text by Adam Lehrer
The most interesting development of the last few years of avant-garde and outer limits music (the kind of tunes that Wire Magazine writes about monthly) has been the convergence of noise and electronic music. Noise musicians like Dom Fernow (Prurient) and Ron Schofield (Container) have been making danceable tunes for some years, and record labels like Ron Morelli’s L.I.E.S. make their bread and butter by peddling this aesthetic. At some point the noise dudes got bored nodding their heads in a room full of sweaty dudes and very few women, but at the same time would rather kill themselves than be caught alive at EDC. Luckily, all you have to do is add beat and texture to the abrasive soundwalls of noise and you have some of the most seductive music being made in 2015. EDM didn’t kill electronic music, it just killed the mainstream public’s perception of it. But just as punk rock arose in protest of the bloated arena rock of the ‘70s, a more sonically varied and artfully crafted electronic music has risen in the face of Skrillex and Diplo.
But that’s certainly not all that experimental music has to offer these days. The deep underground is stronger than ever. With the trusty internet, this stuff has never been easier to find, either. There are no excuses. If you don’t like what you’re reading about in Spin and Pitchfork, then you need to search engine that shit, harder.
1. Arca, Mutant, Track: Snakes
Arca, now age 25, is one of the most important artists in the world. Consider the facts. This guy has made major contributions to four of the most important and forward thinking pop records of the last 15 years in Kanye’s Yeezus (the most influential album of this era, don’t front), FKA twigs’ LP1, Bjork’s Vulnicura, and most recently Kelela’s Hallucinogen. He’s the most interesting producer in the world right now. Then you take his actual solo records. Last year’s Xen was a visionary masterpiece, and this year’s Mutant was a step up in every sense. Still rooted in the bizarre hip-hop sound that he helped develop, his music has grown in scope and cacophony. Industrial buzzing and synth sirens coalesce and mutate into a sound so thick and dense you don’t know what else to do other than move.
2. Prurient, Frozen Niagra Falls, Track: Greenpoint
Dom Fernow, once a king of the No Fun scene of harsh noise revivalists, has greatly expanded his palette over the last few years. As Vatican Shadow, he dove head first into the rave with a harsh techno sound. With Vegas Matrys, he embraced his love of Nowregian black metal (his since closed East Village record shop, Hospital Productions, had one of the best extreme metal selections in the world). He even performed as a member of Cold Cave, thickening the band’s coldwave chills. Once again recording as Prurient, Fernow drew on all these styles and more to create his masterpiece, Frozen Niagra Falls. Recorded upon Fernow’s move back to New York after years in LA, Frozen Niagra Falls is about harsh and uncomfortable change. Drawing on Fernow touchstones like harsh noise, dark ambient, and screwed beats, it is an expansive and lonely record. Tracks like Greenpoint explore Fernow’s new found love of acoustic guitar, but you won’t exactly recognize it the way he uses it.
3. Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, girl, track: Freaky Eyes
Inspired by darker ‘80s pop and Kate Bush, Jenny Hval has taken the melodies of her forebears and made them more obtuse. On Apocalypse, girl, Hval is able to sound ominous and oddly hopeful all the same. Hval, once a member of experimental metal band Shellyz Raven, hasn’t foregone her connection to extreme music and avant-garde; noise legend Lasse Marhaug, Jaga Jazzist pianist Oystein Moen, and Swans percussionist Thor Harris all make cameos. Her collaborations with such towering figures are testaments to Hval’s confidence; though she embraces the sounds provided by these musicians never does this record sound like anything other than her. Though it’s perhaps the most art-pop record that she has recorded, it’s also perhaps her strangest. It’s a towering statement by an artist that only seems to be getting better.
4. Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete, track: Freaky Eyes
Daniel Lopatin’s Onehotrix Point Never project has not yet released a bad record, but Garden of Delete’s concept speaks directly towards me. Most boring white guys into art and music got heavily into music at around 12 to 14, and most times that music isn’t exactly critically lauded. Personally, I could have been one of those pimply faced kiddos in the Papa Roach video for Last Resort. Nu-metal was my bag: Tool was my favorite band and I also loved Korn, Slipknot, Deftones, System of a Down, etc.. Eventually, those bands would make way for concept-driven stuff like Dillinger Escape Plan and Meshuggah, and then you re-discover Nirvana and Sonic Youth and whatever. At around 18, you get too pretentious for the nu-metal or stuff you liked as a teen, but when I turned 25, I chilled out and realized that Tool is actually an amazing and unique rock band. Garden of Delete, a concept record centered around a fictional alienated (and part alien) teen character named Ezra and his love of a fictional band called Kaoss Edge, seeks to elevate the art that obsessed our less taste-driven and more angst-ridden teenage minds. Lopatin has found taste in the tasteless, and no record this year better described the synthesis of artistic obsessions that have arisen in the information age. Listening to grunge on weekdays and going to raves on weekends is no longer a rarity. There is no sub-culture, just the individual taste. This is what the lush and dizzying sounds of Garden of Delete explains.
5. JLin, Dark Energy, track: Guantanamo
Rick Owens’ FW 2014 runway show was the most seminal fashion moment of the last 10 years. Having black sorority girls line dancing in sequence while wearing Owens’ garments saw an industry celebrating a culture more or less never even marketed towards in the high fashion world. Fitting then that JLin soundtracked that show, as her unique brand of pulsating footwork, as found on her full-length Dark Matter, celebrates the mind-set of going harder and faster than anyone on the dance floor. There is tremendous musicality on this record, and it begs the listener to consider oft-ignored sub-cutures in the realm of high art. Culture and its notions of high and low are rapidly changing and deteriorating, and Dark Matter proves that sweating it out in a packed basement of a dingy club is no less substantial than making beats in an art gallery. JLin’s blazing performance this year at MOMA PS1 showed that the art world and the fashion world need to open themselves up to new cultures or be rendered mote in due time. Thank Christ.
6. Lotic, Agitations, track: Carried
Agitations finds “beat”maker Lotic at his most exuberantly jarring. In an interview, Lotic said that the record was born out of a disillusionment with club culture, and as such these are very club-unfriendly tracks. There are still beats here, but they are chopped and sliced apart, connected only through stirring blasts of discordant noise. Lotic refuses to be trapped by the culture that he is a part of, and as a result pushes the sometimes limiting culture into its darkest depths.
7. Blanck Mass, Dumb Flesh, track: Dead Format
Fuck Buttons has always been a good gateway for indie rock kids to start fucking around in the world of noise. With the Blanck Mass project, Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin John Power has created a sound that might be a waypoint for EDM kids to start charting the outskirts of electronic music. It is loud and aggressive but always danceable. The beats pulsate on this record like few that have come out this year. And despite its relative accessibility, there is absolutely nothing watered down about it. Instead, Power has found his niche in towing the line between the dance floor and the avant-garde. It’s a delicate balancing act that many have flirted with, but only Blanck Mass has executed with such a swaggering confidence.
8. Circuit des Yeux, In Plain Speech, track: Fantasize the Scene
Circuit des Yeux has been labeled an experimental-folk project since its inception, but Haley Fohr’s sound was often so belabored in glorious hiss that it was hard to hear anything resembling folk music. On In Plain Speech, Fohr brings her operatic voice to the front of the mix and better pronounces her melodies creating a fuller and clearer sound that in no way hinders the darkness that she has always emanated. Her music has gotten better with each production. By incorporating strings and pianos into her psychedelic swirl, she has hinted at the long and incendiary career that is to come.
9. Mumdance and Logos, Proto, album: Border Dance
Grime producers Mumdance and Logos have never been hindered by their adherences to grime music. On both of their solo outings, they have incorporated the entirety of UK club culture into their music. On their first record as a duo, they incorporate that enthusiasm into one of the headiest dance releases of the year. The music is minimal but utterly effective. On standout track Border Dance, for example, the duo builds a steady acid house beat over a beat-less atmospheric hiss, building towards a climax that never really arrives. Orgasm is always the most boring part of sex, right? It’s all over after that. Border Dance is one long lead up to release that is an infinite space away.
10. Holly Herndon, Platform, track: Morning Sun
Despite its decidedly hi-brow aesthetic, Platform has ended up on numerous year-end lists: Noisey, Pitchfork, and even NPR have counted it among the best of 2015. What is immediately clear about Holly Herndon’s 2015 release is its unbridled ambition. On her blog, Herndon discusses method as an academic would (she is currently working towards a doctorate at Stanford’s Computer Research in Music and Accoustics), and espouses her theory that in the near future emotion and idea will be shared digitally. That is what makes her unique blend of electronic dance music and sound art so stirring and magnetic. At the center of all the academic and high-art collaborators is a profoundly emotional voice. That voice is often the one of Herndon herself.
11. Jam City, Dream a Garden, track: Black Friday
Dream a Garden is a major step away from Jack Latham’s first record as Jam City, Classical Curves. Where as that album found Latham digging into the jackhammer beats of grime and UK house, Dream a Garden is immediately discerned by vocals and washes of guitar. Latham is Night City’s most important and political artist, and this record shows him wanting to dig deeper into his influences, namely ‘80s goth and early ‘70s funk. The shimmery keys hint at Coteau twins, while the washed out funky guitars play like Kevin Shields doing Curtis Mayfied. This is a fuller celebration of UK music history. It is also a protest record, and while most protest records demonstrate in-you-face aggression, Dream a Garden asks to give peace a chance.
12. Chrononautz, Made in Time, track: Acid Empathy
Chrononautz members Dom Clare and Leon Carey have played in noise and free improv bands together since 2000. But it was in their Chops, an acidic dirge of a band veering between lo-fi electronics and the most outer limits of free jazz, that the duo really developed an interest in electronic sounds. In Chrononautz, and especially on the 2015 release Made in Time, Clare and Carey approach blazing techno sans abandoning the improvisational skills they have developed over the last 15 years of music composing. There appears to be interest in some of the headier aspects of the Detroit techno lineage on the record, but instead of the beats remaining tight and precise, they veer towards utter chaos. This is the sound of techno coming apart, and it’s glorious.
13. John Wiese, Deviate from Balance, track: Segmenting Process for Language
John Wiese has been something of the overlord of Los Angeles’ avant-garde music scene for some two decades now. With solo Project Sissy Spacek, he tests the improvisational limits of grindcore. Along with Troniks records head honcho and Cinemfamily curator Phil Blankenship, Wiese performs harsh noise as duo LMH. He’s also been a member of noise metal unit Bastard Noise and Sunn 0))). The guy has hundreds of titles bearing the fruits of his labor. But under his Christian name, Wiese has released more conceptually driven full-length records. Case in point: Deviate from Balance. Wiese, commonly associated with noise punkers, has emerged as a serious avant-garde composer on this record. Working with a long list of collaborators (members of Smegma, Los Angeles Free Music Society, Ikue Mori, Evan Parker, Spencer Yeh, and more), Deviate from Balance is far from easy-listening, but the sounds exert far more control than is commonly associated with free-wheeling outer limits music. Compositions can surely be scary.
14. Lakker, Tundra, track: Mountain Divide
Dublin duo Lakker employs big and bold production on their noise and techno hybrid of a record Mountain Divide. There is something tribal about the music: as if there is one steady beat that holds together the disparate soundscapes throughout. They are veering more towards electronic dance music more than anything experimental, but there are uncomfortable sounds that separate Lakker apart. The duo seems to have fully realized their sound on Tundra, letting tight beats build towards violent episodic explosions. The future holds much in store for Dara Smith and Ian McDonnell.
15. Sightings, Amusers and Puzzlers, track: Counterfeited
Of all the harsh noise bands of the ‘00s, Sightings Mark Morgan’s NYC trio was always the most ecstatically rock n’ roll. Taking cues from forebears like Harry Pussy and even Teenage and the Jerks, Sightings applied an angular and possibly math-y post-hardcore approach to noise. Actually recorded during the sessions of 2013’s also excellent Terribly Well, Amusers and Puzzlers finds Sightings cutting up between blasts of fractal guitar, dub-inspired rhythms, and large doses of psychedelic hypnosis. If this band is truly done for goods, Amusers and Puzzlers is an epic end for a band that truly never sounded like any other.