Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best Of 2019: Electronic


Even though I attempt to craft my posts to reflect my listening throughout the year, I heard way more electronic music than I wrote about this year. Something to work on for 2020! However, four albums that could easily fit in this category, Thom Yorke's Anima, Daniel Wohl's Etat, Drinker's Fragments, and Elsa Hewitt's Citrus Paradisi, were in my Top 25, so make sure you catch up with those ASAP. Now, on to all of the plugged-in things I've waited to tell you about, from ambient excursions to more aggressive explorations. At the top is a playlist so you can listen while you read - if you haven't already beaten me to these stellar records, I hope you find new worlds of transporting sound within.



Fennesz - Agora If you read the backstory, about Christian Fennesz losing his studio and moving all his gear back into the bedroom of his Berlin flat, you might expect something spare and lo-fi. Spare yes, with slowly building slabs of sound created by his guitar, laptop, field recordings, and the human voice. But also sonically magnificent, with rich, enveloping bass and sparkling highs. The approach is mostly ambient, but when the elements of melody emerge on Rainfall, it hits like warm sunshine. One imagines Fennesz's editing talents are as good as his recording skills to arrive at these four perfectly calibrated tracks. Let's hope we don't have to wait another five years for the next one! Note: Fennesz is on tour and will be appearing in New York on March 14th as part of the Ambient Church series - should be quite a night.

Seabuckthorn - Crossing Here we have another master of the guitar + electronics micro-genre, except Andy Cartwright uses mainly acoustic instruments to make, lending an organic feel to his soundscapes. Crossing comes just a year after the excellent A House With Too Much Fire and finds him moving away from the epic towards the gently hypnotic. There’s still some drama here, especially when uses a bow to create flanging shafts of sound. Cartwright is just one of the most singular musicians working today and I highly recommend finding him in his niche. 

Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan - New Rain Duets I had to do a Google to confirm that this is that same McCaughan who leads Superchunk and founded Merge Records - indeed, it is! He must have been developing his synth skills in private as I never would have expected him to be such a sensitive partner for Lattimore’s harp. That instrument is the star, however, and the atmospherics and treatments amplify all of its glittering qualities, so surely expressed by Lattimore’s deft hands. The result is simply lovely. 

Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima, & Satsuki Shibano - FRKWYS Vol. 15: serenitatem This series creates meetings of the minds that usually have me wondering how they could have ever been thought of, much less executed, such as the classic collab of California electronic gurus Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras with Jamaican harmony trio The Congos, which came out in 2012. This one is more of a straight line, with Visible Cloaks (Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile) displaying the influence of both Japanese ambient masters on their sublime Reassemblage in 2017. But just because it makes sense on paper doesn’t mean that serenitatem is any less surprising in how gorgeous it is.  In fact, even more so than any of their individual achievements, this album arrives at what seems to be a form of chamber music, one in which a collective memory or dream of what that could be provides the guiding force. It just sounds right, as if synthetic and acoustic instruments had always coexisted and there was no higher state of listening than to hear them together. Just fantastic and a new landmark in this remarkable series. 

Arp - Ensemble: Live! That exclamation point suggests that following up last year’s excellent Zebra (#18/25) with a live album seems to have surprised Arp mainman Alexis Georgopoulos as much as it surprised me. But those songs translate marvelously in this studio session performed by him and four other musicians. There are also new songs, giving us a snapshot of Georgopoulos’s methods almost as a work in progress. While Zebra remains an artistic peak for him, the delicious noodling here hints at new buds about to blossom on his creative vine. 

Daniel Lopatin - Uncut Gems Original Soundtrack I can’t tell you how someone who hasn’t seen this high-intensity movie would experience this soundtrack. But I can easily say that Lopatin (who usually records as Oneohtrix Point Never) made an enormous contribution to the film with these rich, pulsing, and occasionally bombastic tracks. Best thing he’s done and maybe he should borrow the emotional narrative from film more often. I doubt you’ll be able to turn it off - just as you can’t look away from Adam Sandler’s astonishing performance. 

Adam Cuthbért & John Adler - Scarlet Rising Moon Speaking of soundtracks, someone hand these two a script, STAT. Adler’s gleaming trumpet tells stories all on its own, and supported by Cuthbért's analog synths and dense beats, it’s a gripping tale indeed. Paging Blade Runner 2075 - your score awaits you. Until then, I’ll make up my own interstellar epics as I listen. BTW, if you buy the nifty USB edition, you get 14 further minutes of this stuff plus a variety of intriguing extras. 

Elizabeth Joan Kelly - Farewell, Doomed Planet On her last album, Kelly was seeking escapism from the grind of long lines at the DMV. This time around, she has bigger problems on her mind. If that moment of exile comes, I can imagine watching the big blue marble disappear in the porthole while listening to her loopy melodicism and watery textures, which brought both Eno’s Apollo and David Torn’s guitar to mind. By the time we get to the chillier confines of Cosmonaut Chorus, however, our current home, with all its flaws - or more precisely, flawed inhabitants - starts to seem a little more welcoming!

Caterina Barbieri - Ecstatic Computation The title gives a hint of Barbieri's retro-futurist approach, which finds her putting Buchla modules through their paces to make melodic and immersive pieces that make the idea of synthetic music seem brand new all over again. The ecstatic part is maybe a reminder that electricity lives within us - as do mechanics - making for music that is strikingly human.

Suzi Analogue - ZONEZ V.4: Love Me Louder Speaking of ecstasy, whenever I can stop moving to her music, I sit in wonder at how she takes such simple elements - a kick, a snare, some pinging keyboards - and assembles them to create songs that are wickedly kinetic. Analogue occupies a wonderful *zone* all her own, adjacent to hip hop, r&b, and dancehall, but 100% electronic. Even such collaborators as RP Boo and Mike Millionz become mere ghosts in her machine - or fuel for the fire that will burn long after these tracks are ringing in your ears. P.S. Being that this is "The Audio/Visual Moodboard of Suzi Analogue," I would be remiss if I didn't point you in the right direction for some fun videos.

Hyperion Drive - Hyperion Drive This is a new collaboration between some old friends, Alice Tolan-Mee and Ethan Woods, who sometimes performs as Rokenri. This is a bit of a switch from the "chamber-freak-folk-tronica" I enjoyed on 2018's Mossing Around EP, being altogether sleeker, synthier, and sexier than that earlier collection. Tuneful, too, and unafraid to be just a bit weirder than the average electro-pop. Be the first on your block to own the cassette - unless you live on my block ;-).

Miro Shot - Servers This collective germinated in some of the ideas - both sonic and philosophic -  put forth by Roman Rappak when he was in Breton. Combining catchy melodies with dense electronics and lyrics that inquire about how technology, globalization, and our struggling planet serve to simultaneously bring us together and drive us apart, the four songs here are also part of a bigger plan to bring VR and AR to the concert experience. So far that has only happened in Europe, but this Breton fan doesn't need bells and whistles to be damned excited about what I've heard so far. More to come in 2020. Join the Collective - you just may find yourself contributing to their next video, as I did to this one.

Carolina Eyck - Elephant In Green/Elegies For Theremin And Voice/Waves (With Eversines) Eyck marked the centennial of the theremin with three releases giving an overview of her trajectory as she develops a repertoire of songs and sounds that combine her bell-like voice with the instrument. I had the privilege of seeing her in concert, which not only exposed me to her uniquely engaging stage presence but also gave me window into the structure of her music. While I'm not as taken with this direction as I was with her stunning collaboration with ACME (11/20, 2016), she's still doing something melodically, sonically, and emotionally that I can't find anywhere else.

Emily A. Sprague & Lightbath - full/new  While I've been familiar with the RVNG label for some time (see FRKWYS above), I only recently became aware of their space on the lower east side known as Commend. When I went there in November to see sets by Adam Cuthbért and Phong Tran I found a jewel on Forsyth Street, a small record store and performance space perfect for intimate performances like the one captured here. Sprague is also the singer-songwriter behind the charming Florist but has been traveling into ambience for a couple of years. Beautiful stuff, too, with stretched out chords supporting outgrowths that hint at the melancholy song-craft of Florist. Lightbath, the project of Bryan Noll, sparkles with the underwater hypnotism of early Eno instrumentals, which means I swoon as I listen. I think you will, too.

For more goodies in this vein, dial up my Of Note In 2019: Electronic (Archive) playlist and follow this one to see what 2020 will bring.

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