This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

H P Lovecraft's Unnameable cosmic horror of the mind

H P Lovecraft wrote stories of cosmic horror. And they weren’t just stories of horrible things that happened in the cosmos – but, even more, they were stories of the horror of being part of it all: stories of the horrors of humanity, dwarfed by a big, bad, black universe. A universe twisted and distorted by alien malevolence, where humans are nothing and blackness, bleakness, are everywhere.

It’s the sort of universe that springs out of xenophobic paranoia – big and dark and full of foreign threats, but closed and claustrophobic too, where every breath is stifled and scared, endangered, alone.

H P Lovecraft wrote mostly in the 1920s. But, since then, his influence on literature and art and even on music has been profound, with traces of him popping up especially in bands like Metallica, Black Sabbath, the Black Dahlia Murder and Dream Theater.

But all of that plays just lip service to the real terrified, terrific, horror of H P Lovecraft. There’s something much more profound, much more disturbing, going on here than what a bit of black metal nihilism, however good it is, can show you.

And it wasn’t until Melbourne avant garde musicians Clinton Green and Andrew McIntosh released their 2001-2 album But of that, I will not speak …, under their moniker The Unnameable, that the real ghastliness of cosmic horror was, at last, captured and preserved.

Inspired by Lovecraft’s writing, the music of But of that, I will not speak … takes you deep into the dark and troubled regions the human psyche, the real place where his cosmic horrors were born and bred. It is the music of a haunted soul, much more than of a haunted cosmos.

The album opens with ‘This, no human creature may do’, where primordial groans and drones, chanting like an ancient ritual of the wind, draw you into the loneliest, most frightened crevices of your mind. The music is big, but entrapped, and there is no light, no escape.

It’s an uninviting place, but it is the right one for this music because, in this blackness, when you hear the lifeless, lumbering heartbeat of ‘You fool, Warren is DEAD!’, or the yawning, cavernous rumble lurking beneath ‘Life is a hideous thing’, you know that it can really be nothing other than your own blood, throbbing, congealing, within you. There’s nothing else here, other than you.

There is a grim megalomania in ‘Space belongs to me, do you hear?’, a sustained drone that seems to have every tone and semitone and quartertone drawn into it – like a psychic black hole that takes everything, every bit of light, hostage.

Were it not for where this music has already taken you, you might think that something really was hovering around you in ‘The Orbit of Yuggoth’, where a strange, sinister whistle dives down and creeps up again, in and out, backwards and forwards, like a spacecraft circling you, waiting to pounce – but, by now, you know that it’s not out there, it’s in here and, no matter how much you block your ears and try to hide from it, it won’t go away.

The first real hints of melody come in the album’s final track, ‘Only the most accursed rites of human blasphemy could ever have called Him…’, where wraithlike notes are plucked out of the gloom to make a little tune, a macabre lullaby, perhaps, singing you into the endless sleep of loneliness and paranoia to which you were doomed from the moment the music started.

The Unnameable’s take on H P Lovecraft is fascinatingly outlined in Andrew McIntosh’s liner notes essay, and brilliantly captured in this unique music, where Lovecraft’s bigotry and racism and conservative nostalgia for a fabled past are seen not as incidental deficits to an otherwise brilliant creative mind, but rather as the essential and only real way of understanding the dark and unfriendly universe that he created.

But of that, I will not speak … takes you into that universe in the most unexpected of ways: by turning out the lights, closing the doors and the windows, and leaving you alone.

Available, once again, from Shame File Music.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Star Wars on acid: Tomutonttu

I was born long enough ago to have been around in the days when computer games first started to appear in pubs and arcades and, even then, I was enough of an oddball to have been at least, and probably more, fascinated by the noise they made than by the aliens you could shoot with them. Those beepy, bleepy noises. They didn’t do much but, even back then, I remember thinking that someone could probably do something pretty interesting with them.

And, I guess, lots of people did. Just listen to anything by Kraftwerk and follow your nose from there.

But one thing that you might not find, unless you know how to sniff out the really rare, delectable treats that are buried in far away corners, is the music of a contemporary solo Finnish project, called Tomutonttu, the work of Tampere-based Jan Anderzén, musician and artist and leader of Finland’s avant garde freak-folk band Kemialliset Ystävät.

Tomutonttu, I am told, means ‘dust gnome’. And if you can imagine a peculiar little alien gnome, shooting freaky little bits of cosmic dust through space, like he is playing some little intergalactic video game, then you might know a little of what to expect on the two freakily titled Tomutonttu albums, Tomutonttu (2007) and Tomutonto (2009), that I happened to stumble across, quite by accident, a few days ago.

There is a toy-like innocence to this music, with its electronic, psychedelic notes that bounce and pop and skip amongst the noises of animals and birds and ancient chants, like a child’s kaleidoscope of time and space, especially in Tomutonttu, the earlier album.

But it’s a child who has, perhaps, stolen a tab of acid, because there’s an unsettling uncanniness about this music, too, like its playful naïveté is just a sham, and the music, despite how it sounds at first, is having not fun but hallucinations. Rhythms that started out squarely and steadily disintegrate into a dizzy free flow; melodies that were full of sunlight, without a care in the world, slowly become just a little creepy, even while they’re still shining and glistening. It’s like one of those mechanical child toys that you begin to think might be possessed by something.

Tomutonto, the later of the two albums, is also the more aggressive, the darker. Its sounds are more deconstructed, more noise-based, and there is less of Stars and more of Wars in the feel of it all.

Both of these albums are fascinating explorations of that strange place where old things and new things, where innocence and corruption, laughter-filled playgrounds and empty voids, where music and noise, intersect.

Just like today’s adults who, as yesterday’s children, shot thousands and thousands of aliens, to the sound of bouncy computer bleeps, in the arcades of their local shopping centres.

Available through Fonal Records.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The industrial sleep of the Earth - Spectres by Monolith

If you can imagine the sound that the Earth might make when it’s sleeping – if you can imagine its pulsating, heaving breaths, its snores, its slow, dark dreams – if you can imagine how it would grumble and groan when it turns and stretches in the night, and then goes back to sleep again; and if you can imagine how every sleep is a billion centuries old, but still new and now – if you can imagine even a little of that, then you might have a sense of what  the Melbourne –based solo ambient drone project Monolith sounds like on his 2011 EP release, Spectres.

But only a sense. Only a bit. Because there is much more to Spectres than an old, sleeping Earth.

Spectres is a bit over half an hour of dark industrial hums and whirs, where the sounds pulsate and resonate, sometimes creating the feel of a thousand harmonic overtones bouncing off infinite walls, sometimes pared down to a single thread: but always, somewhere, you can hear the music’s heartbeat, slow and strong, as old as the hills.

But, even with its roots in a subterranean past, the music of Spectres is very, very new. It gives you a different take on minimalist drone music, relying less on those ground-rumbling bass lines where the guitars are tuned down to Q flat, and instead building its droning throb out of today’s world, like a spectre, if you will, of a factory siren held in suspension. It’s a sonic world kicked into being by the nerve and mettle of modern life – and kept alive by the sounds of the blood that flows through cities.

And when you hear the relentless sound of that blood, pumped through the music’s veins, and are hypnotised by it, so that those hard industrial sounds take on a spirit of the eternal, the picture Monolith paints becomes an unsettling one. It is a picture of that sleeping Earth made not out of rock and water, but out of steel and cement: cold, harsh, inhospitable.

Creating these deep, enduring images through long arcs of music that are moulded out of the barest of elements can only ever be done by someone who knows how to pace and shape sounds, as minimalist as these, in a way that gets your body to beat to its beat. This is music that slows you down and draws you down; it lowers your heartbeat and your body temperature until you, too, find yourself curled, foetus-like, not in the Earth’s womb, but in its bowels.

Just a few minutes before Spectres ends, its sleeping rest is disturbed by what could be the sound of dozens of metal sheets pounding into a concrete floor. It's a haunting portent of what this music seems to have been warning you of all along - this sleep is not a peaceful one, and it lulls you only to make you captive to its nightmares.

Thanks to 3 PBS FM's Ear of the Behearer for introducing me to this amazing piece of music. Available from Shame File Music.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The post-punk tribal new-world focussed chaos of Scattered Order

I think I used to think that being ordered meant being predictable. Being neat. Being unadventurous. That’s what I used to think – until today, when an EP called A Solar Rush Towards a Treble Heaven by a Sydney-based trio called Scattered Order arrived in my mailbox and I popped it into the sound system, and I heard layers of strange and unpredictable sounds, billowing and blowing in all directions, raising the roof with their adventure and energy, but all of it ordered. Coherent. Belonging. Fitting in.

If you had to put Scattered Order into a genre box, you would probably choose post-punk, given their use of repetitive krautrock-esque beats, their use of synthesisers and electronic experimentation, but they would be a hendecagonal piece in a heptagonal hole, given all the dimensions and shapes and shades that abound in their music.

A Solar Rush Towards a Treble Heaven begins in a blaze of cosmic energy with ‘Babble Fridge’, sounding like all the nations of all worlds of all times have come together in a celebration. Everywhere you look there is some colour; everywhere you listen there is unbridled festivity – primitive tribes dancing with new world androids. This is music that seems to be able to find a place for everything.

‘This here loop’ is more earnest, more determined, but no less full of drive and vigour. It feels like music with a purpose, a point, music with a mission, where snaps of spoken vocals intermingle with electronic whirs that bombard the music with an ambiguous energy, dance-like, war-like, amidst the incessant life-force of tribal beats.

Those beats are underscored by a more menacing bass in ‘April Which’, and overshadowed by a high, harsh treble wail, like alien woodwind pushed to its extremes, while the vocals chant their haunted, freaky, post-punky chant. And yet, amongst all of it, the music still feels like it is celebrating something. No matter how severe it gets, this music never stops having fun.

A Solar Rush Towards a Treble Heaven finishes with its longest track, ‘Trafficeternityleftlegout’. Here, there is something happening everywhere. Frenetic, unending traffic. Maybe it is the title, or maybe it’s the music doing it of its own accord, but this track conjures up for you those film images of multi-level mazes of highways, with sped-up footage of traffic bustling in every direction. Smooth, relentless, organised lasers of chaos.

This is an album that, in its 26 minutes, does exactly what you would expect music, so packed with contradicting, conflicting energies, to do – it leaves you exhausted and exhilarated. It leaves you feeling the new and the old have always shared the same space, crammed so close, that the only sensible thing for them to do is to procreate and produce some scattered order.

Make sure you check out Scattered Order’s website.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The real sound of music - The Wizards of Oi

It might seem like stating the obvious, but music would be nothing without sound.  And yet it’s not really stating the obvious because, perhaps of all the bits and pieces that go to make music, sound is the one that is most overlooked of all. We know to look for rhythm, for melody, for harmony, for structure, for timbre, for colour. But we forget, without even knowing we’ve forgotten, to notice the sound.

The Wizards of Oi is a New York-based art and sound project that brings together Germany’s Brandstifter (Fire starter) and Britain’s Aaron Moore in a sort of pan-national sound treaty, where different artistic cultures, different artistic histories, shake hands and, as one, explore the roots and shoots of sound from which all music has ultimately grown.

And so you find, on Wizard of Oi’s double album, In Space, Brandstifter and Moore digging beneath the electronic pulse of Krautrock and the anarchistic minimalism of No Wave and taking the strands of sound that lie below, and examining them, with their guitar and drums and trumpet and vocals, magnifying them, multiplying them, laughing at them, concentrating on them and sometimes just leaving them to their own devices and letting them grow. It’s like a lecture in sound, where the music teaches you about itself, and about its genetic makeup.

The tracks on this album are put together very, very cleverly. You get tracks like the opening ‘Long Man-Go’, or ‘Freejatz’, which seem to sit staring at this or that sound, looking at it from every possible angle, pushing it from side to side and then, a track or two later, the sounds come together, and the music is driven by them, and it flows with life and grim vitality, like it does on the 28 minute ‘Tremolusion/Drone Suite’, or on ‘March of the Eddie Van Halen Monster’, or on the closing ‘Pets & Animals’, for example, and you find that you no longer take its nuts and bolts – its sounds – for granted anymore.  The whole thing is like putting the ingredients of something under the microscope and, seeing that they pass muster, then mixing them into something new and weird and wonderful.

And then there are the moments of black, even gross, humour, like in ‘The Belchium Track’, a minute and a half of burps that leads into the strange, mock-tribal percussive dance of ‘July or December’, a song that ruminates about whether something happened in July or in December; or in ‘Fat American Woman’, almost a schoolyard ditty, that then leads you into the funky, off-beat jazz of ‘Crayolish Oisters’.

This approach, this way in which In Space lets you look into the ugly, unglamorous guts of its music, and then takes you along the wild ride of the music itself, makes you appreciate how little space there really is between the sophistication of music and the raw elements of sound.

If you can track down some of the music of The Wizards of Oi, and you really should, and if you’re prepared to let yourself be taken on its trip – and it really is a trip – then you might just find that you notice the things you see along the way in ways that you never did before. And you might just notice that you appreciate the sound of music a little differently, a little better, a little more.

My thanks to my dear friend Marty, and his sister Barbara, for the introduction!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Russian call across time and space - Asian Women On The Telephone

Given my dual penchants for all things Russian and for most things weird, it is a little odd that it took a tip-off from Magdalena Solis, only a few weeks ago, for me to discover a very freaky avant-psych-rock band from Moscow called Asian Women on the Telephone (AWOTT).

AWOTT is a band that, ideally, you need to see. And you can find a few clips on YouTube that allow you to do that, but they only serve as enticing teasers for what the real experience of seeing these strange, Dadaist, oddly-clad performers must be like. The music itself is part of a bigger whole, where musicians in weird, alien-like costumes and masks bash away at their instruments and their bits of odd percussion and noise, in what looks and sounds like a junkyard ritual from another world.

But, for those of us who can’t get to Moscow, there are a few downloads and a CD available if you know where to look. And it’s worth the effort because, if you let this music get into your head, you will find it creates some pretty amazing images in there, pretty much as wild and weird as seeing it done for you on stage.

The music, in the best Dadaist way, takes a bit of this and a bit of that, and puts it together in a way that turns it all into something else entirely. There is a tribal ritualistic beat to much of the music, a sense of naïve primitivism, but it might be mixed with the motorik pulse of Krautrock, with collages of noise, wailing vocals and grotesque giggles; there might be psyched-out electronics, and stray notes that howl and slide around their centre, all coming together in a sort of partly primal, partly space-age orgy of sound.

The album ICanT is the one that I managed to find – a generous 78 minutes of amazing music that kicks off with “Pleasure Dome”, a dark, drone-like march that leads you, blindfolded, into the mystery world that holds you captive throughout the rest of the album.

In “Отверстие-Учитель” (hole-teacher) the first images of pagan ritual are painted on your mind’s canvas, but splashed with electronic twinges and twangs that linger and waver in the air.

It’s this uncanny coming-together of everything old with everything new that permeates much of this music – its brilliant use of ostinato rhythms, of other-worldly tonalities, of haunted animal-like yowls, and of sounds from another galaxy. And, because they bring it all together so well and so easily, AWOTT creates in you a sense that it is your time-world, rather than theirs, that is out of sync.

By “Похотливая горбунья ищет и находит” (Lustful hunchback seeks and finds) this whole effect becomes positively scary, with those lingering, wavering twangs becoming longer and creepier, as maniacal laughs infect the music and the air and which, even while they’re sending shivers down your spine, could almost be in parody of themselves.  Nothing in this place makes sense, at least not in the usual way.

The weirdness comes to an end, of sorts, in the album’s closer, “White Rabbi Motorcycle Dub” – a gentler track, but still an unsettling one, as if you are at last being led out of this strange world that has held you in its grip for the last hour – led out, but not entirely released.

Generally, each of the eight tracks on ICanT is quite long, but their persistent, ruthless beat always underpins other sounds and noises that change slowly and subtly, giving you the feeling that huge creatures – dinosaurs crossed with aliens, perhaps – are striding, slowly, but relentlessly around you until you, too, in spite of yourself, join their parade. 

AWOTT’s music is proudly low-fi – it is the music of the post-Soviet urban underground, music from dark places that repel and allure with only one hand.

It is certainly worth hunting down ICanT, or anything else you can find of AWOTT – music that can plug you into that shadowy, seductive, schizoid world that lays lurking, somewhere deep in all of us.

The band’s MySpace page is a good place to start.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Music for when the music stops - the electronic chemistry of Plastikman

In my younger days, which were a very long time ago, I was constantly befuddled at the discussions that would go on after all-night dance parties about the music that had been played. Some felt there had been too much house. Some felt there had been too little techno. Some wanted more acid (often referring to both the music and the chemical).  It meant very little to me and, at the time, I didn’t like any of it so the whole house/techno/acid balance was pretty insignificant as far as I was concerned.

I now wonder, years later and after the Road to Damascus has opened up so many different new musical vistas for me, if the music of Plastikman might have been amongst those sounds that I unfortunately allowed to blend amorphously into one another back then.

I still don’t really fully understand the different genres of dance music – or the different genres of any music for that matter – but I do know that there is something hauntingly familiar about the sounds that Richie Hawtin created under his Plastikman moniker. There is something in their ice-clad, barren minimalism, their empty, soulless, but irresistibly hypnotic beats, that conjures up for me strange, uncanny images of near-empty dance floors in the near-empty hours of the morning where a few drug-soaked figures would still be dancing.

I had always, even quite recently, thought of dance music as somehow inferior to real music – it served a great purpose, and it was great at serving it, but that was all. As music in its own right, as music to just listen to, it had, I thought, little to offer.

In a way, even looking at music in that way is missing the point – music always has some sort of place, some sort of purpose, some sort of thing that it’s trying to do: and it’s pretty nonsensical to criticise it for not being good outside of what it’s there to do. But, in any event, the criticism is kind of turned on its head here anyway. It’s not so much that you can’t take the music of Plastikman away from the dance floor – it’s more that you can’t take the dance floor away from Plastikman.

This is music that, no matter where you play it, brings the dance floor to itself. But not the boppy, celebratory dance floor, not the place where people sing along to Kylie or Madonna or the Pet Shop Boys: but rather the place where shadows creep and crawl, weaving in and out of lonely, spectral bodies; bodies pumped with energy and sweat, but drained of blood and tears.

When you hear this music, it is impossible not to see and feel those dark places surrounding you – but they entice you, they draw you into their cold, empty clutches; you are frightened by them, and yet you don’t want to escape them.

This is the music that plays when the music has stopped. In that sense, it reminds me of the third movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony – a piece which Mahler himself described as being like watching a dancehall from the outside looking in, where you can no longer hear the music, and it all looks bizarre, absurd, grotesque, out of normal sync.

In Plastikman you find a whole lot of things come together – the robotic, relentless beat of Krautrock, the analogue synthesizers and drum machines of Detroit techno, the trance-like rhythms of acid house, the barren economy of minimalism – but here they come together cloaked and conspiring, and forge an unholy, irresistible alliance.

My new absorption in Plastikman was spurred on by the release, only last week, of the very lavishly produced Plastikman Arkives – a massive 15 CD compilation of the original Plastikman albums and a whole lot of other remixes and rare or unreleased material, with all the production gimmickry that typical goes with these things and that somehow manages to suck me in every time.

There is just too much music in the Plastikman Arkives for me to be able to even begin to cover it in any detail here. And in an y case, it is the overall and overwhelming spell of the music as a whole that has hit me so forcefully over the past few days as I have waded my way through it all.

Plastikman is the music of electronics, of chemicals, of a robotic new age – music which, even in the darkness and the silence, never stops.

There were always times when, back then in my youth, very, very late in the night, those dance floors really freaked me out. At the time I thought it was the chemicals. But now I think, perhaps, it was Plastikman.