Music

The Best Avant-Garde and Experimental Music of 2017

The personal is political, the local is global, and privacy is passé. Our musical experimenters are mere soldiers, fighting the good fight in the name of a brighter and weirder tomorrow.

What can we say about the state of experimental music in 2017? This year, I won't pretend I'm equipped to answer such a question. My vague intuition is this: the music world—not to be mistaken for the music business—is as wide open, as conscious and as self-conscious as ever.

Recorded music history has been conveniently digitized and cataloged, available now on your favorite streaming service. The map of musical influence shows arrows going every which direction, circling back on themselves, stretching tautly into the future. Regional scenes have given way to global Internet microgenres, which have in turn dissolved to fill the cracks in our musical past. Music has never been harder to classify, and that is, I think, a good thing.


By the way, since when has "experimental music" been something even remotely definable? The spirit of the avant-garde is so pervasive in today's art, it's almost unworthy of mention. No one can deny the place of the avant-garde in pop, and the converse shouldn't be so hard to swallow.

I want to point out that pure experimentation—the kind of noisemaking most removed from what we consider "music", with a tune and a pulse—hardly registers on this list. Instead, what we have is a collection of albums that push known conventions to the limits, or redraw said limits. Tape music, electroacoustic, noise—these styles tend to revel in form rather than make cultural or political statements. That's all well and good, but I've tried to narrow this list down to a selection of records that say something relevant to our current climate. It's my bias to bear, and yours to endure, at least until you click yourself into some .

Well, if I'm unable to answer our initial question, perhaps it's not my place to pose a much broader one… but I'll do it anyway. What can we say about the state of media in 2017? Let's go with this: the personal is political, the local is global, and privacy is passé. And our musical experimenters, the few on this list and the rest, are mere soldiers, fighting the good fight in the name of a brighter and weirder tomorrow.

10. Nmesh – Pharma (Orange Milk)

Don't Pigeonhole Nmesh as Vaporwave. At least, that's what the Bandcamp Daily article on the album implores. And the Internet's most beloved music depot would know, after all, as the primary residence of Pharma's label, Orange Milk, and really the majority of (sorry) meta-wave music. In the piece, Nmesh, or Alex Koenig, share his mixed feelings toward the "A E S T H E T I C" and its surrounding community. And that's understandable. The degree of critical analysis and strong emotion expended on Vaporwave is itself worthy of critical analysis and strong emotion. We revel in its post-irony, its love-hate relationship with capital. But more and more, it's evident just how elusive and disparate vaporwave's intentions may be.

So while my gut response to this is, can it, guys, this is vaporwave through and through, my subsequent response is, let's all just have a day off. It's tempting with an behemoth like this to unpack the spectrum of cultural attitudes within. But maybe, just this once, can we not?

Perhaps Pharma is about information overload, misplaced nostalgia, and digital decay—if those phrases mean anything. But the fragments are so fleeting, the tone so transient, it's hard to say if the album embodies this paralytic postmodern ambivalence, or just sidesteps it altogether. Listen to this thing. It's a goddamn psychedelic album. Yes, it concerns itself with memory, but these memories are indelibly glossed over, redacted, and memed into a higher dimension. This is your brain on drugs in 2017. It doesn't have to make sense.


9. James Holden & The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits (Border Community)

By 2071, civilization faced a global panic. Over a half-century prior, the mighty telecom monopoly Comcastica Ltd. swallowed up first the tech giants, then the regulatory bodies meant to keep their power in check. Following the dissolution of the United States and EU, the corporation in effect stood as a nation. With its massively horizontal integration, Comcastica now exercised total control over not only the media outlets, but also the means of media production. It didn't help that all digital infrastructure collapsed decades before, and marauders robbed the clouds of all remaining data. What primitive "art" remained served little function to the 99% of humanity in poverty or servitude.

Naturally, it came as a great shock when valiant and free-thinking Englishman James of Holden assembled a clandestine faction known as the Animal Spirits to reconstitute electronic dance music from the Free Information Age, using analog instruments in addition to an ancient synth believed to sit deep in a underground temple. According to lore, Holden achieved the EDM sound from partially reconstructed memories of the few remaining elders alive before the Great Wipe. These memories, it seems, had been corrupted with Krautrock, prog, ambient, minimalism, and puzzlingly, spiritual jazz music scripts. The result, named after the shadowy Animal Spirits, produced in these elders states of ecstasy. They found the work even more "real" than the electronic music their youth—though their sense of reality had undergone a recent upgrade for optimum simulation misrecognition. Still, in this automaton's mind, The Animal Spirits constitutes one of the most daring, and only, electronic music relics of the 2070s.



8. Lovozero – Moroka (Full of Nothing)

"[T]he only songs I can remember are folk songs. When it comes to the necessity to turn to exploring Russianness at the moment, I can only acknowledge the fact that it is happening." - Анастасия Толчнева

As I listen to the full-length debut Moroka by Lovozero, Russian artist Анастасия Толчнева, there's an aching urge to understand what she's saying—to understand the kind of life she's lived that led her to make these specific songs at this specific time. More than usual, I feel at a loss to convey the essence of this work, which I'm not supposed to say. Recently, I've had greater difficulty ascribing poetry to sound—perhaps a personal problem or perhaps something larger in music (but probably the first one). I can only use the words "ethereal" or "expansive" so many times before I start to wonder why I even bother. Biographical information can often be the most potent feature of music journalism, but in Lovozero's case, it's scarce, and the language barrier further complicates things. Her Bandcamp does tell us she's made sound art in the realms of installation and dance, which feels very fitting.

At the last-minute, I actually substituted Moroka for Clark's Death Peak, an album not so different. They're both deeply layered melting pots of electronic, pop and classical lineages—both composed of static space ice coating propulsive planetary tumult. Neither is more worthy of a spot on the list from a purely musical perspective, but in the end, a Russian woman for an Anglo man felt like an acceptable trade. I recommend Moroka with my whole heart—it's adventurous, mysterious, personal and highly tactile. I hope you enjoy it as I much as I do, and maybe you'll find something to say about it too.



7. Blanck Mass – World Eater (Sacred Bones)

With his latestalbum, Blanck Mass—or, John Benjamin Power of Fuck Buttons—drags us deeper into the terrestrial fissure created by 2015's Dumb Flesh. The threshold of this World, titled "John Doe's Carnival of Error", well foretells what lurks beneath the surface: a funhouse, yes, but one fearsome and faceless. As we enter this subterranean lair, our eyes adjust to the surroundings: industrial instruments of unknown function, shifting holographic forms—a stark contrast to the damp, rocky enclosure. We never glimpse the man directly—he's already vanished—and we're left to his devices. It purrs and gulps along, then shudders and screeches violently, then settles once more. At points, are those…? Human voices, moaning a language not so distant from our own. Souls trapped in the machinery, cast as friends and lovers, saints and sinners in this eternal production. We sneer as their cries echo louder and clearer. Sheets of dirt and dross rain from above. Clench our fangs in a grimace, dig our claws into the floor. It feels good to withstand this cascade. It makes us stronger. At once, a sweet vaporous warmth overtakes us, and we become drowsy, eyelids aflutter as if waking from the strangest dream. But before this consciousness escapes us, a powerful chemical surges through our blood, and we gaze upward in formation. Where there was once sheer blackness, a tiny crack now bares a spot of light: the full moon. The "Hive Mind" will carry us back to our leader. We let out a droning, holy howl and ascend as a pack, aware now we too are on the prowl.



6. MIKE – May God Bless Your Hustle (self-release)

Boom bap, hazy half-venues, turning on your phone recorder at the perfect moment, MF DOOM, Tomkins Square Park, spending the day only 85% conscious, 150-year-old poets, some form of weed, collabs on collabs, bathrooms plastered with graffiti, ADHD, Apple computers, breezy faraway beaches, another form of weed, the year 1967 in soul music, kicking back, Africa, waiting for the M train, just phases, feeling alone in a crowd, feeling crowded when alone, Wu-Tang Clan, Queens, an unrestricted entitlement to sample, this whole city, a lone 10-year-old shooting hoops on a fenced-in full-court in December, LSD or something close to it, survivalist swag, those days when everything seems to half-break your heart but you can't put your finger on why, Zig-Zags, paper, horns, Bandcamp, the looming need for savings, the naysayers, Earl Sweatshirt, Puerto Rico, Momma, GOD, all caps, Papa, reverb, last Christmas, competition from too young an age, growing up too fast, Bon Iver probably, the grind, all kinds of bread, vacant lots full of secrets, some dedicated guy's music blog, Pitchfork, overlong showers, a national mental health crisis, being out a phone charger, your version of Harlem, US History class, a son's love.

The sum of these things fails to capture this fresh voice—but it's an OK approximation.

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