Aphex Twin – Syro (Warp, 2014)

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For an artist that has been scarcely seen or heard from in the music world for the past 7 years, and not produced an album for 13 years under his main Aphex Twin alias, Richard James has set the Internet on fire with the surprising revelation of his hiatus breaking newest release Syro. Built out of a Frankenstein-ian collection of largely older material and more modern pieces of as-yet-unknown age, it’s an album that has certainly cleaved opinions of fans that have been clamouring for years for new material.

The opening duet of “minipops 67” and “XMAS_EVET10” have drawn criticism for both being tracks that have been circulating the Internet for years now, ever since their first live performances in 2007 and 2010 respectively; “where’s the new content?”, I hear the ingrates cry. Their modernity as compared to some of the other pieces in the album is clear though, with “minipops” focusing down on unusually Pop-centric sensibilities in its warped vocal lines and tinkling, Hip-Hop reminiscent piano sequences supplementing the playful, retro synth tickles that gently waft the track forwards. “XMAS_EVET10” meanwhile is a deliciously dark and twisting roadmap of Richard’s recent life and one of the finest displays of his emotional baggage that is referenced across the record, opening to squelching 303s and sad, detuned piano lines , desperately trying to climb out of its repressed hole in the pseudo-dance sequences of self-appeasing basslines at the 4 minute mark, before plateauing and outriding the recent instability in his life to settle into its habitual rhythms.

The emotional chaos of Richard’s life across this 13 year gulf can be found nearly everywhere on the album actually; “180db_” tries to suppress the memory of recent hardships as it blots the early album with its incongruous and aggressive pulses of distorted noise, staggering and buffeting in the middle of the dancefloor, the skittering lights the bobbing heads and hands and strobing light show burying reality for a brief moment. Later in the album the madly titled “s950tx16wasr10”, supposedly one of the tracks titled by his kids, alludes to the the difficulties and fear of raising children, a cathartic pinnacle of insane bpm Jungle beats brushing the edge of the unknown as it rises out of tempered, restrained instrumentation into a battlefield of experimental electronica. Precursor “PAPAT4″is another piece that raises the game as the album progresses, bringing out rapidfire Acid synth lines and insane breakbeats across the stuttering drum machine, whipping up flurries of anxiously excitable sound with incredible textural detail and nuance but of nauseating speed.

But it’s in a couple of really surprising tracks where I think the rawest content is; the title track “syro u47et8+e” opens to Richard’s wife muttering something in Russian, before slipstreaming into a sort of honeymooning, excitable barrage of funky electro grooves and 70s nostalgia, burdened with LFO bleeps and clipped croonings, troughing with guttural basslines before collapsing near the end in more minimalist, tired, but ultimately satisfied synth grooves that lean on the shimmering warbles of the bright backing drone. Similarly, “CIRCLONT6A” dances away its woes in Acid-cum-Chiptune beats that rise up out of a mire of squelchy 303s, climbing out of a drunken slide of, again, contesting LFO beeps and smeared synth walls with a big fat grin on its face.

But it’s truly the closer that puts the icing on the cake for me, probably because it’s the most surprising part of the entire record; the 5 minute Ambient tangent that unwinds on delicately repeating piano strokes and chirping birdsong of “aisatsana”, or Anastasia spelled backwards (the name of his second wife). It just feels like an oasis of calm and contentedness in a sea of increasingly rising worry and fear and unsureness, a bastion of love and reliability that puts an end to what was an escalating spiral of emotional disarray. It really is disarmingly beautiful, even if you don’t think it’s an appropriate closer.

I’ll be honest, even on the first listen I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this release, and that feeling has only grown with each passing listen. Sure, there’s a bunch of late-album Acid tunes that I don’t think are particularly strong and there’s still something to be desired in the production value department, but this works just incredibly well as a cohesive unit, spanning emotional multitudes (and literal time) with a surprising amount of variety, and ultimately finding a resolution in its end; this is an album that brings a little bit of late 90s Electronic charm into 2014 for the fans that have waited patiently for so long, and what a fantastic return to the music world it is.

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Hanan – Sonder (Inspirus, 2014)

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“Sonder” is one of those funny words that seems to have grown up on the internet in the past few years, seemingly to fill an apparent hole in the English language; defined as being “the realisation that each passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own” it’s often found overlain on evocative B&W gifs and accompanying pseudo-philosophical meanderings on Tumblr. Despite being a rather intriguing concept in reality, its flagrant overuse as a word in recent times has made me a little tired of seeing it. I had not seen, however, someone attempt to use the word and create an album centered deliberately over this thought; that was up until Hanan came along. Rather bitesized at just a shade over 33 minutes long, Hanan attempt to capture this fleeting realisation in their Post-Rock sensibilities.

I apologise for any cynicism in advance but over the course of several listens this album has increasingly revealed itself to be shallow and rather uninspiring across its duration, ironically suggesting ideas of self-awareness and the desire to move away from the norm but still languishing in fairly predictable Post-Rock frameworks, a genre that never seems to want to progress (in my eyes). There’s a number of instances of this not being a wholly Post-Rock record actually, largely through the latter part of the album; “Widdershins” takes its name seriously and provides an interestingly electronic deviation with its skittering mechanical sounds and jumbled glitch scattered throughout, grating and stuttering against the mainstream. It’s something of an outlier sonically, although closer “Scoop” is another similar bastion of Ambient sound in the album as it slowly sends downtempo pulses of shimmering instrumentation out of the darkness, sounding tired but not resigned. “Wolfsbane” is perhaps the last antithetical track as it cruises in on beds of softly shifting drones and threateningly discordant piano lines, albeit tempered and unusually delicate in their presentation. All of these pieces unwind at a nice, consistent and delicate rate, and are pleasant musings.

The other tracks are, what I would call, relatively unsurprising when it comes to all things Post-Rock, perhaps with the exception of the beautiful intimacy of the opener “Buttons”, which seems content enough in its little details as it spins minimal piano tinklings against oscillating synth pads and sparse, lightly processed guitar chords. “Parsimony”, the second track of the album, really does define the stereotypical sound though as it rolls out its repetitive, staccato guitar leads and lightweight, cymbal-splashy percussion. Admittedly it does lead out on some rather nice, delicate movements towards the end as playful synths complement more grinding guitar drones, resistive of the previous aggression. But pieces like “Philistines” are every bit as dull and repetitive as the monotonous arguments they tout, with aggressive but distant guitar once again carrying the splashy percussion in endless, barely migrating loops, and “Pay Attention” taking advantage of the overused crescendos that Post-Rock is so desirous to include at every opportunity, destroying its initially quiet and neat, downtempo guitar in favour of a heavily processed, grinding climax in its closing minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that this is a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m sure there’ll be more than a fair share of individuals who really appreciate this record and its instrumentation, but every time I give Post-Rock a chance it seems to throw it back in my face and just not supply anything that taxes the genres parameters and remains content to regurgitate the same tropes that really have been done to death at this point. Hanan at least seem to recognise this in some capacity as they try to evade the predictable in the final few tracks and appear to hover on the edge of indecision in a number of others but it still ends up being disappointingly sluggish and dry. It stays true enough to its concept at the least, for which it can be commended, but I found myself pretty disenchanted with this overall.

 

Marble Sky – Marble Sky (Students of Decay, 2014)

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I’ve thought long and hard about how to talk about this album and every version just didn’t seem quite right; I went to walk the dog a little while ago and thought to myself that perhaps I was approaching this album the wrong way, that instead of talking about human love and emotional fugues I should talk about how it could be interpreted in this moment. The realisation came after looking up at that orange, dismal curtain of light pollution overhead, that which would otherwise be grey in daylight; a part of Autumn’s encroachment and the subtle shift of weather from Summer’s vaguely acceptable heights to Winter’s ultimately grey, dismal fugues, and I think that seasonal evolution is perhaps the best way to approach Jeff Witscher’s new compilation album Marble Sky. 

His two previous albums are fused and appear chronologically, with debut The Sad Return appearing first. This first half for me feels like the more emotionally damaged, the more morose and resigned of the two; the opener of “Pulling Up Grass Under a Blanket” arrives in tidal washes of white noise, pulses of melancholic drone supplementing it with their vague, hazy turnings. Like each of the pieces it grows in textural and emotional complexity across its span, with thick horn blats eventually calling out of the foggy mire, waking us up with urgency as the first Autumnal mist descends. “Dull Hue” puts on a stronger performance, the new day dawning fully and with it a cavalcade of smeared, processed guitar drones cutting through the background fuzz. We’re becoming aware of the liveliness of Autumn in its crashing waves of drone, with bolder and more colourful, piercing notes cutting through the mulch as life picks up the pace to ready itself.

“What You Might Forget” attempts to keep us grounded and not forgetful of the next chapter in the story, trying to get us to remember Winter’s woes through its scouring walls of obfuscating static. It’s a track long struggle that eventually sees the softer drone lines make themselves heard above the clamour with an accepting heaviness, seguing into almost violin reminiscent oscillations at its end, a confused and fluxing emotional journey that can’t decide whether it’s pleased or sad to see the end of this life-year.

The second half sees a portion of Marble Sky’s sophomore release featured: Low God/Lady. “A Shining Juniper” makes for an initially menacing introduction to this side of things as it moves in on dark, growling distortion, but it quickly falls away into perhaps the airiest and most beauteous piece of the record, unwinding a blissful haze of distant, delicate drones. Golden light shines through the trees in warm, joyful flutters of sharper and brighter synth lines later in the piece before it dips low enough to be continuously present, beaming out of the mix. Followup “Sunset on Low” is the shortest piece at a mere 5 minutes long and is something of a bleak, minimalistic and chugging interlude between its bigger brothers, sitting motionless in melancholic hibernation as time slides miserably past in a bleary, dim haze of shifting drone, just waiting for that final day.

The closer “Lea; Crossed Eyes” is where it all comes to a head though, and is unquestionably my favourite track of the album and one of the finest drone pieces I’ve heard in a long while. Early, miserable drones swirl and sit in their fugue, turning uneasily before a bolder line chastises them over their misery and castigates them from the piece in favour of an emergent synth line that bathes the track’s extensive midsection with a contented and quietly satisfied light; thin and shimmery it unwinds ahead of the stunning final four minutes of overwhelming, eviscerating catharsis. It grows to a wall of stereo release, a destructive wave that terminates our lovely green leaves with pleasure now that we’re ready to move on and tackle Winter, leaving our concerns behind now that it’s too late, embracing our fate head on.

The changing of the seasons is an unstoppable force that nature must bear without question; the first half buries its head in the sand and struggles toaccept its impending fate, not ready to shed its leaves or go back to school or university following the luxurious Summer months. But Marble Sky comes to terms with that inevitability in its second half, embracing the challenge and enjoying basking in Autumn’s crispness and soft, golden glow one last time before the fleeting moment passes and the dirge of Winter arrives. I’m floored by the beauty and cohesion of this release and I honestly can’t get enough of it; there’s no question that this is making the end of year list for me.

You can find more details on the impending vinyl reissue, and stream The Sad Return, at Students of Decay