Ether pt 1


The Crackling Ether: Electronic Endeavours Past and Future

Original position in magazine: pp 5-15

Contents: record reviews; profile of Joe Meek; Theremin article; ‘Boffins on Parade’


Silver Apples
Silver Apples (1968) and Contact (1969)
Well-known among collectors, these are two exceptional LPs recorded in the late 1960s, on an unofficial recording taken from vinyl. The songs are magnificent, their lyrics muttered in a discursive free-form style tinged with poisonous anti-Hippy sentiments (‘A Pox on You’), but the real achievement is the eerie sound. All the more astonishing for being produced by only two musicians – the drummer Danny Taylor and Simeon [Coxe], creator and player of The Simeon. This prototype electronic instrument, played with both the hands and the feet, is little short of miraculous – delivering a richness and purity of sound matched only by its originality. Compare the identikit processed sounds available today via mass-produced synths with the almost organic sound of the Simeon, and indeed the work of other pioneering electronics experts – Donald Byrd’s United States of America, or the White Noise; or in classical avant-garde music, the Ondes Martenot used by Messiaen or the instrument invented by Professor Leon Theremin which you know from ‘Good Vibrations’, or Captain Beefheart’s ‘Electricity’. It’s not all electronix with the SIlver Apples though, who also use folky recorders and banjo on some tracks, filling out the sound in even more unexpected ways. One would love to say the Silver Apples were seminal, but it seems as though, like those one-of-a-kind masters cited above, they left no legacy of influences – their genius is exemplified on these two LPs and attained a peak of achievement that no-one could follow.

The Scientific Supercake LP
Something of a gem in the way of the big noise stakes. Two brutish amateurs exploit their untutored approach to handling dangerous volumes and unorthodox combinations of electronic instruments. Most would-be artist duffers can’t do this properly – they always hold back, or forget the structure beneath the freedom that’s so necessary, but our plucky duo go forth boldly into the realms of unexplored sonic atrocities and reap a rich harvest of intoxicating sound episodes. This doesn’t apply to their weak attempts at writing ‘songs’, but works admirably when they go for pure noise, like their exit cut ‘Battle of the Planets’, where a mysterious found tape of a voice leads into an exhilarating rush of unrestrained blocks of feedback and reverb, filling up the acoustical space with a lovely abstract drone that threatens to blow the speakers and shatter your knick-knacks. After playing this, you can slice up the atmosphere in your living room and sell it off in cubic squares.

David Shea
New York mad electronics man Shea (associate of Elliot Sharp, I think) and friends create a series of pieces woven loosely around McGoohan and Tomblin’s ‘The Prisoner’ TV show. Thus the occasional sample of dialogue, or Ron Grainer incidental music, graces sections of this disturbing ‘concept’ LP. Thankfully, none of the trainspotter obsessiveness of the Six of One Club in evidence, but then not much of the humour or eccentricity of the series survives either. Shea emphasizes rather the paranoia and schizophrenia of Number 6, to concoct his own dark speculative fictions which go a lot further into the themes of mind control and No Escape suggested by the series. We’re left with a relentlessly bleak view of the soul-destroying frustrations of modern society, or something like that. Not to deny this is a great noise, if you like heavy atmospherics, jarring dynamics and time signature shifts that induce heart failure.

David Shea
Even more rewarding than Prisoner, this features works by Shea of which some are created 100% through the medium of sampling and turntabling – and can be played by Shea ‘live’ interestingly, although are not for this CD. Two of them use the music of the great Carl Stalling to come up with tributes to Screwy Squirrel and Tex Avery; okayish, though they don’t add a great deal to the cartoons or to the original music. More successful to my mind is the long piece based on Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. There’s a very dense surface to all these pieces, judicious selection and deployment of each musical moment; we’re not being aggressively bombarded with micro-second edits like on Hip-Hop records (or whatever they call it nowadays) – rather, Shea initiates and explores relationships between ready-made musics, gives them time to grow and room to breath, and thus brings out new dimensions of narrative and emotional depth.

Michael Prime
A solo CD from Prime who’s been on the obscure electronics scene for some time, as a member of the excellent Morphogenesis; this ‘watery’ disc is a real beaut and deserves a place in your home. Prime uses found sources and selected pieces of his own recordings, then processes them through mixing desk effects and Musique Concrète debauchery to produce a mind-melding world of never-heard sounds. As with other such composers, knowing the methodology helps, and Prime explains in his sleeve notes how he put together a sound link to the venue’s toilets for the live ‘Aquatic Synapse’. The long track ‘Timeslips’ is my fave, where the abstract slabs o’ noise move in and out of more recognisable sounds (the rain on a tin roof is just beautiful), but overlaid and cut together in disjointed time sequences, thus transporting you on a magical aural journey through time and space while you sit in your living room. Prime helps to redefines our sense of reality, hear things that cannot possibly be. I’m all for it.

This Heat
Although a long-time fan of the ‘Heat’, I was disappointed at first – no lost masterpieces among these unreleased tracks, but three rather less-than-necessary long pieces. ‘Graphic/Varispeed’ we’ve already had issued on a 12″ single [Health and Efficiency], but the relative rarity of that item does make this important; it’s also great to have that fine atmospheric organ sound on CD for the quiet moments. Reproduction is such that you can hear the splice of the loop as it passes over the tape heads. ‘Repeat’ is effectively ’24 Track Loop’ from the first LP, without added reverb effects. ‘Metal’ is 20 Minutes of the Heaters aimlessly banging bits of scrap metal at their Brixton studio, looped and treated. What I would like is live tapes please (if any reader can send me some I’d be delighted); This Heat were an extraordinary band, where elements of avant-garde and improv met indie rock. These Records kept fans and subscriber waiting some time before unleashing this item, shame it’s proved to be something of a damp squib. More promising is the 1996 release Made Available (This Heat John Peel sessions from the 1970s) which we will review next ish.

Jon Rose

Techno Mit Storüngen: Ein Projekt von Jon Rose
From a November 1995 ‘Music Unlimited’ Festival in Austria comes this rather flabby spread of improv, electronics, turntabling and vocal yawps. Despite the all-star cast of maniacal heroes and heroines, this comes over as dismayingly twee and polite where it should be demanding your attention, unstructured and self-indulgent where it should be a glorious free-form celebration of talents. Among those talents are my personal faves Evan Parker, Marc Ribot, Otomo, Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, and the Crown Prince of the wheels of steel, Christian Marclay. Given such a lineup, I can’t understand why it fails to gell; Jon Rose is credited with ‘Direction’ of the project, but to these ears he’s a General Custer, leading in the wrong direction and failing to muster the troops. Not to deny there’s some nice noises now and again, but they’re offered up like so many stale nibbles at a cocktail party, when it could have been a gargantuan 12-course banquet.

Richard Youngs and Simon Wickham-Smith
Durian Durian
The Swell Maps avant-garde prankster spirit lives on with this duo, whose home-made LPs Lake and Advent are worth checking out, if you can ever find them. This latest outpouring is another astonishing venture into forbidden sonic worlds, collated according to a random but relentless system, from four separate improv sessions created at different times around the world. In all art, the process of creation is highly important, and usually neglected by the audience, who make judgements simply by the end-product. Here, you’re required to know what they’re doing before you can really make any sense of it : a map to the apparent aural chaos on the vinyl. Stockhausen would love these guys. He wouldn’t really, but I do.

Ligature – Remixes
Firmament II
168 HZ Series
USA HERTZ 1-6 6 x CD SET (1996)
This duo of devils, comprised of core members of late 1980s band Loop, have noodled their way into a corner of white-boy English Electronica. I very much care for this music: I always enjoy it as it envelopes me in atmospheres, but I can’t remember much of it afterwards. It’s virtually impossible to describe – no melody, no beat, not even a tangible sound to speak of. They are adept at concealing their tracks. Whereas This Heat’s delightfully clunky experiments with tape loops and studio technique were often revealed to the patient listener, Main have set up a blank wall of complete anonymity. I thought I had heard the ultimate in minimalism – but that was before Panasonic and RLW, see below. The HZ series was issued as separately titled half-hour mini-discs – one per month slipped out in 1995, and the last one came in a nifty box you could keep them in. These little silver runts were wrapped in sleeve art that looked like a detail of a Mark Boyle construction – could it be peeling wallpaper, the surface of a lichen-covered rock, a microscopic enlargement? Like the music, you read into these ‘blank’ images what you will. Firmament II was recommended to me by a fellow at a party – his sentiment was if you like Kraftwerk, you should dig Main. There is a superficial resemblance I suppose; but Main seem more invidious, they have succeeded in creating a music that seems to have no definition; and I mean this as praise, lack of boundaries might enhance this music’s use as a subversive tool.

John Wall
This guy’s another very interesting manipulator of tape sources. The method here isn’t really that important though – he’s more like a sculptor of time, showing true commitment to the possibilities of sampling, performing intricate and careful collages of material that cannot (nor should be) traced back to its sources. Paul Schütze contributes highbrow sleeve notes and pours scorn on samples used on dance records, which steal brazenly and wear the theft round their neck like a hood ornament. John Wall steals brazenly but makes subversive records out of it, like Max Ernst and his engraving collages. The disc is kinda surrealist in a fun way. ‘Fragmenta’ layers orchestral stabs with a vicious razor-sharp double bass attack, with a mermaid stranded on the rocks while massive cellos sail by unheeding. ‘Alterstill’ is a weird machine made of birdcage wire inching along the factory floor. At 1.56 it reaches the boss’s office and announces its murderous intentions. ‘Belief Not’ is a dance of mutant gypsies armed with sledgehammers, whooping with abandon as they bounce on trampolines and smash the windows of tall buildings – one for the punk rockers! On ‘Stunde Null II’, the timpani in a bucket of ice slugs it out with a timid piano note – listen and discover what alien secrets these fellows will reveal. When joined by a rattling flagpole from outside the Venusian Embassy, the conversation takes quite a different turn. The gloomy clarinet adds cautionary words of doom. And then…well, hear for yourself. The overall sound has very sharp edges; you could cut yourself on the jagged shapes leaping from your speakers. Perhaps it’s down to the nature of editing using digital technology, or part of Wall’s aesthetic of severity.

John Duncan
Duncan won me over with his earlier CD Send (TOUCH TO20), which arrived in a corrugated cardboard box plus booklet. He is the mystic master with a tape and razor blade, controlling a compelling, ethereal drone that pulls you in like an electric whirlpool. Half the sources are (I guess) shortwave radio static, a strategy which perhaps sounds tiresomely familiar to our Industrial Music readership, but Duncan has an edge all of his own. What I like is the sense of drifting upstream to a real Heart of Darkness, with no signposts to guide your bewildered ears. The ideal visual accompaniment would be a book of paintings by Francis Bacon; together, the two of them have a fair bit to say about extremes of isolation and despair. There certainly seems to be a dark side to Duncan judging by his booklet in the Send CD; his extra-mural antics apparently include ritual necrophilia (is he having us on?). You’re supposed to send off the corrugated card package to receive additional mailings – I haven’t dared!

94 Diskont
Very enjoyable and immediately accessible. If you own a CD player you’ve probably experienced a weird glitch when you put in a grubby disc, and it skips or loops over one segment because the laser can’t read through your greasy fingerprints. This ‘malfunctioning’ is the basis of Oval’s fun-filled techno malarkey. They somehow treat CDs in such ways as to harness these ‘accidents’ and use them to construct an interesting piece of music. Exactly how they do this is kept as a trade secret; no doubt it also involves a deal of studio processing. The best thing here is the 20+ minute ‘Do While’ (whose title, I suspect, comes from a database programming command). It’s impossible to identify any single component of the source material, nor should that concern us; what you’re hearing is as much to do with process as with the content. By playing a simple locked groove on a vinyl disc, you’re virtually taking part in a rudimentary performance art experiment, relying on the physical properties of the record on your turntable. With Oval, we’re coming close to hearing the ‘thought patterns’ of CD technology. The idea is inseparable from the machinery. A development like this was inevitable really – Oval aren’t the first, but they sure make it sound like fun.

When Freezing Air Stings Like Ice I Shall Breath Again
As indicated above, this is a record that makes Main sound over-cluttered. This is the sound of low-volume, low frequency samples of (ho-hum) shortwave radio bursts, interleaved with vast acres of complete silence. A challenging listen – not that the sound is at all difficult, just that there’s so little of it. Taking a cue from the title, I see it as the sonic equivalent of a bracing walk in January across a frozen landscape – although the countryside as rendered by RLW [Ralf Wehowsky] is bereft of scenery, and is reduced to a blurry horizon where you can’t discern the snow from the sky. When you sight a robin next to a frozen pond, it’s like a significant event. If you feel you could benefit from such a tourn, then by all means bend an ear to this unassuming record and let it lead you where it will. How miniimal is it? Make sure the red light is on your CD or you won’t know you’re playing it.

Chris Cutler and Lutz Glandien
Domestic Stories
UK ReR LSMCD (1992)
This is all but a reincarnation of the great Art Bears – here’s Cutler on drums, Fred Frith on guitars and the matchless Dagmar Krause on vox. Here, they reinterpret the insane songs of Lutz Glandien, who also knows his onions in the area of electro-acoustic treatments. In the 70s and 80s, Henry Cow and Art Bears climbed up on their soapbox and issued strident, Marxist warnings to us all; now, the doomy atmosphere of Stories suggests it’s already too late and all hope is gone. Impenetable but effective lyrics, an arty-clever sleeve by Peter (will he never give up) Blegvad, and a somehow timeless sound. Support ReR and buy this.

UK MUTE CD STUMM 139 (1995)
Having only read with increasing terror about [Boyd] Rice’s malevolent practices, it came as a relief to find I could stand listening to this little slice of electro-thuggery without suffering permanent brain damage. The textual side to this work is an ultra-right wing, survivalist, Darwin-was-a-softie piece of rant, written by one ‘Rangnor Redbeard’ (whom some believe to have been Jack London). It tries to make a convincing case for the brutal big-fish-eat-little-fish order of nature. The Natural History feel to this text made me think of quaint 19th century engravings, and softened the blow somewhat; also I was reminded of the terrible story of the Komodo Dragons that hunt you down inexorably – once they’ve sprayed you with their scent there’s no escape from being eaten alive! Rice deploys Redbeard, perhaps not necessarily to prove that Might makes Right, but as one of the mentors who has shaped his way of thinking. The argument holds little interest for me, but the powerful tape loops and synthy backings just blow you away. Some very interesting textures and solid abstract blasts. The use of found material includes a recording of a black prostitute being raped, played backwards – not as dreadful as it sounds, honestly. When Rice turned up in London, he read his spiel from a huge black lectern, over prepared backing tapes, gave a Hitler-salute and walked off. As Jill Tipping pointed out, he looked as silly as Davros!

A trio of electronic ascetics from Finland take no prisoners here with their severe, reductionist minimalism. Half of these cuts give you no melody or rhthym, just ‘clean’ electric sounds and oscillating tones. The opener ‘Alku’ for example, creates an insufferable vibration on your eardrums, like hearing the soundtrack to Michael Snow’s avant-garde film ‘Wavelength’ in three minutes flat. ‘Radiokemia’ sets the buzz of an off-station FM signal against the crackle of an unplugged socket, laid out in a mathematical ratio. ‘Hetken’ alternates long tones with a vile blizzard of shrieks and subliminal blips, causing untold aural damage. ‘Urnaia’ glissandoes a single tone, and sets it to tangle with a second tone before settling into a groove of white-noise sequencer beats. I could go on…Panasonic have a diligently focused project at work, stripping everything down to the barest of essentials – and even then they find more dead weight they can pare down with a razor blade. They impose a rigid austerity on you, force-feed you a diet of roots locked in your antiseptic white porcelain cell. In that cell there’s nowhere to hang your hat, and your posters won’t stick to the walls; the sounds refuse any interpretation, the CD obstinately remains 100% concrete and abstract like the most difficult conceptual art. So it’s like a jar of Instant Water – just add your own hot coffee!

Various Artists
Variations: A London Compilation
A highly interesting survey of neglected electronic artists all currently working in London. The sparse credits, apart from listing name of artist and title of piece, merely indicate in which district of London they are based. Clutching for images, I find this information alone adds a tincture to each separate piece; it sounds like certain areas of London are not nice places to visit. Two favourites are the John Grieve and Kymatik pieces. Grieve, on ‘2, 4, 5-T’ immediately places you in the middle of a grim and foreboding environment, so dense as to appear to be a concrete monolith of noise. But persevere and you begin to discern the work’s micro-structure, a galaxy of textures and looped frequencies. A bit like a nightmarish doppellganger of Phill Niblock. Kymatik, on ‘Morphology’, guide us through a splendid tract of sound-landscaping, making the perfomer(s) a Capability Brown for the post-industrial age. The dynamics are highly effective, one moment you’re inside a blender full of vegetables, the next floating in the washing-up bowl. Also of interest here: Crow’s ‘Music for Blind Limbs’, a cutup scramble of a girl reading a poem, with sinister echo-shuffles in the background; to listen to this is like being a blind man putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Interior sleeve art prints the text of the poem with some apt photographic works. And the great John Wall turns in ‘Distil (1)’, a cut not included on Alter Still, his high-tension string samples stretch my nerves to breaking point until at 2.25 the piece suddenly breaks into a crazy syncopated march with a soprano sax loop. And for pure relaxation purposes, why not tune into Andrew Jacques’ ‘ronco’, the sound of a mad builder grinding your house to pieces with an enormous power tool and shaking the chandeliers. You are the clay Prometheus, he is the evil scientist bringing you to life with his generator. We look forward to more work by all of these fellows, help pay their electric bills and buy this.