Music

The Best Avant-Garde and Experimental Albums of 2014

Andrew McDonald

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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/f/fennesz-becs-200x200.jpg

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List Number: 10

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Fennesz
Bécs

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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List Number: 9

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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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List Number: 8

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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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List Number: 6

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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?

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