1986 - 1987: Big Black - Atomizer / Songs About Fucking
Count Roland lifts the horn up to his mouth,
Then sets his lips and blows it with great force.
The hills are high; the horn’s voice loud and long;
They hear it echoing full thirty leagues.
King Charles and his companions hear it sound.
The king declares, “Our men are in a battle.”
– The Song of Roland, Stanza CXXXIII, line 1753 (circa 1140 C.E.)
It’s only a coincidence that the drum machine that helped unite electronic music with traditional masculinity shares its name with an 8th century Frankish war hero. Though according to his literary depiction — poems limn him as a broad-shouldered he-man with a deafening horn — the Roland of legend makes a fitting namesake for the Roland TR-606, the drum machine of choice of Steve Albini and Big Black.
Big Black wasn’t the first band to use a drum machine, or even a Roland. However, in the early 80s, Albini’s aggressive noise-rock outfit was one of the few bands that could rely on a little whirring gadget and still come off as unquestionably (if slightly satirically) macho. It was a stunt decades in the making.
In the early 20th century electricity in general was perceived as threat to masculinity. Electric current, and the chic urban modernity that came with it, was expected to wash away strength and virility in a wave of comfort and soft living. In his 1901 novel Labor, Emile Zola shows electricity pushing humanity toward an Eloi-like existence defined by unending leisure. Others, significantly less optimistic, saw power’s shocking influence as a factor in speeding all of civilization into a Spenglerian decline. While these fears of castration-by-a-thousand-amps did fade, it was decades before electronic music got it’s cultural bar mitzvah and was welcomed into the world of masculine pursuits.
From its early days, music primarily produced through circuit boards did not put hair on chests — it was largely the realm of sweater-clad academics (see this incriminating photo of Stockhausen). Even its first foray into the mainstream was headed by androgynous goths like Gary Numan and the faux-andriod neuters of Kraftwerk. Partially, this is a holdover from those old concerns: Twiddling the knobs on a synthesizer did not hold the same masculine allure as pounding out a beat on a drum kit. It wasn’t until the advent of industrial music that electronics started to beef up their effete image. And here the semantics are decidedly not a coincidence. Early practitioners of industrial music self-labeled, consciously attempting to associate their sounds with the gritty, blue-collar world of machine shops, blast furnaces, and steel mills.
With their two mid-80s albums, Atomizer and Songs About Fucking, Big Black drove away any remaining vestiges of electronic music’s frou-frou reputation. Both these albums present a raw, angry, and distinctly male ethos — and they do it using a Roland TR-606 (later, using the less evocatively named EMU Drumulator). In fact, the drum machine was as crucial to the band’s work as its hyper-masculine affectations. The machine was even credited in liner notes as “Roland,” as if the menacing beats on “L Dopa” were created in-studio by a burly Frankish percussionist and not an 18-volt appliance.
Roland isn’t undeserving of the credit, either. The persistent rhythms it provides on “Kerosene” give the song a taut, suspenseful energy. The device’s mechanic precision and cold textures help color all of the band’s work, providing a rigid backbone for Albini to build his bellicose tracks around. The combination of Roland with Albini’s dissonant guitar and transgressive lyrics created a novel effect. Big Black’s songs are rooted in electronic and mechanical sounds but use the direct, aggressive nature of traditional rock and punk. The songs often traffic in dark and ugly tropes that present a critical view of masculinity (sample: “feel my fist/my fist of love”), but Albini’s complex relationship with gender politics aside, the music is not twee. Listen to “Strange Things” and you can hear how masterfully the two realms are blended — Roland’s percussion sounds right in line with the thumping bass and guttural yells of its human counterparts.
Big Black’s catalog is a stunning combination of electric power with animal magnetism. Where Kraftwerk used drum machines to transcend the physical to a Computer World, Big Black put them to work creating brutish, visceral Songs About Fucking. Electronics plugged into pure atavism. Where the machine may have seemed more in place in dance music or a karaoke bar, it was now a tool fit for anger-fueled aural destruction. Like the Roland of legend blowing his horn, the drum machine could now signal chaos and violence.
Back in the early 90s Darkthrone was releasing their best material in the form of black metal classics such as A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Transilvanian Hunger. Things were going just fine, but Darkthrone half, Fenriz, wanted to experiment with synthesizers. Black metal is all well and good (err…bad and evil?), but it’s not the kind of genre where you’ll be able to experiment with Tangerine Dream-style kosmiche. Fenriz explained in an interview that he made some synthesizer music intended for Darkthrone albums, but decided against it because it wouldn’t fit right. Enter Neptune Towers, a project Fenriz described as, “Avant Garde Astral/Alien Synth.” Pretty fitting.
So, yeah, you can sum it up pretty easily as “black metal guy jams out to some Tangerine Dream,” but who wouldn’t want to hear that? The first album, Caravans to Empire Agol, is the better of the two in my opinion. Consisting of two tracks, “Caravans to Empire Agol” and “The Arrival at Empire Agol,” the album is concerned with soundtracking the journey through this strange alien world. While Empire Agol seems like a place you would never want to go near, I don’t mind vacationing there while this dark little album plays.
2009: V/A - Electric Holyland
Would Jesus jot band names like Wild Olive Branch Band and Earthen Vessel on his Trapper Keeper? Or, more interestingly, is it fundamentally wrong to write, release, and promote music about God? EVEN MORE FASCINATINGLY, is it logical to expect missionary-style rock from members of the Christian flock?
Hell, if I knew the answers I wouldn’t be here right now, knowhat’msayin’? But the Electric Holyland compilation, released in 2009 by Lysergic Sound Distributors, goes a ways toward lessening the stigmas associated with music with religious connotations while also absolutely justifying them in a few cases (even the true hand of god couldn’t save some of these tunes). It’s not an album I expect rookies will be craving; you only need this if you’re already schooled in Nuggets and its many (of varying quality) offspring to the point of utter exhaustion.
Jesus hears our every need / This you’ve got to knoooooow
The mind goes through a couple of stages upon absorbing statements such as the above over and over. The first stage is humorous appreciation for the abject devotion the participants display. They talk ‘bout talkin’ with the lord, walkin’ with the lord, calkin’ with the lord (sorry, had to complete that rhyme scheme), and their preachiness is so much more natural than the weird bullying religious presence we seem to all be resigned to today. The second stage is to recoil a bit; aren’t these bands the precursors to seed-poisoners like Scott Stapp and Jars Of Clay? This ain’t COOL man… This ain’t COOL man.
The third and final stage is acceptance, as Electric Holyland is, in the end, a fun listen that insists legitimate music can be found absolutely anywhere, and while I’m not ready to laugh about Creed just yet, they never rocked as hard as the wonderfully vexing Shekina Glory’s “Ask” (which glues Sabbath fuzz to a goddamn flute solo and insists Jesus has come to “claim us as his own;” to me that’s creepy) or perfected a Mamma/Papa/Spanky/Gang melody as complex as those found within the godlike fiber of The Jesus Band’s “Jesus Is Mighty to Save.” They certainly never snarled like Britt Warren, who half-raps over a strange riff that starts out sounding like that fucking Tonic song then morphs into a 1970s stomper. Weird, brody; weird.
It’s one thing to worship our god the savior; it’s another to suck unholy ass while you’re doing it like, say, Petra. A good portion of these bands don’t suck, even as they’re beseeching you to get involved in something that most definitely does, and the strange ins and outs of the situation make for an interesting listening experience. That a lot of these ditties are direct copies of radio hits of the time only helps, as the oooh-ahhh factor of hearing your favorites of the era sets in nicely alongside the odder cuts. Maybe living in mega-church hell has something to do with it, but I find Electric Holyland a lot more authentic than most god-based offerings.
1985: Exodus - Bonded By Blood
We live in an age of privilege. If you know how to play your cards on the internet, you can listen to anything. The only limit is whether you want to listen to something or not. Because of this, stigmas about what you are “allowed” to like have perished.
This wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
Metal was the music of burnouts, fuck-ups and losers looking to a) get laid and b) nerd out on exciting guitar music. Any self respecting music fan felt embarrassed by the look, sound, and attitude that headbangers manifested. For their part, metal fans thought people who listened to other music were morons who couldn’t handle their genre. They were close knitted elitists.
Exodus were the Tomás de Torquemada of heavy music. It seemed like their whole point of existing was to yell “Death to posers!” Legend has it that original vocalist Paul Baloff used to cut people’s Mötley Crüe t-shirts and wear the rags on his wrists as trophies. And, just recently, I came across a comic book where they imagined themselves as serial killers cleansing the scene from “pussies.”
This adolescent attitude is surely to cause anyone not committed to metal to roll their eyes. It would be pretty easy to dismiss the band given this proof. Musically speaking, Exodus (at least on their first album) were untouchable.
It is said that the Big 4 – that is, the best and most recognizable bands to come out of the thrash metal scene – were Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. None of these bands would have gotten anywhere without Exodus. They were amazing songwriters with ambitious yet grounded arrangements and memorable riffs. What made them truly great was that their music possessed an urgency and heaviness unmatched by most of their contemporaries. Tracks like “A Lesson in Violence” churn like Minor Threat if they had guitar lessons, while “And Then There Were None” showed they could display power without resorting to speed.
Bonded By Bloodis not considered a groundbreaking album because it was shelved for a year and, in that lapse of time, the Big 4 and others released stuff that sounded groundbreaking. Whatever the case, the album is one of the most intense records ever put out and, despite the risk of being called a poser by the surviving Exodus members, I hope it’ll get more recognition outside the metal gates.
1981: Crass - Penis Envy
The story of “Our Wedding” by Creative Recording and Sound Services is a good one that bears repeating. Included in a 1981 issue of UK teen romance magazine Loving was a “Fabulous Record Offer,” a write-in coupon for a free copy of this “Wedding Day Single” sung by one Joy De Vivre. Little did the Loving staff and readers realize that Creative Recording and Sound Services were actually the anarcho-punk band Crass and Joy De Vivre one of their two female singers. Once word got out, Loving editor Pam Lyons called the hoax “a sick joke,” and told NME, “It was just a pathetic ploy by Crass to get publicity.”
A sick joke? Definitely. A ploy to get publicity? In a sense.
But pathetic? Not at all on Crass’ part. The only thing pathetic about the ordeal is the fact that a successful mainstream publication failed to recognize “Our Wedding” for what it was: a blatant regurgitation of the magazine’s own fear mongering and propaganda. Consider that whichever dimwit passed for a music or entertainment editor at Loving really might’ve listened to the desperately pleading lyrics “Never look at anyone, anyone but me/ Never look at anyone, I must be all you see/ Listen to those wedding bells/ Say goodbye to other girls/ I’ll never be untrue my love/ Don’t be untrue to me,” and actually thought them romantic, or at least passable as such.
Crass founder Penny Rimbaud had this to say: “These are the same authorities that made Chinese women into festering hooks, that made Victorian women gasp for breath beneath their whalebone binding, that make women today distort themselves with high heels and chemical additives … They offer you cheap products that exploit you and the emptiness that we all feel; their obscene and mindless intrusions into the emptiness are tragic insults to our intelligence. It is because of their poverty of thought that they off[er] ‘Our Wedding,’ pure unadulterated shit. THEY SELL IT TO YOU WITHOUT A CARE.”
Looking back, one mainstream magazine’s embarrassing failure and perhaps more embarrassing reaction to said fail created a perfect moment in countercultural history; an instance in which the day’s tastemakers were so brazenly heartless and out of touch they mistook satire for the real thing and advertised it accordingly. A contemporary analogy might come in the form of vaporwave artists successfully pushing their hellish Muzak distortions on banks and department stores. This, of course, hasn’t happened… yet.
While “Our Wedding” parodies pre-packaged romance and the commodification of love with a voice of innocent naïveté, Penis Envy’s first cut, “Bata Motel,” offers a searing send-up of the psychosexual nightmare patriarchal society attaches to the female gender, spelling out the “she was asking for it” mentality in terms none too abstract. Man’s prototypical female is embodied by the willfully submissive sex object (rape victim?) played here by Eve Libertine, who like Joy De Vivre in “Our Wedding,” addresses her mate directly: “Burn me out, twist my wrists/ I promise not to shout, beat me with your fists/ Squeeze me, squeeze me, make me feel/ In my red high-heels I’m an easy kill/ Tease me, tease me, make me see/ You’re the only one I need to be me/ Thank you, will you take me?/ Thank you, will you make me?/ Thank you, will you break me?/ Use me, don’t lose me/ Taste me, don’t waste me.” How one reads such requests and demands in light of modern pop’s sexual identity crisis (see: domestic violence victim Rihanna singing “I want you to be my sex slave”) is another matter altogether.
One laste note: if you’re looking for more information on Crass or at all interested in anarcho-punk music or anarchistic living in general, I cannot recommend the full-length documentary There Is No Authority But Yourself highly enough. Please do yourself a favor and take 65 minutes out of your day to check it out.
It’s been a bitterly cold winter up in New England so far. There are far colder regions, but nonetheless it’s been pretty brutal. On the (more frequent than I’d like to admit) occasions that I step outside for a cigarette it’s always an endurance test. It’s not even an “I feel cold” feeling really; it skips that and goes straight to the “unbearable burning pain” level of temperature recognition. The 20 mph winds this week have added a wind chill below zero. Despite all that, winter is my favorite time of the year.
It has nothing to do with holidays or birthdays (I’m born in July) or anything like that. It’s because even in blistering cold, when those winds are so strong they seem to pin your front door shut, falling snow has a way of making everything seem so beautiful. Watching snow fall is like watching rain in slow motion. It makes me not mind the cold as much; in fact I kind of enjoy it then. Since this isn’t a weather blog, I should get to my point. Natural Snow Buildings is a band that sounds like how a snowstorm looks. Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte’s output as NSB is very prolific, and you may have seen some of their albums covered here before. Honestly, I’ve always found them to be frustratingly hit or miss, but that might just be because I got spoiled by their masterpiece long ago.
The Dance of the Moon and the Sun is a monolithic piece of work. Two discs, 25 tracks, and nearly three hours; it is a lot to take in to say the least, and NSB doesn’t make it easy. They pull you in with the gorgeous brief folk song, “Carved Heart,” and then “Cut Joint and Sinews” follows at over 15 minutes. For the first hour of the album NSB pepper heartbreakingly direct folk songs in between their massive drones in a way that might turn off a lot of listeners.
People who really love TDotMatS often praise it while kind of glossing over this fact. It’s an album that you can get completely lost in, but that fact can also make it an overwhelming listen. NSB create a tremendous tension from the start by slipping moments of clarity like the brief, beautiful “Rain Seranade” or “Breaking Waters” and placing them around the epic 25 minute drone “Felt Presence, Ghostly Humming.” It is an album that challenges you to take it all in one listen, yet it is deeply rewarding when these moments of beauty open up in the dense storm of other tracks.
As you grow used to the structure and pattern of the first disc, NSB completely abandon it on disc two from the moment you hear the uneasy drones of “Tupilak” grow over faint howling wind. On this disc they make a gradual descent to the darkest their music has ever been, and then gently float back to the bright surface. “Wandering Souls” is gentle and vocal driven but there is a darkness to it that was only hinted at before. They maintain that tone on the feverish “Ten Guardian-Spirits Motherfucker,” and while “Gary Webb” teases that the earlier beauty may return it is followed by the Vietnam inspired horror of “Whose Eyes Are Flowers,” where the vocals become frighteningly clear as Gularte delivers the apocalyptic and gory lyrics. Yet in this case it is darkest before the dawn, as NSB begin creating some of their most beautiful songs, both melodic and ambient. “Cursed Bell,” “Search For Me,” and especially “Away, My Ghosts,” bring things full circle to the tracks like “Carved Heart” that began the album. “John Carpenter” is surprisingly unlike its horror movie master namesake, and closer “Remains in the Ditch of the Dead” is a sleepy drone that drifts off to silence midway through before waking up for a brief beautifully sung finale. Though “Ditch” is the final track, everything reaches its big cathartic peak right before on “Tunneling into the Structure until it Falls,” a stunning multi-sectioned song which perfectly marries the two struggling forms throughout the album.
Dense, long, and at times brutally cold and dark The Dance of the Sun and the Moon is an intensely powerful listen. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Contemporary improvised music in Chicago owes much of its development to two sets of people – the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the scene around multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell (1926-1992). Now split between Chicago and New York chapters, from its beginnings the AACM was primarily based in the South Side, and provided education and self-reliance to young, black, economically disadvantaged artists. It has birthed and encouraged the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, reedist-composers Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, and many others since its founding in 1965. Hal Russell’s work was less formalized in the sense of a specific musicians’/artists’ organization, but nevertheless he surrounded himself with fascinating young players and helped give rise to an equally eclectic scene in North and Northwest Chicago neighborhoods from the mid-1970s until (and after) his death. While little cross-pollination seemed to exist between the two environments, at least on the surface (keeping in mind that the AACM was founded in the midst of the Black Power movement and Russell’s cohort was white), their aesthetic goals likely shared more than they diverged in spite of Chicago’s highly segregated urban landscape.
In some ways, Russell was as much “ancient to the future” as the AACM-ers; he worked as a big-band drummer before adding tenor, trumpet, and vibes to his arsenal and embracing free improvisation, yet retained “swing” and even “entertainment” in light of taking the music “out.” Though somewhat known in Windy City jazz circles, Russell’s name hadn’t made it that far outside when the eponymous NRG Ensemble LP was waxed for Nessa Records in 1981 (also an early documenter of the AACM). His only other commercial release at the time was with the even more obscure tenorman Joe Daley for the latter’s The Joe Daley Trio At Newport ’63 (RCA-Victor), featuring bassist Russell Thorne, a strange hybrid of the jazz/classical “Third Stream” and open improvisation. Russell formed the NRG Ensemble in the late 1970s and it continued even beyond his death, though the group’s most vital work naturally featured his voice. Russell’s conscripts and associates over the years included reedmen Mars Williams and Ken Vandermark, bassists Kent Kessler and Brian Sandstrom, and percussionist Steve Hunt. On this particular date, Russell is heard on drums, vibes, cornet, zither, shenai and c-melody saxophone, joined by Sandstrom, Hunt, reedman Chuck Burdelik, and bassist Curt Bley for a program of six originals (two of which have been added to this CD reissue).
It’s not particularly difficult to hear aesthetic allegiances with the AEC in the NRG Ensemble’s music at this stage; the lengthy “Linda Jazz Princess” has a jaunty swing, crackling with Hunt’s fluid time and Bley’s robust, plastic pizzicato. Following Burdelik’s throaty and economical free-bop tenor, Russell is banshee-like and virile on c-melody saxophone, roguish squeals and harried elisions recalling the young Albert Ayler’s wailing against a more reigned-in rhythmic structure. Wild oom-pah fanfare arises, recalling the early-jazz nods of the Art Ensemble, or perhaps woollier instances of the William Breuker Kollektief, before fragmenting into frenetic collective improvisation, Sandstrom doubling on trumpet and soon emitting a condensed and utterly weird unaccompanied solo. The musicians’ improvisations are clearly directed and arrived at with a sense of rigorous arrangement, as much as they sonically seem to come from left field – witness Russell’s glassine vibes exposition, abruptly yielding to a power trio fronted by Burdelik’s alto. The tendency to switch between a variety of instruments does seem AACM-like, but rather than using diversity as a coloring device, the musicians in the NRG Ensemble are at a continually propulsive back-and-forth, doing the work of parallel small-groups at an orchestrated cutting-contest. “Seven Spheres” closes the initial LP tracks, and is by comparison a tone poem that utilizes pocket trumpet, vibes, and clarinet to augment the more “bent” sounds of Russell’s zither and shenai.
The album’s opener, “Uncontrollable Rages,” seems almost schizoid at the outset as it volleys between violent tenor/drum duets (Burdelik and Russell) and measured vibes/bass interplay (Hunt and Sandstrom). It’s clear that Russell’s loose, delicate drumming is that of “teacher” and Hunt’s ragtime to no-time swirls are those of “student” – all one has to do is compare the former behind his mates’ heel-digging onslaught on “Uncontrollable Rages” with the latter on “Linda Jazz Princess.” Russell’s touch/concept is very light but certainly pushes the music with a master’s brushstrokes. And if titles invoking a frothy rage reminds one of a certain Weasel Walter, well, that’s not entirely baseless: Walter’s longtime outfit The Flying Luttenbachers initially included Russell on tenor, and the group’s moniker was in homage to Russell’s family name. The bulk of the piece is actually quite spare and open, given to Hunt’s gloriously effervescent vibraphone runs, and when the ensemble is in furious motion it’s with a joyous air of fluidity. Following NRG Ensemble, Russell made two more records for Nessa: Eftsoons (1981), a series of duets with Mars Williams, and the Charles Tyler-abetted Generations (1982/1989, released via the UK imprint Chief). He went on to record a series of excellent dates for ECM at the turn of the 1990s, leading to a bit of international recognition in the autumn of his life. But this wonderfully remastered and augmented early set is indispensable for fans of contemporary improvisation and those who want to hear more of Chicago’s creative music roots.
Swans’ grand triumph in year-end lists and polls seems nothing less than heroic, and it’s well deserved. Their approach is defined by violence with the artistic vision of a rottweiler. Even at their most subtle, there’s always a suggestion of blood engorging veins and curdling around vocal cord; its implications whispered to chilling effect.
They also represent a strain of music that influenced miscreants the world over. The Swans diaspora has one of its best prophets incarnated in Matthew Bower, whose Skullflower project pummels and grinds in a way all its own. Of course, he acknowledges the root of their sound.
Bower came from a much more severe musical background than Swans. Some of the Broken Flag label releases housed some of the most hateful and depraved words this side of the Westboro Baptist Church. Yet, Skullflower weren’t offensive or repulsive. Its aggression is a means to develop a psychedelic sort of art; tribal drums punch the soundscape throughout, guitars pummel with feedback and beat the crap out of the listener with dissonant chords, but it’s aggression is never directed at him/her. The feeling is that the violence is stopped within.
Most of their music sounds improvised but seems to have a direction and craft, something not entirely present in records of this kind. IIIrd Gatekeeper feels like an abstract painting in the way it unfolds and splatters sound in a chaotic but magnificent way. While songs have always been the cornerstone of Swans, Skullflower take the approach and atmosphere of their main influence to make something sprawling, pointing another direction in which Gira and company might go had they taken Bower’s route.
Matthew Bower has had a share of brilliant bands (Total, Pure, Hototogisu, Sunroof!), but Skullflower, like a gang beatdown in the middle of an alley late at night, remains undeniably memorable.
2003: So - So
The unassumingly named duo So didn’t do themselves any favors by opting to self-title their only release. Though considering the songs on 2003’s So are dominated by a tension between the digital and the human, its frustratingly Google-resistant title is only fitting.
A collaboration between German glitch pioneer Markus Popp and Japanese singer-songwriter Eriko Toyoda, So is an endeavor built on bridging divides — divides created by language, by geography, and by aesthetics. That duality comes through on each track, where opposing elements come together alternately supporting each other or sounding downright antagonistic. It’s not surprising that in an interview with Splendid Popp claimed the album’s production was punctuated with fierce arguments.
This quality is most obvious in the treatment of Toyoda’s vocals throughout the album. Toyoda’s presence is enhanced by the processing in some instances — i.e. the warm vocoder textures on “f” — while being chopped to bits and buried in dissonance elsewhere. Listening to the various contortions the vocals go through is one of the main joys of So — soft cooing melodies fit for a lullaby will give way to robotic humming and electronic whirrs reminiscent of an R2-D2 taking a laser to the gut. It’s often difficult to tell whether you’re hearing a woman’s voice being processed beyond recognition or just a simulacrum being wrested form a circuit board.
Those familiar with Popp’s more characteristic work (more Poppular?) like the icy, distant explorations of Oval might be surprised at the warmth of this album. While there are shades of the jittery energy and hard edges you’d find on 2010’s O, this work is generally more accessible. The songs have a melodies, repeating phrases, and an inviting airiness. The track “d” begins with delicate vocal whispers that call to mind Julianna Barwick while the closer “j” has a long, slow white noise burn — current fans of Grouper would be pleased.
Really, despite Popp’s relatively bigger name he’ll only take credit for being “kind of [an] art director;” the majority of the album’s strength’s are Toyoda’s. The composition and processing are largely her own, as are the original recordings from Japan. Listening to her excellent solo work — a collection of fantastic albums filled with whispy vocals and excellent electronic work — Popp’s real success here is exercising such a light touch. Seriously, I have on Toyoda’s recent album Have You Smiled Today? And it’s wonderful. It seems unfair that the majority of information Google can find on So doesn’t put her in the spotlight. Maybe I’m just searching in the wrong language; there are always more divides to bridge.
Bradford Cox would have made a hell of a music promoter if he hadn’t decided to form Deerhunter. I first heard of Casino Versus Japan several years ago from Cox’s best of decade list. The man has a way of talking about a band that makes you want to listen. He’s always been a very vocal music fan, so when he put a weird little electronica album in his top 20 of the 2000s I felt I needed to check it out. It turns out he was justified. Over the years I keep coming back to Casino Versus Japan’s stunning 2002 album Whole Numbers Play the Basic; an electronic record of such warmth and charm.
The comparison people always jump to has been Boards of Canada, but I don’t buy it. Erik Kowalski may dig nostalgia, but he shoots for a different aesthetic with Casino Versus Japan. While BoC creates vignettes and distinct scenes throughout their records, Kowalski is more focused on taking a few motifs and giving them space to develop and breathe over the course of the record. Also, while BoC’s form of nostalgia often has a ghostly layer of creepiness, an album like Whole Numbers is sunny and optimistic as it looks back at the past. Kowalski’s greatest skill is in taking complex and multi layered tracks and making them sound effortlessly simple.
The sequencing is one of the records greatest strengths to the point where instead of individual tracks sticking with you, a certain pairing or run of a couple songs become highlights. The run of tracks from the opener “Variation of the Two” is a strange trip, but it flows like water. The hazy hip-hop of “Moonlupe” gives way to the tranquil but jittery “Aquarium,” which hypnotizes you over five minutes, just to break the spell with the 70 second burst of sunshine that is “The Possible Light.” There are little journey’s like that throughout the record.
A couple years ago I got to see Erik Kowalski as one of the openers at a Deerhunter show, maybe a year after Cox made that list. He came on first, and started performing for a very small crowd. No one there seemed to be familiar with him, and a one guy was complaining that he thought Real Estate was supposed to be opening (for what it’s worth they came on next, looking vaguely pissed, and complained about the sound for most of the set. It was uncomfortable to say the least.) There wasn’t a huge crowd for him, and some loudly talking people didn’t seem to be paying attention, but Kowalski was just killing it, creating his own world on stage and (if you gave him a chance) bringing you into it. Afterwards as he sat at his merch table, I thanked him for his set, checked out his CDs and quickly headed back to the stage. Deerhunter played a great set, but the best part of that night was Casino Versus Japan and I wish I’d told him that at that table. At the end of his artist bio on rateyourmusic.com Kowalski wrote, “One of my goals is to have 50 records created before i die.” That’s a pretty difficult goal, (and the project’s output has slowed considerably), but he shouldn’t worry, because something as utterly gorgeous as Whole Numbers Play the Basic could top 50 records from a lesser artist.