In a world where auto-tune appears to be king, it’s exciting to find music that isn’t. This is not a dig to the world of pop, but there comes a time when enough is enough, and you need something a bit rough around the edges, abrasive and thought-provoking. In a recent conversation with a friend about what we’ve been listening to, it became apparent that I had been listening to a lot of music on the fringe. It’s in these hinterlands where exciting and inventive things take place, far from the prying eyes, and ears, of mainstream society.
The musicians included here reside in this region. Their music ranges from ethereal drone, minimal neo-classical, avant-garde and electronic wonky-pop, but they all contain a singular theme of experimentalism.
Christian Fennesz has been releasing music that treads the thin line between abstract and ambient since the mid-90s. Originally a member of Maische, Fennesz went solo, and with the use of his laptop, started to create diaphanous, glitchy soundscapes.
His new album, Agora, was recorded after Fennesz had lost his studio and was recording in his bedroom on headphones using only what was close at hand. This was stifling at first, but soon became liberating, as it was similar to how he first started making music in the 90s. Agora is 40 minutes of ethereal guitars and vertiginous electronics combing to create a lucid, dreamlike state. It is the kind of album that works equally well as in the background as it is to get lost in and pour over every note and drone.
Mort Garson should be a household name, but sadly he isn’t. He won a Grammy for his interpretation of The Little Prince narrated by Richard Burton, was a pioneer of the Moog, and soundtracked the 1969 moon landing. His 1975 album Plantasia has just been re-issued.
Originally, the album was intended for house plants to listen to and came with a copy of The Secret Life of Plants. The luscious, Moog melodies that cascaded from the speakers were supposed to help the plants grow and feel at ease. Listening to it now, there is a pervading, calming vibe, and everything feels like it’s been covered in a pop sensibility from a mister in the ceiling. This is an album that deserves to be re-issued so a new generation can fall in love with its subtle charm and idyllic catchiness.
Sometimes less is definitely more. Last year, Bristol-based Ocean Floor released an album called Mirror. After being woken up abruptly, he improvised some piano melodies and then went about his day. Over the next four years, Ocean Floor returned to this piece and translated it into 10 variations of that melodic fragment.
It was a thoughtful and poignant album that demanded repeat listens to try and get hold of its central themes, but like most dreams, the more you searched for meaning, the less meaning there was. In March, he released a campion piece called “Mirror Variations.” These are the recordings he made that morning. There is a simplicity to the pieces that is hard to ignore, but at their heart is the same poignancy that permeates the finished album.
Last year Adam Stafford released the double album Fire Behind the Curtain. It consisted of 13 neo-classical workouts that were based on Stafford’s struggles with depression. To call it flawless and exhilarating is an understatement. Since then he has released the Digression in the Pale Palace EP and more recently The Acid Bothy.
As the music arcs and drones, it becomes intertwined with synths and loops. This creates brutally beautiful, hypnotic soundscapes that Stafford calls a ‘psychedelic sweatstrom.’ The Acid Bothy feels like the bridge between his previous work and ‘Fire Behind the Curtain’. The same catchy melodies are there, but they are hidden under swaths of noise and lumbering drones.
Sometimes, the most rewarding releases are the ones we stumble across when we looking for something else. The self-titled Hans Blix EP is one such release. Despite only having four tracks and lasting just over 15 minutes, the Hans Blix EP is a treasure trove of clever ideas and abstract maxims.
Loosely based about the Iraq war in 2003, the EP was written and recorded in a day. There is a feeling of immediacy and spontaneity to it as, like the composer, you aren’t exactly sure where each song will go or how it will end. Through elements of post-rock, drone, noise musique concrete, and lo-fi minimalism, Hans Blix manages to create a feeling of claustrophobia and isolation that is compelling. There are airy, high points too, but when they happen, you are already awaiting the drop.
The passing of Scott Walker was a shock. The week before, I wondered to myself if he had started working on the follow up to Bish Bosh. I guess we’ll never know. As usually happens when a musician dies, you go back re-explore and interpret their back-catalogue.
One album I played but never really clicked until now was Pola X. The album is the score for Leos Carax’s film of the same name and is punctuated with grandiose string arrangements. These sweeping string sections are reminiscent of Delius and Sibelius, yet are far more harrowing. In hindsight, this feels like the Rosetta Stone to understanding his later work.
It is dark, industrial, and terrifying, but there is fragility to it. When his sublime vocals appear, sit reminds us of his original, solo work and why we fell in love with that voice. At times, it feels like Walker is showing us what it is to be alive. That we all put up these walls/personas, but under it we are all frail and delicate. Thank you Scott.