Back in 2011, when the Internet was still young and the blogosphere alive (not kicking though), and words such as "hazy" and prefixes such as "psych-" were employed without shame, Leyna Noel put out an album with then-unsurpassed and massively influential LA-based imprint Not Not Fun. Both the name of her project and the name of the album, Psychic Reality and Vibrant New Age, were children of their time, a time when longish elaborations on the differences and resemblances between hypnagogic pop and chillwave were considered the pinnacle of music journalism. Not that it mattered: Vibrant New Age, timely as it was, would have graced the zeitgeist of any artistic epoch. Dark, eerie, danceable and yes, psychedelic, we became obsessed with "Fruit" and "Expla", songs that for a while would become essential ingredients of all out DJ sets. Having worked with the unforgotten Pocahaunted, put out a split with Amanda Brown's LA Vampires, and generally being part of the scene around Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, Noel was obviously influenced by Southern California's psychedelic underground while at the same time serving as a precursor of the take on contemporary dance tropes that some would start calling – please forgive me – 'hipster house' shortly afterwards, with Brown's 100% SILK label as its creative focal point.
It's been four years but it feels like a decade ago. The musical landscape has shifted and, if anything, has grown increasingly cynical and jaded. Musicians that offer escape by evoking images of sundrenched beaches or summer nights aimlessly spent with friends and blunts still exist, but if they get any attention at all then it usually comes from a decidedly distanced, piercingly ironic standpoint. "Psych" as in psychopath, not psychedelia. It is, in other words, an interesting moment to releasethe follow-up of Vibrant New Age. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly at all, Chassis takes up the debut's motifs without getting stuck in creative stasis, instead presenting a careful evolvement of Noel's artistry. The predecessor's defining house beat is absent, but the ethereal cues are as pronounced as ever. This is still "psych-pop": Without a hint of irony, already the first track "Life is Long" sports mild distortion, a shuffling rhythm reminiscent of mid-80s charts pop, and the word "hazy" proudly chanted into the blurry, dreamlike and simple melody. "Harness", premiered below, is this album's "Expla": melancholic and mysterious, the song gently emerges from a carefully woven carpet of expanding synth chords, floating into the warm August night before it fades out with a quiet sigh. Just this once again, for five delicate minutes, no cynicism, no irony. Only bliss.
Stefan Olsdal, co-founder of the band Placebo, has joined creative forces with fellow multi-instrumentalist, Miguel López Mora, better known as Digital 21. As Placebo celebrate their debut record's 20th anniversary this year, Olsdal seems to be nowhere near content in terms of what he wants to achieve. His passion for composition, particularly piano and classical music, can be heard throughout Placebo's discography on songs such as "Centrefolds" and "Black Market Blood". Whilst his earlier side-project, Hotel Persona, explored his love of electronica and synthpop. It seems a perfect match that he has teamed up with Digital 21 who in his 25 year career has crafted electronic music using live instruments such as guitar and ukulele over digital sounds. "War" is the first fruit of their work together – a swift six minute arrangement that combines lush strings and glitchy electronics over an unrelenting beat. It's a brooding and intense work, with a promising start of a union of two artists who share a fascination for sound and production. The pair are currently working on a full-length record together which is due out later this year.
Considering how prolific the Russian post-punk outfit Motorama is, it’s slightly surprising they haven’t garnered more attention from major music outlets. Even so, over the course of three full-length LPs and several EPs and singles scattered in-between, Motorama’s discography boasts impressive consistency and palpable sentiment. On their newest release Poverty for Talitres Records, the shadowy Rostov-On-Donians aren’t concerned with delivering something new as much as they are with polishing their distinctive post-punk appeal. On the album’s opener "Corona", we get a comprehensive preview of what the rest of the record sounds like—twinkling guitar picking that keeps up with driving, propulsive bass lines, modest electronic contributions, and, perhaps the group’s most distinguishing quality, the lead singer’s pained vocals which round out the gray atmosphere that envelops Motorama. Bearing in mind the band’s unwavering pursuit of a specific post-punk aesthetic, Motorama could best be personified by a cold, steely robot—a robot that can feel deeply.
For the Boston/LA-based fuzz rock trio IAN, this past year has been nothing short of action-packed. They went on three tours, played SXSW, released a self-titled cassette on Boston’s Bufu Records, and relocated to LA. To commemorate their journey to where they are now, they released a video for “If You’re Cryin”, a mixture of intimate footage from their live shows and beguiling scenes of being goofy over the last year. The track, a heart-felt upbeat pop gem about the inevitability of taking on the pain of the person you love, is a perfect showcase of IAN’s ability to craft impassioned and sincere pop music that still maintains a certain lightness. Even though the video celebrates the full year the band has been together, IAN’s future is more promising than their past is charming: they’ll be doing a few more shows in LA before they return to Boston to record an album and tour some more. If the year ahead turns out to be anything like the last one, you’ll definitely be hearing more about them soon.
IAN’s self-titled EP is available for streaming on bandcamp.
Throughout our conversation, Hama referred to his synthesizer as a piano. This is telling. The Niamey-based musician insists that his music is, all in all, traditional Nigerien music – despite the futuristic quality that the vibrant synth tones and processed drum-kits lend to Hama’s latest album, Torodi. It’s perhaps this play on the ancient-future that has brought Hama such critical acclaim across The Republic of Niger and the countries that surround it; however, Hama’s music was virtually unheard of in the United States until Sahelsounds, a record label founded by ethnomusicologist Christopher Kirkley, which features the music of 50+ musicians whose music Kirkley came across during his travels in West Africa.
About the futurism of Hama’s Torodi, Kirley says, “I would say it's futuristic in the sense of the innovation, being the first person to do this – programming the traditional rhythms on the drum machine. I don't think he's necessarily composing with that in mind – the songs are really folk guitar songs that he has worked out versions of on the piano.” Hama’s thoughts are similar. He calls his compositions “modifications” on music he has heard and collected over the years, including traditional music, but ranging from contemporary American pop music to Detroit techno.
In many senses, my coming to hear the album at all was a matter of serendipity. “Sahelsounds became a record label by chance,” says Kirkley. “I had lived in West Africa for two years and was back home in Portland. I had a blog, but no intention to turn it into a label. I met the folks at Mississippi Records who suggested releasing a record. After time it's turned into a label, somewhat reluctantly. There's a demand for the music, people in West Africa can get exposure, get paid, and I can finance trips back to West Africa and have a part in releasing what I think is important and overlooked music.”
When I first called Hama, he expressed being quite happy that I’d taken interest in Torodi. I, on the other hand, was surprised to find that no one had yet interviewed him about it. The compositions, to my ear, are significant insofar as they provide a point-of-reference for modern American Afrofuturism. Though I may be alone in drawing such comparisons, when I tune into Hama, I can’t help but hear the synth drums in the intro to Kelela’s track “Cut 4 Me” or certain elements of FlyLo’s “Turkey Dog Coma.” Or even, reaching in a slightly different direction, Phil Cohran’s “The Dogon” from the 2010 album, African Skies.
Hama and I spoke in a mix of French and English, each of us struggling to overcome the language barrier. (As a result, I’ve translated the parts of our conversation that occurred in French into English.) In many ways, it is a conversation I am still processing. I wonder, in particular, whether music can do the work of Afrofuturism without doing so deliberately. I wonder whether it is misguided to hear the future in something that insists that it is, in fact, traditional. Nonetheless, Torodi is an important release for its innovation, regardless of whether that innovation seats itself in the past or in the future.
Retro Promenade has really carved out a special name for itself. As a compilation label fixated on late 80s pop archetypes and the synthiest of synths, it does indeed seem promenade and parade around unabashedly, trumpeting this love.
We've covered them here before because of their affiliation with The Boy & Sister Alma; this series, however, is very special for probably all of us. Introducing the Next Peak series, a multivolume compilation of retro pop bands both covering and reinventing Badalamenti's original and captivating score for Twin Peaks – and it's just in time for the 25th anniversary! I remember several years ago when I listened to the soundtrack over and over: I was in love or something spooky like that, where it felt really good to soak in a foggy bath of evocative tunes like that. Take a listen to volume three below, and be sure to especially enjoy The Boy & Sister Alma's slightly comical "One Eye, One Arm, One Man." Also check out the totally awesome posters and t-shirts for purchase.
Our favourite alt-pop lady returns, with the first glimpse of her very exciting new record. Ela Orleans doesn't seem to be constrained by the same ideas of pop music or what's 'cool' that most of us labour under. Her vision is widescreen, and style elastic, encapsulating noirish piano solos, lo-fi keyboard malfunctions and opera. But "The Sky and the Ghost" is perhaps her best produced, most positive music so far. Like all her output, there is a bewitching torsion here: a ghostly choir pepped up by rambunctious breaks, maudlin lyrics skewered by spritely synths. All underpinned by deceptively expert songwriting and that captivating, unplaceable voice, of course. It is, in her own words, a movie for the ears.
Ela's Upper Hell LP is out soon on Howie B Recordings.
Split between Seattle and Los Angeles, Nuearth Kitchen appeals to a special type of joviality. Jeremy Grant and Cody Morrison combine their acutely complementary tastes to inform a discography that inspires harmless wildness, urban flare, and a well-rounded thirst for rhythm. As their seedling label Nuearth Conservatory prepares for blossoming, NEK is likewise gearing up for further ripening with the third solo release from Jon McMillion, polished off with remixes from Orson Wells and Fred P.
Submitting to the housey yet devoutly underground charms of NEK, I got in touch with Cody and Jeremy to try and understand where they are coming from a little better. Here's how it went.