Thursday, December 31, 2009

sketch dump 12/2009

At the threat of being "so 2009", I thought I'd get my December sketch dump up at the 'ol bloggey before the big ball drops. It's been a good month for drawing and a better year for art for me. I got some work out there, got into some juried exhibits and some commissions as well as sold some work. This year I want to paint more and draw more, and bigger. There's a charm to smaller art but it would be great to see some of my ideas, even previous ones on a larger scale. This month I did drawings/paintings in a large A4 watercolor Moleskine, again, as part of one of the exchanges I belong to. Those large books are excellent and are one of the reasons why I'd like to work bigger soon. The drawings above are a small series I call "Fashion Victims". The lone abstract works as just that - not really a drawing but also intended to be drawn on as part of the collaborative aspect of the sketchbook exchange. Click HERE if you'd like to see what exchange member Mary Stebbins Taitt did with it - it's really extraordinary stuff! Below are a bunch of older Splotch Monster postcards I had sitting around. While my original intent was to meddle with their appearance as little as possible, and while some turned out quite successfully that way I felt a good many of them seemed kind of half-baked and needed far more detail and life. I like them a lot better now and found it to be an even greater challenge to add more to 'em. In the meantime, here's to a happy and fruitful 2010, which I'm sure will be full of many more challenges both big and small. It's all in how we decide to face those challenges, right?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

best albums of 2009 - steve's picks

For the past several years, or at least for as long as I've had a blog, I've been reviewing my favorite music releases from the current year. This year is no exception, so here it goes!

Deastro: "Moondagger"

I was initially going to attempt to compile a list of my favorite albums from the past decade, but decided against such an epic, time consuming project. However, if I did, this fine gem of a long player would be way high up there at the very top of that list. Deastro is basically a one-man music-making machine by the name of Randolph Chabot. Hailing from Detroit, MI and signed to prestigious label Ghostly International, Chabot's second full-length "Moondagger" displays a vast knowledge and understanding of his influences and showcases a sense of musical depth rarely heard from an artist so young. This is one of those albums that took me by surprise and was grabbed up initially because of it's intricate collage artwork, also done by Chabot.

While Deastro's first lp, "Keepers" was a solid collection of his best work from the past several years, it only hinted at what was soon to come. "Moondagger" somehow achieves the grand task of being at once catchy, and memorable, while the music and lyrics are both highly engaging - neither element compromising itself for the other but instead working together in perfect harmony. I hear traces of Aphex Twin, New Order, Echoboy, shoegaze, even U2 in this album, and it all works amazingly well. For "Moondagger", Chabot worked with a full-on rock band set up to add another dimension to his already multi-layered synth-driven tapestries. Upon talking breiefly with Chabot after a recent show, he said a new release was in the works for Spring 2010. What exciting news this is, and it makes me wonder if it can get any better than this - a release that has had regular, consistent rotation in both my car and home cd player since I first purchased it nearly a half year ago. Judging by some previews of new material during a live set, it looks like young Chabot might very well achieve the impossible once again.

*Tiny Mix Tapes' Deastro: "Moondagger" review HERE.

Wisp: "The Shimmering Hour"

During the nineties, Richard D. James, better known to music heads as Aphex Twin, ruled the electronic music landscape, churning out a countless catalogue of releases under a countless number of aliases. A good portion of the material was exceptional and ground-breaking even, while some of it was somewhat forgettable and at times, unlistenable. During this past decade however, Mr. RDJ has remained relatively silent, reissuing some older, rare work as AFX, as well as bunch of (mostly) vinyl-only, analogue-only tracks known as the Analord series. Most fans agree that James was the producer of the highly secretive The Tuss ep and lp, though there is still no real proof as to who crafted those tracks. Talk of a new album surfaced but nothing ever materialized. To fill this void, legions of bedroom producers, influenced by the likes of Aphex, recorded and released heaps of material - some of it good, some not quite so good. One sure diamond in the rough would be a fella from Niagra Falls, NY known as Wisp, real name Reid Dunn. If ever there was an apprentice to the work of Aphex Twin, if would have to be Wisp, whose massive back-catalogue of quality material (much of it released for free online) actually caught the attention of Richard D. James himself, who subsequently signed Dunn to his Rephlex label.

"The Shimmering Hour" is Wisp's first full-length release on Rephlex, and serves as a showcase to the audio magic Dunn is truly capable of. While epic acrobatic breakbeat compositions seem a thing of the past, played out to death in the late nineties, Wisp breathes new life into this genre (annoyingly known to many as "drill and bass"), infusing warm, glowing melodies that stay in your brain long after you're through listening. There is an almost Baroque, maximalist quality to this release, not to mention a lot to digest in one listen. Still, the warmth, emotion, craftsmanship and attention to detail makes for a masterful, highly adventurous musicality throughout, keeping me coming back for more.

*Something Excellent's Wisp: "the Shimmering Hour" review HERE.

Anti-pop Consortium: "Fluorescent Black"

When I first heard "Tragic Epilogue" by Anti-pop Consortium at the beginning of the decade, I was floored. What was this wicked, alien new form of rap piping through the speakers and into my ear? At the time, I had a vague attraction to rap music, appreciating the old-school stuff, but having no interest whatsoever in anything having to do with the terms "bling" and "gangsta". Along with APC, a whole bunch of artists from all walks of life started to multiply and release intelligent, sonically-daring and lyrically brilliant material. Unfortunately, much of this type of stuff seems much more rare, when compared to the first half of the decade, and bands and artists seemed to have disappeared from that golden era of progressive rap, which now seems so long ago. One of those bands happened to be Anti-pop Consortium, who hit the ground running in 2000, dropping three full-lengths in the same amount of years, all of them jam-packed with the quality beats and lyrics one would expect from this group, finally gaining critical steam after years of touring and laying down tracks since their humble beginnings in NYC in the mid-nineties. Then, all of the sudden the group disbanded and went their separate ways. Solo efforts and side projects by the likes of members Beans, M Sayyid, High Priest and E. Blaize proved fruitful, but one couldn't help but long for a reunion and some new APC material. It was the chemistry these guys had when working together that was absent in their solo and side material. Well, in 2009, fans prayers were answered, after a couple of years of word spreading of the band back together again in the studio, and finally releasing their fourth official full-length Fluorescent Black.

Was Fluorescent Black worth the wait? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes. APC have always been ahead of their time and it sounds as if the group picked up where they left off without missing a beat. A little older and wiser now, APC still keep things exciting, electric and experimental, while lyrically, they remain at the top of their game. In addition to the deft triple tag-team rap attack APC are known for, there's a little bit of singing going on in places as well, though rare. Of course APC bring the funk, all neon-lit and bass-tastic. While Tragic Epilogue will probably remain my favorite of all APC releases, Fluorescent Black is right up there with that one, as well as the rest of their material. Some are claiming this to be their best yet, and it very well could be. Whatever the case, Anti-pop bring rap back from the boring, vapid doldrums it too often resides in, bringing to fruition rap's fullest potential and returning it to its place as the valid artform it truly deserves to be recognized as.

*PopMatters' Anti-pop Consortium : "Fluorescent Black" review HERE.

Jega: "Variance"

Back in the late-nineties, then-Manchester, England resident Nathan Dylan, known to fans and listeners as Jega released a compilation album of some of his early material called "Spectrum". Spectrum was an accurate title to an album bristling with vivid color and brilliant beat-constructs seemingly representing every electronica sub-genre, from early-eighties electro to then-present day drum n' bass. It was an album knee deep in melody, incorporating some of the richest synth moods since Kraftwerk. Soon after, Spectrum was followed by the starker, more "mature" sound of Geometry. Album number three was soon set for release and it looked as if Jega was going to be at the forefront of a new generation of instrumental electronic music composers. Then the new material was leaked though the internet accidentally, causing Dylan to disappear from the scene almost entirely for nearly a decade.

In 2009, Jega returns with a double cd reworking of those early leaked tracks, known as "Variance". The cover art looks very similar to the dramatically-posed, colorful girl portrait Dylan rendered on his early Spectrum release, however, this time it takes on a more three-dimensional look, and in two versions - one white, the other black. Once again, through his stunning artwork, Dylan accurately, visually represents the music on disc, the first, white cd having a gentle, slow-paced, ethereal romantic sound, while the second, black CD contains a more mechanical, technical, aggressive style throughout. I really can't say I prefer one side to the other and in fact, find both discs tend to compliment each other. What is consistent with both discs is the highest quality of sound this release has from start to finish. On the first disc, tracks that seem like deceptively simple background instrumental music, reveal new layers and depth with further listening. Hip-hop beat structures mix and mingle with gentle, liquid melodies and deep subaquatic basslines, while vocal samples and fragments surface and dissipate back into the ether like specters from bygone eras. While Jega has always had a lush, dreamlike quality about his music, disc one sounds somewhat influenced by the new fertile electronic music scene happening in LA (Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing), which also happens to be where he currently resides. Much of this would also sound not too out of place on the late, great MERCK records label. Disc two however, clearly takes things to the next level, abandoning the woozy romance for deep space exploration and violent cyborg confrontation. Some of the tracks sound like they may have taken years to craft, as beats and rhythms are layered and fractured and tweaked and fried and refried, morphing and evolving furiously within the span of several minutes. All in all, Variance is a work of great care and beauty, though some say this kind of stuff has been done before, and I agree, but the same can be said for jazz. Just listen and enjoy.

*The Omega Order's Jega: "Variance" review HERE.

Screen Vinyl Image: "Interceptors"

I first found out about Screen Vinyl Image almost accidentally. Earlier in the year I was hanging out with some friends at some little college campus bar out in the sticks of VA. A friend had a big art show nearby and just graduated with an MFA, so we were celebrating. After a couple of bad rock bands came and went, I really didn't expect much from the third act - a black-clad trio taking an eternity to set up their equipment on stage. Then they started to play, and soon I found myself quickly forgetting about everything, and like a moth to a blinding light, was standing front and center, transfixed by a sound that simultaneously transported me back to 1984 and forward to 2024. I don't think the kids were ready for this aural onslaught of vast, screaming guitar and keyboard textures, and at one point I thought, by sheer sound alone, the band was going to blow the roof off the bar. I immediately purchased their music at the show and found their sound to be more subtle and very well produced on disc. Later I did some research on this mysterious band, and to my surprise, Screen Vinyl Image were from DC and have quite a growing, local following.

I really do dislike the term Goth, but I guess if you were to try and classify these guys, that's where they'd fit in, though not so easily. In their debut full-length "Interceptors", you can hear traces of Bauhaus and Joy Division, as well as the fuzzed-out rock psychedelia of The Jesus and Mary Chain. Other influences include shoegaze and electronica (check out their live in Baltimore collab with Ulrich Schnauss and Auburn Lull on You Tube). Even traces of Lycia's thick, brooding atmospheric soundscapes are in the mix. There are way too many bands decked out in black making bad, cheezy "Goth" music, but these guys are far from that (or anything that remotely has to do with "Twilight" thankfully) . Listening to Interceptors is like time travel through sound, successfully taking the listener to marvelous new musical realms bleak and distopian yet somehow thoroughly uplifting and satisfying. Words can hardly do this band and album justice. Interceptors is simply an incredible lp and Screen Vinyl Image is a band quite deserving of national and international attention.

* Jezebel Music's Screen Vinyl Image: "Interceptors" review HERE.

Seeland : "Tomorrow Today"

Here's another CD I grabbed up initially based on the cover art - a sort of Modernist abstraction of shapes and a blue-silver color scheme. I figured, this had to be good, somewhat at least, and sampled it at the store, expecting some type of icy, minimalist instrumental electronic sounds. Then, shortly after pressing the play button, I had to reconfigure my brain, as something entirely different, though remotely related infiltrated my eardrum. It was the sound of a two man band from Birmingham, England called Seeland, and that sound is known as Tomorrow Today. It was a sound so good, I had difficulty pushing the stop button on the CD player. I later found out that Seeland was a band formed by former members of two Warp records acts who I hold in high esteem - the now defunct Plone, and the currently active Broadcast, also from Birmingham. One thing all these bands have in common is a fondness for old-school vintage keyboards and electronic music-making equipment. You can hear the warmth and humanity in the machines Seeland use to make space age pop songs for a future that will never happen. The vocals and lyrics throughout are a plus - highly listenable and well conceived. Seeland make the best kind of pop music - earnest, though never sappy, and not at all pretentious- entirely true to their vision. Tomorrow Today is an album that is easy on the ears, though not easy listening, made for lazy, sunlit mornings and slow, starry evenings. When I hear an album as fine as this I wonder why these guys aren't more well known and feel as if lot of people are missing out on something truly good.

*Leonard's Lair Seeland: "Tomorrow Today" review HERE.

Tim Exile: "Listening Tree"

I remember listening to this cd in the car with a friend, head enthusiastically nodding to the beat, and talking about how there was a time when bands like Depeche Mode made music this good - this interesting. It reminded me of my first sample of DM - their "People are People" cassette - a little eight song sampler to a new and unique sound, once scorned by rock critics, soon primed to take over the world. Not to say that Tim Exile's fantastic "Listening Tree" lp sounds like Depeche Mode, but they do seem to be somewhat of an influence. Maybe it's Exile's very European-sounding vocal delivery mixed with a melange of intricate beats and rhythms forming a music that is too difficult to be classified as pop and too lyrical to be experimental. Such lack of compromise was considered by one snot-nosed, elitist music website (who I won't name) as a cardinal error, but so what. Maybe Mr. Exile was aiming for something entirely different. Unfortunately, Luke Slater tried a similar feat earlier in the decade with his excellent "Alright On Top" lp, which turned out to be a commercial flop. Again, it doesn't seem Exile is too concerned with such matters and with Listening Tree he finds just as many fans as he does detractors. One thing is certain is that this is an album chock full of extremely well executed production. Much like the highly detailed cover art, there is a myriad of dazzling musical elements on the album to unearth with each listen, and with each listen, I find this album grows on me, only getting better with time. In this short attention span age we live in, listening with patience has perhaps become a thing of the past. For a person like me, who grew up hearing the sounds of Human League, Depeche Mode and New Order as a teen and later discovering the more cerebral sounds of the nineties, Listening Tree makes perfect sense. This album is a huge leap for Tim Exile as a musician and artist, when compared to his earlier work.

*Allgigs' Tim Exile : "Listening Tree" review HERE.

Tortoise : "Beacons of Ancestorship"

Tortoise have been a favorite band of mine for over a decade now and it's been an interesting ride, witnessing the changes they've gone through while still maintaining their trademark sound. Seeing them live earlier in the year gave me a good idea of what their latest album, Beacons of Ancestorship sounded like. At first, however, I wasn't too sure what to make of it. I've always preferred the slower, more ambient side of Tortoise, at least on disc. You'll still find that peppered throughout, but it seems, Beacons' beefy, more linear, straight forward sound is quite a departure from their previous effort, It's All Around You. Perhaps Beacons was also something of a reaction to some critics accusing their previous effort as being a bit too slow and spacey. Personally, I thought it was a beautiful work - yet another highlight in the Tortoise catalogue. Still, it's good too hear something new and different from Tortoise. Several years have passed since that last release, and bands and artists change and evolve with time, and there seems to be a new fire in the band, both live and on disc. Yes, they tend to "rock out" more on Beacons, giving the xylophones a rest, and raising the tempo. Still, there are some slower tracks that are capable of melting even the coldest of hearts - closing track Charteroak Foundation comes to mind especially. Electronic heads need not fear either, despite the "r" word being thrown around a lot when describing this lp. There is plenty of synth magic to be found throughout, and dynamic rhythmic booty-shakin' songs like Gigantes sound like a band successfully attempting to reinterpret an Autechre track by more organic means. Though this is probably not Tortoise's best album, it is indeed a very good one worth many a repeated listen. Here's to a band who knows how to keep it fresh and survive the musical fads and phases throughout the years.

*Music Omh's Tortoise : "Beacons of Ancestorship" review HERE

Oneohtrix Point Never : "Rifts"

I remember, while in college, I decided to go and take a walk around campus with a friend at 3AM, in the dead of winter. We both found we could not sleep and were feeling mighty philosophical and reflective. We ventured out into the night, into the cold, across a white, snow-covered landscape. Neither of us hardly said a word, and it was so quiet out, you could hear a pin drop. At one point we looked up only to find the sky was illuminated with subtle flashes of brilliant, glowing light of various colors - green, blue, yellow - something neither of us had seen before. It made me wish I had a good camera with me, but sometimes a memory is all that is needed. The artwork accompanying Brooklyn based Oneohtrix Point Never's double cd release "Rifts" has photographs of those very lights, known as the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis. This all makes perfect sense since the music throughout both discs is comprised mostly of slow, sublime, beatless melodies and textures made by the likes of human hands on old, vintage synthesizers. Each track could very well be an audio representation of the Northern Lights in their various flickering, flashing phases. A good deal of the material on "Rifts" reminds me of some of those classic interludes found on Boards of Canada albums - those little musical snippets you wished would go on for just a little longer. This is not all pleasant music however, and many of the tracks take on an aura of slight unease and mystery. "Rifts" is a collection of several self-released mini-albums from the band and their sound can only be described as arresting and positively mesmerizing.

*Tiny Mix Tapes' Oneohtrix Point Never : "Rifts" review HERE.

Black Dog: "Further Vexations"

The Black Dog's musical career has outlasted those of most rock bands, beginning in the early nineties with now acknowledged classics "Bytes", "Temple of Transparent Balls", and "Spanners". In the world of electronic music, where genres give birth to subgenres giving birth to more subgenres, remaining relevant is a monumental accomplishment. There was a time however, when it looked as if The Black Dog were to remain a relic of the cerebral, experimental, electronic nineties - fine contributers to the genre but never surfacing beyond that fertile decade. Since the middle of this decade though, the Dog began to resurface, first with a couple of more experimental spoken word collaborations and remix lps, and later with a brilliant trio of armchair techno lps ending with this year's Further Vexations. Perhaps the secret to Black Dog's staying power is their consistency and dedication to the classic sounds initially forged by the likes of old school Detroit innovators Derrick May, Carl Craig, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, as well as the chief innovators themselves, Kraftwerk. This is not to say The Black Dog are imitators - these guys have long well established their place in contemporary electronic music history. Instead, they are a group who have continued to explore a style and refine their craft, and much like their British neighbors B12, are only part of a hand full of artists who continue to successfully make this kind of music.

Further Vexations works much like a companion disc to 2008's Radio Scarecrow. There's that same cinematic tone heard from the widescreen ambient opener "Biomantric L-if-e" to the equally atmospheric closer "Kissing Someone Else's Dog". Sandwiched in between are driving dance-oriented tracks both fierce and contemplative, crafted in equal parts for the floor as for the mental landscape. The spooky, ghostly tone they so successfully rendered on Scarecrow is back once again, only this time, the Dog provide an abstract aural commentary on surveillance and modern paranoia. Whatever the case may be, or subject matter, it's good to see the Black Dog back once again and claim this past decade, much like the nineties, a fruitful one indeed.

*various Black Dog: "Further Vexations" reviews HERE .

honorable mentions:

The Present : "The Way We Are"

Here's another one I picked up initially for the cover art. It's a very abstract patchwork of sound and music, both beautiful and at times, menacing. This is the brainchild of prolific producer Rusty Santos, and his second release as The Present. While it's a fine collection of soundscapes, I personally prefer a little more cohesion in a release. Still, worth many repeated listens.

* Pop Matters' The Present: "The Way We Are" review HERE.

Octopus Inc. : "Poctopus"

Octopus Inc., aka Noah Sasso's first cd, "Mere Things and Mindless Creatures" remains in my top ten favorite electronic music cds, after it's initial release over a decade ago. Since then, Noah has only put out two more of his own, as well as a couple of great collaborations with his fellow Kracfive labelmates. The long awaited "Poctopus" is Noah's third full length as Octopus Inc., and it continues along the path of gently meandering hip hop beats and slow, deep sea melodies. While this is indeed a good album, I find it lacking some of the love and alien otherworldliness found in his initial two. It's good to see Noah back again, but hopefully he'll get a little more daring and willing to change things up some more, if he does decide to release another lp.

* Wimm's Octopus Inc. : "Poctopus" review HERE.

Forest World: "Super Bright Skullz"

If this splendid little ep had a few more tracks on it, it would have definitely made my top ten long players of the year easily. I was late to find out about 2008's remarkable "Ruins" full length, which may have topped my list then as well. Oh well. I have to say that sometimes wonderful things flourish in some of the strangest of places. Who'd have known that a young, music savvy guy and gal duo from Provo, Utah would be cranking out some of the most humorous, thoughtful, catchy electronic synth pop on the planet? Sure, there are many kids trying to do this kind of thing, but what separates Forest World from the rest is that they actually do it right, and damn good mind you! You can hear the progression from album to album, though they continue to swing that lo-fi charm on the six-track "Super Bright Skullz", which sounds like a fine blend of early New Order, Computer World-era Kraftwerk, and a young Madonna playing in an eighties video game arcade. It's been a while since I've been this enthusiastic about a band and I can't wait to hear what's on Forest World's horizon.

*DMLH's Forest World: "Super Bright Skullz" review HERE.

Dalek: "Gutter Tactics"

I've been a fan of New Jersey progressive rap group Dalek from the very start, even attending their first live performance ever at some little biker bar in Pittsburgh years ago. In 2007 Dalek released my pick of the year, Abandoned Language, and in the eyes (and ears) of many, made their best work to date. Unfortunately, as good as 2009's Gutter Tactics is, it seems they're somewhat stuck in a creative rut both lyrically and sonically. The tracks seem like different versions of earlier work, though there are a few unique surprises on the album, while the production seems less clear and polished, which could very well be what they were going for. Still, I know that Dalek are far more capable of greater feats than this one, and hope to hear more stones turned over on future releases.

* Drowned in Sound's Dalek: "Gutter Tactics" review HERE.

Junior Boys: "Begone Dull Care"

This third full length installment from Canadian duo Junior Boys sounds as elegant and efficient as the art work gracing the album's cover. At only eight songs, the group say what they have to say over cool, synthetic rhythms, bass and bleep. While this is engaging, and on occasion, somewhat captivating material, after a good many listens, I still find it perhaps a bit too sparse and restrained. It's classic Junior Boy's new wave, though it's missing a good deal of the essential funk found on their first two albums. While this restraint is admirable and will definitely appeal to those with minimalist tastes, I certainly wouldn't mind a little more ingredients in the mix.

*Dusted's Jumior Boys: "Begone Dull Care" review HERE.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009 artist spotlight gallery

Chris Leavens

Joel Cooper

Brian Blankenstine


Susan Sanford

Kerstin Klein

Aijung Kim

Theresa Martin

Well, it looks like I'm stuck here in Northern VA for the holidays. Kris is battling a persistent cold still, and the weather is looking iffy at best in some parts a long the way to Pittsburgh, PA. So, it looks like that final 2009 post from last week wasn't the final blog post after all. That's OK though, 'cause I've always got plenty to show and tell here, including a little selection of artwork from all of the great folks I interviewed here at Go Flying Turtle!. Thanks to all the wonderful people who gave me their time and allowed me to feature their art and words here in 2009. I wasn't able to feature one per month this year, like in the past, with getting married and all, however my aim will be to get back to one per month in 2010. In the meantime, enjoy this gallery of selections from all eight interviews, along with links to all the artists' sites/blogs.