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O Death, Stay Now Thine Hand!

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Matthew Wuethrich isn't drinking the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid when it comes to 2007.

O Death, Stay Now Thine Hand!

In a year in which the New York Times conservative pundit David Brooks felt the need to weigh in on the cultural/musical malaise, veteran critic Simon Reynolds expressed gloom over music’s direction and pretty much everyone else saw the walls of the industry temple as nearing absolute collapse, it would be easy to join in the death march with a somber, morbid tune.

But such is not the case. One simply had to look in new places – like North Africa – and in new ways. There were no monolithic, world-beating records this year. Rather, imperfection reigned: the sprawling, misshapen albums turned in by High on Fire, M.I.A. and Magik Markers; the well-crafted but perpetually unfinished ones by Burial, Kemialliset ystävät, and Six Organs of Admittance.

In the same way that information and opinions are getting atomized by the Internet, music is getting democratized. It’s becoming a vast pool of eccentric outsider ideas and visions that, while rough around the edges, still hold a lot of charm, a lot of uniqueness, and a lot of power. The records listed below shared two things: they contained a healthy mix of craft and (usually) a single, original idea explored with penetrating focus. This combination yielded many highlights, and made me think that this state of flux, this feeling of precipice, is an exciting place to be.

So, all the gloom and doom is hard for me to get with. The record industry, mainstream and underground alike, periodically goes through upheaval, adjusts and recovers (just read through articles that appear, about every 10 years or so since the birth of the recording industry). The music will get made; the question is how and in what form it will get distributed and – perhaps this is why all the dark prophecy – who (if anybody) will profit. One thing is for sure: I listened to more music this year in more forms than ever before. And of both new forms and new music there will always be more. Our challenge is to sift through it all and find what is meaningful for us.

A.M. - Orla (Ikuisuus)

Antony Milton uses a simple idea, the drone, and what used to be a common household instrument, an Orla organ, to evoke a vast and deeply textured other world. From a physical perspective, one of the year’s most immersive records.

James Blackshaw - The Cloud of Unknowing Tompkins Square)

The English 12-string guitarist steps out of the long shadow cast over the solo acoustic guitar by John Fahey and delivers a magical performance that is at once dense and dissonant, but also gravity-defying and translucent.

Aufgehoben - Messidor (Holy Mountain)

A brutal slab of guitar-and-drum noise digitally dissected with the surgical care of a fine butcher. When you stop perceiving it as onslaught and start hearing it as order is a thrilling, if elusive moment.

Tinariwen - Aman Iman (World Village)

This ensemble is the more polished version of the Sublime Frequencies representatives of the (very) loose desert-blues genre, but getting to hear the intricate interplay of rhythm and lead guitars in such clarity is a treasure.

Sightings - Through the Panama (Load)

A combination of ingredients we all know--bass, guitar, drums and vocals--made to speak in tongues that echo Endtimes. Ugly and raw at first; complex and bewitching with patience.

Kemialliset Ystävät - Kemialliset Ystävät (Fonal)

As Dusted’s Mason Jones rightly pointed out, Jan Anderzén and company push the irritation threshold on this buzzing, whirring nest of acoustic and electronic junk, but it is precisely this willingness to let the musical madcap blend with experimental vision that sets KY at the nexus of the noise, DIY experimenting and avant-folk scenes.

Pole - Steingarten (~scape)

What starts out with a minimalist techno pulse morphs into a colorful romp full of slinky dub basslines, and ends up as one addictive listen.

Loren Connors - Hymn of the North Star (Family Vineyard)

Family Vineyard’s championing of Connors continues in this set of cosmic-tinged atmospheres for guitar. More earth-bound, but no less revelatory were FV’s two-disc As Roses Bow: Collected Airs 1992-2002, and Connors work with Jandek on Manhattan Afternoon.

Dälek - Abandoned Language (Ipeac)

As I didn’t listen to much hip-hop this year, I can’t say how (or even if) Dälek’s latest fits into that universe, but I can attest that their blend of droning strings, granite beats and dystopian flow engages on so many levels that it kept me coming back for more.

Uton - Alitaju yliminä (Dekorder)

Uton (a.k.a. Jani Hirvonen) plunders some of his old recordings, adds some new ones and streams them into two sides of heaving, humid flow. Hirvonen links up so many loose strands of sound art (the drone, improv, surrealism, folk music, musique concrete and more)that the differences cease to matter.

Burial - Untrue (Hyperdub)

The reclusive Burial admits that he doesn’t write perfect tunes; instead he tries to create an immersive world. With his ethereal chorus of sampled, cut-up voices and graceful mix of sub-bass and exoskeleton drum tracks, he succeeds.

Other worthwhile efforts:
M.I.A. - Kala (Interscope)
High on Fire - Death is This Communion (Relapse)
Six Organs of Admittance - Shelter from the Ash (Drag City)
King Kahn & the Shrines - What Is?! (Hazlewood)
Keith Rowe - The Room (Erstwhile)
Magik Markers - Boss (Ecstatic Peace!)
Cloudland Canyon - Silver Tongued Sisyphus (Kranky)
Hypnotic Ensemble - War/Jupiter 10” (self-released)
Group Doueh - Guitar Music from the Western Sahara (Sublime Frequencies)
Group Inerane - Guitars from Agadez (Sublime Frequencies)

Some Reissues:
Ju Suk Reet Meate - Solo 78/79 (De Stijl)
Andrew Hill - Compulsion (Blue Note)
Richard Youngs - Summer Wanderer (Gipsy Sphinx)

Some Tributes:
Max Roach
Andrew Hill
Alice Coltrane
Karlheinz Stockhausen

By Matthew Wuethrich

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