There were so many albums that came out in 2021 that deserve the highest of accolades. As we close in on another long year of uncertainty, frustration, and challenges, I’m reminded with the following list of the joy I spent as well. Music has always been a refuge to me, and this year it has been even more important than ever.
I’m typing this as I sit with my family in a hotel room, displaced by a tornado that ravaged my home as we huddled in the first floor coat closet. We don’t know when, or if, we’ll get back to our house. We’re alive, and that’s clearly what’s most important, but that’s an incredibly scary feeling: not knowing what comes next. I imagine that outside of my specific predicament, I’m not the only one who feels that way—certainly not with the events of the last two years and the bleak reality of what is to come.
I bring this up not for pity or to somehow say my situation is more fraught than others’, nor to draw too much attention to negative thoughts in general, but merely as a way to draw emphasis to the power of music; it has the ability like almost no other medium to transport the listener to another place—to provide a release valve, an escape hatch, or any other of the various analogies of which one can think for escaping whatever ails us.
This year, these albums allowed me to escape on an almost daily basis. I treasure them, and am grateful to their creators for the care and commitment they have displayed with each of these releases. Thank you, happy holidays, and let’s all continue to remember what really matters most.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra
A jazz great and bourgeoning genius, and a masterclass in pacing, touch, and collaboration.
Strom’s final album, released just after she passed. True to self, this is filled with beautiful, angelic-like ambient music, meant to take the listener to another plain of existence. She will be sorely missed.
Released back in June of 2021, the excellent Submersion Therapy saw the reemergence of Steve Smith’s Negative Response, forty years after its initial inception. As I wrote in a recent review, despite the extreme gap, what is presented on Submersion Therapy is striking in its ability to capture the best of 80s cold wave while not sounding locked strictly to that era. To do this—as the modest Smith points out—without formal musical training, firmly establishes Submersion Therapy’s connection to its post-punk roots. It’s an album driven by gut, looking to boil down to its essence what is many times overanalyzed and over-thought. It’s quite an achievement, and one that displays the importance of inspiration, feeling, and taste in an industry that so often puts misguided weight on technical merit or clout within so-called important circles.
Not to say that there isn’t massive technical merit here… there is. Smith’s instincts for sound design and composition are clearly on point. And holistically, the record just sounds amazing and cohesive—all the more astonishing that this is his first release in about thirty-six years. So I was very interested to speak with him and get some background on how all of this came together, and he graciously agreed.
Your most recent release is quite an advancement on your sound since your earlier music. How have you spent your time between these active periods?
The short answer would be living life I suppose. Negative Response began its life in 1981, so it’s been 40 years in the making. The last music I recorded before the new collection of songs would have been around 1984. But I did nothing musically between then and 2016. It was the uploading of a few of those songs onto YouTube with some bits of old video which must have brought Negative Response to the attention of Seattle-based Medical Records and Barcelona-based Manufactured Desire Records and they asked to release that earlier material. That, plus one of the 1982 cassettes sold on an auction site for over £200. Clearly it seemed that there was an appetite for the low-fi electronic sound of the early 1980s. That got me thinking about recording some new material and see how it went. And that is how we got here today.
What has changed, if anything, from your recording process in the 80s to how you record now? Do you still record to analog? Is it more of a digital process now?
The process is not that different. My 4 track Teac portastudio broke. I have replaced it with another 4-track cassette machine so that I can still recall those old recordings when needed. But I did purchase a secondhand Boss BR8 8-track zip drive recorder. It has more tracks and does have some useful onboard effects, so I do have more flexibility. But it is 25-year-old technology. I still have my old Wasp and Cat but for the new album have mainly used a secondhand Novation Mininova and a combination of DR550 and a few other sources of percussion. I don’t use sequencers or other DAW processes. It’s all played by hand or by arpeggiator. It’s still produced in the back room which is not a studio-type environment. I have no musical training or knowledge really and so everything is done by feel and what sounds right. That is what has always been the case and still is. Often the sounds are described as “eclectic” or “quirky” which is, I expect, a direct result of my lack of musical theory and a desire not to follow a particular trend or path. There is no plan to make an album that has an 80s sound or influence, it just comes out that way.
The other main difference was getting some help in the mixing and mastering of the tracks and to get someone who would take a sympathetic approach and still allow the nature of the tracks to shine through. I was pleased with it, they both did a great job. The tracks are tighter and have some nice production features without going over the top.
Is there any carryover from the instrumentation or gear used on those earlier releases to these new releases?
I did not carry over the gear used from the 80s, although I still do possess it. Part of the album was about discovering in a limited way what the new machines could offer. But I have not done a deep dive into them. They are capable of a lot more than I have managed to exploit to date.
It’s highly unlikely, as I’m American, that I would have had access or been aware of your music in the 80s. What are some pros and cons you’ve noticed with how the industry operates today? Do you find it generally easier to get your music heard or is there over-saturation?
The difference is huge. The advancement in technology has meant that everyone has access not only to a variety of instrumentation, mixing, and mastering processing but also distribution through online platforms as well as easy marketing through social media. A lot of it is free or at low cost. A plethora of online music stations, websites, and blog zines have also sprung up.
In the 80s the only real way to spread the word was to make cassette tapes of tracks and to mail them to various music magazines and fanzines, radio stations, and record labels. The process was time consuming and relatively expensive and did take a degree of effort with no chance of an instant reaction from the recipient. It would take many weeks or months. The current situation seems to fulfill the consumer agenda of instant gratification. People often don’t want to listen to an album, but just pull a single track. Music also seems to have a short shelf life. One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve waded through the multiple zine sites is that they want new material. If it is more than a couple of weeks old, many of them are not interested, which I think is a shame. Surely it should be about bringing to the attention of the wider public the music that is out there, regardless of whether it is out in a month’s time or came out last week. But that appears to be the situation.
How do you differentiate yourself from all of the noise and market saturation out there?
I don’t deliberately differentiate myself from others. I do not have the musical ability to make those decisions. That may well be why despite the time difference in releases, listeners still pick up on that distinctive “sound” that I have. I cannot do things any other way. It is what it is. I also think that because I’ve taken the additional time, effort, and expense to produce a physical product, that too does set it apart from the many thousands of tracks that get uploaded every day on to Spotify or other similar sites.
I have deliberately not placed anything from Submersion Therapy on Spotify. Whilst it’s great for consumers and it might be good for band profile, the rewards that the platform provides to the artists is paltry. I also took a long time to decide on the track running order for the album. Having it on vinyl and cassette meant that I had the additional issues of getting approximately equal lengths of music for each side. I would prefer the album to be listened too in its entirety, and whilst there might be a theme running through it in terms of sound, I do believe that the tracks are all different.
But yes, the market is very crowded, and it is difficult to stand out. Being constantly monitoring social media appears to be a necessary but often mundane task. People are obsessed by likes and follows. And there are gatekeepers and small groups that make it difficult to break into without the right contacts. But I guess it’s always been that way.
One of the things that intrigued me the most was the handmade aspect of the vinyl and artwork. How has the response been from people who have received a hand-numbered, lathe-cut record?
The inspiration was the “Reunion” compilation album by Manufactured Desire Records, that was produced in this way and was well received and sold very quickly—in 24 hours in fact. The reaction to the Submersion Therapy vinyl, and indeed the cassettes and CDs, has been very positive and gratifying. I took the cover photo probably 3 or 4 years ago and knew that I wanted to use it. I also wanted to design and produce a cover, j card or insert that included as much information as I reasonably could get together with the complete lyrics for the album. The vocals are often heavily processed or are put through a vocoder and I wanted listeners to understand them. Each CD, vinyl, or cassette has a hand cut and folded sleeve and notes and although it’s clearly not a mass-produced, “professional” job, I think it is a nice balance. It’s all done with a home laptop and standard printer—nothing fancy or professional. In that sense what I am doing now isn’t that far removed from the early 80s. Letraset, a typewriter, and access to a photocopier was the essential kit back then.
I would like to think the human element of producing not just the music but being literally “hands on” throughout does add something personal to the overall package.
The other thing that has surprised me a little is that listeners all have their own favourite tracks, rather than coalescing behind an obvious track or two. That has been a nice feature for me. It indicates that it’s a decent body of work. Some have chosen “Dancing on the Head of a Pin,” whilst “Truth” and “Coral Pink and Candy Coloured Sky” have been popular. But “Changing Skyline,” “Rising Water,” and “Tears” have all featured on various radio shows. I let the show producers play what they want rather than offer them a single track.
Can you discuss a bit about what sort of things you were thinking about—or were influenced by—while recording Submersion Therapy?
The same things that everybody thinks about, I guess. I was asked quite recently what track is most representative of Negative Response both emotionally and creatively. That’s a tough one and a question that I can’t really answer. The last four years have been unprecedented in the unpredictability of a lot of things that we all took for granted. The UK also left the EU after 40 years of membership, which left a lot of people (still) feeling aggrieved. Couple that with the concerns over the natural environment, war and conflict, and of the ongoing impact of Covid 19 and it’s bound to have an impact on thoughts and reflections. Then there are the things that are much closer to you such as situations that arise in both family and work which all feed in consciously or subconsciously. But as you rightly state in your carefully considered review, this is not a Covid 19 album. Most of it was conceived and recorded long before that began. The themes covered in the album are, I think, timeless and could have featured at any time.
What are your thoughts about the connections people may make to your music and ideas that are perhaps not directly related, such as this idea of a “Covid 19 album”?
I have stated in the notes accompanying the album that the tracks were recorded between 2016 and 2020, so there isn’t much more to say. The only track recorded during the pandemic was “Tears”, the rest were conceived and recorded before that. Most of the mixing and the mastering took place during the pandemic. I sat in on the mixing when it was allowed and safe to do so. But the mixing sonically was not influenced by the pandemic, except that it took a lot longer to achieve due to the restrictions. I deliberately leave the album open to interpretation. I have my own images in my mind, and I hope that listeners will have their own. I have ensured that buyers of the physical formats have the full lyrics of all of the tracks. I use a variety of effects on the vocals, including vocoders, and so they can be difficult to distinguish but I would like listeners to have a clear understanding of what they are.
Do you have plans to continue releasing new music? What else is on the horizon for Negative Response?
The “success” or at least the feedback has been encouraging. I’ve a waiting list for the vinyl and rather than fans of it paying inflated prices through other online sites, I’ve decided to organise a small final reissue of the lathe cut version. It can be preordered now and should be available from mid-January 2022.
It’s quite likely that there will be a follow up, but I think it will take time because of the composition techniques that I use. Submersion Therapy in all took the best part of 4 years to come together and then there was the mixing and mastering, which due to various lockdowns took longer than expected. I hope to get to grips to better understand the full array of features in the equipment that I do have—which might include working out what to do with a midi cable!
Submersion Therapy is still very much the focus now. I did not do the “big bang” launch that most bands usually adopt. I just released it when the time felt right and am adding blogs and radio plays as I go along. I would hope that the Submersion Therapy collection will have some longevity just as the older 80s tracks have today.
I have been involved in providing a cover version of a Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks) song back in 2020 and if there is a second compilation I would hope to get involved once again.
I’d also be hoping to play the infrequent live show. I’ve never been a regular performer—I like the idea of it, but it becomes quite stressful and I’m always extremely nervous whilst performing. But I enjoy it once it’s finished. As a solo artist it involves a lot of preparation and I use video as an accompaniment.
Do you film the video sequences yourself? What is the process there?
I make all of my own videos. They are pretty rudimentary, nothing fancy. They are often a mix of old black and white slides I used in the early 80s that I have now digitalised. Others are filmed in real time; some are taken from websites that offer free video clips for download and the remainder are excerpts taken from old movies and TV shows. I then use basic software to edit the clips together. I have always used either slides or video when performing live. It offers a bit more interest for the audience to focus on. When I began to do it in 1981, it was inspired by a few acts that I had seen using it as an interesting accompaniment to the music which helped add to the atmosphere. It was not widely used then and was still regarded as a bit of a novelty. But nowadays it is pretty much normal and essential for an electronic act. But the balance is not for it to dominate but to complement.
Scott Walker, member of the 1960s supergroup The Walker Brothers, and enigmatic solo artist has passed away this last Friday, aged 76.
Walker, born Noel Scott Engel, first shot to fame in the 1960s performing inspired interpretations of others’ songs as member of The Walker Brothers. He was a reluctant teen heartthrob, who eventually walked away from it to start his own solo career when his own songwriting skills began to develop.
I won’t add to the already crowded discourse of people saying how incredibly important he was to music, fans, and musicians.
I’ll just say that personally I’ve admired his late-career courage and have considered him an example of true musical artistry.
Please feel free to raise a drink with me and listen to the compilation I’ve put together in Spotify.