Philip Gayle - Babanço Total
If I were grading recent submissions on a curve for weirdness, Philip Gayle's "Babanço Total" would set the top of my curve. This is a record that immediately demanded my attention and cut its way to the front of a long review queue with its uncompromising and sometimes uncomfortable soundworld, gently described as a "one-time exploration of the voice and body soundscape" in its press release.
The first track, "sleep rain," got me thinking that I was listening to an album of layered avant-garde vocals, in the spirit of albums like Mike Patton's "Adult Themes for Voice" or Maja Ratkje's "Voice," or Jaap Blonk's work. Overall, that is indeed a good starting point for "Babanço Total," and I suspect that if you like those records, you'll want to track down a copy of this album. Most tracks are built of many, many layers of overdubbed voices producing an impressive variety of textures and rhythms. But by the third track, "esa peko peko pah," I was considering how "body soundscape" presumably refers to sounds originating from more than voices, which is articulated slightly more explicitly in the album's subtitle on the back cover: "Improvised bodily functions, etc."
Gentler readers, how to say it?--you might hear some eructation, emesis, lower-body peristaltic themes and variations. I don't want to make too much of it, as "sounds from the bathroom" are a small percentage of the overall recording, but there are 3 or 4 tracks on which burp-ish, fart-ish, or puke-ish sounds may come to your attention. If you're inclined to be irritated or upset by that sort of thing, there's your fair warning. I can deal with it in the context of this music, though I must admit that my less mature side is quite amused by a mental image of this album being partially recorded at SugarHill Studios in Houston, the self-proclaimed "Abbey Road of the South." I'll bet these were surprising sessions for the engineers there!
Philip Gayle's previous solo efforts have concentrated on layers of mostly stringed instruments overdubbed in what amounts to a kind of free-improv solitaire, focusing on textural and timbral aspects of sound design. I went back to his 2005 "The Mommy Row" album in search of context for "Babanço Total." It's a great record that alternates between sections of long-tone, mostly bowed drones punctuated with Asian-sounding percussion, and fast skittering acoustic strings playing lines that remind me of early Eugene Chadbourne. Some tracks like "Cow People" use a lot of liquid pouring/bubbling sounds that form a great timbral bridge between the two records. Both records are dense with overdubs, which remain fairly independent from one another rhythmically, proving that free improvisation can happen via overdubs instead of ensembles.
That's not to say this music is created quickly or carelessly: in the case of "Babanço Total," recording started in 2000 and wasn't completed until 2008. The tracks flow freely within themselves, but there is a clear sense of prior deliberation toward framing out the boundaries and approaches unique to each piece. And postproduction plays a role in many pieces, like the tremolo-like rhythmic voice clusters undulating beneath most of "feral basil pesto," with quick fade-up articulations before each iteration, or sped-up speech patterns comprising much of "falling off brain like i told myselves," which pleasantly remind me of Renaldo & the Loaf. Even the potentially juvenile burping sounds tend to be used in unexpectedly "mature" ways, like those in "naked brunch" that essentially become long drones oscillating beneath scrapes, breaths, and almost horn-like quick sounds whose origin I can't quite identify. "agnes unknown" uses long belchy sounds, too, but they're more foreground than background on that track. Especially effective for me was the album's closer, "pajama turtles," which features long quasi-microtonal chorale overdubs on shifting vowel sounds, all supporting a frenetic sped-up sounding solo munchkin freakout. I really liked "feral basil pesto," too, which for me evokes some kind of Muppets-meet-zombies aural opera.
The packaging for this disc deserves a mention, too: Houston artist and musician John Cramer's work is featured in color on the front cover, and four more panels of his drawings are found inside. All depict creatures made of heads fused together in various ways, an eerily perfect visual analogue to the music found inside.
As mentioned earlier, this record is a one-time exploration for Gayle, whose plans for the immediate future are focusing on a guitar-based record. He also plays guitar and mandolin for more conventional acts, including a recent tour on guitar with singer/songwriter Ember Schrag. But he certainly brings a set of interesting ideas to the table with "Babanço Total," and considering how few weirdovocal albums are released, let's hope he returns to the form as time and inspiration allow.
--first published at Killed in Cars