Christopher McFall

Best EPs of 2013

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So, having listened to no fewer than 261 EPs and albums released this year, it’s time to distil that listening into the annual Best of the Year lists. As always, we’ll start with the ten most exceptional EPs. Read more

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Best EPs of 2011

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Lists help you believe that there will be a future – by reminding you that the things you are listing have happened, in a time that was once a future, and that therefore there will be a future where things will happen that can then be listed and taken forward to remind us of a past where stuff was generated that made us believe there is a present and so, ultimately, a future. (Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here we go again, then, with my own series of lists summarising what i believe to be the best music of the last 12 months. As usual, i’m going to strew caveats all over them—these lists are only what i presently believe to be the best and if i made them again in a few months’ time things would likely have changed, and in any case i haven’t heard every release this year, and while we’re on the subject there are still three days of the year left and we all know how much can happen in just three days—but regardless, these lists, in all their provisional tentativity, are, right here right now, definitive. Okay, so bearing all that in mind, let’s get the ball rolling with the ten EPs that have stood out most through the last 12 months.

10 | Hecq and Exillon – Spheres of Fury
It’s hardly worth repeating Ben Lukas Boysen’s 2009 claim that “beat-science can’t go any further with me”—his unique take on the world of grime and dubstep through the last couple of years has been blisteringly exciting. Spheres of Fury lives up to its title, a sleazy track with indelicate beats and bass—the accompanying video, featuring a wonderfully over-dramatised waterfight is hilarious—but it’s the last of the four tracks that’s even better. The “Stochastic Process remix By Techdiff” goes way beyond the scope of regular remixes, turning Hecq’s masterly original into a flawlessly-executed glitch-fest that ends with a twist, the sedate pace abruptly doubled, ending up as a frenzied dance track. [Juno Download]

9 | Fovea Hex – Three Beams
Clodagh Simonds doesn’t mess around when she gives her music to other musicians to play with. Her 2007 release Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent ended up in the hands of no less than The Hafler Trio, and this time around her latest songs have been given to Michael Begg, Colin Potter and William Basinski. With its detail and surface filigree, it must be hard to know where to start reworking Fovea Hex material, but this fine little EP (available only as a bonus CD with her new album) proves what’s possible. Predictably, Basinski’s is the least inventive, but the other two “beams” are outstanding, Begg and Potter refashioning the material into soft, surrounding ambient soundscapes, reverently celebrating those aspects that make the music of Fovea Hex as unique as it is. [Janet Records]

8 | Pablo – In Hurricanes
i know precisely nothing about Pablo, and only discovered this EP by accident when roaming the iTunes store some time back. There’s something of the retro quality that pervades so much synthpop at the moment, but it’s not a throwback; analogue synths are only one colour in Pablo’s palette. Each of the three songs has a lightly cheeky quality that’s most endearing; second track “Rock Bottom” is a delightful encouragement to those facing hard times: “son, you have to fall face first, hit rock bottom, to learn in life”. Pablo’s voice is splendid, and his heartfelt lyrics never feel trite, the music keeping things light and airy. [iTunes]

7 | Yugen – Ae’shT’aT’aQ
David Sani’s Yugen project is hard to define or even to describe. To some he’s better known through the lowercase music he’s released as Shinkei, but i find this new departure of his to be far more impressive. He brings to mind the soundworld of The Hafler Trio in Ae’shT’aT’aQ, an episodic work that explores some utterly captivating and immersive textures. The title is Aramaic for “he stood in silence”, and Sani has used (in his words) “some old middle east archival recordings” as source material, but they have been so extensively worked on and processed that there’s barely any clear trace of them. Yet, while the origins are indistinct, the grain of the music is tangibly evocative, which together with the fascinating techniques used throughout, sets this album apart from the majority of experimental electronics. [Free download]

6 | Ex Confusion – Too Late, They Are Gone
Ambient music can’t always withstand being presented in smaller, shorter formats, but this is where Atsuhito Omori’s music is most at home. and it’s the miniature size of these tracks (reviewed back in March) that makes them as powerful as they are; while lesser minds endlessly play with loops dully repeated ad nauseam, Omori condenses his ideas into pieces barely three or four minutes long. Their short span blurs the nature of their content (is it a looping fragment? or is it a part of something much larger?) thus freeing one to focus entirely on the resulting music, which—in part, again, due to the duration—is imbued with real fragility, enhanced by such titles as “Too Late, They Are Gone” and “It Doesn’t Last Forever” (one of my favourite tracks of the year). The five amuse-bouches on this EP are like the last streaks of colour in fading photographs—beautiful and very moving—and i love how Omori leaves the start and end of each track rough and unfinished, which only adds to its authenticity. [Bandcamp]

5 | Uh Huh Her – Black and Blue
Uh Huh Her have been around since 2007, but don’t seem to have found their sound until this year. Their particular marriage of synthpop and rock is finally given perfect expression on this EP, almost every track of which is a winner. Leisha Hailey and Camila Grey bring a delicate lyricism to their music that’s very impressive, and songs like “Never the Same” (with its simply gorgeous chorus) and “I’ve Had Enough” somehow navigate through the tropes of ballad and light rock, emerging with real emotional power. The more electronic tracks are certainly infectious, but despite their pace are kept relatively low-key (Hailey and Grey often singing low in their registers) and always at the service of the words; definitely some of the best songs released this year. [UhHuhHer.com]

4 | Clem Leek – Home Outside
i must admit to having mixed feelings about Clem Leek’s music, which has had as many (if not more) misses than hits. But when he gets it right, as he does on this 17-minute, single-track EP, the results are breathtaking. There’s a lovely balance between the deep, omnipresent richness of the underlying drone and the mournful, string-inflected wailing above (redolent of Richard Skelton). There are all kinds of sound sources involved in the piece’s dense texture, but their details are kept hazy and they thereby become more able to hint and evoke, without the need to be specific. Leek judges the duration perfectly, and insodoing has crafted his best work to date. [Bandcamp]

3 | Tetra – Live at Gallery of Modern Art
Tetra is an offshoot from the Australian group Ektoise (comprising Greg Reason and Jim Grundy), focussing primarily on ambient atmospherics. This 27-minute live improvisation is the second of just two releases the duo has created so far, both of which are available free. Guitars are at the epicentre of the piece, but they’re suffused and surrounded with shifting layers and clouds of sound, creating a huge sonic space. Apart from the oblique beauty of the music, what stands out most for me in this recording is the restraint, Reason and Grundy keeping things moving but never pushing them along, drifting but always with a discreet guiding sense of purpose. [Bandcamp]

2 | irr. app. (ext.) – The Famine Road/Celestial Laminate
After a number of years seemingly in the wilderness, Matt Waldron’s irr. app. (ext.) project has gloriously returned in 2011. The focus this year has been digital, Waldron releasing a slew of new and remastered material via his Bandcamp site. i’ve been unable to choose between these two; The Famine Road, a collaboration with Diana Rogerson and her noise duo Fistfuck, originally appeared in 2008 in an edition of just one copy (auctioned on eBay). Waldron has now made it available to everyone, together with two revised versions; all three are devastating in their abrasive impact, pushing Waldron’s extreme and surreal experimentalism to its limits. Celestial Laminate is no less dense, but begins with a superb drone-based piece, around which large quantities of sound have accreted. [Bandcamp]

1 | Christopher McFall and David Velez – Credence
When it comes to working with field recordings, few demonstrate more innate understanding and technical control than Christopher McFall. In this remarkable collaboration with David Velez, McFall’s tendency to focus on the dark, amorphous nature of sound is coloured by overtly melodic material, seamlessly integrated into the sonic fabric. “Seamless” doesn’t really do it justice, though; Credence is, no doubt, a collage of elements, but the skill with which they are brought together, juxtaposed and intertwined is truly astonishing. Nothing ever feels remotely out of place; on the contrary, the way in which the piece comes across—as is usual for anything McFall is involved with—is like an unadorned field recording in its own right, such is the naturality of the result.

i dare say Credence won’t be for everyone; it’s gentle, yes—but equally it’s perhaps the most pitch black music i’ve ever heard. Like a cross between Twin Peaks and Lustmord, vast, yawning noises ponderously arise from unfathomable depths, emerging into an ominous nocturnal landscape. Evoking foghorns and organ pedals, deep melodic fragments circle like a funereal ground bass, at times made arboreal through the noises of birds and other creatures, othertimes aquatic with creaking boat wood. Although it projects an acute, vivid sense of isolation and even desolation, there’s much, much beauty to it all, which only makes it more moving. As only the best music can, Credence ultimately transcends words and communicates the immensity of its vision at an instinctual level. An absolute masterpiece. [Free download]

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Mix Tape #19 : Best of 2010

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HAPPY NEW YEAR!

It’s 1 January, which means it’s 5:4‘s birthday, and today we’re three years old. Having spent several days looking back on last year’s most outstanding releases, what better way could there be to start the new year than with a new mix tape, featuring one track from each of my forty best albums of 2010. As you’d expect, it’s another extremely eclectic mix, and this time lasts a little over three-and-a-half hours. If you like the mix (and how could you not?!), please support the artists and buy their excellent music.

Here’s the tracklisting in full (click the image for high-resolution artwork): Read more

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Best Albums of 2010 (Part 2)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

Bringing the year to a very happy end, here’s the second twenty of my forty Best Albums of 2010:

20 | Anders Brødsgaard – Galaxy
In terms of CD releases, precious little contemporary instrumental music has made any kind of impression this year, which i find rather worrying. Not so with Anders Brødsgaard, whose 40-minute orchestral work Galaxy, composed over 10 years ago, finally found a release on the innovative Danish Dacapo Records label. A work of that scale, composed as a single movement span, is likely to put off some people, but it’s such a relief to hear music not constrained by the kind of generic limitations that afflict so much new music. Brødsgaard lives up to his cosmic title; drawing on a plethora of compositional ideologies, and structuring them on a spiral, he’s created one of the richest orchestral works i’ve heard in a long time.

19 | Get Well Soon – Vexations
Neil Hannon pissed away his credentials as a pop sophisticate long ago, and the mantle has fallen to Konstantin Gropper, whose Get Well Soon project has been gradually making a name for itself over the last few years. His unique brand of instrumental pop, akin to Belle and Sebastian but more bullish, is brilliantly displayed on Vexations, the lyrics of which are worthy of a lengthy discussion in their own right. i wrote at length about this album back in March, and my views have, if anything, intensified; ever serious but always accessible, Gropper’s melodies are utterly exquisite, augmented by the deftest of instrumental accompaniments. Read more

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Best EPs of 2010

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And so it finally begins, the lengthy annual retrospective of all that was best in 2010. As usual, let’s start with my run-down of the 10 Best EPs of the year:

10 | dB Soundworks – Steambirds (iOS) Soundtrack
Something of an oddity in this list, perhaps, but Danny Baranowsky’s synthetic score for the splendid iPhone game Steambirds is incredibly effective. He’s managed to capture perfectly the atmosphere and mannerisms suitable for the game’s airborne antics, bringing to mind the soundtracks of any number of British WWII films. The four-minute “Main Theme”, in particular, is full of variety, never composing by numbers, while the additional “Boss Track” takes the invention even further, supplemented by two splendid miniatures, corresponding to success or failure in the game. It’s available free (or not, if you’re feeling generous) via the dB Soundworks Bandcamp page. While you’re there, check out Baranowsky’s music for Canabalt, also stirring stuff.

9 | David Lynch – Good Day Today/I Know
Okay, hands up anyone who predicted David Lynch would bring out a single this year? Keep your hand up if you also knew it would be a delicate electronic dance number. No-one? Defying expectations with his typical enthusiasm and flair, Lynch’s twin A-side took everyone by surprise, maybe even Lynch himself. Über-processed vocals, autotuned to the nth degree, laid over a brisk, unimposing disco beat, it could all have been horribly cheesy. But Lynch somehow pulls off experiments like this, not only sounding like no-one else, but actually making it kind of cool. The more laid-back “I Know” is even better, more obviously Lynchian, ominous and rather unnerving. Read more

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Best EPs of 2009

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As December draws to a close, it’s time once again to cast our collective eye back over the last 12 months. Before we get to the highlights, it’s only fair to say that 2009 has been filled with more than its fare share of disappointments. Kraftwerk finally succeeded in releasing The Catalogue, the “re-mastered” versions of their output, although success is hardly the word for a project that managed to inflict so much bombast on the music, bludgeoning it into the 21st century; only a few of the albums came through unscathed. Dangermouse and Sparklehorse managed to distract attention away from how genuinely awful was their album Dark Night of the Soul by whipping up a frenzy about that great über-menace the Corporate Record Label; for once, a label did listeners a favour, consigning this vacuous lame duck to peer-to-peer oblivion. A-ha attempted a revivification of their image, returning to ’80s synths, but in a context so compressed as to be almost impossible to listen to; Foot Of The Mountain must take the award for the most horrifically over-compressed album in recent times, although the fact it only has a single good song (“The Bandstand”) lessens the blow somewhat. Muse got delusions of orchestration, turning their quirky and usually impressive ideas into something damp and actually rather camp; The Resistance was hardly the best name for such a lacklustre album. Even the powerhouse that is Lydia Lunch seems to have lost her way, Big Sexy Noise only living up to the last of those epithets, and not in a good way. And one of the best songwriters of them all, Neil Hannon, rested firmly on his laurels with The Duckworth Lewis Method, his tongue so far into his cheek that it must be causing facial damage. It’s a shame that Hannon so often resorts to comedy and pastiche (forever lurking audibly in the wings of his Divine Comedy output); album highlight “The Age of Revolution” proves what the project might have been capable of, while “Jiggery Pokery” is absolutely horrific. But for me, the worst album of 2009 was a tie; Joe Goddard proved he’s simply rubbish both in and out of Hot Chip, his first effort, Harvest Festival, among the most dreadful experiences i’ve had this year. And what exactly led Tori Amos, one of the most interesting singer-songwriters of the last decade, to release the monstrosity that is Midwinter Graces? it is, literally, shockingly bad.

But let’s turn away from such infernal offerings, and move in a more paradisical direction. Thankfully, 2009 has also been filled with an abundance of excellent releases, and that’s where our attention should be fixed, beginning with the best EPs of the year. Read more

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Mix Tape #12 : Electronics

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Back, not so much with a vengeance as a new mix tape; the theme this time is simply electronics. Many of the pieces are rather long, so this mix, more than the others, features excerpts rather than complete works.

The mix opens with one of the most exciting electronic works by the duo FURT. Taking Brahms as its starting point, “Rigor” immediately slows, seemingly descending closer and closer upon its surface, the ensuing music seemingly scrutinising the Brahms material at the microscopic level. i was fortunate enough to witness this piece performed live (at the ICA, back in the mid ’90s), and it was thrilling, a truly memorable experience. The complete work can be downloaded free from FURT’s website; link below. “fol4” is Autechre‘s expanded version of “Fol3”, found on the limited double edition of Quaristice. It’s just as mercurial as its sibling, darting between the speakers with nervous, frenetic energy, from which assorted rhythmic patterns obtrude. A brief interruption comes in the form of Alva Noto’s “fontlab4.0”, one of his assorted miniature slews of (presumably) raw data from his superb album Unitxt. i’ve been interested in Ambrose Field‘s work since i heard him give a talk at Birmingham University about 15 years ago; he has a unique and fascinating approach both to sound itself as well as to its relationship to the listener. Included here is an episode from his splendid electroacoustic work Expanse Hotel, “Orient Express”. Next a work taken from an ancient off-air radio recording lurking in my archives, a work titled “Augustine’s Message” by the Welsh composer Robert Mackay. i’ve not heard anything else by Mackay, and sadly this piece doesn’t appear to be available on any releases, but i’ve been able to clean up the recording very well, and it nicely demonstrates the composer’s joint interest in music and drama. Despite its brevity, “Augustine’s Message” is an intense, beguiling listen. Then a lengthy excerpt from one of my very favourite composers, Roland Kayn. Kayn’s electronic works are nothing short of amazing, spanning vast durations with equally vast slabs of sound, slabs that are constantly re-shaping themselves. To my knowledge, few of Kayn’s works have been reissued on CD (the main exception being Tektra), but most of his vinyl releases can be found in high quality rips on the web (particularly here). Included here is a portion from the first part of his 1979 cycle Infra, “Isotrope”. Also conceived on a large scale is Pan Sonic‘s album Kesto (234.48:4), encapsulated in its 61-minute final track, “Säteily (Radiation)”. The excerpt here demonstrates the track’s beautifully radiant, shining character. Read more

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