The Thomas Top Five: 4/25/16
Our Editor-in-Chief listens to upwards of 50 albums per week, so why not let him share the five, presented alphabetically by artist, he thinks are the best for you to hear on this week’s installment of the Thomas Top Five?
Catherine Wheel – CHROME
Genre: Alternative Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Kill Rhythm,” “I Confess,” “Crank,” “Strange Fruit,” “The Nude”
The popularly-given shoegaze genre tag is a misnomer (and quite an egregious one at that); Catherine Wheel’s CHROME is just a really, really good 90s alt-rock gem. Although the era’s sonic trappings are in full plumage here (I think it’s something in the mixing technique), Catherine Wheel rises above many of their peers by taking the sweaty desperation of grunge and filtering it through the melodies of Britpop and, yes, the textured presentation of shoegaze, I suppose. But what I particularly enjoy about CHROME is the sense of frustration and downright anger slowly simmering under the surface of each and every one of these songs. Whereas many a 90s act saw frontmen attempt to forcibly reclaim masculinity away from 80s pageantry through their baritone growls and grumbles, Rob Dickinson’s voice sounds nearly flighty, making his pain all the more impactful. Structured around clearly distinguished melodies but content to let them slowly wash over the listener instead of make themselves explicitly obvious, it’s an unforgivable affront that Catherine Wheel isn’t more widely regarded as a seminal act of the 90s.
Gem Club – ACID AND EVERYTHING
Genre: Chamber Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Flax,” “Animals,” “Spine”
The definitive high school cry album, I completely forgot how many of my tears were brought about thanks to Gem Club’s debut EP. Relistening to it four years later, despite some inherently personal connections to the memories tied to each track, I am happy (sad?) to report that it holds up as a definitive cry album. The trick, dear Watson, lays with its simplicity; although Christopher Barnes’s vocals are very “Random Magazine’s Indie Sampler,” it’s highly commendable that such an oppressively depressive atmosphere can be created with just some simple piano chords, subdued string arrangements, and a man’s voice, all played at a tempo suggesting a drunken stumble through suburbia post-breakup. The magic demonstrated here would never manage to be captured on a Gem Club full-length, and I think it’s due in large part to how exhausting being this sad can be. Within seconds you’ll be sitting staring at the wall, head in hands, thinking about your personal shortcomings and failures. And baby, that’s my kinda party.
Gloomy Grim – LIFE?
Genre: Symphonic Black Metal
Favorite Tracks: “Born in Fire,” “Revelation 666,” “My Domain”
Alright, I’m not necessarily proud of the fact that I’m recommending this album mostly based on its cover art, but c’mon, how could you not want to listen to this once you gaze upon that ridiculous image??? A strange visual mixture of Iron Maiden’s DANCE OF DEATH and the music video to Yung Lean’s “Hurt,” I was laughing before I even clicked play on “Arrival of the Antichrist,” but to Gloomy Grim’s credit, I was largely shut up once “Born in Fire” kicked into gear. Here’s the thing: along with anything emerging from the dungeon synth genre, symphonic black metal is not the musical avenue to pursue if you come in with any conceptions of authenticity. The very nature of the music is wrapped up in artifice, whether it be the exaggerated stage personas of the practitioners or the synthetic nature of the instrumentation, and those looking for something that’s pure kvlt may be best to pass LIFE? by. However, what is black metal but a genre for those on the outside looking in? In this regard, LIFE? perfectly encapsulates the feverish, hateful lonerism motivating any given black metal release, and musically there’s a more mature sense of composition and pacing present than the cover art would suggest. Those willing to indulge synth sounds ripped right from their childhood keyboards may find themselves enjoying this more than they’re willing to admit.
Les Baxter and His Orchestra – RITUAL OF THE SAVAGE
Favorite Tracks: “Jungle River Boat,” “Quiet Village,” “Love Dance”
An area of intense personal interest, exotica is one the most interesting subgenres of music that exists. Ultra-specific to a particular time in American history, exotica emerged when the post-war middle class was beginning to enjoy the beauties of expendable income and was looking to explore the world in any way they could. Essentially, exotica can be boiled down to rich white people creating their approximations of the sounds and atmospheres of the South Pacific and the Orient. Although coined by the Martin Denny album of the same name, Les Baxter’s RITUAL OF THE SAVAGE is widely regarded as the quintessential exotica release, and for good reason. Now, of course, as you can guess from the brief genre context I’ve offered, Les Baxter does not recreate the authentic musical traditions of the Amazonian jungle; instead, he turns in a fantasy-laden and wide-eyed Hollywood score to Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise. A mixture of fragile orchestral passages with lots of attention paid to Afro-Cuban and samba-indebted rhythmic passages, RITUAL OF THE SAVAGE is always as light, breezy, and relaxing as its conceit intended it to be. If you can put aside the more problematic elements of the genre’s intentions (and admittedly, some probably can’t), you’ll find yourself instantly transported to a 50s Safari-themed cocktail party, if not necessarily the jungle.
Vektroid – POLYTRAVELLERS
Favorite Tracks: “Giza,” “Tesselation B,” “Wildlife Diskette”
Yes, this is made by Ramona Andra Xavier, most popularly known for FLORAL SHOPPE. No, it sounds nothing like it. While many other of her more obscure releases toe the line, POLYTRAVELLERS can’t be rightfully considered vaporwave in anything more than perhaps technocentric intent, instead existing as a long, pensive stroll through a world suffering a gradual death before becoming reborn through the internet. The first three and a half tracks are exceptionally minimalist ambient pieces filtered through a palpable filter of decay, earning the William Basinski comparisons that many have placed upon them. However, halfway through “Prismatic,” almost as if a computer is booting up, an arpeggiating synthesizer introduces us to our brave new world, and the slowly undulating textures of both “Tesselation” tracks bring us to the soul-bearing grin of “Wildlife Diskette,” as if we’re standing with a loved one per the couple on the album cover, gazing out across the vast wasteland we’ve just successfully transversed. This is not an album for those looking for simple pleasures, but one that takes you on an emotional journey ending in triumph.