You would be hard pressed to find a more representative slice of underground/independent industrial/darkwave artists with punk energy and aesthetics than the spring 2022 tour headlined by Detroit’s ADULT., who have been pioneering that sound since the 90s.
Spike Hellis opened the proceeings with its kinetic industrial glitchcore sounds like Atari Teenage Riot. Its aggressive and urgent beats and eruptive dynamics delivered a sense of displacement and disorientation yet not confusion. The mood was very focused and present with that disruptive energy seemingly aimed at the complacency that has the culture stuck, repeating outworn patterns that seem comfortable but has society trapped in a psychological death spiral from which the music of Spike Hellis and its ferocious performance seemed like a counter to that emotional paralysis.
Kontravoid’s set set a similar tone with a flood of strobes in sync with the avalanche of textured melody and rhythms. Wearing a white mask and black clothes, Cameron Findlay seemed to channel and resist the spirit of an era when we’re all encouraged to monetize our very lives and become yes a “Faceless” figure in service to an international corporate and authoritarian agenda that sees pretty much everyone as interchangeable and only useful insofar as they fit into the strategy of maximizing profit above all other human needs or concerns. But with this music Findlay gives a powerful form of dark dance music that makes it impossible to forget you have a body you live in and that the experience of it is very much your own and with vitality of the performance and the sonics of the music it felt like you were part of something while also not being subsumed by it. Kontravoid created a headspace outside of normal time with the strobes and when they shut down it felt like being eased back into ordinary existence and that effect is surely a gift.
ADULT. had been on the road for weeks prior to this gig and anyone driving to Denver is coming from far away. Nicola Kuperus may have alluded to this fact early in the show while at the same time seeming pleasantly surprised that people showed up maybe more so than in the past in Denver. But no predictable complaints about the altitude and with little preamble Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller gave us a generously lengthy set. Kuperus used her two microphones like conductor batons in gesturing with the crowd and prowled the stage striking an array of ritualistic poses as one might have come to expect from the singer. But it never feels rote from this band. There was no phoning it in, rather, a performance that honors why ADULT. has been at this project for some twenty-four years.
The set list sounded seamless in production style though mostly drawing from the group’s three most recent albums This Behavior (2018) including the brooding title track, Perception is/as/of Deception (2020) and the stellar new record Becoming Undone. There’s something instantly compelling when you can see that a performer is feeling the emotions that went into the writing the songs, as heavy as they can be with ADULT., all over again. It’s shamanic in its ability to induce a catharsis for the anxieties, fears, frustrations of living in a country and global civilization seemingly bent on overt and what is insisted is subtle self-destruction with the specter of climate change and environmental degradation neglected for so long politicians and corporate leaders blame the effects on personal choice over the way the economic system is organized and prioritized to maximize profits and push the costs of questionable choices and agendas onto the natural world including human life in aggregate. The weight of that pressure you heard in the way ADULT. crafted atmospherics and in how Kuperus evoked that no longer ignorable agony that the is subconsciously pervasive with most people and not at all subconsciously for many of us. The honesty of that expression extended a human solidarity that underlined the show thus making it beyond a signal of the endurance of live music and the hunger for it the kind of performance that might actually be good for you too.
Them Are Us Too’s gift to its listeners is a nearly unmatched ability to distill all the pain, disappointment and sadness of a lifetime of unrequited love and rejection by others, by society and ourselves into soaring melodies that sublimate those feelings into ethereal shadows that can no longer overwhelm us even if they can still haunt us. Amends may be the final record from the band due to the tragic death of guitarist Cash Askew in the 2016 Ghost Ship fire. But the music’s power to take gentle yet strong rhythms and couple them with intertwining melodies, luminescent and melancholy, as a vehicle for honoring genuine emotional expression is a testament to the duo’s enduring alchemical ability to soothe the spirit.
Pretty much impossible to say when this album was written and recorded post-1980. Its sensibility and aesthetic points to 80s and 90s synth pop. The guitar on “Celeste (Can You Feel It)” sounds like something out of a more ambitious New Wave band but set inside a song that could have come out in the past 10 years among artists tapping into 80s pop sounds to capture a sense of nostalgia. But NEON RESiSTANCE isn’t mining nostalgia. It is doing something more interesting and meta by using an older set of musical parameters and sounds with modern production to evoke a personal style of songwriting that looks forward as many bands of the 80s seemed to be doing but avoiding getting that all wrong by really giving the songs an unusual emotional dimensionality and nuance with nostalgia-tinged melodies as relatable self-reflection and not self-obsession. Sonically it’s difficult to compare this multi-faceted pop record to much of anything else but perhaps Nina Hagen’s 1982 experimental rock/New Wave masterpiece NunSexMonkRock. There was little like that then, there’s little like this now and every track is worth your time.
Wesley Davis seems to generate his albums around themes that express the essence of ideas that have taken up residence in his imagination. 2015’s cloudLanD has an airy, drifty feel suggesting a sense of space and peace. Vaccine’s claustrophobic drones and repeating circular phrases spawn others that intersect in ominous, dissonant patterns suggestive of one set of sounds mutually infecting another to produce a third sound that’s darker with descending tones. Not an anti-vax abstraction, but more a comment on not trusting corporations and moneyed interests to provide a cure. In that way, it’s a bit of a cyberpunk ambient album but one that doesn’t make the dystopia seem kinda cool.
Jake Danna minces no words in his critique of American culture in general and his local community in particular. From the self-appointed expertise on all things and the lives of other people due to the internet and social media (“Ghost Milk”) to the limitations of bravado to dignify one’s life and art (“Prop Comic”) and the poisonous, self-eroding qualities of unreigned-in/unexamined cynicism (“I’m Still Cool, Right? (feat. WC Tank), Danna’s observations are a cogent assessment of the root ills of modern America’s writhing cultural anomy beyond platitudes of left and right. 4Digit’s production as further brought into detail by ManMadeMadMan’s mastering is what shines just as brightly. The beats, the streaming details of sound to accent the mood, tone and texture, the vibrant atmospheres and the masterful flow of melodies to suit the moment are not subtle so much as fully integrated and you get a to take in 4Digit’s imaginative composition with the 26+ minute closing track, “The Life of 4Digit Vol. 1.”
An always engaging listen akin to an unlikely and thus refreshing synthesis of B-52s, Lords of Acid and breakcore, La vie c’est mort from Bordeaux, France’s Daisy Mortem is a sort of decadent industrial dance pop. A lot of American industrial dance groups fall back too much on mediocre 90s EBM. On this EP, Daisy Mortem taps more into mid-80s New Wave’s melodramatic emotionalism but using the sound palette of modern electronic dance music to craft songs with a giant sonic imprint. Imagine the curiously compelling upbeat and alien quality of Classix Nouveaux minus the schlock and with a sprinkling of influence from Sparks and Fad Gadget. If Fellini had lived to make a movie about Bohemian New York City in the 80s, he would have done well to have tapped Daisy Mortem to score the soundtrack because this band is that exact vibe—bombastic, lush and brimming with vitality.
Easily The Damned’s best record since Machine Gun Etiquette. But it would be more honest to say it’s the band’s best record since it’s debut. Most bands more than forty years into their career are creatively treading water. The Damned apparently found some juice in their collective imagination to write an album in the classic style of writing a cohesive record of quality material beginning to end. Most bands write a record this vibrant early in their careers. “We’re So Nice” rocks harder than but has a similarly deft orchestration of melody and harmony one might expect out of The Zombies. It should come as no surprise that Tony Visconti, one of the minds behind shaping the best Bowie records, was on board for Evil Spirits. But even the most brilliant production can’t make up for subpar songwriting. Even if you didn’t know this was The Damned, so many of these songs are striking and timeless. “Shadow Evocation” is like a long lost cousin to something The Moody Blues might have written in the 60s—a windswept, imagination stirring mini-epic. What makes Evil Spirits such a remarkable album is that The Damned prove track to track that they know that if they relied on only one trick, one tempo, one songwriting style they’d bore themselves as much as us and that should count for something in any band much less one that could easily skate along on the laurels of its older classic material. The Damned have create what should in time be considered new classics with this record.
For its final record, Frog Eyes has refined its raw noir Americana sound to a place of great clarity that brings the conflicted emotions into sharp focus. Carey Mercer still sounds like he’s shaken by the force of emotion even as he delivers his words with the confidence and quaver of a Bryan Ferry. With this album, more than previous Frog Eyes releases, each song sounds like a room, an environment, a psychological space Mercer enters with immediate, cogent commentary. At times, as with “Idea Man,” the music feels like the modern equivalent of an early-to-mid-70s Genesis record with the elegance of sonic detail, mysteriousness and grandeur. Maybe Mercer wasn’t listening to a steady diet of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway or Foxtrot but this Frog Eyes swan song resonates with the artistic ambition and exploring the possibilities of one’s own songwriting and reach as a musician.
Somewhere in England there’s a high tech train station going to the places where it sounds like Boards of Canada songs take place and this is the gentle effervescent music to put you in the mood to be in a place of peace and disconnect from the rough and tumble everyday world. The cycling tones of “Off Grid” seem aimed to help you reprogram your brain to check out of the ambient anomy that comes with life in the twenty-first century and take a trip through a languidly melodic soundscape for nearly fifty minutes before being dropped off in a beautiful place out in the country.
With heartbreaking imagery throughout, this second album from The Milk Blossoms quickly becomes impossible to resist in drawing you in to tender yet intense emotional experiences that might be off putting to those with an aversion to psychological intimacy at this deep a level. But The Milk Blossoms never seem off putting. The band bares its alchemy of words and sounds with a brave openness borne of knowing you’re speaking truth or at least your truth—a quality that never goes out of style and which can never but completely duplicated as something idiosyncratic to the artist in question. The Milk Blossoms make pop music the way some people make something special for a loved one—with great attention to detail and with a care and affection and without expectation of anything in return. Was this written in an old lighthouse? A treehouse? A cottage in the woods waiting for the winter to thaw? Probably not but it has the feel of taking time out in isolation to allow the nuances and strength of feeling to emerge and find their perfect expression.
This is the sound of the world around us crumbling and eroding and our inability or unwillingness to reverse course. Like the manifestation of Derrick Jensen’s Endgame. Oryx could have pummeled us with some doom-y deathgrind but there is simply a greater diversity of musical ideas here than all of that. The dynamics, for one, while often insistent, leave enough space so that the crushing avalanche of sound hits harder. It also means that, unlike some bands in the realm of extreme metal, Oryx’s songs never truly feel same-y. Across this album the duo pushes the boundaries of what the music can be by fully integrating brutal sonics with atmosphere. Stolen Absolution’s long stretches feel like an intense journey but none that leave you worn out for having taken them.
Featuring what might be the album cover of the year for richness of content alone, Gentle Leader is ten songs in the noise pop vein. Upbeat, irreverent, bordering-on-twee-but-confident, Peach Kelli Pop’s songs have great melodic vocal harmonies and wide ranging rhythms. Closing track “Skylight” reveals the band’s experimental guitar edge hinted at earlier in the record confirming that Peach Kelli Pop has more to offer than the exquisite pop gems that have been a large part of its recorded catalog to date.
The retro-futurist sonic flourishes across this album are reminiscent of a sunny Laurel Canyon psych Broadcast in a pop moment. Or perhaps like Death & Vanilla in that the melodies are nostalgic but the undertones and rhythms suggest a grounding outside the English-speaking music world. As the songs on the album fuzz and incandesce one wonders if the band watched a whole lot of reruns of The Ed Sullivan Show and nailed the vibe and the aesthetic when old Ed had on the hippest guests that didn’t have to compromise and could just shine on a program where the evils of the modern music industry weren’t so firmly in place to insidiously influence and water down popular music into the lowest common denominator product, rather when taste makers had taste and a sense of adventure. Do Right may be retro and couched in a sense of nostalgia but the details on album closer “Do You Know The Place,” and throughout the record, those qualities sound surprisingly fresh at a time when looking back four or five decades and more for inspiration is so played out.
The track names on this album from Denver based synth supergroup Synth-Drone collective suggest a collective telling of life in some far flung future akin to Larry Niven’s Tales of Known Space but with the dark cloak of a minimalist, existentialist Tarkovsky science fiction film like Stalker. The name of the album doesn’t spell out but hints at the scientists of the time depicted in this album searching in earnest for the real science equivalent of the mythical first sound, the teleological ground zero vibration, that launched the universe into dynamic life because it has been discovered that the universe is dying and the only thing that can reverse the process is to discover the appropriate wavelengths to stop the impending doom of all and everything. Except someone in the scientific community knows it’s all for naught and just another attempt by sentient beings to interfere with the natural order of things with the hubristic notion that mortals can fix anything if they set their minds to it when in fact by our temporal nature and perspective we can never known enough to impact everything. Which is a downer but in the case of this album, it’s a beautifully compelling, drone-driven soundscape of a time when humans and other intelligent creatures have to learn to accept the inevitable.
There’s always been a bit of a cinematic quality to Wye Oak’s music and one might perhaps clumsily say the new album is to If Children what Fargo is to Blood Simple—not massively better but more sophisticated, more intentionally stylized with its newfound skill set and sonic palette. The melding of acoustic instruments and electronic production is so complete that the band seems to effortlessly bring to bear tones, rhythms, textures, melodies and atmospheres to craft songs as experiences. Wye Oak hasn’t ditched classic songwriting methods and models, it’s just taken those structures and filled them out with rich content. But what does Wye Oak have to say this time around? Refreshingly the band asks more questions than providing a set perspective. At a time when too many bold-yet-curiously-vapid-and-trite statements are made in the public sphere, it’s asking thoughtful questions and pondering issues about life and the world without a sense of one’s own certainty as a nod to the fact that we can’t know everything while not discrediting our own thoughts and feelings that makes this record remarkable. The title suggests chasing after goals while those goals we are encouraged to think of as ends in themselves become elusive and we are forced to really think about what it is we’re all on about and if the chase is worth it in the end. Because of that, The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs really is the kind of record that needs to be out in the world questioning the dominant paradigm not with firebrand skepticism but compassionate curiosity for ourselves and others.