Iceage took a left turn with their most recent album, incorporating a heavy dose of cowpunk and softening their sound. But this loping cracker proves they’ve lost none of their ferocious intensity. Elias Bender Rønnenfelt employs every ounce of his feral edge, drunkenly howling over an off-kilter track that itself seems to be stumbling forward. “I will outnumber/I will outdrink/And crash through borders/Abundant living,” he slurs, sounding like he’s ready to devour the world. Yet despite it’s heaviness, there’s also a gleefulness to the music, pounded out with ramshackle abandon. The playful recklessness is mirrored by Rønnenfelt, who knows his hedonism is not without consequence, but chooses to barrel headlong into it anyway: “And when I fall/I’ll bring it all/down here with me/soaked in alcohol.” Iceage make it sound like a great way to go.
I became familiar with the legend of Viet Cong far before I heard their music. Forming in the fallout of Women and making their debut EP only available on cassettes at early gigs, a hum of excitement quickly formed around them. But even that brilliant EP couldn’t predict the beautiful complexity of the eponymous album they released in the early days of 2015. There are perhaps better examples of their abilities at writing surprisingly canny pop tunes or ably demonstrating their impressive musicianship, but March of Progress is the defining track of the album, marrying both in a breathless wonder. Fuzzed-out distortion leads to a droning, angelic glow over a rattling rhythm before the chords turn sour. Just as it verges on too bleak, the track is suddenly alight with twinkling, harp-like guitars. But instead of letting you settle into the hypnotic jangle, the band finds yet another level, erupting into jubilant, bristling pop. “Tell me tell me tell the truth and tell it straight/what is the difference between love and hate?” pleads singer Matt Flegel, before the song collapses in a heap, with nowhere left to climb. It’s an exhilarating outing from a band with boundless talent.
When trying to sell a friend on Shopping, I was forced to resort to the age old formula of, “it sounds like X mixed with X.” In this case, the best I could do was: it sounds like if Ari Up was fronting The Minutemen. My friend immediately began nodding enthusiastically, pitching in, “Yeah, I could go for that!” Couldn’t we all? Of course the London trio are much more than can be boiled down into that tried and true formula, but it gives you an idea of their angular influences. Their debut LP, Consumer Complaints, was a barrage of short, punchy, but highly danceable, tunes. It’s vital music that sounds like a night in the city gone slightly south. Brash guitar and primitive drum work combine with Rachel Aggs punky vocals to create a twitchy, throbbing delight on Long Way Home. The song begins with a sparse interplay between the band members before settling into a seedy, hypnotic groove that takes you right through to the end. The perfect soundtrack to an evening of wicked fun.
“So you think you were born powerful and stay that way? Okay.”
Another outfit breathing new life into the burgeoning post-punk revival, Ought is both intimate and intricate. While their sound is familiar, a preternatural mastery of producing compelling jagged emotives elevates them above mere derivative status. After two albums, they have proven themselves a reliable source for agitated introspection. Their dazzling debut, More Than Any Other Day, featured a string of instant classics. While the title track gets the most attention, Clarity! is a worthy contender for best song on the album. A withering rebuke of emotional entitlement, lead singer Tim Darcy provides a lesson in contrast. His accusatory hush boils over into sputtering rage as the music builds behind him. It’s often easy to see Ought as a showcase for his ability to spin the mundane into the cuttingly profound, but the band gamely provides beautifully, often sparsely, orchestrated backdrops for his ennui. There is never a moment on the track where you can’t clearly pick out each individual member, whether they’re providing a stark backing beat or wandering off and reconvening into a cacophony. The precision of their lyrical and musical composition is made even more remarkable by their relative youth as a band.
Savages are releasing their sophomore effort this week, but it all began for them with this slinky stunner. It’s a slightly less intense band than would appear on debut Silence Yourself, but it still left quite a mark. Beginning with a literal plane sound effect á la Back in the USSR, then kicking in with a bass line straight off a Jim Carroll record, it’s a far cry from the sound the band would come to be known for. But once singer Jehnny Beth enters the track, with her growing affectation, it’s clear the song is headed somewhere unexpected. Within the space of a minute, it’s cracked open, offering a confident, gnarly riff before relaxing again to a panicked hush. “Not yet high/not yet too low,” croons Beth, seemingly describing the song’s bipolar trajectory, as the band lock into a groove that rides out the song. By the end, they’ve contributed a blazing shot in the arm to the post punk revival.
Most artists are happy to use their lengthiest tracks as a denouement to their albums. Michael Chapman takes the opposite approach, using the nearly ten minute The Aviator to kick off his second LP, Fully Qualified Survivor. Despite a quick slice of moody atmosphere at the beginning, the track is largely an example of gentle repetition. Chapman’s mournful vocals and simple strumming are accompanied by barely-there drums and lightly playful strings. With a chorus-free structure and no discernible plot, it’s an easy, meandering piece that stretches out in a way that makes you think it could go on forever. When its softly rolling momentum finally does end, with almost no fanfare, it still somehow manages to feel truncated, leaving the listener pining for more of the lulling tune.
No list of tracks pushing the ten minute mark would be complete without an entry from Underworld. This classic banger was an unlikely bit of soundtrack to my youth. While I probably wasn’t having nearly as much fun as everyone else listening to this song, being as I was a literal child when I was exposed to it, the propulsive hit nevertheless made daily appearances in my life for what may have been years for all I know (it’s too hard to understand my comprehension of time back then to tell for sure). From it’s ethereal opening moments, to the pounding four-to-the-floor midsection and finally the glitchy outro, it’s a songs full of ideas that never fails to be perfectly cohesive. Born Slippy .NUXX ends up being a textbook guide to what modern popular electronic music seems to be lacking: texture, structure and variety.
Everything about Jeff Buckley’s version of Dink’s Song is excessive. Who else could turn a cafe rendition of an American folk standard into a sprawling 11 minute bravado performance that ends up sounding more like Led Zeppelin than Bob Dylan? Buckley demonstrates his imperfect genius in the early Sin-é session, picking at the seams of the song, unravelling and enlarging it, seemingly letting it do the same thing to him. From the chugging, incongruent guitar, to the earnestly overwrought vocals, he wrings out everything the song has and then some. Dancing on the line between admirably self-assured and painfully vainglorious, Buckley does something to this simple, mournful song that should never really be done to it. Yet by the end of it all, he leaves you wide-eyed, wondering what you’ve just heard and somehow wanting more.
I’ll be the first to admit that my musical tastes aren’t always the most varied. So if you told me that I’d be able to love an Austrian, feminist, electronic solo project, I’d probably laugh in your face. Enter Gustav. This standout track from 2007’s Rettet die Wale ratchets up the tension for nearly ten increasingly discordant minutes. What’s not to love about this menacing folktale of a one-armed wife sending mail bombs as revenge on the two-armed patriarchy? Tense, uncomfortable and totally riveting, it evokes the same dread as Kronos Quartet’s Black Angels and Broadcasts’s stellar work on Berberian Sound Studio, all while preserving a viable catchiness.
“Floating away isn’t rough/But it’s not enough”
Clocking in at over 12 minutes, Siberian Breaks is probably where MGMT lost a lot of people. But those that didn’t follow them from this bleak opus through their third album are missing some of the most beautifully depressing psychedelic rock ever made. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not. Following in the hallowed footsteps of Love, MGMT have carved out a corner for themselves documenting self-doubt, paranoia and dreariness with swirling, kaleidoscopic soundscapes. “If you’re conscious you must be depressed/Or at least cynical,” laments Andrew VanWyngarden in the trotting central movement. A guy and a guitar might be enough to soundtrack some of your down days, but when you need a symphony of discontent to transport you, you’d be hard pressed to do better than late era MGMT.