There are very few institutions in the experimental music sphere - few precious focal points of unconventional and expressive weirdness. The BBC’s now unthinkably demoted Late Junction show, The Wire, a select few European festivals and one or two music venues across the UK are examples. Brooklyn’s RVNG Intl. (pronounced Revenge International) can be added to that short list.
Formed at the start of the new millennium, the label and its associated imprints are quite rightly renowned for their tireless celebration of the weird, the unclassifiable, the abstract. Each new act, each rediscovery of a long-overlooked gem, each unlikely marriage of collaborators feels thoughtfully and meticulously curated to further an unwavering, otherworldly aesthetic vision.
As the label enters its 16th year, still no closer to predictable, an overview of back catalogue and selected highlights proves no easy feat. There is a wealth of material to choose from, and - despite a common musical transcendence - no two records are alike. And despite providing the foundation stone for bona fide big hitters Julia Holter and Holly Herndon, and being credited with the re-emergence of countless early talents such as Pauline Anna Strom and Kerry Leimer, the label’s true identity is contained within the breadth of its work. The years spent diving deeply into forgotten pools of ambient and new age history, the nurturing cultivation of newly emerging artists and the pairing of young and old creative trailblazers have yielded an astonishing span.
Amongst the considerable rewards of the label’s catalogue we find the wise, environmental bliss of Visible Cloaks; the fiercely intellectual club music of acclaimed cellist / producer Oliver Coates; wilfully whimsical experiments in dance via their Beats In Space sub-label; Pete Swanson and Jed Bindeman’s reissue goldmine Freedom To Spend; the invite-only young-vs-old, master-vs-apprentice collaboration series FRKWYS. This accumulation - like a huge mosaic forming a picture we cannot yet anticipate from the outside - adds bountiful worth with every new release.
Always expanding their pallette, always sending out galactic new curveballs to become confounded by and enamoured with, some of the label’s recent steps have included the opening of Manhattan record store Commend in 2016, and the launch of their charitable programme Come! Mend!, in which artist and label alike donate a portion of record sales to artist-chosen causes. This is, of course, alongside a canvas case of 4 LPs by overlooked UK minimalist Rimarimba and a semiregular print zine (Insides) of boundary-smudging creative and humanitarian content.
Moscow-based producer Kate NV finely balances mischief and earnesty with her explorations into MIDI-mallets and Japanese-inspired synth pop, at once spry, pixyish and ritualistically mathematic. Following a trip to Japan in the mid 2010’s, she signed to Orange Milk Records for the release of her breakthrough record Binasu, and then began systematically deconstructing and rebuilding her sound, resulting in the unpredictable, sparse wonder of her current musical identity. This persona exists alongside her other projects - the avant-garde post-punk of Moscow Scratch Orchestra, for whom Kate plays guitar, and punk duo Glintshake - and helps to round out a truly individual musical soul.
Acclaimed cellist, producer and composer Oliver Coates has enigmatically appeared on a number of releases and stages as performer, collaborator and accompanist over his career. Contributing to great effect even when not in the spotlight, his astute and graceful musicality has enriched works by Mica Levi, Actress, Radiohead & Jonny Greenwood, Laurel Halo and many others. However, as a solo artist, his recordings open uniquely auteured gateways into interdimensional club music and heavenly classical-aligned arrangement. 2018’s Shelley’s on Zenn-La album re-imagines legendary Stoke-on-Trent nightclub Shelley’s on the fictional alien homeland of comicbook star the Silver Surfer.
A hugely influential record engineer in 80’s and 90’s New York (producing records by the Ramones, Blondie, Suicide and countless more), Craig Leon (b. 1952) ran the curious counter-channel of his own exploratory early-synthesiser music alongside his day-job. His solo records were released by John Fahey on his Takoma label, but were subsequently overlooked in favour of better known Craig Leon output. In 2016, RVNG’s reissue imprint ReRVNG uncovered two beautiful, singular gems from his catalogue, combining his Nommos and Visiting records (from 1981 and 1982 respectively) of speculative anthropological futurism into the Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1. These records explore an African folklore tale in which the origins of humanity begin with alien landings on earth.
The bridges between popular music and ‘serious’ art music have gradually narrowed since the 1980s. Formerly, there was quite a lag: consider tape loops, which got avant-garde composers such as Pierre Schaeffer all excited as early as the 1940s but didn’t really appear in pop before The Beatles’ Revolver in 1966. Today radical composition and popular art are much closer together, occasionally converging or even swapping roles. And the two achieve a sort of simultaneity in Holly Herndon’s music, where her techniques, however methodologically structured, also directly service the simpler matter of pop songwriting. That’s the real trick, isn’t it? And very catchy, even quite moving pop songwriting it is too. Except for that ASMR track. Can’t be dealing with that stuff.
Herndon’s expertise with powerful sound-processing techniques in Max/MSP has led her to a characteristic style of crumbling digital textures, often combined with or derived from vocal performance, resulting in utterly unique records such as her 2012 debut Movement and 2015’s Platform.
Sufjan Stevens-approved, NYC-Ecuadorian songwriter Helado Negro tells bilingual tales of love, identity, reality and abstraction. His recorded work - deeply meaningful, delicately arranged - often affirms solidarity and community with fellow people of colour. This embrace of personal meaning amidst a backdrop of discrimination distances Helado Negro (real name Roberto Carlos Lange) far from the traditional image of a “singer-songwriter”. He is more commonly found operating within a social and aesthetic vision named by his own song ‘Young, Latin and Proud’. His newest LP - This Is How You Smile - was released in March 2019, and features the beautiful singles ‘Please Won’t Please’ and ‘Running’ alongside further self-made miniature masterpieces in English and Spanish.
An early model of self-sufficiency and strict creative control, Kerry Leimer’s early albums were released on his own Palace of Lights label. He has been active since the early 1970’s, patiently working to his own schedule and producing endlessly entrancing solo works that glide between cosmic (and Kosmische) synthesis and blissful new age ambience. His meticulously arranged layers of guitar and prepared piano sit alongside electronic instruments, creating an American response to German masters such as Cluster and Popol Vuh. And, as now commonplace from RVNG Intl., this once-overlooked pioneer is receiving due acclaim for his contribution to a musical world inhabited by contemporary giants. In this case, the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never and Tim Hecker might never have existed without Leimer’s trailblazing early recordings.
David Moore-led ambient group Bing & Ruth is something of an outlet for creative themes that may have caused frowns in Moore’s place of education, New York’s New School for Jazz. Like Holly Herndon, he packs skills and ideas acquired in the academy and gone for a jaunt through more casual and accessible territory. In this case, the interacting references resemble blissful piano minimalism and wafting accompaniments. Less ambiguous than Ingram Marshall’s briny piano work (such as Fog Tropes) and less muscular than Lubomyr Melnyk’s plonktillism, the minimalism of the Bing & Ruth sound is cinematic: contemplative, plaintive and strongly evocative.
A two-piece from Portland, OR, led by musicology authority (and compiler of the recent Kankyō Ongaku boxset of Japanese ambient music) Spencer Doran, Visible Cloaks’ blissful, deeply conceptual ambient music stretches the borders of genre. Their approach is often guided by profoundly intellectual and creatively demanding themes, such as generative randomisation, the unintelligibility of ethnographic translation, the distinction between voice and language. And yet, despite this conceptual abstraction, their music is innately approachable, stirring, and intensely meaningful. It speaks to a very deep part of the soul.
Most recently seen collaborating with Japanese ambient pioneers Yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano for RVNG’s ongoing FRKWYS series, past records Reassemblage and Lex (both 2017) are works of indescribable beauty.
Exploring yet further within the rarely-trodden annals of early electronic music and its habitually overlooked female contributors, RVNG re-ignited the career of Pennsylvania’s Michele Mercure with their 2017 reissue of her singular Eye Chant album. Her releases in the 1980’s - her most overtly productive period - appeared as self-released cassettes, traded within circles of electronic music followers and (though spoken of highly) rarely peaked beyond handfuls of copies. These albums are now long-lost, carrying her now-dropped married surname of Musser, and hardly even appear on collectors’ listings. But with Eye Chant and 2018’s follow-up Beside Herself, Mercure’s legacy is finally cemented.
For almost three decades, Pauline Anna Strom’s most significant works - a series of self-released cassettes dating from 1982 to 1988 - were out of print and regularly bootlegged for unthinkable prices. This trailblazing, out-of-body-experience solo synthesiser music came close to being forgotten all together, until RVNG Intl.’s career-spanning 2017, 3xLP compilation Trans Millenia Music (the first authorised re-release of such material). Strom’s wondrous, transportive recordings are collected here into a lush and expansive body of work, her sensitivity to sound and feeling only heightened by her congenital blindness. Strom plays the role of “consort” to extra-dimensional correspondence, committing this communication to tape as she receives it.
RVNG’s FRKWYS (read: freakways) series sees generational pairings of musicians collaborating on new music. It has a sense of reverent torch-passing, as established luminaries carefully osmose their experience and wisdom into modernity and cultural nuances from younger musicians. FRKWYS’ fourteenth volume is the first time the generational pairing has been literal: early Fluxus member Yoshi Wada joining his son Tashi and some select guest musicians (Julia Holter and her drummer Corey Fogel both contribute here) to create delicate soundpoems in reference to nue, a mythological Japanese chimera with the face of a monkey, the legs of a tiger, and a snake for a tail, a composite form, at once disturbing and otherworldly.
NYC-Ecuadorian songwriter Helado Negro (real name Roberto Carlos Lange) tells important stories of community, self-care and solidarity in a world of divide and sanctioned discrimination. His music and his expression can be neatly summed up with his own song title ‘Young, Latin and Proud’. This newest album - This Is How You Smile - is a stunning collection of gentle, thoughtful, earworming miniature masterpieces, performed and recorded almost entirely by Lange himself. It runs as if a ghostly accompaniment to the passing of seasons, played for nostalgic memories and sunsoaked dreams. Accordingly, Lange describes the album as the soundtrack of a person approaching you, slowly, for 40 minutes.
More than thirty years after the release of the two albums (1981’s Nommos and 1982’s Visiting) that make up Volume 1, seminal record producer Craig Leon returns to dig even deeper into the same themes and sounds for its follow-up. Best known for his studio work Craig Leon’s CV spans some 600 albums over several decades, including records by Blondie, the Ramones and the Bangles. But it is with his sideline gig of early explorative synthesis that his creative expression takes on such otherworldly forms. His Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music collection - now expanded to two volumes - studies an ancient African folklore in which the origin of human life can be traced back to extraterrestrial landings on earth.
Representing (probably) the FRKWYS series’ shortest distance, Smith and Ciani were - at the time of this collaboration - practically neighbours in the Californian coastal town of Bolinas. Similarly, both are female creators in the male-dominated world of synthesiser music. And even more fortuitously, both are virtuosic performers of the notoriously demanding Buchla synth. With these connections and their friendship integral to its construction, Sunergy was recorded in Ciani’s Bolinas home, live in her living room, overlooking the Pacific Ocean from a cliffside perch. This idyllic setting housed Ciani and Smith with synths side-by-side, taking turns keeping time and freely improvising for the album sessions.
Then-unknown Julia Holter, before jumping ship to Domino and comparative stardom, was at the time a prodigious emerging talent from Los Angeles, having previously released only a single album on Matthewdavid’s fledgling Leaving Records the previous year. Combining an astute, academically structured approach (Holter is a graduate of the prestigious CalArts school and a former student of Indian guru Pashupati nath Mishra) with intuitive experimental pop, Ekstasis announced a shining, standout musician. The record invites comparisons to Laurie Anderson and Arthur Russell, through its controlled subversion of classicism and knowing nods to straighter pop music, but is in truth neither. It stands quite alone as an avant-garde, orchestral pop gem.
Visible Cloaks’ deeply conceptual music places exploratory philosophical themes as centrepoints to be built around. Speech, language and AI are often present both as musical ideas and as thematic bedrock on which layers of MIDI-randomisation, generative text and an understanding of meaning form musical projections. Their hugely acclaimed 2017 album Reassamblage is sonically founded on such ideas, and represents a groundbreaking work. It is no coincidence that Visible Cloaks’ Spencer Doran was invited by the Light in the Attic label to curate their wonderful Kankyō Ongaku compilation of Japanese ambient music, such is his knowledge of vital high-concept musics from across the world.
Matching Visible Cloaks crucial, genre-blurring experiments in environmental ambient music for a collaboration album would have always proved a difficult task. FRKWYS’ fifteenth installment demonstrates the label’s - and series’ - ability to multiply every contributor’s musicality and creative approach against each other’s, resulting in towering works of great significance. Japan’s master pianist Satsuki Shibano offers the perfect foil to Visible Cloaks and Yoshio Ojima’s software-based methods, her layers of lilting piano emerging like breaching light through a densely clustered fog of generative MIDI ambience. This combination of pioneering Japanese avant-garde music with its contemporary American response resonates with vibrant life.
Like Pauline Anna Strom, it was through the collectors’ network of traders and archivists that Kerry Leimer’s self-recorded and self-released music gained its mythical-but-lost status. His own label Palace of Lights issued handfuls of short-run cassette releases - Leimer’s uniquely Pacific Northwestern complement to the German Kosmische of the age - but for want of format updates and lingering popularity, this music spent years largely unheard. RVNG Intl.’s 2014 archival reissue A Period of Review brings together unreleased music, stored by Leimer at home on tape reels, and helped shine a new and lasting light on this now-unearthed black hole in the ancestry of ambient music.
On first impression, Anna Homler’s renegade take on an imagined folk music seemed too bizarre to figure. Her adopted character - Breadwoman - is as eccentric a creation as the name and bread-mask suggests, singing in no particular language, telling stories of a fictional mysticism. It is performance art, but with a deeply spiritual connection to sound and environment. It is theatrical, but with a punk realism. It is wilfully absurdist, yet ritualistically profound. Breadwoman was spontaneously born in 1982 on a drive through California’s fertile wilderness, then gently shaped into form by Homler and her partner in composition Steve Moshier. RVNG’s 2016 reissue of this rare and magical music invited the rebirth of Breadwoman and continued her strange trip.
Ones to watch
A new discovery for RVNG via Sprague’s Bandcamp-released debut recordings as a synthesist, this double LP (combining two albums) offers gentle, dulcet, wistful ambience touching on the worlds of Grouper or Jon Hassell. There is a great sense of mystery unfolding throughout, with repeated listens rewarding new details uncovered and new meanings understood. Brooklyn-based Sprague also plays in indie-pop quartet Florist, but brings only the smallest, most deft of musical instincts along with her for these solo ventures.
Released via sub-label Beats in Space, this breathtaking collaboration between two disparate musical worlds sees club music maestro Anatolian Weapons (aka Athens-based producer Aggelos Baltas) reform the works of traditional musician Seirios Savvaidis. Savvaidis - something of a local gem in Greece - sent stems of his music to Baltas to slice up, append and redesign into brand new works resembling something in between psych, dance music, traditional Mediterranean folk song and Levantine rapture. It embraces both myth and modernity, constrained by neither.