Experiments in drone. That’s pretty much all that you need to know about these two tracks (yes, only excerpted here) from Brooklyn’s Man Forever. The first track up is “Surface Patterns” which is followed by “Ur Eternity.” Both tracks are similar in scope and purpose, with Glenn Branca’s brand of minimalism taking up the aesthetic reigns. The ever-growing rumble mixed with the incessant jungle beat percussion is reminiscent of the sounds that Branca conjures from an orchestra in his 6th Symphony. The songs on “Pansophical Cataract” inspire the listener to search for sounds and patterns within this cloud, and repeated hearings reveal any number of paths that one can take.
The artist behind Man Forever is one John Colpitts. He’s best known as the drummer of Oneida and also for his work with Boredoms and White Hills. Colpitts also works with So percussion, and has more recently completed a collaborative album with So entitled “Ryonen” released on Thrill Jockey earlier this year.
“Pansophical Cataract” is available through Thrill Jockey, and there are even a few copies of the album left on orange vinyl. You can also listen to samples from his other releases on his artist page on Thrill Jockey.
Colpitts is taking Man Forever on the road for the summer. Check the tour dates below:
Apr 25, 2014 Baltimore, MD The Metro
Apr 26, 2014 Winston, Salem, NC Reanimator
Apr 27, 2014 Richmond, VA Balliceaux
Apr 28, 2014 Charlottesville, VA The Southern
May 08, 2014 Albany, NY The Low Beat
May 24, 2014 Pittsburgh, PA Gooski’s
May 25, 2014 Erie, PA Basement Transmissions
May 26, 2014 Columbus, OH Double Happiness
May 27, 2014 Detroit, MI Trinosophes
May 28, 2014 Milwaukee, WI Cactus Club
May 29, 2014 Bloomington, IN Magnetic South
May 30, 2014 Madison, WI Good Style Shop
May 31, 2014 Louisville, KY Dreamland
Jun 01, 2014 Dayton, OH Blind Bob’s
Jun 03, 2014 Poughkeepsie, NY My Place Pizza
Jun 22, 2014 Raleigh, NC King’s Barcade
Jun 23, 2014 Knoxvile, TN The Pilot Light
Jun 24, 2014 Asheville, NC The Mothlight
Jun 25, 2014 Atlanta, GA 529
Jun 26, 2014 Chattanooga, TN Sluggo’s North
Whenever I think about Sonic Youth (which is a lot, as you can probably tell) I can’t help but link it all back to Glenn Branca. When I was first introduced to Branca’s work I came to think that he is where Sonic Youth got all of their ideas from. In Branca’s symphonies appear the larger (much larger) versions of Sonic Youth’s descents into chaos. It’s not that just those parts recall one another, but the guitar tone in general, and the visceral, defiantly experimental energy all do as well.
I’m sure by now that the two are sick of being linked to one another, as both have gone in completely different directions; Branca’s language has drawn him to increasingly bold ideas of gargantuan scope, while Sonic Youth (before their dissolution), for the most part, went the “song” route.
But Branca’s work is not all captured in his symphonies. In 1980 he released his first solo work, “Lesson No. 1” that featured two tracks, that is one for each side. Side A consists of a single chord, gradually and continually growing, adding little bits and pieces while the static harmony remains. It’s similar to his later, larger, symphonic work, yet distilled to the basic essence. Minimalist music with distortion. It’s a mix of several conflicting ideas; meditation and tension, focused and loose, contemplative and aggressive, celebratory and intimidating. It’s all there, packed in to 8 intense minutes.
Something completely different is found on the B-side. The contemplation and focus derived from the steadily growing and singular harmony has given way to a jagged part structure, increased dissonance and pounding percussion. “Dissonance” is exactly what it says it is, wild and aggressive, grinding, dissonant. Where “Lesson No. 1” continually picked up the pace, growing to massive proportions, “Dissonance” chugs to a near halt, with the ominous bass and drums beating out “and-1, and-1, and-1” throughout. Melodies clash and ring, strings rattling against guitar necks, psychotic strumming on the high strings play against the low wobble and tenuous pitch of a 2nd guitar. Everything explodes in the end, and one can just picture various scattered bits of wood and metal where drums and guitars once were.
Thankfully all of this beautiful early (No) New York is being resurrected, and rightfully so. It’s really important that music like this, that was way ahead of its time in its brazen originality, gets another release. Though collecting old and rare records may be great for some, there are also those people that just want to have it for their own for the first time. People need to experience this music, no matter how they came to it, and now they can. And, of course, to bring everything back full circle to Sonic Youth, Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore were two of the guitarist used in the “bonus” (you can think of it as a bonus, but really it was originally a separate release entirely) track “Bad Smells,” another side-long expedition into the noisier side of things, though those noise filled moments only last so long before an awkward, stilted kind of groove begins to set in.
Superior Viaduct is re-releasing “Lesson No. 1” in an expanded edition, set to hit stores on February 18th. It’s currently available for pre-order from the label. You can hear “Lesson No. 1” on the pre-order page of Superior Viaduct. Give it a listen and then scoop up the vinyl.
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.
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.
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.
Going off of things that I have been thinking about a lot lately, which is to say things that I have been thinking about for a long time but only just started writing about: music should provide the listener with something to think about. Music should be different and it should take a contrastive perspective on things. It’s about development and moving forward, taking things that we thought were familiar and finding new ways to approach that familiar thing to make it less so.
The first time that I heard Ex-Easter Island Head my knee-jerk reaction was to compare the sounds to what Sonic Youth were doing thirty years ago. It came off as variations on a theme of “Lee Is Free,” but I was way off. There is a lot of experimenting with a new approach to the guitar, using it as essentially a strictly percussive instrument, but the focus, the more you listen to it, seems to become less about a non-idiomatic method of playing the guitar, and more about creating swelled drones and minimalist percussion patterns that just so happen to be a result of mallets against the body of a guitar.
This latest installment is the third multi-movement work from the Liverpool collective and a further exploration of their technique. The opening of the first movement allows for the resonant sound of the open tuned guitars to ring, pulsing in their tintinnabulations before harsher timbres are introduced. Multiple layers of smooth, high glissandi combine with lower grating of objects against the wound strings with some bells jangling as a further development of the opening sounds for added affect.
Most notably on this album is the extended use of silence, or at perhaps the extended use of ambiance would be a better way of putting it. Whereas on the earlier albums there seemed to be more of a concentration on the minimalist, cycling percussion patterns, this release is full of lush full sounds. The percussive hits, at least for the opening movement, are allowed to form, grow and decay with little intervention. The attacks are muted and sound more like the amplified ring of a bass drum surging underneath at intervals.
Without having anything to do with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Ex-Easter Island Head is able to capture elements of the less-controlled parts of Godspeed songs, at the end of the first movement, for example.
In the 2nd movement the minimalist percussive focus returns, though it does so with pauses, once again allowing the ambiance to breathe. Despite the sounds of mallets striking the guitars, they begin to sound as though they are completely separate entities where the ringing guitars – though you as the listener are aware that they are being struck – begin to sound as though they are a completely separately generated sound.
New sounds are added as the movements continue. Sounds coaxed from the guitars that resemble piano chords, high pings of tight struck strings, the ever present low rumble moaning below a slow countermelody against the highly active upper motion (another allusion to gamelan composition).
Overall the albums interesting and engaging mix of percussive effects and ambient sounds creates an arc where the fourth movement resembles the tone of the first, focusing more on tone and ambiance than the sharp percussive attacks of the middle movements. The last few minutes achieving the full-bodied and consonant calm resembling the opening movement of Glenn Branca’s 5th Symphony, in it’s satisfying cohesion of tones. In those middle movements, though the ambient drones are featured, the more prominent characteristic becomes the development of rhythm. It’s growth and decay, moving away and returning. It’s not a new concept, but done well it is very effective.
Ex-Easter Island Head’s “Mallet Guitars Threes” is available now on vinyl and as a digital download here.
I always thought that this album was a strange way, of sorts, to follow up something like “Confusion is Sex.” But I think where that album captured the live energy of the band, this one captures them in the studio conceiving of an actual “album” album.
The fact that all of the songs blend together the way that they do is no mistake, it was a way for the band to make smoother transitions between songs when they were performed live. This was all in a bid to do away with 5 minute tuning sessions in between songs, as they didn’t have an arsenal of guitars on hand at this point in their careers, so these transitions were created to allow Lee or Thurston a few seconds to tune for the next song. The result of this is an album that is linked, obviously, harmonically and melodically as well as in timbre and mood.
I know that it sounds cheesy or stupid or whatever to foist the extramusical jargon onto an album, but I’m going to do it anyway. This album has always felt like Autumn to me. Yes, of course the cover has a lot to do with it, but there is a coldness on this album that isn’t on their debut full-length. The songs are languid, they wander (not in a bad way, by any means), the band is not afraid to have some cleaner guitar sounds. You can definitely hear them moving towards the songs on “Evol” and “Sister” a lot, especially on a track like “I Love Her All The Time,” a song that starts off innocently enough with Thurston floating out the lyrics with some percussion and bass backdrop underneath minimal guitar sounds, strings bent and echoing off into the distance. It isn’t very long before they are off and running into a wall of noise and (I assume) drumstick-wedged-under-guitar-strings type maneuvers.
But the songs here are better shaped than the ones that appear on “Confusion is Sex.” Where they came up with one idea for each of those songs, this album finds them needing to come up with significantly more material and to find interesting ways to get into and out of those ideas. I think that this is maybe the most important album for Sonic Youth as a group of people developing a writing process. It finds a nice balance between free and fixed forms.
For me, I can’t remember when it was that I first heard this album, or where I was when I was listening to it. I think that that must mean that I came to it a bit later. I do remember, however, that upon hearing it I did not immediately get into it. I didn’t immediately “get” it. I was of the mind that “there’s nothing catchy on this one” (I’m hearing myself say that in a whiny voice. I’m sure that if I said that or though that that I would say or think it in a whiny voice). I wanted the action of “Inhuman” and the noise of “Confusion is Next.” Now that I’m (significantly) older I can truly appreciate how good this album actually is.
I think that one of the reasons that I found it difficult to get into this album initially is that I couldn’t figure out which songs were which. Because they all blended together I couldn’t figure out what part that I remembered came from what song. Obviously, that is all pretty meaningless to me now. Who cares where the songs begin and end? It’s best to listen to an album all the way through anyway.
The 2nd side of the album is broken up a little bit more and has some more experimental (that’s a relative term. So when saying that something that Sonic Youth is doing is “more experimental” is saying something). “Justice is Might” slowly comes together, pulling itself up and staggering into form, the lazy guitar and vocal pulled through time by Bob Bert’s solid, uptempo drumming. That one doesn’t hang around too long, and we still have some equally spacey tracks like “Echo Canyon” and “Satan is Boring.”
The star of the show, though, is “Death Valley ’69.” In my mind it’s their first “hit.” It’s really just a classic Sonic Youth song. Thurston and Lydia Lunch (who is from my hometown) lazily sing over top of each other while the band focuses their energy on maintaining a fantastic amount of tension for extended periods before all is lost in a scratchy howl from Lunch.
Fast-forwarding to now, 2013, I started thinking about what all of this meant from an analysis perspective, what with the linking of the songs and the guitar tunings as sort of symbolizing the modulations from track to track if we are to think of the first several songs as really parts of one larger song. I started doing some initial transcriptions of the opening, and taking a post-tonal approach to it just to see what is going on, if I can. What I am finding is that it isn’t as complex as it sounds, but it’s definitely weird. Weird is good. Weird gives me something to look into, a coil to unwind. The thing is is that I have so many things that I want to look at and that I have started or half-finished that I can’t take on any more extra projects. The sketches that I have down for this album though have all the notes that I need to pick up exactly where I left off whenever I am ready and able to pick it up again.
So, in short, this album went from being something that took me a long time to get into when I was (much) younger, to something that I still listen to today and realize that there is more to it than meets the ear. The next album, though, is when things really start to get good.