Unless you’re a Southern Illinoisian, you probably never had a chance to see any of my reviews in print. But yes, for a few short weeks in 2002, I managed to convince the daily newspaper of nearby Marion, Illinois to fill some of their empty space with my reviews of experimental music releases. They were short, to the point– written for a readership I imagined had little experience with (or knowledge of) the subject at hand.
To this day, I wonder what sort of reception they received amongst subscribers in a town where Pioneer-class baseball (this being one level beneath the minor leagues) is considered a big deal. I’m quite sure I’m also the only experimental music writer to have published work appear in “The Hub of the Universe,” as Marion is known to residents.
Anyhow, here’s some of the better ones. Nearly all of these albums are still available from the original labels, linked here. For the other few, I have given links direct to the artist or other sale page. Enjoy!
Edward Ruchalski, “Radio Journal” — Humbug
A hypnotic self-release from Edward Ruchalski. Not hypnotic in the overused manner so often employed for self-professed “deep” music, but in the same way that watching a giant animal move can be fascinating. The small is transformed, but with no sense of trickery. For fans of interesting instrumentation, this is a dream album featuring homemade motor box guitars, ebow-ed banjo, bells, and propane tanks. If Brian Eno had made “Ambient 5”, and it had vocals, this would be it. Incidentally, a good candidate for a re-issue.
Alan Licht — A New York Minute — XI Records
On this challenging two-disc set, Licht presents two sides of his work, studio and live. Never before has the schism between these two worlds been so apparent. Licht wastes no time separating the wheat from the chaff, either. The studio disc’s first cut is a 15+ minute presentation of New York weather information, as culled from a news broadcast. It’s a track that will turn off many listeners, but pretty much ensure that if you stick around, you will enjoy the rest of the album. At the same time, I have to wonder at the point it is trying to make, except for possibly an absurdist humor of some sort. In a way, this continues through the rest of the disc, especially on Muhammed Ali and the Crickets, which pairs recordings from Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with heavy metal, and crickets. It succeeds, and and is a favorite of mine. Licht’s second disc, Live, is completely different. Two long tracks of guitar drone and texture, akin to having a colorful blanket over your head, with bright lights shining on you– a little disorienting, yes, but inescapable to the senses. Nifty.
Guido Del Fabbro — Carre’ de sable — Ambiances Magnetiques
I must admit, I’m usually a sucker for albums where playful experimentation guides disperate instrumentation into happy collisions of sound. This is one such album. With turntables, coffee pots, Irish flute, telephone, guitar, and even glockenspiel; there is a lot to listen to. Lucky for the listeners, the result is anything but clangorous, it often results in something like experimental children’s music– or off-kilter ambient that isn’t content to sit in the background but keeps raising its hand to be noticed. On the other hand, there are moments where the collision fails, and a sound source(particularly the turntable in a couple tracks) gets out of hand, and overshadows the other sound. Keep in mind, though, that this is experimental music– and the wrong data is sometimes just as important as perfect results. All too often, this facet of experimental music is overlooked, congratulations go to Ambiances Magnetiques for keeping this recording whole.
Ian Yeager — “Music for Guitar + Computer” — Pax Recordings
With his debut album, Yeager doesn’t knock one out of the park, he tucks it into his pocket and smuggles it home by walking through the subway tunnels. The minimal cover art should have given it away– this isn’t brash compu-math-rock, it’s more of a gentle push towards chaos from a benign virus. One track really moves into the next, so much so that no titles are given– indeed, this might be one piece of music. It’s one of those “who-knows, who-cares” situations that nice music often inspires.
Beth Anderson — Peachy Keen-O — Pogus Productions
Let’s get this right out in the open: I love collections of artists’ work. The thought of collecting, assembling, curating… always makes me excited. So I was definitely primed to enjoy Anderson’s latest release on Pogus that brings together impossible-to-find recordings from 1973-1979. What makes the album even better is the total joy which Anderson brings to her unusually crafted work. Pieces like “Ocean Motion Mildew Mind” are just so gloriously goofy that you know for sure Anderson is completely “info” what she is doing. Unlike the carefully posed electronic artist of today, Anderson lets it all hang out, with speed serving to counter weight her consciousness so that whatever pops up gets said. On the other hand, works like “Torero Piece” are the total opposite, with such careful and elaborate regulation as to be almost absurdly complex. As always, excellent liner notes from Pogus fill in the details, making this a niche work worth owning.
Hans Fjellestad — 33 — Accretions
Complex music sometimes sounds so simple. Fjellestad effortlessly blends musical sources into what superficially seems to be solo piano work. On repeated listens, the detail comes out. It’s very slow, like your eyes focusing on the endless stars while you grow accustomed to the dark. It’s a feeling I rarely enjoy, the apprehension that something larger than your understanding is just out of reach. For me, this has been one of the most rewarding albums I have ever listened to; especially in terms of never really coming to definite grips about its nature, its source, the feelings it elicits. More than simply being able to find new notes each time, Fjellestad has found a way to create a “slippery music” that makes a mockery of the deductive process. Highly recommended.
Vertonen — The Ocean Is Gone, the Ship is Next — Ground Fault Recordings
From the Series II set of Ground Fault Recordings (Series II, or “medium,” encompasses atmospheric, soundscape, and textural recordings) comes a finely made series of recordings from Blake Edwards, AKA Vertonen. The live track that opens “Untitled for Air Organ and Turntable Motor” is most representative of the album. Where a lot of muscians might be uneasy allowing such a simple musical process to occur without constant tampering, Edwards lets the “performers” carry on unassisted for quite some time. Surprisingly, the sound is quite interesting, with a wealth of nuance not generally found in drone material. Other cuts continue with this level of quality, happily, on their own turf as well– there’s no 60-minute block of homogenity to be found here. I am impressed, and look forward to hearing more.
Tin.RP vs. ‘O’ – “Stereophonique” – Burning Emptiness
With some of the most intriguing packaging I’ve ever seen (and I’ll leave it at that), this collaborative release has really found a place of honor within my collection. Tin.RP and ‘O’ courteously allow the listener a fascinating blend of their approaches to music, with each taking a different speaker in the stereo spectrum. As lame as this sounds to those of you who record music, or run live sound, etc.. it really works on this album, and I’ve had a greater time listening, dissecting, imagining, and playing with this album than most I have ever encountered. For some reason, though, I’ve found that this is not good to listen to in my car, I seem to much prefer using some decent speakers at home or in WDBX’s master control. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this album is its subtlety, and willingness to be gently noisy. Everything seems recorded very clearly and crisply, I suspect whoever is responsible for the mixing is much more talented than the “you-take-a-speaker, I-take-a-speaker” setup belies.
Electro-Magnetic Trans-Personal Orchestra – Self-titled – Pax Recordings
This mouthful of an orchestra, using a notation system designed by member Aaron Bennett (who plays woodwinds, and a drinking straw), come up with four selections of material that I have found to be of great interest for those times when I want something complex to listen to, but not necessarily “busy.” I’m not going to pretend that I understand this album on that deeper “music student” level, but I feel like (for once, thankfully!) that I’m not too daunted by my own theoretical ignorance. Just for your own info, the line-up includes violins, cellos, bass, woodwinds, a tuba, accordion, alto sax, and guitar. Everything is put to good use, and no one musician seems to dominate the proceedings. As much as I have to admit to myself that I am probably missing out on some really important facet of this material, it is still one of my favorite releases Pax has sent my way. Perhaps the only real drawback for this release, however, is a lack of liner notes– for those of us who want to know more (and indeed, should try to learn) hearing about a new notation system and not being able to look at it is a bit of a downer.
Khoury, Shearer & Hall – “Insignia” – Public Eyesore Records
Mike Khoury, Jason Shearer, and Ben Hall find a unique place among new jazz with “Insignia,” their first release with Public Eyesore Records. “Insignia” treats listeners to cool sounds, delicate interplay between horns and percussion, and also takes fantastic dips into the realms of “free jazz.” Nevertheless, “Insignia” remains free of the burdensome song length often forced on fans of the genre, making their “point” fast, and getting out with the listener still actively engaged. Most interesting is the presence of Khoury’s violin, which holds its place remarkably well along Shearer’s saxophone lines. All in all, an amazing musical document.
Los Baybar Boys – “Cielito Azul” – Pax Recordings
Christopher Dergarabedian, Ernesto Diaz-Infante, and cellist Bob Marsh join forces on this album, pulling together sounds culled from field recordings, tape manipulation, collage techniques, voice, and prepared guitar. Although some songs seem oddly placed, occasionally jarring in their transition, the abilities of each musician are strong– showcasing their talents while still upholding the music as a whole. Definitely better (and also completely different!) than “Rags and Stones”, which is reviewed later on here, also involving Bob Marsh and Ernesto Diaz-Infante. For listeners wanting something different, San Fransisco’s Pax Recordings nearly constant output of improvisational music is a well-spring of talent. “Cielito Azul” is no exception. Check it out.
Pholde – “In Accordance With Conscience” – Panta Rhei Recordings
Using metals of varied tensile strengths, Alan Bloor has created a warm and fascinating ambient work. Each of the five pieces explore drone sounds, spacial placement of sound, and are truly amazing in their simultaneous simplicity and complexity. The beauty of an album such as this are the many ways in which it can be approached. As a document of deep listening, headphone fans can immerse themselves among the intricate emerging noises. As an example of drone, listeners can relegate it to an interesting background pulse to live a portion of their lives to– a calming soundtrack, if you will.
Rune Lindblad – “Death of the Moon” – Pogus Records
Rune Lindblad’s 1989 “Death of the Moon” is re-issued here, most-likely sounding as startling as it did to listeners the first time. Lindblad, a pioneer of electronic music, showcases experiments from throughout his early compositions here, often with fascinating results. Key to these works are the mixture of electronic and “natural” sounds, as evidenced in “Party,” which combines shortwave radio with taped voices. Lindblad’s work is certainly not for the less adventurous, but for those seeking a greater understanding of the origins of today’s electronic and electroacoustic music, “Death of the Moon” is a fine place to start.
Grundik & Slava – “Grundik & Slava” – Stateart Records
Part organic ambient excursion, and part country lullaby, this album (of which I have an advance, and most likely incomplete, copy) has really grown on me since the first time I heard it. Utilising electronic instruments, “sound objects,” harmonium, and vocals; Grundik & Slava have really created some beautiful music of startling complexity. Sometimes, it seems innocent and pleasant as I listen to it, other times, rather menacing. While it’s somewhat close to things I’ve heard before, it’s never “quite there”– so I think any comparisons would do it injustice. This is superbly-crafted music. I’m really at a lack for words, I want to tell you this is experimental country music, if there is such a thing. Definitely an album for the repeated listening pile.
Scott Smallwood – “Desert Winds: Six Windblown Sound Pieces & Other Works” – Deep Listening
Smallwood brings ambient and “nature” recordings out of the new-age tropical rain forest, and home to the United States on this album, showcasing the work of Mother Nature herself, as wind plays upon discarded objects in a Utah desert. Smallwood is a master of picking up the most interesting sounds from what seem like barren places: a deserted airplane hangar that once held the Enola Gay, a debris pile, a cushy recliner miles from someone’s home. These sounds are diamonds in the rough, but happily, they have been cut and polished for listeners seeking new sources of in-depth listening.
Magali Babin – “Chemin de Fer” – No Type Records
Babin crafts nine improvisational pieces on this No Type release, primarily utilizing metal objects as a sound source. While little or no traditional instruments appear on this release, many listeners will find the quiet interplay between sounds to not only be fascinating, but in many cases, soothing. While some sounds approach chaos at times, Babin’s music retains a sense of purpose and dynamic awareness that tells this reviewer she is a musician to watch.
Phill Niblock – “YPGPN” – XI Records
Originally released in 1995 as “A Young Person’s Guide to Phill Niblock,” this two-disc set collects some of the fascinatingly minimal held-tone works of Niblock, which have been challenging my listening habits since I first put it in my player. Niblock’s work on these discs is comprised (generally) of lengthy tones held on varied instruments such as flute,
trombone, and didjeridu; often supplemented with tapes of the same instrument having been recorded alongside itself. Listeners are asked to perceive the changes in sound as it interacts with YOUR environment, bouncing from the walls, creating beat tones, and really becoming much more of a living entity than many recordings allow. For every three calls to the radio station that I get to shut this off, I know there is one listener sitting at home digging it– or hopefully, rearranging their speakers and wandering around the room to play with their listening experience!
Luv Rokambo – “Maze” – Public Eyesore Records
Surprisingly subtle and intricate recordings from two Japanese cats using toys (jazzmaster and rapman, most notably), junk microphones, percussion, vocals, and a “tokai-talbo” ??? This duo has really surprised me, and is definitely worth checking out, just for the sheer fact that your jaw will drop at hearing these usually un-tamable electronic noise-makers
utilized in such a delicate manner. This is one of those occasional albums that smacks you in the face with a reminders as to why you got interested in experimental music in the first place.
Kenneth Gaburo – “Tape Play: 10 Works for Electronic Tape” – Pogus
If you’re anything like me, you’ll often a tell a good friend: “this album is in my top five albums of all time,”– a half-truth, only because you know full well that you love far too much music to ever be able to pick five– yet at the time (and really, forever) the album of which you speak retains a place of perfection in your mind. It has solidified as being great, and while further listens may unveil new sounds, nothing can knock it out of a position of perpetual amazement. This is one of those albums. Gaburo’s tape work, spanning here from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, reveal many fascinating ideas– from Gaburo’s use of exhaustion to tap his unconcious, to his consistent use of vocals and vocal-ish sounds in his pieces. The liner notes (as with virtually all Pogus releases, really) are thorough; you can trust me on this because as a dyslexic, it is rare that I will endure the pain of typing “thorough” twice. Highly recommended, both for a look at these intriguing pieces, and of a unique composer.