Top albums of 2015 advent calendar: Day 12
Slightly cheating again today since I've written about both of these albums at length so recently I've decided to re-use those reviews for my blurbs.
Arca - Mutant
Speaking of her time spent collaborating with Alejandro Ghersi (Arca) on her most recent album, Björk said "He knew my songs better than me... He was like a library of my music." That Arca has this kind of encyclopaedic musical capability will not surprise anyone who has heard his own music, wherein he slams together genres, palettes and instruments into something unique. He has claimed that his second album, Mutant, is "a lot more social" than his debut, but upon listening to it "social" isn't the word I'd use, I'd say "outspoken," as it is an album that demands attention. Arca has taken his exhaustive knowledge of the back catalogues of his heroes like Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails and Björk, cut them into fragments and redistributed them on his own spectrum to create something truly engulfing and unrestrained.
The first sounds on Mutant are not particularly welcoming; frenetic synths welcome you into Arca's world as a shuttle blasting through its fiery atmosphere at high velocity, whilst being bathed in the most golden light you've ever seen. Landing on an alien planet might seem like a trite metaphor, but with Arca it's hard not to see a whole dense reality within the sounds. He makes no attempt to make you feel comfortable. After the crash-landing introduction of "Alive" comes the album's 7-minute title track; a mission statement of bone-shaking proportions. The song sounds like it's juddering up from below the ground, causing rifts as ideas burst from below while every unholy note shatters on impact. Arca then moves you away from the carnage and floats you between prisms of pink light, showing you the more intimate side of Mutant; but he never sets you down and lets you feel easy.
Whereas someone like Aphex Twin will keep a constant beat to keep you grounded, Arca rarely offers up any such stability, instead the whole experience of Mutant feels unhinged and unstable; you might be sucked from one climate into a completely new one at any moment. "Sinner" does offer up a central thump, though it cuts and runs, disappearing as soon as it's started, only to interject again a few second later, ambushing your senses as you were distracted by the piano keys raining from the sky. Elsewhere on "Sever" you'll meet a cute little amphibian-like creature, characterised by Arca's triumphant dulcimer stabs, who leads you unsuspectingly into a dark corner where black boulders fall from an imperceptible height. In "Umbilical" you find you've stumbled into the middle of a ritual of some indigenous tribe, who seem to be calling to life their ancestors who are hovering in the sky above you amidst distant explosions and bursts of strange light. "Hymn" then brings them into startling focus, freezing you in place with ice-cold synth drawls, before they suddenly vanish and you find yourself alone in a wide expanse. Sometimes he'll place you into a star system that seems to be in a neighbouring one to Flying Lotus has been inhabiting, before hitting the warp drive and blurring everything in existence.
The amount of detail and the flow of Mutant is truly staggering; there are tracks that seem to take you down through secret passages to the next track, while you can still hear the sounds of the previous track fading away in the room above you. It is undoubtedly made to be heard in one sitting. It may not always be a comfortable listen over the course of its hour, it will unflinchingly show you its grotesque beauty, and each listener's reactions and visions produced in the face of such peculiarities will be unique. The tour of Arca's elaborate world does not give you a moment to rest, until its final track when he soothes you into a calming exit and you can hear synths whooshing calmingly as you feel the atmosphere repressurise to something approaching normality. Appropriately this final song is called "Peonies": putting the image of a perfectly ordinary pretty flower in your mind to bring you back to Earth. However, it won't be long before you'll want to reimmerse yourself in Mutant's bright and riotous cosmos once more.
Have I bought this album?: Not yet, the guy at the Mute stall at the indie label market reliably informed me it's not out on vinyl until January, so I'll get it then.
This piece was originally published as a review on The 405.
Majical Cloudz - Are You Alone?
Majical Cloudz make extremely surprising music. This is not because there are so many hidden layers and depths to their sound, but in fact the exact opposite: everything is presented front and centre with no masking whatsoever. There's the simple atmospheric sound bed provide by Matthew Otto, then singer Devon Welsh's voice on top crystal clear with the stress of every emotion audible in each extended vowel. The words themselves are the most shocking part of all; honest, brutal, unashamed, depressed, euphoric, whatever the feeling Welsh is trying to convey you'll be sure to feel it deeper than on a lingual level.
Are You Alone? is the Canadian duo's second official full length and continues the stripped-back, dimly luminous musical poetry of their debut. The title itself and the sparse cover speaks to the demure style of Majical Cloudz, and a cursory listen to their music would easily see many newcomers instantly label it "depressing." That bouts of depression probably did inform large parts of the album does not mean that the music is depressing, in fact once again Majical Cloudz subvert this expectation with their simplicity and honesty, making something uplifting from the pain.
Are You Alone? presents its title as a question to the listener, and if the answer is 'yes' then this album is here to come and drape an arm around you, talk to you and let you know that everybody feels this way sometimes. The album is riddled with heart-rending affirmations of self-worth. "You've gotta learn to love me / Cause I am what I am," yearns Welsh with unabashed sentiment on "Heavy," while Otto's languidly paced beat and cresting synths send this simple affirmation flying straight into the heart of any dejected listeners. The purifying closer "Call On Me" talks about being friends until the end of life, and while doesn't stray away from sobering imagery ("I am your friend until I lie in the ground"), it will still leave you feeling warm and comforted; such is the power of Welsh's unflinching, tender delivery.
The album title is not only an offer to console the listener though; it's also a challenge to ask yourself if you're really alone - and what you can do about this. "So Blue" features Welsh talking directly to someone, who could easily be a surrogate for the listener, and imploring them "try not to be so blue," while Otto gently lays out piano, strings and synth to make the whole song as intimate as a late-night heart-to-heart. They confront the suicidal on "Easier Said Than Done," demanding "why would you wanna die?" before adding the kicker "what about my love?" reminding the subject that they're far from solitary in this life.
"If You're Lonely" is particularly affecting as Welsh honestly tells us of how he was in love, lost it suddenly and fell into a spiral of dispiritedness; how he convinced himself he was destined to be alone. But the story continues and we can hear in his voice the overcoming of these doubts and eventually he heroically affirms that he's made it through it: "I was wrong to feel that I couldn't feel love, that I couldn't love again, that I couldn't make new friends and be someone new." This song encapsulates the down-to-earth, self-healing and non-overbearing way that Majical Cloudz present their personal battles that makes them so unique. By presenting it so unguardedly and letting the drama come from the honesty (coupled with expertly crafted simple sound beds), Majical Cloudz set themselves apart from other acts. While many will still dismiss them for being unexciting, there will be many people out there that forge a strong connection with their music; people who need this album to make them feel comfort, to make them feel companionship, to help them accept themselves and, ultimately, to make them feel less alone.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, picked up the vinyl at their superb St. John Church gig.
This piece was originally published as a review on The 405.