Standout albums and EPs from another highly varied year in local music. | By Emili Earhart, Scott Gordon, Grant Phipps, and Henry Solo
The music people create here in Madison shifts constantly, never letting one genre or scene dominate our attention spans for very long. As a result, this year-end exercise always creates a lot of a surprises, even—no, especially—to those of us at Tone Madison who try to look back and suss out which recordings we felt were most compelling and memorable. The top 20 list that follows isn’t ranked, but represents a process we fussed over a lot, and yes, a few sacrifices and tough decisions. Some of these releases we’ve already talked about a whole lot over the course of 2018. Some of them we’re covering for the first time here—which says something about the challenge of doing justice to the many corners of the local music community.
We’ll be following up this week and next with more notes on the memorable Madison music—including honorable mentions and some of our favorite singles—and other cultural events of 2018. And don’t forget to join us for our best of 2018 listening party on Saturday, December 15 at BarleyPop.
Synovia Alexis, Signature (self-released)
On her debut EP, UW-Madison senior Synovia Alexis offers plenty of evidence that she could conquer any part of the rap/R&B spectrum. Across Signature, Alexis displays her knacks for both creating soul-stirring melodies and firing out quickly-cadenced verses. On the R&B-focused half of the record, “Stick By You” stands out as the most prominent example of her range. Over a slick snare pattern, dreamy guitar riff and layers of vocal harmonization, Alexis sings beautifully about the pains of undefined relationships. Her lyric writing bridges the literal with the metaphoric in striking ways, especially when she pens “God only knows that I’m not the one to judge / I am not a saint / All my glass is stained / I’m unclean unclean.” Across those same lines, Alexis also sings each word so that it cascade into the next, delivering her lines in the most devastating possible way. This skill is the bridge between the release’s first half and the latter part, which places more emphasis on rapping.
On the title track, Alexis drops the romantic notions and proceeds to spit hellfire over a simple, buoyant trap production. Switching cadences frequently, Alexis delivers lines like, “I’m a doll with the lights still on / I stopped running up all these features just to put y’all on / I stopped hanging around these leeches just to have me some / Hope lil’ mama don’t catch you peeping because a bitch want some” In a drawn-out Atlantan style, before immediately jumping back to the song’s quick, staccato hook. Signature proves Alexis’ versatility. What’s left to see, then, is what she’ll pull off now that there’s no need to prove it. —Henry Solo
Asumaya, Omniphobic (So Say We All Records)
In an earnest attempt to tap into our present cultural anxieties and the anti-45 resistance, Luke Bassuener returns under his Asumaya moniker with Omniphobic, which not only features his densest lyrics yet, but also his tensest sonic amalgams of poppy polyrhythms and moody post-punk. Similar to fellow Madison electronic musician Chants, who also absorbs acoustic instruments into his live and studio setups, Bassuener functions as a one-man band, effectively utilizing a looping pedal to construct his compositions with pithy vocalizations, synthetic beats, drumset, electric bass guitar, thumb piano (mbira), and idiophones.
The intuitive, creative layering of acoustic and synthetic percussion sources and styles on the record’s initial single, “Outsider,” is not altogether removed from the vibe that avant-hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces harness on Black Up, specifically the bridge and outro of “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum.” This is further reinforced on the booming programmed beat of the atmospheric opener, “If History Has A Direction,” which finds Bassuener oscillating his melodic, staccato voice between a recurring line of spoken word about how “all of our slogans have footnotes,” an empathetic suggestion about the untold stories of the oppressed and marginalized. Other standouts, like “There is A Line,” work with the bareness of thumb piano, which is looped backwards upon itself with synthetic bass drum, alluding to the production qualities of Björk’s trip-hop or Dirty Projectors’ Getty Address . The song’s steadily compelling, unpredictable transitions allow Bassuener to give further dimension to his verses in discussion of national borders with a sampled musical triangle pattern that recalls the hi-hat triplets of trap, sparse bass notes, and marching snares. “Piñata Party Platform” takes the concept and lambasting of political intolerance one step further, leaning into a more post-punk aesthetic in a cumulative recollection of Young Liars-era TV On The Radio with fuzzed bass groove and soulfully inflamed melody. –Grant Phipps
Michael Brenneis, Plutonium (self-released)
Jazz drummer Michael Brenneis (The New Breed, Major Vistas, Active Percussion Duo, and quite a few other projects) had a banner 2018, launching a series of one-off improvised duo recordings called Deeds And Endeavors, then capping the year off with Plutonium, a more through-composed album recorded with an octet. Across seven pieces, Brenneis expresses his ambitions through an interplay of sprawling, teetering lines from a six-piece horn section: Tony Barba (clarinet, soprano sax, tenor sax), Jonathan Greenstein (tenor sax), Greg Smith (clarinet, baritone sax), Paul Dietrich (trumpet), Mark Hetzler (trombone), and David Spies (tuba). The opening track, “Platoon Or Peloton,” lets the listener know that things are going to get chaotic at times, and stranger still, it’s just about always going to cohere into propulsive, tuneful statements.
Brenneis and bassist John Christensen (who had his own admirable moments this year as a composer and bandleader—see below) are seldom front and center on Plutonium, perhaps by necessity. Listen close, though, and the rhythm section does careful work guiding the octet through the nearly 18-minute “Titans”—a piece that would have been a rewarding accomplishment on its own, as Isthmus‘ Allison Geyer recently pointed out. On “Plastic Revenge,” Christensen’s sinuous bass line makes a nice low-end counterpoint to the more staccato interjections of Spies’ tuba. At times the octet edges closer to the scratchy free-jazz territory that seems to be Brenneis’ comfort zone, especially on the intro to “Coal Wars.” But even this piece expands into intricate horn harmonies and slowly unfurling themes. This is jazz that plays the long game, and all the musicians here sound comfortable in a nether region between abstraction and conversational melody. —Scott Gordon
John Christensen, Dear Friend (Shifting Paradigm Records)
Jazz bassist John Christensen’s first proper album as a composer and bandleader captures, above all, the patience and the ear for warm, expansive sound that Christensen has developed in 20 years of busy collaboration here in Madison (and a late-’90s stint in the Bay Area before that). On Dear Friend‘s opening/title track, and other highlights including “Something Said In Passing” and “Smells Are Awesome,” Christensen starts with melodic foundations that feel deceptively simple, but that offer Christensen, pianist Johannes Wallmann, guitarist Dave Miller, and drummer Andrew Green myriad possibilities for playing off each other.
It’s clear from Christensen’s work with other Madison jazz standouts, including the saxophonist Anders Svanoe, that he’s comfortable with raucous improvisation and busy exchanges. On Dear Friend, Christensen’s quartet instead heads out in search of delicate shadings—Miller’s slow build of flickering notes on “Something Said In Passing,” Christensen’s gently insistent bass theme on “Slate Icicles On Trees,” and the conversational glide of Wallmann’s piano solo on “Dear Friend.” Even the more agitated passages on “Spooky Action At A Distance” don’t quite shatter the reflective mood the album creates at its outset. “Prairie Grass Suite” packs the most complexity into this relatively quiet space, in terms of both the composition itself and the quartet’s performance. In fact, Dear Friend is alive with ideas throughout. It’s just that Christensen and his collaborators know how to take their time while still maintaining a little tension. That approach, paired with Christenson’s warm and spacious production, gives this record an enveloping mix of power and calm. —Scott Gordon
Dequadray, Antares (self-released)
Atlanta native and UW-Madison First Wave scholar Dequadray White issued two fully realized releases in 2018, the album Dequadray! A Black Sitcom and, later, the Antares EP. Both find the songwriter/singer/rapper engaging in plenty of brutal introspection and setting it to luxurious, funky melodies big enough to encapsulate the bitter with the sweet. I can’t seem to stop re-listening to either, but the seven tracks on Antares capture a decisive step forward, digging in deeper on White’s complex vision and wrapping it even more tightly around an effusive R&B foundation. He’s writing unstoppable choruses here, particularly on the slinky, melancholy “Aether” and the harmony-stacked “Proof.” In between, White is often sifting through the ups and downs of queerness and romance: “Everyone I gave my heart to had a field day / Like just yesterday, a nigga cut me on his birthday / See I’m never getting paid for that emotional labor / When I leave the house, I’m dipped in flavor,” he sings on “Proof.”
While there’s heartache and anxiety on the surface, the bigger theme of Antares is resilience. Collaborating with a different producer on each track, White always manages to put his own melodic and vocal stamp front and center. Sometimes it’s subdued, as on the verses of “Icky Vicky,” and sometimes he works in a multitude of vocal registers and production treatments, as on the closer “Fling,” whose many experiments in harmony and modulation don’t obscure the rich and empathetic core of White’s singing. Throughout these songs, White sounds as if he’s both in the midst of some rough emotional moments and getting some distance from them, pulling back enough to find some humor and an ever stronger sense of self. —Scott Gordon
Drug Spider, The Square Root Of Negative Zero (self-released)
The Square Root Of Negative Zero is a live recording that sounds a little cavernous, and that suits the bleak music and playfully enigmatic public persona Drug Spider has contributed during its first couple of years playing live in Madison. While the instrumental quintet is still working on its first proper studio release, this was captured nicely enough off the board at the High Noon Saloon on a Monday night in February, where the audience included one dude who thought it appropriate to make a loud hooting noise during the delicate conclusion of the last song, “The Mysterious Light Outside My Window.” But there’s no self-seriousness atmosphere to puncture here, just a band that’s comfortable being a bit of an anachronism.
Drug Spider draws on the delay-soaked grandeur of post-rock bands like Explosions In The Sky, then reconciles all that with a more succinct and gritty approach. The balance is especially deft on “Dying Of Hunger, Never Of Thirst,” which builds up eerie, atmospheric passages and brings things down to earth with a punchy, economical riff. On “XOFM,” the band builds from a gently swaying rhythm into a more tense and lively one, then dials it back again, leaving space for a few sharp synth lines to beam through the guitars. The band creates a strange sense of cheer on “Clarendon #42” and a searing, almost spaghetti-Western refrain on “Dreams That Weigh You, Release You,” and between the big crescendos it’s always working its way into uncertain, uncanny emotional spaces. —Scott Gordon
Gender Confetti, Queers Of Joy (self-released)
Gender Confetti, the duo of guitarist-vocalist Sylvia Johnson (Midas Bison, DJ Hitachii) and drummer-vocalist Elyse Clouthier (Clean Room, Lurk Hards), proved among the most refreshing and vital bands in a year full of good punk-rock in Madison. The seven songs on Queers Of Joy reflect on queer and especially trans experiences, with an approach as vulnerable as it is defiant. On “Deviant,” Clouthier and Johnson directly confront the people who least want to hear what they’re about: “I’m a gender deviant and I won’t apologize / I’m a filthy miscreant, according to your lies / Putting our makeup on in the dark / No you don’t see us as we are.” The two deliver these words in a sing-song melody, taunting the song’s targets with the simple fact of the band’s exuberance and refusal to be erased.
While the EP starts with a grimy blast of anarchic punk built for shout-alongs in “Wildflower Drive,” Gender Confetti shows just as much interest here in exploring quiet spaces with a tinge of apprehension—evoking those uneasy feelings people sometime have to overcome on the way to, well, joy. “Flamingo,” “Rainbow,” and “Prism” use clean-toned electric guitars and delay to create a rippling post-punk atmosphere and accompany lyrics about friendship, diversity, and the long political fights ahead for the queer community and its allies. “Gay Mirror” offers a pep talk of sorts for people feeling worn-out or doubtful: “If you feel alone, it’s OK / We are here, your gay mirror.” Gender Confetti make direct and cathartic music, as anyone who’s seen the duo live can attest. But in its concise way, Queers Of Joy also captures the complexity of queer struggles. —Scott Gordon
Gentle Brontosaurus, Bees Of The Invisible
Paleontologically themed twee-pop outfit Gentle Brontosaurus has grown not only in popularity since it dropped its debut record (and special monogrammed toast!) in late 2015, but also in its songwriting powers. The band also weathered a few lineup changes in the process of recording the follow-up, Bees Of The Invisible, which nods to an inspirational quote about human resolve from poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Most audibly, the jangly guitar playing of Cal Lamore is a perfect pairing with the sunny strumming of lead vocalist and songwriter Huan-Hua Chye’s ukulele. If Chye’s pillowy singing is reminiscent of Beat Happening’s Heather Lewis, Lamore’s catchy rhythmic chords evoke the quintessential Johnny Marr. Lamore even indulges in a bit of ’60s surf rock on the warm, upbeat vibes of “Wicker Park,” about apartment living, and the bittersweet verses of “Pull The Van Around,” a sobering reflection on aiding a flighty friend.
Bees Of The Invisible also boasts more vocal contributions from keyboardist/trumpeter Nick Davies on the aforementioned as well as “track1.mp3,” where his tenderly inviting timbre, paired with wordless background harmonies from bassist Anneliese Valdes, guide listeners through the adorably minor predicament of deciphering an unnamed song on a playlist. In general, the lyricism exudes an observant literary whimsy that touches upon everything from character foibles (“Jerkface”), the B-movie life of an actor (“The 8th Degree Of Kevin Bacon”), to more somber, serious subjects on the ode to 20th century anarchist-activist Emma Goldman (“For Emma”), to current realities of global warming (“The World’s On Fire”). While “A Shot” may not be as perspicacious and personal, it’s one of the most exciting tunes on the record. Chye’s descriptive lyrical superimpositions effortlessly sync with marching keyboard-piano line and Paul Marcou’s bongo playing. On a record that so boldly emphasizes silvery tones, the outro’s ascending instrumentation with dissonant trumpet is strangely arresting. —Grant Phipps
Knowsthetime, Summer’s End (self-released)
Producer Ian Carroll, aka knowsthetime, has spent the past few years going back and forth between Madison and Milwaukee, quietly experimenting with ambient music and many different production workflows, and working as an essential collaborator for young hip-hop artists in town. His beat tape Summer’s End is a solitary instrumental affair for all but one track, and it’s an attempt to reconnect with a stripped-down, sample-based approach to beatmaking. What he ends up with is a sequence of mostly short pieces, each of which successfully immerse the listener in an unabashed nostalgia for 1990s hip-hop production. The release also has an unmistakable thread of sadness: It was partially inspired by the 2017 death of legendary Mobb Deep MC Prodigy.
On “Onlyone,” Carroll relaxes into whirling hooks and stuttering, gritty snares. “Boys Of Summer” starts with a dialogue clip of Snoop shopping for a nail gun on The Wire, then loops together a flickering piano and a droning string note. “R&C” brings the tape’s analog crackle to its peak, with hints of Carroll’s forays into ambient territory. Each of these beats is a fully realized little world of its own, though Carroll also intended for anyone to rap over the tracks free of charge. Taken together, they make for a ruggedly contemplative journey through economical drum patterns, catchy fragments of vocal samples, warm piano chords, and the occasional whirring synth line. Summer’s End lets the listener drift a bit, repurposing classic hip-hop elements into its own emotionally conflicted language. —Scott Gordon
Louise Bock, Repetitives In Illocality (Feeding Tube Records)
Taralie Peterson has developed a sound unmistakably and consistently her own. Whether playing in Spires That In The Sunset Rise, leading various incarnations of a live drone orchestra, or solo as Louise Bock (formerly Tar Pet), the multi-instrumentalist displays an inventive, distinguished musicianship. On Repetitives In Illocality, Peterson presents a composed chaos braided within a cavernous space. Every sound is heard, organized, and intertwined to interact in new patterns. Not only the drones created by Peterson’s lap harp, but the singular plucks and mutes of the strings, have their place in “Clue Woman.” The elements of Peterson’s voice expand beyond vocalization and glossolalia, and employ breath and alienated splices in full expression. Each attack of the bow to the cello, and the accentuated journey to the final release, has a purpose on “Incandescent Misspelled Word” and in “The Leaf Cutter And The Stick Bug.” The mechanics her the saxophone in “Free But Theheartistwisted,” the innocent, meandering lines she realizes, and the trails of delay she employs fills that space in a powerful delicacy.
But Repetitives In Illocality is far from pedantic, and so is Peterson, whether on recordings or in live performance. She employs focused intention, but one centered within something seemingly much greater than a song, improvisation, record, or live set. There is mystery—spiritual, perhaps—something personless in some way, but a wholeness as well. Repetitives In Illocality is a display of both disorientation and understanding. It is a record for both the deep listener and the staggering explorer. —Emili Earhart
Mori Mente, Comparison (The Thief Of Joy) (self-released)
Mori Mente has developed a mysterious presence in Madison that might come off as low-key modesty, but the music itself has a grandiose vision. The project of multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Courtney Jarman, Mori Mente presents an exquisite display of synthesizer textures, entrancing harmonies, and picturesque moodiness on the Comparison (The Thief Of Joy) EP. On “The Dark Prince,” Jarman sings in her trademark ethereal voice about decadent delights and treats, over mischievous synth and guitar accompaniment. But she commandingly corrects that dreamy daintiness over a thudding bass synth and drum march, calling out the seemingly alluring “dark prince” as an alluring con. The following track, “Serenade,” is a surfy guitar number, on which Jarman employs sinister organ support. At the end of the track, she introduces a spaced-out Rhodes color that weaves the track into a dreamscape. “Black Lodge” picks up from where “Serenade” left off, but quickly turns that dream into some kind of nightmare (one appropriately Lynchian).
The final track, “Golden Arrow,” takes the dream in a different direction entirely. The listener is now side-scrolling through a fantasy land, or perhaps watching themselves on a screen. Jarman introduces flashes of new characters, obstacles, and climates that are pleasantly trivial but sonically intricate. At the end of this synth- and drum machine-based track, Jarman jolts you back to reality. As your thoughts materialize, you recall that “dark prince,” his deceptive indulgences, the dream, and the nightmare. —Emili Earhart
No Hoax, Black Out Tapes (No Coast Records)
One of several standout local punk records released this year, No Hoax’s Black Out Tapes is a singular representation of brazen, expressive hardcore. While the four-piece holds a consistent energy throughout the record, they escape the tendency to pigeonhole themselves in one subgenre of punk. Each song stands alone from the next, several of which fasten in and stick with you. The record begins with “Date With Death,” a song that proves itself deceptively hooky, as one might remember the tune of the final words, “until the end of time,” a phrase vocalist Rachel Catherine Kent powerfully wails.
The band’s self-titled track also yields a sinfully catchy quality. Anthony Moraga villainously creeps in with a bass line that complements the lyrics Kent bellows here: “Hate is real / It’s what I feel, / What I feel for you.” The distinctively slower tempo of “No Hoax” proves the band’s flexibility in forcefulness within the sphere of punk, and serves the song well in a crooked, mischievous darkness. No Hoax pulls from a more straightforward hardcore vein on “Hyenas,” but Tyler Spatz’s guitar lines twist the song in yet a darker direction, reflected by Kent’s final, punishing line, “I cast a shadow, I am unseen / I can’t control it, and the last thing you’ll hear is your own scream.”
The final track, a cover of “When I’m Alone” by Twisted Nerve, is a satisfying close to the record, and highlights the various shades of Kent’s powerful voice that reveal themselves at certain points throughout the record. An expressive Siouxsie-like color pops out as Kent trails up and off of her words at the end of phrases. And a soulfulness, almost that of Glenn Danzig, exposes itself ever so slightly, making one want to return to the top of the album to pick up on those nuances. —Emili Earhart
No Question, self-titled (Kitschy Spirit/Give Praise/Night Animal)
No Question’s first EP comprises 10 tracks of relentless hardcore, drawing on the primordial thrashings of early 1980s bands like Negative Approach (who played the High Noon in June, with No Question opening) while pointing toward the even more extreme sonic mangling of grindcore. No song here passes the two-minute mark, vocalist Lauden Nute turns every lyric into a caustic retch, and the band is constantly awash in bristling, comfortless distortion. The band wrings so much intensity from this 12-minute release by switching among a few hard-and-fast rhythmic approaches.
“Situational Force” sports a classic almost-tripping-over-itself attack from drummer Anders Totten, but the band can also introduce lurching and swinging elements into its music, often switching up mid-song to create a push-pull of different tempos and phrasings. “Raised Nothing” begins with a furious sprint, slams almost to a stop, and then gradually builds itself back up from a slower tempo (well, gradually for a song that clocks in at one minute and 20 seconds). The band starts “Spread Thin” with a menacing swagger before charging back into the stuff of circle-pit frenzy. Throughout the record, Zack Stafford’s guitar and Nick Sites’ bass have all the warmth and pliability of salvaged rebar. It’s all just simple enough and just varied enough to make No Question a compulsively replayable record. The band has gone through some lineup changes since recording this, but heads into 2019 sounding strong, with members including recently added bassist Maggie Denman (Once A Month, Proud Parents, According To What). May the punishment continue. —Scott Gordon
Noxroy, Protomontage (Kolo)
Multi-instrumentalist and producer Andrew Fitzpatrick (Cap Alan, All Tiny Creatures, Bon Iver) is deeply immersed in the world of electronic sound, and switches between different approaches and configurations with singular ease. Software, banks of modular synthesizers, heavily processed electric guitar, step sequencers—it all flows together in Fitzpatrick’s live and recorded work as Noxroy, and listeners never have to settle for one synth patch or mode of composition for long. Yes, he can stay still and patiently tease out an idea when he chooses, as captured on the 2012 album Cotelydon Observatory. He illustrates a whole different set of strengths on Protomontage, his first full-length since 2014’s Anverloss, which finds Noxroy spiraling through textures and structures across two 15-minute tracks.
The first, “Turnaround Mesa Coats,” begins with fizzing ambience and notes that function more like suspended particles than components of melody, but through a series of dissolves and jump-cuts, Fitzpatrick quickly moves far away from where he started. The synths here bunch up into harsh percussive passages, stretch out into wheezy explorations of rhythm and pitch, occasionally converge into mechanical rhythms, offer slow-swelling arcs of unlikely comfort. A strange calm sets in over the last third or so of “Turnaround Mesa Coats.” How did we get here? It feels completely irrational, but not wrong. The second track, “Hi Jose Shelter,” gets a bit more abrasive and jarring, yet still manages to pack in just as much surprise. The depth and versatility Noxroy displays here keep the listener at once completely off-balance and thoroughly absorbed. —Scott Gordon
Ruin Dweller, Cryptic Ruin (self-released)
Members of a few standout heavy outfits—including Dosmalés and Jex Thoth—formed Ruin Dweller to explore the filthiest, crustiest reaches of death metal. The band’s debut EP, Cryptic Ruin, grasps the rhythm and friction at the core of this genre, especially on the thrashing verses of “Dimensional Slaughter” and the harsh but lyrical bridge of “Into The Chasms Of Cathedralic Flesh.” Still, Ruin Dweller isn’t rigidly confined in its songwriting or execution: “Blodørn” starts with tremolo-picked guitar harmonies that call out to the more melodic corners of heavy music, and “Ruin Dweller” uses a quiet, clean-toned intro to build up suspense.
The band bookends the six-song EP with two instrumentals that take a more expansive approach. On “Cryptic Ruin” and “Awakening,” Ruin Dweller vocalist/guitarist Sam Shinners switches over to the horror-soundtrack synthesizers he employs in his solo project Red Museum, as drummer Nick Stix provides an ominous, martial beat and, on the latter track, guitarist David Uttal-Veroff slowly builds up mournful leads. These tracks offer a chance to take a breath and contemplate what’s at the core of the EP—jackhammering riffs that lock into the drums, slavering screamed vocals, guitar solos that spiral into liquid virtuosity, and Brooks Jewell’s thick, grimy bass. It’s metal that drags the listener through a dark place, adding just enough frills to heighten the drama. —Scott Gordon
Seasaw, Big Dogs (self-released)
On the follow-up to 2016’s Too Much Of A Good Thing, the duo Seasaw took a big step forward in both songwriting and chemistry. The title and substance of Big Dogs, members Meg Golz and Eve Wilczewski have said, originated from an altercation with a boorish male in the music scene. Across the record, Golz and Wilczewski respond to not just this “big dog” in particular, but the entire big-dog culture that creates rude barkers like him.
In answering to the so-called big dogs of the world, Golz and Wilczewski center, quite fittingly, their greatest talents as musical collaborators—their vocals. Instead of the production quirkiness found across much of Too Much, the pair mostly settles on a punchy rock nucleus—one that is both to the point and also allows their lyricism and tag-team singing to take center stage. That approach is in full effect on the album’s first single, “God(zilla).” Over alternately minimal and loud guitar riffs, Golz and Wilczewski build themselves and each other up in the face of various struggles through both solo and harmonized singing. On “No Way,” they take this approach a step further along with a genre side-step. Over a power-pop synth pattern, the pair sing alternatingly solo, in unison, and in harmony about the frustrations of a teased, yet ultimately unreciprocated, love.
Golz and Wilczewski have always been gifted vocalists and share a knack for knowing when one should take the lead and when they should combine for hooks or brief moments. Here, without the bells and whistles of their last records, this vocal dynamic shines through and with it Golz and Wilczewski’s confidence as songwriters. On Big Dogs, listeners get to see two artists who’ve come into their own. The result is a purer, more substantive record that offers a whole new perspective on Seasaw. —Henry Solo
Solid Freex, Peeled Guest (self-released)
Solid Freex write new songs and fly through ideas so quickly that the trio’s first album, Peeled Guest, can only capture so much. (The band has already finished a second LP, due out in early 2019.) Drummer Steve Coombs and two of his sons, guitarist Josh Coombs-Broekema, and bassist Evan Coombs-Broekema, join up in group shouts and wiggy call-and-response antics as they work through all manner of ways to chop up elements of noise-rock, post-punk, and hardcore into joyously jagged configurations. Opener “Not About You” starts things off in fairly straightforward punk territory, but pretty soon the band is wriggling through the deconstructed rhythms and fragmented guitar figures of “Vibesakeeper,” the raw thrash of “Locked Out,” the twisted guitar scrawl of “Cold Electric Light.” And more often than not, the band is able to find a catchy route through the chaos—especially when riding the punchy bass figures of “Rabit Die Form,” which also swerves into noisy meltdowns and screamed choruses.
It helps that drummer/dad Steve Coombs has spent decades playing mangled post-punk in projects including Xerobot and Trin Tran, but the younger two (Evan is 17 and Josh is 20) are the real revelation here, skillfully navigating breakneck variations in style and dynamics. Josh Coombs-Broekema is right at home swerving between solid rhythm-guitar figures and stabs of unbridled noise on songs like “People” and “Teenage Evil,” and Evan Coombs-Broekema injects warmth and swing into even the album’s most abrasive moments. Peeled Guest is the work of a band as capable as it is deeply odd. —Scott Gordon
Gregory Taylor, Randstad (Palace of Lights)
A deft synth/software manipulator and radio DJ who’s spent decades contributing to various facets of experimental music, Gregory Taylor has spent much of the last decade on collaborative projects and moved away from solo recordings. That changed with Randstad, an album that grew from a distinct kind of solitary experience. The six ambient pieces here use field recordings from a year Taylor spent in the Netherlands, often exploring that country’s densest urban areas by himself. In addition to that, Taylor used only the gear he was able to pack for the trip—a laptop and a couple of compact synth modules. He ended up with music that captures a sense of internalized wonder, a calm amid the stimulation of bustling cities.
Taylor also illustrates that music can be abstract and warm at the same time, especially with the gentle pulses of “Gebedsmolens (Voorschoten)” and the skittering arpeggios of “Verlicht Door Optimisme (Illuminated by Optimism ).” On “Ingebeelde Anaphora (Imagined Anaphora),” he spends a few minutes quietly stacking up percussive, rustling sounds before threading in more tuneful synth lines, only to cleverly steer himself into something that sounds like an inverted techno track. The opening track, “Naar Kijkduin per Monorail (To Kijkduin By Monorail),” constructs a bit of fantasy from what was actually a bus trip, using the static of the field recording as a bed for fragmentary synth notes that come into brief, shimmering harmonic contact with one another. It creates a sort of soft glow that lasts for nearly the entire record. Taylor doesn’t like to draw a lot of attention to himself as a solo artist, but on Randstad he sounds pretty happy that circumstances forced him to narrow down his approach. —Scott Gordon
Vanishing Kids, Heavy Dreamer (Svart Records)
Vanishing Kids has embraced myriad shades of post-punk, goth-rock, and metal (and a few different lineups) since forming in 2000, but the band’s latest full-length delivers its most massive sound yet. This four-piece incarnation of Vanishing Kids creates a special universe on Heavy Dreamer—a universe painted vividly with billows of kaleidoscopic organ swells and ornately articulated guitar lines. The rhythm section—bassist Jerry Sofran and drummer Hart Allan Miller—create a thick, doom-y haze around the glammy psychedelic tendencies of vocalist/keyboardist Nikki Drohomyreky and guitarist Jason Hartman.
Opening track “Creation” begins with a short exchange of mirroring guitar dialogue, and abruptly disintegrates into a mass of bass and distortion. Once the drums kick the song into motion, glittering organ frequencies expand this deceptively dark world into a vast range of personable sonic textures. Hartman reins in the verse with a riff that sets up a common characteristic of the record: Heavily embedded in a lower register, yet reaching upward, bending to draw in the psychedelic mysteries suggested by the organ and synthesizers. Drohomyreky’s lyrics reflect just that––”I will wait forever to find the answer.” The chorus kicks in with “eyes open”––a glimpse at illumination––but shortly thereafter, the whole group breaks down into a dreamstate, phasing and swirling in the comforting confines of the rhythmic framework. Again, with “eyes open,” the band reforms its shape at the chorus, but quickly blasts off in shredding ascension.
The sonic story continues to twist and turn throughout the record. Between the enigmatic lyrics and interchanges of songful guitar lines that weave through blankets of synth, such as in the closing track, “Magnetic Magenta Blue,” Vanishing Kids have created a mysterious yet intimate fantasy. —Emili Earhart
William Z. Villain, Stonedigger (Les Editions Miliani)
Since publicly unveiling a tour cassette in 2014 and seven self-produced songs in late 2015, the wily William Z. Villain (the stage name of Benjamin Bill) has achieved an enviable level of international recognition for his songwriting that puts an art-song twist on American roots music and indigenous Eastern European folk (Balkan, Romani). The latter Bandcamp release garnered the attention of Parisian label Normandeep Blues Records, and, last year, Mr. Villain partly re-recorded and issued his offbeat, falsetto- and resonator guitar-heavy self-titled album that originally “began with some crickets” in its subversively ambient field-recordings.
As the Villain character himself reveals on a new self-aware meditation, “Uncle Bill Goes Hi-Fi,” Stonedigger is the sound of his roguish earworms embracing high fidelity through the studio. Yet the album’s sequencing also retains the integrity and panache of his original concept with a few unrefined demo-like interludes that were laid down on a micro-cassette recorder. Collectively, they offer a singular insight into the artistic process that would otherwise be lost on a more controlled experiment. What’s further revealing about these pieces is Bill’s adherence to innovation and integrity of tradition, as he performs the preludes to “Paper Trail” and “Stonedigger” on a custom-made three-string lute comparable to the Turkish bağlama or Iranian saz.
“Under Every Sphere” stands as a sterling example of Bill faithfully evolving his earlier penchant for layering found sounds, like katydids and an airplane, with hand percussion and an irresistibly funky bass guitar groove. Here, he additionally riffs on the chorus of “Her Song,” adapting and enveloping it into this song’s melodic progression. At the bridge, local poet Benjamin Pierce makes a guest appearance, building upon the indictment of global right-wing antipathy in several stanzas of socially conscious spoken word. More surprising, even, are Stonedigger‘s covers, like Cecil Gant’s blues piano ballad “I Wonder,” which reveal the richness of Bill’s roots and sensibility. —Grant Phipps