GROWING/MARK EVAN BURDEN, "FIRMAMENT/10.24.02"
Growing had the good fortune of releasing their album The Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light last year in the midst of an underground scene that had lately become obsessed on the low-end doom-laden guitar drones proffered by bands like Sunn O))), Earth, and Birchville Cat Motel. Growing's album was unfairly lumped into this loose grouping of artists, which the association with producer Rex Ritter (of Fontanelle/Jessamine and Sunn O))) involvements) didn't really help. To my ears, Growing share little or nothing in common with the aforementioned acts. Their brand of drone is clean and polished, harmonically precise, thick, substantial and evocative; not noisy, chaotic or unstructured, and not matched with pseudo-metal aesthetic trappings. It shares much more in common with certain avant-garde explorers of the drone (LaMonte Young, Tony Conrad, Terry Riley), or even a bit like Nurse With Wound's elegiac drone masterpiece Soliloquy for Lilith. This long-delayed split CD drives home my point. Growing's contribution, a 19-minute piece entitled "Firmament," is not doom-y, funereal, earthbound or dirge-y in the slightest; it's a hypnotically beautiful ambient work combining guitar and bass harmonics with limited electronic elements formulated to lift the listener into a heavenly firmament of clouds. The slow, unfocused drones buzz, vibrate and harmonize at unexpected moments to suggest a kind of lazy melody, slowly smearing out cumulonimbus clouds on the crystal blue horizon. The technical precision with which Growing record and produce their music is stunning; at high volumes played on speakers, the piece takes on quadraphonic qualities, as the lower frequencies vibrate random items in the room, creating another level of physical immersion. Sharing this disc with Growing is a solo piece from Mark Evan Burden, who some may know from his involvement in Get Hustle and Glass Candy, or his solo work as Silentist. His piece "10.24.02" is an avant-garde compositional piece for piano, percussion and electronics. The press notes compare this piece to Cage, Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow, none of which I'm terribly familiar with, so I am without a real reference point for this music. For the non-academically-minded such as myself, the piece still holds a lot of interest, with an intense, energetic performance by Burden on piano, locking himself into complex grooves which grow in complexity with each repetition as treble-heavy electronic tones bubble up and take over the foreground. The piece slowly develops over its 15-minute length, traveling through several movements, increasing echo and reverb until the piano blends together with the electronics in a nebulous and suggestive tangle. Though avant-garde piano composition is not usually a big turn-on for me, I really enjoyed this piece immensely. - Jonathan Dean
Contagious Orgasm, "From the Irresponsible Country Sounds"
Contagious Orgasm have been around for a long time now, but if their name is unfamiliar, it's because much of their discography has been released in very small quantities or on labels already filled to the brim with peculiar artists, all of which probably already have a large fan base. Contagious Orgasm's music is a strong blend of melody, rhythm, sound collage tape manipulation, noise, and textured soundtracks made from a veritable junk heap of sampled oddities and processed performance. From the Irresponsible Country Sounds is a 23 minute EP released in 2004 on the Troniks/Pacrec label and highlights just about every aspect of this group's sound that I've been able to come across. At the center of both songs is a strong hook or a readily identifiable segment that holds all of the stranger sections together and makes them fit seamlessly. "The World of the Pillaged Sound" is marked by a lovely rolling guitar line that flows along as smoothly as a sine wave, but is interrupted by freak-out guitar solos, drum machine percussion, and random bursts of unidentifiable sound and radio interference. At times sounding like a cartoon gone horribly wrong, Contagious Orgasm are also capable of astounding beauty. The music manages to take on emotional aspects after repeated listens and, not long after that, the music begins to sound like its detailing some strange narrative that only the most subterranean individuals could relate. Both songs are elegant and hypnotic works of music, noise, and perfectly arranged sound experimentation. There are other artists who have worked on this level before, one particular Nurse comes to mind immediately, but I've not heard another group play on that palette before and come up with such unique and enjoyable songs. - Lucas Schleicher
Quasimoto, "The Further Adventures of Lord Quas"
Stones Throw Records
This album is yet another testament to the teeming genius that is Madlib's ability as a visionary producer and rapper. For those who don't know, Lord Quasimoto's adventures began years ago with a $50 sack of mushrooms. "Basically, I had a bad trip and out came Quas." So was the genesis of Quasimoto, beat virtuoso Madlib's high-pitched alter-ego. Previously only confined to private mixtapes, at Peanut Butter Wolf's insistence he was made known to the world via 2000's The Unseen (because aside from inside Madlib's subconsciousness he only exists via music, which hasn't stopped Stones Throw from being inundated with concert requests). Perpetually blazing, cartoonishly violent, never afraid to throw a punch or a brick, a mack in the best Supafly tradition and dropping brilliantly slick rhymes all the way, Quas is both an outlet for the author of Madvillian's darker thoughts and a vehicle for listeners into a seedy urban ghetto lifestyle taken to a blunted extreme: a truly psychedelic hip-hop record. The Unseen used a dizzyingly diverse amalgam of sounds to create its distinct universe; Further Adventures takes it up a notch. 1980s funk and soul synths, the requisite killer jazz loops so obscure that Madlib probably owns the only extant copy, Bollywood chants and a marvelous collection of "found-sounds": melodramatic snippets from horror flicks and hilariously cheesy 1960s informational records on "grass" and its effects that nearly make the record worthwhile all by themselves. Critically speaking, Madlib is "another one of those people" who uses other peoples' music to make his own. However, his aptitude as a sampler and a remixer makes him able to create such creatively distinct brand new music out of the source material that such detractions sound absurd. On "Bus Ride," his dueting with an old Melvin Van Peebles routines is as soul-wrenching and dramatic than anything Peebles or Curtis Mayfield (or even Stevie Wonder!) ever did, and his accompanying back-and-forth verse set a "Strange Piano" makes the snippet his own. The Further Adventures of Lord Quas comes as no surprise to Madlib's followers, whether they came on board during the Lootpack era or were Madvillian-era latecomers. To this longtime Quasimoto crew groupie, The Unseen is better simply because of its novelty. Nothing like Quasimoto quite existed in the hip-hop world then, and the same is true today. New listeners, if open-minded enough, will delight in finding themselves in the bad character's world for the first time. - Chris Roberts
Freiband is the solo project of Frans de Waard, one half of Dutch experimental duo Beequeen. For past outings under the Freiband name, de Waard experimented with Asmus Tietchens-inspired tape-scratching, adapting the techniques into a digital medium and appropriating pop music from the 1970s and 80s to make a unique form of experimental glitch plunderphonia. This cute little 3" CD takes this idea a bit further, using source material from the Beatles' sole instrumental track "Flying" from Magical Mystery Tour, reducing it to its barest structure and recomposing it for metallic, glitch-y pops and rustling undercurrents of shapeless drone. I am fairly certain I never would have made the Beatles connection had the press notes not informed me of the piece's origins. Flying is a 20-minute experimental concept piece broken up into eight different movements, each dissecting the original material in a different way, all of them rendering the original totally unrecognizable. Track one retains the rhythmic structure, where track two creates various layers of throbbing electronic noises in which rhythm is far from a constant. The strictly minimal sound palette and clinical digital production reminds me at times of a Raster-Noton release, which is frequently not a good sign of musical quality, at least in my opinion. There's nothing bad about the sounds on this mini CD, but it sort of defies any kind of critical assessment of its quality, as it is by its nature non-musical and a bit prickly. There are some interesting moments, such as the sixth track, where alien, reptilian syllables lick forked tongues over a looped vibraphone. These moments are brief and insubstantial, however, and aren't anywhere near as intriguing as releases by Beequeen. I could try to make this sound more interesting by ruminating on the implicit ideas of digital technology and the decay of the system inherent in the incipient glitch, but what would be the point? Those ideas could just as easily apply to a steel wool-scoured CD of the last Green Day album, which is not exactly my idea of good music. - Jonathan Dean
Hive Mind, "Sand Beasts"
Greh, Chondritic Sound's founder, has gotten a lot of attention for his own noise work, but until hearing this I had no idea why. Death Tone, an album whose name I couldn't even get right, failed to impress me because it felt like one continuous spin through the same material that was introduced in the first five minutes of its one and only track. Sand Beasts, on the other hand, is a devastating trip through the least flattering of sounds and, in the end, feels like it could be a recording of the ugliest animals on the planet mating. The entire album is a thunderous, 38+ minute track that booms and wails with all manner of crisp, textured sounds and open, cavernous poundings that echo like a giant come to feast on the flesh of the living. Greh's approach on this earlier record is roughly the same as his approach on Death Tone, but the density of his sound selection and his ability to wield pressure and release perfectly makes this a far better recording. The hissing, crawling, concrete sounds that he pulls out of his machinery crawl at a deadly pace, sneaking through the cracks in the floors and walls, waiting and growing until the intensity is too great and everything comes crashing down in a stupendous wave of noise and earth-shaking booms. Imagine a block of granite is being pulverized slowly by the elements, then imagine that Greh's managed to capture the process of its complete disintegration; he's just sped the recording up a bit so that it can be witnessed in a decent amount of time. There's not a single cheerful moment on this record; its doom-laden soul is one continuous march through every destructive tendency imaginable: a constant grimace that crushes at every twist and turn until I'm left slumped down in my chair and in need of a break from the bleakness of it all. - Lucas Schleicher
Silk Saw, "Empty Rooms"
There are few clues as to the nature of the French play that this CD is a soundtrack for. Although it is described as an adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrant, the Foreign language liner notes and sparse interiors depicted in the booklet point toward an effort to take the music out of its context as a commission. This music certainly has enough merit to exist separate from the live performances the Silk Saw duo of Marc Medea and Gabriel Severin gave during each performance of the play in late 2003 and early 2004. The set consists of 11 mostly shorter, chaotic pieces bookended by two lengthy tracks that are structured around a persistent kick drum pulse. The duo uses layers of various crackling, gurgling and sputtering electronics to achieve a dark, claustrophobic environment throughout. As their previous full lengths for Ant-Zen, Preparing Wars and 4th Dividers sounded markedly different from one another, Empty Rooms again sees them exploring a different approach. Their usual rhythms take a back seat to noise and atmospheric textures on most of these tracks, and are instead fragmented or act as pulses. They have clearly benefitted from the collaborative nature of the project, as it seems to have forced them to think in a different way. The use of voices from the actual play during several tracks adds a human element to what would have otherwise sounded like alien material. The two long tracks that open and close the set"Konservatorium" and "Einaktiges Stuck"are the most rewarding listens. They allow Silk Saw to use one of their main strengths, developing layers gradually over 10 or 15 minutes each. Though the ideas explored on some of the shorter tracks are interesting sonically, many of them simply cut off abruptly just as they are becoming exciting. The synthesizer sirens that cut through the chaotic noise piling up during "Chor" are prematurely silenced, and the wheezing bursts of analog detritus that make up "Holderlin Und Zimmer" are suddenly stopped before the track reaches three minutes. Perhaps the nature of the project limited the running time of several of these pieces. It would have been nice to hear them take a few of these ideas and extend their duration to equal the success of the two long tracks, but as a soundtrack they fulfill a certain functional obligation. The gesture to include challenging live music in a theatrical context is one that should be applauded. Although this release is an engaging listen on its own, an accompanying DVD of the performance would have been welcome and may have helped toward understanding the larger intent of the project. - Jim Siegel
Alexander Hacke, "Sanctuary"
Alexander Hacke's new solo album Sanctuary bears some of the hallmarks of Einstürzende Neubauten's last album Perpetuum Mobile, an album that documented the concept of travel in a very tight and streamlined way. Unlike Perpetuum Mobile, Hacke uses a myriad of styles and tempos which make it difficult to listen to at first. Repeated listenings reveal that the album's lack of continuity is its strong point. It is like a series of audio postcards from Hacke, each one giving a flavor of where he is. The album was recorded by Hacke during his travels and an army of guest artists (including J.G. Thirlwell, Andrew Chudy, David Yow and Caspar Brötzmann) and the results were assembled into Sanctuary. There is no particular style that is common to every track, each one is its own little microcosm. "Sister" is a mix of swirling guitars surging up during breaks in the vocal sample taken from a women's self defence tutorial. This is the first point on the album that really captivated me. The relaxed "Love me love my dog" is a massive shift of pace after "Sister," at this point I found myself being lulled into a cosy sanctuary of my own. The title track and "Seven" are where Hacke gets to use all those guitar riffs that don't fit into Neubauten's repertoire. These more straight-forward rock pieces seemed a little too standard at first but, as with everything on this album, they later revealed some hidden depths. "Per Sempre Butterfly" is the highlight of the album and sucked me in straight away. Gianna Nannini's emotive performance is inspired and the layers of textured sounds and tabla drumming complement her voice perfectly. Sanctuary touches base with many styles without sounding too trite or pretentious, however it does suffer because of its eclectism. Once I became familiar with the album and knew what to expect it clicked as a complete body of music. Hacke has made a very good album but it requires a little bit of work to fully appreciate what he has done. - John Kealy
Piano Magic, "Disaffected"
Fortunately, the title of Piano Magic's new album is not indicative of the music. There is a certain coldness and calculation to Glen Johnson's ensemble but it does not quite approach disaffection. Part of the album's chill is due to the explicit motif of ghosts and spectral images which cuts across both the music and the liner notes. The album's insert is filled with negative photographic images, giving the impression of looking across some dimensional boundary into another plane of existence. On the cover there is the moderately disturbing photograph of a man's head lying in bed as if asleep or, more likely, dead. Tree branches emanate from the top of his skull like antlers. The whole scene is awash in grayness and the antiseptic bed linens and death-stare give the aura of an open-casket wake. The songs themselves are a mixture of two very different sounds found on the last two Piano Magic albums: the first one is found on Writers Without Homes and it is a post-rock big band sound which doesn't mesh well with my conception of the band as an electronically eerie and spacious outfit. The second sound is from the more recent The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic and it returns Piano Magic to an electronically-assisted and vacuous moodiness which is more consistent with the band's roots. I am not very fond of this first type of Piano Magic sound. "You Can Hear the Room," the album's opener, is an example of the former sound. It begins humbly but metastasizes into some gargantuan full band jam by the end. There is no space for the ghosts to inhabit the notes even though the lyrics tend to suggest that the song is in line with the album's central conceit. The first half of Disaffected is replete with this sound. Guest vocalist John Grant of The Czars has his obligatory appearance and continues his droll infection and inflection of Johnson's songs, twisting them into something hard to listen to rather than something pleasant. I find this second type of Piano Magic sound much more agreeable. "The Theory of Ghosts" is a prime example of this sound. You can simply feel the emptiness and space which haunts the music. The song is also the epitomic example of where less truly is more. Careful tunesmithing replaces crowded instrumentation and the eastern-sounding string work is a beautiful arrangement ornamenting the song. Other songs which fall into this latter category are "The Nostalgist," "You Can Never Get Lost (When You've Nowhere to Go)," "Disaffected," and "Deleted Scenes." "Disaffected" is an extended and finely-crafted synth beat featuring Klima's Angele David-Guillou on vocals. A delicate acoustic guitar part bridges the first half of the song (the vocal half) with the clicky electronic jam at the end. "Deleted Scenes," on the other hand, is a thoroughly moribund and enjoyable New Order homage. "Love & Music" creates a category all of its own and doesn't fit into the dichotomy I have laid out thus far. The syncopated drum beat is, at the very least, unexpected from the band, creating almost a Bossanova sound. This alone places the song as a strong antithesis to what I consider to be Piano Magic's sound (of either the first or second variety). The lyrics are inexcusably repetitive and monotonous, crying out for an indictment of laziness on the band's part. Along the same lines, I want to like Johnson's seemingly autobiographical "I Must Leave London" (which details his forsaking of the Queen's country and his repatriation on the continent in Spain) better but it sounds exhausted and almost uninspired. Disaffected has trouble existing as one cohesive entity. In keeping too thematically with its motif, the album constantly has one foot in the land of the living and the other in the land of the dead, like a ghost unaware of its ghostliness. - Joshua David Mann
Luke Vibert, "Lover's Acid"
From the start, I didn't have much hope for Luke Vibert's latest, a CD reissue of his two Planet Mu records, 2002's Homewerk and 2000's '95-'99, with four previously unreleased bonus tracks. Upon hearing a handful the MP3 samples from the Planet Mu website prior to its release, I was brought back to the grand letdown that was his lackluster YosepH album on Warp Records, which I referred to back in 2003 as "a journey far away from the dancefloor to a rather deep place somewhere inside Vibert's rectum." Fortunately, the material on this CD, while largely unspectacular, isn't nearly as self-serving and kitschy, perhaps due to the fact that 2/3 of it was originally released on DJ friendly vinyl (with the latter 1/3 now available in 12" format as well). The JUST ADD ACID technique Vibert has employed consistently in recent years has produced a catalog of music that dramaticallyvaries in quality, ranging from delicious disco of the Kerrier District project to the over-the-top gimmickry of Wagon Christ's Sorry I Make You Lush. No exception to this phenomenon, Lover's Acid is all over the map. Tedious numbers like "Funky Acid Stuff," "Come On Chaos," and the title track are examples of Vibert's noodling gone boring, lazily blurting and bleeping along with no direction or purpose. A surprising execution of the formula comes on "Dirty Fucker," a rediscovery of the dancefloor with snappy breakbeats and a dirty bleating bassline complete with ominous breakdown and a bonkers acid buildup. Still, the best tracks here are those where Vibert isn't gratituitously doling out sloppy globs of TR-303 like a demented lunchlady. "Gwithian" brings back the spirit of Musipal, deep and jazzy with well placed vocal snippets for feelgood Sunday afternoon vibes. Deceptively starting off minimal and brooding, "Prick Tat" evolves quickly into a smooth hip hop groover shimmering with bright synth patterns and spaced out effects. Despite my initial prejudices, Lover's Acid has more merits than expected, yet still leaves me wanting for something better, something revitalizing. All I can suggest at this point is plead for Vibert to take a chance and return to his old Plug moniker. Considering some of the more "liquid" records coming from drum n bass labels like Hospital, I'm sure he would be greeted with open arms. - Gary Suarez
Robert Lippok & Barbara Morgenstern, "Tesri"
With any collaboration, searching for that elusive balance between respective styles doesn't necessarily yield fantastic results, with the pitfalls of compromise and dominance playing significant roles in the songwriting process. Many times, the sound of one musician will drown out the voice of another. Unsurprising considering Lippok's prior work, this new album from two prominent names in the Berlin music scene falls into this category, basking in the glow of that painfully familiar space between pop and kitsch often found on To Rococo Rot records. I'm unable to discern what influence Morgenstern, whose work I'm familiar with from select compilation appearances, has had on these accessible and light recordings. It's hardly a unique venture considering the surplus of acts doing precisely the same thing, I'm nonetheless expected to take Tesri more seriously than their peers. I've heard enough of the music in this electronic pop subgenre over at least the past six years to know that this isn't as special as it wants to be. I'm not trying to discredit Lippok or Morgenstern based on their minor celebrity, but I cannot help but expect more than a mere rehash of The Amateur View with guitar and piano. "Ein Knoten Aus Schwarz" and "Kaitusburi" could have easily been outtakes salvaged from old TRR studio sessions, tweaked and reworked for this release. This is an unfortunate situation considering how much promise the album starts off with. The exciting opener "Please Wake Me For Meals" drops lush acoustic elements over a solid electro beat, introducing bleeps, scratches, and airy analogue synths about midway. "If The Day Remains Unspoken For" stands out as the most luscious fruit of Lippok and Morgenstern's endeavor. Featuring the soulful vocals of Telefon Tel Aviv's Damon Aaron, the track simultaneously oozes melodic warmth and clinical abstraction yet comes together remarkably well. Perhaps if these two collaborate again they might employ Aaron for more than just one song. Tesri is not a bad release, and fans of Lippok's earlier material will not be disappointed, yet I had hoped for something much more memorable and less spotty. - Gary Suarez
MERZBOW, "RATTUS RATTUS"
Everyone pretty much knows by now that it's pretty useless to review a new Merzbow album. Merzbow is Merzbow, and he'll always be Merzbow, and he "does" Merzbow better than all of the Merzbow copyists out there, and it will probably always be that way. Aside from a few minor quibbles over whether digital-era Merzbow is better or worse than the original analog Merzbow, there really isn't a whole lot of critical division over Merzbow's output. It's almost always noise, loud and aggressive, often with loud percussive slaps to the face thrown in for good measure. Rattus Rattus is certainly no exception, a cyclone of atonal, shrieking digital clamor with buffeting, battering ram beats that explore every level of the audible range of sound in an attempt to assault the listener on all fronts. The CD seems to have a concept of sorts, the title and the cover art being suggestive of everyone's favorite household pest rodent. This is very different from Matmos' rat concept album (2004's Rat Relocation Program), as instead of sampling said creatures as Matmos did, Masami Akita opts merely to suggest the presence of the creatures with a series of tiny claw-scratched noise attacks and high, trebly shrieking. Masami also provides the address of the PETA website on the back of the disc's sleeve, suggesting that perhaps the album has something or other to do with animal rights. It would be hard to say where the vegan message really comes into Rattus Rattus, unless the album were to be taken as a noisy screed against scientific experimentation on rats. Your guess is as good as mine in this respect. I've come nowhere close to hearing every Merzbow record, and in fact I probably only own five or six CDs, so I'd have a very hard time coming up with a good comparison to any of his previous works. This one does have a very nice quality that might warrant repeated listens, however. All three tracks contain enough rapid shifts in tone, frequency, tempo and aggression enough to keep things dynamic, as opposed to past Merzbow records that have easily fallen into a background of white noise. There is no chance of being lulled into complacency while listening to this CD, especially during the final lengthy "Rattus Rattus Suite," which variously suggests an Alec Empire DHR-style cyberpunk explosion, an early Whitehouse album, something from the noisier end of Ant-Zen, and a digitized grindcore version of an Anal Cunt record or some other such throwaway splattercore. This is not to suggest that there is anything here that noise fans haven't heard a million times before. As Merzbow records go, this is definitely one of them. - Jonathan Dean
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