Tagged: American

The Voice of the Mountain

Last heard from Earth Tongues in 2016 with their mighty set Rune…here they are again on Neither/Nor Records with an even more extended double CD set called Ohio (n/n 006), recorded on a single day in July 2015, and 93 minutes pass like nothing when you sit down to let this slow-moving, ponderous ambient-improv engulf you. The trio here are once again Joe Moffett, with his trumpet and cassette machine, Dan Peck with his tuba, and the percussionist Carlo Costa. Their aim is to push themselves and the audience as far as possible down a route of endurance, of extended tones, lengthy explorations, and strange near-silent passages…

“Scope and scale” are their watchwords, as if they used to be fine art sculptors making monumental statues 18 feet high, and have now decided to think even bigger, carving out chunks of earth, chipping at the side of a mountain, or repurposing entire urban landscapes such as highway constructions into enormous works of art. “Dynamic and temporal extremes” are also guiding strategies, referring I suppose to the interplay of the musicians and the duration of the work, both elements worth considering…unlike the type of improvisation which is played at top speed, Earth Tongues make their best effort to retard their normal instincts and play everything at this painfully slow pace, as if they were frozen Neanderthals slowly thawing out and coming back to life…in so doing they don’t deny interplay with each other, but rather they emphatically call attention to it, placing it under the spotlight on a totally bare stage, where there’s no room to hide and no chance to allow fluffed notes or careless ideas.

Only the strong survive under these competitive, Darwinian rules, but it pays off when players as skilled and bold as these are involved. As to the “temporal extremes”, the listener also becomes painfully aware of each passing moment as they listen to this inexorably slow and minimal heaving music, yet it’s so compelling that the entire set seems to vanish past you in no time at all (see prior remark). That’s kind of disruptive, in a good way, of normal experience; I sense it’s something that some modernist composers would give their right hand to achieve, and they can only get close to it through expending bags of effort and intellectual ponderings, ending up with dense notation and abstruse compositions…where Earth Tongues can evidently do it through improvised performance alone (which isn’t to imply that it’s effortless).

The “stark” setting of this work also means that the players have nothing to conceal, no tricks up their sleeve, no cloaking “bad” playing behind a bank of effects pedals, and most of the unusual sounds are generated by purely acoustic means. I am not sure exactly what the cassette players are doing, but I think their role is minimal, and most of what you will hear is the low growls of Peck’s tuba, the astringent and severe shrieks from Moffett’s top register, and the metallic zings of Costa bowing his cymbals to produce acidic sensations in the listener’s mouth. A pared-down, no-nonsense world is what they delineate, almost primitive in its simplicity, but unfailingly direct and honest. A truly “epic” double album…from 7th November 2016.

It’s One O’Clock and Time For Lunch

Repetitions Of The Old City – I (NO LABEL) is the fifth album from Jack O’ The Clock, the unique American band led by Daimon Waitkus. We previously heard All My Friends followed by Night Loops, both of which prompted rapturous prose from this listener and a tendency to liken Waitkus to many American mavericks in the fields of pop music, poetry, and classical composition. Based on today’s spin I see no need to rescind any previous observations.

Other hallmarks of excellence stand out in this selection of nine highly unusual songs. There’s the contributions of the other players, especially the violin and viola of Emily Packard, and the woodwinds of Kate McLoughlin, which do much to add to the exotic old-time flavour of these highly contrived rustic gems (Waitkus assembles his songs as if following a blueprint for making Shaker furniture). Packard’s violin has no trouble following the impossible time signatures of these elaborate compositions; her instrument simply dances, floats in the sky. Waitkus’s songs are ingenious with their unexpected chord sequences and clashing tonalities, and the very inventive melodies whose intervals shouldn’t really work at all, yet they work perfectly. To say nothing of the abstruse and erudite lyrics, with their multi-syllabic thoughts packed into singable melodies. I also see Waitkus is quite the octopus when it comes to playing several instruments – guitar, mandolin, hammer dulcimer, pianet, guzheng and flute are all in his credit roster, making him a match for Alan Sondheim (who made Ritual-All-7-70 for ESP-Disk in 1967). I think Waitkus and Sondheim should get into a gun-fighting showdown someday over instrumental prowess, but Waitkus would probably win on points with his song-writing gifts.

The other observation that occurs to me today is that Jack O’ The Clock (although they are as American as 100 Apple Pies) are not that far apart from classic English prog rock of the 1970s which I love so much, especially Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, a band whose eccentricity, mannered vocals and skilful arrangements feel very much of apiece with the music of Damon Waitkus. The acoustic guitars are reminiscent of Mike Rutherford and his 12-string, and there are even flute solos, like on ‘Firth Of Fifth’…I rest my case. High recommendation for this peculiar strain of art rock. As far as I know Jack O’ The Clock are still not signed to a label and do self-releases of everything. This one is so wilfully obscure they don’t even put their name on the front or back cover. From 11 November 2016.

Popular Belief

Superb set of compositions by the American composer Eric Wubbels is called Duos With Pianos Book I (CARRIER RECORDS CARRIER 030). We’ve received many release from this New York label Carrier Records and enjoyed every one of them. Members of Wet Ink Ensemble, previously noted in these pages for their work with Sam Pluta, accompany pianist Wubbels on this set of compositions dated from 2007 to 2014. The press notes characterise Wubbels – who happens to be co-director of Wet Ink Ensemble – as “a rare virtuoso of extended piano technique”, and there’s abundant evidence on the grooves that follow. But he’s also a hyper-intelligent composer with a conceptual depth that enriches every one of these pieces.

For instance ‘Shiverer’ – a compact but dense explanation is given in the CD notes for this equally dense music. It’s something to do with “relationships between the instruments” and the way they play. Piano and flute in this case. Right away it’s clear Wubbels is a composer who understands how instruments actually work, and the extremes to which they can be pushed, an adventurous spirit we’ve been missing since the time of Charles Mingus. Wubbels admits this is a “dfficult” piece, but the main problem for players is the complex co-ordination of ideas and actions which they have to achieve. In these eight minutes we’ve got a rich flow of traffic, of ideas compressed into notes, and the sparks fly when one or more of these bundles intersect. Further, Wubbels has the notion that he’s making the musicians pass through “a series of gates” – a metaphor which would please those who like to interpret Mark Rothko’s paintings in that way – and through technical skill and mental effort, a spiritual epiphany may be reached. Whew.

‘The Children Of Fire Come Looking For Fire’ arrives in two long parts. Scored for violin and prepared piano. While previous piece seemed like it could almost pass for very advanced 1960s classical avant, this one owns up in its opening seconds to its contemporary “noisy” influences. Josh Modney’s violin scrape throughout is intense – acoustic Merzbow on the cat gut! Rarely heard such wild atonal screeches on that instrument. But this sound of his didn’t just “happen” one fine day when they strolled into the recording studio; rather it’s the result of months of planning, rehearsals and hard work which Wubbels instigated. It earned Modney a printed dedication; one senses it was a painful process for him. Apparently this piece is derived from a small section of a Brahms piano piece, where Wubbels has zoomed in on a few precious seconds of music and used its form as the basis for an entire compositional structure. To put it another way, he’s taken what he calls a “contrary motion wodge shape” from Brahms and repurposed it into these 25 minutes of astonishing music; I can’t understand more than the gist of his explanatory notes, but once again it feels like he’s pushing something to the utmost limits, when he speaks of a “neume that functions on every structural level…from global trajectories to micro-gestures”. This approach seems very comprehensive, and no doubt accounts for the remarkable richness of ‘Children Of Fire’’s content; it’s like reading a thick 400-page treatise on an abstruse subject, and quite often the challenging ideas are presented with tremendous speed. Yet it’s not incoherent or disjunctive; even though highly structured and near-abstract, this comes over as a very convincing argument, thought-through from start to finish.

‘Doxa’ is another two-parter, scored for prepared piano and prepared vibraphone. Only the most minimal of notes are supplied by Wubbels for this mysterious piece; almost like two lines from a modernist poem. Part I = (mind cannot be grasped). In stark contrast to the busy-ness of the previous pieces, Doxa part I is a blank canvas occasionally decorated with bursts of light and colour from the two percussion instruments, chiming into the silence as if reluctant to disturb the stillness of the atmosphere. The carefully-programmed silences in this piece give us a chance to breathe, finally. True to its title Part I does convey something of a mental problem which can’t be solved, a philosophical investigation into a metaphysical conundrum. Part II = appearances/phenomena. Even more restrained than its brother, but at least the sound it makes is continuous, a beautiful limpid near-drone of crystal-clear music which slowly grows in richness and complexity. With its relatively limited range of notes and the repeated patterns, ‘Doxa Part II’ is like Morton Feldman enriched with vitamins and power drinks.

Lastly, the 20-minute ‘This Is This Is This Is’, two alto saxophones with a prepared piano. Dedicated to the writer David Foster Wallace whose thinking had quite an influence on the composer Wubbels; indeed he’s decided to try and articulate, in music, a particular type of consciousness that was propounded and advocated by Wallace. It’s something to do with moving beyond the habits of thought patterns which we all accumulate in our lives, and also trying to transform everyday life into something sacred and meaningful. Certainly ‘This Is This Is This Is’ does seem, in places, to zip by at the speed of thought, and there are no end of repeated patterns in the music. A sense of struggle is conveyed, Wubbels trying perhaps to break free from the very shackles of his own ideas. “Extended repetition as a force against habit,” as he would have it; and if this music doesn’t represent a significant advance on the repeated arpeggios of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, then I’ll eat my hat. From 7th October 2016.

Totally Masked Out

Finding much to enjoy on the LP Antifree (OSR TAPES OSR#48) by CE Schneider Topical, the singing duo of Christina Schneider and Zach Phillips, an album recorded in 2015 in Brooklyn. You may recall we just recently noted their contributions to a blue flexidisc from Belgium, and their appearance on the record by Maher Shalal Hash Baz, plus the highly active Zach Phillips has come our way before on records by Blanche Blanche Blanche and Big French. He plays a lot of the instruments on this LP, but so does Schneider, who has a songwriting credit on all but one of these 17 songs, and she’s the lead vocalist throughout. Antifree is a highly entertaining record of what I call “avant-pop”, a term I’ve used to describe diverse bands such as Family Fodder, Jack O’ The Clock, The Residents, Amos & Sara, and many other offbeat melodicists. If we could characterise most of the songs on Antifree, I’d point out the bizarre and highly inventive melodies, which (unlike most conventional pop) don’t rely too heavily on repetition, or a simple verse-chorus structure. There’s something more ingenious going on with the songwriting. Secondly, I’d draw attention to the unusual musical arrangements, using adjectives like “eccentric” to describe the sound and the instrumentation. There’s a lot of guitars, and tight drumming, but also some old-school non-digital keyboards, such as the Clavinet and the Wurlitzer piano, the latter an instrument favoured by Hamilton Yarns, that charming UK band of underground popsters. Zach’s technical skill here (he engineered it) has been to achieve this natural home-grown sound using an open-reel tape recorder. Nothing tweaked, and it shows; Christina’s assured vocal performances shine in the mix, and the music hasn’t been bled dry by digital reworking, meaning each song soars for its few brief minutes on earth.

I’ve tried on today’s listen to engage with the lyrical content of these non-rock songs, with their titles such as ‘Female in Images’ and ‘Exit All Seasons’, and find them completely cliché-free; not a hackneyed phrase in sight. But I’ll also admit defeat; the lyrics are slightly impenetrable. Somehow Christina keeps the subject at arm’s length for the duration of the song, with her unexpected turns of phrases that really keep the listener on their toes. She also sings them totally straight, by which I mean without affectation or vocal tics. I feel that I ought to be able to decode these songs in time, but it’ll take a few listens. I’ve previously compared this duo’s records to Brian Wilson Beach Boys productions, and think this is still valid, but these songs don’t have the innocence of Pet Sounds (mind you, in 2016, who does?!), and it feels like a lo-fi Wilson production pushed through a modern, suburban, and ironic filter.

As an album that keeps on perpetually surprising the listener, Antifree comes highly recommended, as a unique example of contemporary American songcraft. I see Mark Kramer did the mastering, and this record often puts me in mind of another personal favourite “avant-pop” duo, Bongwater, which Kramer led with Ann Magnuson. Luke Csehak of The Lentils plays lead guitar on one track, and Billy McShane adds saxophone to another. The charming surreal cover art was painted by Matthew Thurber. From May 2016.

Skate Mutie from the Fifth Dimension

Impressive record by one-man American powerhouse Matt Weston on his four-track release Skate For The Lie (7272music#009). I was interested enough to browse his back catalogue, much of which seems to consist of self-released items on his own 7272 Music label, and without hearing them I do have the impression that Skate For The Lie is just a tiny glimpse into what this fellow is capable of. He credits himself with just percussion and electronics, but there seems to be so much more going on in just these four short tracks, many more instruments at work. On ‘You’ve Got That Song’ he sounds like an entire band, performing some wayward brand of outer-space funk-rock noise. There’s also the intense over-crowded explosions on ‘The Old Man With The Burning Eyes’, where it’s like about two or three punk rock bands having a friendly punch-up in a sweaty basement. Real energy music, and “maximal” in a way that I enjoy tremendously, by which I mean there’s no time wasted with wispy nuances of drone and fiddly digital manipulations.

What exactly is Matt Weston doing? I’m not sure. This particular release, we are told, “features multiple realisations of architectural site-specific electroacoustic notation”, a sentence that begs at least three pointed questions. Notation? I’m prepared to believe he’s a composer of some sort, but this stuff comes across as so spontaneous, so very much of the moment, that it’s not immediately obvious to me at what point he pauses to look at the music score. Admittedly, ‘Tarrings and Featherings’, a stark piece of restrained but strong drumming, resembles avant-garde percussion music in places, but there’s also a lot of hearty scrape-and-bang malarkey that would terrify most classical timpani players. ‘This Machine Kills LRAD’ is even more stark, but has bursts and eruptions of electronic noise that you could use to dig up half the pavements of Manhattan. If that’s Matt Weston’s notion of “electroacoustic”, I’ve no complaints, but it’s a long way from INA-GRM, Clyde. As to the claims about being site-specific and having some connection to architecture, I’m at a loss to explain, but one does feel a certain grandiosity in these hefty, industrial-ish, man-sized blocks of noise and sound, as if one were being overshadowed by the tower blocks of New York. He doesn’t mess about and he gets straight to the point.

If we put aside these abstracted ideas about music, we should also note this album “explores themes of loss and defiance”, which may refer to some personal crisis in the life of this Chicago-born musician who currently lives in Albany. The title, and Jeremy Kennedy’s cover art, remain a little obscure, but I could say the same about many of the other intriguing titles in his catalogue, such as Kidnapping Denials or The Last Of The Six Cylinders. I do like a musician who evidently dreams of being mistaken for Herman Melville one day. Lest you think Weston is some undiscovered lone genius, in fact he’s got friendly collaborators by the dozen – there are ample instances of his collaborative work with other bands, singers, improvisers, rockers, jazzers, and avantists of all stripe, a resume of which would probably leave you feeling quite sick. Two regular gigs to look out for are Arthur Brooks Ensemble V, and Arc Pair, a duo with drummer Amanda Kraus. Many thanks to Matt for sending this. There’s also a cassette edition available as Tape Drift Records TD76. From 3rd August 2016.

MacArthur’s Lark


Here’s another reissue obscurity from Out-Sider Music, the Spanish offshoot of Guerssen, whose other offshoot Mental Experience brought us the reissues of Circles and Red Square. MacArthur (OSR044) was made by an American band in the late 1970s and described here as a “US basement psych-prog monster”. I understand why these reissue labels feel the need to hype everything they put out, but this is such a mediocre example of 1970s American rock that I find this hyperbole hard to swallow. Apart from some quite good flashes of accomplished lead guitar work, this whole album is an undistinguished piece of work, with lame songs, poor vocals, and a heavy-handed rhythm section.

MacArthur are sold to us as a form of progressive rock or psychedelic rock, but for the most part they resemble a third-rate version of Kansas, Boston, or Foghat. A charitable listener might find consonances between album opener ‘Light Up’ and the early work of Focus (it comes within an ace of turning into ‘Sylvia’), and ‘The Black Forest’ is a Flamenco-tinged instrumental that vaguely suggests sword-and-sorcery themes drawn from the well of Led Zeppelin IV. On ‘Prelude No 1 in C Major’, the guitarist indulges his skill for baroque classical guitar, and ‘The Shock Of The New’ is a showcase for ELP-styled pyrotechnics with speedy acoustic piano licks followed by Euro-prog moog solo excess. But MacArthur’s real passion is for playing power ballads, with unexceptional time signatures and unemotive vocals from the lead singer, and this material is what characterises most of the album. It’s quite some way from being “underground” as I would understand it; it seems more plausible that MacArthur had their sights set on finding their way into the AOR charts and FM radio play. Unfortunate timing for them, given that MTV was just about to dawn, resulting in significant changes to the market and audience they were seeking for their music.

The story of it is that MacArthur recorded the album at home in 1979, on a four-track machine. There are other, less credible, stories that say it was recorded in 1973 and released in 1974, but this is probably just wishful thinking. The creative nexus is songwriter Ben MacArthur and instrumentalist-arranger Bill Heffelfinger, who met in Saginaw in Michigan. Heffelfinger seems to be the main creative powerhouse; he arranged the songs and produced the album, the guitar and keyboard solos are all his, and so are what the press notes describe as “mini-moog analog synth attacks”.

The resulting album was a private-press release, comprising 200 copies (or 500; again, there are conflicting stories about this detail). It appeared in a very plain sleeve; the label is at pains to tell us the lengths they have gone to restore the “embossed letters” which appear on the LP version of this release, sparing no expense to represent the band’s original intention. Before this official release, there was a bootleg version circulating with a rather attractive collage cover, retitled The Black Forest, a release which may well have been the source of the wrong dates and other misinformation. Even that bootleg is rare, which persuades me that there are some vinyl collectors who will chase after anything provided it’s obscure enough, regardless of the quality of the music. Guerrsen and Out-Sider have been “reissuing rare and obscure psychedelic, progressive, folk and garage albums from the 60s to early 80s” now since 2010, arguably picking up the torch from other dubious labels who do likewise, such as Akarma, Radioactive Records, and Phoenix.

MacArthur is a very mixed bag and extremely uneven album which I can’t recommend, except as an odd period piece. From 16th April 2016.

Unique ‘n’ Wondrous


Dredd Foole (i.e. Dan Ireton) has In Quest Of Tense (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR213), a vintage album from 1994 originally released as a CD by Forced Exposure and now reissued on vinyl by Feeding Tube Records. One common factor between these two labels is writer and collector Byron Coley, who writes about this release from direct experience, knowing the major players involved, and he provides an exhaustive sleeve note documenting the genesis of this release and putting the music and song of Dredd Foole in context, an exercise which I personally find extremely useful…I had no idea Dredd Foole And The Din (with its ever-shifting lineups) had been active since the late 1980s, nor that there was such a strong antipathy towards conventional rock music, and its apparent ubiquity, being harboured by Ireton and his followers. At any rate it’s clear that Coley and the FE team welcomed the music as a breath of fresh air, perhaps at a time when the USA was saturated by an unwelcome surfeit of Nirvana imitators. The story of this record is that after a number of spotty releases and live gigs in the early 1990s, Dan Ireton got his hands on a four-track recorder and a reverb unit, and recorded In Quest Of Tense at home in Wakefield. It’s all solo too, apart from one track which features his frequent sideman Ed Yazijian on slide guitar. The result of one week’s worth of improvising, In Quest Of Tense was released as a CD in 1994 and – according to Mr Coley – is now regarded as a seminal piece in the development of a latterday acoustic folk underground scene across the eastern seaboard of the United States, a phenomenon that would include I suppose The Tower Recordings and P.G. Six, and led to strains which later developed into even more unhinged and hairy free-form collectives, like Sunburned Hand of the Man or Valley Of Ashes.

Dredd Foole undoubtedly occupies his own niche, however. While I’m still not sure if I count myself a complete convert to his cult, there’s no denying the power of this release, the unique sound of it, and the generally unhinged vibes emanating from every moment of his free-wheeling performances. When I heard That Lonesome Road Between Hurt and Soul, his record for Bo Weavil Recordings, I was trying to reclaim Dredd Foole as some sort of warped American storyteller. But on In Quest Of Tense, he’s more like a demented wild-eyed poet, at times slipping into the assumed identity of a mountain hermit, possessed by the need to howl his self-penned chants and spells into the wind as he hurls them against the follies of the world. His special talent is revealed most clearly on the two long tracks, ‘Turn Turn (Turn)’ and especially ‘Ascension: Ra And Buk (Bridge Of Cries)’, the latter of which occupies most of side two; this is a performer who relishes the large canvas, so that he can fill every available moment with his continually-extemporised strums and vocals like Jackson Pollock flinging and dripping paint every which way. Once he’s in the zone, there’s no stopping the man, that much is clear. It’s impossible to decode any of the content of his mystic incomprehensible yawls, but the sense of meaning is still somehow transferred, and he’s not some loopy acid-head jabbering empty platitudes in an invented language.

The listener can’t help be overwhelmed by the odd sound of the record. Who’d have thought that a reverb unit, adding liberal doses of echo across almost the whole album, could have created such uncanny sensations of mind-altering dizzyness…that, and Foole’s brilliantly raw stabs at overdubbing additional guitars and other instruments, showing that he managed to master the technology at his disposal very quickly. Then there’s the cavernous tone of his singing voice, often-times transformed into another instrument as he barks or yelps out crazed vocal interjections to spur the song along like an errant beast on a cattle drive. One vocal mannerism is his hollowed-out mouth drone used to accompany certain passages, providing his own unique take on the art of overtone singing. The listener need only tune in for five seconds and that box of paracetamol will fly out the window. Many of the factors coalesce nicely on the 3-minute ‘Glory’, which is more like a poem or recit than a song, one that starts out like an incarnation of the truly dark prince of Rock that Jim Morrison never quite managed to become in reality, and then degenerates quite swiftly into an alarming flurry of overdubbed mouth-jabberings. Wild, freaky stuff; perhaps its only precedent on vinyl is the record by Mij The Yodelling Astrologer, that 1969 freakeroonie released by ESP-Disk’. It too made liberal use of the echo chamber to multiply and magnify the stoned ramblings of its creator.

The term “folk music” has been applied in recent years to all manner of material that is clearly nothing whatever to do with indigenous folk music history at all, and happens simply to involve acoustic guitars or non-electric instruments. One such example of this grand error is so-called “Finnish Folk”. Even Coley can’t quite bring himself to write the word and instead coins the phrase “modern völk sub-underground” to help situate Dredd Foole’s work in a context we can live with. However, faced with the crags and rough edges of this near-possessed statement, I can’t help but think of it as a piece of hand-made folk art, thinking not of music but of some physical artefact crafted in leather or wood and exhibited outside the house of some isolated American loner-genius. A cultivated form of Outsider Art, almost, but I’m aware that’s an even more loaded term. At any rate, this might be the record that finally tips the balance for me in favour of this one-of-a-kind musician. Provided the doctor lets me out at weekends, that is. From 22 September 2015.

Presidential Karaoke


We received Mad Genius Presents…2012 from Mad Manor Multimedia in Madison WI, creators who call themselves “an anonymous collective of found sound addicts”…the ten tracks on their CD use collaged voice samples from the media and intend to create a global portrait of doom, disaster, and civil unrest. It seems all the sources come from YouTube videos published in the year 2012…the original plan of our plucky subversive team was to create a podcast from these materials, and say something about the “End Of Days” – it seems apocalypse culture is still alive and well, nearly 30 years after the publication of Adam Parfrey’s survey. But the Mad Manor dwellers were convinced they had something even more explosive on their hands, and assembled this album in 2015 in response to what appears to be a significant upsurge of interest from the online community. “It was played and shared thousand of times online”, to use their own expression; the present release is a remastered and “reimagined” version of the original internet piece.

From a welter of news reports, satirical and surreal sound collages have been forged, and set to the thumping tunes of disco beats and synth pop tunes with primitive simplistic melodies, the better to hammer home the messages. Among the subjects under scrutiny are crime and urban decay, race relations, contraception, the judiciary, shootings in schools, hurricanes, the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, and politics. Mostly American politics, I might add… It’s one thing to present “a sonic time capsule for the end of days”, but apparently this imminent disaster doesn’t apply to the rest of the world outside of the United States; yet the collages were created “using the world’s social media”, implying a more global ambition. This may simply reflect the near-domination of YouTube by American source materials and American commenters, but it tends to limit the range of this would-be subversive statement; and I find it’s already quite limited by concentrating so exclusively on media reports.

As satire, the device of chopping up the recorded words of politicians so they apparently say something contradictory, or rude, is a very old joke; I can’t say that Mad Manor improve on the formula much. A lot of their jokes fall flat because they’re so obvious – hypocritical media discussions on contraception are an easy target, likewise are most utterances of mealy-mouthed CNN presenters and other brash journalists. Some jokes don’t travel; the minutiae of the madness underlying presidential campaigns has been a perennial favourite of American satirists, lovingly detailed every four years by Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip in the 1950s and beyond, for instance; but it always baffles me why they think the rest of the world should care so much about it.

I prefer this album when the targets are less obvious, and the intended message far more ambivalent; for instance, ‘The Adventures Of Hurricane Mike’ succeeds in this regard, and amounts to a slightly creepy and unsettling four minutes of frown-inducing sound art. But there are few such moments; and the album browbeats more than it persuades, delivering its “clever” collaged sound-bites and agitated music with the subtlety of a Bren gun, resulting in a wearying listen. Negativland and The KLF are name-checked as precedents, of course, but I still much prefer the subtle and more humourous approaches of People Like Us. The cover art also plays games; it inserts the impassive, sun-glassed visage of Mad Genius into various real-life photos, thus enabling him to stamp his presence across time and space. This is a fairly obvious diluted version of the image of J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the whole Church of Subgenius trope. From 13 November 2015.

Zeit und Sein

Kenneth Kirschner

Kenneth Kirschner
Compressions & Rarefactions
USA 12K 12K1083 CD (2015)

It is a known phenomenon that the menstrual cycles of two women cohabiting will quickly assume the same rhythm. In any given situation, bodies occupying the same space must conform to the law of dynamic equilibrium if they are not to find themselves rejected, regardless of the nature of the relationship in question. For someone who lives in the countryside, the contours of that environment must become as intimate as a lover amid the stillness that would prove unbearable if not befriended.

A corresponding survival strategy must be employed in the city, in which the constant hubbub is something most of us filter out as we go about our business in as easy a manner as if we were living in a quiet suburb: symbiotically conforming to the urban pulse. However, New York City – ‘the capital of the world’ as some put it – has never been short of composers for whom the perpetual din acts as something more than a distraction; rather, something to be reflected back into the never-ending state of play.

In spite of their superficial differences and respective muses, Minimalist composers such as Glass, Reich and even Feldman have all made it their business to internalise and collectively refract such unshielded chaos through monumentally proportioned works that offer us listeners some perspective both on the ultimately conservative order of chaos itself and on the perspective of the artist for whom the tumultuous backdrop acts as a canvas for a very specific point of focus; one to which we must be attentive – perhaps exclusively so – if we are to recognise the grandeur of their architecture.

The New York composer Kenneth Kirschner takes his place unselfconsciously among these ranks. His compositions, five of them collected here, appear to go nowhere for very long periods of time; up to two hours in fact, without rumour of destination. It is the rhythm of a city that never sleeps. His terminations are merely the voice of a body exhausted and surrendering to the need for sleep, where even in retirement one does not simply ‘forget’ what has been heard (for it has never died away) and imperceptibly our entire nervous system has quietly accommodated their subtle movements and intrigues as it proceeds into whatever preoccupation that follows.

This is not to say that Kirschner’s music lacks variety: one can quickly discern this fact by skipping through the tracks. In three of the pieces, miniature orchestras perform polyphonic contortions within a dark, indeterminate space; truncated suggestions of phrases condensing and dispersing at a maddening crawl, eliciting genuine sympathy for the musicians who appear to be on the verge of freezing solid. Perhaps this is why the compositions end without resolution, as they do.

Except the performance is illusory: working with as little as a single violinist, Kirschner has recorded, manipulated and layered the performances – which must still have been no picnic for the performers – into a new (or ‘New’) organism with a microtonally detailed nervous system – one capable of both withstanding and even influencing that of the surrounding climate, or at least that of the willing participant. We are invited to peer into the cracks between layers; the thawing icicles of piano and percussion; the respiratory silences between bars, where we may encounter the spectres of our own sleeping selves. In the process of listening to these pieces, we may lose all sense of time and all expectation of conclusion, for when all is said and done all we are left with, ironically, is the date on which each piece was recorded.

Two of the pieces fall short of thirty minutes and these are on the CD. Three further can (and should) be downloaded following purchase, which is where the real substance is to be found. It is as though Kirschner would taunt us for our materialism; our coveting the tangible object, when it is our desire that possesses us. By engaging with his music we are expected to relinquish such urges and partake in the play of elements – the ‘waves of pressure and absence’ – that we would otherwise forsake.

A potent symbol for us therefore is the empty glass, which forms the sound source for ‘July 17, 2010’. By no means unprecedented in the field of electroacoustic music, the vessel offers the sound artist a vast range of tones and textures, and Kirschner draws extensively upon this throughout the piece, as it tunnels and condenses around us, reducing our perspective to that of the sand grain itself as the glasses’ atomic structure regresses back to that of constituent elements whirling in their lonely orbits.

The second piece on the CD, ‘April 16, 2013’ stands alone as a distinctly musical statement: a warming sun-shower of tuned percussion parts that bathes us after what has preceded and in preparation for the epic that is to follow. While enjoying this, we might lay eyes upon artist Kysa Johnson’s supra-mathematical calligraphy, which adorns the CDs all-too-diminutive sleeve and which provides the music’s conceptual underpinning. Like the music, it alternates between compression and rarefaction, but it does so with a view of carefully adjusting the rhythm of the spectator, ultimately blurring the distinction between perceiver and perceived. In the end, it is universal law that succeeds and we are restored.

The Killing Floor


Theme From An Imaginary Slasher (SYSTEMS NEUTRALIZERS 05) is an essential slab of noisy punk guitar thrash played, mangled and spat out by Reg Bloor, who last came our way as one half of The Paranoid Critical Revolution in 2011. Now on her debut solo album, she’s still at home on Systems Neutralizers Records and still providing raw ‘n’ scratchy cover art, in the form of bloodthirsty gore fantasies enacted by crazed stick-figures…last time it was an axe, this time a chainsaw, but either way the victim suffers a headache they won’t be waking up from in a hurry. Bloor’s taste for grand guignol continues to a lesser extent in tune titles such as ‘Chasing Ghosts’, ‘4 Dada Suicides’ and ‘Killing Mind’, but mostly in the ultra-violent music which is played entirely by her FX-laden guitar screeching its way across many New York lofts by way of Marshall amps and a stack of pedals about the size of the Woolworth Building 1. There’s some “drum programming” assist from Roger Oldtown, but this is pretty much a solo Bloor effort, and it’s also great to hear her emotional, pained warbling, such as on ‘Eastbound Train’.

What we like here, apart from the sizzling excitement of these high-speed collision pileups, is the concision and brevity of each tune, most of them running the mile in under three triumphant minutes of energy-packed glory and arriving sweat-free and breathless to break the tape with a flourish. At a time when guitarists around the world are copying the Haino template which obliges them to turn in excessive introverted solos that last for 45 self-regarding minutes at a time, it’s great to know the punk mentality for punchy slogans in song still thrives and blossoms in some corner of Old New York. Then again, this is also experimental art-rock, informed by New Wave / No Wave guitar bands from 1977 onwards, and hence includes buckets of shrill dissonance in the tricky chord shapes expertly executed with the venom of 18 cobras, as well as Bloor’s “choppy” strumming style which carries the blistering attack of an M2 flame-thrower. One that shoots acid as well as fire. Sure to please fans of both avant-garde music and loud Black Metal. Recommended to fans of Mars, DNA, Sonic Youth, and of course Glenn Branca’s guitar orchestras. Arrived 19 August 2015.

  1. This is obviously untrue. In fact I think her FX set-up is pretty minimal. The skill’s in the playing, dudes!