2002: Isis - “Carry”
I think it’s too early to make lists compiling the albums that changed the way we heard music in the first decade of the 21st century. Still, there are some that have popped up here and there, and Isis’ Oceanic is missing in most of them.
It’s easy to reduce the album’s importance to its marriage of downtuned and slow metal with the clean guitars and suspended emotion characteristic of post rock, but, for my Chuck E. Cheese tokens, the band’s real genius lies in their song arrangements. Take “Carry” for example; it starts with a droning and calm sound of guitars and synths that is punctured with a bass and kick drum marking a very simple beat, a slow rise that they also cleverly use in the song “Weight, ”the gentlest of the songs found within Oceanic. Afterwards, a guitar melody appears to give the song some direction which ends in a huge distorted chord that has the band lurching in riff form. Aaron Turner growls in a desperate manner while the riffs become darker and lower in register (and Maria Christopher’s vocals makes it feel more solemn) and then, just when you think things are about to break, the sound steps back a little, uncorking a gentle but steady riff that has the impact of a neutron bomb. Then they scale it back up again, first with distortion, then with thickness until the song is done, a chapter completed, drafted, corrected and checked.
Most of the action described in the lyrics of this concept album happen in the span of a few seconds. This is where the narrative and its marriage with sound works best; the poetics of a man taking his own life by drowning makes the music suffocating in its heaviness yet epiphanous in its softer shades, like the light many describe at the end of a tunnel when exiting life. Capturing the meaning of a moment in time and its elegiac implications in song form is harder to achieve than writing a standard story with little subtleties; in other words, the bread and butter of rock concept albums.
Isis bathe the listener with music that is made to detonate in little deaths, keeping air away from the lungs to make expiration and self-negation things of beauty and true art.
2001: The White Stripes - “Party of Special Things to Do”
If you listen to Captain Beefheart’s mid-70s albums such as Unconditionally Guaranteed or Bluejeans & Moonbeams it can be pretty depressing just how limp they sound. “Party of Special Things to Do,” the opener on Bluejeans, is better than everything else on the album but still manages to just be OK. And while most put blame on the lack of any real Magic Band members, the sense of musical castration is made even worse by how phoned-in Beefheart sounds. His lyrics are still just as wonderfully bizarre and he does all of his hiccup-y vocal tricks and there’s a sort of cool spoken word intro and so on, but it just doesn’t feel right. Everything is where it should be, but the passion you’d normally be hearing seems completely drained.
This disappointment might have been why Jack White decided to cover “Party of Special Things to Do” as the A-side to their only single on Sub Pop and transform it into one of the most hard-hitting songs the White Stripes ever recorded. In their standard fashion the song is stripped down to its bluntest parts, something that White surely learned from Beefheart’s own arrangements on albums like Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby. The weak riff to Beefheart’s version gets re-born with White’s monstrously heavy guitar and turned into a brilliant hook that carries the song while White shouts over Meg’s pounding drums. The White Stripes made possibly the best tribute to one of their big influences, not by covering Beefheart’s best or most famous material, but by taking one of his few, forgotten duds and turning it into stunner.
1977-84: Bearns & Dexter - The Golden Voyage
The critical recuperation of new age music is an old story by now, but six years on, we still find ourselves in the midst of it. What began as a somewhat ironic gesture, a postmodern reclamation of the disposable kitsch of a previous generation, has evolved into a serious preoccupation. A raft of cassette and digital labels have cropped up in the past few years following the template established by James Ferraro’s New Age Tapes label in 2006. Synthesizer-based ambient music, especially that which is filtered through the time-distorting haze of 4-track tape hiss, is more visible now than ever, with many of the most advanced practitioners making the jump to larger indie labels.
It took a while, but this renaissance has begun manifesting in reissues of important works from the original wave of new age. First was the Rotifer Cassettes facsimile edition of the groundbreaking Inter-Dimensional Music Through Iasos. Then came Jürgen Müller’s Science of the Sea, which made considerable waves (heh) in the blogosphere last year, finding its way onto many year-end lists. (That the Müller album is a most likely a hoax, the work of a contemporary artist masquerading as an unearthed rarity, is just more evidence that listeners have become highly responsive to the idea of arcane new age from the past.) This year, reissues of work by Suzanne Ciani and J.D. Emmanuel demonstrate that the trend is showing no sign of dissipation. Blogs such as Crystal Vibrations (run by Greg Davis) have become popular destinations for avid consumers of first wave new age.
As a longtime fan of synth-based music and a collector, this has been a mixed blessing. For years, vintage new age was well under the radar; cassettes and LPs could be snatched up for bargain bin prices, most record resellers only too happy to be rid of them. New age was a secret world for the advanced music nerd: while a first pressing of a desirable Tangerine Dream or Ashra record could be prohibitively expensive, you could snatch up an equally amazing Steven Halpern or Emerald Web LP for practically nothing. The fact that the term “new age” was most often employed by critics as an insult made it especially thrilling to be part of a cognoscenti that understood its allure. That is starting to change now, and just like the krautrock resurgence of the 1990s, it’s a double-edged sword: bargains and new discoveries are increasingly difficult to come by, but the steady stream of reissues and renewed critical interest is undoubtedly a cause for celebration.
That is why it is such a treat to discover a completely untapped phenomenon like Awakening Productions. Operating from 1977 to 1984, Awakening Productions was the California-based vanity label of Robert James Bearns and Ron Dexter, a pair of burly, mustachioed spiritual brethren who developed their own hermetic world of wide-eyed metaphysical expression across a series of obscure LPs collectively entitled The Golden Voyage, releasing five volumes over a seven year period. The project had its genesis in a self-published book of mystical poetry by Bearns entitled The Awakening Electromagnetic Spectrum (1974), in which he explored an intuitive symbolism based on the light spectrum for a series of drippy musings on life, love, and the eternal now. The book is most notable for its illustrations, also by Bearns, which incorporate butterflies and hummingbirds into complex hexagrams that echo the forms of sacred geometry. Bearns’ unique drawings also appear on the beautifully hand-drawn album sleeves and j-cards for the Golden Voyage series, which was what caught my eye in the first place.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of the new age movement in all its forms is a glorious resistance to formal dogma. New age practitioners are encouraged to become their own gurus, collecting bits and pieces of metaphysical speculation and pseudo-scientific nonsense from a myriad of post-theosophical systems, tying it together with a feel-good brand of self-empowering humanism that does not insist on objective reality, preferring instead to focus on supernatural energies as visualizations for meditation. Bearns and Dexter exemplify this trait in the most charming possible way. Their delightful disregard for prescriptive spirituality carries over into their music, which evinces a unique indifference to pop structure, combining environmental field recordings with scattered percussion and amateurish neoclassical keyboard doodles, weaving it together conceptually with crankish ideas about “celestial harmonics” and “isotonic sound.”
It helps to remember that this comes well before the new age formula was established. Like Iasos before them, Bearns & Dexter were intuitively creating a musical accompaniment for their beatific world of Rainbow Light Ships and Electromagnetic Hexagrams. New age had not yet become a niche category with its own set of clichés, so the duo were drawing only from their own imagination. As time went on, the music became more compositionally sophisticated, arrangements more complex, but an irreducible naïveté remained. Part of this naïve atmosphere is undoubtedly due to the production style, which is primitive but always texturally interesting, yet another example of the way in which the “excess” of outsider music is often more appealing than the music itself.
By the time the final volume was released in 1984, the duo had developed their own unique brand of idiosyncratic, spaced-out pop schmaltz. The fifth volume, subtitled The Heralding, features a striking black and white sleeve and a suite of mawkishly sentimental love songs, topped off by the swan song “Being Here With You.” The album, with its relentless positivity and cockeyed futurism, has the feel of an unreleased EPCOT ride soundtrack (EPCOT being perhaps the only American equivalent to the vintage British pop-futurism that informs the hauntological audio of Ghost Box and fellow travelers). The album is an outsider classic by any measure.
Due to the romantic content of the lyrics, their San Francisco origins, and the 70s gay porn mustaches, there has been speculation that Bearns and Dexter were a couple. Their sudden cessation of activity in 1984 has led to further conjecture that they were early victims of the AIDS epidemic. Though there is no reliable information to support these rumors, it is interesting how the vacuum of information leads to this kind of blind speculation. While interesting, I find it preferable to allow the mystery to remain, focusing one’s attention on the content rather than the margins.
A distribution deal with classical label Moss Music Group meant that the Golden Voyage LPs ended up in shops across the country, and they are still quite easy to find in cutout bins and flea markets. I found an autographed copy of the book online for only 75 cents, and it has since become a prized possession. In the final analysis, Bearns & Dexter is one of those record collecting phenomena that is difficult to defend purely on merit, even though the duo produced admirable work with relatively limited means. Like a lot of crate-digging finds, it’s at least partially about the sensation of having discovered it for oneself — rather than through a blog or a reissue — and that sensation is impossible to duplicate, and increasingly rare.
1980: Slapp Happy - Acnalbasac Noom
Acnalbasac Noom (Casablanca Moon backwards) is one of many lost European albums recorded during the 70s and then rejected by a record label for its lack of commercial appeal. In the early 70s with Faust, Polydor Germany was somehow a safe space for avant-garde musicians who were part of the burgeoning German creative community. Anthony Moore, co-creator of the group Slapp Happy, had moved from London to Germany precisely with the hopes of joining this community. While Polydor Germany put out his first two minimalistic avant-garde albums, they rejected a third album he’d recorded because it wasn’t commercial enough. So instead he suggested a commercially friendly pop-oriented project with one of his friends/bandmates from London, Peter Blegvad, who had been visiting Moore in Germany at the time.
Moore’s German girlfriend at the time, singer Dagmar Krause, wasn’t originally supposed to sing on the album. But when Blegvad started doing the vocals, producer Uwe Nettelbeck (the founder of Faust) asked Krause to take over the vocals for the project. With Krause’s cabaret pop voice at the forefront, Blegvad and Moore, two young musicians who strayed toward complex experimental compositions, tried to approach the Acnalbasac Noom album as a primitive type of pop music or “naive rock.” Polydor Germany still refused to release it. Even though it was a collection of catchy art-rocker takes on pop music, the label still didn’t think it would sell. So the band moved back to London to put it out with the then-upstart Virgin Records who’d also corralled Faust from Polydor Germany. Virgin agreed to put it out only if they rerecorded the album with new musicians and more commercial production. So the rerecorded version of Casablanca Moon was released while the original sessions weren’t released until 1980 by Recommended Records.
The album itself presents a diverse collection of musical styles – cabaret, tango, chanson, fuzzy psych, lounge, cabaret. The odd lyrics stem from the band’s interests in semiotics, surrealism, and Weillian expressionism. For an example, the title track is a tango tune about a spy being murdered.
“Half Way There” is my favorite track, fitting more into the loungier side of Slapp Happy’s catalog. Elsewhere “Me and Parvati” channels Harry Nilsson, fully embracing 70s pop while the Virgin version of the song ended up much darker. “Michelangelo” has a whimsical melody and a powerhouse organ solo. Standout “The Drum” has the best of Blegvad’s fuzzy psych-rock guitar work. Yet it still retains the feel of a classic rock song filtered through the lens of experimental musicians. Of course, the Virgin version of the song butchered the feel of the original session. “Charlie and Charlie” has to be one of the weirder pop songs about a man with a multiple personality disorder. “Slow Moon’s Rose” is another example of the band’s careful adoration of pop music and their dissection of it. Wilting vocals haunt a descending riff for the whole song but there’s always some sense of dissonance working through the guitar parts and the tambourine accompaniment. Around the one-minute mark, the descending melody always reminds me of the Twin Peaks theme song’s much moodier descent.
I love Acnalbasac Noom, the original recordings, because it’s a much better and more interesting record than the rerecorded version of the album that came out on Virgin years later. Slapp Happy embraced pop much better as a trio with minimal direction or interference from a record label. When they rerecorded it, the primitive rock aspect that Blegvad, Moore, and Krause intended was lost and replaced by a slower, moodier, dreamier cabaret-pop sound. Looking around the internet to find more information about the original sessions, it’s been kind of amazing that in the end the people, not the record labels, have championed the original sessions as superior.
1987: The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu - 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?)/1987 (The JAMs 45 Edits)
What am I about to review is impossible to acquire legally through normal means. One may purchase The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’s 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?) through eBay via second-hand sellers at an exorbitant cost due to its rarity, but it is impossible to buy new. This is because, after a copyright infringement complaint from ABBA, the corporate non-profit Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (now known as PRS for Music) banned the store sales of 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?) after its first couple of weeks in June of 1987, and ordered the destruction of the remaining copies. As such, the only effective way to listen to this album is to download it illegally at torrent sites such as What, Waffles.FM, The Pirate Bay, and Demonoid. The writer himself downloaded the album off What.CD. We at TMT cannot legally even stream it, which is why there is no audio provided. 25 years after its release, in a year that has witnessed a massive political fight against the end-user on copyright through the SOPA/PIPA laws, a question for the artists that The JAMs asked remains unanswered, both legally and logistically: “” Or, by the same token, “When is sampling just plagiarism?”
These questions aren’t without merit. 1987 (What the Fuck is Going On?) was many things at once. It was the first attempt at a mash-up, at a time when sampling as an art form was still in its infant stages. It was two Scottish men sitting in a studio trying to exert all their emotions and stupidity into a form that had only recently acquired an identity that wasn’t theirs, with all the polish of a chainsaw to marble. It was a stark criticism of the late Thatcher era, and the media’s deference to utter banality over actual matters of importance. It was working out samples such as “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees” and “Superstitious” at a time when sampling was hard to comprehend to most people, who may have just thought of it as simple playback, and where a system of “clearing” samples had not even existed yet.
Bill Drummond (aka King Boy D) made for the most unlikely and perhaps undeserving rapper: a mid-30s, white, Scottish former A&R man-turned artist at a time when the Beastie Boys had only recently been accepted into the rap mainstream. And at times, he clearly missed his mark, sounding like he was reading off lyrics. But his lyrics, trashing everything from the press’ frothing over Princess Diana’s fashion sense (“The Queen and I (99 bpm)”) to the initial response to what was then the AIDS crisis (“All You Need is Love (108 bpm)”), maintained an honesty and earnestness in line with most rap artists at the time, with a dash of ridiculousness that made it clear he was just kind of bored. There are also a few moments where the lyrics gain a certain rare emotional sentiment for the time, as pointed in “All You Need Is Love (108 bpm),” which addressed the epidemic in chilling terms. More importantly, though, a small, offbeat set of lyrics at the end of the opening track “Hey Hey We Are Not The Monkees (100 bpm)” laid the foundation for what became the theme song of the duo, “Justified and Ancient.”
The sampling and production, the issues which caused the banning and destruction of the album, seems undeserving of its destruction, if only because it was so mediocre and slipshod that it did not merit the kind of drastic measures that the MCPS (and to a lesser extent, ABBA) demanded of it. Much of the production was at par with late 80’s electronic instrumentation, but without the polish or nuance of more accomplished acts. More importantly, it lacked any of the skill and talent inherent in the Cauty and Drummond’s later works as The KLF. The use of “Dancing Queen” in “The Queen and I (99 bpm),” itself the inherent source of the album’s non-existence, was ironically the most forced-in, lacking any and all meshing with the rest of album. That said, The JAMs’ toying with sample manipulation was a strong point, especially in “Next” and “Rockman Rocks (Parts 2 and 3).” The original instrumentation (and intermission-like vocal track “Mẹ Ru Con”) from KLF/JAMs ally Duy Khiem is an odd bend, but it mellows out some of the edge to this album.
And yet, it is this odd bend that is all you’re given (to a certain extent) with what The JAMs replaced it with, 1987 (The JAMs 45 Edits). The disturbing aspect of it is how samples were removed from the now-censored material: Given they were forced to give up the master tapes, and given the editing equipment of the time, the JAMs had to resort in removing the sound outright rather than the sample itself, akin to amputating a limb to remove a tumor. What appears, then, are periods of silence, often abrupt and varying in length (with one three-minute interlude, filled with “Top of the Pops” fragments, completely silenced), which all come across as very unnerving. Only a few samples survive from the original, in particular The Fall’s “Totally Wired.”
Now, were one to judge The JAMs 45 Edits as a piece of artwork outside the realm and the context of 1987 (What the Fuck is Going On?), there may be some merit. One could say that the periods of silence are meant to disrupt a listener’s perception of listening, and to take stock of lyrical value. Another could argue that the silences represent a censorship of a different kind all together, given the acidity of Drummond’s lyrics often between these moments of silence. One could say it’s just a complete joke, given the general silliness of the original album. However, to completely forget that The JAMs 45 Edits represents a “fixed” version of the original album only serves to propagate the goal of corporate censorship: Censorship with no checks, no balances, no recourse, and utter impunity.
July 2nd, 2010: North of America - Live at the Old Blue House
God bless the east and the cursed north
as we catch our breath and raise our sails the last time.
On a summer’s day in July 2010, I saw North of America perform in my friend’s living room. Somehow, it was one of three times I got to see my favorite band in all of Canada perform that weekend. While each performance was exhilarating, it was the secret house show that was truly special: packed together in a sweaty Calgary living room, down the narrow hall and into the kitchen, friends and artists from all across the country were anxiously poised to watch the reunited post-hardcore pride and joy of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Without exaggeration, I assure you: that nation-wide audience was louder than the band, and we knew every word.
But let’s back up a bit. North of America broke up in 2003, not long after releasing Brothers, Sisters on Level Plane. In early 2010, however, it was announced that the Haligonian group would be playing a pair of reunion shows in Toronto and Montreal, coinciding with both the release of 12345678910 (a rarities/compilation tracks/etc. cassette on Bart Records) and the tenth anniversary of the Blue Skies Turn Black record label. Also reuniting for the Montreal show was Rockets Red Glare, and that settled it: if you were a fan of Canadian post-hardcore and/or math-rock, you knew where you had to be. People flew not just across Canada, but across borders: as Michael Catano notes, “Someone flew here from fucking Japan.”
I’ve got plans for the future but plans never matter
because plans never ever work out.
I wasn’t able to make the trek across the country, but my chance to finally see North of America was nigh. On April 1st, I woke up to the buzzing of my phone receiving a text. The full line-up announcements for that year’s Sled Island festival had been announced that morning, and my girlfriend sent me a text with seven words: “North of America are coming for Sled!”
But wait, stop. It’s April Fools Day. “Is this real?” I texted back, scouring the Internet for confirmation. (Let this be a lesson to festival promoters: April 1st is never a good day to make lineup announcements). I showed her text to my roommate and he went straight to the source, contacting North of America guitarist/vocalist Mark Mullane. By lunch, it was no joke: holy shit, our favorite band in the country is coming!
Sing and dance with abandon discard pretension sin-to-sin and heart-to-heart we’re going down and getting off our party line is heading south again.
What happened after that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that during the house show, I knew I was witnessing something I would never forget. I wanted to capture at least one song on video for posterity, but I only managed to record a minute and a half of “Let’s Get Sick To Our Stomachs” before the battery in my girlfriend’s camera died. Aside from a collection of photos, it’s the only documentation of a show I still can’t believe happened. Still, even watching this brief excerpt — the ebullient joy spread across each shouting face, the unstoppable movement, and voices from across the country united with every word — it feels magical. July 1st may be Canada Day, but July 2nd? In 2010, that was North of America day.
Lost at sea but not alone we’ll survive it all.
(photo: Tom Kerr)