2000: Q and Not U - “A Line in the Sand”
Two-thirds into the opening track of Q and Not U’s debut album, No Kill No Beep Beep, we can hear the start of a revolution. “A Line in the Sand” transitions seamlessly from angular to dancey, where everything — the rhythm, the feel, the mood — changes. The album was released in 2000, just when a new trend was emerging, with bands regularly recycling the sounds of Gang of Four, Delta 5, Bush Tetras, Liquid Liquid, and tons of other punks who loved having enormous basslines driving their noisy, angsty songs. Soon, it would become the sound of independent rock for a couple of years and even occasionally crossover to the mainstream.
In its original form, it was music to protest and party to; it was angry and poignant, sure, but it was also festive. Considering that the patron saints of this sound were the fiercely political Gang of Four, one could offer the speculative reason that, in a post-9/11 world, we needed music that was both outspoken and frenetic enough to dance like there was no tomorrow (not that politics were explicit for this wave of bands). But it was still a somewhat regional concern: Dischord has always reflected the sound of Ian MacKaye’s bands. Early signees played out like Minor Threat companions, and most later bands embraced the paced, dexterous sound of Fugazi. Q and Not U surely took some cues from Fugazi, but they also seemed to be influenced by the dance music of the D.C. Go Go scene sound and the aforementioned post-punk bands.
Sure, The Rapture released an EP the year before and there were plenty of other offshoots playing in a similar fashion, but it’s rare to hear a band shift five years into the future within a single song. And most amazingly, “A Line in the Sand” and all of No Kill No Beep Beep still feels like a contemporary party, something that can’t be said about many subsequent “dance punks.”
2004: Digital Mystikz & Loefah - Dubsession
Seven years after the dust has settled on its final golden year, we are now approaching the 10th anniversary of dubstep; or, rather, the 10th anniversary of its ur-release, Digital Mystikz’ Dubsession, a.k.a. DMZ002. Binding the rootical electronica of 90s digidub to 2step’s floor-friendly urgency, DMZ002 consecrated an emergent sound nascent in the productions of Horsepower and the DJ sets of Hatcha and Youngsta. On tunes like “Jah Fire” and “Ten Dread Commandments,” the Mystikz submerged the slinky rhythms of UK garage in oily pools of reverb, slowing the tempo to a slimy skank punctuated by the whip-crack of snare-bursts masked in echo. Best of all, Loefah’s “Horror Show” — murky with the haze of reverb-soaked howls and backmasked moans — stripped away everything that made 2step such a sickly head-rush, leaving only a fibrillating sub-lo riff and filigree patterns of tightly-enveloped kicks and snares. A plaintive two-note hook occasionally strobes in the darkness, tugging at the consciousness like desperate rope signals from a subaquatic rave, but for the most part “Horror Show” is thrillingly physical:
The final stages of a gurning comedown from the coke-sozzled delirium of 2step garage, Dubsession traced the outlines of a cavernous, futuristic dancehall from patterns of echo-space and bass-pressure. A renewed sense of the power of silence became possible in 2004, fired by sonic strategies of omission and distortion.
If these were uncharted waters, the idea of dubstep as a particular sound or genre washed up pretty quickly, leaving behind a fragmentary set of tendencies that continue to manifest unevenly across house/tech/pop boundaries. Dubstep’s frangible quality has been the secret to its endurance as something between a folk memory and a music genre. The word itself has become an empty vocable, drearily signifying, at the very least, electronic music with a prominent bass line. But despite the word being overused to the point of nonsense, it’s worth recalling that, for many producers, the discovery of dubstep was analogous to the discovery of a pocket of air beneath the deep freeze of mainstream reifications. Diverse outfits like Senking, Shackleton, Old Apparatus, Actress, and Machinedrum (etc., etc.) lack anything like a shared sound or style beyond a common ground in the space left behind by dubstep. It seems apt that a sound rooted in erasing and obscuring should be heard most clearly in the echoes left behind by its disappearance.
2012: Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle with Marilyn Crispell - “Elephant in the Room”
Every weekday night from 6 to 9 PM, Columbia University’s radio station WKCR 89.9FM NY (best known to some as birthplace of the Stretch & Bobbito Show) broadcasts a program called Jazz Alternatives. The Wednesday edition, known as the Musician’s Show, features songs specially selected by a guest co-host, usually an upcoming or established player who comes to the studio to discuss his or her music and influences.
So it went that one Wednesday evening in the spring of 2013, while driving from my old apartment in Huntington Station to my girlfriend’s old apartment in the Huntington Bay area, I tuned my radio to its second preset only to hear some jazzman, whose name I didn’t catch, introduce a song called “Elephant in the Room” by Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle with Marilyn Crispell.
Quite the mouthful, huh?
To be clear, I heard all of that but couldn’t remember it, especially not after my mind was blown by the song’s opening notes, an arcane yet oddly familiar piano melody as unsettling as it was beautiful. I was utterly enthralled and instantly obsessed, on some Phantom of the Opera ish. The riff soon became a foundation for the song’s other players (Gunhild Seim on trumpet, Arlid Hoem on alto sax, John Lilja on bass, and Dag Magnus Narvesen on drums) to build on, each contributing another brilliantly imagined, perfectly restrained piece to the proceedings. By the time Arlid’s saxophone solo came whirling in around the 2:50 mark, I had nearly reached my girlfriend’s place, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t find out exactly who and what I was hearing.
So, I looked up WKCR’s phone number and called in, and the host graciously answered, provided me with the names of the group and the song (which I jotted on the back of a post-it note pulled from inside my wallet), and thanked me for listening. Such is the magic of non-commercial radio.
A Google search for “Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle with Marilyn Crispell” would produce the Elephant Wings album stream (located at the bottom of this post), and additional inquiries about Marilyn Crispell herself would lead my girlfriend and I to attend a duo performance with bassist Gary Peacock at the Rubin Museum of Art, where we would stick around after the show to purchase the pair’s new ECM Records release, Azure.
All of this is well and good in its own right, but none of it can compare to the rush I experienced upon first hearing the beginning of “Elephant in the Room.” For me, then, this song is all about how a single melody, no matter how simple or unremarkable in its form, when played just right, can pique a listener’s interest and remain fresh in the mind no matter how many times it’s repeated. Perhaps this very concept is the elephant to which the song’s title refers, for in the worlds of free-jazz and avant-garde, repetition is sometimes viewed as a dirty word. Yet here is a melody repeated almost ad infinitum, an unwavering loop that, at least in this listener’s case, truly gave the album its wings, inspiring me to reach out to the project’s Norwegian originators and request that they send a copy my way. And despite the album’s other strengths — of which, I’m sure you will find there are many — it’s that elephantine melody that led me to put this post together in the first place.
1985 - 1998: Cop Shoot Cop and White Zombie
I want to talk about two bands that don’t usually get mentioned in the same sentence. White Zombie should be a familiar name to most. Best remembered today for serving as the springboard for director/musician Rob Zombie’s career, the band was a formidable force in the early- to mid-90s, helping to bring heavy metal to the masses with a pair of platinum-selling albums: La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. I and (deep breath) Astrocreep 2000: Songs of Love, Destruction, and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head.
But before the hit singles, before getting plugged by Beavis and Butt-head, before signing to Geffen, and before moving to California, White Zombie was a modest noise rock band from New York City. Zombie and band co-founder (and then girlfriend) Sean Yseult spent a good chunk of the 1980s self-releasing records of testicle-twisting scum rock, playing shitty New York clubs, and rubbing elbows with bands like Sonic Youth.
Around the same time, Cop Shoot Cop was staging a proto-viral marketing campaign by plastering cryptic posters blazoned with their band name throughout the city. While beloved by fans of noise punk and industrial rock, Cop Shoot Cop have drifted into almost criminal obscurity (due in no small part to the fact that their discography has been out of print for many years). They gained some notoriety for their unusual lineup, replacing the guitar — the central weapon in nearly every rock band’s arsenal — with a second bass guitar, and complementing it with a sampler (or two) and whatever scrap metal or detritus percussionist (and current Swans drummer!) Phil Puelo felt like pounding on.
While the two bands ended up in very different places, they share more in common than might be apparent on first glance. First off, since C$C kicked off in 1987, they and White Zombie moved in the same circles (in fact, White Zombie played shows with Black Snakes and Dig Dat Hole, two bands that featured future C$C founders Jack Natz, Todd A. and Puelo, respectively). Both groups were snapped up by major labels during the alt-rock boom of the 1990s (though C$C was a little too slow in migrating towards a more mainstream rock sound, a failure that eventually led to poor album sales, irreconcilable tensions between band members, and a terminated contract). Finally and most significantly, both groups made extensive use of electronic sampling: White Zombie songs were loaded with audio tidbits from grindhouse cinema and campy horror films; Cop Shoot Cop made similar use of found audio, often arranging them into collages in lieu of recorded vocals.
I haven’t been shy about my love affair with Rob Zombie’s old band, and one of my absolute favorite songs by the group is Astrocreep’s “Real Solution #9.”
Back in high school, I’d never heard anything like it. Delighted as I was in White Zombie’s use of B-movie clips and fragments, I had to admit that they often occupied a somewhat superficial place in the compositions, serving as an intro or a coda to a song, or helping to fill out an otherwise sparse bridge. “Real Solution” was something different, though. Here, the band’s sometimes cartoonish fascination with cinematic horror collided headlong into the horrors of the real world. The constantly recurring lyric “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” is the legendary tagline from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but most of the rest of the song’s trappings are derived from Zombie’s long-standing fascination with Charles Manson. The “#9” is an obvious nod to “Revolution #9,” from the Beatles’ White Album, which Manson saw as a prophetic document of the coming race war, and the track is peppered with excerpts from interviews with the Manson family.
The opening sample from a recorded statement by convicted murderer Patricia Krenwinkle sets the tone. Isolated and forced into a loop, that three word phrase “I’m already dead” takes on a grim musicality, weaving itself into very fabric of drummer John Tempesta’s beat. But it’s during the song’s bridge where White Zombie really outdo themselves. They lift from the long-running reality/exploitation television series Cops an exchange between a police officer and a woman (?) who appears to be in the throes of religious ecstasy, the cadence of her frenzied ravings syncing eerily with the groove Jay Yuenger and Sean Yseult are grinding out. It wasn’t the first or last time the band would incorporate a sampled vocal hook into a song, but it was without a doubt their most refined and effective attempt.
It would be well over a decade before I was introduced to Cop Shoot Cop, but hearing tracks like “We Shall Be Changed” and “Disconnected 666” took me immediately back to those joyously wasted hours spent pouring over Astrocreep 2000 as a teenager. My favorite of all C$C’s collage tracks would have to be “Relief” from their 1991 sophomore album White Noise.
The vocal samples, culled from some kind of church addiction support group, are chopped into an incongruously catchy hook and set against a backdrop of wailing sirens. The marriage of grim, some might say tasteless, source elements with EDM-inspired groove seems like a pretty clear precursor to what White Zombie wanted to accomplish on “Real Solution #9.”
I have no way of knowing whether Cop Shoot Cop’s audio experimentalism had any influence on White Zombie’s later work. After all, horror movie samples were finding their way into White Zombie’s music as early as 1987’s Soul Crusher, and there were certainly other artists engaging in similar exercises around this time. Still, the bands’ shared history and mutual flirtations with industrial rock make drawing such a connection seem very tempting indeed.
1964: The Supremes - “Come See About Me”
The 1960s was a time for pop innovation, especially when it came to big productions. With just four tracks to work with in studios, producers had to be creative to flesh out their sound. During this time, songs written and/or produced by Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach, Joe Meek, and Holland-Dozier-Holland were brilliantly and lavishly dressed. These artists and producers helped establish the act of recording as its own art, capable of being as unique as the songs themselves.
Although many recordings featured such lush production practices, Holland–Dozier–Holland’s production on The Supremes’ “Come See About Me” sees the Motown production team peeling back the layers. The song is presented with a minimum of instrumentation in a simple, stripped-down manner. Thanks to the drums and harmonies, the song sounds frenetic, despite the tempo and mood being relatively clam. It’s all about minimalism on this one, and it’s beautiful:
1979-1980: Jacqueline Humbert & David Rosenboom - Daytime Viewing
Southern California-based composer and improviser David Rosenboom is a figure for whom no real “school” is apt, and that’s what makes his work immediately accessible but primed to slip through certain cracks. Along with Donald Buchla, Rosenboom devised algorithmic methods for real-time composition (improvisation) with the synthesizer; proponents of “live electronic music,” their innovations are now a major part of the contemporary electronic music environment, including programs like SuperCollider. Rosenboom has also worked with brainwaves as a tool for improvisation and as a pianist recorded with reedman Anthony Braxton. Yet Rosenboom’s music is little heard outside of certain circles — his discography is fairly slim compared to peers like Alvin Lucier or Robert Ashley, but it is incredibly rewarding (check In the Beginning or How Much Better if Plymouth Rock had Landed on the Pilgrims, both on New World).
One of the most idiosyncratic and curious sets in Rosenboom’s discography is also one of the most obscure. Composed in 1979 and 1980, Daytime Viewing, a collaboration with vocalist Jacqueline Humbert, was released privately on cassette in 1983 and barely saw the light of day. Now it sees its first commercial issue on CD and LP via Unseen Worlds, which has built its aesthetic on minimal music, electronic composition, and populist sensibilities, combining accessible whimsy and romantic depth that brings new music to audiences weaned on indie rock.
Daytime Viewing is a song cycle consisting of six pieces; based on the absurdist theatricality of television soap operas as well as commercialism and family, Humbert’s voice and Rosenboom’s synthesizers are joined in places by the percussion of William Winant to create a landscape that is both lush and spry. Humbert’s soothingly rich, almost mechanized vocals set the stage for the record’s characters in a literal sense, earnest and necessarily removed. Rosenboom’s Buchla synthesizer is responsive and undulates with Humbert’s voice, taking flight where lyrics are absent. “Bareback” is a bizarre composition that toys with domestic foibles, Humbert’s lilting singsong matched perfectly by the circus-y billows and poots of Rosenboom’s knotty machinations. The tune’s weird coda delves into an overprotective mother’s physical relationship with her baby — a darkly effective component of Daytime Viewing’s lyric content, fleshed out further in the surreally powerful title piece juxtaposing an abusive partner with women’s fashion.
“Distant Space” heralds the second side with a poppy overture, Winant’s bongos darting amid grandiose, shimmering tone rows and Humbert’s soaring voice. An incredibly virtuosic singer, she moves through a range of inflections, from flatly electronic to nearly operatic, and her nuanced, clear Sprechstimme fits perfectly into the eliding region between organic and inorganic that Rosenboom occupies. “Talk 2” has a funky compulsion to it reminiscent of Annette Peacock and Paul Bley’s collaborations — pulsing whinnies, right-handed electric filigree, and Winant’s metallic accents create insistent accompaniment for Humbert’s round, full and reverberant phrases. It appears that by the second half of the cycle, the focus is a bit less on the specificity of Humbert’s language and more greatly on the cohesive framework of leider, folk song, jazz, and electronic pop. And however dark Daytime Viewing may get, there is a current of humor that is undeniable. It’s not that absurdity is necessary for vanguard art to be “accessible,” but the avant-garde deserves a hearty wink every now and then. While not the definitive Rosenboom album, Daytime Viewing is a fascinating set of music that deserves an earnest hearing.