ALBUM REVIEW: Moon Duo – Occult Architecture Vol. 1

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Moon Duo return with the first of two albums they plan to release in 2017, with both volumes rooted in balanced and oppositional ideas and textures. The conceptual approach of the double album is, in their words “an intricately woven hymn to the invisible structures found in the cycle of seasons and the journey of day into night, dark into light.” That Yin Yang format won’t of course make complete sense until Vol. 2 is released later in the year but for now you can be assured that Moon Duo are still doing what they do best – laying down dense, surging and grinding psych rock rhythms.

Their music is always one of perpetual motion and since their first releases, which were dominated by a colder and more mechanical mood, they’ve slowly evolved to find a unique common ground between machine-like repetition, Sanae Yamada’s kosmiche synth washes and melodies and the free-spirited guitar explorations courtesy of Ripley Johnson.

On Occult Architecture Vol. 1, the term primitive futurism keeps coming to mind. The pair conjure up images of mysterious shadowy figures, druids, shamanistic rituals and pagan mysticism with their obfuscated lyrics and general dark tones and textures. They also invoke the spirit of astral travel and space travel, their songs often resembling a object hurtling through space and free of any earthly restraint. There’s a certain cyber quality to the shape and relentless drive of Moon Duo, albeit infused with human emotions – both good and bad.

‘Cold Fear’ induces just that – a queasy feeling of unease which makes it a less aggressive descendent of Suicide’s experiments at putting their audiences in a state of discomfort. ”Cross Town Fade’ is a curious blend of a tranced-out Sigue Sigue Sputnik stuck in a glam boogie vortex while ‘Will Of The Devil’ spins on an axis of insistent drumming with a yearning, melancholic synth melody sounding like a lost transmission from the point where Joy Division became New Order.

The album closer ‘White Rose’ emerges from the dark mist into a more optimistic world, one built on a perfect Krautrock rhythm and Johnson’s guitar sounding like a demonstrative insect buzzing and demanding to be heard. The glorious drone rolls on for ten minutes, onward and upward toward the light and presumably its spring/summer-centric sibling album.

It’s a fascinating journey, with or without the overarching concept, and reinforces the ability of Moon Duo to create music that is both sonically straightjacketed, endlessly immersive and without visible horizons.

Chris Familton

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ALBUM REVIEW: Jesca Hoop – Memories Are Now

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Hot on the heels of her collaborative album with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, Jesca Hoop backs it up with a new solo album that dives deeper into her experimental songwriting, drawing on folk, indie and art pop.

The songs here are minimal, skeletal even. Simple percussive elements, at one point just the keys of a typewriter, form the basis for hypnotic melodies and lyrical concerns that often draw on themes of empowerment, seizing one’s destiny and the moment.

It’s Hoop’s sense of musical adventure and experimental lean, yet not at the expense of a strong song, that lends comparison to St Vincent and a more organic Bjork. Endlessly catchy and boldly creative, Memories Are Now is a thrilling escape from the doldrums.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Bic Runga – Close Your Eyes

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This is Bic Runga’s fifth album in two decades and comes as she is inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame. A collection of covers and two originals, it finds her tipping her hat to some of her influences, from the obvious to the obscure. Both originals (the title track and Dream A Dream) are lush rhythmic pop songs with tropical noir textures while elsewhere she tackles Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Love’s Andmoreagain, Nick Drake, Kanye West and the Roberta Flack classic The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face. Many fans would prefer an album of originals but as a stop-gap this is a wonderful and worthy insight into Runga’s musical world.

Chris Familton

Favourite Albums of 2016

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And yet again the brain-scrambling exercise of narrowing down our favourite albums released in 2016 has been successfully navigated. Much gnashing of teeth ensued, spreadsheet cells shifted frequently and the dust surrounding the shallow process of rating albums against one another has finally settled.

Over at Post To Wire, our Americana music site, we’ve already ranked our 40 favourite albums that fall under that wide stylistic umbrella but here is our all-encompassing master list of our 50 favourite albums across all genres. We’ve still got a list of 40 recommended albums to listen to, that on any day may also make this list, but the cutoff has to happen sometime. Over time some of these entries will also shift around and increase/decrease in our level of appraisal but to my ears the top 20 is pretty rock solid. Dive on in and we’ll see you in 2017.

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1  Arbor Labor Union – I Hear You

This was an album that slowly but surely dug its way into my ears and heart with its churning blend of Velvet Underground jangle and drone, the freewheeling sensibilities of some of my favourite recent guitarists such as Steve Gunn and Chris Forsyth, post-punk angles and disdain for perfection, a voice that hurls and breaks like Protomartyr and Pissed Jeans and a dusty back-roads vibe on 90s Dinosaur Jr and Smashing Pumpkins that combined to make I Hear You an unhurried and endlessly absorbing album of guitar rock.

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2  Tindersticks – The Waiting Room

The UK group made a splendid return to form in 2016 with The Waiting Room. By taking a less-is-more approach they’ve mastered a sense of graceful musical levitation where songs drift by and hang in the air on the back of Stuart Staples’ soulful, rich and austere voice and backed by the band’s blend of post-rock, soundtracks, late-night jazz stylings, uber-stoned echoes of dancehall and sophisticated funk. Nothing else sounded like it this year. In ‘Hey Lucinda’ they produced one of our favourite songs of 2016.

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3  Witch Hats – Deliverance

The Melbourne quartet continue to refine their sound and they came closest to perfecting it on Deliverance. Their dark, lurching rock ‘n’ roll is awash with howling dirges and claustrophobic angst. The bass is deep and heavy, anchoring the songs as they stagger off into Stooges proto-punk, and nihilistic post-punk. The key is the melodies that still burn a hole in the gothic, swampy vibe. They’re firmly in the realm of The Clash, The Drones and The Gun Club yet they’ve dug their own hook-laden hole and decorated it with all manner of exceptional dark pop and bruised, gutter-punk blues.

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4  Drive-By Truckers – American Band

Hood, Cooley and band have built an epic back catalogue of albums over the last two decades and American Band is right up there with their very best. It rocks, it soothes and it was the most poetically prescient album of the year. It touched on modern America and the cultural, economic, political and societal struggles it still wrestles with. The band balanced education, commentary and incisive critique with country rock ‘n’ roll and weary yet defiant melancholy.

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5  Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Cave returns with his most affecting and intimate sounding album, after his family was struck by tragedy when his son died after falling from a cliff. The album was already underway when that happened but the weight of it hangs across the songs like a heavy, ghostly mist as Cave sings of drug addicts in Tijuana hotel rooms and a myriad of other characters flirting with the netherworld. It’s a hard listen emotionally as the relentless soundscapes conjured up by The Bad Seeds navigate the ominous and darkened waters yet ultimately they allow slivers of light to relieve some of the sadness and tragedy. Skeleton Tree is essential and moving music par excellence.

6  Dinosaur Jr – Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not

7  David Bowie – Blackstar

8  Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To

9  The Felice Brothers – Life In The Dark

10  Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs

11  Kyle Craft – Dolls Of Highland

12  Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

13  The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free

14  Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

15  Jason Walker – All-Night Ghost Town

16  Davey Craddock – City West

17  Eleanor Friedberger – New View

18  Steve Gunn – Eyes On The Line

19  Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Haven’t Been Sung

20  The Field – Follower

21  Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts Of Highway 20

22  William Crighton – William Crighton

23  Jonny Fritz – Sweet Creep

24  Big Smoke – Time Is Golden

25  Darren Cross – _Xantastic

26  Robert Ellis – Robert Ellis

27  The Goon Sax – Up To Anything

28  Karl Blau – Introducing Karl Blau

29  Okkervil River – Away

30  Cian Nugent – Night Fiction

31  Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Maths

32  William Tyler – Modern Country

33  Cass McCombs – Mangy Love

34  The Renderers – In The Sodium Light

35  Lambchop – FLOTUS

36  Oren Ambarchi – Hubris

37  Andy Stott – Too Many Voices

38  Lower Plenty – Sister Sister

39  Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band – The Rarity Of Experience

40  A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

41  Will Wood – Magpie Brain & Other Stories

42  Underworld – Barbara Barbara, We Face An Uncertain Future

43  Luther Dickinson – Blues & Ballads

44  Chook Race – Around The House

45  Sonic Youth – Spinhead Sessions

46  The Men – Devil Music

47  Kevin Morby – Singing Saw

48  Parquet Courts – Human Performance

49  Ghost Wave – Radio Norfolk

50  Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

ALBUM REVIEW: Dinosaur Jr – Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not

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When people drop the needle on the record, insert the CD or click play on their phone and hear the distinctive roar of dense and distorted guitar on the new Dinosaur Jr album a great number of them will think “this sounds like just another Dinosaur Jr album”. That was my gut reaction on first listen. All the components are there. The symbiotic fusion of The Stooges and Crazy Horse, Mascis’ spiralling classic rock guitar solos, the solid and dependant Murph locking it all together on drums, the thrum and pound of Lou Barlow’s low-slung bass and the usual 80/20 songwriting split between Mascis and Barlow.

Hit play again, return the stylus to the first groove and let the songs sink in for this is one of the strongest batch of songs the trio have collected since the trio shuffled back into the public eye in 2005. The speed of the songs and the brittle, heady rush of heavy, heavy melodic guitar rock is right in the pocket. It’s economical and sprawling at the same time. It feels grounded and earthy while launching in the stratosphere on the back of Mascis’ howling, fuzz-laden Fender Jaguar.

There isn’t a great depth to explore in the lyrical content of the songs, they still read like relationship snapshots, polaroids of an argument, a misunderstanding, a yearning. “I want to know, I want to go, I’m all alone” sings Mascis on ‘Tiny’, a typical loose treatise on love lost or temporarily misplaced.

The centrepiece of the album is ‘I Walk For Miles’ with its monolithic slabs of doom-laden riffage. It’s like a lumbering and melancholic lost Black Sabbath song that just keeps growing and growing to epic proportions over five minutes before it climaxes and then cleverly kicks off again like a regenerated monster from a b-grade movie. The album isn’t all gonzo rock moves though. ‘Knocked Around’ is a sweet document of the damage and aftermath of a bruising emotional relationship while Be A Part feels like a warm sonic hug, wistful and nostalgic.

Barlow’s contributions are as important and strong as ever with ‘Love Is’ sounding like R.E.M jamming with The Byrds while album closer ‘Left Right’ is as brilliant as anything else before it as Barlow mixes Cure-like grandeur with a super-hooky staggered rhythm and a beautiful vocal performance.

Yes it’s exactly what you’d expect, and most importantly, want from another Dinosaur Jr album in 2016. It’s a band still on a winning streak, still exploring the seemingly endless creative possibilities within their minimal musical framework, without a hint of boredom or simply trading on past glories.

Chris Familton

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Ghost Wave – Radio Norfolk

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Three years on from their debut Ages, Ghost Wave sound a wholly more authentic and lived-in proposition. Ages sounded like the sum of its influences (UK indie, Krautrock, NZ 80s alt-guitar pop) and they mastered them exceedingly well, but Radio Norfolk takes those sounds further and deeper, co-mingling and cross-pollinating with more sonic grit and subtlety.

Psychedelia has permeated music strongly in recent years, much of it centring on garage rock and folk music. Ghost Wave take the elements of trippiness and narcotic haze to a rhythmic and repetitive place. There is a stoned danceability to much of the album where the bass and the drums provide the movement and drive of the music. It can be uplifting and bright (‘Honey Punch’, ‘Don’t Ask Me’), snaking and smoky (‘Blues Signal ’79’) or insistent and pulsing (‘Snow Cone Descent’). That combination of moods creates a wonderful flow to the album akin to both the predictability and variability of rolling ocean swells or a road trip through hills, valleys and plains.

Producer Sonic Boom (Spaceman 3) has tied together the band’s sound superbly, It never descends into dreary drone from a lack of ideas or noise for noise sake. The balance is there and a surprisingly rich batch of melodies rise to surface on repeat listens. The xylophone on ‘Spaceman’, the range of effects applied to the guitar lines and Matthew Paul’s incantations and vowel bending vocals are all elements used to add shape and colour to the songs.

Radio Norfolk is kaleidoscopic in nature and psychedelic by design yet never at the expense of the song at the heart of each track. That balance of vision defines what is an exemplary and timeless take on hypnotic rock music.

Chris Familton