9.25.2014

Two more Words on Sounds podcasts are available

I still need to get into the habit of integrating the podcasts with the review blog--there are a total of four Words on Sounds podcasts now available. You can simply go here to check out all of them, or click "play" on the players below to hear the newest two that I forgot to post about here:







Giant Claw - DARK WEB


I imagine that the modern-day Oracle of Oscillation, Giant Claw's Keith Rankin, is somewhat relieved that his new record "DARK WEB" is finally shipping, for the simple reason that I'll quit pestering him about it. While I've been down with the 'Claw for a long time, I was ultra excited by the first taste of his new direction in the track "005" that was featured as part of the Sunup Recordings "Living Room Visions" compilation back in January. What a crazy piece: tiny pop vocal samples parsed small enough to obliterate most textual content, reassembled into powerful new melodies and banks of angelic harmonies, lurching forward in weird stuttering rhythms and bursts of hyperspeed orchestral-MIDI passages. The melodic sensibilities of Giant Claw were recognizable, but everything else pointed toward a very new soundworld.

I'm always receptive to letting new music affect me deeply, but that short piece rattled around in my head more than any other four minute audio experience in recent memory. And a whole record of similarly-composed material was supposed to be coming soon...

Dear readers, that time has arrived. Simply put, DARK WEB is a game-changer, and I don't resort to cliches lightly. Densely layered with musical ideas, combining disparate genres and their philosophical underpinnings in wild new ways, this record has torn a new hole in my musical universe, and I suspect it will (deservedly) reside at the top of many best-of-the-year lists.

I don't think I've ever heard a record that manages to sound so acutely cutting-edge and for-the-ages simultaneously. Its contemporary influences, drawing from vaporwave-ish sample choices, weird Japanese takes on footwork and juke idioms, and perfectly-placed bursts of black-MIDI density, are integrated perfectly with rigorous approaches from the classical "new music" tradition, including the nimble polyphonic canons of Conlon Nancarrow, the high-velocity minimalist "micro-ritmia" of Ernesto Martinez,  and the "hyperrealism" microsample compositions of Noah Creshevsky or Zappa's "Civilization Phaze III." Even taken individually, these are some heavy styles to work with, much less assimilate into a concentrated new whole, yet DARK WEB remains incredibly tuneful and approachable. The pop/R&B roots of the many vocal samples gathered here still shine through, albeit in a new parallel universe, and the stunning craftsmanship behind putting this music together doesn't overshadow the fact that these jams are funky as hell.

While each of its 8 pieces definitely stand on their own, DARK WEB feels like one larger piece to me, which is reinforced by the simple numbered titles of each track from from 001 to 008. The album starts casually, with simple kick drum rhythms and speed-tweaked vocal samples giving way to a very catchy synth melody. "001" feels like an overture in the classical sense, a dreamy prelude to a seriously wild ride. Then "002" wastes little time reprogramming musical synapses: short pop vocal samples are redeployed as rhythms, and black MIDI/Nancarrow-ish passages race through the sound stage to reveal vaporwave textures and helium-infused raps.

I could rave about every moment of this album, but "005" is my favorite fragment of DARK WEB (note: this is a different "005" than the track from January's "Living Room Visions" comp referenced above--that piece has been expanded and re-titled as "006" on the final album). Vocal samples are hocketed around, forming gorgeous melodies and harmonies that remind me of the Dirty Projectors early "Getty Address" glitch opera, wild MIDI harpsichord lines swarm in and out at perfect moments, and great processed synths support the rich framework of vocal samples. The stunning main melody evolves through such fascinating motivic development that I can hardly sit still, altered and recast in MIDI clarinet/horn fragments that feel strangely even more beautiful with their "fake" general MIDI timbres.

In fact, the whole notion of "fake" is called into question from multiple angles with DARK WEB. The conceptual repurposing motivations of vaporwave, altering the focus of disposable forms of music from utility to contemplation, are heavily at play here. So too is Creshevsky's application of the "hyperrealism" concept to music, a similar method of repurposing tiny fragments of found sound, but toward the creation of complex aural spaces with a heart in electroacoustic practices and a note density that evokes impossible virtuosity and the complex timbral nuances of spectralism. And those MIDI sounds introduce their own commentary on high/low-culture distinctions, highlighting the kinship between the intimidating density of Nancarrow's player piano pieces and the crazy black-MIDI YouTube videos of the last few years. It's great to hear a project that so thoroughly embodies multiple perspectives on "reality" in music, too--the music itself is positively delightful, so rather than intellectualizing the complex relationships between all of this stuff, you can simply let the record spin. It all feels incredibly obvious, inevitable, even, when you simply listen. Rankin's album art for DARK WEB bridges these worlds beautifully, too, hanging nicely with the elements one often sees on vaporwave releases but with a nod to "proper" classical new-music visuals.

It's interesting to hear Rankin take a project like Giant Claw, which was previously reliant on "old school" analog instruments that use pre-MIDI CV control technology for synchronization, into such a digital, essentially "post-MIDI" universe. It raises another layer of those "what is real" questions, when one considers that synths were sometimes met with fake-music criticisms in their early years, and now we're in an era of analog vs digital debates in which the older oscillator-based instruments are sometimes regarded as more "real" than their transistor and computer emulation-based counterparts. I seem to recall that the early Synclavier-powered musical excursions of Art of Noise were met with similar digi-reticence, too, and lord knows how much music has been influenced by their approaches (even DARK WEB in its way). Obviously, the music is what matters in the end, and I'm simply amazed to hear how quickly Rankin has mastered the deep potential for computer-based composition. These pieces probably couldn't exist without latest-greatest technology, but they couldn't even be conceived without such a thoughtful musician at the controls, either.

But my only criticism of DARK WEB is using Giant Claw as the band name itself. While I love the whole GC discography, all of the albums up to this one hang together quite closely, and this is a dramatic departure. If it were up to me, I would've picked a new band name for this album. I even have a suggestion: Body by Keith. How about it, dear readers? I'm totally inept at photo editing, but legendary Omaha musician and Vinyl Community guru Dereck Higgins helped me out with this little mockup of the idea:

At any rate, DARK WEB has warmed my heart and massaged my brain profoundly, and I'd highly recommend getting this music in your own ears at your earliest convenience. This LP has just been co-released by Rankin's own Orange Milk Records and the great Noumenal Loom in Alabama. You can also find it on the Giant Claw Bandcamp. And this seems like an appropriate place to remind folks of the fantastic "Crane Engine" cassette release featuring some of Rankin's early work that dropped this summer on Germany's amazing Knertz label (you can read my review of that album here). Between that and DARK WEB, this is a mighty year for Giant Claw-related music.


9.01.2014

Debut of the Words on Sounds podcast!


(don't want to read an essay? Click here to go directly to the 1st Words on Sounds podcast)

Hello dear readers,

As many of you already know, I've been part of the Other Music radio show on KZUM for the last four years. I've really enjoyed doing the program, helping to get all kinds of creative, adventurous music out to new ears, and occasionally doing interviews and hosting live performances in the studio. But I'm regularly asked if there might be a way to download the show instead of listening live. It airs late on Sunday evenings, after all. It's difficult for many of my local over-the-air listeners to catch if they need to get up early for work on Monday, and squarely in the middle of the night for European listeners who tune into the livestream.

The answer, sadly, is no. For music shows that originate on terrestrial radio and also livestream, there are a number of weird FCC regulations and copyright issues that put downloads of such shows into muddy legal waters. While some stations have download archives of similar programming, our station chooses not to take that risk, and I can certainly understand their position.

That said, I want to make sure that the time I'm able to invest in various forms of creative music advocacy can help reach as many people as possible. The asynchronous nature of podcasting, that convenience of listening anywhere at any time, seems like such a huge advantage for potential listeners that I'm going to try out a weekly podcast format for a while. Consider this as a companion to my review work on this blog. While it takes me a lot of time to finish reviews because I try to listen as deeply as possible and take layers of notes before I'm ready to write, I'm continually working new recordings into my radio show within days of receipt. It's pretty clear when new records are amazing right out of the gate, after all, even though it takes me a while to go from a series of astonished expletives to more articulate waters.

So the podcast is going to mirror my weekly listening regimen, and I'm going to incorporate choosing songs for the program directly into my listening and note-taking routine. I think this is going to be really helpful and productive for me, too--I suspect that the quality of my commentary in radio/podcast work, and the quantity of reviews I can tackle, are both going to improve when they're part of a single workflow instead of two separate volunteer jobs.

I'm pretty excited, actually. I just rearranged my studio to make this process as smooth and inviting as possible. I uploaded the debut Words on Sounds podcast roughly 24 hours ago, and it's apparently already "making the charts" on Mixcloud, which is amazing!

I'll be posting the links to each podcast episode both here and on my Facebook page for Words on Sounds (which could use a few more "likes" if you're so inclined). You can also go to Mixcloud and subscribe directly through them. You can listen on desktop computers by following the link, and they also have easy-to-use smartphone apps for the site. Also, if anybody out there would be interested in hosting these podcasts as downloadable files for folks who would rather listen that way, I'd be interested in that possibility, too. Drop me a line.

My production values will surely continue to improve (gotta swap out that crackly microphone cord for starters), but I think you'll agree that the music in this first episode of the Words on Sounds podcast is amazing:





Pajjama - Karakasa


I've been following the work of Norway's wild Pajjama for quite some time--you may recall this little overview piece I did last year on the band. At the time, I really loved the Zappa/Magma weirdness of their "Starch" debut, and the 8-bit-YMO and 80s nostalgia of the followup "Jane Papaya" tape, but both are very short EP recordings that feel like teasers, only hinting at the potential for this band.

Enter "Karakasa," the first Pajjama full-length released a few months ago by Orange Milk. I knew these crazy kids had a wicked amazing album like this in them. Adroitly incorporating all of their previous influences and many more into a fun and satisfying soundscape that never fails to surprise, this is easily one of my top albums of the year. This tape hangs with the best of recordings along that Giant Claw continuum like "Mutant Glamour," but the Pajjama crew have a knack for occasionally visiting darker, proggier corners, and they love weird jazz chord voicings as a clever contrast to the sometimes simpler textures of early video game-influenced passages. And this is a band--rather than a solo recording project, this album is full of real drum, guitar, and bass work, beautifully played and perfectly recorded. Among the full bands that have explored this kind of video game-infused prog rock like Yakuza Heart Attack and Cheap Dinosaurs, "Karakasa" is the high point of the genre so far.

You know you're in for a new Pajjama experience within the first minute of "Karakasa." Album opener "Chromiel" is a slow, dirgey march through a handful of chords, with lots of processed sounds creating wild static and raw cosmic data above the main overdriven riff. When textures thin out around the 2:30 mark, we get a beautiful clavichord-driven melody supported by crisp drumming holding the piece to a roughly lento kind of tempo. Ultimately, "Chromiel" builds to a very lyrical and royal-feeling finale, pushed along with great low-bass synths drifting slowly through envelope filters. Epic. This is followed by "Ladyboys," which brings back the YMO-meets-NES vibes of the "Jane Papaya" tape. This one feels like it can't decide if it should be the soundtrack to an 80s drama series or a 70s game show, but while it's trying to choose, we get some stripped-down tribal passages, a great fusion guitar section, and swaggering synth funk meltdowns.

Pajjama has particularly stepped up their game in terms of writing incredibly memorable melodies and getting into really slamming grooves on "Karakasa." It's not often that I find myself humming melodies after days away from playful albums like this, but the themes from tunes like "Cream Corpse" (which reappears in modified form in "Cream Birth" later), or the slinky chromatic-inflected "Beach Detective," turn out to be powerful earworms. And the grooves! Early video game music has that characteristically stifled flavor of "swing" inherent to its programming limitations at the time, and while Pajjama often pay tribute to that kind of artificial feel in appropriate places, they lay down some seriously hard funk on this record, from the wild odd-time punch of "Smoke Your Eyes" to the driving triple-meter workouts of "Cream Corpse" and "Metasatan."

My favorite tunes on "Karakasa" are probably "Beach Detective" and album closer "Metasatan." On "Beach Detective," Pajjama swerve into timbral terrain somewhere near early 80s Residents jams, adding some great live basslines and lots of strange background sounds percolating in reverb and delay, eventually settling into the great fusion-y melody mentioned earlier. And "Metasatan" is just epic--a sort of fast-tempo companion to album opener "Chromiel," this tune contrasts a very aggressive rhythm section with relaxed synth melodies and pads that could hang with the most cosmic of kosmische albums. Just before its conclusion, the piece collapses into a great Zappa-ish guitar melody, and then a little hip-hop beat fades to the end.

Word on the e-street is that Pajjama have already been back in the studio working on new material. Now that they've had the chance to stretch their collective legs on a full-length, I suspect that we'll be hearing a lot more about this peculiarly potent band in the future. But be sure to pick up your own copy of "Karakasa" while you still can. Like most Orange Milk releases, this album has great artwork/design by Keith Rankin (who is rapidly becoming the Storm Thorgerson of avant-weirdo cover art), and the tape audio quality is fantastic. Highly recommended.