When the music industry said farewell to 1999 and looked to a hopeful start in 2000, there was no clear-cut indication in regards to the direction the majority of artists were moving. Radio pop, modern rock and dance music seemed to be taking advantage of a landscape that had no obvious frontrunners, only musicians who seemed to have a slightly better idea of what people wanted than the person standing beside them. So it made a strange sort of sense that one of the bands who so clearly understood this obfuscated musical trajectory turned out to produce work that would splinter and subvert all major genres within the span of a single record. The Avalanches had arrived to overwhelm your senses and bring back music’s mystery.
Their work was often collage-based, with songs bearing the mark of hours of sonic manipulation and acres of obscure samples. They didn’t cling to outdated ideas of genre residency; they saw the underlying connections that supported the weight of various aesthetics and mashed them together in subversive ways, packing each track with an album’s worth of ideas and revelations. The music was often strange but didn’t distance itself through these odd passages. If anything, the band’s blanket approach to influences was what drew so many people to them in the first place. Built from sounds too numerous to count, they focused on the mood and atmospheres that were built and then broken down in each of their songs.
The Avalanches. (Photo: Contributed)
The history of The Avalanches extends all the way back to Melbourne, Australia, in 1994, when three people decided to form a group called Alarm 115. This early iteration was focused on noise punk, with a debt owed to bands like Drive Like Jehu and The Fall. This lineup featured keyboardist Robbie Chater, singer Darren Seltmann and multi-instrumentalist Tony Di Blasi, and drummer Manabu Etoh joined the band the following year. They scrounged around secondhand shops for gear, instruments and vinyl records in an attempt to gather what they needed to record. When Etoh was deported from Australia, the band fell apart, but those crates of vinyl soon found their true calling.
Chater attended RMIT University as a film student and had ready access to a recording studio. Joining with Seltmann, the two musicians took those old records and cut them together, creating a 30-song demo tape called “Pan Amateurs.” In 1997, they brought on Di Blasi and keyboardist Gordon McQuilten to flesh out the band. They worked easily together, as they had all been friends during their school days. But they had yet to settle on a permanent band name, and their earliest shows featured a rotating roster of names, including Quentin’s Brittle Bones. By the time their fifth concert rolled around, they had taken up the mantle of The Avalanches, a name they got from an American surf rock band.
Their profile began to rise after taking the supporting tour slot for Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, with their debut single, “Rock City,” coming out in September 1997. They followed that up with a seven-track EP called “El Producto,” released on Steve Pavlovic’s Wondergram Records. He subsequently signed the band to his new Modular Recordings label in 1998, although their next EP, a U.K. exclusive called “Undersea Community,” was distributed by Rex Records in 1999. After a rush of tours with artists such as Beck, Stereolab and Public Enemy, the band released another EP, “Electricity,” for Modular. And amid all this recording and touring, the band picked up two new members: DJ Dexter Fabay and James Dela Cruz.
During all this time, since mid-1998 at least, the band had been shaping their debut LP, taking time to develop their sound in ways that would confound and excite their fans, with the working title of “Pablo’s Cruise.” After some delays, primarily because of sample clearance and overseas attention, “Since I Left You” was released Nov. 27, 2000, in Australia, and it forever changed the way people look at the boundaries between genres. Produced by Chater and Seltmann, the album contains approximately 3,500 samples and found an immediate audience in the band’s home country. Eager to spread the good word, the band looked to an international release, with the album officially coming to North America and the U.K. in 2001.
“Since I Left You” wasn’t just a breath of fresh air at a time when music was bogged down by popularity contests on music television channels—it was an entirely new form of wonder. Its closest relative is Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique,” with which it shares a sample-based lineage. But tracks such as “Radio” and “Electricity” have practically no precedent, with each built from a cacophonous roar of noises, abstract patterns and spoken word samples. The band wasn’t given to aimless electronic wanderings, and on these tracks, you can hear the momentum, however amorphous, that they sustain throughout the entire record.
But the album’s apex predator is “Frontier Psychiatrist,” a song so bedeviling and irresistible that it completely makes you forget what you were doing and sits you down, slack-jawed and delirious with joy. From horse and bird sound samples to random swatches of Wayne and Shuster comedy routines, the track is a madcap ball of euphoric genius, the kind of song that you hope to hear at least once in your lifetime. Melding snippets from golf instruction albums, religious records and “Reading for the Blind” cassettes, the track was unlike anything people had heard before, or have heard since. And the same could be said of “Since I Left You,” a monument to creativity and musical nimbleness that continues to impress with each passing year.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.