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Why the Only Band Reunion Worth Caring About Is The Avalanches

Of course, our collective sense of patience in The Avalanches’ case is largely owed to the fact that, 16 years later, we’re still marveling over the perfect document that is 'Since I Left You.'

by Larry Fitzmaurice
Apr 22 2016, 2:29pm

What’s your favorite rumor about The Avalanches’ second album? Here’s mine: circa 2010 or 2011, a member of the Australian genre-bending, sample-obsessed collective group played the follow-up to 2000’s classic Since I Left You—which, according to whatever message board or fan forum I obsessively scoured over at the time, has been finished for years—just once during a DJ set in some bar in Australia. The only copy of the album’s audio files was stored on an old-gen laptop on the brink of collapse, meaning that the same technology that allows the sample-happy electronic collective to work their magic was the same technology that threatened to swallow one of the longest-gestating follow-ups in recent memory totally whole. It’s possible that the story is true, even more likely that it exists as great (and richly metaphorical) fan fiction.

In the 16 years since Since I Left You was released, information about new music from The Avalanches has emerged sporadically and when least expected, not unlike one of the jarring samples featured on their breakthrough single “Frontier Psychiatrist” (the buzzmaking video for which still stands as most likely the last Actually Great music video ever made). Arriving at the beginning of a new century and at the tail end of a cultural moment when technology’s encroaching societal dominance was the main focus of indie and “alternative” culture—think Radiohead’s OK Computer, Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump, The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I—the colorful, robust pop captured on Since I Left You was a positively utopian approach to the digital age, a sonic intersection between an imagined future and the sounds of the past that was so specifically of its time that The Avalanches haven’t been heard from in full-length form ever since.

Since 2005, reps from the band’s label Modular have insisted that a new album was indeed in the works; in 2010, 2011, and 2012, people with varying levels of close affiliation told me personally that the album was set to come out that very year. Danny Brown, Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema, and Ariel Pink have all reportedly entered The Avalanches’ studio over the past few years; in a bout of reclusive convergence, they’ve also coaxed retired Silver Jews’ indie rock poet laureate David Berman into working on new sounds with them.

Over the past few weeks, they’ve updated their social media accounts and announced their first gigs in nearly ten years, the most promising evidence of The Avalanches’ possible re-emergence since they remixed Australian 80s rockers Hunters & Collectors’ “Talking to a Stranger” back in 2013. So what, though? Procrastination, after all, has as much a key component in The Avalanches’ DNA as cratedigging. There’s a revealing scene in a 1999 mini-documentary on the band’s creative process circa Since I Left You, in which Modular manager Steve Pavlovic reacts to founding and former member Darren Seltzmann’s request to work on some music for a film aside from finishing the album. “It would be really good, like what we talked about last time, to finish the record,” Pavlovic says patiently, to which Seltzmann mild-manneredly rebuts, “It would only take a week.” As he nervously laughs, Pavlovic’s reaction is instant, and knowing: “I’ve heard that one before.”

Later in the doc, Pavlovic describes himself as “pretty flexible” regarding The Avalanches’ tortoise-slow work ethic, and arguably the same could be said for the group’s admirers. Over the last 18 months, social media has seen a rash of what could be best termed as performative impatience regarding artists who’ve been taking their time with new music. The tone of discourse in anticipating recent albums from Rihanna and Kanye West took a shape not unlike the five stages of grief, and the perpetual TBD-ness of Frank Ocean’s new album has transformed the already press-shy R&B auteur’s private nature into a persistent, occasionally illogical meme. It’s been four years since Frank Ocean’s last album, Channel Orange; assuming that both he and The Avalanches release something this year (I can dream), the follow-up to Since I Left You will have had a creative gestation period of approximately four Frank Ocean album cycles.

There’s a few potential reasons for this perceived inequality of expectations that the artists mentioned have bore the brunt of. For one, today’s technologically mobile youth were somewhere between embryos and toddlers when Since I Left You first blew minds, so understanding the collective perspective is key. There is also the uncomfortable notion that we hold pop artists—regardless of their level of artistry—to different standards than artists like The Avalanches. As ever, authenticity is at the center of this notion: there’s a (not entirely inaccurate) perception that pop is first and foremost product-focused, while less iconoclastic artistic entities (especially entities with creative processes as complicated as The Avalanches’) face less public pressure to deliver. It is likely as hard for Frank Ocean to create something lasting and classic-sounding as it is for The Avalanches, a possibility that gets lost in a sea of “WHERE’S THE ALBUM?” tweets.

Of course, our collective sense of patience in The Avalanches’ case is largely owed to the fact that, 16 years later, we’re still marveling over the perfect document that is Since I Left You. A truly and literally singular effort, Since I Left You is a oceanic collection of contradictions: it’s intense and blissful, recognizably handmade and seamless-sounding, packed with surprises and instantly familiar. The album’s myriad spinning parts gleam as they radiate heat, like an ice castle on fire. On Since I Left You, The Avalanches possessed the capability to bring a tear to your eye just seconds after making you laugh out loud, the latter of which is important to keep in mind: it’s extremely hard to make music that sounds funny—the 2010s inarguably being a decade in which humorlessness has reigned supreme in indie culture, particularly—but The Avalanches’ sonic giggles felt effortless and breezy in a way that few musicians have achieved before or afterwards.

The Avalanches’ sample-focused approach wasn’t new in 2000.The glories of Since I Left You owed plenty to Steinski’s avant-garde cut-and-paste experiments, John Oswald’s provocative Plunderphonics project, early hip-hop, Beastie Boys’ masterpiece Paul’s Boutthe turntablism micro-craze of the 1990s, DJ Shadow’s dark classic Entroducing…, the ironic collagist pop of Beck’s Odelay!, Air’s lounge-fixated masterwork Moon Safari, and so on. The album’s legacy since its release is similarly complicated. It’s hard to say whether Since I Left You was influential in a large-scale sense—its greatest imprint found in the Situationist electronic pop of Sweden’s Sincerely Yours collective in the late 2000s, and it’s arguably one of 80,000 cultural artifacts that inspired chillwave’s micro-boom from 2008-2010.

When looking at the past 15 years of electronic music, it’s most necessary to look at Since I Left You as a part of a symbiotic whole, a record in a group of records that individually changed the way indie culture looked at sampling and cross-genre miscegenation. This club includes, but is not limited to: the Books’ mesmerizingly erudite The Lemon of Pink, J Dilla’s accidentally elegiac posthumous classic Donuts, the Pet Sounds-as-SAD Lamp musings of Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, The Tough Alliance’s aggressive Cassavetes-quoting A New Chance, Air France’s utopian No Way Down EP, the Jonathan Richman-with-an-MPC glories of Jens Lekman’s Night Falls on Kortedala. (It’s tempting to allow the dorm-room electricity of Girl Talk’s “except rap and country”-core touchstone Night Ripper into this club, too, but for whatever reason, it feels like a separate thing.)

All those albums mentioned communicate very specific and separate emotional messages to their listeners, and after all this time, so does Since I Left You, a cruise-ship of an album for people who swore they’d never get on a boat again. It’s vacation music in the sense that, while you’re listening to it, you feel like you’ve truly gone somewhere else; even after hundreds of listens, its territory occasionally and thrillingly feels unfamiliar, like fixing a hole in your basement only to find it leads to a tiny, teeming city. Two years ago, The Guardian asked whether it’s worth even following up an album that so specifically and perfectly executes such a feeling, and the question is valid, surpassing any trollishness that might accompany it. What would a second album from The Avalanches even sound like? Do we even want to know the answer?

More importantly, what do we even call whatever The Avalanches may or may not be doing in 2016? Upon the news of new gigs, a music website or two referred to their actions as a “reunion,” which seems inaccurate considering that they never ostensibly stopped working and have lost at least one founding member in the last decade in a half; “comeback” doesn’t quite nail it either, since there’s no perceived lows to rebound from (unless we’re counting silence as a low point, which some certainly do). “Return” is probably the best way to put it, and “returns” are seen as increasingly contentious in the music world as of late—ask James Murphy.

Murphy’s gritty reboot (sorry) of LCD Soundsystem actually serves as a good study in contrasts when placed in opposition to The Avalanches’ latest is-this-actually-going-to-happen-or-what flurry of activity. The open-casket fanfare that accompanied LCD Soundsystem’s first “farewell” some years ago was loud, pronounced, and well documented to the point that the group’s high-profile return has been met with a healthy and not unearned dose of cynicism. By saying goodbye to begin with—to say nothing of how—Murphy and his band unwittingly created perceived expectations that the project would face whether they waited five or 15 years to make their return. I’m not sure anyone expects anything of The Avalanches right now, which is a great position to be in. If they are really, truly back, it’ll be a real-deal surprise in a climate that’s become all too predictable. No rumor could ever prove as satisfying.

Larry Fitzmaurice is leaving you. He's on Twitter.

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The Avalanches
Since I Left You