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National Health - Elephants

Sometimes, I will admit it, I do like to listen to a bit of dodgy prog. Hey, I'm not proud of the fact, nor am I advocating for the sort of calm professionalism that Dave Stewart's National Health could sometimes bring. But when they were on form they were a powerful band, as on Elephants from their self-titled 1978 debut. Honestly, if at this point you were still bemoaning the loss of King Crimson you probably couldn't do better than a bit of National Health. Even today their ambition and scope are laudable, as is their unwillingness to fall into the usual prog soundtraps. Not an easy ride this, but a formidable and ultimately fulfilling one.

National Health - Elephants
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Degenerate Art Ensemble - Virgin Destroyer (Girl and the Girdle Boys)

Degenerate art is anything that nazis don't like, much like a good punch to the face. The Degenerate Art Ensemble have been mixing theatre and music since the early 1990s. The attitude is tawdry punk classical, the music is jazz/klezmer, the touch is light but the gloves are off. Virgin Destroyer (Girl and the Girdle Boys) never made it to album as far as I can tell. It's been sitting on my drive since the last millennium, downloaded from the old mp3.com, pretty much the first home of independent home-produced music on the net. As such, the bitrate is by current standards quite laughable, but the driven percussion, squawking horns and tumbling strings are all bloody marvellous.

Degenerate Art Ensemble - Virgin Destroyer (Girl and the Girdle Boys)
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Curha - Togar

Curha is the musical alias of Curtis Hasselbring. He's just released his second album II, and it's dense with experimentation, rich with musical ideas, and filled with more joie de vivre than anything I've heard in a long time. It's playful, sometimes cartoonish, and refuses to take itself in the slightest bit seriously. Togar is like some space age library music in rainbow hyperdrive, covering the world in decals as it passes through. It features a memorable guest appearance on guitar by Hasselbring's fellow Beat Circus alumnus Brandon Seabrook.

Curha - Togar
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Neil Rolnick - WakeUp

Okay here's the deal: Neil Rolnick's music is my absolute favourite thing in the world to listen to right now. It mixes the hallucinatory minimalism of Henry Flynt with the radical copyright infringing remixes of John Oswald. Rolnick studied at IRCAM and went on teach electronic and digital composition in the United States. WakeUp takes as its source two songs by the Everly Brothers, Wake Up Little Susie and All I Have To Do Is Dream and conducts a thorough breakdown and overhaul on them. It goes from fingersnap precise strumming to underwater choral to individual fragments of sound pinned in a display case. And yet throughout all of this, Rolnick never lets theory get in the way of the music: it doesn't just follow a narrative thread, there's a rhythmic spine running throughout the piece. Enormously enjoyable stuff from the album Ex Machina (2016).

Neil Rolnick - WakeUp
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Alex Ward - CT Three

Here's a treat for lovers of free improv solo clarinet. There are moments in Alex Ward's 2008 album Cremated Thoughts where you can definitely tell he sometimes approaches his art from a jazz background. Not so on CT Three though: starting with sweetly tempered lyricism he plucks strange modulations from the air which feed into a frenetic nervousness. Some extraordinary upper register work here revealing the timbres that the instrument possesses at the top of its range. But perhaps Ward's greatest skill here is his use of silence to punctuate his phrasing, despite what are occasionally longish gaps the music still has a sense of urgency. Improvised it may be, but it sounds like music he had been carrying for too long and was only too glad to finally let out. Powerful stuff.

Alex Ward - CT Three
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Tim Hecker - Virginal I

For his 2013 album Virgins, Tim Hecker collaborated with a group of musicians including Kara-Lis Coverdale and Ben Frost. Hecker had always been known for his rather spacious ambient work, whereas Frost in particular was someone who loved to ratchet on the pressure. The collaboration perhaps gave Hecker space to develop a more forceful side of his musical personality. Virginal I opens with some very spindly phased interlocking keyboard figures which are lost in a rising tide of sound: the deep swell of the undercurrent, the white noise of the cresting waves. It's sound on an awe-inspiring scale that finally gives way to the light ripple of Grímur Helgason's bass clarinet. It really is as good as everyone says.

Tim Hecker - Virginal I
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Mulatu Astatke & Black Jesus Experience - Kulun Mankwaleshi

Here's a track from To Know Without Knowing, by the godfather of Ethio jazz and the Australian band Black Jesus Experience. The key to Kulun Mankwaleshi is not not read the name of the track (it's a traditional Ethiopian number, apparently) and just listen. Hallucinatory rhythmic control, especially around the call and response sections make this an unexpectedly trippy listening experience.

Mulatu Astatke & Black Jesus Experience - Kulun Mankwaleshi
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Algiers - The Underside of Power

Just in case you're under the impression that there haven't been any gospel/r'n'b anthems since forever, just a quick reminder about Algiers and the title track of their 2017 album The Underside of Power. Is it weird that to find politically charged protest music you've got to look to mixed-race bands with industrial and noise-rock leanings, or is that just the way of the world now?

Algiers - The Underside of Power
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Johnny Aloha - Gangsta's Paradise

I always rather resented Richard Cheese for not being Mike Flowers. Mark Jonathan Davis certainly made a success of his lounge pastiches, but he was neither the first nor the grooviest. In 2010 Davis released Lavapalooza, an album by a new side project: Johnny Aloha. Instead of lounge crooning, this time he took inspiration from the sound of the tiki bar. His cover of Gangsta's Paradise was always going to be corny as hell, but the understated melancholy and angelic backing singers give it a new kind of pathos.

Johnny Aloha - Gangsta's Paradise
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Maria W Horn - Atropa

Saying that you're making prank videos as a sociological experiment is a notoriously weak excuse. In the same way, forming a feminist satanic coven as an artistic exploration could have been a pretty weak justification. Just admit that it's a terribly cool thing to do, and get on with it. To be fair, that's what most members of Swedish composer Maria W Horn's coven did, but she also wrote the music to accompany their dark rites, some of which can be found on her 2018 album Kontrapoetik.

Atropa is both slow and short, and crams some amazing sonic textures into brief existence. It's a work for bells and sweep pads, and the two clash to provide a uncanny physicality. Like a walk though a bonefield, it brings new discomfort with every step.

Maria W Horn - Atropa
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