The Stargazer’s Assistant’s Remoteness of Light is morose and mysterious in equal measure

One of my fondest, most vivid memories from childhood is exploring the vast wilderness behind the neighborhood tennis court. I ventured out from the familiarity of concrete into the obscurity of dirt and dusty roads, flanked on each side by oceans of shoulder-height wheat grass. Pressing on, I eventually reached the end of the road, and I gazed straight up at the monolithic electrical towers – towers that straddled the horizon from my house. Pushing even further, I hit the woods, a maze of mystery for the heart of an eight-year-old. Exploring it was fun, exciting, and about as close as that child ever came to feeling like Indiana Jones. I bring this up not as some sappy personal tidbit, but as a sort of bridge into what makes the Stargazer’s Assistant’s Remoteness of Light so wholly gratifying. David J. Smith’s newest project, through its twisting washes of ambient evocations, may lack the youthful vibrancy of those distant, childish excursions, but it rekindles that critical sense of discovery.

Here, songs are as absent as light itself, leaving the listener to flounder and fumble through the album’s wilderness. Sound slow drips through speakers like water through caverns, and no vocals anchor the proceedings with relatable personality. Album opener “Agents of Attitude” extends its wispy fingers in alluring invitation: minimal percussion feather-dances over cyclical, airy woodwinds, repeating and reverberating before collapsing into oppressive washes of white noise. At 19 minutes, it’s a big ask for undivided attention, but the obtuse, open-ended nature of the track justifies itself in its willingness to let the listener loose in the dark. Stargazer’s Assistant conjures a mire of shifting soundscapes and asks the rhetorical question “are you ready to step inside?” The rhetorical becomes literal when the album’s closer, “The Remoteness of Light,” bursts into a frenzy of swirling synths and free-form percussion; the answer is “yes.” It’s the payoff to an hour-long voyage into the unknown. In a climactic confrontation of scraping, digital blips and tribal rhythms, clawing against the washboard surfaces and punctuated spasms of electric guitar, Smith and his entourage lure the listener through a maelstrom into a vast and empty space of nothing. The record ends, unresolved, undecided. More than anything, it’s the record’s statement of intent. Morose and mysterious in equal measure, The Remoteness of Light is an album without a destination, and its all the better for it.

8.3/10

The Grammys Need an Intervention

The Grammys haven’t been a music fan’s music event for some time. It’s clear that the focus has shifted to “big music,” irrespective of anything but social media trending and record sales. Scouring the internet, you would think the world was on fire, sold out to a nefarious elite who subliminally work to destroy our way of life and, possibly, our  very existence. It’s not quite that dramatic, but it’s still a joke – the kind of joke an obnoxious, abusive friend pulls and pulls again, thinking it’s funnier the second time. Grammys, its time we talked: the 58th time isn’t a charm.

It seemed, for the briefest of moments, that there was some justice in the world when Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly won the best rap album category (as if there was any competition). That glimmering spark of hope was quickly snuffed out when Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat Kendrick for the illustrious album of the year award. As the eroded but-still-brilliant Professor Farnsworth of Futurama would say, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” 

Anyone remotely versed in hip-hop and pop music tradition should come away from both albums with the same conclusion. To Pimp A Butterfly, regardless of personal preference, is a more important and demanding work of art. Lamar conducted a musical autopsy not just of himself, but of the black man in America. From careful introspection to seething rage, Lamar put everything on the table in an exhaustive personal and social statement. Taylor Swift wrote some catchy hooks.

Essentially, the Grammys pulled an Oscars last night by voting white girl problems over a thorough, soulful dissection of black life and culture. The naivest of viewers might believe its an honest mistake, but grizzled Grammy veterans know better. This isn’t the first time. It surely won’t be the last. That’s why the Grammy’s need an intervention. It’s not going to be easy, but the first step in recovering credibility is admitting there’s a problem.

Just admit it.

Elephant9’s “Silver Mountain” Breathes Fresh Air into Psych’s Overflowing Canon

Psychedelic rock, at least the modern variety, has been consistently sabotaged by some members of the press and casual listeners alike as a poor man’s genre – a style of music rooted in the ”good old days” of Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the 13th Floor Elevators with nothing to say. They’re not entirely wrong. It seems increasingly difficult to find inventive, innovative acts operating within the confines of psych. From the dazed-out-pop of Unknown Mortal Orchestra to the far-out, volcanic jams of Earthless, these are essentially the same kaleidoscopic conjurations your parents heard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “What’s next” is a question many bands of this ilk wrestle with, whether in the studio or deep in the lion’s den of music journalism. But Norway’s “best live band” Elephant9 brings a simple answer to the table: “just add jazz.” With “Silver Mountain,” Elephant9 rejects the pretense of modern psychedelia and embraces its namesake with arms and minds wide-open.

Minds-wide open seems like a good tagline for the record, as the band’s ingenuity is apparent from the get-go. Whereas the prototypical psych outfit contents itself to ride a colorful passage for all its worth, Elephant9 and Reine Fiske reject stagnation. Much like the genre’s namesake, compositions shift shape with regularity, evoking variegated hues and visual patterns. “Occidentali” snakes and slithers its way through curious, jazzy instrumentals before blanketing the audience with echoing washes of synth and guitar. The calm, however, quickly snaps into a spastic freak-out. Guitars, courtesy of Dungen’s Reine Fiske, rocket through the percussion’s inconstant gravity before dying out. Moments like these come in ready supply and almost always captivate. Though it should be obvious by now, it warrants clarification: this isn’t your parent’s psych. “Silver Mountain” doesn’t ride the strength of its instrumental creativity alone, though.

Both production and mixing play significant roles in the album’s success. Each instrument breathes in relative clarity, but makes allowance for the natural obfuscations warranted by the genre. Fiske’s guitar is given extra attention, piercing through moments of tranquility with a colorful, pin-point trajectory. Here, the music is vivid – vibrant, even – but never polished to a fine sheen. Centerpiece “Abhartach” pounds its way through an off-kilter groove dominated by side-step drum patterns and surreal, thick spikes of distortion. Elsewhere, the militant, pounding rhythms of “Kungsten” hammer down with serious gravity, weaving in-and-out of line while battering the listener. It’s noisy, often chaotic, but it sounds exactly as it should: evocative and engrossing. And really, if you can say a modern psych album is evocative and engrossing, not just a despondent and derivative addition to an overflowing canon, then you’ve got a winner.

9.1/10

Best Albums 2015

I could type a spiffy intro telling you how this year was miles beyond any other year, but that would be redundant and probably untrue. What I am going to do is cut right to the chase: these are my favorite albums of 2015. I hope you find something you enjoy.

  1. Kamasi Washington, The Epic
  2. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  3. Elephant9, Silver Mountain
  4. Failure, The Heart is a Monster
  5. Dungen, Allas Sak
  6. Anekdoten, Until All the Ghosts are Gone
  7. The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird is Home
  8. Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete
  9. Chelsea Wolfe, Abyss
  10. Tigran Hamasyan, Mockroot
  11. Intronaut, The Direction of Last Things
  12. Hiatus Kaiyote, Choose Your Weapon
  13. Deafheaven, New Bermuda
  14. Zombi, Shape Shift
  15. Emancipator, Seven Seas
  16. Baroness, Purple
  17. Golden Void, Berkana
  18. Freddie Gibbs, Shadow of a Doubt
  19. The Moderator, The World Within
  20. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
  21. Clutch, Psychic Warfare
  22. Beach House, Depression Cherry
  23. The Dear Hunter, Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
  24. Bjork, Vulnicura
  25. Father John Misty, I Love  You, Honeybear

Artist Spotlight: Ulver

Chameleonic, unpredictable and bizarre are just a few common buzzwords tossed around in discussions about Norway’s Ulver and not without good reason. The band’s 1995 debut Bergtatt has reached cult classic status with black metal fans worldwide, bolstered by adventurous songwriting and the angelic vocals of Kristoffer Rygg. Since then, though, the band has opted for an “anything goes” approach to songwriting – literally, anything.

From avant-rock to downtempo trip-hop to dreary ambient soundscapes, Ulver has thoroughly abandoned its blackened roots to pursue god knows what god knows when, and the stylistic guessing game has been nothing if not exciting. 2007’s Shadows of the Sun found the band at an artistic peak with its surreal atmospherics and heavy vocal focus, playing like a nine-part hymnal for the departed. Since then, classical compositions have met electronica on Messe I.X-VI.X, and the history of psychedelic rock has been explored on Childhood’s End.

Next year, however, promises a new frontier for the Norwegian four-piece.

The band’s next album, ATGCLVLSSCAP, hits shelves January 22nd, 2016. According to the group’s new label, House of Mythology, the record will feature “mostly improvisational” “rock and electronic soundscapes” in the double album format. If history is anything to go by, Ulver’s upcoming record should be another event worthy of your time and attention. Keep your ears peeled.

Mogwai’s John Cummings Departs

John Cummings, founder and guitarist of veteran post rock outfit Mogwai, has left the band after 20 years. Cummings joined the band in 1995, playing on records from Mogwai Young Team through Rave Tapes.

According to a statement by the band, Cummings’ departure comes as an effort to pursue his own musical projects. The band also stated it plans to continue as four-piece, retaining members Dominic Aitchison, Stuart Braithwaite, Martin Bulloch and Barry Burns.

You can find more information about the band at its official website.

Gazpacho’s Molok Is Not the Art Rock Masterpiece You’re Looking For

Expectations are often our own worst enemies. We hear an exciting, novel record for the first time and fall head over heels like starry-eyed saps. Soon after, we begin constructing the absurd mythology of a band “too big to fail.” Gazpacho’s Demon worked as the perfect lure for that trap. Haunting, bizarre and curiously beautiful, 2014’s progressive rock sleeper hit found the band firing on all creative cylinders for a career milestone – an album that, by all accounts, will go down as one of art rock’s overlooked gems. Molok, the follow-up to 2014’s masterful Demon, seemed primed for rounds of universal praise, and it’s probably going to get it. Best-of-the-year lists will likely make room for the Norwegian ensemble’s latest record. Droves of avid listeners will likely throw the album into heavy rotation. But I won’t. Gazpacho’s Molok isn’t what I hoped for, and it’s my own fault for expecting perfection.

A major reason for this lukewarm reception is the band’s approach to songwriting, which finds Ohme and company once again discarding the extended, long-form compositions of Night and Demon in favor of bite-sized chunks of sound. This wouldn’t be an issue, however, if Molok’s thematic and conceptual depth didn’t demand more from each individual track. “Algorithm” effectively grips the listener by the throat with its ominous, tribal soundscapes but loses hold just as quickly; it merely segues into another track and never truly develops beyond beleaguered sighs and pounding rhythms.

Elsewhere, “Bela Kiss” quickly earns its spot as Gazpacho’s most curious track to date. It’s an ethnic romp with little substance, not dissimilar in sound from the Italian tarantella outro of “Wizard of Altai Mountains” but without the impact. Oddly, the track isn’t attached to a more substantial centerpiece, and it doesn’t carry enough fire to warrant itself as a standalone composition. These tracks would have served well as smaller pieces in a larger whole — small segments in the vivid, sprawling sonic canvases the band has so thoroughly demonstrated its talent in coloring. “Algorithm” and “Bela Kiss” aren’t the only offenders here: they’re just the most egregious.

It’s a shame, too, because Molok is one Gazpacho’s best sounding records. “Know Your Time” sports a spacious mix that allows each instrument room to breathe, evoking the band’s trademarked ethereal wonderment with ease. But even the record’s brightest moments flicker out when put into perspective. Gorgeous as it is, “Know Your Time” is a retread of familiar territory. In many ways it’s the prototypical Gazpacho song. River-of-glass vocals? Check. Haunting atmospherics? Check. The subdued percussion of “Choir of Ancestors” is a smart production choice, allowing Ohme’s smooth vocals to take center-stage, but, ultimately, it feels a bit hollow – like an excerpt from material that wasn’t strong enough to get out of the cutting room last time around.

Despite this, Molok isn’t a poor effort, or even an average one. It’s decidedly good, but when a band has consistently raised the bar to herculean heights – Night, anyone? – it becomes progressively harder to be impressed. 2014’s Demon introduced bizarre instrumentation and unexpected twists into the group’s arsenal, but Molok merely doubles down and dumbs down. Nothing here caries the ethereal, cinematic sweep of “I’ve Been Walking, Pt. 2” and nothing hits quite as hard as Ohme’s dramatic declaration of “I lost it down the rabbit hole” in “I’ve Been Walking, Pt. 1.” Molok, in many ways, seems natural as a next step for the group: it continues to divorce the band’s sound from the sea of uninspired prog-rock tribute acts. That’s a great move, but opting for refinement over revolution only works if you’re actually upping the ante, and, sadly, that’s where Gazpacho drops the ball. Molok certainly isn’t a revolution, but it’s not really a refinement, either: it’s a band in suspended animation.

6/10