…And you will know us by the trail of dead – X: The Godless Void and Other Stories (2020). Trail of Dead’s breakthrough album, Madonna, was a favourite of mine back shortly after it came out 20 years ago (gulp). The widely acclaimed follow-up, Source Tags and Codes, for my money contains some of their best songs, but as an album I always favoured Madonna, a leaner punchier beast. I stopped following Trail of Dead after that, as I did many of the lesser rock/indie bands of my teens, once I started immersing myself in electronic music. Was I surprised when I stumbled across an article heralding their new tenth studio album?…I suppose not really as many of my favourite bands from that era are still releasing albums. But still, 20 years is impressive in anyone’s book so, encouraged by the brilliantly over the top hippy cover art, I gave it a go. I’m literally only one listen in at this point, so it’s too early to say much, apart from that I will listen again. There aren’t any tracks that rock as hard as some of their early ones, but it’s still unmistakeably Trail of Dead…not so much mellowed with age, but perhaps more refined, burnished, like an antique table. I think we need a band like Trail of Dead in 2020 to cut through the crap. Shouty, angry and punky, but also – as implied by the album art – grandiose, arty and unafraid and throwing absolutely everything at the wall. (Which they used to do literally, trashing their equipment at the end – or even sometimes the beginning – of their early gigs).
Yo la Tengo – There’s a riot going on (2018). Yo la Tengo were another minor but well-loved character in my listening habits in the early 00s. I think I’m on safe ground citing I can hear the heart beating as one as their ‘best’ album, which I was digging a lot around 2000-02. They’ve always been on my backburner, although their discography is daunting. When Trail of Dead were trashing stages in Austin, Yo la Tengo were turning out their tenth album (the hushed and beautiful And then nothing turned itself inside-out) and they seem to show no signs of stopping, or dropping off in quality today. A couple of years ago I decided to venture further into the Tengo’s discography, and I’m coming to the conclusion they are incapable of recording a dud. There may be a riot going on, but you won’t hear it on this album… or maybe this album is where you go to escape the riot. There are none of the noisy jams or guitar abuse of the Yo la Tengo of old but there are moments of beauty, stillness, peace…but also perhaps a sense of uneasy dislocation. Yo la Tengo have created a desert island idyll with drooping palms, lapping waves and the gentle strum of a guitar, but the calm is spoiled by the mushroom cloud on the horizon. This is referenced literally on Polynesia #1, and hinted at more abstractly on the three-track passage: Dream Dream Away, Shortwave and Above the sound, which moves from tentative guitar strums, to windy reverb, as if you’re travelling through a tunnel, then pure ambience speckled with fragments of voices and then melding into an uneasy stuttering jazz jam. Definitely some of the more experimental music I’ve heard from Yo la Tengo. Elsewhere, the band show off their knack for understated beauty, crafting that subtley creep up on you, until a sudden key change, or stand out lyric, sets off the goosebumps. Case in point, ‘For you too’ with Ira Kaplan’s bruised, heartfelt lyrics.
Function – Incubation (2013). This has one of the best opening tracks of any techno album…fuck it, one of the best opening tracks of any album. I first heard it used as the curtain raiser on a Black Dog mix and subsequently tracked it down. As a way of setting a mood and building tension and expectation, you can’t really improve on it. A simple vocal sample, echoing claps, a Superhans longer-the-note-more-dread style bassline and rising synth pads. Yeah go and listen, it’s fucking class. The rest of the album doesn’t quite match up unfortunately, and is simply: perfectly decent techno. We’ve got eyes-down, industrial acid grinders: Against the Wall, Incubation (Ritual), malevolent electro: Psychic Warfare, and a much needed ray of sunlight on the melodic Inter, nodding to Detroit and the early 90s Black Dog/B12 et al sound. And the darker tracks are not just mindless headbangers. As with Sandwell District, of which David Sumner is also member, there is an epic, cinematic quality to the music. Highly recommended.
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011). This has been on my ‘albums I feel I should be listening to’ list for ages…well since it came out. PJ Harevy is obviously a legend and this was so widely acclaimed at the time, even though I’m only an armchair Peej fan, I felt like I owed this a listen. I perhaps put it off so long due to the nature of the subject matter (WWI) and my assumption that it would be emotionally overwrought and something I would need to commit to completely in order to enjoy (like deciding to commit to some 14-hour true crime Netflix series). I needn’t have left it so long. Even though this album is emotional, full of stark imagery and haunting anguish, it’s also concise (40 mins) and populated by catchy memorable tunes. Like all good chameleons (Bowie, Albarn etc), PJ Harvey is ultimately a pop artist, and her pop sensibilities shine through, even when she’s singing about limbs hanging from trees and the stench of death on the battlefield. As you would expect from the title, this is a very British (well, English) album. There are sounds and instruments that are literally evocative of the Great War, like the cavalry trumpet on Glorious Land. But there is also something in the folky cadence to the songs that evokes a deeper, more historical England, that goes right back to the middle ages. I can imagine these songs being sung in a square at dusk, as mist descends on the surrounding fields, the lamps are lit and the villagers gather for a harvest feast, or maybe a more sinister pagan ritual. She’s telling the story of the Great War, of course from the perspective of 100 years’ history, which only serves to highlight how tragically relevant the subject matter still is (Syria, Yemen, Libya, etc), but she’s woven the story from a tapestry that begins before the Great War, not only this, she combines elements from much further afield geographically too (the Blood on Fire reggae sample on Written on the forehead, the Iraqi folk song sampled on England) – just like England has always done. If there’s any chance you waited as long as me to listen to this album, I’d say: now is the time! (Listen on Spotify).
Hardfloor – Respect (1994). I respect Hardfloor. Universally acknowledged masters of the 303, as their discogs bio has it: they reputedly use up to six of these machines at once, some of which are highly modified. I love the delicate suggestion of the phrase ‘highly modified’, with its implications of mad scientists and dastardly experiments. Anyway these guys are basically the dons of 90s, German, hard acid techno, pumping tunes. And if that all sounds a bit fearsome or overtly macho, do not fear, their tunes are about as much fun as you can have without stuffing yourself with ecstasy and whipping your shirt off. This collection follows the same format as the seminal TB Resuscitation (1993) and contains a mixture of bangers, squelchers, head nodders and feet-twitchers.
These guys really do know how to work a 303, and for 1994 especially, they have a very thick, dense sound. Some early dance music can sound a little thin and wispy – no doubt due to inferior production techniques at the time – not so for Hardfloor. And if you ever feel you need an antidote to chin stroking minimalism, or the wilder excesses of Richie Hawtin’s latter career ego – listen to Hardfloor. No pretension or posturing in sight. Difficult to pick a favourite from this album, but at a push I’d plump for Mustard Cornflakes for sheer 303 carnage, the machine almost sounds like it’s in pain.
Cassegrain – RA Podcast (2015). More German techno, although fast forward 20 years from Respect. I had this on headphones while cycling home one evening in driving wind and rain. Safety elements aside, this mix of relentless, looping, psychedelic techno perfectly complimented my solo journey through the fierce natural elements. Sometimes repetitive driving music with no explicit emotional content (aside from the emotions engendered by the pure sounds themselves) is the last thing you want – but for a solo, self-propelled journey through harsh conditions it’s perfect. This isn’t a style of techno with peaks and troughs; as a visualisation this mix would look like a series of shallow stairs, as layers are added slowly, then plateau, then build. This is psychedelic techno (much like the excellent recent releases by Planetary Assault Systems) but the psychedelia does not reside in the quality of the sounds (as a psychedelic band will twist and manipulate a guitar through FX and pedals) but in the repetition itself, and the sense of the music as an auditory representation of time’s onward march. There are no drops or euphoric breakdowns to serve as landmarks, the scenery gradually changes, like an urban landscape seen from a moving train – an element will be introduced and another removed imperceptibly – and suddenly you are somewhere else. This journey has no end though – just like time – it is simply the ongoing sensation of repetition and change. Far out, man. Also it’s fucking banging.
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