Review Of The Year 2014: 20 Albums

My views on end-of-year roundups in general are quite aggressive, and can be read at greater length in the introduction to last year’s selection, here. Suffice it to say that I think anyone claiming to know which are the best few albums released in any given year is seriously delusional; my selection is simply some of the records I liked the most out of those I happened to come across. These records are all seriously good, but there were over a hundred other albums that could equally well have made it onto my list; my advice is, yes, investigate these records, but more importantly, go hunting for …

Regal Worm – Neither Use Nor Ornament (avant-prog)

‘A small collection of big suites’ is the sub-title applied to this ‘mini-album’; I can’t concur with either characterisation. Taken as a single work in several movements (it’s really two long suites with three short pieces as an entr’acte) this would be, at forty-six minutes, a respectable length for a Classical symphony. In other words, it’s quite short for a prog-rock album, but it’s a pretty substantial work; its predecessor, Use And Ornament, is about fifteen minutes longer, and I guess that the language by which this record is being promoted suggests we should expect a substantially longer release in the …

Various Artists – Singles and EPs

Wayne Myers, singer, songwriter and principal instrumental culprit, sent me this mini-album in early February according to my records, but it somehow slipped through the net and never got reviewed. Well, better late than never. Sleeping Beauty is pure poetry. I intend that as a value judgement, but also a literal description; Myers is a poet who works in the medium of song. Now I’d think of it as a species of insult to say that this was an EP of poems set to music, but that’s not what I mean: these are songs, written as such, and the musical materials they incorporate are neither a commentary …

Ashley Reaks – Compassion Fatigue (1-8) (avant-prog)

‘Concept’ albums have been a mixed blessing on the history of rock music. The idea that an album might have some connecting theme running through the various songs collected on it has been a controversial one, bitterly opposed at times by those with a strong doctrinal commitment to a particular model of popular music, and of rock as a subset thereof. However, some very interesting music has been articulated over a longer term than the three minute single permits, and I think rock (along with most other varieties of popular music) has long since proved its capacity as a …

Stars In Battledress – In Droplet Form (avant-folk)

Music needs to be comprehensible; it is, after all, a form of communication. The more readily digestible it is, however, and the more easily it slips down, the fewer hooks there are to hang any unique meanings on it. There is an inherently unstable dialectic between the familiar and the novel, and somewhere around the mid-point of that duality’s oscillations are the sites at which it resonates with its listeners. The strangeness with which Stars In Battledress tend to strike the listener’s ear is not that of complete unfamiliarity; indeed, their music’s harmonies are primarily built

Various Artists – Album Roundup

Richard Pinhas and Yoshida Tatsuya are legendary figures in the French and Japanese experimental rock scenes, respectively. ‘Experimental’ is a term that implies a bit of diversity, and the projects they’ve been involved with have covered quite a range of approaches, so there is nothing predictable about this record, and nor would there have been, whatever it sounded like. Pinhas is a guitarist with a penchant for live looping technology, which he uses here to create shimmering skeins of sound rather than hard-edged rhythmic repetitions, mutating colour fields with texturally filigreed surfaces and pelagically roiling depths. He uses quite pronounced distortion, which takes the music into the fringes of noise, but it is soft and warm, amniotically …

Regal Worm – Use and Ornament (avant-prog)

‘Detail’ seems to be the watchword by which this album was conceived and constructed; I hesitate to say that it’s all about the arrangements, as it’s clearly about much more, but a conspicuously enormous amount of effort has gone into them. Ideas abound in every area, in an album which is clearly a paean to much of the best music that progressive rock has produced; stylistic cues come from many sources, including folk, jazz and sixties psych-pop, and melodic or harmonic devices are presented in a rapidly cycling kaleidoscope of nuanced affective conditions. However, it is in the constant, subtly modulated…

Various Artists – Singles and EPs

Kibou Records is everything I talk about but don’t actually do. It’s a totally independent, DIY music label and online distributor, dedicated to uncompromising underground music, of the noisy punk variety. It’s basically the Revolution, as described by French anarchists The Invisible Committee, a parallel structure that is a challenge to the status quo simply by virtue of its existence. If everyone with music to distribute did this, and everyone bought their music from outfits like this, the corporate music industry would shrivel up and die. Of course the success of such an …

Matt Stevens – Lucid (avant-rock)

Matt Stevens has a particular approach as a solo performer; he gigs on his own, with an acoustic guitar, and he plays instrumental music. He’s a great player, but he doesn’t tackle the challenge of solo performance by throwing a heap of complex technique at the problem; instead, he uses live looping technology to accompany himself. He builds up a pattern of rhythm and harmony, in anything from one to several layers, and plays melody over the top (or not, depending on what else is going on). You can see this if you go to one of his gigs. He’ll start playing, then after a while he’ll stop, but what he’s just been …

Various Artists – Album Roundup

In the best tradition of underground music, it’s not entirely clear what Milktoast Music is; probably not a label in the traditional sense. More likely a collective of closely related musical projects, I would imagine. This album includes tracks from four of the six acts listed on their website, with those by Richard Pickman in preponderance, and several credited to the label, which are presumably collaborative efforts. The music is humorous and wantonly bizarre, although also quite accessible, and peppered with science-fiction samples. In style, it echoes the timbres of chiptune, with retro digital synths and …

Present – Triskaïdékaphobie (avant-rock)

If there’s one thing reviewing this album has taught me it’s this: always scroll to the end of the email. When I went back to the message in which this was submitted for review, I discovered that I had also received a link for Present’s second album, Le Poison Qui Rend Fou, which was re-released at the same time. I’ve now downloaded it (thank you, nice people at Cuneiform Records), but I won’t be reviewing it with this one; I probably wouldn’t have done anyway, as that’s not really how I roll. I prefer to concentrate on the sound, and ignore the seminal reputation (or otherwise) of the release; and there is …

Pannón Melankólikusok – Szerelmedért (chamber rock)

I don’t know if Christina Domene and Robert Hofmann were a performing duo before they conceived their love of the Hungarian language, and began to set that culture’s poetry to music. That is the agenda around which this project revolves, however, and they certainly chose its name, which translates as ‘Pannonian melancholy’ on that basis. Pannonia was a province of the Roman Empire, but the name was applied to several states or provinces in Transdanubia and the Pannonian Basin, including the medieval kingdom of Hungary. Claiming a Pannonian identity for their music (not for themselves …

Various Artists – Singles and EPs

This music is the brainchild of Michael Woodman, guitarist and vocalist in Thumpermonkey, written using the immersion composition techniques described in The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook. The method seems to work. I have no idea what method he employs when writing for Thumpermonkey, but that seems to work too, and for several reasons Eat Your Robot sound a lot like his other band. One reason is the lyrical style; another is the way the melodies are phrased; another is Woodman’s singing, which is highly distinctive; and equally important are his guitar playing and riff writing, which are a …

Robert Wyatt – ’68 (avant-rock)

Robert Wyatt has very few rivals for the title of most influential percussionist in British underground music (among many other things), but he hasn’t played drum kit in over forty years, after losing the use of his legs in an accident. The release of an album on which he does just that (among many other things) is something of a significant event for many listeners, then, and there are other reasons for the great interest (and appreciation) with which ’68 has been greeted. It offers a snapshot of his musical development at a crucial moment in the growth of the more creatively rigorous side of British …