So I sorta fell silent and haven’t been posting much lately. This is due, in large part, to having accumulated a huge pile of music that is entirely new to me. It doesn’t help that it would be difficult for me to write about much of this music even given the advantage of intimate familiarity; most of it was obscure to begin with, and is abstract verging on the obtuse. Jazzy krautrock improv from Scandinavia, broad-spectrum wiggly noise bursts, ramshackle protean compositions that were coming unraveled even as they were recorded: these are highly individual outbursts of noise and creativity, and even when they’re affiliated with a time and a place or from a reasonably well-known artist (depending on how well-known you think Nurse With Wound is), they’re difficult to describe.
But that’s not really an excuse or a complete explanation. The simple truth is that spending sustained periods of time listening to music I’ve never heard before erases my ability to talk about music at all. There are albums where I can confidently say, after a single listen, “I like this,” or “this doesn’t interest me,” but for the most part the stuff I’ve been listening to lately resists that kind of immediate judgment. I can tell after hearing Mnemonists’ Horde or Rota-Limbs for the first time that they’re both interesting and exciting, but I lack the words for putting that fascination into concrete terms, and given the tiny audience for this kind of music, just saying “this rox u shud listn 2 it” isn’t going to do much for anyone. Especially when I don’t really know how I feel about it myself.
I think that explains why I’ve fallen off the soundwagon a little in the last few weeks and have spent some time listening to stuff that’s a little less demanding. There have been a number of great new records put out over the last month, too: the Breeders erase time with a miraculously good / unpretentious / direct set of songs on Mountain Battles, as accomplished as anything they’ve done since Safari; Torche’s new record, Meanderthal, is almost as good as their monstrous debut, putting the “thunder” in “thunder pop”; M83 have returned from the wilds of Elektronikaslavia with a newer, sleeker sound and a new album, the aptly named Saturdays = Youth; and a Dutch label has released a remastered version of OMD’s brilliant Dazzle Ships, with its incredibly infectious New Wave hit single that never was, “Genetic Engineering”. These are the things I find myself returning to when the stress of moving (oh yeah – I’m preparing to move me and my enormous pile of media across town) overwhelms my ability to deal with hours on end of square waves and rambling percussive scree.
But I’m going to try to suck it up and deal, both by documenting the enormous piles of stuff I’ve continued to add to my collection, as well as trying to come up with some kind of game plan for talking about it. It’ll probably be fragmentary and incomplete, but that’s what blogs are, aren’t they?
Courtesy of Joel Johnson, I found out that Paul Robertson has a new animation out. It’s a hearty 320MiB AVI file (I recommend downloading it via BitTorrent) and is a worthy sequel (this time in color) to Robertson’s indescribable masterpiece Pirate Baby Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006. To describe both videos as unholy apocalyptic freakouts is to do them inadequate justice; anyone who ever played Dodonpachi or Metal Slug X and felt that the boss battles just weren’t ridiculous enough needs to give this a look. It really makes former brainbursters like the Emergency Broadcast Network and Tetsuo: The Iron Man look tame. Impossibly dense seas of pixelated pop trash iconography flit by on torrents of blood at 30 hallucinatory, psychedelic frames per second; Paul is quite possibly the most skilled artist of Generation x-chan.
Integral to Robertson’s complex eschatological imagery is the soundtrack, both to Pirate Baby and (especially) to Kings of Power 4 Billion %, and fittingly enough, Robertson gives full credit to the soundtrack’s creator, Cornel Wilczek. Wilczek really goes balls-out on this one, producing disjointed industrial prog-metal electronica that wanders between amped up Clark and something like a more traditionally death metal version of Meshuggah. The guitars are a little rudimentary, but occasionally reach for a sort of Robert Fripp lunacy that, combined with the rest of the swampy, dense electronic mix and the eyeball-searing, brain-violating visuals creates a pure gestalt, a solid block of crushed and compacted pop culture that requires time, attention, and no predisposition towards epilepsy to decode.
Wilczek and Robertson are a natural team, and for a case study that is slanted more towards the Wilczek side of things, check out Devil Eyes. Left to his own devices, Wilczek has a much more pastoral folktronic sound, equally reminiscent of the aforementioned Clark and Dwayne Sodahberk’s second, superior album. Combined with Robertson’s sterile, disturbing vision of supercute zombies filtered through Alien Syndrome, the work as a whole strikes me as deeply melancholic and curiously affecting. There is no subject in these videos, only objects, and it strikes me that Robertson incidentally accomplishes what eluded Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick in AI (a movie that would itself work much better without dialogue): an evocation of a world where only our toys survive to carry out a degenerate pantomime of conscious existence.
(On a tangential note, for another, very different example of someone using gamer and anime culture to produce deeply personal pixel art, check out Jennifer Diane Reitz’s Unicorn Jelly. Almost nobody takes me seriously when I make this recommendation, but if you can get past the somewhat slow and obtuse beginning, you’re in for a novelistic experience of incomparable metaphysical depth. It’s very user-unfriendly, but it genuinely changed me, which is more than I can say for almost any other webcomic.)
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.
Voodoo Funk is a blog run by the single-named Frank, a Berlin-based DJ who’s spent much of the last few years traveling around west Africa in the quest for interesting local music. He’s a serious crate digger, and has a talent for finding records that sound very African, but still have broad appeal. He seems to bring something like a hundred records back from each of his shopping expeditions, along with a clutch of sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and often nerve-wracking stories. Western Africa is a very complicated place right now, neither the cartoonish post-apocalyptic Thunderdome painted by Western media nor a particularly easy place to live, and Frank has gotten himself into (and out of) some pretty hairy and / or affecting situations.
He’s also made available a ton of sets of the music he’s so painstakingly obtained. He takes a radio / soundsystem selector’s approach, so the results are neither continuously mixed nor left entirely alone; tracks are smooshed into one another but only abut for a second or two. Given the wide variety of styles and sounds he’s working with, this seems like a deft stylistic choice, and is – for all I know – probably the local tradition anyway. He’s got more sets up than I’ve had time to hear, but my particular favorite right now is Lagos Disco Inferno. I’m not particularly a fan of disco, after too many years spent in a West Coast rave scene that prized it much more highly than the astringent, reverb-soaked European techno I preferred, and even Frank describes a lot of these tracks as “shameless, sleazy boogie cheese grenades that only a few years ago would have had me running for shelter,” but I don’t really agree that’s what he’s got here. In fact, there’s a really weird, cosmic vibe on display that reminds me of nothing so much as early Steve Miller Band circa “Time Keeps On Slippin’”, probably due to the synthesized strings that work their way through a number of the tracks. It is both funky and groovy, and a lot of other things besides.
The rest of the sets tend towards a slightly more conventional mixture of Afrobeat, blues, funk, and African jazz, and he tends to stick to west African artists (with some exceptions made for Ethiopian and Eritrean jazz), but that makes what he’s doing sound more boring than it is. There is a lot of extremely high-quality music made in Africa, the vast majority of which people outside the continent will never know exists; Frank’s not exactly providing a service, but he is being very generous with his time and attention and exposing a lot of great music to a wider audience. He’s got a great ear and writes a good story. Check him out.