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 clich├ęd, 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.