Top 10 Releases of 2017: Part 2

7. By the End of Summer - Laughing
(2017 Sango Records)

It's easy to forget that emo's emotional breadth can extend beyond sadness: you're only reminded of what the genre can do when you hear it pushed to its fullest potential. Cap'n Jazz could do it back in the day, layering sheets of ruddy-cheeked chords and lyrics about "kitty-cats" over punk-rock blast beats. Empire! Empire! did it too, centering around their honest and nostalgic storytelling. Kyoto's By The End of Summer's Laughing EP is one of the more recent installments in the "emotionally diverse emo" canon, bridging the gap between TTNG's wonky math-rock riffage and the teenage adventure of early Blink-182.

The four-song EP is addictively immediate. BTEOS arrangements roar to life without introduction, hurling riff after riff at the listener while frontman Miyazaki's voice cracks in surges of bittersweet catharsis. "Even Now", which takes its instrumental cues from late-80s skate rock, is the standout cut of the bunch, featuring enough hooks and swooping chord changes to fill an entire album in just two minutes.

BTEOS isn't flashy: like Cloud Nothings before them, the quartet pounds out raw, quick tracks that hit right in the sweet spot. The feelings are real and the lyrics are grounded.

"regret and remembrance / it's completely changed around here / the old vending machine / the running children / they were gone"

6. Playboi Carti - Playboi Carti
(2017 Interscope)

If Young Thug's the Cocteau Twins of mumble rap (at least according to this semi-popular Tumblr post) then Playboi Carti may well be the sub-genre's answer to Galaxie 500. Like the now-defunct Cambridge trio, he has a penchant for two-chord instrumentals and staccato melodies, haunting these dronescapes with dreamy phrases that roll off the tongue like December sighs: in a cloud of vapor.

Maybe it'd be even more accurate to compare Carti to The Velvet Underground. From the playful experimentation of his self-titled tape's interchangeable cover art to his penchant for lyrics that are iconic and intentionally shallow, he's a Warholian figure: a fourth-wall-breaking protagonist who's as fascinated by stardom in the conceptual sense. "I'm a rockstar," he asserts in the intro to lead single "wokeuplikethis*". Somehow it makes perfect sense. It's intrinsic. 

He's William Carlos Williams, too, neatly filing syllables into their perfect instrumental slots while offering just enough information to convey the outline of an image. The aesthetic's executed best on opnener "Location", in which Carti drops a fragmented series of interjections and descriptions that avoid do their best to dodge verbs: ("tats on my neck on my arms" ad nauseam). It's ideogrammatic, exchewing the third-person perspective images that the written word conjures in our minds for the swirl of sensory stimulus that passes through the cortex on the daily. Also, the Harry Fraud beat that carries the track is incredible, especially at 1:31 when its (dare I say) vaporwavey guitar sample screeches to the forefront of the mix. 

Carti is everyone that shaped rock 'n' roll and he's all the ideas that let it fall to trap music. Effortlessly, he became the zeitgeist. At least for the 50-minute duration of his mixtape, that is.

5. Girls Rituals - EMERGENCY!
(2017 Visual Disturbances)

Speaking of Warhol, Girls Rituals' EMERGENCY! does 21st century Pop-Art better than any Dean Blunt/Vektroid/Ferraro project I've heard in recent memory, and she does so by just being herself. Like its creator, the record's a product of low-brow mid-00s internet ephemera: Soulja Boy's early MySpace material, DeviantArt's amateurish digital paintings, the neurotic/hyberbolic humor of imageboard sub-cultures, and pretty much anything tangentially related to Newgrounds. 

Unlike many of the other "post-internet" artists that populate Bandcamp and Soundcloud, Girls Rituals isn't adopting this aesthetic ironically. The musical and aesthetic ideas she appropriates are borrowed out of sincere appreciation. On "xXx DNA xXx", the west-coast hip-hop synths are squelchy and out of tune because they want to be, in a way that's legitimately pretty. Girls Rituals' murmured vocals tame the bombast: she's a languid calm in a dissonant storm, just barely missing her notes. It's hypnotic. Strangely soothing.

According to nearly everyone who's reviewed EMERGENCY on Bandcamp, "Black Crow" is the cream of this 17-track crop. I'm inclined to agree. Painfully dysphoric lyrics, delivered dryly as usual, are paired with a carnivalesque arrangement of 16-bit riffs that moan and squeak like the Earthbound soundtrack. How do you feel listening to this? How can you feel? "Dig and dig and dig," she sings. "I smash and curse this skin." Breezy chords prop up a melting melody. "I'll be a black crow in my next life flying over an office park."


Top 10 Releases of 2017: Part 1

10. Mormon Toasterhead - monocarpic
(2017 Self-Released)

adjective [BOTANY]
(of a plant) flowering only once and then dying.

...and what it leaves behind is prickly, sturdy, and puzzling. Aligning itself with the pineapples and durians of the botanical world, Mormon Toasterhead's first of two 2017 LPs houses acid-sweet flesh inside its tough shell, which admittedly took a few attempts for me to peel. 

Toasterhead frontman Ben Klawans isn't the most hospitable host on monocarpic: the Chicagoan songwriter loads the first 15 minutes of the record with its most challenging, incoherent content. Opener "drooling, delirious, red," for example, is constructed around a rapidly looping sample that sounds like throttled windchimes, throwing back to the glitchy atonality of Animal Collective's 2002 live album Hollinndagain: Klawans mumbles a spoken word poem, his vocal fry acting as a coagulant that holds the spooky soundscape together long enough to phase into "more than monotony" and "hollow rain," two cuts that nod to Alex G's cherubic college-rock delivery while dipping into Sonic Youth's tertiary palette of free-jazz asides and ambient cooldowns.

Clocking in at six and eight minutes respectively, the pair of tracks give the listener ample time to get used to their too-trebly mastering and almost non-existent structures, filled out by full-band arrangements that defy Mormon Toasterhead's cozy, lo-fi back catalogue. As if writing a sentence that travels for pages, full of parenthetical phrases and em-dashes, Klawans jerks the reader by the wrist from dissonant riff to keyboard drone, and it's all worth it because these weird little asides are just as fascinating as the free-associative lyrics that bridge the gaps. 

Finally making your way to closer "Bright Green" is worth the price of admission. Materializing in a pretty cloud of feedback and harmonics, Klawans and Co. trudge their way through a cocktail of narcotic alt-country haze and rubber-band guitar twang that recalls Doug Martsch's work with Built to Spill. 

"remember how teeth and dandruff used to show up bright green? 
under UV disco lights, 
at your favorite bowling alley"

Metal fences rise from the gutters to catch you as you glide down the waxed lane, into the reversed guitar samples that cap the album off like the faded edge of a watercolor stroke. 

9. Aria Rostami - Reform
(2017 Zoom Lens)

Among the ZOOM LENS label's discography of washed-out blues and cyberpunk gloom, Aria Rostami's Reform is a fragrant explosion of olives and pinks, huffing warm synth-pop melodies against IDM drums that rattle and hiss. It's wordless, but mouthed by samples and patches that could be mistaken for human voices: a chorus of hushed tones and yawns. For nearly an hour, Rostami sustains the feeling of stretching out in bed after a hard day's work, dozing off as the soreness circulates from your shins to your chest, leaving the body as a sigh of relief. If "Flim" is your favorite Aphex Twin song, this record is right in your wheelhouse.

8. youthcomics - Shower of 411 sec.
(2017 Miles Apart Records)

Kyoto quartet youthcomics stretch toward the future while still keeping a back foot planted in the pastry-flake crackle of 90's twee-punk. Their first and only release to date is this lone cassingle, but there's enough power-pop fizzed bottled up into its seven minutes of tape to overshadow many full albums released within the genre this year. 

A-side "Youth in Our Backyards" defies language barriers to supply an impossibly-catchy chorus, bookended by echoing vocals, kaleidoscopic chord changes, and crisp guitar solos that feel as hypnotic as anything DIIV pressed on their 2011 debut, Oshin. Narutoshi Ohino's vocals phase and flange beneath the cramped instrumentation, and they sound almost autotuned in a beautiful way--through vaguely folky, the record is bursting with mechatronic energy, powered by air-tight drumbreaks that'll win over any fans of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. 

B-side "Falling" feels a bit more delicate, peeling back the distortion to let Ohino extend syllables against gummy basslines and bluesy licks. If you've ever jammed to The Field Mice, Joanna Gruesome, or early Yuck, you won't be able to resist Shower of 311 sec.


Review: Hypoluxo - "Taste Buds"

Hypoluxo - Taste Buds
(2017 Broken Circles)

Every time I've played Hypoluxo's Taste Buds on the aux cord, I've received the same reaction from my fellow passengers:

"Is that Beach Fossils? No, wait; that guy sounds like the dude from The National! Or Ian Curtis..."

Their confusion's warranted. It's not often you'll hear post-punk's signature monotone/baritone vocal delivery paired with shimmering, melodic guitars that sound this radiant, brushing up against surf-rock beats. The contrast between frontman Samuel Cogen and his backing band is stark, but it's one that pays off. Each of the four songs that make up the Brooklyn quartet's sophomore EP is its own emotional alloy, plucking sonic inspiration from the feelings that tangle in your head as you perform rote tasks like taking out the trash or showering. The songs don't descend from intense, unshakable events. They're comfy, but full of mystery.

It's more organic that way. Though Cogen's lyricism fluctuates from slight surreality to the familiar backdrop of everyday life, he remains firmly rooted within the sphere of real, human thought sans embellishment. Track 1, "Sometimes", doesn't mince words (or orchestration for that matter). The band rattles off extremely hummable guitar riffs, glistening with reverb and twang, as Cogen drips off-the-cuff sentiment into the mic: "Sometimes I get nervous / I get nervous when you yell at me / You can be so scary get so angry / At the things that I don't see."

Following the final verse, the song's bony fingers of melody unclench, opening the track up to no-wave improvisation. A thread of white noise knots through knucklebones as dissonant harmonics wriggle free. Cogen mumbles fairly decipherable syllables into the brew, as if reciting some evil incantation. 

The following song, "Cowboy Poet" is, as its title suggests, Taste Buds' most flowery offering. Conflating the anonymity of city life with the old west's gritty individualism, the band strikes up an equine gallop that morphs into a mechanical chug. Guitars sizzle beneath synthesized lens flares. Vocals soar over gloomy basslines. Closer "Dog Park" is my pick of the bunch, dropping droning chords over a four-on-the-floor thump. It's a breezy, free-associative piece that expands from its titular canines to memories of Cogen's mom's house. The song is aimless in the best way: as ambling as life itself. 

At 14 minutes, Taste Buds is a charming diversion that packs some memorable hooks and thought-provoking poetic license. It's a very replayable effort, and one that's timbrally unique enough to pop into your head from time to time. Even though the record's just a few months old, it already feels like a trusted friend. 


Review: Butterbeer - "Obliviate"

Butterbeer - Obliviate
(2017 BoringProductions)

I've yet to hear an installment in BoringProductions' discography that hasn't blown me away. Keeping their output uniformly jangly, the Chinese label has spent the past two years curating a signature sound that looks to the brittler textures of 90s dream-pop for inspiration: among its eight artists with official releases, there's a shared reverence for the warm shimmer of college rock groups like The Sundays and Blake Babies, varnished with the shoegaze-lite trebliness of Cocteau Twins' later works like Four Calendar Cafe.

A collaborative outlet for the frontwomen of Atta Girl and Chestnut Bakery (whose debut album was one of my favorite 2015 releases), Butterbeer is the best realization of BoringProductions' creative vision yet. Recorded in a bedroom roughly two years ago, it's a record that's as texturally snug as your favorite comforter, but feels too vast to be confined by the space it was recorded in. Snatching their carbonated guitar tone from records pressed by 4AD in their heyday, the duo form cozy pockets of energy that start off subdued, but quickly expand in surges of emotion. Each chord and vocal swell is a reverse tide, pushing you further away from the shore until you're surrounded by harmony.

Oblivate's opening couplet, "A Secret" and "Platform", is sung almost entirely in Chinese. Even though the lyrics might be lost in translation for English-speaking audiences, the pair of tracks form the record's most exciting one-two punch right out of the gates, rippling splashes of delayed guitar across drum beats that paddle across the transparent surface. Especially on the former of the two tunes, there are traces of old Airiel records bobbing at the crest of water: multi-instrumentalist Jovi's gelatinous chords wobble under the heft of Rye's drawn-out syllables, which linger like impossibly-dense fog. You can't help but be reminded of "In Yr Room" as distortion swallows the scenery with its arresting roar. 

Airiel's rippling instrumentation and patient vocal delivery on "In Yr Room" bears 
less-delicate resemblance to Butterbeer's crescendos.

Six tracks written in English follow. The best of these are backed by acoustic guitar, giving ample wiggle room for Rye and the instruments she's brought along to complement her verses. Butterbeer deconstruct The Cranberries' folk-rock arrangements to a miniature, lo-fi scale on "To The Stars". Washes of a keyboard's strings sample run through the skeletal tune's exposed circulatory system, biting like a winter draft that passes through your ribcage. Given the crushing gravitas conveyed by the instrumentation, it's surprising how childlike and sleepily cute the lyrics are. Butterflies are our friends and we’ll grow so many flowers," Rye sings. "All that we can hear is music and laughter". The scene set is so carefree it's hard to process: there's a sweet fantasy about it that feels very "Puff, the Magic Dragon" in a sincere way. 

"Another Sunny Day", which I'd heard previously on a label compilation, is another standout. The track's an ode to its titular band, who dropped a handful of singles in the late 80s via twee-pop imprint Sarah Records. Here, Butterbeer are true to their source material, hanging garlands of staccato guitar on a woozy chord progression. "I've decided to forget all about you," Rye sings offhandedly. As these unnamed mysteries disappear, so does the track: it's simple, catchy and gone in an instant. The perfect pop tune. 

If you've peeped a BoringProductions release in the past, you know what to expect: Obliviate is well-produced, accessible, and dreamy as anything you'll hear this year. Give the record a spin, and then check out the rest of the music available on the label's Bandcamp page. You won't be disappointed. 


Review: DJ Lucas - "Lucas' Mansion III"

DJ Lucas - Lucas' Mansion III
(2017 Dark World)

Weighing in at a beefy 22 songs, the latest project by Massachusetts native Lucas Kendall finds the rapper/producer oddly wedged in the crevice between laissez-faire Soundcloud experimentation and the inventive, Garageband-sourced sound that's landed him production credits for arthouse emcees like Wiki, Antwon, and even the wildly prolific CHXPO. 

When we last saw Lucas in late July, he'd turned in Unleash These Bangers, Too, his most polished and accessible effort to date. Outsourcing much of its production to fellow New England beat-makers, he paired his conversational storytelling and ear for dissonant, autotuned melodies with an incredibly diverse array of timbres. On "Arm/Leg," he reflected on his rural "farm kid" roots to the bounce of west-coast percussion. He was an emo R&B singer on "1 Phone Call Away," and a malfunctioning robot spitting over wonky Wii Sports jazz arrangements on "In My Element."

Sacrificing a bit of his populist appeal, Lucas takes almost total control behind the boards on LMIII, approaching sound design with his signature genre-twisting, iconoclastic attitude while dipping deeper into autobiographical waters than he has in the past. Early single "New Gear" laces a funky bassline with trills of slide guitar, imbuing the beat with a weird folk-rock flavor without delving into the gimmicky country-rap aesthetic one might have imagined based on my description alone. Lucas' blends of sounds don't often sound great on paper, but in practice they just work because they're true to his experience. The arrangements here are hazy and nostalgic: the perfect complement to Lucas' memories of basketball practices, summers spent growing up around UMass' campus, and his love for the local scene of weirdo-rappers he's held together as Dark World Records' unofficial figurehead. 

The record's most impressive cuts find Lucas playing the role of an indie rock songwriter, taking after his father, who fronted a few jangle-pop outfits in the 80s and 90s. While contemporaries like Lil Peep and Mackned are content to exclusively cull their samples from midwestern emo records, Lucas' production feels more akin to The Strokes' wiry guitar-pop. Despite its 808s and tinny hi-hats "One More Day" is a sundae-sweet love song that swells with hammond organ samples and malt-shop sentimentality. It's another track that's bizarre in theory, but plays out naturally: even as his voice warbles against wavering pitch-correction software, Lucas effortlessly draws an ooze of melancholia from his breezy chord progression, and the lyrics are just simple enough not to sound forced. It's far from his most technically proficient work, but it stands out as a truly unique composite of musical styles. 

Even the classic Lucas ethos sounds fresh on LMIII. Free-jazz tune "Pretty Please" feels like a collage of quips cut from text messages, some of them too personal or esoteric to understand, others hitting home on a lovable, down-to-earth level. It's the sort of cut that makes you feel like you've been close friends with the artist for years -- die-hard Dark World fans will be all-too familiar with Lucas' desire to be a small-town hero, his baseball references, and his off-hand allusions to unexplained events from his past that we're not meant to know about. There's always some suble/mundane/charming aspect of his character to excavate from the lyrics: it's the kind of songwriting Genius.com was founded for.

Lucas' Mansion III is currently my second-favorite installment in the DJ Lucas canon, but it's primed to take the top spot soon. It's an effort meant to grow on the listener, concealing subtly brilliant lines and hooks that take patience to get into the groove of. Even if the consistency of the songs can be a little off sometimes, it's tough to get bored bumping his music: he's always tinkering with new sounds and packing them with honest, intelligent lyrical content.


Review: Smut - "End of Sam-Soon"

Smut - End of Sam-Soon
(2017 Broken Circles)

The last time I caught a Smut show, I was a freshman English major with bad skin, an asymmetrical haircut, and a taste for sweatshirts with sleeve-prints: the archetypal SadBoy. Mingling with the hazy smell of grilled peppers—the gig took place in a now-defunct anarchist taco joint—this newly-formed shoegaze outfit heaved to life like shifting tectonic plates, grating against continental drifts of distortion to the mid-tempo rhythms of mid-90s college rock. Taylor Roebuck's menacing vocals pushed through the fuzz like the cries of a human-guitar hybrid, adding their own layers of sediment to a heap of sound. There were guitar solos that resembled those videos of "crazy sounds in the sky" that you'll always find in the weirder subsections of Youtube. The sound was interplanetary; I could feel gravity's pull weakening in Tacocracy.

Afterward, the guitarist and the bassist showed me their Magic: The Gathering cards.

I've shaved my head since then, and it appears that Smut's trimmed off some of their noise-pop grime too. Though the trebly chords that inhabit the quintet's debut record, End of Sam-Soon, are tinged with some obligatory grit, there's a welcome spaciousness here that I hadn't heard on previous efforts. Roebuck's vocals do more than echo from the floor of a post-punk abyss: they're front and center on the new record, saving you a trip to the lyrics sheet and driving Smut's hefty hooks home.

And I'm not kidding when I say there are some killer choruses on this thing. "Blush" hits particularly hard, initially emerging with a Goo-era Sonic Youth stutter, slowly stretching like a rubber band until unsustainable levels of potential energy are reached. The resulting refrain feels like a succession of dramatic chord changes strung together like some sort of chord conglomerate, culminating with an an alt-country-fried guitar solo that sounds like Dinosaur Jr covering Uncle Tupelo. Roebuck's odd meters and poetic devices make the tune all the catchier: "all slipping and screaming and scrambling to shelter," she speaks, distantly, "the sweet summer swelter."

"Video Cell" houses some of my favorite guitar riffs on Sam-Soon. As Roebuck sings "eyes so sweet, just like TV," a static-y melody catches the hairs of your wrist like you've pressed your open hand to the television screen. It's crackly and cold, like Crunch bars in your pumpkin bucket. Like orange foliage underfoot. Like Burger King receipts on the station wagon's floor mats.

"Shuteye" is pretty great. too. It's the kind of song that tricks you into thinking it's sloppy and chaotic on the first listen, lacing a lumbering chord progression with screamed storytelling before revealing its inner viscera: delicately-plucked arpeggios coated with that classic 4AD tone. Smut's at their most traditionally punk here, but they're still able to let their distinct blue-purple dreaminess bleed through.

Smut it often billed as a post-punk band, but the shimmery, college-rock sounds on Sam-Soon are what keep me coming back for more. The record's solid balance between gothic gloom and twangy melodicism make this my favorite local release of the year. Keep Cincy music crunchy. 


Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - "John Carpenter's Halloween"

Trent Reznor x Atticus Ross - "Halloween"
(2017 Sacred Bones)

The weekend before Halloween we'd light the candle inside our gutted and carved pumpkin, sitting it between the rocking chairs on our front porch. In the late evening, its glow would burn a square-toothed grin into the phased-out blue of our vinyl siding. We would creep into the front lawn and throw blankets wrapped around our waists for warmth, leaving my ankles exposed in the Crocs my grade-school self would insist on wearing, staring our gourd down as my dad would cue the opening credits of John Carpenter's Halloween from our DVR. We'd leave our front door propped enough for our TV speakers to just barely ooze their sound into the surrounding neighborhood: wait for it, wait for it...

There it is. 5/4 time signature. Too-trebly piano trepanning your skull. The hi-hat percussion rattling like an old washer-dryer or window unit. It's timbrally in your-face, but compositionally so awkward it can't be anything but unobtrusive. The track's as cornball and lo-fi as the flick it scores, camera panning suburban streets to its funereal organ chords and hurried arpeggios: it's held together by a Snickers-bar buzz and the October chill as dissonant synth pads slowly envelop the song in nighttime.

Lending their talents to the always-spooky Sacred Bones Records, Nine Inch Nails members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross turned in their own version of the classic slasher theme earlier this month, just in time wreak havoc on your Halloween party playlist. 

The pair's eight-minute industrial remix opens with a hollow drone not much louder than one of the ghastly noise tapes put out by Hanson Records back in the day. It's an evil fog that parts to reveal a piano, then an insectoid wash of synths, and finally, a detuned take on the theme's iconic melody that's creepier, but not quite as immediately arresting as its source material. 

What's lost in simplicity, though, is made up for in cinematic storytelling. Beneath the familiar score lurks the skittering presence of what sound like stock effects from a "scary sounds" CD, flitting beneath the walls of sound like mice behind drywall. Reznor and Ross peel back their instrumental layers about three-fourths of the way through the song, leaving this atonal scuttling stripped bare and exposed before introducing a thumping four-on-the-floor kick that drives the revamped theme 6-feet underground. Then fade to black. 

Though not as iconic as John Carpenter's 1978 recording, Nine Inch Nails' take on the Halloween is a faithful successor that revels in growling industrial textures. If you're on DJ duty for this weekend's party, it's worth giving both cuts a well-deserved spin.


Review: Stuck in November - "First Visit to Camp Telepathy"

Stuck in November - First Visit to Camp Telepathy
(2017 Self-Released)

A good majority of Bandcamp records tuck little worlds into shoeboxes, populating their cardboard confines with Easter basket grass and suburban tudors carved from individual-sized cereal boxes. Their songs barely graze the two-minute threshold, wrapping around your neck like a scarf with lo-fi static cling.

Stuck in November aren't satisfied building mere dioramas. They look up and out of the much larger box they've been placed in by giant hands, peeking over the edge into a world beyond theirs: a Felix-the-Cat-shaped clock ticks on the wall across from whatever desk or nightstand the Bangalore-based math-rock trio is trapped atop. Squat, autumnal-colored coffee mugs await their use in a glass cabinet beside it, and there's an ever-present rustle of windchimes that ride in on October drafts, often accompanied by the nimble guitaristry of a tenant practicing in another room.

My extended metaphor aside, Stuck in November's mostly-acoustic sophomore EP really does sound like a topographic or atmospheric view that's too vast to take in. I mean, just look at the cover art: it reminds me of those Dorling-Kindersley reference books filled with overhead maps of Star Wars locales, or maybe the poster tri-folded into a video game strategy guide. You can't help but try to project yourself onto the page, or in this case, into the music. 

Averaging at about 5 minutes each, the four instrumental songs that add up to First Visit to Camp Telepathy are landscapes. as conversely chaotic and ordered as nature itself. Ultra-technical guitar riffs sprout from the thicket, no two alike. Music boxes swell up like lens flares and accordion trills wobble with Wes Anderson's preciosity. Drums crunch like twigs underfoot. You'll spot familiar timbres, but won't hear them played the same way twice--their shading's tweaked by the Sun's angle, presenting Stuck in November's arrangements as blinding reflections in the bursting optimism of opener "PSJS" and sleepy dusk shadows on closer "Monster".

Ambitious as First Visit to Camp Telepathy may be, it's not quite an adventure. It's instead a normal day spent in a magical, very abnormal. universe. No matter how strange the ramshackle harmonies that compose the record are, the EP is inviting from start to finish: it's something to come back to when you're feeling as small as the contents of a shoebox.


Premiere: Jaded Juice Riders - "Deathsurf"

Jaded Juice Riders - "Deathsurf"
(2017 Spirit Goth)

*Chords like the growl of urethane wheels against a concrete bowl. Snares like the steady beat of UV rays against a pale neck.*

Summer's long over, but nobody alerted Irvine, California's Jaded Juice Riders. "Deathsurf," our second preview of the noise-pop quartet's upcoming Bowl Cut LP via Spirit Goth Records, drips with the residual humidity of 2009's endless July. 

Look: there's the walkie-talkie crackle of Wavves' self-titled debut sweating on a glass of Kool-Aid; here's Beach Fossils' tubular melodicism wriggling like hot blacktop in the distance. There's something oddly satisfying about the beach-pop sub-genre that takes me back to a time when I had longer, greasier hair and a greater insecurity about my future: then, it was only the ordered simplicity of a staccato guitar riff over a droning bassline that could make me feel at ease.

Now, the sound hits me in a way that getting a Facebook message from an old high-school friend might. I'm anxious to be confronted by my awkward past, but comforted by the commanding presence of JJR's wildly bendy lead guitars and the slacker-rock groans that echo behind them. 

"Go where you go / yes we know" sing the Juice Riders. Where they know I'm going, even I don't know. For now, I'm surfing on a wave of fuzz-riddled, dreamy ambiguity while bopping my head (one eye suddenly once again covered with murky-blonde hair) to the driving snares. 

Bowl Cut drops October 26. Pre-order a digital, vinyl, or tape copy here.


Review: ruru - "SLEEP"

ruru - SLEEP
(2017 Self-Released)

Here's the sound of the near-future zeitgeist: a year-and-a-half removed from Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book and five years deep into Mac Demarco's pop-cultural ascent, the time is just about ripe for us to appreciate a re-imagining of jazzy R'n'B this solidly inventive, sophisticated, and fun. 

Following up her debut Sounds of the Mundane EP, which reveled in the warmth of Northwestern twee-folk acts like Lois and The Softies, Filipino singer-songwriter ruru drapes her once-sparse arrangements in a musty thrift-store jacket. There's a whiff of jazz-inflected nostalgia in SLEEP's sherpa lining, but what's it nostalgic for? The taut grooves and woozy twang of Al Green's more downbeat cuts? The homey folk that phases into the background as night falls on your Animal Crossing town? Hall and Oates? 

Maybe nostalgia's not even the right word for it: the term entails a sadness and longing for something unrecoverable that I and my fellow post-Millennials aren't used to: we can conjure pictures of an old Happy Meal Toy or an episode of a favorite TV show at a moment's notice, no matter when it may have been released. The historical place of a pop-cultural artifact dissolves into the pool of our close ancestors' existence, leading us to create artistic works that can cull influence from twenty or thirty years of creativity. To us, that amount of time doesn't even seem that long. If it's documented, we can access it.

So SLEEP emerges from that sense of ambiguity. It caulks the little crannies that exist between decades, like the earthy color pallets of the late seventies to early eighties and the Reagan era's new-wavey spillage into George H.W. Bush's presidency. ruru takes their most interesting aesthetic elements, slips them into a glass slide, and then places them beneath the lo-fi lens of a twee-pop microscope. Each of the record's seven tracks is a cute little prokaryote, flagellating to its own funky rhythm.

If SLEEP were a sandwich, its bread would be the best part. Opener "when you're away" and closer "lil lonely" are slices of that expensive sprouted-wheat bread from the supermarket: Tempurpedic-soft, texturally-engaging, and maybe a little sweet/beery from sitting on the kitchen counter for too long. The former is the record's lowest-fi affair, spreading gummy keyboard chords on a cracker-thin drum loop. ruru sets up a lyrical diorama of an overcast day: gloomy cottonball clouds hang from thread tendrils above suburban milk cartons. "I'm a pathetic eclectic," she sings, sounding vaguely similar to Crying's Elaiza Santos. "Tell me what you're up to today." The latter's a jazz-pop dream, rattling off wah-pedaled Rhodes piano melodies that could fit nicely into a Father beat while leaving space for ruru to imagine a "Teletubby October", doused in reverb. 

In between the slices, the quick cut "seventeen" stands out, sliding nimble maj7 chords into a jaunty rhythm like a Belle and Sebastian record played too fast. "sepanx" is also worth a listen, if not just for its fantastically spaced-out guitar noodling.

Smashing just about every sonic concept that's cool (or is about to be cool) into one digestible record, ruru's SLEEP is the sound of the moment but looks beyond it too. It's definitely a year-end list contender for me, and I doubt it's the last project I'll hear from her. Bump this record before ruru's impending cult following convinces you to do so. 


Review: Bayu and Moopie - "I Won't Have To Think About You"

Bayu and Moopie - I Won't Have To Think About You
(2017 A Colourful Storm)

How do you categorize a release like this? Curated by the two DJs--(Bayu and Moopie)-- who run Australia's A Colourful Storm record label, I Won't Have To Think About You is a bashful sidestep away from the imprint's other industrial-techno offerings, trading gurgly synths and four-on-the-floor kicks for jittery guitar chords and invariably guileless female lead vocals. Considering the side gigs for each of the LP's masterminds, it wouldn't be a stretch to call this disc a DJ set: though its 12-track setlist lacks seamless transitioning, there's rock-solid textural cohesion that glues the body of work together. As the loud, thwacking snares of The Ampersands' "Affected" spill into Pearly Gatecrashers' citric post-punk melodies, you'd swear the two bands were composed of the same members. 

I Won't Have To Think About You honestly might be more akin to a compilation than a seamless mix. Though the tunes Bayu and Moopie spin span three decades' worth of twee-pop tradition, they've all blown in on the same coastal breezes of Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. The record's a scrambled family tree, tracing the sugar-rushed dissonance of early 80s acts like Maestros and Dipsos to the Shapiros' heaving sighs and plunging chords, which blurred their brief mid-90s career with the condensation of Young Adult fiction's melodrama: warm breaths into a palm, cupping your chin; a scribbled note, folded into a square passed across the classroom; muffled music seeping through cheap gymnasium speakers; the damp smell of yellowed paper glossing a too-realistic cover illustration. 

There are incestuous branches that span the tree, too. Bart Cummings, founder of Library Records, is credited as a member of four bands on the album. The best of these is The Cat's Miaow, whose opening track "Not Like I Was Doing Anything" pairs frontwoman Kerrie Bolton's wavering vocals with equally anxious arrangements. In this canvas, there are strokes of The Magnetic Fields before Stephen Merritt took over their vocal duties. A closer look also reveals the wrist-wriggling urgency of Johnny Marr's guitaristry and splotches of Belle and Sebastian's heaping cuteness. The song's a solid primer for what's to come: quick, catchy, and casual. Think of the comp as an off-the-cuff conversation--"I don't mind," sings Bolton, sounding as wistfully detached as The Sundays' Harriet Wheeler. "It's not like I was doing anything."


Premiere: Power Animal - "Light Elating Everything"

Power Animal - "Light Elating Everything"

Haunted house concept: this year, we can do without the corpse paint and corn syrup blood. I'll flick the lights on and serve the ghoulish tenants warm cider in shallow mugs around the old Tudor's fireplace. The shaggy beast that once lurked in the boiler room sits pretzel-legged and picks at the wall's flaking paper, grinding the wafers of yellowed floral print between his talons. He says his whole life he's felt like a fraud. Like no matter how hard he tries -- however well he hides -- he's never been able to believe that the screams he elicits from trespassing humans are genuine.

"They're only screaming out of pity," he says, taking a sip that leaves the hair on his upper lip wet with McIntosh tartness. "I only got this job because my pop's been in the haunting business for years; he knew a guy who knew the guy that runs the house. But I've never, like, really been scary. This job belongs to someone else, I'm sure of that. But I don't have the courage to quit."


Song concept: Power Animal's house is mostly haunted by the lightbulb flash of self-actualization, though it isn't out of the ordinary for a bedsheet ghost to wander though its halls. Supplementing his transparent synthesizers with phantom howls, the Philadelphia-based solo act chops and re-arranges these spooky soundscapes into a ecstatic push forward.

Though Hampson's hip-hop production does dabble in the lo-fi textures and whispery deliveries that populate Bandcamp's vast emo scene, his newest single, "Light Elating Everything" feels more indebted to Empire! Empire! I Was A Lonely Estate than any other project that's operated within the sub-genre: it's an exorcism of self-destructive thoughts, looking back on sad times through wiser lenses.

"The light's gone out in some corners,"  he speaks more than sings, "but the light has been shown some places, too."

The crackling samples; the fluttering hi-hats; the trills of screechy synth-pop melody -- they all add up to leaves on the sidewalk and candy wrappers in your shorts pocket. Bonfires in the backyard.

"I regret every disappointed breath up to 2005...you have always been the light elating everything."


Briefing: Good Wind Pt. 1, Power Animal's first record since 2012's Exorcism, comes out on Nov. 10th via Human Kindness Overflowing, a label that donates 50% of its profits to charity. This particular release's proceeds will go to Emergent Fund, an organization formed in response to the 2016 election that supports grassroots movements formed within marginalized groups.

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Review: Earth Boy - "My Sword Was My Devotion"

Earth Boy - My Sword Was My Devotion
(2017 Self-Released)

Earth Boy shares a name with one of the standout tracks on DIIV's debut LP, Oshin, only it bears a space dividing Zachary Cole Smith's original titular portmanteau. Though the two projects share a penchant for staccato guitar riffs and exorbitant amounts of reverb, it's that all-too-important space between "Earth" and "Boy" that separates their sounds. Despite watery mixing techniques and sleeptalk vocals, DIIV's songcraft stands firmly entrenched in post-punk grime, stomping divots into loamy bass as it charges forth in a permanent beeline towards nowhere in particular. It strives for kinetic beauty, inherently present in motion, dissolving as quickly as the band stops to catch its breath. DIIV's boy and its earth are in constant contact, even if they're not aware of each other.

Earth Boy's relation to the planet is more peripheral -- the Washingtonian singer-songwriter floats in the exosphere, surveying the terrain below and doing his best to translate the blurred topography to sound. Guitars, keyboards, and creaky drum machine loops each occupy their own niche in the space between artist and globe, orbiting loose rhythms like a ramshackle solar system. The best tracks on his latest EP, My Sword Was My Devotion, accentuate that disjointed atmosphere, eschewing lo-fi genre conventions to create chilly soundscapes that feel like cold fall days. "I'm Sorry I Misunderstood" sounds like a late-90s Aphex Twin track covered on toy instruments: sampled snare breaks scramble into position while sleepy keyboard chords rise from their sleep, stretch, and yawn across multiple bars, woken up by churchbells in the distance.

"Untitled" acts like an extended bridge in the center of a larger, unheard song: it gives the listener a peek at scrapped grandiosity while sticking to the cozy smallness that makes My Sword so charming. Here, a sluggish guitar refrain navigates undulating waves of bedroom pop fuzz, proceeding slowly on a limp. It's tempting to make comparisons to Pavement, but I'm most reminded of Yuck -- especially their brief period fronted by Daniel Blumberg. Earth Boy's falsetto sounds like a faraway cry for help and a whisper in your ear at the same time, and the lyrics are just as emotionally ambiguous: "I don't want to go out / I want to stay inside my house / without you I don't know if I'll be alright".

Maybe it's even possible to make comparisons to Earl Sweatshirt's last LP. Both Earth Boy and Sweatshirt revel in their hermetical lifestyles, nestled in a protective layer of tape hiss. And both keep their songs brief, frugal with the syllables and heavy on emotion. My Sword clocks in at just 6 minutes, but it doesn't skimp on the impact. It's an innovative effort that's texturally brittle but packs a punch.


Reviews: Dent May / Kei Toriki

Dent May - Across the Multiverse
(2017 Carpark)

It's been 4 years since I caught Dent May's set at the now-defunct Boomslang festival, hosted by the University of Kentucky's campus radio station WRFL. I'd only recognized the singer-songwriter's name from the back catalogue of Animal Collective's (also extinct) record label, Paw Tracks, but I trusted the judgement of the imprint's founders enough to give the guy a shot. 

The eighty-or-so attendees and I -- heads still swimming in residual reverb from performances by Fielded and Idiot Glee -- spilled out onto the balding lawn of Al's Bar in time to see May, dressed in a floral button-down and John Lennon shades, wander onto the stage flanked by his three-piece backing band. The music that followed them seemed to flow from some hidden source behind the platform: impossibly complex and otherworldly. Aqueous keys trickled through a funk-rock sieve as the frontman paced the stage like an active sleepwalker, climbing to the top of stacked amps as he waxed Brian Wilson about rent money and party dresses. The spirit of chillwave, ready to ascend into the subgenre afterlife, was housed in that lawn -- it was a sermon of the mount, the mount in question taking the form of a pillar of amplification equipment. Unsuspecting passersby broke out into dance. I'm not the biggest live music fan, but I can say with certainty that what I experienced was just a hair short of magical -- I still think about it to this day. 

And as soon as the presence was with us, it was gone. All that was left was the humidity on the back of my neck. That, and the copy of his then-latest LP, Warm Blanket, which I snagged from CD Central before heading home. It had its transcendent hooks and its haunting Beach Boys melodies -- it worked its way into car-trip rotation and became one of my favorite records of the year 1. It still never quite lived up to what I took in that summer Saturday though. Warm Blanket lived up to its title, not to the tropical climate he brought with him to the stage.

Evident in the design of his new album's sleeve, which happens to be the work of Boomslang poster painter and Kesha cover artist Robert Beatty, May's attempting to recapture the palm tree sway of his live sound, or at least to hearken back to the hardbound surfaces of Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks.

Definitely some stylistic resemblance here.

Across the Multiverse at times comes close to doing so: it's a mixed bag of decent, yet too-familiar tunecraft and some very high points. The record's title track, a collaboration with Frankie Cosmos(!), is its loftiest offering. The pair distantly mutter their lines into italo-funk arrangements, pausing to let strings and horns rattle off a few dreamy phrases. The song's squelchy little synth solo taken into consideration, it's the sort of track that'd sit nicely in a Katamari OST: upbeat, esoteric, and twee.

"Take Me To Heaven" is pretty tight, too. With its stuttering piano chords and falsetto vocals, I can't help but think that it's an attempt at writing an Elton John song with gratuitous synthesizer slathered on top. Weird stuff, but it works.

Though I respect that it samples the screech of a dial-up modem, I can't really get into "Picture on a Screen": the concepts of transhuman love and uncanny valley are starting to feel played-out, especially when Wild Nothing's done it better in a similar style on "TV Girl". May feels more at home stretched across the heavens of the physical realm, looking at the breadth of the Earth from above on "I'm Gonna Live Forever Until I'm Dead" or declaring love for celestial spheres on "Distance to the Moon".

May's lyrically always reaching for a cosmic largeness that's always beyond his reach, just like I feel looking back on the improbable beauty of the 2013 setlist. Until time-travel or interplanetary transport are feasible, this record will do for each of us. It's pretty and idealistic -- simple and wide-eyed -- lovely and worth your time.

Kei Toriki - Childhood Memories EP
(2016 Otherman Records)

Though it lacks vocals and traditional song structures, it could be argued that Kei Toriki's 2016 Childhood Memories EP contains atmospheric/idealistic cues comparable to Dent May's. Simulating wonky math-rock rhythms with sampled drumbreaks, the guitarist plucks his way to cinematic heights, aided by wails of chiptune synth. Smash all these elements together, and you've got the hyper-melodicism of Anamanaguchi married to Explosions in the Sky's somber tunefulness. Childhood Memories hustles its way to stone-faced nostalgia, tossing in some headbop-inducing percussion and catchy riffs along the way. 

Texturally, intro track "Blue" is my favorite offering here. It leans more Toriki's post-rock tendencies than his affinity for ambient IDM, delicately weaving electric leads into looped, glistening chords. "Muqaevi_Oqulivi" takes the top spot overall, though. It's laced together with staccato jazz solo and filled out by some suprisingly tasteful future-bass backing. 

On the B-side, Umio's remix of title track "Childhood Memories" is a memorable showing. A high-school music classroom's worth of backing adds timbral depth to Toriki's work: a metronome and xylophone lead seamlessly into a farty hardcore drum-and-bass groove before the composition comes up for air. Piano enters the fray, then bassy swells of brass, and, finally, some strings and the aforementioned malletted percussion. 

Though the remixes make for fun playlist-fodder, the meat of the EP is a legitimately cool conceptual experience taken as a whole. It's great stuff to listen to while playing video games, if you're the type of person that prefers to provide their own soundtrack to a title. Download here.

1 May also inexplicably won "Best New Band" that year at China's Huading Awards. The only other international laureates of Huading Awards that year for anything other than film were Adam Lambert and Carly Rae Jepsen. The title of "Best New Band" has yet to be handed out again.


Review: ОРУЖИЕ - "Quiet Facts about Angels"

ОРУЖИЕ - Quiet Facts About Angels
(2017 velcroheadrecords)

"No real modus operandi," reads velcroheadrecords' mission statement. "No hope, no refinement. Record it live and put it out on tape." 

There's urgency embedded in the Montreal-based imprint's creative process, but the finished product's anything but hasty. Composed entirely of improvised jams, the debut full-length tape by label founder ОРУЖИЕ (Russian for "weapons") is a meditative -- sometimes mindstate-altering -- effort that acts as a translucent eggshell, clouding our view of some violent chemical activity taking place within.

Maybe it's more effective to think of it as an old TV monitor's screen, sending pinpricks of static through your fingers as you press them against the glass, protecting observers from the greyscale horror beamed by its cathode ray tube. Distant enough from the camera to appear small, the foggy outline of a human form moves from pinky to middle finger, ducking beneath your palm and then slowly peeking through the empty curve between the thumb and forefinger. Its face is like smoke -- a mass of billowing darkness against the floral wallpaper of the living room it inhabits.

Quiet Facts about Angels resides in a middle ground between David Lynch's sputtering The Big Dream and the often-atonal drum machine grooves that John Carpenter composed for Assault on Precinct 13. That's to say that despite its minimal atmosphere, throttled by lo-fi crunch, the record is downright cinematic in scope. Since much of the music here seems to have been made on the fly, the songs on Quiet Facts are structureless, gathering grime and abstract narrative as they hustle forth at approximately 120 to 130 beats per minute. Layers are laid down and shaved off one at a time, flirting with climactic releases of tension but never reaching them.

The top half of ОРУЖИЕ's playlist is loaded with gritty low-end thump that all but drowns out the clattering rhythms that bloom from it. "hornets" sways side to side on its crushingly-dense trunk of growling synth, leaving just enough space for glistening pads and a post-punk guitar riff to push through the surface -- it's all pretty reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle, though maybe more danceable (in theory). It's followed by a welcome intermission in the form of "autumn (diary ii)" before "batteries (1.1)" usurps the soundscape. The cut girds its four-on-the-floor kick with syncopated lashes of steely snare while standard house hi-hats keep the rhythm regular. Dissonant bell-chimes ring in the distance, indicating an off-screen ritual held in some post-apocalyptic wasteland that formed mid-Industrial Revolution. Though it appears early on, this 3-track sequence is the heart of the album, showcases its full array of textures and moods.

"saturn 1.01.0" ushers in the tape's more traditionally pretty second half. Phase-shifted synths trickle down sheets of nearly-lifeless horn samples. Save for slap-bass, the beat's fairly hollow, staring at the listener stone-faced, yet picturesque. It's the most upbeat song on the tape, but it's tinged with a sense of defeat, sprawled out on a couch and covered in sweat as it catches a much-needed nap after a hard day's work. "In Dust" is a solid ambient closer, undulating sultrily as a Badalamenti score while taking on the corroded quality of a silent film's score.

Instrumentally, Quiet Facts is a huge step into new territory for the former frontman of early Bandcamp emo duo Jackie Trash, but aesthetically, it's not. Just like any Linus Taylor project, ОРУЖИЕ finds a delicate balance between hushed beauty and rowdy dissonance, making for an effort that's sometime's sleepy, sometimes unbearably aggressive, but always engagingly weird.