If we can credit Miles Davis for the birth of the cool, maybe we can credit Klaus Schulze for the birth of the drone. Strictly speaking, I know others got there first — La Monte Young, for instance, was producing "musical environments" a good decade before Irrlicht was waxed. But Irrlicht serves the dual function of being Schulze's first album proper — the start of one of the longest and most durable careers in electronic music — and one of the first works to point people at when they ask, in all innocence, so what's this "ambient" or "space music" thing all about anyway?Read more
There was at least one kid like this in every class. Turn your back on him for five minutes, and the entire surface of his desk (and maybe the floor around his desk, too) would be lacquered with crayon scribbles. Not one school supply in his possession was used for its intended purpose: erasers up the nose, paper clips attached to the earlobes, and hole punchers used to create confetti that would be sprinkled into his own hair and then shaken off into your lap as fake dandruff. If a kid like that doesn't grow up to become Yamatsuka Eye, lead singer of the Boredoms, and go on to record shrieking, twitching, roaring, shaking, shocking albums like Soul Discharge, then the universe makes less sense than I thought it did.Read more
John Zorn is arguably one of the few people who has done something with jazz that isn't redundant or insulting ever since Miles Davis hung up his machine. Execution Ground is an exhibit A for why: he's fearless. Who other than Zorn would have the nerve to pair up not only with Bill Laswell — whose career has hopscotched between jazz, downtown New York avant-gardism, and psychedelic dreamtime world-music — but with Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris? And not as a stunt, either, but because Zorn sees and hears things in the way folks like Laswell and Harris work that deserve more than just marginalization, ridicule, or sniffing dismissal.Read more
After Dead Can Dance burst onto the music scene in the early Eighties, with their mix of tribal, classical, and popular sounds, it was tempting to draw connections back to them from just about everyone else, no matter how remote, who seemed like they belonged on the same shelf. Vasilisk was, and is, one such unit, even if the group itself hailed from a completely different direction: they didn't have anywhere nearly the consistency of output of DCD, and consequently their work tended to be far more fragmented and fleeting. But what they did produce is worthy of attention, and Liberation and Ecstasy makes it easier to find out what the band was about than hunting and pecking for the various bits of vinyl released by them.
Formed in Japan after the collapse of the noisy, SPK-ish White Hospital — the other half of which, Jun Konagaya, went on to continue as Grim — Vasilisk consisted of Tomo Kuwabara and Yukio Nagoshi, with other members (including longtime fixture of the Japanese underground, drummer Tatsuya Yoshida) joining in from time to time. Liberation and Ecstasy was compiled from various EPs and full-length discs recorded from 1987 through 1990, and the results were released through the Italian Musica Maxima Magnetica label (which also put out their album Acqua).Read more
The more polished and capable our artistic tools become, the harder it becomes to go for the gut — or the throat. A black-and-white movie from the black-and-white era has a grit that isn't possible today, a grit that only comes from having no choice but to use black-and-white. Likewise, many of the albums from the early years of electronics in popular music somehow hit harder and cut deeper than their present-day contemporaries, by dint of being the most made from the least. Bit-depth-reduction plugins and analog-synth recreation modules are one kind of sound, but they always bulk tiny next to the epic hiss and rumble of a Farfisa organ and a low-end drum machine fed through a plate echo. (See: the first Suicide album.)
As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade might well be the absolute first and last word in the power of low-fi as an artistic statement. It's not low-fi because it sounds cool; it's low-fi because that was all they could get their hands on, and also because any record whose mission is to tell you that the earth has been sold out from under your own feet can't afford to sound like a studio confection. The second attribute may be no more than a by-product of the first, but such by-products are part of how art becomes more than a technical affair. Tape hiss, leakage, overloaded vocals, overloaded keyboards — overloaded everything, really; the meters probably all got stuck in the red the minute they hit PLAY — it's one of the best bad-sounding records you'll ever hear.Read more
The term samurai has unfortunately suffered much of the same kind of denaturing in English (and maybe in Japanese as well) as genius, or rock'n'roll. The root of the word samurai was a verb that meant "to serve", but even in its native Japan the implications of the word have drifted. It's since become a connotation for the kind of dogged-but-proud loner whose closest analogue in the West has been the noir detective. Decades of noir-influenced chanbara cinema — everything from Yojimbo to Zatoichi — have only cemented that drift all the more.
Small wonder Samuraiera feels like a "soungs from the motion picture soundtrack" album for just such a 1970s-era film, with the blue-tinted cover shot of a hand gripping a katana hilt serving as its poster. The fifteen tracks on this disc, collected and programmed by DJ Kaoru Inoue (a/k/a "Chari Chari", one half of the duo Aurora Acoustic), survey a whole range of jazz, funk, and Latin grooves from Japan's byways. With a few marked exceptions, most of the artists are apt to be total unknowns to Western ears, but that only magnifies the pleasures inherent in stumbling across all the little gems found here.Read more
Murray Roman once made an album entitled A Blind Man's Movie, which was shipped in an all-black sleeve long before Spinal Tap twigged to the idea. I laughed, but like all jokes the gag had a serious undertone: isn't the radio play that comes out of the speakers more vivid for the fact that it takes place inside our minds, and not up there on a screen somewhere?
There has always been something, for lack of a better word, cinematic about the albums I came to treasure. They aren't just collections of songs but stories, or at least the soundtracks for stories. The story may not be something spelled out in the lyrics or even in the liner notes, and it may not even have been placed there consciously by the creators — but it announces itself all the same. Peter Gabriel's Melt album was like that; Skinny Puppy's Last Rights was like that.
06:21:03:11 UP EVIL is, no surprise, very much like that, and one of the signs of its staying power is how it has been telling me different stories in the twenty-odd years since its release. It didn't feel like an album of its moment when it came out, and in the intervening time it has proceeded straight into a kind of timelessness. The story UP EVIL has told me has waxed and waned in the specificity of its details over these past two decades, its emotions have not. They were there before the beginning and they'll be there after the end.Read more
It didn’t take long for me to develop a severe allergy to the term post-punk. For the most part it ended up meaning “bands just good enough to attract attention from critics in a period of general musical malaise while not actually being all that good”. It meant, all too often, the worst of punk — musical incompetence and rejection for rejection’s sake — fused with the crass commercialism of mainstream rock.
It took Minimal Compact to take the bad taste of post-punk out of my mouth. If a big part of that is simply the fact that Minimal Compact is a great band, so be it: like all great bands, they sound pleasantly dissimilar to the music that surrounds them and which they draw on. They built a new sound on the foundations of a few other basic ones, and it's a sound I would dearly like to have heard serve as an inspiration to a broader number of bands.Read more
Even for the most stalwartly adventurous ears, music is largely anchored in how it refers back to everything that's not music. Most of us hear a love song and don't pay attention to the music itself, but rather the emotional connotations we've built around it: didn't I hear that song back when I was in that crummy little diner, right when we held hands and almost spilled our coffees all over each other? And isn't that, by and large, what we want from it?
Like John Cage, Derek Bailey made music that wasn't about anything but itself, and over the years I've had a difficult relationship to both Bailey's work and everything else like it. I admire the adventure, but I also question my emotional responses to it: how can my feelings about it be communicated to others without seeming like I'm asking them to swallow scrap metal? Most people hear a record like Improvisation and wince: to them it doesn't sound like anything but the kind of skronk you'd get if you dropped a guitar down a flight of stairs.
But then I remembered Cage talking with Richard Kostelanetz about how most conventional music sounded to him: like the notes were a bunch of little children that had been forced to dress up in school uniforms and line up, all neat and orderly and dull. The emotional reactions we have to music are as much social as they are personal — hence the way African natives responded with almost total indifference to Beethoven (as Philip Ball described in The Music Instinct). Derek Bailey's music — and Cage's before him, and so on — is only possible to create, and take seriously, in a society where we have developed some idea of music as a social construct in the first place. Just as there is music for romance as well as dance, this is music for those who have an emotional involvement in the very idea of music. If that's too many steps removed from what you're comfortable with, no fault lies with you.Read more
I forget who said that perfection is not when there's nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away. Art is as much subtractive as it is additive: you spend at least as much time figuring out the frame of things, where things begin and end, as much as you do determining what to fill that frame with. There may only be twelve notes — at least in Western music — but look what we've been able to get out of them so far.
Every time I come across an embodiment of this sort of thing in music, I instinctively cherish it. It happened with Brian Eno's Music for Films and The Pearl, with Philip Glass's Qatsi soundtracks, with Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and it absolutely happened with Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which I came to only after I had all the rest of those under my belt. And it was only out of sheer ignorance that things came to pass in that way: to me, Aphex Twin was one of the many bands I just pre-emptively brushed away, like so many crumbs off a table, because I didn't think they had anything to offer me. It was nice to be wrong.Read more