Formerly known as one half of the British avant-drone and noise duo Birds Of Delay the expatriated Steven Warwick now indulges in soaking up Berlin hipster dancefloors with nothing more than a simple casio keyboard. Intrinsically skeptical towards the traditional album format Warwick is struggling hard to let “Re-Engineering” not fall into gooey mixtape schemes. Sometimes however it seems to just slip his hands and these moments happen to be the most insightful and define the record as a thought-provoking cybernetic poem that shifts its single elements in a complex pattern of the post-modern bonmot and a critical theory of dance music that takes its cues from New York funk and no wave to acid house, musique concrète and the whole spectrum of the deterritorialized and absurd post-everything web 2.0. Plus, the saxophone contributions from André Vida turn up the record's hotness by several levels.
"Drifters / Love Is The Devil"
You can easily imagine Hong Kong ex-pat Alex Zhang getting lost in one of Wong Kar Wai's overwhelming visual maelstroms, just like one of those desperate characters in “Fallen Angels” or “Chungking Express”. Indeed Zhang embraced staging his mauvaise 50ies guitar hero alter ego enthusiastically with his previous records. His latest double album however reveals the exhausted person behind the stage: “Drifters” seems like a restless 'on tour' ramble through the souled-out nightlife of several neon-lit metropoles, always ending up in the same faceless hotel room with some faux-rockabilly-nowave/industrial à la Suicide dripping from the laptop speakers. The largely instrumental “Love Is The Devil” gives a glimpse of the hollowed-out morning after, a fierce and hard-hitting introspection that summons black holes of emptiness and the shuddering experience of feeling nowhere at home ever again.
When Matthew Barnes' debut record, the now legendary “Dagger Paths” ep appeared out of the blue in the mid of 2010 there was really little to nothing that sounded like it. A whole new world of sonic possibilities has been accessed since those lo-fi infected, endlessly meandering dub riddims crept their way through doom-ridden guitar drones, summoning scenes of nostalgic and tropical coming-of-age stories burning away on grainy tape. The sound of contemporary music may have changed quite a bit in the last three years and Forest Swords sure does have its fair share on the recent developments. What he does on his first real full-length however is not so far away from “Dagger Paths”, only that his vision has become much clearer now. The textures have become deeper and richer in sound but also begin to take more sinister shapes. Moreover, Barnes has really perfected his sense and timing for using vocal samples to sheer astonishing extent and the way these samples weave in and out of those shattering dubbed out basslines will send shivers of amazement and pure delight down your spine.
"Traditional Music Of Notional Species Vol. 1"
You may have read the name Rashad Becker some hundred times before. It appears in the sleeve-notes of countless records especially from the experimental and leftfield spectrum because Becker is one of the guys behind the renowned Dubplates & Mastering studio in Berlin, who give a vast array of vinyl records its exquisite finish and distinctive sound. With so much different sonic input passing through his hands and ears everyday, Becker may have developed a singular macro-cosmic perspective towards contemporary electronic music. Instead “Traditional Music...”, his very first own record, plays out like a simulated faux field recording, an adventurous and fascinating close-up of insectile alien organisms struggling through hostile and pitchblack spaces. Much in the tradition of vanguard sound researchers like Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari and Bernard Parmegiani (RIP), Becker explores a sonic palette that reaches so far out of conventional tonalities that it is often experienced as not of this world. But what if those microscopic fragments of agony are not fictional and instead just distorted images of our own trans-human bodies wearing ourselves down between the collapse of social systems and the ever tighter grasp of concrete machineries?
"Chance Of Rain"
After two excellent 12-inches the queen of avant-house and experimental synthesizer music has put together another difficult but mind-expanding longplayer for Hyperdub. In stark contrast to last year's controversially discussed yet critically acclaimed “Quarantine” that was largely focussed on her voice, “Chance of Rain” is an almost entirely instrumental affair. By employing strange horizontal time shifts and melting layers of both frantic, complex drum machine rhythms and shards of piano and corroded spheres she offers a new and unheard interpretation of the ambient~techno nexus, which in its most brilliant moments reveals itself as a meditation on the relations of tempo and texture.
The man behind the mad and minimalist techno improvisations of Morphosis is making a not so unexpected sidestep to more folk-infected terrain with this gorgeous record. On “Albidaya” the Lebanese Berlin-via-Venice producer is exploring his Middle-eastern roots from a strictly electro-acoustic perspective. Maybe inspired by the work of Dariush Dolat-Shahi (an amazing collection of his recordings was issued on vinyl in 2012 through Dead Cert) and his love for free jazz, Beaini sets a large array of oriental strings, distorted organs and sparse percussions against the chaotic netherworld of glitches, bleeps, noises and concrète soundscapes to weave an aural carpet so deep and thick in texture that you can sink your head in entirely. Rounded off by virtuous saxophone contributions from Piero Bittolo Bon, „Albidaya“ offers a rare and engrossing listening experience.
The venerable Miles Whittaker is well known as one half of England's most forward-thinking sonic outfit and eldritch electronic duo Demdike Stare. But with a vita so deeply entangled with the evolution of UK club culture and dj-ing, Miles seems pre-destined to contribute a competent commentary on the current status of electronic (dance) music. And „Faint-Hearted“ is exactly that; eight wholly diverse exercises in re-building electronic styles from the scratch, encompassing experiments in dub techno, cinematic ambient, ravished 'ardcore jungle, pulsating minimalism and abstract and subterranean drone architectures. All unified by his immaculate craftsmanship there is a certain red thread passing through the album, but Miles sometimes couldn't resist to obliterate and dissolve his tracks in noisy invocations of pure dark matter.
BARNETT + COLOCCIA
(Blackest Ever Black)
Recorded in a few short-termed studio sessions in Seattle and Vancouver, „Retrieval“ is the result of the meeting of two creative minds from the prolific American drone-metal scene. While Alex Barnett has been part of Oakeater, Faith Coloccia is coming from a more visual background (where she contributed several artwork for Hydra Head and Profound Lore) but also played with the post-metal vanguards of Pyramids and runs the Mamiffer project with her husband Aaron Turner (Isis). Created from an entirely analogue arsenal of synths and instruments, the record evokes a Cthulhian journey through the microcosm of vintage horror-soundtracks and John Carpenter-esque synth patterns which has probably become a prominent thing to do in recent years. But the way the duo drags these layers of sweeping giallo ambient into dark pits of dirt and hiss makes this introspective ghost-story totally their own.
The overall atmosphere on “Colonial Patterns” is that of dissolving, atomising and melting of artefacts that have ever been barely there or are lying buried under layers of dust and sediment. Making loose references to the leftovers of Pre-Colombian cultures in his native midwest Kansas-born Brian Leeds expands the grainy, smoky and smudged outsider-house formula, that has been popularised by cassette labels like Opal Tapes, for the first time on large-scale double lp for Daniel Lopatin's Software Records. But rather than leaving the impression that this sound has been overdone by now, Huerco S. succeeds to present a collection of tracks that are totally to the point and feel like he has gone in-depth exploring how much you can abstract and pulverise the loops and textures of Basic Channel inspired dub techno and deep house music.
"Watching Dead Empires In Decay"
The infamous sonic outlaw Leyland Kirby has already made himself a modern myth by now. Widely known through his monikers V/Vm and The Caretaker in which he underwent every stage of experimentation from remixing Chris de Burgh into a hauntological drone-pop nirvana to sampling old ballroom 78s for a never-ending labyrinth of looped memories, Kirby now re-activates the less-noticed The Stranger project for an album worth of harrowing and eerie isolationisms in a post-cultural terrain vague. Loosely based on disparate and diffuse percussions of dull-edged metal and worn-out machines, intersected with small traces of ice-cold melody, scraping off thick layers of rust in the bleakest winter morning, the record unfolds like a droning requiem for built-up areas awash in grey and left to desertify into a dehumanised wasteland.
"Life Cycle Of A Massive Star"
Rarely does the overused term 'epic' resound with such a deep gravity as on Bristol-based Roly Porter's second solo longplayer, a large-scale space opera that, like its title says, traces the immense sonic monstrosity radiating from the processes of merging, convulsing, vaporising and solidifying matter. But rather than only portraying a purely abstract soundscape, Porter builds a rational musical context for his curious atonalities by weaving in the breath of the perennial: compelling neo-classical string orchestrations of Wagnerian extent struggling against vortices of blackest drones and pulsating power electronics in a life-affirming journey through the micro- and macro-cosmos of our very own identities.
You might have already seen Steven Warwick's new project feature at the very beginning of this list, now here's the other chap from the legendary Birds Of Delay, both of them publishing their stuff on Bill Kouligas' impeccably creative PAN imprint. Appearing as the slightly more down-to-earth part of the duo, Luke Younger stayed in his native England and kept his recording process largely analogue. Often referred to as an ep and mere addendum to last year's excellent “Impossible Symmetry” I disagree with the public opinion and consider the rough 30 minutes of “Silencer” as one of Younger's strongest and most cohesive exercises to date in exploring the secret ritual layers of the mundane everyday scenery. Culled from various field recording sources he arranges a thrilling abstract narrative of irrational concrète rhythms dissolving in the apex of an ever crescendoing abradant drone, transcoded into a crackling and scratching spectrum of sound, so tangible and yet so transient that it remains an impossible task to put these unsettling atmospheres into proper words.
The immaculate talents of Canadian sound artist Tim Hecker need no further introduction. With the heavy ambient-noise opus of 2011's “Ravedeath, 1972” Hecker assured his place in the eternal hall of fame of contemporary electro-acoustic composers. Its follow-up “Virgins” however enlists a seemingly more intimate approach. Recorded in a Reykjavík studio with an inspired chamber ensemble that amongst others features prominent names like Ben Frost and Valgeir Sigurðsson, Hecker is not shy of creating arresting and complex harmonies out of piano, organ, strings and electronics. But the focus of the record is now on the environments of the performers, the resonating and reverberating of the room itself, that feeds back through the compositions sometimes with a low accompanying hum, other times as a physically engrossing wall of noise. Centred around these spatial hyper-sensibilities, these little time-shifts, interferences, errors and analogue glitches, “Virgins” stands as a testimony to the sheer manifold and impact of spaciousness on our aural experiences in a time when distances are being melted down and nullified and our anthropological concept of 'place' is in danger of disappearing forever.
"Your Crate Has Changed"
Ahhh... the ever cheerful and eloquent Baron Mordant is joining forces once more with the wizard of dub-infected plunderphonics Nick Edwards (Ekoplekz) for another session of witty post-industrial vignettes that comment on the absurd and the bizarre in the everyday life of Britain today. Cobbled together from cut up diary pages, found texts, blurbs and burps and melting away in a miasma of lunatic riddims, eMMplekz assemblage an aural equivalent to the psycho-geographic excursions of writers and film-makers Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair. In equal parts tongue-in-cheek belches from a night out in the pub and lucid observations of his surroundings, the Baron misses no opportunity to put both his fascination and disgust for the degenerated and exploitative digital era at display. May those violators of the English language and their sonic pestilence creep long through the sinkholes and porosities of many a local sound system.
"Niaiw Ot Vile"
Another record from the adventurous and ever fascinating PAN label to feature in this list. Being active for some 20+ years, sound artist Chris Douglas has been involved in the ambient-techno and IDM scenes of California and Detroit. More widely known under the name O.S.T. he also released one album (“Fimt”, 2003) on Wai Cheng's Isolate Records to whom “Niaw It Vile” is dedicated. His first lp under the Dalglish moniker is an otherworldly hermetic and initially reclusive record that requires a couple of listens to understand its language. Most of its tracks are based on several layers of subtle, dissonant electro-acoustic noises, streams of cold ambient floating in between dismantled and fractured rhythmic systems of Autechrian design, all organised in a way that they seem to float apart of each other in an endless sea of miscommunication. It takes a while to realize how tightly knit these single threads actually are and once its hidden structures are revealed “Niaiw Ot Vile” appears as a gateway into a nocturnal district inked with a million shades of blue in which sound and melancholia shape-shift into and out of each other.
Seven years after the idiots were winning it seemed like James Holden would never return for a proper rematch. But then in the midsummer of 2013 he did, with a flamboyant, complex, almost-prog triple lp of oblique algorithms programmed on his elaborately home-built modular synth. “The Inheritors” plays out like an archaeological field trip cutting aisles through layers of a super-thick sound embellished with melodeon, bodhran, sax and bass guitar, in its most ambient parts so raucously textured that it feels like a dozen :zoviet*france: records spinning at the same time. Other times it's a rhizome of endlessly noodling, bubbling chord sequences spiralling their way through a chaotic universe of crop circles and notched rocks. Eventually there are moments of brilliant, lucid avant-house and pure emotional rupture transforming these slabs of black wax into tokens of a whole new magical mystery tour.
"The Weighing Of The Heart"
French sound artist Cécile Schott was probably amongst the most unlikely entries in 2013 to return with a new record. After a 6-year-hiatus in which she learned to create and design ceramics, her fourth album “The Weighing Of The Heart” seems elaborate and ripened for a long stretch in time. In fact it has been conceived and recorded over a short span of only a few weeks and similar to its predecessor “Les Ondes Silencieuses” it is performed entirely on acoustic instruments, most prominently the viola da gamba, but also clarinet, guitar, piano and some light percussion. However it is the first time for Schott to add her own voice to the mix, referring in poetic metaphors to the Egyptian book of the dead. Akin to the spirits of exceptional artists as Arthur Russell, Laurie Anderson or Moondog, Colleen's elegant, clear-sighted compositions, lyrics and singing are sparse and minimalist, both grave and feather-light, always absolutely to the point and not a single note is wasted in this meditative space. The immensely beautiful gatefold cover was illustrated by her husband Iker Spozio.
Testpressings #001 - #004
After their highly acclaimed 'Elemental' project, Mancunian cultists Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker open up their coven and make a step away from their trademark abstract ambient/horror electronics to head for much more adventurous and critical floor-oriented terrain on their aptly named „Testpressings“. This series of four white-label 12-inches underlines once more their radically forward-thinking futurist and researching attitude towards making electronic music, while in a recent interview with The Wire Miles noted that „trying to lose listeners is more exciting than trying to keep them“. Therefore their testing ground is of highly heterogeneous array, taking all liberties to switch between jungle, noise, deep house and exercises in Muslimgauze-approved percussion styles.
(Inner Gun / Oficyna Biedota)
Amazing discovery from the Polish experimental underground scene, a trio made up of turntable, electronics and trumpet. I found this album somewhere described as „nice jazzy ambient“ which gets it so terribly wrong that it almost serves as an ironic stepping stone for what you will actually hear on „Zła Krew“ („Evil Blood“): first of all, kIRk's sound is not nice – it's more like a droning rattle that comes from abyssal jaws like the album cover suggests and you know these teeth will soon cut through sordid flesh. Second, trumpeter Olgierd Dokalski might come from a jazz background but the way his lunatic repetitions push the music into surreal terrain have more in common with Eastern-European folk song and Jac Berrocal than any free jazz tradition whatsoever. Finally, calling this music ambient neglects how physically engrossing it really is – it moves through myriads of miasmatic and decaying layers of organic matter that call to mind the magical invocations of substance from Bruno Schulz to Jan Švankmajer.
The sole cassette-only release to feature in this list comes from the duo of Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire weirdos Aaron Turner and Tom Brown. It remains a bit of a mystery to me why “Tulpa” didn't appear on Opal Tapes since their muggy smudged-out techno abstractions are totally on the same line and Opal label head Stephen Bishop is after all living in the same town. However, “Tulpa” is a highly addictive collection of sweaty, funky 4/4s smeared over with abrasive textures of worn-out tape and messy feedback in the vein of Leyland Kirby's dusty nostalgia. At the same time their twisted perspective on dance music is not a million miles away from the deconstructive ambient-house approach of Actress, but less elegant, and coming more from a distinctively suburban bedroom territory whose hidden wormholes open to irrational spheres and leak the greasy matter of molten space and time.
(The Death Of Rave)
Ok, you might think „how is this guy stupid, for what reason does he put a black-label 12-inch single in his top-5 album of the year list wankery of sorts...“. Sure, you're totally right, I am stupid. But then again, it just happened that the rough 20 minutes on this slab of black wax turned out to be the most explosive, most game-changing and mind-fucking of the whole year. There's such a squall of nervous energy and tension bursting out of the upfront in yer face kickdrum of „A Band“ set against an off-beat snare and chaotically incorporated guitar feedbacks and noises culled and sampled from your favourite New York no wave “bands” that will brand an irreparable but pleasant damage into your cortex each time you drop the needle on this golden track. The rest of the ep delves deeper into the vortex of cold fever no wave anomalies and every damn second of it is a must-hear and must-feel when played at full volume. What's more is that the London producer Oscar Powell had an overall strong year with a couple of jaw-dropping remixes for Ike Yard and Silent Servant, a hard hitting and unorthodox FACT mix, another great ep on Mute's new avant-techno offshoot Liberation Technologies and a handful of whacked out vinyls of like-minded no-ravers published on his own Diagonal label.
THE HAXAN CLOAK
On his second longplayer Bobby Krlic is crossing, and then also blurring the strict border that separates the dead from the living and transmits his deadpan frequencies from six feet beneath the ground. Told by throbbing, pulsating deep audio, shot through with shocking moments of concrète, early electronics, treated violin and distant classical piano, 'Excavation' unfolds an unsettling and challenging narrative of pure existentialism. Further explanatory words would probably spoil the mystery of this borderline journey, which is a heavy listen to go through but one that is eternally rewarded and lightened up by the experience of Krlic's sheer brilliance and ingenuity.
"Loud City Song"
With the difficult brilliance and beauty of her two previous full-lengths “Tragedy” (2011) and “Ekstasis” (2013) the wonderful Julia Holter gained some wider recognition within and beyond the loose scene of leftfield and experimental-electronic aficionados. From an aerial perspective it seemed like the ever bigger growing Domino Records, to whom she signed late 2012, intended to push her the into much more accessible 'indie' directions with her third proper album. Instead, the Los Angeles composer's academic and minimalist background manifests again very clearly on “Loud City Song”, which is arranged for keyboard, violin, cello, trombone, saxophone, drums and field recordings. Employing French writer Colette's novel “Gigi” (1944) and its Hollywood musical adaption (Vincente Minnelli, 1958) as a framework and steppingstone for her own imaginative sonic narrative, Holter invokes a subtle and intelligent drama of colliding spheres of the public and private, of galvanic interferences and nebulous romances. Sometimes more obliged to jazz and conventional song but always returning into drifting plateaus of late night urban ambient, “Loud City Song” is probably Holter's most personal and emotional record to date, but also one that reveals how far-sighted, how carefully assembled and well-thought out her music really is.
"Caim In Bird Form"
A quite busy year lies behind Stephen Bishop, in which the Teesside producer has finished two albums for Digitalis Recordings and Luke Younger's Alter label, and also published a myriad of challenging and critically acclaimed cassette and vinyl releases from a whole new avantgarde of leftfield/electronic artists on his very own imprint Opal Tapes. In hindsight there was rarely a record in 2013 encapsulating so well the sound of now from an oblique outsider perspective as the magically peculiar “Caim In Bird Form”. It's not easy to summarise what Bishop does to create such compelling sonic abstractions but maybe it's rather a question of what the genius loci of his native North-East England does to him. Therefore it's surely no coincidence that he shares the same sabulous, sedimentary and windward textures with the ingenious mid-80ies recordings from :zoviet*france: who are located in Newcastle, Northumberland which is only some rough 40 miles north of Bishop's home. It's a highly imaginative way of experiencing a geologically distinctive landscape where the industrial mingles with the rural and a wayward palaeolithic folklore is spun across eroded coastlines to fields of carved stone. This is the soil from which Bishop forms abstract technoid rhythmical systems but unlike his local compatriots Perfume Advert there is little to nothing hedonistic or danceable about it. More rhizomatic in nature the recordings of Basic House exude a layer of sediment that will soon be covered or eroded by others to continue the temporal evolution and shaping of a landscape. A layer by which radiocarbon analyses will easily pinpoint the year 2013.
THESE NEW PURITANS
"Field Of Reeds"
Well, how do you follow a near-perfect album? Maybe by stepping completely out of its context and removing yourself from the concept of any so-called indie music scene whatsoever? You can still feel that 2010's “Hidden” was weighing heavy on Jack Barnett's shoulders. Nevertheless, “Field Of Reeds” is not the expected retreat, instead its ambitious arrangements rush to much bolder and more distinguished terrain. Aside of introducing the voice of Portuguese jazz singer Elisa Rodrigues and several children choirs, Barnett has become more conscious of being a singer himself. In contrast to the album's overtly rhythmic predecessors, Barnett's compositions are now almost entirely acted out through amazing woodwind and string orchestrations and a rediscovered magnetic resonator piano. For the greater part the lack of percussion and drums may make it appear as TNPs quietest opus to date, belying the fact that you will rarely hear a contemporary record more powerful and thrilling than this. But how does it come together? “Field Of Reeds” is largely inscribed with the topography of a landscape, more precisely the English landscape. Ranging from breathtaking panoramas to subtle down-to-earth details, the music empathises with the true nature of the island. Isolated, distinct, experiencing its own language and environment. Barnett retrieves a timeless symbolist poetry for a territory that just like the glass smashed on one of the album's key tracks lies now shattered in dozens of fragments, parts of them concrete while others transformed into dreamlike imaginations. Executed with much effort, much endurance and hard work, and assembled with an anachronistic seriousness, it seems that “Field Of Reeds” is carrying traces of the romantic and pastoral, of great English early and baroque music composers like John Dowland and Henry Purcell in its bloodline. From a more contemporary perspective TNP follow the thin line of subtle English impressionisms once spun by Talk Talk's “Laughing Stock”, Hood's “Rustic Houses Forlorn Valleys” and Bark Psychosis' “Hex” (and unsurprisingly so, Graham Sutton is involved in the album as a co-producer). Even if some parts of it remain cryptic and labyrinthine, “Field Of Reeds” reveals a haunting insight into the soul of a landscape and the mind of a highly dedicated and inspired young composer.