The Space Program
Best of 2019
Presented here are the twenty psychedelic and/or avant-garde albums (all of which I played on the show at some point) that I enjoyed the most this past year.
[Note: because I’ve always been one to have favorites, rather than a favorite, in any given category of rankable things, and also because I think imposing precisely ordered rankings on something evaluated as subjectively as popular music is absurd, I have chosen to arrange the albums on the list into quartiles, any member of which I consider coequal to the others.]
This summer was incredibly mild here in the Pacific Northwest, reminiscent of those of my childhood, in 80s/90s Seattle, when a day in the high 70s was considered a “scorcher.” I spent as much of it outdoors as possible, appreciative of the fact that I could go on a 15-20 mile walk (something I do pretty regularly year-round) without breaking a sweat. At the same time, with climate change looming on the horizon, I had a constant, bittersweet awareness that this was likely the last time I would experience such a thing, and that my summers going forward would be characterized by weeks on end of oppressive, stifling heat.
Hence my immense enjoyment of this album, a spoken-word meditation on ephemerality and the profound, almost spiritual awe, nature can inspire. It’s not a psychedelic album in any sort of traditional sense, although the narrative is accompanied by the psychedelic folk of Sharron Kraus and the spaced-out analog bleep bloops of the Belybury Poly. But if the point of psychedelic music at a fundamental level is, as some musicologists suggest, to achieve a trance state, or a sort of heightened, ecstatic consiousness, then it absolutely succeeds in that regard. The combination of Justin Hopper’s words, which resonated so closely with my own thoughts, and the perfectly complementary, seamlessly interlaced music, often would result in my feeling, once the album reached its crescendo - a description of a childhood out-of-body experience caused by the sudden realization of life’s transience - as if I were having a similarly revelatory moment.
I’m frequently thankful that anti-“cultural appropriation” zealotry (the kind that sees any sort of cultural exchange as appropriation and is willing to back up this extreme stance with death threats) hasn’t really touched music, because if it had, we probably wouldn’t get amazing albums like this, which deftly synthesizes elements of Southeast Asian pop, Tuareg guitar rock, Appalachian folk music, jazz… and probably a half-dozen other genres I don’t have the ear to recognize.
It also benefits tremendously from the fact that the two members, Rick Brown and Che Chen, seem to have an incredible knack for realizing which ideas can be stretched into a twenty minute dirge, and which are better served by a quick, three or four minute “sound sketch” if you will. Self-editing, or whatever you want to call this trait, is surprisingly rare, but always appreciated, as I can’t tell you how often I hear songs which either lock into a groove that I wish could last an hour but end far too abruptly, or ruin a succinct riff by trying to stretch it into an entire album side.
I’m sure true jazzbos will scoff at my inclusion of these records, but in my defense, I came of age in the 90s, when jazz was considered so dead that the mere notion that it was once considered the future of music was fodder for comedy.
So to see not just a jazz combo, but one that is psychedelic, embraced by… indie rockers? hipsters? (it’s a sign of how nebulized our society is that there doesn’t, at the moment, seem to be an agreed-upon epithet for appreciators of bohemian culture - what little of it remains, that is) warms my cynical heart a degree or two.
In the roughly twenty years since the release of Music Has The Right to Children, and especially after it became clear that Boards of Canada would never produce another album of its caliber (which isn’t really meant as an insult - few bands have even one genre-defining album in them, let alone multiple), there has been an unending search for the next Great White (Noise) Hope, during which every semi-competent pop ambient artist that came along was hailed as the “next BoC.”
But none of them compare to Pye Corner Audio, who weds immaculately crafted analog synth textures to contemporary beats in a manner befitting the true heir to BoC’s title as the king of warm, gauzy retro-modern electronica.
Here we have another group that follows the same formula, described above, of combining retro synth sounds with modern rhythms. However, instead of the burbling Moogs of 70s kosmische, preferred by BOC, Pye Corner Audio and their pop ambient brethren, Tunes of Negation opt for the glistening Rolands of 80s electronic music, which they employ in the crafting of lengthy, densely layered pieces a bit too dynamic to make for background music.
In the midst of the current Fourth World/Eighties Avant-Garde revival, they stand above their peers by evincing a deeper appreciation for its sources and a greater understanding of how to contemporize them.
Ekolali - Genom Grundit
Thirty-five minutes of pulsing neo-kosmische bliss to dip in and out of whenever I needed a break from life (often).
L’eclair - Sauropoda
The Yacht Rock revival is dead, long live the space-y 70s jazz funk revival.
Le Reveil Des Tropiques - L’Arbre a Cames
French neo-Krautrock that includes the best stab at ersatz reggae since Rastakraut Pasta.
Weeed - You Are The Sky
My favorite new Portland band continue to thread the needle between prog and space rock.
Anunnaki - Immanentize the Eschaton
A welcome revival of the flagging doomgaze subgenre.
L’Epee - Diabolique
Nothing new, but a fine addition to the VU/JAMC/BRMC sunglasses rock continuum.
Upperground Orchestra - Euganea
Spaced-out jazz to make Sun Ra proud.
Ka Baird - Respires
Delightful strangeness that makes me pine for the heyday of freak folk.
Chris Forsyth - All Time Present
What a Neil Young record might sound like if he had the avant-garde compositional chops of someone who used to jam with John Zorn.
Efrim Manuel Menuck & Kevin Doria- are SING SINCK, SING An avant-garde album (comprised of members of 90s avant-garde legends GYBE! and Growing) that is also, somehow, one of the best shoegaze records of the year (see any others on here?)
Tengger - Spiritual 2
Neo-kosmische that, other than the movie Parasite, was my favorite Korean export of 2019.
Paisiel - Paisiel
To approvingly quote myself: “Don Cherry meets Z’ev in the desert.”
Frankie and the Witch Fingers - ZAM
I can’t decide if it’s more spaced-out garage rock, or garage-y space rock.
Dallas Acid - The Spiral Arm If ASMR rock isn’t a thing already then I think this is its establishing document.
Kogumaza - Fugues
Delivers on its title in proggy, post-rock fashion.
And, you can hear tracks from 17 of these albums on episode 169 of the show.Listen Now!
Open playlist in Spotify
* Not on Spotify:
Anunnaki - Rise of the Millenarian
Acid Guru Pond
A collaboration between, as you might infer from the title, Acid Mothers Temple, Guru Guru (or Mani Neumeier, at least), and Bardo Pond, recorded in 2007 but only released in April 2016 as a limited edition pressing for Record Store Day
Five long tracks, named, not particularly creatively, after colors. However, they do correspond to the colors of the vinyl (the tracks Orange and Red are on either side of an appropriately colored disc, as are the tracks Green and Blue - Purple is also on the Green/Blue disc, which has a purple label to maintain the color-coding). If you're familiar with any of these bands, the music is... exactly what you'd expect. Sprawling, largely instrumental tracks accented by Isobel Sollenberger's flute and occasional vocals by Etsuko Neumeier, Mani's wife.
In this case, the whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts, but rather roughly equal to it, so that 1+1+1 ≈ 3. It's worth seeking out, even if you aren't willing to pony up for the pretty-colored vinyl, but instead acquire it from the electronic ether.
Jodorowsky's Dune OST
The soundtrack to Dune, if Jodorowsky had succeeded in making his completely unproducable version of it, was to be provided by Pink Floyd and Magma. Interestingly, the soundtrack to Jodorowsky's Dune, the documentary, while it doesn't sound like either of those bands (well, maybe, during some of their dabbling in minimalist electronics) would have made excellent incidental music for the only-imagined film, interweaving throughout the prog bombast.
(As an aside: the band that provided the soundtrack to David Lynch's Dune was none other than ... Toto. Yep, hot off their Best Song Grammy for Rosanna, the studio musician supergroup cranked out some unbelievably overwrought, The Final Countdown-esque 80s opera-metal for what turned out to be an utter mess of a film (I've rewatched it several times since first seeing it on VHS in the late 80s and it somehow gets less bearable with each viewing))
Really lovely analog synth instrumentals, a number of which feature excerpts of Jodorowsky rambling his trademark self-aggrandizing, pseudo-mystical nonsense (that are nonetheless incredibly charming) taken from the documentary
(As another aside: As I mentioned when I played this on the show, why can't Jodorowsky find some tech zillionaires to finally make his version of Dune - or at least a close approximation - profits be damned. Both of his well-known movies from the 1970s, El Topo and The Holy Mountain were financed by rich weirdos of that era - namely John Lennon and George Harrison.)
Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie Prince Billy
Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties
An unexpected, but surprisingly fruitful collaboration between Bitchin Bajas, the ambient offshoot of the band CAVE, and Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Billy. The result is sort of like what might have come about if Father Yod, of Yahowha 13 fame, had collaborated with Greek ambient pioneer Iasos during their respective heydays in the 70s. Lanquidly chanted positive thinking mantras backed by analog ambience.
I'm not totally certain, but I think the idea motivating this album is as follows: During the 70s, quite a few albums came out that, rather amusingly, ascribed health benefits to listening to the synthesized music they contained (see for instance Steven Halperin, whose albums I have periodically talked over between sets of music on the show) Now, it was the case throughout the 20th century that nearly every scientific breakthrough was believed to have medicinal benefit - you can find numerous ads from the 20s and 30s extolling radiation as some sort of cure-all - but making such claims about music was somewhat rare. There apparently, however, was something sufficiently other-worldly about the sound of an analog synthesizer - at least to music fans of the 70s - that inspired belief in its possessing some sort of supernatural power.
In retrospect, this seems rather ridiculous, especially since analog synthesizers are, to most people, associated mostly with either tedious prog rock or schlocky sci-fi soundtracks. But, that said, there is something about this album I find quite relaxing, even more so than most ambient synth fare, of which I have listened to quite a bit. I really start believing the platitudes, that everything is going to be OK, that good things are on the horizon, just hang in there baby, and other sentiments worthy of inspirational posters.
Over the course of a number of albums, Gnod has been moving away from space rock, and toward a more gloomy, almost 1980s goth/industrial sort of sound. It's something of an odd evolution, but they've managed to pull it off. Of course, now they just sort of sound like early Swans. Which I guess is fine, since Swans no longer sounds like early Swans. In sort of the same way Earth sounds totally different now than they did circa Earth 2, say, while at the same time there are a gazillion bands who sound like early Earth, it would sort of make sense that since Swans sounds totally different now as well, that there would be a bunch of bands trying to sound like the Swans of the 1980s. But so far that doesn't seem to be the case. I suppose that makes Gnod pioneers of a sort.
Anyhow, it's kind of too bad this album came out in the late spring, because it really deserves to be listened to in the late fall. It is the perfect accompaniment to a stroll on a late-November evening, when it's already been dark for a few hours, most of the trees are barren of leaves, and the ground is damp with drizzle. See, I sound like a teenage goth kid just writing a review of this. Moody, jagged-edged ("Ow, stop poking me with your jagged-edged music" I blurted out while listening to this), the kind of reverb that makes it sound like it was recorded in a warehouse (which I'm sure is way more complicated to approximate in a studio than actually recording in a warehouse), angsty, screamed vocals. You get the idea.
Jonathan Snipes & William Hutson
Room 237 OST
Who knew that documentary soundtracks were now some of the best ways to get a fix of retro-electronic ambience? First there's the Jodorowsky's Dune soundtrack, and now this. I'm sort of expecting Michael Moore to get, like, Oneohtrix Point Never to soundtrack his next documentary.
Anyways, if I can just digress and talk about the movie this is soundtracking for a moment: I tried to watch this on Netflix, but I just gave up about halfway through because the subjects of this documentary - four people with bizarre interpretations of the meaning of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining - are completely insane. And not fun insane like the ladies of Grey Gardens; but, like corner you at a party and spend an hour rambling at you about the intricacies of their crackpot theory insane.
But even though I couldn't get through the movie, I did notice that the soundtrack was rather interesting, and was pleasantly surprised when I found out that it had actually been released as an album. Pleasant, burbling analog-y synth incidental music. Perfect for reading, or intensely scrutinizing a film for evidence that it's secretly all about minotaurs (seriously, that's a theory about the Shining one of the screwballs in this movie has - you may as well try to convice me Full Metal Jacket is about satyrs or wood nymphs)