Saturday, December 24, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #2

Blue Daisy - The Sunday Gift

Few albums I heard this year were heavier than The Sunday Gift (maybe only Earth's Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1, really). The obvious points of comparison--Massive Attack c.Mezzanine, Tricky c.Maxinquaye and Pre-Millennium Tension--are there, but combined with the softer, rain-soaked greyscale of Burial's Untrue.* The bright colours on the cover feel like something of a red herring; the music on this album is almost relentlessly cast in shadow or harshly illuminated by uncovered 100W bulbs. There's a very real sense of anger on this album that, devoid of someone like Tricky's playing with sexuality and gender, makes for a brutal listen, but one that resonates in the wake of the London riots this summer. If the post-political is the most political, this album soundtracks what that politics entails: fear, doubt, paranoia, and anger, the dystopic world of Children of Men brought one step closer to reality. In this sense, the album pairs well with Black Sun and Pinch & Shackleton, but whereas those albums felt extraterrestrial somehow (or at least temporally distant), The Sunday Gift is shockingly of the present moment. The defiant undercurrent of "it doesn't have to be this way" that is so prevalent in hauntological music from the UK is supplanted here by anger and mourning that it is this way. Menace is the starting point here, with "Distance (Once Upon a Time)" pacing nervously, stalked by its echoing strings, setting up the long march to "The End." Anneka's vocals on "Firewall" are definitely not "Safe From Harm"--she sounds as if she's keening in the wake of a massive armed force's march through a city, the spectre of total policing that is increasingly becoming a reality in the UK and its aftermath.  Heidi Vogel's wailing vocals on "Fallin'" sound so often as if they're saying "no," the denial echoing round and round, lost, empty, and almost defeated. There are no real track breaks here, so everything tumbles together and feeds off what came before. After a few songs, it starts to add up to a bleak picture.

For an album that threatens to slip into broken and defeated territory, though, there remain slivers of hope and uplift. Hey!Zeus's massive turn on "Psyche Inquiry" suggests the anger that fueled the summer's riots finding a voice to struggle and fight on with, a way to demand changes and to hold people to account. The final two songs proper, discounting "The End," cover some of the same ground as Burial's "Raver"--particularly the second half of "Only For You," with its arpeggios and piano/vocals emerging from the hiss and crackle, and the club-ready, almost ecstatic beat of "Spinning Channels"--softly glowing in the darkness and offering a possible way in out of the horror of the rest of the album. Of course, aside from all this context, the music sounds phenomenal. When the beat drops in "Shadow Assassins" it is an upsurge in intensity that is breathtaking at high volumes. "Raindance," with its squalls of noise and arresting chants, might be the closest the album comes to the psychedelic colours of its cover.** And for an album whose world is so resolutely overcast, this is a surprisingly varied listen that is never a chore. Much of the credit for this is due to the vocals: in place of the chopped, looped, and pitch-shifted syllables favoured in so much electronic music right now, The Sunday Gift, like SBTRKT's self-titled album, demonstrates the power of full vocal tracks. Beyond Hey!Zeus's appearance on "Psyche Inquiry," Anneka's two turns on the mic, "Firewall" and "Spinning Channels" are both wonders. The latter is possibly my favourite on the album: the wordless elegies of the album's first half re-cast as a spectral rave diva. Back in 2009, SBTRKT called Blue Daisy as an artist to watch based on the strength of "Raindance." Clearly, this was a man who knew of what he spoke. Few albums released this year feel as timely as The Sunday Gift and almost none do a better job of presenting a massive talent coming into his own. It's a harrowing journey through the darkness of this album back to the light, but well worth your time and energy.

*Another, perhaps surprising, point of reference for me is Radiohead's Amnesiac (cf. this and this), an album whose themes and lyrics (much more so than the techno-dread of Kid A) seem to become more relevant with each passing year.
**Another surprising connection? I can't help but be reminded of The Fifth Element's soundtrack during "Psyche Inquiry" and "Raindance" (criminally underrated movie, by the way).

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