19 February, 2012

The Top 30 (or so) Records/EP's etc. of 2011, Part 5: 10-6

Boy oh boy, have I been remiss. I released a new single, true, but mostly mundane things like life, the common cold and enough NyQuil to put an elephant to sleep got in the way. Even with all these things taken into account, however, that doesn't justify such a break between installments of that increasingly rare thing, M. Martin's Top 30 (or so) Rekkids/Extended Plizzle's etc. yadda yadda yawn of 2011. Here is that much-delayed Part 5.

10. Clams Casino - Rainforest EP (Tri Angle)

Clams Casino (real name Mike Volpe; I'm disappointed he doesn't have a brother calling himself Oysters Rockefeller) seemed to be absolutely everywhere in hip-hop during 2011, and for good reason. His ethereal, ambient, often breathtakingly beautiful and melodic beats were a big part of why people began to care so much about Lil B (though the BasedGod's peculiar genius for instant meme-worthy one-liners, spontaneous bizarritude and childlike self-discovery sure went a long way too). His contributions to LiveLoveA$AP made for a few of the easy highlights from that record, too, and in general, people recognized him as one of the most interesting producers on the rise last year. What I didn't quite expect is that he'd be able to release an instrumental EP that managed very, very well without anyone rapping over it. Unlike the great, but rather uneven Instrumental Mixtape he released earlier in the year, Rainforest was clearly made as a unified collection, and it shows. All the beats take shape as interesting, full-fledged songs, or at very least endlessly fascinating and complex mood pieces. All the titles are tied to the title of the EP - "Treetop," "Natural," etc. - and it all comes together in a complex, relaxing, intelligent, interesting and gorgeous 18 minutes of music. It's a very even collection for the most part, but even so, there is one clear highlight: the last track, "Gorilla," is a masterpiece of diced tones, manipulated groans and wordless keening, and the surprisingly heavy drum tracks that always underpin Casino's work so well. If he makes a whole album like this, who knows where he could go?

9. Maska Genetik - Strada (Galakthorrö)

Maska Genetik is the alias of a Russian named Dmitry Borisov. He sings in three languages - Russian, German and English - and basically: he does not fuck around. This is some of the most intensely bleak and satisfying synthesizer-driven industrial dirge I've heard in a long, long, long time. The tones are either dark, bass-heavy and corroded with unnatural distortion, or thin, anemic and grotesquely warbling. I don't think you could find midrange on this record even if you wanted to. He typically matches his forbidding synthesizer noise with pounding, lifeless, almost antiquated-sounding drum machine rhythms that sound like an uneasy crossbreed between Cabaret Voltaire at their most nebulous and their most martial, and often buries his desperate, insane, effects-coated wail or unnervingly calm, accented sprechgesang in the mix just enough so that you have no idea what he's saying in detail, but still end up feeling very uncomfortable. The mix is also curiously lo-fi enough to sound more than a little reminiscent of those early Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle records, but hi-fi enough so that none of the synthesizers and electronics really get buried either, which is harder to do than it sounds. Some of the songs have musical themes to hold onto (the obsessively repeated, nauseated keyboard burble of "Melanoma" sticks with you, and the sickening keyboard arpeggio at the center of "New Perfect World" is unbelievably creepy, though not as unsettling as the lyrics, which outline a dream fantasy about going out to talk to God every day about who to kill next), while others are driven more by amelodic, but extremely evocative, unforgiving and fucked up synthesizer noises. So this is not really a record where melodies and songwriting are under the spotlight, but that's manifestly not the point - the point is the atmosphere, and the electronics. And there, this record truly succeeds. More than anything, the album is cold - it sounds like it's frozen over with a horribly frigid hatred of absolutely everything in the world. This is a depressive, disgusted record for the true gloom addicts - music for 2:30 AM on a winter night when you loathe any possibility your life has to offer.

8. Balaclavas - Snake People (Dull Knife)

On my first listens, I missed Charlie Patranella's perfectly cyclical, tribal and inventive drum work, which characterized so many of the best songs on the band's previous album, Roman Holiday. And there are a few times here, most notably in the opener, where Patranella's drumming has straightened out rhythmically - and that's when he isn't instead programming the beats to the point of near over-complication. But it's obvious that this is an even better record. (Admittedly, not bogging the end of the record down with a pointless eight-minute remix of an earlier song on the record helps.) The band's branched much further into synthesizers, samples and electronics this time out, but lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist Tyler Morris still maintains the digital delay-soaked postpunk guitar damage that was such a treat last time out. Patranella's decision to program half the beats here is odd, but it indicates a real desire to experiment - and considering how strange and complex many of the programmed beats here are, it's one that paid off. For example, check out the modified, jittery discoid rhythms of "Hard Pose." But, like Roman Holiday, it finally comes down to the songwriting. Here, the band's made undeniable progress. The songs are even more uneasy and brilliantly atmospheric this time out: if Balaclavas were one of the only bands I'd ever heard that genuinely recalled prime PiL before, now they're calling to mind classic Cabaret Voltaire as well. It's a very consistent album, but the nine-minute, bass-driven title track (Brian Harrison, take a bow) and the ridiculously cool "Shit Meridian" (hey, there's that drumming I loved!) definitely stand out as the highlights. No record this year was better for the real-deal dose of cold, clammy technological paranoia - which certainly was the emotional tenor of much of 2011 in America, when the year wasn't just plainly absurd and hysterical.

7. DJ Quik - The Book of David (Mad Science/Fontana)

No one, and I do mean absolutely no one, in 2011 hip-hop made anything like good old-fashioned G-funk, except for one man - Compton's master producer/rapper, DJ Quik. (What, you actually thought it was Dr. Dre?) The single "Nobody" was an incredible pleasure; featuring smooth, ridiculously catchy and musically accomplished guitar and bass lines - there's an actual bridge, for God's sake! - over genuinely funky beats, and an attitude-soaked falsetto chorus that featured no autotune whatsoever (thank Allah! thank Buddha! thank whatever fucking deity you believe in!), it was a perfect background for featured guest and pimp-rap legend/genius Suga Free to absolutely go off on probably the year's best guest verse. I mean, the dude ended his verse with a pitch-perfect impression of the dude who does those Dos Equis commercials - let's see anyone top that. Anyone who got the album "Nobody" came from, The Book of David, probably expected an album full of that kind of extraordinarily high-quality, instant-satisfaction G-funk. And indeed, there are definitely a few of those kinds of tracks on here. But what is so great about The Book of David is how Quik constantly subverts expectations in the least obtrusive way possible, while maintaining a standard of consistency most rappers and producers never even come close to. Opener "Fire and Brimstone" rides a beat that should not work at all - it's awkward, overamplified, pounding, eccentric as all hell - but somehow, Quik makes the fucking thing groove, puts a great jazzy keyboard line in the right speaker, overdubs a bunch of chopped, humming voices while other instruments would have gone, and manages to flow over the whole mess with hilarious insults Eazy-E would have killed to spit out: "You niggas got nerve, I'm your Novocaine." Throughout the album, Quik mixes his tried-and-true pop-pleasure beatmaking skills and charming, old-school, lighthearted, sneering flow with extremely unorthodox production decisions, with consistently intoxicating results. There's no real reason for "Luv of My Life" to feature a battery of extra auxiliary percussion - but can you imagine how much less fun the song would be without it? Quik also diversifies the emotional tone of the album - there's a song about his estranged family members here that's so bilious, angry and hate-filled that it could get him sued for libel, and he follows it up with "Luv of My Life," a cheerful, marvelous party track. The guest list selection is as eccentric and individual as the production; in addition to somewhat obscure MC's like Gift Reynolds and BlaKKazz K.K., there are also some elder statesmen of G-funk here, like Kurupt, and some flat-out living legends. In addition to Suga Free, Bizzy Bone features on two songs, sounding wizened, singsong, fast-paced and revitalized, and Quik even got Ice Cube to spit a halfway decent verse - in 2011. And the late P-Funk legend Garry Shider features on the final track. Perhaps the album's most impressive achievement is showing that "Nobody," the brilliant single, is in fact one of the most musically conservative tracks here. Quik's sustained, endlessly original vision here is nothing short of astonishing.

6. Corrupted - Garten Der Unbewusstheit (Nostalgia Blackrain)

A phenomenal achievement. The album is ostensibly divided into three different songs, but it plays as one long form work, with the three songs acting more as three different movements in the overall functioning of the piece. To a degree, this is business as usual for Corrupted, who have released at least three albums in this format, but what isn’t business as usual is the devotion to outright beauty that predominates for much of the disc. Much of the singing will sound familiar to anyone who listened to the first song on Se Hace Por Los Sueños Asesinos, which was titled “Gekkou No Daichi”; here, though, the last song on this album is titled “Gekkou No Daichi” as well, and sounds absolutely nothing like the first version of the song. Corrupted's lineup seems to have been in a state of flux at the time of recording; three different guitarists, including longtime guitarist Talbot, are featured on the recording. In addition, longtime singer Hevi (now sadly departed) also played bass on the recording, which is something that never happened before; however, he locks in perfectly with drummer and bandleader Chew Hasegawa, and his playing, like everyone else here, is beyond reproach. As Corrupted moves from what is basically post-rock, to unaccompanied acoustic beauty, to a slow building of tension, to the inevitable climax of the work, any listener with the patience to sit through it all will be absolutely astounded at the scope and understated audacity of the band’s vision. This is marvelous, extraordinarily intelligent, beautiful and painful music: it not only explodes the confines of sludge and doom metal, but stretches the definitions of metal itself.

(Note: Parts of the last entry about Corrupted were originally posted for a Top 5 list for the cassette label Tapes of a Neon God. As a side note, my group, Pink City, will release a split cassette with the band Great Falls on Tapes of a Neon God some time this year.)

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