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
CMJ is finally here! While we couldn't be more stoked to present our own party at the New Museum this Saturday with Trash Talk, Eric Copeland, araabMUZIK, and Atlas Sound, among others, there's four other nights of music to behold. Read on to see the CMJ shows that you absolutely can't miss. --Ric Leichtung, Altered Zones
By Emilie Friedlander
John Maus didn't seem very eager to belabor the details of his biography when he sat down with the Altered Zones editorial staff in Brooklyn's McGolrick Park last month. The lo-fi militant and PhD candidate was wrapping up a national tour in support of his recently Zoned In third LP, We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, and ours was one of several interviews he was conducting that day before going to Glasslands to headline a sold-out show. Gesticulating wildly and speaking faster than most people can think, he dived into the theoretical profundities of his long-running solo project without looking back, seemingly disinterested in the kinds of talking points that make for colorful press releases and easy journalistic introductions-- his years teaching philosophy at the University of Hawaii, for instance, or what it was like being college buds with Ariel Pink.
Instead, Maus spoke of the revolutionary potential of pop music, and of the need for a generational musical language capable of answering to the economic, political, and social realities of its time. He insisted upon the independence of art and politics, but described genuine radical art as one that "anticipates a world to come." Peppered throughout his responses were references to RoboCop, Beethoven, and "singularities"-- a holdover from his study of critical theory that he was kind enough to spell out for us in layman's terms. "Philosophers [like Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben have wagered," he explained, that "there's this infinite multiplicity of singularities that aren't men or women or black or white or reds or liberals or gay or straight—they're such that they are. And importantly, they're always already with each other. They're separate, but they're always with." John Maus' wager is that his live performances-- with their spectacle of a singularity struggling to express itself through the objective musical material at hand --will incite the people in the audience to realize that they are not only irrevocably alone in this world, like a performer on a stage, but together in their aloneness.
There was something ironic about conducting an hour-long interview with Maus, chaperoned by a Domino representative with an eye on the clock. It wasn't just that he seemed to have way more to say that he could possible squeeze into our allotted time-slot-- or even that his critique of the music industry and its absorption, commodification, and neutralization of radical art seemed to be in direct conflict with the success that had brought him here. It was that his critique of this state of affairs revealed itself to be at the heart of his artwork itself-- and that interviewing him was like asking him to struggle with these contradictions out loud. John Maus is particularly good at this, and his insights on authorship, the political ramifications of lo-fi, and the state of music journalism today should speak to anyone who has ever put faith in pop music as a means of "breaking through."
AZ: So you've started playing a lot of shows. Do you like playing out?
John: How do you answer that? I don't want to be a crybaby. I'm not sure it's the best use of creative energy-- getting up on stage and doing that every night. But it's a chance, so I've got to be grateful for it.
[image by Max Capacity]
In celebration of one full year of Altered Zones, we're going back to where we began and observing our very favorite tracks of 2011 thus far. We pulled together all of AZ's contributing blogs' top picks and assembled a 25-song list of cuts that can't missed. --Ric Leichtung, Altered Zones
Balam Acab: "Oh, Why"
Bill Callahan: "Baby's Breath"
Clams Casino: "I'm God (Instrumental)"
Devin Gary & Ross: "Four Corners"
Dirty Beaches: "Lord Knows Best"
Ford & Lopatin: "Emergency Room"
Gang Gang Dance: "Glass Jar"
Holy Other: "With U"
Iceage: "White Rune"
John Maus: "Believer"
Julian Lynch: "Terra"
LA Vampires Goes Ital: "Streetwise"
Light Asylum: "Dark Allies"
Matthewdavid: "Like You Mean It"
Panda Bear: "Alsatian Darn"
Peaking Lights: "Tiger Eyes (Laid Back)"
Pure X: "Don't Wanna Live, Don't Wanna Die"
Purity Ring: "Loftcries"
Puro Instinct: "Stilyagi"
Sic Alps: "Do You Want To Give $$?"
Sleep ∞ Over: "Casual Diamond"
The Weeknd: "The Morning"
Woods: "Pushing Onlys"
A chaotic, frenetic energy is palpable in the air as a wild-eyed John Maus storms the stage in the black and white “Maniac” video, which is live footage taken by Ian Perlman from Maus's sold-out Brooklyn show at Glasslands. The feverish “Maniac,” from Maus’s 2006 album Songs, contrasts against the more measured, inexorable gait of his latest effort, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, which is streaming here. --Jasmine Zhu, Altered Zones
By Ric Leichtung and Emilie Friedlander
John Maus is first and foremost a thinker. A PhD candidate in political theory with degrees from CalArts and The European Graduate School, he makes more references in conversation to philosophers like Hegel, Heidegger, and Marx than to other musicians, and lifted the title of his third album from Badiou's "Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art". Like many great romantic thinkers of the modern era, he lives in a world of travesties, tortured by moral crises and a yearning for emancipation. We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, his debut with Domino-affiliate Ribbon Music, brings us, on the one hand, into a world of apocalyptic "dead zones" and "lockers," of never-ending rain and dead bodies discarded in the gutter. On the other, it is brimming with optimism and calls for change, shot through with liberation anthems with titles like "Quantum Leap," "We Can Breakthrough," and "Believer."
While seductively hopeful on the surface, mantras like "Keep pushing on… Pushing on…" and "We can breakthrough this!" are hackneyed and cliché, rendering the sentiment behind them not only impotent and pathetic, but tragic. His undeniably cheesy choruses channel limp pop songs and poorly written blockbusters; lyrics and melodies alike are chained to the language of a world from which he is trying to break free. But it's the conflicting feelings they evoke that make John Maus' pop culture recapitulations so poignant. In "Cop Killer," he uses Ice T's famous lyrics both as fuel for a political revolt and as a vehicle of irony, seeing as the man seriously lacks the street rep to back them up: "Let's kill every cop in sight!"
But Maus' songs are more than illustrations of his political and philosophical agenda; they sound good, too. He serves pop to audiences in an accessible, synth-revivalist fashion, without falling back on the potentially alienating experimental music clichés that one might expect from such an ideologically charged album. Whether he is conscious of it or not, John Maus appears alongside Ariel Pink at the forefront of a militantly low-fidelity, retro-centric practice that is rapidly becoming one the most popular musical languages in our millennial counterculture; we've called it hypnagogic pop for the lack of a better term, but its true nature has probably yet to be fully realized. While his work with timbre and texture is reminiscent of the Blitz Kids' new romanticism, he takes a good number of his cues from Medieval modes and Baroque counterpoint, evoking anything from the divine transcendence of Bach's divine sewing machine to the freshness of note combinations that have gone hundreds of years unheard. His songs are harmonically vertical and rigidly adhere to predefined song structure, which is the complete opposite approach of his leading contemporaries like Pink, Puro Instinct, and James Ferraro, whose work is compositionally horizontal and guided by the ever-abstract notion of "vibe."
At the end of the day, the album would fall seriously short without a harmonious synthesis of both his political and pop musings. Cerebral listeners will revel in the album's enigmatic ideology and structured, theory-based compositions, while casual indie rock consumers will be wooed by its lush sense of harmony and chic '80s sheen. Perhaps its most significant accomplishment will be to cause people from each end to dip their toes into the opposite pool, and in this, We Must Become... presents the perfect recipe for an excellent gateway album. While we doubt it's his goal, it's taken years of studying across multiple mediums for Maus to create an album with the potential to be embraced on such a large level. And whether he wants to or not, Maus could become an antihero for the masses.
Despite the rounded disco-bounce that pervades "Head For The Country," we are confronted with John Maus' conflicting, cold and matter-of-fact assertion that, "This is where a human being finds itself-- a locker." Describing a human being as "itself," as if it were a specimen being observed from afar, he provides a stark juxtaposition with detached, diagnostic lyrics set to a liberating disco beat. Maus has us dancing to a groove that proclaims our own entrapment, and the paradoxical awareness of our own estrangement from our wrongs: "Somewhere there is a crime being committed." His resolve-- to "Head for the country"-- takes on an almost Biblical significance, reminiscent of the hymnal "And The Rain." The accompanying video by Jennifer Juniper Stratford, the mastermind behind psych-fi show Multinauts, further enriches this picture by depicting a frigid, snow-packed country as the launch pad for Maus' imaginative space explorations. Amongst a burst of color, Maus repeats, "This is where a human being finds itself," but this time with an altered intention. We find the country could be represented as the ultimate escape of space, away from the trappings of the modern locker. In doing so, John Maus has cleverly made the country, usually the domain for rock and folk's nostalgic claims to purity and simplicity, a subject for a modern synth movement. --Daniel Gottlieb, Altered Zones
International Tapes DJs Luke Carrell (aka Simian Gibbons), Coco Zoabi, and Mr. Intl himself set Santos on fire last week while DJing at Prince Rama. This Monday, Intl Tapes will be pressing play all night long between performances from John Maus, Gary War, and Holy Shit. In case you haven't heard, Monday's like the new Thursday, so there's no reason not to rage on this night of hypnagogic OGs.
If you haven't seen J Maus(cis) before, you simply must. I haven't seen anyone put more into a performance than this man; the dude goes crazy and practically has a breakdown on stage. Gary War have also be killing it recently too, their Police Water EP on Sacred Bones is top knotch and totally flew under the radar last year. It's the type of album that, years from now, could be looked back on as a cult classic. But don't be surprised if you see something really special from San Francisco's Holy Shit later this year, the Myspace® page alludes to being signed to True Panther (Teengirl Fantasy, Ty Segall, Outer Limits Recordings), Gloriette Records (Nite Jewel, Ariel Pink), and Japanese label Big Love (Salem, Puro Instinct, The Samps). Plus, for all of you fashion nuts out there, Holy Shit has the most amazing t-shirts.
But everyone knows that no party is a party without an afterparty, which will star DJ blog duo Weird Magic, who's kept it goin' all night long with Oneohtrix Point Never, Gatekeeper, and Greatest Hits in the past. It's gonna be intense. --Ric Leichtung, International Tapes
John Maus just dropped his latest video with Multinauts director Jennifer Juniper Stratford. It looks like most of the videos on this website-- loads of VHS visuals, weird colors, static-- but this isn't your average drugged out image dump. "What the world doesnt know," Stratford explains, "is that it was made with some extremely rare analog video synthesizers and a motion control camera." So it's basically an Altered Zones wet dream. Stratford's work is face-meltingly beautiful, and serves as a really nice companion to the new romanticism of "Believer." A very special video from a very special little guy. --Ric Leichtung, Altered Zones
Update: Girl Unit has unfortunately had to drop out of SXSW due to visa issues. However, we're thrilled to announce that Montreal dream-pop artist Grimes was kind enough to fill in on short notice and will now be opening the showcase on Wednesday at noon. Her debut full-length, Halfaxa, dropped last fall on Arbutus, and if you haven't checked it out yet, you should really do that. You can download the whole thing here for free, and donate if you like what you hear.
Altered Zones is coming to SXSW, and we are basically throwing the party of our dreams. Now it might be our first year repping in Texas, but we're no strangers to the flood of options spread over those four days in March, where another crowded, ass-reeking backroom beckons you at every turn. We wanted to do more than just put some bands we like up on a stage. We wanted to do something that not only supports the artists we love, but also brings the visual aesthetic of our site into the real world. Ideally, something that lives up to our name.
So we thought about our favorite kinds of parties-- the ones you find yourself in at 3 a.m. on your last night in Texas. These are the parties this pilgrimage is supposed to be about, but which we're often too exhausted to embrace by the time they roll around. So instead, we're throwing that party on Wednesday afternoon, deep inside the dark, windowless, neon-blazing wolf den known only as 'ND,' a black box we'll have bursting with massive visuals, flashing lights, and fucking amazing music.
Taking full advantage of ND's potential for sensory overload, we've hooked up with Austin-based multimedia artists Tommyboy and VidKidz, who'll be casting mind-shredding live video genius onto the venue's eye-popping 30x20-foot, floor-to-ceiling HD projection wall. We can barely count the hours we've spent transfixed by these dudes' insane online video mixes, but we always come out the other side feeling like we just time traveled through an internet k-hole. It's something we're pretty sure everyone should experience at least once.
Like AZ itself, the transportive environment is just a visual extension of the music, and we could not be more excited that this party is being graced by performances from these artists who, to us, are among the most creative in the DIY underworld. Their music isn't just 'new' in the temporal sense, but truly new in the progressive sense-- artists we admire for their rulebook-burning approach and dedication to the advancement of the form.
Btw, we don't really believe in too much mystical shit, but we just realized this is our 1,000th post, and somehow that seems like a good sign. Just keepin' it weird, bros.
Wednesday, March 16th
ND @ 501 Studios
E. 5th + Brushy St. (map it)
05:00 John Maus
04:00 Puro Instinct
02:15 Sleep ∞ Over
01:30 Laurel Halo
+ Weird Magic DJs
+ Visuals by Tommyboy + Vid Kidz
Altered Zones previously reported that reclusive pop ecclesiastic John Maus was set to release his third full-length, We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves, on Upset The Rhythm some time this year. We also posted an unmastered rough cut of "And The Rain," leaked by Maus' own brother. This morning, we learned that Maus is in fact working with two separate imprints, and that the album will debut on June 27th on Upset the Rhythm, for distribution in the UK and Europe, and June 28th on new Domino sub-label Ribbon Music, for distribution in North America. Contemplate the philosophy of the sublime as you peep the cover art above, and get ready to pound your chest to the first official single from the album, "Quantum Leap." Tracklisting below. --Emilie Friedlander, Altered Zones
02. Quantum Leap
03. …And The Rain
04. Hey Moon
05. Keep Pushing On
06. The Crucifix
07. Head for the Country
08. Cop Killer
09. Matter of Fact
10. We Can Breakthrough
No Fear of Pop uploaded the (yet to be confirmed) first mastered, final version of a song from John Maus' We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, coming out in the UK on Upset The Rhythm. We recently indulged in Maus' stellar performances (twice!) a couple of weeks ago in Brooklyn and cannot urge London zoners enough to attend the two day Spaghetti Tree festival on April 1st and 2nd to see the man with Dan Deacon, No Age, and Ducktails. But until you see him in the flesh, the new minimalist symphonic jam "Quantum Leap" will have to do.
No word yet on who's bringing We Must Bcome the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves stateside, but it will be available in Europe from Upset The Rhythm
UPDATE: The track has been taken off of No Fear of Pop's Soundcloud, as it's "freely available - but apparently only in germany"? We hope to have an updated stream soon.
"It seems to me that there are three places you can stumble on [an idea for a song]. One, of course, is just that you have the fortune of an idea falling out of the sky fully formed. Another way is to sit at a keyboard, sit at an instrument and just fucking play around for hours and hours until you find something that kind of surprises you. It’s kind of like forcing that moment of inspiration to come. And the third way is by making a mistake. Like when you're in the middle of something and something gets put in the wrong place and it works perfectly."
-- John Maus in a 2008 interview with Zak Mering of Raw Thrills/Greatest Hits/Vital Caress/The Sweethearts, dug up from the Misshapes archives. We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves LP is out sooner than later on Upset the Rhythm