Author: Thomas Phelan

Writer and film-maker, and music lover.

Emma Acs 'While I Shoot from My Fortress of Delusions'

”My love for you is like a drug” Emma Acs quietly sneers on the acerbic ‘Into Your Heart’, a stinging epitome of just how detrimental the throes of love can be. The gnawing torment of regrets, confusion, and unsatiated longing that follows a relationship breakdown can veer into obsession, often pushing us to a state of unguarded vulnerability not witnessed by anybody else. Heartache is one of the most intense experiences of the human condition, yet once passed through its test a great insight about oneself is ultimately discovered.

It’s been a busy five years since Acs’s previous album Give in to Whatever. Graduating from college, contributing to various side-projects and composing a symphony for a 50 piece orchestra, this creative momentum sees Acs jumping from her native Copenhagen to L.A. with restless energy fueled by the end of a relationship. Finding soothing catharsis in the aggressive trap of artists like XXXTentacion and the haunting arrangements of Scott Walker, new E.P. While I Shoot from My Fortress of Delusions is an enticing clash of sonic serenity bristling with buried tension.

At just seven songs, Acs achieves an impressive traverse of mood and styles which truly pushes the parameters of the E.P. format, reaching a sense of cohesion like it were her third album. This arc is established on the opening track ‘Blessed are the Faithful’, a psalm of sorts which sees Acs pleading for some divine intervention before segueing into the hazy menace of ‘Palm Trees’, an introspective wander through lulled accordion and soaring strings which belie its lyrical pugnaciousness with lines like ‘I want to hurt you so badly’.

Acs’s affection for Scott Walker courses throughout, but particularly shines on third track ‘My Beloved (Lost to Begin with)’, a swirling trip of expert jazz brass and ice-cool bass that recalls Peter Walsh’s production work on Walker’s Climate of Hunter. Synth darkwave pulses on the sombre ‘Disarmed’, a beguiling mix of electronica and Høyer Hansen’s intricate acoustic guitar that creates a brittle disquiet perfectly mirroring the themes of the futility often felt when trying to protect oneself from the slings and arrows of love.

The narrative grip never ebbs, the last two songs feeling as conclusive as the opening two were introductory. The penultimate ‘Right Here’ is devastatingly eerie, a deeply private admission of ignoble efforts to maintain a presence in our lovers lives no matter how unhealthy, perniciously pulling you in with Gothic piano drops and singing strings reminiscent of Nick Cave’s latter atmospheric output. The final blow ‘Witch Hunt Waiting Room’ is a gorgeously rousing affront of cleverly disjointed piano notes and synth choir that amounts to a terrifying wail of chills with a weird arcane energy, a fitting closure that soundtracks the nagging sense of injustice at past grievances and grudges never accounted for. A witch burning in front of a crowd hiding their own transgressions and disloyalties.

The full gamut of heartache and its many manifestations have been brilliantly distilled into an exceptional piece of work which effortlessly glides between beauty and acidic lyrical barb. While I Shoot from my Fortress of Delusions is a bold and confident statement from an artist destined for great things.

Glaciers Noods Radio #12

After two months off the chilly punch of Glaciers is back! Here’s your twelfth helping of your favourite minimal-synth and coldwave pop courtesy of the Noods Radio mob!! ❄️ 👌

Isotope Soap 'An Artifact of Insects'

Apparently, the source of the signal hijack known as Isotope Soap hails from Stockholm, although you’d have to take the band’s word for it. Surely this is some top-secret, extraterrestrial invasion, corrupting your speakers like the Max Headroom incident static puking into your mind fuzzy detuned images of alien encounters, psychic warfare, and Japanese office employees overworking to death. It’s hard to decipher in their garbled message whether they’re warning or mocking humanity. It’s likely both.

Mixing hardcore and the synth alienation of Chrome and The Screamers, long-time Swedish punk legend Peter Swedenhammar’s new bastard birthed project Isotope Soap is the corrosive face of the synthpunk renaissance alongside Leeches, POW!, and the roster of artists on scuzzy Sydney label Warttmann Inc. Donning radioactive PPE and black boiler suits, the band strike a truly warped impression when witnessed live, and their string of brilliantly septic singles and E.P.’s have garnered them a horde of misfits salivating for a proper debut album.

Despite clocking in at only 14 minutes, An Artifact of Insects slithers around a wide array of styles and murk. Tracks like ‘Fragile Dream’ and ‘T-T-T-Telepathic’ are quintessential synthpunk, glorious punk rock urgency rushing apace with fizzy analogues that thrust you straight into the heady era of San Fran art-punk from the late ’70s. Eerie, caustic electronics throb and pulse on stingers like ‘Hey, Karoshi!’ and ‘Zanfretta’, the latter a haunting trip of spiky sinewaves and sonic dissonance conjuring the green creatures of the Torriglia 1984 case. The disparate turns the record makes are all held together by expert vocoder and voice effects, Swedenhammar’s electronically treated vocals forever contorting to a high-pitched squeal or buzzing Dalek angst, often at the same time.

Subterranean and acrid, An Artifact of Insects is a fantastic psych-slurry of twisted electro and punk delinquency, the kinda music Nero would have fiddled while Rome burned were he an LSD soaked robot from the future.

Sixth June 'Trust'

It’s been ten years since Sixth June’s debut LP Everytime, an exemplary work of darkwave synth-pop that thrust the band at the forefront of the minimal-synth resurgence alongside acts like Xeno & Oaklander, Automelodi and Daybed. Kindred spirits they all may be, Sixth June’s lush production and organic textures belied their cold-wave tag and have since continued to forge a unique sound unto their own, one that’s stirring, dramatic, and romantically European.

With third album Trust, the Belgrade duo continues much where they left off from 2017’s Virgo Rising, furthering their penchant for pared-down sonics that illicit deep emotional feeling from the simplest of synth washes and rich atmospheres. This sumptuous subtlety is established immediately on ‘In Dreams’, a rousing yet introspective album opener of wooden percussion and sax overlays which expertly demonstrate their ability to sculpt a wide traverse of mood with seemingly simple instrumentation. The mysterious ‘Negde Neko’ reaches even greater depths of aural purity, haunting keys and perhaps Lidija Andonov’s finest vocals yet recall the ethereal production of Nick Cave’s Ghosteen were it not for the hypnotic drum machine.

There’s plenty of familiar punch amid the austere restraint. ‘Oh Boy’ is classic Sixth June, an urgent pop number with that unmistakable cinematic evocation that grows and swells to a thrilling crescendo without becoming bloated or grandiose. Laslo Antal takes lead vocal duties (his baritone delivery first heard on side project Diesein) on the electro-pop title track, incorporating funky bass and irresistible guitar licks that mesh beautifully with crisp beats and soaring synth melodies before segueing to ‘Remind Me of the Time’, another example of their uncanny ability to marry the organic with the synthetic.

Ten years can dull any artist, but with Trust Sixth June show they are just as confident and inspired as they were a decade ago and still one of the leading figures in the synth scene.

Concentration 'I'm Not What I Was'

Testosterone hangs in the air with such clammy fetor you taste it on your lips. America teetering on the edge of war with Iran over desperate displays of military virility, a victim of gang rape is convicted of ‘causing public mischief’ as the alleged attackers sing ”the Brit is a whore” after being released without charge, and the grim figures of femicide continue to climb in cartel-ravaged Mexico. The more masculinity is dissected and scrutinised whether through art, academia or activism, the greater the ferocity of the agents of patriarchy is in violently silencing any such discourse, and the world is more dangerous for it.

Building a reputation as the Bristolian vanguard of cutting edge underground music, sonic agitators Avon Terror Corps (an amalgamation of musical misfits including Schwet, Bokeh Versions, Bad Tracking among a host of others) have extended their slimy tentacles beyond the South West with new label subsidiary Global Terror Corps in a mission to deliver uncompromising, genre-defying acts from the dankest corners of planet Earth. The first release under this moniker is EP I’m Not What I Was by Aussie/German trio Concentration, a visceral powerhouse act of industrial smut comprised of artists Zachariah Kupferminc, Matt Sativa and Thrush twisting heads clean off with their live sets of hellish volatility.

The scraping electro-punk as heard on prior album Premature still grinds unmercifully but with greater ephemeral potency across four tracks of distilled fury. EP opener ‘Circumcision’ is a squealing vomit of naked runtish neuroticism impotently wailing against the rabbi’s knife amid crushing pummeling drums coming close to the power electronics of Whitehouse were it not for the steady hypnotic tempo of the percussion. The stream of consciousness lyrics revealing the layers of pent-up Jewish dysmorphia take terrifying turns, sexual humiliation congeals to trans-generational holocaust trauma with tortured confusion, yet Zupferminc’s nasal whine, references to ‘fucking Guardian articles’ and skewed klezmer pieces trigger a nervous hilarity to the nightmare.

Stuttering glitchy beats palpitate on ‘Jihadi Dole Bludger’, a cavernous momentum drives the track around points of eerie terse quiet and warped vocals, before the synth heavy ‘Spiderfuck’ pierces with Wax Trax! throb, arpeggios and drum machines creating a subtle groove beneath the noxious miasma. Last track ‘Dead Men Don’t Rape’ honours the scathing defiance against male entitlement and sludgy-grunge delivery of 7 Year Bitch’s original but adds further layers of haunted discord and collages of reverb drenched suffering.

The testosterone that clung stubbornly on your lips is replaced with blood, pre-cum, and testicular viscera. I’m Not What I Was is a horribly fascinating putrid dry-retch of disgust against poisonous machismo, as powerful as a sledgehammer to your face but revealing the deeply insecure and fearful heart of toxic masculinity with surgical precision.

Spit 'n' Static! 1020 Radio #10

Your eyeballs become swollen, clammy palpitations take over, then you awaken several hours later with the echoing sounds of unintelligible alien gibberish ringing in your ears. You’ve been exposed to Spit ‘n’ Static!, a raw signal of all things synthpunk and mutoid from sources unknown. Get yer eleventh hit, same slime same face, at Bristol’s 1020 Radio on the 13th Feb! 👽 👌

Heads on Sticks end of decade 2010's playlist!!

”And some people say it’s just rock and roll,

Oh but it gets you right down to your soul

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, ‘Push the Sky Away’, 2013

Music has been my greatest companion. My favourtite drug, a rubber ring in emergency, a tool for surgical introspection. Anyone who loves their music will often struggle to summarise their decade without listing a string of albums or gigs before detailing actual events. The cathartic properties of music are forever intertwined with the narrative of our lives, from our deepest most private battles to the socio-political turmoil stared down by the nation. What this decade means to me is overwhelmingly represented in just 100 songs.

I entered the 2010’s in a fog of uncertainty, as did the country. The financial crisis seemed to coarsen people, the New Labour consensus lay dying, and an emerging appetite for punitive politics reared its head. For many young people, the student protests of 2010 were the seeds of their political awakening. Having had to endure the gleeful relish at further debt for simply wanting an education from pissheads at a bar I worked part-time at, I was well aware that my Media Practice and Film-Making degree would gather scant respect in a new climate of bitter division, and was sure that economic precarity was to follow due to the recession at the time of my graduation.

Right toward the end of my studies, I got hit by the ‘lightning bolt’. One of the greatest experiences is the hit of a fantastic tune when you discover an artist so brilliant it terrifies you that life could have carried on without their songs in your system. As a deep admirer of the original wave of synth artists (Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk, early Human League etc.) I was dissatisfied with the way the synthesizer was being used as a mere indie-toy as opposed to the mysterious beast it was capable of. Stumbling around on YouTube late at night I was exposed to a song called ‘Vigils‘ by Xeno & Oaklander and it was exactly what I wanted to hear. Deep, cold, and analogue, it seized me with its glacial grip and before the song had finished I knew I had heard one of the best electronic acts there had ever been. They opened a door to a plethora of related acts I was totally oblivious to (Sixth June, Daybed, Automelodi) in addition to Veronica Vasicka’s excellent minimal-synth archival project/label Minimal Wave.

The dull, grey thud of intermittent unemployment and bullshit jobs plagued me and many of my friends from the summer of 2011. Despite the camaraderie which comes with living in a house full of struggling artists on the dole and not knowing what the fuck they were doing, anger and disillusionment were never too far from the skint revelry. Cccandy and Youth Code were on repeat during this period, perfectly matching the corrosive effects of austerity breakdown with their volatile and abrasive synth-punk pummel. When we finally got our shit together around 2013 and found some stability and money in our pockets the pop around us seemed brighter and effervescent. ‘s ‘Pilgrim’ and Arcade Fire‘s ‘Reflektor’ were my ‘songs of the summer’, whenever I hear them now I’m taken over with a sense of sunny renewal.

Each year brought more and more fantastic music, and little did I know that I was living in the city which was at the forefront of the ‘new’. Wych Elm, New Haunts, Avon Terror Corps, E B U, Orryx all knocked me sideways and enthused me so much that I finally plucked the courage to start Heads on Sticks. Any resulting success I’ve had I owe to the mosaic of artists, labels, promoters, and radio stations that make up the Bristol music monster invigorating me to want to get stuck in.

There’s an ocean of songs to sift through but I’ve settled for 100, ten per year. 100 good friends that have seen me through the tribulations of the tumultuous decade. No hierarchy, no objective ‘best of’, just simply the story of my 2010’s, and pretty much my twenties.

I approach the 2020’s with uncertainty once again. The devastating defeat of what felt like a once in a lifetime chance of national healing has left me fearing for the future of our country. I take great comfort in knowing that I enter the new decade in a total golden age of challenging, unique, exquisite and fiercely creative music and performing art.

Thanks for the music,

Tom (a fan)

Spit 'n' Static! 1020 Radio #9

Spit ‘n’ Static! hijacked Bristol’s 1020 Radio again for the ninth time, a noxious mutation of synthpunk and avant-garde electro with some electioneering worming its way in! 🗳 👽 👌

Heads on Sticks 2019

When writing ‘end of year’ anythings, it’s hard to avoid the cliché line of ‘this year was better than the last’, but it honestly feels true. It never ceases to amaze me how cutting-edge, transformative and exciting music is right now, both in my hometown of Bristol and across the world.

After spending an agonising hour trying to write something profound about the year, I instead decided to save the yakkin’ for the upcoming end of decade playlist and instead let the music do the talkin’!

Shout-outs go to Wych Elm for their cracking E.P., Grace Ive’s bedroom brilliance on 2nd, the synth punk renaissance from bands like Isotope Soap, U-Bahn and Dress Forms, and the cutting edge output of the Avon Terror Corps gang.

I hope you dig as much as I did x

Glaciers Noods Radio #11

Frosty coldwave hit Noods Radio for the eleventh time, another hour of icy minimal-synth and its many shoegazey post-punk cousins. This’ll be the last for two months so tune back in in February! 🎹 ❄️ 👌