100 Unheralded Albums from 2010

Among the thousands of under-appreciated or under-publicized albums that were released in 2010, hundreds became our favorites and were presented in ALARM and on AlarmPress.com.  Of those, we pared down to 100 outstanding releases — from the progressive-industrial madness of Norway’s Shining to the folk-hop rhymes of Sage Francis to the orchestral Italian oldies of Mike Patton‘s Mondo Cane project.

As usual, ALARM leaves no genre unexplored in our list of this year’s overlooked gems.

Presented in chronological order.

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Morrow vs. Hajduch: Foetus’ Hide

Scott Morrow is ALARM’s music editor. Patrick Hajduch is a very important lawyer. Each week they debate the merits of a different album.

Foetus: Hide

Foetus: Hide (Ectopic Ents, 10/1/10)

Morrow: Foetus is the best-known moniker of eclectic composer JG Thirlwell, whose multifarious recordings stretch across art rock, no wave, electronica, exotica, chamber music, big-band jazz, classical orchestrations, and much more.  He has fought the classification as being a forebear of industrial music, particularly for his early material, and his later projects — Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, and the material for The Venture Bros. TV show — have expanded his exotic instrumentals.

Underneath it all, his material as Foetus has tied the aesthetics together, with eccentric and melodramatic vocals helping to create his “poppiest” songs.  Hide is his first studio album as Foetus since 2005.
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Swans: An Art-Rock Ensemble’s Raw Return to Form

Swans: “Eden Prison” (My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The SkyYoung God, 9/27/10)

Swans: “Eden Prison”

Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

With Swans’ first studio album in 14 years, songwriter Michael Gira has sparked the incendiary fires of his best-known group for another push at the fertile boundaries of music. Having made a journey from raw, ritualistic purgation in the early 1980s, to carefully crafted soundscapes in the late ’90s, the newest incarnation of the Swans swaggers with refined violence and drags the listener into its beautiful and sonorous depths.

Declaring the Swans dead in 1997, Gira went on to acoustic explorations, both solo and with an ensemble under the name The Angels of Light, allowing him to work through his ideas on a more subtle level. The words, his presence, and the subtle nuances of sound came to the fore, no longer consumed by the notoriety surrounding the identity of the Swans. As the Angels of Light progressed, some of the old fire started to peek out again; Gira began returning to the innate energy that had fueled the Swans.

His 2010 solo release, I Am Not Insane, built on this feeling and also helped fund the reality of a new Swans record and tour. The limited-edition CDs, complete with hand-printed packages, sold out in two weeks. “I had a couple of hundred prepared three days before recording the new album,” Gira says. “I wasn’t prepared for them to go so fast.” To make up for the shortage, he went into overtime with his wife and daughter getting everything ready to send out.

“Playing live is about rediscovering the song and getting back to that place where the people are playing, the sound starts swirling.”

Adorning select copies of I Am Not Insane with a golden swirl, Gira’s use of the ancient symbol for the labyrinth provides a poignant reflection for the Swans and for Gira himself. As he noted in his announcement, this is no reunion jag. Like the symbol of the labyrinth, this is a passage through an altered circle — Dante’s inferno — the progress of an artist having gone through hell and coming back out the devil’s mouth.

“This is the most vulnerable I’ve felt in years,” he says. “We’ve rehearsed very hard to pull this off. When you put together a new band, it has to become a band, and that takes time.” Many of the new songs that appear on I Am Not Insane are performed with just Gira’s voice and guitar, and in order to get the new Swans roster up to speed, he sent each of the musicians a copy and allowed them to start experimenting with their own additions. Though Gira has become something of a cult brand, it was important to him that this album represented the individual talents of the players.

To achieve this, Gira assembled hardened veterans of sonic exploration, reaching a realization of the possibilities that earlier Swans albums slyly suggested. Thor Harris, credited with drums, percussion, vibes, dulcimer, curios, and keys, is an accomplished carpenter, musician, and craftsman in his own right. Bill Rieflin was an integral part of Ministry and Revolting Cocks and is currently drumming for REM, as well as working on projects with guitarist Robert Fripp. Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Devendra Banhart, Phil Puleo, Chris Pravdica, and “Grasshopper” of Mercury Rev — each helps this album come together as collective artistry.

My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, the group’s raw return, was recorded with Jason LaFarge at Seizures Palace. In a stripped-down room of concrete walls and an unfinished ceiling, the band played 12 hours straight for most of the songs. It used the stone walls and high ceilings to accentuate overtones and harmonics. “There was no separation,” Gira says. “We recorded all of us in the room playing. It’s overwhelming to play it that way. It takes a lot of overdubbing to get back to the intensity of the room.”

Indeed, Gira’s expressive music explores the physical experience of sound itself. Both in and out of the studio, he addresses the physicality of sound, creating waves of powerful music.

On tour, this process becomes a more immediate exchange. “I don’t try to recreate what I do in the studio when I play live,” Gira says. “Playing live is about rediscovering the song and getting back to that place where the people are playing, the sound starts swirling — sometimes it takes whole tours to get to that point.”

“No Words/No Thoughts” introduces the album with a gentle percussion piece that builds in violent orchestration of squealing buzz saws. By the time Gira’s vocals come in, the listener’s brain has been scrapped, becoming a sonic Charon leading a journey across the river Lethe. Forget what came before; the Swans walk on.

The album moves through a carefully balanced mix of musical discordance and delicate harmonic play. Gira’s respect for artists like Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan allows him to take this physical material into a place of intricacy. His vocals walk through landscapes of sound, pursued by occasional melodies and orchestral compositions.

As a songwriter, Gira builds from his experiences without nostalgia. Something as commonplace as visiting music websites becomes the beautiful, eerie duet between Banhart and his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter on “You Fucking People Make Me Sick.” “Jim” is built from his relationship with JG Thirwell of Foetus, Steroid Maximus, and Wiseblood, but the friendship is merely a source for sauntering rhythms and oblique wordplay.

Along with the official release, Gira created an instrumental mix of the album to explore the longer sonic elements that he’d wanted to put on the album. He describes the process as a “matter of layering bricks; it takes a long time, and grows organically — rushes of inspiration — but most of it is like hacking away with an ice pick.”

Of course, Gira remains busy with his 20-year-old label, Young God Records, which has issued releases by James Blackshaw, Fire on Fire, Lisa Germano, and Akron/Family in recent years. Running the label has allowed him to foster a number of young careers, but it also has fostered Gira’s artistic growth. And with My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, Gira and Swans emerge as elemental and potent from 13 years in the grave. Plans for the next album are already fomenting in Gira’s creative consciousness, and we can look forward to further visions of grace and power.

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J.G. Thirlwell: Cinematic Mad Science

Back in 1981, a cryptic record with hugely uninformative album artwork began turning up in record store bins, emblazoned with the words “You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath.” Anyone daring enough to bring home a copy was assaulted with a frenzied blast of alarming, confrontational bombast as soon as needle was set to groove.

Here was a complete mental breakdown set to music. If mass panic, a train wreck, or an oil-tanker explosion needed theme music, surely, this was it. The LP was labeled “DEAF!!” and it delivered on its promise.

In the years that followed, record-store clerks around the world found themselves befuddled by this mysterious madman again. Does “Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel” get filed under S or F? How about “Foetus Under Glass”? And what kind of music is this anyway?

As more and more confounding manifestos crept their way into stores and onto turntables, the more industrious fans of “blank blank” Foetus “blank” noticed a clue to each puzzle buried in the liner notes: “Foetus is J.G. Thirlwell.”

Yes, there was a real flesh-and-blood person behind this madness.

“There is certainly a level of anonymity running through my work,” Thirlwell says from his top-secret lair deep in the bowels of New York City. “Foetus was born in the studio. On those early albums, I was playing every instrument you heard. As I made more and more records in the studio, the studio itself became one of my instruments.”

Meanwhile, on the outside world, a new kind of grinding bastard hybrid of dance music, thrash punk, and metal was being made popular by bands like Ministry, Public Image Limited, and Nitzer Ebb. Looking for a possible jumping-off point, the music press was quick to lump Foetus into the industrial movement, even crediting him as one of the founding fathers of the genre. But Foetus never made industrial music. Even at his most bombastic, deep under those crushing, rhythmic waves of noise, Thirlwell was experimenting with found sounds and wonky time signatures more in line with avant-garde jazz and art rock than anything else.

Tucked away from prying eyes, Thirlwell continued to involve new and more elaborate instrumentation into his repertoire. His studio became a mad-science laboratory, where horn sections, exotic percussion, and found-objects-turned-instruments replaced the mangled limbs, brains in jars, and electrical coils.

“I find the term ‘industrial’ rather meaningless, but people like to categorize things,” he says. “I’ve always aimed to reach conclusions using different building blocks. There have always been classical elements, new instrumentation, and different ways of approaching a composition in my music.”

Thirlwell’s growing collection of Foetus monikers was not enough to contain the composer’s ambitions. Though, certainly, there was an ascertainable Thirlwell glue holding the recordings together, the Foetus sound began, slowly but surely, to morph into something very different. The albums became more instrumentally varied, shifting away from the nails-on-concrete explosiveness of their predecessors. By the early 1990s, it was different enough to warrant an entirely new non-Foetus project, Steroid Maximus.

“Steroid Maximus began because, by that time, the Foetus works had become almost entirely instrumental,” he says. “Even though there were these long instrumental passages and new layers of atmosphere, people still perceived them as confrontational and coming from a first-person narrative simply because they were Foetus records. I decided to let those instrumental passages breathe on their own; I pulled them away and let Foetus become more song based.”

Under the guise of Steroid Maximus, Thirlwell was free to explore vastly different, entirely instrumental terrain. Alongside the familiar skronky electronics and amphetamine drum machines of Foetus, here were elements of campy spy and bachelor-pad lounge music, classic globe-hopping exotica, and blaxploitative funk. But even when the sound was as far away from those DEAF!! days as seemed sonically possible, Thirlwell, the composer, was discernible underneath. The canvas was the same; only the paints had changed. Steroid Maximus brought the most cinematic qualities of Foetus to the fore.

“If there is a running thread through my work, it’s that it is very cinematic,” Thirlwell says. “I am very interested in soundtracks disembodied from film. With a soundtrack, the logic of the composition is often dictated by a visual element. When you strip that visual element away, the music is put on a different framework. Suddenly, there are weird accents existing as musical events rather than narrating a visual. The music takes on its own skewed internal logic.”

Through Quilombo (Big Cat Records, 1991), Gondwanaland (Big Cat Records, 1995), and Ectopia (Ipecac, 2005), Steroid Maximus created three of the greatest movies you’ve never seen. Each “soundtrack” is teeming with such a distinct personality that it negates the need for visual stimulation.

“I write very amorphously,” Thirlwell says. “I don’t see pictures; it’s more about feeling. Music is bigger than pictures. Pictures are a literal translation. As soon as you attach music to them, it is forever interlocked with that translation, which is unfair to the music. I prefer to let it exist on its own terms.”

Through it all, Foetus continued unabated, shifting like a manic chameleon. Thirlwell produced and remixed work for other artists, and he even teamed up on a collaboration with former Swans member Roli Mossiman to form the brutal and crushing Wiseblood. Yet Thirlwell, ever the prolific Renaissance man, began to seek new outlets for his indefatigable well-spring of musical muses.

Under the nom de plume Manorexia, Thirlwell began truly honing his soundscape chops. It is among his most classically bent and sonically varied work to date, playing with ambient noise, room tone and drone elements, and classical string-quartet passages. Through Volox Turbo (2001) and The Radiolarian Ooze (2002), Thirlwell showed his adeptness at balancing audio spaciousness with his trademark dense bursts of instrumentation. Manorexia brings to mind the work of Krzysztof Komeda — the Polish composer who created eerie landmark soundtracks for Rosemary’s Baby and The Fearless Vampire Killers for Roman Polanski — as well as newer avant-classical groups such as Bang on A Can and the Kronos Quartet, with which Thirlwell has collaborated, adapting his Manorexia-based work to string quartet.

With such an impressive body of instrumental work, it was only a matter of time before someone sought to employ Thirlwell to apply his music to his or her visuals. Perhaps unexpectedly, this someone was not a horror-movie director, drama writer, or action-adventure producer. It was Christopher McCulloch (also known as Jackson Publick), who had begun adapting a new cartoon for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim called The Venture Bros.

“It was natural that someone would come to me to score something,” Thirlwell says. “It doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. The creators of The Venture Bros. came to me specifically for what I do, wanting me to impart it on the show. I was kind of the matching musical counterpart to what they were doing.”

In the liner notes for Williams Street’s 2009 release, The Venture Bros.: The Music of J.G. Thirlwell (the first record released under his birth name), show creator McCulloch says, “Without J.G. Thirlwell’s music, The Venture Bros. would not move at all. Yes, I have a confession to make: The Venture Bros. wouldn’t exist without J.G.”

Thirlwell was contacted, and the rest is history. Since 2003, he’s been setting the animated exploits of McCulloch’s Venture brothers, Brock Samson, and Sergeant Hatred to music. Though it’s only a slight variation on what Thirlwell had created with Manorexia and Steroid Maximus since the early 1990s, the music holds differences from when Thirlwell is operating from his internal musical muse.

“A really great soundtrack can, potentially, go completely unnoticed by a viewer,” he says. “I try to make the best background music possible. I also make foreground music. The difference between this and my other projects is that you are somewhat at the behest of the script. There are long talkie passages to work around that push you in different directions, anomalous to what’s come before. I don’t intend for my scores to blend. I want the viewer to notice them.

“The script gives me room to exaggerate a bit more here and there,” he continues, “but I don’t find myself feeling the need to make goofy, gag-y cartoon music. I leave the gags to the dialogue. I see my part more as an action-adventure score guiding and highlighting the story.”

Never one to rest on his laurels, Thirlwell has plenty on the horizon. This summer saw a 20-piece live performance of Steroid Maximus’ Ectopia in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and the rest of this year will bring brand-new albums from Foetus and Manorexia (or, for simplicity’s sake, J.G. Thirlwell).

The new Foetus record, titled Hide, features several songs set in a first-person narrative, a song structure that has not surfaced in Foetus’ music for some time. But its reclusive composer has plans to take it to the stage. “This will be kind of a concept record,” Thirlwell says. “I’d like to incorporate a live-performance element, but I’m not sure what form that would take yet. A theatrical form might make the most sense.”

For Manorexia, revered composer John Zorn’s label Tzadik recently released The Mesopelagic Waters, an album featuring versions of previous Manorexia works that were readapted for string quartet. Later this year, yet another Manorexia volume will surface — but like the old days with Foetus, it will be a studio effort, entirely performed by Thirlwell.

“This will be the first studio-based Manorexia album,” he says. “The last was performed with an ensemble. I hope to adapt it to a live setting at a later date, but I’m planning on doing this one in 5:1 surround sound.”

As if that weren’t enough, an anthology of early Foetus singles is in the works, along with aspirations for feature-film work.

“I am always busy, always changing things, and always trying to challenge myself,” Thirlwell says. “I try to follow whatever urge has placed itself in front; one day it might be a string quartet, the next a remix project, and the next after that a piece for The Venture Bros. Sometimes they all happen on the same day. Whatever is in front of me is primary, but I’m capable of working on a lot of different things. The hope is always that one or two of them will be completed and actually work out. The more I do this, the bigger my ambitions get. That’s a problem, because they just get harder and harder to realize.”

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