Favorites of 2017, Part 01

It's been a while since I've written about my favorite records of the year; in a past life I was a writer and editor for Pitchfork (it's hard to find track reviews, but if you look around you can find references to some of my news stories), and though I don't think I'd ever go back to writing, I often do miss music criticism. Given the fact that I have a bit of time during the holiday, however, I thought I'd write about a few records from 2017 that have stayed with me. If you like what you hear then please go support these artists by purchasing their records. 

Below is part 1 of 2; I'll post about Godflesh, Porter Ricks, and Octo Octa tomorrow. Enjoy!

Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory

A strangely genreless recording, and possibly my breakout favorite of the year. It's difficult to talk about Stetson without mentioning the J-word—saxophone is Stetson's weapon of choice—however the particulars of his playing as well as his chosen instrument within the sax family, the bass, bring him far outside the realm of what most people imagine when they think of jazz. 

I'm partial to any comparisons made to Aphex Twin and Autechre, which can be found directly on Stetson's own Bandcamp page. Personally, I hear echoes of Terry Riley, Evan Parker, Bill Laswell, Tangerine Dream, and Kevin Martin (AKA The Bug)'s criminally overlooked grind / industrial / dub group God. Perhaps most importantly, Glory is a rare album that forces me to recon with my own notions of category—I haven't been able to listen to it without thinking about how instrument choice unfairly dictates our perception of genre. 


Ben Frost – The Centre Cannot Hold

It's easy as a listener to forget about the space of a recording: in the case of most music made before the turn of the century, what we hear in the character of a sound is contingent not only on the performance, but on the relationship between the performer, the microphone, and the room they occupy together. The triangulation of those three elements, and our ability to suspend our understanding of distance between them, is part of what makes recorded music so transfixing. That relationship, however, is also quickly disappearing from our music—in 2017, anyone with a copy of Ableton and some technical know-how can record straight to computer and manufacture the idea of a room. Perceptually, it's a subtle shift that hides a radical departure in how we make sounds for the world to hear.

I bring this up because it seems that Ben Frost has this very idea in mind with The Centre Cannot Hold. Electronic music is ground zero for the negation of 20th century recording conventions, so the context of the album's creation—live in a studio armed with microphones to capture the performance—is a kind of radical choice in and of itself. It's telling that he chose to work with Steve Albini, a legendary musician and engineer who's well-known for capturing a specific, roomy sound in his recordings, and who also happens to be a decades–long critic of EDM and club culture at large. Albini literally makes himself known from the opening moments of the record—you can hear his voice say "we're rolling," and, importantly, you can hear the open reverb of his Electrical Audio studio when he speaks. 

The character of the studio itself is a major player in the aesthetic of the record: I know the sound of it well—many of my favorite albums were engineered there—but I can think of very few electronic LPs that throttle like quite like this. The result reminds me a bit of early Tim Hecker, but the space of the record is more akin to Throbbing Gristle, resulting in a transfixing combination of power electonics, ambient, noise, and disembodied techno. 



Alessandro Cortini & Merzbow

With the exception of Autechre, I own more recordings by Merzbow than any other artist. That's not saying much considering that I only have a small fraction of his catalog—roughly 25 out of more than 300 studio and live releases—though I'd still call myself something of a diehard fan, and his influence on my work has been enormous (I even named a track after Masami Akita on my 2015 release as Contretemps). 

Critics of Akita's work like to claim that his records are identical to one another which is, at best, a cynical take on the sonic possibilities of noise. On the contrary, what I love about Merzbow's catalog is that that there's so much variety within his body of work, and this particular collaboration with electronic musician (and Nine Inch Nails collaborator) Alessandro Cortini pushes heavily against the synthetic boundaries of his discography. Many of Akita's works like Hybrid Noisebloom and Pinkream are notable for their use of synthesizers and tone generators, however those LPs are also characterized by the relentless, punishing nature of Merzbow's other '90s works. Alessandro Cortini & Merzbow is a little different: it still contains plenty of Akita's trademark harshness, but it also boasts a much fuller dynamic range. Many segments have a far stronger emphasis on the bubble and clatter of modular synthesis than on what most associate with traditional noise, and a few passages border on relative calm.  

Hearing Is Seeing: The Influence of The Designer's Republic

In the last couple of years, I've had a few people jokingly ask me if I could possibly have a day job—5 albums in 30 months is a lot of output, and apparently people don't quite believe I could hold down a career in addition to writing this much music. It's true: I do indeed have a job that occupies 40-to-50 hours of my week; when I'm not working on City States, Modal Voices, Avvenir, or Contretemps, when I'm not spending time with my wife and our dog Bowie, I call myself a graphic designer.

My co-workers—I'm employed at a digital agency in Chicago called Isobar—often comment on the particular aesthetics of my work: technical, angular, retro-futurist, mathematical but oddly expressionistic. They might as well be talking about my Avvenir recordings, and the parallels aren't coincidental; if my main influence for the style of Avvenir comes from growing up on Autechre and Aphex Twin, then it shouldn't be a surprise to hear that I discovered graphic design while looking through the liner notes for the CDs of Warp Records, many of which were created by a Sheffield studio called The Designers Republic.

This was long before I had any sense that making electronic music was a thing that I might want to do—instead, I collected CDs voraciously, rare Aphex singles, out of print Cabaret Voltaire and Coil, imports by Zoviet France and Merzbow. For me, hearing electronic records was like listening in on an encoded signal that only a handful of people could receive, and the album art was the key. Or, to think of it another way, hearing and seeing the music were different ways of experiencing the same idea, two interrelated acts that completed one another.

I stole from TDR when I was 19. Sorry.

I stole from TDR when I was 19. Sorry.

A friend of mine from college turned me on to the fact that people actually did this for a living—making record covers—and the work of The Designers Republic was my inroad. I was 19, and over the course of my first semester in college my friends and I would spend evenings listening to Incunabula, looking at books prominently featuring TDR, David Carson, and the UK studio Tomato. One of my earliest college projects featured an appropriation of The Designer's Republic, a type spec poster featuring a recolored and blurred scan of Autechre's Tri Repetae liner notes (I got an A).

Their work is a continuing touchpoint for my design career; from the data visualizations I make at my day job, to the silkscreen prints I created back in 2013, to the desktop glitches I've been posting on Instagram as of late, the aesthetic sensibilities of Ian Anderson and company are all over the things I make.

Now, I've come full circle. Electronic music led me to design, and some 17 years later I'm looking at those same LPs as inspiration for my own recordings. After a decade of singing and playing bass in City States and other indie-pop bands, I started making solo electronic music of my own; starting with Contretemps in 2015, which is heavily influenced by Aphex Twin's SAW II along with the music of Fennesz and Merzbow, I shifted focus later that year to my Avvenir project, which borrows equally from Autechre's early, electro-inspired LPs and their later generative works. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the album art I made for those Avvenir recordings reflects the parallels of my visual and sonic preoccupations.

Three Avvenir covers: Linotype, Glyphs, and Natural Language.

Three Avvenir covers: Linotype, Glyphs, and Natural Language.

To reiterate a point I made above, as a listener I've always experienced the music and album art as two parts of the same whole. Now, as a maker of music, that notion is even more pronounced, and the themes I explore as a visual designer & musician are converging: how technology is reshaping our lives at a quickening pace, altering how we communicate, understand and misunderstand one another, how we remember, and how we interact with the world around us. To that end, I owe an awful lot to Ian Anderson and TDR for helping point the way to the career I have today, for shaping how I hear, and how I see.

Aphex Twin, Autechre, Björk: Influence on Avvenir's Natural Language

Natural Language, my second album as Avvenir, is out now, and I'm really excited to finally have it available for all of you to listen to. In many ways, it's a continuation of Glyphs, an homage to early '90s acid techno, with hints of industrial, glitch, and other styles that were bubbling up when I was a teenager. Is my look back to 1993-to-'95 just a little bit nostalgic? Sure, but my hope is that people will hear a convergence of styles that feels contemporary.

Moreover, in terms of my own progress I've sharpened the sensibilities of my first LP; where my Avvenir debut was very much a scattering of different techno subgenres, Natural Language is meant to fit together as a Capital-A album, conceived with a particular set of aesthetic and thematic throughlines in mind. And since I love talking about influence, I've put together a playlist of music I was listening to while composing this new record.

Once again, Autechre reigns: I can't deny that Tri Repetae was central to the aesthetic of Natural Language—caustic and alien, marked by flanged and distorted beats, stark melodies, and brief excursions into noise. But where even Tri Repetae's melodies sound machine-made, I wanted to give Natural Language a warmer, more orchestral spin. Aphex Twin's Donkey Rhubarb EP had a big impact in that regard, but Björk's Homogenic packs an even stronger melodic punch, an album featuring some of the most beautiful orchestration I've ever heard.

Industrial music is also a big reference. I hit my teenage years when the "3rd wave" of industrial came to pass, and often find myself following in the footsteps of groups from that era, darkening the melodic songs I write with bursts of atonality. Special shout-out to Neubauten's "The Garden": Natural's closer, "Humanism", is an unintentional riff on that song's orchestral melody. I was totally unaware of the resemblance until after finishing the arrangement.

Notably, the vast majority of Coil and Cabaret Voltaire's records are missing from Spotify (specifically The Snow for the former, and Plasticity for the latter), so not much of their works are included here. However, there were many days during the writing process where I listening to nothing but their respective discographies on shuffle.

For those who are unaware: Natural Language will be absolutely free through the end of November when you sign up for the Safety mailing list. Sign up now, and tell your friends!

Steve Reich, Tim Hecker, Merzbow: Influence on Modal Voices' Uncertain Designs

It's been a little over a month since the Modal Voices' debut LP was released into the world, and so far the response has been fantastic: the album received a glowing review via Ravedeaf, and lots of people I know are mentioning in passing that it may very well be the best thing I've ever made. I have to admit that I'm super proud of the record I wrote, and hope you enjoy it.

Purchase via: Safety  |  iTunes  |  Amazon  |  Bandcamp

I enjoy talking about the influences that led me to making the music I create, so to that end I put together a playlist of some favorites. The big one here is Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians, one of my ten or fifteen favorites of all time; I listen to it often, and after 20 or so years I'm still astounded by its melodies and unusual sense of structure. From that LP I borrowed several ideas—specifically, the notion of maintaining a consistent key and tempo throughout, and also the idea of splitting a single piece into several movements (which isn't unusual in classical music, but as a teen who mostly listened to contemporary electronic music, it was and still is a revelation).

Merzbow is fairly significant touchpoint throughout all of the records I make—for me it's fun to imbue an otherwise pristine recording of music with some static and distortion, but here the interplay between melody and noise is a critical thread in the composition. Lastly, I can't get away without mentioning Tortoise—even though Reich is probably the strongest reference point for Uncertain Designs, my way of finding his music was through the third Tortoise album, TNT. "Four Day Interval" is probably my favorite song of theirs, and it was because of that song that I started seeing Steve Reich's name referenced in record reviews and discussions of the band.

The full MV album is at the bottom of the playlist. Enjoy, and if you like the record I made, then sign up for the Safety Records mailing list, and please tell your friends about us!


Autechre, Squarepusher, Plaid: Influence on Avvenir's Glyphs

Glyphs, my debut album as Avvenir, is finally out in the world, and I couldn't be happier. This is my third solo project I've launched in just over a year (City States and Contretemps being the other two), and I'm very much enjoying this prolific period after years of slow, sometimes difficult music-making.

I'm not one to hide the influences on my work—just the opposite, I spend lots of time listening to other people's music, and I actually enjoy highlighting where I find inspiration (I talked about this at length during a recent interview with Impose). With that in mind, I've made a playlist of music that led me to the style of Glyphs. Note that the group closest to my heart, Autechre, is the only one here represented with three songs. In fact, the concept I started with for the sound of the record was to merge the electro-influenced style of their early work with the looser deconstructions of their mid- and late-period LPs. I'll very likely make a full Ae playlist sometime in the future, so stay on the lookout for that.

How To DJ Your Own Wedding (when you're a fan of strange electronic music)

A little over a month ago, I got married. It was a wonderful wedding—relatively small, with great food, and attended by close friends and family members we haven't seen in years. We had a bagpiper walk us out of the ceremony—he pipes for the band my grandfather was in for 40 years—and it surprised the hell out of everyone.

I was fairly convinced early on that we should take on the music and DJing ourselves. Eight years ago my close friends opted for the same, renting out a PA system and asking people to bring curated iPod playlists. I was way too excited to curate my own wedding to have anyone else contribute (though my wife, of course, had lots of great adds, like Pulp and Stevie Wonder), so I took on the duties in full, running the songs from a series of playlists on my phone, and just letting them run.

Not that I needed any indication during our engagement that I'd found the right person, but Michelle scored some serious points when she said okay, without reservation, to my suggestion of Aphex Twin's "Avril 14" as our aisle-walking song; she was also cool with Eno's Discreet Music as a pre-ceremony song. And the topper? She recommended that Bowie's "Sound And Vision" be our announcement song during the reception. It was perfect.

The full reception was four hours, so this is only a partial list of everything played; however, this Spotify playlist is in chronological order, so you'll hear the progression from mellow background music to dance-floor territory.


A Little Time: On Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream

In over twenty years of record collecting, there are only a half-dozen or so albums I’ve bought, sold, then repurchased at a later date. In each case I remember exactly why I got rid of them, too: some were reluctant partings due to a need for cash. A couple were about lyrical objections which I later resolved (or disregarded) in my own mind. A few more were sold because I was running out of space in my apartment, and mistakenly thought I wanted to do without them.

But Zeit by Tangerine Dream is the only album I bought twice because I’d had a complete change of heart about the music.

As a teenager growing up in the Chicago suburbs — a precocious but anxious kid who found solace in the the possibilities of experimental music — Zeit (translated simply into English as “Time”) seemed on paper to be a godsend. Its associations with the likes of German Kosmische favorites like Faust and Neu!, lauded in Julian Cope’s now-legendary booklet Krautrocksampler, ignited my imagination. And by the time I’d read online message board reviews affirming the lineage of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II and Oval’s Systemisch with Zeit, I was convinced of its perfectness, and on a mission to track down a copy.

Only thing was, I found myself completely unsatisfied with the record once I’d heard it.

Saw-toothed synth patches, 8-bit samplers, and reverb-drenched guitars created sounds that made sense to my 18-year-old mind. But cellos? The opening moments of the album found in “Birth of Liquid Plejades” — conjured from dramatic, legato strings — were too classical, too 20th century for me to find much of a link to the techno-futurist ambient artists of Warp and Thrill Jockey Records. And I certainly wasn’t given much latitude by the record’s length: well over an hour of long-form, rhythmless space is a lot to ask of even the most patient and adventurous listener, and after about 20 minutes I discovered that I simply couldn’t make my way through composition in its entirety.

For years, Zeit sat on the shelf of a large, jet-black media console until a sunny July afternoon just before my senior year of college, when I brought it to a buy-and-sell record shop along with a stack of other CDs, and Tangerine Dream’s third album exited my tiny corner of the universe.

Though I can recall the exact circumstances that resulted in my estrangement from Zeit, I’m a little foggy on what led to our reunion. I think I might have found an inexpensive used copy of Phaedra 7 or 8 years later — giving me cause to ask whether my initial assessment of Zeit had been hasty — and it wasn’t long before I’d tracked down the recording on Spotify, ready to give it another shot.

Upon second consideration, I was astounded. Had I changed, or had the record? Had the earth shifted under my feet? Though intellectually I understood the reasons for my first-time disappointment, I’d rather wished that my younger self had been ready for Zeit’s restless magnetism.

Today, in those cellos of “Plejades”, I now hear tragedy, and surprise, and sadness. Subsequent album tracks which I’d once glossed over — perhaps due to their increasing atonality — unfold slowly, a nascent universe, patient yet hostile. I look at that stark record cover — is it an eclipse? A black hole? — and I see the infinite promise of the world swallowed by the inevitability of death. It’s all there: the origin and the collapse, in one amazing record.

I spent this last weekend listening to Zeit after reading about Edgar Froese’s passing, and have found it difficult not to hear a funeral dirge, a tacit acknowledgement by Froese some forty odd years before the fact that he will be gone someday, that we’ll all be gone someday, that all the planets and the stars and space and music and possibility, it’ll all be gone. But I’m still here. And though I’m not sure that it was impossible for me to recognize and relate to the themes contained in Zeit as younger man, I certainly understand them better now. It only took me a little time to figure it out.