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.

Opeth – Damnation (2003)

Hello and welcome to the spruced-up ZaRecords. There’s a spring vibe in the air, and I thought I’d give the blog a little make-over, making it more user friendly when it comes to searches and backtracking. Even if the theme is slightly different, the style of the content will not change – it’ll be just easier to find.

Opeth is one of the bands I discovered about eight years ago, and they’ve been with me ever since. They were the band I went to see in Budapest for my first “major” concert. Obviously, I still hold a soft spot for them, and there’s plenty of reason to do so, regardless of personal motivation.

Source: opeth.com

This band started off as so many “extreme metal” groups do, setting out to become “the most evil” death-metal band out there. It’s funny how these things turn out, given that throughout the years, Opeth has become one of the most refined, complex and melodically enchanting groups in rock, managing to elegantly graft a wealth of prog-rock influence on their more brutal, metal background. One after the other, the albums they issued seemed to gain depth right before the listener’s eyes, and it was clear that Opeth had managed to create a very intriguing branch of metal – eclectic and yet very well grounded, close to its roots, especially after their initial team-up with Steven Wilson, of Porcupine Tree fame, as a producer. Steven Wilson himself is known for creating music which is notoriously hard to classify, incorporating influences from rock, jazz, blues, metal, post-rock and so on on every album in a truly tantalizing mix. This influence became clear on Opeth’s Blackwater Park album, and it only continued to grow, naturally and of its own accord, ever since.

The band were always cautious about alienating their initial, metal fan base, so at first this perceived dichotomy between a softer, more melodic side of their music and the unrelenting, brutal, “evil” sound of their death metal side led them to issue what is basically a double album, the formidable Deliverance/Damnation records, released in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Deliverance is the harder of the two, while Damnation focuses more on the prog-rock influence, containing no death-metal growling and very little specifically metal sound structures. Damnation was my first contact with the band and it impressed me so much I found myself ready for almost all of their other work, even though I hadn’t been a metal enthusiast before. This album is extremely smooth, marked by a mesmerizing touch of sadness and poetry, flowing from the speakers like a nightly torrent of melody and Gothic imagery. Opeth don’t lose their edge on Damnation, it’s not a “ballad album”, it’s simply a different conceptual approach to the darker themes and flashes which constitute the basis for their brand of metal. The music shifts elegantly between acoustic passages to electrified, mourning stretches of sound, with unparallelled swiftness and balance, so much so that the album as a whole induces imagery of a high-wire ballet, breathtaking and dangerous, constructed in such a way as to keep an ominous, autumnal mood throughout.

Mikael Åkerfeldt’s vocals are exquisitely meditative and yearning on this album, which is definite and satisfying proof that the band don’t have to rely on the contrast between growling and clean singing to empower their softer passages. It’s a rare moment indeed when an originally death-metal band demonstrates this level of code-switching ability to such an extent. The album is so coherent it even manages to incorporate the slightly cheesy, artificial-sounding keyboards in such a way as to be impossible to imagine without them – the music gives the eighties vibe of the instrument a renewed meaning, it creates the perfect context for it to shine the way it does, via its pronounced theatrical air. As I mentioned before, there’s a clear Gothic influence to this album, a twisted reference to a shadowy circus as a musical metaphor for confusion and emotional turmoil, which is thankfully done with grace and subtlety. The lyrics don’t obnoxiously force home this point, allowing the music to really take over and do the “talking”, which is great, since there’s so much eloquence in every phrase and every passage it would’ve been a shame to muddle it with excessive poetic meanderings. Åkerfeldt manages to sing in such a way as to create the impression of a broken, segmented whisper, only complementing the whole, never showing off, even though his soaring voice is truly one of the highlights of the album. I guess that’s what’s truly remarkable about Damnation – the feeling that even the silence is part of the music, that even the pauses are nothing if not integral, fascinating parts of the show.

My recommendation is to enjoy Opeth’s Damnation in solitude and warmth, with wine and a good Gothic novel (Charles Maturin’s “Melmoth the wanderer” comes to mind). I hope you like the new layout and to see you soon!

Jill Tracy – Diabolical Streak (1999)

I found about Jill Tracy inexcusably late. She’s been trailblazing the dark cabaret genre for about two decades now, and I only came across her last week – I can hardly believe it, given it’s one of my favorite genres. In any case, I’m completely enthralled by her sophisticated, affected voice and by the nocturnal, ominous sound of her piano playing. Diabolical Streak is one of the best albums I’ve heard in the past few months and I’m so excited about this “discovery” that I can’t help writing about it today.

There’s only so much one can say about a genre so well defined as the dark cabaret. Some things never change in this tight little circle – seduction, sin, temptation, murder and perversion writhe in every corner of this music, under the guise of velvety elegance and innuendo. It’s tremendously passionate music, so much so that one feels a slight nervous tremor hidden between the notes, no matter how calm and collected the singer might seem. And it’s also violent, desperate music, essentially dramatic, as if every song were the last. Some groups focus on this violence (I believe Dresden Dolls to be the best example of this), other focus on the dark, twisted themes and slight insanity tainting the genre (Tiger Lillies come to mind). Jill Tracy is the first musician I found who sells the passion, the emotional turmoil and tremendous, tragic beauty which lies there, waiting to be uncovered, in the darkest corners of experience. Her voice seems paradoxically dispassionate for such a statement, but there are a few details which give the status quo away from my perspective. Her accent, so very sought-after, so very theatrical, the bitter half-smile one can detect in every musical phrase, the humor, feeling more like a defense mechanism than in any other outfit I’ve heard within the genre, all of these little clues make me believe Jill Tracy embodies the perfect dark cabaret diva, the quintessentially heart-broken, ever-so-lonely lady, as dangerous and damaged as she’s alluring.

This music would make a perfect backdrop for a film noir. Dramatically cynical, sexually charged and ineffably sensual, the narrative in these songs always seems to point one way – a heart-break, a disaster, a fatal mistake, a tragic oversight… the bourbon-drenched drama of a stereotypical hard-boiled detective and the woman which made him forget his tried-and-true method for that one fateful moment. “Theatrical” is the name of the game here – all or nothing, heavenly promise grafted on a hellish premise. One of the masks frowns and the other smiles a seductive smile, and at the confluence lies despair, in muted purple and green light. Love lingers after lust, like a lukewarm memory, while loneliness looms around every corner. And all of this sentiment bubbles under a foot thick layer of makeup and ice. How could one not love the promise of such intensity, even if it’s a mere echo and it never seems to lead anywhere but some sort of eventually banal little doomsday scenario?

In spite of the popularity this genre has gained as of late, Jill Tracy makes me feel like I’m listening to something exotic, shrouded in mystery, alcoholic vapors and cigarette smoke, and for that I’m terribly fond of her. This album is completely believable in its over the top drama, and that is no small accomplishment. It doesn’t appeal to outside means to gain credibility, and thus manages to pierce through the thick armor of irony I feel I’ve so carefully been taught to craft for myself. I can’t not notice this music is just an avatar of something older and more well rooted in reality, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me believe the truth of the emotions contained within. It feels like suddenly being able to speak a long-dead language. And it’s a rare thing indeed when Brechtian theatrical detachment works so well in convincing the viewer of the reality of the events and tribulations being hinted at with the veneer of indifference.

I really hope you’ll enjoy the deliciously dark, bitter, sexy sound of Jill Tracy’s music. From my point of view, it’s the discovery of the month and had it come in 2011, it’d have been the discovery of the year. Theater in musical form, and an unnamed something more.

Massive Attack – 100th Window (2003)

Back in 2003, Massive Attack wasn’t doing so well as a group. The original trio had dwindled down to one man, and it didn’t seem that the band would manage to hold together. Of course, to spite angsty critics, Massive Attack released 100th Window then, and came back in full force last year with the mindblowing Heligoland. I’m going to write about 100th Window today because I feel it’s a little underrated and is, quite simply, one of my favorite albums. The fact that Sinead O’Connor is one of the main presences on this record, performing what is, in my opinion, some of her best work, is also one of the reasons I’m so drawn to this record.

100th Window has a very clearly defined aura around it. Most of Massive Attack’s albums have that, but in this case, it feels almost palpable, like it’s pressing up against you as you listen, like it’s pushing you into the wall. To me, the feeling this album emanates is one of intense danger, choking claustrophobia, a nightmarish, convoluted wave capable of pounding awareness out of one’s mind and transporting the listener into an alien, cold and mesmerizing dreamscape. At this point, one would be perfectly entitled to ask why such an album would invite repeated listening? It sounds scary as all hell and it makes you feel like your skeleton is losing structural stability. To this question, I respond with the fact that, as far as I am aware, music is the only art form capable of creating this mood to such a visceral level, and Massive Attack succeed in projecting a mood so real, so powerful and with such elegance that it’d be a damn shame not to take note of it and experience it to the best of one’s ability.

These songs have a feeling of panic running through their veins and joints, a form of urgency which was hinted at in the video to the track “Angel”, from their previous album – Mezzanine. That pulsating, nebulous energy, that paranoid feeling is picked up and upgraded throughout 100th Window, and it works because it’s pure communication! I can’t expect more from an album than the ability to infuse the air I breathe with a mood I can’t ignore, no matter what that mood might be – joyous or morose, frightening or calming. Music does what Philip K. Dick describes in “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” as a device called an “empathy organ”, a means by which one has instant access to feelings which would normally require a very specific set of events to take place, events which are not always sought after. 100th Window travels dark paths indeed, but I’d rather experience these shades as a source for inspiration, in my home, than be brought to them against my will, trapped in the failing neon light of some corridor or feeling my stomach float as the elevator I’m in never seems to stop it’s descent.

A few years ago I read a book by Michael Marshall Smith, called “Only forward”. It’s a wonderful, phantasmagorical novel, in which characters experience imprisonment in a sort of unreality. To say more would be a spoiler, but I highly recommend it. It seems to me, retroactively, that 100th Window is possibly the perfect soundtrack for that book. Water, light and lack thereof, air, color, all blend together in images of overwhelming, pristine brilliance, shimmering shapes animated through boundless space, inhabitable islands of sound which chime at every step, twisting and rearranging without break or warning, all throughout this record. The feeling of claustrophobia I was talking about before is dream-like, it has the kind of intensity I’ve only experienced in dreams, drawn out into the waking world, tantalizing, terrifying and fascinating. No matter how wide and wondrous a space might seem in a dream, it still feels trapped inside your head, it still retains the potential to feel small, ready to collapse in on itself, to expel the air and leave you stranded in the bone dome of your skull, does it not? This is the line 100th Window walks with feline steps, daring you to follow. I, for one, can’t resist this sort of magnetism, I can’t fight the brilliance and utter bravery of such a game to play.

There’s more than enough contrast on this album though, there are songs which are uplifting and feel like sunshine shooting through a thick cloud cover, but I feel they act, in a dramatic sense, towards the deepening of the ominous, overwhelming mood the album as a whole conveys. It feels like I’ve told you a horror story and maybe I did. On the other hand, this might well be a ridiculous little bout of hypersensitivity on my part, and the record will have nothing to do with my words. In any case, I think I can safely say it’s a towering collection of songs which definitely warrants attention, if only for the beautiful, dizzying bass lines supporting them – trust me, they are staggering, vibrations out of which dreams are made. Enjoy!

P.S. – The image is a screenshot of Robert “3D” Del Naja, the only member of the original Massive Attack trio who worked on this record, taken from the official video for Butterfly Caught.