In advance of another year of boundary pushing projects, specialist label Difficult Art And Music (DAMM) have just released ‘bivouac of the avant-garde’, their expansive survey of the contemporary experimental fringe. Previously available in digital instalments, the entire collection has now been assembled in a quintessential triple cassette box-set and, as usual with DAMM, the package comes with supporting media, a print of a late 19th Century painting by the Belgian artist Edouard Geelhand which features as the cover art.
Choosing to use such a pre-modern image might seem random. What’s musket carrying soldiers, tethered horses and a camp-pot huddle got to do with a collection of 21st century sonic explorers? The clue is in the original artwork’s title. ‘Bivouac of the avant-garde’ offers a momentary shelter for a musically daring ‘advanced guard’ before they push on elsewhere. It’s a compilation that celebrates the brave and elusive, hushed and rugged sound-makers while inviting you in to stay around for a while.
To usher you in Volume 1/Tape 1 highlights the bold extremes that this collection endeavours to navigate. From J.Lynch’s fractured collage of dub and improv (‘For Horns Piano and Snare’) to Arvik Torrenssen’s tingling synth and sonor watershed (‘Yksitoista’), from Moray Newland’s fluttering electronic drone (‘The Life And Death Of A Moth’) to Wound’s symphonic melodicism (‘Dreamdrop’), this is music to challenge and cheer. When renowned electro-acoustic composer Robert Scott Thompson’s elemental descent to some cavernous, spirit filled other-world on ‘At Our Peril’ gets followed by the natural power of cellist Simon McCorry’s frenetic ‘Storm’, the curators’ informed sensitivity for feel and flow is clear. So often compilations can seem to lurch from track to track with little thought given to continuity but DAMM obviously value the overall impact of the journey that they are guiding us through.
That’s not to say that sound ‘types’ get lumped together predictably. If anything, Volume 2 emphasises the breadth that catch-all genre labels struggle to capture and feels more eclectic than the opening instalment. It skips untroubled from sly, sardonic fem pop wit (Fuck You and You’re A Sides) to ghosted post human electronics (Lagowski). Along the way you also meet: Audio Obscura going deeper than doom with the subterranean processional ‘Chord Channels’; the country gothic meets indie jangle of Declan Randulph Owen vs. Bacon Industries on ‘Blind Jet’; and Jordan Stanley taking the playful route with the electro-house stomper ‘Rubber Band Nerves’. The Invisible Pyramids warped, Mobyesque house bounce on ‘Heart of Mine’, even skirts close to the orthodox.
Still to ensure the playlist remains authentically alternative, Volume 2’s experimental equilibrium is maintained with plenty of obtuse sonic swerves. Opening cut ‘Bloop Etude’ by outsider guitarist and activist Steev Hise locates his agitated, restless approach to the fret-board within an evolving electronic collage. Flickers of Frith and Orcutt appear but Hise’s own sparky improvisational personality makes this a distinctive DIY statement. Added to this, Federico Balducci/ Fourthousandblackbirds sneak in a raucous and witty chamber noise snippet while two extensive spoken word pieces snatch further attention. The troubled tone poem ‘At The Synaptic Gap’ by Violent Butlins, Grey Malkin & Lisa Jones unsettles with synth throbs and guitar shocks distorting its shopping-parade images of “grey Diana cuts” and “teenage fashion socks”. Perhaps more powerfully oppressive, A Beautiful Idea‘s ‘My Head’ relays snatches of therapy couch conversations through a smothering of reverberating drones. It makes for a hypnotic psychological canticle that leaves questions hanging.
The sheer scope and ambition of ‘bivouac of the avant-garde’, totalling five hours of listening involvement, means that it’s unlikely to be taken in one sitting. Perhaps that’s the reason Volume 3 holds back some of the collection’s big hitters for the finale to coax you onto the close. Here ambient drone luminaries Isaac Helsen & Tyresta pair up for the shapeless drifting beauty of the multi-tonal ‘Shadow form’ before Heligoland’s Karen Vogt provides ‘’Whirring Signals’ in a succinct multi-layered vocal dreamscape. But ultimately it’s the new introductions that define this encampment of experimental thinkers. Riley Holmes slow unfolding long form on ‘Heaving Semblance’ suggests immersive qualities that warrants further investigation whereas the The Both And‘s restless sub-dub, fourth world techno and the pulsating Kosmische orbit of Constellation 425’s ‘Through Space And Info’ demand that you keep in touch.
Unsurprisingly there’s much more inside this near encyclopaedic survey than any sweeping review can adequately cover. What needs to be known is that ‘bivouac of the avant-garde’ is an invaluable insight into a diligent and dedicated community at work, finding ways and means that others will almost certainly discover later.