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.