The Blue Room

The Orb, 1992

I've heard it said that in 1992—arguably the Orb's heyday—they got the BBC radio to broadcast the full-length version of the Blue Room (forty minutes long!) at least once, on air in its entirety. This 12-inch EP doesn't include that version, but it does have their brightest early moment: Assassin.

This track gurgles along on bubbling synths, rising and bursting. Syncopated beats drop in and out of the mix in a style equal parts from King Tubby and countless nights spent DJing. Assassin is highly textured and obliquely melodic, filled with red herrings and asides. At fifteen minutes long, it feels half as long as it actually is.

From Untruth

Elder Ones, 2019

When From Untruth was announced, I was downright excited. The Elder Ones’ first album, Holy Science, made a lasting impression. My initial response to the preview single was tad cool, though. Amirtha Kidambi’s voice on the first album felt so integrated and naturalistic, and this had some of the same stilted air that made Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl hard for me to love. Plus, this time around, she was singing in English.

Vocals are a tricky bit: more than any other aspect in music, you are likely to have strong, probably irrational feelings about how a singer sounds. We also tend to have pretty decisive reactions to words themselves. A good lyricist can elevate a mediocre band while bad poetry can sink a great performance.

Then I went to see Elder Ones as a part of the 2019 Big Ears Festival, and it was easily a highlight of the day. I gained a new vantage point on the material—which wasn’t nearly as choral-inflected or as distanced from the music as I first thought. Even though the words are blunt—she introduced Eat the Rich by saying it’s something she ardently believes—it also came across as vibrant protest. Her statements are blatant, but in the era of Trump, we are living in damnably unsubtle time.

In the end, I viewed From Untruth as a continuation of Yoko Ono’s vital work in the mid-70s. I don’t mean to compare their styles. Kidambi is a powerful and versatile, professional singer trained in multiple styles and her band are seasoned, talented improvisors. What I do mean to call out is the plain-spoken, unfussy action of songwriting as tool for truth, for uncovering what is wriggling under the rocks we walk on daily.

That, and sometimes, the album just wails.

Loss

Marcus Fischer, 2017

I believe I came to Marcus Fischer via a new-release update sent to me from the venerable 12K label. Loss overcame any feelings of been-there, done-that. While the spacious arrangements and wobbly tape distortions all feel familiar, there’s a stately elegance and sense of pacing to the work that transcends. Those familiar elements are filigree to good compositions and arrangements—atmospheres as opposed to crutches.

Selected Ambient Works, 85-92

Aphex Twin, 1992

Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works

Richard D. James will always be remembered as some sort of avant-bad-boy of 90s electronica. A masterful producer who single-handedly moved the genre as a whole forward (on multiple occasions), he was also an impish provocateur to have become the face of British electronica. For all his innovative releases, the one I spin most often is his rather unassuming, early collection: Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Essentially, it’s a gentle collection of room temperature synths and lightly pulsating rhythms, but even still, it was years ahead of its peers (even if the dates on the label are a lark). Each track is perfectly balanced between an austere minimalism and an inviting warmth.

In all honesty, this record is a time and place unto itself, for me Listening to it is an emotional mnemonic device that never fails to make me happier.

Duomo Sounds Ltd.

Various, compiled 2017 (recorded, early 80s)

Given the nature of not only our streaming culture, but also the crate-digging vinyl reissue market, we have access to far more music than any one person would have ever previously imagined. It’s hard enough now, trying to wrap your head around popular music, but now we have every flavor of every style from every corner of the globe at our disposal. It makes dabblers of most us, sampling this or that, but by no means experts in any one thing.

Thank god for collections like Duomo Sounds. They give us a window into, or overview of styles most would otherwise never know. Sure Talking Heads and Paul Simon (and, if we’re honest, the ‘world’ music section at Tower, back in the day) raised the profile of music from the African continent, but a good collection gets us past Simon, even beyond the introductory artists, like Fela Kuti, to a broader picture.

Duomo Sounds sets out to document Nigerian disco, hailing from the 80s. As an American, I always find it interesting to hear how the sounds we’ve exported, come back, after being assimilated into another culture. Doubly so with something like disco, that frankly, I’m not too invested in, domestically. I’m far more enamored with the Nigerian strain than our own—and I hope, at least, it’s not just playing into exoticism.

 

Accelerator

Royal Trux, 1998

There was a point I worried Royal Trux would disappear from history. Sure, Neil Michael Hagerty shared space in gutter punk pioneers, Pussy Galore, but his reputation seems overshadowed by former bandmate Jon Spencer. RT is more hipster aficionado knowledge, whereas Blues Explosion have secured space somewhere in the canon of 90s indie rock.

A quick scan of the critique and you will learn that Accelerator  is the easy contender for their masterpiece. I have to agree; I've never heard anything like it. It's where lo-fi scuzz rock finally gets a production budget, without losing their gnarl. It's a sonic paradox that can easily leave you feeling queasy. Everything about this record smells of excess, and yet it's also exacting and stripped to bare minimalism. Accelerator is what I wanted Exile on Main Street to sound like (after reading the lore of that Stones album).

This is the sound of people, quite successfully, taking drugs to make music to take drugs to.

Old Dreams, New Planet

Stuff. 2017

There’s a cantina somewhere in the universe, and Stuff. is the house band. The ungoogle-able band (period included) peddles a warped mutant funk. All the pieces are there—popping bass and toe-tapping beats—but it plays all wrong (which is why I listen). It’s like a tea pot that’s been dropped and not quite put back together correctly. That they accomplish this without grafting on different styles creates a sort of uncanny effect.

Air Lows

Sivlia Kastel, 2017

Silvia Kastel Air Lows

Silvia Kastel is one of a handful of musicians courting synth-pop from a thornier higher ground. She represents half the noise duo, Control Unit, but on this mini-album, she’s concerned keyboard-driven sort of distended song-craft that retains at least some vaguely recognizable forms. Albums like Air Lows lead me to believe we might be living through a real moment in underground electronic music. Techno and dance continues its fragmented reign, but artists like Kastel are shaping an entire network of retro-synth-futurists charting new destinations from old routes. It distinctly feels as if we’re hearing the records, that 15-20 years hence, will be rediscovered by a new generation of obsessive crate diggers, finally prepared to hear it.

Remain in Light / Music for the Knee Plays / Remain in Light

Talking Heads, 1980 / David Byrne, 1985 / Angélique Kidjo, 2018

There are mountains of text on Talking Heads—whole books written even on individual albums. They’re a band of truly classic status, loved both very personally by multiple generations. To this day, when David Byrne plays This Must Be the Place, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house ( but each person is crying for individual, associative reasons).

The trio of records Talking Heads made with Brian Eno , More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light are generally accepted as the cornerstone of their canon. Remain overlaps not just my undying love all things Byrne but also my obsession with all things Eno—plus you can throw in my later in life love African musics, which this album under the sway of.

Remain is the height of Talking Heads as ‘big tent.’ They had more support musicians than official members, and trusted Eno enough to give him wide berth, as producer. It’s a dense album, from the outset. Swirls of percussion and guitars, backup singers and effects jostle for your attention. Little wonder Once in a Lifetime was the hit single here: it’s more pared back than anything else on the album.

More than just an album, thought, Remain was a roadmap for future revelations. Brian Eno is a pandora’s box. You could dig into it’s afrobeat influences and discover Fela Kuti. You could follow the guesting lead guitarist, Adrian Belew into the 80s incarnation of King Crimson. Or, alternately, you might just check out more by the Talking Heads, and maybe explore David Byrne’s first forays into solo projects that immediately followed Remain.

What stands as my favorite solo record by David Byrne (Look into the Eyeball) has yet to be released on vinyl. Even if it gets reissue treatment I don’t think I could part with my copy of Music for the Knee Plays. Talking Heads and David Byrne were one of my first musical obsessions, and Knee Plays was, quite literally the first LP I ever bought. At the time I couldn’t find it on any other format—but I was obsessed, and needed to have it all.

The work is a soundtrack (of sorts) written for a Robert Wilson play (or, more accurately, the interludes of a larger play). The album is scored entirely for brass band, with about half the tracks overlain with David Byrne’s clipped speaking voice. He dictates little prose poems that are imminently Byrne-ian. He ruminates on metamorphosizing into someone else (after stealing their groceries). A character agonizes about what to wear for a big occasion. In the Future is a list of often contradictory predictions for what lays ahead. It would be wrong to say Knee Plays is an oddity in Byrne’s catalog, it was just the first one.

Returning to Remain in Light: Angélique Kidjo said she knew it was an African album on first listen. In her hands, it’s a truth made plain. She re-colonizes the songs, but in truth, they don’t sound all too different. What really transforms is her voice: where Byrne is all nerves, Kidjo is gutsy swagger. When she bellows 'Some 'a you people just about missed it!’, she’s more preacher than snake-oil salesman. The force of her presence managed to return Remain in Light to me, as new, despite knowing every nook and cranny of it.

It’s so rare to enjoy a cover of a song or album you already have a deep relationship with. They’re something that fairs better if you like the covering artist more than the covered. She can’t unseat the Talking Heads for me, but she puts up a hell of a fight.

On Land

Brian Eno, 1982

Brian Eno’s landmark series, Ambient 1-4, is the perfect introduction for a young sprout testing the ambient waters but also and confusing to the uninitiated. I now view this series very much as an extension of Eno’s work running the Obscure label in the 70s. While he’s a major presence on each of the four records, only two are proper ‘Brian Eno’ records. One is a Harold Budd LP and another is by new age pioneer Laraaji. In that sense, these records are a great introduction to a broader field of ambient music, but confounding if you think you’re buying Brian Eno LPs, specifically.

The series starts with the much lauded Music for Airports—perhaps the most famous ambient work, ever. For my money though, it’s the last in the series: On Land. As much as I love Airports, it’s not as engrossing as Discreet Music, before it—or as sonically mysterious and rich as On Land, after it. As someone who came of age in the late-80s / early 90s, I immersed myself in the electronica renaissance of the post-rave era, and to my ears, 1982’s On Land sounds not only modern, but advanced. It’s structurally obfuscated, making its amorphous movements unpredictable. The sound palette is subtle, but profoundly deep, lain like layers of a drawing on successive sheets of vellum.

I don’t often worry, terribly, about which edition of a record I have, but I chose to upgrade my copy just recently. I had a used EG Records copy from the 80s and I couldn’t resist the new remasters cut at half speed / 45rpm. On Land is an album that actually promises rewards with better clarity.

Big Fun

Miles Davis, 1974

As numerous, archival boxsets have shown us, Miles electric period in the late-60s / early-70s, was masterwork of editing, as much as playing. The tracks heard on his albums are filled with fleeting moments from different components—jammed extensively, then stripped for parts. A process that left the cutting room floor knee-deep. While Miles retreated from view in the mid-70s, Columbia Records made good use of those scraps.

Which is a long way of saying that Big Fun, at its core, is a crass cash-in of leftovers. Of course, let’s keep in mind: these are the leftovers of some of the best players in jazz, or about ever. These bits and pieces are given a rough cut-n-paste treatment, showcasing a cut-n-paste feel that was radical in their day, and endearing now.

Perversely, even knowing this qualifier, Big Fun remains my favorite electric Miles LP. It’s four, sidelong workouts are atmospheric, like a funked up In a Silent Way. Given the extended length of each track, these are also some of Davis’ and Maceo’s most minimal constructions. Each track is built around small motifs, worried endlessly, and arranged cyclically.

I’m struck by side three, Go Ahead, John. As the title implies, it’s a vehicle for guitarist John McLaughlin, but it’s beat kills me. They collaged multiple takes, making hard drops that leap across the stereo field. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover Go Ahead was in fact a cornerstone influence in drum-n-bass’ development. That sonic comparison would put Miles & Co. about 20 years ahead-of-the-game on that one.

Blood on the Tracks / More Blood, More Tracks

Bob Dylan, 1974

You cannot reasonably argue which is the best Bob Dylan album. Sure, there’s a handful to choose from, and the distance between albums of such greatness and everything below is so vast. There’s so few records in that rarified air—by any artist—there’s almost no frame of reference. Objectivity becomes impossible. Scale halfway up those heights, everything after that purely personal preference. Thusly, I feel no reason to defend Blood on the Tracks as my favorite Bob Dylan album. It’s even hard to add much to the dialogue around such albums, as his classics are now the subject of actual academic study.

As someone who follows artists through their highs as well as their lows, Blood on the Tracks calls to me as a singular blip of brilliance in the midst of his flailing mediocrity of the 70s. Bob had eclipsed his glory days (he knew it as well as anyone).

I was listening to the latest collection of Dylan’s demos, rarities and live series, More Blood, More Tracks, collecting unreleased versions and material from the making of Blood on the Tracks. During the opening track, a stripped down version of Tangled Up in Blue, I couldn’t help but notice a shift in narrative perspective. Of course, it’s always ‘her’, but he toggles sometimes in the span of a verse between ‘he’ and ‘I’. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember if that was how it had appeared on the official album. I had to go back and listen to it. I can’t tell you what those shifts mean, but Dylan is a goddamn Nobel Laureate, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an oversight. For me, it felt true to how some things in our history feel very present, very real, and others feel like something that just happened to somebody else, like reading history—even if it’s actions we took.

That revelation is argument enough for the vault emptying Dylan’s empire has been up to for the last decade or more. The best of Dylan survives such scrutiny. I ultimately decided I wanted both versions of this phenomenal album on hand.

Don’t get me started on the excoriating, early version of Idiot Wind

Resonant Spaces

John Butcher, 2008

I’m 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.