Given the diversity and depth of the improv and avant-garde scene, instead of ranking and rating releases, we've asked regular contributors to discuss their favourite 2011 albums from the far corners of the scene. Enjoy the last list of our best albums below, and stay tuned for our list of Most Unappreciated Albums of 2012 to come.
Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Improv and Avant-Garde:
Despite the misleading name, Bersarin Quartett represents the work of one Thomas Bücker, a composer from Münster, Germany. Bücker launched this project in 2006, and released a self-titled debut in early 2008, an album focused on the balance of cinema, the balance of good and evil, of struggle and triumph as projected through its score. After fleshing the solo effort out into a trio and touring a bit, Bücker returned to the studio last year, alone again, to record its follow-up. Time and experience appear to have worked their magic, as II radiates a profoundness toward which its eponymous predecessor only hinted, by comparison. The debut was much brighter and more beat-driven. While clearly well composed, it lacked the brooding subtlety of II. Yet, there is a clear sense of wonder about this sequel, with its sparse melodies shifting between uplifting and contemplative moods. Hints of beats swell up here and there, but rather than being the core of the music, they end up being smoothed over by fragments of strings, piano, and synthetic tone. In effect, the beats end up playing more of a textural role than one of obvious meter, though there is always an underlying sense of forward momentum, of an inevitable destination. Its elusive feeling is like that of a calm stream, constantly flowing and unraveling even when it appears nothing much is happening, hard to pin down but not purposefully obtuse. Imagine a less jazzy Cinematic Orchestra, a less doomy Bohren & Der Club Of Gore, or a less sluggish Raime, and you're almost there.
The music of Bernardino Femminielli exists in a parallel dimension, billowing from the sound system of the kosmische discotheque. Recent years have seen the Montreal mainstay hone his sound and performance into an absolute powerhouse, as documented on releases from Hobo Cult, Fixture, Robert & Leopold or his own imprint, Los Discos Enfantasmes. Now, stretched across a debut LP from France's Desire, he has delivered his opus. Double Invitation is a sinister aphrodisiac of crystalline soundscapes, scorched prog guitars and lascivious whispers delivered in Femminielli's native Spanish. Taking on a variety of telenovela-inspired personas, he switches from leather-bound bad boy to denim-decked hero to debonair devil in a slick white suit. "Actriz" sets the scene with misted electronics before a chorus of ghostly vocals and a climax from the silver-painted veins of Harald Groskopf. The album continues to strut between tension and release on the title track's sleeping state coda and the '80s sci-fi intensity of "A Que Quieres Jugar," previously plucked from the fantastic Electric Voice compilation. Yet the undeniable peak is 13-minute monolith "Performance Video," blasting off from a motorik pulse into robotic grooves a la Giorgio Moroder or, better yet, Black Devil Disco Club. "El Ultimo Tango Para Mi" drifts into the chill-out room with ASTAR manning the bar, before axe-shredder Asaël Robitaille lets loose with a solo that could make you re-evaluate Pink Floyd. Finally, immaculate closer "Chauffeur" brings it back to the seedy streets of a neon dystopia.
Istanbul-based Erdem Helvacıoğlu released a number of quality discs throughout 2012, all with distinct characters and approaches. Timeless Waves, however, was a clear standout. In fact, it arguably sets him among the likes of Fennesz, Stian Westerhuis, and Keith Fullerton Whitman in terms of his innovative use of guitar and electronics. The album covers a vast expanse of stylistic material — unsurprising given its subject matter. Each piece correlates, perhaps overly literally, with an emotion. Yet there's still plenty of special mystery and intrigue within each track. The fricative "Fear" opens the record, tracing an intense and strange climax with mostly just layered guitar percussion and the Togaman guitarviol, a bowed, curved-bridge electric guitar. "Love" plunges directly into lyricism, setting gorgeous slide guitar melodies within a landscape of clicks, resonances, bowed tones and tremolos. "Anger" does employ heaps of distortion, but paints a more complex picture than you'd expect. Skirting cathartic release, it channels the impotent restlessness of rage. "Sadness" pairs with "Love" also using forlorn slide melodies, yet here dark metallic scrapes cast their shadows across the soundscape. "Surprise" peels an array of itchy, queasy sounds off the fret board, yet does so with utter musicality. "Joy"'s repeated pulsating cells suggest a folkier take on Reich's Electric Counterpoint, yet disrupts this impression with repeated zoom-ins which reveal glistening frozen plates of drone. For those who've grown wary/weary of processed guitar, Timeless Waves might just renew your faith in the medium. Helvacıoğlu's palette is wildly varied, challenging, yet always beautiful.
Francois Houle 5 + 1
Clarinettist Houle has been a creative force on the West coast for some time, charting his own course between the worlds of chamber music and improvisation. With Genera, he's made his jazziest record, full of swing but also fearless in its willingness to pursue all sorts of ideas. It definitely helps to have several outstanding lead voices along for the ride to help with the heavy lifting. Between Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet, Benoit Delbecq on piano (the "+1" special guest in the group's name) and Houle, memorable theme statements turn into multi-coloured explorations of sound. Case in point is "Mu-Turn Revisited," where Houle's gently keening clarinet sounds as though he's going to push the proceedings into icy Scandinavian-style jazz, but as Harris Eisenstadt moves the slowly undulating drum pattern forward, hints of blues poke through. Bynum's high lonesome trumpet is a good match here (and throughout) for Houle as they slowly waltz around the stuttering yet soulful rhythm. Delbecq is, in sports parlance, a two-way player, able to sit back and comp inventively or spin web-like melodies that blanket the entire ensemble. What is most remarkable about this disc, which has been in my rotation ever since its release during the summer, is how well it represents Houle's ability to integrate his truly jarring and unique musical language into a context that feels welcoming yet always stimulating.
The worlds that Liz Harris and Jesy Fortino separately inhabit don't so much collide as collude on this album of cooperative songwriting experiments. As Grouper, Harris delivers from the shadows, a ghost in the gauze of drones and loops binding song-spells; as Tiny Vipers, Fortino is much more stark in her acoustic presentation, but with an off-kilter mystic vision that is both fragile and unflinching. Brought together, these approaches bind on a cellular level, the women becoming a singular entity with two beating hearts. This new being exists to breathe in the fog of early morning shorelines and exhale complex emotional states that are only half-explained but fully felt. The binary band name is apt, though the roles of reflected and reflection constantly swap during the course of songs, with Fortino's sharper guitar and voice piercing the haze from time to time, or Harris's Mobius strip sound constructions circulating their infinite energies. It's a relationship that serves the strengths of both women and reveals new possibilities that might not have been reached separately.
Vanessa Rossetto's second release for the Kye imprint — which is run by Graham Lambkin of the Shadow Ring — takes up where its predecessor, the lovely and delicate Mineral Orange, left off. Fusing field recordings of the mundane sounds of everyday life with recorded speech, outsourced swathes of music and her own viola, violin, cello, dulcetina and glockenspiel playing, Rossetto builds ethereal assemblages covered in fields of woven gossamer threads. The three pieces presented are delicate and hallucinatory examples of first-rate musique concrète. Yet what truly makes Exotic Exit so immense and wonderful is how it casts life's most inane events into miniscule magical moments. Each human act — eating, talking, travelling, etc. — is given new meaning when it's recorded and placed alongside the sound of a broken kitchen appliance, the roar of a bus engine, or the drone of a cello. To Rossetto, the most important act — the one that Exotic Exit truly exposes — is the pure act of listening. Stopping, closing the eyes, and opening the ears. She proves to be an adept listener, taking in and enjoying the sounds that most others toss aside without even a thought. By capturing these sounds, manipulating them and juxtaposing them with music and voices, she's managed to reveal more about their location — in this case New York City and Austin, Texas — than any guide book ever could. It's astounding: Exotic Exit is able to open not only our ears but our minds as well, exposing just how full and rich our lives truly are.
Ryan Truesdell / Gil Evans Project
Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
What would you do if, while looking through a relative's attic, you came upon a collection of unknown Monet paintings? Composer/arranger Ryan Truesdell had this kind of experience when he was the first non-family member to be allowed access to the unrecorded scores of venerated master, Gil Evans. This veritable Aladdin's treasure of jazz gems was unearthed through Truesdell's dedication and perseverance. On a quest to find and study Evans' scores, his sincerity and musical integrity eventually convinced Evans' family to give him his heart's desire. Through months of sorting, analysis, correlating, detective work and gut-wrenchingly hard eliminations, Truesdell chose ten pieces to be recorded in 2012, the year of Gil's 100th birthday. The range of moods, settings and soundscapes is awe-inspiring; Gil's depth seems bottomless. From the exoticism of "Punjab" to the mystical majesty of the Holy Grail of arrangements, "The Barbara Song," Truesdell's set list takes the listener on trip through a three-decade musical trip. There are charts from Evan's work with Claude Thornhill and, of course, Miles Davis. But it's Truesdell's discovery of jewels like "Smoking My Sad Cigarette" delivered with a sultry knowingness by Kate McGarry, that makes this such a valuable recording for jazz lovers and even the casual listener. And soloists! Saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Steve Wilson, vibist Joe Locke and pianist Frank Kimbrough are just a few of this New York's who's who jazz orchestra. Some fine music was recorded this year, but Centennial combines stunning beauty, compelling swing and historical significance in one package. Give this album to people you care about.
No album confounded in 2012 like Scott Walker's Bish Bosch. Walker's 14th album somehow found its way into the mainstream music conversation this year, inspiring think pieces left and right positing the same question: what do we make of an album this unsettling, this spacious, this... weird? There is no answer. Rather, Bish Bosch asks its own questions: where do we draw the line between music and sound? Between singing and speech? Unlike the pop music Walker used to make, both as one half of the Walker Brothers (who, for a short time in 1966, had a larger official fan club membership than the Beatles) and as a solo recording artist, Bish Bosch is less about melody, rhythm, and harmony — the traditional aspects of music — than it is about the drama of sound, and as a result, it's utterly captivating stuff. Rather than capture a mood and spread it across three or four minutes, songs like "Tar," "Epizootics," and especially the 20-minute centrepiece "SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)" represent Walker's moods as they change, shifting from jazzy hi-hat to scraping sword blades, from eerie silence to cacophonous din, with terrifying suddenness. You may never find yourself humming one of these tracks to yourself as you walk down the street, but that's not the point; Bish Bosch isn't made for recreational listening. It's an intense, immersive experience that lasts only as long as the record plays, as ephemeral and lasting as a dream... or was it a nightmare?