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Reviews: The Life and Times' The Life and Times
Reviews: Atoms and Void's And Nothing Else
Reviews: Survival Knife's "Traces of Me" and "Divine Mob" Singles
2013 (and 2012!) Year-End List Extravaganza
Reviews: Girls Against Boys' The Ghost List EP
Reviews: Bottomless Pit's Shade Perennial
Reviews: Carton / Alpha Cop Split Single
Reviews: Fuck Buttons' Slow Focus
Reviews: Speedy Ortiz's Major Arcana
Reviews: Two Inch Astronaut's Bad Brother

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2013 (and 2012!) Year-End List Extravaganza

Top 25 Albums of 2013

First things first: You can view (and sample!) my top 25 albums of 2013 and my top 12 albums of 2012.

Yes, it took me a full year to finish a list for 2012. Yes, it only has twelve albums. No, that doesn’t necessarily imply that 2012 was “a terrible year for music,” nor does my doubled selection total mean that 2013 was “a great year for music.” (Any time I see those grand declarations, my eyes roll into the back of my head.) I listened to fewer albums in 2012, many bands I’d usually slot in by default had an off year, and I had less time and enthusiasm in December to complete a list, let alone replicate my exhausting review of the previous year’s contending titles. Comparatively, tons of bands—familiar and unfamiliar—issued worthy albums in 2013, I regained some energy for listening to and occasionally writing about music, and my wheelhouse genres of angular indie rock and ambient had strong years. I’m unwilling and unprepared to objectively declare 2013 a fantastic year in music for all tastes, but for mine, it certainly was. Subjectivity strikes again!

In case two year-end album lists isn’t enough, here are some supplemental selections.

Ten Honorable Mentions from 2013:

Eight Excellent Seven-Inch Singles from 2013:

  • Alpha Cop / Carton, Split Single
  • Julianna Barwick, “Pacing” b/w “Call”
  • Daria / Office of Future Plans, Split Single
  • Fat History Month / My Dad, Split Single
  • Future of the Left, Love Songs for Our Husbands
  • Loscil, Sine Studies I
  • Lower Dens / Horse Lords, Split Single
  • Speedy Ortiz, “Hexxy” b/w “Ka-Prow!”

Two Sources of Ongoing Ethical Conflict

  1. “Free” concerts offered by shoe companies: I enjoy not paying for things as much as the next guy, but tripping over future landfills worth of Vans promotional garbage at The Walkmen’s potentially final show in Boston and seeing “Converse” emblazoned on the chest of The Men’s bassist has forced me to recognize that corporate back-slapping always has a price.
  2. Band-circumventing vinyl reissues: I enjoy re-buying beloved 1990s albums that I already own on CD way, way more than the next guy, but 1972 Records’ Stereolab reissues are almost certainly sourced from those very CDs instead of the original masters and have no involvement from Tim Gane or Duophonic, while Shop Radio Cast’s wish-fulfilling pressing of Hum’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut cut Matt Talbott’s attempts to reissue the album on his own terms down at the knees. (Fortunately, he has a stockpile of original copies you can occasionally buy.) Labels, be more like Numero Group and add value to your reissues by actually involving the artists who created them. Bands, be proactive in reissuing your catalogs so that shady operations don’t do it first. Record collectors, investigate the origins of the reissue you’re holding before you plunk down $27.99 on it.

Two New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

  • Actually finish reviews and features: If I merged my partially and mostly completed posts from the last two years, I’d have a damn book.
  • Keep reminding myself about that first resolution: I'll have a headstart on months of posts, at least.

Reviews: Fuck Buttons' Slow Focus

Fuck Buttons' Slow Focus

It’s been four years since Fuck Buttons’ last LP, the ceaselessly enthralling Tarot Sport, and I was starting to wonder when or even if the next one would arrive. Aside from a requisite remix 12” for “Olympians,” their interim output all arrived via Benjamin John Power’s solo project, Blanck Mass, whose 2011 self-titled LP explored the arpeggiated drone landscape populated by Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never. That style offered a comfortable distance from Fuck Buttons’ rhythmically driven transcendence, but last year’s fantastic White Math / Polymorph EP added beats and energy, ultimately residing much closer to Power’s main gig. Couple this proximity with the fact that both Blanck Mass and Fuck Buttons had songs chosen for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, and suddenly a permanent switch in priority becomes less far-fetched.

All such theories were instantly invalidated by Slow Focus’s lead track, “Brainfreeze.” The first twenty-five seconds reorient listener expectations with a hammering, tribal beat before any of the anticipated synthesizers arrive. As if that beat weren’t pummeling enough, reinforcements join the left channel, sloshing my brain from eardrum to eardrum. And yes, the synthesizers do arrive, a bewildering, maximalist array of seagull squiggles, slow-motion turbulence, machinist progressions, and the skyward-aiming glimmers that highlighted Tarot Sport. But at no point did I forget the chain of body blows coming from the drum tracks, even when they drop out mid-song for a much-needed breather.

Fuck Buttons could have easily employed this template throughout Slow Focus, thereby reestablishing the dividing line between it and the less punishing Blanck Mass and stepping forward and away from Tarot Sport, but the six tracks that follow “Brainfreeze”—provided you succeed in pulling “Brainfreeze” off repeat—revel in subverting expectations. “Year of the Dog” cuts the beats out entirely, employing a rapid-fire rendition of Blanck Mass’s arpeggios to unsettling effect. Lead single The Red Wing” (sadly not a spoken-word narrative from Steve Yzerman in the vein of Daft Punk’s “Giorgio by Moroder”) sways sensuously on an unrushed hip-hop beat, even when the foundational synth kicks into overdrive. “Sentients” reminds how well Fuck Buttons have sublimated the noise impulses of Street Horrrsing (i.e., the unintelligible yelling) into ear-turning oddities. Its 8-bit enemy chomping and half-buried feedback tangles add to, rather than overpower, the song’s John Carpenter soundtrack atmosphere. “Prince’s Prize” borrows the funhouse-mirror distortion of Clark’s “Totem Crackerjack.” The appropriately named “Stalker” spotlights the darker tones running throughout Slow Focus with its ten-minute lurk, demonstrating the palette shift from Andrew Weatherall’s often-gleaming production values on Tarot Sport.

If not for its closing track, I’d argue that Slow Focus purposefully sidesteps the immediate bliss-out of “The Lisbon Maru” and “Olympians,” but “Hidden XS” delivers one final narrative-denying blow with its propulsive beats and upward-arcing melodies. It’s both a fist-pump and a tangible exhale, the polar opposite of the cranium-crushing “Brainfreeze.”

I haven’t mentioned the fact that Slow Focus marks the first instance of Fuck Buttons eschewing a name producer (Mogwai’s John Cummings, Weatherall) in favor of handling those duties themselves, in part because there’s no discernible drop in fidelity or inspiration. What this decision does indicate is how the group has gone from being defined by outside sources, whether producers or the wildly divergent names dropped in reviews of Street Horrrsing (Prurient, My Bloody Valentine, Suicide, etc.), to firmly existing within its own realm. It’s more natural now to compare Fuck Buttons to their peers, their side projects, or their past material than to locate them within a broad field of reference points, even if a few of those still pop up. Slow Focus doesn’t offer the same mind-melting revelation of fulfilled promise that Tarot Sport did, because it can’t—I approached it knowing full well what heights they’re capable of reaching. Instead, “Brainfreeze,” “The Red Wing,” and “Hidden XS” excel at exploring unconquered terrain within a defined realm. Subverting expectations may lack the sexiness of surpassing them, but it’s an essential trait for long-term success. Consider my fears of Fuck Buttons’ priority or lifespan completely assuaged.

Mogwai Discographied Part Ten: Rankings and Ephemera

Mogwai 2010 promo photo by Steve Gullick

This post of rankings and ephemera wraps up Mogwai Discographied. If you’re wondering “What is Mogwai Discographied?” it’s a deep dive into the catalog of one of the foremost purveyors of post-rock. Consult the first nine parts of the series for the gory details: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. Each post tackles two or three entries in Mogwai’s catalog. If you’re not interested in reading 16,000+ words on Mogwai to figure out a starting point, the following list should help.

Rankings

I’ve ranked these albums/compilations with two considerations in mind: personal preference and best starting points. I’ve excluded lesser releases (singles and remix albums), and bundled the 4 Satin, No Future = No Education (Fuck the Curfew) and Mogwai EPs under EP+6, since that’s the most cost effective way to acquire those releases. Everything on this list is worth hearing at some point, but if you learn a single lesson from Mogwai Discographied, it’s that you should pace yourself when consuming Mogwai releases. Start with the top four, then progress down the list as your appetites allow.

  1. Young Team: Mogwai’s first full-length features towering highs (“Mogwai Fear Satan,” “Like Herod”), glorious guitar tones, and powerful dynamic range.
  2. Special Moves: A long-overdue live album for fans and a sampler platter for newcomers that excels in both departments. Get a version with the Burning concert DVD included.
  3. EP+6: This must-have three-EP compilation offers brass bliss (“Burn Girl Prom Queen”), fuzzed-out crescendos (“Small Children in the Background”), unrelenting noise (“Stereodee”), and whirring beauty (“Stanley Kubrick”).
  4. Rock Action: Mogwai’s shortest LP does not lack inspiration, loaded with fruitful forays into electronic (“Sine Wave”), folk (“Dial: Revenge”), and symphonic impulses (“2 Rights Make 1 Wrong”).
  5. Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003: This compilation offers alternate views of known songs, a few of which (“Secret Pint,” “Like Herod”) are definitive versions.
  6. Ten Rapid: Collected Recordings 1996-1997: This compilation of Mogwai’s early singles exhibits their innate melodic touch and a greater reliance on open spaces.
  7. The Hawk Is Howling: Achieves length without excessive sprawl, in large part because of its exceptional last four songs.
  8. Mr. Beast: A 40-minute block of well-crafted songs (like the riff-machine “Glasgow Mega-snake”) that lacks the evocative mystery of Mogwai’s best works.
  9. Come on Die Young: A handful of extraordinary tracks (especially the slow-core ballad “Cody”) are brought down by an exhausting mid-tempo stretch.
  10. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will: Their newest album shows off a few new tricks (the motorik drive of “Mexican Grand Prix,” the ambient companion piece “Music for a Forgotten Future”), but mostly sticks to known terrain.
  11. Happy Songs for Happy People: This mostly subdued collection of songs never hits Mogwai’s top gear, but does provide some worthy additions to their catalog.
  12. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait: A calming, if repetitive soundtrack that shows off Mogwai’s quiet side.

Ephemera

Mogwai's split single with Magoo

I’ve covered all of the key Mogwai releases in detail, but there’s plenty more to track down for the tireless completist. This list is not comprehensive, but it’s a good starting point for that journey.

“Sweet Leaf”: Mogwai reveal their fondness for Black Sabbath with this cover of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” which appeared on a split single with Magoo in 1998. Not their best vocal performance, but you can hear the influence of those slow, heavy riffs in countless Mogwai songs.

“Hugh Dallas”: Mogwai’s contribution to the Everything Is Nice 3CD compilation for Matador’s 15th anniversary is a haunting nine minutes of slow-core. Drifting along on Stuart Braithwaite’s hushed vocals and gentle strumming until the guitars crash down, “Hugh Dallas” is a lo-fi companion to Ten Rapid’s vocal tracks. Well worth hunting down.

Mogwai's split EP with Bardo Pond

Split 10” with Bardo Pond: Two pleasantly mellow songs from a limited-edition tour EP. “D to E” drifts semi-aimlessly with its blurred guitar, keys, and trumpet. “Drum Machine,” a collaboration with The Remote Viewer, offers a subaquatic companion piece, with the titular element bumping quietly beneath the surface. These songs reappeared on Mogwai’s 2001 UK Tour Single. Neither is easy to find.

Japanese bonus tracks: Heeding to the tradition of adding bonus tracks to the Japanese pressings of their albums so consumers don’t just import the American versions, many Mogwai albums have received additional material abroad. Rock Action received two bonus tracks: “Untitled” is a longer take of “D to E,” while “Close Encounters,” a collaboration with David Pajo, is one of Mogwai’s mid-tempo, crescendo-free meditations. Happy Songs for Happy People offers “Sad DC,” which emphasizes Luke Sutherland’s mournful violin. The Hawk Is Howling has “Dracula Family,” an upbeat instrumental that would’ve made a nice b-side for “The Sun Smells Too Loud.” (This song also appeared on a Rock Action sampler.) Collect these songs and you’ll have a pleasant, if inessential EP of bonus material.

The Fountain soundtrack

The Fountain soundtrack: Clint Mansell scored Darren Aronofsky’s ponderous 2006 sci-fi romance, recruiting the Kronos Quarter and Mogwai to perform it. Mogwai presumably contributes guitar arpeggios, foreboding textures, and drumming to “Holy Dread,” “Stay with Me,” and album/film centerpiece “Death Is the Road to Awe”—just don’t expect to proclaim “A lost Mogwai song!” The soundtrack holds up reasonably well without the film, but context won’t hurt. The Fountain tends to be a love/hate proposition, but I’m somewhere in the middle, enamored with the cinematography, set design, and boundless ambition, but aware of its repetitive structure, muddy thematic arcs, and the danger of such boundless ambition.

“Gouge Away”: Mogwai contributed a noisy and accented cover of the Doolittle favorite to the 2007 Dig for Fire: A Tribute to the Pixies compilation. It’s not astoundingly great, but it’s still a thousand times better than The Promise Ring’s line reading of the song for the prior Where Is My Mind? tribute (from which I recommend The Get-Up Kids’ energetic rendition of “Alec Eiffel”).

Fuck Buttons Split Single: Mogwai and Fuck Buttons toured together in 2008, releasing this split EP for the occasion and then issuing it on vinyl for Record Store Day 2010 in the UK. Mogwai contribute an excellent remix of Fuck Buttons’ “Colours Move” from their 2008 debut LP Street Horrrsing, while Fuck Buttons add buzzing synths and tribal drumming to their cover of “Mogwai Fear Satan.” Both songs are worth checking out, as is Fuck Buttons’ superb 2009 LP Tarot Sport, which picks up that “Mogwai Fear Satan” thread within their own aesthetic.

Mogwai's Mexican Grand Prix single

Hardcore singles: Mogwai’s newest album has garnered two singles: one domestic, one import. The Sub Pop single for “Rano Pano” offers “Hasenheide” on the flip, a charging, drum-driven rocker that carries a bit more emotional weight than its sonic counterpart on the album, “San Pedro.” The Rock Action single for “Mexican Grand Prix” features sleeve design reminiscent of Mogwai’s earliest singles and the b-side “Slight Domestic.” It’s a carefully crafted mid-tempo instrument midway between “Death Rays” and “Letters to the Metro.” I don't know where or how they'd fit on Hardcore, but arguments could be made for their inclusion.

Remixes: In addition to having their own songs remixed, Mogwai has returned the favor on a number of occasions. Here are some notable ones:

I’m currently determining the subject of the next round of Discographied, but I can tell you one thing: it will not be a contemporary post-rock band.

The Haul 2010: Fuck Buttons' Tarot Sport

9. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport 2LP – All Tomorrow’s Parties, 2009 – $18 (Newbury Street Newbury Comics, 1/22)

Fuck Buttons' Tarot Sport

When I heard Fuck Buttons’ widely acclaimed debut LP, Street Horrrsing, I was more excited by what it hinted at, not what it was. The insistent synth bass and tinkling effects of “Sweet Love for Planet Earth” and the trance-inducing build-up of “Bright Tomorrow” foreshadowed more polished efforts. Remixes of “Sweet Love” and “Colours Move” by Andrew Weatherall and Mogwai respectively demonstrated how excellent Fuck Buttons’ material could be when removed from the rhythmic clutter and haphazard yelling of Street Horrrsing. Presumably Fuck Buttons themselves felt inspired by these remixes, since they tasked Weatherall with producing the follow-up album, Tarot Sport.

Pardon me if you were disappointed by the lack of abrasive noise on Tarot Sport—I know some people were—but there aren’t many cases when I feel like a group delivers exactly what I was hoping for with a follow-up LP. It’s an absolute thrill. (Other examples: Bottomless Pit’s Congress EP and Tungsten74’s Binaurally Yours.) I knew Tarot Sport wouldn’t be entirely free of the noise fetish from Street Horrrsing, and “Rough Steez” and “Phantom Limb” provide a more controlled take on that style, so I’m willing to bring them along for the ride to break up the string of epic jams.

When I say exactly what I was hoping for, I’m selling Fuck Buttons short, since I did not anticipate just how great “The Lisbon Maru,” “Olympians,” and “Flight of the Feathered Serpent” (in particular—the whole album is superb) would be. The forthcoming comparison may also sell them short, since Mogwai is one of the group’s noted influences, but these songs reminded me more of hearing “Mogwai Fear Satan” for the first time than anything else released since 1997. Compositionally they pull off the same trick—anchoring epic songs with basic melodies, then sending them flying into space—but do so with different instrumental palettes. Plenty of post-rock bands cribbed the wrong notes from “Mogwai Fear Satan,” incorporating flutes into their crescendo rollercoasters, but that’s just a lazy facsimile (likely driven by the fact someone in the group played flute in high school) focused on the details, not what made the original great. In the vaguest, most infuriating terms possible, “Mogwai Fear Satan” sent me somewhere else. It’s that feeling Fuck Buttons captures, not the road signs or the exit ramp to the eventual destination.

Each song captures it with a different tack. “The Lisbon Maru” offsets the propulsion of its electronic pulses and martial drumming with a hint of resignation before letting that feeling disappear amidst a cloud of distorted keyboards. “Olympians” hints at the slow-motion triumph of Vangelis’ theme to Chariots of Fire, even though its BPM is club-ready. “Flight of the Feathered Serpent” drops out midway through its escalating climb to demonstrate the potency of its background counter melody—the one you might have missed lurking under the pounding beats. These are specific moments of transcendence—a word I don’t use lightly—bound to the overall arcs of their songs.

Where do Fuck Buttons go from here? Who knows. I don’t have a specific destination in mind. Mogwai’s career presents the most logical option: gradually trading transcendent wonder for increased instrumental prowess and compositional confidence, thereby creating solid albums with fewer moments of awe-inspiring brilliance. Plenty of options are worse than longevity and stature. All I hope for right now are more moments like “Flight of the Feathered Serpent”—figuratively, not literally, of course.