Every year at Decaycast we like to invite some guest contributors to contribute end of the year thoughts, threats etc, titled “Essential ListEning”. Excited to share the second of many to drop over the next few weeks. Next up is artist, label owner and composer Daniel Alexander Hignell-Tully
Congratulations – against all the odds, you have survived 2021, and arrive now, somewhat fully-formed, at that pinnacle of human cultural achievement, the ‘end of year list’. A season of musical folly in which utterly vain people with nothing better to do tell you all about the records you missed, enticing your already beleaguered ears with a whole new batch of releases to add to your eternally expanding Bandcamp wishlist. In the spirit of such things, welcome to my list – a smorgasbord of objectively awesome music in no particular order, drawn from across the globe. Some albums, some singles, all wonderful, check out the provided links to listen in full.
Thomas Ankersmit: Perceptual Geography
If I was to make a list entitled ‘greatest living composers’, or something equally facile, Thomas Ankersmit would be one of about four names on it. Existing in a liminal space beyond the confines of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste, Perpetual Geography instead toys with the very fabric of composition, an arch deconstruction of sonic possibility. Ankersmit’s work is challenging – in a very literal sense – pulling and pushing the ear and the body into new contexts, reshaping the listening environment. Every second exists to further interrogate a core concept – the psychoacoustic properties of the sonic fragments on offer – and as such, this isn’t music but sound art, in a definitive sense. Following on from his previous album, Homage to Dick Raaijmakers, Ankersmit has once again demonstrated a profound capacity for sonic research, weaving the already complex ideas of his muse (in this instance, Maryanne Amacher) into a rich, uncompromising album.
Stephan Moore: Stage
A score for Yanira Castro’s dance performance of the same name, Stage relies upon a series of different metallic sound-makers and resonators to create a droning, creaking, euphoric wash. Utilizing sheet metal, gongs, prayer bowls, brass rods, and cymbals, it’s the sort of thing that is, on paper at least, painfully dime a dozen. And yet, Moore conducts his metal orchestra with an audible reverence, teasing gentle, restrained tones from instruments that though ever on the edge of the expected clang and screech, never quite fall into such an obvious voicing. Reminiscent of both Harry Bertoia and Yoshi Wada, Stage succeeds in occupying a well-trodden sonic territory without seeming trite or unnecessary. Rather, it is an album that expertly supports and advances the tradition of which it is a part.
Sarah Hennies: Falling Together
Falling together is a work seemingly determined to explore the entire dynamic range of the orchestra. Taking more than eight minutes to arrive at anything approaching ‘music’ proper – the preceding section consisting of the light hub-bub of instruments warming up, before glacially emerging into perceivable rhythm – Hennies manages to both draw upon the atonal stutters and high pitched glissandi of the contemporary orchestral palette, and to frame them within a far more static, laborious aesthetic. If it all sounds (at times) a little like a group of factory workers manhandling The Shining, that’s no doubt deliberate. The composer forcefully articulates the rigor and effort of creation, resulting in a hypnotic and repetitious work that nonetheless evolves from musty silence to a bombastic temperament without ever losing sight of its carefully crafted internal logic.
Valentina Goncharova: Recordings 1987 – 1991 Vol. 2
Not previously familiar with Goncharova’s work, I can only assume this constitutes the collated scraps of a fairly healthy career, for Recordings 1987-1991 manages to be both marvellously refined and sonically diverse in equal measure. Whilst nestling up to the realm of free-jazz, there is a distinct academic approach at play, with the tracks seemingly representing extended studies of a given technique. Whilst the first inhabits a minimal, wandering, folksy brass workout (not unlike the oeuvre of Matana Roberts, who I can only imagine is a fan), the later tracks divulge into the more screechy world of Avant-jazz, then on to a vaguely prog-psych aesthetic, complete with snazzy organ solos. We even get some rhythmic drone stuff that sounds like a mix of the early kosmische scene and the (extremely underrated) score to Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Not that Goncharova’s style is in any way derivative – rather, the composer seems to deftly weave together numerous narratives from the broader experimental palette, producing an alluring and challenging body of work in the process.
Sound Effects Of Death And Horror: Mota Rolla
Artists generally don’t like it when their work is described as ‘a bit silly’, but I’m going to go out on a limb and presume someone called Sound Effects of Death and Horror won’t mind. Blusterous name aside, Mota Rolla is a pretty silly work, riding the current trend of 80’s nostalgia to weave Junoesque synths with GM piano’s, the odd dial-tone and public service announcement thrown in for good measure. The album succeeds, however, by invoking a surprisingly melancholic tone, its elements managing to be at once quite cheesy and genuinely moving. As albums go, it might not be breaking the analogical mold – but by god is that mold shiny, ready to produce perfect little retro space robots to dolefully play out the final act of a lost sci-fi movie that never was, each with just a glint of sadness in their mechanical eyes.
Pup – Watching / Kill Something
Whilst simultaneously being a sensible adult who likes austere academic music, I also enjoy the sort of pop-punk that would make your Nan-blush, and no-one makes your Nan-blush better than Pup. Having constructed a successful career adjoining Big Hooks to Big Riffs, their latest single continues this tradition, with a slightly-too-cheesy A-side giving way to the frankly astonishing B-side, Kill Something. Presumably recorded under lockdown conditions (and as such lacking the sheen of their prior work), the song ooohs and aaahs its way through roughly fifteen verses and choruses, the whole affair conducted at a stumbling, off-kilter tempo. Throw in some way-too-happy horn synths and an unashamedly melodramatic vocal refrain (‘I just wanna kill something I love’), and the result is a wonderfully fun – and structurally complex – prog-pop-punk ditty.
Christopher Otto & JACK Quartet: Rag’sma
If you’re not yet familiar with the Greyfade label, I strongly suggest you delve immediately into their modest catalog, all of which is excellent. Here, Christopher Otto – who with his Jack Quartet has performed the works of Lachenmann, Adams, and Zorn, among others – offers up a methodical, mathematical study of Just Intonation. Such is the precision of his mathematically-infused building blocks, that Rag’sma sounds not unlike a great work of additive synthesis – yet where we might expect the colliding voices of computationally derived sine tones, we are offered instead the pulsing, organic drawl of a violin. Otto manages to combine laden precision with the sort of physical expression normally reserved for far free-er forms of composition – as such, the result is a seductively involute album as compelling as it is studious.
Raja Kirik: Rampokan
Without doubt the most intense album on the list, Rampokan is no easy listen, actively courting many musical elements that I innately struggle with. Indeed, the artists’ clear love of the more hardcore end of jungle/gabba/techno music scene adds to the overall sense of madness at play, an often unpleasant assault upon my tender senses that is brilliant as much as it is abrasive. Once you push past the ‘hard-dance’ aesthetic, the album reveals itself to be quite unlike anything else I’ve ever heard, employing ‘world-music’ extended techniques alongside metallic drones and industrial bleeps, Javanese traditions and glitching distortion framing virtuosic Gamelan bells.
Thirty Pounds of Bone: whence, the
Thirty Pounds of Bone (I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t mention he also released work this year under the J.Lynch moniker for my Difficult Art and Music label), has yet again created a lovely, solemn addition to the contemporary British folk scene. Built around voice, guitar, drum machine, and electric harmonium, the album conjures up a visceral sense of longing, almost perfectly replicating the sensation of sitting on a Cornish fishing dock on your own in the rain. There is a certain gothic sensibility to the proceedings, with the reliance on simple repetitive refrains and perfectly articulated lyrical prowess forging a powerful listening experience. It’s a proper album too – more than a collection of songs, there exists a real cohesion and journey through the material, a work that benefits from being approached in a single, undisturbed sitting.
Bad Waitress: No Taste
Cheesy, slightly glam-infused punk might not seem a likely contender for best of the year, but Bad Waitress are channelling some top-shelf Lunachicks, and it’s nothing short of awesome. Sure, the lyrics are hardly ground-breaking but that’s never been punk’s strong point. Instead, we get a rumbustious throwdown of feminist sloganeering, with just the right mix of faux-sultry passive aggression and proper foot-on-monitor riffs. Whilst sounding for all the world like the sort of thing you would find being played at 2 am on MTV in the mid-nineties, No Taste is peppered with some tremendous pop choruses – I defy anyone to dislike the ludicrously catchy ‘Live in Reverse’, which deserves to be a standard in every dimly lit, pound-a-pint snakebite rock club from this day forward.
Christophe Guiraud: Kutra Bégulma – Unfinished Altar
A gloomy, caustic orchestral work from Christophe Guiraud, who seems to have assembled an astonishingly broad number of performers to bring his compositional prowess to life. It’s all very melodramatic, employing operatic vocals, sputtering electronics, and minimalist, heavy-handed piano, alongside textural, sweeping microtonal strings. Whilst making its bed in the wreckage of atonal music – and occasionally sounding like it’s been torn directly from the 1970s avant-garde scene in doing so – Unfinished Altar manages nonetheless to achieve a certain timelessness, looking both forward and backward with equal vigor. The dense, modern, droning production frames a rich instrumental palette, every sound merging into the next, with distinct vocal parts emerging from an enveloping, atonal soup.
Siavash Amini: A Trail of Laughter
Given that wider culture seems entirely indifferent to everything I love, I am always faintly baffled that Siavash Amini has any fans at all – such is his remarkable talent as a composer. A Trail of Laughter continues his tradition of creating dense, rewarding albums, albeit by eschewing some of the more recognizable elements of the noise/ambient spectrum that he has historically employed. This is an album very much about tonal relationships, with the timbre of the electronic sounds being tied to their frequency and density. It is a glacial endeavour, a barren cliff face with almost nothing to grip onto – and all the better for it. As would be expected from Amini, the sounds are handled perfectly, framed by an absorbing mist, with no room for latent, extraneous bass build-ups or high-frequency screeches. The real success in the album, however, is in its muted intensity. Nothing ever gets remotely near its breaking point – despite operating in a sound-world that suggests it inevitably will. Instead, the listener is left with a slow and lethargic tension, an ever-present sense of dread that invokes palpable fear by never revealing the creature beneath the bed.
PETEY x MIYA FOLICK: Haircut
Yes, yes, this is incredibly, painfully hipster. A song about having a haircut as a metaphor for social alienation, with about as much twee as any three minutes could possibly handle, and sung by a viral Tik-Tok star. And yet, this also has Miya Folick on it, so it is automatically brilliant in every conceivable way – and it really is, a lovely, twee song that somehow seems to cut right to the heart of our lonely, fucked up 2021. It’s not high-art, and you might not want to tell your chin-stroking friends about it, but it’s a cuddly, enigmatic, solemn piece of bubblegum pop nonetheless, and that’s a-ok with me.
Hans Castrup: Constant Imbalances III
A beautifully strange affair from Hans Castrup, Constant Imbalances III marries the sort of protracted pseudo-jazz favored by post avant-garde classical composers, with oddly sinister electronics, resulting in a work as disjointed as it is humorous. Spread over 15 short tracks, the album favors shrill, high-pitched orchestral arrangements, with synthesizers standing in for strings and winds. This is hardly ‘switched on Bach’, however. Castrup is exploring a far more interesting era of classical composition and using his electronic timbres to emulate the overall feeling of acoustic parts, rather than simply replacing acoustic instruments with their electronic counterparts. It’s the sort of thing that would fit nicely on one of those Deutsche Grammophon compilations of early electronic music, the loose experimentation of a boffin in some European radio studio. For this reason, the result is a somewhat more serious effort than some other electronic orchestral music, despite the Kagelian sense of humor that runs throughout.
M(h)aol: Gender Studies
The perfect riposte to the anti-woke brigade, Gender Studies is the sort of lo-fi, critical post-punk that seems likely to genuinely annoy the sort of dickheads we all wish we had evolved beyond. Juxtaposing striking vocals that hover ever on the point of boredom (a state that charges the lyrics with another level of sardonic wit) with angular guitars and marching, drifting drums, Gender Studies feels almost euphoric. The E.P. inhabits a bracing, artistically rendered naivety that acts as one big ‘fuck you’ to the glossy precision of mainstream rock music. With blunt, timely lyrics – ‘no one ever talks to us unless they want to fuck’ – M(h)aol are the required soundtrack to a culture ham-fistedly navigating the path to diversity, a strong reminder that we’ve got an awful long way to go yet.
Another release that falls into the ‘not really my thing but really quite good’ category, Fall is stuffed full of ethereal vocals and young-person beats – exactly the sort of thing I might otherwise avoid. And yet, despite doing its best to alienate me entirely by including an actual drum n’ bass tune (theoretically unforgivable, but we’ll look past it just this once), Fall is a pretty excellent journey through the hazier end of electronic pop. Bubbling, synthetic rhythms serve as the foundation for Mücha’s drawn-out vocals, with sharp, disjunct percussion breaking through the layers of heavy, cavernous reverb.
Adrian Lane: The Fleet
With the world literally falling apart theres got to be something said for still find some semblance of beauty in the wreckage, and Adrian Lanes finds it in spades. Though occasionally sounding like the background music to a particularly somber episode of Downton Abbey, The Fleet balances its romantic sensibilities with a glacial pace, its soaring strings never quite arriving at their expected cadence. It is all very, very pretty, but so wonderfully rendered that it can be entirely forgiven for not being a tad more adventurous, and stands instead as a near-perfect example of its genre.
Francisco Meirino: a new instability
The first ‘best’ album of the year, this was released way back in January and comprises 30 minutes of the sort of electro-acoustic concrete stuff you will no doubt recognise – a familiar sound-world weaved together with astonishing care. Warbling, high-pitched drones sweep and cut into obtuse field recordings, with no small focus given over to the mechanics of the recording medium itself, the wear and hic-up of tape or hiss enlivening the process. Contrary to some concrete music, it’s a very limited, well-defined palette, with the mildly distorted spools of reel-to-reel tape humming seamlessly between the close held pitches of several sine tones, throbbing synthetics framed by the muted shouts and bangs of some indeterminable street scene.
Eppu Kaipainen: To Grieve One Another
2021 has been quite the year for drone music, a fact that no doubt reflects the endless suspension of the pandemic, a global population waiting for a return to normalcy we know will never come. To Grieve One Another seems topical in name and tone – matching fizzing, gentle distortions with organic tones drawn from a harmonium or some similar instrument. It’s over 30 minutes long, and whilst there is some development, there’s not a lot – instead, we are exposed to the subtle rise and fall of chords of differing lengths, a listless wave framed by the emergence of a formless low drone at its foundation. It’s all pleasingly underplayed, eschewing any great barrage of noise in favor of a more restrained aesthetic, though thankfully without the ‘sea of reverb’ ornaments that has plagued similar efforts. Indeed, there is an inherent liveness to the proceedings, as if we could be listening to a live performance of a single instrument conjuring a loose repetition, whilst the machinery of the world splutters and breaks somewhere outside the window.
Wrong Life: Dreamer Gait
If there’s one thing better than an obscure pop-punk band, it’s a Scottish obscure pop-punk band. Wrong life – the new band from the singer of The Murderburgers – continues the grand tradition of self-deflating Scottish melodrama, discussing loneliness, addiction, and poverty in a surprisingly lucid manner, all without compromising catchy power-chord choruses and the half-assed vocal delivery upon which the genre relies. The extremely short EP succeeds by not overstaying its welcome, and its habit of engaging with relatable, everyday subjects through a mixture of broad analogies and abstract descriptions maintains an aura of sing-a-long surprise that’s incredibly endearing.
Hunki Dori: Reverie
Whilst wielding a ‘just jamming on a bunch of homemade instruments we found in the shed’ vibe, Reverie offers some really quite unusual arrangements buoyed by an incongruously chirpy tone. Cheesy saxophone soars over jazz-inflected guitar, carried by quiet field recordings and indistinguishable vocals. Moments later it’s all reed instruments and handclaps, a vaguely hip-hop beat, flute solos and fiddles, then on to rattles, shakes, and droning harmoniums. The whole affair is conducted in a distinctly lo-fi, wandering manner, as if the pieces have been produced spontaneously – yet with none of the unnecessary fat you might expect from a seemingly improvised work. I don’t know whether Hunki Dori are familiar with the Finnish folk collective Paavoharju, but they’re treading a lot of the same ground – which given the latter group are one of the better examples within the broad ‘music produced by humans’ genre, is certainly no bad thing.
Marta Forsberg: Light Colours
Demonstrating an astonishing capacity for economy, Light Colours documents a small number of ‘eee’s’, ‘aahh’s’ and ‘ooo’h’s’ overlayed upon one another in different combinations. There really is nothing more going on than that, and yet, it’s a transcendent experience, carrying the listener into an entirely new auditory space as the mind slowly embraces the limited, superbly articulated sound-world with which it has been presented. Small overlaps in the vocal phrasing, the nuance of each tail and attack, chords formed by several voices coalescing at once… the composite effect is not unlike listening to the sea crashing against rocks, with the whole suggesting a complexity absent in the simplicity of its parts. Roughly halfway through the piece changes tact entirely – still acapella, the voice is now drenched in reverb and focussed on long-held harmonies, the introduction of new layers pushing and pulling at the central harmonic content so as to tease out further modes of listening.
Quiet Clapping: Air
Quiet Clapping (aka Johnathan Deasy) has had quite a year, offering up (by my count) no less than 10 releases in twelve months. With all that to choose from, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but Air perhaps wins for its superbly-paced dedication to the ambient-drone cause. 40 minutes of gently pulsing synthetic tones, never too harsh or too muted, this is music that benefits from some deep listening, its charms easy to overlook with the wrong mindset. Given the proper attention, however, Air is a rewarding and hypnotic piece, with the initial middle-frequency wash giving way to near-reverent higher-pitched harmonies as the work progresses. It’s all fairly bleak stuff, and whilst it falls comfortably into the well-stuffed category of ambient works, there is a sense of methodic intellectualism here that helps lift things into a far more interesting, far more complex arena.
Метель Мира: Вселенная Гасто (Russia)
A wonderfully abstract foray into the synthetic domain, Вселенная Гасто paints a rich alien landscape of sweeping noise and reverberant pulses, an electronic tableau of emergent rhythms and nuanced sound design. Rather than courting structure in any traditional sense, the album allows transient gurgles of electrical static to evolve over time, with the line between source and processing, sound and scene constantly merging. Directionless, static arps and distant, malleable vocals come and go, dull, mechanical thumps articulating an otherwise impenetrable mist of synthesis. It’s ghostly, claustrophobic stuff, but wonderfully rendered, its gritty, shapeshifting sonics contributing to a surprisingly emotive mis-en-scene.
Integrity – The Rites of Love and Death
After the year we’ve all had, I’m fairly certain new years eve should be spent sitting alone in our pants knocking back shots of expensive whiskey, wondering forlornly about the limited prospects of the year ahead. While you’re there, I would suggest sticking on this new track by Integrity – a cover of Nothings The Rites of Love and Death. In true Integrity style, its bleak stuff, yet fittingly preposterous, with a whispered fiendish drawl colouring slow downbeat guitars, and a structure so lethargic it seems to constantly tetter on the edge of boredom. Four minutes in, however, and we’re presented with the world cheesiest guitar solo before a screaming voice starts lamenting, in a particularly ugly voice, ‘I’ve fallen in love with darkness and fear, and I wish the world would disappear’. An extremely 2021 sentiment to which we can no doubt all heartily relate.
So there you have it – 25 of the best releases of the last 12 months, according to me and my indefatigably awesome ears. Sit back, relax, take a listen, and raise a chipped glass of cheap prosecco to the awful year to come.
Daniel Alexander Hignell-Tully is a composer, video and performance artist from the UK. He produces work under the Distant Animals moniker (www.distantanimals.com), and runs both the production company 7000 Trees (www.7000trees.com) and the Difficult Art and Music label (difficultartandmusic.bandcamp.com). He holds an actual proper grown-up PhD in contemporary music, and currently lectures at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.