Review: The Avalanches – Wildflower

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It’s always a strange feeling to hear that a band with a markedly long absence is going to be releasing a new album. The bar is almost always set impossibly high, since listeners are likely going to reminisce about where they were when the band last dominated musical conversations. Last year the Libertines released Anthems For Doomed Youth after a decade of uncertainty whether they’d ever exist as a band again. In 2013, My Bloody Valentine released m b v, their first album since 1991’s breakthrough Loveless. Ten years or twelve years seems like an incredible amount of time to be waiting for a new album, and no one would fault their fans for doubting that these albums were actually going to happen.

Wildflower blows all of this out of the water as the first Avalanches album in sixteen years. That’s right, this Australian DJ group last released music all the way back in 2000. There was not total radio silence during the many intervening years, though, and the Avalanches had on several occasions made it seem like a new album was either in the works or on the cusp of being complete. In 2009 they announced they were “clearing samples,” and in 2011 it seemed like the group was well into the recording process. However, these intervening years also saw founding member Darren Seltmann leave the group, incapacitating health issues for member Robbie Chater, and lengthy copyright proceedings for a plethora of samples. These factors combined with regular assurances of new music likely made fans feel like they were being led on, so when the Avalanches hinted at Wildflower’s existence three months ago, a sizeable number of cynics probably thought “I’ll believe it when I hear it.”

You may wonder how the Avalanches were able to maintain such an eager following despite their prolonged absence from the musical world. After all, before Wildflower they had all of one studio album under their belt. Yet this one studio release was the near-perfect Since I Left You. The album was a landmark for plunderphonics, shunning original recordings in favor of using an alleged 3,500 samples to create an incredible musical collage. Every sound heard on the album, from drum beats to guitar notes to vocals to sound effects, was taken from a different (usually very obscure) song. Its 18 tracks also blended together seamlessly, making it both highly impressive and a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Since I Left You alone gained the Avalanches a cult following and set the bar extremely high for any future endeavors.

 

There are some strong, albeit basic similarities between Wildflower and Since I Left You. Wildflower is likewise heavily reliant on samples for almost all of its instrumentation, and the Avalanches have again done an excellent job of creating an album meant to be experienced as a whole. With Since I Left You, you could of course listen to tracks like “Frontier Psychiatrist” or the title track as singles independent from the album, yet that meant missing all of the gradual build-ups and outros designed make it sound like you were listening to one continuous track. Wildflower also has strong songs like lead single “Frankie Sinatra” and “If I Was a Folkstar,” but they too sound better in the context of the album. To get the full Wildflower experience, you’re best left setting aside an hour to listen to its 21 tracks sequentially.

Aside from the sample basis and the seamlessness though, Wildflower is noticeably different from Since I Left You. The starkest difference is that Wildflower actually contains original recordings. Several notable singers and rappers including Danny Brown, Toro Y Moi, and Ariel Pink provide guest vocals on the album, and there’s even some original instrumentation designed to bridge gaps between samples. On that note, there are far fewer than 3,500 samples this time around – the Avalanches were reportedly lax about copyright concerns when recording Since I Left You as they thought no one would hear it, but after their rise in popularity they made sure to obtain permission for each sample that appears on Wildflower.  The result is that Wildflower is still a collage, just one with fewer pieces and some original touches that the artist added.

The overall vibe of Wildflower is also markedly different. Whereas Since I Left You leaned heavily towards dance music and straight-up electronica, Wildflower edges closer towards alternative hip-hop a la Gorillaz or Handsome Boy Modeling School. Additionally, Since I Left You had strong disco influences within its tapestry, while Wildflower is highly evocative of psychedelic music. If you couldn’t deduce this from the album art, then a tracklisting with titles like “Colours,” “Harmony,” and “Kaleidoscopic Lovers” should give the 1960s influence away.

This is, of course, speaking in relatively broad terms though, as Wildflower doesn’t fit neatly into any one box – and is a very strong album as a result. Right off the bat “Because I’m Me” evokes funk and soul with horns and a Jackson Five-sounding sample (that’s actually by “Six Boys In Trouble”) before hip-hop duo Camp Lo makes an appearance. “Subways” contains the disco sound honed by Since I Left You, while “The Noisy Eater” is the most archetypal circa-1990 rap song imaginable as it revolves around Biz Markie rapping about food. It’s not all retro though, as “If I Was a Folkstar” features Toro Y Moi and sounds like it could have been an outtake from one of his more recent albums. And even though “Frankie Sinatra” is driven by an off-kilter carnival beat and a vocal sample of calypso singer Wilmoth Houdini, it’s hard to divorce the song from Danny Brown’s truly unique rapping voice.

Aside from these tracks, the remainder of Wildflower is covered in layers of psychedelia. While they establish a fairly consistent theme for the album, they’re a mixed bag regarding how much excitement they generate. The latter half of the album is comprised entirely of these tracks, and could have used a strong dissimilar song to create distinction amidst the 60s-tinged swirls of sound. Although “Livin’ Underwater (Is Something Wild)” manages to distinguish itself, “Wozard of Iz” features Danny Brown’s second appearance, and “Kaleidoscopic Lovers” evokes Passion Pit, there’s an overriding mellowness that results in almost too much blending. Thankfully, album closer “Saturday Night Inside Out” is fairly lively dance track, if not a strange one interspersed with spoken vocals by Silver Jews’ David Berman.

For their first album in 16 years, Wildflower definitely shows that the Avalanches haven’t gotten rusty at creating excellent musical collages. It’s thoroughly different from Since I Left You, but also shouldn’t disappoint patient fans. That said, Since I Left You is a truly timeless album, and it’s hard to say the same for Wildflower despite its strength. The image of the Avalanches buying bargain bins full of obscure records originating from all over the world and varying time periods to create Since I Left You is what really set it apart. Wildflower is more a product of its time, as it’s difficult to separate the guest vocalists from their own renowned musical careers. Wildflower is still an incredible accomplishment though, and hopefully we won’t have to wait another 16 years for whatever the Avalanches do next.

Rating: 9/10