Halim El Dabh’s tape music might have been one of the first cited journeys into music concrete, and the exploration of the recorded medium being a combination of sounds and experiments, but it is a long voyage from there to The Avalanches. Mellotrons and sampling, Grandmaster Flash and scratching, DJ Shadow and many others. These elements all lead to the creation of the first, and for 16 years, only Avalanches album.
Since I Left You was heralded as an astounding body of work and many music journalists credit it as being one of the best albums of the new millennium. Extending sampling to beyond lifting a loop, the Avalanches combined miniscule samples to create a backdrop and seamless play of tracks. Allegedly made up of over 3500 samples, although some would have you believe it’s an infinite number.
Between Since I Left You and now, The Avalanches have released probably over 4 albums, if album announcements and teases were reality. The stalled efforts eventually ended in a game of cry wolf, and in March 2016 when another snippet of information hinting at completion appeared, skepticism was utmost high. However, with several dates lined up for festivals it seemed far more likely to be on the cards.
In June of 2016 Wildflower was released on XL Records. With its American flag inspired artwork with butterfly and petals, and a soothing childish colour palette, many genuinely thought the album could not live up to expectation. Miraculously, unlike so many other dormant releases, Wildflower truly works. Let’s explore.
Wildflower in essence follows the same formula as Since I Left You. Painstaking attention to detail on sound effects and background textures is apparent from the beginning to the end. One major change however is the addition of new vocal performances on tracks as well as instrumentation in places; Kevin Parker of Tame Impala adds drums to ‘Going Home’ and Warren Ellis adds violin to ‘Stepkids’ for example.
The band manage to capture a range of feelings and emotions akin to an acid fuelled holiday on a floating island. Nothing is off-limits in terms of sampling either, although there is a favouritism towards harps and legato string sections. The structures are fluid and kaleidoscopic in ways more than the original album managed. It’s staggering how well the track listing works considering the alleged amount of tracks worked on for the album. There are no awkward crashes from one track to the next. There is a consistent tempo and pace throughout, there are moments frozen in time before they rush back into life.
Certain tracks work as individually (the singles like Subways and Frankie Sinatra), however it is almost flawless in its fluidity. The Wozard of Iz is trip hop with large drums, demanding bass, conjuring choirs, and looped chants. It explodes into pieces of piano jazz and then returns before becoming filtered and hidden. I am pretty sure they also reused the horse sample from Frontier Psychiatrist in it. Danny Brown’s rap verses throughout on Frankie Sinatra and Wozard work surprisingly well, if anything a whole album like that would be a promising light holiday alternative to Madvillainy.
There are flashes of baroque circus, like a feathering meld of Pet Sounds, although twisted in its concoction. One thing to point out, there’s less turntablism noticeable on the album, instead it feels more built and computer edited yet never sounding synthetic and contrived. The influence of and inspiration of other Australian music coming out like Tame Impala is also notable.
The sly touches of shrewd flanging and phasing, the gated Motown drum sound, the quick loops and edits, and general movement makes the album very dynamic and natural sounding. Capturing the true reality of an incredible acid trip, you are surrounded by glimpses of sounds underpinned with strong hooks. Colours makes use of reversed samples on top of the same thing being played forward. It comes midway through the album and so it sort of represents those moments in a trip where you feel the time distortions growing exponentially. The baited breath as you fall into the rabbit hole.
In terms of track structure, the album starts with several of the longer tracks and then in the middle it is far more expositional and wandering. By the end the last 5 tracks get long again, falling into an afterglow of a trip, you begin to regain consciousness.
Saturday Night Inside Out and Stepkids round the album. Stepkids is exceptionally mellow. Saturday Night Inside Out combines large drums over a repeated vocal synth sound that glides between notes (it’s always accompanied by a fifth) and some guitar pieces (which I believe are new). This album feels designed to be reengineered for live performances and it works wonderfully.
If Burial is king of the night time melancholy, then Avalanches are king of lagooning around under sunrises. It is rare for a long gap between albums to yield such a rewarding album. It is exceptionally enjoyable, easy to listen and yet full of delicate pieces for the ear to trace and paint. It’s catchy without forcing melodies and structures, it’s comical, yet sincere. The only thing to ask from the album, is to hear some of the strong tracks that didn’t make the cut as they didn’t fit. Let’s hope for an EP in the coming year.
… by coming year, I mean an Avalanche year, so take Valve time and multiply by a factor of six.
1. The Leaves Were Falling
2. Because I’m Me (ft. Camp Lo)
3. Frankie Sinatra (ft. Danny Brown & MF Doom)
5. Going Home
6. If I Was a Folkstar (ft. Toro y Moi)
7. Colours (ft. Jonathan Donahue)
9. The Noisy Eater (ft. Biz Markie & Jean-Michel Bernard)
12. Live a Lifetime Love
13. Park Music
14. Livin’ Underwater (Is Something Wild)
15. The Wozard of Iz (ft. Danny Brown)
16. Over the Turnstiles
18. Light Up
19. Kaleidoscope Lovers
20. Stepkids (ft. Jennifer Herrema & Warren Ellis)
21. Saturday Night Inside Out (ft. Father John Misty & David Berman)