London’s FatCat Records is one of the coolest record labels on the planet, an outfit responsible for giving us some of the highest quality space rock, IDM, laptop, and post rock that’s out there today, from artists hailing from America, the UK, Europe, and Japan. Oh, and Iceland, too. FatCat’s most notable discoveries, the Icelandic groups Sigur Rós and Mum, have earned a special place in the hearts of every indie boy and girl, most notably with Sigur Rós’s stupendous, from-out-of-freakin’-nowhere sleeper hit Ágætis Byrjun, the little album that sent thousands of Radiohead fans scurrying everywhere, hunting high and low for the CD by the band whom Thom Yorke just happened to say he liked. However, FatCat’s world runs much deeper than Icelanders singing gibberish while playing bowed guitars. In celebration of some six amazing years that label has given music fans, they’ve put out Branches and Routes, a fabulous double CD sampler of what they deem to be the best they’ve put out over the years, ranging from album cuts, both of their split 12” and 7” series, their Splinter series and 130701 imprints, as well as the short-lived e-rmx project.
To the casual music fan, what immediately jumps out are the handful of tracks by the more well-known artists. First of all, there’s Sigur Rós, who contribute the short instrumental track “Eg Mun Læknast!”, which appears on the 2003 soundtrack to the obscure film Hlemmur. It’s nothing earth-shattering, with its ethereal drones and quiet, drawn-out melody, but when heard as part of the double album experience instead of The Big Unreleased Sigur Rós Song, it fits very nicely with everything else. Then there’s Björk, whose 1999 single “All is Full of Love”, is given a spectacular remix treatment by German techno aces Funkstörung, who offset Björk’s dreamy vocal track with blasts of stuttering beats, giving us a stunning combination of the sanguine and the chaotic. Mum, Iceland’s second most famous band, come in with their gorgeous “Green Grass of Tunnel”. One of the best singles from 2002, the song combines a light hip-hop beat with a simple, innocuous melody, and some entrancing, childlike singing by twins Gyoa and Kristin Anna Valtysdottir.
The real rewards on Branches and Routes, though, come when you delve deeper into the vast, wildly diverse array of artists that comprise the rest of the compilation. Minimalist composer David Grubbs’ “Transom” features some deft guitar licks, Grubbs’ Thurston Moore-style singing, and some rather enigmatic lyrics, which just happen to have been penned by noted author Rick Moody. Fellow New Yorkers Mice Parade follow with “Pursuant to the Vibe”, a blend of live percussion, techno, and vibes, making for a lighthearted jazz-goes-post rock experience. “Die in California”, by hardcore techno ace Kid 606, has the man in a somewhat mellower mood than he usually seems to be in, while the Godspeed You! Black Emperor offshoot Set Fire to Flames supply the six minute instrumental “Steal Compass/Drive North/Disappear”, a jaw-dropping piece of orchestral rock. Philadelphia space rockers Transient Waves continue the atmospheric feel with the much more trippy shoegazer rock of “Cruise Control”, and Seen’s lazy “Slow Slow Slow” boasts more of a sunny, dub-meets-West Coast rock vibe.
“Badminton Girl”, by Austrian avant-garde guitarist Christian Fennesz, takes atmospheric guitar work to a level we’re not used to hearing, his effects-laden instrumentation providing an otherworldly, ambient sound, sounding oddly like a child idly mashing his palm on an organ keyboard. Finnish singer/songwriter Drowsy appears with “Bright Dawn”, sounding like a more folk-oriented version of Steven Malkmus. Part of the excellent online e-rmx project, which featured numerous FatCat artists putting their own twist on the music of Italian-Icelandic chanteuse Emiliana Torrini, Team Doyobi completely deconstruct Torrini’s “Tuna Fish” into a choppy, minimalist techno exercise. France’s Programme deliver a vicious piece of art rock noise on “N’Importe Quoi Pour N’Import Quoi”, while Minnesotan trio Party of One immediately follow with “Shotgun Funeral”, a blast of melodic, lo-fi post-punk. The second disc comes to a spectacular conclusion on the last four tracks; Japanese duo Xinlisupreme’s “Murder License” is a cacophonous combination of the layered noise and melodies of My Bloody Valentine and much harsher techno like Atari Teenage Riot. Then there’s the unreal Giddy Motors’ “Baddie Who?”, which sounds like The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow fronting a stoner rock band, which is followed by Black Dice’s ten minute instrumental “Things Will Never Be the Same”, with its Metal Machine Music-meets-Godspeed You! Black Emperor blend of distortion and orchestral rock drones. Then, if that weren’t enough, French composer Sylvain Chauveau brings the fun to a close with his heartwrenching piano solo “Mineral”.
You won’t find a more compelling, fascinating, and thoroughly satisfying compilation this year as Branches and Routes, a portrait of a record label that thrives on being original, adventurous, and practically open to anything. If you’re looking for something different, some music that veers off into territory you never even considered before, then this is the perfect place to start. And if you’re already familiar with FatCat, well, this’ll make you nod in approval, and you’ll start to hope they put out another follow-up sampler that’s as great as this.