Inevitably, the releases of the year, 2016 (Part One)

Last year, I ended up writing multiple ‘releases of the year’ lists because I kept forgetting great things and having to add more posts to include them. I feel like keeping it (relatively) concise this year but will probably end up doing the same again.


Anyway, I thought I’d group things differently this time, so here are a few (non-exhaustive) groups of things that all fall into my ‘releases of the year’. They aren’t in any order of preference aside from the ‘release of the year’ itself, which will come last of all. I use the term ‘releases’ because, although it sounds far less good than ‘albums of the year’, I am including all sorts of releases. There aren’t really any rules (aside from year of release, obviously) because why would I make any? And so…

Hellos of the Year (new artists/debut releases)

All years are probably good for new artists and 2016 was no exception

Kib Elektra – Blemishes (Bezirk Tapes)


I’ve written about Abi Bailey‘s Kib Elektra at length here as well as reviewing the EP for Echoes and Dust so will keep this brief. Kib Elektra’s debut is a brilliantly orchestrated collection of contrasting textures and sounds, organic, electronic,earthly and celestial; and the songs are great.



ThrOes – This Viper Womb (Aesthetic Death)


An impressive debut in every way, This Viper Womb is remarkable for the balance between precise detail and overall effect; it’s an emotionally involving, musically intense journey – brutal but subtle, extreme metal that doesn’t fit easily into any pigeonhole.



Naia Izumi – various releases


Guitarist/singer/composer/etc Naia Izumi has released a series of fantastic and wide ranging EPs throughout 2016. Her style is not easy to define, but it incorporates elements of math rock, R’n’B, blues, ambient music… Lots of things, but all done with feeling and amazing instrumental skill – listen here


Zeal & Ardor – Devil Is Fine


Sometimes classified as black metal but really a kind of blackened blues, Zeal & Ardor’s music has deep, but varied roots and a spooky atmosphere all of its own. Listen here



Debz – Extended Play (Choice Records)


Again, I’ve written about this elsewhere, but this EP is a refreshing and messy mix of grungy pop, punk and peculiarity.



Candelabrum – Necrotelepathy (Altare Productions)


Unhinged but hugely ambitious Portuguese black metal, Necrotelepathy is a true symphony (while not being remotely ‘symphonic’) of rusty, shrill, clanging and nasty black metal that lasts for a long time (two songs, 33 minutes) but has a strangely cleansing effect on the ears.



Dia – Tiny Ocean (Manimal Records)


A lovely EP of shoegaze-infused baroque pop, or something like that. I wrote about it here and you can check out Dia here. Hopefully lots more to come.




New-old Releases of the Year

Many, many great reissues this year, these were ones worthy of attention:

Uriah Heep – …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble (deluxe edition, BMG records)


I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, but in short – one of the great (and not as respected as it should be) heavy rock albums of the 1970s, remastered, repackaged and with another disc with a whole new, previously unreleased version of the album, great sleevenotes etc etc etc. The reissue of the almost-as-epic Salisbury is just as great. If the (presumably forthcoming) Look At Yourself and Demons and Wizards maintain the quality, 2017 already has something going for it.



Thus Defiled – An Unhallowed Legacy (Shadowflame Productions)


Not quite as lavish than the Uriah Heep reissues (Shadowflame’s budget presumably somewhat less than BMG’s), but just as iconic; two classic turn-of-the-millennium releases from UK black metal overlords Thus Defiled, packaged nicely, sounding fantastic: classic stuff.

David Bowie – Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) (Parlophone)


I can only dream of having the vinyl version, but whatever the packaging, this is Bowie’s best (i.e. my favourite) period, treated with respect and sounding perfect. I just wish the missinGouster songs were there.

Established artists, latest Releases of the Year

  In no order…

Iggy Pop/Tarwater/Alva Noto – Leaves of Grass (Morr Music)


A criminally overlooked record, perhaps because of Iggy’s great but more conventional Post-Pop DepressionLeaves of Grass is an EP of readings from Whitman’s book of the same name, with atmospheric electronic backing. Iggy proves himself an unexpectedly, but on reflection not surprisingly brilliant interpreter of Whitman’s poetry. I wrote more and better about it here


Wardruna – Runaljod – Ragnarok (By Norse)


Not so much a recreation of the lost music of the viking age as an imagining of it through immersion in the culture, literature and instruments of the era, as well as in the natural landscapes of Scandinavia, Kvitrafn’s latest album is harder to define than it is to feel. The atmosphere is primal and traditional, while not really following any musical traditions; sonically Runaljod – Ragnarok is as much an archaic, organic version of an Eno or Vangelis record as it is ‘folk music’, but somehow the authenticity of Wardruna’s vision and passion makes it feel like a window into a living past.

Egor Grushin – Once


Once made a big impact on me partly because of the deeply worrying socio-political context in which it was released (my review of this album for Echoes and Dust goes on about it), but months later, its graceful, logical beauty is still deeply soothing.



SubRosa – For This We Fought The Battle of Ages (Profound Lore)


Inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic 1921 dystopian novel We, SubRosa’s themes of freedom and control couldn’t be more prescient, and the album is suitably challenging, aggressive and epic. By far their greatest album to date.




end of part one…

next: more releases of the year, including the Goodbyes of the Year

Album Review: Rachel Mason – Das Ram

 Rachel Mason

‘Das Ram’

Matthew Spiegelman

Cleopatra Records (LP) / Practical Records (cassette)

Release date: 18 November 2016

Rachel Mason has done so much work in so many fields (performance art/non-performance art/filmmaking/music/etc/etc – check out her website for a cross-section) that it’s easy to immerse oneself in her work. In music alone she has amassed a vast and varied discography within just a few years.

Where her earlier albums like the couldn’t-be-more-my-cup-of-tea work of towering genius Gayley Manor Songs (2015) were simple, home-made, stark, and direct and the conceptual The Lives of Hamilton Fish (also a film) was sprawling and dramatic, Das Ram is a full-blown modern pop-rock album, full of catchy songs with a flamboyant, very New York flavour, reminiscent at times of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Talking Heads or even (at its most pop) Lady Gaga.


photo by Chris Carlone

Opening track ‘Roses’ launches the album with a dramatic, lilting and atmospheric intro before kicking into gear with new wave-ish guitars and a rock/dance beat. It’s catchy and full of pop hooks, but Mason’s excellent vocal perfectly delivers the troubled, even mournful lyric (‘I sometimes think that life is evil/it’s just something that fills me with dread’) that uses the rose as a symbol not only of beauty and romance, but also of the pain and transience of life. As a lyric, it’s perfectly judged; as densely layered as poetry, while as simple and direct as the best pop music. ‘Heart Explodes’ by contrast feels less spontaneous, carrying on with the metaphysical preoccupations in a more theatrical, almost Kate Bush-like way, Mason’s expressive voice(s) bringing the song to a chorus that is a peculiar crescendo made from conventional romantic language, genuine wonder, exultation and distress.

Mason’s voice is again at its most powerful on the less-straightforwardly-satisfying ‘Sandstorm’ on which she winds together enigmatic images of miscommunication (‘I believe in lies about the world’) with escalating intensity  over a prowling skeletal electronic funk that wouldn’t be out of place on a Grace Jones record, building tension but never quite releasing it. For a sense of release, the strutting electro-pop/funk cabaret fantasy of single ‘Tigers In The Dark’ follows; a kind of Talking Heads/Franz Ferdinand/Lady Gaga hybrid that, unlike her earlier folk/acoustic work feels 100% the work of a performance artist; the song is great, but the delivery, the theatricality is everything. As with Bowie (among others), the artificiality expresses the soul of the performer/character far more than something more apparently earnest would.

By comparison, the pulsating electro-pop of ‘Marry Me’ feels more like a vehicle for its complicated, beautifully detailed lyric and less an embodiment of it, although the contrast between the long, passing-of-time-obsessed verses and the simple, plaintive chorus (‘marry me/carry me over the hearth where a lost soul can hide’) grows more poignant as the song wends towards its end. A highlight of the album, it makes up in naked vulnerability what it loses to ‘Tigers…’ in glitzy disco-ness. ‘Queen Bee’ is one of the more penetrable lyrics on the album, using the image of the queen bee as a straightforward metaphor for loneliness, alienation and dependency (‘those friends were never real friends’) and the music captures the lyric in its stolid, regimented plod, with some very effective buzzing textures to reinforce the central image and some folk-inflected singing from Mason.

For a few dissonant seconds, ‘Cancer’ seems set to be the album’s darkest track, but then it unexpectedly breaks into a kind of rockabilly trot, albeit one spattered with peculiar squelches, squeaks and sound effects. Although not as grim as expected, it’s not the easiest-on-the-ear song on the album, sounding at times like two or three songs being played at once, and its chant-like vocal and slightly atonal chorus make it one of the more nerve-jangling songs in her catalogue.

Das Ram ends on a relatively more harmonious, if abrupt note with the angular funk verse/sweeping chorus of ‘Heaven’, which has a kind of early 80s, Ippu-do feel, before ending suddenly after the somewhat expected hedonistic refrain of ‘you and I are getting high.’


photo by Kerwin Williamson

Taken as a whole, Das Ram, is a bold, exciting and accessible album, utterly different from the acoustic/folk rock textures of Mason’s earlier works like Hamilton Fish…, Turtles or indeed the raw, homemade quality of Gayley Manor Songs.  In fact it’s not like any Rachel Mason album I’ve heard (though I haven’t heard them all). Only a handful of artists have convincingly made a gesamstkunstwerk in the idiom of popular music without falling into the trap of overblown pretension – and most of those have spread from the music world outwards. With the confident, powerful Das Ram, Rachel Mason has become one of an even more select group – an artist who has learned to express herself with equal authority in whatever medium she chooses – and who seems to have fun doing it.