Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Control – “The Strong Enslave”/”Your Fate”/”It’s Come to This”

Control is the Power Electronics equivalent of the $185 million Hollywood blockbuster – his effects are writ huge, with sweeping, grandiose gestures splashed over widescreen canvases. Most P.E. albums (especially those of the earliest vintage) are more personal in effect - one man, one mic, one set of feedback. The electronics of yore sounded like old but sharpened razors pulled from dirty raincoats.

Control is sleeker and colder, a thoroughly modern mega-killer, with whirling knives extending from multiple hands, inflicting absurd amounts of violence on you and everyone you know. This is the sound of something far beyond the Travis Bickle handmade spring-loaded gun holster, something more like a human/debris hybrid out of “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” or maybe even the ending of “Akira,” with swollen, mutated flesh mating with metals and fluids and every manner of corrosive compoud. There are emotions in there, but they’re expressed only by wordless howls of pain and revenge.

Sorry to go all cyberpunk on you there, but really, it’s hard to listen to Control and not think of something very futuristic. His is a shiny and digital sound, borne of complex sound-making equipment and controlled with innature technical knowledge and nuance. The crisp digitalities don’t always allow sharp corners to poke out of the speakers in the manner of something like, say, Buchenwald, but this minor shortcoming is more than made up for in micro-detail, compositional progression, and most of all, room-filling sonic density.

Opening track, “The Strong Enslave,” is treasonous and upsetting enough to earn its title, but the vocal attack is kind of one-dimensional. The cadence seems exactly the same every time, and without any variations, you begin to feel like you’re driving in circles past the same gibbering streetcorner preacher over and over again. It’s still noteworthy for the lighter-than-normal vocal processing, which gives you a rare glimpse into Control’s CON-DOM-esque vocal style – declarative rather than coercive.

Second track is played for atmospherics. It starts out very strong, a simple looped figure ascending with some jack-boot stomping and harsh factory steam. After two minutes, “Your Fate” adds a long spoken sample treated with heavy reverb, something that’s been done on other Control albums, but usually only in album intros or segues (the Misanthrope CD on L. White had something like this). The reverb makes this sample sound uncomfortably like the “Adrenochrome” sequence in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, were Nixon’s “sacrifice” speech is reverbed and looped as a audio signpost for the descent into drug-fueled madness. It’s similarly a bit humorous here, which I bet is not the intended reaction. Very close listening (or a good pair of headphones) reveals a fantastically processed vocal track, low and animalistic, like a bear caged and encased in 10 layers of other bears’ skins, all smothered fury and full-body hatred. If the sample were removed, this would be my easy favorite on this side.

“It’s Come to This” cashes the check, though….vocal processing lifts a bit once again, and the very European-styled declamations come through with a lot of strength. In a very visual way, this sounds like armies of other-worldly killing machines sweeping the planet, spreading fire and agony over the land, while a 6,000 ft. tall overlord stands on every horizon the world over and explains the horror that is the next 150 years of humanity. There’s a strong, mournful undertone mixed with ruthlessly controlled noise sophistication. Always modern, always killing, always symphonically painful.

That this praise is being heaped on material that isn’t the best Control I’ve heard should hopefully persuade you to not only gobble this platter up, but also to check out some more titles which up the stakes even more. I recommend Natural Selection (Eibon), World of Lies (Freak Animal) or the self-titled debut (Frozen Empire Media).

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Amps for Christ – “Black Eyed Susan”/”March of the Mountain”/”Tel Aviv”/”2 Inches per Hour”

Amps for Christ levitate their 4-sided triangle with the assistance of some homemade amps, a few jostled oscillators, and of course, Our Lord and Savior. Like many of the other band sites I’ve visited for research purposes, mentions nothing of the California contribution, so I have no helpful notes to guide me along this barefoot journey to hallelula-la land.

The last AFC album I bought was the Electrosphere 2CD, and yeah…this still sounds pretty much the same, albeit more focused and slightly more experimental. Less songs, more “pieces.”

"Black Eyed Susan” is closest this side gets to a noise track – burbling, broken-sounding electronics over shortwave static, oscillators that resemble horns being played ineptly, all laid over a low bed of bass clippings that resembles the extra credit question from the Sahko after-school oscillator lab. Vocals enter, similar to Jessica Rylan’s “Casting a Spell,” voice and oscillator fighting it out for dominance within the same quarter-inch cord. A low bass-pulse follows along with the melody. Later, a violin saws away, oblivious. This track completely schools much of what passes these days for undiluted psilocybin in the Wyrd Forest. Superb.

“March of the Mountain” is guitar, banjo, sitar, and AFC’s patented “oscillators played like bagpipes.” The melody on the bagpipillators is a fairly famous song…I’m hardly an expert on the subject, but through the years, I’ve clocked lots of hours (high double-digits, say) at highland festivals around the Midwest, so trust me, I know I’ve heard this particular tune played by groups at all levels of pipe proficiency. Of course, I’ll be arsed if I know its actual title…I don’t think it’s usually referred to as “March of the Mountain.”

(Incidentally, while going through my bagpipe tapes to try and find this track’s real title, I discovered that there’s a pipe tune called “Hamilton’s Nutsack.” Huh? No, why don’t YOU come up with a punchline, you lazy fucker!)

“Tel Aviv” starts with spoken word over Conet-ish shortwave fear and dried-pod clatterings. “That bird frets on the edge, hungry.” “Dropped orb, flesh of flesh, sine wave.” You get the idea. As the oscillators begin to really wail at the end, the track picks up a bit of interest.

“2 Inches per Hour.” The rain pours down, and a distant, fuzzy violin solo is heard from afar, sounding like a street musician who plays mostly to keep his mind from wandering to his freezing bones. Soon, a second violinist comes by and starts a duet with him; she takes his mind off his troubles for a while. They don’t play naturally or intuitively together, but the dissonance and uncomfortable, fumbling transitions mystify and intrigue them. They later get married in a civil service at the courthouse, move to a dry climate, and live out their golden years in 1/2 of a sparsely-furnished duplex, working a procession of minimum wage temp jobs, trying to figure out why they planned their entire life around one somewhat magical afternoon in the rain.

In short, this is a confusing choice of artist for this comp (kind of like inviting your hippie uncle over for a marathon of the Guinea Pig movies), but as always, AFC provides a satisfying and, dare it be said, consistent listen. If you've heard it all, you've heard this one.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Solid Eye, “Live at WFMU, September 13, 1998”

In certain non-essential (but appropriate for the purpose of this discussion) ways, performing free improvisational music is like making a mixtape. By that, I mean that once in a while, you have a case where you follow the the tape's directives perfectly, each moment progressing naturally from the prior one. Yet, at the end of the side, the whole thing just feels…flat.

The classic “I painted myself into a corner” trick.

Sticky shoes and unseemly footprints on the floor are the visual cues for this live recording created for WFMU back in ’98. In terms of coherence, each and every moment progresses naturally from the prior one - nobody's reaching blindly. From the winning ‘50s-sounding “mad scientist electronics” that mark the entrance to the gag-reflex-triggering voice loops that sweep up by the exit, it all follows.

It’s just that somewhere in the middle, the fellas follow each other into one too many quiet, contemplative, textural excursion after another. By minute 12, as they wends their way through thick underbrush made of drifting, lightly processed guitar, you begin to wonder if our guide has led us on wild goose chase, bwana.

I compare this not to the noisier sides on this set, but to other Solid Eye that I’ve heard. My favorite is the Fruits of Automation CD on WIN Records. I know that those were “composed” songs (or at least “edited improvisations”) so it’s probably a little unfair to pit these two against each other. Still, it’s instructive to see just how focused and manic Solid Eye can be when they actually wear the lab coats authoritatively, unafraid to tell the Gorts and the Garcos when to talk and when to shut the fuck up.

Damion Romero. Hollywood.

In the schools, they teach that good composition sets out a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. Conflicts develop into recognizable climaxes, and ultimately find their resolutions.

Damion Romero offers us nothing so prosaic. Instead, the piece simply opens with a barely-audible hum and suddenly closes when everything is unplugged. In the place of a single fist-pumping climax, sounds ripple to the surface seemingly of their own accord, or are yanked upwards and whipped around by a force unknown. As these storms pass, they leave subtle traces on the remaining mix – a slightly remodulated pulse, a subtle change in pitch, a raising of the overall levels – as if dropping a period at the end of one sentence in order to begin a new one. Beneath these surface events, inscrutable currents slowly pull the mix along. This layered tension between the ongoing development of the piece as a whole and its occasional interruption results in a cyclical back-and-forth, as attention gravitates toward the louder events and away from the slow changes underneath. These slow but punctuated changes comprise the center of the piece, though, and the most effective moments are in these less obvious places.

The label on the record informs us that the piece was recorded on Jean DuBuffet’s 104th birthday, suggesting that the “Monde Brutal” refers to those working outside of convention. We like to think of these as two fully distinct worlds – one populated by those bound by their formal training and one populated by people moved solely by their own demons. Like setting up camp in the wilderness, occasional waves of critical attention to work at the margins brings two worlds together and risks fracturing the latter’s pristine marginality.

With no identifiable climax, there is likewise no definite resolution. While at first, these layers remain resolutely distinct, with loud waves violently crashing over the quieter mix, by the end, the mix has swollen to the proportions of a boiler ready to burst from too much built-up steam. By this point, it becomes harder to assign one element to the position of centrality and the other to interruption – the waves no longer stand out so starkly against the sound of the piece itself. Did the waves rolling over the mix irreparably change it, or was the lower-level mix happily incorporated into these waves? Which layer defied convention, and which was purely formal? Romero’s anti-solution to these questions – simply unplugging the whole problem – does not offer any pleasurable resolution, but in laying them out, he has achieved compositional beauty.