1997: Ryoji Ikeda - +/-
Forget microhouse; Ryoji Ikeda’s late 90s masterpiece +/- takes electronic music and examines it on an atomic level. Ikeda uses an incredibly small palette of sounds, many of them nearly beyond the range of human hearing, but the overall effect is hypnotic and physically arresting. There are moments on this album that have made me flinch in surprise; Ikeda draws his listeners in with swiftly repeating beats and establishes a powerful rhythm that makes a shift like the one from “+.” to “+..” all the more shocking.
Though usually listed as 10 tracks, +/- can really be considered three very different pieces. Tracks 1-3 comprise the 10-minute “Headphonics,” an especially groovy opening act to the more reserved title songs that span tracks 4-10. What it lacks in the catchiness and bass beats found on “Headphonics” the “+” section makes up for in sheer motorik intensity, while “-“ acts as the opposite – after the clipping beats of “+,” “-,” the longest section on the album, it provides the perfect come-down from the preceding intensity. The album moves into light speed here as the beats repeat so fast they destroy all sense of rhythm. It becomes one atmospheric unified sound, with a single metronomic beat present like a weakening pulse. The slow burning track builds up to a sort of climax in its final, longest section, until the seams begin to show and the piece breaks down.
In the coda, “+/-,” all that Ikeda leaves us with is a single sine wave, barely recognizable to the human ear. With the wave playing out for that last 60 seconds, it allows the album to end, yet the sounds still literally have a presence in the room. It gives the feeling of hearing something just out of your reach. Ikeda has said that most people really only notice the tone when it is gone. A note that only makes itself known through its absence is a beautiful idea, and Ikeda weaves these rare concepts and sounds into a unique and brilliant album.
1994: Pavement - Stuff Up The Cracks
It must be some sort of divine stroke of comedy that made Malkums’ reflection on the cover of Pavement’s bootleg compilation Stuff up the Cracks looks exactly like Steve Perry (or maybe I’m just seeing things). There’s a hilarious contrast between the hyper-produced, nauseatingly glossy soft rock that an image of Perry conjures up and the truth of the snarlingly ugly music hidden within. This is Pavement unhinged, captured in a way even their celebrated lo-fi masterpiece Slanted and Enchanted couldn’t quite pull off. With a combination of searing Peel session recordings, a few lost odds and ends, and some wild (and possibly recorded on an answering machine) live tracks, Stuff up the Cracks is THE document for experiencing early Pavement.
I guess the best place to start is the absolutely monstrous version of “Here” from the band’s first Peel session in June of 92. “Here,” in its original form, is one of the mellower songs in Pavement’s catalog, with a laid back chorus and nary a distorted guitar in sight. Live, Malkmus and company seemed to have forgotten to turn off their fuzz boxes, warping what was a classic indie singalong into mangled sheets of distortion. But it’s actually a bit of a revelation to hear the song like this, feeling the bite of the lyrics which were lost a bit in the original.
Then there’s my personal favorite from the same Peel session, “Circa 1762.” The song is a classic bit of Malkmus (a college history major) genius, incorporating historical word play along the lines of “Conduit for Sale!” into a raucous guitar freak-out. The song also has a nice back and forth between Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich (I assume) that proves he can do more than scream wordlessly.
Finally, there’s the epic “List of Dorms” from the band’s second visit with John Peel in December of that same year. “List” is two simple parts: Malkmus bellowing “going home!” over a massive buildup and Malkmus shredding his vocal chords over a massive groove. It’s simple almost to the point of stupidity, but for me that’s the whole point of Pavement. It didn’t matter what the song was; Malkmus and gang never gave less than 100%, leaving us with recordings that still define the word “raw” two decades later.
1973: Paul Simon - “Kodachrome”
On his song “Kodachrome,” Paul Simon sings a very peculiar line that jumps out from the rest of his lyrics: “everything looks worse in black and white.”
What strikes me about those lyrics is that rock music, like many aspects of American culture, seems to be concerned with nostalgia, treasuring vivid personal memories and perhaps some that didn’t even happen in the first place. “Kodachrome” renounces these sentiments, preferring to look to the future and appreciate the present, at least when comparing it to the past. Paul also one-ups the sentiment by specifying that the photos in question are in “black and white,” assuring us he’s talking about his childhood and (more importantly) teenage years – or the golden years, according to parents and movies.
Of course, when lyrics refer to photographs, they usual talk about yearning for better days gone by, but Simon prefers to capture today – the bright colors, the “greens of summer.” He does a great job writing a song about “right now” instead of the good ol’ times. To me, it seems like something harder to write about since not many dare to do it.
When Simon played “Kodachrome” live during his big post-Graceland resurgence, he changed the line to “everything looks better in black and white,” proving that very few people are strong enough to avoid being punched by the feeling of nostalgia. After all, to yearn is human.
1985-1990: Model 500 - Classics
It is a valid argument that most popular electronic music – in clubs and on the radio – can be traced back to techno, the creation of which can be credited to three high school friends. With an equal appreciation for the club music of the time and artists like Kraftwerk, these kids became immortalized as powerful innovators: The Belleville Three. This is a famous story, and one that you might already know.
What many do not know is where to find an entry point when checking out Detroit techno. Enter Model 500, a moniker for Juan Atkins, that features some of the earliest techno releases going back to ’85. His compilation Classics is exactly what the title implies. A compilation is perhaps the best way to appreciate techno as it’s not typically a genre with strength in the album form*. Furthermore, the great tradition of remixing and reinterpreting is present on this compilation from the start, and the record is improved from having these alternate and at times superior mixes.
Electronic music is often stigmatized as having a shelf-life like milk. Some trends from just a few years ago are already dated, yet Classics still sounds fresh. Sure, it doesn’t sound like it came out last week, but I would argue that many listeners would be shocked to hear that some of these songs are over a quarter century old. The pounding build up of “Off to Battle” and the robotic grind of “Night Drive” – where Atkins wears his Kraftwerk influence proudly on his sleeve – are still just as engaging and rhythmically infectious as they have always been. This is one of the special electronic albums like Trans Europe Express, Music Has the Right to Children, and Untrue, that sounds timeless.
[*An exception could be made for Carl Craig who worked wonderfully in long form and is a sort the virtuoso Robert Johnson to Atkins’ originating Charlie Patton.]
1971: Franca Sacchi - “Danza, Mia Cara”
Franca Sacchi, one of the few female electronic composers of the 60s and 70s, was born in Milan in 1940. Along with her contemporaries like Pietro Grossi and Teresa Rampazzi, Sacchi defined the sound of the Italian experimental scene, a genre that is just now seeing the light of day thanks to some incredible reissues from the Italian label Die Schachtel. I first found Sacchi though recent CD reissues of her unreleased material from the late 60s and early 70s called En, and while the whole disc is pretty amazing — mostly consisting of quiet, sustained drone/meditation pieces — the final 30-minute track really steals the show.
“Danza, Mia Cara” (“We Danced, My Beloved”) is an odyssey through tape manipulation, backward loops, and sparkling walls of synthesized noise that jells beautifully into a seamless wash of analog warmth. The track is carried by bubbling modular synth figures that slowly warp in the background while chopped up and reversed tape loops flit from side to side. The whole mass of sound pulses along for 25 minutes until it breaks into a magnificent closing stretch, where multiple arpeggiated synths collapse on each other into a wall of gurgling electric noise. It’s a wonder how this track manages to absorb listeners so fully for a full half hour, but as soon as you hear the first wave of seemingly locked-grove synth gently drub your ears, all other thoughts melt away. Put away Soothing Sounds of the Rainforest; this is truly music for meditating.
1984: Siege - Drop Dead
Siege were an unknown hardcore band from outside of Boston who only recorded one demo in their existence. The demo, however, went on to change a lot of minds over the years.
The music was uncompromising and fast as hell, faster than D.R.I. and early Gang Green. Few bands could match their speed (Deep Wound, with young J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Lärm come to mind). Siege, however, had a secret weapon in the form of vocalist Kevin Mahoney, who screamed and growled in a way few had tried before – it was frantic and incomprehensible for the most part. They just seemed heavier and balls-out crazier than your average thrasher.
The demo was recorded February 1984, produced by Lou Giordano, who manned the board for Hüsker Dü and Goo Goo Dolls but also recorded Boston Crew stalwarts SSD and Negative FX, yielding six songs of masterful destruction. In October of the same year, they went back to Giordano’s studio to tape three more for the very influential Cleanse the Bacteria compilation, put together by graphic artist and Septic Death main man Pushead. The band broke up the following year but briefly reunited in the early 90s with recently deceased Anal Cunt frontman Seth Putnam. That was the last we have heard of them.
Siege might not have single-handily started grindcore, power violence, and what-have-you, but their story is one of the most impressive in rock history: a band recording a demo without being part of a particular scene or touring relentlessly, yet becoming one of the most influential bands in the world. Napalm Death covered one of their songs, S.O.B. sang their praises, Carcass’ original singer used to write “Siege”on his hand, Dropdead even named themselves after the demo and it still influences bands who want to play in fast, short and intense bursts. All of this, from one demo and three songs in a compilation.
RIP Kevin Mahoney.