Adam Curtis is a film-maker who has made his name by assembling disparate, incongruous, often dissonant, images, sounds and stories into palettes and pieces that lay claim to hidden realities and subterranean narratives that may or may not lie beneath the post-war, neo-liberal consensus. When his films are at their best, they bring together wildly divergent elements to illustrate the completely unexpected, in ways which may not otherwise have been directly approachable.
The use of music – surprising, cinematic, evocative, contrapuntal – has always been central to his work. He uses it to open up emotions, to manipulate mood and, in combination with often dizzying, disorienting film footage, to suggest what seem to be entirely new ways of seeing, hearing and interpreting the world.
And so, when he speaks haltingly, gushingly of an artist like Burial, as he did (see below) to Adam Buxton last year, it’s clear that he feels he has found a common spirit.
“I think Burial is the genius of our time… The most important Burial song to listen to, which will tell you everything about him, is Come Down to Us… Why it’s so incredible, because what Burial does is he takes what is essentially industrial noise – and songs – but fuses them together to create something that is epic and romantic, and sort of gives you a clue of the sort of thing that might be coming, culturally – which is a higher system, I think. And I think he’s there ahead of everyone. It’s so emotional; yet, at the same time, just noise. And, I don’t know, it’s just, I can’t – sorry, this is me being inarticulate – it’s just… wonderful… It takes you into another world.”
‘Come Down To Us’ is the third and final track of the ‘Rival Dealer’ EP. By the point of its release, Burial’s approach had shifted radically from his beginnings in rainswept garage and two-step, but which retained throughout a constant, imposing sense of the cinematic possibilities of urban existence, For Curtis to describe the music as ‘just noise’ is misleading. The EP’s 28 minutes bristles and sways with ambient atmospherics, underscored by vinyl crackles, metallic weapon clicks and the sub-sonic alien buzz of concrete. But the two counterpoints of the set, the 10 minute title track and the 13-minute ‘Come Down To Us’ are compelling pieces of music, first and foremost, not noise. ‘Rival Dealer’ bustles and sprints, stumbles and surges, a flurrying beat pulling the track through what feels like a hurried escape. ‘Come Down To Us’ is entirely different, a mesmeric, devotional head-nod, underscored by a heartbreakingly delicate melody and skated over by a yearning vocal. It’s intoxicating and incredibly affecting. The entire EP is spun through with spoken snatches dealing with identity and the closing sampled speech from transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski throws everything that has preceded it into a breathtaking new light.
“It’s just… wonderful… It takes you to another world.” And put together with the EPs that have followed in the 4 years since Rival Dealer, it really does seem as if Burial may have found a new way forward, and got there ahead of everyone.
On only one occasion as a young man did I sit down with my friends and try to make music. Only one of us could play, and he the guitar, but the rest of us had a go. I found myself noodling around on a keyboard finding simple melody lines to decorate a steady snare beat and repetitive, wannabe hypnotic, chords. It was no good, but we had an enjoyable afternoon. That’s probably the story of 95% of all bands, those that come together in the minds and back bedrooms of their so-briefly aligned members. The other 5% go on, and turn what rough clay they find in their hands into something more permanent. Probably 4% of those are awful too, but at least they’re trying, which really, genuinely is something.
Fuck Buttons are not like our band. They are, to my mind, a perfect creation, using complex palimpsests of sound to create music that is unnaturally direct and powerful. My mayflower-like musical efforts categorically were not perfect. However they come back to mind now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I think that had we had the spirit, talent, energy or time to go on, then this is the kind of music we may have felt we were trying to make, had we the imaginative capacity, which we almost certainly didn’t. Nonetheless, our approach had the basic germ. We started with one thing, a chord sequence, and then added to it gradually, a rhythm, a synthesizer, some words. Over the course of 20 minutes we built towards something.
Secondly, and crucially, I think about that afternoon because when I listen to Fuck Buttons, which I often do, I am always struck by how simple the proposition sounds – just start with one thing and then add more on top until you have something bigger, and bigger, and bigger – and just how startlingly difficult it must actually be to pull that trick off.
All three Fuck Buttons records have taken a similar approach, each using different sets of building blocks and achieving different ultimate outcomes. ‘Street Horrrsing’, still one of the more physically unbalancing records I own, built out from twinkling keyboards, human screams and the sound of an exterminating alien spacecraft to produce a soundscape for a post-human planet. ‘Tarot Sport’ dragged the sound through the doors of a warehouse party, creating hypnotic and crushing beats. ‘Slow Focus’ seems to me the richest, most satisfying record of the three. Each track starts with a simple element, a pounding piece of percussion or a choppy synth line, and adds more, steadily getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Each time a new element joins the picture it sounds to have become impossibly huge, and only after a few minutes more have passed do you realise just how much more massive the whole machine has grown since then.
Let’s pause to acknowledge the name and cover art of this record, both helpful encapsulations of what the band do so exquisitely. ‘Slow Focus’, a sense of pulling out from, or in towards, an object, steadily to reveal an encapsulating super-structure, or zooming to uncover layers beneath layers beneath layers. And that adorning piece of jewellery that stares out from the sleeve: It starts with an apparently huge stone at its centre, which should have been enough by any measure, but its creator then added a setting, and then some decoration and then crenellations and some filigree until ultimately the whole piece is five times the size and weight it ever needed to be. And yet, somehow, where it should be gaudy and overloaded, it feels rich.
Throughout this album, Fuck Buttons consistently create a sense of ecstatic intensity, which is as beguiling as it is overwhelming, never repetitive, always physically consuming. It’s quite a trick.
I listened to lots of new music this year. As in the last few years, Spotify was the predominant medium, opening up a range and breadth that I never could have got close to in any other way. I noted end of year reports suggesting that labels and artists are now starting to see reasonable revenues from streaming services. I don’t know whether those claims hold water, but I hope they do. I’ve dredged music from all sorts of artists who I happily listened to via Spotify where in previous times I would never have bought a record. I hope they’re getting paid.
As is also becoming traditional, looking back at my end of year list I’m forced to reflect on my sources of new music, which are becoming narrower and narrower, in a way that I’m not entirely comfortable with. I lost touch with music websites this year and also with a couple of the podcasts I used to regularly take. Looking at the final list of 13 songs here, they are essentially either from artists who I already loved and whose records I would have bought, or from things I heard on the ‘All Songs Considered‘ podcast. Fair enough, many of them are artists I hadn’t come across before, and there’s some range here, but it still feels too monocultural. The end of year lists, including those of my fellow Record Clubbers, have already sent me scurrying to a number of other records I hadn’t really noticed. I guess in this day and age it doesn’t really matter when you find something so long as you find it, but still I can’t help feeling I’ve been more blinkered than usual this year. I’ll try to diversify in 2017.
So, what did 2016 leave me with?
The Spotify playlist above differs slightly from that presented to DRC just before Christmas. I’ve added back in tracks by Lambchop, Tim Hecker and BE that I had already played and which, taken together, would have eaten more than half my permitted running time. The list is also missing at least one important contribution. ‘Lemonade’ is not available, and ‘Hold Up’ is one of my very favourite tracks of the year.
There are other absentees to note. I only got the Solange record a few weeks before the end of the year, and so it hasn’t percolated yet. Similarly, Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ has not yet been released in physical format,and only just made it onto Spotify, so I’ve only managed a couple of cursory listens. There’s also a longer, working version of this list, where I dumped all the songs I wanted to collect during the year, so in the unlikely event that you’re thinking, “this list is great, but I wish it were 3 times as long and had D.D Dumbo on it,” you are in luck.
What remains. It’s tempting to group these tracks and ascribe surely unintended meaning to those groups. So I will. There are lots of songs here that use guitars and drums and voices to communicate various feelings of unease, dissatisfaction, fear and mistrust. From Naps, building a nagging chorus from arguably aspirational longueur (“Three full days without sleeping, Three full days without going out”) to Shearwater’s ‘Filaments’, pulsating with paranoia in a world that just took one step too many towards the edge. EL VY’s contribution to the anti-Trump project ’30 Days, 30 Songs’ seems much less titillating now, but I can’t erase it from my mind or my playlist.
The feeling is not solely directed towards what’s been happening in the wider world. King Creosote, Lambchop and Car Seat Headrest bring it into the personal, with hypnotic/beautiful/rollocking takes on matters of the heart, the head and their most intimate connections.
Standing atop these three is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The legend around ‘Skeleton Key’ is becoming well-worn, and I’m happy that some of the more breathless early analyses are being brought back towards reality.The truth of the album is even more heartbreaking and remarkable. Cave and his family were struck by an unimaginable tragedy in the time between the writing of these songs and their recording. The result, captured with mesmerising beauty in Andrew Dominik’s film ‘One More Time With Feeling’ is Cave and his collaborators moving through their grief whilst recording the songs that make up the album. If you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they describe someone ‘interpreting’ a song, watch Cave, hollowed out and stupefied, sing the songs he wrote and pour into them feelings he could never have imagined when he did so.
The album is a masterpiece. I ceded ‘Magneto’ to Steve on the night, and chose ‘Distant Sky’ instead, a song that shows at least a glow of warmth on the dark horizon.
It’s left to Lizzo, BE and Laura Gibson to show us the way out. Gibson kicked off the year by enlisting us to ‘The Cause’ of love and driving us on with the ruthless logic of a Sergeant Major. BE, improvising live to the sound of a beehive (yes, I said ‘improvising live to the sound of a beehive’), reminded us that the world could indeed be beautiful if only everyone would shut the hell up and just listen.
Finally, ‘Good As Hell’ by Lizzo, is a barnstorming wonder, a vibrant reminder that sometimes just doing your hair and checking your nails is enough to make you feel on top once more. I listened to this song dozens of dozens of times and, especially in the last 6 weeks of the year, and superficial as this will surely seem, it never failed to leave me feeling that things could get better. And that’s some achievement.
Nils Frahm is an enviable talent, but also a reachable one. His facility with the piano is, from the perspective of someone who does not really know how one goes about the business of playing a piano, marvelous rather than virtuosic. That is to say that what is so hypnotic, so engaging about the music Frahm makes at the piano, is not some display of unfathomable technical proficiency (he may be amazingly proficient, I don’t know), but instead it’s the warmth and the openness of the relationship he has with the instrument. He seems to sit down and talk with it, recording and lovingly curating the conversations that ensue.
‘Solo’ is the perfect example. It is warm, enveloping, comforting, friendly, delightful, simple, giving, still, spacious and gorgeous, as so much of Frahm’s music is. This is one of the most reachable records of recent years, or any year come to think of it. ‘Solo’ has accompanied more of my thinking and doing time in 2015 and 2016 than any other sound. We’ve been over this ground before, worrying about the utility of music instead of just getting on and utilising it. This is a beautiful record full stop and that cannot be lessened by the use I have made of it. In fact, far from being mere tools for filling backgrounds, this is a record that gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling of gratitude when I think about it.
There were whole stretches of the last two years when I couldn’t write without ‘Solo’ playing in the background. I’d be lying if I didn’t put its utility down to its smooth surfaces and the absence of hooks to lodge in the mind. But also, perhaps subconsciously, there is something about this record that speaks directly to notions of creativity and the image of a human at work. Nils Frahm created these pieces during a mammoth improvisation session on a handmade, 12-foot tall upright piano. As in some of his earlier work you can hear and feel the join between man and mechanism as keys are depressed, hammers lifted and wires struck. There’s a sense of a blank page, of someone sitting down to figure out what can possibly be done and then how to go about doing it.
Tom listened: Nils and his amazing 12 foot deep piano was the topic of hot debate at record club. You see, the fact he’s sitting atop the instrument makes much more sense to me, commanding the sound that emanates rather than being cowed by it; I had imagined a little man under a huge organ type affair, the machine as master and manipulator, the, no doubt minimal, music (you can tell from the album art these days) being far too repetitive and simplistic for my tastes. I was gearing up to write my ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ response again.
On Solo, Frahm has that stately elegance and dignity that can only remind one of Eno (and his much smaller organ) on Music for Airports. That’s a huge compliment, seeing as Music for Airports is a magnificent piece of work. The resonance of the notes as they hang in the air like the floating embers from a fire being replenished just in time, just as they fade out and die is a wondrous thing and kept me captivated throughout. Good choice Rob and full marks on the anti-prog meter.
Nick listened: This was lovely. I’d like to own it. And the piano is tall, not deep.
Steve listened: Beautiful record and now in my collection.
First things first. I drew 1998 from Tom’s lucky bag of wonder and, after more deliberation that I normally afford these choices, landed happily on Godspeed’s first widely distributed record, my only hesitation over which had been to do with possible dispute over the release date (I am a stickler for them rules). The Montreal ensemble released ‘F# A# ∞’ twice. The first incarnation, in 1997, ran to only 500 handmade copies and featured just two long tracks, although the tracks are built around the same sounds and templates as the more widely known version, released the following year. I own both versions and whilst the 1997 release contains my favourite ever album insert – an envelope containing a penny that has been run over by a train – it’s safe to say that the 1998 version is the one that everyone knows.
So, that’s 1998 sorted. How about 2016?
It just so happened that we were meeting on Tuesday 8 November, as the USA went to the polls. In this context, it was amusing to stare into the middle distance and imagine that the opening stanza of ‘Dead Flag Blues’ was a description of a world destroyed by a fascist megalomaniac President. We knew that by the next day, that possibility would have faded away, leaving a trace memory, like a game we had shared and then walked away from.
It didn’t turn out that way.
It doesn’t seem so amusing now.
Yet, for all that it seems ripe for self-parody, the none-more-black first movement of the first of the three extended pieces on this album is still one of the most spine-tingling things you’ll ever hear. If you don’t know it, switch off the lights, crank up the volume, and listen to it now.
What follows is no less remarkable, no less powerful. To some, Godspeed have seemed a near parody of themselves at times over the last twenty years, but that’s highly uncharitable. With ‘F# A# ∞’ they created a crushing breakthrough, a breach between styles, that no-one else was able to follow to any significant extent, leaving them exposed, alone, doing that Godspeed thing.
Nevertheless, the record has lost none of its impact over the years. Slipping between bleak poetry, blood-drenched chamber music, field recordings, chugging slab rock and delicate folk-whimsy, it never loses its grip. I’m shying away from trying to describe it here, not because I think I might be dissecting a frog, this music is irreducible, but because it just sounds so improbable. Sticking with ‘Dead Flag Blues’, you get dying orchestras, an extended passage of train noises, slide guitars, a post-rock shuffle then a twinkly music box waltz to close the whole thing down, before street preachers and bagpipes kick off the next track. It makes no sense, but it makes perfect sense.
I had a bunch of things to say about it, one of which was to try to describe how this stately yet wild music by this steadfastly exploratory ensemble, still seems amongst the best soundtracks for our spiraling times. Unfortunately, since I played it for record club, things have got a little worse, the record sounds a little more prescient, and I just don’t want to go into it.
“We woke up one morning and fell a little further down…”
Tom listened: Rob lent me a Godspeed album once, it might have been this one…I’m not sure I played it, I certainly couldn’t say for sure that I did. Whatever, I recall not feeling overly inclined to play it as I imagined it would require too much patience, the shifts in movements would come around too slowly (a la Ladradford) or it would be a bit dull (Tortoise) or the structures would be too predictable (Do Say Make Think). And there’s always been something inhuman and mechanistic about post-rock that puts me off, repels me even.
However, on the basis of this album at least, it seems as though Godspeed manage to walk the post-rock tightrope expertly, the tracks evolving more naturally than I was expecting and tended to not have the quiet, quieter, LOUD thing mapped out from the off in the way lesser similar bands in this genre tend to. That said, I still found this a cold listen – impressive certainly, but still a bit too impenetrable for my liking.
Nick listened: Moody. Not good for having sex to.