Arca

Xen
Mute Records

Delicate electronica, laced with a tingling anticipation, Xen is an album of short, snappy and beautiful moments. The experience throws us directly into the storm with the spicy, pretty but harsh ‘Now You Know’. Like brightly coloured clothes, the opener is set to impress and extrovertly introduces the feel of what is inside.

Excitingly moody leaps from pulsing melodic rhythms to sheer banging noise really make this album something to explore. Because of its choppy nature, it’s difficult to memorise and become familiar with, but I like this. Albums can become overheard and this one doesn't take that risk. The creative palette on offer is one of a true composer.
Riffs that sound like a dreamy Vangelis broken down with modern loop scoring help something that began way back in the 20th century extend from its roots, split in the trunk and branch out into a lush organism. Each piece of musical time is used to its potential, and missing beats and purposeful mistiming launch the listener into a realm of drama. Lyrics need not apply.

Aquamarine scenes of underwater orchestras come to mind as the tranquil and meandering ‘Failed’ creates a pause in the frantic energy and drive. Swelling from this point, melody takes a forward seat. Movements of nicely mixed space-age keys glide across the surface of beats in ‘Thievery’, the track which accompanies a sensual and evocative video as the first single. An element of childish stealth and secrets captivates the mood of Xen - a passion for exotic flow and drama, a sprinkle of heat, but most of all a solid understanding of what makes every second tick. 

Rowan Blair Colver

Eyeshutight

Resonance
Hungry Bear Records

Eyeshutight are the vibrant jazz trio who, after the acclaim of their first two albums Evolution and The Thaw, return this year with Resonance, their capricious and often sublime record. Headed by double-bassist Paul Baxter, the three-piece also includes Johnny Tomlinson on piano and Kristoffer Wright on drums.

Akin to the style and sound of other modern jazz outfits like The Neil Cowley Trio, the album darts from tight, erratic jams to sudden periods of languid and reflective musicianship, as co-ordinated as they seem improvised. Ideas build and fall away in quick succession, with heavily syncopated rhythms from Wright and Tomlinson’s virtuosic noodling. Quick shifts in time signature, tempo and groove characterise the bulk of the album, best exemplified on ‘Hit & Hope’, which contrasts playful and spiky phrases with smooth, melodic passages.

Though firmly rooted in the contemporary jazz mould, outside influences can be heard in abundance on Resonance. Once through the opening 90 seconds of the album, in which increasingly warped robotic voices quote the dictionary entry for the word ‘resonance’, a solid hip hop beat carries the album into fruition. Elsewhere, on ‘The Precipice’, we get a taste of what sounds like a nod to drum and bass, overlaid with tense, offbeat pulses from Baxter and Tomlinson.

The highlights of the album come when the trio gets more introspective, which is not to take away from the sheer electricity they are capable of delivering (even more impressive live, I might add). But tracks like ‘T&C’ and ‘Transition’ demonstrate the calibre of atmospheric, brooding and plainly beautiful music Eyeshutight are capable of producing together.

Aidan Daly

Bell Hagg Orkestar

Bell Hagg Orkestar
Self released

Some bands make music to nod your head to, others make music to bop along to, and some make music that forces you to dance like you’ve had 12 drinks too many, ricocheting around the room, spinning wildly and looking in disbelief as your legs kick and skip in moves you never knew you had. Bell Hagg Orkestar’s tunes have some sort of mystical Eastern magic attached to them. You can’t help but dance recklessly.

Right out of the gate, the album throws you into a world of squealing violins and blaring brass and doesn’t really ever stop the chaos. ‘Killer Hippy’ manages to descend (or ascend, depending on your opinion) rapidly from vaguely understandable lyrics about dangerous women to Balkan wails and statements of things “coming atcha like William Shatner”. Yet this unbridled madness seems to be the core of the band. Simply put: make noise, have fun.

It’s a careful line to tread. Sometimes the blaring horns become a little too much, but most times the band seems to understand this and reels in the noise a little for a slower bridge before letting it all cascade out again. The whole affair feels much like a fever dream covered in Turkish rugs and baklava. Sometimes a little too much to handle, but once you get into the spirit of things you can’t help but wail along and make abstract movements with your arms.

For anyone tired of the usual indie pop doing the rounds, Bell Hagg Orkestar are a welcome change - refreshing madness, fun lyrics and an eclectic mash of instruments and sounds from across the world. Muzak to my ears.

Alex Adams

The next Bell Hagg gig will happen at Shakespeares on 7 February (doors 8.30pm).

Pixies

Doolittle 25
4AD

Doolittle had been out for a year before my friend crammed a pair of headphones over my ears and played me ‘Debaser’. I'd have been 13, the age when you start trying to construct your identity through the things you consume. As Black Francis and friends clattered through the musical equivalent of what stage actors refer to as ‘chewing the furniture’, I knew I'd found something to call my own. Bright, ragged pop that flip-flopped to sub-punk shouts and scrapes and back again; crazed, unpredictable, wilfully weird. Music had never surprised me before. The lyrics sounded like nonsense, like secret messages from the adult world. My friend and I would nod seriously at each other over the skewed poetry of ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, certain it was written just for us. Within six months, we'd both bought cheap guitars. Then Nevermind dropped in 1991 and that was that.

If Pixies sound unexceptional today, it's a mark of their disproportionate influence on all that followed them. And if my reminiscence seems self-indulgent, then it's of a piece with anniversary re-release albums, which are aimed precisely at ageing nostalgics like me. If the kids want to check out Pixies, they'll just go straight to the hits on YouTube. You have to have argued long and late in dingy pubs about a record to want to compare the demos to the album cuts, to dig through the second-tier stuff that came out on the flip-side of the big singles.

And it's still a pleasure, even though it increasingly feels like my childhood is being museum-ified and sold to me a second time, remastered and sealed in digital amber. But that's the fate of all culture, in the end - to become canon or to become obscure. For me, Pixies will always be both.

Paul Raven

RED TREES

EP4
SEA RECORDS

Red Trees - Chris Beckett and Lou Richards - are a Sheffield-based duo who have been making music together for the best part of a decade. Over the last year, they have produced a new EP every three months, each representing a season. EP4 completes this cycle. Despite being comprised of songs written in spring this year, they have stated that the songs in this final collection belong to every season. It’s been a fascinating project. I first heard of it as EP3was being released, and I’ve really enjoyed going back to discover the earlier releases.

The music is sparse and simple - just two delicately picked electric guitars and two gentle yet sonorous voices - yet despite this the scope of the songwriting and arrangements is impressive. The music really does seem to change temperature, at times as cold and empty as an arctic winter, but growing in warmth and richness as the record progresses. Within hypnotic lines and repeated phrases, an ethereal beauty emerges. Penultimate track ‘Doves’, with its added piano and spoken word section, forms the emotional core of the record and musically is the highlight, but each track offers both passion and poignancy.

The tracks have been recorded in a home studio with a basic setup. The lack of production is a key strength, leaving the EP feeling intimate and cozy, with the immediacy of a live performance. It’s a minimalist gem, with songs that at first seeming gentle and unassuming, but quickly reveal an enduring emotional depth.

Ben Eckersley

Roller Trio

Fracture
Lamplight Social Records

Despite the attention lavished on Roller Trio’s lively eponymous debut, Fracture almost didn't happen at all. After extensively touring in 2012, the Mercury Prize survivors reluctantly took to crowd funding website Indiegogo, offering the usual bundles of t-shirts, signed albums, unreleased live recordings, and potentially awkward home performances in exchange for the means to record a new album.

Once again, it's the interplay between James Mainwaring's wandering saxophone and Luke Wynter's staccato guitar riffs that lead the show, with drummer Luke Reddin-Williams complementing the jazz-rock fusion with a deft touch more often than he dominates. Opener 'Reef Knot' shows off the trio's lounge jazz credentials before launching into a more upright affair, occasionally threatening to descend into cacophony before sax and guitar break discord to unite for the chorus. 'Low Tide', one minute and fourteen seconds of trebly, post rock guitar lines, provides a suitably atmospheric introduction to 'High Tea', by far the album's most radio-friendly moment, even as the single's Arabian riffs build up to a frenzy.

By the time we reach the uncompromising '2 Minutes to 12', featuring some of Mainwaring's most exploratory sax work to date, the band are cascading through ideas and time signatures at full throttle. It's an exhilarating experience, and you begin to wonder how they could possibly sustain it.

There are welcome moments of reprieve later on, with 'Tracer' and Wynter's particularly lovely 'Splinter' offering up some softer edges that almost stray into Portico territory. The album closes with 'Tightrope', a brooding meditation that marries the band's jazz roots to something closer to trip hop. The result is a melancholy and oddly muted finish to the album, belying the raucous jazz gymnastics that came before, but hinting at yet further new musical territory for the Leeds collective.

Matthew Neale