Before we say goodbye, we thought we'd bring you our collective favorite albums of 2011.
Ash Borer: Ash Borer [Pesanta Urfolk]
Chillwave. It's been shoved down our throats over the past couple of years due to its ease of creation and distribution (thank you Ableton Live soft synths and plug-ins; thank you Soundcloud and the blogs that embed you!!), and a lot of it fucking sucks. This year saw some lazy remixes and underwhelming sophomore releases from the first batch of the genre's icons, and the honeymoon phase ended. Disappointment sets in as the blogosphere continues to herald "the next big thing" and humors publicists' requests for coverage-- maybe for the sake of traffic, maybe for the lack of a better voice. You feel a craving for something visceral. Something different.
Ash Borer enters the scene with an undeniably strong album that doesn't asked to be loved, appreciated, or even known at a time where being an artist seems to require having at least three social media outlets. The sheer weight of this headbanging LP is staggering, and its tension-building ambient moments are just as captivating as the chaotic ones. You don't have to be a diehard black metal fan to feel the impact of their bludgeoning drums, soaring guitars, and anguished screams; Ash Borer's raw power translates to any audience. Epic. --Ric Leichtung
Blues Control & Laraaji: FRKWYS Vol. 8 [RVNG Intl.]
There've been a bunch of all-star collaborations this year-- Kanye and Jay-Z, James Blake and Bon Iver, Flaming Lips and Lightning Bolt-- that've doubled as a stroke of marketing genius and a fan's wet dream come true. There have also been a few lesser known meetings-of-the-mind orchestrated by RVNG Intl.-- Julianna Barwick and DNA founder Ikue Mori, Emeralds and soundtrack man Alan Howarth, the staggering five-way between Borden, Ferraro, Godin, Halo, and Lopatin-- that've been truly stunning. But the synergy between Blues Control and new age zitherist Laraaji trumps them all. Laraaji's been playing music for more than 30 years and is a seasoned improviser, taking on the role of the trio's leader and lifting the noise duo’s psychedelic scuzz to celestial heights. Few collaborations have tapped into something as special as this one. --Ric Leichtung
The Caretaker: An Empty Bliss Beyond This World [Self-Released]
It was a busy year for Leyland Kirby and his peripatetic musical endeavors. Under his given name, Kirby released the beautifully meditative Eager to Tear Apart The Stars before delving into three volumes of electronic manipulations in the Intrigue & Stuff series. His release as The Caretaker, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, landed the softest but burnt the brightest. Using a collection of run-down ballroom jazz 78s as his basic source material, Kirby continued his thematic study into the mind's inevitable fissures, the disconnects that frustrate the desire to cling to a perfect, complete memory.
Kirby's masterful manipulation and distortion of the 78s was so effective that they no longer seemed to belong to the past, or to the present.. An Empty Bliss resides in a kind of temporal limbo, reminding us that the opaque memories of a life -- what is salvaged and what is lost -- follow a most mysterious, inaccessible logic. It was a moment of exquisite calm, humility, and fragility amid the mad dash to omnipotence that is information super highway; it told us that no matter how imperfect, what we are left with is all that we have, and must be cherished. --Daniel Gottlieb
Death Grips: Exmilitary [Self-Released]
Death Grips are a mess, an anomaly that coheres through a set of intertwining delusional threads, mostly relating to personal obsessions and their limits. As much the phrase "practice makes perfect" proves true for beatsmith Zach Hill, MC Ride does the same in his mantras, using repetition as a coping mechanism for his abyss. There's a reason a Charles Manson sample opens this album: he's taken delusion into another universe. Ride really believes he's the king. Tell yourself anything enough times and you're Ringo Starr, guy.
Future Shuttle: Water's Edge [Intercoastal Artists / Holy Mountain]
When Future Shuttle released their debut EP Water’s Edge in late August, they established themselves as an outfit that makes nu age music for body and spirit alike. Their blend of synth, flute, samplers, and beats elegantly intertwines the cosmic and the earthly. Through sounds that evoke flowing streams, bird and dolphin calls, and the vibrations of ancient rock formations, Jessa Farkas’ voice resonates with striking humanity. It is as commanding as it is sorrowful, bringing to mind both the mortal condition and our desire and power to transcend it. In “Rain Source,” Farkas repeats the mantra, "I became everything that I’ve ever encountered," as the relationship between humans and each element of their environment is emphasized. Similarly, as “spacey” as Future Shuttle’s music is, every component is crystal-clear, a voice within its vast landscape. --Samantha Cornwell
Holy Other: With U [Tri-Angle]
Due to the ghostly vibes and his Tri Angle roster spot, Holy Other's work is mistakenly cast as something gothic, dark, or due to be canonized in wing-ding letters in some infinitely vacuous witch house manifesto. In reality, this past year found the veiled Manchester producer offering something far different from those suspected shock and horror tropes: the romantic hybrid house of With U. Holy Other's deep, disembodied vocals echo like distant memories as screwed orchestral swells and choral bass moans swallow them up. The atmosphere of yearning is palpable, whether for past love or new direction; the subdued lust of a simultaneously ravenous but tender one night stand looms over the hungry pleas of With U, especially in the meter- and momentum-shifting standout, "Touch." Holy Other's debut is a triumphant melding of R&B's emotion, bass culture's sensuality, and house's heartbeat, and the result is one of the year's most intimate albums. --Matt Sullivan
Iceage: New Brigade [Escho]
It's been a hell of a year for Iceage. Their first full-length dropped in their native country of Denmark in January. By June, they had gotten What's Your Rupture on board for a US release, toured with Fucked up, captured the attention of an Odd Future-obsess press (remember them?), and basically taken the underground music world by storm-- all pretty much by accident. They put out one of the most talked-about records of this year, and although their high school status, their notoriously bloody shows, and the controversy surrounding the Nazi doodles surely played their parts, the album had the kind of energy that hadn't been heard in years. Iceage is the type of band that sparks obsession. They put their hometown of Copenhagen on the music map by coining a movement and rekindled faith in a genre that had been stagnating for a few years. Mostly, they brought punk back into our minds, at least for a little while. --Ric Leichtung
John Maus: We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves [Ribbon]
If 2010 was the year when the music elite deemed Ariel Pink worthy of their ever-loving embrace, then 2011 was the year when they extended a tender hand to his CalArts classmate and lo-fi co-"discoverer" John Maus. However, as a series of revealing interviews following the release of his remarkable We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves made clear, Maus’ relationship with industry success was a complex and acrimonious one. Pitiless Censors was brimming with concepts and conjectures about modern political inertia, the sclerosis of advanced global capitalism, and the challenges they pose to the individual subject.
The album balanced and combined these influences accordingly: it's cerebral and conceptually driven, but also a revealing portrait of John’s personal and artistic struggle to break through these restrictive forces. Pitiless Censors thus gave us an image of Maus inhabiting a role not dissimilar to the lighthouse that appears on his album art: luminary but mysterious, vulnerable yet resolute, anxious to illuminate a place that lies just outside what it can reach. "This is where a human being finds himself"-- using the musical tools of the past, feeling ambivalent about the present, and longing for the possibilities of the future. In 2011, we welcomed back John Maus, the Believer. --Daniel Gottlieb
Julia Holter: Tragedy [Leaving]
Equal parts electronic pop and minimalist chamber music, Julia Holter’s Hippolytus-inspired debut puts both conservatory kids and bedroom producers to shame. Not too many artists manage to square the large and sprawling with the focused and minutely detailed, but this Los Angeles composer will channel just as much rigor into an extended drone as she will a loaded pause. Rather than belabor the plot details of Euripedes’ tormented love story, she abstracts it into a feeling of hovering doom.
The atmosphere is thick on Tragedy. Husky strings, white noise, harpsichords, fog horns, and crackling opera LPs cohere with mounting pressure, only to plateau until we forget that they are supposed to set the scene for a narrative event: a bit of dialogue or monologue set to words, such as in “The Falling Age” and “Celebration,” where her voice evokes Enya auditioning for a Madrigal choir, or single “Goddess Eyes,” where it’s clipped, vocoded, and maybe a little cold. Tragedy is the kind of record that makes you feel as though you’ve traveled far by the end-- through time, though space, though multiple musical languages and sounds that you never thought of as musical to begin with. Still, from start to curtain call, you can feel the clock ticking at every moment. --Emilie Friedlander
Julian Lynch: Terra [Underwater Peoples]
As life on Earth tends to move in circles, so has much of the music of 2011. Where many of this year’s releases are grounded in computer-driven loops and synth-based repetition, Julian Lynch’s Terra cycles through nylon, four-stringed guitar, meditative jazz clarinet, and hushed, tabla percussion. The Madison, Wisconsin-based ethnomusicologist refines the wide panorama of influences that was already present on his past releases, reaching into the past with smokey, prohibition-era falsetto croons and ‘50s music box piano symphonies while keeping it “modern” with his proggy guitar-synth. His third studio effort sounds more refined, more concise, and more three-dimensional than anything we've heard from him before. In another instance of coming full circle, Terra marks his return to Underwater Peoples, the home of his first non-CDr release, a split 7” with childhood friend Ducktails.. --Mary Katherine Youngblood
Jürgen Müller: Science of the Sea [Foxy Digitalis]
In 1979, German oceanographer Jürgen Müller built a music studio on his houseboat off the North Sea and slowly recorded an album inspired by the natural wonders that surrounded him. There were about 100 copies made, most of which were given away to his peers in the oceanic field; by some bizarre stroke of chance, one of them ended up in the hands of Brad Rose at Foxy Digitalis, who reportedly restored the album. The story is a library music collector's dream, and is unbelievable from the get-go, but Science's sophisticated palette is probably the most conclusive piece of evidence we have that Jürgen Müller and his project are the stuff of myth. Most exotica albums coming from "Jurgen's" time were awfully shallow listens, the cute wordplay and kitsch concepts constituting the core of their appeal. Science draws from the shimmering textures of the late, great Mort Garson and evokes the minimalist side of Raymond Scott. It's too damn good to be true. Its story is an integral part of the album, but its validity as a work of art doesn't hinge on fact-- it's in the beauty of the music, and the ideas lurking in its great depths that make this album more than a myth. --Ric Leichtung
Laurel Halo: Hour Logic [Hippos In Tanks]
MP3: Laurel Halo: "Aquifer"
One night at CMJ this year, I pushed forward to the front row of 285 Kent's attendees to catch Laurel Halo. As I walked away from the stage, the buzz in my headspace was killed with another concert-goer's groan-inducing synopsis: "Wow, she really killed it… for a girl." The blatant sexism of the analysis was a little stunning, but it seemed to fit in oddly well with a long line of bizarre preconceptions about this year's divisive ode to time-leaping-- and her best work yet-- Hour Logic. Halo's EP is the soundtrack to an imaginary silent sci-fi film where a cultural shift in information retrieval and consumption leaves significant effects on our brains' memory capacity and habits. It's a contemporary thesis on the possible aftermath of inhabiting a world like Far Side Virtual's for too long, drawn from futuristic bouts with electronic classics. Ultimately, that cerebral take is best left for the forum; Hour Logic's constant forward momentum is designed to be felt. The finer details of the painstakingly orchestrated domes and arcs of this symphony can be almost overwhelming, but the Detroit EMF veteran hasn't taken a left turn-- she's reached further for the future. --Matt Sullivan
Liturgy: Aesthethica [Thrill Jockey]
There’s no doubt that Brooklyn black metal outfit Liturgy pissed a lot of purists off this year when Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, their philosophizing Columbia grad of a frontman, published his infamous “Transcendental Black Metal” essay on the Internet. It renamed the “blast beat” the “burst beat,” boasted several black-and-white diagrams, and combined a band manifesto of sorts with a vision of the genre moving toward its ideal culmination in "the self-overcoming of Hyperborean black metal." (The implication being, of course, that Liturgy would be the band doing all the overcoming). At the end of the day, Altered Zones can only admire Hunt-Hendrix’s willingness to think deeply about what his own aesthetic choices mean, and will remember 2011 partly as the year when Aesthetica took the pummeling 16th notes, ecstatic death cries, and shifting guitar tremolos of black metal and showed us non-specialists just how powerful that language can be. It was also the year that the band lost perhaps its strongest music asset in virtuoso drummer and Guardian Alien mastermind Greg Fox; whatever you’d prefer to call his athletic and idiosyncratic pattering, it combined the thrill of total destruction with the joy of being alive. --Emilie Friedlander
Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica [Software]
For those of you keeping score at home, this is Dan Lopatin’s third appearance on an Altered Zones year-end best album list, the first two being for Games’ That We Can Play and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal last year. November’s Replica reconfirmed Lopatin’s status as an ingenious samplist whose complex process doesn’t prevent him from creating music that’s both erudite and somehow nearly as accessible as the TV commercials that provided his source material. The songs shirk narrative and explicit meaning, opting instead for contrapuntal juxtapositions and textured sound collages. Lopatin's magnum opus. --Luke Carrell
Peaking Lights: 936 [Not Not Fun]
Peaking Lights had several key elements of their sound place for their 2009 album, Imaginary Falcons, but the duo’s ability to weave noise-pop together with a humid strain of dub lay buried under a heavy dusting of drone and hiss. The project had plenty of promise, but it needed to be coaxed out into the setting sun. 936, this year’s subtly addictive gem of an album, has been buffed to a faded neon sheen, run through the heaviest dubplates, and pumped through a V.F.W. hall public address system straight into our hearts. Scotch Taped beats snake through oil-slicked puddles of bass that feel perfectly primed to rumble the speakers of the average ‘78 Escort. Indra Dunis’ honeyed coo seems to languish forever in a pool of hushed purple light while Aaron Coyes’ homemade synths billow into every available audible nook left behind. In short, 936 is a sweaty beast of a record. --Andy French
Pete Swanson: Man With Potential [Type]
I was wrong when I said the NYPD should play this on LRAD -- it belongs to Occupy. I mean, can you imagine the first hook, a full four minutes in, dropping as Zuccotti Park or Frank Ogawa Plaza faced eviction? Though Pete Seeger's endorsement was nice, did we expect much energy or inspiration from a 92-year-old, withering "This Little Light"? If the opener of Pete Swanson's Man With Potential, "Misery Beat," was meant for any catharsis at all, there's plenty of miserable subject matter to mine nowadays. Sure, it's named for the singular, but this entire release carries the imminent movement of massive crowds, exemplifying the power and potential of wordlessness. Perhaps the title points more to Swanson's autonomy, as he departed from the much-loved Yellow Swans duo three years ago.
Throughout this edict for Type Records, Swanson ping-pongs pointed loops through fields of scuzz, his deliberate modulation stretching each interval to its limit as agressive, head-bobbing beats sneak in. And while you can almost read the formula adhered to, no two tracks carry identical temperament or momentum. Man With Potential is thoughtful on a long-term scale, speaking to anyone with a pulse and a modicum of collective sense. --Dale W. Eisinger --Dale W. Eisinger
Prince Rama: Trust Now [Paw Tracks]
I think it's no secret that times are pretty tough for everyone nowadays, and Taraka and Nimai Larson of Prince Rama know this as well as anyone. Trust Now is their first album since founding member Michael Collins left the group and it slimmed to a duo. It's an airing of grievances, a mourning period, but also a survivor's statement of perseverance. We find a new Rama, re-energized and dressed for the battle arena. Shadow Temple's sophisticated drumming, swarming synths, and banshee-strength wails are more potent than ever on "Rest In Peace" and "Summer of Love," although the celestial prog of "Incarnation" and "Golden Silence" alludes to an age of enlightening surrender, a place where moments in time seem to lose their linearity. Trust Now is an important message of faith in an era where hope is dwindling and little seems trustworthy. --Matt Sullivan
Pure X: Pleasure [Acéphale]
Calling Pure X’s Pleasure a summer album wouldn’t be wrong. Lord knows it had a strong run as the soundtrack of choice for a host of sweaty activities over the course of the season, but as the album made so many return trips to headphones, ear canals and turntables, a new character emerged in the textures of those carefully interpreted songs: a tinge of darkness, equally honest and murky, that never really takes shape, but might be a bit sticky. Fellow Austinite Malcolm Elijah’s vids for "Surface" and "Easy" and the glamour shot of bondage cuffs on the album art display this theme, but avoid devolving into camp menace. This is holistic music, best enjoyed live and loud-- exactly like it was recorded. --Luke Carrell
Run DMT: Dreams [Culture Dealer]
Mike Collins has been an ambassador to all sounds weird and wonderful for a couple years, making the Run DMT moniker a mascot for the type of abstracted sound collages that have characterized the best of Baltimore's underground. Dreams is a series of fleeting, intergalactic visits that channel the spaced-out pondering of Bong Voyage, the classic '60s pop bounce of his Spruce Bringsteen split 7", and the spiritual awakenings of a deemster-fueled blast-off. Considering that it was recorded a few years ago, there's something of an old (but not that old) school charm to Dreams, recalling the excitement of exploring the vast unknown of the late aughts' blogosphere --the scene that Collins cut his teeth on-- for the very first time again. I am reminded of a time when I first heard Run, discovered Altered Zones, and ran away to Brooklyn to fashion dreams into reality. Needless to say, it's inspiring to hear Collins do the same with this labor of love, which almost didn't see the light of day. --Matt Sullivan
Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 [Kranky]
From Tim Hecker’s interest in the sonic refuse of the digital age emerged one of the most enduring albums of 2011. "I became obsessed with digital garbage, like when the Kazakstan government cracks down on piracy and there's pictures of 10 million DVDs and CDRs being pushed by bulldozers." From the portmanteau of the record to the image of the piano drop to track names like “Studio Suicide” and “Analog Paralysis, 1978," Ravedeath, 1972 was consumed with the timelessness and transience of sound. Its twelve elegiac pieces shifted from moments of action to periods of stasis. Passages of ambient purity tussled with lurching movements of hazy noise; synthesisers from the studio dialogue with organ sub-bass recorded in an Icelandic church. It was a journey that slowed down time to the point of stopping it altogether. --Daniel Gottlieb
In our year-and-a-half on the information highway, we had the good fortune of witnessing what was at once a very prolific time, a very confusing time, and a very exciting time in underground music. Instead of quoting ourselves, we combed through the 100 features and profiles we've published to bring you some reflections from the folks who inspire us.
Underwater Peoples' Evan Brody
I cite this moment when Sawyer and I were sitting outside our sophomore dorm room at college. We said to each other, "Man, we’re bored. We want to do something more exciting." --Interview with Jenn Pelly, May 2011
I see politics and art as separate trajectories. There's a political dimension to music, to the extent that it would be a disruption of the regime of the sensible... but it certainly isn’t collective mobilization against the state in the name of radical equality. The protest lyric is a poor substitute for radical political thought or a new idea of politics.
AZ: Is that why you have protest lyrics in your music?
The idea there is that sums up the impetus, lyrically, of all genuine art. It's an explosion. It's a Molotov cocktail in the fuckin' police station. It's rights for that which can have no rights, to the extent that it anticipates a world to come-- not this world. --Interview with Emilie Friedlander & Ric Leichtung, July 2011
All of these things operating in synchronicity: like ringtones, flat-screens, theater, cuisine, fashion, sushi. I don’t want to call it “virtual reality,” so I call it Far Side Virtual. If you really want to understand Far Side, first off, listen to [Claude] Debussy, and secondly, go into a frozen yogurt shop. Afterwards, go into an Apple store and just fool around, hang out in there. Afterwards, go to Starbucks and get a gift card. They have a book there on the history of Starbucks-- buy this book and go home. If you do all these things you’ll understand what Far Side Virtual is-- because people kind of live in it already. --Interview with Emilie Friedlander, November 2011
I remember during the [Harald] Grosskopf panel at Unsound Festival, Laurel Halo said something interesting about grappling with a world that is completely and totally inundated with technology. There's something about dealing with period technology that makes us feel more human or more relatable. Something about getting the whole machine purring feels very cosmic and brings technology back in harmony with art. --Interview with Daniel Gottlieb, June 2011
AZ: It’s funny that there are indie bands coming up now that would kill to use the equipment that was frustrating to you back then.
I like the idea of it as well, but there are too many problems! --Interview with Blondes, Emilie Friedlander, & Ric Leichtung, May 2011
People like to ask me where I live, and sometimes I give different answers. There is a new 7” coming on Baselic records, and the label guy asked me what city I was from. I was with a friend, and we were talking, and he said I should say I was from Djakarta. So I did, and then it was on many websites. On the High Wolf MySpace, it says that I am based in Brazil. Many times people think I’m from Los Angeles. When you hide something from people, they really want to know it. --Interview with Samantha Cornwell, March 2011
Cleaners From Venus' Martin Newell
I’m very flattered that people like my old stuff so much but really, it was me and Lol [Elliott, from Cleaners] in the kitchen! We were broke but inspired and enjoyed listening to it. But I think the biggest pleasure we got out of it at the time was that I used to make homemade beer, and Lol used to make these candles, 'cause he didn’t have enough money to pay his electricity bill. So I used to swap some of the beer for some dope that someone else used to grow, and we would make our own music on cassettes that Lol stole. And I thought one night-- stoned, drunk, listening to music by candlelight--, "We’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves tonight, and it’s cost nothing!" That was sort of the epitome of anarchy for me: generating our own everything. It was fantastic. --Interview with Richard MacFarlane, June 2010
After getting a sense of his musical tastes, I finally asked [Speculator's Nick Ray] what kind of music he played (I hate to assume genres these days). "Pop," he replied, then let a beat pass before explaining. “But not in the popular music sense. ‘Pop’ is no longer defined by what’s actually popular; it’s defined by a structure. You know, melodies, guitars, catchy hooks.” --Marissa A. Ross, December 2010
AZ: Recently you’ve toured and collaborated with Ariel Pink. How has that been?
He’s one of my best friends, and it was totally effortless. I think artistically we are the same. It’s like "skillful non-skill." The greatest advice that he’s given me was, “Whatever it is that you’re doing, don’t figure it out.” --Interview with Samantha Cornwell, January 2011
The core concept of now age is we're living in “ghost-modernism.” It's not really like post-modernism; it's beyond that now. It's gotten to a point where the past is just recapitulating itself through kitsch and nostalgia. Every new gesture is just an imprint of an old gesture. We're haunted by so many other past styles and tastes in so many ways. I'm interested in the creation of a new relationship to time, where it's not being recapitulated, but instead looking into the present moment and really seeking out music, materials, structures, people, fashion, and whatever is within this lens of the present. --Interview with Ric Leichtung, November 2011
I've always had a powerful sense of the space-- physiological, emotional, spiritual-- invoked by music. I've always used music that way in my life, using it to create, augment, and enrich experiences. I don't think of myself as a songwriter at all, because what I'm after is some distillation of that effect, creating environments with certain properties and relationships. So often those moments in music that have powerful effects on me are fleeting-- like an outro, or a couple bars right before the second chorus. I'm interested in evoking those spaces so that I can stay a while. --Interview with Michael C. Powell, September 2011
NNA Tapes' Matt Mayer & Toby Aronson
Matt: With harsh noise in general we both noticed a shift in the mid '00s. Like Toby mentioned, a lot of the dudes doing the harder noise started doing ambient, which seems like a total 180 shift. It created a lot of interesting results, where the noise influence would rub off on the ambient and vice versa, creating this cool hybrid. And now where we are in 2011, it's all become smeared together.
I feel like the pendulum has to swing back at some point. I’ve always really liked lyrics, and I’ve always really liked vocal stuff, and playing a lot and going to noise shows, I’ve felt in some ways unwelcome. There’s this unwritten rule saying, "You can’t use lyrics that people will understand." I thought there were supposed to be no rules. [Noise] turns into the most codified, regimented form of music, which is not what it should be at all. When Gowns first started off, some people didn’t know how to take us. They were like, "This band might be cool if they didn’t sing." I wonder if it's something about the idea of masculine, abstract sound experiments, and not allowing a range of emotions to come through. For a lot of people who are doing experimental music, at some point it becomes like, "I built this Max patch that does this." It's about the experiment, and the set of parameters. You’re supposed to be tuning out everything but your ears. --Interview with Samantha Cornwell, June 2011
Emeralds' Mark McGuire
We have always somewhat embodied our surroundings and our heritage in our sound. In Ohio, there’s a huge middle class, and a lot of people work their whole lives... there’s always a feeling of struggling, and the feeling that Cleveland's like the joke of the world... We're not a cultural mecca; it's not where all the big stuff's happening. There’s definitely a lot of people out of work, and there’s poverty: it makes people, it's a tough city. But people from Cleveland are proud that they’re from there... It's this kind of tense, dark, and industrial place that has a lot of hidden beauty and a lot to offer, and that comes across in our music. --Interview with Ric Leichtung, February 2011
I got an e-mail once after I was like, "Holy shit, I'm going on my first tour!" I put it on Facebook or something, and Dominick Fernow wrote to me saying, "Congratulations." He had just joined Cold Cave, things were happening for him, and he was like, "Best of luck to you, thank you for having the courage to succeed." It occurred to me that for so many people, it's very hard to feel okay with success, because success is not cool. It supposedly tarnishes your thing; it ruins little pockets of scenes and the self-importance that comes from thinking you're the only people in your town that are doing something. That's what stops a lot of really talented people from sharing their music and turning it into a career. --Interview with Emilie Friedlander, November 2011
With 2,175 posts in 16 months, you're bound to miss something. We've gone ahead and gathered some of our favorite tracks from now and yesteryear that didn't get much play, but deserved it.
Hubble: “Nude Ghost”
Ital: “Only For Tonight (Dubout/Saviour’s Love Megamix)”
The Rebel: “Prove It”
Today, the road comes to an end. We are saying goodbye.
Altered Zones was launched in July 2010 with the mission of highlighting small-scale DIY music from all over the world, and we couldn't be more proud of the work we've done together during this past year and a half. We've helped new artists on the fringes of experimental music find likeminded fans, we've thrown a series of amazing events, and most importantly, we've built a community of devoted listeners seeking new and relatable voices outside the sphere of popular independent music.
This site began as a tight-knit collective of 14 music blogs with a common goal, but as many of our original contributors moved on from their blogs to start labels, run venues, create zines, and make music of their own, that original group has become increasingly splintered. We love what we've built, and the idea of it remaining as a sort of time capsule of this particular era of music feels right.
We don't view Altered Zones closing as an end in itself, but rather the end of one chapter and the opening of another. AZ editors Ric Leichtung and Emilie Friedlander will contribute to Pitchfork, and will launch a new project together called Ad Hoc in 2012. In the meantime, Altered Zones will be signing off tomorrow and Friday with our favorite quotes, songs you might've missed, and albums of 2011.
Thanks to everyone who counted themselves as a loyal reader of this site-- you are who we built this for. Thanks to everyone who contributed-- it could not have existed without you! And thanks to Pitchfork for creating and supporting this site since its inception, and for making it all possible in the first place. Happy 2012. We'll see you all again very soon…
[Photo by Megan Mack]
By Emilie Friedlander
The musician, video artist, and perennial drifter James Ferraro first appeared in my life in the form of an idea, passed on by a college friend of mine who had spent a few months couch-surfing with him during a semester abroad in Berlin. We were sitting in his mother’s SUV, listening to a slowed down version of “We Are On The Race Track,” a minor chart hit by the ‘80s Jamaican soul diva Precious Wilson. James had gotten my friend in the habit of playing old vinyl ‘45s at 33 speed and dubbing signal onto reams of warped cassette tape, and I remember being transfixed for the first time by the sound of a pop song in slow motion. The singer’s muscular alto had transformed into a mournful, slothful baritone; the upbeat disco instrumentals seemed to sag under their own weight. It was like uncovering a second song, a second existence, that lay dormant in the first.
If he does not suddenly decide to fall off the radar completely, James Ferraro will be remembered alongside folks like Ariel Pink, R. Stevie Moore, John Maus, and Spencer Clark as one of the musicians who, at the turn of the 21st century, elevated the crackle and grain of low-fidelity recording to a field of aesthetic exploration. They claimed outmoded technologies like the 4-track and the tape deck as their own, and made the vocabulary of pop music and the preoccupations of the avant-garde seem a lot less incompatible than much of the previous century had implied.
The particulars of James Ferraro’s biography escape even those who have lived and worked closely with him, and he would probably be more inclined to tell you a fiction about his own life than a couple straight facts about his working process. What we do know about James is that he was born in Rochester, NY sometime in the mid-‘80s, and was raised by a father who once ran a heavy metal radio show and worked in the legendary instrument and pedal emporium in that city called House of Guitars. According to Todd Ledford, founder of the New York label Olde English Spelling Bee, an innate affinity for travel has prompted James to settle, consecutively and for months at a time, in San Diego, San Francisco, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Ohio, New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, San Diego, New York, Belgium, New York, Los Angeles, New York, and Los Angeles. Explaining his most recent change in location, Ferraro told AZ's Samantha Cornwell earlier this year that he wanted to try his hand at being a Hollywood action movie star. One more plausible explanation in circulation is that he moved for reasons of the heart; another that he and Ariel Pink are working on an album together.
Ferraro’s most iconic features are his short, fluffy afro and his missing front tooth, which he says he shattered with a BB gun when he was a kid. In his quarter century on this Earth, he has released some 25 albums, splits, and cassettes under his own name, 25 more as one half of The Skaters (his band with fellow sound collagist Spencer Clark), and countless others under various pseudonyms. He has no website, did not have a reliable phone number until recently, and has a bothersome habit of not showing up at his own concerts. Aside from the occasional tongue-in-cheek foray into straight-ahead pop-punk (as in 2010’s Night Dolls With Hairspray), James Ferraro’s muddy sound collages are as hybrid, unpredictable, and compassless as your typical drift down the information highway-- especially if your designated road markers are ‘80s radio rock, video game music, and campy b-movies of the Street Trash variety. What unifies his work is a consistent impression of overhearing somebody turning a static-y radio dial in the apartment next door-- of being struck by the familiarity of a strain here and there, but never being able to concretely identify any of it (I'm pretty sure Ledford once told me that Ferraro has never sampled other people's songs).
I met up with "the man with the moon-lit pompadour" in late October, a few hours after he had kicked off the first night of the Neon Marshmallow Fest at Brooklyn's Public Assembly. I was there to chat with him about his recently Zoned In Far Side Virtual LP, which, as Michael McGregor explains, pretty much pulls the rug out from under any descriptions of his work like the above. Ferraro's Hippos In Tanks debut is clear as a bell, constructed greatly from what sounds like cheesy MIDI presets, and melodic to an almost comic extreme. After finishing an interview with Elle magazine, he took a walk with me down to a small manicured park at the foot of The Edge, a massive, glass-paned condo complex on the Williamsburg waterfront. As actual condo pets trotted by on designer leashes, we talked about life in Los Angeles, far side virtual reality, and what was actually going on in his head when he recorded the LP. (Hint: Far Side is a record about 2011).
[photos by Coley Brown]
By Ric Leichtung
Prince Rama is a band that's widely respected in the underground for their high energy performances and inimitable sound. But even after being in the band for more than five years, songwriter and keys player Taraka Larson still feels that "people [...] often misunderstand us." One respected but in this case hilariously off-base critic called them the harbingers of "the real witch house sound" on the grounds that they actually sounded like witches (rly?). Taking a look at their artwork and press photos, you'll notice a few reoccurring motifs that would make a blog troll's mouth water: occult imagery, clearly staged photos, and maybe my personal least favorite thing ever, glitter (editor's tangent: have you ever hosted a glitter orgy and had to clean it up? Shit's impossible get rid of). There are tons of lol-worthy videos that've inspired legions of Tumblrs dedicated to making fun of things with similar imagery. Take that strong aesthetic and add lyrics delivered in an abstract, self-created language, and then pile it even higher with a self-made, epistemological philosophy called "now age." There's a lot of room for ridicule here; their idiosyncrasies walk a fine line between radically insightful and completely detached from reality. But trust me when I say that this band should not be overlooked. The key to understanding Prince Rama is faith; they will not enlighten the close-minded.
AZ: Your music has a lot of Eastern elements in it-- is this a conscious choice, or more an intuitive one?
Taraka: I feel like it's more like inner landscapes. To me, music is a very visual thing, and I visualize landscapes and environments for sounds to live in, and I feel that the regions that come out through the music are places that I have internalized in some way. The Eastern music even, it's like "Yes, I can see how that can be seen as like, Eastern music," but for me, it was the music I grew up with.
Nimai: Growing up, our parents loved a lot of super-psychedelic stuff. We listened to a bunch of Hare Krishna music. But in Texas, we were living in such a conservative, Christian town that it wasn't conducive to psychedelic, '60s rock at all. And so my parents-- they used to be hardcore hippies-- would play that kind of stuff in the car for us and we would just think it was normal music. Eventually, we were in junior high and we decided to love Hanson, Backstreet Boys, and whatever was popular at the time.
Taraka: It's weird looking back on it now; it was like these two extremes that I totally embrace now. It's like extreme Eastern/spiritual/psychedelic music and extreme pop on the other end of the spectrum and neither one discounted the other. I was really into both.
Nimai: But even the pop that we were listening to still had a higher message... "MMMBop" is like a way of measuring time. In an "MMMBop," you're gone; in an "MMMBop," you're not there.
Taraka: That's so mystical!! [snickers]
AZ: [Laughs] Pop's always found a way like that. With 2012 around the corner, I’ve noticed how many pop songs revolve around the idea of the last chance, which sort of alludes to an apocalypse approaching. Britney Spears’ “’Til The World Ends,” Usher’s “DJ Got Us Falling In Love Again”…
Taraka: It's always been there… I'm really into apocalypses. I looked up eleven different ends-of-the-world within the past 50 years, and the number-one hit songs that corresponded with each of those-- they're strangely connected. This was almost too good to be true: the number-one hit for this last one, May 21st, 2011 [the date of Harold Camping's predicted Judgement Day], was ''Til The World Ends." And some have these weird survival messages; on Y2K, the number-one was Faith Hill's "Just Breathe." Pop is a dispenser of mass consciousness.
Finding success this year with two sold-out pressings from Angus Maclise-- the boho lifer who called John Cale a chump-- Boo-Hooray is issuing a third Maclise LP, Dreamweapon II, as well as limited re-pressings of the first two records in the series. Dreamweapon II features Maclise and his wife Hetty on a number of sounds-- mostly organs, bells, drums and voice-- and was originally available only as a CD-R. All three pressings are limited to 500 unnumbered copies. --Dale W. Eisinger, Altered Zones
That phosphorescent groove bubbling below "Multiply" comes from Sun Araw's Cameron Stallones and Los Angeles bretheren M. Geddes Gengras, collectively known as deep-roots dancehall curators Duppy Gun Productions. The pair traversed Jamaica during their tropical collaboration with The Congos, and found time to record with a number of local singers and artists. "Multiply" comes from Dayone, a singer and fisherman from the Forum village outside Portmore, Jamaica. Video credits come from Astral Project's Lily X. Wahrman and Tony Lowe, who manage deep psychedelia through mundanity rather than the imaginary sublime, and seem bent here on disorienting viewers and playing with their technology-conditioned expectations: FULL SCREEN IS A MUST. --Dale W. Eisinger, Altered Zones
"Multiply" is B/W on a 12" with "Earth," by Early One. It'll be available November 29, here
A couple of weeks ago, we reported that Mike Collins' label Culture Dealer is accepting song-poem submissions for a new, limited cassette series. We couldn't resist, so we submitted our own that will soon find a home on a split cassingle with another, hopefully bizarre, submission. To channel the golden oddities of song-poems past, we arranged verbiage from some of the original Altered Zones contributors' posts to form the abstract poem that The Doobie Sisters Family Band-- a rotating cast of studio musicians assembled by Collins-- translated into an acid-washed shapeshifter that's worthy of both hip-twisting and cloud-gazing.
In the process of sending and receiving lyrics and artwork, I was able to ask Collins a couple of questions regarding the impetus of undertaking a project such as this. Besides citing Off The Charts: The Song Poem Story, he said, "I hate the idea of how many writers, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, etc. remain inactive because of self-consciousness, personal strife or lack of inspiration. That's just the whole idea for me. Before I really found my voice creatively, I was lucky to have a number of truly supportive close friends and collaborators, and my path now is to simply express myself and fuel the fire of others who might need an invitation to do so." If Altered Zones were a band, I don't know if it would sound like this, but with Mike Collins at the helm, it does. --Mark Craig, Altered Zones
We've provided the lyrics, and their source links for you after the jump. If you have $15, Culture Dealer is still accepting submissions
By Dale W. Eisinger
John Zorn is a complicated figure in the history of the American avant-garde. His performances are at times alienating, and on the whole dense. In the '70s, when he moved to New York and began making a name for himself as a saxophonist, composer, and founder of the performance art project Theatre of Musical Optics, he rejected much of the "cool" culture of his time. He flouted conventions of composition, performance, pedagogy, and promotion in order to retain total control over his work, and remains a linchpin of the sort of New York counter culture that is at once exclusionary and influential.
Zorn didn't dislike "scenes," per se, as he ran with very specific types of composers and performers-- Milford Graves, Bill Frisell, Arto Lindsay, Laurie Anderson-- in the Downtown Music movement of the '70s. Zorn was also instrumental in the rise of avant concert spaces in the city with his work at venues like Tonic and the original Knitting Factory. His performances, curation, and administrative work helped to sustain some of those first inklings of New York DIY. Currently, he's artistic director at Alphabet City's The Stone, a performance space he founded in 2005. His label, Tzadik, has released records from Merzbow, Mike Patton, Kayo Dot, and hundreds of other out and left-field artists since '95. Despite his underground ethos, his establishment accreditations are too many to list, and he's credited on more than 400 records as producer or performer.
But attempting to summarize or label the career of the avant-garde composer and multi-instrumentalist contradicts the spirit of his art. Zorn's been reluctant to deal with press over the years, saying we've done him no favors and caused him nothing but troubles. He's gone as far as asking journalists not to review his shows. As I told Zorn before this email interview, it was not our intent to paint him in false light, exploit his likeness, or make any assumptions of his work. I wanted to introduce him to a new set of listeners who may be unfamiliar with his unflinching autonomy and radical aesthetic sense. Zorn possesses a beautiful mind, one capable of elucidating his unique musical language for a younger generation of likeminded artists.
In what is intended to illuminate "the most important musical voices of our time," Zorn will appear at Columbia University's Miller Theater on Friday, December 9th as part of the space's Composer Portrait series. In addition to larger ensemble pieces, there will be four world premieres and one New York premiere of some newer compositions by Zorn, each technically demanding and written with a specific performer in mind: cellist Fred Sherry, violinist Jennifer Koh, pianist Steve Gosling, the Talea Ensemble, and conductor Brad Lubman. Afterwards, Zorn will play late-night organ improvisations at St. Paul's Chapel.
Pirako Kurenai and Kageo have been making minimalist guitar pieces together as Suishou No Fune since 1999, and with their latest live album, Bonsai No Ie, the duo's showing no signs of slowing down. Recorded in a concert held at Tokyo plant store, this pseudo-improvised standout is a nod to the somber side of Les Rallizes Denudes and later era Japanese psych bands that appeared on P.S.F. Records. --Ric Leichtung, International Tapes
Bonsai No Ie is on its last copies and is still available from 8mm Records
Former Skaters, Monopoly Child Star Searchers, Vodka Soap, and Pacific City Nightlife Vision Band member Spencer Clark is now going by Fourth World Magazine. "StarChild's Birth" is yet another track from his upcoming release for his own Pacific City Sound Visions, The Spectacle of Light Abductions. This one builds around a tenuous elastic loop until effervescent tides swell to an undertow. Clark explains: "It's the sound of a hybrid human-alien consciousness being transmitted through a satellite to the environment of earth." I'm glad someone has come to the public eye to confront this overlooked issue. -- Dale W. Eisinger, Altered Zones
The Spectacle of Light Abductions is available now via Pacific City Sound Visions
Since its debut earlier this year, Matthew Papich's Co La project has always exuded the exotic and the luxurious. Papich indirectly admits this, but his forays into the "New Anything" sound are all the evidence we need: fresh as a new suit, warm from soaking up the sun on some tropical yacht party, but always embodying a professional composure. A classy take on the sometimes bombastic game of electronic music where subtle re-inventions of the source material are allowed to roam freely, teasing us like the almost-nudes of each release's cover art.
With Daydream Repeater, the first vinyl full-length for NNA Tapes and for Co La, Papich extends this aesthetic to new peaks and makes more obvious the intriguing duality of his music. Because, even with all this talk of gentlemanly pursuits of epic proportions, Co La jams are raw as hell. While the ingredients are slick, the arrangement of them is usually hard-hitting in its simplicity. Bmore club's propulsion and pure energy are kept alive-- but in place of shouts, gun shots, and overt sexual gestures are the sweeping elegance of a cleanly cut Ronettes loop and classically Co La high-pitched vocal interjections. Even in territory where the dancefloor is a little less pronounced, like the off-kilter disco/dub stutter of "My Jamaican," there's a confidence in the material that empowers these recycled bits of culture to stand on their own. It's been Papich's game for awhile now, but after a hyped year of perfecting his craft, Repeater comes at the right time for him to make a definitive avant-luxury statement --Matt Sullivan, Altered Zones
Daydream Repeater is available now on NNA Tapes
Online electronic music magazine Resident Advisor recently enhanced its service to provide users with high-quality downloads directly from its charts. Furthermore, users will now have the ability to stream the majority of 'Top 50' charted tracks which are culled from about 30,000 tracks per month, all ranked by thousands of DJs from around the world. Patron your favorites here. --Mark Craig, Altered Zones
Maria Minerva and d'Eon just dropped their own versions of "Birds of Paradise" and "Hey Sparrow," adding to Peaking Lights' ever-expanding roster of top notch remixers that includes the likes of DaM-FunK, Main Attrakionz, and Patten, all of whom appear on the forthcoming '936' Remix LP. But if you're craving even more from Madison's best husband-and-wife duo, Peaking Lights are curating additional 936 re-workings by Damu, Sunless '97, Cadenza, and Doldrums available streaming at 936.fm. --Mark Craig, Altered Zones via Gorilla Vs Bear
The UK/Europe release of 936 drops tomorrow on Weird World, the same place you can pick up the limited '936' Remix 12"