Review: Red Wine and Sugar – Lake / Wildflower (Thalamos, Nov 15)

When it comes to speech-related elements in music, it’s almost easier, or at least less daunting to work with the nonsense ranting, abstract utterance, and rhythmic repetition of sound poetry or text-sound rather than straightforward spoken word. As listeners we’re trained to resist transparency; nothing grates at the hear more than painfully unsubtle lyrics or any other elements that are too direct to be at all effective. Mark Groves’ murky mutterings that comprise much of his contributions to Red Wine and Sugar (which also features sound artist Samaan Fieck) are lucid and intelligible, but it’s less about what he’s saying than the things his words evoke, the way they sound within the soundscapes the duo craft, the deliberate pacing and placement of certain statements. Lake / Wildflower doesn’t even reach 20 minutes but its presence is one of spindly, spidery sprawl, sketching out strange and surreal environments through the use of woozy electronics, sparse recordings, and the pregnant spaces between Groves’ ramblings. The atmosphere that seeps into both pieces is dark and uncertain, but it doesn’t draw from the moth-eaten scuzz of Lindus or the hiss-filled suspense of Letters to Friends of the Late Darcy O’Meara, instead occupying a space much more cold and synthetic. The subversive proceedings aren’t without warmth, however; it just requires a bit of digging to find it. I’d suggest starting your search amidst the ringing negative space near the halfway point of “Lake” or the tactile ennui that rustles itself into existence once “Wildflower” begins—both instances are moments that seem grey and sterile at first, but focus on them long enough and small slivers of light shine through.

“Should I have just kept my mouth shut? The ambiguity is… distressing.”

Review: Daphne X – To Be Brave (Sono Space, Nov 11)

Barcelona-based sound artist Daphne Xanthopoulou finds beauty not only in the mundane sounds of our everyday lives, footsteps and chimes and ringing telephones captured with wildly varying fidelity, but also in the intense, noisy glitch-scapes she coaxes from extensive processing of those recordings, presenting two dimensions of reality simultaneously—though moments on To Be Brave that feel like “reality” are quite sparse. Unlike September’s Jaguar 100%, the heavily altered auditory acrobatics of Xanthopoulou’s text-sound ranting is at least not perceptible on this new release, and instead the buzzing digital abstractions are woven throughout ennui-vignettes, the two often coexisting as on “New Moon” where the alien pulses of the former lurk beneath the meditative object percussion of the latter or on the blasting opener “Warm Milk” for which the opposite is the case. This coexistence occurs with differing amounts of unease, often undergoing a drastic change within a single track, as is the case with both of the aforementioned tracks; “Warm Milk” evolves from harsh to hypnotic, “New Moon” from soothing to sinister (the wet smacking noises used near the end really could be some heavily processed mouth sounds, I honestly have no idea). The stretch of cryptically numbered miniatures in the second half of the album, preceded by the equally diminutive title track, embark into deeply physical sound-object arrangements that further blur the divide between the thumps and bumps of reality and the electrical storm hanging above. I’d be lying if I said To Be Brave wasn’t intense, but it’s so concise and well put-together that the more discordant elements are digestible. Even if it doesn’t sound like your thing, you should try it; this is a very special and exciting new album.

Review: Medhane – Own Pace (self-released, Nov 12)

Own Pace is not only New York MC Medhane Olushola’s first LP since 2017’s Poorboy, the only album (so far) from his collaborative project Medslaus with producer Slauson Malone; it’s his first full-length solo release, following on the heels of the self-released EPs DO FOR SELF (2017) and Ba Suba, Ak Jamm (2018). Like many of his fellow NYC undergrounders—MIKE, Pink Siifu, Standing on the Corner, Adé Hakim, Mavi—Olushola proves his miraculous ability to deliver a universally accessible hip-hop album that utilizes the wordless ad-libs, adventurous sampling techniques, and lushly nostalgic atmosphere that make this developing style so unique. Own Pace is clearly a very special project for Olushola; he “went thru the most” while making it, a level of personal involvement that seeps from every emotion-soaked second. The young rapper’s lyricism is at a new height here, especially on “Stranger,” which like “The Mint” on Some Rap Songs is made one of the album’s strongest tracks by a great feature from Navy Blue (as well as impressive production from the mysterious AFB). Over shuffling percussion slivers and a smooth melodic sample Olushula admits “faith been a stranger to me / it ain’t strange when I bleed / wasn’t able to see / the other side where it’s greener / over the fence that’s between us / hope is what I need but the sun don’t shine every day,” a simple yet evocative series of lines whose carefully constructed inner rhyme schemes make them nothing short of magnetic. Unsurprisingly, it’s not the only moment of introspection on Own Pace, an album that as a whole is heavily steeped in solitude, memory, and internal conflict, but it’s one of many examples of how Olushula conveys even the barest confessions with remarkable charisma.

Review: Zherbin – Comfort (self-released, Nov 8)

The sounds from which Comfort is constructed all come from “everyday objects,” but the stuttering, stabbing rhythms Dmitri Zherbin (who adopts the percussive brevity of his surname for musical endeavors) coaxes from these innocuous items using ear-piercing distortion and shuddering tape loop layering are anything but everyday. The first few tracks glue together haphazard bits of restless clatter, each of the elements repeating on their own cycle like clockwork, and all together the result is rumbling cacophony made even more chaotic by the little bits of order it’s made up of. “Tshts” takes things in a bit of a different direction, ramping up the density to create a seething, stormy mass of wreckage. As with almost all of Comfort it’s still quite harsh, but “Tshts” is beautiful in a way not so much like the visceral catharsis of blasting feedback/effect noise but more in a Modern Jester sort of way, where a deafening mass of tape racket overpowers and immerses but all of its shifting parts can be observed, letting you appreciate its formation, how the scuzzy, scattered scraps of detritus and wrack are pulled together into that sublime maelstrom. Comfort is comprised of just 12 short tracks, each digestible miniatures that nonetheless feel fully developed and wondrously lush. Past “Tshts” we wade through churning gears and machinery, harrowing howls of reverb-coated sonorities, aquatic bubbles and churns, and the punishing static-plagued explosion of “Tshsh.” Zherbin’s newest release is imaginative, concise, and raucous when it needs to be.

Review: Rorcal – Muladona (Hummus, Nov 8)

“With a haunted look in her eyes, she said, ‘It’s comin’ for us…’ ”

Rorcal is yet another well-established band of whom I only became aware after hearing their 2019 release. The Swiss quintet has been around for over a decade now; their first EP came out in 2006 and Myrra, Mordvynn, Marayaa, their debut full-length, in 2008. Since then they’ve been honing a style formed from equal parts cavernous black metal and atmospheric sludge riffs, and Muladona is the latest remarkable entry in the continuum. Subtitled A tale by Eric Stener Carlson performed by Rorcal, the LP opens with a passage from the original Muladona, the 2016 Tartarus Press novel, read by the author himself. As Carlson sets the scene for the supernatural horror soon to occur against the bleak backdrop of a post-WWI Texas town ravaged by the Spanish flu, the musicians of Rorcal translate the tension and pervasive sense of impending doom into a seething rumble of noise out of which grow destructive but deliberate avalanches of unison hits. This first track, “This Is How I Came to Associate Drowning with Tenderness,” contains only a hint of the formidable power that Rorcal harnesses over the course of the album, where the massive, dense guitar mudslides coat hypnotic blast beat sections and the unified sludge slams conjure terrifying strength from the shadows. “Carnations Were Not the Smell of Death. They Were the Smell of Desire” is a concise and hard-hitting amalgam of everything that makes Muladona so fantastic, forcing heads into motion as its stretch of repetitive blasting culminates without warning into a crushingly cathartic sludge climax. The samples of Carlson’s reading throughout, whether it’s amidst the rubble at the end of “I’d Done My Duty to My Mother and Father. And More Than That I’d Found Love” or is set right in the middle of the chaos of epic closer “I Was the Muladona’s Seventh Tale,” gives Rorcal time for crucial moments of mood building and provides valleys of meditative yet harrowing respite before the deafening evil forces its way back in—and then retreats for a surprisingly optimistic conclusion.

“Every day since then has been a gift.”

Feature: Hal McGee’s Dictaphonia Compilation Series

Since 1982, sound artist and curator Hal McGee has been faithfully dedicated to documenting, collecting, anthologizing, and participating in the worldwide practice of tape music. In addition to releasing countless recordings on his label HalTapes, he also put together a series of ten hour-long compilations featuring contributions from musicians all over the world, with the only stipulation being that the tracks would be recorded and distributed on microcassette. Though many would view this format as functionally obsolete, the small frequency range and mono-only channel of the microcassette enables adventurous artists to produce works that are uncannily intimate. As of now I’ve listened to the first three of these compilations, all of which are available for streaming and $1 or more download on the HalTapes Bandcamp page. For each entry in the series I’ll highlight two tracks/artists that had the most significant impression on me and provide a featured album for curious ears to seek out.

1-1: Su Sous Toulouse En Rouge – “Brugmansia Tea” (featured album: il n’y a pas de hors​-​texte)

Su Sous Toulous En Rouge are a mysterious duo (at least, I think) whose works blurs the line between active performance, field recording, and post-recording tape manipulation. Their contribution to the first Dictaphonia compilation is a colorful lo-fi journey through various snippets of toy instrument improvisation and jarring collage. Their sprawling opus il n’y a pas de hors-texte is based on the Jacques Derrida argument that nothing exists outside language, but their “fetid stew of musique concrète meditations, EMF field recordings, junk metal compositions, minimal electronics, and… other sonic oddities” seems to make a case for the opposite view.

1-2: Homogenized Terrestrials – “Air” (featured album: Distraction Holograms)

Phillip Klampe created his Homogenized Terrestrials project back in 1986 and has been releasing music ever since. His miniature “Air” is a simmering stew of crackling electric textures that seem to hover just on the edge of disastrous feedback before their seething energy is replaced by a more calming stretch of xylophone plinks. Distraction Holograms, released by Analog Minimum back in 2017, is a much cleaner and well-produced affair, sewing together deconstructed electronics and processed found sound with atmospheric drones.

2-1: Zebra Mu – “Micro Junk Cassette Slicer” (featured album: Psychic Ditch)

“Micro Junk Cassette Slicer” sounds about how you would assume based on its title; it’s a murky coagulation of bent circuits, junk metal clatter, and staticky scuzz. Last year’s Psychic Ditch was actually my original introduction to Zebra Mu, and is a wonderful little slice of contemporary harsh noise with an emphasis on cracked electronics and painful, piercing frequencies.

2-2: Pony Payroll – “Nah” (featured album: The Sun Is the Radioactive Wasp Egg)

The final track on the second Dictaphonia compilation is a bit of a departure, as Matthew Pony Payroll Bones evokes dark Appalachian caves and rural hysteria with his pastoral banjo plucks and madman ramblings. He also lent his talents to this year’s The Sun Is the Radioactive Wasp Egg, the first release by his collaborative project Pony Moon with Jenny Moon Tucker. The Cor Ardens C60 features two side-long tracks of amplifier feedback mayhem, howling vocals, radio grabs, and scrap metal abuse (plus Pony Payroll’s fiddle).

3-1: Jliat – “Beethoven’s 9th – Bonus track (Movement 5)” (featured album: Noise)

Jliat, a.k.a. James Whitehead, is “one of the most radical followers of John Cage’s anti-musical ideology” according to Discogs. His diminutive “Beethoven’s 9th – Bonus track (Movement 5)” is like a small section of tape stretched out across too wide of an area, its noisy drone fragile and tensile. The 2002 CDr Noise is perhaps a more conceptual study, with startling blasts of rumbling and piercing harsh noise sourced from location-specific field recordings.

3-2: auvikogue – “heima®t/exp – lost concert series vol. 1” (featured album: O.T.)

As auvikogue, Peter Schubert is interested in a variety of sonic possibilities, often delving into extreme minimalism and deep listening. His piece “heima®t/exp – lost concert series vol. 1” is a simple tape recording of a bubbling liquid, and the ambitious lärm​/​silence ansatz #23 makes use of empty vinyl record grooves. O.T. (The Insignificance of Monotony Part II), released on Hal McGee’s own Museum of Microcassette Art imprint, is more in line with the aesthetics of the Dictaphonia compilations and blank-tape-beauty artists such as Termite Acropolis and Darksmith.

Review: Mare di Dirac – Ophite Diagram (Gradual Hate, Nov 3)

Mare di Dirac is the duo project of sound artists Luca Di Dato (better known as Poseitrone) and Lorenzo Abattoir, the latter of which has produced much of my favorite music in and outside of 2019, from the new Psicopompo (Abattoir & Hermann Kopp) LP Seven Sermons in Stone on Alien Passengers earlier this year to legendary static noise explorations LACH (self-titled cassette by Abattoir & Clive Henry) and Your Sewer / My Church under the alias Nascitari. The two musicians have also collaborated as Meconium, a conceptual piano exploration, but as with all of Abattoir’s collaborative efforts the music of Mare di Dirac is an entirely different beast, combining electroacoustic processing with rhythmic, spiritual traditional musics. In their words, Mare di Dirac is “based on the fundamental principles of quantum physics applied to field recording of ritualistic practices from different traditions,” an arcane mission statement that becomes much clearer once you hear Ophite Diagram. From the first moments of “Preludio” this focus on that strange duality is realized; the band establishes a dark, foreboding atmosphere within which their detailed dissections can occur, a construction that on this track specifically is helped along via the contributions of clarinetist and fellow sound explorer Mauro Sambo. Ophite Diagram is sure to be a strange and fascinating journey for listeners, especially if they have experience with ritual ambient music, because this is certainly unlike anything under that descriptor I’ve heard. The deliberate, plodding, hypnotic rhythms of tribal percussion occasionally crop up as familiar handholds on tracks like “Cista Mystica,” but such moments are always surrounded by the shifting clusters of processed recordings, buzzing and creaking and crackling and tumbling like some impossibly complex, kinetic collage-sculpture of metal, wood, and drum skins. The deeply deconstructive nature of the album is additionally reflected in the track titles themselves, from the vaguely promissory “Evocation ov Something” to the subversion-acknowledging “Serpent’s Hologram.” Though bathed in pitch black dread-drones and yawning chasms of reverb, Ophite Diagram is uniquely tactile and fragmentary, simultaneously evoking and dissecting the mysterious religiosity that this sort of music so often evokes.