So, having listened to no fewer than 261 EPs and albums released this year, it’s time to distil that listening into the annual Best of the Year lists. As always, we’ll start with the ten most exceptional EPs.
10 | Gazelle Twin – Mammal
Elizabeth Walling’s first release of new material since 2011’s dazzling The Entire City contains a trio of songs plus a quartet of remixes. The former are deeply impressive; ‘I Turn My Arm’ may well be her most impassioned song to date, all the more far-reaching due to emerging out of Walling’s characteristic sedate solemnity. As for the latter, unlike pretty much all examples today these remixes are well worth hearing, sensitive re-interpretations that tease out fresh aspects of the originals.
9 | Braids – In Kind // Amends
Braids have a rather exciting habit of playing cat and mouse with singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s voice. In many ways, she’s a new Elizabeth Fraser (yes, she really is that good), but many’s the time when the band keeps that to itself, subduing the vocals or peppering them with jolting electronica. When let loose, though, Braids’ songs attain the kind of soaring delirium few groups can match. ‘In Kind’ captures this best, transforming itself from aspirational verses to a vision-filled chorus at gloriously unexpected altitude.
[Arbutus | Boomkat]
8 | Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Devotion
An outstanding example of how to frame an argument within the context of noise and scrunch, and then to transcend it entirely. Forcing material to fend for itself in fields of harsh disjecta membra is commonplace almost to the point of cliché nowadays, but Cantu-Ledesma somehow makes the two elements feel interdependent. This symbiosis emphasises the beauty of each aspect, resulting in some of the most strikingly original and graceful ambient music not just in 2013 but of recent years.
7 | Yugen – Observations On Trance Or Human Hybernation
David Sani’s latest creation meditates on source materials culled from self-hypnosis recordings. That suggests soft restraint, but Sani whips up these sources into a dense, polyvalent texturescape, passing through noisy clouds of obfuscation, passages of obliquely audible speech, industrial-strength static clusters, near silences and mesmerising drones. Not so much episodic as evolutionary, it’s Sani’s most wide-ranging and inventive work to date.
[Yugen Art – free download]
6 | Christopher McFall – Quivering into your blood night radio
McFall’s work seems more like the product of a sonic blacksmith than anything else, and his latest release only reinforces that impression. This time his attention is focused on field recordings of the atmosphere and activity of Kansas City’s Union Station, forging from them another impossibly dark, nocturnal study. McFall’s ability to unsettle comes not from the merely theatrical affectations of dark ambience but by tapping into the inherently uncanny qualities of his materials. It pervades both pieces on this EP, some of which resound as if from a bottomless pit, others seemingly emerging out of one’s own head.
[Impulsive Habitat – free download]
5 | Access to Arasaka – écrasez l’infâme
One of the masters of contemporary glitchtronics, Rob Lioy’s only release of 2013 occupies a more meditative space than much of his previous work. It takes a while to make its mark, but the latter half of this 6-track EP positively burns with intensity, moving from a scalding semi-stasis into the kind of rug-pulling beatcraft for which Access to Arasaka is justly renowned. Yet the emphasis here is on rich, ominous clouds of nebulosity, an aspect Lioy has hitherto usually kept in the background. Considering the question posed by the album’s accompanying notes—”What infamous thing do you wish to eradicate?”—this shift in focus perhaps foretells interesting developments for 2014.
4 | Autechre – L-event
The boys are back with four tracks that in some ways return to the kind of elliptical elongations heard on 2005’s Untilted. They share that album’s strong sense of momentum and clear surface evolution, the beats emerging as if through multiple layers of filtering gauze. However, the brevity of these tracks bolsters their directness, projecting clarity and immediacy despite the music’s abundant inner complexities.
3 | voidesque – the water test
Since his first release at the start of last year, Derek Jeppsen has become one of the most interesting figures in experimental IDM. Although still a relatively unknown voice, that situation may well change after an extremely productive 2013, which saw no fewer than half a dozen releases (all freely available). His music is for the most part concise and concentrated, and while the three tracks on the water test together last barely 10 minutes, the amount of invention piled into them, combined with Jeppsen’s increasing propensity toward unchecked aggression, makes them powerful and cutting.
[self-release – free download]
2 | Kenneth Kirschner – March 15, 2013
Kirschner’s highly diverse work has taken a demonstrative turn in the direction of synthetic chamber music in the last few years, and this release demonstrates an especially striking example of it. Like so much of Kirschner’s music it comports itself via slowly-moving materials (Feldman is an abiding inspiration) that are behaviourally limited and timbrally shrouded. The effect created is immersive and mysterious, even magical, but this 22-minute piece sets itself apart from related works in the way its air of suspension is aggressively broken in its latter half.
[self-release – free download]
1 | Man Without Country – Entropy Pt. 1
In my recent appraisal of Man Without Country, i noted how, with this remarkable EP, “the songs have outgrown themselves and become vast anti-paeans, the scale of their themes requiring not just musical but physical space. In short, they sound big, their scale reinforced by unstoppable percussion and a rare, aching lyricism that enables the songs to attain dizzying heights”. i won’t just echo those sentiments here, i’ll underline them. 2013 is a year that’s seen heavily hyped, over-discussed releases from many of the leading figures in contemporary pop, and even the best have shown themselves to be wearyingly predictable, lyrically mundane and lacking real imagination.
Seen alongside that kind of crestfallen clamour, both the ingenuity and the lyrical clout of Man Without Country’s music stand tall and clear. As i mentioned previously, there’s an element of lyrical retreat (or, at least, reticence) in the four songs that make up Entropy Pt. 1, but the sentiments impelling those songs is as palpable as ever. The duo’s fondness for alternating huge, synth-driven outbursts and subdued, semi-whispers lends them a particular kind of emotive power, but quite apart from that, the exquisite beauty that permeates Man Without Country’s songs distinguishes them as leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. This EP is their most mature release to date, and on the strength of it they are surely one of the hottest prospects for 2014. To quote myself again, “This is about as good as contemporary electronic pop gets”.