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.