Wrap - Losing Count (Captured Tracks)
Bendon Avalos from the Brooklyn punk trio B Boys decided
to take a venture of his own into the world of post-pop
solo recording, using the name Gift Wrap and setting up
shop in his apartment. All the classic elements are here
- disaffected vocals, parts where you can’t tell if
it’s a synth or a guitar, straightfoward staccato
bass, and your average garage sale drum machine percussion.
Standard building blocks can still make something worth
listening to though, if you’re writing good songs.
Things get interesting when the layers of noise pile up
on “Change My Mind.” The album was supposedly
a loose, experimental work, but hopefully he was paying
attention to the knob-twiddle settings on that one because
it sounds great. “Mirage” leans heavily into
the electro-pop past, and the track is truly an album highlight,
but we’ve been through more than one generation of
this already. It brings to mind Ladytron circa 2001 more
than OMD circa 1981.
Production is spot-on for what Gift Wrap is going for,
and there are snippets of brilliance, like the changing
gears on “Comatose” and the good sense to cover
Egyptian Lover. But, in the end Losing Count is still only
a fascimile of a copy of the original - a third wave rather
than something creating fresh ripples. I think a very telling
detail is that a video was made in conjunction with this
release. It looks like a bad-copy VHS, to add to the old
school asthetic. However, it wasn’t recorded with
an old camera, it was recorded with a new iPhone, and they
just made it look like VHS with some technical editing.
I think that says it all.
When listening to outsider music I sometimes think I need
to turn my perspective upside-down. This is some grating,
challenging, and just plain weird shit. The first two tracks,
filled with attempted singing and vacuum chugging have me
questioning the boundaries of independent art. But I have
to remind myself, “Yeah, maybe that’s the entire
goal here.” The sound is super-stripped down, and
while this music might be dubbed “experimental”
it seems like everything that was put in is supposed to
be there. No happy accidents, just some people purposefully
As the album continues though, the tide turns from grating
to interesting, from challenging to creative, and from weird
to… well, still weird, but in a way I can appreciate.
The spastic-beatnik “Apo Y Betun” is like space
age bachelor pad music going off the rails. “We Are
Professionals” is a great 100 second punk manifesto,
and “I Want More, I Want Less” makes me think
this guy spent a lot of time in his bedroom, alone, listening
to Devo and Ween records.
“I Could Say I Was There” is a spoken-word
ramble over an echo-y drone, and would appeal to anyone
into storytelling and/or possibly dream interpretation.
Professionals is chock-full of ideas, all over the place,
and demands your attention. Sometimes it might not elicit
positive reactions, but I think Davison knows that, too
- see the closer, “I’m Sorry About Everything.”
Meat Beat Manifesto – Impossible Star (Flexidisc)
Full disclosure: I haven't listened to Meat Beat Manifesto
since Subliminal Sandwich. At the time, their edgy
electro-industrial racket, complete with Jack Dangers' snarls
and sci-fi soundclips, hit the spot for a young Mark, but
since then I've moved on to less sinister sounds. The group
might have as well, since what I've known in the past sounds
very little like Impossible Star.
The title is an appropriate one too, since this album lets
the manic mechanics of the 90s fade away in favor of something
more cosmic. The washes of synth are dreamy, the drum beats
are hollow (in that good, spacey way), and the rest of the
beeps and bloops bounce along untethered. There are glimpses
of the original fire here and there, like when the obscure
sound bites pop up, the vocoder effects drop in, and what
sounds like a giger counter becomes part of the instrumentation.
Overall it's an unsurprising affair, the songs sound exactly
like their titles dictate. See: "Unique Boutique",
"Lurker", and "Synthesizer Teste".
I don't find it particularly exciting, but perhaps this
is truly what evolution feels like. We've got robots making
music for robots, which in some ways is a really accurate
way to describe this. But is it any good? I couldn't tell
you any more than a Keurig machine could explain what love
Gary Numan - Savage (Songs From A Broken World) (BMG)
Electronic rock icon Gary Numan is one of the pillars of
the genre. The music hasn't changed much at all, but he
doesn't need to since he's the one that invented the sound
in the first place. And since the 80s are back, the man
that once brought us tracks like "Cars" and "Telekon"
rightfully reigns again. Savage is classic Numan - cold,
deep, hook-laden synths with Numan's pained vocals and a
bleak outlook on life. The lead single "My Name Is
Ruin" says it all. The future is already here and it
don't look good. Sounds great though.
Trans Am - California Hotel (Thrill Jockey)
Trans Am are geniuses. Musical artists have mashed genres
before, but usually it's music that goes together like PB&J
anyway (disco and rap, etc.). Trans Am are the only outfit
that I know of that successfully blend post-rock and synth
pop. Snappy, delectable drums mix with keyboard riffs and
vocoder vocals. Mathy, almost proggy guitar escapades, the
likes of which are usually seen on their longtime label
Thrill Jockey, get funneled through a digital wormhole until
it becomes a jazz-hacker-nerd-punk hybrid. And if that last
sentence turned you on instead of off, keep the switch flipped
and rock this album out, because it rules.
Beck - Colors (Capitol)
Beck's oeuvre has bounced around for so long, you can't
really sum it up without resorting to the reinvented rhetoric
and chamleon cliches. His last album was "one of the
serious ones" and this new album is "one of the
party ones." Enough said. Morning Phase sounded absolutely
pristine and deservedly won the Grammy for Best Engieneered
Album. Perhaps Beck took pride in that, because Colors,
with all it's slacker raps, handclaps, and oddball instrumentation,
sounds great. He's always had an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink
aesthetic, but now that sink is polished clean and a luxurious
studio is capturing the sound. The ten track album has plenty
of highlights, hooks, and even a few throwback moments that
nod to earlier works. Basically, if you're a long time fan,
get on this.
- Mara I/Mara II (Bureau B)
Experimental artist Alsen Rau and sound architect Nikolai
von Sallwitz put together a double album of spooky soundscapes
and dark, ambient compositions. This is good news for people
who like bad news. If you’re searching for a soundtrack
to a post-apocalyptic nightmare, or accompaniment to a dystopian
sci-fi movie where it’s gloomy and rainy 24-7, then
look no further.
The music itself doesn’t really catch any ears except
in rare moments, but the creation process itself, and the
quality of the end result is fairly impressive. Lots of depth,
lots of beats and synth lines taped and re-looped into the
tracks, giving off some kind of quasi-analog feel. Another
release from the underground, buried deep where the light
of pop can’t get to it.
- Licht (Bureau B)
After spending some time in the “Krautrock Guerilla”
outfit Camera, backing up Michael Rother (NEU!), and working
in the studio with the Tiger Liliies, Brockmann and Bargmann
venture out to do something completely of their own. This
collection of instrumentals shine, with melodies cruising
juuust fast enough to make you feel like your car tires are
floating above the concrete on a motorik road trip. Both artists
are billed as improvisationalists, but that fact is masked
fairly well, with structured rhythms and layers of sounds
falling into place perfectly.
Highlights include the cascading “Deepmind”, the
serene “Spektrum”, and “Horizont”,
which could have snuck it’s way onto Daft Punk’s
Tron Legacy score. The shuddering, tribal drums of “Schatten”
is great too, evoking memories of the best that Juno Reactor
had to offer back in the day. Overall a beckoning record,
ripe with sounds that welcome return visits rather push boundaries.
Chalk one in the win column here.
Kranemann & Harold Grosskopf - Krautwerk (Bureau B)
Yet another release from German electronic music veterans.
This time from guys who’ve logged miles with Kraftwerk
and Ashra. The building blocks are all there - throbbing synths,
waves of synths, and the occasional pounding and clanging
of, what I suspect to be synthesizers. Which is all well and
good, except for the go-nowhere songs and the repetitive tempos
throughout. There really are some neat sounds here - the manufactured
riff of “Paris Texas”, the bubbling thumps of
“Happy Blue”, and waaaah-whoaaaa of “Buddhatal”
that sound like a mash up of Close Encounters and adults speaking
in the Peanuts cartoon. But those concepts just continue for
a while and nothing really builds or moves. Maybe in the future
someone will sample a cool snippet from this album and do
something interesting with it.
Story Leidecker - Familiar (Bureau B)
Here we have yet one more super group collaboration from the
fringes of electronic music. This time the team up includes
Dieter Moebius of Cluster and Harmonia, soundtrack veteran
Tim Story, and experimental composer Jon Leidecker, whose
resume includes work with acts like Matmos and Negativland.
The trio convened in Montanna, took in the view at Glacier
National Park, and then recorded this album. The sound is
immediate, varied, and despite the genre tropes involved,
natural. Overall the album has a “Hey guys let’s
get together in the studio and jam” feel to it, but
boy these dudes know how to weave their way around computerized
sound. If you’ve ever looked at the set up of a synth-playing,
knob-twiddling electronic musician, and wondererd “What
exactly do all those buttons do?!”, this recording would
give you a crash course. Familiar is intricate and showy,
stereo-testing at all registers, tweaking in all manners,
with plenty of subtleties sneaking in and out of the mix.
Skittery synths and squishy beats push everything forward,
with the apex coming right around the title track and “Block
Coordinates met in time and space, producing what could
only be captured in this exact moment. The fact that Moebius
passed away a few short years after this was recorded only
adds to it’s poignancy.
- Hell Yeah (earMUSIC)
This German institution is now closing in on two dozen
albums, spread out over a 33-year career. Their metal-techno
hyrbid eventually fell comfortably into the industrial rock
realm sometime early on, and while rock critics like it
when bands turn corners, I think it's equally impressive
that the band has barely changed its formula at all. Fad
chasers get trampled by bands like these. Those pounding
electronic drums energize with every beat, and those exact,
mechanical guitars push songs ever forward. The vocals from
Andy Selway don't carry the melodies that much (the sultry
sounding Lucia Cifarelli is a bit more successful), and
that makes perfect sense. I would expect everything here
to sound like automated cyberpunk, even if it came from
a human. What really binds this all together are the synths,
filling in every available corner with hooks, trills, waves,
stabs, and all manner of rapid electro-noise. Despite the
classic KMFDM sound, one won't mistake Hell Yeah for something
old. The group is too on point when it comes to ranting
about the ills of modern society for that to happen. The
uproarious "Freak Flag", the grimey "Fake
News", and the foul-mouthed "Rx For The Dammned"
make it clear this is a 2017 release. And if you've built
up enough frenzied anger and are itching to riot, the album
offers not one, but two completely-lose-your-shit anthems
in "Total State Machine" and "Glam, Glitz,
Guts, & Gore". It might not solve life's problems,
but cranking up the stereo, turning on the strobe light,
and raging to a chous of "THE GOVERNMENT HATES YOU!"
has got to provide some kind of cathartic release.
Wars - Culture Wars EP (culturewars.bandcamp.com)
I'm trying to think of ways to explain Austin-based trio Culture
Wars, aside from describing their competent but blatant mash-up
known as "dance rock." A couple phrases pop into
my mind as these songs rumble from the speakers: Radio-ready.
Arena jams. Crowd pleasers. Car commercial music. I can't
conjure up anything that sounds less pre-packaged than that.
However, if this type of music is up your alley anyway, the
band offers some nice tunage, even if it feels like it was
ordered off the combo menu.
One good thing about this self-titled self-release is
that while the music is a blend of electro pop and bleacher-stomping
rock, neither genre is sacrificed for the other. The synth
lines are prominent, the beats are solid and dancable, and
the guitars get their licks in too. "Bones" throws
it all against the wall, rewarding listeners with a "whoa-oh-oh"
chorus that will have the kids involuntarily chanting and
putting their hands over their heads. It's a winning move,
but they pull the same manuever with "Hideaway"
leaving one wondering if they ran out of ideas on a 5-song
EP. The last of the cuts, "Money (Gimme Gimme)"
puts all their tricks into overdrive. The vocals are snarly,
the guitar hook is classic rawk, and the beat is heavy and
throbbing. It seems like the band has all their ducks in
a row if they want to sell a sporty sedan or open for Twenty
One Pilots. I'm walking over to another pond.
Magnetic Pets - Deluxe Debris (Happy Robots)
Here we have an interesting amalgamation of sounds, eras,
and geography. Tiny Magnetic Pets (a reference to a cute little
Japanse toy) take cues from 70s Germany krautrock and 80s
French electro-pop, and guides them through a filter of turn-of-the-century
indie electronica (think Darla Records at their most bleep-boopiest).
And where does this band hail from? Ireland, of course!
The mixture of precise, set-my-clock-to-it rhythms mixes
surprisingly well with the warm synth underpinnings, and
the soft, lovely vocals of Paula Gilmer add another layer
as well. The authenticty of sound is undeniable. It's the
inexplicable feeling while you're soaking it in - that notion
of "Yeah, they got it right."
If the music is the gold star on Deluxe Debris,
then the sequencing is the one demerit. The opener "I
Lost My Guiding Light" is ho-hum, and while I think
the epic motorik-meets-dream pop "Semaphore" is
a standout track, at 11 minutes long you're asking for a
lot of patience right off the bat. "Radio On",
featuring ex-Kraftwerk member Wolgang Flur, is the hit we're
all looking for, and it's followed by some choice cuts in
the form of the bubbling "All Tomorrow's Yesterdays"
and the dreamy, floaty, "Cloud Sequence." Unfortunately,
sandwiched inbetween is "Here Comes The Noise",
a track the band thought was so nice, they played it twice
(in two parts, or two different remixes - regardless, it's
too much). "Never Alone" caps off the album, a
nice tune that goes down smooth now that the appetite has
been thoroughly whetted.
The band mixes together influences like Jean-Michel Jarre,
Berlin-era Bowie, and the Pet Shop Boys. They've also gained
fans like Michael Rother of Neu! and Andy McClusky of OMD.
Freaking Kraftwerk veteran Wolfgang Flur guests on the album!
That's a lot of names to drop in my audio book, and this
chapter sounds pretty good.
– Fresh Air (Bureau B)
One barely raises an eyebrow these days when they hear
“70’s krautrock staple Faust have a new album
out.” So many bands reform and continue to create
these days, it’s hardly anything novel. These German
“art-errorists” being as they are, however,
never make it that simple. Fresh Air was recorded
in the US over the course of their 2016 tour. So not only
do we get new material, we also get live takes, guest stars,
and field recordings.
The opening epic, recorded live at WFMU in Jersey City,
is where you’ll get your classic Faust fill. The title
track’s slow, haunting, undulating sounds draw you
in, while vocals and voices juuust under the mix have your
ears peering into that eerie darkness. Violin from Ysanne
Spevack adds to the layers, while the drums and guitar sneak
in so gradually before you know the track is already pummeling
you with noise.
The middle section of the album takes you through Austin
and Los Angeles, where a warped array of vignettes and fully-realized
songs are ushered along with the help of the illustrious
Barbara Manning. The best of the bunch is “La Poulie”,
a tumbling, cranky motortik-on-overdrive tune with Jurgen
Engler of Die Krupps lending a hand.
Finally, we close out with another 10+ minute opus back
at WFMU, filled with Jean-Herve Peron’s tuneful ranting
and ethereal jamming reminiscent of Dead Can Dance. There’s
some really interesting stuff going on with this release,
and I’d suggest that it’s as good as place as
any to start if you want to know what Faust is all about.
That being said, only those looking for a challenge to begin
with need apply.
PLAN – Unkapitulierbar (Bureau B)
One of the pioneering acts of the Neue Deutsche Well (New
German Wave) is back! Yes, the line-up has fluctuated over
the years, and yes what was once their trademark experimental
industrial/synth pop barely registers on the strange-o-meter
these days, but nevertheless the band turns in a very solid
effort. After 35+ years (with some lengthy hiatuses) of
music making, Der Plan’s Moritz R has a bag overflowing
with tricks, and he uses all of them to great effect. Plinky
beats, pulsating bass lines, and synth hooks permeate most
tracks, with a healthy dose of sound waves, vocoder effects,
and an intriguing production that I can only describe as
While top-notch execution is respected, and strong songwriting
is always welcome, two more facets of Unkapitulierbar push
the record toward the recommended pile: diversity and brevity.
There are moments that sound fairly modern – the near-glitchy
opener “Wie der wind weht,” and some that are
yeesh-evoking 80s pap – the whispery “wowowow”
of “Grundrecht” in particular. There’s
one song sung in English (and it’s great, with a guest
female vocalist), and there’s a tune that reminds
me of Welsh-pop act Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. “Der
Herbst” is an obvious homage to Fun Boy Three’s
“The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum.” There’s
even a reggae song. Yes, reggae through a German synth pop
filter. Not kidding. It’s quite impressive how much
they cram into 39 minutes. The longest song here is four
minutes long. By comparison, four minutes is the length
of the shortest song on Kraftwerk’s Autobhan record.
Each song has a job to do, and once the task is complete,
the clock is punched. No wasted space, no bloated drone-fests.
German efficiency saves the day!
LVRS – Electric Dread (Hz Castle/Big Bldg)
Coming in at three songs shorter, but 13 minutes longer
than Der Plan’s album, this darkwave disc takes a
while longer to sink into. Every song unfolds at a slow
pace, but that’s not to say each one is without surprises.
There’s a 1980s soundtrack vibe throughout, but tracks
vary between Bowie-lite male singing and echo-y female vocals,
gloomy city-scapes and majestic climaxes, and the oddball
inclusion of various instruments. You’ll hear skronky
sax in “I Am Almost Perfectly Awake”, impenetrable
mic effects in “Voyeurs!”, and Casio-esque handclaps
on “Lost To The Max.” The unraveling of the
record is so slow-motion, the rumbling bass, back beat,
and shouting of “Rich Man” is like a bolt from
the (dark) blue.
There’s great production here, their vision is clear,
and the band knows their way around a pair of headphones
– the sound is quite immersive. As I toured through
Electric Dread I enjoyed the experience, but any distinct
memories have since faded in the rear view. The bottom line
is they have a big, shadowy, urban playground that does
absolutely nothing, other than provide you with a place
to get lost in.
– Conduit (Imaginator)
Post-weird, no wave, improv-fusion outsider pop? I know,
at first pass I too almost turned my head away in confusion
and/or disgust. “Oh great, another attempt at being…
creative.” On subsequent listens, I’m acknowledging
they succeeding in this endeavor, and almost ready to admit
that they nearly made it accessible, too.
The blending of electronic and organic sounds is seamless,
and when they can’t get the sound they want from an
instrument, they invent a new one (see also Bradford Reed’s
electric board zither and his work with King Missile). Deep,
syncopated rhythms entrance the listener, while the layers
of creepy guitar and horns will have you checking under
the bed. The fact that these recording sessions were live
and spontaneous means the rotating cast of players (featuring
session workers who’ve spent time with Blue Man Group,
Yo La Tengo, and Swans, among others) were probably kept
on their toes too. All the sounds being filtered through
a modular synth is what gels this into a cohesive sound,
so no matter what path you take, all roads lead to Reed’s
palace of bizarre.
The final element in Conduit is Jane LeCroy’s poetry.
Her words are occasionally beat, sometimes dreamy, and always
adding to the notion that this is music made by and for
those outside the typical musical boundaries. Ohmslice is
not everyone’s cup of tea, but just coming up with
this new and different flavor at all is a remarkable accomplishment.
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