Reviews, Terminal Communications

TERMINAL GODS’ ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 2016 EDITION

Tis the season to write long retrospective lists, and we’re not going to miss the bandwagon. 2016 has been a big year for us: we kicked it off with the release of our debut album, Wave/Form, the culmination of a year of effort which left us feeling strangely… cut loose, free? Since finishing the album we’ve each been on a long campaign of musical mind expansion, searching for new ideas to exploit and creative seams to mine. While we’ve been thrashing out the album in the live arena, behind the scenes we’ve been getting back together to write again – cherry picking from the music we’ve been greedily consuming all year, as well as learning to play new instruments and manipulate new machines.

Here’s a little breakdown of some of the stuff we’ve enjoyed in 2016, and some of the ideas we intend to steal in 2017…

COWLIN

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I immersed myself in a lot of new music this year, especially during the latter half. In particular, I found myself drawn towards the exciting synth-infused jazz recordings of band-hopper, Shabaka Hutchings, as well as those that melded the art-rock of Talking Heads with the funk of Prince (Field Music’s Commontime and Zoos of Berlin’s Instant Everything proving particularly relevant). Of course, Blackstar pre-echoed a number of these sonic investigations with prophetic accuracy. Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition was my most engaging listen of the year, it’s an immensely dense work that demands the listener’s full attention at all times. Consequently, it remains a favourite that I’ve listened to least as I believe it shuns all distractions. I enjoyed the whimsy of Jonny Fritz’s Sweet Creep, it’s as funny as it is melancholic. Esben And The Witch’s Older Terrors is a super selection of long workouts that almost warranted a Songs & Sonics review but there’s just a bit too much compression on show. I wonder why they didn’t ease off on the limiter a bit, there aren’t any pop singles here. Sonic nods go to Agnes Obel’s enthralling Citizen Of GlassBullion’s gloopy Loop The Loop; and Bushman’s Revenge’s cookin’ Jazz, Fritt Etter Hukommelsen. My favourite record of 2016 is Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker. Every track is better than the last, Cohen is on spectacular form, it sounds incredible, and it’s the perfect conclusion to his final trilogy.

MAISEY

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I think anyone who’s musical year wasn’t in some way shaped by the triptych of David Bowie’s Blackstar, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker is either heartless, tasteless or has simply not been paying attention. All three of these wonderful albums are worth entire studies in their own right. Those of you that have been paying attention may have noticed that I reacted badly to both Blackstar and Skeleton Tree in their initial weeks of release, but a full year of constant attention, scrutiny and intra-band discussion has turned them both into monoliths in my music collection. Leonard Cohen was a hit as soon as it landed.

There are lots of honourable mentions this year. Albums that I enjoyed for one reason or another, but didn’t quite make the grade in every aspect. Factory Floor’s 2525 I enjoyed a lot, but mostly because it basically sounds like their 2013 debut, which I discovered last year and liked even more. White Lies’ Friends was also good, but I’ve owned it for several months now and, although I like it a lot, it hasn’t yet lived up to the promise of its lead single. Much like Fat White Family’s Songs For Our Mothers, which opened up with one of their best singles to date (the fabulous Donna Summer pastiche, “Whitest Boy On The Beach”), but descended into over compressed swampy noise – with only a few other really vital moments on it. My most anticipated rock album of the year – Purson’s Desire’s Magic Theatre (DMT, get it, get it?!) – also didn’t really make the cut, partly because it had also been mastered a bit too flat to be really immersive. I really enjoyed some of the sounds and overall production on Ritual Howl’s Into The Water, who are a bit like a more cerebral version of Ulterior. What it lacked in actual songs it made up for in sonic ideas I’m likely to mine for my own songwriting and production efforts! I’d like to mention James Ray and the Black Hearted Riders and their latest effort Death Dawn Zephyr, but I actually spent most of this year obsessively listening to their 2015 debut Last Train From Woody Creek, which would have easily made it to one of the top spots on this list if it hadn’t, in fact, come out last year. I would heartily recommend Young Romance‘s Another’s Blood. I initially wrote this record off as a grunge version of Kate Bush but it quickly grew on me. A well presented, subtle and interesting collection of songs – the complexity of which are initially masked by the aggressive guitar tone, but reward lots of repeat listening.

My favourite album of the year came out in the autumn, and that’s Alex Cameron’s Jumping The Shark. This utterly delightful combination of Suicide-esque musical arrangements and Bruce Springsteen Nebraska era vocal stylings is one of those perfect storms that was impossible until it was made, and then became obvious and inevitable. A concise 35 minutes of ballads about kitchen sink drama and personal failure, it’s a record that understands completely that you don’t have to be good looking to look real good.

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COOPER

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Whereas many will praise 2016 releases from the likes of Beyoncé, Nick Cave, and David Bowie, I found the records that warranted the most repeat listens where those released by upcoming bands. Debut albums by Dead Coast (Shambolic), Desert Mountain Tribe (Either That Or The Moon) and Sunflower Bean (Human Ceremony) spring immediately to mind as exceptional first outings by bands that have gone from strength to strength over the course of the year and set a standard for ground-level artists on their way up.

2016 seemed to me a year of political uncertainty, with everyone looking to pop music for escapism. This, or eager to hear veteran songwriters’ point of view on the ever-changing world, cherry picking each line for some hidden message. What do they know that we don’t? Many ‘End Of Year Listicles’ completely bypass new bands in favour of established artists which, in my opinion, is a total crime. It wasn’t just in politics that the young were being largely ignored.

Album two from God Damn was an angry, riff-laden masterpiece that saw a two-piece become three. Constantly engaging and evolving, the record saw a band eager to avoid pigeon holes and in the process created something totally unique. Lola Colt’s second release was a confident, effortless joy throughout, far superior to the flurry of other psych and prog releases that littered 2016 while Wolf People’s third outing was doom heaven and explored themes of nature, the environment and history, yet couldn’t sound more relevant.

Cruelly overlooked this year was Eagulls’ follow-up, Ullages, probably because it was released way back in May, which took their original guitar-heavy garage, upped the post-punk, and doubled the misery, and it’s a treat to lose yourself in.

Number one though, the gold standard, was the debut release from London-based upstarts YAK. Alas Salvation is an epic which sees a band battle with their own hype to produce something both artistically relevant and crowd-pleasing for their growing mainstream fan base. They do both, and then some. This record has literally everything, partnered with their astoundingly chaotic live show, they’re a band I’m eager to see continue to live up to expectations.

Look to your young people, get your heads out the clouds. Lemmy and Cohen did their jobs by inspiring upcoming artists, and they’re sat across from you at work, serving you at your local, and playing just round the corner next week.

CAMPBELL

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Twenty sixteen. 2016. MMXVI. The only thing anyone agrees on now is how comprehensively awful this year has been, awful enough to have spawned a cottage industry in memes reminding us how it is best quickly forgotten, blacked out like an alcoholics fortieth birthday. But as a great poet once wrote, there is a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in, innit? But what are, in my objectively correct opinion, some of the cracks in the monolith that was 2016? As my comrades above have chosen to shun the traditional list format, let’s break it down old school style.

V.

It may seem trite, but the constant flashes of wit and brilliance in the local London live music scene never cease to amaze. There are so many great bands, staffed by some of the coolest cats you’d ever hope to meet, doing what they love. In alphabetical order (no favouritism here) BlackMoon 1348, Broken Soundtracks, Desperate Journalist, Lola Colt, Medium Wave, Purs, Sex Cells, Sly Persuaders, St Agnes, Weird Sex have all played great gigs, and/or released amazing material, and/or just rocked fucking hard. All your hard work does not go unnoticed.

IV.

The constant folding and refolding of pop culture from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, blah fucking blah, into every facet of modern life reaches undreamt of heights. “Do you member? Oh, I member!” Once perceived as a harmless distraction, we glimpse the dark underbelly. Fetishisation of a rose tinted past has birthed our Make X Great Again ™ world, a pulling down of shutters, a tightening of bootstraps, a cherry picking of history and ‘truth’ that suits the narratives of every chancer sitting at any given point of the political spectrum, left, right, every shade in between.

But hold up now, isn’t this about the cracks of light? The chinks in the armour? When we see the morass of mud and shit clearly, the nuggets of gold shine brighter. Across the media spectrum we have been gifted with the note perfect love letter to retro of Stranger Things, John Carpenter with a full band live on a balmy summer evening, face melting psych freakouts from Baba Naga, and S U R I V I V E releasing a fantastic yet challenging vox-free synthwave album to critical acclaim. And more decent synthwave in the world is clearly A Good Thing.

III.

A dark and somewhat dingy working mans club in Hackney. A small stage, a gold glitter backdrop, an antipodean lounge singer paces, muttering anecdotes about dead baby rabbits and crooning about comebacks that are never to be. His business partner lounges louchely on a nearby stool, draped in a fading dressing gown, looking generally disinterested but occasionally interjecting with bursts of sax. Never has a live set, with almost the entirety of the music set to a backing track, been so electric. Alex Cameron, upon you I bestow the coveted Gig of the Year. And I think a few other people might have noticed that Jumping The Shark is pretty damn solid album too. And you know what? It’s also A Good Thing that an album released two years past can get picked up for a solid re-release and finally get some of the acclaim it deserves. Maybe it takes the rest of the world a little time to catch up when you’re living so far out in front? Maybe it gives the rest of us some hope too.

II.

If you want to make it onto a bunch of year end best-of lists (and lets face it, who doesn’t?), as our in house PR team would argue it’s a delicate dance of timing and ingenuity. Release too early in the year and, unless you’re Bowie, by the end of the year everyone’s probably forgotten about it. Release too late, and while your shit may be great, people will wonder whether you’ve got the chops to still be top of the heap in a month, a year, a decade’s time. So with that in mind I’m going out on a limb and claiming that, today, Moonlandingz’s new track “Black Hanz” is the best track of 2016. It’s a stonking blend of motorik drums, swirling psychedelia, catchy hooks, and what the fuck were they thinking bells and whistles.

Would it make this list if I wrote it tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Who can say, but probably not.

I.

A muggy summer afternoon in the Catalan capital. Hawaiian shirts, shorts, aviators. Cliches within cliches. Security confiscates three of the four bottles of homemade rum and pineapple punch stuffed down the back of our pants, but they’re pretty good natured about it. Wander down a quiet path to a quiet beach. Sit on the sand, smoke a spliff, drink rum and reasonably priced beers, watch fat men in y-fronts and sunburns wallow in the flat mediterranean. Head back, security still friendly, down to the main stages. Brian Wilson has started. Somewhere in the middle of a massive crowd, not too close to the front and not too far from the bar. As classic song follows classic song, a teacher and I make total fools of ourselves playing air guitar, piano, drums, weaving drunken vocals in and out in approximations of complex vocal harmonies. The crowd around ignores us, or joins in, whatever, drunken English. A moment in a day in 2016, as days go it’s pretty much like every other for the mass of living things on this world, but oh what times to be living in. Cliches within cliches.

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This very nearly made the cut…

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All photography by Keira Ann, January 2016.

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Audiophile

Vinyl Revival: Do Record Labels Actually Care about Quality?

by Robert Cowlin

You were promised a review of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new record, Skeleton Tree. It’s a great record, I rated it 4/5 on All Music. I really like all the bubbling meandering synth work and Cave’s vocal is bang on. One could perhaps draw obvious lines of comparison with Blackstar based on the timing of surrounding events. The CD sounds like garbage but the YouTube videos (taken from the accompanying film) sound great. When it comes out on blu-ray I’ll rip the audio but until that time it shall remain in my Tidal streaming library.

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time to turn to what could quite possibly be my favourite topic: moaning about vinyl. If you are one of the poor victims, unfortunate enough to have paid £20 for Skeleton Tree on vinyl, chances are high you’ll know what this article is going to be about. Pictures speak louder than words though, so if this recent scandal in the annals of audiophilia has somehow managed to pass you by, feast your eyes on these:

It seems that Kobalt Music, the company tasked with producing physical copies of Skeleton Tree, failed to perform any quality control checks on their monstrosity of a product and the result is a record with a murky surface, covered in scuffs, and there are even reports of glue being lodged in the playing surface. Complaints about quality control and the vinyl revival are not new. Many modern pressings are riddled with defects, and there is even a twenty-one page thread specifically devoted to issues arising from one particular pressing plant! To make matters worse, in the case of Skeleton Tree, the record comes in this ridiculous oversized sleeve making it impossible to store properly, especially if bought by the kind of vinylphile who likes to keep their records in protective polythene sleeves. I couldn’t tell you what it sounds like because I haven’t bought it (would you?). Needless to say, for a recording that is pretty sparse, you really do need to have it pressed on pristine vinyl if you want to enjoy it on that format. The combination of the unplayable record and stupid sleeve is the perfect embodiment of what the vinyl revival is truly about: conning music fans out of their money (duh, I hear you say). It didn’t have to be this way, and perhaps there was an innocent point over the revival’s now ten year history when vinyl was good, but greed has taken over and the labels are predictably putting just as much effort into their vinyl releases as they are their digital ones (hint: zero).

Think about it, here is a product that 48% of buyers probably won’t use, 7% of which can’t use, and for the remaining 52% it is highly likely they’re playing the record on this. Why on earth would anyone who is seriously concerned with audio reproduction entertain the notion that the labels actually care about their vinyl output when, statistically, that market is a niche within a niche? The biggest con of all is that vinyl is an objectively inferior technology to CD when it comes to sound reproduction, but it’s being marketed as a superior product! A cursory glance at Amazon’s Best Sellers in Vinyl reveals that consumers are spending on average £20 for a top 10 vinyl record that half of them aren’t going to listen to. With this in mind, it seems blindingly obvious that something like Skeleton Tree would happen sooner or later, as the labels realise they’re basically selling big pictures. I’m surprised Blackstar didn’t run into similar problems, being that it is a record that came packaged in a razor sharp plastic sleeve. Of course, these points won’t stop the kind of deluded vinylphiles that populate hi-fi forums and magazines from believing that anything pressed on Glorious Vinyl sounds like it has been produced by the ghost of George Martin, mastered by Orpheus on an all-tube lathe, and individually hand pressed by Japanese artisans…

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It isn’t difficult to press a high quality record. All you need to do is make sure it’s mastered specifically for vinyl with dynamics intact, instruct the pressing facility not to apply any additional processing to the sound, and pay the extra fee to have the record packaged in a poly-lined inner sleeve. At the time of writing, a run of 500 LPs will cost a DIY label with no major label discount around £2,000 (including mastering and VAT). You can see that selling such a product for £20 would result in a huge profit for the label and many happy listeners. I don’t even know how it would be possible for a label to spend so little to end up with a record that looks as bad as Skeleton Tree but apparently Kobalt Music has found a way.

In addition to all that, I’ve even heard of labels that let their individual bands organise the mastering of their records. How stupid can you get? Imagine the hodge podge of varying sonic signatures such a label would be putting out, rather than releasing a string of products with an element of sonic consistency. Clearly, a label that does this (I’m naming no names here) has absolutely no clue about maintaining quality control or presenting some semblance of a coherent catalogue of albums. We are at such a low point for sound quality compared to the relative high point of current recording technology that it seems hard to imagine how we could sink any lower. Compare this to the movie industry and the successful implementation of the blu-ray format amongst videophiles and it’s not difficult to see why the home music industry is trailing behind home video (evidenced by the way in which What Hi-Fi has increasingly turned its attention to home cinema, and the popularity of home theatre forums over hi-fi ones).

For a brief moment it was possible for the modern music fan with a penchant for sound quality to “get it on vinyl” and not have to concern themselves with the loudness war or streaming distractions. This patently is no longer the case. In the seventies, when audio production quality was high, music consumers might have concerned themselves over whether a label was using recycled vinyl to press the latest record. Now the music consumer must simply ask: does the label care about quality at all?

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