Oh, we’re halfway there — the soundtrack to beating 2020, with the last two months featuring a mythical Filipino dragon, Japanese doom metal, Irish hip-hop, industrial funk, glitchy pop, prehispanic death metal, white noise symphonic black metal, new age ambience and the glorious return of the Mael brothers.
WHITE BOY SCREAM — BAKUNAWA (BAKUNAWA LP)
Opera singer and composer Micaela Tobin dedicates her new album to the myths of her Filipino ancestors: “May they never be erased.” On the 18-minute title track, she takes the form of the mythical dragon BAKUNAWA who’s on course to consume the world’s seven moons. Between soprano singing, Diamanda Galas-inspired incantations and screaming BAKUNAWA’s name, the dragon is eventually stopped by citizens rattling pots and pans — kinda like my own more recent ancestors in republican estates banging bin lids when the RUC were arriving in Saracen jeeps.
The dragon is eventually killed in a landslide of in-the-red electronic noise before it can eat the final moon. And that’s only the start of the album.
ONO — Syphilis (Red Summer LP)
After 40-odd years in the Chicago uber-underground, ONO might be finally oozing out from the shadows with this spectacular album. It’s too hard to pin down, but a radicalised industrial Butthole Surfers/Funkadelic hybrid is a starting point, fronted by a 74-year-old cross-dressing performance art poet called travis. Main composer P Michael offers this in an interview in Wire magazine: “I say it’s industrial with a pig’s foot in its mouth. You take Throbbing Gristle and shove a pig’s foot in Genesis’s mouth, and you get ONO, with the funk.”
“I write from the position of the politics of blackness,” adds travis in the interview. The album opens with ‘20th August 1619’, the origins of Slavery in America, and in ‘Syphilis’ he lists the Presidents who were in charge during the obscene Tuskegee Experiment that treated black men as guinea pigs in a 40-year syphilis study.
MC YALLAH & EOMAC — Mama Waliwamanyii
Dublin producer Eomac’s 2019 album Reconnect hit techno from plenty of weird angles, drawing on Irish trad, old skool jungle and Haitian voodoo. This far-flung rhythmic exploration hits another bullseye with this team-up with Ugandan rapper MC Yallah. It’s an emotional tribute to her late mother in the Luganda language, rounded up by stuttering off-grid beats and an epic last boss synth line.
DENISE CHAILA — Chaila
While live stream fatigue is all too real after three months of lockdown, Denise Chaila’s Courage set for Other Voices at the National Gallery was a stunning repeat-repeat moment that captured one of Ireland’s most vital new voices finally taking off.
Her 2019 B-side ‘Copper Bullet’ was the best Irish track of last year, and Chaila hangs on similar defiant themes of refusing to get into lane or be some reductive hip-hop scene curio. Over Murli’s glinting west African high-fret guitar samples, she shrugs off the lazy ‘Chaila’ pronuniciations, with an order: “Say my name.”
FULU MIZIKI — Tikanga
Here’s a stop-what-you’re-fucking-doing-right-now video from the Congolese capital Kinshasha. Fulu Miziki are an “eco-Afro-Futuristic punk ensemble” who come “straight from a future where humans have reconciled with Mother Earth and with themselves… a pan-African message of artistic liberation, peace and a severe look at the ecological situation of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the whole world”.
Fulu Miziki formed like Voltron literally from Kinshasha’s trash, with band leader Pisko Crane conceptualising the instruments, wild costumes and hyper street corner happenings. In a time of no gigs, I haven’t wanted to see a live band as much in years. The young lad with the paint can drumkit on Grafton Street has a long way to go…
MURLI — Till the Wheels Fall Off
MC and producer MuRli’s most politically-charged piece yet was forced by a visceral reaction to an obscene case of racism at a football match in Portugal. When Moussa Marega walked off the pitch in February after abuse by Vitoria Guimares fans, something cracked in the Togo-born Limerick MC.
Along with fellow Limerick-based MC God Knows and producer MynameisjOhn, MuRli helped document the immigrant experience in Ireland on Rusangano Family’s brilliant Choice-Prize winning album Let the Dead Bury the Dead. But this is an enough’s enough moment — from the track title itself, to the admission: “My irises, the colour of a stop sign.”
He could’ve gone on an all-out Death Grips nihilist rager, but while anger is an energy, so is the funk — the beat feels like a fist-up gritty soul anthem, backed by regular collaborator Denise Chaila on vocals.
TEBI REX — I Got My Whole
No, Tebi Rex haven’t been in a lockdown parallel universe with a green light on sesh-fuelled hook-ups. Cheeky double entendre aside, ‘I Got My Whole’ is shimmery summer hip-hop jam, with an accompanying Wes Anderson-inspired quirky love story video. It was filmed in Phoenix Park too, so social distancing was part of the deal, but let’s hope MC Max Zanga didn’t pick those flowers from the park — maybe he’s running from the ranger’s van.
CELAVIEDMAI ft NEALO — Questions
Galway MC Celaviedmai’s last single ‘Reckless’ was a ruffneck pistol-cocked trap banger, but she takes it down a notch on ‘Questions’, a laid-back introspective G-funk/soul cut. Dublin MC Nealo joins in on the second half and it feels like a dialogue rather than a tacked-on feature.
She said of the collab: “The key is go towards what scares you and to not give up! Which is also why Nealo was the perfect collaboration for this song, his story is fearless!”
JYELLOWL — Jewels
Dublin-based JyellowL is a politics student and socially-conscious MC who deep dives into mental health, critical analysis and industry fakeness, and was one of the main drivers behind last month’s Black Lives Matter march from O’Connell Street to the US Embassy.
On ‘Jewels’, he’s out the blocks with rapid-fire bars that hit Bone Thugs-N-Harmony levels, with a lavish arrangement to match. He says Jewels is “a celebration of our multifaceted nature, as well as the complexity of the human condition”.
RUN THE JEWELS — Never Look Back (RTJ4 LP)
One of the bleakest sounding cuts on RTJ4, hanging off a staggering, dank sci-fi beat and a resigned feeling of inertia in the verses – veering between an origin story and a realisation that “time is nothing”. It’s 4-0 to El-P and Killer Mike — even if RTJ3 didn’t feel as crucial, they’re back in the room, and they still don’t really have a single dud track over four records.
FREDDIE GIBBS / THE ALCHEMIST — Scottie Beam (Alfredo LP)
As the modern gangsa rap MVP, it’s a wonder it took Freddie Gibbs so long to make a full-on Mafia record. But even though Alfredo’s puppet strings in linguine artwork nods to The Godfather, there’s no pander to the Italian-American mob, but rather blaxpoitation gangsters and anti-heroes, weaving between the Alchemist’s opulent loungey beats. On ‘Scottie Beam’ he even nudges in a timely Gil Scott-Heron reference: “The revolution is the genocide / Look, your execution will be televised,” before Rick Ross wafts in on a cloud of cigar smoke.
MANGO x MATHMAN — Any Other Place (Home Town Glory Remix)
Weirdly enough, the “Dublin City in the summer” MxM are banging on about here hasn’t really been affected by the lockdown. It’s a straight-up love letter to a taps-aff sunshine sesh with a bag of Dutch Gold and king-size skins — and hats-aff to MC Mango for brazenly rhyming sativa with Caoimhe (ooooof!) They’ve been remixing track off their shoulda-been Choice-nominated debut LP Casual Work, with Prozak giving ‘Any Other Place’ getting a shifty 2-step once-over.
ARCA — Watch ft Shygirl (KiCk i LP)
Arca’s most high-profile collaborators on her new glitchy avant-pop album KiCk i are probably Bjork, SOPHIE and Rosalia, but east London MC and singer Shygirl adds a ruffneck edge to the maximalist grime beats with underhanded shout-whispered bars.
EARTHEATER — Below the Clavicle
After the shattered avant-garde electronic collages on her 2018 album Irisiri and her 2019 mixtape Trinity, singer and producer Alexandra Drewchin takes an acoustic left turn with the harp and string-led ‘Below the Clavicle’. It’s a beautifully delicate arrangement, offset by some pretty unnerving post-human vocals.
FAIR MOTHERS — Harpy
Scottish singer-songwriter Kevin Allan, aka Fair Mothers rams a world of bleakness and end-of-tether inevitability into two-and-a-half minutes here. The harp, droney guitars, piano and exhausted vocal delivery feels like a stretched-out wait for grief or release — almost like a Silver Mt. Zion interlude. Add the desperate backing vocals by Faith Eliot and the tense hitch-hiker video by BAFTA-winning director Adam Stafford, and you know things won’t be ending well.
CHECK MASSES — Lost in the City (Nightlife LP)
Edinburgh trio CHECK MASSES’ third single from their debut album Nightlife is a woozy soul cut that draws on Bowie’s Young Americans and the nocturnal dubby post-punk vibes of Colder. There’s a misty last-chance saloon vibe as we hit a “dirty little club that’s always open”, and who knows where we’ll end up after that.
RSAG — The Jungle (Chroma LP)
“For a drummer I’ve got really bad timing,” Jeremy Hickey told me recently in an interview — referring to his first album in 10 years as Rarely Seen Above Ground coming out during lockdown when we can’t see the record presented live as one of his audiovisual onslaughts.
When he gets back on stage, ‘The Jungle’ may well be the centrepiece of his new live show — a frantic Afrobeat rocket that channels Tony Allen and Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.
BLACK GLASS ENSEMBLE AND FRIENDS — Be Mine In Patience: an Embrace in B Minor
If only this had arrived in the early days of lockdown, when I couldn’t listen to anything but ambient, drones and general beatless abstraction. Still, there’s never a bad time to prescribe a piece of music with a declared aim of “helping in some way to nurture strength, fortitude and comfort”.
Black Glass Ensemble are an eight-piece experimental new music collective who were due to play this 38-minute piece in Edinburgh in May along with guest Colin Potter. When it was cancelled, they reimagined the piece as an epic remote collaboration — they invited 247 musicians to send musical fragments in the key of B minor (“the key associated with patience”), and 104 returned with individual tracks of subtle choral segments, strings and electronic drones and pulses. It’s been masterfully arranged and mixed by Michael Begg, with the ensemble and remote artists gifting a piece of stunning restraint. Check out the extended guest list here.
JEHNNY BETH — I Am (To Love Is to Live LP)
Savages leader Jehnny Beth has sidestepped her band’s noise-punk intensity on her debut solo album, woven from a wider palette of gothic electronics, piano, drones, spoken word interludes and field recordings. It’s no less intense, and opener ‘I Am’ is an epic statement of intent, spun out from an intro poem, sweeping mountaintop sound design and operatic drama. Surely one of the opening tracks of the year.
ALPHA CHROME YAYO — Nebular Shroud (Skylight Sessions LP)
Belfast producer Alpha Chrome Yayo has a Bandcamp page rammed with high-concept synth and vaporwave releases — with his last few including an album about a fictional virtual golf course, one about a video nasty ice cream van, and an aural 70s cook book. But while many of his productions have an eyebrow arched way above the hairline, Skylight Sessions is a soothing new age ambient time-out. Things that might come to you when you’re panned out listening: Laraaji, Vangelis, Brian Eno’s generative music apps, Global Goon, Japanese city pop, Donkey Kong Country on the SNES and the criminally overlooked soundtrack to The Mosquito Coast by Maurice Jarre — Jean-Michel’s da.
SPARKS — Lawnmower (A Steady Drip Drip Drip LP)
Some 50-odd years into a singular, glorious career, brothers Ron and Rusell Mael’s 24th album is another deep dive into the sublime, the absurd and the strangely poignant. Suburbia is a recurring theme in the Sparks world — from the hippo in the back garden pool in ‘Hippopotamus’, to ‘Suburban Homeboy’, and the cover of Indiscreet, with the pair amid the wreckage of a plane crash in a middle America driveway. Here, the clueless protagonist gets one up on the neighbours with his “jaw-dropper” garden gadget. Meanwhile, his girlfriend’s leaving him: “It’s me or it’s that lawnmower.”
MELJOANN — O Supervisor
Irish singer and producer Meljoann wants us to know she’s beyond allergic to the corporate office hellscape, and on ‘O Supervisor’ she pokes at its flabby excesses and drudgery through an R&B, boogie and New Jack Swing lens. The video was created in lockdown using a video game engine, and the references shoot past like I heart 80s or 90s clip shows — vintage RPGs, her own previous office characters, Talking Heads’ Once In a Lifetime video, the Twin Peaks Red Room, corporate promos and the garish Windows 95 aesthetic mined by vaporwave artists. You won’t be in any rush to go back to the office.
ZOiD — Never Stop
An outrageously funky three minutes of boogie-synth from Dublin producer ZOiD, with a gurning bassline, talk box vocals, semi-shrugged rapping and Headhunters-style Rhodes solos. I can’t help picturing a keytar in there somewhere. Come back summer, all is forgiven.
OLAN MONK — Lust (Love/Dead LP)
Porto-based Galway artist Olan Monk apparently recorded this new album between the west of Ireland and a London coroner’s court and mortuary, and I can’t help this feeding into my detached, melancholy enjoyment of it. Love/Dead feels like a chopped & screwed take on lo-fi goth-pop — Ariel Pink meets DJ Sacred’s 2019 Dungeon Rap mixtape. Lust adds an extra layer of Throbbing Gristle exposed wires.
THE EXALTICS & HEINRICH MUELLER — Encoder (Dimensional Shift LP)
High-concept space science electro from The Exaltics and Heinrich Muelller, aka cult Detroit electro figure Gerald Donald, who re-spawns some hyper-kinetic moves from his Drexciya and early Dopplereffekt playbook. ‘Encoder’ is a rugged, far-out belter.
AUTUMNS — Take Your Leather Gloves and Fuck Off
Mechanised mid-tempo EBM malevolence from Derry’s Christian Donaghey aka Autumns. Factory floor production line metallic percussion shards, 80s Ministry synths and retched-up vocal abstractions. Can’t make out the lyrics but think there’s a fuck the police vibe, so bonus points there.
BLACKLAB — Insanity (Abyss LP)
Blacklab’s Yuko Morino says they got the name from Black Sabbath and Stereolab, but on first listen, she and her co-conspirator Dr Chia Shiraishi are way more in thrall to the molten Iommi riffage and occult leanings of the Birmingham dark lords.
This is a face-melting mainline of ‘dark witch’ sludge/doom metal — pick any track here but you may as well start at track 1 — halfway through the eight-minute ‘Insanity’ you’ll sell your soul after hearing Yuko retch her lungs out.
COUCH SLUT — In a Pig’s Eye (Take a Chance on Rock’n’Roll LP)
“They said, ‘These things, they don’t just happen’… They took my dress… They swabbed my white car…I hope they’re dead now…I hope they’re fucking dead now.”
Megan Osztrosits vomits out this recollection, just one of the images of abject horror on this sludgy hardcore noise album, a half-hour open wound. When fuck the police just won’t do.
XIBALBA — Años en infierno (Anos en Infierno LP)
Headbutt hardcore, brutal 90s death metal and prehispanic imagery meet head-on in this fourth album from California’s Xibalba, with a title meaning “Years In Hell”. You’ll be all over this if you’re into Brujeria, Nails or Bolt Thrower.
GOLDEN ASHES — From Grace Into Utter Ruin (In the Lugubrious Silence of Eternal Night)
Golden Ashes is just one of the projects of one-man brain-wrong black metal figure Maurice De Jong, aka Gnaw Their Tongues. Over his 105 (and rapidly counting) releases he ranges from avant-garde takes to wretched primitivism, with Golden Ashes at the epic, symphonic end of the scale.
‘From Grace Into Utter Ruin’ hits that disortientating sweet spot, when heavy music gets so intense it becomes a weird, white noise ambient surrender.