Welcome to the year-end edition of Best Experimental Music on Bandcamp, in which we’ve picked 12 of our favorites from 2022. There was so much great experimental music on the site this year that no list could truly represent the breadth and depth of it all, but we are sure that these releases below are worthy of your time. Presented in alphabetical order by artist, our selections include ground-shaking drones, songs sung by artificial intelligence, a moving musical elegy, an homage to the VHS tape, and a 71-minute magnum opus.
Irish composer Susan Geaney’s Tape Melt was inspired by her childhood experience of playing and recording over VHS tapes, which she says created a “wonderful cacophony of melting and dripping sounds.” Her single 35-minute piece, performed with the eight-member Kirkos Ensemble, has the warped feel of a worn-out tape (three cassette players are included in the group’s arsenal). Evolving from a haunting drone into a busy chorus of musical voices, Geaney and her comrades eventually fade down to a single high pitch, traveling farther than any VHS tape could.
Ocean – Symphony for Electric Violin and other instruments in 10+ parts
2 x Vinyl LP
Following two excellent compilations of previously-unreleased material on the Shukai label, Ukraine-born violinist and sound artist Valentina Goncharova gets a welcome reissue of her 1989 Ocean symphony, a 10-part composition filled with sounds both earthly and alien, atmospheric and concrete. Whirring violin strains compete with drones, rhythms, and roars, all making their mark in an intensifying narrative. As a bonus, Goncharova recorded a “Return to the Ocean” in 2021, included here, and its 23 minutes are just as compelling as the original work she’s responding to.
The music of Havadine Stone exists in between spaces, sometimes even behind them. Take “Tree Duet,” the closer on her new album Old Young, which flirts with complete silence. Little bits of wind and rumbling drift in and out, as if she’s lying down in the grass of an empty field, staring at a cloudless sky. Other pieces have more legible sound sources: during “Slow Bath,” she sings a stirring bit of a cappella, and opener “Dream A Little Dream Of Me (Me On Me On Me On Me)” is full of voices echoing like memories. Old Young shows an artist fascinated by space and distance, and bent on expanding the meaning of those words.
Comprising five of Chicago’s most interesting sound explorers—Zachary Good, Lia Kohl, Mabel Kwan, Zach Moore, and Sam Scranton—Honestly Same makes music that sounds like neurons firing, with small, quick sounds darting around. In places, like the squawking “Creative Activities,” the group’s missives sound like space transmissions or Morse code pointed toward outer galaxies. But during other stretches, Honestly Same’s musical dots (created with synths, woodwinds, strings, percussion, and more) connect into atmospheric tapestries. Take the 13-minute “Hot Big,” a gradual meditation that evokes a long sunrise over an awakening zoo.
A Maneuver Within
New York-based trio MAW (guitarist Jessica Ackerley, pianist Eli Wallace, and bassist Frank Meadows) clearly know how to exchange musical ideas, and they conduct a fascinating conversation on A Maneuver Within. All three are vital contributors, but Ackerley’s nimble playing is the star, rising and falling with her partners, sometimes both leading and following them. This is especially true on the 22-minute closer “Decay,” in which Ackerley pulls out every guitar trick in the book but never sounds like she’s showing off, always gelling perfectly with what Wallace and Meadows provide her.
Khedmat Be Khalq
Naujawanan Baidar began when N.R. Safi, erstwhile guitarist for Arizonan band The Myrrors, dug through Afghani music tapes left to him by his grandfather. This spurred him to make his own sounds, mixing traditional song structures, outward-bound psych guitar, and tape-degraded noise. On Khedmat Be Khalq he expands Najawanana Baidar into a full-fledged group, furthering his “gnarled and sunbaked tracks cut up and collated into a blown out collage of sound,” per the album notes. Old and new ideas create a dizzying swirl of melody and distortion, like a busted radio with no off switch. The grit and texture of these righteous jams is palpable, creating the aura of a dusty archaeological dig.
Elvis Died and Everyone Is…
UK-based soundmaker Posset includes in his bio the phrase “all goof, all the time.” That’s an exaggeration, but you can pretty much count on humor sparking through everything he does. On Elvis Died and Everyone Is…, the comedy comes in a growling, croaky package, as if Posset is conducting a pond full of frogs. Mixing blurry speech, distant noises, and odd ambiences, Posset creates something both silly and creepy. Eeriest is closer “The Short Rest You Take Between Domestic Jobs,” which evokes voices slowly seeping out of a cemetery ground like smoke.
Compact Disc (CD)
The work of Vanessa Rossetto has an eternal quality, as if her pieces are windows into phenomena that have been going on forever. The effect is most obvious on her lengthier pieces, such as the 25-minute “Katie Cruel,” which mixes granular field recordings with gently melodic music, and the 16-minute “Instagram Famous Cat,” which rides dramatic highs and lows before resolving into a repetitive chime. But even on the shorter songs, such as the two-minute tracks that open and close The Actress, there’s a sense that entire universes live inside the small sounds that Rossetto arranges into subconscious narratives.
Gavilán Rayna Russom
Trans Feminist Symphonic Music
Gavilán Rayna Russom’s Trans Feminist Symphonic Music, a 71-minute magnum opus, travels a globe-sized path of sounds, sights, and emotions. Russom explores minimalism, drone, and ambience, all in service of an abstract narrative that compels at every turn. In the first 20 minutes alone, a pulsing space-bound synth pattern is masterful in its own right. But Russom only goes deeper from there, evoking everything from the vastness of an orchestra to the isolation of a single note. Trans Feminist Symphonic Music takes many listens to absorb but only one to appreciate.
A seven-piece band of Austin, Texas musicians drawn from groups such as Spray Paint, Black Eyes, and Swans, Water Damage sound even bigger than they are. Generating huge drones with ground-shaking beats, the group uses three drummers, two bassists, a bowed guitar, and a synthesizer to forge an amalgam of Tony Conrad’s violin sawing and Earth’s gravity-creating marches. Repeater jumps right into the thunder with 22-minute opener “Reel 2,” a dense grind that melts ripping sounds into one big slab of tectonic rage. Grooves this heavy and primal could easily run out of gas, but Water Damage smartly take cues from masters of eternal drone, realizing that stamina itself can be a musical instrument.
Old Time Music
On Old Time Music, Weston Olencki samples from over 300 albums of tenor sax music and teaches artificial intelligence to sing a Carter Family song. But those are just some of the methods Olencki uses: “Tenor Madness” is a cascading wall of horn sounds that feels three dimensional; “Cripple Creek” is a bumping banjo loop that’s instantly hypnotic; “Charon guiding the weary ‘cross the Long River (or, how to care for a dying instrument)” alternates between frighteningly loud waves and meditative tones. Throughout, Olencki conveys how musical history moves in crooked lines, creating new forms that reflect its ongoing mutation.
Compact Disc (CD)
Joan is a musical elegy in which Whettman Chelmets focuses on the last few days of his grandmother’s life, when he played some of her favorite gospel music for her. He then used that music as material for a meditation on her final journey, sampling and reworking it into stirring atmospheres that fit such track titles as “This Realization of Impermanence is Terrifying” and “A Lifetime Condensed into a Small Stone and Considered.” You can feel loss and despair in these 13 reverential tracks, but hopefulness too. With Joan, Chelmets transforms the finality of death into something regenerative.