December 20th, 2012 | by ROBERT HAM Music | Posted In: Outer Worlds

Outer Worlds #5: Best of 2012

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Maybe it's my obnoxiously catholic taste in music, but narrowing my favorites of 2012 down to a mere 10 was a Herculean task. The past year was filled with sounds that threw me sideways, broke my brain, or had me reaching for the heavens out of sheer bliss. The list I've been keeping since January of my favorites seemed to grow exponentially by the week. 

So, when thinking about compiling a top 10 for Outer Worlds, I had to narrow my focus considerably, sticking only with local artists and bands. Even then, I had much to choose from, and was sadly forced to leave a number of fantastic releases out in the cold. 

After much hand-wringing and internal debate, I was able to finally chip it down to these 10 amazing releases from 2012. Do take some time to dip into the sound clips I've embedded with each one. I hope that you will become as inspired and engaged by the music as I continue to be. And as an added bonus, I've also included a short interview I did with the creators of my top pick. 

I'd also quickly like to thank you for reading my humble little column and hope that you'll continue to do so in 2013. I'm already scheming on what I'm going to cover for the first couple of months, and am excited to shine on a spotlight on them here. 

1. The Slaves - Spirit of the Sun (Digitalis) You will hear shades of the band's influences prickling at the edges of these four songs—the early 4AD catalog, eerie pop 45s, the ambient experiments of Brian Eno. Those only serve to electrify what this duo brings to life on its 2012 release; signposts to help you navigate this unmapped ground created using layer upon layer of synth, voices, and feedback from a microphone sent through a Vocoder. But once you get further lost within the folds of what the Slaves have constructed here, the happier you will be to simply let go and peacefully drink in the colorful, lustrous landscape. 



A Q&A with Birch Cooper and Barbara Kinzle of The Slaves 

You both grew up in Forest Grove, which while close enough to Portland was far enough away that a lot of the experimental bands and happenings didn't reach you. How were you able to learn about music like that?

BK: By inventing it. For me, I lived outside of Forest Grove so I was pretty isolated. I didn't have anywhere to go and there wasn't a lot of opportunity to learn about music. So I would listen to new age music because it was weirder than anything I was listening to at that time. That feeling carries over to what I do now. 

BC: We got to catch a lot of the cultural garbage of the '90s. A lot of interesting people became pop stars and were interested in cool music. So rural and suburban kids now could hear weird music. 

Once you found each other, how did the sound of the Slaves come to be? 

BC: We were just jamming a bunch of noise and drone and new age at the time. I went to a show and I had this idea: let's do a band that's drone but '50s pop. That was the initial structure of what we're trying to do. The '50s pop faded but you can still see how it led to [Spirits of the Sun]. 

How then did the music on Spirits come about? 

BK: This time, we weren't writing stuff down and didn't take time playing our songs live for a while before we recorded them. It's more of a studio album worked out one song at a time. 

BC: Our last album [Ocean on Ocean] was a leap for us in that we started using techniques like multi-tracking to four-track cassette. I think that's a big part of our sound now. 

BK: In our earlier stuff, we definitely used digital processes more. Even effects. I think you can hear the difference very strongly. It's much more hissy now. I like the feel of it. 

I wanted to ask about a couple of the songs on the album that really stood out for me. What can you tell me about "The Field"? 

BK: It all came from the synth part. And in our earlier stuff we were very poppy, and I wanted to get more textural. We've also never done an album without singing on all the songs. I wanted to try an instrumental. I like thinking of it as a breather, something to change the direction of the album. 

What about "The River"?

BK: That came from just jamming out. The funny thing about that one is that I felt the least confident about that song. I didn't want to have it on the album. We spent a lot of time away from it. At least a year. In coming back to it, it grew on me. I think it's actually the hit on the album now. 

You've said that the title of the song comes from the lyrics, but to my ears, I can't hear what you're singing on it. 

BK: I realize most people can't hear them. But it means a lot to me and they are meaningful to me. If people can get a hint of it, that's fine. It helps me at least to give me a feeling to go to when I'm singing it. 

BC: Songs are spells. 

BK: Yeah, they are. I'm not sure that I can say what the song is really about in a simple way. Basically it's about the sun rise and sun set, but it's a little more involved than that. 

Birch, you drew all the pieces used for the album art. What was your vision for the artwork? 

BC: I think I've always had a specific graphic vision for The Slaves. We look at a lot of metal album covers when we're brainstorming for album art ideas. It's really based in that world. We always want it to be very stark and stoic, particularly with Spirits, the black on white was a breakthrough. I've been drawing a lot of portals and that's what the cover is. 


2. Agalloch - Faustian Echoes (Dammerung Arts) Epic doesn't begin to cover what this black metal colossus achieves on this brooding interpretation of Goethe's masterwork. The 20 minute song unfurls like tendrils of smoke, building with intensity and fury as it goes. The flames end up licking at your feet by the time the track finally reaches its dramatic conclusion.


3. CCTV - CCTV (self-released) Hiding under the surface of the work Chris Cantino did in the mischievous rock group Archers was the heart of an experimentalist. And this year, the musician has been cracking open his chest to let us see and hear this side of his artistic personality. This long mixtape-style release bleeds together tracks and ideas into one swirling mass of art pop and TV static.  


4. Golden Retriever - Occupied With The Unspoken (Thrill Jockey) Of all the Portland artists that released music on Thrill Jockey (and there were plenty), the one that I kept returning to for a hit of "Serene Velocity" was this gorgeous album. The songs exercised a remarkable amount of restraint for how much ground the duo could have covered. Instead, Jonathan Sielaff and Matt Carlson spilled out burbles of melody and drone sparingly, leaving ample space for listeners to get caught up in their Zen musical experiments. 


5. Concern - Misfortune (Isounderscore) Gordon Ashworth has said that this is the last album he will put out under the Concern moniker. If so, what a send off he has given this project. The core of the album is constructed using a 15 string box harp, an acoustic instrument that he takes into another dimension by manipulating the sound in either subtle or grand ways. The resulting work brings together everything from African folk songs to haunting Appalachian ballads, crystallizing them together into a gleaming swirl of sound. 


6. AU - Both Lights (Hometapes) Arguably the most pop record on this list, or at least the one that relies most heavily on clear verse/chorus designations. Nothing else about the album comes as expected, with angular horn sections meeting Dana Valatka's wowing drum work and the sheer passion of Luke Wyland's vocals and keyboards. Both Lights is probably the most joyous and empowered of the 2012 season, as well, urging listeners and band alike forward on the last track with the simple refrain: "Don't lie down!"


7. Adderall Canyonly & Oxykitten - The Cutting Room (Field Hymns) Dylan McConnell and Wayne Longer have referred to their collaborative effort as "experimental nostalgia." I can think of no better way to sum up the feelings that their cassette release drummed up. The pair's dueling and jabbing synth lines feel completely new even though they are connected to the world of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the German pseudo-New Age experimentation of the '70s. 


8. Inez Lightfoot - Familiars (Digitalis) Stripped of its ghostly echoes, drones, and layers of sonic smog, the new album by this musical wanderer would sound close to a Smithsonian Folkways field recording release from the '60s. But it would also not have the same power to enrapture as it now does thanks to Ms. Lightfoot's ability to turn the traditions of folk inside out using modern technology and methodology. 
 

9. Jason Urick - I Love You (Thrill Jockey) The former Marylander is a fixture behind the turntables here in his adopted hometown, letting out his love of African pop and dub to any and all who will listen. Here, though, Urick continues his exploration of a grand universe of sound. It pays heed to those above genres, but through a lens of half-remembered dreams and bad Skype connections. 


10. Sun Hammer + Radere - Lotophagen (Future Sequence) The collaboration between Jay Bodley and Carl Ritger, two brilliant musical architects, coaxes you in at the beginning. You want to lean and catch every piece of the field recordings and what sounds like industrial grinding coming at you from behind a three foot thick wall of concrete. But from there, the album explodes smack in your face, letting feedback and drone and static roughly envelop your person. It only gets better, and more immersive, from there. 

 
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