Every month Miles Bowe rounds up the best of Bandcamp, unearthing the finest, freshest and weirdest releases the burgeoning DIY platform has to offer.
We can all agree it’s been a fucking miserable winter. But we did it, spring is here and this month’s column feels appropriately celebratory, with uplifting music from all over the world.
Highlights include a new age record from Mali, a souped-up take on Acholi dance music from Uganda and plenty of mutant sounds from furthest reaches of the internet. Before all that though, one of 2017’s best new groups take us on a trip around the globe, and it starts in Tokyo.
Bandcamp Release Of The Month:
Winter is making its final death gasps, spring is here and there isn’t a better thaw soundtrack than this euphoric pocket warmer from Tokyo crew Unknown Me. Subtropics is the second effort from the brain-trust of DJ Yakenohara, producer P-RUFF, ambient artist H. Takahashi (who released an excellent album on Constellation Tatsu last year) and visual designer Osawa Yudai. Here, the quartet dream up a travelogue of far-flung cities (attached to each track as a subtitle) that plays like an imagined photo book with the saturation maxed out.
After the appropriately foggy Bay Area opener ‘Floating People (San Francisco)’, Subtropics dives headfirst into the nearly balearic ‘AWA (Buenos Aires)’, a tight bundle of sampled birdcalls, chorales and twinkling synths that stretches into a gorgeous dub techno spiral.
Unknown Me never stay in the same musical place for long, giving Subtropics a momentum to match its globe-trotting fantasia. ‘Virgin Forest (Cape Town)’ is a vivid snapshot of wind chimes and dripping water that captures the band’s intent that “These are less songs than spaces, blissed synthetic bio-domes awaiting habitation.” ‘Time Practice (New Dehli)’ even sounds like Actress’s ‘Jardin’ lounging on the beach with DJ Koze.
Occasionally during Subtropics, I caught myself looking up pictures of the places the songs were named for, a modern benefit to the exotica listener that’s actually pretty pointless. The lush outro ‘Night Of The Subtropical (Okinawa)’ isn’t exactly improved by an actual photo of the blissful island, but it doesn’t have to be. The album makes a cold night in New York, or I imagine Tokyo, far more enjoyable and I’m certain I’ll be finding new things to love about it all year.
Gulu City Anthems
After launching in January, Uganda-based Nyege Nyege Tapes is already one of the coolest labels to surface on Bandcamp this year. Gulu City Anthems is the first widely released collection by Otim Alpha who has been blending traditional Acholi wedding music with modern electronics since the early 2000s. He calls it “electro acholi” and after this hour set you’ll be hooked.
Tracks such as ‘Anyomo label (Pailyec)’ and ‘Wilobo Lanyi’ are breathless, polyrhythmic workouts, but the album’s lighter moments feel just as valuable. ‘Cam Ki lawoti II’, ‘Coo oromo’ and ‘Agiki ne tye’ make a breezy, joyous trilogy anchoring the album’s back half with earworm synths that make Gulu City Anthems feel like a focused, definitive statement instead of just a collection of a career highlights. Follow this label all year – you will not be disappointed.
On Quiet Fill, Ben Varian expands on the nimble, clever and often deceptively bleak lounge pop he perfected on 2015’s Part Of The Y’all (a previous Release Of The Month). Bringing to mind Silver Jews’ David Berman, Varian bridges his light music and heavy lyrics with a sharp sense of humor and lush instrumentation. In that respect, Quiet Fill often feels brighter and darker all at once.
Varian opens the album with a pair of songs that perfectly capture his strengths, with the titles ‘Bread’ and ‘Butter’ acting almost as a self-aware nod. It sets the vibe for the album’s coming-of-age struggles as Varian uses dough to question his own path in life: “How do I become bread?” But Varian’s music is at no risk of being half-baked.
‘How To Make Coffee’ sounds like the musical version of K.C. Green’s “This Is Fine” comic where Varian deadpans admissions like “Maybe there’s no bottom” and “your plasma is money”. It’s a Burt Bacharach tune for someone barely keeping it together. Varian was already a unique voice, but on Quiet Fill you hear it better than ever.
Cameroon-born indie rock artist Lætitia Tamko is already getting tons of attention for her impressive debut album as Vagabon, and after one listen to Infinite Worlds it’s easy to understand why. Tamko throws herself into these songs with an unrestrained passion while keeping the complex blend of styles perfectly arranged. Reworked older single ‘Fear & Force’ remains a highlight with its earnest plea of, “Freddie, come back,” growing only more intimate by keeping the relationship ambiguous.
With a voice that sometimes brings to mind Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan, Tamko shows off her range throughout with searing rock songs (‘Minneapolis’, ‘100 Years’), woozy electronic space-outs like the wonderful ‘Mal A L’aise’ and acoustic tracks like the closing ‘Alive And A Well’. It’s not even 30 minutes long, but the title delivers.
Fire-Toolz is one of the many monikers of genre-melting Chicago experimentalist Angel Marcloid. My introduction to Marcloid came when I stumbled upon her vaporwave/noise/??? label Swamp Circle (which I featured in an earlier column) and though Drip Mental is released on fellow Chi label Hausu Mountain, it expands on the surreal corner of the internet she’s already carved out.
Any given second of Drip Mental could find Marcloid engaging in synthpop, Muzak, vaporwave, black metal, or industrial music. Every track is a rollercoaster, but the kind you make in Rollercoaster Tycoon when you just want to cause as much destruction as possible. It’s hugely entertaining and Marcloid is clearly having fun with these wild genre clashes (following a track ‘All Deth Is U’ with ‘All Deth Is U2’ still makes me laugh), but every disparate element — from the dreamy synth clouds to her hissed black metal vocals — are impeccably crafted. When everything gels on highlights like ‘The Graying Of The Crocs’ and ‘To See My Hatred Clearly’ it’s incredible, showing an artist with the confidence to juggle way too much, but the charisma and skill to say “fuck it” and pull it off anyway.
In A Silent Way
Released on Orange Milk, the second Nico Niquo album is described as “sound meditations based around the palette of modern grime music minus the percussion,” but regardless of your familiarity with the concept or grime itself, these pristine synthscapes impress. Moments like ‘He Loved Him Madly’ do reflect to the woozy, impressionistic work of grime producers like Mr. Mitch, but some of the best moments sound completely untethered.
‘Rafael’s Green in Blue Antibes’ lets drifting synths float in zero-g as they gently bump off one another and the title track is a pressure cooker of glassy arpeggios building over a haunting melody that uses a fake-out ending to set you up for bracing finale. Orange Milk finished last year stronger than ever and this only revs the engine further.
“One of the most left-field recordings to ever come out of Mali” is how Portland-based, Sudan-focused, label Sahelsounds describe Luka Guindo’s Fasokan. The record is a blend of new age, field recordings and traditional Malinese sounds so potent it just needs to be heard. Through their blend of bent electronics and chopped up traditional instruments like Balafon and Kora, crisp spoken word tracks like ‘Terriya’ and ‘L’Excision’ actually bring to mind Visible Cloaks’s Miyaki Koda collab ‘Valve’. It’s a record that sounds just as interested in bridging cultural sounds, but far easier to overlook. Don’t.
Miles Bowe is on Twitter.