Unheard #17: Fedora Corpse Records

Posted by on December 17, 2013

michael tau unheard17

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.

Awhile back, Adam and Jen Melinn shipped over a dazzling pile of vinyl from their Fedora Corpse label, and I was immediately struck by their aesthetic. Each release is pressed on immaculate, colored vinyl, and comes housed in distinctive cardstock artwork. As they explained to me, as soon as they started putting out LPs, they felt it essential to establish a consistent visual presence for their releases.

So I was surprised to learn Fedora Corpse had been founded without anything to do with the physical medium at all. Jen and Adam started the imprint as a net label, giving their releases away for free. But unsatisfied with the response, they made the switch to vinyl – the most expensive format of all, given pressing and postage costs.

Jen makes the transition seem very matter-of-fact. “We were making a lot of music at home… amassing a large pile of stuff both of our own and from friends,” she explains. “We decided to put up a website to house it all and eventually realized that just being online wasn’t enough, so we thought up the FCR aesthetic and started putting things on vinyl.”

It helped that they knew other folks who had experience putting out records, with some local Philadelphia labels offering guidance and support. Since then, their efforts have parlayed themselves into a consistent stream of abstract vinyl. The dynamic between Adam and Jen, who seem to be part of a growing trend of married-couple label heads, obviously contributes to this success: “It’s a really great hobby to have as a married couple, because it’s something we do together. It’s nice to have something to work on together that we both work on enthusiastically and are equally invested in.”

If that isn’t the perfect image of domestic bliss, then I don’t know what is. Here is a glimpse at my tumble through the Fedora Corpse discography…

Plante_HarvestFor his first vinyl release, Harvest (FCR1209), guitarist Andrew Plante was allotted a greenish-translucent, 45-rpm LP to work with – any home-cooked avant-guitarist’s wet dream, no doubt. He doesn’t disappoint, occupying his canvas with various nibbles of the weird scene’s current obsessions: spacey drone, attenuated metal, and even a smidgen ​of fingerstyle guitar. On reverberant opener “The Moon to Guide by Day,” Plante is judicious in his playing, reflecting each crisp finger-flick against a voluminous background of negative space. The product is melodic yet expansive, something like John Fahey stripped of all his jitters and then blown up Warhol-style. “Earthshine” flips on the distortion pedal and wades into drone-metal murk, establishing towering blades of sound that render the listener puny. Going one further, “Damnation is a Lie” assimilates those axe-towers into a GY!BE-inspired length of peri-apocalyptic post-rock seriousness, conveying a distinct sense that what you’re hearing is important dammit! “Unbroken Communion” disrupts this sensation of life-or-death portentousness, boasting the usual set of resplendent mid-afternoon guitar tones that sets drone ‘enthusiasts’ staring, mouth agape, into the ether. Golly!

Then we have Sujo, who has been building momentum on the drone underground, greedily hording blog accolades for his grandiose, feedback-scuffed epics. It was time someone bit the bullet and immortalized this dude’s rumblings in vinyl. And what a job Adam and Jen did, forging Kahane (FCR1210) on a black, olive, and brown marbled mo’fo. Sujo maintains his end of the bargain, supplying five gruesome sprawlers that share much with Aidan Baker’s gargantuan exploits in avant-metal. Here the most gleefully massive exertion is “Entable,” in which an ever-expanding snowball of guitar and synth congeals into a cake of feedback gristle before bottoming out into an exhausted strum. “Free” is perhaps the most anomalous track here – sure the big block o’ guitar drone is out in full force, but guttural swats of noise render matters extra malicious. This inward seething is also cast in curdled red on teeth-bared “Evocate,” which features the familiar progression: a casual build to a screaming noisy climax, but supplements the racket with some turret-drums that blast holes through the listener’s torso. “Achille,” meanwhile, invites a slurred sludge beat into the fold to give its industrial guitar landscapes an added sense of hatred for all mankind. Taken together, it’s a charming vinyl crystallization of Sujo’s macabre worldview, and one our Fedora Corpse bosses can be proud of. And that they are, rightly catching on to Sujo’s gift for expansive yet crisp recordings: “Sujo has an amazing sense of structure and composition. What he puts together is so heavily layered, but still never becomes muddied.”

ComorosWhite Flower (FCR1207) comes on slick white vinyl, with the label’s trademark cardstock custom-streaked in white paint with ‘COMOROS’ scratched in by hand. This is the project of our main man Adam Melinn, and the second full-length vinyl opus he’s rattled off for FCR. Here the audio is almost disappointingly by the book, suspending fuzz guitar noodling in a thick muddle of nu-new-age synth boil and low-end murk. I feel as though the opaque haze that engulfs this record, most saliently on the B-side, “White Flour” is a blessing and a curse. It obscures the shifty details of the tracks’ inner workings, and contributes to that familiar Spacemen 3 sense that everything has been frosted in an orange sediment of THC. On the other hand, it also blunts the side’s punch, leaving things to ferment like the clouded mind of a cannabis veteran. The sprawling mass of “White Flour” is the better of the two sides here – played at high volume, it seems to chart the devolution of an acid trip from misty-eyed wonder to full-on bad trip, slowly burning out like reddened embers in a bowl.

Black_MayonnaiseOne of Mike Duncan’s early tapes under his goopy Black Mayonnaise moniker was called Things That Live in Your Pubic Hair, which should give you a vague idea of his sensibility – one where ‘doom-sludge’ refuses to adhere to its standard disposition of stiff-lipped and serious. After some small-scale releases in the early nineties, and a CD release on relative ‘big-indie’ Emperor Jones (who, to their credit, were always keen to test out weird sounds), B.M. (I couldn’t resist) returned a few years ago with a spate of CDR releases, including a retrospective on the hyper-chaotic Placenta Recordings imprint. But FCR’s Dissipative Structure LP (FCR1206) is the first attempt to document the Black Mayo sound on vinyl – in this case vinyl of a bilious green variety. Duncan celebrates the occasion with a seeping hunk of what he does best: slurred muscular riffs and sewer-synths on side-long Goliath “Radiation,” cosmic synth loops set to a harrowing kick-beat on “The Drunken Stupor…,” and a last gasp of bass-heavy doom drone on the closer. The final stanza is unquestionably the hardest hitter, suspending the listener in a bubbling aquarium of low-end as pillars of curmudgeonly guitar-smog clog up the ol’ ear-holes. The hate subsides for a brief spell of reverberant slide guitar at record’s end, loosening a tension that’s somewhat at odds with Duncan’s all-in-jest persona. This juxtaposition is a recurrent theme on the record, which has this surface impression of being grizzled and grumpy, but stops itself from dropping off the cliff into dead-eyed metalhead “I’m-gonna-fuck-yer-face-up” jerkdom. Mr. Mayo instead soaks his riffs in a trippy rinse of psychedelia, never forcing the album to be more humorless than it needs to be.

Rat Catching is Jennifer Melinn’s own sound project, this one a tad younger than Adam’s subterranean Comoros rumblings. On her debut LP (FCR1208), limited to a scant hundred copies, she expels more of the FCR special – bouldering, reverb-heavy drone – but her tracks are more compact than those of your average, infinitely patient dronester, only one bubbling up over the five-minute mark. Her sound falls somewhere between Nadja/Aidan Baker and Birchville Cat Motel/Our Love Will Destroy the World/Campbell Kneale, though miraculously built entirely out of synths. Each track chooses a point on the continuum between hulking tone and scaly noise and spends a mere few minutes investigating that timbre.

When pressed on whether drone music needs time to unravel, Jen offered a diplomatic response: “Not necessarily. I think it’s about creating a sense of space and creating a particular environment. Sometimes that takes a long time, and others hit hard at the beginning and would be painful to drag on for too long.”

Not surprisingly, the most successful compositions on this LP push their timbres that little bit further, evoking miniature worlds of sound. The ominous synth orbs that reflect off the boiler-room ambiance of presumed theme-song “Rat Catching” are a good example – it’s as though they are emanating from some eighties haunted house horror flick, all froufy haircuts and VHS-calibre CGI. The resulting spook-athon, which FCR emphasizes is a proud break from the masses of folks issuing “spacey-retro-Schulze-Italo/Kraut soundtrack music,” is also sampled on the ghoulish chord progression of “Lucuna” and the macabre electric throb of “Box” (the latter of which is, no doubt, intended to accompany a climactic 3D slaughter scene).

On the accompanying liners, Melinn lists the lineup of synths that went into this monstrous LP. And while this will appease the gearheads, what really surprises is how all the knobs and circuit boards end up congealing into these singular mounds of sound. The thing ends up as such a big, sticky mess that one is forgiven for forgetting there’s a real human flipping the switches.

Honest_To_GoodnessFor his one-off LP as Honest To Goodness, guitarist Chad Stocker submitted a four-track recording of a live set that was performed to accompany a talk by visual artist Georg Vihos (quoth Adam and Jen: “we’re suckers for a good live recording”). What an interesting concept – music designed to be talked over. It’s a tad surprising that this lengthy exhibition of guitar tenderness was subjugated to the backdrop role, since it’s a fairly winsome bit of post-rock improv. Though he’s very conspicuously making it up on the spot, Stocker puts his armament of samplers and reverb to tidy use, working ion the realm of emotions as opposed to strict technique. The finest moments are those that dial things down a bit – rather than the blaring, Vangelis guitar triumph, it’s bits like the exquisite hum of a fuzzy sound loop, or a reticent kernel of stroked strings, that warrant the admission price. But Stocker’s innate exuberance does compel him to reach for the glitzy power-solo moments a few times on this LP – his scissoring Axe of Glory streaming across the night sky like a grandpa in a jetpack. As far as FCR records go, this is one of the least abrasive, its warm and tender moments out-snuggling just about everything else Adam and Jen have dropped on the public.

The Designated Mourner’s lone release is a “cement”-colored seven-inch dubbed, descriptively, Clarinet Quartets (FCR704). Comprising four two-minute compositions, it manages to compress a whole lot into a tight timeframe. This files under the rather unhelpful ‘free jazz’ banner, but there is a cinematic quality to these pieces that’s more tempered than your average bit of improv blunder. The sound evoked is one I associate with those mysterious interludes in old films – a warped montage of Humphrey Bogart’s chloroform-induced headtrip from some forgotten film noir. I attribute this quality to the funny ways the clarinets interact with one another – like the blurry-contoured, discordant chords of “Brus,” which constantly find themselves unraveling into novel, uncomfortable progressions. “Konrad” builds tension with an inaugural bass clarinet rhythm before splintering into an alarmed whirl of interlacing woodwind trails. Each track on the single is, coyly, melodic – but only in the most (gratifyingly) tangential of manners. Even the the nauseous flurry of “Bazin” wields a graceful tunefulness that averts anxious freak-out frenzy. This is the most distinct FCR releases I’ve taken a shot at – at least partly because the standard set of guitars and synths are swapped for FOUR CLARINETS! – but it is also the most compelling.

BrunchThe label’s new Brünch seven-inch (FCR705) doesn’t offer much in the way of background information – nor does it really explain the umlaut – so all we’re left to parse is a foursome of brief instrumentals, each an unabashedly lo-fi rendering of guitar drear curtained over synthesized bass and drums. The rhythms are plodding, the melodies are constitutionally dysthymic and glazed in echo. The best track is the first, “Piedmont,” which evokes that very indie-rock sensation of a bummer Sunday, guitar chimes hinting at a squandered world of possibilities. While “Anchored” and “Druthers” get stuck in repetitious ruts, the expansive meanderings of “Atlas,” which fall somewhere between Beat Happening haze and Helios Creed fire, sends the single off in a charming blaze. Curious but somehow nondescript, the label bosses describe the exercise as “an attempt to strip music down to its basic fundamentals without being a drone band.”

A subset of Fedora Corpse’s releases are issued on tiny editions of mini-CDRs, which customers are often treated to as cheery extras when placing orders. “They’re quick, crafty and fun, entirely DIY,” the FCR duo explained. “We thought they’d make great throw ins with orders and nice introductions to test the waters for new projects.”

I was fortunate enough to score a couple. 2012’s diminutive Charity Blackstock EP, restricted to a mere twelve copies, comes in a beautiful silk-screened square of construction paper and fills its twenty-ish minutes with four permutations of guitar noise. The resentful cavernous burble of “Teapot” – the tinniest and most subdued track on here – is a favorite because of its sublimely nihilism, though the other three tracks, which all also start with the letter ‘p,’ keep the menacing shroud of dissonance alive. Inhabiting that Zaimph-like hinterland of harsh but palatable noise, it glowers convincingly but never quite nicks the jugular. By contrast, Comoros’ mini-CDR is a large-scale operation, clocking in at a hefty twenty copies. This one comes in an ominous black envelope, and preserves Adam Melinn and co.’s massive-sounding live act (opening line: “we’re Comoros, and we’re from… across the street”). Here they ply their audience with nineteen minutes of sweaty electric guitar dueling. Track one, “Peru” pitches a spirited tent of reverberant enormity, while track two spends its duration grazing towards and retreating away from ZZ Top riffage.

I was thrown off by the semblance, so I ran the comparison by Adam and Jen – and they, remarkably, concurred: “Riff rock elements find their way into Comoros, because it’s a band with no traditional rhythm section. So we rely on Adam’s strong right hand and Jen’s LFO and percussion synth. Nobody ever says we sound like Prince, but we’re working on it.”

Something interesting that cropped up in my jumbo FCR package was a lathe-cut single in the label’s familiar brown cardstock, stamped only with the word “LATHE?” and the Fedora Corpse logo. There really isn’t any information online about the artifact, although inside information indicates that it is, in fact, the distorted remains of an aborted Hogra lathe that has since dropped as a professionally-pressed single. One side features a clod of looped scraps and garbled jawing, rendered terrifying by the sheer malice in the (pro/ant)agonist’s voice. The flip offers a craggy mess of lo-fi grumble-rubble. Obviously, the mystery of the thing is more than half of the appeal. I’m okay with that.