I had a hard time coming up with a title for this list. “The Year in Experimental Music” seemed a bit reductive, seeing as the music highlighted below spans genres that can’t be easily defined. I thought about borrowing a term from a friend and calling it “The Year in Outer Sounds,” but that’s very original. So here we are with, for lacking of a better descriptor, The Year in Weird—a compilation of the albums and moments in local music that doesn’t fit neatly into any sort of genre box. Here’s to keeping things weird and out of the box in 2017. We’ll need to.
Boat Burning’s Music For 70 Guitars at Black Cat, Aug. 26Andras Fekete is a mad man. One who approaches music not as artistic expression but as a sonic experiment. As the band leader of the “maximal minimalist” guitar collective Boat Burning, Fekete and his bandmates write simple compositions that are meant to be shaped by the environment in which they’re playing. Case in point: the band’s annual mass guitar orchestra. This year, “Music For 70 Guitars” took place at the Black Cat’s main stage, with nearly 70 guitarists lining the walls of the club, performing these original compositions in unison. It was an incredible (and incredibly loud) experimentation unlike anything D.C. has seen in years.
Janel Leppin, Mellow Diamond and Songs for Voice and MellotronIt’s kind of surprising that it took this long for Janel Leppin to emerge as a solo artist. She’s one of the hardest working musicians in the D.C. area—one-half of the experimental duo Janel and Anthony, and a go-to session musician for both studio and touring artists. So it’s not surprising that she released not one, but two debut solo albums at the same time this year: Mellow Diamond and Songs for Voice and Mellotron. Both are stark and haunting albums, but whereas Mellow Diamond revels in the dense layers of instrumentation, Songs for Voice and Mellotron showcases the minimal beauty of Leppin’s gorgeous voice.
Insect Factory, WorkJeff Barsky knows how to work a guitar. Rather, Barsky knows how to work a guitar to produce any and every noise that doesn’t sound like a guitar. On Work, his latest album under the moniker Insect Factory, Barsky builds layers of sound—funneling all kinds of taps, pops, and plucks through a variety of pedals and filters—to create lovely and meditative droning soundscapes.
Pearie Sol, S/TPearie Sol’s debut EP feels like a forgotten relic unearthed in a flea market. It’s got a kind of outsider sound to it—vintage organ-drum-machine sounds coupled with Sol’s nasally crooning (which lands somewhere between Tiny Tim and David Byrne) about the anxieties of everyday life. But beyond the initially jarring sound, it’s a cohesive, infectious burst of self-reflection and observation.
K A G, EP AAs the vocalist of Priests, Katie Alice Greer is a commanding and powerful voice that anchors the D.C. quartet’s fierce, noisy, and sometimes angular post-punk with sharp lyrics denouncing capitalism, patriarchy, and all other bullshit. But on her solo debut—as K A G—Greer takes a far different approach, employing synthesizers and drum machines to produce post-industrial noise, pop, and no wave songs. Each song is deeply layered with different sounds, but underneath it all, Greer’s stellar songwriting still shines through. That’s most apparent on the EP’s best track, “Baby Judy.”
Hand Grenade Job at the Luce Foundation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Nov. 4Great performances are often shaped by the venues in which they take place. No other band in D.C. understands this better than Hand Grenade Job, the post-Americana duo of multi-instrumentalists Erin McCarley and Beck Levy. At its Nov. 4 gig at the American Art Museum’s Luce Foundation Center (which, full disclosure, was sponsored by Washington City Paper), Hand Grenade Job decorated its performance space to look and feel like a religious service for the dark arts. That feeling was driven home during the group’s last song: a stretched-out version of “Witchcraft,” during which Levy, covered in electrodes, put out matches on herself.
PraxisCat, DecayWith her solo project PraxisCat, local experimental composer Christine Paluch “[explores] the relationship between synesthesia and urban spaces,” and that exploration is on full display on Decay, a dark, brooding album of synthesized sounds that conjures up feelings of anxiety and dread—commonplace feelings in 2016.
Verses RecordsThough Verses Records launched in 2015, it didn’t really come into its own until this year, and what it did come into was an excellent, exhaustive champion of D.C.’s experimental music scene. Throughout the year, it released three compilations. The first two are an excellent survey of the many weird and wonderful sounds coming out of the D.C. area. The last is a sprawling call-to-action compilation in light of the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States, with 40 artists from across the globe contributing and all proceeds benefitting the ACLU.
Atlantic RhythmsThere’s been a void in the D.C. music scene ever since Sean Peoplespacked up his cherished Sockets Records in 2013. So it was a nice surprise to hear that Peoples is back with a new label, Atlantic Rhythms. This time, Peoples is keeping things simple, releasing music in limited quantities on tape. And if his inaugural releases—the solo debut of Protect-U‘s Aaron Leitko and a live recording of a collaboration between saxophonist Sam Hillmer and composer/guitarist Arto Lindsay—are any indication, it’ll be as weird and wonderful as Sockets was.
Pretty much every show at RhizomeDCThe District’s experimental and weirdo art scene was blessed this year with the opening of RhizomeDC, a non-profit arts space in a house in Takoma. I confess: I only made it to two shows at Rhizome since it opened in April—one of which I played—but a look back on the events and performances it’s hosted in the past eight months shows it’s truly D.C.’s best new home for the weird.