I know, I know, I know. I let you all down. My weekly post hasn’t come up until now, barely squeaking in to the Thursday deadline. For those of you concerned about my lack of a “Nobody Listens to…” post today (and I’m sure there’s at least…one(?) of you), I’m glad to say all is well and I’m still writing about music that my friends haven’t ever heard of. Just to make it up to my dedicated readers, you’ll get a full post tonight and a short one tomorrow afternoon. You’ve earned it.
Having gotten that out of the way, this week I’m bringing you the Avalanches
I don’t know exactly how or when the Avalanches came into my life. I know my friend Michelle mentioned how great their song “Frontier Psychiatrist” was to me in the Spring of 2010, and that shortly thereafter that track was all over WIUX student radio in Bloomington. In a way that oddly suits the group’s music, my experience with the Avalanches has since that general moment been lurking in the background like bits and pieces of other peoples’ conversations.
And that may be one of the best ways to describe the Avalanches’ sound. Formed originally as a noise punk outfit in the late 1990s, the Melbourne, Australia-based trio of Robbie Chater, Tony Diblasi, and Darren Seltmann has been the core of a musical collective that has taken on a complex electronic sample-based process for creating music since late 1998. After spending nearly two years compiling and sequencing over three thousand samples (both musical and otherwise), the Avalanches’ debut albumSince I Left Youwas released to critical acclaim in the band’s native Australia and the U.K. in 2001. Since I Left Youhas been billed as an exhaustive work of “plunderphonics”, a genre of music characterized by the composition of music entirely from disparate samples. Featuring a multitude of clips from musical pieces, analog drum machines, and television and film, the album appears to tell a story through sentences in which each word is pulled from a different source. While unbelievably labor-intense, this approach creates a listening experience that fits as easily in the background of a social gathering as in the immediate fore of the listener’s focus.
As the songs on Since I Left Youare composed entirely of samples, ordinary or mundane musical and generic audio ideas are used in entirely novel ways. Record scratches punctuate “thoughts” articulated by the disjointed vocal samples that come together in a sentence-like form. Vocal and speech samples become musical instruments (much in line with the philosophies of Wu-tang Clan leader and producer the RZA), and instruments sing out as though they are harmonizing with vocal parts that don’t exist. Especially when listened to in stereo, Since I Left Youconstantly unveils deeper layers of bells and whistles (often literally). Tracks oscillate from the sublimely repetitive and abstract, such as “Summer Crane” (special recognition belongs to the guitar solo constructed out of individual samples of jazz chords), to the direct and thematic, such as “Frontier Psychiatrist” (which spawned this brilliant music video). Recurring throughout are soulful vocal lines, which play dramatically over string lines that give the effect of an eerily soulless disco ballad. The title track is perhaps the best example of this, with the refrain of “Since I left you/I found the world so new” intoned repeatedly over bouncing light soul strings, jazz flute, and glockenspiel (a breakdown of every sample in this song was formerly found at consequenceofsound.net, but it appears to be offline at the moment). To suggest that the band members of the Avalanches themselves didn’t make any music of their own for the record misses the point entirely, as this level of precision and arrangement betrays a definite sense of musical composition and dedication to an instrument. Though that instrument in question is generally the turntable or the sampler, the members of the Avalanches undoubtedly created a highly unique and creative work withSince I Left You.
All of this is also not to say that the Avalanches aren’t musicians and performers in the more traditional sense as well. Since the worldwide release of Since I Left You, the Avalanches have sold out venues worldwide, performing live with samplers and electronic instruments (a theremin!) alongside electric bass, drums, and analog keyboards. The three founders of the group (Chater, Seltmann, and Diblasi) also frequently gave appearances as DJs for live performances as well.
Eleven years after the release of Since I Left You, clamor for a follow-up album remains among fans of the group. Sources close to the band indicate a sophomore work has been in production since 2005, and in early 2012 two American musicians confirmed their participation as guest vocalists. The Avalanches’ official website is currently “taking a break”, but the group can still be found on twitter at the handle @TheAvalanches, as well as through most other social media outlets. Nobody seems to be listening to the Avalanches right now, but the innovative way in which the group has produced electronic music is fascinating to observe and listen to, and an incoming second album that has been highly anticipated within the group’s cult following should make the Avalanches a group to keep one’s proverbial eye on.