Published Nov 22, 2009Instead of merging the disparate worlds of electronic ambience, non-linear improv, experimental rock and droning noise, we've asked ten frequent contributors to write about one release that excited them most this year.
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society
Martin and Haynes
Storsveit Nix Noltes
G Spots: The Spacey Folk Electro-Horror Sounds of the Studio G Library
Charles Spearin The Happiness Project (Arts & Crafts)
On paper, The Happiness Project seems ridiculous and indulgent; on record, it's a whole other matter. Do Make Say Think/Broken Social Scene member Charles Spearin's quest to create a musical tapestry incorporating the voices of people from his neighbourhood possesses an inherent hippie-dippie humour, but the execution of it all is pointedly clever. Spearin's idea to record relative strangers discussing their thoughts on happiness and then complementing their cadences with a mostly jaunty soundtrack is fascinating and the overall effect is really heartening.
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)
Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based Argue has expanded the big band vocabulary. A protégé of masters Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider, he bridges the gaps between new classical, indie rock and jazz. Argue's studio debut lives up to his promise. From Jon Wikan's processed cajon opening "Phobos" to the propulsive, Radiohead-inspired middle section of "Transit," to a haunting piece dedicated to fellow McGill alumnus Maher Arar, it's clear this is no ordinary big band album. Argue's masterful use of mutes and woodwind doubles, his harmonic sophistication, attention to form, and a secret weapon in guitarist Sebastian Noelle, place Infernal Machines at the forefront of 21st century jazz.
Fennesz Black Sea (Touch)
While this effort sees Christian Fennesz delving deeper into introspective territory than 2004's Venice it is equally, if not more, poignant, offering a newfound clarity, depth and dynamism. He still employs dense waves of processed guitar, but each fluctuation in the massive field of sound feels more tangibly three-dimensional. There is also much in the way of more delicate and stark passages. While highly fluid and abstract, each piece is utterly evocative and beautiful. On Black Sea, Fennesz has reached new heights in electronic textures and subtle, longing melodies, making it one of the past year's real highlights.
Jon Hassell Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street (ECM)
Veteran American trumpeter/composer Hassell has long deserved wider recognition, but he remains an inspirational figure for many younger musicians. The sound he terms "Fourth World" fuses ambient, new music, jazz, electronica and world music elements into a compelling hybrid, and Last Night... is another strong addition to an extensive discography. It marks a reunion with ECM, whose head Manfred Eicher contributes typically pristine production. Hassell's mesmerizing playing and the intelligence of his compositions are nicely encapsulated on the 11-minute-plus title track.
Viviane Houle Treize (Drip Audio)
Seldom does a debut release display such self-assured artistic confidence and solid breadth of vision; more rarely still is one this well produced. Vancouver-based vocal improviser Viviane Houle makes this series of duets with West coast improv heavies a fascinating adventure in contrasting moods and textures. Intimate sultry whispers, declamatory exhortations, throaty calls and ear-searing screeches deliver dreamscape pictures of love, longing and hope, all clothed in shadowy, vaporous sonic robes. Producer Jesse Zubot's sound landscapes range from Grand Canyon breadth to closet claustrophobic, and Houle's voice is anywhere from in-your-face close to phoned-in-from-Saturn distant. A spellbinding listening experience.
Martin and Haynes Freedman (Barnyard)
Jean Martin and Justin Haynes' suitcase/brush/ukulele romp through Myk Freedman's psilocybin borscht compositions is a choice stocking stuffer for all your jaded music nerd friends. The melodies' twists and turns drip like honey from the ukulele, as the nearly inaudible suggestions of the brushes on suitcase are the people in the apartment next door moving around in the dark. Warmth and humour never leave the improvisations as they turn the compositions over and around pulling little jokes and comments from the inside out. To call it one of the most original releases of the year would be an understatement.
Mountains Choral (Thrill Jockey)
Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg make beautiful music together. After meeting at the Art Institute of Chicago they formed the Apestaartje label/collective and released two lovely albums that swept together the worlds of acoustic drone and electronic minimalism. On their Thrill Jockey debut they continue their ascension into realms of Popul Vuh-style ceremony and Fennesz-ist guitar effacement. Choral creates a kind of devotional space where both secular and spiritual meditation is possible. Teeming with detail and momentary amazements and still able to surge and swell to envelop its surroundings. You should be soaking in it right now.
Social Junk Born Into It (Digitalis)
The second widely available full-length release from Ashland, Kentucky's Social Junk showcases their ability to harvest the primeval essence of the entire musical spectrum without totally immersing themselves in any one breed of song. The duo might be found stomping around a campfire one minute, and spinning weaves of crackling synthesizer glee the next. This shape shifting ability is what truly drives the music they create. Born Into It reaches back to the prehistoric free improvisers, our bone-on-animal-skin ancestors whose sounds were functional, not fashionable. Social Junk's textured constructions abandon convention, channelling a unique sense of awareness.
Storsveit Nix Noltes Royal Family/Divorce (Fat Cat)
Complex Bulgarian folk melodies have always been ripe for reinterpretation, but Storsveit Nix Noltes have created a sound that is simultaneously massive and intricate, while making time for slow, sensitive moments. Recorded onto analog tape in a single room in a hut on the outskirts of Reykjavik, this 11-piece muffaletta of accordion, brass, strings, drum kits and many, many electric guitars gets math rockin' much harder than anything its associated bands (Benni Hemm Hemm, Mùm) have ever hinted at. This record is relentlessly challenging and often dissonant, yet utterly tuneful and quite faithful to its Balkan roots.
Various G Spots: The Spacey Folk Electro-Horror Sounds of the Studio G Library (Trunk)
A lot of attention has been given to dusty vaults of old library music in the past few years, and no one has been more generous with releasing and contextualizing these rediscoveries than British vinyl collector Jonny Trunk. For G Spots, Trunk curates an exceptionally seductive selection of advertising music from the sound libraries of John Gale's Studio G. Recorded between 1969 and 1982, these atmospheric instrumentals were initially intended to soundtrack commercials. Listening back now, they reveal an era of curious exploration, an exotic drama of sexy and spacey lounge music that helped bridge the commercial work of Raymond Scott to Kraftwerk's Autobahn.