Chill Out: 10 Icy, Dark New Albums for Summer

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The great outdoors. Picnics in the park. Going to the beach. All of these activities are summer staples for a reason: warm weather and longer days are a natural catalyst for carefree fun. But sometimes, we’ll admit it, all the sun and sand and Best Coast songs about weed and cats blasting out of iPhones just makes us feel a little, well, antisocial. In the same way that at times we just want to curl up with a devastatingly sad book, sometimes we really want to rock out to some bleak tunes. If you, like us, are having “glass is half empty” tendencies at this point of the year, fear not: summer 2011 is bringing with it a bevy of excellent releases for those of us who are a bit more…moody. So crank up the air conditioning, close the blinds and remedy summer overload with these records.

Pictureplane, Thee Physical

“Well tha ill-behaved is back!” goes the vocal sample on “Body Mod,” the first song on Travis “Pictureplane” Egedy’s long-awaited and hotly anticipated Thee Physical album, out July 19. That sentiment’s meant to speak to Pictureplane’s recent reputation as the “bad boy” of the modern dark music movement (this is, after all, the guy credited with coining the term “witch house”), but it’s also indicative of his gleefully plunderous approach to music production. Thee Physical doesn’t borrow so much as five-finger pilfer from America’s early-’90s take on house music, Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails vocals (sung by Egedy himself, proving himself a fully formed vocalist in an entirely welcome but unexpected way), and Genesis P-Orridge’s entire set of aesthetics. Songs like “Sex Mechanism” and “Trancegender” flirt playfully with preconceived industrial notions while Pictureplane crams rave down that crowd’s pierced, tattooed throats. Thee Physical is a bratty summer dance party record that’s perfect if the only person you’d like to dance with is yourself.

John Maus, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

In our alternate universe where one grows weary of summer, We Must Become… is on heavy rotation. John Maus’s bleak, wry take on analog synth-pop is equal parts charming (the John Hughes prom scene of “Head for the Country”) and disarming (the bleakly funny “Cop Killer”). Combining philosophical concepts, existential dilemmas, and enough reverb to shake a door off the hinges, Maus’s music is immediately brainy, overcast pop for PHD candidates — which makes sense, given that his day job is as a political philosophy and theory instructor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Album closer “Believer” is a solid dose of magic, instantly conjuring whatever mood you need to brave the day.

Holy Other, With U

Robin Carolan’s Tri Angle Records is a consistent breeding ground for exactly the sort of music this post is meant to celebrate: slow, submerged, dark. Berlin’s Holy Other falls nicely into that category, harnessing the feeling of blown-out speakers and drowning bass lines for his debut Tri Angle EP With U. Dribbling southern hip-hop influence all over frozen downbeat and to-the-rafters pitch-shifted vocals, listening to Holy Other is like swimming in ice water — sounds like the perfect antidote for a 100-plus-degree day, hm?

Pure X, Pleasure

Speaking of ice baths: take a cold shower in Pleasure, the positively glacial debut album from Texas slow-fuzz purveyors Pure X. The songs on Pleasure aren’t necessarily what one would expect from a band whose name was formerly Pure Ecstasy. There are no big-room rave-ups or baggy anthems in sight (for that, go back to the Pictureplane record); rather, Pure X’s sound is that of frozen monoliths groaning to life in the distance. Almost painfully slow and destroyed, the songs on Pleasure are so fuzzy that they bring with them a near total disconnect from the real world… which, come to think of it, makes the band’s name entirely fitting.

Austra, Feel It Break

Named after the Latvian Goddess of Light, Toronto-based Austra tap a vein of darkwave pop that’s a twin sister to Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes, if Li were funneled through waves of distortion and smoke machines. The first singles from the record, “Beat and the Pulse” and “Lose It,” sound schizophrenic when played back-to-back: the former lives up to its title of swirling, throbbing bass pulses, while the latter has an analog, low-fidelity feel to its earworm chorus. These are the two sides of Austra: dark and light, drones and mantras, but always totally unforgettable.

How To Dress Well, Just Once

This feels a bit like cheating, as we could never co-sign the hype around Love Remains, the almost-silly R&B&WT (rhythm and blues and wind tunnel) debut record from How To Dress Well. Something about it always felt over-produced, fabricated, and inauthentic. Then, when we somehow managed to see How To Dress Well live three times in one year, well, we were suffering from blue-eyed soul overkill. But Just Once, his new EP, is truly a revelation: four How To Dress Well songs stripped of electronic accouterments, backed with orchestral arrangements that allow the beauty and pain of the songs to shine through. Dedicated to How To Dress Well mastermind Tom Krell’s recently-passed best friend, Just Once is a damn-near-perfect, achingly pretty narrative on love and loss. A portion of the proceeds from Just Once benefit mental health charity MindFreedom, which means you’re doing a good thing by supporting this gorgeous music. We purchased our copy almost immediately.

aTelecine, The Falcon and the Pod

Former adult film star Sasha Grey discussed her musical project, the collaborative group aTelecine, with us in her VYou interview a few months ago. aTelecine’s 2010 album, the ambitious exercise in sound A Cassette Tape Culture, was pretty, weird, and unexpected in many ways, owing much to the heady dark electronic workouts of Chris + Cosey while always retaining a truly original sound. Their forthcoming The Falcon and The Pod (out August 9, the first of three promised 2011 release from aTelecine on Pendu Sound Recordings) promises to push even harder, and even further.

Planningtorock, W

The lesser-known cousin to The Knife, Planningtorock’s vocal theatrics resonate easily and eerily familiar to ears trained on Karin Dreijer Andersson’s vocal theatrics. Whereas The Knife scans as electronic music with a devilish bent, Planningtorock creates landscapes more difficult to maneuver, choosing to compose operas instead of three-minute pop songs. W is the ghost of a Broadway show, what one imagines the bones of, say, SleepNoMore would sound like if they were translated into music. “Doorway” is an incredible song, but our money is on “The Breaks” for the most powerful moment on the entire record.

CHLLNGR, Haven

We assume CHLLNGR is pronounced “challenger,” but we’re making the conscious choice to say it as “chillinger” because it fits the music. Haven comes on slow, deep, and fast, like the album we assume Drake would have in him if he hung out in the southern US for a few weeks. Syrupy slow and distorted, cut from similar cloth but weirdly (and awesomely) less hopeful than Holy Other, Haven songs “May 3” and “Ask For” brim with fractured soul. We’d be remiss if we didn’t also point out his equally essential remix of The xx, available at CHLLNGR’s Soundcloud.

Laurel Halo, Hour Logic

Here’s to eschewed expectations. Laurel Halo’s debut, King Felix, was a heady mix of synth-pop just eccentric enough to reward multiple listens. Rather than continuing to channel the spirit of Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush, Halo’s second album breaks new, icy ground for her sound. Without the buoy of Halo’s voice that let much of her music’s light in, Hour Logic is notably darker, a collection of bleak sonic experiments that make us think of WARP or Schematic Records a decade ago. The twisting, looping madness is a good fit. This is an album we want to stay inside and listen to on headphones over and over again.