The Null Device

2022/12/31

With another year coming to its conclusion, here is the annual list of noteworthy records:

  • Astrel K - Flickering I (BandCamp)

    Astrel K, the new Stockholm-based band from Ulrika Spacek frontman Rhys Edwards, do a sort of library-music-flavoured psychedelic chamber pop; they caught the eye of Stereolab, who put out their debut album on their Duophonic label and invited them to play their UltraDisko minifestival in London, and one can see why. Their debut album places them in the hypnagogic realms not that far from Broadcast or Still Corners: choppy electric guitar licks, funky drums, clunking basslines, soaring Mellotron strings and radiophonic blips, over which Edwards' vocals float with an almost exaggerated melodiousness; the entire effect is cinematic, albeit slightly discoloured as if shot on expired film stock. When they eventually name the sprawling genre that Stereolab, Broadcast and such spawned (it's not krautrock, chamber pop or library music, to say nothing of “hauntology” or similar, and “psychedelia” is nowhere near specific enough a term), this will be in the early-2020s chapter alongside Dummy and Adult Oriented Pop.

  • Barrie - Barbara (BandCamp) and Jockstrap - I Love You Jennifer B (BandCamp)

    Two very different records unselfconsciously blurring the boundaries between the roles of singer/songwriter and producer, and the magisteria of “rock”/“folk” and “electronica” without making a thing of this. Barrie is New York songwriter/producer Barrie Lindsay, and her album Barbara touches all bases. Opener Jersey is guitar-led indie, not too far from Hatchie, slathered in chorus and reverb and with some subtly crunchy beats beneath it. The second track, Frankie, is a piece of warm electronica, propelled by a metronomic drum machine and synth arpeggio and building up with warm synth pads and breaking down with chopped-up breakbeats, which feels like a Michel Gondry cardboard version of New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies or something. Concrete, with vocals floating over pulsing synthesisers, ventures towards Jane Weaver territory before the beats kick in, whereas Quarry is a larger-than-life slice of M83-esque electrogaze nostalgia with its heart on its sleeve.

    Jockstrap, meanwhile, are a London duo who met whilst studying composition, and whose approach seems to be a chaotic, constructivist one, throwing the kitchen sink at their tracks. The opener, Neon, starts off with vocals and guitar, and escalates into a sort of mutant trip-hop, ending as a saturated wall of fuzz; the semi-titular track Jennifer B builds out of glitchy loops of lo-fi samples and compressed drum hits, before breaking out into song and lush strings, all sounding like a collage. Greatest Hits is a funky groove built on a drum machine, piano chord loop and choppy samples, and sounds like a lo-fi Saint Etienne. It is, improbably, followed by What's It All About, an unbelievably pretty ballad over strummed guitar and sweeping strings that sounds almost like it could be off a 1960s film soundtrack. The rest of the album is similarly varied: beats, arpeggios and random samples.

    Records like these bear out the thought that the folk musics of tomorrow will be made with software and digital manipulations, just as the folk music of yesterday was with the abundant technologies of the day, such as string instruments and tape recorders.

  • Bis - Systems Music For Home Defence

    The veteran Glaswegian disco-punks return with another record; this one is a love letter to techno, house and dance-pop circa 1990. Drum machine rolls, authentically vintage digital synth patches and the odd video-arcade bleep combine with Bis' cheerful skronk: choppy guitars you can pogo to and half-sung, half-shouted vocals that sound like they wouldn't be amiss on a Friday night out on Sauchiehall. The album kicks off in characteristically boisterous fashion with with Lucky Night: choppy guitar, drum machine and call/response vocals rising to a soaring chorus with Italo-house piano chords; the song, which sems to be about socially-aware pick-up lines, straddles the gap between Eurodancy pop and punk energy in a very Bis way. (I Don't Think We're) Falling In Love, a funky piece of dance-pop with a subtle nod to Glaswegian 303 pioneers Orange Juice's Rip It Up And Start Again; The Safe Routines slows down the pace slightly, venturing into Saint Etienne territory, with Manda channelling Sarah Cracknell as she describes the risk calculations made by a woman on a night out. The pace picks up with Stress, propelled by choppy guitars, clattering cowbell and a house beat. coming down to land with The Who's Who Of What, a midtempo closer arranged around gated synth chords.

    Systems Music could be compared to Bis' 2001 disco-pop masterpiece Return To Central; the difference, though, is that, for all its techno/dance leanings, it feels more live; one has more of a sense of each song being recorded in one take with everyone in the same studio. (I don't know if this is what happened, though it feels that way.) Which, if you liked Return To Central for its coolly constructed qualities, may be a negative, though not a huge one, and knowing Bis, who knows where they'll go next?

  • Black Cab - Rotsler's Rules (BandCamp) and Federation - Heartfelt (BandCamp)

    Two albums of hard-edged electronic pop from different sides of the world. Rotsler's Rules, the latest album from Melbourne electronic combo Black Cab, is a slab of propulsive electronica (for want of a better genre name: it's not house or techno, the vocals are insufficiently prominent to be Pop proper, and has neither the dystopic sadofuturism of EBM nor the neon-hued retro-romanticism of synthwave, and it's not krautrock either, though you may find elements of all these). Propulsive 4/4 drum machines, burbling sequencers, hard-edged bass, anthemic pads and the odd vocoder drive this forward; highlights include the motorik Karl Marx Stadt, the bipartite Hanna, which goes from anthemic pop to 303-driven techno, and Bad Robot, an unabashed fan letter to Kraftwerk.

    Federation are in a similar space, only more on the indie-rock side of the fence; they are a new trio, originally from Bollnäs, Sweden, but now based in Stockholm, who started playing in punk/indie bands but switched to electronic instrumentation, their sound is somewhere between post-punk and rave. Their sound is hard-edged and metronomic, undergirded by saturated sawtooth waves and layers of beats and sequences, reminding me of a less sparse Suicide, the first Apparat Organ Quartet album, or some of Ollie Olsen's post-punk works like Whirlywirld; unlike Black Cab, their non-instrumental songs have prominent vocals, sung in a resonant post-punk croon, somewhere between James Murphy and Peter Murphy. Heartfelt is their debut album; highlights include Strange Dreams, with its skittering beats and chiming keyboards and the anthemic Tell Your Friends; the closer, Now And Always, shows a slower, more processional side of the band. Ones to watch.

  • Cheekface - Too Much To Ask (BandCamp)

    He's tall! He's Lean! He reeks of gasoline! And he's got perfect credit if you know what I mean… Fast-paced slacker-rock serving as a medium for an even faster barrage of one-liners drawing a sketch of the American way of life (mostly as dysfunctional, medicated consumerism), delivered by a frontman who can almost be arsed to sing properly and sounds like Fred Schneider crossed with J.R. “Bob” Dobbs' younger brother the TV announcer. The songs have titles like When Life Hands You Problems, Vegan Water and You Always Want To Bomb The Middle East and few ideas outlive the line they're delivered on, but that's fine, as they keep coming like tennis balls out of a cannon.

  • Confidence Man - TILT (BandCamp)

    Big dumb south-of-the-Yarra house-pop like something Peewee Ferris came up with in the mid-90s, with 909 snare rolls and vapid lyrics about partying/being in love/feeling good, or some combination thereof delivered in midpacific accents. There are touches of DFA in places (Angry Girl, which is like if Le Tigre came from Chapel St.), though elsewhere it channels Vogue-era Madonna (Break It/Bought It) and home-grown legends Sophie Lee And The Freaked Out Flower Children (What I Like). Which works well, with tongue as much in cheek as required; after all, it must be said that (pretentious indie outliers notwithstanding), Australians like their dance music, as per Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe's approving description, moronic: boofy, doofy beats you can dance to for hours on the amphetamine/opiate mix that passes for MDMA within the Australian biosecurity zone and vaguely euphoric adornment that doesn't commit the faux pas of trying too hard; all this, Confidence Man deliver in spades. File alongside your Kath And Kim DVDs.

  • Destroyer - Labyrinthitis (BandCamp)

    Dan Bejar's songwriting is surrealistic; not in the popular sense of the word, which was ceded to advertising bureaux decades ago, but in the original sense of being comprised of dreamlike, vaguely unsettling subconscious imagery, without attempts to impose a rational interpretation on it. His last few albums of musical output have haunted the lacunae between new-wave and sophistipop, all the while maintaining a reserved, enigmatic detachment that makes Bernard Sumner sound heartfelt by comparison. In that sense one could call Destroyer a heir to New Order, not so much for the surface stylistic touches (which have been mimicked by entire generations of bands, and not without reason, and which Destroyer, characteristically, only ever feints at momentarily) but the oblique detachment of songs like Leave Me Alone. Bejar takes it one step further, often writing in the second person: not so much unreliable narrator as unreliable director in a theatre of the absurd.

    Labyrinthitis follows in this vein, like a musical de Chirico painting, a masque of shadows and symbolism. June is symbolist spoken-word poetry over languid disco-funk with cowbell and choppy guitar, Eat The Wine, Drink The Bread, its nonchalant absurdism belied in its title, is a disco-pop number propelled forward by synth bass, funky guitars and drum-machine handclaps, providing some structure beneath the thematic ambiguity. The States is a piece of minimal synthpop whose lyrics read like a surrealist noir (“you abandon your luggage at the abandoned bus station, you go over your story again and again, but it doesn't make sense, not the third or the fourth time”), and The Last Song strips back the studio artifice but not the veil of meaning, being essentially minimal electric guitar-folk; written in the second person, nonspecifically accusatory (“you wake up, you stand up, you move to LA, you're just another person that moves to LA”).

  • Dubstar - Two (Spotify)

    Second-act Dubstar are back with their second record, and it's what you'd expect: a bit of synthpop (they worked with producer Stephen Hague), a bit of indie jangle, and Sarah's stage persona is as always a vortex of drama, even at the height of the Covid pandemic. The album opens with Token, a track which sounds so much like a Pet Shop Boys song that it is slightly startling to hear that the voice that comes in is not Neil Tennant. I Can See You Outside and Hygiene Strip are the two Covidcene anthems, with Sarah's narrator lamenting all that was lost with the Before Times and negotiating the new normal (by which, of course, one means the protocols of flirtation in a masked-up, self-isolating world), and managing to pull off that combination of cool archness and confessional vulnerability that is Sarah's stock-in-trade. Elsewhere, they go Numanesque (Tectonic Plates), channel The Verve (Lighthouse), bring the jangly guitars (Social Proof), and it probably won't surprise you that if anyone was to write a song titled Kissing To Be Unkind it'd be Dubstar. The album ends on a slow, reflective piano ballad titled Perfect Circle. If you liked One, Two will probably appeal.

  • Lande Hekt - House Without A View (BandCamp) and Momma - Household Name (BandCamp)

    Two albums of anthemic indie-rock which stood out in 2022, in some ways similar, in others, quite different. Momma are a band from LA, whose stock-in-trade is self-consciously 90s-style alternative-rock, often about driving, smoking or the life of a rock musician, with chunky guitars, honeyed, close-miked vocals and a knack for catchy hooks; they sound a bit like a female-fronted Pavement or Pixies. Among highlights: Speeding 72 and Lucky are perhaps the climactic moments one might expect to close a set or an encore, and Brave and Spider also stand out in a slightly more chill way, though there aren't any weak songs here.

    Lande Hekt, meanwhile, is based in Bristol; House Without A View is lush (and occasionally Lush-adjacent), melodious indie-pop verging on dreampop. Hekt's guitar sound is chorused, almost in dreampop territory, and her singing voice is more Emma than Miki. One could perhaps imagine Hekt having come to the attention of Sarah Records, had she been around a few decades earlier. Anyway, House Without A View was a late find this year, though otherwise I would undoubtedly have listened to it a lot more, as it's lovely.

  • Let's Eat Grandma - Two Ribbons (BandCamp)

    The third album from the pair of childhood friends is a record of a very tough time for them. Jenny Hollingworth's boyfriend, the pop musician Billy Clayton, was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer, of which, despite all efforts, he died; their collaborator and friend, the producer SOPHIE, also died in an accident. Then there was the pandemic, of course; and, by no means least, the duo's almost lifelong friendship began fraying, beginning with Hollingworth and Rosa Walton finding they could no longer finish each other's sentences. Walton moved to London, suffered a nervous breakdown, and moved back to Norfolk. Their friendship has since recovered, though in a new way. So, in some ways, this record is an artefact of mourning: for Clayton, for SOPHIE, and for the lost purity of childhood friendships. Having said this, don't expect Mt. Eerie's A Crow Looked At Me: Hollingworth and Walton are nothing if not supremely skilled artificers, and using their grief and emotional turmoil as an ingredient for pop music is not beyond them. As such, this record is more about putting on a brave face and dancing the pain away, chaotically through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief in no fixed order.

    The opening track, Happy New Year would be the bargaining, or perhaps denial, phase: recounting moments in their friendship, arguing a bit too hard for its steadfastness; with its euphoric synth chords, it feels celebratory, even if a close reading could interpret it as an ironic juxtaposition, and a eulogy for something lost. Levitation is an upbeat-sounding electropop song, which one may not realise was inspired by Walton's breakdown in London. Watching You Go, Hollingworth's song for Clayton, is about the thoughts that pass through one's mind as a loved one slips away; in other hands, one could have imagined this as a lugubrious piano ballad, perhaps with the blocky minor chords that denote a Heavy Mood, though this would be too obvious for Let's Eat Grandma, who instead render it as Robyn-esque dance-pop, one can get down to if one doesn't think too hard about the lyrics. The mood darkens a bit in the claustrophobic Hall Of Mirrors, before hitting bottom in Insect Loop, easing away from both the clubby beats and cheer. Then, in the second half, the album lightens; the interlude In The Cemetery, a field recording of birdsong, serves as a halfway marker. A highlight is Sunday; a wistful ballad driven by subtle guitar and even subtler electronics that builds to a gentle climax; it's not flashy, but showcases the strength of their songwriting. The album continues at a languid pace, finishing with its title track, a Velvet Underground-esque meditation on change, friendship and letting go. Is this the last chapter of the Let's Eat Grandma story? Who knows. Though in any case it's likely we'll hear more from Jenny and Rosa, one way or another.

  • Loney Dear - Atlantis (BandCamp)

    Not so much an entirely new album from Loney Dear as a live studio recording of recent (and some less recent) songs, made during what would have been a gig were it not for pandemic restrictions. Those in particular who have seen Loney Dear hone these songs in live shows, eagerly anticipating their release on a record, and then bought A Lantern And A Bell, only to find everything stripped down to within an inch of its life, will find some joy here, as the live performance allows the songs to unfold and expand. Loney Dear performances have a way of differing, with the structure, arrangement and instrumentation of the songs changing from gig to gig, and this live studio performance is no exception. The melancholic Largo, in particular, transforms almost into trip-hop, driven by Konrad Agnas' jazzy drumming; in retrospect, an uncannily good fit for the shadowy anhedonia of the song. The highlight for me would be the closing track, Interval Repeat War, last heard in somewhat truncated form on A Lantern And A Bell; here, it is given the space to expand to its full despondent beauty. (You know that thing Loney Dear does where, towards their end, his songs come together and for one sublime instant the celestial spheres are in harmony with all the sorrows in your insignificant life? Well, that thing happens here too.)

  • My Favorite - Tender Is The Nightshift: Part 1 (BandCamp)

    In the 90s, they were, in their own self-deprecatingly ironic words, New York's last cult heroes; a group of outsider kids who, in the face of grunge-era alternative rock, made their own world out of raw emotion and unfashionably smooth 80s pop. That My Favorite died in 2005; its second incarnation, consisting of frontman Michael Grace Jr. and a few bandmates, returned nine years later with the single-cum-manifesto Second Empire, a pensive sophistipop missive from and for the aging homeless club kids, too old to die young and yet too young to die slow. The arrival of the second empire has been incremental, though after another two-track single—Christine Zero/Killed For Kicks—in 2016, the first instalment of something more expansive arrives.

    Tender Is The Nightshift: Part 1 is, as the title suggests, intended as the first of three chapters of an album; thematically, it is a reflective record, about letting go—or refusing to—of the past, and of illusions, and about the ghosts that haunt one. In parts it feels like a belated return to the setting of their debut Love At Absolute Zero, the dead spaces of Long Island, haunted by numerous ghosts. The rage is there, though the years have weathered Grace's angry-young-man shout to a Bryan Ferryesque croon; meanwhile, the vocabulary of lyrical and stylistic references is as sharp as always.

    The record kicks off with Dean's 7th Dream, an 8-minute Kraftwerk-meets-Let's Dance-era-Bowie disco-pop number, with The Roots' Captain Kirk Douglas on guitar playing the Nile Rogers role. Before long, those slow-strummed guitar chords wash over us and we are back in the My Favorite cinematic universe: a place familiar, if not entirely comforting, hewn from the legends of doomed youth, and where it always rains: a hard rain in a soft cell, as Grace croons, the first of many references. The familiar themes soon return: doomed romanticism, panache in the sense of adversity, and references to a pantheon of the young and lost Track two, Princess Diana Awaiting Ambulance (its title an echo of My Favorite v1's James Dean Awaiting Ambulance), is slower, propelled by a gated-reverbed Be My Baby backbeat. (To my subjective ears, it sounds of a kin with The Boys Next Door's “Shivers”; after all, what is “I leave the 90s behind but they keep dragging me back, cause I hear the chatter of angels when I don't take my Prozac” if not a Gracean version of “I keep contemplating suicide, but it doesn't really suit my style”?) It is not, of course, a breathlessly Anglophilic royalist hagiography; the late princess is merely an icon, a token of lost youth, or perhaps the lucky ones who stay gold while we, left behind, rust? Blues for Planet X, like the last tracks of the past two singles, features a female vocalist, though with Grace joining in the chorus; this time, the ghost invoked is Bowie circa Space Oddity. The record is finished off with a rerecording of the aforementioned Second Empire, now made yet more lush, with added saxophone and backing vocals. A promising first instalment.

  • NO ZU - Heat Beat (BandCamp)

    Australia's premier (and indeed only) purveyors of the Heat Beat genre (think early-1980s New York punk-funk gone troppo) regroup for the first time since the death of vocalist Daphne Camf, releasing their last recording with her contributions. The titular exemplar of their genre, Heat Beat is a slender five tracks (one of which is a phone skit, with Camf, as shamaness-cum-premium-phone-line-operator, ministering to a caller who couldn't quite cope with the heat) and just over 25 minutes, but what a 25 minutes. Propelled forward by propulsive beats, congas, cowbells, horn blasts, funk guitar, sax and synth riffs, with vocal adlibs hyping up the crowd and pushing the Heat Beat mythos, which, going by the record, appears to be a sort of physical, cosmically erotic rhythm-based panpsychism, and possibly a virulent psychohazard. Catchier than COVID, and probably the grooviest record of 2022.

  • Phoebe Go - Player EP (BandCamp)

    Yes, another young woman with a guitar and some songs obliquely referencing possibly traumatic personal experiences; though Phoebe Go has a knack for songwriting and arrangement and a good singing voice with a smoky languor. The songs have a sparse, moody quality and a good sense of melody; the production is subtle, with unobtrusive programmed beats accompanying the vocals and guitar in places. The EP itself is only five tracks; the opener, We Don't Talk, kicks it off on a high note, almost approaching shoegaze in places, and Hey is an atmospheric slow-burner. A very promising debut; it will be interesting to see what she does next.

  • PUTOCHINOMARICÓN - J​Á​JÁ ÉQ​Ú​Í​SDÉ (Distop​í​a Aburrida) (BandCamp)

    PUTOCHINOMARICÓN is Spanish-based queer Taiwanese hyperpop artist Chenta Tsai, signed to Elefant, the Spanish label better known as a home for twee indiepop than frantic, glitchy digital electronica, which is what JÁJÁ ÉQUÍSDÉ is. From the intro (subtitled Renacentista De Tutorial, which eases in with a autotuned vocals, and plucky synths and chiptune arps before bludgening your ears with a barrage of drum hits and synth stabs), the album, clocking in at just under half an hour, is a relentless ride through a jittering neon landscape, never standing still. Tamagotchi is a frantic dancefloor workout with a swaggering guest rap by PC Music mainstay GFOTY; this is followed by the languid, arpeggio-driven DM, a lush confection of vintage FM chimes and trebly drum hits, echoing the smooth, throwaway 80s synth balladry that typically only emerges from the uncanny unspoken of hipster cultural memory in vaporwave mashups. Aduoto Incomprendido is a piece of twitchy, twinkly 2-step; it is followed by Internacional Call, a J-Pop-tinged frenzy of pitch-shifted vocals, thumping kicks and various bleeps, that makes up with manic intensity what its 71 seconds lack in duration. Otra Fisicalidad touches on freestyle, only with with rave risers and manic energy. The closer of the album is Tu Foto De Perfil, a manic pitch-shifted rave anthem which brings the house down in a cascade of buildups, throwing seemingly every synth preset at it. As the titles suggest, the album has an overarching theme of sorts, and it is one of being very online. Every generation discovers this on its own, of course (the oldsters among you will remember the MONDO 2000-era cybercultural boosterism that mingled with first-generation rave), though here is the 2022 instalment. There are songs about intimacy through online communications (DM), teledildonics (Rubberhand, the one song wholly in English), the possibilities of the construction, and destruction, of virtual identities (Chique De Internet, Otra Fisicalidad and Tu Foto De Perfil), and the tension between the freedom of cyberspace and the awareness of being under surveillance (Tamagotchi). One could say that JÁJÁ EQÚÍSDÉ is a yin of sorts to the yang of Serotonin-era yeule; both cover similar areas though with very different temperaments. This is hyperpop at its most hyper.

  • yeule - Glitch Princess / The Things They Did For Me Out Of Love (BandCamp)

    yeule's Serotonin II was one of my favourite discoveries of last year; a record whose ethereal, digital dreampop aesthetic resonated with me in a why-haven't-I-heard-this-before way. Their follow-up feels like a transitional record, as yeule (who started hanging out with the PC Music people while studying art at St. Martin's in London) moved away from the headphones and into the mainroom. There are more live instruments (some jangly guitar on Don't Be So Hard On Your Own Beauty, which combined with heavy Autotune, reminds me of FRITZ' experiments in that direction; a touch of shoegaze guitar on Flowers Are Dead, some piano not made abstract by reverb on the minor-key Eyes), and the digital sounds have a more cavernous sound. It doesn't all work (Perfect Blue, a song about the narrator's emotional state, does suffer a bit from the guest verse of some dude going on about his new car which is a blue car, for example), though has its peaks, such as Friendly Machine, combining distorted digital waveforms, mangled close-miked vocals and shoegazey textures to convey a sense of medicated dysphoria; a great song which wouldn't fit on any of yeule's earlier albums. This hasn't become my favourite yeule album, though I'm looking forward to seeing where they go next.

    Also, the last track (in the Spotify version, or as a separate MP3 download with the Bandcamp release), The Things They Did For Me Out Of Love is a doozy; it clocks in at 4¾ hours, consisting of slow chords made of samples of yeule's voice, co-produced with Danny L. Harle; there are also gaps every half hour or so. I listed it separately, as it doesn't really fit in with the rest of this album, or indeed yeule's back-catalogue. My guess is that they wanted to release it as a box set, as a sort of Max Richter's Sleep for online Generation Z or something, but the label put its foot down.

And some other releases I liked: Cate Brooks, Winterfest (the Advisory Circle/King Of Woolworths creator's first solo record post-transition—no, you're not misremembering things—is what the title suggests: a sound sketch of winter, evoking snowfalls seen through a window with a cup of something warm in hand; file alongside other Café Kaput releases) ¶ Calliére, Barcelona (shoegazey indiepop and moody instrumentals that reads like a snapshot of the moment in the 1990s immediately before UK indie discovered cocaine, and features Mary Wyer of Even As We Speak guesting on one track; file alongside your Boo Radleys CDs and/or The Field Mice's less pop excursions) ¶ Stella Donnelly, Flood (Melodious, sunny and exceedingly pleasant folk-pop from the Western Australian singer-songwriter; highlight: the upbeat spoken-word song-poem How Was Your Day, a Neighbours to Dry Cleaning's Eastenders) ¶ Dry Cleaning, Stumpwork (the band refine the formula from their first album—languid, heavy-lidded spoken-word over indie-rock backings—only this time, the music is mellower and further from the indie-rock comfort zone in places) ¶ Goat, Oh Death (the latest from the masked northern-Swedish witch-doctors of psychedelia sees them getting some Funkadelic in their Amon Düül II) ¶ Hatchie, Giving The World Away (now based in LA, Hatchie polishes up her formula of catchy pop with 90s alternative leanings; you'll find the usual Curve and shoegaze influences here, but also some Madchester baggy and even Tears For Fears) ¶ Jenny Hval, Classic Objects (Hval's post-pandemic album, in which she does her usual omphaloskepsis sung over electronic arrangements; one could perhaps consider Hval a sort of feminine answer to the libidinous high-concept pop of Of Montreal) ¶ Kikagaku Moyo, Kumoyo Island (the last album from the Japanese psych band; mellow, slightly otherworldly psychedelia) ¶ Kelly Lee Owens, LP.8 (a more ambient record, made with Norwegian noise artist Lasse Marhaug; sounds like sunlight filtering into a cavernous industrial space) ¶ Panda Bear & Sonic Boom, Reset (the Portugal-based tropicalist and Spacemen 3 trip-shaman's first collaboration contains, as one might expect, sun-melted hooks and harmonies and hypnotic repetition, and is probably up there with Person Pitch in Panda Bear's oeuvre) ¶ Planet 1999, this is our music ♫ (the one PC Music release here; crisp, glossy soft hyperpop autotuned to within an inch of its life; unlike Putochinomaricón, this doesn't bludgeon you with kick drums and hockets of synth patches; a bit like early yeule, only without the hikikomori tendencies) ¶ xPropaganda, The Heart Is Strange (the ZTT-linked band returns, after a fashion, with their brand of expressionist synthpop; all glossy pulsating sequencers, synth-string sweeps that belie their vintage and Claudia Brücken's enigmatic vocals. It ends with Ribbons Of Steel, a 9-minute sophistipop mood piece, consisting of spoken word over synth pads and jazzy yet moody keyboards) ¶ Resplandor, Tristeza (you may remember them from a Slowdive tribute compilation back when a Slowdive reunion wasn't on the cards; the Netherlands-based Argentine shoegaze band bring lush shoegaze which sounds like concentrated essence of Slowdive, if Slowdive was Lovesliescrushing or something) ¶ SRSQ, Ever Crashing (Kennedy Ashlyn, formerly of Them Are Us Too, returns with her second album, making something beautiful from turmoil; a highlight is Abyss, which is as if Angelo Badalamenti had gotten Liz Fraser to sing at the Roadhouse) ¶ Sun's Signature, s/t (speaking of Liz Fraser, the queen is back! The debut of her project with her partner, percussionist Damon Reece. Her voice sounds even more beautifully clear than in the Cocteaus days, though anyone wanting to hear that voice enveloped in walls of ethereal reverb may be disappointed, as there is no shoegazing to be done here; the arrangements are prog-rocky, each instrument appears cleanly in its own space, and where guitars may appear, they keen in the distance rather than emanating sheets of luscious noise) ¶ Talkshow Boy, Music For Money (Talkshow Boy's latest album, with songs about cryptids, customers from hell, the invention of nuclear weapons and the drudgery of the workday; now with more MIDI piano) ¶ Toro Y Moi, Mahal (funky, introspective, sun-seared psychedelic soul; crunchy breakbeats, fuzzy guitar, electric piano and the odd digital manipulation) ¶ Nik Colk Void, Bucked-Up Space (the Factory Floor frontwoman's solo debut combines their 4/4 minimal-house workouts with dark atmospherics à la Blanck Mass/Demdike Stare and perhaps a dash of Autechre; esoteric alchemy at an East London warehouse rave) ¶ Wet Leg, s/t (the Franz Ferdinand to Dry Cleaning's Interpol; the Joy Division in this metaphor is, of course, Life Without Buildings) ¶ Winter, What Kind Of Blue Are You? (lo-fi, vaguely MBV-esque dreampop from the LA-based solo artist and Hatchie collaborator) ¶ Zola Jesus, ARKHON (the Siberian shamaness' latest release feels somewhat more spacious than her previous works).

There is, as always, a Spotify playlist here.

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2022/12/17

A few days ago, disgraced former US President Donald Trump announced that he was about to make a special announcement. Those paying attention to him speculated on what it was to be: was he picking a running mate? Perhaps the secret government agency he was covertly commanding was about to arrest the treacherous liberals who stole his election and were running the 5G nanochip adrenochrome trafficking biolabs? Could it be that his slew of legal problems was an elaborate feint to get the enemy right where he wanted him before he dealt them the death blow? Of course, when it came out, it was none of those things, but a set of “digital collectable cards” featuring cheesy portraits of Trump in superhero poses. Each one would cost $99, and confer literally nothing of value (as specified in the terms and conditions) other than acknowledgment that the purchaser paid $99 to be recognised as the purchaser of a picture (which, the terms stated, they did not own or have any rights to). In other words, a NFT, just after the Paris Hiltons of this world have abandoned that collapsing bubble. The announcement was met with pretty much universal scorn, from his former alt-right allies disowning him to everyone else rolling their eyes and putting on their best surprised face for the occasion.

So what does this portend? Obviously, Trump knows that his grift—the grift he accidentally won the presidency running—is running out of road. The law is closing in around him, and his core of true believers is dwindling. Whilst declaring his candidacy for 2024 could protect him to an extent (as the investigative institutions are loath to be seen to be politically biased), this only works if he is a credible candidate. He has been trailing in Republican polls by double digits, meaning that his formerly undisputable lock on the candidacy is more than in doubt. If he did run as the Republican candidate, he would be unlikely to improve on his 2020 performance, to say the least. Nonetheless, some 20% of the population still regard him as their champion (whether it's for being literally the lowest white man whose elevation to the presidency reinforces the white-supremacist racial hierarchy Obama's existence threatened, as the mythical leader of the secret spiritual war against vast, evil conspiracies, or the former rationalised as the latter), and as the con artist Canada Bill Jones once put it, it is morally wrong to allow a sucker to keep their money.

Trump's “digital collectible cards” fit the bill. As the writer K.W. Jeter observed, the one thing superior to the predatory capitalist ideal of the “turd in a can” (i.e., cheap garbage whose appeal comes from its packaging/presentation) is the “turd on a wire”, where there is no can and thus no manufacturing costs; the marks pay for the sizzle, and are momentarily happy even when it turns out there is no steak.

Of course, we have been through this very recently with the crypto crash, where people “invested” vast sums of money for receipts for ugly monkey cartoons only to find that, in the absence of a greater fool willing to pay them even more, their investments were literally nonexistent. However, it probably helps that the target audience for this grift, the typical rusted-on MAGA-hatted Trumpist, would be a TV-native boomer to whom the internet was essentially Facebook, and thus unlikely to have learned any lessons from the crypto crash. From their vantage point, in their La-Z-Boy in front of FoxNews, if they heard anything about people losing fortunes over ugly monkey pictures, it would have been indistinguishable from other stories about young people being stupid, also liberal, and have been filed away alongside stories of millennials snorting Tide pods and inchoate rage about genders and pronouns. And as such, the target demographic of this grift would be much like an isolated island of slow-moving megafauna, whose entire evolutionary history occurred in the absence of predators.

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2022/9/8

Queen Elizabeth II is dead; aged 96, and having served on the throne for 75 years, she died at her Scottish estate at Balmoral. Prince Charles has ascended to the throne, and gone with the name King Charles III, despite concerns that the name has less than fortuitous historical connotations.

This post will not be a judgment of her reign, the choices she made or the legitimacy or otherwise of the institution she was at the head of. (In short, I am not a believer in the institution of hereditary monarchy, though having a nonexecutive head of state on a longer term than individual governments does appear to have a salutary effect on the institutions of state, though this is a much longer discussion for another place and time; meanwhile, the British Empire was responsible for numerous colonial evils, some of which happened with her as its figurehead.)

Queen Elizabeth II reigned for just over 75 years—¾ of a century; it is estimated that 90% of the people alive today were born during her reign. Which has the effect that next to nobody (in her dominions, or indeed anywhere else) remembers a time when she was not on the throne. From a subjective human point of view, she may as well have always been there, like some kind of ancient god, impassively presiding over the tumult of change. And her reign started with the remnants of the British Empire dissolving like a soluble aspirin, and ended with a Britain punch-drunk on imperial nostalgia and tabloid jingoism rejecting its destiny as a medium-sized, prosperous European country, declaring that it was going to reclaim its globe-spanning destiny, and promptly falling flat on its face. In the future it is quite likely that the notion that England's half-millennium of glory (or, indeed, non-obscurity) was bookended by the two Elizabethan eras will be a glib truism.

Given Britain's current state (bleeding from Brexit wounds, permanent austerity as a moral imperative, soaring energy bills, and the aftermath of a leadership contest where the contenders sought to demonstrate superior cruelty before an audience of Britain's most vicious pensioners), the kicking out of this symbolic pillar of certainty will have interesting effects. Unlike the Tory leadership contest, the new monarch is already foreordained by succession laws. It is unlikely that Charles will recuse himself from intervening in the way his mother did: all accounts suggest that he is determined to give his subjects the benefit of his wisdom, so we may soon see an all-homeopathic NHS and mandatory Palladian colonnades on all new buildings or something. Whether Charles III will acquire an aura of dignity as his mother had is also in question. He has been around for almost as long, though in considerably different circumstances.

There has been an assumption that the end of Elizabeth II's reign would be a natural boost for the republican cause: most affection for the monarchy was not for the institution itself, but its figurehead (whom some have called “Our Queen and Pleasant Nan”), and would not transfer to her large adult son, and a lot of soft monarchist sentiment would evaporate. On the other hand, given the traumatic nature of the present moment in Britain, it is conceivable that some in England will dig in harder, and dream into being King Charles III as the benign symbol of stability he otherwise wouldn't be, just to have something to hold on to. This may not play out quite as well north of the Scottish border, and Australia is probably not unlikely to become a republic of some sort within the next decade or two.

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