The Gamelan of the Walking Warriors

cover imageMy fascination with the Sublime Frequencies and Nonesuch Explorer labels goes back many years, but it has been quite a long time since I have been properly floored by a revelatory feat of ethnological scavenging or scholarship. I was starting to worry that my ears had lost their capacity for wonder until this 2017 gem from France’s eclectic Akuphone label belatedly crossed my path. Unsurprisingly, the compiler (Vincenzo Della Ratta) previously surfaced on SF with 2016’s Kwangkay: Funerary Music Of The Dayak Benuaq Of Borneo and this album returns to a similar theme, swapping out the funeral music of Borneo for that of Bali. Only part of this album covers field recordings of Balinese funerals, however, as the other half is culled from some truly visceral and mesmerizing rehearsal space recordings of the more contemporary and visionary Dharma Shanti Orchestra. Both sides have certainly their appeal, but it is exclusively the Dharma Shanti material that makes the leap from "this is interesting and unique traditional music" to "this is what I desperately want the music of the future to sound like."

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10781 Hits

Celer, "Xièxie"

cover imageIt would be great if there was some simple way for casual Celer fans like myself to easily distinguish Will Long's major statements from the ceaseless flow of minor releases, but there seem to be glaring exceptions to every system that I have attempted to devise. In the case of Xièxie, however, Long helpfully took the guesswork out of the matter, as this might be the most heavily promoted album that he has ever released. Happily, his instincts have proven to be well-founded, as Xièxie definitely ranks among the upper tier of his overwhelming oeuvre. I would probably stop short of calling it a start-to-finish masterpiece or my personal favorite Celer album, but I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone else churning out ambient/drone music as enveloping and sublimely lovely as Xièxie's bookends.

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12088 Hits

Nocturnal Emissions, "Spiritflesh"

cover imageThere is an ancient Indian parable about a group of blind men trying to describe an elephant–predictably, they all wind up with very different impressions of what an elephant is like, as they are each only experiencing one small part of something very large (tusk, a snout, a foot, etc.). I mention this because I feel like I am in a very similar situation whenever I try to wrap my head around Nigel Ayers' idiosyncratic and sometimes visionary career: I have roughly ten Nocturnal Emissions albums and feel like I have barely scratched the surface of his many curious and fascinating activities over the years (both musical and otherwise). Despite that intimidatingly vast ouevre, there are a handful of universally acknowledged landmark albums within his sprawling discography and Spiritflesh (recently reissued) is one of them. In fact, it is arguably the best of lot (depending on who you ask, of course). For better or worse, it is well-known for its influential role in shaping the dark ambient genre, but it is far more earthy, vibrant, and willfully experimental than any of the gloomy drones that followed in its wake and too unique to have many true kindred spirits. More than thirty years after its release, Spiritflesh's visionary collage of traditional instrumentation and field recording still sounds remarkably fresh and timeless.

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7248 Hits

Fennesz, "Agora"

cover imageIt has been roughly five years since Christian Fennesz last surfaced with a proper solo album (2014’s excellent Bécs), though he has certainly kept busy with other projects in the meantime. For this latest release, however, he found himself in unusual straits, as he lost his studio space and had to move all of his gear into his bedroom. In theory, that was not an optimal work environment and he never ended up setting up much of his usual arsenal, but new constraints can often lead to unexpected breakthroughs. That is arguably the case here: while Agora is not quite an Endless Summer-caliber bombshell or a groundbreaking reinvention of Fennesz's aesthetic, it is definitely a modest masterpiece of sorts, as quietly recording in his room with minimal gear and omnipresent headphones paved the way for a quartet of truly lovely, nuanced, and absorbing soundscapes.

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5533 Hits

Yannick Franck Presents Mt. Gemini,"Just Like A River"

cover imageJamaican-style dub music has been around for more than half a century at this point, yet new artists continue to emerge who miraculously find new ways to twist and evolve upon the form. The latest example of that phenomenon comes in the shape of this new project from Orphan Swords' Yannick Franck, who ingeniously carves up vintage ska, rocksteady, and skinhead reggae to yield a suite of wonderfully soulful and hallucinatory collages. In some ways, The Caretaker is perversely the closest kindred spirit here, as Franck is a similarly "outsider" deconstructionist: he does not have a treasure trove of master tapes from legendary Kingston studios that would enable him to easily isolate a bassline or vocal melody, yet he inventively turns that disadvantage into an asset. In transforming whole cloth recordings into something of his own, Franck has created something that bears almost zero structural similarity to traditional dub or reggae, but manages to translate its core essence into challenging and playfully experimental abstract art. When he hits the mark just right, the results can be quite brilliant.

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8371 Hits

Mattin, "Songbook #7"

cover image As the latest installment in his Songbook series, Mattin continues building from the concepts of those that came before, namely recording in a live setting with a variety of collaborators. This time the set was recorded at the Digging the Global South Festival in 2017 and is quite a politically charged recording, with Mattin drawing from two events early in the 20th century and what he sees as the parallels to the current resurgence of fascism in Europe (and by extension the rest of the world). Sprawling and challenging, the final product is anything but impenetrable though, and Mattin does a perfect job presenting the concept without ever sacrificing the music.

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5506 Hits

Het Interstedelijk Harmoniumverbond

cover imageThis quartet is the culmination of Glen Steenkiste’s long fascination with the harmonium, expanding beautifully upon the themes laid out by Helvette's sprawling Droomharmonium (2018). That said, this album feels like a bit of a different animal altogether, as this league of Belgian drone artists takes the kernel of Steenkiste's vision to a considerably transformed place. In fact, Het Interstedelijk Harmoniumverbond feels like an inspired continuation of the grand tradition of La Monte Young-style minimalism, weaving complexly harmonic and gorgeously undulating dronescapes that favorably call to mind masterpieces like The Electric Harpsichord.

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11215 Hits

David First, "Same Animal, Different Cages Vol. 4: Sitar Music of North Brooklyn"

cover imageAs the conclusion to his Same Animal, Different Cages project, Brooklyn composer David First has again chosen to use an instrument with more limited applications than the first installments two (guitar and synth). The sitar has a very distinctive sound and specific cultural associations (which First discusses his struggle with in the liner notes). Aware of this, he pushes the boundaries of what a single instrument can represent, and also showcases his exceptional skills as both a composer and performer.

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5389 Hits

Maria Somerville, "All My People"

cover imageIt is quite a rare and improbable event for a self-released debut to amass so much buzz and acclaim upon its release, but All My People is quite a deserving recipient for such good fortune. For better or worse, Somerville's work is likely to draw superficial comparisons to Carla dal Forno or Liz Harris, as she is quite fond of simple drum machine patterns, reverb-swathed vocals, and minimal musical accompaniment. At its heart, however, Somerville's vision is a fresh and unique one, as that stark template is an unlikely framework for a delightfully eclectic and unabashedly pop-minded suite of songs (albeit pop in the classic sense, a la Pet Sounds). In that regard, the achingly gorgeous centerpiece "Dreaming" is the album's biggest draw, but Somerville is just as adept at the production side of the equation, taking these seven pieces in some delightfully inventive and unusual directions.

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14466 Hits

Matmos, "Plastic Anniversary"

cover imageAs fitfully brilliant as they can be, the Matmos of recent years has been more of a project that I respect and occasionally find fascinating than a project that I genuinely love. At the risk of torpedoing whatever experimental music cred I might have, I fear they might genuinely be a bit too far out for me…or at least too constrained by their passion for focused conceptual themes and unusual materials. Nevertheless, I am always quite happy to investigate whatever kitschy and perverse lunacy they have cooked up with each fresh album, as the results are never boring. In the case of Plastic Anniversary, Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt gleefully embark upon a morbidly funny celebration of all things plastic, assembling an arsenal of toilet brushes, breast implants, police shields, synthetic human tissue, and some hapless Bread records to make a host of bizarre and colorfully cartoonish sounds. As usual, Matmos' sheer ingenuity and resourcefulness is second to none, but the most compelling innovation of all was the duo’s decision to enlist Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier and a high school drumline from Montana.

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5603 Hits

Pass/Ages, "Taken Underneath"

cover image Consisting of two thirds of the band Ars Phoenix, namely Jonn Gauntletier and Caitlin Grimalkin, it is not overly surprising that there are a lot of similarities between the bands. Both are equally synth heavy and rife with memorable hooks. However, the two are distinct projects, with Pass/Ages mining somewhat darker, distorted territories in comparison to the slightly more up beat Ars Phoenix work. Never are the moments of catchiness far off, however, resulting in a tape that is rough and experimental, yet as memorable as any pop record out there.

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5035 Hits

My Disco, "Environment"

cover imageThis Australian trio first appeared on my radar with 2015’s somewhat polarizing and aptly named Severe album, which stripped away all of the more conventional post-punk elements of their sound to leave only a beautifully chiseled and pummeling strain of minimalism. I suppose most My Disco albums have been a bit polarizing though, as the band have undergone a series of transformations since their early days as a math-rock band and not every fan has wanted to stick around for the next phase. With Severe, however, it felt like My Disco had finally found a truly distinctive niche that felt like their proper home. Environment happily continues to explore that same vein, yet takes that aesthetic to an even greater extreme, replacing surgical brutality with an ominous, simmering tension and dissolving any last traces of the band’s more "rock" past.  It is hard to say if Environment quite tops Severe, but it is very easy to say that it is another great album from an extremely compelling band.

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4960 Hits

Abul Mogard, "And We Are Passing Through Silently"

cover imageHot on the heels of his appearance on last year's In Death's Dream Kingdom, Abul Mogard returns to Houndstooth with a collection of his work as an unlikely remix artist. Of these five lengthy pieces, I was only familiar with the one from Fovea Hex's The Salt Garden II, as his reworkings of songs by Nick Nicely and a pair of Houndstooth artists (Aïsha Devi and Penelope Trappes) somehow eluded me. The beguiling centerpiece of the album, however, is an entirely new work that reimagines Cindytalk/Massimo Pupillo's sublime Becoming Animal project. All of the chosen pieces suit Mogard's aesthetic beautifully though, adding up to an album that is more like an unexpectedly strong and song-based follow-up to Above All Dreams than a collection of one-off works that were never intended to coexist. Naturally, this is easily Abul Mogard's most accessible release to date, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is also one of his best too.

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5722 Hits

Simon Scott, "Soundings"

cover imageThis is Simon Scott's formal debut for Touch and it is such a quintessential example of the label's aesthetic that it almost feels like a homecoming. It is similar to a homecoming in another way as well, as Scott composed these pieces from field recordings taken during Slowdive's extensive touring over the last few years, diligently editing and shaping them in hotel rooms during his idle hours. Upon returning, he teamed up with cellist Charlie Campagna and violinist Zachary Paul to transform his impressionistic audio diaries into a lushly beautiful and bittersweet ambient travelogue of sorts. In some ways, this side of Scott's work is less distinctive than his more dub-inflected albums, but he has a remarkably great ear for striking the perfect balance between vibrant textures and blurred, dreamlike elegance.

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11787 Hits

Legendary Pink Dots, "The Golden Age"

cover imageNewly remastered and reissued on Metropolis, 1988's The Golden Age hails from an especially transitory and unsettled phase of The Legendary Pink Dots' history: it was composed in the wake of a disastrous tour in which half of the band quit. Also, Edward Ka-Spel and The Silverman were kicked out of their squat in Amsterdam and left the city to take up residence in Niels van Hoorn's caravan in the countryside. And, to flesh out that scene still further, the album was recorded in a poorly heated farmhouse. That seems like quite a dark and rough stretch to me, yet it is clear from interviews that Ka-Spel found the experience refreshing and creatively rejuvenating and both he and The Silverman have since singled out The Golden Age as one of their favorite LPD releases. I cannot say that I fully share that assessment myself, as it is a bit of a difficult and uneven album at times, but there is definitely a brilliant EP lurking among this strange and kaleidoscopic suite of songs. At its best, The Golden Age feels like a playfully lysergic, darkly whimsical, and endearingly baroque series of regret-soaked scenes plucked from a vivid, haunting novel that only exists in Edward Ka-Spel's head.

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5210 Hits

William Basinski, "On Time Out of Time"

cover imageThis latest release is more of a diversion than a fresh addition to the canon of William Basinski masterworks, as it was originally composed for a pair of installations for an exhibition in Berlin. In keeping with theme of the show ("Limits of Knowing"), he stepped outside of his usual working methods to craft floating ambient soundscapes sourced from recordings captured by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Looked at another way, however, On Time Out of Time could be seen as Basinski's normal working methods taken to their ultimate extreme: instead of harvesting sounds from decaying tapes a few decades old, he is now harvesting billion-year-old sounds created by merging black holes. As far as singular, awe-inspiring cosmic events go, that is fairly hard to top, but it must be said that Basinski on his own has a more melodically and harmonically sophisticated sensibility than most (if not all) black holes. As such, the appeal of On Time Out Of Time lies more in the ingenious transformation of the source material than in the finished compositions (though they are quite likable).

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16000 Hits

Francisco López, "Sonic Fields Vlieland", "Untitled #337"

cover image Taken together, these two recent releases from the always prolific Francisco López perfectly encapsulate not only the breadth of his work, but also the extreme duality of his approach. Sonic Fields Vlieland is a three hour, six segment piece made exclusively by treating field recordings captured on the Dutch island of Vlieland while Untitled #337 is a full-on technology-based work that utilizes software creation and the limitations of digital recording methodologies. Both works are very different in their sound and methods of composition, but both also showcase López’s exceptional artistry.

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5485 Hits

Cosey Fanni Tutti, "Tutti"

cover imageIt would be misleading to say that Cosey Fanni Tutti has been a singularly unprolific solo artist, as her oeuvre has never been constrained to simply music, but it is noteworthy that her last original solo album (Time to Tell) was released almost four decades ago. That album was stellar, setting quite a high bar for future releases. Also significant: Cosey's career has undergone a well-deserved renaissance in the last couple years, culminating in the release of her acclaimed memoir Art Sex Music. As a result, Tutti has the somewhat unenviable curse of being an album preceded by months of anticipation and high expectations. For better or worse, Cosey has nimbly sidestepped that situation to some degree, as Tutti is more of a soundtrack than a major new artistic statement…musically, anyway. On a conceptual level, this album is loosely intended as a career-spanning self-portrait built from reworked archival recordings. Cosey took that "reworking" part quite seriously though, so this album often feels like a warmly hallucinatory collection of instrumental Chris & Cosey remixes despite the submerged ghosts of more abrasive and transgressive days.

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5035 Hits

Akira Rabelais, "CXVI"

cover imageIt took me an embarrassingly long time to realize it, but Akira Rabelais has quietly been one of the most unique and intriguing figures in experimental music for the last couple of decades, blurring the lines between collage, modern composition, ambient music, and conceptual art with each release. This latest album has apparently been a labor of love for years, drawing contributions from an eclectic array of collaborators including Harold Budd, Ben Frost, Kassel Jaeger, Stephan Mathieu, Geir Jenssen, and a pair of French photographers. Admittedly, a bevy of talented participants is not always an infallible recipe for a great album, but it was this time, as CXVI resembles a temporally dislocated and hallucinatory mélange of This Mortal Coil, Erik Satie, and a 19th century Parisian opium den.

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6152 Hits

Evan Caminiti, "Refraction"

cover imageThis latest EP is a companion piece of sorts to Caminiti's 2017 Toxic City album, albeit one that draws its inspiration from NYC's hidden oases of calm and space rather than its more claustrophobic and dystopian elements. Much like its predecessor, Refraction continues to explore Caminiti's deep interest in dub techno, yet he has stretched the boundaries of the form in an intriguing, thoughtful, and almost quixotic way: with these four pieces, he attempts to replace the rhythm of the dancefloor with a more languorous and organic pulse ("like a circulatory system made audible"). With casual and relatively inattentive listening, these experiments feel kind of like a classic Basic Channel or Mille Plateaux release that has been deconstructed and stretched into something vaporous and drifting rather than pulsing, but the depth and quiet beauty of Caminiti's unconventional vision comes into vivid focus when Refraction is experienced through headphones.

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6293 Hits