Free Radicals is THUMP's column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they're meaningful.
Electronic instrumentation offers near-endless possibilities to experimentalists. Over the course of this year, I've written in this column about hazy beatmakers who use geographical signifiers to interrogate rising tides of nationalism worldwide; about noise producers adopting classic rock tropes to create a newly warped Americana; and about a host of composers who are remapping everyday experiences through the use of musique concrète techniques. Existing at the vanguard of music technology, music like this offers opportunities for producers looking to push toward new sounds, forms and ideas. Below are 25 of the best albums that subverted conventions and rewired synapses.
Matt Carlson, the synth-tweaking half of clarinet-and-electronics duo Golden Retriever, took some time on his latest solo effort to study the tenuous relationship between modular electronics and the human voice. The result is a stream of synthesizer-scarred syntactical experiments that can feel like gibberish, but under intense scrutiny reveals complex, overlapping structures—like the sound of Microsoft Sam slowly learning linguistics.
That their debut LP features two nonsensical backronyms as its title is just the first sign that N.M.O.'s debut LP for Diagonal is a clever nest of club quips. The duo folds electro refuse and masonry-tough percussion scraps into abstract shapes that sound like the aural equivalent of an industrial origami or a pile of garbage, depending on your vantage point. The double-LP version is deliberately pockmarked with jarring locked grooves in the middle of the track—just a few more slapstick pitfalls for unprepared listeners to get trapped in.
The gentle EVN feels like a grab bag of meditative genres—flickering drone, swooning new age, LA beat scene-ready boom-bap—but the pieces are united by their feeling of hopefulness and cautious ascension. After the treatment for a spinal injury left her bedridden for most of 2015, the Harlem producer and composer VHVL made a collection of ambient miniatures that feels like a sigh of relief.
According to Discogs, Rashad Becker has been responsible for mastering nearly 1600 records since 1996, and it's hard not to hear the effects of that intense listening on his intensely programmed solo work. Music for Notional Species, Vol. II picks up where the first installment left off in 2013, building synthesizer scrap heaps to the heavens with all the intricacy and technicolor beauty of a game of Tetris that you're doomed to lose forever.
Live in Paris, Inga Copeland's debut LP under the Lolina moniker, was originally billed as a recording of 2015 audiovisual performance in the French capital. But the album's credits suggest otherwise, saying that it was "written-by, produced, and mixed by Lolina in London." As xenophobic rhetoric swelled in Britain and fueled the country's vote to leave the European Union over the summer, the record's complicated relation to place felt like a commentary on the rising tide of nationalism, both in England and abroad.
She interrogated our traditional understanding of the way that we understand things—like records or people—to be a product of the contexts in which they were created. With every foggy synth line and pinched pop structure, we wonder, would it even mean anything different if music this alien was made in Paris or London? How would that change the way it sounds? What does it mean to be from somewhere?
Wreck and Reference have always been good at conjuring an empowered sort of depression, and Indifferent Rivers Romance End is the L.A. noise-metal merchants' most confident statement yet. It's a headlong dive into sickly synthesizers, black metal rot, and strangled post-punk vocals, with a lyric sheet that welcomes sickness, death, and the void with open arms. You're left with the feeling that giving one's self over to the darkness can constitute its own weird form of empowerment—or, as "Languish" puts it, a path toward beauty, a path toward blindness."
After accidentally picking up a book about drone warfare—thinking it was a tome about drone music—Destruction Unit guitarist Jes Aurelius constructed Goofin' Drones as as a way of connect the two. Sourcing audio from code used to hack, destroy, or otherwise disrupt the quadcopter crafts that the U.S. government uses for surveillance and combat abroad, Aurelius constructed this harrowing tape as a statement against "death by remote control." As you might expect, its gestures are desolate, sudden, and unforgiving.
In a far cry from the placidity of the Eno album that gives this release its title, Chino Amobi's brand of Airport Music blows nervous inner monologues to PA announcement volumes and creaks like mangled steel girders. The NON founder's work often concerns the ways in which marginalized people interact with invisible power structures, and it's hard not to read this release in the same way; its deeply anxious atmosphere is a compelling reminder of the reality that airports aren't peaceful—or even safe—places for everyone.
The New York-based composer/vocalist's past records have favored weightlessness, exploring the emergent rhythms and harmonies inherent to her vocal looping process in zero-g. But Will feels heavy, dense, and full of conflict—each Moog sequence feels like a tractor beam, dragging her through space rather than drifting aimlessly.
Steve Hauschildt told me earlier this year that his work was in part a "quiet commentary" on the idea that "there's actually no way to escape chaos, because we inhabit and experience an entropic universe." You can feel Hauschildt grappling with that degeneration on Strands, a collection of quietly contemplative synths that are grounded by a puttering mechanized energy. There are things in this world that you can't control, but Strands makes it feel like you can.
Frederikke Hoffmeier's Puce Mary LPs all feel like deep descents into industrial underworlds, but the brief moments of beauty on her third full-length for Posh Isolation—like the airy background of "The Temptation to Exist," or the tonic organ drones of "Masks Are Aids Too"—make the trip all the more memorable. It's a trip to hell, but via the scenic route.
Recorded in fits and starts in three different cities, John Elliott's latest release as Imaginary Softwoods is a rarities collection of sorts—compiling four years' worth of ostensibly unconnected work into a tape-warmed tapestry of sequenced ambience. But you wouldn't really get a sense of that piecemeal construction without that backstory on bandcamp. With its sagging, waterlogged analog synths lines and hushed spoken word, this one's pretty unified in sound and spirit, shot through with the wistful discontent that breathes life into so much of the world's best synth instrumentals.
Both with Good Willsmith and on her own as TALsounds, Natalie Chami's well versed in making spur-of-the-moment gestures feel carefully plotted. Lifter/Lighter was recorded live with no overdubs, but you'd never guess it from whirlpool loop chaos of tracks like "Close My Eyes." For music that has its roots in improvisation, it feels tight, as though Chami were composer forced to work in real-time. As her pieces have gotten more complex, they've become an increasingly precarious balancing act, which makes the tremendous beauty of Lifter/LIghter all the more moving.
Two electronics revolutionaries collide on this subtle exploration of remorse. The album's two side-long pieces are made up of slowly droning electronics and guitars, and each bears a evocative title that gestures at the lovelorn sorrow that digitalist ambient recordings like this sometimes soundtrack. It's a wholly moving experience, even after you realize that those titles are just lyrics from the song by classic rock cheeseballs Chicago that gave this record it's title—a small goof amidst the gloom.
Impressionistically outlining the history of the governmental oppression of black bodies—whether via physical force or legislation—Moor Mother's debut LP fetish bones vibrated with an urgency that few albums this year vibrated with the same urgency, Fetish Bones. Institutional violence is met with spoken-word molotovs, sandpapered found samples, and production that sounds like Black Dice remixing Pete Rock (or vice versa). It's a chaotic collage that feels every bit as unsettling as its subject matter, the sort of record that makes you want to throw down your headphones and take to the streets.
Rachel Evans' prolific release schedule as Motion Sickness of Time Travel slowed down for a bit following the birth of her first son a few years ago, but in the second half of 2016, she was back opening up portals to outer space at her natural pace. Affinity was her first release as a mother, and it also stands as the most overwhelming release she's recorded to date. The belt-sander drones of "New Moon" and the synthy despondency of the nearly 17-minute long "Interlude" find Evans exploring the gloom inherent in cosmic music. In the desolate stretches of her synthesizer hums, there's a depressing reminder that most of what's beyond the stratosphere is just empty space.
One of the ways you could listen to Fred Warmsley's latest album as Dedekind Cut was by buying a yoga mat that came with a digital download. The product description for the "high quality PRO" mat promises "extra cushioning and comfort," "safety and performance," "longevity and durability," and "stability"—all of which turns out to be a pretty solid illustration of the patient, new age-y inclinations of the record. Unlike the unsettled atmosphere of some of his other releases under the moniker, this is ambient music as self-care.
I don't know that many people on this list would buy into the idea that the vintage synths Sarah Davachi uses are, as her Bandcamp puts it, "obsolete machines." But there is something wonderfully antique about the way that Dominions employs this old tech to make wheezing, defeatist drones, stuttering back into action and stumbling through the record's 38-minute runtime. Davachi acts as a spectral conductor, making pieces that sound empty and haunted, like computerized funeral ballads from beamed from another life.
None of the track titles on this collaboration between composers Felicia Atkinson and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma are more than a couple letters long, but take all ten of them together, and they spell out a french phrase that translates to "melancholy objects." The muffled murmurs and ASMR shuffling of Comme Un Seul Narcisse are personal and intimate—miniatures to be picked up and pored over until they leave you with a deep longing for something just out of reach.
The harpist-turned-cathedral-organ-wrangler Áine O'Dwyer returned to the holiest of instruments this year for two tapes of sacred dissonance. Locusts is the better of the two, if only because it's willing to indulge the darkness inherent to the church spaces in which she records this music. She evokes the Bible's the funereal march of plague, death, and demise. And like the title suggests, atonal organ drones do sound more than a little like insectoid swarming.
Sunergy is the full-borne fruit of incredible happenstance. Two of the world's greatest Buchla synthesizer players met several years ago when they realized they were living in the same tiny Northern California town. After years of friendship and collaboration, they've emerged with a testament to the natural landscapes of the Pacific coast. The record's shifts are subtle, but their effects colossal, like the movement of the water that's enraptured Ciani over the last several decades.
The hydra-headed Chicago drone crew Good Willsmith have said that they approached Things Our Bodies Used to Have like a jazz record, staying united on themes but allowing each member the room to delve into outer zones, soloing wildly for minutes at a time—as much as that's possible for a group that primarily makes electronic loops. As such, it's a bit looser than their past releases, but that's the realm they've always found richest—pulling diamonds from sonic muck.
In the past, Australian avant-guitarist Oren Ambarchi has done cranium-crushing noise and blistered ambience, but with help from psych-techno madman Ricardo Villalobos (among other experimentalist godheads) he dragged himself to the depths of the dancefloor on Hubris. Channeling his noise know-how through acid-warped, guitar-and-electronics zoning reminiscent of E2-E4, Ambarchi's attacks the locomotive grid of techno with wiry, caustic melodies—something like stumbling upon neon vomit in a club toilet as the rest of the night pulses ahead outside.
The daring English duo's five-part, four-hour hard drive purge is a far cry from the humanoid beauty of their earliest work. It's a pulsar-dense spiderweb of pitch-black Max/MSP outputs, held together by duct tape and saliva. There are few suggestions of life in it, but that's part of the record's power—its reminder that most machines hide no ghosts, just whirring bits of metal and untameable electrical impulses.
Back in May, I mercilessly cut THUMP's UK editor Josh Baines' attempt to describe Huerco S' new one as "the finest ambient record of 2016 so far" from a piece we were working on together. The joys that For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) presented were muted; its reverb-drowned synths circling in locked beatless loops were pleasant, but where was the danger?
But I came to live with the record over the ensuing months, and I found myself returning to it for exactly that reason: as 2016 became harder to bear, it presented an alternative, an impossibly cozy, comforter-like shelter from the endless storm of shit that dominated my life (and probably yours too!) on both a personal and cosmic scale. I can't think of a year in my life where I more frequently needed escape, but actually checking out from the world felt irresponsible. So I put the breaking waves of "Promises of Fertility" on repeat, and its cottonball synth lines reshaped the world around me. Everything was a little softer. For a few minutes things didn't seem so bad, even if they still were.