Down the rabbit hole :: Jeers, cheers and sonic obsessions for 2011

Words: Jesse Locke

2011 was a year of riots, revolutions and people’s microphones, punctuated by heart-sinking stories with the occasional feel-good tale or extraordinary surprise. The speed of current events streaming through the tubes of the internet and spread like wheatpasted show posters made it hard not to become a full-blown news junkie in these 12 hectic months. Meanwhile, reading Chris Hedges’ column week in and week out delivered a rousing dose of real talk. Oh yeah, and this happened.

While the world continued going potty in all directions, I somehow managed to fulfill several musical goals of releasing an LP and joining the band of one of my favourite artists. Alongside dropping cassettes for some other current faves, I listened to more wig-peeling music from the fringes than ever before through daily operations as the editor of Weird Canada. In the end, this same rapid and unfiltered overload of media made it hard not to shut it all off and move into a treefort, but I soldiered on. Here are 10 sonic obsessions that defined my year.

Colin Stetson

This is the guy. My darkhorse pick for the Polaris Prize was seemingly everywhere in 2011, but the place he sounded best was within New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. Jazzbo or otherwise, this monolithic LP is a jolting showcase of Gustafsson-style circular breathing blowouts and majestic Jurassic Park drones. Laurie Anderson’s narration adds gravity to be sure, but the real power comes from the fact that this is one man with bodybuilder lungs stacking polyrhythmic patterns on top of each other, tapping beats with his fingers and simultaneously singing into his horn without the help of an overdub, loop or effects pedal. I’ve seen him do it live twice now and still barely believe it’s real. Credit is due to the engineering geniuses at Hotel2Tango as well, who placed 20+ microphones on or around his sax to create a truly stereostropic soundworld. Interviewing Stetson proved him to be as much of a superhuman masterbrain as you’d imagine, but also just a talented guy who’s happy to get the chance to do what he does best.

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan

I first had my mind blown by this supercharged pan-Asian performance troupe with their set at Cool Fest 9 several years back. 2011 was the year that Yamantaka // Sonic Titan saw fit to transmit the first glimpses of their self-described ‘Noh-Wave opera’ into a recorded form, and the resulting LP from Psychic Handshake is even more goggling than I could have imagined. From face-shredding guitar riffs (courtesy of Grand Trine’s Shub Roy) to medieval organ prog and dreamy moments of Blonde Redhead-style pixie-pop, YT//ST is a monster of an album. I predict nothing less than world domination in 2012.

Femminielli

2011 saw Bernardino Femminielli fully develop his smooth-talking Giallo disco lothario persona with a jaw-dropping string of releases. From the Chauffeur 7″ for Fixture Records to the Carte blanche aux désirs cassette for his equally amazing label, Los Discos Enfantasmes, this icy electronic labryinth was one I didn’t mind getting lost inside. Sabrina Ratté’s 10-minute head-trip of a video for his song “Atlantida” might be the best place to start, while the glitching computerized vocals of his brand new tape, Telenovelas Mentales, point the way into the future.

The Offset: Spectacles

I have to admit here that my tastes in music have a pretty strong bias towards percussion. I’ll get into any song if I can air-drum along to it, and it’s why Electric Miles will always be my jam. I also find it strange, then, that a drumless, VU-inspired rock group with only cat-scratch guitars and gritty Cantonese vocals can be so damn captivating. Fuzz organ, electronics and screeching violin add texture, but The Offset: Spectacles remains as sparse as Dragnet-era Fall. This minimalist trio originally hails from Hong Kong, but relocated to Beijing to found the Rose Mansion Analog label (also home to cassettes from Canada’s Hot & Cold, Dirty Beaches and the oscillator duo Soviet Pop). The Offsets LP marks their first foray into vinyl, and it’s a stunner. Mail order must-grip.

Comedy podcasts

I live in Toronto but work in scenic Etobicoke, so hour-plus trips in transit are a daily occurrence. For my money, there’s nothing more enjoyable than waking up to something that makes you laugh so hard you start crying and blowing snot bubbles on a crowded bus while everyone around you thinks you’re a lunatic. The Best Show was my gateway drug, which soon led into The Pod F Tompkast and spiraled into an addiction. Everything on Earwolf Radio is quality, but especially How Did This Get Made?, Tig Notaro’s Professor Blastoff and the flagship podcast, Comedy Bang Bang. Host Scott “Hot Saucerman” Aukerman brings in a pair of comedian guests each week, one of whom plays a character like Charles Barkley, Jennifer Tilly (now in a relationship with Chucky) or Sappity Tappity the alcoholic Christmas tree. That probably doesn’t sound funny, but hey, it is. Deal with it. Marc Maron’s WTF is another go-to for his extended interviews with comedians that often result in candid and/or emotional revelations. Not always funny haha, and the show’s title is pretty apt. This year’s episode with Norm MacDonald going deep into his gambling addiction is especially great.

Lantern

Blitzkrieg proto-punk trio Lantern was originally formed by Zach Fairbrother and Emily Robb of Halifax’s longhair psych jammers Omon Ra II. After moving to Philly and picking up moxie-filled drummer Sophie White, they’ve since cemented their status as one of the best in the game. Breathing fire into the tradition laid down by Bo Diddley and his ilk with a twist of Hasil Adkins and some seriously shredding guitar moves, their 2011 cassette on Night People and 7″ from Mammoth Cave are both must-grips. Rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well in these hands.

Wyrd Visions // Castlemusic

Five years after the hood classic Half-Eaten Guitar, double-neck shaman Wyrd Visions reemerged unexpectedly to share a 12″ split with Jennifer Castle. Toronto’s sweet and understated wisp-folk minstrel proved the perfect match on this two-song gem, with both artists delivering in spades. “My Boat” and “Voice of God” provided the soundtrack to my winter, starting off many mornings and lingering long into the frosty night.

Man Made Hill

Man Made Hill was my entry into Toronto’s musical subterrain after we booked the prince of darkness to play this summer’s first annual Wyrd Fest MTL. Randy has since become my personal avatar of awesomeness, representing all that is strange and beautiful about the city’s sonic happenings. Pumping out zonked electronics and intergalactic funk à la Mandre, he freaks the beat like an alternate dimension Andrew W.K. Look out for his latest alter-ego, Denim Reptile, and probably five more projects by the time you read these words.

Golden Retriever

These dogs were a late-year discovery, but have recently joined my regular rotation like a pair of favourite undies. The Portland duo of Matt Carlson (modular synth) and Jonathan Sielaff (bass clarinet) released three albums in 2011, all drifting through a dreamlike combination of Arp-style ambient nostalgia and heady cosmic jazz. The Arda Viraf cassette from Agents of Chaos is my go-to, highlighted by the gorgeous 15-minute title track. Yet unlike many of their overly prolific neo-kosmische peers, Golden Retriever match quantity with quality every step of the way.

Kris Ellestad

The fact that Kris Ellestad remains anything less than a household name is a baffler. This guy should be Groban famous, making grandmas swoon the world over. In all seriousness, Ellestad released his strongest collection of songs to date in 2011 with No Man is Land. And while the album received a few scattered pellets of praise, I still feel it’s a criminally underrated masterpiece. From the complex fingerpicked guitars to lush instrumental arrangements and Kris’s chamomile croon (not to mention his ridiculously clever lyrical wordplay), it can’t be recommended enough. For more fun, an ongoing YouTube channel of covers shows both his range and fantastic taste. Kris doing Michael Gira doing Dylan is essentially unimpeachable.