A decade since they left us, The Avalanches are still worth sampling

‘Obscure Music and Football’ has been a one-man band since it has started, full of eclectic ramblings.

Until now, that is. Here’s a cracker of a guest post for you. STV’s Andy Coyle explains everything you need to know about The Avalanches’ seminal album ‘Since I Left You’ (2000; Modular Recordings) and their everlasting struggle to release that much-anticipated second album.

The Avalanches’ ‘Since I Left You‘ was released ten years, almost to the day, before this was written. Although it has long since ceased to surprise, there are moments within that point to an album that has aged with dignity. It still sounds like nothing before or since. It acts both as a good compilation album – all the songs on it are primarily composed from samples – and as a fine example of the band’s abilities.

I didn’t really write that first paragraph. Little tweaks were put in to fit the subject, but the sentences are mostly the work of other better writers.* Its samples – all chosen from the same theme – are placed in a new setting and context, for better or worse. It took a little bit of time, but it all hangs together to make some sense. Kind of.

If sampling is a synonym of theft, as far as you’re concerned, stop reading now. No, really. The contrived introduction was really just a way to draw attention to the scale of ‘Since I Left You’. An album painstakingly created by melding together over 3,500 samples – some as short as a single chord – and crafting them into a single breathing, sparkling weave of sacred innocent love songs and profane, driven dance and hip-hop.

With more musical styles than you could rightly expect to find in one record, it’s difficult to label The Avalanches’ sound, but Beastie Boys meets The Beach Boys may be a good point to start. Like the New York trio, early incarnations of The Avalanches – under different names including Swinging Monkey Cocks and Quinton’s Brittle Bones – were rudimentary thrash-punk that morphed into basic hip-hop, before expanding into an “anything goes” sample frenzy akin to the Beasties’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’ (1989; Capitol Records). The fact that most of the Av’s live mixes start or end with a Beach Boys track tips a hat to the lush orchestrations of Brian Wilson and echoes can be heard throughout ‘Since I Left You’.

The album starts with the title track, a single that enjoyed success in its own right, which gently eases the album into a fluid, seamless hour that is, to take the title of one of its parts, a “Little Journey”. What looks on paper to be a prime example of throwing everything into the mixer and hoping for the best, emerges as a tour through popular (and not so popular) music curated by a group, with an expert ear for a flowing beat.

It’s the top layer that sticks in your head. The snatches of film dialogue, snippets of flute or keys, snapshots of rap or pop; each is a hook that grabs and holds before throwing you into the next moment or mood. The movies sampled – such as ‘Polyester’, ‘Cabaret’, ‘Car Wash’, and ‘Midnight Run’ – demonstrates that the Avalanches’ eclectic taste is not just limited to music.

Beneath the surface, though, is the steady pulse that binds it all together. The band’s hip hop roots are evident in the thumping rhythm which drives along the majority of the album, and it is no surprise to see that lifts have been taken from the likes of Prince Paul, Raekwon, and Camp Lo. One of the many things that separates ‘Since I Left You’ from other sample-meisterworks, though, is a harder dance edge that comes through from taking elements of Daft Punk, Paperclip People and Thomas Bangalter.

The depth of samples is all done with a lightness of touch and for every pulsating bassline, there’s a lick of acoustic guitar. For every line of insistent macho rap, there are half a dozen airy female vocals and harmonies. Strings and harp give every solid sculpted song a gilt edge.

Others have taken the idea of the (almost) sample-only album and produced fine work. Girl Talk has been squeezing his enviable record collection into hour-long concentrated form for eight years now, and Canadian glitch-house producer Akufen took microsampling to a stunning level with his album ‘My Way’ (2002; Force Inc. Records). The mix album has evolved through the likes of 2 Many DJs and Streetlife, among others, to embrace the idea that any two records can find common ground. Nobody, though, has managed the sense of completeness, the product whose sum is so much greater than its parts since. Avalanches mainstays Robbie Chater and Darren Seltzman are to the Akai S2000 what Hendrix was to the Fender Stratocaster.

If a band is only as good as its last record, it’s perhaps understandable that The Avalanches have kept their fans waiting a decade for the follow-up. Even allowing for the well-known problems of the “difficult second album”, ‘Since I Left You’ is a tough debut to top.

As the longest suffering group of aficionados on the Internet, regulars on the Avs’ official forum will tell you that stories about the follow-up record have come and gone. An “ambient world music” album was scrapped five years ago and a press release, which came a year later, suggested that the record label had already heard album number two. Even allowing for the ridiculously complicated sample clearances, it should have been here by now. But with news being dripped out at the rate of around one rumour a year, ‘Since I Left You’ remains their only album to date.

Ten years on, the feverish anticipation of new material has now dimmed to a faint but persistent optimism. Listening to The Avalanches’ debut a decade after it first thrilled, and finding it as remarkable and enjoyable now as it was then, the challenge of equalling what now has to go down as a classic seems to have grown as the band have delayed.

*Paragraph one contains samples from:

• “Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released ten years, almost to the day, before this was written.” Lester Bangs (Stranded, 1979)
• “Although Van Morrison has long since ceased to surprise, there have been enough scattered moments throughout his recent work to point to a singer content to age with dignity.” Sean O’Hagan (NME, 1986)
• “Astral Weeks still sounds like nothing before or since.” Sean O’Hagan (The Observer, 2004)
• “It acts both as a good compilation album (all the songs on it are from Van Morrison’s four albums for Mercury) and as a fine example of the man’s abilities.” David Quantick (NME, 1984)

When not refreshing The Avalanches’ official homepage, hoping for new release news, Andy Coyle writes for the excellent Scottish Television (www.stv.tv/sport) about football. You can also follow him on Twitter: @STV_Andy.


2 Responses to “A decade since they left us, The Avalanches are still worth sampling”

  1. December 2, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    One band “since” who they sound a lot like are The Go! Team. I once read an interview with the latter act’s driving force Ian Parton who somewhat dishonestly claimed not to be influenced by Since I Left You, choosing instead to claim lineage from Public Enemy. Not on really, even if the later band’s, Thunder, Lightning, Strike is also a minor masterpiece.

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