Reviews

Write-ups on the latest EP’s and Albums!

Nervous Guy ‘Nerva Sky’

The year is 2037. Amid a decaying social order and broiling anger at the corrupt, corporate plutocracy, the disenfranchised masses finally revolt after the catastrophic mishandling of a global viral pandemic from an indifferent political class. Mass protests and civil war engulf the Western World, and the fascistic agents of hyper-capital come to a chilling solution: eliminate all dissent. For the compliant remainder of humanity? Nerva Sky, a VR simulator that keeps the mind in a state of opiated entertainment while the body performs hard labour for the wealth hoarding elite. Will the docile enslaved ever break free from their augmented shackles?

Philip K. Dick? Could be, but pessimistic depictions of blurred reality, tech addiction, and massive, corporate hegemony become less far-fetched as the world spins out of control into an abyss of algorithm news and dwindling faith in liberal democracy. Watching the creeping terror of fear and uncertainty grip America and beyond from various bedroom windows during lockdown is Nervous Guy, a side-project combined with members of Content, Leakage, and Mystiker who have infected their punk notoriety with a nasty malware of synth corruption and electro defect. Written and recorded across two different states and time zones amid the pandemic, Nervous Guy’s debut album is a product mutated and engineered in cyberspace, a net-ravaged concept album rendered more hideous with each digital exchange akin to the The Fly‘s bloody conclusion that crawls out of Dr. Brundle’s steaming transportation pod…

Nerva Sky (NERV-US-SK/GUY, get it?) is a glitchy brew of all manner of tech-noir synthpunk, a scrambled signal that transmits its ten tracks with ruined audio interruptions and sonic rot. The one track accompanied with a video is ‘Cyber Cruiser’, a signature song of sorts that encapsulates the many dimensions of the album, paranoid drum machines panic against atonal keyboards and warped samples fronted by guttural death metal vocals, a scabby coagulation of their hardcore stripes and affinity with the electronic end of post-punk. Their immersion in synth-soaked neon flicker is brilliantly pulled off in the cinematic ‘Prediction’, an utterly evocative mood piece awash with Michael Mann thriller guitars and sexy/edgy narration that prickles with drama, images of hologram red light districts and stripper robots are conjured in its sordid skulk. Moments of molten lo-fi channel the dehumanized art-punk heritage of Der Plan or Nervous Gender on garbled cuts like ‘Stroll With a Robot’ or ‘Mechanical Man’, but the album smoulders with acrid splendour on the punk pummelers. Album opener ‘Cyborg’s Dilemma’ beats the shit out of you with lightning guitar and buzzing bass, but the corroded garage rock rush of ‘Cybergang’ is perhaps the standout moment, a stirring and impossibly exciting hit of misshapen riffs and weird celestial chimes that twist and intertwine to a thrilling conclusion of apocalyptic choral keys.

Despite the album’s exploration of the current tumultuous zeitgeist, this is no po-faced narrative project that’s lost in its own conceptual indulgences. The bleak dystopic vision is more in the vein of William Gibson’s cyberpunk sprawl, a soundtrack to the illicit alleys and back streets of Mega-City One. Pulp sci-fi and B-movies influence Nerva Sky with vigour, from its Westworld inspired cover to Caitlin Hickey‘s frenzied video, Nervous Guy drape themselves in pop-culture aesthetic, your senses are transported to old worn VHS’s of RoboCop and The Terminator next to weathered issues of 2000 AD comics. Even their story of a herded masses imprisoned in a state of virtual sedation takes elements of The Matrix and The Time Machine, their appropriation never slipping into derivativity.

Sci-fi is at its best when it exorcises our societal anxieties and casts a cold light on our uncertain tomorrow. In an era characterised by political failure, climate catastrophe and mass alienation, Nerva Sky pops up like an unexpected download, beckoning you to join some underground cyber-resistance against the faceless edifice of authority. With one Power Glove in comic-book escapism and a T-800’s foot in social commentary, Nervous Guy has delivered an expert slice of caustic synthpunk that lifts a mirror to our putrid present while daring enough to have fun with it.

Doll Klaw ‘Thorns’

In an increasingly atomised society still hopelessly wedded to the ‘cult of the individual’, the unifying spell of introspection wrought by a world in lockdown and existential uncertainty seemed to dismantle the cast-iron doctrines of unbridled individualism and competitive strife. As fragments of the social contract were rekindled and repaired, clarity, perspective and priorities were realised in the great fog of rumination that followed Capital’s grinding halt.

“Everything I need is right inside of me” is as bold and self-affirmative a statement can get among the global wave of epiphanies, succinctly promoting self-worth in a milieu of encouraged, consumer insecurity. Being the chorus of last year’s ‘Inside’, Doll Klaw teased the release of her new EP with a taster of her new sonic direction and spirit of reclaimed empowerment. The alias of L.A. artist Jessica Caro, Doll Klaw moves away from the caustic post-punk of 2018’s Battery Tongue in favour of shimmering, rich production and deeper excavations of her soul.

Despite being written and recorded before the global pandemic, Thorns feels uncannily born from the contemporary contemplation that haunts the air. Caro opens the EP with a paean to personal growth on the wistful ‘Vermin’, a pensive reflection on the difficult journey to better oneself shrouded in glimmering dream pop textures. Lament and sorrow drift into the second track ‘Angelica’, a mournful mediation of the painful loss of a childhood friend that’s given ethereal ascendency by rich, baroque arrangements straight out of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Architecture & Morality, its romantic waltz also colouring the stinging ‘You Said’.

Caro can cut a lean strip of strutting menace when necessary. ‘Inside’ is expert, darkwave synthpop, a restless swagger of electro-stomp and pulsing keys scoring the emphatic extolling of invigorated purpose unobstructed by dead-end boyfriends, and an obvious choice as lead single. The title track takes an even crunchier turn, gritty synth basslines lifted from classic Depeche Mode immersed in choral washes, an intriguing clash of serene verses and ominous detours that end the EP on an aural and thematic note of trepidation that’s never too far away from discovery.

In a crowded synth scene that can often be clogged with generic derivativity, Doll Klaw firmly places herself on the crest of new wave pop that’s vital and bristling with ideas. Thorns is a thrilling and majestic statement from an artist that looks set to cast L.A. under her spell and speaks to the ruminative climate with moving prescience.

Cuir ‘Album’

The new frontier forged by the cataclysmic upheaval of punk was a good thing, right? Post-punk, art-punk, industrial, synthpop, etc etc were supposed to be the exciting new possibilities of punk’s meteoric impact, the D.I.Y. ethos harnessed by the new wave of belligerent iconoclasts ready to broaden punk’s horizons. “…Trendy university people using long words, trying to be artistic…and losing touch.” scoffed The Business guitarist Steve Kent. Cabaret Voltaire’s Dadaist tape experiments or the literary rigour of Magazine meant nothing to the scores of disaffected kids from an increasingly insecure working class who sought belonging, too broke in the malaise of seventies Britain to indulge in intellectual fancy. The reaction from the streets and a million miles away from the students’ unions was Oi!, a hard-nosed rebellion of blue collar revolt spearheaded by Sham 69 and Cockney Rejects, offering kinship to the angry and alienated and preaching unity in a climate of racial tension stoked by the National Front that lurked on the movement’s fringes.

Oi!’s bawdy spirit courses throughout Doug Zilla’s various band projects. A member of French punk groups Sordid Ship and Coup George, each band delivers a tight and direct rock and roll assault that’s solely concerned with impact and stirring passions. Now looking for a piece of the bondage-hooded punk market (to be shared with Canadian revolutionaries DBOY), Zilla has concocted an alter-ego of sorts, a pink gimp sporting an impeccable Schott jacket called Cuir, French for leather. A one man band handling all instruments, Cuir throws in a cheap keyboard to add a unique synth twist to the Oi! stomp.

“It’s synthpunk Jim (Pursey), but not as we know it”. Cuir’s debut LP Album is a strictly traditionalist statement, honouring Oi!’s brute energy and wielding the synth not as some instrument evoking unease or bleak, dystopic visions, but to add powerful melodic leads that shine brightly not too dissimilar to, dare one say, Van Halen’s ‘Jump’. First track ‘Maniac’ establishes the entire drive of the record: fast, hooky, and hardcore. Ramones strut with urgent sequencers that sparks with sheer energy with lightning riffs which never lets up across the record’s 20 minutes. The ephemeral potency is reflected in the lyrics and song titles, pared down shout alongs to be sung covered in sweat and beer in some grotty underground venue, and punchy titles like ‘Black Leather’ or ‘Cut Cut’ that embraces itself in unpretentious appeals to attitude. There’s little variation across the 11 tracks, but who cares when each cut is so prime and vital, Oi! was never concerned with artistic detours, and thankfully neither is Cuir.

In an uncertain time of lockdowns and the stifling isolation it’s brought, escapism is more needed then ever. Cuir wisely and expertly has unleashed an electrifying debut that ignites desperately sought fervour and excites the soul, and honours the original Oi! ambitions by providing an outlet of fury that could trigger any mosh pit, but bears a positive, uplifting heart like an arm that reaches in to pick you up after falling into its synthpunk whirlpool.

Silicone Prairie ‘My Life on the Silicone Prairie’

For years, the term ‘plastic soul’ was an insult, dished out by the genre’s true devotees toward the crude imitators of the Motown and Stax roster of artists, condemned for their perceived kitschy and inauthentic hijacking of the soul sound. It took a restless and audacious David Bowie, fuelled by cocaine blitzed hubris and glam rock’s descent into self-parody firmly in his bloodshot sight, to embrace his ersatz mimicry of soul, stating ’75’s Young Americans as “the final report of plastic soul. Its squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey.” With classic cuts like the title track and ‘Fame’, in addition to being invited to perform on the seminal Soul Train, Bowie’s synthetic interpretation of soul proved to be commercially successful and lauded in the African-American community he was purporting to emulate.

What would a ‘silicone prairie’ sound like? The juxtaposition of polymer artifice and rustic pastures perhaps has already been given a soundtrack by the litany of art-punk subversives that exploded across Ohio in the mid seventies, acts like early Devo, Bizarros and Pere Ubu scoring a particularly agitated and acrid experimental noise informed by the barren dust storms of the Mid-West rather than the urban decay of the burgeoning New York scene. The special Great Plain post-punk spirit has rubbed off on Kansan artist Ian Teeple. COVID forcing time away from band duties in Warm Bodies and The Natural Man Band, his lone project Silicone Prairie is a lo-fi bedroom retreat of four-track punk stretched and elasticated into impressive contortions of rubbery branches into psych-rock and sunny, indie jangles.

The scope of influences belies the Sci-Fi maths cover of My Life on the Silicone Prairie, although album opener ‘PD2TB’ conforms with the geometric alien artwork, a taut fizz of nervous bass and sinewy guitar that hits with a dose of alienated menace typical of his eggpunk brethren. Elsewhere flashes of distorted synthpunk spits on tracks like ‘Open Module’, a gloriously infectious garage-rock number soaked in atonal synth defects, while the feverish ‘Dance to the Beat’ injects a shot of Talking Heads gritty, neurotic rhythms circa Fear of Music. An intriguing detour into spacey instrumentals crops up on the trippy ‘Song for Patrick Cowley’, a homage to the titular producer of Sylvester’s ’78 disco classic ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real’ and a plethora of gay porn soundtracks, borne out of a noodling session on an old Behringer synthesizer, Teeple’s own imitation of Hi-NRG disco.

The secret weapon to My Life…‘s distinct character is Teeple’s affection for the sunlit folk rock of The Byrds or Buffalo Springfield fed through the avant-garde psychedelia of The United States of America, a unique palette of sounds for the weirdo punk scene Teeple is associated with. ‘Lay in the Flowers’ fuses Violent Femmes indie with heady flutes that roll along with pleasing, rootsy country rock testifying to Teeple’s deft bounce between disparate tones and styles. Expert acid rock erupts effervescently on the thrilling ‘Born into Trouble’, a fantastic demonstration of electric fretwork and a killer solo, and warped, layered vocals just about harmonise on ‘Song for the Eagles to Sing’, even a minor foray into soft rock must be bent and misshapen in true, Mid-West punk fashion.

By the time My Life…‘s final track ‘Come Away’ ends with a hissing tape erosion, we come to understand exactly what a silicone prairie would sound like. The ‘plastic folk rock’ that is conjured from the queasy rubber landscape of synthetic plains and polystyrene expanse is impeccably realised in Silicone Prairie’s debut effort, retaining enough of the jagged bite to thrust Teeple to the fore of the synthpunk vanguard, but exceptionally infuses the weird with an affecting heart of melodic light and breezy hues that instils a much needed sense of uplifting affirmation in our upside-down world.

Robbie & Mona ‘EW’

No director has arguably mastered the art of non-linear narratives and character ambiguity like David Lynch. A dark and beguiling examination of the mysterious rot underneath the glamourous allure of Hollywood, his labyrinthine opus Mulholland Drive takes a ‘matryoshka’ approach to Naomi Watts and Laura Harring’s two roles, Watts’ naïve and wide-eyed Betty Elms slowly morphing into the drug-addled obsessive Diane Selwyn, whose toxic jealousy results in the death of Harring’s Camilla Rhodes who had switched from the amnesia plagued Rita to the target of Elms’ passionate rage with impeccable sleight-of-hand. With Elms wanting to make it as a film star and Rita assigning herself that name after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth in the film’s opening, endlessly amorphous character entanglement serves as a powerful vehicle to explore the subconscious and latent desires within Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece.

There are characters within characters all over Robbie & Mona‘s debut album, although Robbie & Mona aren’t really Robbie & Mona but alter-egos of Bristol artists and avowed cinephiles Eleanor Gray and William Carkeet of Pet Shimmers fame. Embracing the austere restraint that comes with performing as a duo, the pair have explored the art of sonic textures and offbeat song structures to deliver a hazy dreamscape of a debut for Spinny Nights, a lo-fi minimalist work that balances stark arrangements with nebulous production that shifts and obscures any clarity from the experience, and presents a cast of characters such as Celine, Ruby, and The Carpenter to probe the beguiling and hypnagogic.

Illustrated by the erotically charged cover by kink photographer Scvmrat, an enticing decadence pervades EW. A beckoning mirage of downgraded synths and trip-hop drums seeps slowly into sight on the psychedelic album opener ‘Fidelity’, a captivating demonstration of Robbie’s production skills that ensure the lo-fi nature of the track is rich in aural feeling for it to avoid sounding ‘bedroom’, and Mona’s exquisite acapella recorded vocals lend a strikingly ethereal hover to the hypnotic trip. Strange traverse in unreal realms guide their second single ‘Wallpaper’, a tight and muffled synthpop number that excavates a sharp and solid pop hook amid its terse front, beautifully conveying the lyrical theme of spectral disassociation and being rather content with your newfound astral plane. Little moments throughout EW almost serve as motifs of unsought reality slowly drifting into the album’s introspective world, the slight glitches and tonal fluctuations that ebb and flow throughout ‘Cherry Fish’, each artful defect a pinch to the listener struggling to ascertain whether the daydream is real or not.

Like Lynch’s penchant for beclouded misdirection, Robbie & Mona imbue the seductive trip with disconcerting contours of abrupt dissonance and menacing hues. ‘Queen Celine’ (a character representing the surreal that features in many of Mona’s creative writing) adds crunchy electronica that instils an erratic unpredictability to the languid mood of the album, veering between industrial discord and brittle, layered vocal harmonies with eerie disquiet. Some trusty post-punk shows the duo at their most conventional but no less absorbing, a crisp drum machine that feels lifted from Radiohead’s ‘I Might Be Wrong’ pulses along mean bass on the punchy ‘Picking up Ruby’, a brief respite of groove and lithe guitar that offers a touch of nonchalant swagger. The album finale ‘Crocodile Pears’ is their most stunning track, a celestial swirl of stifled jazz and weathered keyboards that advance with a funereal march, exotic strings plucked from Björk’s cover of ‘I Remember You’ and skewed sequencers all coalesce perfectly together, but the soul of the track is Mona’s sublime voice, wavering between soaring high ranges and demure charm with ease.

Like a dream that’s felt intensely in the senses but with the plot long forgotten in the morning, EW is a record that forces one to listen again and again, not just because it’s musically brilliant, but because it tantalisingly draws you in that bit closer to elucidation as to its meaning, but clarity remains satisfyingly elusive and just out of reach. Firmly establishing themselves as heavyweights in the Bristol music community, and eclipsing even Pet Shimmers, Robbie & Mona has produced a remarkable debut effort that captures the mystifying, Lynchian soul they’re so inspired by.

Headlice ‘Vol. 1’

There aren’t many releases that trigger a neurotic, sensory creep of itches and bodily invasion fears. If the very band name and titles like ‘Bacteria’ and ‘Nit Comb’ weren’t enough to set off a frantic flurry of frenzied scratching, then Russell Taysom‘s comix front cover depicting the crawling turmoil of a nest of lice gnawing through a punk rockers skull is sure to get you furiously scraping your scalp till there’s blood and skin under your fingernails.

A thoroughly mutant and septic variant of synthpunk has been making a nuisance of itself Down Under. Across Sydney and Melbourne, miscreants such as Research Reactor Corp, Gee Tee, and the litany of aliases from Billiam have been spewing a uniquely alien-fried mule of acrid garage rock. Long ensconced in Brisbane’s irritated flesh, the self-described criminal organisation known as Headlice have wormed their way to the front of the weirdo revolution and spat out their debut EP via Bargain Bin Records, a six track pestilence of expert, slime-soaked rock ‘n omeprazole.

The four Lice’s (being Ed, Red, Shred, and Fred) tear through Vol. 1 like an Amazonian candiru shredding your urethra. Half a dozen rancid eggpunk numbers spiked with venereal disease that manages to hook you with a guileful catchiness amid the scuzzy thrash. Each component of Headlice meshes with sinewy potency, Ed’s snotty vocals fluctuating between bratty sneer and feverish howl, Shred’s rubbery keyboards congealing with Red’s swaggering bass and all held together by Fred’s merciless drumming fury, there’s not a trace of fat or fucking about across the EP’s eight minutes.

Like all good infections, Headlice will hopefully only spread further and lay many more tapes and 7″s onto an unsuspecting populace, Vol. 2 being diagnosed by a doctor before being released by any label. A wholly welcome synthpunk contamination, Headlice are Top of the Pox!

LICE ‘WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear’

“Destroy the cult of the past, the obsession with the ancients, pedantry and academic formalism” reads point one of 1910’s first Manifesto of Futurist Painters. Bold declarations of visionary intent are a distinct feature of the futurist movement, an avant-garde collective of artists and thinkers born in Milan and conceived by poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, eschewing social and artistic tradition to forge work that would upheave the very foundations of society as well as shun the archaic aesthetics of old. From the British Vorticists, Dadaists, and Russian Constructivists who followed, the many challenging and unorthodox pieces unleashed on to conservative society were routinely accompanied with manifestos proclaiming the ills of the cultural world and their noble crusade to rid of the obsolete and enter liberated modernity (despite some early aligning with fascism on the Italian part).

In a barren wasteland on the edges of reality, a hapless character known only as Paul discovers that his penis has become sentient, growing teeth and whispering snide remarks at it gnaws through the front of his jeans. Taking the drastic measure of removing the cognisant member, it grows further among the hospital refuse, eventually reaching humanoid shape and imitating the likeness of its previous owner. Like a twisted retelling of Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose were it written by William Burroughs, the ‘imposter’ walks on its testicles in the moonlight to Paul’s house, killing him and assuming his identity, replacing him at his workplace and coming into success before arousing the suspicions of the sinister R.D.C…

Talking genitalia, shape-shifting and shadowy committees are just a taste of the many surreal exercises in satire in Alaister Shuttleworth’s science-fiction short WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear. Both a journalist and frontman for experimental post-punk act LICE, Shuttleworth has been on a one-man mission to smash complacent music coverage and champion the potent avant-garde s̶c̶e̶n̶e̶ community currently seizing Bristol out of its trip-hop nostalgia. Taking cues from the litany of crusading proclamations of the futurists, Shuttleworth’s music magazine The Bristol Germ and the aforementioned fantastical text are replete with manifestos, with almost revolutionary rhetoric, urging the curious reader to free themselves from the shackles of stagnant artistic consensus and idle, surface participation. Caring not for the arbitrary peripheries of the album format, LICE’s debut LP via their own Settled Law Records encompasses iconoclastic music, puzzling prose, and a bizarre new instrument of their innovation called the Intonarumori.

The whirring clangour of the mysterious machine which opens the first track ‘Conveyer’ establishes the character of the record immediately: dissident and curious. WASTELAND… is an amorphous trip that veers between industrial abrasion and brittle minimalism with total ease, often within the same song. ‘Espontáneo’ weaves in and out of deep, cavernous disquiet akin to the sonic nightmares of Scott Walker’s The Drift, an eerie expanse of flickering vocals and phantom whispers percolate around Shuttleworth’s hushed recounts of time travel given greater introspective wrestle with Silas Dilkes’ exotic guitar picking. Hypnagogic trance grooves on the synth-based ‘Persuader’, a crisp drum machine anchors the dreamy haze that submerges midway in a mist of frenetic percussion and subliminal, numbered motifs, all deep-diving together similar to Radiohead’s ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’. LICE display a true feeling for emotional scope on the haunting ‘Serata’ an intimately epic cut which is probably the most moving song about a robot’s friendship with a spider you’ll ever hear, while LP closer and epilogue ‘Clear’ is pure Lynchian lounge, foggy keyboards and sultry guest vocals from Katy J. Pearson and members of Goat Girl scoring the final collapse of the Wasteland, each line intriguingly sung as stage directions for a play.

For all of LICE’s cultural reference and intellectual rigour, they never let cerebral fancy stand in the way of rocking. Like Howard Devoto’s canny ability to marry philosophical esotericism with direct, unpretentious punk rock, LICE know when to throw a strike of urgent post-punk attack, albeit with proggy leanings. Gareth Johnson’s mean bass rattles along with Bruce Bardsley’s primal drums on the thrillingly raucous ‘R.D.C.’, a volatile pummeler which filters Louis Althusser’s heady marxism in a satisfying blast of SANS style noise. Their industrial inclinations hammer with Einstürzende Neubauten levels of heft on the bruising ‘Pariah’, massive guitar hack and chops while the Intonarumori cranks amid the din, Dilke’s heavy riffing against Shuttleworth’s metallic and acrid vocals beautifully alien and beefy.

“Elevate all attempts at originality, however daring, however violent” reads point three of the Manifesto of Futurist Painters. In their quest to produce work that is vital and radical, LICE have dropped an extraordinary record that successfully combines journalistic endeavour, a dynamic range of aural exploration and honest-to-god rock ‘n’ roll with impeccable harmony. WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear is an eternally fascinating and electrifying debut that resoundingly honours their crusade against the banal and derivative.

Sistema de Entretenimiento ‘Sistema de Entretenimiento’

“I think they prefer to see us die” is a statement that feels lifted straight out of some sci-fi, B-movie thriller. Are ‘they’ the evil, faceless corporate giant that rules over the future fascist state, marvelling at their profit margins as the citizens breathe in the polluted fumes of its mega-factory? Perhaps it’s the roaring crowd of a dystopian gladiatorial arena where contestants fight to the death for a cash prize? A lesser, more blunt line would simply have been “we’re all gonna die!”, but the subtle twist of evocation adds an infinitely more mysterious dynamism.

Sci-fi at its best works when holding a mirror up to society and revealing our collective anxieties and fears for the future. “I think they prefer to see us die” could just as easily be speaking to the crumbling economic order which would sooner ferment fascism than risk its capital, and the increasing sense of a civilization nearing collapse is potent to anyone paying attention. El Prat artist Victor Echeverri seems to know well enough. Opening his latest EP for Spanish synthpunk outfit Sistema de Entretenimiento with the track ‘Creo que Prefieren Vernos Morir’, the arcade electro trio (including Guixi and Anna Bananna) have beamed a pulpy, comic book of an EP depicting tales of virtual suicide, lunar warriors and robots.

The self-titled EP takes cues from the rich heritage of synthpunk from Aviador Dro to Sigue Sigue Sputnik (the sleeve striking similarities with their ’86 debut Flaunt It) but inject the pacing of hardcore to create a frenzied, ticking bomb of fizzy keyboards and stinging drum machines. Errechevi’s (or to give his alias, Spiker) snotty vocals against the chewed bubble-gum production ensures that the tech-noir doesn’t teeter into total nihilism, and its choppy eleven minute length means the electro-snot whizzes past with ephemeral urgency, never outstaying its welcome. Lean, sinewy, and glowing with radiation, Sistema de Entretenimiento is a feverish and gloriously trashy little piece which wields a sci-fi front to channel the uncertainty of tomorrow.

Heads on Sticks 2020

What can one say about this year that isn’t stating the blindin’ obvious and centred in every end-of-year appraisal across every blog and publication out there? The COVID pandemic has dominated all spheres of life in such a profound way that even the cast-iron doctrines of unbridled capitalism screeched to a halt, the free-market fanatics themselves enforcing half the nation’s workforce to pause their labour extraction. After years of Brexit bludgeoning and its resulting social division, the Coronavirus was an oddly unifying experience, cutting through the dichotomies of Leavers and Remainers and inadvertently ushering a feeling of collective experience and responsibility, a shared duty to each other long felt dormant after decades of Thatcherite atomisation. Everyone’s lives have been struck with deep uncertainty, many stung by the painful losses of loved ones and near-unanimous despair at the political ineptitude causing further chaos.

Spending months in your own company, or trapped in problematic living environments, demonstrated just how vital a lifeline music is. The arts, long been neglected in the austerity wasteland and held with contempt from a grey and joyless, right-wing faction who abhor the empathy and imagination it fosters, was suddenly held up as the indispensable joy it always was, the deep, human need for creative expression and escapism breaking through the hollow priorities of a society dictated by unbridled capital. The sudden absence of live music and events wrought some urgent perspective on the preciousness of our creative spaces and independent venues, and did make one ask the question: had we taken it all for granted?

Late-stage capitalism rarely affords the time to stop and think, and the lockdown, so alien to our daily routines and established orthodoxies, unleashed a major space for deep contemplation. The cultural reckoning against racial injustice spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement inspiring direct action against authority on a scale unseen since the civil rights era, but to be vigilant against clumsily wading into ineffectual social media campaigns that solve nothing (Heads on Sticks was guilty of this). The grim stats on streaming revenues for artists in light of the Spotify Wrapped rush have raised much-needed awareness as to how we can responsibly consume music that the artists we love spent time and money on, and to keep an eye on the venues who missed out on Arts funding and staying afloat on Crowdfunders. The systemic failure that enabled Trump his ascendency, and an emboldened Far-Right in the U.K., cannot be considered put to bed now that Biden is the president-elect, to quote Ocasio-Cortez, “you’re not going back to brunch”.

When artists have been the soundtrack to such a tumultuous year, the relationship one has with their work takes on an even deeper significance. The songs collated are the hopelessly personal, utterly subjective. Not some hierarchal ‘best-of’ or exclusive document of heavy rotation, but simply the 25 tracks which rattled around The Head’s static ridden box. I hope you enjoy as much I did!

Here’s to a fortunate 2021, and thanks for the music!

Tom (a fan)

Check the Heads on Sticks 2020 list here!

Aigue Morte ‘Aigue Morte’

The historic commune of Aigues-Mortes in the Occitanie region of Southern France has inspired writers from Boccaccio to Hemingway, its centuries-old fortifications circling the city and the towers still standing from the days of Charlemagne relics of medieval heritage imbued with a special, arcane energy. The original fortress entrance, the Carbonnière Tower, is surrounded by salt marshes and swampland, ‘Aquae Mortuae’ Latin for ‘dead water’ and the etymological source of the city’s name.

Taking her name from the quagmires of the region is French ’emo pop’ artist Marie Barat. One half of ‘triste’ duo Palavas, Barat has been crafting a hazy and introspective string of swamp-pop cuts as Aigue Morte on SoundCloud before finally releasing her debut EP with Metz label Le Syndicat Des Scorpions, an intriguing eponymous tape of lo-fi synths and bedroom production which feel drifted ashore along the stagnant canals of the Rhône à Sète.

Aigue Morte harmonizes the dreamy and warm electronica of acts like Group Rhoda with an air of melancholy contemplation that injects a subtle trepidation to her sonic enrapture. ‘Carrément’ is a perfect example of this enveloping traverse, muffled drum machines and weathered bass ripple around Molly Nilsson like xylophone that softy lulls into you to a meditative state, its reflective mood serving the ‘mirror’ theme aptly. Barat’s flair for post-punk adds a touch of grit to the vaporous, instrumental ‘Bermuda’ wouldn’t feel out of place as an early Cure instrumental on Faith or Seventeen Seconds, whereas ‘Fantoir’ takes melodic cues from Joy Division’s ‘Decades’. Moments of drama pull you out of the languid fog in thrilling detours, ‘Fruit Show / Waiting Room’ a choral reach for divinity powered by propulsive electro before the EP finale of ‘Choco Pie Shy’ soaks up some of the mystical residues of the namesake town with ethereal strings and haunting keys to a stirring conclusion.

Every one of Aigue Morte‘s eight songs are expert exercises in celestial expanse yet refined with a pop rigour that anchors the tracks and avoids floating off into a pointless meander which can befall her bedroom peers. Enchanting and pensive with a sombre wistfulness at its heart, Barat has delivered a promising debut which soundtracks the collective rumination and uncertainty that plagues the confused contemporary.