Eruption / Curiosum / Lauschen

Kluster, 1971 / Cluster, 1981 / Qluster, 2013

The evolving entity, most famously known as Cluster, is a 50 year institution of ambient experimentalism. Originally, they were known as Kluster, centered on the core trio of Conrad Schnitzler, Hans Joachim Roedelius, and Dieter Moebius.

From 1969-1972, Kluster made a disjointed, improvised racket equal parts electronics and junk shop percussion. While Kluster was distant from what we now call kosmische music, their improvisational antics have been the aesthetic underpinning of every version of the band. Most of the Kluster discography is sadly out of print (especially two multi-platter box sets), but the Bureau B label has reissued one their definitive works—alternately known as Schwarz or Eruption (which was also an early name for the band).

When the band was paired down to just the duo of Roedelius and Moebius, they traded the K for a C, becoming Cluster. This variation continued continuously from 1971 to 1981—then on-and-off-again for the next few decades. As Cluster, the duo not only defined the essentials of what we consider kosmische music today, they also charted its boundaries. Cluster have slowly grown into my favorite band from their class of German experimentalism in the 70s. Their work is more emotionally nuanced than Krafwerk, more consistent than Can and more abstract than Tangerine Dream’s structured, linear suites.

No single Cluster record is too alike, while they are all still very much of a piece. Curiosum, the last album from their initial run is a collection of odd miniatures, as opposed to the side-long meditations they’re most known for. Curiosum is a clear leap forward technologically. They’d water-shedding, recording and collaborating near-constantly throughout the 70s. While the improvisational nature of their music isn’t as messy or chaotic as in Kluster, they retain a ragged element of unpredictability.

After Moebius and Roedelius last meeting in 2009, for Qua—preceded by a small handful of records in the 90s—the duo parted ways. Roedelius continued the evolution, this time to Qluster: a duo with Onnen Bock, who wasn’t even born when Cluster (let alone Kluster) started. This new duo’s records together have ranged from discordant and dense to a collection of piano duets. Lauschen—a live album for which they had keyboardist, Armin Metz in tow—is a complex work. It moves crabwise through a series of detailed, gaseous atmospheres, existing in both analogue and digital spaces.

Fifty years is a hell of a long time in either popular or avant garde music—a divide the various incarnations of Cluster regularly straddles. Dieter Moebius passed away in 2015, and Roedelius is now an octogenarian, but Qluster remains prolific: releasing 7 full length albums in as many years. We may not have many more years of records in this lineage, but the legacy of K/C/Qluster is secure among the titans in the outer bounds of sound.

Rhapsody in White

Love Unlimited Orchestra, 1974

Love Unlimited Orchestra

While the Asheville area has a handful of good record stores, I don’t find myself in them that much. As often as not, I’m in thrift and vintage stores, which always presents a haphazard selection of music. Vintage shopping has brought me everything from Rollins Band’s Hard Volume to this, Love Unlimited Orchestra’s Rhapsody in White.

Rhapsody caught my eye for the circuitous reason that when the Human League (of Don’t You Want Me fame) released an instrumental EP from that same album, it was billed under League Unlimited Orchestra, in homage to the Love Unlimited, the banner for Barry White’s instrumental releases in the 70s.

With me, still? Releasing your instrumentals back then was still a rarity. I know the Beach Boys and James Brown had both done it, prior. This is pre-disco, pre-12-inch single. Barry White may be all ironic schmaltz now, but he was no slouch with the orchestration. Rhapsody in White is saccharine but by no means asinine. Listening to White’s charts makes a case for his place in soul history (beyond novelty).

field report no.052118

LOCATION: the Grey Eagle AVL.NC
SUBJECT: the Sea and Cake

OBSERVATIONS:
I was caught off guard, way back when, by the Sea and Cake’s debut album. Amidst the aftermath of grunge and the rise of electronica, they sounded like nothing else. Nearly 25 years later, they’re still really only comparable to themselves. Their sound hasn’t so much changed as evolved. You wouldn’t mistake their new album, Any Day, for that self-titled debut, but neither would there be any doubt it was the same band.

Likewise, the Sea and Cake are not a normal live band. They have virtually no sing-along choruses. As such, the band is pestered with requests to play their cover of Bowie’s Sound + Vision all (and probably every) night. What originally set them apart from their grungier peers was the sheer softness of their sound. Their melodies are not buoying as much as fulfilling. Their sound floods the room as a slowly rising tide that seeps in from every corner. The Sea and Cake play music of spaces for living, and for this one night they turned the Grey Eagle into their lounge.

It seemed strange they did an encore. Not that the crowd didn’t demand one, but the entire performance seems so counter to such rote expectations…

NOTES: the Sea and Cake; James Elkington
PRESENT: AMS: Angela F.

Solo

Cecil Taylor, 1973

When Ken Burns’ controversial documentary series on jazz finally deigned to bother with the developments of free jazz, Cecil Taylor earned the most ire. The retrograde traditionalist Branford Marsalis referred to Taylo’rs style as, ‘self-indulgent bullshit’ (notably the only swear word in the entire series). I knew then, that I had to find out more about Taylor.

Cecil Taylor was the very image of avant garde. His aesthetic proved impervious to prevailing winds of trends or fashions. Unrelenting swells of tone clusters buffet the listener. Taylor’s performances were about endurance, and navigating the tune amongst the fury.

After immersing myself in much of Cecil’s career, I knew I wanted one of his solo records on vinyl. There is nothing quite these solo performances—especially from the 70s. I found this LP, Solo, used, at Other Music, when I lived in NYC. I’d never heard it before, in part because it was out-of-print (making it more appealing). It fit all the criteria: solo, 70s, live, with the added bonus of rarity.

Symphony no.3

Henryk Górecki, 1992

It’s no coincidence that I decided to pick up this review after my recent report on a David Byrne concert. One of the earliest times I caught Byrne, was a performance of his symphonic work, The Forest with the Oregon Symphony in Portland. The other work of that particular eventing was Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony no.3. It was just then catching fire as a popular work. Originally spurned by critics as a cloying saccharine variety of morose, it had the audacity to unabashedly embrace melody while John Cage still walked the Earth. The work has outlasted its naysayers. You could easily argue that it paved the way for the mainstreaming of other composers like Arvo Pärt, as well as influencing a generation of film composers.

field report no.050818

LOCATION: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium AVL.NC
SUBJECT: David Byrne

OBSERVATIONS:
David Byrne’s music has been a life-long companion, for me, but it’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve seen him live. Don’t ask me how I lived in NYC for so long and never managed to see him there (though I was lucky enough to enjoy his installation, Playing the Building). What I mean to say is I’m biased, at best. With that caveat , I’ve been describing seeing him this time around as life affirming. Not only was the show engaging—built around positive (but not passive) songs—it was future-facing visually ambitious. It’s rare to see an artist of such stature still striving.

Of course, David Byrne is not an artist given to nostalgia. The set list featured a smattering of Talking Heads songs (and not always the ones you’d expect). If you came looking for a greatest hits set (as so many of his peers are content to do), you’d leave disappointed.

They played (almost) the entirety of Byrne’s new album, American Utopia—which didn’t leave much time for the rest of his varied solo catalog. It provides an interesting view on what he considers canon, though: Like Humans Do and Lazy made the cut. Of the Talking Heads songs aired (especially The Great Curve and I Zimbra), were torn into with glee by the rhythm-heavy ensemble.

Every member of the band was in constant motion—made possible by a multi-piece, marching band-style percussion section. The stage was unadorned except for a tall, chainmail border curtain. Visually, it played with light cast on it. More practically, it allowed the band members to pass through it at any given point. Thoroughly choreographed, the staging (mostly) avoided feeling like interpretive dance, and never gave the impression of simply miming to pre-recorded tracks (it’s been pointed out in interviews that every sound is generated on stage).

While David Byrne doesn’t tour as often as he used to (and who could blame him), he never fails to present his work beautifully and thoughtfully. I left believing I’d seen, not a show, but an honest aesthetic presentation of artist in the present moment.

NOTES: David Byrne; Benjamin Clementine
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

Fracture

Kailin, 2017

Post-club ambient is how boomkat described Kailin’s Fracture, which is both evocative and accurate. I also hear something of the weirder outer reaches of r-n-b in it as well. When the lugubrious keyboards wobble and warp, similar to when you look at the world through a textured glass. It’s strangely cavernous as well, playing with stadium sized sounds that would only reverberate like that if the stadium were empty.

Digswell Duets

Lol Coxhill, 1978

I’d heard heard about Lol Coxhill’s Digswell Duets for so long—decades, at least—when I saw it in person at DustyGroove, I immediately plunked down the not-insubstantial amount they were asking, still not knowing what to expect. Sure, I could have easily go on youtube before taking the plunge, but who was I kidding? After all this time, Digswell was going to be mine.

Though not surprised, I found it a pointedly odd record. The two sides are about as different as the two figures on the cover. The first side is a collaboration between Coxhill (on saxophone) and Simon Emmerson on electronics, called the ‘Digswell Tape System’. It spools out like free-jazz-meets-frippertronics. The flipside is a no less abstract, but far more traditional meeting between Lol and pianist Veryan Weston.

Both are striking examples of the then-still-fresh British Free Improv movement, but I find myself wanting to consume them separately. Is Coxhill asking us to note the differences or similarities between the two sides? Are they supposed to be heard simultaneously, as two halves of a whole? (I doubt it, but I might try it, just once.) Perhaps though, I should try and play it through as it was intended, and give Digswell Duets time to reveal itself to me.

field report no.042818

LOCATION: the Grey Eagle AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Superchunk

OBSERVATIONS:
Superchunk know what they are doing. They’ve run the club gauntlet since before grunge was even a thing. They know there’s a handful songs that people absolutely expect to hear (Slack Motherfucker, Driveway to Driveway…) but between those and whatever their latest LP is, they pepper in some unexpected tidbits from their now-rather-large catalog. They dusted off Song for Marion Brown, which made me go back to reappraise Indoor Living, which I admit I rarely ever put on. I was also glad at least a couple of songs from recent albums, I Hate Music and Majesty Shredding stayed in rotation. Too often, a long-running band’s newest material can have a short shelf life, lasting only as long as the next tour, never to be played again. Superchunk make a strong case for the enduring quality in their later work.

NOTES: Superchunk; Rock-a-Teens
PRESENT: AMS

Progressive Defenses 2

In which I mount a defense for one of the more lampooned and derided styles in rock history—Progressive Rock. If you want to keep keep up with future episodes of this podcast, subscribe to sndlgc podcasts in the app of your coice or copy this link to subscribe manually.

In recent years, progressive rock has come a long way towards rehabilitation. Not so long ago, ‘prog’ was a four-letter word in reviews, derisively thrown any band a tad too ambitious. Of course, while the concepts behind prog have gained greater acceptance, there’s always more to the scene than King Crimson and Yes.

It can a a daunting task, wading into such a sprawling genre without a guide. When the style is filled with side-long song cycles, each song reaching into double-digit durations, what sort of primer can one make?

Here is my solution: make 7-inch single edits. Cut the epics down into digestible lengths. In doing so, I endeavor to not just present an excerpt of the song, but to preserve some of the original’s scope—it’s varied passages and virtuosity and grandeur. Granted, if I’m lopping off more than half a song, something’s bound to be lost, but my hope was to give a vague impression of the whole.

While progressive rock was in exile, the accepted wisdom went something like it was just too much twee noodling. This mix goes a long way to prove how, despite all the dextrous displays and extemporaneous tempo shifts, the best bands could make it rock convincingly. It’s also common to hear that punk rock was, in part, a direct repudiation of prog—and yet, listen to Peter Hammill’s unhinged performance on Disengage, and you can understand why he had Johnny Rotten’s respect.

Like any major movement in music, progressive rock is more than it’s remembered for. In the 24 songs included here, we move from blues-based hard rock to keyboard-drenched psychedelia to improvisatory jazz-rock and end with some pastoral progressive-folk.

Progressive rock is as expansive as it’s proponent’s symphonic ambitions. It’s a fertile spot in rock history, not some aberration. Despite a wan period of neglect, it is flourishing again.

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: Earth Hymn
Budgie: Stranded
Uriah Heap: Tears in My Eyes
The Norman Haines Band: Rabbits
Brian Auger: Oblivion Express
Robert Fripp: Disengage
Osiris: Sailor on the Seas of Fate
Can: Vernal Equinox
Gong: Master Builder
Brand X: Malaga Virgen
Volker Kriegel: Plonk Whenever
Carol Grimes & Delivery: The Wrong Time
Nucleus: Oasis
Julie Tippetts: Oceans and Sky (and Questions Why)
Amon Düül II: Telephonecomplex
Nektar: The Dream Nebula
Traffic: Dream Gerrard
UK: Thirty Years
Fuchsia: Another Nail
Hatfield and the North: Fitter Stoke Has a Bath
Yonin Bayashi: Ping-Pong Dama no Nageki
Trees: Sally Free and Easy


If you’re looking for even more progressive rock, I wanted to include the first volume here, since it was released before the start of this blog. This original missive includes a lot of the biggest names in prog, from King Crimson to Yes and Genesis.

Four Stones

Dean McPhee, 2018

The typical guitarist has to toil in order to build a distinctive voice on their instrument. It’s in part why so many guitarists are lauded for their virtuosity. The truly great guitarists don’t often wow you with dexterity, they impress you with the force of their creative voice. That individualism is almost as hard to get at in words. That ineffability is why I find trying to review solo guitar albums like Dean McPhee’s Four Stones so difficult.

Make no mistake, it’s a great album, but it’s no a fingerpickin’ extravaganza. What I like most about it is McPhee’s patience. Four Stones is a spacious, atmospheric album. It owes as much to the great composers of soundtracks as it does the legends of guitar heroism. His notes ring long, lonely and pure with just enough electric grit to give them shades of meaning.

field report no.041518

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Screaming Females

OBSERVATIONS:
There's something Insanely gratifying about Screaming Females. Sure, they're as reliable a live band as I've seen—always on point—but something more. Punk has been with us for well nigh 50 years. The template can start to seem very stale and predictable. Every now and again, though, a band comes along that manages to not reinvent the genre, but reinvigorate it. Screaming Females so wholly embody the racket they make, it comes alive. They've got solid songwriting, chops, and a distinctive voice—all it takes to stand out from the collective weight of history, but what makes them vital is how it always feels that they throw themselves in, bodily to what they are doing. Seen live, the energy you feel from the band is palpably mirrored in the crowd. It’s nearly impossible not to get swept up in it.

NOTES: Screaming Females; Thou; Hirs; Teenage Halloween
PRESENT: AMS

None Stop Disco Style

Ranking Dillinger, 1977(?)

My journeys into the various shades of reggae have been sporadic at best. If I'm honest, it's only ever been just stumbling upon things, picking up whatever strikes a chord. The reason I first poked around at all was to root out the influencers for the various strains of dub techno I was obsessing over in the 90s. My collection is telling in that regard: most the things that still strike that chord are solidly dubbed.* I find the way dub techniques upend a song, turning it into a disjointed patchwork makes for unpredictable and engaged listening.

All this is a long preamble to say I'd never heard of Ranking Dillinger before I saw None Stop Disco Style. I was intriguiged by the title.—from which I expected a reggae-disco hybrid. Instead I got a solid dub platter. It sounded like lo-fi, homespun remixes of songs I'd never heard the first time 'round—which was perfect.


*for years now, Rocksteady has actually been my go-to style of reggae, but that's for a different post.

field report no.041418

LOCATION: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Asheville Symphony Orchestra, Jayce Ogren conducting

OBSERVATIONS:
In April, we returned to hear our local symphony orchestra with the promise of some slightly more modern fare. This time around, in our orchestra's version of American Idol—wherein each contestant for the conductor / musical director slot had a public performance over the course of the season—we saw it helmed by the very young-looking, but no less accomplished, Jayce Ogren. The theme of his program was patriotism—but not of the bombastic De Sousa variety.

The first piece was John Adams' The Chairman Dances. It was a lovely piece, even if it belied its theatrical origins. It was written—but not included—to be in the opera Nixon in China. It often featured the shifting patterns of audio moiré that define much of late-20th century minimalism but would change gears, jarringly at times (probably to match action in some scene). The second piece was also from the last century, Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain. At heart, it's a piano conerto, and Joyce Yang impressed as the virtuosic lead. Despite her melodramatic flair, my attention drifted. I just didn't find the work captivating, musically. The evening closed with Sibelius' Symphony no.2. I didn't know the work well, but it seemed well executed: crisp and well defined across the spectrum. 

While the patriotic theme did not veer to the martial or nationalistic, each piece had a lively pulse. Ogren focused on the way traditional and folk musics of a place can bleed into its orchestral work, helping the composer target and express specific emotional cues with their home audience.

NOTES: John Adams, the Chairman Dances;  Manuel de Falla, Nights in the Gardens of Spain (Joyce Yang, piano); Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 2
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

playing with fire / spectrum / melomania / highs lows and heavenly blows / pure phase

Spacemen 3, 1988 / Sonic Boom, 1990 / the Darkside, 1992 / Spectrum, 1994 / Spiritualized, 1995

By the time I came across the Spacemen 3, they'd already broken up, with solo careers underway. Of course, they were barely an obscure cult band at the time. The Spacemen have grown in reputation as the years go on. I was just in time to catch a wave of reissues before their catalog plunged back into out-of-print obscurity. Even still, getting it all, took some serious doing, but I was obsessed, and needed everything. It's no exaggeration to say their records ended up molding a good portion of my current sound character.

As they've vinyl copies started to return to the market, I was faced with the difficult decision of just which one to get. Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to is a perennial favorite. In actuality, Taking Drugs is a collection of demos for their first album, leaning more into their rockist side and only hinting at their spaced-out potential. Their last album, Recurring, is amazing, but fragmented—playing more like a split LP for their subsequent solo gigs. That left Perfect Prescription and Playing with Fire, which felt like deciding which arm to lose.

Ultimately Playing with Fire was too alluring. It's the wobbling imperfect balance in the middle of their transitions. It churns with overdriven guitars on Revolution, blisses out brilliantly on How Does It Feel? and features an unrelenting, locked-groove tribute to their heroes, Suicide. (Plus, it was released on double 10-inch.)

Before Spacemen 3 dissolved in acrimony, Sonic Boom fired off his first solo album, Spectrum. It's a clear continuation of Playing with Fire (and featured help from most the band). I ordered an expensive copy from Japan off ebay, long before the reissues arrived. If I had waited, I would have scored a copy with the interactive psychedelic wheel on the cover (alas, mine's just printed). Spectrum's centerpiece is Angel, a variation on themes from Spacemen 3's Ode to Street Hassle, but so much improved.

With the Spacemen over, Sonic Boom formed a group (confusingly, also) called Spectrum that was to be his pop outlet. Soul Kiss (Glide Divine) is perhaps the most under-appreciated shoegaze album (this, by a man who helped made the genre possible), but I could never get over Highs, Lows and Heavenly Blows. I waited decades for it to be reissued. It's another transitional record, showing both where Sonic Boom had been as well as where they were headed. And Then I Just Drifted Away is a brilliant rework of How Does It Feel? and the instrumental simply called Feedback showcases what Pete Kember was up to with his other, more ambient project Experimental Audio Research (more on that another time).

Jason Pierce (aka J.Spaceman) quickly launched Spiritualized, debuting with an ambitious single, turning parts of a Spacemen 3 instrumental into a 13+ minute dream pop epic. The band was lush and lavish from the outset, sounding less DIY-experimental than any of Sonic Boom's projects. Spiritualized was defined by extended songs built of diaphanous layers, like Feel So Sad. While Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space has been minted a classic, I believe Spiritualized peaked with Pure Phase. The album sounds enormous (apparently you're hearing two different mixes simultaneously). That depth in the album's sound gives an extreme punch to their loud-quiet-loud dynamics. Pure Phase moves as a suite, strung together by the cosmic tones phasing in and out of nearly every song. It's atrippy, frightening, beautiful and groovy record, often all at once.

The Spacemen 3 was, at heart, a duo, but Pete Bassman has probably in the strongest claim as their third. He played on nearly all the Spacemen records (and most of the Spectrum material as well). He's fronted a couple of bands himself, the most successful being his psychedelic garage band, The Darkside. They had two solid albums, that fit neatly into the Spacemen canon, while still carving out their own, distinct voice. Darkside's second album, Melomania, lacks a killer single like Waiting for the Angels (from their first), but it's the more ambitious of the two. They experiment with their formula, courting a heavy-lidded madchester sound on This Mystic Morning, and ending with a near-10-minute Velvets-style jam, Rise.

While these are all records I argue to be objectively classic, they're also indelibly soaked in time and place. When you spend that much time searching for and listening to something, it seeps into your very experience—not just the soundtrack to your past, more an unseen character in your story. I certainly can't imagine my life without the Spacemen 3 by my side.

field report no.041018

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Circuit des Yeux

OBSERVATIONS:
A trusted friend inveighed upon me to give Circuit des Yeux a listen, and seeing they were coming through town shortly, I opted to have my first experience be a live one. My report back to her was summed up as, "if Angels of Light had been Jarboe’s post-Swans project instead of Gira’s." Hayley Fohr's low contralto, laden with vibrato serves as the a centerpiece of an acoustic din that slowly coalesces, martially about her.

It was one those rare nights where it was worth arriving early. Every band on the ticket was worth the time and travel. The Nathan Bowles Trio was better than the first time I'd seen him, working a much more hypnotic folk motorik. The use of banjo and upright bass, oddly, made think of the politically separation of pitches in the Minutemen (of all things). Marisa Anderson understands how to use the electric aspect of her guitar. Her set was in the same no-mans-land between American Primitive folk picking and Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack that I'd file Earth under.

NOTES: Circuit des Yeux; Yeux; Marisa Anderson: Nathan Bowles Trio
PRESENT: AMS

The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste

Ministry, 1989

In party conversation, when I'm trying to explain my aesthetic journey from punk rock to free jazz, I often end up referencing Ministry. My line is that free jazz showed me that elements of chaos were far more intense than tightly choreographed structure could hope to be. For example, compare John Coltrane's Ascension to Ministry's Paslm 69. For all their brash in-your-faceness, Ministry is nowhere near as unsettling as Coltrane—and the jazz great was actually trying to inspire, not intimidate us. I pick on Ministry because there's something so cartoonish in their aggression. It only felt genuinely threatening when I was too young to understand.

Which is a long, backhanded way to get around to saying that I love listening to Ministry. It may be simply that it's damnably hard to escape nostalgia's clutches, but I do think there's an honest enjoyment in it—just maybe not the one the band intended. I listen to Ministry like I read comic books: with a guilty pleasure grain of salt and dose of self-deprecation. At their peak—and The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste is almost certainly that, still dynamic with great turns by their coconspirators—their caricature of outraged intensity is counter-culture junk food I find hard to resist.

Negative Chambers

Yair Elazar Glotman & Mats Erlandsson, 2017

Glotman and Erlandsson's Negative Chambers occupies a space not as populated as I'd expect: ambient minimalism executed with acoustic and traditional folk instruments. Perhaps there's more to this slice of style than I think, but I'm also counting the somewhat reverential air the material maintains. While the instrumentation on each track is sparse, their measured and thoughtful execution bears more in common with modern orchestral composition than ambient electronica. 

field report no.0323-2518

LOCATION: various sites, Knoxville TN
SUBJECT: Big Ears Festival

OBSERVATIONS:
Last year, I only dipped my toe in, testing the waters of the Big Ears Festival. Going for one day, I crammed in as much as possible and left overwhelmed. I was all in this year (though, circumstances necessitated I skip the opening night, Thursday). Arriving for the opening bell on Friday, I dove in, catching 10 performances in the first day alone. By the time I left, early Sunday evening, the final tally was up to 23. I set off for the long drive home, exhausted (in the best possible way).

Without trying to detail every experience, what follows are some of the highlights, as I saw them.

There was no better way to start than catching Roscoe Mitchell's Trio Five. Mitchell's presence and performance served testament to the advanced programming at Big Ears—their ability to attract artists of stature. The Art Ensemble of Chicago founder has remained, since the mid-60s a restless artist. These Trios, the first of which are documented on the ECM album, Bells for the South Side, are mature, searching works. The group was well-versed, each member, though some at least 2 generations Mitchell's junior, were patient and knew when to sit back or lean in. Roscoe's extended solos were searing—especially on soprano saxophone—filled with intervalic leaps and exploding, multi-phonic extended techniques.

Quite unintentionally, I ended up organizing my experience each day into loose groupings. Friday contained, by far, the most jazz-oriented of shows. Throughout the rest of the day, I saw the ebullient Cyro Baptista, Rocket Science (featuring Evan Parker and Peter Evans), as well as Jenny Scheinmann's Mayhem & Mischief (featuring Nels Cline). There was a powerhouse solo performance by Milford Graves—who's experiencing a coronation into elder statesman status of late. Luckily, The Thing's excoriating set made up for a rather staid and mildly disappointing turn by Medeski Martin & Wood.

Even still, I mixed it up, catching Ikue Mori,  and ending the night with a sublime presentation by Wolfgang Voigt as Gas—previewing his new work, Rausch. Along the way I caught an Arto Lindsay set that was by far the best I have seen. His band—lead by the stalwart bassist, Melvin Gibbs— featured two drummers this go 'round, giving his samba inflected art rock witha . powerful, polyrhythmic punch.

Saturday ended up leaning more towards electronica acts. I started the day with an early morning performance by Kid Koala. I didn't know at the time how lucky I was to get in to this show. Over the course of the weekend, Kid Koala would lead a series of interactive performances based on his album Satellite: Music to Draw to, that ended up the biggest draw of the Fest—consistently at capacity, turning people away. In the small Square Room venue, each table was set up with custom mini-turntables along with a collection of color-coded 45s. During the performance, a light on the turntable would give you hued cues as to which record to put on, and a conductor would guide the audience to raise the volume, add effects or scratch.

While Kid Koala's music is not stylistically advanced, he excels at making live experiences that leave you feeling as if you've witnessed—even participated—in something truly special.

I went on from there to see a hypnotic all-oboe chamber piece composed by Michael Gordon, in an Art Museum and Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble in a cathedral. Yuka Honda gave a rare solo performance and Laurel Halo drove her set well past its scheduled end-time, supported by experimental percussionist, Eli Keszler.

I ended the night at the Mill & the Mine, catching Four Tet with Kelly Lee Owens warming up. Four Tet has been on a years-long hot streak that's cemented him as one of the pivotal electricians of the early 21st century. He moves with dynamics in opposition to themselves. It has all the structure and release of classic techno but maintains the loose-limbed unpredictability of improvised music.

Kelly Lee Owens was a shocker, though. Her self-titled debut from last year (which I loved) was no preparation for her live set. Bits and pieces from the album showed up, but only as markers in her continuous slow build to a jaw-dropping display of hard acid house. If any one other than Four Tet was on after her, I would have called it a night then and there.

Sunday was like any Sunday after you've partied for two days in a row. I was weary and a bit hungover, musically. I caught what I could, Tyshawn Sorey's music is impressive and luminous. I'd be lying if I said I've found a way to fully connect with it, but I am no less than impressed by it.

I went on to see a set by the rock band Suuns, which I found a bit of a let-down. I'd say they reminded me of Joy Division, but really it's more like reminding me of Interpol reminding me of Joy Division. It never really lifted off—I eventually found a chair in a corner and dozed off a bit. Later I caught pianist Jason Moran with Ron Miles and Mary Halvorson. While Ron Miles has the longest resume of all three, it's Halvorson who has the buzz. I'd seen her play dozens of times while I lived in New York, so it was a treat to see her on stage again.  

Despite my somewhat disengaged state, the improvised set on Sunday afternoon by Keiran Hebden (aka Four Tet) and Mats Gustafsson (of the Thing) was possibly the best of the entire weekend. Their musical spheres have little to do with each other—yet you could hear each one reaching to the other to find a common ground, in the moment. This was not their first meeting, but like their album with the sadly departed drummer, Steve Reid, I hope this set sees the light of day on record, as it was fucking stellar.

With one more show tucked in—a performance of Steve Reich's newer work, Quartet as performed by Nief-Norf—I was back on the road to North Carolina, overwhelmed (again). Already, I'm pleased to see the Big Ears 2019 lineup taking sahpe, as for the foreseeable future, I plan on making the Big Ears Festival an annual trek.

NOTES: Roscoe Mitchell; Cyro Baptista's Vira Locos; Ikue Mori; Rocket Science; Milford Graves; Arto Lindsay; Jenny Sheinman's Mischief & Mayhem; Medeski Martin & Wood; The Thing; Gas; Kid Koala; Rushes Ensemble performing Michael Gordon; Evan Parker Electro-acoustic Ensemble; Yuka Honda; Sonus Ensemble; Laurel Halo featuring Eli Keszler; Kelly Lee Owens; Four Tet; Tyshawn Sorey; Suuns; Kieren Hebden & Mats Gustafsson; Bangs; Nief Norf performing Steve Reich
PRESENT: AMS

proto-punk street-cred

There's a standardized laundry list of bands that gets tossed around as proto-punk: the Velvets, the Stooges, the Modern Lovers—even prog-rocker Peter Hammill sometimes makes the cut. To that list, I'd add Yoko Ono.

Once reviled as the anti-Beatle that ruined everything—which was of course, preposterous, Yoko Ono has run a lifelong gauntlet of bullshit. Her marriage to John Lennon provided her enormous opportunities, but also brought her art to the attention of people that had zero context or desire to understand or engage with it. She was used as a bad punchline for art-rock jokes. Lately, as rock itself has moved out of the mainstream (again) and it's veered in artsier directions, she's been enjoying a bit of unexpected, elder stateswoman status. Big names are lining up 'round the block to collaborate with her.

If you go back to her solo work in the early 70s, Ono makes a great case for her status as a punk rock progenitor. Those albums feature strident, socio-political lyrics over songs squarely based on barroom blues—sounding off-the-cuff without much of any concern about the 'right' way to play or sing it. That's about as good a description of the early punk albums as I can think of. 

The song driving this all home, for me,  was I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window off 1973's  Approximately Infinite Universe. The title alone is punk as fuck. Over a slopped, funky blues riff, Ono muses about self-determination and escaping from her parents' (and by extension, society's) expectations. While the feminist implications are obvious, It's reach is well beyond, tapping into a vein of pure teen angst—the universal desire to come of your own age; the fount of all things punk rock. 

While songs like Clear Glass Window certainly presaged punk, in many ways, Yoko Ono is also a proto-post-punk artist (if you can stomach such an oxymoron). When her more outré tendencies collided with popular rock forms, as on Don't Worry Kyoko (Mommy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow) she helped clear a path for the utter dismantling of rock-n-roll's structures from within that would happen in the post-punk era.