Martina Bertoni – “All the Ghosts Are Gone” (2020)

Born and raised in Italy, Berlin-based cellist Martina Bertoni spent much of her career collaborating with other musicians.  Her first solo release wasn’t until 2018 and up to this point all of her solo work was digital.  All the Ghosts Are Gone, on Iceland’s FALK label, is both her first solo full-length album and her first physical release, FALK producing an extremely limited run of 40 cassettes in addition to making it available for purchase via download.

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While classically trained, Bertoni’s style is anything but classical.  Blending somber cello with electronics she creates musical canvases that slowly stretch against their own frames, creating a tension that threatens to tear the surface and rip the entire thing apart.  That’s not to imply that the songs are in any way frantic.  In fact it’s just the opposite.  The tension comes from an underlying stillness that is disturbed, gently at first but with steadily building pressure, the initial touch becoming firmer as spacetime stretches in response, membrane-like as it attempts to conform to Bertoni’s sonic exertions.  If asked to recommend entry points into All the Ghosts Are Gone, I’d go with “Blu” on the more ambient end of the spectrum and “Invisible Cracks” as the most tense.  “Notes At the End of the World”, the only composition with vocals, is tremendous in its flow and is one of the highlights of the album.

Cassette copies of All the Ghosts Are Gone, as well as downloads, are available on the FALK Bandcamp page HERE.  I also recommend checking out Bertoni’s own Bandcamp page (HERE) so you can listen to and download some of her other solo material.

The Leather Nun – “Force of Habit” (1987)

leathernunforceofhabitHailing from Sweden (Hail, Sweden!), The Leather Nun were a controversial outfit in their time, though when you listen to them today they seem pretty straight-forward.  Which makes sense when you consider these songs are all over 30 years old, as far away from me today as Elvis and Chuck Berry were when I was a teenager in the 1980s.  <Sigh>.  I’m clearly getting old.

Based on the handful of things I read about The Leather Nun I expected their sound to be “harder”.  But really this isn’t too far from The Cure or even U2 (I’m thinking here specifically of “Pink Houses”).  In fact Holly said that “506” had a “Neil Diamond vibe to it”.  That’s not to say I don’t like it, because in fact I do, and quite a bit, it’s just that “For the Love of Your Eyes” is anything but hard.  I went to YouTube and listen to some clips from the band’s 1984 debut EP Slow Death, and that was much more of what I expected.  It gets a bit edgier on the B side, but Force of Habit doesn’t have the intensity of Slow Death.

Hatari – “Neyslutrans” (2020)

Man, less than three weeks into the year and I’m already writing about a 2020 release for the first time, and from one of my favorite bands no less.  With new releases by HAM and Gusgus on the horizon, 2020 is already shaping up to be pretty awesome.

Before we get into Neyslutrans I wanted to do some musing on Hatari and people’s perceptions of the band.  They’ve got 23K+ followers on Facebook and over 80K on Instagram, they’ve won some awards, and they were selected to represent Iceland in Eurovision last year.  Sounds great, right?  Well, they’ve also pissed some people off.

The pissed-off-ness seems to mostly follow two paths.  The most obvious is their vocal support of Palestine in the weeks and months leading up to the Eurovision finals, which certainly didn’t go over well with most people in the host country of Israel, though it was supported from plenty of other directions.  This culminated with Hatari recording a song and doing a video with Palestinian artist Bashar Murad (“Klefi”, which is included on Neyslutrans) and holding up small Palestine banners following their finals performance, resulting in much pontificating and rhetoric and petty retribution, such as employees of El Al separating the band members on their flight out of Israel and putting all three in middle seats in the middle row.  Which is kind of petty and stupid, but at the end of the day is only annoying and inconvenient.  Now, I’m not taking sides here – this isn’t a political blog, and I’m just summarizing what happened.  Some people thought Hatari’s support for Palestinian independence was a good thing.  Others did not.  And others still took third path of pointing out that political statements aren’t supposed to be part of the contest, so just play your music and shut up already.  At the end of the day, I enjoyed their performance, and I’ll leave it at that.

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There are also criticisms leveled at Hatari for what is perceived as their appropriation of various subcultures and for not practicing what they preach in terms of being anti-establishment and anti-consumerism.  Maybe these are really two separate issues, but I tend to hear them lumped together, so that’s how I’ve been thinking about them.  Hatari describe themselves in various ways – anti-capitalists, performance artists, an anarcho-syndicalist commune.  Their holding company is called Relentless Scam Incorporated.  Their merch is sold under the heading Consumer Products.  And yes, this anti-capitalist anarcho-syndicalist commune sells merch, both recorded music and clothing.  The media had used all kinds of words to describe their style – industrial, goth, dance, and my personal favorite the completely misguided “steampunk”.  So what are Hatari?

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Well, the appropriation criticisms are evident in both the visual and sonic aspects of their aesthetic.  Clearly their stage outfits draw from BDSM and some aspects of LGBTQ culture, blending it with fascist chic, cyberpunk, and small doses of pure absurdity – the first time we saw them live the two dancers on stage, dressed in black spiked outfits, were wearing straight-up tourist-style fanny packs from which they produced lollypops that they threw into the crowd.  The entire thing is brought together into a very intentional and choreographed stage show – Hatari put a lot of effort into establishing personas and an artistic image that they want to impose onto the audience.  Sonically they certainly draw from what were the extreme fringes of 80s and 90s industrial and electronic music, bands like Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly, adding some modern polish and taking something that was at one time frightening and intimidating and turning it into something, well… a Consumer Product, in a way.  Now, musicians have been doing this since, well, since at least Elvis.  Does this excuse it?  I mean, I don’t know if it needs an excuse or not.  More than a few things that are now quasi mainstream started as fringe subcultures.  I can understand why it rubs people the wrong way, especially if and when people who aren’t actually part of the subculture co-opt elements of it for their own benefit, which can certainly feel exploitive.  Especially when entertainment is created from it, entertainment that is marketed to the masses.

In the song “Ódýr” off the EP Neysluvara the singer asks, “Why did I sell myself so cheap?” (♠)  It’s a valid question.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think they shouldn’t make more money for what they do, though in this context “cheap” doesn’t just mean money – it means everything.  This… this is what I work for, what I give my limited time and energy for?  Just this?  This society that is teetering on the edge?  This life?  All this… stuff?  It’s a feeling I think most people can relate to at one time or another in their lives.  Some societies have attempted to form in ways that value the work of the individual, though people being people there’s always someone or some cabal that goes and ruins it for everyone.  Someone always craves more.  More stuff.  More power.  More, more, more.  And then, usually after some bloodshed, another path is chosen.  Rinse, wash, repeat.  What’s the answer?  Is it railing against capitalism?  Is this the crux of Hatari’s message, this expression of modern day anomie?

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I have no idea what truth, if any, drives Hatari.  I don’t know these guys, and from what I’ve seen and read they stay more or less “in character” during interviews.  Are they truly anti-system and anti-capitalist and just selling merch as a way to fund their message, as they claim?  Or are they simply performance artists, characters in a play of their own creation, one that evolves over time?  And if so, what is their ultimate message?  Remember, their company is Relentless Scam Incorporated.  My perception is that there’s nothing nefarious in their motives, nothing calculatedly exploitive, but that could just be because I like their music and shows so much and I don’t want to think about the other stuff.  Maybe I don’t care either way.  Maybe I’ve sold myself to cheap.

I will freely admit that I am a big fan of Hatari’s music and I’ve enjoyed both the live shows I’ve seen.  Neysluvara was the #1 pick on my Top 5 Albums list in 2017, and I stand by that.  And when I learned just two days ago that a new album was coming out, I immediately hit up their website and bought two copies, one on vinyl and one on CD, and since I didn’t want to wait for those to arrive next month before hearing it, I bought the download too.  So much for anti-capitalism.  Long live Consumer Products.

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Neyslutrans (which translates to Consumption Trance) is a 13-song journey, one featuring a supporting cast that includes the previously mentioned Bashar Murad as well as CYBER, GDRN, Svarti Laxness, and even violinist Pétur Björnsson.  While opening tracks “Engin Miskunn” and “Spillingardans” can be heard as continuations of the band’s debut EP Neysluvara, Neyslutrans also sees Hatari break new ground.  Klemens’ higher-ranged vocals get more space, taking an edge off the harshness of Matthías’ raspy, accusatory pronouncements, and their collaborations offer an opportunity to blend styles.  “Klefi / Samed” balances Hatari’s harshness with the Murad’s more pop approach, incorporating his clean and dreamy vocals in sharp contrast to the ragged edge of Matthías’ delivery, while the female hip hop trio CYBER team up with the guys to create the dance-floor-ready “Hlauptu”.  The most jarring track is actually the quietist, the classical, violin-only interlude that is “Spectavisti Me Mori, Op. 8” that acts almost as an intermission, or at the very least an aperitif to cleanse your palette before you embark on the album’s final five songs, blending seamless into the harshness that is “14 Ár”.

The conciseness of the four-song Neysluvara ensured it was a gut punch from start to finish, like being stabbed to death with a razor sharp exclamation point by a bondage-gear-clad version of The Joker.  Neyslutrans doesn’t offer that same type of consistent, defining experience.  If Neysluvara is the star that went supernova, Neyslutrans is the gas cloud that formed around it, a cloud that still surrounds that impossibly dense and dark core while reflecting light and creating an impressive, varied, and expansive display.  Which is a good thing, because if Hatari had simply given us another 13 songs in the vein of their debut the result would have been an album hard to get through in one sitting – it would have just been too much.

Neyslutrans is an enjoyable listen, start to finish, and I suspect it’s going to be on heavy rotation in the Life in the Vinyl Lane household for months to come.  The download is available in all the normal places, as well as on Bandcamp HERE, while CD and vinyl can be purchased from Consumer Products HERE with a scheduled ship date of February 4.  I don’t know how limited these will be – they should be more accessible than the physical copies of their debut.

 

(♠)  There’s a great page HERE that breaks down and translates the lyrics of this song (and others), and in particular this line.  The more literal translation would be something to the effect of “Why didn’t I sell myself for more”, which does have a bit of a different connotation.  Whereas “so cheap” implies that I basically gave away my time and myself as a choice, accepting little in return with a shrug of my shoulders, the more literal reading is about knowing I’m selling myself because I don’t have a choice… and since I don’t have a choice, I may as well get as much as I can in return.  

Kool Moe Dee – “How Ya Like Me Now” (1987)

How ya like me now?

A lot, Kool Moe… I like ya a lot…

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How can you not love the dying throes of the innocent braggadocio that defined hip hop before it was unceremoniously obliterated by gangsta rap?  With songs based on James Brown (“How Ya Like Me Now”) and The Escape Club (“Wild Wild West”) and Paul Simon (“50 Ways”) (yes, I said PAUL SIMON!) the jams are simple, fun, and catchy.  However, it’s “Way Way Back” that is the true gem on How Ya Like Me Now, the most OG-disco-era-sounding track of the bunch.

If you can’t have fun listening to How Ya Like Me Now, you may need to check yourself, because you might be dead, or at the very least have no soul.

The Milkshakes – “Talking ‘Bout… Milkshakes!” (1981 / 2016)

I wasn’t familiar with The Milkshakes (sometimes written as Thee Milkshakes) until I ran across a couple of re-represses the other day.  The band was quite prolific in the 1980s, putting out something like 14 records between 1981 and 1987 plus a few singles and one last album in the early 1990s.  How had I not heard of these guys?

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Their debut was Talking ‘Bout… Milkshakes!, originally released in 1981 and re-released by Damaged Goods in 2016 (Damaged Goods re-pressed a handful of Milkshakes titles in the  2000s).  I saw the band described in another blog as sounding like the Kinks when they were at their edgiest and rawest, and that seems pretty apt.  The base style is 1960s rock/pop/surf, with an unpracticed feel to it, garage rock that sounds like it’s literally in someone’s garage.  Songs like “Bull’s Nose” are surfy psych without being overly either, not an homage as much as a next logical step in the progression of sound.  The anguished “Don’t Love Another” is like a sugary pop song that had a knife stuck into it and twisted to make sure the wound doesn’t easily heal.  The Milkshakes take the source genres, get into a fist fight with them, and record the bloody nose and sore ribs that result.

Often I find garage rock records to be repetitive, like the band only knows one way to play their songs.  But that’s not how I feel about The Milkshakes.  Yes, they have an underlying foundational “sound”, but they take it in a wide range of directions, all of them pretty rad.  I also picked up the Damaged Goods pressing of their 1984 record Nothing Can Stop These Men, and it’s every bit as good.  I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for The Milkshakes during future digs.