Quite unsurprisingly, this current heatwave messed whatever remained of my schedule up. The past few days have gone by in a strange blur – with me spending as much time as possible outside, having all nighters snowball into something larger, and constantly refreshing the HSE’s vaccination portal. Ireland very rarely experiences warm weather on this scale, meaning everything went out the window the second I had to open it. Productivity flatlined, skin failed to burn, and anything beyond reading dumb books on my Kindle felt impossible. On account of this, I’ve done fuck all this week beyond overthinking about producer Lorenzo Senni – bringing my semi-ironic obsession with Italy to new heights. It’s set to rain shortly after this piece goes live, hopefully meaning we’ll be back to more regular programming by next Friday. That or I’ll throw together a 3,000 word essay about Giorgio Chiellini, scaring away all three of my readers in the process.
On some level all the music I’ve tried writing about this year has been based around intensity, be it the roars from some MAX/MSP monstrosity, the catharsis of tacky screamo, or the pure dread induced by the uilleann pipes. It feels as if I’ve always been obsessed with art that reaches the logical conclusion of its respective genre, if anything just because of how easily it can unsettle the audience. What was once familiar is presented in stark, uncomfortable terms – shocking us into finding new perspectives in the process. These harsh deviations further our understanding of genres we love by actively demolishing them, an experience that lends itself well to overanalysis and one that brings us to this specific moment in time. This week I’m going to cover some of the most intense music released this year, if anything just in the hopes of capturing this feeling of annihilation.
One of my worst habits is assigning way too much meaning to the menial. This excessive enthusiasm is pretty much endemic when it comes to cultural criticism – any piece of art you enjoy suddenly has deep political meaning and single handedly redefines everything around it, even if that makes no real sense. As the personal and political get even more inseparably blurred this tendency in the wider music press has seemingly accelerated – fun pop songs made by rich people are suddenly representative of something larger and whatever (or even just if) you choose to stream supposedly mirrors your personal values. I’ve been stuck grappling with this train of thought in the time since I stopped writing regularly on this website – if a cigar is infamously sometimes just a cigar, what makes a cool guitar riff any different? Is there any way to cover interesting tunes without it inevitably devolving into weird personal rants? I’m yet to work out any clear answers to this question but have instead spent my time listening to tacky (scr)emo records, which is arguably a fair bit cooler depending on who you ask.
This is now my second attempt to write about Autechre, something that feels risky once you recognise how hard it is to do without seeming like an utter arse. The work of the Rochdale-reared duo doesn’t really lend itself well to the format of pretentious blog posts, something Pitchfork writers are stuck dealing with each time they resurface. Obsessive fanboys of the duo often get mad at the inaccurate narratives peddled by the music press in reviews or features, understandably raging at the same three or four anecdotes about a lack of any real melody, absurd album lengths, and a supposed absence of humanity within their (insanely sprawling) creative output. It often seems like journalists are unable to accurately capture what makes the group so compelling, generally falling into the habit of portraying them as stoic mad scientists working in seclusion to redefine the limits of music, or just as some annoying eejits passing off computer fart noises as high art.
Neither description really hits the mark and this distortion of what makes their work stand out is what had me so hesitant to initially cover them. What exactly is it about Autechre’s work that eludes annoying English majors? Why is it so easy for certain people to get so utterly obsessed with their work? Will writing this mean I can listen to literally any other music? I don’t think there’s any clear answers to these questions, but part of me is just saying that so posters on /r/Autechre don’t shout at me.
I’ve spent a concerning amount of time thinking about the work of David Balfe, something my friends are all painfully aware of by now. This obsession with their creative world started almost by chance, with a listener of a podcast I occasionally edit shouting out his Jools Holland performance – sending me down this rabbit hole in the process. To say that Balfe’s performance struck me emotionally would be an understatement – the weeks following my initial exposure were spent obsessively trawling the internet for any sparse information, shouting at friends about it’s major importance, and counting the days down until the March 26th release date of ‘For Those I Love’. The project had initially been released in 2019 for the immediate friends and family of the musician and that fact nearly tortured me – I knew it was out there in the digital ether and finding the few remaining traces of it became my main coping mechanism as lockdown dragged on. ‘For Those I Love’ is a record that infinitely more interesting and talented writers have covered and because of that I’m going to be a bit more specific in my approach – you most likely know how cool this album is and because of that I want to focus in on what fuelled my initial obsession, what made these deeply personal tracks about friendship and loss so utterly poignant, and what prevented me from being understandable by non-Irish mutuals for the past while. Balfe’s music melted my brain in the best possible way, here’s a lame attempt to explain why.
I’ve been using the term “cultural colony” a lot more than I should lately. A dumb combination of the Yank elections, endless Twitter discourse, and my constant urge to annoy people has had me obsessed with how much hold American politics and culture seem to have over us all. Ireland was always doomed to some degree of East Yankery on account of our Anglosphere status – our shared language leads to an anaemic local press and an easier ability to completely opt-out of what’s going on nearby. However, I can’t help but feel that lockdown has accelerated things a bit further – a world where we’re stuck living online is one that can become extremely American quite rapidly.
I think this acceleration was seen most blatantly through our embarrassing obsession with the Yank election – you had insane anti-maskers droning on about QAnon on one side and middle-class weirdos getting concerningly horny for John King on the other. I’m reminded here of ‘Watching the U.S. Election While Irish’, an article published in the New York Times that seemingly depicts one of the most terminal cases of yank-brain humanly possible. “On Saturday afternoon our time, Wolf Blitzer crossed the spaceship floor of CNN’s studio to announce Mr. Biden as victor. The game, or this part of it, was over. We greeted the news like it was an acquittal for a crime we had not committed, gasped at the commentary for another hour or so, and promptly switched off CNN for the first time in four, long days”. How did we collectively get to this point as a nation, why do we need to break from it, and what does breaking even look like in an extremely online and globalized world? The answers are (somehow) more convoluted than you’d think.
It’s been a while – over 140 days since my last music post to be exact. Back when I still had the energy to put pieces together I knew an elongated burnout was pretty much inevitable and just pretended to plan around it. In other (more honest) words, I just wanted to milk whatever energy I had for as long as possible in the hopes that it’d somehow be useful in future. This “plan” was fundamentally flawed on multiple levels, as best evidenced by my false assumption that this burnout would sync up with a return to normality. For God knows what reason I thought that I’d be able to swap this place out for normal friendships, fading off into the distance in a world where I don’t have to know who Stephen Donnelly is and where I don’t have opinions on every record with a synthesizer of some sort in it. However, as we’re still stuck in this hellscape (as well as the fact that this blog makes potential internet friends view me as way cooler than I actually am) I’ve intermittently thought about trying to tie up loose ends on here – I’ll probably never get back to writing as much (or as soppily) as I did back in May or June but there are certain records and artists I’m mad at myself for never getting to cover. This piece is the culmination of that urge – I’d initially planned on putting a series of posts together but eventually amalgamated whatever I had composed into one uncurated mess. I’ve never really liked the tone of year-end lists and have intentionally avoided trying to structure this piece like one – these aren’t the best records of the year (or even just a list of my favourite ones), they’re just records my friends are now sick of hearing about. Does this distinction change or mean anything? Probably not. Here’s the music I’ve been obsessively thinking about lately, for better or for worse.
cw: some descriptions of violence, references to suicide attempts
The internet is impossibly large and a bunch of useless-seeming algorithms determine how we interact with it – a majority of what we see on the net is purposely targeted to us based on our past actions and it’s scarily easy to not realize how surreal that is. I think I’m gradually coming to terms with the fact that these blog posts are heavily indebted to Spotify’s recommendation algorithms – I’ve discovered half of the albums that defined my lockdown due to them popping up on my home screen as an album ended and the other half initially entered my life through the rabbit holes these algorithms enable. The space in my life that was once occupied by a certain music forum has been substituted by a piece of software trained on the exact same people I actively chose to stop paying attention to and there’s something morbidly interesting about that to me – there are people out there with nearly the exact same musical tastes as mine and I’ll probably never interact with them. Any (largely flawed) sense of community created by shared fandom has gradually been sidelined as the death march of communicative capitalism (and the world pandemic we’re still living under) atomizes us further and further – the coronavirus outbreak may have accelerated this process but it feels as if we’ve made a major shift over time from the shared, communal spaces of record shops and concerts to the finely-tuned desert islands created by these algorithms. We’re still all connected in a certain sense, just not in a way that lends itself to meaningful interactions – whatever data we generate online is constantly being compared to those around us but these algorithms actively obfuscate that fact, tricking us into assuming that we’re isolated individuals with genuinely unique tastes. This week I’m going to try (and presumably fail) to write about an album that the Spotify algorithm shoved in my face, if anything just so I can pretend to fully understand it.
It feels odd to write about Katie Dey’s music as I’ll never be able to think about it objectively – ‘asdfasdf’ and ‘flood network’ have essentially been wedged into my brain for the past four years and that makes me oddly sentimental about the Melbourne-based musician’s creative output. Around this time in 2016 I met an internet friend who went on to become a scarily large influence on my life and one of our first conversations revolved around Dey’s first EP – I essentially just looped the record over and over in order to have something to say to that random internet person, starting an obsession that hasn’t really ended yet. This obsession essentially just snowballed when Dey released ‘flood network’, my favorite album of all time – I remember wandering around a post-Fleadh Ennis essentially just killing time until I got a text back while blaring ‘fear o the light’ and feeling a vague dread that now seems fairly nostalgic to look back on. I’m not sure exactly why Dey’s discography resonated with me so much at the time but it captured a larger feeling that was oddly cathartic to observe – Sasha Geffen once remarked for The Fader that the album “fold[ed] somatic joy into waves of chaos and anxiety” and that’s the closest I’ve gotten to explaining the appeal of ‘Flood Network’. The record essentially channeled the same anxious energy my life was constantly defined by and turned it into a bunch of shoegazey hypnagogic pop songs, something that offered me an odd form of solace when I was probably at my most misanthropic.
This year has been a bit of a write-off and it freaks me out that we’re over seven months into it. I think that I went into 2020 with a small amount of optimism and that screwed us all over – I was planning on spending most of this year sitting on public transport and I got to do that, it was just with the addition of an ill-fitting facemask, the joys of spending the next week being paranoid about symptoms, and some weirdo behind me blaring Justin Barrett speeches from his iPhone. This year hasn’t really started in my head, it feels like we’ve been in a weird state of limbo for the past four months and that makes looking back on things a bit strange – I actively miss an era of my life where my anxieties seemed relatively menial and I feel like that means something, even if that’s just as we’re rapidly descending into some Michael Martin-backed hellscape. One of the few perks of lockdown is that I’ve constantly been able to listen to music, I’ve nearly always got a pair of headphones on and the time I’ve spent rapidly trying to catch up on some dense text for a reading group naturally lends itself to pretentious electronic tunes. Here are seven of the most interesting tracks I’ve stumbled upon so far this year – I’ve probably put together godawful paragraphs on half of these tracks in the past but I thought it’d be fun to expand on what makes these tracks stand out, even just so some random Discord friend doesn’t have to listen to me drone on about them at half three in the morning.