Exotic Club’s dark dance music is an intoxicating mix of seemingly mismatched elements. “Alienation,” clearly visible against a dark night-time sky as backdrop. The album art is a perfect description the music contained within.
Well, it’s dance music for sure, while at the same time the effect of disassociation can not be overlooked. Exotic club uses the clean drum machine sounds and buzzing synths of a dance club, adding dark sounding, low and cavernously echoing vocals. When combined with the dancier elements the vocals seem to eschew the very aesthetic against which they are placed. The poppy, upbeat dance beats are not just countered, but downright denied. This is, as the title of the album states, no dance album. It’s dance music that is brooding and dark rather than the light, vapid instrumentals of the music that typifies a dance club. It’s dance music that’s run through an Interpol “Turn on the Bright Lights” filter.
I know that as I started to dig into this tape I found myself overcome with a sense of, maybe not anxiety, but more of a cautious and contemplative paranoia. Exotic Club has really found a direct line to some strange emotive places seldom explored. The desperately pleading vocals that come out of this dark texture, with lyrics such as “it’s Friday night, it’s Friday night, on the dance floor,” on “Lost in Music” that seem on the surface, reading them right there, like they are inviting and celebratory, but the delivery thwarts that interpretation in its droned repetition. The surface of the music, the danceable beats, drum machine hand claps, and buzzing synths paint a picture of a carefree night, while the lyrics and their delivery seem to simultaneously mock it. Ok, mock is a strong word, but listening to the track I think that the lyrics would be better translated as “it’s Friday night and you are supposed to be having a good time on the dance floor, so go have a good time because that is what it is that you are supposed to be doing.” Obviously, their lyric is better.
The robotic exactitude of the arrangement aids in the disassociation, by stripping away any human element, giving a deeper meaning to the coerced good time that the song is suggesting. Taking it out of the club is the track “American Zombies.” It uses the mechanical instrumental arrangement and dark atmosphere to comment on American consumer culture. “Runnin’ around in circles at the Walgreens, toothless smiles…,” listing off the automaton gestures that dominate the vast majority of American’s lives, and repeating each of these things line by line in a trancelike mantra, urging against deviation. Must consume. Must obey. “Forever, forever….forever….” as it is heard echoing into infinity at the conclusion of the track.
Melodies swirl and beats pulse, but don’t for one second take the music on Exotic Club’s “No Dance” as a given.
The tape, featuring a B-side full of remixes, is out now on Crash Symbols. Head over to their bandcamp to pick up a copy (only 100 made), or to download it if you aren’t into the whole physical media thing.
The Switchable Kid is a band from Memphis that creates low(-ish)-fi, moody rock with a retro tinge. In a few words their sound can be described as sounding like a toned-down A Place To Bury Strangers, with a little Joy Division and The Cure thrown into the mix with its brooding vocal, driving and mechanical rhythms and phased-out and delayed guitar textures.
“For All the Sad Bastards” might lack a bit in the continuity department, with variances of recording technique from song to song. The album, released this past October 8 on Miss Molly Records, is actually a collection of previously (incredibly difficult to find) rarities and unreleased tracks. From the band’s bancdamp page: “For All The Sad Bastards-Songs I’ve passed around on CDRs and cassettes to friends from 2002-2012. A collection of unreleased 7″ singles compiled for an album. A real Bonadrag!”
I am going to need to find ways to fit “bonadrag” into my everyday conversations now. It’s only natural.
The collection is available as a download (of course) as well as 12″ vinyl, and CD. Head over to the bandcamp page, or listen above, to all of the tracks in full. Skip to the catchy and dark “Hey Beauty,” and “The Young Don’t Cry;” and then move to the punk attitude of “Sore Subjects.” And, despite some of the continuity concerns that I raised above, this collection actually does still span a range of sounds that transcend the garage and punk influences. “Blue,” which closes out the album, is slow and thoughtful, with an extra touch added by the use of some brass and the jangling of acoustic guitar strings.
If dark and gritty rock with vocals awash in reverb is as much your thing as it is mine, you won’t be disappointed here.
“My God! What has sound got to do with music!” – Charles Ives
If you have been reading this blog for the past couple months since I started it back up, you may have read the series of 3 posts that I did on the recent Merzbow album “Takahe Collage” (123). Those posts were a bit more analytical than they were philosophical in nature, but the two do tend to go hand in hand to a certain extent.
I’ve had some time to put together some more thoughts on the topic of music as abstraction, noise as music and how it relates to the thoughts and motivation of other artists of all types within that realm. I wrote this short paper for a presentation in a seminar on the history of 20th century music. I offer it below:
October 9, 2013
The main thing that I would like to discuss today, and I want to get a dialogue going on this, is the idea of what a group of musicians considers to be music and what they consider “noise.”
We’ve been looking at how the art world relates to the musical world, showing how the Rite of Spring’s choreography relates to cubism, and primitivism. We’ve talked about modernism and post-modernim, and I’d like to talk a little bit about abstract art, dadaism, music and noise.
First, I want to give you an idea of what I’m talking about with a painting by Jackson Pollack. We’ve probably all seen his paintings, and they have given way to many discussions of whether they are or are not art. Is something art just because the artist says it is? Or can anything be art? How about a painting or sculpture by a Dada artist that takes random materials found on the street and fastens them together with purposely no organization? Does that lack of organization become the organization? Or are we, like Taruskin says, finding organization where there isn’t any simply because we are looking for it? Is music music just because the composer says it is, or can any and all sound be music?
There are plenty of electronic sound collage pieces that are made from “found sound” that has been manipulated. Is that manipulation what takes something from just sound to actually being an artistic statement? And think back to the first time that you heard Schoenberg or Webern or John Cage, or put yourself in the shoes of someone that only listens to top 40 pop music hearing Webern’s Op. 20 for the first time. What do you think that person would have to say about that music? Would they say that it was just noise? Could noise be just a word that we use when we don’t understand something?
Both guitars, right? But what does the timbre of Julian Bream’s guitar have to do with that of The Telescopes? They are both the same instrument, but the sound of guitar as we know it is an abstraction of what a guitar “really” sounds like. The sound of the guitar, when used in rock music, is merely a symbol. It doesn’t sound anything like a guitar. Instead the sound that is produced stands in for the sound of the guitar. It essentially is a wall of distortion. But, we have learned to accept that particular sound over time as being “a guitar.” Imagine if you were to play that Telescopes song for Andres Segovia, or Beethoven, or Bach. They would have NO IDEA what that sound was. We recognize it as such because we can picture in our head where the sound is coming from. We understand where it is coming from and we accept it. We understand so well that we don’t even think about it anymore.
Do we consider the sound of a distorted guitar from rock music to be noise? Or just noisier than what a “guitar” “should” sound like? And what should anything sound like?
What if we got even more abstract? Now onto Merzbow.
“Is not beauty in music too often confused with something which lets the ears lie back in an easy-chair?” – Charles Ives
Merzbow is Japanese musician and writer Masami Akita. Since 1979 he’s released over 350 recordings, 6 so far this year. Included in that output is the amazing 50 CD Merzbox. This is the track “Tendeko” from the 2nd album he released this year, “Takahe Collage.”
Can we accept this as music? I would say that this is basically, to me, just another degree of abstraction. Merzbow is manipulating the sounds that he is generating, there are different timbres involved, different ideas that are brought in and then go out through the course of the piece. However, is this closer in timbre to “pure noise” for you?
And what exactly is a good definition of noise? Does it have to do with sound? There’s a book by Paul Hegarty called “Noise/Music: A History” that discusses “noise” in all of its contexts. Noise as basically any confrontation against our expectations. It could be in the form of a reaction to norms, or noise as antagonism such as with the band Throbbing Gristle, taunting and angering their audience purposely. Noise as anything added to the music or that distracts one from the music. But what happens when the noise is the music? And we still haven’t solved the problem of what is and is not considered music. If this “noise,” in whatever form that it may be coming in, is part of the performance (and is it really possible to get rid of all noise? Hello, John Cage) then is it really noise at all?
I think of it this way: John Cage’s music is the sound of philosophy. It gives us something that is challenging, it gives us something that questions what it is that we believe about something that we thought that we had such a firm grasp on. This music is something that gets us thinking and it is something that is provocative and it is daring and controversial, but it is also an outlet for something for someone that wants to create something.
Isn’t music itself an abstraction of our words and our voices? And, if so, noise music is still music in just the same way. I think that as we evolve we continually create further abstractions from where we started off, and eventually everyone catches up to that abstraction, and the definition of “noise” changes. Everything is a symbol for something else in music. Just think to the programmatic music of Strauss or Berlioz. Everything is symbol and everything is abstraction.
A few weeks ago I talked a bit about one particular track from Tim Hecker’s latest album, but now that I have had the chance to spend some time with it I feel that I can give it the proper review that it deserves.
There is more of a focus on not only the ambient sound that envelops the music, but also on percussive effects and layered timbres. Now, when I say “percussive effects” I guess what I am really getting at is that the sound of piano keys is recorded such that one can actually hear the striking of the string.
Hecker leaves some mysterious clues for us as audience to piece together, or at least some things that we should think about, not just as we listen, but things that we should think about the world around us. I’m not saying that each of these tracks are tone-poems by any means, though perhaps that is the way that Hecker composed them. There are a few questions raised in at least a few of the songs.
I’ve already talked about the track “Live Room” in some detail. The main point that I made was that by using Steve Reich’s motive from “Piano Phase” as source material, though detached and disjunct he was demanding us as listeners to think about the connections between that early minimalist piece and “Live Room.” Considering that could result in any number of conclusions.
Though that is only the beginning of the trail that is left for us. There are also the implications of the cover image that seems to allude to an famous picture of a prisoner being tortured at Abu Ghraib. It’s not very much of a stretch to see that those two photos are related, though Hecker places his figure inside what looks to be a church. Several things come to mind when this is investigated further. Obviously there is the surface level implication of modeling the album art after a picture with such loaded, dark and heavy implications. As soon as you notice it, it’s going to conjure up all sorts of thoughts. Perhaps you had forgotten all about Abu Ghraib, or maybe you mistook that for something that happened at Guantanamo. Either way, you are going to come to a shocking realization that both of those things happened/are happening. Right now. We live in a world that allows those things to happen.
Then there is the fact that the album is called “Virgins” and the album cover seems to place this figure inside a church. The prisoner’s pose, as well as the figure on the cover, are like that of Christ on the cross. And all of this combined with the fact that songs have been given titles such as “Incense at Abu Ghraib,” “Stigmata I,” “Stigmata II,” and going with the latter two – “Stab Variation” that closes out the album.
That’s a lot to consider and we haven’t even started thinking about the music.
Hecker is at the helm of a larger, more varied sound palette throughout “Virgins.” Sudden shifts in timbre and dynamics intercut with his usual, decidedly ambient sound. The percussive nature of the piano is really brought out in the tracks “Virginal I” and “Virginal II,” where it is found to weave in and out of focus first in front of any drones and then behind them. Though, in “Virginal II” the minimalist piano percussives become a static pattern, though a bit off kilter in the same manner as “Live Room.” The mixed timbres and layered lines creates a crystalline shimmer like perpetually shattering glass, before a thick, low square-wave synth comes in toward the end. Again, the palette of evolving timbres as a compositional device is evident.
“Prisms” comes careening into view as the opening track, immediately bringing to our attention dense harmonies, motion and shifts in timbre. It’s the set up to “Virginal I,” where the piano comes into play. “Radiance,” “Live Room,” and “Live Room Out” work as a nice parenthetical aside between the “Virginals.” A nice little trilogy that restates the opening idea of the album.
The piano returns on “Black Refraction,” though (again) with a different timbre than before. This time the bare piano is played sans all harshness, sostenuto, with the overtones collecting in the lower register over a repeated pattern. Minimalist repetition seems the M.O. across many of the tracks on “Virgins,” but there is great care taken to break down the patterns, cut out parts, divide them up into smaller pieces that are then repurposed, electronically manipulated (there are some pitches that are synthetically drawn out for emphasis on “Black Refraction,” allowing certain lines to be brought out in a different way without necessarily changing anything musically, only changing the timbre) buried and then brought back.
Closing the album with “Stigmata I,” “Stigmata II” and “Stab Variation” (the last of which I can’t help but think is another reference to help create the image of Christ on the cross with the stigmata being related to the violence of being nailed to the cross) just brings us back full circle. We are still left to wonder what the connotations of the music and imagery that is put forth on this album could ultimately mean. As “Stab Variation” comes to a close, is that the vague remnants of Reich’s theme buried in the background? Does the minimalist repetition go with the torture and christ imagery in an effort to say that this isn’t the first time that humans have brought upon horrible atrocities to other humans, and this won’t be the last? Is it that we are forever doomed to a never ending cycle only periodically broken? There are any number of unanswerable questions raised throughout this album. It’s up to us to decide what it all means.
The album is set for official release on October 14 as a CD or double LP and can be pre-ordered through Kranky (Kranky 153) by following the link at the bottom of the post:
Catch Tim Hecker live, currently out on tour:
December 14 / Chicago, IL / Constellation
December 8 / Rio de Janeiro, Brazil / Oi Futuro
November 16 / Minneapolis, MN / Walker Art Center
November 8 / Seattle, WA / Chapel Performance Space
November 6 / Los Angeles, CA / Human Resources
October 31 / Paris, France / Théâtre du Châtelet (TBC)
October 17 / Vancouver, Canada / Vancouver New Music Festival October 12 / Chicago, IL / TBC
October 5 / Essen, Germany / Denovali Swingfest / Weststadt Halle
October 4 / Milano, Italy / Centro Culturale San Fedele
October 2 / Bologna, Italy / Palazzo Re Enzo Web//Kranky Records//Twitter//
There is really nobody else creating music quite the same as Julianna Barwick’s. Her recordings have a unique way of connecting with the listener in a much more direct way than anything else being produced today.
It’s the character of her voice, and that her music is created almost solely with the sound of her voice that makes Barwick’s music at once is ethereal and otherworldly while retaining an ability to make a deep, meaningful connection with her listeners.
On her album “The Magic Place” layer after layer of Barwick’s voice are built up throughout the songs, but her ability to delicately shade the timbre across her entire vocal range means that there is never a dull moment. Despite the material perhaps being repeated several times before something entirely new is added through these accumulated minor changes. It’s more than enough to just sit back and listen to each sound, to explore the ways that the layers of her voice are interacting with each other until the fabric is interwoven in such a complex manner that other elements of the melodic lines are able to take flight.
Managing to take such a distinctive style of songwriting and approach while not allowing any of the tracks on an album to sound even remotely the same, despite obvious similarities, is quite the feat. However, each song on “The Magic Place” manages to take a different approach, from the pure angelic chorus of “Flown” to the shorter loops and added minimal synths and percussion of “Prizewinning.”
And on her latest album, “Nepenthe,” Barwick does it again, creating beautiful sonic sculptures with her understated, yet powerful vocal abilities that are equal parts Zola Jesus and Heinrich Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” And her tour in support of this album involves opening for Sigur Ros, a band that has, essentially, a matching aesthetic, yet requires an entire band to do what Barwick can readily do on her own.
It is also no wonder that this album comes from the same place as Sigur Ros, geographically speaking, as it was recorded in Iceland this past February. Not only was the album recorded in Iceland, but it was produced by Alex Somers, Sigur Ros’ producer. He enlisted the help of a string ensemble and chorus during the recording sessions where Somers and Barwick worked very closely. The word “Nepenthe,” by the way, refers to a magic drug of forgetfulness used to wipe out grief and sorrow in ancient Greek literature, and this album comes from a place of grief, though Julianna describes the process of creating the album as a way of moving away from that grief and moving forward, finding a way through difficult times – of retaining a feeling of hope.
The song “One Half” retains the signature qualities of Julianna’s vocal and compositional style, but the use of a small chamber ensemble of strings, playing sans vibrato to add a degree of the early baroque sound to the mix is the perfect touch. The vocal benefits greatly from an increased clarity that creates a bit more texture within the track without sacrificing any of the effectiveness of the densely layered, seemingly perpetual crescendo that is created.
You can watch the video for “One Half” below and find her out on tour now with Sigur Ros. “Nepenthe” is currently available on CD/LP/MP3 from Dead Oceans.
One of the most complex and confounding questions for fans of music, and for musicians in general is also the most basic and deceptively simple question either could ask: “What is music?” The question extrapolates from Duchamp’s similar challenge presented to artists.
At a very basic level music is whatever one decides to call music. Found sounds can be (and are) considered as music. Electronic sounds are music. Any sound at all is music. Though, understandably, this may not be everyone’s view. One could go even further and say that music isn’t merely sound, but it is more specifically organized sound. So if one makes that distinction then one must be able to account for the organization behind what one considers music.
To that end Paul Hegarty’s probing philosophical exploration of the genre of noise music provides a thorough consideration of this very question. Not only does he consider the way in which noise music may be, and is, organized; he goes into detail about the implications of these organizations and how even the very word “organization” needs to be questioned.
The book opens by exploring music with similar considerations as one would consider Arte Povera. As such it is explained that music would “stray far from the accepted, proper, artistic materials and conventions.” (pg. 27) In the 2nd chapter Hegarty introduces Derrida and Bataille into the conversation, taking a look at the philosophical implications behind the creation of different, or rather different, forms of music.
He begins with the birth of electronic music, in the late 1940’s by composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and how their “found sounds” were recorded and reproduced and then manipulated. The musical material became these fixed sounds that were then manipulated, and the world of music could never again be the same. While I was reading this section of the book what came to my mind was that incorporating found sound into music could maybe be compared to using the sound of a room in today’s recording techniques, in addition to, of course, the continuation of the tradition of the manipulation of found sounds.
The parallels between Schaeffer and Henry’s experiments with that of the questions that were implied by Cage’s 4’33” can be seen, and the answer to some of those questions are answered through the creation of noise as music. Music moves outside the world of sterility where “noise” of any kind is absolutely prohibited (Classical and Romantic era compositions have score indications, but nowhere is anything else supposed to be added to the music. People throw a fit when conductors do something as seemingly minimal as taking a piece at a slightly different tempo, or ignoring phrase markings. The perceived structure of the entire piece depends upon the correlation between the notes, the rhythms and the tempi, anything added or taken away threatens that very structure) to the real world where the incorporation of “noise” makes music more real, or at least more of the world in which it was created.
Creating noise as music sets out to discover the limits and nature of music itself, but not only that, it seeks to find what it is that holds it together. What can be added, and what can be taken away from a composition before that composition becomes another piece entirely? According to Hegarty, “Schaeffer wanted to expand the realm of music, and bring in sounds that were musical, even if not matching the expectations of being specific notes.”
“Music had become obsessed with form, Schaeffer argues, whereas rel interest could only come from material…paying attention to the stuff of music – sounds as themselves – would reconcile material and form ‘as a new immanent body’…this new music would still need organization” (pg. 33)
These considerations of form and structure continue throughout the book. Add to those consideration also that of motivation and conception. Adding Adorno and Deluze to his philosophical battalion Hegarty moves from electronic music to Throbbing Gristle and antagonization as noise, social disorder as noise, actual feedback (in the music of Derek Bailey) as noise and music. He talks about the birth of Punk as social noise, “punk precursors like MC5 reintroduced aggression and transgression, both in lyrical content and musical form…tired of extended solos and hippie culture that those elements came out of.” (pg. 68) He continues, “It is not enough to simply reject the long form, it is far more effective to wreck the purpose of it through the form itself.” (pg. 69)
The fact that anti-music is made through music is an interesting concept that sets up the remainder of Hegarty’s book. This is not not music. This is (if you’ll pardon me) not not not music. And progressive rock bands like King Crimson and Yes are reacting against that very reaction. He compares the motivations of King Crimson to Bataille where as Yes is more Hegelian, and therefore opposite of King Crimson. These inter-genre dissonances can be seen as another form of noise. He states that Yes’s (annoying, pretentiously and impossibly long) “Tales from Topographic Oceans” is noisy both lyrically and conceptually. If a philosophical quandary in the form of lyrics goes on for 75 minutes and nobody is able to make any sense of it, or relate to it….
The chapters continue to probe at the real core issue here, which has now gone from “what is music” to “what is noise and what can noise be?” He brings up ineptitude, ie if a music can only be created by musicians then what is a musician? If someone creates music then they are a musician, you can’t have one without the other. He also considers industrial music, the beat poets and their influence on music (hello Sonic Youth and the entirety of the early 80s downtown rock scene), power (“noise is not just volume, but the spread, dissemination and dispersal of its non-message”) Japan’s noise scene, and an entire chapter on Merzbow.
Hegarty approaches his topic both chronologically and in order of increasing complication because as time goes on art is reacting to itself faster and faster with each reaction creating sub-genre’s and therefore further expansions of music. His book is both philosophically challenging and highly readable. One does not need to be a music theorist nor a philosopher in order to follow the logic set down in this book. I would highly recommend that any fan of outsider music, experimental music and of course noise music, pick this book up and give it a thorough read and consideration. It is fairly popular and might even be found at your local library.
Purchase – It’s rather expensive as a hardcover, but paperback versions can be found for as little as $18 through certified Amazon outlets.
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.”