Friday, November 28, 2008

TV Buddhas + Spoono: Indian Psy-Sex and London Americana

Earlier this year at the Hurluberlu (Nantes), in another characteristically hand-picked line-up, the Nantes-based Yamoy Association showcased two rising talents from opposite corners of the globe. In an era where female-male retro-rock duos are just as MTV-friendly as reality dating shows, TV Buddhas breathe fresh air into a somewhat tried and true formula. Similarly, Jack Allett of Spoono discovers his own voice in an American folk tradition haunted by the ghosts of old masters.

As far as their set up is concerned, TV Buddhas sum it up best themselves: “two human beings yelling, one twin reverb+cab with enough reverb to kill an elephant, one floor tom, one snare drum and one ride cymbal.” When “Evil Haring” and “Mickey Killer” take the stage at the Hurlurburlu last month, the bar’s lazy Sunday-afternoon clientele are thoroughly unprepared for the amount of sound this Israeli duo are ready to extract from an electric guitar and a (humourously abbreviated) drumset. Neither are the neighbors. Over a 20-minute set, cut short by a complaint from a neighboring apartment, the group succeed in making the most (sound!) out of limited means.

To say that TV Buddhas produce more noise that one would have thought possible for two people is something of an understatement. But what is striking about their music is less its sheer volume than its fullness and intensity. Evil Haring’s reverb-heavy riffs, pounded out in an open-tuning, bring as much bass to the table as they do treble. Each fat, resonant chord crashes over the audience like a blast of fresh salt water; our sensation of drowning is as delicious as it is debilitating. Haring’s spitfire melodic phrasing, dreamy and distended at times, aggressively patterned at others, recalls as much the post-apocalyptic peregrinations of an Om or a Sunn O))) as it does the baroque swells of a Pentagram or a Black Sabbath. Puncturing this wall of sound with her signature geometric swatches, partner in crime Mickey Killer slams her 3-piece drumkit with enough muscle to floor her candy-striped MTV counterpart.

On their website, TV Buddhas classify themselves as a mix between religious, psychedelic and trance—or, in their own words, “Indian Psy-sex.” While their music draws heavily on traditional Indian composition, its relationship to this tradition is more a matter of structure than a matter of surface aesthetic. Even in the places where Evil Haring’s voice takes precedence over the other elements in the mix, his fingers busy themselves with a continously-shifting series of repetitive melodic motifs, recalling the Indian Raga in their restriction to a finite number of notes. Mickey Killer’s playing would seem to mirror this principal on a percussive level. Through her repetition of short, jagged percussive phrases, she dreams up a cunning counterpoint to Evil Haring’s guitar, unlocking the extreme lyricism that sometimes lies hidden within an extreme economy of means. While the “sex” component of their music falls a bit flat—Evil Harring’s somewhat hammy rock and roll stage gimmicks, his contrived Ian Mcay falsetto—it drives home the complexity of their project. For if TV Buddhas seem like your average retro-rock band on the surface, this posture is just the candied cherry on an extremely rich, extremely dense, extremely filling multi-layer cake.

A young man bent over his guitar in an attitude of intense concentration, his dark bangs canceling out his face. After the exuberant depravity of the TV Buddhas, there is something almost troubling about Jack Allett’s arrival on stage. With Jack Allett (alias Spoono), none of the gimmicks characteristic of your average rock guitarist. The roots of his music dig deep into traditional folk and fingerpicking. The guitarist demonstrates an impressive technique and an expressivity never set into default mode; the result, a mellow, gentle music which, at first listen, doesn’t seem to have anything that original about it. We close our eyes, we allow ourselves to be carried away and we imagine pre-war America, the Appalachian mountains, John Fahey and his vagabond guitar. Jack Allett’s music weaves together reminiscences of folk, of country and of bluegrass, and, here and there, echoes of Delta Blues.

Only Spoono is not a child of the Appalachians. Relocated from his native Brighton to the bustling British capital, he crossbreeds Old Weird America with the experimentations of the avant-guarde guitar greats; Rhys Chatham, Jim O’Rourke and Loren Connors make up some of his favorites. In this sense, his music requires many listenings, many levels of listening. We can listen to it as we would listen to the O’Brother soudtrack on a summer evening, out on the porch, a bourbon in hand. But we can also prick up our ears and attempt to discern what it is that is so particular about Jack Allett’s compositional approach, which, ultimately, is far removed from that of the tutelary figure of John Fahey.

Jack Allett’s manifests a highly personal playing style built upon an unstable rhythmic premise —an alternation of playful and melancholy rhythms, of exaltation and quietude, of obstinately repeated motifs and fluid melodic lines. Traditional fingerpicked folk is structurally simple, rarely destabilizing. And yet even the simplest of his pieces seem to pirouette upon the string which provides their tonal center; tranquil at times, feverish at others, they spark a wide variety of emotional states in his listeners. A rhythmic instability sometimes amplified—though unfortunately not here—through the juxtaposition of acoustic fingerpicking and electronic noise. Despite being an exceptionally talented guitarist, Jack Allett is first and foremost an indefatigable sound experimenter who wields electric guitar with as much élan as circuit-bending electronics in groups Catnap and Towering Breaker (punk/noise).

It is true that many of today’s young musicians turn to the past for inspiration. The TV Buddhas and Spoono are no exception. The paths that these musicians carve out for themselves in their respective traditions are nevertheless passionate ones, and it is not impossible that someday, pushed to the extreme, their explorations will produce something that our era can call its own. Until then, let’s just try to keep out ears open.

Words: Emilie Friedlander and Sophie Pécaud
Photo: Patiphone Club, Tel Aviv

Concert April 20th, 2008 at l'Hulurburlu, Nantes.

Click here for the french version of the article, accompanied by photos by Florian Quistrebert, on the Fragil website.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why? + Volcano! + Son Lux at the SOY Festival (Nantes): Why? Because!

Thursday, October 30, 2008. Coup d’envoi for the sixth edition of Nantes’ SOY Festival. Outside the Barakason, the impatience of the Yamoy crew and the festival’s annual supporters is at fever pitch. The Yamoy association has cooked up a storm for us this year: more artists than ever before (twenty), more venues (a dozen, disseminated throughout Nantes and its outskirts), and headliners fit for the biggest independent music festivals on this side of the Atlantic. On the bill for this first installment, Son Lux, Volcano and Why?, three groups sharing an affinity for beard growth and an ambitious take on pop music.

Ryan Lott, aka Son Lux, is one of the latest additions to California’s Anticon, a historic-hip-hop-collective-and-label-turned-pop-music-talent-scout. With Son Lux, Anticon gambled on a pale young man with a hesitant smile, a Mac chocked full of samples, a MIDI synth, and a parsimonious playing style. On stage, Ryan Lott seems a little bit out of his element. But when he sings “Don’t be afraid,” the recurring leitmotif of his first song, his lightly scorched folk tenor is not without a certain melancholy charm. Who is he trying to console? Hard to tell. As the suspicion that the entire set might plod along on the same register sets in, we begin to hope that he is speaking directly to us. But when fellow Californian and tourmate Ryan Fitch joins him on stage, everything suddenly begins to make sense; bolstered by Fitch’s percussion, Son Lux’s music can finally shine through in all its richness.

With Son Lux, 60’s baroque pop enters the electronic age; synthetic retro strings, techno bass and hip hop beats dialogue in a virtuosic counterpoint carried by Fitch expressive drums. Though contrast is clearly the central element of Ryan Lott’s craft—that of the majesty of the low notes and the explosiveness of the high ones, contemplative drones and hypnotic loops, calm moments and tempestuous ones—the ensemble is strangely monotonous. Ryan Lott pulls from the same old bag of tricks, contrasting the same elements and riding the same dynamics. We allow ourselves to be seduced for a couple songs, but we finish by focusing in on the least convincing elements of Ryan Lott’s music instead of its inherently successful core. The cheap synth effects, in particular the very high pitched ones, get pretty irritating after a while, and we cannot help thinking that Ryan Lott’s voice, systematically covered by instruments, is ultimately more hesitant than scorching.

Volcano! Three nerds from Chicago who, like all the other musicians in the habit of dragging their clothes, their instruments, and their amplifiers through the back alleys of urban America, still seem to find the time to trim their facial hair. Singer and lead guitarist Aaron With’s mustache, for one, would probably have turned Don Diego de la Vega green with envy. But hair growth is not the only attribute marking their membership to the new generation of American musicians. Like their illustrious antecedents (Deerhoof and Animal Collective, to name the two most obvious), Volcano! like to pogo between pop and mayhem, combining the buoyancy of a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah with the shrieking guitar transports of a Parts & Labor.

Volcano!’s live set is enjoyable, if not particularly original. Their music boasts a solid rock and roll backbone; rock and roll enough, at least, to match the celebratory mood of the crowd that evening. Aaron With’s airy guitar melodies climb aboard a chunky bass, often minimal and repetitive, and spirited drums, always eager to throw out a disco beat for the ladies’ dancing pleasure. Volcano definitely possess a strong pop sensibility, and they craft their riffs with care. But they deconstruct them with equal relish. Their song structures are always somewhat unruly, resisting the systematization of the verse-chorus form to dissolve into off-kilter polyrhythmics. Sending their public flying between pop rapture and experimental discomfort, Volcano compose music for the feet…and for the head. Too close a reading might spoil the fun.

With three albums and a handful of EPs, what began as a solo project by Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf, the son of a Cincinnati rabbi, has become one of the most visible groups of the Anticon collective. Following the unrelenting assault of fractured samples on Oaklandazulasylum (2003), their first lp, Why? decided to blow some air into their songwriting. With Alopecia, released this year, the group offers up a massive art rock album; the ravishing flow of their early work gives way to silvery vocal harmonies, the lo-fi guitars to carefully chiseled arrangements. Compromise? Probably just maturity. Why? are a lot more levelheaded than they were during their Oaklandazulasylum days, but they are no less inventive.

On stage, Why? are all modesty, vitality, and warmth. On drums, Josiah Wolf holds up a vibrating pulse with his left hand while weaving in a melodic counterpoint with his right. Suspended above the bass drum, not toms, but a vibraphone, played with such lightning virtuousness that we can’t help looking for a third arm. Less conspicuous, but by no means less dexterous, bassist Austin Brown and keyboardist Doug McDiarmid support an adrenalized Yoni Worf who, with his characteristic nasal voice, alights upon our daily foibles with tenderness and irony. Here are four real artists, all devoted to their cause: music. Their live appearances are free of ego and free of wankery: the four members of Why? are extraordinarily good at what they do, but they seem erase themselves behind their songs, swapping instruments throughout the set in order to offer their texts their most appropriate line-up. The guitar, “rock star” instrument par excellence, never stays very long in the same hands. Ever precise, ever delicate, their compositions rise upwards like a tower of cards: a stable, yet oscillating foundation, a harmonious, yet unexpected architecture, a muscular, yet ephemeral grace.

We exit the Barakson with a smile on our lips and needles and pins in our feet. Vive le festival!

Words: Sophie Pécaud
Translation: Emilie Friedlander
Photo: Rémi Goulet

Cool tunes:
Son Lux, At War With Walls And Mazes, Anticon, 2008.

Volcano!, Paperwork, Leaf Label, 2008.

Why?, Alopecia, Anticon, 2008.

Click here for the french version of the article, accompanied by more photos by Rémi Goulet, on the Fragil website. Giant portfolio of images of the entire Soy Festival should be up soon.

Like what we're doing here? Just a little pocket change gives Visitation Rites food to live on.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Acid Mothers Temple + No Age + Stearica at the Soy Festival (Nantes): And May Music Forever Win Out over the Rain

Those of us with enough chutzpah to hold out to the end of Yamoy’s 4-day new music marathon last week, through rain and through more rain, through the good, the great, and the just plain so-so, were in for a farewell that would somehow manage leave us hungry for even more: Soy Festival 2009, anyone? On the heels of Chris Corsano and Mick Flower’s raga-style free-for-all just a few blocks away, the final chapter of this year’s Soy Festival at the Pannonica typified the association’s penchant for providing a little something for everyone—provided, of course, that that something is not what the people of Nantes might ordinarily hope to hear on a Sunday night…or any other night, for that matter.

With opening group Stearica, a power-chord-pummeling, Turin-based trio, the festival seemed to offer an obligatory nod to the surviving faction of head-bobbing post-rock enthusiasts that still make an appearance at every large-scale musical event in the city. And yet, appearances—even musical ones—can sometimes be deceiving. Setting aside their somewhat surprising endorsement by Acid Mothers Temple, who have invited them aboard their touring spaceship for the next few months, there is definitely something slightly refreshing about their take on this slowly ossifying art form. And it’s not just because they’re from Italy, or because they throw samples of spoken text and bits of feedback into the guitar-bass-percussion mix every now and again.

Like the most venerated musicians in the genre, Stearica manage to play very fast and very loud while remaining very together. But there are some moments (and these are the most interesting ones) when the well-oiled machine of mathematical precision seems to malfunction slightly—a pause that rings out a little too long, a bass line that collapses into a floor-vibrating roar, a drum fill that seems to strain against the Cartesian forward-march with a cry for emancipation. Stearica seem always on the verge of an explosion that never comes—and it is perhaps this expectation, more than anything else, that keeps us listening.

Next up, Dean Spunt and Randy Randall of No Age, who modestly introduce themselves to the audience as just another “rock and roll band.” Which is probably the best way to describe this duo from sunny Los Angeles, not because they are just another rock band, but because they seem to distil the principles of rock and roll into such a compact little formula: Dean on guitar, Randy on drums and screaming vocals (barely audible above the guitar and drums) and a dozen 2-minute verse-chorus anthems hammered out at turbo speed.

Though their work with home-recorded samples and guitar effects on Weirdo Rippers and Nouns have led some critics to tack on words like “experimental” or “noise rock,” this impression falls away somewhat during No Age’s live set—asides from the loudness factor, of course. No, there is nothing all that remarkable about No Age’s music; and that, I think, is precisely what makes it so charming. People who don’t write them off right away as “just another” radio-friendly alternative rock band will realize that they are really not that friendly to the ears at all, and that their upbeat refrains and positive attitude are less a sign of their being “consensual” than hand-me-downs from the pimply punk idols of their youth: Black Flag, Nation of Ulysses, maybe even The Adolescents. No Age. Reminding us that the simplicity and exuberance of true punk rock—despite the passing of the decades—is still alive and well.

Acid Mothers Temple were the group that the majority of the people at the Pannonica that night were there to see, and to say that they did not deliver is just as unimaginable as comparing them to any other of the groups at the Soy Festival this year. Though they have only been around since 1995, this Japanese collective has already racked up more albums, revolving members and splinter projects than most of the psychedelic space-rock bands that actually date back to the late 60’s and early 70’s. Which is why it is tempting to forgo a socio-historical analysis completely and join the group in believing that they are actually from outer space. On the collective’s website, Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O (one of the group’s nine most prominent offshoots, and the one appearing before us tonight) provide as fitting an introduction to their music as any: “What you are about to experience is ass kickin’ butt whippin’ far out drop dead cool music from another solar system when the ancient gods still ruled the earth!”

A description that becomes a whole lot less confusing once we see Acid Mothers Temple on stage: four elder statesmen with monumentally long hair in various gradations from black to white, bouncing up and down as though they couldn’t possibly be affected by so worldly a thing as gravitational pull. Hiding behind a knee-length mustache and beard, Higashi Hiroshi summons a few astral tremolos from a synth as bassist Tsuyama Atsushi and drummer Shimura Koji lay down perhaps one of the fuzziest and beefiest rhythm sections this side of the galaxy has ever heard. Lead guitarist Kawabata Makoto, looking like Slash’s Japanese alter ego, shreds his guitar to pieces as what begins as a plodding succession of repeated phrases escalates into a mad dash up Mount Olympus.

For some people, Acid Mothers Temple’s music is a religious experience. For others, it is simply “too much.” But there are also the people who, like the musicians themselves, seem to appreciate its fine line between high seriousness and parody, eastern spirituality and post-colonial fantasy. The “eastern” element of their music extends beyond their occasional use of a Japanese flute, or a guitar riff drawn straight out of a Bollywood soundtrack—it permeates the very fiber of their song structures. But what is so fascinating about Acid Mothers Temple is that we can never tell whether they are creating honest-to-god “Buddhist music” (as they claim), or throwing our own eastern fetishisms right back in our faces. When Tsuyama Atsushi steps up to the mic and begins humming “Om” like a Tibetan monk in a cartoon levitation rite, we cannot help asking ourselves: is he poking fun at himself or poking fun at us?

Our only regret is that Tsuyama Atsushi, and the rest of his bandmates, were too busy noodling their way up to the heavens to sit down for a Q & A.

Words: Emilie Friedlander
Photos: Rémi Goulet

Cool Tunes:
Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O, Glorify Astrological Martyrdom, Important Records, 2008.

Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O, Cometary Orbital Drive, Bam Balam Records, 2008.

Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O, Interstellar Guru And Zero, Homeopathic, 2008

No Age, Nouns, Sub Pop, 2008.

Click here for the french version of the article, accompanied by more photos by Rémi Goulet, on the Fragil website. Giant portfolio of images of the entire Soy Festival should be up soon.

Like what we're doing here? Just a little pocket change gives Visitation Rites food to live on.