Yearly Yinz 2019: Albums

String Machine – Death of the Neon

It’s hard to believe that David Beck founded the experimental folk project String Machine as a solo venture. It’s now a septet, a ragtag band of rural Pennsylvanians waging spiritual war against the encroaching scourge of urban and exurban gentrification. Beck has revealed that “Death of the Neon” is actually an in-joke about the demise of a reliable old Dodge vehicle, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that the phrase is a prayer for the destruction and reclamation of our technocracy by the wild forces of nature. The String Machine folks aren’t angry, exactly, but a sense of weary anxiety pervades the album’s very skeleton; the refrain to “Eight-Legged Dog” is downright Yeatsian in its sense of foreboding.

I picture a string machine as a massive steampunk contraption, its metal components held together by pieces of yarn, herking and jerking through fallow fields and strip mall parking lots. The music on Death of the Neon fits that mental image; it’s rickety and vulnerable, at once rustic and hypermodern. It’s a two-way anachronism, set apart from both our current digital age and our previous analogue one, the front parlor piano of “Rattle On The Spoke” bumping up against the synth gurgles of “No Holiday/Excite Again.” Set against this sonic tapestry, Beck builds himself a cryptic lyrical cocoon, comparing himself to a “deflated lung” and “kimchi marinating in motor oil.” Laurel Wain, the group’s secret weapon, provides harmonies that act as the autumnal light poking around the corners of Beck’s depressive cloud. Hop aboard the String Machine and take a tour of a psyche frayed by the ills of today.  

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Not Your Friends – Constructing A Mental Breakdown

As I write this, politicians in Ohio are attempting to pass a bill that would force doctors to “reimplant” ectopic pregnancies—a procedure not possible in medical science—or face jail time. The president is an avowed sexual predator, and nearly half of our country’s population seems to be fine with that. It’s difficult to react to the situation with anything less than rage, and grindcore mathematicians Not Your Friends don’t even try.

Over the 593 seconds that make up August’s Constructing A Mental Breakdown, the band undertakes a mission to shatter both the ears and the fragile masculinity of the accursed patriarchy. They do so using a combination of bloodcurdling shrieks, serrated riffage, and pummeling blastbeats, the individual elements scrambled up and smashed together in head-spinning combinations. Trebly curlicues of guitar protrude at odd angles, like broken springs from a ratty old couch, while melodic passages in tracks like “Dermis” and “It Is Happening Again” provide relief from the sonic schizophrenia. The band’s vocalist, credited as “Fucking Fucker,” unleashes vigilante feminist screeds with a righteous fury, threatening to force-feed her embryo to anti-choice lawmakers on “Abort” and to rip out an entitled stalker’s teeth, sell them on Etsy, and then fry the man up with onions on “Sebastian No.” Constructing a Mental Breakdown packs a dizzying amount of sonic variation into its brief runtime, and it goes down like a quintuple espresso followed by a shot of Jack and a kick in the face. In other words, something capable of knocking sense into people when it’s most necessary.

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Thousandzz of Beez – Wands Served

When I was a kid at summer camp, there was one hike we would undertake that led straight through a junkyard. We loved to linger there, climbing piles of refuse and throwing old lamps and bricks over the side of a ravine located at the edge of the soiled expanse. Thinking back, it was kind of disgusting, but I have many happy memories of playing amidst mounds of trash. And, after all, the trash used to mean something to someone. And it might still; Thousandzz of Beez’s H. Colt Paulson paints “sliding on down to a landfill” and being “stuck on Trash Isle” as wondrous, intimate experiences on “fall out//call out,” the second track from September’s Wands Served. Paulson relays this idyllic, potentially smelly fantasy in an androgynous murmur, backed by plunking synth patterns and gloomy piano chords, and interspersed with grainy audio of a child stumbling its way through a book. It’s chilling in the manner of Boards of Canada’s “The Color of the Fire,” the snippet’s innocence rendered macabre when situated against this specific background.

Wands Served feels haunted and jimmyrigged, like if Nick Drake had been born in the Internet age and liked to tinker with synthesizers and old music boxes. It’s a Lynchian picture of modern American life set to genuinely arresting music; Paulson has a gentle, inviting voice, and displays some gorgeous acoustic guitar work on tracks like “Trash Lady” and “Leaky Info,” songs whose elegance is offset by lyrics about fragile spiders and fucking busboys. There’s a dry sense of humor afoot as well, evidenced by the Halloweeny camp of “((interRUDE))” and a moment in “To Us!” when Paulson, with little regard for musical timing, introduces a halfhearted drumbeat after singing, “I threw a tantrum in front of God/In some local gay porn megastore.” Wands Served is a a velvety, postmodern dream—not a nightmare exactly, but not pleasant, either—in which the spirits of objects you owned and people you knew return jumbled together, to flit around your head as you fall asleep. You won’t find anything else like it, and you may not want to. 

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Joyframe – Joyframe EP

Sometimes, it pays to take a tried-and-true style and just do it really fucking well. Joyframe ran this playbook with the 90’s-indebted  “loud-soft-loud” formula on September’s Joyframe EP, the group’s first release in four years. Joyframe describes its sound as a “wall of pop,” in reference to the sticky hooks and roaring guitar maelstroms contained within the EP, and they’re not wrong. The thing that gets me about this album is the amount of force packed into Caleb Gill’s guitar riffs; rumor (started by me) has it that the sheer violence emanating from Gill’s power chords caused the Lawrenceville Microburst. When a flanger is applied to said chords on album highlight “Stone Woman,” it sounds like a jet engine taking off. As loud as the loud is, the soft bits boil and simmer with grungy malaise. Bassist/vocalist Courtney Plumley broods and swaggers, adding some personality to the band’s molten jams. “I’m so full of shit/I can shoot it, too,” she taunts, self-deprecating, on “Ain’t It Fun.” Her voice melds, chameleon-like, with her surroundings, settling into the murk during verses before rising above the volcanic rush of the album’s choruses. Joyframe is a barely-contained element that just so happened to be lassoed here for 20-ish minutes; hold on if you can.    

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