FAVOURITE VINYL OF 2013

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My vinyl collection expanded considerably in 2013; it remains my format of choice for the music that means the most to me. Many of these records were acquired through mail order, I find it to be the most convenient way of sourcing my music. I’ll always love hitting record shops however and want to give a shout out to Tommy Gun Records (where the Native Cats album was purchased), Polyester, Round and Round, and my local store Thornbury Records for providing excellent service and superior product range in 2013. Drop that needle…

Dirty Beaches
Drifters / Love Is The Devil
Zoo Music

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Alex Zhang Hungtai’s triumphant nocturnal opus earned plenty of accolades in 2013 and rightfully so. Drifters / Love Is The Devil sounded like both an arrival and a departure for Dirty Beaches, taking the no-wave noise of previous releases to a more expansive, unsettling realm. From the distorted groove of opener Night Walk through to intense sonic saturation of Mirage Halls, first half Drifters makes for gripping listening. These are distinctly cinematic songs, suggesting seedy noir action and tragic love stories mixed up with deals gone wrong. The minimal atmospherics of second half Love Is The Devil were also stirring but in quite a different way. If Drifters is the whiplash motorbike ride through downtown Bangkok at 2am then Love Is The Devil is watching the sun bleed out of the Mekong through an amphetamine come-down haze, a slightly concussed set of instrumental pieces that explore murky depths greater than any lyrics can hope to describe. It’s wonderful when an album not only surpasses your expectations but offers a totally unexpected and challenging listening experience. Drifters / Love Is The Devil shattered all expectations, in the most thrilling of ways.

Ensemble Economique / Heroin in Tahiti
No Highway – Black Vacation
Sound of Cobra Records

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What a pairing. Italian label Sound of Cobra Records did a great service to the world of music when they combined the talents of Ensemble Economique and Heroin in Tahiti, artists who share a flare for the sinister and surreal. Brian Pyle continues to astound with his output as Ensemble Economique, and while I also thoroughly enjoyed his release with Not Not Fun, this was my favourite release of his for 2013. Opener I light my cigarette, I see YOU there is, as I will blog about elsewhere, the best song I heard all year. I was instantly hooked by the combination of sexy rhythms and dread filled drones that characterise this track, as was everyone else I played it for. A big sauntering beast of a song. EE’s remaining tracks on this side are great too, sitting together cohesively with the opener to create a troubling, magnificent whole. I wasn’t familiar with Heroin In Tahiti before listening to this record but am very glad to be have been taken on their Black Vacation, a terrific expedition into pulverising “death surf”, as they call it. A great achievement, issued with an apt note of caution by Sound of Cobra: The music that springs from having experienced these horror trips is as seductive as Lisa Bonet drinking a little red rooster’s blood! Be warned: This is a one-way ticket, no refunds, no exorcism included. 

Sonny and The Sunsets
Antenna To The Afterworld
Polyvinyl

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Ah Sonny. I’ve got so much affection for your music, it fills me with such giddy joy. I’ve been aboard the good ship Sonny and The Sunset since the get-go though I did feel previous album Longtime Companion slightly missed the mark with it’s existential country ramblings. It was good, but Antenna To The Afterworld was great. It’s a record that’s got everything I dig so much about Sonny’s music – warped humour, subtle shadings of darkness, tears-streaming-down-your-cheeks love songs and straight up good time party tunes. It’s really hard for me to single out highlights, I just adore this whole album so much, but MutilatorPath of Orbit and the interstellar romance of Green Blood seem to be thesongs that plant the biggest grins on my face. It was a total gas to see Sonny perform these songs and older hits as part of Melbourne Music Week earlier in the year, he’s a fantastic performer with a super tight band backing him. If I could see him every night, I would.

The Native Cats
Dallas
R.I.P. Society / Ride The Snake

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Native Cats were a band that I was only vaguely aware of before this year. I found their oblique synth pop somewhat evasive, I just never had that moment of clarity with their sound. Dallas provided me with a full album of clarity. Julian Teakle and Peter Escott achieve innovation through minimalism in their music, combining spare electronics and insistent bass lines with non-suquitor lyrics to create a compelling, singular sound. I Remember Everyone is one of my favourite Australian songs of 2013, an uncompromising reflection on existence that crackles with a defiant post punk attitude. Like all of Dallas, it’s a tense listening experience that disorientates in the unexpected twists and turns it takes, both lyrically and sonically. The production is superb and with a final sheen applied by the omnipresent Mikey Young, Dallas is an aural treat to listen to on vinyl nice and loud. There’s a terrific sense of space to these songs; though minimal they achieve great weight in the precision of the performances and in the power of the lyrics. Sure to linger long on the Australian musical landscape, and beyond.

Kevin Greenspon / Former Selves
Betrayed by the Angels / Apropos of Golden Dreams
Bridgetown Records

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Release #100 for the great Bridgetown Records was a superb split between label founder Kevin Greenspon and the prolific Paul Skomsvold, aka Former Selves. I regularly took to playing this record in the mornings as I started my day, I found the serene synthesizers of most tracks to be a fine way to settle my mind for the coming day. As such the album has grown to have a reassuring power over me, and I’m still discovering its subtleties. Betrayed by the Angels / Apropos of Golden Dreams could lazily be slotted in the “ambient” genre but it’s not all blissful minimalism, with some of the Greenspon tracks (From Concrete to CarelessnessTruth and Falling) exploring more abrasive sonic textures. The tone of the Former Selves tracks is well described by song titles Watercourse Way and Golden Dreams. With it’s graceful piano part and gentle layers of synth, the latter is simply immaculate. A transfixing piece of music that ranks with Skomsvold’s finest achievements, and that’s saying something. As a whole the album works brilliantly, an ingenious paring of two artists gifted in crafting sounds to drift away with. An album that has become a fine friend of mine.

Lee Noble
Ruiner
Bathetic

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I remember receiving this LP on a wet Melbourne night earlier in the year. I remember listening to it for the first time. That sort of record. To say I’d been looking forward to Ruiner is an understatement, in recent years I’ve become slightly obsessed with the music of Lee Noble. Listening to his music remains for me a deeply personal experience. Mostly I listen at night and on my own, mostly with headphones. Often while walking through empty streets. Ruiner is instantly identifiable as a Noble record in the slow melt of Covers and the disconnected haze of December ∞. However each album from Noble is markedly different, each has it’s own character, and this is true of Ruiner. Noble’s vocals are sometimes much more coherent on this album than previous releases, with the less emphasis on noise. The largely acoustic Wring the Rag is disarmingly spare – it’s both pleasant and somewhat jolting to be hearing Noble’s voice so clearly. This said there are still dense sonic textures at work in every moment of Ruiner, it’s a beautiful headphone experience. Centrepiece Demon Pond traverses a great expanse of musical styles in it’s fascinating nine minutes, while Disintegrate Ideas provides perhaps the most beautiful song on the album with its combining of other worldly organ, ghostly voices and shimmering beats. I could go on forever but I will not. Another triumph from one of my favourite music makers.

Michael Beach
Golden Theft
Twin Lake Records

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It was wonderful to sit back and absorb this full length from Michael Beach after closely following his progress in recent times. Here were songs that I had grown deeply fond of from previous EPs and 7 inches (There Is No Edge Of The World To Run To, Straight Spines, Mountains + Valleys) placed alongside several new exciting songs. Along with Chad VanGaalen, Beach is one of my absolute favourite modern songwriters. As a lyricist he is a craftsman – able to tell a compelling tale while slowly building tension in his words that often muse on love, sometimes evoke biblical beings and always resonate with honesty. There’s great variety in these songs too, whether it be the jolting punk mayhem of Straight Spines or the bluesy grit of Dirt or the west coast feel of Static, Golden Theft is a surprising and constantly engaging rock and roll album. It ends on a grand note with the epic Eve, an unholy vaunt along the highways of America with Jesus and a whole cast of misfits in tow. It’s great ride, right through to to the bitter end.

Parading
Swallowing A Sunflower
Birds Love Fighting

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Just recently I took a detailed look at this album from Melbourne’s Parading, a fine record that I’m obviously very fond of. Not much I can add to what I’ve already said really, you can read the review here. An excerpt:

Heartache and hardships come and go in this town, just like any other place. The Great Constant in Melbourne is the music – guitars to get lost in. Noise that bleeds the pain away. Great bands releasing great albums that become your closest of friends. Parading are a Melbourne band.

Mountains
Centralia
Thrill Jockey

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Experimental overlords return with their finest hour (and a bit). Is Centralia a place? A mystical land that this album explores? Perhaps. I certainly felt as if I was leaving this dimension as this album resonated throughout my home. The transcendent soundscapes of Centralia do indeed seem to suggest geological formations though not through brute force, rather these pieces evoke the subtle processes of nature – the gradual corrosion of rock by water, the shaping of land by wind, the complex contours of – yes – mountains. Processes of great power of course, though you cannot see them happening. They are subtle. For me this is what Mountains achieved on the grand Centralia – earth shifting power through restrained and supremely skilled music making. Synthesisers feature heavily throughout but so does acoustic instrumentation – to label Centralia electroacoustic seems woefully inadequate. It defies description. A deep listening experience, and a beautiful place to visit.

Trouble Books
Love At Dusk
MIE Records

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Another superb album of pristine, slightly disconnected electronic pop from Trouble Books, released on UK label MIE. What I’ve always liked about the Ohio duo is their ability to elicit a certain natural warmth from cold, synthetic sources, and Love At Dusk was perhaps their most coherent realisation of this sound. It’s also a fine advertisement for the album as an art form. Stacking Spheres is a wonderful song but being paired alongside the off-kilter piano paean of Unfolded results in both songs becoming imbued with a great lasting resonance. The contrast between the cacophonous conclusion of Fake Fern Shadows and the heart melting The Very End, Again is also genius, I recall being profoundly moved when I first heard it. Love At Dusk is that kind of listening experience. A brilliantly arranged album, best experienced by listening devotedly from beginning to end. Trouble Books are the pulsing electric flame. They are lovely lost moments in the analogue/digital divide. They’re a thousand beautiful moments beneath the shimmering pixelated sunset.

FAVOURITE LABELS OF 2013

I continued to be amazed by the output of independent labels in 2013, many of which I’ve become acquainted with through my work on Bandcamp Hunter. Below are the ten whose work I most admired this year, in no particular order. The emphasis here is on smaller, less established labels that have inspired me with their productivity and imagination, as well as with the quality and variety of their releases. Important to me also is the creation a distinct identity, through both strong design and the personality of the operators.

You may recognise a few of these labels from my interview series here on Formless Fields and I make no apology for that – I admired these labels greatly before speaking with them about their work. Keep up the fine work you good, good people.

Patient Sounds

Stand out releases: The Kevin Costner Suicide Pact – Container ShipCuddle Formation / The Spookfish – EarthboundWellington Downs – The WestersFoothills – New World

Colorado based Patient Sounds released an impressive nineteen tapes in 2013, a great achievement for such a small label. Run my Matthew Sage (aka M.Sage) and his fiance, the label prides itself on releasing diverse styles of music that push the boundaries of what experimental music can be. I’d been familiar with their work for a while but taking the time to explore their catalogue further revealed many gems, in particular I fell pretty hard for the Wellington Downs album The Westers (another project of Sage’s) and the magnificent Container Ship from The Kevin Costner Suicide Pact is one of the finest things I heard all year. Each release from Patient is surprising and worthy of devoted listening, it’s an exciting label to follow. Add to this beautiful packaging, a strong identity and personal service and you’ve got yourself a label that embodies all that is good about DIY labels. With their first vinyl release on the horizon and more great tapes in the pipeline, 2014 looks very promising for Patient sounds.

Read my interview with Matthew Sage

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Moon Glyph

Stand out releases: The New Lines – Fall in Line, FWY! – Any ExitHenry the Rabbit – Earthen Birth ByThe Non Travellin’ Band -Never Prayed Once

I was very excited for Steve Rosborough of Moon Glyph to be my first interview subject here on Formless Fields after admiring the output of the label for some time. I’ve learned this year that running a small label is all about musical taste – the owner/operator of an independent label is also a curator – and Steve has great taste. From groovy krautrock to rampant psychedelic rock to warped pastural folk, Moon Glyph has had an outstanding year of releasing innovative music, complimented always with gorgeous packing. The San Fransciso label has grown from focusing on primarily local music to releasing international sounds, with the lovely album from Copenhagen’s Henry the Rabbit becoming a personal favourite of mine. The New Lines album was also brilliant and the twin releases from FWY! were both indispensable. A red letter year for a class act label.

Read my interview with Steve Rosborough

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Milk! Records

Standout releases: Jen Cloher – In Blood MemoryCourtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea Of Split PeasFraser A. Gorman – Fraser A. GormanTanah Merah – Royston Vasie

With the year Courtney Barnett had it’s remarkable her label Milk! Records released any music at all but nay, they managed to release some outstanding records from several Melbourne artists. The centrepieces were certainly the mighty In Blood Money Memory by Jen Cloher and the celebrated double EP from Courtney, A Sea Of Split Peas. These were world beating albums featuring songwriting that’s as good as anything going ’round – Jen’s an emotional and stoic masterpiece of smouldering rock songs and Courtney’s a great round up of the two EPs that have propelled her to international acclaim. On top of this Milk released killer records from Melbourne locals Roysyton Vasie, a live album from The Finks and a sterling CD from the irrepressible Fraser A. Gorman, all packaged with tender loving care and distributed from lounge rooms in Melbourne’s north. Live music is a big a part of the Milk identity too, and their Xmas shindig at The Tote was one of the highlights of my gig going year.
Good music, good friends, good times. It’s what Milk is all about.


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Major Crimes

Stand out releases: Bruff Superior – s​/​tOld Mate – s​/​t 7”Multiple Man – s​/​tBig Richard Insect – s/t

After just a couple of initial releases in 2012, Adelaide label Major Crimes upped the ante in 2013 and released a slew of killer music. Much of this music was guitar-centric – from the loose jangle pop of Bruff Superior to the bruising, brilliant album from Big Richard Insect – though the label also released two electro-mindfuckers from Brisbane based Multiple Man. The Wireheads release was most enjoyable too, pulsating noise rock that could emanate from nowhere but the gritty underbelly of the Australian musical underground. And indeed this is what Major Crimes trades in – transmitting the rough edged, vital music from the fringes of our musical scenes to those who are wise and willing. A year of essential releases from a label that’s in it for all the right reasons, I can’t wait to see what they come up with in 2014.


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Carpi Records

Standout releases: Sunny Dunes – Wash, then Dance/Never SoonMagnétophonique – Lush Islands/Illusion of ParadiseAltar Image / The Inverted Orange – SplitCasino Hearts-Lonesome Island

Carpi Records are one of those labels I have to stop myself from featuring constantly on Badncamp Hunter, everything they released this year was gold.  Based in France, the label primarily releases music that errs on the side on “hypnagogic” – electronic based music that explores alternate dimensions through sonic innovation and experimentation. They’ve done a great job of carving a strong identity through their classy design and consistently strong releases, largely on cassette. Delving through their Bandcamp page is a languid journey into the sound of a dream world, beautifully crafted music borne of exceptionally talented musicians from around the globe. The Sunny Dunes release stood out to me as one of the French artists finest efforts yet, while the Ki Choquette album was a masterpiece of graceful, understated beauty. Also noteworthy was the sublime album of distorted guitar ruminations from Casino Hearts, the work of a young man from Reno. Follow this label, and infuse the wonderful music they release into both your waking and sleeping hours.


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Furious Hooves

Standout releases: You Won (or, We Have All Lost) – Blood CousinOmphalos – BlackruneStay Rad Vol​.​01 compilationOnline Birthday – Hallucinex

“Stay Rad”. That’s the simple catch cry for Furious Hooves, a label run by two childhood friends living in two separate cities in the American east. Positivity comes through in all that Ryan and TJ do with “Fur Hoof”, it’s a label that’s fuelled by love of good music and strong binds to family and friends. It was great to chat with them back in September and gain inspiration from their creative approach to running the label, they’re a great DIY story who are doing things exactly how they want to. Their a label that make me want to get out there and make stickers and start slicing up old magazines and dubbing tapes to send to kids in Japan. The music they release is great too – that’s important – and I recommend checking out their compilation Stay Rad Vol​.​01 for a satisfying ear-full of Fur Hoof sounds. Stay Rad in 2014 Fur Hoof, and keep gettin’ them buckets.

Read my interview with Ryan and TJ


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Fire Talk

Standout releases: Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk -Think ToneTjutjuna – WesternerCampfires – Tomorrow, TomorrowOrchard Thief – Professional Textures

Denver based Fire Talk had a stellar 2013, surpassing the lofty standards set by their releases of 2012. Fire Talk were responsible for releasing one of my very favourite albums of the year, the revelatory album from Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk. A remarkable album that saw the Brooklyn band transition from subversive noise to a blissful psychedelic sound, very much taking me by surprise. Also somewhat surprising was the release of the Campfires LP, Tomorrow, Tomorrow. I had been a fan of the Portland band for a while and didn’t expect a new release to come via a label that until then I had pegged as dealing in louder, more psychedelic sounds (the label is run by Woodsman guitarist Trevor Peterson). And that’s a great thing about following a label like Fire Talk – their taste is expansive and not confined to one genre or style, they’ll push your own musical tastes while also releasing gems from more accessible artists. The important thing is that it’s music they like. The Tjutjuna release was a barnstormer too, surely one of the most underrated albums of the year. Acquaint yourself with it ASAP if you haven’t already, and sample the rest of the fantastic Fire Talk catalogue while you’re at it.


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Jehu and Chinaman

Stand out releases: Circuit Rider – Unit HoldsAdderall Canyonly – Between The Rays Lies Fear But Also Joy.​.​. and yet it moves – Roadside PicnicThe Vertical City EP – Rejections

Jehu and Chinaman caught my attention with the release of the Circuit Rider tape, a beguiling collaboration between Derek Rogers and Lee Noble. The UK label released another ten fantastic tapes in addition to Unit Holds, putting together a roster that now includes some of the worlds finest experimental artists. The Adderall Canyonly tape was utterly masterful and came with a great presser –
Imagine your favourite soap opera. Imagine your favourite soap opera’s gone wrong. Like, seriously wrong. Like, Ring wrong; tanned hunks and buxom babes crawling out of your TV with their eyes spurting cheap ice cream all over your sta-prest chinos and really fucking up your new cat.
Adderall Canyonly’s Between The Rays Lies Fear But Also Joy improves on all your favourite soap operas by making this highly erotic vision a reality…
So refreshing in comparison to the usual cliched marketing gump served up by bigger labels. Much of the music JAC release is of a darker nature but there’s a sense of fun and inventiveness in what they do that earns my allegiance. They’ve also got a distinct sci-fi vibe going on that really appeals to me, plus their packaging is gorgeous. Gold stars all round, then.


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Crash Symbols

Stand out releases: Emily Reo, Yohuna, Brown Bread, MoonLasso – Clubhouse Split, Julie’s Haircut – Ashram EquinoxZen Mantra – How Many Padmes Hum?Halasan Bazar – Space Junk

Crash Symbols seeks to release “left-field production and electronic music, psychedelia, abstract pop, as well as more bluntly experimental releases”. A mission statement that really presses my buttons. It was a mammoth year for the West Virginia based label, releasing no less than eighteen albums from a dazzling array of international artists. The Julie’s Haircut album was perhaps my favourite of all, a splendid expedition into deep psychedelic sounds from the Italian band. I also loved the Zen Mantra album and the split between Emily Reo, Yohuna, Brown Bread and MoonLasso was a genius grouping of three artists whose music meshed together beautifully. It’s a great thing when labels pull of successful collaborations. Crash Symbols did this in 2013 and much, much more. A truly vital label.


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Data Garden

Standout releases: Moan (Shinji Masuko) – Bookshelf SanctuaryThe THANGS – WedodoLive at The Switched​-​On Garden 002

A late inclusion in my top ten, Philadelphia’s Data Garden grabbed me with their re-imagining of what the modern record label can be. After discovering their musical component through Bandcamp and the stunning album by Moan, I spent the good part of a day on their site exploring the lush expanse of art that they have on display. Data Garden strike me as a label with a lucid vision of what they are seeking to achieve – not only do they release impeccable electronic music but they also act as an archive, promoting art both old and new questions, provokes and inspires. They too have a sci-fi mystique going on in their beautifully designed site and their approach to packaging is, as far as I know, totally unique. Purchase a digital album and receive a “plantable” postcard – nestle it in some soil and wait for the flowers to bloom. What a wonderful concept. What a wonderful label.

Honourable mentions: Birds Love Fighting, Aguirre Records, Orchid Tapes, Melted Icecream, Unknown Tone Records