Monday, March 30, 2009

An Extremely Drastic Case of Déjà Vu: Karole Armitage and Rhys Chatham Revive Underground Dance Classic in NY

People who view the New York No Wave scene as one of the last truly exciting chapters in the city’s cultural history can buy as many compilations and artist’s monographs as they like, but nothing beats an opportunity to time-travel. Earlier this month at The Kitchen, New Yorkers jumped at a chance to spend two hours back in the early ’80s — a time when drive-by shootings and burning cars were daily staples of downtown life, but also when a late-night walk down 19th street just might land you in the middle of a dialogue between a professional ballet dancer and an army of electric guitars. Think Punk!, an evening of music and physical performance by choreographer Karole Armitage, cast a younger generation of New York Noise-makers in a recreation of Drastic Classicism, an explosive collision of classical ballet and No Wave punk...

Read the rest on Tiny Mix Tapes

Words: Emilie Friedlander

Culled from interviews with Rhys Chatham, Karole Armitage, John King, Sarah Lipstate, Steve Gunn, Tom Gerke, Kevin Shea, and Matthew Mottel, March 2009.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mountains, Choral, Thrill Jockey, 2009

Recorded in Brooklyn, at the heart of the winter of 2008, and completed upon the arrival of the first blooms of spring, Choral offers a rich and unique listening experience. If Mountains’ music is often lumped in with the “ambient” category, this term is surely way too reductive; the associations of elevator music that it calls to mind, or, at best, of airport music (ie., Brian Eno’s seminal Ambient 1. Music for Airports, 1978), do little justice to the complexity of the New York duo’s experiments. Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkam’s first met in middle school; far from following the path beaten by Eno, they have been roving immense sonic landscapes ever since, jumping from the dizzying peaks of noise to the fertile valleys of American folk and, with Choral, arriving at a crossroads between the hypnotic drones of a Phill Niblock and the heady loops of a Steve Reich.

Captured live, or almost live, Choral follows the duo’s imagined adventures over this uneven musical terrain. Over the album’s six pieces, Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkampt paint misty topographies with tiny brush strokes, patiently sculpting the sonic mass while continually introducing new sounds, each evolving almost imperceptibly. Acoustic instruments (accordion, guitar), rub elbows with synthesizers and electronic incursions by evocative field recordings (an Arizona storm brewing in the viewfinder of a telescope, the crackling of a campfire in Alaska, produced by leaving through the pages of a book). The listener loses himself in a meditative dream-state; unwilling and unable to pry out its numerous instrumental superpositions, he embraces the totality of the sonic mass and takes the opportunity to let his imagination run free.

If I had to fall back on the comparison game, I would probably liken Mountains to Debussy before waxing about its more superficial similarities to Eno. Choral has little in common with the majestic coldness of the British ambient guru; mutatis mutandis, it is as sumptuous, warm and mysterious as the French impressionist composer’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn (1894). Mountains do everything in their power to heighten the subjectivity of our listening experience: the association of acoustic instruments and synthetic string loops gives rise to a multitude of shimmering harmonics, angelic voices both real and imagined. Little by little, the elongation of each piece in time ("Choral" and "Melodica" clock in at over 12 minutes) and the constant use of repetition make us lose our sense of duration. In its freedom of structure and harmonic language, Choral could almost be said to recall the avant-gardism and tranquil mysteriousness of John Cage’s In a Landscape (1948). The obstinate repetition of simple forms, as graceful as they are strange, ultimately leaves us with nothing but the reminiscences of tonality. And, perhaps, a call for a new musical language.

Words: Sophie Pécaud
Translation: Emilie Friedlander

Originally published in French on Chronicart, Winter 2009.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Common Eider, King Eider, Figs, Wasps, and Monotremes, Root Strata, 2008

The cover of Figs, Wasps, and Monotremes, Rob Fisk’s second offering under the Common Eider, King Eider moniker, presents the outline of a corpulent fig, cross-sectioned to reveal a hidden kaleidoscope of seeds. Fisk’s music has always meshed beautifully with his visual practice, but this image is a particularly apt metaphor for his sound: delicate and linear, but with shocks of wild profusion.

Figs, Wasps, and Monotremes is melodic drone at its loveliest, and is singular for being built primarily upon the manifold voices of a viola, bowed and plucked. Rusty tremolos, twinkling pizzicato runs, and grinding held notes slide over one another like tectonic plates, throwing out microtonal beats as fallout. The fine line between “in tune” and “out of tune,” “in time” and “off”, is the site where most of the action on the album takes place, and this logic carries over to all of its other elements: voice, piano, guitar.

None of the album’s eight tracks are “songs,” per se, but they are always flirting with the rules of pop musical seduction. Fisk’s feminine falsetto sketches out tentative melody lines that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Goblin soundtrack, buoyed by an occasional choir (also Fisk) of tenor and bass. The guitar solo, climax par excellence, dies and reincarnates itself in deranged bursts of noise, sometimes dialoguing with Fisk’s fragile melodies, sometimes swallowing them whole.

Fisk’s album is not with out its fair share of skronky, rambling drone, and the textures and flyaway tones he is able to pull out of his instruments are highlights in their own right. Even at their most unfocused, however, Fisk’s compositions always eventually reveal themselves to be governed by a kind of higher logic. Bowed viola drones of every possible color and value layer into the sound an orchestra tuning up before the curtain rises—only to turn transform into a “refrain” in its own right when the choir girls (Fisk again) chime in.

Figs, Wasps, and Monotremes may be more humble than it is monumental, but it is a joy of an album, and sets the bar high for musicians interested in drone as a musical building block—not as an academic pursuit.

Words: Emilie Friedlander

Originally published on Foxy Digitalis, Winter 2009

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America

Those of you living in the New York area should be sure to check out Severed Ways, on show at the Angelika Film Center this March. Set in 1007 AD, Severed Ways follows two flaxen-haired Vikings into the heart of the North American wilderness, struggling for survival as they burn crosses, shack up with the natives, and headbang to Morbid Angel, Popul Vuh, Burzum, Dimmu Borgir, Queens of the Stone Age, Brian Eno, Old Man's Child, and Judas Priest. Already on its way to becoming a cult classic, and so far out in left field that it might not even be a movie at all...

Directed by Tony Stone (Heathen Films).

Words: Emilie Friedlander

Continuing Education:

Severed Ways website

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Predator Vision, II, Future Sounds/Abandon Ship, 2008

Matt Mondanile and his co-conspirators are certainly working a lot of bikinis in a twist these days, blowing up the blogosphere as the DIY forerunners of a new “beach pop” phenomenon. The hype surrounding Ducktails and Real Estate is well deserved, but dwelling too much on the “drinking a pina colada in black Ray-Bans and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt” aesthetic undermines their breadth and talent as musicians.

Predator Vision, a prog/metal trio uniting Mondanile (Ducktails, Real Estate), Etienne Duguay (Real Estate, Cave of Time), and Ben Daly (Wavehead), transports us out of the Jersey Shore and into a basement in Amherst, Massachusetts, blinking our eyes against a screen of red Nag Champa smoke and the remains of last night’s beer pong. Western Mass, after all, is the place where all three of these guys spent their college years, and Predator Vision’s second offering gives us a good idea of all the late afternoon noodling that made them the musicians they are today.

Who is who and what is what here generally gets lost in the squall, but the album is two parts guitar (Mondanile and Daly) and one part drums (Duguay), with a guest appearance by the mighty Jeremy Pisani (Red Favorite, Jow-Jow The Death Knell Rung) on bass. Elongated guitar drones, plucked blues motifs, and bass hooks worthy of Ozzy himself combine in a jubilant Brillo Pad of feedback and missed musical connections, buoyed by an unstoppable rhythmic pulse. Predator Vision is clearly the kind of setting in which Duguay can truly shine, and his drum work on this album can range everywhere from a light, Corsano-style pitter-patter to the sound of twenty Hells Angels headbanging in unison.

After the cultural and musical melting pot of track one, Pisani leads the gang in a bass-heavy elephant stomp through the Sahara, pushing past fronds of guitar reverb and pockets of buzzing flies. And just when we become too thirsty for words, there it is again, materializing out of the shimmering heat—a patch of blue, a waterlogged guitar melody reminding us that Ducktails, far from his native New Jersey, is still alive and well. Or is it just a mirage?

It will be well worth your time to keep tabs on these guys over the upcoming year, even if it takes some time for Pisani to find his way back into the mix. Until then, keep your eyes peeled for the Predator Vision/Sun Araw Split, which should be a party and a half.

Words: Emilie Friedlander
Photo: Abandon Ship

Originally published on Foxy Digitalis, Winter 2009

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Infinity Window: An Interview with Taylor Richardson and Daniel Lopatin

Infinity Window is a bit of a game-changer. Not that there's anything drastic about them, but listening to their atmospheric lull is bound to effect you. Try putting on "Artificial Midnight" on a late, dark Saturday afternoon with your friends, like I did, and see the change. If your friends are anything like mine, they'll sink into the couch and won't budge an inch. But that doesn't mean they aren't traveling.

What are we hearing? An implosion? An explosion? Infinity Window's music is a calm combination of light and dark sounds. Eerily uplifting church-like synthesizers cross with distortion like traveling sounds that just happen to crash into each other and continue on in a caravan. Their music sprouts a seemingly limitless geography, like looking out at a flat horizon, unsure how many miles away the end of your vision is taking you. It's music that travels in the best sense, without a destination or even a map.

Maybe it's better to be lost in the sound, but I couldn't help wanting to ask Infinity Window a few questions. Luckily, as one might expect from a band like them, the answers hardly give us a better handle on what we're hearing.

Alex Geoffrey Frank: Can you tell me a bit about the equipment you use, and why you've picked the equipment that you have?

Taylor Richardson: Right now it's beginning to vary a lot. It started with two synths, and now we're getting more into welcoming a variety of instrumentation into the mix. I've been playing guitar a lot more in the band recently, at least while we record. I don't know how long that will last though. Personally, I like to switch things up to keep it interesting. As long as we are getting the sounds we want, I think we're both into experimenting with our set up.

Daniel Lopatin: My live rig is pretty straightforward -- I jam a Roland Juno-60 and a bunch of pedals. But I'm starting to think about adding a vocal element, and another polysynth that can rip "concrete" style. Right now I'm mostly looking to counteract the melodic element.... so we'll see. But yeah: I'm a synth dude.

How does that translate with your live show? What's the re-creation process like?

TR: I think performing live has been crucial for us lately. A lot of breakthroughs have been coming out of it. We've been experimenting with our sound during sets, and it kinda gives us a better perspective of what stays and goes. More often than not, the reactions have been really positive, though I think the best compliment we've gotten recently was when a friend of ours came up to us after a show and said "Wow, you guys have really changed." He seemed kind of disappointed, and I don't want to disappoint anyone, but it feels good to stay outside of the expectations people have set for you, especially when you're stoked on what your doing.

DL: Typically crowds react to our playing by lighting up. Me, personally, I can't stand playing our style of show in bar-type settings, and its something I'd like to get away from entirely, if possible. On our last tour we played a house show in Boston for the first time since we left the city, and it was the ultimate homecoming party -- the crowd was on top of us and totally slow moshing to drone. Same thing happened in Kentucky at the Fact House. The smaller the room, the better.

I can't imagine the darker moods on "Artificial Midnight" being played live in a bar. And so much of the album is about switching moods, from dark, foreboding sounds, to something way more optimistic and light. Can you talk about what the recording process is like for you guys? What do you have planned out before you record, and what just happens?

DL: Those sessions were extraordinarily bleak. I was going through some pretty heavy stuff, and the record became an obsession and refuge for me. We worked incredibly slow, and the sessions reached a point where we were both so mental that we couldn't be near each other during overdubs -- so we'd take turns leaving the space. In retrospect I think we were just growing -- learning patience, and learning how to push ourselves.

TR: Yeah, That was a pretty fucked time. It was difficult to find time to record. I had already moved to New York, so I had to take a bus for four hours when we wanted to jam. It was stressful to complete, but I'm happy with the way it turned out. We went into it wanting to make a cloudier, denser version of early kraut aesthetics. As far as the changing mood on Artificial Midnight, it could have been the vernal equinox.

DL: That's true about putting krautrock in a fog -- it's like taking the vibe of prog and divorcing it from all the bullshit wankery and cliche. "Sheets of Face" is a little different -- I think of it as a study in Xenakis-style tone shifting and layering. I listened to the record a couple weeks ago and it felt like a gradual descent into some obfuscated, dehumanized zone... except instead of starting in reality, you're already in the murk.

Lastly, who are some of your influences?

DL: Musically: J.S. Bach, David Borden and Mother Mallard, Popul Vuh, The Grateful Dead, Jon Hassell, my dad's fusion tapes, Steve Tibbetts, DJ Premier. Currently, I'm getting a lot of inspiration from Prurient and a bunch of Jeff Witscher-related projects as well.

TR: My friends are really inspirational to me. I feel incredibly fortunate to know a lot of really creative people. It's always cool to get feedback from people you respect who aren't gonna tell you what you want to hear all the time. Musically, Dan and I are kinda in different zones as far as our influences go, though the impact of loner psych does intersect for us.I've always been into to outsider psych stuff, Italian prog and 80's noise. With all that being said my favorite bands have always been Sparks and Amon Duul II. I don't really see that changing anytime soon.

Interview by Alex Geoffrey Frank, March 2009
Photo: Infinity Window

Cool Tunes:

Infinity Window, Artificial Midnight, Arbor, 2009.

Continuing Education:

Infinity Window MySpace Page

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Mark Tucker, In the Sack, De Stijl (re-issue)

United States postal worker by day, musician and co-founder of the mythic Tetrapod Spools label by night, Mark Tucker is finally beginning to earn his due as one of America’s lesser-known outsider heroes. Batstew, his 1975 debut, is now a cult collectible, and De Stijl’s 2006 reissue of the album has expanded his fan base beyond the more obsessive collector contingent. With new reissue “In the Sack” (1982), Tucker’s second album, De Stijl reopens Tucker’s slanted and enchanted universe to the public.

Following Batstew, which doubled as an ode to girlfriend Eva Bataszew and a 1964 Cadillac hearse, Tucker struggled through a series of nervous breakdowns and relocated to Encinitas, California. The cover of In the Sack, released on Tetrapod Spools under the pseudonym T. Hunter Storm, signals the end of Tucker’s automobile obsession with an image of a postal truck crashing into a sand dune. And the beginning of a new one: among its many idiosyncrasies, Tucker’s second offering is arguably the only album ever made that can boast the U.S. Postal Service as a central narrative theme. If the open canvas sack in the foreground is any indication, In the Sack is as much about Tucker’s daily frustrations as a mail carrier as it is about his luck with the ladies—especially if we allow “frustration” to include frustrations of the sexual kind.

But asides from track four, which reproduces the boring bureaucratic details of a post office staff meeting, and track ten, a nine-minute rant against a male customer much richer and much more attractive than Tucker himself, In the Sack lacks the narrative focus of an actual concept album. More than tell a story, it recreates a headspace: one of a postal worker gone slightly “postal”, but who would rather search for creative ways to liven up his itinerary than go ahead and crash up the car. Resolutely Major key piano melodies set the soundtrack for a typical day out on the mail route, starting out all “walking with my mailbag and waving hi to all the neighbors” groovy, stumbling over a few tricky roadblocks (a lost letter, a rabid dog, a sexy lady), and ending, infallibly, on a note of reconciliatory schmaltz. Vibrato-laden vocals, recalling Van Dyke Parks at his most vaudevillian, combine with high-pitched wining, backwards song, spoken word, and passages of found sound, marking the manifold voices (and escape routes) of a man who spends his days walking and driving in circles.

Tucker clearly has a lot more formal musical training than most of the other outsider/real people artists who have made a comeback in the last decade (Kenneth Higney, Gary Wilson), and he probably could have dropped the mail gig and successfully pursued a career writing jingles for radio stations and children’s television shows. But writing TV music in the context of a rock album is a lot different from writing TV music for TV, and Tucker would probably have bristled at the very thought. Where else, other than in the privacy of his own home, could he have embellished his jazzy lounge numbers with the sound of sandpaper on wood, with one-man barbershop quartets, backwards love poems, Alan Vega shrieks, and recorded sound from a dinner at home with mom and dad? Where else could he have been free to create an album at once abysmally unfocused (to our ears, at least) and 100% his own?

The recent vogue for outsider music, and outsider art in general, is not without its ethical conundrums. One might argue that to laugh at the fruit of a troubled mind, even if we simultaneously experience it as beautiful, is to reduce “real people” and their art to a sideshow attraction. And to allow them to be exploited—or to exploit themselves—as such. But Tucker was aware of this way before Daniel Johnston ever became a household name, and he can be credited with a degree of self-awareness that most of his like-minded contemporaries would never own up to. “You’re selling your craziness,” Tucker’s mother famously complained upon the release of his first album. “So was Beethoven,” Tucker replied.

And who knows? Maybe one day misunderstood geniuses worldwide will be saying the same thing to their moms about Tucker.

Words: Emilie Friedlander

Originally published on Foxy Digitalis, Winter 2009

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Noise and Failure: Collaborative Performances at Paris London (Brooklyn)

Noise is not for most people. It's a challenging form of music and involves, by definition, intrusive sounds that one resists instinctively. One way to come to an understanding of the genre is through the live setting, where, as with a rock show, there is a bodily confrontation with the performer and their visceral squall. The live form of noise raises many ambiguities because the goals of the performers are not always clear: sometimes they seem confrontational, sometimes indifferent. So, what makes the live performance good or bad? I find myself considering this while taking in a collaborative, improvisational noise show in Brooklyn this past weekend.

The show, at Paris London, an artist's-studio-turned-performance-venue at 285 Kent Avenue, features two ad-libbed sets by six very talented artists and musicians. Held on the ominous night of Friday the thirteenth, the performance also doubles as an art opening, with large, day-glow colored paintings hanging salon-style on the walls.

This first spectacle of the night is a duo comprised of Josh Anzano, of the psychedelic rock group Titan, and Michael Berdan, the vocalist for Drunkdriver and Whip and the Body. Not unlike Grey Wolves at his most deconstructed, or the recent output of Domminick Fernow's Prurient, their noise derives most of its impact from the tension between an oppressive cacophony and the sound of the human voice struggling beneath it. Berdan's presence is reminiscent of Fernow’s: both are power-electronics vocalists who convulse and come unhinged during their performances, as if driven by some personal wellspring of emotion. This is an engaging sight, and goes some way toward enlivening the music.

The second act is a collaboration between artist Emma Hedditch, Marcia Bassett (Hototogisu, Double Leopards, GHQ), Mattin (Billy Bao), and multimedia artist and double bass player Margarita Garcia. Bassett plucks an eerie ambiance out of her guitar strings while Garcia bows her electrified double bass, generating both ethereal tones and brittle, distorted slabs of sound. At one point in the set, Hedditch grabs someone's sweater and gently wraps it around an audience member's head. In response, Mattin takes his laptop, which has only been generating noise through its own microphone up until now, and places it over another audience member's face.

In the back of my mind, I am recollecting stories I've heard about previous performances by Mattin that were far more confrontational and terrifying, actions in which he chased audience members with laptops, snapping them open and closed like ravenous Pac-Men. Those stories have an aura of fear about them, a feeling similar to the exhilaration of a roller coaster. I feel a crucial part of the live of the live presence of extreme music is the power to instill that sensation. In this performance, there is never the feeling that anyone in the room could be threatened at any time, because the performers only target the people in the room who are most visible. This reinforces the roles of audience and performer rather than disturb them, which I take issue with. It seems to me that another crucial part of the visceral noise experience is to have your physical comfort as an audience member challenged.

The show leads me to appreciate the relationship between the genre of noise music and performance. Improvisational performance is the careful navigation of a given environment and its inhabitants just as noise music is a careful navigation of music's antithesis. Both activities require intuition and a willingness to take risks. This is why I feel the best noise shows must deal with issues of performance. Beyond this mandate, there is not much else that can be clearly marked as right or wrong because failure and success are beside the point. It's the experiment and the experience that matters.

Words: Alessandro Keegan
Photo: Alessandro Keegan

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