December is often referred to in the music review industry as “list season”; magazines, blogs, and social media personalities scurry to crank out ranked list after ranked list of their favourite albums. Inevitably, I’ve begun to find it rather trite.
Working on a list myself, I’m aware of the irony. Regardless, I’ve never been a fan of musical analysis being reduced to (or shorthanded by) numbers, as such exercises often retain an irritating sense of self-importance. Ultimately, we must recognise that any attempt to evaluate a year’s crop of releases is not objective but intermingled with our personal lives; we can never evaluate art on objective criteria. There is something very commercial about modern “criticism” – paintings were never rated in stars nor “reviewed” as products but analysed, perhaps thanks to the nature of the gallery. All modern music deserves intellectual honesty. It too is art.
When thinking about how I wanted to approach this column, I oft returned to the observation that we do not consume art but bond with it. The art and the perceiver never leave the same after they meet. In that spirit, I aim to be somewhat diaristic; the albums I discuss having a personal significance I will attempt to elucidate. And how better to begin than with my own yearly retrospective; a trio of picks with no pretension of objectivity?
I must begin with local heroes Ashenspire, a band who I’ve watched soar out of avant-garde black metal obscurity, and into major-league metal publications. In Hostile Architecture the studio vocalist, drummer, project mastermind and chemistry teacher Alasdair Dunn roars lines of visceral and profound protest poetry such as
“When you can’t see the stars
You stop dreaming of space!”
addressing topics from toxic masculinity to fascist riots – a welcome confrontation with the far-right sympathies that have sometimes emerged in the genre’s history. Just as genre-confounding as the lyrics is the music; a well-woven blend of vicious black metal and lilting European folk, which occasionally thins out for gripping, profound monologues and even a choral piece.
No other band have such a camaraderie at their live shows; Alasdair and the band’s boundlessly energetic live vocalist Rylan Greaves are genial offstage and charismatic on, and I have made some wonderful friends in the pit – or the pub afterwards! After wrestling with heating bills, ridiculous food costs, and constant overdraft brinksmanship, screaming
“Only three months to the gutter
Never three months to the peak!”
in unison with an ecstatic crowd was a profoundly moving catharsis, and I’m truly grateful to be part of a community as welcoming as Glasgow’s metal scene. I’ve been lucky during this crisis; that so many people I know have suffered further perhaps explains why this record has gained the traction it has across the world, as the desperation of life “tangled in austerity” has become further intertwined with the zeitgeist.
Sometimes, music can say and mean a great deal without any words. Exemplifying this, the Czech duo of Šimanský & Niesner produced a gorgeous and enticing work of primitivist folk in the cheerfully titled Všechno Dobré (All Good), one that I’ve listened to more than any other release this year.
While its pastoral vibe has become intertwined in my memory with tranquil wanders across a campus littered with Autumn leaves, I found that the more tense sections of tracks like “Ztracená” (“Lost”) seemed to illustrate my growing anxiety over impending deadlines and exams. This tension is something that is slowly teased out in the record, the interwoven threads of complex picking creating elaborate pieces that slowly work away unease, apprehensions resolved with often cheerful deliberation. The meditative drone of “Pražská Rága” (“Prague Raga”), which nods to the devotional brilliance of David Grubbs, is particularly soothing, while dramatic 11-minute centrepiece “Lesní Chodci” (“Forest Walkers”) evokes John Fahey at his most fluid and intense.
These two musicians have a clear mastery of their genre – my vinyl copy of the album came with a brief history of the primitivist folk movement – but master above all else the ability to entice the listener and excommunicate their worries. As its arboreal path comes to an end, the record lives up to its name; all is good indeed.
The record that resonated with me most, however, is Daniel Rossen’s You Belong There. The Grizzly Bear alumnus melds bustling jazz rhythms, technical acoustic wizardry, and insightful lyrics, to create a timeless indie folk album. From the mellifluous grandeur of a “hurricane” of piano runs in “Tangle”, to the tentative string-driven atmosphere of the title track, Rossen’s music evokes chaos, tranquillity, and everything in between, lyrics addressing Rossen’s interpersonal relationships of the last “ten years gone”. As I’ve continued to struggle with the death of my mother last year, my exegesis of his observations has been made in the harsh light of grief, his honest, almost cynical grappling with loss deeply relatable. Of an ex-partner he notes
“The diatribes and lectures left unsaid
That’s you and me”
acknowledging the complex feelings we have to those now absent from our lives; while much of my grief has been, to quote Jamie Anderson, “a love that has nowhere else to go”, it is also drawn from frustrations and conflicts that are now irresolvable.
Rossen’s emotional journey concludes in a fittingly plaintive manner, with the heartrending admission
“I still need you”
The lack of closure embodies, to me, how grief is a process of adaptation, not resolution – in a way, it never really ends. Perhaps concurring, the album has one more track after “The Last One”, where Rossen widens his scope beyond personal experience. As acoustic picking, bowed strings, and plaintive woodwind weave between each other, achingly beautiful in a way that always makes me shiver, he delivers the most potent statement of the album;
“What a life
Repeat the pattern… from the beginning”
Rossen sums the absurdity of our very existence in these lines, elucidating the grand and bittersweet truth that grief has imparted to me; no matter how great our pain, the world continues, billions of other stories written alongside us, beyond us, and before us, often lost to time before long. “Repeat the Pattern” was the track Rossen opened with at St. Luke’s, initiating an intimate set where all other instrumentation was stripped away. I found myself moved to tears as the lone, guitar-toting musician gently commanded;
“Set yourself to the side
And admire this anonymous place
A riff to fill up the hours
Stretched for years, the space of a day”
breaking of the fourth wall of his art to elucidate music’s power to distend time and space to its will. A magic that mere numbers could never come close to portraying.
I hope you try one of these albums, and that they come to mean something to you beyond sounds and words, as they have for me. Merry Listmas, and a happy new year.
(This Music Could Be My Life is a monthly literature column by Toyah Stoker, exclusive to the qmunicate.com. Stay tuned for more installments!)