Top albums of 2015 advent calendar: Day 17
OK I'm obviously WAY past advent calendar time now, but I'm still determined to finish this list nonetheless, especially since the best is still yet to come!
Holly Herndon - Platform
On her debut album Movment, Holly Herndon created electronic music that was dance-y, but experimental to the point where it seemed like she just as much wanted the listener to actually stop and listen to what she'd created - not just dance to it. Using the natural functions of the body to inspire some living, breathing, and expansive tracks, Herndon told us on that album that she was someone to whom we should be paying attention. Despite this, nothing could have prepared us for her second album, Platform, which takes her interest in human experience and the sounds of the world around us and blends them together into an album truly unique and awe-inspiring.
Most tracks on Platform are founded on breakbeats or rapid-fire click tracks, with islands of bass shifting around like small tectonic plates. Meanwhile Herndon floats around in the middle of this, completely at peace, singing gracefully, while we as the listener try to remain balanced as we're bamboozled by sudden uprisings of synths or percussion. Songs like the opening duo "Interference" and "Chorus" are pop-leaning, with grandiose hooks - but to actually get hooked on them you've got to duck and dodge your way through a field of disorienting elements to get a glimpse of Herndon's glowing voice holding it all together in the centre.
The lyrics themselves vary wildly from track to track. "Morning Sun" uses the iPhone's unlock 'click', while gentle voices urge you 'wake up, wake up, wake up' taking you into those first moments of consciousness in the morning - when you reach for your phone and reconnect to the world - but Herndon soon distracts away from this with a deep theatrical vocal meant to arouse us to the glowing orb of life rising outside our boxed-in world. On the next track "Locker Leak" she sends up modern consumer culture by adopting a stereotypically glazed-over saleswoman tone to list modern commodities: "our liquor special... terracotta... wet bar wax... scan fruit, with temporary fresheness." The track full of forlorn, obscured vocals, "Home," is said to be "a love song for prying eyes," which is dedicated to the NSA.
Throughout the album, beneath the pummeling percussion, iceberg synths and Herndon's diverse vocal use, there is always an undercurrent of sounds to tickle your ear. She shows an interest in ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) which is basically the strange tingling feeling that you get when you hear a nice sound like pouring water - and she's embedded several of these atmospheric sounds in her songs; from footsteps running down hallways, breathing, beeping clocks or the aforementioned iPhone clicks - and many more. Most notably she uses it on "Lonely At The Top," which is more of a sketch than a song, in which the listener is put in the shoes of a powerful businessperson receiving a massage (and maybe more) from a young woman with the most alluring voice you can imagine.
The songs on Platform can be confounding and even bewildering, but just as the noise and mayhem seems like it might get on top of you, Herndon parts the clouds and lets her magnificent voice shine through. The songs may at first seem alien, but Herndon is always there to remind you that this is a very human album, about modern day experiences in this busy world. The album touches on love, friendship, work and art - but all the while you're blocked from it by the mad rush of modern life, and you have to work to reach the warm heart of it - where you'll be rewarded magnificently for your effort, with some spectacular musicianship.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, me and the guy at the One Little Indian stall at Indie Label Market were geeking out abut how good it is, then the 4AD stall was just across the way so I couldn't really say no!
DJ Richard - Grind
The name DJ Richard really tickles me; it suggests a guy who wants to host parties but simultaneously is ensuring that everybody knows that he's just Richard: a normal, serious, grey dude. Naming yourself 'DJ x' immediately makes people assume that you're producing dancefloor-ready jams, and in his previous releases on New York's White Label (which he co-founded) he has catered to this side of the club scene. But in recent years he's moved to techno mecca Berlin, and the 'Richard' side has really started to shine through in his music.
Grind is his debut full length, and from the opening track "No Balance" you can tell that DJ Richard is here to make a well-rounded big-picture album; it's a slow burner that never kicks into dance-mode, instead coasting in like a shadow across a wintry field, incorporating obscure field recordings like the sound of keys being cut. "Nighthawk" brings us closer to the BPMs you'd expect from the producer, but the skittering percussion only peeks in and out from between wailing siren-like synths, giving the impression of walking quickly down a busy night street to escape an unknown assailant that you fear is merely your imagination.
Richard has talked about how the move from America to Germany has forced him to live in a landlocked place for the first time in his life, and has unexpectedly caused him to pine for the ocean. This overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia and desire for open spaces hovers over plenty of the album. Both "Waiting For The Green Flash" and "I-Mir" are references to a breathtaking optical illusion that can be seen at sunset, but Richard is unlikely to get to see such a site in the urban enclosure of Berlin. Thus both of these songs are full of atmospheric yearning; they tease themselves out like a slowly evaporating dream of far-off beauty, haunting but addictive, you cling on for every last second that you can feel it and then they disintegrate, leaving you unsure if you just experienced a fantasy or a nightmare.
Of course DJ Richard does take some opportunities on Grind to show off his abilities with substantial dance beats. "Savage Coast" is like a photograph of a beach-side dance jam that's been left out in the rain and has become slightly warped and faded; incorporeal bass synths swing back and forth beneath the beats, like dark grey clouds hovering nearby, threatening to overcast proceedings. "Screes Of Gray Craig" steadily intertwines simplistic arpeggios, click tracks and tension-heightening undercurrents of synths to create a deep house track as imperious as the rock formation described in its title. "Bane" is the most immediately colourful track, using big and splashy notes to cover the canvas before Richard gradually incorporates a fine little percussion couplet to take charge and wheel the song gleefully around.
The album finishes with "Vampire Dub," which rounds out the collection in a similarly grayscale manner, but then gradually mutates into an outright house celebration; you can imagine the titular vampires clambering out of their coffins to crack wide smiles and move their hips a little. I think this last track, especially its title, is poking a little fun at the whole techno scene and how austere and serious it is sometimes presented to be, while really everyone in it is just interested in dancing and having a good time. DJ Richard carefully mixes up both sides of this divide across Grind, and has produced a debut album that consistently surprises and subverts expectations.
Have I bought this album?: Yes indeed, needs to be heard on wax for the full depth of sound!