I’ve enjoyed the amped-up rock guitar complexity of Ben Chasny on the fairly recent Hexadic album, and within the trio Rangda where he manages to emerge unscathed from stringed duetting with the formidable Rick Bishop…in guitar terms, the musical equivalent of slugging it out with Hemmingway. Burning The Threshold (DRAG CITY DC 664), Chasny’s latest release as Six Organs Of Admittance sees him going back to acoustic guitars, melodies, songs, and regular rhythms, a direction which could be regarded as a return to his “roots” ever since he released those early mystical-exotic acoustic guitar drone albums. He’s joined by a number of skilled cohorts, namely keyboardist Cooper Crain, the drummer Chris Corsano (also from Rangda), Damon & Naomi, Ryley Walker, Haley Fohr, and others. There is much to admire in the assured finger-picking intricacies of Chasny, and he plays with conviction throughout; for those, myself included, who enjoy his dabblements with esoterica and mystery, the opaque lyrics will do much to satisfy your leanings – especially on the title track, which could be read as a compacted lecture on the practice of alchemy, delivered in under five minutes. Now that I listen harder, it’s his eerie disembodied singing voice that conveys much of that sense of ancient mystery and wonder, especially when overdubbed with unexpected harmonies. On the other hand, if you want Leo Kottke-flavoured American folk tunes taken at a brisk tilt, then tunes such as ‘St Eustace’ and ‘Around The Axis’ (where he duets with Ryley Walker and the sparks fly like June bugs) will be your bag of herbal tea. A refreshing set of impeccable, crystal-clear performances and sparkling up-front recordings. From 11 January 2017.
Canadian players Robert Marcel Lepage and René Lussier team up as Lepage-Lussier on the album Chants Et Danses…With Strings! (TOUR DE BRAS TDB9010cd). On these 13 tunes, we mostly hear the duelling clarinet and electric guitar of the duo, though for some pieces extra avant-gravitas is added by Le Quatuor Bozzini, the notable Canadian string players led by Isabelle Bozzini, whom we heard previously on the records Hommage a Leduc, Borduas et Riopelle, and their rendition of Aldo Clementi’s Momento. From the cover artworks, I’m getting the impression that Lepage and Lussier intend Chants Et Danses…With Strings! to be something of a lark, a gay spree, as indicated by the pop-art colour schema of the front cover with its inserted blue star motif making it look like a package of washing powder. “Listening to the pieces can change your life!…and earn you more money!” is my translation of the tongue-in-cheek boast here. I can’t think of any other improvised record where the creators have stooped so low as such a crass non-joke to promote the music, but no matter. The light-hearted spirit extends to the titles of the tunes too, and the liveliness of the playing (sometimes bordering on the frenetic) indicates these pieces are to be taken as caprices in musical form. However, both players are still committed to blowing and twanging in the free-improv spirit, and there’s a lot of atonal clashes, insufferable tootling, and plain ugly guitar noise to get through before you get to the good stuff. When the pair learn to curb their excesses and stop indulging their musical tics, there is a lot of solid musical conversation-making going on. The addition of Le Quatuor Bozzini might have become a mixed blessing in the wrong hands, but where they appear, the musical combinations are strong, and the overall effect is strangely compelling and unusual. From 24 January 2017.
Plodding Norwegian instrumental rock from Moon Relay, a band featuring Daniel Meyer Gronvold from the Norwegian Noise Orchestra, plus Havard Volden, Ola Hoyer and Martin Smadal Larsen. Their guitar-led instrumentals on Full Stop Etc. (HUBRO HUBROLP3579) are occasionally spiced up with electronic and synth interventions, and Lasse Marhaug contributes some “additional sounds” on two of the tracks. Competent enough; the band play in a tight and straight-forward manner which is respectable, but the art of syncopation is something that seems to elude them, and often we find all the instruments locked into the exact same beat over a pedestrian drum pattern, with no clear idea of how to find their way out of it. They rhythm guitarist supplies “twangy” fills to remind us that he’s heard some surf records, and these too land squarely on the right side of the beat. Everything’s overly manicured, clean; the idea of low-down dirty rock and roll has no place in their well-ordered cosmos. This may be an efficient way to make rock music, but it’s not too exciting, despite the self-important air of drama that hangs over every slice of thudding thrash. The record is a follow up to their 2013 release on Fysisk Format; the band claim they’ve gotten better at arranging since then, and have taught themselves the art of concision, which comes as some surprise when you hear these meandering slogs. It amazes me that people still mistake this sort of over-stated music for “krautrock”. The final straw is the pretentious track titles, each one rendered as a jumbled assortment of punctuation marks. From 11th October 2016.
On Background Curtain (ZOHARUM ZOHAR 129-2), we have a collaboration between Celer and Dirk Serries. Celer, i.e. the American Will Long, is familiar for his minimal ambient music which can be quite beautiful on occasion, and his Inside The Head of Gods was judged by us as a “masterpiece of understatement”. Belgian droner Dirk Serries used to be Vidna Obmama throughout the 1980s, and also recorded as Fear Falls Burning, a project where the weapon of choice was a guitar.
I suppose both players have an interest in long tones, subtle shifts of timbre, and a creative approach which involves much processing work. Processing is certainly the hallmark of Background Curtain. In fact it seems to be the basis for the entire piece. Celer sent a tape to Dirk one fine day in 2012. The time-stretched segment of collaged work was, to its creator, “puzzling and unworkable”. Yet Dirk came through and rallied like a Hessian, and returned something to Celer. At this point the tape-trading story becomes unclear to me, but it seems that Dirk didn’t actually rework the original unworkable tapes, and instead produced something entirely new while he was listening to them. Another year goes by, and Celer (clearly not a man to rush into things) has the brilliant idea of mashing up the new Dirk Serries music with his original source recording. He got to work behind his multi-tasking processor desk. “The musical colour and frequencies were the same,” he assures us, “but the effects and enveloping were triggered by the waves of Dirk’s track”. This feels a little sketchy, but I think I get the general idea, and I can understand why creators would wish to protect their working methods by shrouding them in vagueness and ambiguity.
Two long pieces ended up being pressed on the present CD as a result of this long and drawn-out creative process – ‘Above/Below’ and ‘Below/Above’. The first one is a slow-moving blanket of swaddling ambient sounds where everything sounds processed and unrecognisable, yet not to the point of becoming saccharine goo. On the second piece, it’s just about possible to discern some guitar notes, keening their forlorn cries like slowed-down seagull effects from a Bill Nelson performance. However, there’s no real point in trying to unbake this sonic pie; the point that Celer wishes we would concentrate on is the presence of what he calls the “background curtain”, presumably referring to his original “puzzling and unworkable” source material. I think he’s right to call it a curtain; it’s certainly not rigid enough to be called a spine or backbone. “Even if you can’t hear its place, it’s definitely there,” he assures us. “Maybe you can hear it?” From 23rd November 2017.
The French musician Hugo Roussel came our way 16 years ago – on a record made for Pricilia Records with Norman D. Mayer. I may not have spun it recently, but I do have fond memories of that particular obscure CDR, a grisly drone made simply with guitar feedback, electronics and mixing desk. Roussel has resurfaced today as one half of Brussel, performing here with Bruno Fleurence, sometime accordian player in the “free” mode, and member of the ensemble Soixante Étages, a genre-hopping troupe who have the distinction of having made one record with Lionel Marchetti, the excellent latter-generation musique concrète composer. I see Roussel was also in this band at one point – at any rate he added guitar to their 2014 album Lumpen Orchestra. Today’s record Delta (33REVPERMI 3516) was made with Roussell on the guitar and Fleurence playing the organ, another guitar, and the “surepeti” – which may be an accordian, or an Indian shruti box. As you can guess, slow drones are the order of the day, but I like the steely deliberation with which this pair go about the day’s task, and it’s the near-opposite of that rather precious school of playing which insists on near-silence (as if making a sound would pollute the purity of the music in some way). Rather, this record is juiced up with solid emotions, mostly rather stern and contemplative, as befits an album with a raccoon on the front cover. Roussel and Fleurence seem to be brooding, frowning, and disapproving of the excesses of the modern world, as they retreat further into their private burrow or nest. Again, I refer you to the image of the raccoon. The music is all improvised and the duo describe the album as “six rugged soundscapes…a thick and crepuscular”, while claiming some affinities with Delta blues music. This is their second release as Brussel, following 2013’s Härskeri. Arrived 14 November 2016.
Lost Head (BIOLOGICAL RECORDS BR-07) is the latest project we’ve received from the very wonderful Dave Cintron, American guitar all-rounder who has come our way on great recordings by other Cleveland bands Terminal Lovers and Scarcity Of Tanks, proving once again that great things breed in large swarms on the shores of Lake Erie. This time, Cintron is joined by fellow Terminal Lover drummer Scott Pickering and bassist Rick Kodramaz, and you could hear their 2014 debut performance on a CDR called Zen Pissed released by Tom Orange. Orange, who blurts the alto sax on this album, had the guts to call himself Orange Claw Hammer on one cassette, but given the superficially “Beefheartian” vibe of this squiggly record, it’s a forgiveable lapse.
Aye, the Lost Head have quickly developed their own very convincing take on a punky rock-jazz thing, and they do it with no straight lines or “tasteful” licks, just plenty of squirming energy and action-painting effects. It’s as though they were trying to recreate a version of Ornette’s Prime Time without hearing a single note of music and just going on a description they read in a jazz journal. A jazz journal whose pages had somehow become interleaved with Maximum Rock’N’ Roll, that is. On two of the strongest cuts here, ‘Escapee’s Lament’ and ‘Northern Sledge’, the quartet create an ingenious, amorphous gaseous purple ball of jazz-inflected noise, where the rhythm section are phenomenal – never once settling into a familiar groove and keeping the pulsebeat living and breathing by playing “around” the beat (as the great free jazz percussionists of the 1960s aimed to do). ‘Squeezing Graphene’ is a little more conventional with the souped-up funky rhythms as if aiming for a more wired, coked-up imitation of On The Corner by way of James Chance and The Contortions, but the energy falters not for one second.
‘Cargo Cult’ is cut from another cloth, a mysterious foray into scrapey noise, atmospheric mystery and forlorn guitar lines droning in dissonant manner. If it weren’t for Cintron’s tendency to occupy every space he can in the music (this seems to happen on every record he plays on, and he seeks out like-minded musicians who do the same), this track would be a genuine chiller. Drummer Pickering did the cover painting also. A great release from November 2016.
Cutting a similar path to Aussie drone-based groovers (and associates) like Oren Ambarchi, The Necks, Simon James Phillips and Matthew Philip Hopkins, the Australia-based trio Great Waitress (Magda Mayas, Monika Brooks and Laura Altman) are a revealing new puzzle piece in a distinctly antipodean improvised music scene: an identity-subsuming, New World tradition of tonality tinkering and free-floating, low-frequency harmonics that suffuse space with the no-nonsense savour of a long-nosed cab sauv. Possessed of the prowess that comes with conservatory training, the trio’s depersonalised apparition of piano, accordion and clarinet prises open space with a knife’s width of elbow play; pushing minimal phrases to the point of constraint, then further, into a vortex between ambient amnesia and semi-improvised composition, tweaking, teasing and even torturing pitch to a neck-hair tingle before the spectral mass solves into a tarpaulin-shrouded fog. Hue (ANOTHER DARK AGE ADA006 LP) is said to summarise the two prior albums, released since Great Waitress’ 2011 formation; a nascency that stands in relief to the group’s full-bodied harmonic cohesion, yet also a reminder of how recently this ‘scene’ has cohered.
A Field in England
Highly approachable guitar & electronics post-rock from Bristol on The Road To The Unconscious Past (ECHOIC MEMORY EM005), even if it sounds less suggestive of its polished urban provenance than of some anonymous idyll. John Scott aka Stereocilia fans out a familiar formula for tape loops and synth-based drones and takes flight on Stars Of The Lid-style Kosmiche angel wings, his effervescent efforts passing in and out of focus, exuding clear contentment in an echo-based semi-present haze. Till side B anyway, when ‘Infinite’ – the closest we have to a cosmic jam – pulses into view on an ELEH-style hypnodrone, issuing trains of serrated guitar lines in all directions and pushing up the listener’s pulse some. But this pleasing push of the envelope is quickly curbed in ‘Sustain/Release’ with the restoration of the preceding pastoralia; a regressive move after such a promising surge into new territory and a general reflection of the unfulfilled promise of the album as a whole, which could really do with moving a little farther afield from its starting point than it does.
‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead…’ begins James Joyce’s Ulysses, though surely few of the novel’s well-meaning readers have made the acquaintance of ‘the superior, the very reverend John Conmee S.J’ in the ‘Wandering Rocks’ chapter, for it’s an assuredly arduous journey to reach this point, let alone the book’s final affirmation, especially for those prone to distraction and it is from this section and sentiment that François Sarhan pulls the title for his recent installation piece Wandering Rocks / Commodity Music (LA MUSE EN CIRCUIT ALM007), where visitors passing through the encircling sound field play the part of the rocks adrift and a fragment of James Joyce’s reading of said text infuses this 35-minute long, electroacoustically-enhanced improvisation for prepared piano, guitar (quartet, Zwerm) and electronics with so despondent an antidote to an otherwise ostensible attitude of passive attentiveness as can be wrought when even the painfully quotidian satire of Joyce’s post-heroic modernist masterpiece represents an Olympian ambition to the media-deadened senses, perhaps eliciting in our composer a sense of resignation that few listeners will probe the surface of this friendly flow of naturalistic timbres and textures – an emulation by means of extended technique of the elemental components (rocks, waves and synthetic turquoise breeze) of the seashore photograph on the cover – to penetrate beyond the point of attention wandering from one rock to the next, moments of cognitive dissonance in their fitful overlappings – though becoming markedly more pronounced as the piece ages its way into Commodity Music, where a gush of anti-capitalist rhetoric to heavy phasing and an almost oriental modal arpeggiation puts the proverbial fat-cat among the proletariat to yield a more strident, pointillistic energy to our hitherto soft-focus panorama, which occasion Sarhan utilises to reflect upon the ‘sad truth that music per se is disappearing from our life… because of our difficulties to focus (sic) on an exclusive and demanding concentration to listen to it…’, before going on to lay blame upon the plastic wrapped vacuum of televisual culture as the cause of popular culture’s almost anhedonic disinterest in Art, and offering this digest version of his expansive and physical sonic experience as a concession to such vicissitudes… so should one listen to it on headphones? No.
The Ben Verdery Guitar Project On Vineyard Sound
USA ELM CITY RECORDS CD (2016)
Ben Verdery seems to pack some heavy duty credentials, being Yale University’s Associate Professor of guitar and Artistic Director of ‘The Yale Guitar Extravaganza”. The On Vineyard Sound disc was initiated by Mr. V. who invited a number of Yale School of Music composer colleagues to write pieces for him to interpret via an extended family of guitars: ranging from Fender Strat and Steel String to Baritone and Classical.
Well…sixty-nine words in, a bright ‘n’ breezy opening presents itself with no suggestion of listener dissent… until now that is… A mere five minutes of less than intense research finds the accompanying cribsheet surprisingly failing to mention his tenure with those avatars of new age muzak: Windham Hill, when he recorded under the name of Benjamin Verdery. Can this terrible (but self-induced) stain on one’s character ever be erased by a slight name change and the passage of time? Not an ice-cube’s…
While glimpses of world music, analogue tweaking and country (David Lang’s “Little Eye”), can raise the listenability of these classical guitar recitations a micron or two, on the whole this particular cold collation is as well-manned and genteel as a gathering of maiden aunts at a fifties’ Lyons tea-house, hosted by Athene Sayler and Dame May Whitty. If this has wetted your appetite for the real soul of guitar soli, where intimations of guitarists whose somewhat haphazard lives deeply permeate the very strings and frets of their best friend, it would be better to explore the catalogue of, say, the Tompkins Square label (see Basho protégé Richard Osborn and/or Harry Taussg for starters?) than kicking yr. heels in this vicinity.
May I declare myself a long-standing fan of MX-80 Sound, one of the more unusual American bands to have ever been tagged with a New Wave or No Wave label, a love affair which began when I snarfed up a UK Island pressing of their Hard Attack LP in Coventry. It was a time when Woolworths still existed, they still sold vinyl records, and they marked down items they couldn’t sell, so I secured this tasty zonkeroo for about 50p. Since I was also in love with The Residents at the time, it wasn’t too long before I found out about MX-80 Sound’s superb LP releases for Ralph Records, namely Out Of The Tunnel and Crowd Control, all of them gems. I’m still looking for an original of Big Hits, their debut EP, but it’s rare and costly. Byron Coley, who has done the press for the band’s new LP So Funny (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR250) is also a loyal supporter I assume, since he interviewed the band for Forced Exposure magazine in 1991 and put them on the cover too. During that interview, he demonstrated arcane knowledge of their discography that even the band didn’t know about. Coley also penned an authoritative essay on this Indiana band for the Superior Viaduct CD reissue of Hard Attack, a release which is worth owning for that sleeve note alone, although the remastering of it is also excellent. Well, MX-80 Sound never gave up in all that time, despite lack of commercial success; my 50p cut-out story is only one manifestation of their inexplicable inability to sell large numbers of records.
1977’s Hard Attack pretty much comes roaring out at you like an out-of-control heavy truck, except you then realise the truck is following a crazy roller-coaster route of its own making and the drivers and passengers have a laconic, offbeat sense of humour, and mean no harm. On So Funny, there may not be the same effusive and scratchy energy, but the core trio of Bruce Anderson, Dale Sopheia and Rich Stim still have their own unique electrical voice. On these grooves, I would characterise it as a weird blend of guitar chords creating mixed frequencies that probably shouldn’t really work, but they do. I have that same sensation of being drenched, almost drowned, by these guitars as I enjoyed in 1981. I also savour the way that all the guitar parts are slightly mismatched, as if we were hearing the aural equivalent of an off-register screenprint made by Andy Warhol and his team; MX-80 Sound have never seemed to particularly care for being a “tight” band, and it’s one of their greatest strengths. Stim’s singing voice is another irreplaceable element, and I still savour the bemused tone he evinces as he rattles off his slightly surreal lyrics and slanted observations. Why did we ever settle for Michael Stipe when we had Rich Stim?
This LP, recorded in California around 2013-2015 (the band moved to the Bay Area in the 1970s, which is probably how they hooked up with The Residents and could be aligned with the SF New Wave “scene”) was originally issued as a file-based album on 2015 on their own label, and now surfaces on vinyl. The band are fleshed out by a new drummer, Nico Sophiea, and the guitarist Jim Hrabetin (who also played on two Family Vineyard releases in the late 1990s). Original drummer Marc Weinstein sings on one track. Along with the songs, the band continue their preoccupation with surf guitar-like instrumentals, and soundtrack music – hence cover versions of ‘A Man And A Woman’, John Barry’s ‘Goldfinger’, and oddest of all the ‘X-Files’ theme. None of these are taken completely seriously, and the sleek menace of the James Bond tune is replaced by a faintly absurdist humour. The X-Files music ends up far stranger than the original theme, and seems to emerge from a place that accepts alien abduction and UFOs as everyday occurrences. I’m delighted with this record, and only the goofy cover painting by Rhode Montijo puzzles me. Even so it’s possible to read that image as a metaphor for the way that veteran bands like MX-80 Sound are treated by the uncaring youth of today. From 6th September 2016.
Norwegian guitarist Kim Myhr has been noted in these pages as part of the group Circadia with Tony Buck, but he’s probably more familiar in his home country as part of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, and is also known as an experimental guitarist and composer. His 2014 solo record All Your Limbs Singing, not heard by us, evidenced his interest in American folk guitar idioms as well as micro-tonal avant-garde music. Today’s record, Bloom (HUBRO HUBROCD2578), does have moments where it sparkles, but feels sketchy and unfinished to me. Myhr requires time and space to spread out, which is fine, but he wastes most of that time noodling about on the ground pecking for seed when he could be taking off like an eagle and soaring in the sky. Myrh informs us that he had been listening to “Ram Narayan (a distinguished Indian sarangi player) and Milton Nascimento, as well as psych-folk stuff” before he made these recordings, but owning a record collection is not the same as being a composer or being able to frame musical ideas. Bloom merely demonstrates a vague osmosis of some superficial effects from these progenitors, rather than a solid grasp of musical form. ‘Sort Sol’ has some pleasing textures, presumably the result of overdubbing several 12 string acoustic guitars and electric guitars, and weaves its way through changes in the surface without actually achieving very much. ‘O Horizon’ has slightly more grit, and I did like the atonal lite-noise effects Myhr gets from obsessively scratching his fretboard, but this track soon lapses into the tasteful wallpaper that characterises much of this release. I’m sure that Myhr is an accomplished player, and I’m sorry not to derive more pleasure from his intricate work, but this soft-centred and woolly record failed to make much of an impression. From 3rd October 2016.