Three from Bob Bucko Jr
The next few reviews are going to cover some artists working mostly on their own. DIY is more challenging than ever when you consider the sheer volume of releases every year, but these folks are producing work that rises to the top with its sheer brilliance.
Let's start with an overview: mostly working DIY, bbJR recently ramped up the release schedule on his own Personal Archives label (of which 22 releases can be found on his BandCamp site), including solo work and many collaborations. He's done a few releases with label support, but on the whole, this is a fellow who spends his time organizing, mixing, mastering, and duplicating his own work by hand when he's not writing, recording, or helping to coordinate shows in the Dubuque, IA area. While it can be daunting to create and package your own work, bbJr is making some beautiful hand-produced cassettes and CDs in small batches. But the batches are truly small: editions of 20, 30, or 40 are typical. This music is incredibly high-quality, so hopefully a few reviews can bring some attention to this body of work, as it deserves to rise out of the potential obscurity of small-run duplication.
bbJR - Rest in Infinity
The most traditional/tonal of this batch of releases, "Rest in Infinity" is a record of live guitar performances from 2008. At first, I was a little leery of this recording, which bbJR described as "loop-heavy improv," because it seems like every other recording sent my way lately is another "looper's delight" of some kind. But this is exceptional. bbJR plays his ass off on these recordings, demonstrating solid guitar technique and a powerful sense of thematic development.
With loop-based guitar music, most recordings seem to stay solidly in either melodic/guitar-jock territory, or else they reside entirely in the noise/texture/soundscape arena. Having heard some of bbJR's other work before this, I suspected this record would be solidly in the noise camp. Instead I was amazed to find that this recording is not only melodic, but it's almost a pop record in its way--an impressive feat for instant-composition improvisations.
Generally, bbJR builds systems of moving chords and ostinato lines, eventually looping them into place and adding melodies. But the melodies themselves are very unusual for loop-based music. Take "Waiting On Beth," for example: in the first round of playing-over-the-loop, bbJR takes an approach that reminds me of Zappa's solo playing, with rhythmically playful punctuation, mostly scalar motion, and playing against the time established by the rhythm section below. But at the halfway point, the loops turn off. A related but new rhythmic idea is established, and it's embellished with a buildup of melodic stabs, washing into shifting chords, and finally building up into shifting three-note sequences. In other words, there is an unusual amount of development and variation in these pieces, rather than simply establishing a loop and riding it home.
bbJR's pop sensibility and some of his tonal choices, like the really scrunched overdriven tones during frenzied moments in "There Is No Other" and "Joni Mitchell," remind me a lot of Adrian Belew's work. Like Belew, bbJR uses timbre and technique to bring out often-ignored nuances of melodic potential hidden in the resonance/overtones of each note. When considered within the larger body of bbJR's work, "Rest in Infinity" also demonstrates how pop/folk/punk/alternative influences can be part of a musical approach that often seems closer to avant-classical/jazz camps. No matter how "out" bbJR's music might go, it's clear that he's found a way to integrate (and respect) his more conventional influences. This one is available in an edition of 40 on CDr, and you can also hear/buy it digitally via BandCamp.
Aural Resuscitation Unit - Dubplate Volume Three
The other bbJR-related releases in this review are both solo efforts, but I thought I'd include this album from Dubuque's Aural Resuscitation Unit for a taste of his collaborative work. The ARU is headed by Randy Carter, who also operates the Dubuque Strange Music Society. On "Dubplate Volume Three," Carter is joined by Jorge Anthony Tapia, Jay Schleidt, and bbJR. These pieces are very short--generally around a minute each--and bbJR contributes banjo and sax to three tracks.
I was especially taken with bbJR's contribution to "Patrol Call," on which he plays a very sharp-sounding banjo into a wall of effects that turn the sound into a sort of envelope-filtered chime. It almost sounds like an old casiotone xylophone patch--very cool. His sax playing is featured on "Dual Axis Access Dub" in a relatively sustained fashion, and on "The Cobra Stirred," where he plays into some delays and headphone-feedback distortion.
As a whole, this record is a sample/electronics-based affair, full of noise and aggression tempered by thoughtful arranging. A few tracks start with percussion in a foundational manner, featuring more clearly delineated samples, but more often the drum machine sounds are in hyper-tempo mode, causing them to function more texturally than rhythmically. When there are relatively conventional percussion sections, they tend toward harsh early-industrial sounds, including a favorite of mine, "Tracing Vapour Trails." The final piece, "Prepare Yourself for Europe," is longer, its eight minutes taking up a third of the album's running time, and it spends most of its duration in a sort of channel-surfing mode, with different sections emerging and replacing one another in an assortment of collages and montages. By the final few minutes, the focus is on low frequency sounds with bits of identifiable rhythm peeking through and ultimately cutting off abruptly at the end. Recommended.
BBJr - Tearjerker
I've saved my favorite of these records for last. I'm going to get right to the point with "Tearjerker": this LP was released in an edition of 100 by Captcha Records last summer, and the fact that some physical copies still seem to be available is quite surprising to me. This has quickly become one of my favorite records of the last year and is a must-hear for fans of avant/outsider music.
Described in its promotional materials as "instrumental and vocal improvisations recorded to 4-track," "Tearjerker" isn't a free improv album; rather, these are improvised song forms, a sort of overdubbed improv solitaire. And these aren't entirely improvised. The final LP track, "There is No Other," for example, appears here as an organ riff-based piece, but it's also present in a guitar rendition on "Rest in Infinity." But the versions are very different. Perhaps one can think of these pieces as emanating from a few basic riffs and ideas that already exist, but their arrangements are left open and subject to drastic change at the moment of recording or performance.
"Tearjerker" is well-sequenced, with a relatively aggressive A-side and a gentler B-side. The album opener, "Terminal Sac," is a brutal jazz/noise/skronk piece featuring drums, bass, sax, and vocals--I thought I was in for a neo-Borbetomagus act for a few minutes. The first few tracks continue in a similar direction instrumentally, while increasingly picking up a bit of an avant-rock and no-wave influence.
I'm impressed with bbJR's skills on every instrument he uses. The drums are solidly played, the bass and guitar lines positively shine, and his sax work is simple but very effective. And again, these pieces may be semi-improvised onto a 4-track, but there must be substantial preparation to make sure everything will work together. A listener would surely assume that the first five tracks were tracked in pass by a live band.
Then we arrive at my favorite section of the album: the three movements comprising "Triptych." The first section of this piece emphasizes subtle vocals and auxiliary percussion toward an early-industrial sound, haunting and building toward an unknown menace. The middle section gets much more violent, using mic feedback for a large variety of high squeals and low-frequency rumbles. The final "right panel" of "Triptych" loops several vocal parts toward a sudden dropout, after which some softer vocal sections interact with sounds that seem to go through envelope filters and some kind of bass tracking synth (having played with similar vocal textures using an old Zoom 505II made for bass, that's my guess on the effects, anyway). Various phrases commingle and fall away while gradually being overtaken by sharp synth blips. An amazing and otherworldly piece, full of great unconventional vocals. Totally grab this LP while you still can. You'll be one of the lucky ones who will have the 2010s equivalent of a first printing of early Faust, AMM or This Heat someday. It's available through bbJR's BandCamp, or from Captcha.
We'll surely be investigating more of bbJR's work in the future, but in case you're already looking for more, Captcha just released two more bbJR projects: "How to Fuck All Your Coworkers in One Sitting" is available on cassette or digitally, and "Trilogy + Addendum" is a giant 57-track digital release. There are a number of solo and split cassettes coming out on bbJR's own Personal Archives, too--keep checking the bbJR BandCamp and Personal Archives BandCamp for what seem like almost weekly updates.
--also published at Killed in Cars