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STEVEN BROWN, "HALF OUT"

Not to minimize the great work that the LTM label has done dusting off the extensive back catalogs of labels like Factory and Les Disques du Crepuscule, but when I hear something like this Steven Brown album, it makes me wonder if their time and energy might be better spent on more worthwhile archival projects. LTM
Brown was, of course, a member of cult avant-garde band Tuxedomoon, the San Francisco collective that pulled up stakes and moved to Belgium in the mid-1980s. Last year LTM reissued a couple of albums by fellow Tuxedomoon alumnus Blaine L. Reininger, and it's actually a little weird how similar Brown and Reininger's solo material sounds, especially considering how little it resembles their work in Tuxedomoon. For their solo projects, both artists developed a distinctly MOR style of urbane, jazzy pop music with literate, world-weary lyrics. Luckily, Blaine L. Reininger's albums were saved by his prodigious talent on strings and his use of neo-baroque chamber quartet orchestrations. Steven Brown has no such saving grace however, and 1991's Half Out, his third solo album, suffers from "adult contemporary" blandness and an annoyingly overcomplicated production style. Each track is filled out with loads of superfluous compositional elements: keyboards, horns, emulators, synthesizers, strings, drum programming, accordion, guitars and backup vocals. It's all a bit exhausting, making relatively minimal tracks like the point-counterpoint "Violorganni" (a duet with Reininger) a welcome respite. For the majority of the album (and the four extraneous bonus tracks), Brown's music seems over-calculated and pseudo-sophisticated, from the tiresome opening monologue ("I've got a million things to say but I forgot. I could write a book but I lost my pen."), to the ill-advised Cole Porter cover ("In the Still of the Night"). In an effort to prove how intellectual and literate he is, Brown name drops Jean Cocteau, randomly breaks into French and Italian, and spins some incomprehensible yarn involving "Willy Loman with his Flemish Reader's Digest." Frankly, it's all a bit pompous, a collection of empty artistic gestures that don't seem terribly substantive. I seriously doubt I'll be giving Half Out another spin any time in the near future. 

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Review of the Day

THE HAFLER TRIO, "NORMALLY"
Soleilmoon
The voice of Blixa Bargeld of Einsturzende Neubauten is the raw material from which Andrew McKenzie constructed the sounds on the two discs comprising Normally. Disc one begins with silence. Silence is merely sound that lingers just beyond the threshold of audibility. Silence is unpotentiated space. Sound is the dissipation and usurpation of silence. When sound begins to gradually seep into the silence of Normally, the experience is akin to the onset of a hallucination. For Normally, McKenzie is not interested in language; any whispers or screams contributed by Mr. Bargeld are rendered indecipherable, and henceforth affect the listener on a purely subconscious, subliminal level. This is tellingly similar to the practice of talismanic magic, where the conscious desire is sublimated through a series of transformations into irretrievably esoteric codes and diagrams, bizarre correspondences and perverted anagrams. Magic and ritual are McKenzie's primary motivations on Normally. Like the hallucinatory state, where the mind is sometimes freed to make sympathetic connections between thought and manifestation, so too the sounds on Normally contribute to an unraveled head-state in which synchronicities are the rule rather than the exception. At various times during my first listen to disc one, as layers upon layers of meditational aumgns are gradually compounded, I heard the unmistakable sounds of descending piano scales, mewling kittens, distant muffled screams, even the sound of my front door violently being forced open. These were phantasms, no doubt, catalyzed by the abstract drones and ghostly monasterial choirs that McKenzie sculpts. By the 28-minute mark, the piece has taken on the majestic intensity of Gyorgi Ligeti's haunting choral works, sounding like the infinite vibratory intonations cascading from the void of space. Disc two, or "Sphotavado," deals primarily with the breath. Just as Aleister Crowley noted after a lifetime of study devoted to the tantric meditation, there is no better purgative than pranayama (breath control), and no better way to enervate the aspirant than the repetition of mantra. Using Bargeld's mantric recitations and breathy intonations, McKenzie provides a series of distinct, dynamic passages over the 65-minutes of the disc. Each passage fades in and out like breathing, and each takes the listener to a more remote, rarefied strata of magical conception. From the gentle, reedy abstractions of the opening passage all the way to the serpentine, metallic Kundalini brain-swipes of the final breath. At high volumes, many of these processed sounds vibrate portions of the ear canal in an unexpected way. I found that by moving my head back and forth, or changing my position in the room, I could radically change the experience of listening to "Sphotavado." McKenzie, therefore, has created a rare sound sculpture which can be actively engaged and changed by the listener. The enigmatic packaging and accompanying foldout booklet create a remarkable series of "blinds" that distract and mislead even as they lay bare the central theme of Normally; words create vibrations; vibration is the result of sound; sound is the articulation of existence; existence is created by a single word, vibrated.

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