Posts Tagged ‘Kranky’

RSTB Best of 2018

So, it seems that 2018 is finally coming to an end. It’s been a hell of a year by most standards, but musically its been damn entertaining. Perhaps its fair that there’s some bright spot in all the chaos. Not to diminish the chaos, but when the negativity is at an all-pervasive fever pitch, its feels good to have something to hold onto. I’ll choose to remember 2018 as a banner year for music and for the birth of my second daughter rather than the year that page refresh politics threatened to give me an ulcer any day. Below are my favorite albums of the year, taking care to highlight some that might otherwise get forgotten. They’re in (quasi) alphabetical order with no other particular weight on the list. Keep your eyes out for a few more year-end features this week before I reset for the new year. As always, thanks for sticking with RSTB for these 12-odd years or so.

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Forma

Brooklyn’s Forma follow their cosmic comedown album Physicalist from 2016 with the propulsive, glistening sounds of Semblance. On the last go ‘round the band split their impulses between sides. The opening half of the album embracing the skitter and propulsion of Krautrock given electronic tendrils. The back half, on the other hand, took a suite of songs down a much more Kosmiche road, spreading its attention between synth float, drone and free jazz. This time they’re not keeping the halves of their personality at arm’s length and in turn they create a layered retrofuturist pop album that’s just as likely to dazzle in plastic and glass refractions as it is to siphon the anxiety out of the room via meditative haze.

Its an extension of Physicalist to be honest, but the coherence here makes the last album seem like sketches for the more elaborate arc of Semblance. They weave the weapons of their psychedelic journey in a more articulate fashion this time. Ebbing and flowing in chapters, the album moves from synth scratched with sax through mechanical Zen, into a palpable play on technological anxiety and settles into lucid dreams that are almost too real. By the time the listener is entering “New City,” its hard to know if we can trust our own eyes or ears. The moment is refreshing, but also feels like one might be able to reach out and touch the elastic and static crinkle of VR film holding in this surreal serenity.

Somewhere there’s a film missing a solid score in this, and its definite highlight in the band’s catalog. There’s no lack of synth slingers who are aiming for the raised bar on Kosmiche clatter, but with Semblance Forma have come into their own. Even if you’ve tired of the dystopian drift and cosmic checkboxes that so many in this genre hit regularly, Forma have given these touchstones a new life and a reason to float out into the ether once more.





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Grouper

Days were when Liz Harris had a new album on the way it was the rippling fringe that was excited. Now by the grace of gauziness, Grouper is practically a household name (ok maybe not quite) and expectations are high going into Grid of Points. From the very first moments those expectations are met. Harris’ voice is still battling with hiss for prominence, but this time it’s winning out handily, soaring in a heartbreaking lilt over “Parking Lot’s” somber refrain and soaking the album through with a confessional nature that pushes her past the markers of dreampop and noise that used to pen her in. There’s still that natural warmth that makes Grouper Grouper, but it seems over time Liz Harris has seen fit to let us further into her world with an intimacy that’s palpable in every moment of the new record.

It’s almost too bad that warmer climes and sunny skies are on their way because every inch of Grid of Points makes me want to hollow out a couch cushion and bunker down to weather frigid gloom for another few months. The album is, as is usual with Grouper, haunting in its ability to draw sadness out like a fragile divining rod. Even without the cocoon of aural foam and tape hiss that’s ever present, there’s a feeling that just Harris and a piano would command rapt attention for an album twice this length. If anything, the problem is the album’s brevity leaves the listener wanting more – needing Harris to commiserate and tug gently at the toothache of longing just a little while longer.

I’ll take what I can get though, and this is Harris at her best, showing an artist willing to evolve, even if that evolution is just a gradual peek from behind the curtain over time. If there’s a shred of sadness looking for relief inside of you, then Grouper is here to rub salt in the wound. The pain is real, but the sparkle is worth it.



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Red River Dialect’s David Morris on The Dead Texan – S/T

Red River Dialect’s fourth album pushed songwriter David Morris’ vision to larger vistas. The album is rooted in touches of his native Cornish folk, but also encompasses the sweeping embrace of tender, yet tangled pop touchstones like Talk Talk, Shearwater or Okkervil River. His songs are personal wrangles with sadness and longing and faith in the face of the world. As such I’d have imagined David to reflect on something similar, an English folk nugget buried in the past or a bit of ’80s pop that perhaps showed similar attention to emotional depth. But, as always, I’ve learned that going into these pieces with expectations always leads down a broken path. Morris mentioned that he was on the verge of picking just such an artist, as he has had a recent interest in Scottish folk musician Jackie Leven, but couldn’t narrow his rabbit hole down to one record. Instead he’s gone in the opposite direction, picking the 2004 eponymous record by The Dead Texan.

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Steve Hauschildt

Former Emeralds member Steve Hauschildt hasn’t been as prolific as his counterpart in Mark McGuire, but taking his time has given Strands a conceptual hopefulness that’s immersive and gorgeous. The record is built around the concept of strands of rope, none as taught or as slack as the other, and the way they braid into a whole piece as the eye backs away. The pieces on Strands bubble and swim through a Kosmiche palette of watercolored tones, underlit with a touch of hope and a good dose of wonder. While synth has enjoyed a rather healthy spike in interest this year, most seem entirely beholden to the horror soundtrack, white-knuckle tension model that’s been brimming to a full cup for at least six or seven years now.

What separates Hauschildt from those who would seek to stretch their Italo-horror muscles is the sense of wonder over fear. There are certainly parts of Strands that hit tense notes, as would be expected from a project that ebbs and flows into a living organism, but he never hammers the fear home. Others just tighten the grip on the throat continually but there’s more power in a quick, tense knot than in a stranglehold. Those moments of tension are more gripping because they emerge from moments of beauty. Hauschildt’s added another layer as well to his tone painting, degrading the normally clean tones with a bit of dirt mixed in with the colors. The effect gives texture and cracks at the oftentimes pristine world of synth quite nicely. In this respect Hauschildt has found common ground with another of synth’s craftsmen not afraid to muddy the channels, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.

A long time coming but completely worth the wait, Hauschildt’s vision pulls into focus with each repeated dive into his aquatic wonderland. We may be hitting peak synth this year, but its great to see someone pushing harder to elevate the sound.


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Forma

On Forma’s third album they’ve expanded their scope to embrace a looser approach through improvisation, though they don’t dive into the idea lightly. Physicalist is constructed in two halves, the first follows their setup of vintage synths and Terry Riley/Faust vibes with occasional flecks of Cluster strewn about the synthscape. The second, plunges the band into a broader vision populated with flute, acoustic instrumentation (a first for the band) and elements of free jazz. Since the LP version is setup as a double LP, essentially they act as companion records with each focusing on a different scope, tied together by the idea of repetition and improvisation with an emotional arc fusing the halves through what feels like a cycle of self-discovery.

The first side is bound by their usual setup, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t taken a few steps forward. Barring the more techno oriented Cool Haptics EP, the band worked in groove oriented Kosmiche on both their eponymous LP and its follow-up Off/On and both of those releases feel much more tightly wound than anything on this side of Physicalist. From the cover art by influential psych designer Robert Beatty, to the double LP sprawl, everything here seems oriented to be more expansive, more attuned to the informative qualities of electronic float. The band works through tension and turbulence on this first portion, slowly unhinging its hold on reality.

The second side takes the notion of the infinite and lets it free. There’s a distinct progression along the first half towards looser and looser ends and they continue the unraveling on the second half to great effect, each track seems less and less tied to the idea of rhythm. They work this system right up until the title track, which bursts out of the second half in a vibrant and celebratory blast. Its still built into their well of synth, but adds a layer of pop that the band hasn’t really embraced. Its as if the tension and serenity of the preceding tracks melt into the background for the band to break free into a hedonist dance, leaving the academia of the album behind. Then, as a sobering up of sorts, the final improvisation rises like the sun over the tresses of the bridge line along the river, a knowing sign that tomorrow’s here and that a sobering reality awaits. Though, for the moment, that track hits like the halting bliss of a night well lived, the calm before the comedown. Its a great step forward for the band and one that knocks them out of any danger of being accused of stasis. They’ve built an well-oiled arc that uses the album format in a way that fewer and fewer seem to relish these days.




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