Best of 2013 Review - Part 2: Psych Pop/Krautrock/Ambient

Part 2 of my favourite music of the year, this one taking in various strands of psych and kraut sounds. As we know, there's plenty of psych in the water everywhere these days (a new Psych Fest in Liverpool, which had its second outing last September, is just one example close to home). In Cork in particular, a whole rash of bands are drawing on different parts of the broad psych church to great effect. I interviewed Cathal and Paddy from The Altered Hours in May (link here) and asked them why they thought there was an upsurge of psych influences at the moment. Cathal thought it might be down to the recent success of Tame Impala and he could well be right. Incidentally, I also wrote about this in terms of the Cork context on WeAreNoise back in March. Cork-based bands such as O Emperor (see below), Elastic Sleep (to come in Part 3) and even Saint Yorda (to come in Part 4) could all be identified with psych in some way.

Anyhoo, The Altered's/The Hours (neither one really fits as an abbreviation, does it?) are down the end of this list, 19 memorable tunes from the past year.

April March & Aquaserge – Des tics et des tocs
Here’s what I said in March about the adorable Ms March and there’s doesn’t seem any need to add much more now, it being a top notch song and all.

This is something you don't find every day. An American singing in French, joined by some of Tame Impala and Stereolab. Elinor Blake is the American in question, aka the kookily monikered April March, who explains "French culture was something my mother presented to me as a greener pasture when I was a little girl." The outcome of this superior upbringing is an intoxicating blend of French yé-yé, with some beautiful psych pop stylings courtesy of French group Aquaserge. There's even a shadowy nod to French pop king Serge Gainsbourg in the form of a back of the room whoop, some kind of hommage to that Serge & Brigitte classic 'Bonnie & Clyde'. Anyway, it's catchy as hell and your life needs it.

Melt Yourself Down – Fix my life
As I’ve said before, sometimes bands/pr’s come up with a description of their music that cannot be bettered. With that in mind, I give you Melt Yourself Down.

Melt Yourself Down is the sound of Cairo '57, Cologne '72, New York '78, London 2013. A riot of colour and noise, they rip the still beating heart from the remains of Acoustic Ladyland…reanimated with intense, sweaty funk, uplifting horns and blistering Nubian drums… Yeah boi.

The Vincent(s) – Who’s that boy
A Cork band who released their first EP on local label FIFA Records in 2013, having formed just over a year ago. The EP was a mixed bag in the sense that it sounded like they were trying on different styles for size. Personally, I reckon they should concentrate on this one - the invigorating one that draws on swamp rock, Nirvana Unplugged and the twisted cabaret of Tom Waits to create a howling, furious, comtemporary blues with wailing sax, wobbling organ and pounding backbeats.

La Femme – Amour dans le motu
A lovely blend of surf rock, krautrock and French pop, this Biarritz band captured my heart this year with more than just their music...check their mission statement.

“To touch people, to be touched by people and generally protest against worldwide assholes.”

The Last Sound – Sun forever
The long awaited 5th album by The Last Sound on Osaka was probably my favourite Irish album of the year. Marrying irresistible pop hooks with filthy/beautiful background hum and industrial noise, this single epitomises everything that’s good about it. Furthermore, there are elements of 80’s New Wave and shoegaze - a kind of glittering darkness with a tunnelling energy – which should get everyone excited.

Crystal Stilts – Future folklore
The release of a new Crystal Stilts album makes any year special for me – in 2013 it was the brilliant Nature noir on Sacred Bones. My thoughts from last September.

...this ferocious cut...channels The Velvet Underground but let's say it does that but still manages to come out intact, with its own distinct flavour. The rolling bassline helps, Brad's sleepy vocal is beautiful, JB's brilliantly chaotic guitar lines, all the better to carry a fable about returning to the underworld, the garden - of Eden, perhaps? It's over in two and a half minutes aswell, tantalisingly, because on top of everything else they write perfect pop songs this lot.

Date Palms – Yuba Reprise
For a total change of pace, here’s one of the many delights from Thrill Jockey in the last year. This Oakland band create brilliantly shimmering, slowly developing psych instrumentals, unwinding very much like a snake across a parched desert floor. Wonderfully evocative and positively narcotic.

Dean Wareham – The longest bridges in the world
Although the Emancipated hearts EP lead track ‘Love is colder than death’ is beautiful, this song steals the show for me. It’s as winsome and nostalgic as anything in Dean Wareham’s great back catalogue and there’s something so moving about the psych pop combination of morse code bass and oscillating organ with his plaintive vocal. With material this poignant, the man is showing his age well. It’s really great to hear him on record again.

Fuxa – Stand by me
Speaking of Dean Wareham, his wife Britta Phillips features on this spellbinding cover medley leading with ‘Stand by me’, sung by Fuxa stalwart Randall Niemann and decorated by BJ Cole’s singing steel guitar. The tune then segues into Britta riding a wave of shimmering organs and singing Mike Nesmith’s sublime ‘Different drum’ - I could listen to her singing all day. To say the switch from one tune to the other is heartstoppingly beautiful would be to make one of the greatest understatements of the year.

Beaches – Distance
Thanks to PMcD, I checked out the Melbourne rock scene this year. Beaches are five women from Australia’s cultural capital who mine a tasty brand of psych rock with a permeating drone. The pick of their second album (She beats on Chapter Music) is this long distance kraut trip which features Michael Rother of NEU! on drums for added authenticity.

I love the way the welter of guitars to begin dissolves into a stew of blurry harmonies. Resilient, there's a word.

My Bloody Valentine – new you
I imagine most MBV fans get off on the visceral, boneshaking quality of the band. For me, this hushed gem shows another side – effortless control of melody and mood as the shimmering atmosphere shifts gorgeously under your feet. Whatever about their new album being the musical event of the year/decade, it’s great to hear an old band be relevant and essential and not trade on former glories.

O Emperor – This is it
Vitreous is a dead heat with The Last Sound for my favourite Irish album of 2013. It’s such a glorious prog pop...statement, really. I could have picked any song off it - the two singles ‘Contact’ and ‘Holy fool’ are both knock outs, it goes without saying - but I went for the closer. Along with the audacity (not that they think of it like that I’m sure) of picking their reference points from far and wide (and obscure and out of fashion – Harry Nilsson anyone?), O Emperor also succeeded in rounding off a wonderful psych-inflected album with this sad, slow, old-beyond-its-years twisted folk rock beauty. Just a treasure.

**Two Rocket Girl releases now, just in time for a special RG100 compilation which came out earlier this month to mark the label’s 100th release - it includes some previously unreleased tracks from the current roster and would make a great entry point to the label for anyone new to it. RG is one of the genuine shining lights on the map of independent music in the world today – progressive, artist-centred and music-loving.

Eat Lights Become Lights – Modular living
The project of Englishman Neil Rudd, Eat Lights Become Lights take various strands of Krautrock (motorik pulses, drones, pastoral kosmische soundscapes) and mould them into a gleaming vehicle for 21st century (mostly) instrumental pop. The title track from the album is one of the decade’s completely essential tunes for me and was on the show’s playlist a lot during the year. Thrilling is the word.

Pieter Nooten – Transit
Another absolutely wonderful album on Rocket Girl from the early part of the year, the third in a trilogy of ambient/neo-classical works made completely on Mac Book Pro. It’s slightly insidious to pick just one track as the best way to experience this music is to bathe in it from start to finish. I can’t argue with this quote from the press release – “(an) introspective and deeply poetic musical world of heart-wrenching beauty.”

Band of Clouds – Cats cuts
Sublimely hushed shoegaze stylings with loads of heart from John Haggis and crew, the 2nd album recorded by the Corkman at his Granny It’s OK studio in Waterford. It’s heartwarming to hear music made by someone for the pure love of it, something which jumps off this record. These are John’s words from the bandcamp page –

The title of the album, by the way, was taken from a line in a book about a Russian dancer who would ‘appear to float’, when he ‘got lost in music’. From what I can make out that’s kind of how it feels for us as well.

SlowPlaceLikeHome – Cathleen’s fall
From the south east of Ireland to the north west, and this year’s entry from Keith Mannion of Donegal in advance of a debut album due soon. As with all of his 2012 output, this is beautiful, organic instrumental electronica, with warm pulsing kosmische tones and crisp, inventive percussion. It manages the considerable feat of being both adventurous and accessible at the same time.

Track 1 in this show

Mar 19 2013 show w/ William Tyler, KXP, Little Annie&Baby Dee, The Vincent(s),John Grant, Girls Name by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

K-X-P - Melody
The Finnish kraut rockers were back with album number 2 this year which added some disco to the party. This is an irrepressible motorik beat with a great fat melody attached – the indecipherable monotone singing only adds to the effect.

They were another band I saw playing live in 2013 and they are an outrageously good live band. From my review of that show for WeAreNoise -

Together, they produced infectious dance music, something thoroughly modern and yet thrillingly primal, capable of accommodating elements of industrial noise alongside hummable pop tunes, here and there feeding Motorhead through a techno blender. The mashing of genres was complete during the encore when some conspicuously well-dressed latecomers began arriving for the after club, to find a music eminently danceable and approachable, albeit strangely clothed.

Princess – Fall slow
A Dublin band on their way somewhere with a vigorous restatement of shoegaze first principles.

Steve reviewed their set at the HWCH Festival in Dublin for WeAreNoise in October–

I’m knocked for six as the self-proclaimed ‘Kraut-House’ kids come off like a Liz Phair-fronted Ride. Not a bad thing, let me assure you. Effortlessly, the band manage to mix a multitude of genres, combining elements of shoegaze, Postcard-era indie pop and subtle lo-fi, their palette of sound making for something truly unique and worthy of attention.

The Altered Hours – Sweet Jelly Roll
And speaking of shoegaze, let’s finish as promised with this Cork-produced psych-pop gem, which I like to think answers the question, what would have happened if Serge Gainsbourg had produced My Bloody Valentine covering ‘Je t’aime (moi non plus)’?

If that’s not enough for you then I just don’t know. However, apart from all the other great things about this song, I challenge anyone to not be hooked by Elaine Howley’s haunting vocal lines and that utterly genius keyboard run in the chorus.


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