Laughter

the human race has one really effective weapon


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Year in Review, Pt. 2 (Brainwashed)

The Brainwashed.com “best of” list is a reader’s poll now in its 17th year. Rather than have the writers pick their favorites of 2014, Brainwashed asked that they comment on what the readers select in the polls. Records are broken up into album, single, reissue, various artist, and boxed set categories (and a worst album of the year category too). Artist, new artist, and label of the year awards are then calculated by how reader’s vote in the other categories. The Lifetime Achievement Award is determined by the staff alone.

I’ve posted some of the records I commented on below, but not all of them. Click through the link to see the entire list. Writers usually comment on what their favorites were and Brainwashed readers have a great way of remembering excellent albums that other publications forget.

5. Sunn O))) & Ulver, “Terrestrials” (Southern Lord)

Out of the two Sunn O))) collaborative albums (more on the other one should you cast your eyes downwards), this was my favourite. Short and sweet, this covered all the bases (and basses) that I would hope for from Sunn O))) and Ulver. About 10 years ago, Ulver remixed a track for Sunn O)))’s White1 which always hinted at possible greatness and Terrestrials has more than been worth the wait. – John Kealy

This was a great year for Sunn O))) though they passed through it quietly. LA Reh 012 isn’t something I’ve given much attention yet, but both of their collaborative records were very good. Odd to think of them playing the backing band, but I think that is the case on both Terrestrials and Soused. Sunn O))) are extremely flexible and I continue to enjoy listening to everything they touch, whether they’re in the spotlight or not. – Lucas Schleicher

7. Aphex Twin, “Syro” (Warp)

There is a lot that could be said about Syro but everyone has already said it ad nauseum. It’s fine, it’s nothing amazing but it’s listenable. The hype didn’t kill it but it did try my patience. You would think electronic music didn’t exist before (or after) Richard James. – John Kealy

The actual album was totally overshadowed by its announcement by blimp for me.  I still liked it though.  Of course, I expected to LOVE it, but James cannot really be faulted for failing to blow my mind at this late stage in his career.  – Anthony D’Amico

I was surprised at how much I liked Syro. It’s a pleasant reminder at how good RDJ is at riffs, however it’s a reminder at how terrible he is at “experimental” fluff. Some of the album’s dead weight could have been easily been relocated to single B-sides to form a far stronger record. – Jon Whitney

Syro is the first Aphex Twin record on which Richard D. James sounds as if he is following someone else’s lead. It’s a fine record that doesn’t even come close to cracking my favorite records list for 2015. – Lucas Schleicher

23. Klara Lewis, “Ett” (Editions Mego)

For a first statement, it’s an exceptionally remarkable fully formed concept. Klara has an undeniable talent for composition and construction as well as an intuitive ear for depth and space. I look forward to her artistic trajectory as it almost feels like she’s holding back a little still. – Jon Whitney

I suspected that Lewis had backed herself into an impossibly constrained stylistic corner with her first EP, but she managed to find a way to expand and improve upon her unusual collages with Ett.  This was a delightfully strange, inventive, and unpredictable debut.  – Anthony D’Amico

Klara Lewis’s music is very subtle and imaginative and this is probably the most underrated album in the top 25. – Lucas Schleicher

38. Valerio Tricoli, “Miseri Lares” (Pan)

Here’s another candidate for one of the best, most over-looked records of 2015. Valerio Tricoli has produced and recorded with numerous people in the past ten-plus years, including 3/4HadBeenEliminated, Thomas Ankersmit, and Autistic Daughters. He has also contributed to recordings on Die Schachtel, Room40, and Tochnit Aleph. Miseri Lares isn’t Tricoli’s first solo full-length, but it’s a great introduction to his dark, looping, pseudo-concrète work. – Lucas Schleicher

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Review: Michael Pisaro/Greg Stuart, “July Mountain (Three Versions)” (Gravity Wave)

Wallace Stevens wrote “July Mountain” in the last year of his life, suffering from stomach cancer. A recognition of mortality and imperfection hides in his poem’s first eight lines. They gently and beautifully remind the reader that life on earth is a fragmented thing, and that there are no conclusions, no full and final stops that shine a light on all the dark corners in the world. Instead we are all “thinkers without final thoughts in an always incipient cosmos,” forever watching the world and the stars spin themselves into new configurations. The poem explicitly uses music as an image for that interminable metamorphosis, and Michael Pisaro’s composition of the same name demonstrates just how apt an image it is. July Mountain (Three Versions) illustrates Stevens’s contention, combining field recordings with incredibly stealthy musical contributions provided by Greg Stuart. Bowed snare drums, piano, bird calls, jet engines, and numerous other sounds, from sine tones to insects, unexpectedly coalesce over its 21 minutes, forming a quivering and effervescent peak for anyone willing to make the ascent.

July Mountain first appeared as a single piece on a limited edition CDr released by Engraved Glass. To the “California Version” presented on that disc, the Gravity Wave release features two additional performances. One of them, the “Austin Version,” is a complete rendition, combining 20 field recordings unique to that city with 10 layers of percussion recorded by Greg Stuart. Instructions for how the field recordings are to be obtained are minimal (make 20 of your own, or get them from the composer, just make sure to point the microphones at mountains or valleys if possible), but their durations and their arrangements with respect to one another are very well defined. They are all ten minutes long, and there are only ever ten recordings playing simultaneously.

On the percussive side, the featured instruments include resonating surfaces teased by sine waves, vibraphones wrapped in tin foil, and “seed rain,” a steady stream of seeds, rice, or beans poured over crotales or a glockenspiel (the score gives the performer plenty of choices). Their timings and durations are specified by time markers—four bowed wooden blocks at nine and a half minutes, one projected sine tone at five and a half minutes, lasting for seven minutes and thirty seconds—and the methods suggested for playing them, including the exact qualities to be elicited from them, are described rather than strictly notated. For example, the instructions for the bowed snare drum read, in part, “Sounds may be created by bowing on any part of the instrument and by bowing on a drumstick or doweling with its tip pressed against the drum.”

(Read more… includes samples)


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Review: Windy & Carl, “I Walked Alone/At Night” (Blue Flea)

A little more than 20 years ago, in the fall of 1993, Windy Weber and Carl Hultgren started the Blue Flea label together in order to release their first record. Pressed to black wax, or purple if you were very lucky, the Watersong/Dragonfly 7” was presented in a simple green sleeve with a picture of a tree on one side and, on the other, the image of three broad maple leaves. Last year, for Record Store Day 2013, Windy and Carl inaugurated their 20th anniversary celebrations with the release of a cassette documenting their 2009 performance at the Solar Culture Gallery in Tucson, Arizona, a single night on what they claim was their last ever tour. Then, in December, they reunited with Dominic Martin, who put out the Emerald 7” on Enraptured in 1995, and released the Calliope/Carnivale single. The cassette caught Windy and Carl somewhere between We Will Always Be and Songs for the Broken Hearted mode, but the 45 was a glance over their shoulders, with a surprise percussion-injected twist tucked away on the B-side. Pressed to red vinyl (the orange vinyl edition sold out in a flash) and adorned in bright, hand painted sleeves that resemble fossilized leaves, I Walked Alone/At Night concludes the celebratory trilogy with a pair of reflective beauties, cool and crystalline from a distance, but red hot at their core. It is a fiery return to that green-sleeved single from 1993, reinforced and refreshed by Windy’s new-found inspiration, Carl’s seemingly effortless playing, and 20 years of hard work.

Windy and Carl’s last two full-length albums saw them become an entirely new band. They’d never been as rock ‘n’ roll as the space-rock label suggested, but in the seven years between 2001’s Consciousness and 2008’s Songs for the Broken Hearted they had left the earthy orbit of their more song-based material behind entirely. By 2012’s We Will Always Be, they had tumbled through empty space and sailed straight into the sun, where Windy’s vocals turned to liquid heat and Carl’s weighty drones became streams of white hot light. The songs melted away, the bodies burned away, and all that was left was their sound: Windy and Carl. Think of it as one name, without the conjunction or the spaces.

Read more… (Brainwashed.com)
Samples here… (Bandcamp)


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Review: Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet, “Photographs” (Erstwhile)

After amplifying their homes and magnifying the subconscious; after reshaping kitchenware into instruments and finding voices in the buzz of computer fans, distant traffic, and the crunch of dirt; after transforming the spaces around them and constructing a space-time of their own, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet finally turn the microphones on themselves. And not just on the noises they make, but on the places they grew up, on the people they’ve known, on the ideas that have driven their work, the sounds they love, and ultimately on the past and their memories. Don’t come to the show expecting self-portraits though. OnPhotographs Graham and Jason make enigmas of themselves. We get to see a shadow of them in these pictures, but everything they do and every event they capture points to a subject somewhere outside the frame.

Photographs work by suggestion. Take any photo off the Internet and start asking questions about it: Who is that in the picture? What is it that they’re standing in front of? When and where was it taken, and why from that angle? Who is behind the camera? What we see in them and what they show are inevitably unequal. The image presents the viewer with an apparent set of facts, but without context or witnesses or some personal experience bringing everything into focus, the subjects fail to take definite shape. Something is missing.

So it is with Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet’s music. The apparition of familiarity presents itself to the listener by dint of the material employed: intelligible conversations, fixable locations and precise directions to them, a loop from Kiss’s “Great Expectations”—our acquaintance with sights and sounds such as these, plus the incredible artwork with family, friends, place names, and the images of Graham and Jason as children—it’s as if they’re opening a door into their personal lives, or pointing us to a keyhole through which we might spy a handful of their private thoughts. How could it be otherwise?

To answer that question it’s best to ask another one: what is it that we actually see and hear in these songs? Disc one in this two-disc set begins with “Loss,” in which a pair of anonymous voices explain what the word “loss” means to them. One of the respondents discusses the loss of their grandparents, the other describes a feeling of daily disorientation: he wakes up and is unsure of where he is despite a firm mind, familiarity with the local geography, and a copy of this year’s calendar. As he elaborates, the audio suddenly cuts out. We hear clicking, a compartment opening and shutting, as if the tape needed changing mid-sentence, and then the conversation continues.

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Review: Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet, “Air Supply” (Erstwhile)

A strange spectacle murmurs unceremoniously just beneath the familiar hum of daily life. It’s filled with little dramas and peculiar collisions that sneak by unnoticed—in the empty spaces of the room, out of the corner of your eye—small bits of information slip through the senses’ fingers and fall into the subconscious where they become fodder for dreams. These unremembered fragments are a part of every environment and every observation, but would we recognize them if given a second chance? OnAir Supply, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet resurrect such mental refuse and put just such a question to the test. They may have pointed their microphones at computer vents or the back yard, but what they pulled from those sources is utterly bizarre, to the point of being completely alien.

“Because the Night” starts the show with an illusion. It’s cold outside. Someone is walking down a crunchy dirt road in heavy boots, the fabric of his thick winter coat audibly brushing against itself as he goes. He picks up an old shovel and begins digging a hole, or maybe shoveling snow. A chilly hum floats in the air, a substitute for the icy temperature outside. As he digs, a slow, warbling howl suddenly and shockingly pierces the scene. It moans, then fades, then retreats into the distance. The perspective shifts. Someone tinkers with a plastic box, presses a button, and the activity stops. There’s only that transparent blue tone in the air, and a few quiet noises beeping somewhere in the distance. Winter at the Lescalleet home in Berwick, Maine, where Air Supply was recorded, seems just a tad frightening.

Only the liner notes tells us that the album was recorded in late May of 2010. It’s unlikely there was any snow on the ground to shovel. The fabric noise could be coming from torn sheets of paper, the crunch of boots on gravel might actually be the sound of someone walking through piles of leaves, and who knows where the animal moan came from, but it doesn’t sound dubbed in. Whatever it was, it was right there, in range of the microphone.

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Review: Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet, “The Breadwinner”

Imagine music resides everywhere that sound can travel. It flows from the faucet into the sink each morning, creaks out of the loose boards on the way up and down the stairs, and, incredibly, buzzes in your sweetheart’s mouth as he or she snores noisily at 3 AM on Monday morning. The difference between music and not-music then pivots on the attention and consideration different sounds receive. Record them to tape, amplify and manipulate them, or set them into new patterns and a surprising, sometimes beautiful music can emerge. That’s the music of The Breadwinner, the first album in Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet’s recently completed trilogy on Erstwhile.

Recorded in 2006 and ’07 at Graham Lambkin’s home in Poughkeepsie, New York, The Breadwinner claims to be a collection of “musical settings for common environments and domestic situations.” As it turns out, the music itself was derived almost entirely from noise captured around the house. Everything from water glasses to July 4th fireworks and squeaky hinges made the cut, so the music reflects the spaces and occasions for which it is apparently intended (tongue-in-cheek or not).

But the album isn’t just the product of two guys wondering about the kitchen, living room, and bathroom with various microphones and some magnetic tape. Besides the keyboard and piano used on “Listen, the Snow is Falling” and “Lucy Song,” the duo utilize their recordings as sound sources, deriving unearthly tones and igneous rhythms from the speeding up and slowing down of the source material. If the recording process doesn’t make itself obvious in one way or another, the quality of the various sounds still point to it. On “E5150/Body Transport,” a droning, out-of-body experience slowly resolves into a steady snore, suggesting that whole piece is actually an appropriated nightly annoyance. “Two States” compares and contrasts events that must have taken place at separate times. The mix is too solid, the balance too spot on for it to have happened without some tinkering.

Graham and Jason transform every room and make every object in those rooms new, whether by manipulation or by the arrangement of contrasting noises and complimentary sounds. Solid objects like the bedroom radiator or the fire place lose their rigid form and become malleable. That in turn gives the duo the freedom to re-contextualize everything, from mumbled voices to everyday appliances.

Mundane sources such as these typically keep emotional or communicative content well in the background. What we’re supposed to do is listen to the sounds as sounds, not look for a message from the composers. After all, how could a refrigerator possibly speak to a sane person?

Perhaps unexpectedly, Lambkin and Lescalleet have left something personal in the mix, so maybe the fridge does just that: speak. First, there’s the titles, which Graham and Jason probably understand better than the audience. But there’s a Black Sabbath reference in there, and maybe one fromThe Hobbit too, and the aforementioned “Lucy Song” sticks to the ears with its bittersweet melody. The music moves through several moods, some ominous, others calming, and the reason for either isn’t always clear. But the point is that the moods are there. So where are they coming from? “Listen, the Snow is Falling” can’t help but communicate with its stunning sense of stillness and beauty, some of which is generated by the simple presence of a flickering fire. Even if the song were called “Track One,” it would convey memories, feelings, and ideas.

And memory seems to be part of what Graham and Jason are up to with these songs. They make the lowly spoon and water glass speak to sensations usually provoked by rock ‘n’ roll songs, familiar melodies, conventional rhythms, and good books. The whole microcosm of Lambkin’s house is laid bare for those curious enough to check it out. But, what about the experience of finding those noises, or the people who were around when they were made? There are obviously human noises on the record, but the figures themselves are conspicuously missing, or at least hidden. Which brings up a good question: is the breadwinner of the title the two musicians who made the record, or is it the house itself? Could it be the world at large, or is it maybe an unnameable something else?  That blank spot there between the lines, where the music echoes out from invisibly?

The Breadwinner is available on Erstwhile Records.
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com


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The Monthly List: August’s Top 10

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New music from Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin, Rephlex, and Bruce Gilbert dominated my August listening habits, along with Recollection GRM’s excellent 2LP release of Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien. 

I managed to write a review of Making A and both of the Electric Dance Music compilations, plus I have reviews of Helm’s Silencer 12″, COH’s Retro-2038, Kevin Drumm’s Earrach, and a series of Mystery Sea discs on the way. Two of those will  show up at Dusted Magazine if all goes as planned, my first two for that publication. I’ll keep publishing at Brainwashed.com as well, and I hope to get a series of short reviews under way, which will be exclusive to this site.

Last but not least, I’m going to return to WZBC this month with a twice monthly show of electro-acoustic, improvised, and generally experimental music. I’ll be on the air every other Sunday for two hours, starting at 6 o’clock Eastern. You can listen in Boston by tuning into 90.3 FM; or you can listen online at WZBC’s website. Just click the large red play button on the left.

Shows will be archived and available for replay for two weeks after the broadcast, at which time they will disappear forever. No permanent download links. That starts this week, Sunday the 15th. I hope you’ll tune in.

As always, formats posted are the ones I own. Others may be available. If you like any of the samples I link to, please buy the album. You can find numerous retailers carrying these titles at the bottom of this page.


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Review: Phil Minton + Audrey Chen Quintet, “Four Instruments Two Voices”

The fundamental elements of singing and vocalizing are easy to miss in most music. All singers, even the very worst, unconsciously coordinate the various processes required to sing musically, so that respiration, phonation, resonation, and articulation collapse into sung phrases or wordless melodies. Phil Minton and Audrey Chen work to undo that coordination. They break their voices down, emphasizing the dental clicks, nasal hums, and various fleshy noises typically masked by melodies and lyrics. Many of the sounds they produce as part of this quintet—which features two basses, percussion, and cello—are the kind most singers would try to play down. By giving them the spotlight, Phil and Audrey are forced to express themselves the same way instruments do.

Four Instruments Two Voices is one of two Audrey Chen and Phil Minton albums released this year by Sub Rosa, both of which focus on extended vocal techniques. This one matches their voices with Guy Segers’ electric bass, Peter Jacquemyn’s double bass, and Teun Verbruggen’s percussion. As might be expected from instrumentalists who have worked with the likes of Peter Brötzmann, John Butcher, and William Parker, the music is improvised and mostly chaotic. But because Chen and Minton’s vocal contortions lead the group, and because there isn’t another wind instrument around, much of the record has a loose and open feel. All the vocal frying and plosive noises they make with their mouths come through loud and clear, from the spit-filled vibrations of their lips to the raspy hiss of their closed windpipes.

Such physical noises make for tense music. When Chen and Minton choke sounds out, my body involuntarily seizes up, and their moans have a way of drawing my shoulders up against my neck. When the band reacts to them in sympathy, the effect is darkly atmospheric and unsettling, as on “Eight” and “Nine.” But not everything is quite so serious. On “Three,” Minton and Chen’s gaseous vocalizations are paired with a squealing cello and a wobbly rhythm section that sounds absolutely lost. It’s hard not to laugh at how ridiculous it all seems, and at times I think it sounds like the musical version of a slapstick comedy.

For “Six” their growls and wordless interjections are recast as part of a quiet drama filled with bird-like whistling, ominous bass melodies, and flitting percussive sounds. The band’s muted performance fosters a calmer atmosphere, and Phil and Audrey both sound more subdued throughout, but it’s hard to tell whether the band is responsible for controlling the mood or if they’re following the vocalists’ lead. Later in the album Segers plays several naked melodies, and I think those color the way I’m hearing the voices. Either way, though the techniques are unconventional “Six” is a relatively pretty song. It’s a solid example of how extended vocal techniques can be used to produce musically pleasant and expressive results without relying on a singer’s vocal quality or resorting to familiar melodic techniques.

In the liner notes Minton writes, “This music is first a matter of extra-linguistic expression, the idea of going beyond the word’s meaning, an exploration that doesn’t stop at letters… but extends to all in-between-sounds made possible by the tongue/oral cavity/breath configuration.” I don’t know if Phil or Audrey’s performances go beyond words, but their fragmented noises and stripped down vocal utterances do get at feelings and expressions differently than conventional singing does. Rather than going beyond anything, I get the sense that they’re digging down, drilling into the voice and looking for meaning and expressiveness where most would hear nonsense. Whatever the theoretical framework is, the content is unique and varied—the kind of music that encourages lateral thinking and hearing ostensibly familiar sounds anew.

Four Instruments Two Voices is available from Sub Rosa
Sound samples are available at Brainwashed.com