music reviews from jeremy p. bushnell's raccoon
Most Raccoon Audio postings are now being archived at Thaumaturgy, a two-man blog dedicated to new experimental and psychedelic music
Thursday, Feburary 22, 2005
green inferno, by bird show
Many people coming to Green Inferno will already be familiar with Ben Vida, most likely from his relatively high-profile work with Town and Country. Fans of that outstanding ensemble might find, at least intially, that Green Inferno isn't exactly what they expected: the album opens with a loud nasal drone and an exuberant kalimba rhythm that is miles away from the acoustic constructions that have become Town and Country's stock-in-trade (and even further from the gentle arrangments for solo guitar that constitute Vida's 2000 album, Mpls.). With this opener ("All Afternoon") the album immediately earns its title, plunging us, without warning, into a chromatic head-space of teeming fractal intensity.
This opening is especially startling because it seems to draw its inspiration from a tradition of African ritual music, rather than from the tradition of Western art music that I'd more readily associate with Vida. Upon reflection this shift isn't actually so surprising: American minimalists have long been fascinated with the open-ended form and trance-inducing repetitions of African musica piece like Steve Reich's Drumming (1971), heavily informed by Reich's study of Ghanan polyrhythms, serves as the best expression of this tendency.
Not all of Green Inferno owes as heavy a debt to African traditional musics, however: the harmonium drones, acoustic guitar and trumpet of a piece like "Always / Never Sleep" would feel quite at home on a Town and Country album, and the album's vocal pieces, in which Vida murmurs vocals over field recordings of insectile hum, feel almost like a response to the sun-dappled meadow psychedelia of the Jewelled Antler folks. Then there's the short vocal piece "Landlovers," which, with its dazed croon, weird multitracking effects, and languid trumpet swells, uncannily evokes Chet Baker's collaborations with Terry Riley.
This compelling array of hybrid forms makes Green Inferno a consistently intriguing album. At its best it will show you a route through intricacy to bliss.
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Thursday, Feburary 10, 2005
I've always liked bands that swallow down lots of different musical influences, and then vomit them back up again in a kind of half-digested form. The commingled mixture that issues forth from these types of bands isn't always pleasant, but it can be fascinating to try identifying the recognizable bits floating in it.
Enter Ovo, a duo made up of Stefania Pedretti and Bruno Dorella, from Italy. Their album Cicatrici ("Scars") starts blaring its championing of violent hybridization from the moment you lay eyes on the cover art, which features a drawing of two happy amputees stitched together at the arm-stump. The music follows through on the promise of the image by taking a dog's breakfast of partsdoom-metal riffs, the sweaty percussive energy of hardcore, studio-based noise-fuckery, weird vocal uluationsand, over the course of nine tracks, conjoining them all together into a freaky chimera.
The sluggish metal grime and Gollum-esque vocals of "Ombra Nell Ombra" might appeal to fans of Sunn O))) or Khanate, and the overdriven squall that the violin of "Phiphenomena" disintegrates into might appeal to fans of acts like Cock ESP (who Ovo have toured with), but the album overall is more reminiscent of the radical chamelonic antics of the Boredoms, particularly circa Super AE or Chocolate Synthesizer. As with those great records, the crushingly heavy or brutally abrasive elements here are always mercifully leavened by a giddy humor, a nearly cartoonish element. (Imagine two Muppets starting a noise band and you'll be getting close to imagining the Ovo soundworld.)
If pressed, I'd admit that Ovo doesn't quite reach the awe-inspiring heights that the Boredoms, at their best, can scale: Cicatrici isn't without its paler moments, pieces that flag or flail. But the record as a whole still feels startlingly fresh and consistently original. Well worth checking out, and a band to watch for the future.
On Bar La Muerte.
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Friday, January 28, 2005
Of, The Buried Stream
For the better part of the past decade, Loren Chasse has been refining his compelling sonic approach, which generally involves "activating" the latent sound-making qualities of natural / commonplace objects, such as pine cones, leaves, stones, or paper. This approach will seem immediately familiar to fans of John Cage, although Chasse's work has always felt more humanist to me than Cage'sdriven less by theory and more by a romanticism that isn't afraid to get muddy or wet.
You could also align Chasse with R. Murray Schafer, father of acoustic ecology and author of the soundscape manifesto The Tuning of the World. Chasse often attempts to capture the acoustic properties of unusual environments, and his recordings of drainage pipes, old buildings, forests, and barns might fit nicely next to Schaefer's recordings of Vancouver soundscapes and European fishing villages.
If, following Chasse's lead, you start looking at every space as having a latent sonic quality, waiting to be awakened by sounding an instrument or object, and if you start looking at every instrument or object as in and of itself having a latent sonic quality, it begins to seem as though the entire world is pregnant with sound, and charged with (for lack of a better word) spirit. This animist world-view undoubtedly inflects Chasse's work with bands like Thuja, the Blithe Sons, and Coelacanth, but it finds its most unadulterted expression in his solo project, Of.
The Buried Stream is the second Of full-length release, following 2004's The Infant Paths, and, like its predecessor, it is an album that feels profoundly spiritual at every turn. Whether Chasse is engaged in uncharacteristically muscular drum-work (as in "The Jut of Rock") or eliciting numinous drones from organ and flute ("Mud Vowels"), or accompanying a recording of waterfowl with a quiet rattling bell ("Glowing Prints"), each track feels like the work of a man trying to bear witness to a vision of personal holiness.
The difficult thing with spiritual music, of course, is to avoid degenerating into New Age blandishments, to remember that true spirituality isn't necessarily comfortable, that there are moments of bliss but also moments of terror. So too it is on Buried Stream: although there are tracks here that coax you open gently and delicately (such as the minimal album-closer "The Guidepost", performed on what sounds like a balalaika), there are also tracks that crack open your head and overwhelm you with sheer force, most notably on "Underground Cloud," which features a startlingly close-mic'd recording of what sounds like a squealing metal gate cutting through thick layers of flaying violin.
The complaint I hear most commonly about the Jewelled Antler folks is that they're over-prolific, and while it's true that they release material at a nearly incomprehenisble rate (my casual count reveals three Jewelled-Antler-associated releases so far in 2005, which as of this writing is only 28 paltry days), it's also true that almost nothing on this release feels like filler. If Chasse and his cohorts can continue to produce material of such high quality at such a rapid pace, far be it from me to gripe. I'm content merely to luxuriate in the results.
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Thursday, January 20, 2005
axolotl | self-titled
Although I've seen them play, and can thus confirm that Axolotl's Karl Bauer and William Sabiston are, in fact, human beings, it's still hard for me to imagine actual people making this music. With this disc (their debut), Axolotl have taken the most humanistic qualities of musicthings like melody, harmony, the lyricand flayed them away, building seven pieces from what survives. "What survives" is mostly sonic material at its rawest: woozy electronic oscillations and ping, violin scrabblings, wordless murmuring, the unidentifiable sounds of things being scratched or ground against one another.
By voiding the easy techniques of self-expression, Bauer and Sabiston flirt with the inhuman, but without taking the (also easy) route of creating music that is mechanistic or robotic. Although these songs use electricity (most are positively thick with ozonic reek) they also feel distinctly organic. Like the amplified naturalism of Thuja, or the Sun Blindness Music of 1960s John Cale, Axolotl have unearthed things here that seem less like "songs" and more like natural artifacts, the byproducts of a world that teems with physical forces. And, as with any sampling of natural byproducts, we have some which are ugly and fearsome, and some which are beautiful and transcendent (the calm, crystalline drone which constitutes the album's final third being a good example of the latter).
All in all, another worthwhile album for fans of the New Electronic Sublime.
Monday, December 6, 2004
deathprod | deathprod (on Rune Grammofon)
As the evil genius behind the grandiose, icy production of many of the releases on the Rune Grammofon label, Norway’s Deathprod (Helge Sten) has contributed in no small part to that label’s exemplary status. This year, Rune Grammofon returns the favor by releasing a four-disc set, handsomely packaged in a minimalist matte-black box, which compiles fifteen years of Sten’s unreleased or obscure solo material, including two out-of-print albums released only in micro-editions in the mid-1990s.
Reference Frequencies is the disc that archives the oldest material recorded under the Deathprod name, a set of four chilly electronic experiments from 1991. Although they don’t represent the full development of the corroded “audio virus” sound that Deathprod is known for, this stuff still strikes my ear as almost stunningly prescient; they could hold their own against any contemporary example of abrasive electronic minimalism. Unfortunately, these pieces are coupled up with a handful of other tracks (a collaboration with poet Matt Burt and a vaguely post-rock session with the Jurg Mager Trio) which have the unhappy distinction of being the “leftovers” of the collection, the pieces that don’t fit comfortably anywhere but which are included for the sake of completism. Their curiosity value is pretty depleted after a single listen, and they frankly dilute the power and the coherence of what would be an otherwise strong disc.
Treetop Drive, originally released in 1994 in an edition of 500, is composed of four pieces, each built around a relatively simple structure. Most notable is the opening track, “Treetop Drive 1”, in which a menacing symphonic chord sounds again and again, as though Angelo Badalamenti had borrowed a play from tape-loop master William Basinski. Deathprod collaborator Hans Mangus Ryan ornaments each iteration of the loop with a pained calligram scribbled out on a violin and boosted with spaced-out effects roar. Together the voices yield a piece which is both monotonous and infinitely varied, an indelible illustration of something mercurial and human smashing against an unyielding leviathan force. The other tracks on this disc are also formidable, showcasing the various parts of the Deathprod project in full flower: murky industrial grind, eerie sidereal electronics, disintegrated gray seascapes.
Imaginary Songs From Tristan da Cuhna, the other reissued album in this set (this one from 1996), devotes its first portion to documentation of a sound art project Sten produced for the Trondheim Art Academy, an exhilirating cryptoethnographic experiement in which recorded snippets of violin are submitted to a process of transformation and decay until they resemble weathered field recordings from some unreadable past, or possibly ancient synthesizers rewired by inhabitants of a tribal future. The four tracks which comprise this project evoke all the pleasures of anthropological recordings—they summon an unknowable, alien culture to mind precisely as vividly as a Sublime Frequencies or Nonesuch World release does—only it also manages (by virtue of its overtly fictional nature) to avoid the thorny issues of exploitation that complicate such recordings. They clock in collectively at only about eight minutes total but they’re arguably the most compelling pieces in the entire set. The rest of the Imaginary Songs disc is rounded out by “The Contraceptive Briefcase,” a kind of ghostly opera: thirty minutes of unearthly wails and roar generated by various sources (glass harmonica, theremin, violin and voice) and undergirded by a dark, low-end pulse with pitches and yaws with the slow roll of a frigid sea.
The final disc in the set, Morals and Dogma, collects two pieces of recent material (“Tron” and “Cloudchamber,” both from 2000) and two older, unreleased tracks (“Dead People’s Things,” from 1994, and “Orgone Donor,” 1996), but it’s no “leftovers” disc, in fact it’s the crowning piece. Think of it this way: if this set is making the argument that one of the world’s most interesting practicing musicians has managed to produce fifteen years of shockingly good work in near-total obscurity, and if the first three discs lay out the evidence, then Morals is the conclusion, which recaps everything that’s gone before in an effort to drive that argument home. It’s also the disc that Rune Grammofon has chosen to release individually for those daunted by the cost of the entire set, probably wisely, as the disc makes a suitable introduction for the curious. Although each one of the four pieces is superficially similar—basically a long-form atmospheric piece—each also uses a different set of tools to carve out its otherworldly message, and thus showcases a different side of Sten’s formidably vast vision. Curdled electronics, carping violins, menacing symphonic arrangements: it’s all here. And it’s all wonderful.
Thanks to Chris.
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Tuesday, November 9, 2004
le tigre | feminist sweepstakes (on LeTigre Records)
Punky, funky, good-humored and pissed, Le Tigre managed, with this 2001 release, to produce something that I might never have thought to ask for: a didactic party record. Don't let the potential oxymoron lead you into thinking that this might be some grim eat-your-vegetables exercise in lefty righteousnessthe record is packed with every manner of guilty pleasure, from skanky Joan Jett riffs to belted-out Lora Logic vocals, from cheap electro beats to piano samples that sound like they might be ripped from A Charlie Brown Christmas. There's no incongruity here: anyone who's ever rallied in the streets knows how fucking fun it is; anyone who's ever shaken their fist in the air to music knows that every anthem is political. Le Tigre are the grad-student cheerleaders rocking the PA system at the lesbian bar of your dreams, and we need them now more than ever.
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Sunday, October 31, 2004
climax golden twins | highly bred and sweetly tempered (on North East Indie)
This release from the Climax Golden Twins, largely composed of Southern Gothic acoustic pieces that would not be out of place soundtracking a David Gordon Green movie, seems worlds removed, at least intially, from the Twins' usual palette of ambience, screeches, and other mysterious sounds. But listening closely to the interstitial bits that link the more songlike pieces reveals an undercurrent of weirdness and menace, a continued expression of the Twins' interest in the link between audio technology and the unseen world. This link is not merely their own peculiar obsession: it's a cultural one, dating back to the spiritualist experiments of Edison and Watson, and remaining latent in the uncanny quality of recorded sound. So when you hear, over the course of this record, the drone-haloed voices of dozens of mysterious peopleaged women, children, sinister men, summoned back from whatever archaic crackling Victrola-dimension they had gone to die inthe experience feels pronouncedly uneasy, as though the Twins have hijacked your stereo for some cryptic seance-purpose. This disc is a must for anyone interested in what Wire journalist Erik Davis calls the "electromagnetic imaginary."
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