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Sunday, 19 December 2010

Chisel - '8 AM All Day' (Gern Blandsten)

I was sixteen years old and my music friend (the man responsible for making me mixtapes which forever cemented my interest in mid-90s indie rock) was trying to get me into Superchunk. He had succeeded in showing me the ways of Pavement, Sebadoh and some minor cult faves who you will hear about later. Superchunk actually came to town during this period, but I didn't go, as I had yet to become hip to their sounds. My friend returned from the gig with his mind blown by the opening act, Chisel. I remember him saying "They took the stage and then played the most amazing songs I ever heard"; he snapped up both of their CDs and immediately dubbed them for me. Now I eventually did become a Superchunk fan, but it's because of Chisel that I regret missing that show (I would later see both bands). Now I've nearly doubled in age, but 8 AM All Day is one of those CDs that I've taken with me from place to place, pulling it out at least once a year for a trip down memory lane. It has become no less sweet with time. This is one of the prime artefacts from an era where I learned every millisecond of my favourite albums by heart, finding deep connections to the songs that tapped into a physicality and a lyrical connection as well. Yeah, that doesn't happen anymore. For one thing, I'm not sixteen anymore. I still remember every millisecond of this album and I'm glad I do! At the time, I didn't know much about the DC-area hardcore scene (of which Gern Blandsten, the label, was a player, releasing a bunch of other records though I can only remember Merel right now) or the history of mod-influenced power pop. Ted Leo has never shied away from his appreciation of Paul Weller or Joe Jackson but I didn't know any better then. All I knew was that 'The Dog in Me' was the perfect summation of everything I wanted indie rock to be. It was fast, and aggressive, with an awesome guitar solo/buildup at the end, backing vocals during the chorus that showed an appreciation of pop saccharine, and a line like "Trying to touch that sound/and not let it get me down/when nobody comes around". Of course that's magic to my ears, because this stuff was all part of a secret club for me, and I was on the outside looking in. Ah, this whole fucking album still stands up as a masterpiece to my older, jaded ears. The opening cut, 'Hip Straights', explodes with the line "Why don't we go walking for awhile?", intensifying in pitch and energy as the song goes on. I was amazed by Ted Leo's guitar playing - I thought at the time he was the best guitarist I had ever seen (it was 1997 when I finally saw them) because he could shred these inventive, fast licks and sing at the same time! 'What About Blighty?' was as fast and hardcore as I could take it then, and I still jump around when listening to it. 'Your Star is Killing Me' was on the first album (Nothing New, my copy of which seems to have disappeared) but re-done here with twice the energy. And then the immaculate 'Looking Down at the Great Wall of China From Way Up High in the Sky', whose lyrics are far more whiny and self-centered than such a grandiose title would indicate. The tempo cuts back for this one, and the endless guitar lead is like a knife slicing through butter. I didn't really know what 'emo' was at this time but this sure woulda been it! Even now I shouted out "I still care about her / yeah I really like her a whole whole lot" while listening, though typing it make me realise that at 16 I wasn't so concerned about fear of commitment. The rest of the album continues to be great. The title track has a brilliant cadence that almost re-works 'The Dog in Me', yet it's still a distinct song. 'Out for Kicks' is an actual reworking of a song from Nothing New, with new lyrics, and perhaps the most overtly Jam-styled number. And then the beautiful, beautiful closing pair of songs, 'Citizen of Venus' and 'Breaking Up with Myself'. Leo's songwriting was a better glimpse into the world I dreamt of than the bigger names like Malkmus or Barlow could manage; the emotions conveyed now pretty much summed up my life from age 18-22, when I was still listening to Chisel but a lot less frequently. So what happened to Chisel? They made another album which I anticipated like nothing else in the world, but was disappointed by; Ted Leo went on to a solo career that wasn't bad, but I never really got into except for one album (Hearts of Oak). I grew up and never stopped loving 8 AM All Day, and I love meeting others who share it with me. It's not the life-altering artistic statement of an Astral Weeks or even an Alien Lanes, but it's perfect nonetheless.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Cerberus Shoal - 'Bastion of Itchy Preeves' (North East Indie)

With excesses in check, this is the Cerberus Shoal record I was waiting for, quite literally for years. The live band that I saw in 2000 or 2001 was a really mystical, strange creation that somehow touched on things antiquated and historic, yet was obviously innovative and forward thinking. And while this was released after Chaiming, they started recording it in 2001 and just took ages to finish it. Bastion of Itchy Preeves is another 70+ minute disc, but this time it's split over ten songs. There's a strong reliance on xylophones or steel drums, making tracks like 'Bogart the Change' resemble a mutant Talking Heads. Flutes and recorders are so integrated into their sound at this point that it's barely noticeable - just part of that whole Cerberus Shoal thing, y'know? And vocally, there's some beautiful, haunting harmonies - the chant of 'Baby Gal' with it's sharply over-enunciated inbreaths is pure Edward Gorey. The songs tend to open up more, and they aren't afraid to build up thick drones and occasionally erupt, but there's less of a need to have thunderous post-rock structures behind everything. And the humour is far more restrained which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your personal take. 'Grandsire' opens things up with a thick rolling blanket of pure tonal bliss, a strong post-Homb step towards melodic convergence. There's sample voices, processed through damaged electronics, but only as icing on the cake - the core of all of these songs is the notes, rhythms and voices generated by very human hands. I think my enjoyment of Itchy Preeves is somehow set by the artwork, a monochromatic modification of a TV schedule -- it conveys something antediluvian, but clearly contemporary - a true hodgepodge of sensory juxtaposition which is probably the best way to describe Cerberus Shoal. But I go into this disc with a certain mentality that's much more austere than the technicolour Chaiming. I mean, there's still elements of Chaiming's goofy, art-rock cocktail here. It's most notable on 'Tekel Upharsin', I think. That track builds up around around a repetitive, circular bassline, with notes slipping around on their intonation in a way that somehow reminds me of uber-primitive synth work. Over this various ethnic stringed instruments pluck out a melody, along with accordion and violin, and then group singing that's like a mentally insane village party, but without any trace of Wicker Man-style tones. It feels a bit like being stuck in a chicken coop at parts. A lot of Itchy Preeves falls into neo-prog territory, though the band is far more focused on textural exploration than displaying chops or composing complex song structures. The closing track, 'A Head No Bigger Than a Man's Cloud', takes on a Cocteau-like atmosphere with it's undecipherable, breathy vocals, and a twee music box dances overtop of the things. It's almost distracting from the gentle tide that lies underneath, making this a lovely finale.

Cerberus Shoal - 'Chaiming the Knoblessone' (North East Indie)

Here we take a step from the realm of post-rock into the outer spheres of whatthefuck. Chaming the Knoblessone is 7 tracks in almost 80 minutes, in two suites of 3 songs with 'A Paranoid Home Companion' as the self-styled intermission. This is five years past Homb and we can hear that the band has clearly been immersed in Beefheart, the Residents, bad sci-fi and probably some primitive musics as well. The instrumentation isn't strikingly different - there's still a hi-fi studio rock basis to everything, though we get a bit more radios, static and electronics than before. Musically it's still largely centered around guitars, drums, and breathy-windy things (in which I include the accordion which drives 'Mrs. Shakespeare Torso'). The guitars are more trebly though; the voices escape the trappings of chanting by getting into weird, contorted/affected sillyness, and there's a huge prog construction to everything (these are long, long songs). Vocally, though, there's just way more of them - I'd guess all band members contribute voices, and there's a heavy emphasis on narration (particularly 'Companion' and 'Story #12 from the Invisible Mountain Archive'). The opening cut 'Apatrides' sets the tone, with Ralph/Residents-style vocal layers over the bending guitars and deconstructed rhythms. The flowing spiritual earth mother vibe almost seems like a joke here, and there's lots of elements of humour. 'Paranoid Home Companion' is certainly the obvious place to look for yuks, though I actually found it easiest to tune out this long conversation with an electronic/robotic voice (though I liked the gameshow-style interlocutor). 'Story #12' talks about assholes and poop, which definitely undercuts the feeling that Cerberus Shoal might take themselves too seriously, but the affect is just so hard to figure out. What are they trying to do? The only real comparison I can make is 'Billy the Mountain' by Zappa and the Mothers, though I don't know why I have to compare it to anything. 'Ouch: Sinti, Roma, Zigeuner; The Names of Gypsy' is based around a call and response 'Ouch!' thing, though it does build up into quite a maelstrom by the end. I guess 'The Names of Gypsy' is the second half, a minor key dirge that, along with 'Sole of Foot of Man', is the most traditional songwriting here (which looks ahead to Big Blood, Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin's next band). 'Scaly Beast vs Toy Piano', the 12 minute closer, has lots of said piano which I really like, and then the same array of manic language insanity that starts to feel commonplace by this point in the disc. The toy sound is great though and by the end there's a real sense of everybody pulling apart from everybody else as it lumbers along that makes it one of the more rewarding moments on Chaiming (if you are able to tune out the voices). This is one example of a CD digipak really being a beautiful object in its own - though of course I would prefer Kinsella and Karl Greenwald's art in a large double LP format. There's a foldout poster with more words and watercolours (if you haven't had enough language after 80 minutes) and it's a lovely vision, even if it's mostly esoteric and unintelligible. The use of a nice recording studio ensures a thick sheen on every minute of these Cerberus Shoal records, which makes it all feel even more strange and artificial. (As if the robot voice isn't enough). It's funny how a predominantly acoustic-based artist (that accentuates their music with lots of small miniature instruments, a la Art Ensemble of Chicago) still manages to feel digital. Scott Colburn had a hand in this (and even played some guitar), so you get that level of professionalism, and no trace of raggedness. Some of the dynamic rushes are quite trance-inducing, even if they are buried behind a rock song (or a talking robot). I'm sure I could spend hours and hours digging into the ideas on here and probably find a well-constructed narrative about the dissolution of humanity, straight outta Phil K Dick. But this is Cerberus Shoal, a band who if I had to describe in one word it would be 'confounding' (sorry, you didn't get 'eclectic', guys and gals).

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Cerberus Shoal - 'Homb' (Temporary Residence Limited)

Oh, how do we even begin the Cerberus Shoal story? Like so many others, these guys began as a post-hardcore/emo sort of thing, with their early records drawing comparison to Still Life and bands like that. Now, I'm not really an expert in such matters and when it comes to the Shoal, my entry point is here on Homb, which is 1998. And even still, this sounds remarkably post-rock influenced, and somewhat, well, pedestrian compared to the total melted Americana mindfuck I saw around, hmmmm, let's say '99 or 2000. So I picked up Homb which is basically what was available at the time, and had pretty much the same core members, and found something a lot closer to the Tortoise/Slint sound (which is no shock for 1998). Now, I don't mean to come down too hard on Homb (and I say this as someone who likes Tortoise and Slint) -- the strong rhythmic underpinnings on this disc are what ties it to the post-rock tradition, and it's these strong rhythms that were phased out later, or maybe they just became more fluid. Good times are everywhere on these long jammy tunes. 'Omphalos' is like Slint's 'Washer' overlaid with pitch pipes, drones, and a nice oceanic drift. But it has a hell of a drum sound that anchors it, even when it slows down a bit and tries to open up. It's the opening track, really, 'Harvest', that is the most atmospheric, but I fear it's meant just as an introduction. Reeds and breaths are all over Homb, at times veering into Windham Hill territory (nothing wrong with that either!), and there's a ton of instruments listed in the liner notes, mostly Art Ensemble kinda shit I think, but it's too hard for me to actually read the cursive so I don't really know. The last 2/3 of the album is a 3-part suite called 'Myrrh' which is a pretty huge construction, I guess. The first part, 'waft', is where we hear lots of wooden blocks and whistles and things like that, with more deep breathy new agey wooden flutes and whatnot. Vocals eventually come in, and they're slow, deeply intoned, and nothing like you'd expect from ex-emo kids. The intervals are minor and uneven, and it has a bit of overall wow and flutter that gives it a nice instability. The production, by the way, is really, really good here - clearly the product of Maine's finest recording studios, and call me a spoilsport, but I wish it was a bit more lo-fi! It slowly melts into part two, 'loop', the loop of which seems to be a 3-note bassline which drives the tune, but not without some variation. Over this, reverb-laden flutes (or flute-like things), guttural moans, and arpeggiated guitars noodle around. It's not really spacey or exploratory (by which I mean it's nothing like Hawkwind) but seems more concerned with keeping the atmosphere burning bright. Sometimes the band kicks it up a notch, but then they pull back soon after. There is also heavy use of flanger in this track. It pounds along for ten minutes, eventually climaxing in a mess of horns, and then we're left with decaying breezes. I'm not sure where I've actually been taken to, though. And then 'Myrrh (reprise)' which is the epic instrumental piece at the end, which I just sat through and enjoyed, but I don't know if I have the ability to write much about it. There's a thick, big band sound and tons of instruments, lots of rock gestures (loud chord changes, roto toms and all that) though I wouldn't call it that. I'm tired by the end of it, and this is just the intro into a Cerberus Shoal mini-gauntlet - only 3 discs, but they feel long. Time hasn't been as kind to Homb as it should have; I think my own biases against production techniques are interfering with my appreciation of the musical construction. I think I like my weird coastal soundscapes to be lo-fi and scrappy, or maybe I just had a prejudice against people who can actually play the drums.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Cardinal (Wonderland)

Of all the things that you never expected to see reissued in a deluxe edition with bonus tracks! When the Cardinal album reappeared in 2005 I was delighted - for one, because my original love of this album was only known through a cassette dub. Now vinyl would have been nicer (and we can keep dreaming) but at least they did that fancy Japanese-style cardboard sleeve that resembles a mini-gatefold LP. I'll tolerate a CD here because this is really clean, bright music, despite the warbly and murky voice of Eric Matthews and the reedy one of Richard Davies. I'll preface this by admitting that Richard Davies is, for me, one of the most singularly visionary songwriters in all of music, and I'm pretty much a fanboy. Matthews, well, he's not so bad either and I also thought this was a great collaboration because it truly felt 50/50. The liner notes indicate a far more Davies-leaning slant to the songwriting than I realised - Matthews is really the brain behind the arrangements. But when he pulls out the pen, it's cool - 'Dream Figure' being the only song on the proper album that he wrote solo. And it's a good one, with some grungy guitar action over lumbering rhythmic momentum. So really, he's like the understudy apprenticing with the master. And there are some incredible, brilliant songs on this record. 'If You Believe in Christmas Trees' is the opener and still the most iconic Cardinal song (and a good pick for my "best leadoff tracks of all-time" list). The orch-pop tendencies are shown here with a full horn section, but it never overcomes the trio at the core -- Cardinal is far closer to the garage than to Forever Changes. This is a record with many slowly unfolding, long, catchy hooks. 'You've Lost Me There' and 'Big Mink' are both amazing. 'Angel Darling' is a more contemplative duet-type ballad that bursts with horns only to repeatedly pull back into its shell. 'Tough Guy Tactics' is a group contribution and one where drummer Bob Fay's impact is most felt, with it's Sebadoh-like chorus. The sole cover on the album is 'Singing to the Sunshine' by an obscure 60's group called Mortimer. I've never heard the original, but Davies and Matthews harmonizing over a light guitar strum and confident bassline makes some magic. Particularly as the penultimate track - and then we get 'Silver Machines', another total masterpiece. Even though I never heard this song until college, it somehow stirs memories of my earliest teenage years, of wandering through parks and museums with cheap headphones on, and of waiting for my parents to pick me up. Overall, as albums go, Cardinal is not an all-out classic, but a personal classic that obviously attracted some followers over the past 18 years. The most obviously brilliant songs are at the start and finish, leaving a middle that I continue to explore with each listen. Now onto the bonus tracks. Well, a demo version of 'Xmas Trees' is a nice start - it's such a strong tune that even without the horns etc. it's still great. And there's some lyrical variation as well. 'You've Lost Me There', in demo form, allows Matthews' breathy croon to really fill the speakers and I might even prefer it to the studio recording. 'Tribute to a Crow' is brief and buried in reverb and riffage - a psych experiment that is a bit of a diversion for Cardinal's otherwise Apollonian mission. There's two cuts from the other Cardinal release, the Toy Bell EP, which both show a younger sound, and only 'Sweatshirt Gown' begins to hint at the transcendence of the full-length, but it ends before it gets going. And finally we get two versions of the great lost Cardinal track, 'Say the Words Impossible', the B-side to the 'Xmas Trees' single. It's a slow creeper, a bit less malevolent in it's demo form. But the studio version has vocals bathed in white noise, and a very austere guitar arpeggio; Davies' cryptic imagery feels like the credits are rolling, and it was a wise choice for the last track. 1994 was an interesting time for pop music like this; it feels so outside of the commercial 'alternative' scene that was happening in the charts, but at the same time, it's some reflection of that. Growing up myself during this time, it felt like these 60's-influenced indie pop bands (Zumpano also comes to mind) were really challenging the (as I perceived it) shallowness and immaturity of stuff like Smashing Pumpkins, Bush, Hole, etc. Now I have the hindsight to realise that these artists had little to do with each other. But it helped to form my own tastes and identity, which is why the Cardinal album is lockstep with my own development.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Cardigans - 'Gran Turismo' (Mercury/Polygram)

In which my secret enjoyment of Swedish pop music is revealed! I forgot that this one was on the shelf, I guess because it's white minimalist spin is easy to not-notice. I'm not entirely sure how I ended up with this; something tells me "promo" or freebie but the barcode is not punctured. Anyway, it's been ages since the Cardigans cold mid-tone pop has graced my ears, so long that the glossy pages of the CD booklet have started to stick together. The songs are infectious enough that I still remember a few of 'em. It's not as pure saccharine as my memory told me, or as others from their homeland are certainly known for (yes, Abba, but I was actually thinking of the Concretes). 'Paralyzed' starts off with a very digital, yet not-overly synthesized hook and an edgy lead vocal. The big hit for me was 'Erase/Rewind', which follows a rather call and response pattern. The singer doesn't have an amazingly distinct voice but it's good for pop music, and both compressed and echo'd at the same time to make it feel even more cold. The title of this record is a Playstation game from the time (1998!) and I can't help but read images of motion and driving into these sons. 'Marvel Hill' and 'Starter' both get some crunchy rhythmic interplay into their back-end, though I wouldn't go as far as to call it 'heavy' -- the drums are too sequenced to allow the proper breathing space. But the details are there - guitars through probably hundreds of rack/studio effects are balanced among (rather restrained) organ/MIDI stuff, and it all gels together nicely. 'My Favourite Game' is maybe most calculated for chart success, with a rollicking brashness that holds up well after twelve years. Tempo shifts are always good and this chorus hangs in a nice slowdown; I can't help but think how this might actually be "timeless" pop (yes, I just wrote that) because it could pass in the current era pretty much unchanged. (Or maybe with a smidgeon of autotune applied?) I expected to toss this on the discard pile by the end, and I still might, but only because it's a CD. Records like this are really the last gasp of the CD era - not released on vinyl (as far as I know, it's a major label of course) and before the whole iTunes stuff hit. The Swedish cheaptones of the past are the landfills of tomorrow!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Can - 'Ege Bamyasi' (Spoon)

I don't remember where I first heard of Can - probably mentioned in some article or interview. I do remember the first time I decided to listen to them, when I was chatting with a coworker. I was sixteen and I had a job working in a library. There was an older music nerd who worked there and I remember asking him what his favourite bands were. He told me that it was probably Pere Ubu (who I had heard of surely, but not listened to) and Can. To which I replied 'The German band?'. Latter that night I went to a Silkworm gig. Anyway I'm digressing again, trying to babble on about my personal history with this music instead of talking about the actual sounds here. Ege Bamyasi is somewhat of a watershed; things weren't quite the same afterwards though I can't quite put my finger on why. This is a much more smooth, fluid record than Tago Mago. 'Pinch', the opener, is languid and bright, though frantic; it's Jaki Liebezeit stretching out and letting everyone else paint broad watercolour strokes over him. 'Sing Swan Song' is simultaneously ballad and minimalist heartpulse. Czukay's bass is brutal and pummeling despite the soft edges, and Suzuki takes us to a new a place with his emoting. 'One More Night' I can't disassociate these days from the loop that appears as the backing track to a few Joe Frank radio shows, during which you can really focus/obsess on it's disjointed rhythm. I'd like to say that this is a dub approach again, built upon a long jammy riff with most of the changes coming from elements coming in and out - 70's cop guitar, cymbals, Damo's voice, etc. It's three tracks in before you realise that this is a new poppy side of Can, no doubt motivated by the hit of 'Spoon', which is tacked on here as the final track. 'Vitamin C' takes us back to the kinetic repetitive funk of 'Hallelujah', though condensed into three minutes and even more open of a songform. There's enough room here for Damo to get quite lyrical, and while his experimentation on Tago Mago is unparalleled here, by this point it really feels like the man is finding a new voice. It's a Can jam for a mixtape, though it ends prematurely. I always swore it was a lot longer. Irmin brings in a somewhat liturgical organ solo near the end, but this is the church of psychological warfare. And there's a segue into 'Soup', the most 'out' track of Ege Bamyasi. This is a tick-tock Jeopardy game, with harshly squealing white noise and electric piano bumps, all somehow kept contained while constantly threatening to rip itself apart. It's a rocker until it breaks into a more freeform section, sounding almost EXACTLY like an Area record. Damo is even affecting some Italianness (Dago Suzumi? I couldn't resist, sorry), all gutturals, sputterings, and rolled consonants. Irmin is going far more synthy than the soft organs we heard on the earlier tracks, and once again (like the end of 'Aumgn') we have Jaki pushed to the forefront. But it doesn't outstay its welcome (not to imply that 'Aumgn' does!) and quickly takes us to the two pop tunes, 'I'm So Green' and 'Spoon'. The former is an edgy jazz-rocker built around a nice Liebezeit/Czukay shuffle and some arpeggiated jangle. It sets a mood quite similar to what the band did with Mooney, though again with a syncopation they could have only dreamed about in 1968. By the end of it's economical three minutes, we've reached something chaotically psychedelic that I'm still not sure how to read. And 'Spoon' was the tune for a cop show, or something like that. Fair enough, cause it's properly suspenseful, built around an ethereal pop hook, laden in reverb and with haunting background vocals. Hit songs are nothing to be ashamed of, and this maybe manages to capture Can at their peak in just three minutes. I know it lacks the long-form workouts, synth/vocal diversions or instrumental freakouts but there's still something to be said for it. The sense of spacyness - not like Hawkwind, but like Alvin Lucier - is there, despite being a fairly busy arrangement, and while no musician really gets to go for it, there's the sense of collective brainmeld that could only happen when a brilliant band reachers their peak.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Can - 'Monster Movie' (Spoon)

It just so happens that 'Father cannot yell' was the first Can song I ever heard, because it's also track 1 on the Cannibalism compilation CD which my university library loaned me during my freshman year. When that rapid, oscillating keyboard started and then another rapid, oscillating drum and bass lick came in to support it, things were never quite the same for me. Monster Movie is a curious one to review now because while all four songs have their strengths, I actually very rarely bother listening to it anymore. There's a lot of ideas here, and most importantly a rudimentary/primitive edge that sort of disappears gradually over the next few albums (is this in any way identifiable as the same band of Future Days?). One can't deny the blues/garage edge, but then Michael Karoli's guitar lines usually sound like hot, pointy daggers. There's a missing rhythm guitarist here, not that Czukay et al lacks the rhythmic skills -- but with the chug-chug chunkiness taken away, they've already found some sort of inner space. Monster Movie has the feel of being recorded in one take, with less focus on studio techniques than we'd later associate with this band. 'Mary, Mary so contrary' is the ballad, or at least a place for Malcolm Mooney to try to inject his warped bleatings with some passion. It has a lumbering movement that sounds like it evolved from some of the middle tracks on Delay 1968, but a bit more precise. 'Outside my door' is the shortest track and one that I like to play when DJing. It has a rambling electric blues feel, and a driving harmonic/violin/keyboard riff (what exactly is it?), and it's probably one of the more 'punk' tracks in the Can oeuvre. But really, the monolithic beast of Monster Movie is 'Yoo Doo Right', which is a sideways inversion of rock arrangement, complete with random/modular vocals. It's such a cliché by this point and I realised after about 9 minutes in -- I haven't actually listened to this song in years. Usually when I put on Monster Movie (which is not that often, sadly) I don't invest myself in the full 20:14 needed to get through 'Yoo Doo Right'. Which is a shame, because I think it's a remarkable track, even if you feel that it's overplayed by the end of it. This is really the earliest use of spacey jazzmopherics in Can's discography, and you can see how it signals ahead to 'Mother Sky'. I guess that's why it has the distinction of being covered by both the Geraldine Fibbers AND Hieronymous Firebrain. Parts drop in and out, but it never stops pulsing, and at times it's hard to distinguish Holger's bass guitar from Jaki's bass drum and/or toms. There's a dark sibilence on everything, and, well, Malcolm Mooney sounds like he's about 79 years old here. He croaks and rasps and there's really no one else who could have carried this song, even though he's seen as the "lesser" Can vocalist. 'Yoo Doo Right' was also on Cannibalism, bookending the collection with 'Father Cannot Yell' beginning it, so I went straight to Monster Movie as my starting point. Its legacy may merely be the first album of a legendary band, but not a legendary album in its own, but it still explodes in its own way.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Can - 'Delay 1968' (Spoon)

An essential part of the four-year college experience, for me at least, was sitting around with my friends listening to Can records and dreaming of changing the universe through sound. Actually when going through this project I'm starting to realise how much of what I'm listening to takes me back to those four years, or the time period immediately after them. It's true that I barely even hear these Can records for being records anymore, since I've heard them so much they're become 'classic rock' to me. But listening now, with the explicit goal of typing something right here for you to read, I tend to come across things I forgot (example: the kazoo playing at the end of 'Man Named Joe' while Jaki Liebezeit is kicking a high school talent show drum solo). I got rid of all of my Beatles records about 8 years ago when I realised that there was no point to owning them, since I could just turn on the radio if I wanted to hear the Beatles. I almost feel that way about Can, though of course no radio station will play Can with the ubiquity that they deserve - -but I suppose I could look on YouTube quite readily to hear (and see!) all the Can I could want in a single dosage. The reason I feel like it would be okay to get rid of my Can records is not that I don't love them, but because they are such an iconic entry in the canon of music that I almost feel like my time could be spent listening to something else. And I realise I'm not explaining that very well, which is well enough since I'm definitely not going to get rid of these records. I'm not sure where to file Delay 1968, since it came out in 1981 but clearly pre-dates Monster Movie. This is such a fun record to listen to, cause it's Can as basement-punk pounders, with no real trace of the textural genius they would get into later. Instead we get distorted guitar riffs, Doors-on-more-acid organ layers, and lots and lots of Malcolm Mooney. 1968 was a hell of a year - romanticised endlessly in the history of rock music, and certainly one responsible for some barnstormers, but this feels like it's coming from another planet. The rhythm section is already established here, filling the disc with that 'Can' sound. Liebezeit's jazz background is held in check in favour of minimal monotonous pounding, with subtle polyrhthymic inflections between the beats -- but nothing to steal the spotlight or take away from the unity of the group! I believe that 'Uphill' and 'Little Star of Bethlehem' definitely rank with the greatest Can songs ever, as perfect samplers of the pre-Damo sound. 'Uphill' is exploratory and horizontal, with band members coming in and out with different layers, solos and stabs. It resembles the opening cut, 'Butterfly', in these aspects, but turbocharged with more oomph (and with that weird ending I guess is a studio accident/error)? 'Little Star' is certainly Mooney's show, with his exemplary lyrical gift being displayed in the most extemporaneous of fashions. But this is also a masterpiece of Michael Karoli's guitar work. It's subtle, and well-crafted, but also thrilling and cutthroat while somehow being the same song. There's not a bad track on this record though. 'Pnoom' is the head-scratcher, but not for long at 26 seconds, and it looks forward to Tago Mago. 'Thief' is a ballad of sort, with Mooney's denial/plea sounding nearly convincing and properly desperate. The story goes that Delay 1968 was shelved so they could make something more commercial, but they made Monster Movie instead, which sounds equally weird to me. Delay 1968 is about as 'classic' as a posthumously released album can be, but since it's actually beginning, we can hear the sounds of genesis. Which can be just as wonderful as the sounds of apocalypse.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Camper Van Beethoven - 'Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead. Long Live Camper Van Beethoven' (Pitch-A-Tent)

It was a shock to hear about this CD, in 2002, when I didn't expect to ever hear another peep from Camper Van Beethoven. But since then, they've become a semi-active band again, although one that has only released fairly experimental new work and mostly plays the classics in concert (I've seen 'em twice and they were awesome both times). Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven is a second odds-and-ends compilation, but not a "normal" one like Vantiquities - it's built upon old material from concert recordings and demos, overdubbed with state-of-the-art 2002 recording techniques. This approach is pretty obvious, particularly as they tried a bit too hard to make things flow. So, the very raw live recording of 'L'Aguardiente' (a nice Balkan stomper) blends into the very studio-based 'Tom Flower's 1500 Valves' with some audience noise to mask the transition, but it's blatant smoke and mirrors. So yeah, this feels pretty incomplete (by definition), with a few old fan-faves like 'SP37957' and 'Balalaika Gap' thrown as bones. The musique concrete experimentation, like the opening track whose name is too long to bother retyping, isn't half-bad -- the opener in particular could be a Morton Subotnick outtake, but it's worthwhile as a bit of outsider electronic experimentation (which I'm sure no one treated it as). If you want to hear new unearthed Camper Van Beethoven vocal-based songs, well, there's a few, though the only really great one is 'Klondike' -- 'Tom Flower's' is a bit lackluster and 'We're All Wasted and We're Wasting All Your Time' is merely 'Shut Us Down' crossed with 'No More Bullshit' crossed with 'The Ambiguity Song' crossed with 'Life is Grand' (and you can guess where it's sequenced). The orchestral 'All Her Favorite Fruit' is expectedly grandiose, but maybe a tad out of place here (but where else would they put it, right?) -- and I prefer the original anyway, because you don't need an orchestra to carry the gravitas. Also notable is another cover of 'Who Are the Brain Police?' (the first one being by CVB offshoot Monks of Doom, though this one has a lot more pizazz). The long composited medley of different live versions of 'SP37957' (I'm assuming from the Key Lime Pie tour, but maybe we're hearing Fichter and Segel together thanks to digital editing) actually has some visionary (in inauthentic) improvisational sections, and it might be my pick of this disc. So what I'm holding is maybe the least essential CD ever, but if it enabled this band to get back together, I'm all for it.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Camberwell Now - 'All's Well' (ReR)

Camberwell Now, what a band, what a moment in music, but what little splash they made! This CD, long sought-after by yours truly before it was finally reissued, compiles everything they recorded during their brief (1984-1986) existence. Now, here's a bias to lay up-front: I'm a massive This Heat fan, and I look to Charles Hayward as a magical musical force that did a lot for my own artistic and critical development. This Heat/Camberwell Now brought together a lot of concerns for me at just the right time in my life (my early 20's!). In the musical arena, they brought together ruthless sound experimentation with mindblowing musical chops - the balance is always perfect, as for every dazzling Hayward drum run comes some incredible use of musique concrete techniques. And lyrically, Hayward showed me that you can bridge fiery, political expression with poetry and the personal - I'd say that I now follow the "everything is political" philosophy, which is a great deal inspired by This Heat. So Camberwell Now was the somewhat more obscure followup band, whose lone LP The Ghost Trade I luckily scored from eBay about ten years ago, but whose other records remained unobtainable. The Meridian EP, which comprises the first 4 tracks of All's Well, is an open, tuneful Camberwell Now, and maybe the furthest removed from This Heat's post-punk caterwauls. The nautical theme is overabundant and years before all those midwestern indie rock bands started writing songs about boats, it's funny to hear Charles Hayward's approach. The trio format of This Heat, with Stephen Rickard on the tapes, is retained; what's different is that there's a more central rhythm, yet less rock structure here. It seems to emanate more directly from the intelligent 70s prog scene that Hayward came out of, but I think more of Rock Bottom than the Quiet Sun LP. Coming in the midst of Thatcherism, these songs about decaying empire and the exploitation of natural resources seem prescient, if not overtly obvious. A bit of digging under the surface is good, and the way these rhythms emerge it feels like waves, gently rocking. The instrumental 'Resplash' is where we get Camberwell Now starting to really amp things up. It gets a bit 'S.P.Q.R' at points, but puts on the brakes at just the right moments, building up massive caches of tension. It's the first really astounding track in a disc that's full of them, and it's like rock music has taken a major step forward. A bonus track, 'Daddy Needs a Throne', is inserted after Meridian, before Ghost Trade and clearly coming from the same sessions. This is when we start to really feel the manic, bass-driven rock of Camberwell Now's middle period. The song, in only 3 and a half minutes, somehow manages to address the difficulty of maintaining a working class family structure, while exploding in a cacophony of furious voices and electricity. But it's almost a teaser for 'Working Nights,' the leadoff cut from The Ghost Trade, which I'm glad to have on CD because my vinyl copy is practically worn through. This is the definitive Camberwell Now song, which is crazy because the first time I heard it I thought it reminded me of New Order! There is something lively and dancey here that This Heat never had, but it's so fucking intense and fast and magical and the bassline is like a choker necklace on your brain. I don't even know what else to stay here, but I know the LP will get listened to soon on Vinyl Underbite, so I'll save it for there. 'Sitcom' follows , assessing the state of progress in mid 80's Britain, and then the beautiful, understated 'Wheat Futures' closes out side 1. Except this is a CD, so we don't have to flip anything! 'Wheat Futures' is one of those songs where Hayward is singing/droning/intoning deeply and passionately, accompanied at first by an electric erhu and some keyboards, and it slowly builds to a slow series of musical thoughts, with a repetitive autoharp line to centre it. This is still somehow punk rock to me, but it's also folk and experimental and anything and everything. Hayward probably never plays drums as minimally as at the end of 'Wheat Futures', yet it's still folding in on itself in rhythmic complexity. 'Speculative Fiction', with it's cut-up vocalisings and electro-beat, at first sounds like the great sellout, but is actually an upright stride towards Valhalla. While still frantic, it's slow enough to breathe, with lots of studio/Rickard tricks, such as layers of bells and whistles, echoing drum fills, and nooks and crannies jumping out at all points. By the end it's a swirling maelstrom of the original electroclash hook and Haywards layered Ya-ya-yas. And then 'Ghost Lantern', whose lyrics aren't printed in the booklet for some reason yet this track continues The Ghost Trade's reliance on Trefor Goronwy's manic basslines and frantic guitar chops, with Hayward's crisp yet explosive drumming. And then 'The Ghost Trade', the 12 minute behemoth that ends the album of the same name. The first four minutes are a midtempo song, an indictment of global capitalism, post-Fordism and conspicous consumption. And then a slow xylophone line emerges from the keyboard smog and a plodding, instrumental coda takes us to the end. It's as beautiful as everything else here, which is to say it's also tense and strange and unusual. And then, the Greenfingers 12" to close out the disc! The title track is an explosive meditation on rural malaise, with punchy saxophones and a rock-solid beat that makes me violently tap my foot off the bottom of my desk when I listen to it. It feels a bit more fruity than what came before, perhaps a feeling carried on in 'Mystery of the Fence'. At this point, the band has expanded to a four-piece, with Maria Lamburn adding the sax, piccolo and viola. The textures are slightly more plastic, but it's 1986 after all - it's got that digital sheen on things, despite Lamburn's organic grounding. Goronwy's own tune, "Know How" comes next, which is a real 180 turn. His earnest, bright voice sounds like he should be in Tears for Fears, and the simple, minimal lyrics are much more commercially rooted than Hayward's use of language. There's a nice pulse behind everything, and I've come to really like this song over time. It's a weird sort of ending for the Camberwell Now, though I guess that would actually be the 35 second 'Element Unknown' which actually ends the disc. I realise this has been one of the longer and more passionate entries in the Constructor Bags to date, but I guess that's why I love music - because it gets me excited, inspired and totally fuckin' pumped! The booklet includes lyrics and a rather technical description of the tape switchboard, written by Rickard. I know that this is all that there is, but I still can't help myself from pining for some more deluxe edition (vinyl!) in the future.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Cadaver in Drag - 'People Mean to Die' (Husk)

I'm not the best one to describe records of this genre, which I believe is called 'grindcore' but someone more attuned to such cultural nuances can certainly correct me. Cadaver in Drag are a four-piece gang of kids from Kentucky who thrash through 9 songs in 16 minutes on this self-released CDr, though most are around a minute long, and 'Baptized in Embaling Fluid' is a long, slow one with (i think) keyboards and a really miserable, downer vibe. The Hair Police guys helped out with the recording of this, and Robert Beatty is credited with electronics and editing, and I'd guess 'Hermaphroditehandjob' is entirely his work, cause it's a cut up work of speedy fuckery. The other tracks are more in the grindy style - insanely fast, blast beats, thick fast guitars, breakdowns, screamed/screeched vocals that are unintelligible, and song titles like 'Sorority Whore', 'Beaten to Death With a Prosthetic Leg' , and my personal favourite, 'Cut into Eighths'. It's an aesthetic, a movement, a lifestyle, and when I've dabbled in it's exhibitions, I've enjoyed what I've seen. Energy, obsession, and definite chops but committed to burying them under white noise and distortion. When these tracks really hit, it's when all of the dissonance builds into these clouds of sharp, rusty overtones and some sort of metallic sheen takes over. I know this is a million miles away from black metal, but the one time I tried to get into Burzum I found that it also worked well if you kept the volume super low, in a bit of a Rafael Toral manner. This works too with Cadaver in Drag, but then you can't hear the majesty of 'Cut into Eighths' as it was meant to be heard. I dig it either way

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Butchy Fuego (Pickled Egg)

Whatever happened to this guy, anyway? Butchy Fuego is some weird visionary in Chicago who hung around with a lot of artrock/freejazz dudes, and made this beautifully designed solo record back in 2001 or so. And like most things on the vastly underrated Pickled Egg label, it failed to make much impact and thus, Butchy Fuego has disappeared into the pile of early 00s experimental CDs. A shame too, cause there's some astoundingly precise cuts here that run between spazzy neo-electro ('The Conquering of Planet Argotron') to Bügsküll-like collage mastery ('Music for Sarah's Film'). The opening would suggest that this is a very schooled bit of post-academy Henry Cow worship, but Butchy Fuego shifts gears constantly, with just enough cohesion to avoid feeling like a weird compilation. 'The Paleontologist' has some buried vocals, as the piece lumbers along in a sort of improv scuzz-rock, not unlike stuff like the Lowdown or Mouthus only a few years precognizant to them - the basement jam band returns in 'Menstrual Motorcycle', only significantly thrashier. 'Bumbleplight' actually sounds like Squarepusher at times, with a cut-up flitter-flutter that doesn't overdo the amp-buzz electronica, feeling again like a logical extension of the acoustic basis we hear earlier. 'Hot Balls' is my mixtape selection - it's an anthemic punch to the jugular that rips out of the speakers through it's lo-fi production, in a fairly calculated stance. But awesome nonetheless. I can imagine that Butchy Fuego is a fairly studio-based project, though the live instrumentation feels organic, not like samples. 'My Experience with Electronics' is maybe the centerpiece, both sequentially and musically. Despite the weak title, Butchy's throwing everything into the bag here and it gels nicely. The album comes to a polite close with 'Bunny', which is delicately sung like a Bedhead song, farting and wheezing until an accordion-driven 4-track indierock second part explodes. I shouldn't keep comparing elements of this CD to other artists, because Butchy Fuego certainly has eked out his own sound, one that should have found some fans. But fans of what? Eclectic, genre-bending art-rock, fractured songforms, complex compositions -- all things that sound great on paper but reveal themselves to be distinct and idiosyncratic when you actually hear them. But if any of those keywords tickle your fancy, then this is one to seek out, undeniably.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Burning Star Core - 'Blood Lightning 2007' (No Fun Productions)

I've always liked when a year appears at the end of a title, such as Death Race 2000 or Airport '77, and the 2007 is probably an essential component of this Blood Lightning, cause, after all, there might be a Blood Lightning 2011 in the works. Adorned by perversely wispy anime/erotica, this 51-minute slab is primarily C. Spencer Yeh on his own, at least until the fifth track which knocks the whole album out of balance somewhat with a big live jam. Taken as just four tracks, Blood Lightning 2007 is an amazingly consistent album, bookended by 'The Universe is Designed to Break Your Heart' and 'The Universe is Designed to Break Your Mind'. The former begins with some pause-button edit vocals or other such murmurings, leads into some electronic drone, and coalesces into the rain-on-gutter electroacoustic wash that is the signature Burning Star Core sound. It's almost like a reader's guide to Burning Star Core, and a good intro to the album. 'A Curse on the Coast' brings in slow, grinding pulses and looks most overtly at Throbbing Gristle's influence on Yeh, though in a somewhat more inquisitive manner than most TG I've experienced. 'Deaf-Mute Spinning Resonator' and the above-mentioned 'Break Your Mind' don't give as much breathing room, but instead work from what sounds like a collage of lo-fi recordings, slow movements, and vocal garblings. The drone is pretty immense by the end, which descends into unidentifiable springy gasps. It's like the perfect antidote to the first half, and a perfect closer -- which makes the fifth track, '10-09-04 Horrible Room, Lexington, KY' all the more jarring. It's a slow starter, all open-form poetics and open-mouthed jazz. It takes on a darker growl after about five minutes, and then the sea of unchanging madness begins to spread out. There's piercing electronics courtesy of Shiflet and Beatty, spazzing out but in very tight confines; Tremaine must be content to tap about on the cymbals while this absolute wall is mortared in. Once it's there, they get going again, but in a dark, punchy way, unlike the Operator Dead swing. If I seem a bit irritated by this live track, it's because it feels like a CDr or cassette release track, tacked onto the end of what's otherwise a very concentrated, focused and cohesive recording. Maybe Challenger is the record to go to for cohesiveness, and this is a more varying document.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Burning Star Core - 'Operator Dead, Post Abandoned' (No Quarter)

It's another big statement, a la Very Heart of the World or Challenger, except miniscule in it's CD format. A shame too, cause these are the huge sprawling sounds of a band, which by definition makes things somewhat less calculated than Yeh's intensely-focused collage solos. It's the massive thunderous group sound, perhaps the definitive recording of the Yeh/Tremaine/Beatty/Shiflet quartet that was most active around 2005-2006 (when this was recorded). Tremaine is the reason this record pulses so hard, and Burning Star Core has curiously chosen to stack the thick cards at the front of the deck. 'When the Tripods Came' maximises the swing elegance, a tip of the hat to swampy early 70s fusion records but fractured through the electro/flourescence of mid-00s murk. Because of this rhythm, everything breathes though it's all gelling together. Yeh's violin and the electronics of Beatty and Shiflet occasionally take punches at each other, but it billows into a grand breath more often than not. The title track comes second, another quarter-hour-plus, and it maintains a military snare rocket rail throughout. It rages and storms, but instead of petering out, it transforms, seamlessly, into the shimmer-shoegaze of 'Me & My Arrow' (not the Harry Nilsson tune). This is one of Burning Star Core's most transcendentally beautiful tracks, particularly because it doesn't play things safe. There's a backwards, retarded bumping that sucks out the bassline role from the inside-out, and trap drums are audibly present but more like gestures and afterthoughts. This could be total bliss-out but there's always that sense of unease and danger there - a delicate tension that makes this such a perfect short track (7 and a half minutes, only short in comparison to the first 35 minutes, I know). It ends on a tape splice, or whatever our digital equivalent is, and then a moment to breathe, reflect, pause - but then suddenly 'The Emergency Networks are Taking Over', based around an ascending modal loop, with thick string pads, and a floundering rhythmic logic. It builds to an erupting conclusion, which is a coda of its own on a track that is already a coda. And then another tape splice, or maybe it's just aural abandonment. Operator Dead, Post Abandoned is a demanding listen in a discography of demanding listens, though it's fluid enough - it's just the relentless energy and thickness of space that makes it such.

Burning Star Core - 'Let's Play Wild Like Wildcats Do' (Hospital/RRR)

Two tracks here, both long-form explorations separated into their identifying parts - rhythm on 'Mes Soldats Stupides (demo)' and density on 'Clouds in My Coffee'. Both are richly textural, with 'Stupides' taking some chances with the introduction of MIDI instruments - drums and horns, combining into a relatively danceable bit of Burning Star Core sound. This was 2003-2004, and Yeh's prolific tape output at the time spat this out, originally on his own Dronedisco imprint. The CD reissue puts these tracks into a clear plateau, though the murky organ/synth on 'Clouds' sounds unfairly compressed. When the whirring stormclouds take over, they bury the menacing, circular tone at the centre of the track -- but then recede. And then reappear. It's a nice detail in a fairly minimal composition. Across both tracks, there's a fairly limited palette at play here, given the diversity of Yeh's regular work, but the mid-range synth feels like some sort of statement-straitjacket. There's a bit of 'You Really Got Me' in the 'Stupides' bass riff, but ten minutes in, it's replaced by some haunting drones, a good transition before 'Clouds'. A minor release moreso than an experiment, but not a bad one at all -- and showing a rarely-explored side of Burning Star Core with the sequenced beat. Disc face is a lovely Pantone blue that suggests a brighter sky than any of the sounds do.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Vashti Bunyan - 'Just Another Diamond Day' (Spinney)

It's rare for a CD reissue to lead to such a resurgence at it did for Vashti Bunyan - this CD was issued about ten years ago (at least that's when I think I got it) and before you know it, she's been embraced wholeheartedly by the experimental community and is suddenly making records with Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective. I've not listened to a post-1970 note of Vashti Bunyan but I think it's an interesting pairing because there is nothing remotely experimental about Just Another Diamond Day. At least, what I like about this record is its simplicity. These are simple songs, some barely over two minutes, with singsong melodies and rural-pastoral observations only occasionally given any more than a twee/Sallyangie treatment. When it does, like when Dave Swarbrick contributes fiddle to 'Where I Like to Stand', it's a wonderful combination. Bunyan's voice is so upfront and genteel, and it's rather reverb-laden, yet at the same time it's a bit weird because she does actually sing in a kinda nervous, rushed way. These songs don't really breathe and when there are string arrangements they feel even more cramped, which I actually like, though I don't know if that's exactly what she was going for. Joe Boyd's production is up to his usual standards and his use of vocal reverb is positively Krameresque. Simon Nicol's banjo on 'Come Wind Come Rain' is jaunty and works well against the wordless aspects of her singing, and I think I like these bits, which at least have perceptible edges, against the total softness of the recorder-driven tunes. These days I feel little to connect with lyrically; obviously the rural imagery speaks to some philosophy in people that I don't completely get. I've spent my own time in the Hebrides, and there is no place more beautiful, but these are not traditional Hebridean songs at all - this is an Englishwoman constructing an identity. I'm still not really sure why this is considered to be such outsider music. The arrangements of Dolly Collins make her records with Shirley much more exploratory, in my opinion - apart from the slight awkwardness, Vashti Bunyan is a very traditional folk-based singer-songwriter. I'm not saying this to sound negative - because even though I haven't listened to this CD in about 8 years, it's been a pleasant thing to revisit. This is one case where bonus tracks don't help - the original album presumably ended on 'Iris's Song For Us', which is a perfect last wave, but the CD sticks four more songs. The last is another version of 'Iris's Song', but one that's stuck a bit in it's own suspended particles, and not quite as effective as the original. But I guess you gotta put bonus tracks somewhere!

Friday, 4 June 2010

Bügsküll - 'Phantasies and Senseitions' (RoadCone)

Somehow, without actually realising it, I've accumulated a mini-gauntlet of Bügsküll recordings over the years, though my selection is far from complete. But I wouldn't hesitate to fill in the gaps, as Sean Bügsküll is an often-overlooked musical explorer, whose early work (found on this CD) recalls an early 90s Portland underground that I've pieced together a picture of built solely from recordings like this, Cher Doll records, and whatever other weirdness filtered into my brain. There's 18 tracks on Phantasies and Senseitions, but they aren't divided between phantasies and senseitions. It's generally easy to tell which is which; maybe the dual nature of this collection is why it has both an 'Intro' (track 1) and an 'Opening Theme' (track 3). This is one of the most rock-like Bügsküll releases, or at least there are less electronics than on his later stuff. Though it might be more accurate to say that whatever electroacoustic elements are present in these tracks are recorded so 4-track lo-fi that it feels as organic as the guitars and keyboards that are also here. This is a band format, while later Bügsküll is more of a solo artist. There are songs here, though catchy pop hooks are buried in lumbering, reverb-laden loops and breathy, unintelligible vocals. Mistakes are left in, and even celebrated, but instead of an aggressive Pussy Galore vibe, this band is more like a ragged pillow. There's a clustering of more organised songs near the end of the disc, ranging from melting electric folk ('Concrete Boots') to punchy pop-rock ('Olympic'), but it's never played that straight. Some tracks on Phantasies and Senseitions are genre sketches, like pastoral 'Old Towne', and strange looping experiments like 'Inhuman' that sound like Shirley Collins dunked in a vat of molasses. When I found this CD (a few years after it came out) I saw them as more like the West Coast Guided by Voices, but now I don't have the slightest idea why I made that comparison, as this is far far more experimental music. Apart from 'Sit on This' (which can't deny it's grunge influence, especially since this is 1994), there's almost nothing of singalong value here. The experimentation isn't miles away from Elephant 6-style bedroom psychedelia, with found sounds often applied over top of poorly-recorded drums and line-in guitars. There are elements of free rock but of a slowed-down, stoned out variety. Horns and/or violins (sometimes recorded so badly you can't really be sure) strengthen the melodic approach, and it doesn't feel particularly improvised, but still freewheelin'. 'Seguara' lumbers along with a 90s indie rock sound, with delicately placed vocals getting thrown under the bus at times. But my pick of the disc is 'Concrete Boots', a fractured, off-key work of total romantic beauty and bliss.

Anton Bruhin - 'InOut' (Alga Marghen)

The cover of this nice Alga digipak shows four cassette tapes, labeled to match the four tracks presented here, spanning 1976-1981. Cassette tape (TDK, for the most part) was Bruhin's preferred recording format and in the case of the titular piece, the means of construction. 'InOut' is a 23 minute composition that uses a variety of household/skiffle band soundmaking devices in conjunction with rapid-fire pause-button recording technique. The main theme of 'InOut' is the pause button itself, which is an everpresent click. The split-second bursts of sound are constructed with great regard to linearity, creating dazzling runs that resemble microtonal robots or synth-step filters, though done in the most lo-fi of settings. It's mean to be listened to, not read about, because it's a dazzling, stunning work - the kind that gives me that invigorating feeling and reminds me why I like experimental music in the first place. Nothing else sounds like this. 'Musik, vielleicht für Sie' does use a very long reel-to-reel loop, bypassing the erase head, a technique often employed by tape loop geeks worldwife. Bruhin uses a homemade PVC pipe, voice, and some other small instrument to build his sound world over 25 minutes, but instead of sounding like an Alvin Lucier decay-piece, it's more like a personal exploration of memory and texture. You can hear the physical space here, but maybe you actually can't and we're all victims of another trompe l'ear game. 'Wochenwende' makes use of the built-in speaker on a cassette player and all of its shitty frequence response. This is six layers that again employ small instruments for a more gradual shifting effect, again a nice track, but perhaps the least distinctive. And finally, Bruhin closes with 'Die Welt', a poem from the 1600's read and deconstructed via variable speed tape. The effect is not unlike something from the early 80's Ralph Records catalogue, all goofy and modulated but choppy in all the right places. You'll see a huge amount of tape experimentation across these blogs and I'm still two thumbs up for the medium, despite -- in fact, because of - it's supposed 'obsolescence'. But while much of the great tape experimentation and sound poetry was done with fancy (for the time) equipment, Bruhin had a total cheapskate approach. His results are as brilliant as anything you'll ever hear, and the trash-aesthetic of it is part of why I love it so much.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet - 'Stone/Water' (OkkaDisk)

Coming on the heels of that first Die Like a Dog blastfest, the Brötzmann session here at Cinderblock HQ continues with this. Stone/Water starts out suggesting a severely intimidating stage (which was the Victoriaville festival, 1999). Three tenor saxes, with Brötzmann and Vandermark also on clarinet at times and Gustafsson as well -- makes it pretty impossible for me to distinguish who is playing what when - but that's really not the point, right? Sometimes I long for the old style of jazz liner notes where they tell you who is playing what solo when, and stereo panning is also nice but there's too many musicians here and it's also a live recording. There's a double rhythm section as well, though I'm not saying these musicians should be confined into traditional roles! But this is not the "big ball of sound" approach at all - over its 38 minutes, we get a hella grab bag of different sounds happening. Early on there's a lot of sawing of the strings - Parker and Kessler on basses, but also Fred Lomberg-Holm on cello, which gives the band this really interesting lifting up feel, like a series of slowly emerging plateaus. The earth starts to shake when both drummers really kick it in - Hamid Drake's playing is usually quite distinct but it's difficult to distinguish him from Michael Zerang. What a great surname 'Zerang' is -- I just want to append an exclamation point to the end whenever I type it. Anyway, this isn't all ten people playing all at once for 40 minutes. There are a few miniatures buried within. About fifteen minutes in there's this strangely medieval courtly jig, except not really, but it is quite woodsy and weird. FL-H is playing violin here and angling off into all sorts of different directions, creating something quite dissonant and lovely. Halfway through it's a 5-man horn solo, or whatever you call that - a quintet? The absence of bass or percussion gives things this really clarity and it's awesome to lose yourself in it, but also to single out one musician and 'follow' their zigzags. Toshihori Kondo is on this recording but his electronics, while present, mostly take a backseat except for one long call and response part (also somewhere in the middle). Soon after, you think it's all gonna come back together for a crashing finale, with the full band exploding into a raging balloon of pure fire, except it doesn't actually end, instead trickling down into this super amazing fucked up string part (about two minutes from the end) where the recording quality sounds like some lost 1950's outsider electroacoustic record and everything is weirdly hairy and then it trickles to the end. A great, great outro from what is overall a very strong recording (and quite aptly titled, as it's rocky and fluid at the same time). I've seen the Brötzmann Tentet twice with a similar lineup (never with Kondo but once with McPhee, and I think I remember Mars Williams being there once) and it never had this much clarity.

Peter Brötzmann/Die Like a Dog Quartet - 'Little Birds Have Fast Harts No. 1' (FMP)

This might speak more to my current state of free jazz enjoyment in 2010 but my favourite aspect of this Die Like A Dog marathon (67 minutes!) is the presence of one Toshinori Kondo, a trumpeter who quite frequently employs digital effects on his sound. What this does is provide a balance to the meat n' fire blowing of Brötzmann and the great, yet earthy rhythm section of William Parker and Hamid Drake. The first track is 43 minutes long and it started with Brötzmann exuberantly and/or aggressively bleating away before the band bursts in. Over the course of the whole movement it's hard to really focus as a casual listener, but I guess you aren't supposed to listen to this stuff casually. Kondo's extended vamps are certainly what stands out, being saturated in delay and flange, yet still fleeting and light. It's not like the affected trumpet sounds of Spaceheads, but used more as an accent. Sometimes he flares up and the processing distorts a bit and it has the feeling of sunlight on a freshly Windexed pane, with a minute glimpse of a rainbow refraction. Now, this band is a tribute to Albert Ayler, certainly not the first but there's nothing wrong with that. Ayler's influence on Brötzmann is profound, in terms of wide vibrato and emotive soul-baring thrusting. Kondo works as the Don Ayler, I guess. There aren't any identifiable Albert licks here, but 'Part 2' begins with the sort of melodic wandering that you'd hear in Ayler's Michael Sampson band era, though it quickly erupts into a ball of free not unlike what track 1 sounded like. This is an incredibly long time to spend in a fairly similar musical mode. The band plays, everyone is free, and at points there are solos. It's free jazz as it was in 1997, which is to say an awesome thing to behold and not bad to listen to either. Hamid Drake is an amazing master of rhythm but almost an odd choice for an Ayler-inspired band, as his drumming is much more centered than Sunny Murray (who I would think of as the 'definitive' Albert Ayler drummer, if there is such a thing). He's played with Parker for so long that they have a really natural interaction, and Parker's wild thudding provides a thundering belly over which Drake can dance. When I saw Die Like a Dog live, which I'm guessing was a few years after this, Kondo was gone and Roy Campbell was in his place. I was disappointed on finding this out, though Campbell proved to be a much more emotional player, and his passion was an adequate substitute for Kondo's trickery. The furious nature of the band means that and more deep listening elecroacoustic jazz experimentation is gonna get lost in the shuffle. Don't get me wrong, things do slow down at times -- just not for long. The second piece is a bit more subdued than the first, with a very sparse improvised melodic bit that does have some processed noteless blowing from Kondo, and an odd phasing effect - but it's too little too late. Kondo is a fascinating musician, but I can't stop thinking this isn't the right venue for him. Though Albert Ayler would certianly have been curious to explore electronic experimentation had he lived - I am convinced of that, for whatever reason. The primitive and folky aspects of Ayler's music, which emerge for me more and more as the reason, are probably better tributed in the Art Ensemble's 'Lebert Aaly', or from a tribute group not yet formed. I realise I've always filed this under Brötzmann, following the artist name on the spine, rather than the front of the CD which would put this under 'D'. It also says 'Composed by Peter Brötzmann' which sounds like a bit of credit-claiming cause if this isn't majorly group improvised, then I dunno what is.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Broadcast - 'The Future Crayon' (Warp)

I think a lot of my friends are surprised that I love Broadcast so much, cause they're seen as "outside" of my circle or something. Or maybe they fall into a "like but don't love" category, where they certainly sat for many years in my own estimation til something elevated them to the field of Underbite-Cinderblock lovin'. This is an Incesticide-style compilation that dates from 1998-2001, though it wasn't released until 2006. When I first heard this, it was a dub or rip or burn or whatever the kids call it these days, so I didn't realise it was a compilation - so I listened to it as an album and thought it was totally great. 'Illuminations' is a fantastic way to open, with bold brush strokes that paint a spooky social portrait. These songs almost feel like they bridge the gap between the earlier Broadcast sound and the more diverse, coherent material of Tender Buttons, with Haha Sound the obvious in-between point. Individual songs can stand alone on many a mixtape. 'Small Song IV' is spare and chilling, and I think that I like this band so much when they let their songs breathr. If anything has really changed since the early days, it's that we no longer get to hear the crazy space-jazz instrumentals, like 'DDL' and 'Violent Playground'. There's been a tendency towards more minimal song structures and production methods, though because this is sequences for flow, not chronology, you don't necessarily get that. But that's why CD players can be programmed. The 18 tracks here have a few highlights: 'Poem of Dead Song' fizzles with an Eastern ambience that's partially Mata Hari, or maybe 'Casablanca Moon'. But instead of verbosity, it's all smoke and mirrors, and the mirrors reflect other mirrors. Utterly beautiful. The drummer gets the jazzercise on, with 'Locusts' swinging around until he holds back and lets feedback and drones do the talking, but only for a second. It's a mastery of good taste, unlike this review, which is sycophantic and rambling. It's been years since I've listened to anything earlier than Haha Sound (except this) but it might be time to go and revisit those first two records - just as soon as I get through all the vinyl and CDs and 7"s for these blogs (it's been well over a year and we're not through the B's yet! Help!).

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Broadcast - 'Tender Buttons' (Warp)

It's funny how much I've come to love Broadcast over the years - a love that has crept up on me, like a subtle itch that can never be scratched. I don't play their records to death - I could, I suppose, but then maybe I wouldn't enjoy them as much. I remember when they first came out with Work and Non-Work in the late 90s, and they seemed like little more than a Stereolab clone. They've certainly emerged as their own voice, one which I would say I like even more than Stereolab -- though when listening to 'America's Boy', track 4 on Tender Buttons, I can't help but think of some similarities that remain. Both bands are synth-driven British groups that cross over into "rock" and "electronica" camps quite easily -- and this tune makes the same political gestures that the 'Lab's best empty Marxist anthems does. And another similarity is that I can tune out the lyrical meaning of both vocalists, letting the words wash over like abstract elements in a beautiful sound soup. But the similarities have to end by now, 2005, where this is technically Broadcast's last proper album (with Future Crayon being a Pisces Iscariot, and the sloppy collaboration with the Focus Group feeling like a tossed-off yet competent document of a band at a crossroads). Cause, where can you go after Tender Buttons? It's satisfying on every level; the arrangements stick to a core of guitars, keyboards, singing, drums -- but the accents are rich and plentiful. Flanged out studio effects, melting white noise, field recordings aflame -- yet it never feels dense or overwhelming. This is the kind of band that is capable of perfectly balancing things: retrofuturist sound sources with contemporary songwriting; electronic distance with organic atmosphere. I mean, look at the cover art - even that balances handmade casualness with a digital aesthetic. This CD features some insanely catch pop songs, like 'Black Cat' and 'Corporeal', that couldhaveshouldhave been radio hits; plus, a few jams, er, I mean, exemplary displays of musicianship, to show you what comes first ('Bit 35' which reminds me of the one instrumental on every Fugazi record focused through a Neu! reduction). There's fourteen songs and not a drop of filler, but nothing goes on for too long. Calculated for maximum impact, and can you tell I really love this album? I don't want to dissect the songwriting or arrangements too much, for fear of ruining the mystery, but this band has a few musical tricks that I really identify with them. The first is the use of slowly ascending melodies - 'Arc of a Journey's unfolds like a blossoming keyboard flower that is both dizzying and calm. They also have this walking bassline kinda thing which isn't anything unique but it makes a song feel like a Broadcast song. I think one thing that makes some pop music Great is when it can be enjoyed on a fun level of pure pop, but there's lots to sink into beneath the surface, for those who care. Tender Buttons wins on both levels.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Brasil and the Gallowbrothers Band - 'Legionowo' (Monotype)

Polish atmospheric psychedelic indie-rock certainly is a field I could stand to learn more about, being that my education pretty much starts and ends with Brasil. This quartet of Warsaw artists certainly do a lot to set the vibe with the crimson and golden CD artwork. All moody comic-style drawings by Brasil's trumpeter, Tomek Mirt (who also has a solo disc we'll get to in the M's), this immediately conjures the dark, post-war Europe that Poland in general makes me think of. The golden dusk radiates throughout these six tracks, which are structured around a singer-songwriter who really speaks more than sings. The vocals are in English but really felt more than heard, with the sibilence of the human voice creating a great after-effect for the low-level white noise samples and effects-box hiss that coats everything. It's probably all the better with lyrics like "i pack my things / and leave capitalism", but I shouldn't pick on people who don't speak English as a first language. There are no drums here - it's rock because it has guitars, and the two most immediate comparisons are Labradford and Talk Talk. There's an obvious love of all the 90s post-shoegaze guitar calm, such as Bark Psychosis and Hood, but without any trace of rock, really. The unfolding, billowing soundscapes are lifted from the Laughing Stock playbook, and the trumpet is played in a purely Spaceheads way, never swampy but definitely wet. Instrumental 'The Town' brings in some synth beats and a more prevalent role for the (cheap) keyboards, but it's really on the last two tracks where Brasil paint their most unique canvas. 'Far From the Rest''s lyrics are a bit rambling, but it's all couched in a gallon of slimy soundpaint. At the end of this 11 minute+ track, a recording of someone from Pink Floyd talking is brought in, which is a pretty daring move but it's amazingly successful -- amazing, because I actually wasn't really listening so I couldn't even tell you which member it was or what they were talking about. And instead of going back to check for you, dear readers, I thought it might be better to just let it slide over me and become another instrument, which is what was intended. The dissonance is rare - every gesture is delicate, and only occasionally do the synths and electronics really create a buzz. I'm not sure how open these structures are, but when Brasil want to, they are capable of a pretty magical ambience. White noise is here much more than you'd think - unless it's my air-conditioning acting up again. The 90s had some great moments, though I suspect this came in the following decade. That this is named after an otherwise forgettable Warsawa suburb makes it all the more unusual that such beauty can be strived for, and in moments, really achieved.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Boredoms - 'Vision Creation Newsun' (Birdman)

My god, it's been ten years since this beast from the East was unleashed! This was the Boredoms' big reinvention, or for those listening more carefully, the next logical step in their progression. Super Roots 7 (or was it 8?) started off with the formula - long, extended pieces built around polyrhytmic insanity, with the usual shrill electronics, pulsing organs and disembodied voices layered in slow crescending waves. Vision Creation Newsun expands it to a whole double album-length, and the result is astounding. I remember getting this CD back in college and totally losing my shit over it. It was also one of the first "big" albums that I heard in its entirety via NAPSTER before it was released domestically though I don't know if that is somehow significant. Maybe I can say that this was a record that changed the way I heard music, arriving at a time when the ways we listen to music were changing. Ugh, I'm starting to sound like one of those shitty Sirius/XM sattelite radio commercials! So on to Vision Creation Newsun: If you wanna talk about a perfect melting between the electronic and organic, this is it. The untitled tracks flow together into one cohesive whole, though there are certainly highlights. The opener is a statement of purpose, with it's sweeping filter banks defining the Boredom's new temple. Track 3 builds up a repeating, ascending riff like something out of Can or Neu! but filtered through Marginal Consort. Throughout everything, the 'anything goes' mentality is scaled back a bit and the emphasis is on duration instead of the short-attention span pyrotechnics that the Boredoms practiced in the early 90s. And oh, what a result. There's thick waves of organ, reverb-affected guitars, bells and percussion galore, and lots of voices that slip away into a distant sea. Best of all are these weird parts that go into power-rock sections - jamming on one long riff over a steady 4/4, or the recurring two-note monotony that makes up track 6's main theme. This organic onigiri is also wrapped in a great deal of digital processing, but somehow the choppy skipping feels more akin to a tremelo effect, the disjointed ebb and flow of accelerated consciousness. Talk about music for a new millenium, that simultaneously looks ahead and back! Energy courses through everything - even the ocacsional acoustic instrumentation that pops up, or the smooth groove singing on track 7 -- it's still raging with a spastic fury. What's different from Pop Tatari is they've learned how to channel this energy into some cosmic third eye consciousness without compromising their uber-modern exuberance. This pumps me up as much as the greatest hardcore records, and somehow stirs my soul in the same way as the greatest works of Riley, LaMonte, etc. After this, the Boredoms never were quite as special for me - the bang-on-everything percussion attitude was taken a bit further and the results, while occasionally very impressive, somehow lack the magic of this.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Boards of Canada - 'Music Has the Right to Children' (Matador/Warp/Skam)

I could go on and on about this CD but everyone else already has, so I'll give you my personal take. It's always something special when there is some newly mined "genre" that is popular and along comes somebody who just totally melts everything else around it. This record did that, and I can compared it maybe to what This Heat did to the post-punk field with Deceit or maybe even Dylan in some way. In this case, the genre was the whole 'IDM' thing, which never clicked with me (despite all of the clicks in it). But Music Has the Right to Children sure resonated with me back in '98 or whenever this came out. Perhaps that's because it came, for me, at a time when I was looking to expand my horizons a bit, and I was no longer afraid of the world of electronica. It sure helps that it sounds like all of the music I listened to anyway back then, except recorded better and with electronic beats. I still find some of the more overtly dancey beats, particularly the ones at the beginning of the album like on 'Telephasic Workshop', a bit harder to digest. What I really love is what I call that 'classic' Boards of Canada sound - the way a steady, midtempo rhythm will just come in like the sun rising over a mountaintop ('Aquarius', perhaps). But their perfectionism is totally welcome - it touched on the guitar-futurism I admired about My Bloody Valentine, embraced the same warm aesthetics that I found to be missing from just about everything else in their genre, and most importantly (in retrospect) a real style of mythmaking that magnifies the artistry of the music. I mean, let's look at the cover - a beautifully monochromatic image, simultaneously warm and cool, and weathered just as the music is. Faces blurred out; creepy yes, but moreso I'd say 'enigmatic'. And there's so many little details in the way the songs will change direction - one channel will get more distant, an electric piano note will be able to ring out longer - it's obsessive sound creation for sure. There's actually quite a lot of melodic noodling here ('Turquoise Hexagon Sun') though maybe 'noodling' is the wrong word for these guys. When voices are sampled, which they are quite a lot here, it's so tasteful you barely even notice. Geogaddi didn't do it for me but I used to work with a dude who swore by it, and to be fair there was no way it could have slayed me as much as this record did. It simultaneously opened up a door to a whole soundworld, and then closed said door by being so satisfying I had little interest in the other giants of their peer group. Though I loved Campfire Headphase more than most, so I can see myself falling in love with Geogaddi one belated day. I think Boards of Canada are best experienced on vinyl, and probably with headphones; therefore it's somewhat paradoxical that I'm listening to them on CD through bookshelf speakers. I can draw a straight line between Terry Riley, AR Kane, most of the early Kranky records roster, and this. But that's confining; they wiggle around and draw many retro-cultural images that I didn't even fully understand until I lived in Scotland myself.

Blue PIne (Global Symphonic)

History will remember Blue Pine, if at all, as the precursor to Frog Eyes. I like Frog Eyes a lot, and I am intimately familiar with some of their records despite owning none of them. Blue Pine though, I remember far less about. I think I got this as a promo and enjoyed it as some sort of R.E.M.-Beefheart hybrid. This darkwoods Canadian weird-indie vibe is certainly an affected, acquired taste but it's not really anything too challenging - there's still guitar and bass and drums, and an adherence to song structures and singing, And lyrics even about love 'n stuff. But it's a solid release, and one that probably has a lot to reward those investing the time. I think when I found this as a promo back in 2001 or so I realised the potential and kept it around for when the time would provide itself. It still hasn't, and this post only afforded it one front-to-back listen, but I again felt some real tingles at a few moments. Now the gruffly tortured vocals are so constantly acupunctured by the guitar shards that it really takes away any comfort zone that might be created. But somehow, there's still the backwoods lumberjack sensibility that they obviously strive for (as the artwork and general name of the band indicates). You'd almost think this was horror-rock or some drunken ethnic/trad thing. Now, if lyrics like 'Raise your hands if you are a believer in a salad bar/Cincinnati, I believe you now/Woe to the father that was built on straight lines' (from 'Benjamin Windsor: Attorney at Law') are something you can connect with, more power to you. Personally I find it's just the right balance of that whole obtuse magic that Wallace Stevens used to do - and Destroyer (a fellow Nuck to Frog Eyes' Carey Mercer) is a modern master of. But if you find it a pile of pretentious shit then you don't have to pay attention, even though the closing epic 'Slowhorse or Traversing the Canadian Wilderness: Father and Son Search for the Elusive Mother' almost forces you to, through its urgency. I do think this is a modern rock band of true artists and they found a sound that is unique and accessible at the same time. Maybe this is just seen as Chapter Zero in the Frog Eyes saga but it's a great place to start. The keyboards and organs, a lot less prevalent than in the later band, give just the right amount of colour. I want to use the label 'Gothic' but that just seems a bit too easy. Maybe it's a forward-thinking retroaesthetic, or maybe I just can't help but think that way because Guy Madden is also from Canada.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Bloggs - 'Music for Multiples' (Fresnl)

Somewhere in the murky depths of early 00s West Coast experimentalism, this kickass Bloggs CD got lost in the shuffle. Google barely returns anything about it, but then again, the guy had the misfortunate to be named Bloggs just before a similar word hit our wavelengths. But let's talk about his wavelength - it's a studious one, clearly driven by sound constructions without much faffin' about. The liner notes list the equipment used on each of these ten tracks, partially reminding me of Aube (in the way Bloggs builds sounds from non-traditional sound-making items, like plastic wrap, PVC pipe, or an aluminum pot lid) and partially like a prog record that studiously lists all the gear. I'm pretty sure this is one of the guys from rhBand, another totally awesome bunch of modern minimalists that you never hear anything about anymore. The horizontal construction of the pieces is similar to rhBand's ur-drone, but the more eclectic nature of the source material makes this kinda, well, fun. Another reviewer compared 'Steppe (Process)' to Phil Niblock and I think that's an apt comparison; being built around wind instruments, there's a great deal of extended breaths to create a piece that feels far more epic than it's 8'41" running time would suggest. 'Obscured by Circles' is a pulsing bit of harmonium drone that accompanies 'Steppe' and the 'Untitled Piece for Bowls' as the three long minimal efforts which, if turned up loud enough, can completely bury you. The shorter pieces are built around more unusual sounds - some tape pieces, some 'real' instruments, and some noisy bits which still feel focused and calm. I think Music for Multiples actually strikes a fantastic, if not perfect balance between transparent sound experimentalism and artful, powerful construction. I don't think Bloggs ever made another album (and this one is hella-obscure - I grabbed it out of a mega-discount bin at some shitty mall record store that I was killing time in, I think paying 20 US cents for it) which is a shame, because this is the type of record that (if it had come maybe 10-20 years earlier) would be spoken about in hushed, reverent tones now instead of being mostly forgotten.