ALBUM REVIEW: Milo – Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! (2017)

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This right here is something special. Underground rapper Milo has been training in the hip-hop dojo for several years now, tempering his unique brand of comic-philosophic rap music. But Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!, his fifth album, finds him ascending to a new power level entirely.

Milo has always been an abstract and very poetic lyricist, but on some of his earlier material, particularly A Toothpaste Suburb, he sounded like he was trying too hard to impress. This is a man who would regularly namedrop philosophers and obscure authors like Schopenhauer or David Foster Wallace, and for every line that came across as inspired, another felt obtuse and (dare I say it) somewhat pretentious.

On Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!, Milo earns every allusion as he rises to the stature of mystical prophet MC, spinning mind-bending wordplay around beautiful, spacey production that brims with confidence. This is the tightest, densest, most poetic batch of lyrics I’ve heard from any rapper in years, with line after classic line that has me reaching for the rewind button.

Musically, Who Told You to Think??!?!?!?! is an atmospheric blend of jazz rap and cloud rap, with some sprinklings of boom-bap and Shabazz Palaces futurism. Each track (many of which were self-produced) reverberates with gorgeous keys, crispy drum hits and melancholy bass, always leaving plenty of space for Milo’s vocals which are placed front and centre in the mix.

This lends the album a strong sense of space and clarity, inviting the listener to pull some of Milo’s cryptic lyrics apart. Try these: ‘Autodictate my didact and map it to black noise / Say the target audience is mothers of blond-headed black boys’, ‘Seen his hands fasten round the hilt of that rusted ruby scimitar / Speaking time-tested codas / Who them other rhythm wizards are?’

Milo’s words have a newfound sense of purpose here, which grounds much of the esoteric imagery contained within them. This is particularly the case on touching personal tunes like ‘Note to Mrs’ or ‘Take Advantage of the Naysayer’, where he raps about his wife and father respectively. Elsewhere, he’s content to spit dizzying metaphysical boast raps: ‘The most understated mage / Flow monotone, how you sublimate the rage?’

It’s this confidence that really sets Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! apart from Milo’s earlier work. His performances throughout the record are so sharp that whenever a guest MC appears, I find myself waiting in anticipation for Milo’s next verse. Said guests still manage to hold their own, however, particularly Elucid and the enigmatic Self Jupiter.

The only complaint I have for this record is simply that I want more of it. 42 minutes isn’t short by most standards, but when what’s on show is so fearlessly creative, it seems to fly by every time I put it on. I’ll happily devour any EPs and leftover tracks Milo has cooked up from this record, and am eagerly awaiting his next project.

Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! is the kind of album that I follow music so closely for. The kind of record that finds a promising artist emerging with a unique and engaging voice, fulfilling their potential in the process of creating something truly new. It’s my favourite album of 2017 so far, and probably my favourite hip-hop album since To Pimp a Butterfly. Yes, it’s really that good. I hope everyone who reads this gives it a listen.

9.4/10

Albums of the Year 2016: #1 A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

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In a lot of ways, the latest and last album from jazz-rap legends A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, is really too good to be true. This is a record that dropped completely out of the blue for me at the end of last year – I had no idea it was in the making, and only heard about it when I saw a Facebook post from the group announcing its release. Being that the Tribe are quite possibly my favourite hip-hop artists of all time, I was equal parts excited and terrified to listen to this thing.

It’s a universal rule that comeback albums are almost always shit, and in a lot of cases their half-hearted and uninspired attempts to appeal to fan nostalgia often do more harm than help to the legacy of the group in question. In the last few years alone, a handful of my favourite artists ever have released comeback albums that were nothing but huge disappointments: Pixies’ Head Carrier, The Dismemberment Plan’s Uncanny Valley, Cannibal Ox’ Blade of the Ronin

So imagine my surprise as I tentatively give a listen to the Tribe’s first album in almost twenty years, and the realization slowly dawns on me that…it is incredible. Not just a great album that brings back the things I already loved about the group, but a stone cold classic that actually pushes those things in new directions, and is on a par if not even better than their 90s material.

We Got it From Here… is not an album that trades in nostalgia. This is one of the most currently relevant and in-the-moment comeback albums I have ever heard. It deals frankly and poetically with the state of politics, race, music and life in 2016, and it updates the Tribe formula just enough to bring it up to speed with modern hip-hop without ever losing their distinctive sound.

There are the steady jazz-rap rhythms, the live drums and bass, and the laid-back, philosophical and socially conscious lyrics. But never before have the Tribe been as overtly political as they are on We Got it From Here…. This is made immediately clear on the albums second track ‘We the People…’, which contains an ominous vision of Trump’s New Great America: “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays / Boy, we hate your ways”.

2016 was a year of political division and a whole lot of controversy, and the Tribe remind us that we need music now more than ever as a unifying force. ‘We the People…’ serves as a stirring call to arms, and a reminder of how important it is to stand up for what you believe in alongside the people who believe it with you.

Elsewhere, ‘Dis Generation’ is another song that feels very of the moment, but this time with a focus on the world of music and not politics. It finds the Tribe in braggadocious mood, reflecting on their legendary status in the hip-hop world and passing on the torch to the new generation: Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick and Cole, gatekeepers of flow / They are extensions of instinctual soul’. Even as the Tribe prepare to bow out with their final record, they make it clear that the socially conscious hip-hop spirit and the intricately crafted lyrics of the so called ‘golden age’ are still alive and kicking in 2016.

And it’s at this point in the review that I need to mention the reason why this is the final Tribe album: founding group member Phife Dawg passed away on March 22, during the recording of the album. And while there plenty of reason to mourn the passing of one of hip-hop’s all-time greats, there couldn’t be a more fitting testament to his life and work than We Got It from Here…. The fact that he passed away halfway through the creation of the album, however, leaves it in an unusual state: the record features (fantastic) posthumous contributions from Phife himself, but also reflections from the surviving members of the group on his life and all too sudden death.

This proves to be the case on ‘Black Spasmodic’, quite possibly my favourite track on the album. Riding on top of an utterly joyful, buoyant reggae rhythm, the verse first finds Phife spitting classic, grin-inducing boast raps (‘You clowns be bum sauce, speak my name and its curtains’). But in the second verse Q-tip uses this most upbeat of songs to spit one of the most affecting verses on the whole record, channelling the voice of his lost friend to create a moving and very personal eulogy.

‘Lost Someone’ serves as a more mournful tribute, with a beautiful piano loop and a soulful boom-bap slide providing the musical backdrop to Tip and Jarobi’s reflections on Phife’s life and work. But the mood is never sombre even when it is sad, and the emphasis is always on celebrating Phife’s achievements rather than mourning his loss.

The same could be said for We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service as a whole. Never content to look backwards at what has already been achieved, the Tribe saw fit to bless the music world with one final album that drew a line under everything they had released to this point and then pushed even further into new and exciting territory. In a year that was dominated by controversy, division and musical deaths, We Got it from Here… was an urgent reminder to celebrate the things we love and never stop looking to the future. Long live the Tribe.

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…And with that, my favourite albums of 2016 are complete. I know these reviews are coming very late and not too many people read them anyway, but it was important to me to try and find the time to finish this project even while travelling all over Australia. Thanks to anyone who did read my reviews, and please go check out some of the albums I’ve been writing about for what feels like months now.

I’ll repeat what I said last year: next time I will be writing reviews throughout the year rather than only at the end. I fully intended to do that in 2016 but it was very difficult to do while travelling. And I haven’t been able to listen to quite as diverse a collection of music as I sometimes would since Spotify is my only means of listening in Oz.

It might feel like a chore at times, but I do love writing these reviews and organizing my thoughts about music and the year in general. This is something I plan to do at the end of every year, and hopefully my writing and my knowledge of music in general will only improve as I go. So – I’ll see you in 2017, and peace out!

 

Albums of the Year 2016: #2 The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free

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It’s not just because they’re Australian, I swear. The Drones, hailing from the land of Oz where I’ve been living for the past six months, are one of the most forward-thinking and exciting rock bands in the world right now, and I’m here to tell you why. As a group, they’ve been at it for a long time: almost twenty years, having started out in 1997 as an aggressive but fairly straightforward punk blues/garage rock act.

But over the course of those twenty years, the band has done nothing but evolve their sound and their last two albums have found them pushing bravely at the boundaries of experimental rock. 2013’s I See Seaweed was a colossal but beautiful monster that all fans of weird rock music absolutely need to check out, and last year’s Feelin Kinda Free, my second favourite album of 2016, was their very best yet.

This record is loud, slow, sinister, and mysterious. Its eight songs are shrouded in sour synthesizers and huge, enveloping basslines that create an overwhelming wall of sound. It’s hard to pin down exactly what instruments you’re hearing at any one point on this record, which goes to show just how far The Drones have moved away from their humble punk blues beginnings.

‘Private Execution’, opening the record off, begins with a cacophony of psychedelic noise that erupts into an unsettling and unstable groove when the rest of the band comes in. The production is fantastically soupy – like wading through a nightmarish sea of static and distortion. And the very first words that frontman Gareth Liddiard sings on this track make the bands intentions clear: ‘The best songs are like bad dreams / If you can cover all the exits’ .

But if Feelin Kinda Free is a nightmare, then it is one conducted with eyes wide open. Gareth’s Liddiard’s lyrics have always had a strong political and social edge, and this album is no different: Feelin Kinda Free finds him taking on privacy, freedom, immigration, surveillance, ISIS and a whole range of other topics. For as apocalyptic as the music on this album is at points, Gareth’s lyrics are always witty, darkly poetic and firmly rooted to the ground.

‘Then They Came For Me’ is a blast of enigmatic pessimism about how much of Western society and Gareth himself are ignoring the ongoing refugee crisis around the world. Against a monstrous, shuddering bassline, Gareth imagines himself Stranded on a pier / Watching waves of emigration / Being rewound off the beach’, and then in the chorus growls about his own inactivity and failure to do anything helpful.

I couldn’t help but think of this song when I visited the South Australian Art Gallery in Adelaide and came across a really moving piece by an artist named Ben Quilty. Quilty had taken hundreds of fluorescent life jackets intended for Turkish refugees that had washed up on the shores of Greece, and then sewn them together to create one huge, twenty foot life jacket – a moving collage of all the lives and stories that aren’t being told.

Like Quilty’s piece, ‘Then They Came For Me’ is affecting in its sheer size. The rumbling bass and the sharp guitar lines in the chorus, as well as Gareth’s scathing and very pointed lyrics, combine to create one of my very favourite songs of the year.

The record shifts from political to highly personal with its next track, ‘To Think That I Once Lived You’. Here we have Gareth detailing a break-up with an absolutely primal vocal performance: his heartbroken lyrics are delivered with the passionate howl of a wounded wolf, while the band conducts a grand orchestral noise behind him.

‘Taman Shud’ and ‘Boredom’ are musically adventurous tunes that absorb the rhythms of hip-hop into pointy rock songs, and are full of strange, uneven grooves. The staccato guitar picking on ‘Boredom’ in particular creates a very sinister mood in combination with the dissonant synths in the background of the track.

And final track ‘Shut Down SETI’ is a suitably apocalyptic closer to the record. Against a martial drum rhythm and squirming synth line, Gareth scrutinizes the human search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and asks why we keep looking to the stars when everything on Earth is so perpetually fucked up: ‘You can’t defend the open sky / Let alone our actions’. The album then ends with another blast of chopped up psychedelic noise that is the sound of the Earth being totally destroyed by aliens. Hows that for fucking climactic?

Twisted, poetic and totally unique, Feelin Kinda Free is an album that doesn’t have much of a precedent. It found The Drones embracing their weirdness to the maximum and coming out with their best material yet. Although it certainly won’t be for everyone, and probably won’t do much to help the bands stature in the music world, Feelin Kinda Free was one of my absolute favourite albums of 2016, and ended up being topped only by one other. We need more artists in the world like The Drones who are able to make music that is both politically charged and rich in imagination.

Albums of the Year 2016: #3 Frank Ocean – blond

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blond released on the back of a lot of hype earlier this year, and it’s easy for that amount of expectation to warp either the quality or the reception of a record. You have to give it to Frank Ocean for managing to come out with such a fantastic release even despite all the talk surrounding it: this record feels more mature, more varied and more cohesive than his previous material, and represents a real musical evolution.

Let’s start with more mature. The production on blond is fantastic – lush, detailed and atmospheric. Each track really stands apart from the others, and many songs like ‘Nikes’ and ‘Nights’ contain instrumental transitions that provide a lot of new ideas. Frank’s voice has developed a lot too, and goddamn does he know how to write a sweet melody. Some of the tracks towards the albums end are very instrumentally minimal, but he carries each one off the strength of his vocal performances alone.

Broadly, you could classify this album as introspective alternative R&B, but a number of tracks contain elements of folk, neo-psychedelia and soul. This is what I mean by more varied: blond experiments with a lot of different styles and sounds across its runtime. Tonally, as well, there is a lot of variety. From the killer first three tracks, which provide a perfectly sexy and psychedelic intro to the record, to some of the more single-worthy songs in the middle (‘Solo’, ‘Nights’) to the quiet, introspective finish, blond has a real emotional arc to be found in its song progression.

This progression gives blond a cohesion which makes it work well as an album and not just a collection of songs. Having said that, though, there are some fantastic individual tunes here, too. Opener ‘Nikes’ is among the albums best – that wobbly bass and slow, sexy drumline is such an inviting way to start the album. And the lyrics in the songs heartfelt second half are very moving, as is Frank’s singing.

‘Pink and White’ is a slice of gloriously trippy, wide eyed funk which sounds like sipping cocktails on a sunlit beach, and ‘Solo’ which follows shortly after is a neo-gospel ode to the pleasures and pains of being by yourself, filtered through a heavy cloud of weed smoke. As on channel ORANGE, many of these songs are a lyrical blend of Frank’s personal life and created stories which have a real cinematic quality to them.

‘Nights’, which is perhaps my favourite song on the album, also has this quality. The first half of the track tells a bleak story about a young parent who has to work night shifts in order to make ends meet, and the backdrop is an absolutely killer hip-hop instrumental with an unusual, chopped up kind of bell sound. The second half of the track, though, switches up to an atmospheric trap swirl, full of sticky keyboards and crooning vocals. It’s a fantastic transition that gets me every time I hear it.

There are some low points, too. A couple of the interlude tracks get a bit annoying on repeated listens, particularly ‘Be Yourself’ which I skip every time, and the run of tracks in between ‘Nights’ and ‘White Ferrari’ are among the albums weakest, with ‘Close To You’ and ‘Pretty Sweet’ both being pleasant but unsubstantial.

Other than that, though, I have nothing but good things to say about blond. Kudos to Frank for putting together one of the years very best albums even despite all the hype.

Albums of the Year 2015: #6 – #1

Since I’m probably never going to find the time to do proper reviews for all these albums now 2015 is over, I figured I’d put them all up here with just a couple of sentences each. I slightly underestimated how long it would take to write twenty album reviews in the space of a month, and to be honest I just ran out of steam with so much writing. So sorry for anyone whos actually reading these!

I’ll be doing this again for 2016, but this time I’ll be writing the reviews throughout the year so I can post them every day of December leading up to christmas. That way I don’t have to cram writing these into every minute of free time I have after work.And it’ll be a good way to keep me writing throughout the year.

OK – lets countdown my remaining favourite albums of 2015:

#6 Father John Misty  – I Love You, Honeybear

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Father John Misty’s second album was a heartwarming, honest and hilarious record that I found myself returning to perhaps more than any other album last year. It’s bright, lightly psychedelic folk instrumentation proved to be endlessly inviting, and even on the 10th, 20th, 30th listen I was still discovering new lyrical gems.

#5 FKA Twigs – M3LL15X

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Twigs pushed her sound into new directions on this EP, combining alternative R&B with elements of IDM, trip hop and art pop to create something truly unique. Much like it’s cover, M3LL15X was dark, alien and sexy, sounding like nothing else. Twigs’ most mature release yet.

#4 Nicolas Jaar – Nymphs EPs

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Nicolas Jaar’s fantastic EP series, Nymphs 2, 3 and 4, which released thoughout 2015, proved to be my favourite electronic releases of the year. Taken as a whole they constituted an albums length of heady, experimental techno and house, with each disc exploring a different aspect of the sound. Perhaps the best of all was the sparse, melancholy and dreamlike Nymphs 2, full of inscrutable samples and stuffed full of ideas.

#3 Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness

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Where previous Julia Holter records have perhaps been easier to admire than to love, Have You In My Wilderness pulled back the curtain on the woman behind some of the decades most instriguing experimental pop music. This was a record full of personality and achingly beautiful arrangements. A modern chamber-pop classic.

#2 Joanna Newsom – Divers

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How does Joanna Newsom follow up a career-defining triple album that is, in my opinion, the greatest album of the century so far? With Divers, yet another classic from the lady I firmly believe is the greatest songwriter of our time. On this album the instrumental pallette was expanded to include synthesizers and even electric guitars, and yet Newsom manages to bend every instrument here to her mystical purpose. Her lyrics are spellbinding throughout, as she turns her expansive imagination away from love and meditates on the eternal theme of time. In the process, she has created yet another album that will be remembered long, long into the future.

#1 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

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I’ve sometimes wondered what it must have been like to be a music lover on the exact day that an album like Sgt Peppers or Dark Side of the Moon was released – to be a part of the collective realization that you were listeneing to something monumental. In March 2015, I feel like I got a taste of that experience. To Pimp a Butterfly released amid a thunderstorm of hype, and the year that has passed since then has done nothing to lessen the feeling that Kendrick’s latest is a Very Important Album.

Sonically it was restless, exploring cosmic jazz rap, g-funk, boom bap and everything in between. Structurally it was ambitious, proceeding along the lines of a slowly unfolding narrative poem that culminated in a prophetic conversation with a reanimated 2pac. And lyrically it was completely off the charts, Kendrick shifting from braggadocious to political to personal on a dime, and wrapping it all around labyrinthine flows and rhyme patterns. A landmark for the hip-hop genre.

 

Thanks for reading!

CLASSIC REVIEW: Pixies – Doolittle

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From 1988 to 1991, the Pixies put out four albums, at a rate of one a year. Then they broke up. In terms of sheer density of quality, their output is staggering: each of these albums has been called a classic, and each one pursues a different, singular take on the band’s sound. Their crowning achievement is Doolittle, their second album, which took the modus operandi of their debut and applied it to material even darker, stranger, and more mysterious. Conceptually, the Pixies arrived fully formed – their disjointed, dynamic, surrealist take on garage rock was fully evident on Surfer Rosa – but it was only on Doolittle that their execution comprehensively matched their ambition. Here, their dynamism was given room to breathe with greater recording fidelity, and their penchant for surrealist lyrics took on a new cohesive significance.

Doolittle is an album about communication; between animal and human, man and woman, artist and listener. To get there, it surveys surrealist cinema, roman mythology, and the Flintstones. In Spanish. If it’s range of cultural reference can be baffling, that might just be the point, because the Pixies are a band who thrive on contradiction and tension. Some of their greatest, most accessible pop songs have been followed on albums by short blasts of punk aggression, and the songs  themselves are delicate high-wire acts constantly teetering between harsh and soft, loud and quiet. At any moment, they feel like they could spill from one to the other. Take, for example, ‘Dead’, which opens with pounding drums and lurching guitar feedback while frontman Frank Black sings stuff like “you get torn down, I get erected”. Then, for exactly 12 seconds, it sparkles into a bouncy, major-chord chorus before being swallowed up by guitar noise. ‘There Goes My Gun’ pulls the same trick but inverted, stretching out that bouncy, major-chord chorus into the whole song and cutting short moments of dissonance into it. These songs, each only a couple of minutes long, demonstrate the ease with which the Pixies swallowed up and spat out, disfigured, the remnants of traditional rock music song structure.

This irreverence for tradition manifests itself also in the albums most pop-leaning moments. Songs like ‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘La La Love You’ are played with a knowing irony and tongue firmly in cheek, but they turn hipster bait into something entirely more interesting by being, at the same time, bloody great pop songs. ‘Here Come Your Man’ has the kind of perfect plinky-plonky cheese that makes for classic karaoke, while the latter song features guitarist Joey Santiago, voice dripping with sarcasm, doing his best crooning Morrissey impression and founting about love, sex, and his ‘pretty baby’. At the start of the song, he unassumingly instructs you to ‘shake your butt’. He’s joking, but you want to do it anyway.

Elsewhere, Doolittle proves considerably darker. Opener ‘Debaser’ is a song about Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, a disjointed assault on the eyes that remains just as shocking today as it was in 1929. The film’s most famous shot was also its mission statement, in which a woman stared blankly into the camera while her eye was sliced open with a razor blade. Black, in the songs chorus, shouts that he’s “slicin’ up eyeballs”, but what he’s really slicing up is eardrums, because the song, and the album as a whole, can be considered as the musical inheritor of everything Un Chien Andalou stood for. It’s the point where twisted romance meets lyrical surrealism, where animal desire meets human intellect, transforming the language of rock music into a kind of primal communication which proves most affecting when it transcends lyrics entirely. Take, for example, the moment in ‘Debaser’ when Black breaks down into maniacal laughter just as the bridge brings the song to a moment of  brief calm. It’s perhaps the most spine-tingling moment on an album full of spine-tingling moments.

Another highlight is ‘Hey’, which bends its western-tinged riffing around a wonderfully wormy baseline to compellingly sleazy effect. The song touches on the albums theme of communication (or lack thereof) through the lens of a man and a woman, attempting to flirt, but conveying their emotions with all the subtlety of two gorillas shouting at each other: “‘UHHH’ said the man to the lady. ‘UHH UHH’ said the lady to the man”. It’s a moment that manages to be funny, slightly disturbing, and intensely serious at the same time: in this respect, it couldn’t better represent Doolittle as a whole. It’s also an example of the effortless chemistry between each band member, how they complement each other’s strengths without any one instrument taking the spotlight.

The Pixies created something unique with Doolittle. They were smart, funny, primal, angry, and silly all at once, and in this mess of contradictions there was something new, something rock music had never seen before. It’s no surprise then, that swathes of bands followed in their wake. Kurt Cobain famously described “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as his attempt to ‘rip off the pixies’, but their influence has trickled down into all kinds of places. You can hear it in Deerhunter’s anxious punk melody, the Dismemberment Plan’s scattershot neuroses, the Flaming Lips’ psychedelic surrealism, and countless other places. It was the lightning in a bottle that drew a line under everything that had come before, and then bounded forwards into new, unexplored territory. With the Pixies now back together and working on new material, it remains to be seen whether lightning can strike twice. But whether or not it does, Doolittle remains, as wild and untamed as ever, and ready to slice up our eardrums all over again.

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CLASSIC REVIEW: Talk Talk – Laughing Stock

 

Laughing Stock – one of the most enigmatic, chameleonic albums to have ever received the label of “rock”. Where do you even begin? This is an album that defies genre, defies classification, refuses to sit still, never fails to mystify. It’s a deeply introspective listening experience, one that operates on an unfamiliar, ephemeral logic, and draws lines between disparate musical styles and sounds ranging from art rock to jazz, ambient, and gospel. It is often championed as one of the precursors to post-rock, and yet, in many ways, it is the complete antithesis of the genre it helped to spawn. It is an album of subtle tonal evolution, the slightest changes in its ever-shifting mass of mood and instrumentation demanding the closest attention. Laughing Stock is, in short, not an easy album to write about.

Its history is no less baffling, and offers no point of entry for understanding the contents of the album itself. Talk Talk started out in the 80s as a synth-pop band, their music full of unadulterated cheese: in the video for their 1984 single “Dum Dum Girl”, frontman and lead songwriter Mark Hollis sings earnestly into the camera wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket, while another panning shot catches his gloriously mulleted hair in full swish. And yet, a bit later in the video, he breaks into laughter and says, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “I feel like a member of Pink Floooyd“. Hollis’ ability to fluctuate between taking himself intensely seriously and bordering on self-parody was bewildering, and it made you wonder if he wasn’t engaging in some great elaborate joke for the sole purpose of making Laughing Stock even more impenetrable.

Impenetrable is certainly a word that could be applied to the albums opener, “Myrrhman”, a track full of disorientatingly empty space in which scraps of minimal instrumentation tentatively ebb and flow across the mix, refusing to be drawn into anything resembling song structure. Staccato guitar chords ring out with clinical clarity, and winding strings circle a handful of plaintive piano notes. We’re first introduced to Mark Hollis’ breathy croon, reduced almost to a whisper, and full of largely indecipherable lyrics. The few phrases we do catch come from some mystical, magical place: “I tred the pendants beneath my feet”, “Blessed love, the love I’ve seen”. For the most part, however, Hollis’ singing here, as on the rest of Laughing Stock, resists understanding entirely. His voice, conveying more tone than actual language, becomes an expressive mass of nasally syllables and long vowels that seems always to be dripping in a rusty Americana, far removed from his native London accent. If Hollis’ words are obscured, however, the minute sonic detail of “Myrrhman” is crystal clear. From the warm hiss of the tape always audible in the background, to the way every sound seems to hang in the air as it reverberates in the foreground, the track feels meticulously constructed at every turn.

And yet the track, like Laughing Stock as a whole, is an entirely spontaneous creation. Plucked and pieced together from hours upon hours of improvised recordings by a huge ensemble of musicians, Laughing Stock was an album that seemed, even to those involved in creating it, to have appeared out of nowhere. Engineer Phil Brown described it as being “recorded by chance, accident, and hours of trying every possible overdub idea “. This improvisational element can be heard most acutely in the other two tracks that make up the albums first half, “Ascension Day” and “After The Flood”. Here more than anywhere Talk Talk reach into the realm of jazz, their steady, loose percussion and wandering bass holding together their explorations into climactic rock and melancholy gospel. The first of the two, “Ascension Day”, is the only track here that contains something that could be likened to a chorus, as a handful of plucked guitar notes erupt into a sharp, clanging refrain that constantly threatens to explode into a climactic crescendo, but always recedes back into itself. When it finally does explode, the thrill is short lived – the track cuts out to silence precisely at the six minute mark, with disorientating and exhilarating effect. You can practically hear the tape being sliced, hear the uninterrupted ten minute jam that was brutally excised in the editing process.

“After The Flood”, then, is appropriately named. The track opens, suddenly, in the aftermath of a confusing and chaotic jam, into a space of quiet, reverential calm. Deep, aquatic synths resonate across both channels, while the same hypnotising jazz percussion clicks and turns behind a wailing church organ to achingly beautiful effect. The feeling here is one akin to that of coming up for air after a long period underwater, or stepping out of the rain into an empty home : breathless, peaceful, and intensely calm. “After The Flood” also demonstrates Talk Talk’s control of tone and inflection at its most potent – the track shifts seamlessly through cautious optimism, nervous tension and deep melancholy with the subtlest changes in key. “Taphead”, which follows, takes this control over tone into a much darker, more foreboding place. The recording here is sparse and physical, opening onto nothing more than Hollis and a lonely electric guitar. His every sound, every movement of his fingers along the fretboard, rings out in complete silence. You can picture him vividly, alone, in a dark room, whispering into a microphone. But as the track moves, ominous strings creep into the mix, and as he continues to croon, his vocals become drowned in dissonant horns and brass. The effect is chilling, and evidence that Talk Talk weren’t afraid to explore tension without release in their music.

If “New Grass” does away with this tension entirely, substituting instead for bright, primary colours and emotive piano and guitar refrains, then closer “Runeii” creates a new kind of tension – that between sound and silence. Consisting of almost nothing but Hollis, an electric guitar, and tape hiss, the track winds its way down some lonely desert road for five spellbinding minutes, while Hollis delivers his most earnest, mournful vocal delivery yet. But his guitar is perhaps more expressive than even he is. Rarely has an electric guitar sounded so lonely, and Hollis raises the instrument to an almost spiritual level of hushed reverence here.

‘Hushed reverence’ just about sums up Laughing Stock, both in its tone and in the reactions it inspires from its listeners. This is an album shrouded in religious mysticism and experimental sensibility – and yet, for all its obtuseness, it resonates deeply and immediately. Few albums have acquired such mystery and mythology around them as this, but Laughing Stock’s real power is in the way it cuts through it all with the incredible physicality and clarity of the music contained within it. For those willing to take the journey, Talk Talk’s magnum opus is a paradoxical and endlessly  engaging box of secrets, a revelation with every listen.

strong 9/10