Bus Gas - Snake Hymns
I've been a fan of Nebraska drone-zoners Bus Gas for a few years now. While there is a long-running tradition of quality experimental music 'round these parts, nobody gets close to the epic dreamscapes of the Bus Gas crew. Their gradually-widening, nuanced textural workouts have often
felt like improvised songforms, a droned-out distillation of postrock guitar timbres, but deliberately improvising toward those kind of weighty triumphant meridians one finds at the climax of Godspeed or Explosions tunes. Their first two tape releases, "Six Movements in Four Hours" on Sweat Lodge Guru, and "Train Out" on Germany's venerable Sic Sic, are beautiful documents of their approach.
But "Snake Hymns," the new Bus Gas album just released by Spring Break Tapes, is a heavy surprise: the pieces here are generally shorter but hit your psyche like a new concentrated form of ambience, feeling much longer than their actual running times. An arsenal of synths and threadbare looped fragments, all immersed in various overdriven and outright distorted environments, have wrested control of these pieces from guitars and basses, evoking the thornier periods of Tangerine Dream or early Cluster mixed with Badalamenti soundtracks. And rather than improvising on basic ideas, these pieces feel deeply composed, richly layered, and carefully refined for maximum impact.
Album opener "20/20 Vision Quest" establishes a murky, film-noir kind of vibe. It's held together by a short, hypnotic synth loop until its last third, where a subtle rhythm sneaks into the mix, seemingly made by capturing the sound of a distorted tremolo pedal revving a speaker cabinet. Fragments of melodies and synth/environmental pads swell in and out of the mix, and the goal here is sustaining a dark mood, as opposed to building to a crescendo. Then things get a little sweaty with "Positive Throckmorton," a piece suspended between low rumbling oscillations, an ominous low bass riff, and a long-running snarl of feedback that serves as a pedalpoint for some pizzicato-sounding muted guitars. The distortion on parts within this mix feels disorienting at times, and you have to grab onto the resonance of the never-ending feedback as a kind of safety rope.
The variety of overdriven sounds and fearless experimentalism with these otherwise "ambient" mixes opens up a wider emotional spectrum than one often finds in ambient/new-agey recordings that stick with clean tones and clinical mixing. The clarinet lines in "Night Slugs," for example, take on a dirty saxophone sound in their distorted/reverb-drenched treatment, a great contrast with clear guitar tones competing for melodic space. The bass lines that gradually overtake and release "First Scum, First Serve" contrast similarly with symphonic loops treading through that piece, while rumbling away any dust that might have gathered near your speakers.
I love the layered, thoughtful approach throughout this album, but I must admit that the last track, "Sad Hill," is my favorite. Though it's a very minimal piece compared to the rest of the record, it hits me right in the chest (and it has a few tricks up its sleeve). The tape rolls up to speed at its beginning, revealing low Duane Eddy guitar tones and buzzing amps, A touching, somber riff repeats multiple times, with occasional pauses and distorted embellishments. The tape machine warbles toward the end, struggling back to unity pitch, and eventually it's switched off. But that crazy lo-fi tone: we must be listening to a very loud performance that was recorded to tape, being played back itself through another loud playback system and re-recorded for our pleasure. That's some serious meta-post-noir, folks. And it sounds decayed and beautiful and full of memories, and I wish the tape machine inside the recording didn't get turned off so soon. Interestingly, the piece ends differently on the digital version than the actual cassette--on the cassette, it cuts off abruptly (and it's not a dubbing issue--there's still a few seconds of tape left), as though to imply that in another "Schrodinger's cassette" universe, it might go on forever. Choose your own adventure. Well played, Bus Gas!
A fantastic release. Bus Gas has found the essence of their sound, and it really shows. It's not often that one can think of drone/ambient music as the source for earworms, but that's just happens with pieces like "20/20 Vision Quest" and "Awake, Awake, Awake"--they resurface in your mind later, continuing to alter your senses and salt your wounds. This one's in a small edition of 100, pro-dubbed and featuring some beautiful, understated artwork on both sides of the j-card. Grab one from Spring Break Tapes while you still can.
Bus Gas Snake Hymns Teaser from Uphill Downhill on Vimeo.
Labels: music reviews