Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Klaus Schulze - Mirage (1977)

Good evening, music lovers! It's very cold out and there is ice coating all the roads, so I am effectively confined to my apartment until the next thaw (most likely tomorrow morning, but that doesn't sound as dramatic.) Bearing that in mind, I thought it would appropriate to write a review of one of the iciest albums I have, Mirage by Klaus Schulze.

To quickly recap, when we last left Schulze he was drumming for Ash Ra Tempel and working with Tangerine Dream on their first album. I guess the latter made an impression on him, because he has spent the rest of his career crafting intricate, long form electronic works that have a lot in common with TD. Mirage is no exception.

While I've only sampled a fraction of his massive discography, and everything I've heard so far has been good, this stands out as a high point for Schulze. It is subtitled "an electronic winter landscape" and it sure sounds it. I still can't figure out what the title "Mirage" and the horribly dtaed seventies cover art have to do with the music though. The album is divided into two sides, "Velvet Voyage" and "Crystal Lake," each running nearly a half hour. The are similar in structure, opening with chilly synth atmospherics drifting over slow and gloomy bass lines. After ten minutes or so of build up, Schulze busts out the sequencers and we are treated to a coldly beautiful rhythmic ostinato that devlops throughout the rest of the piece. While Schulze uses the same formula for both tracks, the melodies are distinct and they each have their own personality.

All of the sounds Schulze manages to tease from his synths are cold and distant sounding. There is none of the warmth or friendliness of something like "Autobahn." In places, the music is reminiscient of the best parts of "Phaedra" by Tangerine Dream, but Schulze has a longer attention span and is willing to stick with a single idea for a really long time to see what develops. On other albums, this tendency has at times proved somewhat tedious, but the material is strong enough here that it never gets old.

The 2005 reissue adds a an additional twenty minute bonus track, but it feels superfluous and does little except dillute the tightly focussed original album.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Kyle Bobby Dunn - Rural Route #2 (2010)

Last month Mr. Kyle Bobby Dunn was kind enough to send me a copy of his new EP, Rural Route #2, but I had the busiest November anyone has ever had, ever, so I am just now getting around to reviewing it. Apologies to Mr. Dunn.

After Dunn's last outing, a two disc compilation that contained nearly two hours of material, this EP feels quite short by comparison. There are two tracks, totaling just over twenty minutes of music. While this may sound disappointing to some, I hasten to comment that it is a very satisfying twenty minutes. Ambient music is a genre in which it can be quite difficult to distinguish oneself from the crowd. It's very easy to make bad ambient, but very hard to make something unique and personal. Either you go dark and sound like Lustmord or you go light and sound like Stars of the Lid. Dunn, however, has successfully managed to carve out some middle ground here, sounding like no one but himself.

The lovely thing about these two tracks is that they are spacious enough to allow the listener room to insert his own thoughts into the music. Many artists falter in trying to create a sonic landscape, and end up crowding out their audience. Here, on the other hand, one gets the impression of standing in a vast open plain. To the North is a city of glistening metal, curiously silent from this distance; to the South a mountain range stands shrouded in mist; to the East, sharp cliffs overlook a churning, overcast sea; to the West there is a forest of stately, antidiluvian pines. There rea landmarks to be sure, but we are allowed enough freedom to choose our own path. That is what makes a good ambient record.

Despite its brevity, I believe Rural Route #2 to be a vast improvement over his last release. Dunn seems to have really found his voice here, and I would recommend this record to anyone seeking knew vitality in a genre that easily becomes stale and repetitive.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sleep Chamber - Satanic Sanction (1988)

Sleep Chamber are an American industrial group that focuses on ritualistic and occult music. Whereas other industrial groups in the late eighties were moving increasingly in the direction of either danceable electronica or guitar-dominated heavy metal, Sleep Chamber stays true to the original and frightening vision of pioneers like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire.

The sounds on this record are those of haunted machines. Metallic clanking, droning atmospherics, repetitive rhythms and samples of sinister sounding voices. Everything I look for in industrial music! There are some strange scraping violin noises on "Ov This Flesh" as well, and I think the sampled vocal in the track entitled "Presence of the Magi" is that of the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley (later sampled by Fields of the Nephilim), but I can't be totally sure.

There is not a lot of variety of sound to be found here, with every track consisting mainly of murky, far away sounds of things that go bump in the night, but that's alright by me. The sound is very well crafted and the atmosphere it creates is one of exquisite spookiness. An excellent choice for Halloween. I only have the vinyl, but I understand that the CD reissue has an altered and considerably expanded tracklist, so that is nice.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble of Shadows - Dead Lover's Sarabande (Face Two) (1999)

Sopor Aeternus is the name under which German transsexual Anna Varney records, and the Ensemble of Shadows are the ghostly spirits that provide her with her inspiration. Yes sir, top 40 this ain't.. "Dead Lover's Sarabande" was released in two parts, the second being rather superior in my view. Both are worthy of notice if you're into this sort of thing though.

What is this sort of thing, you ask? Well, it's best decribed as very dark chamber music with vocals. The instrumentation consists of cellos, violins, trombones, french horns, vibraphone and a number of other orchestral instruments with only the barest smatterings of acoustic guitar, but played in a classical fashion. The style is that of the most mournful of classical requiems, and Varney's vocals croak along in German, rarely varying from a near sob (except for the occasional nightmarish shriek.)

This is melodrama at a level you're unlikely to encounter anywhere else, and at times the overwrought emotion approaches the comical, but most of the time it's just spooky and unnerving. The first track is, appropriately enough, a cover of the Nico song "Abschied," so Varney's influences are pretty clear. Other songs like "The Dog Burial" are very unsettling indeed, with lurching rhythms, twisted melodies and demonic vocals. Elsewhere, the proceedings step back from the edge of terror, content to be merely depressing, such as the English-sung "No One Is There." The lyrics are not any more cheery than you would expect from the title. There are, however, a handful of more upbeat moments, such as in the masterfully developed "Procession / Funeral March." This is an all instrumental number that takes a simple melody and elaborates on it over the course of its seven minutes. It's quite captivating, and the rhythm is propulsive (although the style is no less dark than anything else here, really.)

Both volumes of the "Dead Lover's Sarabande" are ideal for Halloween parties and Vampire: The Masquerade sessions. It's hard to get any more Goth than this, but the music is undeiably beautiful in its tragedy and there's nothing else quite like it for complimenting a melancholy mood. I believe this disc (along with several other Sopor Aeternus albums) was recently reissued, so anyone wanting to pick up a copy should be in luck.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Nico - The Marble Index (1969)

Happy October everybody! It's my favorite month and my favorite holiday, Halloween, is just around the corner. Consequently, I'm going to dedicate this month to reviewing "scary" music, so maybe you'll get some ideas for a nifty Halloween playlist.

Nico is, of course, mostly known for her vocal contributions to the first Velvet Underground album, but few people kept track of her after she left the band. Her first solo album was a pleasant, but hardly groundbreaking affair, filled with folky songs by Lou Reed and Jackson Browne, as well as a forgotten Bob Dylan gem. It's a good record, but in no way prepared listeners for what was to come.

On "The Marble Index" Nico started writing her own songs. She hired John Cale to produce and went into the studio armed only with her own voice and an old harmonium she had somehow acquired. The result was a set of terrifyingly bleak, avant garde pieces comprised mainly of the drone of her voice, the drone of her harmonium and the drone of Cale's viola. It's hard to understand the inspiration for such a strange transition. The style of the music here seems to come out of nowhere, and it really sounds like nothing else. Maybe if you had been in Germany's Black Forest in the twelfth century, you might have heard some Grimm's fairy tale witches chanting something like this, but apart from that I'm at a loss.

Elements of medieval music are certainly present, and I have long contended that "The Marble Index" is the first Goth record. From the funereal quality of the music to Nico's perpetually blonde hair being dyed black for the cover, I'm sure that legions of depressed, black clad, clove cigarette smoking teenagers were deeply inspired by this. Unfortunately, most of the music they would end up churning out pales in comparison to the original.

Cale's production is worthy of mention. He's smart enough not to try to polish up the raw edges of these songs too much, letting his avant garde credentials take over and stepping in only to add some gloomy piano and percussion effects. The overall quality of the sound is somewhat murky and muted, and this indistinctness add to to the mysterious, frightening atmosphere. I dare anyone to listen to "Facing the Wind" in the dark and not get the chills.

Nico's next album, "Desertshore" is just as good, but she was never again as raw and confrontational as she is here. This is a stunningly original record and although it's not the most accessible album ever, in my view every music lover owes it to themselves to check it out.

Friday, September 24, 2010

You've Got Foetus On Your Breath - Ache (1982)

Jim Thirlwell is native Australian (now living in New York) who has recorded under many different names over the years: You've Got Foetus On Your Breath, Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel, Foetus Inc., Foetus Interruptus, and most recently, just plain old Foetus. In case these rather eccentric choices don't clue you in, the music (and possibly the man behind it) is nuts. This is the second full length Foetus album, and while there are many other great examples of this man's music, I'm rather fond of this one.

Thirlwell is nothing if not controversial. The red, white and black Soviet/Fascist inspired cover art would be a theme throughout much of his career, and it's as provocative as it is visually compelling. The music is no less confrontational, although there is a pronounced sense of fun that is largely absent from the industrial music of his contemporaries. And while we're on the subject, Foetus has longed been lumped into the industrial category because of his abrasive use of synthesizers and drum machines and the DIY, punk-like spirit of his music, but in truth the sound varies so much that any real attempt to pigeonhole it is futile. I stick with the industrial label for reasons of convention.

So what does it sound like? It's actually kind of difficult to say. Thirlwell employs a huge variety of sounds on his records. Cheap Casio synths and low rent drum machines dominate, peppered with horns, bass, the occasional sample and most important Thirlwell's hyperactive, paranoid voice alternately yelping and growling. The keyboards are commuonly microtuned just a hair away from standard tuning to add to the audience's discomfort. The pace is almost uniformly frantic and it will surely get your heart pumping faster, but Thirlwell steers clear of repetitive techno-like loops in favor of jittery, ever shifting rhythms and busy arrangements. If this sounds unpleasant, it's because I haven't yet mentioned Thirlwell's gift for catchy hooks. The songs are surprisingly infectious, and a ton of fun if you're in the mood.

Stylistically, the record (like all Foetus records) is all over the map. From the film noir atmospherics of "J. Q. Murder" to the intentionally obnoxious repetition of "Get Out Of My House" to the inexplicable fixation on the theme from "Rawhide" that shows up halfway through the album and refuses to go away, you never know quite what to expect. The highlight for me is tha album's final track, "Instead, I Became Anenome." It's such a bizarre, yet fun tune and the lyrics are exceptional.

Lyrics have always been an important part of the Foetus sound. Thirlwell excells at clever wordplay, punning and free association rhymes that come out of nowhere. Made up words like "antihistorectomy" are common as well.

So while not for the faint of heart, Foetus offers a guaranteed wild ride that, if it doesn't excite you, will at least annoy your neighbors.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Bill Nelson - Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam (1981)

Bill Nelson rose to prominence in the seventies as the frontman for the British glam rock outfit Be Bop Deluxe, an excellent band in its own right that gets all too little recognition these days. After a five album run however, Nelson tired of the limits of guitar heroism and conventional rock structures. He dissolved the group and set out on his own to make music his own way.

Nelson's songwriting with Be Bop Deluxe was always quirky, but in the privacy of his home studio he quickly became much more experimental. "Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam" is his second proper full length as a solo artist (his first if you discount the previous record, technically released under the Red Noise moniker) and the sound is radically different from his earlier efforts. Nelson has fully embraced the aesthetic of post punk and new wave, while still managing to sound unique and experimental.

The songs are notable for their catchiness and their lack of guitar pyrotechnics. With Be Bop Deluxe, Nelson's guitar wizardry was the centerpiece of many a tune. Not so here, where he prefers to tinker with synthesizers and twiddle knobs as a producer/engineer. It is as a producer that he really shines, crafting dense, complex arrangements for his tunes that make for a more demanding listening experience than ordinary rock production.

Nelson's performance style has also changed a bit. He has a fondness for angular melodies that can come acoross as abrasive and his singing eschews the conventional in favor of the kind of frantic yelping often associated with new wave bands such as Talking Heads. Certain tracks are reminiscient of Berlin-era David Bowie, where others offer slightly skewed, yet charged up rock and could have been hit singles.

Bill Nelson's work as a solo artist has been all but ignored for thee decades now, despite dozens of fascinating releases. "Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam" is not the most wildly experiemental of these, but it is one of the earliest and paints a fascinating picture of the artist finding his way past the limits of a traditional rock band. The CD reissue contains seven bonus tracks culled from EPs and singles of the same era.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Eloy - Floating (1974)

Eloy are a German band that played psychedelic rock in a somewhat British vein, steering largely away from the free form improvisational nature of their Krautrock contemporaries, instead drawing inspiration from bands like Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. "Floating" is their third LP, and the first on which they really refined their sound as a band.

Eloy's later career would be dominated by concept albums with a somewhat gentle space rock vibe. There is no concept here, nor is there any gentleness to speak of. This is hard psych to be sure. Hammond organs scream through walls of distortion and the guitars are turned up to eleven. The third difference between this and later Eloy releases is the marked absence of synthesizers, further emphasizing the heaviness of the record.

The album consists of five somewhat lengthy tracks, with the centerpiece being the fourteen minute "The Light From Deep Darkness," a splendid prog rock track that contains numerous tempo changes, catchy melodies, great solos and a wide variety of moods. On this song, as well as on the rest of the album, wah pedals and other watery guitar effects add to the trippy nature of the music, living up nicely to the title "Floating." The vocals are not terribly strong, but they are infrequent, mixed low and take a backseat to the music anyway.

The instrumentalists are all very proficient and at the top of their game. I particularly enjoy the way the guitar, bass and organ trade lines and play off one another, often in quite complex ways. Although most of the songs rely on one or two (mostly awesome) riffs that are repeated over several minutes, the band manages to keep it interesting by changing instrumentation, mixing up the rhythm section and overlaying countermelodies in the form of solos.

Anyone who has an interest in the heavier side of psychedelic rock should give this album a spin. With its combination of superior musicianship, trippy textures and a talent for coming up with memorable melodies it is a great find in a genre that is sometimes overwhelming and difficult to navigate.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Terry Riley - Shri Camel (1980)

The New York Minimalist scene is often summed up in the trifecta of three popular composers, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Of the three, Riley has arguably been the most overtly experimental in his compositions, with groundbreaking pieces like "In C" and his pioneering use of tape delays to create overdubs in live performances. His music also tends to contain an element of spirituality, and like the old hippy that he is, he has not neglected the world of Eastern mysticism.

Shri Camel is Riley's exploration of the techniques he learned from years of studying Indian ragas. Indeed, his music has often been lauded as ideal for use in meditation. However, he has incorporated these techniques into his own style of composition and the music does not, in itself, sound particularly Indian. There are no sitars or tablas present, yet the complexity and form of the raga is present throughout and the pieces are at times extremely involved, with up to sixteen lines of counterpoint happening at once.

The album consists of four lengthy pieces, each performed live in the studio by Riley on a Yamaha organ, resulting in a musical palette that is somewhat monochromatic. Riley uses a similar technique to that which Brian Eno and Robert Fripp put to great use in the seventies, looping his performance and adding parts on top of it in real time. If done recklessly, this can result in aural chaos that is impossibly to make sense of, but Riley has been practicing the method for decades and takes care to maintain transparency across the various lines. He also differentiates the parts by changing the settings on his organ, altering timbres and percussiveness so that the listener can distinguish his phrasing. This gives the music more depth and color, wile still maintaining a unity of sound across all four pieces.

The other unique aspect of Shri Camel is the fact that Riley has tuned his instrument using the "Just Intonation" system which, in contrast to the equal temperament tuning used in 99.9% of Western Music, follows more closely the physical overtone series found in nature. The difference, in terms of sound, is that "Just Intonation" sounds slightly alien to the practiced ears of a modern Westerner. It strikes us as ever so slightly "off." This can be disconcerting at first, but once you are able to let go of your preconceived notions about tuning and appreciate sound for sound's sake, it comes as a welcome relief from the sameness of the music we hear every day.

Shri Camel is a wonderful example of what Riley does best, and while it may prove difficult listening to the average person due to its unusual tuning system and reliance on a single keyboard instrument for its entire duration, it will reward those with patience by providing them with a gentle beauty not eaily found in the music of today.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Skinny Puppy - Bites (1985)

In this reviewer's opinion, Canadian industrial pioneers Skinny Puppy never improved upon their debut album, "Bites." The earliest bands in the genre took a wildly innovative, nihilistic approach to music, tearing down traditional structures and replacing them with harsh electronics and metallic banging sounds. Skinny Puppy gladly accepts the contributions of their predecessors, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten, but reign in some of the chaos by adding a level of sophisticated artistry to their compositions. That's not to say that the music is by any means bland, however. On the contrary, "Bites" is a record that is at times chilling and even terrifying, but it terrifies with a kind of suave grace.

Throughout the first few songs frontman Nivek Ogre growls and shrieks his way through sheets of distorted keyboards and pounding drum machines. The songs are mostly danceable and believe it or not there are actually a few catchy tunes, most notably on the album opener "Assimilate." However, as the album progresses things start to get stranger and stranger. Not content to be merely fodder for goth club dance floors, the band engages in a heavy amount of experimentation. Strange little oddities start to crop up, beginning with the minimalist "Church in Hell," which is essentially just a repeated vocal sample with a gradually building backdrop of industrial noise. I should pause for a moment and mention that samples (mainly from obscure horror movies) are a huge part of Skinny Puppies sound, and they were one of the first bands to utilize them so heavily. It gives the album a very unique sound and was hugely influential on basically every electronica act ever.

Things continue to get weirder as the number of actual songs drops off and we are treated to more impressionistic miniatures built around atmospherics and movie samples. The two tracks "Film" and "Love" exemplify this short form experimentation perfectly, the latter opening with what sounds like a record being played backwards with a skip in the sound.

The original LP of "Bites" was only eight tracks long. Fortunately for us, the CD version contains more than twice that number, including some of the band's most interesting moments. At the end of the CD, the two tracks "The Centre Bullet" and "One Day" drone on in an almost pastoral vein for a good thirteen minutes. The music is calm and repetitive, but slightly unsettling, like a lullabye designed to produce nightmares. It's the most sedate you're ever likely to find Skinny Puppy, and one of my favorite parts of the record. In fact, it's hard for me to believe this wasn't the original tracklisting, because it works so perfectly as a way to wind down this fascinating album.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jonathan Coleclough - Period (2002)

Another fine ambient record from the UK experimental scene, this time relying solely on the sounds of Bluthner grand piano for its source material. I am always intrigued by albums which severely restrict their sonic palette, and the piano is my favorite instrument, so I picked this up on a whim.

The bulk of the album is the fifty minute title track, rounded out by a remix done by increasingly prominent engineer, Colin Potter. The result is something like Harold Budd in slow motion. I know what you're thinking: "But Harold Budd is already really slow!" Yes, that's true, but this is even slower. Don't go looking for any melodies or harmonic progressions. This is sound for sound's sake (try saying that five times fast.)

In fact, it's more like a drone record with occasional punctuation provided by the piano keys. The resonance of the piano is remarkable, and if you turn up the volume (which I recommend you do) you can hear the subtle interactions of the sustained tones as their frequencies rub up against one another. The low notes are particularly dramatic in this regard, made more so by their relative rarity. Coleclough seems to prefer the tinkly upper register in general, perhaps because too many low notes would overly muddy the sound. Sixteen minutes in, Coleclough gets boreed and fades everything out, choosing to start over, with different note combinations. This results in a slightly different drone texture, somewhat lower and richer than the first.

While this piano drone is pleasant, it's not really the most engaging ambient record I've heard. The point is well made about twenty minutes in and there's not enough evolution or variety to warrant the additional half hour. However, it's worth it for Colin Potter's remix, in which he edits out the piano attacks, leaving a much more ethereal (and of a more appropriate length) web of shifting tones. The fact that you can no longer identify the piano as the sound source makes the remix a far more interesting listen.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Current 93 - Crooked Crosses for the Nodding God (1989)

Sorry for the lack of updates. July has been a crazy a month. I will try to get back on the ball in August!, but for now enjoy this Current 93 review.

Current 93 is the name former Psychic TV member and all around weird guy David Tibet records under, assisted by whatever motley crew of UK underground musicians he can manage to round up that week, the most frequent of whom is Stephen Stapleton, of Nurse With Wound. This dark partnership has resulted in many many fine albums, since both men are notoriously prolific and seem to have more than enough creativity to spill over onto guest appearances on other albums.

Crooked Crosses for the Nodding God is one such album in which Stapleton's presence in particularly felt. The whole thing is basically a remix/reworking of the 1987 album "Swastikas for Noddy" with some fresh recordings thrown in to liven the proceedings. The result is one of Current 93's most engaging records, that nicely bridges the gap between the band's violent, industrial past and its present tendency towrards overly gentle folk meanderings. Tibet rambles on about his Gnostic faith enough to be interesting, but there also room for his other interests such as the sheer hoorrific creepiness of children's nursery rhymes and ven a couple of cover tunes.

Tibet's voice is very unusual and his alternations between overly melodramatic whining (sometimes approaching outright crying) and gutteral growls take some getting used to, but if nothing else it's unique. Never fear though, there are a number of guest vocalists to round out the album, including John Balance (Coil) Rose MacDowell (Strawberry Switchblade) and the obligatory incomprehensible babbling of Boyd Rice (NON).

The tracks are mainly short and run the gamut of sounds from straight recitations with sound effects ("He Is Everywhere Nowhere") to traditional folk tunes with a sinister edge ("Oh Thou Coal Black Smith") to industrial stomp-rock ("Looney Runes") to nightmare inducing pastiches of music boxes and children singsonging lyrics about evil things that lurk in dark heart of the woods. There's even a Blue Öyster Cult (????) cover shoved in there!

For me, this is the Current 93 record that has everything: Beautiful melodies, religious themes, Halloween spookiness and most importantly a sense of surreal fun. Tibet has a tendency to be a rather serious chap, and it's a rare moment whn he seems to be able to laugh at himself. Stapleton's sense of whimsy combined with Tibet's vision make Crooked Crosses a must have addition to any Current 93 collection.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Andrew Liles - Black Hole: Forming Part Two of the Vortex Vault (2007)

In 2007, British sound artist Andrew Liles rummaged through his collection of home recordings and decided to release all of them in a twelve disc set, with one album coming out each month for a year. Like a fool, I only acquired seven of these wonderful recordings before the extremely limited editions all sold out. In any case, I intend to review all the ones I have (not right in a row, don't worry) because they are all worth listening to for any fans of strange music.

The amazing thing about these discs is the sheer variety of sounds to be found on them. Culled as they were from years of experimentation, it shouldn't be surprising that these tracks have a lot of different things going on, but the fact that Liles can be so diverse and yet somehow retain a consistent sound and create a coherent album (actually, twelve coherent albums) is amazing. This volume consists of primarily short tracks with the longest coming in at just under six minutes. Liles is fond of minimal ostinatos and a number of songs feature little more than a repeated, invariably haunting melody. Vocal samples are used to great effect, particularly on my favorite track on the record "Hello, Pharaoh."

"Hello, Pharaoh" consists primarily of a woman singing the title in a sort of night-club jazz style, with a backdrop of crackling vinyl and brooding harmonium. The atmosphere created by this simple combination is breathtaking, even though it lasts a scant two and a half minutes. Elsewhere, ambient drones and dark rumblings take center stage. Actually this particular volume is a lot more ambient than some of the others, but of course that isn't a bad thing. There's some spooky lounge inspired vibraphone ("Sequential Dreaming") and glitch-like electronics that are meant to imitate a dentists tools ("Root Canal") and of course what record would be complete without samples of elephants trumpeting, african druming and tribal chanting ("Without Anaesthesia")?

As we all know, I like my music sublimely weird, and while not everything here fits that description, the series as a whole has so many wonderful oddities and non-sequiturs that it has become one of my favorites.

Kyle Bobby Dunn - A Young Persons Guide To... (2010)

Kyle Bobby Dunn is a Brooklyn based sound artist who enjoys creating long, minimal pieces of atmospheric ambient music. "A Young Person's Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn" is his most large scale release to date, a sprawling set of tracks that unfold over two discs and runs for almost two hours. Listening to such lengthy works in their entirety is usually a daunting task, placing large demands on the listener's patience and attention span, but in this case the music is such that it can function as a pleasant backdrop just as easily as an active listening experience.

So what does the music sound like? Well, it actually sounds a lot like Stars of the Lid. Warm droning textures fade in and out over the course of the lengthy tracks, evoking tranquil thoughts of far away places where there are no deadlines and nothing to worry about. Dunn seems to have embraced Eric Satie's concept of furniture music, and his compositions sit nicely in the corners of any room, unobtrusively coloring the atmosphere in shades of beige.

There is little variation in sound across the album's running time, although a few splashes of restrained piano, tasteful electronic swirls, and some field recordings of animals and water make for some nice flavor here and there. The one spot where the sense of profound calm is disturbed lies at the end of the second track "The Tributary (For Voices Lost)," which concludes with a deep, deep bass rumble that may shake the teeth right out of your head (or at least blow out your speakers.) The album confusingly ends with a human voice persistantly asking "Looking at yourself?" to which another voice confidently replies "Yeah."

Overall, this is a record that will appeal to those of you who feel that modern ambient has become far too "busy" and would like to see a return to the Brian Eno-Harold Budd roots of the genre. The sounds are very soothing and enjoyable, and the length is such that by the end of it you will almost certainly be lulled into a relaxed state of inner peace. Certainly one of the more meditative records I've come across in recent years.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

COH - Above Air (2006)

COH is the work of the Russian soundsmith, Ivan Pavlov. The band name is actually written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is pronounced "sohn" and means "sleep." The resemblance to the English letters C, O and H is purely coincidental.

Now that we've got that cleared up, on to the music. This is an album of all electronic pieces with a common theme of airiness. While airiness may seem like a hard concept to get across, musically, Pavlov is very succssful in the implementation of his plan by using a rather restricted pallette of sound. The synths are mostly high pitched and somewhat thin, with bell like tones playing a prominent role. There is a bit of a hissing quality to many of the tracks, sounding like a jet engine might if it could only relax and turn down the volume. Some of the tracks are rather rhythmic (although nothing a sane person would dance to) and others are more free flowing and open ended. There are also elements of glitch present, such as minor clicks that sound a little like a CD skipping, and at times the music reminds me a lot of Coil's work as ELpH, which is appropriate as this release was dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased John Balance.

The overall tone of the album is very subdued and open, at times bordering on ambient. It's easy to imagine oneself drifting through the stratosphere, alone and peaceful, with only the sounds of moving air and occassional faint radio signals passing through your ears. The unity of sound that Pavlov has achieved, while still maintaining nine aurally distinct tracks is impressive. Usually albums of this sort are either overly monotonous or else they abandon their concept in search of a more varied sound. That Pavlov deftly avoids these traps and delivers a rich and satisfying listening experience is a tribute to his creativity and to his skills as an electronic musician.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

H. P. Lovecraft - H. P. Lovecraft (1967) / H. P. Lovecraft II (1968)

When most people think about psychedelic rock from the sixties, it's a pretty good bet that H. P. Lovecraft is not one of the first names they come up with. Despite having a relatively successful couple of years, and two pretty solid albums, the band has largely been forgotten in the annals of rock history. That's a shame because, although their records don't exactly qualify as lost masterpieces, there is a lot to enjoy in their music. Luckily, those of us who wish to seek it out, can pick up this two-fer (can you tell I like these?) containing both of their studio records and a couple of singles.

The style of the band is basically psychedelic folk, but with a more complex instrumental palette than other similar groups. Rather than the standard folk dominated by acoustic guitars, H. P. Lovecraft employ many orchestral instruments as well as organ, piano and harpsichord. The sound is, however, not nearly so dark as their name implies. In fact many of the songs are (unfortunately) rather standard interpretations of popular folk songs. I find these a bit tedious, and the insipid peace-and-love lyrics of these hippies drives me nuts, but that's not the whole story.

Where the band really shine is on their original compositions, most notably the six and a half minute "The White Ship." The atmosphere of this track is one of mystical gloom, with french horns and ships bells droning on somberly. It's a really nice mood piece and the vocal harmonies are quite lovely. There's also an a capella rendition of the Gloria Patria prayer at the ned of the album which is pretty cool. Finally, the faux-twenties pastiche "Time Machine" is usually derided, but I find it quite fun, although strangely out of place on the record.

Thankfully, the second album shows the band in a more adventurous mood. After wading through a bit of folk nonsense at the beginning, we are treated to some real psychedelia. "Ellectrolentando," "At The Mountains of Madness," and "Mobius Trip" deliver a three-in-a-row punch of trippy atmospherics and gloomy dirges. There's also a forty second sound collage/recitation called "Nothing's Boy" that reminds me a lot of "In The Beginning" from the Moody Blues' "On The Threshold of a Dream." Actually, this group could be compared to the Moodies in a lot of ways, now that I think of it.

Folk is not a style of music that it is very easy for me to enjoy, and I find a lot of it dated and silly. Nethertheless, H. P. Lovecraft's expansion of the genre with inventive arrangements and progressive song structures is worth hearing, whether you are a fan of the genre or simply interested in the hostory of Psychedelia and Progresive rock.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Martin Denny - Exotica (1957) / Exotica II (1958)

Judge me if you must, but I make no secret of the fact that I love Exotica. In fact I can't get enough of it. It is a genre lost in time, existing for about a decade and then vanishing entirely forever (Okay, there was a brief revival in the 90's led by the band Combustible Edison, but honestly who remembers Combustible Edison?)

Martin Denny didn't invent Exotica. - that honor belongs to the great Les Baxter - but he gave it a name and brought it into its own as a full fledged style. For anyone who is unfamiliar with this style, it basically consists of incorporating world music motifs and instruments into Hollywood style lounge music in the shallowest way possible. Anyone interested in actual world music traditions should turn back now, because that's not what you're getting here. However, as offensive as this concept is to most music aficionados, it's hard to deny that the result has a charm all of its own and that has not been often duplicated.

The first of Denny's Exotica albums was born after some members of his band discovered they could imitate bird calls while playing their instruments (it should here be noted that the most prolific of these bird callers was Arthur Lyman, who would later go on to great success as an Exotica performer in his own right.) There's hardly a track here that doesn't feature some inventive whistling and chirping. Add to that the gentle rhythms and atmospheric percussion and you've got a bona fide lounge classic.

Denny's focus is generally on sounds from the South Pacific and Asia, but throughout his career he would also incorporate idioms from Africa, South America and pretty much anywhere else American audiences would find "Exotic." The CD reissue collects his first two albums onto one disc. It's nice to have the extra material, but there's no apparent change in style or direction across the two records. If you enjoy one, you will certainly enjoy the other. And if you enjoy relaxing with a tropical drink, it's hard to imagine a better soundtrack.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Residents - Meet The Residents (1974)

And so with the childish vandalism of a classic Beatles album cover, the world was introduced to the one of the strangest musical acts in history. The amazing thing about the Residents is that after more than thirty years of performing and recording, almost nothing is known about them. They have stubbornly maintained their anonymity, no one knows their names and they consistently perform disguised in large eyeball masks. The sleeve notes tell a long and rambling story about the band's formation that I'm sure is utter nonsense.

There have been many great Residents albums over the years, but this, their debut, remains my favorite. After a few albums they would start relying heavily on synthesizers, which I always felt made their music seem cheaper and less authentic. Not so here, with the inexpert pounding of out of tune pianos, squawking horns and various non-musical sound effects dominating the proceedings.

The album almost plays like one extended song, drifting from one idea to the next with no sense of direction or purpose. The lyrics are generally of the absurdist variety and in all probability have no meaning whatsoever (song titles like "Smelly Tongues" and "Spotted Pinto Bean" should make that clear enough) and are sung alternately by women who sound like they know what they're doing and men who don't.

Non sequiturs abound and just when you think the band is trying to be taken seriously (the oddly beautiful "Rest Aria") they put on a record of the sixties classic "Nobody But Me" (by the Human Beinz) and start singing along in a silly voice. Worth special mention is the abbreviated cover version of "These Boots are Made For Walking" that begins the record. I wonder what Nancy Sinatra would think.

At the end of the day, it's a record that is so stupid, so amateurish and so unlike anything else you've ever heard that it's hard not to love it. It's rare that I make it through a whole listening without laughing out loud. While the Residents had more conceptual success with albums like "Eskimo" and "Third Reich 'N' Roll," they never seemed to be having quite as much fun as they did on their first album.

Monday, May 10, 2010

23 Skidoo - The Culling Is Coming (1983)

23 Skidoo's first album, "Seven Songs," is often cited as a major milestone in the field of industrial music, with its groundbreaking incorporation of funk motifs into the harsh electronic sound of industrial. With their second LP, "The Culling Is Coming," the band went in a completely different and unexpected direction, alienating almost all of their fans in the process. Good for them.

This album is divided into two very different halves, the order of which has been reversed from the original release for reasons that remain obscure. The first part of the CD (side B of the LP), subtitled "A Winter Ritual," consists of the band banging cheerfully away on Indonesian Gamelan instruments. It does not sound like Gamelan music, however, as none of the musicians really knows how to play these exotic instruments. The result is simple, ritualistic, repetitive and thoroughly hypnotic. I'll admit it took me a few listens to get into this, as it sounds completely different than pretty much everything else out there, but once you open up to it, it's really quite beautiful.

The second half of the CD (side A of the LP) is subtitled "A Summer Rite" and is of a completely different character. Recorded live, the music here is even less approachable than the preceeding tracks. It is noisy and consists largely of tape loops, electronic feedback and crude metallic banging. If you can get past the low fidelity recording, there's some pretty interesting stuff going on. After all, this is what industrial music is all about, right? The CD adds a twenty-seven minute bonus track (subtitled "An Autumn Journey") that is similar to the rest of the live material, but it features David Tibet of Current 93 fame on "Tibetan Horn" so that is pretty cool.

As dense and difficult as this album is, you have to give 23 Skidoo credit for bucking people's expectations and going out on a limb. Besides, most of the music is quite good, it just takes some getting used to.

Friday, May 7, 2010

La Dusseldorf - La Dusseldorf (1976)

Most people who have heard the term "Krautrock" are familiar with one of that genre's most celebrated bands "Neu!" What those people don't know is that when Neu! dissolved after three incredible albums, drummer Klaus Dinger started a new band called "La Dusseldorf." This is their first effort, and it's a mighty impressive one.

From the first few seconds, the Neu! influence is obvious, but here the sound is a little more polished. There is a substantial keyboard presence that gives the production a shiny gloss that sometimes borders on psychedelic, but the chugging drum and guitar parts maintain the same rhythmic feel of the band's predecessor. The album cosists of four rather lengthy tracks, but the first two are really seperate parts of the same idea, a title suite ode to the band's namesake city.

The music is minimal, repetitive and hypnotic, invoking feelings of driving along very long, very straight roads. The vocals arelargely limited to the chanting of song titles, although the last track "Time" contains a large numbers of somewhat clever German puns, a treat for the bilingual listener.

Whereas Dinger had been primarily a drummer, here he switches to guitar, feeling that he had accomplished all he could from behind the drum kit. To be honest, this switch isn't terribly obvious, as the drumming retains a very "Dingeresque" feel.

La Dusseldorf is an excellent Krautrock record, and while it lacks the adventurous experimentation of Neu!, it makes up for it in polish and accessibility. This is certainly a must have for those who heard the first Neu! album and liked "Hallogallo" better than "Negitivland."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Flat Earth Society - Isms (2004)

Flat Earth Society are a Belgian band that play progressive big band music. This is their first American release, a compilation of their earlier work issued on Mike Patton's Ipecac label, so it's got some credibility right there.

Now I know what your thinking: "What the heck is progressive big band music?" Well imagine a forties big band that has grown sick and tired of playing pop standards and dance tunes and instead decides to focus on something completely different, which in this case means almost anything but what you'd expect. The tracks on this record run the gamut from sleazy spy movie soundtrack to atonal walls of horns to slow motion New Orleans funeral jazz, to marching band music from Hell. If it sounds chaotic, that's because it is, although the band is very tight considering its rather cumbersome size.

As with most compilations, this one feels a bit disjointed. The tracks are mostly quite short (seven of them are less than a minute in length), and so many styles of music are represented that it has a tendency to sound schizophrenic, although this may have been the band's intent. Personally, I prefer the low key pieces that sound like they belong in a ham-fisted film noir flick best, and while some of the free jazz caterwauling can be fun, it becomes tedious after a while. One particular track that stands out as a highlight is "(Little) King Ink," a Louis Armstrong cover that breaks the pattern of short pieces, clocking in at eight and a half minutes. This is also one of the only tracks that features a vocalist, and the singer's gravely, Belgian-accented delivery is unique and exciting.

It's nice to see someone bringing big band music into the 21st century. It's a style that has too long been out of fashion, and a group of Flat Earth Society's creativity is certainly a good choice to lead the way. In any case, fans of slightly adventurous jazz will find much to appreciate here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Hafler Trio/Colin Potter/Andrew Liles - Three Eggs (2006)

This collaboration between three of modern experimental music's finest minds is without a doubt one of the finest ambient outings I have ever heard. The individuality, creativity and atmospheric nature of the music herein is truly an achievement, especially considering the rather limiting requirements of ambient music in general.

The Hafler Trio is the work of Andrew McKenzie, who has produced consistently high quality music for nearly three decades. Andrew Liles is a sound artist who has collaborated with all the greats included remixes of Current 93's classic albums, and Colin Potter is an engineer and the only regular Nurse With Wound member besides Steven Stapleton. This album was planned to be part of a tour featuring these three artists, but the tour nver materialized and we are left only with this all too brief record as an artifact.

The influence of all three artists is present, but the music probably most resembles the solo work of the Hafler Trio. The tone is generally frigid, with high pitched drones conjuring up images of desolate tundra and polar winds. Various electronic blips and fluttering noises punctuate the sound scape, and although most of the tracks are fairly similar it is a testament to the skill of the musicians that there remains enough variety to hold one's interest from start to finish. About halfway through the record, the music fades out almost completely leaving a long patch of near silence. Oddly, this actually works well as part of the composition, and at first you may not even notice that the music has diminished to sub-audible levels. What follows proves that the group is not without a sense of humor. After nearly ten minutes of extremely quiet sound, we are given a wake up call with a single, loud metallic bang. Woe unto anyone who turned their speakers way up during the quiet bits. Their ears are probably still ringing.

The album closes with "Exclusivity on an Aquatic Theme," a track which lives up to its name built, as it is, around some finely textured gurgling sounds. It's arguably the best track on here, and certainly a good note to end on. 3 Eggs was released in a minimal (though lovely) paper sleeve in a limited edition of 1000 copies. If you can manage to track down a copy, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Stars of the Lid - The Ballasted Orchestra (1997)

Ambient music usually comes in a small handful of different flavors. There's Brian Eno's trademark brand of detached melancholy, the sinister brooding and horror movie aesthetic of the Dark Ambient scene, and the hippy-dippy peace and love new age dreck not worth the plastic it's pressed on. Stars of the Lid fits into none of these categories. In fact, this is the first genuinely warm sounding ambient record I have heard.

It's hard to imagine getting much emotional content out of a record that is essentially forty minutes of drones, but right from the get go it is obvious that this is American music (the band hails from Texas.) When I listen to these tracks, I can't help but picture the vast deserts of the western United States complete with their serene majesty and inhospitable climate. There's even a hint of the Spaghetti Western thrown in, at least to my ears. Of course track titles like "Central Texas" and "Sun Drugs" don't hurt, either.

As I said, the music is drone oriented, but it feels very organic and not at all electronic. I'm unsure of the exact source material, but I'm pretty confident that guitars play a large part of it. The minimal sleeve notes indicate that the entire album was recorded on a 4-track, which is impressive in itself. Not knowing any better, I would have assumed that a lot of computer processing was involved.

I would recommend Stars of the Lid highly to those interested in ambient music that sounds a little different. I put this album on when I'm in the mood to relax, and I find the lush, warm textures comforting in a way that is lacking from much of the other music in the genre. As a final note, I would like to mention that near the end of the album there is a 20 minute piece in two parts called "Music for Twin Peaks Episode 30." For those who don't know, the amazing David Lynch TV series, Twin Peaks, was canceled after only 29 episodes, leaving many fans very unsatisfied with the abrupt ending. I'm not sure what the music here has to do with that (it's not noticeably different from anything else on the album) but it's a nice thought nonetheless.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

William Albright - Piano Rags (2002)

Classical music in the twentieth century - while boldly experimental, forward looking and original - has the disadvantage of being a largely humorless and unaccessible genre. Concert goers abandoned the symphony halls in droves, turning to jazz halls and rock venues for some respite from the tedium of serialism and aleatoric music that offered little in the way of memorable tunes. If you're sympathetic to these Art Music Blues, then William Albright may be just what the doctor ordered.

While he did compose his share of challengingly modern works, Albright never got over his infatuation with Scott Joplin and early ragtime. This collection offers a selection of sixteen of Albright's best rags composed between the late sixties and early eighties, but don't be too quick to write them off as merely nostalgic throwbacks. While the flavor of the 1890's is certainly present, no onewith any knowledge of music would mistkae these as belonging to that time. Inside the swinging rhythms, Albright throws in a slew of modern harmonies, technical challenges and bombastic tone clusters, which at times sound in danger of smashing the piano to bits.

The pianist, Nicola Melville, performs with grace as well as energy, never failing to bring out the humor of the music (yes, quite a few of these pieces are downright funny.) Titles like "Nightmare Fantasy Rag" and "Brass Knuckles" give you a pretty good idea of what to expect. Sudden tempo changes and rests in unexpected places keep the listener guessing and provide the music with a sencse of charm all to often lacking in the works of today's composers.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Aube - Howling Obsession (Revised) (2002)

Nakajima Akifumi is a Japanese noise artist who specializes in drawing a wide variety of sounds from a single original source. In this case, that source is a small speaker, from which he has managed to craft an entire album of diverse sounds. As the title indicates, this is a reworking of an earlier release and adds a twenty-three minute live performance to the original tracklist.

The title track begins with the low drone of speaker hum, fading slowly up from silence until it approaches a roar. This is actually a very atmospheric recording, and almost gives the impression of an audio landscape. The persistant hum is intruded upon by slashing crackles of static and low rumbloing feedback, resulting in a rather moody and mysterious sound enviroment. Considering the limited nature of the inputs, it's a very well composed track, and the highlight of the album. After seventeen minutes of this, a short piece cnsiting mainly of clicking provides a nice intermisson before the album's other lengthy piece, "M.O.L."

"M.O.L." is much more aggressive in its approach, consisting mainly of blistering noise broken up by high pitched shrieks and squeals. The beleagured speaker is pushed to its breaking point, growling like an angry Harley Davidson in need of an oil change. It's enjoyable, but perhaps less artful in its execution that what came before. The final track of the original release lasts a mere fve minutes and employs filters to create a slow sweeping effect up and down the frequency range. It's uneventful, but a nice comedown after the intensity of the preceeding track.

Finally, the bonus live track, also titled "Howling Obsession" bears little overt resemblence to its namesake. It uses the same sound source, and slowly evolves over its twenty-three minute length from quiet drones and whines to more intense fare. There are even a few basic rhythms subtly included from time to time. The piece is sprawling and impressive in its dversity, but it is improvised and it shows. The carefully crafted compositions on the album proper differ markedly from this freewheeling exploration of the speaker.

For fans of noise, Aube certainly offers some interesting moments. His single source approach is fascinating, but the result of such self-imposed limitations are at times less consistant than comparable works of other noise artists, such as Merzbow.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dr. John - Gris-Gris (1968)

Dr. John's first solo album is a psychedelic tour de force of the Louisiana voodoo variety. From the murky production, sludgy tempos, distant female backing vocals and African drumming, it's a listening experience almost akin to a balmy night out in a swamp somewhere, complete with will o' the wisps and black magic rituals.

The music is hypnotic in it's slowness and repetition, and the tasteful use of mandolins, flutes and saxophones lends interest without stealing the show. Despite Dr. John's reputation as a piano powerhouse, there is no keyboard virtuosity to be heard here. Instead, he smartly restricts his playing to essential rhythmic patterns and coloristic touches, never overpowering the general group dynamic. "Croker Coutbullion" features a prominent harpsichord part, which is somewhat bizarre for a New Orleans band, but then again the whole record is somewhat bizarre and it ends up being one of the album's best tracks, so I'm not complaining.

The album is most successful when it sticks to non-melodic swamp ambiance combined with minimalist chanting and animal sound effects, as on "Danse Kalimba Ba Doom" or the masterful closer "I Walk on Gilded Splinters." Unfortunately, it falls a little flat when attempting more traditional song structures ("Mam Roux.")

After this, Dr. John would veer increasingly towards straightforward blues, and while there are a number of enjoyable voodoo moments on his next few albums, he would never again embrace the concept so wholeheartedly as he does here. Definately something worth checking out for the psychedelia fan in search of something a little different.

Lemon Kittens - We Buy A Hammer For Daddy (1980)

This is a profoundly weird record, and one I find very enjoyable. The closest thing I can compare it to is a less abrasive Art Bears with elements of free jazz. The band is comprised of only two members, Karl Blake and Danielle Dax. Neither of them can really play an instrument or sing, but that doesn't stop them from making some fine music, and not just of the "banging away noisy" variety. Indeed, they appear to make a sincere effort to construct actual compositions, albeit with limited technical ability. I would venture so far as to say that there is little to no improvization, which is a refreshing change for this sort of music.

The result is a lot of songs structured around simple ostinatos, with vocals recited rather than sung, mainly by the cool, disconnected voice of Dax. The sound palette here is impressively broad. Guitars are used sparingly, and over the course of the record we hear bass, piano, saxophone, electronics, flute, harpsichord, concertina, vibraphone, multiple types of hand drums, chriping birds and various other brass and woodwind intruments difficult to identify due to their inexpert playing.

The tone of the album ranges from hysterical to almost ambient, with lyrics that become increasingly bizarre as the album progresses. The opening track "P.V.S." feels like beat poetry over an almost funky electric bass line. ot too bizarre, but the next track, "Small Mercies," has Dax tearfully confesing details about an abusive relationship, while somehow managing to be funny. By the time we get to the halfway mark, Blake is droning the line "Afraid of Being Bled by Leeches" over a flute-dominated backdrop.

Truly a delight to the collector the odd music, you are unlikely to find anything else that sounds quite like this.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Psychic TV - Those Who Do Not (1985)

This is a rerelease of a live album recoded in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1983. It was originally released in 1985, and then again in 1987 under the title "Live in Reykjavik." The most current CD release has a new cover (pictured) and adds to the original track list some bizarre experts of an Icelandic naming ritual. While the recording quality of these extra tracks is somewhat low-fi, the murky chanting and far away bells provide the perfect atmosphere for a Nordic Pagan ceremony, and they provide a nice break between the more traditional Psychic TV performances.

Since this was 1983, the band had not yet mrophed into the rather dull trance outfit that they would ultimately become, and there is still plenty of Throbbing Gristle style noisemaking present. However, this recording is generally more diverse than your average TG album, probably due to the impressive list of personel present. In addition to the usual suspects, you'll also find David Tibet, Alex Ferguson and John Balance. Practically the whole British industrial scene together on one album!

The music is generally what you would expect from these troublemakers. Genesis P-Orridge wails and drones on with his usual indecipherable ramblings while tape loops and drum machines chug along in the background. What makes this one of the more interesting PTV live releases is the other instruments used in creative ways. The aforementioned bells play a dominant roll, giving the album a rather mystical quality. The track "Burn Against Fears" contains a series of weird synthesizer washes that sound like a cross between Terry Riley and Thighpaulsandra, making for a standout if uncharacteristically subdued track.

It's easy to hear bits and pieces of other bands from the time scattered throughout. Some of the bell playing could have come right off of Coil's first couple of albums, and the tape loops in the title track sound just like the sort of things 23 Skidoo were doing. It's easy to write P-Orridge off as a deranged nut (which he is) but there's no denying how incredibly influential he was on an entire genre of music. Listening to early PTV live albums offers great insight into the development of Industrial as we know it today.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

William Basinski - The Disintegration Loops 1 (2001)

Many people view this album as a shameless attempt to capitalize on the tragedy of the September eleventh terrorist attacks. While I do not think this was Mr. Basinski's intention, but it's easy to see why some would feel that way. A little backstory: on 9/11/2001, Basinski was transferring some old tapes he made in the '80's to digital format. The tapes were so old however, that as he played them they literally started falling apart. Rather than attempting the impossible task of preserving the tape, he had the bright idea to play them in a loop and thus capture the decay as it happened.

Coincidentally, all this happened just as the planes were crashed into the world trade center. Basinski, a lifelong New Yorker, was deeply moved and disturbed (as were all Americans) and as he watched the towers burn, he decided to dedicate these decaying loops to the memory of the tragedy in some sort of metaphor that I confess to not fully understanding.

Cool concept, right? You bet it is. Too bad the concept is more intesting than the music. A simple, pastoral melody repeats again and again. With each repitition, small bits of sound gradually drop out and are replaced by silence, until after nearly an hour it is barely recognizable. This is actually quite similar to Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting In A Room" (reviewed earlier) but for some reason it's not quite as fun to listen to. I don't wish to appear overly harsh, and as a piece of ambient music, it is certainly pleasant enough, but the substance is eclipsed by the liner notes. I haven't heard the other volumes in this series, but I imagine they are quite similar.

As a piece of conceptual art, it's brilliant. As a piece of music? Less brilliant.

Raymond Scott - Manhattan Research Inc. (2000)

I can't say enough good things about this amazing collection of recordings. Most people know Raymond Scott (if they know him at all) for the large number of his jazz compositions which were licensed for use in Looney Tunes cartoons. Almost everyone has heard "Powerhouse" or "The Toy Trumpet" at some point in their lives, even if they don't know it.

What people don't realize is that Scott was instrumental in the evolution of electronic music, to the point of designing and building prototypes of equipment still used today. He even claims to have built the first sequencer, but the evidence is not conclusive.

This stellar two CD collection compiles the bulk of his electronic output for radio and television commercials from the 1950's-1960's, and what a body of work it is! Tremendously ahead of its time, there are tracks on here that still sound like nothing else, even after all this time. For those of us interested in the plastic pop 50's aesthetic in general, there is a feast for the ears, including wonderfully dated TV announcers, maddeningly catchy radio jingles and delightful voice of Scott's wife, Dorothy Collins. However, it is so much more than a nostalgia trip.

Scott was interesting in music that generated itself with limited input from the composer, and designed a number of machines capable of producing this effect. The result is like the aleatoric John Cage mixed with the electronic beeps of Stockhausen wrapped in a catchy melody and condensed into a thirty-second commercial for Sprite. And as if all that weren't enough, we are also treated to a number of vocalizations from a young Jim Henson.

Truly a priceless artifact and one which the discerning fan of electronic music cannot do without.