Earlier in the week we covered some of the more mainstream offerings from throughout the year, with our favorite Electronic and Hip-Hop/R&B albums and Pop/Rock albums. Today, the weirdos at Epitonic bring you their favorite Experimental and Ambient/Post-Rock Albums of the year. Tomorrow, a similar cast will bring you some of the best Punk and Metal/Hard Rock of 2012. Keep your eyes peeled for editor Steve Dewhurst's own array of ambient and experimental discoveries in the coming weeks.

Top 5 Experimental Albums of 2012
Experimental is possibly as broad of a genre as Electronic, if not more, but in this list we bring you artists who we believe are using innovative processes to create an end result that is artistic, clever, and possibly uncomfortable.

1. Swans: The Seer [Young God]
Blending elements from the seemingly disparate worlds of folk, metal, and dronology into a maniacal saga of cacophony, dissonance, and ominous poetry, Swans reinvigorates the world of experimental music with the unadulterated onslaught of power and sound known as The Seer. Swans frontman Michael Gira uncovers a perfect balance of aggression and elegance, utilizing combative percussion, erratic vocal flourishes, and contentious instrumental interplay on tracks like "Lunacy" and "Mother of the World" to establish a growing severity that builds and builds without any sign of resolution.

Themes of religion, astrology, and the occult pervade the album, exemplified during the final section of "A Piece of the Sky" where Gira observes, "There's a floating slice of moon in your tooth, and your claw, and your unforgiving jaws." Despite its overall shocking and disturbing nature, The Seer contains a few isolated-yet-satisfying bouts of quiet reflection on the quasi-folk ballad "Song for a Warrior," and unabated groove, most notably driving Gira's foreboding mumblings on "The Seer Returns." This album showcases Gira at his best: vast instrumentation, dark fusions of style and genre, and a wise patience lingering in the background, all but confirming that Swans is still a force to be reckoned with.
--Bill Ross

2. Dan Deacon: America [Domino]
Though I had thoroughly enjoyed Dan Deacon’s interactive live performances, I never had much interest in listening to his recordings. That all changed when I read the heartfelt letter on his website describing his shift in philosophy from silly, random escapism to the patriotic socio-political critique that is heard on America. Energy and experimentation is still a major component of Deacon’s work, but the subject has become much more meaningful.

America has two distinct halves, beginning with five separate songs that relate to Deacon's past work, and ending with the four-part suite “USA," which uses brass, strings, and mallet percussion to communicate the country's grandeur and corruption through sound. The subtitles of the “USA” tracks explain the theme of each in as few words as possible- “Is a Monster,” “The Great American Desert,” “Rail,” and “Manifest” – and these different themes embody Deacon’s concept that “America is a word with an infinite range of connotations, both positive and negative. Even its literal definition is open to discussion.”

Due to its topics of nationalism, landscape and transportation, this album is the American answer to Kraftwerk’s entire catalog. Despite their differences in style, there are certainly relations between how each artist approaches the composition on these topics (“USA III: Rail” being the most distinct), with Deacon taking a much busier, lively approach than the German synth pioneers.
--Parker Langvardt

3. Liars: WIXIW [Mute]
Ever-changing and highly secretive experimental trio Liars swam to the surface in 2012 to drop off WIXIW (pronounced "wish you"). Prior to its release, they shared a series of strange photos and video clips on their blog documenting bits of their process from inside their private studio fortress in Los Angeles. What they came out with is both the most electronic and the most digestible album they've ever recorded.

During the album's opening track, "The Exact Colour of Doubt," frontman Angus Andrew croons over flowering strings, rhythmic handclaps, and random swipes at a snare drum. The claustrophobic synth and pulsating beat of “Octagon” almost traps the listener within the song, forcing one to imagine its geometric title. "No. 1 Against the Rush" begins with a muted guitar riff that is quickly joined by deep, grounded bass and waves of synths that filter in and out. "A Ring On Every Finger" sounds like a Flying Lotus composition before Andrew comes in with an unnerving, lethargic vocal melody that guides it into LCD Soundsystem territory. On WIXIW, Liars are simultaneously experimental and pop while managing to stay true to their strange selves, making it yet another magnum opus within their already perplexing and varied catalog.
--Zach Pollack

4. Darsombra: Climax Community [Exile on Mainstream]
Audiovisual experimentalists Darsombra are one of the weirder discoveries I’ve made this year. Just three tracks long, their album Climax Community covers a ridiculously wide range of styles. The first track, “Roaming the Periphery,” begins as a deep drone with wordless vocals. The middle section becomes more loop-based, with two clean guitar chords that alternate between the left and right sides of the track. This forms a bed for higher-pitched guitar experimentation, which eventually smooths out into a memorable melody.

The second track, “Green,” is something of an interlude, clocking in at four minutes rather than the eighteen-plus taken up by the other two tracks. It consists of a lone acoustic guitar soloing on an energetic progression. “Thunder Thighs” closes out the album with the strangest journey yet. Sitar drones welcome the simple melodies of a clean guitar, which unexpectedly crash down into heavy distortion and delay. Suddenly, Darsombra starts sounding a bit like Tool, but without a drum in sight. Layers of distorted guitar build as the chord progression completes, mellowing into a deep, swirling arpeggio as quickly as the distortion arrived. Guitars experiment over the top until eerily layered, staccato vocals come in. The structure breaks down into madness until the album ends with a descending drone that holds its final, dense chord for a whole minute.
--Parker Langvardt

5. Animal Collective: Centipede Hz [Domino]
When Animal Collective took the stage at 2011's Pitchfork Festival, I was pretty dead set on not being at all entertained. It was that moment when you just start getting over getting over hearing about a particular group all the time. I wasn't even a fan to begin with; "My Girls" was probably the only song I could've named for you. They started playing when the sun was still out, and people were milling around, not really centered in any particular area. About five or ten minutes in, Animal Collective played "Today's Supernatural," the first single off Centipede Hz. I remember thinking in the crowd "This is incredibly cliched, but...I get it now." The rest of the set was filled with Centipede Hz cuts, with the medley of "New Town Burnout," "Monkey Riches," and "Mercury Man" carrying the crowd out of "Brother Sport." Perhaps that show makes my opinion biased, but if you can start "Moonjock" and stop listening to Centipede Hz, well, I guess you just don't get it, maaaan.
--Bob Hopkinson


Top 5 Ambient/Post-Rock Albums of 2012
There is a lot of crossover of influences and style in the genres of ambient and post-rock as a result of similar influences and styles of creation. We've picked a diverse five albums that do a decent job of summing up the state of the two genres.

1. Sigur Rós: Valtari [Parlophone]
Over the past decade, Iceland's Sigur Rós have established themselves as one of the more shape-shifting ambient/post-rock acts around. This year, the experimental outfit welcomed their first full-length record since 2008's Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, the more manageably titled Valtari.

The album kicks off with "Ég anda" and the song's opening vocalization recalls Bon Iver's "Lump Sum." With the welcome addition of frontman Jónsi Birgisson's signature bowed guitar, "Ég anda" segues into a twinkle-y, full band LP opener. The record that follows is a strong collection of soaring vocals, intense strings, and at times bombastic accompaniment from the entire outfit at once. Valtari doesn't particularly break new ground like some of their past releases have, but it's certainly not a step in the wrong direction by any means. Instead, on this record, it's evident that Jónsi and co. have really grown as songwriters. "Ekki múkk" showcases how tight their dynamics have become, "Dauðalogn" points out their willingness to have an uncharacteristically sparse track, and the title track "Valtari" focuses solely on instrumentation, containing no vocals at all.

Valtari was rolled out alongside The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment, which consisted of the band dispersing the same budget to 12-filmmakers and giving them the freedom to create whatever they wanted for a track of their choosing. The short films that were crafted and shared were just as enjoyable as the recorded album.
--Zach Pollack

2. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! [Constellation]
Montreal's mysterious Godspeed You! Black Emperor unexpectedly welcomed 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! this October, their first album in ten years. They quietly released the album while on tour, where they began to sell the unreleased album, giving some of their most passionate fans an early chance to purchase it.

The opening track, "Mladic," takes its sweet time to build before reaching a crunchy, Middle Eastern-sounding guitar riff at about six-and-a-half minutes in. The band works together to propel the song from there, highlighted by a variety of searing tones. The interlude "Their Helicopters' Sing” follows with dissonant-yet-cohesive strings and bagpipes. The album's strongest track, "We Drift Like Worried Fire," begins with a tiptoeing, palm-muted guitar piece. A series of sweeping strings and guitars fade in, reminiscent of some of the more lighthearted arrangements used in The Twilight Zone. They do an excellent job of shifting the track towards screeching, arpeggiating crescendos, but somehow locate a turning point to flip back to quiet and understated sections. There are many similar dynamic changes on 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, and this can make the album feel like one 53-minute song. The album concludes with the unnerving and ambient "Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable.”
--Zach Pollack

3. Earth:
Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II [Southern Lord]
Earth’s formula has drastically evolved since their origin in the early nineties, but they have never sacrificed their minimalism. After experimenting with ultra-loud, droning metal and structured instrumental southern rock, Earth settled into the Ennio Morricone-meets-metal approach that they are so respected for today.

Earth hit their stride on 2008’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, but waited to release another chapter of this meditative sound until the two-volume Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, released one year apart in 2011 and 2012. Both volumes feature cellist Lori Goldston and bassist Karl Blau in addition to Earth’s core members, guitarist Dylan Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies. Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II is a bit more subdued and layered than the first volume. Davies’ slow, roomy drums don’t enter until the third song, “Waltz (A Multiplicity of Doors),” when Goldston’s sinewy cello also takes full effect, and at this point the album reaches a moody darkness not achieved on Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I.
--Justin Sinkovich


4. Brian Eno: Lux [Warp]
After partnering with Warp Records for collaborative projects in the past, Brian Eno delivered his first solo album for the label this year. Entitled Lux, it began as a collection of ambient music for art galleries and airports. The album was played on loop at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport for four days prior to its release, and I have coincidentally most enjoyed Lux while in flight. Being strapped to a chair for over two hours with little else to do allowed me to focus on the introspective nature of the album, and, after repeated listens, I feel as if I know something about who Brian Eno really is despite never having met the man.

The album is comprised of four numbered tracks, crafted with violas, violins, and synthesizers, in addition to the fascinating sounds of the Moog Guitar. I was surprised to learn that a real piano was not used in the recording of this album, as the tones created by Eno and his cohorts Leo Abrahams and Nell Catchpole are so pure and calming. Each track has an inquisitive, thought-provoking feeling, though the urgency of "Lux 2” tends to set a tense mood. As a whole, Lux is quite the tranquil experience, especially 30,000-feet in the air with a pair of excellent headphones.
--Zach Pollack

5. Shy, Low: Shy, Low [Fluttery]
Post-Rock may be a bit of clichéd term, but what it’s come to embody -- delicate ambiance and careful dynamic builds that explode with emotion -- is exactly what Shy, Low are pulling off with elegance and style. They noticeably draw inspiration from bands like Explosions in the Sky and This Will Destroy You, but their self-titled debut certainly doesn’t just pay homage to their predecessors and contemporaries. Shy, Low masterfully compose unique instrumentals that are performed with well-dialed tones and smooth technique. Every track on their self-titled debut is memorable in its own way, from the thunderous sound that follows the vocal-sample in “Confirmation Bias” to the ambiance of “The Tide” and the head banging aggression of “Heavy Hands.”

Shy, Low was released by the Internet-based, globe-spanning Ambient/Post-Rock/Modern Classical label Fluttery Records, who I featured in "United Nations of Fluttery Records" in early 2012.  The band has since moved on to Worthless Junk Records, who are based in their hometown of Richmond, Va. Worthless Junk are currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Shy, Low’s second release, Binary Opposition, that wraps up on Friday.
--Parker Langvardt