Félicia Atkinson’s Music Is Full of Whispers, Both Intimate and Terrifying

Free Radicals is THUMP’s column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they’re meaningful.

Félicia Atkinson is coming for your throat. At least that’s what it feels like on “Valis,” the second piece on Hand in Hand, which the French composer released earlier this month on Shelter Press, the label she runs with Bartolomé Sanson.

A few seconds into the track, a sound shudders into the mix that you feel as much as you hear: a high-pitched fluttering that lodges itself somewhere behind your tongue. It sorta feels like like a hornet trying to flap its way out of your esophagus, though friends I’ve played the track for have described feeling it in their spines or on roof of the mouth.

Either way, it feels invasive—an unsettling reminder of the penetrative properties of sound. Even when you listen to music with cheap earbuds, you’re bombarding your cells, and the air around them, with vibrations that have the possibility of transforming anything they touch. Hand in Hand is full of moments like these. Between the acrylic-on-chalkboard creaks of “Monstera Deliciosa,” the stomach-rumbling bass of “Vermillions,” it’s a record that will get you thinking about sound as a physical force.

Atkinson has been playing with these sorts of ideas for a little over a decade now. Under her own name and the moniker Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier, she’s made collagist compositions that stitch together intimate human whispers, samples of domestic objects (like what sounds like chairs squeaking across the floor, or a closing door), with broken-sounding electronics.

The narratives are hard to ascertain, as she speaks in both English and French and her recited passages are as deliberately gnarled as the instrumentals. Vocals jump between channels, words get obscured by ringing bells or sounds that swirl like helicopter blades. “No Fear But Anticipation,” from Hand in Hand, gets pretty close to a full thought about the role of cognition in romantic and sexual desire; but even that is deliberately obscure, like a thesis-shaped idea just out of reach.

All of which is to say, that her work is pretty singular. From the 2013 collection Visions/Voices through Hand in Hand, she’s made music that feels sort of like listening to thoughts from inside of her head, as if in some cochlear cosmic accident, her nerves got fused to yours in a misfiring bundle of electrical impulses. It hurts, of course, but it’s kind of intimate too.

A few weeks after the release of Hand in Hand, we caught up with Atkinson via email to talk about how she came to composing these strangely physical pieces, as well as her relationship to the quasi-scientific phenomenon of ASMR and the alien power of the Buchla synth.

THUMP: Can you tell me about your upbringing? Was your family very musically or artistically inclined?
Félicia Atkinson: I am the only child of a French dad who was a psychiatric nurse interested in Indian philosophy and contemporary music, and a Polish mother who used to work at the National Library and loves listening, cooking, walking, gardening, and reading.

They are both retired now, but they are involved in non-profit and local community groups. The way my parents lived influenced me very much. They are not homeowners, and neither were my grandparents. They believe in culture as a source of emancipation—rather than money. We argue all the time, expressing our opinions with passion and conviction. Passion was always something strong in the way they raised me.

[When I was growing up,] they would always find ways to find discount tickets to see shows and go to exhibitions for free. They would take me to Indian music and Pierre Boulez concerts, to see Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil in Vincennes. My dad bought me a CD by the French hip-hop band IAM when I was 11, and also a box of CDs by the Velvet Underground. They listened to a lot of public radio. Being born in in 1981, the year the French president François Mitterand was elected for the first time, I was raised in a kind of socialist way: “Go the library, listen to the radio; the state should help you to educate you.”

My grandparents and grand-uncles—both on the French and Polish sides—were involved in fighting the Nazis. People died or were severely injured. I was raised knowing that I was lucky to be born in the 80s, and to grow up in the 90s, with freedom of traveling, thinking, and making whatever I wanted.

In France, school is free, so I was able to study art and work part-time, with some financial help from my parents. The fact that I was an only child allowed them to be supportive. Growing up in Paris gave me the opportunity to have a lot of interesting part-time jobs: I answered the phone at IRCAM; I sold books at the Pompidou Center; I worked in a gallery; I took care of kids; I assisted artists.

How did you get into making-music yourself?
I began to learn music at 4, learning méthode Martenot and eveil musical [two forms of alternative musical education in France]. And then I studied harp, piano, and how to write and read music.

But I quit music school around 14, in the middle of the regular teenage crisis. I was listening to a lot of Brit-pop and trip-hop and grunge music, and I wanted to escape from savant music. I went to Bristol on my own with a friend when I was 15 with the hope of meeting Tricky, but we ended up just walking around and eating white rice at each meal. We only brought £10 with us for four days of exploration! I was babysitting every afternoon after high school, and using the money to buy CDs and go see music shows.

But it didn’t occur to me to play music [again] until 10 years later. I was studying theater at school, discovering improvisation, but I wasn’t playing any music. Music came to me with spoken words first. My first record is called Roman Anglais; I made it with the musician Sylvain Chauveau around 2006. I used only voice at that time.

Then I did a project with my friend the dancer Elise Ladoué called Strechandrelax, where we would do reductionist music without any instruments—only bottles, objects, and stuff. And then, in 2009, I started to make my own music, under my name and the moniker Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier, a project I explored until 2013.

The album cover of ‘Hand in Hand.’

I want to talk a bit specifically about Hand in Hand. The Shelter Press website mentions it was made during a snowstorm—can you tell me a bit about what that was like?
I arrived in Stockholm in early November of 2016, with a kind of bronchitis, and it was the first day of the worst snowstorm in Stockholm in 100 years. The whole city was blocked. Everything was covered by snow. I had the wrong shoes, so I kept falling on the streets; walking three blocks took me half an hour. I would arrive at EMS [the Swedish center for electronic music and sound art] covered with snow, my clothes wet, my whole body aching.

And inside, it was so warm, people were so nice and respectful. I was alone in the room with a gigantic Buchla, able to cough as much as I could and play strange sounds on top of it. I would play straight from 10 am and 6pm and go directly to bed with a fever, watching Trump speaking on television with horror, and then The Simpsons. It was surreal. I felt weak and strong at the same time.

It seems like a record that’s about opposites and contradictions.
The experience of the desert in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada changed my way of thinking [about] sounds. I go there with Bartolomé [Sanson, the co-founder of Shelter Press] almost every year now, and have learned a lot about contrasts there—how you are cold in the night and warm in the day, how you feel tiny and immense in the same time, how it is violent and soothing. The energy of the desert really fed the album. I wanted to make sounds like cacti, with water and secrets inside—sounds that had different layers, that could have one texture “inside” and one texture “outside,” like a plant, a body, or a chocolate.

“I feel sometimes disappointed that the only places where you can go dancing are clubs. I am dreaming of a ball where people would dance like seahorses or plants for hours, in the daylight, in the grass, or in a ballroom.”

I’ve noticed that whether working with mundane samples or abstract sounds, you seem interested in the physicality of a given sound.
I remember this video interview with Éliane Radigue where she seems to speak about sounds like they are people. She says “You have to have a respect for the sounds.” Her cats are sitting and they seem to hear frequencies we can’t hear. To me, sound is space, is time, is live presence.

When I played the Buchla at EMS, I felt like I received messages from outer space. The machine was sounding like a bird. I felt very moved. I felt I understood it. It was not any more about being “musical” or not, but “understanding” the sound, like a language. The only thing I was trying to do was tuning to receive as much information form that language as I could. Also, I felt I was touching waves of electricity. It was very physical.

Sound is matter, like clay or painting, it shines through its invisibility, its absence of material form. Sound can get inside people, get in and out as it pleases. Yesterday, I did a kind of deep-listening session with dancers at Musée de la Dance in Rennes, where I live. They had to react to the sounds I was playing, [deciding] how to open or close their body to receive them, how to listen with their toes or with their eyes, it was an intense experience for everybody.

I learned a lot yesterday. I want to make music that makes people dance, but in their dreams, or in a state of slow moving. I feel sometimes disappointed that the only places where you can go dancing are clubs, with strong beat-oriented music. I am dreaming of a ball where people would dance like seahorses or plants for hours, in the daylight, in the grass, or in a ballroom.

Hand In Hand by Félicia Atkinson

Can you tell me about the whispers that fill your work? Do you find whispers comforting or unsettling?
Some people are scared of them. Some are not. Some are excited. I don’t expect one kind of reaction. Whispering is a way to get inside your ear. It’s a feminist approach also to me. Whispering is a way to get inside, to take territory. To melt the inside with outside. It’s a bit queer also. It’s folding poles, making things less binary. It’s making knots and loops, like a snake, a silk scarf, or a river.

I whisper because I like to be close to the recording device I am using, usually my telephone. I whisper also because most of the time I record in my bedroom and I don’t want anyone to hear what I am doing.

I whisper because I am a bad singer, because I like hearing other people whispering. It’s about pleasure and intimacy. Also, most often—there are exceptions—I don’t like when a musician gives orders, I like to make music that empowers sounds without taking authority. This is why I like Robert Ashley’s work so much, the voice keeps always a bit of doubt in it, it’s never an order, more a possibility.

I’ve seen people talk about this release in particular in relation to ASMR. Do you experience that phenomenon? How do you relate to that idea?
My first experience of ASMR was being a kid and putting a part of my head on the torso of my mother or my father, to hear how the voice resonates directly from there. I always found it fascinating and soothing. Now, when I speak, my voice comes from within, goes outside and comes back in, lt’s a loop. Sounds circulates. I believe in the touching, healing, disturbing, pleasuring power of the voice, but also, of the effect of sound waves in general.

But I didn’t know the term ASMR when I recorded A Readymade Ceremony, I recorded the album without thinking of it. I was just thinking of whispering in Suspiria by Dario Argento, of Carrie covered in blood, making a kind of noise show in the DePalma movie, of the voices in Pierre Henry’s Apocalypse de Jean, of Kim Gordon in some Sonic Youth’s songs.

For Hand in Hand, it was different. I felt collapsed by the terrorist attacks, by the election of Trump, by Syria, by all this sadness. I wanted to make a record that was more calm, I couldn’t bear more violence in a way. I wanted a record closer to landscapes, plants, non-human forms. To give some perspective. I wondered, “What is a voice that whispers to something that has no ears? What effect does it make if I speak for a rock, or an ocean?”

Then, I began to think of humans again. I fancy the idea of a record that delivers not only music or text, but physical emotions, something that directly affects your body. That’s why also the album is called Hand in Hand. I want to touch the audience through the sounds and with the sounds only, not symbolically but physically. I wanted to make a record for people but also for cats, magnolias, and microbes.

This also explains why I am static during my shows, I think [my] presence passes through the sounds, not through the persona or image of me on stage. Ideally, I wish I could disappear, like Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter during the concert. I wish I could completely turn into music for an hour or so, and then get back to my body when the music is over.

Colin Joyce is THUMP’s Managing Editor. He’s on Twitter and thinks you should check out the work of Youtube user AnarchyASMR.

The 25 Best Experimental Albums Of 2016

Free Radicals is THUMP’s column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they’re meaningful.

Electronic instrumentation offers near-endless possibilities to experimentalists. Over the course of this year, I’ve written in this column about hazy beatmakers who use geographical signifiers to interrogate rising tides of nationalism worldwide; about noise producers adopting classic rock tropes to create a newly warped Americana; and about a host of composers who are remapping everyday experiences through the use of musique concrte techniques. Existing at the vanguard of music technology, music like this offers opportunities for producers looking to push toward new sounds, forms and ideas. Below are 25 of the best albums that subverted conventions and rewired synapses.

25. Matt Carlson – The View from Nowhere

Matt Carlson, the synth-tweaking half of clarinet-and-electronics duo Golden Retriever, took some time on his latest solo effort to study the tenuous relationship between modular electronics and the human voice. The result is a stream of synthesizer-scarred syntactical experiments that can feel like gibberish, but under intense scrutiny reveals complex, overlapping structureslike the sound of Microsoft Sam slowly learning linguistics.

24. N.M.O. – Nordic Mediterranean Organization / Numerous Miscommunications Occur

That their debut LP features two nonsensical backronyms as its title is just the first sign that N.M.O.’s debut LP for Diagonal is a clever nest of club quips. The duo folds electro refuse and masonry-tough percussion scraps into abstract shapes that sound like the aural equivalent of an industrial origami or a pile of garbage, depending on your vantage point. The double-LP version is deliberately pockmarked with jarring locked grooves in the middle of the trackjust a few more slapstick pitfalls for unprepared listeners to get trapped in.

23. VHVL – EVN

The gentle EVN feels like a grab bag of meditative genresflickering drone, swooning new age, LA beat scene-ready boom-bapbut the pieces are united by their feeling of hopefulness and cautious ascension. After the treatment for a spinal injury left her bedridden for most of 2015, the Harlem producer and composer VHVL made a collection of ambient miniatures that feels like a sigh of relief.

22. Rashad Becker – Traditional Music of Notional Species, Vol. II

According to Discogs, Rashad Becker has been responsible for mastering nearly 1600 records since 1996, and it’s hard not to hear the effects of that intense listening on his intensely programmed solo work. Music for Notional Species, Vol. II picks up where the first installment left off in 2013, building synthesizer scrap heaps to the heavens with all the intricacy and technicolor beauty of a game of Tetris that you’re doomed to lose forever.

21. Lolina – Live in Paris

Live in Paris, Inga Copeland‘s debut LP under the Lolina moniker, was originally billed as a recording of 2015 audiovisual performance in the French capital. But the album’s credits suggest otherwise, saying that it was “written-by, produced, and mixed by Lolina in London.” As xenophobic rhetoric swelled in Britain and fueled the country’s vote to leave the European Union over the summer, the record’s complicated relation to place felt like a commentary on the rising tide of nationalism, both in England and abroad.

She interrogated our traditional understanding of the way that we understand thingslike records or peopleto be a product of the contexts in which they were created. With every foggy synth line and pinched pop structure, we wonder, would it even mean anything different if music this alien was made in Paris or London? How would that change the way it sounds? What does it mean to be from somewhere?

20. Wreck and Reference – Indifferent Rivers Romance End

Wreck and Reference have always been good at conjuring an empowered sort of depression, and Indifferent Rivers Romance End is the L.A. noise-metal merchants’ most confident statement yet. It’s a headlong dive into sickly synthesizers, black metal rot, and strangled post-punk vocals, with a lyric sheet that welcomes sickness, death, and the void with open arms. You’re left with the feeling that giving one’s self over to the darkness can constitute its own weird form of empowermentor, as “Languish” puts it, a path toward beauty, a path toward blindness.”

19. J.S. Aurelius – Goofin’ Drones

After accidentally picking up a book about drone warfarethinking it was a tome about drone musicDestruction Unit guitarist Jes Aurelius constructed Goofin’ Drones as as a way of connect the two. Sourcing audio from code used to hack, destroy, or otherwise disrupt the quadcopter crafts that the U.S. government uses for surveillance and combat abroad, Aurelius constructed this harrowing tape as a statement against “death by remote control.” As you might expect, its gestures are desolate, sudden, and unforgiving.

18. Chino Amobi – Airport Music for Black Folk

In a far cry from the placidity of the Eno album that gives this release its title, Chino Amobi’s brand of Airport Music blows nervous inner monologues to PA announcement volumes and creaks like mangled steel girders. The NON founder’s work often concerns the ways in which marginalized people interact with invisible power structures, and it’s hard not to read this release in the same way; its deeply anxious atmosphere is a compelling reminder of the reality that airports aren’t peacefulor even safeplaces for everyone.

17. Julianna Barwick – Will

The New York-based composer/vocalist‘s past records have favored weightlessness, exploring the emergent rhythms and harmonies inherent to her vocal looping process in zero-g. But Will feels heavy, dense, and full of conflicteach Moog sequence feels like a tractor beam, dragging her through space rather than drifting aimlessly.

16. Steve Hauschildt – Strands

Steve Hauschildt told me earlier this year that his work was in part a “quiet commentary” on the idea that “there’s actually no way to escape chaos, because we inhabit and experience an entropic universe.” You can feel Hauschildt grappling with that degeneration on Strands, a collection of quietly contemplative synths that are grounded by a puttering mechanized energy. There are things in this world that you can’t control, but Strands makes it feel like you can.

15. Puce Mary – The Spiral

Fredrikke Hoffmeier’s Puce Mary LPs all feel like deep descents into industrial underworlds, but the brief moments of beauty on her third full-length for Posh Isolationlike the airy background of “The Temptation to Exist,” or the tonic organ drones of “Masks Are Aids Too”make the trip all the more memorable. It’s a trip to hell, but via the scenic route.

14. Imaginary Softwoods – Annual Flowers in Color

Recorded in fits and starts in three different cities, John Elliott’s latest release as Imaginary Softwoods is a rarities collection of sortscompiling four years’ worth of ostensibly unconnected work into a tape-warmed tapestry of sequenced ambience. But you wouldn’t really get a sense of that piecemeal construction without that backstory on bandcamp. With its sagging, waterlogged analog synths lines and hushed spoken word, this one’s pretty unified in sound and spirit, shot through with the wistful discontent that breathes life into so much of the world’s best synth instrumentals.

13. TALsounds – Lifter + Lighter

Both with Good Willsmith and on her own as TALsounds, Natalie Chami’s well versed in making spur-of-the-moment gestures feel carefully plotted. Lifter/Lighter was recorded live with no overdubs, but you’d never guess it from whirlpool loop chaos of tracks like “Close My Eyes.” For music that has its roots in improvisation, it feels tight, as though Chami were composer forced to work in real-time. As her pieces have gotten more complex, they’ve become an increasingly precarious balancing act, which makes the tremendous beauty of Lifter/LIghter all the more moving.

12. Christian Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke – It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry

Two electronics revolutionaries collide on this subtle exploration of remorse. The album’s two side-long pieces are made up of slowly droning electronics and guitars, and each bears a evocative title that gestures at the lovelorn sorrow that digitalist ambient recordings like this sometimes soundtrack. It’s a wholly moving experience, even after you realize that those titles are just lyrics from the song by classic rock cheeseballs Chicago that gave this record it’s titlea small goof amidst the gloom.

11. Moor Mother – Fetish Bones

Impressionistically outlining the history of the governmental oppression of black bodieswhether via physical force or legislationMoor Mother‘s debut LP fetish bones vibrated with an urgency that few albums this year vibrated with the same urgency, Fetish Bones. Institutional violence is met with spoken-word molotovs, sandpapered found samples, and production that sounds like Black Dice remixing Pete Rock (or vice versa). It’s a chaotic collage that feels every bit as unsettling as its subject matter, the sort of record that makes you want to throw down your headphones and take to the streets.

10. Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Affinity

Rachel Evans’ prolific release schedule as Motion Sickness of Time Travel slowed down for a bit following the birth of her first son a few years ago, but in the second half of 2016, she was back opening up portals to outer space at her natural pace. Affinity was her first release as a mother, and it also stands as the most overwhelming release she’s recorded to date. The belt-sander drones of “New Moon” and the synthy despondency of the nearly 17-minute long “Interlude” find Evans exploring the gloom inherent in cosmic music. In the desolate stretches of her synthesizer hums, there’s a depressing reminder that most of what’s beyond the stratosphere is just empty space.

9. Dedekind Cut – $uccessor

One of the ways you could listen to Fred Warmsley’s latest album as Dedekind Cut was by buying a yoga mat that came with a digital download. The product description for the “high quality PRO” mat promises “extra cushioning and comfort,” “safety and performance,” “longevity and durability,” and “stability”all of which turns out to be a pretty solid illustration of the patient, new age-y inclinations of the record. Unlike the unsettled atmosphere of some of his other releases under the moniker, this is ambient music as self-care.

8. Sarah Davachi – Dominions

I don’t know that many people on this list would buy into the idea that the vintage synths Sarah Davachi uses are, as her Bandcamp puts it, “obsolete machines.” But there is something wonderfully antique about the way that Dominions employs this old tech to make wheezing, defeatist drones, stuttering back into action and stumbling through the record’s 38-minute runtime. Davachi acts as a spectral conductor, making pieces that sound empty and haunted, like computerized funeral ballads from beamed from another life.

7. Felicia Atkinson and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Comme Un Seul Narcisse

None of the track titles on this collaboration between composers Felicia Atkinson and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma are more than a couple letters long, but take all ten of them together, and they spell out a french phrase that translates to “melancholy objects.” The muffled murmurs and ASMR shuffling of Comme Un Seul Narcisse are personal and intimateminiatures to be picked up and pored over until they leave you with a deep longing for something just out of reach.

6. ine O’Dwyer – Locusts

The harpist-turned-cathedral-organ-wrangler ine O’Dwyer returned to the holiest of instruments this year for two tapes of sacred dissonance. Locusts is the better of the two, if only because it’s willing to indulge the darkness inherent to the church spaces in which she records this music. She evokes the Bible’s the funereal march of plague, death, and demise. And like the title suggests, atonal organ drones do sound more than a little like insectoid swarming.

5. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani – Sunergy

Sunergy is the full-borne fruit of incredible happenstance. Two of the world’s greatest Buchla synthesizer players met several years ago when they realized they were living in the same tiny Northern California town. After years of friendship and collaboration, they’ve emerged with a testament to the natural landscapes of the Pacific coast. The record’s shifts are subtle, but their effects colossal, like the movement of the water that’s enraptured Ciani over the last several decades.

4. Good Willsmith – Things Our Bodies Used to Have

The hydra-headed Chicago drone crew Good Willsmith have said that they approached Things Our Bodies Used to Have like a jazz record, staying united on themes but allowing each member the room to delve into outer zones, soloing wildly for minutes at a timeas much as that’s possible for a group that primarily makes electronic loops. As such, it’s a bit looser than their past releases, but that’s the realm they’ve always found richestpulling diamonds from sonic muck.

3. Oren Ambarchi – Hubris

In the past, Australian avant-guitarist Oren Ambarchi has done cranium-crushing noise and blistered ambience, but with help from psych-techno madman Ricardo Villalobos (among other experimentalist godheads) he dragged himself to the depths of the dancefloor on Hubris. Channeling his noise know-how through acid-warped, guitar-and-electronics zoning reminiscent of E2-E4, Ambarchi’s attacks the locomotive grid of techno with wiry, caustic melodiessomething like stumbling upon neon vomit in a club toilet as the rest of the night pulses ahead outside.

2. Autechre – elseq 1-5

The daring English duo‘s five-part, four-hour hard drive purge is a far cry from the humanoid beauty of their earliest work. It’s a pulsar-dense spiderweb of pitch-black Max/MSP outputs, held together by duct tape and saliva. There are few suggestions of life in it, but that’s part of the record’s powerits reminder that most machines hide no ghosts, just whirring bits of metal and untameable electrical impulses.

1. Huerco S – For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)

Back in May, I mercilessly cut THUMP’s UK editor Josh Baines’ attempt to describe Huerco S‘ new one as “the finest ambient record of 2016 so far” from a piece we were working on together. The joys that For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) presented were muted; its reverb-drowned synths circling in locked beatless loops were pleasant, but where was the danger?

But I came to live with the record over the ensuing months, and I found myself returning to it for exactly that reason: as 2016 became harder to bear, it presented an alternative, an impossibly cozy, comforter-like shelter from the endless storm of shit that dominated my life (and probably yours too!) on both a personal and cosmic scale. I can’t think of a year in my life where I more frequently needed escape, but actually checking out from the world felt irresponsible. So I put the breaking waves of “Promises of Fertility” on repeat, and its cottonball synth lines reshaped the world around me. Everything was a little softer. For a few minutes things didn’t seem so bad, even if they still were.

The 25 Best Experimental Albums Of 2016

Free Radicals is THUMP’s column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they’re meaningful.

Electronic instrumentation offers near-endless possibilities to experimentalists. Over the course of this year, I’ve written in this column about hazy beatmakers who use geographical signifiers to interrogate rising tides of nationalism worldwide; about noise producers adopting classic rock tropes to create a newly warped Americana; and about a host of composers who are remapping everyday experiences through the use of musique concrte techniques. Existing at the vanguard of music technology, music like this offers opportunities for producers looking to push toward new sounds, forms and ideas. Below are 25 of the best albums that subverted conventions and rewired synapses.

25. Matt Carlson – The View from Nowhere

Matt Carlson, the synth-tweaking half of clarinet-and-electronics duo Golden Retriever, took some time on his latest solo effort to study the tenuous relationship between modular electronics and the human voice. The result is a stream of synthesizer-scarred syntactical experiments that can feel like gibberish, but under intense scrutiny reveals complex, overlapping structureslike the sound of Microsoft Sam slowly learning linguistics.

24. N.M.O. – Nordic Mediterranean Organization / Numerous Miscommunications Occur

That their debut LP features two nonsensical backronyms as its title is just the first sign that N.M.O.’s debut LP for Diagonal is a clever nest of club quips. The duo folds electro refuse and masonry-tough percussion scraps into abstract shapes that sound like the aural equivalent of an industrial origami or a pile of garbage, depending on your vantage point. The double-LP version is deliberately pockmarked with jarring locked grooves in the middle of the trackjust a few more slapstick pitfalls for unprepared listeners to get trapped in.

23. VHVL – EVN

The gentle EVN feels like a grab bag of meditative genresflickering drone, swooning new age, LA beat scene-ready boom-bapbut the pieces are united by their feeling of hopefulness and cautious ascension. After the treatment for a spinal injury left her bedridden for most of 2015, the Harlem producer and composer VHVL made a collection of ambient miniatures that feels like a sigh of relief.

22. Rashad Becker – Traditional Music of Notional Species, Vol. II

According to Discogs, Rashad Becker has been responsible for mastering nearly 1600 records since 1996, and it’s hard not to hear the effects of that intense listening on his intensely programmed solo work. Music for Notional Species, Vol. II picks up where the first installment left off in 2013, building synthesizer scrap heaps to the heavens with all the intricacy and technicolor beauty of a game of Tetris that you’re doomed to lose forever.

21. Lolina – Live in Paris

Live in Paris, Inga Copeland‘s debut LP under the Lolina moniker, was originally billed as a recording of 2015 audiovisual performance in the French capital. But the album’s credits suggest otherwise, saying that it was “written-by, produced, and mixed by Lolina in London.” As xenophobic rhetoric swelled in Britain and fueled the country’s vote to leave the European Union over the summer, the record’s complicated relation to place felt like a commentary on the rising tide of nationalism, both in England and abroad.

She interrogated our traditional understanding of the way that we understand thingslike records or peopleto be a product of the contexts in which they were created. With every foggy synth line and pinched pop structure, we wonder, would it even mean anything different if music this alien was made in Paris or London? How would that change the way it sounds? What does it mean to be from somewhere?

20. Wreck and Reference – Indifferent Rivers Romance End

Wreck and Reference have always been good at conjuring an empowered sort of depression, and Indifferent Rivers Romance End is the L.A. noise-metal merchants’ most confident statement yet. It’s a headlong dive into sickly synthesizers, black metal rot, and strangled post-punk vocals, with a lyric sheet that welcomes sickness, death, and the void with open arms. You’re left with the feeling that giving one’s self over to the darkness can constitute its own weird form of empowermentor, as “Languish” puts it, a path toward beauty, a path toward blindness.”

19. J.S. Aurelius – Goofin’ Drones

After accidentally picking up a book about drone warfarethinking it was a tome about drone musicDestruction Unit guitarist Jes Aurelius constructed Goofin’ Drones as as a way of connect the two. Sourcing audio from code used to hack, destroy, or otherwise disrupt the quadcopter crafts that the U.S. government uses for surveillance and combat abroad, Aurelius constructed this harrowing tape as a statement against “death by remote control.” As you might expect, its gestures are desolate, sudden, and unforgiving.

18. Chino Amobi – Airport Music for Black Folk

In a far cry from the placidity of the Eno album that gives this release its title, Chino Amobi’s brand of Airport Music blows nervous inner monologues to PA announcement volumes and creaks like mangled steel girders. The NON founder’s work often concerns the ways in which marginalized people interact with invisible power structures, and it’s hard not to read this release in the same way; its deeply anxious atmosphere is a compelling reminder of the reality that airports aren’t peacefulor even safeplaces for everyone.

17. Julianna Barwick – Will

The New York-based composer/vocalist‘s past records have favored weightlessness, exploring the emergent rhythms and harmonies inherent to her vocal looping process in zero-g. But Will feels heavy, dense, and full of conflicteach Moog sequence feels like a tractor beam, dragging her through space rather than drifting aimlessly.

16. Steve Hauschildt – Strands

Steve Hauschildt told me earlier this year that his work was in part a “quiet commentary” on the idea that “there’s actually no way to escape chaos, because we inhabit and experience an entropic universe.” You can feel Hauschildt grappling with that degeneration on Strands, a collection of quietly contemplative synths that are grounded by a puttering mechanized energy. There are things in this world that you can’t control, but Strands makes it feel like you can.

15. Puce Mary – The Spiral

Fredrikke Hoffmeier’s Puce Mary LPs all feel like deep descents into industrial underworlds, but the brief moments of beauty on her third full-length for Posh Isolationlike the airy background of “The Temptation to Exist,” or the tonic organ drones of “Masks Are Aids Too”make the trip all the more memorable. It’s a trip to hell, but via the scenic route.

14. Imaginary Softwoods – Annual Flowers in Color

Recorded in fits and starts in three different cities, John Elliott’s latest release as Imaginary Softwoods is a rarities collection of sortscompiling four years’ worth of ostensibly unconnected work into a tape-warmed tapestry of sequenced ambience. But you wouldn’t really get a sense of that piecemeal construction without that backstory on bandcamp. With its sagging, waterlogged analog synths lines and hushed spoken word, this one’s pretty unified in sound and spirit, shot through with the wistful discontent that breathes life into so much of the world’s best synth instrumentals.

13. TALsounds – Lifter + Lighter

Both with Good Willsmith and on her own as TALsounds, Natalie Chami’s well versed in making spur-of-the-moment gestures feel carefully plotted. Lifter/Lighter was recorded live with no overdubs, but you’d never guess it from whirlpool loop chaos of tracks like “Close My Eyes.” For music that has its roots in improvisation, it feels tight, as though Chami were composer forced to work in real-time. As her pieces have gotten more complex, they’ve become an increasingly precarious balancing act, which makes the tremendous beauty of Lifter/LIghter all the more moving.

12. Christian Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke – It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry

Two electronics revolutionaries collide on this subtle exploration of remorse. The album’s two side-long pieces are made up of slowly droning electronics and guitars, and each bears a evocative title that gestures at the lovelorn sorrow that digitalist ambient recordings like this sometimes soundtrack. It’s a wholly moving experience, even after you realize that those titles are just lyrics from the song by classic rock cheeseballs Chicago that gave this record it’s titlea small goof amidst the gloom.

11. Moor Mother – Fetish Bones

Impressionistically outlining the history of the governmental oppression of black bodieswhether via physical force or legislationMoor Mother‘s debut LP fetish bones vibrated with an urgency that few albums this year vibrated with the same urgency, Fetish Bones. Institutional violence is met with spoken-word molotovs, sandpapered found samples, and production that sounds like Black Dice remixing Pete Rock (or vice versa). It’s a chaotic collage that feels every bit as unsettling as its subject matter, the sort of record that makes you want to throw down your headphones and take to the streets.

10. Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Affinity

Rachel Evans’ prolific release schedule as Motion Sickness of Time Travel slowed down for a bit following the birth of her first son a few years ago, but in the second half of 2016, she was back opening up portals to outer space at her natural pace. Affinity was her first release as a mother, and it also stands as the most overwhelming release she’s recorded to date. The belt-sander drones of “New Moon” and the synthy despondency of the nearly 17-minute long “Interlude” find Evans exploring the gloom inherent in cosmic music. In the desolate stretches of her synthesizer hums, there’s a depressing reminder that most of what’s beyond the stratosphere is just empty space.

9. Dedekind Cut – $uccessor

One of the ways you could listen to Fred Warmsley’s latest album as Dedekind Cut was by buying a yoga mat that came with a digital download. The product description for the “high quality PRO” mat promises “extra cushioning and comfort,” “safety and performance,” “longevity and durability,” and “stability”all of which turns out to be a pretty solid illustration of the patient, new age-y inclinations of the record. Unlike the unsettled atmosphere of some of his other releases under the moniker, this is ambient music as self-care.

8. Sarah Davachi – Dominions

I don’t know that many people on this list would buy into the idea that the vintage synths Sarah Davachi uses are, as her Bandcamp puts it, “obsolete machines.” But there is something wonderfully antique about the way that Dominions employs this old tech to make wheezing, defeatist drones, stuttering back into action and stumbling through the record’s 38-minute runtime. Davachi acts as a spectral conductor, making pieces that sound empty and haunted, like computerized funeral ballads from beamed from another life.

7. Felicia Atkinson and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Comme Un Seul Narcisse

None of the track titles on this collaboration between composers Felicia Atkinson and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma are more than a couple letters long, but take all ten of them together, and they spell out a french phrase that translates to “melancholy objects.” The muffled murmurs and ASMR shuffling of Comme Un Seul Narcisse are personal and intimateminiatures to be picked up and pored over until they leave you with a deep longing for something just out of reach.

6. ine O’Dwyer – Locusts

The harpist-turned-cathedral-organ-wrangler ine O’Dwyer returned to the holiest of instruments this year for two tapes of sacred dissonance. Locusts is the better of the two, if only because it’s willing to indulge the darkness inherent to the church spaces in which she records this music. She evokes the Bible’s the funereal march of plague, death, and demise. And like the title suggests, atonal organ drones do sound more than a little like insectoid swarming.

5. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani – Sunergy

Sunergy is the full-borne fruit of incredible happenstance. Two of the world’s greatest Buchla synthesizer players met several years ago when they realized they were living in the same tiny Northern California town. After years of friendship and collaboration, they’ve emerged with a testament to the natural landscapes of the Pacific coast. The record’s shifts are subtle, but their effects colossal, like the movement of the water that’s enraptured Ciani over the last several decades.

4. Good Willsmith – Things Our Bodies Used to Have

The hydra-headed Chicago drone crew Good Willsmith have said that they approached Things Our Bodies Used to Have like a jazz record, staying united on themes but allowing each member the room to delve into outer zones, soloing wildly for minutes at a timeas much as that’s possible for a group that primarily makes electronic loops. As such, it’s a bit looser than their past releases, but that’s the realm they’ve always found richestpulling diamonds from sonic muck.

3. Oren Ambarchi – Hubris

In the past, Australian avant-guitarist Oren Ambarchi has done cranium-crushing noise and blistered ambience, but with help from psych-techno madman Ricardo Villalobos (among other experimentalist godheads) he dragged himself to the depths of the dancefloor on Hubris. Channeling his noise know-how through acid-warped, guitar-and-electronics zoning reminiscent of E2-E4, Ambarchi’s attacks the locomotive grid of techno with wiry, caustic melodiessomething like stumbling upon neon vomit in a club toilet as the rest of the night pulses ahead outside.

2. Autechre – elseq 1-5

The daring English duo‘s five-part, four-hour hard drive purge is a far cry from the humanoid beauty of their earliest work. It’s a pulsar-dense spiderweb of pitch-black Max/MSP outputs, held together by duct tape and saliva. There are few suggestions of life in it, but that’s part of the record’s powerits reminder that most machines hide no ghosts, just whirring bits of metal and untameable electrical impulses.

1. Huerco S – For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)

Back in May, I mercilessly cut THUMP’s UK editor Josh Baines’ attempt to describe Huerco S‘ new one as “the finest ambient record of 2016 so far” from a piece we were working on together. The joys that For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) presented were muted; its reverb-drowned synths circling in locked beatless loops were pleasant, but where was the danger?

But I came to live with the record over the ensuing months, and I found myself returning to it for exactly that reason: as 2016 became harder to bear, it presented an alternative, an impossibly cozy, comforter-like shelter from the endless storm of shit that dominated my life (and probably yours too!) on both a personal and cosmic scale. I can’t think of a year in my life where I more frequently needed escape, but actually checking out from the world felt irresponsible. So I put the breaking waves of “Promises of Fertility” on repeat, and its cottonball synth lines reshaped the world around me. Everything was a little softer. For a few minutes things didn’t seem so bad, even if they still were.

The 25 Best Albums Of 2016 So Far

The history of dance music has primarily been told through singles. One great trackwhen properly nestled in the right DJ set, so the logic goeshas the power not only to set the dancefloor alight, but to shift the sound and energy of a scene writ large. You’re never going to spin a full-length album at peak hours, but the format has furthered some of the dancefloor’s great paradigm shifts, allowing producers to explore the furthest corners of their sound. Moments of euphoria are spread further out, but they’re just as present, and always worth the wait. We’ve already told you the year’s best tracks, now strap in for the long-haul below and check out the 25 best albums of 2016 so far.

Amnesia Scanner – AS

Amnesia Scanner has never felt real, at least in the sense of corporeal human beings with fleshy fingers programming the mutant beatwork and ASCII melodies that make up their music. But earlier this year, they made their debut in the physical world with AS, issued in varying forms of paper and plastic. The short EP contains some of their most hookily structured material to date, as if the shadowy figures behind the curtain realized that restructuring their jabbering vocals and drum judders into more recognizably humanoid outlinespop and club structures, mainlywould make their work more legible to mere mortals. As it turns out, appending sinew to steel does not a human make, but AS‘ real draw is in the ugly bits, where meat and tech collide in a beautiful cyborgian failure.Colin Joyce

ANOHNI – Hopelessness

Sonically ambitious, ecologically minded, and emotionally fragile all at once, ANOHNI’s HOPELESSNESS is one of the most multifaceted records 2016 has seen yet. The New York-based artist, formerly of the band Antony and the Johnsons, has crafted a protest album that plays out like an assault on society’s grandest ills: climate change, government surveillance, drone strikes, and genocideand it’s particularly interested in the places where all of the above intersect.

But the record’s genius lies partly in the sneakiness with which it plants these messages in the ear. Bolstered by production by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, HOPELESSNESS uses the physicality of dance music to bruising effect, making ANOHNI’s political provocations both more palatable and more punishing. Speaking to THUMP earlier this year, ANOHNI said that the way she “express.” That’s a generous thing of the 26-year-old artist to say, but it’s unlikely there are many people who aren’t left in the dust by his debut for J-Cush’s Lit City Trax. Remixing everything from hip-hop hits to an NFL theme song and a Cousin Terio Vine, the mixtape is an exercise in profound artistic tenacity: just when you think he can’t fit another idea into a track, he fits in eight.Alexander Iadarola

Uli K – Elusivo

Long the most laconic and sensitive member of Long London’s Bala Club crew, singer/songwriter Uli K steps out of the shadow of younger brother Kamixlo (who’s released on PAN sublabel Codes) and pal Endgame (recently signed to Hyperdub) and into blinding, heartrending vulnerability. Uli told The FADER at the time of the EPs release that it that it was part of a process of coming to terms with heartbreak and gender identity by presenting all the misery and confusion wholly unvarnished, or as they put it “snitching on myselfreading my diary out loud.”

That pain reverberates throughout. Even over the fractured beats care of Berlin shredder Mechatok and frequent Yung Lean collaborator Whitearmor (Lean also turns up for a brief verse, on that “Drifting”), Uli sings of blood and money, voluntary loneliness, and romantic dissolution. The catharsis these stories offer feels generous, a hand stretched outhowever tremulousfor whenever you feel similarly broken.Colin Joyce

Various Artists – Pampa Records Vol. 1

There’s a dizzying array of sounds and styles represented on the first label compilation from DJ Koze’s Pampa Records, from Jamie xx’s rave retro-gazing to Matthew Herbert’s butcher-shop techno trickery. But the unifying concept is the unmitigated joy that a dancefloor can bring. UAE-born producer Abood Nasrawi makes that explicit on his contribution “Bump with You,” sampling a small child’s giggly suggestion that singing “embarrassing,” but dancing is “ok.” The track then lurches into glassy-eyed, unrestrained beatwork, permission for liftoff having been granted from the mouths of babes. Pampa’s stable of signees and friends often adopt worn club forms, but their productions underscore why people return to things like house and techno over and over again: club music’s currency is ecstasy.Colin Joyce

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