Sunday, November 9, 2008

the post-election listening queue

Abstract Sound Systems -- GOSSAMER [Machine Tribe Recordings]

This is dreamy, minimalist music, consisting mainly of solo piano (heavy on the reverb) against subtle ambient backgrounds. Some of the tracks are more obviously electronic in nature -- "meditative" features a repetitive electronic piano pulse upfront and a background filled with occasional snippets of conversation, odd noises, and brief snatches of harmonic accompaniment -- but regardless of the instrumentation, the songs are mainly focused on hypnotic repetition and tonal color. Sweeping oscillator waves are also present on "straana" along with the ambient sound, creating interesting tones and unexpected shifts in sound. With seven tracks total, this is a low-key but intriguing exploration of minimal sound and textures that's not quite ambient but definitely not rock-oriented. It's experimental, yes, but nonetheless highly listenable.

Machine Tribe Recordings


Here are some essential facts that might be useful to know about this intimidating double-disc release: This New Zealand group is a duo consisting of Dead C member Bruce Russell and cohort in sonic immolation Alastair Galbraith; their improvised performances are noise-laden affairs built around loud guitar drones, violins, and abused electronic devices; and this is a reissue of two works (their second and sixth albums) originally available on Corpus Hermeticum and out of print for quite a while now, which were probably never seriously available in the US in the first place. The first disc is technically the second of the two albums, originally recorded in 1995, and consists of six tracks of squealing, droning noise that largely resembles what might happen if Hijokaidan decided to cover Tony Conrad -- guitars feed back endlessly while a violin saws away in slow motion, creating dissonant drones that are equally hypnotic and grotesque, as power electronics in the background create textures that are all but drowned out by the guitar and violin. Peter Stapleton joins in on jazzy, rolling drums for the third track, "The expulsion of the triumphant beast," where the white noise heat simmers in the form of buzzing amp hum for the first few minutes before things start getting considerably more chaotic, but otherwise the tracks are unencumbered by percussion, and thus free from the strictures of tempo and time, making them seem almost endless, and thus mind-altering.

The second disc, an album first recorded in 1993, contains two long pieces (each 28-30 minutes) that pretty much embody the same artistic philosophy and tendency toward massive earhurt as the offerings on the first disc. The first one, "Fama fraternitatis," begins with piercing guitar drones and segues into movements of choppy power electronics and skittering violin, eventually returning to the wailing guitar feedback; as the piece progresses, the interplay between guitar, violin, and electronics becomes increasingly more complex as the wall of sound grows and recedes, but never dies away. The second track, "God's love to His people Israel," includes drummer Peter Stapleton, and is considerably noiser, a more obviously lo-fi recording of a show filled with noise and chaos. The performance is a howling maelstrom of abrasive power electronics, squealing guitar feedback, dissonant violin, and passages of thunderous drumming; the piece sounds less like music and more like the audio equivalent of clouds of shrapnel being ejected by a violently malfunctioning sandblaster. This is skronk at its most impressive and obnoxious; for those not down with the healing power of pure unadulterated noise, this is probably the biggest endurance test since the Swans live classic PUBLIC CASTRATION IS A GOOD IDEA.

This is pretty iconoclastic stuff; there's no attempt whatsoever to appeal to any sense of melodicism or structure or anything readily definable as music -- they just create an ungodly wailing din, and an extremely loud din at that. Which is not to say it's bad, just that it's definitely antimusic, and as such probably an acquired taste; if you're not into stuff like Tony Conrad, Ascension, Hijokaidan, or even the Dead C, you're probably not going to get much out of this, but if you are, this is absolutely punishing in its boldness and extremity. Given how obscure the band is -- as far as I know, this is the first time the band's music has been readily available in any form in the US -- this also provides valuable documentation of New Zealand's noise rock scene, and No Fun deserves major props for making it available again. Perhaps if this release does well, they'll see fit to bring more of the band's catalog back into print.

A Handful of Dust
No Fun Productions

Ala Muerte -- SANTA ELENA [Public Guilt]

This album is the sonic equivalent of that surreal zone between waking and sleeping -- hazy and dreamlike, beautiful yet ominous, a meditative sound that subtly hints at the possibility of nightmares on the horizon. Ala Muerte is essentially Bianca Bibiloni -- while she's occasionally joined onstage by others (including Darsombra's Brian Daniloski, who'll be accompanying her on a forthcoming tour), on record she does all the work, singing and playing everything from guitar and double bass to viola and drums. She favors a minimal, uncluttered folk style augmented by dark, psychedelic sounds in the background courtesy of vaguely dissonant noise and field recordings; the result sounds like a sixties folk singer playing in a field as cities burn behind her. Her beautiful yet amorphous singing owes a lot to the ethereal styles of Bilinda Butcher and Liz Frasier, and her playing -- especially where the acoustic guitar is concerned -- references not only pure sixties folk but the hypnotically repetitive style of mid-period Swans (a point reinforced by her use of uneasy background textures, similar in fashion and effect to the use of textures and field recordings on the haunting Swans classic SOUNDTRACKS FOR THE BLIND). The juxtaposition of folk and neo-classical stylings next to gauzy sheets of sound and choral vocals initially make it sound like a collision between the worlds of folk and shoegazer music, but the addition of those cryptic background textures and a constant tone of uneasiness have more in common with avant-garde territory. Don't be fooled by that tag, though; this is highly melodic, harmonic music, albeit swaddled in a cocoon of smoke and darkness that creates an unsettling balance between the rapturous and the terrifying. You can enjoy this purely on the basis of Bianca's breathy vocals and stellar psych-folk playing, but the sinister ambience in the background means that there's more to this shot of neo-folk than you might realize on first listen.

Ala Muerte
Public Guilt

A Tomato A Day -- THE MOON IS GREEN [Public Eyesore]

Band leader Brian Poloncic began making music after a stint in a mental hospital (where he was treated for schizophrenia), but you'd never guess that from listening to this album. While his mental state (as articulated in the poop sheet that came with this disc) may have some bearing on his musical state, it's also misleading, because it suggests that this is going to be the product of a confused mental process, and instead it's merely a straightforward pop record. In fact, it's one of the most accessible albums I've ever heard on the PE label, and while it's possibly a tad eccentric by mainstream pop standards, it's certainly light years removed from the usual free jazz / skronk / improv aesthetic championed by the label lo these many years. Playing guitar, percussion, and singing, Poloncic is ccompanied by a cellist, bassist, and synth player, and the seven tracks on this album incorporate elements of post-rock (odd noises, background sounds, deviations from traditional song structure at times, and so on), but is otherwise squarely in the pop-rock tradition. Given the emphasis on Poloncic's mental state, comparisons to lo-fi pop maven Daniel Johnston are almost certainly inevitable, but Poloncic's songs are far more accomplished and nuanced than anything Johnston's ever done, although the two artists do share a certain tendency toward melancholy themes. There are times where the material resembles the psychedelic near-country style of The Black Heart Procession; there's a folk element that predominates throughout the album, even during the moments that hint obliquely at his noise roots (he also plays in the free-noise ensemble Naturaliste). This should certainly be an eye-opener for those steeped in the PE catalog, and enjoyable listening for anyone who appreciates well-crafted pop songs played with unnatural passion.

A Tomato A Day
Public Eyesore

Darsombra -- NYMPHAEA [Public Guilt]

Leave it to Public Guilt to come up with an interesting spin on the remix record -- what we have here is thirteen artists (including Darsombra) remixing a classic track that has been part of the band's set for years, and is now being retired. (The only recorded version of the track is on the triple-cd various artists compilation co-curated by Public Guilt, Epicene Sound, and Underadar in 2007.) Remixers include Guilty Connector, Max Bondi, Strotter Inst., Destructo Swarmbots, Perfekt Teeth, Ala Muerte, and Magicicada; the disc opens with Darsombra's heavy, pulsing remix, which offers some sort of basis for comparison to the remixes that follow. It's interesting to hear how radically different the remixes are, too -- my personal favorites are the ones by Max Bondi and Bleeding Heart Collective (which is heavy on the rhythm tip and emphasizes vocals not present in the Darsombra mix), Guilty Connector (where a subterranean pulse and the swirling high end notes are most prominent), Perfekt Teeth (who concentrate on the rhythmic drone and push everything into the red, creating a sound constantly on the verge of breaking up), Magicicada (who reduce everything to lonesome sweeping drones backed by minimal, nearly subliminal beats), Strotter Inst. (whose bizarre, beat-heavy remix sounds severely different from all the rest), and the Heirs of Rockefeller (who warp and twist the track's sound into something fairly psychotic, with a rhythmic pulse that grows in volume only to get warped again and keeps shifting gears). All of the remixes are good, though -- no small feat for a remix compilation of this size -- and there's a sufficient level of variety to keep things interesting from one track to the next, not to mention some really devolved approaches to sound that will contaminate your ears and your mind. It's a limited-edition affair (250 copies) and comes in a nice package with art and design by Chase Middaugh, who's done work for Aidan Baker and Suishou no Fune. If you're already hep to Darsombra, you'll definitely want to check this out.

Public Guilt


Heavy rhythms, distorted sound, hideously muffled vocals, and short songs make this an interesting (or excruciating, depending on your perspective) listening experience. This is remarkably straightforward for an eh? release; if you removed the odd vocal approach and a tendency toward eccentric mulching noises in the background, you'd be left with a mildly avant but still tuneful post-rock band with a sound not too far removed from early Public Image Ltd. In fact, I'm halfway convinced this is really a grotesque take on dub, given its deliberately peculiar mix and rhythm-heavy approach. I particularly appreciate the methodically slow and stripped-down drums and the mutant guitar sounds (especially on "Barren," where it sounds like the guitar has been dipped in sludge and is fighting its way through a swarm of locusts). Essentially encompassing the best aspects of Mouthus, Arab on Radar, and the aforementioned PIL, then throwing in a swirling slo-mo free jazz dissonance into the mix just for laughs, this is far more accessible than most of the label's output, but still eccentric and deliberately irritating enough to mystify or just plain piss off the average rock listener. I wonder what kind of reaction this band gets when they appear live. Great stuff, assuming you're okay with monstrous vocals and serpentine guitars breathing skronk and dissonance.

Gamma Goat

Carlos Giffoni -- ADULT LIFE [No Fun Productions]

Giffoni is a busy guy, what with running No Fun and curating the No Fun Fest and appearing in several bands and who knows what else, but like every other musician on the planet, sooner or later he has to sit down and make some noise of his own, hence this latest solo release. This is a bit different than what he's done in the past -- here he's entranced with the aggressive potential in mixing rhythm and noise. "The Endless Mirror" opens with a repetitive noisy synth pulse that is joined, over time, by different sounds, textures, and riffs, all of them equally rhythmic in their own right. On "Comfort and Pleasure," the repetitive sawtooth synth waves are so static -- at least at first -- that for the first minute or so you'll be convinced the cd is stuck, at least until the oscillator sounds start sweeping intermittently through the background. The rest of the disc continues in a similar vein, with heavy, pulsing synth-noise rhythms in the foreground as strange things happen in the background, and it's generally pretty mesmerizing; the use of analog synths for the hypno-riffs means that the sound has teeth and a nice tone at the same time, which means it's less of an exercise in blinding harsh noise than a textured sonic attack. Of course, some of the sonic action in the background gets pretty violent from time to time, especially on "This Is How You Pull the Trigger" -- if you have the stereo turned up too loud you'll pay for it, no question. This is what Tangerine Dream would sound like if they made a noise album, and the use of analog synths makes it a nice departure from the great mass of noise albums made with efx pedals.

Carlos Giffoni
No Fun Productions

Harry Pussy -- YOU'LL NEVER PLAY THIS TOWN AGAIN [Load Records]

With a name that's difficult to forget and a tendency toward shrieking noise-rock hell, the little noise band from Miami that could spent five years in the early to mid nineties inflicting their sexy audio trauma on audiences far and wide before calling it quits. They left in their wake a couple of albums and a hefty collection of singles and splits that were hard to find then and impossible now, so this collection should come as a nice surprise to Pussy fanatics. (To give an idea of how prolific they were, keep in mind that all of the stuff on this disc was recorded in the space of one year.) This single disc rounds up a staggering 42 tracks, taken from a lot of material that's now out of print (their self-released tour 12", the LIVE AT SALON ZWERGE 12", the Cherry Smash 10" recording of their final show, the split singles with Pelt and Frosty, and the De Stijl singles) along with some unreleased material culled from live shows and various recording sessions. All of the material has been remastered for maximum headache potential, too.

The band's core lineup consisted of Adris Hoyos on drums and scary, screechy vocals, Bill Orcutt on guitar and vocals, and either Mark Feehan or Dan Hosker on second guitar, and their sound was essentially a tsunami of noise straight out of the eighties no-wave playbook. (It's no accident that one of the tracks here is a cover of the Teenage Jesus and the Jerks classic "Orphans"; other covers that hint at their influences include songs by O.D.F.X., Nip Drivers, and Kraftwerk.) Hoyos shrieks and howls like she's being prodded with hot coals while attacking her drum kit with furious abandon as the guitarists wrestle with grotesque, dissonant riffs and squalls of feedback, and the result sounds like a collision between the worlds of free jazz, no-wave, and noise. Their songs were short, frantic bursts of energy, sometimes chaotic and barely decipherable, at other times moderately easier to grasp but no less caustic, with lyrical concerns rooted mainly in a lusty sense of black humor. The performances on this disc are excellent, sometimes even otherworldly, driven by the hyperkinetic drumming and excruciating vocals of Hoyos, who often sounds like she's channeling both Diamanda Galas and Lydia Lunch. This disc is compelling evidence that Harry Pussy was not just an excellent band, but quite possibly the single biggest link between the original no-wvae movement and the current wave of noise rock. If you have any interest at all in Harry Pussy, then you need this disc, and you need it now.

Harry Pussy
Load Records

Man's Last Great Invention -- NONE [eh?]

All hail the healing power of minimalist hiss 'n drone -- that's the theme behind the six tracks on this enigmatic release. The first track opens with nothing more than extremely audible tape hiss and goes on to expand into slow-moving drones (some instrumental, some vocal) swathed in endless acres of reverb that rise and fall like solar wind throughout the piece. The first piece segues into the second, where the density and volume of the drones grows steadily greater; that, in turn, segues into the third, where the drones aren't quite as intense and oblique vocal wailing eventually becomes a predominant part of the sound. The fourth track begins much as the first one did, but incorporates a moderately more aggressive rhythm to the drones; the drones also become darker and deeper (and at last, even more rhythmic) toward the end. The fifth piece is more of the same but also includes passages consisting of high-pitched, bell-like tones; the drones on the final track -- mostly heavily-reverbed vocal lines over subterranean rumbling -- are light and airy, and the first four or five minutes are the most ambient part of the entire disc, right up until the abrupt introduction of some unexpected drumming. The drones are the important part, though, and they are present throughout the track, providing a haunting counterpoint to the freestyle drumming that comes and goes. The overall effect is a meditative and subdued approach to free drone, and the disc is well worth investigating for the serious dronehead.

Man's Last Great Invention

Narkoleptik -- SO SWEET, SO PERVERSE [Mask of the Slave Records]

Romania's Narkoleptik combines old-school power electronics with some interesting new ideas. The opening track on this five-track ep, "1988," opens with harsh buzzing and cut-up sound that drifts into trance-like bursts of reverb and delay over a brooding synth drone. The entire track is a shifting exploration of the power of electronics abuse, especially in terms of applying deliberately excessive amounts of reverb and delay to already disorienting noises. This opening track sets the stage for a similar aesthetic running through the remaining tracks; "Coming Down Hard" is much noisier, sounding like the slowed-down audio of a bomb burst and overlaid with more endless reverberation, and "They All Deserve" continues in similar fashion, with forbidding levels of reverb pulsing over harsh ambient grinding like a sandstorm in progress. Things take a different direction to some degree on "Driving Force," where a vast dark drone works at swallowing whole the cryptic reverb-soaked rhythms, and the disc ends with the title track, an even darker and more hypnotic death-drone so loud and overmodulated as to border on actual noise. Mysterious and alienated, accomplished without being pretentious, and completely uncompromising -- this is a stellar combination of power electronics and dark drone that isn't bogged down in dubious politics or infantile themes. Highly recommended. Limited to 100 copies.

Mask of the Slave

Oblong Box -- 13TH FLOOR 3-inch ep [Public Guilt]

The disc's title and the song titles strongly suggest an affinity for horror soundtracks, which is borne out by the sound of the four tracks themselves. Uneasy snippets of barely-audible conversation and textured drones create an unsettling feeling of foreboding, whether it's in the heavy dark drone of the short opening cut "Is Now the Time?" or in the ghostlike tones of "The Quiet People." The drone action is sparse and intense, black in tone and stealthy in the manner by which it penetrates your psyche. The sweeping curtain of drone is augmented by sinister noises and billowing sheets of sound almost symphonic in nature on the disc's centerpiece, "The Room on the 13th Floor," which sounds like glacial winds blowing through a warehouse where the only inhabitant is some doomed soul gurgling through his death throes. The final track, "Tower of Lies," is just as minimal as the rest but even more eerie, with buzzing static that cycles into pained feedback and more shuddering drone-fu, suggesting the dark spectacle of electrical towers imploding in the middle of the night under a full moon. It's impressive, evocative stuff, and a compelling argument for the idea that where music rooted in soundtracks is concerned, less is definitely more.

Oblong Box
Public Guilt

Vopat -- CALL TO THEM 3-inch ep [Public Guilt]

Vopat returns with a dense wall of sound and heavy riffs swaddled in psychedelic drone -- in other words, good stuff. The three-inch format means the six songs are necessarily short, which is not a bad thing, and the sound is gloriously cranked up on tracks like "Random Lights" and the title track, while other offerings like "Selanor" (with its spare, robotic percussion and tinkling note clusters) are a bit more subdued, if every bit as psych-oriented. Heavy drones and bracing beats abound on this disc -- this is one of the heaviest things Vopat has released in a while -- usually in the context of a drfiting tsunami of sound designed to overwhelm your senses. The sound itself is generally somewhere between ominous and ecstatic, with plenty of acid-drenched guitar lines and translucent clouds of sound to alter your consciousness. Dreamy, drifty, droning whole-grain psych goodness that also comes swaddled in swank packaging. I'm sure it's limited too, so you'd best check it out while it's still around.

Public Guilt

Vopat -- LATHE 3-inch ep [Inam Records]

The five tracks on this ep were originally recorded in Austin in 2006, then augmented with additional material in 2008 in Bloomington. This is not as heavy as recent Vopat releases, but it's certainly rooted in the same noise / drone / psych aesthetic and impressively varied from one track to the next. The first track, "Lumen," starts out as something that's almost pop in sound, and by the end has mutated into a shrieking, hypnotic dissonant guitar squall. "Sentiment" is one of the prettiest tracks Vopat has ever done, filled with gorgeous guitar and tranced-out melodicism; by contrast, "Dermis" is all urgent rhythm and more of that squalling, dissonant guitar that ended the first track. The remaining tracks are all equally heavy on either the psych or drone tip, and it's all high-quality listening, like everything else by Vopat so far. More proof that somebody's still flying the shoegazer flag, too. Limited to 50 copies.

Inam Records

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