Since the last thing by Brooklyn’s James Emrick I heard was Conject on Prensa Manual, a label notable for its highly conceptual and often austere material, I wasn’t expecting the softness that “MWLHWOF-4” immediately introduces to Actoma, a region of delicate ambience I associate with early aughts electronica like Vert, Pimmon, and Vote Robot. Though Emrick pretty much runs the gamut in terms of computer music techniques throughout the LP’s 36ish-minute run time, that gossamer candy-floss digital beauty is never fully abandoned. “Upqp” and especially “Skor” turn their focus to the plasticine contours of spectral processing, while “Nooumenon,” the record’s longest piece, combines those smooth textural surfaces with the more fractured topology of raw data–driven click and crackle. Some semblance of real-world tactility emerges in the granular mist of “Saxd,” but it doesn’t feel any more grounded (or grounding) than even the most thoroughly manipulated sounds. As is often the case, the album’s own liner notes put it best: “Perhaps Emrick’s greatest accomplishment is creating a music that remains rigorously committed to severe levels of abstraction while avoiding sterility and coldness entirely.” As if to prove this point, Actoma closes on its most left-field track with “Barrel Arbor,” which still manages to bookend extremity with serenity in a way that somehow frames the whole thing as a pensive closer. One for sleepyheads and AMOLEDs alike.
Brief summaries intended to describe and express my enjoyment of albums. My opinions are not the focus: I purely seek to facilitate discovery.
Review: Tenshun – Continuous Probability (self-released, Mar 4)
The history of “pure” turntablism—deploying the sounds of the device itself (motor hum, empty scratches, etc.) in a musical context—is a long and storied one, and is also a great example of a case in which innovation compounds upon innovation. By that I mean that even two-plus decades beyond the ostensible exhaustion of such an approach by legends such as Tétreault, Yoshihide, M (both Erik and Sachiko), Schick, and others, no one could claim that contemporary figureheads like Maria Chavez or Graham Dunning aren’t consistently breaking new ground to this day. Unlike many in the field both past and present, San Diego artist Tenshun (sometimes 10shun, real name Jonathan Calzo) has an extensive hip-hop background, much of his early career consisting of conventional DJ sets and beat tapes released in and around his Kilowattz crew. In recent years he’s become a prolific abstract improviser and experimenter, honing a basic but versatile performance setup of empty table with live modular processing; this assembly is what generated the dizzying assault of alien sound heard on the self-released Continuous Probability. All recorded live without overdubs on the same day, these sixteen tracks might be more like sketches if they weren’t so complex and fleshed-out, but each one is so thrillingly kinetic that any rough edges or lag points are near-impossible to pick out. The individual textures are all appealing in their own right, but Calzo keeps us too busy with the constant stereo shifts, cutups, and jagged layering for any to even come close to getting boring. A turntable is definitely the heart of this music, but then in that case the synth is the brain; this heavy, mincing real-time approach reminds me a bit of Eldar Tagi’s playing on Flock (with Patrick Shiroishi), and it’s something I hope more improvisers take cues from in the future. If your patch cables aren’t melting you’re doing something wrong!
Review: Renee Willoughby – 33 (Irrational Tentent, Feb 10)
Even after only hearing it almost a month out, I knew I needed to review at least one of the tapes in this fivefold batch, because a new Irrational Tentent update, especially the first one in over two years, is always breaking news. The selection, unsurprisingly, is both eclectic and extremely on-brand—reliably rustic electronics from Claire Cirocco’s stalwart Comme à la Radio project, both new and reissued material from Gingko founder Shelley Salant (as Shells and Water Damage, respectively), and a fresh offering from the elusive, previously NNM-reviewed Faded Ghost—but for me the highlight has to be Renee Willoughby’s debut recording 33, a conceptual yet deeply personal exploration of loss, memory, and love, the kind that transcends the bounds of what is “possible.” The Detroit multimedia artist’s ritualistic weave of speech/poetry, voice/song, electronics, samples, and “lo-fi ghost technology” is a presence as simultaneously ephemeral and defined as a paranormal apparition, a thick, vibrant aura of all things past and present, real and not, alive and beyond.
For a piece of music as sublime as this, context isn’t necessarily crucial; however, in this case it’s about as close to crucial as it gets. 33, alt-titled “Her Shape Is Light,” is about the thirty-three-year-old Willoughby’s late mother, who died, also at thirty-three, when Willoughby was three. But words that might come to mind when death and/or mourning is dealt with in such a direct manner—”bleak,” “final,” “gone,” etc.—have no place here, where the curtains covering both sides of the mirror have been drawn. There are no rules, no boundaries in these unforgettable soundscapes, like liminality itself has been smeared back and forth across the threshold, and the result is beauty unparalleled. It isn’t a perfect comparison by any means, but Willoughby’s spellbinding, invocation-like ambience and meaning-rich yet obtuse mantras has shades of Ghost Food’s previously peerless “Ghost’s Come Home” and ROT GM. And at the heart of it all is a daughter saying “I want to talk to you” and “I love you” to one who will always never be there. All is impermanence, and yet we are all alive in the countless moments we breathed, are breathing, or will breathe, each and every one stretching across infinity, across the boundary said to separate “is” from “was,” across the space between a daughter’s arms and a mother’s embrace.
Review: Jackie-O Motherfucker – Manual of the Bayonet (Feeding Tube, Feb 24)
Close to five years ago now, Jackie-O Motherfucker’s most recent studio record Bloom was among the first fifty or so releases I reviewed for this site. Even then the music of PNW legends had been near and dear to me for some time, and now, despite a lack of any more new material, their influence is still felt in both my own life and the music I listen to. The ramshackle improvisational collective had many peaks throughout their tenure, but that of 1999–2002 (more like a plateau, really), which generated the hallowed trifecta of Fig. 5, The Magick Fire Music, and Liberation, is truly one for the books. According to Byron Colley’s liner notes, Manual of the Bayonet “is hopefully just the first volume of archival recordings by this most excellent destructo-unit,” and so, assuming he is more in the know than I, it’s more likely than ever that any gaps in the JOMF oeuvre will be filled in, and richly so.
Interestingly enough, this LP from Feeding Tube not only offers fresh, unheard helpings of the hypnotic drone-folk jams that cemented them as New Weird America legends, but also looks ahead to styles that would be later explored in offshoot projects like Black Magic Disco and Evolutionary Jass Band. It would be hard to overstate the importance of John Flaming’s alto sax playing to the group’s sound at the time (I’m 90% sure it’s him playing it on “Amazing Grace”), and it’s present in spades here. Side B alone is “She Cuts Heart Shapes” is a real burner and an easy new favorite, evoking the irresistible dynamic build of “Black Squirrels” as it surges toward a majestic conclusion, and “Red Slipper Ritual,” well… if you’re already a fan, let’s just say it’ll make you feel extremely validated for that choice. Stuffed with both the catchall eclecticism of a faithful retrospective exhumation and the unified momentum of an album, Manual of the Bayonet is not to be missed.
Review: Hardworking Families – Eight Knots Bathing (Chocolate Monk, Feb 12)
If they maintain the schedule that’s been steadily expanding since the turn of the century, the Monk will reach choc.600 by the end of 2023, and be well on the way to 1000 at the decade’s close. The beloved label’s endlessly circulating potpourri of new music is always more buffet than multi-course sitdown, offering up oodles of options for those whose honkers are drawn to the smell of must and spittle (but of course no champion chomper will be left unsatisfied should they devour it all). Some artists’ work is on the whole more at home here—Cody Brant, Bob Desaulniers, and Shareholder are some personal favorites of the usual suspects—but with a CM rag any and all roads seem to lead to the same nexus of oddness. Eight Knots Bathing is Hardworking Families’ first tack on the Chocolate board and also a fresh next step, migrating from the humming micro-electronics of the past few releases to an anything-goes collage approach that revives the raucousness of stuff like BA / LS / BN. It’s more lackadaisical than that one, though, lethargic almost, as stumbling and sluggish as it is spry and spacious. Opening cut “Last Day” is the longest of the titular eight knots and also perhaps the most memorable, dual-functioning as a sampler for the countless textures and locales we’ll visit in the ensuing seven. While loose, the sound-stitching isn’t particularly careless or overtly surreal, nor are any of the recordings themselves processed beyond recognition, and yet there is a sort of dream-logic that prevails over the proceedings, a frail fugue that ends in beautiful, warm quietude with “Firle Harmonics.” Many thanks to Constance/Nyoukis and their confessed “pestering” that made this disc happen—it was worth it.
Review: Matthias Urban – Intermission (Ultraviolet Light, Jan 30)
With still-memorable past releases such as SiAl and Half-Silvered Mirror, Austria’s Matthias Urban has established himself as a maestro of immersive, meticulously detailed sound of all sorts, from the more direct phonographic approach of the former to the lush concrète assemblage of the latter. The artist’s most recent tape was just released at the end of last month by Ultraviolet Light, and though the new material unsurprisingly clears the high bars set by its predecessors, it is also very fittingly UVL (i.e., ambitious, posthuman, utterly unlike anything you’ve heard before). With a straightforward enough mission statement—“Collages of algorithmic compositions, saxophone / voice / prepared piano improvisations and AI human-machine interactions. Realized and processed with MaxMSP, various other DSP, ASC tape recorders and chemical tape treatment”—Intermission is indeed once again concerned with space and scale, an almost gleeful dismantling of the boundaries between the smallness of individual objects/instruments and the staggering size of the dissonant Katamaris they’re rolled into. Even when the more conventional harmonics of the sax and key fragments come into focus, Urban’s ear is always for the tactile, sending percussive textures askitter whether he’s performing or processing.
Review: Witches Bitches – Witches Bitches (self-released, Feb 2)
Witches Bitches. Witches Bitches Witches Bitches. Witches Bitches Witches Bitches Witches Bitches Witches Bitches Witches Bitches Witches Bitches Witches Bitches Witches Bitches Witches Bitches Witches Bitches. WITCHES B
Had to get that out of my system first. But there is something thematically relevant about a phrase or sound invoked ad nauseam to the point that its once-intact meaning starts to slough away. The anonymous Polish newcomers’ approach isn’t strictly repetitive or nonconversational a la early AMM, though they do generate austere rackets as intense and insurmountable as the Gare-heavy bonus tracks on the 1966 CD release; nor do they seem to concern themselves with conventional improvisation tropes, rejecting tried and true structural stencils for obtuse, uncooperative cacophony. In this debut set the unknown number of participants (sax? electric guitar? ritual sacrifice???) seem to at once extricate and embrace beauty in their individual contributions, in all appearances actively trying not to build toward anything yet also not shying away if it happens on its own. Ravaged by constant artifacting and distortion, the lo-bit recording is unruly in a truly essential way, filled with countless contradictions of which I’ve only acknowledged a few. This is the music we were always warned about.
Review: Chad M. Clark – Vast Mass (Distant Taxa, Feb 3)
Vast Mass, perhaps even more so than its equally catchily named and colorfully covered predecessor Cashmere Spheres, is consistent with a wider trend in post-Bailey “total guitar” improvisation of engaging not only with the full extent of the instrument’s physical soundmaking potential, but also with external sounds and textures that align with the central action—Ash Cooke/Chow Mwng dubbed his own particular approach “Gwrth-gitâr,” drawing in chunks of inspiration and serendipity from outdoor environments and nonmusical objects. Chicago’s Chad M. Clark shapes even more complexity through the use of multitracking, overlaying, and collaging, stuffing each track full of countless layers that nonetheless seem to have sprung from the same place. Even when brief flurries of sax skronk or frantic arco surface in the stew, even when the spiderleg bridge taps and rattling plectrum scrapes feel so alien they couldn’t possibly have been produced with a guitar, every audible sound embodies and emphasizes the central, irresistible tension that keeps ear after ear returning to records like Aida more than forty years later (and who knows, probably this one forty years on): the strain and wrack of strings stretched taut, the aching gasp of a half-formed harmonic, the creaking breath of the wood itself.
Review: Vid Edda – T.O. (Sensorisk Verden, Jan 27)
Vid Edda’s tenure has largely unfolded alongside the operation of small-batch specialty imprint Sensorisk Verden, run by Alexander Holm, one half of the Copenhagen duo with Chris Shields (Ro). Fittingly, the restrained eclecticism of their approach to electroacoustic music is almost a comprehensive synthesis of everything SV is concerned with, represented more specifically by other artists and projects: vocal abstraction and text-sound (Claus Haxholm/Soft Items), acoustic drone (Tabloid), spectral soundscaping (Vincent Yuen Ruiz), etc. It’s been more than four years since the sleeper hit Geneves Mi Sansi on Anathema Archive, and T.O. is accordingly novel and fresh-sounding, without the sketchbook scatter of its predecessor; the immersive texture collages, still always toeing the line between analog and digital concrète, reveal a new interest in sound design and spatiality, to the point where I could see many of these pieces (especially “Skygge Flakser”) being just as mesmerizing as multichannel acousmatic installations as they are through regular speakers or headphones. I suppose that’s always sort of been the appeal of Vid Edda, the unique double dose of warm-blooded human input and austere computer-based processing, but T.O. climbs to new levels of singularity. What is voice, and what is just sound? Is that even a meaningful distinction to make?
Review: Greymouth – Can Run (Cost of Living, Jan 27)
The spirit of Quemada Records lives on in Japan-based duo Greymouth and their consistently inventive output of squirrely anti-rock and tape-tracked outsider dross since 2015’s self-titled debut LP. That being said, Can Run might be their least rockin’ material yet, and certainly features the most uninterrupted improvisational stretches they’ve released. With the stuffy backroom tabletop feel and the use of both conventional instruments and objects/electronics, much of this tape feels more like a toy-chest Teletopa than the previous echoings of Armpit or Witcyst, and that, unsurprisingly, is A-OK with me. The majority of the two twentyish-minute sides, though not exactly filled with high-fidelity stereo width, plays as if one were sitting in the center of a shed while Anderson and Sadgrove make their slow, deliberate rounds along the rows of plastic synths and tape machines and tchotchkes, setting a loop to unspool here, fiddling with a dial there. It all seems to lead somewhere and nowhere at once, an aspect that is perhaps clearest on the B side, which sounds like a whole lot of (albeit beautiful) water-treading, until guest vocalist Motoko Kikkawa—who has previously recorded with excellent but unsung collaborators (and house favorites) Lee Noyes and Radio Cegeste—enters the fold and you realize how much everything has progressed. Yes, this is probably the project’s most abstract work, but no matter how many remnants of recognizable “music” are or aren’t present, Greymouth always fully draw me into their ramshackle little world.