Graded on a Curve:
Seven from Thrill
Jockey Records

In its mission quest to release records by a variety of contemporary musicians, both solo and in groups, the Thrill Jockey label of Chicago, IL is simply indefatigable. Today, we spotlight seven additions to their catalog, with releases by Matmos, Sam Prekop, Sally Anne Morgan, Sidi Touré, and SUMAC available now, and sets by Black to Comm and Holy Sons out October 30. With the exception of the Matmos and Sidi Touré releases, everything reviewed below is currently available on vinyl.

Matmos, the Baltimore-based partnership of M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, have been with Thrill Jockey since 2012. It’s been a productive relationship that’s allowed the electronic duo to extend their creative ambitiousness, with The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form standing as a pinnacle in this regard; it presents a nearly three-hour piece broken into roughly hour-long thirds and offered on three CDs. But the most substantial component in The Consuming Flame’s construction is Matmos’ invitation of 99 contributors from a range of artistic disciplines, mostly music (from New Music to electronics to metal to noise to indie rock) but also writers and even a conceptual artist. The results, intended to be absorbed as an uninterrupted piece (which is how I’ve interacted with it, a half-dozen times since its late August release date), are occasionally rhythmic, just as often fascinatingly abstract, and if rigorous, intermittently peppered with hilarity. A release that’s undeniably time-consuming, but never a chore. A-

Sam Prekop is one of the Thrill Jockey’s long-haulers, with his band The Sea and Cake releasing their self-titled debut for the label in 1994, along with a handful of solo efforts along the way. Comma is his fifth, finding him deeply engaged with beat programming, a new creative wrinkle for him as the album further documents his use of analog synthesizers, an instrument that has, over the last decade or so, become far more common in the musical landscape. With opener “Park Line,” Comma’s rhythmic propulsion suggests a dancy scenario, an approach that intermittently resurfaces throughout the record, though more prominent are sustained tones, swelling beauty cascades, and melodic motifs that establish a sound that reaches back decades but is not explicitly retro. Prekop is too deft a hand for that; I especially like how, by the end of “September Remember,” he’s subtly manipulated the sound of (what sounds like) tape hiss into a recurring pulse in counterpoint to the prettiness of his concurrent synth line. B+

Sally Anne Morgan plays fiddle in the Black Twig Pickers and the duo House and Land (Thrill Jockey acts, both), but Threads is her first solo album, and it’s a magnificent showcase of what can described as progressive traditionalism. That is to say, Morgan pushes boundaries, on fiddle, with her voice, and on guitar, both acoustic and electric, banjo and piano. A portion of the album features just Morgan overdubbed (one track, the traditional “Sugar in the Gourd,” captures her alone on fiddle), but there are also a few stunners where she’s joined by Andrew Zinn on guitar, Nathan Bowles on drums and percussion, and for “Thread Song,” Joseph Dejarnette on bass. These band tracks instill a folk-rock feel, particularly Brit folk-rock (Morgan hat-tips Shirley Collins and Trees), a sound that mingles exceptionally well with her undying love of Appalachian folk and a healthy interest in experimental music to present a work of startling depth. A

Sidi Touré has released two prior albums of Malian Songhaï blues for Thrill Jockey, and the only disappointing aspect of his third, Afrik Toun Mé (translated, Africa Must Unite) is that it is only available digitally. Hopefully, that will change, as this set is a gem of intertwined electric guitar and complex but flowing rhythm. Scaling back the band from his last album Toubalbero (which can still be procured on 2LP and CD), this new one features Touré and Mamadou Kelly on guitar and Boubou Diallo on calabash, but the resulting eight tracks are bursting with elevated interaction. The other crucial ingredient in Afrik Toun Mé’s success is the inviting warmth of Touré’s voice. His singing, which as the title should indicate, is socially concerned, combines well with the guitars, the dual resonance consistently gorgeous but also tough and occasionally stinging. Overall, it’s a life-affirming sound, and that’s wholly appreciated in these difficult times. A

SUMAC, the boundary stretching American-Canadian metal trio comprised of guitarist-vocalist Aaron Turner, bassist Brian Cook, and drummer Nick Yacyshyn, are also socially focused, though it would be a mistake to simply tag the pummeling mayhem and sheer unpredictability of their latest, May You Be Held, as an aural distillation-representation of the current state of the world. Extreme music does regularly attempt to mirror or encapsulate the unpleasantness that surrounds us, spitting it back out with fervor, so it’s refreshing how SUMAC’s blend of abrasion, massiveness and dexterity indicate a spiritual inclination, as underscored by the title of opener “A Prayer for Your Path.” There’s also a significant amount of experimentation in the scheme, or specifically, improvisation, which is featured in tracks that alternate with two lengthy, more identifiably metallic yet still atypical selections. The whole is demanding but not daunting, ultimately inspiring rather than exhausting. A-

Holy Sons’ latest, Raw and Disfigured, features a casket on its cover; between the title and imagery, it’d be understandable for newbies to misapprehend the record as the darkly negative opposite to SUMAC’s regenerative heaviness. But no. The endeavor of Emil Amos is unmistakably a singer-songwriter affair, though per Thrill Jockey’s PR description, he blends classic and indie rock traditions, an assessment that’s as right as a bucketful of rain. The combo allows Amos’ personality to shine through as parts of Raw and Disfigured remind me a little of ’70s Pink Floyd’s pop ambition leaning toward the early Eagles, which puts me in the mind of a non-slow-core Radar Bros., but there’s also a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Held the Hand” done up country-rock style, a few hints of soft rock mellowness, some guest drumming from Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth (though Amos recorded most of the album himself), and themes drawn from the “archetypal tale of Quasimodo and classic ghost story imagery.” And so, this is far from the typical singer-songwriter stuff. B+

Black To Comm is the project of Hamburg, Germany’s Marc Richter, a producer and sound artist who specializes in electronic processing and the manipulation of samples. That places him in a rather crowded field, but on Oocyte Oil & Stolen Androgens the man stands out from the pack with an approach that extends nicely from the sound collage tradition. But an additional layer of difference is that where many prior audio collagists were essentially just stitchers (not that there’s anything wrong with that; at its best, the results could connect like artisanal quilts), Richter’s skills as a manipulator substantially increase the sheer musicality and the intensity of his endeavor. Across five pieces, one nearly 18 minutes long and and the rest between two and five, the progressions are psychedelic and mysterious, and it’s easy to misplace that it’s all (or mostly) derived from samples. A-

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