Review: Sea Oleena “Shallow”

01 Oct 2014 — Sam Clark

Charlotte Loseth’s debut album has been years in the making. During a period of time outlined by the decline of Myspace and the advent of Soundcloud, the Montreal-based artist released two abbreviated efforts as Sea Oleena: a self-titled project in 2010 and 2011’s Sleeplessness. Both mini-albums were incredibly poignant, creating desolate landscapes from a small reserve of instruments and effects processors that slowly enveloped anyone on the receiving end. But despite the rapid-fire succession of her first two releases, Loseth has remained relatively dormant over the past three years, diligently crafting her wondrous full-length, Shallow.

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Upon immediate immersion, the basic constructs of the Sea Oleena sound don’t seem to have changed much on Shallow. The excellent opener “If I’m” finds Loseth singing over familiar delicate piano arpeggios bolstered by an ambient mixture of strings and feedback, with pulsating drums lightly fleshing out the rest of the space. A feeling of momentum isn’t anything particularly new in a Sea Oleena song, but its method of delivery feels decidedly fresh, an organic departure from the previous use of electronic and tabletop percussion. Often times, an artist’s externally perceived level of success is derived from their ability or willingness to incorporate new timbres into their winning formula, but Sea Oleena serves as a stark example of a project that benefits more so from a meticulous honing of a promising skill set.

Indeed, Loseth has continued to perfect her craft, paying more attention to production details than ever before. After the comparatively propelling first half of “If I’m” the album tapers off into a pool of molasses-thick reverb, submerging the listener for the next twenty minutes. Loseth showcases her comfort behind the piano and on a guitar, the latter prominently apparent on “Shades of Golden.” The echoes of her voice bounce off imaginary walls as she arpeggiates through a chord progression, her lyrics mournfully drawn out as they turn back and wait for the guitar’s delay to catch up.

It isn’t until the subsequent track that Loseth breaks from her catharsis, the grating string samples juxtaposing a defined tranquility. But that break is fleeting and the next four minutes of “Everyone With Eyes Closed” is spent combatting that jarring moment, resulting in one of the most dense offerings on Shallow. Vocals are layered judiciously, their melodic movement slowed considerably to make way for the myriad of melodies and countermelodies that exist in the guitar and various keyboards. The agitated strings seem to have the final word, but become subdued by the opening notes of “Vinton, LA”, the album’s penultimate effort.

In many ways “Vinton, LA” is Loseth’s magnum opus; the longest song by far on Shallow, it takes nearly every timbral and melodic idea presented thus far and distills it into an eleven-minute odyssey. A plaintive piano line dictates the song’s opening third, but gradually begins to add more weight, supplemented by heavier attacks, bowed strings, and layers upon layers of Loseth’s voice.  But that initial crescendo is a red herring, as are the two that follow. With no discernible climax, Loseth achieves a moment of raw and pure yearning, a simple emotion that is  nevertheless almost impossible for artists to extract.

At just seven tracks long, Shallow seems to end almost prematurely with “Paths”.  The song, with its ostinato arpeggios and swells of white noise, acts almost as a companion piece to “If I’m”, bringing the cohesive ideas explored throughout the album full circle. Though peaks and troughs of emotion can certainly be deciphered, the prevailing feel that washes over Sea Oleena continues to be one of placidity, a calming presence absolutely necessary for the hibernation-like behavior that often accompanies winter in the Northern Hemisphere. With Shallow, Charlotte Loseth has made good use of her time out from under the blogosphere’s eye, crafting a remarkably smooth and polished product that will undoubtedly be in constant rotation for the foreseeable future.

Review: M. Sage “Data in the Details”

30 Sep 2014 — Dave Power

According to his Bandcamp page, Matthew Sage has only released music for the past three years and yet has amassed at least twenty releases. Most of his musical output has a similar ambient/experimental direction and it’s all breathtakingly gorgeous in different ways. Sage's music has a particularly introspective and personal feel to it, substantially consisting of found sounds, recorded violin/cello, and vocal recordings. These sounds are then heavily processed, effected and weaved in and out of each other. There are a lot of ambient and experimental noise musicians out there at the moment, and M. Sage is right there with all of them, pushing the boundaries and the buttons. He gathers the organic sounds of the world around him and molds them into something else altogether, intact, but beautifully alien in nature.

Many M. Sage releases consist of several tracks of three-to-five-minute songs, while others draw the listener further in with a couple of twenty minute tracks. The latest effort from M. Sage, Data in the Details, is the latter. The A side is the 15-minute “Heads Up Extended Edit”, while the B is his “Mover Isuzu Dub Edit”. At the opening of “Extended Edit” the static sound of something like a helicopter flown through water gives way to the sounds of drastically reverb-drenched bells, rapidly panning back and forth. The music whirs like an abandoned automobile factory with the forgotten machines left endlessly running. Underneath the heavily edited sounds, the listener can hear the clean field recordings of traffic, birds, and maybe the sound of keys jingling as a stranger walks across an empty parking garage. These sounds repeat, overlap and combine with each other until the listener can no longer remember each its origin. Data In the Details, indeed.

The B-side begins similarly to the A-side, but features a consistent rolling dub beat with the intensely warbled and processed found sounds and organic instruments echoing in the background. The same shuddering synth drones, sounds of faraway bells, birds, traffic noise and vocal samples careen back and forth into each other. The beat is interrupted a few times, allowing the background noises and wet bell tones to blend and crescendo back into the same groove throughout the track. The listener is transported to another world where the sun vibrates and the rivers rush and freeze in time all at once. Sage’s 21st release makes for quite another trip.

Data in the Details is out now on a limited run of 100 cassettes through Geographic North.

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Watch: Born In Flamez “Polymorphous” (exclusive)

30 Sep 2014 — Henning Lahmann

Despite having been recently added to Berlin Current's illustrious roster, signifying the project as pushing the boundaries of the city's current musical landscape, not too much is known about the people behind Born In Flamez. Conceptualised as 'transhuman' and making arrangements for a post-gender future, Born In Flamez' utopian vision sits comfortably among projects like The Knife, Perera Elsewhere (who is featured on the EP), or, perhaps the most striking resemblance, Planningtorock. There's tangible evidence that there is a human ultimately responsible for the sounds we hear, but the point is, of course, that it shouldn't matter: all this could have come from someone, or indeed something, else instead. It just so happens that it didn't. The current physical embodiment of Born In Flamez, that particular person hiding behind a mask, is arbitrary, so to speak. Fittingly, "Polymorphous", the title track of BIF's debut EP, was allegedly conceived in the aftermath of a DJ gig at one of the highly notorious GEGEN events at Kit Kat Club, likely the closest thing to a post-human experience Berlin has to offer. Staying pointedly coherent, the visualisation of "Polymorphous" emphatically rejects notions of determinable human nature, resorting to abstract iterations of what could have once been evocative of objects found in a human world. Something strange to come.

The Polymorphous EP is due October 13 via UnReaL Audio. Pre-order the release's physical version – a limited edition etched glass pyramid, no less – now over here. Born In Flamez will be part of Berlin Current's delegation to MUTEK.MX in Mexico City from October 23 to 25.

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FKA twigs: Against a Musical Vocabulary of Phallocentrism

29 Sep 2014 — Jennie Freeburg

As a girl, we sat along the wall under the barre and played a back scratching game in between ballet class: inscribing words, letter by letter, on a back while we simultaneously absorbed and read the letters being pressed into our own. My younger sister, grown now and still dancing, once conspiratorially confessed to me that the feeling of letters on her back and shoulders often created a line of sensation down there.

Dancers are acutely attuned to how down there is bound up with a host of sensations and processes— sinewy ligaments transmitting messages through body, mind and space. Moving is thinking is feeling is speaking.

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I dance feelings like they’re spoken

How does it feel to have me thinking about you?

The artist FKA twigs—Tahliah Barnett, her nickname bestowed by her body, “twigs” for her cracking joints—was the daughter of a dancer and grew up in Gloucestershire taking ballet and attending Catholic school. She has recently released her first full-length album to general acclaim and another few consensuses: She is mysterious. Her music is sexy. She is (alt-)R&B, whether she likes it or not.

A few matters not so agreed upon or even addressed: What does it mean for music to be about sex? To be sex as one review declared? How might that meaning be different for a woman? For a dancer?

The Internet informs us that sex is about the right rhythm. Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” And a recent study shows that music with heavy bass makes us feel powerful because we associate power with men’s deep voices. Instead of male ejaculation, twigs’ music is about sex and power in a musical and lyrical language centered on female pleasure. This vocabulary, and the very concept of female pleasure, is somewhat of a befuddlement to popular culture and its critics.

General reaction to this disorientation has been to circumscribe the music and maker within reductive genre borders and comparisons—R&B and trip-hop, Aaliyah and Björk—and when those fall short, to declare twigs herself as cultivating a sense of mystery, likely for marketing purposes. Her songs are often called contradictory and she is accused of deliberate misreadings—by those for whom trust and sex, sexual appeasement and knowing that you can count on your lover, are separate things. Conversely, female listeners likely understand those connections and cannot help but recognize in the ways that blood, ripping someone open, and sex are not contradictory or easily separated in “Two Weeks”.

Twigs (despite her mysterious ways) has spoken out on the more insidious aspects of genre labels:

When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: “I've never heard anything like this before, it's not in a genre.” And then my picture came out six months later, now she's an R&B singer.

Certainly categorization can have its utility, but genre and sub-genre designations have not only replaced substantial criticism to the detriment of general music knowledge and listening abilities, they have also been doled out and defended with a zeal that uncomfortably approaches colonial and eugenic impulses. A musician is only as good as her lineage. The talk of twigs as mysterious and sexy can sound like a thinly veiled way of calling her exotic, further reducing her to an offensive cliché instead of a distinct artist worth being judged by her art.

When twigs points out other influences that might be getting more attention if she were white and blond—church hymns, classical music and opera—and repeatedly implores us to “talk about the actual music,” The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas describes her demeanor “as if I've asked her to take the restaurant's bins out.” Seemingly unwilling to accept that assumptions based on race are offensive and can lurk in unexpected places like convenient genre labels, he mollifies an irrational pop starlet: “In an attempt to placate her, I ask if she feels singular.” She may feel singular, but we know what sub-genre she really is.

LP1 (even the album titles—EP1, EP2, LP1—ask us to focus on the content and not the label) opens with a hymn. The melodic and harmonic intervals hark back to Gregorian chant and medieval counterpoint, but where hymns are straightforward and driving always homeward, “Preface” loops back upon itself. Choirboy vocals swirl around the cathedral dome and introduce various imposed rhythms and sounds that add to the dizziness—at times aligning with the melody, other times ever-so-slightly out of sync. The church pipe organ one would expect to accompany the hymn appears instead on the next track (and an even more traditional hymn structure and lyrics come later in the album, on the song "Closer"). It is an appropriate introduction for the sounds to follow.

“I love another, and thus I hate myself,” a line in “Preface” is from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet which describes seemingly contradictory states as not just coexisting within the poet, but also causing the other. I love another and thus I hate myself. They are not contradictory, they are inseparable.

“Preface” opens with a technique of percussive vocal staccatos that are employed elsewhere on LP1 as well as on both of the EPs. This motif technically and symbolically calls attention to the relation between rhythm and melody, between the individual notes that connect to form musical ideas. It calls to mind “Hocket” by Meredith Monk where two singers sustain the eponymous musical technique of splitting a single melody line note by note. Elsewhere, like on “Water Me” and “Weak Spot” off twigs’ first two EPs, her vocal staccatos come closer to the more computerized “ha ha ha ha” of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”. All of these works address the ways music and people come together, the connections formed, and what can come in the spaces between.

Discussion of FKA twigs’ music cannot ignore that she is writing about sex more directly, effectively and consistently than any popular music artist of the last few decades (other than Prince). Twigs would likely agree with Wilde that everything is about sex. As such, everything cannot be expressed with just words. Discussion of sexuality in her music should therefore not be reduced to only lyrical content. Rhythm, movement, melody and lyrics interact to create the overlapping arcs of desire, pain, trust, power, loss and anger that create erotic space. This is music for when the lights are out, indeed, but if we trust her, we can do it with the lights on and “it” is so much more than fucking.

Twigs brings the body into her music through rhythm, and she knows that to do so masterfully is to create much more than a beat one can dance to. Oftentimes it is the absence of such a beat that gets her message across: “Hide” is an unraveling tango of absence—of space—where the metronomic percussion becomes subsumed and slowed in the course of the song, disorienting and separating from the melodic rhythm and accompanying guitar. The beats wind down as twigs finds satisfaction elsewhere: “I found another way / To caress my day.”

The negotiation of multiple contrasting and/or ambiguous rhythms is at the heart of twigs’ work. This is the language of interplay between bodies, thoughts and one another (not just where you bump and grind it). The best composers for dance are the ones who understand this language. In a scene from the ballet Petrushka by Stravinsky the ballerina is performing a waltz; when her would-be paramour joins in, their incompatibility is apparent by his clunky insistence on dancing to a slow duple meter against her triple waltz.

Compare this to “Breathe” from EP1. The rhythms here convey not just divergence but also the struggle to regain synchronicity. Twigs protests, “All I see is the reflection of who you are not,” the melody races to try to catch the drumbeats until she comes to focus on the unconscious rhythm of breathing, “I breathe easily in your arms.” The music slows and the beat lets up for a moment as she tries to gather the rhythms together: “Just breathe / Breathe in / Just breathe / Breathe in.”

These complexities and nuances of rhythm haven’t been mined to such depths in pop music since Radiohead. Björk too uses rhythm to express emotion and states of being. Twigs’ rhythms add a distinct awareness of the body and intimate relationships that is decidedly feminine. She is knowledgeable and wary of how one’s personal rhythms can be overtaken by seemingly more powerful, deeper voices: “Your love / Made my heart go boom / So I might lose myself in you”. But she is also aware of how one can learn to incorporate those opposing forces within oneself: the expansive gesture of dance counted “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” and the mathematical motion of music, “one, two, three, four” (or even, “one-e-and-a-two-e-and-a…”) alongside the linguistic common meter of hymn, the iambs and anapests of speech.

One of twigs’ most powerful and stimulating (erotically, intellectually, viscerally) tracks is “Two Weeks”. The song is a major convergence of rhythmic, harmonic and emotional elements. Lyrically, twigs is at her most explicitly desirous and commanding, and yet music and lyrics together make it clear that her lover is already gone—there are no disparate rhythms to gather, the loss is clear and acute. Beyond the math and theory of rhythm and harmonies, there is something inexplicable at work. It has something to do with the particular sharp physical desire felt in times of loss and the ecstasy of a sorrow that reaches full expression.

The electronic vibrato of keyboards in “Two Weeks” gradually swell and abate (in a way that recalls the first movement of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3), but the song doesn’t wait for abatement before it ends—as twigs' songs often do—seemingly unfinished. While this has proven noteworthy in pop music, it is less remarkable in the realm of female desire.

“Kicks” directly acknowledges the inherent difference in male and female approaches to, and definitions of, pleasure. Common interpretation of the end of LP1 finds twigs alone “giving up and having a wank”. But there is so much more happening here than simply an ode to masturbation. By the close of her album, we know twigs better than to believe she needs to “take your lead” in order to learn how to get herself off. She is experimenting with more than mechanics. No longer feeling for someone else, no longer waiting, she finds her rhythm in accepting absence and asking, “What do I do when you’re not here?” Until now, sex involved another person—even just their absence. It accommodated multiple rhythms and spaces. But here, to go her “own damn way” and “get her kicks like you” is simply to touch, to define getting her kicks as just that, separate from the ambiguous unfinished stuff of life.

Twigs’ voice is often described as airy and delicate, even too pretty (apparently vocal as well as physical beauty distracts from what a woman is saying). Her range is impressive and, as is often the case with sopranos, much is lost in the compressed digital translation. To hear her live is to understand the presence and force of a controlled, impeccably pitched soprano that resonates through the concert space, down through your toes, leaving goose bumps in its wake. That’s sex. That’s power.

 

Review: Ellis Swan “I’ll Be Around”

24 Sep 2014 — Dalton Vogler

When it comes to learning more about the man behind the music, there’s not a whole lot we know regarding reclusive Chicago-based artist Ellis Swan. With the exception of a few Soundcloud plaudits and a brief feature from a local magazine, Swan has gotten pretty good at keeping his backstory from getting in the way of his music projects.

And to be fair, that’s where most of our attention should be focused. With his newest release, I’ll Be Around, Swan has constructed a beautiful, haunting album that borrows folk elements to create a uniquely “noir” sound. It’s a bedroom artist production, but only by name, as Swan’s mind-altering use of space transports you beyond an intimate setting.

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Relying primarily on a guitar and vocals, I’ll Be Around is a raw, emotional outpouring of fear and remorse, peppered with light storytelling to transition from track to track. In what could be considered the single from the album, “It Comes Tonight”, Swan’s sapped vocals and warbling delivery claw away at the listener. His fatigue becomes our fatigue, suggesting that it’s taking every ounce of strength to eke out the next verse.

On songs such as “Shooting Sparrows” or “Where the Road Ends”, his voice melds with the pervading static and gives off the impression that he’s on the verge of dissipating, as if the record will deteriorate in your ears before completion. It’s a rich, bizarrely pleasing sound that compels you to listen through, even if it aches to continue onward.

Though his self-described genre tag of “post-hillbilly” is what initially lured me into listening, the truth is that Ellis Swan’s LP is a decaying southern gothic world plucked straight from the mind of a displaced soul, a self-reflective odyssey that transports us into a long forgotten era. And it’s unlike anything else you’ll experience in music this year. 

I’ll Be Around is available for purchase here.

The Boy & Sister Alma “Lady Killer”

23 Sep 2014 — Evelyn Malinowski

I introduced you guys to The Boy & Sister Alma last year. At the time, I found their EP to be hands down perfect for the atmosphere of the holiday season -- they even made a Christmas song. In hearing their new material, which bears some immaculate quality from pop heaven, I find once again that they've graciously generated sounds that speak to the season. Hailing from Helena, Montana, Lenny Eckhardt and Jennifer Murphy manage perfect pop structures and breathtaking melodies that are both cool and nostalgic, especially in the case of their new single, "Lady Killer," a part of Retro Promenade's Vox Populi 2 compilation. Adorned with lyrical cadence and some furtiveness concerning desire tucked safely away in melodic undercurrents, this track should be dealt with as if a message from the autumn that is about to hit, the falling forward, the pre-nostalgia that arrives before the actual autumn.


 

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Miracle Sweepstakes “Maker’s Script” (exclusive)

23 Sep 2014 — Henry Schiller

On “Maker’s Script”, NYC-based Miracle Sweepstakes straddle a fine line between the instrumental gobbledygook of Pere Ubu and the neurotic fortitude of a secret show in a Bushwick basement (with some of the bloodshot sci-fi of Piper at the Gates of Dawn thrown in for good measure). In spite of a heavy sonic presence, “Maker’s Script” is instrumentally austere. The weight of the track is borne mostly on one guitar part that refuses to reconcile itself to either assaultive rhythm or semi-prodigal spasms.

Around this wanders caustic drums, which reverse at one point, and bass as sharp and precise as anything on Remain in Light. There’s a palpable psych pop influence with the theremin, vibraphone, and vocals sounding like an incantation being recited in an ancient English field. A middle section of the song, where the drums go backwards, feels like a Beach Boys sample is subtly encroaching no-wave.

In the Alan Moore sense, “Maker’s Script” is a Swamp Thing of a track. Taken part by part it's easily identified by a range of psych-pop, post-punk and lo-fi influences, but taken as a whole the amalgamation is no longer recognizable as anything other than something before unheard of; so fine and delicate is this monster’s stitching. “Maker’s Script”, and it's Dr. Frankenstein, Miracle Sweepstakes, share superficial features with other well known acts (The Fall and Pere Ubu come to mind), but as a substance unto itself, it is something unique and fired with urgency.

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NFOP Recommends: Hannah Diamond at Südblock

15 Sep 2014 — Johanne Swanson

We can be thankful for our times and the categories of gender fluidizing; meaning more or meaning less, one thing is sure: those comfortable binaries of 'man' and 'woman' are being dismantled. A net label like P.C. Music in this context, with its founder and primary producer A.G. Cook and starlette Hannah Diamond proselytising all things girly, proclaiming we look good in pink and blue, isn’t just aesthetics, it’s borderline dissident. The linear range of cute to subversive is getting fucked, and we couldn’t be having a bigger party in the process. It’s so immoderate, so garish, that FACT Magazine has called them “the most divisive recent event in UK music.”

The few shows that Hannah Diamond has played have been described as “Hannah Diamond ft. The Audience, who are shouting the lyrics at her and at each other like it's the only song anyone knows.” Thanks to our friends over at Creamcake, we’ll see how our likely-more-reserved German audience responds this Saturday at Südblock as Hannah Diamond makes her Berlin debut with A.G. Cook in support. Bring your girlfriends, bring your boyfriends, and hold their hands while you yell along, oh Hannah, we’ve waited for soo-ooo-ooo long for a grrrl like you. RSVP here.

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