At the New Music America Festival in 1982, John Cage attended a performance of Glenn Branca’s Indeterminate Activities of Resultant Masses. He was deeply troubled by what he heard, leading him to famously liken Branca to a fascist. As a matter of course, if an artist is able to provoke extreme disgust -- and particularly if the disgusted party happens to be the exalted father of American avant-garde music -- that artist probably has something going for him. Branca’s symphonies are still met with derision from certain quarters of the crusty classical coterie, but thanks in part to his association with the No Wave movement and Sonic Youth, his place in punk’s history books (they have those now!) is cemented.
The Ascension was written directly before Resultant Masses, when Branca was still playing rock clubs and working up the nerve to call himself a composer. Released on what’s widely considered to be the coolest record label of all time, 99 Records, The Ascension achieves a level of sophistication that even the most ambitious New York noise punks had only hinted at. Crossing the seemingly insurmountable divide between punk and classical, The Ascension stands apart from both traditions as simply essential 20th-century music.
Instead of offering my own account of an esoteric scene that died before I was born, I’ll defer to the recent throng of coffee table No Wave books (and at $29.99, you can’t call this cheap nihilism). The primary sources are probably more deserving of your time and money, though: Metal Machine Music, The Ramones, Brian Eno, No New York, minimalism, theater of cruelty, Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio, Branca’s own Theoretical Girls, and of course John Cale and The Velvet Underground. Branca’s piece managed to invoke the Lower East Side’s noisy cultural legacy while predicting the future of indie guitar rock.
Critic/martyr Lester Bangs once argued that the alien screeching of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was really just urban ambient music, “great in Midwestern suburbs, but kinda unnecessary in NYC.” That holds for the more extreme side of No Wave in general: It’s music to prove a point to, good for advancing passive violence on those around you, maybe attractive to Catholics with self-laceration complexes, but by design a moral and aesthetic dead end. Take The Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray” which after 15 minutes of hard fought perseverance finally succumbs to its insidious disease and degenerates into unadulterated white noise. The Ascension works the opposite way; it takes white noise and harnesses it to create something highly organized and possibly even life-affirming.
Branca begins “Lesson No. 2” with an agit-bass riff before his guitar army joins in, adding grinding and whirring feedback to his insistent pulse. It sounds like the rehearsal of a particularly tight and imaginative No Wave band. The tune runs its course and then derails; Branca’s shout-out and kiss-off to the scene that fostered his artistic development. It ends in crashes of cacophonous guitar executed with chilly precision on top of a steady drumbeat.
With a name borrowed from Situationist theory, “The Spectacular Commodity” initially continues the mood of cynicism and foreboding, a sonic depiction of industrialization’s corroding effect on the landscape and the human spirit. A monstrous chord rings out seven times in slow succession like the toll of church bells -- strident metallic chimes. Three guitars, each playing on a different octave, are accompanied by bass and drums as they work their way through a series of tempo changes, rave-ups, and blowouts. The musically untrained among us won’t understand everything that’s going on, and it makes no difference. It’s immediately discernible that, despite all the dissonance, each note played has its place in this 12-minute leviathan. At roughly 8:50, high, open-sounding chords begin to float above the grit, while the other two guitars drop in to perform exultant accompaniment. Climactic doesn’t begin to describe it. This could make the perfect soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis or a triumphant battle tune for that fated day when humans will have to take up arms against the machines. Guitarists of the world, unite!
“Structure,” built on recurring noxious harmonics, is all suffocated aggression and claustrophobia (on a related note, the pointed song titles helpfully guide the listener’s free association responses to the work). The second side begins with “Light Fields (In Consonance),” which basically consists of one note, but garners its momentum through rhythmic interplay. The composition is somewhat reminiscent of Rhys Chatham’s 1977 “Guitar Trio,” which was probably the first piece to marry punk guitar with minimalist composition. However, Branca was no strict minimalist, and “Light Fields” suddenly becomes dynamic in its final two minutes, as the riffs begin shifting and climbing upwards until they reach the octave.
Last act “The Ascension” is as ambitious and lengthy as “The Spectacular Commodity,” though otherwise an entirely different beast. It's a less muscular and methodical buildup, relying largely on the overtones created by extreme guitar feedback (one can only imagine how loud and powerful this must have been live). You know how weird guitar sounds are always referred to as “ethereal” now? Well, here’s the blueprint. At times the center can barely hold and the song becomes almost completely abstract, yet during the last 30 seconds I would swear there were strings playing if I didn’t know better. It's like a redemptive response to the godless Metal Machine Music.
The sense of otherworldliness in “The Ascension” is created in part by the random disorienting nature of feedback, as well as the song’s Cage-ian silences and unpredictable tempos. Yet “The Spectacular Commodity” remains the show-stopper here for all the reasons Cage hated Branca’s work: its shattering volume, its triumphant romanticism and Wagnerian hulk. One of Cage’s misgivings was that too much of Branca’s own personality was in his work, and indeed The Ascension bares the heavy hand of its maker. When I want ego-less sound, though, I’ll just open my Brooklyn window or turn on my rain machine, thankyouverymuch. With both classical and rock, the listener’s sense of empowerment often comes vicariously through the artist. Like the paroxysmal art-punks in Robert Longo’s iconic Men in Cities series -- to which the striking cover art belongs -- sometimes we need the shock of loud, angular guitar to catalyze our own private liberation trip.
1. Lesson No. 2
2. The Spectacular Commodity
4. Light Fields (In Consonance)
5. The Ascension
1973: Amon Düül II - Wolf City
Amon Düül II are perhaps best known as a krautrock band that grew out of a 1970s hippy commune in Munich. But dropping out of modern industrial society was always the farthest thing from their minds. Amon Düüll II wanted to change the world with their music, and for a long time they believed they would. "I never was a hippy!” recalls lead singer Renate Knaup in a 1996 interview with The Wire’s Edwin Pouncey. “I was a fighter. We were all fighters."
“Avant-garde” in the most literal sense, Amon Düül II hammered out their space rock jams at the frontlines of the 1968 student rebellions in Germany, providing a live soundtrack for protests and sit-ins and brandishing the slogan "everyone is a musician" -- a kind of youth-culture echo of artist Joseph Beuys’ "everyone is an artist." Like their more militant West German contemporaries (including the terrorist and strangely glamorized Red Army Faction), Amon Düül II seemed to blur the boundaries between politics and spectacle. But guitars and amplifiers were their weapons of choice, favoring group exaltation and expanded political awareness over bombs and bank robberies.
After splitting from what guitarist and songwriter John Weinzieri has called the “non-musical” members of the group, popularly known as Amon Düül I, the five remaining members set about creating a more traditional rock band. Although they never lost their taste for the long-winded group improvisations of the commune’s early years, their 1970s discography describes their evolution from a clan of wayward freedom-seekers into a mighty revolutionary unit.
With Wolf City (1973), their sixth album, the group yielded their most accessible offering to date and perhaps their most beautiful. The tracklisting alone signifies the overall tightening of their sound, with six out of the album’s seven tracks clocking in under six minutes. If the era of the 20-minute shamanistic freakout was over for Amon Düül II, this concentration of musical space left room for new vocal talent. And that talent was founding member Renate Knaup, whose stentorian alto had gradually crept its way up to the front of the mix, commanding enough to make even the most hard-nosed rock ‘n’ roller pick up a book of études.
People who believe overtly political art is bad art are usually not that far off the mark, but Wolf City steers clear of one important pitfall: though brimming with references to world hunger, economic imperialism, and prison reform, its structure is challenging enough to prevent it from descending into left-wing propaganda. As they leap between ice-slick bass grooves and explosions of rusty violin, loud-speaker diatribes, and German operettas, Amon Düül II pull off the kind of epic harmonic surprises that are usually found in classical music. We can hear this even in “Green- Bubble-Raincoated-Man,” the album’s most compulsively listenable number, where a simple chord change transforms a lockstep warrior chant into a cosmic guitar whirlwind.
For anyone who has ever wondered what it must have felt like to be in Germany or France during the late '60s and early '70s, Wolf City is probably a good place to start: the riffs on this album are positively blood-pumping, and it's hard not to feel like you are the edge of a historical precipice when you listen to it -- especially today. But Amon Düül were not looking for cheap thrills; more than rile up the masses, they reminded us that in order to bring about a change in attitude, music must also change the way we listen.
1. Surrounded by the Stars
4. Wolf City
5. Wie der Wind am Ende einer Strasse
6. Deutsch Nepal
7. Sleepwalker’s Timeless Bridge
8. Kindermörderlied [bonus track]
9. Mystic Blutsturz [bonus track]
10. Düülirium [bonus track]
When Pavement released the just-okay Terror Twilight in 1999, it was easy to believe the jig was up. The band had progressed from chaotic fuzz machines to slick popsters, and while the Twilight songs were catchy, they had little life in them. Pavement announced their breakup a year later, and it seemed things had run their course. Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus put out a self-titled debut in 2000, and the ensuing media blitz obscured Preston School of Industry, another post-Pavement band who released their first record six month later. The group’s leader was Scott Kannberg, a.k.a. Spiral Stairs, Pavement guitarist and songwriter.
The record in question, All This Sounds Gas, sounds great in 2009, and it must have sounded even better in 2001 to Pavement fans who feared all was lost. It’s certainly not a Pavement record -- there are few rough edges, and Kannberg’s voice is a little more melodic than Malkmus’ yelp -- but it has the let’s-make-a-record charm that made his old band’s best work so appealing. First track “Whalebones,” for example, is a slow burner with a distorted guitar line that sounds like it was taken from a Built To Spill B-side. It’s a perfectly solid lead-in to a perfectly solid record, and a good indication of things to come.
“Falling Away,” super catchy and breezy as hell, follows. Although it would have been better placed midway through the disc, it’s a pleasure to hear the track so early in the proceedings, as if Kannberg is confident he won’t need to pick up the pace later on. “A Treasure @ Silver Bank (This Dynasty’s For Real),” with its bright steel guitar and wood block percussion, is yet another winner; it reveals the reason you’ve been bobbing your head for the last eight minutes: Kannberg has a knack for emphasizing every downbeat, whether on electric guitar or what sounds like a J. Geils-circa-“Centerfold” organ. He knows what it takes to keep a song moving.
Some of the credit for All This Sounds Gas also goes to bassist Jon Erickson and drummer Andrew Borger, both of whom played with the Moore Brothers, another act anchored by melody and strong arrangements. Their clockwork rhythm section provides the perfect backdrop to Kannberg’s rugged guitars and relaxed vocals. In fact, the record works best when using the bass and drum’s momentum, so deeper cuts like “Doping For Gold” get where they’re going through pure gravity. The best songs on the record, such as the poppy “Solitaire,” pair that momentum with truly catchy instrumentation, and the results are wondrous. When this combination doesn’t happen, such as on the dark “History of the River,” the results are simply uninteresting.
Pavement’s mystique has only grown since the band broke up, and each Malkmus release is greeted -- sometimes deservedly, sometimes not -- with a flurry of Pitchfork news updates. Kannberg, however, deserves perhaps more attention for providing both his old band and Preston School of Industry with what every good act needs: focus.
2. Falling Away
3. A Treasure @ Silver Bank (This Dynasty’s For Real)
4. Encyclopedic Knowledge Of
5. History of the River
6. Doping For Gold
8. Blu Son
9. Monkey Heart and the Horses’ Leg
10. The Idea of Fires
11. Take a Stand/All This Sounds Gas
Though you may not know it, Holland has long been a land of heavy music and reverberating amps. Take a listen to the Waterpipes and Dykes series on the Distortion Records label and you’ll unveil a late-”60s sonic scene as fully earth-shaking as anything out of Haight-Ashbury or the Motor City. Though the Dutch psych bands borrowed their sounds heavily from the standard U.K./U.S. blues rock models, they had a propensity for taking those familiar modes and blasting them through the ceiling, something that I'm sure the the legality, rampant availability, high quality, and cheap price of weed, magic mushrooms, and other entheogens never hurt.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the Danish trio Gore were one of the heaviest bands of the 1980s. Aggressive and uncompromising for their time, they were kind of the missing link between late, Process of Weeding Out, instrumental-era Black Flag and the metallic tech-sludge of Saint Vitus or Melvins. “Baptized” in 1985 and playing their first show opening for The Swans on Feb 26, 1986, at Effenaar — a club that sat right next to Amsterdam’s largest and most famous club, The Paradiso — they played alongside, and sometimes shared members with, other heavy Dutch metal bands like Pandemonium and Disgust. This double-CD retrospective (once again lovingly packaged by Southern Lord) captures their two full-length albums, a few outtakes, and a couple live sets.
Hart Gore, their first album, polarized critics when it came out. Completely instrumental, Gore were taking a big chance, as instrumental math-metal and legions of Don Caballero fans were two things yet to exist. One of the strangest aspects of Gore's muteness on record was how politically vocal they were in their day-to-day lives. In fact, Hart Gore, though completely instrumental, contained a lyric sheet when it was released. More like political manifestos, the "lyrics" were rife with political angst, something which, on stage, they sublimated solely into their music. Gore's second album, Mean Man's Dream, was a more mature, precise outing, metered, mathy, and minimal. The contrast between the two records is best exemplified by their respective cover art: on Hart Gore, a picture of a fresh calf heart impaled on a sword; on Mean Man's Dream, a photo of a rusty knife sitting on an unclean table. In essence, while Hart Gore went straight to lacerating the jugular, Mean Man's Dream dared you to take the knife and do it to yourself.
Coming to America in the mid-’80s with the help of Henry Rollins, Gore were to embark on a West Coast U.S. tour, and had been tantalized with prospects of signing to SST. Unfortunately, Rollins had quit Black Flag just before picking them up from LAX, thereby putting a damper on their label deal. A pity, too, as they would’ve been an excellent fit; one could even see them snuggled cozily between Black Flag and Saccharine Trust on the Blasting Concept compilation. Instead, all they had to show for their only American experience was a short West Coast tour and a strong distaste for Greg Ginn's skunky American dope.
Eventually, their inability to compromise, both with convention and with each other, led to the group's demise. Today, Gore is not a household name, but perhaps if things had gone slightly differently, they would've been. Their influence is undoubtedly understated, and thanks go to Southern Lord for dusting off this chestnut and not letting the Gore legacy go down the memory hole.
2. To the Gallows
4. Axe of Revenge
5. Out For Blood
6. USA is Calling
7. Death is Coming
9. In the Eye of the Sniper
10. He Knows You Are Alone
11. Extirpation (Live)
12. To the Gallows (Live)
13. After (Live)
14. Axe of Revenge (Live)
15. Out For Blood (Live)
16. USA is Calling (Live)
17. Death is Coming (Live)
18. Fear (Live)
19. In the Eye of the Sniper (Live)
20. He Knows You Are Alone (Live)
21. Death Has Come
22. The Hunt
23. Station to Station
1. Mean Man’s Dream
4. Last Steps
6. The Bank
7. Back Home
9. Meat Machine
10. Out For Sex
11. Mean Man’s Dream (Live)
12. Search (Live)
13. Love (Live)
14. Last Steps (Live)
15. Chainsaw (Live)
16. The Bank (Live)
17. Back Home (Live)
18. Loaded (Live)
19. Meat Machine (Live)
20. Out For Sex (Live)
An infectious energy and worldliness is immediately apparent upon hearing Os Mutantes’ most celebrated release, their self-titled debut. There’s an undeniable playfulness to every single one of its 11 tracks. Given that the band (comprised of singer Rita Lee and brothers Sérgio and Arnaldo Baptista) is commonly recognized for blending elements of bossa nova, psychedelic rock, and catchy pop, some would argue they could produce nothing other than uncorrupt, authentic bliss.
Yet there is undoubtedly a degree of awareness that goes into piecing together such distinct rhythms and musical concepts, so as not to be too safe or too over the top. Not to say that there aren’t moments of pure Mutantes flight. The dinner party at the end of “Panis Et Circenses” is one, brought to life with the sound of cups clinking together and spoken requests to "pass the salad." During such bouts of sonic experimentation, conflict is buried just beneath a surface shimmering with everything from angelic harmonies to church bells, flute solos to beating jungle drums.
After all, it was 1968. From every corner of the world, revolution boiled in the blood of the youth. This newborn ferocity -- a response to war, politics and general injustice -- quickly found its way into each region's music. In Brazil, it was no different. Circa 1967, the Tropicália movement stood as a force to fuel artistic innovation and experimentation throughout the country. Along with masters and leaders of the movement Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes were eventually threatened by Brazil’s right-wing military government, which feared their openness to Western influences.
As such, the playful and rejoicing characteristics of Os Mutantes are laced with experimental leaps, such as the heavily distorted guitar riffs layered over almost tribal-sounding vocals in “Bat Macumba.” These moments don’t bring anger or a sense of frustration to the music, yet being timely experiments in sound and creation, they certainly reveal the desire and struggle for change and evolution -- for anything other than what had been.
Meanwhile, the band’s experimental ventures are grounded by an occasional shout-out to their roots. Through the warm, earthy undertones of bossa nova, their distorting, mutating effects are given a softer and less intrusive presence. “A Minha Menina,” for example, is built on a foundation of homey, laid-back guitar strumming, while fuzzy guitar riffs float above, creating a dream-like, pensive state that inevitably alludes to the band’s ties with tropicalismo.
Os Mutantes translates quite simply into “The Mutants” -- embodiments of evolution and diversity. Change suddenly doesn’t sound so scary, drastic, or painful. Amidst everyday sounds -- the slurping from eating ice-cream, the clatter of dishes and silverware -- there is a place for change, for exploration. Distortion eventually finds its place under the wing of bossa nova lullabies and the band’s sensory approach to music. And it almost sounds natural.
1. Panis Et Circenses
2. A Minha Menina
3. O Relógio
4. Adeus Maria Fulô
6. Senhor F
7. Bat Macumba
8. Le Premier Bonheur du Jour
9. Trem Fantasma
10. Tempo No Tempo (Once Was A Time I Thought)
11. Ave Genghis Khan
It may not be any consolation to Bobb Trimble, but almost 30 years after micro-releasing two albums, Iron Curtain Innocence and Harvest of Dreams, interest in his brand of psychedelic, outsider soft-pop is at a high watermark. You can blame fervent crate-diggers and proactive fans of unearthed classics all you want, but most interesting albums get their eventual due, even if they were initially released -- and bought -- in paltry numbers.
There are any number of reasons why Iron Curtain Innocence and Harvest of Dreams didn't make a bigger splash at the beginning of the 1980s: Trimble's predilection for working with pre-teen backing musicians left a sour taste in the mouths of Worcester booking agents, not to mention the young members' parents, who twice pulled their kids from the band. Moreover, Trimble's music isn't traditionally accessible; his voice can grate on the ears. He shares the high-pitched, lonely territory of T. Rex's Marc Bolan, Rush's Geddy Lee, and Nick Gilder (the dude who sang "Hot Child in the City" back in the late ’70s). This "too weird" vocal factor may be unsettling for some, but really, enough popular voices have strayed left-of-center to invalidate most complaints. Maybe success for Trimble just wasn't in the stars.
Regardless, the past is the past. After a long period that saw big sums of cash changing hands for Trimble's original vinyl, Secretly Canadian has resurrected the man for a new generation of oddball music lovers. Iron Curtain Innocence starts our hazy trip with the perfect introductory one-two punch of "Glass Menagerie Fantasies" and "Night at the Asylum." The former is a woozy waltz that takes a page out of Gary "Dream Weaver" Wright's cosmic wuss-rock book, but with more ideas and less studio help. Things turn fun on "Night at the Asylum" as Trimble sings, clipped and playful, over a truly bizarre pop song that uses sound manipulation and sampled voices throughout. Elsewhere are healthy dashes of world-ending melancholy, mystically delivered confessions, a couple of late-album ballads, frenzied guitar lines, and manipulated recording techniques. All of this fails to pull Iron Curtain Innocence even near classic-album territory, but it's a record with plenty of curious moments nevertheless.
Harvest of Dreams fares better than its predecessor; after the strangeness of Iron Curtain Innocence, it's a straighter-shooting missive, though both albums are cut from the same kinky cloth. And despite the hike in creativity, Trimble's trademark fatalistic approach to songwriting remains. Highlighted is a mish-mash of styles: traveling county fair ("Premonitions – The Fantasy"), effects-laden triumphs ("Armour of the Shroud"), troubled rants ("Selling Me Short While Stringing Me Long), and backward ("Oh Baby") and awkward ("The World I Left Behind" is 2:11 of silence) pauses. "Armour of the Shroud" in particular is a superb, simple track, incorporating lots of echoed vocals and trebly guitar and keys before a coda that sounds recorded in a sewer. "Take Me Home Vienna" features The Kidds (Trimble's first pre-teen backing band) in a rather lovely ramble with sly guitar and a chorus sung by Bobb and the children to nice effect. It's a shame that Harvest of Dreams is the last proper album Trimble would make, because it sounds like he's nearing some semblance of cohesion while still maintaining that odd edge unique to him alone.
Interestingly enough, The Beatles are referenced by Trimble himself on the sleeve notes for both Iron Curtain Innocence and Harvest of Dreams. Aside from a quote by Harrison and a spiritual tribute to the memory of Lennon, he calls out the band directly with "Dear John, Paul, George and Ringo, If I'm a good boy and work real hard, may I please be the 5th Beatle someday? Your friend, Bobb." Musically, he mines some of the fab four's views on psychedelia -- particularly the Magical Mystery Tour era -- but his vision differs greatly from his idols. Dylan too can be heard as an inspiration (listen to the stolen strum and harmonica wheeze in "Premonitions Boy – The Reality"), but where Dylan is more concerned with displaying cleverness through obtuse wordplay and hidden meaning, Trimble seems hell-bent on exercising the demons swimming around his skull.
The closest big-name relative to Trimble's musical odyssey may be post-Syd Pink Floyd (or post-Syd Syd Barrett), but he shares equal affinities with fringe characters like Michael Yonkers and Jandek, if not in sound then in spirit. One minute I think Iron Curtain Innocence's "One Mile from Heaven" textbooks the sound of Luna ten years early, the next I think I'm insane for entertaining such a thought (though I'd be willing to bet that one-time Massachusetter Dean Wareham has some Trimble in his record collection). If the "straight" part of "Oh Baby" was cleaned up a bit, it could be slotted into a Jon Spencer album without too much difficulty (even if it is sung by a Kidd). But I should stop trying so hard; Trimble is too unique a cat to be realistically compared to anyone that came before him, and he doesn't particularly sound like anything that came after these two doomed-to-fail records.
Genius makes its own rules. Madness gets rules foisted upon it. After listening to Iron Curtain Innocence / Harvest of Dreams, it's hard to determine which camp Bobb Trimble resides, if either. Hearing his fantastic tales with inside knowledge of the crushing reality surrounding their release makes for an uneasy experience, but a compelling one all the same. Maybe I am too sensitive to these things. Maybe Trimble was simply a man who knew full well he wasn't made for the ’80s, but he put himself out there anyway. He has now become a precursor to thousands of cracked and tortured singer-songwriters, even if they've never realized it.
Iron Curtain Innocence:
1. Glass Menagerie Fantasies
2. Night at the Asylum
3. When the Raven Calls
4. Your Little Pawn
5. One Mile from Heaven (short version)
6. Killed by the Hands of an Unknown Rock Starr
7. Through My Eyes (Hopeless as Hell: D.O.A.)
8. One Mile from Heaven (long version)
9. Glass Menagerie Fantasies (demo version)
10. Night as the Asylum (demo version)
11. When the Raven Calls (demo version)
Harvest of Dreams:
1. Premonitions – The Fantasy
2. If Words Were All I Had
3. The World I Left Behind
4. Armour of the Shroud
5. Premonitions Boy – The Reality
6. Take Me Home Vienna
7. Selling Me Short While Stringing Me Long
8. Oh Baby
10. Another Lonely Angel
11. Waves of Confusion in Puzzled Times (demo version)
12. Galilean Boy (demo version)
13. Life Is Like a Circle
1969: Gandalf - Gandalf
There are two general truths I hold to be self-evident. The first: there is no good reason why anyone should start a cover band, unless they need to support themselves by playing weddings, jazz brunches, or Bar Mitzvahs. Something that is already really good doesn’t need to be redone. The second: New Jersey is the armpit of America, and other than a few notable exceptions (The Boss, Palmolive, Princeton University), nothing all that smashing has ever come out of it. Surely there are those of you who will disagree. But even before Bruce Springsteen recognized Jersey pride as a kind of counterintuitive selling point, four teenagers from suburban Tenefly somehow managed to topple both of these "truths" in one fell swoop.
Gandalf, also known as The Rahgoos, were one of those garage line-ups that first saw the light of day in a high school detention hall, when guitarist Peter Sando met bassist Bob Muller in 1958. Though it's hard to imagine there being much of a market for a high school cover band over in the big city next door, New York has always been one of those places where just about anyone can find a home. For The Rahgoos, that home was the Night Owl, a cramped storefront-turned-mythic-rock-café where the likes of John Sebastian and his Lovin’ Spoonful and The Blues Magoos packed in to watch acoustic sets by James Taylor and The Flying Machine. The ragtag Night Owl family, including owner Joe Marra, toothless doorman “Jack the Rat,” Pepe the openly gay cook, and Annie, the four-letter-word-slinging head waitress, realized early on that The Rahgoos were much more than what they appeared to be on paper. Before long, the band linked up with Spoonful producers Charlie Koppelman and Don Rubin to sign a record deal with Capitol.
Though The Rahgoos dissolved before their record was ever released, what they left behind is probably one of the most visionary cover albums in the history of pop. Not “visionary” in the sense of re-invention (Easy Star All-Stars’ “Dub Side of the Moon” and “Radiodread” coming to mind), but “visionary” in the sense of re-investment, as though these songs -- songs we’ve already heard a hundred times before -- had suddenly become re-possessed by the ghosts of their true authors. The band changed their name to Gandalf and the Wizards in 1967; this moniker, discovered by drummer Davey Bauer while flipping through Tolkien’s The Hobbit between sets, gives us some idea of the fresh alpine air they would breathe into pop vocal standards like "Nature Boy," "Golden Earrings," and "Scarlet Ribbons".
Whenever I play Gandalf for friends, I like to ask them what color they see. Even if they haven’t seen the album’s orange sleeve, they almost invariably cite a color ranging between red and burnished gold. Gandalf is one of those albums that has an almost synesthetic effect on its listeners, filling every room which it's played with a kind of heavy, perfumed fog. Peter Sando’s wind-kissed, reverb-dripping tenor is perhaps most responsible for this effect. As though his psychic identification with these old love ballads were too strong to be confined within the songs themselves, Sando swoops up from under each melody and wrestles it into the air, blasting the chorus of “Golden Earrings” on track one into a wingspan over an autumnal mountain range.
Perhaps you have already guessed it: Gandalf is one sexy record. Fuzz guitar, Hammond B3, electric sitar, vibraphone, and chunky, equally reverb-saturated bass ground Sando’s voice in a kind of clipped, baroque accompaniment, voluptuous in its restraint. Spaciousness is definitely the defining feeling of the album, but all of its elements seem to be hanging on a single, taught string. Which is what makes Gandalf’s music all the more debilitating when that string finally breaks, and a song that started off as a whispered fairy-tale (“Nature Boy,” sung by Nat and Natalie King Cole in their day) gives way to a drum fill and a guitar howl.
While it may come as a bit of a surprise, not all of the songs on Gandalf are covers. The lovely “Can You Travel in the Dark Alone" and “I Watch the Moon,” the opener and closer of the second side, were penned by Peter Sando himself. I mention this as a closing note, but it shouldn't be taken as a fact that somehow “redeems” the record in terms of authorship and originality. Even without these two songs, Gandalf is about as genuine as an album can get -- its sound so distinctive and unified that it's hard to tell (or care) who wrote what. Sando and his buddies from Tenefly High School did more than just recast a bunch of old yarns within the psychedelic era; they made them theirs.
1. Golden Earrings
2. Hang on to a Dream
3. Never Too Far
4. Scarlet Ribbons
5. You Upset the Grace of Living
6. Can You Travel in the Dark Alone
7. Nature Boy
8. Tiffany Rings
9. Me About You
10. I Watch the Moon
Temporary Residence Limited, the now reputable purveyors of ‘post’-everything, was founded in Louisville, Kentucky in 1996. The first signing to the nascent label was Wino, a local noise-rock band with only a 7-inch to their name at the time. TRL went on to release several more 7-inches and one long-player from them, but the group disbanded in 1999, having undergone several personnel changes. After Wino’s dissolution, they seemingly faded into obscurity.
Recently, TRL released A Bottle Of Pills With a Bullet Chaser, the complete recorded output of the little band who, according to the press release, “inspired dozens of later Louisville bands.” Unfortunately, the amount and quality of the music presented here is largely unimpressive. Sure, in recent years, inexpensive home recording has skyrocketed in popularity, but even at the close of the century, having only created two hours worth of music in five years together (split among 36 songs) doesn’t quite merit a “Deluxe 2-disc set” or a compendium of any kind.
Wino didn’t really forge a sound of their own so much as assimilate aspects of popular bands of the ’90s. In nearly every song, singer Aaron Hodge’s wails and yells are muffled and buried deep in the mix, not unlike David Yow’s vocals on early Jesus Lizard albums. Most of the tracks are decent if not uninspired noise-rock songs, with overdriven bass lines, pounding drums, and cacophonous guitars. There are a few cuts that don’t adhere to the aesthetic at all; “Eon,” for instance, sounds nothing like any of the other 35 songs here, showing the group’s desire to expand creatively and push themselves. But immediately following it is “Fast Freddie,” a generic grungy punk number. Instead of hearing the results of a band following uninhibited creative impulse, we’re left with a whole lot of pretty basic guitar, drum, and bass work.
And it’s not like this band had a whole lot to say. Lyrically (from what I can discern), Hodge’s screams are about as profound as the brooding couplets scrawled into an angst-ridden high school student’s notebook cover. The absolute nadir of this collection can be heard on “Edward,” a track with (unintentionally) laughable vocals (at one point drenched in a chorus effect, the ’90s guitar staple), and lines as heinous as “Motherfucker, you’re so cool!/ Cause you drivin’ that BMW!/ Motherfucker!/ Motherfucker.”
It’s interesting to see just how far Temporary Residence Limited has come. There are many examples on A Bottle of Pills… that display the soft/loud dynamics and spidery guitar lines that the label would become known for. At best, the album serves as a curious document to contribute to the TRL archives and maybe even a collection that would have sufficed as a free (or maybe ‘pay-what-you-want’) download. Though this collection has a fair number of "good" tracks, there are far better noise rock bands from the ’90s more worthy of your two hours.
1. Dutch Oven
2. Red Wings
3. Yam Hand
7. One-Eyed Willie
8. Glass Blower
9. A Minute Fifty-One
10. Burn Down The Brick Factory
12. Attack Utopia
14. Fast Freddie
15. Make-Out Party
1. Mountain River
3. Winner Takes Nothing
5. Johnny Deeper
7. What The Paper Said
9. Truth Cigar
10. Spiked Heels And Leather
11. Blue Tree
12. Best Freind
13. Red Eye
15. Finish Line
18. In The Light
19. Best Friend
20. Dead Bird Fight
21. My House
Like the majority of bands that first played with electronics, it's hard to discuss Yellow Magic Orchestra without referencing Kraftwerk. However, to combat the homogenization and simplification of modern music's trajectory, one must try. The Japanese group, hugely successful and still influential in their native country, had only minor hits in the Western world during their late 1970s, early 1980s heyday. They're probably more remembered nowadays as one of the first projects of Academy Award-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (the 'Danny Elfman / Oingo Boingo complex'). Nevertheless, their music is worth reappraisal.
YMO's second album, Solid State Survivor, was released in 1979. Although they would release more ambitious (1981's Technodelic) and well-crafted (1983's Naughty Boys) works, it's here that their unique, left-field musical manifesto is best expressed. Indeed, despite the presence and implementation of mile-high stacks of synthesizers and other electronic gadgets, YMO's sound is rooted in composition and performance. Whereas their German counterparts were masters of minimalism, YMO layer and weave. The ‘robotik’ sound of other synth pioneers is tweaked with the inclusion of Sakamoto's classically-trained keyboard runs, Haruomi Hosono's bass stabs, and Yukihiro Takahashi's drum embellishments, as well as traditional Oriental instrumentation.
These contradictions are present on the album's most famous tracks: "Rydeen" is a giddy thrill of synth-pop bliss, with strong melodic lines performed like high-register wind instruments. This hyper consonance and carefree momentum is an unmistakable influence on early Japanese video game music. Equally, "Technopolis," for all its Technology TV Show Theme stylings, is importantly punctuated by a funky bass that rumbles and pops. "Behind the Mask," a psychologically paranoid ‘love song’ straight out of a Philip K. Dick short story ("Is it me/ Is it you/ Behind this mask?"), is almost sabotaged by Sakamoto's use of vocoder, which completely obscures his vocals. The song works -- though, the lack of a strong conventional vocal hook has given birth to horribly overwrought re-imaginings and covers of the song, the most successful of which was recorded by Eric Clapton during his mid-’80s Phil Collins period.
This sense that YMO are, at times, self-sabotaging their easiest bids for pop success is no more evident than on the cover of The Beatles' classic "Day Tripper." What is first a proto-hard rock song -- a prime candidate for the basic moog-and-arpeggiator makeover -- is transformed into an off-kilter mutant. It's almost post-punk in its convulsive rhythms and far ahead of its time in the use of intentional glitching. It could be one of the more prescient tracks on the album. Furthermore, the title track, placed right at the end of side two, is a straightforward New Wave song, containing the album's only full-bodied vocal performance from Yukihiro Takahashi. It comes off as a kinetic tribute to Roxy Music or David Bowie. Here, however, YMO show a mischievousness: the majority of the vocals are drowned out by scratchy, distorted samples in favor of, once again, an instrumental chorus hook.
Solid State Survivor presents all sides of its creator's complexity. YMO are at times synthetic, at times vital; they are frustrating, joyous; willingly accessible, yet defiantly stubborn. In the future, they would craft more one-dimensional, satisfying albums. Technodelic would take the experimental innovation to new depths, just as much as Naughty Boys would feature fully-fledged pop songs, with proper vocal performances from Takahashi to boot. Sakamoto would find better means of expression -- both in his solo compositions and in collaboration with other artists, such as David Sylvian, Alva Noto and Christian Fennesz (in a graceful, atmospheric mode represented here by "Castalia"). On this album, however, YMO display a smörgåsbord-like approach. They move away from Kraftwerk's clinical, futurist kitsch. Instead, they use the synthesizer as a composition aid. The result may not be as iconic as their Germanic contemporaries, but YMO's art shows a great deal more sophistication.
Until Captain Beefheart’s brilliant Safe as Milk (1967), no one had paid such a respectful and original homage to the great bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, whose names narrowly escaped the contempt and neglect engendered by Jim Crow laws. The Kropotkins may have spent more time on the New York avant-garde scene than in Memphis’ smoky bars, but they all maintain a personal, often passionate tie to the blues and other musical traditions the region directly or indirectly engendered -- jazz and hip-hop, soul and funk; they may not all have been raised in the rural South, the historical birthplace of the genre, but they all are, in a way, children of the blues.
Such is the case for the The Kropotniks' instigator, Dave Soldier, an avant-garde composer and violinist -- also a psychology and neurology professor at Columbia University -- whose string quartet used to perform microtonal arrangements of Muddy Waters’ songs. Similarly rooted is Lorette Velvette (The Hellcats, Alluring Strange, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns) a Memphis singer with an entrancing voice, brought up in the school of blues and rockabilly. And don't forget Samm Bennett (Tom Cora, Elliott Sharp, John Zorn), a subtle drummer fond of free-jazz, who has spent a good deal of time traveling around West-Africa, studying the traditional rhythmic patterns brought by Africans to the New World.
Born from a New York meeting of musicians from various backgrounds, The Kropotkins is a collective with a rotating lineup, a project that materializes from time to time rather than being a "group" in the classic sense. Started in 1992, they have only released two albums since, one in 1996, the other, Five Points Crawl, in 2001. Two records whose grooves offer nuggets of the pleasant smell of the old South, the slowness of farm work, the frenzy of East St. Louis bars, and, above all, the dusty roads and sparkling railroad tracks, the throbbing trucks and rumbling freight trains, the inhospitable road stops and dubious motels; in a word, the immensity of the landscapes, which the band’s most compelling songs drive up and down at turbo speed.
“Cold Wet Steel,” “Shake ‘em on Down” and “Everdream,” opening songs on The Kropotkins’ self-titled album, explode the musical quarries that the band exploits. The first tune is a classic one, an accurate and jubilatory interpretation of the Delta blues' best moments. A simple and efficient bass line, tirelessly repeated, with a rhythmically bouncing banjo and a violin providing the typical instrumental response to the hot and cheeky Lorette Velvette, who casts a spell on her audience from the very first line. Nothing is lacking, save Otha Turner’s fife, which appears on the following song.
“Shake ‘em on Down” marks the next phase of The Kropotkins’ interpretive work; the homage to Mississippi Fred McDowell is obvious, but irreverent. The urgency of the vocals and the guitar slide responses evoke an image of a train flying at top speed, constantly on the verge of derailing. A discomfort accentuated by Jonathan Kane (February, Swans, Rhys Chatham) whose drum shuffle, far from being monotonous, follows the guitar in jolts, introducing a radically different dynamic that truly gives new flavor to the McDowell classic.
“Everdream” is the ultimate step in the transformation that The Kropotkins impose on the old-fashioned arrangement of their idols; hip-hop beats, industrial sounds, and electronic loops compete with the hegemony of the classical banjo, violin, and fife, musically illustrating the nightmarish visions recounted by Lorette Velvette (“Momma gonna milk you/ or kill you dead”). We have come full circle; the traditional sounds now cheerfully collide with the recent ones, proving that the road from Memphis to New York was long, but without too many potholes.
The record drifts from respectful covers to audacious interpretations, from songs that purr like a big engine (“Coal Black Wind”) to bravura pieces that offer the musicians, Mark Feldman (John Zorn, Arcado String Trio, Pharoah Sanders) in particular, a chance to express their virtuosity. But the music is always pretext. Pretext for Lorette Velvette and Samm Bennett, whose vocals, sung with tender or ironic tones, outline scenes from outdated places and times, sketching the timeless failings of their fellow man, taking part in the constitution and perpetuation of a specific idea in the American myth.