have made me feel

Top 25 Albums of 2007

NarcoAgent Top 25 Albums of 2007

from top, l-r:

Magnolia Electric Co : “Sojourner” boxset (Secretly Canadian)

PJ Harvey : “White Chalk” (Island)

Angels Of Light : “We Are Him” (Young God)

Low : “Drums And Guns” (Sub Pop)

Liars : “Liars” (Mute)

Mammal : “Lonesome Drifter” (Animal Disguise)

Grinderman : “Grinderman” (Mute)

Boris with Michio Kurihara : “Rainbow” (Pedal/Drag City)

El-P : “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” (Definitive Jux)

Vic Chesnutt : “North Star Deserter” (Constellation)

Nina Nastasia & Jim White : “You Follow Me” (Fat Cat)

Om : “Pilgrimage” (Southern Lord)

Scout Niblett : “This Fool Can Die Now” (Too Pure)

Shellac : “Excellent Italian Greyhound” (Touch & Go)

Epic45 : “May Your Heart Be The Map” (Make Mine Music)

Magik Markers : “Boss” (Ecstatic Peace!)

MIA : “Kala” (XL)

Sigur Rós : “Hvarf-Heim” (EMI)

Stars Of The Lid : “And The Refinement Of Their Decline” (Kranky)

Jesu : “Conqueror” (HydraHead/Daymare)

Alela Diane : “The Pirate’s Gospel” (Holocene/Names/Fargo)

Six Organs Of Admittance : “Shelter From The Ash” (Drag City)

Bracken : “We Know About The Need” (Anticon)

Future Of The Left : “Curses” (Too Pure)

Earth : “Hibernaculum” (Southern Lord)

Top 5 EPs/Singles of 2007

NarcoAgent Top 5 EPs of 2007


Efterklang : “Under Giant Trees” (Leaf)

Zonderhoof : “Zonderhoof” EP (Sound Devastation)

Joanna Newsom : “Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band” EP (Drag City)

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy : “Ask Forgiveness” EP (Drag City/Domino)

Jesu : “Sundown / Sunrise” EP (Aurora Borealis/Daymare)


Top 10 Gigs of 2007

NarcoAgent Top 10 Gigs of 2007

Future Of The Left + Infants @ The Luminaire, London (10 March 2007)

Josh T Pearson @ ATP festival, Minehead (27 April 2007)

Nick Cave / Grinderman @ ATP festival, Minehead (28 April 2007)

Dirty Three @ ATP festival, Minehead (29 April 2007)

Scout Niblett @ Bush Hall, London (21 May 2007)

Isis + Boris @ Koko, London (02 July 2007)

Liars @ Madame Jo Jo’s, London (03 July 2007)

Six Organs Of Admittance @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (12 August 2007)

Sonic Youth do “Daydream Nation” @ The Roundhouse, London (30 August 2007)

Jesu @ Paradiso (bovenzaal), Amsterdam (05 December 2007)

Correctly guess which picture was taken at which gig and I will send you a copy of my “Best of 2007” 2CD compilation (once I’ve pulled my finger out of my ass and actually made the thing). Use the contact form on the Disclaimer page to submit your ‘entry’.

And so I finally get myself up-to-date… I’ve heard some great new music over the past couple of months – Mammal (Big Black ketamine blues!), two new Six Organs Of Admittance releases, Jesu‘s fully-formed “Pale Sketches“, finally tracking down the 2-disc Japanese issue of Sunn O))) & Boris‘s “Altar” collaboration, and finding myself liking Sigur Rós‘s “Hvarf-Heim” a lot more than I felt inclined to – but here are the albums that particularly tickled my fancy in November & December:

November – Magik Markers : “Boss” (Ecstatic Peace!)

The first inkling I got of Magik Markers‘ potential power was on seeing Elisa Ambrogio doing her axe-wielding schoolmistress thing as part of Six Organs Of Admittance, spewing sheets of noise over Ben Chasny’s intricate guitar lines. While I at first wondered whether she could actually play, I was soon bowled over by her instinctive and natural style, effortlessly building towering walls of sound. “Axis Mundi” kicks things off with just such a piece of tortured guitar, the feedback looping into Pete Nolan’s driving beat – a better opening to an album I haven’t heard in a while. Elisa then sets the writhing sexual tone of many of these songs with the downright dirty: “I left my stink like a mink’s dead gland / All over your mouth, all over your hand“, her words bringing “the blood and violence of religion and nature” to this “Night Of The Hunter“-referencing love song.

Magic Markers - Boss

I’ve heard “Boss” referred to as sounding like Sonic Youth, probably due to Lee Ranaldo’s presence (he produces and adds his inimitable guitar to a few tracks) and its release on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label – and sure “Body Rot” has Sonic Youth all over it, sounding like “Catholic Block” with Elisa channeling Kim Gordon – but for the rest this is uniquely-created guitar music that challenges as much as it rocks. I’ve got the impression that there are those that feel Magic Markers have sold themselves out by making a ‘commercial’ album, that they’ve reined in what makes them special (they are an apparently formidable live experience, with numerous limited CD-R releases trying to capture this exhilarating & obliterating freeform noise assault), but to these ears (still not having heard – or seen – any of their other work) this is one of the year’s best rock releases, with sufficient bouts of barely-controlled guitar noise juxtaposed with the brittle piano of “Empty Bottles” and ethereal pluckings of “Bad Dream/Hartford’s Best Suite”.

“Last Of The Lemach Line” slithers along like the blue snake in the Garden Of Eden, sucking you into that place where sex, religion and violence meet, Elisa doing Patti-Smith-at-the-pulpit before she turns cracked torch singer on “Empty Bottles”, multi-instrumentalist Nolan’s piano glowing with a wabi-sabi beauty.
“Four/The Ballad Of Harry Angstrom” and album closer “Circle” lazily recycle “Lemach Line”‘s vocal melody but work as further showcases for Ambrogio’s primal rhymes and Calvinist/Crowley-esque intonations, with the gentle “Bad Dream/Hartford’s Beat Suite” providing a melancholic interlude with its musings on death and severed thumbs.

Magik Markers have apparently released some 30 recordings over CD-Rs, cassettes and the occasional ‘proper’ factory-pressed slab of vinyl or CD, relentlessly documenting their evolution. If “Boss” showcases their current maturation into a beast near the top of rock’s food chain, now it is time for me to excitedly delve into the Magik Markers pre-history and wallow in their primal soup

December – Alela Diane : “The Pirate’s Gospel” (Holoscene Music)

It was during a Michael Gira show at Paradiso when between songs he pointed to the pretty girl standing in front of me and asked: “Are you Alela Diane?”, and on receiving a shy nod confidently predicted to the audience that she would “be a star”. This certainly piqued my interest, coming from the man who ‘discovered’ Devendra Banhart and introduced me to the amazing Low by way of a glowing recommendation in one of his open letters. It was not a week later that I chanced upon Dutch TV show “Vrije Geluiden” to see Ms Diane performing three of her songs live in the studio, and capitivating they certainly were. It has taken me a while to track down her album “The Pirate’s Gospel” in which time it has popped up on many “Best of 2007” lists, most notably scoring the #1 spot on Rough Trade‘s end of year list. This album was actually first released in 2004 in a handmade edition of 650, Alela herself “sewing lace and paper bags for the case, drawing golden ships, lettering ink, and burning each CD”, before Holoscene Music approached her to release a resequenced version in the US in late 2006 and in Europe & Australia in 2007.

Alela Diane - The Pirate’s Gospel

Sharing her Nevada City hometown with friend Joanna Newsom, there is a certain similarity with “The Milk-Eyed Mender” in that this album feels like the work of rare talent (like Alasdair Roberts too), taking centuries of folk music and creating something that is fresh, natural and interesting while still being authentically rooted in the tradition. The meditative songs are about loneliness, wanderlust, (broken) family, religion, displacement and heartache, and have that timeless quality about them instrinsic to all folk musics. “The Rifle” could soundtrack an elegaic Western, “The Pirate’s Gospel” is a sea-chanty for the landlocked Nevada mountains, and “Foreign Tongue” a stark lament on being alone in a foreign place, written when she embarked on a “journey of solitude” in Europe. The rest of the album weaves in elements of gospel and blues along with the trance-like folk picking, all intertwined in her strong sometimes haunting voice. The bonus tracks on the European release, “Heavy Walls” and “Gipsy Eyes” are well worth inclusion, so seek it out from Names via Rough Trade or Fargo.

Here is album track “The Rifle” recorded for a Daytrotter Session at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas (March 2007).

Alela Diane – The Rifle (Daytrotter Session)

Thanks to the fine folks at Daytrotter. Check out Daytrotter Sessions from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Marissa Nadler, Castanets, Nina NastasiaOkkervil River and many more. See here for another Alela Diane live session on MOKB/SIRIUS radio.

Compared to the relatively barren (for me) musical months of August and September, October was the veritable muthalode: releases by Om (Floyd-esque pursuit of the transcendental Ur-drone), PJ Harvey (bleak piano-led English Gothic), Qui (the Return of Yow!), and Wooden Shjips (retrotastic distorto-organ-rock) all caught the ear, but it was the newest recordings of two favourite performers that got locked in some winner-takes-all deathmatch before I realised “hey, we’re all winners” and wimped out on the decision by making them both ‘albumi of the month’.

Future of The Left : “Curses” (Too Pure)

It has been exciting following this band from their first London show in September 2006 (this being the first official Future Of The Left show – the previous few were ‘secretly’ performed under aliases: Mooks of Passim, Guerilla Press, Dead Redneck…) through to catching them in 3 different Dutch cities in the past three months as they embarked on the first Future Of The Left tour of Europe. Back in late 2006 they arrived pretty much fully-formed, having obviously spent a lot of time nurturing & perfecting their songs before unleashing them on the public – most of the songs on “Curses” were part of the live set pretty much from the beginning, with only the keyboard stompers first appearing in March. So these songs are like old friends, and far from tiring of their company now that I can spin them whenever I want I am like the proverbial cat (Colin? Chicken?) that got the cream.

Future Of The Left - Curses

Opening with the storming “The Lord Hates A Coward”, the album starts in turbo-charged high gear and only lets the foot off the pedal for the closing Noel Coward-esque “The Contrarian”. This out-of-character last song aside, the album pummels the listener with sledgehammer bass, piston-pounding drums and guitar that could cut through steel. Like Shellac (the band they’re most often compared to), Future Of The Left have a wonderful ability to create dynamic tension in their songs through the removal and re-addition of one of the three instruments, Kelson Mathias’s phat bass and Jack Egglestone’s precision beats often providing the granite foundation to the song before Andy Falkous comes in to spew molten guitar or keyboard riffs and his (mostly uninterpretable) lyrical bile over the proceedings. And despite the words being seemingly mostly meaningless they are strung together in such a literary way that makes ’em unforgetable: you have tall tales of a Devil Thumb, Jack’s pretty pussy, Atlantis rendered badly in oil paints, tiny exo-skeletons and uninteresting ostriches, and get to ponder whether it’s better to be bovine than equine (which I first heard as “better porkfat than eggwhite” and which still made some kinda sense), hedgehog than porcupine, half-cut than borderline…

“Fuck The Countryside Alliance” owes the most to Shellac with its undulating bassline and spare beat, and is also Falco’s most easily decipherable lyric – an anti-Conservative diatribe, a call to arms against the wealthy country gentry, the screams of “take a man to his nightmares in a Landrover” eerily chilling (but funny too: like Killdozer or Shellac, and of course mclusky, FotL’s black sense of humour successfully shines through the music, without ever being a joke that one could tire of).
“Suddenly It’s A Folk Song” will soon be appearing on a double A-side release of punky new wave gloriousness with “Manchasm”, both songs deserving of tearing up the ‘independent’ airwaves (if such a thing still exists) – “Folk Song” in particular is a perfect pop song in the sense that Pixies and Nirvana wrote pop songs, music that can have populous appeal without comprimising the song’s (or the band’s) integrity.
adeadenemyalwayssmellsgood” is one of my favourite songs of the year, moving with a minimalist punkfunk strut that Gang of Four would be proud of and mixing a mammoth riff & Rawhide with arguably the first ever usage of the word “paradiddle” in a song lyric.

I couldn’t help myself wondering though how great these songs would sound recorded over at Electrical Audio, but Falco gave me a fairly compelling reason as to why that is likely to remain a ‘what if?’. And I rudely suggested that the gaps between songs could’ve been a bit longer (so as to allow the listener a momentary breather & to reflect on the gem that had just passed) only to learn that the gaps are the result of hours of intense intra-band debate. I should learn not to question the Mighty Falcotron. Grow into your body happily!!!

Hear live versions of the album’s first three songs at the bottom of this post.

Scout Niblett : “This Fool Can Die Now” (Too Pure

Scout Niblett rocks so damn hard, but can rock so sweetly soft too. It is this wide dynamic – the highs & lows of someone who wears her emotions on her sleeve – helped by the sparseness of the instrumentation (usually just electric guitar, sometimes accompanied by drums), that makes Scout‘s live performances so affecting. New songs like “Nevada”, “Let Thine Heart Be Warmed”, “Do You Want To Be Buried With My People?” and “Kiss” have really captured my imagination over the past twelve months or so, and so (like with Future Of The Left) I couldn’t wait to have the recorded versions in my sweaty stumps, to pore & paw over to my heart’s desire. With Steve Albini charged with capturing it all on tape, and the Bonnie ‘Prince’ hillBilly-ing on four of the songs, it was going to be brilliant.

Scout Niblett - This Fool Can Die Now

So it is disappointing that “This Fool Can Die Now” isn’t quite as huge as I’d hoped it would be. The drums don’t punch hard enough, the guitar doesn’t sear like I know it can, and on some songs Scout’s vocals sound a bit off – like both she and Albini were having a bad day at the office. Don’t get me wrong, I really like this album it just doesn’t knock me over like she does live. Scout is able to hold halls of people transfixed with just her elemental guitar and her soaring voice, but here the added instrumental flourishes (strings, fer chrissakes) and insufficent dynamic range between what should be rapturous volume and ghostly quiet, detract from that raw sound that can suck people right in. Note this as a first: I’ve badmouthed a Steve Albini piece of work! But Scout’s distinctive songs (and the person they spring from) are intact, and Oldham’s presence is a welcome one, still making this one of my favourite albums of the year.

The two opening duets with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy work well, Oldham comfortably inhabiting the male lover-persona, and “Let Thine Heart Be Warmed” is one of Scout’s standout songs (although here given a strange, incongruous industrial edge as the sound of scraped pipes swings unnecessarily throughout).
The headbanging roadtrip of “Nevada” is my favourite track, like a lovers’ “Fear & Loathing…” and probably the song on this album that comes closest to doing justice to the Scout Niblett live experience.
On “Dinosaur Egg” Scout adds some new verses to the already classic David Shrigley lyrics, personalizing the song further: “Solitude, sweet solitude / When will you disappear? / ‘Cause you’re an acceptable guest sometimes / But you’ll not be a long-term friend of mine“, and the perfectly Scout-ian: “My solar body, oh my solar body / When will I join you out of this flesh? / ‘Cause I am sick & tired of being sick & tired / And I’d much rather be a golden ball of light… but still have sex…

Despite my aforementioned disappointment with “This Fool Can Die Now” I have it on regular rotation in NarcoAgent Towers and am unshakeable in my faith in Scout Niblett as one of modern music’s treasures. This album and 2005’s “Kidnapped By Neptune” both come close to being truly great, but fall short of capturing the awesome Scout-in-the-flesh experience – see her live if she comes to a town near you.  

Here is the opening track of the album: “Do You Want To Be Buried With My People?“, recorded live-in-the-studio in November for The Guardian‘s Music Weekly podcast.

Scout Niblett – Do You Want To Be Buried With My People? (live in session)

Scout Niblett and Future of The Left releases can be obtained directly from Too Pure ( Too Pure have also recently launched a Singles Club ( which should hopefully feature a 7″ of unreleased songs from both Scout and FotL.

(… tumbleweed… ) The level of activity here of late could accurately be described as ‘comatose’ but this hopefully sees a return to more lively enterprise. But first some catch-up…

August – MIA : “Kala” (XL)

This post is several months late, and is somewhat moot given that I only heard a handful of new records in the month of August, but that shouldn’t detract from what is in my opinion an excellent album. MIA‘s first offering “Arular” was feted far and wide, no doubt helped by the controversy surrounding Maya Arulpragasam‘s familial links to the Tamil Tigers and her own mouthy militancy. I didn’t quite get the hype but still fell for the effective minimalism of the production, the beats sparse & punchy like well-aimed blows, and MIA’s words which brought to mind far-away places whilst being firmly rooted in inner city London. “Kala” succeeds in being an advancement – despite a fragmented & geographically far flung recording process, it is a more complete and consistent work.

MIA - Kala

What appeals to me about MIA is that it’s an appropriate soundtrack to the diverse yet interconnected clash that is the global village (or as she herself calls it, the “World Town”), a technologically-advanced global music (versus more historically-rooted ‘world music’), taking in London grime, Bollywood glitz, Rio clubland and Aboriginal hiphop, all delivered in a highly-tooled street slang. It can conjure vivid images of urban environments all over the world, from the hot & dusty to the cold & dark, from the mean streets of Lagos to the mean streets of Baltimore. From being kidnapped “in a Datsun from a street in Acton” to a Barbarella lookalike “dogging on the bonnet of ya red Honda”…

Sure, there are tracks on this album which don’t really appeal – the singles “Boyz” and “Jimmy” and the Timbaland-produced “Come Around” in particular – yet I still sometimes find myself somehow enjoying them against my natural instincts. The innovative cross-cultural sounds and Maya’s brash polemic win through, and when I connect with it I’m pulled right in. “Paper Planes” is brilliant, it’s feelgood ‘summer song’ vibe meshing with the darker themes of drug dealing, street robbery and murder (the use of the poignant keyboard intro to the Clash‘s “Straight To Hell” working successfully to focus thoughts on the urban condition and the wrongs that we inflict on the planet and each other). “20 Dollar” also pilfers recent alterno-rock classics (Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” & New Order’s “Blue Monday”) to appeal right to the sweet spot of the likes of me, but the song’s amazing production and lyrics that mix in African child soldiers, Islamic fundamentalism, and just plain old MC egotism (“I put people on the map that never seen a map”)  lifts it well clear from simply being a knowingly nostalgic wink to 30-something white males or an arch exercise in hip(hop) postmodernism.

Check out “Paper Planes” from the radio session MIA did on KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic in early August.

MIA – Paper Planes (live on KCRW)

September – Angels Of Light : “We Are Him” (Young God Records)

Michael Gira is one of those artists who I think worthy of (some sort of) worship. His body of work, from Swansself-titled EP in 1982 via self-released handmade home-recorded solo acoustic discs to this most recent Angels Of Light offering, is of consistently high quality and ploughs a unique furrow through post-punk’s landscape, spanning no-wave, industrial, gothic, and more recently americana, blues and avant folk. At a recent solo show in Amsterdam, Gira bemoaned that he would like to write “spiritual songs… but I don’t have any”. He shouldn’t worry – his past work has successfully managed to both plumb depraved depths and soar to spiritual highs, and he should be wary of the kind of ‘spiritual’ schmaltz that hitting a certain age and fatherhood can bring on in previously uncompromising songwriters (Nick Cave you know who you are).

As someone for whom Swans were an important part of my musical development, I’ve sometimes yearned for that old rage to surface in Gira’s Angels Of Light work (when it does, as in “My True Body” from the first album “New Mother”, the results are kickass). Hearing songs in their stripped-down (live) form highlights how the Angels Of Light ‘process’ smoothes the jagged edges and coats the vitriol in honey (compare the solo recording of “Destroyer” from “I Am Singing To You From My Room” to the ‘official’ version on “The Angels Of Light Sing ‘Other People’” to hear what I mean), and Gira’s solo readings of Swans classics like “Failure” and “God Damn The Sun” also show that his focus on the acoustic as opposed to pursuing a “Rock” sound needn’t mean that the monolithic weight of his earlier output can’t be delivered in the Angels Of Light format.

So I’m happy that “We Are Him” is Angels Of Light’s most Swans-like offering yet, right down to the album artwork by British artist Deryk Thomas, whose creepy bunnies graced the artwork of Swans’ early 90s albums “White Light From the Mouth Of Infinity“, “Love Of Life” and “Omniscience“. Swans alumni Bill Rieflin, Christoph Hahn and Phil Puleo also contribute (and as Gira himself said, helped give “the songs balls, or bowels in many instances, as well as occasionally lifting things up nach Himmel“). Early in, “Promise Of Water” is as gothically creepy as anything Gira’s done, and album highlight “Not Here/Not Now” is one of Gira’s finest songs, its looping droning rhythm slowly building, to then drop away to reveal the affecting vocal of Siobhan Duffy Gira, Michael’s wife.

All these Swans references are not meant to disrespect Gira’s more recent work (and he’s often stated he wants to draw a line under his previous band), in fact every album he has done has been different to the last, and “We Are Him” is another evolutionary step – but just one that is more comfortable with its past.

Listen to “Black River Song” and “We Are Him” on the Young God Records website here.

All Angels Of Light recordings, as well as Swans reissues, Michael Gira solo recordings and limited edition web-only exclusives, are available from Young God Records. Purchasing these directly from the great man himself means you’ll receive signed copies!

Epic45 are for me one of the most underrated bands in England. Schoolfriends Ben Holton and Rob Glover have been making music together since their mid-teens, drawing inspiration from the rural countryside around the small Midlands village of Wheaton Aston that is their home. Like contemporaries Hood and Piano Magic, Epic45‘s music evokes a particular Englishness: a nostalgic view of hazy late-summer afternoons, of woodland walks, of lush greenery and Autumn leaves, of childhoods whiled away in a more innocent time… but sometimes undercut with an insidious dread, that England is fucked, fallen over, and that modernity/urbanisation has destroyed a better way of life. I find Epic45 the perfect soundtrack to long train journeys through England, the music providing evocative accompanient to both the railside dereliction & industrial architecture of the urban and to the unfeasibly green & gentle countryside.

Epic45 - May You Heart Be The Map

Epic45 (along with Hood) are the current evolution of a lineage that takes in Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis, Disco Inferno, but they also mix in the shoegaze wall of sound of early Slowdive and the fuzzfolk of Flying Saucer Attack. In a live setting the guitars really come to the fore, but for new album “May Your Heart Be The Map” they’re at their most restrained, with increased use of acoustic guitars in amongst the atmospheric ambience and poignant pastoral postrocktronica.

The album is apparently inspired by 70s UK TV series “Survivors”, a post-apocalyptical tale in which a mysterious plague wipes out most of the Earth’s population, leaving a handful of survivors to rebuild their lives amongst the ruins of their ‘civilization’. Although there are snatches of eerie, desolate sound throughout “May Your Heart Be The Map”, its tone is far more upbeat than such a muse would suggest, wistful rather than bleak, but still evoking a world that is by no means as pleasant a place to live as it once was.

Although there are no standout tracks that grip me like “England Fallen Over” (from the “England Fallen Over” EP) or “I’m Getting Too Young For This” (from “Against The Pull Of Autumn”), this is Epic45’s most consistent effort to date, serving as a poignant moodpiece to rival Bark Psychosis’s “Hex” – but more twilight country lanes than the late-night East End. Hopefully this album will finally garner Epic45 some of the wider attention they so richly deserve.

Epic45’s recordings are available via Make Mine Music, a label run with a collectivist ethos where the bands (Epic45, Portal, Yellow6, July Skies and others) all help each other out but pay for (and take all profits from) their own releases. So support Epic45 directly by purchasing their recordings here.

Could Have Been A Contender

Torche : “Torche” (Rock Action, 2007)
Originally released in 2005, this has been remixed & remastered (the band were unhappy with the original release) and released on Mogwai‘s Rock Action label. Torche mix the chugging riffs of Black Sabbath and Helmet with anthemic vocals to create a heavy sound dripping in scooped-EQ-sludge yet still able to break free of its earthbound shackles.

Top 15 Albums of 1H 2007

As we’re now firmly in the second half of the year, I wanted to take moment to reflect on the six musical months gone by… These are the recordings released in the first half of 2007 that have made the most impression on me:

Alasdair Roberts : “The Amber Gatherers” (Drag City)

Boris with Michio Kurihara : “Rainbow” (Pedal)

Bracken : “We Know About The Need” (Anticon)

Earth : “Hibernaculum” (Southern Lord)

Efterklang : “Under Giant Trees” (Leaf)

Epic45 : “May Your Heart Be The Map” (Make Mine Music)

Grinderman : “Grinderman” (Mute)

Jakob : “Solace” (Midium)

Jesu : “Conqueror” (HydraHead)

Josh T Pearson : “Live @ The Adelphi, Hull, 13-04-2007” (tour CDR)

Low : “Drums And Guns” (Sub Pop)

Matt Elliott : “Failing Songs” (Ici d’Ailleurs)

Nina Nastasia & Jim White : “You Follow Me” (FatCat)

Shellac : “Excellent Italian Greyhound” (Touch And Go)

Stars Of The Lid : “And Their Refinement Of The Decline” (Kranky)

It’s either uncanny prescience or sadly predictable fanboy-ism, but I already knew at the beginning of the month what June’s featured album would be:
Shellac‘s “Excellent Italian Greyhound”.

Shellac - Excellent Italian Greyhound

It’s reviewed here, so I’ll use this opportunity to cast my eye over the best of the rest:

Could Have Been A Contender…

Nina Nastasia & Jim White : “You Follow Me” (Fatcat, 2007)
Dirty Three drummer Jim White’s incredibly expressive percussion creates the perfect backdrop for Nina Nastasia’s sparse fingerpicked guitar – sometimes providing a conventional beat, sometimes sounding like distant peals of rolling thunder, rain on a tin shack roof, or wind blowing through an autumnal forest. White has played on Nastasia’s previous 3 albums but this sounds much more of a collaboration, resulting in a stark, minimalist (but certainly not empty) album of gothic folk. As with other Nastasia releases, the sound has been captured by the peerless Steve Albini. I’m also pretty taken with the album artwork, by New York artist Jos. A. Smith.

Crippled Black Phoenix : “A Love Of Shared Disasters” (Invada, 2007)
Crippled Black Phoenix was hatched by ex-Electric Wizard & Iron Monkey drummer Justin Greaves with help from friend Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai‘s bassist). CBP has none of the crushing heaviness of those bands, instead these “endtime ballads” (created with help from several more collaborators) are an intruiging mix of apocalyptic folk, drone, gothic soundscapes and ‘classic rock’, using a mix of conventional amplified instruments alongside Victoriana like accordian, glockenspiel, saw and harmonium. At nearly 77 minutes long this album is epic in length but also in scope and my interest doesn’t wane – even if the more overtly ‘classic rock’ moments are less my bag, there are plenty of diverse elements to capture the imagination: the Nordic chanting aboard a creaking Viking boat, a Tennyson text set to a piano-led Explosions In The Sky-like backing, the mournful trumpet ‘n glockenspiel ‘n strings of “I’m Almost Home”…

Future Conditional : “We Don’t Just Disappear” (LTM, 2007)
Future Conditional is a Piano Magic-side project featuring PM mainman Glen Johnson and keyboardist Cédric Pin, and even shares a song (“The Last Engineer”) with the Piano Magic album referenced below. Johnson’s lyrical concerns remain much the same as those of Piano Magic, but here these nostalgic tales of inadequacy, alienation, wanderlust and librarians are enveloped in the “retro-futurist” electro-pop of early-80s synthwielders like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Depeche Mode, New Order, The Human League, Section 25, Yazoo, Kraftwerk (even going so far as to completely rip-off the intro beat from “Blue Monday” in “Substance Fear”). This is much more than just homage/pastiche though – in Johnson’s own words, this is about “experimenting with the glacial electro/human emotional interface”.

Piano Magic : “Part Monster” (Green UFOs, 2007)
As Piano Magic has settled into a consistent line-up (unchanged since late 2004), so too has their sound taken on a more rock-oriented quality (with Glen Johnson exploring his electronica/electro-pop urges in side-projects Textile Ranch and Future Conditional). “Part Monster” is Piano Magic‘s most accessible release to date, more indierock than the ‘Kraftwerkian Meccano Pop’ or frail 4AD-isms of previous output, but still very much Piano Magic: shimmering Durutti Column guitars, Peter Hook-ish basslines, tribal rhythms, big-boned synth washes, angelic (Angèle-ic) vocals, and wry, self-deprecating musings on the likes of England falling down, physical ailments, and the loneliness of urban life. This deserves to find a bigger audience than a release from this criminally-underrated band (sadly) likely will.

This is intended as a monthly (duh) shout-out for the release that made the biggest impression on me in the preceding month. While said release is more often than not likely to be a new one, it doesn’t necessarily have to be: I may have only just chanced upon an old-skool gem that has captured my attention more than anything newly released…

…which is the case in this inaugural “Album Of The Month” post, as its Lift To Experience’s “The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads” which has cattle-prodded its way to the front of the herd.

Lift To Experience - The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads

I’ve harped on in previous posts how it was Josh T Pearson’s performance that most impressed me of the bands I wasn’t previously aware of at the recent Dirty Three-curated ATP festival. Pearson has yet to ‘officially’ commit any of his solo material to tape (apart from his cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) so for a further fix of his apocalyptic country punk I was left to seek out this 2001 album by Lift To Experience, the Denton, Texas-based band which Pearson fronted (and perhaps still fronts – there is word of two albums worth of new Lift To Experience written/demoed).

Pearson, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, has described “The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads” as a “concept album about the end of the world where Texas is the Promised Land.” It’s epic and dramatic, at times bombastic, but also cut through with a wry humour. The ‘concept’ extends to the fact that the song titles read as a coherent whole (Just as was told / Down came the angels / Falling from Cloud 9 / With crippled wings / Waiting to hit / The ground so soft), and the songs themselves similarly flow into each other so as to be ‘movements’ within a whole rather than separate entities – Pearson apparently having pieced together the album in solitude (while working as a ranch-hand), every word, note, wash of feedback carefully choreographed.
The sleeve proudly proclaims “Ladies and Gentlemen we are playing with one guitar” and it is indeed hard to believe that this grandiose sound is the result of just three people & one guitar. Pearson’s first exposure to music outside of the church was initially to U2, the Cure, and the Smiths, and then to shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride and the like – and the wall of sound that the three Texas boys of Lift To Experience conjure up is deeply rooted in those British influences, but as filtered through “just a stupid ranch-hand / in a Texas rock band / trying to understand God’s master plan.” The guitar maelstrom coupled with Pearson’s impassioned vocals (which have been compared to Jeff Buckley) makes “The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads” come off as the shoegaze equivalent of a good ‘ole fire-and-brimstone sermon, Lift to Experience the Old Testament guitar band here to lead us out of the wilderness and into the promised land.

(I’m currently struggling to understand why Lift To Experience failed to make any impression on me when I saw them live in London many years ago, but I’m happy to admit my mistake and glad to have finally allowed them to get all biblical on my ass.)

“Falling From Cloud 9” is my favourite track on the album, and here is a live session recorded for student radio network SBC, taken from the “These Are The Days” single (both “The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads” and “These Are The Days” are available directly from Bella Union).

Lift To Experience – Falling From Cloud 9 (live SBN session)

Could Have Been A Contender…

Pan Sonic : “Katodivaihe (Cathodephase)” (Blast First Petite, 2007)
This blends together everything the Finnish pioneers have done before – pounding machinist beats, spacious electro-minimalism, abrasive digidistortion, cavernous isolationist ambience – but also throws in a bit of the unexpected (cello), to give us arguably their finest album to date. Pan Sonic is the sound of music made by machines, not computers – an important distinction, as Pan Sonic’s custom analogue equipment and their practice of recording live to DAT gives the sound a warmth (whilst still being devoid of emotion) not found in computer-generated techno. Not an easy listen, but already in pole position as my favourite electronic album of the year…

Grails : “Black Tar Prophecies vols 1,2, & 3” (Important, 2006)
With their violin player disappearing into thin air on their return from a European tour, and apparent unhappiness within the group at being considered just another by-the-numbers ‘post-rock’ band, Grails were forced into reassessing their sound. This 2006 album mixes drone, doom, dub and banjos to heady effect, creating a dark instrumental masterpiece where apocalyptic folk sits comfortably side-by-side with space-rock. (Thanks Bruno for the recommendation.)

Battles : “Mirrored” (Warp, 2007)
Surely this is the kind of music for which the term “post-rock” might actually have some relevance if it hadn’t been flung at such a disparate range of sounds as to have lost all meaning. A key reference point is Disco Inferno: “Mirrored” combines the sampladelic indiepop of “Technicolour” with the darker, paranoid “DI Go Pop”, retooling it as glammed-up math rock for the 22nd century. The helium vocals give the album a cartoonish quality which can start to grate, but otherwise it’s a pretty exhilarating listen.

Seefeel : “Quique (redux edition)” (Too Pure, 2007 (originally released 1993))
Cited as the (r)evolutionary step that merged “Loveless”-era shoegazing with electronica, this album now sounds a little dated (for a 21st century take on this sound check out pretty much anything on the Morr Music label), but this ‘Rothko ‘n roll’ (as Simon Reynolds described it in a 1993 review) should still provide a rewarding experience for unreconstructed shoegazers as well as anyone enamoured of ambient techno and the 4AD ‘dreampop’ of Cocteau Twins & the like.

I’ve also really been enjoying sinking into the sludgy doom swamplands that are the ‘expanded edition’ Japanese re-issues of Sunn O)))’s “White1”(2003), “White2”(2004) and “Black One”(2005) – “play your gloom-axe Stephen O’Malley / sub-bass clinging to the sides of the valley”… Chart (weekly)

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