Spectral Black Metal, Dance-Punk Revival, Rapturous Free-Jazz
Never thought I'd become a tea cocktail guy, but I have recently taken to putting cereal milk in black tea and, y'all, it's glorious. Cheerios milk in my own Earl Grey/hazelnut blend. Fruity Pebbles milk in The Black Lodge, the smoky banana black tea from August. It's a little treat in my afternoon cup. – Lars Gotrich
Viking's Choice 6-Pack
Krallice, Crystalline Exhaustion (P2): Krallice pulls the ol' switcheroo on Crystalline Exhaustion by having each member play different instruments – well, except Lev, who is a tentacle monster of the drums – and by doing so, alters the metal band's already labyrinthine dynamic. Colin Marston's synth-based pandemic projects heavily inform the album's lucid atmosphere, perhaps, but on a track like "Archlights," those sweeping keyboards provide a gothic webbing to Nick McMaster's spectral guitar riffing – like the dark melodrama of classic Aeternus encased in icy tombs.
Perennial, In the Midnight Hour (self-released): You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see dance-punk return. I'm kidding, but only a little bit. I remember dance-punk well, as a college student who flailed limbs wildly to The Faint, We Versus the Shark and Q And Not U in the early 2000s. Some of that stuff holds up, but most doesn't… and it always drives me nuts when a band successfully throws a micro-scene back in my face, with only the best parts. ANYWAY. Perennial. This band gets it. Spikey everything – trebly one-string guitar riffs, mathy rump-shakin' (but not disco) drums, fitful keys, frenzied call-and-response screams, studded belts. I am doing the house-show handclap. But here's what makes this record work: Perennial plays with well-worn dance-punk tropes, but tosses in some scene-adjacent sounds that should've been (mod rave-ups, cocktail jazz cooldowns, Blood Brothers-worthy breakdowns). It reminds me that, early on, this scene – however short-lived, overhyped and quickly mainstreamed – was raucously fun and, as often repeated, taught the indie kids how to dance.
La Colinie de Vacances, ECHT (Vicious Circle): La Colonie de Vacances – an 11-piece skronk ensemble made up of four French rock bands – blurs electronic, prog-, math- and noise-rock to make music that contains a special kind of hyper-focused chaos. At times, you'll be reminded of early Battles – it's a post-Battles world and we're all living in it – but the intention here is buttoned-up brutalization. Polyrhythmic puzzles clash against jagged guitars, gothic synth goo and a punked-up Nite Flights-era Scott Walker howl.
Ronnie Martin, From the Womb of the Morning, The Dew of Your Youth Will Be Yours (Velvet Blue Music): Ronnie Martin spent the majority of the '90s and '00s as Joy Electric, an all-analog synth-pop devotee. From the Womb of the Morning is both a return and a refinement of purpose. With age, Martin's fairytale voice – often a point of intrigue and frustration for me – has mellowed and deepened, and with it, his Moog sequencing/production reflects ages gone by with a complex nostalgia. And, oh, the drum machine programming – how I've missed Martin's spacious-yet-hard-hit sense of rhythm. But most of all, there's a mystical drama to these glittering melodies that I just can't resist – I've seen it compared to Kate Bush and suddenly every '80s synth-pop reference went out the window.
Peter Brötzmann / Milford Graves / William Parker, Historic Music Past Tense Future (Black Editions): Y'all, Black Editions Group – which encompasses Black Editions, VDSQ, Thin Wrist – is gonna have a crucial 2022 for adventurous music weirdos. But let's start with a live recording of this free-jazz trio in 2002 at the front room of CBGBs. I had the great fortune to see reedman Peter Brötzmann and bassist William Parker during this era – though not together – and lemme tell y'all: the fire lit something inside me that never went out. This music bucks, burns and bounds with a reckless, but life-giving energy. You hear that in the audience's rapturous response, especially during side C's tense improv between drummer Milford Graves and Parker. What a document, as the jazz heads might say; it breathes something ancient and real.
Linda Smith, Love Songs for Laughs (Preference): Linda Smith's 4-track indie-pop is intimate, yet otherworldly. Her references are '60s girl groups and outré post-punk such as The Raincoats; her songs are notebook scribbles drenched in bedroom tone and dreamy jangle. Like many, I first heard Linda Smith on the brilliant Sky Girl, a decades-spanning mixtape of private-press pop and folk. (Captured Tracks followed suit with the best-of comp TIll Another Time: 1988-1996 in 2021.) But on her personal Bandcamp page, Smith has been uploading her self-released cassettes – 1989's Love Songs for Laughs easily could've come out yesterday, its lo-fi droning wonder echoed through Free Cake for Every Creature, Mal Devisa, Frankie Cosmos and early Mitski.
Playlist: Viking's Claw
Stream the updated Viking's Choice playlist on Spotify and Apple Music via NPR Music's official accounts. Here's the full archive, including this week's playlist. BNDCMPR features tracks only found on Bandcamp, with links to purchase the music, which is the best way to love music; you should stream the BNDCMPR playlist!
A rambling note on Spotify and streaming, given The Discourse
I have always had a... complicated relationship with streaming. I came of age when CDs and tapes were still the dominant format and, in college, saw how P2P networks changed our relationship with music – yeah, I illegally downloaded MP3s and Radiohead bootlegs on the dorm's sweet T1 connection. But aside from out-of-print gems, it didn't take me long to see the goodness and the damage done, and, weighing the pros and cons, I took myself out of file-sharing culture.
I do think music should be accessible; I don't think that music should be free.
There are good arguments to be made about music discovery on streaming platforms; many of y'all have told me that the Viking's Choice playlist has provided that, which is awesome. (And, a side note, the only reason why the playlist began was because NPR Music wanted to streamline its editorial – the casualty being that louder/weirder stuff got bumped down to playlist-only territory. I've always been two minds about it and, missing that writing outlet, started a newsletter. That's changing little by little at NPR Music, for what it's worth.)
But so few people actually take the next step to directly support artists (through ticket sales, merch, albums, etc.) that playlist discovery is almost a moot point... and amplifies the more pressing need for pay equity. There are rare exceptions – and the takes are many – but the whole thing was built to fail musicians. Just read any of Liz Pelly's reporting.
(It wasn't always this way! In a former life, I ran a record label and signed a digital distribution deal through an experimental music-focused company. Early streaming platforms – with names I cannot remember – actually paid decent royalties! Then they got bought out by conglomerates.)
Labor issues aren't even the thing that's driven a Spotify protest this past week. It's blowhard vs. boomer. And, look, protest can come from celebrities – it's superficial, but occasionally raises further questions. I'm willing to give the benefit of doubt, but I can also be a cynical bastard. Both can be true.
The streaming alternatives (Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube) are not much better – labor- or ethics-wise – and, in some cases, are even worse. So what am I going to do?
Last year, I left Substack out of protest (look it up) and moved this newsletter to Buttondown. Substack continues to platform (and pay) transphobes and toxic dudes to write their filth, and thrives – it's a pretty clear and disheartening example of how deplatforming rarely moves the needle. But at the end of the day, I have my conscience and my conscience told me to leave Substack. I may ultimately come to the same conclusion when it comes to Spotify. (And, in some ways, I already have, especially after a few meetings with someone high up Spotify's corporate ladder last year… but that's a story for another day, or never.)
This is all to say that this is as frustrating for me – a music lover, a music journalist – as it is for y'all! There's not really a one-size-fits-all solution! But it is worth pushing on Spotify to do better! Bandcamp is great, as you've read and heard me attest over and over again, but doesn't solve the larger issues at play!
So... I'm still thinking through what I want to do. But don't be surprised if Viking's Choice switches to BNDCMPR entirely!