Laurel Halo-DJ Kicks: Album Review

Laurel Halo’s DJ Kicks set twists and winds to its conclusions. Though at first glance feeling like one stroke of a giant paint brush, the work has certain fulcrums that keep the energy feeling fresh. Between the driving leads of Red Axe’s “5 Min,” and the raw textures of “Ana,” for instance, Halo pulls us through the pristine sheen of “Puro Rosaceaes,” the subtle cascade of “Cricoid Pressure,” and the oddball vocals of “Just Made Some Jazz Music.” Tunes like “Penny Rut” and “Canto” again calm things down before the pointed rhythms of “The Light Within You” creep through the hazy cloud of “Poliwhirl.” These type of back and forth twists make the set expertly cohesive and engaging without ever really breaking Halo’s minimalist leanings.

The middle of the work maybe begins to break into more extremeties to an extent—there’s not really a dip in energy between say “Lachowa” and “Violent Light”—but Halo’s liquid smolder somehow encompasses every bit of the thing, always feeling touched by her ears.

The set’s sound strikes much of the same modernism as much of Halo’s music. It’s the minimal sound of Berlin, but it also recalls jungle in it’s dark tones and unpredictable rhythms—not to mention Halo’s nods to Jazz and Contemporary Classical music, which are less obvious here, but still sitting in the background as heard on the string flourish of “Brian’s Having a Party.”. Overall the work is another welcome reflection of the world that Halo’s built, it’s perhaps not the crown jewel, but DJ sets are another key component to her vision—definitely worth listening in.

-Donovan Burtan


Nilüfer Yanya-Miss Universe: Album Review

Admittedly Nilüfer Yanya isn’t offering a completely new perspective on musical texture or what a song can do, but Miss Universe does more than simply pass the test for “singer-songwriter given a bit of a budget for their real debut.” With Yanya herself offering a bunch of goofy interludes to narrate her speak of self worth and its intersection with validation from others, the album offers a unique glance at its auter. Unpredictable, wirey melodies, build and caressing alongside synths, guitars, and horns that draw on everyone from Aaliyah to Blink-182. It’s sure to be relatable to anyone familiar with those musical references as well as those plunging into the depth of the teenage years today.

“In Your Head” certainly acts as a bit of a thesis. In it Yanya tells a potential love interest that she cannot act until she hears an exact description of how they feel.  Though she doesn’t play this manic type of character throughout, the songs paint a vivid inner dialogue about the growing pains inherent to that time where you have to figure yourself out as much as those who interest you.

“Safety Net” might just be the heart of the record where Yanya seems to find the upper hand in a battle of whether or not she deserves more out of a partner: “I’m not trying to be someone/I’m not/So stop trying to be someone.”. It’s undercut by her self doubt “I’ll find nothing instead/because I’m not good looking,” but that tug and pull between doubt and worth represents the tension between the moment you realize you have to leave and the moment you actually do it.

Closer “Heavyweight Champion of the World” also explores the tension as Yanya pleads for herself to realize that the one she’s chasing will never truly commit. Then there’s tunes like “Heat Rises,” which more metaphorically address anxiety or “Melt” which more devilshly wish for another’s pain.

These songs are well accomplished sonically, though I can’t help but feeling like there’s a little bit to be desired in terms of singularity. Not quite, but if you ignore some of the musical flourishes, sax solos, there’s an inclining of “this product was manufactured to please indie rock and R&B markets,” whereas something SZA’s Ctrl more endearingly combined the two. But overall, Miss Universe is a worthy debut from someone with potential to speak to a generation.

-Donovan Burtan


Ossia-Devil’s Dance: Album Review

Dan Davies definitely gets the underground epoch. His work as Ossia casts a hyper-large net through dub, punk, techno, you-name-it.  On Devil’s Dance there’s 14 minute songs that float along, highlighted by a spacey sax solo and a quasi-pop single in “Dub Hell” that could maybe end off a late night Laurel Halo DJ set. The album could’ve probably used a bit more focus, but like the intentionally low-pressure second half of the surprise Grouper/Liz Harris release as Nivhek, the work doesn’t always demand attention, rather electing to build a well-developed environment for the listener to live in for a little while.  Maybe let it soundtrack a late-night study session or something.

-Donovan Burtan


NKISI-7 Directions: Album Review

Melika Kolongo’s current project NON seeks to connect a wide variety of sound art made by members of the African diaspora (you can read their full manifesto here).  This, along with Kolongo’s own psychoacoustic research, perhaps describes the heavy dose of research and process behind her work, but a better first thing to note is her releases with Doomcore records out of Belgium.  Alongside gaudy album covers and dark tones from Belgium’s finest, Nkisi’s work for the label took sinister moods and pushed them to their breaking point with slow builds and apocalyptic vocal clips.

Though considerably more lush than her earlier work, 7 Directions’ first listen showcases its smoldering pummel. The beats aren’t necessarily unrelenting violence á la Blanck Mass, but there’s little sugar as electricity and acoustic-adjacent textures craft an impossibly late-night vibe that evokes the cosmos for a boundless depth.

If first listen will be marked by darkness, more exposure will showcase the work’s dynamic life.  7 Directions may be trance-like repetition at the macro, yet it’s remarkably dynamic at the micro.  Each track is comprised of a darkly electric melodic motion that’ll stick there throughout, but the drum layering beneath provides a stochastic, enveloping feeling, abstracting lines between pattern and random making 10 minute swaths of activity pass by effortlessly.

“II,” for instance, has a gradually moving ghost of a melody deep in the background that contrasts the looped cell of percussion up front, bending time by never completely embodying the same meter.  As time passes another layer of melody is added in the same place to continue this liquid approach to time.  “IV” sports the most sinister, addicting melody, the simple up and down motion phasing left and right as the drum sticks roar dead center and the closing track again phases melodies and rhythms, the bouncing drums accompanied by a seemingly unpredictable shooting stars of electricity.

In an interview with tinymixtapes, NKISI discusses how her research involves a lot of testing out sounds on her own body: “A big part of my music-making process involves listening to it and testing it on my body. I’m really interested in how the body can be affected by music and sound.”  Perhaps this is an element in the increased depth of her work.  Where previously skeletal electronic sounds once stood, now stands a huge block of all encompassing sound that, coupled with these songwriting strategies, never quite sits still for you.

-Donovan Burtan


Looking Ahead: 2/1

Jessica Pratt-Quiet Signs

Pratt has been slowly building her quiet folk musical world for a few years now, but Quiet Signs looks to be her starkest and most singular work to date. Single “This Time Around” is immediately enveloping the barren landscape perfectly complementing Pratt’s sophisticated vocal delivery.

Listen now on NPR

NKISI-7 Directions

Inspired by research of psychoacoustics (i.e. the mental effect of music on the body) and nkisis (a word rooted in the Kongo religion), 7 Directions takes some of Nikisi’s hardcore inspirations to the trance music environment with rich rhythmic textures pounding on over seven distinct tracks.

Available now

Sneaks-Highway Hypnosis: Album Review

Constantly picking apart melodic and lyrical ideas into a self-referential stew of collapsing rhythms, Sneaks makes dynamic music that cascades through different zones.  It will inevitably be heard as post-punk considering that bass is the closest thing to a constant in the Highway Hypnosis environment, but just as certain bands like the Talking Heads and New Order took dance music as a muse for new wave, the album is lawless; a moody, cold energy the only constant between mechanical bass rhythms and crashing beats.

In terms of subject material, Sneaks is more about exploring sketches than painting a whole environment, which will likely turn off some listeners, but for those into Palberta’s sense of humor, or the classic Wire material, these songs will be laughed at and loved.

“Saiditzoneza” sounds like Sneaks made up a word to see what it would be like as a foundation block of a tune and then didn’t build anything on top of it.  “Holy Cow I Never Saw A Girl Like That,” is classic Sneaks, toying with that title to maniacal effect with the equally evil bass-line accompanying.

The album also sports sonic tricks equivalent to these lyrical quirks.  “A Lil Close” opens with a high-electro melody that could serve as a background for a Weeknd or Drake pop-R&B smash, but a knob suddenly gets twisted you’re left with a hollow rhythmic background for some more bass smothering.  “Cinnamon,” on the other hand is definitely melodically imagined, with Sneaks adopting a childlike awe between bouts of adult mumble–much of the details in the lyrics getting lost in the mix.

The highlights of the work are “The Way it Goes” and “Ecstasy,” however, and hopefully give a glimpse at the material Sneaks may be shooting for in the future.

The first is a hype track for an ambient action sequence in a made up movie with the lyric “and when the match-a-lit it goes up” and an ironic rap verse about skate boarding.  “Ecstasy” is spacier with lots of catchy materials dancing around each other.  Elongated syllables open for “running ’round the world with a planet of my own,” but by inflecting tidbits like quickly sung “I Don’t Wanna Explain” and “all I got is ecsta-sayyyyy,” Sneaks hints at a more verse-chorus-verse dynamic structure.

It’s good to hear sneaks do sneaks, but also sneaks can do structure–something that undeniably could’ve given Highway Hypnosis more buoyant energy from cover to cover.  Hopefully Sneaks the ironic rapper will have more for us next cycle.

-Donovan Burtan




Dawn-New Breed: Album Review

A bassline from Prince, a beat from The Roots, and some smoldering synthesizer fog via SURVIVE–Dawn Richard pulls together unexpected elements to conjure her forward-thinking sound.  The title-track single from her latest album discusses transcendence of labels, of stereotypes. In the vein of SOPHIE’s “Whole New World” mantra, the smoky sound world twists around Richard’s rising declaration “I am, I am, I am the New Breed” as a Grace Jones quote about her undefinable sexuality gets appropriately spliced into the background.  

At only 30 minutes and spending a bit too much time with interludes and sound bites, New Breed the album doesn’t completely live up to the promise of its single, but Richard’s evolving sound continues to elude simple categorization and pop trends.

The middle of the album sports expert pop songwriting.  “Dreams and converse” takes some future-funk guitar and bass plucking to new heights with slinky melodies before “Shades” picks up the slack with beefy bassline and vocoder ornaments.  “Jealousy” slow jams for a minute, as Dawn admits that she still faces the childish emotion here and there.

“Vultures/Wolves” and “We, Diamonds” are probably the most direct songs thematically as Richard addresses black womanhood.  It’s clear that black women largely drive the aesthetic and direction of pop culture, so the idea of existing and finding acceptance without interference from culture vultures underpins the straining ballad.  These underlying anxieties are flipped into strength for the gospelly piano tones on closer “we, diamonds.”

The albums over and done with too quickly, but Richard remains youthful and entertaining in those 30 minutes, proving that she’s still one of the most creative songwriters in the game.

-Donovan Burtan


Kelly Moran-Ultraviolet: Album Review

I don’t remember exactly how, but Kelly Moran’s single for this album came up on my feed and I just clicked on it.  I later learned that she was an Oneohtrix Point Never collaborator, has been somewhat widely praised in the classical community and, honestly, the she played the piano.  

At the risk of grandstanding a la New York Times on Bradley Cooper, the core of music journalism is the idea that we can find a greater musical truth at the intersection of the real life experience of listening to it and an education on the process behind it or at least the context surrounding it.  In some ways this is impossible because so often we’re following along with artist’s careers for a long time and, in the internet era, we know what they’re up to. The “real life” experience is always an educated one and we loose track of the experience of simply enjoying a work as an unsuspecting fan might.  However, sometimes we still come across something that sounds good and gradually dig into how it was made and perhaps why it sounds so good.

Having gone through the traditional piano avenues–masters degree, traditionally composed contemporary classical album with New York Times support–Kelly Moran may be slightly more out on the trapeze wire with the process behind her first release for Warp records.  The album is built on an extended improvisation session that followed a moment of peace in nature and later recieved electronic treatments, a situation that is cliche to the point that Moran herself tends to refer to it in a self-deprecating way, but the result is detailed and sprawling, yet strikingly natural in its flow–certainly a product of the freedom to explore that Moran felt when making it.

Admittedly, there’s a bit of a feeling of sameness.  I almost get the sense that you could play Moran a 5-10 second clip from anywhere and she might not know exactly where in the record it falls, yet there are moments of resolution and tension.  Autowave opens with stagnant beauty, before the extended length of Helix sees the piece deal with more open space, allowing ideas to float out into the air and dance around each other before the quaking synths arrive and the energy peaks with furious melodic contours.  Water Music emphasizes the prepared feel of the piano as the strings clang around like wind chimes and In Parellel is stunning in its stark, high-range emotive melodies.

At first click, Helix reminded me a little bit of this one four-tet song where a stringed instrument figure wanders through a haze of rhythmic fog.  As we know from his infamous tweet about the process behind that piece, Kieran Hebden didn’t have a piano or a harp at hand for him to pluck out a melody and then edit to hell so I wasn’t really thinking along the lines of Moran being classically trained.  It sounded like an eerie ambient-leaning electronic musician almost like Kelly Lee Owens with a more abstract rhythmic drive, but still felt firmly rooted in electronic music.

By the end of my first listen of the whole album, after I had learned about Moran’s backstory, I managed to reach through the synthesizer fog and immerse myself in the sound world enough to come out the other end feeling like I was listening to a piano record.  Maybe there’s some piano graduate student out there cringing at the idea that a music journalist would’ve listened to any amount of this and not known that a piano was involved, but this album is, in essence, an ambient record in a lot of ways so the turn-your-brain-off first listen is still valuable.

This is not a record about the micro-melodic movements, rather it is affective in its big picture motions and moods.  Ultraviolet is a place where motion never stops, but it doesn’t tell you where it’s going and the entire texture is flattened into one breathing mass.  It operates like a world-building electronic music opus so maybe the listener shouldn’t be thinking about a piano the whole time.  Maybe the work is equally valuable to those concerned about the process and those concerned about finding bliss.

-Donovan Burtan


Neneh Cherry-Broken Politics: Album Review

I don’t know if I would call it the most interesting producer/pop-elder combination right now, we live in a Bjork (feat. Arca) society after all, but Neneh Cherry working with four-tet is certainly a mark of her ability to stay with the times and explore ideas on her own terms without falling into trendy mainstream trappings.  Someone who’s career started with buoyant 1989 MTV hip-pop hit Buffalo Stance and intersected with Michael Stipe in 1992 and Tricky in 1996, Cherry has always been able to stay on top of the times in a tasteful way and 2018 is no exception.

For perspective, Tom Morello is the same age as Cherry, but his latest album sees contributions from Steve Aoki and Portugal, The Man.  Wouldn’t refer to those choices as indicative of someone with their on the pulse, but complemented by sounds concocted at the same time as 2017’s New Energy–an album that captured many on both the fan and critic side of music twitter–Broken Politics sees Cherry airing ideas about her identity and power amidst the political climate of the day with the mature, artistic backdrop of Kieran Hebden.

Perhaps the most quotable line is Synchronized Devotion‘s “it’s my politics livin’ in the slow jam,” which refers to the continuously vital “the personal is political” argument as Cherry’s idea of her own identity becomes increasingly political in these trying times.  From her understanding of her past “Don’t live for nostalgia/but the impact of everything resonates,” to her understanding of her innate ways of living and thinking “My name is Neneh/March tenth/Water sign,” seemingly innocuous ideas are brought under a new light.

This “slow jam” idea is also important considering Cherry’s career path. Someone who’s released roughly 5 projects in a near-thirty year history, Cherry is an artist who takes time to breathe and stew over ideas, rather than prolifically pump out material.  With the times increasingly looking utterly devastating, many folks who may not have had anything to say previously are feeling the need to get involved–perhaps the politics are Broken because everyone is feeling the need to get involved with the daily onslaught of devastation.

The album is primarily dedicated to similar material to this slow burning personal dissection, with the exception of one pop moment–the bouncing horn feel of “Natural Skin Deep.”  Perhaps the lack of stand-out material will not nail it into the history books, but Neneh Cherry remains a mature musical force both of the moment and out of time.

-Donovan Burtan


Tim Hecker-Konoyo: Album Review

There’s a variety of reactions to ambient music.  A genre that values waltzing around in a beautifully detailed but static–and of course, meterless–place, sometimes listening to an album can take its inhabitants on a emotional journey and other times the effect is more singular as if the listener has been staring at the same painting for an hour.  Crafting an especially textured landscape, Tim Hecker’s Konoyo feels like a group of lines coalescing to a center that doesn’t exist.  The bowels of Hecker’s deep, electronically crafted bass sounds swirl against dancing, high strings from the work of Japan’s Konoyo ensemble, all seemingly swept up into the fog of Hecker’s higher frequency electronic sounds.  The work is breathtaking and emotionally charged in it’s melodic choices, perhaps not making its fans into different people, but validating the ebb and flow of their introspection.

Now, of course this album has a more nuanced roadmap than say “The Disintegration Loops.”  The communication between Hecker and the rest of the ensemble is quite varied despite also achieving a somewhat singular emotive collage throughout.  We hear swells of Hecker’s bass sound accompanied by gestures from the instrumentalists at the very beginning and the two simultaneously increase and decrease their intensity throughout This Life, making for a natural, breathing effect.  The two musical forces are not joined at the hip for the whole album of course, there’s places where Hecker is alone, supplying a heave of electronic lights, and elsewhere the ensemble is left to its own devices.  Inflected with drums, the group can supply plenty of noise to stand on their own and particularly towards the tail end of In Mother Earth Phase, it’s as if the group is creating the sound of the beginning of the work acoustically.

As we continue to move into a new era in Hecker–one in which the synth mastermind scavenges the diverse world of instrumental world music to find new sounds to synthesize in his vision–we see how willing the composer is to adapt without losing his voice.  Konoyo is a new color for the musician to explore but even as his imprint shifts in and out of focus, the album maintains all of the qualities that make his work so capturing and forward thinking.

-Donovan Burtan