REVIEW

REVIEW

Tony Kill - Love High Speed

By Phillipe Roberts

A genre-less expanse of frayed ideas, Love High Speed is a series of sonic detours taken with giddy abandon. Conducted by Washington D.C.-based artist Tony Kill, the EP presents seven smeared tracks that play right into the enigmatic presentation of their creator, offering little to no clues as to who, or what, we’re listening to beyond fragmented voicemails, clipped field recordings, and twisted singing that phases in and out of audibility. Let the constant distortion wash over you for the first listen, however, and you find yourself in a rich sonic world that makes a virtue out of misdirection. It keeps ambitions high even as the fidelity crawls deeper and deeper underground.

In contrast to the rest of Love High Speed, opener “Dolin Blanc” whistles its way in and keeps things smooth, much like the sweet vermouth that serves as its namesake. A sensuous bassline rumbles under gently splashing drums before dislocating from the groove entirely, playing against ambient swirls of guitar as the scene dissolves away from the pleasant morning reverie. Suddenly, a pen scratches out a signature, and a desk attendant asks if you need help with your bags. You’re fully checked-in to his surreal hotel now, and Tony Kill is free to really let loose for some twisted fun. Because for all of the sweetness and order of “Dolin Blanc,” it’s the rough-hewn weirdness of the rest of the EP that allows Tony Kill to really shine, unhinged from the expectation of providing anything for you to comfortably grip onto.

With the bouncing bass from “Dolin Blanc” still present as a holdover, Tony Kill begins his descent on “Heaven Sent,” charging through church organ swells with a chorus of Tonys proclaiming “You’re Heaven Sent” ad nauseum. Other indistinguishable vocals pour in, crying out with a kind of impassioned religious ecstasy that crashes over the main vocal in waves–a brilliant effect that sounds like watching someone have a mental breakdown in the middle of Sunday service.

Crafting these sharp moments of emotional tension is something that Tony Kill does remarkably well across the EP. Particularly so on “Drive,” where distorted shouts pile on top of a screeching guitar solo, which mellows out into a light, bluesy twang, before erupting again in chaos in a perfect mirror of the lyrics–“Intruder alert / Intruder alert.” But with all of this dissonance, Tony Kill isn’t afraid of a satisfying groove. Like the aforementioned “Dolin Blanc,” much of the EP ruminates on stretching simple ideas out into flavorful instrumentals. From the undeniably catchy krautrock pulse of “Gotta Turbo (Truck Stanley),” which almost sounds piped in from a Stereolab or Broken Social Scene rehearsal, to the industrial throb and burbling vocals of “I Am This Close,” it’s clear that Tony Kill knows exactly where to turn on the head-nodding charm.

Love High Speed ends with the instrumentally slight and vocally dissociative “Anyone.” Tony unspools a yawning manifesto, “I don’t fear anyone,” just twice over a creeping groove that hardly shuffles past the one minute mark. Thought it follows the disorienting, dubbed-out odyssey that is “Suddenly Unknow Everything,” “Anyone” feels like the perfect place to conclude his latest adventure–fearless and unphased, laughing in the face of any potential detractors before they even get a chance to respond. Love High Speed keeps you on your toes–and is well worth the disorientation–but don’t expect any congratulations from Tony for making it through to the other side. He’s above it all, distinctly unimpressed that you’re finally on his level.

REVIEW

Alpenglow - Speculator

a4053880926_16.jpg

By Jordan Feinstein

Alpenglow is a psychedelic indie rock band based in NYC. Their newest single, Speculator–off their upcoming album Oceans in Between–searches the bounds of space and time for a deeper understanding of the self. How focused on the future should you be, if that focus means your present is just passing time at work.

“Yeah it matters where you’re going, [but] take a moment to be out of ticking time,” he sings. Does existing solely in the present make you “adrift,” and does being adrift have value in itself? The song compares the narrator, working a barback job but spending his days out and about living life, with a second character who commutes and works a boring, full time job. More subtle than any conclusions as to who’s living their life correctly are the songs final lines: “Lay your life on my / I’ll give mine to you / Don’t mind if I stare / I know you’re staring too / I know you’re staring into.” Both of these characters wonder about what the other has, both of these characters wonder about what they’re missing. Look at me, it says, and don’t mind if I look at you. Maybe we’d both wonder less if we shared more together.

REVIEW

Ditto - In Human Terms

a2222364284_10.jpg

By Phillipe Roberts

The algorithm - referred to almost universally in this ominously monolithic way, like a divine being or a mythical creature - giveth, but it mostly taketh away. Don’t look now, but gone are the halcyon days of a wild and unrestricted Internet, if that kind of pipe dream ever existed to begin with. Spend any appreciable time on your favorite music streaming service and you’ll begin to circle the drain. The same 20-30 artists in your suggestions, autoplay recommending you buzz bands you’d never dream of touching while simultaneously icing out your closest friends. A truly vicious gatekeeper with downright shady intentions and selective memory, the algorithm takes no prisoners in boiling us down to the sum of our clicks

But sometimes, waking up in the early morning delirium with your headphones still in, hours deep into a shadowy game of autoplay (anyone?), the algorithm gets it right. Sometimes, all that wonky, should-be-illegal data collection opens doors. Sometimes, it drops you into the inimitable world of Charles Ditto.

Aside from a few magazine reviews of his albums lovingly scanned and uploaded to his website, the work of Ditto has largely slipped by unnoticed. Passed around by synth aficionados and MIDI historians, his works seemed confined to academic obscurity, a late 80s curiosity collecting dust until late last year, when Youtube user “no obi, no insert” uploaded the album “In Human Terms” onto the site. And dastardly as that pesky algorithm may be, if you feed it a steady diet of strange ambient or foreign synth pop, it’ll have to start listening to you...eventually.

This is where Kasra Kurt and Ada Babar finally found the record, recently uploaded and lingering on “no obi”’s page. The two fell in love instantly. “I was surprised by how contemporary the album sounded,” Kasra says, “It has this nostalgic, post-romantic vibe that still somehow feels uplifting and sincere.”

They quickly looked for ways to contact Charles Ditto, and found a .edu email account - the synth master now teaches music at Texas State University. Ditto was keen to have the record re-released, giving Ada and Kasra free rein to “do whatever” with it through their cassette label, Nino Tomorrow. In giving it a physical form once again, they’ve brought a lost classic back right on time to catch the ambient pop resurgence.

Indeed, the most shocking feature of In Human Terms is how contemporary the sounds are, a phenomenon that Kasra credits to the album’s subtle rhythmic shifts and sparsely melodic character. On certain tracks, like the appropriately titled opener “Pop,” it’s easy to hear the album as a series of backing tracks to an ambient pop song from the likes of NNA Tapes favorites and synth weirdos Erica Eso or even Kasra’s band Palm–the soft polyrhythms gently undulate beneath blindingly bright synths, finding that perfect middle ground between meditation and exhilaration. “Rock” is another standout, with countermelodies weaving about each other in 5/4. The way they merge into a confused but propulsive mega-melody calls to mind a machine taking its first awkward steps, gradually picking up confidence.

The textures here do tend towards retro-futuristic, almost to the point of cheesiness. Invoking a bit of whimsy himself, Ditto’s website refers to the music as a form of alien life, “a curious music...discovered on a peculiar, but exotic MIDI-capable little planet.” It’s an apt expression, as the songs do seem to breathe with an convincingly organic character. “World Anthem” whirls and dances, gliding on synthesized voices that pulse in and out to close side one, which Ditto names the “High” side, like a wonky fanfare. Side two, “Low”, begins with a massive shift in “Prisoner Waltz,” whose elongated, breezy textures mingle with nature sounds for a cosmic brain massage. Like the best ambient music, In Human Terms works best when it works for the listener. True to the album title, tracks like “Christmas Before the War” seem to meet you exactly where you are, embracing you gently rather than flinging you into the deep end.

The “Low” side of the record is altogether more calming, dialing down the percussion while bringing in some guest instrumentation to keep your interest piqued. The saxophone on “Western” is a particularly nice addition; hearing it in duet against the icey keyboard textures is a real treat, so much so that when it returns only briefly on closer “Basso Contrato,” it sounds like a beautiful memory snatched up in the song’s tumbling post-rock rhythm.

In Human Terms is the work of a master machinist playing mimic–bending emerging technology to see just how close he can come to passing a musical Turing test. In a twist of irony, in failing to render a perfect copy, Ditto’s MIDI-capable machine universe sounds too human to ignore.


REVIEW

Ava Luna - Moon 2

a2655506551_10.jpg

By Max Freedman

Somewhere along the way, one of the decade’s most overlooked bands decided to begin referring to itself as a group instead. Brooklyn’s Ava Luna—the five-piece art-pop outfit of multi-talents Carlos Hernandez, Felicia Douglass, Becca Kauffman, Julian Fader, and Ethan Bassford—reached this decision at some point while conceiving Moon 2, its fourth and most straightforward album to date.

With how many other projects its members are involved in, Ava Luna’s genesis of an album as unimposing as Moon 2 deserves special attention. Here’s a short but likely incomplete list of the members’ other work, because they just do that much: Kauffman is the performance artist and avant-pop figure Jennifer Vanilla; Douglass is in the electropop group Gemma and tours as part of Dirty Projectors; Hernandez and Fader are part of the band NADINE and together run the Brooklyn recording studio Gravesend Recordings, where Speedy Ortiz and Frankie Cosmos recorded their 2018 albums. Each project that the members are involved in informs the group’s songwriting in some way, and on Moon 2, the group sounds less worried than ever about preventing its other interests from entering the foray.

Moon 2 is Ava Luna’s tidiest attempt at cramming the members’ expansive breadth of influences into a 40-minute collection. Its consistency and coherence are unmatched by previous Ava Luna albums, and this quality welcomes new listeners with open arms. Take “Mine,” for instance. To longtime Ava Luna fans, the influence of Kauffman’s performance art background will be readily apparent within the song’s first minute, but to newcomers, “Mine” is a deeply groovy and enticing pop song doused in a deep, blue flame. “Deli Run” is likewise as funky as it is plain fun, restricting Ava Luna’s notoriously thick basslines and shrieking guitar harmonics to guiding elements in a swerving pop jam. “Set It Off” assertively and sassily wags a finger via a classically offbeat vocal performance from Kauffman, and synthetic clatter that resembles a more tightly wound take on a handful of Electric Balloon/Infinite House-era Ava Luna highlights. The group’s trademarks remain apparent to the diehards, but never before have they been packaged so approachably.

Interestingly, where Ava Luna’s newly explicit group dynamic and focus on relatively unchallenging pop sounds and structures sometimes falter is on Hernandez’ songs. It’s his voice that appears most often across the Ava Luna catalogue, so fans have sometimes seen him as the group’s de facto front-person, but Moon 2 suggests that he truly has taken a backseat. “Accessible,” the surprising, auto-tuned opener, sounds like his brainchild (though Kauffman actually provides the Fernandez-esque vocals), but it dips too deep into the trendy pool of musical roboticism (and might actually be the album’s least accessible moment). “Leaf,” another Hernandez song, is aptly named; like a leaf, it’s pretty, but it’s motionless even when it’s colorful. None of this is to say that Hernandez has forgotten how to make great music–Ava Luna is, after all, a group. His charms appear in the aforementioned guitar harmonics on “Deli Run” and on the enticing whisper during the chorus of “Centerline,” a thrilling reminder of how special and flexible his voice is.

Hernandez really does recede to the background, though, and this often feels intentional; Moon 2 is dominated by Kauffman and Douglass’ voices more often than on any previous Ava Luna album. Never before has Ava Luna felt so deeply like a group versus a band, and the songs’ general smoothness (even at their most bizarre—here’s looking at you, “Set It Off”) is a fascinating emergence of this mindset. Moon 2 is this decade’s most overlooked group at its most communal–its collaborative and amiable nature inviting new ears in a way that an already deeply exciting outfit never quite has before.