Resonant Spaces

John Butcher, 2008

I’ve a sucker for albums by improvisors recorded in cavernous spaces. It rivals my obsession with duets of saxophone and electronics. Perhaps it’s a sense of place. No matter how unearthly and soft focused the tones may be, they are grounded in the reverberant echoes of a specific place. There’s a palpable sense of exploration, here, on Resonant Spaces, as John Butcher tests the sonic properties of his chosen locales. The pairing of Butcher’s deep well of extended techniques with the way the particular spaces respond mean only about half the album even sounds like a solo saxophone record at all. It teeters instead between musique concrète and electronic minimalism, despite its entirely acoustic origins.

UkabazUmorezU

Sugai Ken, 2017

Techno has been a democratizing force, but in unexpected ways. As the technology advanced and its producers gained more acumen, the distance from rudimentary, banging acid-house to detailed sonic soundscapes became a shorter trip. It’s produced some interesting hybrids like Sugai Ken. On UkabazUmorezU, he delivers the tactile experience of sound found in musique concrète presented in a wrapper more of popular electronics.

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).

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.

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.

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.