Chicago contemporary classical | Peter Margasak
Chicago is in the midst of a revolution in contemporary classical music, with young artists taking matters into their own hands and forming bold, forward-looking groups rather than waiting for that elusive symphony job. Northwestern, DePaul, and the University of Chicago have been producing a dazzling number of fearless composers and hungry, open-minded musicians. The following five albums, presented in no particular order, feature some of the greatest talents.
Spektral Quartet, Chambers (Parlour Tapes)
The members of the Spektral Quartet have remarkable technique and keen imaginations, but their marketing savvy contributes just as much to their success—they organize programs that intelligently collide classics by the likes of Britten, Ravel, and Haydn with starkly modern contemporary work (with a focus on locals). The group sticks exclusively to Chicago-based composers on its fantastic debut album; it features fine work by Eliza Brown and Chris Fisher-Lochhead, among others, and it’s named after a three-movement piece by Marcos Balter. I’m especially fond of Liza White’s “Zin Zin Zin Zin,” inspired by a spontaneous phrase Mos Def dropped on “Double Trouble” (a track he made with the Roots), but everything here is fantastic—including the thorny moodiness in Hans Thomalla’s “Albumblatt” and the ferocious constellations of tempo-shifting sawing and strummed double stops in Ben Hjertmann’s String Quartet no. 2 Etude.
Ryan Muncy, Hot (New Focus)
Ryan Muncy, executive director of fearless new-music group Ensemble dal Niente and member of the all-saxophone Anubis Quartet, has been a party to the performance or commissioning of more than 100 new works for saxophone—an instrument that remains on the periphery of new music. On his dazzling solo debut, Hot, he continues to fight the good fight: with only one exception, its diverse saxophone pieces were composed in the current century. A series of bracing duets shows off the instrument’s versatility and freakish extended range as well as its delicacy and refinement. The album includes compositions by Georges Aperghis, Chaya Czernowin, and Marcos Balter; Muncy duets with violist Nadia Sirota, harpist Ben Melsky, and flutist Claire Chase, and on the Franco Donatoni title piece he’s accompanied by Ensemble dal Niente.
Chicago’s premier percussion ensemble tackles a commission from Augusta Read Thomas, formerly a Mead Composer-in-Residence with the CSO and now a professor at the University of Chicago. The four-movement Resounding Earth is built around the ringing, tinkling, and clanging of bells (though lots of other metal percussion turns up as well), with tones both terse and sustained. The CD comes with a DVD shot while the group recorded the work, which gives you a look at the meticulous integration required by the score—all four Third Coast members stay feverishly busy weaving together the music’s layers of rude impacts and serene resonances.
Olivia Block, Karren (Sedimental)
Much of Olivia Block‘s finest work has combined field recordings, electronics, and live instrumentation, but recently she’s been veering toward composed work—at a concert this fall, she presented several impressive pieces for strings. On her landmark album Karren, though, she favors the older approach. The dynamically wide-ranging electroacoustic piece “Foramen Magnum” sets sounds lifted from rehearsals by the Chicago Composers Orchestra within turbulent, unidentifiable field recordings made at the San Diego Zoo and Portugal’s Serralves Contemporary Art Museum. “Opening Night” prominently features the CCO playing long tones and huge swells in kaleidoscopic harmony, clouding the sound field so thickly it’s hard to know what’s going on. Disorientation is rarely so delicious.
Janice Misurell-Mitchell, Vanishing Points (Southport)
Composer and flutist Janice Misurell-Mitchell, codirector of long-running ensemble CUBE, represents the old guard of Chicago’s new-music community. But her latest portrait album proves that there’s nothing outdated or musty about her work. On the aptly titled Agitacion, vibraphone and drum kit alternately intersect and propel Winston Choi and Abraham Stokman’s jagged piano lines, and “Dark Was the Night,” performed by guitarist Maria Vittoria Jedlowski, takes inspiration from the Blind Willie Johnson classic referenced in its title, and its bracing, splintery gestures owe as much to Derek Bailey as to the blues.
Electronic music | Miles Raymer
The words “electronic music” used to be used interchangeably with “dance music” to denote the evolutionary descendants of house and techno, but now that hip-hop and pop artists (among others) have joined in on the exploration of new machine-generated sonic terrain, the term has become broader—and the music it describes has become richer and more fascinating. Here are some prime examples.
M.I.A., Matangi (N.E.E.T./Interscope)
Maya Arulpragasam’s fourth and arguably greatest album to date exemplifies the trend of combining chart-worthy pop with harshly experimental electronic production. Produced by an A-plus team of collaborators great and small, Matangi is aggressive but infinitely hooky, a garishly vibrant assemblage of tweaked-out digital tones, regional dance styles, and found sounds (including the noise of a Mac’s volume being turned up). Standout track “Come Walk With Me” references girl-group bubblegum, Syrian electro-dabke, and New Orleans bounce—it’s got all the brain-searing euphoria of a rave, and it’s as subtle as getting trampled by a herd of car alarms.
As pop fought the loudness wars and dance music’s upper echelons adopted a more-is-more approach, electronic music’s more subterranean composers sought refuge in a new kind of minimalism that rejects the philosophy’s ascetic bent, using the latest technology to imbue stripped-bare compositions with sumptuous sonic textures. This year the trend filtered upward, making hits out of albums such as Lorde’s Pure Heroine, Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, and Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name, all of which provide performers and listeners alike with plenty of space to luxuriate in between their sounds.
Kelela, Cut 4 Me (Fade to Mind)
Recently top-tier producers have had a lot of luck adapting the dark, bassy sounds of underground dance-music collectives to make hits for megastars such as Beyonce, Drake, and Rihanna. Two of those crews, Night Slugs and Fade to Mind, have responded by making their own run at crossover success backing Los Angeles singer Kelela, who has both club-scene credibility and pop-star magnetism; her debut album suggests she has the potential to get insurgent electronic music onto the charts without any middlemen.
The industrial revival
In June, when Kanye dropped Yeezus, industrial music went from a quaintly bygone artifact of 90s alternative culture to a bleeding-edge aesthetic seemingly overnight—the album combines the stark, combative drum programming of vintage Wax Trax! with a tonal palette lifted almost wholesale from Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. But Yeezus is just the tip of the industrial-revival iceberg—most of it is below the surface, where underground artists such as Gesaffelstein are putting a hard edge on vintage techno that sounds like it’d fit right in upstairs at Exit on bondage night.
The Haxan Cloak, Excavation (Tri Angle)
The Internet has helped bridge the gap between the pop mainstream and the avant-garde, but not all influences from the latter make the leap, a la Kanye adopting such edgy electronic artists as Arca, Gesaffelstein, and Evian Christ as sidemen. London-based producer Bobby Krlic, aka the Haxan Cloak, creates abstract music with a focus on unsettling analog-synth textures, but there’s something strangely accessible, almost catchy, in the repeat-worthy results.
Live metal | Philip Montoro
I missed a lot of great metal this year because I’ve been writing a beer column on the weekends—not the worst reason to skip shows, I realize, but I’m particularly sorry I didn’t see Agrimonia, Mutilation Rites, Inter Arma, or Cleric. My favorite live sets of 2013, arranged in chronological order below, include lots of old farts who won’t say die, as befits a stubborn bastard who’s trying to teach himself death-metal drumming at 42.
Kvelertak at Bottom Lounge on Sun 4/21
I didn’t arrive early enough to see front man Erlend Hjelvik in his taxidermied owl helmet, but everything else about this show was awesome. In keeping with the party-time vibes of Kvelertak’s jean-jacket black ‘n’ roll, the sweaty jostlers in the pit were more like to throw an arm around your shoulders than elbow you in the eye—and during the last song, the band hoisted more than a dozen people onstage, hanging all four of their guitars around the necks of unsuspecting fans for an enthusiastically out-of-key encore.
Bolt Thrower at Reggie’s Rock Club on Sat 6/1
Front man Karl Willetts delivered his gleefully incoherent stage patter like an uncle who’d been overserved at Thanksgiving, but Bolt Thrower’s swinging sledgehammers hit their marks every time. It was almost a bummer that this concert was so thoroughly sold out—not because Bolt Thrower don’t deserve a full house, but because the band with the best riffs in death metal ought to be able to look out on a surging sea of banging heads, not a crowd packed together so tightly they can barely shuffle their feet.
Carcass at Reggie’s Rock Club on Mon 9/23
Founding guitarist Bill Steer looked like he hadn’t aged a day since 1995, and 24-year-old drummer Daniel Wilding—not yet born when Carcass‘s first full-length came out—provided a precision-tuned engine for the band’s terrifyingly graceful, exhilaratingly vicious death metal. I especially enjoyed the self-deprecating drollery that bassist-vocalist Jeff Walker brought to his between-song banter—the total effect was that of a stainless-steel spider the size of a garbage truck begging your pardon before deftly removing your skin in one large, dripping sheet.
Obituary at Cobra Lounge on Fri 10/18
Florida death-metal pioneers Obituary played lots of stuff from fan-favorite early albums Cause of Death and Slowly We Rot, turning this show into quite a lovefest—and that love took the form of a circle pit that swelled to fill half of Cobra Lounge’s live room. (Personally, I thought the cutest part was drummer Donald Tardy singing his brother John’s lyrics to himself as he played.) The lurching riffs, brick-wall tempo changes, and odd caesuras in Obituary’s songs made for some confused moshing, but I reckon the band leaves those stitches showing in its music for a reason—to remind you that this monster is sewed together from pieces of corpses.
Arkona at Ultra Lounge on Sat 11/2
This was the most fun I had at a metal show in 2013—and thus this Russian pagan-metal band becomes the first act from my previous year-end lists to earn a repeat mention. Ultra Lounge was much too small for Arkona (and for Arkona’s boisterous fans), but instead of cramping their style, it seemed to concentrate their greatness. The air thrummed with the music’s proud grandeur and feral joy, the windows looking into the bar dripped with condensation, and front woman Maria Arkhipova called for a wall of death in a room maybe 30 feet wide. Best of all, every so often she’d say those magic words: “This is a jumping song!”
Overlooked Chicago hip-hop | Leor Galil
It’s been a tremendous year for hip-hop by Chicagoans: we’ve had Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Lucki Ecks’s Alternative Trap, and Tree’s Sunday School 2, just for starters. But there are plenty of talented local acts who don’t get the attention they deserve. In no particular order, here are my picks for the five best overlooked Chicago rap releases of the year.
Martin Sky, Time(less)
MC and producer Martin Sky makes music for kids in tie-dyed bucket hats playing Xbox in basements thick with pot smoke—on his debut mixtape, Time(less), Sky makes it pretty clear he’s one of those kids, or at least used to be. His dreamy, gauzy instrumentals and loopy, zonked-out rapping are hypnotizing even if you’re stone-cold sober.
Netherfriends, New CHI-t
Nomadic indie-popper Shawn Rosenblatt (aka Netherfriends) is no stranger to hip-hop: 2011’s Netherfriends Does Nilsson includes a wobbly, funky tune called “Full of It” with local MC ShowYouSuck. That track also appears on New CHI-t, a rap-centric collection of Netherfriends collaborations featuring local hip-hop acts such as the Whoevers, Fess Grandiose, and Impolite Society. Rosenblatt molds his psychedelic-tinged pop—sometimes peppy, sometimes wistful, sometimes both at once—into the foundation for fun hip-hop tracks. The Sublime-sampling “Summertime” in particular makes me yearn for warm-weather adventures even more than I usually do.
Inebriation is a luxurious-sounding record, fit for high-rise lakeside penthouses designed by interior decorators into Apple, the XX, and Peter Saville. Lungz‘s tracks have color beneath their pristine, chrome-and-glass surfaces, and his sturdy flow cements Inebriation‘s polished prime-time sound.
S.B.E., The Bop-umentary
West-side trio S.B.E. use the title of this mixtape to nod to bopping, an infectious, playful dance style born in Chicago—and their happy, party-ready tracks are just the sort of thing people like to bop to. The Bop-umentary has all the crackling percussion and eight-bit synths you need to get a fiesta turned up, and the Auto-Tuned crooning on “Whole Block on FeFe” and “Go Hard” flows as smoothly as a Benz on an empty Lake Shore Drive.
Black A.G. & Quicksilver Cooley, Fame Goes to Your Head
Black A.G. is a largely forgotten figure from 90s Chicago rap, but Milwaukee microlabel Dope Folks is helping get his tracks back on the market—in August it put out a six-song EP version of the MC’s 1991 single “Fame Goes to Your Head.” It’s a great song, and it makes for a good excuse to check out an even more obscure release: a couple years ago Black A.G.’s DJ and frequent collaborator Quicksilver Cooley (or someone using his name) uploaded an unreleased album from 1992 to mixtape site DatPiff. With its thick, heavy funk and soul samples, The Lost 1992 Album (which includes a couple songs featured on the new EP) takes me back to early-90s Geto Boys and Native Tongues stuff. Black A.G.’s street-life rhymes are raw, and his gritty lyrics are especially grim when he raps about his neighborhood on “Concrete Jungle”—a place “where your best friend is a TEC-9.”
Noise and experimental music | Kevin Warwick
Categorize ’em as experimental, noise, or whatever, these are my five favorite 2013 releases (in no particular order) by artists who hang out on the margins of music—or piss all over the fence from the outside.
Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus (ATP)
Four years after Fuck Buttons’ phenomenal Tarot Sport—a span during which director Danny Boyle repurposed a couple cuts from the album to soundtrack the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics—the duo of Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power returns with an ambitious album that builds on that landmark release. Dark, tribal beats and nerve-wracking synth buildups twirl together in dysfunctional unison, making it easy to tell that these guys come from a harsh-noise background. While one track rides on a slow backbone beat that would make prime grist for a hip-hop tastemaker’s remix (“The Red Wing“), another sears with buzzes and blips that sound like they’re scheming to break out in a direction you’ll never predict (“Stalker“).
Bill Orcutt, A History of Every One (Editions Mego)
In theory, this is an album of covers. Armed with a modified acoustic guitar tuned on another planet, former Harry Pussy front man and inveterate fretboard mangler Bill Orcutt reimagines the likes of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Black Snake Moan“—a seemingly unlikely pair, but one that clearly resonates with the guitarist, who’s packed this record with his takes on ancient blues and racialized kitsch. He hums and yelps along, following each track’s cracked path, piling his vocals atop the shards of noise wrung from his frenzied, twitchy guitar. Sometimes it may seem as though he’s alluding to the original song with a note or gnarled melody, but if you can make out “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” in the wildness of his playing, you’re lying to yourself.
Tim Hecker, Virgins (Kranky)
Tim Hecker traverses a lot of ground on Virgins, orchestrating squirming soundscapes in one moment (“Virginal I” is like a thicket of swirling wind chimes just before a storm, backed by a distorted, catastrophic rumble) and summoning an apocalyptic celestial chorus in another (“Radiance“). Hypnotic repetition is the album’s siren song, riveting your attention until Hecker distracts you by piling up creaks, groans, and drones atop his loops—or, as in the chilling “Live Room,” ravaging them with brutal low-end buzz. This is the third time in three months I’ve written about this album for the Reader—obviously because I can’t resist just how sunny and uplifting it is.
Hair Police, Mercurial Rites (Type)
Once-prolific harsh-noise auteurs Hair Police unceremoniously dropped what must be their 7,000th release in 2013—their first full-length LP in years. The Lexington-based combo of Robert Beatty, Trevor Tremaine, and Mike Connelly front-load the album with crackling, distorted vocals and subterranean pulses—”Thief’s Spring” features waves of what can best be described as thousands of amplified maggots moving in a furious unison. Hair Police are as grim and disturbing as ever, experimenting with gurgling sweeps and unnervingly irregular repeated pinging on “Scythed Wide,” which is honestly difficult to endure on headphones for more than a minute.
Demdike Stare, Testpressing series (Modern Love)
As Demdike Stare, DJ and producer Miles Whittaker and vinyl archaeologist Sean Canty have established a creepy, layered sound with an atmosphere of unseen terror, and they don’t deviate from it on their Testpressing series—they whittle down their customarily elaborate approach, but that’s all (“Grows Without Bound,” for example, is mostly one deliberate crescendo of reverberating static). If you listen closely to “Primitive Equations,” the B side of the same record, you’ll notice the faint whispers and sizzling hums behind its foregrounded dance beat. Their haunting ambience is in keeping with the duo’s aesthetic of horror—which it pairs onstage with looping video footage of cult rituals and goat heads, mostly.
Chicago underground rock | Luca Cimarusti
The flow of music from Chicago’s underground rock scene seems endless—the city constantly spawns fresh, productive projects, and in 2013 this process went into hyperdrive. New bands sprang up out of nowhere and released untouchable debuts, long-established acts unleashed their best music yet, and supergroups formed like Voltron and blew everyone away. It’d be impossible to say which local release was my absolute favorite, but these are the five that I loved most.
Disappears, Era (Kranky)
Disappears have always fused darkness and minimalism, but on their first three records they did so in a way that focused all the members’ contributions into a single laserlike beam. On Era, they space out more than ever, sometimes playing next to nothing, and create a chilling, postindustrial soundscape. Propelled by the band’s not-so-secret weapon, new drummer Noah Leger, this stark and eerie collection of songs is the best music yet from Chicago’s best band.
Mines, Just Another Thing That Got Ruined (Lake Paradise)
Bill Satek is one of this town’s true enigmas. A crass, hilarious character with experience in some outrageously harsh noise projects, he was also able to create Just Another Thing That Got Ruined, a sweepingly beautiful avant-pop masterpiece. Satek fronts the band, which on this recording consists of MT Coast mastermind Jeff Milam on drums and Tiger Hatchery bassist Andrew Scott Young, and the playing is just as mind-numbingly dexterous as it is pretty and catchy.
Oozing Wound, Retrash (Thrill Jockey)
So much of the greatness of this year’s best local rock is rooted in its headiness, but no record packs in as much simple fun as Retrash. Oozing Wound, a heavy-duty, streamlined thrash unit comprising current and former members of noise-rock bands Cacaw and Unmanned Ship, have reined in the weirdness of their past projects to go straight for muscular 80s Big Four thrash worship—and they do it flawlessly. Oozing Wound headlines the Empty Bottle on New Year’s Eve with Magic Milk and Jimmy Whispers.
Earring, Nunn Ones (Manic Static)
Gothy, shoegazey two-piece Earring came out of nowhere to drop this tape, which truly blew my mind. Their lean, simple pop hooks, blasted through a tower of warm guitar amps and drenched in a droney, melancholy vibe, make for the year’s prettiest, most irresistible collection of songs from a young local band. This stunning debut can only mean that great things are on the way.
Corrections House, Last City Zero (Neurot)
Only half the members of Corrections House are local—scene staples Bruce Lamont and Sanford Parker—but the other two dudes in the band are among the most revered names in extreme music: Mike IX Williams of Eyehategod and Scott Kelly of Neurosis. This experimental industrial supergroup has made a scary, oppressive record that covers a whole range of sounds: pensive spoken word, brooding atmospherics, and pummeling, dangerous Wax Trax!-style industrial metal. It’s dark, intense, and overwhelmingly heavy—exactly what you’d want to hear from this crew of metal monsters.