“Night-Blooming Cereus” by Protomartyr
Jesy Fortino, a.k.a. Tiny Vipers, is a Seattle-based musician best known for two LPs released on Sub Pop: Life on Earth (2009) and Hands Across the Void (2007). Laughter is the first Tiny Vipers release since Life on Earth, and with eight years between them, the two works share very little stylistic or sonic commonality. Where Life on Earth and Hands Across the Void offer quiet, serene acoustic guitar and hushed vocals, Laughter is largely an organic construction of moody soundscapes and ambient keyboard sketches. There is no acoustic guitar and scarce vocals. It's woven of a different fabric entirely.
The word “laughter” tends to evoke thoughts of carefree joviality, so it's somewhat amusing that an album by that title would contain no such sentiments. Rather their opposites. The mood on Laughter often feels unsettled, gloomy, and ponderous. All affability is absent.
Album opener “Boarding Charon's Boat” begins with haunted vocals floating nervously, as if trying to escape, above a pulsing, shifting electronic landscape that scrambles, agitated, into something akin to mania at its climax. Then the sudden segue into the disarming calm of “Crossing The River Of Yourself” — a track of such resonant beauty that it often echoes in my head unprompted.
Laughter's third track, “Living on a Curve”, has a wayward anxiety reminiscent of the most esoteric, lyricless tracks from Bowie's Berlin trilogy. It could probably sequence on the autistic second side of Low inconspicuously. Elsewhere, the scare-synth on “K.I.S.S.” and the album's title track evokes portentous unease suitable for a horror score, like a John Carpenter theme re-imagined.
Fortino's Sub Pop output garnered a devoted, if largely independent, following as well as some critical acclaim, and I could see where fans of those albums — and who aren't aware of her foray into brooding ambience with Mirroring, a collaboration with Grouper's Liz Harris — might be surprised by Laughter's stylistic about-face. But there is no cause for disappointment here. With Laughter, Fortino has given them, us, something wholly original — a kind of field recording from the unknown — that speaks to a creative vision far more interesting (IMO) and vast in scope than the more traditional singer/songwriter fare of her earlier work. Once you hear it it doesn't let go.
“Daydreaming” by Radiohead
SUMAC is Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) on drums, Brian Cook (Russian Circles, ex-Botch) on bass, and Aaron Turner (Old Man Gloom, ex-Isis) on guitar and vocals; three musicians with impressive resumes and who seem perfectly suited for this band, to the point where its very alchemy would dissolve if any one of them was swapped out for someone else. SUMAC may have begun as Turner's singular vision, but the two albums to date, The Deal (2015) and What One Becomes, proclaim a brilliant command of atmosphere, mood, and negative space that arguably could only have emerged from the sonic collision of these three specific players. Each contributes something irreplaceable to the band's dynamism.
Like its predecessor, What One Becomes is an exhilarating, no-nonsense collision of opposing forces: darkness and light; catastrophe and grace; creation and destruction. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album's colossal fourth track, “Blackout”, which swells and breaks across a landscape of sky-is-falling doom for 11 minutes, before erupting into a melodic expression of hope for its 6-minute coda.
It's rare to find a metal album that is both fraught and introspective, but What One Becomes is what it sounds like. There is a gravity to this record that is often so forceful escape seems impossible. Its heavy, deliberate pace seems to consume the listener completely. The result is more an experience — tension and release made audible — than a mere collection of songs, and, for me, its unique and prodigious impact was unequaled by any other album in 2016.
“Luna” by Deafheaven
Great new music was so abundant in 2015 that nearly half of the albums listed above were considered the favorite at one time or another. Then, on November 6, Noyaux by Benoit Pioulard was released, one of two new albums released by the Seattle-based musician in 2015 (the other, Sonnet, also made this list).
Noyaux came out of nowhere. Its sudden existence was one of those rare and thrilling surprises that are sadly infrequent in a digital, news-breaking culture that does its best to make surprises obsolete. I had heard no mention of the album before its release. I wasn't expecting it. Nor could I have expected its visceral impact, which, for me, was swift and profound.
Noyaux is a work of ethereal, wordless soundscapes, in a vein similar to Olan Mill or Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, but with slightly more space for the listener to dissolve into meditation. I find it unbelievably moving and yet near-impossible to describe. Possibly, it is the sound of the universe expanding. Or the sound of loss. Or perhaps it is the sound of the unconscious slowly, deliberately, unfolding itself.
However one might interpret it, Noyaux is pure sonic, cinematic transport. It's a powerful and hauntingly beautiful experience that elicits emotions that are seldom felt, or that maybe were never before known. That, I feel, is the purpose of all art, and here Pioulard has done it, and with only four tracks and twenty five minutes, and without words.
“Bells of Paonia” by The Fresh & Onlys
White Fence is the music of Tim Presley, a California-based musician who played previously in the hardcore punk band The Nerve Agents and the more psychedelic leaning Darker My Love. As White Fence (and with his other projects), Presley has been incredibly prolific, releasing six "studio" albums in the span of only four years (seven if you include his collaboration with Ty Segall, Hair; eight if you further include the amazing White Fence Live in San Francisco). The sound might be typecast as lo-fi, psychedelic, folk-rock, and/or garage-rock. (The word "studio" appears in quotes above because Presley reportedly self-recorded all but his latest album in his apartment.) A roll call of its influences might include, but certainly not be limited to: Syd Barrett's solo work, The Monkees, The Byrds, Count Five, The Electric Prunes, and Gram Parsons. I hear reminders, too, of many not-so-distant acts, like GoGoGo Airheart. White Fence might recall these and other similar acts, but it is not derivative. Presley takes his myriad influences and fuses them with his own distinct imagination and incredible songwriting ability to create something unique and unharnessed to any one sound or genre. White Fence is undeniably his.
For The Recently Found Innocent seems to build off the momentum of the wonderfully raucous full-band sound caught on ...Live in San Francisco, and that was hinted at with Hair and last year's Cyclops Reap. Segall mixed For The Recently Found Innocent, and his exterior input complements these songs nicely and gives them added presence. It still sounds like music made by a man alone in a room, but the room feels larger and it's filled with new things for him to play with. The result is Presley's most fully-dressed album to date, but one that, thankfully, doesn't distance itself from the early sparse, lo-fi offerings that introduced White Fence.
“Dream House” by Deafheaven
Sometime in the Spring of 2013 an image appeared on the Instagram feed of the independent record label Deathwish. The image was beautifully sparse, with only a single word — SUNBATHER — spelled out across three rows of text in elegant, minimal type against a soft orange-pinkish background. Whole stems, crossbars, and shoulders of letters seemed to disappear completely into the soft tones behind them. I assumed it was an album cover though it didn't look like any album cover I had ever seen. I was mesmerized. Further reading revealed it was the cover art (designed by Nick Steinhardt of Touché Amoré) of the forthcoming album by the band Deafheaven from San Francisco. Somehow the band had eluded me to that point, but they now had my attention.
When Sunbather was officially released, on June 11, 2013, I listened to it soon after I awoke (I somehow summoned the willpower to avoid all prior leaks). I was immediately consumed by the opening track “Dream House”, with its cascading wash of guitars, frantic drums, and the tense, controlled screams of vocalist George Clarke. This was something incredible. Its formula — epic, genre-crossing crescendos of frantic, moody aggression, paced by impenetrable blast beats, suddenly braking to swells of disarmingly pretty guitar interludes — is replicated across Sunbather's duration. The result is an album of beautiful ferocious melody — at times blistering and discordant, otherwise tranquil and contemplative. It's an album with great emotional resonance equal parts devastating, haunting and lovely — the sum of which delivers a visceral impact that is immediate and relentless. It's the kind of album I always hope to discover, and that broadens my perception of what music is capable of in sound and vision.