Movie Pick of the Week

Birds of Passage

Director: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Year of release: 2019

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Spread out over five chapters, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage has the outline of familiarity; displaying elements of narcotrafficking, feuding families, and inevitable bloodshed, but there’s also a cultural element which makes the film utterly singular. The collision of western and native cultures was perhaps the overriding theme of Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal’s Embrace of the Serpent, and that’s true here too, though clueless Americans are mostly kept on the fringes this time. Instead, the film shows an almost hypnotic fascination with ritual; so much so that the storyline involving the marriage of Rapayet (José Acosta), from the Wayuu tribe to the teenaged Zaida (Natalia Reyes) initially seems secondary.

The main thrust of the meandering narrative seems to be the dishonoring of tradition and how wealth can corrupt from the inside out. As Rapayet gets mixed up in the weed and arms trade, entangling himself in dangerous deals with his uncle Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez) while Zaida’s disapproving mother and village matriarch Úrsula (Carmina Martinez) stands by, we witness an entire culture’s way of life falling apart.

Ego, greed, and senseless violence have always been at the heart of family-linked mob stories, and Birds of Passage is like an ethnographic version of The Godfather truncated down and told in an elliptical fashion. However, there’s no glamorizing of criminality here, even as the particulars of the tribe’s rituals are handled with care. Gallego and Ciro Guerra instead present encroaching modernity as an inevitability that the Wayuu must adapt to, no matter the consequences. No one is innocent. No one is without blame. Everyone has blood on their hands. Tradition and familial pride are simply not enough to subdue the allure of fast cash.

Birds of Passage shows us the insidious nature of drug cartels and the corrupting power of wealth, but its more primarily about humanity’s urge toward self-destruction. The overarching message seems to be that when all the dust settles, no matter what tribe or community one belongs to, we only have ourselves to blame.

Music Pick of the Week

Mega Bog


Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona


Multi-instrumentalist Erin Birgy has been crafting art-pop for nearly a decade now, and her latest release under the Mega Bog moniker, Dolphine, is perhaps the clearest distillation of her talents thus far. The album takes some of its inspiration from the late science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, and there’s certainly an otherworldly atmosphere at play here. At moments, the sounds conjured bring to mind the pastoral folk of Toni Mitchell, the quirky arrangements of Cate Le Bon, the electronic sweep of Stereolab, and the psych-jazz experiments of Sun Ra. Of course, Birgy is very much doing her own thing, and the greatest triumph of Dolphine is its refusal to fall into easy genre categorizations.

From song to song, the unique mood almost resists standard song structure, while never deviating too far from a sense of melody. The smooth jazz folk of opener “For the Old World” is soothing at first, but then disconcerting woodwinds, scattering percussion, and eerie vocals crop up creating a sense of tension. Elsewhere, on “Diary of a Rose”, the lead guitar line instantly recalls Radiohead, while the song itself stops and starts, going from blaring jangle-pop to gentle strumming and whispered lines and then back again. “Truth in the Wind” is ethereal and jaunty, but one can feel a deep sadness just behind the witty metaphors. The death of animals and loved ones is a recurring central theme throughout, and no matter how colorful the compositions, Birgy is able to funnel darker emotions through her art.

That her art doesn’t fit neatly into an emotional catharsis or defining trait that we, as the listener, can easily identify, makes the record all the more transporting. The swirling horns, electronic flourishes, strange vocal noises, and Birgy’s stream of consciousness lyrics gives off the impression of an apocalyptic dream on “Shadows Break”, while the charming duet with recently deceased Georgia musician Ash Rickli “Spit in the Eye of the Fire King” brings the New-Agey pastoral vibes back once again. That’s the thing about Dolphine; it’s a record which gives you the full spectrum without every explicitly telling you what part of the spectrum you are actually listening to.

Music Pick of the Week


Cate Le Bon


Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona


Welsh musician Cate Le Bon is nothing if not prolific. In between her last LP, 2016’s Crab Day, she collaborated with White Fence’s Tim Presley under the DRINKS moniker and performed production on Deerhunter’s latest release Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? Even with this in mind, her latest album, Reward, is nothing short of a revelation. While Crab Day centered around quirky arrangements, off-kilter guitar riffs, and recurring loops, Reward sees Le Bon pushing herself into more introspective territory; with most of the songs structured around piano, airy guitar, and beguiling vocals. Of course, that doesn’t mean Le Bon has sacrificed any of her idiosyncrasy. On the contrary; the added elements of sax, synths, and restrained percussion means these compositions feel even more organic.

Throughout the album, there’s a tension between absurdity and melancholy. Songs like orchestral opener “Miami” and soft rock ballad “Daylight Matters” are beautiful, but also intensely sad. The weirdo pop quirk factor gets turned up on “Magnificent Gestures”, which sounds like an alien funk song, and the Berlin era Bowie-esque “Mother’s Mothers Magazines”, which hems closer to the avant-pop repetition of her DRINKS output, but with more dynamic instrumentation. However, the greatest triumph of Reward is how Le Bon allows space within these layered compositions. Nothing seems too cluttered or over-produced. Every note, guitar lick, piano motif, and vocal refrain feels perfectly suited. Every song works to bring a larger context into view.

Many reclusive artists choose to shelter themselves from society, locking themselves in isolation in order to record something which speaks to feelings of loneliness, and the process of bringing Reward to life follows this narrative. Rather than simply sequestering herself in a cabin for a few weeks, though, Le Bon spent a year living in the Cumbrian mountains while making homemade furniture and writing music when inspiration struck. Unrequited love, emotional failure, and the need for personal reinvention are key themes here, but at no point does Le Bon give into ennui. When she sings Love is beautiful to me, love is you on closer “Meet the Man'“, for example, you believe her completely, and thats no small accomplishment.

Music Pick of the Week


Plastic Anniversary

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona


Multi-instrumentalists Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt have been making forward thinking electronic music as Matmos for 25 years now, and to celebrate, they’ve created an entire album incorporating the sound of plastic objects. Like with their last record, Ultimate Care II, which used washing machine samples as the basis for songs, Daniel and Schmidt take things which would normally be thrown into the recycling bin and transform them into wonderfully weird, percussive electronic soundscapes.

Matmos have always been on the cutting edge production-wise (not to mention the fringes), so the foray into squaks, squibbles, boings, and clicking-clacks is not really that surprising. However, what they’ve been able to conjure simply through manipulating, condensing, and warping these everyday objects is dazzling and at times, accessible. Songs like opener “Breaking Bread”, humorously made up of broken vinyl records by '70s rock band Bread and “Silicone Gel Implant”, which begins with a bouncy groove before descending into what sounds like analog tape decks being mashed together, are so densely packed with sonic detours that it’s almost brain-breaking. But for every up-tempo plastic-pop banger, like the horn-inflected title track and drum-heavy "Fanfare for Polythene Waste Containers", of which Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier makes an appearance, there are darker excursions. For instance, “Thermoplastic Riot Shield” comes off like a metal factory being invaded by space aliens, while album closer “Plastisphere” conjures images of an ocean covered in consumer waste where the twisted sounds of bubble wrap and plastic cans becomes a hellish cacophony.

Even after 25 years, Matmos continue to push forward and create singular work. What might at first seem like a gimmick transforms into something Daniel and Schmidt have been doing their entire careers; taking elements of the ordinary and massaging them into something extraordinary, and most importantly, musically inventive. At the very least, it will make you look at toilet brushes and silicone breast implants in a whole new light.


Music Pick of the Week


Pom Poko


Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona


Norwegian four-piece Pom Poko want to party, and they’re bringing a VIP list of influencers with them; namely Deerhoof, Battles, Marnie Stern, and French musician/poet Lizzy Mercier Descloux. Of course, simply name-checking various artists to which a band is indebted scans reductive, and on their exuberant debut album, Birthday, Pom Poko manage to break out into their own groove. Having met and studied jazz at Trondheim Music Conservatory, there’s a technicality to the outfit’s brand of art-rock; with odd time signatures, off-kilter arrangements, and singer Ragnhild Fangel Jamtveit’s childlike vocals, but there’s sublime pop hooks here too.

Taking their name after a 1994 Studio Ghibli film is instructive, since much of Birthday carries a quirky Japanese vibe (especially Jamveit’s yelping vocal delivery, which is reminiscent of Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki). Even if the overall tenor of the album is upbeat, slower to mid-tempo tracks like “My Work is Full of Art” and “Honey” does find the band flexing subtler sonic arrangements. The breakneck guitar riffs and cooing vocals on “My Blood” and percussive cowbell-adjacent “Crazy Energy Night” tend to be the norm, infusing the proceedings with a dizzying sense of play. The intricate guitar work, propulsive drumming, and odd entry points into melody might be accomplished with the inventiveness of trained jazz musicians, but there’s nothing calculated about Pom Poko’s joyous attempts at creating warped pop music.

Music Pick of the Week



Highway Hypnosis

Year of release: 2019

by Jericho Cerrona


Eva Moolchan (aka Sneaks) is cooler than you. She won’t make a big deal about it, but it’s true. Starting out playing bass in a bunch of Washington DC punk bands before cutting her teeth with solo efforts like 2016's Gymnastics and 2017's It's a Myth carries a certain trajectory, even if those albums felt more like sketches than full-blown concepts. On what could rightly be considered her feature-length debut, Highway Hypnosis, Sneaks’s stoned swagger comes on methodically like a midnight drive inside a cloud of vapor. Eschewing the post-punk energy of her previous material for a series of tripped-out bmp electro and clipped beats, Moolchan sings/speaks/purrs like a young woman who (yes) has a sense of mischievous cool, but also an endearing goofiness. At times, Highway Hypnosis sounds like M.I.A. filtered through 90’s rave dance music, but somehow comes off even weirder than that.

It would have been easy for Sneaks to blow out her sound by chasing trap-rap trends, but her emphasis on minimal beat-based music in a downtempo mode means that those hoping for a series of bangers might be disappointed. Not that there aren’t bangers here (cuts like “The Way it Goes”, “Suck It Like A Whistle” come to mind), but Moolchan is more interested in throwing sonic curveballs than pleasing commercial sensibilities. There are elements of dub, lo-fi punk, soul, and funk thrown into the mix too, but categorizing everything under a specific genre is ultimately reductive.

Highway Hypnosis spans 13 tracks and clocks in at just under 30 minutes, so no one will ever accuse Sneaks of self-indulgence, but there are more ideas (both sonically and lyrically) packed into every corner of the album than anything in her back catalog. Much of this comes down to producers Carlos Hernandez and Tony Seltzer, whose groves/beats maintain an aural minimalism while still sounding dynamic enough for Moolchan’s playful vocal delivery. Whether it be the 808 electronic drum machine and non-sequitar lyrics on “"Ecstasy", or the psychedelic groove and clicking mouth sounds on “Suck It Like a Whistle”, Sneaks takes listeners on a literal journey—through the streets of Paris, the club scenes in Portugal, the underground areas of Atlanta—while also teasing out a woozy sonic expedition. Meanwhile, seemingly unimportant pit-stops along the way; like the experimental noise-based “"Saiditzoneza", or the repetitive vocals and slap bass on “Holy Cow Never Saw a Girl Like Her”, give the record a broader canvas. The album culminates in fiery lead single “Hong Kong to Amsterdam”, which is probably the closest Sneaks has come yet to the M.I.A. comparisons; with its skittering beat, laid-back flow, and the dancey atmosphere.

However, when all is said and done and every track on Highway Hypnosis has run its course, Sneaks will still be cooler than you.

Music Pick of the Week


Earl Sweatshirt

Some Rap Songs

Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona


Earl Sweatshirt (aka Thebe Kgositsile) sounds like a man twice his age on long-awaited third album, Some Rap Songs. There was always a deeply introspective side to the heralded rapper who became famous at age 16 as a member of Odd Future, but his evolution from pop culture phenomenon to someone nearly vanishing into obscurity has its footing in real pain. Dealing with depression, vaulted expectations, and the death of his father earlier this year creates a paradigm for which to view Some Rap Songs, which is the most fully realized work of his career thus far.

The notion of pain and loneliness as a real geographical space is at the forefront of the record, which favors atmosphere over song structure, lo-fi beats over polished instrumentals, and deadpan rhymes over spit-fire bars. Now 24, Earl feels much more at home with himself as well as detached from his station in life. Using chopped up samples, jazzy interludes, warped audio clips, and tape hiss, Some Rap Songs creates a disorienting sonic landscape on which Earl projects feelings of loneliness and isolation.

On songs like “Nowhere2Go”, he contemplates depression in regards to impending death over stuttering loops and wonky samples. On “Azur”, Earl gives it up for the way his mother filled the void left by a distant father'; My cushion was a bosom on bad days/It’s not a black woman I can’t thank. His mother shows up again on “Playing Possum”, sampled from a keynote speech intertwined with his dad reciting a poem, and it’s simultaneously uplifting and caustic.

Thematically, the shadow of his parents (especially his late father) looms large over Some Rap Songs, while the left-field production is going for a very Madlib vibe. It’s a combination that works like gangbusters; with distinct lyrical rhymes and experimental soundscapes encompassing 15 tracks, none of which stretch beyond two minutes. Rap as therapy has rarely sounded this revelatory.

Music Pick of the Week


Julia Holter


Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona


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


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


Year of release: 2018

by Jericho Cerrona


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


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

Kamasi Washington_ Heaven and Earth.jpg

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



Hippo Lite

Year of release: 2018


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



The Sciences

Year of release: 2018


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


Liberating Guilt and Fear

Year of release: 2018



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



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



Spectral Estate

Year of release: 2018



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



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


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


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.