ACL 2020 ~ Top Ten Experimental

A surprising fact about this year’s experimental picks: nearly every entry contains an aspect of spoken word. This unusual combination may reflect our desire for narrative as opposed to lyric. The world is a jumble right now; can anyone make sense of it?

One narrator uses weather as a metaphor for mood; another waxes on the lost art of letter writing. One highlights the work of an integral sculptor; another rails against dehumanization. They speak, and we lean forward, eager for words in a world that has fallen eerily silent in some arenas while growing unbearably loud in others.

And now, A Closer Listen presents the Top Ten Experimental Releases of 2020!

Drew McDowall ~ Agalma (Dais)
Drew McDowall’s long career has been a lesson in constant evolution. Agalma follows a string of strong records on Dais, but is his first since extensively touring Coil’s drone classic, Time Machines. But rather than rehash, McDowall enlists friends from around the globe to coax him ever forward. Aside from Kali Malone’s organ, it is his guests’ vocal contributions that make that the strongest impression, diversifying the sonic palette while also helping to tie together McDowall’s various offerings. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

Duncan Speakman & Tineke DeMeyer ~ The House Was Alright (Self-Released)
Recorded and released relatively early in the lockdown, the duo of Duncan Speakman (the electronics) and Tineke De Meyer (the poetry) tapped into the everyday conversations that were absent for much of the year: the weather, health, journeys. Much of The House Was Alright had been created in the previous couple of years; they would have been prescient works at any time. For 2020, however, the duo had stumbled onto something more resonant, the mundane chatter between people that disappeared, for a time, behind masks and muffled silence. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Fire-Toolz ~ Rainbow Bridge (Hausu Mountain)
I grieve at the computer, lost in an autoscroll excess that is as consoling as it is immersive. I code loss into nostalgia and confuse signifiers of feeling with tactility. Fire-Toolz too seem to tangle meaning in their quest for the rejuvenating powers of world-building on Rainbow Bridge, an album partially inspired by the death of the producer’s cat that revitalizes sincerity in supposed shallowness. The record spits out epithets for opposing moods that manifest as new age peacefulness and heavy metal cacophony, reaching an ever-shifting sonic equilibrium. The kitschiness becomes increasingly earnest, creating a vessel— a rainbow bridge, let’s say— that transports the listener to an excessive, pleasantly wasteful wonderland where everything fits in its right place. There is healing in the overflow.  (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

Kate Carr ~ Where to begin (Flaming Pines)
Where to begin?  Perhaps with the dropping of glass beads, or a piece of pink paper and a pencil.  Where to begin?  Perhaps with the fact that we reviewed three Kate Carr works this year, every one of them excellent, but that this one is the best.  Where to begin?  With disconnection yearning for connection, isolation yearning for embrace.  Where to begin?  The threats to the postal service, coupled with the quarantine of seniors.  Where to begin?  Perhaps with a painting of two small ears.  Great things often have small beginnings, and this is a tiny treasure.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Matmos ~ The Consuming Flame: Exercises in Group Form (Thrill Jockey)
Last year, Matmos celebrated their relationship with plastics; this year, they’re celebrating their relationships with a playful, sprawling series of collages. While the experimental tag is useful albeit inaccurate, perhaps the best way to describe this long-form work is simply surrealist. Even the premise is a collective game: 99 collaborators, whose contributions were crafted at 99 BPM. The consuming flame is horizontal – it leaves no collaborator behind, whatever their place in the musical field. And while not every encounter between utterly distinct artists results in something interesting, the fact of their dissolution as such, being turned into mechanical pieces to the point of making attempts at recognition pointless, makes these Exercises a radical success of sheer play at work. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Olivia Louvel ~ SculptOr (Cat Werk)
This album is the second part of Olivia Louvel’s [Hepworth Resounds], a project exploring the creative life of Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975). The preceding part, The Sculptor Speaks, was a “resounding” of a recorded talk by the modernist artist ( Though a second instalment, SculptOr stands on its own merits. It has the feel of a posthumous collaboration, as Hepworth’s speech gives way to Louvel’s sung, layered, and looped voice. The sculptor’s discussion of form, material, creativity, and gendered experience get reframed, as they feed into Louvel’s own artistic practice. The sound of the human voice is manipulated and elevated into sculptural shapes. Louvel uses clatters, pulses, and other rhythmic artefacts to chip away at the raw material. The result is ambiguous, abstract, and rich in possibility, much like a Hepworth sculpture. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

OOIOO ~ nijimusi (Thrill Jockey)
OOIOO, fronted by YoshimO of The Boredoms, have squarely cemented themselves as specialists of absurdist psychedelia. Starting their third decade as a group, nijimusi is both a sampler of their frenetic, percussive past and a playful nod to the future. “kawasemi Ah” is one of their finest recordings to date with its Beatlesque harmonies and sun-soaked windmill guitars, with “jibun” closely behind for its strident shuffle. It oftentimes feels excitingly impenetrable, as if walking into the end of a jam session that’s gone on all day without a single stop.  (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

Phew ~ Vertigo KO (Disciples)
This record consists mainly of unreleased tracks from Phew’s Light Sleep and Voice Hardcore sessions. When an artist’s leftovers make a year-end list, a prolific talent is evident. If Vertical Jamming was a collection of wordless drone pieces, Vertigo KO must be the unsteady feeling that comes once you’re up on the plateau. Sustained tones contribute substantially. But the Japanese experimentalist also returns to her trademark tool: her voice. The music ranges across menacing new wave and spacious kosmische. The vocals go from wordless song to puzzling speech. If Phew’s music is anything to go by, the avant-garde is advancing in multiple directions at once. Long may she continue to push forward. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

Pali Meursault ~ { PRESS } (Univers International)
Assembled from the sounds of a record pressing plant, this new record from Pali Meursault is a curiosity for vinyl buffs. For those of us indifferent to the wax revival, it still has much to offer, extracting the artistic potential of industrial sound pollutants. In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin was iconically swallowed into the belly of a machine ( The orchestra slows to a lullaby, then reanimates as he reverses through the cogs. But what noise would the machine itself have made? As Meursault’s curated recordings attest, the noises of working machines prefigured the cadences of electronic music. On the reverse side, thirty-three locked grooves offer the possibility of remaining in the machine indefinitely. As a whole, the album thumps and whirrs as we might expect; but these incidental noises are elevated to something worth deliberation. It seems a shame to recommend a limited vinyl-only release that most readers will not be able to hear. However, in this case “the medium is the message”. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

Vanessa Rossetto ~ perhaps at some time you have acted in a play, even if it was when you were a child (AMPLIFY 2020)

A mesmerizing hour-long composition from Amplify co-organizer, violist and composer Vanessa Rossetto. We’ve enthusiastically followed Rossetto’s work over the years, work which has grown increasingly confident in distilling sonic richness from the detritus of the domestic soundscapes. Released in March, perhaps… was a felicitous soundtrack to the surreal mundanity of those first weeks of quarantine. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

One comment

  1. Pingback: 2020 Best of Lists from Around the Web: Part V – Avant Music News

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