Label Watch: Kranky
Formed way back in the unimaginable depths of 1993, Kranky has run concurrently with the development of modern experimental music.
Why 'Kranky'? It’s the nom de plume of co-founder Bruce Adams, aka “Mr. Kranky”, used to convey the grumpiness that went into releasing records by anyone from post-rock’s Labradford to Portland’s Grouper. Alongside unofficial siblings such as Montreal’s Constellation and Austria’s Mego, Kranky has become the go-to spot for esoteric artists tinkering with ambient, noise, and dream pop, delivering works both stable and unstable, beautiful and broken.
Working alongside Joel Leoschke, Adams later left the label, Kranky appointing Nudge’s Brian Foote in his stead. But the output continues to resemble the boundless intrigue of old, the same instincts that gave the world the doomsaying of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and drone of Stars of the Lid. Longstanding and productive relationships have been formed with contemporary artists such as Tim Hecker, who has used the label to release an anthology of records in different styles. Their own version of pop music has emerged, too: the dream world of MJ Guider has been a revelation, as has the shoegaze shred of Helen. In each release, you can still see the same old Kranky philosophy that defined Bruce’s curatorial direction back in 2010: “We are never sure that we can sell many copies of a debut release from an artist; it’s a crapshoot at best. I can live with an album that I love that doesn’t sell that well, but I can’t at all imagine living with an album that I don’t love”.
There is, at this point, a staggering breadth of sound worlds Kranky will put their name to. It is all things, their catalogue list: an indie rock scene of its own alongside hidden histories into experimental genres that defined the nineties and noughties undergrounds. The developments are patient and microscopic, spanning years and generations. And amidst the slowburn, the music is still damn good.
It’s truly mind-boggling to me that Christina Vantzou was originally known as a visual artist. I’m not dragging her movies; it’s just that the music is too good to be a sidebar. Before working with Adam Wiltzie on The Dead Texan, an informal side project attached to the gargantuan drones of Stars of the Lid, Vantzou was primarily a filmmaker. Her chosen creative outlet has since switched to composing, where she’s proved herself to be living in a world all of her own, full of marvellous fright. I once described her music as dementor drone; in reality, her series of releases have moved in a variety of different, equally vital ways.
Her Kranky releases speak for themselves: No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4. You listen to these records without expectation or prejudice, sinking into them the moment they start. Vantzou drew me in with No. 2 and its mellifluous arrangements, composing mini-symphonies that transitioned under twilight. No. 3 was entirely different, implementing synthesizers and electronics for a record of desolate drones that moved inward, rather than forward. The music hums with disaster, not reaching climaxes but instead wallowing in their ambience.
It is a testament to Vantzou’s compositional ability that her albums never sound like retreads. Even on No. 4, she’s striking out with new ideas, finding new ways to position her ideas, and fostering different musical partnerships to achieve them. Enlisting the Dirty Projectors’ Angel Deradoorian alongside synth maestro Steve Hauschildt and multi-media twin John Also Bennett, Vantzou found fertile middle-ground between the neo-classical ideas and dark ambient tones of old, creating arguably her best, most focused work. Who knows what No 5 will sound like -- the second it starts, we’ll be enraptured by it.
Not to get too online on you all, but I think a recent Facebook post by Christina Vantzou puts this one best: “Loscil = Kranky”. Few artists have tied their music as intrinsically to the label as ambient daydreamer Scott Morgan, who has every one of his major records since 2001’s Triple Point issued in some way under their name. His landmark releases Plume and Endless Falls are two of Kranky’s musical high points, offering distilled meditations on ambient and drone traditions that now feel integral to those genres’ lineages.
Seeming, at first, to make unobtrusive music in keeping with the practices of ambient artists such as Tangerine Dream, Loscil’s music soon proves itself to be deeper, drawing narrative and concept into the passive musical aesthetics of its genre. Endless Falls marries music to sound art, foregrounding the usually incidental noise of water into something more meaningful than it is ‘rainy day’. His journey into the submerged rhythms of dub techno is framed with evocative sense of place on Sea Island, a record that serves as the visual map to the eponymous area of Morgan’s native Vancouver. Tying nearly all of his records together is a firm interest in aquatic landscapes and the songs that can be found in their sound.
Morgan’s attempt to transpose natural history and anthropology as music continues to this day, with Monument Builders using found sound samples alongside his electronic textures to consider the social and institutional structures binding themselves to human life. Through these striking, high-concept ideas, his work as Loscil music bends beyond the ordinary reach of ambient music. Collaborations with wordsmith songwriters such as Destroyer’s Dan Bejar and pianist Kelly Wyse speak to a vision that is always more, never less.
With an acoustic guitar and a whole lotta loops, Liz Harris made the definitive crossover between the disparate musical worlds of ambient and singer-songwriter. Dragging a Dead Dear Up a Hill is a beloved favourite, the kind of cult classic that captures up hearts and never lets them go. Those of us enamored are still listening to it, all this time later taking in the indecipherable and reverb-drenched confessions that came to define the name Grouper.
In reality, it’s only one of Grouper’s final forms. Liz Harris’ project has been in a constant state of reinvention, and ‘Dragging’ was ultimately one, singular iteration. Before her move over to Kranky, she was releasing on Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s Root Strata imprint, offering records of dense drone, her vocal melodies stagnating and fading deep into the echoing voids of processed noise she’d crafted. ‘Cover the Windows and Walls’ still feels like one of the most evocative drone records I’ve ever listened to.
The enrapturing sonorities of Grouper seems to exist on any plane. The instruments and timbres are constantly changing, from scattered noise to acoustic guitar to unprocessed piano meanderings -- oh, by the way, ‘Ruins’ has become a cult classic too. Over time, it feels like Harris has decided to write more direct material, appearing more experimental as she peels back the layers. Whatever the case, her music remains deeply affecting, a relatable ambient music that has inspired its following, and will never shake it.
The amount of words that have been splurged on Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, am I right? Too many, probably. How would you feel about me talking up some string swells and guitar figures and spoken word treatises about the end of the world? I can imagine the rolled eyes right now, so scroll on. If you still don’t know, though: Godspeed bridged the first and second generations of post-rock to create some of the most poignant records of all time, collaging rock music with sound art in their pursuit of a suitable apocalypse song to play for the world -- and the end of it.
Barring a lost, vault-locked tape that nobody’s ever heard, Efrim Menuck’s band supposedly started with F# A# Infinity, a record of fragmented dynamics and disparate musical languages that ultimately felt more like a tone poem than a post-rock album. It immediately singled them out as a unique band, a different proposition: rather than churn from quietest quiet to loudest loud, they went down barren paths and met strange characters. Only with Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada and Lift Your Skinny Fists did their mix of forlorn stringwork and crystalline guitar become more instructive of the post-rock genre, marrying their ambient inclinations to symphonic suites such as the legendary “Storm”.
Largely affiliated with their home state label Constellation, Godspeed You! Black Emperor also got a great deal of help from Kranky on their early records, the band easily fitting into the mould of a label that never compromised on interesting ideas. The three aforementioned records now hold a legendary status, in part due to Kranky’s belief in the band and their staunchly political scores, which at once promised hope and hopelessness.
The most winning combo in ambient music are surely these two. A benevolent duo of Brian McBride -- fantastically named, and very much aware of his Fulham FC counterpart -- and the composer creative Adam Wiltzie, Stars of the Lid have recorded some of the most affecting drone music of all time, crafting twin opuses in The Tired Sounds of and And the Refinement of their Decline. The mad thing is that those were their final records under the name: a whole slew of records came before it, marked by deep-diving experiments, dark ambient and heartbroken strings.
Formed way back in 1993, Stars of the Lid is as old as me and twice as good. Their earlier records were scratchier and weirder, offering experiments that could only be made with noxious lo-fi production. Music for Nitrous Oxide and Gravitational Pull Vs the Desire for an Aquatic Life provided listeners with an ominous introduction to this band, with found sound mingling into nauseating textures.
Then it all went a bit nice. 1999’s Avec Laudenum exercised a perfect realisation of the duo’s interest in slow-burning trance music, its beatless hypnosis bringing listeners to an infinite lull. At forty-two minutes, it simply wouldn’t do at all: Wiltzie and McBride knew we needed their bliss in excess, and they delivered two late classics for the cause. The Tired Sounds of came alongside And the Refinement of their Decline, both modest symphonies that gave an exhaustive final account of the best ambient act to ever grace our globe. We hope they come back. We hope they wake up.
Low are dulcet geniuses. Comprised at its core of married couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, their music has converted boredom to beauty over what is now coming up on twenty-five perfect years. They started as a band fully defined by the idioms of slowcore; crystalline guitars moving at a glacial space, vacuous production that stretched the laws of physics, and lyrics so minimalist they could’ve ceased to exist -- if they weren’t so immensely affecting. Since then they’ve tried their hand at dream pop and deliberately hazardous production, worked with Jeff Tweedy on folk records and made a stunning comeback as noise droners. At the centre of it all, you ask? Vocal harmonies like no other.
After releasing three LPs with a devastatingly chilling and sparse template -- I Could Live In Hope through to The Curtain Hits The Cast -- Low rebranded, deigning to make coarser rock songs and more symphonic lullabies. Secret Name and Things We Lost In The Fire were the result, two of their best, most fully realised works. What carried over from record to record was the way Sparhawk and Parker sang to, and with, one another, so close and yet so separate, a duo that sounded tender from a truly hopeless place.
Low began to stretch beyond their self-enforced limitations, creating the almost painful to listen to Drums and Guns by mixing dilating drum machine rhythms with a harshly panned mix job that made the record bleed between the ears. After softening with two records of bona fide dad rock in C’Mon and The Invisible Way, they’ve regained the mournful verve of their early records, coming back with the brilliant Ones and Sixes in 2015 before dissolving into the looped ambient ambiguities of this year’s Double Negative. A record that of rock songs funnelled through the soundscapes of William Basinski and Ian William Craig, it’s proof that Low can still find new ways to present their single, core idea: simplicity sung sweetly.
Once described by their enigmatic frontman Bradford Cox as ‘ambient punk’, Deerhunter happen to be one of the world’s premier guitar bands. They’ve built on the schematics of earlier forebearers -- from the garage rock of Television to the avant-garde WTFisms of Stereolab -- to create a sound wholly of their own. Their foundation is the songwriting partnership of Cox and bandmate Lockett Pundt, who divide to offer affecting reinterpretations of all things dream pop, shoegaze, psych rock and noise. The past decade plus has supplied us with a plethora of Deerhunter’ opuses, each imbibing different rock aesthetics they would later turn sublime.
Deerhunter released their first and shakiest LP in 2005, which Cox maintains simply to exist for the sake of it -- they wanted to have something out, but like your favourite perfectionist pop stars, he looks back on it with scorn. It’s no coincidence that everything since has been golden, a slew of unstoppable rock ‘n’ roll gems appearing from Cryptograms through Fading Frontier. Their sound initially gave us so much joy just because of how unrefined it was: the freewheeling trance rock of Cryptograms was unstoppable, looping ambient textures and incandescent distortion as if the band couldn’t really control it. Almost immediately, they became something else, homaging ‘50s pop music and a more streamlined dream pop on their opus Microcastle -- which was backed, winkingly, with a second disc of psychedelic vignettes, given free rein to go weird.
On every album, there’s a compromise. Pundt does the sad, affecting songs with the melancholy chord progressions; Cox makes the brasher, more swirly stuff, the guitars more esoteric and the mics often so uncomfortably close it could count as ASMR. Their different styles have only ever contributed to the overall vibe of the albums they’re making, helping wild out the already versatile Monomania and bridging different gaps in the rock history lesson of Halcyon Digest. Few bands can be as interesting in 2018 as they were in 2007, but the singles dropped for their new LP, the science-fiction inspired Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, promise their usual blur of beguiling experimentation and visceral simplicity -- ‘ambient punk’, as it were.
Benoît Pioulard is a variety act. Like a triple threat entertainer, he matches spectral ambient craftsmanship with indie songwriter chops, occasionally blurring the two together into records halfway between Jose Gonzalez and Rafael Anton Irisarri. Benoît Pioulard isn’t his real name, by the way; stealing through the darkness under the pseudonym is American artist Thomas Meluch, whose work moves, baiting-and-switching, with a constant current or surprise.
We can promise you one thing, though: it’s always beautiful. It’s always delicate. It’s always vulnerable. Implicit in both the drone and song of Pioulard’s back catalogue is a feeling of home: each LP sounds like it’s been stitched together from the bedroom, his expansive ambient sounds usually contained in grainy, lo-fi environments, his melodic songs usually just short of Sufjan Stevens’ approach to confessional melancholy. The turnover in recent years has been enough to leave a listener as affected as they are confounded: the enrapturing ambient aquatics of Sonnet, heartbreaking in their own right, where followed by The Benoit Pioulard Listening Matter, a set of short songs for acoustic guitar that brought Pioulard closer to his audience than ever before.
Wading through Pioulard’s back catalogue his an extensive job, so jog on and do it: you’ll find fully realised records like Lasted, his best work, collected alongside randomly produced 7”s and fragile ambient offcuts. His collaborations with Foxes in Fiction, ambient pianist Dustin O’Halloran and drone legend Kyle Bobby Dunn are never quite what you expect them to be -- Pioulard’s appeal is, ultimately, in his magical indecision.
Drone poster boy Tim Hecker moved from the Montreal imprint Alien8 to Kranky to 4AD and back again; not that any of it matters, of course. After a series of career-defining records for Kranky that span An Imaginary Country to Virgins, 4AD were happy to embrace the heart-rending outpouring of 2016’s Love Streams. In each of these beautified noise tomes, he’s pushed further and further afield from the relatively hushed ambient music that characterised his early days.
Hecker’s solo debut Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again and its follow-up Radio Amor were gorgeous records with an intimate lightness to them. Or rather, they are compared to what he’d go on to do: he promised a record of death metal drone on ‘Mirages’, an early high point in his fledgling career, before developing a series of high-concept opuses defined by their bright sequencing and formalised ideas. Harmony In Ultraviolet began to play with scuzzed up melody, Hecker sounding organised and orchestrated for the first time. 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972 was an ode to creative destruction and ‘digital trash’, while Virgins was a harsh record that refocused his sound with one particular instrumental timbre.
With new Kranky release Konoyo focusing on Japanese orchestras and negative space, Hecker’s music has become defined by each singular iteration, every album following a different artistic impulse. As Hecker has discovered different cultural musics and been inspired by different composers -- such as long-term collaborator Kara-Lis Coverdale, or Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, with whom he made Instrumental Tourist -- his sound has changed. Hecker is a different kind of ambient artist: his work for Kranky has embraced the world’s rapid rate of change.
Steve Hauschildt wasn’t quite content with blowing our minds in Emeralds, his now defunct kosmische band, so he gave us a solo career too, bestowing unto us a series of worlds scored by his beguiling synth set-up. I personally first encountered Mr. Sparklehands on Where All is Fled, a solo record of immense generative soundscaping. Utilising a beatless musical palette of pulsating synths, Hauschildt created a neon green masterpiece that homages the early days of electronic music while forging ahead into something -- or somewhere -- new. Listening to it, you can hear the world being rendered in real time, as if you’re walking through a video game world and seeing it develop.
Hauschildt’s solo career with Kranky has been defined by a series of workmanlike refinements. From 2007’s Sequitur, he’s been running forensic experiments on the means of electronic ambient music, considering how beatless sounds can convey pulse and action. It follows in the tradition of kosmische artists such as Tangerine Dream by creating something between mediums; as tranquil as modern drone, but as invigorating as dance music. Slowly building on his meditative synthwork, Hauschildt started to place more and more emphasis on melody and rhythm, heavily implying both on Strands before making them implicit on Dissolvi.
Dissolvi promises a brave new world for Steve Hauschildt. A marked break from his long-stay comfort zone, it utilises IDM drumwork, new age vocals and the occasional dub-techno banger on its way to a different kind of musical cityscape. Features from Julianna Barwick and GABI round out a record in which Hauschildt opens himself up to the world again, ready to fill up the barren wastelands he’s spent years soundtracking.
Slowcore’s most consistent band don’t really need a classic record -- it’s all much of a beautiful muchness. If they have one, though, it’s Things We Lost In The Fire, which sees them embrace the dour post-rock and searing symphonics shared with many a Kranky artist. The instrumentation is, if I may borrow the world’s most obnoxious word, lush. Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk open themselves up to the world in a record that looks beyond the usual economy of crystalline guitars and brushed drums; “Closer” is a perfect example of how they do this, and how barely they do it, accenting their intimate vocal harmonies with mourning strings. Low’s early records were sparse void-chasers, barely existing in their minimalism -- of all their mid-era records, Things We Lost In The Fire is the best at expanding their sound into something lived in.
What more can possibly be said? Having amassed a cult following through her LPs for Root Strata, Liz Harris used Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill to expand on the language of her Grouper project, offering a record of devastating tunes closer to the singer-songwriter tradition than the scuzz drone of old. A record of meandering folk music drenched in alien reverb and hovering ambient production, Dragging a Dead Deer Up A Hill became one of Kranky’s most treasured releases, beloved for its emotional ambiguity. It’s not to know the why or what of this record; it communicates in the way all Grouper records do, with an inexplicable sense of feeling. Dragging a Dead Deer is an oblique psych folk classic -- but it’s as comforting as a bedroom pop album.
A hidden gem in the Kranky vault, 2004’s self-titled LP from the Dead Texan was the ambient supergroup’s one and only release, combining the forces of Stars of the Lid member Adam Wiltzie with visual artist and drone composer Christina Vantzou. Initially posited as another Stars of the Lid record, it eventually became its own project, divesting aesthetically from the music Wiltzie was making with Brian McBride. It’s an almost songful iteration of ambient, utilising brevity and voice in a way Wiltzie’s primary project had never considered. It’s one of his most readily digestible releases and also played some part in launching the music career of Vantzou, whose recent series of albums have been delightful and devastating.
Deerhunter would be co-parented by Kranky and 4AD for their agreed-upon opus Microcastle and the records that followed it. But before that record of pitch-perfect dream pop, they were a little rougher, Bradford Cox and co. making a right mess of things as praxis. There’s an argument for 2007’s Cryptograms being their best album, marrying the iridescent shoegaze of their early days to the gorgeous, plaintive guitar rock of their later years. It involves copious shoegazing, psych rock bangers and ambient interludes that sound like water feature sculptures from a fantasy planet. It contains some of their most thrilling accomplishments -- the title track, which sounds like trance and hard rock wrestling with Loveless -- along with some of Cox’s most confessional work in the devastating “Hazel St.” and “Heatherwood”. A masterpiece of avant-garde rock, Cryptograms is also a thrilling emotional document of living alone, dreaming in solitary.
Plenty of records by Tim Hecker fit the bill for this list, and many will argue the artist hit his stride on Harmony In Ultraviolet, where he first started to utilise rich structural narratives. That was his original Kranky debut, but for me, there’s too much allure in the dark, borderless sound world of Mirages to leave it off this list. Originally released by Alien8, it’s become part of Kranky’s Hecker retrospective, looking back on a less refined and more freely experimental period of his career. Using processed sheets of guitar and covering the record with blanketing distortion, Hecker created something his label called ‘an ambient death-metal classic in waiting’. They’re not far off, but there’s also a great deal of tranquility to be found in this LP -- rather than sound stormy and threatening, Mirages is the perfect soundtrack to being all alone in a 24/7 supermarket.
Dream pop troubadour Bradford Cox uses Atlas Sound as an outlet for pretty much anything that doesn’t go into the Deerhunter pan. On any given day, that could mean anything -- that the tunes are impossibly, forensically experimental, or that they’re too plain ‘n’ simple. On his second Atlas Sound record, Logos, it was mostly pop time. With features from Animal Collective’s Panda Bear and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, Cox crafted a series of slow-releasing gems that sounded brighter and more peaceful than their Deerhunter siblings. Songs move excitedly, or sometimes lazily, through the bright lights of Cox’s world.
Lockett Pundt is Deerhunter’s softie and thank god. His music is as beautiful as anything you could hope to hear from a garage punk, and on Spooky Action At a Distance, he made a record that favoured the plain-spoken and evocative. Sublime chord progressions met lyrics like “One of these days I hope I come ‘round”; songs were given gravitas by subtle key changes or a minute volume increase. It was tuneful on Microcastle’s level, but in reducing the scope of his band’s music, he was able to create something with even more feeling, cutting through the dream pop miasma with a simple word about being at a loose end, or needing someone, or yearning for comfort. Just life stuff, you know? Spooky Action At a Distance is nice to live with.
The Tired Sounds Of is all string swells and chord waves, a record that nails the quiet-loud dynamic better than any post-rock band could ever hope to. On this monolithic LP, Stars of the Lid proved that music could be both subtle and devastating, the phrasing of their music feeling light and impactful at once through simple, evocative progressions. Modern minimalism has rarely sounded so fully-formed, but by this point in their career, and Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie hadn’t even reached the masterful refinement of their final LP yet.
No longer capable of sitting still, Common Era saw Belong fidget their way into a relationship with percussion-addled dream pop, crossing over from the blissed out drone of their debut October Language into a sound filled with My Bloody Valentineisms. It was a stunning reinvention; part of what made these grey, gauzy tunes so intriguing was their dance-oriented rhythm, the usual textural overdrive complemented with a newfound forward momentum. Turk Dietrich and Michael Jones weren’t just having a cheap shot at shoegaze; they approached Common Era by moving diagonally from everything they’d made before, creating a truly experimental record in which rhythm and song structure felt like unbridled exploration.
Released in collaboration with Montreal’s stellar Constellation, Kranky extended the runtime of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s magnum opus, giving Efrim Menuck and co. the chance to expand upon their collage of muffled field recordings, terse guitars and symphonic apocalypse song. It’s been the album to beat ever since, a post-rock piece de resistance that’s never since been recaptured. Partly, that’s because Godspeed weren’t your average post-rock band; they structured pieces differently, and played with dynamics in more subtle shades, than their peers. The earthy sense of place that defines F♯ A♯ ∞ sets it apart from the build and release post-rock that came after it; these longform tunes were more like Country ‘n’ Western drones about the end of the world.
And now time for our unforgivably subjective take on what else is worth listening to on this most decidedly glum of labels. Kranky classics are numerous and unending, so just take this list as a friendly gleaming of some LPs that aren’t to be missed.
- Bowery Electric - Beat
- Boduf Songs - This Alone Above All Else In Spite of Everything
- Labradford - A Stable Reference
- Loscil - Endless Falls
- Jonas Reinhardt - Jonas Reinhardt
- Disappears - Irreal
- Cloudland Canyon - Lie in Light
- Benoît Pioulard - Sonnet
- Christina Vantzou - No. 2
- Christina Carter - Original Darkness
- A Winged Victory for the Sullen - A Winged Victory for the Sullen
- Justin Walter - Unseen Forces