The Instrumental

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It would be an easy record to put on in the background, this largely instrumental collection. Mirror of Wind, the new album from Jasper Lee, is full of sounds that feel ornamental, decorative: flutes flutter, strings swoop, mallets meander up and down scales. It is a kaleidoscope, its colours rotating, beautiful and meaningless. Listening to it, it very much strikes me as as fundamentally ‘instrumental’ music, in that it delights in the sounds of instruments, in the process of using different tools and gizmos and thingamabobs to make noises. Lee even builds his own instruments: his pyraharp looks like an upside down end table.

There is also something in the tone and structure of these pieces that reminds me of a mid-album instrumental in a song cycle. The tracks are generally song-length, and have an incidental feel to them, as though transitioning between more fixed points like verses and choruses, vocals and lyrics, things which act as pins in the fabric of songs. Only here there are no pins, just transitions and flutter. In such a landscape, the two tracks that do have vocals – ‘Quaint Gothic Spring’ and ‘Milk of Air’ – become bridges themselves, vocal interludes among the instrumentals, an inverse of the traditional order.

I keep thinking about this word, ‘instrumental’, and what it means. In reference to music, it is most often used to contrast a particular passage or piece with the vocally-led songs surrounding it. I’m thinking of tracks like ‘Green Arrow’ off of Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, or ‘Alma’ off of Grizzly Bear’s Shields, which would be described as ‘instrumentals’ between songs. The ‘instrumental’, then, is a bridge, a path, a transition. It takes its meaning from the things (words, songs) that surround it. There is little need to describe the music of Chopin or Duke Ellington or Toumani Diabate as ‘instrumental’, for there is no contrast to be drawn.

Yet it is also a word used to describe music which sounds like it could have vocals, but doesn’t: the post-rock of Mogwai and Do Make Say Think, for example, or the circling acoustic guitar workouts of James Blackshaw and William Tyler. Notably, these are all artists who occasionally deploy vocals, but generally speaking don’t. They invert the usual ratio of vocal tracks to instrumentals, and in doing so, challenge the association of ‘instrumental’ with ‘interlude’. For there is nothing transitory about the tracks without vocals here: rather, they are the main event.

What interests me in Jasper Lee’s music is that, while almost all of the tracks are instrumental, they have an interlude-like quality that is still very much present. Mirror of Wind is like a whole album full of interludes. It feels almost entirely incidental, oddly light and buoyant. It relocates the meaning of the instrumental interlude to within the interlude itself, rather than in the pieces it transitions to and from.

 

Any binary we might draw between instrumentals and non-instrumentals is complicated by apparently instrumental music which heavily incorporates vocals. A recent example is Arca, an artist who makes predominantly instrumental music, but who on his new self-titled record brings his voice front and centre. Arca, the record, is dominated by the presence of Ghersi’s voice, which is by turns frail and bruised and confident. Yet though the emphasis is on singing rather than beats, as in his previous work, it still feels like an instrumental album. Part of this, I recognise, is my own inability to understand Spanish, and thus my treating the vocals as merely another sound in the music’s fabric. This is an important point to note – the degree to which music is instrumental is partially determined by the position of the listener. Indeed, context is everything here – the same album might be ‘instrumental’ if I put it on in the background and ‘non-instrumental’ if I listen to it closely.

And yet, I don’t think it is unfair to say that Arca’s voice is a material in Arca in the way that beats were a material in Mutant – that is, something to be mutilated. The voice is an instrument of both sonic and emotional exploration. The hallmark of Arca’s music is its bodiless – his mangled electronics have always evoked bruised and damaged bodies. That is refined here by focussing on one part of the body in particular: the throat, itself an instrument. And the manipulations are mostly done not with electronics, but in the way Ghersi stretches and warps his syllables as he sings. One thinks of Bjork (something of a mentor for Arca) and her all-vocal album Medulla. Indeed, while ‘a cappella’ music is surely, by definition, the conceptual opposite of ‘instrumental’ music, the affect of the two on the listener is oddly similar. The non-instrumental ‘song’ is perhaps a product of the interaction between ‘vocals’ and ‘instruments’, as two separate but equally present components. To remove one entirely, or to mesh the two, as Arca does, until they are indistinguishable, is to make the music ‘instrumental’.

 

The music of Forest Swords, whose new album Compassion was released this month, is also, like Arca, full of margins being blurred: the ancient past with the present, the organic with the synthetic, and the vocal with the instrumental. Clipped vowel sounds drift through this music, as fungal spores spread a species through a woodland. The spread of ideas. Blood filling a mouth. It is a fox, feasting on the carcass of a rabbit. The other day I had to brake hard when a fox – an urban fox – appeared suddenly, its quick, slinking body inches from my front left tire.

Is this instrumental? Am I writing instrumentally now?

The record Compassion is not a record of compassion, but an instrument of it, that is, something that enables or allows for it, that becomes instrumental in the delivery of it. (At least, one senses that this is the hope – why else would you call your record Compassion?) Confusingly, the word ‘instrumental’ is also sometimes used in a sense akin to ‘indispensable’ or ‘necessary’, but that is not how I mean it here. These sounds are obviously not prerequisites for compassion: rather, they are offered as potential tools for it. But the question remains of how they might act as such – how could a few instrumentals become instrumental in the delivery of actual, real world good? These are not protest songs, optimistically strummed and sung. They are just patches of smeared, ‘raw language’. Untranslatable, how could they ever translate into action?

And yet, of course, they can, and do. Music has a profound, mysterious effect on us. It is our universal language. Ideas conveyed purely through the form of instrumentals are often more powerful than the songs around them. They are pure expression. Among songs sung in the baggy clothes of words that never quite fit, instrumentals are naked, with all the attendant associations of nakedness: purity, rawness, sexuality, vulnerability. The music touches us: it puts its instruments inside our naked bodies. It is surgery. It cuts and shapes us. Compassion is a heart transplant.

There is a contradiction, then, between the instrumental as incidental and the instrumental as incendiary; between the instrumental as wallpaper and the instrumental as contact paper. It is somehow both more distant from us and more close to us than the sung song. I am still unable to reconcile this contradiction in my mind, and perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it is the tension rising from it than is generative of interesting instrumental music.

22 Reactions, A Million Questions

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1

[on first hearing the “extended” pre-release singles]

Bit short, aren’t they?

 

2

[on prettiness]

The music Bon Iver makes is undeniably pretty, and at first that is all I can hear: the prettiness. Everything here is mixed perfectly, and sounds gorgeous on the ears. From the moment the guitar first comes in on ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, like sudden cool water on a hot day, the music is lush and twinkling and brightly melodic.

Yet the narrative seems to be, swirling around the internet, that this is a radical new sound for the Bon Iver project, that this music is somehow challenging and difficult. “Not since Kid A has an album so superb pushed away and pulled closer its audience, simultaneously and with such aplomb,” says Pretty Much Amazing. “22, A Million captures personal crisis and resolution better than any record this century,” says The Line of Best Fit.

How to square this absurd hyperbole with how pretty it all sounds? Does this music really feel all that challenging? The songs, granted, take non-linear paths through various different fragments – but then, this is nothing all that new. There are vocal effects and synthesisers – again, nothing all that ‘out there’. And I can’t hear, at first, past all the pretty noise of the music, and all the blabbering hyperbolic noise of the internet; I can’t hear how, underneath all that, this is an interesting record, this is a challenging record, though not in the ways everyone thinks it is.

 

3

[on the way to the pub with a friend]

He says to me, what do you think of the new Bon Iver record, and I say oh, oh it’s really underwhelming isn’t it, and he says yeah, and I say I was just bored listening to it, and he says, oh God, by the end I just wanted it to be over already, and I say I know, right, and he says it’s funny, it’s so short but it feels so long, because there’s just no variation, and I say that was my experience exactly, I couldn’t believe how long it felt, it just went on and on, like the end of House of Flying Daggers where the woman keeps dying and then coming back to life just to die again, and I was like just kill me now already.

 

4

[on Bon Iver and Coldplay]

Take Viva la Vida, an album which borrows elements from a range of more interesting, more challenging music – My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead, The Velvet Underground – and translates them into a pop context, makes them accessible for a broader audience of people who maybe (shock! horror!) haven’t heard My Bloody Valentine or Radiohead or the Velvet Underground before. Is that an appropriate touchstone here? On 22, Bon Iver combinine a number of elements from recent underground music – the aggressive textures of experimental hip hop, the warped structures of witch house and vaporwave – and bubble them down into something that sounds really nice and melodic, that functions as incredibly pretty sonic wallpaper. And there’s a place for that. It’s not inherently bad. But it’s not earth-shattering.

 

5

[on the attack]

I want to like it, but I can’t get past those clunky, noun-dense lyrics, words that feel like they’re trying really hard to be meaningful and failing. It’s as though Vernon’s teenage diary-scrawls of Ashbery-lite are somehow more interesting than anyone else’s, and deserve to be carefully preserved through flashy lyric videos and Genius annotations.

And I can’t get, either, past those vocals, the way he sings so seriously, which only heightens how silly the lyrics sound. It hardly makes a difference whether he’s piling on the vocoders or singing nakedly, it all sounds so incredibly earnest. But earnest to what end? What are we supposed to make of this music? What is it supposed to mean?

And I can’t get, either, past those stupid, pretnentious track titles, with their hashtags, and their irregular numbering, and their random capitalisations, and their ∞s and ʇs and ∑s and ◊s.

And I can’t get, either, past how unstructured and sloppy everything is, how little thought seems to have gone into the sequencing, how under-baked the ideas feel, how little the songs seem to build in any meaningful way.

And I can’t help feeling, at the end of my first couple of listens, that it’s all a load of insufferable, nonsensical shit. It’s pretty shit, no doubt, but it’s still pretty shit.

6

[on the cover]

Symbols dissolved of their power, patterning the black wallpaper, thrown together as though they all basically meant the same thing.

 

7

[on other versions of this record that might have existed]

A more experimental 22, with more cracked, fractured instrumental backdrops, glitches, hiccups, detritus, digital coughs. A longer, wilder 22, sprawling out to a symbolic 22 tracks, covering even more stylistic ground. A softer, more pastoral 22, without all the digital manipulations, without all the crazy track titles, without the judder of ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ breaking the quiet aura. A more varied, pacier 22, with more tracks like ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ bringing up the tempo in the back half.

Would any of these albums be ‘better’? Would any of these albums be more ‘interesting’?

 

8

[on a train]

I’m on a train on the way to visit my future parents-in-law, half an hour left of the journey, and I find myself scrolling through my little screen, looking for something short enough to listen to, when I find the Bon Iver record, downloaded for ‘offline listening’ from a streaming service. I’d forgotten it was there. I hadn’t planned to listen to it again – I thought I’d made up my mind on it. But on the cramped and noisy train it feels just right: loud and processed enough to be heard above the carriage’s murmur, but quiet and calming enough not to stress me out any more. (The smallest bowl of porridge.)

That first track really is very pretty, isn’t it? But it’s also more than pretty, I think. It’s sad. It’s really fucking sad. It’s about time and how everything can suddenly end without warning. It’s about insecurity and the feeling of trying to connect with someone – to ‘speak into their silence’.

And then, shudder, we’re suddenly at ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’, and that production really is very nice, isn’t it? But it’s also more than nice, I think. It’s restless and feverish (“fever rest“, he keeps calling for) and then it shifts and opens up a little space into which he sings and then it crashes back in and it “wraps me up“.

And then it’s ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ and it’s not just a parody of ‘Woods’ anymore, it’s its whole own thing, and the odd harmonies stack up amongst all these lovely, tiny silences, and the line ‘turn around you’re my 18’ is inexplicably moving.

And then it’s ‘33 “GOD”’, which has far more going on in it than I remember, and again it’s the silences that get to me, or the near-silences, the way they’re created by distorting the fabric of the song, like the unexpected pocket into which Fionn Regan sings “find God, and re-li-gi-on”.

And then, yes, it maybe loses its way a little from here, the sequencing goes all a bit weird, and the tempo doesn’t seem to vary, though the songs are still much better than I remember them, and still there are these little silences, these little pockets, which burst through the songs and are stirringly beautiful, and I think why didn’t I hear these before? Is this even the same album?

 

9

[on commas]

All three Bon Iver albums have a comma in the title, and in each case it acts to contrast something small against something large. Here we have 22 next to A Million. The use of numerals for the former emphasises it as a finite and specific amount. The use of words for the latter makes it seem comparatively unspecific, tossed off – a million years old, a million miles away, a million times. It seems really to mean ‘infinite’, or ‘uncountable’. (“The days have no numbers…”). It’s the same pattern as his first album: For Emma (a specific person is addressed), Forever Ago (an infinite time ago). Placed between them, the second album – Bon Iver, Bon Iver – takes on the same pattern. Reading it through the album’s theme of place, we read it as: city, state. Or perhaps, reading it in the wake of the previous album’s origin story being endlessly retold, as: Bon Iver (the person), Bon Iver (the myth).

 

10

[on the stroke of midnight]

Or maybe a few minutes after. I can’t sleep. I put on the record again, only this time I start from track five, from where it gets all quiet and samey. The gentle guitars of ‘29 #Strafford APTS’ sound like the old, cabin-dwelling Bon Iver, only the surface texture is different, like we’re listening through a wiretap in the room. Without the comparatively brazen opening four songs, ‘666 ʇ’ doesn’t feel like a ballad but a surge, its drums standing out more in the mix, its climax more apparent. And then the last four tracks alternate between genuinely strange, almost abstract numbers (‘21 M◊◊N WATER’ and ‘____45_____’) and two songs that feel like album closers. The first, ‘8 (circle)’, is a cousin of ‘Beth/Rest’; the second, ‘00000 Million’, the actual closer, is an evolution of it. It is also a refutation of the numerology that has haunted the rest of the album, and a very moving contrast between musical warmth and lyrical coldness: “if it harms me, it harms me, it’ll harm me, I let it in“.

Wow. These songs are crushing. They are mesmerising. Where did they come from?

 

11

[on the fifth, sixth, seventh listen…]

And on until the listens are uncountable, until they blur into one another, until they “have no numbers”, at which point we are beyond reactions or presumptions and into actual hearing.

 

12

[on the album’s structure]

22structure

 

13

[on puzzles]

There is a kind of addictive quality to its shortness and its incompleteness, like a puzzle you keep wanting to go back to, to try and piece it together, to crack its code, though the conclusion of this album, if it has one, is surely that not all codes can be cracked.

 

14

[on numerology]

The repeated ‘soon, soon’ sounds like ‘two, two’, that is, 22.

The sides of two five-facing dice add up to 10, which is also binary for 2.

The area code of Central/North Wisconsin is 715.

In 3 minutes and 33 seconds you can listen to ‘33’ which is also the age Jesus died.

29 is a mystery.

The number of the devil is 666.

The number of God is 777, three sevens, which when multiplied together make ‘21’.

‘8’ is eighth is two circles is infinity on its side.

45 is one plus two plus three plus four plus five plus six plus seven plus eight plus nine and ‘45’ is ninth and nine is four plus five, is ‘____’ plus ‘_____’.

When the number 10 is placed at the beginning of the tenth song, ‘00000 Million’, it reads 1,000,000, that is: ‘a million’.

None of this tells us anything. Or it tells us everything.

 

15

[on piano]

 

16

[on and on]

Why do we change our minds about things? What’s different about this record now than when I was ranting to my friend at the pub? Did I really compare this to Coldplay?

 

17

[on my ears it’s landing]

It is as though the music I am hearing now is actually different than the music I was hearing before…

Which suggests that what we hear is completely subjective…

Like when you listen to something with someone else in the room, and you hear it through their ears…

Or you cover your ears with your hands, and it sounds like it’s underwater…

It lands on my ears and it wriggles around and it burrows in…

 

18

[on marks and symbols]

A review, like a work of art, is a kind of mark-making – the impression made on the reviewer is remade on the object from which the impression came. But the work does not mark itself – the mark is made possible only by the subjective and arbitrary circumstance of the reviewer. The mark therefore reveals something of the reviewer. The reviewer’s fingerprints are left smudgily on the work. The reviewer is a kid with a new notebook, scrawling doodles on the front cover.

A symbol is a kind of mark, too, but one that behaves differently from the mark-making of the individual artist or reviewer. A symbol is a collaborative space of collaborative meaning. Using a symbol, we inhabit it temporarily, participate in it, and then leave it. The symbol is not less arbitrary, necessarily, than the mark, but it is less circumstantial, relying instead on repeated circumstance, repeated use, through which it accrues its meanings. In some sense, then, it does mark itself, in that it contains all of its impressions and implications within itself, rather than in the moment of its use (that is, the temporary moment of impression, the interaction between the marker and the marked).

In 22, A Million, though, symbols behave like the personal marks of the artist. Its cover is a kid’s new notebook, scrawled upon, a treasure trove of personal mythologies. “Sixes hang in the door”, the occult made into mere decoration. Crucifix and crescent, trefoil and triskelion, quincunx and caduceus, ankh and emoji: they all become deposits of personal memories and associations. They mean no less and no more than “fuckified”.

 

19

[onomatopoeia]

There have been times listening to this I’ve been momentarily convinced it’s the best record I’ve heard in years. But still it is easier to say why I didn’t like it initially than it is to say why I do now. It is easier to rant than it is to praise, even playing devil’s advocate.

Good art reduces us to blathering, blabbering wrecks.

“What is it supposed to mean?” I cried.

I might as well oink or meow or quack or twit-twoo. Sooon. Twooo.

 

20

[on the feeling that whatever is being grasped at here, in this album, in this review, it is always just out of reach, always just on the tip of the tongue, clutched at but never quite held, yearned for but never quite…]

 

21

[on the infinite]

Every moment is finite, counted, but is, within itself, infinite.

 

22

[a million questions]

Does this music disappear on impact? Does it sound better in my imagination or in my headphones? Do I even like this? What does “fuckified” actually mean? What direction could this project possibly go from here? Why is the number 22 so important to Justin Vernon? Why is the number 256 so important to me? What colour is the bottom of the ocean? What would this sound like at a funeral? When did people discover clouds are actually made of water? Why is the moon associated with witchcraft? Do religions have any truth to them, or are they just empty rituals? Is it better to plan things out or be spontaneous? If you played this record in the woods and only Kanye was around to hear it, would he make some sweet ass beats out of it? Are coincidences meaningful? How do they make cornflakes? What is the history of the symbol of the ouroboros? How many atoms are there in the universe? Should I keep trying to understand? Should I stop?

A Quiet Return

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I want to quietly return to trying to write about music.

Last year I started a blog called Ice Mask Whale. This is the next evolution of that blog. A new site, a new name. Some attempts at definition…

Attempt No. 1

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The internet is obsessed with the new, feeding on new stories, new gossip, new quick-takes and hot-takes, newly generated content, empty puffs of novelty designed only to be clicked on. Gone are actual paradigms – all that remains are paradigm shifts, a constantly refreshing page. Yet, at at the same time, it is obsessed with the past, with the cataloguing of photographs and moments, viewed through the hazy filter of time, or the false nostalgia of an Instagram filter. Music journalism is often directed down these two lines as well: it feeds, too, on new artists, new album announcements, new gimmicks, new styles, and, simultaneously, on nostalgia for the old styles: best of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. If music is not new enough to fit into the former cateogory (“check this out”) but not old enough to fit into the latter (“remember this?”) then nothing is written about it – indeed, nothing can be written about it, because we don’t have a framework for it. It is lost in the cracks, dead in the water, caught between exposure and retrospective, between review and re-view. Yet obviously we still listen to this music. Obviously there are still things to say. To listen between the noisy bugle call of the new and the hazy nostalgia of the old is to listen in the quiet return: to music after it has emerged, hot and molten and glowing, but before it has hardened. Not a hot-take, nor a hardened, established viewpoint, but something in between: a cooling take, a sustained reflection.

Attempt No. 2

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Think of a song, and it quietly returns to your mind. It is a kind of conjuring magic. The way a ghost must sense things: there and not there.

Attempt No. 3

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Aside from the immediate pleasures of actual in-the-moment listening, what other pleasures are there in music? There is a second pleasure in reflecting on music, in hearing it again in the mind’s ear, in reimagining it through metaphor. The first pleasure is outside of language: we listen to music because it is better than language, saying less but communicating more. Yet this second pleasure – the afterburn of the music, the ghostly impressions it leaves behind itself – is accessible to language. All art has this dual pleasure: there is the pleasure of actually reading a novel, word-by-word, and then there is the pleasure of remembering it afterwards, inhabiting the haunted memory palace we build in our minds as we read it. So it is with music. But with the novel, both pleasures are tangible enough to write about: the material of the critic (language) is used on the material of the examined object (language). With the music writer, this is not the case, the music itself being untouchable by language (hence “dancing about architecture“). So the music writer is left with only the afterburn of it, its quiet (silent) return in the mind. This is all we can write about. As music passes from sensory experience (present) to non-sensory memory (past), a translation occurs – it becomes not just sound but colour, tone, texture, mood, image, and indeed, language. This might happen in a fraction of a second – as when we talk of “an immediate impression” – or gradually, over repeated exposures. It is these translations and impressions we reflect on, mull over, return to, when we write about music.

Attempt No. 4

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We are sometimes prone to expect immediate gratification from things. If something doesn’t immediately make sense, immediately reveal itself fully to us, we shut it out: label it as obscure, obtuse, “not for us”. But the deepest connections we have with things (pieces of music, places, people) are often with the things we don’t immediately like, the things that take some time and work to adjust to. The ‘growers’. The best records don’t announce themselves noisily or showily or immediately but require us to quietly return to them, again and again. This quiet returning breeds its own quiet return, like the return on a long-term investment: gradual, accumulative, but eventually extensive. This is the quiet return of music.

Quaterfaves: Jan-Mar ’17

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(This was a regular feature on the previous blog, and though it certainly falls into the “check this out!” category of music writing, it’s one I’d like to continue. It’s a quarterly round-up of my favourite recent releases, with an emphasis on those which are more likely to have slipped under the radar.)

Jasper Lee – Mirror of Wind

This is the best record that no one is talking about. Chamber pop meets jazz guitar meets esoteric film music meets… What is this record? I have no idea. Lee even makes his own instruments, with exotic sounding names like the ‘pyraharp’, which looks like this. There’s a tropical, swampy vibe hanging over the whole thing, belying his involvement in Them Natives. Just listen to it already.

PC Worship – Buried Wish

Abandoned spaces, junkyards, outsider art environments: these are the spiritual homes of this warped guitar music. The PCs being worshipped are piled up in a trash heap of plastic casing, cracked screens and wires. (Everyone is on their tablets.) It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a rock record this much. There’s the obvious appeal of a squawky, clanging number like ‘Blank Touch’, or the catchy, White Denim-esque ‘Rivers Running Sideways’, but some of the best stuff is hidden in the back half: warbly, uncertain compositions like ‘Flowers & Hunting’ and ‘Moons’, which sounds like something off an old Liars record.

Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

Whispered late at night. Its instrumentals are all dreamy caverns to get lost in, but it provides a guide from its beguiling beginning: follow my voice.

Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

Been waiting for this for a while, and it doesn’t disappoint, though it’s a difficult record to fully grasp. No matter how much you turn up the volume, it feels too quiet. Quietness is built into it by design. You can never quite hear it clearly, as though it doesn’t want to be tied down or caught. Something like a chorus comes along unexpectedly in Jenny Hval collaboration ‘Anxi’, but then isn’t returned to; it slips away and escapes in a broken cascade of beats. ‘Lucid’ risks repeating its chorus, but its heavy reverb dissolves it before you can catch it anyway. But then, reverb heavy vocals are easy to make diffuse; that she manages to make the pattering hi-hats and bright flickers of synths at the end of the song feel the same is cleverer. Things start to build with the house-y thump of ‘Evolution’, and climax in the extended clatter of ‘8’ (an infinity sign turned on its side?), but it still all feels oddly shrouded in mist. And yet it is never vague, either. It refuses to be remembered, but also refuses to be forgotten.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – The Tourist

The hugely underrated songwriter Alec Ounsworth returns with another record full of unfussily strange songs. Lead single ‘Fireproof’ layers insistent, squiggly guitar hook on top of insistent, squiggly guitar hook. ‘Unfolding Above Celibate Moon’ is both carnivalesque and celestial at the same time. ‘Better Off’ climaxes with one of his classic one-note vocal hooks. ‘The Pilot’ and ‘Loose Ends’ are wistful and longing. As on previous album Only Run, this feels like a second, more grown-up period for CYHSY, less wacky and unpredictable than their earlier work, but also subtler and truer. Ignore the general internet narrative about this band (victims of blog hype, diminishing returns, etc. etc.); they are consistently excellent.

Jay Som – Everybody Works

Following great records by Japanese Breakfast and Mitski last year, here’s further proof that Asian-American women are currently making some of the best indie rock around. (I don’t mean to lump these artists into a ‘scene’, though they have all toured together, so there’s definitely a connection there.) I like the title, where ‘works’ can be read as both a present tense verb (sounding like a mantra, as well as a twist on a certain R.E.M. song) and a plural noun (suggesting the tracks themselves are the ‘works’, of and for and by ‘everybody’). I also like the music, which blends in elements of Broadcast and The Microphones and (as Melina Duterte has repeatedly pointed out in interviews) Carly Rae Jepson, without losing its own strong sense of identity.

Alix Hyde – Wanderings

Difficult to find much out about this release online, other than the fact that Hyde also does illustrations, which are really lovely, and accompany the music perfectly. It’s slightly too busy to be called ambient (it doesn’t quite float into the background, but holds attention) yet it does have a diffuse, difficult-to-hold-onto quality that it shares with music of that sphere. The tracks mix different elements together like George concocting his marvellous medicines, so that you never quite know what’s round the corner: vocals unexpectedly arrive ten tracks in, first in the form of a looped sample in ‘All I Want Is You’, and then some soft, plaintive singing (Hyde’s own?) in ‘Heaven’. It’s wonder-full.

Melted, Removed, Beached

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Of course, before we had fridges, ice was the only way we could keep our food cold. We couldn’t make the stuff ourselves, so we had to harvest it and store it in ice houses, which sound rather exciting, like that huge melting ice palace James Bond has to escape from in Die Another Day, but are really just small, very cold rooms. Perhaps you’ve seen one in a National Trust property somewhere.

Under a microscope, the structure of ice cream is very similar to that of lava.

There are 16 kinds of ice, say the scientists. The kind in your freezer is kind number 4. Kind number 3 is actually denser than water, meaning that if icebergs and ice cubes were made of it, they would sink. Kind number 11 is ferroelectric – it exhibits electric polarization, which can be manipulated and reversed.

Aristotle was the first person to notice that hot water freezes faster than cold water. We still don’t understand why.

If you freeze water really, really, really fast then it doesn’t turn into ice at all, but into a chaotic amorphous solid called ‘glassy water’. This is pretty difficult to do at home – you have to get the water temperature down to -137°C in a matter of milliseconds. Surprising, then, that it’s actually the most common form of water in the universe. Comets are made from it.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, they brought a block of ice all the way from Lake Wenham in Massachusetts to The Strand in London, where they put it on display with the day’s newspaper behind it so that passers-by could marvel at how clear it was.

This, of course, was only after the customs officials at the ports got used to the idea. When they first shipped ice to Britain, packed in sawdust to insulate it, the officials were so confused about how to classify it that 300 tonnes of the stuff melted while they tried to make their minds up.

Sometimes I feel nostalgic because I can still remember when a 99 whippy ice cream with a flake actually cost 99p.

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A mask can be used for protection, or as a disguise, or, if you’re being hunted down by a madman with an ice pick, as both.

In Ancient Greece, masks had a brass megaphone in the mouth to amplify what the actor was saying.

In Venice, the situation is pretty much the reverse. Their ‘moretta muta’ carnival masks are held in place not with straps but with a little button that the wearer holds in her mouth, rendering her unable to say much at all.

The word ‘mask’ goes back to the 16th Century, to the French masque, meaning ‘a covering to hide or guard the face’, which itself goes back to the Italian word maschera, which itself goes back to the Medieval Latin word masca, meaning ‘spectre’ or ‘ghost’ or ‘nightmare’, which itself quite possibly goes back to the Arabic word maskharah, which is to do with being ‘a buffoon’ and ‘making a mockery’ of yourself. So if you’re applying mascara around your eyes before a night out, you’re really just being a fool.

There’s also an old Occitan word masco, meaning ‘witch’, a word which still survives in some dialects; in Beziers, it means ‘dark cloud before the rain comes’.

In Indonesia, the star of a Topeng dance has around 30 to 40 masks for his exclusive use. No one else is allowed to wear these masks on fear of upsetting the spirits that reside within them. When the dancer dies, his masks are never touched again, never moved from the place they happen to be lying at the moment of his death.

The oldest mask is 9000 years old and is a death mask.

In Japanese Noh theatre, the masks are so carefully carved that they can convey different expressions and moods simply by the angle the light falls on them.

You can make a mask out of almost anything: wood, metal, clay, stone, paper, cloth, ivory, fur, shells, feathers, corn husks, human skulls and teeth. You can even make one out of ice. And, indeed, whalebone.

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Blue whales are the largest creatures ever to have lived on the earth. Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant, their hearts as much as a car. Their aortas are large enough for a human child to crawl through. They are one of the loudest animals on the planet, though we can’t hear them. They hunt in the deep and breathe at the surface. In the early 20th century we nearly killed them all hunting for whale oil.

Sperm whales have the heaviest brains of any animal, weighing in at 9kg. Their heads also contain a cavity, large enough to park a car inside, filled with a yellowish waxy substance called spermaceti, a substance also much sought after by whalers.

Southern right whales have the largest testicles in the animal kingdom – each pair weighs around a tonne, which is like having 1000 bags of sugar strapped down there.

When a whale sticks its head out of the water it is called ‘spyhopping’. When it sticks its tail out of the water it is called ‘lobtailing’. These sounds like crimes, but aren’t. When it leaps right out of the water it is called ‘breaching’ and when it lies just under the surface it is called ‘logging’.

A whale’s brain sleeps one half at a time, so that the other half doesn’t forget to go up to the surface and breathe. If a whale fell completely asleep, it would drown.

Fin whales pee around 970 litres of urine a day, about as much as three very full bathtubs.

Humpback whales sing strange, eerie, and beautiful songs that can last for up to 30 minutes and include recognizable sequences of squeaks, grunts and other sounds. This makes them the jazz musicians of the whale world.

Bowhead whales have the thickest blubber of any animal, up to 70cm thick, but then they live exclusively in the Arctic, which is fairly cold, on account of all the ice.

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(This originally appeared as the “About” page of Ice Mask Whale, the predecessor of The Quiet Return.)