Last week the Mercury music Prize nominations were announced. Although quite a strong list featuring the likes of Anna Calvi, Dave, Idles, Slowthai and others, but it was a little mainstream alternative and lacked some of the genre specific nominations that usually make up their shortlist. Today, we present our alternative Neutron Prize shortlist of twelve albums that we feel are just as deserving of recognition this year.
Audiobooks – Now! (In a Minute)
Now! (In A Minute) is a bricolage of pop sounds that soundtrack the monologues of Londoner Ling, at points euphoric, odd, unsettling, and funny; it’s the sound of life viewed from the side of one eye, the internal voice from the middle of parties from flights of fancy, from vague memories to the thoughts you have just before you drift off to sleep.
Musically it’s all over the map, a kaleidoscope of sounds that spins with each song, reflecting the fact that they ‘get bored easily‘. Welsh super producer David Wrench constantly trying to capture Ling’s enthusiasm and imagination and cram it into a bottle. With each song, the pop professor Wrench runs the gamut of production, blurring genre lines of the entirety of musical history and setting it at an angle to pitch the music to the mood.
Now! (in a minute) confounds at every step. Opener ‘Mother Hen’ might be a postmodern nursery rhyme set to bubbling electronics; audiobooks say they: “wrote and recorded this on the 2nd day we hung out. Evangeline was so excited to do more work that she travelled across London in her Batman pyjamas so as not to waste any time.”. While the fantastically playful electro-pop of standout ‘Hot Salt’ nods at The Human League but produces one of the singles of the year with its double hander when Wrench joins in.
Now (In A Minute) is a thrill ride of diverse shapeshifting pop sounds for the senses, crafted by Wrench and infused with internal monologues all brought to vivid life by the infectious talent of Ling. Unsettling, playful and anxious, it touches on every emotion in the spectrum. It’s quite frankly bonkers at times and dolloped with stories from the outer reaches, not to mention possessed of an audacious imagination sadly lacking from the charts right now, in just one record! Strap yourself in for the ride!(Bill Cummings)
Desperate Journalist – In Search of the Miraculous
London’s Desperate Journalist searched for the miraculous, and in many cases, found it.
‘Murmuration‘ is colossal. A heavy mix of the eponymous debuts wall of guitars, bass and pounding drums with the minimalist spaces that made the second album so intriguing, atmospheric and emotionally broad. There’s a crackling intensity like static electricity as the verse settles into a fuzz bass line underneath Jo Bevans quiet vocals, before being ripped asunder by Rob Hardy’s stratocaster.
‘Cedars‘ is possibly the most uplifting thing they’ve ever done, although, naturally there is a twinge of regret in the chorus lyrics “Cold in the night, it is autumn, and the cedars never blossomed”.
What they have attempted to do is take another step from their origins, never satisfied with just rinse and repeating a winning formula, and such is the level of songwriting and musicianship on display, they cannot lose.
In Search of the Miraculous is another brilliant record from the best band in the country whose star is rising. Where do they go from here? The search never ends but the journey is glorious.(James Auton)
Gabe Gurnsey – Physical
So much electronic music is created FOR clubbing, but with Physical Gabe Gurnsey has created an aural narrative ABOUT clubbing, namely the late night moments around the club – driving the dark streets, the fleeting characters meandering about and the immersive sense of foreboding.
After 13 years of committing sonic assault with the no-wave techno excursions of Factory Floor, he opts for a stripped-back, warmer sound focusing on vocals and deep, electro-pop hooks. Hidden within the synth squelches, the dark menace of Factory Floor can still be heard but all-in-all Physical is a much more human affair.
‘You Can’ epitomises this sound as a slice of machine funk and death disco basslines with a danceable but detached cool. The echoed vocal is also detached. Throughout the album, Gurnsey positions himself as separate to the action. The line “You can dance, while I get high,” explains his detachment from the dancefloor.
As it journeys through myriad genre tropes Physical maintains its position as a complete work, that never loses sight of its vision. At times it does suffer its own restrictions, not letting the ideas unravel to their full potential, but it could also be argued that this would diminish Gurnsey’s robo-funk creations.
Veering too far from this template could ruin the impact of the pop slickness of tracks like ‘New Kind’ which is an almost camp work of mutant disco. When the pop hooks break through Gurnsey has created something far more accessible that anything on his previous work.
Physical is a wild, pulsating listen that works on so many levels inside the club and outside looking in.
The artwork for Gazelle Twin’s third album Pastoral gives it all away. There is a beautiful pastoral landscape, think John Constable’s ‘Wivenhoe Park’ and Claude Lorrain and you’re on the right lines. There is a copse of trees next to a river and in the foreground a mound of rocks. The sun is giving the river a brilliant sheen. It looks peaceful and idyllic. On top of this are blocks and lines of yellow, looking like it was done on MS Paint with Gazelle Twin-Pastoral written in it. On the crop of rocks Elizabeth Bernholz is dressed up as Brexit’s court jester. Dressed all in red, with a flute to her mouth it sums up the mood of the nation more succinctly than anything the major, and minor, news agencies could dream of. It says all is not well in Little Britain. And it isn’t.
Bernholz is channelling this sense of anger, frustration and isolation to create not only her strongest body of work to date, but an album that sums up all of British culture to this point. Folk music, rave culture, despicable politics, smart drugs, satire and a massive dollop of pop. ‘Folly’ opens the album with wonky court jester flutes and Residents-esque vocals while brooding electronics undulate underneath. ‘Better in My Day’ kicks off with filthy beats and basslines. Lyrically Bernholz delivers a dire-tribe from a person’s perspective who believes things were better in their, rose tinted, day featuring soundbites like “No locked doors, No foreigners”, “Just look at these kids now, No respect, no proper jobs”, ‘We Worked Hard’ and “Streets were safe back then, Boys were boys, Girls were girls”.
As Pastoral progresses ‘Pastoral’ gets filthier, funnier and more avant-garde while Bernholz laments on a country in a downward spiral, and in places denial. This is where the jester persona feels like a genius move. Court jesters performed their routines in a comic style and made contemporary jokes about people or events their audiences to could relate to and this is what Bernholz is doing. She is tapping into the jester traditions to show that nothing has really changed and how petty and single serving everything kind of is. The album ends with ‘Over the Hills’ with its Merrie folk/Morris men vibes and glitchy electronics.
Pastoral is a very bleak and claustrophobic album and in another’s hands it would be a bleak out, but due to the jester vibes and Bernholz’s exquisite skill at production and arrangement it comes off bouncy and fun, despite the subject matter. This is an album that shows us our reflection, but it’s in a fun house mirror and everything is over amped, skewed and grotesque. And it’s in this grotesqueness that lays ‘Pastoral’ charm.
Much better in my day? Mate, musically this is the best we’ve ever had it!(Nick Roseblade)
Kathryn Joseph -From When I Wake the Want is
The record begins with Joseph on her piano, her voice a hesitant whisper, reciting a poem that you quickly realise is the record’s track listing. It’s a mark of how consistent her aesthetic is that this come across so warmly. Once she is joined by the multi-instrumentalist Marcus Mackay, the sounds become more purposeful, and after an introductory limbering up that introduces Joseph’s insistent, sensual vibrato, we arrive at the title track. Here, as throughout the song threatens to dissolve into indistinct grunts and cries as she wheels about from chorus to verse. It’s a stunning opener.
Mostly the songs are rhythmically anchored by Joseph’s churning, minimalistic piano riffs. Mackay is left to expand upon these, layering unexpectedly rich electronic loops and noise bursts over his austere percussion work. The effect is clearest is the chilling final verses of “There is No God But You” , where Joseph seems to be trilling and gurgling her desperate imprecation from beneath some deadly bend in a river.
The second half of the album takes a redemptive turn. “We Have Been Loved by Our Mothers” could be the sound of someone stepping back from the brink, gathering their strength to face the broken, twisting gasps of realisation that punctuate “Mouths Full of Blood”, before pushing through into the bleak expansiveness of “Mountain” and “Weight”, and finally resolving itself in the album’s final lullaby-like epilogue.
Considering that Joseph was already 40 years old when Bones You Have Thrown Me, was released, and that she has claimed such a fully formed musical persona, what is most noticeable about From When When I Wake, is how bravely she has developed and opened up her sound.
This is a confident and mature assertion of the sheer, heart-in-your-mouth, power of nature, and of unrestrained love that threatens at any moment to take you down with it. (Colin Bond)
NILÜFER YANYA – Miss Universe
If you haven’t listened to Yanya before, then prepare to be met with an artist that offers a very unique sound. Her voice is like nothing that’s out there at the moment. She has an ability to create a vocal staccato which she plays effortlessly to produce a vocal effect that implores you to listen up as she sings. Miss Universe is an amalgamation of jazz, soul, electronic, indie and pop sounds.
After listening to Miss Universe several times to really give each song the attention it deserved, I quickly realised that in order to delve deeply into the psyche of the Nilüfer Yanya experience, 17-tracks are needed. This is an album that flows and stands out because it moves with ease between bedroom pop sounding tracks such as ‘Safety Net’, to guitar-led ones such as ‘Paralysed’ and then onto a song such as ‘Baby Blu’ which has an electro slash Roisin Murphy type vibe to it. Noteworthy tracks include the aforementioned ‘Safety Net’, the song ‘Angels‘ which the singer says is inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe poem ‘Kingdom by the Sea’ and by the ending of the Noughts and Crosses series by Malory Blackman. The track ‘Paradise’ also brilliantly showcases Yanya’s vocal ability. Miss Universe shows off all of her musical talent and having already released 3 EPs, this is a singer who understands her sound and is clearly staying true to the type of artist that she wants to be.(Miss Bee Bee)
Siobhan Wilson – The Departure
“I’m at an age where some of my female friends wonder, ‘When will he propose to me? What is he thinking?’” said Glasgow’s Siobhan Wilson when taking about ‘Marry Me‘, the first single from her new album, The Departure, “and I wrote a song that’s like: you propose to him, you are allowed to do that now.”
This was a song that hit upon the subject of female empowerment in today’s society, and over the course of eleven songs here, the theme – and, more specifically, that of identity – is further explored, often to astonishing effect.
The Departure‘s opening, self titled track is delicately alluring and almost choral in its wintry lean. It could almost have sat comfortably on Kate Bush‘s 50 Words For Snow, except that, for my money, it, and practically everything else on this album, usurps anything that was on Bexleyheath’s finest’s most recent studio long player.
The words ‘expansive’ and ‘captivating’ have already been bandied about an awful lot by other reviewers, but it’s not without good reason, for Wilson encapsulated those two words so perfectly, but she also possesses a whole lot more depth than most of her contemporaries right now, as clearly evinced by the utterly spellbinding, dreamlike ‘Little Hawk‘, which feels like you’re sitting at a cliff’s edge anticipating a thunderstorm, taking your mind well away from whatever anxieties you may be suffering right now, and putting you in a different world entirely.
The beautiful finger-picked ‘Stars Are Nonzero‘ continues your illusory journey, a soul caressing number that wouldn’t sound out of place in the early 1950s, yet, in her hands, is anything but twee. A quite remarkable album, all told.
SELF ESTEEM – Compliments Please
Compliments Please is stunning. They serve to add drama and split the record into three acts: the opening and most direct third, a statement of intent. The second, the experimental phase. The third and final act is a wind-down for the album.
‘She Reigns’ stretches out from barely there into an unexpected Prince-aping guitar solo. It’s followed by penultimate track, single ‘Rollout’‘s pounding lament for “What I might have achieved if I wasn’t trying to please”. It all leads to the almost shocking final track ‘On the Edge of Another One’, Taylor’s vocal pitch-shifted so as to be utterly androgynous, singing a simple folk melody, recorded so simply with the memory of a guitar part and slight thump of a kick drum giving it the air of a lost standard.
The closing lines show that she might have found her pop calling, but she certainly hasn’t lost her ability to cut deep into your soul: “You don’t know me but how could you? You don’t like me and why would you?”(Andy Vine)
Swindle – No More Normal
When No More Normal came out on January 25th, you could have been forgiven for thinking of the height of summer. It had you wanted to disregard the seasonal inclemency, microfleece-and-Gore-Tex up and sit in a park or on some common land with a disposable barbecue, a Bluetooth speaker and, most importantly, a fine array of mates.
Even in a landlocked new town, surrounded predominantly by Brutalist concrete, you could listen to ‘California’ and feel more road trip than urban jungle. It’s an album whose major strength comes from diversity. Funk, soul, jazz, rap and grime all live together in perfect harmony (occasionally even side by side on a piano keyboard).
With one notable Mercury Prize contender championing ‘unity’ and another opining that there’s ‘nothing great about Britain’, the omission of Swindle from the Mercury shortlist has to count as a missed opportunity, hence its much-deserved Neutron nomination. A definite ‘great about Britain’ quality is this album’s union of diverse UK talents, both established and rising. Ghetts, Kojey Radical and D Double E appear alongside the likes of Nubya Garcia, Eva Lazarus, Kiko Bun and Etta Bond.
Swindle’s identity as musician and producer means that a wonderfully collaborative spirit presides from the off, with ‘What We Do’ asking “Why the divides?” and pointing out that the future is ours, as long as it is a future we produce. ‘Run Up’ sounds like a blissfully unhurried and unworried hazy afternoon. ‘Take It Back’ shows that we can reminisce without bitterness, including a brief homage to shell suits. And where else are you going to encounter the simile “Like Shakespeare, Billy Bollocks” in 2019?
“No More Normal” could easily be thought of as a baffled, disconcerted question about the batshit crazy, Cartoon Britain that we live in. It could also be taken as a bold exclamation, a less-enraged Rage Against The Machine-style rejection of received wisdom. Maybe it’s Swindle’s own more positive affirmation that the norms, expectations and barriers of musical genres can jog on.
No More Normal is an album charged with vigour, sincerity and hope. Remember them?(Jon Kean)
These New Puritans – Inside The Rose
After the percussive assault of Hidden and the complex modern classical arrangements of Field of Reeds, rather than take their sound even further out there, TNPs have done something of a volte-face here and made their most accessible and commercial record so far. Yes, in that it’s an absolute masterpiece, their finest work, an album to rave about and wave in the faces of those who claim that no one makes classic albums any more and music was so much better in my day and oh shut the fuck up will you.
It’s to other 80s acts that Inside the Rose looks for inspiration this time – Gary Numan, Tears for Fears, Japan, and most notably fellow Essex boys Depeche Mode. Singer Jack Barnett now lives in Berlin and the album frequently harks back to DM’s mid-80s Hansa period, with Barnett coming off like a young Dave Gahan, particularly on beautiful opener ‘Infinity Vibraphones’ as he grimly intones “Down here in Hell we’ve got everything you need…we can give you oblivion” like some satanic preacher, atop the shimmering vibraphones of the title and ominous bass synth.
It’s Barnett’s newfound vocal confidence that drives this album. He channels Tin Drum-era Japan on ‘Anti-Gravity’; he evokes The Blue Nile at their most desolate on the stunning ‘A-R-P’; he croons like a torch singer on the pretty ‘Where the Trees Are On Fire’, on which it frequently sounds like he’s singing “Theresa on fire“, the cheeky young scamp.
But if that makes it sound as if Inside the Rose is an exercise in nostalgia, think again. The aforementioned ‘Infinity Vibraphones’ is clearly inspired by Pantha du Prince, whilst ‘Beyond Black Suns’ is the goth/trap fusion you never knew you wanted. Best of all is the twitchy title track, throbbing Aphex Twin bass and Burial disorientation, fading out into beautiful nothingness – “We could fall forever/Again into the black forever”.
As I said, a masterpiece, and I say that as someone who could take or leave their previous work. And to be honest this review is entirely superfluous, given that they sum up this record perfectly with a line from ‘A-R-P’ – “Let this music be a kind of paradise, a kind of nightmare, a kind of I-don’t-care”. The 2019 Album of the Year bar is set high.
The Japanese House – Good at Falling
There have been some very strong contenders for the best debut of 2018 ad Amber Bain has to be at the top.
Recording under the moniker The Japanese House, Bain has achieved absolute glory in her 13-track debut Good At Falling. With a little helping hand from The 1975’s drummer Daniel, producer BJ Burton and some solitude in Bon Iver’s cabin in rural Wisconsin, Good At Falling is a poignant narrative of love, loss and fragility explored through rose-tinted electronics. Not only is it a big step for Bain as a full-length release but also for a woman used to keeping her cards close to her chest. In 40 mesmeric minutes, she lays her soul bare for the first time.(Jonathan Wright)
Wojciech Rusin -The Funnel
The Mercury Music Prize began as an alternative, or antidote, to the Brit Awards. Looking back at the first decade, or so, classical music used to be a big part of the nominations. Over the years and you’ll see John Tavener, being robbed when The Protecting Veil in 1992, along with Michael Nyman, James MacMillan, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Nicholas Maw and Gavin Bryars all getting nods. While jazz albums still get nominated, a classical album hasn’t been nominated this century. Does this mean that no one is making ground-breaking classical music anymore? Of course not, the genre is as buoyant as it ever has been, but like metal, it is absent from this year’s list.
If there was a nomination from the classical camp, the front runner should be Wojciech Rusin ‘The Funnel’. While this isn’t the straight classical that Tavener or MacMillan wrote, this is more of petri dish of field recordings, musique concrete, soaring strings, haunted chamber music and electronic glitches it does feel like a true representation of where the neo-classical scene has evolved to in the past decade, or so. This is the kind of music that Gesualdo would be making if he had access to a computer, some amphetamines and some Venetian Snares albums.
The tracks that seems to embody thing that Rusin was after is ‘Sacrifice’. Here he appears to think ‘fuck it’ and throws it all together. Woozy electronic blips and cacophonous drones are interspersed with sub-bass drops, ghastly electronic motifs, glorious piano/synth refrains while eerie vocal howls and yowls bombard from beyond us for good measure.
The Funnel lives up to its name as a piece of music as Rusin has one foot in the past whilst straddling the present and funnelling both into us simultaneously. At times a confounding and glorious listen, but this is part of its charm and beauty. When you think you have a handle on it, Rusin changes the script and you are left scratching your head in bewilderment, with a massive grin on your face. It’s the kind of album that works well on your way home from work, as well as when you feel wonky after a few pints in the pub on a Wednesday. This sounds like nothing else that has been released in the past year, decade or since the Mercury’s began for that matter.