Blast from the Past: Swell Maps – A Trip to Marineville

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(Vinyl LP, Rough Trade, 1979)

When I was a bit younger, I always thought if I had a band or at least a solo musical project at least one of my/our covers would picture a burning house. Then I found about Swell Maps’ A Trip to Marineville, a rough deconstruction of punk and post-punk genre that would foreshadow the coming of the noise rock genre in the next decade. The picture of a stately middle-class detached house devoured by flames reflects the savage and uncrontrolled music of the album very well.

The Birmingham based trio is considered as one of the most experimental and forward-looking bands of the post-punk genre, among with This Heat. But while the music of This Heat was brooding, dark, electronically augumented and highly krautrocky in nature (peaking with their suffocating, apocalyptic masterpiece “The Fall of Saigon”), Swell Maps were quite the opposite, going for noisy, uncontrolled jolly mess of guitars, drums and aggressive vocals. Swell Maps weren’t trying to be political in their songs, they were not trying to channel some youthful alienation, they just had a “fuck it, let’s make it loud” attitude, going for a dizzying ride through fast rhythms and unpolished improvisations. And I should put a strong stress on the word “unpolished”. Because even today, A Trip to Marineville is in-the-red loud and abrasive, even if compared to modern-day noise rock and punk records. It must have been quite a feat in its day and age and it must’ve scared away (at least initially) a whole lot of rockers who considered themselves “seasoned” or “hardcore” listeners. They have already listened to punk rock, after all! But Swell Maps turned the volume up to eleven and added amphetaminic paranoia on top of it all.

The music of Swell Maps was punk rock on steroids – hyper-energetic, often hyper-kinetic and enhancing the inherent “weirdness” of many punk rockers – like in “Harmony in Your Bathroom” ripe with bathroom and water-related sound effects. “A Trip to Marineville” was also full of twisted sense of humor and a sense of having great fun while making music – these guys just seem to have churned out one killer after another, equipping the absolutely nuclear riffage with maniacal, somewhat messy drumming. It is joyous as fuck and doesn’t take itself seriously, prancing around like a doped-up prankster. We got to associate post-punk with grim-faced grittiness or social commentary, always dark and always serious. Swell Maps show us the lighter side of post-punk. They are the ray of light.


Review: 3 Leafs – Live at Cafe du Nord

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(Cassette, Triangle Tapes, 2012)

I used to dislike live albums for some reason. Maybe it was the worse sound quality than recordings made in the studio or a completely different approach to production – instead of pristine studio environment, where everything could be adjusted, live recordings documented a certain time and place. Or maybe it was the deviations from the studio versions of the songs. But it’s impossible not to deviate with psychedelic rock, where hypnotic grooves and stoned guitar solos reign. Thankfully now, I’ve grown to appreciate the grit and documentary quality of live recordings.

With this cassette we fall into the middle of the psychedelic capital of the world. 3 Leafs recorded this set at the legendary venue Cafe du Nord in December 2011, but we had to wait until 2013 when the fresh London cassette label released it on cassette – two sides of unedited, unpaused and untreated psych rock goodness with a bass line that makes one’s brain melt with its sheer depth and power. Bass here is on the forefront, leaving the electric guitar behind a bit – not sure if this was the musician’s intention or it’s just how the mixing turned out. But thanks to this one can only appreciate more the importance of the good bassline in psychedelic rock. It’s really snakelike and hypnotic, meaty and heavy – just as it should be. Electric guitars can get really attention-craving and show-offy in psych rock, with Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. being the best, most jarring example. On “Live at Cafe du Nord”, 3 Leafs invert the situation, putting the bass in the spotlight. The drummer shifts between a propelling, somewhat tribal style full of cymbal crashes and breaks and minimalistic, fast-paced motorik. The guitar serves more like a tool for providing intriguing textures and lengthy drones, making the term “drone rock” quite appropriate for 3 Leafs, or at least this specific recording. Occasional synth warbles also enhance the psychedelic atmosphere, rising and disappearing in the bassed-out fog and intense drumming in the vein of Jaki Liebezeit circa “Delay 1968” sessions.

“Live at Cafe du Nord” perfectly channels the trippy atmosphere of the club, transporting the listener to the live concert, making them imagine the people, the visuals, the smells and the grooves coming from the amplifiers. It’s a great audio documentary of a great set played by great people. There’s a very good reason this is released on cassette – because it’s not digital, there’s no indication of length or the time that has passed since the beginning of listening, rendering the session seem almost endless at times and making the listener wish it played for a lot longer. The cassette allows to forget about the time constrains and fully focus on the sound. Highly recommended. 


Merkaba – Ancient Relics

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“And now for something completely different…”

This is one of those albums that wasn’t sent to me via e-mail or discovered by me, but it was recommended to me by my friend Ramzes (that’s his nickname, not the real name, tho it would be hella cool to be friends with an ancient pharaoh). The “completely different” factor here is that it’s psytrance – not the genre I’m most familiar with (actually, not the genre I’m familiar with at all – I’ve only listened to Shpongle a few times before). Nevertheless, “Ancient Relics” by Australia’s Merkaba (nothing in common with the polish sludge/post-rock unit Merkabah I’ve once posted) is a trippy as hell (as it should be) journey through tribal moods, strange sound effects, four-to-the-floor dance rhythms and New Agey phrases uttered by sultry female vocals. Makes you think of lost civilizations, ancient aliens and astral travels. The complete psychedelic experience, in a glossy, hi-fi & sci-fi packaging.

Thanks, Ramzes!

http://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/v=2/album=539218450/size=venti/bgcol=FFFFFF/linkcol=4285BB/


Review: Samantha Glass – Rising Movements

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(Cassette, Constellation Tatsu, 2012)

The cassette synth scene can be divided into three basic “schools of thought”: one school follows the jagged, raw electronics of the earliest masters, providing punctured, difficult and highly abstract compositions – either with a rhythm or rhythmless. The second school follow the star-gazing Germans and New Age post-hippies in their journey to explore the inner self, with deep, sprawling tracks that often take up entire sides or even CDs. The third school follows the sunny, carefree happy synth psychedelia of Harmonia or later Cluster, making compelling, catchy, yet hypnotic poppy structures.

Samantha Glass, the alias of a Madison, WI resident Beau Deveraux, represents the third school. Despite the grim looking cover, there’s no cold, windswept ambience to be witnessed here. While I tend to fully agree with label’s descriptions of the albums they release, often praising their spot-on sense of writing, this time I have to disagree with Constellation Tatsu. The blurb on the website says: 

The abandoned lodge emerges from the dark, wet woods. It is warm and light inside – carpeted halls and wood banisters welcome your step, draw you deeper past branching rooms. What mysteries, forgotten treasure, and danger await within these decrepit walls?

 Now put the cassette in the player or play the first track from the Bandcamp page. Where are the dark, wet woods here? Maybe if we were talking about a rainforest in the summer or palm tree woods then it would make sense. But dark? No way! Actually, “Rising Movements” is one of the warmest, most sun-lit cassettes I’ve heard in quite a while. Listening to this tape is like taking a bath in the warm, calm waters during the summer evening, the soft light washing over you. The 5 untitled “movements” (named simply “Movement”, duh) are a soundtrack to a luxury yacht marina filled with relaxing, well-to-do people sipping drinks and having a great time in the hot, hot sun. And there’s nothing sarcastic or critical about this description. This album genuinely recreates the laziest, most mellowed out moments of hot summer told in a language of electronic krautrock and analog synthesizers. Fuzzed out guitar licks hover in the background, bass guitar joins the pulsing, rhythmical electronic train, the sun shines through the leaves.

To put it bluntly: Samantha’s Glass “Rising Movements” is pure, unlimited bliss. Don’t believe what the others tell you.

http://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/v=2/album=2469248827/size=venti/bgcol=FFFFFF/linkcol=4285BB/


Review: Ashley Paul – Line the Clouds

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(Vinyl LP, Rel Records, 2013)

“Line the Clouds”, the newest release by the Providence based composer Ashley Paul is an album of contradictions that clash and irritate at first, but later find their way into the listener’s ear and begin to fit perfectly. First such clash comes in the opening piece “Soak the Ocean”, where the lullabish vocals and a soft, peaceful melody sound jarringly out of place among the screeching, metallic, atonal sounds that belong more to a dryly academic elecroacoustic improvisation suite than an oneiric folk album. But is it really a folk album, after all? The listener would like to believe so, but Ashley Paul deconstructs the psychedelic folk cliches through droning, unsettling compositions that are more guaranteed to send shivers down one’s spine than wash them in the beatific beauty.

Through sparse, almost totally random sounds and skeletal track structures she builds an intensely intimate, emotional atmosphere. It feel almost intrusive to listen to this album built on fragile vocals and shyly played instruments, as if one was listening to something reserved to the creator only, invading the personal space of the musician. Just like the cover, the music on “Line the Clouds” often feels crude and unfinished – and this is exactly where its strength lies. It leaves much space for interpretation and for the sounds to sink in, allowing for reflection. And that reflection allows the music to hit the listener harder. The droning, whining clarinet. The few basic plucks on guitar strings. The occasional bells. The ear-piercing reeds. Everything has its time and place, every piece of machinery knows its role perfectly well, even if it feels random in focus. Ashley Paul plays God, and has a lot of fun with it. The tracks jump from stuttering, free improv vignettes in the vein of early Supersilent (without the virulent synths) or AMM to fractured, deformed proto-songs which evoke the ghosts of American folklore.

It’s also worth ot mention contributors to the album, especially the New York City based improvisational shaman Eli Keszler, who made a lot buzz through his releases on PAN label. Together with Paul, they both work up some great chemistry, pushing raw, restrained sounds forward toward a very demanding, yet very rewarding end. “Line the Clouds” may, and most likely will, require some preparation and repeated listens. But once the listener gets it, it feels like opening a vault of new meanings and emotions.


Review: Rangda / The Dead C – Split LP

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(Vinyl LP, Ba Da Bing Records, 2013)

This fresh split from Ba Da Bing places some of the leading forces in experimental rock music against themselves, but also makes them work in unison towards a greater goal: on side A there is Rangda, a psychedelic supergroup comprised of Chris Corsano on drums and Sir Richard Bishop and Ben Chasny, both wielding guitars. Side B is occupied by New Zealand noise rock legends The Dead C comprised of Michael Morley, Bruce Russell and Robbie Yeats, who are also some of the greatest deconstructionist of guitar-based canon, those who took rock music and left it rusting in the sun, consumed by rust and decay.

Rangda’s side consists of two rather lengthy tracks: even without ever hearing the band as a whole, yet knowing the individual style of each musician, one can already feel what to expect: it’s ornamental, oriental and incredibly rich and nuanced. Corsano walks a fine line between off-the-hook improv madness and careful, balanced, almost meditative slow passages while Bishop and Chasny go through a masterful guitar duel of a somewhat improvisational nature without ever going astray or wandering into a cheap showmanship. The trio works in harmony, channeling the psychedelic energy without having to resort for an overblown, fuzzy destruction. There is a sense of happinnes and joy in Rangda’s music, which is further accented by the sudden burst of laughter at the end of opening “Gracilaria”. The following “Sancticallist” takes a slightly more meditative tone without losing any energy. It sounds like a more kinetic version of a Six Organs of Admittance piece, climbing the holy mountain and enjoying the view of the world.

The things on Dead C’s side, however, get darker and more grimy with the lo-fi, harsh guitar tones and a slow, synthesized drum pattern on “EUSA Kills”. If Rangda’s side was the euphoric, all-loving high from a psychedelic drug, then Dead C provide a soundtrack for the nasty, hazy comedown – the remains of hallucinations still linger in the brain, with ghostly, barely audible vocals spewing forth deadpan, dark lyrics and the guitar, once an instrument of beauty and endless satisfaction, now becomes a tool of torture, with the droning, drilling tone and a sandpapery torture. The Dead C’s tracks don’t even try to resemble any actual melodies or structures, they just stumble through the post-narcotic chaos, knocking furniture over and causing mayhem while constantly praying: “let me come back to reality, let me get a grip!” But the comedown won’t let off that easily. It gets hardest on the closing piece, “Heaven’s Wheel”. No easy solutions, no clean getaways here. Just the funeral, atonal and droning guitars set to a maniacal, basic drum rhythm that sounds like a heart beating way too fast. Anyone who has ever experienced the uncontrollably fast heartrate after ingesting a drug will identify with this piece. Few bands can produce a sonic equivalent of fear and paranoia as well as those New Zealanders.

This split vinyl LP is truly a SPLIT in the truest sense of the word: it is a panorama of vastly different moods. From the ever-unwinding peaceful jams on Rangda side to the blackened drone rock on Dead C’s side, the album presents two approaches to the psychedelic experience, both just as competent and compelling. Highly recommended.


Blast from the Past: Mnemonists – Horde

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(Vinyl LP, Dys, 1981)

I first read about the mysterious post-everything Colorado ensemble Mnemonists on Piero Scaruffi’s website where he was reviewing albums by the Norwegian experimental/free improv collective Supersilent – he compared Supersilent to Mnemonists, which got me intrigued, considering the albums by the Americans were released some 20 years before the Norwegians. Something magical must have been in the air of Colorado in the early 80’s, putting its trippy tentacles into some visionaries brains, provoking them to make some of the most fucked-up, yet brilliant sound collages at the time.

Lots of fluctuations went down with the collecitve, first from being called The Mnemonist Orchestra, then to being called simply Mnemonists and finally splitting into two separate groups: a graphic/design group that retained the name mnemonists and a music group that adapted the name Biota. “Horde” is a document of the band’s earlier efforts, when there was no border between the “art” and the “music” part of the collective, and truly mind-erasing ride through what can be generally considered “difficult” music.

The album makes references to artists such as Max Ernst or Francis Bacon – both are known for their constant warping of reality in their paintings, especially Bacon who would often draw human figures deformed and mutilated beyond recognition, often caught in extreme pain with the few brutal strokes of the brush, which made the portraits blurry, yet with the whole horrifying clarity of what’s going on. This is what Mnemonists did, too: mutilating music, breaking its bones and spines and leaving it to suffer among the industrial wasteland. “Horde” is very often messy and confusing, but does a magical trick of staying compelling and well thought-out throughtout the entire psychedelic length of the LP, sometimes uncovering the blackened veil to expose the complex machinations and compositional efforts that actually take place under the murk.

The album is rather slow-paced, sometimes giving away the electronic miasma to show some of its more instrumental underbelly, which is just as ugly and unwelcoming (yet morbidly fascinating) as the tortured synthesizer workouts. Droning violins slowly pace forward through the scorched earth and post-apocalyptic soundscapes, becoming a soundtrack to all sorts of mental ilnesses and nervous breakdowns. Not a single ray of light is to be seen here, the sounds of “live” instruments, like the piano, clarinets or violins clash with mangled tape music isanity and industrial bleakness into an ever-shifting amoeba that appears to have no higher purpose than to confuse and bewilder the listener.

Don’t try to seek sense or melody on “Horde”. Because here, chaos reigns.