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10 Great 2016 Ambient/Electronic Albums

And 10 additional notables

I haven’t done one of these lists in several years. But I’ve come to realize that while the whole idea of top 10 lists is absurd — especially in a realm, like electronic music, that is such an embarrassment of riches these days — it can be a healthy exercise to take stock of the year before moving on to the next one. I think the recent 20th anniversary of Disquiet.com is especially on my mind, how an archive can be of use as time passes. Here in alphabetical order by artist are 10 especially great albums from 2016, and an additional 10 as well. For this list “ambient/electronic” is a broad field, from drones to broken beats to neo-classical, all works that emphasize texture as a form of composition, and that evidence a fully intentional approach to their instrumentation.

(1) Autechre — elseq 1-5 (Warp)
The IDM godfathers return with a massive, stately, sprawling collection, five LPs’ worth of broken beats, industrialized entropy, and conspiratorial static. Each piece has a rhythmic singularity, an organizing principle of beat, that then unfolds through alternately subtle and chaotic states of generative complexity.

(2) Madeleine Cocolas — Cascadia (Futuresequence)
Piano-based compositions merge in myriad ways with electronics, found sounds, and voice. And yet, for all the variety, all the depth of sonic field, under Madeleine Cocolas’ meticulous direction they never break the jewel-box self-confinement of modern classical minimalism.

(3) Sarah Davachi — Dominions (Jaz)
A second solo full-length from Sarah Davachi goes even more introspective than did its predecessor. The five tracks here, all made from synthesizer and violin, offer nuanced variations in sonic fabric, shifting minor bits of thread count, color, and patterning as they proceed.

(4) Masayoshi Fujita + Jan Jelinek — Schaum (Faitiche)
The latest collaboration between the Japanese prepared-vibraphone player Masayoshi Fujita and German electronics maven Jan Jelinek takes its title from the German word for foam. Gentle textures belie the rich source material and generous interplay.

(5) Daniel Lanois — Goodbye to Language (Anti-)
In many ways Daniel Lanois finally this year released the album his most ardent fans longed for, in which production techniques he’s provided to Bob Dylan, U2, and so many others are finally given their own space to stretch out. He brings his textural focus to his and Rocco Deluca’s guitars for a moody, glitchy achievement.

(6) Loscil — Monument Builders (Kranky)
The prolific Scott Morgan, who performs and records as Loscil, unfolds one forbidding techno-schooled, minimalism-informed soundscape after another, sometimes shot through with an urgent momentum, often left to their own artfully bleak devices. Sharing credit are Nick Anderson on occasional French horn (bringing to mind Ingram Marshall’s stately “Fog Tropes”), synthesizer player Joshua Stevenson, and a vocal sample of Ashley Pitre.

(7) Machinefabriek + Gareth Davis — Shroud Lines (White Paddy Mountain)
An extended excursion into live improvisatory collaboration, with the gregarious and prolific Machinefabriek on drone- and noise-oriented synthesizers and Gareth Davis on bottom-rumbling bass clarinet.

(8) Matmos — Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
The duo Matmos (Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt) team up with a washing machine and a host of guest stars for an album of glistening, churning, pop-inflected noise, all charming beats and anxious atmospheres. The guests include Dan Deacon, Max Eilbacher (Horse Lords), Sam Haberman (Horse Lords), Jason Willett (Half Japanese), and Duncan Moore (Needle Gun).

(9) Nonkeen — The Gamble (R&S)
Nils Frahm steps out from his solo-piano realm to produce, with fellow Nonkeen members Frederic Gmeiner and Sepp Singwald, this strong collection of sedate fusion grooves. Think early Miles Davis electric filtered by way of a hybrid Erased Tapes / Stones Throw aesthetic, all downtempo funky ether. There’s one track on this, “The Saddest Continent on Earth,” that I listened to more than just about any other piece of music this year. (Andrea Belfi is credited with percussion on just over half the track.)

(10) Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — Ears (Western Vinyl)
The ace synthesizer player shares eight stereoscopic fields of sonic play, each a fully inhabited aural world of instants and melodies, riffs and figments. There’s a whirligig festiveness to each undertaking, chamber pop snapshots of an incredibly vibrant imagination at work.

And 10 More Notable 2016 Ambient/Electronic Albums
In alphabetical order by artist: The abstract hip-hop of (11) Arckatron’s Subtle Busyness (Twin Springs) • The electronically mediated vocalese of (12) Julianna Barwick’s Will (Dead Oceans) • The austere, sedate drone confections of (13) Donnacha Costello’s Mono No Aware (self-released) • The field-recording-inflected microsound of (14) Federico Durand’s A Través Del Espejo (12k) • The dramatic vocal/feedback explorations of (15) Lesley Flanigan’s Hedera (Physical Editions) • The whirring synth+ (voice, violin, more) of (16) Marielle V JakobsonsStar Core (Thrill Jockey) • The outworld dub of (17) Toshinori Kondo + Barton Rage’s Realm 2 Parallax (Toshinori Kondo Recordings) • The electronica collages of (18) Funki Porcini’s Conservative Apocalypse (self-released) • The inchoate data pop of (19) Tristan Perich’s Noise Patterns (Physical Editions) • The remixed neo-classical of (20) Christina Vantzou’s 3.5 (self-released).

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Arckatron Breaks a Beat

A sample of the newly released Subtle Busyness

The full release of Subtle Busyness by Arckatron is now out, a cassette and download on the Twin Springs Tapes label. It’s streaming as well, over at twinspringstapes.bandcamp.com. Arcka, aka Shawn Kelly, formerly of Philadelphia and recently relocated to Los Angeles, traffics in abstract instrumental hip-hop. He’s long been a proponent of utilizing under-appreciated snippets of familiar music, often R&B, and on Subtle Busyness he’s expanded into off-kilter rhythmic excursions. The album was featured here twice in advance of its release, back in January when it was announced and in mid-February when additional tracks were uploaded for promotional purposes. On the occasion of its full arrival, all 21 tracks, do check out the glorious broken beat that is “Naverparse”:

More from Arcka at arckatron.us. More from the Twin Springs label at twinspringstapes.bandcamp.com and facebook.com/twinspringstapes. And here’s an interview I did with Arcka/Kelly back in 2009: “Young Communicator.”

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Abstract Beats from a Master

Fives more tastes of Arckatron's forthcoming Subtle Busyness

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The fine, Los Angeles–based abstract beatmaker (until very recently of Philadelphia) Arckatron (aka Shawn Kelly) uploaded two tracks from his forthcoming, 21-song album, Subtle Busyness, at the start of the year: the blissfully steady-going “Lunar” and the wonderfully meter-defying “Aerofloat,” which warped this way and that as its rhythm ebbed and flowed. Those first popped up on the SoundCloud account of the label releasing Subtle Busyness, Twin Springs Tapes. (I wrote about them at the time.)

Now four more tracks, along with “Lunar” again, have been uploaded to the Twin Springs Bandcamp page: the surreal opening cut (“Cosmicrust”), a piano-against-percussion piece titled “Power (Handz Up…),” a funky video-game gambit titled “Toow,” and a track titled “VariaTRON” that plays pinball in your head with intense stereoscopic, microscopic beats.

And there’s a lovely video for “Lunar,” sort of an animated lava lamp with a subtle hint at Arckatron’s logo, on YouTube:

The album is up for pre-order for a mere $6, including the cassette (and including shipping in the U.S.) at twinspringstapes.bandcamp.com. The official release date is February 23. The cassette edition is limited to 100.

More from Arcka at arckatron.us. More from the Twin Springs label at twinspringstapes.bandcamp.com and facebook.com/twinspringstapes. And here’s an interview I did with Arcka/Kelly back in 2009: “Young Communicator.”

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Feeling the Hand on the Pad in Instrumental Hip-hop

Two tracks from the forthcoming album Subtle Busyness from Philadelphia-based Arcka

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Arcka, aka Shawn Kelly, the artist also known as Arkatron, and formerly as Y?Arcka, has a release, Subtle Busyness, due out shortly on the Twin Springs Tapes label. Two tracks have been posted to the label’s SoundCloud account in advance. Both are instrumental hip-hop, which is where Arcka lives, but they go in distinctly different directions.

“Lunar” is a blissfully steady two-minute beat with dreamy undertones. Nudges in the bass and swirly synthesized, zithery accents entertain psychedelic associations. Put it on repeat.

“Aerofloat” is more characteristic of Arcka, which is to say it’s more difficult to pigeonhole and a rewarding listen for that very reason. Early on the beat slows to a syrupy pause, like a hip-hop train losing steam as it comes into the station, and for an extended period you listen inside the audio, to warped elements and a richly irregular rhythm. Of course, then it nearly flies out of control — though not fully, because Arcka is at the wheel.

Hip-hop production has a reputation for being studio music, and that’s certainly the case with Arcka, who does much of his work on an MPC, the classic rap-music workhorse. However, it’s useful to remember what a tactile machine the MPC is, how beloved its pads are to producers. In “Aerofloat” there are, throughout, these pixie-stick triggers that are just enough off the beat that you can sense the hand of producer. The music of Arcka may be recorded and constructed, cut-up and arranged, but the life blood is self-evident throughout.

Here’s a shot from a few years ago of Arcka cleaning the insides of his well-used MPC:

A photo posted by ARCKATRON (@arckatron) on

The two-track set was first posted at soundcloud.com/twin-springs-tapes. More from Arcka at arckatron.us. More from the Twin Springs label at twinspringstapes.bandcamp.com and facebook.com/twinspringstapes. The album is due out, in a limited edition of 100 tapes, shortly. And here’s an interview I did with Arcka/Kelly, who is based in Philadelhia, back in 2009: “Young Communicator.”

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