Loud & Sad, ‘Unknown Species’

Posted by on May 21, 2013


Greenup Industries, 12/18/2012

While Nathan McLaughlin and Joe Houpert have been peppering the tape scene with noteworthy solo releases for the past few years, their long-running project Loud & Sad has felt like a sort of creative testing lab for the two musicians. This is the place that they seem to return to for new ideas and approaches; the place where they push one another as musicians. The duo’s early efforts, including their Whale Fall tape on Digitalis, showed them constructing the type of glistening long-form drones that would have sat nicely alongside the Students of Decay roster, or even Kranky’s line-up. Last year’s False Intimacy (Cae-sur-a) saw the duo still wrestling with ambience while moving towards a more gnarled form of piano and tape-based composition.

Unknown Species, their first vinyl release aside from the limited run 7″ lathes that they have put out on their own FET imprint, marks another leap forward for the duo. Here they show more of an interest in composing songs or, at the very least, pieces that feel song-like. As opposed to previous efforts that had lengthy, sidelong continuity, the seven tracks spread across Unknown Species are, of course, shorter, but they also feature distinct structural elements that offer a unique take on abstract song forms. This emphasis on song is further strengthened by the duo’s choice to include actual song titles on this release, as opposed to the sort of rigid numeric track indexing used on their previous solo and duo works. This is not to say that there was any effort spared on their part to provide context (see the liner notes to False Intimacy), it seems, however, that the duo has a desire to communicate something more personal this time around, as challenging as that can be in the field of abstract music.

The most noticeable advancement on Unknown Species, though, is the expanded sound palette that the duo employs. This is apparent right out of the gates with “Overture”, where squiggly, electronic sputterings are set against Houpert’s free jazz drumming eruptions, and it continues into the next piece, “Lomax Acid”, where McLaughlin’s close-to-traditional banjo stylings are gobbled-up in a blur of tape decay. His banjo playing appears on later tracks (“Thunderbird” & “Finale”), but it is layered and manipulated in such a way as to suggest a sort of impressionistic take on American folk music — an update, perhaps, on Henry Flynt’s Avant Garde Hillbilly strategies.

“Blind Date” is a re-worked and more concise rendering of a track they performed for an in-studio session awhile back. Built upon a simple, three-note guitar melody, it is perhaps the closest in line to their previous output until the tape loops build and burst forth into the duo’s most noise-leaning moments on the album. “Maple” follows suit in a comparable modern tape/noise approach to Louis and Bebe Barron’s early electronic sound environments.

One of the clear stand-out tracks on the record, though, has to be “Beth.” No, this is not an experimental take on that much-maligned Kiss ballad, but a graceful melodic song comprised of chiming guitar textures and wheezy reed tones. It brings the sort of simple beauty that both artists have been able to achieve in their solo works to a new level of clarity.

It will be interesting to see where McLaughlin and Houpert take Loud & Sad next, as they are currently involved in another cross-country collaboration with Cody Yantis known as Tilth. It seems, however, that given the long-standing connections between these two, they will continue to make time for this project: “apart but together” as the liner notes read. Until that time, there is plenty to savor in Unknown Species.