Portland has long been a friendly haven for experimental music, providing a welcoming space for the two-decade run of the Creative Music Guild and venues where artists of all stripes can challenge themselves and their listeners. In recent years, the city has also seen the rise of record labels that spotlight purveyors of noise, drone, free jazz, and beyond from around the world. If you have an interest in experimental music, here are the five best labels offering new and daring sounds from right here at home.
You might know Beacon Sound as a humble storefront on North Mississippi, where they run a well-curated record shop in which you can always find the latest from hypnagogic UK label Ghost Box and a great selection of used vinyl. You’ll also stumble across releases from Beacon Sound, the record label. Headed up by shop co-owner Andrew Neerman, the imprint has been behind some choice reissues, like their faithful recreations of two stunning albums from modern composer Terry Riley and the forthcoming re-release of Hans Otte’s 1983 collection of piano music The Book of Sounds, as well as some astonishing new work. Most recently, the label released a cassette of Mammother, a captivating cello-and-drone piece by Derek Hunter Wilson inspired by the novel of the same name.
Started in 2017 by Dustin Krcatovich and Micah Vanderhoof, Impermanent Projects announced its presence last month with the release of four cassettes and a 7-inch single. Like all great imprints specializing in unusual sounds, there’s a uniformity to how these are presented—minimalist packaging printed in an inviting shade of blue—that belies the remarkable range of ideas throughout. On their first vinyl release, Krcatovich’s project Skin Lies takes up one side of the record with fizzing drones and synth and guitar figures, with the flipside devoted to a dreamy ambient piece by Benoît Pioulard. The cassettes span even further, including Michigan duo Crime Victims’ mix of free jazz and creepy soundscapes, and Oakland’s Gossimer offering up a musique concrète soundtrack to the recent eclipse, built using an arsenal that included a pitch shifter, a white noise machine, and a Magic Bullet vibrator.
All of the cassettes released by Never Anything, lined up side by side to better appreciate their uniform design aesthetic, look as thoughtful and artful as the music found on each one. That music can be as catchy and intoxicating as the psych-pop of Lustana or as foreboding as the soundscapes of Romanian artist Somnoroase Psrele. Over the last three years of the label’s existence, Never Anything has started to lean more heavily toward music like the latter, with their most recent batch of tapes finding some dark corners to flop around in. The cassette by the appropriately named Angel Dust, for example, sounds like a contact mic capturing a swarm of termites dismantling an upright piano, while the lush collection by Montreal artist Event Cloak provides something more soothing, with blotchy synth tones interrupting Steve Reich-like rhythm patterns and flowery drones.
The hallmarks of SDM Records, a label and collective that has been causing trouble in the Portland underground since 2012, are a homespun grit and imperfection that reflect the excitable nature and DIY drive of the people behind each release. When they hear something that excites them, they yell about it from the rooftops and then pour their energies into sharing it with the world. Often that’s through their ongoing compilation series, which recently featured the experimental harpist Dolphin Midwives, lo-fi darkwave act Sheers, and fusion jazz geeks Stochastic Mettle Union. But even more exciting are the label’s single-artist releases, including the unhinged electronic fury of Body Shame and Halfbird, a trio of gents who recorded an incendiary live performance for the label that’s got enough saxophone skronk and guitar ooze to fuel a small flotilla of cargo vessels.
Sounds et al
Sounds et al, the project of British expat Andy Fry, has only put a small amount of physical music into the world, concentrating instead on curated events like the monthly performance series at the Ace Hotel and a recent East Coast tour featuring guitarist John Krausbauer and Japanese electronic artist Kaori Suzuki. The few records that Sounds et al have funded, though, are crucial documents of the rising wave of sound artists in Portland and beyond. In fact, it’s the locals who are making the best noises for the label, like Samson Stilwell’s Signals, which uses processed field recordings that turn the simplest sounds into alien communication, and Ben Glas’ exploration of overtones that encourages listeners to move around and note how the sounds shift and collide with the acoustics of the room.