2012: A great year for creative music

If pure creativity and uncompromising expression are among your favorite qualities in music, 2012 has been the best year for new recordings in a very long time. There have been a large number of amazing records this year, and the best among those records rivals the most amazing music I've ever heard.

I find myself lagging behind in posting reviews over the last few months, but much of the music I'm presently evaluating deserves to make "the list" of amazing 2012 records. So consider this post to be both an annual "favorites" list from the Words on Sounds camp, as well as a preview of some upcoming reviews of records so noted.

Wherever possible, I'm going to link each record to an artist or label-direct method of ordering.

I have a hard time reducing so much evocative, brilliant, and moving music into lists, but I guess that's what reviewers do occasionally. So here's my top 20 absolute favorites of 2012, regardless of genre considerations:

Normal Love - Survival Tricks
Zs - Score: The Complete Sextet works 2002-2007
Igorrr - Hallelujah
Killer BOB - Fear May be a Builder (full review coming soon)
Pajjama - Staarch (full review coming soon)
Yowie - Damning With Faint Praise
Behold the Arctopus - Horrorscension
Lovely Little Girls - Cleaning the Filth from a Delicate Frame
Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra - Bum Bum
House of Hayduk - City of Quartz
Kayo Dot - Gamma Knife (or digital-only here, but the vinyl is damned beautiful)
Tom Ze - Tropicalia Lixo Logico (no US distro yet, alas)
John Frusciante - PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone
Captain Beefheart - Bat Chain Puller
Ernesto Martinez - Sincronario
Jeremiah Cymerman - Purification/Dissolution (full review coming soon)
Higgins - Stereo (full review coming soon!)
Diamond Terrifier - Kill The Self that Wants to Kill Yourself (full review coming soon)
Triptet - Figure in the Carpet (full review coming soon)
Giant Claw - Mutant Glamour (full review coming soon)

Favorite creative approaches to rock-related idioms:

Extra Life - Dream Seeds
Neptune - msg rcvd
Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
Wei Zhongle - s/t
BBBJr - How to Fuck All Your Co-Workers in One Sitting
Japonize Elephants - Melodie Fantastique
Farmers Market - Slav to the Rhythm
Acid Mothers Temple - Son of a Bitches Brew
SCUO - 5678765 (full review coming soon)
Jealousy Mountain Duo - No. 2
Ahleuchatistas - Heads Full of Poison
Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesore - Sister Death
The Residents - Coochie Brake: Sonidos de la Noche
Many Arms - s/t
Magma - Felicite Thosz
Thinking Plague - Decline and Fall
TrioVD - Maze
Alamaailman Vasarat - Valta
Dysrhythmia - Test of Submission
Hazel-Rah - The Africantape EP
Stern - Entitlement
Big Blood - Old Time Primitives
George Korein and the Spleen - Condition of Air (full review coming soon)
Bobby Conn - Macaroni
Nels Cline/Elliot Sharp - Open the Door

Favorite creative approaches to pop idioms:

Micachu and the Shapes - Never
Grimes - Visions
Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
Byrne/St. Vincent - Love This Giant
Ergo Phizmiz - Eleven Songs (full review coming soon!)
Maps and Atlases - Beware and be Grateful
Deerhoof - Breakup Song
Of Montreal - Paralytic Stalks
Soap & Skin - Narrow
Power Animal - Exorcism
Guano Padano - 2
BEAK> - >>
Shugo Tokumaru - In Focus? (getting US release in early 2013)

Favorite creative approaches to non-rock/pop idioms (jazz, classical, free improv, lowercase, soundart, etc).

Ron Miles - Quiver
Charles Gayle Trio - Streets
Chicago Underground Duo - Age of Energy
Cactus Truck - Brand New For China!
Boron - The Beige Album
Joe Moffett - Ad Faunum (full review coming soon)
Floratone (Bill Frisell) - Floratone II
Johnny DeBlase Quartet - Composites
Nick Millevoi - In White Sky
Tatsuya Nakatani - Nakatani Gong Orchestra (full review coming soon)
House of Low Culture - Poisoned Soil
The Home of Easy Credit - s/t
Skeletons - The Bus
Boron - The Beige Album
(D)(B)(H) - Masterpieces of Objective Reporting
Don Preston - Filters, Oscillators and Envelopes 1967-82
Psychotic Quartet - Cordyceps
Hafez Modirzadeh - Post-Chromodal Out!
RED Trio + Nate Wooley - Stem
William Hooker Strings 3 - A Postcard from the Road
Philip Gayle - Babanco Total
John Zorn - A Vision in Blakelight and Nosferatu
Anderson/Pepper/Tamura/Petit - Closed Encounters of the 4 Minds
The Gate - Destruction of Darkness and Vomit Dreams
Moulttrigger - Birds (review coming soon)
Louis Guarino Jr/Benjamin Klein - Standing Still in a Whirlpool of Dreams (review coming soon)
AMFJ - BAEN (review coming soon)
Philip Glass - Rework
Eftus Spectun - Turtus
Trapist - The Golden Years

The Year of Pauline Oliveros

Composer Pauline Oliveros turned 80 this year, which has been celebrated with the release of recordings new and old. Important Records released a 12-disc box set of some of Oliveros' amazing tape and electronic music of the 1960s. This kind of music is hard for me to review, but a pleasure to experience, and $80 for a 12-disc box set is a great deal for experiencing some of the best efforts in early electronic/tape music.

More recent efforts by Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band ensemble have also been released this year: Important gave us Octagonal Polyphony and Great Howl at Town Hall. To those, Minneapolis-based vinyl-only label Taiga Records gave us 2 additional double LPs produced with immaculate attention to detail, direct metal-mastered 200 gram vinyl in double-wide jackets with metallic inks and flooded pockets, themselves enclosed in a custom slipcase. These sound as amazing as they look, and the pleasure of not only hearing but truly feeling Oliveros' "Primordial/Lift" and the Deep Listening Band's "Needle Drop Jungle"in these incredibly celebratory packages is an opportunity I suggest taking. I'm relatively new to the "Deep Listening" concept, but it's clear that both this music and the broader practice of deep listening have going to become an important part of my life and ears.

Labels worth watching

In addition to Taiga and Important mentioned above, this has been a banner year for labels like Northern Spy and Public Eyesore, who are maintaining ambitious release schedules full of compelling music. I'm excited to see what the next year will bring from them. The last few years of Skin Graft releases have also been among my favorites. I'm also amped for the newest batch from New Atlantis Records, as almost everything I've heard from them gets stuck in my head for weeks. I'm keeping an eye on the recent efforts coming from Engine Studios, whose releases have some overlap w/New Atlantis artists and are another great source of amazing creative music from many styles and geographies. And cassette labels are continuing to flourish: this year, releases from Orange Milk, Words and Dreams, and Crash Symbols in particular continued to kick my ass, along with occasional cassette editions from labels like Captcha and Sockets.

Things to anticipate in 2013

--a new Pajjama record?
--Mike Pride Drummer's Corpse?
--several awesome projects from Jeremiah Cymerman's 5049 label?
--more BBJr vinyl via Captcha?
--Luke Polipnick debut?
--new Zs?
--new Period album?

...but I don't want to think too far forward just yet. I have plenty of reviews left to finish from the end of 2012, and there are a few records I haven't even found the time to acquire yet that I'm sure will be amazing (like the 2nd I Don't Hear Nothing But the Blues album, a few new releases from the Eh? imprint of Public Eyesore, etc). With a year so rich in creativity as 2012, there is a lot left to hear, and hear again. Happy listening, and Happy New Year!


The Home of Easy Credit - s/t

Here's another knockout from Northern Spy. The Home of Easy Credit is the husband/wife duo of Louise Dam Eckardt Jensen and Tom Blancarte, whose intricate, dense work together is hard to define in terms of genre. This music shifts between worlds of composition and free improvisation, pop, avant-jazz, postmodern classical, psychedelic and electroacoustic work, often woven within the boundaries of each track.

Jensen primarily focuses on alto saxophone and voice performance with electronic manipulation. She builds layers of sound with live electronics and loops, over which motivic materials are often reinterpreted or extended. And Blancarte (who also played on the beautiful "Fire Sign" album from Jeremiah Cymerman that I recently reviewed) creates a powerful foundation for this music with his amplified upright bass work, mostly playing with more conventional pitched ideas to hold everything together, though he does get into extended techniques like bowed harmonics and sul ponticello passages when the music heads into more ethereal territory. The pair make an incredible amount of sound on their own, and once loop-building is added to their approach, you would never imagine this music coming from only two performers with no overdubs.

Although The Home of Easy Credit covers a wide stylistic territory, this music evolves through structured consideration: these pieces fuse raw musical materials together slowly and thoughtfully, adding and removing layers with patience. I like my share of collage/cutup compositions, but there's something about these kinds of more mature methodical fusions of sound. They tend to stay with you longer. It also invites a more participatory kind of listening--I feel like I can get "inside" these tracks, as opposed to looking at them on a wall. They're plaintive, emotional pieces, and they readily invite you inside. Check out a track from the album, "The Feast of the Meal Replacement Bars" below, and you'll see what I mean.

Usually I don't have a strong opinion about the methods used in the creation of a good recording, but in this case I think that the "no overdubs" approach contributes a lot to the emotional intelligence of this music. The band's name and the titles of the tracks all point to frustration with the shallow artifice of consumer culture, toward having genuine shared experiences instead of choosing among brightly-colored, prepackaged Mcexperiences. These pieces succeed at being very complex and nuanced without losing a sense of intimacy. I can imagine how well this music translates live, a vibe that The Home of Easy Credit sustains by selecting small, intimate venues to play: galleries, coffee shops, house shows, all places where artists and audiences can be together with a minimum of mediation.

Fortunately, I won't have to simply imagine the live performance of this music for long, and maybe you won't, either: The Home of Easy Credit is on tour right now (check out their tour dates below). And their Lincoln, NE stop will be at my house! It seemed right to start hosting occasional shows as the opportunity presents itself, as I've been co-hosting a radio show and actively writing music reviews for a few years now. If you live in the area, you can keep up with our events on this blog, or "like" our Facebook page here.

--also published at Killed in Cars

Home of Easy Credit tour dates:
10/4 San Francisco @ The Luggage Store
10/7 Berkeley, CA @ Berkeley Arts Festival
10/8 Corvallis, OR @ The Red Room
10/9 Portland, OR @ Creative Music Guild
10/10 Seattle, WA @ 1412 Gallery
10/11 Caldwell, ID @ The Bird Stop Coffee House
10/13 Denver, CO @ Plus Gallery
10/14 Lincoln, NE @ Think Tank House (my house! This will also be the debut show for local duo Moss!)
10/15 Chicago, IL @ Jerry's
10/17 Cleveland, OH @ Black Cat Factory


Jealousy Mountain Duo - No_2, The Home of Easy Credit

I reviewed the debut record from Jealousy Mountain Duo back in April, and I'm pleased to report that they're already back with their second album. And it's another keeper--while staying close to the style and approach of their debut, No_2 finds Jealousy Mountain Duo digging even deeper into their unique style. Blending elements of math rock with creative looping and collaborative improvisation, this record shows continued growth and development for JMD: the interplay between Berger (guitar) and Schneider (drums) continues to improve as they play together.

The JMD sound will probably remind listeners most immediately of the duo configuration of Hella, but I like this band much more. They're capable of subtleties that one rarely hears from Hella--Berger's loop-layering techniques let him build vertical dimension in the music that gives space and support for some great melodic ideas, instead of having to blaze along with noodly horizontal passages most of the time. Berger writes beautiful melodies, and finds great ways to embellish them with thoughtful loops as real support, rather than layering a bunch of unnecessarily complicated figures. At times, he somehow balances Frippertronics-sounding layers, rich with backwards-sounding volume swells and occasional whammy pedal glissandos, with very listenable and memorable melodies, something often lacking in experimental rock circles. It sounds like guitar synths are getting some play on No_2 as well, with sub-bass tones and waspy synth textures added to tracks like "All Day Blizzard."

The "complicated figures" in JMD are mostly the domain of Schneider, whose drum work combines rhythmic density with a very light, free spirit. Although his playing in this band is very busy, it's much more jazz-influenced than the constant barrage of megabashing one gets from Zach Hill (I like Hill's approach sometimes, but he totally has the "Buckethead problem" of doing the same crazy over-the-top thing on almost everything he plays). Schneider balances his complicated ideas by spending a lot of time working the rims of his drums and paying attention to dynamics and shifts in volume and intensity, and he generally saves his cymbals for especially poignant emphasis.  He's certainly capable of being a hard hitter and playing more riff-oriented drum parts (hear his work in Nicoffeine for great proof of that), but the heart of the JMD sound is his transcendent thoughtful-yet-rocking drum work, at least to me. I love listening to this guy play--he's intense, but very deliberate.

Like the first Jealousy Mountain Duo record, I'm sure there's some improvisation involved in these tracks, but it's obvious that even on the most free-form cuts, a lot of planning and composition is helping to guide this music. It's awesome to hear math-y music that can feel composed and loose at the same time. The music has room to breathe, and listeners have room to have fun.

Schneider is a skilled producer as well. He does it up old school with JMD, recording live to 1'' tape and pressing vinyl. If you don't buy the hype about analog recording and vinyl sounding "warmer," you might change your mind after a few spins through this record. Tubes, vinyl, and tape make the world of Jealousy Mountain Duo go around, and the kind of beautifully warm, diffused light and heat one can expect from using them is reflected throughout this music and all the way onto the album art, which makes a great companion piece with art and design of their the first record. Another well done record! I'm excited to hear what the future holds for JMD.

Good news for America: Jealousy Mountain Duo is touring the US through October and part of November! I'm sure we're not likely to see this German duo play here often, so be sure to get out and see them while you can. Their tour started in Boston last night, and the rest of their tour dates are listed below. Maybe I'll see some of you at the Omaha show. And in case you're not able to make it to a show, check out the Jealousy Mountain Duo BandCamp site for record ordering information.

--Scott Scholz

October 2012
 2 whitehouse family records, Boston, MA, US
 3 The Flywheel, Easthampton, MA, US
 4 Shea Stadium, Brooklyn, NY, US
 5 The Space, Ithaca, NY, US
 6 Elm Bar (old Rudy's), New Haven, CT, US
 7 houseshow with hyrrokkin, Athens, OH, US
 8 Mickey Finn's Pub, Toledo, OH, US
 9 The Shop, Pittsburgh, PA, US
10 Bug Jar, Rochester, NY, US
11 Now That's Class, Cleveland, OH, US
12 Stone Taverne, Kent, CT, US
13 Borg Ward Collective, Milwaukee, WI, US
14 The Frequency, Madison, WI, US
15 Burlington Bar, Chicago, IL, US
16 Black Sparrow, Lafayette, IN, US
17 Slowdown, Omaha, NE, US
18 Replay Lounge, Lawrence, KS, US
19 Lemp Arts, St Louis, MO, US
20 Court House Co-op, Memphis, TN, US
21 SoundPony, Tulsa, OK, US
23 The Trunk Space, Phoenix, AZ, US
24 Bar Eleven, San Diego, CA, US
25 Solar Culture Gallery & Performance Space, Tucson, AZ, US
26 The Percolator, El Paso, TX, US
27 1919 Hemphill, Fort Worth, TX, US
28 Notsuoh, Houston, TX, US
29 Beale Street Tavern, Austin, TX, US
30 The White House, Conway, AR, US
31 The Owl Farm, Nashville, TN, US

November 2012
 1 Conondrum Music Hall, West Columbia, SC, US
 2 Roasted Lounge, Macon, GA, US
 3 The Goat Farm, Atlanta, GA, US
 4 The HandleBar, Pensacola, FL, US
 5 Burro Bar, Jacksonville, FL, US
 6 The Junkyard Saloon, De Leon Springs, FL, US
 7 Safe // Sound, Savannah, GA, US
 8 Chapel Hill Underground, Chapel Hill, NC, US
 9 Slim's Downtown, Raleigh, NC, US
10 subterreanea collective, Richmond, VA, US


Zs - Score: The Complete Sextet Works 2002-2007

For anyone who missed out on the early years of NYC's remarkable ensemble Zs, this new four CD box set documents the complete recordings of the first five years of the band, covering eight out-of-print releases along with a disc of unreleased material. For those of us living away from the East Coast, the original pressings of this music were almost impossible to find, coming out in tiny batches on small labels, and partly because of that, I think that this music hasn't gotten the attention it deserves on a wide scale. Northern Spy, how you spoil us!

Folks in the Midwest, for example, didn't stand a chance. Sure, we have the internet (and indoor plumbing, in case any readers weren't sure), but there is a bit of truth to the notion that cultural news moves a little more slowly in the middle of the country. Many of us missed out on Zs, and the rest of us came late to the Zs party, struggling to track down their back catalog through mail-order distros and living vicariously through YouTube videos of stunning live performances. If you care about "New Music" made with serious dedication and heart, my advice is to take the release of Score as an opportunity to experience some of the most powerful music made in several generations.

As much as I cringe at heading toward hyperbole, I don't think I can overstate my admiration for this music. Zs is my church. And taken as a body of work, I think that the pieces included in Score should be mandatory listening for the next generation of music students: a copy of this box set should be a heavy purchase consideration for every academic music library that takes contemporary music seriously. The day that Zs gets added to the contemporary music sections of music history classes will be the beginning of some majorly harder/deeper art music.

I was a music school cat myself just a few years before Zs took off, graduating in 2000, and there was something in the air back then that I kept reaching for but never quite found. Looking back, I think there was something about the impending change-of-millennium that was making a lot of creative folks ponder those deepest issues of "what comes next," and musical genres were splintering into more sub-sub-sub genres by the hour. But it was also the beginning of the internet age, with so much potential for bringing people together--how would that affect music when creation of more pigeonholes seemed to work against that potential being realized? I was hearing the beginning of something in my head that could draw from the resources of any genre without having to live in those lines, and in reading the liner notes of Score, I really vibed with the similar impulses that were driving the beginning of Zs for founders Sam Hillmer and Alex Mincek: as Mincek reports, "Sam and I wanted to be something that was blurry."

Ironically, being "blurry" in the sense of genre transcendence requires an almost inconceivable level of focus and discipline, individually and collectively, and that kind of intense attention to detail is one of the main forces behind the music of Score. Most of the pictures online are too small to make out the details, but the outer box artwork in this collection is a composite of military ribbons. In one sense, this album art highlights Zs as an incredibly disciplined military unit, thoroughly practiced and capable of perfected surgical strikes. From a performance perspective, the Zs sextet was certainly capable of almost impossible musical acrobatics, and the military theme has a certain resonance.

But with Zs, one has to consider a broader compositional scope in addition to breathtaking performance capabilities, and from that perspective, the military iconography takes on a more complex significance: Zs is a military unit acting in opposition to the hollow, insincere trappings of New Music performances, the stale air of classical performance spaces and the bureaucracy of academia, polite clapping deployed carefully at the ends of pieces and never between movements. This music might borrow from a vocabulary and conceptual palette often associated with "academic music," but it succeeds in a more immediate way by simple virtue of being played in front of "normal" people at shows including various kinds of rock/pop music.

To the extent that this music is demanding to listeners, it's also true that it demands even more head and heart to compose and play--there is an undeniable spiritual component underlying the conception and performances of these pieces, and even hearing the music as recordings-from-afar, you can accurately guess what performances might often be like: the crowd gathers in close around the band, the band turns within and plays impossibly hard. Everyone has to give. And collectively, everyone receives, too: the pretentious distance of art music appreciation dissolves as quickly as postmodern sarcastic self-referential TV culture detachment, and everyone has a legitimate shared experience and becomes part of a community, at least for a while. As Hillmer reports, "I have serious reservations about how much gravity something can have that's taking place outside the logic of community," and at least within the Brooklyn scene that got to directly experience this period of Zs performing and evolving, I think this is both the ultimate triumph of the pieces documented in this box, as well as their ultimate potential for experience with a broader audience. Sometimes it seems like it would take an army to cut through the caustic layers of attitude and apathy that pass for "culture" today, and the Zs sextet was the right kind of army.

I realize that I'm heaping praise before I've even described the music. Forgive me--it's an enormous task to describe 4 discs documenting five years of nearly impeccable musical activity and evolution. Your best bet, seriously, is to drop what you're doing and dig into Score. But if you need at least some generalities before you commit, the first three discs of the box are organized chronologically by release date. The early self-titled Zs release, which I first happened upon years ago on iTunes, first made me think of relatively recent Anthony Braxton work, particularly the "ghost trance music" period. That's a good starting point, as the music develops through similar kinds of focus on systems and their fortification/refinement, but as much as I'm a fan of Braxton's work, Zs is even more intense. In addition to a similarity in compositional discipline, the presence of saxophones as dominant instruments has given both Braxton and Zs a parallel uphill battle in terms of transcending a similar "Saxes? This must be jazz, then" form of lazy musical interpretation. But Zs doesn't need to Swing to mean more than a Thing.

From there, the music on this box gets increasingly difficult to describe in terms of pre-existing forms, as Zs continued to evolve into a bewilderingly powerful unit, drawing from many disciplines without committing to any. I suppose that it's fair to say that over time, a dominant theme that one must confront in the music of Zs has to do with ever-shifting distinctions between minimalism and a sort of maximalism/brutal-prog attack. Small cells can repeat and subtly shift, and when they're played long and hard enough, ostinatos become drones, become oppressive walls, become transcendent doors to B sections that arrive just in time. That minimalism/maximalism continuum is violently and even religiously shifted in perspective and context, in ways that are usually unexpected but seem perfect once you hear them. As a listener, you have to be able to both "hold on" harder and "let go" faster than you ever have before. But you will be richly rewarded: by the time we get to the music of the "Arms" LP, which takes up most of disc 3 in this box, Zs has become an absolute genre unto themselves.

"Arms" is my favorite of the albums contained in the Score box. I've been listening to it regularly for five years, but I still don't think I'm capable of articulating the special magic of this record. My favorite piece on the album, though, and one of my favorite pieces of music ever, is the Charlie Looker-penned "Nobody Wants To Be Had," which I've discussed a bit before in my review of Looker's most recent album with his Extra Life band. Hearing this music alone is well worth the very reasonable cost of admission to this box set (under $30 for 4 discs!), and there is so much more to discover.

You'll get a chance to hear those extramusical, "music as community" aspects of Zs' work mentioned above within "Score," too. The "Buck" cassette release is included here, for example, which is a fascinating document that shows both how these pieces continued to develop and change (especially in tempo) as they were played live, and well as capturing some of the live atmosphere around Zs performances: these are loud clubs. People are listening intently, but they're also talking, drinking, sometimes laughing, and the band banter is funny at times, too. It's so refreshing to hear this music played to real people, no jacket required. The inclusion of various remixes of Zs pieces throughout the box represents another aspect of this music being absorbed into the greater culture, too: it's hard to imagine most new music composers developing the kinds of social and musical relationships with the rest of the "normal" world to have occasional remixes become a normal part of their work. They're good remixes, too.

"Score" isn't one of those box sets made in a crazy oversized shape that forces you either to hide the thing after listening or leave it out somewhere to become an endless topic of conversation every time someone visits your house: it's housed in a tight, clean box that should fit right onto your CD shelves, right at the end of the alphabet where music keeps evolving, and where you'll always be able to find it (it's time to throw out those ZZ Top "Nice Price" discs, son). But I'm not even bothering to make room for these albums on a shelf--I can't imagine more than a few days passing without these discs getting some play time. The 20 page essay included in the box is a great read, too, covering both this sextet period of the band as well as more recent efforts through the "New Slaves" period of Zs. The layout also includes some interesting score snippets, if you're interested in what the scores of "Score" actually look like. My only minor quibble with the box is that this essay was already published a couple of years ago by New Music Box, but it makes sense that they ran with it--it's easily the best piece of journalism on Zs that's been done to date. And I hope more people find out about Zs through the release of this box set, and more articles get written, and young musicians get the chance to experience this stuff and take it to the next crazy level.

If you check out "Score" and you're hungry for more, members of both this original sextet lineup of the band and later iterations have all played in a wide variety of other bands that I would count as mind-blowing essential listening: Period, Extra Life, Normal Love, and Little Women are four of my favorites, and there are many more. After all, the Zs sextet might have been an impossibly tight unit, but they were also the catalyst for a much wider community. Or as an anonymous poster recently put it on Brooklyn Vegan, "You dis Zs, you dis yourself."

--also published at Killed in Cars



Rob Jacobs and Wei Zhongle

The last in this little series of DIY artists is Rob Jacobs, whose work was a welcome surprise for me a couple of months ago. Rob's many solo albums and his Wei Zhongle project have become some of my most regular audio companions in a short while. Finding out about largely unknown artists whose body of work is already so rich and varied totally renews my faith in humanity, and hopefully drawing a little attention to this music will lead to some physical releases--the Wei Zhongle album in particular is practically begging to live on vinyl.

Jacobs is a young multi-instrumentalist and composer working in Southern Illinois. Aside from classical violin lessons, he's a self-taught fellow, which comes as quite a surprise when you hear his expressive playing and writing on a variety of woodwind and string instruments. After a childhood of violin playing, he began writing and recording his own albums at the age of 16 (a mere 7 years ago), and I'm floored by both the quantity and quality of his work in a wide range of styles. He's stacking up jazz and new music-inflected pop tunes under his own name, becoming a vocal drone improv maniac with percussionist Sam Klickner as Suffering Bastard, and playing in his own Wei Zhongle ensemble, whose music almost requires a new genre category to describe. For the purposes of this review, I'm only going to dig into a couple of his recordings in more detail, but I'd highly recommend spending some time on these BandCamp sites exploring his whole back catalog:

Wei Zhongle
Rob Jacobs
Suffering Bastard

Wei Zhongle - Wei Zhongle
As mentioned above, it's hard to describe the music of Wei Zhongle in terms of genre. There are many nods toward Chinese music, likely inspired by the ensemble's namesake, who was a multi-instrumentalist on a variety of Chinese traditional instruments and founder of the Traditional Instruments department at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The somewhat Chinese attributes of the music speak through melodic approaches, unison passages, a non-"drum riff" approach to percussion, and some simple modifications to instruments: for example, Jacobs reports that the tight, short articulations one hears in the Wei Zhongle guitar parts are made possible in part by weaving a bit of plastic through the strings near the bridge. Compositionally, these pieces incorporate all kinds of creative tricks like hocketing, brief moments of rounds/canonic motion, and surprising rhythmic twists, while fostering a sense of lightness and space. Generally, the music is gentle and approachable, a vibe I really appreciate in "weird music," which taken as a whole nowadays frequently tends toward darkness and oppression.

Though this music speaks through a largely Asian-inspired vocabulary, it's not a truly faux-Chinese record in the sense that composers like Lou Harrison achieved. Instead, its language and syntax work to create some of the most creative freak folk and pop music ever made--there are moments redolent of "Uncle Meat"-era Zappa, the last few Cerberus Shoal albums, even the more pensive and quiet moments in Extra Life albums. The dual male/female vocal approach of Jacobs and Carly Lappin creates a gender-neutral atmposphere, and the lyrics point toward a kind of spiritual awakening and celebration happening throughout the album. It's one of those rare records that will inspire many folks to simply dance around, while also satisfying those who crave rich, complex music and careful, intelligent composition.

Jacobs mentions that the lyrical content is inspired by Ouspensky, and not having read much of Ouspensky or Gurdjieff before, I dug into "A New Model of the Universe" to get into the conceptual vibe of the album more deeply. Somehow I'd skipped over those folks in years of reading a variety of mystical/esoteric literature, but I'm glad I got the chance to check him out. Ouspensky attempts to show universal threads of transcendence found in many religions including the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as a Buddhist influence on the parables of Jesus. More generally, the book aspires toward an esoteric interpretation of the writings of traditions most folks in the West would generally think of as "conventional," and asserts that the ability to recognize and integrate the more esoteric teachings hidden within these traditions requires a level of discipline and attention that is likely to be found in only "the few." Fair enough, and it's a fascinating filter through which to hear Wei Zhongle--it's generally pleasant and easily approachable music on the surface, but it's also full of its own secrets and methods which are only discovered on repeated listening. It's rare to find music that can be simultaneously friendly and uncompromising, and Wei Zhongle makes it happen.

Rob Jacobs - No Beach to Walk On
Jacobs also sent along a copy of his "No Beach To Walk On," one of his solo albums from a couple of years ago. His solo work is closer to "conventional" pop music, mostly lacking the Chinese-ish vibes of Wei Zhongle, but this is also very complex and innovative work. Overall, this is a laid-back pop/world project with r&b roots (you can tell Jacobs has absorbed a lot of Dave Longstreth/Dirty Projectors), but the proceedings are interrupted by a series of surprises.  There are unexpected moments of sampled voices ("Lady in Pink"), noiser moments like the end of "A New Song," weirdly effect-laden vocal sections like the opening section of "West Wind Beckons the Tri-Self" that briefly summon the Residents, and many times I'm reminded of Canterbury/prog ensemble writing like one would expect on Henry Cow albums. The music incorporates lots of pauses and time changes punctuated by instrumental countermelodies, great sectional writing for clarinets and saxes, and melismatic vocals.

As the sole vocalist on this recording, Jacobs really steps up, with great melismatic delivery on many tracks like "The Summoning Forth," a strong held-out line toward the end of "Lady in Pink," and great harmonized layers found in tracks like "Dancing the Sigulrlya." Though his voice is gentle, he builds texture and contrast through overdubs, and he has a great falsetto that is frequently employed in background sections. For a fellow who came to music through the violin, he can totally hold his own as a frontman on vocals. Lyrically, it's worth mentioning that three tracks are settings of poetry--one track works with Rumi, and two come from Lorca. He's also a thoroughly competent guitar player, inflecting these arrangements with lots of rich jazz voicings and well-placed rhythmic stabs.

The drum programming sounds great--Jacobs obviously took the time to make sure the drum parts made sense of the myriad twists in these arrangements. Real drums would be a nice addition to many of these songs, though. As "solo demos," these are incredible, and these songs would definitely shine in a live band context. Jacobs also did a fantastic job mixing these sprawling tracks, leaving room to hear many layers of compositional detail. Props must also be given to John McCowen, for his sax, flute, and bass clarinet work on this record.

My favorite track is album closer "Gaceia of the Terrible Presence," a challenging setting of a Lorca poem of the same name. The longest track on the album, "Gaceia" splits the stylistic difference between the rest of this solo album and the later compositional tendencies on exhibit in Wei Zhongle. The first section is made of propulsive rhythms and mostly pentatonic motion, which gets contrasted with several interesting variations in the last half of the piece. But the whole album is a lot of creative fun, and I'm looking forward to many more unique albums from the Rob Jacobs camp.

--also published at Killed in Cars


Arvo Zylo - 333

Our next DIY artist is Chicago's Arvo Zylo, a genre-defying musician who is also the host of The Delirious Insomniac Freeform Radio show on WLUW, which airs from midnight to 4AM on Monday mornings (Facebook page for the show here). Zylo sent a copy of his "333" on CD (it's also been available in a cassette edition), an incredibly deep record whose creation spanned six years. I've been digging into this recording for a few months--while it makes a powerful statement on first listening, it continues to reveal new secrets every time I put it on.

The story behind this album points to discipline through adversity: "333" was started in 2003, using only an RM1x sequencer while squatting in an abandoned house, and the piece continued to evolve until being mastered in 2009. As one might expect from the circumstances of its birth, it's a dark, bleak outing, but it's not a simple release of rage. This is detailed work, rich in nuanced layers of sound whose precise deployment points toward careful working and reworking of every element. Most records I hear that gravitate toward harsh noise/power electronics have a certain immediacy or even haste evident in their production, but the nature of "333" involves time and architecture.

For a recording created with a device that functions essentially as a step sequencer, this music is incredibly varied--you never get the vibe of someone simply pushing buttons to move between simple sequences. And these pieces use a huge dynamic range, from walls of noise to pensive, early-industrial textures. There isn't a lot of pitch-driven content: sounds and textures are used rhythmically, articulated with filters and other onboard effects, which is another approach I don't often associate with sequencers. But this recording feels like it had to be made, and it transcends its limited equipment resources as though the music couldn't be stopped.

"333" is made of three long compositions. The first, "Quicksand Eggs of a Beaten Pathos," is over 30 minutes, quite a ride on its own. "Quicksand" starts with a short bass-driven introduction before leaping headfirst into walls of sound. Power electronics textures dominate until we reach the 7-minute mark, where a midrange riff begins to take over. The interplay between evolving textures and riffs continues for much of the piece, punctuated with really harsh rhythms that propel the music forward. Around 18 minutes, the piece dissolves into near-silence, eventually coalescing into a really cool synth ostinato figure, turning on itself repeatedly, and this section gets extensively reworked with sections of pads and countermelodies that shift focus momentarily toward harmonic function. Some almost drum & bass-sounding rhythms bring up the energy toward the end, followed by some stuttering rhythmic stabs and heavily filtered synth blips. From drones to harsh noise, "Quicksand" integrates a number of compositional impulses into a powerful whole.

The other two pieces, "Deadbeat Deluxe" and "Plasthma," are shorter, their combined length not quite reaching that of "Quicksand" alone. But these are complex pieces that travel across compositional approaches, too. "Deadbeat" uses some interesting, almost dub-like drops between rhythmic ideas, eventually melting into clusters of colliding note sequences driven by brutal quarter-note rhythms. "Plasthma's" first half is perhaps the most texturally-driven section of the album, eventually giving way to some of the most harmonically-dominated writing on the record in its second half, which almost sounds like an early Residents recording at times. As other reviews of the album have noted, one can certainly hear a lot of early industrial, noise, and electronic music influences in "333," but there is a certain compositional flair that combines and juxtaposes the musical sections in a more classical sense. I'm sometimes reminded of the most explosive trill/repeated-note moments in Nancarrow's player piano studies, or "Systems Emerge"-era Flying Luttenbachers. These works all share an especially personal energy that is usually only possible when a composer is also the sole performer/programmer of their work.

Listening to this album as a purely aesthetic experience is satisfying enough, but there is a larger concept behind this music that I think is worth exploring for a deeper context. As Zylo describes it, "To this day, and for at least 9 years, the artist has seen a series of numbers, "333," on clocks or other various places constantly; nearly every day, to the degree that it has become a fixation." In keeping with some of the magical resonance in the early industrial movement, the "333 current" seems to play a significant role in this recording. The Thelemic tradition associated 333 with the Crossing of the Abyss, essentially a process of confronting and (hopefully) transcending the Ego, and with the figure of Chronozon, essentially a "chaos god" of the Abyss itself, beyond good and evil (but usually pretty evil-looking!). The number gets associated with concepts like forgetfulness, lies, "breaks," redemption, and the darkness/overwhelming potential of total revelation. Later chaos magic traditions have continued to associate the 333 current/Chronozon concept with the Ego, somewhat softening the drama of the encounter to more of an acknowledgement/release process rather than confrontation/transcendence, in rituals such as Peter Carroll's "Mass of Chronozon."One doesn't need to be a believer or practitioner of such traditions to find their philosophies and archetypal implications interesting, and knowing a bit about them seems to illuminate this record nicely, with its ever-shifting shapes and conversations between melodic and textural ideas. You can find more information about "333," as well as other projects involving Arvo Zylo, at http://www.nopartofit.com.

--also published at Killed in Cars


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.
After a weird, wild, and wonderful month+ that kept me from writing reviews, I'm firing up my keyboard again. All the while, a batch of excellent releases from Bob Bucko Jr. (bbJR) have never been far from my turntable/Walkman/CD player/iPod. bbJR submitted an LP and a CD to the Killed in Cars headquarters some time ago, and in corresponding with him about those releases, he sent a few more recordings along. For this review, I'm going to focus on three discs, but I'm sure we'll be discussing more in the future.

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.

More projects

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


Normal Love coming to Lincoln!

Flyer courtesy of Bad Robot Brain
It's been an exciting week of Normal Love-related activity in Lincoln this week. Last Sunday on the Other Music show, we interviewed band members Amnon Friedlin and Evan Lipson about the new record and upcoming tour. In case you missed the show, you can download the interview here.

A few of us Nebraska folks were trying to choose between a road trip to Iowa City or Lawrence to catch them on tour, but then the Iowa City date didn't firm up. And Darren Keen has graciously added them to a show this coming Friday, August 10 at Knickerbockers here in Lincoln instead! Here are the details on the show:

Normal Love, Touch People, Fuchsia Minutiae, and Woven Symbol
Friday, August 10, 9PM-2AM, 18+
901 O St, Lincoln, NE

You can join a Facebook invite for the show by clicking here...

It's a short lead time for the show, but I hope Nebraska can come out to support the most inspiring and provocative album of the year!

By the way, we also debuted a track from the upcoming Psychotic Quartet album on the radio show on Sunday. "Cordyceps" will be released in September by New Atlantis Records, along with a batch of other stellar albums. Check them out! I recently reviewed their album on Eh? Records, and both of these albums are essential documents of modern improvised music.

For folks reading in other parts of the country, here are the rest of their current tour dates:

8/4 Meaford @ Electric Eclectics
8/6 London @ Sweet Magic London Festival
8/7 Lake Michigan (Muskegon - Milwaukee) @ Lake Express Ferry
8/8 Madison @ Dragonfly Lounge
8/9 Minneapolis @ Hexagon Bar
8/10 Lincoln @ Knickerbockers
8/11 Lawrence @ Jackpot Saloon
8/12 St. Louis @ Lemp Arts
8/13 Fayetteville @ Lightbulb Club
8/14 Hot Springs @ The Exchange
8/15 Memphis @ Lamplighter Lounge
8/16 Chattanooga @ Sluggo's North
8/17 Lexington @ The Sidecar
8/18 Cincinnati @ The Comet
8/19 Chicago @ Township
8/20 Cleveland @ Now That's Class
8/21 Ithaca @ The Space


New discussion post at Killed In Cars

Paul and I are trying to stimulate some discussion over at Killed in Cars. Go here:


...and comment or submit a response. Paul will probably have his response posted shortly...


Mike Pride overview and Other Music interview links

Picking out Mike Pride tracks for Other Music proves to be a difficult task!

As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we've had awesome interviews on the last two editions of Other Music. On 6/24/12, we had an interview with Kevin Burkett of the Electrical Guitar Company, who told us lots of interesting facts about building aluminum guitars, as well as an historical overview of aluminum instruments. Dan Jenkins of Ideal Cleaners also joined us in the studio for a live "aluminum jam," over which I did some spoken word chatting about all things aluminum.

You can download an mp3 of the Kevin Burkett interview here.

And you can download the aluminum jam here.

Last night, we had an interview with drummer and composer Mike Pride, who discussed his many bands and projects, including a Kickstarter campaign he's currently running to produce a recording of his Drummer's Corpse piece. As of this writing, there are 21 days left to reach the funding goal for the Kickstarter--check out the link above for more information, and you can sign on to help make a recording of this crazy cool piece happen.

You can listen to Mike's interview on Other Music here.

While I'm thinking about Mr. Pride's work, I wanted to suggest a few albums from his back catalog that I think readers of Words on Sounds would really dig. While I haven't reviewed an MP-related album since I ramped up the reviews on this blog last year, I've been following his work for years, and I consider many of his recordings to be an essential part of any contemporary jazz/experimental collection. Pride has an enormous back catalog of recordings that might be daunting to approach at first, but here are five of my favorites to get you started:

Dynamite Club - Fusion Era
The newest recording by Mike's avant-rock/punk/math trio, "Fusion Era" pummels you with 12 tracks in 20 minutes, but it has more notes, humor, and attitude than most albums can hold in an hour. Mike and guitarist Kentaro Saito share vocal duties, while the low end is alternately covered by Evan Lipson (Normal Love) and Jesse Krakow (Time of Orchids). The physical pressing features awesome packaging and album art, including lyrics and liner notes printed on four insert cards. This band put on some of the best shows of the mid-oughts, and this recording ably captures the intensity of their live show.

Bunda Love - Beards & Calves
This double CD is a collaboration between Pride and Portland, ME improvisor id m theft able, manipulating four years' worth of recordings into an indescribable onslaught of EAI and noise. The perfect makeout disc for your next Furry party!

Whoopie Pie - Sweet
Whoopie Pie is a trio featuring Bill McHenry on tenor and Jamie Saft on electric bass, along with Pride behind the drumkit. Saft and Pride really take this project from jazz trio territory into passages evocative of drone and thrash music, with distorted bass tones and relentless percussion. And McHenry is no slouch either, adding great melodies and Ayler-esque wails over it all. If the idea of Sunno))) covering "Spiritual Unity" gets you excited, hit yourself with some Whoopie Pie. By the way, pop the CD in your computer for some bizarre videos of Maine folks hitting one another with the venerable desserts...

Period - Period
This is a devastating 1-track improvisation between Pride and Extra Life/ex-Zs guitarist Charlie Looker. Balancing impulses of brutality and austerity, Period is a must-listen for fans of both Pride and Looker, its weighty improvisation giving insight into the compositional impulses of both musicians. A Funhole Records and FuckingA co-release, the physical edition of this album is out of print, but you can buy the digital version for just under four bucks on Pride's BandCamp site. By the way, the other records in this list of recommendations can be bought directly from Mike--just click here. Period has finished more recordings, too, which I hope to hear soon. In the meantime, you can visit the Free Music Archive for a few live sets that will give you an idea of their direction after the s/t release--Chuck Bettis and Darius Jones are also featured on these live sessions.

Andrew d'Angelo Trio - Morthana With Pride
This album isn't a "proper" Mike Pride recording--he's sitting in with d'Angelo's brutal Morthana unit--but it features some of Pride's most intense scream vocals, power electronics, and drumming on record. Listeners of the Other Music show will probably recognize the opening track, "My Prostate," which I've spun several times. I love the harsh free-jazzcore of this unit, and though Morthana has been dormant for a while, at least we have a couple of recordings to remember them by.

Enjoy your explorations into the diverse Mike Pride catalog, and let's hope the Drummer's Corpse Kickstarter campaign adds another killer recording to the list!


Normal Love - Survival Tricks

I'm not ordinarily the kind of listener to participate in "best record of year X" rhetoric, but Normal Love has left me no choice in 2012. Avant rock fans: this is your album of the year. A co-release between Public Eyesore and Weasel Walter's ugEXPLODE label, Survival Tricks is available on CD and LP. Normally, PE promos show up on my doorstep in CD format, but I love this record so much that I'm going to order the vinyl, too.

I first heard Normal Love back around 2008, shortly after their self-titled debut dropped on High Two records. At the time, I was obsessed with the "brutal prog" attack of the last few Flying Luttenbachers albums (especially "Systems Emerge from Complete Disorder" and "Cataclysm") and Zs "Arms" LP of 2007, and I was actively looking for other bands working toward similar integrations of the compositional rigor of contemporary classical music, the swagger of free jazz, and the boundless energy of hardcore and metal. The closest thing I found was the Normal Love debut, which I found incredibly interesting musically, though it lacked a little of the bravado of Zs and the Luttenbachers. 2009 brought the "Peel" EP, whose two songs hinted at new facets in the group's development with the addition of vocals by Merissa Martigoni and a new emphasis on jagged rhythmic work.

As good as those releases are--and they're very much worth hearing--nothing can prepare you for the shock of "Survival Tricks." Listening to this album for the first time was one of those all-too-rare experiences (and the reason I get excited about listening to records) where I found myself shouting out loud in response to the music: "holy shit," "fuck yes," omigod, ARRRRRRR. Normal Love is a whole new band, every bit as technically gifted but alive with a magical, feral intensity. The raw power of this album can't be ignored. This recording couldn't turn into background music if you played it in a war zone.

Have a taste for yourself: there is a new video for the opening track, "Lend Some Treats." While I could regale you with tales of the brilliance one can make of insane rhythms that multiply in Fibonacci-esque explosions, the contrary whole-step pulling between voice and violin on the word "try," the various regroupings on unison notes that pedal off in wild directions, and the impossible hocketing of sounds around the whole ensemble, experiencing it yourself is simply too primal and pre-language to adequately put into words:

Normal Love - Lend Some Treats (Official Music Video) from Haoyan of America on Vimeo.

As you might imagine from that track, describing the stylistic tendencies of "Survival Tricks" is a challenge maybe better left to listening than description. The music focuses intensely on rhythm, both elemental macrorhythms and quickly-articulated nanorhythms: brainwaves soaring over the heart and the lungs. Though the songs mostly gravitate toward tonal centers, and melodic invention has its place (especially in the affecting melodies of "I Heard You Could See Baltimore from There"), rhythm and timbre demand the most attention. The closest RIYL notion that I can come up is somewhat abstract, but maybe it'll give you a good starting impression: I always felt like the Zs album "Arms" opened up a set of new sonic possibilities that nobody explored any further, including Zs. "Survival Tricks" goes many fathoms deeper into that territory than anyone has before, unearthing musical discoveries that will startle both your head and your heart. Most of these pieces are incredibly complex, fully satisfying for deep cerebral listening, but there is a raw power behind the whole record that demands more fundamental emotional reactions. You've got to feel this one.

Now that most of Normal Love's tracks feature vocals, and they've taken such a turn toward the visceral from the cerebral, I found it interesting to note that the lyrical content of these pieces tends to focus on undomesticated fundamentals, too: moss, clay, earth, brine, water, solitude, young sex, "Life: quality or quantity?" I was also moved by the transcendent vibes of this record in terms of gender identity--so many albums that get this "brutal," for lack of a better word, feel overwhelmingly masculine, but this music is equal parts masculine and feminine. I'm sure the participation of women in the recording (Merissa Martigoni on vocals and keys, and Jessica Pavone on amplified violin on many tracks) has an obvious contribution toward that balance, but some of the best lyrical moments toward female empowerment were penned by men in the group, such as the lyrics to the "Baltimore" track mentioned above that came from bassist Evan Lipson.

Hearing this record has changed the way I feel about music in a way that few records have done. This one is going on a very short personal list of heavy albums I return to frequently, including Kayo Dot's "Choirs of the Eye," Time Of Orchids' "Sarcast While," Extra Life's "Secular Works," and the Flying Luttenbachers and Zs records mentioned above. If you're into those bands, you simply have to give this a try. And Normal Love is planning a tour for later this year, which will feature new member Rachael Bell on voice/sampler, around late August/September--check for tour dates at their website.

--also published at Killed in Cars

Three from the Many Arms crew

I've been listening to a few amazing albums that have recently been released by members of Many Arms, whose "Missing Time" was included in my recent power trio review. Since then, the new s/t Many Arms record was released on Tzadik, which extends their muscular sound into even longer and more intense workouts than their previous efforts--it's an essential 2012 album for sure.

But I want to focus on a few of the recent side project recordings coming out of this Philly trio's wide range of creative interests. It seems there is a Many Arms-related record waiting to satisfy almost any mood. And there are even more projects than these three you can look forward to hearing, as I'll detail at the end of these reviews.

Johnny DeBlase Quartet - Composites

Composites captures 2 long-form compositions by Johnny DeBlase, bassist for Many Arms and Zevious. These are surprising and complex compositions, rooted in jazz but constantly shifting in textures, dynamics, and harmonic vocabularies. The opening section of "First Form" made me think of a blend of 70s NYC loft jazz and Mahavishnu-esque fusion approaches, coming on strong and aggressive with an explosive head, followed by melodic interplay between guitarist Nick Millevoi and Joe Moffett. Millevoi briefly takes over the stage with some chromatically descending trill action, and then the surprises really begin: bassist DeBlase and drummer Dave Flaherty bring the dynamics down a few notches to set up the next scored passage, some beautifully evolving semi-chromatic melodies gently unfolding over a sizzling rhythm section. Then we get some sectional work within the group: trumpet and bass together, with a more direct and pointilistic drum approach instead of the hard bop textures that have come before, followed by very gentle guitar and austere bowed bass picking up some sul ponticello harmonic overtones. And then...

I don't mean to get into a long play-by-play of these compositions--and the paragraph above only takes us about halfway into "First Form" anyway--but it's difficult to illustrate just how wide these pieces reach, from meditative passages that embrace silence and a classical attention to detail that would be right at home on an early ECM release, to the loft scene and the later evolution of NYC downtown. And at moments of high intensity, I can't help but think of how younger musicians, raised through the evolution of hardcore and metal genres, have been able to integrate the power of those styles without always having to make literal references like Naked City or something. In "Second Form" around the 7 minute mark, for example, there is a section with brutal drums and tremolo bass that could almost turn into a grindcore riff, but it acts instead as a more natural distillation of brutality that beautifully sets up some long-tone guitar passages.

Speaking of metal, the album cover, a photo of some twisting striations of light that remind me vaguely of the cover for bassist Bill Laswell's solo debut "Baselines," comes from Dysrhythmia/Gorguts guitarist Kevin Hufnagel. And the record also sounds very good, carefully captured with a dry, present sound that's very listenable by Eric Carbonara at Nada Sound Studio in Philly. With impressive musicianship, a great balance of composition and improvisation, and compositions that take listeners on a consistently surprising and adventurous journey, "Composites" is highly recommended. There is a limited edition of 100 CDrs available now for the same price as the download edition on Bandcamp, so act soon if you want to snag a physical copy. 

Bailly/Millevoi/Moffett - Strange Falls

Millevoi and Moffett, half of the DeBlase Quartet, join guitarist Alban Bailly (leader of another favorite avant-jazz band of mine, Inzinzac) on this recent release by Public Eyesore imprint Eh? records for a decidedly more free-improv setting than I've heard from the Many Arms camp yet. "Strange Falls" captures 8 improvisations by this trio, incorporating many extended techniques and effects. And unlike a lot of the free improv records I've been hearing lately, there are passages using recognizable clusters of notes, too: the overall emphasis is on soundscaping, with lots of breathing and scraping sounds from the subtle to the violent, but I must admit that I really like when projects like this incorporate pitched sounds.

Take the second track, "Panspermia," for example. Almost 8 minutes in length, making it one of the longest tracks on this record, it leans heavily on taps, scrapes, glissando sounds, and electronic sounding pops running into an envelope filter, but the long trumpet tones in the introduction act as a nice anchor for the sounds evolving around them, and the scalar/chromatic guitar runs flowing near the center of the piece give shape and direction to the undulating, increasingly frenetic sounds building up alongside. When the dynamic level drops and the focus turns to relatively delicate sounds later, it feels like a useful context has been established for digging into the deeper nature of the abstract sounds. While I think this album will appeal primarily to those who are already into free improv and EAI, these fragmentary but frequent moments of pitched content give the album extra potential as a sort of "gateway drug" into free improvisation for folks coming from relatively more conventional jazz backgrounds, too. So jazzers beware: spend some time with "Strange Falls," and you just might find yourself revisiting those Nate Wooley and Jack Wright records you bought but never quite "got" with a new ear.

I think my favorite track here is the pointillistic "Tungska," with a great blend of out-jazz trumpet lines and short, fast punctuation from both guitars. The manipulations of unison notes in the following track "Star Rot" are super compelling, too. But the whole album hangs together very well, and it's more of an album-length experience with track breaks for convenience to my ears. I should also mention that this is a great headphone record--most of the tracks feature generous stereo separation between the 2 guitars, with the trumpet mostly down the center of the stereo field, and it's a lot of fun to feel the sounds darting and slithering back and forth between your ears. 

Nick Millevoi - Black Figure of a Bird

I know I've mentioned before how much I like solo guitar, voice, and sax recordings in general--you can learn so much about a musician's musical approach by what they're highlighting in solo work. And among a category of recordings I'm already inclined to appreciate, Nick Millevoi's "Black Figure of a Bird," recently released by the promising young label New Atlantis, is a real treat.

"Black Figure of a Bird" documents six compositions for solo 12-string electric guitar, employing several alternate tunings that make many of these compositions sound much bigger than solo efforts. I was solidly digging this album from the first track, "Warm Green Discs," which quickly introduces listeners to the best traits of Millevoi's playing: a massive, slightly overdriven tone, smart phrasing with great accents to melodic lines through selective octaves and harmonization, a mature sensitivity to the full dynamic range of the instrument, and that pick technique! Melody notes absolutely jump off the pick even in the midst of "stirring" techniques that keep the harmonic cauldron bubbling beneath.

Compositionally, these are ambitious pieces, too. "Life in Ice," for example, takes listeners into delicately cycling melodic patterns, rhythmically repeating dirges, and occasional Zorn or Chadbourne-like flourishes of noise. "Bruxer" is a short and wicked fast composition with an awesome tuning that allows Millevoi to sound like an overdubbed metric-harmonized Ocrilim track by himself.

But the two relatively gentler tracks deserve a special mention: album closer "Nothing Forms a Liquid" is a beautiful exploration of harmonics built on usually-impossible chords facilitated by alternate tuning. Here too the guitar tone becomes part of the composition, set with an overdrive that lets softer parts resonate with crystalline brilliance, while passages played with a harder attack take on a sharp, almost brittle tone. And I'm especially partial to "What Sunlight Does Make it Through," the longest track on the album at 9 minutes, for mooring itself to a Lydian mode-based wash of beautiful chordal explorations, particularly in its introduction. I wish more people considered the emotional power that can be teased out of Lydian and its inherent juxtapositions between the "evil" tritone and the potential for a sort of "ultra-major" sound with both its leading tone and the upward resolution of that tritone. The piece evolves into a progressively complex harmonic territory, showcasing another aspect of Millevoi's talents. Before hearing this record, I mostly thought of inventive melodic playing when I heard his playing, but these pieces show an even wider sphere of compositional and technical abilities.

The album art and packaging is beautiful, too, with mysteriously manipulated indoor/outdoor photo juxtapositions (and fittingly enough, a black bird) by Katie Rey. My only criticism of this record? At 25 minutes, it could be longer. I'd be delighted to sit through a double LP of music like this. Hopefully there is more on the way:

More Many Arms-related projects

Another Millevoi solo record (I think) is coming soon. Called "In White Sky," keep an eye on his blog for more news on that, as well as a record that will include Ches Smith, Travis Laplante, and Ed Ricart entitled "Haitian Rail." Millevoi also plays with Archer Spade and Electric Simcha.

Johnny DeBlase also plays bass in Zevious, an excellent band on Cuneiform that would surely appeal to anyone who digs Many Arms. Zevious is writing a new album right now, and hopefully we'll hear a new record from their camp early next year...

I didn't get a chance to cover any side projects by Many Arms drummer Ricardo Lagomasino in this review, but he's a busy fellow as well: in addition to drumming for Joe Lally (Fugazi) in recent years, he's also part of a great out-jazz duo Lagomasino/Fishkin, and he's working in an interesting pop project called The Sea Around Us. And I'll always remember seeing him play with Capillary Action, whose first "official" album, "So Embarrassing," features him behind the kit.

--also published at Killed in Cars