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20 Best Avant Albums of 2015

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

Charlemagne Palestine

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On the fringes of 2015, great experimental statements were made from Brooklyn bands, drone icons and one Academy Award winning actor.

Balázs Pándi, Mats Gustafsson, Merzbow and Thurston Moore, 'Cuts of Guilt. Cuts Deeper'
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Balázs Pándi, Mats Gustafsson, Merzbow and Thurston Moore, ‘Cuts of Guilt. Cuts Deeper’

Another journey into the harshest outer limits of free improv thanks to art-metal drummer Balázs Pándi, Scandinavian saxophone torturer Mats Gustafsson and the Paul McCartney of feedback himself, Merzbow. For their second go-round, they add no less an esteemed skronkmaster than guitarist Thurston Moore, raising their sound from "racket" to "monolithic din." Four absolute masters of mess-making turn these four performances — averaging about 20 minutes each — into a passionate, hard-charging clatter that blurs the line between jazz, noise, metal and power ambient. Wondering how well these four improvisers listen to each other is besides the point, as it might be most satisfying to just fall into the gorgeous, hideous, furious chaos.

Year in Avant; Bridges
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Jeff Bridges, ‘Sleeping Tapes’

Outsider art from a Hollywood insider. Sleeping Tapes is, at its core, some or all of the following: an advertisement for a web content management service, a charity device to raise money for No Kid Hungry, an unexpected vanity project, a motivational speaking exercise and an eclectic avant-garde opus. Jeff Bridges supplies the character and the Tom Waits-ian monologues; Keefus Ciancia of noir Ipecac Records trip-hop crew Vincent & Mr. Green provides melancholy but uplifting Eno-esque chords. It's a beautiful ambient record full of field recordings of playing children, fragile humming and new age textures, but often veers into Lynchian weirdness thanks to voice effects and an 11-minute guided tour of L.A.'s Temescal Canyon that involves stumbling across office chairs and gold doubloons.

John Wiese, 'Deviate From Balance'
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John Wiese, ‘Deviate From Balance’

A loaded anthology capturing the noiser's recent years, revealing a maturation in both sound and aspiration. "Wind Changed Direction" is from a four-channel garden installation at the Getty which sounds like caustic found sounds and relaxing ambient drone; "Café Oto" teams him with Ikue Mori, Evan Parker and Maja S. K. Ratke for 5 and a half minutes of playful improv; and "Dramatic Accessories" is a solo piece that expands his classic noise into something more dynamic. Most ambitious: Two takes on "Segmenting Process for Language" revealing a composed work for up to 19 musicians where electronic gurgle collides with honking woodwinds, clattering drums and samplers/turntables that brings classic electroacoustic music like Stockhausen's Kontakte into the noise-punk age.

Mary Halvorson, 'Meltframe'
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Mary Halvorson, ‘Meltframe’

In these 10 solo recordings, New York jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson gives a handful of covers a makeover that's part James "Blood" Ulmer free-blues and part Orthelm avant-metal shred. A graceful wheedler (as evidenced by the flamenco touch she gives Annette Peacock's "Blood"), she injects these beautiful interpretations with a well-portioned amount of raw, left-field elements: serrated pluck, whammy bar, processed noise and, on a cover of McCoy Tyner's "Aiesha," a crazed distortion blow-out.

Vom Grill, 'Knerpen!'
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Vom Grill, ‘Knerpen!’

Berlin label Pan has had an unparalleled year in capturing the Arca-led zeitgeist of distended, horror-inflected tech-no-wave Rubber Johnnys thanks to releases by Visionist, M.E.S.H. and Helm. However, their best, most absorbing release might be this good old-fashioned noise convulsion from Vom Grill, a.k.a. Dennis Tyfus of decade-plus Belgian noise label Ultra Eczema. On the first of these two 14-minute collages he smashes up lurching tape noise, haunting clanks, a barking dog and piano playing like the Residents' primitive punk lark "N-er-gee (Crisis Blues)." On the flipside, it's the chants of opera singer Emilie Fleamountains multi-tracked into walls of drone, followed by a black sea of garbled gunk.

Matana Roberts, 'Coin Coin Chapter 3: River Run Thee'
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Matana Roberts, ‘Coin Coin Chapter 3: River Run Thee’

The first two chapters in Matana Roberts' endlessly intense, 12-part Coin Coin series were sweeping works of post-rock cinema, opera drama, large ensemble jazz turmoil and harrowing saxwork from the bloodiest edges of emotion. Her third has a decidedly smaller cast — Chapter 1 had 16 instrumentalists, this is just her — but is no less deep. A more austere outing composed on loop and effects pedals, Roberts culls dazzling swarms for voice, drone and her own impassioned alto sax solos — a frame for a post-modern collage of Malcolm X speeches, logs from slave ships, "The Star-Spangled Banner" and her own field recordings from the contemporary South and New York City.

Bill Orcutt and Jacob Felix Huele, 'Colonial Donuts'
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Bill Orcutt and Jacob Felix Heule, ‘Colonial Donuts’

A set of 13 brief, visceral, blurt-sized improv sets that puts the "primal" in "American primitive." Until 1997, Bill Orcutt made explosive, full-body-orgasm noise-rock in Harry Pussy and, 20 years later, re-emerged as an acoustic, scissor-fingered blues shredder. This duet with Bay Area drum splatterer Jacob Felix Heule splits the difference between the two eras: It's an explosive, high-energy collaboration that's as close to Delta Blues as Lightning Bolt.

Philip Jeck, 'Cardinal'
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Philip Jeck, ‘Cardinal’

Best known for the crackling, rumbling, glowing turntable symphonies on albums like Surf and Sand, U.K. composer Philip Jeck digs in and explodes for what may be one of his deepest explorations of huge, sweeping, tidal-wave-like drone. Using record players, Minidisc players, keyboards and effects pedals (along with some bass and percussion), Jeck arrives at the same euphoric place as more laptop-centric artists like Tim Hecker and Eluvium. Organic woosh degrades into digital static, orchestras(?) wobble happily, harsh drones melt and clouds form.

Tristan Perich, 'Parallels'
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Tristan Perich, ‘Parallels’

The Terry Riley of blipping pixels, New York's Tristan Perich returns with a monster composition that combines his trademark blurs of 1-bit electronics with twinkles of jittering analog percussion. Through four speakers, his pocket calculator symphonies shimmer and glisten like the centipede in Centipede running a marathon. Percussionists Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins brave a gauntlet of rhythms (the score — included — looks like a Magic Eye poster) on hi-hats and tuned triangles. Together it sounds like the Atari 2600 as Steve Reich's Different Trains. Perich's wildly complex and intricate framework yields something totally mesmerizing, hypnotic and sparkling.

Mark Fell and Gábor Lázár, 'The Neurobiology of Moral Decision Making'
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Mark Fell and Gábor Lázár, ‘The Neurobiology of Moral Decision Making’

U.K. glitch techno survivor Mark Fell and hot Hungarian upstart Gábor Lázár both make abrasive, deconstructed "dance" music that juxtaposes digitally processed sounds with severe gaps of silence. Together they tackle one of the most vital, viral dance genres of the moment, Chicago footwork. The already disorienting three-on-four polyrhythms of artists like DJ Rashad, RP Boo and Traxman are interpreted with the duo's unique touch, creating beats from Mego-era digital squelches, trippy robo-slurry and skipping hard drive protests. Their individual sounds have a buoyancy and rubberiness, which makes Fell and Lázár's gapped stutter all the more ruthless.

John Zorn, 'Olympiad Vol. 1: Dither Plays Zorn'
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John Zorn, ‘Olympiad Vol. 1: Dither Plays Zorn’

For a while, the rule-based interactive "game pieces" of John Zorn seemed like a relic of Eighties downtown contrarianism as the composer moved deeper into chamber works and vocal pieces. But his vintage ideas were given a remarkable breath of new life by New York electric guitar quartet Dither. The group cobbles four masters of feedback, noise and pick-scrape scratchitti; and the Zorn pieces give their creative approaches to the instrument a framework to lift off. An acoustic run through "Curling" is a playful percussive conversation and the three takes at "Hockey" are full of poke-and-prod antics. The two epic runs through "Fencing," both more than 11 minutes long, are overlapping battles of whimsy, the quartet dueling with shards of lounge jazz, Dick Dale, James Brown-style funk, ragtime, thrash riffs, Southern rock, flamenco and power ballads.

Jacob Kirkegaard, '5 Pieces'
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Jacob Kirkegaard, ‘5 Pieces’

Limited to just 200 copies but no less necessary, this three-cassette release anthologizes five recent works by one of contemporary sound art's most subtle, intriguing figures. More artistically minded than field recordings, more naturally hewn than noise tapes, Kirkegaard amplifies hidden worlds into evocative drifts. The underwater recordings of Æsturarium turn Hudson River glubs and swirling sediments into a 29-minute white-noise suite; Iron Wind captures the vibrations of German fences for a haunting breath of ambience. Déjà Vu is a feedback conversation between eight empty rooms; Fool's Fire is an electrified needle picking up radio waves from crystals (it sounds like an orchestra of run-out grooves); and Under Bjerget is a 58-minute meditation for the rattling tubes in a Copenhagen basement, glacially moving from drone to pulse to rumble.

Year in Avant
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Flores Del Vicio, ‘Reach a Better Feeling’

The debut cassette from two-man U.K. headache-house team Flores Del Vicio jackhammers like the Big Black equivalent of dance music — chintzy, lo-fi, intentionally ugly, born annoying. There's the corrosive blasts of harsh noise and phasing of a Wolf Eyes record, melodic elements like chains scraped across a slaughterhouse floor, but also a groove that won't quit. A shrill, basement-dwelling cousin to the "distant" overheard sound of contemporary dance artists like Lee Gamble or Jay Cosmic, this outsider house pulses like a party in a bomb shelter.

Charlemagne Palestine, 'Ssingggg Sschlllingg Sshpppingg'
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Charlemagne Palestine, ‘Ssingggg Sschlllingg Sshpppingg’

Now 40 years past his recorded debut, minimalist pioneer Charlemagne Palestine releases this absorbing 51-minute dronescape that's at once enormous and intimate — and easily a career highlight. Taken from a 2013 performance in Brussels, it starts like a tender swarm of bees and gently thrummed brandy glasses, then slowly opens up and beams. It takes a turn for the apocalyptic as layers stack and build. Gently intoning, "I … love … to … sing!" in his fragile, Tiny Tim-esque falsetto, Palestine connects the dots from days of Sixties minimalism to the arty rock bands that have followed in his path.

Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, 'Never Were the Way She Was'
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Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, ‘Never Were the Way She Was’

The pairing of bass saxophone lungbeast Colin Stetson and keening landscapist Sarah Neufeld was almost too obvious — both are fans of Philip Glass-ian repetition, both tilt towards melancholy melody, both utilize a light dusting of vocal sounds to remind you that humans produce these mechanical rhythms. They compliment each other perfectly: Neufeld soars to registers a tugboat tooter could never reach, Stetson provides metal-ready blackened churn as a counterpoint to the strings' delicate melody. Though clearly rooted in minimalist composition, there's a post-rock grandeur and rhythms that swing like a groove-heavy Amphetamine Reptile noise-metal band. Incredibly sad, incredibly tough.

Year in Avant
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Ahnnu, ‘Perception’

After decades of music writers connecting hip-hop's DNA to Karlheinz Stockhausen, we finally have an electroacoustic composer that seems to be just as indebted to Madlib and J Dilla. Onetime a traditional beatmaker, tape-centric Los Angeles musician Leland "Ahnnu" Jackson turns samples and found sounds into mood suites that have all the dusty, moody joy of beat tapes — just without the focus on beats. On his second cassette for Leaving Records, drum breaks sputter and repeat but don't exactly groove, metal squeaks on metal, the omnipresent Lil Jon "hi" sampled in dozens of modern rap songs appears like buoys in fog. All the mellow-harshing shadow and grit of Gaslamp Killer or Flying Lotus rendered as an expressionist masterpiece.

Beatriz Ferreyra, 'GRM Works'
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Beatriz Ferreyra, ‘GRM Works’

A tense, uneasy prequel to the tense, uneasy Silly Putty electronica of Arca, Oneohtrix Point Never, Visionist and Holly Herndon — 48 years in the making. This brief but cinematic overview of Argentinian electroacoustic composer and Pierre Schaffer pal Beatriz Ferreyra combines two archival pieces (1967-1969) and two newish pieces (2009-2011) into a sweeping slurry of wrestling wubs, panning pricks, scribbly tape noise and musical instruments bent into unique shapes. In the vintage pieces, her noises have space and personality, herds of electrical impulses conversing and interacting. "Médicances" recalls dark ambient and modern foley work, full of sharp metallic jabs: It's too terrifying for any sci-fi movie that existed in 1969, but perfect for a modern reboot. The newer pieces move slower and more methodically, from rumble to swarm with splashes of thump or sounds like dueling Dustbusters.

Zs, 'Xe'
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Zs, ‘Xe’

Brooklyn's tireless honk-grinders Zs have always sounded like the place where horrific skronk meets graph paper. However they've loosened up somewhat for their first album as a trio. This is underground rock playing at its most virtuosic and free enough to paint itself in an electroacoustic funhouse mirror. Patrick Higgins seems intent on getting every "wrong" sound out his electric guitar, painting in dry percussive tones, bursts of spasmodic Sightings electricity, jolts of aching plug-in or even some brief Buckethead cartoon shredding. Drummer Greg Fox is downright gymnastic, playing jazz on the Discordance Axis, hitting rubbery double strokes until his kit sounds like the Harlem Globetrotters warming up dribbles. Saxophonist Sam Hillmer distends and reverses himself into wet, expressive flapping and truly shines on the title track: Like James Chance asking his band to hit him 11 times, Hillmer soars as a clicky-clacky 6/8 meditation explodes into jazz-thrash outbursts.

Tyondai Braxton, 'Hive1'
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Tyondai Braxton, ‘Hive1’

The squelches, squishes and jitters on the third album by Brooklyn composer and ex-Battles vocalist Tyondai Braxton flay similar nerves as noise-punks like Black Dice or electronic Dadaists like Autechre. But Braxton's work has the harsh, measured rhythmic discipline of 20th Century composers like Iannis Xenakis or Louis Andriessen, turning familiar rainbow squirts into an itchy, squiggly, polyrhythmic symphony. There's elements of dance music too thanks to the four-on-the-floor house beats of "Amlochly," but it's swirled in a neatly organized sputtering hurricane that's equal parts Terry Riley, Timbaland and Willy Wonka.

Liturgy, 'The Ark Work'
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Liturgy, ‘The Ark Work’

The most ambitious art-rock statement of the year is an ecstatic jumble of disciplines, ideas and textures. Once a metal band (at least peripherally), the Brooklyn bluster-cullers of Liturgy still build with a blackened base coat of euphoric blastgaze. But on their third album, that's merely one ingredient in an intense mish-mash of future-minded concepts. You can imagine links to the synthetic horns blasting pastel scribbles from the vaporwave cassette underground and the monumental tone swells that earned John Luther Adams a Pulitzer Prize. Songs sputter and hiccup with disorienting digital processing — once a staple of chin-stroke-y "glitch techno," now a staple of big room "complextro" dubstep. The glockenspiels of mid-Aughts indie rock are recontextualized into shimmering walls; the triplet flows of mid-10s Southern rap are rethought as polyrhythmic alt-metal moans. Any cutting-edge contemporary movement seems up for grabs — and all aiming for some combination of transcendence and bloodshed.

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