Beating Those Winter Blues: January 2016 New Albums Reviewed

Music | Bittles’ Magazine: The music column from the end of the world

The cold winter evenings that make up the month of January can be alienating and depressing at best. Yet, for music fans at least, there are reasons for cheer. Over the past few years January has heralded the release of some fantastic LPs. By JOHN BITTLES

Early indications are that 2016 will be no different, with new albums by the likes of David Bowie, Tricky, Alex Smoke, Woodleigh Research Facility, and Federica Albanese perfectly illustrating how music is best listened to when the world outside is cold and dark. And if that isn’t enough to raise a smile we also include a fab house compilation aural gems from the R&S offshoot Meda Fury, a lush five CD box-set of classic shoegaze, the fractured techno textures of Skee Mask, the blissful stillness of Dakota Suite & Emanuele Errante and much more.

So, snuggle up next to a loved one, a friend, an acquaintance, or a beloved cuddly toy and let us begin…

David Bowie BlackstarA fitting end to a distinguished career, Blackstar, David Bowie’s 25th studio album, was released on the star’s birthday, just days before he died. At times strange and experimental, the record’s seven tracks touch on elements of krautrock, electronica, pop, jazz and more. The title track opens the album in majestic style, constantly shifting and changing throughout its ten minute duration. Taking in acid bleeps one minute, art rock introspection the next, the track’s grand scope and pure ambition mark it as belonging amongst David Bowie’s greatest work. From here, ´Tis A Pity She Was A Whore is a fab slice of Can inspired noise, Girl Love Me is a dark and dangerous sounding jam, while I Can’t Give Everything Away is Bowie at his best. The star of the show though is the melancholy reflection on Lazarus, a graceful, subdued song where the one time Star Man bares his soul. The line “Look up here, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” opens a track which, at times, is so raw it’s almost too much to bear. Taking risks and pushing boundaries right up to the end, Blackstar is an album every Bowie fan should hear. 8/10.


Still in a dreamFoppy-haired urban poets and bedroom daydreamers everywhere will be emitting post ironic gasps of glee as news reaches them of the release of Still In A Dream: A Story Of Shoegaze 1988-1995. The bumper five CD box-set will be available from the end of January and is a must buy for anyone who enjoys introspective soul-searching or guitar-led grooves. This is a wonderful and surprisingly varied collection which takes in scuzz-rock, agit-pop, dreamy ambiance and more. For instance, in the first four tracks of CD1 alone we get the noisy rock n‘ roll swagger of Rollercoaster by The Jesus & Mary Chain, the ethereal wonder of The Cocteau Twins‘ Cherry-Coloured Funk, the downbeat yearning of The House Of Love’s Christine and the strange sounds and political imagery of Baby Milk Snatcher by A.R. Kane. When you add in tracks by Ultra Vivid Scene, Spacemen 3, Loop, Galaxie 500, Pale Saints, Ride, Lush and more then I really shouldn’t have to explain to you how essential a purchase this is. 10/10.


Tricky Skilled MechanicsInspired by the term used by a CIA agent to describe assassins sent abroad by the US to start a revolution or topple a government, Skilled Mechanics sees Bristol-born rapper Tricky in dark, menacing form. Throughout the record sparse, ominous beats form a skeletal backdrop to Tricky’s evocative drawl. More hip hop inspired than his previous couple of LPs, Skilled Mechanics sounds like it should be sound-tracking some nocturnal tension-fuelled urban horror flick. The double whammy of I’m Not Going and Hero open proceeding in fine style, warming us up for the devastating dancehall bounce of Beijing To Berlin. One of the funkiest things the trip hop survivor has ever recorded, Beijing To Berlin is exactly the type of tune you imagine hearing on pirate radio. From here, Driving Away resembles a melancholy nursery rhyme, Boy is an angry look back on the rapper’s youth, Here My Dear a sludgy bit of EDM, while Unreal lends the LP a glacial and beautiful end. Stunningly produced, and featuring a rapper at the very top of his game, Skilled Mechanics is an album to both love and fear. 9/10.


Meda FuryCelebrating its second year in operation, this month esteemed house imprint Meda Fury unleash the thoroughly excellent 678910, a killer compilation of highlights released by the label over the past year. If you haven’t already heard the original 12-inches then trust me when I tell you that this is house music which is loud, groovy and funky as hell. The album’s ten tracks are tough, yet melodic and will sound just as good on your headphones or home stereo as on the dance floor. Highlights are plentiful, yet the gorgeous piano house stirrings of Be by Takuya Matsumoto, the voodoo dub textures of Zombie Boogie by Ryota OPP, the eerie techno crunch of Oh So Cold by Lady Blacktronika and the head fuck squelch of No by Hazylujah ably stand out. My only complaint is that the other tracks from the EPs from which this compilation is formed are so strong that this could easily have been a double CD. 9/10.


WoodleighThis month acid house legend Andrew Weatherall teams up with long-standing collaborator Nina Walsh for an album of synth-based wonder. Adopting the name Woodleigh Research Facility, their debut LP The Phoenix Suburb (And Other Stories) is out now on vinyl (and on the 12th of February on digital) on Andrew’s own Rotters Golf Club imprint. Full of electro squiggles, playful techno and ticklish house, the record is a joy from beginning to end. Opener I Am Amateur Barbarian contains a low-slung bass and enough beeps and bleeps to give any analogue freak the horn. Brackstone Abroad’s skitterish electro meanwhile is a body popper’s dream, Emancipation Garage recalls the moody techno of Andrew’s much missed Sabres Of Paradise, while Taqiya is a fresh and fruity cosmic jam. Deeply electronic sounding, and an awful lot of fun, The Phoenix Suburb will be adored by idle hipsters, acid house granddads, dance floor shufflers and disco deviants for many months to come. 8/10.


Hinds Leave Me AloneHinds, formerly know as Deers, are an all female indie rock band from Madrid. Combining the raw, ramshackle charm of The Libertines with Haim’s ear for a catchy hook, the four-piece have been making quite a name for themselves on the live circuit these last few years. They release their debut LP, Leave Me Alone, this January which gives fans the chance to see if they are as good on record as they are live. The album is a pop-infused collection of bubblegum lyrics, swoon-some guitar licks and more than a hint of naïve charm. Songs such as Fat Calmed Kiddos, Warts and Chilitown ably recall the slacker cool of Sebadoh, while the likes of Garden and I’ll Be Your Man inject a welcome sensitivity to the LP. Yet, after only a few songs all this sweetness and charm becomes rather sickly, making the final half of Leave Me Alone a bit of a slog. Those who found the last Mumford & Sons album a bit experimental may find something here to enjoy. For the rest of us there is always the imminent arrival of the new Savages LP to look forward to. 5/10.


RS1515LP_packshotSince his sublime Incommunicado LP from 2005 techno maverick Alex Smoke has investigated ever more strange and varied paths. His new album, Love Over Will, is out now on the legendary R&S Records imprint and sees the producer explore the realms of electronic pop. Imbued with the dark undercurrents which make the best of early 80s synthpop such a thrilling ride, the album’s 13 tracks make absolutely no apologies for pushing Alex’s heavily treated vocals right to the fore. In the press blurb the producer suggests that “adding words is creating another layer of meaning again, sometimes altering, sometimes reinforcing the intrinsic feeling of the music.” Thus, those expecting a double 12-inch of dance floor bangers will be somewhat disappointed at the thoughtful introspection and sleaze-filled funk on display. Yet, those who are prepared to trust Alex Smoke will find an aurally striking LP which is as immersive as it is surreal. Similar to his work under his Wraetlic guise, this is an album which is never afraid to show you exactly how it feels. 9/10.


DakotaSuiteOriginally released in 2011 as a limited edition CD, this welcome reissue of the gorgeously tender The North Green Down by Dakota Suite & Emanuele Errante contains 13 instrumental pieces which explore the theme of loss. At times heartbreakingly sad, the project was first conceived by Dakota Suite’s Chris Hooson after the death of his sister-in-law. In order to bring the noises in his head to life he then paired-up with musician Emanuele Errante to ‚create the sounds which would evoke loss, the temporary nature of life and the stillness to get through‘. With many of these songs featuring little more than some strings, piano, or a gently plucked guitar, there is an sense of stillness to be found here which can’t help but stir your soul. Tracks such as Leegte, A Hymn To Haruki Murakami and A Worn Out Life (With Cello) contain a poignant air which would be completely devastating if the songs weren’t so beautiful too. 8/10.


The_Blue_Hour_CoverA special mention must also go to: The Blue Hour by Federica Albanese – A contemplative album of piano pieces which is both heartfelt and moving. You are dead inside if this doesn’t touch you in some way, 9/10, Technoself by Deantoni Parks – Tough beats and an ominous air dominate in a bass-infused record which is never afraid of slapping its listener right in the face, 7/10, Jream House by A Pleasure – Using a mathematical formula to convert artists‘ names into drum patterns, New York producer Mark Hurst conjures a record whose seven tracks are a lot more fun than that sounds, 8/10, Pulse Of Our Planet by Mintz – The debut album by the duo of Eden Cohen and Rami Shalom contains ten tracks of deep, melodic house music which occasionally touches upon the sublime, 8/10, and Shred by Skee Mask – Breakbeats combine with ambient textures and acid-flecked grooves to create a richly detailed sonic world, 8/10.


HousmeisterAnd lets not forget: Where Have You Been All My Life by Villagers – Recorded in a single day, Conor O’Brien follows-up his celebrated Darling Arithmetic album with an emotionally raw collection of demos and live takes, 7/10, Transfer by Housemeister – Out now on Detroit Underground, with Transfer the Berlin producer decreases the tempo with nine analogue ambient house jams, 8/10, A Bit Of Light by Bit-Tuner – Hypnotic, propulsive and drowning in bass-heavy grooves, this is deep, driving dance floor fun, 8/10, and Owl Rave by Owl Rave – Inspired by David Lynch’s masterpiece Twin Peaks, these seven tracks are weird, disorientating, and, in their own way, strangely beautiful, 7/10.


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