REVIEW: NOVEMBER ’21 LISTENING TRAIL

RECORD OF THE MONTH

TAYLOR SWIFT – Red (Taylor’s Version)
[Pop Rock, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Republic]

When the original Red album was released back in 2012 I was listening to lots of edgier anti-mainstream music and would avoid radio and pop chart music at all costs. This wasn’t just because I was trying to be a cool 20-something (okay it was partly that), but pop and chart music at this time was at an all time low. Singles meant more than albums, and the landscape of pop was still being dominated by the Simon Cowell X-Factor machine, favouring vocal gymnastics and bland, formulaic R&B leaning production. That and just about every hit single had to have a guest rap verse! Not to say that all pop music was like this, but it was kind of a dirty word at the time. However, working in retail, hearing Taylor Swift’s Red album was unavoidable… It was a cultural phenomenon that largely saw Swift leaving behind their country roots. And as much as I hated to admit it at the time, I was really drawn to this album and it even helped me get through that busy Christmas period. Fast forward to 2021 and pop music has gone through a renaissance; many of my favourite records being released now are by pop artists, and it feels like the genre has in some cases got harder, edgier and more creative than the independent metal, electronica and hip-hop that I so adore. I mean there are few records of recent times that go as hard and nasty as Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, or as deranged as Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, or tugged at my heartstrings as much as Taylor Swift’s Folklore. Who knew that the squeaky clean Taylor Swift would also transform into a total badass girlboss too, sticking it to former label Big Machine by re-recording all the material that they own the masters to in order to freeze them out as well as changing the music industry forever!

Red (Taylor’s Version) is the second in Swift’s series of re-recorded albums following Fearless (Taylor’s Version) earlier this year, and it sits in this interesting limbo between being a re-issue and a new studio album. It’s kind of both; the exact same tracklist from the 2012 release, re-recorded faithfully in the spirit of the originals, only with a more mature vocal performance from Swift, and a more earthy production from the new collaborative production team featuring Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner. What really fascinates me about these 2021 versions is just how resonant these ten year old songs sound today. From start to finish, Red is packed to the brim with irresistibly catchy songs, huge melodies, dynamic songwriting and touching lyrics, all coming from a loveable protagonist who has written and performed all of these songs that document the many feelings that came with a tough breakup. Sure a few of these tracks are a little obviously radio-friendly bubblegum pop. ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was a huge song back in 2012, and whilst it’s very fun, it doesn’t feel like the kind of song Swift would pen today (especially after hearing the Folklore and Evermore albums). Same goes for the playful ’22’ and ‘Stay Stay Stay’, although I do still enjoy these tracks. But there are some absolutely remarkable singles and deep cuts that sound better now than I ever remembered. ‘State Of Grace’ is a powerful anthem that is always driving forwards with rumbling bass and pounding kick drums, whilst ‘Trecherous’ highlights the brilliance of Taylor Swift’s understanding of great pop music to a tee. It’s one of those songs where the bridge is so friggin’ good that I am tricked into thinking it’s the main chorus… So that when that big chorus does come it’s almost too good to handle. I feel like I’ve been knocked off my chair every time those power-pop electric guitars rip in as Swift sings “I will get you alone!” Even a duet with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody (o_o) is remarkably beautiful and affecting, and a guest spot from Ed Sheeran can’t even bring down how much I enjoy this record (it’s certainly the only good thing Sheeran has done this year).

For those who feel a bit cynical about Swift re-recording an old album, there is still a whole extra disc of new (but old, but kinda new) material, featuring bonus tracks from the Red era and some songs that were merely ideas and sketches at the time that have now been fleshed out. This extra disc of material is equally as brilliant as the main feature, and feels more in tune to the works that Swift is writing today. ‘I Bet You Think About Me’ is a devilish duet with country singer Chris Stapleton that really brings out Swift’s naughty sense of humour, sounding like a spiritual successor to 1989‘s ‘Blank Space’ and Evermore‘s ‘No Body, No Crime’, where Swift brings in meta humour and plays up to to their own media perception, “Oh my god, she’s insane, she wrote a song about me!” ‘Nothing New’ featuring Phoebe Bridgers is hands down one of the best things I’ve ever heard. Like when I heard the news that these two would be collaborating I nearly died with excitement! The two bounce of each other incredibly well in what sounds like a pure melancholic folk ballad… Holy shit… Just listen to it…

But even that isn’t the best part because Swift has taken one of Red‘s original songs and beloved fan favourite deep cut, ‘All Too Well’ and has expanded it into – And let’s get the title correct here… ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)’… Just rolls off the tongue right!? Now THIS!!! THIS. IS. THE. BEST. THING. EVER!!! I usually try and avoid such hyperbole but this song has just broken me! It actually takes on a very unique and clever approach because the original five minute version (also on disc one) was a song about painstakingly reminiscing over Swift’s hard breakup with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, and really zoning in on those memories using a lost scarf as the catalyst for telling this epic romance story. But this 2021 version goes one (or five minutes) extra, expanding the original song with extra lyrics, so Swift is looking back on this relationship from both their 22 year old mind and their 32 year old mind at the same time! That’s some Christopher Nolan Inception shit right there, but damn, it makes for a really interesting concept and Swift absolutely nails it. If you’d asked me back in 2012, I didn’t think I’d be demanding Taylor Swift be nominated to be the poet laureate, but DAMN! Swift observes love and heartbreak on the same epic scale as the likes of Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen right here. There are so many incredible deep lines and metaphors as this ten minute version plays just as wordy as a rap song. “You taught me about your past thinking your future was me, / You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.” Swift sings with this frantic, maniacal energy, defeated and battle-torn, searching through old letters and belongings desperately trying to make sense of the pain and despair that has fallen upon them. The use of observational lyrics, characters and storytelling here is second to none, with enough material for Swift to even direct a short film that expands the narrative of this song. I feel like Swift deserves a standing ovation for creating one of the best breakup songs of all time right here.

To me it doesn’t matter that this is a re-recording and re-envisioning of ten year old songs because the majority of this album is still relevant and resonant today. Hearing these new versions, I’ve enjoyed this record more now than I ever would have before, and even though I remembered all these songs from the first time around, they’ve really hit me right now. Obviously some fans will have connected to the originals back in 2012 more, but even still, all of the extra content sees Swift bringing their A-game so much that I don’t even care if it’s not technically new original material. Swift is changing the landscape of pop music and challenging the way the industry is run and I’m totally here for it.

MIRA CALIX – Absent Origin
[Electronica, Musique Concrete – South Africa – Warp]

Multi-disciplinary composer, DJ, visual artist and just about anything creative you can think of merchant Mira Calix returns with a new studio album which may have the most misleading cover art I’ve seen this year. What looks like the sleeve to a bubblegum pop album holds within a very dark, unsettling and mind-scrambling host of sounds that borders on sounding like a score to an occult horror film. Calix draws from a wealth of experience in creating electronic music, experimental theatre and classical works, constructing Absent Origin through meticulous sound collage production techniques.

Right off the bat, ‘A Mark Of Resistance’ sets the tone, built from off-kilter clicking and popping percussion that also draws in these scary banshee wails, and most surprisingly, energetic gang rap vocals. ‘There Is Always A Girl With A Secret’ rhythmically reminds me of Autechre’s legendary ‘Fold4, Wrap5’, as the song tempo speeds up and slows down in waves, disorienting the listener with grinding bass grooves, yet is still somehow one of the more accessible cuts here. ‘Bower Of Bliss’ sounds like a twisted electro-pop song that has been tied onto a conveyor belt and is slowly awaiting its doom before a meat grinder. ‘Like Jenga’ is just a pure rager built on a pulsing beat with noisy synths, and as with many of the tracks here, Calix carves these strange vocal noises, like a bizarre union between Liz Frasier and Meredith Monk.

Absent Origin is a very, very challenging record and one that many could be turned off by immediately, but I strongly admire the way that Calix finds intricate ways to pair sounds, moods, styles and noises that feel like they shouldn’t work together, yet somehow do. Absent Origin plays out like the devil’s answer to DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… utilising sampling and collage production and composition yet going to uncomfortable and twisted places. Calix combines a whole host of bizarre vocal and percussive sounds, yet I feel like I understand and admire this labyrinthine record more and more through repeat listens. If you like avant-garde music, horror film scores, 80s electro, Autechre, hauntology and tribal music then you should hopefully find this a deeply immersive experience.

CIRCUIT DES YEUX – -io
[Neoclassical Darkwave, Baroque Pop – USA – Matador]

Every now and then an artist I’ve never heard of crosses my path and blows my mind, and I mistakenly assume they must be new but then I look it up and I realise that this is in fact their seventh album and wonder how on earth I’ve missed out on them ’til now. This is exactly the case with US artist Circuit Des Yeux and I just want to punch myself for being so late to the party. With this in mind, I can’t really compare this new record with their previous works, but I certainly want to backtrack through their discography. The best way I can describe -io is operatic lounge darkwave… 0.0 … If that makes any kind of sense at all!?

Vocalist and brainchild Hayley Fohr has this incredibly powerful and dramatic singing baritone that sounds like they’ve definitely come from an opera background. Across the entire record, Fohr delivers a gripping, energetic, relentless and versatile vocal performance that is enough alone to give this album plenty of flavour. Of course, musically, the compositions are great too taking in elements of art pop, baroque and darkwave. Opener ‘Vanishing’ is an immediate banger, sounding like a James Bond theme from a parallel universe. The way the powerful strings dominate and wrap around Fohr’s soaring croons just sounds instantly gripping. ‘Argument’ takes things to more classical inspired heights with the rock influences diminishing, allowing dramatic strings to strike and swirl into something very theatrical. ‘Neutron Star’ is reminiscent of Scott Walker’s ’60s baroque pop works with an equally menacing and unsettled vocal from Fohr, even adding in a horn section and shuffling drums. Penultimate track ‘Stanger’ is easily the most stirring and emotionally resonant track, with Fohr sounding remarkably similar to Kristin Hayter (Lingua Ignota) who also comes from an opera background. Fohr’s performance here will really shake you to the core as their anguished screams sound like dying gasps.

-io is the kind of record that gives you a lot of food for thought. Circuit Des Yeux have created something thoroughly eclectic that can’t be pinned down to one sound. It’s also accessible and challenging in equal measure, pulling the listener in early on, but then saving the weirder and more abstract ideas for later into the record. Fortunately you totally go with it because the production and musicianship is outstanding, and the centrepiece Hayley Fohr delivers a vocal performance that just gives you everything and takes you to so many places.

CONVERGE & CHELSEA WOLFE – Bloodmoon I
[Post-Metal, Gothic Rock – USA – Deathwish Inc. / Epitaph]

First conceived at Roadburn Festival 2016 as a special collaborative performance, Bloodmoon sees Massachusetts metalcore titans Converge teaming up with Chelsea Wolfe and Stephen Brodsky (Cave In, Mutoid Man, Old Man Gloom) to create a new set of songs. At long last, this union has converged (yeah I went there) into the first part of a studio album. Though Converge are best known for their blistering and highly influential sounds in developing mathcore and cutthroat hardcore, they’ve always flirted with sludgy post-metal sounds over the years, including fan favourites ‘Jane Doe’, ‘Grim Heart / Black Rose’ and ‘Eve’. As a long term fan, I’ve always loved the idea of Converge exploring their post-metal influences even further and Bloodmoon I is practically the answer to my desires.

This is easily Converge’s most meditative, cerebral and slowest tempo album to date, but it is by no means lacking in intensity and energy. ‘Viscera Of Men’ is still a ravaging force, opening with Ben Koller’s trademark animalistic and lively drum attack, before switching up tempo into a full on epic doom metal riff merely twenty seconds in. Chelsea Wolfe brings an eerie witchlike cackle and this song is frequently morphing through interesting moods and dynamics. Chelsea Wolfe brings more than just fantastic vocal performances though, and their influence can really be felt in the dark folk arpeggios that dominate the superb ‘Coil’. There are a lot more keys and synths making their way into Converge’s sound than ever before and they all implemented exceptionally well to compliment the occult lyrical themes across this record. The eerie keys really shine on the devlish ‘Flower Moon’ which has this irresistible twisting bass groove. Stephen Brodsky’s influence really stands out on this track, acting as a mediator between the ferocity of Converge and the ethereal gloom of Chelsea Wolfe.

For all of Bloodmoon‘s focus on atmosphere and texture, there are still plenty of visceral, blood-pumping moments including the superb ‘Lord Of Liars’, which is one of the most immediate and catchy tunes that any of these artists will ever make. At three minutes long it is just an absolute gem that has this anthemic quality. Even though Jacob Bannon and Chelsea Wolfe have vastly different vocal ranges, they bounce off one another so perfectly. The more sorrowful and patiently building cuts such as ‘Failure Forever’ and ‘Crimson Stone’ are also mightily impressive tracks that really find the best elements that each collaborator brings to the table and runs with them. In particular, when ‘Crimson Stone’ reaches its heavy finale and all the vocalists converge (hey I did it again), it’s a true spine-tingling moment.

Bloodmoon shouldn’t necessarily be looked at as “the next Converge album”. Even with them receiving top billing, it feels like this could have been released under the band name Bloodmoon. It truly feels like a collaborative piece where each artist is bringing their best qualities but also pushing into new places and stepping out of their comfort zones. Even if you are just a fan of one of these artists, I feel like there is plenty to appreciate here, but if you – like myself – are a fan of all three, then this is very much an early Christmas present.

ENDLESS BOOGIE – Admonitions
[Blues Rock, Psychedelic Rock – USA – No Quarter]

Endless Boogie are definitely a band who live the fuck upto their name, and Admonitions is the proof! This epic toe-tapper of an album opens with a 23-minute long blues rock boogie-down jam, ‘The Offender’. And there’s no waiting around, no long intro… Nope, they get straight to it. I hope you like that hook at the start, because it never changes up! Not. Even. Once. There are these gruff cookie monster vocals at the beginning and close of the track, and then in-between we are treated to a spattering of one-note guitar soloing. It probably sounds boring on paper, but it really reminded me of the extended noodling found on Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Psychedelic Pill album. Fortunately, I had my toe-tapping and my head-a-bopping the entire way through because the groove – and thus the boogie – is so damn tight! At 22 minutes in, the song does gradually fade out, but in my mind it really is endless and the band are still in the studio playing it even now!

Of course this side-length beast doesn’t quite set the precedent for the rest of the album, which fortunately has shorter length cuts laced throughout, but the ethos remains the same. Endless Boogie are absolute masters of finding a funky as hell blues rock groove and riding it out like a surfer on a wave. In fact, the longer cuts here seem to be the best ones, as Endless Boogie have this knack for working their way around time and space and letting a riff breathe and take its time to soak into your ears. The nine minute ‘Counterfeiter’ achieves this to a tee. The psych-tinged guitars sound incredible, and the drums command the groove with merely subtle taps of the snare and hi-hat.

But the true genius of Admonitions lays in its final stretch. Whilst the first half or so of this record was a real party, then hits the comedown starting with also 20+ minute long ‘Jim Tully’, which is largely a slowed down dirge. The grooves are still there but the boogie has turned into more of a melancholy, reminding me of Seattle band Earth’s slow twanging rock of their most recent records. This slower, moodier vibe carries into the remaining two tracks which slow down to a quiet ambient crawl. On ‘The Conversation’, the band play super hushed, like they’re afraid to wake the neighbours, punctuated with murmured spoken word drawl. 80 minutes of solid blues rock could be a test for impatient ears, but Endless Boogie deliver so much dedication to their craft, with astonishing vintage production and a captivating atmosphere. None of these songs feel as long as they really are, but the boogie, is well and truly… Endless…

DUNCAN EVANS & WILDERNESS HYMNAL – Until Liars Fear You
[Gothic Rock, Art Rock – UK – Trepanation]

Until Liars Fear You is a collaborative split record between two artists who once lived a stones throw from each other in the north of England, but didn’t come together until after taking separate paths. It wasn’t just lockdown that divided these artists, but Wilderness Hymnal’s main voice and songwriter Javier Wallis relocated to the Netherlands. This wonderous union has been a long time in the making but is finally here and was so worth the wait as it feels like both artists are releasing their best material yet.

Opening with perfectly reverbed hymnal vocals (suitably so), Wallis kicks off the show fronting a new ensemble band taking in strings, elaborate percussion and synths to paint this rich and detailed full body of sound. ‘I Buried My Teeth’ sounds a lot like Katatonia at their mellowest, with such a calming and emotive lead vocal from Wallis, whose voice just goes from strength to strength. ‘The Hunter’ is a much livelier affair with brooding synths, atmospheric guitars and a strong rhythmic build that recalls Dead Can Dance. Wallis has always been an artist with a keen ear for texture and atmosphere, but these are truly their most detailed and immersive productions and compositions to date. ‘Three Tempers’ features both artists on one track and acts as a fantastic bridge between the two sides of this record.

Former A Forest Of Stars member Duncan Evans concludes this collaborative record with a much more stripped back affair. Opening with ‘Deadheading’, there is a stronger lyrical emphasis that shifts the listeners focus from the ethereal meditations of Wilderness Hymnal into something a little more unsettling and commanding. Evans takes on the persona of a surreal poet, turning the simple act of sitting and drinking coffee into an existential dirge on ‘No Exit, Pt. 1’, conjuring the deranged resonance of Current 93. This takes on a very surprising change of tone on ‘No Exit, Pt.2’, with these driving buzzing synths and a very dramatic guest vocal from opera singer Phil Wilcox. Closing track ‘Mouse Mask’ is a spectacularly unnerving finale with funeral organs with Evans’ paranoid and nervous rants, “Three blind mice, and one of them has a gun!”

Both Wilderness Hymnal and Duncan Evans have complimented each other really well and each present a side full of immersive soundplay and meditative vibes, with both artists offering thought provoking and reflective moods.

GNOD – La Mort Du Sens
[Noise Rock – UK – Rocket Recordings]

Salford, UK based collective Gnod have been an all-encompassing and prolific force since their inception, covering so many fringe styles from psychedelia, drone, krautrock, noise rock and more, so you never quite know what a new Gnod record is really going to sound like. Recent Gnod recordings have found more of a directness and anger to them, with the marvellously titled Just Say No To The Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine becoming a real turning point. La Mort Du Sens doubles down on this with some of Gnod’s most immediate grab-you-by-the-throat cuts to date, featuring some real badass riff monsters. ‘Pink Champagne Blues’ is an exquisite punch to the face, coming at you with menacing, blaring guitar riffs and a stuttering train track rhythm section that channels Melvins’ Houdini record. ‘The Whip & The Tongue’ rests on a bassline that would make Peter Hook proud, whilst ‘Town‘ is just a filthy, filthy gem. Twelve minute closer ‘Giro Day’ finds a similar throttling disdain to their 2016 album Mirror, collapsing this album in on itself with a noisy, shouty drone rock jam. Gnod are one of those bands that have kinda done everything by now, and La Mort Du Sens just feels like a victory lap, jamming out some of their most focused horrible noise and dirty riffs.

JESSICA MOSS – Phosphenes
[Chamber Music, Ambient – Canada – Constellation]

Canadian string player and composer Jessica Moss is probably best known for performing in legendary post-rock and chamber ensemble A Silver Mt Zion, but with their solo albums has been pushing further into orchestral and classical composition. Phosphenes is a full on chamber piece, leaving behind the post-rock elements, and yet is still somewhat reminiscent to the stirring minimalism of those first two ASMZ records. The first side of the record is composed of ‘Contemplation’, a three part suite performed entirely with strings. The title is perfect as this is music that really brings you into stillness, allowing you to drown out the chaos of social media and the internet and be at one with your own thoughts. There is a wonderful balance of sweeping high-end violin and what sounds like brooding low-end cello, captured so naturally that it sounds like subtle movements in the earth… A wind blowing through the trees, clouds drifting by slowly, and a waterfall breaking onto the rocks below. Whilst the sound of the strings are naturally sorrowful, there is still a glimmer of hope and beauty in this suite.

Phosphenes‘ second side takes on a darker and more haunting feel, with the striking addition of distorted and fragmented singing. ‘Let Down’ has these dramatic swells of low note violins, and what sounds like ghostly vocal sirens murmuring in the distance. These feelings become more frantic on ‘Distortion Harbour’ with indecipherable distorted vocals that feel pained against the discordant humming strings. Finally, ‘Memorizing & Forgetting’ feels like a final sigh and an acceptance as the record winds down into something calming and thoughtful. If A Silver Mt Zion captured the collapse of society, then perhaps Phosphenes captures the collapse of nature, whilst still bowing to its overwhelming beauty and majesty.

EMMA RUTH RUNDLE – Engine Of Hell
[Folk, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Sargent House]

Following the work of Emma Ruth Rundle is always so exciting because each album is different in approach, yet has a distinct signature that comes from such a warm and recognisable voice. To think that Rundle’s follow up to the ultra-heavy doom metal 2020 collaboration with Thou is a 180 turn. Engine Of Hell is even more intimate and reserved than Marked For Death, and aside from some cello accompaniment from Jo Quail, is largely a true solo performance.

The most remarkable thing about Engine Of Hell is just how intimate it is. The recordings here sound like they have been recorded using sensitive binaural microphone placement techniques, meaning that you can really hear and feel the ambient qualities in the room. On ‘Blooms Of Oblivion’ you can hear every squeak of the fretboard as Rundle’s fingers glide across the strings. Every intake of breathe is captured in raw glory too and it’s the perfect approach as it compliments the character of these songs so well. Opener ‘Return’ is just one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year. When the single and music video first dropped I was listening to this over and over. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching and so pure. Rundle has always been a highly emotive songwriter, working so much texture and atmosphere into their music, but this is yet another brave and bold step forwards and with this risk-taking new direction comes supreme confidence as a performer. The piano playing here is exquisitely rich – simple yet powerful and dreamy. Lyrically the imagery here is abstract yet visually immersive with lines such as “The breath between things no-one says” almost doubling as a mantra for the sound recording; “You stumble to the cellar door, / And your fragments glitter the eyes of a child.”

‘Blooms Of Oblivion’ is another hard hitting heartwarming ballad, this time trading in the piano for acoustic guitar. I listen to loads of folk music, but damn, this acoustic has been captured in such outstanding detail, the sonic qualities here are just out of this world. There are some light cello and piano accompaniments, but I love how reserved Rundle’s voice is, almost like a whisper that gives ASMR qualities, like these wonderful words are being told gently right next to my ear. It’s not until the last thirty seconds or so where Rundle gives it gusto and briefly pushes harder in volume, if only for that brief moment. Spellbinding.

Engines of Hell has many great moments, though the slowness and stillness of the compositions can make the album seem a little longer than it is. Going further into the album I particularly like ‘The Company’ which has a somewhat darker tone and gives me Alice In Chains MTV Unplugged vibes. The gloomy piano lead centrepiece ‘Dancing Man’ reminds me a lot of PJ Harvey’s own peeled back masterwork White Chalk. ‘Razor’s Edge’ is maybe the prettiest and most melodic song, a sweet little folk ballad.

Emma Ruth Rundle has created an incredibly well realised set of intimate ballads with extraordinary sonic attention to detail, and really just a truly beautiful and vulnerable album. This is the pained and raw sound of a person retreating in on themselves. An album for solitude and being alone with one’s own thoughts in the early silent hours.

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