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A masterpiece in retrospect: The Avalanches’ Since I Left You 16 years on

The Avalanches

The Avalanches’ debut LP is no small feat.

Simple yet unceasingly brilliant production backed with an understated yet emotional resonance, Since I Left You tail ends the utopian optimism of the 90s.

Elaborately cobbled together from a best guess of 3500 vinyl samples and found sounds, Melbourne residents Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann recycled 50 years of obscure pop into an 18 track opus.

the avalanches

The Avalanches’ 2000 masterpiece Since I Left You is an untouchable, perplexing pastiche of musical mastery. We fondly look back on the record as we prepare for the what’s to come.

Since I Left You is a composite of musical identities. A concept album about the full gambit of human emotion it ostensibly tells a narrative of overcoming a breakup and embarking on an island cruise.

Mixed to provide a warm continuity and well-worn rhythmic pulse, the album represents the culmination of unrivalled sample addiction. A lattice of minute snatches of radio skipping sounds, there’s a degree of joyous retrogression seldom matched in the world of electronic pop.

Recorded in 1999 under working title Pablo’s Cruise, the album was stitched together using Yamaha Promix 01 and Akai S2000 samplers. Seltmann and Chater spent hours in their respective studios laboriously sampling vinyls collected over the course of 18 months. Exchanging tapes of these tracks the pair continued to collaborate and before long the album began to take shape.

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a golden age for samplers. Few artists sought permission for using samples. Singles like Tupac’s California Love and album’s like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet were commercial juggernauts which drew heavily upon sampled work.

As hip hop continued to burst into the mainstream major artists and labels soon became more aware of the practice, leading to a number of high-profile lawsuits. By the year 2000, sampling had become a much riskier prospect. Not having anticipated international exposure, The Avalanches produced the album with little heed to this hostile sampling climate.

It’s perhaps this ambitious ambivalence, as opposed to the more conservative scaling back of their peers which truly made the album stand apart. Despite delays due to the copyright clearance of over 900 samples, the album was released in Australia in 2000 and internationally the following year.

Stripping back the musical cues provided by a dense lattice sampladelica, analogy to the LP is still hard to place. This said, it’s not impossible to draw some parallels with what was going on in popular music prior to the album’s arrival. Its trip-hop beats, dub grooves, soulful melodies and hi-fi sensibility can be placed aside DJ Shadow’s Entroudcing…… and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. But substituting the bleaker undercurrents of Bristol trip-hop is a looser feeling of upbeat euphoria.

This may lean more towards the lingering undercurrent of countercultural optimism which still coursed throughout dance music at the close of the ‘90s. There’s an inevitable affinity with Daft Punk’s slickly convergent fusion of disco, funk and house, which made its mark with debut LP Homework in 1997. Looking back further, the album’s boisterous panache and delinquent irreverence fits most closely with the Beastie Boys’ crowning achievement Paul’s Boutique.

The utopic groove of title track Since I Left You presents a gateway to a world of masterful oddness and effortless atmospherics. It presents the confluence of familiarity and novelty which makes the album truly unique, a shimmering dreamscape of the past and present. Famously receiving the blessing of the pop Diva herself, Stay Another Season builds itself around the foundation of Madonna‘s Holiday.

Exemplary of the album of a whole, its an audio collage, with depth and subtleties buried deep within the mix. Stay Another Season truly brings the party vibes. Rock, dance, hip hop and classical intermingle like bubbly house guests. The entrancing tempo pumps of Radio kick thing into full swing before Two Hearts in ¾ Time blissfully emotes melancholy.

A Different Feeling juxtaposes (or blends) ‘70s synthetic disco production with the scratchy digital beats and laser chirps of ‘80s video games. Minimalistic vocal samples emerge throughout the mix to create an almost tangible thickness that can astound and enthral. The album remains upbeat, even when it takes the listener to its lowest ebbs. Melancholic 11th track Tonight never seems far from the lift of a joyous or celebratory movement.

Seminal single Frontier Psychiatrist strings together 37-spoken word recordings. The song is a composite of studio foolery, reading for the blind instructional tapes, Christianity records and snippets of film Lawrence of Arabia. There’s also a horse, a boat and a turntable scratched parrot. Densely layered mosaic of sound, it serves as an irrelevant high point of The Avalanches studio mixology. Zealous compilation of sound sources takes the album to an irrevocable bliss point of sample-saturation.

Extra Kings closes with the lamentation of the title track. “I’ve tried but I just can’t get you/ Ever since the day I left you.” The final track reiterates what may be the album’s unifying idea, the notion of casting off the past and embracing opportunity.

The Avalanches’ momentous creative effort anticipated the unprecedented cultural saturation we live with today. At a time where attention is perhaps the most important commodity, even our favourite tracks are given less and less attention. When Since I Left You dropped in 2000 the musical world was smaller. It was four years before YouTube and the Australian release of iTunes. Seven years before Spotify.

In an age of unprecedented musical immersion the flickers of Since I Left You’s channel skimming feel still hit home. The album’s fragmentation and kaleidoscopic re-amalgamations seems only amplified in an increasingly crowded musical world. As a true re-statement of post-modernity The Avalanches’ album draws influence from everywhere, yet doesn’t latch on to a single thing. Disparity of sources begets a sonic unity.

Fifteen years is a long time. In the course of a decade, the fanatical teen-fan becomes a taciturn adult. Trends shift and genres fall from grace. The hype and novelty of plunderphonia and mix-up culture has come and arguably gone.

While subsequent works like Danger Mouse’s Grey Album and Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals have skewered more towards overt genre mash-ups, The Avalanches struck a finer balance. Sampling is thievery as art. The Avalanches acknowledge this, without flaunting it. The best is pilfered from others songs, broken down and lovingly reassembled.

The Avalanches have, until 2016, maintained an unconventionally lengthy absence. In a world where adulation leads to inevitable corporatisation, bandwagon jumping, over-saturation and ultimate erosion the unlikely Australian hit-makers sat in silence. Great albums are timeless.

It would stand to reason that any addition to The Avalanches canon would inevitably date Since I left You, such concerns may be overstated. The record was old to begin with, as time passes the album only comes more unstuck.

Since I Left You embraces its sampled antecedents, avoids cliché, tells its own story and charts its own musical trajectory. Although a follow-up may soon beg comparison, the unlikely resonance and uniquely inventive artistic slant continue to embed the record as a remarkable achievement.

Drawing on the past while concurrently building something new, the album is perplexingly nostalgic. The album is proof of a concept; a style which others either failed to perfect or lacked the vision to achieve. After all this time, Since I Left You is still one of a kind.

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June 27, 2016