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 Matt O'Neill

An Excessively Exhaustive Look at 10 Interesting Pieces of Music from 2011 | Matt O’Neill

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The Death Set - pic Brock Fetch

By Matt O’Neill

I was originally going to avoid this particular cliché. Instead of writing yet another list of highlights from 2011, I was going to write a list of the records and songs I wish I’d heard in time to put on an official list – but then I realised I wouldn’t be able to talk about the records and songs I’ve truly loved over the past 12 months. Aside from denying me a certain selfish catharsis, it would also mean it’d be less likely people sought out and listened to records I think deserve to be heard and appreciated. So, here we go:


The Death Set – Michel Poiccard

It’s become impossible to discuss The Death Set without contextualising their career around the death of founding member Beau Velasco (who died shortly before the writing and recording of this album).

On one level, this is understandable. Michel Poiccard is a record informed by grief, and Velasco’s shadow looms large over the lyrical content of the majority of tracks on display. On another level, it’s just annoying. Positioning the Australian band’s second album in such a light obscures the fact that it would have been a staggering accomplishment for the band regardless of the tragic circumstances surrounding its inception.

In every way a step up from their 2008 debut album Worldwide, Michel Poiccard evolves The Death Set’s original blitzkrieg formula of screaming pop, squelchy electronics and hardcore punk with tighter musicianship, precision songwriting and increased emotional awareness before bathing the entire equation in high-polish production sheen. For those not familiar with the band’s previous work, this translates into a record of gloriously joyous, meticulously orchestrated, hyper-punk anarchy/ecstasy.

The Necks – Mindset

The Necks are another act obscured by journalists insisting on positioning them within the same tedious narrative. Basically, they’re a trio of jazz musicians who have done the same thing over and over again for 20 years – and that thing is to produce vast, intricate soundscapes unlike anything the world has known. I could elaborate but, like I said, it only tends to obscure matters. Their most recent album, Mindset, is simply a hypnotic and electrifying listening experience.

It’s separated into two 20-minute pieces – ‘Rum Jungle’ and ‘Daylights’. ‘Rum Jungle’ is, as its title suggests, a primal, animalistic churn of a production. It pulses and snarls with an air of terse aggression intimated but never explicitly announced. The Necks’ tendency to eschew conventional structures often gives their work a sense of weightlessness and detachment but there is a volatile, heaving, sensuous dread to ‘Rum Jungle’ so suffocating it seems to almost cling to the skin like an overly humid atmosphere.

‘Daylights’, meanwhile, is similarly anarchic but to entirely different ends. ‘Rum Jungle’ drowns a listener, ‘Daylights’ tortures. It begins with sudden, imperceptible snatches of sound – a wandering piano line, skittish electronic blasts, a solitary percussive motif – and gradually coalesces into a jagged, intense, eviscerating gauntlet of noise. Such a description may suggest a sympathetic relationship with post-rock but ‘Daylights’, while beautiful in its own way, does not segue gracefully from tender intimacy to thunderous climax. It slithers around a listener’s throat and then, ever the sadist, it squeezes. Slowly.

The Necks’ problem is really one of consistency. Their records and concerts are always praised and their innovation always celebrated. As such, one record is seldom differentiated from another in the eyes of the unconverted. Mindset, however, is an especially brilliant piece of work – whether one is discussing it in the context of The Necks’ career or simply the context of music in general.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 – From Africa With Fury: Rise

I learnt a valuable lesson this year about depressing music. An associate of mine was telling me about a trip he had taken to Africa in the late 70s. He had been commissioned to record several bands but had been forced through diplomatic issues to settling on organising a concert instead. His description of the joy and celebration at the eventual concert is not something I can do service to as a writer. It was the most uplifting and transcendental experience he’d ever had with live music.

He said he found himself thinking of the irony – that in a culture literally bankrupt, brought to its knees by genocide, disease, poverty and corruption, he had found some of the most joyous music on earth. It was then, he said, he realised that misery in music is a luxury. It’s a thought that touched on several existing philosophies I’d long maintained and has stuck with me ever since. My affection for Seun Kuti & Egypt 80’s From Africa With Fury: Rise stems from that philosophy.

Like most of the music associated with the Kuti clan, From Africa… quivers with outrage and disgust for the state of affairs within Nigeria and the African continent at large. There is anxiety, fear, terror and violence laced throughout Seun’s impassioned chants – but the music is rich, potent, vibrant and celebratory. Unstoppable funk grooves, relentless percussive cycles, big, brash, colourful blasts of brass and chanted vocals. It liberates you as it eulogises liberty. This is important.

Do not be mistaken, From Africa With Fury: Rise is a record which, bereft of political baggage, would still be exceptional. It streamlines afrobeat into a more accessible format without forsaking its spontaneous, rambling charm, and the songwriting is bulletproof. Still, it is elevated considerably by the fact that it tries – even if only implicitly – to remind its audiences that, in the words of Martin Luther King:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

This, by the way, is another reason I love Michel Poiccard. It’s a record shaped and informed by grief that nevertheless refuses to be defined by it.

Lawrence English – The Peregrine

I like music with detail. This makes the recent work of Lawrence English somewhat anomalous within my collection. Over the past three years, English has become increasingly enamored of the idea of harmonic distortion (simplifying in the extreme: veiling gorgeous and affecting melodic motifs within harsh walls of noise) and, as such, gravitated further and further away from my ongoing fascination with meticulously structured anarchy. The Peregrine is no exception to that arc. Yet I find it fascinating.

In actual fact, I find it not merely fascinating but deeply and viscerally evocative. On an intellectual level, it’s an interesting concept. The record is English’s tribute to mysterious nature text The Peregrine by John Alec Baker and attempts to capture the stunningly brutal lyricism of Baker’s writing through vast, sweeping layers of noise and distortion. It’s an ambitious and almost self-nullifying premise that can’t help but breed curiosity as to its outcome.

Musically, it’s equally confounding. When English first began to move in this direction, he used to describe an experience he’d had in Europe of travelling through opaque and seemingly impenetrable fog to discover an entire building mere metres from where he’d been standing – and that is as fitting a metaphor for The Peregrine as any. It’s a thick and weighty recording that progresses seamlessly from one movement to the next but it is also a work of surprisingly subtle and finessed architecture.

This is but one of many contradictions surrounding the album. Constructed predominantly electronically and comprised largely of almost stationary stretches of ambiguous swathes of texture welded and spliced together into two lengthy compositions, The Peregrine’s music is nevertheless both equally raw and animated. It’s primeval and textured. It swells, bursts, explodes and reconstitutes itself with almost reckless abandon. For such a superficially vague and detached listen, it overflows with a wealth of beautifully damaged, wondrously naturalistic specificities.

In a way, it seems the ideal tribute to Baker’s writing. In the same way that Baker’s language ironically captured the harsh, indefinable majesty of nature through complex and sophisticated linguistics, English seems to bring forth a similarly triumphant, humbling vision of the world around us through equally surprising means.

Africa Hitech – 93 Million Miles

At the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, I think the best – or, at the very least, most interesting – records stand outside time. On a similar note, I think the records that most captivate me will always be those which I either do not or cannot fully comprehend. Africa Hitech’s 93 Million Miles embodies both characteristics with frustrating accuracy.

In crafting the record, the Sydney duo claimed they wanted to draw a line from dance music at its most fundamental and primitive through to its most contemporary offshoots – from indigenous African music through funk, techno, acid-house through to dubstep, grime, footwork and juke – and were fixated on the ancient idea of mantra and repetition. They then proceeded to take all of these appealing ideas, disintegrate, assimilate and re-contextualise them into a record which, to this day, utterly perplexes me.

It didn’t sound how I expected it to at all. Far from a titanic explosion of centuries of rhythm, 93 Million Miles is a work of wilful restraint and precision. It intertwines the most austere fragments of its wilfully expansive heritage into a stark, skeletal and alien format. Harsh, cerebral arpeggios are grafted onto shuffling, percolating rhythmic tattoos. Distended, warped vocals splatter across a filigree of acid-drenched repetition and aggression. On some level, it’s celebration – but the record’s tempos puncture the soul like bullets fired point-blank from a semi-automatic weapon.

It still sounds alien to me. Like I said, I am most captivated by those records I do not fully comprehend – those records that stand outside time. 93 Million Miles is one of those records. At times, it seems almost stubbornly regressionist. There are productions that resemble nothing more than kinetic 80s electro cuts. At others, it sounds utterly futuristic. ‘Do U Wanna Fight’ sounds like a high-density collage of dance music trends of the past five years expanded and evolved to almost self-destructive ends. It’s an album I simply don’t understand.

(continues overleaf)

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