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Thanks to The Avalanches, 2016 will go down as the year the 2000s revival ignited. The Melbourne outfit’s long, long, long-awaited comeback Wildflower is a retro celebration. It’s trippy, discoey, loungey and chock-full of chunky, funky beats. Imagine if Fatboy Slim, Armand van Helden and Lemon Jelly threw a beach party.
Wildflower can’t be anything but mythic because of its protracted creation alone, arriving 16 years after Since I Left You. Back in 2000, The Avalanches existed as less of a group than a collective, centred around Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann.
Aligned with Steve Pavlovic’s Modular Recordings, they issued Since… – a portable archive of 3500 samples, among them Madonna’s Holiday. Everybody loved it. The Avalanches scooped ARIAs. Most significantly, they experienced unprecedented commercial and critical success overseas as alternately an Antipodean hip-hop or dance music act.
Here was a novel posse it was apparently cool for the brutal UK media to like. Since… would be hailed a classic in the breakbeat – or, more pretentiously known, plunderphonics – genre. Yet, as the touring wound down, The Avalanches fragmented. The popular DJ Dexter, famed as a champion turntablist, split early (remember his hyper-hybrid Grrilla Step?). But, by time Seltmann officially parted circa 2014, no one was tracking it. Today The Avalanches’ core is Chater and Tony di Blasi – with prodigal DJ James Dela Cruz in an indeterminate role.
The Avalanches might have faded into history were it not for sporadic announcements, and teasing hype, of an imminent follow-up album – some coming from a desperate Modular. Fans and the media alike grew cynical. Indeed, The Avalanches’ second album became the Aussie exemplar of indulgent procrastination, rivalling Dr Dre’s Detox – a snarky joke. Surely clearing obscure samples doesn’t take that long.
Still, there was sufficient eccentric activity to keep The Dream alive. In 2013 The Avalanches contributed a remix of Hunters & Collectors’ Talking To A Stranger (entailing an exxy sample of Dan Hartman’s disco romp Relight My Fire) to the tribute album Crucible. Then, this April, The Avalanches’ social media and website were updated with mysterious new imagery.
The fold confirmed global festival (DJ) dates – including an exclusive Australian appearance at Splendour In The Grass. In early June triple j premiered The Avalanches’ single Frankie Sinatra – the lead single from Wildflower. The wonky, swinging Fatboy Slim-mode big beat joint – which samples both Wilmoth Houdini’s vintage calypso Bobby Sox Idol and My Favorite Things from The Sound Of Music and features MCs Danny Brown and MF DOOM – was accompanied by a video conceivably modelled on American Horror Story: Freak Show. The response was polarising. Yes, Frankie Sinatra is gimmicky – but The Avalanches have always been gimmicky. Few clicked that Frankie Sinatra was old – Brown was discussing it in 2012.
Befitting its status as an ‘event’ album, Wildflower’s media roll-out has been clandestine – reviewers signing embargo forms (6am, July 1, if you wanna know) ahead of a listening session at The Bakehouse Studios in Melbourne, where they fumbled with wireless headphones and scoffed cheese and crackers. On the wall, a banner of the album artwork – obliquely referencing Sly And The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
In the press sheet The Avalanches explain the Wildflower title – “a wildflower is a certain type of person, a free spirit.” But they tell of its agonising genesis, too. “We went through 7 shades of shit to make this record and so many times we thought it would never get finished. It became a quasi-magical quest.” The LP’s summery vibes contrasted Melbourne’s bleak winter.
Wildflower shows that The Avalanches are conscious of their cult status. Possibly because of “sample clearance nightmares”, they present more ‘original’ music. However, they’ve also brought in several buzz guests (‘wildflowers’?) – from Toro y Moi to Biz Markie to Father John Misty. Beyond that, Wildflower is a time capsule of styles dominant at the end of the ’90s – big beat, filtered disco and chill-out. It’s like Burial never friggin’ happened.
The best Wildflower has to offer has already aired as subsequent singles. Colours is a woozy number performed by Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue. The current Subways samples pre-teen singer Chandra Oppenheim’s lost ’80s punk-funk Subways, but actually is like a throwback to van Helden’s intentionally rudimentary garage house You Don’t Know Me – or The Avalanches’ own A Different Feeling.
It forms a ’90s (or Dad!) house triptych with the ensuing Going Home and Sunshine – the last characterised by a looped female vocal hook. Other tracks, such as the-less-folky-than-quirky If I Was A Folkstar (with chillwaver Toro y Moi’s fey vocal), are, even more than Colours, blissed-out – and psychedelic.
Set to divide listeners as much as Frankie Sinatra is the cartoony The Noisy Eater – which, while taking a bite from The Beach Boys’ Vegetables, promotes breakfast cereal. Biz Markie, repping hip-hop’s golden era, expresses his comic self on a crunchy big beat track that samples The Beatles’ Come Together (“personally approved by Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono”).
Brown returns for The Wozard Of Iz – an offkilter companion to Frankie Sinatra that flips I’ve Been Over The Rainbow from Canadian electronic pioneer Mort Garson’s bizarre album The Wozard Of Iz – a ’60s Wizard Of Oz. Forget the DAISY Age, this is the Poppy Age. Wildflower closes with the Balearica of Saturday Night Inside Out (featuring Father John Misty and Silver Jews’ David Berman).
Wildflower revels in the escapism of nostalgia – switching between the idealised, spirited ’60s and a late ’90s or early noughties party scene. The album would be the perfect sequel to Since… if it had materialised years ago. Wildflower demonstrates little progression – and limited innovation, sample-based music now seeming antiquated – and quaint. Besides, the songs are samey.
Wildflower feels assembled. Even production tricks are repeated – The Avalanches big on the old EQ and pitched-altered vocals. And Wildflower is out of sync in another way with its latent cultural cringe. Apart from Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis on Stepkids (with Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema), most of the guests, and vocalists, on Wildflower are American at a time when, as The Avalanches themselves precipitated, the Australian music scene has boomed. Frank Ocean is clamouring to work with Tame Impala!
The irony? Before The Avalanches’ resurgence hype began building, Melbourne dream-popster Fascinator (Johnny Mackay) dropped an enthralling album in Man with Seltmann’s assistance – only to be overlooked.