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.

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Artist: /F

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

Label: Psalmus Diuersae

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/F
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
A U R O R A

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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Swans
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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Pharmakon
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.

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