Intense, surreal, remote, dynamic. Come along with us as we chronicle the adventures of the soul through psychedelic, drone, noise, experimental, pop music based around Chicago bands in particular and local bands everywhere.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Autobiography #2: Tapes With Friends

This post is a long time coming. Some of my closest friends have sent me wonderful tapes within the last six months, and several of my current music obsessions have played out on tape. A couple of months ago, I also dove into one of the Sanity Muffin batches, while there are others that are oscillate between meditative, exploitative, and uninhibited.

BRE'R, Mobility in Six Parts (Sanity Muffin)
In part, one of the reasons I picked up one of the Sanity Muffin batches was the Invocation of Magnetic Spirits series. This volume ostensibly opens a series of rare tapes found around Oakland by Sanity Muffin, although the tape is not necessarily what one expects -- the tape is as much contemporary noise as it is old, lost Gospel worshippers. Part of me expected to hear a tape of earnest Gospel worship and testimony, but heavy industrial noise drives the set. By contrasting enthusiastic -- eschatological, terrifying -- preaching and parish testimony with brutal noise, Sanity Muffin accomplish a troubling dichotomy that reaches equal parts exploitation and exploration. Exploitation, insofar as the honest vision of these worshipers is abstracted from its cultural context and presented for entertainment or artistic purposes. Exploration, insofar as the noise compositions offer a completely opposing structure to the free, improvised statements of faith and devotion. Together, these poles allow for a range of experiences, and therefore, plenty of return listens.

(It would also be wonderful to simply hear these source tapes -- Sanity Muffin arguably has a mine of valuable glimpses into the worship lives of everyday people. This kind of stuff is golden -- maybe archival stuff is boring to some, and the manipulation and noise makes it interesting, but there is something to be said for using recordings to allow people to speak in a voice that they might not otherwise have. This need not even be viewed as some grand argument about cultural reconciliation or emancipation: even a celebration of the ordinary or anonymous would be worthwhile).

BRE'R moved me to tears with beautiful, suspended guitar compositions that exude peacefulness and steadiness. This tape perfectly accompanies the Talk West, Bid People, and Clearing tapes -- these slow, unfolding spaces feature suspended beauty and repetition suited for meditation. 2014 is nothing more than a cycle through tapes like this, and thankfully, the pile is consistently growing. There is no other way for me to say this -- it is music like this that convinces me that the soul, mind, and brain are not coextensive; that our experiences cannot be reduced to material explanations, brain scans, or physiology; our reactions to this music cannot be mapped. Rather, each path through these repetitions allows for our soul to fold once more, tracking back over itself, turning inward beyond knowledge and contemplation. Thank you, BRE'R.

TALK WEST, Canyon Lip (Notice Recordings)
BIRD PEOPLE, Terma (Jehu & Chinaman)
CLEARING, Let Go (Solid Melts)

Drew Gibson curates Solid Melts, a label that follows his own musical projects and aesthetic, while also  diving into nearby themes or neighborhoods of experimental explorations. This Clearing tape is the newest member to my meditative tape pile, but I am thankful to have it and add to the number of absolutely ethereal minutes of music listening in any given week. 40 minutes of recording time allows Joseph Volmer -- aka Clearing -- to truly extend his vision and instruments, which shifts between woozy and bright electronic landscapes. Incidentally, one of my favorite pop groups, Nada Surf, have an album called LET GO. They actually issued a statement when they released that album, since it is also apparently the title of an Avril Lavigne album. Volmer needs no statement -- one can let go into his compositions, perhaps only wondering why these timbres do not occupy an infinite loop somewhere. 

In the winter of 2013, Notice Recording's set of Talk West and Seth Cluett tapes set me on obsessive drone adventures. Talk West's tape especially clicked with my ears -- a set of warm, organic chiming on side A morphs into a longform drone on side B. The long drone offsets the fragmented chiming with a consistent synthetic theme, emulating the re-emergence of wildlife following a torrential spring rain. Absolutely vital, life-affirming tones. Even suggesting the word "fragments," now that I think about it, is a shortcoming, because the chiming fragments on side A feel complete within themselves, in the sort of way that a just-blooming tulip feels complete before the flower. That first glimpse of life is an awakening, and that is the feeling that leaps throughout Canyon Lip.

After the turn of 2014, Steve Dewhurst of Jehu & Chinaman (and my colleague at Decoder Magazine) turned me on to this unrelenting set of synthetic exercises. If I had heard Bird People earlier, Terma would have made my year-end list (if that means anything; I guess I'll put it on this year's list!!!), although the reasons almost perfectly clone my motivations to love the Talk West effort. This is steady, purposeful ambiance, at once aggressive / dramatic and tender / fragile. Subtle electronic beats gently propel the synth lines, which offers optical depth that clarifies the battle lines between these fragile and aggressive overtones. In fact, I wonder why this isn't called "space rock;" or rather, anything called "space rock" should really sound like this, given that the structures of the beats do not drive the music into 4x4 oblivion, but instead outline the paths of exploration. Space rock, also, because this sounds like serious music about the future that embraces outer limits without caricature.

SCAMMERS, A Song That Can Exist (Jehu & Chinaman)
EETS FEATS, Trash from Our Lips (Aye Aye Aye)
HEAVY TIMES, Jacker (Hozac / Priority Male)

For goodness sake, Phil Diamond's Scammers imprint consistently (constantly) freezes me from the moment the rumbling drums drive "27" into deep crooning and decompressing synth horns. Tension is the name of this pop that exploits easy-listening tropes, 1980s gloom, and blissful rhythm and blues into song-oriented solidarity and earnest working-class expression. There are few moments of release on A Song That Can Exist, which means that Diamond's sense of humor and confessions translate into glorious layers of compulsion that coerce his listener's ear through extremely ambitious production. Make no mistake about it, this is what makes this tape so great and consistently worthwhile on listen after listen -- Diamond delivers everything on his own terms, and takes none of his listener's sympathy (or now budding affection!) to heart. You're going to like this -- it's catchy, it's tongue-in-cheeck, it's self-loving, it's a big pop sound, etc. -- or else. More, please. 

There's a lot to be said about Austin, TX rock music that revolves around Nice Strong Arm, and I feel this way about Spray Paint and (now) Eets Feats. Of course, I owe my Nice Strong Arm obsession to an Implodes blog post, so it's not my insight, but anyway, this Austin band straddled dense goth, wailing-guitar punk, and emotional vocals into a surprisingly relevant 80s sound (they thankfully escaped certain production elements of the time, and I gather a reissue of their albums would go over quite well with contemporary guitar-rock fans). Anyway, I felt that Spray Paint channeled Nice Strong Arm's creepy-someone's-going-to-get-stalked-and-murdered vibe quite well through their (relatively) clean-guitar attacks, and Eets Feats expands Spray Paint's advances into goth ecstasy. There's a pervasive darkness that overrides the bright, surf-oriented "let's play punk songs really fast and loud" vibe on Trash From Our Lips, which incidentally gives this tape crucial flexibility. You may dismiss this tape on first listen, but give it a second (and more!) -- out of nowhere, their dulled goth edges will not mortally wound you, but instead entice you for a second blow.

Or, in better words, I think I like Eets Feats more than Spray Paint. Thanks, Austin!

Heavy Times must be my desert island band. I can't shut up about this tape, and I've probably listened to it (on average) once a week since the summer of 2013. This is the inverse of the Eets Feats tape, a solid block of blink-and-you'll-miss-it-pop-punk that will absolutely bludgeon with well-placed guitar licks and frantic group vocals. Pop punk is an entirely redeeming and worthwhile genre, by the way. So, yes, my desert island pick. If I ever have to be stuck on a damn desert island, I want to be dreaming of being stuck in traffic thanks to assholes passing me on the right on the West Side, inching along on a cramped Kimball bus, and the brutal emptiness of staying inside during winter. Heavy Times RAGE with this fury of Chicago as no other Chicago band I've heard. Still can't stop listening to this, in fact, I'd better buy a few other copies before I wear this one out -- this will probably end up in the same pile with my Implodes tape, or, "The Only Tapes I've Actually Broken From Playing Too Much." Implodes was really, really good, but Jacker is better; the difference being that one can say "Implodes expanded their sound and enhanced their rhythm section to grow on Recurring Dream" instead of "If Heavy Times change, I'm going to be pissed."

DAN BURKE & TRAVIS BIRD, Negentropy (Notice Recordings)
For some time, I've been obsessed with Neil Young's 1980s recordings, especially his experimental futuristic communications masterpiece, Trans. Growing up, I always heard Young referred to as the "Godfather of Grunge," but I thought that was more a statement about his legendary status in classic rock in general, rather than a statement about his pulverizing 1980s hard rock. Indeed, an album like Ragged Glory stands up quite nicely to just about any "Seattle" album, but it is Young's noisy, overblown live guitar sound that exemplifies this era of American rock. Oh, those opening notes on "Hey Hey, My My..." Young's amplifier volume, his octave divider, his right-place-at-the-right-time band; Young turns abrasive rock into sugary candy, digging into his listener's ears with promises of treats to come. One can listen to Weld solely on the basis of searching for that first high once again. Perhaps Young and Crazy Horse even surpass those opening moments, be it on the outer reaches of the synthesizer driven "Like A Hurricane," the NASTY bar rock on the back end of tape two, or the riotous breakdown of "Welfare Mothers" (which, as a song on its own, is probably more biting commentary than released on any "grunge" album). Even better, for every moment that is great due to Young's guitar sound, there is greatness from Crazy Horse, which must be one of the steadiest, hardest bands in American history. But, I keep coming back for those overblown first notes, and I stay for the volume and riot every time.

From these uninhibited guitar tones to the blistering rock of Eets Feats and Heavy Times, I happily returned to Travis Bird & Daniel Burke's Negentropy, which I believe was their debut cassette release. Bird and Burke comprised one of Chicago's most promising guitar duos -- and I speak as an unbiased listener and a completely biased friend -- at the turn of the 2010s, and on Negentropy the pair provide perfect decay to Young's Weld signal. This is not deconstructed rock -- indeed, the lack of structures throughout their debut cassette probably means that Bird and Burke are not playing rock whatsoever. Yet, it's indeed a celebration of the guitar, which in some senses provides an overlap with rock (insofar as some rock is guitar worship). However, Bird and Burke use their guitars for percussive pursuits, resulting in absolutely tooth-rattling distortion tone and steely stabs. Taken with the Talk West tape, Bird and Burke offer the absolute inverse to those organic chimes, as their timbres are much more foreboding and unapproachable. Despite these darker pastures, Negentropy is a rewarding return listen, not simply because it satisfies many of those primal urges that standard guitar rock worship aspires toward (but often fails). This is not guitar worship. A celebration of guitar, yes, but one that is not self-indulgent or structured.