With a frigid Midwestern winter fast approaching, the temperatures are dropping, the wind is picking up, and the sun is going into hiding. Needless to say, I need all the happy music I can get. Luckily, the new album from long-running pop outfit Bingo Trappers, Elizabethan, is exactly that. The Amsterdam band, despite being active since 1995 and having a style that’s undeniably indebted to 60’s sunshine pop, sounds as fresh as ever. The songs are deceptively simple, with complexities that only make themselves apparent after repeated listens. One of my favorite things about this record is how the drums fit in with everything else; the bass and guitars are thuddy enough that they’re percussive in their own right, and it took me a while to notice that “Signs of Comfort” doesn’t even have any drums until midway through. The frequent slide guitar adds a sense of motion and direction as well, though it’s more fluid than rhythmic, winding in and out of the other instruments with evolving melodies and smile-inducing solos. Waldemar Noë’s lyrics are unsurprisingly fantastic, drawing equally from the frank storytelling of country music and more abstract sources (according to the band’s website, the song “Don’t Steal My Line” is largely based on the 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). Coupled with the cheerful, whimsical arrangements, I can’t help but be reminded of The Deep Freeze Mice and their masterpiece Hang on Constance, Let Me Hear the News, which, I think, is one of the best compliments I’m able to bestow.
Many musicians, especially in the area of experimental music, are indebted to or engage with visual art on some level, whether it gives them inspiration, provides a different creative outlet, augments their recordings or performances, etc. But a select few create beautiful pieces of visual art in the process of making music, intentionally or unintentionally. A personally significant example is the collection of tabletop setups utilized by improviser Keith Rowe, whose layouts of haphazard objects, modified guitars, and electronics seem to have an energy of their own, even separate from the music they help produce. Dublin-based artist Fergus Kelly takes things a step further with his complex arrangements of custom built instruments, arsenals of makeshift string instruments and transducers that are physical manifestations of the artist’s inner creativity. The full potential of Kelly’s inventions is explored on his new CD Trembling Embers, whose rhythmic title (this naming scheme continues to the track list, with names like “Vestige From the Wreckage” and “Spoiled Coinage”) foreshadows the agitated and unpredictable sounds found within. The first few tracks are largely unmanipulated improvisations, relying on tense clatter and metallic whirring to create a formidable atmosphere. As the album progresses, however, more elements are added; processing allows for the darkly immersive environments of “Plow a Flaw to the Far Shore,” and injected field recordings in “Paradox Lost” provide both a textural and thematic counterpoint. Though, obviously, listening to the CD doesn’t offer any insight into the visual aspect of what Kelly is doing, he masterfully communicates a profound concreteness, a tactility, that ensures even the most manipulated compositions on Trembling Embers feel up close and personal.
Mummy Dust Trippers is a duo composed of Idaho Joe Winslow and Grant Corum, the latter of whom is also known as The Orchardist and released the wonderful Mercurian Vineyard Surgeries (which I reviewed here). Perfect Prey, one of two simultaneously released new records from the band, is a psychedelic journey through a sickly sweet haze. The deep green colors that pervade the album cover are a great representation of what the music sounds like; every sound that Winslow and Corum produce is drenched in a distinctly organic fog, which billows up and coats each song with oppressive smog. But, surprisingly, Perfect Prey doesn’t feel claustrophobic. There is so much freedom in the way the two musicians conjure lazy melodies and droning, Residents-esque vocal harmonies, as everything bubbles in the half-formed songs that seem to melt by the time they end. “Try Not to Cry” is a subtle spot of light amidst the smoke, and its uneasy beauty is a peaceful respite before “Synesthesia,” the hulking song that brings the album to a close. Perfect Prey seems unfriendly at first, but it ends up being comfortable, even cozy, in its own strange way.
Buy the LP here.
Disclaimer: Please listen to Green Ways before you read this, if at all possible. In my opinion, the album is best experienced when one forms one’s own interpretations of the sounds. But I can’t tell you what to do.
I’m fairly certain I will remember the first time I heard Green Ways for the rest of my life. When a double CD by two of my favorite artists on my favorite label was announced, it’s not surprising that it was one of my most anticipated releases this year. I was careful not to try to predict what the music would sound like; Graham Lambkin and Áine O’Dwyer are both artists who subvert my expectations almost as a rule, always giving me what I didn’t know I wanted. But even if you don’t have expectations, Green Ways will surprise you. Crafted with care, reverence, and an inordinate amount of love, it is one of the few albums that I can call a truly unique experience. As Lambkin says in his fascinating interview with The Quietus, Green Ways was originally envisioned as a sound map of Ireland, O’Dwyer’s home country. Though they intended to “[go] over to Ireland and record in these places that meant something to her,” the album ended up as much more, not only imbued with the sentiment and memories attached to the recordings but also with new emotions created with abstract performances and the “filíocht of rural and urban acoustic environments.”
The opening suite of tracks, “One and One Is One” through “…Is Three,” are immediately mysterious. “…Is One” begins with a group vocal performance, beginning as a collectively produced drone that transforms into something much more rhythmic. It and almost all the other tracks create a palpably physical sound space; you can feel the vibrations of the creaking wood floor, the syrupy acoustics of the vocalizations, that overwhelming but pleasant warmth from sitting amidst a large group of people. The way in which Green Ways puts emphasis on the concept and feeling of ‘place’ is truly incredible, from trapping the listener atop the surface tension of the water in “One and One Is Two” to immersing them in the movement of hiking and kneeling to collect mushrooms and other herbs. “Greenways” is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard, swirling a gorgeous, natural drone around the stereo recorder…but I could also say the same thing about “Expatriate Union,” which takes that powerful sensation of being in a crowd even further, or “The £500 Whistle,” a mundane but sublime walk through what sounds like a busy town square, or “Down by the Sally Gardens,” when a distorted dog bark rips through comfortable rural domesticity, or… you get the idea.
But ‘place’ is not only conveyed physically; the voices and actions of actual people are important too. Intimate singing of traditional folk songs placed throughout the album, as well as snippets of conversations and the soft cacophony of crowds. These yield amazing moments as well, like on “Metallurgy,” when O’Dwyer asks their companion how long he thinks “that boulder” has been there, to which he nonchalantly, “about 6000 years.” It’s a rare verbal communication of the themes and ideas that Green Ways explores so effectively without any words at all, conveying that deep undercurrent of age and history that runs under the Emerald Isle, a place that simultaneously exists in the present and so far in the past.
I could go on; really, I could. Green Ways is an indescribably rich album, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully enumerate all the things it makes me feel. I’m just so grateful that it exists.
Recently I wrote about four recent releases of acousmatic music with very unusual sound sources. Julien Bayle’s new release, Violent Grains of Silence, might have all of them beat with its concept. Bayle recorded two hours of complete silence in the anechoic chamber at Laboratoire de Mécanique et Acoustique de Marseille, one of the quietest places in the world, and all of the sounds used to produce Violent Grains of Silence were taken from that recording. The album is anything but silent, however; Bayle focuses his attention not on the state of silence, but on the impossibility of it. He amplifies and manipulates minuscule errors and signals in the system he used to record, ghosts still present in what anyone would probably agree is the complete absence of sound, twisting them into cold, mechanical bursts and shifting piles of crackles and hums. Even if one isn’t aware of the album’s unique origin, small elements of the noises Bayle makes use of reveal that something is different; he propels these tiny glitches with disproportionate force and velocity, making even the most intense assaults of bass-y tones and high-speed clicks unsettlingly thin, even tenuous. Regardless of how much substance the sounds found on Violent Grains of Silence actually have behind their unforgiving facade, the album is ultimately loud, and Bayle declares victory in his war on silence despite being deep in enemy territory.
Somehow, armed with only a three track 7″ and a handful of singles, Portrayal of Guilt managed to make me anticipate their debut LP more than most upcoming releases this year. In my opinion, this is an album release done right; the only musical promotion for Let Pain Be Your Guide was a split single with Street Sects (“The Nihilist”) and the lathe picture disc “Chamber of Misery (Pt. I),” neither of which actually appeared on the record. Though I personally never listen to promotional singles anyway, it was a great feeling to go into the album with so much uncertainty about what it would sound like. That uncertainty doesn’t last long, though; Let Pain Be Your Guide starts strong with the vicious opus “Daymare,” the LP’s longest track and possibly the band’s most ambitious music to date. The vocals mine new territory with the low growls, accentuating the darker atmosphere and doom riffs with misanthropic fury. Industrial electronic textures that first appeared on “The Nihilist” are taken even further, adding to the already evocative songwriting; the outro of “Your War” with its noise contortions and pained gurgles is indescribably menacing, even alien. “Until We’re Dust” is a fittingly action-packed conclusion, thankfully subverting the tired cliche of an overlong sludge coda in favor of a driving build-up that culminates in the album’s most anthemic chorus. Really, my only complaint about Let Pain Be Your Guide is that it’s too short; and as far as problems go, that’s far from the worst one to have.
A few weeks ago, I was sent a generous selection of releases from the 2018 roster of French-Canadian label Empreintes Digitales. The label has been releasing CDs in the area of acousmatic and electroacoustic music for almost thirty years, and has introduced me to many of my favorite artists such as Paul Dolden and Michel Chion. I couldn’t choose which ones I wanted to review, so I decided to just write about them all!
eRikm – Mistpouffers (release date unknown)
French improviser and composer eRikm is one of the few artists whose work has been a consistent element in my journey into experimental music. His collaborative CD with Jérôme Noetinger, What a Wonderful World, was one of the first Erstwhile releases I heard and introduced me to the field of electroacoustic improvisation, and Zygosis made me realize the power of the turntable as an instrument in an avant-garde context. Mistpouffers, consistent with Empreintes Digitales’ focus on acousmatic music, collects three pieces that were composed and arranged from 2013 to 2016. “Draugalimur,” commissioned by the French music office, incorporates several spoken word segments within its immersive ambient soundscapes, including excerpts from traditional Icelandic folk writings. “Poudre” and “L’aire de la Moure 2” are both explorations into a very physical stereo space; the former’s treated recordings of firework explosions and the latter’s electric whirring and airplane engines are equally breathtaking.
Monique Jean – Troubles (Oct 16)
Troubles is Monique Jean’s third solo release, and its two pieces each boast an ambitious conceptual backing. The kinetic “T.A.G.” was inspired by rippling collective movements by crowds of people, an influence that is represented well by the composition’s litany of synthesized elements that progress with masterful pace and control. Jean’s sonic palette is dominated by the cold and artificial, with both actual recordings that are heavily processed as well as pure synthesis, but she commands this electronic orchestra with distinctly organic movements in mind. “Out of Joint” continues with that contrast, incorporating more recognizable sounds such as screams and the cawing of crows, but for an entirely different purpose; the piece is a sonic essay on the endurance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth throughout history.
Alistair MacDonald – Cabinets de curiosité (Oct 26)
The music on Cabinets de curiosité is just as colorful as the gorgeous artwork on the cover (painted by Shona Barr). Though each of the seven pieces explore different territory, the title of the composition that opens the disc, “The Tincture of Physical Things,” is a fitting unifier. MacDonald’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’ isn’t limited to just found objects; it includes any sounds that struck him as distinctive or significant, from the handmade glass instruments of Carrie Fertig used on “Scintilla” to the sounds of public spaces in “Final Times,” described by the composer as ‘cinema for the ears.’ MacDonald also pays tribute to Delia Derbyshire and early musique concrète on “Psychedelian Streams,” using more basic processing techniques on memorable objects from his childhood like Slinkies, wooden rulers, and wind chimes.
Åke Parmerud – Grains (release date unknown)
“Grains of Voice,” originally released more than two decades ago, is still one of the most powerful and conceptually interesting pieces of this entire selection of music. Parmerud’s own written summary of the work is fascinating, detailing his efforts to record different human voices from all over the world (the total duration of recordings Parmerud made during his journey approaches 20 hours!) and create a piece that ventures into several ideas, or ‘islands,’ amidst a continuous flow of sound. The composer’s treatment of the voices results in dark, sonorous waves, grounded by recognizable elements—for me, the most notable of these was an appearance of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The other concepts are no less enthralling, what with the auditory riddles of “Les objet obscurs” and the philosophical musings of “Alias.”
“In the end, sound covered the face of the Earth.”
Derek Bailey and Han Bennink’s live album (1972’s aptly titled Derek Bailey & Han Bennink) easily has one of my favorite album covers. And after listening to it last night, I thought about something else that makes it great: that it’s FUN. A bit scary at times, with the screaming and whatnot, but in the end it is just two creative, talented improvisers having a grand time making noise. The second studio LP from the duo of Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt, Brace Up!, shares this quality. Corsano and Orcutt are not only experienced in the art of group improvisation in their own rights, but they’ve also been playing together since at least 2013, when The Raw and the Cooked was released. You can truly hear the wordless two-person language in which they have become fluent; Corsano’s frenetic, free-form flurries are always just slightly cursed with rhythm, and some of the record’s best moments come about when Orcutt’s torturous, resonant attack of the guitar strings retreats slightly and they tease out that tiny bit of order for even a second or two. But then again, there’s no sense of convention necessary in the beautifully organic “She Punched a Hole in the Moon for Me” (which I’m 80% sure is a reference to Scott Pilgrim). Plus the album cover is hilarious, and pretty representative of what the music sounds like—but don’t be fooled; there is some gorgeous stuff on this.
Buy the LP here.
Peter Keller’s long running project Bacillus takes its name from a genus of enzyme-producing bacteria and infectious pathogens, a fitting namesake for more than twenty-years’ worth of experiments with sonic decay. Serial Infector is Keller’s first recorded work in almost a decade. It focuses on the horrifying concept of people who intentionally spread diseases and infections to others, much in the same way as Bacillus’s gritty electronics worm their way into the listener’s unsuspecting ear. The tape comes in a medical biohazard bag, which I’m not sure is able to contain the relentless, gnawing sounds that threaten to break out of their red plastic shell at any moment. The first side’s maelstroms of decomposing industrial sound, blasts of distorted feedback, and pedal noise howls come to a head with the vicious centerpiece “Bulgarian Nurses Affair,” a deafening mass of pestilence whose edges crackle with piercing glitches. Side B starts equally loud with “The Deliberate Infection of Over 400 Children With HIV,” a song I hope is not based on actual events, and “Intentional Transmission,” both of which pummel the eardrums with merciless high frequencies and squalling loops of noise. Serial Infector never relinquishes even a bit of its energy, even on the short interlude “Stolen Syringes” that sounds like a buzzing horde of disease-bearing gnats.
The first side of Fragments of Consciousness, the new tape from Bruising Pattern (also known as Peter Stipsits) on Lost Light Records, begins rather innocuously with a thin wave of static dwarfed by a guttural rumble. But by the time the first thirty seconds of the track have passed, Stipsits forces the wall into harsher territory, rolling the crackles to the front of the mix until they merge with the lumbering bass undertones. The result is a formidable, roiling slab of noise, bubbling but harsh like a boiling pot full of cement, that commands the listener’s attention for its entire 29 minutes. Hiding high above the chunks of distortion, however, is the soft clinking sound of a delay pedal clock, an element that foreshadows the higher register of the second piece and adds a new dimension to the piece. Though still up-close and confrontational, side two of Fragments of Consciousness whips up the crumbling cacophony into a tight drone, the crepitating noise concealing a more recognizably tonal hum that sets the whole wall on edge. Stipsits uses his minimal palette to find balance between arresting abrasion and anxious tension, making Fragments of Consciousness one of the more captivating wall releases I’ve encountered this year.