Published Dec 13, 2019The experimental music world plays by its own rules. Free of the trends and scenes that define other genres, avant-garde artists exist outside of the boundaries. In 2019 this took many forms — veterans celebrated their careers with reissues (Ryuichi Sakamoto), breakout songwriters launched cryptic new projects (like the Grouper spinoff Nivhek), and prolific boundary-pushers dabbled in a string of collaborations (Oren Ambarchi). To sum up the best of the best, here are Exclaim's 10 Best Experimental Music Figures of 2019 — in alphabetical order, because how the hell is anyone supposed to rank such one-of-a-kind artists?
In 2019, Constellation Records put out an astounding percentage of the year's best music, from Young Galaxy's Stephen Ramsay and the Besnard Lakes' Jace Lasek's experimentally anthemic Sequence One (as Light Conductor) to Sandro Perri's aptly-titled Soft Landing. This was due to the Montreal imprint's fine ear for new talent (like Soundcloud wunderkind Joni Void), their ability to nurture their current roster (including Matana Roberts' powerful COIN COIN series), and penchant to recognize what made them great in the first place (putting out Fly Pan Am's first record since 2004). In its 22nd year, Constellation Records finally cemented its legacy as Canada's — and maybe the universe's — most audacious record label.
French artist and poet Félicia Atkinson crafted The Flower and the Vessel while pregnant and on tour, but she describes the result as "a record not about being pregnant but a record made with pregnancy." While the underlying process was an attempt to find a means to be connected in circumstances that felt foreign to her, the material is some of her most alluring thus far. There is a sense of voids filled, of disjointed narratives unfolding, and of an invasion of magical realism. Atkinson has always imbued her music with story fragments, which she has finally revealed to be a continuum. This year, she also released of the first entry in what will surely be a longer series, the novel A Forest Petrifies: Diamond Feedback.
What a time to come out of the shadows. FET.NAT have long been bringing their uniquely psychotic mix of Pierre-Luc Clément's slick basslines and guitar work, Linsey Wellman's sax freakouts, and Olivier Fairfield's supreme drum grooves to Hull's underground. With the one and only JFNo leading this experimental band of brothers, the rest of the music world in 2019 found out for themselves the fun (and madness) that lay ahead.
Their latest record, Le Mal, was a quantum leap forward, but still as manic, glitchy and fun as we've come to expect, showing two diverse halves of the same freaky whole with its two-part structure — with the second half recreating the compositions of the first half with MIDI instrumentation. It earned them a spot on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist, where the gala audience got to experience the pure glory of their live act in an incredibly danceable yet blistering medley. Let this be a wake-up call that the weird are wonderful, and that FET.NAT are here to stay.
Harrowing. Visceral. Cathartic. These are just some of the terms that can be used to describe Kristin Hayter's work under the Lingua Ignota name. A multi-instrumentalist and intensely captivating performer, her newest record, Caligula, is an uncompromising, arresting portrait of vengeance and survival. Showing beauty and horror in equal parts, the live facet of Lingua Ignota is an intimate and intense experience and one that is undeniably fitting to the material it conveys, with vivid video projections and a strong sense of community empowerment. The classical influences (especially her dynamic vocal range, which can express some of the darkest thoughts in a beautiful vibrato) underlie a brutality and noise factor which forces you to confront the demons she's seen. These are songs that Hayter describes as "survivor anthems," and a reclaiming of a long-occupied male space into something necessary and truly vital. Lingua Ignota is committed to her work, and it's clear her presence in the experimental world is one of strength and determination.
2019 found Liz Harris moving within a dreamlike orbit. Early in the year the artist, who is mostly recognizable as Grouper, surprisingly dropped a double LP under the name Nivhek. After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house is rife with ghostly choral vocals and a murky, uneasy vibe. It is ambient music for the anxious. Harris amplified this musty solemnity with a performance at this year's Berlin Atonal festival. Coupled with the reissue of some of her most enthralling Grouper material (the A|A LPs, which arrived via Kranky in October), this return to ambient modalities is surely a signifier for further gorgeous melancholy to come.
Mark de Clive-Lowe
New Zealand-born keyboardist and producer Mark de Clive-Lowe has been many things over his career. Now in his mid-40s, he's never bee more creative and productive than he was this year. As the title of his 15th and 16th albums would suggest, Heritage and its companion Heritage II explored heritage, namely MdCL's Japanese ancestry. Each track here plays off of this theme, incorporating traditional folk melodies or references to samurai warriors and sacred temples amidst the collected contributions of Josh Johnson (alto sax, flute), Teodross Avery (tenor sax), Brandon Eugene Owens (bass), Carlos Niño (percussion), and Brandon Combs (drums). Mark de Clive-Lowe ties it all together with his own piano, Rhodes, synths and assorted programming, tweaking contemporary space-age jazz hybridity with subtle electronic glitches and growls of refreshing organic instrumentation.
His third full-length of the year, CHURCH Sessions, was an even more collaborative effort. A melting pot of live-remix DJ and modern jazz cultures, the Sessions showcased more direct hip-hop and broken beat influences while also reinterpreting canonic jazz compositions. It's a testament to Mark de Clive-Lowe's vision that the laundry list of contributors on that collection culminate in something that sounds so wholly unified.
In 2019, Don Giovanni released Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, the highly anticipated second LP from Camae Ayewa, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The Philadelphia artist also toured Europe with DJ Haram as 700 Bliss and appeared on Haram's solo debut, Grace, on a 700 Bliss remix of EP track "Candle Light." She also featured on a series of tracks from Justin Broadrick (Godflesh) and Kevin Martin (The Bug)'s Zonal project — first on Adult Swim single "On the Range," and then on several tracks from their Wrecked LP. Somewhere in there, she also logged 20 dates with free-jazz ensemble Irreversible Entanglements, gigged with Roscoe Mitchell, premiered a new show with the London Contemporary Orchestra called The Great Bailout, and curated a fortnight of music, performance, spoken word, talks, workshops, and installation at London's ICA with the Black Quantum Futurism collective.
With some artists whose output relies on technical ingenuity, it's hard to appreciate their prowess in recorded form. And while seeing Frahm perform live brings his material to dizzying heights, he has the ability to encapsulate his considerable skills in his compositions and transmit them through whichever tool the listener employs. It's impossible to overstate Frahm's talent as a composer and a musician, nor his commitment to the craft, especially considering his humility. Even his sketches, like the collection of songs featured on recently released All Encores, manage to bristle with greatness.
While he's always been a prolific artist, 2019 was a banner year for Australian composer and multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, with five new collaborative albums, a mid-year festival at Café Oto in the UK called Oren Ambarchi at 50 / Black Truffle at 10, plus a baker's dozen of curated releases on the aforementioned Black Truffle label. Amidst his playing and championing all manner of "difficult music" and a globetrotting tour schedule, perhaps the jewel in the year's crowning achievements was Simian Angel, a July release on Editions Mego. Featuring two extended pieces realized in collaboration with Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, the album found the duo in a hybrid zone that lightly collided with elements resembling Popol Vuh's sacred space or Jon Hassel's "Fourth World." It is a mind- and heart-opening listen that delivered with every revisit.
In his near 50-year career, prolific Japanese artist Ryuichi Sakamoto's work has always felt vital; not even a cancer battle in 2014 managed to slow down his output or his activism. His 1978 debut solo album Thousand Knives Of recently received a vinyl reissue, and it's impossible not to marvel at his uncanny ability to fuse the modern with the timeless, often in a single composition. From the astonishing number of film soundtracks he's composed, most recently the unsettlingly beautiful score for French film Proxima, to his 20 solo albums, Sakamoto is an inexhaustible well of creativity.