16/02/20 This week I have been mostly listening to

…And you will know us the trail of dead – X: The Godless Void and Other Stories (2020). After repeated listens, this is really starting to click with me now. Although this is a heavy album, Trail of Dead have no doubt mellowed, and matured, and their tenth album finds them in a world weary mood, reflecting on their 20 year career. Something Like This has Conrad Keeley singing “But I think those words went something like this, And I’m sure the chords went something like this, I don’t know if I can sing them like I did before, Or if I can feel them anymore” – which sounds like someone picking up their guitar and playing the old songs, aware they’re not the person they were when they wrote them.

Most of these tracks are nothing less than solid, well-written rock/pop songs. Though Trail of Dead don’t conjure up quite as much of a deafening symphonic racket as their early days, there is still the sense of everything and the kitchen sink getting caught up in the rushing crescendos and ensuing wave of sound that flows over you. ‘The Opening Crescendo’ is just as advertised, with a sampled voice repeating the band’s name in the trademark fashion. All who wander is a flat out rocker. Children of the Sky puts me in mind of something penned by none other than Noel Gallagher, which is not a reference you expect in relation to Trail of Dead. It’s something in the feeling of world-weary/wise melancholy in the vocals, rising to an anthemic, lighters-in-the-air head-bobber. 

There are a few glimpses of the rabid, spittle-flecked punk-rock thrashers of their earlier albums – I can picture Into the Godless Void (the track) sparking some moshpit action, but this is immediately followed by the much more radio-friendly (and brilliant) Don’t Look Down – another song that seems to be tackling the subject of growing up, growing old and coming to terms with what’s lost in the process, “I have another set of eyes, I use to disguise the part of me that’s died, I have another set of lies, I use to describe the part that’s still alive.” 

Into the Godless Void doesn’t have a Perfect Teenhood, a track which literally sounds like a studio’s worth of equipment being destroyed, or anything instilled with as much rage, desperation and sheer carnage as Totally Natural – but what it loses in frenzied rage, it makes up for in wisdom, translated into emotional, mature songs.

Eight Frozen Modules – Random activities and broken sunsets (2001). I’ve always rated Kenneth Gibson very highly as a production wizard, and felt he never seemed to get the appreciation he deserved. I had various 8FM tracks downloaded and burned on CDr, right back in 6th form days when I was first diving into this kind of music. I notice now he’s released albums under his own name on Kompakt, as well as many other aliases, plus I think he is a member of a band too, so maybe he is getting his due after all. However, The Eight Frozen Modules name is never going to be recognised outside of very specific ‘IDM’ circles. His productions are by and large very dense, detailed, hectic and complex but retain a sense of fun and mischief, which prevents him falling into the overly cerebral and impressive-for-the-sake-of-it camp of Richard Devine et al. Most of his tracks are short, and even though the rhythms and structures are highly unorthodox, and the sounds synthetic, there is nearly always a distinctive, not melody as such, but a riff or refrain to hold onto. Rather than pure computer fuckery it tends to sound like rave music which is just very twisted. Each of his albums as 8FM (I can’t speak for Clinically Yours, which I haven’t heard) is generally in this style with slight differences between them. At points, Random Activities is a mutant variation on minimal click-house, which was very big at this time (think Kit Clayton, Geoff White, Sutek, etc) see for example, Invisible Choir Boy and [Scientology] Changed my Life. Elsewhere crunchy percussion, eerie atmospheres and fizzing spluttering snaps, crackles and pops abound.

Loraine James – For you and I (2019). I’ve really rediscovered my love of listening to contemporary music. And once you realise how much good stuff is out there, being constantly released, it’s hard to stop digging. This album takes in grime, future garage, jungle and the various sounds of urban music in 2019 as well as glitched out breakbeats and flighty ambience, that for all the world sound like something that could’ve come out on Tigerbeat6 around the turn of the century (and I mean that as no bad thing). Loraine James is a young, gay, female producer (making music in genres typically dominated by men). The album cover shows a photo of the tower blocks of the Alma Estate in Enfield (where James grew up); the fourth block has since been demolished and the photo is held in front of the view of the estate now, showing where the missing block used to be.

Loraine James – For you and I (2019 Hyperdub)

Themes of personal identity, belonging and finding one’s place in a shifting environment emerge throughout this album. Under a barrage of processed breakbeats and digitised chorus of oohs and ahhs, a muted dislocated voice on So Scared repeats the phrase ‘you’re over there, you’re fucking scared’, each time coming from a slightly different location as if the speaker keeps finding a new place to hide. I’ve only played this a few times and will be playing it a lot more, but current high point for me is Sensual, which again features stop-start glitchy percussion underneath beautiful female vocals and blurry piano – more relaxing than sexy, as the title might suggest. Again, sounds like something off a Mille Plateaux compilation (but fresher) and with a North London edge.

Plaid – Polymer (2019). Plaid are by all accounts, esteemed members the pantheon of electronic music (I’m not gonna say IDM pantheon, but if you will) and they were certainly one of my early favourites back in the golden age of 2000-2002. Their early three-album-run of Not for Threes, Rest Proof Clockwork and Double Figure were absolute staples of my collection through university and beyond but apart from the odd halfhearted attempt here and there, I really failed to keep up with them since Spokes. However, I have seen them live a handful of times in the last decade or so, and apart from one gig where they played with a Gamelan Orchestra, they’re consistently quality. So ahead of going to see them at the South Bank Centre in a few weeks, it seemed appropriate to check out their latest album. 

Plaid always occupied a funny niche in my mental musical map: not as idiosyncratic as Aphex, not as singular as Boards of Canada, not as distinctive as Squarepusher, they just consistently make very pleasant, melodic, electronica. Accessible without being derivative and interesting without being mind-bending. I suppose I saw them as the journeymen of electronica. But listening to Polymer repeatedly (and re-familiarising myself with their discography) has led me to reconsider that position as slightly unfair. Plaid are excellent, and although they do have an individual sound (some tracks on Polymer sound so Plaid) they can also seemingly turn their hands to any style and conjure magic out of an endless array of instruments (synthesised or otherwise). No wonder they are in such huge demand as film-soundtrackers, remixers and producers.

What caught my ear first on this album were some of the most ‘banging’ tracks I’ve heard from Plaid, opener Meds Fade sounds like dirty industrial electro, with it’s malevolent crackling synth and rubbery percussion, next up on Los, a two-note pattern zig-zags back and forth over a bass synth that sounds like someone shaping balloon animals out of some kind of writhing pulsating substance – reminiscent of the artificial material the album is named after. Elsewhere, as I said, this is ‘classic Plaid’ – they summon up bands of steel drum players, flamenco guitarists, organists, you name it, in service of their pristine, bright, detailed compositions. Now I’ll have to spend some time filling in the gaps in their back catalogue.

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