ACL 2014: Top Ten Modern Composition

AtomosListening again to these albums, we’re reminded of the aching beauty that graces modern composition.  From “Atomos VII” to “going backwards to recover what was left behind”, from “The Musk Ox” to “pino” to “you are not alone, dear wolf”, these songs are permeated with feeling. Strings sweep and soar; piano lines hesitate and plunge.  But it’s not all emotion; keen intellect is present as well, in the composition as well as in the transporting performance.  These albums won our hearts, but they also engaged our minds.  So light the candles, pop the cork on the wine, and prepare to be moved by music.  This is the real deal.

And now, in alphabetical order, A Closer Listen presents the Top Ten Modern Composition Releases of 2014.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen ~ Atomos (Erased Tapes)
It was always going to be a challenge to best such a rapturously received debut, so perhaps Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie had the right idea by not setting out to do so. Originally written to soundtrack a Wayne McGregor ballet and released as an LP only after the duo appreciated the stand-alone power of the work, Atomos is greater in length, scope and dynamism than their first release. The tonal palette is subtly expanded with field recordings and arpeggiated synth – facets of modernity that coax the chamber compositions into a place more unsettling, more urgent, more relevant. But the true winner is the more prevalent string section, which is equally successful commanding the spotlight for itself or quietly crafting entirely new and disparate landscapes. Get comfortable and prepare for some stunning vistas. (Chris Redfearn)

Review and purchase link

Christina Vantzou ~ No. 2 (Kranky)
For a video artist trying her hand at composition, Christina Vantzou’s No. 1 was a remarkably successful record that took not a few of us by surprise. No sophomore slump here, as No. 2 exceeds even that marvelous debut. As a composer, Vantzou has continued to progress, with No. 2 much more than a mere sequel. Avoiding the pitfalls of larger orchestration she perfectly steers her musicians to richer and more bombastic territory while maintaining her now signature sound. Superb.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

Review and purchase link

Christopher Tignor ~ Thunder Lay Down in the Heart (Western Vinyl)
Tignor has long been well-regarded for his skill after years of outstanding records with Slow Six and Wires.Under.Tension, and his compositional skills were widely and rightly praised after the release of 2009’s Core Memory Unwound. Here is an artist who puts everything into his work, supreme attention to detail and dedication to his craft rather than chasing celebrity, trends and theatricality. On Thunder Lay Down in the Heart, Tignor’s rigorous and self-reflexive compositions’ conceptual underpinnings are exceeded only by the music itself.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

Review and purchase link

Death Blues ~ Ensemble (Rhythmplex)
One of the most elegant overall releases of the year (also featured in Best Packaging), Ensemble is a study of masks: the masks that we wear to fool ourselves and others, the masks of memory, the masks of performance.  A fully-realized work from Jon Mueller, along with contributions from William Ryan Fritch and others, Ensemble is a triumph of timbre that uses a wide variety of instruments to convey a wide variety of emotions.  (Richard Allen)

Review and purchase link

Matthew Collings ~ Silence is a Rhythm Too (Denovali)
The vocals are out; the brass ensemble and string quartet are in.  Matthew Collings has just made a major step forward.  An affinity for Ben Frost can be heard in the rough textures and hewn melodies; there’s darkness here, offset by the winks of a clever mind.  Denovali also picked up Collings’ former album Splintered Instruments for a dual release, and together the two provide insight into a swiftly-developing artist.  (Richard Allen)

Review and purchase link

Otto Totland ~ Pino (Sonic Pieces)
Otto Totland is one half of Norwegian duo Deaf Center, but his solo work also merits some serious attention. Pino is a view of Norway, and the music is chained to its cool environment. Outside, the icy atmosphere may try to steal your breath, but inside the restrained, tasteful piano playing is nice and warm. Sure, Christmas can be icy, but the heart will always be warm and cheerful.  (James Catchpole)

Review and purchase link

P Jørgensen ~ Gold Beach (Low Point)
Gold Beach is a haunting album. Creaking strings, subtle, squealing horns and an uneasy undercurrent of drone spills out onto the beach. It’s pitch-black here. The rain falls, leaving strange prints in the sand. Its atmosphere is muddy, war-torn, a thousand lives piling pressure on the sound.  (James Catchpole)

Review and purchase link

Sontag Shogun ~ Tale (Palaver Press)
Sontag Shogun was born from the ashes of (the) slowest runner (in all the world), and over the last few years the band has been honing its sound through a series of well-timed EPs.  The debut album is the culmination of a process of touring, recording, and reevaluation.  Combining field recordings, live music and tape reels, the band has established an intimate, living room timbre, suffused with the warmth of quiet conversation.  (Richard Allen)

Review and purchase link

Stray Ghost ~ Mały Wilk (Self-released)
It might seem strange that an album whose title translates as “little wolf” depicts two trees at the very center of its cover, but the intention behind this might become clearer as the album progresses through a series of evocations of natural communication, of an organic perception that integrates strings and electronic sounds into a whole. It is a community that thrives, it is the wolf that runs across the forest and scares off its prey, the soil that their particular relation feeds, the trees that grow to cover their respective homes, the many ways in which everything relates to everything else, making for a sentimental music more than worthy of Ólafur Arnalds’ neo-Romantic throne. (David Murrieta)

Review and purchase link

subzar ~ subzar (Ricco)
We broke the rules a little bit on this one, as the 2014 debut album from subzar combines two previously-reviewed EPs, i am not yet here and pico.  But the music is so lovely we couldn’t resist.  The album completes the quartet’s transition from post-rock to small chamber group, and the new sound is simply sublime.  The two EPs segue well together, as a song about flight leads into a suite on migration.  The band has found its wings.  (Richard Allen)

i am not yet here review

pico review

Purchase link

One comment

  1. Pingback: 2014 Best of Year Lists: Part IV | Avant Music News

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