Floating Points

Reflections: Mojave Desert

The first thing you hear on Reflections is silence, followed by creaking and groaning as gentle, sandy winds wrap themselves around equipment. This opening, ‘Mojave Desert’, introduces the most fundamental element of the album and its accompanying short film: the way in which the desert has been utilised as another tool to realise Sam Shepherd’s continually evolving Floating Points project.

Many have written about Shepherd’s neuroscientist background and whether his music is more erudite because of this, a claim he’s been hasty to rebuke. Still, it’s difficult not to pinpoint Shepherd as one of the most innovative electronic artists of his generation. His output has been sparse but of a consistently high calibre, amalgamating a love of jazz, two-step and disco with an education in classical music.

Before touring debut Elaenia in the US last year, Shepherd’s band set up in the North American desert to rehearse. It became apparent, as sound reflected and bounced between rocks and other surroundings, that this unique sonic environment gifted them with natural reverbs and delays to record with. The expansive ‘Silurian Blue’ retains many Floating Points trademarks. Long synth noodles and Rhodes licks punctuate newer compositional terrain in the form of pounding drum fills and chiming guitar solos, as they also do on ‘Kelso Dunes’. Both pay homage to prog rock and kosmiche music, with extended improvised refrains, superterrestrial atmospherics and pulsing motorik beats.

‘Kites’ and ‘Lucerne Valley’ continue with the ambient world-building of Elaenia, as panning arpeggios and glistening synths are driven through the natural effects of the sonic wilderness. Though such a departure from much of his early work, Reflections is testament to Shepherd’s consistency as a producer, composer and bandleader, and will no doubt continue to please those that have followed him from the dancefloor to the desert.

Aidan Daly

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister

Planetarium

The arts constantly throws together collaborations, side projects and supergroups, and the expectation placed upon them can often be too much to deliver. Fortunately for us, for every Batman v Superman there’s an Avengers Assemble, and for every Audioslave, there’s a Stevens/Muhly/Dessner/McAlister. Planetarium, the record delivered by this diverse group of New York-based musicians, has been in development for five long years since they originally performed together, and the result is an album of delicate beauty and emotional resonance, skipping through contrasting styles with grace and ease. 

The project was begun by Nico Muhly, well known as a composer and arranger who frequently blurs the line between popular and classical styles, who invited highly accomplished singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner, recently acclaimed for his soundtrack to The Revenant, into the project. The line-up was completed by long-term Stevens collaborator James McAlister, who added beats, percussion and sequencing. The group is accompanied by a string quartet and a septet of trombones.

The title  hints at the extended concept within, as the album explores the vastness of space and the myth and mystery surrounding objects within our own solar system. However, Stevens’ lyrics are just as interested in the space within our own consciousness, coming to terms with the huge complexity of our own species despite our insignificance within the immensity of the cosmos.

Musically, the record jumps between styles, from gentle piano ballads to majestic brass, interspersed with complex and claustrophobic beats and long instrumental interludes. Stevens’ vocals and a constant percussive energy provide a glue to the album, uniting it into a coherent yet high concept work. It’s profound, affecting and very beautiful, and I hope the first of many more.

Ben Eckersley

Avital Raz

The Fallen Angel's Unravelling Descent

"For my kind it's always a recession / In some parts of the world, we're still considered a possession," sings Avital Raz on 'Male Order Bride', the first single from her bluntly-titled new record. It’s a razor-sharp take down of a society that still values the labour of men over women, both at work and at home. It’s also only one of many injustices that Raz, who was born in Jerusalem and who studied Dhrupad singing in India before settling in Sheffield, has written witty, bone-dry observational lyrics about.

Speaking directly to the Almighty on ‘Bored Lord’, Raz tells him she’s “living in the capital of the promised land / And here, my Lord, your chosen people / They’re finally in command,” querying whether he’s “with them turning ploughshares back to swords / But in your name they'll go invade and kill and hoard.” As bleak as the subject matter gets, all 12 of these well-crafted songs are lifted by her intriguing voice, which somehow combines an Americana twang with the syrupy abstraction of Joanna Newsom on feather-light tunes like ‘TV’.

Raz has a knack for unexpected but creative timing. Sometimes she gives her words breathing space and sometimes she rolls them out in an expressive rush, like when she suddenly exclaims “take my soul and take it quickly!” on the title track. The absolution stomp of ‘Shame’ and the heartbreak lilt of ‘Sorry About The Pills’ reveal, unsurprisingly, that Raz is as perceptive of the personal as she is the political.

Sam Gregory

Laurel Halo

Dust

Laurel Halo’s third LP, Dust, is an album made of broken instruments that sound just as natural as they sound digital. Fittingly, Dust has several moments where it feels like it was taken from the earth itself. 

Even in its most chilling moments, such as in ‘Buh Bye’, it still manages to feel restful. This is what makes Dust an interesting album to listen to. It takes the listener in at different points to craft a psychedelic experience, with warped sounds and a relaxing touch that reminds the listener that they’re safe throughout. ‘Like An L’ is a good example of this, as is ‘Do U Ever Happen’, a patient track with drums that sound like a rolling heartbeat.

‘Jelly’, the lead track on the album, starts off with a stuttering, rhythmic melody before new sounds emerge to add life to the track. Uplifting moments like this are repeated on ‘Moonwalk’. Laurel Halo’s vocals are not the focus here, and instead the modified singing becomes an integral part of the earthly instrumental to create a song that feels like a warm breeze. Dust only falls short due to one or two songs feeling unnecessary, namely ‘Who Won?’, which interferes too much with the rest of the album.

This is an album that Laurel Halo should be proud of, because it's unusual, tactile and mesmerising, all at the same time. 

Akeem Balogun

Maya Dunietz & Tom White

Summer Crash

There is a growing community in Sheffield exploring the intersection between electroacoustic music, noise and musique concrète, with Access Space and the University's Sound Laboratory building reputations for challenging and innovative new work. Local label Singing Knives form the third point in this seditious triangle. Summer Crash sees them pair Maya Dunietz, a pianist, composer, improviser and singer from Tel Aviv, with award-winning sound artist Tom White for two long-form compositions and two shorter tracks.

Inferences in the title to a breezy pop record are quickly dispelled by ‘Everything Is Soaked’, which starts with a few seconds of wobbly vibrato before opening out into a 16-minute exploration of mood and memory. Dunietz’s voice punctuates the mix as and when, singing a wordless interpretation of what could be a traditional music, liberally pitch-shifted and warped in places. The accompanying piano, minor key and slightly mournful, evokes the same lost time as a Caretaker record, or the ballroom scene from The Shining that inspired it.

'Spare Ribs' sports an ear-rattling feedback drone for its entirety and will be difficult for anyone but the most ardent avant-gardist to stick with. More rewarding is ‘Josephine’, a riot of plucked strings, crackle, hiss and operatic vocals. ‘Summer’, the final track, sounds like it has a more conventionally beautiful piano instrumental trying to break out of it, and in the last few minutes it almost does, bringing a sense of cathartic release to a demanding but ultimately rewarding listen.

Sam Gregory

The Unthanks

Diversions Vol. 4 - The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake

“Ordinary music in an ordinary street / Why does your heart start beating? / What can a song do to you?”

The opening of the fourth in their Diversions series of cover albums encapsulates the appeal of The Unthanks. Sisters Rachel (hushed and husky) and Becky (higher and brighter) harmonise over arrangements by Adrian McNally, the words more often than not coming from the English folk tradition. It's one which is bleak, bitter, funny and provocative, smuggled into contemporary consciousness by latter-day musicians like Robert Wyatt and Anonhi. 

The Unthanks' latest release refocuses their aim of passing on the lyrically and emotionally rich music of British folk singers, often northern, or at least north-of-London. In this case it’s The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake, pioneering poet and mother of that bloke Nick from the car adverts. Beginning with ‘What Can A Song Do To You?’, the record works through the dreamy, earthy Drake songbook, which remained mostly unheard until a posthumous interest linked her music with that of her son. 

The Unthank sisters alternate singing and spoken readings of her verse over McNally’s lilting, uncluttered string-and-piano backing – these sections are reminiscent of Tilda Swinton and the aforementioned Wyatt’s collaborations with Max Richter – giving a powerful voice to a woman whose work has rarely been heard. As they sing later in the opening track, it’s “music for an open window”: small and intimate in creation, but with the intention of being heard far wider. And it deserves to be.

Tom Baker

Guadalupe Plata

Guadalupe Plata

I’ve always associated Guadalupe Plata with the 'Easy Rider' crew. It’s an easy simile, as one of their first hits used Menville & Janson’s short 'Vicious Cycles' for its video. A blues riff, drenched in just enough psychedelia, mixed with a stop-motion jaunt of a film. It dovetailed perfectly.

Now with Guadalupe Plata's latest self-titled record, it seems the cigar box amp sound has been pushed away. The sound is crisp, each instrument piercing through the speakers. This doesn’t mean the atmosphere is clear. It feels fierce, with unnerving tracks like ‘Navajazo’ seeping through your pores. You can feel your nerve endings contracting with seedy vibes, like the ones on the standout ‘Miedo’, a track matched in attitude to the loneliness of late-night driving.

Guadalupe Plata have ditched the motorcycles and the daylight larceny shenanigans. This is night music for lonesome, meditative drives to nowhere. You won’t come back the same, with ‘Nido De Avispas’ keeping you on your toes, feeding the night terrors.

There’s a stretch on California’s Highway 101 where something went awry – no petrol stations, no flora, no fauna. In this barren landscape, an old white Dodge Challenger rusts away next to three Vincent Black Shadows. As the sky turns into shades of blue, you can hear a faint howl in the distance. Dreams and hopes didn’t die, they just mutated. So did Guadalupe Plata.

Sam J. Valdés López

Slowdive

Slowdive

The new album from seminal shoegazers Slowdive dropped fairly quietly last month – strangely quietly in fact, considering it’s their first album in 22 years. In self-titling the album the band seem to be making a low-key statement about how the last two decades have – or rather, haven’t – changed their music. Swirling, shimmering keyboards; guitars that conjure visions of stars and lonely, cold spaces; the distinctive dual vocals of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell: they’re still masters of making spacey, layered shoegaze. They’re still Slowdive.

This is no bad thing at all. Opening track ‘Slomo’ begins with a sound much like slipping on a comfy old jumper; a soothing, spaced-out wall of keyboard, with Goswell and Christian Savill’s guitars chiming in and soaring along without missing a beat. It’s unmistakably the same band who made 1993 shoegaze classic Souvlaki, but the shiny, modern production is so crisp and expansive, allowing each instrument room to shine in the mix, that the sound is more enveloping than ever.

Slowdive have arguably never sounded better. ‘Sugar For The Pill’ is a slight surprise, propulsive and dancey, driven by a throbbing, funky bassline and the most singalong chorus on the album, managing to sound both downbeat and strangely triumphant. Album closer ‘Falling Ashes’ is striking and dramatic, unfurling slowly with a stark piano line and steadily building to a cathartic finish.

Slowdive is proof that there’s more to being a great shoegaze band than overloading every instrument with effects pedals. It’s good to have the old masters back, although it’s somehow as if they never went away.

Nathan Scatcherd