Beck's half-awake Morning Phase and 15 more record reviews 

Ten Reader writers can cover a lot of territory: Angel Olsen's otherworldly folk, Conan's "caveman battle doom," and David First's in-your-face analog synths, just for starters.

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Actress, Ghettoville (Werkdiscs/Ninja Tune) British electronic-music artist Actress (aka Darren Cunningham) hails from the same quasi-grimestep/post-IDM interzone that's home to artists as disparate as Burial, Kuedo, Flying Lotus, Lone, and Zomby—in fact, Lone and Zomby have released music on Cunninghan's Werkdiscs label. But Actress also takes as reference points a few hipper bits of music-­critic catnip: Suicide's menacing throb, Throbbing Gristle's creaky protoindustrial noise, and Cabaret Voltaire's surface grit. Actress's fourth full-length, Ghetto­ville, is being promoted as a sequel to the project's debut, 2008's Hazyville, but out of everything Cunningham has released so far, the new one is probably least like that album—like Autechre, he's ventured further and further into abstraction and distortion over the years. Ghettoville's 16 tracks sound more like demos or sketches than fully realized songs, and at times that can be trying. When the album connects, however—with the lo-fi Timbaland stomp of "Corner" or the chopped-and-screwed quiet-storm cut "Rap"—it carries enough emotional and intellectual heft to match Actress's best work. Tal Rosenberg

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Beck, Morning Phase (Capitol) Since 2008, when Beck released Modern Guilt, the southern California pop chameleon has spent a lot of time on one-off collaborations and side projects. Among other things, he's launched Record Club, where he and an ad hoc team of musicians record a cover of an entire album in a day (a 2010 version of Yanni Live at the Acropolis features Thurston Moore and Tortoise); he's contributed a track to Rework, a 2012 Philip Glass remix collection; and he's guested on tunes by Black Moth Super Rainbow's Tobacco and, oddly, Childish Gambino. (I'm not even sure how to classify Song Reader, his 2012 sheet-music book.) Now Beck has finally released another proper full-length, Morning Phase, which returns to the kind of mellow, moody, symphonic folk-rock he perfected on the 2002 breakup record Sea Change. His sonorous sighs and plainspoken lyrics are similar on both albums, but frustratingly, much of Morning Phase just doesn't stick in the brain like the older material, where he addressed his pain and confusion in simple, powerful terms that achieved a gutted sort of transcendence. Some of the new tunes ("Blue Moon," "Waking Light," "Morning") are winsome enough, but it's hard to settle for that when Beck is capable of so much more. At least Morning Phase might remind some people of how fantastic Sea Change still is. Leor Galil

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Black Mare, Field of the Host (Human Jigsaw) Black Mare is a new solo project from Los Angeles-based vocalist and bassist Sera Timms, best known from Ides of Gemini and Black Math Horseman. In those groups Timms was often all but buried under distortion and thunderous, doomy atmosphere, but Black Mare's lighter, less oppressive sound allows her ample room to showcase her sublime voice. On Field of the Host she adopts a languid delivery, so that her hypnotic compositions—album opener "Blind One," droning midalbum highlight "Saturn's Grave," shuddering final dirge "Cybele"—fascinate as well as mesmerize. She keeps her bass muted, careful not to overwhelm the heady, blissful arrangements, which combine brooding folk, gentle tempos, touches of gothic drama, and plenty of desert air. Moody and romantic, Field of the Host promises the quiet, endless sleep of poison, not death by blunt trauma. Kim Kelly

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Conan, Blood Eagle (Napalm) This Liverpool trio plays what it calls "caveman battle doom"—metal that belongs to a bleak and fantastic ancient landscape, its towering rocks and armored fighting beasts painted red by a fat, glowering sun. The guitars are almost comically down-tuned, the texture of a black-skinned, crumpling lava flow, and they generally move about as fast. On the band's monolithically minimalist early releases, the drums often stick to a mountainous plod beneath a riff unfolding so slowly that a single chord might hang in the air for 12 seconds. On Blood Eagle, by comparison, the rhythms indulge in a bit more rumble and swing, with occasional cymbal business that gives even the most massive beat an internal bustle—the effect is something like an 80-ton sauropod surprising you with a sidestep. The vocals haven't changed at all, though: they still sound like somebody (usually two somebodies, singing a tense, warlike interval) hollering at you from the other side of a canyon, probably while wearing impractical helmets and the pelts of several creatures that used to eat your ancestors alive. Philip Montoro

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David First, Electronic Works 1976-1977 (Dais) A few years after David First used the Buchla 100 analog synthesizer at Princeton's outpost of Columbia University's Electronic Music Center to make these raw, in-your-face recordings, he made no-wave-inspired punk rock, first in Philadelphia and then in New York (most memorably with the Notekillers). And a few years before he began to explore electronic music, he was playing free-jazz guitar with pianist Cecil Taylor. But as First says in the liner notes to Electronic Works 1976-1977 (the first release of this material), "I felt that as awesome as it was, the free jazz concept was already codified into something I could not properly crack into and mess with." Using the endlessly reconfigurable, touch-controlled Buchla 100 satisfied that desire, and these five noisy, churning pieces have little in common with the polite, eggheaded synthesizer music typically made during his period. Instead First layers dive-bomber sirens, harsh squeals, and rubbery pulses (and on "Moody," ferocious electric guitar) into visceral soundscapes that tear through the air like dull machetes. Peter Margasak

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Guardian Alien, Spiritual Emergency (Thrill Jockey) On 2012's See the World Given to a One Love Entity, avant-garde New York psychedelic collective Guardian Alien dropped the hammer with 37 minutes of sensory overload, combining extreme-metal blastbeats, transcendental tribal rhythms, and everything-­at-once arrangements. By comparison, the new Spiritual Emergency is an exercise in restraint. Experimental drummer extraordinaire Greg Fox (whose name unfortunately still seems mostly associated with his old band Liturgy) still propels the music with his insane polyrhythms—especially the songs that bookend the album, "Tranquilizer" and the 20-minute title track—but instead of cutting loose right out of the gate like on Entity, he and his bandmates build slowly, using gentler dynamics to create a tense, spacey slow burn. The music swells instead of roars—electronics bubble in and out, guitars hum, and glitchy vocals pop up and fall back. Through it all, Fox's otherworldly drumming is the undisputed star of the show—he pulls off some of the most mind-bending parts I've ever heard played on a "rock" kit. Luca Cimarusti

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Anne Guthrie, Codiaeum Variegatum (Students of Decay) It's been a long time since composers were limited to writing music for others to play. On her new Codiaeum Variegatum, New York-based acoustician and French horn player Anne Guthrie not only composes for brass and strings; she uses electronics to manipulate conventional instruments as well as field recordings made in natural and urban settings, so that found and played sounds take on each other's qualities. On "Long Pendulous," she turns her horn's bleats into seal-like cries, which sound forlorn and frightened when surrounded by train-station ambience; on "Strongly Leaning With Irregular Crown," insects and birds seem more lyrical and purposeful than the tentative cello melody that answers them. Though Guthrie visits profound transformations upon her material, she also lets chance events—a bug smacking into her microphone's shield, for instance—influence the course of her music. The way she makes the various combinations in her music—happenstance occurrences with intentional interventions, played instrumentation with collected sounds—proposes new and complex relationships between those elements. Bill Meyer

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James Brandon Lewis, Divine Travels (OKeh) Divine Travels is only the second record that young New York saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has released under his own name, but it seems likely to put him in the spotlight, if only briefly. It's one of the new albums planned for release in 2014 on the resurrected OKeh imprint, a Sony-distributed operation that's defying the widespread disappearance of jazz from major labels. Lewis is joined by bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver, a stellar rhythm section that's adept at the kind of rangy, gospelized sound the saxophonist prefers; the trio owes a lot to Albert Ayler, but its disposition and tone temper his extroverted approach. Lewis doesn't try to bulldoze through his soulful themes, which often draw from familiar spirituals ("Wade in the Water," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"); instead he prods and digs patiently, working out lines a la Sonny Rollins or David S. Ware. Peter Margasak

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Arto Lindsay & Paal Nilssen-Love, Scarcity (PNL) This cross-generational collaboration, recorded live last year in Rio de Janeiro, opens with guitarist and singer Arto Lindsay patiently tossing out acidic splatters of rhythmic noise—he seems to be biding his time, but he doesn't have to wait too long before Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love charges in, pulling Lindsay back to the days when he played abrasive no wave with New York trio DNA (though here he delivers extended sallies, not fleeting koans). This is a wonderfully ugly, knotty set, packed with wiry, scampering noise and all-out squalls, and Lindsay punctuates it with vocal gasps and whinnies that recall his singing in DNA (and in the earliest iteration of Golden Palominos). Nilssen-Love is a force of nature, pushing hard against Lindsay's most ferocious sounds—sometimes bisecting them with explosive flurries, sometimes propelling them with thunderous, sideways grooves. Peter Margasak

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Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, Chambers (Captcha) The Mexican duo of Lorena Quintanilla (Lorelle) and Alberto Gonzales (the Obsolete) plays garage-psych that takes cues from the hypnotic repetition and everything-bleeds reverb-and-delay aesthetic of, say, Wooden Shjips—then adds a little more classic rock and a little more volume. The opening track of Chambers, "What's Holding You?," ends with a classic psych move: as the song's slow-burning trip fizzles, lashes of effects-drenched, warbling guitar gently pan from one side of your brain to the other. The driving, upbeat "Sealed Scene," with its Oh Sees-like rhythm, is hard to deny—simple and fun, it'd make a great single, even with the delay-treated guitar snaking all over the background. The band is tighter than ever before—even on the slower, dirgier songs, where it sounds like Lorelle's sultry vocals are oozing into the dark, incense-fogged recesses of a seance chamber, the playing is sharp. Kevin Warwick

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Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar) Singer-songwriter Angel Olsen came up playing delicate, otherworldly folk. On her previous solo records, some of the sparse, detailed songs leave so much air between tremolo-treated guitar notes that when she changes the way she plucks the strings it can hit like a lightning bolt; her gorgeous, heart-wrenching vocals sound like they've been beamed in from the afterlife. The former Chicagoan adds flesh to her skeletal sound on the new Burn Your Fire for No Witness, using a full band (as she's been doing onstage for some time) on the majority of the songs to amplify the subtle touches of alt-country and psychedelia in her solo material. "Hi-Five" conjures images of a tiny desert town, with its western-saloon-style piano and a reverberant electric-guitar line that floats like a mirage over sun-beaten sand; it's strikingly loud, at least in comparison to Olsen's older records. And the lead track, "Unfucktheworld," sounds raw and tough even when she turns down her guitar and sings in a near whisper. Leor Galil

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Rafi El, Ay De Mi (Dutty Artz) On his first full-length album since a string of his singles went viral in the global bass-music scene, electronic producer and Los Angeles native Rafi El paints one of the most evocative sonic portraits of the city in years. The richly detailed tapestry of styles on Ay De Mi draws from the full range of the Latin diaspora that's landed in LA, as well as from the electronic-dance-music culture that has recently made LA its unofficial global capital city; bilingual vocals give the songs a strong pop feel. It's a fascinating album from a musicological standpoint, full of unexpected combinations such as cumbia and moombahton (itself an EDM hybrid of reggaeton and Dutch house), but its most crucial quality is the uplift and joy that Rafi El infuses into every track. Miles Raymer

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Slothrust, Of Course You Do (Ba Da Bing!) Brooklyn-based power trio Slothrust had me at this album's first single, "Crockpot"—specifically the lines "I like cats, do you like cats? / Of course you do, you sassy motherfucker." Guitarist and front woman Leah Wellbaum has a knack for being awesome, and it's on display not only in her clever lyrics and husky delivery—she often sounds like she's about to slap your beer out of your hand and then buy you a drink—but also in her guitar chops, of which she has several. Positioned by its label as blues-influenced grunge, Slothrust rallies around Wellbaum—the band began as her solo project, Slothbox—and her hearty rock 'n' roll licks. The album can be unfocused stylistically—late-album track "No Eye Candy" sticks out like a sore thumb with its naked stab at radio-rock accessibility—and sometimes Wellbaum's vocals slip into poetry-slam territory. It's clear she's got a ton of talent; she just hasn't nailed down her plan of action yet. Kevin Warwick

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Slough Feg, Digital Resistance (Metal Blade) Few bands could do what Slough Feg does—largely because nobody in his right mind would try starting out as a vaguely Celtic-­sounding metal band and then maturing into a terrifyingly good neoprog outfit that seems to consist of Picts from a more technologically advanced planet. I say "more technologically advanced," but Slough Feg's new album, Digital Resistance, is largely about resisting digital culture—a premise that made me groan when I first heard about it. If you're going to go down the "Old man yells at Soundcloud" road, you'd better bring the goods to back up your claims about the good old days. And damn it, these guys do—Digital Resistance is as comfortable and confident as Thin Lizzy at their best, as intricately crafted as any monstrous early Genesis or King Crimson track. It's not a pure concept album, thankfully—not every song follows the theme, and every track can stand alone. I especially like the retrofuturist murder ballad "Habeas Corpus" and the creepy-crawly horror tale "Ghostly Appendage." Rather than a wall-slamming riff machine, this record is sly and subtle, designed to insinuate its cleverness and heart into your brain with repeated listenings. Get it now, and by the time Slough Feg tours through Chicago you'll have it memorized. Monica Kendrick

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Various artists, Warfaring Strangers: Dark­scorch Canticles (Numero Group) If we're gonna be real, the only things worth writing hard-rocks songs about are sex, drugs, and black magic. You also find a lot of all three in fantasy fiction and its close cousins, role-playing games, whose aficionados started to cohere into a distinct subculture right around the time that heavy metal was coming into its own—it was probably inevitable that there would be crossover between them. For what's possibly the most arcanely themed collection they've yet produced, the pop archaeologists at the Numero Group have compiled 16 pristine examples of the microgenre they call "wizard rock" (no relation to songs about Harry Potter). The lyrics are full of sorcerers, barbarians, and demonic summoning rituals, and the song titles are frequently lofty ("Cry for the Newborn," Twelve O'Clock Satanial"), but despite the high-concept stuff (in all senses of the word "high") the music itself has the lean tautness of Ozzy-era Sabbath. If this sounds like the niche you've been waiting your whole life to find, you might want to hold off purchasing Darkscorch Canticles until May—that's when Numero plans to release a deluxe limited edition that comes with a fully playable RPG, wherein you take on the role of one of the bands from the compilation, questing across a D&D-style fantasy world in search of a record contract. Miles Raymer

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The Weaks, The World Is a Terrible Place & I Hate Myself and Want to Die (Lame-O) Singers and multi-instrumentalists Chris Baglivo and Evan Bernard, the core duo of emo-leaning Philadelphia rock band the Weaks, strike me as the kind of guys who used to sprint out of their classrooms at the end of the last day of school every year so that they could spend the absolute maximum amount of summer outdoors. At least that's the impression I get listening to the Weaks' debut EP—its earnest vocals and engine-revving power chords make me want to run around in a grassy field dotted with dandelions, even in the middle of a snowy February. I've been waiting for a fourth-wave emo band to run with the peppy bubblegum pop-rock of the Promise Ring's 1999 album Very Emergency, and the Weaks have done just that—especially on the catchy, surging "Instantaneous Vertical Speed." Leor Galil

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