Arnold Dreyblatt and Megafaun - Appalachian Excitation

Wow. This record feels like family. I've developed a really warm relationship with this music in a short amount of time, partially because it was with me at the perfect moment for a first listen. Normally, I do all of my "serious" listening at home, preferably with a full-fi physical copy on a decent stereo, bathing in the music with undivided attention. But "Appalachian Excitation" and I first met on a return car trip from southern Missouri, via an iPod loaded with a few new albums to keep me awake.

If you've never been to those parts, there is a stretch along southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, drifting into southern Indiana and eventually into Kentucky, that feels like extended foothills to Appalachia in my mind: the rural areas are full of rolling hills and intensely curving highways where trees with tiny individual crowns crowd right to the edges of the roads, making a weird collective canopy that makes you forget about the sky. These hills begin just south of the final reach of glaciers from the last Ice Age, and both the land and the people take on a unique vibe, with the humid and ancient energy of the deep south blending into a cooler kind of remoteness I associate with more northerly regions. As a Great Plains native, I can relate to the lonely rural energy of these spaces easily, but we can see for miles in every direction on the plains. A little further south, it feels secretive in an unfamiliar way. You might assume the terrain carries on in similar fashion through the next stand of trees and over the next series of hills, but you never know--there could be crazy stuff hidden all over the place, almost on top of you. You don't know until you get there.

Normally I hate to interpret an album title so literally, but "Appalachian Excitation" falls perfectly into line with the feelings I get in those parts of the country. In a general sense, Dreyblatt's music with his Orchestra of Excited Strings has always felt both familiar and a touch alien to my ears, with just intonation tuning approaches providing an overwhelming sensation of harmony as an almost physical mass, a force that's always been there but has been hidden away to please the pianos and other equal temperament creatures of the musical world. And many of the string sounds themselves are struck rather than plucked, a kind of articulation that those of us raised on mostly Western musical traditions often hear as vaguely Asian. Specific to this new record, which feels like a close cousin of Excited Strings recordings like "Animal Magnetism," the prominent sound of banjos and country bends, along with rhythmic and harmonic nods to Appalachian and Ozark folk traditions, bring even more cultural signifiers into a complex-but-inevitable-feeling hybrid of orchestral, world, and folk musics.

And it rocks, too. Car trips aside, now that I've had the chance to sit with this music in LP format and move some serious amounts of air, I think this music works best when you can feel like you're right in the middle of a performance. As Dreyblatt put it in the liner notes to "Animal Magnetism," "This music is composed with a specific acoustic effect in mind. One should listen at maximum volume!" I think that principle very much applies to "Appalachian Excitation," too. On the surface, this is minimalist music, but the drones and simple harmonies that make up this record truly come to life when the walls of your surroundings--and your body, and your head--start to resonate in sympathetic vibration. I'm sure it's even better live, but the fine folks at Pinebox Recording in North Carolina did a wonderful job of capturing this music with a very present, "played right in front of you" kind of feel, and it's been mastered and pressed with plenty of dynamic range, so the frequent unison hits found throughout the record have a charged, intense front end that decays into satisfying chords, rich with the harmonic overtones characteristic of the "excited strings" approach.

Given the overall sound of "Appalachian Excitation," it feels natural to describe this music in terms of Dreyblatt's musical history, but serious appreciation for Megafaun's performance here needs its own mention as well. Megafaun fans might initially be bewildered by this record as a non-vocal set of pieces. And they really are "pieces," not tunes. But their commitment to this music is admirable: it takes a unique sense of "the present" to really get inside this music, as each chord, unison hit, or change in direction has a kind of holographic significance to the whole of each composition. Megafaun nails it. They're all in. It's also interesting to hear them work with some electric instruments on this record, including the super high-tech Moog lap steel, which seems to be responsible for synth sounds and almost hornlike drone moments that surface in pieces like "Edge Observation."

Recommended! Check it out at Northern Spy.

--also published at Killed in Cars


bran(...)pos - Den of Ordure and Iridescence

Another delightful house show-related find for me: I've been unfamiliar with the work of bran(...)pos until now, but I'm beyond glad to get in on this music. With a busy discography dating back to 2000, "Den of Ordure and Iridescence" is a vinyl/digital release via Resipiscent, who previously released "Quaak Muttar" by bran(...)pos on CD in the form of a small, functional pinball game!

Bran(...)pos is the performance/recording pseudonym of theatre sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who combines compositional and performance strengths with experience in softsynth and instrument design to make this project a potent and personal experience. This record covers a wide stylistic range with dexterous ease, and I think it unites the weirdo improv/soundart camps with the whole neo-kosmische scene blossoming right now in the cassette label world.

I'm really vibing on how well this LP hangs with a lot of the music I've been digging lately, and it bridges some genre boundaries that have been somewhat firm in my mind before sitting in this Den. The album opener, "Tin Tract Mine," explores the many sonic possibilities of the bran(...)pos live setup of the last few years. Briefly put, it's an electroacoustic kind of approach, but mostly created using mouth sounds and mouth-controlled synths. At first, I was reminded of the salival sonic palette in the Phillip Gayle album I reviewed a while ago, with lots of lip pops, licking, sucking, gurgling, etc: the "extended technique" range of avant-vocalisations. But the synth sounds that are produced/controlled at the same time expand this music into really surprising territory, creating a sort of eai duet within a singular oral cavity. Amazing, unexpected stuff, slowly rising in density, with lots of wild stereo panning that sounds great on headphones. At first, synths drone and oscillate in low, rumbling supportive roles, but eventually they overtake most of the identifiable mouth/voice sounds, even incorporating an insistent beat toward the end of the piece. Regardless of how this is made, it's a great listen, but the added bonus of seeing these mouth controls in action must surely put this work over the top. I can't wait to see this in person (more on that below), but here's a video to whet your appetite:

The second piece, "Sawed Off at Plasticized Forest," is a great sonic cousin to the Carl Testa album I just reviewed. Here, the bran(...)pos synths are used in conjunction with some extended-technique cello playing. Though much less melodically focused than Testa's "Iris," the cello/electronics relationship here shares a similarly tight kind of interactivity, layers of granular bits of cello seemingly drifting into high-pitched buzzes and glitches, and conversely having passages of synthesized clouds supported by very busy bowing and knocking on the cello. At times I'm reminded of Zbigniew Karkowski's extended piece for cello & electronics from a few years ago, "Nerve Cell_0," too, though many of the synth sounds here start from 8-bit sounding places and edge their way into more ominous spaces slowly. Proceeding through three short movements, "Sawed Off" is full of surprising transitions and high energy, sounding both serious and playful at the same time.

As cool as the A-side of "Den of Ordure and Iridescence" is, I was totally blown away by the B-side opus, a stunning 19-minute piece aptly titled "Lioness." While the first half of the album feels somewhat introverted and improvisatory in nature, with sounds being produced and manipulated from a singular point, "Lioness" highlights the intensely extroverted side of the bran(...)pos sound, carefully composed and with seemingly no orchestrational limitations. This is an expansive cinematic piece that boldly unites orchestral percussion and bits of found sound with a wall of modular synth goodness. This is the kind of work where a play-by-play doesn't do justice, but experiencing the many scenic shifts in this piece feels profoundly moving and almost tangibly visible, evoking lush alien landscapes separated by desolate, Mad-Max feeling deserts. The proportions of synth and "real" instruments put this music into a really unique place, where the timbral approaches of folks like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream get infused with a sort of 20th. C. classical rigor. A fantastic piece, and it's actually quite approachable, too: if you're a slightly less adventurous listener, I'd suggest starting with the B-side first, where you're sure to become so enamored with "Lioness" that you'll warm up to the more abstract approaches of the A-side in no time.

Bran(...)pos is on tour right now promoting this album. Traveling with Blood Transfusion, a new project from Sharkiface, they're making a stop at my Think Tank House one week from now. They'll be joined by Moss, a local group seriously deep into synth playing and design as well. Event info here. And the rest of their tour dates around this amazing album will be:

Sunday July 14, 2013 9pm
1336 S.Grand Ave. Los Angeles, CA

Tuesday July 16, 2013 8:30pm
4th and Mountain
Alberquerque, NM

Thursday July 18, 2013 9pm
Roll on down to Club 1808 for this Fantastic Mixed Bill ! Lots of Harsh Noise, Experimental sounds, Noise, Electronic Wizardry, Noisy Noise, Folk Songs & Dub Step.
Your Hosts Topher Wallace and { AN } Eel will delight & Amaze you.
featuring in 2 rooms:
1808 E. 12th St.
Austin, TX

Friday July 19, 2013 9pm
House of Tinnitus Presents
411 E Sycamore
Denton, TX

Monday July 22, 2013 3:30pm
3401 Chartres St.
New Orleans, LA

Tuesday July 23, 2013 9pm
Reid Campbell
407 49th Ave.
N. Nashville, TN

Friday July 26, 2013 9pm
1550 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL

Wednesday July 24, 2013 9pm
39 S Market St. #B
Asheville, NC

Saturday July 27, 2013 9pm
627 S. 28th St.
Lincoln, NE

Sunday July 28, 2013 9pm
Blood Transfusion
3553 Brighton Blvd.
Denver, CO


Nicoffeine - Au Revoir Golden Air (and more)

It's been a while since we've heard from Germany's Nicoffeine, and their latest LP, "Au Revoir Golden Air," shows continued evolution toward new atmospheres. Dating back to the early 00s, this band has deep roots in various forms of aggressive music, but with each new album, their unique marriage of harsh noise textures and surprisingly tuneful melodic sections grows increasingly focused.

For a band that spends a lot of time approaching the volume levels of a power electronics act, "Au Revoir" opens with a marvelously subtle gesture, gradually lifting out of silence into a chorus of weirdly harmonized and modulated vocals in the first minutes of "Goldenbergersteeg." While a pad of these almost Residents-sounding vocals fades and returns throughout the piece, drummer Jorg Schneider sets the mood with a stuttering drum riff, his kick drum heavy in the mix. Second track "Wolf in Bathtub" then establishes the kind of contrast that defines Nicoffeine, centering around a relatively conventional uptempo tritone-bassed riff, tons of distortion, and layers of slithering noise and feedback.

While there is plenty of guitar on this album, Soheyl Nassary's approach this time around obscures the recognizable sounds of "rock guitar" tones at every opportunity. A lot of his riffs, like the trippy "Ando Guerillo" or "Sunstudio Wizard," are blasted through ring mods and assertive distortions, which turn his lines into harsh textural splashes while bassist Guido Lucas plays in unison, defining the actual pitches. Even when the ring mod is off, most of his tones have a touch of harmonizer blended in with a bit of very short delay that cause the guitars to feel like they're trapped within their own artificial spaces, absorbing a bit of the tonal mass of meaty synth sounds. Sometimes it sounds like a whammy pedal is turned on and displaced up an octave, too, adding to the tonal surprises.

Schneider's playing is busier overall than the last few Nicoffeine albums, with a lot more tom rolls--his crazy workouts in Jealousy Mountain Duo must be rubbing off! His playing here continues to focus on creating distinctive drum parts for each piece, though, and his rock playing is harder and more pugnacious than ever.

Lucas' bass work is the melodic anchor on the most aggressive sections of this record, taking over riff-playing duties with alternating clean and distorted tones while effected guitars, feedback, and rumbling/squealing synths explode in every direction. While the bass holds things together, the actual mix of this music almost becomes an additional instrument: as the album progresses, parts of the drum kit, especially the kick drum, are pushed underneath concentrations of low-frequency noise that seem to be made of equal parts synths and overworked amplifiers. Listening to this album on headphones, you get weird upheavals in the perceived space the band is playing in, expanding and contracting and occasionally bursting into moments of high-frequency barrages.

But everyone returns to the same room on the balanced, serene album closer, the 13-minute epic title track. Guitars sound like guitars and synth/noise textures are subdued for most of this piece, opening with gentle chordal strumming and some wah accents, and the band goes into a lengthy postrock arrangement from there. A few reverb-drenched vocal lines in the first third of the piece remind me of Kayo Dot, and the music rises and falls carefully over time, not heading toward detonation this time.

The music feels very mature and serious this time around, but Nicoffeine shows their lighter side in the packaging: a new Nicoffeine logo on the back cover parodies the mid-80s "Point of Entry" era Judas Priest logo, and the band photo on the inside of this beautifully designed gatefold jacket totally cracked me up, with Nassary taking the world's biggest yawn.

"Au Revoir Golden Air" will be released in August on Blunoise in LP and CD formats, but if you just want a digital copy, you can proceed to Nicoffeine's BandCamp page right now. Nicoffeine tours regularly in Europe, and they're planning a US tour toward the fall of this year--keep up with tour dates on their Facebook page.

A few related albums
When Schneider sends these albums over from Germany, he often includes recordings of previous bands he's worked with. It's been a great opportunity for me to learn a bit about the experimental rock scene in Germany over the past decade or so, mostly centering around releases from the Blunoise label, which is operated by Nicoffeine bassist Lucas. These guys have been working in noisy, crazy rock circles since the 90s, when both Schneider and Lucas played stints in Les Hommes Qui Wear Espandrillos.

Since then, Schneider has played in a variety of interesting configurations that include:

Gaffa - Hundred Reasons to Kiss the Ground
Before Schneider and guitarist Berger began playing as Jealousy Mountain Duo, they played together as a less kinetic "slowcore" act called Gaffa. This music reminds me a lot of the Chicago Touch & Go scene, with maybe a little of the introspection of Low thrown in for good measure. There are great tunes, simple and direct, and unlike the spry instrumental voyages of JMD, this album has a lot of vocals, capably delivered by Berger.

Tarngo - Horman
Another duo band, Tarngo found Schneider working with bassist Scharco on a couple of albums. These are riff-based uptempo jams, featuring a variety of juicy overdriven bass tones and lots of creative cymbal work that foreshadows Schneider's later playing in JMD. If you're into intense Skin Graft-y instrumentals with a touch of math, you'll dig "Horman" a lot.

Jorg has sent along both of his albums with Fischessen, the debut "Suicide is Much Too Blonde" and followup "Koder," and I think these are my favorite work of his outside of JMD and Nicoffeine. "Koder" is a classic instrumental power trio record with Yvonne Nussbaum on bass and Tarngo's Scharco very capably moving over to guitar. Great playing and great songwriting in mostly postrock atmospheres dominates this record, and it's a bummer that it seems to be pretty obscure, not even showing up on Discogs. "Suicide is Much Too Blonde" captured the band in a period with a larger lineup, and it includes occasional vocal and synth accents. Fantastic, inspired writing, this debut feels a little more playful than Koder, and includes my favorite song of this band, "Wolfskull." Highly recommended.


Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Rhythm Section and a Laptop: solo works from Brian Chase and Carl Testa

The history of early electronic music stayed in close alignment with "classical" music circles for many decades--the sounds were new and otherworldly, dovetailing nicely with New Music innovations from serialism to indeterminacy, and from a practical perspective, building and maintaining the first generation of synths took the kind of money one rarely finds in musicians' hands outside of academia. As time went on, and electronic instruments became both portable and affordable, they increasingly became go-to instruments in rock and pop music circles, and as we all know, the popular music of the last several generations is constructed from mountains of silicon and electricity.

As pop music took over the Moogs and the hard drives, though, the classical music world slowly shuffled its feet backwards toward the exit doors. With a few notable exceptions, most of the contemporary classical folks whose work I've admired over the years have quietly but pretty thoroughly avoided electronics, other than the occasional amplified acoustic instrument. You can see the same kind of trend in jazz music as well: other than basic amplification needs, you have to go all the way back to the 70s to find a really active period of electronics in jazz.

But as electronic instruments evolve from hardware to software, I think we're due for an invigorating electronic revival in New Music of both composed and improvised disciplines. To an extent, it seems inevitable: if you're 40 or younger, you've lived at least half of your life within the "computer age," after all. When computers are an ordinary fact of life, moving from towers in home offices to handheld devices on nightstands, it's only natural that they're going to be integrated into a wider variety of musical activities than ever before. It's a total non-issue for the youngest generation coming up: living with computers is just living.

With that in mind, here are a couple of exceptional records integrating acoustic instruments and software manipulations. Both of these records create sonic environments that remind me of "classic" eras in electronic composition and improvisation, though the primary sounds within each are triggered by activities on acoustic instruments.

Carl Testa - Iris
A phenomenal upright bass player and composer, Carl Testa's "Iris" is a document of live solo bass/electronics improvisations. Playing bass while writing live code into a SuperCollider-based software environment, these pieces outstretch into chamber group-sized acoustical spaces with an unpredictable timbral variety--a surprisingly melodic brand of electroacoustic improvisation.

Opening track "At Early Bright" is a great introduction to the concept, as it features some of the most harmonically simple bass playing on the album, against which you can develop a feel for a few of the ways this software interacts with the live-sampled fragments of sound. Working mostly with variations on a tritone-based figure (which amusingly sounds like a Black Sabbath riff early in the piece), crystalline tones four and five octaves above the source material fall into melodic patterns and shimmer in quickly-repeating delays. As the synthesized fragments continue to unwind, Testa adds more complexity into the bass parts, with some walking lines and some harsh tremolo-bowed passages. In this piece, at least, he keeps vibrato to a minimum, locking tightly into tune and working each note for pure tone.

There is some beautiful, emotive vibrato in alternating bowed/plucked passages in the next piece, "When Scattered," from which a few relatively unaffected loops are retained to build tense passages with close-voiced dissonances that would be difficult or impossible to play as doublestops. The SuperCollider setup doesn't start to have a noticeable role until halfway into the piece, where it picks up textural clouds of sound from a section of particularly bristly extended technique shredding, with fast bowing scrapes and col legno, ect. This is followed by "Diffracted," which is the most texturally-focused piece here, closer to "classic" eai with little concern for harmonic development.

My favorite track is the final piece, "And Engulfed," which evolves slowly to incorporate large aggregations of beautiful high-pitched synth chords that glisten and whirl around one another. Toward the end, it takes on somber tones that wouldn't be entirely out of place in the denouement of a Godspeed tune--amazing that all of this sound can be produced can controlled from humble bass tones with live manipulation.

It's a great-sounding record regardless of how these sounds are produced, but if you're interested in seeing a bit of Testa's setup, here's a video of him tweaking a live synth module in SuperCollider:

Edit 7/9/13: Testa has uploaded a great, informative video showing the process behind "Iris" here:

"Iris" will be released on July 16th, and you can pick it up via LockStep Records. There will be a 5.1 DVD audio mix that you can buy and download, as well as CD and mp3 formats. I only have a stereo setup, myself, but I imagine that the many fragments of granular sound manipulation would sound really amazing in full surround.

Brian Chase - Drums & Drones
As drummer in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Brian Chase is probably the most commercially successful musician whose music I've profiled here. But he's been a long-time participant in avant-garde circles, too, playing with scores of folks on the NYC downtown scene, including some seriously wicked drumming on Jeremiah Cymerman's "Fire Sign" album that I reviewed a while ago. Through a series of events that are fully detailed in the liner notes, Chase has been developing a compositional process for filtering and effecting the sounds of drums to tease out the overtones, creating electronic-sounding music in just intonation.

These liner notes deserve a mention all their own--they're the most extensive notes I've seen in quite some time, fully elucidating both the personal and technical developments that led to this music. At times they get quite confessional, and in reading these elaborate notes, listening to the album many times, and watching the DVD, I kind of feel like I know the guy. And I like him. Chase has created a mini-site for the record here, which has some meaty excerpts of the liner notes and a lot of additional information and samples. Very much worth checking that out.

So I'm not going to delve into heavy technical details here--the liner notes have all of the information you could hope to find about how each track was made, as well as a narrative describing the three-phase evolution of this concept over several years. Instead, I'm going to try to describe how this music sounds, and how I'd suggest listening to it at first:

The basic physics that make this music possible are pretty straightforward. When someone strikes a drum, we're all trained to think of it as a rhythmic event in which the first moment of articulation is "the money." But after the initial hit, the drum continues to resonate for quite some time, and it contains a complicated set of interlocking frequencies, partially dependent on the main resonant frequencies of the drum shell, but also quite variable depending on the tuning of the drum head.

As Chase uses a number of filtering/effect strategies to attenuate various pitches within the set of natural overtones, pure sine waves are brought into the foreground. And a lot of these waves are very, very high pitches. When you consider that the fundamental pitches of many drums are already quite high, and the lowest overtones start sounding an octave above their fundamental pitches and head toward the stratosphere from there, a lot of the most interesting melodic stuff in this music happens in the upper ranges of your hearing, approaching and sometimes crossing into the territory usually reserved for hearing test tones.

Though the track sequencing of the album is really nice on repeated listening, I would recommend starting your experience with this music on track 4, the "Bass Drum Drone." As one might expect from the low fundamental pitches of a bass drum, a lot of these overtones sit in the midrange of your hearing, making really nice washes of pure chords and rhythms that are easy on the ear. A bit of feedback finds its way into this piece at times, and it ends on a high note--literally--but I find that I get a bit of hearing fatigue jumping right into some of the pieces that start in super high pitch ranges.

Here's another weird thing about listening to high-frequency compositions: when there are moments of complex high-frequency density, you can make your own melodies simply by moving around the room or sometimes even subtly moving your head. I first became aware of how much you can control this as a listener at a Jason Zeh show last year, where he creates really rich fields of high-frequency sound with modified cassette players. Moving around in sweet spots between the cranked PA speakers, even a tilt of your head would bring out different pitches, as those tiny waves react in wildly complex and functionally unpredictable ways to volume levels, speaker placement, and the proportions and variety of reflective surfaces of the room you're in.

That's part of the big-picture challenge with getting the most out of just-intonation music: if you have the opportunity, it's nice to figure out what the strongest resonant frequencies are in whatever room you're using with the music, and then if it's possible to tweak the tuning of the music to work with those frequencies, it's a way more powerful experience with lots more sympathetic vibrations erupting into the room. For this reason, I slightly disagree with Chase's liner note recommendation to listen to this album on stereo speakers versus headphones or computer speakers. If you want to hear it "how the artist intended," I think a really good set of headphones is worth trying with this album. But you'll want to try it multiple ways. When you pump it through a stereo, experiment with variations in speaker placement if it's possible, and you'll be able to get all kinds of sounds out of this album, from crazy hornlike sounds in the middle of "Snare Brush Drone," or a perfect storm of complex pitches to try that head-tilting trick with in "Drone State of Mind, V 1."

What I'm ultimately saying is that while this is essentially a drone album, and the influence of and affinity with other kinds of just-intonation drone music is definitely present, don't expect "In C" bumped up a few octaves. This is its own thing altogether, and you have to live with it in a very unique way.

There's a great DVD of mostly black and white visuals that comes with the disc, too. Produced by Ursula Scherrer and Erik Zajaceskowski, I found it fun to play around with the album as a purely audio experience a bunch of times, trying different setups, and then checking out the video. And if you get a chance, see this live! From the couple of videos floating around online, it looks like seeing this performed with the videos projected would be an intense, beautiful experience. You can check out a couple of live videos here. Pick up the CD/DVD/liner note epic from Pogus Productions.

New Lakookala single and tour

I reviewed Lakookala's debut 10'' a while ago, and the band is back with a new single just in time for a quick tour of the midwest. The FFU single finds Lakookala in fine form once again, offering a pair of damned catchy tunes rattling our collective cages with bravado. Like their debut, I'm reminded again of a fascinating stylistic split between groovy, shimmy-shaking early PJ Harvey on the title track, and an updated Siouxsie Sioux vibe on the B-side "Shellfish."

I just love the chorus of "FFU." I'm a total sucker for wordless vocal melodies that squirm their way into your consciousness and make themselves comfortable, and this is one of the best of that breed I've ever heard. The verse melodies have great rhythms that sashay against the main riff elegantly, too. And when you buy the record, you'll get a download code for a 3rd track, "One to Three," whose subsonic synths and overdubbed vocals trading lines make three of a perfect pair.

Lakookala's Midwest tour starts in a week, and as irony would have it, the first date is at my house. I've been keeping shows and reviews mostly separate (and I'm not sure that I'll be hosting shows long-term), but for you local Lincoln readers, please stop by next Sunday and show Lakookala some NE love. Local darlings The Renfields will be opening, and their new LP is a beautiful slab of vintage songwriting that you should check out, too.

Lakookala will be performing live on KZUM's The Wimmins Show on Sunday morning (July 14th) sometime in the 11:30 AM - 1 PM range, and then the show starts at The Think Tank around 7 PM that night. Please bring some cash for the musicians, and I would highly recommend putting your record-buying pants on that day, too.

Here's a beautiful poster for the show, courtesy of Bad Robot Brain:

And for those of you elsewhere in the Midwest, here are the rest of the tour dates:



The Green, Green Grass of Home -- a Field Hymns overview

It's amazing how many cassette labels keep springing up all over the world. This ostensibly outdated technology, whose demise has been lamented in many mainstream news articles, is enjoying a very real renaissance. I wouldn't be surprised if a few manufacturers start building Walkman-style machines again to keep up with the demand.

In the meantime, there are zillions of decent used decks and portable machines floating around, and you can set yourself up for many hours of enjoyment with an hour or two's wages at your local pawn shop or thrift store. And sweet Jesus, you should get on it quickly if you haven't already, as a lot of the most innovative and inspiring music being created today is coming out in batches of cassette-only analog joy.

While I'm digging the collected output of a whole bunch of cassette labels these days--be on the lookout for upcoming reviews of stuff from Eiderdown, SicSic, Orange Milk, Planted Tapes, Crash Symbols, New Atlantis, Centipede Farm, Personal Archives, Constellation Tatsu, Words + Dreams and more--today I want to celebrate the back catalog of Field Hymns, whose frantic series of releases in a few short years have turned vast stretches of my life into fully satisfying synth-fueled hallucinations.

Field Hymns does things up in a most deluxe way--releases feature 4-panel J-cards, printed on both sides with excellent art by label mastermind Dylan McConnell (you can see more of his design work at Tiny Little Hammers). McConnell has a fun, recognizable style that brings continuity to the whole catalog, but he also squeezes in great individual touches that give each release an appropriate personal feel. This art is seriously beautiful. I've stared at these gorgeous tapes for hours. And I really admire the work put into these designs, while most tape labels are only rocking 3-panel, single sided J-cards.

On the practical tip, the pro-dubbed tapes of Field Hymns releases feature additional thoughtful design work on their labels, and most of the cassette shells he's chosen are the kind with screws, a nice practical feature in the event of an occasional spaghetti-tape catastrophe. You can fix yr analog "glitches," boys and girls, and have a little fun while you're doing it. And the whole label is seamlessly integrated with BandCamp, so you can have those squishy digital files for your iDevices, too, and place your orders using PayPal. It's a perfect marriage of old and new technologies: you get all of the best in www.convenience along with the inherent beauty of these albums as physical objects and analog wave-slinging vitamins via pony express just a few days later. Beautiful.

Onto the music: like most of my favorite labels, Field Hymns obviously invests a lot of energy in the curation process. These albums all feel like they belong together while leaving room for lots of diversity. Generally speaking, this catalog tends to focus on synth-based instrumental music, heavy on kosmische and avant-dance vibes, though there are some well-placed exceptions. Artists in the Field Hymns roster tend to focus on longer-form compositions that evolve patiently, but what I find unique in these selections is a shared sense of fun and adventure. While a lot of slowly-evolving, drone-oriented recordings assume fairly dark moods, I find almost every FH album I've experienced to be way more uplifting than the norm for these genres. And fresh--these albums don't want to be heard as 70s Faust outtakes; they have their own collective vibe happening that's still vital and playful.

Fortunately, all of these mood-enhancing oscillations don't come at the cost of frivolity, either. I pay special attention to any musical efforts that manage to be on the happy/dreamy side of the musical spectrum without feeling shallow or empty, and if I had to guess what curatorial standards for FH might include, they seem to recognize the significance of that difference. Another weird line to avoid in drone/ambient/electronic music is that sort of neutral, new-agey kind of inconsequential meandering--you know, that stuff on the Avalon Music comps you find on that endcap at every Target or Bed Bath & Beyond store. Needless to say, FH confidently steers well clear of that lack-of-vibe, too.

In the Field
I've listened to almost the whole Field Hymns catalog now, and while I like almost everything on the label, here are a few of my favorite artists/tapes I would strongly recommend checking out. Album titles should link you to appropriate places at Field Hymns if you want to explore them yourself.

Giant Claw - Impossible Chew
How does Giant Claw and Orange Milk Records co-founder Keith Rankin find the time to be so prolific? Hot on the heels of his film music comp on Constellation Tatsu, which I reviewed here, Giant Claw dropped a BandCamp-only EP, "Attorney Struggle," which made me feel like I was a kid playing Gogol-13 all over again, and the next cassette has already arrived via Field Hymns. If you're into previous Giant Claw efforts, you'll feel at home again in "Impossible Chew," with its many arpeggiator-fueled ostinato lines and characteristic swagger. Many of these short pieces feel like library music cues, but uniquely morphed over impossible combinations of eras: 70s Kraut synths simmer with mod wheels pushed up just a touch, but the rhythmic figures feel like exuberant mid-80s synth pop. Cluster fronted by Olivia Newton John? Amazing as always. The standout track for me is "Meal Brothers Theme," which feels like it absorbed a bit of 90s hip hop as well, with lots of portamento lines and repeated high note rhythms. A great addition to the Giant Claw discography.

Field Hymns brings us the sophomore album by Toko Yasuda's PLVS VLTRA solo project, and it's one of those rare albums that has a strong appeal for both pop and weirdo music scenes. There are plenty of trippy backwards edits, startling punctuations of Bollywood flourishes, and modular synths galore, but most of these pieces are very beat-oriented and almost always melodic. Without being derivative of Bjork, PLVS VLTRA masters a similar unity between experimental soundscape work and very catchy songwriting. My favorite track, "ちょ-ちょ " (pronounced "Cho Cho"), has a great beat, reverse reedy-sounding synths, and a chill vocal from Nico. A great summer night jam while keeping all of your strange-music cred fully intact. This should be huge.

Black Hat - Covalence
This record is heavy on sonic contrasts, frequently traveling into darker corners than a lot of Field Hymns releases. At first it presents itself as a percussion dominated early industrial album, but the drums get out of the way by the second track, revealing wide vistas of sound incorporating lots of orchestral instruments. I don't know if they're samples or performed just for these pieces, but strings and horns and harps combine with delicate field recordings and synths to produce great pieces like "Jaune," a nurturing wash of slowly-moving melodic ideas that stays just a touch pensive. By the time percussion reappears in "The Lattice and the Comorant," the ambient textures themselves begin to absorb rhythm, flexing and pulsing in time. Using a wide dynamic range and sound sources from the conventional to pure electrical hums, "Covalence" is a sophisticated and rewarding listen.

Jonathan James Carr - Well Tempered Ignorance
If you're in the mood for a full-on psych synth blackout, "Well Tempered Ignorance" is your jam. What sounds like a warehouse full of synths begin to breathe together as Carr nests beautiful legato melodies atop the whole organism. I sometimes wish that more psych/drone albums found ways to incorporate virtuoso playing, and this album really delivers on that front. Field recordings that sound like they alternate between exotic locales and suburban back yards blend perfectly with the music, often sneaking in to delineate between musical transitions. And those sounds--pretty much every crazy patch you might hope to hear from an armada of ancient synths makes an appearance somewhere. Confidently performed and thoughtfully paced, Carr's solo debut is a real treasure.

Boron - Aria Statica
I reviewed Boron's most recent online-only effort here a few months ago, in which I lamented not having heard this sophomore release. Since then, I tracked down a copy, and I'm so glad that I did. As its name implies, this album is made of many slices of granular synth textures. Overall, it's a quiet, subtle collection of ideas, with occasional bits of radio sound or possibly other found sounds I can't quite identify. It feels like an extension of early electronic and musique concrete disciplines, suspended in time and just waiting for the right audience to catch up. Compared especially to Boron's Beige album, the hermetic focus here on a narrow palette of static-y buzzes feels a little clinical, but I get the impression that's part of the intended vibe: synths as mad science.

Mattress - Lonely Souls
This sounds like a slaying underground mid-80s album that never happened but should have: Suicide jamming with Nick Cave on vocals. Edgy vocals are draped in harsh reverb, the synth choices have the perfect amount of organ stops opened into the mix, and the whole recording is toasted to mid-fi mono perfection. Some awesome, simple-and-savage live drums surface in a few tracks, along with some gnarly live bass in the very no-wave instrumental "Dead Ends." Big organ riffs keep propelling these tracks into the rock and roll retrofuture--these are seriously great songs that anybody into Birthday Party or Love & Rockets or name your own postpunk guitargoth poison-of-choice will totally enjoy. While this isn't my usual kind of thing, it's so well executed that I find myself listening to it more than the actual famous bands I've namedropped above. A sweet surprise.

Bastian Void - Fluorescent Bells
This baby is sold out everywhere, but it's so damned fine that I just have to mention it. One of a few projects that Moss Archive's Joe Bastardo is currently rocking, Bastian Void makes intrepid synth soundscapes that unite solemn oscillating goodness with toy keyboard drum patterns and uptempo arpeggiator cycles. While this is by no means a jazz record, its earnest pace and synths that often sound like they're pumped through an overwhelmed tube PA remind me more of the urgent passions of 70s fusion than relaxed kraut ambience. And the 20-minute, 5-section ride of "In Common Outlets" approaches a prog level of compositional sophistication, though it's the most abstract and soundart-oriented section of this gratifying album. And for what it's worth, this tape has joined a small number of records receiving the "what is this, I love it" phone call award from a random listener on my radio show. This is probably my favorite Field Hymns release to date, and while the physical release seems to be sold out, you can still pick up the digital edition from the Bastian Void BandCamp. Be sure to check out the recent releases from Bastardo's other projects while you're at it: the new Homeowner album on Orange Milk, and the new Looks Realistic release on Constellation Tatsu, are both exquisite as well.

Deep Listening and serendipity: a Taiga Records overview

When I was a teenage ruffian entering music school, I loved shred guitar more than just about anything. I had hopes for a life of long solos and longer hair, and I was pumped to learn commercial composition to write the next big hits. But sometime in that first week, I was a passenger in a car with a fellow student who was jamming Gorecki string quartets and Penderecki's "Threnody" as we drove around Denver. My small-town head was blown wide open, and I changed my major to classical comp the next day. Those couple of hours completely changed my life.

I'm roughly twice that age now, and I'm amazed and excited to report that I've been feeling the same kind of all-encompassing shift in my music listening, and my life in general, after opening a box of promo records last November from Taiga Records. I've been adjusting to the aftereffects of this music for months, and the time has come to write about it.

Like all epiphanies viewed in reverse, delineation isn't perfectly clear--I had already been into some non-pop music like Zorn and Ornette and the Residents well before I hit music school, for example, and in the case of Taiga records, I was already familiar with a couple of their releases and had been following the work of Tatsuya Nakatani for a while. But there's a spark, a serendipitous moment, that draws a line all the same, and everything is different. For me, this has all happened at a nearly perfect moment where it seems like there is a renaissance of "other musics" happening: the disciplines of delicate electronic composition, lowercase improv, eai, and field recording/manipulation are all experiencing some of their best periods ever, as experienced composers and performers release some of their best work and new folks are imparting waves of fresh ideas into their scenes. These musics have been part of my aural diet for some time, but this batch of records from Taiga has done something radical to me, and I feel like I'm listening to everything with a new set of ears.

The Taiga vibe
Taiga works slowly and carefully to deliver recordings that will stay with you forever. Focusing on thoughtful curation, founder Andrew Lange has only released 25 albums over the course of 6 years. The recordings are prepared for release with audiophile care, cut with a direct metal mastering technique and pressed to very heavy vinyl--these often go beyond the 180 gram "audiophile" standard all the way to 200 grams. Every record I've spun sounds phenomenal from a production standpoint, with very low noise and incredible high-end detail, a must for the kinds of program material highlighted by the label.

Beyond the music, the attention to design details on these releases is among the best I've ever seen from any label. Every release is treated with the kind of archival-level care that most labels reserve for special occasions. While I've always admired thoughtful presentation, these records go so beyond my usual knowledge of packaging ephemera that I've picked up a whole new vocabulary just to comprehend the consistent level of production quality involved with this catalog. The jackets are made of heavyweight, rich papers. Some are Stoughton tip-on jackets, wrapped in a variety of approaches: colored papers, textured papers, metallic inks, letterpress work, etc. Many are gatefolds, and many have slipcovers or belts as well. A lot feature "flooded pockets," where color enhancements have been added to the insides of the jackets--a subtle gesture, but it really adds to the aesthetic when you remove these substantial-feeling records from their packages to play them. And the records themselves look amazing--there are black vinyl editions of the releases, but many of them are also issued with colored or clear vinyl variations that resonate beautifully with their artwork. A couple of releases have etched D-sides, too. I can't really think of a production technique that hasn't been featured in a Taiga release. Beyond the music, connoisseurs of print/packaging/design work taken to the level of fine art will find much to love in this catalog.

Where appropriate, additional written/printed materials supplement these releases beautifully. Some releases contain printed scores, essays, or additional photo/art inserts. I don't think of these additions so much as "packaging," because they're much more directly related to creating a context for understanding the music they accompany, but here too you will find thoughtfully considered papers, inks, and printing techniques. When you pull out a Taiga record, you can feel confident that you have all of the resources you need to fully get into the music, with packaging created just as attentively as the sounds it contains.

This unflinching attention to the multimedia level of composition in each of these releases pays off. Although many musical genres find a home together in the Taiga stable, all of this music shares an aesthetic of immersion--that is, this is deeply contemplative music. These aren't records you put on before you clean your house. They demand your attention, they beg for long-term relationships. So this kind of packaging doesn't feel like a consumer goods "vinyl fetishist" kind of thing--it's something real and substantial, creating a full and present experience in the face of a heavily mediated digital age. Since you can plan on sitting with these recordings with your full awareness, the art and liner notes and design work are there to enrich and focus your experience on repeated listenings. I'm reminded of the "slow food" movement in culinary circles. This is a great foundation for a "slow music" movement.

The Music
I'd like to highlight a few of my favorite artists who are featured in the Taiga catalog, along with a few recordings I'd strongly recommend. But again, I feel like all of this music has been commingling in my ears, mind, and heart for a while, and if you're a person who wants to fall in love with creative, inspired music again and again, I don't think you'll go wrong starting anywhere in the Taiga roster. This is a perfect example of what a great label can do through careful curation and devotion to detail. Taiga is a label I can trust.

Pauline Oliveros
The last few years have been incredible for celebrating the work of composer and improviser Pauline Oliveros. Last year's 12-disc box set on Important Records documented much of her early tape and electronics works, and her newer recordings, both under her own name and as part of the Deep Listening Band, have been  flying off the shelves at both Important and Taiga. In fact, it looks as though only one of the releases featuring her is still available directly from Taiga. The Timeless Pulse Trio, featuring Oliveros joined by percussionists George Marsh and Jennifer Wilsey, is a wonderful double-LP, rich with drones and intertwined modulating rhythms. Even though most of Oliveros' playing in this group focuses on shifting clouds of dissonance, I've been really obsessed with non-equal temperament tuning systems for several years, and as this music progresses, there are frequent triumphant moments where overtones coalesce into beautiful walls of perfectly-tuned sound, supported by perfectly-placed percussion embellishments that leave me wanting to revisit this album immediately.

I also need to mention that I've been reading Oliveros' book "Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice" in the same timeframe as my newfound love affair with Taiga, and it too is contributing to my sense of "new ears." I've found myself in the Slow Walk more than a few times with Timeless Pulse and other records, and I'm excited to continue exploring the practice of Deep Listening, which feels like a valuable system for musicians and music lovers alike. I can't express my gratitude for this music and these practices. You can find out more about Deep Listening on the Deep Listening Institute website.

Tatsuya Nakatani
As mentioned above, I've been deeply affected by the work of Tatsuya Nakatani for almost a decade. While in some ways I think seeing him work his magic in person is the best way to experience his music, many of his recordings are powerful documents of his approach, too. Tragically, it looks like his "Fever Dream" Taiga album with the MAP trio has been out of print for some time. A real shame--this collaboration with guitarist Mary Halvorson and Reuben Radding on bass is a true gem, and one of my favorite records featuring any of the three. Fortunately, though, his recent "Nakatani Gong Orchestra" release is still available, and it's a great record. While Nakatani tours the country playing almost indescribable solo percussion sets, he's also been staging "Gong Orchestra" concerts over the past few years. Using local musicians (and sometimes non-musicians) who he quickly trains to bow his collection of gongs, Nakatani conducts a chamber ensemble of performers after a brief rehearsal, drawing out a surprising variety of metallic drones and even fortuitous melodies that astonish humbled audiences in a variety of acoustic spaces. This LP seamlessly combines passages of recordings made in six cities into two sides of uninterrupted gong worship. In person, these performances feel transcendent--on record, this album feels a little more haunted at times than at least some of the live shows, but it's a powerful experience, made all the more remarkable when you consider the humble palette of sound sources and the sometimes inexperienced collaborators involved in producing the music. It looks like it's still available in a clever "gong" colored vinyl edition as well, which is a perfect way to celebrate these sounds.

Rafel Toral
Taiga has been involved with electronic musician Rafael Toral's "Space Program" series from the beginning--indeed, the first trio of releases from the label lay out the foundation of the project. However, I find it interesting that this small-run label, whose releases mostly sell out, still has remaining copies available of all six Toral releases they've done. Lucky for you, dear readers, as you can still get into the Space Program on the ground floor.

I can see how these albums can be a difficult proposition to get into, as some of the sounds coming from these experimental instruments can be harsh and foreboding at times. But in conjunction, these records combine to reveal different attributes of a galaxy of sounds that come together in the the "orchestral environment" of the "Space" album itself. The overall "program" is hard to describe briefly, but in essence you get music that combines the sound exploration of new music/eai circles with the kinds of musically communicative interactions one finds in the work of jazz outsiders. "Space Solo" albums focus on individual instruments that contribute to the whole, and "Space Elements" albums feature a variety of collaborations that put these instruments through their paces in surprising contexts.

There are "blips" and "bloops" and gnarly distorted retrofuturistic electronic sounds that split the difference between Stockhausen and Merzbow at times, especially among the "Space Solo" efforts, but it's truly amazing how diverse these instruments can get in the "Space Elements" series. And the "Space" album itself is a total must-have, uniting the many musical threads behind the whole concept. It might take some time to wrap your head around the project, but I have found that it's totally worth the effort. There is nothing quite like these beautiful and strange records.

A few other recommendations
Kayo Dot has been one of my favorite bands since their first release on Tzadik almost a decade ago, and their deluxe vinyl release of "Coyote" on Taiga is gorgeous. While a lot of the folks who got into KD largely because of their earlier avant-metal affiliations might not have vibed on this record, I think it's a great album that continues to improve with each spin. Composer/bandleader Toby Driver transitioned from guitar to bass on this recording, and horns assume an increasingly dominant musical role. In some ways, it's both the "proggiest" and "gothiest" KD album to my ears, an unusual combination of styles, but Driver's increasingly mature compositional style makes it all work.

Composer and traveling field recording archivist Douglas Quin's album "Fathom" was particularly striking to me, too. Made of underwater recordings split between the Arctic and the Antarctic, these recordings transcend the whole notion of composition. This record sounds like nothing I've ever heard within terrestrial music, and frankly it's hard to believe these sounds are happening anywhere on our planet at all. If you want feel humbled by just how little of our own world we experience under ordinary circumstances, get a taste of "Fathom."

I'll close with a few photos of these amazing records. Thanks to Taiga for turning me all the way on for a second time in my life!

Heavy, clear vinyl and a red flooded pocket on Rafael Toral's "Space Solo 1":

The beautiful gong-colored vinyl of the Gong Orchestra LP:

Interaction of beautiful letterpressed textures on "Fathom":