1996: Leningrad Psychedelic Blues Machine - Dark Star
Nanjo Asahito’s La Musica label was a treasure-trove of magnificent psychedelic (and other) weirdnesses — unusual collaborations, old recordings, outtakes, and such ephemera — quickly and, so the story goes, sometimes shadily dubbed onto cassette or VHS or huge CD-R boxsets. Among all the oddities to be found on this subterranean outlet of the pseudo-mainstream of the Japanese psych/noise/folk underground (whatever that might be — P.S.F. Records?), there are quite a few that sound like they might be worth hearing by virtue of their intriguing premises alone. Leningrad Psychedelic Blues Machine’s Dark Star cassette strikes me as one of them.
What premises? Well, Leningrad Psychedelic Blues Machine featured the then-current members of Mainliner (Kawabata Makoto, these days better known for Acid Mothers Temple; Nanjo Asahito of High Rise; Koizumi Hajime, also sometime drummer for AMT) adding the “psychedelic” to Tababata Mitsuru’s Leningrad Blues Machine project. This already quite tempting collaboration is supplemented by the fact that the title track is — of course — a swirling 20+-minute rendition of “Dark Star,” The Grateful Dead’s most iconic (and obsessively documented) number. Dark Star! Leningrad Psychedelic Blues Machine weren’t part of a scene that has been particularly circumspect when it comes to flagging its influences (if in doubt, check out any of Acid Mothers Temple’s song or album titles for their almost random mélange of classic rock/prog/psych references), but hearing a full-blown cover of such a distinctive tune is still uncommon enough to be diverting.
It’s an interpretation that’s reasonably faithful, albeit with the blown-out sound familiar from the majority of Nanjo’s productions; his bass is buzzy and thick, but the guitar is unusually buoyant and lucid, and we’re happily spared the kitschy “transitive nightfall of diamonds” lyrics. A true deadhead would be able to make a nice structural comparison between this version and the evolving form of the Grateful Dead’s own. I’m just grateful that there’s no chance “Turn on Your Love Lamp” is going to appear anywhere near it. If Ben & Jerry’s made a Makoto/Mitsuru ice cream flavor — lord knows what it would taste like, what dizzying effects it would bring about — I’d guess it would appeal to my palate more than Cherry Garcia ever did.
That’s before we even get to the other side, the equally exciting “acid” side to Dark Star’s more laid back “cool side” (I confess I wouldn’t be too upset if every double-sided format were to have a cool and an acid side.) “Leningrad Sonic” is a brief and intense burst of free rock fury; “Satirize” slows things down to a murky tread, the album’s only vocals an underwater blur; “Wood Stock Monster II (Free Jazz Version)” reinterprets the heavy-psych riffery of Leningrad Blues Machine’s “Wood Stock Monster” with the addition of a (not particularly jazzy, but I’m neither genre-police nor judge) formless spaced-out interlude. None of which is particularly new ground for those involved, but it’s perfect fodder for listeners, like me, whose simple pleasure in the visceral and uninhibited nature of such music is happily supplemented by the micro-novelties in the execution. If you’re as at home with the anomalies, the unusual details, and the one-offs, as with the records that create/redefine genres, Dark Star is a good example and one of the many such in La Musica’s catalog.
Of course, La Musica, like all good things, had to come to an end. A number of the projected releases of La Musica’s extensive catalog never appeared when — this is reported in the interest of the essential activity of rock & roll mythmaking as much as scurrilous rumor spreading — it seems that Nanjo vanished into the ether, supposedly having irritated too many people with his unsanctioned bootlegging. Even when Mainliner made their recent (triumphant, I’d say) return, Revelation Space, Nanjo was replaced by Bo Ningen’s Kawabe Taigen as bassist, and the band was renamed Kawabata Makoto’s Mainliner to mark the difference. At least Nanjo’s continued existence was attested to by the note of thanks addressed to him in Revelation Space. There’s that.
1989: Julee Cruise - Floating Into The Night
I broke my gaze first. There’s nothing here. Only yearning. Golden, but oxidized by time.
I broke my speech to make room for grace… for breezes and other such solemnities. I peaked thru to see my mirror self boast of its reflectability. Taunting. tormenting. I twist myself out of shape, but never into grace…
I balanced with shaky legs on atomized columns. I lurked and lingered and I even leered (let me be sex. let that undercurrent insulate with drowsy, dozing aplomb. let my tilted head and chin cast a worthwhile shadow…)
Let… Of course, I’m leaving plenty of room for error…
for hopeless, unfailing awkwardness.
I’m not breaking my fall. I’m cutting trenches in the looming muscle. I’m bracing for impact. I’m kissed by concrete and lithesome, reverberant evening.
Just so… burnt out and so destroyed. Ever loving. Ever torpid. Ever and ever breaks the chill, ever and ever beneath us and breathing and uncompromisingly still.
I crouched under a window. I am only a messenger. The flesh crawls to its holdfast of its own volition. And rawness and intimacy in a song can’t phase… can’t circumnavigate… all is pooling… all is neck-deep.
I broke my gaze first every time all the time. The branches shake in spite of their trees. The forest forsakes, forestalls and fulfills. The galling echoes therein… One gets used to them and roams without a moment’s hesitation. One clings to mystery…
One knows what one is doing.
2001: Stunt Rock - Regret Instruction Manual Issue 1: Questions and Answers for the Insecure Youth
William “Billy Stunt Rock” Flegel cuts an eccentric and enigmatic figure in the world of electronic music. An integral member of the Midwestern breakcore scene of the late 90s/early 00s, he remains well regarded by electronic music aficionados while leaving a remarkably minimal web presence in his wake. Sure, you can download most of his discography from his Bandcamp or read his laugh-out-loud funny commentary on cinema of the 70s and 80s on The Betamax Rundown (think twice before not clicking that last link; it’s amazing). Yet, after hours of searching, the only interview I could turn up for him was this one from 2008, and his highest-profile reviews (in digital form, at least) consist of a rather perplexing blurb from Entertainment Weekly and some muted praise from Pitchfork for 2005’s This is Stunt Rock Volume Three.
Adding to the mystique is the standoffish persona Flegel has cultivated over the years. He is openly contemptuous of his fans, his contemporaries, and perhaps most of all himself, with even his song titles speaking to a kind of dismissive self-loathing (a brief survey includes such gems as “That Last Song Blew,” “Really Harsh Noisy Breaks Don’t Cover Up for Lack of Talent, or Do They?” and “I’ve Really Lost It Because This Shit Is Starting to Sound Like A Washed-up, Half-assed, Fatboy Slim Ripoff with a Twelve Year Old’s Sense of Humor”). The extent to which these attitudes can be taken at face value is difficult to determine.
With that in mind, the Regret Instruction Manual series can be seen as his most emblematic work, despite the fact that it was originally intended as a separate project from Stunt Rock and felt far removed from the cacophonous bangers he was churning out under that moniker at the turn of the century. Conceived of as a zine, Regret Instruction Manual Issue 1 came packaged with a 30-page booklet full of minimalist cartoons, personality tests, sardonic motivational slogans, and bitter letters to ex-lovers. A piece entitled “Motivational Springboard” ends with the mantra, “I will be motivated all day long, and whatever I do I will prosper at.” In a cartoon featuring two wheelchairs a few pages later, the first wheelchair asks, “What do you want for your birthday?” The second one replies “The courage to get out of bed.” The juxtaposition of glassy-eyed optimism with concentrated snapshots of despair creates an atmosphere that’s at once blackly humorous and crushingly earnest.
That tone of nihilistic submission with a playful wink carries over fully into the music as well. Flegel loads the album with dialogue samples from films both obscure and well-known, including such feel-good fodder as Fight Club, Buffalo 66, Death of a Salesman, Magnolia, Requiem for a Dream, and loads of vintage Jack Nicolson. These snippets of violent breakdowns, tearful confessions, and bleak introspection play over rough-hewn beats that swing between melancholy and whimsy.
Regret Issue 1 lacks a certain polish, and Flegel admits to reusing the same drum samples for over half of the tracks. Yet, this rough and limited pallet yields so many thrilling moments. The introduction of a drum loop transforms a wistful piano sample into something jaunty on “Wow, a New Release from My Favorite IDM Producer, Has It Been Two Weeks?” The chopped up dialogue excerpt from Dustin Hoffman’s explosive exchange with John Malkovich in Death of a Salesman creates a wrenching groove on “Someone to Lay in Bed with and Watch Shitty Beta Movies.” Then, of course, there’s the album’s centerpiece, “I’m Sorry I Couldn’t be the Person You Needed, I Mean It,” which lays Jason Robards’ meditation on regret from Magnolia over a jazzy backdrop reminiscent of a stripped-down Avalanches.
But perhaps the most unexpected quality of Regret Instruction Manual Issue 1 is how powerfully cathartic it is. Flegel allegedly began the project after moving back in with his parents and enrolling in community college. The album was, in part, an attempt to create “emotive computer music” — a task that he himself referred to as “impossible” — and process some of the bad feelings he was going through. Whether he acknowledges it or not, Regret was astonishingly successful at that. The film excerpts that occupy such a central place in the compositions force the listener up against focused bursts of rage, sorrow, frustration, and loneliness, a buffet of human misery so intense that even the most bathetic and melodramatic expressions manage to hit a vital nerve center. Listening to the album beginning to end leaves me feeling wrung out, starved for air, exhausted by the weight of suffering and turmoil.
Subsequent volumes of the Regret Instruction Manual would build on the vocabulary Flegel established for the first. Issue 2 contains some truly extraordinary compositions (Flegel beat Kanye to The Arc Choir’s “Walk with Me” by about a year and arguably used it to better effect), and Issue 3 moves into longer-form post-rock territory more closely aligned with Stunt Rock’s later output. Still, there’s a rawness and brutality to the first instillation that has secured it a place in the most masochistic recesses of my heart. Feel-bad music is very seldom this much fun.
1975: Bernard Parmegiani - De Natura Sonorum
I remember reviewing a Johnny Ramone solo record right after the punk paragon had died, but I’ve never been working on a review only to see the artist who created its subject pass on before it’s done. It’s lent a sense of heightened purpose to my evaluation, I must admit. Not because I had previously expected Bernard Parmegiani to read what I am about to write or because knowing that its author is no longer with us will alter my opinion of De Natura Sonorum; it’s just that it’s humbling to know an artist as crippled by talent as Parmegiani came and went so peacefully, with an admiring core of underground admirers, sure, but relatively few who realize the true scope of his genius. Now’s the time for those of us who haven’t caught on yet to listen in.
His time in French television and jingle-making notwithstanding, Parmegiani’s dread-inducing, nail-biting, tension-building ways are represented on this double-LP set. His greatest ally, as with many of the artists fronted by Recollection GRM (not to mention those filling the stable over at Editions RZ), is silence. He uses it to lure the listener into a spider-bite coma before dropping ear-splitting THUMPs and electric spikes down your neck. This isn’t anything like a lot of the music frequenting people’s headphones these days. You can’t count on anything; even expecting the unexpected will leave you open to surprises of the best kind, but they also come as a jolt to the senses that might seem to be devoid of pleasure until you pick up on the greater-good idea he’s been cultivating.
The methods he uses to conjure his compositions seem almost tortuously novel, such as when he “places together various sounds produced by ‘touching’ elastic or instrumental skins or vibrating strings and a number of instrumentalgestures close to this touch, using electronic processes to create white noise, and”… well, you get the idea just from that section of the jacket notes, right? Parmegiani went to great lengths to ensure his albums contained structures that could never be duplicated, and it’s strange to me that so many of us don’t expect that of many of our favorite artists these days. That’s why his work holds up today and will in 50 years when Recollection GRM Version 2.0 hyperloads its deluxe reissue into your mindpod. But why wait till then?
1904: Gustav Mahler - Kindertotenlieder
There is plenty of mournful music out there, and a lot of it gets mocked. But I can’t imagine anyone making fun of Kindertotenlieder, one of the bleakest pieces of music ever conceived.
Inspired by poems written by Friedrick Rückert after the death of two of his children from scarlet fever, Mahler took five of Rückert’s 428 poems and set them to music that matched the intense grief found in his words. The piece — whose title translates to “Songs on the Death of Children” — is divided into five “songs” intended to be played in order, starting with mournful melodies executed by an orchestra and a vocalist. The music goes through passages of solace and frustrated rage, but eventually culminates in a sort of splendor of major keys that reflect hope and acceptance.
The subject matter is one of true sorrow and agony. Even doom metal doesn’t compare to this; however, it’s worth noting that KTL — the band Stephen O’Malley (the guitarist not only in Sunn O))) but also in one of the bleakest groups of all time, Khanate) formed with Peter “Pita” Rehberg — takes its name from this piece. In theory Kindertotenlieder is what doom and other devastating musical styles attempt to capture, but it touches on something very difficult to write about and embodies it with melodies of equal emotional impact.
The best thing about this piece is how Mahler wrote it in subtle tones, keeping it very close to the chest to make it sound almost like a personal dirge. The listener isn’t led by the hand to know what to feel; instead, the music slowly reveals itself, blossoming on the ear canal of anyone who encounters it, a composition that encloses order to the chaotic nature of one of the most distressful and agonizing situations one can experience in life.
2003: Movietone - “Snow is Falling”
The opening moments of the Movietone song “Snow is Falling” have always been like a magic wand. Despite the fragility of Kate Wright’s voice, this tune belies the immaculate, frozen moment like no other. If it weren’t so angelic, it’d perfectly capture the still, glazed-over hushedness of McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s Presbyterian Church.
But this tune, nestled in the knee of Movietone’s 2004 swan song The Sand and The Stars (Drag City, 2003), lights into the air and patiently sashays into the heavens on a swell of woodwinds. It’s a song of small wonder, akin to the wide-eyed poise of Vashti Bunyan or the deliberate sentimentality of Antony. It’s a place where you wanna be present, never once allowing the past or the future to shake your crystalline perspective. And, like a lot of the best things in life, it’s gone before you can truly grab hold of it.