I have loved Man or Astro-man? since the first time that I heard them. The album was “Is it Man or Astro-man?” and unfortunately I hadn’t heard it until after the band had put themselves into cryogenic freeze. It was several years before they thawed themselves out and made another appearance, though they had trained some clones to serve as them around the country, but that’s a whole other story.
Since they have been re-animated, my favorite sci-fi obsessed surf-rock band from another planet has been touring pretty regularly and on May 21st of this year they released a new album entitled “Defcon 5…4…3…2…1” through Chunklet. There is one track up on Communicating Vessels. That song is “Disintegrate” and it can be heard below.
I managed to see Man or Astro-man? twice in Chicago last summer when they played the West Fest street festival and later that same night when played a nearly completely different set at The Empty Bottle. Though the songs were different the shows still involved fire, a theremin and a Tesla Coil. So get out there and see them if you can, they are a lot of fun live.
The album can be purchased in a variety of forms and combo-packs. Follow these links for your preference:
They are currently on tour throughout Europe. Catch up with them on Facebook for all the latest tour updates. If you want to hear more Man or Astro-man? check the video below of their live set for KEXP in Seattle:
There is a direct connection between my love for Thee Oh Sees and my love for The Blind Shake. I’ve talked about it before, the first time that I saw both bands at the Empty Bottle in Chicago in July of 2012.
Since that time I have kept going back to their album “Seriousness” and it looks like they are picking things up and getting ready to start a tour once again. And again that tour is going to be supporting Thee Oh Sees all over the U.S. and Canada. All of this also in support of their forthcoming album “Key to a False Door,” which is set to be released by John Dwyer’s (of Thee Oh Sees) Castleface records on September 17.
Brooklyn Vegan has posted a song, “Garbage on Glue” from the forthcoming album and you can check it out here. And if you haven’t heard “Seriousness” then you can check that one out in its entirety on their Bandcamp page (highly suggested) and it can be purchased on vinyl or digital download from the bandcamp page as well. It’s on Spotify as well, if you are so inclined. But seriously, just buy the album already. And no matter what, see them live. You will not be disappointed.
You can find The Blind Shake and Thee Oh Sees on tour in a town near you on the dates below:
Thee Oh Sees — 2013 Tour Dates
10/10 The Chapel San Francisco, CA with The Blind Shake, OBNIIIs, Fryborg
10/11 The Chapel San Francisco, CA with OBNIIIs, The Blind Shake, Old Light
10/12 The Chapel San Francisco, CA with The Blind Shake, OBNIIIs, Dreamsalon
10/16/2013 The Rickshaw Vancouver BC
10/18/2013 Republik Calgary AB
10/19/2013 VFW MIssoula MT
10/21/2013 The Amsterdam Minneapolis MN
10/22/2013 The Empty Bottle Chicago IL w/ The Blind Shake, OBN IIIs
10/23/2013 The Empty Bottle Chicago IL w/ The Blind Shake, OBN IIIs
10/24/2013 The Shelter Detroit MI
10/29/2013 Irving Plaza New York NY w/ The Blind Shake, OBNIIIs, Dreamsalon
10/30/2013 Underground Arts Philadelphia PA
10/31/2013 Kranky’s Winston-Salem NC
11/02/2013 Terminal Atlanta GA
11/04/2013 The Stage Miami FL
11/08/2013 Fun Fun Fun Fest Austin TX
11/10/2013 Low Spirits Albuquerque NM
11/12/2013 Bar Pink San Diego CA
11/13/2013 Observatory Santa Ana
The Blind Shake – 2013 Tour Dates
Sep 26 GONERFEST 10 Memphis, TN
Oct 10 The Chapel San Francisco, CA
Oct 11 The Chapel San Francisco, CA
Oct 12 The Chapel San Francisco, CA
Nov 13 Constellation Room at the Observatory Santa Ana, CA
You wouldn’t think that the abrasive and angular music of Shellac would have much to do with Marnie Stern’s music, or that either of them could be linked to one of the most prolific, brilliant, thought provoking and curious concert pianists of the 20th century, but they are. Canadian pianist Glenn Gould has influenced generations of pianists, but I don’t think that anyone has ever discussed his influence on artists outside of the concert hall.
Gould was a Canadian pianist, born in 1932. Even those with just a passing knowledge of his work are at least somewhat familiar with at least one of his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Those recordings work like the bookends of his recording career. When he was first given a record contract he decided that the then seldom heard, obscure Bach piece would become his debut recording. That was in 1955. Some 26 years later his re-recording of the same piece would lead to heated debates in the music community for decades. Those two recordings only give a tiny bit of insight into the way that Gould’s mind worked. He was constantly deep in thought and concerned about his role in the interpretation of the works that he performed. Without a doubt the man was a genius.
Not only was he obsessively driven toward pushing himself, he was intensely interested in pushing the bounds of how music could be realized in the age of new recording technologies. Gould would often remark that the state of recorded music (keep in mind when he was alive, from 1932 to 1982) would not only allow musicians to push the bounds of music, but that people at home would soon be able to create and modify those recordings through their own “knob twiddlings.” Of course he was talking about the way that music could be manipulated on home stereos via various volume, balance and equalizer controls.
It was his contemplations on the effect that the recording studio would have on music that drove him to be one of the first true “recording artists.” In documentaries such as The Alchemist viewers can watch as Gould endlessly annoys the recording engineer, constantly telling him where to cut the tape while referring to the score. Gould’s score had indications for not only the usual dynamics and articulations, but also indications of where the sound would be. Would part of the score sound distant and reverberant while another sounded more up front? How would those things be able to work together. Gould was truly able to use the recording studio not to simply preserve his performances, but also as an extension of his abilities as a pianist and musical mind.
Gould was not only interested in recording the works of Bach, Webern, Scriabin and others, but he was also interested in composition. His compositions came in the form of a 3 part “contrapuntal radio documentary” called the Solitude Trilogy. “The Idea of North,” “The Latecomers” and “The Quiet in the Land” explored Gould’s interest in the northernmost part of Canada, which reflected his own comfort in solitude and singularity.
When Steve Albini says that Shellac only writes songs about two things “Canada and baseball” it could very well be true, most notably in the song “The Idea of North.” This one is kind of obvious, being that the song takes its name directly from Gould’s radio documentary. Perhaps the same desolate mood of isolation and prohibitive environs that Gould explores in his documentary are interpreted by Shellac in the opening of their song. The sparse, spacious bass line invites listeners to consider the ambience that surrounds it. Perhaps Albini’s vocals that near complete obfuscation are meant to evoke the image of someone thinking outloud (barely) to themselves as a representation of the inquisitive, often self-obsessed way that Gould would.
On the other hand we have Marnie Stern, with her song “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling,”takes the idea of Gould’s radio documentaries a bit further. In this song Marnie creates a tone poem of sorts where after narrating the actions of characters those actions are then assigned an idiosyncratic sound or motive. She begins by explaining “I will paint you a picture that’s inside my head.” Following that introduction she begins to describe that you are now standing in a room while “around you is a solitude trilogy,” and a bit later “you sit down and start to think of ideas of the North,” which is followed by it’s sound that is a chromatically ascending line. After the narration is complete and the scene has been set she begins to place the motives on top of one another, creating a contrapuntal sound collage much in the same way that Gould did with his intercut ambient sounds and multiple interviews at once. In this way Marnie is creating a bit of a miniature homage to Gould’s radio broadcasts.
We can now see how these two artists have made their influence blatant, but it still remains to be seen why they chose to do so. What is the deeper connection between Gould and his work and that of Marnie Stern and Albini and Co.?
Gould’s singular personality broke down a lot of the barriers that existed between classical music and popular music in his day. He was famously quirky and thoroughly interesting, not to mention self-aware. He knew that people were sometimes more interested in the spectacle of Glenn Gould, the character that was Glenn Gould perhaps more so than they were interested in the performances of the man himself.
Glenn Gould was punk rock before punk rock was punk rock. He did things his way and he couldn’t possibly care less what people thought of that. He knew that he was brilliant enough to do his own thing, to do things his way, and not to let anyone else dictate to him how his art should be presented. He was obsessed with his own perfection and never stopped wondering how he could better express himself. This much is clear simply by listening to (as mentioned up a few paragraphs) his two renditions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He didn’t just perform and record a piece to leave it behind. No, those pieces, everything that he played, stayed with him and he was constantly thinking about them and learning to think about them in new ways.
This sort of work ethic and perfection is mentioned several times by Marnie Stern across all 4 of her albums. Obsession and a focus on her passion are a consistent theme in Marnie’s lyrics. In “Grapefruit” the lyric “keep on keep at it, keep on, keep at it” is repeated like a mantra. On her most recent album “The Chronicles of Marnia” in the song “You Don’t Turn Down” she states, nearly a cappella that she’s “Got to get obsessed and stay there now.” “Keep on, keep at it, keep on, keep at it” from “Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket!!” cover these themes in both its lyric and the song’s very title.
I think that Shellac’s awareness that they are a band unlike any other band around today, and that they staunchly disassociate themselves from the music industry as much as they can, supporting Touch and Go since the begining. And I think that this anti-industry stance is pretty well known because of Steve Albini’s famous tome against the corporate music world. In addition to all of this It seems that they relate more to Gould’s overall attitude, whereas Marnie Stern relates more to his obsessive desire to improve.
I’m sure that there must be other examples of Glenn Gould’s influence, even in slightly more indirect ways, can be found throughout independent rock music. It’s clear that, as Alban Berg famously said to George Gershwin, “…music is music.” It doesn’t matter how it is classified or how it is created, and perhaps the clearly constructed borders between genres that one imagines are in fact not there at all.
For more information on the life of Glenn Gould, and to hear the entire Solitary Trilogy follow these links:
“The Idea of North,” “The Latecomers” and “The Quiet in the Land” can all be heard in their entirety at the CBC’s site as part of their legacy audio collection. “The Idea of the North” was commissioned by the CBC as a way of introduction for themselves and have become a large and important part of Canadian culture, just like the man himself.
There are several books on the life of Glenn Gould. The first “biography” written about him was less of a biography and more a study of what made Gould the genius that he was. His habits, his practices, how he thought about music. It’s by Geoffrey Payzant and is called “Glenn Gould: Music and Mind“
You should also check out the documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon called “The Alchemist.” He actually did a whole series of documentaries about Gould, but this one is my favorite for showing Gould at work in the studio after he had permanently left the concertizing life to focus on his recording career.
Finally, my favorite movie of all time “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.” It mixes interviews with Gould’s contemporaries alongside vignettes depicting his life. Colm Feore does an incredible job at portraying Glenn Gould.
If you couldn’t tell from my earlier post, I am excited about the new Quasi album. I always get excited when I first get into a band and they decide to release an album – let alone a double album – not long after. That they have been together for 20 years now is something that blows my mind. I guess that I’ve been missing out for some time.
Now that we have two songs we can start to get at least a little bit of an idea of how this album is going to come together. Maybe that’s a long-shot, as there is a 24 song track list. But “See You on Mars” (track 2 on the player above) at least gives us an idea of the diversity of the album. It starts off as a bit of a straight ahead, bass-thumping pop-tune (ok, when I said “straight ahead” I was lying, it’s in 7/4, more specifically in alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4, but straight ahead within that framework. Ok, hey, the point is that every beat in the measure is accented) before breaking off into a bar-room rock tune that reminds me more than a little bit of a tune that could be on Sloan’s “One Chord to Another” or “Between the Bridges.” Of course the ending features a bass guitar glissando that slides up to #4 (sharp 4, not number 4) and never resolves to 5, which is going to drive me crazy every time I hear the song. If the next track doesn’t start with a C# somewhere in the opening chord I might just loose my mind.
“Mole City” is out on Kill Rock Stars on October 1st. Pre-orders for the limited edition vinyl are still available and a lot of the other packages are up for grabs too. You can also download this track as well as “You Can Stay But You Gotta Go” from the band’s bandcamp page. Check out the links below.
You should also know that the entire 20 year output of Quasi is available for streaming on spotify, and of course I would suggest checking it out. “Hot Shit” and “When The Going Gets Dark” are also among my most listened to of their albums. Sloan’s entire discography can be found there as well.
Quasi on tour:
October 3 – Omaha, NE @ Slowdown
October 4 – Kansas City, MO @ Record Bar
October 5 – St. Louis, MO @ Off Broadway
October 7 – Birmingham, AL @ The Bottletree
October 8 – Atlanta, GA @ Drunken Unicorn
October 9 – Chapel Hill, NC @ Local 506
October 10 – Washington, DC @ Black Cat
October 11 – New Haven, CT @ Cafe Nine
October 12 – Philadelphia, PA @ Boot And Saddle
October 13 – Brooklyn, NY @ Knitting Factory
October 14 – New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge
October 16 – Allston, MA @ Great Scott
October 17 – Buffalo, NY @ Tralf Music Hall
October 18 – Cleveland Heights, OH @ Grog Shop
October 19 – Chicago, IL @ Schubas
October 20 – Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St. Entry
November 3 – Boise, ID @ Neurolux
November 4 – Salt Lake City, UT @Kilby Court
November 5 – Denver, CO @ Hi Dive
November 7 – Denton, TX @ Dan’s Silverleaf
November 8-10 – Austin, TX @ Fun Fun Fun Fest
November 11 – Phoenix, AZ @ Rhythm Room
November 12 – San Diego, CA @ Casbah
November 13 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
November 14 – Santa Barbara, CA @ Soho Restaurant and Music Club
November 15 – San Jose, CA @ The Blank Club
November 16 – San Francisco, CA @ Bottom Of The Hill
November 21 – Vancouver, BC @ The Biltmore Caberet
November 22 – Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
November 23 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
The second track from Merzbow’s “Takahe Collage”,”Tendeko,” is a bit different in its plan than the album opener. The titular song works really well as an introduction as there is quite a bit to grab on to. This track, however, is a bit more stable and fixed. That is not to say that there certainly aren’t some exceedingly interesting elements throughout.
Just as with the previous track we have some introductory material that lasts for about the first 20 seconds. The steady white noise backdrop is introduced and about another 20 seconds after that the sound spectrum begins to widen, and once again Merzbow is making use of a low pulsation, though this time around it is not quite as prominent. Pitch material also doesn’t seem to be playing quite as important a role in “Tendeko.” We are given what I would refer to as “open” and “closed” sounds.
By using the terms “open” and “closed” I’m referring to the overall shape of the soundwaves where sounds that I would consider to be “open” would be those that have more frequencies appearing at the outer edges of the spectrum (highs and lows but no middle) whereas closed sounds would have frequencies more clustered toward the middle of the sound spectrum. These sounds could be produced using something as simple as a bandpass filter, or a guitar wah pedal.
There is a much higher degree of stasis throughout “Tendeko,” and it doesn’t initially appear to be broken into large sections. There are occasions where thin, high pitched sounds will suddenly erupt from the stasis, while there are other times (around 9:50, for example) where regular beats develop and remain and become significant. This part in the track is alive with variation, Akita is heard to be clearly playing with beats and at the 11:30 mark seems to turn the entire track around on itself. The layer of stasis is stripped away, but not in the same way that it was in the opening track. This is a more gradual process, introducing new sounds rather than cutting everything away at once.
At about the 7:35 mark a quick thinning of the texture allows a brief descending arpeggiated sound to come toppling down, before it is swallowed up by the deep sea of distortion that remains underneath the entire song as a sort of support structure. When a sine wave is introduce at around 13:30 it leaps across frequencies, slicing through the ground layer from top to bottom and becoming a prominent element for a large duration.
Something resembling a vintage synth sound enters ever so briefly during a period where the percussive sounds are made more obvious with more crisp attacks rather than simple pulsations. That synth sound remains as a high pitched rapid rhythm and all that is beneath it is stripped away until we are left only with it and the percussive attacks. Eventually the rapid fire high register rhythm flatlines before it begins bouncing across several octaves, the percussive sounds disappearing suddenly with siren type sounds that come from below.
Standing in significant contrast to that of “Takahe Collage,” “Tendeko” exercises a greater use of stasis and shifting levels of textural density. Larger sections of the piece are less apparent in this track than its predecessor, though the latter half introduces a significant number of changes in sound, though not each introduced as parts of what I would think to call new sections. Rather it seems as though the stasis of the first half is drastically contrasted in the 2nd half with increasingly wild sonic gesticulations. There clearly is a different approach to this song, and the way that the sounds are organized and paced throughout the track are evidence of that.
The third and final part in this series will appear tomorrow and discusses the closing track on the album, “Grand Owl Habitat.”
I’ve wanted to cover some Merzbow tracks for a long time and I think that I am about ready to give it a shot.
For those of you that don’t know, Merzbow is Masami Akita, who has been cranking out noise since 1979. In some ways Merzbow is like an electronic Jandek. By saying that I don’t mean that there are necessarily similarities in the aural qualities inherent in the music of both, but rather that both Jandek and Merzbow force us as listeners to re-evaluate our own idea of what music and sound can be and what it can mean.
Most reviews of Merzbow’s output that I have seen often wander into this philosophical territory, but I want to try and capture the elements in this album that give each song structure and how I think they may be organized. This seems to be, by and large, one major thing that people seem to avoid when talking about the music of Merzbow – and for good reason – it’s pretty complex stuff, most of which could easily be cast off as disorganized noise. What I would like to do in this three part series is deconstruct the way that these songs are put together. I’d also like to do away with the idea of there being much that is disorganized in this music. Being that there are only three tracks on the album, two of which are around a half-hour long each, it might be for the best to examine each song in a separate post.
The album is the 2nd of 6 albums that Merzbow has released so far this year. To my ears, as far as the albums that I have heard, this stands as one of his most accessible. “Takahe Collage” opens the album with skipping static and buzzed bass sounds that immediately resemble a glitchy bass and drums breakbeat. This intro section lasts for about 37 seconds before the grinding bass sound dissipates into the ambient structural level that remains in the background for the duration of the track.
The proper first section of the track introduces high sine wave sounds with honest-to-goodness repeated gestures that allow us to get some footing. By 3 minutes into the track the high range is expanded before it disappears past the range of our hearing.
There is a control of the overall density of the sound throughout, though the aforementioned low ambient drone remains. Pulsations that dwell in that lower register are varied, giving the overall sound texture and shape. At about the 5 minute mark the previous sine-wave seems to have mutated at some point into a more square or sawtooth wave and begins mimicking a syncopated line, counterpoint against the pulsations below.
The breakdown and dissipation of the upper sounds with their consequent formation and buildup happens at semi-regular intervals lasting a couple of minutes. Moments of chaos serve to break up those sections of more cogent material. Noise and ambient pulsations become a new silence against which the material is actually projected. That material underneath does not remain as noise. How could it? At this point we are so used to hearing it that it becomes a given. It’s not so much noise as it is the new silence.
At 11:40 there is a major shift where all of the material but the bass ostinato are removed completely before new sounds can eventually coalesce. Elements of the material previous to this section seem to flash in and out of focus trying and failing to re-form. A mid-range pitch, middle-C, begins to cut through all other material. It weaves in and out of the texture, seemingly holding its own against a barrage of frequencies from every direction. This pitch is rather important as it is the same pitch as the lower pulsation, but two octaves higher. The structural prominence of the ambient pulsations is becoming more apparent as the track is developing them as they stretch out into other layers of the track. Frequencies in the upper range work their way higher until, after repeatedly fighting through thick clouds of grinding frequencies, at around the 15:20 mark a G# about 3 octaves above middle-C is reached.
The section that begins with that high G# then becomes all about retaining that pitch. Merzbow slides around it, always returning to it and at about 18:25 he holds on to it for a significant amount of time. There is an extremely wide voiced chord taking shape now with several overtones of the low ambience steadying themselves, becoming a solid, fixed point of reference.
Finally at the 20 minute mark we arrive at the next significant shift in sound. There are large swaths bordering on silence as a rather thick D is hit at about the mid range. The middle-C and high G# have disappeared by this point (just before the 20 minute mark break) and we have moved on to a section that is focused on a quick and steady ascending glissando to that D. The ambience moves back in to its place, and before long the track is going at full density again.
The 32 and a half minutes of “Takahe Collage” are broken up into a few large sections, which are in themselves broken up into even smaller sub-sections. Each of these sections have direction, shape and even to some degree a motivic structure. What one would possibly label as “noise” is in actuality, for the purpose of this work, simply the backdrop against which the simpler ideas are placed against.
With this approach, my next post will cover track 2 of the album: “Tendeko.”
Usually when walking into a venue for a show I expect to drink away the opening acts. Openers are something that, 95% of the time, must be endured rather than enjoyed. At The Empty Bottle in Chicago this past July 15 all of that changed for me. I was there to see Thee Oh Sees after a full and final day of the Pitchfork Music Festival, and sure they were fantastic (as previously mentioned) but I can’t put into words how astonishing The Blind Shake’s performance was.
After a brief soundcheck the trio left the stage and returned dressed identically head to toe in black, accentuating their already strikingly similar appearance: all around my height (5′ 10″) with shaved heads, one of the guitarists wears glasses with a band strapped tightly around his head, and for good reason as the show would soon prove.
They immediately obliterated the stage with the drummer pounding violently and unforgivingly on his set while the two guitarists stood firmly, leaning towards their mics as if at any moment they would jump directly into the crowd to throttle each and every one of us. The guitars were being battered just as hard as the drums with every hammered strum threatening to rip the strings right out while the two of them barked into their mics on opposite ends of the stage in unison, and when they weren’t actively engaged in singing were flailing around the stage, instruments swinging freely as if they were at once trying to escape them or wield them as weapons.
With each song that passed more of the audience was won over. I kept turning to my friends in disbelief. My brother was standing beside me and we couldn’t figure out how to describe what we were seeing and hearing. The only phrase I could manage being “This is frightening. It’s fucking amazing.” And that it was: both frightening and amazing.
Listening to the album right now on Spotify is only capturing some of the experience (again, much like Thee Oh Sees). The songs on their latest full length, “Seriousness”, are straight forward, foot-stomping jangling and aggressive garage punk. Standout tracks are definitely the surf-rockin’ opener “Hurracan” and “Out of Work”. There isn’t a single track on the album that is over 3 minutes long, “On Me” comes closest at 2:58. Each song is an unrelenting, visceral, rhythmic jolt aided by open guitar tunings that allow for extra jangle. Everything they have recorded can be heard on their Bandcamp page, so you should head over there and check it out.
Right now those of you in the midwest are lucky as The Blind Shake have a few shows coming up in August in Chicago and Minneapolis according to their website, with a full fall tour schedule coming soon. And according to their Bandcamp page they have a show in Florida and Georgia in September. They are also playing the Halifax Pop Explosion in October, you lucky Haligonians!
Their albums are available for actual physical purchase (highly suggested) from Learning Curve records. Their latest, “Seriousness” is available on vinyl.