Big Youth — Screaming Target (1972, Jaguar)
Don’t use the rules, they’re for the fools and you’re a fool if you don’t know that.
The nice thing about Marginal Brevity, in all of our beautiful irrelevance and obscurity, is that no one gives a damn about us. Though some might find such profound disinterest demoralizing, that misses the bigger picture. Instead, in our self-contained world, we’re feeling pretty liberated. We make up our own rules. Maybe we want to proverbially flog a dead horse. Maybe we’ll have and eat our cake. Maybe we want to put in our two cents on a record that has been written about to death. No, this ain’t Sgt. Pepper’s or some Velvets live cut. It ain’t even some classic mono release. Tonight, we revisit the explosive Screaming Target by that titan of toast himself, Big Youth. Toasting over K.C. White, Dennis Brown, Leroy Smart, Gregory Isaccs, and other grand slam cuts from the early 1970s, Mr. Manley Augustus Buchanan, following in the steps of his fellow countryman U-Roy, does his bit to put deejaying on the musical map. Literacy, love interests, and skylarking are among the topics of debate, with soulfully saturated production courtesy of one Gussie Clarke and the heavy, heavy patois courtesy of one Big Youth. A quintessential Saturday afternoon record. It doesn’t matter if the sun is doing its thing or the rain is doing its, Big Youth is bound to blast you outta’ there. Whilst his back catalogue is pretty solid, none of Big Youth’s subsequent work has the rawness or immediacy of Target. No surprise, the grooves are well worn on the house copy. I’ve listened to this record at least hundred times, and like a fine wine, it gets better with age.
Gabie Strong – Spectress (2016, Crystalline Morphologies)
I have fortunately never found myself trapped in quicksand, but trapped in the throes of real, existing capitalism, I found a moment of postmodern bliss, not unlike (perhaps) sinking into the vast marshlands of my living room floor. In truth, I was not sinking at all, but rather listening Gabie Strong’s Spectress, one of her three 2016 releases on her own Crystalline Morphologies label, which was doing its thing in the cans, funneling into my cochleae. Comprised of two live cuts recorded in January 2016 in the vast wastelands of Southern California, Strong’s two performances showcase a brooding and symphonic dynamism and deep reverence for subtlety. For the passive or casual listener, the cascading guitar feedback which really hits its stride around the 9 minute mark on “Sunset Circuit” is likely to be imperceptible or “lost in the din.” But for those willing to submit themselves to the tune, these omnipresent sheets of sound —themselves engulfed in a sea of feedback— is a page torn from the rock’n’roll playbook. Pete Townsend eat your fucking heart out. This is heavy, but checks the corny metal shtick and rock pretense at door. The B Side, “Taphthartharath” is comparable in approach, yet vocals are much more apparent on this track. Strong’s artistic modus operandi sounds well defined, yet the nature of improvised musics leaves any elements of chance and risk wholly intact. For those who take interest in and truly appreciate sound as both a sensory phenomenon and as (sometimes) tractable art form, Gabie Strong’s latest spate of releases are a treat.
Icepick – Amaranth (2015, Astral Spirits)
Listen [excerpt from “Rosso Corsa”, Astral Spirits soundcloud]
In 1997, Jazz Times boldly asked, what does the future hold for jazz? The article, a veritable who’s who opinion piece featured both jazz legends and contemporary notables proffering their opinions on where jazz was heading moving into the 2000s. Among those sounding off, Herbie Hancock managed to get to the heart of the matter: “I continue to be optimistic about the future of jazz, meaning I don’t always expect times to be wonderful for the economic life of jazz, but when times are not that good, jazz goes underground and still functions and we weather those storms.” Despite any cynics, Herbie was spot on—there is a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to jazz. Twenty years on, one particularly exciting combo is Icepick featuring Nate Wooley (trumpet), Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten (bass), and Chris Corsano (percussion). Let me tell you, the trio are cooking with gas through and through. “Rosso Corsa” and the closer “Rare Rufescent” could be lost session tracks from Ornette!, while the middle piece of the album, “Fuschia,” veers deep into the sonic forrest of improvised music. Wooly’s swirling trumpet, sounds like an oscillating tape machine on its last legs, Corsano’s bowed cymbals and Håker-Flaten’s own Paganini-esque rapid-fire bow strokes on the upright push jazz to its outer limits. The middle track is four and a half minutes spent obliterating what it was hitherto to be a trumpet/rhythm trio. Though jazz may never return to the popular prominence it held in the early and mid-twentieth century (largely due to the sweeping cultural debasement concomitant with late-capitalism and so too the closely linked popular “recuperation” —to borrow Hebdige’s term—of jazz), this music isn’t going anywhere. As long as folks like Corsano, Håken-Flaten, and Wooly continue to play with unmistakably raw emotion and intensity and continue to test the waters for new modes of expression and style, jazz not only has a future, it may yet be entering its golden age.
Harmonia – Live 1974 (2005, Grönland)
Having grown up in the wake of World War II and come of age during the Wirtschaftswunder, it should perhaps come as a little surprise that a slew of groundbreaking musical groups emerged from Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. Just as the country itself lay in ruins, German culture did not emerge from the war unscathed. The home of Göthe, Kant, Bach, Beethoven, et al. had in some way, been tainted by the poison of national socialism. Paraphrasing his friend Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno claimed that “the palace of German Culture was built of dogshit.” Recognizing the glaring contradiction between culture, the enlightenment, and the inheritance of a continent in ruins, the immediate postwar generation sought to break with their forefathers and craft a new culture all their own. Of the German kosmiche groups which appeared during this period, Harmonia stand out, no small feat when considering Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk, Popul Vuh, Faust, Amon Düül, and Tangerine Dream are among those on a long list of contemporaries. While countless bootlegs and live recordings have been passed to and fro on the vast plains of the internet, this official release by Grönland is a treat and captures the band at their apex. The live setting affords the group greater latitude to really let the tunes breath. “Veterano” clocking in at a tame four minutes on Musik Von Harmonia is an exploratory 18 minute jam retitled “Veteranissimo” on Live 1974. Beyond the confines of the studio and the limits of a formal LP release, the extended jamming on Live 1974 allows the band to bring their tracks to life and carry the listener off to some distant world. Harmonia’s freewheeling brand of electronic psychedelia in general and this release, in particular, is a must for any fan of psychedelic rock, ambient music, electronic, sound art, and the like.
Jeph Jerman and Tim Barnes – Versatile Ambience (2016, IDEA Intermedia)
“It’s not about emotion and telling stories, it’s about concentrating on sound.” — Jeph Jerman
As the epigram suggests, sound artist Jeph Jerman’s modus operandi is one which is less concerned with the affective qualities of sound and instead favors the very fundaments of hearing. Versatile Ambience is one hell of a hear. Risky and entrancing, the duo have crafted two solid slabs of sound on one long playing record with sound works comprised of field and nature recordings, found sounds, and tape hiss. While “traditional” instruments appear, the record is far from straightforward. Percussive, droning, abrasive, soothing, etc. — a wide range of textures and noise permeate this meditative study on sound, which again begs the question, what constitutes music? Regardless of the answer, both sides of the LP deliver.
Holger Czukay – On the Way to the Peak of Normal (1981, Electrola; 2013 reissue, Grönland)
Listen [partial playlist of the album on youtube]
More restrained and less bizarre than Czukay’s 1979 Movies, 1981’s On the Way to the Peak of Normal feels like the lost alternate soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. If Movies was a carnivalesque appraisal of rock music, On the Way is an acid trip, wondering through the vacant lot where the big top has just up sticks. Side A kicks off with the brooding title track, which grooves and moves like a a tune culled from the Suzuki-era Can catalogue, featuring an amalgam of distant horns and whistling oscillations. “Witches Multiplication Table,” a tune penned by producer extraordinaire Conny Plank, no less, keeps the creeps going. Had Count Dracula ever been chronicled in a film by Sergio Leone, I’d expect to hear the brief and enigmatic “Two Bass Shuffle,” as the accompanying score. Public Image Ltd.’s low-end agitator Jah Wobble assumes bass duties with Czukay on drums, not your Toccatta and Fugue in D Minor bullshit by a long shot. Side A is thematically consistent and it’s rather easy to lose yourself in Czukay’s grooves and off-kilter sonic motifs. The flip side, is arguably one of the greatest tunes of all time, the sultry “Ode to Perfume.” An 18 psych-kosmiche slow-burning come down. This is Sgt. Pepper’s, if the Beatles had come from Mars. Imbued with a near operatic sense of grandeur, yet ultimately retaining a sense of intrigue and risk, the track manages to be that rare feat, a work which is both sexy and artistically engrossing at once. Dark and spooky vibes permeate this release, but not in an unsettling way: it’s the end of the night, your head is swimming, and you want to fall asleep, but can’t. This record is playing square in the middle of that head space.
Shaka Black — “Righteous Day” b/w “Unrighteous Dub” (2016, Horus)
Having held a long-standing romantic inclination to recreate the legendary Black Ark Studio in my home’s second room, I began scouring the internet for information regarding the gear Lee “Scratch” Perry’s employed, so that in some distant future, Marginal Brevity’d be at the controls pumping out versions for days. While preliminary research suggests, that my wallet doesn’t currently match these grandiose ambitions, in some arbitrary corner of the internet’s surreal (or is it hyperreal?) vastness, yours truly stumbled across an excellent piece of wax from small London imprint, Horus Records. Hailing from the wee island of Montserrat, Shaka Black has a real gem of a tune with his single “Righteous Day.” Urgent, portentous vocals which could give any track from Two Sevens Clash a run for its money, rockers riddim, heavy bass, tape echo, wah’d out guitar stabs, it’s all there and it’s done well. As to be expected, the B Side is an instrumental version for all the toasters and emcees out there.
Save for the obligatory surface noise found on the island versions of yesteryear, this piece could’ve taken a Benjaminian tiger leap straight out of a Black Ark session circa 1976. That said, one might feel inclined to call it a nostalgia trip. That misses a fundamental point. Just as certain chord progressions and aesthetics have become inextricably linked with rock’n’roll (I’m looking at you I-IV-V and leather jacket) and serve as signifying roadmaps, the production values present on “Righteous Day” are themselves crucial stylistic signifiers. By resisting the sterilizing force of commercialization vis-à-vis high fidelity recording methods, Shaka Black and co. have, to borrow again from Benjamin, “blasted out of the continuum of history” a rich tradition of island musics, where the spartan production is as fundamental to the tune as the notes or arrangement. If it’s ersatz, derivative garbage, you want, look elsewhere. This is the real deal and a fine example of contemporary reggae.