Valerie Martino has spent the last 10 years working against the grain of noise music while selectively borrowing from attributes that define each of the genre’s enclosing spokes. Rugged feedback, gnarling distortion, and violent tape hiss lie at the core of earlier efforts, which almost immediately spurred the Providence-based musician to adopt a beat-fueled strategy. Never one to conform to standardized means of approach, she began shaping arrangements with the hydraulic percussion and sizzled melody that later encapsulated her Unicorn Hard-On moniker. After a decade of refinement and a blistering collection of low-key offerings that track her progress, Martino has come to release her debut full-length on the ever enchanting Spectrum Spools imprint. As a carefully presented collation of recent material, Weird Universe is a testament to everything that came before it and a defining portrait of her artistry, a technicolored throng of noise-induced techno that’s just as inventive as the ideas behind the project’s inception.
Martino’s back-catalogue of cassettes and CD-Rs has brought her a great deal of acclaim while touring the US, both as a solo artist and as a contributor to Frank Falestra (a.k.a Rat Bastard)’s improv collective Laundry Room Squelchers. The latter role allows Martino to express herself physically in the context of live performance, where she takes on the form of an antagonist bent on riling the audience into a frenzy. Laundry Room live sets typically conclude in a human pileup of pandemonium and bodies, kicking and writhing in the backwash of gut reactions to whatever sounds pummel out from the Squelchers’ equipment. It’s a prime example of how musicians and spectators alike are encouraged by sonic severity and how that influences their yearning to move. As Unicorn Hard-On, Martino clearly feels a kinetic association with fiercer strains of resonance, but that feeds into her solo material in a very different way.
Embracing bodily motion as an integral component and a consequent response to harsher tones has singled out Unicorn Hard-On as an outfit brave enough to crumple convention through percussive measures, which act as a capillary towards her harsh, throbbing, and even psychedelic compositions. Over time, this style has been tackled by like-minded practitioners who come equally embedded in whatever might constitute a scene (see Russell Haswell and the beat-driven productions on last year’s FACTUAL), as well as those who have been basing their repertoire on similar traits (the drum-loaded antics of Nashville-based hobbledeions are certainly worth exploring). Aside from the beats, though, that physical dimension reveals a key factor that bleeds into the disquieting thud that reaps its astral path through Weird Universe, which comes founded on a tech setup echoing the limitations Rat Bastard imposes on his performers at his International Noise Conference: no laptops, no mixers, no droning.
Those rules encourage the artist to engage with their audience in the throes of a live show. For explanation as to why that’s essential from the perspective of the crowd, Rat posed the following in an interview with Vice: “You want to see a blue face or a green face staring at a screen for 15 minutes? Do you like that?” For visual purposes, then, of course it’s more inspiring to watch the performer throw themselves about in fusion with their gear, but Martino had embraced such a stance long before she began working with the Squelcher’s frontman. When her methods are put into practice on a recording, the effect comes raw and deep-rooted — much in line with Ren Schofield’s Container project — arriving at the perpendicular bisector on some techno/noise axis, where movement is the central objective and abrasive sounds enrich the aesthetic. But Martino’s approach stands out, even in a somewhat marginal style; long-form building blocks of hand claps, kick drums, and crashing cymbals tear alongside grainy synths, which drape seemingly simple melodic patterns throughout album opener “Rock Salt.” The track accumulates layers, which are capped off with a hollowed gargle of keys; it takes on a 4/4 techno angle more than it does aggressive noise, while busted and broken sonic preferences remain forever at the fore.
Indeed, none of these melodies are clear cut, in spite of how focused they are. The music is often propelled by a fundamental percussion that thrusts each piece into its own frazzled hysteria. Regardless of the record’s staying power, its flow is forged on repetition, on burnished bass thunk and skeletal patterns that keep everything on a coherent trajectory, from which there is little veering. Martino is by no means afraid to share her stylistic preferences, and in almost every case, that makes for a tantalizing listen. As the album’s gorgeous centerpiece, “Night Diamond” is curiously the most perfect depiction of her angle, which is strange because it’s also the slowest, most downtempo joint on here. The melody is nearly graceful as it swims between a delicate kick drum stomp and calm, rippling background synths. Repetition grounds the track into a mellow psychedelia, which couldn’t be further from Martino’s graft with the Squelchers, but that pries open a dazzling palette, providing Weird Universe with a crucial gear change.
Where psychedelic tendencies begin to wane, that dry 4/4 beat frequently prevails: “Quizz,” in particular, is a hard-hitting but rather exhausting endeavor in its a staggered buildup of familiar drum loops and synth interjections — it hammers the aesthetic home with unparalleled determination, but fails to divulge Martino’s incredible gift at exposing secluded detail. That’s better exemplified on “Wet Pet,” where steady metallic dirges play out some military drill, herding trippy swirls and flickering echos around the cacophony and the discord; there really are specks of wonder to behold here, like a rogue grouping of amethyst sparkles in a dark and endless cavern. Being able to stash hidden treasure in the depths of such a wild expanse not only demonstrates a knack at adapting noise tropes, but also a persistent desire for redefining them. Martino has said before that she used melody as a replacement for voice on Weird Universe, but that human presence can still be felt; every shimmer beckons inspection, but it’s the engulfing terrain that allows for them to beam so brightly.