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.
“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.”
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).
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.
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.
The well-documented and well-love hardcore subgenre commonly referred to as “mathcore” holds a very special place in my heart. Exemplary artists like Hayworth, Gaza, Inside the Beehive, Arms, and others reach absolutely spectacular and soul-crushing heights through their unholy marriage of extreme, teeth-gnashing breakdowns, hardcore energy, and technical experimentation. It is perhaps the last artist I mentioned (Arms) to which the singular style of newcomer band Kucoshka comes closest; both share the melodic post-hardcore inclinations and complex, prog-indebted arrangements, but where BLACKOUT was a claustrophobic descent into dense, dark, noisy depths, this new project’s first (though maybe second?) full-length Women and Police Everywhere sprawls itself across a much wider area. The vocal performances are endlessly various, ranging from the Infest-esque tough-guy shouts (which themselves have an amazing versatility, from screaming “I’m a fucking physicist, bitch” on cacophonous opener “Young Turks to adorning the bizarre, swinging pub-punk at the beginning of “Info Wars”) to disarmingly clean, ersatz melodic hardcore breaks to unhinged shrieks. Though the production style isn’t the cleanest, it was a great choice for this album despite its emphasis on technicality, as much of the enjoyment of listening to Women and Police Everywhere is getting hopelessly lost amidst the chaos; and trust me, there’s plenty of it.
So what are the chances that I mention Vessel of Iniquity (the solo moniker of multi-instrumentalist A. White) in a review of similar-spirited music and then the day after discover they’ve released a new album? They seem pretty slim, but who cares—because it happened. Hot on the heels of the Void of Infinite Horror LP released earlier this year on Sentient Ruin (which was a hair’s breadth away from appearing on my midyear top ten list) and the self-released Conjuration of the Fire God last month, Star of the Morning continues with more of the project’s harrowing descents into shadow and caverns of nocturnal terror, auspiciously opening with the ritualistic percussive buildup of “Maledictum” before the blast beats first appear in “Deo Non Estis.” The expectedly formidable, atmospheric maelstrom of guitar and keyboard is less clean this time around, the densely packed layers instead plagued with rot and oppressive lo-fi smog. “Stella Matutinam,” despite it translating to the album’s somewhat optimistic-sounding title “star of the morning,” is definitely one of White’s most disturbing tracks yet, plowing through a shroud of consuming darkness with propulsive, thundering programmed drums whose unpredictable rhythms both temper and contribute to the chaos. The drum machine isn’t anything new for the project, and I usually don’t welcome such a choice of instrumentation in this sort of music, but once again White proves his mettle at making the synthetic rhythm section sound anything but, imbuing the crashing cymbal cacophonies with razor sharp bite and the pummeling double bass stampedes with bone-crushing weight. White’s agonized shrieks are also in top form here, tearing up from the pit of despair and melding with the tumult of pitch-black distortion. With a strong finish in the form of the extended nightmarish havoc of “Descende,” Star of the Morning is yet another excellent release from Vessel of Iniquity.
As an avid consumer of experimental art, I come across a lot of music in the form of abstract sonic amalgamation, much of which is constructed from quite disparate sound objects. That being said, though, few pieces have made me as strangely unsettled as “Wellness Policy,” the sparse introduction to Gentle Illness, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Curtis-Brignell’s newest album as Caïna. There’s nothing particularly immersive or captivating about the track, which is perhaps why it’s so effectively disturbing; in and around the relatively unassuming sounds of what sounds like an old therapy session recording and somber piano lies that loud, grating, completely emotionless cloud of electronic squall, deafening and defiant in its opacity, which makes the sudden excursion into much more conventional black metal once “Your Life Was Probably Pointless” hits even more startling. Between Curtis-Brignell’s furious bouts of shadowed growls, layered guitar lines, and surgical drum machine blasting (the latter of which definitely reminds me of Vessel of Iniquity’s brilliant Void of Infinite Horror from earlier this year) are more in the vein of those elusive atmospherics, but something the entire album is concerned with is the careful construction and release of tension, from the cathartic assault after three minutes of building unease in “Your Life Was Probably Pointless” to the synthetic, rhythmic mood piece of “Canto IV” and fluid dynamic structure of “My Mind Is Completely Disintegrating.” Buried beneath the noise are largely indecipherable lyrics with subject matter “ranging from the UK’s lack of mental health provision to extraterrestrial psychics via demonic possession and the metaphysics of suicide,” but the overall tone of despair, anger, and horror is more than intelligible.