You can’t deny that Hyperdub is moving away from its original mooring to another place within electronic music. Purists will bemoan it, critics will pontificate upon it, and loyalists will champion it. Whatever the case, the label now stands as a reflection of Kode9’s broad tapestry of musical vision, and that’s presently a sound that reaches from DVA’s technicolour bump of Pretty Ugly to the recent Hype Williams-but-not offering from Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland. Now we have something equally adventurous (both in art and Kode’s A&Ring) from Laurel Halo.
We’ll save you the usual rhetoric that surrounds these lists – that of it being hard to translate electronic music into the traditional long player format – and we won’t bother dissecting the argument that the modern consumption of music lessens the importance of albums; for our money there’s still nothing more rewarding that settling in and listening to an LP in its glorious entirety.
What we have done, however, is hand pick our 20 favourite albums from the past 12 months. Those of you who traverse these pages on a regular basis will see a liberal sprinkling of the artists and labels we’ve supported all year (and hopefully a couple of surprises too).
We have endeavored only to select albums that have truly moved us, ones that we find ourselves returning to again and again. In our minds 2011 was a vintage year for albums – the wondrous breadth of style and substance in our top 20 testifies to that – and we’ve included detailed descriptions of each release in our list for your reading pleasure.
RVNG’s FRKWYS series is one of the most interesting projects being undertaken by any record label right now. Encouraging collaborations and remixes between contemporary artists and those that have influenced them, series highlights include Juan Atkins remixing Psychic Ills and a collaboration between ARP and Anthony Moore. This, the seventh entry into the series sees the most exciting line-up of artists yet, with US synth legend David Borden teaming up with Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), Laurel Halo, James Ferraro and Samuel Godin, arguably the cream of the contemporary US synth revivalist scene.
The collaboration came out of Lopatin’s and RVNG’s mutual admiration for Borden’s 1981 album Music For Amplified Keyboards and Instruments, and the group formed for this LP is in effect a contemporary reimagining of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, Borden’s synthesiser ensemble formed in 1969. In that spirit, the album is very much an ensemble piece; although signatures of each artist can be heard within the tracks (which were recorded in full session takes over a two day period in August 2010), the compositions are wise never to let any one member hog the limelight for an extended period.
The album primarily evokes the kind of natural soundscapes that David Borden’s classic work is known for. “People of the Wind Pt. 1” is characterised by drawn out chords that undulate breezily beneath the surface, though Lopatin’s otherworldly Juno-60 tones are instantly recognisable, punctuating the serenity with the requisite amount of drama. “Part 2” of this track reverses the emotional effect; the structural backbone of the track has echoes of Borden’s classic “Enfield In Winter”, with a dramatic organ tone running beneath, while new age synth flutes lighten the tension. Borden’s music has typically come from a more classical standpoint, and on these tracks his influence is obvious.
“Internet Gospel Pt. 1” is a much more difficult track to get a handle on; the organic nature of the relationship between the performers brings a real sense of chaos into the composition, which constantly pulls off in different directions to the point where it can seem bottomless, one minute it sounds like an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack piece, the next evoking the swirling ambient of Cluster & Eno. “Part 2” is similarly lacking in gravity, constantly being kept buoyant by what sound like Ferraro’s oddball wave transmissions, complete with chords given monstrous life through pitch and modulation wheels. It’s arguably the most exciting track, building from these experimental tones into the kind of drifting, densely layered textures that make up Ferraro and Lopatin’s solo material.
Most notable throughout the album is the relative absence of arpeggios, probably the most overused element of the language of synthesiser music. It’s something worth noting; arpeggios are so often used as shorthand to cheaply imbue drama or meaning into otherwise unremarkable tracks. Album closer “Twilight Pacific” is a prime example of arpeggios done well; baroque tones sit beneath a sea of slow, breezy arpeggiated drones, whilst managing to maintain an element of uncertainty making it difficult to find your emotional bearings. The best of this type of music undoubtedly shouldn’t force its meaning on you, and as such this collaboration is up there with Cluster’s school of German kosmische complexity.