Monday, December 17, 2012


The EP is a sorely underappreciated format for the most part. While it gets praise in isolated instances--for example, the near universal acclamation for Disco Inferno’s series of EPs leading up to their second album, 1994’s sampledelic post-rock high water mark D.I. Go Pop--critics in end of the year lists or roundups of the “Greatest [x] of [y]” tend to go for the flashy single or the totemic album (indeed, good old Nick Southall’s “Top Ten EPs” feature for Stylus back in 2005 is the only such list I can recall off the top of my head--I agree with only one choice out of those ten, but that’s a story for another day). The EP deserves more love, and not just because there has been an exceptionally bumper crop of EPs released this year. With more room than a single but less pressure to make a statement than with an album, the EP is truly the perfect form for experimentation. Transitioning between styles? Experimenting with new members, elements, or directions? Refining an earlier breakthrough? Entering (or re-entering) the game with a new band or as a solo artist? The EP has your back in all of these situations. Thus, in honour of this plucky format--and, full disclosure, to make my own life somewhat easier as I compile my end of the year lists--here’re my top five Extended Plays of the year (to qualify, a release must loosely conform to what I've understood to be the traditional definition of the format: twenty five minutes or less of music or four tracks). Long may they reign!

Gonjasufi himself billed this as a “mini-album,” but at just twenty four minutes it can be snuck onto this list even with ten tracks. Not really a reinvention of anything that he did on A Sufi and a Killer--opener “White Picket Fence” makes it clear that we’re staying in the same ballpark--MU.ZZ.LE manages to condense and focus what was a fairly sprawling album. Gone are the sub-Tom Waits numbers, thankfully, and in their place are the most concentrated blasts of weed-fueled paranoia since Tricky’s Pre-Millennium Tension. The EP resembles the soundtrack to a spy on a bad trip mid-cover blown freakout. While its production values verge on the non-existent, the distortion, hiss, and murk throughout fit the cracked and broken vocals like a glove, highlighting the tenderness and fragility in Gonjasufi’s voice even at his most righteously pissed off. All of that, and the sensuous “Feedin’ Birds,” a career highlight given some erotic sweetening via backing vocals from Gonjasufi’s wife.

Despite the somewhat dour colour scheme of its cover art, Shlohmo's Vacation EP is anything but dark or depressing. Instead, the EP takes the humidity of last year's Bad Vibes and infuses it with tropical colours, creating an astonishingly alien soundworld that feels a little less ponderous, less heavy of limb, and more free-flowing than his earlier work. Despite all of its potentially played out trappings--particularly its treated vocals--something like "The Way U Do" with its alternatively pitched-up and heavily distorted keening winds up strangely singular, somewhere between post-dubstep bass music's vocal refractions, tri-Angle style witch-house/drag demon moans, and classic rave diva melismas. The real gem here, though, is "Rained the Whole Time," during which you can practically see the steam and mist curdling and the water dripping as a forest springs up in your room, the whole thing resembling something like early Four Tet after it has degraded in the soil for a few centuries. 

Burial's had a busy year, by his standards: two releases of his own (Kindred and the interesting Truant single that just came out on Hyperdub), an old track resurrected and worked by Dusk+Blackdown, "High Road," on the duo's Dasaflex, and a track with friend and schoolmate Four Tet, "Nova." All of this and hints of an album in 2013? Someone's feeling mighty productive lately. Trying--unsuccessfully, I'm sure--to put the baggage of "Burial the groundbreaking artist" aside for a minute, what makes Kindred interesting on the level of "Burial the musician" is its sudden push forward into a new method of organisation for Will Bevan. Where something like "Night Bus," "Forgive," or "In McDonalds" had its own status as a separate track, little sonic sketches that fleshed out the context for the vocal-driven big numbers but that remained independent of them, "Kindred," "Loner," and "Ashtray Wasp" favour a collage approach that splices between the two types of track at a moment's notice. Covered over with the omnipresent hiss that defines Burial's productions almost as much as those androgynous ghosts floating through them and stitched together with ridiculously deep bass, these tracks aren't a break with what's come so much as a redefining of the template's parameters. More than ever, Burial's music feels like a journey, but not just through lost pasts and never-to-come futures: these are journeys you can take in the present, that are repeated night after night. If it's a little short of last year's Street Halo EP (his career peak to date, in my opinion), Kindred's still a welcome addition both the the Burial canon and the Burial mythology.

The surprise of the year, for me, this EP introduced the Spaceape as a solo artist, and it turns out that he doesn't need Kode 9, Burial, Marytn, or anyone else to make gripping music. It might feel like a long way from the flash-forward Afro-futurism of 2006's Memories of the Future, but there are genetic links that make it feel like the inevitable destination for "Sine of the Dub." Unflinching and brave, Xorcism details the Spaceape's struggles with cancer, expanding on the science fiction biopolitics of last year's collaboration with Kode 9, Black Sun, in astonishingly personal terms. Over a bed of percussive Haitian voodoo music, Xorcism is a conjure tale, a communion with and a dispelling of the ghosts within, Stephen Samuel Gordon becoming ever more shamanic and prophetic throughout. Painfully brief, this is a flash in the darkness, a stealth attack and swift retreat, an apparition, here for a minute and gone even before the next arrives, elusive as smoke even in its corporeal focus. There's nothing else like it out there, and it's surely one of 2012's most vital releases.

Quietly elegant and moving, CFCF's Exercises EP dazzled me in the summer months when its chilly sound felt like a breath of fresh air amid all the heat and sun. With the change into Fall, though (and soon into Winter), the icy elegance of the EP's tracks has become an even more appropriate soundtrack to the day. Neither as studied nor as academic as its title would suggest, the miniatures on the album engage with 20th-century minimalism and avant-pop as much as they do contemporary trends in electronic music. The results are stunning, with the flowing, repetitive lines of "Exercise 3 (Buildings)" as hypnotically holographic as the best Philip Glass, and the gently wistful "Exercise 5 (September)" a slice of exquisite, autumnal pop beauty, offering a patient expansion on David Sylvian's original. On the more beat-driven pieces, like "Exercise 2 (School)" and "Exercise 8 (Change)," it's easy to imagine this as chillwave in the process of growing up, shedding some of its hedonistic nihilism in favour of something a little darker and stranger, yes, but also more human, more emotionally complex and compelling. What keeps me coming back to the EP, though, and what makes everything here succeed is Mike Silver's way with melody and his ear as a composer for the right sound as much as the right note, a crucial attribute in music this carefully designed. As a statement, Exercises content and format leaves it a little self-contained, so it will be exciting to see where Silver takes his CFCF project next with a wider field to play on.

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