Friday, October 30, 2009

Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1981)

Aside from having one of the best album covers in the history of recorded music, this self-titled second album from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra is also one of the most unique, humorous and downright pleasant records I've ever encountered.

The Band is the creation of Simon Jeffes (alas, no longer with us) who wrote all the music and meticulously rehearsed his diverse group of extremely talented musicians. He also played about a dozen of the instruments himself. The sound he created is difficult to define. Most record stores list the PCO under New Age, which in my opinion is absurd. The truth is that the songs are a mishmash of Jeffes' eclectic influences including, but not limited to, jazz, world music, classical, ambient, lounge and maybe even a little pop. It's all instrumental and all acoustic, although I suspect there has been a certain amount of studio manipulation on one or two tracks, and all delightful.

I mentioned before that the music is humorous, and indeed it is, but not in a Frank Zappa, or even Spike Jones, kind of way. It makes you laugh in the same way a small child laughs when he sees something wonderful and utterly unexpected. It is the humor of joy unbridled. This is revealed in track titles like "Telephone and Rubber Band" and "The Ecstacy of Dancing Fleas." Elsewhere, the album ventures into slightly more sober territory, while still not taking itself too seriously. "Cutting Branches For A Temporary Shelter" remains one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. At times it's almost heartbreaking.

Let me tell you folks, to produce an album so relentlessly innocent and optimistic without it turning into insipid treacle is no small feat. Simon Jeffes has achieved it, and yet remains unjustly obscure.

Einstürzende Neubauten - Silence Is Sexy (2000)

It's clear that these German industrial pioneers have matured a lot since their humble beginnings nearly thirty years ago. In the early days, they collected various scraps of metal and concrete and banged them together for their (and our) amusement. They haven't lost any of their scrap metal, but now they use it to make actual songs, and catchy ones at that.

Not to imply that this is in any way poppy; it's still arty and difficult and sometimes downright disturbing, but now there is a sense of genuine craftsmanship in every track. Frontman Blixa Bargeld has obviously been honing his lyrical skills as well, since the words on the album display far more subtlety and depth than on earlier releases such as Halber Mensch, or even the groundbreaking Haus Der Lüge. Some of the songs are in German, and some are in English, but all are enjoyable.

The mood of Silence is Sexy is notably restrained and a bit morose. Blixa's voice resembles a whisper far more often than a scream. The result of this is a lingering tension that gradually builds and is sustained for most of the album. You keep expecting things to explode, but they almost never do. The notable and awesome exception to this is the standout track "Redukt." It begins with a simple 4/4 rhythm coming from what sounds like an anvil. This is accompanied by long and wordy verses in German, all subdued and held back by the unceasing metal banging. The track is ten minutes long and this pattern continues for a really long time, but just when you think are no more surprises, the roaring, single-word chorus comes blasting out like the wrath of God. If you're not prepared for it, the sudden change in volume can be hard on the ears, but the effect is marvelous.

The other song I want to mention is the sole track on the second disc. "Pelikanol" is a twenty minute industrial nightmare that relies on repetition, a lopsided washing machinee rhythm, creepy words and long drones provided by Bargeld's voice. It almost sounds like Krautrock with its steady (albeit warped) groove and trance inducing drones, and it's probably my favorite track on the disc. It just goes to show you not to write off a great band, simply because they've been around for a few decades.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Melvins + Lustmord - Pigs Of The Roman Empire (2004)

I picked this up on a whim when I saw it in a little record shop. I had never heard of the Melvins and I knew Lustmord through reputation only. Boy, what a nice surprise! It's like these two artists were made for each other.

The Melvins, for those who don't know, are a sludgy, grungy metal band who used to hang out with Nirvana, but whose music is way, way better. They have always had some experimental tendencies and they are used to good effect here. Lustmord is, of course, the undisputed king of the Dark Ambient genre.

The tracks on this release tend to jump back and forth between the two styles without much evidence of true collaboration... at first. The opener "III" is a spooky bit of slowly building ambient that centers around a clock chime. It leads into "The Bloated Pope," a classic Melvins style tune. However, this illusion is shattered when we get to the twenty-two minute title track, an epic slab of downtuned riffage surrounded by wonderful atmospheric textures. Honestly, I could listen to this track all day. It features the best of what both contributors have to offer.

The rest of the album has both metal tunes with dashes of ambient, and ambient atmospheres with dashes of metal. It all works terribly well, and many of the songs are actually quite catchy (one of the Melvins' strengths.) I know a lot of experimental music lovers out there hate metal, and if you're one of them you probably won't like this. Personally, I am a great lover of swampy, sludgy guitar riffs and those are present in abundance. Add to that the gorgeously sinister electronics of Lustmord and you've got a record that I return to over and over again.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Coil - How To Destroy Angels (1992)

This is the first Coil record I ever bought, and as such it holds a rather special place in my collection. It contains a number of remixes and reworkings of one of the band's earliest tracks "How To Destroy Angels." The original piece was made entirely with gongs and other metallic percussion and is one of the landmark achievements of early industrial music. Here, we have a variety of studio manipulations that surpass the earlier version in imagination and atmosphere.

"The Sleeper," at a mere two minutes, isolates and focuses on a weird pulsing sound like a wet jumprope being swung around. "Dismal Orb" strips away all but the most minimal of textures and simply hangs in the air, like swamp gas.

"Tectonic Plates" is a highlight, filled with violent scraping and grinding noises. It lives up to its title completely, as it conjures up images of vast rock formations smashing against each other under the mounting pressure of liquid magma. The vast array of effects the band is able to achieve from such simple source material is astonishing.

The album also includes a full length remix of the original sixteen minute "How To Destroy Angels" by Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound.) Unfortunately, the remixing is too subtle to really be noticeable unless you listen to the two side by side. The upside of this is that listeners who have been unable to acquire the the compilation "Unnatural History," on which the original track appears, now have a chance to hear it.

The album concludes with one second of silence, entitled "Absolute Elsewhere." This is a reference to the original one-sided vinyl, on which the blank side was labeled with this title. This albums is often referred to as an EP, owing to it's rather specific nature, but its length spans a good fifty minutes. More than satisfactory, considering the quality of the material.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Earthmonkey - Be That Charge (2007)

Earthmonkey is a project by the oddly named Peat Bog, best known for his collaborations with Nurse With Wound. On this release, however, he strays far afield from the avant garde sound collages and eerie soundscapes, tackling instead the trippy, strung out world of Ravers. The difference is that, unlike Rave music, this doesn't suck.

On this two disc set (three discs if you got one of the first 300 copies. I did not.) the listener is assaulted with relentlessly frenetic, out of focus music that drifts between rock, disco, trance, jazz and experimental. The guitars are fuzzy, the vocals are distorted and mixed way back. Everything is designed to feel like a haze of thick smoke and intoxication. The consistently fast tempos and overworked drum machines prevent you from ever really relaxing, though, which makes this an oddity among psychedelic records.

The fact is that the music is unnerving and it's hard not to be slightly on edge when listening to it. Combine that with the sheer length of the album (two hours without the bonus disc) and we're talking a seriously draining experience. For that reason, I don't often listen to this record, but it works well at parties where you want to keep the energy up, or when you're just in one of those moods.

That being said, the whole production is quite impressive, especially given that all the instruments were played by a single man. "Funhouse" is a standout track, with its repeated vocal sample and twelve minutes of Gong-like psychedelia. "Be That Charge" is certainly an interesting record by a talented guy. It just may be a bit much to take in a single sitting.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sun Ra - Atlantis (1967)

For those of you who don't know, Sun Ra was a jazz musician from Saturn. At least that's what he claimed, and when you listen to his music it's easy to believe him. Atlantis is a fine example of his eccentric compositions and live improvisations.

The first half of the record is devoted to short pieces in which Ra plays quirky melodies and jagged rhythms on his "Solar Sound Instrument" which turns out to be a Hohner Clavinet. The backing band is subdued, but the percussion and rare splashes of saxophone add a very nice touch of spice to Ra's admittedly impressive keyboard work.

These pieces are all very well crafted and enjoyable, but we all know why we're really here: for the epic twenty-one minute title track on side two. This monster was recorded live and features Ra banging away on an organ like the Phantom of the Opera having a seizure. The track features some truly top notch big band playing, and it's rather a shame that the organ pyrotechnics dominate the proceedings so thoroughly. Nevertheless, it's a wildly engaging, if violently dissonant, romp and certainly a good demonstration of Sun Ra's demented genius.

If there ever was an Atlantis, I imagine the sense of chaotic terror its citizens felt upon sinking into the ocean is well captured here. Definitely worth hearing for fans of free jazz.

Tangerine Dream - Zeit (1972)

When most people think of Space Rock, they think of Pink Floyd style psychedelia, extended jams with trippy melodies and lots of swirly little arpeggios. That is to say, Space Rock designed for tourists. Zip along in your rocket ship, snap a photo of the pretty nebula and wave to the Martians. It's all very fun, but it resembles space about as much as It's A Small World reflects world politics.

Space is dark. Space is cold. Space is mostly empty. Such is the music on Zeit. Yes, that's right; before Tangerine Dream became insipid purveyors of New Age treacle, they made some truly adventurous and influential albums. Zeit is the longest, the strangest and certainly the most sinister record of their career.

At seventy-five minutes long, Zeit (the German word for "time") is certainly an appropriate title for this double album. The music is divided into four sides, but it might as well be one long piece. The music begins with a cluster of cellos slowly fading in, basically the only acoustic sound on the whole album. The following hour is made up of analogue synths droning and shifting very...................very.........................slowly. One can imagine planets forming out of primordial darkness, rivers of magma gradually cooling and hardening into the crusts of what will - in just a few billion years - become mountains and oceans.

Needless to say, Zeit is a difficult listen, particularly if you try to pay attention to the whole thing. However, those fascinated by the infinite mysteries of the cosmos will be hard pressed to find better mood music for contemplation or stargazing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

AMM - AMMMusic (1966)

Even by my standards, this is weird one. It was recorded live in 1966, and consists mainly of very high pitched violin drones, bolstered with feedback, occasional piano stabs and percussion. At least it starts that way. After what seems like a very long time, you begin to realize that development is happening. More sounds begin to enter the mix and the music becomes more complex. You can hear guitars, saxophone, clarinet, cellos and (perhaps most interestingly) snatches of "found" sound coming from a radio.

The cool thing is that all this happens so gradually that you don't even realize it's happening. Suddenly you just notice it. In its own way, the album can be trance inducing, lulling you into subconsciousness with its incessant hum, noisy humming.

AMMMusic probably bears more relation to free jazz than it does to psychedelia or space rock, and it's at times reminiscent of some of Sun Ra's more extreme outings. It should also be noted that in 1966, nothing like this was being done. Even John Cage's contemporary pieces seem tame by comparison. One can only imagine the impact it must have had on its release.

The CD version offers extended performances that were too long to fit on the LP, as well as the original versions, giving us a nice set of listening options. As I said, the music is very high pitched and brittle, but if you can get past that I think you'll find multiple listens to be quite rewarding. Definitely not for beginners, though.

Organisation (Kraftwerk) - Tone Float (1969)

Organisation was the name of Kraftwerk before they were Kraftwerk. My oh my how things change. Here you will find no catchy tunes or lyrics about pocket calculators, no dance anthems about robots or mannequins, indeed not even a single synthesizer!

In contrast to their later all consuming fascination with the future, Tone Float is a downright primordial record. This is bona fide, old school Krautrock; raw, visceral and mostly improvised. The title track is a side long psychedelic trip centered around bells, drums and organ. It starts off very quietly and builds wonderfully into a shrieking Hammond-drenched nightmare. It is a remarkably well composed example of the twenty minute jam, all too common on these early seventies releases,with very focused playing by all involved.

The second half is a bit less organized, consisting of a series of shorter works, still probably improvisations. There's a weird, almost dance-like flute number called Milk Rock and some rather sloppy percussion experiments. We conclude with a nearly eight minute groove that is similar to the first side in its instrumentation and structure, although with strange, jittery amplified violin dominating.

Overall, this record has far more in common with early Amon Düül and Ash Ra Tempel than with the sound Kraftwerk would make famous later in the decade. Nevertheless, it's a charmingly idiosyncratic example of the genre and worth checking out.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gentle Giant - In A Glass House (1973)

The British Progressive Rock scene spawned legions of unique and interesting bands, but perhaps none so unique and interesting as Gentle Giant. With a sound that drew heavily from Renaissance madrigals and motets, yet retained the rock instrumentation and experimental attitude of the time, combined with extraordinary virtuosity by all the members (they handle odd time signatures and complex vocal canons with ease) the group made music unlike anything that has come before or since.

Needless to say, they found little commercial success, and their fifth studio album, In A Glass House, was never even released in the United States on the grounds of being too "uncommercial." Despite its limited availability, many fans including myself regard it as their finest hour. The album begins with the sound of breaking glass, which turns into a rhythmic pattern and sets the tone for a somewhat brittle sounding record. Normally, I tend to dislike brittleness in music, but it seems to work here for some reason. One track (I won't say highlight, because its all good) deals with the subject of a patient in a mental institution and is accompanied by percussion instruments only. A delightful experiment!

One of the more rocking tracks, "Way of Life," is interrupted abruptly for a little Renaissance tune played on several recorders. These kinds of rapid shifts in tone are a hallmark of the band, and are very difficult to pull off well, especially in a live setting (a setting in which Gentle Giant thrived.)

The album concludes with its title (and arguably best) track. After eight minutes of off-kilter hard rock, we are treated to a rapid-fire cut and paste medley of all the other songs on the record, concluding with the same shattered glass with which we began,echoing off into silence.

Gentle Giant's music is the kind of stuff that no one likes at first (it's simply too different,) and that takes years to fully appreciate (it's simply too complex,) but once it works its way under your skin you'll find it incredibly rewarding. It's a shame they never garnered the fame and fortune of some of their more accessible contemporaries, but then again, that's part of their charm.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Alvin Lucier - I Am Sitting In A Room (1970)

Alvin Lucier is a composer who has always straddled the precarious line between art and science. His works usually consist of practical demonstrations of physical phenomena, and yet they always provide a fascinating, surprisingly musical listening experience.

In "I Am Sitting In A Room," the composer reads a short speech, then plays the tape back into the same room and rerecords it. This process is repeated over and over again, with the result that the sound quality gradually decays and the frequencies that are naturally amplified by the physical space are the only things that remain. In this way, Lucier is effectively "playing" the room, and the results would be different for any given enclosed space.

The performance on this disc lasts about forty-five minutes. At about the fifteen minute mark, most of the actual words are unintelligible, and the speech has taken on a somewhat melodic, almost bell-like sound. Lucier has a slight stutter, and it is interesting to hear how this factors into the sounds we ultimately end up hearing. For example, a stuttered "S" sound persists much longer than most of the other consonants, because of its fundamental lack of pitch. So even towards the end of the piece we are able to hear the occasional "s- s- sss" which then becomes something of a rhythmic figure.

The simplicity of the concept and ease of execution make "I Am Sitting In A Room" a fascinating classic of electro-acoustic music, not to mention its hypnotic qualities for the listener. This is something that could be reproduced by any of us at home, and remember that it need not be with a voice. Similar results could be achieved with an instrument, a band, a portion of a movie soundtrack or really anything that makes a sound. Try it for yourself and see!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ozric Tentacles - Strangeitude (1991)

The name of the game here is "trippy." Ozric Tentacles are an instrumental space rock band that borrow heavily from Gong and Steve Hillage, but with a more modern sound (and frankly, a somewhat tighter group dynamic.)

I don't know any other albums of theirs, but I'm told that there's a bit of a "heard one, heard 'em all" feeling to them, not that that's necessarily a bad thing. The band does one thing and they do it very well, and that's to create spaced-out rock jams that will blast your brain stright into the stratosphere.

The tracks are largely groove oriented, and are comprised of a very pleasing blend of mellow flutes, bubbly synths and searing psych guitar. The bass and drums are also quite prominent and are essential to laying down the driving rhythms that give the songs their structure.

There is a good deal of world music influence, particularly from the Middle East. The track "Bizarre Bazaar" conjures up images of shifting desert sands, mirages and opium dens, while the seven minute title track features a long, slow buildup, leading into a furiously rocking finale. Simultaneously relaxing and energetic, the whole experience is very mind bending and will definitely put your head in a good place, if you're into that sort of thing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - Of Natural History (2001)

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are, in this reviewer's opinion, the single most exciting band of the 21st century. Their sound is difficult to describe, primarily because it is so unique. Part heavy metal, part Henry Cow-style avant garde, part high concept performance art, they are truly a breed apart and always full of surprises.

This is their second, and widely considered their best, album (so far.) It is a vaguely conceptual piece dealing with the combined themes of Italian Futurism and the Unibomber. If that sounds like nonsense, it's because it is. Although all the members are virtuosos and clearly take their art seriously, they are not without a sense of humor, as illustrated by the song "Cockroach," a deadpan, yet hilarious, condemnation of the lowly insect.

The band's instrumental makeup includes violin, male and female vocals (both stellar,) guitars basses, a myriad of exotic percussion devices, and several very unusual homemade instruments including the aptly named "Viking Longboat." I saw them perform last week and it appears they have added trombone and flute to their repertoire as well.

The live show bears mentioning, as it is a highly entertaining affair complete with elaborate costumes, free-associative rants from the band members and sometimes bizarre dancing from an enigmatic performer known as Momo. But back to the album.

Of Natural History contains much of the band's finest work. There are stomping metal anthems, soft but intense dirges, instrumental interludes that change time signatures so often that even us musical snobs struggle to keep up, field recordings of a country farmer teaching the band a song he composed when he was four, and a charming duet featuring a songbird.

Seriously, check them out. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Burzum - Hil∂skjálf (1999)

Once upon a time, Varg Vikernes, better known as Burzum, made horrible shrieking Norwegian black metal like so many other bands.But Burzum, not content to be one among legions of similar musicians, took things too far. He went and got himself arrested for murdering a fellow black metal practitioner, as well as for burning down some churches.

Now, even though Scandinavian prisons are world renowned for their soft treatment of prisoners, it just didn't seem like a good idea to provide Burzum with guitars, drums, microphones and all the other equipment he would need to continue recording. What they would give him, however, was a keyboard and a laptop. Hence, Hil∂skjálf.

Hil∂skjálf, which as we all know is the name of Odin's throne in Asgard, is an album of spooky yet majestic synth music. Despite its origins, it has a peaceful, organic quality that is at times quite beautiful. It calls to mind ancient and neglected Nordic forests, where perhaps there be trolls.

There are no lyrics, but the booklet contains written passages to accompany each track. These are largely descriptions of Gods, warfare and other traditional Viking concepts, used to express in allegorical fashion Burzum's anti-Christian worldview. While I by no means endorse any of his views (nor, for that matter, many of the artists I profile on this blog) I must admit that the music is compelling and well crafted. With the notable exception of some bad timpani samples, one often forgets that all the instruments are synthetic.

Burzum was released from prison in March of 2009, a full decade after this, his last album. As of this writing he has made no steps towards resuming his music career, which perhaps is for the best.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Volcano The Bear - The Idea Of Wood (2003)

A surreal band name for a surreal group. Volcano The Bear is comprised of four British oddballs who delight in creating mostly improvised chamber pieces that will leave all but the most seasoned listener scratching his head.

With most improvisational ensembles, you basically know what you're getting. It's either going to be a standard jazz band or a set of four or five instruments that remain constant over the lifetime of the group. Not so here. Drums, whistles, flutes, violins, guitars, bells, strange falsetto vocals, electronics and countless other, less easily identifiable instruments make up the color tapestry of sound that comprises this album.

While there's nothing jazzy about the group, there is a certain undertone reminiscent of English folk music, and there are times when you can almost picture the rolling green hills and picturesque countryside of the musicians' native land, albeit through a pretty strange lens.

The song titles are also a hoot, and include such imaginative gems as "Charming Cabbage Clock", "Chimney Fear" and "Curly Robot," the latter clocking in at over ten minutes in length and marking the highlight of the album.

I should note in passing that I have seen this band perform live, and they are just as much fun as you might expect. I recommend it if you have the opportunity.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Art Bears - Winter Songs (1979)

Try to imagine a blend of angular, percussive guitar work, European folk melodies, Medieval tinged lyrics and bizarre Teutonic female vocals and you'll begin to get an idea of what this album is all about.

The Art Bears were a side project of Chris Cutler and Fred Frith's earlier avant-garde rock group, Henry Cow. Cutler plays drums and writes the allegorical lyrics expressing his political views, while Frith plays guitar and violin and they are both joined by the admittedly strange, but undeniably unique vocals of Dagmar Kraus. The arrangements are sparse, sometimes skeletal, with only guitar and drums (and occasionally violin) and this gives the music a somewhat brittle quality.

The musicianship is excellent all around. Few guitarists can match Frith for innovation both in technique and composition, and Cutler is a very skilled and dynamic drummer. There is also a good deal of studio experimentation going on here, with backwards vocals and tape loops both used to great effect.

The album's highlight is "Rats and Monkeys," a frantic experiment that is so abrasive and noisy, it's practically guaranteed to clear any room into which it is played. Naturally, I love it.

Winter Songs is a difficult record to be sure, but lovers of the avant-garde and people willing to put in a little effort will ultimately find it a very rewarding listen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Yma Sumac - Voice of the Xtabay (1950) / Inca Taqui (1953)

Yma Sumac possesses one of the finest and most unusual voices of the 20th century. Its range spans somewhere between four and five octaves, depending on who you believe, and rivals that of any opera singer for power and clarity. All this is made more incredible by the fact that she never took a single voice lesson.

Supposedly the descendant of Incan kings, Yma Sumac was discovered by arranger and future husband Moises Vivanco in Peru and was promptly brought to New York to start making records. The result was so amazing that rumors started flying, the most notorious of which is that Sumac was actually a simple housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus. None of these allegations has ever been proven, however, and general consensus is that she is the real deal.

This two-fer collects her first two ten inch LPs onto one disc. Exotica king Les Baxter handles most of the arrangements and there is a bit of fifties kitsch combined with traditional Peruvian melodies that makes for quite a unique sound, especially in today's music scene when much of this style of music has been forgotten.

Of course, Yma's vocal acrobatics dominate the proceedings, leaping about in the stratosphere as well as growling deep, guttural bass notes. On one track, Chuncho (The Forest Creatures) I was astonished as what I was sure could only be a flute turned out to be Yma's voice. You really have to hear it to believe it. On the other hand, Tumpa (Earthquake) displays her lower register, evoking the track's title with aplomb.

Albums like this one are few and far between, a rare treat that literally sounds like nothing else in popular music. Much of Sumac's later work would become overly kitschy and watered down, but here she is in her element, and it shows.

Note: Yma Sumac died late last year at the ripe old age of 84. I hope her music will continue to be enjoyed and appreciated for many years to come.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ash Ra Tempel (1971)

If Jimi Hendrix had been a member of Tangerine Dream, the result would probably have sounded a lot like this. Ash Ra Tempel was one of the first and best bands to fall under the Krautrock label, and this album really shows what a powerhouse they were. Comprised of members Manuel Göttsching, Hartmut Enke and legendary synth pioneer Klaus Schulze, the band blasts through two side-long psychedelic juggernauts.

The first track, Amboss, is a high energy mind trip, with tons of absolutely face melting guitar from Göttsching. Schulze,interestingly enough considering his later career, started out as a drummer, and predominantly occupies that role here,although he does dabble with electronics a bit as well.. His drumming is, however, extremely energetic and effective.

The second half of the record, aptly titled Traummaschine (German for Dream Machine,) has a much different vibe. Here we are treated to twenty-five minutes of subdued, trippy synthesizers that float gently around the occasional splashes of guitar and drums, all very tastefully done. The track does eventually pick up some steam towards the end and the album finishes on a high note.

As a whole the album does a terrific job of maintaining a good balance between its frantic and mellow moods, never relying too heavily on one or the other. Göttsching is a greatly under appreciated rock guitarist with far more chops than most "normal" rock bands could claim.
Schulze is just as good on drums as he is behind a stack of synthesizers and the electronics (played by both Göttsching and Schulze) lend the perfect amount of atmospherics to this thoroughly psychedelic romp.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jim Haynes - Telegraphy By The Sea (2006)

It's difficult to find much information about Jim Haynes apart from the fact that he lives in San Fransisco and that he holds an odd fascination for rusty objects. Despite his relative anonymity, however, he has inconspicuously created an album of remarkable depth and creativity, one that should certainly be more widely heard.

The album consists of a single hour long track, created from a massive library of found sounds accumulated over a period of four years. Don't bother trying to pick out the source material, though. Haynes has processed everything beyond the point of recognition, though not without its retaining a nagging sense of familiarity.

The sounds on the record are mainly drone like, encompassing a wide variety of different textures. At times I am reminded of embers smoldering in a cast iron stove. Other sounds resemble machinery at work and rolling thunder. Listening to the album is a bit like twisting the dials of a car radio in the middle of nowhere, picking up strange sounding static and the occasional very faint signal, while always feeling you are about to stumble onto just the right frequency.

Whereas most ambient music works best as background noise and subconscious listening, "Telegraphy By The Sea" is the rare record that is actually difficult to ignore. It has the odd quality of commanding one's attention, like a speech that seems like it is about to turn profound, but never quite does.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Merzbow - Sphere (2005)

Merzbow, also known as Masami Akita, has dominated the market for Japanese noise music for decades. His discography spans hundreds of releases, many of which have obtained astronomically high prices due to their extremely limited editions, and the fanatical nature of some of his fans. Sphere is yet another example of why Merzbow has proved so persistantly successful in a genre that can be easily aped by anyone with a laptop.

While he has certainly turned out some hastily constructed trash in his day, here Merzbow is at the top of his game, somehow managing to find new and interesting ways of producing horrible noise even after all this time. The three part "Sphere" suite begins with acoustic, distinctly Asian sounding drums, which in itself is noteworthy, as the presence of any acoustic instruments in Merzbow's work is extremely rare. Of course, the feedback and distortion quickly emerges as the dominant sonic feature, but not without its share of twists and turns.

Part two is built around a slow, quiet, unobtrusive bass line that repeats, holding down a tempo even as it is slowly consumed by swirling static. The third section is the most overtly electronic, but even so there is a lot going on underneath the surface. Low pitched murmurings fade in and out, creating an atmosphere that is mysterious and slightly sinister. I can imagine some of this music as the soundtrack to a film noir movie... from the future.... made by robots.

The half hour "Untitled for Vesteras" closes the album, but despite its length it almost feels like a bonus track. I for one would have been perfectly satisfied whith the 38 minutes that comprise the "Sphere" suite, so the rest is really gravy. The track is typical of Merzbow's earlier, less subtle work, and is frankly anticlimactic, given that the rest of the album is so strong.

If you're new to noise music, this might be a good place to start, as it offers a broader pallette of sound and a more subdued approach than the work of other artists and indeed, many other albums by Merzbow himself.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Faust / Nurse With Wound - Disconnected (2007)

A collaboration thirty years in the making between two of the wildest and most influential acts to come out of the Krautrock scene. We all know and love Faust from their pioneering work in the 70's, experimenting with repetitive rhythms, electronic fuzz and warped pop music. Similarly, Steven Stapleton, the man behind Nurse With Wound, digested all the strangest music he could find and spat out a vast quantity of incomparable audio surrealism.

This release finds the two experimental juggernauts finally joining forces to create something that bridges the gap between their two respective styles. It's common on such joint ventures for one group to overpower the other and remain dominant throughout, while the other lurks passively in the background. Not so on Disconnected, which displays an equal measure of both Faust and Nurse With Wound's distinctive sounds. From the former, we hear the hypnotic repetition and off kilter guitar motifs that made their early records so memorable. From Stapleton, the electronic processing and incorporation of a wide variety of found sounds common to his releases.

The overall mood of the album is somewhat laid back and druggy, with a bit of a sinister vibe lurking beneath the surface. Nothing sounds tired or clichéd, despite the lengthy catalogue of both bands they manage to remain fresh. Nor does anything sound as shocking or revolutionary as one might expect from such an epic meeting of minds, but then again, what could?

A release with such high built-in expectations is practically bound to disappoint. The fact that this one doesn't says a great deal for the amount of talent involved.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Conlon Nancarrow - Player Piano 1 (2006)

Conlon Nancarrow was one of the strangest and most obsessive of the 20th century composers, and that's saying something. Wanting to write music in several different tempos at the same time, but finding no players capable of perforrming pieces of such complexity, he devoted almost his entire to career to composing works for the player piano.

Not only was the player piano precise enough to handle any combinations of tempos Nancarrow could throw at it, it could also play faster and was freed from the limitation of fingers, meaning that it could play dozens of notes simultaneously. Nancarrow spent years as a recluse in the mountains of Mexico, painstakingly punching thousands upon thousands of holes in piano rolls. Not surprisingly, the resulting music is insane.

The early studies on this collection are heavily influenced by jazz, as exemplified in study #3a (known as the "Boogie Woogie Suite") which sounds like Fats Waller in extreme fast motion.
As the disc progresses, the pieces get weirder, less jazzy, more atonal and more rhythmically chaotic. Nancarrow also betrays an admiration for Bach in his love of mathematical canons (although usually based on tempo instead of pitch.)

Despite being half a century old, these studies remain astonishingly unique, and if this disc leaves you hungry for more, never fear! It's only the first of three volumes!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Thighpaulsandra - Chamber Music (2005)

Having had the distinct pleasure of seeing him perform live, I think I can safely say that Thighpaulsandra is the 21st century's answer to Sun Ra. Dressed in costumes so crazy that I doubt even people from Saturn would wear them, and employing a vast array of vintage synthesizers, it was a performance I'll not soon forget.

Thighpaulsandra rose to prominence as a member of Coil in that band's later years, and having heard his solo work, it's easy to hear his contributions to most of their later releases.

The music on this release sounds improvised, eschewing to a large extent any traditional notions of melody, harmony, or structure, but in reality it was painstakingly composed and rehearsed. While the instrumentation is primarily synth oriented, there are a few odds and ends such as xylophone and French horn that creep in from time to time, as well as some somber recitations in the artist's distinctive Welsh voice.

Since there are no melodic or rhythmic motifs to grab on to, the listener is forced to focus on sound for it's own sake, and the sounds Thighpaulsandra gets out of his synth can only be described with one word: weird. Sometimes one can detect similarities to early Tangerine Dream (though without the space rock vibe), but for the most part this music inhabits a world all its own. Over the course of four lengthy tracks, "Chamber Music" traverses a variety of musical terrain from manic to pastoral, giving the disc as a whole a nice flow and a satisfying conclusion.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (1969)

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. This fire and brimstone psychedelic gem is a kaleidoscope of fire-centric imagery, demented howling from Brown and really great Hammond organ from Vincent Crane, who would later found his own band, Atomic Rooster. Miraculously, this album actually produced a #2 hit in England with the single "Fire."

The first half of the original vinyl iis dedicated to a nightmarish suite on the subject of Hell. Seriously wild stuff. Brown is the real deal, and was one of the first rock musicians to really incorporate performance art into his shows. He would dress up in crazy costumes, hold mock crucifixions, and generally act like a madman, anticipating Alice Cooper and his legions of imitators. It also helps that he posseses a voice unrivaled in both power and intensity.

Unffortunately, on the second half of the record the concept, as well as the songwriting falls apart. With the exception of a truly phenominal cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell on You," the remaining music is mostly lightweight silliness.

Despite its weaknesses as a whole, the first half of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is so strong that I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone, except perhaps those with mental problems, as this is certain only to aggravate them.

Aeolian String Ensemble - Eclipse (2005)

The Aeolian Harp is a stringed instrument which is hung outside and "played" by the wind blowing across
it, causing the strings to vibrate. It creates quite a beautiful and unusual sound, and was essentially the 19th century equivalent of windchimes, only with a much broader range of expression.

The Aeolian String Ensemble, as you might guess, uses a number of such instruments, together with a bit of electronic processing to create absolutely mesmerizing washes of slowly drifting sound.

Eclipse is the Ensemble's second full length effort, and collects two studio recordings (one new, one from 1981) and a live track recorded outside during an actual solar eclipse. Each of these three pieces average about 15 minutes long, and each has its own unique charms. My personal preference goes to the first track, entitled "Espacios", because of the way it sparkles as much as it gushes, but the entire disc is well worth hearing.

Whether you're interested in unusual period instruments, or whether you just enjoy a good ambient romp, I think you'll find "Eclipse" a rewarding listen.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

SPK - Leichenschrei (1982)

SPK were an Australian Industrial group that allegedly met each other while working at a mental asylum. I don't know whether this story is true, but the music on this album certainly doesn't hurt its case.

Consisting of a mishmash of metallic clanking, tape loops, disturbing spoken word stories, breaking glass and women screaming, Leichenschrei is the stuff of nightmares. The influence of such pioneers as Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle is heard throughout, although SPK clearly have a style all their own. There's never a dull moment, and I wouldn't hesitate to rate this up with Throbbing Gristle's D.O.A as one of the finest records of the genre.