New Interfaces #6: Physicalia

Posted by on February 13, 2015

Bryon Hayes New Interfaces 6

Electronic press kits are the norm now that the internet pervades so much of human existence. They’re easy to put together, easy to disseminate, and low cost. There’s no postage involved. I enjoy getting music electronically, because there’s no waiting: the songs are usually just a click away. That being said, there’s always something invigorating about holding a physical copy of a release – it tickles the majority of the five senses (you can indeed smell and taste an LP – not that I’d want to give it a try). And a little suspense is great: checking the mailbox becomes an exciting activity. In the underground avant garde, there are still plenty of labels willing to send along a physical copy of their releases. I have a whole stack of sonic objects staring me in the eye right now, waiting for me to spill a little bit of ink about each artifact. Here is just a sample of some of the more fascinating things that have turned up in my mailbox over the course of the year.

First up is a lovely gatefold vinyl release by Seattle Phonographers Union, a collective who improvise with nearly untreated field recordings. Building 27 WNP-5 (Prefecture Music) finds the group in two different line-ups, letting loose in both a decommissioned aircraft hangar (Building 27) and an unfinished nuclear power station (WNP-5). Hushed and contemplative, the LP unfolds languidly, with drones, chirps and incidental sounds accompanied by audience footfalls and murmuring. The buildings themselves are the true instruments, drenching the field recordings with echo and reverb. Listening without earphones adds another dimension, as household incidental noises (a furnace starting up, the settling of a home’s structural members, a child’s laughter, a passing bus) meld with the emanations originating from the vinyl grooves and stereo speakers. As the Seattle Phonographer’s Union says in the liner notes, “walls are for listening.” Listen to some excerpts here.

The Last Paradigm cassette (Rainbow Pyramid) by the ultra-mysterious S.O.S. / Astral Planes Drifter – whose physical body resides in Jacksonville, Florida and goes by the name of Seth Ossachite Stevens – is an outright bonkers mix of found audio (complete with sci-fi film narratives), low fidelity new age instrumentation, shambling rhythms (is ‘sitar sludge’ an actual genre name?), and sung-spoken vocals that echo into unintelligibility. According to the label, this is Stevens’ final missive “before leaving these realms and heading into the astral desert on the search for UFOs and the ancient Hopi portal to the Inner Earth.”  I can’t get enough of his ultra-weird proselytizing – it reminds me of wandering dusty bookstores (remember those?) searching for the works of Robert Anton Wilson (which mostly ended up with confounded store employees listening to my half-baked re-enactment of the plot of the Illuminatus! Trilogy). At any rate, there’s 94 minutes of sorcery to get wrapped up in here; if that’s not enough for you, there’s also a triple-cassette reissue of Stevens’ early material – celebrating 15 years of his mind-bending chicanery – that Rainbow Pyramid has on offer (digital only, I’m afraid, as there were only 10 of these bad boys produced).

I’m a sucker for interesting and handmade packaging, so when my gaze caught the wooden box that enshrouds the Slowborn Enemy of Fate cassette (A Giant Fern) by Roadside Picnic, I was immediately in love. This project is a solo guise of U.K. noise maverick Justin Wiggan, who offers up static-showered sheets of primeval hiss and low-end goo lovingly scrubbed with steel wool and left to corrode. The two side-long affairs on offer here are ear candy for the masochistic set; “Judges” burrows its way through the skin like a slow-acting chemical bath, while “Be Kind With Me and I Will Destroy You” is a quiet and brooding swarm of electronic insects that hovers on the edge of being audible. Listen without headphones and you’ll miss a lot of subtle tone damage that just isn’t apparent to the naked ear.

To gain perspective on this next release, check out this short video outlining an installation of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #260 at the MOMA.  Composer Sébastien Roux has mapped LeWitt’s visual, instructional piece into the audio domain with Inevitable Music #1 (Future Audio Graphics), producing a series of sonic variations on the original instructions. Each variation employs a different combination of LeWitt’s original 20 base shapes, translating them into sine waves, the human voice, square waves, saw tooth waves, and incidental sound material.  Some variations also morph – harmonically “rotate” – the base sounds to create the 190 combinations in LeWitt’s original work. Each piece is prefaced by a spoken description of the methodology employed, as if to guide the listener to visualize what is to come. Accompanied by an essay from musician Seth Cluett, this LP is a fascinating example of a composer breaching the boundary between visual and aural forms of expression.

One of the founders of Finland’s Jozik Records imprint and half of Banana Pill, Dmitri Zherbin is a weaver of sonic detritus. His untitled tape on ((Cave)) Recordings is filled with gale force tape loops that drive their high-pitched warbling straight through the skull. Coming at you like a subdued Aaron Dilloway, Zherbin’s two sides of metallic sludge are brain-piercing noise onslaughts – the aural equivalent of pressing your eyeballs to the inside of a frosty window on a cold and windy winter night.

Working in a similar fashion to Zherbin is Belgian sound artist Pauwel De Buck, whose Tape Your Skin cassette (Smeltkop) is an eerie pair of looped compositions that seem to begin in a sparse mode yet eventually balloon to fill all available space as they unfold.  The A side creaks and groans like a machine with one sprocket missing, eventually completely falling apart with its mechanical guts spewing all over the floor.  The flip side is even more sinister, with a smudged low end thrumming suggesting that somehow De Buck has managed to amplify the movement of tectonic plates.  It all ends in a gurgling stew of looped caterwauling that eventually disintegrates into static.

Jaap Blonk is a Dutch composer/sound poet who has been actively making music with his rubbery mouth for decades, having been originally led down this path upon his discovery of Kurt Schwitters, whose Ursonate he has been performing since 1982. He began his craft at first using his untreated (yet extremely versatile) voice, but later began incorporating electronics and eventually software synthesis. This man is a legend, a master at what he does. Blonk himself sent over a pair of CDs, complete with a hand-signed introductory letter. Lifespans is an anomaly in the artist’s canon being a completely electronic piece. It’s a vortex of noise, to be sucked into and completely torched in the process. Originally conceived as a quadrophonic piece, Polyphtong is a little more relaxed in nature than the previous release. Here, Blonk’s raw voice is used, sampled and manipulated into an evocative soundscape. A little later on, I received Blonk’s Songs of Little Sleep cassette (Sleepy Cobalt Recordings). Featuring a baker’s dozen of short “songs” (as opposed to the nearly hour-long pieces on the CDs), here is where Blonk’s voice really rings out. There is certainly electronic manipulation going on here, but the voice is out front and centre. This is a real gem for sure.

Melbourne’s Habitat Tapes imprint sent along a pair of wondrous cassettes, the first being Molten Sulfur by the mysterious Isis Aquarium. Employing synthesizers and field recordings, this artist unfolds misty sound fields that are sure to open the proverbial third eye. Arriving in somewhat of a new age vibe, the four tracks explore a variety of terrains, each with its own sonic flora and fauna. With Thought Loops, Tom Hall captured short snippets of bowed banjo and kemenche and wove the fragments into noisy drone tapestries. The four pieces modulate slightly as they play out, revealing an intricacy that is not immediately grasped; deep listening is a must for this tape.

Russian experimental imprint Intonema Records dropped an amazing CD, featuring a pair of electroacoustic mini-storms brewed by a trio of legendary (or soon-to-be legendary) musicians. Keith Rowe essentially needs no introduction, being a pioneer of electroacoustic sound art; Ilia Belorukov is the Intonema czar and is also a multi-instrumentalist (focusing on the saxophone) of considerable talent; Kurt Liedwart (real name: Vlad Kudryavtsev) runs the Mikroton Recordings label and is an electronics maestro. Tri documents a pair of workouts that the three performed – one live and the other without audience. This album is extremely quiet, the smallest hints of sound blossoming into tiny tornadoes. Subtle scratching and buzzing electronics are just audible. The appearance of drones is an anchor point for those wondering what exactly is going on. My suggestion: wear headphones to fully enjoy this disc.

I have been ignorant to the wondrous noises emanating from San Francisco imprint Resipiscent Records until a pair of LPs dropped into my lap courtesy of another Decoder head. Bran (…) Pos is the solo guise of one Jake Rodriguez, and his Den of Ordure and Iridescence disc is quite the beast. Starting off in a Jaap Blonk vein with “Tin Tract Mine,” Rodriguez then goes on to explore zonked out synthesis, swarming cello drones, and full-on cosmic awareness.  Think new age on a DMT kick and you’re just getting started. The side-long “Lioness” is a real burner and totally worth the price of admission, with its birdsong-meets-tympani mid-track blow-out. Strategies for Failure/Zuckerkrieg finds Berlin resident Liz Allbee crossing streams with Hans Grüsel’s Kränkenkabinet. Allbee is into extended instrumental technique, electroacoustic composition, and home-made musical devices. Her side of this LP is a slow-burning, high tension piece that incorporates electronics, trumpet and voice. Grüsel and his merry band of music-making minstrels are mysterious forest-dwellers making dark soundtracks to fairy tales gone wrong. Their clever use of field recordings and electronics imbues their music with a sense of the surreal. One can’t help feeling like a child lost in a random forest, half-aware of the furry baddies lurking about just waiting to pounce and devour.

Justin Marc Lloyd runs the Rainbow Bridge empire from his home base in Chicago, and is also the man behind countless noisy monikers (FIRE-TOOLZ, Pregnant Spore, Inappropriate King Live, etc.). Dude has countless releases attributed to himself, so a point of entry may not be immediately apparent. That being said, a mysterious cassette from the Wasted Capital label (a division of the U.K.-based Hideous Replica imprint) that appeared in my mailbox – entitled I’m Sorry for the Thoughts Assigned to My Name – seems like the perfect jumping off point for the uninitiated. Processed voice and electronics, static bursts, alien transmissions, broken arcade games…  …it’s all here, combined into a brown, runny goo ripe for gripping. Equally intoxicating is the Your CD (Love Earth Music). Once again, Lloyd careens his detritus-laden jalopy of noise through a partially-dismantled meat grinder, with distressing yet completely engaging results.  One thing is for certain: Mr. Lloyd has stolen the title of ‘most clever song title creator’ from the Beniffer Editions gang (who previously had stolen the title from Trumans Water). Some of my favourites are “Five-Minute Goals for Dealing With Ascendant Inhabitants,” “Feeling Submissive? Signal Two: A Thumbing of the Mouth,” “Perimeter Scan with Faulty The-World-is-Shit Filter,” and “Sub-dermal Thirst for Bland and Christian-like Suburbia.” Shiver me timbers!!

I was very disappointed to see that Brooklyn’s finest out there imprint, Fabrica Records, is on hiatus. Joao Da Silva’s fine stable of experimental sounds has been an ever-growing focus of my music listening over the years, with epic releases from Rambutan and Robert Turman turning my skull inside out on multiple occasions. Let’s hope the hiatus is just a temporary break. I was lucky enough to receive a package from the label earlier this year, and included were a trio of cassettes that span the Fabrica catalogue. Brizbomb’s 1107 tape is a mammoth batch of drone delights apparently heaved from the belly of a gigantic synth rack that Matt Brislawn has been developing for some time now. The Rodman Melchior cassette finds the legendary Dan Melchior and his wife Letha Rodman Melchior – who sadly passed away earlier this year – dividing a single reel of magnetic tape between them. Letha’s side is a heartfelt merging of live instrumentation and sound collage, while Dan seems to invoke a host of demons in a feverish clash of sounds and styles. Synthesist extraordinaire Collin McKelvey offers up Spinning Liquid Mirror under his Orbless guise. Seeming to take on a mind of its own, McKelvey’s modular rig overcomes our planet’s gravitational pull, careening ever outward.

These tangibles are just a few examples of the amazing works of art peering out from the global underground avant-garde. With a cadre of fine labels steadily issuing such stunning labours of love, we sonic admirers will be forever gleeful.  Keep ’em coming, gang!!