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.
1989: The Strangulated Beatoffs - The Beatoffs
The unplanned obsolescence of St. Louis, Missouri was going to have an impact on the musical culture of the city at some point. That is, it was bound to have an impact besides setting everything back by 10, 15, 20 years, culturally; there were going to be bands that were reacting to their surroundings not by trying to sound like what they thought people wanted to hear, but by actually ingesting what was happening around them and spitting something else back. By the mid-1980s, money had started bleeding from the city of St. Louis badly, mostly due to old legislation that legally separated (and still separates) the county and city, and when families flooded to the suburbs in the 1950s, buildings started being abandoned, neighborhoods became poor, and the city as a whole began literally crumbling. The cultural hub for jazz and blues 50 years earlier had become ignored and desolate — entirely lonely.
The press release for The Beatoffs starts with a quote from Joe Stumble’s regional blog, Last Days Of Man On Earth: “Today, I don’t think people can accurately understand the cultural void that was the suburban Midwest in the early 1980s. No internet. No email. No cell phones. No social networking. Shit, there wasn’t even cable in 1983.” Earlier in the same blog post, Stumble brings up The Screamin’ Mee-Mee’s, an early-80s St. Louis band, saying they were “part of the great Midwestern archetype of the ‘planned obsolescent’ i.e. the lone set of eccentrics jamming in a basement with a tape-deck.” Later, he says of The Strangulated Beatoffs that they “inherited the crown of planned obsolescence.”
The joke behind The Strangulated Beatoffs was that they meant it. Their whole concept was intended to deter listeners, rather than attract them; most of their music is drones, loops, noise, and gristle, filled with irreverence. The last thing you hear on The Beatoffs is Stan Seitrich and Fritz Noble screaming, “Try the wine!” after singing a half-hearted rendition of “Her Majesty,” followed by one of them making fart sounds while the other one laughs. More than one of the songs begins with someone burping. What did it matter? Not many people were listening, and those who did were in on it; besides, Stan and Fritz were making their music for themselves. And that’s part of the reason we can be so sure that they meant it.
The Strangulated Beatoffs bring to mind Hermey the elf from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, who wanted to be a dentist instead of making toys, who sang, “You can’t fire me, I quit,” before setting sail for the Island of Misfit Toys. They sidelined themselves instead of facing the rejection of other people doing it to them. The band is angry and smoldering, lazy and stoned. But the music that they made evolved and became a harsh experiment in misused psychedelics and crushing distortion — all tongue-in-cheek and laid out like a dare. Days Of Our Lives, their debut album, has a centerpiece of three songs, the longest of which, “Bothered,” is nearly 20 minutes of pulsing, cloudy vocals and beat loops. Being a fan of their music can feel like a chore, like they made it that way just for the sake of unlistenability. Based on the size of their fan-base, it worked.
The Beatoffs, taken as an album, is short and strange; much of the music made by The Strangulated Beatoffs is purposefully pointless, looping in stasis rather than growing. But a record of Beatles covers is the ultimate exercise in pointlessness. This is a record that no one asked for, and it seems all the stranger because the covers aren’t “re-interpretations” at all, but pretty straight-ahead versions of the songs recorded crudely to crackly multi-track cassette. And, all the more, it feels like they meant it; The Strangulated Beatoffs have never been a band to let down their bluff, and the concept on this album feels very Beatoffs-esque, like it ought to be a joke, but the punchline isn’t there, and the joke just turns into a story.
Most of the songs are covered faithfully, especially “Don’t Let Me Down” (where the bass stutters and trips as it recreates McCartney’s bass line), “Ticket To Ride,” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” There’s even an unlisted, partial cover of the medley from Abbey Road near the end of side B, and by that point, there seems an obvious kinship between the bands: that, by the time The Beatles were recording The Beatles, they were less concerned with saying anything and more interested in making something, creating as a cure for boredom or as a means of making meaning and purpose. The Beatoffs’ version of “Dear Prudence” is nothing more than clanging guitar and mumbled vocals — simple and fast, like they needed another song in order to flush out this concept and didn’t feel like putting much work into it.
More than anything, The Beatoffs feels like a primary source document of the desolate Midwest that Joe Stumble describes. The band’s music is typically misanthropic, bored, furious — but on this record, less so. We imagine mythos for the bands that we love and the worlds they create, and in the Strangulated Beatoffs mythos, they don’t try, because trying is weakness, and when you’re mocking everybody, you can’t be weak. But they tried at this. Making sense of where this record fits into the Beatoffs’ discography yields little fruit; this might as well be anybody, bored and lonely, taking frequent breaks from recording to smoke weed and walk down to the 7-11, television humming in the background, parents’ foot steps overhead, listening back to Beatles songs over and over to figure out parts.
The Midwestern archetype of the “planned obsolescent” is a misnomer; these bands want to be listened to and loved, remembered, but they don’t want to do it on your terms. They don’t like you. And if you want to be a fan, they don’t want it to be easy for you. Which is fine, I think — I like being challenged by people, feeling like I “get it,” am “in on it.” I’m not, of course. But no band has summed up the bitterness of living in St. Louis and the isolated Midwest more effectively than The Strangulated Beatoffs. When other people make life difficult for you, it is often your inclination to make life difficult for other people.
1996: The Melvins - “Theresa Screams”
“Hands down our all time favorite Melvins song,” say the liner notes.
Well, on the face of it, that sounds like a pretty weird thing for a band with a discography as rich as The Melvins to claim. “Theresa Screams” looks very much like a B-side with a cosmic significance probably not much greater than zero. It originally came out as part of a series of 12 7-inches released one each month in 1996, later collated on CD. To all appearances, it’s situated somewhere on the confusing border between space-filling throwaway garbage and precious collector-commodity (an ambiguous zone that Melvins releases have frequently occupied — cf. the entirely silent Shit Sandwich…And You Just Took a Bite 7-inch among others.) And unlike even the semi-notorious (and actually often diverting) fan un-favorite Prick, “Theresa Screams” features pretty much none of the things Melvins might be known for: no riffs, no drums, not even any kind of noise/sample manipulation.
Instead, it’s composed of an unedited recording of the hapless “Theresa” being goaded into recapturing an earlier and apparently quite impressive scream, her every attempt deemed insufficient by the engineer or unsuccessful because of some mysterious (read: non-existent) “slight technical hitch.” Near the start, Theresa says “I don’t have anger, you guys; I’m too mellow,” but with each unsatisfying effort, her screams become more cracked and desperate, closer to whatever the opaque criteria those involved are supposed to be judging it by. Exploitative? Hard to say — Theresa seems to be a volunteer, although she might not have had in mind the treatment she receives. Obnoxious? Perhaps, but although I concede that there have also been times it seemed irritating and unpalatable, I’ll probably end up on the wrong side of history by saying that, in the right kind of mood, it can be pretty amusing.
That’s probably the key. In the liner notes to the more recent (and unfortunately mostly underwhelming) covers album, Everybody Loves Sausages, King Buzzo says of The Fugs that they were “the kind of hippies I liked; mean spirited with a wicked sense of humor.” These words might just as well be applied to his own band — and to what, as much as any of the things they’re better known for, really sets them apart from many bands on their particular continuum of “heavy” music. For The Melvins, this particular kind of humor is a more entertaining stand-in for (real?) conceptual-musical experimentation, providing many of the latter’s effects — uncertainty of outcome, the confounding of expectations, and the opening of previously unimagined vistas of sound-possibility, un-easy listening, etc. etc. — without unnecessary intellectualism or the years of having to figure out the meaning of it all. So maybe it constitutes a more accessible route to the same ends — if you’re in on the joke, that is, not on the end of it.
Humor in music is, as everyone knows, difficult to execute effectively. To work, it usually has to be well-tempered, the right kind in the right measure; things to avoid (among others) include excesses of zaniness and goofiness, pretentiousness, condescension and straight-up smugness. But as Hobbes once wrote, “men laugh at Jests, the witt whereof always consisteth in the Elegant discovering and conveying to our mindes some absurdity of another.” Not everyone these days would subscribe to such a theory, at least as the sole explanation of humor; it seems apt enough for The Melvins though. Their sense of humor may sometimes be cynical or cruel, but they have managed to evade the above-mentioned pitfalls more often than not. Of course, there’s always a pretty fine line; which side of that line “Theresa Screams” falls on is up to you.