The 10 Best Bay Area Albums of 2018: Voicehandler, 'light from another light'

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Voicehandler, 'light from another light.'
Voicehandler, 'light from another light.'

We're posting our favorite Bay Area albums of 2018 every weekday through Dec. 14. Check here to see who else made the list.

A wealth of improvised music appeared from Bay Area experimentalists in 2018, often featuring electronic and acoustic instruments nestled together. Zachary Watkins and Marshall Trammell released their final project as Black Spirituals, and Bill Orcutt partnered with Chris Corsano on the combustible Brace Up! And among the local free music scene’s most inspired dispatches is light from another light (Humbler Records), Danishta Rivero and Jacob Heule’s second full-length as Voicehandler.

The two are fixtures in Oakland’s experimental set: Rivero, working with voice and modular electronics, is also one half of left-field reggaetón duo Las Sucias, while Heule is an active show booker and serially collaborating percussionist. As Voicehandler, who last released Song Cycle in 2015, Rivero and Heule have a sensitive, painterly rapport and a seemingly bottomless supply of technique and expressive ingenuity. Light from another light collects loose improvisations, free of easily discernible motifs but suffused with enchantment and otherworldly allure.

Absent of blustery chaos, light from another light feels at once free and focused. The album features three pieces, each recorded a week apart last summer. They're strikingly divergent from one another in terms of tone and intensity: opener "June 8" is feverishly abuzz with manic scatting; "June 1" builds up a meditative drone with an air of suspense; closer "May 25" is at first halting and spare, rendering Heule’s percussion with painstaking clarity. 

The album starts at its busiest point, with a rush of pinball percussion and spiraling cries, but upon repeat listens its softest and steadiest passages emerge as the most captivating: hushed breath and brushwork near the end of "May 25," for instance, or the buzz-roll bobbing in static on "June 1." Heule is a bravura drummer with a surgical sense for accents, stressing beats you forgot existed with timbres that might never reappear, but the music isn’t cluttered. Nor is it totally austere; in a quiet moment, Rivero playfully mimics the sound of a broken speaker. 

The abstract album cover, a chemically distorted photograph by Brittany Nelson, looks organic but alien. The picture rhymes with the music: Nelson’s image is fibrous from afar and scratchy up close, just as Rivero’s fricative rasp morphs between mesh and daggers. Yet Voicehandler’s music, if it was represented on a canvas, would involve more negative space; Heule and Rivero seize every chance to make the void sing.