The Avalanches don’t make albums like Since I Left You anymore. Nobody does, really. For one thing, they legally can’t. The Melbourne production crew’s chosen genre was known as plunderphonics for a reason: Practitioners gleefully plucked samples from record after record without regard for copyright law, overlaying them into vibrant collages. The rise of this movement in the late ’80s and early ’90s was a beautiful wild-frontier moment in music, one documented insightfully in Philip Sherburne’s review of plunderphonics provocateurs the KLF’s ambient techno lodestar Chill Out. But such blatant flaunting of intellectual property could never last forever. Once the lawsuits started flying, rappers and ravers alike had to pivot to expensive cleared samples and alternate techniques.
At that point plunderphonics mostly disappeared into the realm of memory and dream, which is where Since I Left You already existed. The Avalanches’ debut floats through the liminal space between the crate-pillaging hip-hop visionaries like the Dust Brothers and Prince Paul were spearheading around the turn of the ’90s and the MP3 orgy overseen by festival-slaying mashup king Girl Talk in the second half of the aughts. Conventional wisdom suggests it’s great party music but even better for the pre-dawn comedown after a night out, when the endorphin rush is over and sleep is setting in but you’re still too abuzz to fully shut down yet. This is all true, but as good as Since I Left You sounds in the earliest hours of Sunday morning, I can testify from recent experience that it’s a fine soundtrack for making Thanksgiving crafts with your kids on a Sunday afternoon. It’s remarkable music regardless of context.
The Avalanches - Since I Left You [CD]
It also presumably sounds nothing like the music Robbie Chater, Tony Di Blasi, and Darren Seltmann were making in Alarm 115, the noise-punk band they founded in 1994 after Seltmann saw a life-changing Drive Like Jehu show in New York. The band also claimed skronking Japanese no wave act Ultra Bidé and cantankerous UK post-punk legends the Fall as influences, though the lone Alarm 115 instrumental I can find on YouTube reminds me of slacker gods Pavement, the Fall’s more accessible disciples. In any case, an old All Music Guide bio suggests that by 1997, Alarm 115’s Manabu Etoh departed, Gordon McQuilten entered the frame, and the project gave way to a new endeavor inspired by Koichi Oki’s 1971 Yamaha Superstar.
Described as “organ punk,” Yamaha Superstar was more like a surreal form of lounge music, atmospheric and vaguely tropical — a vibe that permeated the former Alarm 115 crew’s new work, starting with a 30-song demo Seltmann and Chater recorded in 1996 while Di Blasi was reportedly off somewhere dabbling in psychic “experimentation.” After spending the summer of 1997 gigging under names like Swinging Monkey Cocks, Quentin’s Brittle Bones, and Whoops Downs Syndrome (a very whoops name indeed), they settled on the Avalanches and quickly became an underground sensation. In subsequent years the project opened for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys, who also booked them for the Free Tibet ’99 show in Sydney. Hype was building, and with Since I Left You, the Avalanches met their moment.
Released 20 years ago today (though not until 2001 outside Australia), the record was instantly hailed as a classic. Its sound was intoxicating and unique, like being swept away into a fantastical world in the middle of the night, where the beachfront dance parties are tinged with melancholy and the drowsier you get, the more clarity you attain. There are proper songs within this slipstream, starting with the achingly beautiful title track, on which an exultant woman’s voice repeats, “Since I left you, I’ve felt the world so new!” over crackling drum machines and a sweeping retro string section. “Frontier Psychiatrist,” the most successful single of the bunch, is also probably the most dated — a bombardment of cartoonish high-drama brass and strings splattered with all manner of old movie dialogue, it could almost pass for Fatboy Slim.
Mostly, though, Since I Left You is about mood and texture. It’s less an album than a feeling you get lost in for an hour at a time. Though many of the samples have burrowed their way into my brain as thoroughly as any original hook — from “We can book a flight tonight!” to “That boy needs therapy!” — there are no lead vocals, just an endless parade of sounds stitched together seamlessly: clattering beats, sliced-up rap verses and disco choruses, keyboards that squelch and swirl, flickers of melody looped until they achieve some kind of zen state. It’s endlessly busy, yet a wistful calm hangs over everything, a warm, woozy nostalgia for a moment you’re not sure ever really existed.
In a meta twist, Since I Left You itself took on that kind of sentimental resonance in the years after its release. As the Avalanches kept pushing back their follow-up album, the first one started to feel more and more like a miracle. Now that my old CD copy is stashed away somewhere, I almost wouldn’t believe I didn’t dream it up if the music wasn’t readily archived to stream online. Remaining members Chater and Di Blasi punctured that mystique a bit on their 2016 comeback album Wildflower, welcoming a wide range of singers and rappers into the fold and thereby fundamentally altering the nature of their sonic universe. They repeated that approach on their imminent We Will Always Love You. We can speculate as to why: Their fame now affords them the luxury of high-profile collaborators. They have to pay closer attention to what they’re sampling these days. Artists often want to explore new frontiers rather than spend their careers chasing the good old days. It seems unlikely that the Avalanches or anyone else could recapture the particular magic of Since I Left You, a thrill so elusive it practically seemed to be slipping away in real time.