Music

The 10 Best Experimental "Albums" of 2010

Image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay

It's not that more experimental-type music was made in 2010. It's just that more of it was getting heard.

With December here and a full year in the rear-view mirror, it is not a stretch to say that 2010 was quite possibly the best year to date for the experimental music community. While it's certain that random people, whether isolated or in groups, have been churning out weird, indefinable, experimental sounds for as long as audio recording has been possible, 2010 undeniably saw what must have been record volumes of weird, indefinable, experimental sounds circulating freely within the population at large.

It's not that more experimental-type music was made in 2010; however, it's just that more of it was getting heard. Those behind these sounds were often faceless people who, despite their utilization of an endless variation of technological arrangements and recording methods, shared a common philosophical ethos that was far outside, if not in direct opposition to, anything remotely resembling the conventional musical mainstream.

Naysayers will try to argue that the intersection of two trends, the proliferation of cheap musical technology and the demise of traditional musical education (whether from cuts to music funding in our schools or short attention spans not jiving with piano practice) has lead to the sudden swell of "experimental" music.

"Experimental", in other words is a dressed-up synonym for "sloppy", these critics would sneer.

These critics would also argue that what we really witnessed in 2010 was a modern musical re-enactment of the barbarians at the gates. The traditional filters that have prevented the influx of obtuse, anti-social noodling, or low-quality, barbaric attic noise, or drawn out, brain-dead "soundscapes" from entering the broader musical discourse have decayed or been overwhelmed.

A recent episode of The Office parodied this situation perfectly when, following a Glee viewing party at Gabe's apartment, the geeky, impossible-to-like host reveals that he is a bedroom producer and makes "soundscapes", which he ridiculously describes as "one instant of a song expanded to the size of the universe!" At the end of the episode, Gabe serenades Andy with his mini-synthesizer "soundscapes" in the bathroom while the a capella singer and musical theater performer is hunched over toilet, incoherent and puking. Andy, who is stoned from ingesting a large quantity of powdered seahorse, drunkenly approves of Gabe's New Age/trance synth sounds despite his normally cold demeanor toward the lanky rival.

Android Face by bluebudgie (Pixabay License / Pixabay

Bedroom-producer caricatures aside, this Office episode accurately hints at the massive unseen army of people who, similar to Gabe, are hard at work in their homes and in their makeshift studios on musical visions that might be hard to understand for Gleeks or people who, like Andy, are schooled within and loyal to the traditional/popular forms of music. Unless they ingest large amounts of powdered seahorse that is.

An accurate depiction of 2010 in regards to experimental music, however, won't emerge from the storylines in a sitcom. The truth is that it won't really emerge from the best-of, year-end list below, either. The truth emerges only when you can hear the releases that didn't make the list. The sheer amount of quality music made within the experimental ethos this past year is downright staggering.

And while more and more indie and pop music is built upon "clever" referencing of past fashion trends, music made in the experimental ethos, for the most part, seems to avoid the problem of tainting its creations with reference points that contain ever shortening expiration dates. And this has been true for some time. You will not find yourself cringing when listening to a favorite experimental album from three years ago the same way you probably will with a lot of trendy indie records from that time. Remember chillwave's predecessor electroclash?

Regardless, taking shots at more conventional music is not my aim here, nor is it to define experimental music, which has always been a dicey enough task even for the most ambitious within the ranks of the genre police. Instead, let's settle on highlighting ten noteworthy releases from the world of experimental sound. So here are ten good ones that, if you have heard, you probably will agree with, and if you haven't heard, perhaps you should hear in the interest of understanding just what went down in 2010.

10. David Toop - Sinister Resonance [podcast]

David Toop has doubled as both a writer and a musician of note for some time now. With the release of his new book, Sinster Resonance: The Mediumship of the Reader, the Haunted Weather author has found an ingenious way to meld his literary prose with his musical vision in the form of a promotional vehicle for the new book. The Sinister Resonance podcast, which The Wire made available for free, presents Toop reading passages from his new book accompanied by self-designed soundscapes that magnify the utter creepiness of Toop's hushed British accent as he probes the history of mythology and "silent art" for its veiled aural narrative.

No information is available as to what makes up the accompanying soundscape, which would function more than fine on its own as a stand-alone piece, but it seems to be a mix of disparate sounding pieces with perhaps a healthy dose of Toop's personal treatments and own material thrown in. Regardless, the mixing is seamless and Toop's voice is all the more hypnotic when surrounded by this disorienting and disturbing score.

While the piece is no doubt an imaginative marketing ploy to get you to buy Toop's book, the author presents his insights and ideas from his book here in a stunning manner. Their sonic, as opposed to literary, impact dictates that the Sinister Resonance podcast must not be considered merely an accompaniment to the book published by Continuum. Instead, like the two-CD set that was created alongside his 2004 book Haunted Weather: Music, Science, and Memory, this piece stands on its own as an experience in itself bordering the line between literature and sound art.

LISTEN: Podcast

9. Emeralds - Does It Look Like I'm Here? [Editions Mego]

Indie's under-the-table footsie game with the experimental world, which turned into a full-on, on-the-couch foot rub after Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion blew the indie world away last year, has led to the emergence of several artists who make experimental music, but are associated more with the indie world. There isn't necessarily a distinction in quality or credibility between these sorts of experimental artists and the less buzz-based undergrounders, it's just a matter of what circles they run in and what blogs they consistently appear on.

What does distinguish them, and perhaps explains the indie world's reason for gravitating toward them, is that these artists tend to apply similar tactics to chillwave artists and electroclash acts before them. In other words, a fundamental ingredient to their aural aesthetic is a particular "historical" reference. Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never (who both had their albums put out by Editions Mego) are just those types of artists. Both artists begin their musical journeys from a distinct historical starting point in the timeline of experimental electronic music.

Emeralds' Does It Look Like I'm Here? draws heavily from the minimalist tradition of Terry Riley's In C, along with the towering structures of 1980s synthesizer music. Throw in a healthy dose of droning filter sweeps, softly shredding guitar solos that pan around in the background, and you have a potent, neo-stoner album that appeals to the more intellectual fans of Animal Collective.

8. Oneohtrix Point Never - Returnal [Editions Mego]

Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal was a definitive statement for an artist with a very clear aesthetic vision who had been working at his sound for some time. After dropping Rifts, a collection of OPN's earlier, lesser-heard and hard-to-find material, Returnal was released and served as a sort of stark exclamation point to the sound OPN's Daniel Lopatin has been building for the past few years. By using bare-boned instrumentation that consisted of nothing more than naked analog synthesizer sounds coupled with an array of effects, Returnal conveys a deeply compelling and magical version of experimental electronic music.

7. Tristan Perich - 1-Bit Symphony [Cantaloupe]

Tristan Perich's 1-Bit Symphony should call into question ever getting obsessed over finding an ultra limited vinyl, cassette, or CD-R again. After all, those are only copies. 1-Bit Symphony, on the other hand, is a not a recording for you to listen to. This release, which comes in a CD jewel case and is described as "juxtaposing the grand form of a classical symphony with the minimal nature of 1-bit circuitry," actually "performs" its music live when turned on. How many of those 7" singles you got on Record Store Day can do that?

It can perform, instead of play, because 1-Bit Symphony is a complete electronic circuit -- programmed by the artist and assembled by hand -- and you can hear the circuit perform though a headphone jack mounted into the case itself. According to Perich's website, "1-Bit Symphony utilizes on and off electrical pulses, synthesized by assembly code and routed from microchip to speaker, to manifest data as sound. The device treats electricity as a sonic medium, making an intimate connection between the materiality of hardware and the abstract logic of software." Checking out the video below can help clarify what all that means for the non-technologically inclined.

Holding 1-Bit Symphony in your hand and hearing the incredibly complex score come to life via such a simple construction is a bit dumbfounding. Furthermore, feeling the circuits pulsating in your hand as the five movements are generated right there in front of you before they rush up into your headphones is a completely different experience from what most music listeners are used to. But Perich's album is not included on this list simply because of its internal construction. While all that is really interesting, the music itself is unbelievable as well.

LISTEN: Bandcamp

6. Keith Fullerton Whitman - "Disingenuity" b/w "Disingenuousness" [Pan]

Both sides of Keith Fullerton Whitman's "Disingenuity" b/w "Disingenuousness" are an expression of blissful electronic excess and an example of the complex technological experiments currently underway in the world of underground electronic music.

"Disingenuity" and "Disingenuousness" are both constructed from an approach that marries the sound deconstruction of Musique Concréte with the improvisational feel of a free jazz solo done on Whitman's Doepfer Hybrid Modular Synth. These recordings originated from a single hour-long improvisation on which Whitman used a tape of random field recordings as source material that was then run through a number of complicated electronic filtering processes. The end result is a bewildering composition comprised of minimal analog synthesizer sounds that are then panned, filtered, and modulated to such a dizzying degree that listener can't possibly hear either of these sides the same way twice. They are just too dense, despite their minimal sound sources.

The importance of the recording, and the reason for its inclusion on this list, is that it establishes a historical link with the classics of experimental electronic music of Pierre Henry and Bernard Parmegiani, among others. Whitman has long been a modern champion of their heady, intellectual approach that utilized sound and music to bring together philosophy, science, and art. "Disingenuity" b/w Disingenuousness confirms that he is a composer of the same rank.

LISTEN: Bandcamp

5. So Percussion and Matmos - Treasure State [Cantaloupe]

So Percussion and Matmos's collaborative album Treasure State may perhaps prove to be the record on this list that swerves closest toward something resembling a pop sensibility. It might also simultaneously prove to be the most twisted and downright quirky in both its conception and execution.

Treasure State is decorated with a staggering array of colorful instruments, ranging from steel drums and other mallets, to a combination of horns, along with inventive usage of splashing water and vibrating cactus quills (see below). All of the sounds are then integrated seamlessly with the strategic knob twisting and electronic beat convulsions that Matmos is known for. A proper explanation of the production process that ultimately yielded Treasure State is impossible here due to the utter complexity of both the initial recording sessions with Matmos and So Percussion and the post-production layering provided by Matmos collaborator Wobbly and So Percussion producer Lawson White. But a quick glimpse into their studio setup leaves no doubt that Treasure State is an experiment in not just a musical sense, but also technological.

This is more than likely a one-off release that is totally unique and an incredible example of the synergistic possibilities that open-minded collaborations enable. Treasure State is a unique snapshot of both Matmos and So Percussion, two groups that seem to be on a never-ending upward creative trajectory.

4. Thomas Ankersmit - Live in Utrecht [Ash International]

Thomas Ankersmit's debut release, Live in Utrecht, originated with a performance given in 2007 and was released this year as an album by Ash International. Live in Utrecht consists of a solo performance from Ankersmit, who utilizes a Serge analogue modular synthesizer, computer, and an alto saxophone, while also incorporating reel-to-reel segments composed by collaborator Valerio Tricoli.

This single-track set finds Ankersmit delicately integrating competing tonal components to create a structure that might appear static or slow moving at first, but reveals itself to be highly dynamic and full of life. Over the course of its 38 minutes, Ankersmit guides this structure along in a graceful but urgent manner. The listener is part enthralled, part ensnared by the distantly squealing saxophone as it pushes against a sonic bedrock that pulsates with distorted textures and disorienting wavelengths. Ankersmit's aching, distorted tones shudder like barren trees attempting to withstand the battering from a vicious digital wind stream that howls like a tea kettle going off in the next room while you are fast asleep.

Ankersmit's pace displays the patience and reserve that only a steady hand can produce. Yet, he is not afraid to let his sounds grow out of control only to then dissipate into abrupt silence. Ankermsit is not afraid of the silence that comes when sounds exhaust themselves and die. He even brings this post-withering into his piece in a pivotal way. This Dutch-born Berliner has produced a recording that perhaps sets a new bar for live electronic performance. While many drone or noise acts might fail to stimulate the non-converted, Live in Utrecht is intriguing enough as an artistic statement to attract those uninitiated to this kind of music.


3. Solo Andata - Ritual [Desire Path Recordings]

Ritual, the title of Australian duo Solo Andata's new album, is more than a guiding concept for the listener to keep in mind when absorbing its four songs. The title "ritual" is also a nod to the album's deeper purpose. As with any shamanistic ritual, elements of nature are harnessed on Ritual in the form of field recordings for man-made, yet spiritually inclined, ends.

Solo Andata members Paul Fiocco and Kane Ikin worked independently from one another for most of the album's production, using wholly different compositional approaches and recording on vastly different equipment. Take into consideration that Ritual was designed with the vinyl format in mind, which led to the duo each taking control of a side, and it is rather surprising that the album still manages to radiate with a unified Solo Andata aesthetic.

This is because, in part, both members of Solo Andata have mastered the technique of fluidly integrating field recordings into their aural landscapes. Both Fiocco and Ikin are able to create an environment where the listener is often hard-pressed to discern if he or she is moving along, passing sounds along the way through the landscape, or standing perfectly still within it, listening to the surroundings rush by. There is no way to tell if either perspective is correct. Regardless, the duo unfolds the sound of natural phenomena into its ambient, modern classical creations to great effect.

Field sources utilized by Fiocco and Ikin include distant chanting, the vibration of human cancerous cells (recorded with a microscope that translates nano-mechanical motion data into sound), and recordings from a remote area of Western Australia called Injiidup. These captured pieces are then wedded to sparse but active audio constellations that challenge the listener to hear the recordings as musical components. The latent musicality of field recordings, while a debated subject for some time, must be acknowledged after hearing this work. Solo Andata's real-world sound capturing, as presented here by the debut release from the promising Desire Path Recordings, is as creative and sonically inclined as the playing of any instrument.

2. Zs - New Slaves [The Social Registry]

New Slaves is perhaps the most dynamic release to make this list. The album is awash with complex and rigorous musical ideas, juxtaposing anarchic with meditative improvisation, while incorporating healthy doses of electronic programming into live, organic atmospheres. The Brooklyn-based group achieves a near-unique sound by snatching bits and pieces from all over the historical avant-garde continuum, including free jazz, no wave, psychedelic, tribal, and ambient. The consequent intermingling and clashing of these varied elements proves stunning over the course of the album.

The album is sequenced to maximum effect as well. The calm, almost playful nature of "Masonry", for instance, gently calms the mind before the album's title track slams the ears with dissonant horns that roar while metallic, electrically charged strings are ferociously plucked to the beat of a stunted march. Fifteen minutes later, the track evolves to a point where it is writhing with the desperate, frenetic screeches of a highly pitched, warped guitar.

On "Concert Black", a stealth crescendo emerges from swelling loops that are bursting at the seams with tension before it dissolves into a perfectly mixed "Acres of Skin", on which the group members alternate between frantically channeling a foreign musical language and collectively creating a new one on the fly.

The two-part "Black Crown Ceremony", which closes the album, perfectly demonstrates the range of New Slaves. In part I, titled "Diamond Terrifier", a strangled horn struggles to poke above the track's sonic sheen, recalling something akin to Dream House-era La Monte Young. In the second part, titled "Six Realms", we see the fullest application of sampling and electronic sculpting on the album, with the group developing a disquieting territory for the listener to roam through until the album comes to a close.

The breadth of New Slaves is ultimately as impressive as the success with which its concepts are executed.


1. Yellow Swans - Going Places [Type]

Experimental noise and drone duo Yellow Swans delivered their final chapter this year, Going Places, after announcing that their eight-year collaboration was over and implying perhaps that the Yellow Swans project had run its course. This final release from members Pete Swanson and Gabriel Mindel Saloman, however, does not sound at all as if the duo has run out of steam. In fact, Going Places is a document of something massive, something eternal, something like the wailing of the universe as it slowly and painfully splits into multi-verses.

Like much of their material, Yellow Swans drape this album with a rusted, decaying surface, represented by the deteriorating soundscapes the listener is left alone to wander. Songs like "New Life", however, hint that beneath this terrifying surface, forces may perhaps be in motion. Their direction is not clear, nor is it plain which direction is desirable. It is merely an acknowledgement that something is afoot and that we are indeed headed somewhere.

But it is rather difficult to stand behind any concrete interpretation of Going Places. As an abstract artistic statement, the album is an uncompromising glimpse into an abyss that could be found within any of us or outside all of us. The listener that discerns the boundaries between these earnest riffs submerged beneath oppressive atmospheres is akin to a viewer tracing the glowing edges on a Rothko rectangle. Furthermore, staring at Rothko's paintings today with full knowledge of his eventual suicide is not dissimilar from listening to Going Places with the awareness that Swanson and Saloman decided to no longer explore the abyss by recording and performing with one another. Like Rothko's paintings, that element lurks in the foreground of the duo's last joint testament, adding both an emotional ambiguity and stark, apocalyptic finality to it.

* * *

This article originally published on 6 December 2010.

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