Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain (2000)

It was 2001, if I recall properly (which is by no means a guarantee). I was in a strange town, beset by many adolescent insecurities and internal abysses, as teens are wont to be. In the span of three days, I’d lost a crush, I’d been confessed another, and I’d discovered Goldfrapp; the music won in the end. It’s still with me today, just as moving, just as jarring.

goldfrappGoldfrapp is a musical duo from England, much better known for their subsequent albums, which adopt a more dance oriented aesthetic and a more flamboyant theatrical presentation. Alison Goldfrapp can be a true diva, in the original sense of the word – a self-created image of a performer, a studied and contrived full-body mask to be worn on stage and to be projected through song. She’s the voice of the duo, and along with Will Gregory, they have been running up and down the scale from chic to silly countless times in the past decade, sometimes with a huge emphasis on sexuality distilled as sound, other times with the “gone with the fairies” vibe of neopagan trappings. Goldfrapp is nothing if not a constant process of reinvention, which allows them to flirt with mainstream success (when I say flirt, I actually mean “make out on top of the most popular club in London’s wall of speakers for the whole world to see”) and allow themselves the freedom to be genuinely artistic and capable of ushering heartbreaking beauty into the world with their music.

If elegance and oddness could sing, Felt Mountain would be their lullaby. This was Goldfrapp before the horse-tails worn on stage, before the squad of bikini-clad demoiselles with wolves’ heads on. This was a more stylized, subtle concept. Alison and Will had just decided to take the plunge and work together, and their working conditions were dire – a cottage in England, beset by vermin and insects crawling up the walls. I’m sure that contributed somewhat to the wartime-like elegance, melancholy and sophistication of their music. Felt Mountain sounds like it’s comprised of memories of a better time, trickling down into music like water on the wall – painfully, ominously.

There’s a Bond soundtrack vibe to many of these songs, and a surreal ripple reminiscent of Combustible Edison’s borderline “demon circus” musings. Felt Mountain is an album of seduction with dark shines, a retro-futuristic film noir of a record, a mind bending journey through beautiful malaise. The only other outfit I know who could incite the same sort of bittersweet defeat when faced with their music is Portishead, who had just went on their epic hiatus when Felt Mountain was released. It is merely a vague stylistic connection, and more than anything a personal impression – Goldfrapp have an entirely different set of resident obsessions and references.

This music is so evocative and burrows so deep that the 2001 story introduction I made to this article has been clad in the sounds of Goldfrapp’s Utopia song ever since, sparking poetry, fascination, endless conversations and goose-bump inducing remembrance ever since; music entwined with identity. If you, dearest readers, haven’t listened to Felt Mountain, I hope my recommendation can nudge you to do so. Truly, it is a thing to enjoy.

Kayo Dot – Coffins on Io (2014)

The new Kayo Dot album is not something one simply ignores. To be fair, this is true of most of their recordings – I’ve always either loved them to bits or simply not understood them, but I’ve never disliked them. However, Coffins on Io definitely falls into the first category for me. I’ll try to talk about Kayo Dot a third time, without repeating myself if possible.

Kayo-Dot-band-2014

In a way, Coffins on Io is a continuation of an older stylistic expedition for Kayo Dot. Their 2010 album, Coyote, drew heavily on an ’80s, goth/post-punk aural sensibility – powerful bass lines driving the songs, ethereal, plaintive vocals, meandering, dark song structures. Many of those choices persist on Coffins on Io, but it is clear that the intent has morphed subtly. Where Coyote was, for lack of a better word, a „concept album” centering on a very bleak theme which acted as a great catalyst for the return to the ’80s stylistic choice, Coffins on Io almost seems like an aftermath to that, like a take-off from the platform constructed by Coyote.

I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood – I doubt the two albums have much in common save for the strong references to the ’80s aesthetic. It just feels as though Toby Driver’s sources of inspiration are taking on a chronological symmetry. Coffins on Io seems to be built around aspects of darkwave, of electronic music such as Tangerine Dream, on the ruins of prog-rock as it was crumbling under its huge mass at the onset of the ’80s. It is glorious to see how these nuclei morph into the unique Kayo Dot molecule, yet again, so much more than the sum of its parts. Kayo Dot will not be confined, will not be tamed – it comes as a great surprise for me that after 2013’s Hubardo (an extremely dense, staggeringly difficult album), Kayo Dot would shift their attention and create Coffins on Io, although it probably shouldn’t at this point. They are the most mercurial band I’ve ever known, and there are no guarantees and no promises.

Coffins on Io has a steadily ascending learning curve, as it were. The more you advance, the more challenging the songs become, but it never asks more than it can give, and it’s never unfair to the listener. There’s also a certain cyclical quality to the album (not unlike their 2012 release – Gamma Knife, but less categorically), where the start and the finish seem to have more in common with each other than with what happens in between. Toby Driver is really on top of his compositional game on this album, and not only that, but he brings forth a completely new vocal technique – his remarkable falsetto, completely replacing the metal growls he would use on previous releases for variation of texture. Overall, the commitment to the chosen aesthetic seems more complete this time around, and Kayo Dot seem to be drawing more on their own experience as well, with gentle, accepting nods to previous sonic laboratories and forays they’ve engaged in. The effect is reassuring and welcome. I’m also glad to see that Coffins on Io is no longer self-released – I remember reading interviews with Toby Driver from the Gamma Knife, Hubardo years, and the strain of having to deal with self-releasing records seemed to weight heavily on him. It feels as though that weight has lifted, at least partially, and I feel Coffins on Io benefits from that.

If you’re curious, if you’re fascinated by the way old shapes can take new meaning, if you’re nostalgic without being anachronistic, then listen to Coffins on Io (and to Kayo Dot in general). Seriously, they’re one of the freshest, most thoughtful, deeply relevant music makers out there nowadays. Enjoy!

P.S.: Three years ago today I started ZaRecords. I honestly didn’t know for how long I would be able to make it last, and I still don’t. For now, it’s still lingering, half way between an obsession and an afterthought. Thank you all for sticking around for so long.

Lhasa – The Living Road (2003)

It’s been a while since I’ve written a proper review, and this one is long overdue. Dear friends, the music I am about to try speaking about is possessed of such arcane intensity that it may tighten the heart and illuminate the laboriousness of breathing. It’s raw, unspeakable elegance is almost too much to take in, and yet, once sampled, it projects this pale aura throughout the reaches of memory and emotion, a negative space in which no other reference may venture. This is the legacy of Lhasa de Sela.

lhasa12First of all, I have to say it is really rather difficult saying what exactly Lhasa was, save perhaps for the generic notion of “artist”. “Singer” does not do her justice. Neither does the quaint concept of “poet”. Her ability to express personal experience in a universal way (truly, so much so that, as I said, I can liken her to no other) was so overwhelming that it manages to cast doubt on the efficacy of common descriptive words, and I am unable to find appropriate uncommon ones either. I cannot stress enough how singular the experience of her music is, how terrifying in its fierce honesty and directness. It is as though her entire life is projected forth with each note, the full weight of her intricate lineage and background subtly leaning on the listener’s own sensibility in the simple, minimalist, fluid structures of her songs.

Music able to spark tactile response, music of such strength that it can induce synesthesia is rare indeed, and yet there are songs on this, her second album, which flood the mind with hybrid image/tastes of dust, dusk light, wind-on-skin and dryness of throat. “The Living Road” lacks nothing, needs nothing. Not one note out of place, no superfluous effects or gimmicks. There is no marketing at play, no ulterior motive. She sings in three languages because she needs them all, because there are things which can only be expressed in each of them. It is quite jarring to experience music which touches on a sort of objectivity with such effortless grace. (I know I’ve just made the word “objective” relative, but that’s because it’s so hard to even use it, given the fragmented nature of our experience – and all the greater the shock of Lhasa’s music.)

The decidedly odd thing about “The Living Road” is the overarching feeling of loneliness the album emits, without succumbing to any of the usual traps of exaggeration or needlessness to which much music referred to as “singular” falls prey. There is no moping, no bleeding heart sentimentalism in these songs. In fact, they are infused with this staggering stoicism; yes, the ever-present distance between things and people is unavoidable and immutable, but in accepting that, it becomes empowering, blade-sharp, an essential tool for self-definition and understanding. “The Living Road” is not unlike a koan in this sense – an exquisite puzzle for meditation, for forging an honest relationship with oneself. And, at the same time, it is “for” nothing – it exists, self-contained like a smooth stone, hinting at the disinterested, pristine act of initial creation.

Obviously, I find “The Living Road” to be quite a philosophical experience. Perhaps I have managed to convey why. Let me know, if you will. And enjoy!

P.S.: I have decided to embed the second song with an introduction/explanation by Lhasa. Listen to it, it is beautiful.

Beck – Morning Phase (2014)

Here it is folks, the album I’ve been teasing about on Facebook. The record that’s going to make me do something which no right minded critic would do in February – pronounce the album of the year. I might be wrong, obviously. In fact, I dare say I hope I’m wrong, because who doesn’t want to hear music that’s better than any given reference point? But my gut tells me I’m right, save for one foreseeable possibility. After all, Tool might actually release an album this year, and where they’re involved, all bets are off. But for now, there is only Beck.

BeckSo I’ve already told you what I think “Morning Phase” is, in brief. Let me then start by defining what it is not. First and foremost, it is not an album to be compared to Beck’s older records – his discography is so consistently enthralling, in so many different ways, that I believe this rule of non-comparison should apply anyway, regardless of the so-called-objective value of the album. Beck’s records are bordered as ferociously as islands rising from a turbulent ocean – the softness of the sand fading into the waves is misleading compared to the shock of land rising from the fathoms randomly. And within the archipelago of Beck’s individual lonelinesses, “Morning Light” shimmers sweetly over the farthest horizon.

However, it is very hard not to engage in comparative discourse in general, when it comes to “Morning Light”. Beck’s eclecticism shall not be denied, even on a record of such amazing structural and aesthetic coherence, so I cannot help but cast some links to other familiar names, whose trademark essences (as least where my way of listening is concerned) Beck channels almost preternaturally on this album. Not since Mark Kozelek’s heart rending musings on Red House Painters’ “Old Ramon” or Sun Kil Moon’s “Admiral Fell Promises” have I heard music of such terrible, soul-shriveling beauty and tenderness. Even the savage, eerie spirit of Björk’s “Homogenic” lends a dark glimmer to some of the songs on “Morning Light”, and congeals into a perfect, impossible sonic gemstone on the track titled “Wave”.

This is music apt for ripping the world from under one’s feet, concealed by the thinnest, most subtle veneer of familiarity and comfort. Listen hard enough and implode, dear friends. Sigh, as reality slides down some unknowable walls, until all that’s left is sudden, heartbreaking dawn. It is commonplace to refer to certain vistas as “humbling” – the clear, star stricken night sky, the stifling majesty of mist rolling between mountains… you know it well. I must confess, I’ve been a stranger to this feeling of humility, because I’ve always felt that witnessing such things places the beholder at the pinnacle of a certain difficult to define hierarchy. Not so with music. This art can make my (otherwise considerable) body feel like a speck, a desperate mote in a tidal wave of beauty my mind cannot explain. It is religious, pure and simple. I’ve reconnected with this, my personal form of spirituality, after a difficult year, and so I hope you’ll forgive my sentimentalism. Beck is a particularly gifted preacher. Enjoy!