003: Overlooked Albums of 2019
Tone Glow's writers highlight 13 overlooked albums from this past year
|Dec 31, 2019|| 11||2|
Welcome to Tone Glow, a newsletter focused on experimental music edited by Joshua Minsoo Kim. For our special year-end issue, we had our writers select a single album from 2019 they felt went overlooked. Below, find thirteen hand-picked albums that excite us—we hope they do the same for you. Tone Glow will be back in 2020 on January 13th. Happy new year, and happy listening.
Yui Nakamura - Blackgrounds (BasicFunction)
Blackgrounds is the first solo recording of “breath performer” Yui Nakamura, who describes her performance as “just breathing.” She shares credits with two more names: Tatsuya Takemoto, whose performance is self-described as “just being there”, and the notable sound artist Makoto Oshiro, who records these two performers as they “just breathe” and “just be there” in two different spaces: an empty classroom and an empty athletic field. Oshiro is the most accomplished name on this roster and his recording is a true marvel: He reveals an intricate and crystal-clear separation between foreground and background, between precise close details and far-off rushes of background noise. The recording is an incredible evocation of space and intimacy in a way not normally considered possible for music to communicate.
As we listen to Nakamura breathe, what emerges is an intense awareness of the focus required for their performance—something mirrored by the concentration required to listen to this—as well as a unique and powerful sense of the places these performances capture. As the liner notes succinctly state, “you gradually come to feel as if you are witnessing a psychic phenomenon.” Blackgrounds is a worthy continuation of the great, but lately barren, Japanese tradition of abstract sound art and field recordings, recalling such masterful statements as Detour by Toshiya Tsunoda & Manfred Werder and the landmark self-titled album by supergroup I.S.O. from 2003. Like these predecessors, Blackgrounds gives the space being recorded as much importance as the performers. And like them, it gives the patient, attentive listener a whole world to escape into. —Samuel McLemore
Listen to Blackgrounds on Bandcamp.
Jana Winderen - Pasvikdalen (Touch)
Jana Winderen first presented Pasvikdalen in 2015, at the Dark Ecology and Arctic Encounters forum at the University of Tromsø - Arctic University of Norway. Dark Ecology is also the title of a book by philosopher Timothy Morton, a speaker at the forum. After a cursory Google search, I feel confident in marking his Dark Ecology project as another exhausting, pointless addition to the lineage of white artists and philosophers exploring the “posthuman,” inventing new strands of thought that ignore the fundamental realities of the world or treat these realities as boring or outdated. To these people, the problems of the world—problems that kill, displace, blight people on a daily basis—are simply linguistic and aesthetic playgrounds, territories in which capitalism or climate catastrophe can be mitigated with the right poetic framework and zany pop culture references. I think this sums it up: an 8000-word interview with Morton about Dark Ecology—a book marketed as a radical reimagining of the ongoing climate catastrophe and how we can comprehend it—contains two instances of the word “capitalism,” and 33 instances of the word “weird.”
I begin with Morton’s Dark Ecology only because Winderen’s Pasvikdalen cuts through all the bullshit of Morton’s project, and in its 38 minutes manages to strike me in all the right emotional pressure points, summoning the feverish storm of anxieties I feel in the face of climate catastrophe while evoking the boundless beauty of our shared earth. Winderen has hinted in an interview that she sometimes manipulates her raw recordings, time-stretching and equalizing elements as she collages them together. Already, she breaks the unspoken rule of field recording, where practitioners often see themselves simply as archivists of various natural locales and phenomena. Winderen works on a deeper level, though the foundation of her work certainly lies in the crystalline purity of natural sounds, and she often goes to the furthest reaches of the earth in order to obtain them.
In this case: Nikel, Russia, near the Russian-Norwegian border, seemingly named after its Norilsk Nickel plant which spews so much sulfur dioxide that the Moscow Times described the area as “a moonscape of bald hills, barren of plant life for kilometers.” She still works as a musician interested in form and narrative, carefully sculpting waves of deep vibrations, respiring harmonics and clouds of blistering wind-noise that drift and collide like tectonic plates. This is not simply a documentary, but a totem, a living, breathing object imbued simultaneously with a sense of infinite scale and microscopic detail. When, twenty minutes in, the dogs start howling, it is easy to hear a lament—a cry for help from the earth. But this has no basis in reality. In occupying a middle ground between pure document and deliberate, artificial composition, Pasvikdalen does much more than vaguely “raise awareness” of climate catastrophe: its sonic form and construction directly reflect the immensity and complexity of the issue itself, targeting with laser focus all of the emotional vulnerabilities felt in the face of ecological collapse, unfolding with a logic of its own and never offering clear answers. There is no easy retreat to nature in a burning world. —Sunik Kim
Listen to Pasvikdalen on Bandcamp.
Maria Chavez - Plays Stefan Goldmann’s ‘Ghost Hemiola’ (Macro)
In 2013, Berlin-based electronic sound artist Stefan Goldmann released Ghost Hemiola, a double LP featuring 132 blank locked grooves. These records would play interminably, with imperfections in the vinyl making the only sounds—a physical 4’3” designed to make the listener aware of the musicality of the medium itself. The consumer was also encouraged to become the artist by taking a knife to the grooves, marring the vinyl to create unique beats and textures. Upon being gifted this album, avant-garde turntablist Maria Chavez took the latter route. After cutting her copy of Ghost Hemiola to certain specifications, she recorded the results and digitally manipulated them into an hour-long track.
Plays is absolutely unpredictable, beginning with hyper-realized Autechre-esque sound design, morphing into stretches of unsettling ambient static, and transitioning into cartoonish ‘50s sci-fi FX before resolving into looming bass-heavy fields of noise. The effect is of exploring a sculpture garden in the dark, never knowing what strange shape you’ll encounter next. This is experimental music in its purest form, in that Chavez herself could not have anticipated the outcome. And, like any good experiment, it’s repeatable—the techniques explored here could contribute to a renaissance in glitch music to match the recent resurgence in vinyl. —Matthew Blackwell
Listen to Plays Stefan Goldmann’s ‘Ghost Hemiola’ on Bandcamp.
Slauson Malone - A Quiet Farwell, 2016–2018 (Grand Closing)
A collage of Black music deflating time. Exercises fracture identity or otherwise evoke identity in flux: reforming, constantly malleable, ready to absorb. They transmute, regurgitate, shift, grow, divide. Liquidity: making a viscous self, bringing the subject near a point of unintelligibility, teasing it, reigning it in, presenting a compounded repetition of forms, a sampling of textures, an infinite repeat unbridled from form completely, a rationed drip of personae, data from the other end, a slow gathering and understanding on my end. Imprecise repetitions, broken melodies, samples forced to speak (though unable), and seamful transformations give way to one another, colliding, causing a gathering and unraveling of those they hold (listener included). The past is loaded but we’re the ones making it (I’m paraphrasing here: “The past is the present to me it’s not like we can’t go back—whatever thing we make the past to be is just a way to sustain what’s happening right now,” Jasper Marsalis tells Katherine Hoppe for Passion of the Weiss). “The world is coming to an end” yet still I “feel tomorrow like I felt today.” It’s true.
This is end-of-times music, apocalypse music, and worse: it’s always been ending. From one of its extravagant titles: “I was a fugitive but then I realized there was nowhere I could run to.” Running from becoming object. Real running. Then succeeding and yet suddenly, simultaneously smash, like a brick wall into objecthood again. In Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, he calls the thousands of Jewish exiles who were “shunned from port to port” while escaping or attempting to escape the 20th century’s great monstrosity “refugees without refuge.” They couldn’t find a port that would read them as another, as legible, as human, as subject. It’s happened so many times in so many ways and it happens today. Failed subjects? Spoiled? Different ships all the time, passing. Terrible history past and present. Anything that might pick it apart and carry forward. Something, this. —Leah B. Levinson
Listen to A Quiet Farwell, 2016-2018 on Bandcamp.
Bass Clef - 111 angelic MIDI cascade (Slip)
In January, Ralph Cumbers, who usually produces leftfield techno under his Bass Clef moniker, released his “first deliberate” album under the name in seven years. The album is as beguiling as its title—111 angelic MIDI cascade—featuring elaborate, beatless arrangements for tinny, digital strings and buzzsaw synths. Though the album is not as flat-sounding as the MIDI tunes that once autoplayed on every website, there is a sense here that nothing is hidden. In the world of experimental music, it is all too easy to bury mediocre songwriting under layers of digital effects and unidentifiable noise. Here, Cumbers lets each note sparkle, drawing our focus explicitly to the album as a work of composition.
One can only guess the inspirations behind this opaque work. For my part, I can’t help but hear echoes of dungeon synth—a genre that has existed in some form for decades, but which has exploded in popularity in recent years. This is particularly true of the album’s massive centerpiece “Dear John,” which is built around a set of thundering, baroque chords that cycle almost continuously over the track’s eight-minute runtime. What the two share is an emphasis on songwriting as a means of building atmosphere, which is immensely refreshing in a genre that often leans too hard into improvisation and sonic murk. Cumbers has already released another album of his more typical wonky club music since 111 angelic MIDI cascade. It is accomplished and danceable, but it serves even more to make 111 feel like an alien entity, something that arrived, fully formed, from somewhere else. It is, I hope, not the last thing we hear from that strange and lovely place. —Mark Cutler
Listen to 111 angelic MIDI cascade on Bandcamp.
Eartheater - Trinity (Chemical X)
Cultural logic demands that art be circular, and in 2019, it was witch house’s time to revive. The internet’s embrace of Drain Gang and its ilk suggests that Yung Lean and Salem should have been dominant forces this decade, but since we live in this universe, Eartheater’s Trinity will have to do. Previous releases by the New Yorker have delved deep into industrial, deconstructed club, avant-folk, and other such genre couplings, but on this record, she is committed to the synth-trap lifestyle, more straightforward than ever.
With this kind of pivot, the question remains: is she winking at us? There’s an undeniable lilt in the music, bounciness jumping off of ice-cold melodies and pulsating 808s. The academic meets the dance floor, with a sultry analysis. It’s an experimental album in the most unruly sense, making pop music with a chemist’s insight. Trinity is chock-full of hits, crafting confectionery goodies with her merry gang of producers. Homogenic music for a Homogenic age. —Eli Schoop
Listen to Trinity on Bandcamp.
Sajjra - Synthexcess (Buh Records)
To the Western listener, Andean folk music signifies a vague sense of rustic simplicity, happiness, and peace. It’s a stereotype formed by the worst impulses of the World Music movement, now reinforced by the naive optimism of pan flute-sampling trop-pop. Andean music is a classic Barthesian case of a stolen signifier—a symbol drained of its origins to accommodate a meaning more palatable to the upper class. What’s removed is the radical content of the music, like the snide reference to rich kids in Picaflor de los Andes’s “Aguas del Río Rímac” or the alienation of the poor expressed in Emilio Alanya’s “Falsía.” As a result, the listener is no longer able to hear Andean music for the vital folk tradition it is, and instead only perceives kitschy background music for the incense-and-beaded-curtains set.
Both “Aguas del Río Rimac” and “Falsía” make an appearance on Peruvian artist Chrs Galarreta’s third album under the name Sajjra, Synthexcess. Galarreta amplifies the dissonant elements of Andean folk in his work, a sharp contrast to the typical prettifying methods of folk appropriators. On the surface, Galaretta’s mixes read like an attempt to shake off the aesthetic baggage of decades’ worth of Peruvian pan-flute compilations and look at the forgotten content of the folk music with fresh eyes. But there’s a twist: Galaretta attempts to recontextualize folk music to a non-indigenous audience while calling attention to his project’s futility.
Really, Synthexcess is about failures of meaning. Dissonance is a relative quality: Andean folk is only cacophonous to ears trained on seven-note scales. So by playing that up, Galaretta points to the inescapable gap of understanding between the indigenous and the powerful, and the impossibility of any music to flow from the former to the latter with its meaning intact. Galaretta explores how a reversed flow operates as well. Synthexcess’s second track appears to quote snippets from the 4th movement of the “New World Symphony,” except slightly modified and with the resolution of the phrase cut off. It’s as if to express how an alien might hear what comes second-hand to someone steeped in the classical tradition. Ultimately, Synthexcess is humble, even defeatist, which is why it feels like the final word in the unofficial trilogy of Sajjra albums. —Adesh Thapliyal
Listen to Synthexcess on Bandcamp.
Jean-Philippe Gross - Curling (Eich)
Few albums this year were as beguiling as Jean-Philippe Gross’s Curling. Over the course of a single 22-minute track, we hear a curling match that’s recorded as if for an austere European art film. It creates such an impression because we’re presented with sounds from different areas within the rink—it’s like we’re witnessing cuts from one shot to the next, all seamlessly bound together in a “naturalistic” field recording. We hear players discussing strategies with one another, but also screaming out commands for those sweeping the ice. We’re also placed in more intimate settings, hearing the close-miked sounds of stones gliding across ice, of them colliding with other stones within the curling house. There’s a low hum that persists throughout the recording, bolstering the semblance of Curling’s continuous nature.
The album’s final segment is the most astounding: it’s the end of the match, and a man loudly shouts to another player that she needs to sweep “HARD!!!” We hear, in the moment, the player’s fatigued breathing. When the stone finally makes contact with another, that gentle tap is coupled with the removal of the aforementioned humming. The audience bursts in applause, and it sounds like we’ve been taken out of the moment’s nail-biting intensity. It’s then that Curling reveals itself: its goal is to capture the surreal feeling of being an athlete during an important game, of feeling enormous pressure in the heat of the moment. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Listen to Curling on Bandcamp.
Maks Bober - Poema (self-released)
Maks Bober is an Argentinian composer, violinist, and guitarist currently living in Poland. His first CD, Autumn in Warsaw, was released last year via Watch Pineapple Press and it marked his first appearance as a composer in the experimental music scene. The album coincided with his first year living outside his home country and featured pieces for a small ensemble that were recorded in Poland. His second album, Poema, emerged this year and contains two pieces for guitar from his poema series, which he performs himself.
Poema is not a dense album: It doesn’t pretend to contain any “memorable” moments, climaxes, or contrasts. What would be meaningful content in this music (the guitar chords, the melodies) is put in front of subtle, radio background noise that overtakes pauses and space in a tranquil manner. The first poema seems like a short song played in a long time span, as if Bober is in the act of reminiscing while playing: Ideas return but they develop in a meandering way. After some minutes, the second poema loses sense of concrete direction, and at one point sounds unattached from a score. Periphery gains a lot of space here: Bober’s breathing, turning pages, his body against the guitar—perhaps the amount of reverb even makes it too much at times.
The sense of form on Poema is uncertain. I wonder why and how it’s possible to have positive, affirmative music that at the same time is permanently uncertain of its future. Last year, I received a score of one of these pieces. I read the informally written performance instructions, which invited and gave agency to the performer: “I’ve added some suggestions on dynamics and phrasing. However, as each poem, each person has different ways of breathing and saying each phrase.” The spirit of this music is to be read, to be transparent to the state of the performer. Poetry is effective when the reader can receive an image from the words as much as he produces one from reading it. It puts the emphasis not on the material but in recitation, of the time it takes to go from one word to another. Like words, each musical idea has its own temperature, which translates or emanates to the periphery, to the silence after each sound. To be faithful to this, one makes each phrase a single step in a larger walk: a stroll one does while listening. The position of the performer and of the listener aren’t so different then, and this is basically due to the importance of void, something mentioned in the aforementioned score: “I think of silences as places to dwell. Rest as rhythmic silence, but also as recess. Also, as in a travel, these pauses can give us time to remember what just happened.” What I find special about this album is found in Bober’s voice as a composer. Poema speaks to something about void, which is distinct from silence. It’s not stillness, not solemnity: It’s candor. —Tomás Cabado
Listen to Poema on Bandcamp. As a note, Bober goes by both Maks and Max.
Quintron - Erotomania (Mind Meld)
Quintron has been making party music weird for over 20 years now. Along with his wife and collaborator—the brilliant puppeteer Miss Pussycat—he runs the Spellcaster Lodge in New Orleans, using it as: an invention and recording studio, electronics repair shop, and infrequent show space. He’s made a name for himself outside the city as a nightclub organist and the creator of the Drum Buddy, a light-activated machine which plays lo-fi rhythmic patterns. From 1997’s seminal garage rock collab, The Oblivians Play Nine Songs With Mr. Quintron, to 2011’s genre-defining swamp tech masterpiece, Sucre Du Sauvage, to more recent experiments with the Weather Warlock—a giant analog synth that turns input from the environment (sun, wind, rain, temperature) into sound—Quintron has never been static.
On his latest project, Erotomania, he eschews his abstract electronica for a 1950s tape-based organ (a proto-Mellotron) and leaves his fast-paced bayou rock behind for toned-down cocktail lounge exotica. The EP opens on “Bohemian Caverns,” a vibey blues over a slow-tempo groove. On “Dixie Disaster,” he embellishes his playful take on dixieland jazz with pre-recorded accompaniment from the Lawrence Welk Orchestra. The sixth and final track, “Birthday in Tunisia,” is a bossa nova version of the “Happy Birthday” song. It’s a satisfying end to an album that never takes itself too seriously. —Raphael Helfand
Listen to Erotomania on Bandcamp.
Elizabeth Veldon - The Clouds are Walking in the Hills (self-released)
Elizabeth Veldon is a prolific sound artist from Scotland who has almost 750 releases on her Bandcamp page in addition to various psychical albums on labels worldwide. Many of her tracks are 20-30 minutes long and she even has the towering 16-hour double album A Night in Winter (Parts 1 & 2). Released last summer, The Clouds are Walking in the Hills is a solitary drone track. It appears as a minimalist tone cluster on the surface but across 30 minutes of close listening, the sound gradually shifts and modulates, much like the titular clouds. The ear notices a series of long droning notes climbing over each other mixed with a faster Doppler effect, like a giant Leslie speaker cabinet spinning ethereal messages to all. —Jeff Brown
Listen to The Clouds are Walking in the Hills on Bandcamp.
Julia Reidy – In Real Life (Black Truffle)
Australian guitarist Julia Reidy has delivered a deluge of releases in the past five years; from impressively singular solo albums to her group Spoiler’s alternate soundtrack to Blade Runner 2049. Across the two sidelong suites of In Real Life, she solders together musical worlds that have rarely overlapped. Glistening fingerstyle guitars are fused with sparkly synth arpeggios and icy drones, while meeting their most unexpected counterpart in Reidy’s eerily auto-tuned vocals. The result comes across like a one-woman fantasy jam session with the Berlin School and the American Primitives joined by Farrah Abraham in the booth. “Crystal Bones” is the more propulsive of these two pieces with its nearly ceaseless onslaught of synths and strings, while “Adulare” shifts into a slower-paced coda in the album’s final moments. With this haunting hybrid sound, Reidy redefines the notions of electroacoustic music while proving that her sonic imagination knows no bounds. —Jesse Locke
Listen to In Real Life on Bandcamp.
Keiji Haino + Sumac - Even for just the briefest moment / Keep charging this “expiation” / Plug in to making it slightly better (Trost Records)
It is an easy joke to make about the self-defacing and perverse spirit of Keiji Haino’s career to observe that the version of this record I acquired off Bandcamp refuses to be played if I open it by directory in my media player of choice; I have to select each track individually to play them in their proper sequence, else it simply tells me the files do not exist and plays nothing. It’s easy to make, because Haino’s discography is so reliable anyone looking for joke fodder doesn’t have to try very hard to find it. That is, of course, what makes new Haino collaborations such a pleasure: like old jazz masters, the joy of him playing in concert with others is that he brings his dialect with him, and then everybody gets to join in the conversation.
Even for just the briefest moment maintains the usual signifiers of latter-day Haino: tortuous song titles that deliberately bend English into slightly off-set but consistent grammatical shapes, a quiet beginning with delicate and sentimental instrument choices (woodwinds, this time) before launching into the familiar spine-bending scrapes and squiggly guitar lines immediately after, the near-prevocal grunts and groans hung somewhere between masturbatory and asphyxiating. Nevertheless, it’s lighter on Haino’s predilections than the aesthetic goals of his collaborators; where American Dollar Bill wheezed and crackled with panic, the collaboration pushing everyone involved into a fever of insecure ambition, Sumac’s returning presence here tempers the scramble. Even for just the briefest moment feels confident and solidified where its predecessor felt manic and enervating.
The titanic centerpiece, from which the collaboration as a whole takes its name, buries itself deep in the furrows of Turner and Cook’s strummed guitar grooves, riffs coagulating out of their methodical scratches, picking the further they dig into the track. Haino exposes himself as more lyrical than he’s usually credited for as he coasts on their noise, sketching little highlights of treble into the smothering din. Then Yacyshyn’s drums pull on the air, and everyone else quiets down to follow his lead. What starts off as light percussion sinks heavier and heavier, Yacyshyn dragging everyone down into what feels like a gravity well and everyone else letting him. Eventually, it plateaus, and Haino resurfaces to sing-speak-growl the whole track into a climactic frenzy. The track lightens afterwards, rallying around Haino’s thin guitar work to crawl its painstaking way back out of the muck it had just spent all that time getting itself stuck in.
Surrounding “Even for just the briefest moment”’s Dantean plunge are lengthy sketches of similarly demanding size but less sensational ambition. They feel a bit like setup and punchline, particularly the closing track’s riff, a march that begins with every collaborator moving in lockstep before rising in intensity and incoherence, only to resolve nowhere: a feat of comedy matched only by its title, labeling it the “first half” of a sequence whose second half never arrives. It is easy to joke about Haino’s seemingly constant self-seriousness and sincerity; far more delightful to hear, on this album, how confidently he can share jokes of his own. —Tara Wrist
Listen to Even for just the briefest moment on Bandcamp.
Thanks for reading the third issue of the Tone Glow newsletter. If I may suggest one new year’s resolution: tell as many people as possible about Tone Glow.