In 2018, it started to get a little hard to tell where the electronic vanguard ended and the songwriter world began, with a generation of sound-sculpting envelope pushers all working — to varying degrees — on the fringes of writing tunes. Much of the year’s best experimental music was incredible artists blurring these worlds — Sophie, Oneohtrix Point Never, Lotic, Amnesia Scanner — but that isn’t to say there certainly wasn’t some good, old-fashioned guitar noise to be had, too.
America’s most acclaimed new electronic composer scores a piece by choreographer Wayne McGregor with her cutting-edge synthetic textures and brain-blendering pinball beats. It’s somewhat of a departure from her two critically acclaimed footwork albums: Allowed to stretch, Jlin explores a dripping, hard-panning, evocative ambient music made of bamboo clanks, tubular bells, ticking clocks, birds, bugs and splashing water. The intensely layered opener “First Overture (Spiritual Atom)” is like if The Matrix were rendered on Windows 95; closer “Second Interlude (The Choosing)” is a droning piece of nightmare New Age. Elsewhere she explores funky beats (“Annotation” is like trap hi-hats squished into noise) and Steve Reich-ian minimalism (“Carbon 12” is a suite of synthetic cymbals, sleigh bells, voices and booming bass). And the aggressive footwork bangers are still boundary-pushing, heaving with robotic body music, grinding with noise and using samples from a Samuel Beckett monologue.
Berlin-based expressionist electronic duo Amnesia Scanner turn their pulsating VR-noise into something sort of resembling songs – voices distended and yowling and sprayed into pixels, chugging noise that feels like held guitar notes. It’s a cyberpunk rave infected with a virus; an android metal band shooting sparks; the smoking, post-apocalyptic goth night after the Atari Teenage Riot. Fellow technoise traveler Pan Daijing stops by for two pieces of splatter crunk (“AS Unlinear,” “AS Chaos”) and their faceless android voice “Oracle” provides some robo-cries.
The co-founder of Orange Milk – possibly the world’s most vital cassette label right now – unleashes a collage-y pile-up of orchestral explosions and electronic noise, an unpredictable 27 minutes of violent jabs, abrupt punctuations, syllables, slurps, silence and ASMR elements. At turns fragile and explosive, it sounds like something between modern composition, electroacoustic music, mutant techno, and pure, punk-y chaos.
Since 2011, Texas-Berlin producer Lotic has been sculpting experimental club music from noise swarms, microscopic samples and mutated bass rumbles, making fans of Björk, Ben Frost and more. However, with the release of their first full-length, Lotic opts for a kinder, gentler chaos – a software upgrade towards more traditional songcraft. First single “Hunted” is the highlight, basically a four-chord political hardcore song if it were slowed to a trap gait, whispered like a secret and played by drum machines and car parts: “Brown skin, masculine frame, head’s a target/Actin’ real feminine, make ’em vomit.” “Solace” finds Lotic crooning “It’s gon’ be OK” over some virtual reality 4AD swirl; “Nerve” is a moody sing-rap detour that’s a cross between modern indie classical and Houston screw; and “Bulletproof” finds them fighting through a glitching, grinding melody with the affirmation “I’m still alive/So I’m gon’ thrive/I’m a bulletproof nigga.” Sometimes protest, sometimes singer-songwriter statement, sometimes sheer dystopia, but usually fascinating.
Unable to sit still, a generation’s ringmaster of the uncanny explores new avenues of unease: nauseous harpsichord run through a funhouse mirror, anthemic synth landscapes and a general feel of an a dripping, drooling space alien remake of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “Babylon” and “Black Snow” are the stand-outs: two singer-songwriter ballads imbued with desolate autotune, noise and unpredictable edits.
Guttersnipe are an ecstatic, disgusting, blown-out, art-groove-and-rainbow-noise yowl duo from Leeds, England. Drummer Tipula Confusa is a throwback to the beastly pummel of noise-punk bands like Lightning Bolt, Hella and Deerhoof, a mix of body-music brawn and brain-music freneticism. Guitarist Uroceras Gigas has an expressionist gurgle to her guitar like Sonic Youth or Pissed Jeans (though, more accurately, the wave of mid-Aughts squealing subterranean noiseniks like Sightings, Rusted Shut and Air Conditioning). Together it’s sheer chaos, spurts played with hardcore abandon by kids into Sun Ra and Beefheart and death metal, a Xenakis composition as a loft band.
After five critically acclaimed albums that mysteriously and melancholically blurred the boundaries of techno, ambient, psychedelia, shoegaze and nostalgia, Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project has returned for his grandest, most ambitious statement yet. Rausch is an hourlong journey through hissing fog, dark ambient clouds, crying strings and ping-ponging cymbals. From moody banks of lush drone, sounds emerge like creatures from behind the jungle brush and notes appear like car radios rushing by in the night. A house beat throbs in the distance, possibly a memory of dancefloors past, possibly a lighthouse to help guide you through this impressionist symphony of colors.
For anyone who’s idea of “rock” isn’t dependent on things like melodies, lyrics, rhythms and, well, “songs” – then Sumac’s collaboration with Japanese avant-garde icon Keiji Haino is maybe 2018’s best rock record. Its 66-minute run time is a mix of fragility and chaos, a delivery system for raw, visceral shocks of aggression. It’s “free metal” recorded from what the press release describes as “unrehearsed, completely non-premeditated sessions.” The flighty, feedback-y churn and the push-pull rhythms should be familiar to anyone who’s caught Haino through the decades, solo or in consort with extreme artists like saxophone multilator Peter Brötzmann, sludge band Boris, free music bedrock Derek Bailey, noise thought leader Merzbow, jazz provocateur John Zorn, German orchestra Zeitkratzer or others. However it’s art-metal band Sumac’s heft and chops that make this feel like new territory, especially the explosive, hard-hitting drums of Nick Yacyshyn that play jazz skitter with Zeppelin muscle. This isn’t the jangle-skree of Sonic Youth or the psychedelic blurts of the Butthole Surfers, this is exacting, weapons-grade, military-trained, merciless.
The first solo album from Scottish sound sculptor Sophie shows that there are even more sides to this virtual-insanity innovator than the tweaked-out Blade-Runner-via-J-pop production that has infiltrated releases by Madonna, Charli XCX and Vince Staples. Opener “It’s Okay to Cry” plays like singer-songwriter fare in the age of Ableton, vaporwave and Mica Levi movie scores: something between Sam Smith, Future, Xiu Xiu and Kate Bush. “Immaterial” is basically a pop song filtered through the lens of video game music, anime, stadium EDM and some AutoTune that flies and flaps around the scale like an inflatable outside a car dealership. The most intriguing songs on the album are hard-churning, stark, quasi-industrial noise-step tracks like “Ponyboy,” “Faceshopping” and nine-minute closer “Whole New World:Pretend World.” Here it sounds like she’s taken the textures of her beloved Eighties house music and the swallowing screes of modern brostep and isolated them, treating each sound like a fat Lego.
These forward-thinking veterans of electronic music are starting to feel like the world’s most cerebral jam band. Their NTS Radio series – compiling nearly 8 hours(!) of music across 8 CDs, 12 LPs or 4 streaming releases – showcase their recent move towards longform pieces that still contain their trademark brain-boggle. The sounds and rhythms are inhuman, inhabiting a space and logic that internet tech-sleuths enjoyed poring over – people discovered crispy ambient number “32a_reflected” is a palindrome – though its also rewarding to just let an unpredictable, glacial stream of clinical beats do their thing. It’s up for debate exactly what is live, composed, improvised or artificial intelligence run amok, making the massive collection a sui generis playground of bloop: Is this cyborg free-jazz? Or is this, as Pitchfork wrote, an mutation of electro? Is this the first step of Max/MSP software being played like electric Miles? Or is this just ambient music infected by Beefheart and Stockhausen? Whatever it is, it covers a lot of ground: heavy squelch, electro with the lurching gait of a twisted ankle, tippy-tappy excursions into vintage IDM drum skitter and “All End,” a 58-minute spaceship glint-scape like a stretched and throbbing update of the Solaris soundtrack.