Alternate Routes is a column from Flavorwire contributor and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow, in which he’ll explore music solely distributed outside the Big 3 of Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.
Aphex Twin’s recent celebration of digital freedoms in the form of a massive SoundCloud dump is the opposite of a new paradigm for the music industry. For starters, Richard D. James isn’t (directly) making any money off the nearly 200 tracks and counting he has posted since late January under the name user48736353001, even enabling the “download” option on material that once might’ve constituted several hefty box sets. For another, James’ feat almost definitely isn’t repeatable. In a matter of weeks, James more than doubled the amount of music in his already weighty discography. But whether or not it represents any kind of new direction in music distribution, it clearly constitutes a new kind of experience for the obsessed listener, and a perfect channel for James’ prolific brand of dense electronic music.
Fans have leaped to the task of annotation, sorting the material by year, synth, drum machine, and more. None of this really resolves any of the significant mystery spaces opened by the zero-to-bizarro chrysalis of “24 Casiotribaltronics Mfm” or the Boards of Canada-like spooky-kid-talk-plus-countermelody of “Make a Baby,” two-and-a-half minutes of small-stepping synth lines that seem like they could take another 20 to properly unfold. James covers a lot of ground, from big thumps to more esoteric fare. There are sproinging gearwork constructions (“Metal Beat”) and echoing cave systems lurking beneath beats (“Phase Acid”).
Most recently, user48736353001 has started to curate himself, making period-specific playlists, including “SAW 1.5,” which falls halfway between Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, 1985-1992 and Selected Ambient Works Volume II. There are compiled best-of mixes, too, and — best of all — hypothetical albums, like the excellent Selected Ambient Works Volume III (beta).
And while much of it is quite good, user48736353001’s work also serves as a set-up for James’ other surprise release this January, the extraordinary Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 EP (released properly) on Warp. Therein, perhaps, robot-beings play James’ demanding and new electro-acoustic compositions, a rich new direction. There is no pt1, though one hopes user48736353001 might eventually have something to say about that.
Like Aphex Twin, the Los Angeles-based electronic musician M. Geddes Gengras can make intricate, foreboding music. But Systems 1 — a new digital release of his three-cassette set from 2012 — is like discovering a grotto of gentle bleep-streams and calming swirling whorls far from the bzz-bzz. Made with modular synths and tape echo (and named only with text symbols) the six extended pieces — none shorter than 20 minutes — set gradually changing moods, like custom-fitted VR atmospheres rippling in a space-age jungle rooms. Only the upper register chattering of “˜” might set one’s alpha-waves a-flutter, but as its tone set establishes itself over 20 minutes, it settles into a kind of cleansing and penetrating aural wash. Though there’s plenty to listen to in Gengras’ Systems, it is mostly music to hang out with, or inside.
And then there’s Jim O’Rourke — the erstwhile Chicago wunderkind and prolific John Fahey/Wilco/Sonic Youth/Tortoise/too-many-to-name collaborator — who decamped to Japan in 2005 with vague talk of “retirement.” Instead, O’Rourke has made a new and even more prolific life as producer/arranger for arty J-popper Eiko Ishibashi, as a man about the Japanese improv scene, and via the ongoing Steamroom releases on Bandcamp. Issuing 18 full-lengths since mid-2013 (in addition to more formal projects), O’Rourke alternates remastered archival work with fresh compositions.
Of his newest, Steamroom 17, released in January, is perhaps the most stunning. Instead of the stasis and odd silences of other recent works (like Steamroom 13 and 2009’s sweeping The Visitor) the 38-minute “Nevertheless” is an O’Rourke picaresque filled with constant action. A quiet piano transforms into rainstorm of snare/static and opens into a rolling ocean, swelling strings, and field recordings of a fireworks show. Recorded some 15 years earlier in Chicago, “Then Left” — the entirety of Steamroom 18, released in February — feels like an earlier iteration of a similar idea, a long motion-filled unfolding of smaller scenes and electro-acoustic episodes. Parallel to the dramatic meticulousness of turn-of-the-century set pieces like Bad Timing, O’Rourke’s modular epics have a grandeur all their own.
Part of the South African supergroup Fantasma, Zulu guitarist/vocalist Vukazithathe has a pair of solo tracks to his name on his SoundCloud page, along with a South African phone number to call if one wants to hear the full album. Both are structured similarly–an acoustic prelude, a groove, an AutoTuned call-and-response chorus–but one is merely very good and the other is irresistible. “Lyahlonishwa Indoda” positively soars, waiting a full minute-and-a-half before reaching its feel-good center.
Though known (perhaps) for a briefly viral video that posited Mukimukimanmansu as South Korea’s answer to OOIOO, folk-punk girls sing-shouting awesomely together, a perusal of their Soundcloud demos yields at least one totally ineffable bit of strange-folk. Google’s translations of the lyrics make “방화범” (“Firebug”) no less strange, but it’s the duo’s double-tracked voices that lift the song into the rarified air of “Kandore Mandore,” the 1969 Japanese folk-pop hit that achieved a just-exactly-perfect lightness.
There hasn’t been much solo work from British-born Brooklyn transplant Doug Shaw since the 2011 Best Bless EP recorded as Highlife, but his SoundCloud yields occasional treasures. The cream of it is perhaps a fragile tape-warped cover Captain Beefheart’s “I’m Glad,” but the new “Come Smoke” features propulsive acoustic guitar and a brief evocative lyric o’ seduction before the guitar down-shifts into a slightly more pastoral mode, but no less alluring.
From the far-off continent of Los Angeles comes Jeff Bridges’ Sleeping Tapes. “Sleeping. Tapes. I love that idea. And all that it implies,” the close-mic’ed Dude pronounces. Soon coming in actual cassette form, the project owes more to the peculiar internet phenomenon of Autonomous Sensory Median Response recordings. ASMR YouTube videos, like those by the New Zealand group Kiwiwhispers, feature prolonged sessions of very hushed talk designed for the zzzzzzz. Bridges’ version is a bit more uptempo, so to speak, but collaborators Keefus Ciancia and Doug Sax help the Dude discover a hybrid form somewhere between the Kiwis and a spaced-out celebrity vanity project. “I hope they inspire you do some cool sleepin’,” Bridges drawls in full Lebowski. Perhaps. But where Ciancia and Sax are allowed full reign to turn Bridges’s voice into music, like slowly descending setting of “hummmmmm,” it’s a surprisingly good listen, which (coupled with a Super Bowl ad launch) put The Sleeping Tapes in the running for a classic spaced-out celebrity vanity project for the new era.