Unheard #15: Little Big Chief’s Dissolute Garage Music and Ultramarine’s Weird Tapes

Posted by on July 11, 2013

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Unheard explores the moist recesses of “unconventional music” and attempts to have fun doing so. Whether it’s pimply basement hounds jockeying weathered blocks of noise or beefy luddites clunking out waxy half-songs on broken Casio keyboards and even-more-broken electric guitars, you’re going to learn all about it with Michael Tau as your guide.

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First up is a weird and wild label from the “crap town” of Staunton, Virginia — one that takes the heart of garage music and dissects it in curious ways. So far, Little Big Chief has found itself reissuing a lot of records out of the Australian fucked-music underground — releases on Negative Guest List, Alberts Basement, and the ilk. Owner Brock Kappers’ unifying philosophy? “I just love music that is falling apart at the seams.” His attraction to music from afar might stem from his sonically-bereft surroundings: “Staunton is a staunchly small town. It’s old money and full of crotchety white people. There are a few shows once in awhile, but I generally don’t see much live music.” But you could do a lot worse than the prolific and unpredictable Australian scene, and Kappers’ obsession is long-standing:

“I’ve been obsessed with that part of the world for quite some time. I was buying Armpit, Birchville Cat Motel, Pumice, and bunch of other bands’ CDRs from labels like Pseudo Arcana and Stabbies And The Rocket Recordings out of New Zealand. Back in 99/2000, the US dollar was at 1.5 to the AU, so shipping was cheap. I just went apeshit with those two labels. Armpit was the first band I heard that was just making a mess with rock instrumentation. They are a band that has stuck with me for a long time. Australia has just been fucking insane recently; I would continue to release nothing but Breakdance the Dawn records if I could.”

In a typical case, Kappers loved the imports of Mad Nanna’s “I’ve Been Talking” seven-inch he caught wind of — originally out on the band’s own Aussie imprint, Alberts Basement (ab24) — that he decided it warranted a three-hundred copy boost (LBCR-001) for US audiences. A brave gamble for the label’s inaugural release. He’s now down to just ten copies, so I suppose he calculated right. The jury appears to be somewhat out on this band, who spend the (live) A-side moaning out the title in a nasal bellow over a bed of simultaneously strumming electric guitars. Flipper “I Made Blood Better” goes one better, subjugating percussion, guitar, and indecipherable vox to a matte of lo-lo-fi production. This single polishes that hometaper Jandek sound, a form of primitivism that takes ineptitude to dogmatic levels. The faded, xeroxed cover completes the vision, and each side ends in a locked groove to teach you a lesson about being lazy. Yeah – fuck you, guy listening to this record.

Watery Love‘s Two Thrills single (LBCR-006) chokes a similar chain, geographically — this co-release with Philly’s Richie Records reissues a 2011 edition (NGL022) on Brisbane’s Negative Guest List label (which has continued on following lead dude Brendon Annesley’s tragic passing in early 2012). But the band this time is from Philadelphia. The first thrill here is a cover of the Cramps’ “New Kind of Kick,” which is leaded down with heftier riffs and huskier vocals than the original, smearing Lux Interior’s punk snot into metal sludge. The B-side is home to “A Condom,” a Richie Charles original, which is billed as a “narrative concerning the contents of a man’s bag with a digression on the plot points of a feature film.” In fact, it’s a list of junk found in the narrator’s backpack, including a VHS of Lethal Weapon whose plot is then synopsized. The condom bit is left to the very end, but by then you’re so buried by caveman riffs that the relative hush of the closing locked groove is a necessary respite. Perhaps Kappers himself characterizes the band best: “Neanderthalism is on prime display whenever a needle touches their records.”

girlsgirlsgirls - borshGirls Girls Girls’ Borsh LP, another reissue of an obscure Australian release – this time a blown-up CDR originally out on the absurdly productive Breakdance the Dawn label (b.d.t.d 124) — features a silk-screened cover that itself is a grainy xerox of some kid’s shoddy drawing of three stick-figure girls holding hands, the lateral two gripping fat joints. The filthy presentation portends the manic dross contained within, more willful negligence from folks with defective tape recorders at their disposal. Here it’s a pair of junky guitars chiming out simple strings of pluck and strum while a futile drumbeat pans in and out of pace. Sometimes it all falls together to produce something vaguely song like — as on “Borstch” — but this eventually collapses, as do all other overtures towards “music.” But the true story here is the sprig of lengthy guitar jams — little more than someone absent-mindedly running their pick over the strings of their electric guitar as the drums pitter-patter in the background. At first it’s fairly annoying — and it sort of stays annoying, too — but if you’re in just the right mood, the sort of mood that you’re only in about 2% of the time, not including sleep time, then it can lightly tug you into a trance of sorts. (Or is that just a weary numbness?) And once you’ve tuned into that shallow trance, then (and only then) do you start to “get” it. To paraphrase: Borsh is 100% pointless, but only 98% useless. At 250 copies, I like those odds!

xwaveXwave’s Cites on Flame (LBCR-003) has got another shoddy silkscreened cover, this time just a bunch of chicken-scratch. And it’s another Breakdance the Dawn reissue (b.d.t.d 049), except these five tracks eke out a closer approximation to “rock” music than Girls Girls Girls’ wallop. Here someone’s ancient Walkman is placed somewhere between a couple of dueling guitar amps, a maladroit drummer, and a vocalist who could be pretty charismatic if he weren’t so fuckin’ hammered. Opener “Wasted” is the aptly-titled call to action: ‘action!’ being something yelled out by that dude at the party who’s stripped down to his shit-stained underwear, twelve beers and an imminent tide of vomit ricocheting around his digestive tract. I was pulling for “Teenage Thrills” the moment I saw it in the track listing — it’s like a total deconstruction of the garage rock form, a springy guitar riff forming the base for a traveling circus of inaudible vocal blather and beatifically incompetent axe soloing. But side A’s four tracks merely moisten the mucosa for Cities on Flame‘s final statement, the side-long title-track. There’s something intimidating about an LP side completely packed to the brim with grooves, no gaps in sight. It starts with a tentative rattle, but the tentacles slowly fan out into a psychedelic globule of drugged-out guitar haunt and free-jazz percussion. It’s at complete odds with the other half of the LP, but maintains that same sense of taking a familiar form of rock music (garage on side A, psychedelic rock on side B), disemboweling it and nailing its viscera to the walls. Except here the entrails aren’t ugly and deranged — instead they arrange themselves into this wonderful orb of bloody bliss.

Last up is a recent release — this one, finally, not a reissue but a Little Big Chief original — Mountain Cult’s self-titled 45 RPM LP (LBCR-004). This sits somewhere on the continuum between the (relatively) traditional rock of Watery Love and the deformed song forms of Mad Nanna — ergo, incompetently played but at least the building blocks are intact and ostensibly in the right places. A typical song – “Overachiever” for example — gets the drums and bass going at rapid tempo, packs on a rough lead guitar, and then smears completely unintelligible vocals over top. There is a vague horror theme here that lends the proceedings a winsome ambiance, and it’s when the band emphasizes their deathly blues sound that things pick up. This is accomplished most overtly on brooding “Neon Light,” whose scrap metal guitar chords and senseless blather seem to invoke the glazed-eye torment of that Seinfeld episode where a Kenny Rogers Roasters opens up next to Kramer’s apartment. But opener “Climbing the Clock Tower with a Rifle” and “Don’t Feel Sick,” with their dare-I-say poppy guitar riffs, also manage the same deranged nirvana: slopping together blues and punk with a haphazard aplomb that seems to clasp you by the trachea and scream, “music lessons are for pussies.”

As for Kappers, he’s released a couple new LPs since this piece was written (back in the old days of Foxy Digitalis) — something by Dan Melchior and something from Birds of Maya. It’s his job at a wine import company that helps fund the stream of Aussie imports and oddball garage. When I asked him about his career and his life’s goals, he offered some hearty reflection:

“Basically [I] bullshit with people all day. It’s a blast. I am as deep as what I had for breakfast this morning, so I don’t really have a lot of set goals. Maybe continue at working at being proficient in the kitchen? I dunno. I’m a total suit.”

Words to live by.

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What circumstances must align to produce someone who puts out cassettes and records worth of folks playing instruments wrong and baring noise raw onto ratty old tape decks?

Perhaps it’s isolation? As Silvia Kastel, owner of Bari, Italy’s Ultramarine Records, recollects: “When I was a teenager I soon realized that I needed something else in my life… music that would fit my feelings in that moment. I was feeling lost, alone, misunderstood by everyone around me, had literally no friends. My only companions were books, art and music.”

Or is it assiduous research? “I began restlessly searching for new sounds, I began studying & doing encyclopedic research on music like it was the most important thing in my life.”

Or is it just the company other folks who like strange shit? The final step in Kastel’s indoctrination involved her relationship with bandmate Ninni Morgia, who brought “weirder stuff” into the equation.

Whatever the ingredients, the final product in Silvia’s case is Ultramarine, a vinyl and tape emporium run out of Kastel’s home of Bari, Italy, noteworthy for being the capital city in the province of Bari, Italy. Though she’s dropped LPs by Smegma, BeNe GeSSeRiT, and Amolvacy, the chunk of Ultramarine matter I took a stab at was cassette-borne.

bloodstereoIt used to be labels would reissue records that were decades old. But lately there’s been a trend for noise/experimental labels to reissue “classic” tapes that have gone unheralded, sometimes those that are just a couple of years old. And just last year Ultramarine has given the “reissue” treatment to Blood Stereo’s The Eight Thumbed Hand Serenades (UM019), a release that came out the very same year on the Chocolate​ Monk label — originally in an edition of just twenty-five copies. At least they’ve made things more convenient, collapsing the Chocolate Monk’s cumbersome 4 x C14 release into one single tape.

To get you up to speed, Blood Stereo is more or less the Chocolate Monk house band, with Brighton’s veteran avant-soundsters Dylan Nyoukis (Prick Decay) and Karen Constance heading up the sounds. After meeting them in 2011, Kastel asked if they had something she could put out on Ultramarine. They gave her the masters to Hand Serenades. “They chose to give me that release, probably because they thought it deserved to be heard by more people, since the first edition on Chocolate Monk was so limited.” The sounds rely on negative space, ambient field recordings, and a lot of experimentation with the human voice. Over several compositions, clods of amorphous speech are sent through one channel and out the other, as on hilarious “The Hangover Song.” Humor and the absurd are constant companions when wading through Nyoukis and Constance’s sounds, a favourite trope being to play competing sounds through separate stereo channels. I can’t put my finger on why this works, but it’s unerringly funny — whether it’s a nonsensical bleb of voice or the shuttering of a screen door.

bolideMoving on, Bolide is a Brighton improv sextet with a smattering of tapes and CDRs out on White Lodge, Chocolate Monk, and others, and Flaw Games (UM018) is their latest. It doesn’t always sound like there are six folks banging around on here, mainly because the tracks maintain a fair amount of negative space. But these six use the element of surprise to their advantage, bursting through the deceptive quiet in skittered bursts. There seems to be a combination of electronic and acoustic sound devices behind the bedlam, and when traditional instruments are used, they don’t often sound like traditional instruments. Their racket is wild and obviously very improvised, sort of reminiscent of those ol’ standbys the Nihilist Spasm Band, except with a stronger basement-tape lo-fi vibe. A fair amount of time is spent idly swatting at household objects and skittering haphazardly, but it’s the moments when these folks really plug in and toy with suspense and action that make a lasting impression. For example, the first part of side B, “Encounter,” offers nothing more than your average half-hearted jam session – they’re literally just banging on cans. But, the tracks that follow, “Zealot” and “Indoctrination Buffet,” kick the background ambiance up and harness a genuine sense of momentum.

I’ll admit I had to look it up, but the term “bolide” refers to an airborne fireball. That does not describe their sound, but kudos on the cool name.

While Flaw Games was a bit hit or miss, The Signal Index (UM017) — the handiwork of seasoned prepared guitar soundsmith Bill Horist (Master Musicians of Bukkake) — is a stellar (and interstellar) achievement. Over these two cryptic sides, Horist chokes out all manner of sounds from his instrument, but instead of settling for bitter clumps of noise his atmospheres trend towards the brooding and celestial end of the sound spectrum. “A Black Puzzle of Bones,” whose manifold overdubs wield melancholy streams of bowed electric guitar, is a particular favorite. On it, alien melody-bites contort into a consuming and vaguely psychedelic whole. He does tag on a wee bit of feedback worship on closer “Like a Fire in the Slate Season,” but it comes off more “blissful apocalypse” than “fuck you and your ears.”

Live at Morden Tower (UM016) allows four big-name noise purveyors to pool their efforts — Kommissar Hjuler, Mama Baer, Ninni Morgia, and Silvia Kastel herself. The results sound illicit, with Morgia’s scuzzy death-guitar leading the racket most of the way through. Part of the glory is perhaps lost in recording, as the original performance took place in Newcastle’s Morden Tower, an old brick building repurposed as a locus of sound art and poetry. Yet, listening in to this tape, one can imagine the deformed sound waves bouncing off the brick interior of the old edifice. Mama Baer’s formless wails add a sepulchral quality to the proceedings, evoking the bellows of some poor soul buried miles deep. (I wonder if Morden Tower has a trapdoor?). Not to be outdone, Hjuler and Kastel burble out their own gonzo ambiance from tapes and synths, respectively. This racket ambles between creepy-deepy portentousness and louder, in-yo’-face noise, striking a fine balance without eking too far in either direction.

twocouplesMeanwhile, the same four assailants take their efforts to the studio for the big fat Two Couples (UM008) LP, except here they’ve halved the quartet into two duos – side A lets Hjuler and Mama Baer work their magic, whereas the flip houses Morgia and Kastel’s racket. When played after Live at Morden Tower, side A sounds somewhat empty deprived of Morgia’s bilious guitar bellow. Here, Hjuler takes on guitar duties but his approach is tinny and replete with ample negative space. Instead, the major focus is on Mama Baer’s shrilly provocative vocals, perhaps at their most inflammatory (and/or inflamed) on junk-punky “Zwei Eineperson Pt.1,” whose climax falls into a deranged bed of bent guitar strings and shapeless yelps of pain+/-pleasure. But it’s the quarter-hour sprawl of part two that allows Morgia and Kastel to flex their experimental music muscle. A grisly stretch of guitar abuse, electronic what’s-it, and tormented strings, it’s what’s seeping through the drywall in the most horrifying haunted house you can imagine.

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Longtime Unheard readers (you exist, right??) will recall I profiled the Koppklys label in column number ten, where Fredrik Rangnes detailed his transition from webmaster of the juggernaut Uaxuctum mp3 blog to full-fledged label head. I had a deep listen to his latest triplet of tapes, which continue to mine the glowing new-agey drone sound that’s infatuated Rangnes for the past little while.

adambeckleyLike all of Rangnes’ creations, the packaging is a highlight. Each tape is housed in a compact case and decorated in Koppklys’ signature aesthetics. Although these tapes are limited to editions of fifty-two to fifty-five copies, each one is lovingly doted upon, with immaculate pro-printing and an expert’s eye for design.

UK drone upstart Adam Beckley, who also plays guitar for an “experimental hardcore” act called History of the Hawk, has found himself airing airy ambient music for our good pal Fredrik. Blank Screens of Hope (Koppklys #011) is an evocative name for this half-melancholic, half-ominous miasma of sound. Like a David Lynch film, it oscillates between false-backed optimism (“Blank Screens of Hope”) and dark portentousness (“Groningen City Band”). It’s particularly striking that Beckley, who elsewhere deals in the tetchy impatience of hardcore music — a genre whose sense of urgent release defies subtlety — has devised such a patient recording. Blank Screens crawls so slowly it sometimes threatens to back-pedal, but the glacial pace also allows the details to shine. A track like “Avner,” at just under twelve minutes, would feel like a fragment if cut any shorter; its dampened guitar/synth tones (I honestly can’t even tell anymore) need space to invade every corner of a room. This music can only really be appreciated lying in bed in the pitch black (or, in my case, with streetlight glare fanned through blinds) — otherwise, a world of distractions will pull you from it. But allowed to breathe, it’s a fitting addition to the Koppklys line.

Dust (Koppklys #012) is the work of Ypotryll, another newcomer — this girl/guy/thing’s Discogs entry begins in 2012, with a handful of tapes on Sangoplasmo (Wroclaw, Poland), Jozik (Helsinki), and Mineral Tapes (Brooklyn). I know very little about Ypotryll’s real identity, which is obscured by the Internet’s precarious, infinitely-duplicating armament of auto-generated webpages, except that “it” hails from Brooklyn and likes quiet, slow-moving sounds. Dust was supposedly recorded using “the blue sitar and the white harp,” though it kind of just sounds like minimal electric guitar and some old tapes being fondled. What do I know? “A Blue Mantle Under the Stars” casts a periodic bass-heavy strum above which this gossamer layer of electric hum floats steadily — until the two collide in a twangy tussle. “A Blue Mantle” is even slower and quieter, but similarly seems to build towards a more eventful final stanza. More streetlights-through-blinds stuff, for sure.

Lastly there is Star Turbine’s Space Habitat (Koppklys #013), the most variegated tape of the three. This one is another spaced-out jam, this time coming from a wilder all-but-the-kitchen sink angle — you’ve got textural field recordings (the glug-glug of moving water, the zip of ambient noise played in reverse), glimmering electronic synthetics, the occasional guitar twitch… what is striking is how it all comes together to live up to its name: yes, this cassette sounds like a star turbine, whatever the shit that is, and it also seems perfectly suited to a space habitat. I can readily envision these sounds coming out of speakers embedded in the lampposts that dot a tidy residential street somewhere on Mars. Keep this tape on file for rainy days and dusky evenings, where every little wrinkle of sound is placed just perfectly. They’re all winners, but this is the best of the three.