1.       Julia Holter –“Ekstasis” (RVNG INTL)

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It was obvious at the time of release that with “Ekstasis” Julia Holter had created something special and the album was made Release of the Month for March and then topped my “Top Ten Albums of the Year… so far” in June. Little has changed since then and while there has been some serious competition nothing has matched Holter in the Alternative category.

The first thing that struck me about “Ekstasis” is the brightness of its sound, gone is the shadowy and foggy atmosphere’s of last year’s excellent “Tragedy” replaced by a sharp and incisive production job to revival today’s most intelligent pop stars. Ok, so Holter’s not going to be the next million selling pop star but this album’s production is almost the opposite of “Tragedy”’s. Then there’s the effortless feel of a lot of the music, despite many of the tracks being over 6 minutes in length. There’s no feeling of over indulgence even when a saxophone rears its head on ‘Four Gardens’ and ‘This Is Ekstasis’ everything here earns its place and makes sense within the context of the songs. It would be tempting to compare Holter to her many contemporaries within the hypnogogic pop genre especially her friend and collaborator Nite Jewel. Though her use of delay and reverb create similar feelings/images the musical content aims instead to transport the listener further back than the 1980s and into the ancient world which Holter is so interested in. With “Ekstasis” Holter has created her own sound world that seems to subtle reference pre-existing sounds/genres and rhythms without ever sounding directly like anything you’ve previously heard. An artist who can switch with ease between different sounds and sections without breaking a sweat or alienating the listener, Holter is an artist with a bright and long future ahead of her.

2.       Matthew Dear – “Beams” (Ghostly International)

Matthew Dear returns with his fifth album under his own name and “Beams” is another great work from an artist who has consistently delivered the good over the years. “Beams” differs from Dear’s previous solo albums as its not produced by him but Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid, most famous for their work with Fever Ray and Blonde Redhead, of which Dear is a fan. The album combines the dark sounds of Dear’s last album “Black City” and the Talking Heads influenced techno-pop of his masterpiece “Asa Breed”. Due to his superior production and song writing skills Dear makes combining these two different but not unconnected sounds seem like child’s play and the result is an effortless feel throughout the album.  The album begins with the singles ‘Her Fantasy’ and ‘Earthforms’ the former a tropical sounding techno pop track of the highest quality the latter Dear self described “ deepest delve into a straight rock song”. The album swiftly moves on to another tropical sounding track in ‘Headcage’ the groove led title track of Dear’s EP from January this year. Two more upbeat groove based tracks in ‘Fighting is Futile’ and the Talking Heads influenced ‘Up and Out’ whizz by and give up the more electronically inclined second half of the album. This starts with the Surging synth bass line and techno beat ‘Overtime’ that are barely contained by speakers. ‘Get the Rhyme Right’ returns to similar territory to ‘Earthforms’ but with the emphasis on twisted synths and distorted guitars that smother the drums and bass in their electric filth! Things get more sparse and down tempo on ‘Ahead of Myself’ with Dear’s breathy vocals given minimal synth and drum machine backing. Then album enters the home coming straight with ‘Do The Right Thing’ a song that starts with just a bubbling and bouncing groove topped with lo-fi simple melody but steadily and sublty develops into a full and rounded track thanks to Dear’s masterful arranging. He finishes the album with the one-two punch of ‘Shake Me’ a dark torch song that recalls Depeche Mode of their most moody and magnificent and ‘Temptation’ a slow burner that repays the listeners patience tenfold! All in all “Beams” is a great album from an artist well into his career showing that he can still learn and keep the listen guessing  and satisfied even after all this time.

3.       Orcas – “Orcas” (Morr Music)

The debut album from this Seattle duo leaves me lost for words, one of those albums that are difficult to describe without selling it short. However, I will endeavour to paint a picture of this heartbreakingly beautiful music. The dominate sounds are plaintive piano, twanging to ethereal guitars and vocals and various crackles, hums and heavily processed electronic sounds. These simple elements are manipulated to create different textures, atmospheres and emotions across nine tracks. Though the duo have created a sound of their own there are some influences/inspirations suggested by the music including Peter Broderick & Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie’s soundtrack work, the noise abstract pop of Broadcast (who are covered on the album) and indirectly reminds me of the latest Oneohtrix Point Never album “Replica”. All this is held together by the songwriting touches that are subtly weaved throughout the album helping this album raise above more generic ambient and experimental music releases.

4.       Raime – “Quarter Turns on the Living Line” (Blackest Ever Black)

On their debut album “Quarter Turns on the Living Line” Raime have thrown down the gauntlet to all artists currently working on electronic and experimental music, “up your game before it’s too late.” Though it wasn’t the duo’s intention the album sounds like the soundtrack to an unreleased film, subtly referencing John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” score or repositioning Ennio Morricone’s work to an industrial post-apocalyptic world. The duo expand on the critically acclaimed 12”s by adding emotional depth and a more organic sound via the use of field recordings, foley samples and acoustic instrumentation such as guitar, violins and cellos. Whereas the 12”s focused strongly on the duo’s jungle and industrial influences they broaden their range here to include post-rock, the doom metal of Sunn O))) and Earth and of course those previously mentioned soundtracks. The duo also manage to maintain a balance between the dark, heavy sounds and lighter, brighter sounds; another progression from the earlier 12”s. Raime have produced one of the debut albums of year, one that leaves many more established acts in the shade. Long may these soundscapes shapers continue to reign supreme.

5.       King Felix – “Spring EP” (Liberation Technologies)

The “Spring EP” picks up where Laurel Halo left off with the “Hour Logic EP” last summer, though she has some tricks up her sleeve and the music is a lot harder to pin down. Here the rhythms wiggle and squirm restless and constantly shifting not settling into a smooth groove, this is one of the things that makes the EP so exciting you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. The first three tracks are all a variation on the same theme, Halo is so inventive within this limitation that the listener is never bored by the central theme. Halo carves out her own style while referencing the glory years of early Nineties Detroit techno. The other crucial difference between this EP and “Hour Logic” is that whereas many of the tracks on the previous EP sound submerged beneath water this is Halo least veiled work to date; she lets the tracks reveal themselves and breathe all the elements able to exhibit themselves equally. The “Spring EP” is a fantastic addition to Halo’s discography.

6.       Ekoplekz – “Westerleigh Works EP’ (Perc Trax)

Back in January this EP was marketed as Ekoplekz’s first venture into dance floor territory and listening to it you can hear why. However, Ekoplekz still keeps his trademark sounds front and centre but he uses space more effectively and percussive sounds and deep bass provide the forward motion needed in techno music. Of the three originals ‘Ekoplatz’ sounds most like his previous material while being underpinned by techno bass and percussion, the other two ‘Narco Samba’ and ‘Xylem Teardrops’ are more stripped and danceable, while Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) remix of ‘Ekoplatz’ follows a similar template but adds electronic woodblocks, more structural dynamics and some of Kirk’s own idiosyncratic dub sounds. A highly recommended release for those into the darker side of dance music.

7.       Blondes – “Blondes” (RVNG INTL)

Blondes self titled debut album is one that hard to do justice to without its sounding like a repetitive bore-fest, which it is far from. The duo fit into both the modern dance music camp alongside the likes of The Field, Gui Boratto and other Kompakt techno alumni and alongside current ambient and hynagogic pop acts such as Laurel Halo, Teengirl Fantasy and Rene Hell amongst others. Blondes manage to fuse these two opposites together in way that plays to the strengths of both, you never feel the dance elements are getting bogged down by the atmospherics or that the atmospherics are dominated by the dance elements. The duo encompass a range of emotions across the album from the brighter tracks like ‘Gold’ and ‘Amber’ to the dark and subdued ‘Pleasure via drowned Kraftwerkian synth work on ‘Business’ and foggy tension of ‘Water’. One of the album’s strength is that despite the amount of recycling there is (every second track is a re-versioning of the previous track) the variety on show is impressive as is the duo’s ability to keep the listener engaged and excited by these same/similar elements. At the time of release I said the following of “Blondes” “Blondes have not only created a contender for Debut Album of the Year but an early contender for the Album of the Year itself”, as you can see the album has stood the test of time.

8.       Neneh Cherry and The Thing – “The Cherry Thing” (Smalltown Supersound)

When it was originally announced that Neneh Cherry and Swedish jazz trio The Thing would be releasing an album full of reinterpreted versions of songs in a range of genres from post-punk to hip-hop via jazz itself, the collaboration didn’t make sense to me. However, after a little internet research and hearing two tracks from the album my mind was changed and I got quite excited about the prospect of this album. It didn’t let me down either with The Thing more restrained than they usually are and Cherry on dazzling form on vocals. The album opens with a version of Cherry’s ‘Cashback’ (one of two originals on the album) featuring fantastic twangy double bass, a drum break and counterpoint sax playing off her melodious lead vocal. Things get striped back on a twinkling vibraphone heavy version of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ before a return to a more aggressive tone with the drum and double bass assault of ‘Too Tough To Die’ (Martina Topley Bird). ‘Sudden Movement’ is the other original this time written by Mats Gustafsson of The Thing, a dark and dusty yet up beat jazz number. The tempo slows again for Madvillain’s ‘Accordion’ with Cherry trying a half sung half rapped vocal over twangy double bass and subtle arching sax. There are also two nods to Cherry’s father Don (a famous jazz musician, The Thing take their name from one of his songs) the first is by Don himself the ghostly and experimental ‘Golden Heart’ the other is a track original by jazz innovator Ornette Coleman whom Don Cherry complete his jazz apprenticeship with, this track is a sparse finish to a busy and fiery album full of passion and heat. Recommended to fans of the unexpectedly enjoyable!!!

9.       Drokk – “Music Inspired by Mega City One” (Invada)

It’s hard to describe this album without overusing the words analogue synth(s) but here goes. The album uses just one synth as its primary mode of composition but Geoff Barrow (Portishead) and BBC composer Ben Salisbury manage to make limitation the mother of invention creating everything from intense drone heavy soundscapes to arpeggio led tracks via more delicate and reflective moments. In many ways the album bears comparison with this year’s other imaginary soundtrack album “Themes for an Imaginary Film” by Symmetry and though it’s not as ambitious as Symmetry’s album its equal as satisfying a listen. Drawing on many classic synth soundtrack staples such as John Carpenter, Vangelis, Walter/Wendy Carlos and with hints of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and other T.V. music from the 70’s and 80’s. However, repeat plays reveal this isn’t an album that merely imitates and pays homage but is an equal to those great synth soundtrack composers, the album throbs with the tension of a Carpenter score, while Vangelis arpeggios abound and experimental sounds that the Radiophonic Workshop and Walter/Wendy Carlos are thrown in at the appropriate moment and to keep the listener guessing. If Symmetry’s album is the Hollywood blockbuster then “Drokk…” is a homemade marvel and all the better for it.

10.     Peaking Lights – “Lucifer” (Weird World)

“Lucifer” showcases a more immediate version of their sound from previous foggy lo-fi releases. In fact along with Julia Holter’s “Ekstatis” this album proves that lo-fi home recordings can have a clarity and immediacy without sacrificing the grit that made them attractive in the first place. “Lucifer” acts a cooling balm or cool stream water leaping at your feet instead of the more humid and clammy sound of 2011 brilliant “936”, though it’s a little unfair to directly compare those two albums “Lucifer” demonstrates the duo ability to subtle evolve their sound while still using the same basic sound set. Maybe the biggest difference musical is that Peaking Lights have chosen to create more up tempo track this time round compared with leisurely to sluggish pace of previous work, this seems to run in tandem with their new clearer and more immediate sound. The best examples of this are the funk strut of ‘Dream Beat’, the pumping bass and purposeful drum beat of ‘Live Love’ and its darker musical twin ‘Midnight (in the Valley of the Shadows)’. Peaking Lights also add some new elements to the album such as marimba on ‘Moonrise’, piano on ‘Beautiful Son’ and an Oriental melody on ‘Live Love’, that it would e great to hear more of future releases. All in all I’d through recommend “Lucifer” to Peaking Lights fans, those who are curious about the duo or those whose interest is piqued by this write up, it’s well worth investigating.

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