And just like that, another year draws to a close: and with it, we discovered a lot of amazing music. Today is the final Bandcamp Friday of 2021, and as such, we're wrapping up the year with some of our favorite recent music. Head over to Bandcamp and check out the astounding wealth of independent music it has to offer; and if you're looking for a place to start, here are six albums that have been on the top of our lists recently.
Inspirational Technicality, Emotionally Grounding: Arovane's Reihen
When listening to music, we have an obsession with structure held by time, be it metric, sequential, or any formative means to dictate a start and end point. It gives us a sense of predictability and control over how we respond and react to something, and the more popular of rhythmic music gives us just enough interest and unexpectedness to feel amazed by it. Taking a step back from measurable patterns as structure and allowing things to appear, grow, and die out asynchronously can be jarring to most, but when done right can be digestible, pleasant, and self-centering for the listener. Arovane implements this idea of removing rhythmic and metric synchronicity by showcasing evolving tonality, timbre, and settings in his brilliant album, Reihen.
Throughout Reihen, German for "rows", we are met with ideas that aren't lacking in rhythmic progression per se, but rather musical loops with less identifiable metric means and large gaps in between motifs, often filled by noise and pads with little to no transient information to discern a beat. Other ways this style of ambient and arrhythmic music is achieved is through Arovane's use of layering in sounds that fade in and out, be it pads, noise, or clicks—these offer instability yet form to the core source of sound that is pedal pointed throughout most pieces (pedal point, or pedal tone, is a technique in which a chord or tonal center is held throughout a specific amount of time/measures). The track "Sunter" truly is a great representation of lacking traditional motifs and gestures to focus more on the sonic setting, inconsistencies of looped material, and the shifts in timbre for each element.
Some other things to note are on choices in sound design from a mixing point of view, be it using tools to as the overall sonic characteristic or simply to grace certain elements for contextual purposes. One thing I found throughout Reihen is the use of filtering as a performative tool and not as much a synthesis tool. High and low pass filtering can be heard in every track, but implementation varies heavily, such as in the title track where we can hear brilliant usage of what seems to be envelope following for taming layers as a solo instrument comes in, or like in "Allure", when the filter is abruptly cut out halfway through to make you lose your footing in what might become monotonous. Another tonal tool is the variety of noise types found throughout, using hiss, tape-like noise, degraded and amplitude modulated tones that bring variety and interest to the already active instrumentation. Even the noise has a sense of instrumentation throughout these tracks via the use of volume, filter, quality and panning automation.
On a less technical note, Reihen truly encapsulates effervescence and translates it calmly through ethereal and otherworldly soundscapes, stippled with crackles and pops. To the unobservant, each track might sound similar to one another and offer no individuality, but if you listen closely, you'll find that every sound is placed quite intentionally. Each of the track names fit perfectly to the feeling in which it evokes—a quick Google translation will help those of us who sprich kein Deutsch—and each element takes you to emotional places that are open enough to let you be alone with your thoughts while engaging enough to keep your spirit exploring. I think both those of us who are and aren't musicians can take note of the beauty displayed in Arovane's work, showcasing a fantastic collection of sonically flowing works that invites you to not only look at music differently, but all art.
Guitar Recontextualized: Mark Clifford's Playback EP
Earlier this year I resumed seriously playing the guitar after a break of roughly five years, and as I've been rediscovering my passion for my first instrument, I've been keeping my ears open to discover interesting music combining guitar and electronics in compelling ways. I feel that music created with guitars has been traditionally governed by advancements in technique and musical composition—concepts which can certainly exist independently but often coexist and inform each other. But in the 21st century, I feel like the third pillar supporting guitar-based music is technology, whether it be in the form of the incredible software and plugins available for modeling and processing guitar tones, or the groundbreaking effects pedals and Eurorack modules on the market today. It's incredibly inspiring to live in a time where exciting tools can inform new techniques which spur musical ideas, or augmenting a riff or motif with a cool effect or processing system to push the boundaries of what can be done with the guitar.
Mark Clifford's Playback EP originated from studio sessions recorded way back in 2004, but the resulting tracks weren't released until October of 2020. While some editing work occurred in the weeks following the sessions, Clifford states that "the tracks were kind of shelved with the intention of eventually finishing them as an album but this was never fully realised." Though this release doesn't achieve the original vision of a finalized and polished album, it's full of evocative guitar-playing enhanced and transformed by digital processing. Simply stating that a plugin from GRM Tools was used to manipulate the stems, the result is time-stretched, spectrally-morphed guitar playing a few steps removed from how it was originally captured.
Perhaps providing the most revealing glimpse into how Clifford transformed his guitar playing, simply compare the two versions of "Blackened White," where the one titled "(Source)" is the original, slightly feedback-laden guitar track as it was recorded in the studio. With some digital magic, the processed track sounds like a guitarist tumbling through an interstellar aluminum pipe, traversing dimensions and transforming its spectral identity into something kind of like a guitar but with an otherworldly element added to it. Other tracks like "Blackened Blue II" break away from guitar timbres entirely, venturing into total experimentalism with crumbling textures and sound collages which could be assembled from seemingly any source material. At the other end of the spectrum, a track like "Binned" is very recognizable as an overdriven guitar, but with layers of swelling chords and suboctave drones throughout.
Despite the fact that it was made over 15 years ago, Playback EP demonstrates some of what I've been yearning for in modern guitar music. Even if these tracks never achieved their final form, they certainly serve as a phenomenal reference point for anyone looking to extend the capabilities of their instrument.
Intimate Evolving Realities: Onsy's MetaConc
Mostafa Onsy is a Cairo-based producer that creates a textural journey through glitchy ambient, deconstructed bass, and entirely unique electronic compositions with MetaConc, out on Quiet Time Tapes. Throughout the album there is a layer of very satisfying pops and resonant bubbles that sound like gentle rubbing pebbles in a quiet room close to your ear. There is a sense of intimacy that nicely contrasts wide reverberant spaces lilting overhead and in the background. Like a close whisper while on a busy street, MetaConc brings you close, delightfully oblivious to the surroundings yet blending in perfectly.
Constructing a world that is familiar and strange, the sound design is spectacular with sounds that exist in the uncanny valley between organic acoustic elements and modal synthesis often morphing between the two hillsides. This type of change is best exemplified on the tracks "Sevven" and "MetalBeams," where nearly ASMR sounds gently caress your cochlea and guide you to a lysergic dimension of alien exploration. I appreciate the dimensional quality to each of the pieces and the care taken in creating distance is not to be overlooked: each track is a carefully sculpted diorama that depicts distinct-yet-related scenes. Each element is carefully placed and spaced while providing a satisfying vignette.
When listening to or thinking about this type of album, it's best to view each track as a slice of a reality that is constantly evolving and continues to exist long after you stop listening. We merely peer through a window to see what could be possible and how existence could shape with a different series of principles. "Artifacts" exemplifies this by offering us a true journey through its reality starting very close and expanding with measured grace. "K202" frames the album in a way that makes it appear like a legend: something to help us contextualize the album as a series of loose rhythms and hypnotic patterns. The other tracks also contain hints of this rhythmic base with "Ajjax" feeling like a late-album counterpoint to "K202" giving us all a reminder that there is a sense and order to this chaotic cloud, you just have to be tuned in.
Murky Evolving Psychedelia: Crazy Doberman's everyone is rolling down a hill
Every once in a while, an album comes along that is...simply difficult to classify. I was happy to recently find such an album in the peculiar-yet-engrossing (here comes the marathon) "everyone is rollin down a hill" or "the journey to the center of some arcane mystery and the entaglements of the vines and veins of the cosmic and unwieldy millieu encountered in the midst of that endeavor" by Crazy Doberman. If the novelty of the title alone isn't enough to draw you in, I can confidently say from the other side of its album-length journey that the title is...well, quite apt: it's a hazy, evolving, murky journey through noisy soundscapes, kraut rock-like rhythms, melting waltzes, and loose james just as reminiscent of Miles Davis as they are of Gong, This Heat, Boredoms, or Tortoise.
Playing out like a continuously evolving journey, everyone is rolling down a hill doesn't have as many distinct stand-out moments as a more typical album. When approached with patience and an open ear, however, it becomes an ever-evolving wash of noise with tiny universes of sound and music inside. It's almost like drifting down a river: your immediate surroundings are constantly changing, but the sky and the water are more constant, slowly meandering forces. The immediate sonic materials in everyone is rolling down a hill continuously change from clanging bells to radio static, free jazz noodlings to fuzzed-out guitar, primitive rhythms to city-like clatterns of noise...but all the while, it maintains a sense of continuity, feeling distinctly planted in the same universe.
If you have an ear for '70s-style psychedelic prog, post-rock minimalism, outer space free jazz, and long-form, continuously evolving jams and noisescapes, this is a journey well worth taking. A recent review from a Bandcamp supporter simply reads "Oh Wow...I accidentally tripped up a cosmic stairwell and luckily there was no floor..." and frankly, I feel like that's a fair summary. Get ready to jump off: once you do, it'll cease to be clear when and where you'll touch down until it's already over.
Dislocated, Ecstatic Jazz: Landon Caldwell & Flower Head Ensemble's Simultaneous Systems
As if ambient, evolving soundscapes were a theme of this month's Bandcamp picks, we conclude with Simultaneous Systems by Landon Caldwell & Flower Head Ensemble, a spacy jazz album that ranges from delay-laden saxophone improve to organ & synthesizer drones.
If Simultaneous Systems has a drifting, connected-yet-not-connected feeling about it, well, that's not entirely unintentional: according to the album's liner notes, it was recorded remotely, with each musician tracking to "a morphing tone" independently of the other players. With musicians based in Indianapolis, Asheville, San Francisco, and Chicago, the sound of the album was crafted by "bandleader" Landon Caldwell, who compiled the musicians' independent recordings into an intuitively evolving, cohesive whole. Playing out like many musicians orbiting a central point not quite in sync with one another, it's a beautiful, peaceful, and somewhat chaotic take on the feelings of isolation we've all no doubt experienced in the last year and a half.
In fact, the last year has seen many different approaches to remote collaboration...but the approach taken by Caldwell and ensemble is quite striking: provide everyone a common frame of reference, and then compile their distinct individual responses into something observable all at the same time. This way, time and distance are dissolved...and suddenly, we can see the course of our own lives' and others playing out simultaneously yet independently, understanding that we are all affected, on some level, by common circumstances. And while we all react to those circumstances differently, the repercussions of our reactions can still harmonize and reinforce one another, almost like a form of cosmic empathy.
If you want to sit back, space out, and absorb a somewhat more upbeat take on the conflict between togetherness and isolation, this is a welcome and highly recommended listen.
New Beginnings: HMOT's This Music Greets Death
HMOT (aka Stas Sharifulin) is undoubtedly one of the most fervent and remarkable representatives of Russia's diverse electronic and experimental music scenes. Combining his own multifarious artistic practice with an active role as a label-head/curator of Klammklang, which he has been running with his partner Julia Sharifulina for several years, as well as teaching duties of the Sound Art & Sound Studies program that he co-initiated at the HSE University in Moscow, Sharifulin's output is rather far-reaching. With such a deep involvement in the cultivation and active support of fellow artists, solo releases from HMOT do not happen as often as many would have liked, but once Stas does release new material it is always an exciting event. Thus the October release of This Music Greets Death, which technically is also the artist's first official long-play album, certainly warrants a celebration.
A lot has changed since HMOT's previous EP Permanent Imbalance (2018) both personally for the artist, and of course globally, and that transformation is quite evident upon the first few minutes of listening to This Music Greets Death. Even comparing the two records together in itself doesn't feel right, as each one is evidently reflective of a different time and a different state. However, even on the surface layer, trying to draw some parallels between the two releases almost instantly reveals the artist's radical transition from scattered-tempo dark post-club aesthetics to a much more optimistic, dreamy, and textural mixed-genre sonic milieu. While such a context is not per se evident from the rather grim-sounding album title, as the artist describes in the liner notes of the release, "death" here signifies not an end, but a new beginning.
A distinctly beautiful aspect of This Music Greets Death, though, is that despite the overall light and tranquil quality of the music, it does not default to a naive meandering that ambient releases occasionally fall victim to, but bears a distinctly dystopian undertone. It offers a quiet acknowledgment of a strange point we have come to in our human experience, and openly wondering about the direction that the vector is aiming at...plainly and cogitatively, avoiding impulsive judgments. In the opening track "Revolution 0", one of Stas' collaborator's on the album Rupert Clervaux calmly states "...Let blood be blood. Let it forge its own legacies by nourishing muscles into new movements, by priming lobe-sided hemispheres for receptive imagination...", so contemplating a natural self-paving path towards the future...whether we are in it or not. A similar message can also be extracted from the beautiful and very playfully drawn album cover filled with colorful multiplexity of tiny creatures—an image reminiscent of early-stage evolution as if life restarts itself from the very beginning.
Clervaux is not the only guest-collaborator on the record, in fact, nearly half of the compositions feature contributions from other artists including Julia SharIfulina, Nikolay Kozlov, Zurkas Tepla, and Perila. This diversity of unique artistic voices merge or perhaps are artfully molded together into a singular sonic narrative that, although it can easily be enjoyed in an unfocused state, is much more rewarding when it is given full attention.