1989: Godflesh - Streetcleaner
Streetcleaner, a work purveyed by Justin Boardrick of the current Hydra Head recording outfit, Jesu, is pure texture. Guitars surge like deep ocean swells; slow and damning. "Machine" spews out beats that toggle from tick to crash with no warning. The vocals are distilled to distorted, doom-mantras like, "You breed/ like rats," or "Don't hold me back/ This is my own hell." In the 1980s when speed and intricacy were the musical traits held in the highest esteem, Godflesh choose to reveal themselves in gradual, leveling eruptions of sound.
Inventors of the short-lived grindcore genre, Godflesh stripped death metal of its vocal barks, riffs, and gaudy drums while at the same time, besting its brutality. In so doing they polarized metal fans and gained new support in hardcore, industrial, and goth circles. The music; thick, bleak, and repetitive, somehow evokes lucid imagery like silent vampire films, scorched expanses of forest at twilight, and grey, windowless buildings seconds before implosion. This crafted atmosphere of utter devastation is masterful through the record's first side. It's only when we flip the wax that the results become a bit more sorted. Side two, recorded in a separate studio session, adds to the mix a second guitarist, Paul Neville, as well as slabs of sampling. In some cases, the broadened sound works; "Devastator/Mighty Trust Krusher" drips with urgent guitar shrills reminiscent of noise-metal heroes, the Swans, and "Life is Easy" barges out of the speakers with minimalist riffing. As we reach the title track and the closing, "Locust Furnace," however, Streetcleaner loses its sense of thick minimalism and descends back toward other death metal efforts. On these tracks, the riffing becomes prominent, and the growling-vox effects become contrived. None of this is to say that these tracks are weak, rather this more traditional approach brings the listener out of the horror and into the mosh pit. The apt noise-mongering grows that much easier to catalogue and falls into territory ventured by the likes of Meshuggah and Burzum.
Justin Boardrick would return to the magnificence explored on Streetcleaner's first side with the Godflesh follow-up, Pure and then embark toward more rhythmically-charged efforts with the Ice and God projects, before creating Jesu. Some may find it odd that the mastermind behind Godflesh could make the transition to a project such as Jesu which is lathered in melody. But, I have an inkling that to Boardrick, music is simply sheets of sound; obscuring both the good and bad, the sweet and deteriorated.
1974: Brian Eno - Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
We tend to take Brian Eno pretty seriously these days. After all, he did invent entire genres of music and merge the rock and avant garde worlds forever. From Robert Fripp to Roxy Music, David Byrne to David Bowie, Eno’s collaborations have yielded some of the most impressive albums of the past 50 years. Hell, he even made U2 sound kind of interesting.
But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1974, upon the release of Eno’s second solo album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), he was best known as a debauched rock star with a knack for salacious sound bites. It must have been that reputation that prompted Pete Erskine, of the publication Long Acre, to write that the album “smacked of the bogus.”
Almost 35 years later, it’s clear that Taking Tiger Mountain was no joke. Rather, history has revealed it to be a transition point between the more conventional rock of Roxy Music and Eno’s first solo release, Here Come the Warm Jets, and more experimental albums like 1975’s Another Green World and the ambient records of the late ’70s and beyond.
Although the album was inspired by a set of eight postcards depicting the Maoist opera Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Eno never saw the theatrical production and was uninterested in doing so. His primary fascination was with the title, which he split into two parts. Taking Tiger Mountain seemed ancient and fantastical, while By Strategy was modern and technological.1 Throughout the album, this duality is striking, as Eno juxtaposes bizarre, noisy, futuristic sounds with impressionistic but often narrative lyrics full of Brechtian military scenes and references to the Far East.
Although we still get 10 songs with lyrics, verses, and even choruses of a sort, things aren’t quite the same as they were on Warms Jets. It would be a stretch to say the album contains a story arc, but the first song, “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” recounts a departure to China, and beyond that point, the music and lyrics become increasingly foreign and abstract. We’re left with the spare, haiku-like images, far-away chanting, and sweeping, epic-film instrumentals of “Taking Tiger Mountain.” The idea of opera, if not the Maoist piece itself, makes an appearance, as Eno delivers many of the lyrics in a stagey, declamatory style. Popular genres like the lullaby (“Put a Straw Under Baby”) and the soldier’s drinking song (“Back in Judy’s Jungle”) are taken up, twisted, and discarded within single tracks. At first listen, “Burning Airlines” sounds like a sweet, wistful pop ballad a la “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” but then you realize it’s about a guy whose girlfriend dies in a plane crash on the way to China.
No wonder Eno abandoned rock after Taking Tiger Mountain — he’d simply exhausted the form. And if he sounded a bit cheeky as he did so, I don’t think we can begrudge him that.
1 During the record’s production, Eno and artist Peter Schmidt, who created the cover art, took the idea of strategy literally, creating a deck of “Oblique Strategy” cards. Intended as guidance for artistic dilemmas and including such advice as, “Do nothing for as long as possible” and “Short circuit (example: a man eating peas with the idea that they will improve his virility shovels them straight into his lap),” the deck is now in its fifth edition. If you don’t want to spend all your pocket money on a set, try Eno Web’s [random oblique strategy generator->http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/oblique/oblique.html].
1976: Merrell Fankhauser - Maui
Although you may not have heard of him, you are at least karmically aware of Merrell Fankhauser’s work. Quickly after writing the still often-referenced “Wipe Out” surf-rock signature piece with The Impacts in the early ’60s, he founded MU with Antenna Jimmy Semens (Captain Beefheart) as well as the freak-folk Fapardokly, which melded into Merrell Fankhauser & The H.M.S. Bounty. Those projects only produced a handful of LPs, but they are all highly sought after by serious vinyl geeks. Trust me, this trend has helped shape almost every dusty record bin you’ve poked through since such things first started forming in garages and flea markets.
After becoming disillusioned with the music industry in the early ’70s, Merrell, his violinist wife, and MU, his band at the time, all escaped to Hawaii. Mary Lee and Merrell built a Tarzan nest in a Maui rainforest after hearing the island may have had remnants of the sunken Mu civilization, and dug into the surroundings for what would end up being seven years. His band didn’t last long, though; half of them left to become Christian ministers on the mainland, as addressed in the song “Some of Them Escaped.” So, by the time there was enough material to warrant a recording excursion to Los Angeles in 1975, it was just Merrell, Mary, and some session musicians (hence his first solo album). It sold in small numbers on a local island indie label, then, like the tragedy that followed so much of his work, just kinda faded away into strategically placed vinyl troughs.
That’s where Anthology comes in. Now with seven bonus tracks, Maui is complete and restored for the über-nerd, who can’t find or afford the original LP, to see how Merrell’s sound progressed since his prominent late-’60s acid phase. Being as it was recorded and released in the mid-’70s, the studio sounds reflect less of the razorblade fuzz charm of his earlier work and more of the glossy sheen that came with newer, more accurate equipment, while his lyrics, despite still being based on abstract mysticism and myth, ooze a wiser, more honest maturity.
“The music business has got more sharks than there are in the sea/ They stole my songs and they stole my girl, but they can’t steal me” from “Sail It Over The Ocean” isn’t just dreary bitching, after all. It’s an affirmation of the choices he made, having already acknowledged the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. The high strung, plucky, BJ Thomas-like “I Saw Your Photograph” deserves to go down in history as one of the catchiest and happiest pop love songs of all time, and it’s just one of the moments here that compel you to smile. As such, the quality of these songs will see most of them outlive the style in which they were recorded. Rock sure doesn’t produce many characters like this any more.
1990: Souled American - Around the Horn
Something totally weird has happened. Something I spent a lot of my life actively working against while being reared in smalltown Texas has suddenly started to make sense: I’m sort of digging country. I was shellacked with ungodly guilt and smirks upon the realization and revelation of this fact. You can only yell “Asshole” to a certain number of Confederate-draped trucks before they’re allowed to brandish the bullhorn mounted in those Hella lights and scream “Hypocrite!” right on back, you know? If those dudes could see me now (they can’t), they’d have an offcial license to mock. I mean, my dad gave me a Jerry Jeff Walker LP when I told him about this and, uh, I liked it. It’s a pretty serious affliction and, in addition, it’s entirely the fault of this album, Around the Horn, by Souled American.
Souled American are one of those heavily under-listened-to bands. According to Rough Trade, they have that rare distinction of each subsequent release selling fewer records than the previous. I really don’t remember how I heard of them past the skeletal and languid reputations of their last two albums. After the “best band ever” confirmation by a friend, I searched out their not terribly easy to find records. Around the Horn marks the mid-career stage for the band and superlatively bridges early- and late-period Souled American. Thus it is pretty slow in the grand scheme of things, even if it’s damn upbeat in regards to future Souled endeavors.
The big tonal distinction is Joe Adducci’s bass, which sounds more or less like it was recorded underwater from three rooms away, though here it isn’t quite as extreme as on earlier albums. Adducci and Chris Grigoroff share vocal duties, both singing in a weird, raspy, twangy voice that occasionally lapses into falsetto. The guitars on this record are, for lack of a better analogy, the shoegaze of country; churning, ringing, and slippery. It seems like the guitars are strummed a few seconds before you actually hear the sound. The whole album has random dissonances bristling about. The final two albums saw the band play without drummer Jamey Barnard, but here, on their third, his presence is already pretty minimal, the drums almost always understated.
Around the Horn also introduced me to the country notion of releasing an album half filled with cover songs and not being seen as a total hack-job (in fact, their next album, Sonny, has only one original on it). They inhabit the covers so well that I really can’t imagine any of these songs being written by anyone but Souled American. They’re that sort of inexplicably weird band where you can’t quite put your finger on what’s so bizarre about them, which is, at the end of the day, what makes Souled American worth listening to in the first place.
1967: Fifty Foot Hose - Cauldron
This is a true forgotten classic. Out of the great San Francisco acid wave, bassist Louis “Cork” Marcheschi -- along with husband and wife, guitarist and Slick vocalist David and Nancy Blossom, bonus guitarist Larry Evans, and Kim Kimsey on drums -- produced but one album in 1967, then basically faded away into normalcy. At the time, critic Ralph J. Gleason said, “I don’t know if they’re immature or premature.” I believe history has proven them to be the latter. While the razor-bladed blues rock fuzz and love laden “I’m just trying to free my mind” lyricism may have been par for the course for that era, the Blossom’s jazz influences met with Marcheschi’s homemade Radiophonic synths and Theremins to create a sound tragically ahead of its time. Acid Mothers Temple makes a decent living these days doing basically the same thing, touring with a Roland synth, but, since Cork made his own, the aural electricity smothering Cauldron in space sounds is just too fantastically dirty and totally original.
Each Doctor Who warp and UFO multidimensional warble is a Technicolor snowflake caught in a notion where time is no longer relevant, totally unable to be absorbed by a mind without blowing it. These remarkable noises augment a solid base of haphazard prog-blues and Nancy’s dispassionate vocals to make an undeniably classic and deservedly legendary LP, easily on par with the greatest works from the Elephant 6 catalogue or anyone who played at the only good Woodstock. I can see why the ’60s generation may not have dug it, though. The synthetic opening “And After” sounds like a broken stylus making a feeble impression of a healthy needle as it digs deeper and deeper into the virgin vinyl. Many copies were probably returned on this notion, let alone the fact this is the next level shit today. When this album came out, it was like showing a Shatner-era Star Trek fan The Matrix. They couldn’t really form a full idea as to what they really had in front of them. You sure missed out, 1967.
1977: Dennis Duck - Dennis Duck Goes Disco
In 1977, Dennis Duck (who would go on to play in The Dream Syndicate and Human Hands) probably never thought this to be anything more than fucking with records on a variable speed turntable and dubbing 20 cassette copies for some friends of The Los Angeles Free Music Society. But like punk rock, 30 years later Goes Disco -- and the greater LAFMS -- amounts to something historically more altruistic than its self-serving, incestuous origins. A loose organization of sorts, LAFMS’s grassroots, DIY aesthetic largely foreshadowed the contemporary noise/experimental scene -- making short runs of cassettes and privately pressed records for whoever would listen (usually friends in bands). Often favoring freethinking, experimentation, and quantity over quality, there’s an inherent charm in just how unapproachable recordings by Smegma, the Doo-Dooettes and other LAFMS groups can be.
While the collective as far as the name is concerned is no longer officially active, the Los Angeles music scene hasn’t changed much. The Sunset strip is still defined by leather, bar rock, hair metal, and other types who will gladly “pay to play.” But deep within the drudges of the city there’s a thriving, self sustained music community giving themselves all the attention they need to make successful art. Among them is the city’s oldest (although technically in Pasadena), and one of the few remaining record stores (2006 bidding farewell to historic landmarks such as Aron’s, Rhino, and Tower), Poo-Bah. Former employer to LAFMS veteran Tom Recchion, the store has always embraced the avant garde with open arms and has played host to many LAFMS events in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s only fitting that they reissue Dennis Duck Goes Disco as part of the launch of their new record label.
So eat your heart out Christian Marclay. Not that the two are identical, and with no disrespect anyone, but Duck’s one-time experiment is a delicate reminder that there are always innovators who will never get due credit. And not to put Marclay on the spot, for there’s a seemingly endless amount of historical context that Goes Disco’s primitive turntablist tinkery fits into. Amongst mash-ups, DJ culture, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Phillip Corner, Pierre Schaffer, and you name it, Goes Disco could most easily be compared to the modus operandi of John Cage.
In the ’30s and ’40s, before delving deeply into compositions based on the I Ching and other chance operations, Cage primarily composed percussive pieces that bore the simplistic intricacies of Erik Satie. But far be it from the classical world to welcome Cage’s percussion, comprised of car parts, toy pianos, and other found items with open arms. Much like Duck’s carefully “prepared” turntable, Cage’s greatest invention from those years, the prepared piano, was made by meticulously placing nuts, bolts, screws, keys, etc. in between the strings on the piano according to diagrams and specific instructions within the written score, thereby altering the characteristics of the piano and giving it a more percussive effect. Just as Cage’s piano was (among the aristocrats at the time) a desecration of the most sacred instrument in music, Goes Disco too, sounds like a defiance of what is musically correct (even 30 years after the fact). It uproots musical form, basking in the sound of (in very broad terms) warped and skipping records. By meticulously deriving different combinations of speed, anti-skate, lopsidedness, and off-centered center holes, Duck finds new possibilities in what a turntable can do.
To further this somewhat blasphemous comparison of Goes Disco to the career of John Cage, Cage’s work from the ’50s and on was derived from chance operations, and though often misconstrued as randomness, he always operated with a detailed written score, creating something of a musical ‘choose your own adventure’ for each piece. Duck didn’t necessarily have the same egoless, Zen Buddhist motivation for his art that drove Cage, but there are parallels in their processes. Duck’s liner notes describe the specific ways in which the turntable was manipulated for each piece as though setting up the obstacle course for the Mousetrap board game. With all the compositional tools in place, the stylus is left to run through the grooves and barriers at its own freewill, and its ultimate sound is unique to that very moment in time.
Perhaps it’s not all that heavy-handed or intentionally asking for that much conceptualism. Duck unknowingly struck at gold using any vinyl not too precious to be destroyed, thereby making a “disco” comprised of society’s waste (unless you’re Don Bolles or Irwin Chusid). Old children’s records, instructional LPs, laboratory samplers, demonstration discs, and other curiosities are brought to life or hammered fiercely into the ground depending on your point of view. Like a child thrashing his records and breaking his father’s turntable, Goes Disco is indeed a brute tour de force, but fortunately there is a conscious sense of flow and continuity through the album. Duck digs humor out of otherwise banal narratives, desperately trying to move them forward, and children’s songs that sound like they’re melting. It’s things like these, as well as comical clauses and juxtapositions that keep Goes Disco from becoming tedious and allow the more minimalist, beat-induced skipping to become that much more effective.
Thirty years ago, Goes Disco couldn’t have come from a government grant (the U.S. still being behind the times in that regard) or a performance at Carnegie Hall. However, time has aided these pieces in terms of their value as high art. While critical writings such as this review seem like the antithesis of the impulsive activities of the LAFMS, history needs every anti-art movement it can get (and they have the fancy, “coffee table” box sets to back up their historical significance). Ultimately Dennis Duck Goes Disco works so well because its original intentions were more an obnoxious experiment than a grand artistic statement.