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!
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.
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.
The second of two freshly released collaborations between the hermetic Brandstifter and Steep Gloss operator/poet/tape-mangler Ross Scott-Buccleuch (a.k.a. Diurnal Burdens), Miraculous Seepage is a sickly product of a sickly time, the dark, murky currents of uncertainty and unease that lurk and drip between the sparse, loosely-strung chain of bright spots we’ve taught ourselves to call life. The stuffy queasiness of “The Crazy Sandman’s COVID Coughdrops Swallowed by a Flock of Seagulls” sets the stage for some good ol’ auditory théâtre de l’absurde, its sweaty, humid lethargy surprisingly inviting despite the unavoidable association with
that awful pre-sickness twinge. “S. Scheint in Solcher Zeit” is indeed a series of “spliced scenes on a carousel looping,” and one of only a select few of the pieces with a grounding element in the form of graspable tape cycles; the versatile medium is almost certainly used on every track, but lost in the insubstantial, steaming wisps of “Sigue Sigue Sea Lions Rolling Iced Dices in Polar Nights” or stifled sewer-drain stumble of “Frozen Digeridoo Talking about Foot Fetish by Church Bells” it’s not hard to lose one’s footing, and after that there’s no floor—let alone a rotating carousel—on which to regain it. At first, it really seems as though there isn’t much here, so one must look closely to see the gold.
“My father in a broth-stained undershirt
as he laughs weary in our weak-light kitchen
sounds like a mouse running—raspy chuckle,
fear scurry, grain of rice seized and bitten.
How small one life is, and how tightly
we hold on to it. But cancer (for example)
can grab life back, knot up a tumor fist
unremovable. What then must a person do?
Live smaller and smaller. Wash a bowl
as my father does, with a motion as of
panning for gold, glint in his mouth
as he peers down—not smiling, not grimacing—
into the water, dimmer and dimmer, knives at the bottom.”
—Roger Fanning, “Glint of Gold Tooth in a Poorly Lit Kitchen”
Prior to 2021, Italian soundmaker and curator Ezio Piermattei was just on the cusp of becoming one of my favorite artists, but with only a handful of releases since 2015 it wasn’t a classification I could yet bestow with confidence, even though short sputtering curios like Turismo dentale and Holo Orbita were already some of the best “music” I’d ever heard. His newest work, however, is nothing if not a tipping point that cements Piermattei’s recent creative direction, and his recording career in general, as something truly great. Continuing in the vein of the clearly recorded conversations, mundanities, and abstract narratives rolled into enigmatic bricolage that was first explored on Tre madri ludopatiche and honed to a sublime focus with Gran trotto, From Afar It Looks Like an Oriflamme is something more still: a liminal odyssey along the tightrope strung between unexpectedly ambiguous designations of “inside” and “outside”; a finely crafted barrage of muck, mystery, memory; the sonic equivalent of a haggard travel journal stuffed full of musings and drawings and findings, ephemeral in their inconsequence yet ineffable in their tangibility. Piermattei’s own words and voice (I think) are a somewhat significant presence, emerging between episodes of shake, rattle, and stroll to clumsily inject elements both sentimental and surreal: “in my… sometimes like that… purse in my… brain…. And, uh… and sometimes they remind me of my youth…. She used to slap… me… too much. I do not like to be slapped. That’s why… I like… it raw. I like it raw. (Don’t laugh at me).” Oriflamme is a near-flawless distillation of the artist’s ability to tell an enthralling story without really telling any story at all.
Every time Maninkari releases a new album, it’s as if we’re simply receiving a new audio transmission from whatever dark, fantastical realm the French duo inhabits, the hard-won results of countless battles fought against shadowy creatures and impossible perils. Le diable avec ses chevaux, their ambitious double-CD debut, was the catalyst that magicked this vivid world into existence, and it’s still the most sweeping and detailed exploration of it, but since then members Frédéric and Olivier Charlot have approached their ritualistic broadcasts using novel perspectives and limitations that shed new light on the murk. Fahon is as hypnotically nocturnal and psychedelic as any Maninkari release, but much of it is specifically owed to the deliberate minimalism of the instrumental palette, which consists only of viola and various frame drums. While the latter is commonly associated with impressive technical skill, there’s a strange and reductive yet nonetheless pervasive belief that “anyone can play a drum.” Here, however, Olivier Charlot’s virtuosic technique demonstrates that there’s a clear difference between “playing” and “playing well”; it is often Frédéric’s reverb-soaked chord drones and haunting legato that are closer to a traditional backing or rhythmic role than the ceaselessly developing pulses and pounds. On Fahon, deceptive simplicity belies deceptive complexity.
Ambient music—the kind I enjoy, at least—often augments harmonic and/or melodic elements with complimentary externalities, most often field or domestic recordings, that lend an additional layer of intrigue for whatever notes, textures, or mixture of both is occurring. Fascinatingly, Meditations on Concrete Jazz is the exact opposite: a docile outdoor environment is the primary feature of this hour-long, two-part suite, and it is the intrusions by the performer, both conventional and abstract, that act as complements. Even more interesting is the strange panning that occurs “at random,” bizarrely inserted by intermittent malfunctions of the cheap mono-only Radio Shack tape recorder being used. Though the A side immediately lulls and beckons with organic serenity that has just the right amount of less cozy, but no less appealing qualities (pointed stagnancy, ambiguity, evasiveness), it isn’t until around six minutes in that the beauty this modest setup has the potential to create truly takes off in the form of scuzzy, no-fi synth wash—somewhere between a peephole to heaven and a soft amber light at the end of an old soot-choked city street—anchoring the center channel while the familiar sound of distant birdsong flits in the far left. This moment is a perfect example of the aforementioned sonic role reversal; it’s less that the synth is the true focus and more like it’s graciously given the stage for a few moments with nature, the actual backbone, watching fondly. It’s rivaled on the less musical side, however, by a transcendent trio of tape hiss, trains, and tapped metal on side B, one of many blurred-edge episodes that make this tape’s sixty-two minutes feel like half that at most. It’s finally been warm enough lately for me to spend extended periods of time outside, so I couldn’t have discovered Meditations on Concrete Jazz at a better time.
IT IT’s masterpiece of a self-titled EP is one of the newest entries in the short list of releases I’d describe as perfect, edged out of the top spot only by Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman, which came out just a few months later. The pioneering Pittsburgh band has most recently manifested in the form of semi-related project sneeze awfull, whose debut cassette charts a slightly different, more pop-focused approach to the unique combination of conventional songwriting and sample collage, but they’re back to their art-rock roots with Two Squirrels Fighting Each Other at the End of the World, their first full-length since 2017’s superb Formal Odors. The mouthful of a phrase also provides the incessant refrain of the title track, which upon first listening I found too repetitive, but like all of IT IT’s material has grown on me immensely. While that piece is the most conspicuous example, Two Squirrels as a whole seems to mold itself in the image of newer experiments like the aforementioned sneeze awfull and a “live score” to the Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll”, leaning further into the playful volatility that a “plunderphonics”-esque sensibility often entails without abandoning the crucial moments of straightforward beauty that have seared the band into my brain and heart permanently. “Do Evaporate” distills that duality into a single song, beginning with choppy vocal hodgepodge like a dinky mellotron and concluding with one of IT IT’s most sublime full-band cohesions. “Whole Folder” provides some much-needed grit with angular guitar stabs over a hypnotic motorik beat; “Age of Aquarius” features mesmerizingly intricate bass and drum interplay and captivating sample choices; and “Dulce Dulce” brings things to a close with a delightfully quirky education-audio accompaniment that for me bears fond resemblance to OMD’s work on Dazzle Ships. At first modest and unassuming due to its easy fluidity, the complexity of IT IT’s music sneaks up on you, gradually rewiring your neurons until one day you finally realize there’s nothing else in the world that compares.
“The leaves of the trees continued to turn in the wind. The rivers continued to flow. Insects hummed in the grass as always. Crows cawed. The sky did not fall. No President changed his mind. Mitsuko’s favorite black hen clucked once and laid a warm brown egg. A green plum fell early from a tree. Our dogs ran after us with balls in their mouths, eager for one last toss, and for once, we had to turn them away. Go home. Neighbors peered out at us through their windows. Cars honked. Strangers stared. A boy on a bicycle waved. A startled cat dove under a bed in one of our houses as looters began to break down the front door. Curtains ripped. Glass shattered. Wedding dishes smashed to the floor. And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone.” —Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
Of the many entries in the astronomically long list of wrongs and oppression that the racist institution of the United States has wrought against particular ethnocultural groups, few are more starkly visible now than the mistreatment of Asian-Americans (my heart also goes out to the Native, Black, and other marginalized communities who are disproportionately suffering the effects of the pandemic). Accomplished improvisors Dylan Fujioka and Patrick Shiroishi, who previously collaborated on last year’s Neba Neba, directly engage with our country’s hideous abuse of people of Asian descent on のの (No-No) in a context both current and historical. Pictured on the cover of the release are Fujioka’s grandparents and other family members, a haunting choice given the unavoidable association of the early 40s with Executive Order 9066, known more commonly as the mass internment of Japanese-Americans in reaction to the Pearl Harbor attack. This poignant meeting of the two musicians draws attention to the clear parallel between that unspeakable systematic abuse and the hate crimes that are being perpetrated against Asian citizens today—both phenomena illustrate the reality that racism has not at all been eradicated, and that all it takes for it to rear its ugly head yet again is some tenuous connection between a certain group and a national threat, most often spurred on by chauvinistic presidential rhetoric. The skittering exchanges of elegiac saxophone runs, softly struck mallet percussion, and barely audible whispers hiss through broken air much like the constant gusts of sand through the “cracks in the walls” in the concentration camp living quarters (Fujioka’s family was held at Tule Lake), threading impossibly fragile strands of sound and memory through space and time. With such conceptually rich releases I usually make some statement about how the music could stand alone, but in my mind that wasn’t even a passing thought in this case; these disarmingly delicate improvisations are thoroughly steeped in the hardships and emotions that gave rise to them, preventing any listener from turning away from the issue at hand (which mainstream news sources seem to have no problem doing).
All proceeds from album sales will be donated to Asian Americans Advancing Justice. There’s another Bandcamp-fee-waiving day coming up on March 5; please consider supporting not only excellent art, but justice for those who deserve it.
The newest installment in a recent string of excellent releases from mysterious Chicago imprint/collective Neutral Archive, “The Coward” is one of the finer and more engrossing examples of auditory bricolage I have encountered in a long time. I haven’t heard any other material from Joe Cavaliere’s Springboard project, but it’s difficult to imagine anything topping this half-hour opus of “tapes, screams, folly, kit, [and] loops” mashed into an engrossing pulpy paste. Stumbling through variegated vignettes with the grace and poise of a six-legged elephant on roller skates, Cavaliere’s imperfect assemblages proudly display their sloppily stitched seams and jagged overlaps like a child showing off a particularly gruesome injury to their wide-eyed friends, and I find myself paying as much attention to the flaccid superfluity of the sounds as I do to the sounds themselves. The A side could be described as a hazier, drugged-out heir to the vicious volatility of Chlorgeschlecht’s Unyoga, throwing everything from shrill, maniacal human delirium (shrieks, moans, chatter) to what resembles a violent mass extinction event occurring solely within the walls of a sweaty arcade into the thrift-store-bought plastic mixing bowl that is almost certainly not rated for this high of a temperature. “The Coward” intermittently evokes the oxymoronic sensations of time standing still and moving impossibly fast, especially over the course of the subsequent side, which lumbers along with fat flailing limbs of cheap electronics and junk-drum spasms, sort of like if you loaded recordings of every subpar noise set you’ve ever witnessed into a poorly programmed generative AI interface and then shamelessly plagiarized the output—and yes, that is praise; if you don’t believe me, just listen. I cannot seem to get enough of this release, whose intentional obscurities and bullheadedness make it all the more accessible and intelligent.