As the pandemic-induced pseudo-quarantine continues, especially in the United States, with no end in sight, long-distance correspondence between geographically scattered collaborators is becoming the new norm for experimental musicians who are unable (or, hopefully, unwilling) to travel or meet in person. Constructing music in this way seems difficult, but it’s something that’s been around for a long time now, and this unique situation only motivates creatives to find methods of keeping things interesting. We’ve already seen some great material from Mary Staubitz and Russ Waterhouse’s Distant Duos, which, among other things, acknowledges the reality of physical removal while also arguing for the serendipitous results that can materialize from completely separate performances (some other examples of indeterminate musical fusions that have occurred during quarantine can be found in the catalog of Jon Abbey’s ongoing Amplify 2020 “festival,” such as English’s Democracy and Shots’ First Things First). Terse Stems is the remote duo project of electronic artists zoey. and V O T, and its methodology hinges on several degrees of uncertainty: “exchange 5 short recordings each of sounds for a total of 10 to change and manipulate into 2 experimental pieces, one by zoey. and one by V O T and then join them into one.” Both musicians are well-accustomed to processing sound digitally—zoey. often sources material for their harsh noise music from image data made audible, while V O T produces heavily altered remixes of songs by various bands—and it certainly shows through in the music of their self-titled debut, which undulates like a massive serpentine beast in skin-shredding waves of wall noise crunch, shrieking feedback, and messy artifacting. At times it seems like something is being made from nothing, as in the case of the countless layers of distortion on “banshee,” while at others the reverse appears to be the case, and the recordings are mercilessly severed and dissected to produce moments of jittery cut-ups like the beginning of “heavy industry.” Whether it’s the result of fleeting inspiration, the fact that the artists simply work well together, some unknown variable coded in their highly specific process, or some combination of all of those, Terse Stems is the best music I’ve heard from either artist, and I hope they continue to produce more material for this project.
Looking back on it, my career as an experimental musician was doomed from the start. I am far too predisposed toward passive appreciation and observation to truly feel as though the sounds I’m making are worth occupying the space into which I’m sending them, and especially if I ever found myself performing in as cavernous and sonically lush a venue as an art museum, I expect I would probably be much less interested in making my own sounds as I would be in just hearing the building itself. I suppose this is a large part of the reason why I love releases like las condiciones de los cuerpos en los puestos de trabajo so uniquely (other examples that come to mind are R.O.T.’s Klein Eiland from earlier this year, Grisha Shakhnes’s wonderful being there, and the Chantier series by the trio of Pascal Battus, Bertrand Gauguet, and Éric La Casa)—I really admire and value the ability to enrich an already pregnant milieu with one’s own contributions, as it’s not one I really seem to possess. The locale in question on this new release from sound artists Felipe Arraya and Nicolás Carrasco is the Contemporary Art Museum located in Santiago de Chile, the recording completed nearly half a decade ago while the museum was closed. The duo’s reticent duets, produced almost entirely with found materials (divided into three categories between the pair: “drawer,” “objects,” and “stuff”) with the exception of choice electronics occasionally conjured by Carrasco. The sparse exclamations spread through the weighty silence of the building like sluggish spiderwebs, picked up by the nearly all-encompassing array of recording devices that were purposefully placed throughout the space. The most innocuous of events are given unusual significance within the languid pace of the two lengthy tracks; the highlights of the first consisted of a loud, startling bang near the twenty minute mark and a rolling furniture traversal (perhaps the drawer?) close to the end. The structure of the second piece is immediately a bit more concrete, with several recurring, stationary events allowing one to trace a rudimentary diagram of the sound-space, intermittently disturbed by the nearly spectral noises of outside traffic and various comings and goings. The electronics also take on a larger role, often seemingly injected intravenously into the recording rather than picked up externally, the improvisations surrounding the space rather than the other way around.
The latest in a seemingly never-ending supply of pandemic-motivated live performance uploads, A Spirit in January comprises a “slightly trimmed” short set from earlier this year when in-person events weren’t yet a thing of the distant past. Brighton sound artist and all-around smartguy Tom Bench always seems to find new, refreshing methods to communicate the same elusive ambiguities and conspicuous emptiness that consistently surface in his work as Hardworking Families, and this release is no different, utilizing a miniature audio-theatre of small electronics in an extension of the synthetic slurs of Music From Box File, his release for the Amplify 2020 digital festival of a similar length—or perhaps it’s the other way around, since Box File may have been recorded after January. Regardless, it’s a superb slice of considered audio-chiaroscuro that hums with mysterious electricity at every moment, rumbles of noise and fragmented emissions hidden behind a muffling shroud of empty space, and I often found my attention being drawn more to the latter than the former. Like the two humbly harrowing halves of Hindered Soul, Bench centers one or multiple oddities in a weighty void as much under his control as the oddities themselves, creating curious paradoxes, dusty sonic spotlights, tightly “focused ennui.” It must have been a unique experience to witness this performance—being in the same room must have been like hearing the curated distillation of countless instances of server room errors and other ersatz electronic remnants—but listening after the fact provides its own pleasures.
Maine musician Zachary Zena Giberson already got my attention earlier this year with the superb Primordia, fruit of the Wife Eyes duo featuring Giberson and Matt Ackerman fusing quirky instrumental jams and Zolo-esque melodies with unruly electronics. It seems that the latter facet mainly came from Giberson, because on his self-titled debut album as Ooey, electronics are the name of the game. There’s plenty of rather extreme abstraction here, from the bite-sized intro track’s serpentine contortions to the unusual stereo space and recording device acknowledgement on “Boy on Display” and “A Fight I’ll Lose on Purpose,” but the expected fun element implied by previous work as well as the playful cover artwork is never completely abandoned. I see many different flavors of my favorite folkish-collage-electronic bands, including the surreal but lively melody cascades of Kemialliset Ystävät and the whimsical digital forest romps of Lucky Dragons, but Giberson’s style here is all his own, making drastic disparity sound utterly natural as crystalline synth shavings, mouth sounds, computer glitches, guitar meanderings, dissonant MIDI piano, and God knows what else clash and collide in colorful, kaleidoscopic webs. To be a lover of sound in general and listen to Ooey is to be a veritable kid in a candy store; there is always something to hear, hone in on, examine, taste even. It’s a delicious sensory overload, imbued with just enough reticence and space to never actually “overload.” Perfection.
I’ve made plenty of mixes showcasing the best in abrasive, in-your-face harsh noise, but there’s a whole other subsect of the genre that mines a somewhat less immediate, but no less affecting, viscerality from the tried-and-true formula of maxed-out electronics, evoking haze, lethargy, and claustrophobia via sleazy, droning, psychedelic transmissions. You can read my recent review of the new Manure Movers of of America tape for my take on this approach, but in truth this is great music for a variety of situations—a late night smoke session, perhaps, or even a lazy afternoon nap for the adventurous.
00:00. Manure Movers of of America – “Shit Happens” from Cassette Tape #2 (Already Dead, 2019)
04:28. Arv & Miljö – “Gångtunnlar Alltid Utsatta” from Förändringens Frö (Järtecknet, 2011)
09:23. endling – “b” [excerpt] from two sides of a fallen mountain (self-released, 2020)
14:48. Blod – “Shitsoap” from Primordial (Electronic Ejaculation, 1999)
17:01. Ashpa – “Raureif” from 1 (self-released, 2013)
22:38. Laurel Noose – “Indian Summer” from University District (unknown label, 2011)
28:29. Jason Zeh – “A Vacant Lot to Be in” [excerpt] from A Vacant Lot to Be in (CIP, 2013)
35:06. Haare – “Psychedelic Funeral” [excerpt] from Psychedelic Funeral (Abisko, 2007)
37:30. Aube & Maurizio Bianchi – “Metamorphic Humus” [excerpt] from Mectpyo Saisei (PARA Disc, 2005)
Though Berlin sound artist Manuel Klotz doesn’t list field recordings among the materials used to create Hoax, opening track “Düne” begins with a seething draft that resembles an ominous wind blowing by. It turns out this is well-aligned with what was in mind for the release; Klotz describes it as “hauntological derive trough [I assume ‘drive through’] the Schönower Heide, a nature reserve nearby Berlin, made by havoc and devastation,” a central concept that drives a great deal of the dark, skulking energy that plagues this cassette. “Düne” floats and builds itself upon that simulated wind, with more artificial electronic textures steadily creeping in to fill out the shadows, but Klotz doesn’t place the dynamic movement of his composition at the mercy of organic growth: sudden stretches of caustic circuit-bending squall (I’m not sure if it is actually circuit bending, but it certainly has that feel to it) intermittently shatter any uneasy tranquility that managed to seep in while your guard was down, the added volume and immediately veering the trajectory of the piece into apocalyptic industrial wastelands. However, this may all just be a crescendo to the following track, appropriately titled “Havoc,” which kicks into gear right off the bat with an unrelenting assault of gushing razor-sharp distortion, and like Pedestrian Deposit it only hits harder against the relative serenity of what precedes it. Pulling off a combination of both ambient, atmospheric sound design and scorching harsh noise is not easy to do; you have to earn it, and that’s exactly what Klotz does, which is why the blast of scientific power electronics mayhem works so damn well. The title and concluding track is the smoking aftermath of the destruction, seething and growling and simmering just under the surface of all-out chaos.
I have to begin this review by stating that I can’t even remember the last time I laughed this hard at a piece of “music.” Twitch had me in tears for much of its duration, especially during the opening track “5.52,” and as someone who has spent much of their young life in or within the immediate proximity of gamers and gamer culture, this may be the most definitive “post-internet” release I’ve ever come across (eat your heart out, entire discography of James Ferraro). With his long-running Network Glass project, the Baltimore artist Door has been consistently pushing the boundaries of what can really be called “music” to the extreme (and you know if even I am asking that question, things have gotten pretty off the rails), but Twitch is his most extreme “anti-” release yet, culling almost the entirety of its sound from both in-game and voice channel audio in various familiar titles—(in order) Apex Legends, Minecraft, Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto 5. Anyone who has ever played any multiplayer game online will recognize these painfully familiar sounds, from the infuriating lag and ill-timed “gamers only” jokes that fail to land to the incessant view count/subscriber bragging and endless excuses for poor performance. Network Glass splices these chat extracts in a totally disjointed yet seamless cut-up style, where conversations seem as though they’re being had yet no one’s statements acknowledge or interact with each other (although I suppose that’s a totally plausible dynamic in a normal lobby). It’s essentially an extension of what was attempted on tired / stupid, but it definitely works a lot better here. Also present is the hyperactive sound design and bits of digital junk typical of the project, which trade space with well-mixed samples from the games themselves. I’ve always thought Minecraft would be an excellent platform for in-engine improvisation in the style of Animal Crossing quartet Lil’ Jürg Frey, and the second track on this is the closest I’ve found to such an experiment, as the familiar sounds of walking over grass or opening a chest fill the stereo field. Twitch is a blast, and overall I can say it is not only the most hilarious, but also the most utterly bizarre music I’ve heard in a very long time. Which is really, really saying something.
The Miami-based Hologram label (operated by Noise Not Music favorite Chris Donaldson) has quickly become a new favorite, starting with my on-a-whim purchase of The Glass Path’s Recurring Faces Through the Spiral of Time LP, which turned out to be a very good decision. Though the pre-2019 catalog exhibits an eclectic diversity in styles and approaches, many of the recent releases have gravitated toward a more total aesthetic, with a great deal of material in the area of “pure experimental” from old and new artists alike—e.g. Comfort Link and Church Shuttle vs. Richard Vergez and Vision Board. UVC’s newest effort, Wisdom from the Zoo, is yet another example in this easily classifiable yet always elusive tradition, mining unusual emotional significance from the most mundane of sounds, from dry drags and stuffy clutter reminiscent of fellow Hologram three-letter initialism artist TVE to the alien familiarity of chopped-up text-to-speech. This is truly liminal music, seemingly gouged from the darkest, most distant corners and crevices of something much less unusual; yet this only makes its detritus even more baffling when it is gathered up and combined into something new. Things always seem to be happening of their own accord: mysterious sound events with countless moving parts whose actions are just simple enough to be accidental, hum and sonic discharge from devices mistakenly left on, remnants of humanity occasionally snaking in as whatever individuals are present steer well clear of this dark den of ambiguity.
I knew I was going to love Truce Terms as soon as I read the phrase “Fisher Price musique concrete [sic]” in the description. Toy instruments and simply children’s toys in general are a class of sound objects I believe to be underutilized in abstract experimental music; artists like Frank Pahl, Klimperei, and others frequently use them, but the end result is something more resembling folk or musette rather than a formless, texture-focused creation. Taw, the newly formed duo of Welsh musicians Owen Martell and Simon Proffitt (the two also play together as The Master Musicians of Dyffryn Moor, and I was aware of Proffitt’s work via his field recording collections released under the alias Cahn Ingold Prelog) demonstrates just how incredible and inspired music produced with this unusual approach can be. The five tracks that comprise Truce Terms were hewn from an hour-long recording session that is said to be the first time Martell and Proffitt improvised with the pile of toys they collected, and if that is actually the case then I am beyond impressed, because each piece feels fully-realized, well-paced, and packed with endless curiosities to dig into. The term “discrete cacophonies” is another extremely apt descriptor provided on the Bandcamp page, as tracks like “Offground” dive deep into a overstuffed toolbox of unidentified shakers, scrapers, and clackers that spread their deliciously lush micro-textures across a sound-space of uncertain size, while “Cymod” (pronounced KUH-mod; welcome to Welsh baby) unfolds at a slow, ambling pace, as if the contents of an old toy chest have been lovingly poured onto an agitated surface. Even disregarding the novelty factor, Truce Terms is a masterful example of improvised music in general (there are definitely echoes of stuff like Portland Bike Ensemble, Seeded Plain, or even Iskra); the amazing creative approach and aesthetic are just lucrative bonuses.
Manure Movers of of America (yes, that’s correct, there are really two of’s) was one of those bands that you immediately really like but can’t explicitly put your finger on why. After receiving their Already Dead debut Cassette Tape #2 as a surprise addition to my preorder of DC_33.33’s Vela Abridge, I instantly fell in love with their unique brand of stuffy clouds of psychedelic noise and distorted loops. There’s not a ton to the music, per se; it’s all about the atmosphere, the strange presence its dirty gossamer form adopts, the hazy, confusing headspace of ambiguity, tension, and warmth all rolled into one almost homogeneous blob. Less than a year later, the mysterious Montana project continue their fascination with excrement on Cut the Shit, which features memorably named cuts like the title track along with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Shit.” Along with my recent re-listen of Tape #2, the Movers have fittingly provided a lovely soundtrack to my lazy, piecemeal move-in process, giving name to the nameless comforts and curiosities that lurk in lethargy—”Gift Horse” amplifies the imperceptible, neutral energy that hides in an unfurnished new living room, “Hardly Workin'” blends seamlessly with the queasy mundanity of a rainy afternoon outside my windows, “Cut the Shit” threatens the arrival of an ominous darkness. Bedtime already?