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20 Best Avant Albums of 2014

The year’s best in noise, out-jazz, contemporary classical, ambient, drone and more

Best Avant Albums

On the fringes of 2014, Ben Frost made suffocating electronic noise that was greeted like an expressionist rock records, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith continued his role as jazz's longform boundary pusher and Stine Janvin Motland made electric improv without holding an instrument in her hands. 

Mica Levi, 'Under the Skin: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack'
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Mica Levi, ‘Under the Skin: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’

For Jonathan Glazer's unsettling, existential alien flick Under the Skin, Micachu & the Shapes' Mica Levi created a score that's equal parts Krzysztof Penderecki and Bernard Hermann. It's mostly some swarms of strings, a flat electronic beat, a intense three-note melody and slow cymbal washes mutating in various forms — all of them tense. According to Levi, the alien feel was formed by "looking at the natural sound of an instrument to try and find something identifiably human in it, then slowing things down or changing the pitch of it to make it feel uncomfortable." 

Rose Buried in Sand, 'Excision'
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Rose Buried in Sand, ‘Excision’

This c20 cassette features 18 of the more engaging minutes from up-and-coming San Francisco cassette label Tumeric Magnitudes, whose photocopier aesthetic and busted sounds (harsh noise, deep synths, dark drone) is reminiscent of the early '00s output of labels like Chondritic Sound and American Tapes. If Discogs is to be believed, Rose Buried in Sand is one of more than a dozen aliases of label head Greg Gorlen, who composes from found sounds, icky tape loops and garbage. This one brings the skipping loops to the forefront as they writhe and overlap like snakes, sounding like Black Dice in black and white or a turntable needle rolling over a rusty hubcap.

Ian William Craig, 'A Turn of Breath'
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Ian William Craig, ‘A Turn of Breath’

Another piece of tape music — but aiming for and achieving drastically different, completely unusual results. Ian William Craig is a classically trained opera singer who buries his voice in desiccated, decaying loops — ultimately sounding like a collaboration between between Bon Iver and William Basinski. The reverbed garbled tapes create gorgeous atmospheres and, dreamlike, words occasionally come into focus from the crackle and mist.

Brötzmann/Adasiewicz/Edwards/Noble, 'Mental Shake'
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Brötzmann/Adasiewicz/Edwards/Noble, ‘Mental Shake’

A four-man improv fit at London's Cafe Oto, this piece moves from slowly boiling psychotic reaction to full-tilt insanity. Peter Brötzmann, the 73-year-old master of sax fireworks, is as exploratory and explosive as ever; vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz counters his monstrous presences with atmosphere and overtones; and the rhythm section of John Edwards and Steve Noble provide broken bluster from the chaotic beginning to the lounge-jazz conclusion.

Africa Express, 'Terry Riley's In C Mali'
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Africa Express, ‘Terry Riley’s In C Mali’

An idea so obvious that the results shouldn't be nearly this good. On the 50th anniversary of Terry Riley's minimalist hallmark In C, a handful of musicians cycle through its 53 repeating and interlocking patterns on traditional Malian instruments like the kora, balafon and calabash (plus some kalimbas wandering over from nearby Niger). In composing the original piece Riley was inspired by the repetitive circles of music coming from Saharan Africa, ultimately imbuing their hypnotic feel with his own ideas of chance, interplay and melody. Fifty years later, we live in a smaller world — Tinariwen plays Coachella, NPR spins Ballaké Sissoko and pretty much anyone who's walked across a college quad has heard a djembe. Despite being a blend of American minimalism, African percussion and British musicians (Brian Eno and Damon Albarn lend a hand on vocals and melodica, respectively), this one-of-a-kind interpretation ends up sounding mostly familiar.

Otomo Yoshihide & Paal Nilssen-Love, 'Otomo Yoshihide & Paal Nilssen-Love'
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Otomo Yoshihide & Paal Nilssen-Love, ‘Otomo Yoshihide & Paal Nilssen-Love’

A live Copenhagan summit between two full-contact jazz-mosh muckmakers: Ground Zero's psych-noise guitarist Otomo Yoshihide and the Thing's manic drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. They have a little more than three speeds in this 33-minute piece of improv: pure chaos, unsettling cymbal-squeaking ambience and something mid-paced that sounds like Sonic Youth or the Melvins finishing a song. Yoshihide is still one of a kind, his guitar yowling, screaming, ranting, cutting like a turntable or just playing walls of Dead C-style noise while Nilssen-Love — one of jazz's most heavy-metal drummers — goes Whiplash.

Arne Deforce & Mika Vainio, 'Hephaestus'
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Arne Deforce & Mika Vainio, ‘Hephaestus’

A blackened-to-unsettling squall-out between Belgian new-music cellist Arne Deforce and Pan Sonic electronic explosion detonator Mika Vaino. At it's most extreme, Deforce's harsh, sawing, dive-bombing cello interplays with Vainio's deep bass drops in a way that's heavier than a lot of doom metal. At it's most sensitive, it's all gentle rubbing and dark-ambient atmosphere.

Marc Baron, 'Hidden Tapes'
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Marc Baron, ‘Hidden Tapes’

Alto sax mutator Marc Baron — who generally finds his hums and drones totally transmogrified via electroacoustic means — puts down his instrument entirely and composed with old cassette tapes — sped up, slowed down, otherwise manipulated. A mix of intimate concerts, creaking doors, footsteps, the sound of actual tapes being inserted, silence and "2013 – A Happy Summer With Children" (a track that sounds like just that), Hidden Tapes is redolent of everything from early French tape music to hip-hop's collage aesthetics to field recordings to Found Magazine.

Golden Retriever, 'Seer'
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Golden Retriever, ‘Seer’

Portland duo Golden Retriever team the blinking and shimmering modular synths of Matt Carlson with the dark-hued bass clarinet of Jonathan Sielaff. Where previous releases like Emergent Layer and Occupied With the Unspoken combined them in a reverby electronic slurry, fifth record Seer really lets the the instrumentalists stand on their own: The synths gently bubble while Sielaff can goes full "Baker Street." A great synth record with the energy of experimental rock and the interplay of jazz; a mix of dissonance and resolution, the Earthly and the cosmic.

James Hoff, 'Blaster'
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James Hoff, ‘Blaster’

New York music-leaning conceptual artist James Hoff (he's also made USB cufflinks and an audio cable sculpture) unleashed the early-'00s Blaster computer virus on some 808 beats — and then cobbled their infected, mangled remains to create new songs. His seven compositions are half John Cage and half Autechre; warmer than "glitch techno," colder than Syro; mostly blasts of fuzz and video game morse code that come in two or three minute bursts. The B-side of raw source materials is supposed to mirror a DJ "scratch record" but the non-stop, unrelenting randomness makes it a stronger piece, sounding like 15 minutes of Transformers training camp.

Stine Janvin Motland, 'OK, Wow'
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Stine Janvin Motland, ‘OK, Wow’

Of the two records released by Norwegian vocal gymnast Stine Janvin Motland, this one is far simpler — but far more explosive. OK, Wow, places her in a wooden church full of beautiful, natural echo. This means very little beyond atmosphere gets between the listener and a voice that's performing some of contemporary free improv's most imaginative feats. She plays her voice like John Zorn does a saxophone, taking advantage of any and all sounds it can produce: glottal two-part self-harmonies, squeaks, farts, monkey sounds, snorts — all blazing out in unexpected ways. "OK Wow" ranges from sensitive (the 11-minute "Kroken"), to triumphant ("Alt det overflødige renner ut" is Part Yoko, part Björk) to completely visceral (the barrage of high-pitched squeals of "Herz"). 

Untold, 'Black Light Spiral'
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Untold, ‘Black Light Spiral’

The full length debut record from Jack "Untold" Dunning emerges from the fringes of electronic music — the producer has remixed Ke$ha and Boys Noize — but oozes more like dubstep musique concrète. Sirens are used for ambience, samples are abused in ways that make footwork seem tame, bursts of noise are thrown into his "echo chamber" and, as he told SPIN, "they deal with it themselves, depending how overloaded it is." Since, quite often, beats burble to the surface ("Doubles" technically has a house thump, though it sounds like it's coming from inside a closet; "Strange Dreams" is like Tom Waits for sliced speaker), Black Light Spiral is a lot more fun that similarly shadow-skulking sound-minded 2014 statements by Vessel or Valerio Tricoli.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen, 'ATOMOS'
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A Winged Victory for the Sullen, ‘ATOMOS’

Adam Wiltzie (Stars of the Lid drone veteran) and pianist Dustin O'Halloran (who has soundtracked more than one romantic flick) join forces for a second album that finds swooning common ground between ambient, modern classical and indie rock. It's tender chamber music (sorrowful strings creaking and crying, gently pressed piano) joining with deep electronic hums for a sound that's at once grandiose and fragile. "ATOMOS I" sounds like the "Wicked Game" chord progression played by harmonium and string quartet, and highlight "ATOMOS VII" lets mournful sawing get washed away by a tidal wave of organ drone.

Wadada Leo Smith, 'The Great Lakes Suite'
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Wadada Leo Smith, ‘The Great Lakes Suites’

Smith's meditation on the "restrained, yet explosive" formation of North America's five Great Lakes isn't as grand in scope as 2013's Occupy the World (with a 22-piece orchestra) or 2012's four-disc, 19-part Civil Rights miniseries Ten Freedom Summers — but the 90-minute bustle of his stripped-down all-star quartet still stands as 2014's jazz epic. With a track for all five lakes (and one for Lake St. Clair, the Pluto of lakes), the drums of Miles Davis veteran Jack DeJohnette constantly clatter and chatter like foam over rocks (his rim-click solo in "Lake Michigan" is particularly inspired). Tip-tapping rides and hi-hats match bassist John Lindburg while Smith's trumpet and Henry Threadgill's saxophone join forces and play in sharp blasts of anguish and silence. Smith and Threadgill intertwine and play in triumphant blasts that often have cracks in the notes, balancing confident majesty with jagged brokenness.

Jon Mueller's Death Blues, 'Non-Fiction'
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Jon Mueller’s Death Blues, ‘Non-Fiction’

Though neither more celebrated nor ambitious as Ensemble, the 16-page hardback book and vinyl record also released by Jon Mueller's Death Blues project this year, this 33-minute art-rock suite in two movements is heavier, more digestable and ultimately more satisfying. Like the sprawl of recent Swans live sets (or Shellac as a Rhys Chatham cover band), the Wisconsin-based drummer and his band hammer away on uncomplicated-yet-bludgeoning shards — Glenn Branca guitar explosions, chattering percussion, vocals that go from moaning to gibberish — until they build into hypnotic, shimmering clouds.

Kevin Drumm/Jason Lescalleet, 'The Abyss'
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Kevin Drumm/Jason Lescalleet, ‘The Abyss’

Two masters of noise — harsh and ambient respectively — have spent recent years releasing barely-there works of minimal (yet unquestionably bleak) rumble; like Shut In, the meditative, nauseous, cassette-only drone piece from Chicago's Kevin Drumm and Much to My Demise, in which Maine's Jason Lescalleet buried reels of tape for three months at a time. This two-disc collabo plays to their strengths both past and present. The first 37 minutes is maybe the year's best noise record: blown-out fuzz that grows claws, records manipulated and abused, yowling digital noise and cicada swirl. The final two pieces follow their new direction: "The Abyss" is 33 minutes of subterranean rumbles, digital crackles, glistening synths and gentle feedback; and "The Echo of Your Past" is a 49-minute boat trip from the swamp to dog-whistle oblivion to krautrock bliss.

Vicky Chow, 'Tristan Perich: Surface Image'
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Vicky Chow, ‘Tristan Perich: Surface Image’

New York blip wrangler Tristan Perich composed this dizzying, disorienting 63-minute symphony for piano and 1-bit pixels blooping and chirping from 40 individual speakers. Pianist Vicky Chow interacts with these manic chiptune lightning bugs in fascinating ways — first by matching them, playing in sharply defined Philip Glass rectangles; then by playing against their alarm clock relentlessness for a cool darkjazz coda. Imagine Terry Riley's Rainbow in Curved Air played by an orchestra of digital watches and cooing calculators.

Richard Dawson, 'Nothing Important'
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Richard Dawson, ‘Nothing Important’

Purging his 16-minute fever dreams as he pokes and prods on a busted guitar, this 33-year-old Newcastle yarn-spiller makes abrasive, buzzing, in-the-red, distortion-clad folk music that stumbles and squawks to its own beat. Somewhere between the twisted ankle rhythms of Captain Beefheart, the freewheeling melodies of British folk weirdos like the Incredible String Band, and the choked, caustic guitar strangle of Eugene Chadbourne, Richard Dawson is a songwriter without peer or precedent. His voice ricochets between a sensitive croon, a demented throat-shredding gurgle and long drone like the pubstool version of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Lyrically, Dawson speaks in faded Polaroids and misremembered details ("A toby jug filled to the brim with curtain hooks/A sheepskin rug discolored with tobacco smoke") giving his exaggerated tales unexpected weight and depth.

Craig Leon, 'Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music, Vol. 1: Nommos/Visiting'
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Craig Leon, ‘Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music, Vol. 1: Nommos/Visiting’

A beautiful work of fan fiction in which synthesizer bliss-crafter Craig Leon imagines the music of extraterrestrials believed to have communication with a Malian tribe. It was recorded between 1980 and 1982, but was partially re-recorded and remastered for this edition. So what is this record exactly when it re-lands in 2014 with its bubbling, talkative textures, sky-filling drones and primitive drum machines? A lost incubation moment for minimal techno? An ambient record with sharp edges? A peak release for the unexpected new age revival? A cosmic response to John Fahey-style ecstatic country blues? Suicide having a Tangerine Dream?

Ben Frost, 'A U R O R A'
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Ben Frost, ‘A U R O R A’

Composer Ben Frost — who has built a decade-long career on Swans-indebted deep drone and brittle orchestral mutterings — launched himself into a noisy, chaotic, deeply layered sound world for his Mute debut. A U R O R A, an album of melancholy, future-shocked robo-noise, thrusts nostalgic textures into bold, overwhelming, future-minded arrangements. There's a VHS familiarity in the industrial crunches, hissing steam, radar pings, sizzling static and slurping slurps. But the sounds collide and explode in suffocating blasts that alternate between heart-warming (the orchestral-bell-pounding astro-shoegaze of "Nolan") and the heartbeat-raising (the 91-second "Diphenyl Oxilate" can only be described as "Tim Hecker grindcore"). Existing on its own plain between noise album, ambient boundary push and cinematic foley work, A U R O R A is like a flickering TV wall from Blade Runner blasting a scrambled signal, a float through Alien's Nostromo or a subterranean sewer dancehall record for C.H.U.D.s.

In This Article: Best of 2014

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