The Super Relaxed Fantasy Club were nice enough to ask me to do a reading – here’s the video, including an extract from Hope Island (available in the US now, and in the UK in 2 weeks!) and my lockdown reads. Bonus appearance of my favourite mug.
Goodness, what a lot of good drone albums there were this year! The Sacrificial Code by Kali Malone is a towering achievement – almost two hours of austere, subtly shifting pipe organ drones that slip me into a liminal space the moment they begin. I’ve listened to Genera – Live at AB Salon, Brussels by Bana Haffar more than any other album this year and still I understand it very little, but find it totally absorbing, strange and inspiring. The Gaelic smallpipe drones of The Reeling by Brighde Chaimbeul are utterly stunning – it’s an album that I’ve returned to far more than I’d expected on first listen. Bioluminescence by Shorelights is a far more manufactured confection, but there’s an organic element to the pulses, bird calls and wind beneath the surface. I can’t get enough of it. The field recordings of Vegetal Negatives by Marja Ahti are far more comprehensible, but conjure a soundscape that’s no less weird and no less hypnotic. Kimberlin (Original Soundtrack) by Abul Mogard continues Mogard’s incredible run of form, no less crucial and enveloping than any of his non-soundtrack work. Futuro (Music for the Waldorf Project) by Not Waving is an arresting soundtrack for literally anything you might be doing, and which sounds utterly different on each listen, as if the recording might respond to one’s mood. The title track of Epistasis by Maria w Horn, with its live string quartet and brooding – is it a harmonium? – is the standout track of a standout album. Traveller on the Road by Skin Crime recalls the most dread-filled moments of David Lynch movies, and sits well alongside other Hospital Productions artists such as Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. Industry / Water by Michael Gordon / Jonny Greenwood is the best release so far from Greenwood’s Octatonic label, as much a drone record as modern classical, and bodes well for future releases. Pyroclasts by Sunn O))) is awesome in the most awe-filled sense of the word. Pale Bloom by Sarah Davachi is another wonderful album from the Californian artist – particularly the 21-minute final track, which brings us all the way back to the organ dirge of Kali Malone.
Propulsive weird jazz and minimal techno
That’s a valid category, isn’t it? Atto IV by Vladimir Tarasov is an astounding album of jazz riffs and pulses that recall one of my favourite Oren Ambarchi albums, Quixotism. The man himself is present on Oglon Day by Oren Ambarchi, Mark Fell, Will Guthrie, Sam Shalabi, which delivers dizzying overlapping rhythms and a sense of huge regret at not seeing the performance live. Pink Nothing by Tom Richards, performed on an emulation of Daphne Oram’s unfinished ‘Mini Oramics’ machine, is maddeningly hypnotic. Triumvirate by Carter Tutti Void isn’t quite up to the level of majesty as their Transverse release, but it’s still ace. I by Föllakzoid is an unremitting forward march into the alien unknown.
All My People by Maria Somerville is comfortably my favourite vocal album of the year, neatly stepping in for the lack of new Grouper. 2020 by Richard Dawson retains Dawson’s lyrical precision and his wonderful voice, but lacks the lunacy of his previous releases. Arrival by Fire! Orchestra is more accessible than the band’s recent releases and features a surprising amount of vocals. ANIMA by Thom Yorke is assured and full of earworms. The Age of Immunology by Vanishing Twin is joyous and undemanding despite its complexity. Look Up Sharp by Carla dal Forno is strikingly familiar hauntology, an album half-remembered from childhood. The Envoy by Gavilán Rayna Russom is majestic and deeply weird, and features Cosey Fanni Tutti on vocals and arrangements by Peter Zummo.
Compilations and reissues
Three Highlife albums provided me with lots of happiness – the first being Hitsville Re-Visited by Ebo Taylor, Pat Thomas, Uhuru Yenzu, also from 1982, the most joyous recording I’ve heard all year. However, the more overly funky Control by Gyedu-Blay Ambolley & Zantoda Mark III, from 1980, and Grupo Pilon: Leite Quente Funaná de Cabo Verde by Grupo Pilon, a collection of 1980s recordings of Electro-Funaná from West Africa’s Cabo Verde Islands, give Ebo a run for his money. Oren Ambarchi rears his head again, curating a vast selection of experimental, drone and unclassifiable recordings from his own record label for the compilation Black Truffle At 10. The rerelease of Michael O’Shea by Michael O’Shea from 1982 is a revelation – Indo-European voodoo played on, according to Boomkat: a hybrid of a zelochord and a sitar, made on a wooden door salvaged in Munich, and with the crucial addition of electric pick-ups and the ‘Black Hole Space Box’. Hissing Theatricals by Tapes, a rerelease of the 2009 dub album, is wonderful, as are the 1980s synth post-punk experiments contained on Beside Herself by Michele Mercure.
Though I haven’t written any fiction yet in 2019, the year has got off to a good start in terms of votes of confidence in my earlier work…
I was pleased and surprised to find that my story ‘Throw Caution’ has been longlisted for the BSFA Awards. It was first published in Interzone #276 edited by Andy Cox. It’s a terrific list of nominees, with lots of writers who I now consider friends – I’m very proud to be listed alongside them.
Dev Agarwal at BSFA Vector included my books in his Best of 2018 article: “Tim Major, (who along with Shona Kinsella co-edits the British Fantasy Association’s Horizons magazine) published a young adult SF novel called Machineries of Mercy (ChiZine) and a non-fiction book that appeals to genre consumers, about the seminal 1915 silent film, Les Vampires (Electric Dreamhouse Press). In both works, and in his co-editing of Horizons, Major brings a clear and vivid sense of location and character to bear that makes his narratives — fictional and biographic — come vividly alive to the reader.”
On his Scattershot Writing blog, James Everington included ‘The House Lights Dim’ (from Dark Lane Anthology #2, Dark Lane Books) in his list of his favourite short stories read in 2018.
Finally, and now looking forward to 2019, I recently learned that my story ‘Concerning the Deprivation of Sleep’ has been picked up by editor C.M. Muller for Synth: An Anthology of Dark SF. There’s a list of my upcoming short story publications here, which includes a story in one of Muller’s other projects, Twice-Told: A Collection of Doubles, due out in February.
My favourite album of 2018 is Double Negative by Low. Low are a fine band with a discography built up over 25 years that, while unshowy, must surely make any other band weep. Like the songs of, for example, Leonard Cohen, beneath what may appear like superficial gloominess has always been a beating heart of optimism and beauty. Double Negative is a departure, and my favourite Low album since Secret Name. Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s ordinarily ice-clear harmonies are buried within fuzz and distortion, often squeezed out as a Sparky’s Magic Piano-esque squelch. I’m a fan of deteriorated sound, that’s for sure, but amidst all this degradation the occasional surfacing of untampered-with vocals feel like glimpses of something divine. It’s the most wonderful album, and ‘Tempest’ is my favourite song of the year.
Modern soul isn’t usually my thing, but Childqueen by Kadhja Bonet absolutely is, filled as it is with gorgeous melodies and lush orchestration. For the most part, the best aural (as opposed to vocal) comparison I can think of is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, though there are shades of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, and the slick production of ‘Mother Maybe’ reminds me strongly of one of my 80s guilty pleasures, Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’. I can’t think of another 2018 album that feels so pleasurable throughout its running time. In addition, Kadhja Bonet was responsible for the entirety of the album; everything written, sung and played, and she produced and mixed it too, which I find incredible.
The drone album I’ve enjoyed most this year is Rausch by GAS. It’s difficult to describe why one lengthy drone is preferable to another, but there’s a depth to these seven tracks that just, I don’t know, takes me away… It’s only now, listening carefully and attempting to analyse it, that I’m able to identify particular elements: tapping hi-hats, bass thrums, reversed cymbals. Previously, I wouldn’t have been able to describe what produced the effect, only that’s the whole is absorbing and hypnotic. For me, this album is up there with Biokinetics by Porter Ricks and What?? by Folke Rabe.
Click ‘Continue reading’ for lots more picks and a playlist.
I’m pretty sure that by now everybody’s seen the recent Facebook meme of showing the 10 albums that you find important, right? Now that I’ve finished my 10-album, 10-day list I thought I’d post it here for posterity. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to stick to the rule of omitting any explanation of my choices…
#1 Victor Borge – Phonetic punctuation / A Mozart opera
I’ve chosen this album to represent my parents’ record collection, and the fact that when I was a kid I was more likely to listen to comedy than music. But also, I still think it’s hysterically funny, and the album cover is still one of my all-time favourites, and also matches my writing/editing occupation. I have the LP version framed and ready to hang once I get my attic office in order.
#2 The Beatles – 1967–1970
It’d be disingenuous to pretend that this album wasn’t the keystone of my discovering music when I was a kid. I’d heard ‘Penny Lane’ via a compilation tape (chosen because I liked fire engines) and ‘Let It Be’ on a French campsite (as close to a musical epiphany as a seven-year-old can have). I listened to the ‘Blue Album’ endlessly while I was growing up; it’s part of me.
#3 Tortoise – TNT / Gastr Del Sol – Camoufleur
TNT by Tortoise was responsible for shifting my listening from rock to post-rock and experimental music. And that self-effacing album cover! Tortoise were an important band to me, partly because they had so many side projects that would lead me into other areas. In fact, two members of Tortoise were in the original lineup of Gastr Del Sol, though by the time of CAMOUFLEUR the lineup was David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke (with contributions from Markus Popp of Oval). Jim O’Rourke would lead me into new areas – via his indie stuff and then into far stranger listening territory. Gastr Del Sol’s CAMOUFLEUR came a little later, but is probably my favourite post-rock album.
#4 Nick Cave – And No More Shall We Part
I know that many people would argue for other Nick Cave albums being more immediate, more visceral, plain better than this, but I adore it unconditionally. It’s one of the most literate and darkly funny albums I can think of, and it inspired my early attempts to write short stories as much as, say, John Updike’s RABBIT series of books did.
#5 Herman Düne – Not On Top
For the longest time, I considered Herman Düne my favourite band. They were charming, witty and, unlike most of the music I listened to, they were alive and there were lots of opportunities to see them play live – which I did, perhaps five or six times in total. I listened to a lot of ‘anti-folk’ at the beginning of this century, though few of the performers still have the same resonance for me as Herman Düne, who have soundtracked some of the happiest moments of my life.
#6 The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers / Jonathan Richman – Jonathan Goes Country
Around 2005 I listened to little other than Jonathan Richman’s vast back catalogue, from his snotty Velvet-Underground-ish origins to his latter-day embarrassing-dad persona – both equally loveable. THE MODERN LOVERS and JONATHAN GOES COUNTRY were on constant rotation when I was working alone for long stretches in California. The former is one of the great proto-punk albums, and a tantalising suggestion of a path that Richman would decide not to take; the latter is a goofy experiment that shouldn’t work, but succeeds through its wholehearted charm. It’s my favourite music to drive to.
(My favourite detail about the change in direction after the release of The Modern Lovers in 1976: David Robinson left the group ‘due to frustration with Richman’s quest for lower volume levels’.)
#7 Lonnie Donegan – Rock Island Line: The Singles Anthology 1955–1967
Lonnie Donegan’s early singles are some of the most thrilling songs I know of: catchy, funny, utterly wild. When I discovered this fantastic compilation set in 2006 I described it as follows in a blog post:
“I can’t get enough of Lonnie’s rasping, distorted, chuckling voice. I love that he addresses his songs to ‘the boys’. I love his rambling introductions to the simplest of songs. I love the way that his songs feel spontaneous, and that when the band cuts loose it doesn’t even sound like they’re playing musical instruments. They’re beating on the walls and stamping on the floor and Lonnie is wailing through the white noise…”
#8 Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians
This was a total revelation to me when I first heard it around fifteen years ago, and set me off listening to modern composition and minimalist pieces. I think it’s utterly perfect.
#9 Gavin Bryars – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet
One of the most emotional musical experiences I’ve had was the American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s performance of ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival curated by Jeff Mangum in 2012. Rose and I had recently decided to start a family, and for whatever reason the repeated words of Bryars’ piece struck me as advice from a parent to a child. By the end I was in pieces.
#10 Oren Ambarchi – Grapes from the Estate
If any artist sums up my current listening preferences, it’s Oren Ambarchi. (Jim O’Rourke’s experimental work would come close second.) These days I most often listen to music while working, so it’s almost all instrumental. Aside from being absurdly beautiful, GRAPES FROM THE ESTATE is the most wonderful background to achieving a trance-like mindset.
I’ve made a top 100 film list. I’ve tried to avoid objectivity or the temptation to pick ‘greatest’ films – instead I’ve tried to capture a snapshot of my tastes right now. I’ve tried not to pay attention to what would be my usual choices or agonise too much over my selection. I use Flickchart, so I had a starting point of a list of pretty much all the films I’ve seen, theoretically in ranked order – but to make this list I’ve cherry-picked only the films that are currently on my mind or that, when I see their titles, I want to rewatch immediately. It’s a skewed list, featuring lots of films I’ve seen for the first time in the last year or so – if I made a similar list next year, I’d guess that more than a quarter of the titles would be different. It’ll be interesting to see whether e.g. A Cottage on Dartmoor or The Swimmer stay with me.
I’ve listed the films in chronological order, which reveals a surprise: 11 of the films in this list were released this century. It’s notable that most of these recent titles are very downbeat and slow-paced – I hadn’t quite realised this is so clearly a factor in my tastes in modern cinema.
The director who appears most is Hitchcock, predictably. There are three by: Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Luis Buñuel, F.W. Murnau and Nicholas Ray. There are two each by: Buster Keaton, Carl Theodor Dreyer, David Lynch, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Tourneur, Jerzy Skolimowski, Robert Bresson, Roman Polanski, Thomas Vinterberg, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Here’s the full list:
RICHARD DAWSON – Peasant (Domino). A departure from his previous work, in that he’s accompanied by a band, but Dawson’s ramshackle weirdness and Beefheartian tendencies are intact. ‘Soldier’ is my favourite song of the year, and includes my favourite lyric too: ‘Let’s betroth without delay / Pack the horse and ride away / Find some better place / Where we might raise a family / My heart is full of hope / I am tired, I am afraid / My heart is full of hope’.
BILL ORCUTT – Bill Orcutt (Palillia). Orcutt goes electric! Shimmering and abstract covers album with melodies I can never quite fathom. ‘Christmas on Earth’ is my favourite.
ROB NOYES – The Feudal Spirit (Poon Village). A traditional Fahey-style fingerpicking counterpart to Orcutt’s out-there album.
DEAN HURLEY – Anthology Resource Vol. 1 (Sacred Bones). Not only do they recall the happy, woozy weeks of David Lynch’s mind trip masterpiece, these soundscapes from Twin Peaks: The Return are incredible in their own right.
DEDEKIND CUT – American Zen (Ninja Tune). Wonderful washes of noise and hints of techno.
F INGERS – Awkwardly Blissing Out (Blackest Ever Black). Barely-there dark dreams.
BLUE IVERSON – Hotep (World Music). Twenty minutes of Dean Blunt’s soul and R&B doodlings. Far more compelling than that might sound.
HANNAH PEEL – Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia (self-published). Is it my imagination, or has there been a glut of albums featuring synths and colliery brass bands this year? This was the best.
VESSEL – Nyt Alfabet (DME). Shakily soporific in the best possible way. And that voice! I’m melting.
ALDOUS HARDING – Party (4AD). Speaking of voices… I predict that next year Aldous Harding will conquer the world.