Tuesday, August 11, 2020
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Music Reviews

Artist: VV.AA.
Title: Building A Better Reality : A Benefit Compilation
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: JMY
The sheer weight of feeling behind a cause doesn’t prove that cause’s validity or importance- but it must surely be a massive indicator. It speaks volumes that JMY set out to do a benefit compilation raising funds for Black Lives Matter, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and received over 100 tracks from over 80 different contributors. That’s eleven and a half hours of music. And while the sheer scale of a compilation album doesn’t equate to its quality, I’d certainly call it value for money!

The quality is excellent. I can’t feasibly comment on every track, but to generalise massively, there’s plenty more reasons to buy this compilation than just the charity aspect.

The arrangement of tracks is such that listening to the first few tracks is quite misleading. This opening hour or so is a collection of works from the thoughtful and introspective side of electronica, but with lashings of acoustic elements, found sound and sound design and atmospheric work. There are huge doses of ambient, some drones, including Silber-ish guitar drones, some more cinematic pieces, and plenty of sombre moods and environmental pieces.

However this is not the full story, by any means, and after this point, a lot of musical diversity arrives. TV POW’s “Cadillac A” and Precise’s “It’s On Me” are on-point rap track (the former with a nice line in American culture samples), while Tina M Howell and Just Nick offer up a soul-meets-trip-hop affair in “Donna And Tina”. Gel Set’s “Headless Statue #3” is an intriguing bit of semi-retro synthpop with a nice hook to it. Extraordinary Popular Delusions’ “Contention” is a straight-up slab of avantgarde jazz, Jeb Bishop Trio’s “Fifth Gear” is a smooth cruising jazz (the latter a part of a jazz zone that the album enters around two-thirds of the way through), and Azita’s “Something That Happened” is a straight-laced reggae groove with dub elements- until the point where it isn’t (spoilers!).

The diversity plays out piece by piece, and throws up some assured surprises. But the compilation does keep returning to the electronic world periodically, making it its home turf and leading to some interesting contrasts- none more than the roll from Spanish-sounding guitar ballad into Zoot Houston’s sine-wave symphony “xrstlyedit.mp3”.

Many of the tracks have a political connection to the cause in hand, like the protest crowd sampling “BLM about the Permawave 2020” from GK Jupitter-Larsen which covers a self-contained distance from found sound through to a wall of distorted noise- and at the other end of the spectrum, Simon Joyner’s acoustic folk ballad “There Will Be A Time #2”. Few are more unsettling than the long drone, sirens and riot noises pulling against solo choral and ballad singing in Jesse Goin’s somewhat Jimmy Cauty-esque “Is There A Balm In Gilead”, while some take topical sounds but process them into more abstract soundscapes, like Fred Lonberg-Holm’s “Slow Riot” or the sinister but not gruesome “Smoldering Corpse Outside The Embassy” from Our Wrongs.

The compilation does return to its gentler more atmospheric and ambient roots at later points as well, with Doline Karst’s haunting “Incolae” and Pharmakustik’s “Freight” some of the finer examples, and some more interlude-like pieces like Mykel Boyd’s “60 Miles South of Chicago”. There are plenty of immersive soundscapes here as well, many of which top the ten minute mark on their own (and some nearer half an hour!). Some are on the unsettling side, like the dizzying “Untitled 200613” from J. Soliday, or Al Margolis’ “QueBec” with its utterly unexpected accordion halfway. The selection of alien environments on offer ranges from the straight-laced, like Kazuya Ishigami’s “Lemurian Memory”, and the dark and grunge, like Gabie Strong’s “Sous Les Pavés”, to more unusual offerings like Stephan Comford’s presumably lock-down inspired “A Finite Number Of Rooms”. Others like the excellent “Carrier v1.40” from remst8 + Drekka or Rugar Magnusson’s “Gull” are more accessible and warm drone works. Towards the end of the compilation there’s a greater prevalence for sparse, isolated solo tracks, like Jeff Kimmel’s extremely plaintive “Solo At ESS”, as well as some extended noisier abstract works like K2’s “Flat Horizon Is So Black”.

Although this is a political hot topic at the moment, there’s surprisingly little here that feels rushed or overly raw. It is curious to think that if the dates are correct, I’m reviewing tracks like Jeb Bishop’s dizzying “mISTAKES v170620” less than two weeks after they were finished, but it still doesn’t feel underbaked Some tracks feel like an opportunity to try something unique that might not fit into the rest of their work- while I’m not familiar with Mike Bullock’s work, his chaotic string and processing piece “Tread” feels like a good example of that scenario working well. There’s the odd short sketch, like Nick Hoffman’s one-minute guitar piece “Sufferir So Disposto”, but the calm maturity in tracks like Neil Jendon’s “Sulu Bleeding Heart” rather suggests that the current lockdown situation has given many musicians a bit more time to work on these tracks than they might’ve had otherwise...

Other miscellaneous highlight tracks include Jim Becker’s pulsing electronics and fragile melody of “Jajouk 2213”, and the bright but twisty electronic drone-fanfare of Boris Hauf’s captivating “Exspiro”. Pandabrand’s “Listen” is from the very quirkiest edge of pop, and the raw electronic techno of Danfan’s “Contratiempo” or Frank Rosaly’s “Fool” both leap out at you, as does the sharp one-minute guitar-techno “Grass Dance” from Kendraplex. For the introspective side, Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson’s yoik-like multitracked vocal “Turning Down The Volume Inside Your Head” must be mentioned.

For eyebrow-raising weirdness, a number of special mentions should go to No Motive’s “Untitled”, Pavlos Vakalos and Nicolas Malevitsis’s bold stop-start sample-metal “Cry”, the energetic cut-up monkey vocalisations of Karen Constance and Blue Spectrum’s “Medication Bathing Wine”, the mental-health-concerning twisted vocalisations of Leif Elggren’s “Soya” or the noise wall of Crank Sturgeon’s “Standstill Until”. Ernst Karel’s “Cassette Field Recordings, Thailand 1993” tells an interesting but sparse story of forgotten television broadcasts, while Weasel Walter, Brandon Lopez and Michael Foster offer a track called “Current Events” which is a difficult wall of distortion, angst and percussive noise- which is very fair, because that’s what current events do feel like.

Eleven and a half hours is a marathon listen, for sure- but considering the minimum price is only $7, it’s insane value, and even if you can only relate to half the tracks on here, it’s still a fantastic find. Plus it’s a charity record for a solid cause too- leaving you with pretty much no reason left not to buy it.

Artist: Pauline Oliveros & Anla Courtis (@)
Title: Telematic Concert
Format: LP
Label: Spleencoffin (@)
Rated: *****
On October 11, 2009 an unusual concert took place at the Deep Listening Institute’s Dream Festival in Kingston, New York. Electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros was there with her accordion and expanded instrument system, and piped in digitally from Buenos Aires was Argentinian experimental musician Anla Courtis with his unstringed guitar, objects and processing. This was an improvisational duet between two world renowned experimental electro-acoustic musician-composers, the recording of which has not seen the light of day until now, over a decade later. Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) was a central figure in the development of experimental and post-war electronic art music. She was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, and served as its director. She taught music at Mills College, the University of California San Diego (UCSD), Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oliveros authored books, formulated new music theories, and investigated new ways to focus attention on music including her concepts of "deep listening" and "sonic awareness." Anla (sometimes referred to as "Alan," as on this album) is one of the most prolific international experimental avant garde musician-composers alive today. He holds a degree in Communication Science from the University of Buenos Aires, where he currently runs an annual music workshop. He played electric guitar in diverse bands and in 1993 he co-founded the legendary South American underground avant garde group, Reynols. Courtis has literally HUNDREDS of releases not only with Reynols, but also collaborations with other artists and on his own. The 'Telematic Concert' is a matchup of titans in the improvisational experimental music genre.

Now that the pandemic (as well as advances in technology) has changed the way live performances between different players are put forth (musicians in different locations coming together online) this distant collaboration may not seem like such a big deal, but a decade ago it was. Granted, there's a certain amount of leeway compared to more regimented (orchestrated) forms of music, but there still has to be some simpatico for it to coalesce, and there's simpatico a-plenty here. First, forget about the source instruments; the sounds generated have hardly anything in common with accordion and guitar. This is pure sonic manipulation that leans toward the industrial and to some extent, power electronics. It's difficult to say who's playing what where and when (the album is comprised of two lengthy pieces that last the entire side of the LP), but when something sounds droney, likely it's Pauline, and when there's an abundance of feedback, it's likely to be Anla. What starts out tentatively doesn't take long to assert itself sonically in a dominating presence of brutal resonance. While the fury of great slabs of feedback tempered with various noises is not omnipresent, there really isn't much respite in either of these phases (1 & 2, as per album side). Things shift and change, as in frequencies, pitch, attack, decay, intensity, etc., but it is always evolving, like some hellish sound kaleidoscope morphing into...well, something else. Interestingly, the acoustics of the performance space seem to indicate something on the large side, at least to these ears in my living room coming out of my loudspeakers. (I don't think I would have been brave enough to hazard headphones on this work.) So there seems to be properties that were brought out in the vinyl that may have eluded me had it been a completely digital experience. While I'm sure there was plenty of intelligence behind the sonic manipulations, this seemed more like an instinctual rather than intellectual exercise on the part of both artists as one really appeared to know what the other was going for, consequently feeding off each others' energies. It ‘s probably preposterous to say that this music isn't for everyone (surely my wife and the cat can attest to that as they were subject to the experience), but for those into experimental electro-acoustic improvisation with a healthy dose of powerful noise, this is the crème de la crème, and on vinyl, a must own.

Artist: Marina Rosenfeld & Ben Vida
Title: Vertice
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Fridman Gallery
Vertis collects together two free improvisational performances from Marina Rosenfeld and Ben Vida, recorded at New York’s Fridman Gallery in 2016 and 2019 respectively. In part it seems to be released to help promote the gallery’s new series of weekly live streamed (and paid ticketed) performances from the locked-down, shelter-in-place-adhering gallery.

Each of the two 18-minute performances is an assembly of glitchy, multi-layered electronic sounds, controlled with an expressive hands-on and analogue feel, blended with occasional segments of more conventional instrumentation such as gentle piano work. Plus, for a live performance, it has a surprisingly broad range of other sonic elements on tap, from close breathy vocalisations to what seems to be found sounds ranging from vinyl artefacts to crowd noise. It’s a skittish landscape that never stays still for more than a minute or so before shifting impatiently, tweaking dizzyingly into something different.

Initially first piece “Any Landscape” is quite frantic, but its overall energy level dips in the second half somewhat, to let quieter details poke through, before settling on a low string-like drone that flutters with noise bubbles. Second pieces “Branches”, conversely, is much barren to begin, an alien landscape of uncomfortable bugs and wide spaces, which then builds, in phases, before spinning off on a tangent and finishing in a decidedly 1960’s Radiophonic Workshop world, a feeling boosted by the vinyl crackles that add to the feeling that you’ve discovered an old BBC LP.

It’s improvised experimental music that exhibits a certain sense of traditionalism in the range of sounds and the dynamic at play, and despite being a new release, it will certainly appeal to anyone who appreciates the historical side, and the historical tone, of experimental electronic music.

Artist: Storyteller (@)
Title: The Stubborn Organic Emblem of Social and Biological Survival
Format: Tape
Label: Adaadat (@)
Rated: *****
I was unfamiliar with this project and this was my introduction to the label as well. According to the label’s website, “'The Stubborn Organic Emblem of Social and Biological Survival' tells the story of a King in Waiting (loosely based on HRH The Prince of Wales) who embarks on a sadomasochistic relationship with a sentient Aspidistra Plant. Think 'Fifty shades of Grey' crossed with 'Day of the Triffids'. Storyteller is a collaboration between writer & occasional filmmaker Bruce McClure and sound artist Bjørn Hatleskog.” I had not read this before I put in the tape and started writing, but yeah – this tracks pretty well. Let’s dive in.

As we begin side 1, I was surprised at how much this reminded me of Death in June’s “Occidental Martyr.” Tinkling bells, noisy field recording (scraping), and synth drone mixed with spoken word telling a story about a forest. Later on, we have random detuned guitar and the story continues with lines like "There hasn't been a beast I haven't fornicated and frolicked with" and "Better to have nightmares than to never dream at all.” Flipping the tape over, we delve even deeper into the story, with lines like "Each day and night I made love to the plant in the cellar. Each day and night I executed the man who would be king." The music is mostly experimental dark ambient and blends well with the story, and the deadpan spoken word style serves to enhance the atmosphere. I really wish there was text included here because it can be hard to follow at times, but I can understand the difficulty in putting this in with a tape. Overall, this is weird as hell and I enjoyed it immensely. Despite the cover art, I would not recommend putting this on for story time for your kids though. If you liked things like Current 93’s “I Have a Special Plan for This World,” this will probably be right up your alley.

This is limited to 100 copies. I have one of them. That means that if you want to be one of the lucky 99 others, you will need to get this while you can.

Artist: Protovulcan
Title: Psychic Pinball
Format: Tape
Label: Toy Moon
Rated: *****
I generally review noise and dark ambient, but I think that the fact that I actually own a tape player meant that this got thrown into my pile. So with that disclosure out of the way, let's drop a quarter and see if we get a match on the psychic pinball machine. Turns out, I have already reviewed an album by one of the band members (Will MacLean) called Ice Cream Mission to Mars, which I enjoyed. This is different, but every bit as strange. This is some serious garage weirdness. Heavily processed vocals with drums (as a fellow drummer, I appreciate that they are using actual analog drums and not a drum machine) and more Moog than you can shake a stick at. Imagine if your favorite acid rock / prog band got together and decided to smoke a ton of weed, set up a boom box to record it all, and then jam while running all of the vocals through a vocoder. Oh, and they forgot the guitars, but there were a bunch of analogue synths that they could mess with. The music is pretty good through, partly because it doesn't seem to take itself too seriously and you can tell that they are having a great time. Not typically what I would reach for, but it's a lot of fun and I would totally check these guys out live. Looks like the game is over now, but we hit the match and now it’s time for free play….


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