A guide to adventurous sounds in 2018

By in Features

The year in experimental field recordings, genre anomalies and avant-garde music on vinyl.

Within the wealth of music and recorded sounds that make their way onto vinyl in a given year, there are certain works that catch our attention, with their irregular forms and alluring sonorities. Managing to take us below the surface of sound and encourage active listening in the face of ever-diminishing attention spans is no mean feat, but 2018 saw a host of artists and labels produce music that strikes out against well-established musical patterns.

Avant-garde, experimental, outernational – simultaneously useful and frustrating terms in their application and vague definitions. Yet, within these vast zones certain sources of inspiration that stimulate distinct approaches become apparent. Field recording, synthesis and sampling, genre destruction, the continually expanding use and complexity of software, alternate tunings, re-contextualisation, improvisation – these are just a few of the wellsprings that continued to inform music this year. It’s from these themes and footholds that this summary seeks to highlight a selection of releases from oft-overlooked artists who indelibly varied the palette of music in 2018.

World building and expanding approaches within field recording

As in past years, an increased engagement with field recording and sounds from outside the studio made for some memorable releases, and Felicia Atkinson and Jefre Cantu Ledesma’s recent long player Limpid as the Solitudes is one that comes firmly in mind as a collaged reverie of “living sounds”. Indeed Atkinson’s label Shelter Press continued to be an invaluable resource this year and delivered another particular highlight in Eli Keszler’s Stadium, which further developed his “world building” approach to percussion and rhythm. Well versed in improvisation and creating compositional blue prints from disciplines such as field recording and architecture, Keszler’s patterns here trigger all manner of evolutions and sounds from woodwind and keys.

Field recording maestro Chris Watson also released a rare effort on vinyl that saw his urban-environment recordings subtly channeled into Moog’s legendary System 55 modular synthesizer. Renowned as one of the key figures in capturing sound down to its acoustic minutiae, this release wasn’t particularly reflective of Watson’s back catalogue, but many releases this past year did see field recording as a raw material to be filtered into the likes of modular systems, or sampled and mangled within a host of increasingly complex hardware and software alternatives. Puce Mary’s The Drought is a worthy investigation in that regard, and Jonáš Gruska’s recent Zaburina takes inspiration from water and insect recordings in its digital synthesis and algorithmically generated pieces.

Celebrating their 15th birthday in 2018, the Sublime Frequencies label has a remarkable back-catalogue in terms of field recording and “extra geographical” releases, though this year’s highlight from their camp was a studio effort from Indonesian duo Senyawa. Unleashing a new branch of experimentation at the frontiers of traditional Indonesian music, Sujud, provided a visceral commune between sound and “tanah” (which translates from the Indonesian as soil-ground-land-earth). Ugandan label Nyege Nyege tapes also delivered a similarly astounding record with Kadodi, which bridged East African club music with a rite of passage ritual, as the percussion work of the Domadana Kadodi Performers paired up with a couple of electrified reinterpretations from local producers Bamba Pana and Sun C.

Genre anomalies

Emerging from a melee of genre, conventional song forms and artists who step sideways from traditional definitions, there’s always a few aural oddities to be found in an annual summary and Lolina’s The Smoke is one such record. A resoundingly odd listen that’s packed full of ear worms, the songs here feel dismantled, and reassembled in line with an idiosyncratic language of their own making- scrappy and frayed at first, only to appear more precise and uncannily deliberate as the record draws you in.

Eartheater’s Irisiri LP was another record that defied definitions, with Alexandra Drewchin as a sonic renegade, traversing a defiant aesthetic with a three octave, shape-shifting voice. Head to C.L.I.T (which stands for curiosity liberates infinite truth) or Peripheral for a dose of what this one’s all about.

Always hard to pigeon-hole, and a prescient figure in all manner of electronic music in recent years, Laurel Halo followed the distinctive vocal work and experimental pop of Dust, for six out-there instrumentals and a delicate electro-acoustic balance with the Raw Silk Uncut Wood EP. Gliding through dreamy frequencies or playing off a seemingly submerged piano on Quietude, this one’s certainly worth acquainting yourself with. Also of note is yet another turn from Halo that put her firmly back on the dance floor for a banging 12” single in collaboration with Bristolian producer Hodge.

On-grid and off-grid

Guttersnipe’s physical and “all on the table” approach to making a proper racket that straddles free-improvisation and raw power rock and roll created one of the years most unhinged records in My Mother The Vent. Decidedly off the computer music grid in their instrumental approach, there were of course many software driven works that quested for a relentless sound- Acolytes’ Rupture being a gem in that regard.

Venturing off the beaten path in terms of tuning, some of Catherine Christer Hennix’s compositions finally saw a vinyl release this year with The Selected Early Keyboard Works set from Blank Forms Records. An oft overlooked and pivotal thinker in alternate tuning and minimalism, this release gave a proper airing to three works for 1976, with further releases promised. The bad news for fans of alternate tuning and minimalism-cum-maximalism was that Glenn Branca, a titan of orchestral innovation for the electric guitar passed away this year at the age of 69.

Electro-acoustics and new contexts

Despite the prevalence of vinyl in these realms in 2018, there were of course labels that preferred other mediums. NON Worldwide is a label that springs to mind in terms of adventurous output and a year of digital releases- with one notable exception being Alex Zhang Hungtai’s excellent Divine Weight  which got a vinyl release this month, five months after it was put up for download. A label that did deliver the goods on vinyl however was Oren Ambarchi’s Black Truffle Records, which presented a host of important records, both new and old. Joe Talia’s latest LP Tint is a marvel of obfuscated field recording, percussion and analogue electronics and with new releases and a 4LP career spanning box-set from Alvin Lucier, those who love electroacoustic music and the inner sound of technology and objects were certainly done a good turn.

As a sound artist who has worked extensively to re-contextualise the guitar, Ambarchi’s own releases and collaborations this year were similarly top notch, with the hypnotic “Panama/Suez” somewhat overlooked. It was described as a “rare moment of guitar and techno in deep embrace”. Lucy Railton’s Paradise 99 similarly set a new context for strings, as she exploded the vocabulary of the cello in a ferment of collage, dissonance and non-linear narratives.

Finally, in line with this brief foray into the unconventional approaches that artists and labels took this year, the Freedom to Spend label deserves a shout out for its efforts to make “reissues with an ambiguous temporality that avoid the more common facsimile”. Seeking to provide alternate contexts for past releases, and explaining their process to us recently, the label’s ambition has created a distinct identity. This year’s releases were stellar choices, with Ursula Leguin and Todd Barton’s Music and Poetry of the Kesh and Rimarimba’s The Rimarimba Collection particularly essential.

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