After all the crap that’s happened this year, it seemed like there wasn’t much point in writing an end-of-year list. Given the deaths of so many musicians, the rise of authoritarian nationalism and xenophobia in Europe and the US, and the continuing climate catastrophe with its decimation of habitat and loss of species, then writing about music seemed about as futile as “dancing about architecture”. But in choosing to engage with music we contribute to one form of economic activity or another, which has consequences in the ‘real world’ (that made-up place from which creative and intellectual people are supposedly isolated). Music is therefore political because it is a culture through which we interface with society and a medium to express those interactions. It becomes more so when the opportunities for people to engage in music are threatened by some of the recent developments in social, economic and environmental conditions. To put it more simply: music makes the world better, and to that extent it matters. Despite – or because of – the fact that it’s been such a shitty year, there’s been a lot of good music in 2016. This isn’t really a ‘best of’ as much as a list of some things that have interested me and moved me, with a few words on how and why.
In terms of buying and selling music Bandcamp is great. Its simple design works well, and it offers a better deal for artists. For those reasons, I’ve tried to buy music this way whenever possible, and I’ve included these links below. For streaming music Resonate looks good. It’s a new cooperatively owned streaming service where you only pay for what you listen to, and you get to own what you listen to most.
One artist who’s made the most of Bandcamp’s subscription service is Kevin Drumm. As Al English said on Twitter, “The Kevin Drumm @Bandcamp subscription is a gift that keeps on giving.” In this case it works because Drumm is prolific (currently there are 79 releases available to subscribers) but without sacrificing quality control. Similarly, Jim O’Rourke has put out a steady stream of music on his Steamroom Bandcamp, although this doesn’t have the option to subscribe.
My favourite musical discovery this year is a 12″ from 1981 – Shauri Yako by Nguashi N’Timbo with L’Orchestre Festival of Zaire. The musicianship and production are incredible. If this doesn’t get you in a good mood, I don’t know what will. I found this in a list of recommendations by members of Vibracathedral Orchestra, and you can grab a download of the EP here.
Kindohm – RISC Chip (Conditional). An album made with TidalCycles live-coding software. I first heard this on the Conditional Radio #8 radio show on Resonance Extra, and had to ask host Calum Gunn to identify the track that had caught my attention with its changing patterns of pounding beats (it was 32 Bit Falcon). Mike Hodnick has generously shared the code he used to make the album: https://github.com/kindohm/risc-chip
Beatrice Dillon – Curl / Karen Gwyer – Common Soundproofing Myths (Alien Jams). This makes me want to move. I also like Karen Gwyer’s Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telophase EP, named after phases of mitosis (cell division). It reminds me that when I used to work as a biology technician, I would demonstrate mitosis by cutting and staining the tips of garlic roots, mounting them on microscope slides to see the cell nuclei pulling apart (like this).
Fis – From Patterns to Details (Subtext). Fis’s Speech Spirits EP, with remixes by Oren Ambarchi and Kassem Mosse, was amongst my favourites of 2014. Whereas that EP sounded like urban industrialisation, this album develops Fis’s broader theme of ecology, with influences including soil science and permaculture. Like Paul Jebanasam’s Continuum, also released this year on Subtext, this is cinematic music, and it’s not an easy listen. It’s the sound of the Anthropocene – the geological era demarcated by humanity’s pollution; it sounds like a tortured earth as species struggle to survive and adapt.
Hieroglyphic Being – This Isn’t Your Typical 90’s Era Techno / IDM Revisionist View (Technicolour). This Is 4 The Rave Bangers is a track that pretty much does what it suggests. The album The Disco’s of Imhotep is equally good, but its tracks are less structured than this single – they start and end suddenly, changing without having a clear direction.
Sote – 10inch04 (Repitch Recordings). More banging techno, like the Hieroglyphic Being single, but these are actual old-school tracks from the 90s unearthed from the back-catalogue of Iranian producer Sote.
Rian Treanor – Pattern Damage (The Death of Rave). The 2nd release from Treanor, following A Rational Tangle which was a favourite of mine last year. This EP has similarly Razor-sharp sounds providing a minimal palette along with fractured bouncing rhythms.
Graham Dunning – Auxon (Seagrave). This is an album compiled from Dunning’s live performances of mechanical techno over the past couple of years. Whilst the technical ingenuity and skill are impressive, the quality of this music stands on its own. Solid techno.
Ancient Methods – A German Love (Metaphysik). On a split single La Saignée with Theologian, A German Love is a dark industrial track built on a tale about a date that “started off like really nice but ended horribly.” As the tale unfolds, the words that refer to self-harm and masochism are cleverly cut-up and repeated, transforming the subject from the girl to the country.
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Cognition / Observation (DDS). Deep, echoey modular synth workout in two parts. The first track sounds very similar to a piece of music I was working on a couple of years ago, except this is much better.
Eric Frye – On Small Differences in Sensation. The title of this album got my attention because it relates to some things I studied for my PhD. It comes from a classic paper on psychophysics by C.S. Pierce and Jared Jastrow (1885) which explores the idea of the ‘just-noticeable difference’ developed by Gustav Fechner in Elemente der Psychophysik (1860). Eric Frye’s album explores just-noticeable differences, with variations in sounds that test the limits of perception and challenge the listener’s identification of musical structure.
Drøne – Reversing Into the Future (Pomperipossa Records). A collaboration between Mark van Hoen and Mike Harding, this is a single long-form piece of music called This Strange Life made from field recordings and electronic sources.
Machine Woman – Genau House (Where To Now?). Soft synth pads, vocal snippets, and hard beats combine in these tracks about love and pain.
EVOL – DO THESE (Presto!? Records). An album of solo synth playing frantic filtered sequences, with a nice matching red mug. EVOL also released HARDCORE vol. 1 – 11 hours of new/rare music and a video, including 11 ALSO THESE tracks, and 3 new versions of Opus17a – variation #9 is made with pitched percussion, #10 with a squelchy acid bassline and kick drum, and Easter Opus with vocal samples. Like DO THESE, Right Frankfurt, a clear vinyl 12″ on Diagonal, has a warmer and more analogue sound, as if EVOL are using a new synth.
Jung An Tagen – Das Fest Der Reichen (Editions Mego). Beginning with blasts of filtered noise, this album then introduces a complex glassy arpeggio, a bit like Martin Neukom, before morphing into stranger sounds. Abstract and academic, the music has developed from the Virtual Institute Vienna, a research group of interdisciplinary artists.
Calum Gunn – Unorganized Music (Tsuku Boshi). If music is organised sound, then…
NYZ – DRN4 (.meds), ALG118B (ComputerClub) & DRNH (Gamma Mine). All 3 albums released on cassette, these are Dave Burraston’s music made with cellular automata and other algorithms on a wide variety of electronic hardware. Mostly these aren’t the busy and complicated kind of algorithmic music you might expect to hear, given their technical background. Rather, these are subtle drones that have more in common with the minimalism of Eleh or Elian Radigue.
Jay Glass Dubs – III (Seagrave). Quality spaced-out dub. Pared down to a bare minimum of instruments and reverb-soaked delays.
Goto80 – 80864. TR-808 beats + Commodore 64 chiptune sounds = 80864. Nice graphic design too, with a colour theme from the 808 and a 12″ sleeve like a floppy disc.
Rashad Becker – Traditional Music of Notional Species vol. II (PAN). I really liked vol. I, and this is more of the same, but even more uncannily synthetic-animalistic.
Russell Haswell – PANTHER nO!se (Haswell Studio). After flirting with danceable music on the Diagonal label, Haswell is back to doing what he does best – full-on noise. It’s almost impossible to describe these sounds, and I guess that’s kind of the point. This is music that exceeds our ability to fit it into the conceptual categories of traditional musical language. Best just to turn it up and soak it in.
S. Olbricht – ZZM EP (UIQ). Mellow techno from Lee Gamble’s label. This EP was a real grower. It’s the sort of thing you could dance to at a club and chill out to afterwards. UIQ released a few good EPs this year, including Renick Bell’s algorithmic music which you can see and hear and demo of: http://empty-lake.u-i-q.org
Peder Mannerfelt – Controlling Body (Peder Mannerfelt Produktion). This album is mostly built up from manipulations of vocal sounds provided by Glasser. The track BZ Reaction refers to the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, a chemical oscillator that is often used as an example of non-linear thermodynamics, and which generates self-organizing fractal patterns.
Oren Ambarchi – Hubris (Editions Mego). Krautrock-style excursions with two long-form pieces of music separated by a short guitar-based composition. Made with the collaboration of many musicians including Jim O’Rourke, Ricardo Villalobos, Mark Fell and Keith Fullerton-Whitman. Each adds a layer to the constant driving patterns that build in intensity.
Autechre – elseq. (Ae_store). Autechre continue to stun, with a huge digital-only album of tracks that sound more closely connected with their recent live work, recordings of which are also available at the Ae_store.
Jens Harder – Alpha …Directions (Acte Sud). This book covers 14 billion years of history from the inception of the universe just before the big bang to the present day Anthropocene era. Harder builds this immense narrative through layouts that combine hand-drawn reproductions of images from science, religion and art. As he explains in an interview, “I always had the wish to show not only the development of the world, but also the development of our view on the world.” This is the first in a trilogy of books, and it focuses on the physical, chemical and biological complexification of our world. Beta will cover human history, and Gamma will imagine a future beyond that.