RSTB Best of 2016

This year is mercifully drawing to a close, much to the collective relief of pretty much everyone you know. In a year that tested the limits of the world’s collective conciousness, at least there was music to soften the blow. It was truly hard to whittle down the “best” of 2016, keeping in mind that best over here is entirely qualitative. I’ll accept the requisite fines and fees for not including BeyoncĂ© and Bowie in RSTB’s top 5 for the year, but if you need a site like this to tell you that tentpoles like those are good, then we’re in more trouble than I thought. Instead, the following list sums up the best garage, psych, experimental, folk that hit the shelves this year. The records that spent the most time on the Raven turntable presented in alphabetical order below. Fuzz on and keep safe.

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The Pattern Forms

Tapping into the combined efforts of veteran Ghost Box artist Jon Brooks (The Advisory Circle) alongside Ed MacFarlane and Ed Gibson (both of Friendly Fires), The Pattern Forms is probably the most straightforward pop release that’s graced the halls of the label. Gibson and MacFarlane bring their background in synth-pop along for the ride and it certainly shuttles to the foreground in tracks like “Black Rain” and “Don’t Let Me Dream”, but the more interesting aspects of the project arise when Brooks takes a harder tack on the wheel musically, peppering in some of his abstract touches. The two parties apparently bonded over library releases from the ’70s and ’80s and when they begin to wander into the ’80s, in particular, they find a ground that emulates some of the dreamier film soundtracks of the time.

There’s a clear ripple of melancholy that runs through the whole album that emulates ’80s stalwarts like Tears for Fears or The Comsat Angels (see “I’m Falling”) but once the record tumbles into the more expansive second side, things begin to take a turn from merely leaning on synth-pop to molding it into something more ambitious. “Man and Machine” has the same bounce and pulse as much of the first half of the record, but the sound palette gives it a deeper mood and a stab at that odd otherness that perhaps the collaborators were looking for in their approach. Similarly the rest of the second side hits harder, “Fluchtwege” adds in some guitar and synths burbling with a sadness that recalls Air at their most melodramatic. It’s the kind of track that encapsulates sadness in a way that soft focus indie films revel in. In short, Peel Away the Iv feels like a great seed that will hopefully spring to further germination. The collaboration is certainly working, but they’re stronger when they find each other in their obsessions, rather than letting the needle sway too far toward a pop comfort zone.



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Stef Chura – “Spotted Gold”

When I wrote about Stef Chura last year she was just pumping out short form tapes and splits across a wealth of labels. Now, the Detroit songwriter has an album on the way from Urinal Cake Records and it’s packing up the heat of that first single “Slow Motion” with a few other gems, including the ’90s strummer “Spotted Gold.” The newest peek at her record, Messes, capitalizes on a lot of what endeared Chura to me in the first place; the shaggy, unassuming songwriting that’s potent, but not flashy, a stripped down arrangement and fizzing hooks. The real draw here, though, is Chura’s spring-loaded voice, quivering and flexing in ways that make it an invaluable asset. Chura’s been racking up a chorus of praise in the interim since “Slow Motion” came my way, and can’t say that it isn’t well deserved. Eking out in the wee hours of 2017, this is one you shouldn’t sleep on.

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Mixtape: Pretty Please Me

The second installment in RSTB’s mixtape series is here and this time, rather than go for a straight genre dig I’ve taken some inspiration from classic ’80s soundtracks like Valley Girl, Rock n Roll High School, Up The Academy or Pretty In Pink. The mix imagines the same kind of coming of age nerviness that fueled the best music directors at the time, finding a balance between power pop, punk, new wave and glam that doesn’t put any hard divisions between the camps. It’s just a bit of fun and a good excuse to have Sparks and The Flesh Eaters share space. Tracklist, stream and download after the jump.

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Six Organs Of Admittance – “Taken By Ascent”

Taking a break from two albums of Hexadic improvisations (Chasny’s own system of complex chaos), Six Organs is back to its smoke and smolder roots with a new album, Burning The Threshold, due out next year. The first taste comes in the form of the ominous album centerpiece “Taken By Ascent,” a rolling bit of murderous blues that seems to hearken back to Chasny’s best guitar work, while adding a whiff of prog’s smoke rings via the synths provided by Cooper Crain (Bitchin’ Bajas, Cave). The support staff on this one seems to be cherry picking from some great complimentary sources, alongside Crain, Haley Fohr (Circuit Des Yeux) joins for some backup vocals and longtime collaborator Chris Corsano is back on drums. While I loved the Hexadic experiments, its awesome to hear Chasny storming down his own brand of psychedelic stringwork on this one. Any year that’s got a Six Organs release on the way is looking up.



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Ashtray Navigations

The last Ash Nav album, A Shimmering Replica, dove into the kind of shimmering waves and whirlpool psychedelia that fills out their latest, but never to these depths. To Make A Fool Ask, And You Are The First stands at the edge of the wormhole and contemplates the inevitable plunge. Phil Todd, here with his oftentime collaborator Mel O’Dubhshlaine, boils Kosmiche in a manner that suggests he’s got a direct line to the cosmic source, foaming and frothing his way through synth nodes hard pressed to contain the oddly pulsing gamma waves that radiate from within. The two tip the scales into churning absolution well before they make it to a twenty minute closer that evaporates everything it touches into the cold ether of night.

Its been a banner year for some deep space synth tinkering, but even heavies like Hauschildt are having a hard time keeping up with the sonic salve that Phil Todd lays down in excess over two thick sides of aural quiver. That side-long closer on side two is no small feat, by the way, “Spray Two” starts out on the same sonic flood plane that the rest of the album visits, before sprinkling in doses of piano improvisation to the mix, taking the cold isolation of space to a more contemplative place and melding jazz to cosmic synth skillfully. The album is certainly a highlight for Ashtray Navigations, and in a catalog that’s admirably ambitious, it stands to push Todd’s vision further than ever before.




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Dreamtime

After some great reissues of Dreamtime’s early records on Cardinal Fuzz / Captcha. The former label teams up with the ever growing catalog at Skylantern for the band’s latest release. The Brisbane psych purveyors dig deeper than ever into the abyss for their latest LP, pushing their murky, scorched-sky sound into a much wider arena. The band have had an itch for expansiveness before, but with this record they tend to stretch for epic in every direction. The sheer size of Strange Pleasures makes it a bit daunting, to be honest. The band have the chops, as one would hope, but to sit down and digest the album is a feat of strength. The average track is around six to seven minutes, often pushing past eight and upwards of eleven.

That’s not to say that the band uses their time frivolously, or that the length ever becomes a slog. Its indulgent, but they’re indulging for many of the right reasons. They weave in loads of heatsick guitar, traversing the aird terrain that haunts psych stalwarts like Barn Owl or Eternal Tapestry. They veer into some of the psych-wah fringe that filled out earlier visions of Sun Araw as well, though they aim for a bigger sound than any of those (which in Barn Owl’s case is saying something). They tackle many of the longer tracks on Strange Pleasures as if each might be the album closer, building to a storm of heat and rumble and hedonistic fury. They stray into the abstract on the distinctly liquid “Gamma Globulin” before ending things with a hip-slung amp blast that tumbles the tower to the ground. Its the band reaching for their most ambitious stabs, and way more often than not, landing them handily.




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Sundays & Cybele – “Butterfly’s Dream”

Tokyo’s Sundays & Cybele have amassed a catalog of grand psych that feeds on the expressive and expansive psych their forefathers wrought before them. They tore down the house on Heaven and are rebuilding it out of scorched timbers with the first cut of their latest, Chaos & Systems. As always, a commendable move to just launch out with a 9+ minute track as the peek into a new release. It seems natural for S&C though, working out acid flecked guitar solos over most of the track and burning it down like they’re submitting a resume for an Acid Mother’s Temple opening slot with each successive lick. The track isn’t untethered though, its parsing through the cosmos and driven by a half ton of amp fry, but the ship their driving is sleek and silver and cut like a bullet. If the rest of Chaos & Systems is half as explosive as this, then its still going to melt a few minds when it hits.

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Typhonian Highlife

Despite being a cornerstone of experimental synth and psychedelia, Spencer Clark is often overshadowed by his other half in seminal noise duo The Skaters. While James Ferraro’s rapid output often puts him the constant view of many hypnogogic collectors, Clark has quietly carved out a niche for himself that blends immersive synth, cult theories and several exotic locals, culminating in one of his best albums yet. Under the name Typhonian Highlife he’s built out three albums, with The World of Shells acting as a kind of completion and culmination of exploration that brought him to Sicilian Caves, Hanging Rock in Australia, H.R. Geiger’s castle and a massive aquatic environment to find inspiration.

The band name itself derives from The Typhonian Order, a late nineteenth / early twentieth century group obsessed with The Occult that included Aleister Crowley as a leader in its final phases. Clark marries this fascination with yet another pulled from stories of the Chitauri, an alien reptile race that controls humanity from the shadows (the kind that inspired lizard people, Illuminati types of conspiracy theories). But Clark doesn’t just dive into the tin foil hat theories of sub-Reddit’s backwaters; he jumps off of the stories of Credo Mutwa, Crowley and oddly the ’90s TV show Alien Nation to create his own pulsating world centered around demonic faces from his own dreams that he’s given the name Chitahoori.

Now all that backstory is all well and good, but how does it translate to sound? Quite incredibly, actually. With all the cult imagery in place, Clark then winds his way through a synthetic world that feels damp, cold and glowing of its own volition. While he may be focusing on the auras of demonic masks in its construction, on the receiving end it comes across as a soundtrack to the kinds of natural oddities that populate The Mariana Trench. The World of Shells is full of shadows darkened by deep set drone, fluttering syths set a alight by perfectly curated sampling and Clark’s own sense of wonder that’s transmitted in each and every note. Utilizing an E-Max II, a vintage ’90s sampling keyboard, he stacks sound on sound until there’s no room for the listener to escape. He scampers through his vast wasteland of damp damage until it culminates in the fifteen plus minute epic, “Oracle Of Egret” which bursts from the cold darkness into an arid environment, ostensibly cowering at the foot of massive gold alien idols that are given life through the echoing vocals of Nour Mobarak. Clark may not always inhabit the same casual conversations as Ferraro, but this album is a strong argument to correct that injustice.





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Tony Molina on Judee Sill – S/T

Racking up some great installments of the Hidden Gems series as we come into the end of the year. This time Tony Molina picks out a record that he feels has been overlooked and reveals how its impacted him personally. Tony’s pick, Judee Sill’s nuanced, 1971 eponymous debut. The record has been a longtime collector’s favorite and only recently come back into the popular canon through some much needed reissues. Those who’ve heard Molina’s latest EP for Slumberland would note the shift in tone from his earlier songwriting and it seems that Sill’s masterpiece would have quite a bit of impact on his migration to a softer sound. Tony explains how the record came into his sphere of influences and just how much it’s made an impression on how he approaches songwriting.

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