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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Biota - 'Invisible Map' (Recommended)

The artwork to 2001's followup to Object Holder reminds me somewhat of playing an old 320x200 game like Doom or Castle Wolfenstein 3-D. The music, well, it's actually a great deal clearer than Object Holder's mess. The same elements are there - deconstructed folk melodies driven by acoustic guitar and accordion, sweet female vocals popping up now and then, and chaotic, effected percussion. But there's just a tad bit more space between these elements, allowing a bit of light to shine through. I still find this an almost unbearable listen to manage in one sitting: 37 tracks, 76 minutes. Yow. These guys n' gals sure make the most of the CD format. The booklet is thick too, with page after page of digital artwork. The lead vocalist has changed to Genevieve Heistek, though she sounds a lot like the last one, and there's still only about six tracks with lyrics. The folk melodies are amplified a bit but now you can hear the details much more. The chaos under the melody of 'Port' is spastic, yet constrained, and it has a nice sound of prog-blueballs. I usually get sick of accordion when I listen to Biota, but 'Landless' is mixtape-perfect: His Name is Alive dipped in a Gallic marinade and hung out to dry with a swarm of aggressive insects. It's unfortunately just a bit too short. And in the lengthy instrumental middle of this record (20 tracks, in fact) we get a lot of styles. 'Sleeping Car' is made up of difficult intervals, sounding cold, Eastern and oblique yet bouncy and fun. 'Snake Out' is practically ecstatic, though still with effected drumming and spazzy acoustic strums everywhere. When the accordion returns, its a bit disappointing, but I am listening to my second 70+ minute Biota CD in a row. There's some real neoclassicisms here, which have made me rethink my standard line on Biota. Because, I like this band - I own three of their CDs plus the Mnemonists stuff, and generally think they're somewhat underrecognised, particuarly since song-based deconstruction has gotten some steam lately. But I've always been slightly hesistant to fully commit to Biota, because I thought they were too eclectic. Yeah, check it - I mean, I have (I think) diverse taste in music, and I think it's great if you can merge influences from 20th century classical, folk music, prog rock, pop, etc. I used to think that Biota were merging too many sounds and this is why I never could really click with them - they sound more like an encylopedia than a group of musicians expressing themselves through art. But listening now, I realise that's not so much the case. What really hurts Biota is that I don't think they conceptualise a 'record' the same way that I do - as a standalone canvas that can be used for various forms of expression, etc. The rules and format of that canvas may be unfortunately predetermined through a variety of nasty precedents, such as 60s rock music, economics, etc. -- but it still exists. And this is a record - perhaps I would enjoy them live more. Biota, I think, sees the CD as being a 75-80 minute receptacle for their recordings and thus they dump everything they can on there, not really thinking about how the listening experience plays out on the other end. For example, there are some lovely, delicate moments in the middle of this album - spooky piano textures, breathing silences, creeping strings, etc. The problem is, I don't even notice them because we're talking about tracks that are somewhere in the mid-20's out of 37 short pieces. I think someone could probably craft an entire release around a few of these tracks; it's all presentation, you know? But Biota, they just shove them in there among all the chum and deconstructed pop jams, so the impact is somewhat lessened. I think if this was 2 35-minute albums I listened to separately, I would 'hear' the music much more than I do now, because around track 17 I just started to glaze over it. Even if I listened to 2 35-minute albums back to back, I think I would hear them better. Because it's presentation; it's the canvas that really matters but the frame is important too. So there is my beef and that also explains why I'm going to say little about the second half of this record, apart from the parts with singing which stand out, especially 'Words Disappear' which is awesome. Because I wasn't really listening, due to the above mentioned philosophical disagreement. And also, enough is enough with putting effects on the drums!

Biota - 'Object Holder' (RéR)

In the mid-90s, no one could hear your screams. The musical side of the (now relegated to art duty) Mnemonists created this dense 70 minute mess of a prog/avant-pop album -- at a time when the rest of us were busy listening to the Smoking Popes. But it's no more comprehensible to me in 2009. Biota have an eclectic sound but I can reduce it to two elements: accordion and delay-affected percussion. Everything else is perfectly nice, but if you wanna know what makes Biota sound like Biota (and not like, say, Animal Collective), its those two elements. The squeezebox makes everything sound like European busking music to me, and it's hard to believe these people were in the American southwest. There are explicitly folk parts, like 'Idea for a Wagon', but those are the moments that actually bore me a bit. Sorry guys, but I'm raised on liking my folk music to be as raw and gritty as possible, and there's just too many rack effects here. But effects are the name of the game, often building everything into an unintelligible chaos. The opening cut, 'Bumpreader', is about 9 minutes of everything you can get from the album, like an overhead view before zooming in for deeper inspection. There's confusing arrays of horns, acoustics, and studio fuckery to mix everything into a deep soup. This is a highly compositional approach to music, as strong melodies and chord changes are emphatic, though the presentation is somewhat obfuscated. But once Susanne Lewis starts singing, about seven tracks in with 'Reckoning falls', it takes a future-pop angle. While Biota have no problem recording their drums through chorus and delay, or recording their flügelhorn through shit-tons of reverb, they leave her voice coherently articulate. This works though - they understand the pop knife that has to cut through the sac of effects - and a strange beauty rings out on these songs. The downside is that I tend to privilege these pop tunes over the instrumental jams, which make up most of the disc. The lyrics are abstract yet evocative - sometimes about Uri Geller ('Reckoning falls') and sometimes the description of a surreal journey ('Private wire'). 'Signal's vocal part follows a tinny acoustic-electric guitar riff, the real sound of adult-alternative radio except the resulting monolith is too weird to stand a chance. There are a few placid piano instrumentals that seem to break the record into three parts, of which the third part's songs are all written by Chris Cutler. 'Coat' is an almost wonderfully sing-song melody about borrowing a coat, with fluttering percussion underneath that is distracting. The theatre of the everyday, but with flanger on the drums! 'The Trunk' closes things out with a fairly aggro moment and then there's an unlabeled bonus track -- as if the first 23 weren't enough! -- and to be honest, I don't know that I ever made it this far before. The artwork is as awkwardly out-of-place as the music, being drenched in psychedelic pastels, computer generated art, and the general vibe of early 90s Residents CD-ROM experiments. Yet the sounds within are 'interesting', occasionaly fascinating, and thus this has a space on my shelves.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Bingo Trappers - 'Juanita Ave.' (Animal World)

A few years after their masterful Sierra Nevada, the Bingo Trappers returned on a new label with this CD, which (if I remember correctly) was marketed fairly strongly: magazine ads, college radio play, and a big US tour. All in vain, methinks -- they sank without a trace and now this remains an obscurity, though less than a decade old (2000). Given the preponderance of bedroom-lofi thumb-twiddlers making their rounds now (I'm looking at you, Woodsist label!) you'd think it would be time for a comeback. I expected as much when Woods put out a record on Shrimper - that seemed to link the two 'movements', if there is any such thing to link. But the Bingo Trappers, if they still exist, are probably just hiding out in some Amsterdam suburb now. Juanita Ave. is a strong set of songs, and generously so - 15 of them in 50 minutes - and the tone shifts a lot to prevent it from ever sounding samey. There might not be anything as earth-shatteringly classic as 'King in Exile' here, but there's a similar bummer/ramshackle feel throughout. 'Is That a Fact' reminds me a bit of Suicide or Lou Reed - there's definitely more 'tude here than these Nederlanders ever showed before. The first half of the album is strongly guitar-jangle heavy - not aggressive or distorted, but frantic and lyrical. Deeper investigation would probably reward a r willing to lose themselves in 'God's Biographer', 'White Bikini' or 'The Last Resort/Seinpost 1976'. I can hear sentimentality, self-criticism, and resignation, even on the goofier sounding stuff like 'The Real Mr. Tambourine'. Energy is great, especially when brushed over 4-track recorded rock drums, but I love this band when they're at their most pastoral. 'Twilight Kids' recalls 'Walkin' Through the Clouds' from Sierra Nevada, and is a step above the rest of the songs in terms of fidelity. It's followed by 'My Virtual Things', which takes a page from the Bats songbook and hits that mellow NZ sunshine vibe. I should say here that this record is lo-fi, but honestly so. There are no deliberately disfigured tunes, apart from maybe 'Sneakers' ghetto-industrial rhythm/theremin loop. These last three songs actually are a great coda to the album - my favorite part - and make me think of the 'Nighttime'/'Blue Moon'/'Take Care' trilogy that ends Big Star's Third (which, coincidentally, is the last CD reviewed here). I suspect there's hundreds of these discs somewhere in a box in Tallahassee, which is a shame for the band, the label, and the public.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Big Star - 'Third/Sister Lovers' (Rykodisc)

I just finished writing a post on our sister blog about how Radio City is Big Star's finest hour, but I'm about to babble so much about my love for Third that you'll think I was lying then. I mean, some would go as far as to call this "the best album of all-time", but those people probably talk to ghosts. I knew this guy in college who felt that way. He considered this his all-time favorite record and to be honest, he's the one who turned me onto it after an initial listen (a few years earlier) failed to move me. "So many artists try to make these really depressing records," he told me, talking about Joy Division I think, "but Alex Chilton was so genuinely miserable you can really hear it in every song." You know how sometimes you hear a record again but it sounds different because of how it's framed? Well, his saying those words definitely made me hear things differently -- for example, the guitar whizzles in "Kizza Me" sound to me now, like, I dunno, pain. But is this actually a Big Star record, or the weird transitional period between Big Star and solo Alex Chilton? (Much like Instinct by the Moles is really a Richard Davies solo album). Or has Big Star just shed another member, replacing Andy Hummel with a bunch of session dudes, Steve Cropper, and some strings but retaining their essential "band"-ness? This CD issue claims to restore the 'proper' sequencing but that's never been agreed on anyway. It opens with 'Kizza Me' which is one of the filler tunes - a perfectly adequate power rocker that would be fine on #1 Record, but apart from the above mentioned guitarwhizzles feels a bit limp. I think it's just because I want 'Thank You Friends' to be the opening cut. Has anyone in rock music before ever realised that sarcasm can be suffering? The liner notes would indicate that Chilton's major problem in the mid-70s was his own failure to become a rockstar, though methinks things are probably a bit more complicated. Either way, 'Thank you Friends' is a wonderful kiss-off, masquerading it's bile behind a spry chord progression. It goes right into 'Big Black Car' which just sounds like a man exhausted, on the verge of giving up. I think the big celebrated cuts (at least by This Mortal Coil), 'Holocaust' and 'Kangaroo', have always confused me a bit. Are they the masterpieces, or the exceptions to true misery? Is 'Holocaust' just a tad on the wrong side of overwrought? 'Kangaroo's dramatics don't bother me quite as much, maybe because the 12-string guitar is so beautiful, but 'Holocaust's piano just feels a bit too overboard. The real holocaust is between the doors of the Big Black Car. Except, sometimes 'Holocaust' sounds amazing to me, and moves me almost to tears -- music is subjective and weird like that, dontchaknow! But back to the first half - I'm not fussed about the 'Femme Fatale' cover, and 'O, Dana' doesn't do a lot either. But Jesus Christ, 'Jesus Christ'! Religion can be suffering too. So yeah, past the 'Kangaroo' hump we get 'Stroke it Noel' which is a song that I love almost beyond description. I love the jaunty strings but only because they are so undercut by the way Alex sings 'Do you want to dance....' with about as little enthusiasm as possible. And then Jody Stephens 'For You' which is utterly beautiful and the perfect balance needed at this point. I don't know what needs to be said about the closing trilogy that hasn't been already said or covered by others. 'Nighttime' makes me think of other songs; the one by (fellow purveyor of some genuine depression) Smog, where he sings 'I walk the city streets at night / and I'm scared shitless' and also J-Church's completely different song of the same time that is everybit as sentimental and bittersweet. We'll hear at least two covers of 'Blue Moon' and one of 'Take Care' before we finish the Cinderblock tour, so I'll just quote this brilliant line - "This sounds a bit like good-bye / And in a way it is, I guess" -- and then we'll start to wrap this up. But wait, there's bonus tracks! If you get past 'Nature Boy' and a rather rote Kinks cover, w get to 'Dream Lover' and 'Downs', which are real gems. I've started to think of Radio City - Third - Like Flies on Sherbert as a trilogy of sorts, and you can certainly here the progression: joyous, slightly loose rock and roll --> bent-out-of-shape Tonight's the Night Style bashing about --> utter ramshackle insanity. 'Dream Lover' is halfway into Sherbert, and 'Downs' pretty much all the way there. But because that's in the C's, we're gonna have to wait awhile to get there.

Jacques Berrocal - 'Catalogue' (Alga Marghen)

This is the third piece of the puzzle, reissued in a digipak by Alga Marghen with some bonus material. I'll spare my usual rant about digipaks and instead thank the Marghens for bringing this gem to the surface again. Where Musiq Musik is exploratory improvised deconstruction and Paralleles introduces more surrealist trope, Catalogue goes full-on collage style and presents 17 different sides of Berrocal in 17 tracks. Nothing is safe here. Electronics and tapes, for sure, put this alongside the weirdest fringes of LAFMS or other outsider camps -- yet there's also simplistic instrumental interplay that harkens back to Musiq's joy di vivré. 'friedrich trass' and 'tango' both use toy instruments to construct surrealist miniatures, and we get vocal manipulations galore. A big band sound appears too, creaking along on 'JONCTION' and 'Rideau. 'SOLO' splits the record with a strangely operatic Gregorian chant and there's some rock excursions too ('nO mORE dirTY bLa blApS' and 'signe particulier', which make me think of something Zorn would do, but not Naked City). Catalogue is a great title because this really is a compendium of maverick approaches to sound. I think the diversity of this release always made it the Berrocal record I found it hardest to interact with, but on this listen I'm totally stoked. It's almost like a desert island disc of ideas; the only frustrating factor is that the ideas are rarely given enough space to develop. If you like making weird music yourself, this is cool, because you can take these tracks inspiration and crosspollinate these ideas with your own, unless you're hellbent on being 100% original. I don't think I'd mind hearing someone else riffing on 'néon' or 'terminal'. I'd definitely put this in a special box alongside stuff like the first Anal Magic disc, because they came from some fucked up place, disappeared and 30 years later provide a treasure map of exploration for all of us young believers. The (mostly live) bonus tracks are nothing to scoff at either; they only pad the record out to 47 minutes instead of stuffing the disc, an act of restraint that I quite like.

Jacques Berrocal / Dominique Coster / Roger Ferlet - 'Musiq Musik' (Fractal)

This short album - I've always been fond of the term mini-LP - was originally recorded for the legendary Futura label in 1973 and appears in glistening CD quality courtesy of Fractal records. I believe this is Jacques Berrocal's recorded debut. It's his name that appears beneath the track listing so I've always treated him as the leader and I've filed this accordingly. But the trio is, on the surface, a trumpet/trombone/cornet jazz trio, let loose in a studio with the intent of deconstructing music forever. Over these four tracks, these three explore a great number of wind instruments and percussion, dabble in electronics, and occasionally wither away into the aether. This is significantly less surreal than Paralleles but still wildly inventive and exploratory. I actually like this one on CD because the way the silent parts are magnified in digital stillness ; maybe I'm just making excuses because I can't shell out 300€ for the original LP! Musiq Musik has some memorable passages on each track - 'Pièces à lanam' has some killer bagpipes, and the 'Leïla Concerto' has actual trumpet-driven classical passages that sound like Mahler's worst nightmare. But overall this works as a cohesive whole (if brief). It's hard to call this jazz but it's not a million miles away from Don Garrett and Kali Fausteau's Sea Ensemble, though not quite as connected to the human spirit. Vocalising is kept to a minimum though the artists occasionally shout 'Musiq!', sometimes under tape manipulations, andit's charming. Track three, 'Anonymous', has some rumbling synth (or maybe it's a harmonium, since that's what's listed in the credits) with some wordless singing; it crawls and pauses repeatedly, cresting with some shards of air. 'Cryptea' closes the disc with 11 minutes of pulling and yelping, getting into the most dissonant territory we've yet heard. It's dreamlike and dystopian at the same time; it recalls the side-long jam on Paralleles but with a somewhat simpler palette. At times it returns to a harmonium pulse while Ferlet (I guess) plays some exultant trumpet parts. There are a lot of notes here, but they feel carefully chosen as opposed to some free jazz logorrhoea. I hold Berrocal in extremely high regard, at least due to the trilogy of this, Paralleles and Catalogue, and listening again today (while trying to describe it, y'know, in words), my mind still trembles at what a work of genius this is.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Han Bennink - 'Nerve Beats' (Atavistic)

Bennink, a force, a gust of wind, a brutal gale. This isn't a solo drums album, but a solo Han Bennink piece. The man can make sound from anything -- who can't? -- but it's really about what's behind it. There's a momentum that pulses through the three tracks, beginning with a snare drum rattle and soon moving to concrète-addled collages, clarinet and trombone honking, and deep cavernous roars. The title is perfect cause it's all nerves; the music of 'too much coffee', not a drug we usually associate with the Dutch. Bennink's twitchy nervousness has a great, fierce energy behind it all and there's nothing annoying about his palpitations. This was recorded for Radio Bremen in 1973, the same radio station the produced that incredibly Henry Cow session ;; it musta been some station! I'm imagining a squat, Teutonic version of myself, tuning in to Nerve Beats live over the airwaves in '73 while drinking a Haake Beck (just after watching the Werder match, y'know). Records like Nerve Beats (which, by inclusion on Atavistic's Unheard Music Series was in fact unheard until this CD issue) make such a case for improvised music as a whole. There is no genre that can even remotely describe this music - part jazz part industrial part surrealist - and it's all made by one man, showing off his vast technical talent and his flamboyant sense of humour, which was quite evident when I saw him bashing away with the Willem Breuker Kollektief (or was it ICP?) 30 years after this was recorded. There are certainly plenty of drums here - beats galore, sturm und drang or whatever its called, but in the slightly different Nederlands tongue. This is a disc of many tongues; competing languages all propelled through one person; it's as uniquely personal a "solo" album as many of the more traditional entries in the genre (Dylan, Lennon, y'know). That this man still has a beating heart in 2009 is a testament to the eternal ur-pulse you can feel in this recording.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Belorukov / Stolyar / Popovskiy / Funtikov - 'Dots & Lines' (Ermatell)

Ever wondered what the avant-garde music students of St. Petersburg are doing these days? Dots & Lines' musicians, led by the young saxophonist Ilia Belorukov, wear their education on their sleeve, at least by naming each track after an Italian musical term. The titles are apt and 'Scherzo' is understandably the highlight, being a staccato bounce punctuated by percussive sax spurts. Roman Stolyar's melodica adds some carnivalesque 'tude throughout the recording, keeping it light and kinda fun. You can tell these guys are having a good time in the recording studio - I can't tell if it's entirely improvised, but it sounds clean and open. The third 'Interlude' track has some annoying CD skipping that I think is supposed to indicate their interest in electronics, but it passes quick enough. While this is certainly an 'interesting' CD, I don't know anything grabs or inspires me. There are moments of real tension, such as the 'Finale' track which uses thunderous piano and squeaking ocarina (I think) to dramatic effect; it's a bit more heart than the first 6 tracks indicate. Overall, Dots & Lines is innocuous and actually enjoyable to listen to; if I have one real complaint, it's that Belorukov (a brilliant solo performer and master of his instrument) rarely gets to let it rip. This has that type of design aesthetic that I've come to expect from this type of improvised music: clean looks, sans-serif fonts, and photos or artwork that is 'smart'. The liner notes are in Russian and English, and contain a quote by Kandinsky (in case you needed to put things into perspective). I thought the label was called Emmental, like the cheese, til I read things more closely.

Chris Bell - 'I Am the Cosmos' (Rykodisc)

I am the Cosmos is such a hippie title, isn't it? And the song has wedged itself into my brain over the years, being the only real memorable bit on this collection besides 'You and Your Sister'. I'm not sure if This Mortal Coil is the reason I know these tunes so well or if it's because there are two versions of 'Cosmos' and three of 'Sister' on here - so by pure repetition they stick, whereas I can't hum a single bit of the other ten tunes here. Death was kind to Chris Bell's career, being that he would be pretty much a footnote if he had lived into the 90s making forgettable pop-rock records. That's not to be rude or suggest that he's without talent. Actually, I love these wimpy songs, like 'Speed of Sound'. Everything on this collection feels drained of energy, like the musicans are all knee-deep in molasses, coagulated blood or some other viscous fluid - even on the faster riff-based rockers, like 'Make a Scene'. Despite the super-accessible goals, it can't help but feel retarded (in the meaning of slowed down). I Am the Cosmos is a CD equivalent of a big bottle of 'ludes and maybe a few beers. 'I Got Kinda Lost' probably sums it up the best - even though it's a fast song, those drum fills feel like they're under autopsy. Or listen to 'Look Up', where the title isn't so much sung as moaned from the back of a dark haze. Bell's chimey acoustic guitars and thickly-recorded vocal harmonies aren't much of a progression from the plaintive, wistful tunes on #1 Record. Funny that his best contribution to Radio City is 'O My Soul', which has more energy than anything else he ever wrote. Among the dusty bubblegum there are hints of Southern sunrise (but not the whole Skynryd sound, thankfully). I wonder what Carducci has to say about Big Star - rock or pop? The riffs are just as great here as on those first two Big Star albums, but maybe it's too wimpy for him, yet 'pop narcotic' certainly would apply here. I'll look them up before I get to the Big Star records in this project. The aforementioned bonus tracks - alternate versions of 'Sister' and a 'slow' version of 'I Am the Cosmos' (even though it's only six seconds shorter than the original) should probably be skipped, or maybe you can program your CD player to replace the original 'Sister' with the Country version, my favorite. Does anyone actually program their CD player anymore?

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band - 'Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-82' (Revenant)

I guess this is the first of a few 5CD boxsets in the Glass Mastered Cinderblock project. We've been spared the 11 CD Albert Ayler set because it doesn't fit on the regular spined CD shelf, but this one just squeaks in under the size limit of my cheapass Ikea CD rack, so here we go!! Listening to Grow Fins is a mammoth undertaking but it's a treasure for sure. When it first came out I really gravitated towards the fifth disc, which is pretty much everything from post-Trout Mask til the end. But these days I get a lot of grooves out of the 60s material and this set is weighted a bit in that direction, so now I'm just kicking myself for not having played this much in the past six years. Disc one, Just Got Back From the City (1965-67) is, as you would guess, the earliest recorded Magic Band demos, none of which were ever released before and only a few tunes ('I'm Glad', 'Yellow Brick Road', 'Sure Nuff n Yes I Do') ever really turning up in other versions. 'Obeah Man', which is the first track, is almost shocking in how frantic the band is going at it for 1966. Everything on this disc dates from '66 and '67, except for a pretty spooky and awesome acetate demo of 'Call On Me'. You'd expect a lot more conventional balladry like 'I'm Glad' but you don't get too much - there's a lot closer connection to traditional blues (like shoutouts to Tupelo, MS in the track of the same name) and uptempo rockers. Doug Moon is the guitarist of note here, I think - some of his ragged squiggles are pretty bent given that Van Vliet hadn't really busted anyone out of their shells yet. But it's not necessary to seek the 'out' in this early stuff - it's perfectly fine to enjoy it as a really great, cranking blues-rock band with ragged psychedelic flourishes. The familiar songs, well, they sound pretty much like demo versions of the Safe as Milk songs - more raw, a bit less fidelity, and without Ry Cooder. Though I don't know that it really makes a difference whether it's Cooder or someone else. As you listen to Grow Fins straight through (which is not something I've ever done before), you really see the narrative that it constructs. Disc two, Electricity 1967-68, is aptly named - mostly live recordings, you can hear things are starting to click. This version of 'Sure Nuff' has a bit more oscillating and a bit more crunch. 'Rollin n Tumblin' is a reprise with different lyrics, somewhat murky (probably an audience recording) but you can hear the band achieve a new level of smokin' - it's a bit rougher and more passionate, as opposed to 'Obeah Man's more controlled energy. This band is Jeff Cotton and Alex Snouffer/St.Clair, and they straddle the line between jam band and visionaries. The extended solos are a bit more directed towards conventional concepts such as melody and harmony, but they still know how to buck and jaw and fight each other. Vliet's there on the shenhai or something - it's distant but it's perfect. If you listen close enough, I daresay you can hear some Trout Mask melodies poking through. 'Yer Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond' is clearly the root of 'Tarotplane' and the one non-live cut here is the languid 'Korn Ring Finger', somehow strained in it's casual gestures.

And then, it's on to disc three, the Trout Mask House Sessions - 73 minutes of practices and aborted runthroughs, a document of one of the most legendary recording sessions in the history of music. Right, but what does it sound like? It's perplexing, presented in a pretty raw format with background ambience, dog barks, lots of conversation and strange gaps between performances. If you believe in the cult-like legend of Trout Mask (meaning that DVV ran the recording like a cult preparing for some sort of elaborate suicide ritual - the discipline of the North Korean Arirang crossed with the Manson-like intensity and dedication to purpose) - then it's the house itself that radiates the aura. This is a record made inside a house, even if the final product was laid down in a studio, and the way it's presented here is like a true House of Fiction, straight out of Henry James. As a document of collaged anti-music it would fit right in as a Siltbreeze release or some sort of post-Homosexuals side project; but it's also a stunning revelation into how these classics were constructed. I found this disc pretty hard to listen to when I first got this box set (which was about ten years ago I think -- back when 'enhanced CDs' were the rage) but these days I think it stands up well on its own, even if you've [somehow] never heard Trout Mask Replica. Clearly Revenant felt that this should be the centerpiece of the box set, even though it occurs relatively early in the career of the Magic Band; I agree, now. Though Van Vliet was allegedly dictatorial and take-no-prisoners in his rehearsal schedule this disc is fair to the band. You get a lot of Van Vliet soprano skronk but otherwise you really hear the musicians working things out. When the familiar riffs break through after all the faffing about, it's like hearing a song you've been waiting through the whole concert to hear, so it's that much more rewarding. The fidelity is surprisingly great too -- thank god the recorder was running.

The recorder kept running enough to put 12 minutes onto a fourth disc, called the Trout House Sessions [storytime portion]. And that's a continuation of the conversation and babbling we hear in glimpses on disc 3, though I can't admit that I've ever paid enough attention to follow any narratives. It does explode into 'China Pig' at the end but that's about all it's got going on the musical tip. This listen was no better for me - too easy to get distracted. If you dig the nonsense that led to the infamous 'Fast and Bulbous' conversations this is the disc for you. But really, the bulk of this disc is the Enhanced CD portion, cause this was released at the tail end of the whole Enhanced CD craze.

And then finally disc 5, Grown Fins [1969-82] which pulls everything else after Trout Mask onto one messy disc. Admittedly this was the disc that won me over the most when I first got this box, but that's cause I wasn't too familiar with the later era of Beefheart's work. Listening now I'm slightly annoyed by the poor fidelity of the (mostly) live tracks. It works well on some tunes, like the opening version of 'My Human Gets Me Blues' from '69 - it's so blown out and uneven, with certain instruments far more audible than others, that it actually sounds like something that would come out of LAFMS -- far more weird than it probably sounded in person. There's some cuts of the Decals band doing Trout Mask songs - the marimba bursting through on 'Big Joan' is particularly hot - and then a slow progression through the 70's via live and radio tracks. The Bluejeans/Unconditionally material is totally bypassed and we skip ahead to a 1975 radio version of 'Orange Claw Hammer' with Zappa strumming chords underneath. I used to love this version but now I'd prefer to hear the original pause-button edited version; Zappa instills an actual cadence into the song that ruins it a bit. But I shouldn't be too critical of this disc cause it's still the most diverse and fascinating of the set; the two versions of 'Odd Jobs' (a piano demo and a full band blowout) are pretty different though sadly marred CD skips on my copy; the Mellotron improv tracks are brilliant bits of sound-Dada; the title track sounds a bit better here than on the record. I do question why Revenant didn't include the original version of Bat Chain Puller - I suspect rights/legal reasons are the answer, but it's still disappointing because it would have balanced this set a lot more. It's a lot to take in, and if this post feels a bit disjointed that's because I listened to this in pieces (as to be expected for a 5 disc box set). I should say something obligatory about the box and book which are lovingly designed, managing to convey psychedelic design without seeming overly retro; it's Weird enough, though a bit difficult to read and the glue is starting to separate on my hardcover book. Drumbo's story is pretty essential and it makes up for John Corbett's overly enthusiastic descriptions of the disc's contents.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - 'The Mirror Man Sessions' (Buddha)

Here's a rare case when the CD reissue trumps the vinyl - Mirror Man was a record of leftover long jams from the pre-Strictly Personal sessions, a surprisingly uncommercial yet revelatory glimpse from '67 or so, though it came out in '71, if I have my timeline right. This CD sticks those tracks (maybe extending some of the first few tracks, though I'm not sure) and other, generally superior versions of songs that were re-recorded for Strictly, and in the process becomes one of the most essential Beefheart items, I think. 'Tarotplane' blends into '25th Century Quaker' which blends into 'Mirror Man' and it's hard to even notice where the seams are. These are exercises in horizontality, really the only time I can remember the Magic Band merging with the James Brown band, at least spiritually. Soul is actually present but it's as inside-out as you'd expect it to be. Somehow despite hearing these jams a million times I think they manage to surprise me, at least a little bit, every time. Whatever had infected Can and Neu! was clearly in the same smoke but the difference is all in the culture - Beefheart's band is all guts, worms and breath while the Germans have little funny tables next to their sofas. But furthermore, these long tracks are about motion - they move, slowly, like crisscrossing waves that rise and fall and gradually take you across to another island. The shorter songs are for the most part superior to the versions that ended up on Strictly Personal - for one reason, because they're so much more clear, though they are Krasnow as well. There's some great true distortion present on a few tracks - meaning the guitars actually break up because the amplifier/speaker can't handle the signal. The phasing stuff isn't here but it manages to sound weirder anyway. Because weird is not just prepackaged effects that everyone uses - it's in the songwriting, the performance, the expression. This disc is packed at 71 minutes and pretty satisfying, but it's also still a band in transition, on the verge of masterpiece.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Bedhead - 'Transaction de Novo' (Trance Syndicate)

Perfection comes at the end. Here's a CD I've listened to so many times that every chord change, every nanosecond of hesitation before each note is played, every barely audible vocal breath -- these things are all weighed down with a dense, emotional gravity to my ears. Maybe you'd just hear some slow-paced indie rock band doing what they do, nothing special. Ear of the beholder, I guess? The formula is the same yet there's miles of growth in this band, though that realisation might be hard for me to articulate. 'Exhume' opens up with a drumless, ringing patchwork of guitar and bass notes just like 'Beheaded', except the tone is more contemplative than dark. The lyrics alternate between barely-sung and extremely sung, by which I mean melodically intoned with a real sincerity. 'More than Ever' maybe exemplifies this - it's slow, open drum beat leaves room for the voice to ring along with the guitars, where every note is expertly chosen to fall alongside every space, also expertly chosen. The ringing notes are so powerful - on 'Parade', they're repetitive and trance-like, and they've been stuck in my head for literally a decade. Bubba Kadane sings on 'Half-thought' which is slightly more upbeat and bouncy, though I would never know it was a different singer were it not for the credits. 'Extramundane' is even more upbeat, a fast, slightly distorted tune that would have been a perfect pop single in another world. The lyrics are maybe a bit more upfront than before, and you can hear a confidence even as they sing about hesitation and uncertainty. Brilliant! The real rocker, and one of the most memorable songs in the Bedhead catalogue, would be 'Psychosomatica', which is the most cranked up they ever sounded. Instead of a warm glow, the Rat pedals come out for properly crunchy, angular riffs. There are pop hooks in all of these songs, but they are ironed out and subdued so you would never think of any of these songs as catchy - but maybe this makes their inevitable brain-burrowing more effective. A personal note: shortly after this album came out I jumped in a car with some friends and drove a few hours to a nearby city to see Bedhead live, in a small club I had been to before where there were maybe 50 people watching bemusedly. They were good, maybe even great, though it was 1998 and memory hasn't been kind. I remember they played 'The Rest of the Day' at the end of their set, which was like shooting their load kinda, but it was the end right? So then an encore is demanded and they come out and play the one song I was hoping to hear, 'The Present', which is the last track on this, Bedhead's last album. And any doubts about what my all time favorite Bedhead song was immediately were washed away. I can't say why this song is so great - there's no obvious riff of dramatic build, apart from some sort of organ or affected guitar that fills the middle zone unlike anything they ever used before. Maybe its the lyrics, which are I guess playing on words meaning both the current era and a gift; the gift of course is the music they left for us. I'm sure I'm not the only devoted fan who is still waving their torch a decade later (after going through personal journeys, taste changes, broadening horizons and self-reinventions a million times over). They broke up really soon afterwards, maybe a week or two, and immediately I regretted not savouring every second of that show. The drive back in the middle of the night was more memorable, with a $2 tape of Galaxie 500 'This Is Our Music' stuck in the tape player and playing over and over. Anyway, I saved the sticker that was on the shrinkwrap when I bought this CD in 1998, and it just fell out of the CD booklet. Great press quotes here: "Mesmerising ... melancholy and pure." (Melody Maker). "Restraint. Intelligence. Control... the effect is monumental." (Raygun). But it's not just restraint and intelligence - it's emotional and soulful and impressionistic, just with a carefully chosen palette. Live forever, Bedhead - not to discount that Macha EP or the New Year, but this is where it peaked and then you flamed out as you should have.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Bedhead - 'Beheaded' (Trance Syndicate)

It's a bit awkward to sing a word like 'efficacy' in rock music but somehow these guys pull it off. Not surprising, really, for a band with a guy named Bubba and another named Tench. I've always though there's something weird in the water down there but Bedhead definitely stem from the thoughtful side of Texas rock music (the same college-educated place the American Analog Set come from) instead of the Gibby/Roky/freak side. They can co-exist though - after all, King Coffey put this record out so he's clearly a man of discerning taste. This was the first record I heard by them and probably their masterpiece, except for their last album. Dual masterpieces maybe? The epic song is 'The Rest of the Day' which was the one that blew eveything open for me the first time I heard it, with some slowcore geek in a dorm room, autumn of freshman year, circa 2 AM. Wide-eyes staring at each other through the silence while moonlight lit up the incredibly dismal surroundings - it was true adolescent magic, and what better soundtrack to convince myself that I wasn't a normal adolescent? The three guitar formula is still here but there's some occasionaly chimes or xylophone, used to incredibly powerful effect in 'The Rest of the Day'. You wanna talk about a buildup? But they, they cut it off again!! -- resisting the urge to let that hot magma explode everywhere. The overlapping ascending and descending guitar lines are the ropes building a temple to sound; whatever microgenre you wanna stick this in - post-rock or slowcore or indiewhatever -- here's one of the finest examples of it. The whole album is awesome though - 'Losing Memories' ends the record on gentle note (which is the Bedhead M.O.) there's the obligatory fast rocker ('Felo de Se'). The Kadane boys share vocal duties but you can barely tell which one is singing. They are twins after all. 'Beheaded', the opening track, takes the moody dirge of 'Inhume' (from The Dark Ages EP) and adds an equally gloomy vocal to it, which is cut through at the end by the xylophone or whatever - shining through the darkness like points of light in the sky. 'Smoke' captures a beautiful vision stained through barroom eyes perfectly and 'Roman Candle' twists chord changes exactly when they're needed. I think a lot of people might find this music too wimpy, too cerebral, or just too normal for their mindfucked musical tastes, yet I think everyone could benefit from some close study of Bedhead's work.

Bedhead - 'The Dark Ages' (Trance Syndicate)

'The Dark Ages' last a few hours according to the lyrics and that's all the time that's needed to erase memories, but mine will last forever. My college years are filled with them - memories of listening to this and Beheaded and some Low albums at 3 AM and thinking about how amazing it is that there are rock bands who like to be quiet and nuanced. "Perfect music for 3 AM!" I would always say, certainly moreso than the KLF's take. Plus there's memories of my own hands, snaked along a Mexican Telecaster neck in dingy basements as my fingers pluck out slow, snaking melodies lifted from Bedhead records (not note-for-note, but lifting the general feel, dig?). 'The Dark Ages' might be my favorite Bedhead song; the drums pound along with a steady beat and switch to a ride-cymbal heavy pattern during the chorus, which is when the leaves fall from treetops and let light into the forest. By the end it's crescendoed into a crunchier, more powerful version of the same chords, but it resists the temptation to totally rock out and cuts things off right when the fire is in sight. 'Inhume' also does the slow build, instrumentally, with feedback entering like a muted trumpet. The chords shift slowly, emerging with distinct personalities, and this is music for guitar bands, indeed. Maybe one of the reasons I never got into Mogwai was that their quiet/loud thing always seemed too easy and much less controlled than Bedhead's approach. Actually I probably never thought about it that much -- really, I was just ready move on by the time Mogwai hit the scene. There's only three songs on The Dark Ages but all three are fully satisfying. 'Any Life' is the last and it brings back the slight country and western tendencies that have crept up in the past two CDs. It's just a twangy guitar lead, almost playing the role of a pedal steel, but it's enough to flavour this tune, a gentle vocal-driven meditation that ends this EP on an understated note. But these guys are the masters of understatement, after all.

Bedhead - '4songCDEP19:10' (Trance Syndicate)

Bedhead's records all have a really similar design and this weird mishmash of numbers like a private barcode, in which BH0x is always present with x being the number of the release. WhatFunLifeWas is actually BH03 and I have all the subsequent ones so they must have had a debut 7" or two that I still need to complete my collection. Which I would love to do, because as I mentioned in the previous post, I love this fucking band and it's here where they start to hit their stride. This EP, BH04, was recorded in a big empty Texas church on one microphone. Unlike their studio recordings, these 4 songs are light and slightly more strummy, letting the room sing through the notes. 'Heizahobit' opens up with a real Feelies The Good Earth feeling, a sound not given lightly despite it's apparently lack of weight. 'Dead Language' is an all-time Bedhead fave, where the vocals come to the forefront though they are no less gentle; lyrics that seem to touch on war and skin and graves and something personal all at once. Despite the 100 times I've listened to this song I've never bothered to look for literal meaning, instead being satisfied to let the jaunty bounce of the drums and the slightly awkward melody set some sort of mood. Yeah, it's the most folky Bedhead moment probably, and it seems like they've relaxed a bit but stayed focused, which sounds like a contradiction but this is a band that contradicts itself more as you sink deeper into their music. 'WhatI'mHereFor' is a repetitive riff led by a solid, consistent drum that again devolves as it goes along while sticking to the pattern. The last track is a cover of Joy Division's 'Disorder' which I will say without hesitation blows away the original. The booming sound of the church is the lead instrument and Ian Curtis's vocal dramatics are replaced by Matt Kadane's existential murmur. Without any trace of hysterics the song still screams with pain, with the lackadaisacal repition of the two-note guitar lead driving the point home. The 'you've got the spirit/don't lose the feeling' part rises to a new intensity unheard in the original that somehow feels more genuine to me, even though they didn't write it. With an approach and palette like this, it's hard for Bedhead to ever come off as false or disingenuous. The 19 mnutes 10 seconds that embedded in the title end and it's all been very satisfying. This may be the black sheep of the Bedhead catalogue, but it's a place worth visiting regardless.

Bedhead - 'WhatFunLifeWas' (Trance Syndicate)

I think you'll find extremely enthusiastic Bedhead fans hidden in pockets of weird all around the world, and I'm certainly one of them. Out of all that 90s indie/post stuff they stand out as something special and though it's been quite awhile since I've given this one a spin, it's a welcome sound to these ears. A lot of bespectacled, button-down shirt-wearing kids with guitars were excited about this band in the mid 90s (hand raised here!) because it falls into that whole guitar-based reaction to punk that was happening at the time. I think not just of Bedhead but of bands like the Sea and Cake, poised on that moment before their musically exploratory tendencies led to outright fusion or experimentalism, but still striving for something. Not that there's anything particularly progressive about Bedhead. It's "indie rock" in the brainy camp, with three guitars, whispered low key vocals and long dramatic arcs that rely on timbre, dynamics and other subtleties. And that was music to my ears in 1997 when I first heard this band, starting with Bedheaded and eventually moving back to this debut. 1994 was when WhatFunLifeWas hit the scene and it's easy enough to mistake these guys for goths with a title like that (and a subsequent Joy Division cover shines more light on that angle) - almost enough to make up for the awkward, slightly stupid band name. And while that first impression of Bedhead was that they avoided rock pyrotechnics in favor of clean channel moodyness and restraint almost to the point of severity, WhatFunLifeWas actually burns quite a bit of amptubes. It's not that it's agressive in any way but rather a slow burn; distortion is more like fuzz, another texture particularly on songs like 'To the Ground' and 'Haywire'. Vocals, well, not any of them stick with me in the slightest and really the same can be said for the songwriting on this one; this is my least-listened-to Bedhead release and the others I've listened to plenty. I got this one last, maybe when that star was fading -- you know how that goes. Which means, if I can get myself back into that mentality, WhatFunLifeWas could be experienced as if for the first time. That would involve re-widening my eyes and truly believing in some sort of Achievable Indierock Ideal, something involving strange tunings, guitar effects as political statements and some narrow astrovision that worked for me then. I guess this was a favorite band during one of those weird transitional periods for me and I haven't shed any of my affection, and there's nothing to be ashamed of here. Though delivery, production, artwork and mood firmly place this in the mid90s guitar indie universe, nothing feels really dated. Time will tell if Bedhead are timeless but I definitely throw on The Dark Ages at least once a year (and we'll get there in a sec) and nothing is lessened. They chose their tools wisely, yet still gave themselves enough room to swing wide. 'Foaming Love' is one such example, where you can hear their Texas roots in the swinging country cadences, yet it's still enough jangle to sweep up the 80s college puddle and enough tension to nod to Mission of Burma, Bitch Magnet, Slint and other more direct precedents. It's rock music but it assaults the conventions, just more quietly. Sometimes subtlety can bash you over the head - let's move on to the CDs I've worn out and let this one stay fresh.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Pierre Bastien - 'Mecanoid' (Rephlex)

Bastien's got some major cred (I believe he plays on Berrocal's Paralleles which we'll get to, shortly) and here in 2001 he's built robots to jam with him. Perhaps he's so difficult to work with that he's driven away all human collaborators? (A feeling I can certainly understand). Well if you imagine this as a French post-prog audio Mystery Science Theater 3000 then you'll get the picture, except maybe Joel and his robots are all dressed up in lounge singer gear. The clicks and thumps played by the robots are regularly spaced, of course, and despite the wooly organic textural elements to their sound, it's undeniably machine-created. Bastien himself plays trumpets and pianos and African instruments I've never heard of, so you can't really say it's all thump-thump repetition, but it does feel like extended lock grooves that somehow change and shift while staying locked, if that makes any sense (it doesn't). This CD has always interested me because it's so clean, almost shiny, sounding like some novelty cabaret-electronica experiment except with everything sucked out of the middle. I admit the novelty of robots is what sucked me in but there's something wonderfully retro about this, like the whole idea of voluntarily engaging with semi-obsolete technology. Not that robotics is obsolete at all but there's certainly more practical and easy ways to create loops and sounds like this today - so it's more like a willing desire to use these techniques, like choosing 8mm film in 2009 or whatever. Which I'm totally down with, but I must admit that about 75% through this disc I start to get somewhat bored. Despite different rhythms and instrumentation it starts to get pretty samey, so maybe ten tracks of robots playing low key dance vibes is 4 more than I need.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Bark Psychosis - 'Game Over' (3rd Stone)

The dance music rumblings I expressed uneasyness with when they were hinted at on Hex are much more full-on here, but Game Over is the Pisces Iscariot/Incesticide of Bark Psychosis so it's easy to forgive the odd excursion into producing a club hit. It's most glaring on the opening track, 'Blue', and 1992's 'Manman', and while I like a good dance now and then, the beats and rhythms aren't particularly invigorating. 'Manman' has some great screaming guitar ambience which recalls A.R. Kane's best experiments but the drum programming is a bit, eh, weak. But consistency is impossible on a collection like this, so with that criterion tossed aside, Game Over can reveal some moments of true beauty. I think I like the longer tracks -- 'All Different Things' is 8 minutes of mid-90's ambient pop infused with a slow, elegiac drama that never gets to where it's going (a good thing!) and the 21-minute 'Scum' is a masterpiece that feels slighted by it's placement on this disc. 'Murder City' I find a bit less endearing - is this BP's 'Moby Dick'? (as in the Led Zep staple, yeah). As good as BP were, they really used the album form to stretch out so compromise is inevitable here. The palette is most inviting when the tempo slows. 'Bloodrush' opens with digital-delay jangle, and BP feels more "post-shoegaze" to me because every one of these notes is important. The Wire cover, 'Three Girl Rhumba', is a tossed-off gag that probably wasn't worth paying the publishing royalties for but I'm glad it's here for the potential of future mixtapes (or playlists or whatever people do now). There's some overlap with Hex ('A Street Scene' is exactly the same as the album version, I think) and no attempt at this being consistent, so its best to just revel in the highs. 'Scum' as I said above is the masterpiece, probably of Bark Psychosis's whole career, capturing a perfect moment of emotional psychedelia through an early 90s English gaze. (I mean, grunge was big in 1992 when 'Scum' was is a weird thing to think about, though I can't articulate why). There's a live version of 'Pendulum Man' to close this out, which is recorded well enough, but I'm left feeling like something is missing. And a nagging sense that I should dig out the ///Codename:Dustsucker mp3s and get to know that record better.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Bark Psychosis - 'Hex' (Caroline)

In the shadowy microscenes we all occupied in the 90s, a few albums had a special significance. Hex is one of these, though it was a microscene that I sort of skated around. Back when I used to find out about music through listserv recommendations and the occasional allmusic.com-esque resource, it gradually became apparent to me that Hex was going to be a somewhat 'mandatory' listen. I was continually enthralled by Talk Talk's Laughing Stock et al. from the age of 19 on, and Hex was promised to be either a worthy sucessor or a blatant ripoff, depending on who you heard it from. It was quite difficult to find for awhile due to Caroline's weird distribution but I remember the day I finally tracked it down (through some secondhand half.com-style store) and listened to it for the first time. Actually, this CD doesn't really sound much like Talk Talk, a truth which brought immediate disappointment back then; now years later, its individuality is probably what salvages Hex and makes me so appreciative of it. Most of the records that really do sound like Laughing Stock clones (such as that last Slowdive album, or that one Dean Roberts solo record) are too indistinct, like their soul has been sucked out. I know it's a long time til we reach the T's, but soul is what makes Mark Hollis's music so powerful and well, epoch-defining. I don't feel the soul in quite the same way here; BP's songwriting is no less serious but it failed to connect with me on any level. Again, that's not a bad thing, but something different. Bark Psychosis have the same lush organicism that Talk Talk got into, but there's something very on-the-mark about their approach. I listen to 'Pendulum Man', which is the longest track here, and there are some definitely gorgeous soundscapes in there but also the slighest tendency towards repetitive rhythmic structures. Whatever everyone was calling 'post-rock' in the 90s may have actually been, it was rooted in stuff like Laughing Stock but then split and traveled in various directions. Hex is absolutely gorgeous but it was a fork, and maybe along the way that road led through Radiohead, Hood, maybe Fridge or Four Tet -- and then back to Bark Psychosis when they finally released Codename:Dustsucker (which I surely would have jizzed over if I heard it in 2000 but it came too late to claim any of my already-ravaged attention span. Sadly). I know I'm not doing them any service to keep comparing Hex to Talk Talk, but BP also struck me as extremely British (like British Petroleum, another BP acronym?) and even though Talk Talk were British too, I think Hollis' influences were far more American. Hex was always a little disturbingly close to all of those scary things I associated with British music in the 90's: clubs, flashing lights, electronic beats, synthetic drugs and weird London slang. Of course that's mostly off-base because this is really slow, introspective music that makes grand gestures towards beauty, dissonance and texture. But I still hear it - this is a band that is making fantastic, powerful music with a pile of gear and expensive recording technology. This is not four guys in a garage with a few effects pedals. Some tracks, like 'Absent Friend', have parts that remind me of traditional/medieval folk music actually - even though it clicks into a more 'modern' sound. Throughout Hex, there are some lovely rhythms and the sounds of various instruments going in and out of phase with each other through their melodic cycles. The lyrics are there and the singing needs to be heard, but the words don't matter. I probably listened to this record at least 30 times back in the day, and it feels very familiar, although it still feels new. This is music that doesn't dig into my brain; it floats overtop and makes millions of synaptic connections each time I heard it, but has never quite become "mine". Maybe I'm just saying that it doesn't have obvious hooks, no hit song, nothing so obvious. Whenever there's the old debate about Appolonian vs. Dionysian sound, I wonder where Bark Psychosis score - they seem to be somewhat beyond such classifications.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Bablicon - 'The cat that was a dog, a flat inside a fog' (Misra)

For their final album (the swansong as the Rock establishment calls it) Bablicon are showing their compositional skills. Gone, mostly, are the haywire improv freakouts and the studio dubbery; we're left with a very organic collection of 16 tracks with lots of different instruments and varying personnel. Gone, mostly, is the excitement too. What's left is a too-long mess that is stretched thin; I could be even harsher and say "boring" and "inconsistent". The first half of this double album is The cat that was a dog but there's very little to thrill. The opening track mirrors Orange Tapered Moon's opening track at least in the sense of there being intelligible singing, though this is a much more mellow moonlight jazz number that is certainly inoffensive but hardly incendiary. The Duke Ellington fixation begins here and stays throughout this half of the CD, which would definitely have worked better as two single albums. 'Travelling' is a very lengthy piece constructed around some lovely piano runs but it adds up to nothing more than Muzak to me. The highlight of this half (and maybe the whole CD) is the lengthy 'Saumur/Paris/Teatowels' which has some tape manipulations and a strange, low-level murmuring that reminds me of Graham Lambkin and the Shadow Ring's recent output. It eventually falls into the jazzrockjam that would most identifiably be the 'Bablicon sound', but I liked the murky part best! The second half, A flat inside a fog, is an improvement, as the quirkier stuff is crammed here. 'Distant Morfonger' just sounds like a track for progheads but has some weird electronic gurgling under melodica, which flows into 'Arcdurwish' which continues the electronics before melting into a circular mess of sampled geese, tapes and spazzy drumming. Things at least get a bit loose here but it's too little, too late. Much of 'Bahamut' is unremarkable and 'AEther' takes the spazzy theramin playing from their first album and sets it against another piano ballad (albeit a bleak one). The compositional side goes into overdrive on 'Aphe hall' and 'Atlas' Cousin' with a full orchestral score; it resembles Varèse's work and is pretty excellent, but it just doesn't belong. Everything and the kitchen sink, huh? The drummer (who's the guy from Neutral Milk Hotel) lays out a "fuzz organ' solo track which is at least a bit of dirt and grit like this record needs, but it just feels like filler. 'Pigeon of Doom' is a title given to songs by bands like Bablicon and not bands like Motorhead; the vaguely Monty Python humour spills into the song itself which has some moaning vocals but is otherwise unremarkable. It all ends with 'An Odd Pear', another excursion into fake jazz-trio 'maturity'. I realise I may sound pretty damn harsh but this record feels especially difficult to enjoy because of its length and because it comes as a huge disappointment against the awesomeness that was their second album. So the stars maybe only aligned once over Chicago, for these three; at least we'll always have that 35 minutes and we can ignore these 65.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Bablicon - 'The Orange Tapered Moon' (Misra)

Ten years ago I was jizzing over this and it hasn't been any worse for the wear. This 'sophmore' effort is much more focused, with a significantly shorter running time (35 minutes) and pieces that, if not composed more tightly, at least feel more cohesive. Opening track 'Silicon)(Bucktown' is the pop song Bablicon hinted at with their first album, replacing the moaning with sharp, shouted lyrics that are still just a bit buried by dissonant string glissandos and thick-ass Wurlitzer piano. The funk-rock bass drives it along but this band knows exactly which side of fusion to stay sheathed in. Things get a bit more Zorn, before exploding on 'Anne on an Infibulus' where musical chops meet determination and momentum. The whole record has a nervousness to it, though it's able to take on a groove at the same time. Things start to fall apart despite the rolling medicine ball of rhythmic prog. There's a nice ebb and flow in the higher register, and by the time things segue into the flanged aggro-dub of 'Orange Moon' we've been on some sort of very weird journey. Side two (the CD booklet, though near-impossible to read, replicates the 'proper' style of an LP) opens with some tinny concrète piece that clatters about rather ambitiously, and in the hands of less skilled artists it may seem out of place. What makes Bablicon great is their ability to forge a balance between the collage aesthetic and more guttural jazz/groove-oriented music, yet with a flavor for fake neoclassical orchestration (heard a bit on the first album too, but more prevalent on 'ZIO(Z)'). The final track 'An Orange Pumpkin Glowing Moon Ensemble', takes the bigband minimalism of Vibracathedral Orchestra and injects it with a dose of 'Here Come the Warm Jets'. Triumphant, anthemic, or just easy? Again it's all in the balance, and this feels like a release to me - the crowning summation of what was the (now pretty much forgotten?) Bablicon's finest moment.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Bablicon - 'In a Different City' (Misra)

At the same time that the Azusa Plane were stretching tones across a cloudy sky in Philly, these guys were bashing away in Chicago, attempting to resurrect some 70's artrock/prog spectres but kicking it in the face with the mishmash of musical ideas the 90s taught us. Pretty much instrumental, In a Different City is fairly auspicious, bouncing from free rock to musique concrete interludes, sticking to conventional acoustics for the most part but not afraid to throw in some gurgling synths/electronics or some blasted, distorted electric bass. One of these dudes was a composery type, and I think he's the one squiggling about on the reeds - but probably also he's the one playing Charles Ives on 'Pictor's Metamorphoses'. Tracks like 'Francis Locrius' dance back and forth between aggro-jazz and Krautlike monotony, and if I have a criticism it's that the pieces don't feel like they are cut from the same cloth. Some really delicately arranged strings crop up a few times, though in 'At the Birthday Party' they're cut with electric piano and a Soft Machine-esque chord progression. I think it's the electric piano that makes this feel so prog, because the compositions aren't particualrly rooted in classical music or dungeons and dragons stuff. Being their first (of three), Bablicon have a 'kitchen sink' tendency here, but that's part of the charm -- we have two future albums during which we can hear them refine their approach. The liner notes, difficult to read as they are, are packed with all of the various instruments that each member plays. Did I mention they all use pseudonyms and only one of them has the balls to look at the camera in the inner photo? Maybe that's the one moaning on 'Rhinocerous', which shimmers like a wobbly elephant in ballet slippers until it runs onto a bobsled track (or is it the luge? Never sure what mixed metaphor is best for a theramin solo). Psychedelia can come from the old and the new; kudos to this band for trying to meet each hafway.

Azusa Plane - 'Tycho Magnetic Anomaly and the Full Consciousness of Hidden Harmony' (Camera Obscura)

There was a time in the mid-to-late 90s that the city of Philadelphia rose up from a beer and sports-fueled haze and began embracing cosmic sounds, rooted no doubt in the city's antecedents (Rundgren?) and some of the under-recognised pre-current that was happening there. Or maybe not - maybe this is just some shithead narrative grafted onto Philly by some desperate music critics at the time - anyone remember the awful term 'Psychedelphia'? But there appeared to be a definite momentum, at least to me, an outsider; and of these bands, many of whom have been forgotten, the Azusa Plane were an example of the most 'pure' and commited to the ur-drone, shredding any vestigal rock and roll in favor of Terry Riley's harmonic sunpulse. I know they put out a few records in their day but this one, their first (I believe), is the only one that ever really grabbed me. Here's an hour of guitar-based psychedelic music: slow unfolding drones, delicate tension, and subtle pulses. Of the four tracks, it's the last one that distinguishes itself the most (through steady repetition and a nice warm fuzz). Liner notes give you silly Germanic cosmicspeak for each track but I don't get much from that. This beat the rush of drone that came from the American underground - beat it by about a decade, but is it distinguishable? Back in '99 music like this sounded really exciting, like it had some vision and attitude and some higher calling. (At least to me - I was a young 'un!) But now I think about Satie and LaMonte and the VU and Heldon and Ash Ra and the Azusa Plane, and I try to find a place for all of this alongside, I dunno, a zillion tapes by Emeralds-related projects? Sometimes I just can't feel, like Lou Reed after his parentally-imposed anti-homo shock treatment; when I listen to this I try to sink into it, but I can't lose myself. Distractions, distractions. The one thought that I keep returning to is how similar these guitar bleats are to the sound of Lilys' Eccsame the Photon Band, as if 'High Writer at Home' is about to come bursting out of these tracks. Same city and maybe the same personnel or studio or equipment - is this the sound of Philly I hear, an aural cheese steak (or replace with vegetarian stereotype)? I think the main guy behind this band died under sad and mysterious circumstances. Or was he the entire band? This sounds suspiciously like a dense, one-man project. Nice art though (and kudos for thanking Corpus Hermeticum for inspiring it, though the use of System 7 "Chicago" font for that inner panel kinda wrecks the medieval theme.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Albert Ayler - 'Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings' (Impulse!)

The other piece of the puzzle is here - longer, unedited and more orchestrated material from the 1966 band heard on the Lörrach/Paris 1966 LP. This time the recordings come from Albert's side of the big pond, though the Dutch violinist Michael Sampson is still present. Also present on some tracks are Joel Freedman (cello), Henry Grimes, Alan Silva, George Steele and Sunny Murray; the personnel changes across the two long compact discs but the energy and resonance never drops a beat. This is the great celebratory music of the American experience, here allowed to extend to 10, 12, even 16 minute pieces. The Ayler brothers remain front and center - I would even go as far to say that Don has near-equal footing with Albert on these discs - though there's some incredible string work and the drumming is the most full-on and upfront of any Murray or Harris recordings we've heard so far in this blog. The second track of the first disc, 'Truth is Marching In', is one of those bold, masterful cuts that I would rank among the best in Ayler's entire discography (though we still haven't really digested the Holy Ghost box, which is exempt from this blog). Every single superlative you can lay on what makes this music great - the incorporation of folk/spiritual forms, bold melodic gestures, exuberant energy, amazing interactions, a heavy focus on timbre and resonance, a lockstep understanding of drama and tempo - can be heard in the 12:42 of 'Truth is Marching In'. To be fair, all of disc 1 is energetic and explosive, with long tracks that stretch out the melodic motifs and repeat them ad infinitum, but also extend and meditate upon them. Oh yeah, there's also a nice -- pardon me, breathtaking -- ballad at the end of disc 1 with nice Fats Waller-style piano runs ("probably" by Cal Cobbs, Jr. who I think was the dude that played harpsichord on Love Cry?) and Ayler showing just how deep the wavering tone can dip (it's enough to touch your soul). It's called 'Angels'. So disc two starts with 'For John Coltrane' who had died shortly before this improvisation. It's somber, as expected, with the cello and double basses (meaning two of them) somewhat indistinguishable from another but working perfectly with Sampson's classical background. Albert is on alto and the track is quite a bit different from anything else he ever recorded because of this. Now because I've listened to these so many times, the digipak is pretty battered and disc 2 skips quite a bit, rendering 'Spiritual Rebirth' and 'Infinite Spirit' near-unlistenable. But the skips work out for 'Omega is the Alpha' , by which point John Philip Sousa's been thrown into a blender with Robert Johnson, Stephen Foster, and Bessie Smith; what comes out is chopped up even further. Repetition, repetition, repetition - 'Light in Darkness' features every musician playing the same lines (or thereabouts), falling in and out of sync with each other and sketching 100 years of celebration and sadness in the space between the notes. Timbres shift, adjustments are made. The beat goes on and on, the strings and plucked and bowed, and the brass continues to bleat. This music is eternal.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Albert Ayler and Don Cherry - 'Vibrations' (Freedom)

This is one of those questionably packaged CDs that gives equal creedence to Don Cherry though he's not really there the whole time, and the cover art is just Ayler anyway. But in 1964 Cherry was much more established than young upstart Albert so I understand the need to bill things this way. This is the Spiritual Unity trio with Cherry coming in on his cornet or trumpet or whatever it was; so I've always taken this as a live document of the group in 1964, with some hints at the great trumpet/sax interplay to later come with Albert started playing with his brother. We get 'Ghosts' twice, sounding like an increasingly darker part of the yard where these musicians are chassing an errant whiffleball. But 'Holy Spirit', coming at the end of the first half, is a real scorcher. Opening with an atonal convergence of brass birds, it develops into an open yet passionate piece that swerves towards chaos but is continually pulled back into check by it's melodies. Gary Peacock kicks out some deep, thick bowing near the end; the piece grinds to statis after this. The second half has the title track and 'Mothers'; Cherry is fast and wispy but Albert steals the show. This is a live recording so it's hard to know what sort of room they played in, but Ayler sounds like he's playing through a SpaceEcho pedal or something. I guess this is just his magic vibrato occasionally repeating itself to the furthest horizons.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist - 'Danse Manatee' (Catsup Plate)

This is the one that blew it open, for me at least. The sound of a New York-cum-Maryland underground circa 2001: psychedelia, contemporary electronic aeffects, and spazzy freakout stuff minus the traditions of West coast composition, free jazz, minimalism, post-punk, etc. Yeah, it's a new breed that's certainly paid dividends in terms of followers, eight years later (not to mention surely some rich rewards monetarily). But here's something different indeed; a songcraft exposed but melted, finding the point at which it's something more than just deconstructing "normal" songs. The compositions themselves are damaged, so these arrangements flow naturally. Listen to 'Meet the Light Child' - or any of the songs here, really. They hadn't embraced the Sung tones yet, cause this is as cold as it gets. And it's also one of the tinniest records I've ever heard. Even when there is some low end it has a metallic shimmer, or some warbling birdcalls layered on top to cut through the thickness. The percussion here, by Mr. Panda Bear, is insanely fluid and free, reminding me at the time of Lightning Bolt (really! cause they were a big deal in 2001) but more open and less aggressive, of course. They never had such flutering cymbal work on any other record and there is an improvised feel to this despite the fleeting harmonies. And what a blast of bright white light this was. Music could be relentlessly experimental and direct at the same time! A pop hook can be an even more wonderful thing if it's the balancing beam between two avant-garde textures. And while this all sounds commonplace now, and this album has been actually kind of forgotten among their more popular works to follow, I can't help but turn back to this with the same wide-eyed wonder during which I first heard it, in a car, in late 2001. I remember the car was fairly loud - an old clunker, can't remember where I was going or who played it for me, but the finer nuances of the higher registers were completely lost to my ears thanks to the sound of wind and road noise. I was still struck by the rhythms, the singing, and the general messy structures that were still structures. When I heard it properly, while stationary, it was like a bucket of sticky glitter that I hadn't heard before was caked over most surfaces. It's easy to say that an artist was more "innocent" on their earlier work, especially if their breakthrough records found a larger audience, but I don't think that's the case here. The vocals are surely less present, so maybe you could argue for a timidity that disappeared later on, but there's nothing innocent about this music. It was made with the firmest of intentions, and lit a flame that later became a spotlight.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Atman - 'Tradition' (Drunken Fish)

"Featuring Anna Nacher", whose vocals are all over this thing, this Atman album buzzes and howls through the dark Polish woods, years before Dead Raven Choir. Where renmant ghosts of Nazi tanks still remain, melting voices from the spiritworld blend with rampant ethnoacoustics. There's a Hendrix cover and a bunch of crazed shoutingYELPINGmuttering, lotsa instruments you don't know the names of, and a general woodland vibe. Sixty-three minutes of it, too! But like future band the Magic Carpathians, that forest atmosphere is taken into a recording studio and all the tricks are in place. There's a funky electric bass, some synths, and a general layer of gloss over everything. This pagan approach to psychedelic music, with the rock all sucked out, surely influenced all those bands in Finland that came along later. Except that while those bands used lo-fi hiss to make their sound more otherwordly, distant, etc., Atman seem cool with the idea that music can actually be well-recorded; thus if you are so inclined (and have nice high-quality speakers or headphones and stereo audio equipment) you can really lose yourself in the joy of recorded instruments. The pure, inherent psychedelia of a reverberating string is on display here, though layered and with madcap vocals threatening to distract. The whole "other" aspect of the Polish language gives Tradition an air of exoticism to this native-English speaker, though maybe they're just singing about girls, fast food and cars. Ten years ago, when I got this CD, it was like discovering a new world of insane atmospheres, and from my ancestral homeland as well! But listening now, it feels less impressive; maybe because I've got another decade of hearing similar sounds, some predating Tradition by 20 years or more. But maybe I've just moved further into my own; the pagan thing carries nothing exotic anymore, I've been to Poland now, and my tastes have moved away from crazy folk-based psych. And maybe I demand something a bit more concise now; 63 minutes is a lot of Atman, where 40 might have sufficed. But not to be hard on this - as I haven't listened to this for a few years it was a pretty nice flashback.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Ashtray Navigations - 'Four More Raga Moods' (Ikuisuus)

Four tracks, four raga moods? Well a deliciously ornate foldout CD-digipak is a nice start. The opening track, 'History of Psychedelia', begins with a weird cut-up tape moment before Ben Reynolds starts to play the acoustic guitar in a Takoma-esque flowery style. There's some variable speedwarble and a few dips and then it creaks to a halt. I'm not sure if this covers the whole history of psychedelia in such a short time, but I guess it's a start. And then onto 'Hey Sunflower Motherfucker': Phil Todd solo, and it's a 10 minute "typical" Ashtray track, though that's not to denigrate it - it's a deep, dense buildup of drone and feedback with some drumming as well. As a venue for Phil to show what he can do on his own, he excels here. 'The Pete Nolan Effect' is Pete and Phil and Mel Delaney and Reynolds, and it opens with ten minutes of melodies buried under a ridiculous amount of tape hiss - before the proper "jam" comes in, with a flange-heavy distant recording technique. Said jam starts slowly - very slowly - and over the course of the next twenty minutes it moves little. Pete Nolan is on guitar so it doesn't come in with any thunderous rocking; in fact, it's difficult to determine what, if anything, is "the Pete Nolan effect". The final track is another twenty minutes of deep dense droning, this time featuring Chris Hladowski, Alex Neilson and Matt Cairns, from the Glasgow band Scatter. This weirdo hybrid is spooky and foreign-sounding due to the presence of dijiridoo and "magic bouzouki", but somehow true to the vibe of the record. Everything is still staticy and crackly, and it's actually quite a gem from the discographies of all of these gentlemen, yet one that is probably forgotten by being buried at the end of a 70+ minute Astray Navigations CD that no one will ever listen to the end of. Despite the deluxe gatefold CD packaging and the crisp CD sound, Phil Todd made sure to keep enough noise and static on here to show his roots. And despite having four different lineups on four different tracks, it feels coherent -- like a proper "album" done all at once, even though it's nothing but. But it wouldn't quite be Ashtray Navigations if the cellotape and band-aids didn't show on the outside.

Ashtray Navigations - 'The Love that Whirrs' (Last Visible Dog)

This trio lineup of Phil Todd, Alex Neilson, and Ben Reynolds stuffs this disc with guitar tones, decaying note ambience and stale cigarette-infused air. Despite the minidisc-style recording this feels quite slick - after all it's a "proper" CD and not the usual edition of 20 -- and though you can hear the general room sounds, it sounds great. Maybe this shows what some proper mastering can do for you. I had a discussion a few years back with someone, back when this whole underground noise/drone CD-r/cassette scene was experiencing a flareup, and they said that they still viewed full-length LPs and "proper" CDs as the major statements/albums -- and the tapes/CDrs as "singles". I've seen it that way ever since and I think a lot of artists affiliated with that scene do too, even if they may not articulate it as such. The Love that Whirrs is truly an album then, as it boasts a few 'big' tracks. 'Psychedelic Psamosa' is the centerpiece, beginning with Reynolds' acoustic fingerpicking while Phil and Alex build up a thick blanket of scrapes and drones around it. I love how spacious the sound is, yet you can tell it was certainly recorded in a tiny room or dingy Leeds basement - it's a false expansiveness, a cavernous facade on council housing. The acoustic guitar (also present on the final track) creates some distinct notes to poke out of the air, but it's quickly consumed by the all-encompassing sound blanket. The Vibracathedral Orchestra comparison is easy to make, particularly as they just live down the street and both groups indulge in thick minimalist psychedelia with acoustic instruments, but Ashtray introduce a great deal more tension into their interactions. Plus it's a smaller group to begin with, and Ashtray aren't afraid to branch out into harsh noise, musique concrete or straighter-folk forms - all of which are present, in glimpses, on this record. This came out reasonably close to Four More Raga Moods yet it's this one I tend to pull out most frequently, as it feels generally more cohesive.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Ashtray Navigations - 'ssssnares' (Memoirs of an Aesthete)

This 3" CDr was issued by Phil Todd in 2002, documenting 18 more minutes of Ashtray Navigations, though I have to say that listening to this now when most of my Ashtray collection consists of the sludgebucket years of 2004-2007, I'm quite taken by it. This is six tracks, some only seconds long but enough to catch you off-guard with their weird dissonances and hiss; and others are longer 'workouts' (an overused word, for sure, but one that I always think is applicable to the marathon-like Ashtray Navigations pieces). 'Discoversion of America' isn't really disco, at least not like fellow Leeds artist Astral Social Club, but does have a ringing tonal lead, probably guitar or cheap synth, that makes it into an anthem of sorts. 'Point thine ears' is the longest piece, with C. Jarvis' "rat guitar/electronics" - dense garbageman psychedelics that give a strong hint to the Ben Reynolds/Mel Delaney years that will follow. There's parts on the early tracks, particularly 'Irons' and 'Smoke & Mirrors Fucking Shit' that recalls Todd's earlier band, Inca Eyeball - ramshackle acoustic messes that are clean yet ragged. Definitely this is one of my favorites among the zillions of Ashtray CDs I own - well, it's more like 12 but most of them won't see the light of Elbow Cinderblock Glass Mastered Constructor Bags since none have spines. This, packaged in a sturdy plastic case with a nice thick spine, has always gotten to sit at the "big" dinner table with the other spined jewelcases, so there you are.