The Best Avant-Garde and Experimental Albums of 2014

With new albums from icons like Swans, the continued proliferation of vaporwave, and a bevy of exciting new acts, 2014 has been a wonderful year for experimental and avant-garde music.

With new albums from icons like Swans, the continued proliferation of vaporwave, and a bevy of exciting new acts in the scene, 2014 was a wonderful year for experimental and avant-garde music. In a landscape where digital distribution is increasingly the norm, and the ongoing success of platforms such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud, it is of little surprise than a significant amount of the finer and more out-there releases from the avant-garde world found themselves available on these new media formats. Yet more than other years, 2014 also saw continued relevance of some of the bigger, more established names in experimental music. So here are ten essential records from the landscape of experiments and challenges; go into them with open ears and reserved judgement. And while no act from the label is present on this list due to never technically releasing any full-length release — if such a category is even useful in 2014 — PC Music proved that the avant-garde can be a sugary sweet poppy as anything in the charts and still retain a sense of adventure.


Artist: Fennesz

Album: Bécs

Label: Editions Mego

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Only Christian Fennesz could open an album with a song called “Static Kings” and have it not be ironic or misplaced in any regard. It’s now been 13 years since the man’s iconic Endless Summer release, and this may very well be his finest album since that groundbreaking work. Sure, Fennesz is still the same musician he has always been, exhibiting his trademark multilayered compositions built on guitar feedback and droning loops, yet the sounds here display a specific maturity that hasn’t been seen on other records. Whilst never one to shy away from evoking another time or place, Bécs seems distinctively preoccupied with evoking a melancholia of middle age or a deconstruction of nostalgia. Highlight “The Liar” treats a brief looping guitar riff as a beat for increasingly bothersome static to interrupt and pollute, before fading away to leave the loop on its own with soft, white noise backing. What we thought was obscuring our pleasure was actually a needed distraction from the absences of ongoing life. It isn’t until the title track rolls around, 15 minutes before the record’s close, that we finally hear the sounds of what could be positive energy. A static drenched keyboard composition plays a beautiful and honest melody only to be drowned in a wonderful wall of guitar noise. The effect is the kind of thing that Fennesz excels at, and he does this throughout the entire album.


Artist: Amnesia Scanner

Album: AS LIVE [][][][][]

Label: self-released

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Amnesia Scanner
AS LIVE [][][][][]

How “live” this release is, or even how much of a release it can be qualified as, is up for debate, yet Amensia Scanner’s first proper display of self-driven work is as captivating as any live performance this year. Building on high definition bursts of drum rolls and synths, AS LIVE [][][][][] demands a lot from the listener. The release walks an uneasy line between the accessibility of modern dance music and the obtuse experimentation of artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, yet only ever resembles either camp in passing. Essentially a mix of a number of shorter tracks that come and go, this “set” feels like a nightmare in a dance club from a future we’ll always be hypothesising about and never reaching. At times noisy, at times dance hall ready, yet always exhilarating and relentless, we can only hope that this release is the sign of more to come from this exciting new name in experimental electro.


Artist: Giant Claw

Album: Dark Web

Label: Orange Milk

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Giant Claw
Dark Web

There’s a moment on Giant Claw’s “DARK WEB 03” that features an increasingly modulated vocal loop imploring us to “turn the key”. It’s the kind of sample any electronica tune might employ as a dance hook, yet here it comes across as a haunting and hypnotic aberration of human speech, which is really what Dark Web is all about. For an album built on found samples and plundered sonics, Dark Web never sounds anything but maximalist and, dare it be said, groovy. Pop is never a far leap from these eight songs, even when scattered hi-hat flourishes dancing over obnoxiously deep bass threaten to overpower everything else. Giant Claw knows exactly what is being built here, and “building” is a suitable manner in which to see this record. Each song’s layers come in and out naturally and organically, with recurring samples and beats unifying the entirety of the record in a way so many experimental electronic artists do not both to even attempt to do. Dark Web, suitably named, is the next movement in the ongoing narrative of vaporwave and music of the internet age.


Artist: Black Pines

Album: Harsh Out

Label: Wood and Wire

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Black Pines
Harsh Out

Australia’s Wood and Wire label has been regularly releasing experimental music across multiple genres since 2012, yet this collaborative release from No Anchor and the Rational Academy guitarists has the label truly coming of age. This record is at times a brutally minimalist post-punk exploration of loathing and at others a miserably nostalgic trip through a bad 1960s acid trip. Harsh Out is driven in equal parts by noise rock’s harsh guitar, and a sense of sonic adventure and true experimentation. Album highlight “Omens” recalls an early Sonic Youth no wave aesthetic, if they abandoned all pretence of accessibility, and that it is the very core of the album. This doesn’t seem like a record intended for anyone at all; songs cut out too soon or go on too long, silence interrupts beautiful passages of dark noise, and the whole thing is over in under 23 minutes. This frustration only adds to album’s intrigue though, as it makes us question the ideas of nostalgia and longing so built into the record’s lyrics and sounds. Black Pines have released a powerful statement here, and no one summed it up better than themselves, “No jams. No art. This is criticism.”


Artist: New Dream Ltd

Album: Initiation Tape: Isle of Avalon Edition

Label: self-released

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New Dream Ltd
Initiation Tape: Isle of Avalon Edition

Overwrought cries of “vaporwave is dead, long live vaporwave” notwithstanding, the bevy of loosely assorted artists releasing albums on the Beer on the Rug and Dream Catalogue labels under the vaporwave genre moniker are only becoming more popular. Ramona Xavier, she of Floral Shoppe fame, continues to release some of the more gorgeous and typically exemplary music of the genres under her wide range of pseudonyms. Her sole 2014 release turned out to be an expanded and remixed version of one of her earliest releases under her New Dream Ltd brand, Initiation Tape. This so-called Isle of Avalon Edition expands on the music and themes present in that release, amps up the melancholy and turns it all into a statement on the reflexive nature of the genre itself. For a style of music built on ostensibly minor modifications of existing material, it was inevitable that someone would turn the methods towards themselves, and the result is wonderful. Opener “Forever” builds on a simple vocal and piano loop, slowed down to depressive extreme to wonderful effect, before interrupting the listener with an extended montage of radio commercials and trailers. This is the album in micro, enjoyment and pleasantly melancholic nostalgia being interrupting by capitalist critique. This ongoing form becomes cathartic by the conclusion of the album, which we can read not only an obvious critique of capitalist society, but as a summation of the vaporwave movement as a whole. This is enjoyable and nostalgic, but how much should we allow ourselves to indulge in this in the face of ongoing economic inequality and existential angst?

5 – 1

Artist: /F

Album: ƒ sj J¶JF : Pq~; ???/a/a/ J#(. . a a9

Label: Psalmus Diuersae

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ƒ sj J¶JF : Pq~; ???/a/a/ J#(. . a a9

Was an album with that jumble of characters as its name ever going to be anything other than experimental modernity electronica? The key to the release, from enigmatic “bandcamp avant-garde” artist /F, comes from the accompanying artwork, though it’s not so much an album cover, per se, as it is it simply a creation meant to exemplify the core of the 25-minute release’s themes. A collection of miscellaneous computer parts atop a burrito tortilla, it’s at once amusing, perplexing, and oddly natural. Because as bizarre as technically challenging as ƒ sj gets, it is always entertaining and clearly intended for consumption and questioning. Deep throbbing bass is the unifying factor across the shorter six tracks’ tenure here, as schizophrenic loops, seemingly found vocal samples, and scattered percussive elements all dance around one another, always just a moment away from falling into a genuinely catchy dance tune and always avoiding that tune. The long-form, 11 minutes penultimate track “(cs)_0(t)” is where the release comes into its own, though. After a practically straightforward first half of house beats and joyfully MIDI-reminiscent clap samples, the piece seamlessly eases itself into an almost Neubauten-cum-Merzbow exploration of noise and industrial pollution. The desire you’ll have for more of this sound — and /F’s refusal to give it to you — is part of the pleasures of this oddball gem.


Artist: Ben Frost

Album: A U R O R A

Label: Mute

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Ben Frost

In his first proper release since 2009’s incredible By the Throat, Australian-turned-Icelandic Ben Frost showcases an all-new side to his fuzz and feedback driven productions. The previous focus on the layered and proudly meticulous composition of pieces on By the Throat and Theory of Machines is dialed back here in order to give way to a more natural and living feeling. Highlight “Nolan”, while no doubt as agonisingly composed as anything else Frost has done, seems like a living, limbering beast about to fall apart at the seams. Loose static seems to drip away at the corners of the piece as it goes on and eventually gives way to a cathartic dam break of beautiful noise. Always a Swans devotee, Frost adds Thor Harris as a live percussionist and reaches a new level of intensity on these recordings. “Venter”‘s throbbing beat manages to evoke an true human tribal feeling alongside the quintessentially mechanised sonics Frost has always channeled with such passion. A U R O R A is the most cohesive and thoughtfully composed record of Frost’s career, and solidifies his position as one of the most forward thinking and daring experimental composers of today.


Artist: Keiji Haino, Jim O’Rourke, Oren Ambarchi

Album: Only Wanting to Melt Beautifully Away Is It a Lack of Contentment That Stirs Affection for Those Things Said to Be as of Yet Unseen

Label: Black Truffle

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Keiji Haino, Jim O’Rourke, Oren Ambarchi
Only Wanting to Melt Beautifully Away Is It a Lack of Contentment That Stirs Affection for Those Things Said to Be as of Yet Unseen

Another year, another release from this international experimental rock supergroup. In their latest recording, Haino, O’Rourke, and Ambarchi perhaps most exemplify their respective areas of mastery. Starting with delicate acoustic work, Haino and O’Rourke dual together on the 12-string guitar and kantele, building to increasingly complex and abstract interplay, though once Ambarchi joins on percussion, things move into more adventurous territory. Haino’s haunting love-them-or-hate-them vocals begin reciting poetry as the sounds become busier and busier. But it isn’t until the 16-minute mark of this 40-minute-long single-track album that things become really interesting. Haino’s increasingly used air synth comes into play and his trademark love of experimental noise threatens to take over the sonic landscape. Yet Ambarchi’s krautrock neat drum work and O’Rourke’s playful guitar work work off one another with such passion and enthusiasm that this, unlike some of the trio’s other collaborative work, never feels like the Haino show. The conclusion of the album brings with it a cacophonous barrage of artificial samples and static bursting beats, which are held to the point of near frustration before finally giving way to more natural flute and conga drum interplay. This is how the trio operate here: in a constant battle between the brutally artificial and the joyfully naturalistic.


Artist: Swans

Album: To Be Kind

Label: Young God

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To Be Kind

The fact that this album was relatively popularly received speaks more to the dedication and hard work of the band over the years than it does the ease of actually listening to the album. Any two-hour record demands strong attention from the listener; one comprised of only ten songs, rooted in noise rock and experimental funk metal, demands even more. From the opening motorik beat of “Screen Shot”, it’s clear that this is the new Swans again from 2012’s wonderful The Seer. The album is more listenable on the surface than The Seer, yet it is also more layered and ultimately trickier to examine. The longer songs are all rooted in long grooves and repetitive riffs and percussion work, yet never come across as anything like inviting, as so much minimalist rock does. Gira’s lyrics here mimic the musicality of the record in a way the band hadn’t done since their mid-1980s no wave heyday. Cosmic, alluring, punishing and ultimately redemptive in tone (this is To Be Kind after all), Swans here have affirmed they are one of the most vital and exciting rock bands working today. To do so after more than 30 years since their incarnation is only more awe inspiring.


Artist: Pharmakon

Album: Bestial Burden

Label: Sacred Bones

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Bestial Burden

There is no new artist in noise or experimental music more exciting than Margaret Chardiet, aka Pharmakon. 2013’s excellent debut album Abandon showed a commanding and inspired use of power electronics and post-punk influenced noise, yet Bestial Burden bests this in almost every regard. Not as immediately harsh as its predecessor, Bestial‘s energy is more nuanced than outright angry. Much of the analysis surrounding the record focuses on Chardiet’s recent medical troubles and organ removal, and with good reason — these ideas of weakness of the body, of the malleable definition of the self and the fear that would go along with such a moment in one’s life are littered throughout the record. From the opening claustrophobia of “Vacuum’s” repeated panted breathing to “Body Betrays Itself”‘s throbbing, heartbeat power noise and the static drenched war march of “Autoimmune”, Pharmakon does not let go of you throughout this record. The claustrophobia, intensity, and fear on the record do not serve to alienate, however, for no matter how difficult a listen this record is — and it only becomes more difficult as it goes on — there is ultimately a uniting force throughout it. We’re being invited into this personal moment of the dissolution of the self, it’s not being forced upon us. Chardiet’s voice is more audible throughout this album than at any point on Abandon, and we feel her insecurities and her masking attempts to hide these. No matter how deep we find ourselves in this noisy pit of despair, we’re never alone.