U.S. Maple — Sang Phat Editor (1997, Skin Graft)
In the trailer for an unfinished documentary that follows Chicago group U.S. Maple, guitarist Todd Rittman and vocalist Al Johnson profess that the group are awoved classic rock fans and their sinewy, often nonsensical approach to rock music is firmly situated within the pantheon of Led Zeppelins, Queens, Stones, Whos, and the like. Irrespective of ‘Maple’s influences or point of origin, their destination is one which is infinitely more interesting (not to mention challenging) than playing “I am the Walrus” backwards or whatever other proto-psych drivel classic rock fans are on about. The songs have tight drumming and slack guitaring. Sometimes guitarists A & B play (deliberately) fumble their cues, play out of time, focusing more on timbre and muted plucks, leaving the power chords and bombast at the door. More often than not, they combine in an effort that sonically resembles Derek Bailey jamming with the Contortions. The ending of “Songs that Have No Making Out” takes Jimmy Page to the cleaners. “La Click” is circus of a tune: grating violin, spasmodic drumming, and an outro comprised of Casio stabs which sound closer to sitar drones than pop keyboards. “Missouri Twist” is one of the best tracks on the record. Piano-meets-revving engine whammy bar strums which give way to Melt Banana-esque squeaks and chirps. Replete with rhythms that sound like a warped record and are sure to elicit pelvic gyrations. Forget No Wave, this is Blues Wave. In the epochal upheaval caused by the hyper-reductive, yet exceedingly popular genre “grunge,” U.S. Maple stands alone as one of the 1990s truly imaginative rock bands.
MKM [Günter Müller, Jason, Kahn, and Norbert Möslang] — Instants//Paris (2016, Mikroton Recordings)
Deep and low drones mix with pulsing electronics, crackles, and static on this collaborative release entitled Instants//Paris by Swiss trio Günter Müller, Jason Kahn, and Norbert Möslang (aka MKM). This release bridges the gap between dark ambient and experimental electronics, favoring the sparsity of the latter. In all, the release remains sonically interesting and strange enough to engage the listener throughout. At times the vibes are ominous enough to shake you from your torpor and demand your attention; other moments, the artists are content to leave the listener with ample introspective space. This is the soundtrack from a bombed-out city: fragmented soupçons of radio broadcasts, and distant music(s) cut in and out. Malaise mixes with trepidation — or at least uncertainty. A glimmer of hope appears momentarily in the form of a beautiful, sanguine melody in the final two minutes of the song, but it vanishes as quickly as it appeared. The ending feels a bit abrupt, which is likely the result of rushed editing, more than anything else, and ultimately does little to detract overall from an otherwise solid release.
Chris Cogburn, Bonnie Jones, Bhob Rainey — Arena Ladridos (2010, Another Timbre)
Recorded live in 2010 during two dates in Texas, USA, Arena Ladridos sees the trio of Chris Cogburn (percussion), Bonnie Jones (electronics), and Bhob Rainey (Soprano Saxophone) combine for two twenty-minute plus exploratory works. At the outset, you’d do well to light incense and settle-in. The tinkling of chimes and soft electronics set the tone for the first set recorded in Austin (“Govalle”). The piece is relatively restrained; Rainey’s soft blows mix with Jones’ electronic whispers. Occasionally, the banal sounds of daily life surface in the background (traffic, barking dogs). Jones sporadically interjects with electronic streams of sound that squawk, hum, and screech. Cogburn prefers to utilize his trapset for its resonant characteristics in place of straight playing. Of the lot, Rainey is generally the most subdued, only playing in a traditional manner in the final two minutes of the piece and doing so only for mere seconds. The piece ends like a sunset and is over before you know it. The second performance is in (and entitled) “Marfa.” Opening with percussive thuds and rattling (rimshots, perhaps?), coupled with tenuous blows from Rainey. In the second piece, Jones is a bit harder to pick out until around half way through the set (11:20-11:30 mark). At this point, Cogburn puts his cymbals through the rounds with the butt end of his sticks and the trio collectively crescendo into a bold, blustery, and radiant hum, before rolling into the restrained and inquisitive quietude, ubiquitous on this release. In the final minute of the performance, Cogburn’s swirling rakes function as an aural equivalent to riding off in the sunset. As the group slowly, mysteriously, and with much deliberation, fades away. An excellent release, which makes for great early morning listening, before the sleeping masses rise and rub the sleep from their eyes.
Tunic — Disappointment (2016, Public Tone)
While the band purports themselves to be fans of the Chicago School of noise rock, they sound remarkably fresh. Making use of the early-Albini’s midwest-y driving, frenetic pace, but ditching all the macho-loner bullshit. Frenzied eighth notes are to be expected on any punk release and are ever-present here, but so too are slightly unorthodox rhythms which manage to bludgeon the listener and simultaneously break with punk’s proclivity toward the straight eight. Among the most appealing aspects of the release are the band’s sheer emotional intensity and the fidelity of the release. It sounds on first audition to be live-tracked and fairly spartan. One hopes for the sake of authenticity, this isn’t some digital gimmick. Despite its brevity, this release is visceral enough to stand up straight and deliver a knockout blow. Done and dusted in under ten minutes. Pop open the deck and the tape is sizzling. Highly recommended.
Black Eyes — Cough (2004, Dischord)
Around 2000, there was lots of talk about the future of Dischord. Fugazi’s 1998 long play, End Hits was interpreted by many to be suggestive of a pending break-up of the label’s flagship group. Speculation aside, Black Eyes and Q and Not U both appeared on the scene around the start of the new millennium and breathed new life into the iconic Washington DC label. The second and final LP by art punks Black Eyes, ranks among the most interesting material ever released by Dischord. “Cough, Cough” opens with sparse instrumentation, dub inspired bass lines, and layered, erratic vocals. Like a stick of buttered dynamite the segue into “Eternal Life” ushers in a new era of Dischord. Miles away from Minor Threat, Void, SOA, Beefeater, Nation of Ulysses or anything else the label has released. Bursts of free jazz horn playing, skronky and angular guitars, and psychedelic keys that recalls the Monks at their most agitated. On top, vocals that are crazed and wildly enigmatic. Underneath, tight, bass heavy rhythms, reminiscent of the mighty Fugazi. The vocals on “False Positive” are part reggae toasting, part hip-hip. “Commencement” features a saxophone line which recalls Mulatu Astake and bizarre spoken vocals. With Cough, Black Eyes depart from the danceable noise punk on their debut and in the processes dually refuse to be pigeonholed as “another DC band” and reject genre conventions in their totality. Black Eyes are the text book definition of an experimental rock band: impossible to nail down and never derivative. They’re brave in their approach, humorous (perhaps unintentionally), and wholly original.
Bob Blaize, Jeph Jerman, and Travis Johnson — Sky Bells (2012, Avant Archive)
For the majority of the first half hour this collaboration between Jeph Jerman, Bob Blaize, and Travis Johnson proceeds to a placid and transcendent mediation which uses the timbre and resonance of tubular bells to draw the listener in. At the 25 minute, the rug gets pulled out from under the listener— the original source recording is superseded by crackling and heavy tape saturation. One makes out the sound of the bells in reverse. If the original tracking was done on a multitrack recorder, it’s entirely possible the ending of the first number is the flipside of the source tape recorded onto the master. “Sky Bells Pt. II” opens with the sounds of a thumb piano or perhaps a guitar being plucked in front of the nut. There is a splice and jump to a comparably meditative exploration of the resonance of bells. Tape noise and/or loops feature more prominently in Pt. II. What’s more, one of the artists in Pt. II seems to employ a bow or instrument capable of teasing out rich, violin-like sounds from the bells, creating a deeply engrossing sonic atmosphere, whose resonant frequencies linger long after the initial strike has ceased. Pt. II concludes with just under ten minutes of percussive extemporizing on a trap set with occasional touches of bells and tidal sounds. The track and album conclude with a few minutes of modal flute lines which sensually fades out before a final monologue is played in which a person incoherently speaks of pieces of alien spacecraft being found near a water well. This release skirts the edge of greatness. During its greatest moments of simplicity, it manages to be at its most sublime. While the tape loops do little to subtract from this effort, they simultaneously do little to augment it.
Alec Empire and Merzbow — Live at CBGB’s NYC 1998 (2003, Digital Hardcore)
This late 1990s meeting of two of the world’s most renown sonic provocateurs is in many ways, an ideal collaboration. Both Atari Teenage Riot and Masami Akita aka Merzbow have made careers in exploring the extremities of music and sonic art, yet have scaled the mountain via different paths. Naturally, this meeting in the middle is fascinating. While Merzbow has experimented with rhythmic sampling on releases such Door Open at 8 AM, the assorted breakbeat and hip-hop samples that Alec Empire employs, mixed with the frenzy of static and feedback from Akita, create a deeply atmospheric and sonically confrontational set of tunes. The two provide roving counterpoints to one another and explore worlds hitherto untapped by each respective artist. The keyboard loop at the end of “Brooklyn Connection” adds new dimensions to Merzbow’s storm of sound. “The Slayer Calls at Night” likens back to Empire’s Low on Ice albeit with a healthy dose of rapturous white noise. Alec Empire doesn’t let Merzbow control the intensity, as is made apparent on “Shock Treatment for Corporate Control,” a tune which boasts lightning breakbeats, granular time warping, and frantic electronics. “A Degenerated Nation Reacting to Fear” begins the denouement of the set; Empire’s samples of political monologues are complimented by Akita’s sawing feedback. The highly theatrical strings on the closer, “Some Might Even Die” tempestuously blend with Empire’s pitch shifting on the turntable and Merzbow’s continued dissonant electronics, all the while the credits roll. This release is not to be missed by fans of either artist.