Best of 2019

TRAKSE.NET

20


Incidental Music

W. H. Lung

MELODIC RECORDS


W. H. Lung’s arrival at their debut album has been less conventional than most. A trait shared with the music they make, which weaves between shimmering synth pop and the infectious grooves of 70’s Berlin. The band never had any intention of playing live when forming, aiming instead to be a primarily studio-based project.

That approach was challenged when they released their debut 10” ('Inspiration!/Nothing Is') in 2017, which meant that they were quickly in demand. Booking requests started to flood in and W. H. Lung found themselves cutting their teeth on festival stages that summer. Though whilst some new bands may have let that interest change the course of the project, W. H. Lung stayed true to their original reticence and worked mainly as a studio band with their formidable live shows kept sporadic.

W. H. Lung have allowed this album to naturally gestate over the course of two years . The result is a remarkably considered debut - the production is crisp and pristine but not over-polished, the synths and electronics radiate and hum with a golden aura and the vocals weave between tender delivery and forceful eruptions. There is a palpable energy to the songs, as experienced in 10 glorious minutes of opening statement 'Simpatico People'.
“I think it’s important to erase the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture,” states Joseph E. This colliding of worlds not only exists in the potent mix between whip-smart arrangements, lyrics and seamlessly danceable music but also in the fact that they are named after a cash and carry in Manchester. As Tom P. explains, “I thought it was funny juxtaposing those kind of austere associations with W. H. Auden and other initialed poets, writers, artists, etc. with the fact that it’s really just a Chinese supermarket.”

19


Anima

Thom Yorke

XL RECORDINGS


Though 2018 saw the release of Suspiria - Thom Yorke’s soundtrack for Luca Guadagnino’s film of the same name - the Radiohead frontman hasn’t dropped a studio LP since 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. Anticipation will always be high for a Thom Yorke solo album, but the five-year gap between Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and ANIMA makes the arrival of this record even more pleasing.

ANIMA finds Yorke further developing the electro-balladeer sound he has been working with ever since his first solo full-length (2006’s The Eraser). Quite a few of the tracks here skip along on thick synth basslines and programmed drums, often gathering momentum as Yorke layers up sounds and vocals over the course of several minutes. Yorke’s erstwhile collaborators Modeselektor are frequently brought to mind, likewise the more song-orientated strain of post-dubstep that Radiohead were working with on 2011’s The King Of Limbs. Listen closely and you might even hear a little 2-step in the beats.

As is usually the case with Yorke’s solo material, his ethereal singing remains the fragile membrane that encases his music. No matter how many times you’ve heard Yorke’s spectral falsetto before it’s never enough to stop it from flooring you every time he steps up to the microphone. When Yorke piles on the harmonies, often washing them out with reverb, the results are as stunning as ever.

There are a number of versions of ANIMA available. These range from a CD to a deluxe double-LP edition that comes replete with a 40-page book of lyrics and drawings. All vinyl editions of ANIMA include ‘(Ladies And Gentlemen, Thank You For Coming)’, a track that doesn’t make it onto the album’s standard edition.

Thom Yorke’s latest solo LP ANIMA is a beautiful thing - let’s face it, it was never going to be anything less.

18


Hasta El Cielo

Khruangbin

NIGHT TIME STORIES


Khruangbin have dabbled in dub before. Dub versions of cuts from the band’s 2015 debut LP The Universe Smiles Upon You surfaced on two 2016 EPs, and the video for their single ‘Two Fish And An Elephant’ features a dub rendering of the same track. However, new album Hasta El Cielo is the first time the Texan trio have celebrated their love of dub over the course of a full-length record.

Hasta El Cielo sees Khruangbin dubbing their hugely successful second album, 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo. Con Todo El Mundo was an LP already steeped in dubwise aesthetics, and this means that the originals lend themselves well to reinterpretation. Laura Lee’s bass style has always had a particularly strong dub feel to it - unsurprising given that she learned to play the instrument listening to Scientist’s Scientist Wins The World Cup - and her rocksteady playing helps to anchor Hasta El Cielo as it spirals off into the cosmos.

Many of the tracks here coast along nicely, with Lee’s basslines augmented by delay-drenched drums and little chemtrails of keyboard or guitar. There are moments when the pace picks up - ‘A La Sala’ is a discofied delight - but largely this record remains a chilled, head-nodding affair. Scientist himself surfaces at the back end of Hasta El Cielo with two versions of his own, something that must have been a real pinch-yourself moment for Lee.

Khruangbin go to the moon with Hasta El Cielo, the delightful dubbed-out version of their 2018 LP Con Todo El Mundo.

17


A Cambodian Spring OST

James Holden

Border Community


James Holden's A Cambodian Spring OST arrives on Border Community, a fourteen-track selection of pulsing melancholy and everglade drones that are occasionally punctured by a burst of beatless trance, courtesy of his trusted Prophet 600.

A Cambodian Spring is a documentary directed by Christopher Kelly that tells the story of modern political life in Cambodia from the protests that sparked the Cambodian Spring and into its aftermath. Planting the seed that grew into James Holden writing the films OST, Christopher Kelly originally wanted to feature the track "Self-Playing Schmaltz" from Holden's 2013 now classic LP the Inheritors, this conversation evolved into the idea of James Holden being invited to compose the entire film score, his debut within the world of soundtrack recording.

Where Holden's recent work with The Animal Spirits was a collaborative project that focused in on hypnotic ritual musick and forest dwelling electronic transmissions, A Cambodian OST sees him operating entirely in isolation. Making a departure from the polyrhythmic patterns of his previous records, this OST shows a new side to James Holden's work, one that carries more of a pensive nature and a primary focus on slowly building and endlessly morphing atmospheres that really do capture the emotion portrayed within the film. Summoning up sounds from his self described 'cranky old' Hammond organ, an instrument which began to fall apart during the recording of the score (as made evident on the three-part eulogy Disintegration Drone) the music matches the intensity of the focus of the film, a group of activists fighting corrupt developers and officials as they try and protect their right to their land. From long, drawn-out passages of crystalized arpeggios to the contemplative sawtooth chords, A Cambodian Spring OST as a soundtrack and a stand-alone album in its own right has much to offer all that follow the narrative and step into the story that it tells.

16


I

Föllakzoid

SACRED BONES RECORDS


On their fourth LP the Chilean psych-rock group Föllakzoid take a hammer to their own aesthetic. Whereas the band had recorded their previous records live in the studio, I finds them constructing four lengthy tracks stem by stem. The result is an ambitious Krautrock set, one that is far more Gothic and brooding than what we’ve heard from the group previously. A cellular writing process even pushes the band in the direction of dark techno - Phase Fatale is invoked on ‘IIIII’.

15


Utility

Barker

OSTGUT TON


Barker has recently emerged as one of the more thoughtful and innovative voices in modern techno. Having come to prominence as co-founder of Leisure System, Barker’s 2018 EP Debiasing saw the Berghain favourite create a set of euphoric synthscapes that were club-friendly despite a concerted absence of kick-drums. This thesis - techno in which the primary drive comes from rhythmic synth play rather than slamming beats - is expanded on Utility, Barker’s debut solo LP.

Barker had lofty ambitions with this album. Attempting to shed the more ‘utilitarian’ aspects of his creative process, Barker has shied away from creating pieces that rotate on a build-drop-build-drop axis. That’s not to say that these pieces don’t ebb and flow - indeed, Barker’s attention to detail on dynamics and texture is extremely impressive - but the more traditional track structures and sound palettes of techno are avoided.

What we have instead is a set of blissed-out numbers that touch on the ruminative post-club stylings of Caterina Barbieri and Lorenzo Senni as well as The Orb’s psychedelic take on dancefloor music. Many of the tracks here come bathed in reverb, an effect that washes out their rhythms and means that a dreamy air holds throughout Utility. There are genre excursions - ‘Gradients Of Bliss’ moves towards sombre dub techno while closing cut ‘Die-Hards Of The Darwinian Order’ comes close to downtempo - but largely an effect of pain-free suspension is maintained throughout the record.

Barker’s ambitious approach to techno reaps further rewards on his first solo full-length Utility.

14


Turn To Clear View

Joe Armon-Jones

BROWNSWOOD RECORDINGS


Joe Armon-Jones has made some interesting moves in the last 12 months. After stepping out with his debut LP Starting Today in mid-2018, the end of the year saw him dropping a pair of dub versions of tunes from that record. Then, a few months later, we were treated to the spooling, almost Floating Points-esque ‘Icy Roads (Stacked)’. As it turns out, these stylistic expansions were all setting the scene for Armon-Jones’ new album Turn To Clear View, an ambitious set of futuro-jazz.

While first and foremost a jazz fusion record, a few of the tracks here look to the rocksteady philosophy of dub. Snaking, melodious basslines take the lead on tracks like ‘Try Walk With Me’, intertwining with half-time drums and astral harmonising in a manner that recalls the arrangements of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Indeed, hip-hop and rap are other core touchstones for Turn To Clear View, from the crunchy drum breaks that anchor several cuts to a guest appearance from UK legend Jehst.

A record this stylistically supple wouldn’t hold together without some exceptional musical ability going into it. Armon-Jones once again proves himself an excellent band-leader, dictating proceedings from the keys while occasionally stepping out with a virtuoso solo. Long-time pals Oscar Jerome, Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd are among the others who further their case across Turn To Clear View.

On his second LP Turn To Clear View, Joe Armon-Jones cements his place as one of the UK’s premier modern jazz talents.

13


Ways Of Seeing

Konx-Om-Pax

PLANET MU


Just before the release of his previous Konx-om-Pax LP (2016’s Caramel) project mastermind Tom Scholefield relocated from his native Glasgow to the bright lights of Berlin. Given that Caramel was already pretty much done by the time Scholefield left Scotland, new album Ways Of Seeing represents the first record he has released that has Berlin in its blood.

Scholefield is hardly the first artist to be drawn to the German capital for its promise of artistic inspiration, and Ways Of Seeing certainly takes on some of the elements of his new hometown’s sound. Though Ways Of Seeing is another Konx-om-Pax full-length helmed by beat-driven electronic compositions and sci-fi synths, a newly-streamlined sonic aesthetic hints at cues taken from minimal and dub techno. The track ‘Säule Acid’ takes its name from the Berghain’s Säule space. When compared to Konx-om-Pax’s previous records - often quite intense affairs - Ways Of Seeing also features a warmer, more welcoming sound palette.

However, Ways Of Seeing still maintains many of the elements that made Konx-om-Pax such an arresting producer in the first place. Glasgow and its musical history clearly still exerts a strong pull for Scholefield. Opener ‘L.A. Melody’ may be a bouncing hip-hop tune that Scholefield began composing in the Californian sun, but the main reason he was out there in the first place was to visit his old raving partner Hudson Mohawke. Glaswegian scene legend Nightwave also crops up with some guest vocals on ‘I’m For Real’.

Konx-om-Pax’s Ways Of Seeing proves that you can take the boy out of Glasgow but you can’t take the Glasgow out of the boy.

12


Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka

POLYDOR


The self-titled record usually marks a definable phase of a musician’s career; an embrace of personal mythology, perhaps, or merely a shift to ‘take me as I am’ straightforwardness. But “Kiwanuka”, the single eponymous word that heralds Michael Kiwanuka’s third album, holds a resonant, complex significance. It signals, for one thing, a swift, pointed rejection of the stage personas that artists have historically donned as both a freeing creative mask and a protective shield. It is an act of cultural affirmation and self-acceptance: a young British-African, contemplating the continued struggle for racial equality, and proudly celebrating the Ugandan name his old teachers in Muswell Hill would struggle to pronounce. It is a nod to a suite of arresting, ambitious soul songs that – while they deftly recall the funkified epics of artists as varied as Gil Scot-Heron, Fela Kuti, Bobby Womack and Kendrick Lamar – cement the singular, supremely confident sound that made 2016’s Love & Hate such an undeniable step up.

Now, following ‘Money’ – the lauded summer single collaboration with Tom Misch – and a sunset Park Stage set that was the talk of Glastonbury 2019, the long-awaited follow-up to that record can be announced. And “Kiwanuka”, like its creator, contains multitudes; it offers both the triumphal, grin-widening empowerment of opener ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ and the ruminative, candlelit intimacy of ‘Solid Ground’. It looks inward and out, across widescreen sonic landscapes constructed in recording studios in London, Los Angeles and New York, and provides a sumptuous showcase for the honey-poured mahogany of Kiwanuka’s voice. It skilfully crosses the streams of the personal and the political. No other name would really have done.

“I remember when I first signed a record deal, people would ask me, ‘So what are you going to be called?’” laughs the man himself, considering the thought process that inspired the title. “And I never thought of that; calling myself Johnny Thunders or whatever, like singers from the past. But I have thought previously, would I sell more records if my name had an easier ring to it? So [on this album] it’s kind of a defiant thing; finally I’m engaging with who I am and I’m not going to have an alter ego, or become Sasha Fierce or Ziggy Stardust, even though everyone's telling me I need to be this, that or the other. I can just be Michael Kiwanuka.”

In many ways this self-possession is a direct consequence of Love & Hate. That record added an unexpected Mayfieldian groove and scope to to the scuffed, ‘70s-infused mellowness of Home Again, Kiwanuka’s Mercury-nominated 2012 debut. Album number two, of course, got its own place on the Mercury shortlist (not to mention a No 1 chart position, a Brit Award-nomination and the wide cultural blast radius afforded by songs that featured on shows like The Get Down, When They See Us and, most notably, HBO’s Emmy-winning Big Little Lies).

“Kiwanuka” marks a reunion of the team that conjured ’s acclaimed, pulsing soulscape – namely Gnarls Barkley hit whisperer Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton and British hip hop producer Inflo – and it actually began life not long after the 32-year-old had finished touring its predecessor. Early Los Angeles sessions – in May, 2017 – proved wildly productive. Maybe, in fact, too productive. The trio had sketched out around eight songs – including lyricless, early versions of ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ and the spine-tingling, wintry ballad ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)’ – at such a breathless gallop that Kiwanuka felt some of his old doubts and insecurities creep back. “It was all so fast,” he reasons. “I remember having a conversation with Danger Mouse where I even asked, ‘Is this my album?’” He chuckles at the memory. “That was the lack of self-belief and me beating myself up.”

An extended recess was called and, when the team fully reconvened in New York in November 2018, Kiwanuka returned to the project with a new vigour, confidence and a clear sense of this new record’s themes and immersive, sonic textures. It was here that he actualised the lyrically knotty, comforting message of ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ (“It almost made me feel like being a rapper,” he grins); where he turned ‘Hero’ into a shape-shifting, thunderously percussive mini-movie, partly inspired by slain civil rights activist Fred Hampton; here that he crafted the hazy refrain – “” – that allied with Danger Mouse’s rhythm guitar playing to give psych-gospel highlight ‘I’ve Been Dazed’ its eerie, hypnotic power.

“We had three weeks and every day I would just do this half hour walk from my hotel by the Brooklyn Bridge to the studio in Red Hook, listening to backing tracks and scribbling lyrics on hotel paper or in my little scrapbook,” he says, more than a little wistfully. “It felt like being 15. And that excitement and childish imagination really helped me forget that it was a scary process.” This youthful sense of play also led to the invocation of some, possibly surprising, tonal influences from Kiwanuka’s childhood as a skater kid who loved Nirvana and Green Day as much as Outkast and Lauryn Hill. Using the cinematic skits and interludes of a record like by The Fugees as a springboard, Kiwanuka wondered if the horn-drenched grandeur of previous lengthy songs like ‘Love & Hate’ and ‘Father’s Child’ could be intensified and transformed into something even more atmospheric, more immersive.

The result is the unhurried, auterish poise that may be one of “Kiwanuka”’s most striking features. ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love) Intro’ sets the scene with windblown harmonies and a rumbling, canyon-deep baritone to rival Isaac Hayes (it’s actually Kiwanuka, detuned). ‘Another Human Being’ features a jolting gun shot and a quote taken from a participant in the Civil Rights ‘sit-in’ protests that swept through North Carolina in 1960 (‘Interlude (Living All the People)’ also features the voice of congressman and activist John Lewis). ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ is a dawnlit, 7 minute opus that Kiwanuka garnished with the sampled sound of twittering birds. “I was really influenced by the vividness of something like ,” he explains, about the desire to create such a rich, inhabitable world.

And he even allowed himself to be coaxed towards stretches of musical terrain that he would never have ordinarily explored. When Danger Mouse first started working towards the skipping, almost ‘80s rhythm of ‘Final Days’ – about as far from “Home Again”’s retro soul as this new record gets – Kiwanuka was hesitant. “It’s kind of spacey so I took a lot of convincing,” he admits. “But we went the whole hog with it and it’s one of my favourite songs now.”

It tells its own story that Kiwanuka – who came up in the pub rooms of London’s acoustic scene before winning the BBC’s Sound Of 2012 poll – is now so happily embracing musical touchstones and styles that may have once seemed contradictory. The revelatory, confessional core of ‘Black Man in a White World’ (which grappled with identity and Kiwanuka’s status in communities where he was conspicuously the only ethnic minority) has evolved into something a little more certain. Now, Kiwanuka’s reengagement with his Ugandan heritage (he hopes, he notes, to play some shows there soon) manifests in skittering Afrobeat drums and guitar lines that he hopes possess “the feeling of a Fela track”. Now, the wide-lapelled, shimmering doo-wop of ‘Living In Denial’ implores you to . Now, and here we return to that album title, ‘Hero’ opens with the proud, chest-puffed line: .

“The last album came from an introspective place and felt like therapy, I guess,” he reasons, surveying it all. “This one was a bit more about feeling comfortable in who I am and asking what I wanted to say. Like, how could I be bold and challenge myself and the listener? It is about self-acceptance in a bit more of a triumphant rather than a melancholy way.”

“Kiwanuka” solidifies one of British music’s more remarkable career progressions. The man behind it has put his immense natural gifts to work in an album that wields difficult subjects – black identity, violence, self-doubt – with a light touch and a dramatist’s sense of mood, space and atmosphere. “The things that end up being enjoyed are often things you want to hide,” he says, quietly. “But obviously that’s the stuff that makes us connect.” Telling people who you are – truly, unabashedly showing yourself – has never sounded more thrilling.

11


Blume

Nérija

DOMINO


It’s easy to argue that jazz is once again having its moment in the sun, but for those who know where to look, its solidity as one of the 20th century’s defining art forms extends well into the 21st. As for the future, you’d be hard-pressed to think back on a more scene-defining septet than London’s Nérija, even with the city’s years-strong, zero-shortage pool of talent. What’s more, Nérija’s LP Blume, a ten-fold expansion on their scintillating Domino self-titled debut EP, might just go the length to cement their legacy.

Helmed at London’s Soup Studios by producer Kwes, Blume luxuriates in the distinctly vintage, whilst keeping its eyes firmly forward. It savours big band vivacity, even as it maintains a firm grasp on the spontaneity and jagged lyricisms of moderns like Pharaoh Sanders. The fireside warmth of saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Cassie Kinoshi, Rosie Turton’s trombone and Sheila Maurice-Grey’s trumpet is best relished with ‘Riverfest’, and strangely alluring on ‘Equanimous’. The magnitude of the group’s rhythm section upholds throughout; Lizy Exell’s drumming veers from a gentle simmer to an explosive thunderclap, making for a defining guide through the hazy atmospherics of ‘EU (Emotionally Unavailable)’, while Rio Kai’s double bass exhales from burly to tender at a moment’s notice. Guitarist Shirley Tetteh deepens the album’s overall mood, pinging on the audio canvas like the slightest crucial detail.

The emotions here are opaque, but Nérija aren’t a group concerned with simple binaries of feeling so much as their ambiguity. What is crying but a sort of laughter? With Blume, the question is this: how can we console difference, and feel as one?