108 capsule reviews written between 2012 and 2020
Matteo Uggeri | Luca Mauri | Francesco Giannico ~ Pagetos (Boring Machines)
The long-awaited final chapter in the Between the Elements quadrilogy didn’t disappoint. Together the four releases cover a wide spectrum of experimentation and aesthetic forms. The first three installments – the sparse desert drone of Erimos, the slowly unfolding melodies of Nefoldhis, and the electroacoustic smokiness of Kapnos– were released in rather quick succession in 2007. Pagetos is the most melodic and hopeful of the series, and all the more so due to the context of the long wait for its release. Matteo Uggeri and Luca Mauri both recorded tracks on Kapnos, credited along with six other artists to The Meerkat collective, a group of Italian experimental music enthusiasts who coalesced around an online message board. Uggeri is also a quarter of Sparkle in Grey, who along with Maurizio Bianchi produced Nefoldhis. Uggeri and MB first conceived of theBetween the Elements series together, but I think it’s safe to say that Uggeri deserves great praise for Between the Elements. As the development across this series shows, MB has been overshadowed. Uggeri’s recent Fields of Corn with Bob Corn was also one of the most interesting of the year, literally recordings of folk songs made in a field. Uggeri tackles each of his different projects with artistic focus, thoughtful concepts and a careful command of how to produce engrossing compositions by balancing the various resources at his disposal. Combining field-recordings, mild treatments, and occasionally his trumpet, Uggeri weaves fragile but startlingly beautiful moments interacting with Francsco Giannico’s piano and Mauri’s guitar. Like the brief existence of morning frost, Pagetos is worth revisiting again and again.
High Aura’d ~ Sanguine Futures (Bathetic)
John Kolodij has been producing top notch music for sometime now (cf. Third Life) but has fully arrived as an artist with Sanguine Futures. For what is ostensibly a drone record with a somewhat depressing title, it’s far more dynamic and engaging than that lets on. Many artists working in any genre that features sustained tones allow themselves to fall into a land of grey in which they begin to sound indistinguishable, but Kolodij has a much more interesting palate of sonorities. As one might expect from patient, long-form music, the album itself is a coherent and compelling whole, whose reputation is surely destined to grow, whether the futures be sanguine or not.
Mark Fell ~ Sentielle Objectif Actualité (SND)
Peter Rehberg’s EditionsMego is the premier label for innovative and challenging electronic music. If there was ever any doubt, 2012 left the competition far behind with exquisite releases from the likes of Hecker, Raglani,Mark Hampson, Fennesz, Kassel Jaeger, Oren Ambarchi, and of course the latest from Mark Fell. Best known as half of the pioneering hardware glitch duo SND and for his more dub-techno work under his own name. Fell has settled into a happy medium between cerebral electronics, dance-floor aesthetics, and artistic practice. The off-kilter beats of Sentielle Objectif Actualité consist of seven radical reworkings of earlier material which draw on a restricted palate of classic techno hardware. The result is perhaps the clearest distillation of Fell’s superb production skills to date.
From the Mouth of the Sun ~ Woven Tide (Experimedia)
Dag Rosenqvist (Jasper TX) and Aaron Martin first collaborated for the Jasper TX track “Weight of Days,” and expectations for their full-length encounter were rightly high. Woven Tide surpassed those explorations, as Aaron Martin’s cello and treatments perfectly round out Rosenqvist’s guitar and piano soundscapes. Of course Jeremy Bible’s Experimedia label has yet to do us wrong. From the Mouth of the Sun may skew to the darker side of introspection, but is not without moments of joy, which ring that much more triumphantly in contrast. We can only hope that this isn’t the last that we’ll hear from this duo.
36 ~ Lithea (3six Recordings)
Over the last three years UK producer Dennis Huddleston has made a name for himself with his ambient-leaning electronic project 36. Self-published artists tend to be more miss than hit, but Dennis’ 3six recordings is the exception to the rule. The colors tape trilogy (red blue and green) was a fine example of superb packaging and sound working in harmony, while his full-length albums demonstrated even greater diversity and command for revitalizing ambient music. Mist, 36’s collaboration with Black Swan, makes more sense in the wake of Lithea, the final installment in the trilogy that began with Hypersona and Hollow. In fact, Black Swan’s influence seems apparent even in the design aesthetic of the release, as well as in the darker aspects of 36’s music that seems always just below the surface of Lithea. 36 has refused to stagnate, continuing to develop and even improve upon his particular brand of powerful mood music.
Kreng ~ Works for Abattoir Fermé (Miasmah)
Kreng is Belgium’s Pepijn Caudron, and though his work may appeal to fans of dark ambient, his latest release demonstrates how that aesthetic can be harnessed while working within the forms and timbres of a very different genre. Works for Abattoir Fermé consists of 4 works each in two parts, written to accompany silent theatre pieces and a TV series staged by the Belgian experimental theatre group Abattoir Fermé.
Forest Swords ~ Engravings (Tri Angle Records)
Hip hop beats given the dub treatment with pitched vocal samples and memorable synth hooks might not exactly be mainstream, but it’s certainly more accessible than most of what we cover here at ACL. Still, when it’s done this well we take notice. Matt Barnes’ Forest Swords hasn’t shattered the mold, but he’s certainly raised the bar with this one. Not content to ride out a steady beat, Engravings’ surface traces a complex map of grooves. Though his tunes are meticulously crafted and well-arranged, he’s unafraid of throwing in weird ambient breaks or disruptive codas that would leave lesser producers fumbling. He’s also able to take the most minimal elements – a short vocal sample, a brief piano riff- and spit out a grade-A pop tune. Barnes draws on a wide variety of samples, even including liberal doses of guitar, crafting national anthems to countries that don’t exist, but that you’ll want to revisit again and again.
Secret Pyramid ~ Movements of Night (Students of Decay)
Few drone albums make such a strong impression on the first listen, let alone continue to unfold over time with repeat listens. It is a special skill to create complexity this subtle, deceptively simple aural interactions rich with emotional weight. These gently drifting compositions are like the soundtrack to a lonely walk through foggy streets. No surprise that Amir Abbey hails from Canada’s rainiest city, though Secret Pyramid deserves more than the tired clichés of melancholic drone. Cassette can be a really beautiful format for ambient-drone, with a rich mid-range and gentle high-end, but on his debut LP Abbey takes advantage of the dynamic range afforded by vinyl. Though the compositions themselves tend to drift along, the harmonics and textures convey emotion in a way that tired swells and crescendos can’t match.
AIPS Collective ~ Postcards from Italy (Oak Editions)
Postcards from Italy, the album, grew out Postcards from Italy, Gianmarco Del Re’s fabulous interview series for Fluid-Radio, in which he interviewed Italian electro-acoustic artists about their work and the regions in which they live. Each of the participants on this record is a member of AIPS, a collective of Italian artists working with field-recordings. Each track consists of a set of field-recordings made by one member shaped by another. This deceptively simple concept produced an album of remarkable compositions exploring the intersection of identity and place, as diverse as Italy itself, somehow clinging together with a sense of cohesion.
Gabriel Saloman ~ Soldier’s Requiem (Miasmah)
The relatively simple constituent parts of Soldier’s Requiem are carefully crafted and layered, an evocative work that haunts the listener long after the final sound fades away. Without realizing it until it’s too late, an eerie quiet is overcome by distorted cloud, the rhythm of a marching drum driving us forward, a mournful melody just a faint memory. One might hear echoes of Saloman’s past as a Yellow Swan, but unlike his solo work enacts a narrative quality that grants it a formidable emotion weight, all the more so when that narrative is only implied. Metaphorical or otherwise, this requiem of a soldier is frighteningly vivid.
Kreng ~ …And Then In the Morning (Sonic Pieces)
Even a 7” from Kreng is worthy of inclusion on a year end list, especially when mastered by Nils Frahm. Pepijn Caudron has yet to give us a proper follow up to 2011’s immaculate Grimoire, and since he’s now soundtracking a new horror-commedy starring Elijah Wood, we may have to wait a bit longer. Luckily little releases like this are here to tide us over. Not one to rest on his laurels, Caudron braves new territory once again, offsetting his suspense cinematic tape music with new elements. The careful dissonance and creeping melancholia are still present, but the addition of Flamenco rhythms puts the listener a just a bit off balance, and the surreal recollection of a dream by a young woman confuses the mood with its ambiguity. Lush, beautiful music that makes the most of its time constraints.
Junior Pande ~ Tape Three (Spring Break Tapes)
Justin Peroff’s Junior Pande project reaches its zenith with his third tape of screwed beats, sneaking synths, and hazy soundscapes. Best known as the drummer of Broken Social Scene, that gives you little inclination of what to expect from his Tape trilogy. Sure BSS has its origins in bedroom studios, and sure Peroff’s tight beats were a defining feature of that sprawling group, but the similarities end there. Even his oft-forgotten instrumental duo Junior Blue -the namesake of this project- won’t tell you much. Drawing on the hypnotic atmospheres of the beat scene and the creative techniques of hip hop, Junior Pande has come into his own.
Deep Magic ~ Reflections of Most Forgotten Love (Preservation)
Alex Gray isn’t one to sit still, and though Deep Magic has remained his most consistent project, it’s still been constantly evolving and expanding. Unlike his more meditative slowly evolving drone tapes, his LPs take the listener on a tour across a dense sonic landscape of processed field-recordings, instrumentation, and who knows what. Standout tracks like “Brighter Days” encapsulate what is so powerful about Deep Magic, an abiding drugged out spirituality that never loses sight of bliss.
Peter Evans/Charity Chan/Weasel Walter/Tom Blancarte –Cryptocrystalline (ugExplode)
The debut release from this new ensemble featuring four of the most virtuosic and adventurous young improvisers in free jazz. Evans’ shredding on a pocket trumpet can put a metalhead to shame, well-paired with the singular style of drummer Walter (Behold… The Arctopus), fresh off a tour with Lydia Lunch. Blancarte’s double bass and Chan’s piano alternate as anchor and agitator, all four carefully listening and responding to the rest. This furious quartet skips the seduction and forces the listener along for more.
Tim Hecker – Virgins (Kranky)
Tim Hecker solidified his compositional voice years ago, not an easy feat for clouds of beatless noise. After the slick bombast of his last LP Ravedeath, 1972, the piano sketches companion Dropped Pianos give more of a hint as to the sonorities of his latest work. Virgins sees the influence of minimalist composer Steve Reich finally mature in these laterally moving, rhythmic and immersive album culled from live sessions with acoustic instruments. Rather than steer the listener with crescendos and sub-bass, Virgins asks the listener to find their own path.
Matana Roberts – Coin Coin 2: Mississippi Moonchile (CST)
Considering the influence the Chicago avant music scenes have had on Constellation Records, it is only fitting for them to showcase one of Chicago’s most affecting composer/performers. As a contrast to the unwieldy raw power of the Montreal big band of the first part, Mississippi Moonchile features a tight 6-piece ensemble of New York musicians. Fragments of voice, spoken and sung, evocatively suggest the album’s themes, perfectly augmented by horns, piano, double bass and drums. Surprisingly evocative African-American liberation music exploring the connections between music, memory, and ancestral history.
Paulo J Ferreira Lopes – Feeze (Atrito-Afeito)
Debut release from new Montreal-based label specializing in small runs of improvised music. For Feeze, Ferreira Lopes has crafted 10 compositions culled from synth explorations recorded in Montreal back in 2000. A diverse series of sonic landscapes ranging from skittering rhythms to lumbering drones, they’re certainly worthy of a proper release. Considering the recent renewed interest in analogue synth music (forgotten legends like JD Emmanuel and young upstarts like 0PN and Emeralds), Feeze is sure to find a dedicated audience.
Valerio Tricoli ~ Miseri Lares (PAN)
Even as a fan of Tricoli’s early work with 3/4HadBeenEliminated and his collaborations with Thomas Ankersmit, and even considering the PAN label’s consistently high quality of work, nothing could prepare me for Miseri Lares. Eight years since his solo debut (issued by Giuseppe Ielasi’s now defunct Bowindo label), the time honing his craft was well spent. Tricoli brings together the expertise of amateur musique concrete techniques, the energy and intuition of a seasoned improviser, and the vision of dedicated composer. More important than any particular technique or sound is Tricoli’s ability to render such affective moods out of narrative fragments, to manifest “the irrational horror within” through 77 minutes of sound. Tricoli’s crowning achievement, Miseri Lares is a masterwork of subtle, surprising and suspenseful sonic sculpting.
Lawrence English ~ Wilderness of Mirrors (Room40)
Like his excellent 2011 album The Peregrine, Wilderness of Mirrors draws its conceptual framing from literature, in this case a fragmentary poem by T.S Eliot reflecting on memory and imagination. The entirety of the record is rich in texture and easy to become lost in, each potential event an iteration of something already gone or yet to come. There’s no revelation waiting, no resolution to come, no linear narrative to grasp hold of, just a spiral of refracted signals competing to be heard. More aggressive than expected, the density encourages high volume and an attentive listener. One might continue flipping the LP (or listening on shuffle) and easily lose track of time, lost in its wild environs. Multiple listens feel like visiting the same setting, but never from the same perspective.
Lawrence English + Stephen Vitiello ~ Fable (Dragon’s Eye Recordings)
Fable springs to life with a refreshing immediacy and energy. The work of these two composers is just as likely to be subdued and subtle as loud and dense. Fable is something else entirely, cunning in its juxtaposition of timbres and rhythms, allowing for space and silence rather than manipulating sustained tones and dense layers of sound. No less a cohesive work than one has come to expect from artists of this caliber, each individual track stands on its own, feeling complete whether or not heard in the context of the complete album. One may not be able to perceive the traces of each artist’s distinct contributions, yet Fable is animated by the tension of collaboration.
Wrekmeister Harmonies ~ Then It All Came Down (Thrill Jockey)
J.R. Robinson’s debut full-length You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me appeared prominently on our Top 20 list last year, and Then It All Came Down follows up on its promise. The CD edition of his latest includes both, giving new listeners an excellent opportunity to get lost in Robinson’s engrossing album length compositions. No surprise for a project inspired by the filmmaker Bela Tarr, Wrekmeister Harmonies excels at the cinematic approach to sound composition, driving narrative through slowly developing musical passages culminating in a roaring sea of dread. His last record was inspired by films of decaying Detroit, and its successor is no less apocalyptic in scope. Inspired by a 1973 Truman Capote interview with a musician-murdering member of the Manson Family, Then It All Came Down proceeds like a dramatization of their encounter, slowly transitioning from the ethereal and soothing to dark and abrasive. The final quiet of the coda allows the weight of this transition to sink in, an existential dread that can’t easily be discarded.
Christina Vantzou ~ No. 2 (Kranky)
For a video artist trying her hand at composition, Christina Vantzou’s No. 1 was a remarkably successful record that took not a few of us by surprise. No sophomore slump here, as No. 2 exceeds even that marvelous debut. As a composer, Vantzou has continued to progress, with No. 2 much more than a mere sequel. Avoiding the pitfalls of larger orchestration she perfectly steers her musicians to richer and more bombastic territory while maintaining her now signature sound. Superb.
Christopher Tignor ~ Thunder Lay Down in the Heart (Western Vinyl)
Tignor has long been well-regarded for his skill after years of outstanding records with Slow Six and Wires.Under.Tension, and his compositional skills were widely and rightly praised after the release of 2009’s Core Memory Unwound. Here is an artist who puts everything into his work, supreme attention to detail and dedication to his craft rather than chasing celebrity, trends and theatricality. On Thunder Lay Down in the Heart, Tignor’s rigorous and self-reflexive compositions’ conceptual underpinnings are exceeded only by the music itself.
Marcus Fjellström ~ Lichtspiel Mutation 2: Alechsis (Dronarivm)
An imaginative and productive reimagining of the plot of a 1948 film now in the public domain, Alechsis is a rewarding listen. Even free from its original context as part of a live audio-visual performance, the absent narrative makes itself felt in the structure of the piece. An achievement of narrative storytelling with abstract sounds.
Nicola Di Croce ~ Fieldnotes (Oak Editions)
Fieldnotes is a unique album, and not merely because it was issued as a download printed on a limited edition Risograph. In contrast to often somber records recorded alone, Di Croce’s music is full of vitality and vigor, deftly layering field-recordings, electronics and acoustic instruments into a coherent, focused, and musical whole. Di Croce’s is an engaged practice, and the openness and collaborative nature of this project is palpable in every second.
kangding ray ~ solens arc (raster-noton)
On a personal level, Kangding Ray’s performance at the Mutek festival in Montreal remains one of the highlights of the year, precipating a welcome trip through his back-catalog. Kangding Ray’s music has become progressively less austere over the years, but even at his most minimal and glitch his compositions maintain a soul and warmth rare in both club music and experimental electronics, let alone in their fusion. Despite its dark intensity and club-ready beats, there’s no mistaking Solens Arc as a Raster-Noton record, and both artist and label have had a stellar year.
Kyle Bobby Dunn ~ Kyle Bobby Dunn & the Infinite Sadness (Students of Decay)
KBD’s odd pronouncements and tongue-in-cheek titles certainly get a lot of attention. Is he just taking the piss?
Probably, but let’s not let that distract from the music itself. It can be easy to take Dunn’s music for granted with so many slow, long albums to dive into. Produced solely with an electric guitar, volume pedal and looping station, Dunn’s compositions have become more complex with subtle rhythms lurking below the surface. Kyle Bobby Dunn & the Infinite Sadness is a milestone in his oeuvre. Kyle Bobby Dunn ~ Kyle Bobby Dunn & The Infinite Sadness (Students of Decay)
A lot of people try Scotch once and assume they don’t like it. Scotch doesn’t reveal itself all at once. It unfurls, its complexity deepens over time. Drone music might feel similarly subtle and even unpleasant to a casual listener. Dunn’s music, a wash of swelling tones and slowly evolving loops, requires a similar period of acculturation and is equally rewarding. Reviewers have thrown around various synonyms for sad and melancholic, but they miss the humour and optimism at the heart of The Infinite Sadness. Perfect late winter Montreal music.
Sunn O))) & Ulver ~ Terrestrials (Southern Lord)
Sunn O)))’s collaboration with Norway’s Ulver, an experimental ensemble that draw on black metal, drone, and modern-composition, was recorded as a live improvisation following Ulver’s 200 th show. That unique atmosphere pervades the brass, string, and percussion that temper the more abrasive tendencies without sacrificing any of the intensity. The maximalist brass of “Let There Be Light” and
lyrical synthesizers (and even clean vocals) of “Eternal Return” may not please purists, but Terrestrials documents a true collaboration not to be overlooked.
Hauschka ~ Abandoned City (Temporary Residence, Ltd.)
Over the last decade Volker Bertelmann has released a variety of records as Hauschka, improvisations and compositions for prepared piano. He’s worked with strings, written chamber music, and even a dance-inspired album with members of Calexico and Mum. On Abandoned City, his first since the birth of his son, Hauschka returns to solo prepared piano, but utilizing new electronic processing to lead his playing in a new direction. Created in a ten day flurry of recording, Abandoned City sounds vital and warm, despite the lonely imagery.
Great Dane ~ Beta Cat (Alpha Pup)
Coming out of the LA beat scene epicenter the Low End Theory, Great Dane’s sophomore LP witnesses the young producer coming into his own sound. His tracks have the dance floor in mind, but are driven by raw energy and plenty of bass. Beta Cat springs right into action with a series of uptempo bangers, before chilling out for a more hip hop inspired second half, the stronger of the two. Deeper textures and more sophisticated compositions will make this a must hear for fans of Bass music.
Jon Porras ~ Light Divide (Thrill Jockey)
Goethe famously wrote that architecture is frozen music. If that’s the case, then the drone music may be an ideal medium to push that analogy further. Looking to arch-modernist Le Corbusier for inspiration, Barn Owl’s Jon Porras sheds his guitar for his latest solo outing, an architectural investigation into electronic synthesis. Rather than write songs with a narrative arc, each track is constructed, building on a foundation of sub-bass, rhythmic patterns, and subdued melodic phrases. Concepts aside, Light Divide is an engrossing listen.
Fennesz ~ Bécs (Editions Mego)
In 2001 Mego released Endless Summer, a shimmering wave of digital guitar manipulations that ranks among the best—and poppiest—of Fennesz’ now extensive catalog. Over a decade later Fennesz presents Bécs as a conceptual sequel, his first solo LP since 2008. Don’t take that pop tag too literally, though. (He did choose a song titled “The Liar” as a single.) For Fennesz “florid pop mechanisms” breaks down into sheets of abstract movements, controlled feedback, and clipping guitar noise. Call it what you will, Bécs is a powerful and complex work.
Hiss Tracts ~ Shortwave Nights (Constellation)
Recording together as Hiss Tracts, Montreal’s David Bryant (Godspeed You! Black Emperor/Set Fire to Flames) and Kevin Doria (Growing/Total Life) have crafted a near perfect fusion of drone and post-rock, their dueling guitars augmented by various analog instruments, field-recordings and few guest musicians. Their music gestures towards the seductive energy of evangelism and electricity, an aesthetic well matched by collaborator Karl Lemieaux, best known for providing visuals during recent Godspeed shows. Though they’ve been playing together for years now, Shortwave Nights marks their debut release, and the long gestation period is well justified.
Ben Frost ~ A U R O R A
Recorded in the DR Congo while working with filmmaker Richard Mosse on the Infra series, A U R O R A marks a clear turning point away from Frost’s earlier guitar-heavy take on electronic music. Working with drummer Greg Fox (ex-Liturgy, Guardian Alien), multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, and percussionist Thor Harris (Swans, Shearwater), Frost has produced the most rhythmic, melodic, and downright powerful music of his career, no mean feat. Lurching sub-bass takes you out at the knees while screeching high-end frequencies push the endurance of even the most hardened extreme music fan. Fucking terrifying.
USA Out of Vietnam – Crashing Diseases and Incurable Airplanes
USA Out of Vietnam’s long-awaited debut basically references every genre that might appeal to fans of loud music and pot. What sets them apart from other thundering guitar droners is their penchant for big harmonized choruses in the vein of ‘70s prog rock. Anachronism is kinda their thing (just look at the name), but I can’t argue with the results. If that wasn’t enough, tons of guest musicians pepper the album with extra guitars, horns, spoken word samples, and treated vocals courtesy by Patrick Watson. The latest from Jonathan Cummins (Bionic, Doughboys) does not disappoint.
Dalhous ~ Will To Be Well (Blackest Ever Black)
Unlike another ambient Scottish duo known for trading on nostalgia, Dalhous’ hypnotic music is firmly forward looking, if often anxiety provoking in its obsession with countryman R. D. Laing and their exploration of themes relating to the anti-psychiatry movement and self-help. Their sophomore album continues to expand upon the groundwork laid out by last year’s debut, with nods to folk, (dark) ambient, and Krautrock. Their sophisticated arrangements and engrossing melodies perfectly converge upon surprising textures and glitchy percussion. Best experienced alone with careful contemplation and full attention.
Alexander Turnquist – Flying Fantasy
Last year Alexander Turnquist suffered damage to a nerve in his left hand, a potentially devastating condition for a guitar player. After corrective surgery, he began to relearn some of his fingerstyle techniques, only to come down with meningitis. But rather than give up, he’s transposed them into his greatest work. Contemplative and beautiful, his idiosyncratic and minimalist 12-string style defies comparison, and here his compositional genius is on full display. With some help from his friends – such as Slow Six’s Christopher Tignor- Turnquist makes uses of an array of instruments to produce one of the loveliest and most moving records of the year.
Vladislav Delay – Visa (Ripatti)
Earlier this year prolific electronic producer Sasu Ripatti was forced to cancel his tour after being denied a visa by the US. An artist in a constant state of reinvention, he’s known for his off-kilter minimal techno as Vladislav Delay and catchy microhouse as Luomo. Recent years have seen the bpm rise on a string of footwork-inspired 12″s and modular synth jams on his own boutique label. Ripatti took advantage of his impromptu time off to return to his ambient roots, crafting the beatless Visa. An exquisite journey through timbre and texture, these five long tracks are a return to form from one of electronic music’s most consistent and innovative artists.
Arms and Sleepers – Swim Team (Fake Chapter)
Following a two-year hiatus, this duo return with the beat scene influenced Swim Team. Shedding the last vestige of their post-rock past, they put their understanding of dynamics and melody to good use here. Calling to mind like-minded producers such as Four Tet and Gold Panda, hip hop inspired beats and melodic vocal samples take center stage. At only 35 minutes, this 11 track gem doesn’t put anything to waste. Brevity can be a virtue, as each track instantly grabs the attention.
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma ~ A Year With 13 Moons (Mexican Summer)
Root Strata label founder, Tarantel member, Grouper and Arp collaborator, and solo artist with almost two decades of releases behind him, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma still manages to surprise with his latest solo record. A bittersweet ode to the end of a relationship, Cantu-Ledesma gestures towards song-like structures (even including drums and shoegaze guitars) while maintaining just enough abstraction and noise to keep things interesting, like Cocteau Twins collaborating with Xenakis. Taking its name from a Fassbinder film it is predictably cinematic in scope, dense and process-driven without feeling overwrought. A gorgeous, sprawling masterpiece.
Heroin in Tahiti ~ Sun and Violence (Boring Machines)
This Roman duo pioneered self-described ‘death surf’ on their debut, but it was clear that the novelty of that idiom couldn’t sustain itself for very long. Rather than rest of their laurels, on their sophomore release Heroin in Tahiti push their sound into uncharted waters, a “spaghetti wasteland” of southern Italian folk music through the lens of psychedelic and prog-rock. The hype around Sun and Violence is easy to dismiss as overblown, that is until you actually sit down and let this 2xLP carry you away on a tour of the twin faces of Italian culture.
Mai Mai Mai ~ Πέτρα (Petra) (CORPOC)
Rome’s Toni Cutrone has made a significant impact on the scene in his city, contributing to many bands, running NO=FI Recordings, and founding Dal Verme, one of Rome’s most important venues. But with each subsequent album as Mai Mai Mai (translation: Never Never Never), Cutrone outdoes himself. Before long Mai Mai Mai’s international reputation will be cemented, so get on board now. Despite being an EP that serves as an interlude to a trilogy, Petra is definitely not a throwaway. The deep rumbling bass and restrained high frequency noise build in rhythmic counterpoint to the sound of sea water sloshing against stone. Cutrone knows how to build tension, and the musical intensity is augmented by a strong concept, evoking the gradual wearing away of the stone subjected to the force of the sea, finding living history in the ruins of an ancient temple.
Enrico Coniglio ~ OlivElegy (Impulsive Habitat)
This audio documentary captures the process of time-honored artisanal production of olive oil, a product which since ancient times has been deeply linked to the character of Italy and its people. On OlivElegy one encounters the sounds of olives being collected, the churning of the mill, the sound of machines as the oil is pressed. And importantly one hears the joyous sound of the workers, inseparable from the process. The machines create rich, engrossing drones, with pulsing low ends and slow polyrhythmic clicking that exceed documentary purposes and that are sonically interesting on their own. Significantly, this mill is located just a few kilometers from the city of Assisi (as in Saint Francis, the namesake of the current Pope), and is operated by the nuns from nearby monasteries. Created using binaural microphones, OlivElegy must be listened to with headphones to conjure the feeling of being there. But despite the realism of the stereo effect there is a musical, narrative quality in the framing and composition of these recordings that one would expect from an artist of Coniglio’s talents.
Kate Carr ~ I had myself a nuclear spring (Self-Released)
How do we understand the natural cycles of a river when they are altered by rampant industrialization? What effects, seen or unseen, does a nuclear power plant have on the environment? On the economy? With I had myself a nuclear spring Kate Carr documents a stretch of the river Seine in order to explore such questions, juxtaposing the natural with the technical to suggest a powerful metaphor for much more powerful relationships. Her soundscape moves from the sounds of a desolate town near the recessed river after an overflow to the electromagnetic interference captured by hydrophones in the river. Above the water there is still the sound of abundant wildlife, while gentle swells of feedback and electrical noise blur together, driving the narrative forward. The track-titles give some sense of place, but much of the album works through gesture and abstract suggestion. Composing with field-recordings can draw conceptual power from such associations, and Carr’s work is exemplary in this regard.
Aki Onda with Loren Connors & Alan Licht ~ Lost City (audioMER)
Aki Onda is well known for his soundscapes exploring the limits of memory, utilizing unmarked cassette tapes recorded throughout his travels around the world. Here he does much the same but adopts the role of composer and conductor. Using a score comprised of photographs taken in the months after 9/11, Onda creates a score by which to direct improvisations, here enlisting fellow NYC avant-gardists Loren Connors and Alan Licht. The two engage in a duet across side A, while the flip-side features Connors solo. The treated guitar sounds are fa removed from the finds of sounds that Onda traditionally works with, but the ebb and flow is familiar. Recorded in 2007, the 8 year delay itself contributes a level of removal while still feeling cathartic. Unlike Onda’s unlabeled cassettes, the images that populate the accompanying videos function on a very different level of abstraction. Onda has often explored the relationship between specific places and the malleability, and fallibility, of memory, but in re-approaching the trauma of 9/11 and representing the feeling that overtook the city and the nation in the aftermath, Lost City is grounded in a way that makes it much more powerfully evocative.
Ruhe ~ Patriarchs (Eilean Records)
Bryan Ruhe brings a light touch to the seven sketches that comprise Patriarchs, coaxing enchanting harmonies from series of tape loop variations. Resting more on the piano than in the past, Patriarchs is an invitation to meditate in the resonant spaces between, to get lost in these soothing miniatures. Ruhe turns the limitations of the tape medium into his signature advantage, melancholic and warm.
Charlemagne Palestine ~ Ssingggg Sschlllingg Sshpppingg (Idiosyncratics)
Charlemagne Palestine is no stranger to fans of minimalism and drone, producing dense and hypnotic music since the early 1970s. After so many decade of making music his new work is still enthralling and surprising. In addition to his characteristic drones, more maximalist than minimalist, here Palestine conjured a dense sound world, adding field recordings of chirping birds, aggressive speeches buried in reverb, and a the slow marching beat of a snare drum that appears and disappears steadily as the work progresses. The album art intensifies Palestine’s ritual use of stuffed animals to almost comic degrees. But Palestine has always attempted to produce Total Works of Art, and the music alone is but one aspect of how his work creates a space of communion.
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma ~ A Year With 13 Moons (Mexican Summer)
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma has worn many hats over the years–Root Strata label founder, Tarantel member, Grouper and Arp collaborator, and solo artist with almost two decades of releases behind him–yet he still manages to surprise with his latest solo record. A bittersweet ode to the end of a relationship, Cantu-Ledesma gestures towards song-like structures (even including drums and shoegaze guitars) while maintaining just enough abstraction and noise to keep things interesting, like Cocteau Twins collaborating with Xenakis. Taking its name from a Fassbinder film, it is predictably cinematic in scope, dense and process-driven without feeling overwrought. A gorgeous, sprawling masterpiece.
Jessica Moss ~ Pools of Light (Constellation)
It’s rare for a debut album to come from an artist with two decades of work behind her, and Jessica Moss’ back catalogue both does and does not prepare us for Pools of Light. Jessica Moss’ long history with Silver Mt. Zion (and Black Ox Orkestar, and Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista, and numerous credits with Vic Chesnutt, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Sarah Davachi, Zu and many others) means we are familiar with her style of signal-processed violin and vocals. But Pools of Light lets her singular voice as a composer reach full form. Since Silver Mt. Zion’s 2014 hiatus, Moss has made numerous critically acclaimed performances and released a cassette, but Pools of Light exceeds those expectations in the grandness and intensity of its scope, with the mixture of joy and melancholy that seems to be Montreal’s most precious natural resource. As on the cassette, Moss seems to be thinking compositionally in terms of sides. Pools of Light consists of two four-part suites. While “Entire Populations” can be challenging and dissonant, at times abrasive and utterly devastating in its implications, the deep slow drones of “Glaciers” melt into one of the most haunting compositions of the year.
Félicia Atkinson ~ Hand in Hand (Shelter Press)
One is often tempted to read into a book (or record, in this case) based on its cover. We’re told not to engage in such prejudice, however when its author is also a visual artist who has designed the cover it’s hard not to find formal analogies. Hand in Hand‘s cover is minimal, the white background framing a photograph whose edges nearly fade into its surroundings. An abstract solid green shape is imposed over the image framing a body in Dolphin pose, recalling the letter A. This most clearly recalls the multiple valences of the letter A in the feminist hymn “A House A Dance A Poem,” but it is also a fitting representation of the melange of the album, as the inorganic is never far from some sort of embodied experience. Co-curator of Shelter Press—which has established itself as a force to reckoned with, quietly releasing records (and books) from Bellows, Gabriel Saloman, Tomoko Sauvage, D/P/I, and many others—Atkinson’s solo work has continued to evolve alongside the growth of her label. Hand in Hand is an intricate assemblage of parts combing rich bass, unplaceable field-recordings, and estranged synthesizers all tied together by Atkinson’s vocal technique, often building into whispered layers more disquieting than the ASMR youtube crowd is accustomed to. (In this one might recall Holly Herndon’s Platform.) Space and volume are each carefully manipulated to alter the listener’s experience, and Hand is Hand achieves the rare distinction of fusing experimentation and formal structure into a deeply satisfying whole.
From the Mouth of the Sun ~ Hymn Binding (Lost Tribe Sound)
Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist’s third record together confirms our already high opinion of this project, while demonstrating continued growth and composers and collaborators. Rich acoustic timbres coaxed from a textural foundation of cello, piano, electric guitar, banjo, pump organ, and lap steel are intricately intertwined into a compelling whole. The duo are at their most nuanced, giving space to each individual instrument and balance to the overall sound. While far from minimal, this approach makes the quiet segments more soothing and the crescendos all the more powerful.
BJNilsen ~ Massif Trophies (Editions Mego)
An appreciation of natural surroundings reveals the ever-present mark of human culture in BJ Nilsen’s solo debut for the venerable Editions Mego. A work of field-recording and subtle digital manipulation, Massif Trophies presents a sonic narrative of Gran Paradiso in the Italian Alps. The opening makes a thunderstorm in the mountains seem almost soothing, while a composition of cow bells and droning resonances is surprisingly pleasant. As the album progresses, however, the mood darkens in proportion to the level of manipulation of the source material. The return to civilization is marked with dread in this metaphorical descent from on high.
Francisco López ~ untitled#352 (Nowhere)
Lopez has always been an uncompromising artist, but Untitled #352 deserves recognition for its sheer stubborn ambition. Lopez presents five hours of uncompressed raw field-recordings made in a boiler plant near Paris, letting the listener find mantric rhythms buried in the drone of machines that we rarely think about yet play a central role in urban life. The final 20 minute composition, produced for Anne Collod’s choreographic project Exposure, draws upon and mutates that raw material in a way that requires the dedicated listening familiar to fans of Lopez’s work. Yet the preceding five hours doesn’t just grant some small window into Lopez’s process but primes the listener to listen with greater virtuosity.
Yann Novak ~ Surroundings (LINE)
Since relaunching Dragon’s Eye Recordings a few years ago, his label has amassed a catalogue of essential releases from the likes of Geneva Skeen, Robert Curgenven, steve roden, and Pinkcourtseyphone. Novak’s own work sits easily alongside them, as he continues to impress with one impeccable release after the next. A stereo mix of a site-specific sound performance in the tower of the de Young museum (and thus a perfect fit for the LINE label), the location is therefore a crucial element of the work. The de Young is situated within San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and as much as the city has changed in the last decade, the museum’s Hamon Observation Tower is still the best place to view it. (And it’s free to enter the tower even without museum admission!) So, being as the tower offers my favorite view of one of my favorite cities, surrounded by one of the greatest public parks in the world, I may have been especially primed to appreciate the charms of Surroundings. It’s not hard to hear in Surroundings the image of Herzog & de Meuron’s museum amidst the green grounds of the park, a panoramic view of the shining city between the Bay and the Pacific. But one need not have such a relationship to appreciate the gently resonating drones and quiet rumble of field-recordings that comprises Surroundings.
Fabio Perletta ~ Ichinen 一念 (LINE)
Fabio Perletta may still be better known for his collaborations and his sound installations, but he brings the same conceptual rigor to his solo music. Carrying a minimal, Zen-inspired aesthetic, this work for microsound and computer manipulated field-recordings made across Japan has a beautiful narrative quality within and across its three movements. Activating quotidian and sacred objects, Perletta erases the distinction between them while playing with the listener’s sense of time. Meditative, elemental, and full of care, with slight frequencies just on the edge of perception, Ichinen’s tone poems prove Fabio Perletta an artist to watch.
Janek Schaefer ~ Glitter in My Tears (Room40)
In 1995 Janek Schaefer, then an architecture student at Royal College of Art, sent a sound-activated tape recorder overnight through the British postal system for the ‘Self Storage’ exhibition. That work, Recorded Delivery, is a justified classic of sound art, and jump-started a successful recording career. Glitter in my tears marks over 20 years as a recording artist with 26 vignettes of mediated memory composed over ten years of late nights. As such it feels like an overview and culmination of so much of his career, displaying a breadth of styles united by an attention to texture, atmosphere, and emotion. An “architect of found soundscapes,” each miniature is haunted by a melancholic joy rooted in the relationship between sound, media, and bodies.
Deison | Mingle ~ Tilaventum (Finalmuzik)
Every day more and more people are coming to realize how central water is to our lives, how important it is that we safeguard this precious resources for future generations. Tilaventum captures the vitality of water through an exploration of one particular river, the Tagliamento, stretching from the Alps to the Adriatic. The album takes its Latin name, highlighting the history of the river and its connection to larger ecosystems and cultures. Each physical release is even accompanied by a stone from the river. Deison and Mingle are frequent collaborators, with Tilaventum their second release of 2017, yet this CD is more restrained and reverent, capturing the power of the river from its soothing calm to foreboding flood.
CC ~ AM (Crooked Acres)
Shortwave radio was one of the first mass movements of amateur technology enthusiasts contributing to the development of a communications medium. Though its utility for communications has long since been eclipsed (by FM radio, mobile phones, digital and satellite transmissions) there are still those who maintain a fondness for medium, quirks and all. Michael C Coldwell, a sound artist and PhD student in photography from Leeds, UK, explores the demise (and persistence) of shortwave radio in AM. An audio-visual project, its 30 short tracks are no less engrossing as they probe the gradual death of one of the 20th centuries most important media. Released on a limited edition cassette, another “dead medium” that has enjoyed a long afterlife, CC’s debut of shortwave hauntological vignettes is more than a eulogy for a dying medium as it is a fascinating aural meditation on the paradox of progress.
Nazar ~ Enclave (Hyperdub)
YALL MFS BEEN SLEEPING. The international awareness of African music often seems to be trapped in a time capsule, conveniently buried before the civil wars and neocolonial land grabs of the last few decades. The explosion of Global Bass music has helped draw attention away from the past and place more emphasis on what contemporary musicians are up to today, as genres like Kuduro, Kwaito, and Logobi effortless cross otherwise militarized borders. Nazar’s self-described “rough kuduro” filters Angolan rhythms through the idiom of club music, punctuated by deep, rhythmic bass lines and frigid synth stabs. Spoken word lines in English set the scene (“No fly zone in the area. Airstrike. Impact.”) while the EP ends with Nazar’s father reading lines in Portuguese from his wartime journal, reflecting on avian migration. Raised in Belgium, the Angolan producer returned to his homeland after the end of the long Civil War in 2002, and the sounds of war linger across Enclave: gunshots, explosions, staccato samples crashing. The result is a bellicose, post-digital aesthetic that is at once unsettling, anxious, and affirmative. The now Manchester-based producer has reworked tracks by Burial, Buraka Som Sistema, and JPEGMAFIA, but his startling debut EP on Hyperdub should earn him much wider acclaim. Seriously, Nazar doesn’t even have an entry on discogs yet, but this autumn Kode9 & Burial put him on their latest mix, while his set at Unsound in Krakow made it clear that this is a producer to watch. Now we just have to wait for his full-length.
Puce Mary ~ The Drought (PAN)
Our site’s sad neglect of Puce Mary has finally been rectified. While I included The Spiral in my best of 2016 column, and she appeared in a mix or two over the years, The Drought is the first of her albums to receive a proper review. After a number of strong recordings for Denmark’s Posh Isolation, Puce Mary makes the jump to the venerable PAN. And while her latest is not a radical departure from the past, The Drought may be her finest work to date. The Drought is richly textured and spacious, dense but not over-saturated. The influence of noise and industrial music is still here, but both those labels feel inadequate as descriptors. Rather than a crescendo of full force noise, The Drought is full of a disquieting, patient intensity whose modest urgency is right at home in the mire of 2018.
Jerusalem in My Heart ~ Dada’iq Tudiaq (Constellation)
Radwan Ghazi Moumneh’s third album of his constantly evolving JimH is that project at its most refined, and perhaps also most polarized. The A-side long modern orchestration of a nearly century old Egyptian pop classic is played almost straight, with subtle electronics, noise, and distortion creeping into to the otherwise fairly conservative arrangement, directed by Montreal/Cairo-based Sam Shalabi. The song was written by the famous singer and composer Mohammad Abdel Wahab, known for his patriotic anthems yet often criticized for excessive engagement with Western music. Perhaps this disregard paid to imposed restrictions appealed for Moumneh. The four songs on the B-side are mainly solo affairs, occasionally harsh deconstructions of voice and instrument. As always, JimH is an audio-visual project, and Charles-André Coderre album art and videos, drawn from experimental treatments of archival photographs, furthers the conceptual intervention at the heart of Daqa’iq Tudiaq.
Jessica Moss ~ Entanglement (Constellation)
Jessica Moss’ second solo full-length happily comes relatively close on the heels of her debut (which we loved), and follows the same format of two side-long compositions. “Particles” slowly builds into a masterpiece of modern composition using its 20+ minutes to great impact. Even at its grandest, her sound never feels excessive. The four “Fractals (Truth #)” on side B showcase a different mode of Moss’ artistry, more compact compositions drawing on melodies from Klezmer, Balkan, and Middle Eastern music. The violin dominates as the main instrument throughout but Moss’ voice is no less important. Where the long “Particles” is comprised by a swell of minimal drones and oscillating texture, the “Fractals” feature more traditional violin tones, made more complex by the interplay between melodic lines.
Various Artists ~ Anthology of Electroacoustic Lebanese Music (Unexplained Sounds Group)
Anthologies organized by country often seem to fall into the same trap. If they cater too much to the expectations of the listeners, they become a cliche, or worse, a caricature of the culture they are meant to represent. But without any cohesion uniting the various contributors, what justifies their being grouped together besides an arbitrary geographical coincidence? Unexplained Sounds walks this fine line beautifully with this collection of tracks from a dozen members of Beirut’s experimental music scene. While not aiming to be exhaustive, this anthology nonetheless demonstrates an impressive breadth of styles and unique artistic voices that freely combine influences without apparent constraint.
Lea Bertucci ~ Metal Aether (NNA Tapes)
While Lea Bertucci is increasingly writing compositions for others, Metal Aether showcases her own skills as a performer, honed over years of research, recording, and composing. Her work explores psychoacoustics, overtonal accumulation, and the affective impact of noise, all of which are fundamental to these compositions. Bertucci’s music brings together strands of pulse-pattern minimalism, microtonal drone, and noise, sometimes migrating from one idiom to another, but more often fusing them together through a cultivated synthesis. At times hypnotic in its use of repetition and sustain, Metal Aether is also unafraid to be aggressive. In contrast to the soothing tones of the bass clarinet that dominated much of her past work, Metal Aether is marked by the timbre of the alto saxophone, whose high frequencies can be, at times, almost abrasive. Bertucci’s horn playing gets a lot of attention, but her use of tapes, field-recordings, and spatialization techniques are no less central. A metal aether seems like a contradiction in terms, yet Bertucci finds harmony in contrasts, as space and medium become inextricable from texture and tone.
Andrew Pekler ~ Phantom Islands
Andrew Pekler‘s online-only work Phantom Islands deserves serious praise. How’s this for a concept? Phantom Islands are artifacts of the age of maritime discovery and colonial expansion. During centuries of ocean exploration these islands were sighted, charted, described and even explored – but their existence has never been ultimately verified. Poised somewhere between cartographical fact and maritime fiction, they haunted seafarers’ maps for hundreds of years, inspiring legends, fantasies, and counterfactual histories. Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas interprets and presents these imaginations in the form of an interactive map which charts the sounds of a number of historical phantom islands. Pekler’s website allows users to explore these cartographic anomalies, evoking the utopian fictions that animate Jon Hassell’s “Fourth World” music. Each navigator controls the course from one island to another, deciding how long to stay in one location and where to move to next. Manipulating the map (dragging this way or that, zooming in or out) gently alters the parameters of the music (spatialization, volume). Just navigate there right now if you haven’t explored his “sonic atlas” yet.
Battiato / Fedrigotti & Lorenzini / Giusto Pio / Lovisoni & Messina
Re-Issue madness shows no sign of slowing down, and I’m still torn about what this means for music. On the one hand, many artists from earlier generations who have contributed so much to the culture have not been adequately remunerated for their work, and if re-issues are getting them paid and exposing their work to new generations (or in some cases finding audiences for the first time) then this is undoubtedly a good thing. But it also has become harder for contemporary artists to break out and find support for their own work, and I don’t want them to have to wait until a precarious retirement to find material rewards for their craft. So here’s my little plea: as much as you are able, support artists and culture workers whenever and wherever possible. And maybe we can together find better ways to support culture than selling ad-space or pimping unnecessary consumer goods.
Last year I celebrated the fact that the Italian musician Franco Battiato was finally reaching audiences in the US, as Superior Viaduct released four of his classic albums from the early 1970s on vinyl there for the first time. 2017 saw the re-release of Michele Fedrigotti and Danilo Lorenzini‘s I Fiori Del Sole (1979) and Giusto Pio‘s Motore Immobile (1979), two largely forgotten classics of Italian Minimalism. While Raul Lovisoni and Francesco Messina‘s masterpiece Prati Bagnati Del Monte Analogo (1979) likely hit many of your radars owing to Die Schachtel’s CD and LP editions from 2013, I know that Superior Viaduct’s 2018 LP release has raised the profile of that record in the US even higher. (As an aside, since this doesn’t seem to have been pointed out by anyone in English yet, I’d like to note that in the 1990s Lovisoni would become an MP for Lega Nord, a northern separatist party who built their brand on vilifying southern Italians and, especially in the last several years, immigrants from abroad. In their most recent incarnation as the Lega, 2018 saw the party become the dominant partner of a coalition which has been governing Italy since June of 2018. The fact that Lovisoni belongs to a racist and xenophobic political party strikes a somewhat dissonant tone.)
These three records records were all originally released in 1979 and produced by Battiato at the culmination of his experimentation with the avant-garde and minimalism. Battiato had spent the past five years working under the influence of mysticism, Stockhausen, and the political ferment of the 1970s. Battiato was closely associated with all of these artists, and listening to these three helps provide a key to unlocking his own records from that period (M.elle Le “Gladiator”, Franco Battiato, and L’Egitto Prima Delle Sabbie), which I suspect are due for the re-issue treatment soon enough.
Surfing on the Soundcloud back in 2013 I came across a preview of Gonzo and Lowjo‘s The Trilogy Tapes NOISES(s), reminiscent of the kind of anything goes travel diaries Sublime Frequencies puts out, but totally doing their own thing. Label boss Gonçalo F Cardoso (Gonzo, Papillon, Visions Congo) has stayed on our radar ever since, and Discrepant has continued to impress with releases from the likes of Carlos Casas, Mike Cooper, and Kink Gong. 2018 was a particularly strong year. A few highlights…
Musique con Crète is Tasos Stamou‘s electroacoustic distillation of the past and future of the island of Crete, fusing traditional sounds, experimental manipulations, and field-recordings from the eastern corner of the Mediterranean. Props for the great pun. Félix Blume presents listeners with a unique window into Haitian funeral rites on Death In Haiti (Funeral Brass Band & Sounds Of Port Au Prince). Inkanakuntuby marked the full-length debut from Muqata’a, launching the beat driven sub-label SOUK Records. Formerly the MC known as Boikutt, part of the pioneering Palestinian hip hop crew Ramallah Underground, Muqata’a’s unique brand of production will make him a name to watch. Don’t take my word, a recent Boiler Room performance and documentary Palestine Underground should convince you, also spotlghting the Jazar Crew, DJ Sama, and Al Nather.
Longform Editions 2018
Spotify be damned! This Preservation imprint put out so many excellent releases in 2018, including from Lee Noble, Matthewdavid’s Mindflight, Caterina Barbieri, Upgrayedd Smurphy, and Cruel Diagonals, but you really can’t go wrong with any of their 4-release batches. Visually I’m reminded of Preservation’s Circa series, but with a different intent and greater sonic cohesion: each artist creates one long piece with the intent of deep immersion in sound. Subscribe if you can, and look out for an interview with label-head Andrew Khedoori sometime in the coming months.
Alberto Boccardi and Stefano Pilia ~ Bastet (Nashazphone)
Launched in 2006 by Hicham Chadly, an Algerian based in Cairo, Nashazphone has built up a reputation for their genre bending roster, spanning noise, psychedelic, punk, and free jazz. Early years saw releases from Alan Bishop’s Sun City Girls, later the early releases of Islam Chipsy (of the Mahraganat group E.E.K.), and more recently Sam Shalabi’s Isis and Osiris. As a vinyl only-label based in Egypt, their reach may not quite extend as far as it might otherwise, but this is also part of what makes them standout, with a clear aesthetic despite the stylistic diversity. In 2018 they released Bastet from Alberto Boccardi and Stefano Pilia. Boccardi has collaborated with a number of artists over the years, but his more recent experiences seem to have elevated his work with Stefano Pilia. Pilia is an eletroacoustic guitarist who has also done some impressive collaborations (Mike Watt, Oren Ambarchi, Z’ev) but I remember best from the criminally underrated group 3/4HadBeenEliminated (which also included Valerio Tricoli and Claudio Rocchetti). Highly recommend this LP, but all of Nashazphone’s 2018 records are worth seeking out: a mind bending debut of vocal tape manipulations from Olivier Brisson; Skullflower, a noisy psychedelic group who debuted in 1988 on the legendary Broken Flag; a very dark record from the French group Trou Aux Rats; and Sister Iodine, another obscure French noise group from the early 90s, reformed some years ago for the sporadic new album.
Giuseppe Ielasi ~ even when they speak of space (Senufo)
Giuseppe Ielasi‘s even when they speak of space was released rather late in 2017, so it’s still worth mentioning here. As his more beat-driven persona Inventing Masks has satisfied his rhythmic urges, Ielasi’s solo music has become sparser. Described simply as “music for whistling, microphone and digital degradation,” even when they speak of space comes with the instructions to be played at low volume. The title seems to be drawn from a line in the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 The Poetics of Space, from a section entitled “Miniature.” This seems fitting for a record that takes questions of scale and space as a central concern. Its subtle layers of electronic manipulation are perhaps closest to Ielasi’s 2011 Untitled CD for Entr’acte, but even less assuming. Imagine if Luc Ferrari’s anecdotal music was listening in on our digital lives instead of the seashore, or if Jon Hassell’s fourth world manifested as an oasis of microphones and speakers.
Luciano Maggiore ~ 9 enclosures / Richard Francis ~ Combinations (3) (Senufo)
Senufo did release two new CDs that actually did come out in 2018, both in the fall. Luciano Maggiore‘s 9 enclosures continues his electroacoustic research into sound diffusion, here in the form of cassette recorders and small electronics. Richard Francis‘s Combinations (3) may utilize modular synth processing of recordings of wind and objects (if “Wind Versus Bottle Tops” is any indication). The sources are not clear, but the result is 6 tracks of finely detailed sounds that you’ll want to keep on loop.
Andrew Tasselmyer ~ Tines (Flag Day)
This is a record dedicated to deep explorations of the Rhodes piano, but it sounds almost nothing like you would expect. It’s release in October of 2018 came late enough in the year that I wasn’t able to get to it before End of Year time set in, but some copies of the cassette are still available so jump on that. Tasselmeyr is one third of the group Hotel Neon, whose excellent mix “Cold Suns” we debuted back in February. Tasselmyer released a number of strong releases in 2018, but something about the intimacy and unusual perspective on the beautiful tones of the Rhodes keeps me coming back to Tines for repeated engagements.
Jean Grae & Quelle Chris ~ Everything’s Fine (Mello Music Group)
We don’t normally cover lyric-oriented music here at ACL, and for this reason we don’t generally cover hip hop. That said, many of us are big fans, and for years now I’ve wanted to write about the relationship between hip hop production (instrumentals, the beat scene, trap) and experimental electronic music. Lee Bannon’s evolution into the Dedekind Cut is one obvious example of the flexibility here, but this overlap is nothing new. Let’s be honest, divisions between genres are more very often social than aesthetic. Just listen to the music of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad or J Dilla and you’ll find some of the most challenging and deep musical production anywhere. Gabe Bogart and I did team up for an instrumental hip hop mixes in 2013 to try to tease out some of that and maybe expose our listeners to music they might not otherwise be tuned-in to.
Jean Grae should need no introduction, she’s been at it so long and been killing it so consistently. She even appeared (over two decades ago) on the legendary taste making NYC radio program Stretch & Bobbito. Her long delayed Jeanius, produced with 9th Wonder and finally released in 2008, should have made her a household name. Despite her facility as an MC and producer, in recent year’s her musical output has taken a backseat as she pursues other creative endeavors, including audio-books and acting. Quelle Chris popped up on my radar when he appeared on Knxwledge‘s Rap Joints Vol. 1 10″ in 2013, showing up as MC and producer with a who’s-who of contemporary talent: Iman Omari, Cavalier, DIBIA$E, Jonwayne, Pharoahe Monch, and the list goes on.
Everything’s Fine is the first full-length collaboration from the pair and from the day it dropped it’s been my most played release of 2018. Blasted from my Bluetooth speaker on my long daily bike commute in Minneapolis, in the car in New York, on my headphones around Europe, this album has seen me through all the ups and downs 2018 had to offer. Its dry humor, cutting satire, and genre-spanning beats have been the perfect companion to our increasingly unbelievable world. But everything’s fine, right?
Jon Hassell ~ Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume One)
Sly & Robbie finally released a record of their team up with Nils Petter Molvaer, Eivind Aarset, and Vladislav Delay with Nordub. And then Jon Hassell finally released his first record since 2009′ Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street and that cemented its place as my favorite tripped out trumpet record of 2018. It’s not really fair to compare them, and I recommend anyone pick them both up ASAP. That said, a new Jon Hassell record after nearly a decade really feels like an event, and the man’s still got it. His trademark sound is in tact but his current crop of collaborators keep him fresh and moving forward, striking a difficult balance between classic and contemporary. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another decade for Volume Two.
Kali Malone ~ Cast of Mind (Hallow Ground)
Richard Allen was very impressed by Malone‘s Organ Dirges 2016-2017 (2018) but we never got around to a review, unfortunately. With a name like that, you can assume it’d be the kind of thing that would resonate us, and the Stockholm-based composer does not disappoint. Ascetic House affiliated and frequent Caterina Barbieri collaborator, Malone is one to watch. Cast of Mind appeared just two months afterward the tape release of Organ Dirges and bowled me over even harder. Low, sustained tones from alto sax, bass clarinet, bassoon, and trombone, ebb and slow alongside Malone’s Buchla. The A-side is more serene than the B-side, where her synth scrapes up against the acoustic instruments in a slightly more abrasive way. I take it the compositions are somehow process- or rule- based, but each of the four compositions unfolds organically and envelopes the listener without any sense of rigidity.
Maryam Sirvan ~ Untamed Terror (The Committee For Sonic Research )
Tbilisi-based Maryam Sirvan is an Iranian sound artist and composer, member of the duo NUM. She brings her experience as a flautist and vocalist to her compositions. Untamed Terror consists of two tracks, the first in two parts, so each movement clocks in around 15 minutes. Her compositions are atmospheric, textured, deeply considered, and, just as often, deeply unsettling. One of the standout releases of 2018.
Nick Schofield ~ Water Sine
On the opposite end of the spectrum, and world away, comes Water Sine, the debut solo album from Montreal-based musician, producer, and radio host Nick Schofield. Schofield’s music is the result of a self-imposed minimal set up, just one synth and one pedal with the occasional nature recording. The 12 tracks of Water Sine each aim for a peaceful tranquility that inspires deep listening and contemplation. The accompanying video for video for “Isle of Skye” recalls the late Geoffrey Hendricks, and why not, there are few things more sublime than the movement of the clouds against the blue sky.
PJS ~ Sweet La Vie
PJS operate in a similar vein of peaceful and contemplative ambient music. The duo made their debut on Lost Children in 2015 presenting an all-hardware four-part suite of positive intentions and blissed out ambient straight from the very west coast of Canada. It was an honor to provide them a platform back then, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see them release the gorgeous Sweet La Vie on Leaving Records, a longtime favorite of mine. It’s really no surprise that they would find common ground with Matthewdavid, and they’ve got a lot more in store for you coming out soon. This record was timed to coincide with the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, while their Glows, released on Pyramid Blood, coincides with the Winter Solstice, the longest night. Such attunement to cosmic rhythms should tell you something about the nature of their music, but espite utilizing all electronic hardware and cosmic reference points, there’s is a firmly organic, earth-bound sound.
Sarah Hennies ~ Sisters (mappa)
I’d heard a lot of mumbling that Hennies’ LP Embedded Environments was among the year’s best, composed of various percussion instruments played inside an old grain silo in Buffalo. But since I’ve been traveling I haven’t really been buying many LPs, as I couldn’t play them anyhow, and it’s not yet available on streaming platforms. But I did purchase Sisters, two compositions for vibraphone performed by Lenka Novosedlíková in a medieval church in southern Slovakia, and it is just beautiful.
Oren Ambarchi ~ Simian Angel (Mego)
Ambarchi has a long discography of excellent solo records, collaborations with crys cole, Richard Pinhas, Merzbow, Jim O’Rourke, Keiji Haino, and dozens more, and his Black Truffle label has gotten better and better, releasing fantastic re-issues of out of print gems alongside new work from some of the best artists working today. Simian Angel sees him team up legendary percussionist Cyro Baptista for two sidelong tracks exploring Brazilian music, in typically oblique fashion. Just lovely stuff.
Maria Chavez ~ Plays (Macro)
Maria Chavez has been taking a break from her usually rigorous schedule of touring and workshops to recover from surgery. Her first solo record in 15 years, for Erstwhile, was delayed until 2020, but instead we were treated to this conceptual gem. Two decades after Sachiko M (in)famously produced Sine Wave Solo utilizing a sampler loaded solely with the machine’s internal sine waves, Chavez has produced a DJ mix comprised of non-tracks. Known for her path-breaking abstract turntablism, Plays finds Chavez manipulating empty locked grooves from Stefan Goldmann‘s double-vinyl Ghost Hemiola. With no explicit content of its own, Play reveals Chavez’s technique at its most pure, a deep exploration of the materiality of vinyl, even when it is empty save for a locked groove. Chavez manipulates these grooves in a way that recalls electroacoustic glitch at its most minimalist.
Sarah Davachi ~ Pale Bloom (W.25th)
No surprise here, other than witnessing Davachi returning to the piano of her youth. We’ve heard her compose for acoustic instruments before, but the three “Perfumes” on the A-side document Davachi at her most bare, her piano flourishes dancing around Hammond Organ and countertenor vocals. Yet I prefer the B-side long composition, “If It Pleased Me To Appear To You Wrapped In This Drapery,” in which Davachi’s organ is accompanied by violin and viola da gamba, slowly unfolding layers push and pull the droning pitch, a constantly evolving minimalist masterpiece.
Kali Malone ~ The Sacrificial Code
Much has already been written about Malone and this record elsewhere, for good reason. I mentioned Cast of Mind in my 2018 wrap up column, which I loved for its timbral variety and and so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I loved this record. I’m also glad to report that she’ll be performing in Montreal later this year. The Sacrificial Code is more of a return to her work on Organ Dirges, however, as she methodically approaches a series three pipe organs, close mic’d so as to strip the instrument of the long reverb which always accompanies pipe organs. While claiming to have reduced away all expressive and gestural adornments (she does live in Stockholm…), the record nonetheless strikes a chord with me on an emotional level. Maybe its the breathy sustain, or the cycling of chords, or the austerity and focus, but The Sacrificial Code loses none of its affective power.
Moor Mother ~ Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes (Don Giovanni)
Camae Ayewa’s Moor Mother attracted praise for her first two LPs in 2016 and 2017, and made some scene stealing appearances on records by Eartheater and Zonal (Justin Broadrick and Kevin martin). Analog Fluids is her crowning achievement to date. Is it fair to say that above all Moor Mother is a poet? Constantly drawing on history, on her activism, on current events, on local politics, on global trends, Musically Analog Fluids switches gears often, mashing up genres to such an extent that it feels futile to even begin to assign this music a genre. As with artists associated with PTP, such as Geng (who collaborated with Moor Mother on an earlier record) the sound here occupies a space where hip hop, punk, and noise coincide. Rhythm plays a prominent role throughout as a unifying force, but it is Ayewa’s vocals that really ties it all together. The energy and palpable rage, the grief and frustration, feels very appropriate for 2019.
Sean McCann ~ Puck (Recital)
I’ve been a fan of McCann’s at a distance, mostly because I could never quite figure out what to say about his work, even though I think very highly of it. About a decade ago, I noticed his name started popping up alongside artists like Alex Gray and Rob Magill. I remember he mastered some Deep Magic releases, and Alex talked him up in interviews and lists. McCann’s 2012 album with Matthew Sullivan is still one I’ll return to often, and his he’s built up quite the catalogue with his Recital label. I saw him perform in Minnesota on a cold April day in 2018, and was struck by relative economy of his performance. His Public Assembly saw his private orchestral work brought to life by contributions from Sarah Davachi, Nick Storring, and Ian William Craig. Vilon, his side on Orange Milk‘s split was a fantastic piece, closer to the kind of chamber music that has been occupying his time these last few years. Puck brings all these elements together, sometimes literally, fusing fragments from informal rehearsals with old bedroom recordings, parts of commissioned work, with strange dialogues and humming. There is just so much going on here, without ever feeling too dense. Perhaps because McCann maintains his sense of playfulness throughout, as the title suggests, Puck feels very human. A real achievement, McCann is one of our great composers.
Éliane Radigue ~ Occam Ocean II (shiiin)
Another record from an octogenarian. Respect your elders and honor them while they’re still here. But her latest Occam is just further proof that Radigue is one of our greatest composers. In the first decade of the new millennium, just as she was finally receiving attention for her groundbreaking electronic work (for feedback systems and, especially, for her her longstanding relationship with the ARP synthesizer), Radigue surprised everyone by turning to composing for acoustic instruments. Although this isn’t quite right, as in fact what she does is compose for a particular performer and their particular instrument. Beginning with Charles Curtis’ cello (Naldjorlak I, 2006) she began the series which would become her Occams, developing compositions based on the particular resonances of a given instrument, the score growing out of the relationship between a performers and their instrument’s materiality. Diffusion of sound and personal relationship with an instrument is still at the core of her work, acoustic or electronic. Her Occams can be Rivers (solo performer), Delta (small ensemble), or finally Oceans (large ensemble). Occam Ocean II may be the best yet, exemplifying the harmonic potential of a large ensemble of acoustic instruments.
Swans ~ leaving meaning. (Young Gods)
I have been a fan of Swans since high school, and was able to see Angels of Light and follow Young Gods records at a very creative juncture in their history. So I was ecstatic when they reformed in 2010 and I had a chance to document their new record and tour for SSG. I flew back to New York in the fall of 2017 to catch the final live performance of that version of the group, but found it completely lackluster and lethargic. It was time to call it quits. So I approached leaving meaning. with some caution. Whatever you think of Michael Gira, he knows how to assemble a strong team of collaborators to make his compositions come alive. In addition to some contributions from Norman Westerberg and Thor, this record takes an approach that is aesthetically much closer to Angels of Light. Gira assembled a core band of Kristof Hahn, Larry Mullins, and Yoyo Röhm, each with long and storied careers of their own, with further contributions from The Necks (!), choral backing vocals from Anna and Maria von Hausswolff, treatments by Ben Frost, lead vocals on one song by Baby Dee, and too many other artists to name. My faith in Swans has been restored.
Phill Niblock ~ Music For Organ (Matière Mémoire)
The 86-year old snuck in this massive record just shy of New Years, so let’s count it as a 2020 release. Niblock has been a fixture on the scene since the ’60s, his NY loft still an important venue in the underground. But when he switched from working with tape to ProTools, his music became more aggressive and dense, his penchant for maximalism sought out new potentialities. The two compositions on Music For Organ are in some ways a departure from his more recent work, more static and less muscular. In fact, both compositions are live recordings of organist Hampus Lindwall accompanied by pre-recorded tape layers from other organs, each with anagramic titles. The playfulness of the titles isn’t reflected in the music, however. The mass of organ drones and overtones are best at high volume.
Mary Lattimore ~ Silver Ladders (Ghostly International)
Modern recording presents a temptation towards excess, but Silver Ladders is characterized by an elegant restraint. The palette is limited, but the results exceed the sum of the parts. Mary Lattimore’s harp musters melody, rhythm,and texture all at once, with some occasional buttressing from the guitar playing of Slowdive’s Neil Halstead, who also produced the record. Patient and evocative, Silver Ladders ebbs and flows in waves, Lattimore’s harp always the ladder returning us to solid ground.
Jon Hassell – Seeing Through Sound (Ndeya)
Some music critics have come under fire recently for suggesting that innovative work is no longer coming from the younger generations.This is nonsense, of course, as artists of all ages produced noteworthy records this year. Still, it is heartening to see musicians who have been active on the scene for over 50 years continue to impress us. Jon Hassell’s distinct trumpet style not only created a new sound, but was so innovative that it actually freed up younger players to pursue their own vision. While Hassell may not be able to tour and work with his live band as in the past, he didn’t respond to working in the studio as a restriction. Instead, it became an opportunity to uncover potential musics yet again. In a year as difficult as this one, Seeing Through Sound is not just a salve to help escape our troubles, but a lesson in how to make the best of whatever we have to work with.
Giulio Aldinucci ~ Shards of Distant Times (Karlrecords)
Early recording technologies were marketed as means to produce sonic family portraits, yet the practice never really caught on. There’s something too unsettling about hearing the voices of the dead, especially when they’re disconnected from a moving image. Artists, however, have made productive use of this haunted feeling, one which has been compounded by time as a recording medium itself ages. We are now so inundated with sounds that we perceive voices even where there are none. Shards of Distant Times evokes this confused state of perception, confounding the listeners sense of time in a way that is all too appropriate for the temporal distortions so many are experiencing in 2020.
Aho Ssan ~ Simulacrum (Subtext)
Simulacrum debuted at Berlin Atonal 2019, where Aho Ssan became that edition’s breakout star, but the record’s themes of hyperreality and racism hit different following botched pandemic response and a global uprising ignited by the police murder of George Floyd. Growing up Black in the banlieue of Paris belied the republic’s egalitarian promise, not unlike the United States’ own shameful contradictions. Dynamic bass and abrasive textures formulate a sonic critique, while the pummeling digital frequencies and arrhythmic blasts simulate the claustrophobic weight of this facade. Some form of catharsis comes in the final two tracks in the form of a speculative–but no less real–dialogue with the past, as Aho Ssan uses MAX/MSP to imagine the music of his grandfather he’d never met.
KMRU ~ Peel (Mego)
“Why are you here.” Depending on the context, this could be an innocuous question or an insidious threat. Peel begins with a track of this title, establishing an ambiguity that carries through the entire album. Recorded in one session immediately after returning to Nairobi from Montreal, Peel transforms field-recordings made on that trip, conjuring the traveler’s disorientation and curiosity. Long loops of sub-bass and chirping high frequencies patiently unfold across the double LP, a hint of unease only partially masked by the lull of the droning tones. Peel reaches a fever pitch on “Klang,” about midway through, but it is the culminating eponymous track that is the true climax. Just one of several excellent, and distinct, releases by KMRU this year alone, he is a young artist to watch.
Horse Lords ~ The Common Task (Northern Spy)
Ordinarily when I hear a group cite Saharan guitar music as an influence, my reflex is to cut out the middleman, just listen to Mdou Moctar or Les Filles de Illighadad instead. But we’ve long been fans of Horse Lords’s unique brand of heady, trance-inducing, just-intoned rock music, and The Common Task may be their most accomplished work to date. Electronic music has made the exploration of intricately interlocking patterns of syncopated phrases rather commonplace, but these compositional strategies take on new life performed by a live ensemble. Horse Lords scratch the same itch for me as a group like Elektro Guzzi, evoking the dynamic potential that often gets lost in a deluge of loop pedals and solo projects, a reminder that music is essentially social. Punctuated by a healthy dose of utopian imagination, The Common Task was the joyous ode to collectivity that we needed this year.
Jessica Moss ~ Opened Ending (Corona Borealis)
What does it mean to love the world in face of great loss? Opened Ending is an audio-visual work in which the music of Jessica Moss is set to images by the filmmaker Jem Cohen. Moss draws upon her personal relationship with Jewish music for this meditation on mourning, during a year that has upended our traditional rituals for grieving. This pandemic has been especially cruel, preventing us from visiting the sick, or even gathering to mourn the dead. Montréal and New York, the two cities I call home, have been amongst the hardest hit by this pandemic. I’ve been unable to visit my family in New York, so I found Cohen’s mundane shots of pre-pandemic life in the city particularly affecting. But in one way or another, we are all in mourning this year, and it is necessary we find ways to externalize our internal pain. Opened Ending is an invitation to find new ways to share our sadness and love, alone together.
Drew McDowall ~ Agalma (Dais)
Drew McDowall’s career has been a lesson in constant evolution. Agalma follows a string of strong records on Dais, but is his first since extensively touring Coil’s drone classic, Time Machines. But rather than rehash, McDowall enlists friends from around the globe to coax him ever forward. Aside from Kali Malone’s organ, it is his guests’ vocal contributions that make that the strongest impression, diversifying the sonic palette while also helping to tie together McDowall’s various offerings.
Vanessa Rossetto ~ perhaps at some time you have acted in a play, even if it was when you were a child (AMPLIFY 2020)
A mesmerizing hour-long composition from Amplify co-organizer, violist and composer Vanessa Rossetto. We’ve enthusiastically followed Rossetto’s work over the years, work which has grown increasingly confident in distilling sonic richness from the detritus of the domestic soundscapes. Released in March, perhaps… was a felicitous soundtrack to the surreal mundanity of those first weeks of quarantine.
Nazar ~ Guerrilla (Hyperdub)
Nazar’s rough take on Angolan kuduro made a strong impression on us during Unsound 2018. We raved about Enclave, Nazar’s debut EP on Hyperdub. “Now we just have to wait for his full-length,” I said. And Guerilla doesn’t disappoint. Nazar uses the additional length to deliver his definitive statement, moving between the deeply personal and more abstract. The music benefits from being stripped down, so when Guerrilla hits, it hits big. Guerrilla has a clear if at times impressionistic narrative, moving through a range of moods and scenes. Nazar’s father, whose voice featured prominently on the EP, is the titular guerilla, a Rebel General during Angola’s long civil war. And yet Guerrilla is not his father’s story, but seems to be told from Nazar’s perspective, through sound, voice, and dance. And this is dance music. I can’t imagine anyone not moving when this is playing. It is a shame that this album dropped just as the pandemic was forcing clubs to close. Nazar’s music is not a nostalgic channeling of the past, it’s not “tradition + techno,” it doesn’t even sound like 2020. Nazar sounds like the future.
Sarah Hennies ~ The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits)
So many of the records I’ve been drawn to this year have been collaborations, perhaps because any evidence of social interaction seems especially necessary in a year full of such isolation. I began 2020 working across the country from my partner, only to spend literally everyday together for the rest of the year due to the lockdown. The Reinvention of Romance was recorded before the pandemic, but this long composition for cello-percussion duo is well-suited to quotidien attunements of the present. The cover of Reinvention depicts a pink balloon suspended upon a “Bed of Nails,” also the title of Hennies’ contribution to Amplify 2020. Whereas that short composition features a repetitive accumulation of squeaks and peeling bells, the slow unfolding of the 86-minute long Reinvention is all about dynamic that develops between a couple over an extended period of time. Not always in dialogue with each other but always in relation, the two musicians trade roles and share space with care and empathy.