ORGANUM AND Z'EV, "TINNITUS VU"
This four-track, 16-minute CD marks the first collaboration between two of the prime movers of experimental sound. The brevity of the album makes it somewhat difficult to get a handle on. Over the years, I've come to expect long-form, immersive soundscapes from both of these artists - whether the long, shape-shifting textural drones of Organum or the multiple-part conceptual movements of Z'ev. At about four minutes each, each of these tracks seem oddly truncated, resolving themselves just as they begin to become interesting. With artists as intelligent and purposeful as these, I'm not ready to assume that this was a miscalculation or just plain laziness. Rather, the brevity of Tinnitus Vu may be a reflection of its theme, which in this case appears to be hearing loss. Tinnitus is an affliction of hearing in which the sufferer hears persistent buzzing, high-pitched ringing, television static or wind noise. David Jackman and Stefan Weisser both apparently suffer from intermittent tinnitus, and this work can be seen as an attempt to accurately reflect the experience of this hearing disorder to the unafflicted listener. Each piece begins and ends with a few bars of piano, but in between is an electronic storm of thought-canceling white noise, curling metallic drones, and undifferentiated swarms of what sound like tiny robotic gnats. The effect is quite brilliant at moments, especially towards the end of the third track, when for a moment I thought that my hearing actually had dropped out for a moment, as sometimes happens the day after a particularly loud concert. This was merely an auditory illusion borne of the cleverly rendered production of the track. There is none of Z'ev's trademark percussion in the mix, at least not in any recognizable form, so the album ends up closer in sound to Organum's work, which is not a bad thing. In the end, I was left wanting more from this collaboration, and it looks like I may get my wish soon, as a full-length collaboration is planned for release soon on Die Stadt. - Jonathan Dean
Rollerball, Behind The Barber
With their tenth album, this Portland collective manages to release a wildly organic mix of electronics and jazz that blends both avant-garde tendencies with more traditional song structures. Behind the Barberstarts off with the introductory percussion rhythms and building electronic, string, and brass chaos of "Do The Slim Jim" before launching into the the sprawling 16-minute "Slits Aranda." The track starts off with muted brass chords and shimmering cymbals that would not have been out of place on Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain before moving into a propulsive jazz sketch complete with female vocals and bellowing saxophone courtesy of Jackie-O Motherfucker's Jeff Brown. The track then slides into a stew of horns and improvisational reeds before picking up again in the final three minutes with the original thumping bass, percussion, and saxophone for a return to the track's main theme. While "Slits Aranda" shows Rollerball at their best, mixing traditional structure with avant-grade notions, other tracks highlight the band's ability to collaborate with guest artists. On "Burning Light," Portland electronic artist Nudge molds the band's sound in a way that deconstructs the various percussive and melodic elements, mixing each instrument (vocals included) to produce a cohesive blend that allows each sound to retain its individual timbre. In the final three tracks of the album, Rollerball shifts into experimental mode, tinkering with genres ranging from dub to free-form jazz. Behind the Barber's final track, "Fake Tan," dissolves into a mix of a electronic chaos and mystical chants with a slow and chilling fade that ends the album on a more subtle note.
- Carter Adams
Empress, "The Sounds They Made"
Empress has always been fond of devilishly deliberate songs, The Sounds They Made is no different. Each tune is plucked and sung and crafted with utter concentration, though without anything so technical which might require such concentration. The obvious question is, "Why work with such slowness?", or, "Why plod through songs through which even the most rudimentary musician should be able to sprint?" The most convincing answer I came up with was that the deliberateness prolongs the sensation and experience of the soft-spoken beauty of these songs. In "The Worry and the Wine," the initial melody sounds like the second day sessions of a self-taught guitarist just learning how to piece together musical sentences (such a guitar-wielding autodidact will stutter and stop and start again on some newfound melody, all the while clinging to the elegance found within this newly discovered progression of sounds). The space between the notes becomes just as long (and as musical) as the notes themselves. Each anticipatory moment between the notes has that air of potential mistake, where a sharp or flat tone could cause the song to fall apart or at least break down briefly. Yet the melody hardly falters, and soon Nicola Hodgkinson's lovely vocals fade in and blanket the melody with a perfect complement. The effect is rather stunning, like being witness to genesis of a modern indie lullaby. The entire album is a collection of lullabies: hushed and soft-spoken vocals like windblown wisps of snow and guitars supplying notes only where there is the barest of need. The novelty Empress adds to their lullabies is a slight twist of electronics (echoey clicks and reverb swoop in between notes and swirl around playfully). "For Trains" has a jittery stop and start which sounds like the skipping of a CD (I was quite convinced that my CD player's laser was doing quite a jig on the surface of the CD) but then the crystalline and unwavering vocals confirm that it is pure artifice and not a surface scratch or faulty disc. The song itself (jittery music with smooth vocals) is an abrasive listen and provides the hardest lullaby to listen to on the album. It is not unpleasant exactly, but rather it is not the song to fall asleep to. Amidst the more fleshed-out numbers on the album are some two-minute spacers, songs in their barest form, skeletons almost. They subdivide the album with simple repeated themes, bringing the entire timbre down to an even more narcotic level. Empress can sometimes be elusive with their quietude, so be careful that the few songs on the album which demand a more alert listen do not pass by too softly. - Joshua David Mann
Biosphere, "Autour de la Lune"
Geir Jenssen lives in a different world. From his Artic Circle perch the man called Biosphere is building a body of work as iconoclastic as Aphex Twin, with as much eerie remove and accidental influence. Albums like Patashnik and Substrata are landmarks in ambient music not because they spawned a million rip-offs but because they work within a recognizable stylistic blueprint to create absolutely alien music, threatening total immersion to even the most cautious of "background" listeners. Jenssen's last, 2002's Shenzhou found him treading further towards alienating extremes, something like a pitch-black homage to Debussy, with orchestra samples stretched thin and opaque across an ocean of icy, crevice-filled ambience (in other words, what we all wished Drukqs had been). Autour, commissioned by French radio last year, not only rejects anything close to a wide "radio" audience, but it is by far the most trying Biosphere release thus far, with Jenssen moving past the beat-less transparencies begun with Substrata and into a harsh meditation on deep-space, a 74-minute confined drift that begins well into the air-less upper regions and does not conclude until positioned hopelessly within a dimensionless dump-off on the darker side of some heavenly body. Occupying a third of the disc's length, the opening "Translation" acts like the final kiss-off to Earth and the earthen sounds that often find a place in Biosphere music. A rebus of plastic tones, entwined with enough care to erase all human touch, becomes a sky-like ceiling with which groaning engine sounds and whining drones struggle in a pitiless slipping, past the threshold and into the heart of Autour. Apart from a track or two based around a few distorted samples from a 60s radio dramatization of Jules Verne's De la Terre à la Lune (the "focus" of the 2003 commission) and actual recordings of MIR astronauts, the majority of the disc develops a vacuous, unsettling atmosphere made up of seriously subsonic bass frequencies and shrill, synthetic tones dividing and encasing the deliberate arcs and hidden textures of each of the nine "movements." By the sixth track, "Circulaire," the trip has arrived at a false ending of sorts, an off-putting climax where the piece grounds out to two dissenting sounds, one a near-inaudible below-bass pulse and the other the sinister calm of a solid flatline. From this remote place, more Onkyo than Eno, Jenssen really has nowhere to drift except slowly back towards the beginning, to the lush plasticities of "Trombant," almost coming full circle on the opening track but stopping short, allowing melody and lush texture enough footing only to remind us of what has been left behind. Melodies emerge, like the aimless cosmonaut voice samples, as if beamed from a great distance, light years into the black, like ghosts of a human presence long since abandoned. Autour is not easy listening, and if it doesn't stand as the most returnable place in the Biosphere catalog, it's only because Jenssen has never sounded so remote and thoroughly haunting. - Andrew Culler
PHILIPPE BESOMBES, "LIBRA"
Philippe Besombes was a Ph.D. student with an abiding interest in contemporary electro-acoustic music, an interest that led him to collaborate and play with Jean Michel Jarre, Jean-Francois Dessoliers (as PJF) and Jean-Louis Rizet (as Pole). Both Besombes' and Pole's notoriety have been sealed by their inclusion on Steven Stapleton and John Fothergill's famous Nurse With Wound Influence List, which appeared in the liner notes for NWW's debut album. Israel's MIO records has been doing quite a good job in issuing rarities from the NWW list lately, and this CD is no exception. Comprising the entire original 1974 Libra LP on Tapioca (composed as the soundtrack to the film of the same name), MIO also generously adds four tracks from the same general time period, filling out the running time of the disc to 76 minutes. Besombes' unorthodox work nervously straddles two strikingly different dimensions - avant-garde electronic composition and the contemporary European prog and psych-rock prevalent at the time. Besombes negotiates this dichotomy rather brilliantly, producing a spectacularly unique album that pulls in influences seemingly from everything the artist ever heard in his lifetime. The paltry three samples below simply can't reflect the true variety of approaches on the album, from the jarring metallic drones and disturbingly strangled vocals of "La Plage" to the cosmic Indian twang of "Raggacountry" to the languid fuzz guitar lounge of "Ballade en Velo." Besombes employs various synthesizers, Moogs, electric sitars, oscillators and a studio full of rock session players to achieve the stunning dynamics of the album. "Boogimmick" is a synth-drenched heavy blues stomp in the style of Hawkwind, but also seeming simultaneously to function as an absurdist parody of such music. "Hache 6" stands out, a heavily phased funk excursion, reminiscent of the kind of eclectic library music uncovered by Luke Vibert and Barry 7 on their Lo Recordings compilations. Before the album is over, I'm treated to an atonal free-jazz meltdown ("La Ville"), a science-fiction fanfare of mind-altering proportions ("Les Cosmonautes") and a lovely psych ballad ("Tis a Song"). Bonus tracks range from a funky breakbeat jazz number with female vocals to an amazingly textured, 20-plus minute piece for prepared piano. Libra is a fantastic album, in that rare category of storied, obscure albums that actually deserve their reputation. - Jonathan Dean
Old 97s, "Drag It Up"
At its simplest, this album proves yet again what exactly is wrong with the major record label system: they don't know what to do with good talent, and they relentlessly promote the mediocre variety. Old 97s were the darlings of the indie rock scene, releasing one album on their own and another for Bloodshot Records, throwing out their own brand of punkified countryness with a classic Old West feel. They were eventually snatched up by Elektra, where they released three more records, every one an attempt by the band and the label more the latter than the former, I'd wager to get that one true hit, making the songs poppier and poppier as they went along. They did pretty well, but their albums never really hit the big time, and eventually label and band parted ways. This obviously triggered a return to the DIY moments of their past, as their first album for their new label is a true awakening of potential, and a bold statement about where a band can go on their own if they're not prodded and poked. Old 97s of old had fire and spunk, but still held on to their roots, maintaining a flavor and sound that was decidedly uncommercial, as it was unsure where they fit in. That feel, that classic "we don't know if this is going to work" vibe, is all over these songs, and the band sound better than ever. This is wholesale rejuvenation, with every band member pulling out their very best, and letting the true directions of the band set in. Drag It Up was recorded on eight tracks, and most vocals recorded in one room with one microphone. It sounds dirty, uneven, and like the band wanted to take chances. The record features guitarist Ken Bethea's first stab at lead vocals on "Coahuila," and while not a brilliant first effort, the track has the most energy of any on the record. Bassist Murry Hammond sings a few tracks, as usual, and as usual I'm not real fond of those songs, though they are still great slices of storytelling. When all pieces fall into place, it's like all the stars aligned and the true shape of the constellation can be revealed. Rhett Miller's clean wail is better than ever on songs like "Bloomington" and "The New Kid," and he even warbles here and there, letting the little imperfections make it all better. What it all adds up to is that five albums along Old 97s are experiencing a rebirth, and the sky's the limit. - Rob Devlin
FORMS OF THINGS UNKNOWN, "CROSS PURPOSES"
Forms of Things Unknown is primarily the work of multi-instrumentalist and windplayer Ferrara Brain Pan, who has previously played with Boyd Rice and legendary krautrockers Faust. For his debut EP as Form of Things Unknown, the artist tackles a galaxy of wind instruments, including bass clarinet, saxophone, flute, recorder, Tibetan thighbone trumpet, didgeridoo and shakahuchi. Multiple overdubs and liberal sonic mutations push the material into the sort of dark, uneasy territories occupied by Coil and Nurse With Wound, who seem to have exerted heavy influence on Mr. Pan. The first two tracks are two movements of the same 16-minute piece, amusingly entitled "Black Candles & Pentagrams 'n Shit." Extended tape loops of the aforementioned horns circulate slowly, as deep, vibratory foghorns blow across a murky lagoon at midnight. Occasional swipes of backwards-tracked sound contribute a ritualistic mood to the proceedings, but the artist gracefully breathlessly bends and bows his performance to mesmeric effect. The next two tracks represent an instrumental and vocal arrangement of an anonymously composed 14th century devotional song. Monsieur Pan plays his courtly medieval recorders with aplomb, and vocalist Shannon Wolfe beautifully renders the Latin lyrics. The song is immediately reminiscent of Shirley and Dolly Collins and other 1960's neo-medievalists, and that's enough to keep me smiling for weeks. The last track is an unorthodox arrangement of UK punk legend and former Buzzcock Howard Devoto's "Stupid Blood," from his latter day Luxuria project. The song trips along at its own turgid pace, with Mr. Pan providing pleasurable blasts of layered brass and vocalist Bob Ayres delivering the lyrics in a stately baritone. The EP ends with an incredibly brief answering machine message left for Ferrara Brain Pan by one Babs Santini, which has prompted the artist to label each copy of this EP with a sticker declaring "Special guest appearance by Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound," thus hopefully luring unsuspecting NWW completists to buy his music. However misleading and manipulative this strategy seems, I don't think avid Nurse fans would be disappointed by Cross Purposes in the slightest, should they be tricked into purchasing it. On the contrary, this is a dynamic and intriguing work, just the sort of thing your average NWW fan would be in for. - Jonathan Dean
Olympic Hopefuls, "The Fuses Refuse to Burn"
Olympic Hopefuls is the brainchild of Erik Applewick and Darren Jackson, who have been in various Minneapolic rock outfits, but never quite like this. Their debut album is ten tracks of power indie pop with grand designs and great hooks, recorded with full polish and studio tricks galore, like synthesizers that are only there for part of a verse, looped samples, and plenty of effects. This is the rare occasion where that sort of production style actually enhances these songs, as they are ripe for this kind of treatment. Sure the songs might have done well with straightforward rock in a room recording and mixing, but they're so quirky that the xylophones and repeating backup vocals just bring out the more odd sections of the lyrics. The opening track, "Imaginary," about a love that no one sees but that is truly there to the beholder, might come off as creepy in other hands, but the Hopefuls make it a sad story of misunderstanding, all the while rocking across a triumph of love almighty. These are very simple concepts with a new twist, usually, or plaintive confessions of open wounds, but there's no pretense or artifice, just earnest fun and rock and roll. "Drain the Sea" is about a somewhat forbidden love with true feeling, and with lyrics like "your dad says my head is filled with rocks and sand" you almost feel sorry for the protagonist, reaching out to him. But he doesn't want pity, as he's willing to take measures, as later lyrics approach near threats like "they'd better mind their own business before they interfere." It's a song like this that is the typical representation of these songs, slick tricks and bright tones with just an undertone of madness. So is the essence of the Olympic Hopefuls: dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with the inner workings of the mind. It w!
orks extremely well, as this album is one of the best I've heard in a
while. - Rob Devlin
Kawabata Makoto, "O Si Amos A Sighire A Essere Duas Umbras?"
Even the thought of a two-track, solo guitar release from this Acid Mothers Temple founder may have more than a few people reaching for the "wank" button; however, this disc shows a side of Kawabata that usually isn't lucky enough to escape the sludge and heavy syrup psych his group's been churning out since the mid-90's. Here are two 30+ minute improvs, one acoustic and one electric, both packed with enough reverb and delay to make Kawabata's bandmates proud, but both also miles away from the elastic freakouts and deliberate bombast that characterize AMT. Created just after a trip to Sardinia, where Kawabata claims to have undergone a spiritual awakening, these pieces are exactly the kind of weightless, shimmering psychedelia that I wish he'd start integrating within the AMT repertoire. They immediately suggest those moments of rural bliss, of remote escape, water and sky, attempted by so many acid-led seekers but realized only by a happy, unsuspecting few. The first begins in the guitarist's room where simple note clusters fall into walls of their own reverb and thin blankets of amp hum, as if shaken from larger projections of themselves. From here the acoustic begins to climb slow, billowing figures, cyclical and frail, recalling the quieter sides of the already quiet Richard Youngs, Jim O'Rourke, and even late-period Fahey whose own love affair with the reverb box seems almost conservative by comparison. Kawabata divides his single guitar's sound into three separate systems, binding spindly three-note fragments to columns of their own piling, delayed resonance, rising as if the ruins of some ancient holy space left to loss and vegetation. By the end of this first track, the guitarist seems content to let even these magical images go, whipping a particularly melancholic chord progression into a disintegrating ascent, its layers of playback, multiple reverb, and delay assembling a massive shimmering waveform, light as breath and coming on without the exhaustion that accompanies so many AMT climaxes. Rather, Kawabata creates an open-ended devotional, a piece that truly feels rooted in moments of transcendence but whose subtlety of flow and improvised construction keep it from the force-feeding often associated with his work. For the disc's title track, he essentially extends the peaking drone from the first acoustic piece, this time with an electric guitar and a similar arsenal of simple delay and reverb effects. The shift to electric allows for a shimmering structure even more crystalline and otherworldly, mounted by piles of clear feedback that lead a head-cleaning 45 min. blast along horizons, a droning journey that bottoms out at the edge of some ancient sun-bleached lake, infinitely calm. Those looking for proof that Kawabata is capable of curbing the drug-damaged big riffage for at least a few hours, or those curious about how this tireless electric warrior might approach an acoustic guitar need look no further than O Si Amos, where even past prejudices bend to the guitarist's reverent approach and the new potential for spiritual therapy latent in his work. - Andrew Culler
We know that our music picks may be somewhat challenging to find, which is why we have a community section which can be used to obtain nearly everything available on this site.