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.