German Army - 2014 cassettes (so far)

I don't get a lot of unsolicited submissions for review, but a series of very creatively-wrapped packages from multiple return addresses in California started arriving at my house last summer, all from a mysterious "GeAr." GeAr turns out to be German Army, a prolific duo who prefer to remain anonymous, letting their work speak for itself as they quietly negotiate its release through intermediaries on a series of small, mostly-cassette labels around the world.

As most folks who follow my reviews probably realize by now, I gravitate toward music with a relatively high degree of density: contrapuntal music, microedited electroacoustic walls of sound, deeply composed and arranged avant-pop and prog, extremely busy improvisation, and so on. But there are always exceptions. While German Army tends to be more straightforward than many of my migraine-joyride favorites, each piece typically exploring a small palette of ideas and then moving on without getting into verse/chorus kinds of formal development, I have become positively obsessed with this music. I tracked down the earlier recordings dating back to 2011. I compiled a list of song titles for cross-referencing, as material sometimes re-appears on different releases. And I've spent a lot of time listening through the series of releases chronologically--since the time scale for the entire project is relatively short, compressing more than twenty releases into the space of three years, it feels like the whole project can be heard as one body of work, its development taking place at the rate of careful literary exposition rather than the condensed life of songform.

While I might be over-thinking the collective output of German Army to some degree, there is definitely an overarching conceptual continuity in their work that lends itself to an extremely horizontal analysis across multiple releases. There have been quite a few reviews of individual GeAr tapes and LPs, at least one interview (they're unknown but not unknowable), and this really nice overview on Decoder recently, but none of these pieces have addressed the cultural/environmental references found throughout their album and song titles. So as we go through this discography, we're going to stop and ponder some of these extramusical ideas.

The album art is worth consideration, too: GeAr has collaborated with a huge range of small labels at this point (following their discography is a wonderful way to find out about some great lesser-known labels), and in checking with a few of the labels that have worked on their releases, it seems that they frequently provide some artistic direction, though they leave much of the final art up to the labels. If one teases apart the "house style" of their release artwork from the underlying imagery, many releases are engaging in an extended conversation on the visual level, too.

I'm compelled to cover my impressions of the entire German Army oeuvre, but due to the large volume of material, I'm working on a series of pieces. Today, we're going to explore the four newest cassette releases of German Army, which have appeared between mid-January of this year through the beginning of April. Collectively, these four tapes point to a subtle change in direction/focus for GeAr, along with the brilliant "Last Language" LP on A Giant Fern last November. In subsequent pieces, I'm going to head backwards into the GeAr discography, covering the three LPs of 2013, earlier cassette/CD releases, and then turning to the related/side projects of the GeAr folks, including Q///Q, Merx, Submissions, and Final Cop.

Like most contemporary cassette releases, all four of these new tapes were produced in tiny batches of 75 or 100 copies, so if these sound intriguing upon reading further, you should act quickly. But the German Army folks aren't intentionally releasing their music to fall into rapid out-of-print status. While I'm reviewing new material back toward the old, be sure to follow German Army on Facebook, where they recently started posting Soundcloud links to their oldest OOP material, one release at a time and moving ahead chronologically every week or two.

German Army - Barrineans (Lava Church, January 2014)

Since we're going to look at shifts in focus and vibe on the newest German Army cassettes, let's start with a quick description of what "regular" pre-2014 GeAr albums sound and feel like. There are obviously exceptions to these tendencies, but generally one will find a series of fairly short mid-tempo pieces, three or four dark, atmospheric minutes each, made of programmed drums/drum machines, a variety of synths, bass and guitar with tons of reverb and delay, and vocals. The vocals are heavily processed, often slowed to a crawl, and almost always submerged just beneath the surfaces of their mixes--they exist more for signification of human involvement than audible lyrical content. But the album and song titles are directing our attention to several themes: lost civilizations, present-day tribal cultures on the brink of extinction, cultural/ecological collisions that recall the work of folks like John Zerzan or Daniel Quinn. And that seems a lot more interesting to ponder than whether they sound more like Cabaret Voltaire than Throbbing Gristle, right?

Such is the case with the title of "Barrineans," a term for a set of Aboriginal pygmy tribes whose origins on the Austrailian continent extend far into prehistory. Like so many other isolated tribal cultures, "modern life" has encroached on their territory and reduced their numbers, pressing their skills, culture, languages, and history toward extinction, leaving us all poorer for the loss. The j-card art for "Barrineans" furthers the reference to these peoples, featuring an illustration of a ceremonial mask on a very pretty pearlescent cardstock.

Perhaps in contrast to the present-day plight of the barrineans, several song titles make reference to ancient Egypt ("Amenemhat," "Neferti," "Tjeti"), obviously a society as successful in its time as our modern monoculture but completely gone, taking most of its secrets with it ("Fragment," "Dynasty," "Coffin Texts"). This is the classic set of dynamics that German Army seems to be addressing: lost cultures and dying cultures, mankind's antagonism to itself, the planet's own expunging process.

The first two tracks of "Barrineans" immediately take on new directions for GeAr: "Sunken Wounds" begins with a female voice sample in another language (not sure of which). The piece itself gives me a kind of air-travel vibe, like we're heading into new territory, and the direction we're heading becomes even more clear in "Barefoot,"my favorite piece on this tape. Incorporating strands of exotica music into the sound by way of horn samples, tribal percussion, and a more complex formal structure than many pieces, "Barefoot" moves through several ideas within one piece, ending with intimations of harps and guiro strokes with some environmental sounds. It all sounds vaguely familiar in an archetypal way, and it's downright beautiful, much warmer and more approachable than some early GeAr efforts.

There are a lot more of these moments of warmth and redemption lurking in "Barrineans," flirting with major-key tonality in "Household" and "Fragment," more female voice samples and vaguely Asian major pentatonic flourishes in the gorgeous "Amenemhat," and rich low guitar work in "Tjeti" that almost sounds like organ undertones. There are a lot of sampled materials drifting in, too--it's hard to make them all out, but there are what seem to be both indoor and outdoor environmental sounds in many pieces, and there are disorienting shifts in the sound stage caused by the placement of samples like the applause toward the end of "Coffin Texts."

In all, "Barrineans" makes quite a statement. And it's a beautifully-packaged tape, too--I'm new to the Lava Church label, but I was quite impressed with the attention to detail and subtle color in this tape. You can download a digital version from the BandCamp player above, but I would highly recommend tracking down a tape. At the moment, that may be difficult, as Lava Church sadly closed their doors just a few weeks after this tape was released. However, the fine folks at Holy Page are planning to take all remaining stock of Lava Church releases into their distro any day now, so keep checking with them.

German Army - T'rung (Lighten Up Sounds, February 2014)

The T'rung are another culture of pygmy peoples who have been pushed almost into extinction. These folks live in a remote region near the borderlands of China, India, and Burma. The T'rung have mostly been absorbed into the Rawang peoples, their traditions intermingling (or lost), and the traditional practices of both have been hindered by the present-day governments of the larger monoculture: opening German Army track "Bow War Dance," for example, immediately makes me think of the bow hunting traditions of the Rawang, which the Burmese now prohibit within the park preserve space now foisted into their traditional lands.

"Bow War Dance" continues German Army's new leaning into more major-key vibes and sampled voices from other cultures, with a bassline that could almost fit into "Birdland" if it had room for some "Sextant"-era synth blips. And "Wet Heads," which closes out the A-side, is absolutely gorgeous, with layers of plaintive clean guitar and bass work over great drones. It's a track worth lingering inside for a while.

"T'rung" has liner notes, a rarity with GeAr cassettes, which explain that the short tracks "Semblance" and "Wisdom Text" are built on environmental recordings made with a handheld device somewhere in Indonesia, with some synths added later. In the case of "Semblance," there are sounds of excited children, bells/chimes somewhere in the distance, and squeaking machines--village temple gathering or amusement park? Hard to say. "Wisdom Text" definitely feels more like it's recorded at the foot of a traditional musical performance of some kind, though, with lots of percussion and gamelan-ish sounds.

My favorite piece on T'rung, though, has to be "Mary's Husband," unusual in GeAr terms both for its nearly 6-minute length and for using two distinct movements. Like the opening track on "Barrineans," I get that "travel vibe" as the first movement of this piece starts to build, though in this case long tones gradually coalesce toward a sense of train travel compared to the more aviation-ish melancholy of "Sunken Wounds." The piece builds patiently toward a second movement of that's marked by some industrial percussion clattering. This second section is full of environmental sounds, some pulled directly from the first section and others maybe slowed down dramatically for re-use, a kind of introverted interpretation of the materials from the first section.

Toward the end of the tape, "Like the Moon" is also worth mentioning as a very unusual GeAr piece: the liner notes indicate that it was recorded during a trip around Tennessee and Mississippi, and it's full of the sounds of banjo, acoustic guitars, and fiddles. But it's essentially a tape manipulation piece: bluegrass fragments drift above low, slowly-oscillating rumbles, and an applause sample cuts in and out, looped in weird ways--and I think this applause sample might be the same or similar to the one used on the "Barrineans" tape in "Coffin Texts."

I'm new to the Lighten Up Sounds label, and I really liked the handmade aspect of the screenprinted artwork for "T'rung," which features a mountaintop scene rendered in soft yellows and oranges, presumably in reference to the Hkakabo Razi mountain region that was traditionally home to the T'rung peoples. You can find "T'rung" digitally at the Bandcamp link above, but I'd also recommend checking out the rest of the Lighten Up Sounds catalog at their website, which I plan to dig into soon myself.

German Army - Millerite Masai (Yerevan Tapes, February 2014)

The title for this cassette is a weird conceptual juxtaposition: the Millerites were a mid-19th C. end-of-the-world cult that gained national attention for their prophecies, leading to the "Great Disappointment" in 1844, when the angels and trumpets upheld the roar of simple silence at the prophetic moment of the Second Advent. And the Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania are native folks who largely continue to live in traditional ways, despite the contemporary governments who now control their lands actively pushing them to join the 21st Century. Interestingly, the savannah rangelands they have long inhabited are being pressured toward biological collapse by "modern life" practices of animal grazing and tree-clearing, the setup for a fascinating comparison we'll come back to shortly with the new "Tassili Plateau" tape...

On the musical front, the most interesting shift in musical practices one finds on "Millerite Masai" has to do with vocals--with the possible exception of "Unga" toward the end of the tape, all of the vocal sounds used on this recording are sourced from samples, usually in languages other than English. Though vocals have never been used as a primary source of communication within GeAr's music--they're more about literal presence than exposition--it's still a very noteworthy change in approach, as now it's the presence of various others in representation. And I see this reflected somewhat literally in the album art--it looks like there is some kind of creepy ritual thing happening, and at first glance one might think it's a gory scene, but in reality the "blood" is actually from a pomegranate. And there is a tradition of pomegranate as a stand-in for blood in several magical disciplines. Perhaps, then, we're hearing others speak for GeAr here, or perhaps they're speaking for themselves, variously.

The music of "Millerite Masai" heads slightly back toward a darker kind of vibe than the other tapes explored here, but there are still lots of musical deviations from the earlier portion of the GeAr catalog. Opening track "Tetlin," for example, takes on a satisfying crime-noir kind of approach with great interplay between the guitar and drums. At the end of the A-side, "Hollow Empire" uses mallet percussion synth sounds that almost point toward that other famous anonymous group in CA, the Residents, but with guitars and synths that give this short piece some great David Lynch-esque atmospheres with a touch of Snakefinger. And my favorite track here, "Bird Child," splits the difference between industrial and tribal primitive vibes, with percussion playfully ducking around delay pedals, and really fried synth sounds that take on the phasing qualities of Tuvan throat singing.

Instead of major-key tonality, "Millerite Masai" approaches the relatively warmer side of GeAr through rhythms: "Pilot Lost," for example, is almost a mambo in the percussion department, and there is an afro-cuban vibe happening beneath the layers of synths in "Native Village." But in terms of sound selections, this tape heads deeper into harsh, cooked timbres reminiscent of late 70s industrial albums than most of the new GeAr material.

Yerevan Tapes is yet another new label to me, and I really like their packaging for this album, which includes two images of this weird pom-powered ritual thing on the j-card itself, and a little glossy photo cutout of a bowl with pomegranate pulp tucked inside. Like the other tapes, you can track down the digital edition via the Bandcamp player above, or go to Yerevan Tapes for the cassette itself.

German Army - Tassili Plateau (Field Hymns, April 2014)

The last tape of this new batch was released less than a week ago, but I've been spinning an advance copy for a while now. Field Hymns is pretty much my favorite cassette label, and I've sometimes thought to myself that the only thing keeping them from being the all-time bomb diggity was not being part of the German Army universe yet, and now...bam!

Tassili Plateau, also known as Tassili n'Ajjer, is a fascinating archeological site found in mountainous regions of the Sahara within Algeria. Though the area is mostly uninhabited in the present day, it was once home to a vibrant society in prehistory, evidenced by many thousands of rock illustrations that have been rediscovered in the area over the last century. A few of them look sort of like ancient astronauts (or at least some possibly ironic modern conception of what ancient astronauts might have looked like), which landed a few of these beautiful drawings in that old film version of "Chariots of the Gods." Terence McKenna, partly known for his contributions to the "2012 enigma," had his own suspicions that these ancient people were part of a mushroom cult, and what we're interpreting as space helmets may just as likely be documenting something closer to a Carlos Castaneda scene. Also interesting in terms of German Army, there are very similar prehistoric drawings that have been found in the rock faces of Tulare in California, not far from the amazing Giant Forest of the Sequoia National Park--and not far from the various possible addresses of GeAr.

Historically, we know that Tassili is located in what once would have been the "Green Sahara" or "Wet Sahara," which was a relatively lush savannah ecologically, but over the centuries, the Sahara was gradually desiccated into the harsh and mostly barren landscape that remains today. This becomes interesting in comparison to what's happening to the Masai peoples referenced in the previous cassette, except that we know for certain that most of the pressures being exerted on their lands have decidedly human causes.

Musically, this release continues the exploration into other musical cultures, and slightly happier-than-usual vibes. On this album in particular, each of the short pieces have a certain cinematic vibe that makes them feel like they could work as film cues. Opening track "Border Marsh," for example, has a synth-horn intro with a vaguely eastern vibe, but filtered through a kind of early Hollywood grit, like a gladiator movie's idea of an arabic theme. That's followed by "Mumbai," my favorite here and the most obviously cinematic piece on this recording, which has great guitar work intertwined with samples of Bollywood-style string glissando flourishes.

The voice of the regular GeAr singer is back on "Tassili Plateau," and in some places, like "Antiseptic," the voice is mixed even higher than usual and not totally clobbered with processing, a nice approach on this piece as it swells into a fine anthem before arabic music samples take over at its conclusion. And another fine sound collage/tape manipulation piece comes in right at the tape's conclusion with "Goa," featuring surf guitars, trumpet stabs, orchestral strings, and farfisa organ tones buried in the mix, all toward a very warm and upbeat end to the album. "Sexual Cycle of Human Norms" feels very hopeful, too, in spite of its weird title, and its long synth tones and clean reverb-soaked guitars fall closest to what one finds in the rest of the Field Hymns catalog. This is a very listenable album, probably the best of all of these musically, and it certainly leaves me excited for more German Army.

As I've come to expect from Field Hymns, this album art is both beautifully-rendered and conceptually intriguing, implying the hot, dry mountains of Tassili in most of the drawing, but with Hollywood spotlights penetrating toward a large cityscape encroaching at the top of the illustration. This one is the most limited of the cassettes covered here, with a physical edition of 75, and you can order it here or follow the Bandcamp link above.

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