Sunday, October 28, 2012

Current 93 - Nature Unveiled (1984)

For me, at least, religious horror has always been a special kind of terrifying. Films like The Omen and The Exorcist were always far more frightening than simpler tales of hook-handed serial killers or more aggressive than average sharks. The kind of existential fear that comes from the unknown and unknowable realm of gods and the afterlife, utilized so effectively by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, taps into a far deeper level of the human psyche than more the more immediate and comprehensible threats of bodily harm.

It is appropriate, then, to round out our month of spooky records with one of Current 93's earliest efforts, a bleak and relentless patchwork of New Testament nightmares that could be described as an aural equivalent of the Book of Revelations. David Tibet, the creative force behind Current 93, has always had a fascination early Christianity and describes himself as a Gnostic, referring to the early sects of that religion that were shunned and quickly drummed out of existence by the Catholic Church in the first few centuries AD. Gnostic literature can get pretty wild, with a far greater penchant for the fantastic and otherworldly than the rest of the accepted Christian canon. Their somewhat darker outlook is perhaps understandable when one realizes that one of the central themes of Gnosticism is the idea of a wicked creator deity, the Demiurge (the Old Testament, vengeful God), who is separate from the pure and loving God of the New Testament.

With this little bit of backstory, we are at least a little more prepared for this noisy and disturbing record. A bed of sampled Gregorian chants floats eerily in the background, while discordant industrial noises clank and moan over them, punctuated by hellish growling and Tibet's strident vocals proclaiming that "Maldoror is dead" (a reference to Lautreamont's classic proto-surrealist, stream of consciousness novel that is itself quite unsettling.)

The album is broken up into two, side-long tracks, but it really sounds like a single piece of music. Tape manipulation stretches vocals out into deep bass groans. Christian themes are repeated throughout, with the title of side one referencing Golgotha, the place in which Christ was crucified. Although Nature Unveiled bears little resemblance musically to Current 93's later, folk-influenced work, thematically there is much in common, and the listener is always left feeling that the Apocalypse is just around the corner.

Towards the end of the album, the vocals fade away and are replaced by distant wailing and increasingly urgent sirens, a harbinger of imminent and inescapable doom. Then, suddenly, it's all over, the vision of the end of days complete.

Nature unveiled is a raw, powerful and extremely noisy record, and although Tibet and most of his collaborators drifted away from and ultimately rejected the "industrial" label, there is no doubt that this album remains one of the best and most effective examples of what industrial music was all about in the early eighties. Still, it will probably leave most people desperate to turn on all the lights and put on something a little more cheerful.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Andrew Liles & Daniel Menche - The Progeny of Flies (2008)

Andrew Liles and Daniel Menche are both influential and highly regarded members of the experimental music world, so naturally their team up raises high expectations. Faced with that kind of pressure, they chose to deliver an album about the life cycle of flies. Well, at least it's original.

The Progeny of Flies is a subtle, sinister record that is long on atmosphere and imagination. I've always said that a good ambient record allows room for the listener to insert his own thoughts and interpretations, and in this the record very admirably succeeds. It plays like the soundtrack to all the quiet, suspenseful bits at the beginnings of horror films, where you know something bad is going to happen but you're not sure what or when.

The album is divided up into four lengthy tracks named after various stages in the development of flies. The first of these, "Eggs," consists of a slowly shifting patchwork of electronic drones, low rumbles matched by higher, slowly unfolding synth melodies. It serves as a kind of warm up for what is yet to come, not giving away too much while offering considerable promise.

The second track builds o this, adding Liles' minimalist, Satie-like piano. Liles has an uncanny ability to extract an immense amount of atmosphere from just a couple of methodically repeated piano chords, and the supplemental bass thumpings and rumblings are more than sufficiently unsettling.

The third track, "Pupa," opens with the unexpected shriek of a horse's neigh, followed by the erratic plucking of some stringed instrument which I can't quite identify. Gradually, this fades away and is replaced by gentle metallic clangs and other acoustic sounds, heightened as ever by dark electronics.

The album concludes with the final stage, "Metamorphosis," in which the tensions builds to a climax , incorporating all that came before and more. Ghostly choirs, a repeated four-note piano motif, harrowing electronic groans and buzzes and finally the actual buzzing of the titular flies.

The album as a whole is very well structured, with each track building on the previous one for an ever increasing atmosphere of paranoia and menace, and while it certainly rewards close listening, it also works great as low background music to terrify any unwanted guests who have overstayed their welcome.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Coil - Musick to Play in the Dark Vol. 2 (2000)

Continuing our Halloween month theme, we turn to masters of post-industrial, electronic brilliance Coil and their Musick to Play in the Dark series. With these albums, Coil announced, they were leaving behind their old style of "sun music" and transitioning towards "moon music." I'm sure that makes sense to someone, but I will not worry too much about it because the music on both these albums,, solar or lunar, is among the strongest of their extremely impressive career.

There's definitely an atmosphere of the sinister here, and they spare no expense in creating spooky atmospherics throughout. The opener, "Something," is just the title word spoken in a whisper again and again, slowly fading in surrounded by wind sounds and subtle electronics. The second track is a full fledged electronic workout that bears all the hallmarks of later-day Coil hired gun and analog synth wizard Thighpaulsandra. His utterly unique approach to playing the synthesizer is endlessly entertaining and a regular feature on most Coil albums from this period. Think of a more demented Tangerine Dream and you get the basic idea.

Te showstopper on the album is the eleven minute "Ether." Its arcane references to the creepy, old-fashioned drug are chilling enough, but towards the end it becomes downright terrifying when John Balance intones the line "I'm going upstairs to turn my mind off... to turn my mind off... to turn my mind off" over a gradual fading backdrop of dark ambient sounds until only his desperate rasping remains. It's tremendously effective and one of the scariest songs I've ever heard.

The rest of the album remains strong throughout. Volume One of the series was a little uneven, and it's nice to see that that mistake has not been repeated here. The closer, another eleven minute track call ed"Batwings: A Limnal Hymn," is oddly the most sedate and straightforward track here, with no vocal processing for Balance and minimal instrumentation, yet it's strangely effective. It's unsettling without being over the top, and send the listener off into the night feeling just a little unnerved and eager to get home to a safe, warm bed.

No other band has ever really sounded like Coil, and it's wonderful that they have such a prodigious and varied discography. It's only a shame that the members died so young and were unable to leave us with even more great music.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fields of the Nephilim - Elizium (1990)

Well, it's October again and in honor of my favorite month crowned gloriously by my favorite holiday, I'll be spending this months featuring albums with a decidedly spooky feel.

The first of these is by Fields of the Nephilim, a gothic rock group influenced by the occult and spaghetti westerns, fond of performing in black cowboy outfits. Elizium is their second album, showing dramatic advancement over their solid, but not outstanding debut. I'll go out on a limb and say that I personally consider this to be the finest goth rock album ever produced. It's a strong statement, I know, but allow me to elaborate.

Whereas the band's first album was song-oriented, Elizium is much more sweeping in scope. The first four tracks all flow together to form one fifteen minute suite ranging from somber atmospherics to uptempo, but still quite dark, rock, then back to brooding stillness. The guitars are drenched in reverb, the drums boom in the distance and the singer's voice croons in a deeply smooth, yet sinister drawl. There is even a grainy sample of infamous occultist Aleister Crowley to ratchet up the creepiness.

I should take a moment to comment on the production which, although the song writing is very strong, is the main reason the album succeeds to spectacularly. I'm not sure how they got the effect, but the whole thing sounds like it's being played on a bonfire-lit hilltop several miles away across a foggy moor. The effect is as eerie as it is exciting.

The opening suite, collectively known as "for Her Light," is followed by a more subdued eight-minute track called "Submission," which is essentially a bass guitar workout for the singer to talk ominously over. Various vocal effects sch as echo and elaborate panning keep things unsettling throughout.

What's striking is how catchy these songs manage to be, and how much they rock, without disturbing the uncanny atmosphere. The eleven-minute rocker "Sumerland (What Dreams May Come)" is relentlessly entertaining throughout, and for me is the highlight of the album, while the final two tracks wind things down in a dreamy, hallucinatory way that makes you wonder whether you imagined the whole thing.

Music that tries to be spooky is always of danger of stumbling into a great many treacherous pitfalls, but Fields of the Nephilim manage to simultaneously avoid being campy, contrived or overly abrasive, a feat for which they surely deserve a great deal of praise.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fripp & Eno - No Pussyfooting (1973)

Robert Fripp and Brian Eno were two of the most interesting and innovative musical personalities of the 1970s, but it would also be hard to imagine two more divergent temperaments. Eno was a flashy, kinetic wild man who, during his tenure with Roxy Music managed to steal the show from one of the most dynamic frontmen ever, despite not really playing any instruments. Fripp was a cool intellectual who sat on stool on stage while playing his guitar and was notoriously standoffish to fans. The public may not have known what to expect when they decided to team up, but anyone could bet the result would be magical.

The driving force behind the album is a tape loop system developed by Eno which was capable of simultaneous playback and recording. This allowed a performer to hear a loop of his himself while continuing to play on top of it, adding new layers and rhythms in real time. This was not entirely a new idea-Terry Riley had been doing similar things for years-but Eno dubbed the process "Frippertronics" and the name stuck.

The record consists of two side-long tracks, each containing a subtly pulsing backdrop over which Fripp solos extensively. On "The Heavenly Music Corporation," the mood is serene and Fripp's guitar sweeps slowly around with his characteristic warm tones climbing and plunging like dive bombers in slow motion. The effect is lovely and captivating.

Side two, entitled "Swastika Girls," is more active, with heavier focus on Eno's electronics making up the rapidly swirling backdrop. There is a lot more going on here than o the first side, and it takes several listens to take it all in. One of the dangers of this type of recording technique is the tendency for things to become overly cluttered and aurally confusing. I'm not sure whether that quite happens here, but it certainly walks a fine line.

Fans of either Eno's solo work or Fripp's guitar playing (mainly in his capacity as a guest soloist for the likes of David Bowie; there's little resemblance to King Crimson) will find much to love here. The latest reissue is a 2-CD set of good quality and a couple of puzzling choices. First, they broke the side long tracks up into separate parts for the CD indexing, which is totally unnecessary and arbitrary to my way of thinking. Second, the bonus tracks consist of the entire record played backwards and a half speed version of "The Heavenly Music Corporation." The reasons for this remain obscure, but I am forced to admit that the different versions are interesting and enjoyable, if not essential.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Klaus Nomi (1982)

Meet Klaus Nomi, an eccentric, flamboyant German opera singer who got his big break touring with David Bowie and decided to put out a record of New Wave music. Not weird enough? I should mention that he was a countertenor, meaning that he could sing at an extremely high pitch, and that the highlights of the album are bizarre covers of sixties girl-group pop songs.

This is one of those records that makes everyone who hears it scratch their head in confusion and when played for friends will inevitably elicit the response "what is this?" It's not an easy question to answer. As you can see from the image above, Nomi is not helping the stereotype that Germans are weird with his outlandish costumes and makeup job that looks like it came straight out of an F. W. Murnau film.

The instrumentation baking up Nomi's heavily accented voice is rather thin, consisting of angular guitars, some eighties synths, a little piano and the occasional smattering of backing vocals to evoke the sixties atmosphere of some of the covers. These include "Lightning Strikes," "You Don't Own Me" and "The Twist" all sung with the over the top melodrama only a campy opera singer can pull off (although whether he does, in fact, pull it off is purely a matter of opinion.

There are also some original compositions, which are decent and just as zany, but lack some of the surreal fun of lines like "You don't own me, don't say I can't play with other boys!" The album ends bizarrely with an excerpt of a legitimate operatic aria, which is fine but totally out of place.

Klaus Nomi went on to record one more studio album (featuring a cover of "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead!" How great is that?) and a live record before sadly dying of AIDS in 1983. His debut is a fun listen for fans of novelty albums and general musical oddities.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Chris Watson - El Tren Fantasma (2011)

Before television and before the internet, National Geographic made a lot of money by taking the trouble to photograph remote and exotic locales and bring those images right into people's homes. Most Americans would never have a chance to see such amazing sights in person, and so it was a real thrill to catch a glimpse of what the rest of the world looked like.

Now, that same experience can be had with such ease that it has lost much of its allure. With a click of a button, we can see pictures of any place in the whole world, but vision is only one of the senses, and people have a way of forgetting about the evocative power of sound.

That is why I love field recordings so much. Sure we know what most of the world looks like, but what does it sound like? Chris Watson, a founding member of the tremendously influential industrial group Cabaret Voltaire, wants to answer that question for us. With microphone in hand, he captures a staggaring array of ambient sounds from all variety of environments and packages them neatly for our enjoyment.

This particular release draws from recordings made of a now abandoned railway line in Mexico originally made for use in a documentary. Watson presents them here as the voyage of a "ghost train," a spooky remembrance of a trip that will never be taken again.

When it comes to editing field recordings, it can be tricky to strike the proper balance; too much and it loses its authenticity, too little and it risks being boring. Watson does a superb job of concealing his handiwork, and only on one track does he give into the temptation to craft a little rhythmic loop that actually sounds like music.

The rest of the recordings are both unified in spirit and diverse enough to hold the listener's interest. There is the repeated leitmotif of the train's rhythmic chugging along the tracks, a sound that would not be out of place on an early industrial record. There are quiet parts of serene atmospherics, and there are loud parts comprised of buzzing insects or other wildlife.

In short, Watson does everything right when it comes to taking real recordings of a real place and presenting them in a way that is coherent and digestible, not to mention entertaining. I look forward to hearing more of his work in the future.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vangelis - Heaven and Hell (1975)

Vangelis is a Greek composer and multi-instrumentalist most famous for his score for the film Chariots of Fire. As surprising as it may seem, he actually has a long and productive career with many studio albums to his name. This is one of his most well known and celebrated, a collection of two side-long suites based on the concept of - you guessed it - Heaven and Hell.

This is a difficult album to review, because musically, it's all over the place. I'll be frank, there are a lot of cringe-worthy moments here. The use of the synthesizer was still relatively unrefined in 1975, but Vangelis dives in with gusto, producing sounds that now seem very badly dated. The first half of side one is bombastic and unpleasant, with annoyingly abrasive synths and hackneyed vocals by ominous sounding Greek choirs. This is supposed to be Heaven?

Side two, Hell, is, in general, much less prone to these sorts of problems and has plenty of lovely moments with tolling bells and a lovely female vocal melody, although the tasteful creepiness is still occasionally interrupted by obnoxiously dated sound effects, including an incredibly annoying siren-like synthesizer that won't shut up.

So why am I featuring this album when it seems to have so little going for it? Because Vangelis makes up for all of it, all of the tacky synths, the lack of restraint, the bombast, the hokey choirs, and the general vagueness of his concept in the second half of side one. He makes up for it, and then some.

About ten minutes in to the Heaven half, all the choirs and keyboard riffs drop out and a sense of cosmic peace washes over the listener. This section may be familiar to some as the theme from the Carl Sagan TV series, Cosmos. The music here is absolutely perfect, capturing the vastness and beauty of space, and then just when you think it can't get any better, it does.

The last section of the Heaven side is a song called "So Long Ago, So Clear" sung by Jon Anderson of the band Yes. It's utterly gorgeous, with Anderson in fine voice and the melody one of exquisite grace and tenderness. This section along with the previous one comprise roughly a quarter of the album, yet they are so good that they force to (almost) overlook the record's other flaws. Honestly, that ten minutes is worth the price of admission.

Maybe other listeners are less bothered by the synth parts (or less taken with Jon Anderson) than I am, but for me Heaven and Hell is a bewildering listen, a product of its time that leaves me feeling both moved and vaguely annoyed.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Contortionist Jazz Exotica (2012)

Some noise artists have attempted to elevate the genre to a new level of sophistication and subtlety. Aube creates entire albums out of a single, sometimes surprising, source. Merzbow has theme albums that utilize bird songs and prog rock samples. In general, there has been a gradual development of noise music from anarchic racket to cultured sound manipulation.

Contortionist Jazz Exotica resists this evolution with every fiber of their being. The band refuse to provide any  information about themselves or their music, and the tape they sent me (not CD, tape! I had to go out and specifically acquire the hardware necessary to listen to it!) contains no track titles or any other text at all.

Don't let the name fool you. There is no jazz, much less exotica to be found here. It's a chaotic, sometimes terrifying listen that sounds like a wild, drug and alcohol fueled Saturday night gone horribly wrong. It's very, very noisy, with few identifiable sources for the sounds. There's a lot of feedback, much screaming and a few repeated loops. The only time the wall of sound breaks down is to make way for a few vocal samples that are no less incomprehensible and disturbing.

 It's kind of refreshing to hear modern experimental music stripped of the glitzy Pro-Tools trappings and bared down to pure DIY noisemaking. In a way I am reminded of early Einst├╝rzende Neubauten or Foetus. Still, Contortionist Jazz Exotica is a harrowing, though never boring, experience. Fans of the underground noise scene will surely find much to appreciate about the band.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Liminal Phase - LP (2011)

This is the debut album from Liminal Phase, a sort of free form psychedelia ensemble recorded live in the studio with barely any preconceived ideas for composition. The result is an extremely diverse, sprawling set of tracks that traverse a wide range of influences and genres.

Despite having only six members, Liminal Phase really has the feel of an avant garde big band, perhaps due to their jazz-informed practice of structured improvisation with alternating solos, as well as the fact that every member plays several different instruments. However, jazz is only one of the many styles brought to bear here, with a good deal of inspiration being drawn from world music, such as Indian raga and Middle Eastern motifs.

A trippy vibe is maintained throughout, and one is put in mind of modern day jam bands like Ozric Tentacles only with a more varied sound, and improvisational collectives like Volcano the Bear only less weird. However, the album's greatest strength is also its weakness.

Because the material was edited down from several hours of jamming, there is a certain discontinuity that is noticeable as some of the tracks don't flow into each other as well as they might. Still, for those who relish the wild side of free-form psychedlia, there is much to enjoy here.

The "songs," all of which are instrumental, range from under two minutes to over thirteen in length, and there is sure to be something for everyone. Personally, I prefer the long, drawn out pieces where themes really have a chance to develop into something special, but sometimes a bite sized chunk of weirdness is just what the doctor ordered. It will be a pleasure to watch how this fledgling group develops over the next few years and I will certainly be curious to see what their next release brings.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Alvin Lucier - Clocker (1994)

Alvin Lucier's music frequently straddles the line between entertainment and science experiment, and sometimes the actual audible results are overshadowed by the acoustic concepts he is so intent on demonstrating. Whether or not that is the case here, each listener will have to decide for himself, but I personally find Clocker to be a rewarding, if fairly infrequent, listen.

The forty-five minute piece is an attempt to simulate the speeding up and slowing down of time, a highly abstract and ambitious goal to be sure. To achieve this, Lucier has affixed several galvanic skin response sensors to his body, and has rigged a clock to respond to the resulting signals, complete with a delay effect to make it sound cooler. And that's all there is, a ticking clock that changes its speed in response the resistance of the composer's skin. Sound boring? It's actually pretty cool.

As the clock changes speeds, the pitch of the clicks changes as well, so the fast bits are high and fluttery, while the slow bits are deep and ominous. You can also hear the overtones quite nicely, and dramatic sweeps create a kind of watery splooshing effect.

It could be argued that the whole thing goes on a little long, but there is surprising variety to be found. The presense of delay allows for some interesting interlocking rhythms, and there is a delightfully suspenseful moment when the ticking becomes too high and fast to hear and the resulting dramatic pause hangs in the air for just the right amount of time before the clock comes plunging back into the realm of audible frequencies.

Clocker is a high concept piece to be sure, and not for everyone, but for those interested in pursuing the frontiers of sonic possibilities, it can be a pretty neat trip.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Edgar Froese - Aqua (1974)

Fans of Tangerine Dream who have neglected group leader Edgar Froese's solo output are really missing out on something special. Specifically, they're missing out on what are basically more Tangerine Dream albums from their most respected period!

Aqua is Froese's first solo outing, released the same year as the celebrated Phaedra, and in my view every bit as good. It contains the same sequencer driven analog synth soundscapes that became the group's trademark, as well as a few slightly more experimental touches here and there.

While the sound is similar to Phaedra in many ways, Aqua nevertheless feels like its own record, with a tone that is if anything more unified than that of its sister album. The title suggests that we're in for a watery experience, and to a certain extent that's true. The title track is basically seventeen minutes of bubbling noises with slow synth melodies layered underneath. However, on the whole I think the album sounds more airy than liquid, with a sort of high, thinness that puts one in mind of jet engines.

Indeed, the second side of the record opens with a jet engine kicking off the track NGC 891. It was on this track that Froese attempted some (not entirely successful) experiments with early surround sound. It is a very spacey track and in my opinion the more enjoyable of the two long pieces on display here.

Another track, Panorphelia, conjures up images of touring the beautiful countryside in a hovercraft, while the album ends on a slightly spooky Hammond organ workout called Upland. The record as a whole seems to me very positive and future-centric, focused on flight and exploration. It's lighter in mood than the concurrent TG releases, and reminds me of that 1950s brand of science fiction filled with unbridled optimism at the joy of new technology.

Froese seems to be reveling in that joy as he discovers the possibilities associated with synthesizers, and is having great fun making music of the future. A thoroughly enjoyable slice of vintage electronica.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Perez Prado & Shorty Rogers - Voodoo Suite (1955)

Well, it's been a long time, but I noticed that I reached 10,000 hits in my absence, so I felt it was a good time to return to reviewing. Thank you for continuing to read!

Let's start with a rather strange and ambitious piece of afro-cuban/latin jazz/exotica by Perez Prado, the mambo king. The titular Voodoo Suite is a side long, kaleidoscopic trip through the various jazz styles of the ages. If that sounds like a crazy idea, it is, especially for 1955.

The record starts out slow and ominous with very primitive, tribal drums. They are almost arhythmic, and presumably meant to conjure up images of cavemen pounding away somewhere in Africa at the dawn of civilization. Gradually, low key chanting fades in adding an air of mysticism to the proceedings. After a few minutes this breaks off suddenly for some of Prado's trademark shouting at his band members.

When he's done, the full band comes back in, this time adopting a more traditional Latin sound, and for a while it becomes almost danceable. This builds in intensity, developing themes and adding instruments until it finally bursts into a sudden explosion of bebop, with Shorty Rogers wailing away on his trumpet, totally in his element. It doesn't sound anything like what you'd expect from a guy like Prado, but it works.

After that, things slow down and the piece starts to live up to its title, rocking back and forth to swampy and sinister grooves. Then it's back to classic Prado style mambo for a while before transforming into a driving drum circle pattern with alternating solos. Themes are revisited and more styles are explored until it gets tough to keep track of them. The whole thing is a masterpiece of arrangement, whatever you think of the composition, and it's clearly something Prado put a lot of love into.

he second side is filled with Latin big band covers of jazz standards, exquisitely arranged and performed, but ultimately overshadowed by the jungle themed tour de force that precedes them. All in all, the Voodoo Suite is a daring, at times abrasive, at times beautiful achievement. Those curious about the more eccentric side of Latin jazz would do well to check it out.