The Avalanches are, in a word, crazy. Especially when compared with the rest of their dance music brethren. A typical “DJ concert”, so to speak, usually consists of a couple nerdy looking dudes hiding behind mounds of strange equipment, twiddling knobs, rifling through vinyl, and bobbing nearly imperceptibly to a barrage of body-shaking beats. It’s no wonder a good portion of the crowd chooses to flail around the back of the venue in massage-chains. In an effort to beef up such a tame stage show, most promoters hire some sort of lighting crew, hoping that a blinding argon laser will pacify the hordes of expectant punters. Extra-large projection screens are also becoming a staple, flashing images capable of inducing seizures, or, for a change of pace, splaying all sorts of airy-fairy ambient images or psychedelic patterns across in hopes of creating a “mood”. Well, those thinking about hiring the Avalanches are in luck. With these guys, no argon lasers or lame video-DJing is necessary. They provide the entertainment, beginning to end, and without fail.
In this respect, the Avalanches are a bargain. Besides a cheery scene of chair-throwing, smashed equipment, and daredevil stunts (which once resulted in a broken leg), the concert-goer will undoubtedly experience music far beyond the realms of established convention. Such wild antics are merely a precursor — nay, a preview — of what the group’s is capable of in the studio and live on stage. Their first full-length album, Since I Left You, is a charming, witty pastiche of mashed up samples, beats, bangs, and bobs. The group defies any neat categorization of their sound, but let’s just say there’s a little bit of everything on offer, from booty-shaking hip-hop to filtered disco funk, retro nostalgia, calypso, and ’80s pop.
Based in Melbourne, Australia, the band now has five full-time live performance members (with two more helping out in studio), including an Australian DMC finalist, an ex-indie guitarist, and a singer. Taking a look at their diverse musical influences sheds some light on how they developed such a wild, maniacally playful sound. The band members grew up on the likes of the Boredoms and Ultrabidet (Japanese power-punk groups), Kool Keith, Wu Tang Clan, Cyndi Lauper and The Fall. Most have played in bands since adolescence (want names? Try the Swinging Monkey Cocks, Alarm 115, and Quinton’s Brittle Bones). Their current musical inspirations include Van Dyke Parks (Brian Wilson’s co-writer for the Beach Boys’ Smile), The Free Design, Daft Punk, Cornelius, and Basement Jaxx. Small wonder why Since I Left You grabs tidbits from such disparate genres and fuses them into a cohesive, delightfully entertaining album aimed straight for the dance floor.
After culling samples from over 900 albums, the group spent two years piecing everything together, and just as long waiting for the samples to clear before releasing the finished product in Australia and Europe in the spring of 2001. For all the studio wizardry involved in making Since I Left You, it’s a wonder how the end result can be sound so spontaneous, low-tech, and accessible. The title track (also the lead single) starts off the proceedings with light-hearted flutes and tropical guitars before developing into a warm, inviting mish-mash of chopped-up beats, clipped samples, and spoken word bits. The vocal line comes courtesy of the Main Attractions (essentially a white version of the Jackson 5), and floats easily over a looped up beat from Klaus Wunderlich’s “Let’s Do the Latin Hustle”. Somehow, the combination of a girlish tenor, tinkling bells, and warm strings meshes together into an entirely cohesive, undeniably catchy tune.
The Avalanches display a knack for synthesizing seemingly incompatible sounds and textures. For instance, the groovy b-line in Madonna’s “Holiday” pops up several times throughout the course of the album, adding a nostalgic touch to the enjoyable “Stay Another Season”. The infectious hip-hop of this tune morphs easily into cool, relaxed house in “Radio”. All of a sudden, the music shifts into high gear as a melange of bells, whistles, and bleeps crackle noisily in the background. The Avalanches deftly shuffle bits of noise around, creating entirely new arrangements of sound. In doing so, songs such as “Two Hearts in ¾ Time”, which borrows from Marlena Shaw’s “Yu-Ma” and Tony Mottola’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” become rearranged and thoroughly modern takes on tired genres-in this case, Motown. Wobbly organs, flocks of seagulls and sounds of the ocean recall melancholic seaside retirement homes, crooning vocals suggest love lost, and marimbas add a tropical feel at times, while interludes, such as “Little Journey”, capture fleeting moments of retro nostalgia. This short ditty even punches things up with assorted electronic scrabblings and monkey noises.
Most impressively, though, is the way the Avalanches make things like whinnying horses and spoken word sound kooky and fresh instead of recycled and stale. “Frontier Psychiatrist” is a perfect example of this aesthetic, combining snatches of dialogue from Laurence of Arabia with John Waters’ Polyester. To top things off, a patched together voice exclaims, “you’re a nut! You’re crazy in the coconut!” Despite this manicness, the song as a whole takes on a quirky, Ninja Tune-esque feel; comparisons to the Herbaliser and Mr. Scruff would not be off the mark.
Schizoid songwriting aside, the Avalanches sure know how to rock a party. Judging by their live performances, these boys like to have some fun. Taking a lesson or two from George Clinton and the Funkadelic clan, “Close to You” spices up some flute and keyboard filter disco with bass-heavy funk littered with bongos, warbly synths, and hand-clapping enthusiasm. “Live at Dominoes” is similarly party-ready, as is the Daft Punk-sampling “Electricity”.
Despite rapidly shifting musical stylings and the hundreds of samples which appear and reappear throughout the course of the album, Since I Left You flows easily from beginning to end. Each track takes the listener on a journey of sorts, be it the wild ride of “A Different Feeling”, the no-nonsense breaks of “Avalanche Rock”, or the contemplative mood of “Pablo’s Cruise”. Truly a breakthrough in the world of dance music, Since I Left You is a truly innovative, highly entertaining album which draws the listener into a unique, unconventional-and, above all, crazy-sonic landscape.