Best of 2014: Reissues and archival releases
Scott Wilson runs down the best reissues and archival releases of the year, with records from Dark Entries, Music From Memory, Light In The Attic and more making the cut.
If one thing was apparent this year, it’s that the amount of effort going into reissues has never been higher. Take Dark Entries for example, who operated a relentless release schedule reissuing everything from much-loved favourites like Charlie’s Italo classic “Spacer Woman” to the more obscure coldwave sounds of Kirlian Camera’s Uno. RVNG Intl and Music From Memory took a different approach, releasing just a few retrospectives delving deep into the archives of underappreciated figure from electronic music’s history.
Despite the wealth of excellent records to choose from for this list, the decisions were easy. For the most part, it wasn’t fancy packaging or the chance to own classic albums on vinyl that decided the year’s best reissues, but the wealth of interesting stories each label wanted to tell, be it uncovering unknown figures (Gigi Masin, Vangelis Katsoulis) or offering vital context for musical moments in history not yet documented obsessively (The Aquaplano Sessions, “Icy Lake”). Whether anyone can top the strange tale of Lewis next year remains to be seen, but it offers hope that there are still plenty of stories out there waiting to be told.
Those familiar with the discographies of both Night Slugs and Fade To Mind label and its artists will know the ballroom scene of mid ‘90s New York is an important touchstone for both. This reissue saw the transatlantic cousins join forces to reissue a track called “Icy Lake” from the little-known Dat Oven, a duo comprised of Jeffery Gratton and Shunji Moriwaki; a tribal house track built around a message left on Gratton’s voicemail, Fade To Mind’s Total Freedom found it on YouTube and the duo were tracked down by the label, leading to this release.
“Icy Lake” isn’t just a document from a bygone era; as this documentary made by THUMP points out, it shares certain sonic signifiers that would later show up in early grime music, while the sound effects of glass breaking and swords unsheathing have much in common with the “epic collage” style of Total Freedom himself. It’s for this reason – and the brilliant remixes from L-Vis 1990, Total Freedom and DJ Rashad & NA, which explicitly make the connections between ballroom and the strange club forms of today – that this is one of the year’s most intriguing pieces of dance music history.
There’s a case to be made for everyone being encouraged to listen to the Severed Heads back catalogue in full, but there were a lot of Severed Heads records reissued this year, and only a few years after an exhaustive career-spanning box-set was released. It’s why ‘80s Cheesecake stood out. It’s unlikely more than a few hardcore fans would have come across much of Severed Heads frontman Tom Ellard’s solo work from the early ‘80s, but it’s easily as interesting as anything he made with the group.
At the time the two cassettes that would go on to become this collection were made, Ellard was experimenting with the TB-303 he’d just purchased, and the results aren’t unlike a lot of the lo-fi house and techno experiments being made today. In some cases, like on “Babies”, Ellard’s tracks sound even fuller and more detailed than comparable tracks from today. While nothing here is really comparable to acid house, it’s still interesting to think this material predates the genre by several years, a strange set of proto-acid experiments embedded within surreal collage soundscapes.
One of the hardest selections to make on this list was which of RVNG Intl’s brilliant reissue projects should be included. The effort going into both Craig Leon’s definitive version of Nommos and minimalist electronic artist Ariel Kalma’s An Evolutionary Music put most other labels to shame, but for us, it was K Leimer’s A Period of Review we kept coming back to. The mammoth 30-track collection may have had its roots in Leimer’s early interest in Krautrock and kosmische, but it’s the faintly new age tone he developed throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s that defines it.
More than anything, Leimer’s synth sketches have an indefinably odd quality, perhaps a hangover from his young interest in Surrealism and Dadaism, which led him to take up automatic painting and writing. It’s that faintly absurd quality running through each of these tracks making them so easy to return to time and time again.
The world certainly isn’t short of lost prog synth albums from the 1970s, though very few of them are as enjoyable as Bernard Szajner’s Visions Of Dune. An artist with a background in lighting and visual effects, Szajner made Visions Of Dune with an Oberheim synthesizer and sequencer lent to him by a friend. He made it in eight days despite having no formal musical experience, inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy to create an album that recreated Herbert’s tale through music.
Herbert’s series of sci-fi novels have inspired several adaptations, but Szajner’s audio version might be the best of the bunch. It’s an album that can be compared to kosmische mainstays Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh, but it’s an album with a distinct character of its own, probably in no small part to the desert planet setting of the novels being reflected in Szajner’s suitably arid swathes of sound, moving like sandstorms across a great desert expanse. It’s Szajner’s ability to evoke such visuals from such a limited setup that makes this album so remarkable.
Dark Entries reissued so many records this year it was difficult to keep up. Some records stood out more than others, and this record of classic Psyche material was a uniquely personal project filled with some of the best music the label managed to get its hands on. Though the Canadian band is known primarily as a two-piece, the earliest incarnation of Psyche in 1981 featured their schoolmate Dwayne Goettel, who died tragically 19 years ago. The music made at the time, described by Dark Entries as “a combination of horror and electronics that was completely unprecedented in Western Canada” remained unreleased until this archival collection, and it’s pretty remarkable stuff.
Those who know Psyche through their cover of Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” will likely be surprised by these eight tracks, which combine the oddball experimentalism of Devo and the pulsing industrial sounds of Nitzer Ebb into something dark, but not without a sense of pop nuance. There are many lost synthpop and industrial tracks from this era, but few combining the two as brilliantly as the eight tracks on Re-Membering Dwayne.
Donato Dozzy’s discography is intimidating to say the least. In addition, a lot of it is vinyl-only and unavailable to all but the most committed Discogs hunters. Chief among his most fabled records are the Aquaplano series he made with Nuel back in 2008, originally issued in limited quantities through Berlin’s Hard Wax store. While techno was looking to the ‘90s for inspiration again after several years of minimal rule, the Aquaplano records embraced a deeper, more psychedelic sound than either of those approaches.
Some moments swirl in a trippy fashion similar to Elliott’s Outer Space project or the music of Bee Mask, though most have the kind of gravelly monophonic thud you’d now associate with artists like Container or labels like L.I.E.S. While much of that kind of techno can be exhausting to listen to for extended periods, The Aquaplano Sessions is never overbearing – each piece of distortion is as carefully considered as you’d expect from a pair of this calibre, creating an album of techno that was released a good few years ahead of its time.
Given the fact he’s a classically trained jazz clarinetist living in New York in the early ’80s who found inspiration in the sounds of disco, it would be tempting to draw comparisons between Roland Young and Arthur Russell. While there’s definitely a few parallels that can be drawn between their music, This reissue of Hearsay I-Land from Palto Flats demonstrated a musician who – while not quite as heart-wrenching as Russell – easily made music that was just as strange.
Taking material from both Young’s 1984 I-Land 12” and the subsequent 1987 LP Hearsay Evidence, Hearsay I-Land splits itself between outsider lounge ballads, oddball synth-pop and moments of experimental disco. The production itself is fairly unremarkable, but Young’s creaky, woozy imperfect vocals are swimming in character – if anyone made a track like “Go Away” today, it might be assumed that its combination of screeching saxophone, overly earnest vocal delivery and misty synths were some kind of self-aware parody. Hearsay I-Land was nothing of the sort – it was simply a collection of great pop songs deserving of much wider attention.
If this list was based on the story behind the music itself, then Lewis’s L’amour and Romantic Times records would win on that basis alone. When Light In The Attic reissued L’amour – a private press record of music with a sound somewhere between Arthur Russell and the surrealism of Julee Cruise – all the label knew was that Lewis drove a white Mercedes, liked wearing white suits and disappeared from Los Angeles before paying for the photoshoot for the album. All attempts to track him down proved fruitless. For all intents and purposes Lewis could have been an actor hired to front an anonymous singer’s work, and it captured the imagination like no other musical tale this year.
It was the rarest of things – a genuinely untold story, which only got stranger when another album, Romantic Times, was found in similar circumstances. When the man himself was finally tracked down by the label, living in Canada and drinking coffee in his neighbourhood cafe, it didn’t detract from his enigmatic nature; Lewis showed little interest in his unlikely stardom and the offer of the label’s royalty money. Both the story and the wonderful music across these two albums felt like treasures hiding in plain sight all along – a very rare thing in the post-internet age.
2. Vangelis Katsoulis – The Sleeping Beauties: A Collection of Early and Unreleased Works (Into The Light)
Into The Light heads Ilias Pitsios and Tako Reyenga consider Greek artist Vangelis Katsoulis to be one of electronic music’s most overlooked visionaries, and The Sleeping Beauties: A Collection of Early and Unreleased Works made it hard to disagree. There’s a distinctly new age flavour to Katsoulis’s music, which hovers tenuously between the minimalism of Philip Glass and Terry Riley, and the kind of music you might hear on meditational cassettes.
It’s the kind of ‘80s music that often doesn’t age well, but Katsoulis’s music sounds more relevant than ever; “Touch The Sun” for instance sounds like some of the stranger moments of Maxmillion Dunbar, while the digital pads of “Earth Beat” could be taken from Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven. Like those modern counterpoints, it’s that combination of irresistible melody and futuristic structure that made The Sleeping Beauties so essential, a great collection of music that makes you wonder what other gems Katsoulis must have in his vaults.
There’s not much to Gigi Masin’s track “The Word Love” – just three piano chords and a drawn out backdrop of strings – but it feels almost unfathomably deep. It’s why Talk To The Sea is such an appropriate title for this retrospective of music from the cult Venetian artist on Music From Memory – his music feels like it’s obsessed with water, either just sitting and watching it, or finding yourself completely immersed in it.
This feeling of being beside the ocean is perhaps why much of what Masin does could be described as “Balearic”, but the way he creates expansive scenes out of very few elements is more comparable to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, especially on the haunting, vocal-led “Snake Theory”. Tako Reyenga, Abel Nagengast and Jamie Tiller’s label has only put out three releases since opening for business in 2013, but Talk To The Sea was compiled and presented in a way that suggested it was a labour of love that’s been going on for far longer. Talk To The Sea wasn’t just the best reissue project of the year – it was better than most albums of new music released in 2014.