Friday, August 26, 2011

About time: it's not a soufflé, it's an escape hatch to a better musical world (watch out for the snakes by the ladders)

I’ve been agonizing over this post for too long, mostly because, after the unexpected resonance of the soufflé post, I thought that I would overdetermine anything I pointed to – ie, anything I did choose to talk about would be imbued with a significance far above and beyond what it either deserved or should have to bear. So I became the pitiless censor of myself. Then I thought, fuck it: what I actually need to do is exactly the opposite. What I need to do is canonize the shit out of a few recordings. So, instead of doing an exhaustive list of everything I’ve listened to this year that’s excellent (which can wait until the end of the year), I’ve whittled it down to three Very Important Albums.

In the first place, the whittling meant giving those things I love a sound caning. Not Malaysia/Singapore style. It meant listening again very carefully to all the albums I loved, especially: Junior Boys, Alva Noto + Sakamoto, Isolée, Ezekiel Honig, and Jonsson/Alter (which also has the honour of being an excellent house/techno album - the exceptional souffle that proves the rule?). These are all amazing albums that really deserve your time/ care/patience/attention, and many of them are not 'obvious' on first or cursory listens. You need to make an effort. But basically there’s nothing ‘important’ going on here, as I see 'em. They’re just talented people doing what they do very well, very comfortably. Polished formulas, highly developed approaches, and predictably excellent results. With ‘all of the above’ I can also recognise how subjective my appraisals are; to some extent they’re all just ‘cold beer and hot chips’ for a guy who loves both those things. Then there’s Peaking Lights and Grouper (both the AIA albums), who have produced two of my favourite recordings to actually listen to, especially of an evening, especially accompanied by a good book and a bottle or three of Coopers Stout. These are high rotation favourites (the stout, too), but, for me, they’re also a kind of BGM. For me. But maybe they also lack that spark, that undeniable glint of the extraordinary.

A few general comments. The interesting newcomers… I’m just not sure yet. And maybe I’m not totally convinced in general. Apart from Autre Ne Veut - that album is genius, and the reent EP is great. But in general, not sure: not about Not Not Fun, nor Tri Angle, nor Hippos in Tanks, nor Spectrum Spools. There’s undeniably something going on there that is both very creative and very interesting, but I’m just not sure any/all of it is prepare to give what people need from it. But that might say much more about the neediness of what is, you'd have to say, a very fickle audience. Needy and fickle, that's us... ...and not very good listeners, for the most part... But very opinionated. It's not a very good combination of traits, really. But in relation to 'all of the above', I’m not ready (or inclined) to comment either way. Still learning, still thinking, not convinced... I will say that the Art School Indie Kids are kicking the absolute shit out of the Dance Music Laptops though, creatively speaking.

Also: the whole ‘dark’ thing… black isn’t a colour, but it’s still a shade we have to be careful in choosing. Black is an extremely subtle signifier; it’s not only possible to clash while wearing black on black, it’s also all too easy to just be... boring. And after all, what are Goths but conservatives alienated from conservatism (but unable to reject it wholesale - hence the mourning, and the ability to leave the mourning, and hence the comforts of the melancholia). Well anyway, there can be something timid with ‘black’, something half-arsed, lazy. I find it in Melbourne all the time (this does NOT apply to Coopers Stout) in the way people dress. A failure of imagination. Or dress sense. Anyway, I think that, along with a lot of the milquetoast kosmische-lite ‘synth’ stuff, for the most part the ‘dark’ thing is going to date very, very badly. And just 'cos you add dissonance to dark doesn't make it interesting. And if you make ‘dark dissonant synth’, well then, good luck to you in 2012, sir… Then there's the 'second coming' of microhouse, with new work from so many of my old heroes (call it Perlon and Playhouse, Kompakt and Krause... and Dial). Are the many returns happy? I think a whole post on Pampa and Re|dial (as the 'houses' of all the microhouse refugees) is warranted. I'm not sure I quite have the interest. That might say something... But really (final general comment), as long as you don’t tell me Nicholas Jaar is good, I’m willing to accept that you’re trying. That album is shit, and if you don't think so, you're not listening. And its acritical reception says a lot. About
us, mostly. Okay, time to canonize…

I think all these albums are significant. There's something important here, important because, in their own way, each of these works offers us signposts or models for different possibilities. Paradigms. We all need paradigms. And/but/fuck, they're all amazing, too. It is, even now, in spite of everything, all about the music, maaaan.

John Maus – We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

It’s rare that someone makes a perfect pop record. This one is pretty close; it’s not perfect, but it’s still genius – and ingenious and generous and ingenuous. And hell, the combination of that title with that cover...?! Ridiculous... And the album has this incredible, ineffable 'sound' (I'm not just talking about the lo fi thing, I actually think JM has learned something really important about sound from Ariel Pink). It’s not cool, it’s warm. And it has that real audacity that so much other music lacks right now. More than that, these are very good songs (and lyrics), and the whole album plays so ‘suitely’ that I wouldn’t change a note. Short and sweet. (Why don't more people make short albums!?) But what I love most about it is that its centrepoint is impossible to focus on. So it’s actually very subversive, it fucks with you. Every one I play it to, they say, ‘wow, it sounds just like X’ (and they start enumerating Joy Division, the Cure, the Stranglers, ‘the 80s’, 'new wave', whoever). But no sooner do they say that then I see a look on their face that quickly doubts what was so clear only a bar or note before. So it totally resists complete assimilation, no matter what. You can’t flat pack it, vacuum seal it, or turn it in to wallpaper. And so, in spite of absolutely, brazenly deploying irony, nostalgia and pastiche, it totally undermines the three corners of the po mo ‘fire triangle’ – this recording actually gives you an escape hatch to another possible world. But the moment you take it, the album is over. So you have to begin again, again. Radical.

Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

Well, it’s not really about rave, death, or 1972. But all these points would signal a moment in time. Taken together, Ravedeath, 1972 totally scrambles all these points of reference. There is something wonderfully, purposefully enigmatic about this album,in its sound presence: what do these sounds ‘mean’? How can I ‘hear’ them? Why is it that it sounds like a different recording every time you play it (and depending on what time of day you play it, and the volume you play it at)? Yet at the same time, how is it that, no matter what, as soon as you put it on it suspends you in its soundworld – part sky, part cloud, part blanket? Is it evil? What does it want? I can't quite tell... but I like the confusion... So: a seemingly inexhaustible source of something that makes a subtle change in the whole room, and you in relation to it. Jazz drummers are known for their ability to bend time. I think that Tim Hecker (and Ben Frost) have found a way to suspend time with this record. Yeah, it’s that good.

Kangding Ray – OR

In the making of any album, the gathering of influence and elements is really important. But then it’s like a bouquet: once you’ve gathered it, you’ve got to hold it together, but not so tightly that you might crush all the pretty flowers. Wtihin the spectrum and archive of electronica Kangding Ray works with, (which he showed us so well on his mix for us a few months back, which you must listen to if you haven't) I feel that this is even more the case, because in spite and because of being given so many sonic potentialities, all too often producers don’t quite have the restraint, the musicality, or the horizon to really hold it all together. You can think about it in relation to the past decade (the whole stupid, wasteful she-bang) and our faithful tools, the computers. In the final analysis, they were simply much ‘better’ than most of the people who played on (or just toyed with) them. It was – is! – too unlimited. Just like contemporary finance capital (maybe that’s why we’ve crawled back to synths; computers are uncanny in 2011, they scare the shit out of us). OR seems unafraid of any of this; it’s an album that plays like a head-on tackling of something. There is nothing half-arsed or faint-hearted about it. It’s not minor, an addenda appendix or preamble, the work before the Work. It’s bold. It’s gold. OR is for awesome. It announces itself as what it is through its cover (just like Isolee did for Rest) and plays ‘just so’ from first note to last. The strength of the gestures, the poise with which they are put – this is, simply, a powerfully expressive album.

All three of the recordings I’ve selected here have a very special relation to time, or do something with time – and so tell us something about our time (which is a pretty strange time, definitely Mao's 'disorder under heaven'). We're not living in a non era. Let's not muddle through it, or succumb to anxiety, terror, paralysis, boredom, whatever... I keep thinking of George Clinton’s lyrics from ‘Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts’:

‘Change your mind, and you change your relation to time’.

The rest is practice.



  1. I think regardless of opinions it is great that you care and put the effort in to care so much about what you listen to.

    Having only listened to Kangding Ray's album (from any of the ones you listed) I'm not in much of a position to comment.

    I will say that my listening habits this year have been tending toward what I would call a re-education. There have been so many things I haven't heard that I tend to seek out the familiar or at least recognisable.

    If not that then the new is still steeped in oldness (I think here of CON's work released on Further).

    It's hard to catch up, harder still to keep up.

  2. love this post, this is what i am missing here, opinions about music..
    as i understand you have the same problem as i do, you listen to alot of music, you like alot of it, you dont like alot of it.. but even the ones you like , they lack something, they are great, they're enjoyable, playble and some danceable, but they lack something and imho its not the albums that lack something but its listeners, we became machines who goes through so much music in no time and we dont hear anything groundbreaking, we are missing the little things as we are waiting for big ones, i dont think theres a cure for this syndrome, theres no other way for us, its like some mathematician trying to solve equation for years, he is having fun, he gets some nnice moments in the way, but he isnt satisfied until he gets something really big (well this is a bad example but you get the idea)..

    so we just live and listen, theres nothing else left for us..
    maybe im talking total bullshit, but it definately is something to think about

  3. peaking lights is great. john maus record is okay. think this "subversive" quality has been amped up by all the right press. enjoyable synth-pop record done by Philosophy PhD candidate... the response from the critic-academics has been a little too predictable

  4. The John Maus album is a wonderful piece of work, made by an artist that definitely belongs to our time (sounding both relative and vital). This seems so very rare at the moment, which is perhaps a good sign.

    Even the self-flagellating title is fantastic; the punishing self-restraint of the words being so unabashedly contradicted by the music itself. Actually, I remember this album release coinciding nicely with the LSE guest lecture you posted on self-censorship a little while back. Rather good timing.

    From reading your post it's obviously something that concerns you, and I am glad on this occasion you have decided to say "fuck it".

    I haven't listened to the other albums you mentioned yet, but will eventually. I would like to add one artist to the fold, and that's Sex Worker (I don't think I will ever feel comfortable writing that). I have been especially moved by his output, and have also enjoyed his work under the Ital moniker.

  5. This was an extremely good post and I agree with you 100 percent! Oh my God what beutiful John Maus's album is, it's brilliant! He must have been in contact with higher forces. Have not had time to listen to those other two, but I will asap.

  6. @ MPS: in my defence, I actively avoid Pitchfork etc, so my response to Maus was locked in before I read any of the praise, or saw the interviews and so forth. Dave the Silent Ssg is the one keyed into these conduits, and my 'method' is that if he and one another person (who also knows their shit) recommends something, then I wait a month. If they mention it again, I have a listen (this is my way of dealing with hype bubbles AND avoiding PF, etc). I know there is something really 'right on' about the whole thing, but seriously, listen to the record carefully. In this case, not only is the hype accurate and deserved, I think this is an album that will survive into the future, and tell us something about this moment. In terms of PhD candidate... well, what about Nicholas Jaar? Every single thing I read about that guy rehashed the press release, which mentioned how amazing it was that the guy was an Ivy Leaguer. All time low for music churnalism, that... Maus' case, the guys is quite obviously a loose unit with a lot of ideas (I don't care that it's also obviously a manic/maniac persona). I think that we could really learn a lot from him.

  7. Wow, I can tell you genuinely connected with the Maus album. I don't usually read reviews or opinions that perfectly pin down what I feel when I listen to something. "it totally resists complete assimilation." That's sharp right there. Awesome job, I'm really feeling this ongoing discussion. Lately I've also really been into Rachel Evans, thanks in no small part to you guys. Simply lovely stuff, I can't think of another word for her music. Anyway, thanks for putting your heart into this, man. It shows. (and Hecker...oh my god!)

  8. "Let's not muddle through it, or succumb to anxiety, terror, paralysis, boredom, whatever"


  9. Good to see the 'positive' flipside, of sorts, to 'Part 1', although I found that positive too - a wake-up call to passivity and laziness, chiming exactly with my thoughts. We are indeed living in strange and important times (although perhaps people in all times think this???) - us being the handover generation experiencing the information revolution - and all its myriad effects - firsthand. Fucking crazy times!!!

    Interesting selections too, and I'm struck by the subjectivity - I've only heard one (Hecker), and not properly; heard mixed reviews of the Maus (through friends not critics) and have appreciated Kangding Ray without ever really getting (what am I missing?), but will check them all based on the enthusiasm.

    It all comes down to the attention one pays to music - if its all just downloaded bits heard through earphones how engaged can one be? Its a tired argument but one still completely unresolved and growing more increasingly relevant - if the artist produces music with intelligence, creativity, engagement and commitment and the listener pays likewise attention, then a much greater relationship and understanding can be created. The problem isn't (entirely) a lack of creativity but one related to finding sense and value within an overflowing flood of production. Negotiating this, and finding those instances where valuable connections between art and reality occur, is the (interesting) challenge for us listeners. But this can't successfully be done by abstracted passive listening.

    Pointing out those works which stand out in this sea, that actively and creatively examine and question the strange and crazy world we find ourselves in - is the job of critics, which is why so much criticism has so much to answer for.

    Thanks for this PC, and forgive the rambling, more when I've listened...

  10. ...And this is spot-on:

    maybe that’s why we’ve crawled back to synths; computers are uncanny in 2011, they scare the shit out of us

  11. @ joshualine: back atcha, this is spot on I think, what you say:

    "if the artist produces music with intelligence, creativity, engagement and commitment and the listener pays likewise attention, then a much greater relationship and understanding can be created." is profoundly relational, intersubjective, this whole music thing.

    I wrote something to Chris earlier, about a party... context is different, but, you know, we have to make the relations, otherwise...

    (anyway, this is what I wrote)

    " the end of the day ,there is only the audience there is...

    ...and so much of this relates to excitement

    ...which is related to movement...

    ...people have to think: if I don't go to X, I will miss out on something that will become a small part of cherished memory.

    'where were you in '92', etc.

    If it just becomes routine, it is boring. As you know, this is a big problem I have with nightclubs. They're open EVERY weekend, to cater for a trade.

    Ultimately, it works if gay sex is paying for everything. That gives enough scope for the music people to just get on with it.

    ...straight clubbing without sex... does it work?"

    ...straight music without listening... does it work?

    We Must Become the Remorseless Sensors of our Musics

  12. Thank you for this post. I get weary of the whole line of "the rise of the internet means the death of the canon and we can just immerse ourselves in a neverending stream of free music and not worry about what albums are important!" I so feel you on certain "movements" being aesthetically and aurally appealing but feeling slight to that part of us that craves meaning and depth. I think the Kangding Ray record is blindingly brilliant, and it's near to if not at the top of my favorites of 2011 thus far. I hope it gets its proper due.

  13. @ Clarke B: thank you for your thanks! :)

    I was perusing this article on Badiou after a conversation with some friends. I don't understand Badiou and wonder what all the fuss is about, but, fuck, this quote is awesome:

    "The audacity of thought is not to repeat 'to the limit' that which is already entirely retained within the situation which the limit limits; the audacity of thought consists in crossing a space where nothing is given."

  14. Me too with Badiou but the crossing into the space 'where nothing is given' is vital. Isn't that exactly what we're all looking for with new music/art?

    Tim Hecker seems to be doing this with Ravedeath. Given his previous dissatisfaction with his work as Jetone and the need to work away from rhythmic structures, he's clearly an artist intent on challenging himself. As I wrote for RA, Imaginary Landscapes offered little beyond a retread of what he'd been doing since Haunt Me..., so he needed a rethink, and found it in Ben Frost. The point you make about time is pertinent here - the tracks seem to snake, swell, bloat, empty, divorced from any sense of strict timekeeping. This reminded me of VDelay's Anima. Pieces within suites bleed into eachother, as do the suites themselves, almost organically. If he's saying anything about the current state of things its that machines have lives of their own (clearly a Frost influence), with the fusion of instrumental and electronic timbres are more fused than ever (without completely erasing themselves). Also he's feeding us our own thoughts with titles like Hatred of Music and even the album title, and it sounds lovely! Worth hearing Janek Schaeffer's organ electronics album In the Last Hour for Room 40 alongside, it too is a doozy.

    I find Kangding more difficult, as he's working from within a predefined genre, and one I'm not personally fond of, and he offers little in terms of breaking out of it. There's no denying the depth and richness of the sounds he uses, which reminds me of a more musical Monolake, with more acoustic tones, but beyond this what does it offer or question? Good to hear voices creep in, but its done in just the way that artists like Burial and Actress have done previously (albeit more sparingly). Yes, he'd be great to hear live and loud, but beyond sound design I'm not sure what he's giving us. Happy to be instructed...

    Maus - not heard yet. Will put forth my favourites in due course. Thanks again PC

  15. @ joshualine: I sort of see OR as as the culmination/apotheosis of all the influences you mentioned. To that extent it may be a late work, the 'final word' in the genre? Well, that's bound to be a bogus claim, but maybe you know what I mean. I think: you know it when you hear it (with some things). And I hear it with OR. It both moves me and seems to express 'something' (I know that's vague, but...). I guess it is a strong expression, like I was saying (but of 'what' exactly?). More than sound design, by my estimation. What it is: it is a contemporary album, in a year when very few things are contemporary. Again, this is more of an intuition than anything that would withstand close 'harshly lit' scrutiny.

    ...the other side of this is that, you know, maybe it's now totally okay for house/techno to just accede to something like a comfortable state of repetition. By this I mean: become genre music in the way that crime novels are genre fiction. I know I've used this metaphor before... like: maybe people working with that basic structure needn't have to try so hard, be so aspirational. I don't mean they should just capitulate and recapitulate (they can do what they want!), but maybe... it's okay to be redundant. To pass into history, to become one of many historical forms. Maybe Ableton gave us the false sense that house/techno had been developing, when really all the formulas and patterns were all 'worked out' in the 90s. Hmm... I'm not sure...

  16. I am not so sure either, and certainly am not ready to consign house/techno to history just yet. I'm also not sure how I would go about doing that anyway, certainly these days when when my conception of history (certainly music history) seems blurred. We appear to be living in very different social and economic times, compared to when so many of our ideas on musical progression, direction and history were formed (dictated top-down?).

    However, whenever I listen to "e4-e4", that question on form always arises. I wonder what isn't contained within it (perhaps in some undeveloped form), that isn't simply refined over the following decades into a genre.

    I would like to also quote Kierkegaard, as I feel it is relevant to the spirit of the discussion. Forgive the length.

    "What these products lacked was ideas, and the greater their formal perfection, the more quickly they burnt themselves out. The more their technical proficiency was developed the highest degree of virtuosity, the more transient this virtuosity became and it had neither courage and strength nor poise to withstand the blows of time, while with an increasingly superior air making ever greater claims to be the most rarefied of spirits. Only where the idea is brought to rest transparently in a definite form can we talk of a classic work"

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  18. @ Never Really Began: fuck yes, that's it...

    and/or we can go back to Terre, in her interview with us from a few years back:

    How do you see your craft developing (if indeed it is a ‘craft’ to you)? And how is technology influencing this?

    ‘Craft’ is no longer suspect to a lot of electronic producers. Especially in the house genre. Everybody wants to be a full-on musician. I think that makes a lot of music complacent, because we stop challenging social norms around how music should sound or be performed.

    As for technology, does anybody else find it unbelievably patronizing that the default file name for most Apple software follows the formula ‘My…’ – ‘My Disc’, ‘My Song’, ‘My Movie’, etc.? It's a real sign of how we've socially come to project personal identity onto corporately structured media. It goes hand in hand with the rise of the ‘DJ as Artist’.

  19. 2 albums I rate from 2011 here:

    Good point on craft too. Would like to see more of what others rate, anyone? And keen to see your take on house genre work PC.

  20. I think it's hilarious that someone would think that the forms of house and techno go back only as far as "E2-E4". The pounding rhythm of the drum has been around about as long as man has! Only the tools for making that music have changed, the music itself will continue to do the exact same thing forever. What is the functional difference between 12 minute tracks by James Brown, Basic Channel, Ricardo Villalobos, Armando, Kraftwerk, or Walter Gibbons? Each aims to touch that same part of us, to lock us into that eternal groove. If you're looking for something more than that, I suggest checking out some prog rock, IDM, and experimental music. Plenty of high minded conceptualism going on there, along with lots of ineffectiveness.

    Personally, I'll keep being excited by new repetitive dance grooves without worrying if that is new enough or conceptual enough.

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  22. @ pipecock what repititive dance grooves have kept you eternally grooving in 2011 then, for those that don't visit your blog? three selections perhaps a la pc

    i don't want to over conceptualise things (because i can't...) so i'll keep it simple. relatively speaking, i haven't listened to very much 4 tick 4 this year. just aint really doing it for me. a bit bored.

    that is not to say i am bored of house & techno full stop. indeed i will always be in search of pipecock's eternal groove. i am a house & techno man (i even have one of those t-shirts that says "I love techno"). & every now and then this year I have thought HOLY SHIT this is awesome (BBC stuff on honest jons come to mind)

    but i am struggling to find my fix of good records on a regular basis in 2011. and i used to basically keep the record industry alive with the amount i spent on records, so they need to sort it out quick because we've already burned all their profits here in the uk.

    it applies to mixes too. and it applies to all the stuff you guys spluff your beans over at ism.

    i do very much like your blog though - keep up the good work

  23. @pipecock

    "I think it's hilarious that someone would think that the forms of house and techno go back only as far as "E2-E4"

    Where did I write that? I was alluding to the quote that I posted, which I believe contains a valuable idea, one worth considering. That is of an idea being brought to rest, transparently and fully realized. By all means disagree with that, but your straw man argument was entirely unnecessary.

  24. @ never really began: I wasn't picking on your comment, more just trying to stress that even "E2-E4" didn't really contain anything truly "new" that hadn't already been done in terms of what makes this kind of music interesting. To me, the desire for "new" and "innovation" is a mistaken one, since that's not really how music works. I'll address this more later in this reply.

    @ johnnyp: I guess I just listen to so much music, new and old, dance and non, that I am never relying on only one genre to fulfill any requirements I have of music. Listening to music should be like listening to the musician's personality. If one has an engaging personality, how can their music be boring, even if it is in a style that is heavily played out? Everyone is jocking Moodymann these days, the weak boring ripoffs don't make his music any less captivating to me.

    I guess this is what ties together for me why I am not having any problems finding good music. I am not looking for something "new", and I ignore weak ripoffs in favor of artists with distinctive personality. For me, this describes anything that I love musically, be it old disco or jazz, or new house or techno. Keep searching for personality and you'll never have a hard time finding good music.

    So you want 3 picks from me? Here you go:

    Noleian Reusse "Black Tekno EP" Love What You Feel - I'm clearly biased because this came out on my label, but this record is dripping with personality. All 5 tracks are very distinctive stylisticially, with very little resembling a standard 4 on the floor, and yet they all kill. Weird, spaced out, soulful DIY electronic dance music.

    Rick Wilhite "Analog Aquarium" Still Music - Rick is always gonna provide personality in his music, and this album does it again. From using his own voice to looping up chunks of disco records, his techniques and equipment vary but always sound like him.

    Maria Minerva "Maria Minerva's Cabaret Cixous" Not Not Fun - lo-fi, deep, sometimes dancey and sometimes not, Maria is one of the best things on NNF/100% Silk because of her very individualistic take on electronic music.

  25. @ pipecock thanks for the picks

    Just to clarify, I'm not bored of music itself. I listen to all sorts, dance and non dance, my roots are more non dance in fact. At those times when I'm not finding new, there is so much I still have to learn about the past that you simply cannot be bored with music. But personally, that doesn't mean my interest cannot wane with respect to the new releases of two genres within the thousands of genres that exist. And yes, personality screams out still on some house and techno releases. I am talking in general terms.

    But in 2011 I am consistently finding the most personality in electronic music in forms outside of house and techno.

    I'm not writing off these genres. I bloody love them, always will.

  26. I say John Maus is a fucking comedy act. Tim Hecker does what he does. It's OK, I guess.


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