Lionel Marchetti - Train de Nuit
Dedicated to the father of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, Lionel Marchetti's Train de Nuit (Noord 3-683) is a twenty-one minute composition mixing train signals, whispered voices, fragments of radio broadcasts and processed tones. Train de Nuit (Noord 3-683) is part of Metamkine's Cinéma pour l'oreille collection, a series of 3" CDs -- compact aural expressions -- that keep the musique concrète spirit alive. Train de Nuit (Noord 3-683) unfolds through one channel only and, while it is unfortunate that this experience isn't presented in full stereophonic sound to really seduce you with its aural environment, the effect of one channel only is that Marchetti's work whispers and hisses from your left speaker as if it is a mysterious signal that has found its way into your system without your knowledge.
Musique concrète is far from the lands of pop music, fluttering on the fringe of experimental composition where the songs are manufactured from found sounds. The engaging ambience of musique concrète is how it is both natural and unnatural, how it is a manufactured reality that has its own rhythms and melodies. Marchetti builds a symphony of distant rumbles, pierced by the shivering cry of train whistles and propelled by the grumbling sound of steam engines. Tiny melodies are provided by recorded voices. Marchetti creates the sounds of Train de Nuit (Noord 3-683) in an old school method of splicing tape loops and the abrupt edge of some of his loops is an unpolished roughness which makes the work seem that much more spontaneous.
About twelve minutes in, a distant radio drifts into the mix, playing the Doors' "Riders on the Storm." The radio signal is drowned out a minute or so later beneath French speaking voices and these voices are then lost beneath processed signals and noisy expulsions of steam from waiting trains. Marchetti's atmosphere drifts on, voices and sounds caught in its wake, their individual lines mingling and weaving together. The joy of listening to musique concrète is how the natural world becomes a musical experience, and Lionel Marchetti's Train de Nuit (Noord 3-683) will change how you visit a train station.
Magwhees/Stone Glass Steel - Pane
I say that music is all about texture, and one-man creative forces who compose infinitely layered albums are equivalent to pop superstars in my kingdom. David Sullivan, who performs as Magwheels, builds musique concrête pieces from guitar, pulling fragile melodies and abrasive washes of feedback drenched noise from the strings of the instrument. Stone Glass Steel is Phil Easter whose credo is simply: "Take it apart -- put it together again -- mold it like putty." Pane is ostensibly a split release between the two but the trick is that the two part 40 minute suite attributed to Stone Glass Steel is composed entirely of samples from the back catalogue of Magwheels.
"The trick." As if the Stone Glass Steel deconstruction/reconstruction were a gimmick meant to entice you into buying the record. Easter's entire purpose for SGS is the art of recontextualization, putting what you "know" in jeopardy by recrafting the familiar into the eerily surreal. Think of it as Picasso going Cubist with scissors and glue on your album of family snapshots: you recognize the individual pieces of the people in the new pictures -- an eye here, an ear there, the curl of someone's hair -- you just don't know the new faces.
Now the Möbius strip of this release is that Sullivan's work is already composed of sampled and reconstructed material -- albeit original compositions. Sullivan uses a Macintosh to heavily process and tweak field recordings and his own guitar work into sonic structures that seek to capture the elusive quality of early morning light. "Sundeenovember" is populated by the fine, fragile light which breaks over the horizon first, the thin threads of yellow and gold which streak across the landscape. Two of the tracks, "Cloakpocket" and "Lastboring," are less than a minute in length each and both are snapshots which capture the gradations of dawn -- blink and you'll miss them moments where the light is changing quickly. "Monolithic Songbird" is not the fragile ephemera of early light, but rather the intense blaze of an unobscured sun. For two minutes it is like being on the surface of Mercury as the sun rolls across the horizon and boils the ground, the rocks popping and crackling as they vaporize.
The centerpiece of the record is "The Only Window Is So High Up," an eight minute piece which blurs all of the elements of the remaining six tracks into one evolving soundtrack where light moves with liquid intelligence. Filled with the ebb and flow of Sullivan's guitar, "The Only Window Is So High Up" is replete with the fragility of a single note stretched to its elastic limit as well as the full-throated howl of a stringed instrument being tortured by an electric prod. Magwheels is the point of impact between noise and drones.
The Stone Glass Steel suite, titled The Last Rays of Sunlight Paint Fire on the Window, is filled with the same fragile sense of liminal birth which streaks through Sullivan's work. The first part of the suite, "The Last Rays of Sunlight," is an evocation of sunset on the beach at Cardiff. There is that moment at nightfall when the sun hangs on the edge of the horizon and there is still light in the sky. Trails of orange and red, washes of yellow and gold, streaks of pink and lavendar: these hues spread across the sky in patterns and shapes in an endless variety. While Magwheels may concentrate on that single beam of light which first breaks the horizon, Stone Glass Steel sets the sky on fire with light.
The second part of the suite, "Paint Fire on the Window," begins the instant the sun vanishes behind the horizon and all the color is sucked into its wake, striping the sky of the luminous trails. The dome of the horizon becomes blue and then black, and all that is left are the tiny pinpricks of light which mankind kindle in devoted memory to the passage of the sun. "Paint Fire on the Window" is the guttering, chattering sound of our collective apprehension at the coming of night. It ends with a lonely phone ringing as a tiny variation of the first theme of sunset sputters out. The ringing phone reminds me of the phone in Pink Floyd's The Wall which, when unanswered, spins Pink into his labyrinth of despair.
With Pane, Magwheels and Stone Glass Steel create pellucid and beautiful tone poems to the evanescent nature of first and last light, but also show us the frailty of our relationship. We live because of light, it allows us to see, and, without it, we are lost. There is nothing to sing along to on Pane, nothing you can hum in the shower, but every sound collage evokes what we love and fear about light. Pane is a window, the only window on the blank walls on our prison. We watch with wonderment as the light changes.
Manufactura v. Micronaut
Chris Randall's Positron Records is in the 3" business. Called MOTOs, the 3" CDs are tiny bursts of music -- the 21st century equivalent of the single. They are meant to introduce you to the Positron sound, to tease you with the collaborative possibilities, to offer you a tiny snack for those moments when you are feeling slightly peckish. MOTO004 is Chris Randall's Micronaut project slapping pads with KarloZ.M's Manufactura in a three round bout of noise versus beats.
Micronaut is a favorite when you're doing the home version of the techno rave-up, as this project is where Randall lets loose with his anthemic four-on-the-floor banging techno. Manufactura, on the other hand, is about two steps away from power electronics, banging hard in the Ant-Zen/Hands style of rhythmic noise. The two, together, find a common ground in the beat that makes your ass shake. While Randall tries to pull the song towards the dance floor with injections of sinous funk, KarloZ.M sets his own hooks in the rhythms and tries to drown out the happy melodies with bursts of white noise.
It's two tastes that taste great together when you get right down to it. From the head-nodding shuffle of "Cirujia" to the ambient breakdown of circadian rhythms caused by "The Death Touch" to the escalating howl of "Spinebreaker," Manufactura and Micronaut deliver twenty minutes that begs for more. I'm hoping this is just a trial run for a lengthier collaboration because what they've got here works really well. Damn fine, and too short.
Merzbow - Sha Mo 3000
Masami Akita has been making noise as Merzbow for long enough now that an entire generation of children don't know of a world without his specialized blend of white noise and super-charged sonic eruptions. Akita, though, hasn't just been churning out the same noise over and over (or so I'm told, his records can be a bit tough to get through in a single sitting); he's been constantly punishing his hardware in an effort to find the extreme limits of its capabilities. Recently, Merzbow has gone 21st century, turning off the battered and smoking analog gear for a purely digital variety of noise. Brazil's Essence Music sent him a couple of neglected South American psychedelic records and Akita's response is Sha Mo 3000, a psyche-blasting hour of noise, loops, and deconstructed distortion.
While the opening two and a half minute "Suzunami" is a solid wall of shrieking metal, the epic "Sha Mo 3000" explores a wide gamut of sounds, splintering away from a monolithic wash of white noise into an array of echoing drums, staggered loops, and tiny, localized explosions of sound. There's a strange prog-tinged psychedelia that runs through "Dreaming K-Dog" like a mutant offspring of Pink Floyd (and it may just be the juxtaposition of the samples which sends me off in that direction). "Dreaming K-Dog" loops with an ardent fervor like a building alarm system gone haywire while a single guitarist in a methadone-fueled haze of time dilation and feedback tones sets fire to his frets in the back stairwell. "Ghost Hide Your Eyes" howls like a wounded machine as its fuel pumps from severed lines and its pistons bang against dented casework. Blasts of white static cover the fading music-box whimper of dying clockwork mechanisms. The final twelve minute opus, "Hen's Teeth," mashes everything from the previous 50 minutes into a compressed whirlwind of sound before dissolving into a sub-sonic Scorn-esque rumble that flattens everything as it drains away.
Merzbow isn't easy listening -- that's just the simple truth -- and, while Akita's prolific output may raise the eternal question of quality versus quantity, like Bryn Jones (and his gargantuan output as Muslimgauze), the body of work sums up the artist's attempt to ascertain the true dynamic possibilities and structural foundations of his style. Merzbow isn't about noise, really, it's about Akita's attempts to find music in chaos. Sha Mo 3000 will scour the inside of your skull like a flaming Brillo pad but once some of the oxidized build-up has been scraped off, you may find your receptors a bit more eager for adventure.
Micronaut - Europa
Chris Randall is busy circling Jupiter, making landfall on each of the moons with his Micronaut project. The latest place he's explored is Europa and, contrary to the big beat landscape of Io and the jungle-inflected surface of Ganymede, he's found the ruins of lost civilizations and ancient waterways on Europa. He's found material for cinematic soundtracks; Europa is awash with a plethora of styles, an amalgamation of sound that builds from drum and bass, classical overture, moody electronica, dark ambience, and funky organic melodies into, well, a construct that has all sorts of echoes to the past while clearly all a-glitter with futurism.
The closest landmarks are the modern electronic soundtracks of Craig Armstrong and David Holmes, though Randall lifts what he wants from Armstrong's classical emphasis and Holmes' man on the street funk vibe and injects these elements with his recognizably sinuous energy, giving songs like "Mister Tronic" -- a textured accompaniment to the city streets at 4am filled with steam and the rumbling passage of delivery trucks -- a rolling slipperiness, a finger-snapping beat that makes you not the crazy fool with no place to go at that time of day but the restless outsider out for a prowl while the rest of the world lies dead in their beds. Miguel Turnazas provides the guitar work in "Crass But True," channeling David Gilmour over a percolating bed of dark synths and twisting electronics. "Failsafe" skitters with drum 'n' bass rhythms while Turnazas' guitar and Randall's synthesizers perform a mincing duel to the death, while "Calculate" gets down with a Bill Laswell-ian bass rhythm and a tight drum kit, forcing guitar and synthesizer to play nice together in accordance with the first law of funk: touch them in that special place that makes their butts wiggle.
Turnazas does a looping, echoing fuzz box guitar thing for "Uncompressed," releasing waves of sound that resonate with too many hours of listening to Pink Floyd records while Randall builds layers of beats and tones over the guitar work. They're in no hurry, building a track that is on the long road to trance nation and, just as they arrive, the whole construct collapses into a Middle Eastern drum explosion as if Amir Baghiri just stormed the studio. But, actually, he's been invited and they all take off together into outer space for the rousing climax of the song.
Randall, who began as and still is the man behind Sister Machine Gun, understands the power of the industrial fusion guitar, the snarling sound of an ax being overloaded with feedback and angst and delivers such a beast on "Sneer." Following the elegiac and stunning "Darkness," a track aching with cello (provided by Mike Fisher of Amish Rake Fight), Randall limps in a static-edged drum rhythm, a wandering beat that doesn't quite have the necessary self-confidence to take the stage by itself. It's waiting for the guitar, you see, waiting for that noisy soloist who struts the stage, writhing beneath his instrument, making love to all the girls in the first eight rows. Oh yes, "Sneer" it is, and I snapped the knob off on my CD player popping the volume to eleven when the first chorus hit.
If Roger Waters wanted to do a funky electronic record that would have some relevance with a generation younger than his, he'd do well to give Chris Randall a call. "Chris, my man," he'd ask, "How do I find it? Where's the pulse?" And Randall would simply say, "It's in your chakras, pal. You can pick just one or you can do as I do: light 'em all up." Europa is a landmark record for Chris Randall. In much the same way that Burn consolidated the previous Sister Machine Gun records and broke through to a new level, Europa is a whole new world for Micronaut. It's a long time until the Best Of lists at the end of the year, and I'll bet I'll have worn all the '1's and '0's off my copy of Europa by then.
Muslimgauze - Lo-Fi India Abuse
Muslimgauze has always been a frenetic source of rhythm. Spanning 90+ releases in the last 17 years, Bryn Jones (the man behind Muslimgauze) has consistently found new ways to wrap the sounds of the Middle East around your skull. Lo-Fi India Abuse, one of the last projects he embarked upon before his death in January 1999, finds Bryn in a head-on collision with Systemwide, a Portland, Oregon dub-influenced band. The liner notes relate that some of the tracks are remixes of tracks from Systemwide's Sirius release [on BSI Records]; but, like all Muslimgauze remixes, such content is a mere influence once the Muslimgauze haze has descended upon the music. There are otherworldly elements which creep into the tracks -- echoes of instrumentation that one wouldn't normally hear on a Muslimgauze release -- but the end is still that hot desert wind which Muslimgauze stirs up.
Shorter tracks make for more intense listening as you don't have the luxury of falling into the repetitive trance which comes from some of the longer pieces on other releases. There is a sharper focus here that results in tracks like "Valencia in Flames" which leaps and burns out of your speakers in quick, flaming fury and is quickly gone, leaving a smoldering track across your ears, the dub drop-outs still rattling around your head. Bryn has always made distortion of the master material, dub echoes, and clicking dropouts part of the Muslimgauze oeuvre, consistently pushing the rhythm of the track through these veils of sonic disturbance. "Al Souk Dub" finds us in the marketplace listening to the spray of voices and the rattle of machinery in the distance, all the while captivated by the hand drums in the foreground as their sound is splintered and fractured in such a non-organic manner that the dichotomy of human hands creating and mad machinery fragmenting the replay of the source is permanently welded together. "Catacomb Dub" resounds with the dust of forgotten hallways, sand stirred up by a passing tremor that takes a long time to return to its quiescent state. "Dust of Saqqara" has a hint of stringed instrumentation in the distance, but you can't reach it because there is a plague of black buzzing scarabs crawling all over you, their thick distorted buzz filling your mouth and ears.
There is something wrong with the wind that comes out of the Muslimgauze desert -- there always has been. What you hear is never clean, the sounds carried over the high walls and down the dusty streets to you is never free of scarring and mutilation. And Bryn sought this state; he sought to make music which would have an impact on you, much as his feelings towards the situations in the Middle East have always driven his music. It isn't a recreation of ethnic material, but rather one man's continual fight to alarm us and shake us from our complacency through the wild disturbances and explosive energies which bubble and fume from his material. Muslimgauze isn't easy listening, just essential.
Muslimgauze - No Human Rights For Arabs In Israel
Bryn Jones, the singular driving force behind Muslimgauze, had one passion: making music as an output for his outrage over the plight of the Palenstinians in the Middle East. Before he died in 1999 from a rare blood disease, Jones had amassed near two hundred releases under the Muslimgauze name and, at the time of his death, there were still nearly sixty tapes, CD and DATs that had been delivered to the sister labels of Staalplaat (in the Netherlands) and Soleilmoon (in the US). Since his death, the two labels have been carefully dispersing these remaining historical recordings to other labels. Poland's Vivo in conjunction with The Label have elected to release No Human Rights For Arabs In Israel, a CD companion to the 10" record of the same name which came out in 1995 as part of the Muslimgauze limited series run by Staalplaat (the 10" had a very limited release of 200 copies).
Jones had a predeliction for recycling. He would use the same samples in multiple records, refining their placement and use with each subsequent iterative use. A single track name would show up more than once on a record, and each same-named track would be a slight variation to the theme. His songs would be endless loops of desert sound. Bells would ring in endless cycles as dry winds would scour the sandstone walls. Glitches and dropouts would marr his tracks, abrupt stops which would stop your heart before the relentless beats would strike up again as if nothing had happened. Jones' work is hypnotic and unsettling, a Middle Eastern flavored techno industrial rhythm that captured the melodies of the region and smashed them with the hard political reality facing those who lived there.
The No Human Rights For Arabs In Israel sessions come from an era where Jones was experimenting with more aggressive rhythms, harsher cuts and splices to his tape loops (apparently he did a lot of his work with old school analog equipment). The dub echoes are beginning to overpower the delicate whisper of the desert sands as he moves away from the minimalist rhythms of Azzazzin towards the heavy thunder and abrasive noise of the Mazar-i-Sharif and Farouk Engineer period. The one minute version of "Teargas" distills down the longer pulse and loop of the four minute version, changing the infinite interplay between the percussion and a snippet of radio traffic into a claustrophobic burst of manic energy. There are three versions of "Refugee" on this CD, and each builds from the previous version until the final behemoth of sound nearly collapses from the weight of the beats, the struggling snarl of heavy machinery and a spattered spray of static and percussion.
The nearly twenty minute version of "No Human Rights For Arabs In Israel" is an expanded version of "Herzliyya" from the previously released 10" EP. Over the course of the first ten minutes, a bowed instrument is warped, its sound moving back and forth in the mix as if the player were gliding like a ghost around the fixed position of the drums and microphone. And then, in a flash, they all disappear into a nearly empty field of drones as if everyone unplugged themselves and left the tape running. All that we hear is the shifting field of interference generated by the proximity of wires and current. Jones bends these few tones, still pulling rhythm and melody in a tight band of sound, and I'm betting the second half of this track is the "expanded" bit as it showcases a rather uncharacteristic sound. Still Muslimgauze in the way it cracks and splits, but it is an exercise in sine wave manipulation instead of loops and edits of Middle Eastern percussion and melodies. Even when you think you have heard everything that Bryn Jones has to offer with Muslimgauze, you discover there are still unrecognized facets of his work. Bravo to Vivo and The Label for shepharding this record to release.
Nils Petter Molvaer - Khmer
Let's jump to the end: This is my favorite disc from 1997. Nothing else really came close. That's not to say that there weren't other fabulous discs during 1998, but Molvaer's was stellar enough that I wanted to put it at the top of my list again this year, arguing that its domestic release in 1998 qualified it for the list.
Khmer reminds me of Miles Davis' On the Corner (purists are already getting their sharp sticks out to poke me with) in that it defies easy categorization and simple listening. It isn't as nearly outwardly funky as On the Corner, but has similar drive. It begins with "Khmer," a slow opening of bass and drum in the distance with Molvaer's muted trumpet dancing in the foreground like a wisp of smoke. And this tug of war breaks out between the trumpet and the murmuring background, neither really relenting, neither really winning, but slowly bringing your attention into focus on the music.
And then with "TlØn" we segue into a denser rhythm, a long note stretched out over a rapid heartbeat. You can feel the build beginning almost immediately, the rhythm getting tighter with introduction of repeated rise and fall of guitar melodies until the main section bursts through with the tight dance between the 'talk box' and the horn.
"Song of Sand I" has a shuffling rhythm that feels like the shifting heat staggering across the wide dunes of a desert sea, the squeals of guitar and horn like the ever-present sting of heat. "On Stream" is a breathy melody, surrounded by the tinkling rhythm of water transcribed through modern instrumentation. "Platonic Years" and "Phum" fill the middle of the album with a tight introspection that leads into "Song of Sand II" where melodies and rhythms are repeated and stretched until we reach "Exit." "Exit" opens with a lamenting e-bow guitar, adds acoustic guitar and a hint of the opening melody of "Khmer," and slowly fades out. No trumpet, just the death of wind as if the trumpet has lost its voice and the rest fades soon after.
Khmer a fantastic album that wraps itself around you with the wail and swarm of its instruments, that transcends the simplistic categories of 'jazz' and 'electronic music' that seem to be where it ends up in the record store. I sat down with On the Corner and followed it with Khmer and felt that one wasn't far from the other. The same spirit which came out of Miles' horn has found similar life in Molvaer's fascinating album.
Nils Petter Molvaer - Solid Ether
It's 2001 and I knew Nils Petter Molvaer's Solid Ether was going to spike to the top of my list when it was released in Europe last year; I just couldn't really justify putting it at the top of my list without it being relatively available for the hometown readership. I did that trick for Andrea Parker's Kiss My ARP and it took almost a year for that disc to find release in the States. I couldn't really get away with that sort of fortune-telling two years running. So, I waited. And I've waited. And I gave up hope of ever seeing Solid Ether over here and fully planned on snagging a copy while I took a wee trip to Paris at the end of February. Three weeks before I leave, Solid Ether shows up in the racks over here, and it is as every bit a masterpiece as I hoped it would be.
Picking up directly where Khmer left off, Solid Ether builds on Molvaer's quiet, breathy style of trumpet playing, creating large spaces that he fills with the heart-breaking sound of his harmonized instrument. It's very evident that this isn't just a retread of Khmer as the first shattering break-beat skitters past you and erupts into a full jungle explosion. "Dead Indeed" most certainly is not, as you are launched into space by the rhythm section and Molvaer's trumpet caresses you in flight like the spangled tail of a broad comet. "Vilderness 1" languidly arches itself around you as Molvaer and Eivind Aarset's guitar reach toward the sky like yearning sunflowers. Continuing the late night melancholy of "Katonita," Molvaer and singer Sidsel Endresen engage in a tiny torch number for voice and piano with "Merciful 1" (reprised in "Merciful 2" to close out the disc). "Ligotage" -- released as a single following Khmer -- is revamped here in a slightly remixed version, not as heavy on the low end, but still an exquisite arrangement of the shuffling rhythm section behind Molvaer's breathy trumpet. Molvaer's influence from Miles Davis' On the Corner and Big Fun era can be heard throughout, but "Ligotage" as well as "Trip" and "Solid Ether" demonstrate his awareness of those historical structures where the trumpet is simply the voice that sails above the grunting, straining, pulsing rhythm section.
Solid Ether is just an essential album, regardless of when your local CD distributors decide to finally carry it. It is a breathtaking amalgamation of electronics and jazz, bridging the last century and the next.
- M -
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Publications I've Written For
- Eraldo Bernocchi
- Fields of the Nephilim
- Peter Gabriel
- Chris Randall
- This Morn' Omina