Saturday, January 14, 2012

Best Albums of 2011 #3 Colin Stetson - Judges 2: History of New World Warfare (Constellation)

Bass saxophonist Colin Stetson clearly has an incredibly deep and intuitive sense of the power of microphone placement. Judges 2 is essentially a live album, recorded in a single take with no instrumental overdubs or processing to speak of (at least not of the saxophone, almost the sole force on this album). And yet the album sounds like some ferocious, immense whirlwind, a demonic army of musicians producing a giant, pulsing, overwhelmingly powerful tapestry of sound. Instead it's just one guy with a giant horn surrounded by mics. Some are far away and pick up the saxophone as a distant thrum. Others are placed directly in front of Stetson, capturing his gasping breath, his vocalized cries through the reed, the pulsing percussion of his fingers flying over keys. These sounds are layered, spilling over and into one another. In Stetson's hands dizzying arpeggios, siren squalls, lowing foghorns, timbral dronescapes, and more come together to form an album that is by turns bleak and desolate, eurphoric and elating, and always, moment by moment, surprising, arresting, even awe inspiring. Stetson's enthralling instrumentation is accompanied on several tracks by a beguiling tone poem of sorts. This semi-narrative tells a tale of blackened landscapes, desperate flights from nameless terrors that for some reason feels strongly reminiscent of Paul Auster's "In the Country of Last Things." There's even one track that's feels like an old spiritual, a deeply affecting piece. But, of course, that could be said of this whole album. The Constellation website says "[Stetson's] percussive valve-work and reed vocalisations make a polyphonic solo music that combines influences as diverse as Bach, early metal, American pre-war Gospel, and the explorations of Jimi Hendrix, Peter Brotzman and Albert Ayler." Just so. This album is so rewarding and so brilliant that even though it doesn't top this list, it's possibly the most essential listen of the year nonetheless. Staggeringly good stuff.

Best Albums of 2011 #4 Ernst Karel - Swiss Mountain Transport Systems (Gruenrekorder)

Many of us live in a state of near constant self-imposed sonic stimulation. We are forever talking on cellphones or listening to ipods, rushing from place to place with music and podcasts and satellite radio and videos streaming on our tablets. Meanwhile the world goes on around us. The irony of this is if one knows how to listen to the world - the real world - one can often find a soundtrack equally rich and stimulating and beautiful to anything we can think to cram onto our mp3 players. Ernst Karel - a sound artist and musician from Chicago - demonstrates this truth with jaw dropping aplomb on his latest release, "Swiss Mountain Transport System." The title of this album says it all. At close to 80 minutes in length, Karel offers his listeners a number of unprocessed field recordings taken on various gondolas, funiculars, and chairlifts in the mountains of Switzerland - from ancient, creaking gondolas to whirring, highspeed chairlifts. That's it. No instruments, no electronic processing, no synthesizers or oscillators or guitar feedback. And yet, despite that, Karel has created one of the most gorgeous, engaging, and fascinating albums of the year. It also happens to work almost perfectly as a drone or minimalist noise album. Through Karel's carefully positioned microphones, these means of mountain conveyance can be heard as accidental electro-mechanical music boxes, an entire world of sound contained in each car. They drone, they are percussive, they amplify and refract and echo and encase sound. Wires ring and reverberate, gears rumble and click, doors creak and whoosh. The mechanical and industrial intersects with other elements of the world - murmured voices across platforms, a peal of church bells off in the distance, a clang of cow bells, a clattering of helicopter rotors, frigid gusts of wind.

As Karel captures it, these unprocessed, unorchestrated sounds - largely mechanical and man-made but nonetheless "organic" in that they belong firmly to a lived environment, integrated in with the natural, and are not created as an end in themselves as with music or intentionally crafted sounds but rather exist as a part of the man/nature soundscape that is a byproduct of a world inhabited by living beings - are immensely affective and evocative. For an album that seems to be about movement, about traversing space, these recordings are incredibly successful not because they are beautiful - though they absolutely are - but because they evoke the mountains and they evoke transportation through that rugged terrain in a remarkably lucid way.

Recorded in stereo with multiple mics, this album truly comes to life when heard through a decent set of headphones. The sound envelopes the listener and we are whisked away through the Alps as Karel's recordings convey with remarkable clarity a sense of distance, of movement, of sound as it's really heard, in the real world. A collection of pure field recordings, it is perhaps ironic that in order to hear - as Karel has captured it - not only the utter beauty in the perpetual sonic landscape that surrounds us but also its incredible, inherent musicality that we must sit and listen closely, headphones firmly donned, without distraction. But one of the things that's so special about this album is that once you listen to it in this way, once you recognize the richness and depth of the world of sound that exists outside our headphones and in the most unexpected of places (we don't think of funiculars and gondolas as being all that interesting as such), it's possible to start discovering similar depth in places one experiences daily and simply never pauses to think about twice. As with all important and truly successful art, "Swiss Mountain Transport System" can radically alter the way one perceives the world.

Be warned: this album requires a good deal of patience. Many will find it boring but for those really willing to sit with it, its rewards continue to unfold listen after listen. It's refreshingly direct - a rarity in our world of ultra-processed music - and restrained, elegant and as simple as can be. At the same time, it's deeper and more nuanced than pretty much anything I've heard in a long while. A completely essential listen, one I cannot recommend highly enough.

Link Removed by Request

Best Albums of 2011 #5 The Element Choir and William Parker - At Christ Church Deer Park (Barnyard)

From Barnyard

"this record documents a concert that embodied a set of extraordinary connections. At the heart of these connections are Christine Duncan and Jean Martin, collaborators through the already deeply intertwined projects of Jean’s Barnyard Records and Christine’s Element Choir, the inclusive, community-driven improvising vocal ensemble. Together, these two enterprises account for a significant quotient of the energy that drives Toronto’s field of creative improvised music, and on the cold March night of this event that energy was made palpably, gloriously kinetic. But the connections don’t end there. Notably, this music includes the two other projects that were feted that night separately; Barnyard was launching not only the first Element Choir record, but also a solo disc by New York bass legend, William Parker, and one by the trio of Jim Lewis, Andrew Downing, and Jean Martin. By the end of the evening, all were playing in the chancel of Christ Church Deer Park, where Choir collaborator, Eric Robertson, regularly plays the exquisite Karl Wilhelm  organ. The massive sound is dominated by the Choir — fifty-strong on their debut disc — which had swelled to an unprecedented seventy voices that night. Moreover, there was the inaudible-but-inestimable contribution of Jeff Schlanger, the MusicWitness, who painted William during the majestic solo concert that became At Somewhere There, and who was delighted to return to document these record-launch celebrations in his magical way. More than anything, this record is about the connections between all of these extraordinary artists and people — and the selfless urge, clearly shared by everyone there, to celebrate these connections through this music.

This live recording includes:

The Element Choir-seventy voices

Christine Duncan-choir conductor

William Parker-bass

Eric Robertson-pipe organ

Jim Lewis-trumpet

Andrew Downing-bass

Jean Martin-drums, trumophone"

That pretty much says it all. Like all the releases in the top 5 of this list, nothing else that came out this year really sounded like this. It's an incredibly exciting release that highlights the power of the human voice and of large musical collectives. Large form improvisation isn't all that common - improvisers tend to stick to fairly small ensembles in my experience - but this is proof positive that not only is it possible, the results can be pretty astonishing. What's cool about this release is that it doesn't compromise in the slightest artistically and yet it should still be enjoyed by people whose musical interests cover a wide, generally non-overlapping spectrum. Fans of the avant-garde, of the experimental, of choral music and chamber singers and modern a cappella  will surely all be floored by the scope of this, one of the most exciting albums of the year.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Best Albums of 2011 #6 Red Horse - Red Horse (Type)

Red Horse - the duo of multi-perucsionist Eli Keszler and guitarist Steve Pyne - put out their second self-titled LP in 2011 and it was far and away one one of the most intense albums released that year. Type records calls it "blistering free-post-everything" and that's quite apt. Hyperkinetic, unrelenting splatters of percussion spill out over enormous walls of squalling feedback at ear bleeding volumes. Enormous electrified string sculptures, sequenced reclaimed speakers, frantic motors, bowed crotales, metal and strings, guitar and microphones, even, apparently, banjo: all are put to use crafting massive, cacophonous mechanical soundscapes. Of course, you'd be hard pressed to pick most of those things out of the torrents of noise these guys make. One of the coolest things about Red Horse is an adherence to the mechanical. Pretty much everything you hear on this record is captured live with no knob twiddling to speak of. It's noise in the real, pure sense of the word, unfiltered and untreated by laptops or pedal boards roughly the size of football fields. Not that there's anything wrong with those things, it's just that Red Horse deserves some serious kudos for creating something so visceral, so ear splittingly, gut punchingly intense, without going to more traditional (and, I would argue, easier) route of processing their sound to death.

There's been some talk of the "punk spirit" of Red Horse. That too feels apt. There's a freewheeling, no-hold-barred energy and a totally DIY approach - most of their instruments and devices are reclaimed or modified or made from scratch - to their music. But at the same time Red Horse surpasses your standard noise group. There's more of the avant-garde to this record, a level of exploration unheard of from most other groups out there. This is one of those records that works perfectly on vinyl as well. Put it on, crank up the volume in your headphones as loud as you can handle it, and listen closely. There's tons to hear beneath the shrieking surface. Just when you're about to be fully, irrevocably swept away by this torrent of noise, side A will spin out and you'll have a few moments of respite before plunging - all too willingly - into the pummelling depths of side B.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Best Albums of 2011 #7 Bill Orcutt - How the Thing Sings (Editions Mego)

Bill Orcutt is clearly a madman, assuming his recent solo work is an indicator of that kind of thing. Armed only with a crummy old acoustic guitar missing a string and outfitted with a pair of found pickups, Orcutt spins out tunes unlike any other. Indeed, no one else plays the guitar like Orcutt does. In some ways it feels like he's taken the blues and distilled it to its absolute core. Very little of the original artifact remains. Instead, some pure, unadulterated essence that retains the core power of the most potent works of that genre remain but in the guise of something else altogether. What that is is tough to put in words. Suffice it to say, Orcutt's playing is both utterly unhinged and decidedly manic while simultaneously being truly virtuosic. Orcutt plays as if he sold his soul to the devil for guitar skills but in the process became possessed by the Beast. His strange, yelping, growling and atonal wordless vocalizations only confirm this suspicion.

This is deeply emotional and affecting music, tapping into something primal both in form and in substance. Orcutt's not only an amazing guitarist because he can play his instrument with a blazing, superhuman speed and intensity but because he can make it say things no words could muster, can root out something deep and dark from the musician and the listener. How the Thing Sings is intensely powerful music and an absolute must-listen.

Best Albums of 2011 #8 Julie Holter - Tragedy (Leaving Records)


Fans of deep, female led, space-y, blissed out drone-pop - artists like Grouper, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Pocahaunted, even Zola Jesus - rejoice: Julia Holter's Tragedy is a staggeringly good debut (Holter has put out a handful of small releases but this is her first proper album), an album that's noisy and dreamy, rich in resplendent drone, with a sonic palette that runs the gamut from abstract, avant-garde noise and gothic atmospherics, to reverb soaked ghostliness and almost pop-y hooks, pulling in elements of woodsy folk and psychedelia along the way. Oh, and it's based on Hippolytus by Euripides. Despite some similarities, Holter's compositional range is actually broader than a lot of her contemporaries. I love the work of Liz Harris and Rachel Evans as much as the next guy but each of their individual albums has a distinct, fairly fixed sound to it. This isn't a bad thing - especially when that sound is often so good to begin with - but in some ways Tragedy is more engaging from start to finish for its broader scope and greater complexity.

While Evans' work is often fairly cosmic in a sort of minimal, skeletally framed kind of way and Harris' is drowning in reverb, an impossibly deep and distant  and melancholy sound, Holter's work here is often far darker, almost doom-y, and generally more complicated, shifting and overlapping compositional styles with ease. It makes sense that an album based on a Greek tragedy - one that even draws lyrical content from the text of that tragedy - would be dark. But Holter moves beyond the staid and formalized tone of her source material to create something big and unnerving and powerful, an emotional work that knows when to pull back and never goes too heavy on the pathos or melodrama but can still move and surprise and unsettle a listener.

Tragedy is hard to classify or pin down. Consider the opening track. It begins with an insectoid buzz. There's a distant fog horn shrouded in sonic mist and intermittent blasts from what sounds like a bass saxophone. Then an old opera record kicks in, rife with static and wear, old-timey strings rise and fall when suddenly you become aware of Holter's humming rising up through the mix, slicing through layers of fragile static pulse. It's surprising and strange and compelling, a clashing tapestry of sound and a telling sign of what's to come. Throughout, vocals switch from straight up pop vocalization to choral chants with layered vocals a la Julianna Barwick, to vocodored, cyborgish passages of disjointed narrative and are sometimes all three at once in an overlapping polyphony. Many of the pieces consist mainly of winding, slowly building instrumentals. The crackling of old phonographs or disintegrating tapes whisper under discordant, jarring piano, woozy, atonal strings, humming synthesizers and organ, eerie, gaseous decay, skittering, jangling percussion, garbled field recordings, blasts of lowing brass. There's melodies here and even hooks but when they appear they are often deeply buried or come gusting up out of turbulent audio collages and fractured drones and pulsing harmonics.

(if you want to buy this on vinyl, act fast. 
The first edition sold out quickly
and the second one is equally limited)

Best Albums of 2011 #9 Gareth Davis and Machinefabriek - Ghost Lanes (Dekoder)

Hopefully back on track with this list! Sure it's 2012 and I'm still writing about 2011 but all the rest of the albums on this list are really great in any case. Ghost Lanes was originally released as a 3" cdr in 2010 but was re-released in 2011 by Dekoder on vinyl with an extra track, doubling the album in length and effectively making it far more than your standard reissue, enough to make me consider it a new release and thus applicable for this list. Machinefabriek's Rutger Zuydervelt is a mightly prolific dude, putting out seemingly dozens of albums a year, but his collaborations with clarinetist Gareth Davis might be his best. On the title track, Davis' clarinet scrapes and screams, finger taps and gusting breaths picked up by careful mic placement. The clarinet here is eerie and off kilter and would be cool even on its own. But paired with Zuydervelt's brooding, desolate electronics and drone - an impenetrable wash of dark atmosphere, sonic grit, and cryptic sonic wasteland soundscapes - it becomes something even more thrilling. The second track, "Mackerel Sky," is heavier on the harmonics, with great thunderous washes of sound. As far as I know, these recordings were entirely improvised. If that's true Ghost Lanes is truly the work of two performers that are intensely in sync with one another. Great as background music and incredibly rewarding of close listening, these two dark, intimate, and wholly unique pieces are what collaborative experimentation in this vein should be. Truly amazing stuff.