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.