Monthly Spins: December 2017

And I thought the big news this month was just going to be the release of some fine music and then the ECM going all in on digital downloads info dropped on November 17th. I don't even know where to begin to open that extraordinary can of worms so I'll just stick with what we've put together for December and leave the elephant to stumble around the room. I don't mean to be coy or ambiguous because it's a good and great thing that this immense catalog of music will be available in HIFI versions. I think that I easily listened to 80 albums this month, which was about 30 more than last month. And just so you know why you're getting this normal monthly column and not the yearly Best of 2017 wrap up is because it's in the works. I'm going to be busy in the next couple of weeks (with a hernia operation for one thing) but spending until mid to late December scanning everyone else's lists because I always, always discover a couple of gems (if not a dozen) parsing through Best of 2017 lists. Last year I think that I put three things on my year end list just from Henry Rollins' KCRW list. So, enjoy. There's some beautiful, invigorating and memorable stuff on this list and I'll be back with The Best of 2017 in two weeks.

EERA: Reflection of Youth
File Under: extraordinary songwriting
This one got me almost immediately and it is a tasty debut from the Norwegian-born Anna Lena Bruland covering a self-described "tumultuous chapter in my life." Producer Nick Rayner takes Bruland's music and gives it a hard, complex and rigorous edge that gives these songs a heft and originality that I predict will put her on the map, if not on some top albums of the year lists. I know this record will be on mine.

Available from Bandcamp

James Holden & The Animal Spirits: The Animal Spirits
File Under: gnawa-inspired, jazz, Kraut-prog, psych-trance
Following in the footsteps of the fusion experiments of Don Cherry and Paroah Sanders DJ Holden found himself wanting to work with a full band, hence the creation of The Animal Spirits, bringing seven other players together for one week in his studio (see video). Each piece was recorded live, with no overdubbing and with no edits. According to Holden his goal was to replicate "the holy Jazz" of those two progenitors, creating a vibe of fusion-trance and this he has certainly accomplished. One of the surprises of the year and a totally immersive experience.

Available from Bleep

Kamancello: S/T
File Under: sublime improvisational frequencies
Here we find two masters, the duo of Shahriyar Jamshidi on kamanche ( or Persian spike-fiddle) and maestro Raphael Weinroth-Browne on the cello creating an absolutely sublime series of transcendent improvisations that sound anything but. This is also a well-mastered recording that brings the sense of being in the room with these two psychically tuned-in players. A true revelation and a blessing they've given us. And one of the most joyous and incantatory things I've heard all year.

Available from Bandcamp

Baths: Romaplasm:
File Under: electronic, wunderkind songwriter
Ebullience and innovation seem to these ears especially missing from most popular music today. There are those such as Jay-Z and Taylor Swift who have reached such a level of platform density that there is no longer any critical distance given them. Instead mega popstars are given the same level of reverence usually given only those mythological beasts we call deities. Then there is the particular pop, electronic genius of Bath's Will Wiesenfeld who just released his third full length in four years and while I loved both of those early records: 2010's Cerulean and 2013's Obsidian (much darker and introspective), Romaplasm is sonically right at the edge of pop without ever succumbing to it's banality. As lyrically rich as always Baths takes us into outer planets, anime worlds, video games and clever and enlightening word play, which is not without it's ownership of identity and sly takedowns such as "queer in a way that works for you…queer in a way that's failed me/I'm not enough of anything." Bath's makes delicious pop music but thankfully he will hopefully never become a popstar, and I mean that as a high compliment.

Available from Bandcamp

Grup Ses: Alliance
File Under: Turkish hip-hop, psych
Well it was bound to happen sooner or later and here it is: Turkish hip hop by artist Grup Ses wherein he avoids most of the cliché's of Anatolian rock and manages to piece together a very viable and original record that manages to straddle the line between East and West.

Available from Bandcamp

Elodie: Vieux Silence
File Under: ambient, improvisational, slumbersonics
This is supposedly Elodie's 12th release yet the only one that has been released outside of private label and simply based upon this delicate record I'd love to find more. Elodie, in this incarnation consists of the duo of maestro Andrew Chalk and Timo Van Lujik accompanied by frequent collaborators Daniel Morris (pedal steel guitar), Jean-Noel Rebilly (clarinet) and James Scott on piano. With an almost telepathic level of communication between players most of these compositions are done on an improvisational basis and from reports come off as sublime live as they do on this recording.

Available from Bandcamp

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Unremembered
File Under: new classical, composition, vocal
New to me but released in 2015 this hour long, thirteen song cycle for seven voices, electronics and chamber orchestra is a great one that slipped through the cracks but is a recording well worth a spin. Inspired by the illustrations and poems of artist Nathaniel Bellows, it features vocalist Padma Newsome (Clogs), Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and DM Stith. Snider is herself the guiding maestro behind the Clogs, which is another avant-classical outfit you should acquaint yourself with. Unremembered is a vocal music dreamscape combined with the acoustic rigor of new classical arrangements.

Available from Bandcamp

Machine Girl: Because I'm Young and Arrogant and Hate Everything You Stand For
File Under: cyber-core, vaper-punks
This is when an old geezer is supposed to shake his baldish head and say, what do those damned kids think they're doing? This isn't music, it's just noise! Get the hell off my lawn, bitches! But one man's noise is another woman's Atari Teenage Riot high on vaporware and busy remaking the sonic world we live in. If you were 19 and really really pissed off at the state of the world, but understanding that you're essentially powerlessness to have any effect on changing it, or for that matter even believing in something as absurd as change, then this is what you might be in the mosh pit bashing around to. Which in no way means this is something to be dismissed lightly. It's a feeling, a raw, unfiltered feeling of barely suppressed rage tempered with just enough humor to keep it grounded.

Available from Bandcamp

Orchard: Serendipity
File Under: post-rock, experimental, improvisational, ambient, drone
The real maestro (among many here) is label Ici d'ailleurs' artistic director Stephane Gregoire who selected four quite different musicians, who did not know one another, and had never played together, and put them in a studio to hear what they might come up with. He chose Aidan Baker (guitar), Gaspar Claus (cello), Franck Laurino (drums) and Maxime Tisserand (clarinets), each members of their own bands. Obviously there is some seasoned intuition and wisdom that went into Gregoire's choices because the result is nothing short of magical. Rather than sounding like a bunch of disparate egos these guys sound as if they've been playing together for years. The result is one of my favorite things I've heard this month.

Available from Tidal

Leyland Kirby: We, So Tired of all the Darkness in Our Lives
File Under: the Caretaker takes us on a long journey
There's a certain relentlessness and abstraction to Leyland Kirby's The Caretaker series that he has nearly completed. This album composed without those constraints shows a much more nuanced yet still majestic sense of the ambient universe.

Available from Bandcamp

Fovea Hex: The Salt Garden II
File Under: experimental, electronic folk, chamber work, Eno
When she was barely a teenager Clodagh Simonds founded the folk band Mellow Candle, which broke up in 1973. Simonds then did some memorable guest appearances on Thin Lizzy and Mike Oldfield albums, while three decades later she worked with Current 93 and Matmos and created the Fovea Hex ensemble, which has waited long times between releases of what are generally unclassifiable artifacts of seriously beautiful music. Brian Eno sings on one track and she has been known in the past to also bring on players such as Robert Fripp, William Basinski, film composer Carter Burwell, among many others.

Available from Bandcamp

Bibio: Phantom Brickworks
File Under: ambient sensei
Where this record goes is oddly into a realm never visited by Bibio, who has imbibed glitchy, folk-infused lager and taken us on many trips into various genres and genre-bending forays. This short album dives right into ambient and as with most, but not all of his albums it finds a way of inhabiting the genre without being bogged down into its cliches. I frankly wish it were twice as long.

Available from Bleep

Ghédalia Tazartès: Diasporas, Une Eclipse Totale De Soleil, Repas Froid, Voyage a lombre
File Under: French avant-garde gypsy trance minimalism
Here we find ourselves within the realm of truly Outsider art with no formal training and an original if not completely bonkers take on the realm of recorded music. Born in 1947, which makes him 70ish, Gjedalia Tazartes has only recently been performing live with a background rooted in the Ladino heritage (his family coming from a Jewish community in Turkey). His first, early recording entitled Diasporas was initially released in 1979 and has been recently reissued. I consider this discovery my great Monthly Surprise, in that I'm always hoping to discover something so completely original and outside the norm that gives me chills when I first hear it. This will appeal to anyone with eclectic tastes and an archivist looking for an artist operating within his own self-created parameters, yet not simply creating a giant mess of purposeless noise. Tazartes is a composer and and experimentalist but not one without a sense that music can be both appealing and extraordinarily unique going from musique concrete to ethnic tribal chanting, Anatolian folk songs, spoken poetry to guitar noise all within the framework of one song 20 minute song. Honestly, it's hard to say one record is better than another but there are three albums on Tidal: Une Eclipse Totale De Soleil, Repas Froid, and Ante-Mortem and two available on Bandcamp, with Boomkat offering a newly pressed edition of the early work.

"Ghédalia Tazartès is a nomad. He wanders through music from chant to rhythm, from one voice to another. He paves the way for the electric and the vocal paths, between the muezzin psalmody and the screaming of a rocker (…) Ghédalia is the orchestra and a pop group all in one person; the solitary opera explodes himself into an infinity of characters. The self is multitude and others. The author and his doubles work without a net, freely connecting the sounds, the rhythms, his voice, his voices. The permanent metamorphosis is a principle of composition, it escapes control, refuses classification. Off limits, music descends, cries and screams when it touches the ground." (André Glucksmann)

Mica Levi: Delete Beach
File Under: Original Soundtrack
She left us dazed with the Jackie soundtrack and pretty much dazzles and amazes in that way she seems to have created, wherein the world: being is being and being is always created anew, here in small steps with minimalized soundscapes that stutter in and out of consciousness like an on-again, off-again, breeze that makes the wind chines soundoff, and the field noises seem exceptionally dynamic and organic.

Available from Boomkat

Bjork: Utopia
File Under: experimental, innovative, Bjorkishness
This one sort of blindsided me with its relentless, innovative pathways and meandering brilliance. There's always the expectations with artists working at such a high level of fame that we stop expecting greatness and become generally happy with subtle variations of the same stylistic substance, but then Bowie went out writing his own stunning epitaph, and here Bjork is only looking for love in her post Barney world, but she manages to create a document (yes, this is an album, a thing) and should be listened to as a whole because it builds and builds and builds one delightful world after another. She may be lonely and jaded about love, yet she remains resiliently committed to a beatific and ever expanding sonic universe that feels supple and full of empathy.

Available from Bleep

Nadia Sirota/Liam Byrne: Tessellatum
File Under: New Classical
Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy wrote this 13-part work specifically for the astounding violinist Nadia Sirota. She wanted to work with overtones and layer in her tracks and decided to bring the maestro of the bass viola da gamba, Liam Byrne. Dennehy wrote this composition for 11 bass violas and five violas, which both players worked on, overdubbing in each part. The result is a divine symphony of that feels warm, and it feels like an whole thing, complete and tasty. If you get this from Bandcamp and other sites it comes with a film of the entire work by animator Steven Mertens, which honestly does not enhance or really coexist with the music on display here.

Available from Bandcamp

Some Singles of Note:

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: (Four Tet Remix): I Will Make Room For You (single)
File Under: the master remixes a budding master. Play it loud

Solace: Infinite (single)
File Under: She's only put out two singles and there's no word yet on an album but I'm looking forward to it. This is a beauty.

Dead Fader: FYI(JK Flesh Remix)
File Under: Heavy Berliner sound preview of album due out in December

Colin Stetson: The Rain Like Curses (single)
File Under: A 10 minute wonder released for the Adult Swim Singles Program

From The Archives

Popol Vuh: Die Nacht der Seele: Tantric Songs (1979)
File Under: tantric rock, 70's german classic
This was Popol Vuh's overall 12th album release and it came out toward the end of their recording career and in the middle of one of their most influential periods when they began in 1975 a six year collaboration with filmmaker and close friend Werner Herzog on soundtracks for Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu. Leader Florian Fricke formed the band in 1969 together with Holger Trutzch and Frank Fielder and was one of the first Germans to make use of the then rare and expensive Moog III synthesizer. Fricke was fascinated by the Mayan histories and on this particular piece of music hit what I believe is the absolute apogee of spiritualized Krautrock or raga rock, incorporating sitar, oboe, electric guitar, and multitracked vocals to reproduce the sounds of Tibetan chants. The holy book of the Quiche, indigenous natives of Guatemala is entitled Popol Vuh. "Popol" means unification, people, container. "Vuh" is considered a magic word, a god's name and one that invokes fertility, the sun and abundance. Speaking of this music Fricke has said:

"In Germany we have a very old creative tradition which is based on a sort of mystical tendency to the absolute. Before us there have been many poets, many philosophers, a great deal of wonderful music and last of all mad fascism. At the moment, compared with other countries, we enjoy a very free life style here and are critical of mass euphoria and mass destruction. We are working on a music which is so free in itself that the listener can develop his own fantasy. We personally experience music as something creative, and that is what we wish to convey to others. Over the years music has became more and more a form of prayer for me."

There are essentially now two versions of this album, one with eleven tracks and another with fifteen, which were added on a recent release and I think overall these mostly piano versions of tracks add nothing to an otherwise phenomenal record and rarely even seem as if they even belong to the same album. There are a lot of great albums by Popol Vul but Tantric Songs belongs in a category all its own. This is music inherently meditative yet at times rhythmically complex and although purists will call it (happily) prog I would disagree (not that there's anything at all wrong with prog: I play Yes Fragile once a month), I just don't think the moniker fits on this one. Die Nacht der Seele: Tantric Songs is simply flat out transcendental and holy music.

'Florian was and remains to be an important forerunner of contemporary ethnic and religious music.'  KLAUS SCHULZE

Available from Tidal

Joe Surdna is a practicing artist and writer who has published in Playboy, GQ, Zoetrope and has worked on several alt-weeklies as an entertainment reporter focusing on art, new music, and film reviews.

kenmac's picture

What an excellent offering. So much great music from unknown-to-me artists. Thanks.

Shredder's picture

Thanks for the recommendations. I love the James Holden and baths. Look forward to best of 17.