Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ducktails s/t 7'', Breaking World Records, September 2008

This month, Breaking World Records releases a limited edition 7 inch by Ducktails, a.k.a. Brooklyn-based musician Matt Mondanile, marking the onset of fall with a prayer for eternal summer. Though he proudly identifies suburban New Jersey as his heart’s true home, Mondanile’s sound is equally the product of four years on the Western Massachussetts noise scene, a prolonged stay in an immigrant neighborhood in Berlin and a thriving re-issue culture that brings psychedelic and world music gems back from the dead.

‘Beach Point Pleasant,” the album’s first track and centerpiece, is built on a 2-second instrumental loop from Gétatchèwe Kassa’s “Tezeta Slow,” featured on Buda Musique’s celebrated Ethiopiques series. “Tezeta,” Matt Mondanile explains, “means memory or nostalgia, and the song is kind of an ode to past beach times.” Repeated ad infinitum, the passage abstracts into a kind of indeterminate, “oriental” refrain, like the generic soundtrack of a Mondo Cane-style travel log. As yellowed, Technicolor images of virgin beaches, unfurling palm fronds and coconut milk straight out of the nut begin to take shape in our mind, we are lulled deeper into our post-colonial fantasy with the introduction of new voices. A meandering pentatonic guitar line bubbles leisurely upwards to the surface of the mix like a 1960’s Cambodian pop recording passed through an underwater chamber—wah wah in the fullest sense of the term. Meanwhile, ambient casiotones layer gently into the space between loop and guitar melody like small gusts of ocean wind. The word horizontal is key here; for all his vertical layering of sounds, Ducktails’ ode to lost time is closer to a plateau of sun-dappled bliss than an emotional riptide.

The rest of the songs on the recording possess a similar horizontal quality, each with its own, unique feeling-plateau. "Pizza time," a short track following “Beach Point Pleasant,” offers us a glimpse of the beach by night, marking a moonlit ceremony in which locals armed with traditional instruments, flaming torches and portable boom boxes descend upon the shore to dance and make merry. Each of Ducktails’ songs builds upon a single repetitive, root motif; here, he forfeits the archival sample for a cheezy up-tempo Casio beat, elaborating the “world kitsch” aspect of his sound through his twangy manipulation of guitar and bass.

On side two, Ducktails switches gears yet again with an evolving series of asymmetrical bongo phrases, artificial in source (drum machine) but human in their imperfection. If “Beach Point Pleasant” marks a nostalgic moment in the album’s evolution, and the second track, a celebratory one, “Gems 1 and 2” would seem to constitute their meditative conclusion. Soaring, synthetic drones stretch out across an early morning sky as Chinese flute melodies (perhaps sample, perhaps not) float in and out of earshot. Over time, the bongos become increasingly insistent, increasingly anarchic, as though their player, electronically mediated as he is, were imploring the sun to peak its head above the ocean horizon.

While it has absolutely no pretensions to being “intellectual”, Ducktails’ project rides a fine and nuanced line between East and West, the analog and the electronic, the manual and the pre-fab. Though it lends itself to repeated home listenings, it is probably best enjoyed in the way Ducktails himself likes to enjoy his favorite records: on the road, in his parent’s car, driving through the suburbs with the windows down.

Ducktails, s/t 7", Breaking World Records, 2008. Limited edition of 300. Handmade cover art.

Words: Emilie Friedlander

More Info:
Ducktails website
Ducktails Myspace
Breaking World Records Website

More Tunes:
Ducktails II, coming out soon on Tape Tektoniks, 2008

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Jackie-O Motherfucker + Sunburned Hand of the Man at the Soy Festival (Nantes): The New Ecstatic America

For the third installment of this year’s Soy Festival, the Nantes-based Yamoy association brings us two groups recently signed to Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace. New acquisitions, but by no means wet behind the ears. Dating back to the mid-90s, Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie-O Motherfucker are the pioneers of a New Weird America that takes pleasure in denaturing the codes of traditional American music.

“Welcome to the New Weird America,”
wrote The Wire in July 2003, extending a hearty salutation to free-folk collective Sunburned Hand of the Man. The expression was a reference to the “Old Weird America,” a term coined by critic Greil Marcus to describe the Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), famed for catalyzing a folk revival upon its release and inspiring, among others, the young Bob Dylan. New weird America… a term that speaks as much to Sunburned’s traditional roots as to its penchant for the outré.

The collective’s continually evolving cast of characters—tonight, John Moloney on drums, Rob Thomas, Paul La Brecque and Ron Schneiderman on guitar, and Sarah O’Shea on vocals—hail as much from the universe of visual art and performance as that of music, and it shows. Sunburned’s live set resembles a pagan rite in which bearded men sporting deer heads and fringed leather vests parade through the audience flailing long, tortured tree-branches crowned with latex animal heads.

The music, at first, is little more than a diegetic byproduct of the ritual unraveling before us. We catch the sound of a few metallic objects clanging into one another, a few hesitant guitar notes, a swelling voice. Little by little, the musicians abandon their totems and hone in on their playing. The music allows itself to be more present, more structured. More violent as well. Dark, throbbing guitar riffs, indefinitely repeated, adhere into an atmosphere at once bewitching and suffocating.

Next up, Jackie-O Motherfucker, an experimental folk collective formed in Portland in 1994 by Tom Greenwood and Nester Bucket. Protean by nature, the collective began as a guitar and saxophone duo, accompanying itself with home-made sound collages, rock mash-ups and hip-hop beats. JOMF's lineup for its European tour is a classic one: a drum kit, two singers and three guitars wired to multiple effect boxes. Three guys and one gal, one of them proudly sporting an Ecstatic Peace! T-shirt.

JOMF's set is a long voyage through a universe of meandering and occasionally disturbing folk. As their melody and vocal lines and the initial simplicity of their chord progressions will attest, the group’s sound anchors itself resolutely in the heritage of traditional American music. But JOMF takes on this legacy in order to pervert it, channeling it into experimentations that border on the psychedelic. Traditional song structure is rejected. We catch a verse here and there, but never a refrain. As soon as we sense a formal structure taking shape, the members of JOMF take delight in losing us again with their improbable solos, which evolve over time into mantras. JOMF would seem to do everything possible to hypnotize the listener: heady riffs utilizing a limited pitch range, the intricate interplay of three guitars going in and out of synch at will, their play with protracted duration.

JOMF’s drummer only rarely offers up a rousing beat, contenting himself with punctuating the sound of the guitars, one of which has been tuned down to a bass. Sometimes, within the transparent swatches of sound issuing from the four instruments – voices arise. Sometimes a male voice, at others a woman's. Voices that groan in complaint more than affirm anything, that implore rather than preach. Breathy voices which rapidly melt into the general waveform of sound, waxing and waning in volume, taking the listener on a journey to the farthest, uncharted depths of this new, strange America.

Our only regret is that the John Calian violin present on numerous JOMF recordings could not join the three guitars that evening.

Words: Sophie Pécaud (2007)
Translation: Emilie Friedlander
Photo: Renaud Certin

Concert: October 29 2007, Nantes.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

French Frenzy

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Phill Niblock: At the Heart of the Sound Wave: Interview, Paris, March 29th, 2008

Composer Phill Niblock, key player in the New York minimalist scene, isn’t finished making his heady drones ring out all over the planet. On the road eight months out of the year, this composer and filmmaker will set down his suitcases next Thursday in Nantes for a landmark performance at the Musée des Beaux-Arts.

In the music world, Phill Niblock is somewhat of a renegade. Unlike his classically-trained mentors, the four founding fathers of the minimalist school (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass), Niblock admits to never having felt much of an interest in the whole conservatory tradition. Indeed, it was photography, "something very natural for me," which provided the platform for his first creative peregrinations.

In the mid 1960s, Niblock met choreographer and experimental filmmaker Elaine Summers, who introduced him to video. Their collaboration culminated in 1968 with the creation of the Experimental Media Foundation, "an artist-run organization, […] run for artists," dedicated to promoting "Intermedia" productions--"Film, slides, dance, music, combined, as a performance event." Based out of Niblock’s loft in SoHo, the foundation quickly became one of the nervous centers of the New York art and performance scene. Nearly a thousand concerts have been produced there since its creation.

The concept of "intermedia" art" –distinguished by its proponents from the more commercial "multimedia"—is fundamental in Phill Niblock’s oeuvre. His protracted continuous shots of artisans working were never intended as films "per se," but as part of an ensemble of elements comprising an intermedia performance. "They are extremely real images. But they never have the structure of documentary films. […] Documentary people always hate […] my films. And experimental people hate the films because they are so totally photographic."

Niblock’s relative lack of success as a filmmaker prompted him to hone in on his music. Unlike most of the other composers of his generation, he accepts the label of "minimalist" because he feels it adequately describes the paring down of content and form so central to his work. "The core of what I do is to strip out various aspects of the structure of the medium that I’m working in. So with the music, for instance, there’s no rhythm, there’s not melody and there’s no typical harmonic progression. And the work is very much about non-development, in the musical sense. The same thing is true of the films. Most of the vocabulary of the film is simply not there. Not narrative, no montage. I think there’s two shots that are out of chronological order in the entire 40 hours of film." In the mid 1970s, Village Voice critic Tom Johnson summed up this process with a memorable: "No melody, no harmony, no rhythm. No bullshit."

The music of Phill Niblock is far removed from the repetitive, psychedelia-tinged minimalism of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. It is closer to the radical minimalism of La Monte Young, which hinges upon duration. The majority of his pieces consist in an ensemble of drones—buzzing held notes which expand out infinitely, evolving almost imperceptibly and emitting a host of sparkling harmonics. For the composer, "the idea is to make this sort floating environment" for the spectator to get lost in, gradually losing contact with reality, and, especially, with time. "If somebody, after an hour’s performance, thinks it was only ten minutes long, that’s perfect. And that happens. People don’t have any sense of how long the thing was."

Niblock’s composition process is very manual, very artisanal—a perfect metaphor for the images that appear in his films. Recordings—once analogue, today digital—serve as his base material. Every one of his pieces consists of an ensemble of drones produced by instruments—always analogue!—that are particularly rich in timbre: electric guitar (Guitar Too, for Four), hurdy-gurdy (Hurdy Hurry), nasal voices (A Y U). The composer combines these recordings, gently modifies their frequencies and allows them to interact. Phill Niblock is passionate about microtonal intervals and the surprising acoustical phenomena that take place when they are allowed to intermingle. At the heart of his music lies a certain indeterminacy—one which distinguishes it from the work of La Monte Young. Often, Phil Niblock allows himself to be surprised by his pieces: "I can predict, but I can’t exactly predict. So that some pieces will be somewhat different than I expect them to be."

Phill Niblock’s pieces are incredibly plastic. If one asks him whether he conceives his pieces in relation to the spaces where they will eventually be performed, he turns the question on its head: "It’s more the other way around, that the music changes incredibly, drastically, depending on the space it’s played in. And, obviously, the sound system. Typically, spaces which are really fantastic would be, like a cathedral, or a large church, which is very open, where there’s a lot of reflection off of surfaces." A spatial dimension accentuated by the composer’s desire to "get people to wander around," to experience the plasticity of the sound material for themselves—a kind of dare, Phill Niblock admits. "Nobody wants to wander around. They get the idea that they should sit there very quietly."

The music of Phill Niblock can appear inaccessible, too intellectual, too elitist. In reality, it is extremely sensual—carnal, almost—accessible to all who are willing to dive in, close their eyes and allow themselves to be carried off by the vibrations. The composer insists that his music (which, in live performance, usually combines recordings and live musicians) be played EXTREMELY loud, so that it fills the room, envelops the spectator and maximizes its harmonic potentialities. Far from assuming a passive role during a Niblock performance, the spectator takes the reigns by carving out his or her own unique path through this extreme acoustic environment. "I’m interested in making a sound world and a visual world which is very much open to different interpretation and different perception. So, if an audience comes and everyone has a different perception of what happened to them, then it’s perfect for me." The very simplicity of the drones, their very "minimalism," opens up a vista for the imagination to roam in, a liberty without equivalent. With no melody, no harmony, no rhythm to guide it, consciousness becomes free in its associations.

The work of Phill Niblock is an experience to live through. Only a professional speaker system and live musicians can do it justice. Next Thursday, April 3rd at the Nantes Musée de Beaux-Arts, you will get a chance. Don’t miss it.

Words: Sophie Pecaud and Emilie Friedlander, 2008.

Performance co-sponsored by Cable# and Apo 33.

French version available on, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link to original article here.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Grey Skull at Instants Chavirés (Paris): The Sound of Things Falling Apart

On Friday, April 4th, the Western Massachusetts noise trio Grey Skull drive 7 hours from Amsterdam to Paris for a set that would clock in at just under 13 minutes. A bit brief, yes. But quite a feat for a group who use up so much energy live that they can only promise to "play until [they] can't anymore."

Instants Chavirés, Paris, February 4th. Something is not right when George Myers, Dan Cashman and Jeff Hartford of Grey Skull (Breaking World Records) take the stage last Friday at the Instants Chavirés. For one, their instruments aren't tuned—not, at least, in any way that might be expected to produce something deserving of the title of rock and roll. Second, some of the strings on Cashman's guitar and Myers' bass are broken—undoubtedly the fallout from the group's last thrash session in Holland, but a bit unsettling to see at the beginning of a show. Third, and perhaps most disturbingly, Hartford's high-hat looks like it has been run over by a car. Or at least bashed in so many times with a baseball bat that it looks more like a leaf of wilted spinach than an object designed for making sounds.

As the first thick drones ring out from Myers' bass, we witness something that seems more like a pantomime of a concert than a concert itself. Not just any concert, but the sludgiest, beefiest, most ridiculously heavy metal concert imaginable. Myers and Cashman slam their instruments up and down as though in the throes of the most virtuostic of Sabbathian guitar solos—only there are no golden riffs to be heard. Hartford emits a few lusty grunts then enters into his signature full-body head-bang, his long brown hair whipping up and down fast enough to knock out a small child. And yet there is no beat for him, the drummer, to rock out to. Yes, something is definitely wrong with this picture.

The antics that follow on stage constitute less a musical performance per se than a physical performance whose byproduct is sound. Myers fiddles with the tangle of mixers and pedals hooked up to his bass like an evil scientist executing the final operations on a machine designed to destroy the world—to random, and sometimes ear-splitting, acoustical results. Cashman, playing a kind of attention-deprived teenage caveman with a guitar, serenades the audience with his usual wordless blubbering, interrupted by the occasional defamatory punch: "Fuck You!" Before long, Jeff Hartford, a kind of hard rock Barney Flintstone who has lost his sense of humor, breaks up the dissonant wall of sound with his distinctive symmetrical pounding. As the sounds coming of Cashman's guitar and Myers' bass threaten to swerve out of control, Hartford's thrashing provides some order to the madness. All things considered it is only element of Greyskull's music that comes anywhere close to a melody.

There is something strikingly Paleolithic about Greyskull's music, something pre-verbal, pre-musical, almost. A group of three cavemen friends receive a gift of a guitar, a bass and a drum set, along with a letter describing what rock music is and what a rock concert generally consists of. Suspecting that this might be a way to sway the gods in their favor, they attempt to recreate "rock and roll" without ever having experienced it for themselves. Except that they never made it through to the end of the letter, where the writer describes the basic tenants of melody and rhythm. Nor to the stipulation in bold explaining that even though this thing called rock and roll might make them feel very excited—uncontrollably so, even—and that while they might be tempted to throw some punches over the course of the performance, they should probably refrain from throwing their equipment. But don’t tell that to Myers, who tosses his bass guitar off the stage towards the end of the set and breaks it in half. He would probably just shrug you off with a grunt, crank up the gain and hurl his amplifier on top.

Grand finale à la Grey Skull: Dan Cashman hurls himself off the stage, detonating an explosion of animal howling in the audience before climbing back up and collapsing in exhaustion. As the final feedback fades out, a voice from the rear of the bar pipes up: "Enough of this crap. Why not a little Beatles for a change?" A blaspheme to match Greyskull's 13 minute blaspheme, but also kind of the group's point all along. You will not hear anything like the Beatles at a Greyskull show, but you will certainly get an idea of what they might of sounded like if the group had been founded at Stonehenge in 2200 bc. Oogachaka.

Words: Emilie Friedlander, 2008

French version available on, a Nantes-based online cultural magazine. Link to original article here.

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Tom Carter + GHQ at the Grimault (Nantes): And each one of them was several...

Just when our ears had stopped ringing from the thunderous performances of Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie O’Motherfucker at Yamoy’s Soy Festival last fall, the ecstatic sound of the American psychedelic Underground returned to the Nantes last Friday with Tom Carter and GHQ –this time, however, in one of its gentler incarnations.

Friday March 21st, Nantes. The Grimault, a cramped, dim, saloon-style bar tucked away along the Eastern bank of the Erdre, was packed by 8pm. Tom Carter (Austin, Texas) and two of the members of the New York trio GHQ (Marcia Basset and Steve Gunn) sat down to dinner at around 9 and picked leisurely at their salads as they conversed over the din of an increasingly impatient crowd. The two-hour delay between the announced time of the concert and Carter’s arrival on stage set the tone for the evening – Carter and GHQ offer us a music that is patient, unhurried, a sonic exaltation accessible only those who know how to sit down, tune in, and drop out (of waking reality) for an hour or two.

Hypnotic, yes. But repetitive, static, minimal, no. The poster for the soirée, which was coordinated by Yamoy, perhaps sells Tom Carter (Kranky) a bit short with its label of "psychedelic drone". Far from creating a music based on the repetition of static notes (drone, in the traditional sense), this Texan guitar wizard brocades a rich tapestry of extraterrestrial sounds and fleeting melodic inflections. His improvisation-based compositional process hinges on the vertical layering of sounds through looping, reverb and delay–a process no doubt facilitated by the bird’s nest of pedals, mixers and loop-stations at his feet.

At the heart of Tom Carter’s music lies a fascination with the acoustical possibilities of the guitar—not as a single instrument, a single voice, but as a multitude of voices, all waiting to be discovered through a little expert handiwork. The hypersensitive minefield created by his use of various electronic devices allows him to experiment with novel ways of coaxing the sound of out of his instrument – at points, he "plays" his guitar simply by fluttering a finger over the strings near the bridge, hitting the body of the guitar with his left hand, or, at extremely quiet moments, by abandoning the right hand altogether and simply placing his fingers on the frets. What results is a breadth of tones ranging from wah wah to baby’s breath, from Chinese violin to bells, a diversity so surprising that the listener is bound to wonder whether his long-time collaborator Christina Carter (Charalambides) isn’t hiding somewhere backstage.
But Carter doesn’t experiment for experimentation’s sake alone. Rather, he undertakes these acoustic explorations with the aim of enriching his melodic transports. His goal is less to show us which sounds he can pull out of his instrument than to show us what a given sound can do. The result is a hallucinatory counterpoint of echoes and faraway melodies, a music that scatters throughout the room and gathers in corners before dissolving into the air.

Next up, Marcia Basset and Steve Gunn of GHQ (Three Lobed). Bassett (Double Leapords, Hototogisu, Zaimph), shrouded in a generous cascade of long blond hair, drones away raga-style on a ragged-looking viola, while Gunn (Moongang, Magik Markers) summons a few glistening gemstones from his electro-acoustic guitar. They are New Yorkers, sure, but their music is as far removed from that land of subway trains, flashing lights, 24-hour bodegas and Dow Joneses as we are, over here, on the other side of the Atlantic—perhaps even further. Evoking the title of their most recent full-length album, Crystal Healing (2007), their music insinuated itself into the two rooms of the Grimault like a heady, medicinal incense, bringing with it florals and musks from lands as far and wide as East Asia and the deep South, Appalachia and Persia.

Here, as in the music of Tom Carter, reverb and delay reign supreme. GHQ’s instrumentation (viola and guitar, guitar and guitar, guitar and voice) is deceptively sparse; heavy distortion, like witchcraft, transforms whatever two instruments they might happen to be using at any given time into several. Basset, clutching her viola to her chest, summons an unearthly tremor with the wood of her bow—an Indian sound, the sound of a Sitar, no, of a dozen Sitars playing at once. Her cyclical riffing, restricted to a limited number of notes (one of the foundations of the Indian Raga) confirms this evocation of the far East, while Gunn’s melodic picking transports us into yet another mind-state: John Fahey takes a trip to the Orient and weaves strains of the local music he encounters into an ode to the country that he loves, lowering his hat to Sir Richard Bishop and his Spanish guitar along the way.

In Gunn’s playing, we encounter a sound that cannot be called anything other than American; not "American" in the sense of the America of the present, but "American" in the sense of an America removed, a wide open, fecund, honky-tonk America of yore, trapped beneath the rubble of distance and time. And while we cannot decipher the adventure stories he recounts when he steps up to the mic, we hear the ghosts of dead, pre-war bluesmen welling up from his voice. Gorgeous.

Like many of the other artists who fall under the somewhat pell-mell category of the "New Weird America," Tom Carter and GHQ provide a compelling, homegrown antidote to modern occidental life. And even if it is hard to say exactly where their music transports us, when it transports us, we can rest assured it is not here. Oh no, not here.

Words: Emilie Friedlander, 2008

French version available on, a Nantes-based online cultural magazine. Link to original article here.

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