Tag Archives: experimental

Jonah Parzen-Johnson – “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow”

Jonah Parzen-Johnson’s music is an eclectic mix of soulful, street-corner solo sax melodies, gritty multiphonics and microtonal excursions against a backdrop of analog synths and various effects. His tone is impeccably clean one second and drenched in layered waves of pulsating echoes. He plays both with electronics and against them, sometimes using them as extensions of his horn, while at other times he’s using them to create dense contrapuntal layers.

Across his album “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow” these incredibly complex and vibrant ideas take shape within each track. Each song is a journey with its own twists and turns, and its own highs and lows. Contemplative one second, resolute the next. In the video for “I Wrote a Story About You, Without You” we get a clear visual analogue to the sounds. Life rushes around, filtered through clandestine security cameras in downtown Chicago and New York; soon its seen through the frantic movements of someone desperately searching google maps. At first the track’s opening soliloquy begins an ascending scale that slowly speeds up, is mixed with bright and reverberant harmonies, and then takes off into the realm of something a little more synthetic and frantic. Parzen-Johnson’s circular breathing, prolonging lines well beyond a single breath, only adds to the tension and propulsion. “I Wrote a Story…” captures a sort of sentimentality, but also an uneasiness, a malaise; perhaps something we all feel as we go about our daily lives, trying to remember what it is that we were planning on doing, and why it is that we aren’t doing it. We go on about our daily business anyway, trying to figure a way out.

That sentimentality, that same subtle melancholy is also captured on the album’s closing track, “On the Way Home.” Stripped of any electronics, we are treated to an extended melody with absolutely brilliant phrasing and control. Each small break between the phrases has me listening closer, waiting, and hoping that there will be more to come. Eventually, of course, the last phrase comes and goes and we are perhaps left feeling a lack of resolution, a wanting. Or maybe it’s that we are left in deep contemplation.

The entire album is brilliant, and just came out earlier this week on Primary Records. Parzen-Johnson, a Chicago native by the way, is out on an extensive tour in support of “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow.” You can find dates below the video and you can also check out his website in order to get the album as a CD, digital download, or on limited 150g vinyl.

06/05/15 Seattle, WA Cafe Racer
06/06/15 San Fran, CA Center For New Music
with The Steven Lugerner Octet
06/08/15 Sacramento, CA Luna’s Cafe
Time: 7:30pm. Nebraska Mondays
06/09/15 Los Angeles, CA Moryork Gallery
06/11/15 Chicago, IL Elastic Arts
06/12/15 Milwaukee WI Frank’s Power Plant
w/Devin Drobka, Barry Paul Clark, and Jay Mollerskov
06/13/15 Madison, WI Bright Red Studios
06/15/15 Minneapolis, MN Ice House
w/ JT’s Jazz Implosion
06/16/15 St Louis, MO Foam
06/17/15 Louisville, KY Dreamland
06/19/15 Greensboro, NC New York PIzza
with Xelos Verv and Sun Swan
06/20/15 Durham, NC The Shed
with Polyorchard
06/21/15 Asheville, NC The Mothlight
06/24/15 Charlottesville The Garage
06/25/15 Washington DC 453 Florida Ave NW
06/27/15 Philadelphia, PA The First Banana with Accretionist, Daniel Fishkin, and LXV
06/30/15 Cambridge, MA Lilypad
07/01/15 Montreal QC La Passe Canada
07/02/15 Providence RI 186 Carpenter Street

Stream: Sprïng – “Celebrations”

How can one band so deftly switch from crunchy, distortion laden spastic bursts of rhythmic intensity to dreamy neo-psychedelic vocals? You’ll have to ask Vancouver’s Sprïng. Their most recent release, March’s “Celebrations,” starts off with the track “To Accuse” that does just that. We’re first met with an onslaught of guitars before it takes about 30 steps back, where sweet vocal harmonies enter only to be destroyed by the guitars again.

That seems to be pretty much their M.O. It’s the loud/quiet/loud that we’ve heard so many times before, but there is so much complexity in the louder parts, and so much subtle craftsmanship in the quieter parts that Sprïng’s music is fairly resistant to any genre shoehorning.

Intricate layers of fingerpicked guitars wander through a free flowing progression, while sharply shifting harmonies undercut changes in texture throughout “Show don’t…” and “Follow.” Pulling back a bit it’s interesting to note that Sprïng doesn’t seem interested so much in conventional song forms as they are interested in developing ideas from beginning to end. That’s not to say that there aren’t catchy hooks planted in each track – because there most certainly are – but equally exciting are the instrumental arrangements. If I was going to attempt to compare Sprïng to another band it would probably have to be Akron/Family. Both have a similar style of experimental, noise injected psych freak-outs usually followed by crisp, clear acoustic textures. Both bands seem to be interested in capturing the same overall atmosphere of intimacy with sometimes hushed vocals and clean, up front guitars.

You can stream the entire album above (highly recommended), and check out their latest video for single “Pax Calx” below. The band is also currently on a West Coast tour (lucky for me), dates of which can be seen here, and “Celebrations” is also currently available on vinyl and CD (lucky for you. And me. Us.).

Stream: Keir Neuringer – “Ceremonies Out of the Air”

Keir Neuringer’s latest is a double album that features 5 tracks of sax improv spanning almost 80 minutes and filling up every possible bit of space on the record. Not only is every possible physical space on the album filled, but in that time not a second is wasted. Neuringer fills the space with expanding musical material that seems to grow organically out of thin air. As you listen you can hear the ideas taking shape and developing into much larger, overarching musical ideas.

Armed with nothing more than an alto sax, Keir Neuringer may sound on the surface as though he is taking after Colin Stetson with his equally fascinating use of space and texture, not to mention circular breathing. But, the fact of the matter is that these compositions benefit from a different brand of spontaneity than Stetson is employing. The stream of consciousness that Neuringer is employing adds a whole other dimension to listening to the music. We’re clued in to the fact that the song is developing before our very ears. We are taking a journey more or less together. Add to that that all of the elements of any great composition are employed as Neuringer takes great care to nurture the overall shape of the structure as well as the dynamic and pitch range to form an improvisation that sounds like anything but. This is practiced and expert instantaneous composition at its finest.

The album is available now on special limited edition CD and vinyl, which can be picked up via Keir Neuringer’s bandcamp page, which can be found here. Take a listen to “i dreamt there was nothing wrong with my chemistry” above.

There is a bunch of other stuff to listen to on his bandcamp. Might I highly recommend his tape: “Afghanistan: And Bide Your Time.” It’s an EP with keyboards, vocals and percussion all performed by Keir. Politically charged and sounding like nothing else out there. Give it a listen. Limited tapes are still available.

In Memoriam Sonic Youth Part VIII: “Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star”

Sonic Youth - "Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star"
Sonic Youth – “Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star”

“Experimental, Jet Set, Trash & No Star” was the first new album that Sonic Youth released since I had started listening to them a few years before, or maybe it was just the year before. Anyway, for that reason I still think of it as a “new” album of theirs even though it isn’t really a new album at all. It came out in 1994, which means almost 20 years ago. Great, if I wasn’t feeling old already, now I definitely am.

More importantly I think of this album, still, as their “acoustic” album. I know that this isn’t true by any stretch of the imagination, but I think that I got this idea stuck in my head based entirely on the first track “Winner’s Blues,” which did feature heavily acoustic guitars, bright sounding, clear, acoustic guitars, with Thurston singing through one of those bullet mics that are usually used by blues singers. It just had this whole different sound to it than I was used to from what I had heard from them up to that point.

I feel like to a certain degree that album is a bit of a lost relic or something. And, now that I think about it, I feel like maybe “Dirty” is too, though “Goo” manages to hold on to some status as an iconic album, if for nothing else because of the album art and the fact that it was the band making the leap from indie status to a major label. But this “lost relic” idea is something that I experience myself foisting onto the album. I don’t often think of listening to this one, and when I do – because it is usually a long time between listens for me – I always get this overwhelming feeling of hearing these songs for the first time all over again.

Again, when I had this album I had it on tape, and I remember the “run-out groove” sound bite that comes in at the end of the album always (and still does) caught me by surprise and scared the shit out of me (it still does that too). If you aren’t familiar with it, go and listen to the last song on the album and then just sit back and wait and tell me that that doesn’t make you panic for at least a few seconds.

This album is a little bit less balanced than anything they had previously done. First of all, throwing off the balance completely, is that this is the first album to not have any tracks by Lee Ranaldo. There are some straight ahead rockers like “Waist” and “Starfield Road” as well as the blues based “Screaming Skull” and the surprising radio “hit” “Bull in the Heather.” If any band was going to take extended guitar technique and turn it into a pop hook, what better band to do it than these guys?

The point is,  basically, that there is a division here. It’s a point of departure. Sure there were noisy parts on the album, but overall the production is crystal clear. Songs are starting to get stripped down a bit, the band is getting more comfortable working in slower songs and letting the silences speak for themselves. This is an element that will come into even more play when they release “Washing Machine” another couple years down the road.

I guess that today I am really writing this post for myself because I need to remind myself that this is an album that is worth going back to and spending more time with. This album is worth knowing better than I currently know it. I’m attaching the video to “Bull in the Heather” below for a few reasons: first reason is that it is very painfully of the time. Kathleen Hanna dancing around and clawing at Thurston, jumping all over the band, the fashion, the attitude, all very 1990s. I also remember seeing this video quite a lot on regular MTV rotation, and of course on 120 minutes, not to mention the number of spins that it got on local independent radio station 90.5 WBER. Take a listen, and then go back and relisten to the entire album. It’s amazing how much a band can change their sound and keep things consistent.

Experiencing Everything and Nothing in Glenn Branca’s 6th Symphony

Glenn Branca - "Symphony No. 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven"
Glenn Branca – “Symphony No. 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven”

Glenn Branca’s 6th Symphony “Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven” has been my go-to large scale work lately. It brings to mind several thoughts that I have about music in general and about a composer’s intentions.

As I listen to a symphony by Branca (and I think that I have listened to most of them, and of the ones that I have listened to I have done so several times) I often find myself wondering what the score looks like. Immediately after trying to imagine the score I ask myself if that even matters. The next thing that comes to mind, especially when listening to this work in particular is how a composer (it can be any composer) can manage to have such a firm hold on their style, where their music is instantly recognizable, like Stravinsky or Webern or Ravel, yet still manages to say different things.

I guess that might be an assumption, that the composer has to be saying different things with each work that is produced. For example, listening to each of Branca’s symphonies, each (for the most part, No. 9 is an anomaly) calls for an army of guitars, and a drummer. There might be some other instruments mixed in there, but the most noticeable thing (and I think that it’s the thing that everyone that has every listened to Branca’s music, or at least knows about his music) are the guitars.

The cloud of noise that is created throughout the 6th symphony accomplishes different goals in each of the movements, yet it still (on the surface) remains just that – a cloud of noise. Of course, we can get into the argument about what noise is or what is considered noise, for days. For my purposes I’m going to say that noise in Branca’s symphonies is that cloud of sound. It’s so pitch saturated that it becomes pitchless and there are so many performers on stage, each of whom are attacking their instruments in a wild tremolo, that the intense, dense layers of rhythm become rhythmless. The music is recursive, and in being so creates a situation where everything that is becomes nothing, and everything that seems like nothing on the surface is what the piece is all about.

This might sound a little too vague, or faux-philosophical and lofty, but allow me explain. Let’s go back to how the cloud of noise is used in a couple of the different movements. Take the opening of the symphony: it starts quiet enough, but as the movement begins to take off the strummed guitars’ monotony severs itself into two different layers where one layer forms a consistent harmonic backdrop while the other layer allies itself with the percussion, providing sharp stabs of accent every so often. That “every so often” becomes more and more often as the movement progresses, yet the layer of harmonic noise continues underneath. It is steady and omnipresent. The growth of the movement occurs via the interplay of these two layers. So we could say that the cloud of noise, as it pertains to this movement, provides the backdrop. It is the base of sound, the music has no choice but to grow continually louder. By the end of the movement the layers come together again, combining their pitch and rhythm material into a dense haze.

As with all minimalist music the more that the piece repeats the material the more that the listener is allowed to search “inside” the sounds that they are hearing. Lines start to peak out from the cloud, some interplay comes into focus.

In the second movement an infinitely ascending line continues for the first four and a half minutes. The pitch material exists on its own, and there is no evidence of any guitar strings being attacked, or any strumming of any kind going on. All there is is pitch, and at the same time there really is no pitch. As soon as you are able to put your finger on it it is gone. There are some tones buried within that remain constant, while the upper limit continues to expand. It is music that describes infinity in many ways. Infinite space, infinite time (timelessness). Listening to this ever ascending line that seems like it is never going to reach its destination, it simply floats there, hanging in space. But there is motion, there is motion without direction. Sure it is ascending infinitely, but we have no idea as to the ultimate destination of that ascending line. The listener is left with no frame of reference, and that is exciting. There is a tension that is built up throughout the movement that is the result of all of this uncertainty. We begin to start listening for something specific to happen, we want there to be a great big arrival point. The longer that this ascent continues the more that we want to hear it and the greater our expectations become of something increasingly spectacular. It’s the same experience of needing to have a leading tone resolved, only this leading tone goes on for almost 5 minutes. When it settles down, and we decide that we have indeed reached a point of arrival there is an immediate release of all the tension that has been building up.

Symphony No. 6: Second Movement

I feel that this is something that more traditional composers aren’t able to harness. That tension. The ever growing intensity. Branca is able to create such a high degree of it here without any change in dynamic (it remains fairly loud consistently throughout the movement) and once again there are several other things that he is doing “without.” There still isn’t a clear statement of pitch. Instead we are presented with all of the pitches at once. That mass of pitch becomes, once again, cloudy and formless. The shape, however, changes and moves through time. The movement is more about an idea and a depiction than it is about pitch relations. It’s the development of one idea that fits into the work.

The third movement uses more monotony than anything else. Consistent chords ringing out with a steady pulse. Everything sounds like a downbeat. Again, as with minimalism, we have rhythm that is so persistent that it becomes anything but a rhythm. Our ear treats all the repetition as if it is something that can be ignored. This movement is also maybe the most abrasive of the symphony, and the most exciting, in my opinion. The final cadence brings us to the loudest caterwaul of sound that we have so far experience.

There is some dizzying contrapuntal work during the opening of the fourth movement, and finally we have some shifting layers of sound, where there was pretty much none in the first 3 movements. Two different lines bounce back and forth, a constant blanket of activity over which haunting and thin ephemera passing in and out of each channel in turn.

Symphony No. 6: Fourth Movement

That there can be such contradictions in a single work is interesting enough to think about. That they can be achieved in exactly the opposite way that one would first think is another thing altogether. Creating a work with no discernible use of pitch, by using all pitches all the time; and a work with formless rhythm while having a persistent rhythm throughout. As I’ve said a million times before, it’s about learning to hear differently, it’s about making sense of the apparent contradictions that are presented to us in a piece of music, the things that we never thought were possible, ideas that can not be expressed in any other way. Listening to music, such as a symphony by Glenn Branca, requires the listener to consider something that they have not only never considered before, but never thought about considering before.

New Release: Sky Needle – “Debased Shapes”

Sky Needle
Sky Needle
If you’re going to do something, do it all the way. If you are going to make music, and you want to make that music your own, then do it. Sometimes you have to build your own instruments in order to make the music that you need to make; the sounds available to you with the traditional arsenal may not speak to you, or may not be able to speak properly for you.
SKY NEEDLE are a band of humans living in Brisbane, Melbourne and Kyogle, Australia. They were founded in 2009 at the foot of the Brisbane ‘sky needle’, a strange architectural extravagance left inexplicably derelict since its construction for world expo 88. In honour of this giant phallic absurdity, Sky Needle vowed to only perform using their own home-made instruments.
The idea of using custom instruments reminds me of Buke and Gase, but listening proves to take every shred of that comparison away. Sky Needle are more percussive, more experimental, more jumping off buildings without a net. Basically, Sky Needle is most at home in unfamiliar territory.

A track like “Stars Rain Outside” recalls bits of Sonic Youth’s “Lee is Free,” with the addition of soulful singing overtop and gamelan sounds underneath. Then there are other tracks that sound like Jandek is making a guest appearance with detuned strings chugging along before the entire thing just falls about only to become reassembled as a completely new idea all together.

Sky Needle still shines in some of their less scattered orchestrations like “A Tourist” with   Sarah Byrne’s voice sliding ably between sweet and soulful one second to shaky and crazed the next.

As I’ve mentioned before: how often is it that you get to hear sounds that you have never heard before? Here is another opportunity to do just that.

The “Debased Shapes” LP, the group’s 2nd, was released about a month ago, on September 11 and is currently available from Bruit Direct Disques. Check out the album in its entirety in the soundcloud embed above.

Stream/Download: Viet Cong – “Cassette”

Viet Cong - "Cassette"
Viet Cong – “Cassette”

A few weeks ago I wrote about one of the bands that formed after the dissolution of Women aka the band that released Public Strain, arguably the best album released so far this side of the new millennium.

In that post I linked to their song “Quality Arrangement,” a live recording that was for all intents and purposes instrumental. I also wrote that I suspected that before long there would be a more substantial recording, something in the album range. Well, “Quality Arrangement” is no longer up on their bandcamp and has been replaced with a full album’s worth of songs, just shy of 30 minutes.

The 6 songs show a diverse bit of songwriting chops effortlessly flowing from sections of odd time signatures with intricate guitar parts to a bass driven, synthy, new-wave reminiscent of The Jam. I would hate to taint anything by using the word “prog” in a negative light, but the use of the synth in opening track “Throw it Away” sounds as though it was lifted straight out of an early Yes album.

I’m not entirely sure if the album is called “Cassette” or if this is simply a collection of songs that they are labeling as such, or maybe it’s both? The artwork invites this to be recorded to tape and thrown in a walkman for sure. And the sound of the songs, the production, fits this sound perfectly. The overall warmth and clarity in each of the songs is front and center. There’s a nice thick low end, but everything has its place in the mix, it’s not like the high end of the guitar is lost in a wash of bass.

Now I feel like I have to work back my “prog” comment from earlier. Yes, there are elements of complexity at work with overt shifts in texture and time signature, but only on occasion. The vast majority of the tracks are straight forward, catchy pop tunes that work perfectly. “Oxygen Feed” sounds epic and grand with it’s soaring vocal and guitar counterpoint that takes over the chorus, while the track that follows is a bit more psychedelic and subdued featuring prominent use of acoustic guitar.

Something about the album in general reminds me of Buffalo Springfield. I think that the same mood is captured. But, then they have a song like “Structureless Design” that warps ahead to the 80’s with the full on new-wave sound coming back again (and takes a few twists and turns of its own). So there you have it, it’s equal parts Buffalo Springfield and New Wave. This isn’t to say that they can’t bring some noise to the party, because they certainly can, and do. For that, check out the final song “Select Your Drones.”

You can listen to the entire album on their bandcamp page (and at the top of this post) and purchase it (download only it looks like, but maybe something forthcoming in a physical format?) for the tiny price of $5.

They also have a surprisingly extensive tour underway that stops tonight in Bloomington, IN before heading all over the eastern seaboard. Get out and see them live. Tour dates posted below.


Sep 16
Rachael’s Cafe
Bloomington, IN

Sep 17
Cafe Bourbon St. / The Summit
Columbus, OH

Sep 18
Philadelphia, PA

Sep 19
Club K
Baltimore, MD

Sep 20
Death By Audio
Brooklyn, NY

Sep 21
Union Pool
Brooklyn, NY

Sep 22
Bard College
Annandale On Hudson, NY

Sep 24
Middlesex Lounge
Boston, MA

Sep 25
O Patro Vys
Montreal, QC

Sep 26
Bar Spectacle L’escogriffe
Montreal, QC

Sep 30
ReNue Boutique
Fredericton, NB

Oct 01
Struts Gallery
Sackville, NB

Oct 02
Plan B
Halifax, NS

Oct 03
Gus’ Pub
Halifax, NS

Oct 04
Le Pantoum
Québec, QC

Oct 05
Drones Club
Montreal, QC

Oct 06
The Artel
Kingston, ON

Oct 07
Izakaya Sushi House
Toronto, ON

Oct 08
The Doors Pub
Hamilton, ON

Oct 12
Union Sound Hall
Winnipeg, MB

Oct 20
Edmonton, AB