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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

Hiroyuki Ito/Getty

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

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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