Improvisations with Various Objects, Gestures, and Weather Conditions is a wonderful title for sound artist Connor C. Ellis’s newest release, not only because of its inclusion of the Oxford comma or even because of how straightforwardly descriptive it is; the album’s humble heading, track names, and cover art are a nondescript argument for the power of unconventional sound sourcing. Yes, each track is just what its title states, an improvisation using the provided materials, but Ellis touches on truly breathtaking subliminity with his minimal approach, an enrapturing quality only enhanced by the album’s modesty. This direct relationship goes even further when the sounds that the listener hears are made more mysterious by their clearly elucidated source material. This is especially the case with “(water, gravity),” where a tactile soundscape materializes from percussive clicks that, to me, sound much more like a crackling campfire than falling water. Improvisations is one of those special works where singular simplicity is imbued with beauty and emotion via the ears and gestures of a creative artist.
Dienstmord, Berlin duo Jugendwerkhof’s follow-up to their 2018 debut album Blutstätte, is the second installment in their (hopefully) ongoing series of crushing noise releases. There’s not a lot of information available regarding what exactly the artists use to create their music, but it’s all so loud and abrasive that deciphering the origins of each layer isn’t exactly crucial. Swirls of screeching feedback, crashing junk, vocals distorted beyond recognition, and god knows what else are the assaulting elements that make up the three tracks, each an unrelenting 11-minute industrial nightmare. The first part wraps its crushing tendrils around you like an ersatz animatronic anaconda, all overlapping waves of squall and racket crashing in one after the other. The second takes a bit more time to get going, starting things off with a minimal drone and largely unaffected metal clatter before escalating into a flood of cracking electronics that bleeds into the painful discord of part three. A simple summary doesn’t really do Dienstmord justice, though; like most great harsh noise records it’s all about the viscerality of the experience, and there’s no shortage of that here.
My favorite tracks from artists who find beauty in the mangled, dying sounds of electronics and computers.
00:00. Dungeon Crawler – “nghtsft_zet.LOG” from Outside Earth (Trax in the Snoe, 2017)
02:07. Network Glass – “2” from Network Glass (No Rent, 2015)
05:52. Jeff Carey – “1001” from [3:30] (Forwind, 2013)
09:36. Hecker – “C 04 05 I_μdd” from Recordings for Rephlex (Rephlex, 2006)
14:18. Yasunao Tone – excerpt of “AI Deviation #2” from AI Deviation #1, #2 (Editions Mego, 2017)
20:03. Eris Alanna Reese – “Cord Distance” from Ciramak (Psalmus Diuersae, 2015)
22:40. Random_Inc – fifth track from Jerusalem: Tales Outside the Framework of Orthodoxy (Ritornell, 2001)
25:28. Porcje Rosołowe vs Łukasz Podgórni – “Domino” from Skanowanie Balu (Pawlacz Perski, 2013)
28:36. Mads Kjeldgaard – “874uHD” from States of Emergency (Conditional, 2018)
32:48. Frank Bretschneider – “Crisis? What Crisis?” from Sinn+Form (Raster-Noton, 2015)
Many things about Zentrum Statisch led me to believe it would be a work produced using pure data processing: the flat, minimal cover design, the seemingly random sequences of letters and numbers found throughout the album page, the bizarre URL for Left.Bank’s website (lllbnk.x-xx—x.info/)… But the unnamed artist’s “free-form computer-based improvisations” are not at all entirely detached from reality. Spastic, unpredictable, and kinetic, the four tracks do harness many a mangled glitch cluster or grating, error message-esque blast, yet organics play a significant role as well. “reqnee,” despite its disorienting, artificial first moments, soon introduces what sounds like a processed field recording of cricket-filled night air, squashed between the much less familiar curls of pulsating electronics. As the album progresses, it becomes even more difficult to distinguish between sound sources, and Left.Bank’s sonic repertoire approaches that fascinating dimension where heavily manipulated sounds begin to mimic the very reality from which the original material was yanked. Restless digital tendrils evoke watery slaps and squashes, buzzing electrical dins muffle distorted animal-like roars… it all just makes this wonderful album that much more immersive.
My dishwasher currently has a strange ailment: it doesn’t seem to be malfunctioning in any way other than it now produces a mid-range tonal hum. Despite this sound being completely unintentional, it still introduces an undeniable hint of foreboding into my home, and blends well with the ominous washes of grating electronics and virtuosic percussion improvisations conjured by Owen Davis on Interference. I begin my writing with this unusual observation because of how important the relationship between concrete physicality and detached injections is to Davis’s newest release; as Nick Meryhew writes regarding the “Slime Fence” suite, “the boundary between drums and electronics becomes profoundly blurred; the assemblage seems to briefly coalesce.” Purely based off opening track “Crinkly,” where a seething electric cacophony is disrupted by the entry of a furious snare roll in the right channel, one might think that Interference is a People Pleaser-esque collage of free drumming and unruly electronics, but Davis is more concerned with treading and mapping the no-man’s land in between the two elements, switching their places on “Slime Fence II” or even simulating one with the other on “Insistent.” I hesitate to compare this well-crafted work to my sub-par home appliance, but it does tap into the same uneasiness that arises when defined sonic roles are disrupted, when the line that separates two distinct sound sources becomes “profoundly blurred.”
Belgian sound artist Ludovic Medery (who often uses the alias Fissures) has had a very impressive year so far in terms of output. Right at the beginning of 2019 he released Rituels (reviewed here), a spectacular half-hour piece drawing largely from swampy, aquatic sound sources. In March the ambitious Les Voix du Matin was presented, a series of improvised and concrète miniatures that soundtracked voice samples. After Benvenuti in April, which I have yet to here, we have the arrival of Morphosis, perhaps Medery’s most developed release so far this year. Comprised of 11 untitled tracks, most of which are under five minutes, the anatomy of Morphosis is one of scrabbling objects and mechanical electronic manipulations juxtaposed against more organic environmental recordings. Fittingly, the album is preoccupied with changes of state, and it’s often the case that the synthetic elements slowly start to sound more natural, and vice versa. This is especially apparent on the ninth track, where closely recorded thuds and muffled clatters initially sound bizarrely out of place in the presence of rustling leaves and birdsong; but as the piece progresses, the nature sounds begin to dissociate into something much more spectral, and the claustrophobic electroacoustics ends up resembling the soothing sounds of bending, creaking tree trunks. To listen to Morphosis is to venture into a sound-world where the dichotomy of natural and artificial is hardly as defined as you might expect.
The first ‘harsh noise wall’ tape I ever came across was a little C30 called Kriemhild Anal Saxon. This was also the first release I heard by Taskmaster, whose relatively sparse but astonishingly consistent catalog embodies the best parts of the classic wall sound. 13 years after that tape—as well as Taskmaster’s first self-titled album—was released, a new document comes to us via FTAM Productions. This new eponymous cassette contains everything I love about the project, and framed by a distinctly modern crunch are Taskmaster’s trademark dynamics, which, paradoxically, are at once varied and static. Yes, both sides of this tape would probably display a completely blacked-out waveform, but as with every release I’ve heard by this artist there is much more going on than that; tendrils of clashing textures emerge under cover of formidable, squalling noise that crackles and sputters with terrifying strength, and even a litany of repeated listens may not reveal all of the carefully layered chunks that make up each track. The concrete of Taskmaster’s walls is more molten than most; these tracks are lush, oppressive, and hypnotically immersive. And that initial blast of the second side has to be the best and most punishingly cathartic I’ve heard this year.
In a minimal format identical to last year’s list, here are my ten favorite albums that have been released during the first half of 2019. As always, the order is of little importance.
Andrea Borghi – VHS (Misanthropic Agenda, May 8)
VHS is almost like an auditory laboratory experiment. This spellbinding album is the sonic result of sound artist Andrea Borghi’s choice use of objects, prepared turntable, and the innards of a modified VHS player. Moments of recognizable humanity in the form of video tape samples occasionally emerge amidst the beautiful din of crackling, buzzing electronics. Original review
Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride (Columbia, May 3)
Despite how much I love Modern Vampires of the City, I really didn’t have any expectations for Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years. But with Father of the Bride the band has released their best album. Moments of fragile beauty, infectious sun-drenched pop tunes, and cheerful style experiments are sprawled across the warmest, happiest 58 minutes one could ask for.
Duncan Harrison – Nothing’s Good (Index Clean, Feb 16)
The disorienting collages of Nothing’s Good are some of Harrison’s most bewildering, conjuring abstract sound environments of strangled voices, warbling tape, and disparate found sound. The artist’s penchant for nondiscriminatory sonic palettes is at the heart of this album, where all sounds, from the familiar noises of humanity to unidentifiable scrapes and smashes to completely detached electronics, are on equal footing.
Johnw – Wordless Paragraph (Absent Erratum, Mar 11)
Structurally, Wordless Paragraph is a very unique wall release. It’s comprised of seven two-minute pieces, preceded and followed by two endcap tracks running four minutes and thirty seconds each. You’d think that such short durations would diminish the walls’ atmosphere and power, but that’s not really the focus here. The concluding “-” is utterly sublime.
Soren Roi – Retrograde Amnesia (Bank, Feb 22)
Despite its length, Retrograde Amnesia maintains focus throughout, Soren Roi’s evolving compositions of heavyweight industrial techno and deconstructed electronica always imbued with a sense of forward motion, driving and loud and hypnotic and punishing. This double tape commands attention at every moment.
Ariana Grande – thank u, next (Republic, Feb 8)
Easily my most-played album this year. I wasn’t impressed with any of the singles, but all of them have since grown on me tremendously —with the exception of “Break Up With Your Girlfriend…” Regardless, thank u, next is Grande’s first truly personal artistic statement, a record that is her through and through, equal parts danceable hits and aching emotion.
The Wind in the Trees – A Gift of Bricks from the Sky (self-released, Feb 19)
With members of The Heads Are Zeros and Leveless, Baltimore’s The Wind in the Trees stirs up menacing squalls of complex, angular grind. Dark, surreal lyrical imagery is screamed with desperation over labyrinthine riffs and breakneck drums. The band offers a legendary conclusion with the invigorating “Blinding Miscalculations.” Original review
Marble Arch – Children of the Slump (Géographie, Mar 22)
Gorgeous dream pop with enough layers and density to soundtrack a friendly gathering or to reward a focused listen. Marble Arch’s second album is filled with blissful guitar effects, bouncy drum patterns, and a comforting, hazy ambience.
Darksmith – Poverty of Will (Chocolate Monk, Mar 22)
Even in Darksmith’s bleakest moments there’s usually a glimmer of hope, no matter how small. I’m not so sure that’s true for Poverty of Will, a terrifying odyssey through a desolate, unfamiliar world. I haven’t had a chance to get ahold of the companion art book, so I can only imagine the nightmares that are depicted by his distinct stark black pen drawings. Original review
Velo Misere – Retrospectiva de la Fatalidad (Death Kvlt Productions, Mar 1)
Including this one is sort of cheating since it collects the band’s two previous releases: Compendio de Trágicos Presagios (2017) and Genealogía del Eterno Desasosiego (2018). However, its release this year enabled me to find this band, so I think it’s fitting. This compilation introduces a larger audience to Velo Misere’s amazing brand of raw, passionate depressive black metal. Original review
Martin Brandlmayr’s first major foray into radio art is so much more than just a “radio play.” Vive Les Fantômes, which was debuted on the German station SWR last year, is a single 53-minute collage that draws from an eclectic well of material, including everything from Thelonious Monk samples to field recordings to the artist’s own distinctive drum set improvisations (there’s even a moment where the instantly recognizable trumpet wails of Bitches Brew crop up). I won’t attempt to summarize the whole piece, because Brandlmayr’s description of the project on the Thrill Jockey site definitely does that better than I ever could, but it’s a much easier task to enumerate what makes it great. The work’s episodic structure, stop/start dynamics, and disparate elements are consistent with a faithful knob-twiddling radio piece, but everything is cemented together by unifying themes and motifs (spoken word excerpts by Jacques Derrida, resonant vibraphone chords, recordings of urban environments) that draw loose but concrete connections between segments. There’s also an ever-present sense of forward motion, and even in moments of total silence you’re aware that there’s still plenty to come. I also love how Brandlmayr uses voice; the recurring quote about astronauts and the sample of a pilot saying “we’re approaching the…” introduce an odd mixture of unease, tension, and suspense.
Tape music is often so engaging to listen to purely because of its inherent physicality; artists work with sound in one of its most versatile tangible manifestations, looping and yanking and scraping it across the magnetic heads. These verbs—especially “yank”—are fitting when describing the first track on More Than This, Providence-based musician Dave Public’s most recent solo release. On “Same Old Scene,” distorted clatter, gargles, and other unintelligible noises are manipulated with merciless irreverence, and a tremendously disorienting and immersive effect is created by the way in which all of the sounds seem to be constantly being pulled in every direction at once. “Prairie Rose,” a more reserved composition that serves as a foil to its much rowdier predecessor, takes the same traits in an entirely different direction. While “Same Old Scene” envelopes the listener with dynamic chunks of gunk unfurling across the stereo space, “Prairie Rose” spreads itself out like a gossamer cloud, drifting along at a pace not nearly as frenetic or restless. “NL51217” is a logical conclusion to the tape, a 2017 performance in North Carolina that spans the entirety of Public’s repertoire amidst overwhelming collages of muddled field recordings, surreal sound poetry, and gelatinous muck.