Ostensibly a tribute to the ensemble’s influences from the late 20th century avant-garde and out/free jazz movements, 33 1/3 is an imposing and monolithic effort from Smegma, the long-standing, Portland-based underground noise collective. 33 1/3 finds the ensemble focusing heavily on electronics and bizarre vocal affectations on this outing, which relies on a framework of abstract free jazz as its basic foundation. It can be safely said, however, that Smegma’s material on the album defiantly refuses, as is the nature of any artist associated with the Los Angeles Free Music Society, to fit neatly into any particular genre.
On 33 1/3, Smegma utilizes a fractured approach to composition akin to postmodern literary paradigms such as Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome concept or Burroughs’ cut-up approach. 33 1/3 might even be analogized by Delillo’s “White Noise,” whereby fragments of sound, albeit shortwave radio noise, vinyl samples, snatches of fundamentalist Christian dialogue, and other dystopic signifiers seemingly replicate and self-organize to create multi-textural patterns. The resulting patterns intertwine and intersect, culminating in a series of seven unique works of varying density, free, by and large, of any conventional tonal and melodic constraints. But while Delillo’s narrator views the world in terms of the particles of mass media detritus with which his senses are continuously bombarded — the “white noise” that colors the surroundings of each individual who is regularly exposed to the increasing information overload of the modern world — Smegma, conversely, capture these motes of sound, deconstructing and subsequently reconstituting these components as recordings characterized by their own unique brand of anarchistic avant rock. Smegma’s work is informed, if not shaped, by the mutated forms which aggregate to mold these tracks, however nebulously structured they may be.
Smegma’s recordings have always been highly expressive and, though they are somewhat derivative of the free improv/out jazz subsets of the jazz idiom, share characteristics with modern classical composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez, and Penderecki, with their emphasis on comically peculiar vocal performances, prepared instruments, and unorthodox instrumental playing techniques. Generally free of melodic and harmonic structure (excepting “The Door,” which flirts with an unexpected inversion of the surf rock style) but similar to modern classical as opposed to purely improvisational music, the tracks on 33 1/3 possess an inherent underlying compositional logic. Unlike the output of the current crop of “free noise” artists, Smegma’s material sounds like the work of a collective, rather than an amalgamation of random clatter passed off as “music.”
The tracks on 33 1/3 are anchored together by cerebral drum patterns which seem connected, however tenuously, to the stylistic nuances of free jazz. Smegma also distance themselves from the Japanese and European noise subgenres via their use of space. Rather than employing the dense “wall of sound” effect that results from layer upon layer of sonic overlap, the band adhere to a sparse, judiciously arranged compositional style that allows the listener to focus on the loosely structured interplay between instruments. Particularly engaging, however, is the cartoonish, pseudo-cabaret horn section comprising Ju Suk Reet Meate and Burned Mind, with their squawking intonation that recalls John Zorn and early Mr. Bungle. The avant-garde turntablism, courtesy of Oblivia and Dr. Id, and the textural gradations of the band’s Dadaist found-sound sculpturing (while something of a throwback to the musique concrète tradition) nonetheless infuse these pieces with a distinctly idiosyncratic quality that transcends all of the boundaries that reference the band’s paradigmatic associations. 33 1/3 is a unique piece of work that might take several spins to “get,” but its payoff, ultimately, is beyond rewarding.