Welcome to the amodelofcontrol.com review of 2018, which begins this week. Over this and the next three Tuesdays, I’ll be rounding up the best music of the year in various categories. In coming weeks there will be the best tracks, the best albums, and the best gigs.
Countdown: Compilations and Re-issues
But this week, as I’ve now done for a few years now, I’m going to look at a number of the re-issues and compilations released across the year. This gives me a chance to reflect on some old favourites in new forms, and rediscover some albums that I’d maybe forgotten about entirely, not to mention the odd compilation from a label that is worth your time.
I used to look at the releases that have disappointed me across the year. But I’ve tried to be less negative in recent times (although some things still need to be called out from time to time, that’s for sure). After all, our scene as it is, and the wider music scene in general, is under threat in many ways. Making a livelihood from music is, of course, more difficult than ever, as revenues from music decrease amid the relative stampede towards streaming services, and even in the live environment things are not so rosy, as venue after venue closes for one reason or another (particularly inner-city residential development suddenly sparking complaints about noise, something that has politicians have been moving towards sorting out, but it still isn’t resolved yet).
I run amodelofcontrol.com as what might be called a “labour of love”. I’ve written about music for twenty-two years, fifteen of those years under this website banner, and I continue to want to celebrate all that is great about this corner of the musical realm. So this site continues to exist – with no external funding and no paid-for advertising – and I will continue to do so as long as I want to do it, and as long as people want to read it.
So thanks for reading, contributing, offering comment, or being one of those people that makes the music I want to write about. And here’s to more in the future.
amodelofcontrol.com on Facebook
I rather foretold the looking back that Garbage have done in recent years with The Rearview Mirror: 005, which I posted in January 2015, just a couple of months before they announced the re-issue of their debut album and the quite wonderful tour dates that followed. I wasn’t especially surprised, therefore, to see that the band decided to repeat the trick with their second album this year, although for various reasons I decided to pass on the tour this time around. It isn’t as if I don’t love this album – I really do, in fact it has rather surprised me just how much I still do when listening to this remaster – I just love the debut more. The songs here are great, there is much more in the way of electronics on this album, but it just feels more…smoothed out? Despite a handful of the songs becoming deep fan favourites (if you see them live, just listen to the ecstatic reactions when I Think I’m Paranoid and The Trick Is To Keep Breathing get played), there is a detachment here that meant for me that I could never love this album in quite the same way. That said, the looking back by the band has resulted in their best new material in years, as they’ve rekindled the spark that was there in the first place. The other thing – weirdly the B-sides were never that great, but the remixes were, and guess which weren’t featured on this re-issue…
Expand, retool, rework? Ok then – the excellent Tech Noir was at #9 in Countdown: 2017: Albums, and Sean Payne’s Cyanotic took another look at that album this year, adding additional tracks, a few remixes and a bit of a polish and brush-up to the existing mix. In fact, Cyanotic have never sounded so good on record. The original eight tracks from Tech Noir have an astonishing depth of detail, and the additional material detracts nothing whatsoever, indeed just extends the enjoyable experience over a longer period. That said, I swear this release mainly came about as Sean Payne could name an album in homage to one of his favourite films…
Paul Draper may have taken his time in returning with a solo project after the acrimonious end of Mansun – and then took a bit more time before it appeared that he was willing to go down the route of playing his old songs again – but what has happened since has been worth the wait. The re-issue of Attack of the Grey Lantern, an album loosely linked to Britpop but frankly poles apart by virtue of the sheer scale of influences and sounds on display, was a lavish beast that really did dig into the vaults. With the rather voracious nature of many long-time Mansun fans, it seems obvious that the litany of excellent B-sides wouldn’t be enough (especially as they would have them all anyway), so there are a whole host of alternate versions, not to mention an entire CDs worth of radio sessions and live tracks, a 5.1 surround sound version of the album on DVD and all the videos. That said, the album itself is still worth the price of admission alone, and with a re-issue of Six to come as well, who knows what treasures we might get out of that.
The thrilling, second life of Swans now at an end – and who knows what happens next there, and indeed if Michael Gira releases anything more at all under the Swans moniker – it was I guess the ideal time to re-issue the colossal final album from the first phase, that dates all the way back to 1997. Released with Die Tür ist zu as a third CD, Soundtracks… remains a daunting hulk of an album at 26 tracks and 141 minutes, that explores just about every corner of what Swans were about. Which makes sense as some of the elements used within it were already some years old by the time of release, and not all of them were songs in the strictest sense. There were spoken word elements, found sound constructions (some of this could well be termed Musique concrète), reworkings of tracks, but all of it still felt like it could only be Swans. By no means an entry route into the band – Children of God or White Light From The Mouth of Infinity are far more appropriate places to start – this awesomely rewarding reissue is the mind-expanding realisation of just how much ground Gira, Jarboe and the band were willing to cover at their peak.
One of my big regrets in 2018 was having to miss Cold Waves in Chicago – and thus missing the live returns of both Chemlab and C-Tec. My disappointment at the latter, though, was partly assuaged by this stellar re-issue of the two C-Tec albums in one lavish package. Listening to them back to back also shows just how different they are. Darker absolutely glowers out of the speakers at you, a dense rhythmic attack balanced with moments of calm contemplation that you just know will explode at any moment; while Cut has less emotional coldness and a surprisingly lush touch to moments of it (She Left is possibly the best ballad Jean-Luc de Meyer ever wrote), but equally able to hit like a jackhammer at other points. The remaster by Jules Seifert makes this a release that absolutely demands to be heard loud, and on good speakers, as the detail is amazing. The new artwork – by Jim Marcus – looks amazing, too, particularly with the glossy finish to it. Not only do I want to listen to it repeatedly, I also want it framed on my wall.
The band’s experimentation with electronics perhaps divided their fans more than any other stylistic shift I’ve ever seen by a band, and perhaps a sign of the backlash against it – something that I have long thought reflected poorly on their fans unwilling to countenance change – is how much the band have retreated away from it since, effectively and gradually returning to the doomier, heavier guitar-based textures of old. I was one of those people that adored this album, and still does, though, and this remaster allowed me some time to reappraise it. As Greg Mackintosh noted in Talk Show Host: 045 at the time of release, the additional detail and texture in the mix only enhances what were already great songs, perhaps presenting this album in the way that they envisioned in the first place.
The incessant work Jim Semonik has put in over the years was recognised with a ceremony of sorts at Cold Waves this year, where he was “knighted” for his services to the scene and to charity. Subsequently numbers were released that confirmed that his work on the Electronic Saviors series has now passed no less than $70,000 to cancer and mental health/suicide prevention charities, which frankly is an extraordinary achievement. No less of an achievement in musical terms is the work that he does in pulling these compilations together, as each of them are multi-disc monsters, the most recent editions clocking in at six CDs and beyond 70 songs. Like the previous ones, of course, Vol. 5 pulls together the whole spectrum of the scene, naturally centred around North American artists but there are many from Europe and elsewhere that feature too, in the now-familiar mix of exclusive new songs and remixes, or alternate versions of existing songs, but critically with a huge variety of styles on display too. An essential purchase every time, I can’t recommend this edition – and the previous releases – highly enough.
It has become pretty much expected that Collide will release a remix album after each album nowadays – but what is remarkable to me is just how good each of them are. Collide have a very distinct style – guitar-assisted industrial darkwave with Karin’s ethereal vocals floating across the mix – so what is often obvious is that a desire to do something different really brings out the best in the remixers. Their smart habit of opening out the remixes to pretty much anyone that wants to do them – which often includes amateur musicians who might be just fans of the band – also means that there is an amazing variety in the output, and it also does the additional service of giving a “leg up” to these smaller artists, too. That said, there are certain moments worthy of particular note, particularly the Blue Stahli rework of Freaks Me Out, whose savage, anthemic take is easily the best Collide remix released since Vortex fourteen years ago.
After the release of the striking MASSEDUCTION last year – which perhaps only really made sense when we saw her stellar live show this summer – St Vincent had been teasing that there were other versions of the songs, but it took until this autumn, a year after the original release, before we heard most of them. Fast Slow Disco was first, and an exceptional, upbeat dance version of a tough song, but this piano-and-voice version of the album is extraordinary. For a start, it reveals just how brilliant many of these songs are, with all the electronics and production wizardry stripped away, but it also gives away just how nakedly emotional many of the songs are – the trauma of Young Lover in particular is now quite the trial. Not all of the songs work in this form – Sugarboy and the title track especially rather lose something without the studio layering and pulsing beats – but this bold take on the songs, more than anything, confirms that in retrospect I was a bit harsh on the album in the first place…
Watching the recent BBC4 documentary about this was to me an utter eye-opener. I have long been a relatively casual Primal Scream fan, never having seen them live but always at least dipping into each release as their constant reinvention means that there is always something of interest at least. Give Out But Don’t Give Up, though, always felt like an anomaly. Perhaps coming straight after the seismic changes that Screamadelica heralded – the walls between indie and dance were brought down by that one record, pretty much – this was always going to be a disappointment, but going down the route of what felt like a classic rock-and-soul tribute act seemed a strange call. The documentary helped it explain it, though – this was actually the band exploring their musical upbringing in classic soul, and paying tribute to that by recording it in Memphis (and with some legendary musicians). These original versions are extraordinary, too, being much looser and, yes, funkier, than the over-produced versions that eventually made up the album release in the first place. Certainly a better call than just “remastering” the album, too, this fascinating delve into an alternate history for the band is well worth your time, even if you didn’t really like Give Out….