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 the 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.

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 took 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

Somewhere Decent to Live

Space Afrika, 2018

The brand of deep, hypnotic dub pioneered by the Basic Channel label in the late 90s / early 2000s has slowly grown into a sub-genre unto itself. The sparse minimalism of the style, with percussion more implied than anything else, and gaseous but impactful bass, is perhaps easy to mimic but damnably hard to bring to life. Space Afrika rises to the challenge, with an album that carries echoes of the dubbier Vladislav Delay output—not a moment too soon, either, as Delay himself has been AWOL of late, leaving a vacancy to fill in my listening.

Blood on the Moon / Kiss to the Brain

Chrome, 1981 / Helios Creed, 1992

Recently I went on a tear, trying to listen to every album related to the infamous industrial act Chrome. This was no small endeavor: the band (under alternating stewardship) has an over 40-year, near-continuous history (not to mention all the solo albums). It seemed the end of that cycle was a good time to discuss the Chrome in my collection.

The demented and drug-addled industrial rock Helios Creed and Damon Edge made sounds completely outside of any scene or time. I don't know of many or any bands coming from California in the early 80s that bear any relation to them whatsoever. Like backwoods meth cooked up in a trailer, this SanFran duo (along with whatever support they could muster up) runs on cheap highs. Blood on the Moon is their fifth full length in as many years and by far the most 'professional' sound they'd achieved—that is to say the recording equipment sounds moderately up to the task of capturing their mania. Edge's voice comes at you in either low, lascivious, demonic tones or high, pinched, cartoon villain angles. Creed's guitar is chained through enough effects to make chord changes irrelevant, while the rhythm section martials on mechanistically. Chrome are like a seriously a bad acid trip (in a good way).

Helios Creed had the more successful post-Chrome career—at least artistically. Damon Edge's subsequent Chrome and solo records slid into lo-fi synth dirges, sorely missing Creed's acidic splatter. Creed's output could be hit or miss as well, but there was usually at least one or two worthwhile burners per LP. In the early 90s he paired up with the Minneapolis label, Amphetamine Reptile (the perfectly named home for a Chrome project), known for their sludgy brand of hard indie-rock. With the return of guitar rock to radio airplay and the rise of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, there was probably never a better time for Chrome to ascend. Helios did his level best, delivering a trio of blistering industrial barn-stormers—including my pick, Kiss to the Brain. They surely, must have grown the Chrome cult but were still far too oddball to garner wide attention.

Heads

Osibisa, 1972

I often shop the new arrivals bin on the Dusty Groove website. From the time I lived in Chicago, they've been veritable resource of discovery—so much more than just a record store. Their sonic niche is not my specialty, so it's always fun to wade through what they have and see what catches my eye. One time, it was Osibisa.

I'd never heard of the band before, but the cover of their third record, Heads, will stop you in your record-flipping tracks. The typography instantly makes you think it's a prog-rock record, with echoes of Yes or Budgie. The warped painting is by Abdul Mati Klarwein, the same artist who gave us Miles Davis' Live Evil. The image is of the sweating, disembodied head of a flying elephant. To make things even weirder, each of the band members faces seem to be emerging from different parts of this demonic-looking Dumbo's face. With exactly that much information to go on, I had to see what Osibisa was all about.

For lack of a better term, they were a funk band. If you try and get beyond that, you end up needing a lot of hyphens. Though based in London most of the band hailed from Ghana, and their progressive-flavored jams shared some DNA with afrobeat. The more psychedelic edges of their tracks remind me of a more percussion-heavy Cymande. They also retain an African feel of call and response—the same one that also informs African American Gospel music. It all ads up to (ahem) a heady brew.

Die Paste, Die Wrong

Gerard Herman, 2016

Gerard Herman Die Paste Die Wrong

It's actually rather rare to buy a record with no information other than the sound. So many things influence us, from what we already know, to criticism and promotion, up to the cover art. I virtually none of that when it came to Gerard Herman's Die Paste, Die Wrong. I knew nothing about Herman, and the Entr'acte label is about as forthcoming as their stark, consecutively numbered covers would imply. I had no information other than what I heard and what I heard were these beguiling electronic miniatures, each built with simple, limited components but each slippery in its construction, hard to pin down.

The Way Out

L.Voag, 1979

Any band that names themselves the Homosexuals, in 1977, is confrontational. Apparently the name-change cost them at least one band member. The Homosexuals were a prolific and squirrelly group, who seemed to form new bands monthly either from desire for obfuscation or perhaps sheer boredom. The box set, Astral Glamour, went a long way to making the bulk of their work as the Homosexuals available again (and more besides) but huge swaths of their other material remains damnably hard to find. Hell, it sometimes feels like you have to be an internet detective just to find out it even exists. Getting the box set digitally also does nothing for sorting out what goes where…

On vinyl, this dilemma is slowly being addressed. The various works of Amos, aka Jim Welton, aka L.Voag have started to see the light of day . Listening to The Way Out is almost a form of archeology. Nobody makes this sort of lo-fi jumble in era of computer-based home studios and auto-tune. It sounds like half these songs were written moments before they were recorded. The magic of it is in how well it works, in all its haphazard glory.

Phantom Studies

Dettmann / Klock, 2017

Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock have maintained an intermittent collaboration for the last 15 years. Phantom Studies is the latest their series of singles, but by dint of being a double 12-inch, it also serves as their not-quite-full length debut. While they are offered more room to stretch out, they keep their rhythms aimed at the floor. True to it's title, Phantom Studies is a darker work than previous ones, with tunnel vision bass gone fuzzy with distortion around the edges, and tracks haunted by echoing, half heard voices.

Hymns

Godflesh, 2001

In its extremity, industrial metal is kind of silly. I think you have to embrace that fact in order to fully accept and appreciate the style: buy into the distorted bellowing and pummeling volume the same as you accept the fairies and gnomes of prog rock. It never ceases to surprise me what a dynamic range such a narrow niche can contain, though. Where Ministry is all treble-drenched, cartoonish aggression, Godflesh is stark and harrowing, plowing an excoriated emotional landscape.

At the time of its release, Hymns was the swansong for Godflesh, as JK Broadrick moved on to other projects. It remains not only my favorite Godflesh LP, but one of my favorite guitar records, full stop. The unique sound of the guitars themselves, across the whole album, is worth the price of entry alone. It's as if they amplified the fretboard—so every pluck, strum and chord change is an event unto itself, as well as the resulting note. This clear meeting of flesh, steel and electricity is epic.

Hymns is distinctive in the Godflesh catalogue. It's one their few records to feature a live drummer. Abandoning their distinctive  machine rhythms may have been controversial among their cult fan base, but it perfectly suits the more human and dynamic sound of this LP. The lyrics on Hymns seem more personal as well. Much of the writing is more introverted and filled with self-examination, rather than simply raging outward.

Broadrick was clearly looking to the horizon: the last song on Hymns is titled Jesu, the same as the new band he would debut a couple years later.  In recent years, Godflesh has reentered the fray. After touring their seminal album, Streetcleaner, for a bit, they've begun releasing all new material. Last year's Post Self ranks among their best work. 

The Sound of Silver

LCD Soundsystem, 2007

When LCD Soundsystem is firing on all cylinders, they're straotspheric. Even still, I approach every new missive with skepticism. Any band with that much knowing irony baked in makes it's hard to discern when you're an admiring fan or the butt end of a joke. LCD Soundsystem is practically a musical representation of the early-2000s rise of Brooklyn chic.

I came around to their second album, The Sound of Silver, via the astounding single, All My Friends. Or, rather, the cover of it—by the one and only John Cale—included as a b-side. While LCD, no doubt, wrote an exceptional (and surprisngly affecting) song, John Cale completely hijacks it. When I play All My Friends in my mind, it's Cale's voice I hear. It served it's purpose nonetheless, inspiring me to give the rest of the album a closer listen.

James Murphy & Co. know their craft. There's hardly a modern rock band that can compete with just how fucking well they put tracks together. Every sound in every song on Sound of Silver is in exactly the right, yet somehow unexpected place. They hug every curve, from the storming Us V Them and North American Scum, to the torch song closer of New York I Love You but You're Bringing me Down. The Sound of Silver is one near-perfect prismatic construction after another.  

Nippon Guitars

Takeshi Terauchi, 1966-74

I don't own much in the way of classic LPs of surf guitar like Link Wray. It seems a style so thoroughly ingrained in the American collective consciousness—now, repeatedly reinforced by film and TV—that owning any often seems ancillary. When I find myself drawn to surf rock, it's the oddities, like the punked up version peddled by Man, or Astroman?.

Nippon Guitars collects recordings by Japanese guitar guru, Takeshi Tarauchi. The appeal—beyond the impressive fretwork—amounts to cultural re-appropriation. On the cover, Tarauchi and band are in samurai garb in front of a stylized set piece, fit for kabuki. They are hamming it up. On record, a few of the tracks even throw in 'far Eastern' scales—but it's more in the vein of a Martin Denny variation. So are they playing to our expectations, merely playing a part, or are they reframing the representation and hijacking the most American rock-n-roll sound for good measure?

The Guillotine

Hey Colossus, 2017

Hey Colossus had been chugging along for a decade before I heard of them. The Guillotine was my first encounter—and it's a stunner. It's something like their twelfth record (depending on how you add it up) so I had some catching up to do. 

Their earlier earlier releases belie why they're lumped in with sludge metal, and (later) noise rock, but Hey Colossus have outgrown such distinctions. There's an hermetic feel to their work—not so much self-referential as ascending out of their past. Their tunes are tightly coiled, and, when they want to be, brutal. The ragged, live edge of the guitar work is miles away from the Helmet model of compressed, percussive blocks of distortion—which is still the template for so much heavy rock today. Instead, Hey Colossus court a sonic murk, always threatens to become too muddy but lending the songs a fathomless depth. They retain just enough clarity to let melodies rise to the surface, when needed.

It all sounds amazing on vinyl, but I fear the rawness of Hey Colossus is the sort that gets diminished by mp3 compression and streaming.

I Was Hoping You'd Pass by Here

Ghost Music, 2018

There's an ongoing debate whether names like indie-rock or punk describe a scene or a sound. Punk icons like Ian McKaye and Calvin Johnson have argued for the former, insisting punk can grow and evolve, even to things that sound nothing like punk today. Others insist we use the term 'punk' describe how something sounds to someone, using shared preconceptions as signposts. At some point, the idea of what punk becomes fixed.

The term indie-rock was coined to describe a particular scene and sound, but naming the genre after bands' affiliation with minor labels has caused no end of confusion as to just what is 'indie'. A wealth of independent labels still ship records in just about every genre imaginable, but there's also a generally accepted 'indie-rock' sound.

Ghost Music nail classic 'indie-rock' so well, listening to I Was Hoping You'd Pass by Here the first time through felt like aural comfort food. It was all familiar and lived in—in the best possible way. The strumming jangle, the ragged edges, the peculiar melancholy cool were all exactly where they should be.

It's more of a feat than it, at first, appears. If you remind me of great indie-rock, but actually pale in comparison, I'll be reaching for what you remind me of. You'd have made a record as signpost. I've found myself coming back instead to Hoping You'd Pass by Here, repeatedly. Ghost Music's magnetic attraction for me is the action that speaks louder than other words.