Feature: Favorite Labels of 2018

As we enter December, the month of end-of-year lists galore, I’ll be focusing more on summarizing my favorite music that I heard this year rather than reviewing new things—among obvious other reasons, I need a break from the constant new music! For me, December is not too early to assess the year as a whole, because I won’t be able to spend enough time with anything that comes out this close to the end of the year to confidently put it on a list. As with everything on this site, these lists and features will be intended to encourage discovery of new things; the fact that they are my opinions is secondary.


Even in this era where digital music and streaming dominate, independent CD and tape labels are the lifeblood of the underground and avant-garde music community. So many, way more than we deserve, are admirable platforms for musicians and artists to get their music to new audiences, focused on supporting creativity rather than profit (though they still need your financial support too). With this piece, I hope to give recognition for the longer running labels that are still consistently great, as well as bring some newer discoveries into the spotlight.

‘Old Standbys’

Erstwhile

Though 2017 only saw three new Ersts—which, to be fair, were two fantastic double CDs and one monstrous five-disc set—the label doubled that number in 2018, releasing three single discs in March, two more in August, and wrapped things up with the spectacular Green Ways, a two-disc collaboration between Áine O’Dwyer and Graham Lambkin, which also happens to be my pick for the best thing I heard this year. With this year’s roster, Erstwhile continues its long running tradition of being at the forefront of contemporary improvised music, with the tense, percussive interplay of Hong Chulki and Will Guthrie on Mosquitoes and Crabs and the whimsical live sound-plundering of Lucio Capece and Marc Baron on My Trust in You, but it also maintains its expansion into other areas, with the remaining four albums all but defying conventional classification. Thank you to Jon Abbey, who runs and produces for the label, and to Yuko Zama, who does most of the CD case designs.

Glistening Examples

Jason Lescalleet’s formidable imprint continued to present some of the most interesting and forward-thinking works in the areas of electroacoustic and acousmatic music this year. Its first offerings came from sound researcher Thomas Tilly, whose wonderful Codex Amphibia explored the breeding frenzies of frogs, as well as the sonic quilting offered by Taneli Viljanen and the warm but tense drones of Caroline Park. Lescalleet also released two of his own works on the label, a CD reissue of last year’s Almost Is Almost Good Enough cassette and the 20th installment of his This Is What I Do series. Three more release batches were released throughout the year, from which my personal highlights were Run Amok, a series of tactile sound interventions by Tom White, and Hardworking Families’ deceptively dense EMERGENCY WINDOW. Thank you to Jason Lescalleet, whose mastering work is reliably great on every release.

No Rent

The Philadelphia-based No Rent Records just might have every other physical media label that I can think of beat with the staggering amount of tapes they put in 2018, which numbers more than thirty. THIRTY tapes. I admit I missed one here and there, but I’ve liked pretty much every release I’ve heard from No Rent this year, an amazing feat for that amount of prolificacy. My favorites include Buck Young’s Proud Trash Sound, a cassette originally released in January and later pressed as an LP which also happens to be the greatest—and, possibly, only—example of ‘country noise’ I can think of; Fashion Tape from Vanessa Rosetto, whose unique synthesis of sound sources is housed within one of the best looking cassettes I own; a two-tape comprehensive compilation of ambient works by Cold Electric Fire; and Collin McKelvey’s glorious The Golden Ass. Jason Crumer’s Ottoman Black was also reissued as a cassette. Thank you to Jason Crumer and Rose Actor-Engel, who work tirelessly to give countless experimental artists a valuable platform.

Youth Attack

In 2018, the label that takes its name from one of the greatest hardcore releases in history released more than several albums that are well-equipped to steal that crown. I would have been happy if the only two punk LPs I had this year were January’s Dying Breed and Nightmare in a Damaged Brain, the furious masterpieces by Cadaver Dog and Vile Gash respectively, but Youth Attack wasn’t done. Mark McCoy’s own band Suburbanite also released a self-titled LP, and the year was brought to a close with another forceful double-punch from City Hunter and Creep Stare. Youth Attack also released an official digital version of the Cancer Kids’ peerless opus The Possible Dream, which originally came out in 2002. Thank you to Mark McCoy, who is always determined to bring us the best that modern hardcore has to offer.

New Discoveries

Castle Bravo

This Indiana-based imprint only releases three tapes every June, but this year’s batch was more consistent than most others. Each of the three barely left the vicinity of my tape player since I got them in the mail, with Cryptonym’s vicious mixture of black metal and distorted electronic music on Predation, Gateway’s avant-jazz-plagued brand of improvised music on Dawn of the Civil Savage, and the debut release from Truth Decay filling many an intolerable silence throughout the second half of 2018. I also feel compelled to mention the tape that introduced me to Castle Bravo: Death Ranch by guitarist, droner, and collager Jacob Sunderlin.

Dinzu Artefacts

Dinzu’s gorgeous tape releases are reserved for “the contemporary art of sound by artists interested in tape manipulation, field recordings, noise and experimental practices.” It’s no surprise, then, that pretty much every DNZ cassette can be counted on to be tremendously unique and innovative, from the muffled mechanical whirrings of Sebastiano Carghini’s Habituated by Reason and tape-miniatures of Dominique Vaccaro’s Close Distances to the amplified environments of SiAl by Matthias Urban.

elsewhere

Started as a sister label to Erstwhile, elsewhere is run by designer and producer Yuko Zama, who focuses on releases grounded in contemporary classical music. Though 2018 was the label’s first year in operation, it already has put out five titles, including a triple CD from Biliana Voutchkova and Michael Thieke, a performance of Clara de Asís’s piece “Without” by Erik Carlson and Greg Stuart, and a collection of two compositions by Wandelweiser legend Jürg Frey, all packaged in beautiful cases with a unique design template.

Geräuschmanufaktur

Geräuschmanufaktur mainly operates in the endlessly fruitful wall noise renaissance, as well as releasing titles in other areas of music. The label’s 2018 roster is dominated by Constructionis, a three-tape set credited to Architectonicum, a trio of wallers backed by founder Jan Warnke’s own ‘architectural noise’ manifesto. Other releases included a double header from concrète collective The Dead Mauriacs, the short Pathways released under Warnke’s own name, and walls from Damien de Coene and Cannibal Ritual.

Honorable Mentions

I’d also like to recognize some other labels who brought me some of my favorite music this year, including Round Bale RecordingsLurker BiasChaotic Noise ProductionsKatuktu CollectivePlus Timbre, Sentient RuinAscetic House, Kirigirisu Recordings, and ACR.

Feature: MVPs of 2018

As we enter December, the month of end-of-year lists galore, I’ll be focusing more on summarizing my favorite music that I heard this year rather than reviewing new things—among obvious other reasons, I need a break from the constant new music! For me, December is not too early to assess the year as a whole, because I won’t be able to spend enough time with anything that comes out this close to the end of the year to confidently put it on a list. As with everything on this site, these lists and features will be intended to encourage discovery of new things; the fact that they are my opinions is secondary.


2018 was a year in which I discovered lots of new artists and got to hear new music from artists I already love. There were, however, several artists who managed to occupy both voids due to their prolificacy throughout the year. These are my personal picks for the “most valuable players” in music this year.

Carlo Giustini

I first encountered Giustini’s work when ACR released La stanza di fronte back in January. It was one of the first tapes I heard this year and introduced me to the Italian cassette slinger, whose love for tape goes beyond his collecting and DJing and seeps into his fractured, hiss-marred ambient music. Giustini has released tapes on five different labels this year, including Purlieu (Sant’Angelo), Bad Cake (Eden), and Lontano Series (Manifestazioni), with each exploring a unique nuance or theme that keeps his style fresh and exciting. The frigid, frosty Non Uscire, released by No Rent just a few weeks ago, may be the most fitting for the winter months, but you can be sure to find a tape of Giustini’s to fit almost any state of mind.

Manja Ristić

January’s Fairy & the River Teeth, released by net-label Sonospace, was one of the first things I formally reviewed for this site. Since then, Serbian musician and researcher Manja Ristić has darkened her already indelible mark on the field of contemporary sound art. She’s released several albums that explore phonography in more musical contexts, such as the breathtaking The Nightfall on Naviar and Further East, a collaboration with guitarist Mirian Kolev (also known as E.U.E.R.P.I.), published recorded sound maps on her Sonic Matter Bandcamp page, and given lectures on topics like “the culture of sensing.” She also improvises and composes on the violin, working with Urša Rahne on the multimedia release Dead in April and an entire host of performers to produce The Struggle of Man.

Dosis Letalis (Nemanja Nikolić)

My final pick also hails from Serbia. Nemanja Nikolić releases most of his music as Dosis Letalis, and is arguably at or near the forefront of a fast-expanding outbreak of creativity in the wall noise genre. Nikolić’s walls are not made with the nihilistic philosophies that are commonly associated with this approach to noise; instead, he seeks to express emotion and a want for change. Confronting the Inhuman, released by Breaching Static in January, conjures a thick but calming atmosphere of soft, insectile sounds, while Hellscape HN’s The Culture of Fear crashes against the ears (and our society) with a cathartic blast of harsh frequencies. Nikolić’s productivity this year is impressive even for a HNW musician, with a roster that includes splits with Bug Catcher and Phyllomedusa as well as the arresting Smisao Života Je Sloboda and meditative Scales of Justice.

Review: Bingo Trappers – Elizabethan (Morc Tapes, Nov 26)

With a frigid Midwestern winter fast approaching, the temperatures are dropping, the wind is picking up, and the sun is going into hiding. Needless to say, I need all the happy music I can get. Luckily, the new album from long-running pop outfit Bingo Trappers, Elizabethan, is exactly that. The Amsterdam band, despite being active since 1995 and having a style that’s undeniably indebted to 60’s sunshine pop, sounds as fresh as ever. The songs are deceptively simple, with complexities that only make themselves apparent after repeated listens. One of my favorite things about this record is how the drums fit in with everything else; the bass and guitars are thuddy enough that they’re percussive in their own right, and it took me a while to notice that “Signs of Comfort” doesn’t even have any drums until midway through. The frequent slide guitar adds a sense of motion and direction as well, though it’s more fluid than rhythmic, winding in and out of the other instruments with evolving melodies and smile-inducing solos. Waldemar Noë’s lyrics are unsurprisingly fantastic, drawing equally from the frank storytelling of country music and more abstract sources (according to the band’s website, the song “Don’t Steal My Line” is largely based on the 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). Coupled with the cheerful, whimsical arrangements, I can’t help but be reminded of The Deep Freeze Mice and their masterpiece Hang on Constance, Let Me Hear the News, which, I think, is one of the best compliments I’m able to bestow.

Review: Fergus Kelly – Trembling Embers (Room Temperature, Nov 25)

Many musicians, especially in the area of experimental music, are indebted to or engage with visual art on some level, whether it gives them inspiration, provides a different creative outlet, augments their recordings or performances, etc. But a select few create beautiful pieces of visual art in the process of making music, intentionally or unintentionally. A personally significant example is the collection of tabletop setups utilized by improviser Keith Rowe, whose layouts of haphazard objects, modified guitars, and electronics seem to have an energy of their own, even separate from the music they help produce. Dublin-based artist Fergus Kelly takes things a step further with his complex arrangements of custom built instruments, arsenals of makeshift string instruments and transducers that are physical manifestations of the artist’s inner creativity. The full potential of Kelly’s inventions is explored on his new CD Trembling Embers, whose rhythmic title (this naming scheme continues to the track list, with names like “Vestige From the Wreckage” and “Spoiled Coinage”) foreshadows the agitated and unpredictable sounds found within. The first few tracks are largely unmanipulated improvisations, relying on tense clatter and metallic whirring to create a formidable atmosphere. As the album progresses, however, more elements are added; processing allows for the darkly immersive environments of “Plow a Flaw to the Far Shore,” and injected field recordings in “Paradox Lost” provide both a textural and thematic counterpoint. Though, obviously, listening to the CD doesn’t offer any insight into the visual aspect of what Kelly is doing, he masterfully communicates a profound concreteness, a tactility, that ensures even the most manipulated compositions on Trembling Embers feel up close and personal.

Review: Mummy Dust Trippers – Perfect Prey (Psychic Sounds, Nov 11)

Mummy Dust Trippers is a duo composed of Idaho Joe Winslow and Grant Corum, the latter of whom is also known as The Orchardist and released the wonderful Mercurian Vineyard Surgeries (which I reviewed here). Perfect Prey, one of two simultaneously released new records from the band, is a psychedelic journey through a sickly sweet haze. The deep green colors that pervade the album cover are a great representation of what the music sounds like; every sound that Winslow and Corum produce is drenched in a distinctly organic fog, which billows up and coats each song with oppressive smog. But, surprisingly, Perfect Prey doesn’t feel claustrophobic. There is so much freedom in the way the two musicians conjure lazy melodies and droning, Residents-esque vocal harmonies, as everything bubbles in the half-formed songs that seem to melt by the time they end. “Try Not to Cry” is a subtle spot of light amidst the smoke, and its uneasy beauty is a peaceful respite before “Synesthesia,” the hulking song that brings the album to a close. Perfect Prey seems unfriendly at first, but it ends up being comfortable, even cozy, in its own strange way.

Buy the LP here.

Review: Graham Lambkin & Áine O’Dwyer – Green Ways (Erstwhile, Nov 27)

Disclaimer: Please listen to Green Ways before you read this, if at all possible. In my opinion, the album is best experienced when one forms one’s own interpretations of the sounds. But I can’t tell you what to do.

I’m fairly certain I will remember the first time I heard Green Ways for the rest of my life. When a double CD by two of my favorite artists on my favorite label was announced, it’s not surprising that it was one of my most anticipated releases this year. I was careful not to try to predict what the music would sound like; Graham Lambkin and Áine O’Dwyer are both artists who subvert my expectations almost as a rule, always giving me what I didn’t know I wanted. But even if you don’t have expectations, Green Ways will surprise you. Crafted with care, reverence, and an inordinate amount of love, it is one of the few albums that I can call a truly unique experience. As Lambkin says in his fascinating interview with The Quietus, Green Ways was originally envisioned as a sound map of Ireland, O’Dwyer’s home country. Though they intended to “[go] over to Ireland and record in these places that meant something to her,” the album ended up as much more, not only imbued with the sentiment and memories attached to the recordings but also with new emotions created with abstract performances and the “filíocht of rural and urban acoustic environments.”

The opening suite of tracks, “One and One Is One” through “…Is Three,” are immediately mysterious. “…Is One” begins with a group vocal performance, beginning as a collectively produced drone that transforms into something much more rhythmic. It and almost all the other tracks create a palpably physical sound space; you can feel the vibrations of the creaking wood floor, the syrupy acoustics of the vocalizations, that overwhelming but pleasant warmth from sitting amidst a large group of people. The way in which Green Ways puts emphasis on the concept and feeling of ‘place’ is truly incredible, from trapping the listener atop the surface tension of the water in “One and One Is Two” to immersing them in the movement of hiking and kneeling to collect mushrooms and other herbs. “Greenways” is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard, swirling a gorgeous, natural drone around the stereo recorder…but I could also say the same thing about “Expatriate Union,” which takes that powerful sensation of being in a crowd even further, or “The £500 Whistle,” a mundane but sublime walk through what sounds like a busy town square, or “Down by the Sally Gardens,” when a distorted dog bark rips through comfortable rural domesticity, or… you get the idea.

But ‘place’ is not only conveyed physically; the voices and actions of actual people are important too. Intimate singing of traditional folk songs placed throughout the album, as well as snippets of conversations and the soft cacophony of crowds. These yield amazing moments as well, like on “Metallurgy,” when O’Dwyer asks their companion how long he thinks “that boulder” has been there, to which he nonchalantly, “about 6000 years.” It’s a rare verbal communication of the themes and ideas that Green Ways explores so effectively without any words at all, conveying that deep undercurrent of age and history that runs under the Emerald Isle, a place that simultaneously exists in the present and so far in the past.

I could go on; really, I could. Green Ways is an indescribably rich album, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully enumerate all the things it makes me feel. I’m just so grateful that it exists.

Review: Julien Bayle – Violent Grains of Silence (Elli, Nov 16)

Recently I wrote about four recent releases of acousmatic music with very unusual sound sources. Julien Bayle’s new release, Violent Grains of Silence, might have all of them beat with its concept. Bayle recorded two hours of complete silence in the anechoic chamber at Laboratoire de Mécanique et Acoustique de Marseille, one of the quietest places in the world, and all of the sounds used to produce Violent Grains of Silence were taken from that recording. The album is anything but silent, however; Bayle focuses his attention not on the state of silence, but on the impossibility of it. He amplifies and manipulates minuscule errors and signals in the system he used to record, ghosts still present in what anyone would probably agree is the complete absence of sound, twisting them into cold, mechanical bursts and shifting piles of crackles and hums. Even if one isn’t aware of the album’s unique origin, small elements of the noises Bayle makes use of reveal that something is different; he propels these tiny glitches with disproportionate force and velocity, making even the most intense assaults of bass-y tones and high-speed clicks unsettlingly thin, even tenuous. Regardless of how much substance the sounds found on Violent Grains of Silence actually have behind their unforgiving facade, the album is ultimately loud, and Bayle declares victory in his war on silence despite being deep in enemy territory.