Liz Allbee and Hans Grüsel - Strategies for Failure/Zuckerkrieg

Sometimes coincidence sure feels like synchronicity. I was asked to help out with a bran(…)pos show in Lincoln last year, which was my introduction to his music, as well as the San Francisco label Resipiscent Records. As you might recall, I dug the hell out of Den of Ordure & Iridescence, and I went on to get way into pretty much everything bran(…)pos-related I could find. And I still spend a lot of time in the "Den." Easily one of the best records of 2013.

As I thumbed through the Resipiscent catalog, I found myself unfamiliar with a lot of the artists, but having heard a few more of their releases, it's clear that I need lots of these wild sounds rattling around in my head. Now I feel like I'm almost destined to hear as much of the Resipiscent label as possible. Their spring release this year was a split between Liz Allbee and Hans Grüsel, both of whom have appeared in their roster before (Allbee's solo debut "Quarry Tones" actually launched the label), and like bran(...)pos, both artists turn in immersive, undefinable, and utterly addictive pieces.

"Strategies for Failure/Zuckerkrieg" presents truly deep listening in the form of a side-length piece each from Allbee and Grüsel. This pair of electroacoustic compositions hang very well together, as both artists share a delirious joy for turning extended-technique acoustic playing and extreme synthesis/deployment-of-effects into almost physically tangible daydreams and daymares. Maybe you can still manage to vacuum your living room with this record on, but there might be psychic consequences. Sit down and listen.

Allbee's side, whose full title is "Strategies for Failure and Relief From Persistent Positive Symptoms," goes through a few distinct movements. The opening section uses some very low sub-bass alternating in a minor-3rd riff, sometimes crashing together to create thick acousmatic combination tones. Over this, Allbee recites a few verses related to freedom and control, alternating with solo lines on a heavily-effected trumpet, delivering very crispy, wasp tones that contrast nicely with the intense bass. The section is almost like an incredibly slowed-down blues riff bouncing around the walls of a rubber room. This gets violently interrupted with synths and effected trumpets around the seven-minute mark, eventually pausing to introduce a new section of intense high-(concert)-G trumpet tones, pushing and pulling around the mic, bending, subtly falling into weird room reverbs in the background. Eventually the trumpet approach heads into extended-technique territory not far from Zorn's "Classic Guide to Strategy" solo work, with liquid sounds and gurgles and game calls. Toward the end of the piece, chimes and bells gradually take over the mix, and layers of muted trumpet and vocals softly appear. Like the introduction, Allbee recites some great lines whose meaning is surely subject to a wide berth of interpretation: as Allbee says, "The words conceal what they mean like a mystery." At the end, powerful subtones gently launch the piece out to sea.

The Allbee piece feels very personal, and listening is a little like overhearing a handful of secrets without knowing the full context of their relevance. In contrast, Grüsel's "Zuckerkrieg (Part 1)" has a more archetypal kind of feeling, evoking deluge myths and perpetually-haunted forests. It starts gently enough, with subtle beats colliding, at times feeling like they're falling in and out of clear metric relationships. But when modular synths and heavily-treated acoustic instruments build into a complex wall of sound, one rapidly feels like Edgard Varèse stumbling out of a promethazine factory. The dense fog lifts, revealing the gentlest section of all, taps and scrapes that sound like the product of contact mics on balsa wood or paper scraps. Chewing and creaking sounds drift back in, and intense field recordings of wind force the mix to an overwhelming mass, obscuring what must be lots of wind instruments buried in effects: trumpets like the bleating of fearful goats, bassoons trapped in amber resin. Complex fields of synth tones form as the wind subsides, mingling with even more horns/reeds awash in effects. Toward the end, it's obvious that heavily-altered strings have been pushing to reveal melodies, and horns have strived to reveal tense chord clusters, but the effects and the surrounding synths continue to terrorize their acoustic sisters (though a few overdubbed trombone swells come through clearly). As "Zukerkrieg" translates loosely to "sugar war," I'm left with impressions of melted, caramelizing goo all over everything in this crazy mix by its sticky end.

On the compositional front, both pieces on this LP seem obviously composed by folks who have taken very serious stock of the resources bestowed on us in 20th. C. academic music circles--the forceful approach to electronics of Xenakis, the sometimes brash densities of Ligeti's sound mass music, just to name a couple--but they also have much more of an emotional impact on me than "the classics." Jesus, I wish somebody would've hipped me to artists like this in music school, as they're every bit as nutritious as "legit" composers, but they're obviously having a much better time. And they're much more connected to culture-at-large, evoking lots of fun/campy/creepy points of reference at every turn. The extramusical aspects of this work--costumes, set design, web/video work, etc--really come through in the music, too. A couple of minutes into either one of these pieces, I felt pretty sure that these folks can hang with composer-types while knowing a lot more about treating true "happening"-style events where people can really get down.

In terms of art and packaging, this split comes in one of those plastic jackets with a reversible poster-style insert, so you can face your favorite cover art outward. I'm leaving the creepy monster art by Bonnie Banks for the Grüsel side out on mine (my copy also has a couple of cut-out gingerbread monsters and a pre-weathered paper thing that you can position how you'd like inside the jacket), but the spooky science-lab art by Alibi & Beins for the Allbee side is great, too. And this is a beautifully-mastered production for vinyl, pressed to very clean vinyl. With lots of quiet passages, the surface noise of vinyl can sometimes be irritating on pieces like these, but this pressing is fantastic. This is a small run of only 250 copies, but you're in luck: Resipiscent still has a copy waiting just for you.


Sontag Shogun - Tale

You don't hear a lot of piano at the vanguard of contemporary music. Where the piano once served as the most mainstream instrument for much of western culture, I often wonder if the itinerant lives of most composer-types today guide them almost intuitively away from those imposing masses of hardwood and cast iron resting in the corners of their professional lives. We place so much collective value on portability, even in our relationships with the arts: recordings should be accessible from anywhere at any time, musicians should tour to share their work in a fluctuating variety of venues, and their instruments should easily tag along in car trunks or overhead compartments in airplanes. Pianos, then, are sometimes for the concert hall, but mostly for home, keeping their secrets from a past where the instrument was more prominent.

However, those same attributes that might lead some to regard the piano as a sort of phone booth of the musical instrument world in terms of portability hold emotional capacity in abundance. As a non-portable instrument in a globally-connected world, the piano can't help evoking stability in space, continuity in time, a kind of grounding force. Piano is home, indeed. The piano speaks to gently fading memories, unshakable nostalgia, longing at great distances, and to the weight of returning, forever changed for having been gone.

I'm as swept-along by the portable/mobile/always-busy routine as most folks, and these elemental forces concealed at the piano were almost forgotten to me until I had the privilege to welcome spring with Sontag Shogun's "Tale." This album is flawlessly arranged to evoke deep feelings with the subtlest of gestures: field recordings/environmental sounds, ambiguous dialogue samples, space transmissions, and synth pads intermingle, dilating time and geographical distance, peering through layers of reverb and delay. But no matter how remote any individual detail within this complex soundwork might feel, everything is ultimately married to a species of pianistic permanence. Stylistically, the music flows in many directions, including contemporary classical, experimental improvisation/sound-art, big-budget cinematic drama, and tuneful, almost indie-pop forms at times (and sometimes the music is moving in several directions simultaneously), but the piano writing anchoring it all reminds me a lot of Arvo Pärt's best work: steady and reverent, pressing toward the sacred but in a universal style.

The record has a very literary vibe for me. There's the album title itself, of course, but on the macro level, it works with the kinds of extreme contrasts needed for dramatic structure: memories versus the present, isolation versus togetherness, dreams and imagination versus stark realities. Song by song, these opposites intertwine with a real sense of purpose and movement, forming what feels a bit like a captivity narrative in which the "natives" we're struggling to understand are ultimately our own memories, and our own sense of place in contemporary culture as viewed through travel and geographic distance. It only seems right, then, that this album is released through Sontag Shogun member Jeremy Young's Palaver Press, where "Tale" is part of a larger body of work combining print, sound, and visual media.

My favorite section within "Tale" falls toward the end of the album, with the wonderful back-to-back pieces "Beyond Wynd Gey" and "The Musk Ox." These pieces roughly demarcate what feels like the climax through the denouement of the larger narrative of the album: "Beyond" feels more tense and ominous then earlier parts of the record, with lots of electroacoustic elements drawn into a dense, complex mix. Starting with metallic drones, tapping sounds, wind, and voice fragments, a synth and tape manipulation section slowly reveals the piece's piano theme, which goes through lots of sampler permutations and blends with backwards electronic sounds and a chorus of speed-manipulated voice samples. "Musk" follows with gorgeous melancholy piano work suspended in an incredibly detailed mix, subtle vocals swelling in and out. This is probably the richest, most satisfying piece here, feeling like those first hesitant steps after a good cry. I also found "Let the Flies In" particularly notable as almost the opposite of more open, unpredictable pieces like "Beyond." It's the closest thing here to a "pop song" in terms of structure and having formal vocals with lyrics. Subtle background ambience with rich stereo panning underlies pianos joined by organ pads, and there are lots of beautiful harmonized falsetto passages that I really dig, featuring guest singers Liam Singer and Cheryl Kingan.

You can pick up "Tale" on Bandcamp, but I'd recommend spending some time browsing the Palaver Press site while you pick up a copy instead. The upcoming "audio-lit" project described there, which will publish new fiction along with new music, sounds really exciting. You'll also find an event calendar there that will keep you informed of upcoming Sontag Shogun performances, which are reputed to be fantastic immersive experiences that include the ensemble's own video loop collages.


Spanyurd - OOW

I haven't been following heavy music scenes like I did in the oughts, but I still get down with aggro jams when they're done right. And Chicago's Spanyurd has been killing it for the last four years. Their latest EP, "OOW," was released in the spring by the always-surprising Already Dead Tapes & Records, and it's ready to be the soundtrack for 20 of your craziest minutes this year.

There are just five short tunes on "OOW," but this dense, ambitious album evokes more ideas than most full-lengths. If you're into Guerilla Toss, this is squarely up your alley, but there are other potent vibes at play, too: at times I'm reminded of the relentless high-tempo attack of early Dillinger Escape Plan, like the walls of lethal guitar/drum clusters in the intros to MARTINfitzgeraldLAWRENCE or ORENTHALjamesSIMPSON. On the "VOZAR" side of the sound, Plethora "MC Naptime" Haystacks' vocal delivery often reminds me of later Daughters albums or even the Jesus Lizard, rarely resorting to all-out screaming but continually building tension with a menacing kind of delivery that pulls you further into the music. The overall vibe reminds me of a whole slew of bands along the Load Records/Skin Graft continuum without sounding beholden to any. They strike a great balance between casual noiserock and startling precision, and make non-repetitive songforms interesting with thoughtful shifts in tempo, dynamics, and density at every turn.

Like a lot of the Skin Graft/Load scene referenced above, they lean toward irreverence instead of depressed or angry vibes. Song titles reference various celebrities (if you count Fenriz, and I totally do) with their "real" names elided together. The "lyrics" they list for the album on their Bandcamp page are pulled from other sources: Sinatra, 311, Montell Jordan, etc (though they aren't the actual lyrics in the tunes). And the art is just fantastic--this is easily my favorite cassette art of the year among some pretty steep competition. Spanyurd's mascot of sorts is this intense dude in a classic luchador wrestling mask, with a Rey Mysterio-style cross on the forehead, and this image is set on the perfect pastel pink background on the cover. The teeth of this character, cleverly forming the band's name, also appear on the side label, and there's more phenomenal art on the inside of the j-card that I'll leave you to discover for yourself. Absolutely perfect. If you check out Spanyurd's Facebook page, you'll find more wicked Mr. Luchador art that's been used in band flyers over the last few years.

My favorite tunes here are probably the opening track, ORENTHALjamesSIMPSON, full of slippery guitar work over solid drum/bass riffage, great shifts in dynamics, and almost pointillistic layers of bending string atmospheres in the outro, and album closer, GLENallenANZALONE, with the most flashy drum work on the album, and riffs that blend old-school thrash with Providence noise-chaos. But at 20 minutes, every song is great, and I think it works best as a full-album experience. The tape sounds phenomenal, and considering how great thou art for this release is, I would highly recommend picking up the tape from Already Dead while they're still available. But you can totally rock the digital edition at the Spanyurd Bandcamp, too, and be sure to check out their earlier releases while you're there.

Spanyurd is presently looking for a new vocalist, and they're also working on some longer tunes that feature some repetitive sections. Definitely excited to hear what they do next. And if you live in Chicago and you're down for some acrobatic vokills, you should make the magic happen!