EINSTÜRZENDE NEUBAUTEN, "perpetuum mobile"
Whoever considers Einstürzende Neubauten's musical output from the 1990s to be lackluster has got to be tone deaf. The group opened the decade with a forceful sound that began to integrate their noise tendencies with clever musical arrangement and song craftsmanship. Haus der Lügealthough released in 1989started the phase off, paving the way for 1993's Tabula Rasa, which was a complete breakthrough marrying elegance, sound exploration, composition, and noise. I'm even finding myself going back to Ende Neu and Silence is Sexy, rediscovering things I might not have fully appreciated at the time of their release, as I will probably do with their new album. With Perpetuum Mobile, the group has made their transition even further away from the post-techno stronghold, with no songs that sound like post-post-industrial Deutche-chants. Without the sing-alongs to latch on to, it makes it a more difficult album to get into from the get-go, however, the atypical instrumentation, ace production, and Blixa's peculiar lyrics and subjects are enticing enough to always want more deeper listens. "Perpetuum Mobile" is the rather jaded perspective of the world by a person who is constantly on the move: with false amenities and the ugliness of reality, while on "Selbstportrait mit Kater," Bliza admits repeatedly "Life on other planets is difficult!" Einstürzende Neubauten has always struck me as a group who's very generous to their listeners: the lavish packages that accompany their standard releases are far more intense than nearly anything else obtainable at regular prices. The music is undoubtedly worked and reworked exhaustively, leaving the lyrics and melodies intact while restructuring everything else to the point of bearing almost completely no resemblance to conventional pop/rock/electronic/whatever songs. Friendly, relatively quiet tunes like the album's bookends "Ich Gehe Jetzt" and "Grunstück" are not foreign for the group, almost meant to leave pleasant impressions while the group pushes the boundaries with songs like the title track, where, for nearly 14 minutes, the underscoring melody rarely moves from the same note (the colorful percussion, lyrics, and samples make the song far less boring than it sounds). Elsewhere, familiar Neubautenisms can be found: homemade percussive instruments lie alongside bossy bass guitar and faint, squealing guitar lines and double-tracked vocals. A DVD is included for a limited time in some of the releases, but it's an audio-only supplement of 5.1 surround mixed versions of only four of the songs on the album. As always, I anxiously await the next Neubauten tour. - Jon Whitney
Mountain Goats, "We Shall All Be Healed"
John Darnielle has the reputation of being a consummate storyteller. His prolific output contains a variety of song cycles and storylines that unfold in chapters throughout his catalog, as well as individual vignettes that rise and fall in the space of a scant few minutes. What makes his stories viable is the deep sense of urgency and passion that he imbues them with. On early records like Zopilote Machine it seemed as if these tales were so heavy, so grand, that he couldn't possibly wait to confess them to his recording boom box, to give them life with a reedy voice that made it clear to the listener that these words were important, and these stories were important. His first record on 4AD, the immensely wonderful Tallahassee, proved that the cassette medium was not the magic that gave his songs life. The first all-studio Mountain Goats album, it sounded every bit as immediate, sometimes warm and sometimes caustic, but always captivating. We Shall All Be Healed claims to document a collection of characters that Darnielle knows (or knew) in real life, a slice of time where these characters moved about each other and played an important role in a larger story. While it seems as if that should be no trouble for the Mountain Goats, the storyline presents itself in a far more patient, meditative manner than the last effort. Perhaps it is the proximity of the subjects to the author, but the incisive observations and illuminating metaphors that traditionally overpopulate his songs are strangely absent. Darnielle's voice dwells in a moderate, plaintive register for much of the album. Many of the songs seem like they are indistinct messages to a single individual. Ideas appear as references without context, or nostalgic wisps that never really take form, and leave a craving for some kind of impact that must lurk somewhere in the formlessness. "Home Again Garden Grove" peeks its head out with a glimpse of what we're used to. The vocals are crisp, direct and pointed, and with lines like, "I can remember when we were in high school / our dreams were like fugitive warlords / plotting triumphant returns to the city / with tec-9's tucked under the floorboards / ah-ah-ha," it's a pleasing respite from the lack of concentration that dominates the other songs. Perhaps more disappointing than the disconnection of the lyrics is the simply flat sound of the music, like a soda left in the open air for too long. "Mole," which features an unfortunately under-observed scene in an intensive care unit features a threadbare guitar that absently plucks away at what sounds like a rough approximation of the theme song to Hill Street Blues. There is very little energy in what is heard, and it is not a question of raucous speed or volume, but of thoughtful investments in crafting a song that does not merely plod along a stale strum or hackneyed change. We Shall All Be Healed sounds an arm's length away, a record that wishes to keep its distance and wrap its secrets in a collection of comfortable tones that camouflage whatever kind of power they truly have in reality. - Michael Patrick Brady
Building Castles Out Of Matchsticks, "Window Pain"
I've been kicking myself for the last couple of years that I didn't catch on to Piehead's annual series earlier, so this year I was pleased to open up a package that contained the first Piehead disc for 2004, Building Castles Out Of Matchstick's Window Pain. The exceptionally long artist name is an alias for Anne Sulikowski who is a radio DJ and music experimenter from Ontario whose previous work I am unfamiliar with but whose future output I'll certainly be looking for. Window Pain is just the kind of release I'd hope to get from a home-grown, limited edition label series. It's certainly not commercial enough in its approach to attract large label interest, and it not only defies classification but utterly circles around it, allowing the artist room to explore disparate areas of electronic music all under one-heading. It's also a personal kind of record, one that gives me the sense that its author was driven by no master other than the creative impulse. There's a joy in this record, despite the tone of the word-play in its title, that comes from the simple, unfettered experimentation that Sulikowski brings to the process of creating songs that makes listening straight through a bit like looking through personal scrapbooks. There are a few breakbeats here and some dubwise effects there, but they are never employed to get the listener up and out of his or her seat. Even when the music isn't drifting, it is melting out of preconceptions about genre and style. There are some playful 808 electro bits and hook-heavy retro synth numbers, but none of it gives me the impression of anything more than an artist sitting down to have a good time by making some tunes, and we need more music like this. At the end of its 13 tracks, Window Pain feels less like a label release and more like a personal gift from Ms. Sulikowski herself, and I can't think of anything nicer.- Matthew Jeanes
Seth Nehil/Olivia Block, "Sunder, Unite"
In many ways Sunder, Unite feels like a continuation of the dialogue that began with Block's first two recordings, Pure Gaze and Mobius Fuse, both released on Sedimental to much acclaim. For those records, her style of composition centered on ideas of combination and alignment instead of juxtaposition; the music achieved a subtle melding of extremes: found sound with scored passages, orchestrated parts with improvised elements, and live or "natural" space with the imagined resonance of synthetic creation. The disparate pieces of Gaze and Fuse come together to create half-hour intervals of transcendence, subtle sound environments as quick to reject the atmospheric, mood-oriented interpretation as they are to quietly envelop the most unwilling of listeners. I feel carried through her deceptively thick and intricate compositions, afloat on currents of de-sourced field recordings, invisibly suspended piano notes, wind and brass ensembles blowing in as if on short-wave frequency, and all manner of electronic blurts and organic sounds, sometimes manipulated via sampler, though more often left unruffled to hang like flies in the gleaming web of the whole. The sensuous drift of these early recordings makes them challenging in the best of ways; Block's thorough blending of the natural and artificial realms introduces confusion and disorientation only in afterthought, almost through a willful suspension of disbelief. Even the harshest of sounds used, such as the clashing rock and wood noise or firework explosions in Mobius Fuse, Block treats with the care of a surgeon, guiding each into unique functionality without a scrap of sensationalism or over-emphasis. Sunder, Unite works in similar ways, but with an increasing stress on the motion and physical manifestation of the piece. This shift in momentum comes with the presence of Seth Nehil, who played with Block in Austin's Alial Straa and whose impressive solo output focuses largely on rough, physical sounds sourced in the natural world. Much of the sound on Sunder, Unite comes from previous live and field recordings by Nehil and Block during a Japanese tour where the duo's performances involved the live, often extreme manipulation of natural objects like leaves, grass, and rock. But while these shows seem easily located within the Japanese noise tradition or the influence of sound artists like Akio Suzuki, Sunder, Unite is a truly foreign creation. The piece is rarely harsh, nor does it get caught up in Suzuki's ponderous method. Block and Nehil recognize the essential physicality of their source material, but their arrangements show greater interest in leading the sounds through the composed drama of the piece's movements ("through," "within," "beyond" etc). They accomplish this through an elaborate cut-and-paste of the original material, including the insertion of large chunks of silence and glitch-ist sound-chopping. Elsewhere synthetic drones or heavily manipulated pieces of the original tapes form swooning backdrops for the microscopic clatter and pop painstakingly organized across the Sunder's 40 minutes. Block's contributions become especially effective as a wind ensemble fades in and out wonderfully on a few tracks. As a whole, Sunder, Unite echoes Block's previous work in particular, through the subtle way it brings together (in this case aggressively) natural or organic sound and "artificial" elements of strict composition and digital deconstruction. The result is music less concerned with the detail or clash of different sounds than with synthesis and progression, an always-beautiful blending of disciplines.
- Andrew Culler
"Kraakgeluiden: Document 1"
Kraakgeluiden is an ongoing and evolving series of events and performances organized by a group of musicians based in Amsterdam. Like a smaller, Dutch version of the LA Free Music Society, Kraakgeluiden opens its door to musicians all over the world interested in improvised electroacoustic music, setting up weekly performances where musicians from classical, jazz, improv, rock, even dance backgrounds, including a remarkable number of well-established personalities, perform before other members and guests of the loose collective. The musicians will often play with others for the first time on the Kraakgeluiden stage, producing results that are sometimes mediocre, more often amazing, and always interesting. Document 1 is the first release from the collective and presumably not the last, compiling some of their best recorded moments to date. The disc comes in the wake of the recent inauguration of Werkplaats, a series of nine weekends in '03-'04 in which Kraakgeluiden pays for groups of musicians to experiment for three days preparing for a Monday night performance on the stage, held in a legalized squat in Amsterdam. The project aims to eliminate the logistical problems (equipment-related, etc.) that plague tighter scheduled events and to allow for deeper, more fully developed communications between dissimilar musicians and their chosen mediums. Based on the music included here, it sounds as if they're succeeding. The twelve pieces cover a huge amount of ground, ranging from sloppy, broad-stroked combative approaches, to nuanced mood pieces, and traversing the freest of jazz styling in between. Most tracks utilize computers in some way, but the machines keep comfortable distance, each musician clearly conscious of his or her presence within the group. While most everything bears the influence of electronic music making, these improvisations never slip into the faceless, formalist rut that is certainly a risk with this kind of undertaking. Even at their most indulgent, the tracks communicate the vivacity and progressive nature of the collective, and oftentimes, the multitude of strange instruments, in stranger juxtapositions, is enough to keep the listening experience interesting. This disc is worthwhile if only for the inspiration it might lend to the formation of more organizations like Kraakgeluiden.
- Andrew Culler
Matt Wand, "PUBLIC.EXE"
After some research I've learned that someone, or perhaps several nerds, working simultaneously in different countries (as these things usually occur), has developed software for turning Gameboys into sophisticated electronica machines. Ever one to outdo his peers, Matt Wand, former half of genre-defying, genre-destroying electronic duo Stock, Hausen, & Walkman and current Hot Air label head, has taken to eschewing the software altogether and doing live shows with nothing but the hand-held gaming devices and effects pedals in tow. PUBLIC.EXE is a 10", gathering a half-hour's worth of live nerdery from events in Manchester, Utrecht, and Paris at Felix Kubin's Nuit Blanche event. My guess is that this kind of thing has been done many times before, but never done this well. Forget whether he's using the pocket-sizes of today's youth or the VHS-sized machines of yesteryear; it's hard to believe Wand is using Gameboys at all. He produces an energetic, fiercely pulsing brew of darkened electro with only the scattered stair-step breakdown or faint bleep to remind of its origins. Some of the noise squalls and nauseous loops produced make me wonder if Wand specifically chose the most "mature" Nintendo titles for manipulation, or if he opted instead to abuse the machines' innards directly. Several pieces approach the caustic minimalism of early Suicide, while others mine more abstract terrains in the style of people like Pimmon; part of the Nuit Blanche performance even plays on a jazz-ist bent, with twisted gaming noises reaching brass-like pitch in a mind-boggling exchange that somehow avoids repetition. Of the multitude of sounds and stylistic approximations on PUBLIC.EXE, the only impossible source for this music would seem a children's toy. In the face of so many electronic artists vying for the childish, naïve angle with conversely "adult" equipment, Wand pulls the opposite with flying colors, doing it all live, better, and without the hidden laptop.
- Andrew Culler
JIMMY EDGAR, "ACCESS RHYTHM"
Jimmy Edgar is Warp's most recent signing, a sweet and vulnerable 19-year old Caucasian from Detroit who allegedly spent his formative years playing Detroit raves alongside Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May. His new EP Access Rhythm proves that Edgar has inherited none of the genius of his cultural forefathers. This EP contains four faceless tracks of largely instrumental hip-hop, made specifically for that growing demographic of clueless, rich, vaguely urban white boys wearing backpacks. Jimmy Edgar's music sounds almost identical to his labelmate Scott Herren's Prefuse 73 project, an uncomfortable similarity which makes the music all the more excruciating to listen to. It shows a serious lack of judgment on the part of Warp Records that Edgar's promo wasn't immediately tossed into the "sounds like everything else" pile. Promotional material for the EP has the audacity to compare Edgar's talentless Powerbook fuckery to the Neptunes. On their very worst day, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo could easily kick this guy's lily-white Grosse Pointe ass all the way back to design school. Edgar's clean, angular production tries to achieve some of the same innovation as his obvious hip-hop influences, but the kid is seriously lost when it comes to creating a beat that is interesting enough to listen to for longer than 10 seconds. Flip over any Timbaland-produced 12" to the instrumental side, and you'll hear what Jimmy Edgar wishes he sounded like, but never will. About his style, Edgar says: "My music has a huge Detroit Techno influence, but I wanted to go even further beyond that, to the point where it feels literally like Detroit itself." Huh? If anyone can figure out what that load of bullshit is supposed to mean, be sure to let me know. On a positive note, it's not too late for Jimmy Edgar; he's still young, and there's still time for him to enroll in community college or learn a trade. - Jonathan Dean
JUNKIE XL, "RADIO JXL: A BROADCAST FROM THE COMPUTER HELL CABIN"
Imagine my astonishment when this unassuming new CD from Amsterdam producer Tom Holkenborg turned out to be the most painfully dire album I've heard in a decade. Radio JXL: A Broadcast From The Computer Hell Cabin is so entirely rotten on all fronts, it's almost refreshing. From the awful album title to the plug-ugly cover art, this is the album to play for people who think that everything has some kind of redeeming value. This proves that those people are wrong. Radio JXL has no redeeming value. It has negative redeeming value. The mere existence of this album actually detracts from the work that good musicians are doing. Junkie XL is what would happen if you multiplied Fatboy Slim's worst song times Moby's worst song to the power of The Crystal Method's worst album. It is slickly-produced stadium-rave trash for the new generation of retarded fat girls on MDMA. It's the soundtrack to getting a toothy blowjob from a guy in a rainbow wig and plastic clothes. An array of guest artists humiliate themselves by contributing guest vocals on this atrocity. Peter "Legalize It" Tosh goes through the Kingston motions over Holkenborg's track, one of the more offensive, ill-conceived desecrations of dub yet conceived by a European. Dave Gahan participates in an overblown travesty which manages to make latter-day Depeche Mode sound positively ingenious by contrast. Why has Gary Numan lowered himself to contributing vocals to "Angels," a song which had me pining for the glory days of top-40 rave anthems from the likes of Praga Khan and Sunscreem, which seem so tasteful in retrospect. I'm not even going to mention the tracks with Chuck D and Robert Smith. Fuck, I mentioned them. Sorry. Remember when MTV "broke" electronica circa 1994, and every suburban kid in America was running out to Circuit City to pick up the newest Urbal Beats compilation? Tom Holkenborg doesn't think anything has changed in the intervening decade. He lives in a universe where The Prodigy still have number one hits and all that every consumer really wants is a rave remix of an Elvis Presley song. Which he provides, by the way, in the form of "A Little Less Conversation," a catastrophe of near-Biblical proportions. I couldn't bring myself to listen to the bonus disc of remixes. Frankly, I'm surprised I got as far as I did. - Jonathan Dean
It's hard to describe the sort of movements that music evolve to without giving it a genre name that gets used, then overused, then completely hated and rejected only a couple years later. I do like what I'm hearing, however, a LOT. Trapist are the latest in a line of talented collective players who integrate some of the elements the high-brow fashionable snotty music press faves have introduced over the last couple years (software, electronic reprocessing) with honed playing skills that can lend to collective improvisational pieces, and heavy tendencies towards actual song structure (yes, it's nice not to hear "jazz" fans noodling around with no goal). On Ballroom, the Viennese trio's first studio record, all elements come together gracefully for an amazing listen. The trio consists of Martin Brandlmayr, Martin Siewart, and Joe Williamson: names which have appeared in Radian, and alongside people like Christian Fennesz, Dean Roberts and Werner Dafeldecker, Stefan Schneider, Ken Vandermark, Kevin Drumm, and plenty more. Comparisons will no doubt be drawn to the sparse guitar work of quieter Tortoise and Angelo Badalamenti and groups like Nudge and latter-day Talk Talk, but Trapist tend to explore things a bit deeper, with songs that stretch well past the 15 minute mark as opposed to collecting between eight and ten 3-5 minute tunes. Songs often open with light brushed drum sounds, double bass and guitar, but are soon joined with unobtrusive keyboards, subtle electronic effects, percussion, and rhythmic noise. While Ballroom is already one of my most frequently played albums of the young year, it's not hard to wonder if this stuff will catch on. Bands and critics may complain about the post-rock pigeonholing but it did provide some sort of attention and leverage to a lot of groups' budding careers. If this stuff never catches on, it'll be difficult for a number of really great groups to book shows, get out of their remote areas (Dean Roberts is in Australia, Nudge is in Oregon) and help evolve music to the next level. - Jon Whitney
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