10.26.2014

Three more Words on Sounds Podcast episodes

The podcast routine is still falling into place--I've been forgetting to post the new episode links here when they become available. In case I should forget in the future, if you check the Words on Sounds mixcloud page once a week, or "follow" me there, you'll find one new podcast every week. But I'll try to put the info here, too.

Today's episode just went up, and it's a banger: 

The week before had some great new material, too. Love that new Jon Mueller/Death Blues "Ensemble" record, Bus Gas, Killer BOB...a feast for your ears:

And episode 7 was something different: as I'm leaving the Other Music radio show to focus on reviews and podcasts, the other 2 current DJs have decided to leave, too. The show's history goes back around 25 years, with lots of different DJs over time, all of whom have been involved with making music as well as spinning it on the radio, and this podcast offers a history of music made by Other Music DJs. Some of this music would never have been made if it weren't for relationships that started around the OM show. Very much worth a listen (and I'm playing on a few of these recordings myself, such as the Philemon piece):

Tonight will be my last Other Music show at KZUM. It's bittersweet, for sure, but I hope I can serve everyone better with more time to focus on reviews, and the podcast will naturally evolve out of my note-taking process. Thanks for reading, and thanks for listening.

10.23.2014

Street Priest - More Nasty


It's been just over a year since drummer/composer Ronald Shannon Jackson died, and I'm still way bummed about his passing. What an amazing career: after jamming with Albert Ayler in the 60s, he was behind the kit on my favorite Ornette Coleman albums, "Dancing in Your Head" and "Body Meta." He's all over Cecil Taylor's killing late-70s LPs, and his work in the 80s leading the Decoding Society took Ornette's funk/jazz vibes into even deeper and darker places. And the avant-jazz supergroups, Power Tools and Last Exit? Jesus. I don't often hear him referenced among the most iconic of jazz-related artists, but he should definitely be part of that discussion.

With that in mind, this seems like the perfect time for Bay-Area trio Street Priest to get their first tape into the world. "More Nasty" is an impressive debut, making reference to the Decoding Society by band name and album title, and harnessing the raw energy of RSJ projects at their gnarliest. This rhythm section has a serious pedigree in aggressive music, with Matt Chandler of Burmese on bass, and long-time Ettrick co-conspirator Jacob Felix Heule on drums. As an aside, I was lucky enough to catch Ettrick on a tour that stopped in Lincoln years ago (thanks, Unitarian Church!), and they laid down a duo free-grind set that I still think of often, trading duties between sax and drums. Definitely get some Ettrick in your ears if you haven't already. Guitarist Kristian Aspelin completes the trio, a perfect fit whose diverse approaches to the guitar give Street Priest a lot of musical latitude.

"More Nasty" captures the intensity of the Decoding Society, but this isn't a "heads and solos" project: Street Priest are working mostly with a non-idiomatic free improv approach. They occasionally bring out splinters of free-funk grooves, and their extreme music backgrounds inform the most dense, heavy moments on the album, like most of the album-closer "Market," but I'm especially taken by how often this trio plays in careful, hushed passages. In its frequent quieter passages, this album can sound like a saturnine electroacoustic project. This power-trio-to-lowercase-improv feat is difficult to pull off successfully, but they totally nail it with style and thoughtful interplay to spare. I'm reminded of that Sandy Ewen/Damon Smith/Weasel Walter disc from a few years ago: with both recordings, the heaviest moments leave an immediate impact, but there are plentiful subtle gestures that continue to reveal themselves on repeated listening.

Like a lot of the best improv albums, there are times where it's hard to tell who is playing what: on opening piece "Turk," for example (and all four tunes are named for streets in SF's Tenderloin), the whole trio work themselves toward a crescendo of short, scraped sounds, but generally the bass seems to be working with higher pitches than guitar--or are those metal percussion sounds? Most of the sound manipulations in this music sound like they're done with little fuss, simply digging into instruments with a little help from distortion pedals, but there are times when I'm pretty sure someone has a loop pedal handy, and there must be a lot of harsh-sounding auxiliary percussion at the ready as well. And there are times when individual contributions are clear: Aspelin digs into deep guitar feedback workouts in "Taylor," his amp alternately singing and screaming, and the outro of that piece has some great busy kit playing from Heule. The best bass work here is probably found in "Sixth," and it's heavy on extended technique, with slowly bowed and scraped rumbles, detuned strings, and hammered-sounding articulations dominating the soundstage. Everyone plays their asses off here--and the group listens to their own interplay with just as much discipline.

The first release on Heule's new Humbler imprint, "More Nasty" is pro-dubbed on some especially fine chrome tape--this is probably the best-sounding tape I've heard in a while, loud and full-frequency. The album art has that "metal demo" vibe at a distance, but it's on a heavy, textured paper that feels as substantial as the music in your hands. A fine debut that definitely leaves me hungry for more--and considering that these recordings were made before passing of RSJ, this project feels much more like a celebration than an elegy. More "More Nasty," please.


10.08.2014

Bus Gas - Snake Hymns


I've been a fan of Nebraska drone-zoners Bus Gas for a few years now. While there is a long-running tradition of quality experimental music 'round these parts, nobody gets close to the epic dreamscapes of the Bus Gas crew. Their gradually-widening, nuanced textural workouts have often
felt like improvised songforms, a droned-out distillation of postrock guitar timbres, but deliberately improvising toward those kind of weighty triumphant meridians one finds at the climax of Godspeed or Explosions tunes. Their first two tape releases, "Six Movements in Four Hours" on Sweat Lodge Guru, and "Train Out" on Germany's venerable Sic Sic, are beautiful documents of their approach.

But "Snake Hymns," the new Bus Gas album just released by Spring Break Tapes, is a heavy surprise: the pieces here are generally shorter but hit your psyche like a new concentrated form of ambience, feeling much longer than their actual running times. An arsenal of synths and threadbare looped fragments, all immersed in various overdriven and outright distorted environments, have wrested control of these pieces from guitars and basses, evoking the thornier periods of Tangerine Dream or early Cluster mixed with Badalamenti soundtracks. And rather than improvising on basic ideas, these pieces feel deeply composed, richly layered, and carefully refined for maximum impact.

Album opener "20/20 Vision Quest" establishes a murky, film-noir kind of vibe. It's held together by a short, hypnotic synth loop until its last third, where a subtle rhythm sneaks into the mix, seemingly made by capturing the sound of a distorted tremolo pedal revving a speaker cabinet. Fragments of melodies and synth/environmental pads swell in and out of the mix, and the goal here is sustaining a dark mood, as opposed to building to a crescendo. Then things get a little sweaty with "Positive Throckmorton," a piece suspended between low rumbling oscillations, an ominous low bass riff, and a long-running snarl of feedback that serves as a pedalpoint for some pizzicato-sounding muted guitars. The distortion on parts within this mix feels disorienting at times, and you have to grab onto the resonance of the never-ending feedback as a kind of safety rope.

The variety of overdriven sounds and fearless experimentalism with these otherwise "ambient" mixes opens up a wider emotional spectrum than one often finds in ambient/new-agey recordings that stick with clean tones and clinical mixing. The clarinet lines in "Night Slugs," for example, take on a dirty saxophone sound in their distorted/reverb-drenched treatment, a great contrast with clear guitar tones competing for melodic space. The bass lines that gradually overtake and release "First Scum, First Serve" contrast similarly with symphonic loops treading through that piece, while rumbling away any dust that might have gathered near your speakers.

I love the layered, thoughtful approach throughout this album, but I must admit that the last track, "Sad Hill," is my favorite. Though it's a very minimal piece compared to the rest of the record, it hits me right in the chest (and it has a few tricks up its sleeve). The tape rolls up to speed at its beginning, revealing low Duane Eddy guitar tones and buzzing amps, A touching, somber riff repeats multiple times, with occasional pauses and distorted embellishments. The tape machine warbles toward the end, struggling back to unity pitch, and eventually it's switched off. But that crazy lo-fi tone: we must be listening to a very loud performance that was recorded to tape, being played back itself through another loud playback system and re-recorded for our pleasure. That's some serious meta-post-noir, folks. And it sounds decayed and beautiful and full of memories, and I wish the tape machine inside the recording didn't get turned off so soon. Interestingly, the piece ends differently on the digital version than the actual cassette--on the cassette, it cuts off abruptly (and it's not a dubbing issue--there's still a few seconds of tape left), as though to imply that in another "Schrodinger's cassette" universe, it might go on forever. Choose your own adventure. Well played, Bus Gas!

A fantastic release. Bus Gas has found the essence of their sound, and it really shows. It's not often that one can think of drone/ambient music as the source for earworms, but that's just happens with pieces like "20/20 Vision Quest" and "Awake, Awake, Awake"--they resurface in your mind later, continuing to alter your senses and salt your wounds. This one's in a small edition of 100, pro-dubbed and featuring some beautiful, understated artwork on both sides of the j-card. Grab one from Spring Break Tapes while you still can.


Bus Gas Snake Hymns Teaser from Uphill Downhill on Vimeo.