As the 2010s have begun to wind down, I’ve started to reflect on what this decade will mean to me in terms of its music. For many reasons, I hope that it’ll chiefly be remembered for the wealth of reissues and archival material it produced. The countless number of rare, obscure, or unpublished music that came out was a constant reminder that there’s much to explore beyond the established canons we’ve inherited from critics and tastemakers of yesteryear. In a time when it’s tempting to hear music without knowledge of its context or musical lineage, these releases were very much welcome for often providing detailed liner notes and backstories of hidden histories. They were, without question, an invaluable component in the growing visibility of non-white, non-cis, and non-male artists throughout the 2010s.
Indeed, when I think about my favorite releases of the year so far, many of them are from decades past: Marvin Gaye’s You’re the Man, June Chikuma’s Les Archives, Virginia Magidou’s I Was Born a Badass Chick, Max Rambhoujan’s self-titled 12”, Jeff Majors’s For Us All (Yoka Boka), and many more. When thinking about my favorite new music coming out, a lot of it isn’t stuff that I’d say is best judged by the standards of a longplayer—rap, dance music, pop from around the world. A lot of publications will close out the decade with lists that nevertheless highlight albums. These will be incomplete retellings of our recent past.
These lists will also inevitably exclude several experimental records. One shouldn’t necessarily expect publications to be focusing on such music, but it will seem glaringly obvious in a time when there seems to be a homogenization of taste across many websites and magazines. The experimental music that will get championed will be of a few particular varieties (namely, various strands of ambient music, forward-thinking dance music, and art pop). All of this is to say that my hope for this column is simple: I want to provide a wider scope in coverage of experimental music being made today.
Despite my intentions with this list, I’ll be the first to tell you that my tastes are rather specific, and that the stress of current times makes certain experimental music more enticing than others. Last year, my favorite album was Melaine Dalibert’s Musique pour le lever du jour, a lush piano piece that I looked to as a source of comfort. François Morellet, a French painter and sculptor who influenced Dalibert, once stated, “I chose geometry because of its neutrality, the system, that would make me restrict the arbitrary nature of my decisions.” It was a self-imposed removal of self, done to highlight the innate power and beauty of art. The 25 records below don’t all follow the same line of thinking, but I do believe that they provide listening experiences that can remind people of music’s vast capabilities.
As a note, Tone Glow launched a record label last month. Its inaugural release, Vanessa Rossetto’s you & i are earth, was a huge favorite but is not included here for the obvious conflict of interest.
A.F. Jones - For Eschrichtiidae (Omniana) (Taâlem)
Much like Jana Winderen’s Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone, A.F. Jones’s For Eschrichtiidae (Omniana) aims to shine light on a pressing environmental issue by recording sound at a site of immediate, recognizable concern. The sole 17-minute piece showcases the turbulent docking process of a ferry transiting from Coupeville to Port Townsend, Washington. There have been decades of research revealing the negative impacts of noise pollution on marine animals—something largely caused by the increasing number of maritime vessels—but the United States has been negligent in addressing such concerns.
The most poignant aspect of Jones’s recording is the lack of any dramatic post-processing, rendering its presentation more true-to-life than that of Winderen’s. The consequent result is a piece that’s thought-provoking for its familiarity: in allowing listeners to hear the sounds of poorly maintained propulsion systems and propellers, Jones illuminates how something so detrimental can be sourced from something so quotidian. Even the absence of the titular gray whale from the album art or music is pointed, as it requires listeners to make the link between what’s heard and its actual effects.
At times, it can seem like changes in policy can only begin when people are convinced via flashy and emotional explanations. (See, for example, the minor viral success of U.S. Representative Joe Cunningham’s recent air horn demonstration, highlighting the absurdity of seismic airgun blasting.) For Eschrichtiidae’s more objective approach is stirring because its unadorned recordings make listeners reckon with humanity’s need for such spectacle; our propensity for inaction is quietly felt.
Alvin Lucier - Ricochet Lady (Black Truffle)
It’s always impressive to hear a piece that makes you absolutely exhausted by the time it ends, especially if such a feat is accomplished in under 17 minutes. Alvin Lucier’s “Ricochet Lady”—comprised of minimalist, continual glockenspiel playing—is one such piece. The album’s four performances were all done by Trevor Saint and done so at notably different locations: “a university rehearsal hall with walls of drywall and glass, a chapel made of oak and stone, an empty forge and foundry warehouse for steel railway wheels, and a 36-meter tall dilapidated cement grain elevator.” As always, Lucier is interested in acoustic phenomena, and it’s a slick decision to have these recordings all in one place since listeners can discern the composition’s site-dependent nature.
Much of Ricochet Lady’s enjoyment comes from hearing the interaction of its different elements: the typical sound produced from the glockenspiel, the tiny thuds of mallets hitting metal, the overtone drones that whir overhead, and the sounds that are heard from the location itself. The piece progresses in an upscale fashion, and the drone’s hypnotic lulls ebb and flow in an almost sensual manner. Matt Sargent, whose Ghost Music was a similarly evocative exploration of overtones, handles the mixing and mastering with care.
Ana Roxanne - ~~~ (Leaving Records)
Ana Roxanne’s ~~~ was originally released in 2015 but it didn’t get much exposure until Leaving Records rereleased it last month. The album, a short six-track trek through new age, finds Roxanne channeling her varying influences in a way that’s irrefutably personal. In an interview with Bandcamp, she noted how a trip to India led to her being deeply inspired by Hindustani classical music. This, in conjunction with her admiration for artists like Alice Coltrane, inform the meditative ambience that characterize a track like “Immortality.”
Before any of this, though, Roxanne was enamored with R&B singers, and this fact is evident in her introspective cover of “I’m Every Woman” on “I’m Every Sparkly Woman.” Roxanne also explained in the interview that this song was initially done to “justify [her] feminine identity.” Last year, she publicly announced that she is intersex, and now views the track differently: “When I perform that song now, it feels as though I am calling upon the confidence and beauty of the divas, and exclaiming that I love myself, whatever gender I may be.”
Given all this context, ~~~ is an album that miraculously shows how music can resonate due to its shifting meaning and significance. The tranquility of Roxanne’s synth pads and arpeggios are consequently moving for more than just their sonic properties; they’re snapshots of personal history that provide an unending source of encouragement. Most heartfelt, though, is a track that’s the furthest from new age: “In A Small Valley,” an assemblage of rustling leaves, wind chimes, ocean waves in the distance, a choir, a family talking, and a pop song. They’re presumably all the everyday things that make up her life, her surroundings, her support system. They may seem small, but like the new age vignettes that comprise the rest of the album, they serve as aural nourishment and relief.
Andrea Borghi - 3discos (Rhizome.s)
Andrea Borghi’s music has always explored the relationship between sound and matter, but the results have never been so bare. While many of his other works could be appreciated for how they conjured up sounds so dramatic and expansive and dense, 3discos offers a listening experience that’s pleasurable for its lightness and meditative nature.
The album’s seven tracks were recorded rather simply, utilizing a prepared turntable and discs made of different materials: marble, resin, and aluminum. The tracklist indicates what material is currently being heard, and the variances in speckled pops and gravely tones are obvious upon listening. One can envision the process that spawned these noises—the handling of the turntable will be familiar to anyone who owns one, and the spinning of these discs is recognizable given the cyclical occurrence of sounds. The soundscapes readily bring to mind a less twee version of Rie Nakajima’s automaton-based music. The listening experience, however, is one that’s strikingly different given the context of Borghi’s oeuvre.
Compared to his other works, 3discos is an album whose engagement almost necessitates consideration for the pieces’ materiality. The track titles point to this, but the unadorned rawness of the recordings accomplish just as much. The most notable aspect of 3discos, then, is how it’s a piece of art that makes obvious its materiality, allowing listeners to delight in the clarity between source and sound. In doing so, Borghi inspires an impossible craving for the music’s tactility. The result is an appreciation of this falsely transitive experience of touch via sound; a poeticization of the medium’s limitations by creating a knowing semblance of its boundlessness.
Andrew Chalk - One Long Year (Faraway Press)
Andrew Chalk has quietly remained one of the greatest ambient artists of the 21st century. His reticence has been refreshing, having the unintended side effect of making his oneiric music feel even more personal—like private worlds that interested listeners can come in and explore. “Naoko,” the opening track on One Long Year, is among his most diaphanous works—its precious twinkles and supple synth melodies imbue any listening space with immediate and restful solitude.
“Naoko” sets the stage for the remainder of the album: a series of dense organ tracks entitled “Archanges” and two loose new age pieces that provide a contrasting lightness. Released on the first day of 2019, One Long Year was a paean for those who made it through an exhausting 2018. Its seven tracks feel like the small comfort that a friend provides in simply existing, their presence and company having been a crucial and understated reason for your own resilience.
Angel Bat Dawid - The Oracle (International Anthem)
In an interview with The Wire, Angel Bat Dawid made a declaration: “If what you’re doing isn’t spiritual, that’s not music.” The firmness of that statement gives insight into the depth and care that defines her debut album The Oracle. While the daughter of a preacher’s kid, she came to find that the church—as well as mosques and clubs—were “sacred spaces that oppressed people [could] go to, to feed their soul.” Her music aims to produce similar spaces of empowerment and ecstasy, and her determination is evident in the nature of the recording: it was all self-produced and recorded on a cellphone.
Throughout the album, Dawid makes evident how her own music and selfhood is informed by those of her spiritual ancestors. She recites a poem from Yusef Lateef on “Destination,” sings lines penned by Margaret Burroughs on “What Shall I tell My Children Who Are Black,” and creates music that’s inspired by Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders. While her brand of jazz doesn’t shoot for large-scale productions or blistering experimentation, there’s a palpable fearlessness in every one of these tracks that stuns nonetheless. Whether her clarinet playing is at its most melodic or clamorous, it always feels like an extension of the emotions she’s trying to convey, the results nothing short of sublime. Her vocalizations, too, range in delivery. In the title track, she repeatedly cries out, “The kingdom of heaven is ours today.” Even if the lyrics didn’t sound like a prayer, one would be able to tell that what she’s doing is unequivocally spiritual.
Bass Clef - 111 angelic MIDI cascade (Slip)
Regardless of the genre he was tackling, Ralph Cumbers has always made dance music whose playfulness felt palpable. Such is the case with 111 angelic MIDI cascade, an album whose synths often radiate with a magnetic joy. 111 stands out within his discography because it forgoes the use of any beats, this self-imposed limitation highlighting the percussive and propulsive capabilities of his synthwork.
"(press f5) deep home" begins the record with insight into just how carefully these compositions are handled. Cumbers lays down the track’s foundation with chords that resonate loudly, creating a hazy atmosphere that’s then layered with a series of arpeggiated synths. These arpeggios have a fantastical veneer to them, and their constant shifts in speed relay a sense of childlike awe.
Be it the twinkling earworm melodies of “emphasise empathise,” the maddening build and compounding layers of “Dear John,” or the romantic pulses of “let’s meet on astral dancefloors,” Cumbers consistently finds ways to establish specific moods that feel grandiose and whimsical. While tracks like "scrying in the rain" and "worry and also somehow be happy” aim for a mystique that reflects Cumbers’s interest in the paranormal, their mixing allows for an exuberance that’s in line with the other tracks. With 111 angelic MIDI cascade, one can finally say that Lorenzo Senni has found a similar, worthwhile contemporary.
Bruno Duplant - Chants de Mémoire (Hemisphäreの空虚)
Bruno Duplant’s Chants de Mémoire is accompanied by a verse that’s taken from Smog’s “Say Valley Maker”:
And when the river dries
Will you bury me in wood
Where the river dries
Will you bury me in stone
These four lines, isolated from the remaining lyrics, work in conjunction with the album’s title and music to evoke images of death. Duplant’s field recordings and additional treated electronics are terrifying when played at high volumes, the repeating low-end thuds and wailing high-pitched tones making these forty minutes feel especially ominous. The incessant chirping of birds and insects grants the piece with a greater sense of place, this vibrant life a haunting contrast to the dread that overwhelms the piece.
The music’s presentation of life and death hints at the enduring bond between organisms and their environment. Just as decomposing bodies serve to enrich the surrounding flora with nutrients, an object’s wealth of history and meaning are subsumed by any given space it’s situated in. The text thus gives the notion that being buried inside the earth is the only way to best understand it. In these field recordings is sometimes a sound that recalls the digging of graves. In effect, Chants de Mémoire is an invitation to be one with the field that’s recorded.
Carl Stone - Baroo (Unseen Worlds)
Carl Stone’s Baroo contains five tracks that build on a compositional technique that he began implementing in the ‘90s. It involves taking an existing recording and splicing the file into numerous pieces, eventually recombining them into “mosaic patterns.” The result is that of lively plunderphonics, where every jagged cut is crucial in distilling the piece into a tapestry of its sonic palette.
While Stone’s had pieces that were similarly thrilling (”Mom’s” and “Jitlada” in particular), they’ve never been so expertly crafted. Most pleasure comes from hearing how these reconstructions exaggerate musical qualities, helping even the most jaded listener become enamored with the source material. On "Sun Nong Dan,” Stone makes sure that the Congolese guitar playing shines as brightly as it would on any soukous track. While Stone effectively controls the track’s inherent rhythm, the guitar’s resplendent tone and jubilant, serpentine melodies are felt through their constant isolation and reemergence.
While an album comprised of this splicing could easily grow tiresome through its sheer repetitive nature, Stone draws from a variety of sounds in order to prevent the onset of boredom. He draws from traditional Asian instrumentation in "Okajouki" and bustling samba on the title track. Most exciting, however, is Stone’s rework of Ayumi Hamasaki’s “Moments” on “Panchita.” The twitchy glitching acts to extract the emotional resonance from the topline without help from the lyrics. Essentially, that’s what Baroo is all about: exposing listeners to the joy that’s inherent in each individual second of music.
Costis Drygianakis - Chained to the World (Falt)
Costis Drygianakis named his newest album after a line in Tom Waits’s “Dirt in the Ground.” That song establishes a distressing nihilism from its very first lines: “What does it matter?/A dream of love or a dream of lies/We're all gonna be in the same place when we die.” This context sets the tone for Chained to the World, an album that feels weighed down by the world’s disheartening realities, exacerbated by a relentless news cycle. As such, Drygianakis inundates the listener with speeches and conversations and news broadcasts. While they persist throughout much of the record, they’re frequently foregrounded by other instrumentation, revealing how the tumultuous state of the world can occupy one’s headspace even when engaged in other activities.
Near the end of the piece, one hears a report on a biotech company called ImmunoGen. Even as there’s a glimpse of hope heard in the information about potential cancer treatments, it’s offset by a mention of how certain technology can prove profitable for the company. Even more directly, we hear the news of a fire engulfing a building, and a woman fighting back tears as she states, “I just want everything to be false.” While a lot of the album’s emotional heft comes from the arrangement of these voice recordings, they’re bolstered by an assemblage of instruments that wander in and out. While at times sparse, the playing always contributes a feeling of restlessness. Chained to the World really feels just like that: an embodiment of the world’s inescapable chaos.
Davide Tidoni - Touch of the Pops (Balloon & Needle)
Davide Tidoni appeared on Balloon & Needle’s 2014 compilation Music Made with Balloon and/or Needle. He returns with a full-length all to himself, and with a conceit that’s more restrictive. Touch of the Pops, as its title suggests, is an album comprised solely of popping balloons. While mostly a fun curiosity, Touch of the Pops is admirable for its clear vision and execution. The suspense of waiting for the pop, and the innate shock that occurs once hearing it, makes for a surprisingly tense listen.
Even more, Tidoni makes evident just how interesting the act of popping a balloon can be. It’s a one-time, split-second musical event that responds to surrounding acoustics, so he makes sure the album showcases the variability in sound that can occur. On the album’s fifth track, the balloon’s pop is monumental, reverberating for several seconds before fading into silence. The liner notes come with a text score so listeners can partake in the music at home. Touch of the Pops proves itself to be a charming, quaint album.
The Dead C - Rare Ravers (Ba Da Bing!)
The Dead C’s status as a preeminent noise rock band has held true with their recent Ba Da Bing! offerings. With Rare Ravers, they’ve only continued to hone their sound, eschewing vocals once again for raucous instrumental pieces.
Opening track “Staver” begins with Robbie Yeats’s drums locked in a firm, pounding rhythm. It’s accented by a booming snare that grants the piece an overarching shape with which Bruce Russell and Michael Morley’s guitars can wriggle around. The mixing in particular is inspired, with the drums low in the mix as noisy feedback pulses dead center. Bluesy guitar riffs appear in both channels to round out the piece. As the drums stop, the guitars erupt in a psychedelic slow burn. By the time the drums return, they take the guitars’ lead, and the track eventually fizzles out gracefully.
The B side follows suit with more meditative noise. The scuzzy feedback on “Laver” does much of the heavy lifting in terms of giving a sense of discordant calm, but the guitar melodies that peek out of its core ornament the piece with a blissful tenderness. A sense of how loud the band’s been only becomes clear when the track becomes silent about six minutes in. When they start up again, they build up quietly before returning to the smoky, restful landscape that’s defined much of the album. In the track’s final minutes, the album delivers its most emotive bit of noise with a guitar that sounds like it’s whimpering.
Dennis Gonzalez & Derek Rogers - Certain Aspects (Marginal Frequency)
Certain Aspects begins with a dreamy ambient synth pad and some glimmering ornamentation. It’s not wholly indicative of the sole 21-minute track that makes up the record, but it does prepare the listener for its wistful tone.
The album’s most striking element is how Dennis Gonzalez’s horns—a treated C trumpet and Bb cornet—sound faint in the mix. Its playing, whether graceful or ornery, sounds like its being heard while one is submerged underwater. This sense of distance has the effect of shrouding the piece with an inescapable melancholy. Listening to Certain Aspects consequently feels like attending a solemn funeral where people are still dazed by one’s death—the horns are there to speak on behalf of everyone, their song a personalized “Taps” of sorts.
Throughout the course of the record, we hear a monolithic drone and some scant piano notes drenched in reverb. The latter’s infrequent presence instills the piece with a desire for solitude. During the final five minutes, the horns sound like they’re collapsing on themselves, their droning sounds eventually erupting into small cacophony before dissolving into the ether. After their disappearance, the lack of any noise beyond faint piano notes is surprisingly immense, like one has finally been able to move past their grief.
Feronia Wennborg - A Small Pause to Unfold (self-released)
Feronia Wennborg’s A Small Pause to Unfold is a modest little cassette release comprised of two seven minute tracks. The first piece, “Moving Out,” explains its creation with a poem:
With me in my old closet:
aluminum pole, empty
This, in conjunction with the track title, creates this notion of one reflecting on a private, personal space. The dappled, metallic tones that characterize the piece are equal parts whimsical and bittersweet. Listening to it sounds like returning to a childhood home and reflecting on the last physical remnants of one’s childhood. The brief pauses that occur—never quite consistent in duration—add a charming homespun element to an already nostalgic track.
“Breathing Matter” is equally elevated by sporadic pauses. They’re more common here, creating the semblance of a child playing a toy instrument. The sounds are derived from Wennborg’s “throat and voice,” though clearly manipulated in a manner that renders them cartoonish. Like “Moving Out,” it’s a delightful listen that’s all the more affecting for its simplicity.
Gil Sansón / Lance Austin Olsen - Works on Paper (Elsewhere)
Works on Paper finds Gil Sansón and Lance Austin Olsen expanding on their previous collaborative works released on record labels Suppedaneum and Another Timbre. As before, they create music based on paintings that function as graphic scores—the album’s first two pieces are Sansón’s realizations of Olsen’s Pra Nim, while the last two pieces are Olsen’s realizations of Sansón’s Meditations. The results are four vibrant tableaux that keep the listener attuned to their many intricate details.
The tenderness with which these two artists have interpreted their scores is apparent in the sensitivity of their arrangement. Like the scores themselves—which are partially presented in an interview the two had with label founder Yuko Zama—there’s an understated beauty to their composition. There’s careful consideration for the juxtaposition of different materials, colors, textures, and shapes; each individual component is allowed to breathe and make their utility known.
The music follows suit: while the listening experience is of a fixed time and linear progression, Sansón and Olsen patiently guide listeners along musical narratives that reveal the beauty of their dense sound worlds. Each instrument can thus be appreciated for their innate musical properties—timbre, duration, volume—in addition to their interfacing with other noises. As such, listening to Works on Paper often feels like sauntering through an art exhibit, where one accumulates an understanding of each work before gaining a strong sense of the throughline guiding it all.
There’s a uniformity in sound on Works on Paper, but it doesn’t lead to a sense of redundancy. Instead, there’s often a greater appreciation for the differences in approach between realizations or artists. We hear the human voice a few times on the record. On the title track, A.F. Jones talks in a gruff manner, as if playing a protagonist in a pulpy radio play. On “Fail Better,” we hear Sansón sing a line from the previous track (amusingly, one that plays on the words “in concrete” and “inconcrete”) and it registers as something more ghastly. Appropriate, given the haunting drones that characterize much of the piece. On “Meditations #3,” we hear pitch-shifted choral work, and repetitive speaking that brings to mind the speech of Warcraft orcs. While the track is ominous, there’s a deep sense of sorrow that permeates it, like the sounds are all interacting with each other to inform the listener of a lost history.
With Works on Papers, Sansón and Olsen have accomplished the rare task of building gargantuan worlds that feel easily approachable. In listening to these pieces, all of which last at least 26 minutes, I find myself being consistently curious of how they’ll unfold. That experience is something that feels possible because of the artists’ evocative graphic scores, as well as their nuanced and thoughtful interpretations.
Ken Ikeda + Rie Nakajima + Makoto Oshiro - Floating Weeds (901 Editions)
In what should go down as a major work in Ken Ikeda’s discography, Floating Weeds finds the London-based artist collaborating with unsung Japanese musicians Rie Nakajima and Makoto Oshiro. While much of Ikeda’s albums have involved working with other people, they’ve never quite produced the results that appear across the album’s three tracks: retrofuturistic acousmatic music fit for sci-fi films. It’s a pleasant surprise after the numerous electroacoustic ambient records he’s taken part in; this is far more bold, provocative, and exciting.
Floating Weeds begins with a solo track from Ikeda. It’s 19 minutes long and features the lone sounds of alien synth sputters as they weave in and out of silence to create a sense of vast space. At times, these repeated squawks sound like concerted efforts for communication from extraterrestrials. Approached from a different angle, its rhythms appear as the synthesized chirping of cricket-like androids.
On “Mid Spring,” Ikeda’s synthwork finds a perfect pair in Rie Nakajima’s homemade noisemaker contraptions. Her automaton’s ringing and clinking grounds the piece, allowing Ikeda’s synths to veer off into more oblique rhythms and timbres. While Nakajima’s objects have often filled her music with a sense of playfulness, they instead contribute to a sonic environment akin to a bustling factory or laboratory. It swells into a more dense atmosphere on the Ken Ikeda and Makoto Oshiro collaboration “Late Spring.” While much of the repetitive whirring that characterized the Nakajima track continues here, Oshiro contributes a more varied selection of noises to ensure its 30 minute runtime is replete with interesting sounds.
While recorded at different times and in different locations, the three tracks that make up Floating Weeds are undeniably complementary. The track titles make note of this too, with the transition from “early” to “mid” to “late” mirroring the musical “blooming” that occurs between the first track and the third. And as they (and the album title) suggest, this is an album that makes reference to Yasujirō Ozu. While the comparison is admittedly confounding, one could posit that the director’s observations on the conflict between tradition and modernity is present in this hour long exploration of science-fiction sound art. In the loops and motors that make up Floating Weeds are expressions of anxiety and reluctant acceptance regarding a future run by non-human hands.
Klaus Lang & Golden Fur - Beissel (Another Timbre)
When Johann Conrad Beissel was 25, he had a spiritual awakening. Seeking freedom from religious persecution, he emigrated from Germany to America. After a year or so, he settled in Ephrata, Pennsylvania and became a religious leader to a community of Seventh Day Dunkers in 1732. The group would grow to around 300 in size and they were a rather ascetic bunch: they ate one vegetarian meal a day, slept on wooden benches with wooden pillows, and devoted two hours every night to await the return of the Lord.
Music was a central part of life in the Ephrata Cloister, but after being dissatisfied with the hymns of the Geneva Church, Beissel decided to compose hymns of his own. The hymns’ lyrics and compositions were informed by his own ardent religious beliefs. Most notably, he constructed a harmonic system comprised of “master notes” and “servant notes” wherein four to seven part hymns featured fixed rules based invariably on the soprano line. It was, in a sense, a proto-serialism.
“Beissel” finds Golden Fur—a trio comprised of Samuel Dunscombe (clarinets), Judith Hamann (cello), and James Rushford (viola and harmonium)—collaborating with Klaus Lang (church organ) in a 21st century “re-imagining of his music and working processes.” The piece, at 41 minutes long, finds the group stretching the length of a typical hymn by several magnitudes in order to highlight Beissel’s peculiar harmonic structures. There’s a calmness to hearing the piece as its layered drones slowly progress, the moments of dissonance accumulating into an immersive thick fog. While the hymns were originally only performed with vocal parts, the instruments here create lustrous textures that nonetheless embody Beissel’s music: the endearing naivety of his DIY composing practice and sound, and the impassioned fervor that fueled them. Even the dry production that plagues many Another Timbre releases feels apt, lending the piece an austere sound that suits the context. As Beissel would have intended, this composition sounds sacred.
Marja Ahti - Vegetal Negatives (Hallow Ground)
Marja Ahti’s Vegetal Negatives was inspired by a René Daumal essay that dealt with finding hidden connections between different, distinct objects. This inventive exercise in constructing metaphorical synapses underpins the liveliness of the album’s four longform electroacoustic pieces. While Ahti’s music as Tsembla was forthright in projecting exuberance and psychedelia, Vegetal Negatives is careful to be unassuming. Its illusory worlds are built from a plethora of intriguing sounds, encouraging listeners to discern any relatedness between its individual elements. The uniformity of each track’s overarching sound and the collage-like assemblage of their materials help accomplish this in a seemingly effortless manner.
How Vegetal Negatives succeeds, then, is in presenting itself as a sort of game. The acousmatic nature of the pieces render them innately enigmatic, but it’s their careful construction that persistently hints at a deeper significance. With soft synth tones, field recordings, and harmonium, Ahti makes sure that her creations feel detailed but never overwhelmingly dense. This simultaneous lightness and richness lends itself well to the mystical aura she wishes to project. The occasional ringing of bowl gongs—especially in conjunction with the sounds that surround them—strengthens this notion. Ahti is one of few artists who can make experiencing electroacoustic music feel, above all, playful.
Michael Pisaro - Nature Denatured and Found Again (Gravity Wave)
Michael Pisaro’s Nature Denatured and Found Again is a massive work that was the result of recordings taken and edited between 2011 and 2018. The album spans four hours and, like Continuum Unbound before it, attempts to illuminate the richness of any minute sound event. With Continuum Unbound, Pisaro aimed to sever the seeming continuities of sound that our brains are wont to create. Nature has similar aspirations, but does so with the express purpose of seeking field recording as a tool for magnifying the effects of climate change. In the liner notes, Pisaro asks two questions that effectively guided the album: “Can environmental changes be made audible? Are such changes something we sense at the very edge of perception?”
Nature has its roots in Flussaufwärtstreiben, a soundwalk installation created by Joachim Eckl, Marcus Kaiser, and Michael Pisaro. It involved moving between six defined locations along the Grosse Mühl river that had listening stations with different performers. This would occur five days in a row with different guidelines for each day’s listening sessions, and the entire process was to be repeated for a total of five years. In the end, years three and five involved different parameters, and the fourth year was skipped altogether. In addition to capturing the phenomena of climate change, Pisaro uses Nature as a way to recreate the experience of participating in the installation.
Nature dedicates each of its five discs to a different year. The first three discs contain recordings from Flussaufwärtstreiben, disc four is comprised solely of sine tones and noise to represent this “silent” year, and disc five combines material from two sources: a concert from 2012 held after the year’s corresponding soundwalk, one that mixed field recording with live performance; and field recordings that took place in 2015, the fifth year of the installation. Every disc contains four tracks, and each track is 12 minutes and 12 seconds long. The final 12 seconds of every track are solely comprised of silence.
Each disc on Nature finds Pisaro approaching his material from different angles. The title hints at the ultimate goal: to break down sounds as a way to train listeners’ ears before recreating a new world that will expose how the environment has changed. On the first disc, Fissures in Green (2011), Pisaro takes field recordings and edits them with splices and cuts that encourage a discrete hearing of sounds. The beauty of birdsong, wind, and water are made apparent in their raw presentation, but it’s these edits that force a reexamination, a closer inspection, a deeper appreciation. On “Silent Prayer,” we hear how the gentle playing of a flute—performed by composer Antoine Beuger—gently colors its surrounding environment, itself an equal contributor to the sound world as any living organism.
Pathsplitter (Yellow-Red) (2012), the album’s second disc, finds Pisaro layering multiple recordings on top of each other as a way of layering time itself. The result, as expected, is a series of drones. What impresses most about this disc is how these layers impress upon the listener a great sense of a sound’s density—both in the changing dynamics of each piece, but also in the interactions between soft instrumentation (be it from sine tones or a clarinet) and the thick fog amassed from the field recordings.
Disc three, Landscape in Black and Grey (2013), builds its premise on the overwhelming depth in sound of the Grosse Mühl river. Pisaro observes the full audio spectrum of any recording to be a “chord,” and on two tracks, utilizes bandpass filtering to separate out individual “notes.” This methodology pinpoints how the river’s constituent parts are rich themselves, but also vital in contributing to its overall sound.
White Light Under the Door (2014) is the album’s fourth disc and, in representing a year in which the soundwalk didn’t take place, features nothing but sine tones and filtered noise. Since these sounds are highly variable given the acoustics of any space they’re played inside, these four tracks are valuable for reminding the listener of how important any given locale is to the music that’s heard; whereas previous discs pointed to the immensity of any individual sound, this one upholds the space as an equally important sonic factor. Even more, the four tracks here are among the most meditative on Nature, serving to calm the listener as a way to help them be more astute to subtle changes in sound.
Nature finally culminates with Hellgrün (Small New World) (2015), and it’s when the melding of human instrumentation and field recording is at its most compelling. The instrumentation is often romantic, and the birdsongs on the first two tracks are equally as sensuous. While any aspirations to help listeners discern climate change’s effects aren’t exactly fulfilled, it would be erroneous to see Nature as any sort of failure. Like the soundwalk itself, Nature is all about patient and repeated listens of a particular environment. Pisaro’s editing helped to magnify and separate out different components of the Grosse Mühl river. In the procedural structuring of the album is a tender desire to be more aware of our surroundings. As a result, Nature primes listeners for listening of their own, one that occurs in their own environments. Whether we’ll be able to notice any incremental changes in sound is less important than how it inspires a desire to be more aware of environmental concerns. If close listening is a praxis for dismantling our hierarchies of sound, then Nature posits that this restructuring result in actionable change.
Phew / Oren Ambarchi / Jim O'Rourke - Patience Soup (Black Truffle)
In listening to Patience Soup, one soon recognizes the appropriateness of its title. The album is comprised of a single, slow-moving piece that lasts 48 minutes, and the entire recording is murky and damp. It’s cryptic, and the title’s odd pairing of words is equally enigmatic. If it doesn’t aptly describe the music, then it shows what listeners will be reduced to while listening.
At times, Patience Soup employs a cryptic and loud electroacoustic drone that places listeners into a dark cavern. There’s an exploratory aspect to it, where the different small noises feel like the musical equivalent of one making sense of an unknown space via touch. Even more frightening, however, is when the piece goes nearly silent. In the album’s most quietest moments, there’s a sense of fear that’s looms upon the listener because of everything that was previously heard. It’s only then that one wishes all the sounds would resurface—their presence at least an indication of what’s lurking in your presence.
Most crucial to the album’s effectiveness is Phew’s vocalizing. She’s shown the versatility and range of her voice for decades, but they’ve never sounded as terrifying as they do here. She wails and moans and talks, but most electrifying is when her utterances are quiet. One hears the clarity of her voice, but also the small details of various mouth sounds. Regardless of what she does, she always makes attempts to improvise with the instrumentation itself, this pairing a constant harrowing force. Oren Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke have released numerous collaborative albums in recent years, but Patience Soup is one of their best for how fully realized it sounds.
Saba Alizadeh - Scattered Memories (Karlrecords)
Saba Alizadeh is an accomplished composer and musician who has devoted the past quarter-decade to mastering the kamancheh, the Iranian spike fiddle. He’s studied under the crucial kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, but has also spent time creating experimental music—in the past few years, he’s organized a workshop focused on tape loops, and has played the no-input mixing board in live settings. Scattered Memories finds Alizadeh combining these two interests—electroacoustic practices and classical Persian music—to arresting results.
Many of the album’s most powerful songs are a result of this marriage. On “Colors Wove Me in Tehran,” Alizadeh’s kamancheh quietly screeches before it’s overtaken by a dense, cycling drone. On “Elegy for Water,” cinematic strings and the sound of zanjeers (a tool used by Muslims during mourning ceremonies) create a haunting ambiance to shine light on Iran’s drought epidemic. On “Ladan Dead End (Kamancheh Version),” a collage of varying noises shuffle in erratic patterns to leave listeners disoriented.
Among these more urgent pieces are songs more traditional, and their presence is a welcome contrast to the album’s more experimental and cacophonous moments. There’s a delight in hearing the elegant playing of various Iranian instruments—from the kamancheh to the setar to the rabab—and these tracks, like the closer “Fluid,” provide opportunities for repose. With Scattered Memories, Alizadeh’s created an expansive collection of pieces that traverse tradition and modernity without sounding like a cheap gimmick.
Sean McCann, Matthew Sullivan & Alex Twomey - Charlotte’s Office (self-released)
Charlotte’s Office is the second album from the trio consisting of Sean McCann, Matthew Sullivan, and Alex Twomey. Across 52 minutes, the three expand on the restful improvisations that characterized The Bird by highlighting the domestic nature of the recordings—despite the title’s indication, these pieces were performed in Twomey’s home. We hear coordinated clinking of glassware, footsteps along creaking floorboards, and iPhone message notifications. Even the instrumentation, gentle and self-effacing, evokes a sense of security in solitude.
There’s often been a grandiose drama to Sean McCann’s work. Even when the circumstances and music register as homespun, there’s little denying the pageantry of it all. With Charlotte’s Office, the results are far more insular and unassuming; like Sullivan’s recent solo output, the record is content with its plainness, letting listeners revel in its alluring quietude if they so wish.
Still, this record is far more than competent background music, and it’s crucial to note the emotional power of the music qua music. In particular, the piano is economical and charming, every note sounding like it’s firmly content in its ceaseless wandering. At one point, a backwards-playing LP provides tumultuous noise to the piece. The warped vocals are exhilarating in and of themselves, but their contrast with the rest of the instrumentation—highlighting their undeterred, insistent playing in the process—is what makes the moment special.
Throughout the rest of the record we hear: air pumps, acoustic guitar plinks, spinning coins, the rough handling of glass, high-frequency tones, hands touching microphones, and unceremonious horn playing. Every sequence is as charming as the next—a patchwork of unadorned sounds that remind listeners of the joy in small pleasantries.
Seth Cooke - Weigh the Word (self-released)
Seth Cooke’s father is a bit of a celebrity in the Charismatic Christian world. Those who follow the leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation are likely to stumble upon one of his books or teachings if wanting to learn about prophesying in the contemporary age. Most notably, he has a famous School of Prophecy that draws in people from around the world. Many years ago, Seth allowed graduates from this school to speak words over his life that were said to be communicated from God. It’s been two decades since then, and Seth has held onto cassettes containing audio from these private moments.
Excerpts from these intimate sessions are included in the 26-minute Weigh the World. In addition to these audio clips are IBM AI text-to-speech readings of said prophecies and intermittent bouts of monochrome, speckled noise. With this oblique presentation of the material is a disruption of its sacrosanct nature. For many Charismatic Evangelical Christians, prophecies (and signs and wonders) are the primary foundation for their faith. While followers are asked to “weigh the word” against biblical text, there are an unsurprisingly large number of leaders (be it pastors or regular church members who are attuned to their “spiritual gifts”) who are casually elevated in status due to their superior spirituality.
In hearing Weigh the Word, I’m reminded of how the Bible’s authors often edited the holy text to ensure a propagation of their specific beliefs. For example, details from oral traditions about Moses’s birth were withheld from the Pentateuch in order to prevent any sort of mythologizing of the Israelite leader. His death was something that authors wanted to include for similar reasons. Cooke provides a similar service: this album prevents people (Christians included, maybe) from seeing these prophecies as something that’s imparted from the divine. In the A side’s second half, Cooke makes sure that a woman’s words are constantly cut off, every plosive an opportunity to end her speech.
Despite all this, Weigh the Word doesn’t primarily read as a polemic. While Cooke is no longer religious, he understands that there’s a certain curiosity to these bizarre practices. After a series of disorienting, white noise drones on the B side, we hear an uninterrupted stretch of audio where a South American woman speaks. While bits of it are odd, there are generic word of encouragement sprinkled throughout (“You are one of a kind”). It makes for a fascinating listen that ranges from ominous to interesting to calming. It’s undeniably unique, and Cooke invites people to understand its complexities. In this way, it’s more robust and participatory than watching something like Holy Ghost People. And in a sense, Cooke has become like his father: he channels his thoughts and experiences about spiritual matters to those who are willing to listen.
Tanya Tagaq - Toothsayer (Six Shooter Records)
My review of Toothsayer for Pitchfork contained much of what I had to say about the EP, so anyone wanting a description of the album can read that. There was something I didn’t include in there, though, that I found to be personally convicting and want to mention here. During my research of Inuit culture, a paper I read discussed how these two complementary notions of ajunamat (“it cannot be helped”) and sappulik (“never give up”) reflect Inuit mentality when they’re faced with hardship, revealing their resiliency and adaptability. What I found alarming, however, was how the author of this paper made a link between these ideas and how some Inuit view their shifting culture.
A lot of media coverage on Inuit people revolve around the dissolution of their culture. Most people will see these reports and immediately agree that any inherent Westernization of their tradition should be seen as destructive. And while the effects of colonialism and Western culture imperialism should not be taken lightly, there have been several instances in Inuit history where the adoption of Western ideas and music and practices aren’t seen as an erasure of their own culture. It is what it is, in a sense, and many Inuit are living lives that reflect this mixed-culture without feeling like they’ve lost a sense of their heritage.
As a second generation Korean-American, I’ve often found myself struggling to make sense of my identity. I can recall, for example, numerous times where I instinctively found myself being weary of Korean food prepared in “Americanized” manners. (I’ve had similar reactions to wanting to appear interested in Korean-Mexican fusion.) What would it take for me—someone who grew up in virtually all-White schools and whose parents weren’t particularly interested in teaching them about Korean culture—to feel “authentically” Korean? “Authentically” Korean-American? Listening to Toothsayer and preparing my review for it has made me more comfortable with the fluidity of my Korean-American identity. I’m more accepting of what that could exactly entail; in a sense, it cannot be helped.
Tisakorean - A Guide to Being a Partying Freshman (8Jency / Astroknot Sounds)
Take a minute to consider all the times you’ve listened to music and found yourself laughing. Not laughing at any sort of deficiency or ineptitude, but laughing because the artist is making music that’s meant to be fun, and is clearly succeeding at doing so. Personally, I can’t think of a genre that’s produced as many such instances as hip-hop, and Tisakorean is the newest in a long line of rappers who exude an almost insurmountable amount of joy.
Tisakorean’s music is short, sparse, and meant to soundtrack dances performed on social media platforms like TikTok and Triller. It has clear snap rap influences, but is also firmly situated in 2019. On “Preball / The Club Dumb Dawg,” for example, Tisakorean whispers into the microphone like an ASMRtist, a technique employed recently by 21 Savage. He eventually growls—a noise that segues into an affected vocal performance filled with droopy deep voices and occasional vocal processing.
Much of A Guide to Being a Partying Freshman is a delight because of Tisakorean’s casually haphazard vocalizing. They’re accompanied by production that’s just as eccentric and economical. Sometimes, a barebones melody is all that comprises the instrumentation, but the fundamental groove that defines it has all the more power because of such simplicity. Samples sometimes appear like non-sequiturs, adorning the track with an absurdity that mirrors some of Tisakorean’s lyrics. Given that no track exceeds three minutes, every song feels like a burst of unhinged exuberance. If an album is to be judged by the veracity of its title, then Tisakorean may have the best album of the year so far.