A Closer Listen’s Best Experimental Albums of the Decade

“Let’s try an experiment, and see if it works!”  By all indications, the experiments of the ten artists on our decade chart were successful.  They tried new things, and found their efforts rewarded.  While we laud the efforts of all sonic scientists, it’s always nice to get positive feedback!  Some artists combined genres like ingredients in test tubes.  Others chose esoteric topics.  One introduced us to a glorious garden we didn’t know existed.  Another bent her voice in ways we didn’t know it could be bent.  Another went downstairs and found an album in a washing machine.  From social tapestry to unusual time signatures, these albums represent the reasons we experiment.  And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents The Best Experimental Albums of 2010-19!

Clorinde ~ The Gardens of Bomarzo (Etruscan Records, 2013)
Italian-born Londoners Clorinde, who have since been pursuing different projects, peaked in this wonderful concept album sprawling over two discs. Transported to the titular gardens, created in the 16th century by an Italian duke, we are guided through its many statues both abstract and grotesque. The first disc presents Clorinde’s renowned union of obscure stringed and percussive instruments, including citterns, dulcimers and kalimbas, to more traditional post-rock fare, calling to mind images as anachronistic as a troubadour with a loop pedal. The intricately constructed pieces are tightly controlled, with crescendos often limited to a braying guitar chord sustained over the metronomic mutter of the supporting cast. The more internalised second disc offers moodier pieces in which atmosphere dominates. Tracks such as “Glaucus” and “The Nymph” seem to chart the emotional state of the gardens’ recently widowed creator, from anguish to melancholy, but there is enough to suggest a deeper meaning creeps between these statues. As a carving in one attests, the gardener was seeking to ‘set the heart free’, and to listen to The Gardens of Bomarzo is truly to do the same. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

 

Katie Gately ~ Katie Gately (Public Information, 2013)
We were big fans of the Public Information label – and if it ever returns from its current dormant state, we’ll be on board again – as it was our first introduction to several fascinating artists. In terms of old artists uncovered, there was F.C. Judd and some excursions into library music; for the new blood, there were releases from Ivvvo, Austin Cesear and Acteurs. But the debut EP from Katie Gately stood out among the crowd, and caught the attention alongside 2014’s track “Pivot”. The EP not merely announces an exciting new voice in electronic music but instantly justifies any expectations across its 20 minutes. Offering ethereal multi-layered vocals on a luxuriant bed on one track, there’s an effortless pivot to oppressive, spine-chilling horror set in an abandoned factory on the next. All are shot through with an artist’s ear for sound design and set Gately apart from the crowd at an early stage. (Jeremy Bye)

 

Kreng ~ Grimoire (Miasmah, 2011)
As above, so below, says the old occult paradigm, having found its concrete modernity in the bloody cuts of the (musical) collage procedure. The sounds of old find themselves lodged uncannily amidst the noises of the present; the godly stench of the ever-dying sun floods our decade with the irradiance of the 20th century. Classicism, reanimated, stumbling under the beautiful opaqueness of the moon, simmers with the jazzy promise of freedom. But the mask is no longer a mask, since what it hides is nothing. Descend into the crypt, find the mirror in which no gaze is ever returned, and feel the rush of true experimentalism: a slight, yet immense step into the unknown. Grimoire is a force, almost unmatched, in this grand exercise of unravelling, the best we can sacrifice to experience some beyond. (David Murrieta Flores)

 

Matana Roberts ~ Coin Coin Chapter Three: river run thee (Constellation, 2015)
Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin project is now on its fourth installment, and shows no signs of weakening.  As racial tension runs rampant throughout the United States, interest in insightful dialogue remains high; and Roberts makes a perfect spokeswoman.  Blending tradition, history, hopes and ideals, she paints an elegant painting in sound.   river run thee is a quilt of conviction, a tapestry of interlocking genres and a musical masterpiece.  The album demands engagement, and leaves behind no passive listener.  We don’t know what the next decade will hold, but we know who we trust to tell its story.  (Richard Allen)

 

Matmos ~ Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey, 2016)
Alternately known as “the washing machine album,” Ultimate Care II makes laundry fun by exploring every percussive aspect of the appliance.  Whether the machine swirls or rinses, and whether Matmos taps or beats, the music works its way to a frenzy of techno excitement ~ without the aid of traditional instruments.  This release is unique in its field, and creates interest in something that most consider maudlin.  After listening, one may become open to the rhythmic potential of all types of appliances, and may never hear one’s home the same way again.  (Richard Allen)

 

Mediafired ~ The Pathway Through Whatever (Exo Tapes Inc., 2011)
The Pathway Through Whatever emerged during the rise of vaporwave. To this day, it’s gloriously unashamed in its experimentation, sampling everything from Queen to UB40 to Kate Bush. Like Pepsi, it was an effervescent explosion, unabashed and high on a sugar rush, and the high tempo tunes landed on the right side of insanity.  (James Catchpole)

 

Oneohtrix Point Never ~ Replica (Software Recording Co., 2011)
Given Daniel Lopatin’s current position as a multimedia artist and soundtrack producer, it’s difficult to fathom that in the early days of Oneohtrix Point Never, he was part of the vaporwave / chillwave / hypnagogic pop trend, mining the 1980s infomercials and new age music for fresh inspiration. It all seemed to make sense back then, but Lopatin developed his sound through what I tend to call the R trilogy. Starting with Returnal on Editions Mego, he then recorded Replica for Mexican Summer before signing to Warp for R Plus Seven. We could have chosen any of these three, but its 2011’s Replica that arguably has its nose ahead. It is a wonderfully inventive work, rattling through a variety of compositional approaches and arrangements, often within the same track. Yes, there are moments when it sits squarely within the vaporwave sound, so much that you could subconsciously roll up your suit sleeves while listening to it, but much of Replica sees Lopatin pushing on, dabbling in delicate melodies and lush synth pads. He would continue to evolve as OPN but he might not make another album with as much charm. (Jeremy Bye)

 

Sarah Davachi ~ Let Night Come On Bells End the Day (Recital, 2018)
With most ambient music, there is something constantly decaying or growing out of nothing, intentionally lulling the listener in and out of concrete attention. We first reviewed Sarah Davachi’s masterpiece Let Night Come On Bells End The Day under our experimental section— where it also appears on this list— perhaps out of its foot-down refusal to adhere to that traditional postulate of slow-burning ambience. Throughout five tracks, Davachi sinks us into a transfixing golden hour that envelops us with the warmth of organs, arpeggios without edges, and disembodied pianos. Instead of drifting through momentous and downtrodden “sections,” the entire work captures a crystalline moment in time, as though it actively freezes your surroundings into a diorama and lets you walk around in that solitary universe. Closing track “Hours In The Evening” perfectly evokes the hyperaware optimism of the record— the desire and brief belief that dusk might last forever, at least for tonight.  (Josh Hughes)

 

Wu Man ~ Immeasurable Light (Traditional Crossroads, 2010)
Wu Man is a world-class maestro of the Chinese pipa – a short-necked lute, with four strings picked upright. Like many masters of traditional instruments, she is fluent in the long history of her instrument, including its connections to the middle-eastern oud. She is also immersed in the modern art music of the West: Philip Glass and Terry Riley are firmly in her repertoire. Fans of kaleidoscopic crossover can check her out in the Silk Road Ensemble. But there is a greater pleasure in the understated Immeasurable Light, where Wu Man builds original compositions in the gaps of ancient manuscript sources. With minimal accompaniments from her own overdubs, and from the Kronos Quartet, Wu Man ranges from meditative rituals through to lightning-fingered folk dances. She crashes together the old with the new, the middle with the far East, and the rustic with the elegantly refined.  (Samuel Rogers)

Zs ~ New Slaves (The Social Registry, 2010)
Zs are a band of Brooklyn experimentalists, whose debut as a sextet was a marriage of free jazz and noise rock. Over the subsequent years, they lost some members but added additional flavours of avant-garde sound to their house blend. New Slaves might be the zenith of their genre-bending programme. On this release, Zs are a quartet covering two guitars, a sax, percussion, and electronics. The hackneyed phrase “wall of sound” has relevance here: the majority of the eight tracks are rapidly percussive, with the gaps filled by digital whirrs, woodwind screeches, and guitar distortion. (The two-part “Black Crown Ceremony” is an exception, with its soft, ritualised ambience.) It is tempting to see Zs as the progeny of New York’s no wave movement; but the aggressive totalism of Michael Gordon’s Trance (1994) is an equally cordial neighbour. Across seventy minutes, New Slaves loops, reiterates, and catapults itself into your long-term memory.  (Samuel Rogers)

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