REVIEW: MARCH ’21 LISTENING TRAIL

RECORD OF THE MONTH

PUPIL SLICER – Mirrors
[Mathcore – UK – Prosthetic / Trepanation]

Screaming and smashing their way into the hearts of the UK underground metal scene come Pupil Slicer with their debut album Mirrors. The relative newcomers have rightly become one of the most talked about acts in a scene already bursting with immense talent. Like you’d expect from their Un Chien Andalou referencing name, Pupil Slicer’s music grabs you by the throat, kicks you about and cuts you in the eyes with their dizzying blend of mathcore, death, grind and industrial converging into a whirlwind of sonic violence, chaotic dissonance and spellbinding rhythmic complexity. Opening track ‘Martyrs’ is a mission statement if there other was one, beginning with a quiet escalating drone and bursting into an onslaught of jagged staccato riffs, shrieks, growls and blasting drums with tempos and rhythms that won’t sit still for a second. Right in the middle of the song, Pupil Slicer’s dense union breaks apart only briefly to reveal the agonising screams of the tortured protagonist whom embodies the narrative of this album.

Laced together with some geeky film and video game references lies a deep reflection of the self. In just 47 seconds, ‘Stabbing Spiders’ uncovers so much more than just aggression and brutality at the heart of Pupil Slicer’s music as vocalist and guitarist Katie Davies reveals; “False living, I’m scared of becoming neurotic, / It’s fucking over my life / Withering this frail form that leaves me ruins of a forgotten past / A life that is gone.” At it’s heart, Mirrors is an album of self-analysis and the anxieties, fears and expectations that come with transitioning; looking at oneself and perhaps not liking or seeing correctly the person gazing back, then finding catharsis through music in facing those daily fears. On it’s surface, Mirrors has so much packed into it’s forty minute run time that there are too many highlights to zone in on, from the hyperactive riff gymnastics of ‘Husk’ to the sprawling sludgy pace of ‘Mirrors Are More Fun Than Television’ and beyond. Whether a song lasts less than a minute or spreads out to seven, the musicianship and presentation is constantly engaging, sweaty, intense, challenging but also a heap of fun. Pupil Slicer are easily the most worthy contenders to fill the void left by the disbandment of mathcore heroes The Dillinger Escape Plan, with the ability to go toe to toe on festival circuits with the likes of Code Orange and Nails. Mirrors is an absolute workout for the senses delivered through sublime performances, detailed production and a confident sound. For all it’s aggression and sonic carnage that lays on the surface, underneath Pupil Slicer present a compelling, emotional and truly touching personal study of ones own battle with their mental health and dysphoria. “Fear can’t kill you, but the spiteful thoughts are never ending / Vision distorted, hatred reflected”. Pupil Slicer go all in.

CLARK – Playground In A Lake
[Orchestral, Electronic – UK – Deutsche Grammophon / Throttle]

Clark has long been one of Britain’s leading lights in the world of ambient techno and a mainstay of the legendary Warp Records roster, but the eclectic producer is also a keen multi-instrumentalist and has recently been exploring the word of score composition. From 2016’s original score for BBC TV thriller The Last Panthers, through to Kiri and Daniel Isn’t Real, Clark has composed with orchestral and string ensemble pieces, taking something of a break from the world of electronic club music. This latest full-length Playground In A Lake takes the ideas of their recent soundtracks and creates something of a score to an imaginary film. Clark collaborates with two string ensembles across Berlin and Budapest respectively, as well as bringing a delightful banquet of classical instruments from violin, cello, piano and even choral vocals. Playground In The Lake still sounds very contemporary though, and Clark meticulously explores the connections between natural instruments and digital production. For all the sweeping strings, angelic voices and sparkling piano to be heard, there are plenty of recording manipulations too, brought over from the electronic producer mindset of Clark. ‘Earth Systems’ sounds like Tangerine Dream being sucked into a black hole, with so much dark and twisted sound manipulation going on that it becomes hard to make out the original sources. ‘Disguised Foundation’ tugs and pulls on vocal takes until they sound alien and dreamlike, whilst ‘Shut You Down’ transforms a cello into a devouring sub-bass with tampered field recordings of trains whooshing by.

Is Playground In A Lake what long-term Clark fans are wanting to hear? Probably not, but those who are excited by the musicianship and production of Clark, and the way they construct sound design and composition so impressively should find plenty to appreciate here. In this grand hour of music, so much ground is covered with such a variety of instrumentation and flavoursome production techniques that there is always something new and exciting to discover with every track. In some ways, there are almost too many eclectic, wild and ambitious ideas at play that it makes the album flow of this record over-cumbersome and a somewhat tiring to experience in one go, even if individual tracks have so much to admire. Like soundtracks so often are, the listening experience is so wide and spins so many sonic plates that the vision as a whole can become incoherent. Playground In A Lake is a very personal statement, sounding the like the record was made for Clark alone as a way to pour out every ounce of musicianship and soundplay within them, and successfully expanding on their own masterful approach to composition and production in the process. Though all these ideas can barely be contained in one hour long record, it proves that Clark has the capability to go just about anywhere with their sound.

LANA DEL REY – Chemtrails Over The Country Club
[Art Pop, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Interscope]

Much like Taylor Swift’s journey to re-record and reclaim their own back catalogue, Lana Del Rey feels like they have very much reached an artistic peak of total creative control where they have absolutely nobody to answer to but themselves. Del Rey closed off the decade with a modern masterpiece, 2019’s raw, revelatory and heartfelt opus Norman Fucking Rockwell. Funnily enough, this was quickly followed up with Del Rey’s worst record by far, the ill thought out spoken word poetry album Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass, as well as teasing a bunch of other material in the pipeline including this release. Though Violet may have been an album we quickly want to brush under the carpet, it did capture this turning point for Lana Del Rey becoming an artist who can now dare to do anything. It really did leave fans and critics in a state of bewilderment where the long promo and teaser rollout leading up to Chemtrails Over The Country Club kept us guessing and on our toes because at this point we had no idea what we might be in store for.

Thankfully, for the most part, Chemtrails is more or less the “typical Lana” album we wanted, but I say that loosely because it’s not really a typical album at all. I guess followers of Del Rey’s work are just glad it’s not another spoken word album or some wild deviation in style. If you skip Violet as just some weird anomaly, then Chemtrails feels like the true successor to Norman Fucking Rockwell, and it has some incredibly big and fabulous shoes to fill. In some ways the album opens exactly where NFR left off with breath-taking finale ‘Hope Is A Dangerous Thing’, Del Rey’s rawest and most stripped back song to date with just their voice, some incredibly personal lyrics and a creaking piano. The song’s dying breaths saw a rare switch to a higher vocal register sang with so much desperation that it could easily give you a lump in your throat. Chemtrails opener ‘White Dress’ mirrors this wonderfully, starting with a lone, sparse piano melody and with Del Rey diving deeper into that falsetto vocal range. Like on NFR, the lyrics take on more of a storytelling angle reminiscing about days gone by “listening to White Stripes when they were white hot, / working as a waitress down in Orlando”. It’s one of Del Rey’s most astonishing album openers with many of the verses starting with the phrasing “Down in…” with each rendition of this line having an uncomfortable delivery where their voice sounds on the verge of breaking. It’s really something. The title track on the other hand is classic Lana Del Rey through and through with sleepy baritone vocals, sweeping strings and a huge chorus making for a perfect lead single.

Sadly the rest of the album never quite follows on this early peak of excellence and is something of a muddle. ‘Let Me Love You Like A Woman’, is another strong highlight that sounds like a more simplified take on something that could have been on NFR. There are a handful of songs on the album that dive into influences of country and Americana such as ‘Yosemite’ and ‘Breaking Up Slowly’ that whilst admirable, just aren’t as stirring as Del Rey’s usual grip on balladry. Then you have the token trap and trip-hop influenced tracks ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’ and ‘Dark But Just A Game’ that don’t quite hit the sweet spot. In terms of a structured album, Chemtrails has some really strong highlights, but feels unfocused, like Del Rey is torn between exploring old sounds and moving forwards to new ones, whilst not quite conquering either. It also lacks the astonishing consistency of NFR, which not only had many of Del Rey’s greatest tracks to date, but felt like one large story. Chemtrails in comparison is certainly worth exploring, but feels lopsided and unsure of its own direction.

GAZELLE TWIN & NYX – Deep England
[Ritual Ambient, Choral – UK – NYX Collective]

Deep England acts a companion piece to Gazelle Twin’s 2018 Pastoral album, working with the NYX choir to completely reconstruct songs from that record, as opposed to acting like a remix album. This collaborative reworking takes compositional elements and motifs from Pastoral and transforms them from the electronic art-pop akin to Bjork and FKA Twigs of the original album, into something that sounds like it could be an alternative score to Robert Egger’s cult horror film The VVitch. The London based NYX choir take these baroque and medieval folklore influences that Pastoral embodied and expands on them much further, emphasising on the gothic darkness within. Whilst Pastoral had a playful energy and plenty of up-tempo moments, Deep England completely squashes those vibes into something much more sparse played at an ominous droning pace. Electronic beats and percussion are largely absent entirely, with swelling black holes of eerie bass and pitch-shifted demonic vocals leading you through the spooky woods and tumbling down the rabbit hole. The first half of the album is slightly more accessible and rests on choral music’s traditions with the complimentary vocal performances being more intelligible and harmonic, with plenty of drama. ‘Glory’ is a hell of a transformation, now sounding reminiscent of Dead Can Dance, whilst in the latter stretch ‘Jerusalem’, which on the original album was a mere minute long interlude, now becomes an eerie seven minute take on the traditional hymn. As Deep England journeys on, things get much more twisted, distorted and surreal. The title track, a new composition entirely, moulds the NYX choir voices into disturbing, nightmarish sounds that become inhuman. By the conclusion of the album, the choral elements transform into dark ambient sounds somewhat reminiscent of the more menacing sides of the hauntology artists found on the Ghost Box label. Though the intentions of this collaborative reworking are very different from the original Pastoral album, Deep England is a striking beast in its own right that compliments the original piece well despite reaching into entirely different sounds and structures, becoming Gazelle’s Evil Twin if you will.

THE HYENA KILL – A Disconnect
[Alternate Metal – UK – APF]

It takes a lot for a band to decide to double their line-up but that’s exactly the creative risk that Manchester’s The Hyena Kill have taken. Their explosive debut album and reputation as a fierce live act was made wholly operating as a duo; the vocals and guitar playing of Steven Dobb and the powerhouse drumming of Lorna Blundell. For this second full length, The Hyena Kill leave behind a part of their garage-punk past in order to expand their sound and create something with more depth and variety, which A Disconnect certainly delivers on. Adding a second guitarist and a bass player to the line-up has filled in gaps you didn’t know were there without necessarily sacrificing the intensity and the stripped down majesty of what made the band to begin with. Opening track proper, ‘Passive Disconnect’ acts as a statement of intent, finding familiar fiery riffs and a post-hardcore energy in the choruses but also inviting new found textures and a thicker and more melodic sound. ‘Cauterised’ opens up far more space in the mix and the patient clean guitar build up and slow pulsing drums become new waters for The Hyena Kill to immerse themselves in. ‘Witness’ has an enormous and anthemic chorus that is expertly built up and offers a satisfying climax. And for those who might be lamenting their punk rock energy, the aptly titled ‘Bleached’ bulldozes your brain like a modern day Nirvana song.

If there are some shortcomings, at times The Hyena Kill sound too steeped in their influences throughout, fondly channelling 2000s British post-hardcore, but more noticeably ‘Close Enough’ ironically closesly borrows vocal lines and inflections straight from Chino Moreno and Deftones’ Koi No Yokan sound. You can also hear bits and pieces of Smashing Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle creeping through a bit too close to the surface, but it’s only a minor distraction as the record gets stronger towards it’s close. ‘Glass Scene’ could well be the most affecting song here; a languid and dreamy slow-burner where Dobb ponders “This is not real / This is not happening” sounding lost in their own personal mire; which also happens to be the title of the post-rock inspired spectacular finale. Another soul-searching slow paced wonder with some gorgeous clean guitar driving the second half. The song plays like a whisper all the way through until finally breaking into an emotional and thundering climax, even if only for a brief dying breath. A Disconnect is the sound of bravery; a band hell-bent on expanding and evolving not just their sound but their entire being. Though the riffier songs bring a great energy, there is really something to be said about this record’s most sombre moments, offering a new side to their personalities. I feel like the quartet can go even further with these experimentations in the future and finding a more unique sound with them, but as it stands, A Disconnect is a mighty fine change of pace.

DJ MUGGS THE BLACK GOAT – Dies Occidedum
[Hip-Hop – USA – Sacred Bones]

Legendary producer DJ Muggs is best known for their work with hip-hop icons Cypress Hill, as well as having an even larger discography of solo works, collaborations and producer credits behind them. Even so, there is still room for experimentation and doing something outside of the box. Dies Occidedum feels like something of a sidestep, embracing contemporary trap production and a full on gothic horror atmosphere, also making an unlikely yet oh so welcome collaboration with experimental no genres barred label Sacred Bones Records. Grimey, dark and cinematic sounding beats have already been established as something as a signature for DJ Muggs, especially on Cypress Hill’s wicked III: Temples Of Boom album from back in 1995; but here Muggs steps out of the hip-hop comfort zone to create something equally dark and evil sounding, but with a different flavour. ‘The Chosen One’ pairs ritualistic choral vocals that sound like they could be taken from The Omen over merciless banging trap beats and booming sub-bass. ‘Liber Null’ is eerie and spacey, with stripped back rattling hi-hats and an unsettling panning of noise that creates the feel of wind blowing creaking old wooden doors open in an classic Roger Corman Poe adaptation, or perhaps a Hammer Horror flick. ‘Subconscious’ sounds like it could have come straight off of Zomby’s Dedication album, with insane trap beats that threaten to break the scale on the trap-o-meter. The album runs at just over thirty minutes and feels a little bitesize, almost like these beats could be showcased for emcees to be paired up with. However standing on its own, it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome and has enough of a unifying sound and vibe to make it feel special; not to mention these beats bang hard. The awesome ‘Nigrum Mortem’ is the only track to truly break away from the pack, channelling Cypress Hill’s rock tendencies with a swampy and stoned psych rock jam. Dies Occidedum is an album that sounds exactly how the album cover looks.

PARANNOUL – To See The Next Part Of The Dream
[Emo, Shoegaze, Math Rock – South Korea – Self-Released]

South Korea’s Parannoul are seemingly the project of just one person which is surprising since they sound like a full band on this sophomore record which combines elements of shoegaze, emo and math rock very well together, like if American Football, Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine decided to merge into one entity. This one person bedroom project has exploded and with next to no PR has become a hit on Bandcamp and one of the most talked about releases in the indiesphere, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. The first hurdle to get over when listening to this album is that the mixing and recording clarity is quite rough in places, with plenty of hiss and there can be a lack of space and sonic detail in some of the more dense sections of this lengthy album. However the murky overdriven shoegaze guitars, mumbly vocals and choppy drums are complimented very well with some excellent piano and/or keyboard accompaniments. No matter how noisy and muddy the guitars get, there are often some dazzling keys to offset them, both brightening up the sound and enhancing the melodies. To See The Next Part Of The Dream is a little more ambitious than the scope of what the bedroom recording production can handle, but that is where Parannoul’s charm lays. Across these ten wonderful tracks are a great mixture of melancholy and hopeful feelings. The compositions are often dynamic and always feel like they are heading towards something, reflected especially well on ten minute epic ‘White Ceiling’. The title track is a fantastic example of how Parannoul blend their influences so well, with these clean pinging guitar melodies that pierce through the mix sounding just like classic American Football, and yet the hazy vocals could have come straight off Alcest’s debut album. Repeat listens have been rewarding, as with the album being so tightly layered and running at over an hour there is a lot to unpack here, but this opus is loaded with feeling and has this triumphant tenderness that reflects an artist creating something big out of the small setup they are working in. Head over to Bandcamp now and give Parannoul some love.

PORTAL TO THE GOD DAMN BLOOD DIMENSION
Rotten Fruit; Regular Orchard
[Post-Rock, Screamo – USA – Ripcord]

One of my superb Bandcamp discoveries of the month comes from this Salt Lake City, US based ensemble with the unforgettable name Portal To The God Damn Blood Dimension. A common thread that I’m finding in newer artists lately is the pairing of subgenres that don’t often go together. In a similar vein to French trio Lorem Ipsum and Canadian ensemble Respire, Portal merge together elements of screamo and chamber music, yet all three have a very distinct sound and means of composition. Lorem Ipsum cut out guitars and drums completely, zoning in on non-rock instrumentation, whilst Respire’s loud racket is incredibly dense and fiery with lots of compositional twists and turns. Considering Portal have strings, brass, woodwind, screaming vocals and spoken word sections across these lengthy sprawling tracks, you’d think there might be a lot going on but it’s surprising just how sparse and minimal their sound is. The first side-length piece ‘Want’ runs at just over twenty minutes, and gradually transcends through different sections built on the ebbs and flows of post-rock reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whilst the pulse ‘Ashes’ builds from a spoken word story and a gently plucked violin is almost too simple to be true. What really surprises me about Portal is just how much space each instrument is given. Rarely is the mix dense and suffocating, even during the intense explosive sections that eventually come, complete with screaming vocals and thundering distorted guitars. The violins are given so much space to wander delicately whilst spoken word segments are sometimes completely uninterrupted by the other musicians. Across Rotten Fruit; Regular Orchard, Portal prove to be masters of emphasising silence as a compositional element. For an album that has over ten performers and at least eight different instruments involved, it is astonishing how quiet and thoughtful this record really is. And when those heavy moments do come it makes them all the more impactful. Portal’s coming together as a performing ensemble allows each musician to make as much as an impact playing solo as they do becoming one force. Some of the quietest and most solemn moments here sound akin to the early works of A Silver Mt Zion. At times there is so much sonic space you could easily hear a pin drop, and yet the band still manage to present something that sounds as apocalyptic, tortured, anarchist and melancholic as Godspeed before them.

SUGAR WOUNDS – Calico Dreams
[Grindcore, Post-Metal – USA – Self-Released]

Sugar Wounds is seemingly a one person cybergrind project from US resident Matt Miller, though information is scarce, with all their music released for free on Bandcamp and only a picture of a cat as a promo image. This second full-length is really something though, especially when approached from the perspective of grindcore, in which the basis of Sugar Wounds’ sound lays. Calico Dreams certainly subverts your expectations with three and a half minute opening track ‘Every Colour’ luring you in with dreamy electronics and slowly strummed shoegazing clean guitars. It’s not until half way into the song when the blistering brutality tears in with blasting programmed drums, ripping guitars and screams that have a blackened screamo tinge to them. The shift from radiant ambience into chaotic grind is made less jarring with a continual focus on shimmering electronic textures, really capturing a unique perspective that isn’t often heard in grindcore circles.

What really fascinates about Calico Dreams is that the longest tracks here are the most impressive. Five minute centrepiece ‘Semi-Burnt Sugar’ is absolutely transcendent, sounding like Discordance Axis jamming with Deafheaven. No matter how fast the blasts get or how manic the screams get, the overall vibe is blissful and colourful, and the dynamics of the song hold up really well across a timespan that could usually fit 5 different songs in grindcore. The last couple of minutes of this track shift into post-rock inspired territory almost reminiscent of Three Trapped Tigers as thundering slow-paced guitar chords collide with playful synths. In fact, this album’s shortest track ‘I Quit’ is the only slight dud as across these 56 seconds Sugar Wounds perform something more atypically grind, but at less than a minute long it’s certainly not too much of a blotch on this wonderful record. The album’s seven minute grand finale ‘Goodnight, Midnight’ is really something, going all in on a post-metal structure that has a range of moods, tempo changes and again has a strong focus on bright textures and a bittersweet feeling resonates throughout. By the end of this record you feel like you’ve gone on a journey in just over twenty minutes where Sugar Wounds have transformed into a different beast entirely. I would love to see Sugar Wounds expand into a live outfit with a human drummer, as during some of this album’s most diverse and ambitious moments the artificial sound of the programmed drums doesn’t quite carry the same expressive qualities as everything else Miller is pulling off. Regardless, Calico Dreams is a really astonishing fusion of metal and hardcore subgenres that turns an often savage set of sounds into something dreamy, emotional and very colourful.

XIU XIU – OH NO
[Avant-Pop, Post-Industrial – USA – Polyvinyl]

Experimental US artist Jamie Stewart AKA Xiu Xiu has amassed a cult following and a huge discography drawing from so many sounds and styles over the past twenty years. 2019’s Girl With Basket Of Fruit album was almost impenetrably avant-garde, sounding like nothing else made that year. In some ways this follow up album OH NO is a breath of fresh air, standing as one of the more accessible albums in the pantheon of the Xiu Xiu discography. OH NO presents fifteen duets pairing Stewart’s baritone voice (which sounds somewhere between David Bowie and Nick Cave) with a great cast of familiar artists including Grouper, Chelsea Wolfe, Alice Bag, Sharon Van Etten, Owen Pallett as well as members of Deerhoof, Drab Majesty, Liars and more.

In terms of musicianship, OH NO is only accessible in the context of Stuart’s own body of work, and still presents a rather experimental sound pallet. Song structures are warped and unpredictable with an emphasis on surreal percussion, ominous synths and haunting atmospheric textures. ‘Goodbye For Good’ climaxes with what sounds like a beating gong and dramatic cymbals over a droning bass, with an atmosphere reminiscent to Stanley Kubrick film The Shining; and yet Stewart’s duet with Grouper’s Liz Harris is a colourful, playful and summery dream-pop wonder. OH NO is a real mixed bag of a record that offers some strong highlights but largely will be engaged by how much you like each collaborator. Sometimes the strangeness of the compositions feel at odds with the guest performers, usually leaving Stewart’s own voice outmatched.

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