Saturday, 31 December 2011

Best Albums of 2011 (Part 2)

A list gives us the surface of something, & that leads to another list, which contains more surface, & from there, more lists, & more surface. The lists make up the surface of the universe, & the fact that the lists lead to other lists, [...] list upon list leading to list upon list, it all helps supply the hidden depth in the universe. The depth where things start to get really interesting.” (Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here's the conclusion of my own list, with my favourite 20 albums of 2011:

20 | Merzbow - Kamadhenu
The more Merzbow i listen to (& i've listened to a lot), the more amazed i am at the seemingly endless extent to his creativity • It can seem as though his continual outpourings of new material connote a kind of arbitrariness, as though Masami Akita was simply picking random quantities of effluvia & allowing audiences to make of them what they will • But the standard of his music suggests otherwise, & from the very first moments of this album one's forcibly yanked into Akita's soundworld, which is so varied & compelling that it seems rather crass to describe Akita simply as a "noise artist" • Kamadhenu is an uncommonly inventive & subtle album that ruthlessly explores its subject matter with the focus of a laser; & there's nothing arbitrary about that • [Norman Records]

19 | Ulver - Wars of the Roses
For the last ten years, Ulver have increasingly found themselves bereft of a suitable genre • In their hands, black metal has gradually been turned inside out, & an assortment of diverse elements including jazz, dark ambient, film soundtrack, neoclassical & the indescribable have gradually become incorporated into their soundworld • Wars of the Roses is the strongest & most mature example yet of the group's stylistic no man's land, in which nothing remotely conventional takes place • Even a song like "Providence", which begins familiarly enough with the trappings of a mild rock ballad, quickly dissolves into a downright weird space filled with drones, shivering violins & croaking voices • Songs have never sounded anything like this before • [Amazon | iTunes]

18 | Chubby Wolf - Los que No Son Gentos
The strong legacy of Danielle Baquet-Long continues in this fine album that i reviewed back in August • Each new Chubby Wolf release reveals ever more clearly how distinct her solo work is from that created as half of Celer • It's the concentration of the music—the way that ideas feel compressed into tight time-spaces—that's particularly engaging here, & while it lacks the full-on beauty of last year's Ornitheology (although, pretty much all albums lack that kind of beauty), this remains—of what we've heard so far—some of her very finest music • [Dragon's Eye Recordings | Boomkat]

17 | aTelecine - A Cassette Tape Culture Phase Two
aTelecine have released quite a lot in the last couple of years, but the great thing is that it remains pretty unclear where they're coming from • Sasha Gray & Pablo St. Francis clearly love darker shades of experimentalism, yet they're unafraid to call upon the traits of all kinds of music, so askance beats, contorted vocals & analogue electronics jostle strangely beside crude cut-ups & collage-like textures • Keeping it all coherent requires skill, & this album displays it in every track; considering that many of them are outtakes & demos, their achievement is all the more impressive • Expect even bigger & better things from aTelecine in 2012 • [Boomkat]

16 | Akita / Gustafsson / O'Rourke - One Bird Two Bird
Bringing together Masami Akita, Mats Gustafsson & Jim O'Rourke sounds like a recipe for the world's most out-of-control sonic firework display • That wouldn't be a wildly inaccurate assessment either, yet it's the way the three of them combine both their talents & their discrete musical contributions in these two 20-minute improvisations that's most striking • Gustafsson often aligns himself with Akita's squealing squalls (both imitating & being imitated by them); meanwhile Akita & O'Rourke hurl their electronics at each other & find, somehow, that they mesh perfectly • Even in the brief moments of respite, these three are white hot together • [Discogs | Boomkat]

15 | Tartar Lamb II - Polyimage of Known Exits
Financed via Kickstarter, Toby Driver's latest project finds him returning to—& reinventing—Tartar Lamb, the entity by which he released Sixty Metonymies back in 2007 • Polyimage of Known Exits originates in a live performance from 2010, which Driver et al have subsequently worked on & honed • The result is four movements in which jazz-inflected noodlings coexist with dreamy, quasi-psychedelic episodes, the surfaces of both worried by electroacoustic scrapes • There's a kind of majesty in Driver's carefully-negotiated improvisations, & even at the times when one feels perhaps a little lost in the proceedings, the sense of a greater mind overseeing things never goes away • []

14 | Hecq - Avenger
Ben Lukas Boysen does like to tease; most of his albums start with a soft, gentle introduction before the real business—pummelling the listener to bits—gets started • True to form, Avenger starts in this way, but he's upping the ante these days, with bass & beats that are bigger & dirtier than ever before • Dubstep is a concept that sits exceptionally well in Boysen's rhythmic vocabulary, although what he's doing with it is a far cry from most • Wisely, he's pared back the range of invention from that heard on Steeltongued, as well as most of the lush harmonies, thereby enabling the tracks to hit even harder; "Bane" is a case in point, its shuffling tempo occasionally lurching forward at double speed, while "Nihilum" positively bruises the ears with its heavy off-beat drums • The raw nature of the music won't please all Hecq fans, but if you can take it, it's breathtaking • [Grooves-Inc | Amazon]

13 | Jenny Hval - Viscera
2011 has been such a good year for song, & few have been more exploratory than Jenny Hval on this 9-track wonder • Let's face it, anyone who begins their debut album with the words "I arrived in town/with an electric toothbrush/pressed against my clitoris" has something pretty forthright & personal to say • The title says it all; Hval's narrative is body-centred, almost uncomfortably so • But Viscera feels less like a preordained journey than an exploration of self-discovery & -expression, & a profoundly intimate one at that • Hval's notions of what a song can be are excitingly radical, radiating out from her prose poems (which you can read here), using whatever means seem necessary to aid that process • A genuinely ground-breaking debut • [Amazon | iTunes]

12 | Björk - Biophilia
Not much music these days is worthy of its own hype, but Biophilia is an exception • Irrespective of that hype, though, i think what connects people most instinctively to Björk's music is the ingenuous relationship she has with her subject matter • Regardless whether it's human relationships or the interactions of nature & the universe, Björk's awe & wonder of them is the same, viewed with a child-like, wide-eyed fascination & innocence that too many adults have lost • Of course, such sincerity would count for little if her music was ordinary, but 'ordinary' is probably a word missing from Björk's vocabulary • Forget the hype & all the hullabaloo about quirky new instruments & so on; like Jenny Hval, all Björk cares about are the songs; focussing on them is time seriously well spent • []

11 | Ektoise - Kiyomizu
Ektoise are a new discovery for me this year, & i've been listening to this second album of theirs a lot • Their music is a highly complex synthesis derived from, amongst other things, rock, ambient, jazz, metal & electronica, extremely diverse elements that are handled with an aplomb & transparency of touch that's truly remarkable • The album's central track, "There and Here" is a model example, layering jazz piano above grimy electronic beats on a bed of shoegaze bass, interpolated by some weirdly experimental episodes • It's abundantly clear that Ektoise are a bunch of musicians who not only know exactly what they want to do, they know how to do it, with a minimum of fuss • As such, there's no filler or padding on Kiyomizu; every note counts, every sound matters—which is not something you can say about a lot of music • [Bandcamp]

10 | Svarte Greiner - Twin
In the realm of ambient, Erik K. Slodkin (=Svarte Greiner) is, for me, the current master of the dark arts • So it's pretty disgraceful that this impeccable release was only made available with the vinyl edition of Owl Splinters' Deaf Center; Twin is way too good to be discreetly tucked away like that (especially as, in truth, it's far superior to Deaf Center) • The first third of its 45-minute duration is built on an oscillation between two deep notes, that swiftly get laden with a hundredweight of grinding, writhing layers of noise that spark out harmonics as though produced by its own sonic friction • A quailing, drone-like interlude leads to the decidedly enigmatic denouement, seeming to build massively but then abruptly quietening itself, only to grow again, hovering like a cadence that can't quite commit, & ultimately shivering out of existence • [Not presently available]

9 | Access to Arasaka - Geosynchron
Not many artists can successfully create a dish of glitched beats with ambient dressing; once upon a time, Hecq was the master, but these days Access to Arasaka has taken the mantle • Taking his name from the game "Cyberpunk 2020" hints at what to expect; the glitchtronic soundworld Geosynchron inhabits—fashioned in roughly equal parts from IDM & ambient electronic with a dash of drum & bass—is evocative & delivered with a flourish • What's so interesting about the textures in this music is the way the beats—conventionally an underpinning background element—are perpetually on the surface, dancing & skitting around like the focal element in Autechre's Gantz Graf video • Often, a collection of seemingly asynchronous beat elements are brought abruptly into focus, providing episodes of genuinely danceable music, but that's beside the point really; it's form & æsthetic that are important here, dazzling the senses • [TympanikAudio]

8 | Grutronic And Evan Parker - Together In Zero Space
i still don't really know what to make of this release—i just know that, whatever it is, i absolutely love it • Grutronic is a new name to me (when time allows, i'll be checking out this free download), but judging from this recording, made at the 2009 Next Festival of Advanced Music in Bratislava, their mission is to put Parker's already frantic playing through a myriad electronic processes, while striving to minimise the distance between theirs & Parker's distinct sounds • Somehow, they succeed, & the two lengthy pieces included here demonstrate superlative skill at melding acoustic & electronic sources • [Psi]

7 | Xela - Exorcism
Just four weeks ago, John Twells—the guiding force behind the Type label—released as a free download his latest album, announcing it would be his last; & as valedictions go, Exorcism is exceptional • Lo-fi & darkly psychedelic, laden with bells & gongs, it begins heavily redolent of ritual (one can imagine it accompanying a 1970s Hammer film), made more unnerving by the music's immovable focus • Exorcism is a triptych, & the middle section yields to warmth, the gongs fading within a rich ambient soundspace; here, things move, & even before it makes an appearance the bass causes ripples on the surface • It eventually overshadows everything, continuing into the final section as a drone onto which layers of melodic detritus are piled high • At the last, they're all ejected, leaving just the drone & the gongs resounding • Twells certainly knows how to go out in style • [Free download]

6 | Black Swan - The Quiet Divide
Having grappled with it repeatedly throughout the year, it only struck me a few days ago that what this album really sounds like is a palimpsest • As though it's been stitched together from nearly a dozen half-erased tapes, the music falls somewhere between hauntology, ambient & silence • It's one of the few albums i imagine would sound amazing on vinyl, where surface noise would really add to the scale of its ruin • In fact, silence never happens, but there are long stretches where what we imagine to be 'the music' has been removed, leaving the grain of the what we also imagine to be 'the medium' exposed; i've never heard anything quite like this before (even from Leyland Kirby), & the way it confounds one's notions of what constitutes material—&, for that matter, what's meant to be heard as a reference to past material & what's to be heard as a comment about that reference—is deeply thought-provoking • [Bandcamp]

5 | Fovea Hex - Here Is Where We Used To Sing
i said a lot about this album in my review back in May, so there's little more i can add • i'll admit it still makes me boggle a bit at the beauty of its songs; it's difficult to discern whether they're the product of an extremely clear set of intentions, or whether they arise from slow experiments with an open objective • But regardless of the compositional backstory, the result is so polished & so completely different from any other songwriter that the only response is simply to yield & be taken up into something rare & marvellous • [Janet Records | Bandcamp]

4 | Indignant Senility - Blemished Breasts
When i wrote about this release in October, i was focussing on its nature as a 'contemporary epic' • Durationally speaking, it's not the longest of these 40 albums, but it is, i think, the one that sustains itself most consistently & immersively over an extended period of time (in this case, around 100 minutes) • It lacks the frivolity & downright irreverence that some may feel to be sine quibus non in Pat Maherr's output; but as i've pointed out before, as Indignant Senility he taps into a more serious & thoughtful vein, one that demonstrates above all his keen handling of diverse sound materials • Blemished Breasts just wouldn't work as effectively as it does without an innate sense of large-scale control, an ability Maherr clearly has in spades • [Free download]

3 | Monty Adkins - Fragile.Flicker.Fragment
This is a release i really didn't see coming • In 2008, as Mathew Adkins, he created a work for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival titled [60]Project, commemorating 60 years of musique concrète; Adkins took short bits of material from 60 composers & created the most wonderful electronic soundscape (available on CD from empreintes DIGITALes) • Fragile.Flicker.Fragment, released in April this year, is no less impressive, but is music of a very different kind • If anything, it's ambient by accident—but it just so happens to be one of the best ambient albums ever made • What sets it apart from pretty much all other ambient music is the depth of compositional understanding & level of technical excellence that Adkins brings to all his projects • But the beauty of it all—!—i can honestly say i really haven't heard an album as incredibly beautiful as this in years—its intricately-made soft structures are stunning to behold • [Audiobulb | Boomkat]

2 | Three Trapped Tigers - Route One Or Die
OMG : i think that's probably the most succinct & accurate way of describing both my initial & my ongoing reaction to pretty much everything Three Trapped Tigers have released • This is their first album, but the three EPs that have preceded it through the last couple of years have made it absolutely clear what was coming • Quite frankly, it's difficult to comprehend the magnitude of what happens when Tom Rogerson, Adam Betts & Matt Calvert pit their wits against each other • Great arching melodies litter the music, somehow sitting entirely at ease amidst the plethora of convoluted rhythmic paroxysms that propel each track on • Conceptually, that's redolent of Aphex Twin, but while TTT's sound almost always projects the effects of electronica, their palette is rock-based, guitars & drums savagely ordered into metres that defy one's ability to discern or calculate • It's simply amazing that an album like Route One Or Die can exist; the unchecked fury of their music is unparalleled in its complexity & incandescence • [Amazon | iTunes]

1 | The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation - Anthropomorphic
“It is, if i may be so bold, flawless; if anything better than this is released in 2011, it will be miraculous”—so i wrote in my extensive review back in May, & while some fantastical things have happened in 2011, they haven't included miracles • Anthropomorphic is a colossus, an hour-long improvisatory symphony the depths of which provide more details & intricacies on each new listen (only this morning i noticed it ends as it begins; played on repeat it continues seamlessly) • TMFDC have somehow managed to fuse remote music tenets—jazz, doom, avant-garde, drone, electronic—into a unified act of contemporary composition that beggers belief • It isn't just the success of this fusion that impresses, though, it's the sophistication the group has in working with all those elements; none of them feels borrowed, or grafted on; each & every component of Anthropomorphic is there because TMFDC know it's precisely what's needed at that moment in the work's slowly-unfolding narrative •

i'm conscious that, though it wasn't deliberate, both the EP & the album that i've deemed the best of 2011 are a pair of dark & deeply disquieting works • But despite the fact i described Anthropomorphic before as "a dystopian masterpiece, a reverie for the end of the world", i feel the work acquits itself as an overtly positive act in the face of disaster • There's no doubt that it occupies a blasted musical landscape, but TMFDC don't just sit around fashioning dour textures from its debris—no, they sing, constantly they sing • Much of it is lamenting, keening, ululating a fraught response to its sonic environment, but regardless, they fill the charred aftermath of catastrophe with the most heartfelt song • “where everything's nothing—arise,my soul;& sing” wrote E. E. Cummings once, & that's precisely what this album does; i, for one, find that to be a supremely positive & inspiring act • Anthropomorphic sets an example, perhaps even teaches us something—& how much music can do that? • [Bandcamp]

Friday, 30 December 2011

Best Albums of 2011 (Part 1)

The list exists as a way of celebrating the known things which we all share that make us part of the same adventure, but the list also exists as a way of referring to the less-known things, which can remind us that the adventure does not have to be the same for everyone. [...] The unfamiliar lists are routes at the edges of the city, in the shadows [...] that make us feel a different kind of excitement, the excitement of discovery, the excitement of change. The change that makes the adventure constantly surprising.” (Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here's the first part of my list of the best albums released this year; i hope in some small part it lives up to what Paul Morley is talking about •

40 | Uh Huh Her - Nocturnes
Uh Huh Her's EP Black and Blue, released in the spring (& included on yesterday's Best EPs list), hinted at what was coming, & that promise has been abundantly fulfilled on this album, the duo's first in three years • Their edgy rock sound, propelled by synths, makes for a fascinating combination with the girls' trademark lyrical vocal style, resulting in a rare kind of electropop that packs a surprisingly emotional punch • Occasional influences reveal themselves (Björk, Elizabeth Fraser) but Uh Huh Her have finally developed a sound all to themselves • It's a shame the album is yet another victim of the loudness war, but the songs manage to rise above it • [ | iTunes]

39 | This Will Destroy You - Tunnel Blanket
You can't mess around if you're going to call yourselves This Will Destroy You, & there's absolutely no messing on the group's second album • The eight tracks progress at a sedate pace, made highly dramatic through the strategic use of lengthy quiet episodes • Subsequent loud eruptions solemnly plough noisy doomgaze territory, but TWDY's interests extend beyond the confines of conventional post-rock; "Glass Realms", in particular, inhabits a place of radiant ambient calm, & while the overarching theme is clearly a dark one, there's so much beauty in evidence that it's all too easy to forget that • [Amazon | iTunes]

38 | Philippe Petit - Nyctalopia
No-one destroys sound like Philippe Petit, & on this album there are more grit-scarred layers than ever • The distinction between treated recordings & live sounds created in the studio is similarly broken down, each track embodying both a ruthless sense of method & an aggressive spontaneity • Petit's method, though, isn't too far removed from madness, layer heaped upon layer until the ear can barely make sense of the complex textures that result • The power & intensity of this music mean that Nyctalopia is not a particularly easy listen, but it's an undeniably rewarding one • [Free download]

37 | Kate Havnevik - You
Continuing the trend of outstanding Scandinavian pop, Kate Havnevik has clearly put the five years since her debut album to good use, as Youfinanced via PledgeMusic—is a huge leap forward • There are still occasions when she strays a little too closely to the sound of Imogen Heap (perhaps due to Guy Sigsworth's involvement), but many of the songs are now nicely distinctive; the shuffling "Castaway" shows off the power of Havnevik's voice, while "Soon" & "Tears in Rain" surround her with scintillating analogue electronics • []

36 | Aleks Kolkowski & Ute Wassermann - Squall Line
Ute Wassermann's collaborations with Aleks Kolkowski go back a number of years (a pair of recordings from the 2007 Interlace concerts can be downloaded here), but this is the first time their bewildering music has been officially released • Anyone familiar with Wassermann's incredible feats of vocal gymnastics will, at least in part, know what to expect—&, in fact, a few of the pieces (each inspired by weather systems) feel a little too gesturally familiar; but for the most part, it's impossible to know who's doing what or indeed how, & their combined music is a delirious triumph of improvisation •

35 | Kate Wax - Dust Collision
Kate Wax is the pseudonym of Aisha Devi Enz, who describes herself as "Swiss-born, half-Tibetan" • Hardly surprising, then, that's she's prone to do things a little differently, & while her songs have a recognisable dance aspect, this is always at the mercy of a determined urge to experiment • Take "Maze Rider (Live From The Cave)", for instance, where a cold sawtooth bass underpins Wax's twisting vocal line; later episodes with beats seem almost a concession in such a context as this • Elsewhere—as in the title track & "Holy Beast"—she's more recognisably conventional, but this is the exception rather than the rule, & as a whole this is one of the year's most interesting & successful albums of truly experimental songs •

34 | Arlene Sierra - Arlene Sierra Vol. 1
Just when you start wondering whether contemporary instrumental music doesn't have anything new left to explore, along comes this, the first compilation of Arlene Sierra's music • The earliest included work (Ballistae) is a decade old, but the rest of the pieces date from within the last five years • Sierra's music is fresh & unpredictable, & the works connected with creatures—the chamber piece Cicada Shell & Birds and Insects for solo piano—make a particularly strong impression • A vocal work, Two Neruda Odes, indicates a lyrical streak to her work, but this appears to be of only secondary interest; Sierra is most in her element exploring rather hectic, scurrying textures • Superb performances throughout; the "Vol. 1" in the CD title is nicely optimistic—one hopes it's not too long before there's a Vol. 2 • [Amazon]

33 | John Cage - 108/109/110
John Cage's number pieces, composed late in his life, are among the most enigmatic of his entire output • They break down all kinds of conventions, adopting a form of notation known as the "time bracket technique", constructing works from fragments of material with indications as to when they take place • The titles derive from the number of players involved, & frequently Cage stipulated that one piece could be performed simulataneously with others to form new compositional entities • This album focuses on Cage's largest number work, 108, performed by itself & in conjunction with One8 & Two3 • The performances (by the wonderfully-named "Chance Philharmonic") are magnificent & the soundworld is riveting throughout, demonstrating anew how our understanding of Cage's music is still a work-in-progress • [CDBaby | Amazon]

32 | Autechre & The Hafler Trio - ae3o3
i dare say this release, quite apart from the intentions of its creators, got hyped up way more than it should have, being announced & postponed repeatedly for about three years • When it finally emerged, back in the summer, the resulting music probably thwarted more than a few expectations—but taken on its own terms, this is a fine addition to the previous collaborations between these artists • Quite what Autechre's involvement consists of remains unclear; once again, in both style & duration (lasting 3¾ hours), ae3o3 comes across entirely as a Hafler Trio work, forming large-scale sound sculptures from slow-moving, granite-like slabs of noise • The first of the two tracks, 'ah3eo', is a little bland & goes over ground pretty much covered before, but the second track, 'ha3oe' is very exciting indeed, one of the finest electronic compositions i've heard this year • [Norman Records]

31 | David Lynch - INLAND EMPIRE (Original Motion Picture Score)
Since relaunching his website, David Lynch has been primarily concerned with releasing supplementary material connected with Twin Peaks • But this year he also released a new version of the soundtrack to his last film INLAND EMPIRE, doing away with the songs & incidental music, replacing them with an additional 25 minutes of the score Lynch himself composed for the film (in a break with tradition, Angelo Badalamenti wasn't involved this time) • As such, the album is now far more consistent & genuinely representative of INLAND EMPIRE, a sound tapestry that's as dark & intractible as the film itself • Lynch has clearly enjoyed experimenting with pop this year, but it's in territory like this that he's clearly most adept & at home, creating some of the best & most telling dark ambient ever made • []

30 | Patrick Wolf - Lupercalia
Finding love has clearly had a wonderful creative impact on Patrick Wolf • There's an audible spring-in-the-step on many of the songs, such as "Time of my Life" (with some stylistic echoes of Florence), "Together" & "The Falcons", intermingled with elements of electropop, a broad palette of experimental sounds, & assorted mannerisms—both synth & vocal—that evoke the 1980s • The standout track, though, is "House", a song celebrating that most prosaic & profound of things, setting up home with a loved one: "I love that here you live with me/Gives me the greatest peace I've ever known"—in both style & sentiment, this song is all glory • [Amazon | iTunes]

29 | Roly Porter - Aftertime
i've been little interested in Roly Porter's work as one half of Vex'd, but this, his first solo album, is something else • Porter revels in his own aspirations; ejecting beats, but without betraying his bass-fuelled history, he's drawn on a welter of hitherto untapped resources to forge Aftertime • The spectrum of music it covers is courageously broad, encompassing harsh noise, lush chords & intimate melodies (featuring the wonderful ondes Martenot) • Despite its novelty in Porter's output, there's nothing about this album that feels experimental; there's a confidence throughout that makes each track utterly compelling • [Amazon | iTunes]

28 | Braids - Native Speaker
i'm regularly impressed by music from Canada, & Braids are the latest • Their first album came out at the start of the year, & i've been returning to it constantly; their spritely brand of art rock is imaginative & uplifting, aided in no small part by Raphaelle Standell-Preston's ever-dominant vocals • The songs are rich & substantial (most are 7-8 minutes' duration), characterised by colourful & unexpected arrangements that serve only to propel the narrative • Standout tracks are "Plath Heart" , which both lyrically & vocally bears strong similarities to Joanna Newsom, & "Lammicken", a brooding number fixed above a softly pounding beat; its final explosion is fantastic • [Amazon | iTunes]

27 | Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil
How on earth do Deerhoof do it? • The similarities from album to album seem to grow ever more tenuous yet Deerhoof's music is recognisable in a heartbeat • This short album is as quirky as ever; it gets off to a slow start, but many of the songs are among their best • "Super Duper Rescue Heads!" unites playful verses with an overdrive chorus (practically destroying Satomi Matsuzaki's vocals), "Must Fight Current" is delightfully skew-whiff lazy lounge music, while "I Did Crimes For You" effects the guise of relatively straightforward indie rock, but keeps getting pulled off course • It's all beautifully leftfield • [Norman Records | iTunes]

26 | Talvihorros - Descent Into Delta
Ben Chatwin's music has been growing in maturity for the last few years (his 2010 album Music in Four Movements featured in my best album list last year), & Descent Into Delta is his finest creation • The guitar remains his primary sound source but it becomes highly plastic, transformed into new forms that lose sight of their origin • Supplemented here by (in Chatwin's words) "organ, harmonium, mandolin, bells, synthesizer & waves of electronic static", the five tracks show some influence of Aidan Baker in their structure & focus, but Chatwin's sound is entirely his own • Descent Into Delta inhabits a somewhat amphibious & claustrophobic soundworld, but Chatwin fills it with wonders • [Bandcamp]

25 | Christopher William Anderson - Moskenstraumen
Having abandoned his previous moniker Operations, Chris Anderson has struck out in 2011 under his own name • Moskenstraumen is his first release, & the physical edition demonstrates Anderson's deep love of design, coming in an intricately hand-made case with off-kilter concentric circles • They're an abstract depiction of the whirlpools in the title & Anderson's music explores them further, opening with "An End to Calm", a track that gradually draws in & envelops the listener at its centre • The notion of maelstrom continues throughout, & while that inevitably leads to music with a noisy demeanour, it also encounters some lovely softer episodes • [Bandcamp]

24 | Stephan Mathieu - A Static Place
While the majority of ambient music has sacrificed the creative spark in favour of dry repetition or hollow paralysis, Mathieu's music continues to demonstrate it's a genre with prospects • Despite the title, there's little actual stasis in Mathieu's textures, which move & evolve with glacial speed & grace • It lacks pretention too, Mathieu deliberately accentuating the artifice of creation by making all but one of the track durations exactly 10 minutes long (the other is 20) • The territory is pretty warm & familiar, but the slow, constant flux of its combination of ambient, drone & noise elements is fascinating • [Norman Records | iTunes]

23 | Frank Zappa - Feeding The Monkies At Ma Maison
For nearly two decades i've been in awe of the final album Frank Zappa released prior to his death, Civilization Phaze III; this release of five synclavier pieces augments that experience, containing nascent versions of some of that material • "Buffalo Voice" is effectively a stripped-down version of the one on CPIII, & what it lacks in immersiveness it gains in the clarity it affords to the inner workings of Zappa's counterpoint; it's a beautiful track anyway, & being heard like this does it no harm at all • As for the rest, "Secular Humanism" isn't quite so effective as its later incarnation, but the remaining three pieces—which effectively fall between CPIII & the earlier Jazz from Hell—are splendid; despite its brevity, "Worms from Hell" is perhaps the most effective, its semi-chaotic material sounding all the more wild compacted into just 5½ minutes • [Barfko-Swill]

22 | Leyland Kirby - Intrigue & Stuff Volume 2
Intrigue & Stuff is an ongoing series begun in 2011, which to date has three volumes • Volume 2 features just four tracks, but they draw heavily on Kirby's formidably-refined technique of grinding down to the essence of a sound • The title of "Eventually, it eats your lungs" bespeaks disease, & everything about its music is encrusted & weighed down with sonic infection, out of which a voice struggles to sing—it's definitely one of Kirby's strongest & most moving pieces • But even this is superceded by the final track "Complex expedition", & 20-minute foray into entirely new hauntological waters, the omnipresent hiss & slithering bass providing the framework for a procession of analogue synth ideas • Kirby practically invented hauntology, & to hear him re-inventing it in such dazzling fashion is exhilarating • [JunoRecords | Digital download only available to subscribers]

21 | Celer - Noctilucent Clouds
Reviewed in August, this is Celer at their best, creating the most subtle of ambient soundworlds • Back then, i alluded to the music of Feldman, & that still seems the most appropriate analogy; barely audible a lot of the time, barely moving the rest of it, music rarely gets as intense or focussed as this • To an extent, it suffers being broken into three arbitrary tracks, but at the same time duration becomes practically meaningless in music of this kind—one could almost listen forever • As the number of Celer releases asymptotically approaches absurdity, distinctions between many of the albums become harder to find; all the more reason then to celebrate Noctilucent Clouds which, both within Celer's output & in ambient music generally, is unique • [Bandcamp]

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Best EPs of 2011

Lists help you believe that there will be a future - by reminding you that the things you are listing have happened, in a time that was once a future, & that therefore there will be a future where things will happen that can then be listed & taken forward to remind us of a past where stuff was generated that made us believe there is a present & so, ultimately, a future.” (Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here we go again, then, with my own series of lists summarising what i believe to be the best music of the last 12 months • As usual, i'm going to strew caveats all over them—these lists are only what i presently believe to be the best & if i made them again in a few months' time things would likely have changed, & in any case i haven't heard every release this year, & while we're on the subject there are still three days of the year left & we all know how much can happen in just three days—but regardless, these lists, in all their provisional tentativity, are, right here right now, definitive • Okay, so bearing all that in mind, let's get the ball rolling with the ten EPs that have stood out most through the last 12 months •

10 | Hecq & Exillon - Spheres of Fury
It's hardly worth repeating Ben Lukas Boysen's 2009 claim that "beat-science can't go any further with me"—his unique take on the world of grime & dubstep through the last couple of years has been blisteringly exciting • Spheres of Fury lives up to its title, a sleazy track with indelicate beats & bass—the accompanying video, featuring a wonderfully over-dramatised waterfight is hilarious—but it's the last of the four tracks that's even better • The "Stochastic Process remix By Techdiff" goes way beyond the scope of regular remixes, turning Hecq's masterly original into a flawlessly-executed glitch-fest that ends with a twist, the sedate pace abruptly doubled, ending up as a frenzied dance track • [Juno Download]

9 | Fovea Hex - Three Beams
Clodagh Simonds doesn't mess around when she gives her music to other musicians to play with • Her 2007 release Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent ended up in the hands of no less than The Hafler Trio, & this time around her latest songs have been given to Michael Begg, Colin Potter & William Basinski • With its detail & surface filigree, it must be hard to know where to start reworking Fovea Hex material, but this fine little EP (available only as a bonus CD with her new album) proves what's possible • Predictably, Basinski's is the least inventive, but the other two "beams" are outstanding, Begg & Potter refashioning the material into soft, surrounding ambient soundscapes, reverently celebrating those aspects that make the music of Fovea Hex as unique as it is • [Janet Records]

8 | Pablo - In Hurricanes
i know precisely nothing about Pablo, & only discovered this EP by accident when roaming the iTunes store some time back • There's something of the retro quality that pervades so much synthpop at the moment, but it's not a throwback; analogue synths are only one colour in Pablo's palette • Each of the three songs has a lightly cheeky quality that's most endearing; second track "Rock Bottom" is a delightful encouragement to those facing hard times: "son, you have to fall face first, hit rock bottom, to learn in life" • Pablo's voice is splendid, & his heartfelt lyrics never feel trite, the music keeping things light & airy • [iTunes]

7 | Yugen - Ae'shT'aT'aQ
David Sani's Yugen project is hard to define or even to describe • To some he's better known through the lowercase music he's released as Shinkei, but i find this new departure of his to be far more impressive • He brings to mind the soundworld of The Hafler Trio in Ae'shT'aT'aQ, an episodic work that explores some utterly captivating & immersive textures • The title is Aramaic for "he stood in silence", & Sani has used (in his words) "some old middle east archival recordings" as source material, but they have been so extensively worked on & processed that there's barely any clear trace of them • Yet, while the origins are indistinct, the grain of the music is tangibly evocative, which together with the fascinating techniques used throughout, sets this album apart from the majority of experimental electronics • [Free download]

6 | Ex Confusion - Too Late, They Are Gone
Ambient music can't always withstand being presented in smaller, shorter formats, but this is where Atsuhito Omori's music is most at home • & it's the miniature size of these tracks (reviewed back in March) that makes them as powerful as they are; while lesser minds endlessly play with loops dully repeated ad nauseam, Omori condenses his ideas into pieces barely three or four minutes long • Their short span blurs the nature of their content (is it a looping fragment? or is it a part of something much larger?) thus freeing one to focus entirely on the resulting music, which—in part, again, due to the duration—is imbued with real fragility, enhanced by such titles as "Too Late, They Are Gone" & "It Doesn't Last Forever" (one of my favourite tracks of the year) • The five amuse-bouches on this EP are like the last streaks of colour in fading photographs—beautiful & very moving—& i love how Omori leaves the start & end of each track rough & unfinished, which only adds to its authenticity • [Bandcamp]

5 | Uh Huh Her - Black and Blue
Uh Huh Her have been around since 2007, but don't seem to have found their sound until this year • Their particular marriage of synthpop & rock is finally given perfect expression on this EP, almost every track of which is a winner • Leisha Hailey & Camila Grey bring a delicate lyricism to their music that's very impressive, & songs like "Never the Same" (with its simply gorgeous chorus) & "I've Had Enough" somehow navigate through the tropes of ballad & light rock, emerging with real emotional power • The more electronic tracks are certainly infectious, but despite their pace are kept relatively low-key (Hailey & Grey often singing low in their registers) & always at the service of the words; definitely some of the best songs released this year • []

4 | Clem Leek - Home Outside
i must admit to having mixed feelings about Clem Leek's music, which has had as many (if not more) misses than hits • But when he gets it right, as he does on this 17-minute, single-track EP, the results are breathtaking • There's a lovely balance between the deep, omnipresent richness of the underlying drone & the mournful, string-inflected wailing above (redolent of Richard Skelton) • There are all kinds of sound sources involved in the piece's dense texture, but their details are kept hazy & they thereby become more able to hint & evoke, without the need to be specific • Leek judges the duration perfectly, & insodoing has crafted his best work to date • [Bandcamp]

3 | Tetra - Live at Gallery of Modern Art
Tetra is an offshoot from the Australian group Ektoise (comprising Greg Reason & Jim Grundy), focussing primarily on ambient atmospherics • This 27-minute live improvisation is the second of just two releases the duo has created so far, both of which are available free • Guitars are at the epicentre of the piece, but they're suffused & surrounded with shifting layers & clouds of sound, creating a huge sonic space • Apart from the oblique beauty of the music, what stands out most for me in this recording is the restraint, Reason & Grundy keeping things moving but never pushing them along, drifting but always with a discreet guiding sense of purpose • [Bandcamp]

2 | irr. app. (ext.) - The Famine Road/Celestial Laminate
After a number of years seemingly in the wilderness, Matt Waldron's irr. app. (ext.) project has gloriously returned in 2011 • The focus this year has been digital, Waldron releasing a slew of new & remastered material via his Bandcamp site • i've been unable to choose between these two; The Famine Road, a collaboration with Diana Rogerson & her noise duo Fistfuck, originally appeared in 2008 in an edition of just one copy (auctioned on eBay) • Waldron has now made it available to everyone, together with two revised versions; all three are devastating in their abrasive impact, pushing Waldron's extreme & surreal experimentalism to its limits • Celestial Laminate is no less dense, but begins with a superb drone-based piece, around which large quantities of sound have accreted • [Bandcamp]

1 | Christopher McFall & David Velez - Credence
When it comes to working with field recordings, few demonstrate more innate understanding & technical control than Christopher McFall • In this remarkable collaboration with David Velez, McFall's tendency to focus on the dark, amorphous nature of sound is coloured by overtly melodic material, seamlessly integrated into the sonic fabric • "Seamless" doesn't really do it justice, though; Credence is, no doubt, a collage of elements, but the skill with which they are brought together, juxtaposed & intertwined is truly astonishing • Nothing ever feels remotely out of place; on the contrary, the way in which the piece comes across—as is usual for anything McFall is involved with—is like an unadorned field recording in its own right, such is the naturality of the result •

i dare say Credence won't be for everyone; it's gentle, yes—but equally it's perhaps the most pitch black music i've ever heard • Like a cross between Twin Peaks & Lustmord, vast, yawning noises ponderously arise from unfathomable depths, emerging into an ominous nocturnal landscape • Evoking foghorns & organ pedals, deep melodic fragments circle like a funereal ground bass, at times made arboreal through the noises of birds & other creatures, othertimes aquatic with creaking boat wood • Although it projects an acute, vivid sense of isolation & even desolation, there's much, much beauty to it all, which only makes it more moving • As only the best music can, Credence ultimately transcends words & communicates the immensity of its vision at an instinctual level • An absolute masterpiece • [Free download]