Monday, July 14, 2008

hot outside, cool inside, a swank masterplan.

Abstract Audio Systems -- THE IVORY EP [Machine Tribe Recordings]

This is a concept album of sorts, exploring the use of a "primitive digital recorder" to record "purely organic sounds" (in this case, a baby grand piano), and not a long one at that, but don't let that scare you off. The sounds on this disc were further processed in the studio (mainly in the form of adding lots of reverb, from the sound of it), The tracks begin with basic melodies and simple rhythms played on the piano, and are overlaid with strange droning noises and other piano tracks to give them more depth, but the playing is so sparse that even the more layered pieces retain a tremendously spacious feel. The results are spare and melancholy; the only album I can recall sounding like this would be the obscure Thymme Jones album WHILE. Interesting stuff, and the short length keeps the concept from growing tedious.

Machine Tribe Recordings

Averauschen -- SYMBIOTE [Machine Tribe Recordings]

This is a one-off collaboration between Bonechurch and Princess Coldheart, which is too bad, because it's really good. Dark drones and creepy ambient fog are the major elements of the six untitled tracks here. Occasionally leavened by distorted vocal samples and noise, this is brooding dark ambient in a grim mood, with a sound and feel somewhere between the bleak soundscapes inhabiting early Skinny Puppy releases and Cold Electric Fire's IN NIGHT'S DREAM WE ARE GHOSTS. There's not much else to say about the work here, really, except that it's well done and severely creeped-out. Bonus points for the Skinny Puppy reference in the liner notes.

Machine Tribe Recordings

Bonechurch -- BLACK STATIC [Machine Tribe Recordings]

Reviews and poop-sheets for this release reference Coil, Scorn, and Cabaret Voltaire, which is reasonable enough, but this is really closer to a throwback to the first wave of isolationism; in fact, nonthing on here would have been out of place on the landmark AMBIENT 4: ISOLATIONISM compilation assembled by God / Techno-Animal guru Kevin Martin. Dark oceans of rumbling sound flow over distant, ice-cold beats; strange noises and atonal bleats rise from the mist only to recede again. The overall effect of the ten tracks conjures up the image of a lonely soul lost in a cold, dark place, sending out morse code transmissions for help that remain unanswered. Beats rise to the fore on "MLF," "Grindspace," and "Suicide Notes," but the rest of the time remain submerged in the background; disembodied vocal samples appear here and there. Some of the tracks -- "Suicide Notes" is a particularly good example -- are highly hypnotic, repetitive but augmented by just enough extra sonic effluvia to remain engaging; others are more concerned with atmosphere, punctuated by groaning drones and cryptic sound effects. All of it is bleak and foreboding, the way a good dark ambient album should be.

Machine Tribe Recordings

Goat -- SPECIAL AGENT [Present Sounds Recordings]

The first track on this, the band's debut, is one of the most amazing things I've heard in a long time -- "The Lucifer Project" opens with a jazzed-out hip-hop beat that is soon joined by eyebrow-raising glitch electronica, then by a growing series of highly catchy melodic lines provided by different, electronically processed instruments, all of which culminates in the arrival of fuzzed-out chromatic guitar and infernal sax bleating. Spectacular arrangement + swank tones + catchy everything = electroacoustic manna for your ears. Whle this is clearly the best track on the album (or at least the catchiest and most immediately accessible), the other seven tracks aren't far behind in the quality control department. The band's sound encompasses jazz, rock, and glitch electronica, but dispenses with bass in favor of the Electric Wind Instrument, which gives them a unique sound. Armed with traditional instruments (guitar, drums, sax) and not-so-traditional instruments (electronics, loops, and the aforementioned EWI), the band's compositions (all instrumentals) are by turns upbeat and heavily rhythmic, minimal and droning, ambient and experimental, but always marked by excellent arrangements, mysterious sounds, and a highly developed sense of melody. Exotic and considerably more original in sound than a lot of contemporary avant-rock, but still remarkably accessible, this is also consistently excellent and highly recommended.

Present Sounds Recordings

Mesa -- ROCK FORMATIONS [Grizzly Trax Records]

What you get here are eight tracks of devolved harsh-noise compositions heavy on noise and processed sound, albeit with a rhythmic bent, especially on the technoish "lava tubes" and "troglodyte." It's not all pure noise, though -- there are brief keyboard interludes in places, although they're usually quickly overrun by gritty sheets of sonic filth. Techno-styled beats are all over the place -- some particularly swell beats show up on "blind leviathan" -- and they're usually overlaid with eccentric waves of noise, but the noise content itself takes on many different forms from track to track; it's not just all blinding waves of efx-pedal power violence. Rather, the noise is more about texture and shifting layers of clotted sound than it is about the usual sonic brick wall approach, and at times the harsh noise motif vanishes in favor of ominous, droning electronica. Worth hearing for those who like beats with their crunchy noise.

Grizzly Trax Records

Mesa -- SATAN 606 [Grizzly Trax Records]

This four-track cd-ep shares much in common with the full-length release reviewed above, but is far crunchier and more intense. Techno beats abound on this one too, but they're in the mix for shorter durations and the noise level is much heavier and more persistent. As with the other release, there are moments when the noise recedes to give the beats more prominence, but those moments appear less frequently this time around. The songs aren't very long, so it's a short, controlled burst of sonic excess. It's probably not going to make you forget Whitehouse, but it's got more variety than a lot of today's noise albums.

Grizzly Trax Records

Mute Socialite -- MORE POPULAR THAN PRESIDENTS AND GENERALS [Dephine Knormal Musik]

Mute Socialite -- from California's Bay Area -- is nominally a free-jazz / improv band, but they sound more like a technical metal band that's been listening to a lot of Last Exit and most of the Load Records catalog. Drummer Moe! Staiano (aided by second drummer Shayna Dunkleman on two tracks), guitarist Ava Mendoza, bassist Alee Karim, and trumpet player Liz Allbee draw freely from free-jazz, improv, metal, and noise to create pounding and unorthodox sonic vignettes that are impressive for their velocity as well as their technical dexterity. You can get an idea of where they're coming from by the fact that they cover "Killing Time," by the experimental supergroup Massacre (featuring Fred Frith and Bill Laswell); their style, chops, and attitude have much in common with bands like the aforementioned Last Exit, Hatewave, the Flying Luttenbachers, and similar bands from the more aggressive wing of post-no wave experimental skronk. I don't know how improvised this is -- it sounds awfully tight to be totally improvised, but then so did Last Exit, so who knows? Not that it matters; whether it was rehearsed or improvised on the spot, the songs are engaging and controlled (even when it doesn't necessarily sound that way), and there's nothing fey or abstract about their demanding sonic wallop. This is an experimental / free-jazz album that hardcore metalheads can appreciate (or should that be the other way around?), with plenty of dynamics and surprising changes in direction to go with the hyperkinetic drumming, machine-gun riffing, and howling guitar excess.

Mute Socialite
Dephine Knormal Musik

Random Touch -- A BOX AND A WORD [Token Boy Records]

This is an interesting release for Random Touch, with shorter songs and more of them (sixteen, to be exact) and a sound that combines ambient / drone music with improv jazz. Which is not to say that they've suddenly turned into a commercial band suitable for airplay on your local adult contemporary listening station -- there's some seriously tangled guitar-wrangling and offbeat rhythms on tracks like "Tripping So Fancy" and phase-shifted, backwards-sounding guitar frippery on "Resplendent," just to name two of the more avant-sounding tracks. Ambient, jazz, improv, and prog-rock collide with experimental impulses, but as they've proven consistently in their earlier body of work, minimalism and restraint (along with an impeccable sense of timing, especially when throwing in unexpected flourishes and motifs) remain their key weapons. Unlike most of their previous albums, however, the truly out-there moments are more an exception than the rule this time around. Most of the songs are dominated by ambient washes, minimal but original drumming, and guitar sounds that are unorthodox yet accessible. In fact, this is one of their most accessible and user-friendly releases yet -- beautiful sounds combine with a laid-back approach to create something that is mellow and listenable while still being considerably more challenging and exotic than your average jazz-lite / new-age album. It's true that things get a bit more cryptic and peculiar-sounding toward the end of the album, but even then the strangeness is relatively subdued. The unexpected bursts of experimental fervor, as it happens, go a long way toward keeping their low-key approach from degenerating into the musical equivalent of somnambulism. If nothing else, the disc offers more proof of how remarkably consistent the band is for a collective wallowing in pure free-form improvisation.

Random Touch
Token Boy Records

Random Touch -- DUOLOGUE [Token Boy Records]

The album takes its name from the fact that only two members of the band -- drummer / vocalist Christopher Brown and guitarist Scott Hamill -- appear on this album. The reduction in personnel makes the band's minimalist sound even more sparse this time around, with nine tracks centered around Brown's deceptively simple beats and Hamill's spaced-out (and spacious) guitar lines. On some tracks like "some where," "chit chat," and "suitable time," Hamill's use of whacked-out guitar efx becomes the dominant force, but most of the time there's a fairly equal balance between the drumming and the mutant guitar stylings. Sometimes the processed guitar stylings call to mind the work of Adrian Belew in King Crimson, but Hamill's approach is far more unpredictable and far less tethered to the drumming (which itself is far jazzier and unorthodox than the drumming on most prog-rock albums). Some of the guitar sounds are far more abrasive than you'd expect from a Random Touch album, too, and while Brown's approach isn't significantly different this time around, it's more immediate, thanks to the limited number of players. An interesting deviation from the band's usual aesthetic, but not significantly different enough to make the band unrecogniable.

Random Touch
Token Boy Records

Tunnel of Love -- AN ETERNITY OF BLOOD [Glorious Alchemical Co.]

The poop sheet claims it "sonically resembles" Coil's HORSE ROTORVATOR and Prince's SIGN OF THE TIMES, which is pretty funny, especially since it's absolutely true on both counts. Jeff Wagner's idea of what constitutes pop music is a pretty skewed one, judging from the evidence of his several previous albums (and one ep). Sure, the Coil and Prince references are apt, but you can hear traces of Nick Cave, the Cramps, Gary Numan (the old, good stuff, not the later, not so good stuff), Birthday Party, Tom Waits, Danielle Dax, and probably dozens -- no, hundreds -- of other equally disparate and eccentric influences. The qualifying link between all of them is a taste for the lurid, though, filtered through a twisted noir sensibility and brought to hideous, baffling life through the use of cheap instruments. A lot of it sounds like lo-fi new wave (and at times, no wave) channeling the spirit of dead fifties girl groups and exotica records, accented by noise-rock and frequent bursts of squalling guitar. Its overall aesthetic, in fact, reminds me a lot of the Tom Waits album BONE MACHINE, one of the most unfathomable and original-sounding recordings ever made; this isn't as bleak and sparse as that album, but it's every bit as bizarre and sinister, albeit considerably more danceable. The eighteen (!) songs here unfold with deceptive simplicity and are stuffed with catchy hooks, rude noises, wildly varied instrumentation, and a perverse sensibility that defies easy explication. David Lynch could build a film around the sleazy story lines lurking in these songs, and it still wouldn't be anywhere near as surreal and unnerving as the soundtrack. This is probably TOL's best work, too, no small feat given the quality of previous releases. You need to hear this, trust me.

Tunnel of Love