Once upon a time there was Option magazine. It covered a broad – yet oddly narrowly defined – cross-section of music that was too weird for the mainstream, but maybe not all the way underground. Each issue would feature quarter-page ads for ReR and Cuneiform Records, and generally there was one or more ads for The Bevis Frond. It had features of varying quality (one article on Swans featured the memorable observation by Jarboe that working in the studio with Michael Gira was much like what working with Paganini was said to be like: “like standing in vats of boiling oil, lancing each other with razor blades”), but the real draw for the magazine were the 30-40 pages of concise reviews, typeset in 4 columns of agate type. It took a couple days to work through them all, but doing so always left me with a feeling like I had a pretty good idea what was going on. They covered cassette-only DiY industrial releases as much as they did more established stalwarts of new and experimental music (Fred Frith, Eugene Chadborne, Zeena Parkins, John Zorn – the Knitting Factory crowd).
Option crapped out 10 years ago. It had lost its purpose, crowded on one side by the alternative-izing of Spin and Rolling Stone in the wake of the grunge explosion-implosion, and on the other by the explosion of subgenres and new bands that characterized the 90s. It’s impossible to imagine a magazine with Option’s broad remit succeeding today. There’s way too much music to cover, and the print magazines that do survive (in Pitchfork’s shadow) tend to be more narrowly focused and relatively conservative. Even The Wire, the most self-consciously hip’n’edgy music magazine out there, is much more predictable than Option was in the early 90s.
Even so, I did inductively identify an Option sound after reading it for a couple years, a kind of post-college rock / intellectual psychedelia that lived somewhere in the interstices between Galaxie 500, Robyn Hitchcock, Half Japanese and the aforementioned twisted guitar genii Chadborne and Frith. It was like art-hippy weirdoes Henry Cow tamed for a larger audience, or REM with more unpredictability.
I provide you with all this prolog because Damien Youth fits the old Option template perfectly. Having never heard him before, listening to his The Man Who Invented God filled me with a rush of nostalgia for high school, when my friends and I would swap REM and Let’s Active and Big Star tapes. Youth was contemporary with those bands, even though he never had their success, and he was clearly mining the same vein of intellectual, introspective folky psychedelia. The Man Who Invented God has the insular quality I associate with late-80s home studio recordings, and Youth practically ought to be paying Michael Stipe royalties, but there’s a free-flowing ease to the songs that makes the rough edges and stylistic debts less important. There’s also some eyeliner and goth poetry going on, which you can interpret as charming or grating as you see fit.
This is yet another of the trove of old recordings I got from Mutant Sounds, and it’s worth the download time and Rapidshare hassle to check out if you like gothic psychedelia. Youth outlasted Option and is still going, almost 25 years after he started, and he’s got a bewildering array of other projects he’s participated in. I might have to check some of them out.
Intellectually I recognize that there are people out there who dislike Joanna Newsom. For more than a few people, her mannered, nasal vocals are the deal-breaker. Others find her tricky, polysyllabic lyrics pretentious, or just have a hard time taking seriously an elfin woman playing indie rock on the harp. She can be interpreted, in a word, as twee.
I don’t see her that way at all. I’m a passionate partisan of Newsom and her music. She can bring me to the brink of tears through the power of her songs alone; the only other musicians or composers with that power are Glen Branca and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom work in a much higher artistic register than most of Newsom’s folky peers. Where other people see her lyrics as insufferably arch, I see one of the last great lyric poets still writing in English (this:
And, Emily - I saw you last night by the river.
I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water,
frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever
in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror.
Anyhow - I sat by your side, by the water.
You taught me the names of the stars overhead that I wrote down in my ledger,
though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades loosed in December,
I promised you I‘d set them to verse so I’d always remember:
That the meteorite is a source of the light,
and the meteor’s just what we see.
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire
that propelled it to thee.
And the meteorite’s just what causes the light,
and the meteor’s how it’s perceived.
And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void
that lies quiet in offering to thee.
is one of the most indelible, durable and delicate bits of poetry I’ve encountered since last wrestling with Ruth Stone – and much more cheerful to boot). And both her singing and harp playing are idiosyncratic are deeply accomplished.
She’s also caught a certain amount of backlash for being part of the loosely-affiliated “freak folk” scene that came out of San Francisco a few years ago. If you’d been around here then, you would have known that folks like Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Joanna Newsom and Brightblack Morning Light were thrown together by circumstance more than anything else; there was nothing schematic about how they all came to prominence at the same time. I can’t harsh on people for getting annoyed at the hypewagon rolling over their toes, but if that’s your most substantive problem with Joanna you should probably give her another listen.
And if, like some critics I’ve read, you think she takes herself way too seriously, what’s the problem? Her commitment to her music is near-total and she’s unapologetic about her intelligence (anyone who makes “…but always up the mountainside you’re clambering, groping blindly, hungry for anything: picking through your pocket linings – well, what is this? Scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?” work has forgotten more about English than most of us will ever know), and the music she makes is the product of a confident, brilliant mind, and o see how it shines.
I recently picked up Daft Punk’s Alive 2007. It’s pretty good, but has nowhere near the raw fury of the first time I saw Daft Punk live. That was at Even Furthur 1996, one of the legendary series of outdoor raves thrown in BFE Wisconsin by the infamous Drop Bass Network. That year, the main tent had sound by the Badger Sound crew, which meant that there was who knows how many watts going into 32 15” speakers along the front of the tent. The sound was very clean and LOUD. I’ve since decided it was the best sound system I’ve ever heard: it gave everything played through it a brutal, hard-edged clarity that was in keeping with the spirit of the weekend (15-year-olds on K face-down in the mud, 60-watt xenon lasers burning the sky over the tops of the trees, Deadly Buda playing a gabber rendition of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind theme at 220BPM at 7:30 in the morning, Dan Doormouse and friends keeping their Rottweiler with them in their smaller side tent as they rinsed out old Reload records and beat on their speakers with a wiffle ball bat, everyone bundled up against the rain in hoodies and huge pants).
This was before Homework, and Daft Punk were still a cult phenomenon known mostly to DJs and hardcore ravers, so there was a certain amount of anticipation among the crowd, but I remember the crowd were more excited for Phantom 45’s and Woody McBride’s sets later in the night. I think we were all a little caught off-guard when Daft Punk proceeded to throw up a set of headbanging, ass-shaking hard house and acid techno to rival just about anyone who’s ever played dance music live. They didn’t have the pyramid or robot costumes, their setup was minimal, and they barely acknowledged the crowd. That didn’t matter. It was a hallucinatory, blistering half-hour of loops, acid, and slamming electronic beats. I remember the high point of the set being a psychedelically intense version of “Rollin & Scratchin” that practically slammed its way into my head. I don’t know how much of it was the music and how much was the insane sound system, but now you can judge for yourself, because as I discovered today, some kind soul put the entire set online. You’ll just have to imagine the bass and the volume for yourself. And ignore the bald dude.
In my opinion, it’s mostly been downhill for Daft Punk ever since. Homework and the subsequent albums have played up their frothy pop take on French loop-house / electro-disco, and while that makes for awesome videos and it is, after all, what made them famous enough to afford the pyramids and robot suits, I was disappointed to find that the only remnants of the tough, abrasive sound I’d heard in Wisconsin were a comparatively anemic rendition of “Rollin & Scratchin” and a couple other b-sides to their early singles. I’m glad they released Alive 2007, because it shows that they still retain some of that 1996 energy. Still, finding that old set has made me a very happy boy.
When trying to whistle up some information on the long-departed Factrix, I came across the phrase “archaic fart feasts of yesteryear” on Julian Cope’s Head Heritage. It delighted me. Julian Cope has such a way with words! I hope it delights some of you!
(Factrix’s Scheintot really is an accomplished piece of downer art-damaged weirdness, although I’d say it’s a post punk album much more than any kind of “industrial.” You can download a copy of it – it is, of course, beyond out of print – off The Thing on the Doorstep. Also, the cover features boobies!)
One of the things that sucks about being an atheist is recognizing that there are people who are going to escape the cosmic judgment they so obviously deserve. While his crimes are minor next to the usual suspects (Hitler, Stalin, Reagan, etc), William Bennett’s bush-league ass-hattery should have earned him some kind of divine smackdown. If not for his rampant, flamboyant misogyny as the leader of Whitehouse, perhaps for his habit of gratuitously overdubbing Nazi speeches over the music he released on his various record labels (Come Organisation, Susan Lawly). I get the appeal of transgression and abjection – without which industrial music would not exist – but Bennett has made a life’s work out of crossing the line between artful, ironized misanthropy into being a boring, hateful dick.
It bugs me that Surgeon decided to adopt Whitehouse as his iconic industrial totem / spirit animal. Why not SPK? They were blatantly confrontational, even if they went downhill very quickly, and “Slogun” is arguably the original version of Surgeon’s personal form of harsh, stark techno.
One of the many fruits of my recent orgy of downloading and purchasing is that it’s put me back in touch with a lot of my favorite industrial and drone music, and among the groups who combine both those tendencies most effectively, Organum has to stand as one of the most impressive and uncompromising. They’ve built up a small pile of releases over the years, many of which are only available as part of compilations, and are not a well-known group even among fans of strange music. It’s not hard to understand why they’re marginal, as their work is fairly inaccessible even by industrial music’s esoteric standards, but every time I listen to an Organum record I find it riveting, a collection of mysterious yet concrete sounds that never overstay their welcome.
To refer to Organum by a plural pronoun is a little misleading; in every meaningful sense the name is just a handle David Jackman has attached to many of his musical activities. Organum’s music has appeared on many collaborative releases (Jackman especially appears to favor split albums), but these days, the best way to find his music is on a couple of CDs, prosaically entitled Volume One and Volume Two, on Robot Records. By “best” I mean “easiest to find”; the downside of listening to Organum on omnibus collections is that many of the original pieces originally stood alone, and stringing them together robs them of some of their power. The perfect amount of time to spend listening to Organum is about 20 minutes. Unlike some of his followers (most notably Jonathan Coleclough, whose music I absolutely adore no matter how long the works are), Jackman has recognized the power inherent in keeping compositions concise.
Jackman’s method is easy to describe, but the net effect is close to indescribable. Typically he combines some kind of mechanical drone (compression fans, electrical motors) with bowed metal (cymbals, saws). It can range from the quietly ominous (“Crux”) to the overpowering (“In Extremis”), but always with the unpredictable shrieks and whines caused by friction against sheet metal. Often there are abstract elements (wordless vocals, feedback) layered over the top. It’s a strict program, and would seem to make for predictable / boring / irritating results, but each recording has its own distinct personality. Despite the mundane origins of the sounds and the plain recording, Organum’s work feels like ritual music, and it is weird in the truest, oldest sense of the word (“suggesting something supernatural; uncanny… connected with fate”).
Much of Organum’s early output was released on Nurse With Wound’s United Dairies imprint, and careful listeners can derive insight into Organum’s methodical approach by comparing and contrasting Organum’s work with Nurse With Wound’s. Steven Stapleton is a curator, a consummate technician and a near-involuntary surrealist; each Nurse With Wound record is a product of laborious tape engineering, even if the original source material is the product of random studio improvisation. By contrast, Organum’s work is relatively static, and it seems as if Jackman sets up the initial conditions for a recording, records a take, and calls it done. You can hear the room in which the music was recorded, as opposed to NWW’s dematerialized (and often chaotic) soundstage.
Most of the Robot Records material is still in print, or at least available, so if you’re curious about Organum, I recommend picking up a copy of Volume One and listening to it as two separate halves (it compiles Tower of Silence and the Organum half of the NWW / Organum A Missing Sense / Rasa split single). From there, Ikon and Sphyx are both fine releases, if you can find them. All of Organum’s material is best when treated as abstract sound sculpture, and rewards a meditative frame of mind; it’s neither ambient wallpaper nor music in any traditional sense of the word.
I’m no stranger to loose-limbed freak folk, where songs are more nuclei around which sounds coalesce than any sort of tightly knotted skeins of rhythm, melody and lyric, and perhaps it’s a consequence of spending much of the last week plundering the grand riches of the internet’s many fine MP3 blogs, but Islaja’s Meritie totally disorients me in a way I find very hard to understand or describe. Merja Kokkonen sings her Finnish lyrics in a sweetly meandering voice, engaging with the rest of the music (guitars, piano, various other noisemaking bits) in the way that a bird rides the gusts on a windy day. There’s nothing overtly challenging going on save for the songs’ very free structure, but that lack of structure means these are not songs so much as neatly arranged piles of musical ideas, and Kokkonen’s near-total refusal to engage with typical notions of songcraft lend her songs a hallucinatory, subversive power that makes me giddy and confused in equal measure. I’m not sure it’s beautiful, but it’s certainly sublime.
I think most serious music fans and collectors have private creation myths: little stories they can tell about how they came to be the way they are. Either it’s a friend or a sibling who passed them some ear-opening tapes, or a family that was filled with musicians, or a glancing exposure to something that sunk its hooks deeply into their brains and took them over for life. Or, in many cases, a combination of all of the above, which is how it was for me. Here’s a little piece of my own story.
When I was a junior in high school, I spent one night babysitting some friends who were tripping (this was before we all figured out that mixing the high and the non-high is generally frustrating for everyone involved). They spent that trip mostly playing an already ancient version of Space War on one dude’s PC. I was mostly relieved to be left alone for a while, having spent most of the day feeling like a tool for not wanting to get high myself, and spent the time flipping through channels on cable, something I didn’t have at home.
This was shortly after the introduction of VH-1 but before the introduction of 120 Minutes, and Viacom had unceremoniously dumped a bunch of semi-alternative music videos on an unnamed show late on VH-1, which I happened to catch. The three videos I saw were by Helios Creed, Front 242 and Danielle Dax, and it’s safe to say they changed my life. The Helios Creed video was sleazy and struck me at the time as a not-so-veiled paean to heroin, the Front 242 video was for “Headhunter” and made me desperately nostalgic for Brussels (which I’d visited for all of three hours 8 months previously), and the Danielle Dax video was for “Cat-House”, and was by far the most surreal of the bunch – which was saying something.
“Cat-House” is a weird song, mostly because of the way it plays Dax’s girl-group-gone-feral singing against what seems like more or less straightforward industrialized rock and roll. It sort of sounds like the Sisters of Mercy got a less wildly demonstrative Diamanda Galás to sing for them, and it’s a song that starts out seeming pedestrian, only to get weirder and weirder the more you hear both it and the rest of Dax’s painfully eclectic catalog. The video is basically Dax miming the song run through a battery of cheap video effects (which are done absolutely no favors by YouTube), but it has a hyperdelic intensity that hit me just right, maybe due to spending the day around people who were capable of watching a stalk of grass for 15 minutes without moving.
Dax has been around long enough that most people have forgotten her altogether, but I’ve been listening to her US best-of anthology, Dark Adapted Eye, a couple times a year ever since I picked it up (on cassette!) in 1989. She got her start in the incredibly weird Lemon Kittens, and her music has stayed hard to pigeonhole ever since, borrowing elements of Orientalism, perverse morbidity, cryptic metaphysical references, and a generally goth patina without ever having a fixed sound. She gave up on the music business back in 1995 in a fairly flamboyant fashion, issuing another best-of and obscurities collection with the pithily summarizing title of Comatose Non Reaction: The Thwarted Pop Career. At least she kept her sense of humor.
After recently discovering the bonanza of music to be found on the MP3 Blogs of Blogspotistan, I found Devastate to Liberate. It’s not an album you’re likely to have heard of unless you’re a fan of some of the bands on it (or an old-school member of PETA), but in its way it’s a Rosetta Stone of mid-80s weirdo music, with songs by Nurse With Wound, Legendary Pink Dots, Crass, Coil and a variety of other (talented yet obscure) industrial and anarcho-punk acts. It’s also, I think, the first militant animal-rights benefit album, being released to raise funds for the Animal Liberation Front.
Perhaps my favorite track on the album is one by a band I’d never heard before: the Shock Headed Peters. “Blue Rosebuds” is an unhinged five minutes of feedbacked scree and post-Sabbath guitar histrionics that neatly bridges the gap between heavy metal and the noise attack of Skullflower. It’s not metal, it’s not industrial, and it’s not rock and roll, but it’s definitely crazed and loud and I love it.
Shock Headed Peters were a project of Karl Blake, who was the other member of Lemon Kittens with Danielle Dax, and hearing this track prompted me to finally find the Lemon Kittens’ albums. The least obscure album Lemon Kittens put out was released on Steven Stapleton’s United Dairies, and whether or not you have the faintest inkling what United Dairies is, that should give you some idea how obscure the Lemon Kittens were. Their entire catalog is seemingly irretrievably out of print, and it’s hard to identify why, because their music is not unapproachable; it’s strange and amateurish (Dax didn’t know anything about music when she joined the band), but in the best spirit of post punk experimentalism, ideas are king, and a lot of the songs click after two or three listens. For now, you’ll just have to find one of the internet rips and download those, unless Blake or Dax decides to chance their luck with a label or distributor again (they both have fairly dyspeptic Myspace blogs).
Dax’s kiss-off to the music industry contained a couple songs she did in collaboration with Blake, one of which is an absolutely fabulous reinterpretation of a Shock Headed Peters song, “Hate on Sight”, which is turned from an acidic post-punk tune into something not unlike Curve playing doom metal. It’s enough to make tracking down a copy of Comatose Non Reaction all on its own, because it’s a great song.
All of this has filled me with a burning urge to hear more Shock Headed Peters, but their stuff is also incredibly hard to find (I found this, but I’d like legit copies of this stuff without having to pay extortionate eBay prices). It’s too bad, because Karl Blake plays guitar like a gifted demon (much like Helios Creed, to bring this story back to its beginning). No matter how much music I find, I always seem to find myself wanting more. It’s a pleasant problem to have, especially because I still like the old stuff – I’ve been listening to Danielle Dax’s music a bunch over the last few days and, if anything, I find her outsider take on goth music more charming now than I did when I first heard it 20 years ago.
Some things happened, and then they stopped happening, and here I am, back again, with a huge pile of new music to hear and perhaps the cleverest recording I’ve heard in a long time currently on the stereo. I’ll get to talking about the huge pile in a little bit, but I wanted to urge anyone who likes their out-rockin’ both clever and loud to go check out this awesome Nurse With Wound / Spasm split 12” at The Thing on the Doorstep (yet another way-too-awesome MP3 blog I’ve discovered).
Its ability to be musical and strange in equal measure frankly confuses me. One side features Steven Stapleton’s / Nurse With Wound’s usual high surrealism (although more linear and rhythmically coherent than usual), and the other is a slab of slowly building, hard-rockin’ tribal psychedelia that reminds me of the Krautrocked heaviness Julian Cope tries so hard to harness, or maybe Electric Wizard in a particularly blown state of mind. It gets genuinely heavy, and Stapleton’s predictably unpredictable interventions just ratchet up the intensity by throwing things in new directions every few phrases. It remains curiously unadorned and unsentimental for all that, and so it stands pleasantly outside of time, sounding like it could have come out at any time in the last 40 years. Nurse With Wound makes this kind of mercurial mutability seem so easy, but I know it’s anything but.
I’m going to have a terrible time trying to find a copy of this for myself (United Dairies vinyl is deeply collectible and hence tough to find), but I’d really like one.
Yeah, it’s so played out it’s like the Bible, and yeah, saying it’s probably my favorite record of my youth (maybe of all time, if I had an all-time favorite) marks me as a 30-something sensi white boy as surely as the fact that I know Nation of Ulysses were once the Sassiest Band in America, but I will still admit that My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless makes me very happy after having heard it hundreds – thousands – of times. “Only Shallow” is the best lead song on any album I’ve heard, with its chugging rhythm (Colm may be one of the most comically inept drummers of the early 90s – although on the evidence presented on the album who knows, because Kevin is reputed to have completely resequenced the drums in post-production – but the combination of him and Bilinda got the job done), seasick piles of lurching synths and guitars weaving in and out of sync with each other, and Bilinda’s sweet, waiflike croon mumbling filthy nothings over the top.
Someday they’ll put out a remixed and remastered version of this album; of this I have no doubt (although please, for the love of all that is unholy, no “Deluxe Edition”! Moreso than with most classic albums, tacking bonus tracks and outtakes onto the end would just diminish the perfection of the thing itself). My hope is that they leave Kevin’s unrivaled engineering and mixing alone, boost the dynamic range, and bring out the bass, because I’ve always felt there’s a monster rock album lurking under all the gooey sheets of noise everyone loves so much. This record was like a supernova, burning out what created it and setting everyone else’s expectations for what came after unsatisfiably high, but man, it was so worth it.
Also, I love my sweet baby, yes I do. But she already knew that.