[by Marc Masters]
If you follow men’s professional tennis, you probably know that for a while now that sport has had a “Big Four”— four players who are clearly the best. In each of the past few years, one usually had a better season than the other three. But this year, you could make a convincing case for any of them, since each won one of the four major pro tournaments, aka “Grand Slams”.
I felt similarly about experimental releases in 2012. There were four that I kept coming back to, and at various points I thought each was the best album of the year. And they all felt like culminations of each artist’s work so far— big events in their discographies, as their respective methods and ideas peaked, creating something more accomplished and awe-inspiring than anything they’d done before. I think of them as 2012’s experimental Grand Slam champs.
Maybe not all four albums were intended as culminations, but AARON DILLOWAY’s Modern Jester was. As he told me in May, “I wanted to make a record that included a lot of different aspects of what I’d been doing over the past few years.” He even withheld some of his best recordings from previous releases so he could eventually include them in this daunting work. The planning paid off— Modern Jester spans the peaks of everything Dilloway’s done since he left Wolf Eyes in 2005.
But what’s even more impressive is that Modern Jester doesn’t sound like a best-of compilation. Dilloway’s hour-plus of rolling, rattling, hyper-active sound is hypnotically coherent and continuous. Nothing sounds pieced together, and many of his loops, rhtyhms, and noises echo each other like rhyming lines in an epic poem. You can hear the rushing energy that made his contributions to Wolf Eyes so electric, but in this setting the focus is shaprer and the vision is more singular. The result is the rare kind of noise album where you can zone out to the repetition and let it mush your mind, or you can focus hard on the details as if they were chemicals reacting in a test tube. Most importantly, you can actually do both at once. Because on Modern Jester Aaron Dilloway sets his sights for heads and guts, and hits both targets every time.
Like Modern Jester, JASON LESCALLEET’s Songs About Nothing is a double album, but for Lescalleet internal coherence was not as important— at least not when he first started making it. As he explained to me in September, the album’s two parts— a 13-track disc called Trophy Tape and a one-track disc dubbed Road Test— were initially composed and recorded separately, and united only when Erstwhile label head Jon Abbey offered to release them together. But the pair turn out to be perfect companions, with Trophy Tape serving as a diverse suite of pieces that slyly reference Big Black’s Songs About Fucking (check out Ben Ratliff’s excellent review to see how), while Trophy Tape fuses uncannily similar moves, shifts, and divergences into a 43-minute journey that’s just as eventful.
For me, Songs About Nothing’s coherence isn’t as important is its unpredictability and indefinability. Lescalleet has always made sound that feels both narrative and formless, fully engaging yet never falling into easy patterns or comfortable paths. But here he’s taken that to a new level. No matter how many times I listen to Songs About Nothing, it continues to surprise me, in ways that make me question my own powers of memory. That’s especially impressive given that most of the album is subtle and even subdued; almost nothing jolts or shocks or screams for your attention, yet it still all dodges my expectations. Maybe that’s what the album title really means: these may be songs, and they’re definitely about something, but try to fit them into a box and they suddenly disappear.
By contrast, MOTION SICKNESS OF TIME TRAVEL’s self-titled double album isn’t something I’d call unpredictable— but that’s part of its charm. The sounds and techniques Rachel Evans uses to build her long pieces— each lasting over 20 minutes and occupying an LP side— have been used before, both by her and other artists (as I mentioned in my review, I hear a Emeralds, Windy & Carl, and Terry Riley, just for starters). Yet there’s not a moment devoid of Evans’ particular musical personality, and the way she can sound both relaxed and momentous, both meditative and riveting. It’s especially noticeable when she adds her mesmerizing voice, but every part of Motion Sickness of Time Travel has a bold confidence that makes it enthralling.
That confidence sets it apart from Evans’ previous efforts. Those were impressive on their own, but here she’s in a real zone, where even the seemingly toughest feats are easily within her calm grasp. Maybe that’s why her sound is sometimes cleaner and more accessible than before. Evans is unafraid of losing mystery or power by making everything clearer, nor does she worry that softer sounds might come off sentimental or simplistic. And she’s right— Motion Sickness of Time Travel is often languid, gentle, and soothing, but it’s never banal, dull, or anything but compelling. All its sounds and moods flow like a river, steady enough to transfix yet kinetic enough to excite.
A river might even be a better metaphor for DUANE PITRE’s Feel Free. The album’s slow-building drone feels like nature winding its inevitable path through time, and the accents from PItre’s ensemble— especially the harp and hammered dulcimer— mimic outdoor sounds like the lapping of waves and the rustle of wind in leaves. Such descriptions might tempt you to dismiss Feel Free as sonic wallpaper, the kind of thing that would quietly play in a New Age store without distracting you from the goods.
That would never work, though, because once Feel Free is on, it commands your attention. There’s a vibrating core to Pitre’s composition— and his ensemble’s execution— that makes all five sections practically shake with insistence. That’s perhaps due to his unique methodology. As he explained to Grayson in 2010, he centered Feel Free on harmonics played by guitars tuned in Just Intonation, then instructed his ensemble to accompany those harmonics by sticking within parameters but also adding some improvisation (i.e. space to “feel free”).
You might not hear all those detailed concepts on Feel Free, but you do hear forceful, unwavering sounds weaved into a single strand of musical thought. It’s simplicity forged from complexity, intricate layers that together deliver gut-level thrust. Zoom in and the individual elements can be parsed out, but the beauty of Feel Free is that its voices are all singing the same powerful song.