Three from Eh?
I'm especially excited to showcase some records from this awesome label with long-standing Midwest connections. Public Eyesore, founded by creative improviser and instrument designer Bryan Day, will turn 15 later this year! Public Eyesore has been a home for a wide variety of recordings, "progressive and regressive," from artists all over the world, and they added a second line of CDR-based releases around four years ago under the Eh? imprint. In my opinion, they're a particularly important label to follow if you're interested in free improv and EAI music, but they also release music from a wide range of other disciplines, giving voice to the feral edges of pop, rock, jazz, and classical musics.
Full disclosure: PE released an album of mine back in 2006. But I had already been a long-time fan of the label, having released some of my favorite records from artists like Blue Collar (Nate Wooley/Steve Swell/Tatsuya Nakatani), Jesse Krakow, Mike Pride, Amy Denio, and many more. PE is a label that will consistently surprise you--one never knows what kind of auditory surprises might be awaiting you when you put on a random release of theirs. Recently I've covered a couple of their new albums from Philip Gayle and Ydestroyde, and here's another batch of compelling recent releases. All three of these are officially under the "Eh?" imprint, shipped as CDRs in paper sleeves with poly jackets--not the most fancy packaging, but it gets this music into the world, which is the most important thing. There were similarly spartan releases earlier in the "proper" PE catalog, but nowadays those have gotten fancy packaging--I'll be covering a couple of those releases in the near future as well (awesome job on the Anderson/Pepper/Tamura/Petit release!). I'm especially excited about the upcoming Normal Love full-length being co-released by Weasel Walter's ugEXPLODE, and the Cactus Truck album sounds promising, too...
KBD(uo) - Any Port in a Storm
This release features the "principal agents" behind the KBD Sonic Cooperative, with Michael Kimaid on percussion and electronics, and Gabe Beam on guitar and electronics. This is the second Eh? release from these folks, minus Ryan Dohm who also appeared on the earlier "Four Plus One" album. This time around, we get six more untitled tracks of EAI, very cleanly recorded in a very "controlled" sounding, intimate room. The music is produced with percussion (including a lot of bowed cymbals/gongs), guitar (which mostly sounds like "tabletop guitar" with effects), and an arsenal of electronics.
The music evolves slowly in these pieces, usually letting ideas overlap one another for a long time. The first two tracks focus on long tones and sustained atmospheres, and the third piece starts to introduce contrasting ideas, made mostly of short, pointillistic bursts. Polyrhythms of sorts are featured in the fourth piece, with oscillations against softly-repeated drums that come and go amidst subtle guitar manipulations. Like their previous release, the final track is a live performance around 25 minutes in length: while the album mostly works with gentle, carefully unfolding textures, things can get much louder and more intense in live performance, briefly building up to a wall of sound around the six minute mark. But that's an exception, and most of the live set stays well below fortissimo as well, thoughtfully blending a variety of axillary percussion tools, cymbals, gongs, and occasional undercurrents of sizzling electronic drones.
Hag - Moist Areas
Like KBD, Hag's name comes from the last names of the musicians involved: in this case, Brad Henkel on trumpet, Sean Ali on bass, and David Grollman on snare drum. This Brooklyn trio plays a fine brand of meditative free improv, working with layers of texture rather than any kind of trad jazz vocabulary. Henkel's trumpet work sometimes reminds me of Nate Wooley's catalog of otherworldly sounds, and David Grollman's snare drum work similarly deconstructs his instrument of choice--I don't think there's a moment on the album where I would've pinpointed what I'm hearing as coming from a snare. Instead he works with scraping, rubbing, and (I'm pretty sure) blowing directly on the drum head, as there are moments where it sounds like there are two horns playing. Sean Ali's bass playing is the closest to convention on the album, with occasional cascades of chromatically ascending or descending lines and even brief passages of bowed work, but he too works to draw extended sounds from his bass.
My favorite track is also the longest, "Moist Again," placed in the center of the album. It shows off how well the group listens to one another, each member getting moments where they lead the ensemble, coming to the front of the mix and moving the group into new variations in texture. It also features an especially wide dynamic range, contrasting not just loud and quiet sections in terms of volume but also with variations in density at both ends of the volume spectrum. The title track, which closes the album, also features some of the louder passages on the record, as well as some trumpet lines played with considerable crunch in the instrument's lower range, sounding surprisingly like a woodwind instrument instead of brass.
Psychotic Quartet - Spherelon
My favorite of this batch of Eh? releases, Psychotic Quartet is a Philly-based group that brings together a number of really exciting musicians from one of my favorite music scenes in a free improvisation context. Trombonist Dan Blacksberg also plays in Archer Spade with guitarist Nick Milleovi (whose own recent contribution to an Eh? release will be covered soon), bassist Evan Lipson plays in one of my favorite bands, Normal Love (and was probably the only person who could successfully follow Jesse Krakow in Dynamite Club), and violinist Kat Hernandez (who recently relocated to Sweden) specializes in microtonal and alternate tuning systems, a recent obsession of mine. They're joined by NYC drummer Michael Evans for five rounds of complex improvisation referencing a wide range of musical traditions.
Microtonal doesn't necessarily equate with "out of tune," of course. While it can mean touching quarter tones or making waves of weird noise, it also points to playing music that can be even more "in tune" than is possible within equal temperament. I was excited to note that all three melodic instruments working on this album have the potential to play outside of the constraints of ET with little effort, and I found myself re-listening to this album many times with my attention directed at subtle adjustments in pitch happening organically as a simple side effect of listening carefully to one another. And the group keeps things interesting with moments of duo and trio playing, too. The music breathes with the kind of control many groups can only get through composition, but this is what you can achieve when you put four virtuosos who all have their own compositional chops together: cooperation truly equals instant composition.
This is much more note-oriented than the other two releases covered here, which more closely follows my own musical obsessions. Though it is a very "free" affair, there are allusions to various musical genres, especially jazz and even bits of swing violin, that can give listeners moments of stylistic context which slide around in interesting ways that frequently reminded me of very early Anthony Braxton ensemble playing. And that's a high compliment--parts of this sound like a kind of extension of Braxton's BYG Actual 6 album from '69, one of my favorite records, and that's a style that just didn't get enough love for my ears. While sections of this music can be very "serious," there is also a great sense of humor, humility, and fun running throughout the record. You can tell the musicians are having a great time playing together, and they've been kind enough to invite us to listen in. I'm looking forward to the next invitation.
--also published at Killed in Cars
I've long been aware of the rich musical tradition of Norway. As a guitarist at the end of the 20th Century, I found it hard to ignore the force of Norwegian black metal artists, many of whom evolved in fascinating ways over just a few albums to incorporate many styles into their music: Ulver, Dodheimsgard, Peccatum, and many more. When I was in music school, a native Norwegian trumpet player exposed me to the music of Farmers Market, and as a big fan of the montage approaches of early 90s Zorn and Bungle, I was very impressed. When I dug further into experimental jazz, Norwegians were there, too, showcased over the decades by ECM records, and further highlighted today by labels like Rune Grammofon.
While a lot of the artists showcased on Rune Grammofon have roots in jazz and classical traditions, the label focuses on a broader spectrum of creative music from Norway, including artists whose work falls closer to pop and rock. I recently profiled two of their artists, Scorch Trio and Hedvig Mollestad Trio, in my power trio album review, but there are many more exciting albums and artists to explore from this label. Here are three more of their submissions that make an impressive case for Norway as a diverse cultural destination.
Elephant9 - Walk the Nile
Elephant9 could easily have been included in my power trio review if I had expanded the definition of "power trio" to substitute Hammond organ for guitar. This is a highly energetic trio working in gaps between rock and jazz fusion that recall the best of Miles electric period, Herbie Hancock's more aggressive 70s work, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. The rock part of the approach is that most of these jams emanate from riff-based guitar and bass work, and the frequent and liberal use of overdrives/distortions on keys (and again an occasional ring modulator effect--dust off your EH Frequency Analyzers, folks). The jazz influences become apparent in the creative unfolding of melodies and solos over the riffs and the sophisticated rhythmic interplay within the group.
The basic framework for each of these songs is clearly composed, but rather than taking turns playing extended solos, the group listens carefully to where the music wants to go, and they seem to collectively improvise the pieces into satisfying variations. Singable, memorable melodies far outnumber moments of dense soloing. And though each track builds to a thick jazz-psych jam eventually, there are many introspective moments throughout the record, too, my favorite being the gentle first few minutes of "Habanera Rocket" that eventually coalesce into a softly-played riff from which vast armies of funk are sent into battle.
This trio is itself a kind of supergroup of Norwegian musicians: Stale Storlokken, man of many keys in groups like Supersilent and Humcrush, leads the band, accompanied by basist Haengsle Eilertsen on bass and drummer Torstein Lofthus, who also drums for a favorite Rune Grammofon artist of mine, Shining. The focus of Elephant9 is relatively narrow compared to the wide range of skills these musicians bring to the band, but they clearly care about this style and they dig deep. I was especially impressed with the way Storlokken often makes the group sound like a quartet, keeping sustained organ passages rolling with his left hand while adding Fender Rhodes melodies with his right. The whole record sounds like a lost artifact from the early 70s: the writing is there, the playing is there, and the recording itself is a warm, huge, and slightly toasty analog affair. If you're a huge fan of rocking, raw fusion combos of yore but you've mostly exhausted your search through old crates, this album will be a treasure.
Stian Westerhus - Pitch Black Star Spangled
I'm always interested in solo guitar albums, and this is a really good one. Westerhus also plays in Monolithic, Rune Grammofon trio Puma, and has been featured in a wide range of other collaborations. On Pitch Black Star Spangled, he pulls out very close to all of the "guitar tricks" I can think of, both in terms of extended technique and in the use of effects. These soundscapes plunge into moments of harsh textures, but I was also impressed at how much melody is included in the proceedings: most records like this sent my way tend to stay focused on either melodic considerations or textural/sound exploration, but this one integrates both impulses very well.
I don't get the impression that most of this music is improvised. The melodic ideas seem carefully considered, and many of the effects are used in ways that require at least some premeditation to get the layers of sound to flow into one another so organically. Improv probably plays a role in guiding the duration of some sections, but there is a very "personal" feel to the pieces, like sounds and approaches discovered in experimentation getting taken out of a practice room mindset into further compositional refinement.
Placed in the center of the album's track sequence, the title track is an especially potent piece, and the longest track at almost 12 minutes. It starts very gently, with just occasional sounds of static set into a looping pedal, and gradually builds up through effected swells, feedback, and simply smacking the open strings. It beautifully contrasts short, percussive attacks, sometimes manipulated with quick delays, atop long swells of feedback. Further contrasts between heavy reverb and very dry ambient spaces also create sonically interesting spaces. The last half of the piece includes some very loud-sounding melodic playing, shifting between minor key and half-whole scales, eventually landing on somewhat meditative iterations of manipulated feedback presented at a softer volume which carry directly into the following track, "Trailer Trash Ballad."
Manipulated feedback, captured and pitch-bent, modified in volume, harmonized, filter modulated, and presented in a variety of perceived spaces through changes in proportions of reverb and delay, is a connective tissue throughout the album, creating pads and melodic fragments over which more sharply-articulated sounds can have various conversations. Westerhus is obviously a skilled "traditional" guitar player, but it's his deeply considered deployment of effects that make this album so interesting. Highly reccomended for fans of experimental electric guitar music.
Ultralyd - Inertiadrome
My favorite of these Rune Grammofon releases comes from Ultralyd, a band I hadn't heard of before, though they've been releasing records for almost 10 years. "Inertiadrome" looks to be their sixth full-length, having also released a split with Noxagt and a self-released 12'' single the same year as "Inertiadrome" (which contains a track of the same name). These are punishing bass and drum-driven jams that frequently ride a groove for their duration while guitar and sax textures make glorious noises above it all. There is an early industrial vibe to most of the riffs, and I'm especially reminded of Kevin Martin's "God" project that released a couple of excellent jazz-industrial albums in the 90s. I've often wished that band would have produced even more records, and I'm delighted to find another ensemble working in that mysterious chasm between industrial, jazz, and goth concepts.
Ultralyd manages to sound almost as dense and heavy as God, an impressive feat for a 4-piece! The drum work focuses on industrial and tribal grooves, at times pushing into the busy, driving approach used on early 70s fusion albums, but the dark, relentless bass riffs and distorted, distant-sounding guitar and sax textures sustain a much more gloomy atmosphere than one would ever expect on an Eddie Henderson record. The guitar and sax approaches on this album are really unique: at times, Anders Hana will take up a two or four note repeating figure high on the neck of his guitar, or saxophonist Kjetil Moster will use a delay pedal to build up a harsh rhythmic counterriff, but over much of the album the two of them push one another into progressively cascading waves of aggressive sound, the timbres of their instruments bleeding into one another and becoming a singular force. They're united by playing lots of long, sustained figures (no solos here), and through heroic doses of distortion and reverb. It can be a harsh-sounding record with so much distortion blending the higher-pitched parts into ugly masses of dissonance and feedback, but this kind of production quality adds a lot to the cold, despondent feel of the jams.
My favorite riff on the album makes long appearances in two tracks, forming the backbone of the first track, "Lahutma," as well as forming a contrast against a repeated three-note sax riff in the penultimate track "Geodesic Portico." Amazing, heavy stuff. Playing in Ultralyd must be a real workout for Kjetil Brandsdal and Morten Olsen, sustaining brutal bass/drum riffage for 40 minutes at a time with very few moments of rest. The repetitive, groove oriented nature of this music, as well as its boundless supply of energy, give it a curious relationship with club music: Kevin Martin largely moved onto more "traditional" sounds and textures in his later dancehall and dubstep related projects, but in my mind there is an alternate universe where Bauhaus and Love and Rockets evolved into aggressive club music, keeping the guitars and basses and real drums and ignoring drum machines and sequencers and synths. There are stages instead of DJ booths at the clubs in this alternate reality, and Ultralyd belongs on those stages, headlining every night.
--first published at Killed in Cars
I'm going through a bunch of submissions to KiC and planning to showcase a series of releases organized by label. Let's start with a trio of albums from Brooklyn's lo bit landscapes: 2 from Nihiti, and one from Viktor Timofeev.
Nihiti - Other People's Memories
The oldest of these records, Other People's Memories dropped in late 2010 (10/10/10, to be exact). There are a pair of slightly different 1-sheets included in this package, one of which indicates that "not much is known about the actual members of Nihiti." The same generally holds true for the label, whose website isn't exactly information-packed. A bit of the "Theory of Obscurity," ala the Cryptic Corporation, perhaps? At least one person involved in the proceedings seems to be Viktor Timofeev, whose solo release on the label we'll be exploring shortly. Outside of these recordings, Timofeev is best known for his work as a visual artist, and both the album cover for Other People's Memories and an included foldout poster feature a rather arresting multipanel work of his entitled "Red/Black: The Cyclical Nature of the Practice of Architecture."
Nihiti takes a wide stylistic path on Other People's Memories. There are elements of experimental music, ambient, industrial and pop, played on acoustic instruments, rock instruments, and synths/samplers/drum machines/computers. While that might sound like it has the potential to be very unfocused, it is a very cohesive album: Nihiti mostly employs their ample resources toward creating very dark atmospheres. But I think what makes this album so interesting is how those vibes are sustained through so many stylistic variations: the first few tracks had me thinking the band was on a Godspeed/krautrock/electronic bent, but the third track introduces some 8th note-based piano chord stabs so popular in 60s pop songs, ultimately serving as the introduction to an actual pop song in the fourth track, "the ringing in (the sun is rung)." But it's still a very weird form of pop, repeatedly overwhelming itself by bringing different instruments out of proportion in the mix. And the ride continues, through passages blending melancholy cello lines with piano and sine waves, more pop songforms, and ultimately an impressive blend of postrock and krautrock textures with early industrial-sounding beats.
This record is largely instrumental, but occasional vocal passages are weaved beautifully into the variety of textures. I found it difficult to make out lyrics, as they're generally mixed relatively low, treated as another instrumental voice. But the few sections I could make out clearly, like the spoken moments in the center of "the return of kind ropes (laku noc, dusan k), seemed fairly bleak and melancholy, a fitting supplement to the music. This is the kind of music that you have to live with for a while and let it take effect, but it will definitely find itself on return trips to my turntable.
Nihiti's Faced With Splendor 12'' EP shows a very different side of the band. Songs, instead of atmospheres, dominate this music, and the orchestration is mostly acoustic, compared to the heavy electronic leanings of "Other People's Memories." This is a melancholy pop effort with folk leanings--not usually my favorite kind of music, but it's very well performed and recorded, and the arrangements are very thoughtful. Generally it's very sparse compared to the previous album, but with great harmonies and instrumental countermelodies in perfect places to bring out the best in the songs. The simple precision behind these songs makes me think that this record is a totally different aspect of Nihiti's stylistic range, rather than suggesting that their previous work was a case of psyche/kraut/electronic deconstruction techniques applied to more basic pop songs. In other words, tossing some noisemaking devices at these songs won't make them into electronic-style Nihiti--they stand in their own unique way. But fans of the approach on the first full-length will be excited to know that the upcoming Nihiti release, "For Ostland," promises a return to the more expansive attack of "Other People's Memories."
The biggest surprise for me in this lo bit landscapes package was Viktor Timofeev's release, GIVE HEALTH999. Nihiti gravitates toward melancholy and surreal landscapes, but most of their music still functions in relatively conventional tonality, gravitating toward minor keys with dissonant and textural passages. In contrast, Timofeev mostly transcends the major/minor duality and dives into bleak, yet very addictive walls of sound.
Like Nihiti, Timofeev uses a wide range of instruments toward the production of rich atmosopheres, though all varieties of beat-oriented percussion are absent. The emphasis here is on the building of layers that don't use much percussive delineation--postrock sounds serve as a brief jumping-off point, but most of the album trends closer to drone music, alternating focal points between distorted guitars, voices, synths, and found sound/field recordings/samples. The opening and closing tracks are heaviest with guitars, accompanied by some distant piano stabs in the opening "December 22nd," and blended more evenly with oscillating frequencies in the closing "July 28th."
In between, my favorite two tracks are the longest: both of them build slowly to nightmarish, oppressive walls of sound and slowly thin out again. There are some legitimate, though still very dark, melodies played on clarinets in the 14-minute "Flying Zonogons," which are gradually stacked upon themselves through overdubs and heavy reverb. Voices are used over sounds of moving water in a similar overdubbed, reverbed, and delayed fashion to create the center portion of "WorldWideWaterWorld," eventually adding a ring modulator or similar filter that obliterates pitch into metallic densities that rise and fall with the pauses in the vocal overdubs. I really enjoyed the less-effected vocal buildups comprising "188.8.131.52.," too, which evoke some of the best moments in modern choral writing like that of Gorecki or the micropolyphony of Ligeti. It's this blend of modern classical, drone, and guitar noise approaches that impresses me more with each listen. I'm captivated by it now, and I suspect this music will continue to reveal more of itself with time.
--first published at Killed in Cars