The Laughable Barn

The Wake of the Flood

An astonishing production is Outside, The Great Drought (SMERALDINA-RIMA S-R-018CD), an excessive pop opera with grand ambitions, and a work which is the vision of American musician Colby Nathan. He’s the sort of multi-talented player who probably could have performed all the parts on the record by himself, but as one half of Hyena he’s assisted by main partner and percussionist Dylan Kumnick, and a small army of friendly musicians providing strings, brass, percussion, vocals, and rock ensemble parts. Though you might not realise it to listen to this overpowering multi-tracked epic, DIY-maestro Colby Nathan is not exactly a man of independent means and was obliged to assemble this great work in numerous places across America, working much like Orson Welles in his latter years shooting and assembling his European movies in fits and starts. Accordingly Nathan lists a catalogue of recording locations, all of them intimately connected with friends and colleagues, such that the very making of the record is like a private diary of his efforts. What of the content? Well, lyrically, if there’s an abiding theme to this sweeping portrait of life-changing weather systems and shifting geography patterns, it is expressed in concise poetic terms by its author on one panel of the CD insert. This economy of style hasn’t prevented him from managing a few magical-realist and surrealist literary touches within that text, elements which are also manifested in the song’s lyrics. Musically, the songs are a mixture of insanely urgent power pop sung with a barely-controlled hysteria (Nathan’s lead vocals at such moments remind me of early Russell Mael), or warped versions of acoustic guitar country-tinged tunes, as if rendered by the alien twin of Neil Young. Propelling all of this unusual song-form into the realms of overblown absurdity is the rag-tag rock orchestra ensemble, whose contributions add just the right degree of dramatic pomp. Colby Nathan’s work is new to me, but it seems we have to admit that Colin Langenus now has a serious contender to face in the arena of contemporary orchestrated avant-pop underground music. Even so, I don’t quite hear the Brian Wilson / Van Dyke Parks similarities which the press note advises us to look for; Colby Nathan doesn’t quite have their same knack for subtlety or understatement, but that isn’t to deny this isn’t a serious and impressive work of crazed visionary Americana. Arrived here 3rd April 2012; also available as a vinyl LP.

Resonant Drive Shafts

Recently I bought two LPs by Don Sugarcane Harris, the jazz-blues-rock violinist who played and sang with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention on such notable albums as Hot Rats, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Zappa devotee Edwin Pouncey reminded me of Zappa’s innate ability to identify many supremely talented musicians and harness their energy for his own grand projects, often persuading them to do things outside their normal comfort zone. Don Preston was such another, and he provided incredible piano and synth music for many of the finest MOI records of the 1960s and 1970s. What I didn’t know is that he was a serious student of contemporary music in the early 1960s, developed his own form of electronic instrument, and was friends with Robert Moog and Louis and Bebe Barron. Now we have the CD compilation Filters, Oscillators & Envelopes 1967-82 (SUB ROSA SR334) which brings together a number of otherwise unreleased experimental recordings from Preston’s personal history. The first one is called simply ‘Electronic Music’, and was realised in 1967. This is in some ways the most radical of Preston’s pieces on offer here; it’s certainly the most hand-crafted, with some rough edges and a palpable sense of Preston’s excitement of discovery. It was put together in between performing MOI gigs at the Garrick in NYC, and made with an unconventional setup – Preston’s own home-made synth, a tape echo, and a tape recorder. 15 minutes of understated abstract groans and creaks, occasionally punctuated with futuristic harpsichord arpeggios, full of unexpected but not shockingly crazy shifts and changes. This one could almost have been used as a backdrop to one of Zappa’s absurdist on-stage parody dramas, but it makes for delicious listening on its own terms. I suppose we can also detect some of Preston’s influences from the time, particularly Tod Dockstader, whose music he studied.

After this the CD jumps to 1975, by which time Preston is the owner of a “proper” modular synth built by Pat Gleeson; this is what we hear played on the seven parts of ‘Analog Heaven’, along with Preston’s mini-moog, and his echoplex unit. For a tasty example of Preston’s mini-moog mastery, listen to ‘Lonesome Electric Turkey’ on the Fillmore East, June 1971 album. ‘Analog Heaven’ is a much more restrained piece of music, and is evidence of Preston’s skill and patience in exploiting the “wonderful morphing ability” of these instruments; he spent many months experimenting with patches to create these textures, and yet the music itself also feels very spontaneous and free-flowing. Spontaneity is a very elusive and rare quality in most composed electronic music, particularly from the European schools; many classical composers also laboured long and hard to create their electronic music, and the effort was often quite apparent in the stilted and heavy results. But in 1975, Preston was making it look almost effortless.

The last third of the album is the 1982 piece ‘Fred & Me’, which appears to be a collaboration between Preston and the maverick percussionist Fred Stofflet. It combines low-key electronic humming with eccentric percussion instruments collected by Preston, mostly pieces of abandoned industrial equipment and railway parts. By this time Preston had worked on the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now, and one cannot help but hear this slow-moving music as a more nightmarish and muffled version of the end-credits music for that movie. A series of very uncertain half-tones, muted notes, and heavily-disguised percussive effects all coalesce to produce a dream-like and vaguely threatening sonic environment. The rapport of these two improvisers is apparent, especially in the blending of their respective sounds. Fine collection; Zappa completists will probably want to snap this up as a matter of course, though I can recommend it to all lovers of electronic music. Also available in vinyl form.

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