Experimental music continued to confound established structures in 2014

There were so many great albums released in 2014 that I haven’t had a chance to hear yet, so this short piece is woefully inadequate, turning a spotlight, for what it’s worth, on just a few albums that touched me this year, knowing that the best albums are possibly still to be heard.

A question that is always difficult when talking about experimental music is: what does that entail? I’ve chosen a broad definition here, to include artists (such as the Kilgour brothers) who are not so well known but have exerted incredible influence, and artists (such as Carla Bozulich) who should be spoken of in the same breath as Nick Cave or Michael Gira but aren’t as well known. I’ve given us a little jazz, a little folk/pop and a little sound art, but mostly I chose albums that are well off the main stream and even alternative lists, choosing to label them “experimental.” This is a collection of experimental releases that touched me in 2014, and the artists who made them to whom we owe so much.

2014 was the year of Rob Mazurek’s Mother Ode, the July concert held at the Corbett vs Dempsey gallery in Chicago. The performance represented a tumultuous time in Rob Mazurek’s life, a series of high profile successes combined with the death of his mother two months prior. He turned up to the space, as expected, with his cornet, but he also brought a box filled with bells, books, maracas, apples and small electronics. The box – a Pandora’s, if you will – became a source of intense creative sounds as the enormously talented Mazurek performed a collected dedication to his mother. The small concert peaked with Mazurek holding the box aloft shaking its contents over his head until exhausted. Everyone who attended who would write about the concert was moved, and incredibly fortunately, the tone and mood of this amazing event was almost fully translated in the recording. It sent the alt-music scene off on a thrill ride and left us all begging for more solo work from Rob Mazurek who is usually leading bands like Exploding Star Orchestra, Skull Sessions Octet and Starlicker.

Other jazz albums I loved in 2014 included the Kyle Bruckmann’s WRACK: …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, inspired by the Thomas Pynchon novels V, Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. I’m always a sucker for literature infused music (and will usually – in my arrogance – look for it when the musician didn’t know they included it) but rarely does the pair go together as well as Chicago English horn player Bruckmann’s Dadaism-infected sound as the front man of Wrack. The sleazy wasted earth-roots sounds that come through on this album carry the grimy insight of a Pynchon-punch, and one of my self-promised holiday treats is to sit and read excerpts of the books with this album loud through the headphones. Solitary bliss.

Charlie Parr, the American blues musician who became semi-famous here when “1922” was used in an advertising campaign for Vodafone (I’m all for advertising taking rarely known brilliance and introducing it to the world – should be more of it), and led to us talking a special liking to him down under. In very early 2014 he released Hollandale, a series of stunning pieces of music that begin with the simple sounds of him tuning his Resonator and banjo, weaving the early solitary notes into music stories that float, meander, and tickle at times only to cut, thrust and invade at others. The challenge was voiceless songs, he claimed in many interviews, improvisation providing an access to a moment that will never be repeated. Hollandale was a great 2014 album I found myself going back to repeatedly.

Moving on from the jazz/blues scene, into the pop/folk/alt rock scene, you can’t go past OOIOO’s Gamel as one of the great alternative albums of the year. The all-girl Japanese group headed up by Yoshimi P-We (the multi-percussionist from super group Boredoms), has always shone best when they create homage style albums and Gamel is exactly that on behalf of Javanese Gamelan music. The rich combinations of the traditional with a psych-rock and early 1960s pre-synth-sci-fi influence work remarkably well to produce, in my opinion, one of the most underappreciated albums of the year. Gamel captures, almost better than any of OOIOO’s previous works, the light vibrant energy of the live shows the band is famous for, while keeping a playfulness in their obviously respectful approach to their source influences.

Moving in another direction altogether, the Kilgours, the giants of indie rock, had a stellar year with two great solo album releases. My particular favourite was Hamish’s, All of It And Nothing, an album mostly distinguished by yet another directional turn by the more musically subdued of the New Zealand born brothers. While the albums erratic twists and turns didn’t resonate with everyone, and it was a much-anticipated debut after all, I found this album swelling inside on the repeat listen. It’s one of my favourite experiences when an album develops inside and draws you closer, something Hamish Kilgour’s band The Mad Scene can do with its few albums. All of it and Nothing is a slow immersion, but well worth the journey.

David Kilgour’s End Time’s Undone didn’t pack quite the same punch for me that Hamish’s release did, but it was still one of my favourite 2014 albums, particularly with the clangy guitar strummy-nes of the final track “Some Things You Don’t Get Back”. There is modesty to David Kilgour that belies his great success and even more potent influence and it imbues his albums with an endearing quality that makes one feel comfortable and warm enveloped in its arms of sound. Still, despite his consistency, End Time’s Undone is more enjoyable for me than his more recent years‘ albums. Something about how it makes me feel. I found myself coming back to it a lot in 2014.

Super label Important Records had a great year, and a standout for me was the Steve Gunn/Mike Gangloff album Melodies for a Savage Fix. The album, forged from an overnight sequestering in the remote farm house of noted roots-music engineer Joseph Dejarnette  (Carolina Chocolate Drops, Bruce Greene, Curtis Eller) in the countryside of Floyd County Virginia, combines six- and twelve-string guitars with gongs, tanpura, singing bowls, shruti box, and banjo, yet manages the strange ode to multiple delicate melodies and partnerships with silence the pair are so sublime with individually. The wrath and rumble of the swelling “Topeka AM” which, at just over seventeen minutes commandeers most of the B-side, is breathtaking in its simple rapidity with Gunn’s nimble fingers pumping out the twelve-sixteenth notes with so much purity and clarity, while Gangloff converses with all the instruments at his disposal, sometimes drums, sometimes shakers, harmonium or bells. Like the aforementioned Mother Ode by Rob Mazurek, I wanted to be there, to breathe in the vibrating energy, eyes closed, existing in a pure moment. It’s a stunning album, one that carried me through quite a few transitions past midnight in the dark of my sleepless bedroom in 2014.

There were so many sound art/experimental releases in 2014 that I wish I could mention, but standouts for me were definitely Keir Neuringer, Ceremonies of the Air, Man Forever / So Percussion, The Clear Realization (incredible drumming) and the Darius Jones Matthew Shipp, The Darkseid Recital which displays recordings taken from live performances between 2011 and 2013.

Lawrence English’s Wilderness of Mirrors, was one of the best moments for volume as a vehicle for expression, having used bands like Swans and My Bloody Valentine as inspiration for a T.S. Eliot ode. Rafael Anton Irisarri’s The unintentional Sea was one of the most delicately beautiful albums of 2014 with its light ambient drone weaving an evocative fear around field recordings of the Salton Sea. Simon James Philips’ Chair with its sonorous repetitions and rumbling piano set a high bar at the start of 2014, as did Nagual by Ian McColm and David Shapiro, an album that, despite it’s slow rumbling build, had an excited thrill at its core.

One can’t possibly mention experimental releases in 2014 however, without dabbling into the amazing album Boy by Carla Bozulich, probably her most accessible album for years. She claims it’s a pop album, but all that ties it to the genre is recognizable melodies and standard song constructions she usually eschews, making it’s only real reference to “pop” its innate difference to other Carla Bozulich contemporary collaborative works such as what she creates with Evangalista. One of the most exciting and interesting contemporary musicians on the alt scene, it is always an event when Bozulich brings out an album, let alone a first solo release in six years.

The experimental scene is always the future now, and that has never been more real than in 2014, as music embraces its home-made roots again and seems more settled into the digital-tech revolution that sees music more accessible than ever before (a great thing) but the propensity for artistic marginalization increasing as the main stream wants a larger part of all the disparate pies. Musical vigilance is essential in the committed listener, it is us who bring the work to the world and our commitment to extend our listening into the abyss over the staid comfort of the memory drenched albums we know and ‘love’. Music needs us to notice that we try to colonise it, make it ours, own it, use it as a reference point, a soundtrack to our lives, rather than a work of art teaching us something we don’t already know. The internet is a great opportunity for us to appreciate the experimental artist. Make 2015 the year you disappear down some uncharted rabbit holes. 

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