Cepia - Dowry EP 12"
Cepia's Dowry EP is five brief excursions of glitch and beat, processed tones and fading memories, that scurry about like eddies of dust blown about by a whimsical breeze. Digitally scattered percussion flirts with a semblance of a tempo in "Dowry" while echoing chimes perform a capricious etude against a backdrop of whirs and clicks in the opener, "Countrytime," bringing to mind a time and place sepia-colored with idyllic innocence. "The Marina, The Bank, and The Eels" closes the record and Huntley Miller (the man responsible for Cepia's granular magic) brings in a swifter beat to propel the delicate crackles and pop of the preceding songs. Miller is a Minneapolis-based radio archivist and beyond the daily rigor of preserving and cataloguing what history thinks you should hear from the radio, he finds time to capture the sounds from the edges of the radio signal: the fading static and polyrhythmic heartbeat of decades past. Cepia's music plays to the strength and weakness of vinyl: simultaneously organic and warm in its youth and crackled and faded with age. As your 12" gets worn from play, the songs will only grow even richer with nostalgia than they already are.
Chemlab - Oxidizer
Chemlab has always been Jared Louche's 21st century alchemical experiment, biomechanically injecting chemical cocktails straight into the active parts of your brain and organs to see just which combination of sound and fury makes you turn. Not "I'm off to take a turn around the dance floor, love" turn, but a transformation into fully realized children of the mechanical and chemical age.
Chemlab's first iteration during the 1990s came in the wake of the Nine Inch Nails monolith when all beasts fueled by adrenochrome and the glistening promise of cyberpunk technology vanished into the black shadow of "industrial rock and roll." Louche stepped out from that shadow with Covergirl (billed as Jared Louche and the Aliens), a record of cover tunes spun through his personal filter. The sharpest choice he made was to turn the Chemlab standard "Suicide Jag" into a slinking lounge piece. Covergirl is a great little record that allowed Louche to say, "See? This is where I come from." And then, Pied Piper-like, he danced off into the dark wilderness of the London streets.
Oxidizer is his report from the dark belly of the city. It's a Chemlab record -- the buzzsaw guitars, the thundering choruses, the glittering darkness of ambient nightmares, the sly and dry delivery of the mechanized orator -- but it is also a record made by a man who cleaves to the idea of a glam-powered, chrome-covered, diode-splintered future that can be spiked directly into the erogenous centers of your brain so that he can play you his personal collection of Thelonious Monk and Erik Satie records. The Chemlab future is filled with hydraulic fluid, synaptic fields of self-aware wetware and faded rainbows of fiber optic cabling; the future is one of touch screens and touch pads instead of physical contact, of virtually realized existences and phantom emotions which have been chemically provided because we've sold the real flesh and blood to black market organ-leggers. "Catch a steel low-engine whine / Along the sweating curve of your spine."
However, somewhere in there-- Louche and the rest attest -- we are still human. Hidden behind the last suture track (the short interstitial bits of sound and poetry that have been a trademark bridging device throughout Chemlab's history) is "Jesuschristpornostar," a widely euphoric instrumental track that throws off the shackles of the bitter and bleak songs of Oxidizer to revel in the inherent pornographic glory of the human body. Oxidizer, really, is all about human contact, about finding some glimmer of humanity in an increasingly dehumanized, mechanized world. While the narrative voice gets lost in the despair of a binary hegemony -- "Quick low you might avoid detection / Total lobotomy is your best copy protection" -- there is still a spark of persistent individuality that cannot be shut off. The final refrain of "Atomic Automatic" isn't one of resignation or collapse, but an exhortation to "keep it out," to keep out the emptiness. "Force Quit" is a directive to break the cycle, to break free from the destructive pre-programming which has set your half-life to expire tomorrow. "And when the stars are all burned out / Don't try and tell me what it's all about."
"Do you want to be free or do you want to be right?"
Musically, while the majority of the record adheres to the essential principles of machine rock, scattered throughout are the same textured elements which made Louche's Cover Girl an enjoyable record. He slides easily from full-throated howl to bit-farmed growl to world weary aside, pulling the music in his wake. The suture bits on the ends of the record supply us with textured entry and egress points while the pair buried in the record are waiting to ambush us. [And, frankly, the rhythmic noise of track 4 should be given its own record in which to fully explode with Louche providing lyrics to accompany that dissolution of monochrome reality.]
"The moon looked down one night," Louche intones on the final track, "and laughed so hard that the scales fell from his eyes. And from then on the moon looked down and cried." The future is here, kids; it's going to change us all. How we embrace it is up to us. How we use it is our choice. How we let it abuse us is our singular option. Fight, flight, or be free. Just don't sit still and let it absorb you into its pixelated homogeneity. Oxidize. Change. Turn.
Chris Clark - Empty The Bones of You
There is brusque surprise to be found in Chris Clark's work. It starts with the sleeve: a white pencil drawing of a thousand jet fighters streaming towards a skull-embossed mushroom cloud. A pink figure, dropped from Heaven, falls towards the earth and, for an instant, I'm not sure if it is a falling Icarus-like figure or the distorted and outstretched hand of the skull-headed mushroom cloud giant rising up from the plain far below. The liner notes are all cribbed in a frantic hand, as if they were dashed off on the back of a cocktail napkin and then photocopied for the sleeve. The result is a calculated roughness, a back alley "psst! you wanna buy my CD?" sort of subterfuge and illicitness.
These same moments are on the record as well. The title track, "Empty The Bones of You," is a wash of static and jumbled noise as if someone were fumbling with a sink full of tupperware while the nearby radio hissed and sputtered lines of static from that empty space between stations. This stands in contrast with "Early Moss" which rises out of this confusion as a vibrant entity built from the previous cacophony. Very much a devotee of the Aphex Twin style of making enjoyable music from the snap, click, pop, and chime of machinery, Chris Clark brings with him an exuberance for melody, a penchant for winsome tunes and wistful arrangements. "Tyre" is a simple piano melody, an ode which tinkles across a soft buzz and a microphone stuck out a bedroom window which is picking up the droning sound of tires on wet pavement.
"Holiday as Brutality" is a fat polyrhythmic rondo, a "Squarepusher slowed to quarter speed" ditty which manages to be both tuneful and terrifying. There is a dark undercurrent to Clark's delightful songs, a black beast which prowls beneath the rich chimes and cascading melodies. "Wolf" begins with two loops -- a tin melody and a fuzzbox chatter of beat static -- and, after some stuttering and collisions, the two merge and give birth to a rich, dynamic wunderkind of a child. A child-like theremin-esque howl does a "la la la" counterpoint to the electronic crackle in "Slow Spines," and -- like a member of the wolf pack -- I want to howl along.
"Toucan" has about sixteen ideas running through it; there are two minutes of introspective noodling before the low end erupts. A enormous wash of sound splits the track right through the middle and the subsequent recover of the scattered elements is catastrophic and chaotic and catchy as hell. I'm not quite sure how he manages to make it all work, but he does. He utilizes some the minimal techno methodology -- the staggered layering of tracks atop one another -- yet Clark's approach is mash it all together, jumbling the elements together in a rich pastiche that finds its own center. He holds them together as long as he can and, when they break free, he lets them go, replacing them with a different idea.
This is the strange allure of Chris Clark's Empty The Bones of You: it seems as if it has been built in a back room of a ruined warehouse on machines which are going to fall apart again at any minute. And yet, you hold your breath as you listen. You are captivated, quietly hoping that he'll be able to eke out one more song from the ancient circuits before it all falls apart. Empty The Bones of You is a hypnotic sort of electronic chaos, a Zen-like compression of a thousand points of light. Very satisfying.
Collide - Chasing The Ghost
Chasing ghosts is exactly what I have been doing since 1985. During the interminable wait following Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, I inhaled anything that offered a female vocalist. My obsession graduated to Toni Halliday and Curve and, as Curve dissolved, I found Collide's Beneath the Skin. As Kate seemed to be retired and Curve on hiatus, waiting for the next Collide album seemed to be the most promising path to take. And then their label, Re-Constriction, went under. It has been a very hard decade for fans of dark, ethereal, electrified female vocals.
kaRIN and Static have been busy since the 1997 release of their remix and cover album, Distort, mainly keeping their chops up with subsumed work with other bands as they figured out the details of making their own way in the music world (hence the release of Chasing The Ghost on their own label). And maybe during these external projects they got some of the noise out of their systems. Distort pointed towards a noisier future, a structure laden with wild feedback and the distorted snap of uncontrolled machinery. Surprisingly, Chasing The Ghost ably steers away from that end, gliding towards a more introspective sound, a more exotic exploration of empty spaces within. There is a haunted quality to these songs, a yearning in kaRIN's voice that is echoed by the dark instrumentation swirling around her. When the machinery does erupt in savagery (as it does on their sublime cover of Jefferson Airplane's chestnut "White Rabbit"), you realize that their restraint is self-inflicted -- their directive one of introspection.
Maybe what I've been chasing is unobtainable -- it may never exist. As kaRIN sings on the title track, "I've come so near and yet so far." Maybe it is time to stop running, time to lay down here and disappear into myself to find the source of want. Chasing The Ghost is an angelic accompaniment into the dark heart of your obsessions. Take this beacon with you.
Noise Plus Music 
Contagious Orgasm - The Cause of The Flow
The problem with using the phrase "soundtrack to an imaginary movie" is that would be simpler if I just left the description of Hiroshi Hashimoto's newest record at that, but you have every right to ask: what kind of movie?
The kind that make you think the darkness is warm; the sort of film that you can recreate immediately upon closing your eyes; the cinematic adventure that speaks of a future lit by artificial light and the reflection of neon in puddles of rain water. It isn't a nightmare or even a feverish dreamscape as much as it is a montage of images aligned in such a fashion that your brain can (and does) assimilate them. The Cause Of The Flow is synesthetic content that flows in through your ears and lights up the imaging centers of your brain.
Broken into ten tracks, The Cause Of The Flow really needs to be experienced in a single sitting. The track indexes are fairly meaningless as the movement of motifs, melodies, and auditory scenes drift across these markers, fading and emerging, rising and falling, without much concern for the illusionary borders created by technology. During its five minute life, "Method of Disappearance" contains several distinct stories: the driving of a well-tuned car through the night streets of Hong Kong, the rush of traffic blurred beyond the tinted windows; a late-night conversation in a darkened elevator rising up the outer shell of a high-rise hotel, the flush of light from the city glittering off the disturbed waters of the bay; a pair of lovers arguing in a pool, their conversation turning heated and physical, the splash of water punctuating their cries. And yet, as these stories end (or, rather, are recycled back into the broader canvas), we are already nearly a minute into the next track. A good bit of "In-to" is a re-examination of the motifs of "In-tro."
I'm reminded a good deal of the work of Australian sound sculptor Darrin Verhagen and his work under the Shinjuku Filth moniker. Material is sourced and sliced against a background of atmospheres and beats to create a pastiche of story, a tale told by sound. You are given aural clues, slices of radio life that your brain unfolds and throws across your mental screen, and the progression of these clues leads you to a cohesive impression. The movie, if you will.
It's probably time to stop using the term "soundtracks to unmade movies" for works like this because the movie has been made. It is in your head the moment you hear this record. Hashimoto knows what he wants you to see; he has just elected to deliver all the visual impressions through your ear canals. And these sorts of movies are better left on CD because they demand your participation to become "movies," they demand your ego-less immersion and active imagination. Hiroshi Hashimoto isn't out to make film; his goal as Contagious Orgasm is to flood your head. If John Lilly were still doing experiments with LSD and sensory deprivation tanks, he'd have Hiroshi Hashimoto pumping Contagious Orgasm into the tank every night.
Covenant - Northern Light
Too often European EBM doesn't move me; the sound strikes me like the Pet Shop Boys gone goth and, frankly, that pairing is too much an oxymoron to be taken seriously. Covenant's Northern Light is working very hard to change my opinion. I've been wrestling with this record for a few weeks now, trying to figure out exactly why it has attached itself to me. It's like a piece of sticky tape stuck to the end of my finger: I keep trying to shake it off, but it stays there.
It may have something to do with a pair of lyrics: "We are submariners / Close to foreign shores" (from "Monochrome") and "A choir full of longing / We call our ships to port" ("Call the Ships to Port"). Northern Light moves me in that it is the soundtrack for a single sailor in a metal boat high in the Arctic Ocean. The songs are filled with the melancholy of the pale Arctic sky and water, the solitude and introspection of the unbroken horizon, and the constant longing for some sort of human connection.
Running throughout Northern Light is the theme of loneliness, this perpetuation sense of separation. While a number of the songs are lost in the despair of interpersonal disconnects, there a few which have their eye turned towards the future. "Monochrome," "Prometheus," and "We Want Revolution" all cry out for the unknown possibilities, a release from the limitations of the present. "Start your engines / Blow your fuses / Burn the bridges for the future." And, even in these tracks, there is that pervading sense of isolation -- that, in our current existence, we are cut off from each other -- and the only possibility for our survival will come from the destruction of the barriers between us. The music plays counterpoint to the melancholy of the vocals, driving beat structures and anthemic melodies which speak of the potential of release from the oubliette raised around us.
Naturally, this being EBM -- electronic body music, another genre pigeon-hole which has become too diffuse to be useful -- the tracks combine these two elements: vocal manifestos straight out of the Romantic period and pop song constructs infused with machine music accuracy and big beat propulsions. What sets Covenant apart from the crowd of kids with a drum machine, rack of keyboard synthesizers, and vocoder is the intelligence and precision behind the work. Eskil Simonsson could easily be the Swedish David Gahan, while Joakim Montelius and Clas Nachmanson craft the layered programming; the trio have been together since the mid-'80s and have evolved into "sound managers," a term they use to describe themselves, having graduated from their earlier label of "noise adventurers." The result of their skillful management is Northern Light, a polished and mature sounding record which encompasses both a minimalist futurepop design and a goth-trance dance floor aesthetic.
In "Call the Ships to Port" Eskil intones: "A single spark of passion can change a man forever / A moment in a lifetime is all it takes to break him / A fraction of a heartbeat made us what we are." In the end, these three lines sum up why the record has gone all sticky tape on me. File under: machine music romanticism.
Curve - Come Clean
Curve has always been slightly askew of the rest of the field, creating a unique sonic envelope with their deep, layered sound. You can see their heritage and their origins from the shoegazers of the last decade; you get some understanding of how the torch singers of the cabarets in the '40s and '50s managed to ensnare their listeners. What Curve has always been is a musical force, a tsunami of instrumentation that drowns you even as you dash into the water towards the siren clarion that calls out to you. With Come Clean, Curve's first album in five years, the elements are all there -- a wonderful reconnection for those who have counted the DWC (Days Without Curve) -- yet there is a clear message that these last years have not been static ones for Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia. Curve is dead. Long live Curve.
That's not to say that the wall of guitar sound that permeates Cuckoo and Doppelganger can't be found on Come Clean. The opening lines of "Dog Bone" assuage you of that fear. But Curve has moved on, uncovering electronic elements that previously have been hidden in the layers of sound. "Coming Up Roses" begins with an echoing pattern, a hinted sample that more than reminds you of Meat Beat Manifesto. Toni's voice is coated with an electric sheen through the first verse as electronics bubble and rise around us. It doesn't seem like Curve until the winding serpent of a guitar guides us into the crashing sound of the chorus and the sound roars over us.
A friend mentioned -- after their recent performance at the Showbox -- that he still couldn't succinctly describe the experience, that he couldn't describe the sound which he had heard. I sympathize. Come Clean has been out for a couple of months now and I haven't been able to find the right way to describe Curve either. Flung throughout conversations and articles is the comparison of Garbage to Curve (Garbage being a more accessible, pop-oriented version of Curve) and that comparison has always struck me as anemic and simplistic. Shirley Manson (Garbage's singer) and Toni Halliday have one thing in common: the Voice. But while Shirley's throaty come-hither growl may steam up the windows a bit, Toni's voice will melt the glass. Coupled with her eye contact from the stage and I think every young man graced with that impact came away certain that that song had been just for him.
And the sound? Garbage and Curve are both masters of the layered sound, but Curve's specialty lies in the throbbing low end. Dean's bass work snakes and thrashes and bubbles around you in thick doubled time as you rise up with Toni's vocals intertwining with the guitar and other elements. "Dirty High" has Dean and Monti (their long-time drummer returned for the tour) syncopating out a thick beat under Toni's languid vocals and as the song unfolds up in a live setting, you can see the audience start to writhe. Some are tracing the rhythm of her vocals and the accompanying guitar. Others are shivering from the darker, thicker underbeat and, as the song builds-their last one before the obligatory break for the encore-these lines come together until the top meets the bottom and it all dissolves in a thick envelope that seems inpenetrable, yet you are still feeling all the rhythm and melody that has brought you to that point.
Live, they showcased the album well, covering nine of the thirteen cuts from the record. They kicked off their set at the Showbox with "On the Wheel" a track from the Blackerthreetracker single that can only be found domestically on the soundtrack to the Doom Generation. A shame, since it is such a landmark song (they opened with it on the Cuckoo tour as well) and so crisply alerts the audience as to where they are going. The other nostalgia tracks -- "Unreadable Communication," "Horror Head," "Turkey Crossing," "Ten Little Indians," and "Die Like a Dog" -- clearly felt as if from a different era. The band was, except for "Turkey Crossing," more comfortable with these tracks and the audience seemed to know them as well. Toni was visibly surprised at the first chorus of "Die Like a Dog" to hear the audience singing back to her.
Of the other tracks from the album, they translated well to a live setting, filling the room as Curve should really be played. "Beyond Reach" was the only track that was transformed for me. It's a great slower song from the album, one that has a good kicking rhythm driving through it, but live, it was something else. An echo was added to Toni's voice, much more than on the album track, and the guitar player took the sweeps he was given and stretched them-sonic putty-until it sounded almost like something living in his hands. I've heard everything that Curve has ever done. Heard it all many times, but I felt like this was something new. Just as I -- and the rest of us -- close in on them, they move away again. It really did sum up Curve. Come Clean has brought them closer to the mainstream, but even with a more accessible sound, they are still beyond reach. Nothing quite sounds like Curve. And nothing should.
Estupendo / Universal 
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Publications I've Written For
- Eraldo Bernocchi
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- This Morn' Omina