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New Weird Britain: The Best Of 2020
Noel Gardner , December 1st, 2020 09:18

In the first of our end of year columns, Noel Gardner casts his eye back over 12 months of highs and lows in the fertile UK DIY underground, and selects 20 transmissions you need to hear

East Man portrait courtesy Anthoney Hart

Some people, around this time of this year, have to write introductions to articles which not only cast an analytical eye back over 2020 but focus on a specific topic or niche, and do all this without being offensively glib about it. I don’t envy them much, I can tell you.

What could be less desirable to read than a screed of sourfaced, fake-sober bloviation informing you – in more formal language – that life has been fucking shit all year, and one way or another is going to be fucking shit next year and probably for a long time after that?

Were I to outline the main issues the onset of a global pandemic, and the response to it by a government who consider their enthusiastic programme of social murder somewhere between a statistic and a start, has inflicted on the underground British music landscape, I would undoubtedly be dropping very little science on anyone likely to be reading. No-one can play live, you say – really, I hadn’t noticed.

At a push, there might be some mileage in observing that a decent percentage of the stuff I cover can now be recorded at home, or a plurality of homes: this was the case with a fair few things in the two top tens you’ll find below, as well as ventures like Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington’s prolific Bulbils and the near-century of downloads Cafe Oto have released through their new Takuroku label. Again, if you’re here there’s a good chance you know this already.

Like, I’ve not kept a count going or owt, but it feels like about as much ‘New Weird Britain’ music crossed my threshold this year as in the last few, so that’s good. Including the ‘ones that got away’ coming up, about 70 releases have been reviewed herein, all acts new to the column. I’m very insistent that there are no second chances in this thing: one review, then you’re flushed like a funfair goldfish. Too much hot shit out there to keep knocking on the same doors! Unless you change your name or collaborate with someone, in which case I’ll probably allow it.

Yet, irrespective of this merciless policy, dozens of NWB fave raves released music in 2020, such as the very first act I reviewed in the column, Casual Nun. Likewise the second, Henry ‘Shitmat’ Collins (with, rather than comedic breakcore mania, a prepared field recording of things getting rained on). So did Left Hand Cuts Off The Right, Map 71, Gad Whip, Aging, Knifedoutofexistence, Richard Youngs, Elodie, Cucina Povera, Chow Mwng, Soft Issues, Posthuman, Petbrick, Rian Treanor, Mosquitoes, The Cool Greenhouse, Lovely Wife, Graham Dunning, The Gasman, Sunun, Shelley Parker, Shuck, Shrimp, We Wild Blood, Roy Of The Ravers, Loraine James, Basic Rhythm, Nihiloxica, Robert Ridley-Shackleton, Posset, Chlorine, Jacken Elswyth, Möbius, Territorial Gobbing, Locean, Satori, Ordeal By Roses, Low End Activist, Nkisi, WaqWaq Kingdom, OZO, Tisla, Gnod, Dylan Henner, Culver, Haq123, Emma-Jean Thackray, Jabu, Shit Creek, Laura Cannell and Laksa. So if you click on some of those hyperlinks, which took me fucking ages to do might I add, you’ll see it’s pretty buzzing out there still.

Right, so here’s a score of slammers in which to submerge yourself over a single day awake, hope you enjoy and/or I’m not preaching to the choir here too.

10. Forest Dwelling – Forest Dwelling
(self-released)

“DIY servicing at its modern-day simplest – sit down, play, record, upload, announce – the second part in particular hits the right notes (literally) with me like very little else this year.”

9. Richard Skelton – LASTGLACIALMAXIMUM
(Corbel Stone Press)

“Extraordinarily sparse and austere, paper-thin layers of isolationist drone which I assume to have been created via synthesiser but which often have the feel of a scarcely-processed field recording.”

8. Laura Cannell – The Earth With Her Crowns
(Brawl)

“Demonstrative of the musician’s depth of technique (and appreciation of the centuries’ worth of precursors to it) but giddy with potential.”

7. Susannah Stark – Time Together (Hues And Intensities)
(Stroom)

“Stark’s first formally released music is a seven-song serving of gossamer dub-pop experimentalism.”

6. Haq123 – Evil Spirits Who Prowl About The World Seeking The Ruin Of Souls
(self-released)

“Dale Crover-esque riffs, frankly flamboyant percussive extravagance, a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it Peter Gabriel reference… elsewhere, the sci-fi leanings accentuated by Millie’s electronics expand into exemplary DIY space rock.”

5. Nape Neck – Nape Neck
(self-released)

“You could take the vocals off this and still know this band are tight, as in musically adept, but the egalitarian sharing of the vocals makes Nape Neck sound tight, like buddies in a gang, and that counts for a lot of the radness here too.”

4. Holy Tongue – Holy Tongue
(Amidah)

“It’s This Heat’s 1970s walk-in freezer meets the 80s punky reggae of Singers & Players meets 90s-era attempts by, say, Moonshake or Ui to emphasise the ‘post’ in post rock.”

3. Various – Votive Offerings
(At War With False Noise)

“A compilation which could be summarised glibly as Glaswegian goth but has a wider scope than that might infer.”

2. Datblygu – Cwm Gwagle
(Ankstmusik)

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDcH0vMDxQhyoI5RY7vulMeJuBj_bulxp

“Another crucial document of a brilliant band.”

1. Alison Cotton – Only Darkness Now
(Bloxham Tapes / Cardinal Fuzz)

“Spectral, superlative stuff that moves at the refreshingly near-inert pace of the pre-industrial countryside.”

TEN THAT GOT AWAY

Bengal Sound – Culture Clash Part II
(self-released)

Bristol resident Farhad Ahmed, known as Bengal Sound in production mode, makes lush and exciting music but seems relaxed to a fault as regards it reaching its widest possible audience. Hopefully he’s also relaxed about Culture Clash Part II – a cassette which he sold 400 copies of very briskly early this year without ever making streamable – being uploaded in full to YouTube so all can indulge. The approx premise of this tape, and the equally scarce Part I, is to decorate Ahmed’s pensive take on the West Country dubstep continuum with the Bolly/Lollywood soundtracks of his familial heritage. An intricate patchwork of timestretched crooning, regal harpsichord and chopped-to-shards dialogue thereby joins his beats in bed, ‘Ill Will’ and ‘All White’ especially big hitters.

Dusty Bible & The Canadians – No Buns For Daddy, Live At: J.T. Soar Ltd
(Lancashire & Somerset)

Taped at Nottingham’s esteemed co-operative DIY venue and recording studio like what the title says, and “so long ago I can’t remember” according to Dusty Bible himself (in fact 2015, according to the label releasing it). So not in the strictest sense the flaming-shit-offa-shovel sound of 2020, but they had gigs and that booked for this year, albeit in April therefore canned, so fuck it. Dusty Bible is a Canadian and used to play in a 00s Notts group called Designer Babies; none of his backing band, the Canadians, are Canadian to the best of my knowledge but can variously be found playing in Hey Colossus, Rattle and Kogumaza. No Buns For Daddy is grizzled and blood-raw electric blues that sounds like fuses melting inside Bakelite plugs attached to gear grudgingly shared with Stackwaddy in 1971. A cover of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’, left off the vinyl for space reasons but included digitally, underlines Dusty plus band’s admirable commitment to the bit.

East Man – Prole Art Threat
(Planet Mu)
&
East Man - Divide & Conquer
(self-released)

Anthoney Hart shuffles between a few production names, one of which – Basic Rhythm – I reviewed in a 2019 edition of this column. Its first wave junglist leanings bleed into Hart’s productions as East Man, as do his murky technoise explorations as Imaginary Forces, vice versa and back and forth. Prole Art Threat, the second East Man album, is a showcase for a new crop of London grime MCs: Hart detonates large, screwface bass drops and assembles mazy, minimalist rhythms while names including Darkos, Lyrical Strally and the brilliant Ny Ny chew your ear off. Guess it’s a similar setup to Kevin Martin’s albums as The Bug, but more genre-focused, which is more than fine. Then there’s Divide & Conquer, released via Bandcamp in October and a remarkable half-hour track which begins as a sound collage utilising John Akomfrah’s 1986 riot-themed documentary Handsworth Songs and goes on to feed this into bizarro techno and chilly dark ambience.

Gwenifer Raymond – Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain
(Tompkins Square)

The mountain of the title, found in South Wales, is also known as Garth Hill on account of an ambiguity over its exact height; you may know of this dispute via a mid-90s movie starring Hugh Grant. Gwenifer Raymond grew up at its foot before moving to Brighton in her twenties and learning the ways of various transatlantic old timey musics, notably American primitive folk and rural blues. Somehow, US label Tompkins Square got wind of her before she’d done much more than play a few support slots and open mic nights, and debut LP You Never Were Much Of A Dancer came out through them in 2018. Was a good’un, too, but Strange Lights is an audible leap forward, eight instrumental pieces which go big on the tricksy fingerpicking/quasi-Appalachian/post-Fahey type techniques without being flashy buggers about it. Moreover, she’s dubbed these home recordings “Welsh Primitive”, in a sense completing the circle of discovery but in another inviting the possibility of further explorations down the line.

Kleft & Tolga Baklacioglu – Disguised In Black
(Ceramics)

In point of fact a Hiberno-Turkish pooling of resources, with Kleft – Glaswegian Vickie McDonald – following up a 2019 12-inch on the Domestic Exile label by scheming an album-length tape into life with Istanbul’s Tolga Baklacioglu. Had reason to suspect that this one would be fairly rawkus based on McDonald’s past form (no wavers Divorce, and more recently sludge metal duo Cartilage) and Baklacioglu’s habit of stealing Slayer song titles for his own purpose (Disguised In Black’s opener is named ‘War Ensemble’); this checks out and then some, with a clutch of work-hard-play-hard analogue stompers recommended to fans of, say, Karen Gwyer plus a slight deviation into hardcore breaks/proto-jungle (‘Enshrined By Grace’, Morbid Angel the appropriated party in this case).

Merula – Sleep
(Men Scryfa)

Seems, as best I can discern from the intentionally vague crumbs of info about this one, that Sleep was recorded in 2015 and only trickled out in springtime, like the Dusty Bible release above. Unlike that, though, there is no rambunctiousness or rocking to be had with Merula. Of the two eight-minute tracks on this cassette, ‘Hor Ch'È Tempo Di Dormire’ is an interpretation (‘remix’ feels off here) of a piece by Tarquinio Merula, a 17th-century Italian Baroque composer, treated to dub FX, a lowing cello and field recordings of some non-specific outside world, mostly birdsong. As with something like The Caretaker, it sounds too simple to be impressive on paper but the execution is captivating. ‘Dags Att Sova’, meanwhile, is built from sparse guitar, flatliningly fragile organ and vocals murmured as much as sang, and again goes considerably deeper than is suggested by that description. No indication, natch, if there are to be any further releases under this name, but the main figure behind Merula (ditto the Men Scryfa label) is Thomas Bush, who has mooched around in various experimental guises during the last decade and before that was a member of screamo absurdists The Murder Of Rosa Luxemburg.

No Home – Fucking Hell
(Hungry And Undervalued)

No Home actually sounds distinctly like home, in the sense of home recording, and what with it being something of a banner year for that practise it may partly explain why this entirely DIY, indisputably low-key release travelled farther than your average limited-to-50-tapes Bandcamp job. Fucking Hell was though recorded in early 2019; its creator Charlotte Valentine’s vague designs to shop it to a label never materialised, the better to ensure this sometimes painfully confessional congress of pop and noise is offered up without a speck of varnish. A Telecaster is mangled – to the point of being near-unrecognisable at times, such as ‘Exile’ – by Ableton and a pedal or three, or discarded in favour of hypernaive digital rhythms: ‘A B- In This Economy’ is a bit Suicide, a bit Yeah You, and Valentine delivers its lyrics as if talking in their sleep. That, and said lyrics being squarely in the zone of British Millennial Concerns (see also sadcore-r&b employment rejection ballad ‘The Perfect Candidate’), makes this album liable to either be clasped to one’s bosom or scorned as a navelgazing annoyance. For my part, if I didn’t think the music I cover in this column was divisive, I’d suspect I was doing something wrong.

Sam Barton – Acid Apple Satin Walls
(self-released)

Multifaceted London spacemen Teeth Of The Sea didn’t release anything in 2020, but two of its three members did. Bassist/synth player Mike Bourne recently dropped a 12-inch as half of Metal, which is not metal but some groovy modular electronic tackle, and Sam Barton put out his first full solo release through Bandcamp. Billing himself as “trumpet/cornet player” on the platform, there’s more to Barton than that, and certainly to Acid Apple Satin Walls, yet the brass parts are intrinsic to this suite’s worth – the difference, even, between a decent set of kosmische headnodders and an elegiac journey towards the light. His choice in track titles betray a certain levity, in that they appear to have no relation to the music (‘Sex & The City Solution’; ‘Presbyterians!’), but AASW has considerable depth in its arrangements, whether the mode be melody-led ambience, techno-adjacent rushes or, in the case of ‘Nark’, a Red House Painters-like gloomblanket. An album that deserves to exist three-dimensionally, and in the new year it will, as the debut (cassette) release on Cities Of Gold, a label founded by TOTS members Barton, Bourne and Jimmy Martin.

Space Afrika – hybtwibt?
(self-released)

Another digital-only release, yes, but one that made enough ripples and contained enough sociopolitical-via-emotional weight to swerve my crumbling edict about stuff needing a physical edition to be eligible. Space Afrika – a Mancunian duo, Joshua Reid and Joshua Inyang – have released straightforward artist albums in the preceding five years, the hypothermic dub techno of 2018’s Somewhere Decent To Live being a strong example. Conversely, hybtwibt?, short for “have you been through what I’ve been through?”, began life as an NTS radio broadcast at the end of May before being edited down to a half-hour collage and released a few days later. Intercutting fragments of their own unreleased work (it’s split into 18 tracks, mostly under two minutes) with samples of cop car sirens, Anglo-Caribbean chatter, tearjerker northern soul vocals and treacle-slowed voices of indeterminate origin, hybtwibt? is at once enveloping and eerie. Its broadcast and subsequent release also came during an intense escalation of outrage in the wake of George Floyd’s murder; Space Afrika donated all proceeds to multiple Black-focused organisations, and indeed continue to do so.

Still House Plants – Fast Edit
(Bison/ Blank Forms Editions)

As with No Home above, Glaswegian trio Still House Plants are an act who have received predominantly positive coverage by people minded to cover them – yet enjoyment of this music, my enjoyment at least, allows for the likelihood people may just fail to see what is appealing about it. Not in an “ah, it’s probably too challenging for everyone to understand” way: Fast Edit, which I think the band consider their third album, is ‘challenging’ in relative terms I suppose, but not demonstrably informed by music (or other) theory. Jessica Hickie-Kallenbach has a vocal style I’m at a loss to sully with direct comparisons, inching towards melismatic soulfulness but with a gruffly bassy undercurrent. Finlay Clark and David Kennedy, guitarist and drummer respectively, only sporadically allow themselves to be constrained by what the other is playing, although the suggestion is that this is fully predetermined music. Kennedy might spend sustained periods focusing on a single snare, Clark pushing his taut, distortion-free style to the point of jittering asphyxiation. Not comfortably pegged as jazz or math-rock, Still House Plants aren’t free of precedent – I found myself thinking that if US Maple had never bothered with the hard rock canon, they might have sounded something like this – but Fast Edit gives no impression it was made to curry favour with anyone but themselves.