Sometimes it can feel like this digital age is glutting us with anything and everything from the past being available all at once. But then a gem like this will be unearthed, and all the noise falls away, and you realise how privileged we are to live in a time of such archival. This was originally released in 1985 as a companion cassette with early editions of the great author Le Guin’s Always Coming Home: a sprawling but rigorous ethnography of a far-future, low-tech society in Northern California. For it she created an entire language and alphabet as well as traditions and myths — and with the analogue synth explorer Todd Barton, she helped translate this into startlingly convincing songs. Combined with field recordings of nature, these gentle, considered ritual songs have the extremely potent effect of transporting you to a different Earth, dislodging you from aesthetic preconceptions and placing you entirely in their small, simple but very strange world. Lovingly repackaged on LP with liner notes in 2018, this is an unearthed treasure from a past future — or is it a future past?
Some labels have an aesthetic so distinct that if they release something incongruous, you find yourself bending it in your mind to try and fit in. Not so much NYC’s RVNG Intl., though. Like, there is an aesthetic, but you’ll struggle to put your finger on it. Just like with their relationship with design studio Will Work For Food since the mid 00s, in fact: while there are distinct series that repeat motifs in their sleeves, if you put the whole stack of the record covers side by side the diversity is the most striking thing… yet they all work together. They make sense. Because RVNG has something even more important than an aesthetic: it has a personality.
It’s a personality which could only have come about in a particular milieu and era, and one that has grown in the most organic possible way. The label couldn’t be more of a product of its environment and connections if it tried. It’s almost like it grew up out of the ground of post-millennium Brooklyn, with Matt Werth not so much founding it or managing it as tending and watering it, surrounding it with sympathetic species, protecting it when it was small and vulnerable, and only when it was ready letting it bear fruit.
For its first six years, in fact, RVNG was scarcely a label – certainly not in the sense it would become one. It began in 2003 as a DJ mix series, in the interzone between the tail end of electroclash and the postpunk revival that notably fuelled the DFA Recordings label around the same time. But those mixes had exquisite taste, bringing Roxy Music, Prince offshoots and Butthole Surfers into the mix, and – particularly when one Tim Sweeney, presenter of the Beats In Space radio show on WNYU, got involved – a healthy dose of techno.
These were then joined in 2006 by a sequence of edit 12"s, with the absolute cream of left field DJ talent – Mock & Toof and Greg Wilson from England, Norway’s Todd Terje, Switzerland’s In Flagranti, Frenchman Pilooski, Brooklyn’s own Jacques Renault, LA’s Lovefingers, JD Twitch from Scotland’s Optimo, and Sweeney again – cutting up soft rock, psychedelia and disco into new, DJ-able forms. Already, there wasn’t exactly an aesthetic as such, but there were connections being made: between maverick individuals with peculiar but very particular tastes, between sounds, between subcultures on and off the dancefloor, between decades, between continents.
This was the era of everything seeming suddenly very available. Broadband internet, file sharing, the blog era and desktop editing software still felt new, and record collecting culture was getting turbocharged as it became possible to hear huge caches of Vietnamese rock or brand new grime instrumentals or Yugoslav industrial or Memphis rap in short order. For many this was seen as cultural glut, and reactions were varied. In clumsier hands this led to the garish collisions of “mashups” and nu rave, but for impassioned pattern-recognisers like Werth and the constellation of DJ friends who created RVNG’s initial collages, the opening floodgates were a challenge to relish.
Those initial collages weren’t just fun join-the-dots exercises, or passing disco fun, either. They became a foundation, a system of roots, for the growing idea of RVNG. This meant that when RVNG began putting out music, it had a map: a crazed, scrawled-on-a-wall-at-5am kind of a map perhaps, but a map nonetheless, that could help make each new set of connections it drew make a kind of sense. And in 2009 they started in style. Getting industrial royalty JG Thirlwell (Foetus) and Carter Tutti (aka Chris & Cosey) to remix local Brooklyn psyche synth jammers Excepter was a masterstroke: not just making musical sense but shoring up intergenerational connections that were there already, proving that subculture was folk culture.
From here on in, RVNG’s branches grew in all directions. Getting Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers and Detroit techno godfather Juan Atkins on the same 12" was a bold statement early in the label-proper phase, but it not only worked, but worked specifically in what it would become clear was a RVNG way. Very quickly themes appeared within the releases, but they tangled and mingled. For example, bringing early cosmic synth / new age pioneers like French underground legend Ariel Kalma, Canadians Syrinx, Floridian Craig Leon and Californians Suzanne Ciani and Pauline Anna Strom to new audiences would become a key mission, but as often as not this would be done by connecting them with younger musicians – Kalma with Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Ciani with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – or remaking old works, as with Leon’s Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music, Vol. 2: The Canon.
And very quickly it became clear, too, that this was far from just being about mining and collaging the past. For every old or old-sounding electronic record, there’d be a Visible Cloaks or Holly Herndon, working at the bleeding edge of synthesis. Post-classical composer/performers (Oliver Coates, Bing & Ruth) could sit next to woozy singer songwriters (Helado Negro, Dylan Moon), crunchy acid house (Stellar Om Source) next to high camp prog-rock glitch-pop fantasy opera (Colin Self) – and make sense. From 2010, Sweeney formed a Beats In Space label under RVNG’s aegis, specialising in 12"s but also expanding outwards. Long relationships would be built, but also journeymen and women (Coates, Helado Negro, Julia Holter) could come onto the label as part of an evolving career and maybe stay, maybe not. All of these things added up to the huge, ever-growing personality that is RVNG Intl.
In a sense, though, it is still the label it was from that first CDR. Werth has nurtured the sense that playful accident and deadly serious scholarly connections can not just coexist but synergise, as has Sweeney with BiS. They are still having fun with bringing deep threads out of the past and making them current, with preposterous juxtapositions that work because it’s them doing it and because they’ve set a precedent of those juxtaposition ions working.
RVNG has become its own map, of the 21st century, but with strange portals in it into the last century and out into other dimensions – a crazed map still, but a useful one in understanding the ever proliferating ways that we can navigate strange and hidden information pathways. And it has become a library of really wild music. Attempting a full survey of everything they’ve achieved now would drive anyone off the rails, but the joy is you can dive in anywhere and know that there are great, real, edifying connections to follow. It’s always good to have a guide that’s got plenty of personality, especially when the going gets weird.
It gets harder for an artist to truly startle in the 21st century as every evolutionary niche gets filled, and every obscure genre becomes familiar, but New Yorker in Berlin Colin Self manages it and then some. This is their first album proper, but also the culmination of a three-year long creative project that began with 2015’s self-released Elation. On Siblings you can hear the radical disjunctions and hyper-synthetic tones of 2010s deconstructed club, the high drama of 80s stadium pop, the constant queer pulse of hi-NRG, and a kind of alien gospel: massed voices raised in celebration and ritual, but voices processed and harmonised into something post-human. Its imaginings of new possibilities for community will give you future shock and nostalgia all at once, even as you feel compelled to find out what is at the heart of its sci-fi bacchanal.
As dance music exploded in fragments in the early 10s — the relentless stimulation and blinding dayglo laser colours of EDM, US dubstep and future bass leaving us dazzled and baffled — a tendency arose that went back to basic values. It was about a never ending four-to-the-floor kick drum at the lower end of house’s tempo range — or even slower — with chugging percussion and riffs / arpeggios layered up with dubwise echo to create something gorgeously hypnotic and rewarding to the patient. It was most associated with the UK, with Andrew Weatherall and Sean Johnston’s A Love From Outer Space sessions the epicentre and names like Cottam and Tusk Wax prime proponents. But maybe the defining album of this style came from a duo who met in Ohio. The stark black and white artwork and single word tracks show just how about-their-business Sam Haar and Zach Steinman are: each time, the track begins, it chugs, it hypnotises, it stops. Yet they demonstrate each time just how much richness there is in the template — once you step into this world of dancefloor mesmerism, you realise it’s as many-splendoured and as colourful as any flashier style.
In a sense the father and son duo of Fluxus artist Yoshi Wada and ultra minimalist Tashi Wada — with their supergroup including Julia Holter, Corey Fogel and producer Cole MGN — make the slowest jazz you’ve ever heard. The nine tracks here find spaces in between the deep-listening tonescapes of Pauline Oliveros, Éliane Radigue or Eleh, the freewheeling intercontinental spiritual exploration of Terry Riley, and the shimmering fog-scapes of latter-day Ryuichi Sakamoto - with even a sublimated hint of the doom-drone of Boris and Sunn O))). But as they slowly — so slowly — unfold, you can hear very specific musical personalities responding to one another, ideas being born and interacting within a musical dialogue. It sounds, for all its ritual intensity, like it was fun to make.
Holly Herndon has become a defining presence in 21st century music, as theorist and practitioner — not just using AI and other emerging tech, but making it and its repercussions comprehensible to a broad audience. Her work is experimental in the truest sense: testing, iterating, developing practices based on results. And that very public experiment started here with a debut album that arrived sounding like nothing else on earth. Its deconstruction of avant-garde and pop, of electronic and “real,” of what a voice (both literal and figurative) is, all still have power to startle, even though she may have since gone on to more complex and advanced experiments. It was a milestone release for RVNG Intl., too, making ultra clear that they weren’t just releasing leftfield dance / ambient and archival material, but were pushing into the future, too.
Anna Homler is a Bohemian of the old school – someone who sees the entirety of life as an artwork, and whose creative and occult investigations since the 1980s feel like a continuation of the work of beat generation affiliates like Burroughs and Brion Gysin. The Bread Woman was an eerie mythical archetype that came to her in a spontaneous musical ritual, and she has channelled her in costume and song – using a “discovered” primal language of her own discovering. The songs of the Bread Woman certainly feel like they could come from some lost civilisation (from Atlantis?), touching on blues, folk and ritual music of all continents and none. Steve Moshier provides crackling looped rhythms, radiophonic swoops and vocal processing, but the whole thing sounds distinctly ancient, distinctly like you recognise it from somewhere in a repressed genetic memory.
Californians Sun Araw and M Geddes Greengras have spent untold time in Jamaica working with a wide variety of reggae and dancehall artists via their Duppy Gun project but this is probably their most intense collaboration of all. Veteran vocal trio (and Lee “Scratch” Perry muses) The Congos, and the hand percussion of Niyabinghi drummers feel like ancient features of a landscape, but the production is not over-faithful to reggae technique: it’s dub, for sure, but fractured, fragmented, perhaps very true to the jarring cultural interface of the musical hook up. Whatever, it is a truly hallucinatory experience — there are very, very few records that can give you a contact high as potent as this one.
Floridian-born, Brooklyn-resident Roberto Carlos Lange is the model of a modern journeyman musician: finding his own way to his own voice outside the cycles of hype and diktats of genre. He’d been working at combining his own Ecuadorian heritage with classic singer-songwriter styles and leftfield production techniques over copious releases on his own and as a contributor to Savath & Savalas for nigh on a decade before signing to RVNG Intl. On his RVNG albums, and particularly this second one, you can hear true maturity: a delicate balance between personal and political, artsy and rootsy, Spanish and English. A gentle record but one that can hit home hard.
When Christina Gauldi joined RVNG Intl., one might have expected her to continue with her rippling, cosmic new age experiments. Through the late 00s, the Parisian-trained, Dutch resident musician had been “unlearning” her classical conditioning in a series of gorgeous, floating, instinctual synth jams that saw her becoming part of an influential musical community with the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds and James Ferraro. But instead, she took another sharp left turn on purchasing a Roland TB-303 Baseline Generator, and her debut RVNG album Joy One Mile was deeply rooted in the most heartfelt Chicago house music. Her adoption of the geometries of house worked well, but it was bettered by a follow-up EP two years later. Nite Glow is a work of acid house high art, never taking its feet off the dancefloor, never letting go of the strobelit disconnection of conscious thought, but nonetheless creating stunning cubist portraits of cities at night and more abstracted concepts as its metallic synths play against the burbling 303 like straight lines and curves in a Kandinsky painting.
The mix album is no longer the pillar of culture it was in the 1990s — how could it be, when Soundcloud, Mixcloud and YouTube are flooded with DJ mixes? But sometimes one comes along that exemplifies something very special in modern culture — and so it is here. This mix shows Londoner Josey Rebelle’s breathtaking scholarship of many, many genre strands, but also her laser focus. Its key rhythmic touchstones are Hot Mix 5 style Chicago house, Underground Resistance inflected electro, raging Belgian style 1991 hardcore, and turn of the millennium broken beat — but as often as not versions of these forms made by contemporary Londoners. She circles these styles, weaves back and forth between them, finds records that are perfect midpoints between them, moves elegantly from elemental fury to the ultra-refined and back, and in so doing, reveals the deeper currents of soul, cosmic thought and technology that underly all these styles. This is not eclecticism for eclectism’s sake: there’s a golden thread to follow all the way through, and the finale - of skyward jungle from Rogue Unit (aka Nookie) into Lex Amor’s neo soul then pure abstraction by Dutch outsider’s outsider DJ Marcelle / Another Fine Mess collaborating with Rebelle herself - extends the narrative logic outwards in ways that will take your breath away. A masterclass in harnessing the mass availability of the past and using it to make a distinct cultural and personal statement.
The context of this record is heartbreaking. In 2020 Pauline Anna Strom, at the age of 74, had just completed her first new collection of music in over 30 years — thanks to RVNG Intl. finding a receptive audience by compiling her rare and beautiful new age recordings from the 1980s — when she suddenly died. However it’s hard to feel sad while listening to this album, released posthumously the following year. Despite the passing decades and technological leap from analogue synths to all-digital setup, it’s like she picked up just where she left off with cosmic explorations of endless delight and benevolence. As in all her work, there’s a fascinating contrast between Strom’s natural compositional richness — with narratives unfolding through tracks — with a sense of infinite patience and delight in the moment, which lets you feel like you could float there in bliss for ever. We’re in the territory of early Tangerine Dream, of The Orb at their most cosmic and least foolish, of Pete Namlook, of Steve Hillage's Rainbow Dome Musick — and easily matching any of those for sheer beauty - but really this is, as Strom’s dream of being “trans-millennial” suggests, music way outside of space and time.
Myth and vocoders, modernist theatre and conversational wit, soundscaping and pop: this is the moment that all the elements of Holter’s talent coalesced into something singular, pure and perfect. The Milwaukee-via-LA auteur had already demonstrated the breadth of her ambition on a variety of CDRs and live recordings, but this album — three years in the making — applied discipline and technology to truly realise it. The shine and totality of her sounds and (self-)production sound as expensive as, say, Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon, Isaac Hayes or 10cc, but while there are wisps of nostalgia floating through the song structures — not to mention Holter’s habitual references to Greek myth — it’s entirely 21st century, entirely sci fi as well. There’s film noir, there’s Twin Peaks, there’s Edward Hopper atmospherics, there’s grand sweep and the most fragile of intimacy. The greatest artists are those who build entire worlds that you can only choose to enter fully or not, and with Ekstasis Holter proved herself to be more than capable of that.
Kai Hugo said he conceptualised this alias, and album, while watching X-Files in his mother’s attic in Amsterdam in the early 2010s… and it sounds like it. Everything here is eerie and wrong, it’s acid house and 80s soul/pop viewed through the wrong end of a dirty telescope, hazy memories of being a 90s teenager dreaming of aliens and raves. It came right in the middle of an explosion of “outsider house” where dozens of people were making a name with detuned synths, cassette hiss and retro weirdness – but it stands absolutely alone among the generic, thanks in part to a natural facility for spooky melody, but also because it’s not just about signifiers, it’s genuinely very weird and emotional.
Among the vast selection of dreamy post-classical mood music that arose in the 2010s — think Max Richter and Nils Frahm — this album by a collective led by New York pianist / composer David Moore stands out as capturing a particularly deluxe but bittersweet ambience. Like so much in this sphere it works like perfume, Moore’s endlessly rippling piano arpeggio repetitions and rarefied shoegaze haze hanging in the air, subtly transforming the space around you, with deeper tones sneaking up on you and hitting buttons to evoke memories and trigger buried emotion. It is also a potent addition to the beatless zone of RVNG Intl.’s catalogue — its elegant urbanity forming a counterpoint to the expansive romanticism of new-agers like Pauline Anna Strom and the austere futurism of Visible Cloaks and co.
There’s a very special category of electronica that’s heavy on melody, influenced by New Age music, and very conspicuously exudes geniality. Quirky British acts like Plone, the Ghost Box stable when they’re at their least spooked, and Four Tet at his gentlest all touch on this — and Californian E Ruscha V is absolutely steeped in it. As his tracks wash gently by there’s loads of Les Baxter type exotica, a lot of endlessly-unfolding new age guitar noodling, hints of the Balearic aesthetic, but Ruscha has so much personality as a composer that each time the melodies lift you up above and beyond any piffling stylistic concerns. This is a record that treats you like a treasured friend: a record that looks after you.
Syrinx were never really meant to be a band — but somewhere in between the heyday of Warhol style loft studio conceptual art, academic tape and synth experimentation and the birth of prog rock, the Toronto trio did achieve short lived success. This RVNG Intl. compilation of released and unreleased material shows just how much ground they covered in two years: psych-rock, proto-ambient, global influences, jazz, extended classical compositions, and a funkiness that very few of their prog rock or fusion contemporaries could match all pile together with seriously memorable hooks and a devil-may-care charm.
It’s common for musicians who are also writers or academics to join dots between styles but few do it with such delirious style as Washington DC’s Andrew Field-Pickering aka Maximillion Dunbar. Across a smorgasbord of tastemaker labels — L.I.E.S., Berceuse Heroique, Hot Haus, Trilogy Tapes — he has consistently taken base crate digger materials and transformed them into plutonium. This album for RVNG Intl. is a perfect showcase of his methods. Field-Pickering has an unerring ear for similarities in synth tones or rhythms, so he understands for example how a breathy artificial flute can be both Balearic and grime at the same time, or how the mischievous disjointedness of Yellow Magic Orchestra maps perfectly onto that of modern deconstructed club styles. It’s extremely clever, but never clever-clever: for every “I understood that reference” moment there’s a dozen just plain “wow that’s great” ones. It’s also a perfect fit for RVNG, sharing as it does their facility for rewiring lines of influence and musical genealogy, making the familiar sound new and the unknown sound natural.
This album is a beautiful illustration of the depth and consistency of the RVNG Intl. label. The initial seed came with FRKWYS, Vol 4 in 2010, when Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes was brought in to remix Psychic Ills (the NYC duo of Frank “Tres” Louis Warren III and Elizabeth Hart), alongside Detroit techno legend Juan Atkins and Hans-Joachim Irmler of Faust. But RVNG has never been about one-offs: rather they love relationship building and shoring up connections between scenes and generations, so this led, 12 years later to a collaboration. And what a collab it is — a dark, strange voyage through gothic space rock, dub, electronics that never alights on obvious genre signifiers and echoes with Haynes’s abyss-dark humour.
Dalt’s work over multiple albums and soundtracks has always had the influence of her native Colombia, but it’s been incorporated as an essence within complex abstractions. Here, though, on her second album for RVNG Intl., the bolero, mambo, salsa, and merengue are vividly present – albeit slowed down, stretched and dubbed out, turned otherworldly. Oddly, in doing this she has happened on the same very late night fantastical interzone as the slower end of Tom Waits’s junkyard percussion records.
The whole of RVNG Intl.’s FRKWYS series — which has been connecting generations of exploratory music via collaborative commissions since the moment RVNG transformed from a mixtapes-and-edits imprint into a record label proper — is remarkable. But this truly is a jewel in its crown. Composer/producer Yoshio Ojima and pianist Satsuki Shibano were both established names in Japan’s "environmental music" scene of the 1980s and 90s — while Portland, Oregon’s Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile aka Visible Cloaks are distinctly future-facing sound designers exploring generative techniques in often extreme abstraction. Together, they clearly found the highest common factor between their mutual approaches: while this isn’t without its similarities to 80s ambience, really it sounds like the future that you imagine the 80s producers were trying to manifest. VC’s fathomless subsonics and mutating glassy tones are perfectly held in place by Ojima and Shibano’s exquisite sense of space and patience. It feels like your mind is being cleaned moment by moment as you soak it in.