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Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the oft-overshadowed debut from indie rock icons, a smaller and more intimate look into the mercurial world of Jeff Mangum.
In the mid-’90s, Jeff Mangum moved into a haunted closet in Denver where he had dreams of women in fur coats drinking champagne, yelling at him to get out of their house. During a snowy Colorado winter, the Louisiana-born songwriter and his childhood friend Robert Schneider set about recording what would become Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album. They worked feverishly, going out to smoke cigarettes when they hit a roadblock, until, in May of 1995, they had a finished record. The North Carolina indie label Merge scooped up the young band and quietly released On Avery Island the following March.

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Pablo’s Eye - Bardo for Pablo Music Album Reviews

On the second part of a planned trilogy of archival anthologies, a long-forgotten Belgian group from the early 1990s emerges as standard-bearers of globe-trotting ambient and psychedelic techno.

Reissue culture is a curious business. For every unnecessary major-label re-release that clogs up pressing plants around Record Store Day, there are artists who went largely unheard in their day who are worthy of reconsideration in the here and now, be it a contemplative Japanese ambient composer or a pioneering transgender soul singer. But sometimes artists just hide in plain sight, as is the case with Pablo’s Eye. A loose Belgian collective that formed in 1989 around Axel Libeert, the lone constant over the decades, the group had releases on Swim ~ (an experimental label run by Wire’s Colin Newman and Malka Spigel) and the prolific Australian electronic imprint Extreme. You can still scoop up most of their discography for a few bucks on CD.

But it’s in the way that Ostend-based record label STROOM has presented their fellow countrymen’s body of work that makes it resonate with newfound mystery nearly three decades later. STROOM has already gained notice for curious excavations, like that of the Latvian performance group Nebijušu Sajūtu Restaurēšanas Darbnīca and the Japanese chanteuse Sonoko, but a trilogy of Pablo’s Eye reissues is their biggest statement to date. The first installment, Spring Break, presented the collective as an unheralded Balearic group full of Spanish whispers, pliant bass, unobtrusive hand drums, and echoing nylon-string guitars, perfect for sundown sets on the White Island.

STROOM’s second compilation, Bardo for Pablo, now explores a side of the group that’s darker, druggier, and more transcendent—less linen-clad loungers and more like tribal-techno and breakbeat primitives. Rather than the seven credited members on Spring Break, this particular set pares down to three: Libeert, Dirk Wachtelaer, and Thierry Royo. The shift is most noticeable on the massive, 12-minute opener “Amb 8.” It comprises essentially the same elements as the beguiling, relaxing “Amb 7,” from the first set, just remixed into something psychotropic. By tweaking the settings ever so slightly, Pablo’s Eye present a parallel dimension of these once-placid sounds, allowing dread, unease, and a chemically-enhanced sense of disorientation to seep in at the edges. Propelled by a deep, throbbing tom-and-timbales pattern and a sustained, almost levitating church organ, the wide vistas of “Amb 8” imply an intoxicating void, making the set’s invocation of the concept of bardo all the more germane. Voices echo from a seemingly vast distance, so that one can’t quite pin down whether they are shouts of ecstasy, grief, or seduction. Midway through, a slowed-down “Funky Drummer” beat surfaces and the track turns into a lost ambient-techno epic, putting it in the same hypnotic and diaphanous class as other early-1990s tracks like the Orb’s “Blue Room” and fellow Belgians Mappa Mundi’s “Trance Fusion.”

The rest of the set is full of other early-’90s electronic-music tropes, particularly the chunky breakbeats that were prevalent during that era. Paranoia curls around “Cypher NY Mix” while the claustrophobic breaks and encroaching dread of “Today” could easily get mistaken for a lost Maxinquaye demo. In a better world, the incessant toms, ritualistic percussion, and queasy processing of “My Only Guide Is” would replace Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea” as the tribal-techno standard. Every track here is so mesmerizing that it makes one wonder just how the collective went largely overlooked over the decades. It’s not hard to imagine these tracks being mistaken for the work of new, mischievous producers like Sex Tags Mania’s DJ Sotofett or Acting Press’ PLO Man. Compiling these drum-heavy experiments from the collective, STROOM posits Pablo’s Eye as not simply a reissue curio but something that’s completely contemporaneous.

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