To the moon with Pierrot Lunaire

Lincoln drone-zoners Bus Gas released their sophomore cassette last fall on German label SicSic Tapes (last copies at the Bus Gas BandCamp), and one day last winter I found myself browsing the label's discography. I recognized a few artists in their catalog whose work I've heard on other labels and enjoyed like Guenter Schlienz and Hobo Cubes, and I was mesmerized by the bizarre artwork for a double-cassette release by Pierrot Lunaire, "This Love of Mine."

As it turns out, this is one record you can totally judge by its cover, with deep appreciation to Frédéric Cordier for his fine work on both sides of the mega-j-card gracing this wild double-height Norelco case. In fact, let's pause for a moment and admire this art:

Amazing artwork and unusual packaging aside, a quick scan of the music itself made it clear that I needed "This Love of Mine" in my brain. As luck would have it, this solo project of John Denizio has produced a large number of recordings in the last few years, most of which have now found their way to my cassette decks/turntables. Having spent a few months with this music, all of the recordings feel marvelously interrelated. Together they function as repeated iterations of a grand modern-urban-entheogenic ritual, resonating emotionally with Giraud's original "Pierrot Lunaire" poems more closely than Schoenberg's Op. 21 of the same name.

The sonic palette is modest. One finds saxophones and effects, usually with an emphasis on fast lines and short bursts of activity, looped and layered into plaintive sections. Occasionally a round of melancholy vocals gets treated to the same process. Other sections are made of old song fragments, mostly 1950s and earlier, where short phrases are repeated, contrasted, blended in reverb, filtered, and sped up and down. And there are sections of synth/oscillator sounds that can range from tonal to textural playing.

I perceive three fundamental levels of activity in Pierrot Lunaire: At the "individual composition" level, these are collage pieces in which the different "blocks" of activities (sax/found-sound/synth/voice) are pushed against one another, but they stay within their own boundaries, rarely blending into one another simultaneously. Within the sound-specific blocks, small bits of sound are looped, layered, and manipulated, drenched in reverb and delay, and captured right at the edge of distortion and microphonic feedback. 

The third level runs across all of the releases so far. Pieces tend to function as full sides of C30s, staying close to 15 minute durations each. Even "This Love of Mine" only runs a touch over 45 minutes altogether, making it clear that having one piece per cassette side was a conscious decision worth pushing the release onto double-cassette. But similar kinds of "blocks" are pushed into and around one another, piece after piece, tape after tape, creating a singular and very recognizable style. Though made by combining improvised sections, the final edits feel very controlled, each block worked and reworked thoughtfully. When new kinds of audio sources or different approaches enter the mix, or on an occasion where saxophones and thrift store cassettes cascade together into a block, they feel very significant as alterations of familiar terrain: the reverb is totally off, lots of long tones on the saxophones, some guitar playing, etc. It's an effect that reminds me of early Jandek, like a "Nancy Sings" epiphany.

Let's look at the project in literary terms: Denizio compares his improvisation/editing process to the Gysin/Burroughs cut-up techniques, and that's precisely the vibe I get from the collective output of Pierrot Lunaire. Set aside those funky Material albums: this music is the real audio equivalent of the Word Hoard, establishing its own weird boundaries and imploding into near-infinite variations. Like the Nova Trilogy, Pierrot Lunaire evokes moments of acute emotional intensity while distorting your perception of time--are you experiencing a memory or a premonition?--and forms twist and repeat, and moments of familiar sounds, with their attendant cultural symbolism, anchor you momentarily, and they're gone as quickly as you can identify with them, and the cycle repeats.

Also like Burroughs, I think it would be a mistake to become too fixated on the formal implications of Pierrot Lunaire and miss its emotional impact. In terms of surface form and sound, this kind of collage/montage work feels very postmodern. The emotional message, though, is closer to modernism, or even "amodern," to use the term in Timothy S. Murphy's "Wising Up the Marks," which identifies the intent of the Burroughs oeuvre as collectively railing against societal degeneration, seeing through the masks of the bourgeoisie, etc. Burroughs saw through those flaws and pined for a more innocent time, though "other times" rarely turn out to be innocent in their turn. I'm sure the Symbolists like Mr. Giraud and others associated with the Fin de siecle movement would look for their conception of "innocence" still further back and further forward from their own position in history.

As for me, these Pierrot Lunaire recordings are powerful stuff toward the remembrance of "innocent times." They alter my dreams when I listen to them late in the day, and they draw out weird childhood moments that haven't entered my mind since they happened, like being scared and attracted simultaneously whenever this tripped out clip would come on Sesame Street in the early 80s:

Try to remember everything you pass
But when you go back, make the First thing the Last.


The latest from Giant Claw: Mutant Glamour and Music for Film

It's only been a year and a half since I reviewed Giant Claw's "Midnight Murder" cassette, but I'm not even sure exactly how many tapes and LPs this Keith Rankin solo project has officially issued since then: if you go by the chronology on the Giant Claw BandCamp page, there are six releases between Midnight Murder and "Mutant Glamour." Amazing!

But what's even more remarkable than Rankin's prolific nature is the persistent level of musical quality across the Giant Claw canon. All of these recordings work beautifully as self-contained suites, complete unto themselves, yet they all play nicely together as well, reaching for increasingly ambitious genre-smashing fun. And among a bunch of really great recordings, the "Mutant Glamour" LP is the best yet.

Like Pajjama, the music of Giant Claw stands out in the synths-on-cassette scene of the last few years: this music is fast, assertive, fun, and hyper-literate both musically and culturally. I love a good drone meltdown as much as the next fellow, but I can really vibe on the psychotic stylistic combinations in this music, all presented with equal parts precision and playfulness. Imagine if Yip-Yip and Wendy Carlos exchanged lycra unitards and music theory lessons: this music is purposeful even at its campiest moments.

Take opening track "Brain on Cream" for example: in under four minutes, this piece recalls workout videos, sci-fi soundtracks and haunted graveyard video games, even indulging in a showtune-esque bridge before the main theme returns at the halfway point, and it all dissolves into flurries of notes and saxophones in a long, frisky outro. Sometimes the music points toward more academic or "legit" cinematic music, evoking Peter Thomas through much of "Glitter Logic," or early computer music in the blippiest sections of "Body Science," while the addition of saxophones to almost half of the album has added a new element of Beefheart-ian whimsy in the perfect contrasting places. My favorite sax interjections on the album turn out to be tiny samples of sax players on YouTube (including Bill Clinton!) combined into the perfect reed-biting, trilling passages of obnoxiousness. Samples of mostly chromatic trumpet lines make an appearance later in "Man or Cream" as the perfect foil for some especially flatulent synth stabs.

This whole record flows together so well that "favorite track" designations don't matter much, but I really dig the album's closer, "Trapped in the Mirror." The longest track of the album, Rankin takes an epic "early electronic" approach, a touch slower than most of the album, gradually building the piece with wide electronic vibratos, layers of arrpeggios, and a driving motorik pulse. It's a rich, rewarding end to a great album.

Like previous Giant Claw releases, "Mutant Glamour" features beautiful artwork and album design by Rankin himself. I love the restraint of the black and white cover, which makes the pastel streaks of color on the back cover really stand out (not to mention the sweet center label)--but you should pick up the record and see for yourself.

As I was prepping my review of "Mutant Glamour," I was pleasantly surprised by the appearance of "Music for Film" in the February/March cassette batch from Constellation Tatsu. A collection of music made for four film projects spanning 2009-2012, these short cues reveal new aspects of the Giant Claw concept.

Using a palette of sounds one would expect to hear from Giant Claw, Rankin's film work is less dense vertically, simpler and more direct. There's a bit of everything here compositionally: "Royal Decree" sounds like mid-period Residents, "Bouncing" is almost vaudeville, and the two "Piano Synthesizer Etudes" have a contemplative melodicism that pushes into Secret Chiefs 3 territory. Other pieces sound more like they're made to supplement sound effects, like the "50s outer space" vibes of the "Century of Shame" tracks, or the clanging metal and choral synth washes of "Fear of the Dark."

There are some really beautiful melodies here, like the theremin-esque melodies of "Tears," lightly supported with block piano chords. And I love the simple melody nested in the middle voices of "Piano Etude." Above all, "Music for Film" shows how the basic building blocks of Giant Claw--cool sounds, smart writing, and a sense of humor and cultural context--still function distinctively outside of the conceptual confines of albums, or any sort of chronology when you consider that the track sequence of this tape shifts freely through different times/film projects.

As Giant Claw albums seem to appear quickly, keep your ears open--word has it that the next one will be coming from my favorite cassette label of late, Field Hymns, very soon.


Put on your Pajjamas

I was in love with Pajjama's "Starch" cassette within its first 10 seconds, a rare and beautiful thing. Skillfully combining chiptune sequencing and live rock/prog playing on guitar/bass/drums/synths, this EP swings harder than any synth-dominant project I've heard in a long time. Lots of folks are doing fine work with chiptune music, but Pajjama's work displays many bonus levels of compositional depth, making nods to influences like Chromelodeon and early YMO while drawing from a wide variety of 70s prog and 80s pop traditions. Magma-esque passages and "Uncle Meat"-era Zappa moments collide with video games and workout VHS tapes. Crazy good.

The live performance aspect of Pajjama really brings this music to life, particularly the jazz and funk-infused playing of drummer Kristian Valbo. I get the impression that all 3 Pajjama members have some background with jazz, as their unique blending of genres includes a lot of syncopation and a very confident sense of humor one often develops with a lot of practice and a lot of gigging. Primary composer Eirik Suhrke alternates between riffs and evocative chord progressions with ease, and he and Bernt Karsten Sannerud layer synth parts with great ears for mixing and balance--there's a lot happening at times, but you can hear every detail no matter how dense the music gets.

For a release that doesn't even make it to 13 minutes in length, I still find myself appreciating different aspects of the writing and arranging with every listen. The "Jean Baptiste" section and the 30-second introduction are my favorites, but the whole piece runs as a seamless suite--ah, and how can I forget those propulsive, insistent drums in "Vedaste!"--best to just listen to the whole thing. Repeatedly.

"Starch" was released in the middle of last year on Orange Milk Records, and the cassette features amazing artwork on a double-sided J-card designed by Keith Rankin (Giant Claw). The "regular" Orange Milk Page seems to indicate this album is sold out, but their StoreEnvy site shows availability? If all else fails, definitely get some Starch in your Pajjjamas via BandCamp.

February brought us the followup Pajjama EP on BandCamp, entitled "Jane Papaya," which is just as thoughtfully written and arranged, but it focuses more on 80s pop/synth idioms and somewhat less on the more aggressive prog moments of the debut. Imagine the transition between Phil Collins' mullet period to his later skullet period, and you'll get the general idea. There's sometimes a bit of a moody 80s fusion vibe, too, ala Tribal Tech and the like, especially in the outro of "Salty Price." Jane Papaya will be released on cassette later this year by Orange Milk Records, and work on a third recording has already begun. Here's the artwork for the upcoming Orange Milk release:

Related recordings: If you're digging Pajjama, you simply must dig into more of Eirik Suhrke's work as a video game composer. Working both under his own name and occasionally as Phlogiston, Suhrke has a real knack for writing simple-but-memorable melodies, perfect for game play. And he's a real connoisseur of video game music history--this is the kind of guy who can pick out the programmatic nuances between music for the SNES and the Sega Genesis in only a few notes. And he applies that knowledge toward new projects with the skill of a sommelier, balancing nostalgic and forward-thinking tones to perfectly compliment games.

You can also find the history of Pajjama in Suhrke's video game music: compare the recordings in Super Crate Box with the updated, Pajjama-licious Super Crate Box Special to hear how live instrumentation spices up already-solid chiptune writing. And the Spelunky score is rich with Pajjama and friends, rocking out game cues mostly under a minute in length.

And while I haven't written much about avant-black metal in a long time, I have to add that Pajjama member Bernt Karsten Sannerud's new album with Formloff, "Spyhorelandet," is probably my favorite weirdo progressive black metal album since early Ved Buens Ende. Great writing, mixing, occasional vocal harmonies, killer guitar playing and arranging, actual audible bass guitar: a real triumph all around. I haven't had much time to listen to this one yet, but I'm sure I'll be spending more time with Formloff, as well as checking out what looks to be an avant-bm supergroup including Sannerud, Self Spiller.

--also published at Killed in Cars