Review: Underwater Escape From The Black Hole - "Precognition"

Underwater Escape From The Black Hole - Precognition
(Hacktivism 2016)

For an EP that swaps genres more often that it changes chords, Precognition is an intensely focused effort: a dense mass of powdery ambience that seems to comprise the whole gamut of futurist dream-pop aesthetics, sometimes dystopian, sometimes hopeful. UEFTBH opens the tape with a 3 minute venture into Animal Collective's neo-tribalist vision, pressing a thin, absorbent layer of foamy synthesizer against a puddle of spilled reverb - "Highway" is painted the bruised purple that forms beneath applied pressure on a Tamagotchi's LCD screen, a warbling wilderness of 8-bit chirps and silicone foliage. It's one part "My Girls", one part Music For Airports. "Begin" builds its brutalist structure upon a foundation vocal loop reminiscent of vaporwave's Gregorian epimone, its robotic imperative draped in feathery black metal guitaristy and trip-hop percussion. 

One can even recognize the sort of neo-retro timbres employed by Com Truise on standout cut "Altered Landscape", slamming Chapterhouse-esque shoegazery against a textureless PVC pipe bassline. Precognition lies somewhere between a late 80s sci-fi movie's intro music and its chase scene score - it's as soothing as it is energizing, as spacious as it is oppressive.


Review: Gang Wizard - "Now Departing Critter Country"

Gang Wizard - Now Departing Critter Country
(Unread Records and Tapes 2016)

Gang Wizard's latest cassette release, (or anything dropped on Pittsburgh's Unread Records and Tapes imprint for that matter), is more an archive than an album - it's a Xeroxed inventory of avant-rock meditations, clipped tape loops and the occasional splinter of proto-grunge griminess. Long Beach's 20-year-old improv collective Gang Wizard boasts a discography of 40+ releases, each of which feels like a scanned PDF file of a W-2 form or a journal article hiding in some university database - tracks are organized in a stoic, seemingly random fashion. 10 second interludes flank 10 minute jams and volumes fluctuate enough to keep my index finger close enough to my laptop's volume control to prevent a jump scare or small-scale heart attack. Gang Wizard's tapes are cryptic and adventurous little collections of data that are meant for evaluating and sorting through - as much of the fun lies in the process of listening as in the listening itself.

Their latest output, Now Departing Critter Country, occupies the same sort of timbral territory as Sonic Youth's Confusion Is Sex or one of Racoo-oo-oon's sorely-overlooked tapes on Night People Records, dropping instant mashed potato flakes of chiming lead guitar atop needle-like feedback squeals and ominous bass plods. "Aquire" oozes with tension-inducing campiness, its frantically-mashed keyboard melodies dotting a canvas splashed with marching band percussion and grating chords. The minute-long "Drought Gorge" is the record's strongest cut, pairing bluesy riffs with a Pavement-esque backing track, producing the extemporaneous charm of an H-Street video soundtrack. "Stark Match" creates a dark nightscape tinged with bell-like tones, setting up for closing tune "Mining Droid", a nearly half hour slab of free jazz crunchiness.

Now Departing Critter Country is an excellent fusion of the sinister atonality of Hanson Records and Dinosaur Jr's lick-laden fuzz-punk assault - though it borrows heavily from late 80s outlier outfits, it doesn't seem to quite resemble music from any time period, or this earth even. Gang Wizard resides on its own screenprinted plane.


Review: Autumns - "Das Nichts"

Autumns - Das Nichts
(2016 Clan Destine Records)

To trace Autumns' prolific, primarily cassette-based discography is to plummet into a sonic abyss. The Irish solo outfit's crepuscular latest effort - appropriately titled Das Nichts (The Nothingness) - is a seemingly endless Krautrock journey through a Wonka-esque tunnel of proto-industrial feedback. It's a stark contrast to the sloppy surf-poptimism of 2013's debut cassingle Keep On Singing: an eyeliner-smeared sophomore yearbook photo next to its toothy 6th grade counterpart. Frontman and sole project member Christian Donaghy is not shy about flaunting his avant-nihilist attitude, opening Das Nichts with a twenty-minute fuzz-rock jam shrouded in icy distortion and viscous reverb. An unchanging loop of automaton drum machine chops bars of dissonant guitaristry into individually wrapped noise slabs while Donaghy slips atonal yawps and howls through the holes of the track's chainlink uniformity. It's early shoegaze tinted with Factory Records abrasion and sifted through a retro-house house, not far removed the pulsating goth grooves of The Soft Moon. "Fed by Dominance" pairs its phase-shifting beat with a recurring tone that resembles a chirping bird - an outlier image among whirring, nocturnal synths that adds to the record's unnerving atmosphere. 

Das Nichts is a fresh take on classic punk and noise tropes that seems as suited for the dancefloor as it does the basement show - though it's quite an imposing listen, an open mind and a little patience should allow access to its alluring darkwave aesthetic. Autumns' new sound isn't for everyone, but it is unique and bold enough to become the obsession of a select few. 


Review: Chance The Rapper - "Coloring Book"

Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
(2016 Self-Released)

I'd admittedly never paid much mind to Chance's output until the release of his collaborative mixtape with Lil B, Free. Recorded in a single, entirely improvised take, the 36-minute effort was endearingly sloppy, yet oddly introspective. Between corny one-liners and the occasional spots of accidental dead air surfaced the sort of fossilized memories and images that can only excavated by breaking ground in the subconscious: the surreality of grocery shopping as a minor celebrity, Chicago's public libraries and a recurring association between two Jordans (Michael and the Middle Eastern River). The tape was littered with the sort of esoterica that only improv can extract from one's most guarded crannies of their psyche - all the unbridled fun of an early Animal Collective live session plus the sort of off-the-wall self-referential humor that Lil B can effortlessly sprinkle into a project. 

In retrospect, Free feels like a preamble to CtR's latest mixtape, Coloring Book, a much more focused and polished venture that draws material from its predecessor's quarries of inspiration. More specifically, the passing references to Bible verses and Christianity are blended into a smoothie of pop-positivity without a trace of irony - the resulting beverage is an unflinchingly saccharine-yet-strange carton full of the sort of neo-sincere art David Foster Wallace predicted might crop up in direct response to the metareferential sarcasm that has felt omnipresent in recent years, especially in the form of abstract instagram memes and Adult Swim shows that are indecipherable to the uninitiated. Rather than cloak himself in the stoic monochrome many artists have opted for since circa 2014, Chance risks eyerolls posing beneath a peach-colored sunset on Coloring Book's digital cover art while flanking his half-rapped-half-sung verses with old-school gospel trimmings: choirs, trumpets, spoken word testimonials and all. 

Coloring Book opens in full bombast with "All We Got", featuring the Chicago Children's Choir and a cyborgian Kanye West hook that borders on glossolalia - Chance's flow is a frantic string of declarations: "I do not talk to the serpent / that's a holistic discernment" he shouts, before restating his intentions in more elementary terms (I might give Satan a swirlie). Mr West is just one of a few A-list features that appears in Coloring Book's constellatory credits list - Future, T-Pain and blog-favorite Lil Yachty appear to "testify" to the self-actualization of artistic collaboration over the course of the record, each adopting a persona much more optimistic than usual to match Chance's infectious joy. 

The mixtape's most satisfying moments are its cheesiest - the jazzy "Blessings" features a sound effects re-enactment of the fall of Jericho, references to Dragonball Z and minister/gospel singer Byron Cage. It's ultra poppy and a tad gimmicky, yet entirely lovable due to its unapologetic sincerity. "Angels" is a soul-tinged spin on the Chicago-based "bop" music of Sicko Mobb and DLow that's as danceable as it is cerebral. "How Great", featuring a solo performance by Chance's cousin Nicole, even breaks out the hymnal to paint Coloring Book's prettiest soundscape. 

Chance's new mixtape is perhaps the year's most innovative and cohesive release to date, striding confidently where Kanye and ASAP Ferg mis-stepped on their way to crafting "gospel hip-hop" records. Coloring Book's optimism is untouchable. It takes a bold sonic and lyrical stance without raising a sardonic shield to deflect potential groans and dismissals. Perhaps this album will pave the way for future meta-modernistic music; perhaps it will be remembered as a screwball outlier. Either way, Coloring Book already feels like a benchmark for hip-hop post-2k15 and a record that demands multiple visits to genius.com - it's addictively uplifting.


Review: Lobby Boys - "Changes"

Lobby Boys - Changes
(2016 Nervi Cani)

Equally as post-impressionist as they are post-punk, Italy's Lobby Boys smear their canvas of reverb with pointillist riffs and nebulous splashes of feedback bathed in fauvist radiance. Frontman Omar Aleotti is incredibly gifted at weaving nubbly neo-c86 textures that recall early 2010s acts like The Vivian Girls and The Art Museums - tinny drum machines take needle-like jabs at sheets of woolen chords dotted by sparkling twangs of lead guitar. "Changes" exchanges Aleotti's cirrus wisps of distorted vocals for a wordless precipitation of melody as benign and cozy as a warm sprinkle of rain. "Emily" is the muggy evaporation of this summer shower, a gloom-addled wall of billowing fuzz hovering above an off-kilter beat. Changes is a pleasant return to the nu-gaze formlessness of Wavves and Beach Fossils that's worth a late night spin. 


Single Review: Pink Banana Clip - "Lude Interlude"

Pink Banana Clip - 'Lude Interlude
(Night Flight 2016)

There are few compositions that can claim the intimacy and creative tension of a loop pedal improvisation - it is to lock one's self within the confines of a couple measures, slowly filling the room with a single droning chord and clipped trellises of melody. It's a sort of juxtaposition of ephemerality and permanence - the track itself records the specific, temporary feeling of its genesis, but posting it to Bandcamp makes it as indelible as the internet itself. It's a sedimentary slab of sounds, each layer soon overtaken by its successor yet still always present: a single mistake or sour note can ruin the loop strata. Using a loop pedal is like writing in haiku - it forces its user to be frugal with syllables, musical or verbal, and to hone in on the magic of the moment.

Pink Banana Clip's Bandcamp is a trading-card binder whose pocketed pages house a collection of such moments - the Virginian artist's latest addition to their deck is a 5 minute soundscape for the summer, a secluded greenhouse whose first movement drips with verdant keyboard strings and tropical beads of glockenspiel sweat. Three resonant piano notes act as the improvisation's gravitational focal point - they are distant churchbells calling to the listener, who seems to ignore their steady chime. The card's flip side acts as movement #1's late night counterpart, a feeling of safety and warmth as sinister thunder rumbles ominously in the background.

'Lude Interlude is an art installation you might stumble into while ambling through Bandcamp - it is a room you will visit briefly and may never return to, but the time you spend within its confines is arresting, painting its landscape around you. Pink Banana Clip invites you to share a memory: click "play" to enter their conscious.


Review: Ricky Mirage - "Manic Romantic"

ricky mirage - manic romantic
(2016 Self-Released)

Flying in the face of power-pop deconstructionists like Real Estate and, more recently, Wild Nothing, Chicago's Ricky Mirage opts for historical accuracy rather than trans-generational integration in his approach to the paisley-patterned overcast atmosphere of Todd Rundgren's early works. Brusque riffs of bluesy guitar interrupt the honeyglazed breakfast cereal hooks of "When You're Free", dissonant lead squalls and vaseline globs of AM radio organ coat "Brittle Trees" and the breezy "All I Need" is spurred to action by an unshakably funky rhythm section. Manic Romantic is Ducktails with extra oomph, Of Montreal sans its thesaurus-powered pretension - instead it seems thoroughly uninterested in pigeonholes or genre conventions, nearly perfectly replicating the velvet-lined tunecraft of the early seventies while sneakily smuggling more contemporary influence behind his veil of antiquity: opener "The Joy Of Cut Flowers" injects some subtle chillwave into its psychedelic orchestration as its 808s and glassy synth pads join the fray. "Have You Thought About Me Lately?" even opens with a brief snippet of AnCo-tinged electronica.

What makes Manic Romantic so satisfying, though, isn't just its retro aesthetic, but its crisp production and attention to detail. The vocal harmonies are nearly as warm as those of The Beach Boys' Smile-era and the compositions are intensely layered and complex, packed with hooks, addictive melodies and swatches of groovy, tie-dyed ambience. Though it doesn't break much new ground, Ricky Mirage's new album is a timbrally diverse feast for the ears and refreshingly sincere throwback to jangle-pop and soft rock alike.