S.I.N.A. - Snapshot
For an instant, as a woman's angry scream tears through your speaker system during "Lapalie," you wonder just what you've unleashed. German noise 'n' bass label, Hands, known for introducing the unsuspecting world to the tumultuous torment of Winterkälte, offers up a more club-friendly sound with S.I.N.A.'s Snapshot. Not that you would know that from the first two minutes; the disc begins like someone is being fed feet-first into a meat grinder. Fortunately (a relative term), the beats and distorted vocals, which propel the second track, "Machine," are less terrifying in their sonic fury. It's an adventurous club that would spin these tracks, but these twelve tracks are well suited for the dance floor if you don't mind a static overlay to your beats and your vocals.
The first rhythmic noise act to add female vocals to the mix, S.I.N.A. certainly harkens back to the sound of a neglected industrial guitar act of the late '90s for which I have a certain soft spot: Coptic Rain. Which, I have to admit, I have a certain soft spot for. "How Long" powers along with all the characteristics that made Coptic Rain enjoyable: heavy distorted percussion, squealing lurching guitar melodies (though in S.I.N.A.'s case, the melodies are more electronic-based), and the heavily augmented voice of the singer. Sina has more than one setting on her microphone, moving from the bruised sex kitten growl of "How Long" to the static-spitting snarl of "Scream" and the bored radio announcer of "Axiom."
Rhythmic noise is a genre that has a narrow range of appeal--the artist must walk a fine line between generating just noise and actual music (another relative term). Winterkälte set the standard a while ago and Hands clearly recognizes that as a label, in order to grow, they just can't sign the twentieth million Winterkälte clone. They need diversity; they need to make the genre grow. S.I.N.A.'s Snapshot is a much more friendly approach to the rhythmic noise sound, one that will undoubtedly be pummeling you from the hidden speakers in your favorite S & M dungeon in no time.
Saltillo - Ganglion
Menton J. Matthews distills the emotional weight of loss and heartbreak down to the tremor of a violin's string and the vibration of a cello's wooden frame. Stepping out from Sunday Munch to record Ganglion as Saltillo, Matthews offers twelve tracks that merge chamber orchestra intimacy with the caliginous seduction of trip-hop.
Matthews has scored a few soundtracks in his time and that mindset thrives throughout the mostly instrumental tracks of Ganglion. Violins and cello warble against a backdrop of sly beats in "A Necessary End" (while Matthews' wife Sarah provides wordless exultations during the bridge); a echo-drenched banjo, a sepia-tinged guitar and a crisp beat make "Remember Me?" seem like the incidental music for a showdown at the OK Corral as if The RZA was scoring Westerns. The Shakespearean-laden "A Hair on the Head of John the Baptist" and "Blood and Milk" play out like DJ Shadow doing soundtrack work on Elizabethan dramas.
"The Opening" is orchestral breakbeat, strings undulating in tempestuous space while wrestling with noisy drum programming; "Backyard Pond" glitches and hiccups with microtonal melodies while vinyl scratching bubbles around a warm synthesizer melody. In "Grafting," Matthews' string work evokes melancholic pastorals while Bristol-style trip-hop throw a 20th century haze over the idyllic landscape. Sarah's voice is lost in glossalia, ephemeral world-beat vocalizing that is so diaphanous that it never touches the ground.
For once, the press sheet hype ("quite possibly the finest release we've ever heard") doesn't seem like hyperbole. Ganglion is sumptuous listening -- rife with heartache and release, longing and liberation. Like Portishead or Massive Attack, Satillio brings trip-hop to the heartland and gives it a new home.
Scientific American - Strong For The Future
Having cut his teeth with sound design for the Seattle Art Museum as well as commercial compositions for Volkswagen, Hewlett-Packard, and Discover, Andrew Rohrmann now creates ten elegiac etudes as Scientific American. His Mush debut, Strong for the Future, presents moody electronic pieces that meander in the digital space between Warp and the Leaf Label. "Victory Hold Still" is a pastoral dance track, a skipping, thumping piece that pirouettes across pollen-dusted fields. Bootsy Holler's siren voice is submerged in an aquatic reverb of piano and drum in "The Seas Are the Sky," while tiny cut-up voices and digital detritus collide with a warm melody in "Million Lines (Slow Fade)," as if Stefan Betke were remixing Amon Tobin. Rohrmann dodges a number of the cliches of IDM with his work as Scientific American, demonstrating a fresh ear and a deft programming finger.
Senking - Silencer
It's not very often that I have the luxury of listening to a record several times in a single sitting; there is usually too much to do and too much to music to hear. But Senking Silencer has been on repeat in the CD player for most of the afternoon. It helps that it's a short record -- six tracks clocking in at just over thirty minutes -- but the real appeal is that Silencer is a subtle, sub-aquatic sponge movement of a record. Silencer is Pole meets Pan Sonic at three thousand feet below sea level as recorded through a trailing VLF sonar array.
While my all-time favorite aquatic record is the Porter Ricks/Techno Animal collaboration Symbiotics, Silencer fills that space when I want deep water echoes without the lumbering, suffering atmospheres of Porter Ricks and Techno Animal trying to out-crush one another. Silencer swims in the deep water as if the massive weight of the ocean doesn't matter. Sound moves slowly down here and the tiny chirps and pops of creatures imploding are distant and miniscule notes against the delicate motion of the heavy water and the thermal thread of luminous melodies which your brain hallucinates.
"Upbeat" hums for thirty seconds before the VLF beats begin. Single tones swims through your speakers, chasing after a school of tiny static cracklings as if there are very large fish out there in the darkness who are conducting a slow-tone symphony of sonar pulses. "Bateau" moves a bit quicker; the vanishing bass is an insistent pulse against your spine. Tiny glitches percolate beside a rising melody as if we are witnessing the passage of a large boat through black sea, the trailing sound of its engines and bulk echoing through the water.
"Rachel" is the least silent of the tracks on Silencer. A rumbling, tumbling track, "Rachel" moans with the decaying sound of stringed instruments, wan melodies which surf over the resolute bass line and the thin chatter of electrons vaporizing. Jens Massel has been recording under a number of monikers for Karaoke Kalk (Senking, Kandis, Fumble) and each record displays his growing mastery of the minimal sonic aesthetic. While "Cups" is even more melody driven than "Rachel," the song still exists in an open space, the notes and melodies echoing off one another as they free-float through the aquatic atmosphere of Silencer. "Run" begins with a tapping, as if someone were banging against the hull of your bathysphere. The tapping continues as glistening tones begin to coruscate around this patterned repetition. The low-end beats have become just a single long pulse for the final track, "Scatt," a slow drone that continually vibrates the floor. Tones pouring out of large metal bowls catch on the edge of thin static pops. For all the movement we've experienced to this point, in the end, we just hover, floating in the water, surrounded by the weight and echo of the sea.
The record isn't very silent when you get right down to it. But what Massel accomplishes on Silencer is that he induces you into a quieter frame of mind, a state of heightened attentiveness. Whatever you are doing, whatever you are thinking: these things fade away under the calming echoes of Silencer. Just put your arms out and float in the deep waters of Senking. This is wonderful.
Sephiroth - Draconian Poetry
Ulf Söderberg makes ambient tribal thunder, dark soundtracks of exploration into un-chartered jungles. Jaguars growl from dense undergrowth, alien birds with brittle wings cry from the heavy bower of twisted trees and the wind sings wordless arias through reed and bark and leaf. But, always -- like the perpetual presence of natives stalking you through the verdant foliage -- there is the menace of drums. Tribal percussion explodes in an instant, shaking the trees, scaring off the birds in a tinkling sound of breaking feathers and making the earth shake like a herd of charging elephants. Draconian Poetry is Marlowe's feverish nightmare ride up the turgid river in the pursuit of Mr. Kurtz, who has been swallowed by the heart of darkness.
"The Call of the Serpent" builds from jungle ambience -- the distant hue and cry of native voices, the faint echo of stone tools against wood and the guttering rumble of the jaguar in the brush -- until, like the sudden tightening of your chest with fear, everything freezes for a second in that infinitesimal silence before a storm breaks. Huge kettledrums shake the sky with their relentless beat. The percussion in "Uthul Khulture" is preceded by a priest's droning ululation, a ritual cry for combat, that sends the Pictish army hiding in the jungle streaming into the trees, resplendent with war paint and sharp feathers. An elongated air raid siren is a distorted cry ripped loose from the panicked reaction of the soft European intruders, the signal to flee before the onslaught of rhythmically excited natives.
The slow drums of "Dark Garden" and the tonal groans of native singers plays out like Peter Gabriel's Passion soundtrack played back at half speed; while "Therasia" blows like a moist wind across an abandoned camp. Breathy drones of sound flow across the empty clearing, dampening the silent tents and discarded equipment with a wet fog, heavy with spores and fungi. Orchestral swirls of strings vie with the wind to produce a claustrophobic ambience of disappearing light.
"A Map of Eden before the Storms" builds from the dreadful ambience of "Therasia" before erupting into tribal percussion. Söderberg layers on the drums, making it sound like he has an entire forest tribe in the studio with him. "The Clock of Distant Dreams" mixes a bit of Morthound's dark ambience with shifting tribal drums and hand percussion beneath a slowly changing tonal melody. Mood music for a massive march, thousands of men and horses bearing across dead seabeds to a bristling stronghold at the base of a mountain range. "Now Night Her Course Began" is the slow dissolution of the world. The sounds of the jungle begin to slow down, stretching and undulating as their elasticity decays and they become long notes, an amorphous benediction to the fall of night.
I've been a fan of Ulf's work since his early self-released records and Draconian Poetry is a refinement of his tribal ambience, a further darkening of the atmospheres with more explosive violence lurking at the periphery of the musical landscape. This record will leave you feeling haunted and hunted, afraid of the bestial forces that lie beyond the edge of the firelight, in the dark places on the map. This is mythological poetry, the savage heartbeat of the untamed world.
Shinjuku Filth - Raised by Wolves
Darrin Verhagen operates under several different monikers: his own name, Shinjuku Thief, and Shinjuku Filth. Each, naturally, gravitates towards a different type of music and the Shinjuku Filth persona traditionally is the home of the more beat-oriented material. Raised by Wolves brings a new flavoring to the mix: the musical cacophony of musique concrete.
It's probably best to let the liner notes explain what the listener is in for with this EP. "Raised by Wolves, a unique performance collaboration by Handspan Visual Theater, Shinjuku Thief (sic), and Regurgitator, premiered as part of the 1997 Melbourne International Festival in the massive shed 14 at Victoria Docks. The hour-long event, an epic visual and aural collage about living in a culture of gross consumption, deals with the decline of civilization and culture and asks the question 'what is the best kind of life for human beings?' The title refers to the struggle of a new generation attempting to maintain their integrity as they try to breathe life into a dying civilization."
Strong stuff and, at a pared down 35 minutes, it's almost too much. I should hold up the sticker right now. Warning: there is very little ambient content in this disc. That's because what they're about to give you is this: life as struggle. It opens quietly enough with voices from the radio, giving us the impression of a dark room colored only by the sound of a radio dial being scanned. "The Cockroach Sex" is the opening track and it is filled with a chanted melody, percussive elements, and streaks of static. Almost as if this were the primordial moments of life on the planet. Much like that part of Fantasia which we all saw as kids in grade school. Amoebas and paramecium gradually growing and evolving up to multi-celled organisms. The two strains-chant and rhythm-beginning to twine around one another as the building blocks of larger creatures.
This simply sets the stage for the thunder of the "Credit Sequence" where chant dissolves into stronger voices rising and falling, galloping drums, and the Dopplered wail of sirens. This builds into the "Galaxy" in which the voice and the drums simply begin to fight and the image that springs to mind is a two-fall tag team match with a bank of video monitors over the ring. The fight rages back and forth across the ring; sometimes voice is dominating, other times it is rhythm, over it all is a flood of commentary projected from the flickering video screens. It builds into a split instant of silence.
"The Birth." You can almost see that we've thundered through a couple of millennia to the instant of birth of our new consumer as he is thrust out into the world. And our new little tyke is greeted with a fanfare of guitar and swirling noise almost like a bank of angry bees or hovering relatives. I was eerily struck by similarities from Ammer and Einheit's Radio Inferno at this point, specifically echoing the moment when Dante and Virgil descend into Hell. (That's all right. Some of these are for me.) There is more martial announcements of the baby's arrival and then it is all dissolved into howling static, which catapults us into a montage that feels like sixteen years being squeezed into three minutes. The track is called "The Revision" and I can only imagine the assaulting barrage of TV images that are forced into this kid. From the sound alone, I can feel his personality being totally subsumed by the tripe that pours out of the television. He is being revised by the media and the flickering fuzz of television signals, the moaning of guitars, the bleeping radio signals, the hiss of enraged metal crickets, the droning voice of disconnectivity from the phone are all forced through a tiny spigot-through a tiny ear-into a receptive brain.
All in time for "The Art." Which is a beautiful and disturbing track. Up until this point, there has been little that could be qualified as conventional melody, but with 'art', we get interplay between piano, cello, and violins; a lilting piece that is undercut by a voice that begins by telling us that "no one every achieved anything through hard work and honest effort…" There is course and discourse on art until it is wracked with percussion as our consumer is presented with "The Sale."
"The Sale" is the frenzied construction of a great temple to the Gods of Consumerism. Our little consumer stands on the street before this great temple and watches it rise up before him, an unholy temple of steel and mirrors. Synth lines cascade and plummet around the rhythmic pounding of the growing structure. At the foot of the building is a minivan with a loudspeaker growing out of its roof, spouting the prophetic rhetoric of the First Church of Commercialism and the voice is distorted and twisted by the groaning metal behind it. "Socrates…once in a lifetime…do it for the children."
And then, we are swept inside the temple for the "Earnest Exchange of Ideas." And it feels like a boiler room in here. Steam is coursing out of gleaming vents. Metal clatters on metal with a steady time-clock like rhythm. There are fat bursts of bass rumblings that pour out of the speakers. And somewhere within this marketplace is maniacal laughter that slowly breaks up, almost like the dissolution of our consumer's sanity.
This dissolution follows him home where "The Match" ensues. Fat drones of electricity vie with the angry barking of dogs and you can imagine the heated argument, the words, the permanent rifts driven between two people until the consumer storms out of the house and gets into his car-his self-contained unit of consumption. There is a melody drifting in the far background of "The Car" as the consumer races down the highway, shouting and screaming as everything falls apart around him. And he finally drives the car off the road in a crackling of breaking glass. He is thrown free of the car and lies, broken and bleeding, on the bare ground.
And then, there is nothing but melody. "The…erm, 'repository of consequences' (ah, so to speak)" is this final moment when the consumer has nearly consumed himself in his greedy quest to have. And yet, as he lies there, expiring, he has achieved a sense of freedom and this freedom lingers around his head. He realizes his emptiness, realizes that he was born from chaos, fed with chaos, and could never really aspire to anything but chaos; and, in that realization, hears a pure and clean melody. It's a wonderful moment that brings us through this experience and leaves us with hope.
But there is a snarl of static around the edge. And suddenly, there is "The Pitch." Nineteen seconds reminding you that you have just been watching a re-enactment and that proper consumption of goods-methodical and well-paced consumption-will lead to a happy Consumer life. You, too, can avoid burnout. Just pace your purchases. And then it is over. The wolves have just eaten their young.
But, that melody lingers.
In my cubicled work environment, I can't get away with much more than gentle ambient and it is always nice to come home and run through this disc. I answered the phone once with this in the background and the person on the other end got halfway through their opening sentence before sputtering out: "What the hell is that?" "I'm relaxing," was my reply. Raised by Wolves is a purging, cleansing experience which leaves you rattled but adrift with that final melody of hope out of chaos. My copy reads 'limited edition 1000.' Get it now before it disappears.
Shulman - In Search of a Meaningful Moment
Marked ALEPHZ01, Shulman's In Search of a Meaningful Moment is the fledgling label's opening statement, a call to arms for truly global chill music. The opening track "Inner Selves" spins itself through Tuvan throat singers, Jamaican dub, and Continental instrumental space-jazz (yes, you can hear a direct lineage back to Peter Namlook's FAX label circa mid-1990's throughout this record). "A Magnificent Void" expands into stellar spaces with heavenly synths and glottal throat rhythms, world music shot into the vastness of space.
"Consciousness Revoked" spins with a whirlwind of spattered notes, a cascade of synthesizer tones that rise like effervescent bubbles up from an artesian source. "Mushroom Therapy" takes itself onto the dance floor with a swooping synth and a native chant over a percolating trance rhythm, building a strobe lit room of GOA infusion. Ancestral voices moan and lament during the lengthy closer, "Instability," as Schulman brings the pace down and chills us out with a downtempo rendition of a Juno Reactor world beat transmission. Shulman's search for the meaningful moment takes the listener on a global journey -- from east to west, from beat to beatless. It's a search that may not have any end, but the journey-- ah! the journey -- is the key. Recommended.
Sister Machine Gun - Influence
Chris Randall's Sister Machine Gun project is back for its seventh full-length record and he continues to live fast by two rules: evolution is necessary, but the funk can never die. Called Influence, his latest record takes his sinuous, guitar-laced, industrial-tinged lounge act through a portal in time to the electro heyday of the synth in the late 1980s.
From the electro beatbox of "To Hell with You" to the drum 'n' bass clatter and hazed vocals of "The Antagonizer," Randall is all about turning his retro-industrial lounge act into a Ball of the Beats where it is all hot pants, crushed velvet, strobe lights, a ceiling full of spinning disco balls and a relentless insistence on shakin' yo ass. That most of the songs are bitter ditties to be sung along to by the broken-hearted and emotional bereft is the best kind of icing to this already delightful cake. "I would have done anything / To never say good-bye / I would have done anything for you."
He pauses the headlong rush for an intimate session of electronic drum kit and wandering guitar with "Clean." It's a very Depeche Mode collides with Jeff Beck sort of session with Randall's world-weary crooner singing, "I go to the river, but the river don't wash me clean." It's a ballad where the sad song of the guitar is just as much a part of the lyric as is Randall's voice. It's a song you will know when you hear it; it will speak right to the black blood pooling at the base of your heart, that dark blood which carries all the things we've done that we don't ever want to face. Fantastic and heartbreaking, it lies right at the center of the record's spiral funk universe. Perfect.
It's been over a decade since Sins of the Flesh, the first Sister Machine Gun record, and when you look back at the SMG discography, you can see those elements which indelibly stamp a record as being a Sister Machine Gun release. The group has gone from being a full-on band to just Randall to being Randall and Miguel Turanzas, and what remains constant is the angry and disaffected crooner and the insistent funk of the melodies and rhythms. Each record applies these constants to a different shell, a different temperament and outer instrumentational casement. Influence throws itself deep into the electro-mix of the 1980s and pulls off its retro-vision with a broad streak of 21st century sensibility. Randall pauses at the threshold of his second decade as a performer for quasi-nostalgia tour of the formative sounds of his youth, and demonstrates that he's got nothing but the future in mind. Excellent, as always. Give me another decade, please.
Sister Machine Gun
Positron Records 
Sister Machine Gun - [R]evolution
Chris Randall is a crooner. I’ve always suspected as such and, with [R]evolution, he’s finally come clean.
"Recorded at Warzone" the liner notes read and you know immediately that some of that dense industrial-edged funk which was so perfected with Die Warzau’s Engine will be found here, though Randall has taken some of the clatter out of the Warzone Funk and infused it with his own directives—smart, edgy hooks and that crooner’s voice of his. Free of big label oppression, Randall formed Positron Records to continue his musical revolution on his terms and gave us first an album of electronic noodling—the self-titled Micronaut record.
It was a different direction, one more of synth washes and 'bleep & bloop' type melodies. Dance music for a near robotic generation with still enough human flesh to remember how to shake their booties. And for those who worried that the Micronaut project would be the death of SMG, their relief and exultation could be heard for miles when they received their copy of the new SMG album, [R]evolution. Randall has taken everything uncovered and discovered through the course of the Micronaut album and wedded it to the trademark guitar-laden funk which had been the recognizable sound of Sister Machine Gun.
[R]evolution plays like a concept album, each song running into the next with funky breakdown bridges between the tracks and a self-contained cycle of the repetitive snap of the empty record groove. After the pirate radio sound of the opening "Libertad," we’re thrown into a trio of songs which reward us with the recognizable SMG sound (the radio friendly hits, if I can be so crass). The verses are built around a spotlit emphasis on the vocalist bent over his microphone and then the choruses explode, heat and light thrown off by the burst of sonic sound which rises out of the disc.
And then, something amazing happens. We’re transported from a starkly lit industrial warehouse to the back lounge of Viva La Velvet on the Los Vegas strip. "Transient One" opens with a quirky synthetic melody, an electronic pop song which wouldn’t be entirely out of place at your sister’s wedding. Then the voice snakes its way into your ear, that breathy curl of a man wrapped around his microphone, seducing you from the half-lit stage. And he even coaxes that mournful David Gilmorian lament from the guitar for the break. You check the CD sleeve as “Transient Two” begins, flush with that electric pulse which speaks of the Micronaut project, wondering if there’s been a mastering problem and you’ve got something else thrown into the middle here. But Randall’s masterful ability to weave a hook through your shoulder blades has already ensnared you and the lazy locomotive pace of this track rushes you away.
We’re working our way back to the dark waters of Lake Michigan, as the 40’s jazz feel of “Closer to Me” breaks down into a funky guitar/percussion wrestling match until “Wrong,” “Vibrator,” and “Autoloader” show us the commingling of the separate styles heard earlier. Randall the lounge lizard comes attached to the snarling guitar funk, both riding a bouncy bed of electronic beats. Chris Randall is recrafting the shape of the musical landscape with the independent direction of Sister Machine Gun. More power to him. The world needs more crooners.
Sow - Je M'aime
Martin Atkins has done a really lovely job rescuing master tapes from their premature placement in dusty archives. Anna Wildsmith's Sow project is one that well deserves its resurrection. Je M'aime, though saddled with a '99 copyright date is actually older than her other new album, dating back a few years to a time when Raymond Watts hadn't quite been seduced by the industrial guitar attack (not that I'm saying that as if it is a bad thing). Anna coaxes a much wider range of musical accompaniment out of Raymond (and Mr. Foetus himself on one track) that serves as a properly sexually-charged post art-rock/neo-industrial/dark atmospheric melange that mixes spoken lyrics in English, French, and Italian.
Sounds like an unholy mess, doesn't it? Look at it from my perspective: I'm trying to convince you to add this to your collection and we're not at a point in our relationship where the phrase "just buy the damn thing already" is going to have the proper cash-separation effect on you. So, I have to use my wily skills and some bullet points to get you to the store.
- "The World is My Oyster" is the most disturbing song to which you will ever snap your fingers in accompaniment. It sounds just like it appears, a bright British afternoon in the park with Polly the plastic doll. "Tea with Polly under a tree/Getting sticky with Polly and cream buns." She turns on you by the end, sinks her fangs so far into your arm that you'll never be free of the mark.
- The title of "Face of Suede" is meant to distract you. Well, actually most of this distracts you until you're already mesmerized and wondering just how you got to this decadent place. (I don't remember asking for this ball gag...) The actual song is this orgiastic texturing of strings, electronics, drums, and Anna's voice into this overwhelming aural experience of a sexual encounter that probably only happens once in everyone's lifetime. If you're lucky.
- "Blood Sucking Bitch" is all in Italian. And some day I'll bother to run it all through some online translator and actually figure out what she's crooning about. But in the meantime, I'll just be happy with the pounding chorus that is actually in English and really cathartic if you have got some issues with past girlfriends to work out.
- Anna has said in more than one interview that she doesn't concern herself so much with the language she chooses to sing in, focusing more on her delivery to translate the intent and the meaning of the songs. "Je M'aime" is a rain-soaked juke joint song, complete with upright bass and wah-wah trumpet growling in the background. It's a seductive ode to one's self that is both adorative and abusive. The cover art for the '94 release of this disc is a perfect reflection of this song (a photo that survives in the liner notes).
- "Do you really want to go out there and meet the species?" A too accurate representation of the male sex floods "Manripe." Coupled with Stravinsky-styled strings and percussion, Anna plays both sides of the argument, flaying each sex for failing to transcend their baser natures. Or maybe it is just recognizing the primal states that drive us all. "Always/Forever."
Be adventurous this month. Get a disc that will suck you under with its music and tap you hard with its lyrical content. Let Anna peel back your head and get inside, let her find those dark spots you didn't know were there, let Raymond Watts attach a little ditty to that specter she drags out of you. Let some of that Freudian repressed id out and find out just how much a good song can make you squirm in your skin.
Spyra - Invisible Fields
"Test Transmission," the first track of Spyra's Invisible Fields, scares me. I'm worked up because this isn't what I was expecting from the final act of a trilogy which Wolfram DER Spyra has been working on for FAX since 1998's sublime Sferics. The liner notes remind us that this project has been ostensibly about radio waves and other fascinating phenomena which we cannot see. Sferics was filled with ambient music wedded to atmospheric anomalies in the most gorgeous of fashions. So what's got me terrified about "Test Transmission"? It's a retro-80s dance floor beat with the Mr. Roboto voice sample.
Thank God it is only a momentary (well, four minute moment) nod to Kraftwerk and then Spyra moves along to his continued exploration of deft piano melodies, electromagnetic wave patterns, and fluid ambience. "Entropy Is Just..." is disturbed by weather patterns (which sound as if they've been lifted from Blade Runner) as a gentle melody hums along a watery percussion section which sounds like has been sourced from shortwave static. The piano-like melody is augmented by vibraphone as if Karl Berger has such a good time making Polytime (another wonderful FAX record from 1998) that he's come by for another collaborative effort. A radical shift in tempo and style sweep past us at the end -- a sudden drop as if you were on an elevator and it randomly plummeted six floors in free fall before returning to its regulated pace -- before the second part of the jazz-tinged excursion gets underway. "...A Seven Letter Word" merges the jazz odyssey of "Entropy Is Just..." with revisited melodies from Sferics -- a variation of themes already explored.
"XyloCity Part 1" and "XyloCity Part 2" continue the polyrhythmic motion of the earlier tracks, locking into the groove which will define the album: future jazz imbued with a vibrating organic warmth -- a collision of wood and rubber and electronic pulses. Throughout the persistence of electromagnetic signals continues, whether it be rumbling static drifting past or shortwave pops which seem to be snared by the rhythm of the piece and drawn into the orbit of the music.
"Bath," the 24 minute centerpiece of Invisible Fields summarizes all the types of invisible waveforms which permeate our cities, our buildings, and our lives. Surrounded by thunder, unattended radios tuned to forgotten stations and the persistent tock-tock of a wind-up clock, "Bath" is a soundtrack aching to be wrapped around a short film. If Ridley Scott ever wanted to revisit the water-drenched and artificially luminous world of Blade Runner, he would only need "Bath" to act as his aural screenplay. The beauty of "Bath" is that it allows me to dream of a reality where a movie studio was brave enough to allow Ridley Scott to make a 24 minute film set only to music.
Finally, the delicate piano outro of "Temporarily Not Available." Much like the last track of Sferics, "Temporarily Not Available" seems as if the ghost of Erik Satie is haunting an abandoned piano. For the last hour, Spyra has inviegled the listener with his seductive sound work. He has shared his fascination with the shortwave, the radio wave, the microwave, the sine wave and the atmospheric wave; he has built music around each of these phenomena and caught our attention. Now, at the end, all that remains is a single piano melody accompanied by a final, distant squirt of ambient radio noise.
The whole trilogy of records -- Sferics, Etherlands and Invisible Fields -- are an incredible exploration of ambient, future jazz, techno pop, and electronic music, and each record explores a higher complexity of sound and rhythm. You can't be saddened by the end of "Temporarily Not Available," because you can go back to the first record and start over. All the atmospheric ephemera will be there again. Nothing is lost; the ghosts, the dreams, the energized electrons, the vast distances made small: they can fill your head once more.
Star of Ash - Iter.Viator
Star of Ash is the work of Heidi S. Tveitan. You may know her by her other name, Ihriel, which she uses when she performs with her husband's group, Peccatum. Star of Ash breaks away from the more strict boundaries of the metal genre which Peccatum usually finds itself lumped in, though the operatic and Jarboe-esque sounds of Iter.Viator certainly have some connection to the more "experimental" offerings from Peccatum.
Somewhere in the next room a radio is playing. This is "Chasm Blue," the short instrumental piece which opens Iter.Viator, and the radio is tuned to a distant station which is playing some forgotten piano concerto. The air vibrates with unease, thick greasy waves of heat pulse against your brain and, for a moment, there is a guitar which presses a rock and roll anthem against you. The piano continues, dissolving gradually under a layer of strings as "Chasm Blue" bleeds into the neo-classical opening of "Sanies." As Tveitan's voice croons into the middle passage of "Sanies," she is accompanied by a trip-hop beat and a solemn horn section. The climax is a dissonant bed of clashing beats while her voice climbs several octaves, soaring like Diamanda Galas over the fractured sonics.
This is orchestral noir; these seven tracks mix classical underpinnings with modern beat structures and dissonant cacophony while allowing for avant-garde flourishes and dark ambient passages. "Beautiful as Torment" sweeps from shivering beats and acoustic guitar melodies to aggressive stroboscopic passages. Imagine Dead Can Dance with Jarboe on vocals or a Craig Armstrong soundtrack with Diamanda Galas performing on voice and piano on several tracks. Iter.Viator doesn't cling to any specific classification; the only premise which this record holds dear is Tveitan's own confession: "My main motivation for making music is the desire to invent stories; to release my work is to read those stories aloud." If Tim Burton produced records instead of directing films, you would find his name stamped on Iter.Viator. Highly recommended.
State River Widening - Cottonhead
State River Widening eschew the dreary modern trappings of digital processing, preferring to focus on a cinematic amalgam of acoustic guitar melodies, sparse drum kit rhythms, electronic piano elegies, and elegant string arrangements. Marimbas ring like summer rain during "Desertesque;" a field recording of a street in Valencia, Spain, blows through "Knifegrinder's Song;" and, during "Lowlands," the voice of '60s folk singer Anne Briggs steals into the studio like an eidolon of an old aunt. Cascading piano chords in "Cottonwood" evolve into a rollicking drum and guitar duet like the high desert vision of Scenic as touched by Boards of Canada. The textured instrumentals of Cottonhead provide unadulterated escape from the crush of DSP savagery and the confusion of fractured time signatures.
Stone Glass Steel - Dismembering Artists
This record, released in 1999, is nearly a decade older. Completed in 1991 and "lost" for many years, Dismembering Artists is a record that exists outside of time. To call this record "dated" is to miss the point of its realization and, frankly, there isn't anyone else in the field -- now or then -- who can match Phil Easter's recontextualization ability. The basic premise of this record is that every sound you hear has been stolen from something else. The only originality you hear on these ten tracks is the fact that every sample has been raped, mangled, marred, and otherwise fucked up from its original context.
Phil now does mastering work for Malignant Sound Technologies and the chances are good if you listen to anything in the dark ambient, cinematic isolationism, noise, power electronics, apocalyptic folk, or neu-industrial experimentalism genres you've been exposed to his handiwork. In the old days, before his master hand tweaked the knobs behind the scenes, he applied his razored attention to the material surrounding him, cutting and slicing with perfect precision. Like an organ-legger with an empty van at the back gate of a body farm, Phil would load up on parts before scampering off to his secret underground lair to recontextualize the pieces. Not "reconstruct." Oh no, nothing so mundane for this mad scientist. The true magic of Stone Glass Steel lies in how the music scrambles your head, in the way in which your brain will try to attach itself to tiny pieces of music that it recognizes.
Your brain will fail. Stone Glass Steel (under his Iron Halo Device moniker) contributed a track to Ad Noiseam's initial compilation, Krach Test, called "Between the Fragile Cracks (Distillation Remix)." The context for this track was the entirety of Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile, and even armed with this knowledge, I had a hard time lining up each sample with a track from that sprawling monstrosity. You can imagine the near impossibility of identifying all the sources when the playing field is Phil's entire CD collection. What happens when you hear Dismembering Artists is that elements will sound familiar, but you can't quite place them. Your brain hits a disconnect when it recognizes a tiny bit of material because, while the beat or the tone or the rhythm is familiar, the surrounding context is all wrong.
This isn't sampledelia or cut-up; this is refabrication -- the building of something new out of the old. This is recycling at a highly creative level. The heavy weather patterns of sound which Phil creates are mental tsunamis which roar through your memory seas, tearing up the surface and scooping out dark hollows you've long forgotten. Listening to Stone Glass Steel is to be reminded that listening is a subjective experience. What you consciously remember from a piece of music is a small part of the whole. The rest is stored away in your brain, waiting for the liberating maelstrom of Stone Glass Steel.
Dismembering Artists is a masterpiece of sonic construction. It is part power electronics, part technoid rhythms, part isolationist soundscape, part old-school machine shop industrial. It is a compressed summation of all the work done in these genres as well as being a landmark example of the fluidity of sound. Nothing is permament. All art can be transformed, put beneath the blade or the torch and made into something new. What Will Be comes out of What Is and What Was. This record is the vibrant, eruptive expression of William Burroughs' claim that "everything is possible."
Syndrone - Salmataxia
A hurricane touches down in the first thirty seconds of Salmataxia, Syndrone's new record, a rushing, frothing explosion of sound that cores out your speaker wire, bloodies your ear canals and frightens small children within a thousand meters. It is an explosive blast of decompressing information like a hundred sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica run through a wood chipper. Syndrone's first effort at machine music noise was Triskaideka and that record presaged the formation of Merck records; with Salmataxia, Merck is laying down the challenge that their roster of IDM junkies can take on Schematic's crew of beat blasters. Salmataxia applies Otto Von Schirach's methodology of zombie beat crunchery to the granular complexity of later period Autechre and tries to wrangle likeable compositions out of the mix. It takes a couple of listens to figure out if he's successful.
I want to say that Salmataxia is a record that plays better as a whole composition instead of a series of individual tracks, but "Pan_ic" defies my attempt at that simplification. I want to argue that the divergence of melodies and beats that occurs in each track is so wide that it's almost pointless to listen to them in any way other than as a continuous transformation of ideas and sounds. But then "Pan_ic" happens, and while the decay of its melody seems to be a radical departure from the opening theme, I can still hear the "theme" in the final minute of the track. I then hit repeat and listen to the beginning of "Pan_ic" again and, a minute later, I think: "Wait a sec. What track am I on?" It's a confusing head-space for a reviewer to find himself in.
"Colnkft" furthers the confusions boiling in my brain. The beginning is a scraping dark ambient soundscape like something you'd hear on the spookier European noise labels. The beats drop in like spattering beads of hot lead. Syndrone then layers in an ambient melody as if we've just wandered into Brian Eno's Music For Airports. Over the next seven minutes he explores various combinations of these three distinct genres as if he were demonstrating just how mutable music can be.
Normally, records that splatter beats and ideas with such a manic frenzy leave me exhausted, but Syndrone keeps my attention by providing tiny connective elements. While the explosive Chinese firecracker rhythms of "Caste" become more and more dilated as time signatures stretch, Syndrone keeps a slow tone running in the background, an sonic anchor which you can hang on to as the BPM drops towards the single digits. There are glittering tones that fall like slow meteors in "Slo ky." "Capital M" is propelled by an Einstürzende Neubauten style clatter of plastic boxes.
Several listens later, I've got to answer my own question: does it work? I think the answer may be self-evident in the fact that I keep coming back to the this record. Confounding, sure, like all polyrhythmic cacophony can be, but Syndrone builds his Pollackian landscapes across placid ambient canvases. You can either float in the embrace of the big picture or lose yourself in the minute details that spill out in Mandelbrotian complexity. For both the macrocosm minded and the microscopic fetishist, Salmataxia has much to offer.
Ulrich Schnauss - A Strangely Isolated Place
Ulrich Schnauss' A Strangely Isolated Place belies its name with its successful European release (CCO) a year or so ago and its triumphant arrival on the North American shows via Domino. A gossamer-winged apparition of ethereal resonance, A Strangely Isolated Place is a record which carries its love for the Cocteau Twins and Slowdive in full view. Schnauss deftly blends sweeping harmonic melodies with washes of clean sound and the nearly-wordless cry of vocalist Judith Beck, delivering a record which lifts you right off your feet.
Crystalline guitar ala Robin Guthrie and Vangelis ring tones straight out of Bladerunner guide us into the cloud shape of "Gone Forever," ushering us into a plane of pure light and rounded edges where every tone is large enough to comfortably put your hand on and all the notes bump against you in the most gentle manner. "On My Own" shoots along on a contrail of Slowdive and a decade-old bleep bloop dance beat, an elliptical comet ride that pulls the past along in its wake but still manages to be something new and sparkly as it flashes past. "Monday-Paracetamol" welds the shoegazer aesthetic to a Boards of Canada-style innocence, crafting a luminous idolon whose rhythmic heartbeat is a whirling kaleidoscope of delicate hues. "Blumenthal" fills the sanctuary like a Vangelis-inspired Requiem, crystalline synthesizer tones flying up to the vaulted ceiling where they catch the colored light from the stained-glass windows.
The shoegazers tried to build a cathedral of infinitely echoing sound and, while these ephemeral creations eventually collapsed, a generation later there is another group of electronic architects who seek to recreate the same assemblies of sonic worship. Schnauss is the new High Priest of shoegazer sound, intelligently bridging the infinite sustain of the shoegazer guitar with the perpetual loop of techno to create a new temple of worship. Bring your haunted melancholy, your wistful heavenward gazes, your haunted unrequited yearnings, bring them all. There is room enough under the dome of sound erected by A Strangely Isolated Place for everyone.
skm-etr - A Better Place
Alan Moore's The Watchmen is a seminal piece of fiction, done up through the medium of words and pictures -- the graphic novel. Assisted by Dave Gibbons' vibrant artwork, Moore draws a fascinating and terrifying vision of a future that has come unglued from compassion and empathy, cast adrift in a sea of blood and chaos. In this world, the heroes have been unable to remain untainted from the corrosive violence that pollutes the blood of the world. Some of them have withdrawn into exile, some of them have become government-sanctioned assassins, some have quit, and others have elected to fight evil on its own terms. The bleak dystopia permeates the first chapter of Objective-Subjective's 12-part sonic recreation of Moore's work. A Better Place is skm-etr's apocalyptic opener, a blast of noise and vitriol that starts our journey into the dark night of the soul.
Three tracks with alternating interludes of caustic sermonizing, A Better Place is a twenty-minute excursion into noise territory, filled with overloaded frequencies, feedback-drenched snarls and the guttural cough of a live power cable. The harsh electronics beat against the listener like waves of electricity, burning synaptic connections and brain cells with the crest of each tumultous cycle. Not as unrelentingly noisy as Merzbow or driven as hard as the jackhammer percussion of Winterkälte, Skm-Etr's soundtrack to Chapter One of The Watchmen boils with repressed rage; running throughout the noise pieces is the distorted voice of a man singularly focused on the violent solution to a violent world -- this is the birth of Rorschach. As an introduction to the world of despair which pervades the early chapters of the story, A Better Place is just the sort of sonic conflagration which warns us of the evil that men can do when their world becomes unhinged. Suitably atmospheric and creepy.
- S -
The alphabetical list below provides navigation into the review archive. To view a comprehensive list of all reviews available in the repository, click on the infinity symbol (∞) in the last box of the series.
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Publications I've Written For
- Eraldo Bernocchi
- Fields of the Nephilim
- Peter Gabriel
- Chris Randall
- This Morn' Omina