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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Autobiography #5: Algiers & ONO @ Schuba's

"We will live again:" so goes the incantations that close "Oxblood," one of ONO's most powerful songs from their most recent album, Diegesis. The line transcended its name, or its invocation, to take embodied truth last night, as two fiercely experimental and powerful Gospel / noise acts shared the stage at Schuba's. The deck was stacked against both acts, as more than three hours of nonstop downpour (and funnel clouds!) tormented Chicago, expanding rush hour to 7 pm and flooding out the city. Chicago's beloved Blackhawks were also attempting to win their first Stanley Cup at home in three generations, the significance of which was instantly noticeable in Schuba's external bar (outside the concert area). Against the imminent threat of euphoric sports fan riots -- a palpable display of white privileged professional rage and an open act addiction to a strong entertainment opiate -- Algiers and ONO promised to tend to wounds suffered by those in the name of justice and emancipation. Throughout the show, as each performer's intense and thorough delivery raged onward, I wondered about my own choice of opiate, and why I felt music would get us any closer to achieving emancipation than ice hockey.

The answer is redemptive in every form. One may be surprised by the easy link between noise and Gospel music, for one form seems so brutal, unforgiving, and impenetrable, while the other may be equal parts praiseworthy and graceful; seeking glory. What Algiers and ONO proved together is that Gospel need not be openly about salvation or even praising God, but rather seeking the word or the truth, or redemption. The idea of redemption readily links noise and Gospel traditions, for redemption is necessarily collective, a collective search for a new start or a new chance. As noise obliterates the senses and therefore cleanses them, Gospel heightens the senses, to perceive injustice, chains, and obstacles to our collective truths. There should be little question why music acts can use noise and Gospel together to produce powerful, affective walls of sound, but where Algiers and ONO succeed is absolutely resonating with the demands that we achieve something greater -- or, at least recognize where our own shortcomings intersect with our desire for something new, or better.

ONO opened the night with a set that I expected to be "the most ONO set." Since the ensemble will announce their program before hand, it was clear that the group would offer something special with one of the most stripped down line ups I'd seen:
ONO: For This Performance:
Schuba’s Tavern
3159 N Southport CHGO
\u0010=9:15PM =ALGIERS

=Introduction / I Been Changed (Traditional)
=Invocation / The Nigger Queen (ONO1980)
=Fatima Police (ONO1980)
=Oxblood (ONO1984)

The traditional delivery instantly flooded the room with vocals that matched the percussive power of the march/dirge, and Franklin James Fisher, singer for Algiers, also offered his own voice alongside that of travis's. From there, Rebecca's keys carried the tunes alongside PMichael's bass, while DaWei's guitar manipulations and Ben's drums added textures to that funky low-end. In this format, ONO was soulful, even playful, with travis jumping from hollered greetings-as-directives ("Greetings from Chicago South Side") and certain testament ("We will live again"). The redemptive spirit of that line answered the bewildering calls that open "Oxblood," and the vocal power of that song took new meaning in a new arrangement produced by the band. PMichael noted that the song was modeled after a popular Drake offering in this form, which amplified the band's underlying soul tensions instead of the noisy, monolithic version that appears on Diegesis.

ONO once again proved that their beauty and effectiveness is in the moment, and in their undying love for reinvention and exploration. Their soulful song variations added a catchiness, or hook, that gave their work a new dimension. There is always a promise of something new with ONO, which I suspect is one of the reasons that so many of us love and follow the group in their continual resurgence.

On their self-titled debut album, Algiers use programming, noisy guitar, rhythm & blues structures, and Fisher's voice to deliver their openly political message in textured, intense bursts. In a recent interview with me, they explained their live formation and planning, and with the addition of a live drummer, Lee Tesche, Ryan Mahan, and Fisher each were able to double down on the noise. It turns out "the man behind the curtain" not only was Mahan's and Fisher's use of programmed samples, but also what sounded like entirely new patches of manipulation, loops, and synthetic noises. Mahan himself worked on a stack of synthetic noise makers, as well as bass, while Tesche used a range of reverbed-manipulated effects and percussive instruments to attack his guitars (bows added metallic squeals, drumsticks invoked harmonics,  and that's before Tesche's own winding playing style took to the instrument!). Fisher added guitar, samples, and other percussion and electronics, alongside his vocal deliveries.

From show-opening "Black Eunich" onward, it was clear that the group were ready to work themselves to exhaustion on each and every song. Each member danced and shouted and hammered away at their work, collapsing between songs as ambient shrapnel bridged different numbers. One of the most interesting stage elements was the use of slowed-down samples from the album to hold down transitions between songs, where one previous backing album would be slammed through cough syrup sheen and blasted into blissful atmospherics. As a result, there was an unending tension throughout the set, a power that met with successive cycles of release throughout each song's crescendos and breaks.

While the addition of noise, and the effective use of each possible element on stage, amplified the effectiveness of the attack on "Irony.Utility.Pretext," some of the band's most straightforward rock offerings on the album took on entirely new life live. "Old Girl" was one particular highlight in this regard, as the band heightened every element to its threshold, and Fisher dove into the audience to embrace its members.

From one generation of Gospel & industrial noise to another: travis & PMichael watching Algiers.

As cheers leaked into the room from the adjacent bar, as the Blackhawks won the Cup, Algiers reminded us that the fight for emancipation will place grand crowds against just ideals.  It was impossible not to think about the irony as the crowd overpowered the band at the exact moment Algiers quieted their set for "Games": as Fisher howled about the people that come around to set your house on fire, as we bury our heads in our bottles Bibles, cries of joy continued unabated. Two worlds truly collided, in one of Chicago's most conservative and segregated wards (in this case, segregated for whiteness and power), but they were also ultimately separated by that thin door. The roar of one may have overpowered the cries of the other for a moment, but Algiers answered with a blistering set-closing that overdrove the cheers and ensured that the words of justice reigned.

This single moment provides an unending cycle of feelings that I am having trouble articulating: the banality of evil. The opiate of entertainment. The honest culpability of many well-intentioned people with injustice. The roar of billionaire entertainment industries that drowns outsiders. Mob mentality. The acceptability of white violence. The acceptable white mob. The necessity of drowning oneself from the stress of capital-professional demands. The absolute power of honest, good intentions that obstruct justice. The complete oblivion of that power wielded by that crowd. It's impossible to make sense of these competing narratives, or feelings, in one reflection (let alone from someone who's happy the Blackhawks won!), but it must be pointed out that this was a fitting and striking moment in Algiers' set.

And their power overrode those emotions, ultimately upholding the collective power of redemption. One of my favorite aspects of Algiers is that they constantly remind us that we have work to do: there is good work to be done. Through the power of their voice, through the unimaginable confluence of industrial noise and pure Gospel, they indeed express a sense of emancipation that is impossible to explain in thousands of words, but immediately apparent in each five minute song.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Autobiography #4: Give Me a Break!

I want to write this while my sinuses can still feel it, for my earplugs were even so terrified that they bore through my systems and numbed my senses. Last night was absolutely the loudest night I've heard at Elastic Arts, and probably the loudest, most aggressive jazz show I've ever seen. That Burning Tree and Dead Neanderthals were bookended by Ben Billington/Mark Shippy/Daniel Wyche and Toupee is effective commentary on the flexibility and form of Chicago's outsider/experimental/punk triad. My sinuses disagree, and I'm blessed to experience this internal contradiction of both knowing that I need to go to more shows, while facing the physical reminders of my eardrum limits. 

First, I was overjoyed to watch one of my friends play with one of my favorite guitarists ever, if only so that I can carry a torch of jealousy forever. Daniel Wyche and Mark Shippy both played extreme modulated/synthesized guitar to the relentless and unforgiving scatters of Ben Billington. The effect was unclassifiable, which turned out to be one of the best kinds of confrontational sets. Last night, unfortunately, I only was able to say to Daniel "that set was bananas" as the curator looked for Dead Neanderthals before their set; that was the extent of my comprehension last night. However, as the extended technique / physical limitations of those European reed&drum duos sank in, it occurred to me that Wyche, Shippy, and Billington might have approximated the same effect with their instruments. Billington sat behind his kit stabbing anything he could get his hands on, as Shippy was arrested for pummeling a poor Fender tweed amp with as loud a processed signal as he could find. The range on Shippy's effects swept harmonized wackiness alongside physical, percussive reverb slams, while Wyche complemented his mate with lightning trips around his fretboard. Wyche himself was riding his Moog synthesizers and a set of standalone pedals, too, at one point losing all the bones in his body to manipulate a theramin (?) through his guitar cord. I don't know what crimes this trio committed in a previous life, but surely their souls are bound through eternity by some righteous takes on rhythm, shredding, and atonality. Tweet me @spectivewax in about a week to see if I have more to say about this set, because it was a range of improvisation that was difficult to confront and process, which I suspect is exactly how the trio wanted it. 

I will say this: one of my favorite aspects of improvised sets are these moments of accidental / incidental / momentary grooves. One of the ways to comprehend or process this set is to think about the moments where Billington slowed his attack and changed his pace, or Shippy shifted from shredding to slagging, or Wyche indulged in the wetness of his signal. There was not a single gimmicky moment, as each player showcased their chops through a complete absence of conventional playing. Thank you, eardrum assault #1. 

Eardrum assaults #2 and #3 came from Burning Tree and Dead Neanderthals, in that order. Both duos played with reeds and drumsets, and I believe both reeds were saxophones of one sort or another (I don't know if they have different saxophones in Europe, but if someone had told me that someday you'll be able to grow an amazing beard and use absurd, endurance-stretching breathing techniques if you keep playing saxophone, I would have endured all those early lessons of "When the Saints Go Marching In" with glee and anticipation). 

Both duos might be described  as aggressive, free, progressive, endurance-testing jazz, of the sort that American audiences who dig Many Arms, New Atlantis Records, etc., would appreciate. However, for their relatively similar elements, both duos played off completely different areas of their instrumentation. Burning Tree was much more abstract than Dead Neanderthals, as it seemed their reedist was using his lungs to their greatest extreme, producing an amazing, unending squeal for, oh, 15 minutes? Against this airy, high frequency attack, the drummer scattered across different beats, in a very playful manner. It was impossible to tell if he was losing the beat or merely changing it, which is an excellent trick to play on an audience that is fixated on the hard-blowing reed. This is not a knock or a criticism, but simply a recognition that closely-appreciating improvised music is difficult because it toys with the listener's expectations and sense of boundaries; instead of clinging to the pleasant security of a beat, the drummer skirted the outer edges as effectively as the reed. 

Dead Neanderthals attacked the audience from a different angle, as their set appeared to be more "compositional" than "improvised" (I could be completely wrong about this). Anyhow, after the abstract reedplay, Dead Neanderthals created a series of droning cyclicals through their reed, this time appearing in a much larger saxiphone (baritone?). To accompany these notes, the drummer sticked to one pattern or box of beats, which isn't to say that the beats were predictable as much as they were more recognizable or "secure." The listener could cling to these grooves as the saxophone switched registers, closing the set by dropping to the bass-end, in what I presume is the European equivalent of switching on the hydraulics ("and if I hit the switch / I can make the asssssss drop"). This closing sequence proved an effective crescendo, as though the duo saved energy to throw-it-down with complete abandon to close their set. As the absolutely PACKED audience -- that room was packed to the rafters! -- cheered with delight, the saxophone was raised overhead as a tribute to free jazz international superstardom. We all sacrificed our ears to this loud ass explosion, but the tumultuous sets were worth it. 

Dead Neanderthals and Burning Tree ultimately prove that the range and potential of free jazz is endless, so long as one explores technique and also takes endurance to the total fucking brink of exhaustion. For their near collapse from breathing so hard, I salute both Burning Tree and Dead Neanderthals. Thanks for an unforgettable night. 

Just in case you thought it was finished, Toupee jumped onstage to close the night, exhibiting an astonishing range of control over their chaotic lyrics and wide-ranging vocal deliveries. Punk rock proved to have more limits than free jazz last night, but this is not a negative thing: Toupee brandish those expectations by building muted, lulled passages that extend trustworthiness to the audience, just as they simultaneously blitz the audience with a full metamorphosis of voices and masks. Singer Whitney began the night on bass, but as their set digressed into darker and heavier material, she handed off her bass to engage with the crowd on her microphone. Churning about through sheets, bananas, masks, and carrots, Whitney shrieked, hollered, and restrained her voice into any form necessary, as varying trios of guitar/guitar/drums and guitar/bass/drums built from controlled, muted beginning to wide-open noise. I cannot convey enough how dynamic this band played: at times, their fine-tuned, modulation guitar muting provided a clear background for the vocals to succeed, while others the band opened their approach to compete with and intensify the vocal deliveries. Punk can be many things, but Toupee's strength lies in their ability to play on the slightest bit of familiarity while they seduce the listener into their world. Their delivery shows that they control every moment, which ironically allows them to produce blistering attacks that can be confrontational and fragile. 

Hearing a raucous punk set next to two jazz sets that traced extreme limits and loudness of acoustic instrumentation, as well as an all-out blast of noise, ultimately upheld a constellation of freedom between various musical forms. There is no need for any bullshit theories about the connections between punk and jazz, or the explorations of total freedom in punk versus total freedom in jazz. Obviously there are differences in technique and delivery that separate each of these "genres." The triumph between these forms is in the execution and their adjacent delivery: that one can actively suspend orthodoxy in favor of exploration, love, and challenging listening. 

Photo by Daniel Wyche (I hope it's okay I used your packed audience photo). If transparency matters to you, I have written for Moniker Records, but Toupee are still amazing and everything I said is true, because why would I lie to you?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Autobiography #3: Chicago

Throughout winter and spring 2015, it feels as though Chicago has been bringing their absolute best in performance, recording, and art. Momentum gained in 2014 by the City's throngs of independent labels compounded this year, to the point where one can seemingly turn the corner and run into a fantastic show by Chicago artists. The spring series of ELASTRO at Elastic exemplifies this, but even citing one single space or series feels like a shortcoming. There is simply, obviously, a lot that is noteworthy right now, which is a great for Chicago's labels and artists.

Recently, a weeknight show at Elastic demonstrated precisely the range of energy and acumen exhibited by Chicago experimenters in 2015. Along with touring artist Snails & Oysters, Gardener, Cinchel (with Neil Jendon), and Muyassar Kurdi ranged from self-styled "power ambient" drives to slow, unfolding waves, and ritual vocal experimentation. While Circuit Des Yeux and Toupee rightfully gain expanded press with recent videos, this show is a great reminder that there is more talent lurking within Chicago's spaces awaiting release. So they churn.

Servant Girl from Eryka Dellenbach on Vimeo.

From her stunning album White Noise, Muyassar Kurdi's most recent video release, "Servant Girl," finds the artist visualizing one of the album's most haunting and difficult tracks. For those seeking reference, one might note that Kurdi's delivery invokes Rune Grammofon's tradition of "abstract" vocalization (from Maja Ratkje to Sidsel Endresen & Stian Westerhus to (/and even) Jenny Hval), or Panoptic Prism on the local scene. While Kurdi's album was song oriented, her recent performance at Elastic was grounded in amplified auto-harp (from my view) and vocal exercises that materialized as tests in range, power, and endurance. The set was challenging in that it forced the listener to be consistently aware and on-alert, which allowed Kurdi to open channels of communication without words. "Servant Girl" bridges the gap between some of the album's more "structural" songs and her recent performance, but this time by playing on the perception of silence, or quiet stabs.

Kurdi's album is provocative, but where it draws power is through the immediacy of her voice. Even when one expects that her exercises are the of most inward, and self-searching motives, she undoubtedly confronts a listener who now must accomplish the same.

Muyassar Kurdi Summer Tour
July 23: Indianapolis
July 24: Pittsburgh
July 25: Philadelphia
July 26 (noon): Philadelphia
July 26: New York
July 27: Providence
July 28: Boston
July 29: Portland, ME
July 30: Burlington, VT
July 31: Toronto
August 1: Columbus, OH

In Elastic Arts' new space on 3429 W. Diversey, there is more space between the speakers, and a larger room in general, that allows certain forms of ambient music to simply roll through space. Gardener and Cinchel both took full advantage of this arrangement, the former using synthesizer and the latter pairing his guitar with synth stylings from the aforementioned Jendon.

Gardener released a limited tour tape called Slab, and both sides also appear to be drawn from live sets (Bandcamp confirms this). Here, Gardener places to tape what listeners at Elastic experience during this show, which is subtle and unending waves of sound that appear to roll in sequence, gently coming to the fore and retreating. Even when there is a constant hum or base of sound, Gardener plays with textures and frequencies in a way that heightens the stillness of the performance, calling attention to the slightest changes or passageways. This translates perfectly to the live stage, where the power of PA makes Gardener's technique a much more direct confrontation with the listener. Gardener plays June 15 at Beat Kitchen.

Cinchel's Worry is a tape that also is a fine complement to his collaboration with Jendon, which the artist aptly names "power ambient." By combining delay/echo-flooded amplification and laptop processing to form his guitar sound, Cinchel effectively used stabs of chords and notes to churn rippling sequences throughout the space. Churning throughout the set, the volume developed its own layers or overtones that enhanced the warmth of the delay. This effect also appears throughout Worry, where Cinchel intensely layers sound, which advances some of his softer or more droning approaches, or playfulness with specific frequencies and more prominent "glitching," on other recent tapes. Live, Jendon colored the proceedings with the slightest synthetic charges that added a "beat" or soft punctures to Cinchel's heavy guitar. Worry aligns with this brand of ambient composition to produce a monolithic vision that may be the artist's heaviest work yet. Cinchel plays at Transistor on July 24, and WNUR on July 31.

From Denver, Snails & Oysters presented a stark detour from Cinchel and Gardener, which was a welcome and challenging listen. Using looped electric guitar, tape, and acoustic guitar, Snails & Oysters created layers that were more percussive than atmospheric, and much more distorted than delayed. With this naked feeling, compared to the all-encompassing sound of the other sets, Snails & Oysters placed the focus more on lead-playing and technique. At any given point, the listener could work with loops, lead playing, or distorted imprints from the tape and sustain to engage with a wide set of textures.

This combination of challenging work, heavy, enticing drones, and ranging, abstract vocals is simply one snapshot of a night in Chicago 2015. As exciting as it is to see the recent progression and press related to other Chicago groups, it's even more exciting to see the base camp working harder than ever to maximize their artistic and sonic deliveries.