Review: Soft Shoulder – Copy Machine Fall Down (Gilgongo, Mar 12)

Soft Shoulder’s 2020 LP Not the New One was and is everything I want in a scuzzy, shifty slab of deconstructive art-punk: rudimentary garage jams and trash-can-lid drums, $5-plastic-megaphone vocals, off-kilter arrangements, churning background collages, you name it. What I didn’t know until much more recently is that the Arizona-based collective has been kicking a lot longer—since 2010, in fact—and that they have made the entire 7″ format their bitch. Copy Machine Fall Down is just the newest in a long line of excellent singles, double-singles, and lathes, but there’s something about it that really makes it stand out. It could be how much the A-side track, “Touchless Display,” reminds me of Stutter’s forgotten classic Broken Snakes, the blueprint for pretty much any contemporary species of pasted-together-punk or rhythmic collage freakout; it helps that the track, along with its partner on the B side, was in fact assembled remotely by the groups most mainstayish member, James Fella. These roughly wrangled recordings twist into a dubby backbone that somehow lumbers and skitters at the same time and then into, well, the compositional equivalent of a spine lying in disconnected piles of jagged vertebrae on a cement floor. Anxious sax skronk, clumsy guitar detritus, and jarringly apathetic vocal ramble make the nearly 7-minute “Treat for Samson” an unforgettable clusterfuck.

Review: Michael Wall – Two Walls (self-released, Mar 10)

It’s been a long time since I’ve considered myself a fan of Vomir (or any of Perrot’s other projects), but some of his walls still hit the spot when I’m in the mood for something brutal but classic. What doesn’t have any staying power, however, is the all-caps nihilist “NO DEVELOPMENT NO ENTERTAINMENT” bullshit that reduces his music to an amusing novelty for many—and it’s his own fault. If one really wants to adopt and embody the rock-solid, monolithic ontological features of wall noise, it’s much more appealing and respectful to a field in which many do work with elements like change and development and entertainment to go the more modest route “Michael Wall” does with his brief but emphatic manifesto for Two Walls: “TWO WALLS / RECORDED ONTO TAPE / UNTIL END OF TAPE / ALL LIVE / NO TIME STRETCHING / NO BULLSHIT / NOISE WALL / FOREVER.” In this way the classification as an art form is actually subverted; going to such trouble to identify what something isn’t just exposes more of what it is, and certainly doesn’t work toward artlessness in any way. But no matter how much actual drive or passion was used to create these two fifteen-minute slabs they swirl and burn with unyielding weight. The layering is at once detailed and obscurely dense: heavy avalanches of crunching distortion that seem to originate from different sources crash together and congeal into a cacophony of collisions; bombarded brain finds softer currents of crackle mashed between the rubble. Two Walls is 100% presented as a love letter to the genre as a whole, so going in one definitely expects a relatively straightforward affair, but the force and fury of these blasting transmissions makes it an essential and addictive experience.

Review: Karen Willems & Jürgen Augusteyns – Rapper! (bwaa., Mar 5)

Rapper! is a guitar and drums album that captures the spirit of Bailey and Bennink’s legendary June 1972 live sessions, transposing its bashing brutality and unhinged, rabid fun to a new era. Accomplished Belgian improvisers Karen Willems (drums) and Jürgen Augusteyns (guitar) had never played together before recording the material that would become Rapper!, but their sonic rapport is of that sort that defies typical conceptions of seasoned interplay or mutual preoccupations, and instead is perhaps more comparable to the boundless, breathless adventures you had with that kid you met at the park when you were five and never saw again. It’s impossible not to listen to ecstatic nonsense-frescoes like the opening title track or amorphous jams a la “Trager, of neen, toch rapper!” without imagining Willems and Augusteyns face-to-face in a cramped studio, dripping with sweat and just screaming at each other as they mash and mutilate their instruments with unyielding force. Amidst the chaos there are moments of reticence and even tenderness, but they always retain some semblance of bizarreness; take “Altijd,” for example, in which a simple, incessant fingerpicked line is haunted by whips, rustles, and whispers from Willems at the music’s furthest edges. It’s bits like this that establish the presence of something beyond just the two talented musicians having fun. There’s a wordless connection, an understanding—a garishly colorful and misshapen one perhaps, but an understanding nonetheless.

Review: HAHN – Handed All He Needs (Zazen Tapes, Mar 5)

For those of you whose desert-island harsh noise classic is the Blod Red Light Companion box set, look no further for some fresh slabs to cut your buckteeth on. On Handed All He Needs, the first in a series of acronym-extrapolated titles to see a physical release, New Jersey artist N.E. Hertzberg puts on a clinic for one-minute blasts, of which there are 40 in total—a nice symmetry for something of this length, like Commercial Album and others whose conspicuously neat track durations and quantities elicit a necessary second look. In some sense this tape is similar; the vivid, meaning-rich titles were simply jotted down stream-of-consciousness–style in a fleeting fit of inspiration, while Hertzberg explicitly encourages shuffle-play, both of which seem to be qualities that undermine the completeness and intentionality we expect from finished albums. But the music itself is another story. Each cut is its own inferno of delirious chaos, with enough ornamentation around the main course of skull-rattling pedal crunch to keep every chunk of the LP-length run time engaging: mangled screams, bleep-blooping glitch cycles, melodies caked and baked in distortion, delirious center-channel obfuscation. Hertzberg’s versatility is on full display whether one plays through the provided track order or makes their own; at times he waxes psychedelic with descents into hallucinatory murk and climbs to somewhere near C.C.C.C. sheet-metal-squall bliss; and at others he keeps things muscular and immediate, often reaching that elusive state in which the electronics seem to control the noisemaker rather than the other way around.

Review: Fsik Huvnx – Spires That Rise from the Earth (Noir Age, Mar 5)

After yesterday’s review, as well as the fact that I’ve actually been able to read outside without a jacket on the past few days, I think we’re in need of something more… soothing. And that’s exactly what Fsik Huvnx’s new tape is (by the way, it’s much easier to pronounce the actual name of the person behind the project: David Brieske). I almost gasped aloud when I first put it on after getting it in the mail and “Distant Islands” faded into existence… the title Spires That Rise from the Earth is probably the most fitting phrase to describe the ecstatic heights this album consistently reaches, because while it hovers and dwells in a bath of seraphic glow far above us it remains steadfastly anchored to the unyielding ground. The way in which Brieske has captured these modest sounds is understated and yet unshakably exquisite; for example, “The End of a Day” is nearly eight minutes long and consists only of slow-shifting organ dirges, but its soft, muffling cocoon of hiss and distance makes the act of listening to them a much more significant experience—one that is somehow remembering, forgetting, creation, and exhumation all at once. Successive tracks add flavor with bird twitters and nature-sighs nestled in the left/right channels or densely layered, interlocking melodies that eventually meld into languid, transcendent drone symphonies like the song of a massive golden wind chime. Though I wish more of the tracks were as colorful and complex as the opener (especially with all this talk of painting), the tape as a whole gains a lot from the depth of these hermetic laments: threnodies to something no one—or, perhaps, only Brieske—remembers.

Would really recommend getting a tape copy of this… can’t really imagine listening to it any other way.

Review: Daniel Iván Bruno – Brazo (TVL, Mar 5)

A harmonica. That is where all of the sound used to create the punishing, artificial majesty of Brazo was originally sourced; yes, those little hollow, rectangular blocks of metal and imitation wood you used to get for Christmas as a kid and forget about weeks later or that some prop up with those ingenious neck-holder devices. The actual music that Daniel Iván Bruno summons via a gauntlet of adaptive digital processing bears negligible resemblance to the familiar warm, metallic rasp of that classic instrument; instead, it’s loud, abrasive, mechanical, antiseptic. Profoundly detached and dissected bits of broken notes become bullets in an endless, rapid-feed machine gun belt, sending microscopic bits of eviscerating noise into the fluid space of Bruno’s own sculpting and manipulations. Opener “MDA” rattles all the little screws securing your eardrums right out of their holes with its relentless, piercing, stuttering onslaught, while “Marzo” plays with the kind of awe-inspiring electronic spatiality that make expert system-spanners like Hecker and Ikue Mori so compelling. But even though Brazo is computer music through and through, much of its enthralling roil engages the ears with the same slipshod agility and restless twiddling as the best tabletop harsh noise, which gives these crystal-clear eruptions of causticity an irresistible scruffiness.

Mix: Lifeless Electronics

No humans allowed. Screaming terminals with corroded circuits, samplers and toy keyboards caught in merciless error cycles, malfunctioning alarm systems and tactile glitch maelstroms and mind-numbing trash-frequencies. Do we really deserve anything else?

Decorative picture of discarded circuit boards

00:00. Su Sous Toulouge en Rouge – “Of Course We Play Basements, We’re the Underground… Duh” [excerpt] from Byte 0FX0 (Poor Little Music, 2016)

03:44. Chris Fratesi – “247” from Red Lead (Anathema Archive, 2020)

05:57. Archival Frequencie – Death of a Tax Collector [excerpt] (7Form, 2020)

09:52. Ashcircle – “Delusion” from Off the Cliff Edge (Fractal Meat, 2020)

14:37. Network Glass & Christian Mirande – B side [excerpt] of Arbuckle 7/28 (A R C H I V E, 2018)

17:40. Wetkoff – “Nuke Ranks” from He Is Lying (self-released, 2020)

22:59. Hardworking Families – “A Frog in September” from A Room and a Frog (Invisible City, 2020)

25:25. Glia – “gaderffii-i_ii” from Totokia (Dasa Tapes, 2021)

27:17. UVC – first untitled track from Mixed-Control Interpretations (Born Physical Form, 2020)

32:02. C. R. Odette – second untitled track [excerpt] from Castle Two (Chocolate Monk, 2017)

33:44. Rich Teenager – “Sardanapalus” [excerpt] from Sardanapalus (self-released, 2020)

35:56. Cabrita – “OIESHI” from 1 (self-released, 2018)

37:17. Mindload – first untitled track [excerpt] from Different Plug (Scumbag Relations, 2009)

38:38. Peea – “My Acl0nium” [excerpt] from Ins0lemnia (self-released, 2021)

Review: Angelo Bignamini – Feu de Joie (Ambient Noise Session, Mar 2)

The first thing we hear on Feu de Joie is the violin, a warm, plodding octave vamp in the same spirit as the opening moments of Jim O’Rourke’s Happy Days, and just based on this section one might think they’re about to hear a very different album. But Bignamini and his arsenal of deconstructive sensibilities do not disappoint; this rather short tape is an expansive and expressive patchwork of beautiful abstractions that nonetheless is haunted by the tangibility of the most ubiquitous classical string instrument. Between lush, heavily tape-processed crackle-scapes, rainfall, everyday ephemera, and decontextualized voice, the violin is in turn meditative, elegiac, wistful, spectral. According to Bignamini, much of the less identifiable textures were created by it being “manipulated, broken down and corroded through the use of tape recorders and some electric interferences produced by various loudspeakers and cheap microphones,” so it likely has a place in most if not all of the handful of untitled tracks, but it is these moments of lucid convention that anchor the artist’s elusive assemblages. The stated classic musique concréte influence is also an enjoyable and unifying current throughout the tape. I’m especially partial to the fourth (or maybe the third?) piece on side B, in which minuscule electronic pinches, crystalline fast-forward blur, and aquatic modular bloops form a tried-and-true amalgam. This is, as expected, fantastic stuff. Curse you IT→US shipping prices!

Review: Stephanie Cheng Smith – Forms (a wave press, Mar 1)

With Forms, LA-based sound artist Stephanie Cheng Smith accomplishes that rare feat of a distinctively halved LP-length set in which each of the halves are markedly different but pull equal weight in terms of intrigue, quality, and overall structure. I knew of Smith from her participation in the now-unnamed Animal Crossing performance quartet that streamed several unforgettable sets via Twitch last year, but this CD collects two solo works recorded between 2018 and 2019 that exhibit the eclectic artist’s knack for harnessing the magic of the real world as well. “Bird,” with regard to both its concept and its actual textural palette, is a dream come true for me: a lush, discretely cacophonous swarm of the tiny touches and contacts of many objects suspended in a system of vibrating plastic bowls (dubbed “b-z-bowls” by the artist) that shifts from meditative avalanche to swirling gestural slices to soothing pitter-patter. I’m sure seeing Smith actually perform with the setup adds a whole new dimension, but even with just audio it’s a breathtaking piece. “Fish” couldn’t be more of a stylistic shift; where “Bird” was mechanically effervescent and emotionally neutral, it is dark, brooding, expressive, teasingly tonal. The “dark energy synthesizer” almost drags things down with a rather cheesy sci-fi/deep space type patch, but Smith’s Flynt-esque violin scrapes and shrieks handily steal the show. And soon enough the synth too spirals out of control, oscillating between distant hum and noisy wrack for the remainder of the composition, which retreats and quietly seethes for a bit before exploding into a piercing maelstrom of glitch churn and vicious string abuse that would make even the most extreme Mego releases blush.

Review: Whisker – Moon Mood (Husky Pants, Feb 23)

On Moon Mood, their first album as Whisker, Tiger Hatchery drummer Ben Billington and bassist Andrew Scott Young weave one of the more unusual—and enthralling—duo improvisations I’ve heard. Though Billington pounds the kit mercilessly in the aforementioned project, a trio with saxophonist Michael Forbes, here he embraces a much more subdued palette of abstract electronics. At first, the contrast between these burbling transmissions and Young’s dissonant but largely conventional playing is stark, almost off-putting even, but the pair’s particular style of musical conversation soon becomes not only palpable, but visceral. It’s a strange combination of edge-of-your-seat, suspenseful volatility and something much more languid; each musician has a wide range of intrusions at their disposal, from sparse to punishing, but the detailed noise they produce together is not an outward assault, nor even a muscular, indulgent chaos of Euro free jazz (I can’t help but think of Kowald when lost in Young’s throaty, expressive bowing)… they’re just jamming. Though that may sound reductive, it isn’t at all, because for me all the intrigue of Moon Mood is in the fluidity of exchange, wordless questions and proposals and answers and reactions. It’s well-recorded but you still feel like you’re in the room with them; at one point Billington rides on a low, buzzing throb that could very well be a vibrating cell phone, and it has the interesting effect of grounding one’s perspective to a space only hinted at, within which the instrumental gestures are even more astounding. Right now I’m particularly obsessed with a moment about four minutes into the second track, when the duo tries their hand(s) at a whimsical call-and-response, and their flurry of jutting tones and scant bow slices just absolutely nails it. Looking forward to more stuff from Whisker.