End of year lists are already flying in but steady on — 2020 ain’t over yet (the sooner the better though). Here’s the near-end-of-year soundtrack, from Wicker Man paganism, to black metal opera, militant techno and glitchy, glacial ambience.
GAZELLE TWIN & NYX — Fire Leap
Gazelle Twin dug into a surreal horror version of a paganistic post-Brexit Britain on 2018’s Pastoral (Moo Kid’s album of the year), and she doubles down here. ‘Fire Leap’ is an extended ritualistic drone take on the fertility dance song from The Wicker Man, with nerve-shattering recorder whistles and the NYX Electronic Drone Choir. There’ll be a full album, Deep England, next year.
LITURGY — Apparition of the Eternal Church (Origin of the Alimonies LP)
There are plenty of symphonic black metal bands, but this could well be the first confirmed black metal opera. Black metal is a scene with an entry policy as strict as Berghain on New Year’s Eve — with Deafheaven deemed ‘controversial’ for looking like they might get their clothes in H&M. But Liturgy’s Hunter-Hunt Hendrix is a fearless disrupter, once publishing an academic Transcendental Black Metal Manifesto, which railed against the “atrophic, depraved” black metal of Europe.
She says Origin of the Alimonies is nothing short of “an opera that addresses the origin of all things”, informed in part by her transitioning gender in the past year. There’s plenty of sweeping woodwind, dissonant strings and even harp among the Wagnerian intensity, shrieks and blast beats (or ‘burst beats’ as she prefers), in one of the year’s most striking mission statements.
LICEHEAD — Standard Demise (Perfect Death LP)
While you could get lost in Wu-Tang’s Shaolin mythology through their kung fu movie samples, you might feel you’ve been shitposted by Licehead here. Standard Demise opens with a snippet from the WTF shitshow Irish martial arts movie Fatal Deviation. That one starring Mikey from Boyzone as a gang boss. What follows is some brilliantly deranged shenanigans that sounds like The Fall goes a bit JPEGMAFIA, tuned in the key of black metal-noise atrocity merchant Jute Gyte.
BITCH FALCON — I’m Ready Now (Staring At Clocks LP)
Six years in the making, Bitch Falcon’s debut album Staring At Clocks doesn’t muck about — with this first track landing in a pile-up of feedback and blunt force trauma drums, before Lizzie Fitzpatrick nails down one of the many hooks all over this brilliant record.
MELJOANN — Trophy Wife
Not sure if she’d like this, but the sound of Meljoann is always gonna remind me of the pandemic. She released the single Company Retreat in the first week of lockdown in March, and since then she’s been regularly drip-feeding singles from her much-hyped album HR. All the tracks are steeped in the banal horror of office drone drudgery, oppressive capitalism, and toxic patriarchy, and can turn from pristine pop to Gazelle Twin body horror at the drop of a stapler.
Trophy Wife is maybe the heaviest she’s gone all year, with an industrial guitar sound that hits 90s Reznor levels.
ACTIVE PRESENCE — I Have the Power (Grayskull LP)
Irish producer Active Presence is an unashamed nostalgist — from the pic of himself as a kid in the 80s in an Optimus Prime (Mk I) suit on his album Tropical Mess, to this latest He-Man-inspired release. Like any proper fleeting half-remembered memories, these woozy interludes sound like fuzzy cartoon idents on a VHS that’s been taped over for years. They’re sketches really, but that adds to the transient, analogue vibe.
MART AVI — Firefly (Vega Never Sets LP)
There’s something deeply meditative about the ambient pop of Firefly — and that’s even without the Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai sample that weaves through it. Estonian avant-garde pop visionary Mart Avi’s new album is teeming with deft electronic intricacies and spectral vocal treatments, and it overflows on Firefly.
RA GERRA — Terrified
MC MuRli is already one of Ireland’s most inventive and freewheeling producers — check out his Till the Wheels Fall Off EP, Denise Chaila’s Go Bravely mixtape and, well everything else he’s released over the last few years. But this is another inspired team-up with producer Kobina — a new full-on duo with an album due in the new year.
There’s a nice set of contrasts here — with MuRli’s stirring bars offset by some Four Tet-style organic electronics.
MOLCHAT DOMA — Утонуть (Monument LP)
Belarussian cold wave synth act Molchat Doma have had an epic year since I first saw their majestic half-hour set in a pub at Tallinn Music Week 2019. They’ve signed to Sacred Bones, had gushing profiles in sites worldwide and even soundtracked that viral video, “Hanging bats upside down look like a goth nightclub”. The opening track of their new LP is another melancholy synth master-stroke, and the drama just keeps coming.
ROBERT HOOD — Ignite a War (Mirror Man LP)
Even when he’s not creating joyous gospel-fired house with his daughter Lyric as Floorplan, Robert Hood’s creations have had a real evangelical fervour in recent years. The Detroit pioneer and former Underground Resistance Minister of Truth launches some high-grade militant techno here — one of the highlights on his masterful new album Mirror Man.
THE BUG & DIS FIG — Come (In Blue LP)
Kevin Martin aka The Bug is another artist who has soundtracked the pandemic for me, taking a left turn from his deep churning electronic dub for the introspective shape-shifting ambience of his Frequencies For Leaving Earth series. This collaborative album with Berlin-based producer and singer Dis Fig somehow merges the two — with her ghost in the machine vocals wafting through Martin’s infinite dub echoes. They’ve said this music is ‘Tunnel Sound’, which sounds about right to me.
WILLIAM BASINSKI — All These Too, I Love (Lamentations LP)
I’ve just got my Spotify Unwrapped for 2020, and William Basinski’s Melancholia II was my song of 2020 — a year filled with loads of much-needed ambient and drone time-outs. Lamentations has come at a perfect time, the middle of winter in the most wintriest of years. The gentle looping and decaying classical and opera loops here evoke that same misremembered nostalgia as listening to The Caretaker, who can trace everything back to Basinski’s masterpiece The Disintegration Loops.
Elif Yalvaç — Freak Box
Composer Elic Yalvac ventures far from her native Turkey for an album inspired by her travels to the outposts of Norway and Iceland. There’s a lot more sonic eruptions than your typical ambient glacial pieces, from the snow-crunch glitches to the oppressive drones. And not meaning to dumb it down here, but the electronic bleeping does remind me of a panicking R2D2 in the Star Wars snow planet Hoth.
GRUTH — Somnum Exterreri
Brazil-based Finnish artist Juha Puuperä aka Gruth really takes his time to let shit sink in. This new album is two tracks at 50 minutes, and follows a similar unnerving path as his previous work, elements of techno, industrial, avant-garde composition, ritualistic drone music and field recordings. It’s not quite a nightmare, but it’s getting there. It features stretched and warped violin from his regular collaborator KuJo, decaying Gregorian chants and dissonant field recordings of musicians in the Bahia region of Brazil. These are apparently “tools for sleep concert DJs. Let me know how your dreams turn out.