The Best of 2021

And so we reach the end of another year. The older I get the faster they fly by, the monotonous routine of COVID living adding to the Groundhog Day feel that is sometimes more like existing than living. Fortunately things are opening up a bit so we’ve been able to get out and enjoy some events like Seattle Kraken hockey games and meals with friends. A weekly Dungeons & Dragons game on Zoom gives us something to look forward to every week and our dog Evie won’t let us get too lazy, insisting on her morning walks and play sessions in the yard. Plus there’s the music. The music is always there, a way to be transported away for a while. There’s never enough time to listen to all the music I want to hear.

I didn’t blog much in 2021, only seven posts prior to today, and I’m not sure what the future holds for Life in the Vinyl Lane. We’ll just have to wait and see. Regardless, I listened to a ton of great music this year, and hopefully these lists may point you toward a band or artist that you will fall in love with.

Top 5 New Releases In 2021

1. Generation Loss – Steve Summers (US)
2. Mobile Home – GusGus (Iceland)
3. Ashamed – Mad Foxes (France)
4. Music Library 02 – Hvörf (Iceland)
5. Nightshade – NAOS (Iceland)

If you’ asked me at the start of December which album would top this list, I’d have said Mobile Home. But then a box of records I bought on a Bandcamp Friday from the L.I.E.S. label arrived and Steve Summers blew my mind. I’m not sure I can explain precisely why I love Generation Loss. I just know that when I put it on, I enjoy every single thing I hear, and if I play it on Spotify I also like almost everything the algorithm throws at me once the album is over. I suspect in 2022 I’ll be digging into his catalog and grabbing some of his earlier 12″ singles.

GusGus is one of my all-time favorite groups, and Mobile Home did not disappoint, the duo of Biggi and Daniél adding Vök vocalist Margrét Rán to the lineup to give an ethereal quality to the new album. This is the first time since I started doing these year-end lists that GusGus put out a new album and didn’t take the top spot on my Top 5. Don’t let that fool you – they’re hardly slipping, and GusGus remains a group I go back to time after time after time.

I first heard about Mad Foxes thanks to Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, who texted me when she heard one of their songs on KEXP and said I needed to check them out. By the time she got home a few hours later I had already ordered their new album Ashamed as well as their 2018 CD Desert Island Wish. A bit punk-ish, a bit post-punkish, their sound orbits a lot of styles and bands I like. Hvörf made my Top 5 “New To Me” list in 2019, and their electro-library music is great for just chilling out. NAOS rounds out the list with his edgy, techno Nightshade cassette. This one is tough to find, and I don’t think any of his stuff is on Spotify either, but it’s worth the effort to track down.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

1. Jeno Void
2. Algebra Suicide
3. The Ruts
4. Hoodoo Fushimi
5. Laserdance

I could have easily included three artists from my Top 5 New Releases list here, but that seemed a bit too obvious.

I first heard about Jeno Void from, of all places, Instagram, when Seattle’s Selector Records posted about some old school Jeno cassettes that had just come in. I managed to snag three of these by mail, and later a fourth at the shop, and I have to say that I could play these sets over and over and over again. it’s like having a rave in your living room. Hoodoo Fushimi also came to me via Selector with the re-release of the funky ケンカおやじ.

I can’t remember how I learned about Algebra Suicide, but I got hooked on their quirky indie/post-punk/no wave weirdness. The Ruts came to my attention thanks to Henry Rollins’ Stay Fanatic books – with how much he raved about the band I figured I needed to check them out, and I’m glad I did. Laserdance was a shot in the dark – a rewards program at work was shutting down and I converted those points into an Amazon gift card, so I decided to look at some box sets. One that caught my eye was Laserdance’s The Ultimate Fan Box, because who doesn’t want some 1980s Euro synth-pop? I know I do. So I did. And it’s pretty great.

Top 5 Purchases/Acquisitions

1. B.Q. Wave – Vector
2. Realm of Chaos – Blot Thrower
3. Jeno Void Cassettes
4. L.I.E.S. Records
5. V 1/2 Performed Live In Seattle – Led Zeppelin

Vector’s B.Q. Wave was actually the least expensive item on this list, but it will always hold a special place in my collection as it was the 1,000th Icelandic release (across all formats) I acquired. Funny that it came to me not from Iceland, but instead from Seattle’s own Selector Records. It’s hard to believe I’ve amassed that many items from Iceland. And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t slow down with my Icelandic purchases after picking this up – the count currently stands at 1,058 releases, with more already in the mail.

Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos has been in constant rotation on Spotify since I came upon it for the first time last year. Plus as a fan of Warhammer 40,000 fiction the idea of a Warhammer concept death metal album appeals to me. It also has quite an odd backstory. Games Workshop originally allowed the band to use the painting on the cover, but when the label approached GW about a later re-issue the company and it’s IP had grown much bigger and more valuable, meaning there were more lawyers, and ultimately they refused to extend the license. The band did not want the album re-released with a different cover, but the label went ahead and commissioned the same artist who did the original to do a similar-but-not-too-similar new work, which was then used on later releases, much to the disgust of Bolt Thrower who have told fans not to buy it. I’ve coveted copies with the original artwork, and I finally broke down and bought a gatefold original pressing.

Jeno Void and the L.I.E.S. label came into my orbit thanks to Sherman at Selector. Since then I’ve picked up 4-5 Jeno cassettes and at least a dozen L.I.E.S. releases, including my pick for the top album of 2021, Steve Summers’ Generation Loss. As for the live Led Zep, I love the band and have always had an interest in any of their stuff live from Seattle, so when I ran across this at a location that shall remain nameless I just had to pick it up. The sound quality isn’t the best, but it’s still a cool artifact.

Top 5 Live Shows

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

For the second consecutive year we didn’t see a single live show. Which sucks immeasurably. On a positive note, we have been to a few larger events, most notably a handful of NHL games to cheer on our new team, the Seattle Kraken, so at least we’re starting to feel comfortable enough to go out in group settings. We’re moderately optimistic about 2022, enough so that we already have tickets for the Swedish House Mafia show here in Seattle later in the year. Fingers crossed.

Top 5 Artists on Spotify

1. GusGus
2. The Ruts
3. Beastie Boys
4. F-Rontal
5. Space 92

A lot of folks post on Facebook and Instagram when Spotify produces its year-end listening summaries to each user. And like last year, there were a few surprises fon mine. First and foremost was the sheer amount of time Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and I spent streaming – 134,469 minutes, which equates to 2,241 hours or 93.4 full days. With both of us working from home and streaming individually in different rooms, this kind of makes sense – a typical work day could involve 20+ hours of streaming. But it’s still a lot of listening.

As for the artists themselves, there were a few surprises. GusGus in the top spot was to be expected, especially with them releasing a new album in 2021. The Ruts raised an eyebrow, though I went through a pretty big Ruts phase earlier in the year. The Beastie Boys are an all-time favorite and never disappoint, so that makes sense. The last two artists, well… I don’t know that I could have named them prior to seeing them on this list. It turns out that both have tracks on a playlist called Techno Bunker that we listen to A LOT, so that’s clearly how they cracked into the Top 5.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

1. Bandcamp
2. Selector Records – Seattle
3. Lucky Records – Reykjavik
4. Easy Street Records – Seattle
5. Discogs

I tried to shop on as many Bandcamp Fridays as I could – I appreciate the platform’s commitment to artists, and knowing that the artists would receive all the proceeds from purchases on those days got me onto the site just looking for stuff. I ended up making a few decent sized purchases, most notably from the L.I.E.S. and Intellitronic Bubble. Discogs, as always, was also a great online source.

As for bricks-and-mortar, this year I “discovered” one of Seattle’s newer record ships, Selector Records. Selector specializes in electronic and DJ music and my man Sherman has curated a great inventory of labels, genres, and artists into a relatively small space. I don’t think I’ve walked out of there with less than 10 records (and a few tapes) in my bag after any of my visits this year. Easy Street continues to be a local favorite as well, though the closure of the West Seattle Bridge made it harder to get to. And while we didn’t travel to Iceland this year, I believe I had three boxes arrive from Reykjavik courtesy of my friends at Lucky Records, with another box being assembled for January shipment.

I bought a metric ton of music in 2021, and while space is stating to become an issue, I don’t expect to slow down in 2022.

Top 5 Music Books Read

1. Avant-Garde From Below: Transgressive Performance from Iggy Pop to Joe Coleman and GG Allin by Clemens Marschall
2. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin: The Untold Story of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy No. 1 by Cyrus Bozorgmehr
3. Love In Vain – The Story Of The Ruts & Ruts D.C. by Roland Link
4. GusGus 25 Ára
5. A Pig’s Tale: The Underground Story of the Legendary Bootleg Record Label by Ralph Sutherland and Harold Sherrick

Only two of these books were newly released in 2021, but no matter. Avant-Garde From Below profiled a small number of musicians and performance artists and forced me to think a bit about the question of “what is art”. And now that I think about it, so too did Once Upon a Time In Shaolin; I always saw that one-off Wu-Tang album as a bit of a stunt, but it was actually much more than that, it was an artistic statement. Honorable mention to the crowdfunded GusGus 25 Ára photo book, an exquisite piece of publishing if there ever was one.

And that’s a wrap, folks. Hope to catch you here again in 2022.

GusGus – The Discography

The other night I was sitting around lamenting about how little I’ve blogged in 2021. Considering how little we have traveled in the last 18 months (none) and how much time I’m spending not commuting any more (2.5 hours per day) you’d have thought COVID would have been very good for Life in the Vinyl Lane posts. But it wasn’t. C’est la vie.

However, while I was beating myself up for not maintaining my own blog I was also surfing Discogs. Having just received my copy of the tremendous crowd-funded photo book GusGus 25 Ára, I was poking around in the GusGus discography, which got me to thinking about how the band’s sound has changed over time and that it would be interesting to listen to their entire discography in chronological order and riff about it. I had all the studio albums other than their very first Icelandic release (more on that below), but decided to cast my net a bit wider as well, clicking the “Buy” button on some live DJ set releases as well as the pre-GusGus T-World single. Go big or go home.

To be clear, I don’t have any new insights about Gusgus. The band has been covered extensively, including a great in depth article in The Reykjavik Grapevine in 2020, which included contributions from the two remaining primary members, Daníel and Biggi. Between the book and the article I definitely learned a few things, some of which are included in the below. But really this isn’t a history of the band so much as a superfan doing what superfans do – nerding out.

THE PREQUEL
T-World – “An – Them” 12″ (1994) – Underwater Records

The collective that became GusGus originally came together to produce the short film (about 16 minutes) Nautn, which was released in 1995. To assist with the soundtrack they reached out to Birgir Þórarinsson, aka Biggi Veira, aka Biggi, who was at that time one half of the house duo T-World along with Maggi Legó (Magnús Guðmundsson). The duo put out a 12″ single the year before, two versions of the track “An – Them”, on UK label Underwater Records. It turned out to be their only release with Underwater, in large part because “the label staff had a cocaine problem.” Underwater’s loss was GusGus’ gain.

If there’s one aspect of An – Them that feels like early GusGus it’s the pairing of a house-style high end with a faster, more uptempo bass flowing underneath that gives the whole thing a mystical quality. The bongos are more reminiscent (to me) of the later work of Biggi’s GusGus electronics partner President Bongo, particularly the latter’s 2015 solo album Serengeti. The vocal samples at the conclusion of side A contribute to the overall tribal feel. The B side takes on a more spacey feel, the brisk pace of the high end and flatter percussion creating an almost post-modern version of the A side. It’s a bit more sterile, almost as if side A came from out in nature while side B originated in a hermetically sealed laboratory.

An original pressing of An – Them is only going to set you back $10 or so, as will the 2005 Underwater re-release. The copies available for sale on Discogs at the time of this writing are priced quite a bit higher, but the sales history is such that if you bide your time you’ll likely be able to snag this gem for a nice price.

THE DEBUT(S)
Gus Gus (1995) –
Kjól & Anderson
Polydistortion (1997) –
4AD

First things first. I’d read in multiple places that Polydistortion was a re-release of the band’s original Iceland-only album from two years prior.

This is, quite simply, not the case.

Sure, if you look at the back of the CDs you could easily think to yourself, “well, these 10 songs on Polydistortion have identical or very similar titles to 10 of the 12 tracks on Gus Gus, so they must be the same songs” (“Message From Disney” and “Chocolate” being the two missing tracks, while an unlisted track alternately referred to as “Polybackwards” or “Polyreprise” appears on Polydistortion… it’s all very confusing). And while this is in fact true for a few songs, for others the Polydistorition version is totally different than the original. Given the scarcity and cost of Gus Gus (a copy will likely set you back $70+) it’s easy to see why these differences are mostly unknown outside of Iceland.

The reason, as it turns out, was a fairly simple one – sampling. The band had been a bit, shall we say, looser in their sampling on the Gus Gus CD, one that was almost exclusively sold and bought in Iceland, so far away from the armies of lawyers in Los Angeles and New York in the 1990s that it may as well have been a different planet. Gusgus’ new home 4AD, however, was a known and respected UK label, so samples either had to be cleared or cut. And allegedly all but two were dropped, the cowbell loop on “Believe” being one of the exceptions and a snipit of sound that cost the band 70% of what it made from the track.

The differences hit you right out of the gate. Polydistortion opens with the 1:17 instrumental “Oh (Edit)”, a quiet sonic introduction to the album. However, the same track on Gus Gus runs for four minutes, much of which has low, spoken vocals, and serving more as an intermission that an introduction.

While a detailed Gus Gus vs. Polydistortion might be interesting to some, I don’t have the patience for it. So instead I instead sat down and listened to the two albums back-to-back. The difference to my ears is the pure funkiness of Gus Gus, its sexy, deep beats giving it more of a soul feel. The two versions of “Polyester Day” / “Polyesterday” showcase this perfectly, the original’s porno-esque vibe making me want to turn down off the lights, light some candles, and try some smooth moves, while the later version is more dance-floor-ready. Both are solid jams, but I’ll take the richness of the original. And don’t even get me started on the funky-sexy “Chocolate”, the one track missing from Polydistortion (though 4AD did release it as a 12″ in 1996). It’s omission from Polydistortion is criminal.

I’ve been a fan of Polydistorition for a long time, but I feel like Gus Gus is the better album. Plus it comes in a logoed velour pouch, which is rad. Do I prefer it because of some kind of “the original/early work is always better”, or “this one is rarer” mindset? I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so.

INTERMISSION #1 LIVE STUFF
On KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic 8/7/97 cassette

As part of my deep dive I picked up a handful of live GusGus recordings, figuring they might give some insight into how the band evolved over time, transitional musical fossils captured on magnetic tape instead of sticky amber.

The first of these is a cassette-only release on 4AD featuring a live in-studio set GusGus performed on Santa Monica’s KCRW in 1997. It contains versions of “Polyesterday” and “Believe” from Polydistorition, plus the previously unreleased “Blue Mug”, which later came out on (This Is Normal two years later. There are also two interview segments with band members.

The quality of the recording is excellent. The lowest of the lows might just have a touch of distortion, but I don’t know if that’s an artifact of the cassette or the sounds actually coming from the electronics. The extended (9:20) version of “Polyesterday” is quite rich with a deep low end, more reminiscent of the Gus Gus recording than that of Polydistortion. “Blue Mug” balances spectral female vocals with super trippy and spacey electronics, and we close out with a marathon (10:00) version of the hit “Believe”. The interviews are a little awkward at times, but we do get to hear Daníel do some voices that he had been performing as part of some cartoon voice-overs, which is funny.

It looks like there are two versions of this tape, one from 4AD and one from Warner Bros. The Warner version lists the interview segments on the tracklist whereas 4AD doesn’t, but based on total run timed I feel confident these contain identical material. On KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic 8/7/97 probably only appeals to completists, but if you’re a fan of GusGus’ early material it’s a great way to get some live versions of classic tracks.

EARLY GREATNESS
(This Is Normal (1999) – 4AD

One thing that will date you when talking about music is referring to “sides”, whether it be the B-side of a single or an album side. The rise of the CD almost totally killed the concept of a side of music, and the digital era put it into a coma from which it was never expected to emerge. Fortunately for some of us fogies the vinyl renaissance occurred and resurrected the concept of the album side. And I for one am grateful, because it allows me to make hyperbolic statements again. Statements like, “the A side of (This Is Normal is one of the greatest sides of music ever recorded”.

(This Is Normal got a vinyl pressing when it came out in 1999, which is perhaps a little surprising. Even more so that 4AD incurred the expense of putting it out as a double album with four sides of music. Normally an album side would have four or five tracks, but in this case the A-side of (This Is Normal only has three – “Ladyshave”, “Teenage Sensation”, and “Starlovers”. Three flawless pop songs, all the more impressive by the fact that vocal duties were split between Daníel (“Ladyshave” and “Starlovers”) and the ethereal Hafdís Huld (“Teenage Sensation”). And if we really want to get down to it, had the album’s fourth track “Superhuman” (also sung by Huld) made it onto a side with the other three, I’d probably christen it as THE best album side. Ever.

There aren’t a lot of groups fronted by vocalists of Daníel’s talent that would only have him sing on five songs, providing space for Huld (three songs) and Magnús Jónsson (two songs) to shine in their own rights. (♠︎) Jónsson’s high-pitched voice gives his tracks a disco-like quality that sets them a bit apart, but the cohesiveness of the beats and music still ground them within the framework of (This Is Normal. The overall feel is downtempo, the rich low end propelling it forward in pulsating bursts, the vocals wrapping around the music to add sensuality and warmth. It’s definitely my favorite album in the first half of the Gusgus catalog.

THE DANIÉL-LESS YEARS
GusGus vs. T-World (2000) – 4AD
Attention (2002) – Underwater Records
Forever (2007) – Pineapple Records

So how do you follow up an album that included three brilliant vocalists? If you’re GusGus you put out a deep house groover with… no vocals.

There is a subset of GusGus fans who adore GusGus vs. T-World, and there’s a lot to love – this is a dance floor banger if there ever was one. While I suspect for many if not most Gusgus fans this album is more of a curiosity, at least one of my friends puts it in his personal list of the Top 3 Gusgus albums. Regardless, it’s a great curio in the catalog – just push “play” and walk away, because you’ll be happy to let all 50+ minutes bump.

Attention saw GusGus return to form and introduced a new vocalist, Urður Hákonardóttir aka Earth. Right from the opening track “Unnecessary” it’s clear that GusGus is back. The music pops and Earth’s vocals take on an instrumental quality of their own when she repeats “unnecessary”, something she does again on the title track with “Attention”. Earth certainly wasn’t the first woman to sing for GusGus, but she was the first that, to my ears at least, defined the sound of one of their albums.

Daniél may not have technically been part of GusGus any longer, but that didn’t stop one of his tracks from appearing on Attention. “Desire” is one of the album’s best numbers, though one more reminiscent of the (This Is Normal material.

Forever is all about Earth. It feels like the sonic landscape created by Biggi and Bongo was painted specifically with her in mind, and she moves through it effortlessly. She makes her first appearance on the second track, “You’ll Never Change,” and it’s one of the album’s high points, electro R&B that merges funk and disco and house. Earth is free from rhythmic shackles and able to sing as she pleases, sometimes following the music and other times wandering down her own path.

Forever also features some guest vocalists. Iceland’s mega-pop-star Páll Óskar joins Earth on the next two tracks, as does American house musician Aaron-Carl Ragland on “Hold You”. “Hold You” offers vocal complexity, the voices weaving in and out with Ragland’s low register soothing while Earth ranges far afield, sometimes up front and powerful, other times fading into a background supporting role. Daniél also returns for a single track, “Moss”

I always forget that one of my favorite Gusgus songs is on this album, and it’s because of the title. “If You Don’t Jump (You’re English)” does indeed include the title in the vocals, but just barely. Instead the song is defined by the repeated “I wanna be a freak” sung by President Bongo. It’s a sampler’s dream. So good.

If I’m being honest, these three are probably my least-played GusGus albums. There was a two or three year period when I played them a lot, but once Arabian Horse came out in 2011 I became obsessive about Gusgus’ new sound. I

INTERMISSION #2 – MORE LIVE STUFF
Mix @ Respect (1999) – Labels
Mixed Live: Sirkus, Reykjavik, Iceland (2003) – Moonshine Music

These two releases sit outside of the GusGus cannon, live performances that don’t focus on Gusgus songs per se. They’re also both pretty obscure. However, they are obtainable – I acquired them both on Discogs in the last 60 days for a combined €13 plus shipping. So if you’re interested, they’re out there to be had.

Mix @ Respect was recorded live in 1999 at Queen, a dance club in Paris. The set is deep house, lacking vocals other than some sampling The sound quality overall is quite good, but there are a few places where the bass blows out and becomes distorted. There are some passages incorporating Gusgus’ music, but most of it isn’t recognizable as Gusgus per se. Still, an enjoyable listen and one that will certainly continue to get some play at my house.

Sirkus was still around during our first trip to Iceland back in 2005, but by time we got back to Reykjavik for our first Airwaves in 2009 it was gone, so we never caught a show there. Unlike Mix @ Respect, the Sirkus set draws heavily on non-Gusgus tracks, but appears to also add some live vocals. Whereas Mix feels like being at a club, Sirkus is more like being at a party.

Both of these releases are “push play and enjoy”.

THE DARK TURN
24/7 (2009) – Kompakt

I know precisely when my GusGus fandom began – late in the evening of Sunday, October 18, 2009. That’s when Daniél, Biggi, and Bongo stepped onto the stage at Reykjavik’s NASA for their Iceland-Airwaves-closing set. Their newest album 24/7 was barely a month old at that point, and while Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane had bought a copy on the trip, I don’t think we’d listened to it yet. What I remember most about the set is the powerful, pulsating low end and the green lasers. I suspect that GusGus performed the entire album, but I can’t be sure.

This album clicked for me a month or two after our return from Iceland. I had it on my iPod and decided to play it during a cold, dark morning dog walk. Right from the opening notes of “Thin Ice” bouncing back and forth in my earbuds I was hooked. 24/7 is made for listening to on headphones, or if not then with the volume cranked up, otherwise you’re sure to miss many of the subtle touches as the bass and Daniél’s voice overwhelm you.

According to the previously mentioned Grapevine article and GusGus 25 Ára, the recording of 24/7 was pretty unique – the trio rented a hall and performed the entire thing all the way through four times, then edited the ablum using those four recordings. This does make some sense, though, because 24/7 in many ways feels like one continuous track, the songs like chapters in a book.

The low end carries 24/7, its richness, density, and clarity pulsating like a heartbeat. The vocals too are low and sensual, though from time to time breaking out to soar. The backing choruses are pushed off into the background like a dream intruding on your waking hours. It’s very easy to hear Daniél’s voice as an instrument blending into the electronics, almost perceiving the tracks as instrumentals. At least it is for me, though to be fair that’s often how I hear vocals. I recall sharing this album with my friend Tristen and asking him what he thought of it. “Why is this guy so angry?” he asked. I was confused, but shouldn’t have been. After all, the second song is entitled “Hateful” and begins with the lyrics, I’m feeling hateful / Because you pissed me off / I want to hurt you / I want to make you suffer. I have to admit, Tirsten had a point. I just hadn’t noticed, caught up in the beauty of the sounds.

It’s hard to pick a favorite track on 24/7. “Add This Song” seems to be the choice for most people I’ve talked to, and there have been times it was mine as well. But I’ve also had periods where I played “Thin Ice” or “Hateful” or “On the Job” over and over and over again. “Add This Song” and “Thin Ice” both got the 12″ remix treatment, so that’s probably a bit indicative of overall popularity (both 12″ records are enjoyable, but I prefer the originals to any of the remixes). The fact of the matter is there isn’t a bad, or even marginal, song on 24/7.

GusGus is a rarity, a band that continuously evolves. 24/7 was a massive departure from Forever and everything else that came before it. While one could certainly argue its deep house direction laid the groundwork for the two albums that followed, to my ears 24/7 stands alone in the GusGus catalog, a black monolith of bass and style. I don’t think it’s their best album, nor is it my favorite. But it is the most powerful.

PERFECTION
Arabian Horse (2011) – Kompakt
Mexico (2014) – Kompakt

Earth returned to the Gusgus lineup, and if that wasn’t exciting enough the group added a new member – Högni Egilsson. Högni was best known as a guitarist and singer for the ensemble Hjaltalín (), the haunting quality his beautiful and seemingly deep voice (he’s probably actually a tenor) making him a perfect partner for Daniél. The trio of vocalists complemented one another so well that they could bring tears to your eyes.

Which brings us to 2011’s Arabian Horse, as close to a perfect album as exists IMO, and one that I put in my personal “All Time Top 5 Desert Island Albums” cannon. It’s not even so much that I love every single song on the record as that when taken as a whole everything just fits together.

While it’s true that I have a ton of vinyl (over 3,000 records and counting), often I end up listening to things on Spotify because, well, it’s just easier. But for this listening session I went to the Icelandic section of my shelves (yes, the Icelandic artists have their own section…) and pulled out the record. And while I’m not a “vinyl is so much better” guy, I have to say this pressing sounds fantastic, bringing a richness and warmth that I don’t quite get from digital. It also feels like the mix brings some of the subtleties closer to the forefront, such as Daniél’s opening vocals in “Be With Me Now”.

Where to start with Arabian Horse? I’m tempted to reach deep into my bag of hyperbole and spout off all kinds of pithy platitudes, but it seems kind of pointless – it’s hard to put my perception of this album into words. The sonic palette is dense with incredible richness in the low end – the bass doesn’t so much pump out of the speakers than it pulses, taken to the absolute limits of clarity. And maybe that’s the one word I’m looking for here – “clarity”. Every sound, every tiny nuance, just feels right, as if even the smallest change would disrupt a track’s balance.

That feeling extends to the vocals as well. Högni makes his first appearance on the album’s third track, and when he sings the words deep inside / deep inside, holding onto each word, stretching it, loving it, well, if you don’t feel something, you might already be dead. And what can you say about Daniél and Earth’s interactions on “Over”? It’s as if they were born to sing together.

Four tracks got formal remixes, though only “Over” made it to a vinyl release. I have listened to these, but I have to confess that unlike the enjoyable 24/7 remixes, these leave me a bit underwhelmed. The Arabian Horse songs are more complex than their predecessors, which makes them lose too much of their original character when re-done.

In 2013 Biggi produced John Grant’s seminal Pale Green Ghosts, and you can hear elements of that album in Arabian Horse – the ways Biggi doubles and echos vocals, the richness of the beats, the intentionality and the density. In many ways that John Grant album is the part of the evolution that started with 24/7 and reached its apex on our next entry, 2014’s Mexico.

Somehow I managed to never acquire a physical copy of Mexico. We purchased it digitally the day it came out, but for whatever reason I never grabbed a copy on CD or vinyl, an oversight I rectified this on the same day I wrote this paragraph, ordering the 2xLP on Discogs.

Gusgus continue with three vocalists on Mexico, though both Högni and Earth take appear on fewer songs. However, when they do make their presences felt, it’s with great effect. The opening track “Obnoxiously Sexual”, featuring Högni’s vocals, is one of the best on the album, and Earth is brilliant on the second song, “Another Life”. From there Mexico takes a sensual turn as Daniél’s voice simmers on the surface of Biggi’s rich and pulsing beats. The trio of “Sustain”, “Crossfade”, and “Airwaves” is unassailable.

Mexico ranks alongside 24/7 as the most stylistically consistent albums in the Gusgus catalog. It’s not quite like listening to one long track, but there is a sonic flow and no unexpected changes in direction, making it an ideal listen when you’re in a certain kind of mood. It’s like a warm blanket or a soothing voice, the sonic density swaddling you in its embrace.

In a completely and utterly non-scientific survey of four of my fellow Iceland Airwaves and Gusgus devotees, I asked each for their three favorite Gusgus albums. Everyone, myself included, had Arabian Horse on their list, and everyone other than me also chose Mexico (my other choices were 24/7 and (This Is Normal ). And I have to confess that after listening to Mexico again, I’m starting to second guess my own list because it’s so damn great. So at least among me and my friends, this period represents peak Gusgus.

REINVENTION
Lies Are More Flexible (2018) – Oroom
Mobile Home (2021) – Oroom

So what do you do after creating a pair of brilliant albums with a three vocalist lineup? You strip it all back down to its roots, of course (and, you know, have the incomparable John Grant join as a backing vocalist on one track). Tear it down to build it up again as something new. And so for Lies Are More Flexible we find ourselves back to just a two-person core of Biggi and Daniél.

Lies feels like two separate albums. All four A side tracks feature Daniél’s vocals, but the entire B side is instrumental outside of some very minor non-singing vocalizations. This makes it a bit challenging to grab onto as an “album” – it’s almost like two EPs brought together. Two excellent EPs, to be sure, but it still draws a bold line separating the two sides. “Featherlight” can hold its own against any other song in the Gusgus catalog, while the title track and “Fuel” are among the group’s best instrumental numbers.

Biggi and Daniél kept us waiting another three years before putting out the 11th Gusgus album earlier this year, but it was well worth the wait. I tried my best to not listen to the singles released before the album came out, wanting to experience the album as a unified whole, but once I learned that the guys had teamed up with Vök’s Margrét Rán, well, then I had to listen to the singles.

We first became familiar with Margrét and Vök at a show they did at Reykjavik’s Faktorý back in April 2013. The group had won Iceland’s national “Battle of the Bands” and they were the opening act for an anti-bullying charity show featuring Prins Póló and FM Belfast. Margrét was so shy on stage, but her voice had tremendous depth. Over the years we’ve picked up all the Vök releases and seen them live multiple times, and she’s become a more powerful singer and performer with each show. Her voice is perfect for Gusgus.

To my ears Mobile Home is all about the vocals. That’s not to imply that the music isn’t fantastic, because it is. It’s that the music serves the vocals, and not the other way around. During the non-singing interludes Biggi explores and expands the space, but when Daniél and Margrét step forward, Biggi pulls back and provides a more subtle sonic platform to allow their voices to come forward and shine. The more I listen to Mobile Home, the more I find myself falling in love with it. Who knows, it may end up in my my personal Gusgus Top 3 soon enough.

So that’s all there is, kids. Despite having written almost 4,500 words, this post feels inadequately short. My hope is that you come away interested in checking out a Gusgus album you’ve never heard before. If you do, drop me a note and let me know.!

(♠︎) OK, so until I sat down to write this blog I did not realize that Magnús Jónsson, who sings on Polydistortion and (This Is Normal is also Blake of BB&Blake fame, and I’m completely blown away by this information. They were one of our favorite acts from our first Iceland Airwaves back in 2009, and I’d simply never put this together previously. It’s kind of blowing my mind.

(⨁ ) I feel like if your group has a full-time bassoon player, you automatically become an ensemble.

The Best of 2018

Where did the year go?  In my case, most of it seemingly went to work.  It was a busy year professionally, with a major work project consuming most of it and even keeping us from attending Iceland Airwaves, our first absence from that festival in a decade.  But the good news is that the product launch was pretty successful, so things should return to normal next year.  And to make sure we already bought our tickets for Iceland Airwaves 2019, so hopefully we’ll see you in Reykjavik in November.

It wasn’t all work in 2018, even though sometimes it felt that way.  We took a great trip to Japan and Korea in the Spring and enjoyed long weekends in Portland, Denver, and New York City, all of which involved record shopping.  The blog suffered a bit, however.  This was my lightest year of posting since Life in the Vinyl Lane started back in 2012.  I’ll finish the year somewhere just north of 180 posts, which is a lot, though not even close to the 222 I wrote the year before (and that’s even less than the years before).  Trust me – the reason had nothing to do with not having enough great music to write about.  It was just a matter of time.

Whether you’re a regular reader of Life in the Vinyl Lane or just pop by from time to time, I’d like to thank you.  Feel free to drop me a note any time and let me know what you think, or what I need to listen to, because I love hearing from you.

So with all that being said, here’s Life in the Vinyl Lane’s Best of 2018!  Keep it punk.

nycpunk

Top 5 New Releases In 2018

  1. Lies Are More Flexible – Gusgus (Iceland)
  2. Electrostatic – Individual Totem (Germany)
  3. Death Is A True Prophet – ERZH (Iceland)
  4. Bring Down The House Lights – Dirty Sidewalks (US)
  5. Digital Garbage – Mudhoney (US)

2018 was a truly outstanding year for music, both generally and for me personally – quite a few of my favorite artists put out releases.  In fact, of the 24 different performers who have graced my Top 5 New Releases lists since 2012, 10 of them put out new albums this year, including three who held down the #1 spot on a previous list.  To get to the Top 5 this year we started with about 60 albums, whittled that down to the final 20. and then listened to those again over the last few weeks.  Arriving at the final seven was easy, but trimming that down to five… man, it was tough.

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The top spot, however, was a pretty easy choice for me.  I’m a huge fan of Gusgus and have been through their various iterations and changing styles.  Their latest release, Lies Are More Flexible, found the group down to just two core members and moving in a more heavily musical direction with outstanding results.  I know not everyone is sold – most of my friends who are also Gusgus fans lean towards either the instrumental or the vocal tracks on the album, loving half of it and not caring as much for the other.  But to my ears it’s all outstanding.

The next two albums weren’t released on vinyl, but that wasn’t going to keep them off the list.  I was a latecomer to the world of Individual Totem, but their new CD creates a dark electro buzz in my brain that has me wanting to explore their back catalog. ERZH’s Death Is A True Prophet is the third heavily electronic album on the list, one physically released only via cassette from Iceland’s FALK label, which continues to pump out infatuating albums by little-known hyper-talented artists.  The Top 5 rounds out with a pair of Seattle-based bands, newcomer psych-stars Dirty Sidewalks and grunge/punk veterans Mudhoney.  Mudhoney edged out a few other challengers (most notably Fufanu) for the #5 spot primarily on the strength of Digital Garbage‘s lyrics, a combination of snark and venom aimed at the direction things are taking in American society these days, which I found to be poignant.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Rammstein (Germany)
  2. Executive Slacks (US)
  3. Chinas Comidas (US)
  4. GRÓA (Iceland)
  5. Holz (US)

Oddly enough the top artist on this list is one I’ve never written about, nor do I have any of their albums on vinyl, even though they’ve been around forever.  I decided to finally check out Rammstein after, believe it or not, seeing the opening scene to the original xXx movie which featured the Germans playing the song “Feuer Frei!” in a club.  Within a few weeks we had about half a dozen Rammstein CDs and were playing them constantly on our iPods.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. Medical Records Catalog
  2. Unholy Death – N.M.E.
  3. Ork Records: New York, New York
  4. Korean Metal
  5. Ravno Do Dna – Azra

medicalrecordslogo

Over one of the holiday weekends earlier this year, Seattle’s Medical Records label posted on their Facebook page that everything on their Bandcamp page was something like 30% off.  I shot them a quick note asking if that included the package deal they offer whereby you can order one copy of every single release they still have in stock, figuring there was no way they’d say yes.  And they said yes.  I did the mental math, factoring in how many duplicates this would mean for me based on stuff I already had, and pulled the trigger.  In just a few days two massive boxes showed up on my front porch.  The final count was just over 50 assorted LPs and 12″ vinyl, plus a few 7″ records and even a cassette.  I still haven’t managed to get through all of this synthy goodness, but everything I’ve pulled off the shelf so far has been awesome.

Unholy Death has a local tie and led to Holly and I taking a field trip, which you can read about if you click the link above.  I got a screaming deal on a used copy of the Ork Records: New York, New York box set, and was excited to find that the unused download card were still inside.  Buying 1980s Korean metal in an (literally) underground market area that included a half dozen stores made for a fun afternoon in Seoul, and the copy of Ravno Do Dna had a surprise inside, three old postcards from Yugoslavia, which was kind of cool.

None of this stuff was particularly valuable or ultra-rare, but instead things that resonated with me.  The money is just a means to get more music!

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Roseland Theater, Portland
  2. Henry Rollins – Neptune Theater, Seattle
  3. Dream Wife – Barboza, Seattle
  4. Mudhoney – Neptune Theater, Seattle
  5. Devil Makes Three – Red Rocks Ampitheater, Colorado

brmcportland

We only saw five shows in 2018.  Given that we didn’t make it to Airwaves, that’s probably about typical, though.  This year’s clear winner was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (right).  We first saw them a few years back at an outdoor show in Salt Lake City, which was fun, but BRMC are a band that feels like it belongs in a dark club somewhere.  And while the Rosalind isn’t a club, it’s pretty intimate and plenty dark inside, and the band sounded incredible.

I wasn’t sure if Henry Rollins qualified for the list, since we saw his spoken word travel photography show.  But he’s a musician, and it’s my blog, so I guess I can do what I want.  Henry talked at 100 mph for 2.5 hours straight, never once stopping for a break, sitting down, or even taking a single sip of water.  And I’m not exaggerating.  Henry has more energy than should be humanly possible.

It was exciting to see Dream Wife outside of Reykjavik, even more so since I’d just done a 30 minute phone interview with lead singer Rakel a few weeks prior for the newly released issue of Reykjavik On Stage.  For Mudhoney, this was our second time seeing them do a record release show, having gone to the one for Vanishing Point as well, and the mosh pit was off the charts.  The list rounds out with our second time seeing Devil Makes Three at Red Rocks.  They’re alway outstanding – this was either my 6th or 7th time experiencing them live and they never disappoint.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America (excluding the greater Seattle area)

  1. 1709 Records, Vancouver (WA)
  2. Green Noise Records, Portland
  3. Twist & Shout Records, Denver
  4. Academy Records Annex, Brooklyn
  5. Mississippi Records, Portland

The Rest of the World

  1. Time Bomb Records, Osaka
  2. Stereo Records, Hiroshima
  3. Seoul Record Mall, Seoul
  4. Compufunk Records, Osaka
  5. Jet Set Records, Kyoto

I decided to not include any Seattle-area shops this year.  After all, Easy Street Records, which just got named to Rolling Stone‘s top 10 record stores in the US, will probably be #1 on my North America list from now until forever, and there are a number of other local shops I love too.  Plus we traveled enough in the US this year to easily come up with a list of five stores that I want to get back to again someday.

1709-3

1709 Records was a very pleasant surprise when I found myself with a few hours to kill on a business trip to Vancouver, Washington, and I came away with some cool Green River and Scratch Acid vinyl.  Portland’s Green Noise has been around for a while, though this was the first time we’d ever stopped by.  It just moved to a location a few blocks from another perennial Top 5 favorite, Mississippi Records (#5 this year, and remember kids – always bring cash, because they don’t take plastic!), so I’m sure it’ll be a regular stop on future visits to Rip City.

timebombosaka1As for the rest of the world, this is the first time no stores in Reykjavik made the list, which gave me more space for other stuff.  Osaka’s Time Bomb was perfectly laid out and organized, and every single record accurately graded.  I could have spent hours there.  Stereo Records wasn’t even on our list of shops to visit in Hiroshima – we found it because it was across the street from a shop we were actually looking for, and it offered a deep selection of excellent condition titles.  I almost included the Osaka branch of Tower Records, and not just for nostalgia reasons – the CD selection was of course filled with Japanese releases, both artists as well as special editions, plus I got a cool old-school Tower t-shirt that always elicits comments when I wear it.  Bonus points to Compufunk for also being a club, a fully stocked bar, and an amazing view of the river in Osaka.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Beastie Boys Book, by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz
  2. Sticky Fingers:  The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, by Joe Hagan
  3. The Mudd Club, by Richard Boch
  4. Zounds Demystified, by Steve Lake
  5. Factory, by Mick Middles

beastieboysbook

I should confess that I only managed to read six music-related books in 2018, so this wasn’t too tough to put together.  The Beastie Boys Book is a great journey through the lives of Mike and the two Adams, with tons of pictures and commentary from assorted friends and fellow artists.  I also enjoyed Sticky Fingers, an in depth biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner.  Wenner is extraordinarily driven, and while at times Hagan’s portrait of him is less than flattering there is no denying Wenner’s ambition and confidence (and the one-time magnitude of his cocaine habit). Richard Boch’s memoir of his time as the doorman of NYC’s infamous Mudd Club is a seemingly honest portrayal of the grittiness of the city in the late 1970s, a city populated by young people who were simply surviving day by day in a dystopian urban environment that offered little in the way of a future and plenty of drugs.  Zounds Demystified is a stream-of-consciousness  history of the post-punk band Zounds written by a former member, and Factory tells the story of the infamous and influential Factory Records label.

 

It’s hard to believe 2018 is already in the books.  Mind you, I think I say that every year – the older I get, the shorter the years seem to be.  I’m excited for a fresh start in 2019 and can’t wait to see what it has in store for us!

Stephan Stephensen aka President Bongo – “If It’s Too Loud You’re Too Old” CD (2006)

Stephan Stephensen is better known by his nom de Gusgus President Bongo.  He’s also done some solo stuff, most recently the pretty fantastic electronic album Serengeti in 2015.  His electro-cred is top notch.

bongotooloud

Last weekend I got a box of stuff in the mail from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, an assortment of CDs, LPs, and 7″ singles that should keep me fairly occupied over the next month or so.  Included was this interesting CD called If It’s Too Loud You’re Too Old, an hour-long recording of a President Bongo live set during Airwaves ’06 at the famed club Sirkus.  Sirkus was on borrowed time at that point, slated to be demolished and replaced by something newer and presumably “better”, at least better in the eyes of those who want to make money off of their real estate, not necessarily for music fans.  The music was intended as the soundtrack of an installation of sorts, an in-the-moment project that probably needed to be experienced in its entirety to truly appreciate.

Musically If It’s Too Loud You’re Too Old is simply a bass beat, and that’s more or less it.  There are subtle changes to it over time, getting a bit more intense or with the addition of slight nuances, but for the most part it’s an hour-long beat track.  It’s intriguing and interesting, but unless you have a club in your basement you might not make it all the way through.  Bongo does throw us the occasional curve ball, like the beat taking on a more bongo-esque (no pun intended) quality at around the 34 minute mark.  The second half has more variety than the first, but for the most part you’re getting something that doesn’t change much over the course of an hour.

If It’s Too Loud You’re Too Old comes in a DVD-style case.  The disc itself is hand-numbered, an edition of 25 copies, and mine is signed by Stephensen on the disc label itself.  Tracking one down will be difficult, I’m sure, and it may be primarily of interest to the Gusgus completist, or potentially to someone looking to pull a sample from it.  Or someone with a club in their basement…

Gusgus – “Lies Are More Flexible” (2018)

The truth will set you free.  At least that’s what Jesus told his followers according to John 8:32.  I think Jesus was talking about a capital T kind of Truth, like as in “I’m the son of God, so if you believe that Truth you will be free” kind of thing.  Which is interesting because that phrase is used in all kinds of situations and is generally applied to a more lowercase t brand of truth, that telling the truth and/or the truth behind your actions will exonerate you from those who try to make up crap about you.  Which is pretty good too, I suppose, and it isn’t a bad life philosophy, even if it’s one that pretty much none of us can live every moment of every day.  Sometimes you need a little lie so you can just get by.  Why?  Because lies are more flexible.

I started Life in the Vinyl Lane back in September of 2012, and every year I’ve done a Top 5 list of my picks for the year’s best releases.  In 2014 Icelandic electro-powerhouse Gusgus pulled down the top spot with the brilliant Mexico.  If I’d started a year earlier I can 100% guarantee you that Arabian Horse would have won top honors for 2011.  Will they be able to repeat four years later with their latest effort, Lies Are More Flexible?  2018 opened strong with killer releases by Dirty Sidewalks and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, plus there’s another 10 full months of music on the horizon before I need to make that decision.  But one thing I know for sure is that Lies Are More Flexible will be part of the conversation, because it’s that damn good.

My personal history with Gusgus goes back to 2009 when I saw them live in Reykjavik and subsequently fell in love with the dark, brooding 24/7, a marathon six-track double album comprised of layer after layer of moroseness.  Since then we’ve seen ’em live another half dozen or so times and it feels like Lies Are More Flexible finds the band, now down to just the duo of Biggi Veira and Daníel Ágúst, coming full circle.  While Arabian Horse (2011) and Mexico (2014) introduced additional singers to the group with all the complexity and interplay that entails, their latest effort takes them back to their dance roots.  This was evident during their 90 minute live show at the Reykjavik Art Museum last November, a performance that was more live dance club than it was concert.  Don’t get me wrong, those other two albums were plenty danceable; but they were also more structured with performers filling different roles and feeding off of one another.  But LiesLies… this is one man with his beats (Biggi) and another with his voice (Daniel), and they aren’t beholden to anyone.

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The mood is set right out of the gate with the album’s first single, “Featherlight”, a deep house groover with slowly building synths and soaring, ethereal vocals, a track that would be right at home on any of the Gusgus releases over the past decade.  If there’s a universal sound around which Gusgus orbits, this is its near-perfect template.  The following number, “Don’t Know How To Love”, appears to further establish this as the album’s direction (♣).  The first couple of listens had me thinking that the backing vocals were done by former Gusgus member Högni, but it wasn’t until I checked the credits that I realized that singer is none other than John Grant.  While the beats are solid, it’s Daniel’s trademarked pitch and timing changes to the repetitive chorus Don’t know how to love that define its direction, conveying the emotion almost exclusively with the sound of his voice instead of the meaning of the words themselves.  No one does this as well as Daníel Ágúst.  No one.

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Things take bit of a left turn with “Fireworks”.  Gusgus is not a group that spends much time looking backwards – their live shows are generally based on their most recent material, with “Add This Song” (2009) the one older track that consistently makes the set list.  But “Fireworks”… this is a blast from the past.  It just oozes with the influences of 2002s Attention, a retro Gusgus number if there ever was one and a bit of a shock to the system.  That’s followed by “Lifetime”, which offers more of a blend of the old (synths) and new (beats), and now my compass is totally off – I have no idea what to expect next.

Next up is “No Manual” and we’re treated to yet another change-of-pace, this time delivering a deep house instrumental to our ears, something very reminiscent of fellow countrymen Kiasmos with its rich textures and layers accompanied by electronic strings to give it a modern electro-classical feel.  And then the title track kicks in and I feel like I’m rollin’ with Crockett and Tubbs in a convertible sports car with the top down, tearing along a deserted road in Florida doing about 90 mph in the nighttime blackness, all hot and humid, the road only lit by the headlights.  The deep bass keeps the steady pace, the mid range bounces around to change the mood, and the synths on top replace the vocals on this, the album’s second consecutive instrumental jam.

Bringing things to a close are the un-Gusgus-like “Towards A Storm”, a 48 second field recording of sorts that should feel out of place but somehow doesn’t, followed by yet another instrumental dance-floor-ready burner, “Fuel”.  (♠)  Biggi has always had a significant impact on Gusgus’ overall sound, but his near-complete ownership of the second half of Lies Are More Flexible definitively puts his stamp on this new era for the band.

I’ve been trading texts with my friends Tristen, Andy, and Norberto about Lies Are More Flexible, and while all of us agree it’s outstanding, it’s the second half that generates the most disagreement with some of us preferring these vocal-less tracks and others wishing there was more Daniel.  As much as I love Daniel, I’m in the latter camp – the beats and synths are killer on those later tracks, and that hint of old-school action puts a smile on my face.

Lies Are More Flexible isn’t exactly the album I was expecting of Gusgus, but that’s part of their beauty – they’re always evolving.  Holistically it feels more like an EP (the instrumental second half) and a couple of 12″ singles, one more contemporary and one more retro.  However, Biggi provides enough underlying consistency in the low end to hold all the parts together in a cohesive whole.  I’ve been playing it a ton and I expect it’s going to remain in heavy rotation for much of 2018 if not longer.  I’m not sure it’ll make it to #1 on my year-end list, but a spot somewhere in the Top 5 feels almost assured.

(♣)  A feint of sorts, as it turns out.  Not an outright lie, but more of a misdirection.  But hey, lies are more flexible, so…

(♠)  There’s a hint of Daniel’s voice floating around the edges of parts of “Fuel”, not singing lyrics but instead making vocalizations with an instrumental quality to them.