Music Pick of the Week

 

Julia Holter

Aviary

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Julia Holter has made an uncompromising masterwork with Aviary; a kaleidoscopic, 90-minute trip through the compositional cosmos. If 2015’s critically acclaimed Have You in My Wilderness was zen chamber pop for lazy days, then Aviary is what happens when Holter retreats so far inward that her brain starts to explode.

While it’s easy to praise artists for going more avant-garde, Holter has always used the contours of pop music in order to explore psychological states of being. Here, she uses a variety of baroque instrumentation— piano, sax, harps, strings, choral chanting, drone—and then wraps them around her otherworldly, often overlapping, vocals.

“Everyday is an Emergency” is a doomsday lament for the end times set to mournful bagpipes. “Another Dream” is some serious Brian Eno shit; with space age synths, fluttering harps, and processed alien vocals. “I Shall Love 2” is a gorgeous mantra of human compassion in which Holter sings What do the angels say? I shall love. “Underneath the Moon” sounds like a trip down a Tibetan river on LSD. And the list goes on and on, with Holter stretching herself further into the outer reaches. Aviary is an experiential album, but also deeply personal. Political, but not didactic. Experimental, but never alienating. Most of all, it is Holter’s most ambitious and mature work to date; leaving the listener reeling, lost in the sonic ether.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Gentleman Surfer

Hard Pass

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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Prog is often viewed, whether unfairly or not, as the uncool genre—relegated to bloated concept albums, fantastical lyrics, and the towering guitar solo. Of course, prog is a broad term; fusing everything from jazz, classical, punk, new wave, to electronic music. Sacramento, Ca band Gentleman Surfer could easily be tossed into the prog pool, and they’re probably sick of hearing about it. The traits are there; mostly instrumental compositions, labyrinthine rhythms, odd time signatures, analog keyboards, bizarro sound effects, etc. However, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jon Bafus, keyboardist Zack Bissell, guitarist Barry McDaniel and bassist Blake Armstrong have been ripping their own brand of demented madness for years now, and on their fourth album, Hard Pass, they just keep on slaying.

Prog or not, Hard Pass is bananas. The self-titled opening track starts with what sounds like a rattling accelerator before dovetailing into knotty bass lines and loopy sing-along vocals. The rest of the track feeds off blippy keyboard washes, squealing guitar lines, and blistering forward momentum. There’s frenzied drums, rolling synths, and wacky muddled vocals (“Pharmaglob”), 16-bit dungeon level sounding jams (“Newt Dots”), wild start-stop tempos and demonic voices (“Emulated Egon”), and proto-punk freakouts (“Woven Grover”), but Gentleman Surfer never sound like they are simply wanking. The songs here feel improvisational, but have clearly been put together painstakingly and with tremendous artistry.

If 2013’s Blaks was a masterwork of loopy dementia and 2015’s Gold Man and even deeper plunge into the avant fringes of prog (there’s that word again), then Hard Pass seems to be a synthesis of everything Gentleman Surfer have accomplished up until this point. There’s a joyous enthusiasm that translates to the listener in how these nimble musicians play off one another that might even eclipse the band’s previous work. Above all else, Hard Pass can be best appreciated loud, perhaps under the influence, and with a very open mind.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Armand Hammer

Paraffin

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona

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Billy Woods has been around the block. Born in Washington D.C., but spending most of his life in NYC, Woods came up in the same mid-90’s scene as Cannibal Ox and Company Flow, but really didn’t reach public awareness until dropping 2012’s History Will Absolve Me. Three excellent solo releases followed, but his work with producer Elucid (known for experimental/spacey sounds) has unearthed some of the more forward-thinking hip hop releases in recent memory. Their latest collab, Paraffin, might be their tightest yet; a dense catalog of underground rap not unlike 90’s boom-bap and the early work of RZA. Lyrically, the album focuses on Western capitalism, blackness, and societal discord. It’s often funny, drenched in irony, and yet starkly urgent. Trump is never mentioned, but he doesn’t need to be with lines like To be seen and not seen at the same time is a mindfuck/Black buck on the cut “Ecomog”.

Though noisy and left-field, Armand Hammer aren’t making extreme hip hop in the mold of Death Grips or Shabazz Palaces. There’s an accessibility to Paraffin which should bring in fans of old school New York rap as well as younger listeners, who will groove to the strong flows, killer verses, and hard-hitting instrumentals on display here. This really is a cohesive record, with each track flowing seamlessly and giving us a deep meditation on being black in America. Throughout, Elucid’s beats are often hazy, fractured, and psychedelic. Plucked detuned guitars, rattling high-hats, fried out beats, and wonky jazz interludes are the order of the day, with Woods creating a lyrical tapestry of rage, confusion, and surprising humor. On the track “Reverse with Ornette”, he lays down lines like Riding dirty in a lemon, Semper Fi waving weapons at the peasants/hearts and minds that don’t work, start squeezing off one at a time; a signifier for black men getting gunned down for nothing. And yet, he ends the first verse with the darkly humorous jab Even his message drafts got the malware attachment.

As an album, Paraffin brilliantly straddles this line between bleak, topical, and clever. This isn’t some Soundclound trap or mumble rap nonsense. This is the sound of two men who have lived, seen the life, and are simply trying to survive. It’s an important record, but one which never announces its importance through trying to appease to the current hip hop zeitgeist, which may actually hurt its chances catching on with the masses. This would be a shame, since Armand Hammer are following in the tradition of acts like Cannibal Ox, Deltron 3030 and Madlib in distilling black consciousness amidst the crumbling apocalypse that is America.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Imperial Triumphant

Vile Luxury

Year of release: 2018

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New York metal band Imperial Triumphant are not here to wet your appetite for basic blast beats, standard riffs, or generic shrieks. They will be labeled, somewhat reductively, as "technical death metal". They will be likened to bands like Portal, Krallice, and Gorguts. They will be greeted with both bafflement and unwarranted mythos by the fact that they wear Eyes Wide Shut-esque masks. But in reality, their latest album Vile Luxury, resists nearly every attempt at classification. Above all, it is the sound of New York City's underbelly shitting blood, puss, and mutated rats. It's wild stuff; combining off the wall time signatures, avant-jazz instrumentation, baroque art rock, and of course, nefarious-sounding growls.  

Opener "Swarming Opulence" begins with an array of symphonic horn arrangements, almost coming off like a Terence Blanchard score from a Spike Lee joint. Ear-splitting riffs, blast beat drumming, and demonic vocals eventually kick in, but the song continues evolving like a free-jazz metal freakout. By the time a chanting mantra erupts behind detuned horns and grinding power chords, one will be hard pressed to pinpoint just what Imperial Triumphant are on about, and that's a good thing. Other tracks, like the David Lynchian "Chernobyl Blues" and the punk/blues dirge "Luxury in Death", showcase the band's unbelievable dexterity in keeping listeners off balance. 

Vile Luxury is the sonic equivalent of being kicked into a puddle of grime as a subway roars past carrying human waste. And yet, there's beauty and introspection here too. As intense and challenging as the band's technical version of death metal often is, there are passages here which hint at melody and clarity. It's this kind of juxtaposition; the exhausting clang and clatter of various instruments being shoved together into a NYC sewer, with the occasional sounds of ambient texture and classical instrumentation, that makes Vile Luxury such a head-spinning listen. Is this a "thinking man's metal" album? Maybe. Is it relentless and grimy? Yes. Does it have anything to say about the crass commercialism and urban decay of the Big Apple? Hell if anyone knows, but one thing is certain; Imperial Triumphant are conjuring the kind of chaos that will cause ringing ears, excessive migraines, and stupid-drunk smiles.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Kamasi Washington

Heaven and Earth

Year of release: 2018

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Saxophonist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Kamasi Washington isn't fucking around when it comes to concept albums as expressions of purity, seeing as how 2015's triple album The Epic was an appropriately titled behemoth blending traditional jazz roots with modern flourishes. The 37-year-old mastermind may have outdone himself, however, with Heaven and Earth; a sprawling, genre-bending three hour opus which winds, dips, and solos all over the place with the finesse of a man twice his age.

Utilizing elements of Doo-wop, progressive, latin, funk, R & B, and classic jazz, Heaven and Earth is split into two halves; the first covering the outward manifestation of the world (Earth) and the second getting into the more inward realities (Heaven). Throughout, Washington wails on his tenor sax like a man possessed, but also allows regular collaborators--his band Next Step and members of collective the West Coast Get Down--a chance to shine. Horns, keyboards, a tight rhythm section, guest vocalists, and even a full orchestra get into the mix; resulting in a dizzying and dense listen.

Whether it be inspired remakes of the Freddie Hubbard classic "Hub Tones", or the cinematic sweep of "Fists of Fury" (complete with the vocal refrain Our time as victims is over / We will no longer ask for justice / Instead we will take our retribution invoking the Black Lives Matter movement), Heaven and Earth is overflowing with technical skill and masterful compositions. There's progressive time signatures and retro synth ("Can You Hear Him"), soulful R & B balladry ("Testify"), Slow tempo Cannonball Adderlay-esque jams ("Connections") and lush jazz-fusion epics ("The Space Travelers Lullaby"), but that's simply scratching the surface. Above all else, Washington's work here is unrivaled within the modern jazz landscape; marrying Afro-futurism with jaw-dropping conceptual musicianship. The record's length may be daunting, but Heaven and Earth is ultimately worth the journey; reaching moments of transcendence as it moves from everyday concerns into the cosmic stratosphere. 

Music Pick of the Week

 

DRINKS

Hippo Lite

Year of release: 2018

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Upon a cursory listen of weirdo power duo Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley's latest album under the DRINKS moniker, Hippo Lite, one might be inclined to mutter, "yeah, but where are the songs?"

Of course, such a response is intentional, seeing as how both Le Bon and Presley have spent the better part of their respective career's banging out experimental psych/freak folk/garage rock. Presley has mostly recorded under the name White Fence (though he did have a stint in the reformed version of The Fall before Mark E. Smith's passing) and has collaborated with fellow psych rocker Ty Segall on multiple occasions. Le Bon, on the other hand, has used her wispy voice and angular guitar work to carve out her own idiosyncratic niche with a series of solo albums. The duo's previous team up as DRINKS was 2015's Hermits on a Holiday; a combination of freeform post-pop shronk that sounded like two outsiders having a blast without limits. With Hippo Lite, the lack of traditional songs is even more intentional; playing like a warped children's album assembled by a couple of stoned adults caught in a feedback loop.

It's hard to articulate a record feeling so playful when things sound this off-kilter, but Hippo Lite is bursting with fun, and at times baffling, sonic arrangements. Opener "Blue From the Dark" has an acoustic lullaby vibe coming out of a broken music box. "Real Outside" struts and slithers with a rudimentary electronic beat, out of tune guitar, and Le Bon's humorously detached vocals. "Corner Shops" is a deconstructed funk song; complete with a bobbing bassline and (almost) danceable groove. And then there's the in-joke "Ducks", with it's broken clock noises, bizarre guitar arpeggios, and near incomprehensible lyrics. Cuckoo is a tame word for it.

Fortunately, a tune like "Ducks" is something of an anomaly in an otherwise brilliant, though undeniably strange, record. There's something inviting about Hippo Lite, something that resists easy classification, something that draws you in even as it purposefully pushes away. With Presley and Le Bon as wayward guides, experimental pop (?) has never sounded this antagonistically welcoming. Let that freak flag fly.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Sleep

The Sciences

Year of release: 2018

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It's reasonable to assume that after nearly two decades, rumors of a new record from stoner metal revolutionaries Sleep was little more than the woozy mutterings of a bong-ripped slacker from the 90's who used to be cool. However, on April 20th (take a hit, maaan), the San Jose, Ca heavyweights did just that; releasing their fourth full-length, The Sciences, to an unsuspecting audience who had either forgotten they still existed or were primed to discover their sonic onslaught for the very first time.

Now in their 40s, the members of Sleep sound as sludgey and propulsive as ever; delivering an album full of thick basslines, heavy riffs, and of course, singer Al Cisneros' Ozzy-like mantras about the cosmic powers of weed. Yes, there's actually a song called “Marijuananaut’s Theme” here, and being under the influence while listening to the psych-doom crescendos certainly helps, but Sleep are no gimmick band. This is effortlessly performed stoner metal that ebbs and flows like a flaming, hurtling beast. Along with Cisneros, the power of guitarist Matt Pike and drummer Jason Roeder (both of whom have had success with projects like High on Fire and Neurosis) adds to the sense of escaping from the world. Even if previous efforts like 1992's Holy Mountain and 2003's Dopesmoker (which was actually an old recording from the 90's re-edited) are now considered canon within the genre, they were essentially demos; made with a lack of means and proper recording equipment. The thing about The Sciences is that it sounds absolutely phenomenal without once sacrificing that fuzzy, distorted charge that has become the band's signature.

Throughout The Sciences, Sleep lay down massive lurching riffs ("Sonic Titan"), seesawing guitar solos ("Antarcticans Thawed") and even some ambient tracks (opener “The Sciences” and closer “The Botanist,”), all foregrounded by Cisneros bellowing into the ganja-infested void. This is the kind of Black Sabbath worship that understands what made Sabbath great; (rather than the trite appropriation we often get with younger metal bands these days) by using repetition and heaviness in a way transcending pastiche. Ultimately, The Sciences is the kind of escape from the world we need right now; in all its crushing, doom-laden, bong-ripped glory. 

   

 

Music Pick of the Week

Empath

Liberating Guilt and Fear

Year of release: 2018

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Sometimes, brevity can be liberating. Take Philadelphia noisemakers Empath's latest four-track cassette Liberating Guilt and Fear; part jagged post-punk, part experimental noise, with a side of deranged bird noises. Similar to now defunct art-rock four-piece Ponytail with the kind noodling usually reserved for drug trips, it's 16 minutes of lo-fi racket led by singer/guitarist Catherine Elicson, drummer Garrett Koloski, keyboardist Emily Shanahan, and Randall Coon on synths. As a unit, Empath pull out some sugary hooks, shout-along choruses, and bright keyboard melodies from the thick haze of shronking instrumentation.

Then there's those bird chirps, which inform at least two of the four tracks here. The 9-minute headscratcher, "III", for example, uses those tweeting noises as a backdrop for wind chimes, rolling drum fills, tape hiss, and detuned guitar; leading one to believe that Empath are going for much trippier sonic territory than their noise-punk roots suggest. Of course, hearing Elicson's manic yelped/shouted vocals on the blistering "No Attachment" could also simply mean that the band will be blowing out sweaty basement punk shows for the foreseeable future. Either way, the cathartically brief Liberating Guilt and Fear is an essential listen for anyone with an affinity for jagged punk and Ornithology.            

Music Pick of the Week

 

U.S. Girls

In a Poem Unlimited

Year of release: 2018

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Over the past decade, Meg Remy (aka U.S. Girls) has been busy making outsider indie-pop music with a defiantly female perspective. Traditionally lumped into the lo-fi genre, Remy's sonic inspirations range from Suicide to Tori Amos, while her lyrics tend to focus on the inner lives of women. 2015's Half-Free, for example, was a twisted, avant-pop memoir of cheating lovers, undesirable men, and ladies struggling for liberation. With In a Poem Unlimited, Remy has teamed up with instrumental collective the Cosmic Range and longtime collaborators Maxmilian Turnbull and Louis Percival for a more fully realized sound. The results are like a proto-feminist twist on 70's club music, using pastiche as a way of shedding light on the everyday nightmares (and triumphs) of living as a modern woman.

The uptempo grooves, funky basslines, and lounge synths are superficially distracting, lulling the listener into a head-nodding rhythm before pulling out the rug with tales of abuse, mental/physical burnout, anger, and injustice. The noirish "Velvet 4 Sale", lays on the psychedelic guitar and reverb-heavy bongos as Remy purrs You’ve been sleeping with one eye open because he always could come back, ya know? And you’ve been walking these streets unguarded waiting for any man to explode. It's the kind of declaration that may sound at odds with the tune's dub-friendly vibe, but therein lies the magic trick. Meanwhile, the disco kitsch of "Mad as Hell" is just as self-effacing; a glowing hall of auditory mirrors that circles around a #MeToo rallying cry. Remy may be pissed off, but her music is coated in pop glaze, urging us too look deeper and listen more carefully.

With shades of Marc Bolan, ABBA, and 70's surf/psych, U.S. Girls now have a sound which feels expansive and freed from the lo-fi basement. In a Poem Unlimited is 37 minutes of patriarchy-shattering pop which nonetheless lives and breathes on the assumption that male abuses of power will continue. It's an album filled with pain, rage, and helplessness as each female character depicted makes excuses, hides, or fights back. There are no half-measures. Conformity is not an option. Remy plays the sensuous muse and righteous protester throughout In a Poem Unlimited, and we are left simultaneously reeling and moving our hips.  

Music Pick of the Week

 

Clawing

Spectral Estate

Year of release: 2018

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Alabama-based spoke word artist/conjurer of nightmares Matt Finney doesn't do half-measures. His contributions to the realm of apocalyptic doom-gaze (if that's even a thing) has given us some of the decade's most transcendent music; particularly his work with Ukranian composer Oleg Shpudeiko (aka Heinali). For starters, try listening to 2011's crushingly brilliant Conjoined; which interspersed sweeping arrangements with Finney’s mournful lyrics. Then there was his collaboration with ambient Dutch musician Mories, who partnered up in 2014 for EP Creation Myths and then later with Love Songs and Christian Country Home; the later of which was the apex of analog synth soundscapes and despairing wordplay.

Now we have Finney's latest project, Clawing, which teams him up with Austin Gaines (of industrial noise-punk-metal band calques) and electronic musician Jeff Mcleod. The result of their powers is Spectral Estate; an ear-scraping, tectonic plate-shifting blend of noise, doom, and yes, bleak prose. Finney's lyrical preoccupations are like visual tapestries of human misery; snapshots of grotesquery, filth, piss, and regret, but in true David Lynch fashion, such visions are beautiful (and often darkly humorous) because they exist in the real world.

Epic opener "Mythology" is a good example of this template, with Finney whispering the lines Woke up twenty years too late/next to the wrong person/and addictions/and doors that wouldn't open over metallic rumbling, jangly guitar arpeggios, and what sounds like rustling wind. The song eventually devolves into a mechanized pool of sensory feedback loops swallowing everything alive. It's also 11-minutes long.

The remaining five tracks are just as cacophonous; from noise-pedal distortion ("Gourds"),  a prolonged 2001-esque plunge into wormholes ("A Clearing"), industrial helicopter blades ("Coma"), intergalactic static ("Plastic Glowing Stars") and horn-rattling sleeplessness ("Home"). All the while, Gaines and Mcleod's immersive production blares, fades, crunches and burns like battery acid. Every once in a while, Finney shows up, drops a few lines, and then slithers away into the inky blackness. Is Spectral Estate the sound of our nightmares, or are we even asleep? This unnerving, insomnia-inducing soundtrack certainly won't provide any answers, but only new mysteries to keep us up at night.

Music Pick of the Week

 

John Maus

Screen Memories

Year of release: 2017

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Six years after causing a buzz on the indie circuit with We Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, underground weirdo John Maus is back with Screen Memories; a lo-fi series of synth-pop excursions that sound, well, exactly like a John Maus record. With his droopy, echo-laden vocals and nonsensical lyrics, Maus channels the sinister and the silly in equal measure, and if Screen Memories feels like more of the same, it's nonetheless a singular achievement. Aside from fellow collaborator Ariel Pink, there isn't anyone else doing this kind of bizarre pastiche pop with such conviction.  

Spacey synths loop and weave, the basslines are thick, and Maus's voice often gets lost in a reverb void of celestial waves. The songs consist mostly of a combination of synth-pop and punk rhythms, and the lyrics are knowingly ridiculous, but Maus's spooky delivery and use of baroque keyboards conjures old horror movies. Apparently, Maus even spent two years building his own modular synthesizer.

The biggest takeaway from Screen Memories is that somehow a sonic blender of Max Headroom, Ian Curtis, and Kraftwerk are exactly what we need in 2017. Maus continues to explore outdated modes of melody and texture in a way that many of his supposed retro-pop futurists simply aren't off-kilter enough to master. There's an absurdity to the tone of apocalyptic doom running throughout the album, from the hilariously morbid "Pets" to the glistening death trip of closer "Bombs Away." Perhaps, the idea of laughing in the face of ultimate annihilation is simply the most appropriate response. Either way, Maus will be there; with modular synthesizer and Gothic falsetto in tow. 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Midnight Sister

Saturn Over Sunset

Year of release: 2017

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Glancing at the cover art for Los Angeles duo Midnight Sister's debut album, Saturn Over Sunset, one expects something sultry, sexy, and perhaps even danceable. While such descriptions aren't necessarily unfounded, there's more going on here than mere baroque-pop nostalgia. Comprised of filmmaker turned vocalist Juliana Giraffe and multi-instrumentalist Ari Balouzian, the duo certainly have their fingers on the pulse of retro revivalism, but this is a surprisingly nimble and weird record combining lounge, psychedelia, disco-adjacent kitsch, and lush instrumental flourishes. The results are warped enough to throw off listeners hoping for a simple art pop excursion, and yet catchy enough to warrant significant head-bobbing. 

Throughout, one is struck by the cinematic quality of the tunes, from the wobbly mood-based keyboards on opener "Canary", to the Hitchcockian violin stabs of "The Crow." There's also a heavy dose of the dreamy pop of U.K. band Broadcast, especially in regards to Giraffe's breathy vocals, as well as the Technicolor baroque instrumentation of Stereolab and Andy Warhol meets The Velvet Underground & Nico hipness of 60's/early 70's art pop. However, Midnight Sister aren't simply appropriating a bygone Los Angeles sound, but are holding up a mirror to the illusionary facade of the Sunset strip. On "Blue Cigar", Giraffe purrs Every place I go/ Ya trancin' in my zone/ Every time I try/ I'm dancin' to a T. Rex song over a funky groove and sultry saxophone, while a smattering of strings, piano, and woodwinds give "Showgirl" a real discordant energy. The duo take such strange detours and jarring interludes that the album comes off both alluring and unsettling. 

Sunrise Over Saturn is a pop noir soundtrack for dreamers wrapped in the light/dark dichotomy of living in L.A. Since the shiny exterior of Tinseltown harboring insidious nightmares is nothing new, and since artists have been mining this territory in multiple mediums for decades, its tempting to write off Midnight Sister as fashion music, but there's legitimate ambition here. This is a haunting, strangely moving album; one that uses the mythological geographical space of the San Fernando Valley as a jumping off point for a sonic experience where artifice becomes reality.    

 

 

Movie Pick of the Week

 

The Untamed

Director: Amat Escalante

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes

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Spanish filmmaker Amat Escalante's The Untamed is a movie about lust, libido, and the tenuous line between pleasure and pain. It's also, incidentally, a movie about just how far some people are willing to go in pursuit of phallus-tentacled copulation. A fascinating, ambiguous genre mashup that crosses social-realist melodrama with bizarre alien invasion thriller, The Untamed could be considered a slinky, sexy time if not for the mood of portentous dread buzzing throughout. Basically, this isn't your average phallic tentacle romance.

The story centers around bored housewife Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), her homophobic husband Angel (Jesús Meza), Alejandra's openly gay brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), and a mysterious drifter named Veronica (Simone Bucio), who pops up occasionally to disrupt the narrative. Escalante unfurls a seemingly straight forward love triangle of sorts, which is interrupted by the arrival of an alien creature (which looks like a multi-tentacled demonic worm crossed with a fleshy spider) hidden deep inside a remote cabin in the woods. Aesthetically, Escalante favors slow zooms, long-held closeups of the faces of the non-professional cast, and methodical camera movements. Like his previous film; the deeply harrowing drug cartel drama, Heli, The Untamed is a work of rigorous minimalism which builds an atmosphere of queasy dread. Laced with a discordant score and elliptical narrative structure, the film at times feels like a mix of Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, but its greatest strength lies in its refusal to make the alien creature into a binary metaphor.

Though there are a lot of issues at play here--sexual dissatisfaction, repression, homophobia, addiction, misogyny--The Untamed never simplifies things into a tidy allegory. Instead, as different characters encounter the alien, the creature takes on different meanings. For some, it fills a sexual void. For others, it overtakes their base impulses and violently destroys them. Therefore, the film could be about pure desire; sexual or otherwise, commenting on the risks some are willing to take in order to break free from the soul-crushing monotony of daily life. Or it could simply be a melodrama about desperate lovers and the penis-shaped giver of pleasure that comes between them. Either way, The Untamed is an audacious trip into elusive button-pushing; calling into question our primal desires and the lengths we will go in order to feel something, even if that something involves slimy, calamari-adjacent kink.

Music Pick of the Week

 

Chad VanGaalen

Light Information

Year of release: 2017

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Canadian one-man band Chad VanGaalen has always been interested in experimenting with sounds and textures. 2008's Soft Airplane was a breakthrough in the realm of synth-driven bedroom pop, while 2011's Diaper Island confirmed he could do catchy singles alongside rowdy lo-fi rippers all in the comfort of his own garage. His last album, 2014's Shrink Dust, turned his oddball charms towards melancholy folk; showcasing a less antic, more refined sensibility. Now, with his sixth full-length release Light Information, VanGaalen seems to be going back to the noisier tones of Diaper Island; with warbly Korg 770 washes, live drums, guitar feedback, and that unmistakably quivering vocal delivery all adding up to the kind of off-kilter soundscapes the man built his brand on. 

As an illustrator and all-around eccentric, VanGaalen's world is one in which ordinary objects can be transformed into divine instruments, animation can morph into nightmarish visions (see his music video work with artists like Metz and Dan Deacon), and where one's body can be a host for parasitic demons. There's a bit of Brian Wilson's colorful pop experimentation here, a dash of Neil Young's world-weary balladry, and even some Shins-esque indie rock on display, but VanGaalen (who plays every instruments and records everything himself), is still operating on his own wavelength. Opener "Mind Highjacker's Curse" is layered with swirling synths, a driving beat, and warbly vocals, while "Host Body" quivers with distorted guitar chords, reverb-saturated walls of sound, and lyrics involving those aforementioned parasite demons. Elsewhere, there's psych surf rock ("Golden Oceans"), contemplative folk ("You Fool"), Tangerine Dream-esque instrumentals ("Prep Piano and 770") and most strikingly, a beautiful lament concerning a dying father ("Broken Bell"), which goes from melancholic to darkly humorous in a matter of verses.

The idea of a "homespun" record these days is a bit fleeting; with the digitization of media leading to an ever-expanding glut of self-made artists, but VanGaalen has been doing this kind of thing for quite a while now. He's the real deal; a multi-instrumentalist obsessed with mortality, the frailty of the human body, and loneliness all wrapped in a gauze of ramshackle quirkiness. With Light Information, he's created some of his most straightforward, but no less idiosyncratic, set of pop songs yet; distilling his peculiar worldview into something universal and downright catchy. 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Guided by Voices

How Do You Spell Heaven

Year of release: 2017

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At this point, it's foolish and entirely reductive to chart the dismantling and reformation of Dayton, Ohio lo-fi rock legends Guided by Voices' career. After getting the classic lineup back together in recent years, singer/songwriter Robert Pollard broke things off, reformed the group with new musicians, and continued touring. After two releases in 2016, GBV unleashed the 32-song monster August by Cake earlier this year, featuring Doug Gillard, guitarist Bobby Bare Jr., bassist Mark Shue, and drummer Kevin March. This type of thinking is in keeping with Pollard's insane prolific streak (a similar reformation occurred during the 90s), but there was still something disappointing about August by Cake. It felt too sprawling. Too expansive. Too in love with it's "on the road" touring excess. Now, with How Do You Spell Heaven, Pollard and company get back to what they do best; creating pleasurably crunchy, confident, and jangly rock n'roll.

On songs like "Paper Cutz" and "Diver Dan", Pollard sounds positively alive, swaggering his way through the kind of earworm melodies that have become GBV staples, whereas "King 007" surprises by beginning as a folk jam before erupting into a krautrock-inspired groove. There are other nice variations on the band's patented mold here too. For example, "How to Murder a Man (In 3 Acts)" starts slowly like rumbling dirge, goes into a wailing chant-filled series of drum fills, and then segues into an acoustic-churning outro. There's even an instrumental break in the form of "Pearly Gates Smoke Machine", which chugs along like Southern-tinged booze rock where one can imagine Pollard's drunken slurs poking out from under the bombast.

Ultimately, there's a clarity of expression to How Do You Spell Heaven which places it, at the very least, near the upper echelon of 2000s-era GBV. As a vocalist, Pollard sounds clearer and more coherent than ever. Musically, his new batch of musicians, while lacking the scrappy charm of the classic lineup, are able to convey the effortless glisten and melancholy that allows their individual talents to shine while still sounding very much in unison with Pollard's traditional sound. The results are strangely uplifting for someone who has spent decades with 100-plus releases under his belt making music simply because he wants to. Instead of being disinterested and burnt out, Pollard seems inspired to dream. Something is revealed, slashing at your arm/something you can feel, sounding the alarm, he sings on the 80s-sounding "Nothing Gets You Real", and after all of this time, we are inclined to lean forward, nod agreeably, and rock out.  

 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week

 

Slowdive

Slowdive

Year of release: 2017


The early 1990's were a banner year for the shoegaze genre. My Bloody Valentine released the classic Loveless in 1991, while Ride's seminal Nowhere burst onto the scene just a year prior. Just For A Day, the debut from English rockers Slowdive, also came out in 1991, but whereas My Bloody Valentine specialized in lo-fi crescendos and Ride laid down up-tempo jangle, Slowdive mostly focused on the more ambient textures inherent in the newly formed genre. Now that shoegaze has seen a revival over the past decade, and in some senses ran its course with dozens of wannabe indie bands cranking out variations of the sound, the forefathers of the scene are back to show the kids how it's done. With My Bloody Valentine already mounting a fairly successful, if derivative, comeback and Ride recently dropping their first new material in over 20 years, Slowdive's latest might completely fly under the radar. This would be a shame, since their self-titled effort is a graceful return to form.

While outwardly familiar in sound--reverb-heavy instrumentation, hushed boy/girl vocals, steady basslines, shimmering guitar chords--Slowdive nonetheless make minor tweaks to their aesthetic placing them firmly in the modern age. For example, "Star Roving" is quite possibly the loudest and most aggressive song the band has written to date, and yet, it still hums poetically atop glistening guitar arpeggios and gorgeous dueling harmonies courtesy of singer-guitarists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell. Meanwhile, "Go Get It" has a swirling, almost jazzy structure; with Halstead's vocals taking on a synth-pop-esque monotone similar to that of Tame Impala's Kevin Parker. However, Slowdive never give into the kind of jaunty hooks which inform so many of the newer shoegaze acts; instead, they expand their sonic palette outward and inward simultaneously.

Slowdive is a vastly rewarding listen; full of cascading dream-like soundscapes containing haunting melodies. 22 years since their last release, Pygmalion, the band have retained their mastery over a distinctive sound they helped popularize by wrestling the genre back to its roots while still making room for what lies ahead.

 

Music Pick of the Week


Juana Molina

Halo

Year of release: 2017

 


Juana Molina's seventh album, Halo, is defined by mood over melody. That's not to say the Argentine singer-songwriter, whose been making electronic-tinged folk music since the mid-1990s, doesn't know how to write a catchy hook. To the contrary, on albums like 2004's Tres Cosas and especially 2008's Un Dia, Molina crafted some of the most sublimely skeletal pop music this side of the globe. However, her interest in ambient song structures, digital loops, and drone-inflected atmosphere has always been a defining element of her sound rather than a supplement. Molina's whispered mantras (sung in Spanish) are placed alongside instrumental loops, airy synthesizers, and fractured percussion with brilliant restraint throughout Halo, which just may be her most cogent work to date.

This idea of mood over traditional song structure isn't Molina's way of resisting the familiarity of pop music, but rather, of deepening the layers of her songwriting to the point where one feels as if they are meeting her on her own terms. Often, she simply loops her voice in a series of rhythmic sequences where actual lyrics are rendered unnecessary, such as on “In the Lassa,” “A00 B01,” and “Andó”, which formulate a trifecta of gorgeous ambiance. Meanwhile, Halo's album cover--of eyes encased in some kind of drooping plaster mold against a black backdrop--is indicative of the mysterious pull of the music. On a song like "Cosoco", for example, Molina uses acoustic finger-plucked guitar, warbly keyboards, skittering drums, and her hushed vocals in order to lull us into a trance-like state. This sense of finding tranquility through the melding of organic sounds with modern technology is so seamlessly integrated throughout that it's a miracle the album doesn't completely wash away. Instead, there's a propulsive quality to Halo that, despite it's minimalist framework, gives Molina's off-kilter tunes a lingering impact.  

Music Pick of the Week


Pond

The Weather

Year of release: 2017


The seventh album from Australian psych-prog rockers Pond may sound like a left turn upon first listen, but the fact that Tame Impala's Kevin Parker is on hand as producer places everything in context. While Parker's move away from 60/70's psych and into the realm of warped 80's synth-pop felt a bit contrived throughout his last effort Currents, Pond manage the shift from proto-punk psych and onto the dance floor with relative ease. The Weather may be less atonal and kooky than 2015's Man It Feels Like Space Again, but there's still plenty of proggy detours and bong-ripped instrumentation on hand to satisfy longtime fans; coming off like The Flaming Lips shaking hips with Prince while peaking on mushrooms.

Those hoping for the manic garage rock-inflected sprawl of past albums may be somewhat miffed by Pond's decision to slow down the tempo, increase the swirling synths, lay down the disco-glam grooves and indulge in funky basslines, but singer Nick Allbrook’s high-pitched vocals are a surprisingly perfect fit for Parker's layered production. There's Roxy Music-esque glam ("Zen Automaton"), chillwave-adjacent ballads ("Paint Me Silver"), ambitious prog opuses ("Edge of the World Pt. 2") and perhaps best of all, Ariel Pink-sounding 80's spaced out funk ("Colder than Ice").

Throughout, there's a sense that Pond may have bitten off more than they can chew, with arena-sized choruses and cosmic climaxes threatening to drown the record in self-indulgence, but the band's dark sense of humor and fondness for kitsch offset such criticisms. For instance, opener "3000 Megatons" could be read as a bleak mantra for our politically divisive age, with Albrook crooning I look out at the mirror/Look out at the world/30,000 megatons is just what we deserve in a robotic falsetto over arpeggiated synths. However, the song is more humorous than ominous; as if the push of a button will solve all humanity's problems in an apocalyptic mushroom cloud. As an album, The Weather straddles the awe-inspiring and the ludicrous with a confidence that suggests Pond may one day make a modern psych classic. For now, though, we can simply settle for geeky Australian dance parties with the occasional stoned gaze. 

 

 

Music Pick of the Week


 

The Jesus and Mary Chain

Damage and Joy

Year of release: 2017


If 1985's Psychocandy set the standard for fuzzed out (and bummed out) shoegaze with gorgeous melodies, then brothers Jim and William Reid spent the better half of the following decade trying to live up to their own hype machine. After 1998's misguided Munki, the duo parted ways, perhaps because the music scene they helped engender was going off in other directions. Now, in 2017, a reunion of shoegaze bands is all the rage; with recent output from the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slow Dive making the rounds.

Damage and Joy is the first record from the brothers in nearly two decades, and as such, sounds very much like a retreat into candy-coated nostalgia. This isn't necessarily a criticism, as The Jesus and Mary Chain seem to have plucked their back catalog for the right amount of noise-pop harmonies and fuzzy guitar work. The results are both lackadaisical and emotive, giving tales of lost love and quasi-political reflections the appropriate jolt of druggy haze. There aren't really any transcendent moments here; which makes sense given that the Williams brothers are now middle-aged, but this isn't a record lacking in insight or feeling either. For example, the album's centerpiece, “Los Feliz (Blues and Greens)", offers a winking ballad about the greatness of America, closer "Can't Stop the Rock" is a scathing indictment of the United Nations, and "Simian Split" gives its own reading on Kurt Cobain's death, complete with warbly sax and frantic drums.

Damage and Joy is a potent reminder that the kids still want their Scottish stoner ballads as long as it doesn't require more than a detached glance. More than simply aping retro nostalgia, The Jesus and Mary Chain have created a record which both feels right at home with their decades-old work while entertaining the possibility of getting off the couch, and that alone, is something of a miracle.

  

Music Pick of the Week


Grave Lake

EP

Year of release: 2016


After the premature disillusion of Sacramento, Ca outfit Darling Chemicalia; who, by the way, encapsulated the kind of dark melodic rock n' roll we so desperately need these days, there was a possibility that vocalist/guitarist/mastermind Ian Bone might go back to the lo-fi bedroom pop of his 2009 solo effort Ghost Sketch. However, collaborating with drummer Justin Gonzales, guitarist Andrew Henderson, and keyboardist/vocalist Stephine Bone seemed to encourage a push outward into a more dynamic sound rather than a retreat inward. Though Darling Chemicalia dabbled in drone, shoegaze, and 90's-tinged alt rock, they were at heart a pop band. Of course, their take on pop music was decidedly unnerving; with lo-fi production, wailing vocals, and heavy reverb carrying the day, but if one was truly willing to listen, catchy hooks and pop-oriented melodies were bubbling just underneath the distorted surface.

Now, Ian Bone has reteamed with Gonzales and Henderson under the Grave Lake moniker for a 5-song EP which initially positions itself as a post-Chemicalia project, but in actuality, diverges from the former band in a few significant ways. For one thing, the new outfit have done away with the Swans-inspired dirges and atmospheric interludes of Chemicalia in lieu of going right for the uptempo jugular. For another, there's a lightness of touch to the songwriting here, even as the lyrical concerns still tilt toward the macabre, which gives the tunes a harmonious quality. Tracks like opener "Traneberg Bridge", with it's wall of noisy feedback bursting into a skittering drumbeat, shimmering guitar arpeggios, and Bone's high-pitched vocals, is a good indication of the sonic onslaught which will follow. There's also sing-along post-punk ("Mantra"), lurching alt-rock ("Haunt"), driving melodicism with warbly vocals ("Woven"), and best of all, explosive guitar soloing and shrieked repetitive choruses ("Seer"). 

Additionally, superb production by Andy Morin (of Death Grips fame), deftly gives Bone's unique singing higher presence in the mix (as opposed to Chemicalia's burying of vocals under reverb), while also allowing space for Gonzales and Henderson to create dynamic performances of their own. Henderson in particular shines here, layering melodic riffs and sugary guitar lines in a manner not dissimilar to his work with now defunct Sacto post-punkers G. Green. The results are a brief but rewarding collection of songs which speaks to Grave Lake's strengths at conjuring their own version of noisily contorted pop music.