20 Best Avant Albums of 2014 - Rolling Stone
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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. 

Stine Janvin Motland, 'OK, Wow'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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.

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