Debut of the Words on Sounds podcast!

(don't want to read an essay? Click here to go directly to the 1st Words on Sounds podcast)

Hello dear readers,

As many of you already know, I've been part of the Other Music radio show on KZUM for the last four years. I've really enjoyed doing the program, helping to get all kinds of creative, adventurous music out to new ears, and occasionally doing interviews and hosting live performances in the studio. But I'm regularly asked if there might be a way to download the show instead of listening live. It airs late on Sunday evenings, after all. It's difficult for many of my local over-the-air listeners to catch if they need to get up early for work on Monday, and squarely in the middle of the night for European listeners who tune into the livestream.

The answer, sadly, is no. For music shows that originate on terrestrial radio and also livestream, there are a number of weird FCC regulations and copyright issues that put downloads of such shows into muddy legal waters. While some stations have download archives of similar programming, our station chooses not to take that risk, and I can certainly understand their position.

That said, I want to make sure that the time I'm able to invest in various forms of creative music advocacy can help reach as many people as possible. The asynchronous nature of podcasting, that convenience of listening anywhere at any time, seems like such a huge advantage for potential listeners that I'm going to try out a weekly podcast format for a while. Consider this as a companion to my review work on this blog. While it takes me a lot of time to finish reviews because I try to listen as deeply as possible and take layers of notes before I'm ready to write, I'm continually working new recordings into my radio show within days of receipt. It's pretty clear when new records are amazing right out of the gate, after all, even though it takes me a while to go from a series of astonished expletives to more articulate waters.

So the podcast is going to mirror my weekly listening regimen, and I'm going to incorporate choosing songs for the program directly into my listening and note-taking routine. I think this is going to be really helpful and productive for me, too--I suspect that the quality of my commentary in radio/podcast work, and the quantity of reviews I can tackle, are both going to improve when they're part of a single workflow instead of two separate volunteer jobs.

I'm pretty excited, actually. I just rearranged my studio to make this process as smooth and inviting as possible. I uploaded the debut Words on Sounds podcast roughly 24 hours ago, and it's apparently already "making the charts" on Mixcloud, which is amazing!

I'll be posting the links to each podcast episode both here and on my Facebook page for Words on Sounds (which could use a few more "likes" if you're so inclined). You can also go to Mixcloud and subscribe directly through them. You can listen on desktop computers by following the link, and they also have easy-to-use smartphone apps for the site. Also, if anybody out there would be interested in hosting these podcasts as downloadable files for folks who would rather listen that way, I'd be interested in that possibility, too. Drop me a line.

My production values will surely continue to improve (gotta swap out that crackly microphone cord for starters), but I think you'll agree that the music in this first episode of the Words on Sounds podcast is amazing:

Pajjama - Karakasa

I've been following the work of Norway's wild Pajjama for quite some time--you may recall this little overview piece I did last year on the band. At the time, I really loved the Zappa/Magma weirdness of their "Starch" debut, and the 8-bit-YMO and 80s nostalgia of the followup "Jane Papaya" tape, but both are very short EP recordings that feel like teasers, only hinting at the potential for this band.

Enter "Karakasa," the first Pajjama full-length released a few months ago by Orange Milk. I knew these crazy kids had a wicked amazing album like this in them. Adroitly incorporating all of their previous influences and many more into a fun and satisfying soundscape that never fails to surprise, this is easily one of my top albums of the year. This tape hangs with the best of recordings along that Giant Claw continuum like "Mutant Glamour," but the Pajjama crew have a knack for occasionally visiting darker, proggier corners, and they love weird jazz chord voicings as a clever contrast to the sometimes simpler textures of early video game-influenced passages. And this is a band--rather than a solo recording project, this album is full of real drum, guitar, and bass work, beautifully played and perfectly recorded. Among the full bands that have explored this kind of video game-infused prog rock like Yakuza Heart Attack and Cheap Dinosaurs, "Karakasa" is the high point of the genre so far.

You know you're in for a new Pajjama experience within the first minute of "Karakasa." Album opener "Chromiel" is a slow, dirgey march through a handful of chords, with lots of processed sounds creating wild static and raw cosmic data above the main overdriven riff. When textures thin out around the 2:30 mark, we get a beautiful clavichord-driven melody supported by crisp drumming holding the piece to a roughly lento kind of tempo. Ultimately, "Chromiel" builds to a very lyrical and royal-feeling finale, pushed along with great low-bass synths drifting slowly through envelope filters. Epic. This is followed by "Ladyboys," which brings back the YMO-meets-NES vibes of the "Jane Papaya" tape. This one feels like it can't decide if it should be the soundtrack to an 80s drama series or a 70s game show, but while it's trying to choose, we get some stripped-down tribal passages, a great fusion guitar section, and swaggering synth funk meltdowns.

Pajjama has particularly stepped up their game in terms of writing incredibly memorable melodies and getting into really slamming grooves on "Karakasa." It's not often that I find myself humming melodies after days away from playful albums like this, but the themes from tunes like "Cream Corpse" (which reappears in modified form in "Cream Birth" later), or the slinky chromatic-inflected "Beach Detective," turn out to be powerful earworms. And the grooves! Early video game music has that characteristically stifled flavor of "swing" inherent to its programming limitations at the time, and while Pajjama often pay tribute to that kind of artificial feel in appropriate places, they lay down some seriously hard funk on this record, from the wild odd-time punch of "Smoke Your Eyes" to the driving triple-meter workouts of "Cream Corpse" and "Metasatan."

My favorite tunes on "Karakasa" are probably "Beach Detective" and album closer "Metasatan." On "Beach Detective," Pajjama swerve into timbral terrain somewhere near early 80s Residents jams, adding some great live basslines and lots of strange background sounds percolating in reverb and delay, eventually settling into the great fusion-y melody mentioned earlier. And "Metasatan" is just epic--a sort of fast-tempo companion to album opener "Chromiel," this tune contrasts a very aggressive rhythm section with relaxed synth melodies and pads that could hang with the most cosmic of kosmische albums. Just before its conclusion, the piece collapses into a great Zappa-ish guitar melody, and then a little hip-hop beat fades to the end.

Word on the e-street is that Pajjama have already been back in the studio working on new material. Now that they've had the chance to stretch their collective legs on a full-length, I suspect that we'll be hearing a lot more about this peculiarly potent band in the future. But be sure to pick up your own copy of "Karakasa" while you still can. Like most Orange Milk releases, this album has great artwork/design by Keith Rankin (who is rapidly becoming the Storm Thorgerson of avant-weirdo cover art), and the tape audio quality is fantastic. Highly recommended.


Liz Allbee and Hans Grüsel - Strategies for Failure/Zuckerkrieg

Sometimes coincidence sure feels like synchronicity. I was asked to help out with a bran(…)pos show in Lincoln last year, which was my introduction to his music, as well as the San Francisco label Resipiscent Records. As you might recall, I dug the hell out of Den of Ordure & Iridescence, and I went on to get way into pretty much everything bran(…)pos-related I could find. And I still spend a lot of time in the "Den." Easily one of the best records of 2013.

As I thumbed through the Resipiscent catalog, I found myself unfamiliar with a lot of the artists, but having heard a few more of their releases, it's clear that I need lots of these wild sounds rattling around in my head. Now I feel like I'm almost destined to hear as much of the Resipiscent label as possible. Their spring release this year was a split between Liz Allbee and Hans Grüsel, both of whom have appeared in their roster before (Allbee's solo debut "Quarry Tones" actually launched the label), and like bran(...)pos, both artists turn in immersive, undefinable, and utterly addictive pieces.

"Strategies for Failure/Zuckerkrieg" presents truly deep listening in the form of a side-length piece each from Allbee and Grüsel. This pair of electroacoustic compositions hang very well together, as both artists share a delirious joy for turning extended-technique acoustic playing and extreme synthesis/deployment-of-effects into almost physically tangible daydreams and daymares. Maybe you can still manage to vacuum your living room with this record on, but there might be psychic consequences. Sit down and listen.

Allbee's side, whose full title is "Strategies for Failure and Relief From Persistent Positive Symptoms," goes through a few distinct movements. The opening section uses some very low sub-bass alternating in a minor-3rd riff, sometimes crashing together to create thick acousmatic combination tones. Over this, Allbee recites a few verses related to freedom and control, alternating with solo lines on a heavily-effected trumpet, delivering very crispy, wasp tones that contrast nicely with the intense bass. The section is almost like an incredibly slowed-down blues riff bouncing around the walls of a rubber room. This gets violently interrupted with synths and effected trumpets around the seven-minute mark, eventually pausing to introduce a new section of intense high-(concert)-G trumpet tones, pushing and pulling around the mic, bending, subtly falling into weird room reverbs in the background. Eventually the trumpet approach heads into extended-technique territory not far from Zorn's "Classic Guide to Strategy" solo work, with liquid sounds and gurgles and game calls. Toward the end of the piece, chimes and bells gradually take over the mix, and layers of muted trumpet and vocals softly appear. Like the introduction, Allbee recites some great lines whose meaning is surely subject to a wide berth of interpretation: as Allbee says, "The words conceal what they mean like a mystery." At the end, powerful subtones gently launch the piece out to sea.

The Allbee piece feels very personal, and listening is a little like overhearing a handful of secrets without knowing the full context of their relevance. In contrast, Grüsel's "Zuckerkrieg (Part 1)" has a more archetypal kind of feeling, evoking deluge myths and perpetually-haunted forests. It starts gently enough, with a subtle beats colliding, at times feeling like they're falling in and out of clear metric relationships. But when modular synths and heavily-treated acoustic instruments build into a complex wall of sound, one rapidly feels like Edgard Varèse stumbling out of a promethazine factory. The dense fog lifts, revealing the gentlest section of all, taps and scrapes that sound like the product of contact mics on balsa wood or paper scraps. Chewing and creaking sounds drift back in, and intense field recordings of wind force the mix to an overwhelming mass, obscuring what must be lots of wind instruments buried in effects: trumpets like the bleating of fearful goats, bassoons trapped in amber resin. Complex fields of synth tones form as the wind subsides, mingling with even more horns/reeds awash in effects. Toward the end, it's obvious that heavily-altered strings have been pushing to reveal melodies, and horns have strived to reveal tense chord clusters, but the effects and the surrounding synths continue to terrorize their acoustic sisters (though a few overdubbed trombone swells come through clearly). As "Zukerkrieg" translates loosely to "sugar war," I'm left with impressions of melted, caramelizing goo all over everything in this crazy mix by its sticky end.

On the compositional front, both pieces on this LP seem obviously composed by folks who have taken very serious stock of the resources bestowed on us in 20th. C. academic music circles--the forceful approach to electronics of Xenakis, the sometimes brash densities of Ligeti's sound mass music, just to name a couple--but they also have much more of an emotional impact on me than "the classics." Jesus, I wish somebody would've hipped me to artists like this in music school, as they're every bit as nutritious as "legit" composers, but they're obviously having a much better time. And they're much more connected to culture-at-large, evoking lots of fun/campy/creepy points of reference at every turn. The extramusical aspects of this work--costumes, set design, web/video work, etc--really come through in the music, too. A couple of minutes into either one of these pieces, I felt pretty sure that these folks can hang with composer-types while knowing a lot more about treating true "happening"-style events where people can really get down.

In terms of art and packaging, this split comes in one of those plastic jackets with a reversible poster-style insert, so you can face your favorite cover art outward. I'm leaving the creepy monster art by Bonnie Banks for the Grüsel side out on mine (my copy also has a couple of cut-out gingerbread monsters and a pre-weathered paper thing that you can position how you'd like inside the jacket), but the spooky science-lab art by Alibi & Beins for the Allbee side is great, too. And this is a beautifully-mastered production for vinyl, pressed to very clean vinyl. With lots of quiet passages, the surface noise of vinyl can sometimes be irritating on pieces like these, but this pressing is fantastic. This is a small run of only 250 copies, but you're in luck: Resipiscent still has a copy waiting just for you.